Tag Archives: Joseph Mitchell

JOEL FORRESTER’S MOVING WORLDS

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

My fascination with Joel Forrester and his music goes back more than a decade. I would guess that I heard the quizzically entrancing orchestra THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET on WKCR-FM and was intrigued by its unpredictable mixture of new and old.  And then I heard Joel in person with a few small bands he’d assembled — one called THE TRUTH, which was an accurate description.

Joel doesn’t strive to shock the listener, but he doesn’t follow predictable paths — which is, in an era of reproducible art, an immense virtue. His playing and his compositions can be hilarious, angular, tender — sometimes all at once, and his music is vividly alive, which is no small thing.

I write not only to celebrate Joel — in all his surprises that invite us in — but to remind New Yorkers of opportunities to savor his art.  Every Saturday, he is playing a solo piano gig at Café Loup, 105 West 13th St. at 6th Avenue, in Greenwich Village, from 12:30—3:30 PM.

On Tuesdays, from 6-10, Joel plays solo piano at the Astor Room (located in the Kaufman Studios complex) 34-12 36th St. in Astoria, Queens.  I suggest you mark your calendars for Tuesday, June 6, when there will be a special — no, remarkable — happening, where Joel will begin with a solo piano set (his custom on Tuesdays) and then there will be two sets by The Microscopic Septet with Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone (visiting from Australia!); Don Davis, alto saxophone; Michael Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone; Joel, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums.

And their latest CD — thirteen variations on the blues, with echoes of Johnny Hodges, a Basie small group, Mingus, rhythm ‘n’ blues . . . titled BEEN UP SO LONG IT LOOKS LIKE DOWN TO ME — is frankly extraordinary.  Read more here.

and here’s DON’T MIND IF I DO from that new CD:

And I am not surprised that Joel is a fine writer — think of Joseph Mitchell at a tilt, an affectionate chronicler of urban scenes: read his “Three Memorable Drunks.”

Finally, since I expect that this will awaken some of you to the whimsical glories Joel so generously offers us, here is a link to Joel’s website and gig calendar.  As for me, I have new places to savor, which, even in New York City, is a wonderful thing.

May your happiness increase!

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JAZZ WORTH READING: “THE BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES: FACES, PLACES AND NIGHTLIFE 1937-1962”

Some of my readers will already know about Richard Vacca’s superb book, published in 2012 by Troy Street Publishing.  I first encountered his work in Tom Hustad’s splendid book on Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY. Vacca’s book is even better than I could have expected.

VACCA book

Much of the literature about jazz, although not all, retells known stories, often with an ideological slant or a “new” interpretation.  Thus it’s often difficult to find a book that presents new information in a balanced way.  BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES is a model of what can be done.  And you don’t have to be particularly interested in Boston, or, for that matter, jazz, to admire its many virtues.

Vacca writes that the book grew out of his early idea of a walking tour of Boston jazz spots, but as he found out that this landscape had been obliterated (as has happened in New York City), he decided to write a history of the scene, choosing starting and ending points that made the book manageable.  The book has much to offer several different audiences: a jazz-lover who wants to know the Boston history / anecdotal biography / reportage / topography of those years; someone with local pride in the recent past of his home city; someone who wishes to trace the paths of his favorite — and some obscure — jazz heroes and heroines.  (Vacca’s book could become the ULYSSES of jazz Boston, although we’d have to settle on a day to follow the paths of, perhaps Sabby Lewis or Frankie Newton through this vanished terrain.)

I found the proliferation of new information delightful, even though I was familiar with some of Boston’s “hot spots of rhythm” and the musicians who played there: Newton, Max Kaminsky, Dick Twardzic, Serge Chaloff, Bobby Hackett, George Wein, Jaki Byard, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Alan Dawson, Jaki Byard, Herb Pomeroy, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, John Field, Buzzy Drootin, Joe Gordon, and others.  I’d known about the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, Mahogany Hall, and the various permutations of Storyville.  But on every page I read stories that were both new and illuminating (filling in gaps in the lives of musicians I had known as well as obscure ones) and learned a great deal about place and places.

And Vacca has an old-fashioned respectfulness, which is rare in this century.  True, there are stories of low life and bad behavior, for some of those night spots were run by and populated by people who gave way to their impulses — but Vacca is no tabloid journalist, savoring wicked or illicit behavior.  And his amused, gentle forgiveness makes the book especially charming.

Topography — whether substantial or vanished — has a good deal to do with experience.  When I could visit Your Father’s Mustache in New York and realize that its floor space was that of Nick’s circa 1944, it made something click: memory met tangible reality.  Knowing more about the Savoy — as a place, run by real figures in a genuine historical panorama — adds to my experience of listening to broadcasts taken from there.

The photographs — almost all of them new to me — and the maps (a delight) add to the pleasure of this book.  As well, I learned about musicians I’d never heard of, or from, who played major roles in Boston’s jazz life: Dean Earl, Al Vega, Mabel Robinson Simms, as well as places I’d heard little of — Izzy Ort’s Bar and Grille, for one.  james Reese Europe puts in an appearance, as does Sam Rivers; George Frazier, Nat Hentoff, Father Norman J. O’Connor, Symphony Hall, Symphony Sid, Teddi King, Jake Hanna, Leroy Parkins, Fat Man Robinson, John McLellan, Charlie Bourgeois, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Berklee College of Music pop in and out.

But what makes this book rise above the information and stories collected within it is Vacca’s skill as researcher, editor, writer, and presenter.  The first thing a reader will notice is his lively but not flashy writing style: I’d call it refined, erudite journalism — fast-moving but never superficial.  He is a great storyteller, with a fine eye for the telling detail but someone who leaves a reader wanting more rather than feeling as if one was trapped at a party with an Authority on some bit of arcana.  (The writer Vacca reminds me of is THE NEW YORKER’S Joseph Mitchell, and that is not a compliment I utter lightly.)  He has a light touch, so the book is entertaining without ever seeming thin or didactic.  I would hand this book to an aspiring writer, researcher, or reporter, and say, “This is one admirable way to do it.”

In addition, the book is obviously the result of diligent research — not simply a synthesis of the available books that touch on the subject, although there is a six-page small-print bibliography (and a discography, a generous touch) but much of the information here comes from contemporary newspapers and magazines and Vacca’s interviews with Bostonians who were there, whether they were musicians, fans, or interested onlookers.

I’ve finished reading it, but it remains on my desk — an irresistible distraction, a book I have been returning to often.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment — literate, vivid, accurate, and animated.

To find out more about the book, click here. I predict it will provide more pleasure, and more lasting pleasure, than its price — which is roughly that of one compact disc.

May your happiness increase!

PHIL SCHAAP, CHARLIE PARKER, DAVID REMNICK, THE NEW YORKER

About a week ago, the Beloved (who knows more about jazz than most people) told me excitedly that the latest issue of The New Yorker, a magazine I have been reading with some reverence since the late Sixties, had a Profile on the jazz broadcaster Phil Schaap, who’s been part of my musical consciousness for just as long. My first thought was, “Thank God! The New Yorker has rediscovered that jazz exists!” My second thought, an admittedly ignoble one, was “Why did it have to be a Profile of Phil?” Both those outbursts — idealistic and gloomy, require explication.

I first began reading the magazine because I so admired William Steig and the jazz critic Whitney Balliett. Years later, Balliett told me that when the mythic editor-in-chief William Shawn died, Tina Brown found jazz both reactionary and inexplicable, alien to the young moneyed readers she hoped to attract. Aside from a few surprisingly tepid pieces by Gary Giddins, The New Yorker seems to have considered jazz another version of model trains in the basement, not worth notice.

So a Profile of Phil Schaap, who has devoted himself to jazz with Messianic fervor, seemed at first a turning point. For one thing, it wasn’t a piece about The Death of Jazz. And although Remnick’s reportage was often snide, Schaap — in action or at rest — offers even a casual observer mountains of evidence for that point of view. But Remnick fixated on Schaap as anomaly — a flagpole sitter or the last maker of wooden shoes in Canarsie. It was The Subject As Freak, as Amiable Oddity, echoing Joseph Mitchell’s portrayal of Joe Gould.

It may not have been Remnick’s intent, but someone who knows little of jazz as a music, who thinks it arcane, will have those preconceptions reinforced. “Look how weird jazz is!” Remnick appears to be saying. “Look at Phil Schaap, its New York spokesman!” It would be sad if readers came away with the vague, subliminal notion that they had been reading an essay about jazz because Schaap plays it on WKCR-FM every weekday morning. For all his good intentions and his desire to keep jazz alive, Schaap is an entity quite distinctly different from the music he occasionally lets us hear: the Commentator isn’t the Text, and often obliterates it.

I wrote this Letter to The Editor. Wonder if The New Yorker will print it. Tune in tomorrow, precisely.

I’ve been listening to Phil Schaap for thirty years — a lifetime of words — and found Remnick’s Profile both wickedly accurate and sad. Ironically, Schaap can no longer separate his cherished facts from the music he wants to preserve. Lost in the brushstrokes, he no longer sees the painting. But Schaap isn’t Charlie Parker and his monomania has little to do with jazz itself. To hear jazz in its native habitat, unsullied by talk, let Remnick visit The Ear Inn any Sunday night. I’ll buy the first two rounds.

Postscript: I do not know for how long The New Yorker keeps pieces online, but at this moment, anyone can go to www.newyorker.com and read the Schaap Profile. Reactions, anyone?