Tag Archives: Ken Burns

REMEMBER! BILL GALLAGHER RECALLS DOTTIE BIGARD

Dottie in her apartment: the crooked picture over her shoulder is one of Charles
My friend, jazz scholar Bill Gallagher, writes,
Dorothe “Dottie” Bigard was the wife and widow of Barney Bigard and a virtual encyclopedia of jazz personalities. I first came to know Dottie around 1990. Barney had passed away in 1980 and, at the time, she was a companion of Sir Charles Thompson.

Charles and I had been in close contact, as he and I were working on his discography (http://www.jazzdiscography.com/Artists/Thompson/index.html). Often, Dottie and I would chat a bit before Charles picked up the phone, and that is how our friendship began. Not long after, their relationship broke up (Charles had moved to Japan and married over there) but Dottie and I had, by that time, become good friends. We talked on the phone at least once a week and I would visit with her when I was in Southern California while on business trips. On those occasions she preferred to stay in, so we’d order in Chinese and sit around and talk for the evening.

With a large potrait of Barney over her head, to the right

Dottie’s relationship with Barney began shortly after the outbreak of World War II and so she first became part of the Ellington family and, later, with the Armstrong family when Barney joined Louis in 1947. I remember watching the Ken Burns JAZZ series and seeing a clip of Louis and Lucille entertaining in their home in Queens and there was Barney and Dottie sitting in the living room having a great time. She tossed off those experiences like they were just every day occurrences, like brushing your teeth, but to me it was hallowed ground. To my everlasting regret, I didn’t evoke more jazz anecdotes from her because she could have filled a book. More often, our conversations would just as likely be about news, weather and politics as it would  be about jazz.

Dottie and Barney in Nice, France, 1977

She knew everyone associated with jazz, it seemed. There wasn’t a single name that I could throw her way that she didn’t have some experience to share. Once, I mentioned that I had just picked up a CD featuring Albert Nicholas and she went on to say that he and Barney used to room together when they lived in Chicago and Barney was playing with Joe Oliver. However the friendship and the living arrangement broke up when they both started dating the same girl. “Is there anyone you don’t know?” I’d ask her, and she would just laugh.

Dottie’s manner was casual and friendly and there was a certain rough charm about her that, perhaps, came from her Wyoming origins. Whatever her exterior, she had a heart of gold and a love of all things jazz. I recall her telling me that when she first met Barney, she really didn’t connect him with Ellington – she was a Goodman fan. But all that changed and later when she would attend gatherings of the Ellington Society, she was treated like royalty.

A social call from Kenny Davern

In August 2000, my wife and I were driving home from a few days in Carmel and she was checking our phone messages. There was a call from Floyd Levin telling me that Dottie had suffered a fatal heart attack. She was 82, but in my mind we were contemporaries, and I knew that I would probably never get to know anyone like her again. They say that after God made certain people, He threw the mold away. It couldn’t have been more true in the case of Dottie Bigard.

REMEMBER!  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS — CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO DONATE!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

MAGGIE CONDON HAS A PLAN

Last week, I met Maggie Condon.  If you don’t recognize her immediately, let me give you a hint:

Yes, that family.  Maggie is the elder daughter of Eddie and Phyllis Condon; she and her husband Peter (a most amiable filmmaker) live in the family’s Washington Square apartment, where I visited Maggie recently. 

I should say here that Eddie Condon — bandleader, man with an idea, guitarist, promoter — is one of my most beloved heroes.  When I started listening to other jazzmen beyond Louis, I naturally gravitated to any and all records that had any connection with Eddie — from the early Twenties to the middle Seventies.  And I was lucky enough to see the great man himself: once at close range, three times in concert. 

I knew I was in the presence of something remarkable when Maggie offered me the tour of the Condon apartment — which began by her walking to the window that overlooked Washington Square Park and pointing out the diagonal path she remembered seeing her father take across the park to the club named for him (47 West Third Street).  Then she opened a box and unwrapped what was and is a sacred object — Eddie’s first banjo, labeled on the back of the head “Slick Condon,” with a date of 1921.  Eddie had his own bedroom in the apartment because he and Phyllis — although truly devoted to each other — kept different hours.  Phyllis, an ambitious woman, was up early, someone with things to do.  Eddie came home late from the club and wanted darkness and silence for his daylight-hours sleeping pleasure: thus his room was painted a dark green, almost black. 

The holy relics continued to surface: one of Eddie’s custom-made Gibson tenor guitars:

From another angle, with reverence:

One more:

And here’s the label on the outside of the guitar case — written by Phyllis:

Eddie called the jazz magazine BROW BEAT — and here’s the only award he ever got from them:

But back to the title.  “Maggie Condon has a plan?”

Yes, Maggie Condon is making a video documentary about her father — possibly a feature-length film.  She’s been planning it for more than twenty years, and is well-qualified, having been a film and television director for a number of years.  As I write this, she is doing a series of video interviews — of jazz scholars who knew and loved Eddie, jazz musicians who played alongside him, people who saw him at close range. 

The film, let me assure you, is a daughter’s tribute to her father — as a man, as a musician — no filmed pathobiography here.

Why Eddie Condon? 

If you were to search blindly through the morass of semi-factoidal information that makes up the web, you might find that Eddie was (some say) more well-known for talking than playing, a not-very-adept rhythm guitarist (according to others) who didn’t take solos; a proponent of a now-dead style.  Even though Eddie loathed the word “Dixieland,” and said that it was “music for the farmers who wanted to hear THE SAINTS,” he is identified with the form.

All wrong. 

Three minutes of any Condon record would sweep some of this fallacy away, but there’s more that needs to be said.  That Bx Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong called him their friend should say something as well. 

First, Eddie was a rebel against the Midwestern world in which he was born.  Who would have expected a young man from Indiana to find his calling in that noisy music called jazz?  And, odder still, who would have expected that Condon boy to be so thoroughly color-blind that he would organize integrated record sessions before 1930, picking musicians by their talent rather than their compliexion at a time when this wasn’t done?  Even as late as the mid-Forties, an integrated Condon band was shut out of a Washington, D.C. concert hall because the DAR wouldn’t countenance race-mixing onstage.  So he was a pioneer.

Critics and social historians get justifiably excited about John Hammond bringing Teddy Wilson into the Benny Goodman band; they extol the heroism of Branch Rickey, getting Jackie Robinson onto the field in the white major leagues. 

But who celebrates Eddie Condon for getting Fats Waller and Hot Lips Page into Carnegie Hall?  And when the Condon groups broadcast from the Ritz Theatre and Town Hall over the Blue Network in 1944-45, how many people (here and overseas) thrilled to the music and then realized that the people whose art they were charmed by were the same people who had to sit in the back of the bus?  (Exhibit A above: “Eddie’s Hot Shots” was what they used to call “a mixed band,” and the record is still a Hot landmark.)

Ken Burns didn’t pay much attention to Eddie; I have yet to see a Jazz at Lincoln Center tribute to the man and his music.  Eddie was Caucasian (unfashionable), he made a living from his music (unthinkable), and he didn’t die young (unbelievable).  Even in the face of all these ideological burdens, he surely deserves to be celebrated.  Was it his fault that he had a good time, and that jazz wasn’t his martyrdom?   

He was the first jazz musician to have his name on a club, and it’s not incidental that the music that came out of that club was free-wheeling and passionately expert.  And he brought jazz to television long before it became the soundtrack for many shows — as early as 1942, and his EDDIE CONDON’S FLOOR SHOW remains a model of what could be done with the form — informal, funny, and Hot. 

With Milt Gabler, another down-home urban saint, Eddie and his gang made extraordinary records for the Commodore label in the late Thrities and early Forties, moving over to Decca and later (under George Avakian’s benign, wise guidance) to Columbia for classic sessions in the Fifties.    

So I’m thrilled that Maggie is interviewing the elders of the tribe as well as getting acquainted with the younger musicians who know and love the jazz that Eddie nurtured and sustained. 

If you’ve got memories of being in Eddie’s club, let’s hear them!  If you remember the first time you heard a Condon record, tell us!  (And — I’m probably not supposed to say this, but consider it whispered: if you’re a wealthy jazz-lover who would like to make sure more people know who Eddie Condon is — is, not was — it would be nice to hear from you, too.) 

Not someday, but now.  More to come!

SHARP AS A TACK

Through the good offices of Swing Era scholar David Weiner, whom I’ve known since the mid-Seventies, and the indefatigable Will Friedwald, I’ve become a member of a Yahoo group, “Toast of New York,” or ToNY, whose members swap information, music, film clips, and questions about the period online.  The other day, saxophonist and Lester Young disciple Loren Schoenberg came up with this delectable photograph. thebluedevilssaxophonesection1932withlesteryounginthemiddle-390x488

It’s taken from the website SWING FASHIONISTA http://www.swingfashionista.com. — lovely and fascinating.   

The photo itself comes from a Ken Burns book on jazz (I will not embark on the expected Burning here) and it depicts the saxophone section (Theo Ross and Buster Smith) of the Blue Devils — led by the Blessed Walter Page — greeting the new member, Lester Willis Young, in 1932.  There are not that many pictures of Lester as a young man before the Count Basie band came East, so this one is a rare pleasure.  And it pleases me to imagine him as a young man who didn’t drink too much and was happy to play his horn, not the saddened Pres we read of, late in life, drowning his very real sorrows in cognac.   

But what pleases me at the same time is the beautiful linen suits these musicians are wearing.  In the Black argot of the time, a badly or poorly-dressed person might be “raggedy as a bowl of slaw”; someone stylish would be “sharp as a tack.”  Lester, even though he seems slightly diffident, a bit shy for the camera (without his horn to hold on to) is SHARP — those shoes, that three-piece suit, the pocket square.  And that pipe!  Who knew?

Of course, clothes alone don’t make the man — it matters more than anything that it is Lester Young in the center — but the combination of man and suit and pipe, captured a bit stiffly in a photographer’s studio,  is something to cherish.