Tag Archives: Kenny Kersey

BLOWINGLY, 1951

As part of my continuing quest to make the world more aware of Oran Thaddeus Page — known to those who know as Lips or Hot Lips, here is SWEET SUE, recorded at a session organized by Rudi Blesh in New York City on February 10, 1951, with Lips, Tyree Glenn, trombone; Burnie [or “Burney”?] Peacock, clarinet, alto saxophone; Paul Quinichette, tenor saxophone; Kenny Kersey and Dan Burley, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Walter Page, string bass; Sonny Greer, drums.  Some of the shorter tracks from what was eventually issued as JAMMIN’ AT RUDI’S came out on Circle 78s; the most recent official CD issue is on the Jazzology label (JCD 262) with five tracks from this 1951 date, and a good deal of it — circuitously — has found its way to YouTube.  (Blesh had sponsored an earlier, more “traditional” session with Conrad Janis, Bob Wilber, Ralph Sutton, Eubie Blake, and others, so this was JAMMIN’ No. 2.)  Thanks to Jon-Erik Kellso for reminding me to revisit this session, a few weeks ago.

I’ve always been fascinated by this session because it successfully replicates the feel of an actual jam session — in good sound — with musicians who didn’t usually work together.  Some of them did play gigs as members of Hot Lips Page’s little band of the time, but others seem assembled as former Swing Era stars who were no longer working with big bands: Page (Basie); Greer (Ellington); Barker and Glenn (Calloway); Kersey (Kirk and others), Peacock (Calloway, Basie).  I suspect that these musicians, for Blesh, were perilously “modern,” and I admire him for venturing into unusual territory.  Peacock, for me, was the least-known of the bunch: here is a Wikipedia entry with some possibly verifiable facts.

But there is a wonderful looseness, a let’s-start-this-and-see-if-we-can-get-out-of-it-safely feel to this performance, that speaks to familiar repertoire and no charts in sight.  I suspect Blesh might have even encouraged this as “authentic” and frowned on head-arrangement riffs and backgrounds, something Lips and the others created masterfully as a matter of course.  What else do we hear?  A nicely unhurried tempo, the tender expressiveness of Lips’ lead in the first chorus (a sweet conversational approach), Greer rattling and commenting all through; the sounds Lips got with his plunger — an emphasis on pure sound — before Quinichette dances in, Lester-airy; the powerful motion of Walter Page’s bass in duet with Danny Barker’s single-string solo.  Then the contrast between Lips, apparently at full power, alternating with Greer, before Tyree peaceably returns us to the melody.  How beautifully individualistic his sound is!  A more familiar Barker chordal solo (again, with impressionistic support from Walter Page and Sonny) before Lips returns, as if to say, “You thought I was piling it on before?  Hear THIS!”  Pure drama, and it — like the Jerry Newman recordings and a MUSKRAT RAMBLE recorded in Philadelphia (issued on a Jerry Valburn recording years ago) — shows Lips’ intuitive understanding of dynamics, and even more, the dramatic construction of a large-scale solo.

Never mind that the YouTube picture makes Walter Page the leader of the session and that the cover picture is of his own orchestra, decades ago.  We live in strange times.

And here is more tangible evidence of Mr. Page’s gracious spirit, if you didn’t hear it coming through those notes — a thank-you note to (I am assuming) some Swedish friends:

This emerged on eBay a week ago, and the lucky owner ventured much more money for it than I was willing to spend (the imaginary grandchildren tell me they need sneakers) but you can see it here for free.  I know it’s authentic because of the way Lips made his capital L (he went to school when “penmanship” was still part of your report card) and, for better or worse, “Lip’s” as part of his signature.  I’ve also seen an autograph where Lips — enthusiastically, I assume, signed VERY BLOWINGLY above his name.

SWEET SUE, to me, equals VERY BLOWINGLY by all.  And it didn’t cost $103.56.

May your happiness increase!

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A FEW GLOWING SECONDS OF GLORY

When I returned to my apartment in New York, I thought, “I need music in here. Music will help remind me who I am, what I am supposed to be doing, where my path might lead.”  Initially I reached for some favorite performances for consolation, then moved over to the crates of homemade audiocassettes — evidence of more than twenty-five years of tape-trading with like-minded souls.

One tape had the notation PRIVATE CHICAGO, and looking at it, I knew that it was the gift of Leonora Taylor, who preferred to be called “Gypsy,” and who had an unusual collection of music.  When I asked drummer / scholar Hal Smith about her, he reminded me that she loved the UK clarinetist Archie Semple. Although I don’t recall having much if any Archie to offer her, we traded twenty or thirty cassettes.

PRIVATE CHICAGO had some delightful material recorded (presumably) at the Evanston, Illinois house of Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft — amateur pianist, sometime composer, friend / benefactor to jazz musicians. Squirrel was both a dear friend of Pee Wee Russell, Joe Rushton, Eddie Condon, Boyce Brown, Johnny Mercer, George Barnes, Lee Wiley, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and many others — one facet of a very intriguing life.  He deserves a biography.

But back to the music.

I played through the side of the cassette, rewound it, and played it again.  And I kept returning to a short improvisation: BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, played by Johnny Windhurst (cornet or trumpet) and Jack Gardner (piano) with possibly other players in the background — I hear a murmuring clarinet offering harmony notes — recorded, Gypsy’s typed notes say, circa 1950.

Neither Windhurst nor Gardner is as well known as they should be. Windhurst (1926-1981) was recognized young as a brilliant player, and got to play with the best — Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster in Boston when he wasn’t voting age, then Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Kenny Kersey, John Field, Jimmy Crawford a few years later, moving on to be one of Eddie Condon’s regulars, briefly recording with Jack Teagarden and on his own date with Buell Neidlinger, on a Walt Gifford session, with Barbara Lea (he was both colleague and boyfriend) then moving upstate to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he died too young (once being mugged and beaten) of a heart attack.

I saw him in person once, at Your Father’s Mustache in New York in 1972 — with Herb Hall and Herb Gardner (the latter someone who is very much with us) and Red Balaban.  Windhurst was capable of the most beautiful melodic flights of fancy — a cross between heavenly music of the highest order and Bobby Hackett — but he couldn’t read music, disdained the idea of doing so, and thus turned down higher-paying and possibly higher-visibility gigs from bandleaders.  I read somewhere that Woody Herman wanted to hire him, offered him good pay, promised to teach him to read, but Windhurst — a free spirit — would have none of it.

There is one video extant of Windhurst — I wrote about it, and him, in 2009 (and received wonderful comments from people who had played alongside him) here.

I did not know much about pianist Gardner, except that what I’ve heard suggests a delicate barrelhouse approach, and I seem to recall he was a large man called by some “Jumbo Jack.” But an exquisite biographical sketch of Jack by the diligent writer and researcher Derek Coller can be found here.  (Our Jack Gardner is not the man who led an orchestra in Dallas in 1924-5.)  Jack first recorded with Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland, then got more visibility with Harry James (you can hear him on SLEEPY TIME GAL and he is also on Sinatra’s first recording with James) 1939-40, then he crops up with Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Bud Freeman, and after being captured on sessions at Squirrel’s from 1950-52, we hear no more from him.

I know THE BATTLE  HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC as a very assertive religious song in which the enemies of the Lord receive divine punishment:  “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and so on, even though later verses of the song — known to how many? — suggest that there is a balm of kindness.

More importantly than the theological, I and others know it as a hot number — think of “Red Nichols” as played by Danny Kaye and “Louis Armstrong” as played by himself in THE FIVE PENNIES, sending the sermon. Everyone from Art Hodes to George Lewis to Gerry Mulligan has recorded it, but I suggest that no version you will ever hear matches the sweet delicacy of this brief celestial interlude by Windhurst and Gardner.

Windhurst doesn’t venture far from the melody — the recording catches less than a whole chorus, and aside from a bluesy transformation near the end, it is melodic embellishment rather than harmonic improvisation.  But he treats the melodic line with lightness, fervor, and love; every note is caressed; his tone is so beautiful as to make “golden” into an affront.  Gardner plays a simplified version of barrelhouse support but never gets in Windhurst’s way. The whole duet is tender, yearning — the music of the spheres in under a minute.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

May your happiness increase!

“GEORGE WETTLING, MARCH 1953”

That’s written on the back of this snapshot — originally taken by drummer Walt Gifford, later held by jazz enthusiast Joe Boughton:

GEORGE WETTLING 3 53

I am assuming that it was taken in the Boston area, but Wettling is the main attraction.  In the great tradition, Wettling played drums for the band — caring more for that than for any extended solo, although his four-bar breaks at the end of Eddie Condon recordings (Commodore, Decca, and Columbia) are justly famous.  He wasn’t as dramatic as some of his more celebrated peers, but any group that had Wettling in the rhythm section could relax, secure that the tempo would be steady, that every accent or sound would make sense as a complementary part of the whole.

Here are two samples of George at work — atypically visible as well — along with Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Al Hall, and Eddie himself — from a 1964 television program:

and

and — nearly a quarter-century earlier, sounds only:

and

If you follow the recordings he left behind — with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Hot Lips Page, Lou McGarity, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, Muggsy Spanier, Jess Stacy, Frank Teschemacher, Frank Melrose, Boyce Brown, Paul Mares, Omer Simeon, Wingy Manone, Jimmy McPartland, Joe Marsala, Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, Pete Brown, Jack Teagarden, Joe Bushkin, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, Max Kaminsky, Danny Polo, Herman Chittison, Joe Thomas, Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Carter, Miff Mole, Brad Gowans, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, Ed Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Rod Cless, James P. Johnson, Yank Lawson, Jerry Jerome, Billy Butterfield, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Benny Morton, Jonah Jones, Errol Garner, Billie Holiday, Bujie Centobie, Red McKenzie, Chuck Wayne, Lucky Thompson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Martha Tilton, Connee Boswell, Sidney Bechet, Frank Newton, Bing Crosby, Art Hodes, Doc Evans, Bob Wilber, Tony Parenti, Charlie Parker, Ralph Sutton, Barbara Lea, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Kenny Kersey, Frank Signorelli, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Urbie Green, Marian McPartland, Stuff Smith, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Claude Hopkins, Nat Pierce, Jimmy Jones, Marty Napoleon, Buster Bailey, Shorty Baker, Tyree Glenn, Kenny Davern, and many others — you will always hear rewarding music.

May your happiness increase!

KEY NOTES

I bought myself a truly gratifying holiday present:

KEYNOTE BOX

For details from the Fresh Sound website, click here.

It’s possible that some readers might be unfamiliar with the Keynote Records catalogue, so if the tiny portraits above don’t pique your interest, here are a few words.  Between 1941 and 1947, with the bulk of its sessions taking place in 1944-6. this independent jazz label produced a wide sampling of the best jazz records ever made — from the New Orleans jazz of George Hartman to the “modern sounds” of Lennie Tristano and Red Rodney.  Keynote was the expression of one man’s intelligent taste — the Javanese jazz fan and producer Harry Lim (1919-1990).  Lim’s records neatly balance written arrangements, head arrangements, and improvised solos.  Many of the Keynote issues were recorded for issue on 12″ 78s, thus giving musicians room to create in more leisurely ways.  In fairness, the Keynote sessions were not the only ones taking place in the wartime years: Lim’s issues ran parallel with Commodore, Blue Note, Hot Record Society, Signature, and even smaller labels — Asch, Jamboree and Wax among them.  Keynote featured jazz players who were already stars: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Red Norvo, Benny Carter, Sidney Catlett, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Hodges, Slam Stewart, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Count Basie (pseudonymously), as well as improvisers of equal worth who were often not given their due: trumpeter Joe Thomas, Milt Hinton, Bill Harris, Willie Smith, Kenny Kersey, Jonah Jones, George Barnes, Johnny Guarneri, Emmett Berry, Aaron Sachs, Herman Chittison, George Wettling, Hilton Jefferson, Tyree Glenn, Gene Sedric, Juan Tizol, Rex Stewart, Pete Brown, Cozy Cole, Charlie Shavers, Nick Fatool, Bujie Centobie, Irving Fazola, Allan Reuss, Dave Tough, and many others.  Three particularly remarkable sessions brought together like-minded but singular horn players: trumpeters Eldridge, Thomas, and Berry; saxophonists Hawkins, Don Byas, Tab Smith, Harry Carney; trombonists Vic Dickenson, Harris, Claude Jones, and Benny Morton.

Several things need to be said about the new Fresh Sounds reissue.  For one, it is a “European bootleg,” which will repel some collectors of this music, and I think rightly so.  However, the Keynotes have never been issued in any systematic way on compact disc — in their home country or otherwise.  And the Fresh Sound set concentrates, with a few exceptions, on issued material.  I don’t know whether this was a choice designed to entice listeners who find alternate takes annoying, or to keep the set’s price attractive.  (I bought mine on Amazon for $94, which seems a good value for 243 sides.)  The sound is good, although I haven’t compared it to any 78 or vinyl issues.  True Keynote devotees will, of course, have their own copies of the comprehensive vinyl issue of the label’s offerings, and the Fresh Sound box won’t replace that.

The reissue history of the Keynote recordings is characteristically odd — leaving aside the comprehensive vinyl set — with early vinyl assortments assembled by instrument (trumpet, trombone, or saxophone), then later ones featuring stars Hawkins, Young, Woody Herman sidemen, Norvo, Tristano, etc.  As I write this, I am taking great pleasure in the sixth disc — selected at random — hearing sessions led by Barney Bigard, Horace Henderson, Bill Harris, Willie Smith, Corky Corcoran, and Milt Hinton — a fascinating cross-section of timeless jazz recorded in 1945.  “Fresh Sound” is an apt description for these sides recorded more than half a century ago.

Fresh Sound producer Jordi Pujol made an intriguing and ultimately rewarding choice when looking for documentary material to fill the 125-page booklet.  He included a careful history of the label — sources unknown — which tells a great deal about how these sessions came to be.  (I feel, once again, that we should all give thanks to selfless men such as Harry Lim.)  Then, rather than reprint the enthusiastic, empathic notes written by Dan Morgenstern for the Keynote vinyl box set, Pujol returned to the archives of DOWN BEAT and METRONOME for contemporary reviews and session photographs.  The photographs — although many of them have been reproduced elsewhere — offer a few treasures: Lester Young, Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart, and Sidney Catlett at their December 1943 session, and photographs from the jam sessions Lim created before Keynote began recording regularly: one, in particular, caught me: a 1940 Chicago session featuring Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown, Earl Hines, John Simmons, Tubby Hall . . . and the elusive Boyce Brown.  The reviews from the contemporary jazz magazines are both grating and revealing.  One might forget just how hard those writers and editors worked to appear breezy, slangy, hip — Catlett is referred to as a “colored tubman” in one review — and how severe they were in assessing what now seem masterpieces, using “uneventful,” “nothing distinctive,” “routine,” “pleasant,” “don’t emerge as anything too special.”  Lester Young is referred to as “Les,” his tenor sound as “muddy-toned.”  That the music survived this critical approach from writers who were its advocates says much about its durability.  Here, by the way, is a side DOWN BEAT termed a “fiasco” and gave it a grade of C.  I rest my case:

I think I got more than my money’s worth.  You might agree.

May your happiness increase! 

SOULFUL ELEGANCE: JOE THOMAS, TRUMPET

The trumpet master Joe Thomas, aplacid, reserved man, didn’t make as many recordings as he should have.  But he played alongside the finest musicians: Jack Teagarden, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Herman Chittison, Benny Carter, Barney Bigard, Joe Marsala, Buck Clayton, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Edmond Hall, Art Tatum, Pete Brown, Claude Hopkins, Kenny Kersey, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Russell, Buddy Tate, Tony Scott, Dicky Wells, Oscar Pettiford, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan, Benny Morton, Bobby Gordon.  Harry Lim (of Keynote Records) was a special champion of Joe’s and featured him on many sessions.

Here is a 1945 recording — during the great flourishing of small independent jazz labels — on the Jamboree label, which issued perhaps twenty discs in all, most featuring Don Byas; one session under Horace Henderson’s name; another was the only session under Dave Tough’s name — featuring our Mr. Thomas.  One of the Byas discs, recorded by Don, Joe, and the mighty rhythm section of Johnny Guarneri, Billy Taylor, and Cozy Cole, is JAMBOREE JUMP — a groovy 32-bar head arrangement:

My ears tell me that JUMP has a close relationship with STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, exceedingly familiar chord changes for that period. The line sounds at first simple, something out of a child’s scale exercise — but it turns more adventurous.  There is a suggestion of a phrase we know from DIZZY ATMOSPHERE as well.  Swing and Be-Bop were adjacent, simultaneous, rather than two epochs as the journalists wanted us to believe.

Byas swoops and hollers, evoking Ben, over that concisely effective rhythm section, with Guarneri offering his own synthesis of Waller and Basie over Taylor’s powerful bass and Cole’s restrained drums — their sound somewhat swallowed by the whoosh of the 78 surface, although his bass drum is a swing heartbeat.

The quartet glides for two minutes until Thomas announces himself with one of the upwards arpeggios he loved, a sea creature leaping gracefully through the ocean’s surface.  His repeated notes never seem mechanical or over-emphatic: he just states he has arrived!  Joe, as Whitney Balliett pointed out, had listened hard to the Louis of the Hot Seven period, although Joe always kept his cool.  What follows might seem simple, undramatic for those anticipating the attack of an Eldridge or an Emmett Berry.  But Joe knew how to structure a solo through space, to make his phrases ring by leaving breathing room between them.  Like Bix or Basie, Joe embodied restraint while everyone around him was being urgent.  His pure dark sound is as important as the notes he plays — or chooses to omit.  Although his bridge is a leisurely series of upwards-moving arpeggios, it is more than “running changes.”

A simple phrase, in Thomas’s world, is a beautifully burnished object.  And one phrase flows into another, so at the end of the solo, one has embraced a new melody, resonant in three dimensions, that wasn’t there before, full of shadings, deep and logically constructed.  The band returns for the last statement of the theme, but it’s Joe’s solo I return to.

Louis, speaking about playing the trumpet, praised as the greatest good “tonation and phrasing.”  Joe’s tone, dark and shining, makes the simple playing of a written line something to marvel at, and each of his notes seems a careful choice yet all is fresh, never by rote: someone speaking words that have become true because he has just discovered they are the right ones for the moment.

I offer JAMBOREE JUMP as prelude to something even more marvelous.

Harry Lim, the guiding genius of Keynote Records — which, session for session, was consistently rewarding — loved Joe and featured him often.  The Pete Brown All-Star Quintet had a splendid rhythm section and the contrast between Joe’s stately sweetness and Pete’s lemony ebullience.  IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN shows off not only the contrast between them, stylistically, but also in tempos — this 12″ 78 (another one of the independent labels’ of the time’s great ideas — thank Milt Gabler and Alfred Lion) contrasts sweeping elegance with double-time romping.

That song might well have been Joe’s choice.  I was fortunate enough to see him in person a few times in the early Seventies, and he took this song as a kind of personal utterance.  I don’t know if the lyrics meant something deep to him — he was happily married to the singer Babe Matthews for many years — or if he associated the song with some event or place in his past, but he played it and sang it as if he had composed it.  And given Joe’s delight in the possibility of repeated notes in his soloing, TALK provides ample opportunities in its written melody.  (Like DARN THAT DREAM, it is a song that — played mechanically — could grow wearisome quickly.)

Here’s the Keynote recording, beautifully annotated by its generous YouTube creator:

If you’ve heard little of pianist Kenny Kersey, his chiming, serious solo introduction is evidence that he is another unheard master.

Then Joe comes to the fore in a sorrowing embellishment of the theme.  Hear his vibrato, his tone — without stating anything in melodramatic capital letters, he says, “What you are hearing is very serious to me.  It comes from my heart.”  Indeed, I think of the great later Louis of THAT’S FOR ME.  Joe is somber and tender at once, lingering over a note here, adding a small ornamental flourish, as he does at the end of the first sixteen bars, almost in a casual whisper, his brass voice trailing away.

Around him, the elements are in place: the warm resonance of Milt’s notes; the gentle timekeeping of J.C. Heard; Kersey, pointing the way; the sweet understated agreements provided by Pete’s alto.

When Joe would sing TALK OF THE TOWN, he would get even more emphatic on the bridge.  A song that begins, “I can’t show my face” already starts passionately, but the bridge is a drama of disappointment and betrayal: “We sent out invitations / To friends and relations / Announcing our wedding day. / Friends and relations gave congratulations. / How can you face them? / What can you say?”  Here, Joe’s trumpet rises to depict this heartbreak without increasing his volume or adding more notes.  The run that begins the second half of the bridge is Joe’s version of an early Thirties Louis phrase in sweet slow-motion.

Something startling comes next, and although I have known this recording for several decades, I can’t prepare myself for it: Pete Brown and the rhythm section go into double-time.  Pete loved to push the beat, and perhaps the idea of playing TALK OF THE TOWN as an extended ballad seemed too much of a good thing.  I also wonder if Pete knew that to follow Joe in the same fashion was not a good idea*.  Whatever the reason, the spirit of Roy Eldridge playing BODY AND SOUL at double-time is in the room.  Although Pete’s rough bouncy energy is initially startling, his bluesy vocalized tone is delightful, and the rhythm section digs in (Heard’s soft bass drum accents suggest Catlett).  And there’s the SALT PEANUTS octave jump at the end of the bridge, too.

It’s left to Kersey to return everyone to the elegiac tempo set at the start, and he does it beautifully, although the section has to settle in.  Joe returns, declamatory and delicate.  Where many trumpeters of the period might have gone up for a high one, Joe repeats the title of the song as if to himself.

I have loved Joe Thomas’ work for forty-five years, having heard him first on an Ed Beach radio show with the Keynote SHE DIDN’T SAY YES and then on a Prestige-Swingville session led by Claude Hopkins and featuring Buddy Tate.  His playing still moves me.  Although his simple notes are not difficult to play on the trumpet, to play them as he does, to learn how to sing through metal tubing is a lifetime’s work.  There were and are many compelling Louis-inspired trumpeters, and they all brought their own special joy.  But there was only one Joe Thomas.

Thanks to SwingMan1937 for posting JAMBOREE JUMP and to sepiapanorama for IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN.  These generous YouTube folks have excellent taste!

*About Pete Brown’s double-time section.  I came across another YouTube presentation of IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN — Connee Boswell’s lovely 1933 reading with the Dorsey Brothers in an orchestra directed by Victor Young — and she lifts the tempo, too.  Perhaps it was a swing convention when the song was first introduced?  (The picture of the singer isn’t Connee but Jo Stafford, by the way.)

May your happiness increase.

JOHNNY WINDHURST, MUCH MISSED

Few people today know of the cornetist Johnny Windhurst, but those who do speak of him with awe and affection. 

I first heard him on a Folkways record called JAZZ OF THE FORTIES, which contained excerpts from a concert put on by Bob Maltz in 1946.  The other participants inckuded Sidney Bechet, Pops Foster, Vernon Brown, Mezz Mezzrow, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson.  Windhurst had a ballad feature on “She’s Funny That Way” that wasn’t very long — perhaps two choruses — but it was instantly memorable.  The idea of a brass player having a golden tone is and was an obvious cliche, but it applied to Johnny.  He had built his style on a synthesis of Bobby Hackett and Louis and moved on from there.  His playing had a simplicity and tenderness I haven’t heard anyone else approach.  At the time, the only Windhurst I could hear was on recordings he had made with the fine singer Barbara Lea. 

In mid-1972, when I began to go into New York City to hear live jazz (with Stu Zimny and Rob Rothberg) the Sunday afternoon sessions led by bassist Red Balaban at Your Father’s Mustache were a special treat.  Balaban was not a stirring leader, bassist, banjoist, or singer, but he had good taste in guest stars.  One of them was Windhurst, who came down from Poughkeepsie, where his mother lived, to lead the band — either Dick Rath or Herb Gardner on trombone, Herb Hall on piano, either Chuck Folds or Red Richards on piano, and Marquis Foster or Buzzy Drootin on drums.

Windhurst looked much as he had ever looked — boyish, small, bespectacled, with a natty bow tie.  He seemed a little distant, a little tired, but he played beautifully.

After that Sunday, I began to ask my collector-friends for the private tapes they had.  John L. Fell, generous and erudite, shared his treasures.  Joe Boughton, a true Windhurst friend and fancier, let me hear tapes of Windhurst playing in the early Fifties at college gigs; later, I found the two lps on which he had appeared (one, a quartet session under his own name; the other, a session led by the drummer Walt Gifford).  He had recorded with Condon for Decca.  Still later, the “Jazz Nocturne” programs of 1945, where a 19-year old Windhurst stood next to Sidney Bechet and didn’t give an inch, came out on the Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and the “Doctor Jazz” broadcasts from 1952 or so, also appeared on Storyville.  I even found a semi-private recording made in Poughkeepsie at “The Last Chance Saloon,” where Johnny and his friend, trombonist Eddie Hubble, played in front of a local session.  Later, I heard broadcasts from the Savoy Cafe in Boston, where in 1947, Windhurst had run in the quickest of company: Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson,Kenny Kersey, John Field, and Jimmy Crawford.   

In all these recordings, Windhurst took risks but never faltered, and his tone never grew acrid or shrill.  But, for whatever reasons, he stayed out of the limelight.  Because he never cared to learn to read music, he had turned down gigs with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, preferring informal jamming.  He died in Poughkeepsie at 54.  The reference books I have say that he died of a heart attack, but I recall that having been mugged had something to do with his early death. 

Had he lived . . . alas.  And the recordings that have come out in the last few years — one a 1947 jazz concert where Windhurst and Jack Teagarden play beautifully alongside one another — are beautifully stirring, saying much about the musician we lost. 

These thoughts are motivated by a cyber-find: I haven’t given up on my quest for the 1946 “March of Time” clip featuring Dave Tough at Eddie Condon’s.  My quest led me to www.dailymotion.com., where trumpeter and film scholar Bob Erwig has posted excerpts from a 1958 “Jazz Party,” a television show hosted by jazz disc jockey Art Ford.  Ford’s program was simultaneously broadcast on the radio, so some diligent collectors have tapes that are as close to stereo as we shall get.  The programs tended to be informal to the point of messiness, with players ranging from Lester Young to Willie the Lion Smith to Mary Osborne and Teddy Charles.  Here is the only film footage of Windhurst, accompanied by pianist Roland Hanna, Osborne, bassist Mark Goldberg, and drummer Morey Feld (the last a particular favorite of our own Kevin Dorn).   

On this 1958 clip, an earnest Windhurst considers “Pennies From Heaven” in yearning style, reminding us of the pretty song that Bing Crosby, Hackett, and Louis explored.  In it, we see a player not afraid to take his time, to make beautiful sounds, to gently explore the melody.  It’s a lovely performance, and it doesn’t give up all its secrets on one viewing. 

Did any readers of this blog hear Johnny or play alongside him?  I would love to hear your memories.  Without them, who will remember Johnny Windhurst?

THE ELUSIVE FRANK NEWTON

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the remarkable jazz trumpeter Frank Newton in the last few weeks, even before having the opportunity to repost this picture of him (originally on JazzWax) — taken in Boston, in the late Forties, with George Wein and Joe Palermino. 

Jazz is full of players who say something to us across the years, their instrumental voices resounding through the murk and scrape of old records.  Some players seem to have led full artistic lives: Hawkins, Wilson, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Bob Wilber come to mind at the head of a long list.  Others, equally worthy, have had shorter lives or thwarted careers.   Bix, Bird, Brownie, to alliterate, among a hundred others.  And all these lives raise the unanswerable question of whether anyone ever entirely fulfills him or herself.  Or do we do exactly what we were meant to do, no matter how long our lifespan?  Call it Nurture / Nature, free will, what you will.     

But today I choose Frank Newton as someone I wish had more time in the sun.  His recorded legacy seems both singular and truncated.     

Frank Newton (who disliked the “Frankie” on record labels) was born in 1906 in Virginia.  He died in 1954, and made his last records in 1946.  A selection of the recorded evidence fills two compact discs issued on Jasmine, THE STORY OF A FORGOTTEN JAZZ TRUMPETER.    His Collected Works might run to four or five hours — a brief legacy, and there are only a few examples I know where an extended Newton solo was captured for posterity.  However, he made every note count. 

In and out of the recording sudios, he traveled in fast company: the pianists include Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Sonny White, Mary Lou Williams, Buck Washington, Meade Lux Lewis, Kenny Kersey, Billy Kyle, Don Frye, Albert Ammons, Joe Bushkin, Joe Sullivan, Sonny White, and Johnny Guarneri.  Oh, yes — and Art Tatum.  Singers?  How about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Although Newton first went into the studio with Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys in 1929 for Victor, the brilliant trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dicky Wells blaze most notably on those sessions. 

It isn’t until 1933 that we truly hear Newton on record.  This interlude, lasting less than a minute, takes place in the middle of Bessie Smith’s “Gimme A Pigfoot,” one of four vaudeville-oriented songs she recorded at her last session, one organized by John Hammond, someone who re-emerges in Newton’s story.  It was a magnificent all-star band: Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry, Benny Goodman (for a moment), Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, Billy Taylor on bass.  Hammond wanted Sidney Catlett on drums, but Bessie refused: “No drums.  I set the tempo.”  For all the rent-party trappings of the song, “Pigfoot” is thin material, requiring a singer of Bessie’s majesty to make it convincing.   

What one first notices about Newton’s solo is his subversive approach, his unusual tone and attack.  In 1933, the jazz world was rightly under the spell of Louis, which led to understandable extroversion.  Project.  Hit those high notes loud.  Sing out.  If you were accompanying a pop or blues singer, you could stay in the middle register, be part of the background, but aside from such notable exceptions as Joe Smith, Bubber Miley, trumpets were in the main assertive, brassy.  Dick Sudhalter thought Newton’s style was the result of technical limitations but I disagree; perhaps Newton was, like Tricky Sam Nanton, painting with sounds. 

Before Newton solos on “Pigfoot,” the record has been undeniably Bessie’s, although with murmurings from the other horns and a good deal of Washington’s spattering Hines punctuations.  But when Newton enters, it is difficult to remember that anyone else has had the spotlight.  Rather than boldly announce his presence with an upwards figure, perhaps a dazzling break, he sidles in, sliding down the scale like a man pretending to be drunk, whispering something we can’t quite figure out, drawling his notes with a great deal of color and amusement, lingering over them, not in a hurry at all.  His mid-chorus break is a whimsical merry-go-round up and down figure he particularly liked.  It’s almost as if he is teasing us, peeking at us from behind his mask, daring us to understand what he is up to.  The solo is the brief unforgettable speech of a great character actor, Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton, scored for jazz trumpet.  Another brassman would have offered heroic ascents, glowing upwards arpeggios; Newton appears to wander down a rock-choked slope, watching his footing.  It’s a brilliant gambit: no one could equal Bessie in scope, in power (both expressed and restrained) so Newton hides and reveals, understates.  And his many tones!  Clouded, muffled, shining for a brief moment and then turning murky, needling, wheedling, guttural, vocal and personal.  Considered in retrospect, this solo has a naughty schoolyard insouciance.  Given his turn in the spotlight, Newton pretends to thumb his nose at us.  Bessie has no trouble taking back the spotlight when she returns, but she wasn’t about to be upstaged by some trumpet-playing boy.     

Could any trumpet player, jazz or otherwise, do more than approximate what Newton plays here?  Visit http://www.redhotjazz.com/songs/bessie/gimmieapigfoot.ram to hear a fair copy of this recording.  (I don’t find that the link works: you may have to go to the Red Hot Jazz website and have the perverse pleasure of using “Pigfoot” as a search term.) 

The man who could play such a solo should have been recognized and applauded, although his talent was undeniably subtle.  (When you consider that Newton’s place in the John Kirby Sextet was taken by the explosively dramatic Charlie Shavers, Newton’s singularity becomes even clearer.)  His peers wanted him on record sessions, and he did record a good deal in the Thirties, several times under his own name.  But after 1939, his recording career ebbed and died. 

Nat Hentoff has written eloquently of Newton, whom he knew in Boston, and the man who comes through is proud, thoughtful, definite in his opinions, politically sensitive, infuriated by racism and by those who wanted to limit his freedoms.  Many jazz musicians are so in love with the music that they ignore everything else, as if playing is their whole life.  Newton seems to have felt that there was a world beyond the gig, the record studio, the next chorus.  And he was outspoken.  That might lead us back to John Hammond. 

Hammond did a great deal for jazz, as he himself told us.  But his self-portrait as the hot Messiah is not the whole story.  Commendably, he believed in his own taste, but he required a high-calorie diet of new enthusiasms to thrive.  Hammond’s favorite last week got fired to make way for his newest discovery.  Early on Hammond admired Newton, and many of Newton’s Thirties sessions had Hammond behind them.  Even if Hammond had nothing to do with a particular record, appearing on one major label made a competing label take notice.  But after 1939, Newton never worked for a mainstream record company again, and the records he made in 1944-1946 were done for small independent labels: Savoy (run by the dangerously disreputable Herman Lubinsky) and Asch (the beloved child of the far-left Moses Asch).  The wartime recording ban had something to do with this hiatus, but I doubt that it is the sole factor: musicians recorded regularly before the ban.  Were I a novelist or playwright, I would invent a scene where Newton rejects Hammond’s controlling patronage . . .  and falls from favor, never to return.  I admit this is speculation.  Perhaps it was simply that Newton chose to play as he felt rather than record what someone else thought he should.  A recording studio is often the last place where it is possible to express oneself freely and fully.  And I recall a drawing in a small jazz periodical from the late Forties, perhaps Art Hodes’ JAZZ RECORD, of Newton in the basement of an apartment building where he had taken a job as janitor so that he could read, paint, and perhaps play his trumpet in peace.  

I think of Django Reinhardt saying, a few weeks before he died, “The guitar bores me.”  Did Newton grow tired of his instrument, of the expectations of listeners, record producers, and club-owners?  On the rare recording we have of his speaking voice — a brief bit of a Hentoff interview — Newton speaks with sardonic humor about working in a Boston club where the owner’s taste ran to waltzes and “White Christmas,” but using such constraints to his advantage: every time he would play one of the owner’s sentimental favorites, he would be rewarded with a “nice thick steak.”  A grown man having to perform to be fed is not a pleasant sight, even though it is a regular event in jazz clubs.     

In addition, John Chilton’s biographical sketch of Newton mentions long stints of illness.  What opportunities Newton may have missed we cannot know, although he did leave Teddy HIll’s band before its members went to France.  It pleases me to imagine him recording with Django Reinhardt and Dicky Wells for the Swing label, settling in Europe to escape the racism in his homeland.  In addition, Newton lost everything in a 1948 house fire.  And I have read that he became more interested in painting than in jazz.  Do any of his paintings survive?  

Someone who could have told us a great deal about Newton in his last decade is himself dead — Ruby Braff, who heard him in Boston, admired him greatly and told Jon-Erik Kellso so.  And on “Russian Lullaby,” by Mary Lou WIlliams and her Chosen Five (Asch, reissued on vinyl on Folkway), where the front line is bliss: Newton, Vic Dickenson, and Ed Hall, Newton’s solo sounds for all the world like later Ruby — this, in 1944. 

In her notes to the Jasmine reissue, Sally-Ann Worsford writes that a “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” Newton “made his final appearance at New York’s Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950s.”  That large hall, peopled by loudly enthusiastic college students shouting for The Saints, would not have been his metier.  It is tempting, perhaps easy, to see Newton as a victim.  But “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” is never the sound we hear, even on his most mournful blues. 

The name Jerry Newman must be added here — and a live 1941 recording that allows us to hear the Newton who astonished other players, on “Lady Be Good” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” in duet with Art Tatum (and the well-meaning but extraneous bassist Ebenezer Paul), uptown in Harlem, after hours, blessedly available on a HighNote CD under Tatum’s name, GOD IS IN THE HOUSE.  

Jerry Newman was then a jazz-loving Columbia University student with had a portable disc-cutting recording machine.  It must have been heavy and cumbersome, but Newman took his machine uptown and found that the musicians who came to jam (among them Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Don Byas, Thelonious Monk, Joe Guy, Harry Edison, Kenny Clarke, Tiny Grimes, Dick Wilson, Helen Humes) didn’t mind a White college kid making records of their impromptu performances: in fact, they liked to hear the discs of what they had played.  (Newman, later on, issued some of this material on his own Esoteric label.  Sadly, he committed suicide.)  Newman caught Tatum after hours, relaxing, singing the blues — and jousting with Newton.  Too much happens on these recordings to write down, but undulating currents of invention, intelligence, play, and power animate every chorus.

On “Lady Be Good,” Newton isn’t in awe of Tatum and leaps in before the first chorus is through, his sound controlled by his mute but recognizable nonetheless.  Newton’s first chorus is straightforward, embellished melody with some small harmonic additions, as Tatum is cheerfully bending and testing the chords beneath him.  It feels as if Newton is playing obbligato to an extravagantly self-indulgent piano solo . . . . until the end of the second duet chorus, where Newton seems to parody Tatum’s extended chords: “You want to play that way?  I’ll show you!”  And the performance grows wilder: after the two men mimic one another in close-to-the-ground riffing, Newton lets loose a Dicky Wells-inspired whoop.  Another, even more audacious Tatum solo chorus follows, leading into spattering runs and crashing chords.  In the out- chorus, Tatum apparently does his best to distract or unsettle Newton, who will not be moved or shaken off.  “Sweet Georgia Brown” follows much the same pattern: Tatum wowing the audience, Newton biding his time, playing softly, even conservatively.  It’s not hard to imagine him standing by the piano, watching, letting Tatum have his say for three solo choruses that get more heroic as they proceed.  When Newton returns, his phrases are climbing, calm, measured — but that calm is only apparent, as he selects from one approach and another, testing them out, taking his time, moving in and outside the chords.  As the duet continues, it becomes clear that as forcefully as Tatum is attempting to direct the music, Newton is in charge.  It isn’t combat: who, after all, dominated Tatum?  But I hear Newton grow from accompanist to colleague to leader.  It’s testimony to his persuasive, quiet mastery, his absolute sense of his own rightness of direction (as when he plays a Tatum-pattern before Tatum gets to it).  At the end, Newton hasn’t “won” by outplaying Tatum in brilliance or volume, speed or technique — but he has asserted himself memorably.   

Taken together, these two perfomances add up to twelve minutes.  Perhaps hardly enough time to count for a man’s achievement among the smoke, the clinking glasses, the crowd.  But we marvel at them.  We celebrate Newton, we mourn his loss.

Postscript: in his autobiography, MYSELF AMONG OTHERS, Wein writes about Newton; Hentoff returns to Newton as a figure crucial in his own development in BOSTON BOY and a number of other places.  And then there’s HUNGRY BLUES, Benjamin T. Greenberg’s blog (www.hungryblues.net).  His father, Paul Greenberg, knew Newton in the Forties and wrote several brief essays about him — perhaps the best close-ups we have of the man.  In Don Peterson’s collection of his father Charles’s resoundingly fine jazz photography, SWING ERA NEW YORK, there’s a picture of Newton, Mezz Mezzrow, and George Wettling at a 1937 jam session.  I will have much more to write about Peterson’s photography in a future posting.