Whatever musical project Hal Smith dreams up will be melodic and swinging, and his ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND is a fine example. I’ve posted videos from many sets this band has played — at various festivals — and here are a few more, performed on May 12, 2019, at the very gratifying Redwood Coast Music Festival. The first part of that set is hereand — as if by magic! — the second is here. (In the amateurish candid photo below, something good is happening in the rhythm section — the usual procedure!)
Three more splendid interludes from the band — Hal, drums; Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Kris Tokarski, piano; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Ben Polcer, trumpet.
GRACE AND BEAUTY, by Kris Tokarski, Joshua Gouzy, Hal Smith:
There will be more videos to come from this band at the Redwood Coast Music Festival, and I dream of a 2021 reunion there . . . .
I especially admire musicians who know that there’s no race to get There, wherever There is. Sarah Spencer told me long ago that in New Orleans, proper tempo was a comfortable walking pace. Of course, some jazz tunes seem to require a sprint, but an easy saunter allows melodies to float in the air.
Hal Smith knows this, and his “On the Levee” band plays danceable New Orleans jazz, inspired equally by the later Kid Ory bands and the splendid individualists who make hot and lyrical sounds right now. Along with Hal on drums, there’s Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Kris Tokarski, piano; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Charlie Halloran, trombone. Here’s a second helping of performances from a set that OTL played at the Redwood Coast Music Festival on May 12, 2019. And if you weren’t around for the first bowl of hot gumbo, hereit is.
Now, for more. This one’s always in honor of Hal’s and my Auntie, Ida Melrose Shoufler:
“CREOLE SONG,” with “the guest mystery vocalist”:
“SISTER KATE,” or “GET OFF KATIE’S HEAD,” your preference — or Katie’s:
and an ODJB classic that might require more vigorous leg motion:
More to come. I look forward to the days when I (and all of us) can see ON THE LEVEE with — as I am told they say in Maryland — “our own two lookin’ eyes” and when we can gather at the Redwood Coast Music Festival — that’s September 30 to October 3, 2021.
Hal Smith’s “On the Levee” band plays danceable New Orleans jazz, inspired equally by the later Kid Ory bands and the splendid individualists who make hot / lyrical sounds right now. Along with Hal on drums, there’s Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Kris Tokarski, piano; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Charlie Halloran, trombone. Here are the first three performances from a set that OTL played at the Redwood Coast Music Festival on May 12, 2019. Keep absolutely still as you listen: I dare you.
COME BACK, SWEET PAPA:
BEALE STREET BLUES:
There will be more from this band that you haven’t seen, and I’ve presented a good deal on JAZZ LIVES: search for LEVEE and you’ll find the right spot.
In J.M. Barrie’s play of the same name, Peter Pan explains to the children how they can fly: “You just think lovely wonderful thoughts,” Peter explained, “and they lift you up in the air.” If we all do just that, perhaps we will get to hear On the Levee again soon, and we will meet again at the Redwood-Coast-Music-Festivalat the last weekend of September 2021.
The music that follows requires some prelude. It was created at the now-legendary Jazz at Chautauqua, almost seven years ago — which seems like several lifetimes. The founder and imperial monarch of this jazz weekend, Joe Boughton, responsible for so many hours and days of wonderful jazz music, loathed what he thought of as overplayed repertoire. SWEET GEORGIA BROWN was forbidden; A GARDEN IN THE RAIN was bliss. Not for him Hot Lips Page’s ecumenical idea, “The material is immaterial.” But, whether it was Jon-Erik Kellso’s idea or Joe’s, a set called “‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS,” its repertoire consisting of well-worn Bourbon Street favorites, happened. And it was wonderful.
The regular band was Pete Siers, drums; Kerry Lewis, string bass; John Sheridan, piano; Dan Block, clarinet; Bob Havens, trombone; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. But one of Jon-Erik’s Michigander friends, the fine multi-instrumentalist — clarinet, soprano saxophone, banjo, tenor guitar and perhaps more — Tom Bogardus, was also at Chautauqua, and Jon-Erik not only invited him to join in for this set, but Howard Alden generously lent Tom his tenor banjo and Tom added so much to the sound. He told me recently, “This was a big night in my musical career, getting to play with these outstanding musicians in today’s jazz. I am so thankful that Jon-Erik asked me and Howard Alden let me use his banjo. Now I have video proof. It’s a 4 string tenor banjo with traditional tenor tuning. I think it’s a Bacon & Day, but am not sure.”
Before we move on to the music, a small — possibly irrelevant — personal note. I sat at my table with my video camera on a tripod, as if it were my date, and the world of people talking, getting up for drink refills, and having dinner happily swirled around me. So the first voice you will hear on the first video is the amiable waitperson asking me, as they are trained to do, if I was finished, “Can I take that away for you? Are you through?” which is really, “Let me get all the dishes off the tables as we are required to do,” and my response — I am proud to say, not in a snarl, “No.” My people have certain boundary issues: “Touch my food if I haven’t offered it to you, and I will be unhappy,” which is why I weigh more now than in 2013. But I digress.
‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS:
BASIN STREET BLUES, featuring Bob Havens:
DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS?:
and a quick set-closer, SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE:
Alas, Jazz at Chautauqua and its successors, the Allegheny Jazz Party and the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, are no more, but we have our happy memories and these videos. Incidentally, when I asked Jon-Erik for permission to post these videos, “Happy memories!” is what he said. So true. Thanks to the musicians, to Joe Boughton and all his family, to Nancy Hancock Griffith and Kathy Hancock. And to my polite waitperson: can’t forget her.
One of the pleasures of the 2019 San Diego Jazz Fest was getting to hear and see Hal Smith’s gliding On the Levee Jazz Band. Although they are devoted to the later music of Kid Ory and his California-based bands, they are a very subtle, swinging group whose music delights the dancers. The personnel of this OTL incarnation is Ben Polcer, trumpet, vocal; Riley Baker, trombone; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Josh Gouzy, string bass; Hal Smith, leader, drums. Ordinarily Alex Belhaj is the OTL guitarist, but Alex was home sick in New Orleans, so for this set his place was taken, splendidly, by John Gill, who also sang one for us.
A technical note (as one says): the band played in the large hall which had space for dancers in front, and the dancers happily took advantage of it. But that would have made conventional filming difficult, so I took myself, camera, and tripod onto the stage, found a chair, made myself to home, and video-ed from there. Yes, I lost a little volume on Joe Goldberg’s wonderful clarinet playing, but Joe is a forgiving sort, and I got to feature him in the last set of the festival with John Royen’s New Orleans Rhythm. Ordinarily I don’t set up near the drums, but Hal is one of the handful of drummers I know who plays for the band, who understands dynamics. So this was a delightful opportunity to capture exactly what he is doing, visually as well as audibly, and I hope you enjoy the results.
DOWN IN JUNGLE TOWN:
SUGAR BLUES, in honor of Joe Oliver’s glucose addictions:
Feeling low? Feeling sore? Consult DOCTOR JAZZ, who makes house calls:
ALL THE ‘GIRLS’ GO CRAZY, a hymn of appreciation:
A feature for Joe Goldberg, Ellington’s CREOLE LOVE CALL, which can be traced back to Joe Oliver:
A swinging treatment by Kris, Josh, and Hal of Jelly Roll Morton’s classic:
MUSKRAT RAMBLE, at a nice easy tempo which shows off all its beauties:
More Morton, WININ’ BOY BLUES, so soulfully sung by John Gill:
The On the Levee Jazz Band, you’ll hear, is playing a venerable repertoire, but their first priority is danceable swing. You can read more about their CD here and the two CDs that Kris, Hal, and Josh (or Cassidy Holden) have made of delicious New-Orleans-flavored ragtime here. “Check it OUT,” as they used to say in New York City forty-plus years ago.
I think WHO’S SORRY NOW? (note the absence of the question mark on the original sheet music above) is a classic Vengeance Song (think of GOODY GOODY and I WANNA BE AROUND as other examples): “You had your way / Now you must pay” is clear enough. Instrumentally, it simply swings along. It seems, to my untutored ears, to be a song nakedly based on the arpeggiations of the harmonies beneath, but I may be misinformed. It’s also one of the most durable songs — used in the films THREE LITTLE WORDS and the Marx Brothers’ A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA — before being made a tremendous hit some twenty-five years after its original issue by Connie Francis. Someone said that she was reluctant to record it, that her father urged her to do it, and it was her greatest hit.)
Jazz musicians loved it as well: Red Nichols, the Rhythmakers, Frank Newton, Bob Crosby, Lee Wiley, Sidney DeParis, Wild Bill Davison, Harry James, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood, Woody Herman, Buck Clayton, Sidney Bechet, Paul Barbarin, George Lewis, Big Bill Broonzy, Archie Semple, Charlie Barnet, Raymond Burke, Rosy McHargue, Oscar Aleman, the Six-and-Seventh-Eighths String Band, Kid Ory, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Miff Mole, Hank D’Amico, Teddi King, Kid Thomas, Bob Scobey, Franz Jackson, Chris Barber, Matty Matlock, Bob Havens, Ella Fitzgerald, Armand Hug, Cliff Jackson, Ken Colyer, Jimmy Witherspoon, Jonah Jones, Capt. John Handy, Jimmy Rushing, Tony Parenti, Claude Hopkins, Jimmy Shirley, Bud Freeman, Ab Most, Benny Waters, Peanuts Hucko, Billy Butterfield, Kenny Davern, Humphrey Lyttelton, Bill Dillard, New Orleans Rascals, Barbara Lea, Allan Vache, Paris Washboard, Bob Wilber, Lionel Ferbos, Rosemary Clooney, Rossano Sportiello, Paolo Alderighi, Vince Giordano, Michael Gamble . . . (I know. I looked in Tom Lord’s online discography and got carried away.)
Almost a hundred years after its publication, the song still has an enduring freshness, especially when it’s approached by jazz musicians who want to swing it. Here’s wonderful evidence from Cafe Bohemia (have you been?) at 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York, one flight down — on November 22, 2019: Ricky Alexander, tenor saxophone; Chris Gelb, drums; Daniel Duke, string bass; Adam Moezinia, guitar, and special guest Dan Block, tenor saxophone:
That was the penultimate song of the evening: if you haven’t heard / watched the closing STARDUST, you might want to set aside a brief time for an immersion in Beauty here. And I will be posting more from this session soon, as well as other delights from Cafe Bohemia. (Have you been?)
The evidence is seriously against the nostalgic proposition that jazz was ever “America’s popular music” — even at the height of what we like to call the Swing Era. But up until some time, and you can determine when that was, jazz was wonderful and respected dance music. We know that hot bands — among them Henderson, Oliver, Goldkette — played tangos and waltzes as part of an evening’s entertainment. But we also know that, in this century, it is possible to play lively hot music that gets dancers on the floor and keeps them there.
I don’t think many jazz fans associate Kid Ory with dance music, but their error and their loss — for he was much more versatile than his Twenties recordings (which are marvels) suggest. When he returned to playing in the mid-Forties, up until the end of his life, he created bands with musicians who hadn’t taken up permanent residence in 1928, and the Kid wanted to see people dance to his bands. Hal Smith has taken up the challenge of creating hot danceable jazz with his On the Levee Jazz Band — a beautiful ensemble featuring Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Kris Tokarski, piano; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Clint Baker (in this case), trombone; Ben Polcer, trumpet. I caught them in a wonderful dance set at the Evergreen Jazz Festival last July, and the first part is here— swinging renditions of LADY BE GOOD, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, I GOT RHYTHM, and HONEYSUCKLE ROSE . . . songs you would think had all the life drained out of them through decades of performance, but feel new again.
Here’s the remainder of that set, featuring songs we associate with the Swing Era. Ory fanciers will recognize many of them as coming from the two recordings Henry “Red” Allen made with the Kid, in addition to a European tour. Inspiring stuff for sure.
Yes, that’s the Erskine Hawkins hit TUXEDO JUNCTION:
Ory’s own SAVOY BLUES, briskly:
Chu Berry’s CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS:
Yes, the Glenn Miller (or Wingy Manone) IN THE MOOD to close:
This lovely rocking band has a CD, and will be appearing at the San Diego Jazz Fest coming this Thanksgiving — also as one of two bands appearing at the Saturday-night dance. I predict exuberant swaying to the sounds.
Many memoirs have, at their center, trauma: abuse, addiction, imprisonment, death, disease, or more. And many jazz books these days are indigestible: deadened by theoretical labyrinths or limited by the author’s narrow range or by inaccuracies. Thus it’s a tremendous pleasure to celebrate trumpeter Clive Wilson‘s memoir, gentle, humane, and full of good stories. It’s available from the usual online sources, and a good overview is here.
The facts first: Clive (you’ll understand why I do not call him by the more formal “Wilson”) heard traditional jazz in England in his youth — George Lewis, Kid Ory, Henry “Red” Allen and others — and was inspired to take up the trumpet. Although he studied physics in college, he was emotionally connected to jazz, and he gigged at home with New Orleans-style bands before making the leap to visit in New Orleans in 1964. There he met local musicians, and eventually settled in the city he now calls home. The cover shows a youthful Clive next to Punch Miller . . . which says a great deal.
At this point, some aural evidence would be fitting: Clive and the Shotgun Jazz Band in 2014, playing WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE, alongside Marla Dixon, Twerk Thomson, and Tommy Sancton:
What makes this book so appealing is almost subliminal. I love first-hand jazz experiences and anecdotes, and for me the three brief encounters Clive has with Henry “Red” Allen — the gradual incline from eager young fan to being seen as a musician — are worth the price of the book. And the book is generously fleshed out by detailed gracious portraits of many New Orleans luminaries: Dick Allen, Dave “Fat Man” Williams, Barbara Reid, Punch Miller, Raymond Burke, Slow Drag, George Guesnon, Kid Howard, Kid Sheik, Kid Thomas (keep the Kids together!), Lewis James, Peter Bocage, De De Pierce, Herb Hall, Teddy Buckner (gently but decisively winning a nonverbal argument in music with a vindictive Leonard Feather), Buster Holmes, Harold Dejan, Percy Humphrey, Emilie Barnes, Manuel Manetta, and more. There are brief glimpses of Louis Armstrong in New York and California and an actual Clayton “Sunshine” Duerr sighting — someone who was only a name in a discography. (Between 1933 and 1936, Duerr played guitar in three New York sessions, alongside Benny Carter, Floyd O’Brien, Teddy Wilson, Pops Foster, Frank Froeba, Joe Marsala, Jack Purvis, Bunny Berigan, and Eddie Dougherty: someone should have recorded his recollections!)
Thus the book is full of close-ups, and since Clive is and was a practicing musician rather than simply a fan, the stories have substance — not only watching Harold Dejan in a street parade, but playing in one. And Clive has a wonderful ear for the way people speak, which he shares with love rather than condescension. Two examples: when he arrives at the New Orleans bus station — fifty dollars in his pocket — he hears two men arguing. One says to the other: “Now tell me this. What I did you that made you do that to me?!” That’s memorable: I’ve been trying to work it into conversation since I read it. Then there’s Tom Albert’s memory of hearing the Bolden band c. 1904: “I stood there with my mouth open so long, it got full of dirt!”
My copy has fifty or more page-corners turned down to remind me of where the irreplaceable stories, sights, and memories are. And any reader will find his or her own memorable pages. (There’s a lovely short piece at the end about what Louis means to him and to us.) But this book is more than the record of someone who aimed for the right place and stayed there, more than a series of anecdotes (how much a plate of red beans and rice cost at Buster Holmes’ in the mid-Sixties and the secret of its deep flavor).
Clive does not fashion himself in a self-conscious way: the book is not a narcissist’s holiday or a diary. He isn’t Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, or Stephen Dedalus. But from the first pages of this narrative, it’s clear that he is someone on a quest — not simply to learn to play the trumpet as they do in New Orleans, but to answer the deep questions “Who am I? Where do I belong? What is my purpose on this earth?” To me, Clive’s search for those answers — his journeys back and forth from the UK to NOLA — is the most rewarding part of this book, because we see him as serious in his introspective scrutiny, whether he is asking his rather rigid father a dangerous question across the dinner table or continuing the same deep inquiries as an adult. In this way, the book has a resonance beyond his musical aspirations and realizations. It becomes more than a “jazz book”; it feels, without pretensions, much like the chronicle of the development of a personality, an awareness, a developed consciousness.
Clive is modest both in his description of his endeavors, and there is no self-congratulation, but we see the growth of someone we can value for a kind of gentle honesty as well as for his trumpet playing. And that makes TIME OF MY LIFE a book not only to enjoy, but to recommend to those who wouldn’t know Kid Howard from Kid Rock.
A soft-spoken, friendly, yet meaningful work of art, “ça c’est plein.”
Clint Baker has been leading various aggregations at Cafe Borrone since 1990, with no sign of stopping or slowing down, and for this we are grateful. During my Northern California sojourn, it was an oasis — not only for the music, but the good food, the regulars I grew fond of, and the very friendly staff. It was at least a two-hour drive each way down 101, but it was worth it. And it remains a treasure, even though I am nowhere near Menlo Park (with its wonderful thrift stores).
Thanks to the indefatigable RaeAnn Berry, we have video evidence of those Friday-night jamborees.
September 13, 2019, was even more special, because of visiting luminaries Ray Skjelbred, piano, and Dan Barrett, trombone — in addition to Clint, trumpet and vocal, Robert Young, soprano and alto saxophone and vocal, Bill Reinhart, guitar and banjo, Mikiya Matsuda, string bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums.
Cafe Borrone from the outside, in daylight.
In no way is JAZZ LIVES turning into a men’s support group, but these three performances are tied together by a male presence in their titles: wonderful hot music, in this case, out on the patio.
The first fellow is Sweet, perhaps someone’s Papa, but he’s gone away. I hope he’s only gone to the supermarket for lowfat milk and cookies:
The second gent is a senior citizen, or perhaps Old is a term of affection and no one offers to help him put his carry-on bag in the overhead compartment, but he is known for being Solid:
The third brother is always welcome: he’s got Rhythm and it defines him, to everyone’s delight:
The world can’t do without those Rhythm Men.
I could get nostalgic for Borrone’s fish sandwich and cakes, too. A warm scene.
Hal Smith’s “On the Levee Jazz Band” is delightfully subversive in its own way.
Its members are formally dressed in the way that jazz musicians used to be (Coleman Hawkins would never have gone to a gig or a recording session in a tight blue polo shirt with a band name on the left pectoral). They are devoted to the later music of Kid Ory (which, to some, might paint them as an old-fashioned New Orleans jazz repertory ensemble). Thus, they can seem scholarly rather than rambunctious (Hal, aside from being one of the half-dozen best jazz drummers, is a scholar of the music who can tell you what the band name means, to take just one example).
BUT. Let us not be fooled by surfaces.
OTL, as I occasionally call them, is one of the best small swing units now playing. They don’t copy old records; their music is uplifting dance music, and swing dancers have a wonderful time with it. The band rocks; they are informal but expert; their solos soar and their ensembles groove.
Their secret, which no one whispers aloud, is that they are closer to a Buck Clayton Jam Session than to a Bill Russell American Music shellac disc. And in this they are true to the source: Ory kept up with the times; he loved to swing, and he loved to create music for dancing. But you need not take my word for it.
I captured three of the band’s sets at the Evergreen Jazz Festival, and this one is particularly dear to my heart because it is music for swing dancers. In 1959, more or less, the Kid and trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen, old pals from New Orleans, made recordings and gave European concerts which drew on a swing repertoire somewhat looser than the stereotype. Not “Dixieland” or “trad” in their essence, these records captured a particular musical ambiance where disparate personalities were free to roam. The Verve records were particular pleasures of my adolescence, so to hear Hal and the OTL play those swinging songs was a joy, not only for me, but for the dancers.
I should point out here that the band at Evergeen was made up of Ben Polcer, trumpet, vocal; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; guest star Clint Baker, trombone, vocal; Kris Tokarski, piano; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Hal Smith, drums, leader. American Popular Songbook, too — two Gershwins, two Wallers! (But — just between us — these are very familiar tunes which have been overdone in less subtle hands. Hear how the OTL makes them soar, with what easy lilting motion.)
And here’s a nod to Bill Basie and the golden days, LADY BE GOOD:
The Fats classic, done at a nice tempo, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’:
Yes, I GOT RHYTHM, played au naturel, at a sweet Thirties bounce:
and HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, again, made new by a splendid tempo:
This music transcends categories. And as such, it is transcendent.
In my brief and sometimes intermittent California sojourn (2011-14) in Marin County, one of my pleasures was in going to Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park to hear and video Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All Stars. It was like a regular transfusion of joy and hope, even though the drive was over two hours from where I was living. I knew not only that I would hear vital music but that I would meet friends — musicians, fellow listeners and dancers, waitstaff, a combination that means the world to me. The Cafe was another home. I was welcome there, and I was able to meet people I admire: Clint Baker, Leon Oakley, Bill Reinhart, Bill Carter, Jim Klippert, Tom Wilson, J Hansen, Robert Young, Jason Vandeford, and some whose names I am forgetting, alas.
Today I present a few videos taken on June 7, 2019, by Rae Ann Berry, not because of nostalgia, but because I am captivated by the band’s easy swing. Borroneans will note that this is a slightly streamlined band, but that’s fine: what you hear is honest unaffected music, no frills, no gimmicks, no group vocals, no tight-and-bright polo shirts. The generous-spirited creators are Riley Baker, trombone; his father Clint, trombone, trumpet, vocal; Bill Reinhart, banjo; Jeff Hamilton, piano; Tom Wilson, string bass; Crystal Holloway, washboard. The whole band is in some mystically satisfying way engaged in heartfelt relaxed conversation, a great thing to behold. I’ve left several tracks for you to find on Rae Ann’s YouTube channel, the California traditional jazz rabbit-hole to end all such diversions.
About the band here. Yes, I could quip, “Two Bakers! No Waiting!” but I need to be more serious than that. Clint has long been one of my heroes, not only for what he plays, but for his religious devotion to the Music. He understands its Holiness, as I do, but he can then pick up any of several instruments and make that Holiness manifest for all of us. He is always striving towards the great goals, with Hot Lips Page as one of our shared patron saints. I met Riley, his son, at Borrone, when Riley was starting to be the superb musician he is now — first on drums, then tuba. And Riley has blossomed into a wondrous young man and player: I am especially taken with his nicely greasy trombone playing, which you will hear here. And the emotional telepathy between father and son is both gratifying on a musical level and touching on a human(e) one. A third horn in the front line would be an intrusion. Such lovely on-the-spot counterpoint; such delightful lead-and-second voice playing, which isn’t an easy thing to do. You might think that a trombone-clarinet front line would be automatically New Orleans old-school, but Clint and Riley understand the sweet play of swinging voices: people whose love comes right out to the back of the room without the need to get louder.
Riley will be playing the role of Edward Ory in Hal Smith’s On the Levee Jazz Band at San Diego this Thanksgiving, and I look forward to that: I’ve already videoed him with Dave Stuckey’s Hot House Gang: check those appearances out for yourself.
Jeff Hamilton is such a joy — not only one of the handful of drummers who lifts any band, but also an enlivening pianist who swings without getting in the way, constructs generous accompaniments and memorable melodies. He has other musical talents that aren’t on display here, but he never lets me down. Bill Reinhart knows what he’s doing, and that is no idle phrase. He understands what a rhythm section should do and, more crucially, what it shouldn’t. And his solos on banjo or guitar make lovely sense. Tom Wilson’s rich tone, great choice of notes, and innate swing are always cheering. And Crystal Holloway (new to me) tames that treacherous laundry implement and adds a great deal of sweet subtle rhythm. Taking nothing away from Clint and Riley, one could listen to any one of these performances a second or third time exclusively for the four rhythm players and go away happier and edified.
I NEVER KNEW, with nods to Benny Carter and Jimmie Noone:
AS LONG AS I LIVE, not too fast:
BLUES FOR DR. JOHN, who recently moved to another neighborhood. And — just between us — themeless medium-tempo blues are such a pleasure and so rarely essayed:
I always had trouble with math in school, but FOUR OR FIVE TIMES is just what I like:
TRUE, very wistful and sweet:
THE SWEETHEART OF SIGMA CHI, a song I last heard performed by (no fooling) Ben Webster with strings [a 1961 record called THE WARM MOODS]. Sounded good, too:
Asking the musical question WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?
IT HAD TO BE YOU. Yes, it did:
Bless these folks, this place, and bless Rae Ann for being there with her camera and her friend Roz (glimpsed in little bits to the right).
I’ve had many beautiful experiences in my life, but being able to hear Dan Morgenstern talk about Louis Armstrong — the man, seen at close range — is one of those I treasure now and will always treasure. We spent an early afternoon a few days ago, sharing sweet thoughts of our greatest hero. I invite you to join us for tender memories and some surprises. I have intentionally presented the video segments here without annotation so that viewers can be delighted and surprised as I was and am.
These segments are emotionally important to me, so I saw no reason to wait until July 4, July 6, or even August 1 to share them with you.
And just a small matter of chronology: Dan will be ninety on October 24, 2019. Let us start planning the parades, shall we?
a relevant musical interlude:
some life-changing music:
Dave and Iola Brubeck’s SUMMER SONG:
Part Four (and before one of the JAZZ LIVES Corrections Officers rushes to the rescue, I am sure that the funeral Dan refers to as the ideal was Ellington’s):
The blessed EV’NTIDE:
A very brief postscript, which I whimsically began by telling Dan I was going to throw him a curveball, which he nimbly hit out of the park:
Dan and I owe much to the great friend of jazz and chronicler, Harriet Choice, who encouraged us to do this interview.
And a piece of mail, anything but ordinary:
Early in the conversation, Dan said that Louis “made everyone feel special.” He does the same thing, and it comes right through the videos. That we can share the same planet with Mister Morgenstern is a great gift.
Kris Tokarskihas been one of my favorite solo and ensemble pianists for some years now. It can’t be “many” years, because Kris is perhaps half my age, but my admiration is not limited by the length of our acquaintance. He listens, he creates melodies, he swings, he sounds like himself, and he has a deep appreciation for the past without being chained by narrow historical definitions.
He’s recorded in a variety of settings, but here I draw your attention to two CDs of ragtime pieces done with delicacy and individuality: the first, issued in 2016 on Solo Art, paired him with drummer-scholar Hal Smith and string bassist Cassidy Holden, pleased me and others immensely: read more about it here. KINKLETS from that disc:
The second disc by Kris and Hal, now joined by bassist Joshua Gouzy, issued on Big Al Records, is called RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO, and it’s a real pleasure. Hear a sample for yourself here (scroll down the page through the evidence of how well Kris plays with others and on his own).
The premise is a collection of rags that Jelly Roll Morton planned to record — or would have known and played. And it’s not a fanciful vision, as Hal Smith’s solid annotations show — in 1939, Morton discussed with Roy Carew his plans to play Joplin and others in his own style, because, as he told Carew, “he didn’t know of anyone more qualified to do it than himself,” and he envisioned recording thirty or forty rags. (Oh, had he lived for another decade!)
He didn’t live to accomplish this, but we have Tokarski, Gouzy, and Smith to make the fantasy real.
I am especially fond of projects that take a gently imaginative look at the past. Let those who feel drawn to such labors reproduce recordings: the results can be dazzling. It takes decades of skill to play BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and sound even remotely like the Hot Five. But even more entrancing to me is the notion of “What might have happened . . . .?” going back to my early immersion in Golden Era science fiction. An example that stays in my mind is a series of Stomp Off recordings devoted to the Johnny Dodds repertoire, with the brilliant Matthias Seuffert taking on the mantle. But the most memorable track on those discs was Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, a pop tune from 1929 that Dodds might well have heard or even played — rendered convincingly and joyously in his idiom. (It really does something to me.)
That same playful vision applies to this disc. It merges, ever so gently, Jelly Roll Morton and an unhackneyed ragtime repertoire, mixing piano solos and piano trio. That in itself is a delightful combination, and I replayed this disc several times in a row when I first acquired a copy.
Kris plays beautifully, with a precise yet flexible approach to the instrument and the materials. He doesn’t undercut, satirize, or “modernize”; his approach is simultaneously loving and easy. It’s evident that he has heard and absorbed the lessons of James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson — their particular balance of propulsion and relaxation — as well as being able to read the notes on the page. He doesn’t pretend to be Morton in the way that lesser musicians have done (with Bix, Louis, Monk, and others) — cramming in every possible Mortonism over and over. What he does is imagine a Mortonian approach, but he allows himself freedom to move idiomatically, with grace and beauty, within it. And he doesn’t, in the name of “authenticity,” make rags sound stiff because they were written before Joe Oliver and Little Louis took Chicago. He’s steady, but he’s steadily gliding. His approach to the rags is neither stuffy reverence nor near-hysterical display.
He’s in good company with Josh and Hal. Many string bassists working in this idiom confuse percussiveness with strength, and they hit the fretboard violently: making the bass a victim of misplaced enthusiasm. Not Joshua, who has power and melodic wisdom nicely combined: you can listen to his lines in the trio with the delight you’d take in a great horn soloist. Every note sings, and he’s clearly there with the pulse.
As for the drummer? To slightly alter a famous Teagarden line, “If Hal don’t get it, well, forget it right now,” which is to say that Hal’s playing on this disc is a beautifully subtle, completely “living” model of how to play ensemble drums: gracious yet encouraging, supportive. He doesn’t just play the beat: he creates a responsive tapestry of luxuriant sounds.
The CD is beautifully recorded by Tim Stambaugh of Word of Mouth Studios, and the repertoire is a treat — rags I’d never heard (THE WATERMELON TRUST by Harry C. Thompson, and ROLLER SKATERS RAG by Samuel Gompers) as well as compositions by Joplin, Lamb, Scott, Turpin, Matthews, and May Aufderheide. Nothing overfamiliar but all melodic and mobile.
Here’s another sample. Kris, Joshua, and Hal are the rhythm section of Hal’s Kid Ory “On the Levee” band, and here they play May Aufderheide’s DUSTY RAG at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2018:
Hear what I mean? They play with conviction but their seriousness is light-hearted. Volume Two is a disc that won’t grow tired or stale. Thank you, Kris, Josh, and Hal! And Jelly, of course.
Some children get upset if the green beans and mashed potato on their plate are touching. Some listeners separate “their” music into schools and styles, existing in the same space but kept at a safe distance. I just read a review of a festival where the writer delineated “trad” and “not trad at all,” which to me is a shame. Musicians know that they can play any repertoire in inventive ways, move in and out of rigidly defined “traditions” and create lasting satisfying art.
Here’s a shining example, the ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND(that’s the cover of their debut CD above). I’ve posted music from another performance here. To me, their joyous essence is a mixing of “genres”: soloists who know Blakeney, Darnell Howard, Don Ewell, but who are also aware of Buck Clayton, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Steve Jordan, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. The secret is a flowing 4/4 — music for dancing as well as listening.
This most excellent small band is devoted to the music of Kid Ory in his later decades, led by drummer / scholar Hal Smith, and including Charlie Halloran, trombone, Ben Polcer, trumpet / vocal; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano, Alex Belhaj, guitar, Josh Gouzy, string bass. The set presented here was recorded on November 25, 2018, at the San Diego Jazz Fest.
. . . .and study war no more:
A problem with transporting a precious substance:
Hey, Dad — you coming back?
Some early Ellington with a debt to Joe Oliver:
“Honey, are you free on Monday?”:
Gus Mueller, if I recall, said decades after the fact that the title had no hidden meaning — they just liked the sound:
This one always comes in handy:
A song for parents of newborns or anyone embracing transformations:
For further announcements and more good news, visit here. I’m pleased to say I will see them three times in 2019: the Redwood Coast Music Festival, the Evergreen Jazz Festival, and the San Diego Jazz Fest. You come, too.
Official Jazz history, which tends to compress and simplify, has often portrayed Edward “Kid” Ory as both a limited trombonist and a man lodged in the earliest decades of the music. Both of these suppositions are wrong; as far as the first, ask any trombonist how easy it is to play what Ory played, and for the second, Ory’s later groups played for dancers in the Forties and Fifties and thus he was very much aware of the subtleties of the Swing Era-and-beyond four-four rhythmic pulse, as his later recordings show. Drummer / scholar Hal Smith’s ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND takes its name from a club Ory ran in California, and its musical inspiration from those later performances.
Unlike some quite respected traditional jazz bands, the OTL floats rather than pounds, and its horn soloists clearly enjoy the freedom of playing with and among such gliding pulsations. It’s their secret, one that perceptive listeners enjoy, even if they are not aware of the swinging feel of the group. At times, they remind me happily of the ad hoc groups of Swing Era veterans recruited to perform “Dixieland” tunes c. 1959-60: think of Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, and Buster Bailey over a grooving rhythm section — playing the opening ensembles correctly and respectfully but going for themselves in solos.
In addition to Hal, the band as it performed at the 39th San Diego jazz Fest featured Charlie Halloran, trombone, Ben Polcer, trumpet, Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano, Alex Belhaj, guitar, Josh Gouzy, string bass. These selections come from a set the band did on November 24, 2018.
AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING:
TISHOMINGO BLUES, with a vocal by Ben:
Joe Oliver’s SNAG IT:
SAN, named for a King:
DUSTY RAG, a feature for Kris, Josh, and Hal — reimagining classic ragtime in New Orleans — that means Morton — style:
SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:
HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?:
HIGH SOCIETY / WITHOUT YOU FOR AN INSPIRATION:
What a pleasure this band is. And hereis their website, as well as news of their debut CD here . And hereis my review. I approve! And the band also has the Gretchen Haugen Seal of Approval, which is not an accolade easily won.
Catch them at a gig; buy the CD. Have a good time.
A hot band is good to find, and the Rock Island Roustabouts answer to that description. I’ll leave it to Hal Smith to explain how this band, which debuted at a Davenport, Iowa tribute to Bix Beiderbecke, came to be named after a Chicago train line . . . because he knows about these things. Me, I come for the music.
And music there was. I’ve done the unusual thing of sending out a full plateful — nine videos at once, recorded in three sets at the Evergreen Jazz Festival (July 27, 28, 29) so that you can experience this band’s power and versatility. The Roustabouts are co-led by Jeff Barnhart, piano, and Hal Smith, drums, with — in this incarnation — Dave Kosmyna, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Jonathan Doyle, reeds; Bob Leary, banjo / guitar; Ryan Gould, string bass, and on the last three performances here, a guest appearance by Lauryn Gould, soprano sax.
The music goes deep and although there are some favorites, the Roustabouts like songs that don’t ordinarily get played. So there’s Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory, but also Frank Melrose, Jimmy Blythe, Johnny St. Cyr, and Tiny Parham.
Settle down in your seats. Make sure you know where the fire extinguisher is, and check that it’s charged.
Kid Ory’s SAVOY BLUES:
THE GIRLS GO CRAZY when this band plays, but the enthusiasm isn’t gender-specific:
Frank Melrose’s MARKET STREET STOMP, scored for Messrs. Smith and Barnhart:
One composition titled MESSIN’ AROUND, this one by pianist Jimmy Blythe:
And Johnny St. Cyr’s song of the same name — to mess around was serious yet delightful business, as you can tell:
Louis’ MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, at the nice 1929 tempo:
An incomplete but wonderful version of Tiny Parham’s WASHBOARD WIGGLES (blame the sun-blinded and exhausted man behind the camera) which adds Lauryn Gould, who plays that irascible saxophone beautifully:
A song that I’d never heard performed live, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH IT HURTS, which coalesces into a lovely rocking performance. I did some small research, expecting that its source was an obscure Wingy Manone record, but no — the later New Orleans bands, who picked up good tunes no matter their source, found this one, from 1948, by Floyd Tillman. I am not digressing when I offer the Patsy Cline version first (Ray Charles recorded it also):
Now, hear how the Roustabouts make it their own:
and William H. Tyers’ proven mood-enhancer, PANAMA:
I posted the first part of a frankly incendiary set from the now-lamented Cleveland Classic Jazz Party here, and it seems just the right time to offer the three performances from the second half.
Rossano and his majestice friends — Duke Heitger, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Dan Block, clarinet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Frank Tate, string bass; Hal Smith, drums — really know how to do it, to play the venerable repertoire with loving care so that it doesn’t seem stale or by-the-numbers, with heartfelt solos, intelligent ensemble work, and lovely tempos.
Here’s Kid Ory’s SAVOY BLUES:
Eddie Condon always mixed in beautiful ballads with the hot numbers, so Rossano features Dan Barrett in GHOST OF A CHANCE:
Since time was running out, the final number was compact — AFTER YOU’VE GONE. But Rossano brilliantly said, “Four choruses, ensemble,” and offered us this memorable evocation of easy teamwork in the land of Hot:
Unforgettable. And another reason to be grateful — to the musicians, to the traditions they embody, and to Nancy Hancock Griffith and Kathy Hancock. We who were there know why.
Kid Ory hasn’t really opened his California jazz club, nor has he come back in the flesh. But his music has, joyously and intelligently.
This cheerful development in the twenty-first century is the handiwork of drummer, scholar, and bandleader Hal Smith, who’s been playing gigs with his ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND, which focuses on lively renditions of the music Ory played in the middle and later stages of his career.
And they’ve just released their debut CD.
I wrote happily about this band (with performance videos) in December 2017, and you can see and hear more here.
Although Ory was born in the nineteenth century, he did not cling to a historical vision of the music. His later recordings swung, and showed he and his musicians embraced performance styles more modern than 1926. The ON THE LEVEE band is well aware of that gentle but persistent 4 / 4 rocking motion of jazz in the Thirties . . . and even beyond.
The virtues of the band require a brief digression. I was once at a festival, sitting close enough to eavesdrop as the leader of a small ad hoc group called for a spectacular closing number. It would be long, loud, with extended high-volume solos, and would conclude with a long drum and long horn solos. The one horn player looked pained, and said to the leader, “Oh, I don’t want to do that,” to which the leader replied, “Do you want them standing and cheering at the end of the set? Follow me!” The horn player grudgingly complied; the chandeliers swung; the audience shrieked. I thought I’d contracted tinnitus, but it went away. So, in this century, bands have often tried to grab an audience’s attention by manufactured excitement. Songs are played faster and louder and with less subtlety, because the audience associates excitement with Hot.
Ory and his colleagues, including Joe Oliver, understood that jazz was essentially a dance music, to keep audiences in motion — or at least not blow them out of their seats. Hal Smith and this new band understand that principle, so although the music is never Easy Listening (“The 101 Strings Play the Cassino Simpson Songbook”) it is easy on the ears and it promotes healing constant motion of the nicest kind.
The CD features Hal, drums and leader; Clint Baker, trombone; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Joshua Gouzy, string bass, performing ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP / WANG WANG BLUES / BEALE STREET BLUES / WOLVERINE BLUES / MAPLE LEAF RAG / MILENBERG JOYS / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING / SAVOY BLUES / WASHINGTON AND LEE SWING / AUNT HAGAR’S BLUES / DOWN HOME RAG / YELLOW DOG BLUES / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / PANAMA.
I know that song list looks resolutely “traditional,” and listeners might expect a repertory concert rather than swinging dance music. But here’s evidence of just how light-on-its-feet this band is.
ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP:
MAPLE LEAF RAG (what a nice tempo!):
DOWN HOME RAG:
BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES:
WASHINGTON AND LEE SWING:
In addition to the lyrical soloing by Polcer and Goldberg, there’s also the supple but rough-edged (I think of corduroy) sound and attack of Clint Baker, who evokes Ory at every turn. And for me what makes this band glide rather than lumber is the deliciously mobile rhythm section — no banjo, no tuba, no two-beat — of Hal, striding Kris Tokarski, powerful yet floating Belhaj and Gouzy. I don’t want to upset those who live for “authenticity,” but everyone in this band has heard 1938 Count Basie as well as Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra. And the result would have made the Kid smile.
You can, as they say, “follow them on Facebook” here — and visit the band’s very entertaining website here. The CD is available from Hal, at gigs, at the Louisiana Music Factory, and I think soon it will be on sale in other forms and from other places.
Some New Orleanians will glower at me for writing these words, but all the music marketed as “New Orleans jazz” is not equally satisfying or expert. The proof is on the city’s streets or on YouTube. All that’s apparently steaming is not Hot, to coin a new cliché.
But this post is to welcome a new band — the Riverside Jazz Collective — and their debut CD, which is a delight. It’s the brainchild of pianist / arranger Kris Tokarski (whom I admire greatly) and his congenial friends: Benny Amon, drums; Alex Belhaj, guitar, vocal; Tyler Thomson or Andy Reid, string bass; Ben Polcer, trumpet, vocal, or Alex Owen, cornet and vocal; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Chloe Feoranzo, clarinet, vocal.
If you don’t know those names, you need a refresher course in Old Time Modern.
And the repertoire is lively and — even when venerable — fresh and joyous:
STOMP OFF, LET’S GO / IT BELONGS TO YOU/ JUST GONE / HERE COMES THE HOT TAMALE MAN / WABASH BLUES / READY FOR THE RIVER / RIVERSIDE BLUES / DON’T LEAVE ME IN THE ICE AND SNOW / SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME / ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU / SEE SEE RIDER / MELANCHOLY BLUES / SOCIETY BLUES / WHENEVER YOU’RE LONESOME.
That’s a wholly “traditional” repertoire, with nods to Louis Armstrong, Erskine Tate, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson, King Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Jimmie Noone, Tony Jackson, and more — but happily it isn’t DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? Nothing’s routine or stale here.
Here is the band’s Facebook page— where you can learn about their next gigs.
I’d asked Kris if he needed a liner-note writer, by which I meant myself, and I was delighted when he said yes. Here’s what I wrote, in a very short time, because the music hit me hard in the nicest ways:
In the old days, when one could see the liner notes on the back of the “record,” or the “lp,” those paragraphs served a commercial purpose: to make the undecided purchaser head to the cash register at a trot, clutching the record. Today, the purchaser might read the notes after buying the CD (or perhaps not at all): so I write to share my enthusiasm. And there’s a lot to be enthusiastic about the Riverside Jazz Collective.
Musicians I know speak of “playing tunes,” as in “Oh, we played some tunes,” which suggests that on those occasions there is little written music but much collective joy that comes out of well-earned knowledge of the music. The RJC knows the original records and they may have “roadmaps” as in “Second chorus is stop-time for cornet and piano only,” but they aren’t trying to create imitations of the classics in the best sound. And they have the comfortable ease and friendliness – to us, to each other – of A Working Band, something delicious and rare.
The RJC is interested in “old” songs that are melodically and emotionally durable – from joyous stomps to love songs to one Chicago lament that says, “You know what? I’m going to kill myself,” even if the lyrics are too witty for that to be a real threat. Their repertoire is often “New Orleans jazz,” however you might define it, as it surfaced in other cities, notably Chicago. And one can point to a good number of Ancestors here, from Tony Jackson to Louis Armstrong to Oliver, Morton, Keppard, Bunk, and Ory.
This band also enacts a neat balance between collective improvisation and solos, but they bring a little twenty-first century energy, elegance, and intelligence to their hot reverence. Enthusiasm is the driving force here, not cautious antiquarianism. This band has also heard jazz created after 1927, and that awareness gives these performances a happy elasticity, an optimistic bounce. Hear HERE COMES THE TAMALE MAN for a brilliant example of sonic joy-spreading. I could explain more, but it would cost extra.
It feels good, and it feels real. You know there are mountains of what I’d call “tofu music” being marketed as genuine, but your ears, your feet, and your heart tell you when the jazz has been manufactured in a lab by chemists. I greet the Riverside Jazz Collective at the start of what I hope is their brilliant career. My words are written in a time of ice and snow, but the music warms and embraces. And now IT BELONGS TO YOU.
Visit here — and these compact versions of spiritual uplift can belong to you, either as download or disc; you can hear samples of the music as well.
Welcome to the Riverside Jazz Collective. They spread joy: I hope they find prosperity and appreciative audiences.
Edward Ory — that’s the Kid to those of us who admire and keep his name and music alive — is a fabled figure. His 1925-28 Chicago recordings with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Luis Russell, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin, George Mitchell, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey, even Tiny Parham are bedrock masterpieces of the pre-World War Two jazz canon, and many bands celebrate them.
But the California climate — whether you consider the ground-breaking 1922 recordings or the evidence of Ory’s second career — must have agreed with him, because the music he made from 1943 on, while less celebrated, is as gratifying, to some even more so. In the middle Forties, Ory’s band was not a formulaic “trad” group; like Bunk Johnson, he played popular songs. Rather than have a two-beat rhythm section with banjo, tuba, and a pianist playing their impressions of an older style, the Ory band carried a rhythm guitarist, a string bassist who mized 2/4 and 4/4, and often had the elegantly down-home pianist Don Ewell keeping things light, bright, and swinging. At its most gliding, the Ory band suggested a fraternal meeting of New Orleanians still in beautiful form and a swing rhythm section with hints of Basie’s . . . quite a lovely blend.
Ory’s music of the Forties and Fifties has been well-documented on disc, because the band was caught live on radio broadcasts, and, later, for Norman Granz, but I think many lovers of “traditional jazz” associated him with a rough-hewn trombone style over their idea of “traditional” rhythms. That is, until the superb drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith assembled a group of congenial players for his new “On the Levee” Jazz Band, its title referring to a San Francisco club owned by Ory, where he and his band played from 1957-61.
I asked Hal about his first awareness of this period of Ory’s music, and he told me, Back when I bought my first Lu Watters record, the owner of the record store handed me the Watters LP, looked at the label and said “Oh — ‘Good Time Jazz.’ I have another Good Time Jazz record here that someone ordered, but never came in to pick up.” The LP she offered me was “Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, 1954.” I gladly accepted it, and from the first hearing the combination of Ory’s tailgate trombone and the swinging rhythm section (Minor Hall, Ed Garland and Don Ewell in particular) became some of my favorite sounds in Jazz.
Hal later told me, Based on our performances in New Orleans and Pensacola, I think the On The Levee group most closely resembles the GOOD TIME JAZZ ensembles, circa 1953 – 1955. A lot of that is due to Kris’ admiration for Ewell, and Josh Gouzy’s Ed Garland-inspired bass. (Ory’s sound changed considerably after Ewell and Garland left, and even more in the late ’50s and early ’60s).
The band has already played gigs in New Orleans and in Pensacola, Florida, with Clint Baker nobly filling the Ory role; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. And early in 2018 they will again play in New Orleans . . . and will appear at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November. I am sure that there will be many other opportunities to hail this group in between.
For now, here is the band’s website, and here are a few videos. Many more are on YouTube, and the site has a whole cloud of audio-only performances, more than enough to roll up the rugs (if anyone does that) and invite the neighbors over for swinging cheer.
DOWN HOME RAG:
Many bands are playing this repertoire, but few are doing it in this fervent;y swinging way. And since the club no longer exists on the Embarcadero — 987 would be part of the Ferry Plaza Maketplace — we should embrace this new band, so nicely keeping a jazz legacy vibrantly alive.
I believe that most people reading these words understand the sustained power of Louis Armstrong through the decades. (If you think he went into “a deep decline” or “became commercial,” please go away and come back next week.)
But I think that many are in danger of taking Louis for granted, in the same way we might take air or sunlight as expected. Yet there is always something new and uplifting to experience. My text today is the glory of Louis in his and the last century’s late forties, as displayed on two very different but equally desirable CDs. “Mid-century modern,” we could call it, with no side glances at architecture aside from Louis’ own creations.
Two new CDs provide heartening reminders. Both are equally delightful: suitable as gifts to others or to oneself, with no greater occasion needed than “Wow, I got through that week!”
The first, on the Dot Time label, presents music few have ever heard, taken from Louis’ own archives, the “Standard School Broadcast” of January 30, 1950, recorded in San Francisco, featuring Louis, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, and a clarinetist, string bassist, and drummer whose names are not known or are — in the case of the clarinetist — a guess. (If anyone known more about “Lyle Johnson,” please write in.) Clancy Hayes is the master of ceremonies — he doesn’t sing — and the premise is that he is helping Jack Cahill, “Matt the Mapmaker,” construct a musical map of America: in this case, New Orleans jazz.
There is a good deal of music issued that presents Louis alongside Jack and Earl. But this CD is better than what we already know. For one thing, there is a very small studio audience, and the recorded sound is superb: when Hayes picks up his acoustic guitar to add rhythm, it’s nicely audible. And everyone sounds relaxed, playful, inventive, even with familiar repertoire. I know that some listeners might pass this CD by because, “I already have two versions of Louis playing LAZY RIVER and I don’t need another.” That would be an error, I suggest. Not a note on this disc sounds routine or stale.
About that repertoire: DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? [plus two rehearsal takes] / MUSKRAT RAMBLE / BASIN STREET BLUES / STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / BOOGIE WOOGIE ON THE ST. LOUIS BLUES / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / PANAMA / LAZY RIVER / BACK O’TOWN BLUES [issued performance plus Louis playing along with the 1950 tape two years later]. Those wise enough to purchase this CD and play it — attentively — all the way through will have a wondrous aural surprise on the final track, where Louis duets with himself. When the performance is over, he’s still practicing, and there is a solo exposition of the first sixteen bars of the current pop tune, I COULDN’T SLEEP A WINK LAST NIGHT, that is positively awe-inspiring. Louis, completely alone and at his peak, one of many.
DotTime Records is releasing the Louis Armstrong Legacy Series — four CDs, of which this is the first, and the second, “Night Clubs,” has just come out. For more information, visit their website. These issues have funny, friendly, edifying notes by Ricky Riccardi, the Louis-man of great renown.
The other Louis issue is possibly more familiar to collectors but is musically thrilling. Here’s Bert Stern’s famous photograph to get you in the mood, or perhaps the groove.
That photograph comes from the film NEW ORLEANS, which starred Louis and Billie Holiday, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and others too rarely seen on film.
I remember sitting in front of the television in the den of my parents’ house in early adolescence, having waited all week for this movie to be shown, perhaps on MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE on a weekday afternoon. The consensus was that the film was disappointing. As a showcase for my heroes, even more so. Watching it, waiting for my idols to break through the terrible script, was depressing. I had grown up on false representations of the jazz-past (“The Roaring Twenties,” starring Dorothy Provine, for example) but NEW ORLEANS was spectacularly bad, especially when Louis and Billie would appear, read a few lines, do their feature numbers, and disappear.
Some years later, an album — music recorded for the film but for the most part not used — was issued on the Giants of Jazz label. I see in the discography that the Giants of Jazz issue was “reissued” on several bootleg CDs, and it now appears, with even more music, on the Upbeat label — which issue I recommend to you. The music was recorded in Hollywood in late 1946, and the participants, in addition to Louis, Billie, Bigard, and Kid Ory, are Charlie Beal, Red Callender, Zutty Singleton, Minor Hall, Meade Lux Lewis, Arthur Schutt, Mutt Carey, Lucky Thompson, Louis’ 1946 big band (that recorded for Victor) and more.
As poor as the film was, the music on this CD is just as wonderful. Anything even tangentially associated with “my old home town” made Louis happy, and that happiness and relaxation comes through the music. I expect that because he and Billie were pre-recording music for the film, they had not been compelled to face what their roles in the film would be . . . Billie playing a maid, a grievous insult.
The CD enables us to spend seventy minutes embraced by the music itself, with Louis in the company of old friends and mentors Ory and Mutt Carey, playing “good old good ones” — the cadenza to WEST END BLUES, FLEE AS A BIRD, SAINTS, TIGER RAG, BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES, DIPPERMOUTH BLUES, KING PORTER STOMP, MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, heard in multiple versions. For one example, there is DIPPERMOUTH, played as a medium-slow-drag with Mutt Carey in the lead, as if taking Joe Oliver’s place, then a version at the expected romping tempo with the young “modernist” Lucky Thompson audible in the ensemble before Barney Bigard takes the Johnny Dodds solo. Fascinating, and I looked in astonishment to see that the second version was only one minute and thirty-four seconds, because it felt so complete.
SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE, BALLIN’ THE JACK, KING PORTER STOMP, and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP also feature this splendidly hybrid band of Louis, Mutt, Lucky, Ory, Bigard, Beal, Callender, and Zutty: realizations of what was possible in 1946. One could do a fascinating study of ensemble playing as created by Ory and Lucky, side by side. They solo in sequence on KING PORTER STOMP as well. Incidentally, if you are familiar with the jazz “journalism” of this period, as practiced by Feather, Ulanov, Blesh, and others, you might believe that the “beboppers” loathed and feared “the old men,” and the detestation was mutual. Nothing of the sort. What is audible is pure pleasure: hear Louis on the two versions of MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, leisurely and intense. Attentive listeners will also delight in the very fine string bass work of Callender — someone who deserves more celebration than he has received.
I have said little of Billie Holiday’s recorded performances on this CD: DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS (twice), FAREWELL TO STORYVILLE, THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’ — these tracks have often been issued in various forms, and she sounds wonderful.
I thought of printing the complete discography of what music had been issued, but it was a confusing labyrinth, so I will simply list the titles on the Upbeat release and hope that purchasers will be guided by their ears: FLEE AS A BIRD – SAINTS / WEST END BLUES / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? / BRAHMS’ LULLABY / TIGER RAG / BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES (2) / BASIN STREET BLUES / RAYMOND STREET BLUES / MILENBERG JOYS / WHERE THE BLUES WERE BORN IN NEW ORLEANS / FAREWELL TO STORYVILLE / BEALE STREET STOMP / DIPPERMOUTH BLUES (2) / SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE / BALLIN’ THE JACK / KING PORTER STOMP / MAHOGANY HALL STOMP (2) / THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’ / ENDIE / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS? / HONKY TONK TRAIN / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS? / WHERE THE BLUES WERE BORN IN NEW ORLEANS / MAHOGANY HALL STOMP / ENDIE / THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’.
The Upbeat issue is generous: the last five titles are from issued Victor 78s of the same songs, giving us an opportunity to compare. Hereis the Upbeat site where this disc can be ordered.
Incidentally, to see the wonderful photographs Phil Stern took of Louis and other luminaries, visit here.
And for those who have never seen the film NEW ORLEANS or don’t believe me, here is the whole thing uploaded to YouTube. But don’t get your hopes up: once the first three minutes of WEST END BLUES is over, we have left the reality of the “Orpheum Cabaret” for the melodrama of a routine script:
At times the subtitles are the most diverting thing. But we have the music, in full flower, on the Upbeat CD.