Tag Archives: Langston Hughes

IRRESISTIBLE READING: “TRAVELS WITH LOUIS” and “RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN”

I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN.  Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.

I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me.  I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could.  So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)

Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.

But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked.  I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them?  If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)

Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves.  Louis first.

TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter.  Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician.  I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger.  But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through.  And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us.  In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!”  The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises.  (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)

Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere.  So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library.  Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once.  Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience.  Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life.  The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.

RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians.  Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia.  At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)

Both books work.  I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book.  Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.”  “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.”  “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.”  “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.”  “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.

But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.

And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.

These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences!  Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.

And who knows?  Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer.  All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie.  It should swing.

Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt.  I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.

You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.

May your happiness increase!

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DA CAPO AL FINE: JAMES DAPOGNY AND FRIENDS (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 17, 2011)

That dark-haired fellow at the keyboard in the videos that follow is James E. Dapogny, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus and professor emeritus of music (theory) at the University of Michigan School of Music, where he taught from 1966 to 2006.  Professor Dapogny has done extensive scholarly work on Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson.  Professor Dapogny’s study of Johnson’s work, in particular, came to fruition in the large-scale reconstruction of DE ORGANIZER and THE DREAMY KID, two Johnson operas (the first with a libretto by Langston Hughes) once thought to be lost.

But the dark-haired fellow is also Jim Dapogny, a stomping pianist whose solo and ensemble playing are instantly identifiable — he is his own man whether tenderly exploring a ballad or stomping the blues.  And he is a peerless ensemble pianist — like Basie or Ellington, James P. or Fats, he knows just what to play to push the group without overpowering it.  (I hear the barrelhouse pianists of the Twenties and Thirties — think of the blues pianists and Frank Melrose, then add on the traceries of Hines and Stacy, the force of Sullivan, a deep-rooted stride with surprising harmonies.)

But Jim is also a delightful arranger and occasional composer.  The arrangements you’ll hear on the performances below are so splendid: you can hear them subliminally (horns humming behind a solo, playing a melodic line sweetly) or you can admire them out in the open.  But a Dapogny performance is never just a string of solos: he thinks orchestrally as a bandleader as well as a pianist.  You’ll also hear a sly exchange between Jim and Marty Grosz about the arrangements — not to be taken entirely seriously:  “I know every thing I know from Marty’s records,” says Jim.  “That explains it,” retorts Marty.

Both the man and the music are gratifying, full of surprises.  I never took a class with the Professor, but I’ve learned a great deal in his informal onstage seminars at Jazz at Chautauqua (to say nothing of his recordings — another post in itself).

This set was called TUNES FOR JOE in honor of the late Jazz at Chautauqua commander-in-chief Joe Boughton, who favored lovely and sometimes obscure repertoire in favor of a themeless blues, SATIN DOLL, or SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, which would make him horrified — he actually left the room when these things happened.

In this set, the players are Jim Dapogny, piano and arranger; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Scott Robinson, Dan Block, reeds; Marty Grosz, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass; Pete Siers, drums.

The set begins with BREEZIN’ ALONG WITH THE BREEZE, familiar but not often played.  Hear Jim’s comping behind Scott’s solo, Pete’s splashing cymbal behind Jon-Erik.  And the whole performance has a lovely shape and balance between the written passages — played with great swing — and the solos that explode out of them:

COUNTRY BOY (not COUNTRY BOY BLUES by Willard Robison), a paean to rural life, beautifully pastoral from its first notes.  What a pretty song!  (Composer credits, please, Professor D?)  And I hereby christen the trumpet player formerly known as “Jon-Erik” as “Bunny Kellso.”  Dapogny’s coda is worth waiting for, too — this band knows how to take its time:

THAT THING — courtesy of Roy Eldridge, a close relative of the Henderson band’s D NATURAL BLUES, brings what Jim calls “malice,” or what Dicky Wells called “fuzz” to the Chautauqua bandstand — so well.  The piano interlude is both climbing and musing, and the brass solos suggest Mister Cootie and Mister Vic — great accomplishments.  Hear the rock this band gets in the last ensemble chorus!:

Finally, a nod to Old Chicago — with a dance that’s easy to do / let me introduce it to you — SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE.  Memories of Tesch and Condon, of Frank Chace and Don Ewell, too.  If this is “Dixieland,” give me more, especially the overall texture of the band and the reed “conversation,” Kellso’s lead, Barrett’s commentaries.  Pete Siers plays that hi-hat behind a leaping Kellso in the best Catlett / Tough manner — blessings on his head:

Wonderful music — solos and ensembles that look back lovingly to the past but imbue it with energy and individualism.  Jazz, not nostalgia — very much alive, even if the repertoire is apparently “historical.”

Why the Italian title?  “At the end, go back to the head,” more or less — instructions to the player or singer to return to the opening when the piece is “over” once.  For me, those instructions have a special meaning.  These are the final video performances I will be posting from the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua: I know I’ll be returning to these and others for edification, spiritual uplift, and great fun.  What a swell-egant party it was!  And special thanks to pianist Jim and Professor James for yet another rocking seminar in lovely improvisation.

It might sound too close to THE GODFATHER, but I think of Jim as CAPO, too — in the old Italian sense of “head,” or “chief.”  He is someone special.

JAZZ FROM THE VAULT (February 2010)

Although Wolfgang’s Vault (www.wolfgangsvault.com), that surprising online cornucopia, offers music from bands and performers who make me feel ancient — one of them is named QUIETING SYRUP — it also has rarities and delights for the jazz audience: three live sessions from the 1960 Newport Festival, a gathering marred by rain and bad behavior (not by the musicians, mind you). 

The first concert — the one that drew me immediately — features Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars (Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert, Danny Barcelona, and Velma Middleton), celebrating in advance what Louis believed was his sixtieth birthday.  The concert runs slightly over an hour, and is a fascinating glimpse into what the All-Stars actually played: http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/the-louis-armstrong-all-stars/concerts/newport-jazz-festival-july-01-1960.html

Then, there’s a concert by someone who hung out at Louis’s house in Corona — a trumpet player named Gillespie (with Junior Mance, Leo Wright, Art Davis, Al Drears) on the same evening, July 1, 1960: http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/dizzy-gillespie-quintet/concerts/newport-jazz-festival-july-01-1960.html

Finally, there’s the afternoon concert of July 3 — after which the Festival came to a halt — which was a blues history lesson and jamboree featuring Langston Hughes, dancers Al Mimms and Leon James, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, folklorist Harry Oster, Sammy Price, and Jimmy Rushing, running more than two hours: http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/goodbye-newport-blues/concerts/newport-jazz-festival-july-03-1960-afternoon-show.html

That was the last jazz heard at Newport for 1960 and 1961.  Here’s the history: “In other words, there will be no concert tonight or…again,” [Willis Conover] told the stunned audience. This decision was made following a clash with students and police the preceeding night (Saturday) that by all reports escalated into a full-scale riot. And while this disturbance took place not at Freebody Park where the festival was held but on the main drag in the city of Newport, council members nonetheless met on Sunday morning and voted 4-3 in favor of revoking the entertainment license of the Newport Jazz Festival. As Conover explained to the Sunday afternoon crowd: “The board of directors deeply regret that the true jazz lovers were denied the opportunity to hear their favorite jazz musicians, due entirely to non-ticket holding outside the park.” He added, “I think it’s a shame that the Newport Jazz Festival has to be killed because a bunch of pseudo beatniks and rock ‘n’ roll escapees who had no interest in jazz, had no intention of coming to the concerts and were not inside the park at all, decided to use the Newport Jazz Festival weekend and the City of Newport as an excuse for giving vent to their healthy animal instincts in such a fashion as to qualify them for admission to a zoo rather than a school.” Conover adds, “It does seem to me that in attempting to cure the disease that infected the Newport Jazz Festival activities, they decided to shoot the patient without clearing up the germs.” 

That being said. . . .

A listener willing to register with the Vault (not at all a frightening act) will be able to listen to all of this music for free, and download it in a variety of forms for less than the cost of a compact disc.  A good deal!

WRITE NOW!

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The American novelist William Maxwell (1908-2000), who wrote searchingly and lovingly about his Illinois childhood, told an interviewer late in life that if people didn’t write down what they remembered, so many beautiful things would vanish forever. 

Maxwell was right, and I am reminded of this now more than ever before.

One of the Beloved’s friends has endured the deaths of her parents, both in their early nineties, in the past year.  I met her parents twice.  They had been political activists in the Thirties; the husband, a writer, had worked with Langston Hughes.  When they heard that I was immersed in the jazz of their era, they — in turn — became happily animated.  They had been to Cafe Society; they had heard Billie Holiday and Fats Waller frequently; they had particularly loved a pianist who played on Fifty-Second Street but couldn’t immediately call his name to mind.  (He was Clarence Profit.)  They had been at the 1941 Count Basie recording session when Paul Robeson tried to sing Richard Wright’s blues in praise of Joe Louis, KING JOE.

Each of these comments seemed to me like a doorway into the miraculous past: people stting in the same room had been there.  They had seen my heroes; they might have magical narratives to share. 

Of course, they no longer remembered any details.  Robeson had had a hard time; the clubs on Fifty-Second Street had been a  great pleasure; they beamed as we exchanged the magic names.  I had come too late.  And they took their stories with them.

I urge my readers to ask questions of the Elders of the Tribe.  The Elders don’t have to be musicians; they can be someone’s aunt, who owned a candy store where Ellington would buy cigarettes.  Or we ourselves can be the Elders, contributing our own memories before they — and we — vanish.  I never saw Clarence Profit, but I did see Bobby Hackett indicating to the band the tempo he wanted for the next number by clicking his tuning slide back and forth in time.  Having written that down, I have hopes that it has a less evanescent existence. 

What do you remember?

PROFESSOR DAPOGNY TRIUMPHS AGAIN

For me, one of the many rare pleasures of Jazz at Chautauqua has been the opportunity to savor the playing of Professor James Dapogny*, known as Jim to his intimates. 

He is an unforced orchestral pianist — which means he hasn’t learned the Official Wallerisms from a book.  Rather, his romping style summons up Joe Sullivan and Frank Melrose, Earl Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, and James P. Johnson.  And a close listener will notice that his chords are voiced imaginatively, his often advanced harmonies show that his listening doesn’t stop at 1935, and his left hand is a romping marvel.  Often he is part of wondrous rhythm section with Marty Grosz, Arnie Kinsella, and Vince Giordano — able to move mountains in the most engaging way — but Dapogny can rock the place all on his own.  And he has.  But I take particular pleasure in watching and listening to him as a band pianist — giving soloists and the ensemble just the right push with ringing chords and tremolos, rocking bass lines, without ever demanding that we pay attention to him instead of them.  He’s done this on records for some time now as leader of his own Chicago Jazz Band.  In addition, if that was not enough, he’s also responsible for the standard published edition of Jelly Roll Morton’s piano music and scholarly work that resulted in performances of the one-act opera created by Johnson and Langston Hughes (now there’s a collaboration!) called DE ORGANIZER. 

Dapogny is also a wonderful arranger; his versions of classic and obscure jazz songs have their own ebullient rock, no matter what the material or the tempo.  Two years ago at Jazz at Chautauqua, he and Marty Grosz co-led a set, alternating arrangements and songs.  The piece de resistance, as far as I was concerned, was their joint version of an otherwise unknown Fats Waller song, CAUGHT — Marty’s arrangement envisioned the composition as a bump-and-grind growl; Jim’s lifted the tempo into a jaunty rock.  The performance stretched out to ten minutes, and it was a marvel. 

At this year’s Chatauqua, Dapogny and Grosz again shared the stage: Marty began with a heartfelt tribute to singer Red McKenzie, featuring his HOT WINDS — a noble, nimble, and perhaps nubile quartet of Scott Robinson, Dan Block, Vince Giordano, and himself.  Then Dapogny took over, adding Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Barrett, Andy Stein, and Arnie Kinsella, creating electrifying and life-affirming music.  It was, he said with a grin, fine material to begin with — every song written by a pianist!  All praise should go to the masterful professionals you will see below: each one of them reading charts he’d never seen before. 

They began with James P. Johnson’s version — in his own way — of Schubert’s An die Musik — a paean to the joyous powers that notes and tones have, AIN’T CHA GOT MUSIC?.  The churchy verse gives way to serious swinging (there’s a wonderful Thirties record of this by Henry “Red” Allen) with Marty preaching the sermon. 

Then, a mournful but rocking composition by Alex Hill, one of jazz’s nearly-forgotten heroes, dead before he had reached his middle thirties, DELTA BOUND.  I had never heard the verse — and could listen to that trio of Kellso (muted), Barrett (muted), and Block (commenting sweetly) all day.  In his brilliant solo, Dan Barrett summons up a whole Harlem trombone tradition, with a series of comments that reminded me so much of the Master, Vic Dickenson.  Andy Stein’s melody statement, front and back (on baritone) reminded me that Ellington had recorded this — with space for Harry Carney, of course.

I didn’t know that the next selection had been written by pianist J. Russell Robinson, who had links to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band; I associated it with Edythe Wright and Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake Seven: SWING, MR. CHARLIE!  For this performance, Scott Robinson steps in — and instead of a vocal chorus, the band returns to the verse, in true Thirties style.  Although Scott stands in front of Marty during the latter’s chorus, you can see the action, reflected in the shiny side of the grand piano — an accidental bonus.  Then, there are glorious horn solos and a celestially rocking ensemble that suggests a Sunday afternoon jam session at Jimmy Ryan’s, circa 1942.  Charles Peterson would have loved this band!  I find myself watching these videos over and over, each time finding something new to appreciate.

*”Professor,” in Dapogny’s case, refers to his genuinely illustrious academic career in the Department of Music at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  But, by a twist of linguistic fate, that was the title given to the New Orleans pianists who played rags and blues in the bordellos: Dapogny’s music would have impressed these low-down pioneers as well: he’s surely got music, as the lyrics say.

“CALL 1-800-STRIDE” RIGHT AWAY!

Here are photographs you won’t see on the Post Office walls, one by William Gottlieb (left), another by Gjon Mili (right):

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And, finally, two recordings: one from the early Fifties:

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and one from the Dear Departed Past:

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What’s all this?  Scott E. Brown wrote a wonderful book about our man James P. Johnson, A Case of Mistaken Identity: The Life and Music of James P. Johnson (Scarecrow Press, 1986).  Johnson, as many of you will know, taught Fats Waller, composed “Charleston,” “Runnin’ Wild,” “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight,” “Mule Walk,” and many others.  To my ears, he is the most satisfying of the great Stride players.  But he also wrote longer works, including an opera, DE ORGANIZER, with libretto by Langston Hughes — “Third Stream” works bridging jazz and classical music.  His more ambitious compositions received insufficient notice, and he may well have died a disappointed man.

Scott is up here in New York for a few days to do research at the New York Public Library, and he is looking for people who saw James P. play.  That’s not an impossibility: James P. was at the keyboard in 1950 and perhaps beyond.  If you have any information for Scott (a pile of acetates in the kitchen cabinet, perhaps) email him at jpjstride@aol.com, or call him at 443-528-1444 (cell).  I’ll see Scott on Thursday — we’re going to see Ehud Asherie and Harry Allen at Smalls (!) so I can also pass on messages.  Thanks to Tony Mottola, editor of Jersey Jazz, the monthly magazine of the New Jersey Jazz Society, for letting me in on this.