Tag Archives: Larry Scala

JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE

Mal Sharpe and the “Big Money in Jazz” band

Mal Sharpe moved to another neighborhood on March 10, 2020.  He refuses to go away, so it is both an obligation and a privilege to honor him here.  His official obituary depicts him as a comedian:  

Mal Sharpe, ‘The Man on the Street’ radio gag man, dies at 83

That’s one way to see Mal, but between 2011 and 2014,  I knew him well as the leader of a band of idiosyncratic individualists, playing traditional jazz and standards, and as a friend.  I brought my camera and videoed him and his band, “Big Money in Jazz,” at the No Name in Sausalito, at the Savoy Tivoli and Fior d’Italia in San Francisco, at an outdoor concert in North Beach, and once in Armando’s in Martinez.  You can find my videos on YouTube, of course. 

Even though I celebrate Mal as musician and friend, this demands to be included, with all respect to Larry Scala, who told Mal the joke and was never credited:

You know.”

I checked my email files and found that I first met him through my friend Jeff Hamilton in 2011: I’d written to Mal for permission to video his gig at Armando’s, and he was very gracious, telling me that he had seen my blog many times.  Later, I came to his regular gigs, chatted with him, and took pleasure in the band.  He was physically large — tall and broad-shouldered, even though he slumped down in his chair while playing — well dressed in an intentionally casual way.

In those years I was commuting-for-romance from New York, and although I loved being in California, I missed the banquet of music at home.  I was sustained by Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All-Stars and the occasional swing dance gig, but initially found driving to and parking in San Francisco terrifying.  Going to Sausalito was easier — I clearly recall parking my car on Bridgeway and walking past a vertical bank of nasturtiums, which I ate liberally, much to the horror of my companion: I compromised by eating only those above dog-height.  I digress, of course.

The No Name Bar in Sausalito was quite awful, and since I had not been a bar-goer in my youth, I recoiled from its most remarkable features: the broken toilet in the men’s room, the bill of fare that was microwaved popcorn in paper bags, local beer, ordinary spirits, an odd clientele, Nancy, behind the bar, gracious in a rough-hewn way, the band assembled on a narrow stand parallel to the bar.  I remember coming outside after the gig and feeling that the world was strange because it was so clean and bright.  

I never knew in advance who was going to be on the stand with Mal — sometimes superb players, sometimes those who had once been superb, and some others — but the music was always interesting, if only because it was precarious: would X know the chords to the bridge? would Y accelerate his usual glacial pace to get to the end of the chorus when everyone else did?  And there was always Mal, who had his routines, but delivered them with that combination of “I know this by heart” and “I just made this up” that I found charming.  Hearing and watching him do something as mundane as gently hector the crowd to put tips in the jar was worth the drive. 

Mal also had regular improvisations.  One of them was that he would go to a local thrift store (was it in Berkeley or in Oakland?) and buy nearly-useless trinkets — little plastic toys or medical items of no value but much strangeness — and set up mock-contests whose winners would receive some bizarre prize.  I don’t think I am making this up, but once it was the empty case in which one could carry an enema bag.  The takers were few. 

Here is Mal’s New-England based improvisation with which he closed the afternoon’s music:

He played trombone and sang.  As a singer he could be marvelously affecting, and one of the delights of the band was that it was not a stereotypical Bourbon Street band.  If they played the SAINTS, I don’t recall.  And — in the fashion of the great postwar ensembles of Boston (where Mal had grown up (he’d been to George Wein’s Mahogany Hall) and New York, where I had, the band explored standards.  You were much more likely to hear PENNIES FROM HEAVEN than BOURBON STREET PARADE, although they did perform ICE CREAM and Mal liked women singers who favored Billie and Ella, so the band had a less-raucous air to it.  Here’s an example I found moving at the time and still do:

That’s classic Mal — singing with sly tenderness, but also with new lyrics he probably made up on the drive from Berkeley to the gig.

Mal and I bonded because he saw that I was going to use the blog and camera to celebrate him — not embarrass him — and he once said to me, after a post, “Michael, you made us sound so good!” which pleased me.  He knew he was an amateur trombonist, and he said as much, but he stayed within his limitations and thus did no harm. 

We also drifted into a sideways friendship over delicatessen sandwiches at Saul’s, and talked of our mutual hero Vic Dickenson.  I gave him copies of recordings I’d made of Vic, and sometimes our phone conversation would start with his commenting about what Vic had done on the second chorus of SONNY BOY on the CDs I’d made for him.  When I visited him at home once or twice, he invited me into his den, which had photographs of his and my heroes on the wall, a barber’s chair that he sat in to practice, and other oddments. 

I emailed him often, mostly propelled by my finding a new picture or video that I knew he would like, and his brief responses had a telling comical snap.  Face to face, Mal and I spoke of recordings we were listening to; I brought him jazz gossip from New York and he talked about chance meetings with great people and odd ones, taking perhaps more delight in the latter than the other. 

As noted in the newspaper obituary, he was a great on-the-spot improviser of nearly-surreal sketch comedies, and once that I recall I felt (years after the fact) that I had become a character in a Sharpe sketch.  We both knew someone on the New York scene — a fan, amateur musician, and schnorrer (Mal loved Yiddish) who was always on the lookout for some apparently-altruistic scheme that would benefit no one but himself.  He came into the conversation and Mal and I took turns enthusiastically narrating his small-time thieveries.  The next time we met I brought him up with vengeful glee and told of his latest feats while Mal sat silent, listening.  When I ran out of energy, Mal looked at me after a long pause and said that he had decided to speak of this person no more, that it was not what he should be doing, and so on.  At the time, I felt as if Mal had let me walk blindfolded into a hole he had just dug, and said, “Hey, you could have stopped me at the start of blackening this person’s character,” and I don’t recall what he said.  Years later I understood that he had let me go on for the pleasure of the punchline, and I appreciated it as much as I could.

I am not sure if I discerned it or Mal himself told me, but he was a classic paradox — a shy man who sought the limelight as long as he could control it.  I think he needed to be onstage, to make people laugh and applaud, but (with the tuna or turkey sandwich he had Nancy get for him) he needed even more to drive home in silence, then be at home with no one bothering him.  Later on he told me that it wasn’t just shyness, it was anxiety, and I felt very sorrowful, but it also helped me understand him better: as if someone afraid of drowning forced himself to take swimming lessons, even though they scared him terribly and he never got any better.  

When I came back to New York in January 2015, I was happy to be home but I missed Mal greatly, and I would pick up the phone and call him.  I think the last time we spoke was in 2017, and I sensed that he had retreated from the world more than a little.  He stopped responding to emails as well.  But that is too sad a note to end my recollections on.  

How could you not love a man whose email signature (edited by me) was . . . .

MAL SHARPE
Host of KCSM’s Back on Basin Street 91.1
Man On The Street Productions & Big Money in Jazz
Home phone xxx xxx xxxx cell xxx xxx xxxx
Teenage Home phone in Newton, Ma. Bi-4-9509 (If my mother answers, hang up)

DON’T LOOK AT THE TROMBONES, IT ONLY ENCOURAGES THEM—RICHARD STRAUSS

and then there’s this song and performance.  Larry told me today, as we spoke of Mal, that it was Mal’s opening song for gigs:

I think Mal would be embarrassed by having more than fifteen hundred words written about him, but when he could be by himself in his barber chair, he would be secretly pleased.  Perhaps he would have emailed me to say he never ate turkey.

My condolences to Sandra and Jennifer Sharpe.  And my gratitude to Mal for letting me be one of the band in my own way

.

May your happiness increase!

GOIN’ TO TISHOMINGO: A FEW WORDS FOR CONNIE JONES

This morning, I learned through Ed Wise and Tim Laughlin that Connie Jones died in his sleep at home next to his beloved wife Elaine.  Although I hold to cherished ideas about death and transitions — that those who leave their earthly form behind never leave us utterly, that they have merely moved to another neighborhood — I find it hard to write that Connie has left us. He was a great poet without a manuscript, a great singer of immediate heartfelt songs even when he wasn’t singing.

I had the immense good fortune to see and video-record Connie in performance from 2011 to 2015: mostly at the San Diego Jazz Fest, but once at Sweet and Hot and once during the Steamboat Stomp, and I’ve posted as many of those performances as I could.

We didn’t converse much: I suspect he had some native reticence about people he didn’t know, and perhaps he had a perfectly natural desire to catch his breath between sets, ideally with a dish of ice cream.

His playing moved me tremendously.  I tried not to gush, although my restraint failed me once, memorably.  After a particularly affecting set, I came up to him and said, more or less, “Do you think of yourself as a religious man?” and he gave me the polite stare one gives people who have revealed themselves as completely unpredictable, and said, after a pause, “Yes, I do,” and I proceeded to say, quietly, “Well, I think your music is holy.”  Another long pause, and he thanked me.  And I thanked him.  Which is what I am doing in this post.

With all respects to the people who recorded him and played alongside him in various recording studios, I think the real Connie Jones only came through complete when he was caught live — one reason I am proud that I had the opportunity to catch him, as it were, on the wing.  He was the bravest of improvisers, reminding me at turns of Doc Cheatham, of Bob Barnard, of Bobby Hackett — someone so sure of his melodies that he would close his eyes and walk steadily towards a possible precipice of music . . . but creating the solid ground of loving music as he went.

I expect to have more reason to celebrate and mourn Connie in the future, but I think this is one of the most quietly affecting vocal and instrumental performances I will ever hear or witness. See if you don’t agree: Connie, cornet and vocal; Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums, at the San Diego Jazz Fest on Nov. 29, 2014:

He was so unaffected, so generous in what he gave us.  No one can take his place.

May your happiness increase!

PISMO JOYS (Part Five): “LARRY, DAWN, and FRIENDS”: LARRY SCALA, DAWN LAMBETH, DANNY TOBIAS, CARL SONNY LEYLAND, BILL BOSCH // CHLOE FEORANZO, DANNY COOTS (October 26 and 27, 2018, Jazz Jubilee by the Sea)

One of the great highlights of the 2018 Pismo Jazz Jubilee by the Sea was the small flexible swing groups led by guitarist Larry Scala, featuring the wonderful singing of Dawn Lambeth. Without being consciously imitative, they harked back to the great Thirties and Forties recordings and performances of Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, Count Basie, Mildred Bailey, Benny Goodman, and more.  But they weren’t ancient artifacts behind glass: they swung and were full of joyous expertise.  Here are three more performances, the first two featuring Larry, Dawn, bassist Bill Bosch, trumpeter Danny Tobias, pianist Carl Sonny Leyland; the third, from the next day, featuring clarinetist Chloe Feoranzo instead of Danny, and adding drummer Danny Coots.

Dee-lightful.

Irving Berlin’s ALL BY MYSELF:

Walter Donaldson’s LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME:

And from the next day, Dawn, Larry, and Bill, with Danny Coots, drums; Chloe Feoranzo, clarinet, for Cole Porter’s YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

Thanks to all these creative people for bringing their own brand of sweet swing to Pismo.  I hope they’ll be brightening the corners in 2019.

May your happiness increase!

PISMO JOYS (Part One): “LARRY, DAWN, and FRIENDS”: LARRY SCALA, DAWN LAMBETH, MARC CAPARONE, BILL BOSCH, DANNY COOTS (October 26, 2018, Jazz Jubilee by the Sea)

Only a few days ago, I had my first immersion in the pleasures of Pismo — not the sunsets or the salt-water taffy, but the musical joys of the Jazz Jubilee by the Sea, which combines congenial people and seriously uplifting music.

What finally got me to Pismo (aside from the immense kindness of Linda and John Shorb and other helpful folks) was the chance to hear and see some friends and heroes in new combinations: Larry Scala, guitar; Dawn Lambeth, vocals; Marc Caparone and Danny Tobias, cornet and trumpet; Dave Caparone, trombone; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano and vocal; Danny Coots and Jim Lawlor, drums; Steve Pikal and Bill Bosch, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar and vocal; the Au Brothers; and — new to me in person — the Shake ‘Em Up Band and Jeff Beaumont’s Creole Syncopators.  She didn’t play an instrument, but I was also able to be dazzled by my Facebook friend Brettie Page.

But first on my list was “Larry, Dawn, and Friends,” a group that delighted me throughout the weekend.  Readers will know how much I admire Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, and Danny Coots, but it was a pleasure to see Larry — with his nice mixture of the blues, Basie, and Charlie Christian — lead a small group.  His long-time friend Bill Bosch also impressed me because Bill is a purist who plays without amplification and has a lovely sound.

Here are three highlights from the first set I caught.  First, the rarely-played swing tune COQUETTE, yes, by Carmen Lombardo:

Dawn’s lovely version of the Gershwins’ THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME:

And a lightly swinging THAT OLD FEELING that has a truly feeling coda:

More to come!  (I’ve already been invited back to Pismo for next year, and it took a long pause of several miliseconds for me to say “Yes!”)

May your happiness increase!

A NOTE FOR THE BURGLARS, 2018

Dear Gentlemen or Ladies Who Might Enter My Apartment, Uninvited, During My Absence,

Some thoughts to make your lives easier.

  1.  Please watch your step.  There are cardboard boxes of Louis buttons all through the living room.
  2.  If you accidentally knock over a pile of CDs or books, I would take it as a great kindness if you would — to the best of your ability, and time permitting — put it back as it was.  Nothing upsets a homeowner more than an ungracious burglar.
  3.  On that same note, please put the seat down when you are through.
  4.  Help yourself to whatever you like in the refrigerator, but (again, time permitting) please wash whatever plates and utensils you might use.
  5.  There is very little of monetary value in the apartment, so if you look in my sock drawer for stacks of currency or gold coins, I fear you will be disappointed.  There are quarters on the kitchen counter, for laundry and the parking meters.  Feel free.
  6.  I would very much appreciate if you would leave me the autographed jazz photos on the wall.  You don’t want the avenging ghost of Sidney Catlett to plague you, do you?
  7.  There is a Banner 78 of BELIEVE IT, BELOVED, by Henry Red Allen on one of the turntables.  Please, only take it if you have a turntable yourself and a proper stylus.  Otherwise it is not worth the effort of properly wrapping it in bubble paper for your getaway.

Why am I writing this?

I will indeed be away from my apartment from October 25 to 29, more or less, at the Jazz Jubilee by the Sea in Pismo, California.  Why?  To enjoy the festival, to meet new friends, and to hear and see my beloved friends make music.  (I’ll have a video camera or two as well, should you worry about such things.)

I know that I will be showing up to enjoy the work of Larry Scala, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Dave Caparone, Carl Sonny Leyland, Steve Pikal, Danny Coots, the Au Brothers, Three Blue Guitars, the Creole Syncopators, Chloe Feoranzo, Bob Schulz, Katie Cavera, the Shake ‘Em Up Jazz Band, and more.  I might pay a call on a few others, although if people reading this post expect me to make a full longitudinal video survey of the festival, neither my legs nor my aesthetic inclinations allow for such breadth.  (At any point in the festival, five groups are playing simultaneously in five locations.  Choices must be made.)

You’ll have to get out of your chair and be there in person your ownself — a radical thought for those of us accustomed to having the world come to us through cyberspace and for free.

For more information, click Pismo Jazz Jubilee by the Sea.

And a postscript for the burglars, or at least the one portrayed above.  I admire the striped shirt, but once one attains a certain girth, perhaps a nice paisley?  Horizontal stripes, alas, are not slimming at all, even if they are traditional.

Here’s the Red Allen 78 (or at least the music) I’d like to keep:

Here’s the flip side (now a completely archaic phrase):

May your happiness increase!

EXTRA! EXTRA! HOT TIMES IN PISMO (Jazz Jubilee by the Sea, October 25-18, 2018)

As I’ve written here, I am making my maiden voyage to the Pismo, California, JAZZ JUBILEE BY THE SEA next month — about five weeks from now.  While my suburban neighbors will be having illicit affairs with their leaf blowers and looking skeptically at their down parkas, I’ll be in Southern California, enjoying the sounds of (among others) Larry Scala, Bob Schulz, Carl Sonny Leyland, Chloe Feoranzo, Clint Baker, Creole Syncopators, Danny Coots, Danny Tobias, Dawn Lambeth, High Sierra, IVORY&GOLD, Jeff Barnhart, Marc Caparone,  Midiri Brothers, Mike Baird, Adrian Cunningham, the Au Brothers, The Shake ‘Em Up Jazz Band . . .  The list is subjective, and I am sure that someone’s favorite band in the cosmos has been omitted, but a complete listing follows below.

I invite you to join me, of course.  Details here (Facebook) and the much more comprehensive Pismo Jazz website.

But for people like me, and I would think many of my readers, going to a jazz festival is not just a matter of, “Oh, I’ll drop by this place.  Music is coming out of the windows and front door,” but a matter of strategy: “If we go to see the Land Rovers at 3, we’ll be in a perfect place to see the Hot Tortoises at 4:15, and then the Adrian Rollini Memorial Orchestra at 7, but we’ll have to miss the Broken Sandals on Friday.  No worry, though, they are playing an 8 AM Saturday set,” and so on.

“Hey, Mister! Hey, Lady! Get the Full Band Schedule here! The Pismo News!”

Such cogitation — worthy of a great eighteenth-century European general planning his campaign — is only possible when one has a Band Schedule, which I can offer you now, courtesy of the very kind people who run things.  Hence:

There’s a version of this schedule on the Jubilee website here, which may be easier to read and annotate.  I am sure that the schedule will also be given out to attendees when they buy tickets / pick up badges onsite.

Veterans of the Jubilee have pointed out to me that the performance venues are somewhat spread-out.  I am moderately ambulatory (that might be a euphemism) but my days of sprinting from one place to another are over.  So I report with pleasure the news from Jubilee HQ:

If you get stranded at a venue, we do have buses.  We are trying something new. Every venue will have a bus.  That bus will be available at the end of the set.  They will take you where you want to go, venues first.  If that bus is full, another bus will be along and dropping people off.

Very reassuring!

And in the spirit of “breaking news,” here’s a bouncy love song from 1934 by Chick Bullock and his Levee Loungers.  Alas, Sterling Bose (or Stirling?), Perry Botkin, Joe Venuti, and Jack Teagarden won’t be at the Jubilee — they have other commitments — but I know you and I will be in for a weekend of singular sights and music:

May your happiness increase!

FOUR-FOUR RHYTHM: KRIS TOKARSKI, JONATHAN DOYLE, LARRY SCALA, NOBU OZAKI, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 24, 2017)

Jazz at Lincoln Center (and JazzTimes) just sent an announcement about the 2019 Jazz Congress, January 7-8, 2019 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, New York, New York.  One panel is:

 Jazz, Swing, Race and Culture
Considering swing as a rhythm or swing as a feeling or a verb, what are the social, cultural, and racial factors that affect individuals’ perception, acceptance or rejection of the concept? Player[s] and thinkers ponder what swing means in 2019.

I doubt that it will happen, but in my ideal world, the player[s] and thinkers at JALC will watch these videos before pondering.  The music was created in 2017, not 2019, and there are other ways to swing, but what Kris and his Gang did was genuine and might eliminate some theorizing.

These four performances come from a magical band that made a splash at the 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest: Kris Tokarski, piano; Jonathan Doyle, clarinet / tenor saxophone; Larry Scala, guitar; Nobu Ozaki, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  I could spend paragraphs pointing out resemblances and echoes of the Ancestors (you’re free to chase such things at your leisure) but I’d rather you admire these living heroes at play, and such expert play.

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME:

REPEATER PENCIL (and, yes, such a thing did exist: see here):

DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM:

JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS:

Festival organizers, club bookers, concert promoters with taste: now’s the time!

Incidentally, this is the charming 1929 record from which I take my title:

May your happiness increase!