Tag Archives: Lena Horne

PERFECTION OF THE ART: “CLASSIC BRUNSWICK AND COLUMBIA TEDDY WILSON SESSIONS 1934-1942” (Mosaic Records)

Teddy Wilson was soft-spoken and reticent, so this is a rare interlude, a 1950 radio interview (from WNYC) by Ralph Berton, a good prelude to the recent banquet of Teddy’s recordings on Mosaic Records:

I’ve been waiting for this set every since I heard rumors of it, and it has not disappointed me in the slightest.

But I must start with a small odd anecdote.  Like many, I have a mildly unhealthy attachment to Facebook, and when this set entered the emotionally-charged world of FB dialogue, one jazz fan said that he was waiting to read the reviews before purchasing it.  It was as if he had said, “I hear about this writer Toni Morrison.  I want to read some reviews before buying one of her books.”  Substitute “Brahms” or “Modigliani” or “Connee Boswell” and you get the idea.  Cue rueful laughter.

Readers of this blog know how fervently I support Mosaic Records (and I don’t get copies for free) so I offer correctives to misperceptions of Wilson and, by  extension, the recordings in this box set.

Wilson gets less praise than he deserves, because of unavoidable events in his life and the lives of his contemporaries.  One is the looming dramatic presence of Billie Holiday, without debate one of the finest artists in the music but also someone (like Charlie Parker) wrapped in a mythology that blots out those associated with her.  The recordings in this set do not have Miss Holiday, so some listeners might perceive them as second-string.  True, so far there has been no coffee-table book chronicling a week in the life of, say, Boots Castle.  But the singers here are never inept, and some of them — Helen Ward and Nan Wynn, with brief appearances by Ella and Lena (!) — are memorable.  Removing Lady Day from the equation makes it possible to actually savor the instrumental performances, and they are consistently remarkable.

His greatest public exposure was as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and the Trio and Quartet records are splendid.  But being typecast as the hero’s friend in the movies is not the same as being the hero.  I am sure that Wilson could claim a better salary from 1935 on, but it took some time for him to be understood for his own virtues.  And there was always Fats Waller and Art Tatum — talk about looming presences.

Wilson’s consistency has, perversely, made him a quiet figure in jazz hagiography.  From his introduction to Louis’ 1933 WORLD ON A STRING to his last recordings in 1985, he was recorded so often that there is a feeling of abundance and perhaps over-abundance.  There is no single monumental recording — no WEST END BLUES, no BODY AND SOUL, no SHOE SHINE BOY — to bow down to. (Something of the same fate — almost a punishment for excellence — has befallen Benny Carter, for one.)  Some have reduced Wilson to caricature: a medium-to-uptempo sliding right-hand piano arpeggio; true, that some of his late performances were beautifully-done but cast in bronze, with few surprises.  I wish his detractors might spend an afternoon with a transcribed solo and see how easy it is to reproduce even four bars of it.

He was always himself — balancing elegance and passion — and the recordings in this set are so consistently rewarding that they tend to overwhelm the listener who sits down to ingest them in large gulps.  Not for the first time in reviewing a Mosaic box, I have wanted to compel listeners to take the contents as they were offered in 1936: two sides at a time, no more than once a week.  In this way, even an “average” side — say, SING, BABY, SING — emerges as marvelously multi-layered.  I will point out that these sessions were intended to be “popular” and thus ephemeral: records to be listened to on jukeboxes at a nickel a side: current tunes, music to dance to.  I suspect the musicians were paid scale and went home with the idea that they had made some extra money, not that they had made Great Art.  They’ve been proven wrong, but in the nicest ways.

The music impresses and moves me on several levels.  One is that it is operating at a high level of excellence, hugely professional and still charmingly individualistic.  Everyone’s voice is heard: Buster Bailey, Mouse Randolph, Cozy Cole.  There are no dull solos; the swing is wondrous, never mechanical.  The ensemble playing is the easy mastery of people who play in sections night after night and thus know all there is about ensemble dynamics and blending — but who are also feeling the pleasure of loose improvising amidst respected colleagues.  The three-minute concertos are dense with musical information but are easy to listen to, apparently simple until one tries to mimic any part.  The soloists are a cross-section of worthies, a list of them too long to type.  Check the Mosaic discography.

In addition, the singers — who range from merely excellent on up — are charming reminders of a time when “jazz” and “pop music” were comfortable with one another.  Imagine a time when young and old could hear a new recording of a song from a new Bing Crosby movie (let’s say LAUGH AND CALL IT LOVE) and appreciate it, appreciate a Jonah Jones solo — all on the same aesthetic plane.  The most creative improvising was accepted as wonderful dance music, an exalted period where highbrow and lowbrow met, where snobberies were not so deeply ingrained, and certainly the audience was not fragmented and sectarian.

The result is an amiable perfection: I never want to edit a passage on a Wilson record.  Perhaps paradoxically, I also understand why Bird, Dizzy, and Monk — who admired Wilson and his colleagues deeply — felt the need to go in different directions.  What more could one create within this form?  How could one’s swing and improvisation of this type be more perfect?

Eight decades later, these records still sound so buoyant, so hopeful. The news from Europe was grim, and became more so.  But in the face of apocalypse, these musicians swung, sang tenderly, and gave us reason to go on.

I first heard Wilson early in my jazz apprenticeship; he was one of the first musicians, after Louis, to catch my ear.  Blessedly, I saw him in person several times in 1971-4, and I bought the records I could find — the French “Aimez-vous le jazz?” of his 1935-7 solos, the later Columbia two-lp sets of the small groups issued here and in Japan, Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society discs.  When compact discs took over, I bought the Classics and Neatwork, the Masters of Jazz compilations.  However, I can write what I have written before: this Mosaic box offers music that I’ve never heard before, in splendid sound.

I’ve written elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES of my strong feeling that Mosaic Records is a noble enterprise.  Supporting their efforts is that rare double reward: a moral act that offers deep rewards.  So I won’t belabor that point here.  If you insist that everything should be for free online, that view that troubles me, especially if you expect a salary for the work you do.  But I will leave that to others to argue.

I confess that I am writing this review early, rather than waiting until I’ve arrived at the last track of the seventh disc — I have been savoring the earliest sides over and over.  And I have been appreciating Loren Schoenberg’s especially fine liner notes — over and above his unusually high standard! — for their subtleties and research.  And the photographs.  And the splendid transfers.  I haven’t even gotten to the unissued sides at the end of the package: 2018 is still young.

For more information, go here — either to purchase this limited edition while it is still available.  Or, so the people who say, “Well, how many unissued sides are there in this box?  Is it a good value?  I already have a lot of this material already,” can make up their own minds.  Those unaware of the beauty of this music can be amazed.

And those who, like me, look at this music as a series of aesthetic embraces, can prepare themselves for seven compact discs of joy and surprise, music both polished and warm.

May your happiness increase!

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MASTERY UNACKNOWLEDGED: THE ARTS OF RAY SIMS

zoot-the-swinger

Most people who have heard of Ray Sims (1921-2000), trombone and vocal, know him as Zoot’s brother, which is understandable.  On record, he was captured between 1945 and 1979, primarily as lead trombone or session player in the bands of Jerry Wald, Earle Spencer, Lyle Griffin, Bobby Sherwood, Benny Goodman, Les Brown, Anita O’Day, Dave Pell, Billy Eckstine, The Four Freshmen, Ray Anthony, Peggy Lee, Bill Holman, Harry James, Jackie and Roy, Lena Horne, Georgia Carr, Red Norvo, John Towner Williams, Jerry Gray and Maxwell Davis [supermarket recordings in tribute to Glenn Miller and Harry James] Ernie Andrews, Frank Capp, Corky Corcoran.  He stayed the longest with with Brown and James.  He never made a recording under his own name except for four tracks in a Capitol session called THE LES BROWN ALL STARS — available on CD — where he is featured, with strings, as one of Brown’s sidemen, and THE SWINGER (about which more below).

But I think trombonists who know him hold him in high regard.

Here is the only piece of Ray on film I have found, although I am sure he was captured on television many times, for both the Brown and James bands were very visible.  It is a ballad medley from the James band’s tour of Japan in 1964, and Ray is the middle soloist, between Joe Riggs, alto saxophone, and Corky Corcoran, tenor:

It would be easy to see Ray’s solo as simply “playing the melody,” but we know how difficult it is to accomplish that, and we can hear his huge gorgeous tone and his respectful, patient caress of Richard Rodgers’ lines.  Although it’s clear that he has the technique to sail over the horn, he is devotedly in the service of the song, with a tone reminiscent of Benny Morton.  Indeed, although he came of age as a musician in the middle Forties, when bebop had changed trombonists’ approach to their instrument, I hear not only Bill Harris but Tyree Glenn in his work.

And because I can’t go on without presenting more evidence of Ray’s beautiful playing, here is ON THE ALAMO, from the properly titled Pablo Records recording, THE SWINGER — with Zoot, Ray, Jimmy Rowles in spectacular form, John Heard, Shelly Manne, and one track with Michael Moore and John Clay:

But Ray Sims also sang.  I don’t know if he ever took voice lessons, but his warm heartfelt lyricism is very touching.  (The reason for this blog is my re-purchasing THE SWINGER on compact disc — the original record vanished in one seismic disorder or another — but I have remembered Ray’s singing for thirty-five years.)

I’ve found half a dozen vocals by Ray (found, not necessarily heard) from 1949 to his last session forty years later, with Brown, Pell, James, brother Zoot.  He seems to have been the musician-in-the-band who could put over a ballad or a love song without breaking into scat, someone who would be multi-talented and thus useful for the band payroll.  There’s IT ISN’T FAIR (a current pop hit), THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL, RED SAILS IN THE SUNSET, LET’S FALL IN LOVE, as well as a few possible vocals with Harry James, one with Corky Corcoran in 1973, and the final track on THE SWINGER from 1979.

Here is Ray’s vocal feature with Corcoran, IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND. It’s not a polished performance, but it is warm naturalness is enchanting.  He means it, which is beautiful in itself:

Here is what I think of as a masterpiece of loose, feeling singing: Ray performing the Lunceford band’s hit DREAM OF YOU.  My guess is that Rowles suggested this: he had a deep affinity for that band — although there is extraordinary trombone playing on that Decca recording, which might have made a tremendous impression on young Ray:

And Ray Sims was obviously a wonderfully devoted parent.  Evidence here:

Here’s what Danielle herself had to say when posting this track in 2010:

Song written by Al Cohn by request of my dad (Ray Sims) and my uncle Zoot. it was recorded on Zoot Sims-The Swinger
Trombone Ray Sims (Zoot’s brother). Growing up I remember my dad playing this song to me and my mom would always say “he’s playing your song” it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that it really was “my song”. I am so blessed to have had such a wonderful family to love and so blessed to have such a wonderful man in my life to make such a beautiful video for me so I can share that love. Thank you.  Video made by JeeperG for Danielle

Jazz, like any other art, is full of people who create beauty without calling much attention to themselves.  Let us always remember their names, their creativity, and the results.

May your happiness increase!

TRAVELS WITH MOLLY: “LET’S FLY AWAY”

Molly Ryan by Don Spiro

Molly Ryan by Don Spiro

I’ve been admiring Molly Ryan’s singing — and her instrumental bandmates — for almost a decade now.  Her latest CD, her third, LET’S FLY AWAY, is a beautifully elaborate production, consistently aloft.

Molly Ryan CD cover

Here are the details.  The CD features a theme (hooray!) — the delights of travel, with some ingenious choices of repertoire:  WANDERER / BEYOND THE BLUE HORIZON / FAR AWAY PLACES / LET’S FLY AWAY / FLYING DOWN TO RIO / A RAINY NIGHT IN RIO / SOUTH SEA ISLAND MAGIC / THE GYPSY IN MY SOUL / THE ROAD TO MOROCCO / UNDER PARIS SKIES / TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE / IT’S NICE TO GO TRAV’LIN’ / ANYWHERE I WANDER . . .

and alongside Molly (vocal and guitar) some of the finest jazz players on the planet:  Bria Skonberg, Randy Reinhart, Dan Barrett, Dan Levinson, Adrien Chevalier, John Reynolds, Joel Forbes, Mike Weatherly, Mark Shane, Dick Hyman, Kevin Dorn, Scott Kettner, Raphael McGregor, with arrangements by the two Dans, Levinson and Barrett.

When I first heard Molly — we were all much younger — I was immediately charmed by her voice, which in its youthful warmth and tenderness summoned up the beautiful Helen Ward.  But Molly, then and now, does more than imitate. She has a gorgeous sound but she also knows a good deal about unaffected swing, and in the years she’s been singing, her lyrical deftness has increased, and without dramatizing, she has become a fine singing actress, giving each song its proper emotional context.  She can be a blazing trumpet (evidence below) or a wistful yearner, on the edge of tears, or someone tart and wry.

The band, as you’d expect, is full of great soloists — everyone gets a taste, as they deserve, and I won’t spoil the surprises.  But what’s most notable is the care given to the arrangements.  Many CDs sound as if the fellows and gals are on a live club date — “Whaddaya want to play next, Marty?” “I don’t know.  How about X?” and those informal sessions often produce unbuttoned memorable sounds.  But a production like LET’S FLY AWAY is a happy throwback to the glory days of long-playing records of the Fifties and Sixties, where a singer — Teddi King, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Carmen McRae — was taken very good care of by Neal Hefti or Frank DeVol or Ralph Burns, creating a musical tapestry of rich sensations.

Now, below on this very same page, you can visit the page where LET’S FLY AWAY is for sale, and hear samples.  But Molly and friends have cooked up something far more hilariously gratifying — a short film with an oddly off-center plot, dancers, visual effects, hard to describe but a pleasure to experience:

Yes, it does make me think of Mildred Bailey’s WEEK-END OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY, but perhaps that association is my own personal problem.

And tomorrow — yes, tomorrow, Thursday, September 3, at 9:30 PM — Molly and friends are having a CD release show at Joe’s Pub, with Dan Levinson, Mike Davis, Vincent Gardner, Dalton Ridenhour, Brandi Disterheft, Kevin Dorn.  You may purchase tickets (they’re quite inexpensive) here.  Details about the show here, and Molly’s Facebook page.

Purchase a digital download of the CD (with two hidden tracks) OR the physical disc itself (with twenty pages of liner notes and wonderful art / photographs) OR hear sound samples here.

Airborne, delightful swing.  Why not FLY AWAY?  Let’s.

May your happiness increase!

HE RODE WITH JAMES P. JOHNSON: TALKING WITH IRV KRATKA (July 31, 2015)

irv

Irv Kratka (drums) doesn’t have a huge discographical entry in Tom Lord’s books, but he played with some fine musicians: Bunk Johnson, Dick Wellstood, James P. Johnson, Ephie Resnick, Joe Muranyi, Bob Mielke, Knocky Parker, Jerry Blumberg, Cyrus St. Clair, among others, in the years 1947-50.  I knew of Irv from those recordings (many of which are quite rare) but also as the creator and guiding genius of Music Minus One and a number of other jazz labels including Classic Jazz and Inner City.

But I had never met Irv Kratka (human being, jazz fan, record producer, concert promoter) in the flesh until this year when we encountered each other at the Terry Blaine / Mark Shane concert in Croton-on-Hudson, and I immediately asked if he’d be willing to sit for a video interview, which he agreed to on the spot.  Irv is now 89 . . . please let that sink in . . . and sharp as a tack, as Louis would say.  His stories encompass all sorts of people and scenes, from Bunk’s band at the Stuyvesant Casino, Louis and Bunk at a club, a car ride with James P. Johnson, lessons from Billy Gladstone, a disagreement between Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke, all the way up to the present and his current hero, multi-instrumentalist Glenn Zottola.

I didn’t want to interrogate Irv, so I didn’t pin him to the wall with minutiae about what James P. might have said in the car ride or what Jerry Blumberg ordered at the delicatessen, but from these four casual interview segments, you can get a warm sense of what it was like to be a young jazz fan in the late Thirties, an aspiring musician and concert producer in the Forties, onwards to today.  It was a privilege to speak with Irv and he generously shared his memories — anecdotes of Bunk Johnson, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, Bill Russell, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dick Wellstood, Peg Leg Bates, Lena Horne, Joe Muranyi, Billy Gladstone, Jacques Butler, Jerry Blumberg, Art Hodes, Albert Nicholas, Sarah Vaughan, George Brunis — also fond recollections of Bob Wilber, Bob Mielke, Ephie Resnick and others.

Here are four informal segments from our conversation — the first and last fairly lengthy discussions, the middle two vignettes.

One:

Two:

Three:

Four:

Now, here’s another part of the story.  Irv plans to sell several of his labels: Inner City, Classic Jazz, Proscenium (the last with three Dick Hyman discs) Audio Journal (The Beatles at Shea Stadium – Audience Reaction), and Rockland Records which consists of the first and only CD by the Chapin Bros. (Harry, Tom, and Steve) comedy albums by Theodore, and a disc featuring Mae West songs / W.C. Fields. The catalogue includes 141 titles, and there are more than 42,000 discs to turn over to the new owner, all at “a very nominal price.”  Serious inquiries only to ikratka@mmogroup.com.

May your happiness increase!

BELIEF and GOODNESS (in SWING)

Here’s a taste of something good — easy and spicy, honestly in the tradition but not copying any famous recording robotically.

The very endearing song, I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME (Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill) has been recorded and performed by many jazz musicians, beginning with a 1927 hot dance record by Roger Wolfe Kahn.  The song truly took off with memorable records by Louis, Red McKenzie (a favorite swooning tempo), Billie, Basie, Cootie, Ed Hall, Marty Grosz, and so on.

Here is an outdoors performance by Austin, Texas pianist / bandleader Floyd Domino and his All-Stars, featuring Alice Spencer, vocal; David Jellema, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor sax; Brooks Prumo, guitar; Ryan Gould, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. Recorded at Central Market North in Austin, Texas on Aug. 3, 2014:

The very adept videoing is thanks to  Luke Hill (Austin guitarist / vocalist / bandleader) and it came to YouTube thanks to percussionist, scholar, instigator, video creator Hal Smith.

The virtues of this performance should be immediately apparent to any listener who can feel the good vibrations. But I would point out that Domino’s quirky piano lines are engaging and always surprising, and the rhythm trio is always energetic but never obtrusive.  Jellema and Doyle (the former serious; the latter on springs) know what Louis, Buck, Ruby, Lester, and others have done with this song, but they cut their own lyrical paths through the familiar thickets of imitation. And Miss Spencer delightfully avoids the temptation of becoming yet the fifteen-hundredth Billie clone, dragging behind the beat in “meaningful” ways. She sounds like herself, with no postmodern ironies, and if I heard any Swing Goddess with a dainty hand on Miss Alice’s shoulders, it would be Lena Horne, and that is not a bad invisible guide through the song.  The band swings and they are having a subtle good time — instantly transmittable to us through the flat screen.

I believe it.  Don’t you?

And (as they say on the news) THIS JUST IN!  The same band, without Miss Spencer (although you can see her nimbly seat-dancing), performing LADY BE GOOD:

Nicely!  And in one of those moments that couldn’t be staged for anything, at about 3:53 an unidentified bird flies across the scene from right to left and contentedly perches in a branch above and behind the band, happily enjoying the swing.  Is it the ghost of Bill Basie or of the Yardbird, who knew the Jones-Smith record by heart, by heart?  I leave it for the mystically-minded to assign their own identities to this Bird.

May your happiness increase!

JULY 6, 2013. LOUIS LIVES. AND WE FEEL IT DEEPLY.

This story begins in a sweetly undramatic way.

The Beloved and I had spent the afternoon of July 6 doing a variety of errands in the car.  We had some time before we had to return home, so she suggested that we do a short bout of “thrifting” (visiting our favorite thrift stores) in the nearby town of San Rafael, California.  She favors a hospice thrift place called HODGE PODGE; I opt for GOODWILL, which is half a block away.

Once in Goodwill, I looked quickly at men’s clothing and took two items off the rack for more consideration.  I saw there were many records in the usual corner, perhaps three hundred LPs and a half-dozen 78 albums.

Just as I write the novella of the life of the person ahead of me on line in the grocery store by the items (s)he is buying, I create the brief biography of a record collector by what patterns there are.  Admittedly, the collection I perused was not solely the expression of one person’s taste, but it seemed a particularly deep 1959 collection: original cast, Sinatra, Dino, Hank Williams, comedy, unusual albums I had not seen before.

In about ten minutes, I found a Jack Lemmon record on Epic, where he sings and plays songs from SOME LIKE IT HOT (he was quite a good pianist), the orchestra directed by Marion Evans.  (Particularly relevant because I am also finishing the 1999 book, CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER — that’s Billy — and enjoying it greatly).  A Murray McEachern mood-music session for Capitol, CARESS, with Jimmy Rowles; the somewhat dubious JAZZ: SOUTH PACIFIC, with Pettiford, McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Rudy Williams; Ethel Waters doing spirituals and hymns on Word; Clancy Hayes with the Salty Dogs — Jim Dapogny on second cornet / valve-trombone, Kim Cusack on clarinet — OH BY JINGO on Delmark.

Then I moved to the 78s.  I thought about but did not take a Black and White album of six songs by Lena Horne with Phil Moore, but took without hesitation a Capitol collection of Nellie Lutcher, because Sidney Catlett was on a few sides, I think.

More than a few minutes had passed.  My knees were beginning to hurt and other people, one with a well-behaved dog, had been drawn to the trove.

The last album I looked at was an unmarked four-record 78 album.  The first sleeve was empty.  The second one held a Fifties TOPS record “Four Hits On One Record,” which I disdained.  The third was a prize — a late-Thirties Bluebird of Fats Waller and his Rhythm doing AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (“Recorded in Europe”) and GEORGIA ROCKIN’ CHAIR, which pleased me a great deal.  It would have been the great treasure of my quest.

I turned to the last record and caught my breath.  I know this feeling well — surprise, astonishment, intense emotion — the equivalent of a painless punch in the solar plexus.  I’ve felt it other times before — once a year ago in California with a Bluebird 78 in a Goodwill (take that confluence as you will) which I have chronicled here.

This record was another late-Thirties Bluebird, this one by Louis.  One side was Hoagy Carmichael’s SNOWBALL (which made me smile — it’s a great sweet song).

Then this:

SUPERMOON and SWING YOU CATS 011

For nearly a decade my email address has been swingyoucats@gmail.com.

Initially, I took it as a self-definition and an online “alias” because those three words are to me a collective exaltation — “Hallelujah, Brothers and Sisters!” in a swinging four – four.

But “Swing you cats!” is not only exhortation — “Let’s unite for our common joyous purpose!” but celebration that we are communally on the same delighted path.

As I did in the previous Goodwill experience, I took the record over to the Beloved, who was seated peaceably, reading a local free paper.  “What did you find?” she said cheerfully.  I went through the records I’ve described, and then reached for the unmarked album and said, “Look at this.”

She admires Fats as I do, so GEORGIA ROCKIN’ CHAIR was properly celebrated.  Then I silently showed her the final record, and we both drew in our breaths.  When she could speak, she said, “Is today a special day?  Some anniversary of your blog?”

And then it dawned on me.  Choked up, I eventually said, “This is the anniversary of Louis’ death.  July 6, 1971.”  After a long, tear-stifled interval during which we simply looked at each other and the record, I took my treasures to the cashier, paid, and we went home.

To describe my feelings about this incident, I run the risk of characterizing myself as one of the Anointed and elaborating on this fantasy vision, where Louis, in the ethereal sphere, sees what I do in his name and approves — sending a little token of his approval my way.

I know that some readers might scoff, “Please!  That record was a manufactured object.  Thousands of copies were made.  It was simple luck that you got it.  Do you think Louis — dead for forty-plus years — would know or care what your email address is?”  I can certainly understand their realistic scorn.

But since I am sure that the Dead Know — that they aren’t Dead in any way except the abandoning of their bodies, who is to say that my taking this as an affirmation from Somewhere is so odd?  How many of us, for whatever reason, have felt the presence of someone we love / who loved us, even though that person is now “dead”?

So I felt, in a more intense way, connected to Louis Armstrong.  That is not a bad thing.  And I could hilariously imagine the way I might have popped up on one of his letters or home tapes.

I hope all my JAZZ LIVES readers, cats indeed, will happily swing on now and eternally.

I send them all my love.

And I celebrate SWING YOU CATS by making it the first whirl of the JAZZ LIVES homemade video jukebox*:

For those who want to know more about this record, read and hear my man Ricky Riccardi’s essay on SWING YOU CATS, here.

*I have witnessed much high-intensity irritation on Facebook directed at people like myself who make YouTube videos of a spinning vintage record without using the finest equipment.  I apologize in advance to anyone who might be offended by my efforts.  SWING YOU CATS sounds “pretty good” to me.  And my intermittent YouTube videos — the “JAZZ LIVES” DANCE PARTY — will offer 78 sides that aren’t on YouTube.  Just for a thrill.

May your happiness increase!

BARNEY JOSEPHSON, CAFE SOCIETY, and MORE

It’s a long time since I got so wrapped up in a book that I didn’t want to stop reading it — but CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE (Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009) is just that book.

Who was Barney Josephson (1902-88)?  If he hadn’t worked very hard to make his dreams become reality, we would only know him as a successful businessman: his specialty, stylish shoes. 

Happily for us, Barney had thoughts beyond Cuban or French heels: a yearning to run a nightclub in New York City, a keen sensitivity to talent, a hatred of social injustice.  And CAFE SOCIETY is the book his life and accomplishments deserve.  It could have been dull, academic, or third-hand.  But it’s a lively memoir of Barney’s life, taken from the tape recordings he made — he was a born raconteur — subtly annotated and expanded by his widow Terry Trilling-Josephson.  

CAFE SOCIETY (like the Downtown and Uptown nightclubs that had that name) is energetic, memorable, full of memorable anecdote and gossip.  Josephson was someone who had good instincts about what artists — musicians, comedians, or actors — whose work had substance.  He said he viewed himself as a “saloon impresario”: “I love it when people say that because I’m not more than that.  It’s the way I view myself.  In this business if you’re an ‘impresario,’ I say that with quotation marks around the word, you have a feeling.  You hear something, and you say, ‘This is it!’  You go ahead and you do it.  You don’t analyze.  You have to follow your hunches.”

Josephson had the good fortune to have John Hammond as his guide, instigator, and occasional arm-twister.  When Barney wanted to start a New York night club with music, it was Hammond who urged him to hire the three boogie-woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, the blues singer Big Joe Turner, and Billie Holiday. 

Cafe Society is remarkable for the improvisers who played there: Teddy Wilson with a band including Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, or Bill Coleman; Benny Morton; Ed Hall or Jimmy Hamilton; Sidney Catlett.  Frank Newton with Sonny White, Kenneth Hollon, Tab Smith, Eddie Dougherty, Johnny Williams.  Ed Hall with Mouse Randolph and Henderson Chambers.  Ellis Larkins with Bill Coleman and Al Hall. 

Later on, at the Cookery, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams.  Josephson brought back Helen Humes and Alberta Hunter for successful late-life “comebacks.”  And it wasn’t simply jazz and popular songs: think of the Revuers (with Judy Holiday and Adolph Green), of Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel, of the now-forgotten Jimmy Savo, all given encouragement and room to develop by Josephson.   

But this isn’t purely a list of who-sang-what and how they were received, a collection of press clippings and schedules.  Josephson was a first-class storyteller with a remarkable memory, and the stories he remembered are priceless.  Nowhere else would I have learned that Emmett Berry, when trying to get someone to take a drink, would ask, “Will you have a drink of Doctor Berry’s rootin’ tootin’ oil?”  For me, that’s worth the price of the book.  Wonderful photographs, too. 

And the stories!

Billie Holiday, at first not knowing what to do with the lyrics of STRANGE FRUIT when they were handed to her, and showing her displeasure in the most effective non-verbal way when an audience annoyed her.

Zero Mostel, always onstage, making life difficult for the man trying to fit him for clothing.

Barney’s firing of Carol Channing and his missing a chance to hire Pearl Bailey.

Tallulah Bankhead complaining — at high volume — about what she’d encountered in the ladies’ room.

Teddy Wilson’s drinking problem, late in his career.

The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.

The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.

Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.

Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.

 And there is a deep, serious undercurrent throughout: the difficulty of having an establishment where neither the bands nor the audiences were segregated, and the looming shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  (Leon Josephson, Barney’s brother, was a particular target, which cast a shadow over Barney’s endeavors.)

Ultimately, the book is delightful for its stories (and the wonderful photographs) and the way Terry Trilling-Josephson has woven recollection and research together.  And the book is — on every page — the embodiment of Barney’s achievements and of the deep love he and Terry shared.  Not to be missed!