Tag Archives: Leon Roppolo

“JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE, FROM ITS ORGINS IN NEW ORLEANS TO FASCIST ITALY AND SINATRA,” by ANNA HARWELL CELENZA

“I prefer books that tell me things I don’t know,” said Mark Twain. Or if he didn’t, he should have.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is such a book — wide-ranging, full of intriguing information, and refreshingly straightforward.

I will say that I thought I knew a great deal about the title and the subject.  After all, I know Rossano Sportiello, Marc Caparone, Paolo Alderighi, and Larry Scala. I have recordings by Frank Sinatra, Joe and Marty Marsala, Leon Roppolo, Louis Prima, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Wingy Manone, Jimmy Durante, Tony Sbarbaro, Nick La Rocca, Marty Napoleon, Phil Napoleon, Lino Patruno, and others.  Years ago, I owned a vinyl anthology on Italian Odeon called ITALIAN JAZZ OF THE 50s, which had music from the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band and Romano Mussolini, with other bands I do not recall.  In the very early Seventies, I ate authentic Italian food at the Half Note, under the loving supervision of the Canterino family.  (All of the above is true, although not meant to be taken with the utmost seriousness.)

But the glory of Celenza’s book is the information it offers — subtle illumination of areas of the subject that I was ignorant of, and I am sure my ignorance is not my sole property.  And the fruits of her investigation are the substance of this appreciation of her book.

But first: we are told, even before the book starts, that Celenza is “the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University, where she teaches courses in music history, radio journalism, and the music industry.”  To some readers, those credentials will seem either the kiss of death or the black hand: another academic book, indigestible, a forest of footnotes, theoretical and ideological beyond endurance.  Calm yourselves.  Celenza is an engagingly straightforward writer, clear, candid, and witty.  (I saw the wit when I opened my copy at random and saw she had translated “Il Quattro Buffoni,” a band name on a record label, as “The Four Idiots.”

She doesn’t talk down to the general reader, and the book down’t labor under chunks of undigested digressive facts.  And leaving aside the useful documentation and index, the book is a compact 192 pages, because Celenza has not felt an obsessive need to include every fact that wanders by, and her chosen time period is under half a century.  It isn’t a book-length study of Sinatra, fascism, or every Italian who’s ever improvised, and that adds to its charm and effect.  Rather, like effective cultural studies, it traces the interweavings of many phenomena: radio and the growth of the recording industry, political struggles and performance, and much more.

As I promised above, I salute this book for adding information to my mental hoard.  Here are a number of things I didn’t know before reading JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE.

•     “The most horrific mass lynching in US history occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Italian immigrants were shot and strung up by an angry mob after a  jury found them innocent of assassinating the local police chief, David Hennessey.”

•     In 1919, Chevalier Bruno Zuculin wrote a description of the musical scene in New Orleans — and the music itself — for Italian readers.  The article was published two months before Ernest Ansermet’s famous celebration of Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which included the young Sidney Bechet.

•     “D. Onivas,” whose orchestra is on the reverse of some 78s by Cliff Edwards, is the pseudonym of Domenico Savino, composer and conductor.

•     Jazz first came to Italy with the USAAS (United States Army Ambulance Service) and its American Jazz Band landed  — and when members of the American and Italian armies recorded for Fonotopia in December 1918.

•     I had assumed that Mussolini, like Hitler, was hostile to jazz as decadent music: not so, in fact, Il Duce “embraced” it as an expression of the Futurist art he celebrated.

•     Josephine Baker, Herb Flemming, and Al Wynn visited and worked in Italy.  Louis Armstrong gave two concerts in Turin in January 1935 and wrote a detailed happy letter to an Italian fan and record collector.

•     I had never heard or heard of the female vocal trio, “the three graces of the radio,” the Trio Lescano — Alexandra, Judith, and “Kitty,” originally from the Netherlands, who became singing stars in Italy.

•  During the Second World War, when recordings by American artists were played on the radio, new Italianized names for the musicians were invented: Luigi Braccioforte, La Colema, Del Duca, and Beniamino Buonuomo.  (Answer key on request.)

•     Sinatra’s four trips to Italy, in 1945, 1953, 1962, and 1987 — and the audience’s elation when he described his Genoan heritage, then their silence when he revealed his family was also half-Sicilian.

These excerpts are, of course, not the substance of this book.  Celenza has a wonderful understanding of the widespread forces that go into the development and growth of jazz in Italy, and one will come away from this book with a much deeper understanding of the mingling of history, race, ideology, and politics — during war and in peacetime.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is very rewarding, but never ponderous.  Here are the publisher’s resources for the book, and this is the link for the CD label offering for sale almost all the jazz described in the book.  And since a book like this cries out for a soundtrack, here is the one Celenza has generously created — 124 relevant musical examples that delight and illustrate.

May your happiness increase!

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QUIRKY, CURIOUS, WISE: “DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE: THE WILD, OBSESSIVE HUNT FOR THE WORLD’S RAREST 78 RPM RECORDS,” by AMANDA PETRUSICH

About one-third of the way through Amanda Petrusich’s new book, I became convinced that its author was, as the British say, daft. Mildly unhinged. Charmingly irrational.  I say this as a badge of honor, not an insult.  It was in the middle of the chapter where Petrusich (normal-looking, quite attractive in the author’s photo) had gone through scuba training to dive into the river in Grafton, Wisconsin, near the Paramount Records factory — defunct for eighty years — in search of the rare records and Paramount ephemera that legend has it the employees had tossed into the waters.

DO NOT SELL

Although no record in the world would ever entice me into a wetsuit, I thought, “This is a kind of devotion to the cause that makes great — if slightly unstable — art.”

I had already been entranced by Petrusich’s book while she was on dry land.  I am not an stereotypical record collector — I prefer to encounter jazz recordings serendiptiously — but I liked Petrusich’s manner and approach from the first pages.  For one thing, she steadfastly refuses to satirize, to stand back at a mocking distance from the subject or from the figures she chronicles.  She does comment on the stereotype — overly pale men who spend their lives indoors and often below ground level, but Petrusich not only treats her subjects with interest and deference, but with affectionate respect . . . and becomes one of them in her own fashion. Her writing is lively, and the book rarely lingers for long on one obsession or the next (at times, it had the snap of a series of New Yorker mini-profiles).

The book is never a slow-moving history of the field (although she does touch on some of its legendary figures, such as James McKune and Big Joe Clauberg, Harry Smith and his Anthology) but its whimsical expansiveness leaves a reader feeling elated rather than deprived.  I wish I could have time-traveled Petrusich back to the mid-Seventies gatherings of collectors at the Prince George Hotel in New York City, but she has been to the New Jersey Jazz Record Collectors’ Bash, so that will do. At more than one point, I thought, “I could certainly tell her stories of collectors,” but I suspect that my reaction is far from unusual.

I should alert JAZZ LIVES readers that Petrusich’s fascination has almost nothing to do with the objects of the jazz lover’s sacred quest. ZULUS BALL does not rate a mention here, nor do the Bix Old Gold broadcast acetates, or the “little silver record” of Lester Young that Jo Jones talked about.

Petrusich is captivated by rural blues — of the sort recorded by Paramount before the company folded in 1932 — and she has her first epiphany listening to Mississippi John Hurt’s BIG LEG BLUES with collector John Heneghan.  But what saves this endearingly wandering narrative from being One Woman’s Descent Into The Maelstrom is both Petrusich’s light touch and her willingness to ask deeper philosophical questions about collecting, music, and our perceptions of both.

For all its amiability, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE is a deeply serious book that — sometimes indirectly, other times head-on — asks hard questions about what makes an object valuable, and what drives certain people to amass such objects, both in what we see of them and what they see of themselves.

Anyone reading this book who is new to record collecting will find it impossible to look at a 78 rpm record the same way again — even the dullest one — without sensing its almost mystical electrical power to entice. (I write this, fully aware that I already knew how a blandly labeled RECORDS paper folio in a shelf at Goodwill may contain objects that would increase my pulse rate.)

A pause, so that you can hear Petrusich’s own voice, while she muses over the gap between the music and the artifact, the sound and the shellac disc with its memorized matrix number, and tried to figure out where our feverish excitement comes from:

That chasm–between a studied response and a gut-borne one–seemed even more palpable in the specific context of prewar blues music, where the hunt for (and especially the subsequent analysis of) the records appeared to run directly counter to the lawless spirit of the work. With a few notable exceptions, blues music was rowdy and social, and its creators led brash, lustful lives. They drank and roamed and had reckless sex and occasionally stabbed each other in the throat. There was something incongruous about sitting in a dimly lit room, meticulously wiping dust and mold off a blues 78 and noting the serial number in an antique log book. Why not dance or sob or get wasted and kick something over?  Some collectors, I knew, did exactly that, but for others, the experience of a rare blues record involved a kind of isolated studiousness, which of course was fine–there’s no wrong way to enjoy music, and I understood that certain contextual details could help crystallize a bigger,richer picture of a song. But I continued to believe that the pathway that allowed human beings to appreciate and require music probably began in a more instinctual place (the heart, the stomach, the nether regions). Context was important, but it was never as essential–as compelling–to me as the way my entire central nervous system convulsed whenever Skip James opened his mouth.

Balancing such vividly evocative meditations — which open out into lovely elusive speculations — are the concrete, often hilarious markers in Petrusich’s quest: buying records with collector Chris King at a flea market in Hillsville, Virginia; visiting Pete Whelan amidst his rare palm trees and rarer records in Florida, talking with John Tefteller over lunch in Brooklyn, being admitted to Joe Bussard’s basement shrine to hear Black Patti 8030; looking through Don Wahle’s papers with Nathan Salsburg; talking about collectors with Ian Nagoski and with Bear Family’s Richard Weize.

As the book winds down — through “ethnic music” and cowboy throat-singing, a visit to the Southern Folklife Collection, a detour into SKOKIAAN, a few pages where Petrusich muses on the relations between autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and collecting, and finally visits from two people active in the contemporary New York City world, phonograph collector / expert exhibitor Michael Cunella and musician / collector Jerron Paxton — I confess my jazz self became slightly restless.  “Couldn’t you have written about just one person who collects Leon Roppolo?” I muttered to myself.  But Petrusich’s many narratives are so sweetly compelling — vivid in their understated way — that I forgave her that omission.  And the book ends with yet another epiphany, when Petrusich encounters the “new” set of Paramount Records issues:

I felt suddenly and fiercely protective of a subculture I had no real claim to. I wanted 78s to continue offering me–and all the people I’d met–a private antidote to an accelerated, carnivorous world. I didn’t want them to become another part of that world. I wanted them to stay ours.

I do not know if Petrusich’s fierce protectiveness is possible or plausible, or even desirable. I understand it completely: so much of the lure of collecting these artifacts is the secret, even snobbish delight one can take in moving so far outside the mainstream as to require subtitles, a translator. But I wonder if the world would be happier if everyone could listen to Charley Patton 78s while making breakfast.

And I wonder if Petrusich will check in with us in ten years. Has she purchased a turntable on which to play her recent beloved acquisitions? I hope so. It would sadden me immensely if I learned, through whatever avenue one learns such things, that she had thrown it all over for a smartphone with a larger memory for music and a new delight in, say, swizzle sticks or first editions of Yeats.  But I think this won’t happen. Among its other virtues, and they are numerous, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE is the journal of a spiritual enlightenment, a finding of a series of personal truths. And that is always fascinating to read.

Much, if not all, of the music Petrusich falls in love with in this book is either outside my sphere of pleasure or I am ignorant of it. But before I had read thirty pages of this book, I was already recommending it to people who love the music and the records. I recommend it to you as a deep, elegantly quirky pleasure, whose music reverberates long after one has finished reading it.

May your happiness increase!

ONE MORE FOR MISTER MIKE: “NEW ORLEANS SHUFFLE”: MICHAEL McQUAID’S HALFWAY HOUSE ORCHESTRA at the WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (Oct. 28, 2012)

If “Mister Mike” isn’t someone recognizable to you, would you kindly take a minute and read this?  It would mean a great deal to many people, and (to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie) “No him, no this.”

In a rollicking tribute to the under-acknowledged Halfway House Orchestra, a memorable amalgam of hot and sweet, Michael McQuaid leads his ebullient troops onwards at the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party (this session recorded on Oct. 28, 2012): Andy Schumm, cornet; Michael and Stephane Gillot, reeds; Martin Seck, piano; Spats Langham, banjo; Malcolm Sked, string bass / brass bass; Nick Ward, drums.

PUSSY CAT RAG (with Stephane acting the part of Leon Roppolo):

LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART:

SQUEEZE ME (with the authentically wrong verse):

NEW ORLEANS SHUFFLE:

IT BELONGS TO YOU:

SNOOKUM:

LOVE DREAMS:

I WANT SOMEBODY TO LOVE:

JUST PRETENDING:

If you’ve wondered why people are so passionate about the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, this music should be convincing on its own.  But please notice: the best international musicians diving deep into under-explored but rewarding songs and repertoire.  Other festivals provide their own blend of pleasures, but Whitley Bay is and has been remarkable for just this . . . a vivid embodiment of Gavin Stevens’ words in a William Faulkner novel: “The past isn’t dead.  It’s not even past.”  Especially not when it sounds like this!

And, as always, tickets are on sale to the 2013 Party, that hot cornucopia, here.

May your happiness increase.

“PEACEMAKERS, HEALERS, RESTORERS, STORYTELLERS AND LOVERS OF ALL KINDS”: ANDY SCHUMM’S GANG at JAZZ at CHAUTAUQUA (September 23, 2012)

Reading my colleague M. Figg’s blogpost on Don Murray — meditations witty and sad — made me think, not for the first time that although the Great Hallowed Figures are dead and their recorded legacies are small (think of Frank Melrose, Frank Teschemacher, Rod Cless, George Stafford, Tony Fruscella, Leon Roppolo, Guy Kelly and a hundred others) there are vivid compensations in 2012.

We don’t have to restrict ourselves to the anguished study of too-short solos on a few records (think of Teagarden and Tesch having the sweetest conversation that you almost can’t hear on the Dorsey Brothers’ ROUND EVENING) . . . we have Living Players who bridge past and present right in front of us.  “In front of my video camera, too,” I think with unbounded gratitude.

One of these fellows is the sly, surprising, lyrical, hot Andy Schumm, already legendary.  (I know there are gatherings of listeners who are out-Schumming one another: “I knew Andy was a genius when I heard him in 1993,” “You did? I knew he was a genius before he was out of diapers,” etc.)  My own acquaintance with Mister Schumm only started in this century, but he amazes every time, on cornet, piano, clarinet, drums, comb . . . more to come!

Here are Andy and friends at Jazz at Chautauqua just a few months ago: Mike Greensill, piano; Howard Alden, guitar; Bob Reitmeier, clarinet; Jon Burr, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums — honoring the music of the early Twenties into the middle Thirties, with associations with Fats Waller, Jabbo Smith, James P. Johnson, Bing Crosby, Garvin Bushell, Phil Napoleon, Bix, Eddie Condon, and others.  Lovely subtle forceful romping hot jazz — for our listening and dining pleasure, performances one can marvel at over and over.

MY SWEETIE WENT AWAY:

PERSIAN RUG:

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN:

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

Thank you, gentlemen, for so bravely creating this music for us — right out there in the open.

I take my title from sweet deep words uttered by the Dalai Lama — connected so strongly to this music: “The planet does not need more successful people.  The planet needs desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”  Hail, Andy, Mike, Bob, Howard, Jon, Ricky . . . who fit so many of those categories in their musical generosities.

May your happiness increase.

THE SOUNDS OF MUSIC: PLEASING SHOCKS FROM PAPA JOE, LITTLE LOUIS, BIX, KID ORY, and THEIR FRIENDS

By the time I started listening seriously to jazz, King Oliver had been dead for almost thirty years, Bix nearly forty.  And every year that I delved deeper into the music, more of the original players died.  So recordings became the only way for me to encounter many players, singers, and bands.

I first heard King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band on microgroove vinyl reissues on the Milestone and Epic labels; the Wolverine sessions likewise.  I had read about these records in books about jazz and the musicians had described them reverently (Louis speaking lovingly of his musical father to Richard Meryman and Larry L. King; Richard M. Sudhalter writing about Bix, and so on).

But the sounds that came through the phonograph speaker were disappointing.  Peggy Lee had not yet sung IS THAT ALL THERE IS? but her words would be appropriate.  I could distinguish cornets and clarinets,  banjos and pianos, but it was like putting my head underwater.  The sound could be made loud but it was impossible to make it clear.  Some of my reaction, of course, was the result of my own training in listening to live music and records of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties — clear, electrically recorded, bright.

Eventually I got better at extracting the music from acoustic recordings, better at “filling in” what I imagined the original bands sounded like in the studio.  But the Creole Jazz Band and the Wolverines were always at a distance.  It was rather like hearing someone describe transcendent spiritual experiences I hadn’t had.

Until now.

I know I am coming late to this particular party, but five compact discs issued in the past few years have been astonishing musical experiences.  The first set, KING OLIVER: OFF THE RECORD, presents all the 1923 recordings by the Creole Jazz Band — originally issued on Gennett, OKeh, and Paramount.  37 tracks on two CDs, with all the alternate takes, everything in chronological order, with a beautifully detailed / scholarly set of liner notes.

(A word about the liner notes for these CDs — writer, scholar, trombonist David Sager deserves a round of applause with a hug after for his candor.  Most liner-note writers know that their job is to say every note is a masterpiece, but Sager praises the high points and also honestly notes when things are ever so slightly collapsing.  Hooray for objective listening, even to hallowed masterpieces!)  Beautiful rare photographs and newspaper clippings, too — pages to get lost in.

But all this wouldn’t mean much if the sound was murky or overly processed.  (Some issues of the Oliver band had been made into “stereo,” shrill on the left and thumpy on the right, a bad idea for sure.)

The sound that comes out of the speaker from these CDs is bright without being fraudulent.  One can hear the individual instruments in a way not previously possible.  I can actually HEAR the interweaving of Papa Joe and Louis on cornets; I can get an idea of how the ensemble parts twined around each other.  Without hyperbole, I hear the music — the band — for the first time.

The same is true for Off The Record’s CD devoted to the Wolverine Orchestra.

The Wolverine recordings, like the Olivers, were also seen and packaged, because of the star system in jazz, as showcases for one musician.  True, Bix stands out, across the decades, as THE player in that band.  But these new transfers allow us to hear him in the larger context — not simply as the loudest player in the group.  It is possible to appreciate the particular rhythmic swagger that these young fellows brought to the studio — “sock time,” intense yet relaxed, that strikes us as both new and familiar.  Sager makes a good case for the band being “modern,” which allows us a deeper understanding of what they were attempting and how they did (and didn’t) succeed.

Four tracks by post-Wolverine groups featuring Bix — the SIOUX CITY SIX and BIX AND HIS RHYTHM JUGGLERS — are here, as well as the two later Wolverine sides with Jimmy McPartland (1924) and four from 1927.  But a great pleasure of this CD comes at its close with two recordings from May 24, 1928, billed as THE ORIGINAL WOLVERINES — LIMEHOUSE BLUES and DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND, with a clarinetist / saxophonist who could only be Frank Teschemacher (Bud Freeman and Jess Stacy said they heard Tesch on these sides, and who would argue with that?)

The third set, although it initially doesn’t have the “star power” of the Oliver – Louis – Bix issues, is deliciously rewarding.

Most jazz fans of a certain age will have heard at least a few Creole Jazz Band or Wolverine tracks.  But perhaps only diligent musical archaeologists will have heard the music on CABARET ECHOES.

Again, the recordings are wonderfully bright (and I don’t mean harsh with an overemphasis on the treble).

Much of what we call “New Orleans jazz” was inevitably at a distance.  Musicians from that city recorded in Chicago and New York once they had migrated North; some returned home in the Forties and later.  This collection, although it begins with Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, recorded in Santa Monica, California, offers twenty-four selections recorded in New Orleans by OKeh between March 1924 and January 1925.  I had read about Johnny DeDroit, Fate Marable (with a young Zutty Singleton), the Original Crescent City Jazzers (Stirling Bose, likewise), Johnny Bayersdorffer, the Half-Way House Orchestra (with Leon Roppolo), Anthony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys, Billy and Mary Mack (with Punch Miller), Brownlee’s Orchestra, John Tobin’s Midnight Serenaders, and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra — but I’d heard perhaps three or four sides of this grouping.

It’s easy to hear — from the six sides by Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra — how powerfully energetic that band was in 1922.  And even earlier, there are enthusiastic sides by a 1918-1920 jazz band featuring one Jimmy Durante on piano.  A world of delights that most of us have never heard.

That would be enough for most listeners.  But a surprise awaits,  Between the discs themselves, this collection offers excerpts from oral histories, so that we can hear Kid Ory, his daughter Babette, Johnny DeDroit, Amos White, Yvonne Powers Gass (daughter of saxophonist Eddie Powers), Abbie Brunies, Joe Loyocano, Tony Parenti, Tony Sbarbaro, Billy Mack and Mary McBride, Norman Brownlee, “Baba” Ridgley, and Arnold Loyocano — an amazing set of first-hand narratives from the original sources . . . in their own voices.

Back to the Sound for a moment.  As “new technologies” come into view, many individuals have tried to make the old recordings “listenable.”  Some have seen their role as removing all extraneous noise — which, when done without subtlety, also removes much of the music.  Doug Benson, with help from generous collectors, has done a magnificent job of preserving the sound without reshaping it to a set of arbitrary aesthetics of what it “should” sound like in 2012.

This was accomplished through simple intelligent methods: get the best available copy of the original disc; play it with the stylus that offered the most sound; make sure that the disc was playing at the right speed (so that the music was in a recognizable key); judiciously apply the most subtle digital restoration.

It’s taken me this long to write this review because I’ve been entranced by the sound — and the sounds — and have gone back to the old paradigm of playing one track at a time rather than making the CDs into hot background music.  But each track is a powerful auditory experience.  The veils are lifted.

Click CREOLE  to read more about the Oliver CDs.  Click BIX to read more about the Wolverines CD.  And CABARET  will tell you all about CABARET ECHOES.  You can, when visiting these pages, click on a variety of links to hear brief audio samples, but hearing excerpts through earbuds or your computer’s speakers will give only a small fraction of the sonic pleasures that await.

I seriously suggest that any jazz fan who wants to hear — to know, to understand — what “those old records” really sounded like (and thus be transported) should consider these compact discs.

And — with equal seriousness — I suggest them as aids to a happy relationship: every partner who has ever walked through the room where the “old records” are being played and said, gently or scornfully, “How can you listen to those scratchy old records?  How can you hear anything?” might pick up the Off the Record CDs as a gift — not only for the jazz-loving partner, but to actually HEAR what (s)he loves so deeply.  (“Can these marriages be saved?”  “Yeah, man!”)

May your happiness increase.

“THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS,” by JUDITH SCHLESINGER

“Has JAZZ LIVES gone crazy?” some of you might ask.  No, even though the book I offer for your consideration might seem to some to have only a tenuous connection to jazz.

But Judith Schlesinger’s new book, THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS, is immensely relevant to the mythological accretions that jazz has had foisted on it for the last century.  And the book is also immensely lively and entertaining.

Any jazz listener might list those jazz musicians celebrated for the irresistible combination of deep creativity and — to some — inevitable mental illness.  Shall we begin with Charlie Parker?  Buddy Bolden.  Then add Leon Roppolo, Cassino Simpson, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.  A quick scan of “jazz musician” “mental illness” on Google brings up Charles Mingus, Billy Tipton, Rosemary Clooney, right there alongside Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh.  Let’s not even talk about Billie Holiday, shall we?

These creative artists make good copy, and their “mental instability” has been used as modern-day evidence that Plato was right: to be creative, one must be beyond the “normal” that many people demonstrate.  Schlesinger states it simply: “The mad genius is a beloved cultural artifact, a popular spectacle . . . . It provides the perfect container for every romantic fantasy about both madness and genius–and doesn’t have to be any more precise than that to be useful.  But a fact, it is not.  There is simply no good reason to believe that exceptionally creative people are more afflicted with psychopathology than anyone else.”

What fascinates Schlesinger is not so much arguing about biographical details: were Mozart’s scatological jokes evidence of a disordered mind?  But she is much more intrigued, and sometimes horrified, by the ways that modern “scientists” and “chroniclers” have distorted, invented, appropriated, and misread evidence to make it fit their portrait: Creative = Crazy.  And the misrepresentations are sometimes set in stone: Schlesinger has done all kinds of fascinating homework: her detective work about Beethoven’s “death mask” is a delight.

She is especially drawn to — and sympathetic to — jazz musicians and the burden of half-truth and complete fallacy attached to them, especially posthumously.  She proudly asserts that the creative people she admires are “heroic,” rather than “mentally disabled,” and — without making lists, points us towards the much more stable, well-adjusted figures in the music business who don’t get the press because their narratives can’t be forced into romantic myth.  Consider Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane — musicians too busy practicing their craft and having a good time in the process to be Mad Geniuses.

When it comes to the way in which jazz musicians are perceived by psychologists and therapists, the examples Schlesinger finds would be hilarious if they weren’t so appalling.  Did you know that Coltrane’s “excessive practicing” and search for “the perfect mouthpiece” were dead-on symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder?  So writes Gregory Wills.  Ask Arnold M. Ludwig’s opinion about Bix Beiderbecke and you get this: Bis had “mental problems” because he had trouble, late in life with his embouchure.

THE INSANITY HOAX shows off Schlesinger’s sharp eye and sharp wit, but she’s more than George Carlin riffing on the absurdities she has read about, observed, and experienced.  Although she has a free-swinging style, the book is no improvisation: it offers thirty-five pages of endnotes and bibliography.  No doubt it will irritate those — patients, academics, therapists, and practitioners — who see the DSM as a sacred book, those who take Kay Redfield Jamison’s simple equation (all great artists are or have been mentally ill to be such great artists) as true.  But it is intelligent, forthright, full of information, and a pleasure to read: one of those books I wished were longer.

You can find out more about the book here.

CHICAGO CLARINETS: HAL SMITH’S INTERNATIONAL SEXTET (Sacramento Jazz Jubilee 2011)

This little map celebrates the intersection of 35th Street and Calumet Avenue in Chicago, a place Jess Stacy called “the center of the universe.”  Cosmologically he may have been inexact, but in jazz terms in the Twenties and early Thirties, he was precisely correct — especially when it came to clarinet players.  How about Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Leon Roppolo, Volly de Faut, Rod Cless, Benny Goodman, Omer Simeon, Pee Wee Russell, and two dozen more?

At the 2011 Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, drummer Hal Smith took the stage with his International Sextet to commemorate this reedy legacy.  And he had swinging, creative players around him — reed wizards Kim Cusack and Anita Thomas, pianist Carl Sonny Leyland, guitarist / banjoist Katie Cavera, and bassist / tubaist Clint Baker.  Here’s the vivid, rocking jazz history they offered at the Sheraton ballroom, miles away from Chicago on the map but right there in spirit.

Nothing says “Chicago hot” more than I FOUND A NEW BABY:

BLUE CLARINET STOMP doesn’t stomp in the formal sense of the word — a fast tempo — but Anita’s evocation of Johnny Dodds (or “Dotts,” as he and friends pronounced it) is full-blooded and blue:

For Jimmie Noone and Joe Poston, that hymn to simultaneous enlightenment, I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW:

An extra-groovy slow-drag version of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings’ classic, FAREWELL BLUES:

“She’d be out of place in her own home town,” the twenties version of Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid,” but she was having a really good time — NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW:

One of my favorite naughty-but-nice songs, about a Chicago Clark Kent who turns into Harry Reams when the time is right — HE’S THE LAST WORD — sung most engagingly by the winsome but well-informed Katie Cavera:

In honor of a great and less-heralded session in 1935, featuring Omer Simeon, Paul Mares, Santo Pecora, Jess Stacy, Marvin Saxbe, Pat Pattison, and George Wettling (have I got that right?), NAGASAKI:

And when “Chicago style” moved to New York City, it was caught hot and fresh on Commodore Records in 1938, with Pee Wee Russell’s marvelous star turn on LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER:

As Art Hodes sadi so often, “Man, I remember Chicago!”