Tag Archives: Leroy Parkins

JAZZ WORTH READING: “THE BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES: FACES, PLACES AND NIGHTLIFE 1937-1962”

Some of my readers will already know about Richard Vacca’s superb book, published in 2012 by Troy Street Publishing.  I first encountered his work in Tom Hustad’s splendid book on Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY. Vacca’s book is even better than I could have expected.

VACCA book

Much of the literature about jazz, although not all, retells known stories, often with an ideological slant or a “new” interpretation.  Thus it’s often difficult to find a book that presents new information in a balanced way.  BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES is a model of what can be done.  And you don’t have to be particularly interested in Boston, or, for that matter, jazz, to admire its many virtues.

Vacca writes that the book grew out of his early idea of a walking tour of Boston jazz spots, but as he found out that this landscape had been obliterated (as has happened in New York City), he decided to write a history of the scene, choosing starting and ending points that made the book manageable.  The book has much to offer several different audiences: a jazz-lover who wants to know the Boston history / anecdotal biography / reportage / topography of those years; someone with local pride in the recent past of his home city; someone who wishes to trace the paths of his favorite — and some obscure — jazz heroes and heroines.  (Vacca’s book could become the ULYSSES of jazz Boston, although we’d have to settle on a day to follow the paths of, perhaps Sabby Lewis or Frankie Newton through this vanished terrain.)

I found the proliferation of new information delightful, even though I was familiar with some of Boston’s “hot spots of rhythm” and the musicians who played there: Newton, Max Kaminsky, Dick Twardzic, Serge Chaloff, Bobby Hackett, George Wein, Jaki Byard, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Alan Dawson, Jaki Byard, Herb Pomeroy, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, John Field, Buzzy Drootin, Joe Gordon, and others.  I’d known about the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, Mahogany Hall, and the various permutations of Storyville.  But on every page I read stories that were both new and illuminating (filling in gaps in the lives of musicians I had known as well as obscure ones) and learned a great deal about place and places.

And Vacca has an old-fashioned respectfulness, which is rare in this century.  True, there are stories of low life and bad behavior, for some of those night spots were run by and populated by people who gave way to their impulses — but Vacca is no tabloid journalist, savoring wicked or illicit behavior.  And his amused, gentle forgiveness makes the book especially charming.

Topography — whether substantial or vanished — has a good deal to do with experience.  When I could visit Your Father’s Mustache in New York and realize that its floor space was that of Nick’s circa 1944, it made something click: memory met tangible reality.  Knowing more about the Savoy — as a place, run by real figures in a genuine historical panorama — adds to my experience of listening to broadcasts taken from there.

The photographs — almost all of them new to me — and the maps (a delight) add to the pleasure of this book.  As well, I learned about musicians I’d never heard of, or from, who played major roles in Boston’s jazz life: Dean Earl, Al Vega, Mabel Robinson Simms, as well as places I’d heard little of — Izzy Ort’s Bar and Grille, for one.  james Reese Europe puts in an appearance, as does Sam Rivers; George Frazier, Nat Hentoff, Father Norman J. O’Connor, Symphony Hall, Symphony Sid, Teddi King, Jake Hanna, Leroy Parkins, Fat Man Robinson, John McLellan, Charlie Bourgeois, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Berklee College of Music pop in and out.

But what makes this book rise above the information and stories collected within it is Vacca’s skill as researcher, editor, writer, and presenter.  The first thing a reader will notice is his lively but not flashy writing style: I’d call it refined, erudite journalism — fast-moving but never superficial.  He is a great storyteller, with a fine eye for the telling detail but someone who leaves a reader wanting more rather than feeling as if one was trapped at a party with an Authority on some bit of arcana.  (The writer Vacca reminds me of is THE NEW YORKER’S Joseph Mitchell, and that is not a compliment I utter lightly.)  He has a light touch, so the book is entertaining without ever seeming thin or didactic.  I would hand this book to an aspiring writer, researcher, or reporter, and say, “This is one admirable way to do it.”

In addition, the book is obviously the result of diligent research — not simply a synthesis of the available books that touch on the subject, although there is a six-page small-print bibliography (and a discography, a generous touch) but much of the information here comes from contemporary newspapers and magazines and Vacca’s interviews with Bostonians who were there, whether they were musicians, fans, or interested onlookers.

I’ve finished reading it, but it remains on my desk — an irresistible distraction, a book I have been returning to often.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment — literate, vivid, accurate, and animated.

To find out more about the book, click here. I predict it will provide more pleasure, and more lasting pleasure, than its price — which is roughly that of one compact disc.

May your happiness increase!

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DICK TWARDZIK’S RECORDED LIVES

twardzik-coverBecause of Sam Parkins’ recollection, posted earlier on this blog, of his short-lived Boston friend, pianist Richard Twardzik (1931-1955), I obtained a copy of BOUNCIN’ WITH BARTOK: THE INCOMPLETE WORKS OF RICHARD TWARDZIK (Mercury Press, 2008) by Jack Chambers.  I have been reading it with fascination for the last few weeks.  It is a phenomenal book.

But first, some comments on the Art of Biography.  Perhaps from the start, biographies were glowing public records of the lives of Famous Men Who Had Done Something.  The accomplishments were heroic, the biographer admiring, even adoring.  If the subject had been a bad husband, an ungenerous employer, unpleasant in private, it was not the biographer’s task to record these moments.

When this began to change I cannot pinpoint, but slowly — perhaps with the rise of journalistic muckraking and a public eager for backstairs gossip — the biography began to tell all, lingering over the subject’s revealed flaws.  The biographer pretended to look abashed, then told tales.  Joyce Carol Oates dubbed this “pathobiography,” books savagely dissecting their subjects in the name of objectivity and completeness.  In some of these works, rancor prevails; the biographer seems to hate the subject.

Jazz, that young art, is particularly prone to such sea-changes in its reportage.  Consider the shifts in less than a century in the chronicles of Louis, Duke, and Benny — ending with recent books that state that Louis ran out of creative energy somewhere around 1929, that Ellington stole his most famous compositions from his sidemen, and that the King of Swing picked his nose.  And Charlie Parker?  The books on Bird are worth a book in themselves.

My model for a jazz biographer is the inestimable John Chilton, who loves his heroic figures but has no trouble saying plainly when they are off form in their music or their personal relations.  Right behind him is the jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett, whose book LISTENING FOR HENRY CROWDER is remarkable.  And parallel to them is Mark Miller, whose book on Valaida Snow was also published by The Mercury Press.  (Miller has a great deal of energy and is finishing a biography of pianist Herbie Nichols, a book I look forward to.)

Much of this philosophical strife I refer to above comes from our puzzlement with the Great Artist who seems to be A Bad Man or at least seriously flawed.  Twardzik doesn’t entirely fit, but he seems to have been immature, half-formed, self-absorbed in everything but his music.  Dick’s music astonished those who heard it, and the evidence in his short discography suggests that he was clearly original, clearly going someplace new.  Happily, the small discography is slowly growing larger with new concert recordings made with Chet Baker in the last months of Twardzik’s life, practice tapes, live radio broadcasts from Boston.

Perhaps it will seem odd that I am less interested in Twardzik’s music than in his life, more interested in his biography than either.  It brings up what is, to me, one of the great questions: what can we know about anyone, particularly when that person has died?  What are the tensions between any gathering of evidence and the person it might attempt to portray?  In this spirit, I was thrilled by Barnett’s book on Crowder, although I did not find Crowder an enthralling subject.

Biographer Jack Chambers has to his credit an academic career in linguistics and a well-regarded Miles Davis biography; although he never met Twardzik, he was intrigued by the pianist’s recordings when he was a high school student in 1956.  So this book is the result of a half-century of fascination, and it is admirably thorough, with color plates of Dick’s father’s paintings, reproductions of Twardzik’s handwriting, his one remaining manuscript, his self-caricature, envelopes, photographs, and more.  It is, by definition, an “authorized biography,” drawing its strength from the four cartons of personal effects Dick’s family had saved.  Those cartons are an irreplaceable treasure, but they must also have been somewhat of a burden, carrying with them the family’s wish that their doomed young man be treated fairly, generously.  And Chambers, while recording everything, is more than fair.  Twardzik must have been, at times, an irritating young man — even before he became addicted to heroin — and Chambers occasionally seems in part a fine, careful journalist, offering all the facts, in part resembling an indulgent uncle, sure that his beloved nephew had good reasons to act that way.  Watching Chambers negotiate such delicate issues, one hairpin turn after another, is one of the delights of the book.  At times, the thoroughness is just this side of wearying — but Chambers is compelled to include what is relevant alongside what might be relevant, knowing that there will probably never be another biography of Twardzik.

And he has done his job so well that perhaps there never needs to be another one.  From the personal narrative that begins the book — his own involvement with Twardzik’s music — to his study of the family, Dick’s parents seen close up, Dick’s childhood, early musical involvements, intersections with people as diverse as Herb Pomeroy, Serge Chaloff, and Lionel Hampton (the latter particularly fascinating), with Charlie Parker, Rudy Van Gelder, Bob Zieff, and Chet Baker — this book is meticulous in its techniques and results.  Interviews give way to newspaper clippings which give way to personal letters and pay stubs — all the way up to the hotel room where the 24-year old Twardzik is found dead with a needle in his arm.  Ironically, the last thirty-six days of Twardzik’s life are examined most closely because so much detail exists, and Chambers does not stop there, offering sad, grueling examinations of what happened after, including a reproduction of the form listing the dead man’s effects.

Chambers is also a capable writer, and occasionally he gets it in a sentence.  My favorite is his description of the place where Twardzik played a summer gig in 1951:

The atmosphere of the West Yarmouth hall is captured in a set of grainy black and white snapshots that were found among Twardzik’s effects.  The high ceiling gives some idea of the size of the room.  The bandstand appears to be pushed up against a booth, and similar vinyl-covered booths may have ringed the room.  The tables had Formica tops, like common kitchen tables of the day.  The main feature of the decor appears to be indestructibility.

I would give a great deal to have written that last sentence.

The book is carefully done, with what must be the best discography of Twardzik to date, although it would not surprise me if its appearance caused some new discoveries to appear, suddenly.  I hope that the broadcast with tenorist Sam Margolis is issued someday: Margolis, Ruby Braff’s Boston pal, was a fine player in the Lester-Bud Freeman school, someone I was fortunate enough to see and talk with in the early Seventies.

Even if you don’t know Twardzik’s music, this book is essential reading.  We should all be so lovingly and carefully remembered.

CAST OUT OF PARADISE: LESTER YOUNG

lester-in-parisSam Parkins, who was there, attentive, muses about Lester Young:

September 1945 I found myself back in the infantry at Fort McClellan, Alabama. The army had lost some of my training records and they needed me to fire the Bazooka and the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle – 30 cal. and a real bear to shoot), and they were in no hurry. I was going to have to re-graduate from basic training. Most of the rest of this rag-tag company were hardened combat veterans who had been fucked over by the army losing their records. It’s after VJ day.

The sergeants in charge were totally sympathetic; roll-call in the morning, traditionally out on the company street, included a lot of hung-over guys in bed, shouting from the sack, “I’m here sergeant.” Days on end with nothing to do so I found the band, started doing parades, the officers club ($5.00),the non-coms club ($4.00), and the USO. Played baritone with the big band. The drummer was a veteran of the entire European campaign, had been running into a fire fight with his best buddy beside him and watched the guy’s head being completely blown of by a mortar shell. He simply didn’t give a shit, and kept a bottle of Gordon’s gin under the bed for breakfast to keep the boogies away.

The army was totally, and I mean totally, segregated. The colored soldiers had their own gate, and there was a 100 yard lawn – a DMZ – between the two posts. No one allowed to pass in either direction. But their band had Count Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones, other Basieites, Lester Young (Basie’s star saxophonist) had just been drafted, was in basic training and played with the band when he could. Our drummer was the only one of us with the balls to walk across the lawn to rehearsals and dances and to get to know the black musicians.

He came back one night with a really lousy story. Lester Young (street name ‘Pres’) was in the guard house. He had pleaded to be excused from basic and be allowed in the band; the band leader petitioned the authorities, to no avail (and I wonder if a white musician would have made out better. I knew some who did, and after all, the war was over…).

In Geoff Dyer’s book, “But Beautiful” (great book if you can stand unvarnished tragedies), the author, using the Freedom of Information Act, got the transcript of the trial; there’s a lot of detail, all brutal, that I wasn’t privy to, but this here narrative is missing from all biographical accounts. No way any latter day historian could know it.

It’s night firing on the fifty caliber machine-gun range. Outside of the noise, it’s a pretty sight. Maybe twenty machine-guns lined up about eight feet apart, shooting down a slight incline at cardboard cutouts of enemy soldiers; every tenth bullet (tracer bullets) lights up as it’s fired so you see slightly arched lines of electric magic flowing from each gun barrel.

The sergeant, off to the side and slightly down-range, notices one line of magic markers disappear. He goes to investigate, and finds Lester Young lying on his back smoking a joint. Sergeant is aghast. “On your feet soldier!” Pres’ reply is to hand the sergeant the joint and – “Hey sarge — aren’t the stars pretty up in the sky?”

In his left hand pocket of his fatigue jacket were five more joints; sergeant calls the MPs and the founder of a style that was to sweep the country (think Stan Getz and “The Girl From Ipanema”) is led off to jail.

There was no rush to bring him to trial. He started acting up in his cell, noisy, woke guys at night, he wanted his horn. So the guard got it for him. End of the world. He played 24 hours a day, made everyone crazy, so they took it away from him. And he really lost it. I have no details, but the guards were white – and so forth.

Disobeying a direct order, possession of narcotics, 400 days in an army detention center.

Finally, mid-November, I fired the bazooka at a rusted-out shell-shocked hulk of a tank and was declared through with basic – again – and was awarded a 15 day furlough. And re-enlisted for an extra year (paid a lot more GI bill) and they tacked on another 30 days, so I was home from Thanksgiving to New Year and then some.

[Here I had a memory lapse, because I have remembered this over the years as 1946, after Pres had served his sentence. Wrong. Jazz impresario Norman Granz got in touch with the authorities, applied some kind of heat, and got him sprung in a few weeks].

Of course I went to the Savoy and there on the bandstand was Lester Young, leading a quintet with trumpeter Jesse Drakes and rhythm section. He was struggling – and in the middle of a tune pulled the horn from his chops and began to cry.

He never again played with the fluency of the Basie days. There are, captured on record, moments of magic, but something was broken. And the last time I saw him, at Storyville a month before his death, you knew you were hearing and seeing a dead man. He was drinking and starving himself to death… You don’t want to hear it from me. Read “But Beautiful” (Geoff Dyer; North Point Press, 1996. Paperback).

ca 2.19.03 notes

Regarding the Army vs. Lester Young: Goeff Dyer makes it clear that the army had a pretty good idea from Lester Young’s pre-induction physical what they were getting – a wired, messed up addict with syphilis – and they took him anyhow. Here we can damn the army, but show a mitigating factor.

Damning: After the war, the army essentially apologized for doing such a lousy job of screening draftees, and vowed to do better next time. My wife, Camilla Kemple, spent her academic life teaching the battery of psychological tests used for this purpose, and she tells me that they were mostly in place by the early forties when she started teaching (at the New School in New York). The army made little or no use of them.

An example right under my nose covers two wondrously disconnected elements. In the bus with me (during the Battle of the Bulge) on the way to the army induction center (Ft. Devens, Ayer, Mass.) was a cute little cat named Little Pres. Always showed up at sessions (along with a baritone player who called himself Lester Parker in order to cover all bases). Little Pres didn’t play all that well, but he was a pioneer. Lester Young hadn’t hit yet; us tenor players were still consumed with Hawkins/Webster fever. So Little Pres tried to show us the new way. He was round, maybe 5 ft. 2, had fashioned a pork-pie hat in the manner of his master, and preached the superiority of Pres Senior.

I have to interrupt here to describe what we apprentice tenor players were up against when we encountered the real thing. Little Pres and I, with our horns, were wandering the streets of Boston one Sunday afternoon and said, “Hey – Arnett Cobb is at the Savoy. Let’s go see if we can blow with him”. Arnett Cobb, veteran of Lionel Hampton’s band, one of those huge sounding Texas guys, master interpreter of the Illinois Jacquette “Flying Home” solo (which I had to play four times a night a few years later at the Golfer’s Club in Ithaca – that black after-hours dance hall/gambling club).

Get to the joint – “Sure boys, come right on up.”  And in the most kindly way possible, Arnett Cobb blew us right across the Charles River. There’s no point trying to put on paper how loud those guys were. Amplification for anyone but singers was unknown; the sheer power of the big bands came from acoustically loud (remember the girdles worn by the Condoli brothers, trumpets in Stan Kenton’s band. Prevented hernias).

I was in the army with a tenor player from Sam Donahue’s band. He described what the power-players did (Eddie Miller, Tex Beneke, Bud Freeman were of another, quieter, order). They bought the most open metal mouthpiece, filed it more open yet, got #5 hard reeds and clipped them. I tried a set-up like that and couldn’t make a sound. Not strong enough.

Back to Little Pres. He had seemed a little flaky, but what else is new? Drafted at the same time, we rode the bus together, had our uniforms fitted together, and parted. Assigned to different outfits, where a senior sergeant taught us to make a bed, army style. I didn’t see Little Pres again, but a week later heard about him. He was discharged. The flakes must have showed in some non-military way and he was sent home with a Section Eight. The most coveted premature discharge in the army. Medical discharge. Dishonorable discharge or discharge-without-honor can screw you up in later life. Means the induction center did no screening of this guy at all. I could have told them he was unfit.

Mitigation: Lester Young was inducted in August of 1944 when he was 35 years old. The Battle of the Bulge was raging, we weren’t at all sure we weren’t losing the war, and there loomed the horrendous prospect of invading Japan, code name ‘Operation Downfall’ (a novelist, using all available planning records from our army and Japan’s, wrote a fictional history of what would have happened had we invaded Japan. You don’t want to know). The atom bomb decision came very late in the game.

Green troops were pulled out of basic before they learned anything; were flown across the Atlantic to try to plug the leaks in our too thin lines across the neck of the Bulge. The draft was scraping the bottom of the barrel; the draft age was raised to forty. In my first go at basic training, while the Bulge was still on, we had a guy come in late – one of those poor slobs whose training records had been lost. He had been sent back from combat in the Bulge because: I noted his Coke-bottle glasses and asked him how come he was sent home. Here’s what he said:

“I was running into battle when this lieutenant came up to me and said, ‘Soldier – why are you wearing your gas mask?’  I said, ‘Sir, I’ve broken my glasses and I can’t see without the gas mask.'” If you had really rotten vision, your GI gas mask had prescription lenses. This guy had 20/400 vision; drafted anyhow.

So the drafting of Lester Young in this context makes it make a little more sense. But Geoff Dyer observes that Young consistently infuriated the army from physical on by being so weak and so passive. In an account of a white lieutenant making him tear up a picture of Billie Holiday (perceived as white) in the presence of the rest of the company, Dyer portrays the officer’s feelings:

“…He’d never encountered a man more lacking in strength, but he made the whole idea of strength and all the things associated with it seem irrelevant, silly. Rebels, ringleaders, and mutineers – they could all be countered: they met the army head-on, played by its rules. However strong you were, the army could break you – but weakness, that was something the army was powerless to oppose because it did away with the whole idea of opposition on which force depends. All you could do with the weak was cause them pain – and Young was going to get plenty of that.”

But it ain’t that simple. Here’s Dyer from an earlier time in Lester Young’s life: “When they jammed together Hawk tried everything he knew to cut him but he never managed it. In Kansas City in ’34 they played right through the morning; Hawk stripped down to his singlet, trying to blow him down with that big hurricane tenor, and Lester slumped in a chair with that faraway look in his eyes, his tone still light as a breeze after eight hours of playing. The pair of them wore out pianists until there was no one left and Hawk walked off the stand, threw his horn in the back of his car, and gunned it all the way to St. Louis for that night’s gig”.

That’s hardly a description of a weakling. But it’s ten years earlier, Pres is 25, and in that he freely admitted to having been an addict for ten years when he was drafted at 35, was at the time of this session drug free (‘though it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t blow a little gage – the term for smoking pot in the thirties). Here it should be noted that several Lester Young scholars find signs of his eventual disintegration in recordings made in the period just before he went in the army.

So what happened in 1944-45? Maybe the drugs. He had to be smoking pot, and admitted to amphetamines. Benzedrine, legal at the time, is truly vicious, starting with the cardio-vascular system and finishing with the brain. A combination of drugs may have begun to wreck his nervous system. And don’t forget the syphilis. It can go underground and leap out at you years – decades – later, and it eventually destroys the brain

But more likely – this from personal experience. In that session where he wasted Coleman Hawkins, he was on native turf, doing what he was born to do. In the army? Here’s an abbreviated version of my tale. Some of us have some schizophrenia and a touch of epilepsy in their ancestry; in my family, a lot (and look around you. More than you thought?). In 1950 my soon-to-be wife’s father came bombing up to Ithaca to prevent an unholy marriage. Ours. Late afternoon harangue. No dinner. Later and later harangue. I couldn’t walk away from it because it wold have put my wife-to-be at risk. Somewhere in the early AM I partially fainted. Still conscious, but removed from the scene. (We got married anyhow).

I’ll bet that under the brutal pressure Lester Young was subjected to, he simply shut down. It’s a mild seizure – protective circuitry kicks in. There was no way out of this. No Joe Glaser* to call. So the organism crawled into its shell. [* Joe Glaser – Louis Armstrong’s connected manager, never let anything remotely bad come near Louis]. And most likely, a combination of the above.

Here’s the day after I wrote all that, and I find it dissatisfying, in part because it exposes an arrogant attitude on my part which implies that Lester Young might have acted “better,” or “stronger,” for which I abjectly apologize. Don’t delete the above, because it includes contributing factors, and will stand as “out-takes” but let’s take another crack at it:

First of all, this is 1945, civil rights legislation is years away, we’re in the South, Lester Young, however light, is black, and the officers are white. The situation mirrors slavery because the officers have absolute power.

Now go ahead to about 1972. The magazine ‘Psychology Today’ reported a failed experiment at Stanford in the psychology department. The mission was to examine the dynamics of being a warden/prison guard as against being a prisoner. So the entire graduate department was enlisted; half the students were assigned prisoner status, the other half became guards. They were to be observed for two weeks at which point their roles would be reversed; guards would become prisoners and vice versa.

It lasted barely a week. The faculty had to abort the experiment abruptly because the prisoners were having crying jags and some were approaching a nervous breakdown. The guards were showing increasing meanness bordering on brutality – physical violence was looming. Remember that this was a reasonably random cross-section of the population. Now go back to Lester Young in the army and take another look at it with this experiment in mind.

For another vision of Lester’s story, read Frank Buchmann-Moller’s extraordinary biography, YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE — which draws on the Army’s files to give the facts behind this most traumatic story.  And, yes, it is just as painful as the mythic versions we all knew before the files came to light.

CANGELOSI CARDS: LIGHTNING IN THE DARKNESS

Often, when the Beloved and I go to a wonderful restaurant the second time, hoping to repeat the delicious experiences, Disappointment is one of the specials, on or off the menu.  What was blissful now seems formulaic; the shine is off of everything.

So I am thrilled to report that I dared the Fates and went back to Banjo Jim’s last night to repeat the experience of one week earlier — seeing the Cangelosi Cards perform on a Monday night.

And I brought a friend: the clarinetist and reed explorer / jazz scholar / memoirist Leroy “Sam” Parkins, whose words you’ve been reading in these pages.

Or, rather, he couldn’t stay away.  He had seen my January 30 posting about the Cards: CANGELOSI CARDS: SWEET SATORI! and wondered what they were like in person, and if he should bring his “Klarinette.”  I gave him encouraging answers to both questions.  The result was that Sam sat next to me right in front of the band for the first four songs (you’ll see them below) transfixed.  In fact, if you listen closely, you’ll hear an astonished man’s voice commenting on what’s going on in a kind of jazz rapture.

Tamar and Jake were happy to meet him and delighted with the idea that he wanted to sit in once the band got itself into its groove.

The Cards began as a band-within-the-band (a neat trick for such a compact touring ensemble) in Hot Club style.  Tamar Korn stood at our left, and you’ll see Karl Meyer on violin, Marcus Millius on harmonica, Jake Sanders on guitar, and Cassidy Holden on bass, pizzicato and arco both.  Everyone was in splendid form, with solo honors often going to Jake and Cassidy, both of whom soloed at greater length than I had heard them do a week ago.

The set began unusually with a soulful rendition of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, one of those songs (like GOODNIGHT, SWEETHEART) I expect bands to play at the end of the night, the close of the gig.  Here it was a wistful jumping-off place, quite remarkable.

Then, another piece associated with farewells (what was going through everyone’s mind?): AFTER YOU’VE GONE.

Gordon Webster, pianist of note, came in just in time to join the Cards on EXACTLY LIKE YOU — which I think of as ‘ZACKLY — and he was more than welcome.

Another admonitory song (in the “you’d better watch your step” mode) followed: SOME OF THESE DAYS.

Next to me, Sam alternated between rapture and impatience — this, after all, is truly his music, the sounds he grew up with.  Ever the instigator, I suggested he politely let everyone see that his clarinet was assembled, the reed properly moist and seated happily in the ligature . . . and it worked.  He was invited to the bandstand (an illusion at Banjo Jim’s) and, even better, the estimable trombonist Matt Musselman and Dennis Lichtman (usually on clarinet but initially doubling mandolin with great style and skill) came in.

Once the front line (actually leaning against the back wall and window) had settled itself in and introductions had been accomplished, someone asked Sam if he knew IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE.  This courtesy made me smile: it’s graciousness of the highest order when the members of the band want to make sure that the newcomer is comfortable with their repertoire.  But it was a kindness that Sam didn’t need, as he smiled gently and said that it was the first song he had learned to play as a young man in the Thirties.  He has an innate gleeful sense of his environment, and he let them know how pleased he was that they had chosen something that was in his very capillaries.)

And did they swing out.  Catch Matt grinning while Sam plays, and notice that although Tamar has taken her inspiration from Fats Waller’s recording (always a good idea!) that her scat singing goes deep inside.  It’s plaintive and nearly primitive, reaching back before recordings.

After a sweet, long MOONGLOW and a deep-down TISHOMINGO BLUES (not visible here because so many eager, expert dancers — including the nimbly stomping Mimi Terris — obscured Flip’s view), the Cards decided to end their set with another surprise.  Eddie Cantor’s theme, IDA, SWEET AS APPLE CIDER, is almost always done at a medium tempo.  Red Nichols took it very slowly; Eddie Condon (twenty years later) repeated the same wonderful idea (Pee Wee Russell in charge, both times).  But I’d really never heard it done as a stomp — which it is here. (Incidentally, all the percussive accents you hear in these clips are Tamar’s inventions.)

When this set was over, I was both elated and drained.  I had said I would stay for the second one, but I ended up taking my leave by saying to Tamar, “I’m full!  I don’t need to hear any more music,” and I happily drove home, thinking about the experience — which is at once jazz, country, Hot Club stomp, and music with a timeless yearning delicacy.  And a good deal of my pleasure is that Flip and I can share essential portions of it with you.

It just might be that the Cards are a pleasure we can go back to again and again with no diminuition of joy or insight.  At least I can testify that their brand of heartfelt, romping lightning struck twice — in the same place, no less.

IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO PRAISE

My title is a slight distortion of a Willard Robison song that Mildred Bailey did beautifully, and it’s also a statement of philosophy for this blog.  But I’m not going back into the Dear Departed Past, to quote Dave Frishberg, only back to last year — December 30, 2008, to be precise. 

applause

In a December post, WAY DOWN YONDER ON CARMINE STREET, I urged my New York readers to come hear the singer Ronnie Washam (she’s Veronica on her return address labels) and her Friends at the Greenwich Village Bistro for a debut gig.  I made it to 1 and 1/2 sets that night.  And they were worth writing about. 

Ronnie’s Friends — not just an idle band title — are Sam Parkins, also known as Leroy Parkins, Albert-system clarinetist, scholar, record producer, raconteur, and writer; Pete Sokolow, pianist-singer, honoring Earl Hines and Fats Waller, and bassist Dave Winograd. 

When I got down to the Bistro (just south of the IFC theatre and around the corner — 13 Carmine Street), this little band was already strolling through S’WONDERFUL.  They proceeded to honor George and Ira Gershwin in a fond and musically articulate set.  The songs ranged from the tender (EMBRACEABLE YOU and OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY) to the affectionately satiric (THEY ALL LAUGHED, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT), the rueful (BUT NOT FOR ME), and the riotous (Sokolow’s tribute to “my hero,” Thomas Waller, in a piano-vocal I GOT RHTYHM that summoned up Fats’s band version of 1935 hilariously and effectively.

Ronnie was in wonderful form and fine voice.  I hadn’t heard her since the Cajun closed in 2006, when she was “The Chelsea Nightingale,” positioned off to the side of the bandstand as an accessory to Bob Thompson’s Red Onion Jazz Band.  Thompson, even then, was a solid drummer with a well-earned grasp of jazz history, but he called the songs Ronnie sang, and it was a pleasure to see her sing others at the Bistro.  I knew her then as someone who loved the melody and understood the words; with this more relaxed combo, I heard her as a far freer improviser, someone whose second choruses were developments of what she had sung in her first exposition of the theme.  Her time remains excellent; her diction is splendid.  But it’s her feeling that sets her apart from a thousand other singers trying to comvince us that they own the Great American Songbook.  Like Bing, Ronnie makes it seem easy: listening to her, one might think, “Oh, I  could do that!”  But that would be an error.  And she had an easy give-and-take with the band, being content to be one of them rather than the Star. 

The band — all three of them — was very pleasing as well.  The piano wasn’t perfect, but Sokolow covered every inch of it, graciously playing the right chords, delicately voiced, behind Ronnie and the other two players.  Dave Winograd sat on a high stool, his bass at an angle over his shoulder, impressing us all with his huge tone and fine notes.  Sam Parkins has all the Goodman facility anyone would want, but he isn’t the twenty-first century’s Peanuts Hucko: he uses those flurries to create his own sound-pictures, with lovely excursions into the horn’s lower register. 

Sam is also a not-quite-dormant showman and vaudevillian, so one high point of the evening was his rapid-fire delivery of I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS.  Who among us remembers all of those tongue-twisting lyrics?  Sam remembers them and puts them over, exuberantly.  It was a joy to watch and hear him, occasionally finishing his sixteen bars and deciding to hand the baton to another player, hollering, “Somebody else!”  It worked. 

The second set moved beyond Gershwin to a naughty MAKIN’ WHOOPEE, a tender TIME ON MY HANDS, a funny CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU (a Waller-Razaf collaboration with an irresistible melody and irresistibly silly lyrics), a fervent ME MINUS YOU (in honor of Connee Boswell, one of Ronnie’s — and my — heroines), and a moving AM I BLUE, complete with the rarely-heard verse, where Ronnie showed just how compelling her understated delivery is.

I sat next to my friends Marianne Mangan and Bob Levin, and the three of us were beaming.  Others in the Bistro seemed to know just how good the music was, and the tip jar was filled with bills.  I hope this quartet has a new steady gig.  The ambiance, in itself, was worth seeking out, as if a group of talented friends was playing for their own enjoyment in someone’s living room, caring for the music above all.   

A postscript: Sam Parkins has been writing his musical and intellectual autobiography (he gave me some chapters from it when we were both regulars at the Cajun) and it’s wonderfully addictive.  You can find excerpts from it on his MySpace page:   http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=201966595.  He was there (I was just re-reading his piece on the death of Ellington bassist Junior Raglin) and he can write.  A rare combination indeed.