I didn’t see this one coming, and am delighted that it will soon be on my shelf: a new Mosaic Records 10-CD set devoted to the 1950-57 Jazz at the Philarmonic recordings for Norman Granz’s labels.
Before you read one more word, here‘s a link to the site where you can pre-order the set (at a $20 discount through January 8, 2023) and hear some fine audio evidence (complete performances!) from Gene Krupa, Ben Webster, Flip Phillips, Benny Carter, Oscar Peterson, Buddy DeFranco, Lionel Hampton, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, J. J. Johnson, Percy Heath, Connie Kay.
Others starring in this set are Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Bill Harris, Hank Jones, Harry Edison, Jo Jones, Sonny Stitt, Coleman Hawkins, J.C. Heard, Charlie Shavers, Willie Smith, Illinois Jacquet, Louie Bellson, and of course Miss Ella Fitzgerald. For collectors, there are five unissued performances — and since Granz’s documentation was occasionally improvised, there is scholarship to untangle mysteries.
When I began collecting records, the Verve microgroove issues of JATP concerts were easy to find in the cutout bins. Stunned by the profusion of famous names on the covers, I bought them without hesitation, yet at that point in my listening, I found them uneven. There was wild applause and sometimes histrionic display: trumpet and drum battles that were clearly thrilling in person required a certain sensibility to appreciate when coming out of a record player’s cloth speaker grille. But I did remind myself that there were gems from almost every musician in a JATP concert, and when things got too raucous, I could move the needle ahead. (Perhaps my sensibilities were — and are — too delicate. I won’t deny it.)
But I’ve come to appreciate both Granz — as a pioneer in integration AND in keeping my heroes well-paid and well-recorded (imagine a world without Verve, Clef, and Norgran, if you can). And, most importantly to my ears, every JATP concert featured a lengthy ballad medley.
I am sure that the fifteen-minute versions of INDIANA, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, various BLUES, FLYIN’ HOME and the like will be full of marvels to me in my more mature state, but what I am really looking forward to it close to fifty ballad performances — many of them one well-chosen chorus — by masters of that art, especially Ben Webster, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, and Coleman Hawkins.
And so you know that JAZZ LIVES has an ethical platform, I’ve pre-ordered a copy before publishing this post. I hope you’ll join me — especially if you are a jazz enthusiast whose family says, “What in the name of all that’s holy will we get for _____ this year?” Show them the Mosaic site and relax. Better than socks. And I like socks.
Some years before I met the reedman Sammy Margolis in New York City (at the Half Note, 1971, sitting in with his friend Ruby Braff) I had heard and admired him on record: a floating player, thoughtful, incorporating Bud Freeman, Lester Young, and Pee Wee Russell into his own gentle conception. He was never loud or forceful, but a sonic watercolorist.
In the next few years, I had the good fortune to hear and record him in several gigs: at Brew’s, at the New School, on an afternoon gig in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, at the Root Cellar in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, along with Vic Dickenson, Jack Fine, Marshall Brown, Doc Cheatham, Mike Burgevin, Dick Wellstood, Dill Jones, and others. I was a shy college student, reluctant to impose myself in conversation with my heroes, although from what I know of Sam, he would have made me welcome.
This was my first aural introduction to Sammy, serene in Ruby Braff’s energized wake, thoughtfully creating songs of his own:
and Sammy’s beautiful interlude in the company of George Wein:
About a year ago, I made friends (thanks to Facebook) with his multi-talented daughter Carla, who generously shared her memories of her father. I offer her extended loving portrait to you now, with thanks.
Sammy and Louis: photograph by Jack Bradley, courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum
My dad had a fraternal twin brother who was also musically talented. He played piano by ear and whenever they went to the movies as kids, his brother would come home and play themes the pianist played during the showings, having somehow retained all of that musical information in his head. My Uncle Carl (for who I am named) tragically died young (I think from glomular neuphritis) after having returned home from WWII.
His father was a housepainter who died from a burst appendix when my dad was eight. His 12 year old (?) brother Mortie had to go to work as did his mother. He had two sisters as well.
I’m not even sure how he and Ruby came to be friends. As my dad often loved to say, “Oh, yes, I’ve been friends with Ruby many times.” My mother actually dated Ruby first. I don’t know what happened there, but then my mother started dating my dad.
Sammy and Ruby Braff, photograph by Jack Bradley, courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum
The recordings that you sent me, around 1974, I was surprised that Ruby was on there. I heard so much about Ruby, but I never met him until I was a teenager. I was under the impression that they were on the outs, and I thought maybe it was because of the relationship with my mother, but I don’t know. They both were Boston people who came to New York, but they were really not the same people, my father and Ruby.
On records, he was the sideman for Ruby most of the time. But he was on a Martin Mull recording that Ruby wasn’t on. I didn’t know that he was on fifteen recordings! He talked about how much he hated doing studio work, that it made him very anxious. He didn’t like recording. And I didn’t find out until maybe two and a half years ago that he was on so many recordings.
Ruby and my dad loved Bud Freeman and Lester Young, but he had considered jumping the fence into be-bop. He strongly considered that, because that was what was coming, what was current. He claimed that Ruby had talked him out of it, so they both stayed on that side of the fence. I don’t know if he was happy about that decision or not, I don’t know how that went. He didn’t have a great opinion about bop — I went to Indiana University and I was a jazz studies major, and he was kind of unenthusiastic about it, but then he started listening to it more . . .
I do remember going to Brew’s and the Red Blazer with him. I remember going to Doylestown, Pennsylvania with him, the club that had the big murals at the back of the stage, Mike Burgevin’s THE ROOT CELLAR. He took me to the hotel once, and I remember telling him that I wouldn’t go to bed until he played SATIN DOLL. I was about nine.
Kenny Davern, Mike Burgevin, and Sammy at Brew’s, New York City: courtesy Chuck Slate
When I was in my teens, he had me sitting in a lot, singing, when he was playing at Jimmy Ryan’s with Max Kaminsky, who was the leader. Ernie Hackett, Bobby Hackett’s son, was playing drums. The trombonist might have been Bobby Pratt. One night I sat in and Roy Eldridge was in the audience, my dad introduced me to him, and I was “Yeah, okay, I don’t know who that is.” I’m really glad I didn’t know who Roy was when I was singing! I remember going to Eddie Condon’s with him, and he played a lot in the basement of the Empire State Building, at a restaurant called the Riverboat.
Back row: Sammy, Ruby, Vic Dickenson, Jackie Williams, Al Hall; front: Wayne Wright, Jimmy Andrews. Brew’s, New York City. Photograph by Mike Burgevin, courtesy Chuck Slate.
A musical interlude, 1974, part one:
and part two:
He was really making a living doing these gigs. He wasn’t doing anything else. In the summers he would play in the Catskills, all summer. The Italian Catskills, not the Jewish Catskills. I went with him one time; I usually spent my summers with him because my mom and dad weren’t together. From the time I was about eight I spent summers with him in New York. My mother sang a little bit but I wouldn’t call her a singer although she liked to sing. She was an actor and dancer who sang. She came to New York for that, and my dad was impressed with her dancing but he never saw her act, which I find astonishing, because that’s what her big aspirations were, and that’s what she did, mostly. She was a dancer at the Copacabana, and I don’t know where else. And she studied at the Herbert Berghoff Studio. But she later became a lawyer. Because of them, I grew up with a lot of exposure to musical theater and to jazz.
My father was really sweet and affectionate. He read a lot of Krishnamurti. He was very much into health foods and supplements, always reading up on those things. He was into ayurvedic medicine. He ate other things, but he wanted me to be very healthy. He was, although culturally, ethnically and gastronomically Jewish, an atheist, but interested in Eastern philosophy. Despite his avid interest in health foods, supplements, etc., he did enjoy the occasional hamburger and jelly doughnut and Sanka with Sweet and Low. When I asked him about that he responded “Years of bad habits.”
He was also a really good athlete, very athletic, forever, up until right before he died. He played golf and tennis. I remember he and Ruby had done a date in Hawaii with Tony Bennett, and when they came back he and Tony played tennis often. Once when they were playing tennis, some guy from the club asked Tony if he would play with him after he got done playing with his instructor (meaning my dad)…my mom loved telling that story.
I remember we went to Tony’s apartment one time and had lunch. Tony had artwork there and I thought that was really cool, because my dad was also a really lovely artist as well. He did a lot of watercolors. I don’t know what happened to his art, whether he got rid of it when he moved to Florida in 1990 or 1991, but it disappeared and I wanted to have some of it.
Portrait of the singer Connie Greco by Sammy Margolis
In NYC, he lived in Hell’s Kitchen on 44th and 10th Avenue. At that time, one had to be rather paranoid to stay safe from crime. Of course he was diligent about locking his car and his apartment. Once he moved to Deerfield Beach, Florida, he refused to live in fear and refused to lock his apartment or his car. Whenever I visited him in Florida, he would not allow me to lock anything either, which I found hilarious. I lived in NYC at the time, and understood completely.
He had had rheumatic fever as a child, and later that caused a leaky heart valve, so some time in the late Eighties he had surgery to replace the heart valve – several surgeries, because there was an artificial heart valve that his body rejected, then there was a pig valve which worked, but he had to be very careful. I’m not sure if he knew that he had prostate cancer before he moved to Florida. He moved down there to relax, to be a “snowbird” with family who spent winters in Palm Springs. There were a lot of musician friends who had retired to Florida, so he did do some gigs there – but he was basically retired when he went down there. He was very worried that the heart problem was going to do him in, but it was the prostate cancer, and they couldn’t do surgery because of the heart problem.
When I took my son down to Florida as a baby (I think that was the last time my dad saw him), I had to go to the laundry room in his complex, leaving him alone with my son (who could stand up but wasn’t yet talking). He played clarinet for my son to keep him amused. I only caught the tail end of it when I returned. It was so cute, my son was enthralled.
He was very funny, very outgoing, and he had hilarious stories. He was a very good storyteller, and I loved that. There was a story about a tiger in Bermuda, but I don’t remember how it went. He spent some time on cruise ships going to Bermuda, and he used to bring back gifts for me and art. There’s one statue of a woman which I have in my house now that he always had on the mantel in his living room.
He loved taking me to museums, to art museums, oh my gosh. He would talk to me about composition, and he loved Matisse and vibrant colors. Did you know he studied at the Art Students’ League? I mean, he felt it was really kind of a curse to be really good at a lot of things, but not just art. He was an intellectual, and some things he didn’t really have to try to be good at. Cooking and art and more. He was a thinker, and that may have been hard for him later. He loved Nature, and we’d go to Central Park, and he’d set up some watercolors and we’d draw, but he didn’t interfere with what I was doing, he would just let me do my thing.
Whenever we were walking down the street in New York, and we did a lot of walking together, and he was always singing or humming. All the time! – when we were talking or even when we were. He was a man full of music. There was never ever a second when it wasn’t turned on. I should record THE MORE I SEE YOU for him, because he always wanted me to do that song. I don’t know why it was that particular one, but he did. And he used to sing ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET all the time.
He loved having me sing, whenever I was with him in a club. Once I started that, he loved it. And he would give me really, really helpful feedback. Truly helpful. He was not overly critical of my singing at all. No, he was lavishing praise, But when I wanted to be a music major in college – I started out as a French major –which was actually useless to me (what was I going to do with that?) when I was at Indiana University. But I had friends who were musicians, I interacted with them, and they were super-surprised that I was not a music major. “You should be a music major!” they told me. I was terrified that I would not get in to the program. I went and did an unofficial audition for David Baker first, and he sent me to this classical vocal teacher, then, with their blessing, I officially auditioned for the music school there. I got it, but I didn’t tell anybody at all that I had auditioned.
Then I called my dad to tell him I had gotten in, and he was tickled, he was beside himself with joy. He hung up the phone, and thirty seconds later he called me back. “Are you sure you don’t want to get a different major as a backup? Why don’t you stick with the French?” And I looked at the phone, and I was like, “French??? French is more useless than music. I don’t know what the hell I would do with French. Go somewhere and translate?” I had no vision how that would work into my life. It cracked me up that he was so overjoyed and then called me back and was “Wait, wait, wait . . . . “ It was the mentality he grew up with; my dad was born in 1923. I mean, when I moved back to New York as an adult, I saw him every week, at least once a week, we had our official dinner once a week. I had a day gig at a Japanese insurance company, because I could type. And he would tell me, “You know, my dream for you, my goal for you, my life-dream is for you to marry some businessman you meet around there.” “Wow. Really? Your dream for me?” It didn’t work out that way. Maybe he was right, I don’t know. He was worried that if I became a singer I would become an alcoholic. He was sure those two things went together. It did not happen, but he was very, very worried about that.
He also helped me be prepared when dealing with musicians, even on pick-up dates, sitting in, or being a leader. He really told me, “You know, musicians are going to hate you because you’re a singer. You really have to be super prepared so that they respect you.” I thought that was the best piece of advice anybody could give me. I was incredibly spoiled by all the musicians I met even when I was a little girl. But when I was little even though I played a little piano, I didn’t know what keys I sang in. I’d just start to sing, they would find the key, and it would be fine. I was spoiled by that. But things change.
I remember meeting Vic Dickenson and Doc Cheatham, Marshall Brown, Mike Burgevin, Kenny Davern, and of course Max Kaminsky. Oh, there’s a sad thing. I was supposed to meet Louis Armstrong, my dad really wanted to introduce me to him, but I was in Michigan and Louis died before I got back to New York, but later I did meet Lucille Armstrong. Dill Jones was the first pianist to play for me in public. My mom and dad were both really good friends with Jack Bradley. My sister said – I wasn’t old enough to understand this – that Jack facilitated it so that my mother bought Louis’ cream-colored Cadillac from Louis for five hundred dollars. I remember that car very well and I know there was some connection to Jack Bradley and Louis.
That same evening. Photograph by Mike Burgevin.
In the Seventies, when I was in New York with him, he would go off and do gigs at night, and I wasn’t going out at night so I would stay at the apartment watching TV, but I got hold of his fakebook, and I was going through it, listening to jazz recordings that he had, and jazz radio – he listened to WNEW – teaching myself songs from that fakebook. Even though I couldn’t really read music yet, I would listen to people singing the songs and I would follow along. I learned a lot of tunes that way. I wouldn’t have learned them with him around, or my mother around: that was solo contemplation.
And on those recordings you sent, you said there were people talking at the start, and I thought, “Oh, I hope I get to hear his voice!” and he wasn’t talking, but he was in the background warming up his saxophone, and that’s why he wasn’t talking, he was on the stand already.
There’s a story my dad liked to tell, and in my recollection I cannot do it justice because I cannot give you his facial expressions or inflections. He was at his friend’s apartment in upper Manhattan (I don’t remember whose apartment, possibly Lou Levy’s?). Dave Lambert was at the party. Jazz records were being played (of course). Someone knocked on the door and the host asked my dad to answer. He opened the door and Duke Ellington was standing there. My dad was so surprised to see one of his idols standing there. After he let him in, the host asked my dad to pick the next record for everyone to listen to. My dad was so nervous because he couldn’t believe he was picking music for Ellington to listen to. I wish I could remember what he chose. But evidently it was something Ellington liked.
Here is Ruby Braff’s elegy for his friend, Ruby’s liner note to the 1996 BEING WITH YOU (Arbors):
This album, this salute to Louis, is as much about Sam Margolis as it is about Pops!
So much of my musical thinking was formed and inspired by the musical dedication and artistic humility of Sam, my old friend and teacher. No one ever did or could pay more homage to the genius and influence that Louis had on every aspect of American music. In that sense, Sam was a great champ and winner.
On March 23, 1996 tragedy struck out group of friends and many others! Our Sammy lost his fight with cancer. To the end he went with great courage and gallantry! My thoughts were about him as we made this recording a scant few weeks later.
Every one who knew him will miss this enormously talented person of profound influence. Jack Bradley’s great picture of Sam and Pops is the way I think he’d like to be remembered.
May God grant him the eternal peace his great soul deserves.
We will never forget you, Sam . . .
I would add to those grieving words my own perception that Sammy Margolis, up close or at a distance, was a joyous individual, a remarkable man: gentle, funny, modest, multi-talented. I regret now that my shyness got in the way of a real conversation, because I feel that Sammy would have engaged my young self with kindness.
There will be more music to celebrate Sammy, and perhaps JAZZ LIVES’ readers have their own tales. He deserves to be well-remembered. And my deep thanks to Carla Margolis for her memories above.
LESTER’S BLUES is a septet (often with guests) based in Gent, Belgium, and they swing like mad.
In instrumentation, they resemble the Reno Club band and they have much of the same free-wheeling joyous spirit. Basie always started with the saxophone section, so I will also: Tom Callens, tenor, alto, vocal; David Lukacs, clarinet, tenor; Hans Bossuyt, trumpet; Luk Vermeir, piano; Victor Da Costa, guitar; Sam Gersmans, string bass; Frederik Van den Berghe, drums; guests Dree Peremans, trombone; Monique ‘Mo’ Harcum, vocal.
I found their first album so delightful that I did everything but hug the disc. I distrust hyperbole, but called it “a triumph” here. Visit that post, by the way, and you can savor some delightful video evidence. Just be sure that the Depression glass is not too close to the edge of the shelf, because your castle will be rocking.
One of the pleasures of this band is that their repertoire is intelligently spacious. “Basie tributes” often fall back on familiar lines on I GOT RHYTHM, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, the blues, and a few ballads . . . but JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE has been picked clean, and many forget that the Basie band was also playing IF I DIDN’T CARE, THE YOU AND ME THAT USED TO BE, and originals like TAXI WAR DANCE, inspirations that LESTER’S BLUES follows. They remember that Lester loved the music he heard on the radio.
Enough with the words, as they say. Some music!
Thinking about the blues idiom and Bessie — in a performance that, to me, imagines a Basie-Bessie performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938 (think FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING). Totally evocative without raising its voice:
and the expertly frolicsome GEORGIA JUBILEE, credited to Arthur Schutt and a young man from Chicago named Benny:
Several things leap out at me: not only the immense subtlety of the soloists, but the wonderful mix of exactitude and freedom in the ensembles. And the sound! Delicious and warm, never clinical.
In addition to these two performances, the new disc, RADIO RHYTHM, offers LITTLE WHITE LIES, WHEN THE SUN SETS DOWN SOUTH, MOTEN’S SWING, ROLL ‘EM, CLIMAX RAG, I LEFT MY BABY, THAT’S ALL, and the title tune for a total of ten performances both leisurely and compact. The band is comfortably “modern,” in its grooving, but no one needs six choruses to get rolling. Readers with memories will notice associations with Jelly Roll and Mary Lou, Smack, Bechet, and Mister Five by Five in addition to Basie and Lester in a variety of periods.
And what this recording and this band remind me, with gentleness and integrity, is that classic jazz is an unbroken continuum over the last century-plus, with our heroes in contemporary times offering love to the past, while the past says, “Go on and be yourselves! We did it, and that’s why you admire us so.”
I offer as testimony to the greatness of this orchestra and of this session my chunk of enthusiastic prose — but don’t quail, it’s only a little more than six hundred words. Or you can skip to the end and purchase the music.
There are two ways to approach the Past. One is to handle it tenderly as fragile relic, ready to dissolve into dust. Thus, bands play CHANT OF THE WEED from manuscript paper, aiming to sound like a 1933 Don Redman 78 rpm record. Expertly done, it sends shivers down the spine. But for others it is like a parlor trick, an impressionist pretending to be someone else. The other approach acknowledges that our heroes were innovative, horrified at the idea of being “a repeater pencil.” LESTER’S BLUES knows the originals by heart and has taken them to heart, but they are a band with spice. They have a glorious wildness at their center of their deep love of classic jazz. They are respectful of the original arrangements – they do not destroy the cathedral to put up a shopping mall — but within the arrangements they go their own idiosyncratic joyous ways. They create devoted homages to the recorded past, but those prayers to Bluebird Records and the Famous Door are springboards for creativity, not ankle bracelets to keep living artists restricted to older conventions. And what I hear is exultant, even when melancholy andslow.
The musicians have a common love of swing. Sadly, manycontemporary players and singers keep “the pocket” or “the groove” at arm’s length, as if swing is Grandpa’s pocket watch and fob in the era of the iPhone. How sad. On the rock of this rhythm section this band could build a new swinging city on a hill. And the soloists! Bless them for their strong personalities, rooted yet playful, and celebrate them for how well they meld into vivid unity. And bless the light-hearted and sublimely effective arrangements, at once roadmaps and wind in the trees.
Each performance has its own singularity. I won’t praise the soloists, nor will I anatomize each performance or tell the history of each song – that’s your delightful homework – but these ten performances fill the room with light and joy. And more: each track is at once music and beyond music: one is a Turner landscape, another a Jacob Lawrence, a Calder, a Kandinsky.
None of this is by accident. Tom Callens told me, “We have a total of ten tracks which were chosen out of a bigger pool of songs. We chose these for their freshness, special arrangements, strong melodies, less popularly known (except ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out’ of course), or just because we have an emotional attachment to them. That’s why it’s not a concept or tribute album. It’s just us trying to play really well, having a new repertoire, a cohesive and rhythmic sound, and enjoying the ride. We recorded at the same place as earlier and this time did it using one stereo ribbon mic (in blumlein configuration), positioning ourselves around it and adjusting our positions to mix the individual volume levels. The L-R signal was fed through a state of the art dual tube microphone preamp and sent straight to two-track tape. Tracks were recorded in one go (one-takes) so there’s no editing involved.”
Just like the old days, but brand-new. Passion and exactitude; personal freedom within defined frameworks, power and airy lightness (like Jimmy Rushing on the dance floor). And it all fuses in the nicest communal way. LESTER’S BLUES feels like “a band,” spiritually: a happy group united for a communal purpose. I imagine them getting together for a celebratory meal after the session, laughing and enjoying what they have created. I am sure that Pres, Basie, Jo, Benny, Bessie, Jelly Roll, Mister Five by Five, and Charlie (Christian and Parker) are grinning their faces off. You will be, too.
Yes, music for dancers, but also music for people who pat their foot and grin while seated in front of their computer and speakers. Music for people who understand joy, recognize it, and avidly choose it.
You can find both their albums (or downloads) here.
Yes, Vic Dickenson. You know, the “Dixieland” trombonist known for his “wry humor.”
A small sweet surprise: Vic Dickenson, trombone; Earl Hines, piano; Harley White, string bass; Eddie Graham, drums — playing an Ellington ballad, perhaps THE Ellington ballad. So many writers made so much of Vic’s “dirty” style, his growls, that they forgot his deep heart, his deep feelings for pretty songs . . . his love of melody, of pure sounds. And although no one was wise enough to ask Vic to make a recording of Ellington and Strayhorn, he called IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD as his feature night after night when I saw him.
The first thing an attentive listener might notice is Vic’s slowing-down the tempo: he’s not about to be rushed into baroque Hines flourishes. A stately yet passionate exposition of the melody, growing more fervent in his second chorus. Then a coda-cadenza, rhapsodic and bluesy all at once. A masterpiece from the Grande Parade du Jazz at Nice, France, performed on July 20, 1975.
Hank O’Neal told me that one of his dream projects was to record Vic with strings. Such a pity that didn’t happen. Listen to I GOT IT BAD again and realize that, as a ballad player, Vic is at the level of Ben and Pres, Hodges and his dear friend Bobby Hackett. Thank goodness we have these four minutes of Vic, quietly reminding us of what he did and could do: wordlessly touch our hearts without making a fuss of doing so.
When Louis Armstrong was going to play ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS with his All-Stars, he might say, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to take you down to my home town, to jump a good old good one . . . ” and after Billy Kyle or Marty Napoleon had played a piano introduction, the band would play it at a fairly fast tempo. But it wasn’t always so: the 1922 recording by the “Dixie Daisies” is quite moderate, and the 1927 Bix-and-Tram excursion even more so, although bands took the song faster as the decades went by.
Here, for context, lyrics, verse, and more — and it’s a delightful recording! — is the first recording of the song:
I find that version perfectly charming. Perhaps fifteen years later, Lester Young (who remembered NOLA fondly) performed the song at a faster tempo, but Lester being Lester, there was a good deal of elasticity in his approach to the song as it rollicked by, stretching out over the beat like a cat waking from a nap.
The EarRegulars, that phenomenal jazz-repertory-company of lower Manhattan and environs, took up ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS at their holy gathering of August 29, 2021. Taking it very easy, but with a purpose, they glide through the “good old good one,” a hymn in praise of the Crescent City, in a very Lester-Buck-Durham-Page-and-then-Rollini mood (you could look it up).
They are Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor and bass saxophone; Chris Flory, guitar; Pat O’Leary, string bass, at The Ear Out — that’s on the sidewalk outside The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York:
Transformative and lovely. The EarRegulars, since Halloween, have gone indoors — Sunday nights from 8-11 (approximately) and I hope to bring myself and my camera there and money for our friend Phillup the Bucket. Maybe we’ll get to say HELLO! (in our Fats-voices or not).
Oh, little things. The subtleties of melodic embellishment. Imbuing the familiar written notes with personality. Being witty without being heavy-handed. Creating light-hearted perpetual-motions of swing. Working as a community. Honoring the elders but understanding just how innovative those elders are.
In short, the very foundations of great enticing art that never shouts or insists on capital letters. A wooing art, genial and seductive. Humane and friendly — and graciously old-fashioned in its embrace of listeners, with no hauteur.
The music that exemplifies these assertions was performed and recorded at the cleverly titled Vegans N’ Roses in Spain, a month or so before the pandemic told us that the bar was closed indefinitely. How fortunate we are to have this evidence, which drummer Guillem has just posted on YouTube and which I happily share with you.
TEACH ME TONIGHT:
Children at play in a field, but with the wisdom of the Elders — that’s what I hear. If these musicians are new to you, write their names down on the back of a grocery receipt and carry it in your wallet . . . or note them on your phone, so you won’t forget them. They know how to light the way.
Happy 92nd birthday, Eminent Dan Morgenstern, friend of Louis, George Wein, Hot Lips Page, two hundred others, and deep friend of the music. I’ve been privileged to bring my camera to Dan’s Upper West Side apartment and stand back while the magic — insights, memories, stories, and affection — unfolds. Here are a few of his conversations about his and our heroes, with more to come.
Lester Willis Young:
Lester, George Holmes Tate, and Eugene Ramey:
I will share a few others tomorrow — names you will recognize — and also some interviews you haven’t tuned in on yet.
Because I followed Ruby Braff around circa 1971-82, I had many opportunities to see him in a variety of contexts. But I saw him in duet with Dick Hyman only twice, I think, and neither time was Dick playing the gorgeous pipe organ he has at his command here. Thank goodness for the BBC, which took the opportunity of recording Ruby and Dick in concert at a spot which had an actual Wurlitzer pipe organ.
I’d heard this forty-minute session on a cassette from a British collector, but only this year — through the kindness of a scholar-friend did I get to see the performance and have an opportunity to share it with you. The details:
Dick Hyman, Wurlitzer pipe organ; Ruby Braff, cornet, introduced by Russell Davies. SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH / THEM THERE EYES / LOUISIANA / HIGH SOCIETY / WHEN I FALL IN LOVE / JITTERBUG WALTZ (Braff out) / BASIN STREET BLUES. Recorded for broadcast on the BBC at the Thursford Fairground Museum, Norfolk, UK. A few audio and video defects come with the package: the occasional pink hue, the slight static. I’m not complaining. Annotations thanks to Thomas P. Hustad’s definitive bio-discography of Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY (Scarecrow Press, 2012).
Music that impresses the angels and moves the heavens. And speaking of blessedness, let us honor the durably lovely Dick Hyman, still making celestial sounds.
There are certain songs I have a limited tolerance for, and BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME is one. I revere the Jimmie Noone and Eddie Condon versions, but too many times when this song is performed by a “traditional” band someone steps forth to speak-sing it, chorus and patter. Perhaps I have NAUGHTY SWEETIE PTSD.
But not in this case. For one thing, no one in this edition of The EarRegulars burst into song. They are Jon-Erik Kellso, Puje trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Chris Flory, guitar; Pat O’Leary, bass.
No, the ambiance here is entirely lacking in striped-vest-and-plastic-boater-counterfeited-glee. In fact, even though none of these musicians was born in either Kansas City, there is a distinct Pres-Reno Club flavor to this, and I am sure Milt Gabler and Harry Lim approve:
Nothing particularly naughty about this — innovative, rocking, and delightful, though. Characteristically EarRegular.
There was sufficient enthusiasm among the attentive faithful for more from BREW’S (I posted a set of Kenny Davern, soprano saxophone; Dill Jones, piano; Mike Burgevin, drums, yesterday) so I offer some more, without too many words to explain the deep effects of this music.
First, a set taken from the July 4, 1974 tribute to Louis Armstrong (a night where Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Vic Dickenson, Herb Hall, Nancy Nelson, and others performed) with Jack Fine, trumpet; Sam Margolis, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Jimmy Andrews, piano; Mike Burgevin, drums.
Even when it wasn’t a Louis tribute, it was clear where Jack’s allegiance lay — forceful and expressive — and next to him, Sam Margolis floats in his own wonderful Bud Freeman – Lester Young way. That little Louis-Condon (hence the ballad medley) evocation is followed by two trio performances from July 10:
Dmitry Baevsky is more than an expert swinging saxophonist and composer. He’s also a compelling musical storyteller, completely adept in all the languages of jazz. His new CD, SOUNDTRACK, is pleasing on several levels.
For years now, I’ve thought the terms, “Modern,” “Classic,” “Traditional” were spectacularly useless when describing the music I and others cherish: they were words to suggest primacy, superiority; words beloved of journalists and promoters. So I won’t diminish this restorative new CD by tagging one of those obsolete labels to it. I will simply say that it pleases the ear on multiple playings, and each time I hear it I come away with a feeling that Dmitry, Jeb, David, and Pete have important yet light-hearted things to tell me and other listeners. That’s precious.
Here’s a series of small tastes, full of brightly-colored energy:
On one level, this is musical autobiography — Dmitry is no newcomer and this is his ninth CD — that takes us along with him, from Saint Petersburg to New York to Paris. But fear not: this is not a series of musical snapshots, their meanings only fully evident to the photographer. Dmitry has chosen works by Rollins, John Lewis, Ornette, Ahmad Jamal, Vernon Duke, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, and the composers of KISMET. So it isn’t inscrutable postmodernism: “This composition of mine is what I play when I think about my first club date in Greenwich Village,” and each of the songs has a particular flavor, and each is given a tender yet rhythmically alert treatment. The liner notes by Dmitry, which are fascinating on their own, detail the connections between the peregrinations of a traveler and the growth of an artist.
Here’s something pretty, lyrical, and swinging — STRANGER IN PARADISE:
And AUTUMN IN NEW YORK:
Lest you think this is simply a CD of standards taken at moderate tempo, here’s Dmitry’s own OVER AND OUT:
If you want to play the game of WHO DOES HE SOUND LIKE, I leave such capers to you. All I know is that Dmitry has clearly studied both the music in back of him and those melodies yet to be created: he embodies a tradition with its nose to the window, looking to see what’s next. A nimble player with beautiful articulation, he is deeply in love with sound, song, and rhythm. Thus he can be sweetly lyrical on a ballad or ride the rhythm expertly, both following it and propelling it. And each performance has its own quiet drama: Dmitry, encouraged by his brilliantly cohesive bandmates: Jeb Patton, piano; David Wong, string bass; Pete Van Nostrand, drums.
When I first received this CD, I put it in the player without reading the liner notes, and I was entranced by the variety of colors and suggestions. Later, I read the notes and understood it as (in some ways) program music, but I kept going back to the sounds themselves. I think you will, too. You might know the story of Sonny Stitt, on the Jazz at the Philharmonic bus, going up and down the center aisle, playing everything he knew — and that was a great deal — until Lester Young said to him, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt. But can you sing us a song?”
Lester would have smiled at the songs Dmitry and friends create.
Four of my musical heroes made wonderful sounds the other night at Swing 46 (that’s 349 West 46th Street, New York City): Dan Block, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Gabrielle Stravelli, vocal; Michael Kanan, piano; Pat O’Leary, string bass.
Four heroes, five wonderful performances. It was a Tuesday night; the gig went from 5:30 to 8:30 — hardly the day and time one would expect aesthetic firework displays, but they certainly happened.
TICKLE-TOE — an instrumental tribute to and embodiment of Lester Young, so happily. Savor the first ballad chorus!:
SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME — could anything be more tender?:
Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler give us friendly rules for living and romance, AS LONG AS I LIVE:
Even though it was becoming dark, here’s a frolicsome DAY IN, DAY OUT:
A sweetly pensive Kurt Weill medley scored for the trio — LOST IN THE STARS / HERE I’LL STAY:
And a few words about Swing 46 — it was a pleasure to be there in a congenial atmosphere — a large food-and-drink menu and a very welcoming staff. Next Tuesday, Dan will be back with the delightful Hilary Gardner (swinging, surprising, and introspective) and other luminaries to be announced, from 5:30 to 8:30. And at 9, the irreplaceable Michael Hashim leads noble friends — who have included Chris Flory and Kevin Dorn — in an impromptu session. That’s 349 West 46th Street, the north side, between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. Leave your bedroom: put down the phone: Netflix will be here when you come back: what’s in the freezer is safe. Hear some restorative live music among like-minded friends.
As James Chirillo has been known to say after a particularly satisfying session, “Music was made.” That it was, last Sunday afternoon in the bright sunshine (and cooling breezes) in front of the Ear Inn on 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City. The EarRegulars were Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Jay Rattman, bass saxophone; Ricky Alexander, clarinet and tenor saxophone. But before a note had been played, Jon-Erik noticed that theCheckEngine light was shining from his trumpet, so he absented himself for a bit to get it looked at, secure that music would be made in his absence. (He came back before the set was over.)
This was a novel instrumentation, one that might have been either earthbound or unbalanced in the hands of lesser musicians. But the synergy here was more than remarkable, and the pleasure created in each chorus was palpable. This hot chamber trio — soaring, lyrical, rambunctious — performed six songs in their trio set. Here are the first three, to be savored.
SUNDAY, which goes back to 1926 (think Jean Goldkette and Cliff Edwards) but was also a favorite of Lester Young. Here, the Mini-EarRegulars also play the verse, an unexpected pleasure:
UNDER A BLANKET OF BLUE was one of Frank Chace’s favorite songs, and I think of the tender version by Ella and Louis. A rarity, though: when was the last time you heard a group play it?
And Edgar Sampson’s rocking BLUE LOU:
A fellow listener turned to me between songs and said, marveling, “Aren’t they grand?” I agreed, as I hope you would have also.
I’ve written about the wonderful band, “Lester’s Blues,” led by tenor saxophonist Tom Callens, here, when they released their first recording, a few years ago. Those who play know that such swing isn’t something one learns in the first weeks of practice, but these musicians make it feel effortless . . . in the grand tradition.
But here is an hour of them in performance, lightly swinging but firmly in that 1936-40 groove: emulating but not copying. This session was aired 9th of April 2021 for the online Swing Paradise festival of Vilnius, Lithuania. The players are Frederik Van den Berghe, drums; Sam Gerstmans, string bass; Victor Da Costa, guitar; Luk Vermeir, piano; Frank Roberscheuten, clarinet / tenor saxophone; Hans Bossuyt, trumpet; Tom Callens, tenor saxophone.
And the songs — so well-chosen — are ESQUIRE BOUNCE / BROADWAY / I LEFT MY BABY / LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME / SIX CATS AND A PRINCE / ONE O’CLOCK JUMP / LITTLE WHITE LIES / TICKLE TOE / BASIE’S BOOGIE (I MAY BE WRONG) / AFTER THEATRE JUMP / JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE.
Listening to them, I am reminded that the early glorious Basie band was really a small group with extra horns added for volume and force, so that the dancers in large halls (before everything was amplified) could feel the band’s power. LESTER’S BLUES harks back to the streamlined, all-muscle Reno Club band — its essence so warmly and happily captured here:
I hear that this band — so right, so swinging — is making a second recording. You’ll learn of it here. For now, let your day and night be guided by this easy rocking motion. What a group!
Memorial Day, an American “holiday,” celebrates those who have died in war. But some live on, wounded, even when the wounds are not visible. Some who suffer return home without medals. I am thinking of Lester Young, captured by the American military machine. To say that he was treated without understanding or kindness is to understate the facts and their repercussions.
I offer an excerpt from the saxophonist Leroy “Sam” Parkins’ memory of Pres, posted here in 2009:
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.
There are other stories of how a sensitive person was fed into the gears and cogs of a machine that — of necessity — cared nothing for individuality or sensitivity, and the familiar end of this narrative is that “the Army destroyed Pres, and you can hear it in his playing.”
But maybe not.
Here is Lester’s own composition, “D. B. BLUES,” named for “detention barracks,” a blues-with-a-bridge, recorded in December 1945, with his dear friend Vic Dickenson, trombone; Dodo Marmarosa, piano; Red Callendar, string bass; Henry Tucker, drums:
from December 1953, the NEW D. B. BLUES, with Jesse Drakes, trumpet; Gildo Mahones, piano; Gene Ramey, string bass; Connie Kay, drums:
and finally (for this survey — Lester played this “composition” many times more) — a sweetly light-hearted version from December 1956, with Bill Potts, piano; Norman Williams, string bass; Jim Lucht, drums:
I wouldn’t presume to know what went through Lester’s mind when he was playing. I think we can be sure that he named this composition for the place he was imprisoned. But you’ll notice it is music — not a scream of rage or hatred for his oppressors.
This might be the great gift he and others give us: to not only state but embody how pain can be transmuted into beauty and joy. That joy sustains not only us, but in some way it sustained its creator. We should stand in awe of the power of the soul to transcend the harshness of the world.
(A note to readers: if any member of the Woke-Jazz-Patrol is offended by my use of the “D” word, please note it is historically accurate here — this band is announced as playing “Dixieland” by Nat Hentoff, a most energetic spokesman for all kinds of humane equality. So please fuss elsewhere. You’ll miss out on some good music while you’re fussing.)
The greatest artists are often most adaptable to circumstances, while remaining themselves. No working musician I know can afford much aesthetic snobbery, so if Monday you are playing with your working band, and Tuesday is a Balkan wedding, and Wednesday an outdoor cocktail party . . . the checks or cash still work the same.
Roy Haynes, born March 13, 1925 — thus 96 this year — began his recording career with Luis Russell’s big band in 1945 and played many sessions as the chosen drummer for Lester Young, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. I don’t think we expect to find him soloing on ROYAL GARDEN BLUES. Yet he does.
What we have here is a half-hour broadcast from George Wein’s “Storyville” club in Boston, on February 22, 1952 — young Mister Haynes was not yet 26. The band is George Wein, piano; John Field, string bass; “an anonymous drummer’; George Brunis, the guest star; Ruby Braff, cornet; Al Drootin, clarinet.
Musically, this may take time to get used to: Brunis shows off, musically and comically, overshadowing the band at first. I don’t know if Roy was filling in for Marquis Foster or Buzzy Drootin — for the week or for the broadcast? Brunis fully identifies him at 16:52. Hentoff tells the story that just before the broadcast, Brunis told him, for reasons he explains on the air, “Turn the name around,” so he is announced as “Egroeg Sinurb,” not easy to do on the spot.
The repertoire is standard, but the band enters into it with vigor, as does Roy. TIN ROOF BLUES (intro, Hentoff, m.c.) / MUSKRAT RAMBLE / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES (Haynes solo) / UGLY CHILD (Brunis, vocal) / HIGH SOCIETY / TIN ROOF BLUES //
Lively music, and no one cares what name it’s called. No doubt it was just a gig, but it sounds like a fun one. And how nice it is that both George Wein (born October 3, 1925) and Roy are still with us.
I was there, among admired friends. And the music was spectacular.
In German, it’s JAZZ IM RATHAUS — Jazz at the Town (City) Hall — but given that Louis’ 1947 Town Hall Concert shaped my life, I realign the words as tribute. The Dramatis Personae is on the green cover.
April 9, 2016. Photograph by Elke Grunwald
This was the thirtieth annual concert, a series featuring, among others, Wild Bill Davison, Kenny Davern, Marty Grosz, Ralph Sutton, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Barrett, Randy Sandke, Warren Vache, Bob Haggart, Mark Shane, Danny Moss, Chris Hopkins, Jake Hanna, Rossano Sportiello, Antti Sarpila, Butch Miles, Ken Peplowski . . . . All of this happened because of Manfred Selchow, known to his friends as Mannie, a deep jazz-lover, author of beautifully comprehensive studies of Ed Hall and Vic Dickenson. He’s the serious man below with both hands on the check, but don’t let that somber visage fool you: he is a warm and easy fellow.
But music is what we’re here for — two rousing selections from the final concert of the April 8-10 jazz weekend at the Rathaus. The first, LADY BE GOOD, is full of gratifying solos, ensemble telepathy, uplifting surprises. That’s Matthias Seuffert, Engelbert Wrobel, tenor saxophones; Helge Lorenz, guitar; Bert Boeren, trombone; Menno Daams, cornet; Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Bernard Flegar, later, Moritz Gastreich, drums; Nico Gastreich, string bass; Niels Unbehagen, Stephanie Trick, Paolo Alderighi, piano — doing crowd-pleasing handoffs. AND 1936 Lester! (Wait for it, as they say.)
The encore, PERDIDO, evokes JATP, with Matthias, Engelbert, Helge, Nicki Parrott on string bass; Bernard, Niels, Stephanie, Paolo, Rico, Menno, and Bert:
Someday, sweethearts, we shall meet again. And thanks for the lovely sounds.
Michael Gamble amid friends. How many swing stars do you recognize?
In person, bandleader-string bassist Michael Gamble is quiet and unassuming, but he really knows how to swing. It’s a pleasure to tell you about four new digital-EP releases by his virtual groups, now available at Bandcamp. Those who like can skip the rest of this post and go directly there to listen.
They sound great, which is particularly remarkable, considering how hard the musicians have to work to make music in “isolation sessions.”
Michael explains, “All recordings from this series were made remotely, each of the 18 musicians (from 9 states) playing either in their homes, home-studios, or whatever they could make work! Despite the logistical challenges, we were determined to make an artistically cohesive and exciting project. Sections were pieced together painstakingly to make sure that no part was recorded prior to something that it needed to react creatively to, which often required multiple takes by the same musician on the same tune, spread over weeks. We believe the result — while certainly different in feel than prior Rhythm Serenaders albums which were recorded live in a single room — is a special set of recordings with their own completely unique flavor. We hope they’ll be enjoyed for years to come!”
I can swear to that last sentence. Without a hint of museum dustiness, it is as if Michael and friends lifted me out of my chair and teleported me to splendid sessions truly happening, let us say, between 1934 and 1947. Or, if you prefer, he came to my house and gave me a waist-high stack of perfectly recorded 16″ transcription discs of all my heroes and heroines. Both of those science-fiction scenarios require a suspension of disbelief: all you have to do to drink at the extraordinary Fountain of Swing is to go here and buy yourself and friends holiday and early-holiday and post-holiday presents. (Friday, December 4, by the way, is one of Bandcamp’s special days where all the proceeds go to the musicians, with no fees deducted, so it’s a wonderful time to do this.)
The musical worlds (note plural) Michael and friends live in are so spacious that each of these has its own distinctive flavor, which I will try to describe.
Volume One, LATCH ON TO THAT RHYTHM, goes like this: Somebody Loves Me / Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise / Lester Smooths It Out / Bounce Me Brother, with a Solid Four / Did I Remember? / Joe Louis Stomp / One Never Knows, Does One? and the musicians are Laura Windley, vocals (1, 4, 5, 7); Dan Levinson, clarinet / tenor; Noah Hocker, trumpet; Jonathan Stout, acoustic and electric guitars / Chris Dawson, piano; Michael Gamble, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. The overall flavor is multi-layered, with tastes of mid-Thirties Wilson and Billie, the Gramercy Five, and a splendid infusion of 1946 Aladdin and Keynote. Even if the references mean little to you, hear how good the band sounds on JOE LOUIS STOMP. And listen to Laura Windley work her magic on ONE NEVER KNOWS, DOES ONE?— that rarest of compositions, a song about the magic of love balancing frail hope and deep melancholy. (By the way, it’s a Mack Gordon-Harry Revel creation from 1936, and although everyone knows it from Billie, it’s first sung by Alice Faye in a Shirley Temple film. Consider that.)
Volume Two, EFFERVESCENT SWING, features A Sunbonnet Blue (and a Yellow Straw Hat) / Coquette / Me, Myself, and I / South / Am I Blue? / Sweet Sue / Effervescent Blues / Tickle-Toe, and some of the same rascals are present: Laura Windley (1, 3, 5); Dan Levinson (tenor 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; clarinet 5; alto 8); Chloe Feoranzo (clarinet 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8; tenor 6); David Jellema, cornet; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Jonathan Stout; James Posedel, piano; Michael Gamble, Hal Smith. The flavors — still delicious — are a little different. Think the small-group Basie riffing of the Kansas City Six; toss with Reuss and Catlett seasonings; add some Commodore Condon rideouts; mix gently with the Charlie Christian – Benny Goodman Sextet (yes, I have those names in the right order); several tablespoons of 1938 Bobby Hackett, top with modern tailgate from Charlie Halloran, and you get the idea. And the three songs associated with Billie — and sung gloriously by Laura — have sly arrangements that honor the period but don’t copy the records. For one instance only, hear how the rideout of ME, MYSELF, AND I nods to LAUGHING AT LIFE, and Michael’s cross-dressing riffs that start off AM I BLUE remarkably. So rewarding. For musical samples, hie thyself to the Bandcamp page!
Volume Three, DIGGIN’ IN THE DEN, offers these daily specials: Good Morning Blues / Scuttlebutt / I’m Painting the Town Red / Tumble Bug / It’s Like Reaching for the Moon / Diggin’ in the Den / Honeysuckle Rose — performed by these swing alchemists, Laura Windley (3, 5); Keenan McKenzie (clarinet / tenor); Gordon Au (trumpet); Jonathan Stout; Craig Gildner (piano); Michael Gamble; Riley Baker (drums). Here, the recipe calls for a dark Kansas City groove (think Eddie Durham, Lips Page, Dick Wilson), with equal parts Gramercy 5 pre-bop gloss, Lady Day Vocalions (the gorgeous trumpet-tenor interplay at the start of IT’S LIKE REACHING FOR THE MOON) — all mixed together with modern ingenuity harking back to Basie and Ellington small groups but sounding fresh — even on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, which (admit it!) has been played to shreds in its various incarnations.
Volume Four THE GAMBLER, unwraps its digital box to reveal these gifts: Something to Pat Your Foot To / The Gambler / Smokey Shoulders / Sunday / Cotton Tail / Night Bloom / What’s the Fuss? / Bottoms Up. The musicians radiating expert joy here are Laura Windley (4); Keenan McKenzie (clarinet and tenor); Jacob Zimmerman (clarinet and alto); Gordon Au; Lucian Cobb (trombone); Jonathan Stout; Chris Dawson; Michael Gamble; Josh Collazo (drums). Here the aura is pleasantly situated between just-after-the-war sessions led by Sir Charles Thompson and Illinois Jacquet and the late-Forties Basie band. I hear a good deal of mute work from the brass (all those not-terribly frightening snarls and growls) and glistening late-Forties electrified Reuss, with reed playing that soars and slides. COTTON TAIL leaps over the fence likea caffeinated bunny, the originals stick in my head — always a good sign — and the last few tracks nudge so wondrously into what I’d call 1951 Clef Records territory.
If you’ve lost your way in the forest of words, the musical oasis can be found here. I encourage you to visit there now, or December 4, or any old time.
Three things. One is that I listened to all four discs in one sitting (a tea break between Two and Three doesn’t count) with delight, never looking at my watch.
Second, if you ever meet one of the Official Jazz Codgers who grumps, “Oh, these kids today try, but they don’t know how to swing,” I encourage you to box his ears with digital copies of this music — a wild metaphor, but you’ll figure it out — until he stops speaking nonsense.
Three, a paradox. These are “isolation sessions,” with everyone miles apart, earbuds or headsets, praying for swing synchronicity — and that is a miracle itself. (Ask any musician who’s participated in such rigors.) But as I listen to this music, I feel much less alone — less isolated, to be exact. Try it and see if you don’t feel the same way.
Although the idea of stride piano is that the singular player on the piano bench is able to simulate the depth and textures of a larger ensemble in their solo playing, I recall very clearly that my earliest exposure to stride playing was in hearing duets between piano and drums: James P. Johnson and Eddie Dougherty (and Sidney Catlett’s work with James P. as part of a rhythm section), Donald Lambert and Howard Kadison . . . later, Willie “the Lion” Smith and Jo Jones — and of course, Fats Waller with Al Casey, bass, and drums. So there is a real tradition, and an intuitive percussionist is a bonus rather than an intrusion.
Guillaume Nouaux is such a player, and his new CD is wonderful. But you don’t have to take my non-playing word for it: I shared it with Mr. Kadison, the man about whom Donald Lambert said, “That’s my drummer!” and Howard was delighted by it.
“Delight” is appropriate here, because listening again to the CD — once won’t be enough for anyone — I was reminded of one of the stories I’ve probably told too often here, my feeling when Jo Jones came and sat in with Ellis Larkins and Al Hall. Guillaume is just that kind of player: varied, intuitive, swinging, always making great sounds, adding some flavors that increase our aural joys. He is a wonderful accompanist — like a great witty conversationalist who always knows the right thing to say, or perhaps a sly supple dance partner — but also a splendid melodic soloist, someone whose terse outings are shapely and welcome. I can’t emphasize enough the glorious variety of sounds he gets out of his kit, although he’s not fidgety (some drummers won’t stay in one place for more than four bars) so he’s not restricted to one approach. He can be very gentle, but he can also create great joyous noises. (Hear his MOP MOP on this disc.) And neither he nor his great collection of pianists is aiming for the consciously archaic: the music on this disc isn’t trying to wear the same trousers it wore in adolescence, if you get the metaphor.
Each of the seven pianists (some very well-known to me, others new marvels) has two selections — loosely speaking, one up and one down — which is to say one a quick-tempoed stride showcase, the other more ruminative, which makes this disc so refreshing. The songs are HARLEM STRUT / DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM / I WISH I WERE TWINS / WILLOW WEEP FOR ME / RUNNIN’ WILD / JITTERBUG WALTZ / CHEROKEE – SALT PEANUTS / WHY DID YOU TELL ME “I LOVE YOU”? / HANDFUL OF KEYS / OVERNIGHT / MOP MOP (For Big Sid) — Guillaume’s brief solo feature / TEA FOR TWO / WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM / THE LADY IS A TRAMP / OVER THE RAINBOW.
Before you read a syllable more: discs and downloads can be obtained through Bandcamp here. It’s also one of those rare discs — because of its premise (a rainbow of artists) that I play all the way through with pleasure. And I believe you can hear some of the music for yourself there. But if you need sonic breakfast-in-bed, here are Guillaume and Louis Mazetier trotting deliciously through DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM:
You can find out more about Guillaume and his imaginative projects here.
I will leave it to you to decide who plays on which track — it would make a very sophisticated Blindfold Test even for those who consider themselves stride experts.
Several other things need to be said. The recorded sound is lovely (the piano is well-tuned and the balance between piano and drums, ideal). You might think this is overly finicky of me, but one of my favorite sessions ever is the 1956 PRES AND TEDDY, where — I believe — the piano could have been tuned again before the session: I hear its glassy-tinkly upper registers and wince. Not so here.
The repertoire is in part familiar, but hooray! no AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, no HONEYSUCKLE ROSE. And although both stride piano and jazz drumming are, even at slow tempos, displays of athleticism (try tapping your finger for three minutes and keeping steady time), this isn’t a collection of fifteen kinds of Fast and Loud. Oh, there’s dazzling playing here . . . but there are also caresses and meanders of the best kind. And each of the pianists brings his own particular approach to the material. The CD delights me, and I think it will do the same for you.
Fats would have called it “a killer-diller from Manila.” Don’t be the last one on your block to be grinning.
I have never been involved in sports as participant or spectator. But when I was not yet ten, at recess, there were intense discussions, often arguments, among my male classmates about the merits of baseball stars Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris, competing to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. I tried to join in, because I wanted to belong, and it would have been foolish to say, “Who cares?” Looking back at least in this situation, we had statistical evidence: hits, runs, RBI’s and the like. But this hierarchical squabbling struck me as silly then, and seems even sillier now when applied to art and creativity.
I should preface what follows by writing that jazz is a holy art to me, to quote Schubert. And if what follows sounds irritable, you can say, “Michael’s gotten crabby in semi-quarantine, I see,” and I wouldn’t argue the point. But the reason for this post is that it disturbs me when I see people who believe themselves experts and advocates about the music debasing it by their reactions.
A day or so ago I made the mistake of entering into a Facebook discussion on a wonderful page devoted to Lester Young, where someone with fine taste posted Lester’s 1942 version of BODY AND SOUL (Nat Cole and Red Callender). The first response that caught my eye? I quote, “Sorry, but coleman hawkins owns this song.” Various people chimed in to proclaim the superiority of their favorite player, and I, rather than leaving the keyboard, wrote, “Art is not a competitive sport,” which also met with a variety of responses, which I won’t go into here.
On another page, someone posted that a revered drummer was the “GOAT,” or “Greatest of All Time,” not an omnivorous animal. You can imagine the discussions that ensued, the rimshots and ride-cymbal crashes.
I found it odd that fans were so much more vehement about presumed superiority than most musicians were and are.
I don’t deny that some musicians were competitive by nature, wanting to show their powers, their mastery. Some of the greatest lived to “battle,” among them Roy Eldridge, and “cutting contests” have a long history. Norman Granz, knowing his audience, made these tests of strength and audience appeal the center of Jazz at the Philharmonic with “the drum battle” between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, or gladiatorial exercises between Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips, between Roy and Dizzy GIllespie. However, when the concert was over, these musicians were friends who rode the band bus in harmony. Artists with even a small amount of self-awareness respect each other, because they know how hard it is to play or to sing well, how it requires great skill and constant devotion to the art and the craft.
So these discussions of WHO’S THE BEST? are driven by audiences who want to see their team win. They are also fueled by journalism and press-agentry. Jazz has been weighed and measured by people who gave recordings and concerts stars and letter grades, in magazines that encouraged readers to vote for their favorites. People would then buy the next issue to see how their votes counted. All of this seems inexplicable now, that in 1956 a new record that we think a classic was given two stars in Down Beat when it appeared. Or that X placed forty-seventh in the Critics’ Poll for that year. Polls and year-end lists of the Ten Best CDs of the Year still go on, the latter energized by people of good character, but I think of them as marketing tools, not much else. These competitions were good business for winners: if you won the poll, your price would increase.
We continue to live in a culture that greatly values the subjective opinion of the audience member(s). I bought kitchen knives recently, and the company invited me to “submit my review.” I was happy to, because the knives are exceedingly sharp. But my review was a way of their getting free copywriting. What I wrote might motivate someone to buy a knife, but it would have no effect on the knife’s quality. It remains that way in art. If you say that Tatum is your favorite pianist, does his work get any better: if you say he is too ornate, does he falter? I am also reminded of someone who ran a jazz club, who told me that the way they knew if a band was good was the number of people in the room. To me, the symphony means more than the volume of applause.
In print and in person, there were and are the jazz ideologues offering verdicts. M “is the greatest jazz singer,” where P “is just a pop vocalist.” C is “ground-breaking,” “harmonically adventurous,” “innovative,” “cutting-edge,” “genre-bending.” Reading this, I must assume that everyone else is sitting in the dirt, looking sadly at their dinner, a half-done potato covered with ash.
Art does not lend itself to the collection of evidence that baseball does. If a singer has a larger range, is she a “better” artist? If a drummer has a more dazzling technique, is he the King? Is the superior musician the one who has more gigs, more fame, more money, more recognition?
I understand that there are artists who have been justifiably elevated to the pantheon (which, to me, is different than anyone’s “Hall of Fame”) but this also speaks to the Star System in Jazz, where there must be only one supernova in the galaxy. For you, it’s Miles or Trane, for you Bird or Rollins, for you, Duke, for you, Louis. The Star System is evident in what passes for “jazz criticism,” but perhaps most forcefully in Jazz Studies textbooks, where the Stars whiz by at blurry speed. Louis-Roy-Dizzy-Miles. James P.-Earl-Teddy-Tatum-Monk-Cecil. And so on. No room for Tony Fruscella or Buster Bailey because the publisher’s budget only allows for 650 pages and this price point.
Mind you, not only have I no objection to a rainbow of personal tastes, because I am a walking collection of them, and I revel in this. If the music that makes you most happy is on an Impulse CD or a Dial 78 or an American Music one, who would I be to say that your feelings should be challenged?
But let us give up pretending that preference is empirical judgment. Let us not treat individual reaction as law for everyone. To write that someone is “the best,” or “better than,” is an attempt to say, “I like this. Therefore it is good, because my judgment is always valid,” and then, “Why do you assert that something else that I do not champion is better? Are you attacking my discernment? I must defend my family’s honor! Pistols at dawn!”
We are thus back at recess, a bunch of quarrelsome fourth-grade boys. Art deserves reverence. And the most reverent response may be rapt silence.
Some readers of JAZZ LIVES may scan this post, see that it is not brimming over with new performance videos of their favorite band, and turn to something more interesting on their phones. I do understand: words and ideas don’t go down as smoothly as videos. But humor me on this, if you will.
I was alive and reasonably capable in the world (I had a job, I’d earned some degrees) before I encountered a computer, and at first it was merely a hip typewriter. Some years later, email, YouTube, social media, and so on, changed my world as they did yours. I still marvel at the ways human behavior and decorum have been warped by the ubiquity of the internet. This is most apparent to me in one of my chosen playgrounds, YouTube.
For a long time, the anonymity of an alias has made it possible for some people who might have gastric reflux disorder or other internal sournesses to be “critics” with high-powered scopes. I take this personally, which is my problem, but when I post a video, it’s never by someone I think inept or amateurish. Florence Foster Jenkins, Mrs. Miller, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards are not artists I cherish for my listening.
So when someone writes, “This sucks,” I delete the comment and lock the gate so they can’t do it again. In the same way that if you invited me for lunch at your house, I wouldn’t say, “This food tastes like shit,” I expect people to keep their harsh estimates to themselves. This lack of restraint encourages my reciprocation. Someone writes of a 2008 performance, “Tempo too fast,” I may respond, “You’re so right. I’ll go back to 2008 right now and ask them to slow it down for you.” Childish, perhaps. But I won’t have people I admire shat on.
I’ve given up on the possibly logical rebuttal to “The drummer is lousy,” which is, “Sir, can you tap your index finger on the desk for the length of this performance and keep good time?” Or “Her screechy voice gets on my nerves,” which is, “When is your next concert tour?” but I think the platform from which one issues a critical judgment ought to be built on some informed experience.
Certain scornful comments have immense validity, but we must (as they say) “consider the source.” Yank Lawson told the story of the first time he played with Sidney Bechet, wanting to impress the Master, he sailed into JAZZ ME BLUES at a dazzling tempo, and when it was through, looking to Bechet for praise, Sidney said only, “Young man, you played that song too fucking fast.” To me, those words are hard, but they are also the syllables that the Sage delivers when you’ve climbed up to the cave in the Himalayas.
But Bechet’s assessment is galaxies away from such inspired nit-picking as “She should have introduced the drummer and bassist by name instead of referring to them as ‘my friends,'” to which I nearly wrote, “Have you considered volunteering for Habitat for Humanity to put all that energy to better use?” (I did write back and say that the two musicians had been introduced lavishly through the concert, but why I spent energy on this is mysterious even to me.)
I learned early from my mentor Sammut of Malta that what was particularly offensive about such “criticism” was its false courage — as if one could pin an anonymous note on another middle-schooler’s coat, saying what one would never have the courage to say in person. Sammut wisely suggested to me that the rule of criticism might well be, “Would you walk up to the musician and say this to her face?” Let that sink in. Imagine, if you will, someone walking up to Louis at the intermission and saying, “You know, you’re supposed to be a great jazzman. Why do you play the same solos?” but that was printed over and over.
But there’s a new wrinkle in this anonymous sociopathy which I’d like to ask you to look for, because it’s a thrilling arrogance. I realized recently that the commenters no longer looked upon themselves as Wise Critics (DOWN BEAT staff, giving this two stars and that five) but . . . . Employers.
Slowly, the criticisms have edged from “I don’t like this,” to “This isn’t good,” to a more haughty disapproval, as if the waitperson had brought our salad too warm or our entree too cool. The subtext is, “You have not delivered to me the product I wanted, so I will be unsparing in pointing out the limitations of what you have done.” It’s also worth noting that no one pays to see free videos.
Artists are not members of a service industry.
So “The band isn’t as good as the band I think is really good,” is no longer a statement of personal displeasure but a more powerful expression of official censure, as if the listener could say, “You guys play that tempo again, and OUT with you!” I wonder where this will go, this impulse not simply to disapprove but almost to punish. I want to be present with my camera when a fan walks up to one of my admired musicians, stands in front of her, claps his hands to get her attention, and says, “I think that song should be played slower, and I prefer Bb to C.” You may think I exaggerate, but the notion that the audience is the boss of the musicians is gaining ground, if the comments are any indication. What’s next?
I entered the land of performance, whether live or in another medium, with the basic assumptions that the musicians had worked long and hard (“ten thousand hours”) to make music at something nearing a professional level. In performance, I observe someone mis-finger a note, play a wrong chord, slow the tempo down, and I notice such things. But I also know that I am not at the level of even making such a single mistake in a performance; I’ve been listening all my adult life, but a performance by me would have more errors than gratifications. So I approach even imperfect performances with a modicum of admiration. I might not like the way X band plays; it does not appeal to me; I like Y so much better . . . but I wouldn’t mock X in public from behind the paper shield of anonymity.
I can stop the video or the CD, I can leave the club or the concert hall in mid-performance, but I haven’t the right to yell at the people onstage. And I don’t assume that the musicians exist, or play, to please me.
I went back through my collection of other people’s comments and couldn’t find really dramatic examples of this tendency, and then I realized I had deleted them. It’s the only way I can protect the artists I admire from sneers of people who think they have the right to be mean-spirited. Keep an eye out as you travel the byways of YouTube and other organs of public expression: you will find that what I describe here is not an over-sensitive fantasy of my own invention.
Great art outlives its critics. The writer who called Trumbauer’s SINGIN’ THE BLUES “disappointing,” Mike Levin, who mocked Lester Young’s “cardboard tone,” are no more, but we can still listen to Tram and Pres and exult.
To paraphrase Jim in Huckleberry Finn, we don’t own the musicians. They own themselves. And we should bless them rather than carp at them.
The new CD by the Brooks Prumo Orchestra, THIS YEAR’S KISSES, is wonderfully groovy, rather like the thing you can’t stay away from, Bert Lahr’s single Lay’s potato chip. (You can look that up on YouTube. I’ll wait.) By the way, I loved the BPO’s first CD, PASS THE BOUNCE (2017): read about it here.
Here‘s the Bandcamp link for KISSES, where you can see the personnel, the song titles, hear a sample, download, or purchase this CD.
The description reads: The Brooks Prumo Orchestra was made for dancing. Featuring brand new arrangements of long-lost big band tunes, original compositions, and crowd favorites, the Brooks Prumo Orchestra aims to embody a big band dance orchestra of the Swing era. Filled with world-class musicians, the band will evoke thoughts of Count Basie, Earl Hines, Andy Kirk, and Billie Holiday.
The noble members of the BPO are Alice Spencer, vocals*; Mark Gonzales, trombone; Jonathan Doyle, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Lauryn Gould, alto saxophone; David Jellema, cornet; Oliver Steck, cornet; Hal Smith, drums; Ryan Gould, string bass; Kris Tokarski, piano; Brooks Prumo, guitar.
And the delicious repertoire is CASTLE ROCK / SOMEBODY LOVES ME* / ‘T’AIN’T LIKE THAT / PEEK-A-BOO / THIS YEAR’S KISSES* / JO-JO / DON’T BE THAT WAY / ARMFUL O’ SWEETNESS* / OUT OF NOWHERE / THE THEME / WHAT’S YOUR NAME?* / BLUE LESTER / BROADWAY / I’M THRU WITH LOVE* / JEEP’S BLUES.
Those who know will see splendid associations: Al Sears, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Count Basie, Karl George, Billie Holiday, Joe Bushkin, Jo Jones, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Alex Hill, Fats Waller, Henry “Red” Allen, Dexter Gordon, Nat Cole.
Happily, the CD is very forgiving of the dance-challenged: it allows me to sit in my chair, listen, and beam. And to give you an idea of the intense attraction I had for this CD on my first hearing I thought, “I want this CD!” and then calmed down enough to think, “You already have it.”
Listening to it again and again, I envisioned the eleven members of this orchestra as a kind of M.C. Escher drawing, people swimming blissfully in two divergent streams at once. One could be labeled NOW, which means that the musicians here sound like themselves — and their voices are so individualistic — but they are also having a high old time splashing around in THEN, so that many of the performances have a tender connection to past recorded performances. But there is no conscious attempt (use your Steve Martin voice) to say, “Hey! Let’s Get OLD!” — no archival stiffness. And the familiar material, say SOMEBODY, BROADWAY, NOWHERE, is delightfully enlivened by the band’s passionate immersion in not only the notes but the emotions.
The rhythm section is fine-tuned, flexible and resourceful, four individuals playing as one; the solos are memorable; the ensemble work is both loose and graciously cohesive. This is a band, and even if there isn’t the official BPO band bus for the one-nighters, you can hear their pleasure in working together, easy and intense.
And a few lines, once again, for the miracle of nature known as Alice Spencer, who takes familiar music and makes it fresh, who makes songs associated with Billie Holiday for decades into her own without warping their intent, who can be perky or melancholy with utter conviction. She is full of surprises — many singers telegraph what they are going to do in the next four bars, but she doesn’t — although her surprises always seem like the right thing once they have landed. I won’t compare her to other singers: rather, she has an aura like a great film actress, comfortable in many roles. Think Joan Blondell or Jean Arthur, and you have some idea of her great personal appeal.
This CD is a great gift. It’s music for dancers, music for those of us who know the originals, music for people who need joy in their lives. THIS YEAR’S KISSES is like sunshine breaking through: a consistent delight, much appreciated. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to it again.