Want to come to a party? Duke Ellington, Dave Tough, Hot Lips Page, Billie Holiday, Ivie Anderson, Pee Wee Russell, Johnny Hodges, and Chu Berry will be there.
Unfortunately, I sent out the invitation a little late, because the party ended seventy years ago. But Charles Peterson was there with his camera. And it is through his generosity of spirit and his art that we can drop in now.
In the middle Thirties, someone at LIFE Magazine thought of sending a reporter and cameraman to parties, perhaps in an attempt to offset grim news in Europe and at home, and the phrase “LIFE Goes To A Party” grew familiar — so much so that it became the title of a riffing original by Harry James, played by Benny Goodman at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Now, we’d call this phenomenon “cross-marketing,” but the music remains.
In 1938, Peterson’s photographs of “Swing” musicians and fans had been a hit in LIFE. A year later, in August, he, publicist Ernie Anderson, and their musician friends arranged a jam session party at the studio of Burris Jenkins, both for fun and to publicize the music. The photographs never ran, but Don Peterson compiled a number of them for the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.
Jenkins was a friend of Peterson’s, a then-famous sports cartoonist for the New York Journal-American and the Hearst newspapers nationwide, and an enthusiastic jazz fan. The other journalist in these pictures is Hubbell Young, another friend and jazz fan, then an editor on the staff of Readers Digest. The third civilian is an unidentified French jazz fan, possibly in the diplomatic service. And (most familiar to jazz fans) there is twenty-year old Harry Lim, record producer, in whose honor the jam session was held.
Let’s start with the photograph at the top of this post. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel-jazz singer and guitarist, is at the piano, her white headband gleaming, her back to us. To her right, in profile, is Duke, working out something on Rosetta’s guitar. Behind Duke and to his right is Johnny Hodges, his face shadowy, his expression typically stony. Along the back of the room are people not holding instruments: Hubbell Young and a woman in black; Young pensive, the woman more animated. In front of them, the French guest drains the last drops from his soda or beer bottle. In the middle, cornetist Rex Stewart seems to aim his cornet at the back of Harry Lim’s head; behind them, Eddie Condon (without guitar) seems to be grinning at something tenor saxophonist Chu Berry has just played. The host, Burris Jenkins, holds his hands up in a telling gesture: is it “Too loud, for God’s sake”? or perhaps “I surrender, dear”? or even “All of you — get out of here now!”? (The people who surround Jenkins remain elusive; they might have been guests, family, or neighbors: when you’re planning a loud party, you always invite the neighbors.) To Chu’s right are two members of the ensemble named by Phyllis Condon — the Summa Cum Laude orchestra: bassist Clyde Newcombe and trumpeter Max Kaminsky, the shadows from trombonist J.C. Higginbotham’s horn are traced on Max’s face. Bent backwards with the intensity he always brought to playing is Hot Lips Page; in the middle of the swirling mass of sound is Cozy Cole.
It would be impossible to know, but I suspect that this ensemble is not embarked on something tidy and delicate, nothing like DON’T BLAME ME. Rather I hear in my imagination a Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE, rough and ready.
Here’s what might be Peterson’s most famous photograph — the cover shot for SWING ERA NEW YORK. In 1938 and after, there were record dates with a touch of novelty, featuring jazz musicians proficient on more than one instrument, either playing an instrument they weren’t associated with, or switching horns during the date. One such recording has Bobby Hackett on guitar as well as cornet, Pete Brown on trumpet as well as alto saxophone. Of course, Benny Carter had been doing all this on his own for years.
Whether this photograph was Peterson’s idea or it came from the musicians themselves, we can’t tell, but everyone seems delighted to be playing around in this way. Observant readers will note that it is a close-up of the collective photograph at top, although Peterson has also moved to a different vantage point.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe has, for the moment, passed her guitar (with a resonator) to Duke Ellington, who is strumming a simple chord (guitarists out there can tell me what it is); both of them are grinning away. But their hilarity is nothing compared to the rakish smile on the face of Cab Calloway at the piano. Calloway, at times, considered himself a saxophonist, although members of the Missourians and later Chu Berry did not hold the same opinion — outspoken Chu, in fact, told his boss to put the saxophone back in the case permanently. I don’t think that Duke and Cab are venturing into some of that “Chinese music” that would become the common language of jazz in just a few years.
The smiles themselves are intriguing: Sister Rosetta and Cab are on the same exuberant wavelength; they would be looking into one another’s eyes if Cab wasn’t cautiously looking down at the keyboard to see what notes his fingers were hitting. It was a hot August night, so most of the guests and players are in short sleeves; Ivie Anderson particulary stylish in her tailored suit, with striking buttons; she grins indulgently down at Cab’s chording. The French guest, whom no one has yet identified, is smiling, but somewhat tentatively, as if he is watching and hearing something in translation. But my eyes are drawn to cornetist Rex Stewart, who seems to be considering the collective merriment at some distance, even though he is standing close to the piano. Was he wondering, “What are these fools doing?” Perhaps he was overhearing a conversation out of Peterson’s camera range. But his reticence, his near-skepticism, make him the still center of this particular turning world. And although one’s eyes are intially drawn to the features the flashbulb illuminates: Cab’s grin, his white shirt, Duke’s forehead and cufflinks . . . it is to Rex that I find myself returning. And to that suit jacket on top of the piano, part of the evening’s larger story.
In this shot, we see Billie Holiday, perhaps twenty-four, her head cocked slightly, her expression serene and observant, her eyes half-closed. Behind her, Hubbell Young and the woman in black are either greeting or saying goodbye to another woman wearing a whimsical summer straw hat. Rex looks nearly malevolent with the effort of blowing; Harry Lim is leaning in closer to get a better look; Condon is dreamily happy but his eyes are only part-focused. (Was it late in the evening?) We do know it was hot in the room — the temperature as well as the music — if we look at Lips Page’s sweat-soaked, translucent shirt. Cozy Cole made a specialty out of lengthy sustained press-roll solos; perhaps he is, shouting with pleasure, in the middle of one here, while the horns punch out encouraging chords.
Slighty earlier in the evening (Lips still has his vest on). Around the piani where presumably Dave Bowman is accompanying Lips are Harry Lim, Newcombe, the French guest, and a seriously chubby-looking Miss Holiday, smiling inwardly, her rings and bracelet and manicure evidence (although her dress is unimpressively plain) that she knew photographs were being taken for LIFE. Those of us who know the iconic pictures Milt Hinton took of Billie at her last recording session — where she seems fiercely thin — will find these surprising.
J.C. Higginbotham is telling Bud Freeman a story, to which Harry Lim is listening. Bud is intent, but whether he is concentrating on what Dave Bowman is playing or on Higgy’s story is a mystery. Eddie Condon, to the right of the piano, drink in hand, is listening deeply (he was deaf in one ear, which may account for his quizzical expression), and Clyde Newcombe is at his ease, off duty. The man in dark glasses, a lock of hair falling over his forehead, is promoter and publicist Anderson. The French guest tries to play Max Kaminsky’s trumpet (with what success?) and Max, displaced for the moment, takes a pair of sticks to the snare drum. The center of this shot is once again Billie, still looking well-fed, happy, smiling at the amateur trumpeter as if he were her child, tenderly.
From another angle: a perspiring Ellington listens appreciatively to what six brass are doing: from the left, Higgy, Brad Gowans, Juan Tizol, Lips Page, Rex, and Max (great trumpet and cornet players, as Whitney Balliett once wrote, are rarely tall men), and Harry Lim at the rear, looking younger than his twenty years. I find myself drawn to the sideways glance Max is giving his colleagues, as in “Are we going to take another chorus or not?”
From the evidence of his singing and speaking, Lips Page was a wonderful actor and story-teller. He never got the opportunity to fully show this side of his talents. Jerry Newman, I once read, recorded Lips telling a tale of a hair-straightening product gone awry. Here it’s obvious that he’s doing “the voices” by the curl of his lip, convulsing Ivie and Cab in the foreground, Higgy, Brad, and perhaps Rex close by in the background.
This shot seems as if it might have been posed — as if Peterson had asked the three reed players (Pee Wee having left for work) to stand together. What sounds they would have made, each one with his immediately identifiable sonority! The reflected explosion of the flash makes a small sun behind Chu’s head, and is it by accident or on purpose that the three hands are posed on the three horns in exactly the same plane? (Hodges, incidentally, looks even more like a little boy in his father’s clothing than usual.) Chu’s horn casts a shadow on his shirtfront. Beneath Chu is a newspaper, perhaps, advertising CHINESE FIGURE LAMPS. And it’s possible that the figure almost entirely cut off to the left is pianist Dave Bowman, if the bit of striped shirt is evidence. You wouldn’t know that Chu had just gone through some painful dental work by this photograph.
This is another celestial version of “gathering around the piano,” with Duke happily concentrating, Ivie passionately singing something delicate yet forceful — a quiet high note? — Harry Lim thoughtfully observing, the French guest somber in the background, Max and Higgy playing in support. What amuses me most is Cab, who has of course positioned himself as close as possible to Ivie to drink in her voice . . . but he also instinctually seems to have placed himself to be sharply visible in every shot. But what fascinates me are the four happy facial expressions seen here: Duke, musing, avuncular, affectionately considering both the piano and Ivie’s voice; Harry Lim, a star student, a good boy, observing, wondering, savoring; Ivie, perhaps reaching for a poignant turn of phrase, her face in a kind of controlled artistic ecstasy — which the light of Peterson’s flash illuminates, as if sanctifying the music pouring out; Cab, grinning hugely, part listening, part onstage. What painter could do these faces justice?
I love this photograph for its beauty and implied ideological statement. Throught his long career, Bud Freeman never got the praise and atention he deserved: the closest thing to a wise, loving assessment of his work was published in Richard Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, after Bud had died. But Freeman had several strikes against him — he was White and poised (thus going against the stereotype that jazz musicians had to be Black martyred primitives); he played “Dixieland” with Eddie Condon, which gave critics the opportunity to take him less seriously; his style required close listening to be grasped — on a superficial level, it might have sounded just like a series of bubbling scalar figures that could be applied to any composition in any context. But he was a great ballad player and his style was HIS — no small accomplishment. Here, he is somewhere in the middle of a phrase or perhaps ready to launch into one — his last improvisatory turn so novel, so refreshing, that the man at the piano — we remember him! — is laughing aloud with joy and surprise. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is behind this duo, chatting over her beer, and I don’t know the other figures in this photo, except to note that the smile on the face of the man in suspenders is commentary enough on what he’s hearing.
That celestial brass section again! But it is very clear who is in charge here — Oran Thaddeus Page, leaning against the wall (I’ve been admiring Jenkins’s faux-three-dimensional wallpaper in every shot) both casual and intensely focused: it takes all one’s energy and strength to play as Lips did! Rex, a champion trumpet-gladiator, is watching Lips with a cautious-potentially dangerous look in his eyes (“My chance will come in the next chorus and I’ll top what he just played, I will!”) Higgy and Brad, for the moment content to be out of the way of those trumpets, are offering harmonies. But it’s Lips the eye returns to: leaning backwards as if perched on the edge of the table with nothing particular to do, but electrically charged with his message, making the impossible, for a moment, look easy.
This photograph, taken early in the evening (notice that Pee Wee, someone not highlighted in this session, has his suit on) has its own tale: best told by the enthusiastic Ernie Anderson, the man in dark glasses, holding a telephone for Mr. Russell to play into . . . ?
LIFE Magazine had wanted a jam session. So Eddie Condon and I cooked one up for them. Duke Ellington happened to be playing in town so we got him and some of his players and mixed them in with Eddie’s Barefoot Mob. LIFE sent their great music photographer, Charlie Peterson, who used to play the guitar in Rudy Vallee’s Connecticut Yankees. We staged the rout in our friend Burris Jenkins’s pad. He was Hearst’s star cartoonist, a terrific fan of jazz. His place was the whole top floor of an ancient rookery on the West Side of Manhattan at the beginning of Riverside Drive, with panoramic views of the Hudson River. This was a little study where the phone was. It was just off the dining room where there was a concert grand Steinway. Duke was at the keyboard, Cozy Cole was swinging up a storm on his drums . . . and there were about twenty horns around the grand in full cry. It was just what LIFE wanted and they didn’t want us to stop . . . .But it was eight o’clock. Pee Wee was due at Nick’s at nine and Nick had promised to fire him for good if he was a minute late. So I found the phone and called Nick. I tried to explain but Nick wasn’t having any. Then Pee Wee started to growl on his subtone clarinet into the telephone. Nick loved that growl. Finally Nick relented and gave permission for Pee Wee to miss the first set. While all this was taking pace, Charlie Peterson came out of the drawing room with his camera to get some more film. He saw the action and snapped this photo. That’s Dave Bowman holding his scotch and soda. He played the piano in the original Summa Cum Laude band and also made some famous sides with Sidney Bechet. The trumpet is . . . . Lips Page. And beside him, in the right hand corner, is Brad Gowanswho probably invented the valve trombone. The party roared on for some hours. Pee Wee didn’t get fired that night.” (excerpted from STORYVILLE , 1 December 1990, no. 144)
Aside from Pee Wee’s intent expression and substantial chin (prefiguring Robert DiNiro years later?) I notice the telephone book, bottom left: they had to look up the phone number of Nick’s to call its gruff owner, Nick Rongetti — making the story more plausible.
Swing dancers take note! Ivie’s anklet gleams; she and Cab are having themselves a time. Condon is happily watching their feet from the left; Bud Freeman’s grin threatens to split his face in two on the right. Brad, Rex, Max, and Lips are playing their parts; Juan Tizol, nattily dressed and looking just like Tommy Dorsey, is smiling. Again, the tiny details make this even more delightful: Condon’s exuberantly striped socks; Cab and Ivie’s white shoes; the rippling material of her dress. What step are they executing? I hope some adept reader can tell us. But the great musicians (including Louis and Dizzy) were champion dancers.
And we come full circle: Sister Rosetta’s face nearly Asiatic; Duke’s delighted eyes fixed on her mouth; Lips thoughtfully admiring what he sees and hears; Cab, for once, rapt, his face not aimed at the camera.
Two postscripts. One concerns Dave Tough, then drummer in the Summa Cum Laude band and someone inextricably drawn to alcohol and terribly sensitive to its effects. There’s a famously blurry Peterson photograph of a reeling, shaky Tough, his shirt drenched to near-transparency, his hand being held by Cozy Cole, who looks none too steady himself. I would assume that Tough played early on, got helplessly drunk, and had to be sent home, leaving Cozy the sole percussionist.
And that suit jacket? Condon, in his SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal, one of jazz’s living benefactors) told the story that it was terribly hot in Jenkins’s apartment, as the photographs prove. Ellington took his jacket off and hung it over the back of a chair, perhaps forgetting that in the pocket was money for the band’s pay. When the jam session was over, the envelope was gone. Music hath charms, but its redemptive powers might have limits.
As I’ve written before, how lucky we are that Charles Peterson was there, and that Don Peterson has not only preserved these photographs but has collected archival material to explain them: we owe him many thanks! Now, if you will, close your eyes and imagine the music.