Tag Archives: Lil Hardin Armstrong

BLANK PAGES AND SILENCES

Serious jazz scholarship (as opposed to reviews) began more than seventy years ago: early books by Robert Goffin, Hughes Panassie, Charles Delanay, Wilder Hobson, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey come to mind, as well as essays by Ernst Ansermet, Otis Ferguson, and Roger Pryor Dodge. 

In 2010, there is no scarcity of books on jazz, from musicology to polemical ideology.  Biographies and autobiographies — from Armstrong to Zwerin with perhaps one hundred subjects between — the autobiographies of Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Bob Wilber, biographies of Monk, Mingus, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Parker, Paul Desmond, Ellington.  Books have been published about musicians who are still relatively obscure: Mark Miller on Herbie Nichols, Anthony Barnett on Henry Crowder.  

John Chilton’s studies of Bechet, Hawkins, Eldridge, and Red Allen are models of the form.  Ed Berger and his father did right by Benny Carter; Ed devoted a book to George Duvivier and is working on one about Joe Wilder.  My shelves are full, and I’m not listing criticism and discography. 

Most of what I have noted above (with admiration) is jazz scholarship from the outside — by enthusiastic listeners who have immersed themselves in jazz.  I would be the last to disparage that as an art form, as writers who do it include Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern, Gene Lees, Chris Albertson, Frank Driggs, Nat Hentoff and two dozen others.  A few musicians — rare souls — who were also fine writers: Dick Wellstood, Richard M. Sudhalter, Rex Stewart, Dick Katz.    

But even given all of this, how often have jazz musicians been asked to tell their stories? 

I know that there is a history of popular journalism — early on in urban Black newspapers — of getting quotations from musicians, but I wonder how many utterances that were attributed were actually spoken by the musicians themselves.  Later on, one had DOWN BEAT and METRONOME, and smaller magazines — Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD, here and abroad.  Some of this “journalism” perpetuated the stereotype of the musician as an eccentric character who spoke an unintelligible hipster gibberish.     

There are, of course, the pioneering recorded interviews of Jelly Roll Morton done in 1938 — mythic in many ways — that might be the first oral history of a jazz musician.  Whether you take them as an extended piece of performance art or as first-hand narrative / reportage, they remain invaluable.

Others have attempted to let the players speak — the Oral History Project had musicians interviewing their peers and friends, Stanley Dance’s series of books, the Shapiro / Hentoff HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YA, Gitler’s SWING TO BOP, the diligent work of Bill Spilka, Hank O’Neal’s book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM, collections of interviews and profiles by Whitney Balliett, Peter Vacher, Max Jones.  Phil Schaap has done extensive, rewarding radio interviews for forty years now.  Lester Young spoke to Chris Albertson and Francois Postif.  And irreplaceable video-documentaries focus on Ben Webster, Lester, Goodman, Phil Woods.  Fifty years ago, Riverside Records recorded Coleman Hawkins and Lil Hardin Armstrong telling their stories.             

But all of this is outweighed by the invisibility, the unheard voices of musicians. 

Who thought to ask Kaiser Marshall or Walter Johnson anything after they had finished a set with the Fletcher Henderson band?  Who interviewed Ivie Anderson?  Allen Reuss?  Jimmy Rowles?  Dave McKenna?  Al Cohn?  Shad Collins?  Barry Galbraith?  Shorty Baker?  Did anyone ask Denzil Best or Nick Fenton about what it was like to play at Minton’s?  Who spoke with Joe Smith or Joe Nanton about their experiences?  George Stafford, Tiny Kahn, Nick Fatool, Dave Tough?  (I know some of these figures were interviewed or analyzed by my hero Whitney Balliett, but the burden of jazz history of this sort shouldn’t have to rest on one writer’s shoulders.)

Granted, many stellar musicians were once anonymous sidemen and women, and the leaders of bands got all the attention.  So there are more interviews of Ellington than of Johnny Hodges, more of Goodman than of Vido Musso, more of Basie than of Jack Washington.  But Swing Era fans knew every member of the reed section in their favorite orchestras.

Thus claims of “obscurity” have to be taken less seriously: there was a time when Cootie Williams was nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson would be — you may substitute names you prefer in this equation of “famous jazz musician” and “famous sports figure.” 

I can imagine a number of reasons for musicians being ignored.

Some musicians would rather play than talk about their playing; some are even taciturn, although articulate.  And sometimes even the most garrulous players are not the best interview subjects.  “What was it like to play with Big Boy Smith?” one asks.  “Oh, it was a ball!  We had a great time!” the musician answers.  The interviewer waits for more.  “Do you remember any specific incidents?”  “Oh, no.  It was a lot of fun.  We couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”  And so on.  I’ve had this happen to me with the most sophisticated players here and in Europe.  They wereen’t reluctant to talk, but they weren’t intuitive novelists themselves.

Although cordial to outsiders, many musicians also don’t see the point of discussing serious matters — like music — with them.  Too much explaining.  Life is short; the next set is coming soon.   This does say something about the unseen wall between themselves and fans — people who don’t know what it is to play, to improvise professionally, come from a different planet.  Nice folks, but aliens.  Even sweet-natured Bobby Hackett referred to the audience as “the enemy.”  “Fans” and “academics” are friendly, “critics” and “writers” might be useful, but none of them really know

And oftentimes, musicians are ambushed by people who want to talk wishing to talk at inopportune times.  A musician asked to comment on the music she’s just played after a forty-five minute set may well be drained by the effort.  When they’re not playing, musicians talk of other subjects, including the cost of things, their most recent car repair, health care proposals.  Anything is more interesting than responding to “What inspires you when you take a solo?”  Some may want to be left in peace, to eat their scrambled eggs while they’re somewhat hot.  And who could blame them?       

When some venerable musicains are finallyinterviewed when they have become venerable, they have forgotten the details.  What they did forty years ago wasn’t musical history, but a way of making a living.  And even those who have sharp memories may not want to tell all: candor might mean losing friends or gigs.  And some aren’t interested in reliving their pasts: autobiographies and interviews are career-ending landmarks: what musicians do when they can no longer play.  Doing beats talking and theorizing.      

Others are “saving it for their book” — books that might get poublished posthumously if ever.  And when musicians die, sometimes their spouse discards “all that old clutter,” including letters and memorabilia.  Sometimes a divorce means that possessions get thrown out, or a son or daughter believes that Papa’s papers are worth millions and refuses to let anyone make money from themsee them.    

Having said all that, I want to put it aside. 

There were all the reasons that musicians might not want to be asked. 

But so many, I have to believe, would have been delighted to tell their stories.  Why weren’t they?

Much comes from the earliest perception of jazz as entertainment, hardly serious.  It was played at night in places where people talked loudly, smoked, drank, and danced.  Real art could be found in museums and in concert halls.  Jazz players weren’t ordinary people; they existed outside polite society; some thought them licentious madmen working themselves into ecstasies on the bandstand.  Who would be so bold as to ask one of them a question?  And what savage reply would result? 

The subject of race can’t be pushed aside.  If both White and Black listeners thought that jazz was primarily dance music, why study it?  Why take its players seriously?  And the early preponderance of White jazz scholars and critics — some Europeans and White Americans — can be traced to the idea that jazz was no more than “good-time music,” denying Afro-Americans proper dignity.  Would you want your daughter to marry a jazz musician?  Would you want your African-American child to concentrate his or her academic efforts on Cab Calloway, on Louis Armstrong?  But the initial racial imbalance did shift, and I suspect that Joe Nanton would have been happy to speak with a White college student if the student was both sincere and aware.  As would Rod Cless have been.       

I think of Emerson in “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1846, urging his audience to study their own culture — only in this way could a nation exist.  Many years after Emerson’s death, an American college student couldn’t expect to do advanced study about the authors of his time and place: a college education required German, Chaucer, rather than James T. Farrell and Charlie Chaplin.  To say nothing of Sidney Catlett.  And so it was for jazz.  By the time that academia caught up with it, so many of the progenitors were dead, their stories untold. 

The losses are irreparable.  To urge readers to interview a jazz musician today won’t replace what has been lost. 

What might Frank Teschmacher or Freddie Webster have told us, have someone thought it sufficiently important to ask them?

Those pages remain irrevocably blank.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

HAL SMITH REMEMBERS FRANK CHACE

The drummer and versatile bandleader — man of many personalities, all of them rocking — Hal Smith is also a fine writer, someone who counted his too-rare opportunities to play alongside the Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace as life-altering experiences.  Here, with Hal’s permission, I’ve reprinted his tribute to Frank, first published in JAZZ RAMBLER and reprinted in JAZZ BEAT. 

FRANK CHACE — FREE SPIRIT OF THE CLARINET

By Hal Smith

President, America’s Finest City Dixieland Jazz Society

Chicago pianist Oro “Tut” Soper once said, “A Chicago Jazz musician will always have to fight to keep a free, wild heart.” For over 60 years, clarinetist Frank Chace fought for that same freedom.

Chace was born in Chicago on July 22, 1924—over three years before the first classic recordings that would define the Windy City’s musical style. As a youth he played flute, but did not stay with the instrument. In 1943, while attending Yale University, he was drafted by the U.S. Army. The Army is often castigated—justly—for its treatment of musicians such as Lester Young. Luckily for Frank Chace, his Army hitch yielded a benefit: A posting to New York, which resulted in an opportunity to hear Pee Wee Russell at Nick’s. Chace was instantly drawn to Russell’s idiosyncratic sound. He took up clarinet and used Pee Wee Russell’s music as a template for his own playing.
His first recordings were made with the “Cellar Boys” in New York in 1951. The personnel included three musicians who became lifetime friends of Chace: guitarist Marty Grosz, multi-instrumentalist John Dengler and pianist Dick Wellstood. (The great New Orleans bassist Pops Foster and Jelly Roll Morton’s drummer Tommy Benford also played on the records).

Later in 1951, Chace played with Wild Bill Davison at George Wein’s Storyville Club in Boston. Two of the evenings with Davison were recorded and several tracks were issued on the Savoy label.

In 1952, Chace played at the Barrel in St. Louis. The band included another lifelong friend: pianist Don Ewell. Live recordings made at the Barrel indicate that although Pee Wee Russell was still his main inspiration, Chace had also listened to Omer Simeon, Johnny Dodds, Frank Teschemacher and Darnell Howard.

After the St. Louis job ended, Chace established permanent residence in Chicago. In 1955 he played with the Salty Dogs. He also recorded with pianist Dave Remington for the Jubilee label and with Natty Dominique’s New Orleans Hot Six for Windin’ Ball. (Dominique’s group also included the legendary Baby Dodds and Lil Hardin Armstrong). Two years later Chace played a concert in Minneapolis with Doc Evans—later issued on a Soma LP.

One of Frank Chace’s greatest performances was recorded in 1957, when Marty Grosz organized a recording session for the Riverside label. The record, “Hooray For Bix,” by the Honoris Causa Jazz Band, featured Chace on clarinet and bass sax. The other sidemen were: Carl Halen, cornet; Bud Wilson, trombone; Bob Skiver, tenor sax and clarinet; Tut Soper, piano; Chuck Neilson, bass; and Bob Saltmarsh, drums. Bill Priestley, a longtime friend of Bix Beiderbecke, played cornet and guitar on a few tunes. Grosz played guitar, led the band and wrote the arrangements. His charts were based on the sound of Bud Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude band (which was also the inspiration for the band name). Chace is in top form throughout the record, but his first chorus on “Sorry” is the crown jewel of the session. After the four-bar introduction by the horns and string bass, the horns play the melody in tight harmony. Chace floats above the ensemble, joyfully deconstructing the melody in the best tradition of Pee Wee Russell. His use of extended harmonics and rhythmic suspension is as close to “free jazz” as one can get in a swing setting. This breathtaking chorus is Chace’s supreme moment on record and one of the most inspired solos in the history of recorded jazz!

Another highlight for the clarinetist in 1957 was the opportunity to meet Lester Young when both were performing in Indianapolis. One night, after their club date was finished, drummer Buddy Smith offered to take Chace to the hotel where Young was staying. The other musicians gathered around “The Prez,” but Chace hesitated. Young finally asked the shy clarinetist to join the throng, addressing him as “Long-Distance Man.” Compare Lester Young’s introspective clarinet playing on “I Want A Little Girl” (with the Kansas City Six) with Chace’s on “For No Reason At All In C” from the “Hooray For Bix” session. In Lester Young’s own words, “See if you hear something.”
In 1959, Chace was reunited with Don Ewell and John Dengler when Grosz assembled a recording band for the Audio Fidelity label. The band, with Max Kaminsky, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder (alternating sessions with Ewell) and Don Maclean, recorded enough material for two LPs: “Roaring Twenties at the Gaslight” and “Banjo at the Gaslight Club.” As good as these recordings are, Chace is even better on some private tapes made during the same period. One of these—a session at Bill Priestley’s home in the summer of 1959—features the clarinetist in a trio with Ewell and Grosz. Musicians and jazz fans agree that Chace’s playing on “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” ranks with “Sorry” as one of his greatest performances.

He also worked briefly with Gene Mayl’s Dixieland Rhythm Kings in 1959. That particular edition of the band included banjoist and vocalist Clancy Hayes. During that period, Chace and Hayes were involved in another memorable session at Priestley’s, with vocalist Lee Wiley. Fortunately, the tape recorder was running on that occasion too!

Chace’s only commercially-issued recordings from the early 1960s are two LPs on the Jazz Art label, taken from rehearsal sessions with the legendary trumpeter Jabbo Smith; these sides are being reissued with this release. .

During the early and mid ‘60s, except for a brief stint with Muggsy Spanier, Chace worked with the Salty Dogs and also led his own bands. One such group included veterans Johnny Mendel, Floyd O’Brien, Tut Soper and Jim Lanigan as well as younger musicians—Bob Skiver, Grosz and Wayne Jones. When this group played for the Chicago Historical Society in 1964, they were joined by a very special guest—Gene Krupa!

A late-60s Chicago recording session by guitarist/vocalist Jim Kweskin resulted in three more classic Chace solos. The album, “Jump For Joy,” released in 1967, paired Kweskin with cornetist Ted Butterman’s Neo-Passé Jazz Band. In addition to Butterman, the personnel consisted of Chace (clarinet and bass sax); Kim Cusack, clarinet; Johnny Frigo, violin; Grosz (guitar, banjo and arranger); Truck Parham, bass; and Wayne Jones, drums. Fellow reedman Kim Cusack called Chace’s playing on “You’re Not The Only Oyster In The Stew” “one of the sublime moments in jazz.” The clarinet choruses on “Memphis Blues” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” are two more outstanding examples of Frank Chace at his best.

Recently, the GHB label released a two-CD set of Chace playing with a specially-assembled band in 1967 at the Emporium of Jazz in Mendota, Minnesota. The group included Bill Price (cornet), Jimmy Archey (trombone), Don Ewell (piano), Bill Evans (bass) and Sammy Penn (drums). A cursory glance at the personnel and their stylistic differences might cause concern. However, the musicians—particularly Chace and Ewell—sound wonderful together.

Sometime during the ‘60s, or possibly the ‘70s, Chace went to work as a technical writer. He continued to work with bands around Chicago, and to play sessions, but did not rely on music for a living. As musician/author Richard Hadlock explains,
“Most jazz players learn to adjust, at least somewhat, to shallow audiences, wrongheaded entrepreneurs, pandering bandleaders and jaded or inept sidemen.

“Not clarinetist Frank Chace, however. Over the thirty-some years I’ve been observing his largely hidden talent, I have heard story after story to do with Frank’s losing out because he wouldn’t play ‘pretty’ or ‘straight’ or ‘traditional’ or some other term that meant going outside his own natural way of making music…

“There have been occasions when Frank simply would not take a paying but dumb job. At other times he hasn’t been hired or was let go because someone wanted to hear, say, Stardust and didn’t recognize Frank’s version of it. The result is that Frank Chace has kept one of the lowest profiles among outstanding jazz players.”

During the 1970s, Chace also listened closely to the music of John Coltrane and other modern jazzmen. In the right setting, his solos often went farther “out” than ever before! Delmark Records producer Bob Koester, a longtime admirer of Chace’s music, wrote about his plan to record the clarinetist with a “modern rhythm section.” Alas, the session never materialized.

This writer’s first encounter with Frank Chace was on Apr. 28, 1985. Pianist Butch Thompson assembled a band to play a concert for the Good Time Jazz Club in Libertyville, Illinois. Butch invited Frank to play clarinet, in a group that included Charlie Devore, cornet; John Otto, alto sax; Jack Meilahn, guitar; Bill Evans, bass; and myself on drums. It was an unbelievable thrill to hear that intense, wailing, clarinet coming from directly in front of the drums! The concert flew by—much too fast—and my only contact with Frank Chace for the next year would be written correspondence. The letters are priceless, especially for the humor. In one exchange, he obviously remembered the salutation on my first letter (“Dear Mr. Chace”). At the end of a very funny letter, which ran to several pages, he signed off as Your Friend, Mr. Chace.

In 1986, he was flown to New York, to perform at the JVC Jazz Festival’s “Chicago Jazz Summit.” An LP was subsequently issued, featuring several instrumental combinations recorded live at the festival. Unbelievably, Chace is only heard on one track. However, it is a rip-roaring version of “At The Jazz Band Ball,” played by Yank Lawson, George Masso, Eddie Miller, Truck Parham, Ikey Robinson, Barrett Deems and festival producer George Wein. Though we can wish that Chace was heard on more tracks, it is safe to say that his two idiosyncratic choruses are easily worth the price of the record!

My final gig with “Mr. Chace” was in 1987—another concert for the Good Time Jazz Club. On that occasion, I led the “Chicago Loopers” which also included Tom Pletcher, cornet; Tom Bartlett, trombone; Joe Johnson, piano; and Dan Shapera, bass. Frank’s playing that day—passionate, rasping, keening, whispered—was other-worldly. It was an indescribable high.

He continued to play with unlimited creativity for nearly 20 more years. In 2001, Drummer Wayne Jones played with Chace at a gig sponsored by Delmark’s Bob Koester. He reported that “Frank sounded not the least dimmed by the passing years.”

Frank Chace died on 28 Dec., 2007. He never gave up that fight to keep a wild, free heart.

Following is a list of recent CD issues that feature Frank Chace:
Salty Dogs 1955 (Windin’ Ball CD-105)
Marty Grosz & The Honoris Causa Jazz Band: Hooray For Bix
(Good Time Jazz 10065-2)
Marty Grosz & The Cellar Boys 1951/Honoris Causa Jazz Band alternate takes 1957
(J&M CD-004)
Jim Kweskin with Ted Butterman & the Neo-Passé Jazz Band: Jump For Joy
(Universe UV0051)
Jimmy Archey & Don Ewell at the Emporium Of Jazz 1967
(GHB BCD-461/462)
Chicago Jazz Summit
(Atlantic 81844-2)

These sessions are due for release in 2009:
Jabbo Smith – 1961 GHB BCD-510
The Chicago Loopers with Frank Chace – Live, 1987 Jazzology JCD 371-372
Butch Thompson and his Boys in Chicago – 1985 Jazzology JCD 373-374

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN, HAL SMITH, AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

CHRIS ALBERTSON’S NEW BLOG

http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2009/08/chris-albertson-credits-artistdirect.html

chris

If Chris Albertson’s name doesn’t mean much to you, perhaps you haven’t been exposed to much in jazz.  He’s written the definitive biography of Bessie Smith (and rewrote it when new information emerged); he’s produced many recording sessions with people from Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Dave Frishberg, Jo Jones, Elmer Snowden, Clark Terry, Earl Hines, Lonnie Johnson . . . . he roomed with the Baron Timme Rosenkrantz; he seems to have encountered everyone possible. 

Chris is also a forthright writer and careful archivist.  The photos on his site show something of his range — from Charles Mingus to Lucille Hegamin, from Don Pullen and Johnny Griffin to Pops Foster and Lovie Austin!

So I was thrilled to find out that he has begun a jazz blog.  And it’s not the usual thing — “The records I like” — but first-hand experience.  The stories that impressed me greatly were Lil Hardin Armstrong’s recollections of what Joe Oliver told her about his childhood (!) and the sad, odd tale of the life and death of Linda Kuehl — who did much of the pioneering research on Billie Holiday.  I’ll keep this post brief because I want to see what Chris has posted since I checked last.  Welcome to the blogosphere, Chris, and thank you!

REMEMBERING JOE THOMAS

The trumpeter Joseph Eli Thomas — fabled but truly little-known — is almost always confused with his higher-profile namesake, who played tenor sax and sang in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. 

But a quick scan of the people our Joe Thomas played with should suggest that his colleagues thought very highly of him.  How about Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Guarneri, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Catlett, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Emmett Berry, Cozy Cole, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Claude Hopkins,  Buddy Tate, Pee Wee Russell, Tony Scott, Buck Clayton, Woody Herman, Trummy Young, Rudy Powell, Eddie Condon, Benny Carter, Jo Jones, Benny Morton, Al Hall . . . . ?  Clearly a man well-respected.  But he is an obscure figure today. 

He can be seen as a member of Art Kane’s famous 1958 Harlem street assemblage.  Shirtsleeved and hatless, he stands with Maxine Sullivan and Jimmy Rushing to one side, with Stuff Smith on the other.  Fast company, although the sun must have been bothering him, for he looks worried. 

In another world, Thomas would have had little reason to worry, but he came up in jazz when hot trumpeters seemed to spring out from every bush.  To his left, Red Allen and Rex Stewart; to the right, Bill Coleman, Emmett Berry, Bobby Hackett.  Rounding the corner, Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams, Benny Carter, Frank Newton.   So the competition was fierce.  And Thomas often had the bad fortune to be overshadowed: in Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS band — the one that recorded extensively for Victor and Vocalion — his section-mate was a fireball named Eldridge.  In Fats Waller’s big band, Thomas played section trumpet and the prize solos in Fats’ Rhythm went to Herman Autrey or Bugs Hamilton.  And then there was a colossus named Armstrong, apparently blocking out the sun.  John Hammond was busy championing other players, all worthy, and never got around to pushing Joe Thomas into the limelight.  Although he recorded prolifically as a sideman, he never had a record date under his own name after 1946. 

But Thomas got himself heard now and again: his solos shine on Decca recordings (alongside Chu Berry) under Lil Armstrong’s name, and on a famous Big Joe Turner date for the same label that featured Art Tatum and Ed Hall.  On the much more obscure Black and White label, he recorded alongside Tatum and Barney Bigard; for Jamboree, he was captured side-by-side with Don Byas, Dave Tough, and Ted Nash. 

Later in his career, the British jazz scholar Albert McCarthy featured him on a Vic Dickenson session (Vic, like Tatum, seems to have admired Joe’s quiet majesty), and he popped up on sessions in the Fifties and Sixties in the best company.  Whitney Balliett celebrated him in an essay, and the drummer Mike Burgevin used him on gigs whenever he could.

Thomas’s most important champion has to have been the Javanese jazz enthusiast and record producer Harry Lim, whose biography should be written — producing jam sessions and heading one of the finest record labels ever — Keynote — then shepherding another label, Famous Door, through perhaps a dozen issues in the Seventies.  I gather that his day job was as head of the jazz record section in the Manhattan Sam Goody store: probably I saw him, but was too young and uninformed to make the connection. 

Lim loved Thomas’s playing and featured him extensively on sessions between 1944 and 1946.  Regrettably those sessions were reissued in haphazard fashion in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies — vinyl anthologies on the Emarcy and Trip labels — then in a wonderful box set first appearing in Japan, then briefly in the US, then disappearing for good.  A number of compilations drawn from that set — featuring Hawkins, Eldridge, Norvo, and Young — made it to CD but seem to have gone out of circulation.  And wise collectors aren’t putting them up on eBay.  Thomas also appears on a few sessions for the HRS (Hot Record Society) label, and those sessions have been collected in a Mosaic box set, which I believe is still available — although the Keynotes show him off far better. 

What made Thomas so special?  His tone was luminous but dark, rich — not shallow and glossy or brassy.  His notes sang; he placed his notes a shade behind the beat, giving the impression of having all the time in the world at a fast tempo.  Like Jack Teagarden, he wasn’t an improviser who started afresh with every new solo.  Thomas had his favorite patterns and gestures, but he didn’t repeat himself.  Listening to him when he was on-form was beautifully satisfying: he sounded like a man who had edited out all the extraneous notes in his head before beginning to play.  His spaces meant something, and a Thomas solo continued to resonate in one’s head for a long time.  I can still hear his opening notes of a solo he took on CRAZY RHYTHM on a New York gig in 1974. 

What made his style so memorable wasn’t simply his tone — a marvel in itself — or his pacing, steady but never sluggish.  It was his dual nature: he loved upward-surging arpeggios that spelled out the chord in a gleaming way, easy but urgent.  Occasionally he hit the same note a few times in a delicate, chiming way (much more Beiderbecke than Sweets Edison) — and then, while those notes rang in the air, he would play something at one-quarter volume, which had the shape of a beautiful half-muttered epigram, something enclosed in parentheses, which you had to strain to hear.  That balance between declarations and intimacy shaped many a memorable solo. 

And when Thomas was simply appearing to play the melody, he worked wonders.  I don’t know where a listener would find the Teddy Wilson V-Disc session that produced only two titles (and one alternate take) with a stripped-down version of Wilson’s Cafe Society band in 1943: Thomas, Ed Hall, Wilson, and Sidney Catlett.  I mean them no disrespect, but Benny Morton and Johnny Williams may have wanted to go home and get some sleep.  The two titles recorded were RUSSIAN LULLABY and HOW HIGH THE MOON — the latter of interest because it is one of the first jazz recordings of that song (including a fairly straight 1940 reading by a Fred Rich studio band with Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge as guest stars!) that I know of.  But RUSSIAN LULLABY is extra-special, taken at a slow tempo, enabling Thomas to illuminate the melody from within, as if it were a grieving anthem. 

Alas, there are no CD compilations devoted to Thomas; someone eager to hear him on record might chase down the Keynotes in a variety of forms.  One session finds him alongside Eldridge and Emmett Berry, and it’s fascinating to see how easily Thomas’s wait-and-see manner makes his colleagues seem a bit too eager, even impetuous.  His playing alongside Teagarden and Hawkins on a session led by drummer George Wettling couldn’t be better, especially on HOME and YOU BROUGHT A NEW KIND OF LOVE TO ME. 

But he came to prominence, at least as far as the record studio executives were concerned, most often in the years of the first record ban, during World War Two.  After that, he emerged now and then in a variety of Mainstream revivals — he played at Central Plaza on an elusive “Dr. Jazz” broadcast; he was a member of an Eddie Condon troupe in the Forties that did a concert in Washington, D.C.  

I was lucky enough to hear him a few times in the early Seventies, primarily because of the enthusiastic generosity of Mike Burgevin, a classic jazz drummer whose heroes were Catlett, Tough, and Wettling — someone who also sang now and again, his model (wisely) being early-and-middle period Crosby. 

For a time, Mike took care of the jazz at a club named Brew’s — slightly east of the Empire State Building — that had a little room with tables and chairs, a minute bandstand, a decent upright piano.  His sessions usually featured himself and the quietly persuasive stride pianist Jimmy Andrews (or Dill Jones), perhaps Al Hall on bass, and a noted horn player.  It could be Ruby Braff or Kenny Davern, but often it was Max Kaminsky, Herb Hall, Herman Autrey, or Joe Thomas.  (One week, blessedly, Vic Dickenson played three or four nights with a shifting rhythm section: glorious music and a rare opportunity to observe him on his own.) 

The sessions were even noted in The New Yorker.  I remember noting that these players — people I had heard only on record — seemed to be gigging about ten minutes away from Penn Station.  When Joe Thomas’s name came up in print, I was nearly-incredulous.  Could this be our Joe Thomas, the trumpeter who was nearly luminescent on his choruses on SHE DIDN’T SAY YES?  I think I prevailed on my friend Stu Zimny to come into the city and see whether this was miracle or mirage, and I remember one brilliant set — Joe, Waller-altoist Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, and Burgevin — that featured Rudy on WHERE OR WHEN and there was a closing CRAZY RHYTHM for the whole band.  Of course I had my cassette recorder, but where these tapes are I cannot say.  Joe’s chorus, however, is fresh in my mind’s ear.  

We struck up a friendship with Mike Burgevin, who was thrilled to find college-age kids who were deeply immersed in the music he loved, and he told us that Joe and he would be leading a quartet for an outdoors concert in a park at the very southern end of Manhattan.  I remember that Stu and I brought a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder, the better to capture Joe’s golden sound, and set it up in the shade, near a tree.  This provoked the only conversation I remember having with him.  Understandably, perhaps, the sight of young strangers with a big tape recorder made him nervous, and he kept on telling us that we shouldn’t do this, because “the union man” could come by.  Perhaps impatiently, we assured him that Local 802 representatuves didn’t seem to be hiding in the bushes, and that we would take the blame if anyone came around.  He could pretend that he had no knowledge of our criminalities.  It was a less memorable occasion: the quartet was filled out with someone of moderate abilities on a small electric keyboard, the bassist played an over-amplified Fender.  Joe fought his way upstream, but it was difficult.  In retrospect, I feel guilty: was he worrying about the union man all the time he was playing?  I hope not. 

He also got a chance to shine twice at the 1972 Newport in New York concerts, once at an affair devoted to Eddie Condon and his music.  It was a characteristically uneven evening.  The sound engineer at Carnegie Hall amplified the piano so that it sounded other-worldly, and Thomas (perhaps playing the role of a more modest Hot Lips Page) was brought on, along with J.C. Higginbotham, for a closing version of IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  Of that occasion, I remember a stunning Bobby Hackett chorus and break, but Thomas didn’t get the space to do what we knew he could.  He also was a member of Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS big band — its rhythm section featuring Teddy Wilson, Bernard Addison, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones (!) and Thomas took a wonderful solo on a very fast rendition of SLEEP.

I don’t know what kept him out of the limelight after that, whether it was ill health or tiredness?  Was it that more showily assertive trumpeters (and there were plenty) got the gigs?  Whatever the reasons, he seems to have faded away. 

Ironically, Mike Burgevin had issued three vinyl recordings on his own Jezebel label that featured Herman Autrey, Jack Fine, Rudy Powell, and Doc Cheatham . . . which, in a way, led to Cheatham’s rediscovery and second or third period of intense (and well-deserved) fame.  Had circumstances been different, perhaps it would have been Joe Thomas playing alongside Nicholas Payton, and that is to take nothing away from Cheatham.

I had begun to write a post about Joe Thomas very shortly after beginning this blog, but shelved it because so little of his work is now available on CD.  But the impetus to celebrate him came in the past few days when the Beloved and I had the great good luck to hear Duke Heitger on a brief New York City tour.  I have admired Duke’s work for a number of years, and think of him as one of those players who honors the tradition — subtly yet passionately — without imitating anyone.  But on a few occasions this last week, Duke would get off a beautiful phrase that hung, shimmering in the air, for a second, and I would think, “Who does that remind me of?”  And the answer, when it came, startled me: the last time I had heard something quite so lovely was in listening to Joe Thomas in his prime.  Duke is too much his own man to have copied those Keynotes, but it’s an honor (at least in my estimation) to come close to some of Thomas’s quiet majesty. 

One other person who thought Joe Thomas was worthy of notice was the esteemed photographer William P. Gottlieb.  In this shot, taken at the Greenwich Village club “The Pied Piper,” sometime between 1946 and 1946, Thomas is third from the left, the only African-American.  To his left is Harry Lim:

Joe Thomas 1

Here he is playing alongside pianist Jimmy Jones, at the same club:

Joe Thomas 2

Ultimately, Thomas got a number of opportunities to record and to perform, so that a few people still remember him, but it’s sad that his work is so difficult to find.  He deserves so much more.