Tag Archives: Loren Schoenberg

SO SAVORY, SO SWEET — VOLUME FOUR!

A Savory Disc

It’s not only Stupendous but Colossal.  And it’s Embraceable, too.

The fourth volume of music from Bill Savory’s discs is available to be ordered, and it features Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson, Joe Marsala, Jack Teagarden, Pee Wee Russell, Glenn Miller, and others.

That’s Bobby Hackett — detail from what I believe is a Charles Peterson photograph.

Since some people, even musicians, didn’t know who Bill Savory was and what riches he had for us, I wrote this in 2016 — which I hope is both introduction and inducement to purchase.  And I have no particular shame in “shilling” for Apple when music of this rarity and caliber is involved.

Here is the link which has all the delicious information — and, I believe, how to pre-order (or order) the package, which costs less than two elaborate Starbucks concoctions or one CD.  And here are comments by Loren Schoenberg, producer of this volume and founding director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem:

“Just like an old wine, they improve with age! So much of the music of the Era was played in the musical equivalent of capital letters. These performances are such a joy to hear from bands that played with the lower-case letters too, so relaxed and flowing.”

As the title emphasizes, the outstanding cornetist Bobby Hackett is prominently featured – on three tracks with his own ensembles and four as a participant in joyous jams led by the fine clarinetist Joe Marsala. Admired by trumpet giants from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, Bobby was already leading his own ensembles by the time of the recordings that open this album after gaining notoriety through his performance with Benny Goodman in his legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.

Here he joins Marsala for a quartet of rollicking, extended pieces filled with dynamic ensemble work and inspired solos on California, Here I Come and The Sheik of Araby, as well as blues classics Jazz Me Blues and When Did You Leave Heaven.

A Hackett ensemble’s participation on a 1938 Paul Whiteman radio broadcast bring us the beautiful Gershwin ballad Embraceable You and a stomping take on Kid Ory’s Muskrat Ramble, with Bobby joined by the brilliant Pee Wee Russell on clarinet and legendary guitarist Eddie Condon.

A major find are three extremely rare recordings by the immortal pianist Teddy Wilson’s 13-piece orchestra, virtually unrecorded in live performances. Recently discovered and to this point the only excellent high audio quality (superb, at that) recordings of this group, these 1939 items feature such masters as tenorman Ben Webster and trumpeters Doc Cheatham and Shorty Baker. With Wilson’s majestic virtuosity front and center, the band is structured for smooth transitions and elegant voicings, employing the rare – for its time – two trumpet/two trombone brass section creating a uniquely singing dynamic that is as graceful as its leader’s singular artistry and presence.

Martin Block, famed for hosting terrific jam sessions (including those Joe Marsala excursions) also hosted the two loosely structured, but highly energetic 1939 jams here, led by the spectacular trombone titan Jack Teagarden and featuring Charlie Shavers on trumpet and the drummer and wildman scat-singer Leo Watson. Johnny Mercer also makes an unusual appearance alongside Teagarden and Watson for a highly spirited vocal trio on Jeepers Creepers.

This delightful album closes with three pieces by one of the most popular of the Swing-era big bands, the Glenn Miller Orchestra – all featuring the leader’s right-hand man, Tex Beneke on tenor sax and vocals. The exuberant sense of swing and joy that made the Miller orchestra so wildly popular is fully apparent throughout.

As I would say to the puppy, when playing on the rug and encouraging puppy-play, GET IT!  Even if you’re not a puppy or a dog-owner, these Savory collections have brought great pleasure. I’ve ordered mine.

May your happiness increase!

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CELEBRATING DAN MORGENSTERN, WHO GIVES SO MUCH TO US

On October 24, 1929, Bennie Moten, Lud Gluskin, Horace Heidt, Junie C. Cobb, Jack Hylton, and a few other bands made records.  In the United States, terrible things were happening to the economy.  But in Munich, Germany, our hero Dan Morgenstern was born.  Whether his first cries were in 4/4, there is no evidence,  but I would venture that it was an early example of spontaneous scat singing.

Given the math above, even I can add up the figures to write that Dan will be 88 this week.  I’m not the only one celebrating.  There will be a musical birthday party hosted by David Ostwald, who leads the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, New York City, this Wednesday, the 25th, from 5:30 to 7 PM.  And I’ll bet Dan chirps a few with the Band. You can reserve online (and you should) here.

On Saturday, October 28th, from 1-4 PM, Loren Schoenberg (a very good friend of Dan’s and a scholar in his own right) will host a celebration / interview of Dan at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, 58 West 129th Street, New York City. Details — to reserve a seat / buy a ticket at a nominal price — here — or here.

While you’re making your reservations, a little Morgenstern-music to accompany your mouse-clicks:

I don’t have a jazz club or museum as a place to honor Dan.  But JAZZ LIVES is not without its resources, and as readers know, I have had the honor of interviewing Dan at length . . . an utterly gratifying experience for me, so I will share two as-yet-unseen segments.

One takes Dan back to Copenhagen in 1938.  I knew he had delighted in Fats Waller on Fats’ European tour, but I hadn’t known he had seen the Quintet of the Hot Club of France AND the Mills Brothers.  Dan also recalls his first jazz records.  Wonderful memories:

Remembering the Quintet also led to Dan’s enthusiastic portrait of violinist Svend Asmussen:

“A wonderfully enveloping good nature,” Dan says of Fats.  He would never say it of himself, but it is no less true.  It is our immense good fortune to know Mr. Morgenstern.

May your happiness increase!

A MASTER AT PLAY: JAMES CHIRILLO at THE EAR INN (August 6, 2017)

Drawing by Dan Christoffel

I have been enjoying the art of guitarist / composer / arranger James Chirillo (and I know I have company in this) for some years now on discs, all the way back to 1985, when he appeared as a member of the Loren Schoenberg jazz orchestra then led by Benny Goodman. I browsed his discography and was amazed but not surprised to find how many of my favorite discs he is on, for musicians knew a long time ago that he had a deep yet playful intelligence.

I don’t know when I first encountered him in person (finding him serious, witty, surprising, and kind) but I can say that he allowed me to point a video camera at him a good many years ago, beginning in 2009.  He is a very serious judge of his own work but has been generous and gracious about getting captured and shown off for free, possibly because he understands the depth of my admiration (and, again, I am not alone in this.)

James has always been a peerless soloist — offering delightful surprises mixed in with a fine respect for sound and for melodies — and a wonderful team player, someone who works seriously yet with a light heart to keep the band trotting in the right direction.  I’ve written elsewhere about James’ deadpan penchant for weird notes and tones and spaces, something I cherish, but there is nothing weird about what I can present here.

Often, The Ear Inn, my intermittent Sunday-night shrine, on 326 Spring Street, home of the blessed EarRegulars, has been crowded and noisy.  Although it plays hell with my goals of a) appreciating music in a near-reverent hush and b) recording it for this audience, I understand the throng as a good thing.  People who have read about The Ear in a guidebook that calls it one of the secret New York City places that tourists don’t know about (is that a whiff of irony burning in that skillet?) keep these Sunday soirees going — as they have been for ten years.  But two Sundays ago, The Ear was wonderfully serene, and the band of Danny Tobias, Scott Robinson, Frank Tate, and James (with an early-evening guest appearance by the lyrical violinist Valerie Levy) had a good time in the peaceful admiration and pleasure.

About two-thirds of the way through the evening, after a very pleasing EarRegulars performance of a song had concluded, James turned to the band and to us, and said (low-key, wry yet plainly) that since he hadn’t taken a solo on the previous tune, he was going to take one now, and play something he had worked on, Johnny Smith’s arrangement / recomposition / improvisation on GOLDEN EARRINGS, a composition by Victor Young — the title theme of a 1947 film starring Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland (an autographed copy of the sheet music is here just because it seems a shame not to share it):

and the movie poster:

Here is James’ tender virtuoso interlude, and it is a marvel — you don’t have to be a guitarist to understand that:

James is also that rare entity, a functioning adult: some hours after I posted the blog, he wrote to me, “Would you be surprised if I told you I consider my performance around a 7.8 compared to Johnny Smith’s 10.0? I’m not trying to be unduly self-effacing, it’s just the fact of the matter.”  I admire someone for whom realistic self-assessment is second nature, no matter that we might disagree about the numbers.

Thank you, Master Chirillo, for offering us, without fanfare, a multicolored respite from this modern world.

May your happiness increase!

IT’S SAVORY! (THE SWING TREASURE CHEST OPENS FOR US.)

JAZZ LIVES, like its creator, is a little eccentric (I write those words with pride): I don’t always rush to cover what everyone else is covering.  But in the past few days, I’ve met several people, one a brilliant young musician, unaware of the riches made available by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Bill Savory Collection in two volumes with more to come . . . so I write these lines as a Swing Public Service.

A Savory Disc

A Savory Disc

Here’s Loren Schoenberg, the guiding genius of all things Savory, on NPR, just a few days ago on November 6, 2016.

Let me backtrack a bit.  Some years back, the “Savory collection” was mythic and tantalizing.  Jazz fans had heard of Bill Savory, an audio engineer and Benny Goodman devotee, who had recorded hours of live material off the air in the late Thirties.  The evidence existed tangibly in a collection of BG airshots issued by Columbia Records to follow up on the incredible success of the 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.  Some years back, the indefatigable Loren unearthed the collection.  I knew, step by painstaking step, of the heroic work that the peerless sound engineer and disc restorer Doug Pomeroy was doing in his Brooklyn studio.

Collectors were anxious to hear the Savory treasures: some made the trek uptown to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to do auditory research. Excerpts were shared in news stories.  But we wondered about the legalities (dealing with the estates of the musicians) and the eventual price to us. Recently, we learned that at least part of the Savory material was to be issued digitally through iTunes.

Like many listeners of a certain age, I grew up with music being available tangibly.  I went to Sam Goody or King Karol and bought discs.  Others I borrowed and taped.  So the notion of, say, a Coleman Hawkins performance that I could hear only through my computer was mildly eerie.  But some of the downloaded music can be burned to homegrown CD — with a reasonably easy learning curve — and once downloaded, they won’t go away even if your computer suddenly starts to emit purple smoke.  If all of this is off-putting, one can buy a $25 iTunes gift card at the local supermarket or chain store; one can enlist someone under 30 to do the dance; one can hear treasures, most in gorgeous sound, never heard before.  And the price is more than reasonable: each of the two volumes costs less than a CD.

On the subject of money: as always, enterprises like this stand or fall on our willingness to join in.  I’m  not saying that anyone should starve the children, but this music is terribly inexpensive.  In speaking to some collectors, I found it wryly hilarious that more than one person said, “Oh, I only bought ____ tracks,” when I, being an elder, stifled my response that this was self-defeating.

In 1976, if you had said to me, “Michael, would you like to hear a jam session with Herschel Evans, Lionel Hampton, Dave Matthews, Charlie Shavers, Milt Hinton, Cozy Cole, and Howard Smith?  Give me six dollars,” I would have been removing bills from my wallet even though I was earning a pittance in academia.

I also note that some jazz fans have commented on Facebook that they are enthusiastic in theory but waiting to purchase the volume that will contain their favorite band.  If you don’t find something to admire here and now, I wonder about you.

Doug Pomeroy’s remastering of these precious discs is marvelous.  The immediacy of the sound is both intense and immense, especially for those of us used to “airshots” recorded by some amateur Angel of Hot with the microphone up to the speaker of the radio console . . . then playing the disc a hundred times. Savory had an actual recording studio and could record the radio signal directly. On a few tracks, there is some gentle static, I believe caused by a lightning storm, but it’s atmospheric rather than distracting.

Here’s a detailed essay on Savory and his collection.

Having learned how to navigate iTunes, I have been listening to the first volume for the last few days.  The second volume, sixty-two minutes of incredible live material in vibrant sound of the Count Basie Orchestra 1938-40 featuring Lester Young (also Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing) has proven too intense for me: I started to play the whole set and then found myself overcome, as if I’d tried to eat a whole chocolate cake in a sitting.  I can see that I will spread out this disc over a week or more of intermittent listening, and then more weeks to come.

A very literate San Francisco guitarist, Nick Rossi (you should know him!) has written, at my request, a short appreciation of a Herschel Evans solo from the first volume — to be published here shortly.

The first volume starts off with a triumph — a monumental performance, tossed off casually by Coleman Hawkins.  BODY AND SOUL, nearly six minutes (twice the length of the legendary Bluebird 78), followed by BASIN STREET BLUES, not something I’d associate with Hawkins, but it’s spectacular — also a leisurely performance.  Two Ella Fitzgerald performances remind us of how girlish she sounded at the start: irreplaceable and tenderly exuberant.  Next, a series of Fats Waller effusions live from the Yacht Club on Fifty-Second Street (now probably obliterated to make space for a chain pharmacy) where Fats is wonderfully ebullient, although the standouts for me are I HAVEN’T CHANGED A THING and YOU MUST HAVE BEEN A BEAUTIFUL BABY — the latter a new song at the time.  There’s a spirited reading of HEAT WAVE by Carl Kress and Dick McDonough (amazing as a team) and one of CHINA BOY by the Emilio Caceres Trio featuring Emilio on violin and brother Ernie on reeds.  And that jam session.

Jam sessions, when considered coolly decades later, tend to be lopsided affairs: someone rushes or drags, the tempo is too fast.  But this jam session offers us the poignant evidence of one of our great lost heroes, Herschel Evans, not long before his death.  He isn’t at full power, but he sounds entirely like himself — and the choruses here expand his recorded discography by a substantial amount.

The second volume offers what I noted above, but it bears repeating in boldface — sixty-two minutes of Lester Young and the Count Basie band in glorious sound — with more unfettered leisurely improvisation (how happy the band sounds to be playing for dancers and to have escaped the constraints of the recording studio).  I’ve only heard three tracks: a jam session on ROSETTA, a very fast I AIN’T GOT NOBODY with a Jimmy Rushing vocal, and one other.

Words fail me, and that is not my usual reaction.  I don’t think the rhythm section ever sounded so good, Freddie Green’s guitar so luminous.  My friends tell me that Lester is astonishing throughout (this I would not argue) but that there are also clarinet solos.  And in a complete loss of self-control, I found the superb full chorus for Vic Dickenson on I NEVER KNEW. Let joy be unconfined.

Here is the most expansive description of both sets, with sound samples.

I’ll stop now, because readers have already gotten the point or have stopped reading.  But please do visit the Savory Collection sites.  And I suggest that the perfect holiday gift for yourself is acquiring both volumes.  I don’t endorse a major corporation here, and I have been Apple-averse for as long as I can remember, but when the reward is Lester, Jimmy Rushing, Buck, Sweets, Jo Jones, Herschel, Hamp, Ella, Fats, Hawk, Vernon Brown, Milt, etc., I can conquer my innate distrust.  And so can you.

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaten we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

TOMORROW NIGHT: “LET ME OFF UPTOWN”: A LISTENING SESSION on FEBRUARY 24, 2015

I don’t usually see JAZZ LIVES as a place to promote myself, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I invite you to a Listening Session, a Musical Interlude, a Platter Party — whatever term you like — on Tuesday, February 24, 2015, from 7-8:30 PM.

Here’s the location — a place that should be both well-known and loved:

NJMH banner

er tA

I look forward to meeting old friends and making new ones. Thanks to Loren Schoenberg for offering me this opportunity.  And if you want to join the party via Facebook, just click here.

May your happiness increase!May your happiness increase!

 

AMONG FRIENDS: MUSIC and WORDS for JOE WILDER (Sept. 8, 2014)

Joe Among Friends

Last night I spent a very touching and uplifting three hours in the company of people — many of whom I didn’t know and vice versa — united in one thing: we all loved the magnificent trumpeter and dear man Joe Wilder.

I don’t know the source of the saying, “The only thing wrong with funerals is that the one person you want to see is not present,” and that was certainly true in the filled-to-capacity St. Peter’s Church, but you could feel Joe’s gracious, easy spirit in every word and every note played.  The service was organized by Joe’s daughter Elin, Joe’s great friend and biographer Ed Berger, and the music was directed by Warren Vache.  Praise to all of them.

I couldn’t bring my video camera, so my notes will have to suffice.

I came to St. Peter’s early (I have been trained to this behavior by anxious parents, but often it pays off) and could see Russell Malone playing ballads for his own pleasure, including a soulful, precise DEEP IN A DREAM, then greeting Gene Bertoncini, who took up his own guitar.

Then the music changed to purest Wilder — MAD ABOUT THE BOY, CHEROKEE, and more.

It was clear that this was a roomful of dear friends.  Much hugging, much laughter, everyone being made welcome.  Although many people wore black or dark clothing, the mood was anything but maudlin.

Warren Vache quietly and sweetly introduced the first band: Harry Allen, Bill Allred, John Allred, Bill Crow, Steve Johns, Michael Weiss — and they launched into IT’S YOU OR NO ONE and then a medium-tempo CHEROKEE, full of energy and smiles passed around from player to player and to us.

We then saw a series of clips of an interview done with Joe (the source I copied down was http://www.robertwagnerfilms.com) — where he spoke of his experiences, both hilarious (sitting next to Dizzy in Les Hite’s band) and more meaningful (his perceptions of race).  What struck me was the simple conviction with which he said — and clearly believed — “I couldn’t have had a better life.”

Joe’s trumpet colleague from the Symphony of the New World, Wilmer Wise, told a few tales of the man he called “my big brother.”

Jimmy Owens stood in front of us and spoke lovingly of Joe, then took his fluegelhorn and played a very touching THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU (has Harry Warren’s song ever sounded so true?) ending with subterranean low notes, and an excerpt from NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I’VE SEEN.

Hank Nowak, another trumpet colleague (who met Joe at the Manhattan School of Music in the Fifties) spoke endearingly and then played a beautiful selection from Bach’s second cello suite — as if he were sending messages of love to us, with exquisite tone and phrasing.

Ed Berger told stories of Joe — whom he knew as well as anyone — and ended with some of Joe’s beloved and dangerously elaborate puns.

More music, all sharply etched and full of feeling: Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub duetted all-too briefly on TANGERINE; Dick Hyman and Loren Schoenberg played STARDUST, and were then joined by Steve LaSpina and Kenny Washington for PERDIDO.

Jim Czak told his own story, then read a letter from Artie Baker (swooping down gracefully at the end to give the letter to Joe’s daughter Elin);.

Jimmy Heath (who spoke of Joe as “Joe Milder”), Barry Harris, Rufus Reid, Gene Bertoncini, and Leroy Williams took wonderful lyrical paths through I REMEMBER YOU and BODY AND SOUL.

Jim Merod, who knew Joe for decades, was eloquent and dramatic in his — let us be candid and call it a lovely sermon — about his dear friend.

Wynton Marsalis spoke softly but with feeling about Joe, and then played a solo trumpet feature on JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE that (no cliche here) had the church in a joyous rhythmic uproar.

Russell Malone and Houston Person played ANNIE LAURIE with great sensitivity, just honoring the melody, and Russell created a delicate IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING; Rufus Reid and Kenny Washington joined them for IN A MELLOTONE. Ken Kimery of the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra spoke of Joe’s mastery and generosities. Warren Vache brought his horn in a wonderful duet with Bill Charlap on what he called “Joe’s song,” COME ON HOME, and then with Steve LaSpina and Leroy Williams, offered a quick MY ROMANCE.

Bill Kirchner took the stage with Bill Charlap to present a searching SHE WAS TOO GOOD TO ME.

It was nearing nine-thirty, and I knew my demanding clock radio (it shakes me awake at five-forty-five most mornings) had to be obeyed, so I stood up to go, as Warren was encouraging any musician in the house who hadn’t yet played to “jam for Joe” on SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.  Among the musicians he announced were Bria Skonberg and Claudio Roditi, and cheerful music enwrapped me as I walked out into the night air.

I am sorry I couldn’t have stayed until everyone went home, but I felt Joe’s presence all around me — in Warren’s words, a man so large that each of us could take a little of Joe with us always.

A pause for music. Something cheerful and playful — from 2010:

Now a pause for thought, whether or not you were able to attend the memorial service.

How can we honor Joe Wilder now that his earthly form is no longer with us?

We could purchase and read and be inspired by Ed Berger’s wonderful book about Joe, which I’ve chronicled here — SOFTLY, WITH FEELING: JOE WILDER AND THE BREAKING OF BARRIERS IN AMERICAN MUSIC (Temple University Press).

We could buy one of Joe’s lovely Evening Star CDs and fill our ears and houses with his uplifting music.

Or, we could act in Wilderian fashion — as a kind of subtle, unassuming spiritual practice.

Here are a few suggestions, drawn from my own observations of Joe in action.

Give more than you get.  Make strangers into friends. Never pretend to majesties that aren’t yours.  Fill the world with beauty — whether it’s your own personal sound or a (properly room-temperature) cheesecake.  Act lovingly in all things.  Never be too rushed to speak to people.  Make sure you’ve made people laugh whenever you can. Express gratitude in abundance.

You should create your own list.

But “Be like Joe Wilder in your own way” isn’t a bad place to start.

 May your happiness increase!