Tag Archives: LOST CHORDS

WHO WAS MIKE DURSO AND WHERE DID HE GO?

I would guess that hot jazz, especially the Chicagoan variety, would have upset Hercule Poirot’s delicate stomach, but we could use his help on this matter.  This posting owes its existence to my new jazz-friend (although I’ve read his work for a long time), Larry Kart of Chicago.  I’ll let Larry start us off:

You may be way ahead of me here (at least I hope you are), but listening to the radio Saturday, I heard this 1927 track “The New Twister” by The Wolverines (Bix’s old band under the leadership of pianist Dick Voynow, with Jimmy McPartland taking Bix’s place). The music has IMO a proto-Chicagoans feel (the first McKenzie-Condon sides were shortly to be made). Drummer Vic Moore has a nice a “Chicago shuffle” feel going, 17-year-old reedman Maurice Bercov, says Dick Sudhalter in “Lost Chords,” had “heard Johnny Dodds and the rest on the South Side but worshipped Frank Teschmacher, emulating his tone, attack, off-center figures … he wound up recording two months before his idol [did] .”

But who the heck was trombonist Mike Durso, who takes the IMO impressively fluid solo here?

Thanks to “Atticus Jazz” for the lovely transfer of this rare 78, as always:

The personnel of this band is listed as Dick Voynow, piano; director; Jimmy McPartland, cornet; Mike Durso, trombone; Maurie Bercov, clarinet, alto saxophone; unknown guitar; Basil Dupre, sb / Vic Moore, d. Chicago, October 12, 1927.

Back to Larry:

By contrast, here is THE NEW TWISTER played by Miff Mole and the Molers (with Red Nichols, et al.) from the same year. Mole’s trombone work here is not without its charms, but in terms of swing and continuity, it’s day and night, no?

To complicate matters (or to add more evidence) here is the reverse side of that disc, SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

Larry continues:

The guitarist on the Wolverines track is Dick McPartland, Jimmy’s brother. Bercov’s contemporary, pianist Tut Soper, described him as an “extremely galling, sarcastic and difficult man.”

Looking for more on Durso, I came across this “moderne” 1928 piece by trumpeter Donald Lindley, “Sliding Around,” on which Durso may be a sideman. (There’s no trombone solo though.) Jazz it’s not, though it’s certainly aware of jazz — those oblique references to “Royal Garden Blues.” That’s Lindley , b. 1899, in the cap [the YouTube portrait]:

The beautiful video is by our friend Enrico Borsetti, another one of my benefactors, and the Lindley side eerily prefigures the Alec Wilder Octet.

Finally, here is LIMEHOUSE BLUES by “The Wolverine Orchestra” which might have Durso audible in solo and ensemble:

After Larry had asked me about Durso, and I had to confess that I’d barely registered his name or these recordings, and I had no information to offer (he’d stumped the band), I went back to the discography and was pleased to find that Durso had a history, 1923-28 and then 1939: recording for Gennett under the band name “Bailey’s Lucky Seven” which had in its collective personnel Jules Levy, Jr., Jimmy Lytell, Red Nichols, Frank Signorelli, Hymie Farberman; then Sam Lanin, with Vic Berton, Merle Johnson, Joe Tarto, John Cali, Tony Colucci, Ray Lodwig; sessions with the Arkansas / Arkansaw Travelers, a Nichols group where the trombonist may be Mole or Durso.  That takes him from 1923-25; he then records with Ray Miller, with Volly DeFaut.  All of this takes him to 1926, and all of it is (if correctly annotated) recorded in New York.  The Wolverines sides above are in 1927, in Chicago, as a re 1928 sides with the larger Wolverines unit, Donald Lindley, and Paul Ash (a “theatre orchestra,” Larry says).

Then, a gap of a decade, and Durso, in 1939, is part of the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, recording for Bluebird.  Then silence.

I realize that discographies are not infallible research documents, and that Durso might have made dozens of sides that a jazz discography would not notate, so I am sure this listing is incomplete and thus not entirely accurate.  But, to paraphrase Lesley Gore, I think, it’s my blog and I’ll surmise if I want to.  I am going to guess that Durso, probably born around 1900 or slightly earlier, was one of those musicians who could read a tune off a stock arrangement, blend with another trombone in a section, improvise a harmony part, knew his chords, and could — as you hear above — play a very forward-looking solo given the chance. Remember that THE NEW TWISTER came out in 1927.  Who were the trombonists of note?  Ory, Brunis, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Harrison, Charlie Green, Benny Morton, Mole, perhaps Charlie Butterfield.  Teagarden may or may not have impressed everyone yet.  (I am sure I have left out a few names.) Durso had technique but wasn’t in love with it, and his playing is lightly swinging and mobile; his solos make logical sense, with no cliches.

So between 1923 and 1928 or so he is what we might call “a studio man,” who obviously is known for his improvising ability, otherwise he would not have been in the studio with McPartland.  (Scott Black!  Did Dugald ever mention Mike Durso?)  More speculation follows.  I can safely assume that pre-Crash, Durso might have made a living as an improvising musician, but at some point the safer employment of sweeter big bands might have called to him.  Did he have a family to support?  Did he perhaps appreciate a regular paycheck playing in theatres and dancehalls as opposed to playing in speakeasies?  I can’t say, having even less that speculation to go on.  Did he die after 1939, or do some war work and decide that getting home after 5 PM with a lunch pail was easier than being a hot man?

The trail goes cold here.  Perhaps some readers can assist us here.  I know that you know, to quote Jimmie Noone.  And if no one can, at least we have the collective pleasure of having heard Mike Durso on THE NEW TWISTER. Thanks in the present tense to Larry Kart; thanks in advance to those of you who will flood the comments section with information.

May your happiness increase!

“BOYCE BROWN: JAZZMAN IN TWO WORLDS” by Hal Willard (1999)

BOYCE BROWN: JAZZMAN IN TWO WORLDS by Hal Willard

Originally published in The Mississippi Rag, February 1999

In the relatively short history of jazz, many strange and spectacular characters have made unique contributions to the music and its lore.  April 1999 marks the 43rd anniversary of the time one of the strangest, and in some ways most spectacular characters attracted attention with a comeback album.

His name was Boyce Brown, and he had been among the best saxophonists in jazz, rating high in the survey lists of Down Beat magazine, the bible of jazz.  But it wasn’t so much the comeback as it was where he came back from that attracted attention.

Brown had given up music to become a Brother in the Catholic Church and was in the midst of undergoing years of training to enter the strict Servite Order.  He was having a middle-age metamorphosis, and his effort to create a new life was causing considerable controversy within the Church, where many priests and Servites questioned his seriousness of purpose and wondered whether he really had abandoned his former life.

Boyce Brown was a man out of place — out of place in jazz, and, because he came from the jazz world, perhaps out of place in the world of Catholicism that he sought.

If ever a soul seemed lost in the raucous, raunchy, rigorous life of jazzmen, it was the gentle, contemplative, ascetic Boyce Brown, whose quiet, unobtrusive nature was made the more so by impaired vision, an odd appearance, and herky-jerky body movements caused by physical deformities.  Yes, for 20 years or more, he was listed among the top alto saxophonists in jazz.

His birth in Chicago, or April 16, 1910, had been difficult.  It was a breech delivery, and when Boyce finally emerged, he was seriously injured.  The doctor put Boyce aside and devoted his attention to saving the mother.  Boyce’s Aunt Harriet, who was in the delivery room, saw what was happening and moved to do what she could for the baby.  She picked up the misshapen and struggling newborn and literally shaped his head with her hands, saving his life.  But, among other injuries he suffered, one eye was gone and the other was damaged.

So, as an adult, Boyce Brown faced the world with a glass eye, limited vision in the other eye,an oddly-shaped head and a partially caved-in chest.  He walked sort of lop-sided, with a halting, loping gait, one shoulder drooping.  Sometimes he would hold his head at funny angles, stretching out his neck like a bird truing to find kernels of grain.  Some people even called him “Bird” in those days before fellow altoist Charlie Parker came along and became “Bird” for all time.

It wasn’t just his appearance that set Brown apart in the jazz world.  He liked to write poetry, and he liked to talk about it and discuss philosophy and other deep, unjazz-like subjects, to the confusion and consternation of his fellow musicians.  Besides, he lived with his mother.

Boyce started playing the saxophone at 14 and by the time he was 17 in 1927 got his first job.  It was with a trio in a joint called Amber Light, owned by Al Capone and managed by Bugs Moran.  Moran showed solicitude for the youngsters in the band by telling them to hide behind the piano if customers started shooting.

Brown’s playing attracted the attention of other musicians, and when Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey came to town with their new joint band, Tommy went to hear Boyce and then asked him to join them.  But when Boyce sat in with the Dorsey band, he got the volatile Tommy upset when he cocked his head at a strange angle and leaned over to squint at the music.  Tommy thought the audience would be distracted and put off by the contortions.  Boyce told Tommy he had to bend over only once per sheet of music because he could memorize it at a glance, despite his poor vision.  He had a photographic memory, and perfect pitch as well.

Nevertheless, Brown lacked self-confidence, and he also was afflicted by a sense of responsibility.  He felt he should stay with and support his mother because his father was an alcoholic and unreliable.

So, Brown stayed home.  Although he subsequently toured around the country with different bands, he chose to play most of the 20 prime years of his musical career at the Liberty Inn, a strip joint on Chicago’s rowdy North Clark Street.

Boyce Brown in the Liberty Inn was the definition of incongruity.  He drank, but not to excess, and, of course, he couldn’t see much of what was going on.  Sometimes he sat backstage between shows reading philosophy, his face literally buried in the book.  This disturbed some people because they didn’t understand it.

Despite his aloofness, Brown liked the girls.  They were kind to him and seemed to understand him — although they perhaps wondered why he never made passes at them and otherwise ignored their nakedness.  He told friends that the girls were nice and not bad as most people seemed to think.  At one point, Brown was briefly engaged to a girl outside the business, but he again decided he couldn’t leave his mother and Aunt Harriet, whom he also was helping.

Time and again he left the Liberty Inn to play with other bands, but he always returned.  Something there suited him.  Maybe it was a psychological refuge; there was much honesty and little pretense in the Liberty Inn.

As the years passed, Brown was bothered more and more by the contrast between his manner of making a living and his attitudes about life and people developed through his philosophical readings.  He got in the habit of going for long walks in the early morning hours after work, wondering about his life as a musician, the paradoxes and the fact that he wasn’t fully utilizing his abilities.  He became depressed and even thought about suicide.

One morning his walk took him past St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church on Granville Avenue, and he heard organ music.  He stopped to listen.  As children, he and his brother, Harvey, had been iterested enough in classical music to stage record concerts for their friends.

Brown returned to the church morning after morning to listen to the music, and he soon began going inside to hear better.  One morning a priest noticed him standing in the shadows at the back of the church and approached to welcome him.  From that contact, one thing led to another and on August 12, 1952, Boyce Brown, who had been raised an Episcopalian, became a Catholic.  He was 42 years old.

But just being a Catholic didn’t satisfy him.  He wanted deeper involvement.  One day at St. Gertrude’s, he met Father Ed Calkins, a missionary of the Servites, a religious order of friars started in the 13th century.  Brown asked about taking his religious feelings further.

Father Ed sent Brown to the Servites’ director of vocation, Father Hugh Calkins, his brother (two other Calkins brothers also were priests).  Father Hugh listened as Brown described his concern about being accepted for further work in the church.  He feared his background of playing jazz in “low” places for so many years would rule him out.  Father Hugh let Brown ramble on about his worries for a time, and then told him he would make a good Brother in the Servite Order.

As for jazz, Father Hugh said, it just so happened that he himself was fond of jazz.  In fact he was a pretty good amateur pianist, if he did say so himself, and felt he and Brown would enjoy playing together.

After a few more interviews, in the fall of 1953 Boyce Brown entered the monastery and began training to become a Brother.  When Father Hugh was questioned by a superior about Brown’s seriousness of purpose, he said Brown was one of the most deeply spiritual men he had ever met.

That was fine, the superior said, bring him in.  “He might say enough prayers to get the rest of us into Heaven.”

Two years later, Brown entered the Novitiate at Mount Saint Philip Monastery about 10 miles north of Milwaukee and on Feb. 26, 1956, took his vows as Brother Matthew.

Part of Boyce Brown’s training, and his vocation as a Brother, involved menial work in the monastery, kitchen, tailor shop, laundry, bakery, and boiler room, and he swept the halls.  Sometimes, when his work was done, he played the saxophone, but not often.  His first year of training, he played hardly at all, so everyone was surprised when, at the Christmas party, Brother Hugh sat down to play the piano — and called on Brown to get his saxophone.  When he and Brown got going, Father Hugh said, they “rocked the refectory,” and played together many times after that.

Father Hugh, outgoing and enthusiastic, had a talent for public relations — another incongruity — and when Brown took his vows, the priest sent out a press release.  A week later, Time Magazine and other publications carried items with the news.

About two weeks after that, the Chicago Tribune carried a front-page story about the jazzman turned Brother.  This was followed by a picture story in the Trib‘s rotogravure section.

As the word spread, ABC-Paramount telephoned Father Hugh and asked if Brother Matthew could go to New York and make a record.  Father Hugh, bursting with excitement, got an okay from church superiors and then got in touch with jazz spokesman Eddie Condon, who knew Brown in his early days, and asked him to handle arrangements for a record date.

Father Hugh’s press release now had gathered maximum momentum.  Father Hugh had become official spokesman, escort, PR man and general factotum for Brother Matthew.  (Later, he collected considerable information and provided much of the material for this article.)  Father Hugh and his charge appeared and played on Garry Moore’s “I’ve Got A Secret” television program, with Moore himself on drums, the day before the record session.  They played “My Blue Heaven.”

Boyce Brown’s and Father Hugh’s “secret” was that they played jazz in a monastery.  The panel was game show host Bill Cullen, who was raised a Catholic, radio comedian Henry Morgan, supposedly an agnostic; and actress Faye Emerson, then married to bandleader and pianist Skitch Henderson.  Her religious beliefs were unknown, but she was the one who guessed the “secret,” but not until the time allotted to do so had expired.  She finally remembered seeing Brown’s picture in Time, and Henderson had told her about Brown’s past and background.

Father Hugh and Boyce spent that night in the Abbey Hotel, and the religious motif was played to the hilt.  The next day, a Life Magazine photographer showed up at the recording session, and a spread of pictures appeared in the April 23, 1956 issue.

Condon had rounded up a band of star jazzmen: on cornet, Wild Bill Davison, who had played with Brown in the old days; Gene Schroeder on piano; Pee Wee Russell on clarinet; Ernie Caceres on baritone sax; Cutty Cutshall on trombone; George Wettling on drums; Bob Casey on bass and on a few numbers, Paul Smith on guitar.  The session was a little more orderly, somber and sober than might have been the case in Brown’s former life, but Davison and a couple of others nevertheless broke out the booze, and Brown joined in without hesitation, showing he still was one of the boys.

Unfortunately, he still wasn’t one of them musically.  The tunes played included Brown’s “theme song,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” plus “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Blues for Boyce,” a tune improvised for the occasion.  While Brown still was holed up in the Liberty Inn tootling for the strippers, the others had been learning from each other and their colleagues and developing as musicians.  The upshot was that his horn figuratively became caked with rust.  However, the record was issued, entitled Brother Matthew, and although it wasn’t really that bad, it was not a success.  It did not create a demand for more music from the monastery.  This was a disappointment to Father Hugh, but probably not to Brown.

Father Hugh had hoped to use the record as a fund-raiser for the Servites and their missions in South Africa, but a hit record and satisfying demands for more might not have been Brother Matthew’s idea of serving God, his fellow man and himself in the quietude of a monastery.  Brown told Father Hugh he felt he had said all he had to say through his music.  After all, that was a life he voluntarily gave up.

So, sans success, Brother Matthew was allowed to go back to his chores and his meditations, but his serenity was gone.

In early 1957, Dave Garroway called and wanted to do a segment on Brother Matthew for NBC’s “Wide Wide World” program on Sunday afternoon.  The idea was to contrast Brother Matthew’s playing with a dixieland band with the Gregorian music sung by the Servite members.  This was done and went out over the network, live.  Father Hugh described the broadcast as a success, but perhaps the superiors were beginning to wonder about all the worldliness and all the talk from Father Hugh about good public relations.  Was this a religious order or was it Madison Avenue?

Whatever was actually said, or implied, brown began to worry about his future with the Servites.  Final vows to enter the Servite Order for life were coming up, and Brows was afraid he wouldn’t be accepted.  He told Father Hugh of his concern, and when the priest went before his superiors in the monastery at Hillside, a Chicago suburb, he discovered that Brown’s fears were well-founded.

They thought Boyce Brown was an alcoholic and not ready to devote his life to the Servite Order.  Sometimes the other members smelled alcohol on his breath.  A bottle of booze was found in his room.  One Sunday, he left the monastery to play  a few hours in a band led by drummer Danny Alvin and returned with the smell of liquor about him.  Once, his hands shook when he was helping a priest serve Mass.

Father Hugh pleaded the case.  He pointed out that members of the Order were allowed to drink in moderation and that’s all Brown was doing.  He said there was no evidence that he ever drank to excess.  His hands shook because of nervousness.  Father Hugh cited Brown’s value to the Order as a fund-raiser and as an entertainer of the other members (which may have been the wrong approach).  Father Hugh said he had never known anyone with a deeper spirituality, with a richer goodness of soul.

The superiors were unmoved.  They told Father Hugh he was prejudiced in favor of Brown because they were friends, they played jazz together and Father Hugh loved jazz.  There was every indication they would not accept Boyce Brown when he came up for consideration.  Father Hugh’s grand public relations gambit — a Brother who played jazz — had backfired.

But Brown never came up for consideration.  A few days before the day he was to face the superiors, he helped serve a meal at the monastery, then sat down to eat.  But instead of eating, he got back up and went to his room.  He took off his robe and folded it neatly.  Then he lay down on his bed.  A few minutes later, a painter working in the next room heard an unearthly, terrible moan.  He called a priest.

Boyce Brown was dead.  It was Jan. 30, 1959 — two months and 16 days before his 39th birthday and two years and 10 months after the Brother Matthew record was made.

“God spared him from possible being rejected,” Father Hugh said.

Father Hugh’s feelings about Boyce Brown were profound.  “He was without a doubt one of the most genuinely religious-minded persons I have ever met.  In the sense that he had an intuitive awareness of things that even many priests, many theologians, never grasp.  He said he saw music in colors — he heard chord changes, but he saw them, too.  Some sounds were a rich purple or a deep blue.  I checked with a psychologist and he said that some artists do that; their senses coordinate.  It’s an overlapping of senses.”

In the aftermath of Brown’s departure, Columbia Pictures called Father Hugh to talk about making a movie of Brown’s life, with Father Hugh as technical adviser.  He was, of course, enthusiastic and the idea went as far as a scriptwriter coming to interview Father Hugh in depth.  Then he told the monastery superiors about it.  The rejection was flat and unequivocal; the lives of the seminarians would be disrupted by movie people wandering around and climbing all over the monastery.  The project was called off.

By the way, Father Hugh had envisioned Anthony Perkins in the role.

******************************************************************

Note: I’m very grateful to Jim Denham of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST (http://www.shirazsocialist.wordpress.com.) for uncovering a copy of this truly detailed article.  Hal Willard died not long ago, so I can’t thank him in person, but his research into Boyce’s life and his conversations with Father Hugh Calkins were invaluable.  A long and beautiful overview of Boyce’s life and recordings can be found in Richard M. Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, with comments from Dave Dexter, Jimmy McPartland, George Avakian, and others — including excerpts from Boyce’s poetry and a letter he wrote to that “bible of jazz,” Down Beat . . . where he had won the 1940 poll for alto saxophone.

CHARLES PETERSON GOES TO A PARTY (1939)

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.