Tag Archives: Louie Bellson

“WARM REGARDS” and “THANK GOD FOR EARS”: A COLLECTION OF PRECIOUS PAGES

The nimble folks atjgautographs” had their hands full of surprises . . . although their holdings range from Frederick Douglass to Marilyn Monroe to Irene Dunne, Stephen Sondheim, and Thomas Edison, it’s the jazz ephemera — no longer ephemeral — that fascinates me and others.  Here’s a sampling, with a few comments.  (The seller has many more autographs, from Sonny Rollins and Eubie Blake to Gene Krupa and Conrad Janis, so most readers of this blog will find something or someone to fascinate themselves.)  For those who want(ed) to buy what they see here, the auction ended this evening: if you are curious, I bid and lost on the Ivie Anderson and Jimmy Rushing; I won the Henry “Red” Allen and will be giving showings at a future date.  Check Eventbrite for tickets.

A number of the older autographs were inscribed to “Jack,” as you’ll see, and some of the newer ones to “Mark,” “Mark Allen,” and “Mark Allen Baker,” which led me on another path — more about the latter at the end of this post.

Husband and wife, very important figures in popular music, now perhaps less known.  Arranger Paul Weston:

and warm-voiced Jo Stafford:

Yusef Lateef lectures Mark:

while Louie Bellson is much more gentle in his inscription:

Lady Day, to Jack:

and Billie’s former boss, who called her “William”:

Notice that the Count’s signature is a little hurried, which to me is proof of its on-the-spot authenticity, because artists didn’t always have desks or nice flat surfaces to sign autographs after the show.  His calligraphy is in opposition to the next, quite rare (and in this case, quite dubious) signature:

Beautiful calligraphy, no?  But Helen Oakley Dance told the story (you can look it up) that Chick was embarrassed by his own handwriting, and when Helen asked for an autograph, Chick said, no, his secretary should sign it because her handwriting was so lovely . . . thus making me believe that this paper was not in Chick’s hands.  People who are less skeptical bid seriously on it, though.

Blossom Dearie, who arouses no such doubts:

And James Rushing, of that same Count Basie band:

I saw Mister Five-by-Five once, and his sound is still in my ears:

another Jimmy, happily still with us:

yet another Jimmy, playing at the Hotel Pennsylvania:

Would you care to join me for dinner?

Perhaps you’d like to meet both Dorsey Brothers?

and we could stay for the “Bombe Borealis,” whatever it looked like:

A woman I would have loved to see and hear, Miss Ivie Anderson:

She continues to charm:

Smack:

Jay Jay:

and Cee Tee:

The wondrous Don Redman:

Ella, whose inscription is elaborate and heartfelt:

One of the million he must have signed:

Jim Hall, always precise:

One can’t have too many of these:

an influential bandleader and personality:

one of Lucky’s great stars — and ours — from an era when you noted what instrument the star played, even if you couldn’t quite spell it:

Here’s the musical background, in the foreground:

finally, something that deserves its own scenario, “Mister Waller, could I have your autograph?”  “Of course, young lady.  What’s your name?”  “Mildred.”

which raises the question: was the bus ticket the spare piece of paper she had, or were they both on a Washington, D.C. streetcar or bus?  At least we know the approximate date of their intersection:

Neither Fats nor Mildred can answer this for us anymore, but here is the perfect soundtrack:

Mark Allen Baker, in the pre-internet world I come from, would have remained a mystery — but I Googled his name and found he is a professional writer, with books on sports teams and boxing, but more to the point, on autograph collecting.  So although I would have hoped he’d be a jazz fan, my guess is that his range is more broad.  And the autographs for sale here suggest that he has found the answer to the question, “Why do you collect autographs?” — the answer being, “To hold on to them and then sell them,” which benefits us.

May your happiness increase!

CHICK WEBB, “THE SAVOY KING”: SWING SPIRITS HAUNT SEATTLE

The fine writer and musician Candace Brown attended the premiere of the new feature film, THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA.  (You may know Candace through her perceptive, heartfelt blog, GOOD LIFE NORTHWEST — and if she’s new to you, you will want to make her acquaintance here.)

Here’s her review (interspersed with clips from THE SAVOY KING).  I can’t wait to see the film for myself!

Spirits haunt the Harvard Exit Theatre, some Seattleites say.  I do know that the spirit of Swing era drummer and band leader William Henry “Chick” Webb visited this 1925 building recently and played to a packed house.  While there for the Seattle International Film Festival (http://siff.net), I felt surrounded by his presence, his zest for life, and his passion for the music on which he left his mark, as I watched the world premiere of a film called “The Savoy King: Chick Webb and The Music That Changed America.”

The film’s writer, director and producer, Jeff Kaufman, described that music as “incredibly hot”during an interview on KUOW radio. “The music was made to light a fire inside of people and to charge a dance floor,” Kaufman remarked.  Chick Webb, as much as anyone, struck the match that lit that fire.  No wonder drummer Louie Bellson called him “the Louis Armstrong of drums.”

The film begins with the words “Giants come in all sizes.”  Chick Webb was indeed small.  He broke his back in a fall during childhood and never grew any taller, remaining under five feet. Compounding the crippling aftermath of his accident, he developed tuberculosis of the spine, which caused him to have a hunched back, limited use of his legs, and chronic pain.  Advised to take up drumming as a form of therapy, Webb found his life’s passion.  Then the world of Swing found him. Soon Louis Armstrong heard, and hired, the sensational young drummer, and they toured together with the musical HOT CHOCOLATES.

During a life that would last not much more than three decades, Webb came to be the father of modern jazz drumming.  He mentored Ella Fitzgerald.  He led the first black band to play in a number of white hotels, the first black band to host a national radio show.  He earned the title “King of the Savoy Ballroom” with his steady gig there leading the house band.

The story of this “King” and his ballroom go hand in hand and the film weaves the two together with a firm grip.  On opposing stages, bands battled in popular “cutting contests.” Webb’s band beat, among many others, those of Count Basie and Benny Goodman, defeated only by Duke Ellington.  And it was here that drummer Gene Krupa bowed to the “King” and told him, “I was never cut by a better man.”

The Savoy Ballroom, the first integrated music venue in America, opened in Harlem in 1926.  Reputed to be the world’s best, it attracted crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 dancers.  Kaufman recreates that scene through vintage film footage, computer wizardry, and quotes.  A Jewish man, Moe Gale, owned it and a black man, Charles Buchanan, ran it. Kaufman said, “It was sort of the Rosa Parks bus of music of the 1930s, and you can’t underestimate the impact that had.”  His amazement over how the Savoy brought people together helped drive the project.

Because so little footage of Webb exists, “The Savoy King” tells its story mostly through countless photos, filmed interviews, and old clips backed with narration, sometimes in the form of voice-overs by several of today’s celebrities reading quotes from Webb’s contemporaries.  Janet Jackson speaks the words of Ella Fitzgerald, Ron Perlman reads Gene Krupa, and Bill Cosby gives voice to Webb himself.  Kaufman included filmed interviews with several people who knew Webb personally, such as Louie Bellson, Lindy Hop dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, playwright and actress Gertrude Jeanette, and others.  Fitzgerald’s son, Ray Brown Jr., shares his mother’s memories of Webb.

Kaufman devoted months, sometimes years, to finding and connecting with his interviewees and he has my gratitude. Priceless film footage of Gale’s son, Dr. Richard Gale, recalling stories and describing the intensity of his father’s grief over Webb’s death, underscores one of the major points of this film, that whatever degree of racial equality we now have in America was hard won, and music played a part.  The blunt portrayal of racial prejudice, through eyewitness accounts, could shock even those who consider themselves aware.  But that prejudice ended at the edge of the dance floor, where all that mattered was the feeling of swing.

“The Savoy King” should go down on record as one of the most important films shown at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival because of its significance to not only music history, but American history.  It goes far beyond documenting the life of one musician—no matter how influential he was.  The film offers lessons and inspiration.  It shows how America has changed, how a person can overcome incredible hurdles to reach their dreams, how one person can make a difference.

In his radio interview, Kaufman described Chick Webb as “the first drummer to drum with emotion.”  Webb died 73 years ago, on June 16, 1939, but that emotion lives on.  I heard it in the music and in the voices of those who knew him, and I felt it when the film’s audience gave a standing ovation.  I hope the presence of Chick Webb’s spirit added to the vibe at the Harvard Exit.  Maybe late at night, when the lights go out, the ghosts dance the jitterbug.  And I hope that vibrant energy will reverberate in my own soul forever.

The film’s website can be found here.

May your happiness increase.

SIDNEY’S SECRET

I was chatting with the wonderful drummer Josh Duffee at the Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival while we were in the pub.  Because he was waiting for his dessert, the talk turned to dinner, to cuisine, to matters dear to both of us. 

Then Josh gave me the great gift of an anecdote I’d never heard before.

“Louie Bellson told me that Big Sid always carried a bottle of catsup in his back pocket.  Put it on everything, Louie said.”

(The image comes from http://oldadvertising.blogspot.com/2010/06/snider-catsup-1915_19.html).

I have continued to speculate about this revelation.  The simplest conclusion I can draw is that Sidney liked the taste of catsup.  But perhaps it was because the food he often encountered on the road was of such variable quality that it often needed something to enhance its taste or perhaps to mask it altogether.  I will be delighted to consider other possibilities as well.

And perhaps we now have to amend Sidney’s famous declaration to read, “I can swing seventeen men with one wire brush, a telephone book, and a bottle of catsup.”