Tag Archives: Lucille Armstrong

“LET ME OFF MIDTOWN”: RICO TOMASSO VISITS BIRDLAND: THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG ETERNITY BAND (David Ostwald, Bjorn Ingelstam, Adrian Cunningham, Jim Fryer, Vince Giordano, Paul Wells: August 9, 2017)

When the noble Enrico Tomasso visited New York (with wife Debbie and daughter Analucia) on August 9, 2017, his activities had a distinct theme running through them, which shouldn’t be hard to recognize.  First, Rico visited the house that Louis and Lucille Armstrong had called home for decades.  That was in the morning.  In the afternoon, the Tomassos visited the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, got to have a good time with Ricky Riccardi, play Louis’ trumpet, look at scrapbooks and hear tapes from Louis’ library — much of which I captured on video here.  Ricky, who is an estimable tour guide in addition to everything else, got us to the subway by car (through the window, I saw my favorite new business sign — the S & M PHARMACY — and I leave the commentaries to you).  On the E train, Rico told stories of Henry “Red” Allen and other heroes.

Where were we going?  To “New York’s friendliest jazz club,” which would be Birdland — for their Wednesday afternoon-into-evening jazz serenade by the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, led by David Ostwald.  I present two thrilling performances by Rico and the LAEB (is the theme becoming clear now?), whose members were David, tuba; Paul Wells, drums; Vince Giordano, banjo; Adrian Cunningham, clarinet and alto; Jim Fryer, trombone and euphonium; Bjorn Ingelstam, trumpet.  Attentive viewers will notice a nicely-coiffed immovable object in the middle of the frame: she and her partner were there to stay and I did what I would like to believe was the best I could.

BACK O’TOWN BLUES:

STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE:

As the little boy says to Alan Ladd, “Come back, Rico!  Come back!”

May your happiness increase!

WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON ATE (December 4, 1783), EMILY ASHER AND FRIENDS SWING (March 28, 2015)

Fraunces Tavern

Fraunces Tavern is justly famous (it’s at 54 Pearl St, New York, and the phone is 212 968-1776) but I had never visited.  Even though I view Wikipedia with suspicion, this seems both detailed and accurate.  But I wasn’t visiting there this past Saturday afternoon to see where George and company bid each other farewell over dinner.  I confess that my idea of history is being in Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s turquoise kitchen in their house in Corona.

I was there because the trombonist / singer / composer Emily Asher has had a regular jazz brunch on Saturdays (1-4) and I had heard very good things about it, so I made my way down there to enjoy Emily, guitarist James Chirillo, string bassist / singer Sean Cronin, and a special guest.

I approached the first two sets as a civilian, drinking coffee (brought to me by a very sweet young waitperson), watching the ebb and flow of families, and digging the music.  Before I talk about the music, though, a digression.  I have a notebook when I go to any music, to write down information — song titles and the like — because I can’t always rely on my memory when I get home.  And I am a born eavesdropper and collector of things sweet and strange.

Here are a few samples.

While Emily’s Garden Party trio was playing, a large group of children was dancing in the adjacent room.  They were too young to know the Balboa, but they were having a fine time.

A man in his twenties looked at the band and said happily to his companion, “Oh, a little trombone action!” which was a good critical soundbite.

To my left sat a grandfatherly-looking man with what might have been a captain’s hat, surrounded by four or five pre-teenagers who might have not been his blood relations.  They were having a fine time, and he was talking with them about different subjects and eliciting their responses (as opposed to a monologue).  One subject was flags of the world, which I confess did not catch my attention.  But the subject that did was his grass-roots explanation of economics, which caught me because it had the enticing word CUPCAKES prominently featured.  Compressed, his explanation went something like this. “Everyone here likes cupcakes, and you can bake some and sell them for money and you hope to make a profit, and if they’re good cupcakes, then people are happy.  If you have a library, you don’t make any money, but the people who read the books get smarter and the whole society improves.”  I’m not sure that any of his acolytes were willing to give up the idea of cupcakes, but he was a sly and I hope effective economist.

Back to the music. It was tender, then it swung like mad.  STARS FELL ON ALABAMA, I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA, and LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING were dear and sweet.  Emily sang most fetchingly on VIRGINIA and SILVER; there was also heat on SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL, SOME OF THESE DAYS, and a half-dozen others.  James Chirillo, the prince of swing, created a surrealistic masterpiece of a solo on THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE that would have pleased Stuart Davis or Magritte; Sean Cronin swung both with and without the bow, slapped the bass in the best Al Morgan manner, and harmonized with Emily on WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP. And — something new – – Emily picked up an empty coffee cup and used it in the best Vic Dickenson manner to make new sounds.  I was very pleased to see this manifestation of Vickensonian ardor.

By the final set, I had had enough of being a civilian and unpacked tripod and camera.  (Could I disappoint JAZZ LIVES?  Certainly not.)  So here are four treats from that set — and you’ll notice a young fellow with a trumpet.  He’s known here and abroad as Bjorn Ingelstam; he played wonderfully when I first met him, and he’s even better now.  (And April 1 is his birthday.  Happiness to the Youngblood!)

BLUE TURNING GRAY OVER YOU:

NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW:

I WANT A LITTLE GIRL:

I know where I’ll be on some Saturdays to come.  You may notice that there is a hum of conversation, and I’ve often complained about this.  But the conversations I heard and overheard at Fraunces Tavern were sweetly reassuring, and I’d prefer them to the contemporary zombie glaze at the smartphone that I see too often.  (I am not alone in wincing at couples who go out for a meal and sit in silence, engrossed in their phones.)

George Washington never slept here: he would have been too busy putting ancient money in the tip jar. Or he would have been looking to see if there were any cupcakes on the menu or if they were simply theoretical ones.

May your happiness increase!

CONSIDERING THE MYSTERY: “THE BOSWELL LEGACY,” by KYLA TITUS and CHICA BOSWELL MINNERLY

I prize books that offer new information, solidly documented, instead of conjecture and syntheses of well-known data.  Books about departed jazz musicians often have trouble presenting new information or new interpretations of already-established information, because many musicians received little press coverage in their lifetime, did not leave behind correspondence.  So the subjects take their mysteries with them, leaving us to speculate.

After much investigation, we can be reasonably certain why Lester Young quit the Count Basie band in 1940.  We know much more about the last days of Bix Beiderbecke, Billie Holiday, Jimmie Blanton; we’ve learned much about the private life of Louis and Lucille Armstrong.

The Sisters when young.

The Sisters when young.

But one mystery has only been nibbled at — why the glorious Boswell Sisters separated after national and international success. A new, invaluable book, THE BOSWELL LEGACY, written by Kyla Titus, granddaughter of Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, from research and information gathered by Chica Boswell Minnerly (mother of Kyla, daughter of Vet) is a prize.

BOSWELL LEGACY cover

The mysteries that surround the Boswells is not what we expect of other revered artistic figures.  During their very short heyday, they were more in the public eye than, let us say, almost any brilliant African-American musician.  (Who interviewed Herschel Evans, for example?)

But for all the newspaper coverage and media attention, the Sisters had been raised early to follow “the Foore Code,” “Foore” being a family name.  The Code had many positive aspects: self-reliance; kindness; decorum . . . but it also emphasized privacy and strongly-stated boundaries.  “Never expose private family business to anyone outside the family.”

Even though Connie lived until 1976 and Vet to 1988, they kept the Code in place, gently turning aside the question, “Why did the Sisters break up?” as if indiscreet.  So Boswell admirers like myself could chart the trio’s ascent from 1925 to 1936 through their recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances, and paper ephemera, but we had no insight into the transformation.  Some may have surmised that Connie’s career was so successful that she and her manager / husband intended that she be a solo attraction.  In addition, the Sisters married in the last years of their stardom.  But the separation continued to puzzle and irk us, especially because we want to know more about the lives of the people we admire.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY does the best job possible of making the mysterious accessible.  And it does so from the inside, rather than assembling rumors and constructing hypotheses. It has the depth and intelligence of a scholarly biography with no academic dryness.  Rather than start as so many biographies do, with the birth of the subjects’ ancestors, this book starts at a place few will be familiar with — Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 29, 1955 — with the Sisters assembling on stage for an impromptu reunion during Connie’s engagement (singing HEEBIE JEEBIES as if they had never stopped performing).

(I thought at this point — and I cannot have been alone — of all the stars of the Twenties and Thirties who continued to appear on television in the Sixties and Seventies, and wished for an alternate universe where we could have seen the Sisters on THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE or THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW.)

The book then shifts back to the past, exploring the family as far back as the start of the nineteenth century . . . then to their eventual move to New Orleans and their involvement in music there.  The book takes on its true strength as the pages turn, and that strength is in well-utilized first-hand evidence, particularly correspondence.  We do not get long letters, which might stall the narrative, but we get dated excerpts in proper contexts.  Thus we hear, as well as we can, the vivid voices of the participants.

I commend Kyla Titus’ honesty throughout.  One of the inescapable facts of Connie Boswell’s life was that, although able, she could not walk.  No single clear explanation of this exists, and Titus handles the two hypotheses — a childhood accident or polio — gracefully and candidly.  When we finish reading her presentation of the evidence, we may feel that the answer remains elusive, but we never feel that the author is ill-informed or keeping anything from us.

The book begins to move rapidly through the Sisters’ musical education, Martha’s deep love for the short-lived cornetist Emmett Hardy (dead at 22), and the gestation of the Sisters as a trio.  Success mounts steadily — at their first New York City record date, the musicians stand up and applaud when their first successful take is concluded.  They appear on radio, in film, and on a 1931 experimental broadcast of that new invention, television.  But even at that point, a reader can see tension as the Sisters’ manager, Harry Leedy, is also Connie’s manager, with conflicting allegiances. The Sisters cross paths (and sometimes work with) luminaries Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Russ Columbo, the then-unknown comedian Bob Hope, Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong; they tour England and Holland, triumphantly.

But by 1936, the Sisters — as if by erosion rather than by a definite blow — have become three separate married women.  And although they speak happily of this in public, it appears that Martha and Vet wait for a reunion, which becomes less likely . . . returning the book to the one song in Milwaukee in 1955.

At the end of the saga, it is not entirely clear what happened.  Was it Connie’s steely ambition, her desire to be a star on her own, that cracked close harmony into three pieces?  Was it the divided loyalty of Harry Leedy?  Once again, I admire Titus’ refusal to force the conflicting evidence into one answer, and I think her fairness admirable, her unwillingness to assign the actors in this play roles as Victims and Villains.

Although the breakup of the group is perhaps the single greatest mystery for us, the book is not obsessed throughout with the collapse of Sisters as a trio; that occupies us for the last segment.  It is ultimately a loving look at three innovative, independent women who made their own way, both as individuals and as musicians, at a time when women were not thought to influence the men in their field to any great extent.

The book is wisely titled THE BOSWELL LEGACY, and Titus balances her and our sadness at the end of the Sisters’ career with our awareness that the “three little girls from New Orleans” left us so much — not only in recordings, airshots, and film appearances, but a living tradition for swinging, inventive close harmony groups.  To some, they live on in the energetic, witty, sweet voices of new generations.  I found the book’s ending melancholy, but I am looking forward to the film documentary about the  Sisters, CLOSE HARMONY (here you can view the trailer) as an emotional corrective.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY is a large-format paperback, nearly two hundred pages, clearly written, generously illustrated with rare photographs and documents.  Anyone who has gotten a thrill from “Shout, Sister, Shout” will find this book essential. I don’t think a better or more informative book on the Boswells can be written.

Here you can read the introduction to the book by Boswell scholar David McCain, and the preface by Kyla Titus, and here you can buy a copy of the book ($21.95 USD including shipping.)

Enough words.  Here are the Sisters in their first film appearance, CLOSE FARMONY:

No one’s replaced them; no one ever will.

May your happiness increase!

WHAT HAPPINESS LOOKS LIKE — LONDON, 1956

Here’s a man entirely in alignment, as the life coaches say — someone who understood his true purpose early, worked at it, and derived the deepest joy from it (while improving the universe in his travels).

A previously unknown candid shot taken in London, 1956, for sale on eBay.  Here’s the information.

LOUIS, LONDON, 1956

Even someone so happy in his work needs a life partner, and this man found the one he loved in 1942:

LOUIS AND LUCILLE 1956

Click here for the eBay information.  May everyone reading this post be as happy in their lives as the man and woman in these photographs!

Thanks to David J. Weiner for pointing me to these portraits.  “Solid, Pops!”

May your happiness increase.

“PLAY THE MUSIC THAT YOUR HEART TELLS YOU TO PLAY”

Letters from Louis to the youthful trumpeter Chris Clifton.

Paramount Theatre, Portland, Oregon, 6 February 1954:

“‘Man, – you haven’t the least idea – how thrilled, I am, to be able to sit down and write to a ‘Cat, who feels the same way that ‘I do about the greatest music on this man’s earth,—DIXIELAND… ‘Lawd-today…’Gate—you’re a man after my own heart… I’ve always said—Dixieland is Universal… From one end of the earth to the other–the music’s the same, so help me…..

“I’ll never forget the time when my All Stars and I landed in Italy and there was a little Jazz-Dixieland band standing there ‘justa ‘whaling Muskrat Ramble…And the sign over their talented little heads read like this——WELCOME TO ROME–Louis Armstrong and his All Stars…From the Romon New Orleans Jazz Band…. Which ‘Gassed Ol, Satch and his boys, no end… They were swinging the tune so well and relaxed, until, it made anyone of us, want to get some of it in the worst way…Tee Hee…

“Four days later, after we finished our concert one night, we went out to the little trumpet players home…And after ‘lorating a whole lots of that very very good Italian Spaghetti (wee) – myself and two – three of my boys – sat in with the little fine band and blew up a storm […] Which again, makes my word come true, especially when I said – music is, er, wa, – Universal….. You yourself – could have done the same…Because, from the way that I dugged your very fine letter, – you take your horn serious the same as ‘I do…. God Bless Ya Son […] And every country that we travel into, our music was the same… So you see in case you’d decide to make a tour to anywhere in the world, have no fear because our music (I’d say) is more of a Secret Order […] real honest to goodness dixieland music will live for ever – without a doubt… There was a certain big time musician, who made a nasty crack, as to, Dixieland Music, is ‘first grade music… Now – maybe you dont pick up on this Cat…But, I, being in the game for over forty years, etc, can easily see, that this young man who said it, the reason why he said it because he hasn’t the soul enough to express himself in dixie land music like he really would like to… So, he’ll say those slurring words knowing that the country’s full of idiots (also) who will believe him for a while, thinking that there really is such things as to different grades of music for the world to abide by […] Where I came from, there weren’t but two kinds of music, – good or bad […] Anyway my friend…Don’t let no one change your mind…Play the music that your heart tells you to play…There will always be somebody to gladly live it with you… I am very happy to have met you […] So I’ll close now… I have a pretty schedule before me for tomorrow… I’m to make an appearance on a TV tomorrow morning real–early, with my clarinet man-Barney Bigard…Cooking some of our real fine Creole dishes for these Oregan Fans, sorta, have ’em, lickin their fingers, Tee Hee…There’ll be some red beans and rice on the program..And that’s for sure… So give a hello to your musicians, and our fans…And until we meet (which) I’ll be looking forward to, – take em slow…And as I said ‘be,fo don’t let no one change your mind into playing that awfull juzitsu music.. Am red beans and ricely yours…” 

Corona, New York., 24 January 1969.

“Thanks for keeping tab on me through Lucille. She tells me every time you called. And I want you to know that I am very happy over your being concerned about me. I am straight now. Lucille straightened me, with her touch & patiences, & stuff. So, I’ll soon be back on the mound, wailing just like nothing happened. Am glad to realize how well you like my home town. The people & musicians are lovely, aren’t they. I was sad to hear about George Lewis and his base player. Oh well we all have our number and there isn’t anything that we can do about it. That’s why I keep shitting – that helps to prolong life. My mother instilled it in me, when I was Five years old. She said Son, keep shitting. You may not have Wealth, but you’ll always have Health. How true it is. Regards to everybody. Your boy Satch — Louis Armstrong.”

Corona, New York, June 16, 1971 (less than a month before his death).

“Man I received your letter and as usual very happy to get it. The presents were beautiful. The photo of you Blowing with the Tuxedo Brass Band is very good of you. I see that you really enjoyed playing with them. That’s the Brass Band that I was playing with [when] I left New Orleans in 1922 to join King Oliver in Chicago [as second trumpetist with Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band] and met Lil [Lil Hardin, Armstrong’s second wife, from 1924 to 1932]. She was Blowing [“Playing” written in margin] with the King — Johnnny [Dodds] — Baby Dodds [Honore] Dutrey — and Bill Johnson. Man what a Band. They’ll live in my memories.

“… I am coming on better each day. Soon as my legs strengthen up a little more, I’ll be straight and I can put the cane aside. I am glad to hear about you doing so well with your horn. That’s right, Blow with everybody. And see for yourself you’ll be glad you did. Nowadays you just can’t depend on one certain bunch of musicians to back you up. And good musician[s] will be very glad to Blow behind a good Trumpet Man that plays like you. Because there aren’t too many, if any at all playing the way that you play. Understand? So keep it up Gate. Playing with Lil will do you some good. She’s from the old school and can do wonders for you, don’t you think so? I am looking to hearing you playing with your own Band some day. You have everything to work with, You are young & strong and knows your Horn, so there you are. Take advantage of it Gate. And you know that I am with you all the way. Lucille sent regards. Thanks again for everything. From your Boy, Satch Louis Armstrong.”

Chris learned well, as you can hear from this 2008 excerpt from a performance of MAHOGANY HALL STOMP:

But even those of us who don’t play the horn can learn something from those letters.

May your happiness increase.

CLICK, YOU CATS! (FOR LOUIS AND LUCILLE)

Suppose you could give something important — for free — to the spirits of Louis and Lucille Armstrong and their beloved Corona house . . . with just a click?

Read on!

The Louis Armstrong House Museum was named one of forty historic places by American Express and the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation.  There’s a competition starting today, April 26, 2012, New York City’s first-ever citywide grassroots preservation contest, which will run through May 21st, 2012.

Partners in Preservation asks the public to vote online for the preservation project they like best.

And — no surprise — the Louis Armstrong House Museum is the only preserved home of a jazz legend in the contest!

“We are honored and excited to be among 40 organizations to compete in this preservation grant contest,” noted Michael Cogswell, Executive Director of the LAHM. “If we win, and we hope we do, the funds will preserve Louis and Lucille’s garden.” Louis Armstrong celebrated his 71st birthday in his beloved garden, two days before his death.

The Louis Armstrong House Museum is a living memoir of Louis and Lucille Armstrong: the house where they entertained friends; the den where Louis practiced, ate sardines, had a good time for nearly thirty years.  LAHM, a non-profit 501c(3) organization, is a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark. All of its furnishings are original and have been preserved, giving visitors the feeling that Louis and Lucille just stepped out for a minute. The Louis Armstrong House Museum holds collections of photographs, sound recordings, letters, manuscripts, instruments, and artifacts, making it the largest publicly held archival collection in the world devoted to a jazz musician.

Here’s Louis and Claudine Panassie in that very same garden in the summer of 1969:

Now here’s the beautiful part! 

From April 26 to May 21, 2012, anyone 13 years of age and older, anywhere in the world can vote online for the Louis Armstrong House Museum either from their web-enabled mobile device, online or on Facebook. 

The best way to vote is at http://www.facebook.com/louisarmstronghousemuseum.

Votes can be cast directly at http://partnersinpreservation.com/

for the Louis Armstrong House Museum as well.

Everyone can vote once a day for Louis Armstrong House Museum for 26 days up through May 21.  On May 22, the top three vote-getters and the grants for their preservation projects will be announced.

American Express, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and an advisory committee, will review the votes of the remaining sites along with each site’s monetary and preservation needs to determine how the rest of the $3 million in grants will be awarded.

“We are thrilled to bring this important preservation program to New York and highlight this city’s many historic treasures while emphasizing the importance of grassroots preservation efforts,” said Stephanie Meeks, President, the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  “Preservation of our historic places helps strengthen communities, generate jobs and build sustainable cities and towns. We hope Partners in Preservation will foster a deeper interest in protecting New York’s important historic and cultural sites for many decades to come.”

What does this mean to JAZZ LIVES readers, people who (I assume) love Louis and his music?  It means we all have a chance to honor and help Louis and Lucille and their house . . . with a click of a mouse.  

Spread joy — as Louis did — even if you never picked up the trumpet.  I’ve done my daily click.  Won’t you?

And here’s some music to click by:

May your happiness increase.

CATHERINE RUSSELL WELCOMES US IN!

Photograph by Richard Conde

The Beloved and I were in the presence of magic at the Allen Room (Jazz at Lincoln Center) last night when singer Catherine Russell welcomed us in.

I don’t mean that she just began her show by saying, “I’m glad you are all here,” as artists usually tell an audience.

But from the first phrase of her opening song, I’M SHOOTING HIGH, she turned the Allen Room into something warm, making us feel both as if we were in her own magically cozy space.  Although she was stylishly dressed, in front of a ten-piece band, with the great New York street scene viewed from above, none of this distracted her from her great purpose: to lift us up through sweet swinging music.

She is such an expert performer that she made her art — clearly the result of great attention to detail — seem natural and intuitive, as if she and the band had just gotten together to have a good time.

Her delight in being with us was genuine.  When a couple, arriving late, made their way to their seats down front, Catherine beamed at them and said the most encouraging thing, “Welcome, welcome!” — and we relaxed even more, knowing that she meant it.

What she was welcoming us to was a musical evening of the most gratifying kind.  It was inspired by Louis Armstrong, for one, always a good start.  Most of the songs she and the band offered were connected to Louis, but she remained herself: no growl, no handkerchief, no mugging.  Rather she understood and demonstrated what Louis was all about — deep romance, great fun, rocking rhythm, daring improvisations.  Love, whether eager celebration or brokenhearted lament — was her theme.  And there was another man inspiring her performance: Louis’ friend, pianist, and musical director for many years: Luis Russell, who (by the way) happened to be Catherine’s father.  Pops and Daddy, if you will.

She drew most of her material from the great period of the Louis / Luis collaboration — 1935-42, the songs now collected on the great Louis Mosaic box set, so we got to exult with her for I’M SHOOTING HIGH (“Got my eye / On a star / In the sky”), dream along with I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, swing out on I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, mourn to I COVER THE WATERFRONT, laugh out loud to PUBLIC MELODY NUMBER ONE.  Catherine’s vision of Louis reached back to the Twenties for STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, SUGAR FOOT STRUT (now, finally, I know what the lyrics are talking about!), and a romping EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY.

And it expanded to include BACK O’TOWN BLUES and LUCILLE, songs with which she had a very personal connection.  The first of those two — written by Louis and Luis — was the flip side of Louis’ 1956 hit, MACK THE KNIFE.  For some, that fact would be only a jazz-fiend’s winning Trivial Pursuit answer.  But for Catherine it was so much more.  The royalties from BACK O’TOWN BLUES enabled her parents, Luis and Carline Ray (Catherine’s mother had been in the audience for the first show) to purchase their first new car — a two-tone blue 1956 Mercury.  Even from row N, the Beloved and I could see how much that car had meant to the Russells from Catherine’s very warm retelling of the story.  And the very touching LUCILLE had been written by Luis in 1961 for Louis to try — a loving tribute to Lucille Wilson Armstrong . . . and, not incidentally, a beautiful song, now fully realized by Catherine.

She also showed her great emotional range in a dark reading of NO MORE, a sultry evocation of ROMANCE IN THE DARK, a hilarious I’M CHECKIN’ OUT, GOOM-BYE (evoking Abbey Lincoln, Lil Green, and Ivie Anderson, respectively).

Catherine is also an astonishing singer, if you haven’t guessed by now.  She has a perfectly placed voice, with power and depth but a kind of reedy intensity (she can sound like an alto saxophone but more often she reminded me of a whole reed section coming out of her long lithe frame).  Her sound is sweet yet pungent.  She has great dramatic intensity but she never seems as if she’s “acting.”  From somewhere inside the song, she lights the way, matching her readings of lyrics and melody exactly to the emotions . . . making familiar songs feel roomy and new.  And rhythm bubbles up through her — she was always in motion, rollicking around the stage, expertly dancing, embodying joy in person.

And the band was just as delightful: let me write their names here again to celebrate them: Matt Munisteri, Mark Shane, Lee Hudson, Mark McLean, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dave Brown, John Allred, Scott Robinson, Andy Farber, Dan Block.  New York’s finest!  Each one of them had something deliciously incisive to bring, from McLean’s saucepan-percussion reminding us of Zutty Singleton on SUGAR FOOT STRUT, Allred’s plunger-dialogue on GOOM-BYE, Scott Robinson’s soprano taragota on NEW CALL OF THE FREAKS (a whole surrealistic play in itself, with the horn section picking up their paper parts to read the unforgettable Dada poetry: “Stick out your can / here comes the garbage man. . . . “).  Kellso, once again, became the Upper West Side Louis, and Matt swung us into bliss — to say nothing of the eloquent gents of the sax section, Mister Brown to You, the reliable Hudson keeping it all together, Mark Shane pointing the way — Jess Stacy to Catherine’s Helen Ward.  The brilliant arrangements by Matt, Jon-Erik, and Andy gave us a rocking big band distilled to its essence.

The Beloved and I enjoyed every note.  We would be there tonight if we could.  If you can, stop reading this post right now and get a pair (or more) of tickets for the Saturday night shows — 7:30 or 9:30.  Or if that’s not possible, do what I did and buy Catherine’s latest CD, STRICTLY ROMANCIN’ — it has some of the same songs and almost the same band.

Miss Russell will welcome you in, too!

May your happiness increase.

BILL WOOD, SELMA HERALDO, PAUL BLAIR: “NO-ONE CAN TAKE YOUR PLACE”

There are people, memorably important in the Land of Jazz, who never pick up instruments or sing a hot chorus.  Three of them, dear to me in their own ways, have died in the past weeks.  This posting is by no means the full-scale memorial or obituary each one deserves.  It’s just something I have to write so that JAZZ LIVES readers will know.

Between 2004 and 2010, whenever I went to Jazz at Chautauqua, I inevitably ended up spending time and money at a table where a large quantity of sheet music was laid out enticingly — to admire and to purchase.  Bill Wood and his younger partner Greg Laird came to greet me, to be amused by my comments on the sheets I bought and refused to buy, and I expected to see them there year after year.

Bill looked as if he would have fit in perfectly as a small-town druggist or the wise fellow behind the hardware counter in a small-town store that had refused to be bought up by a chain.

He wasn’t there in 2011, and I missed his quiet, amiable presence, overseeing the coming and going of people and pages of Thirties pop songs.  In mid-November, Greg told me Bill had died: “Bill loved going to Chautauqua and providing his great collection of sheet music.  He loved the music and the people.  He was truly one of the nicest men I have ever known.  Even when he couldn’t use the computer any more, I still read to him what everyone was doing through your blog.”

Now, whenever I go through the stack of sheet music on the piano, I will think of Bill Wood with even more gratitude: someone who made it possible for me to bring home new music to learn, to admire, to enjoy.

Selma Heraldo, who died a few days ago at 88, received less attention than she deserved.  She was a fixture at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, because she had been Louis and Lucille’s next-door neighbor for decades.  Although she was the size and shape of an old-fashioned elementary school pointer, it would have been a mistake to underestimate her.

Had Selma lived in Hollywood, she would have been a renowned character actress, and that’s no stage joke.

She had a lovely wry grin, a nearly theatrical forwardness, and no tolerance for inaccuracy or self-promotion in anyone.  If someone else in the room claimed an unmerited glory, Selma would set the person — and everyone else within hearing — straight.  She was a delightful storyteller, and I will cherish forever the tales she told of her mother making Louis a fried-egg sandwich in the Heraldo kitchen when he came home from the road, wanting something plain to eat.

Selma was a shameless vaudevillian, incomparable in the art of mock-serious flirtation.  On September 22, 2011, she was seated at our table in the pleasant garden of the LAHM, eating dinner al fresco before Ricky Riccardi did his presentation on the Gosta Hagglof collection.

In an instant Selma decided I was both her comic foil and male door prize, leaning forward to ask if I would go home with her. “Not later, today.  I live next door,” she winked at me.  When I demurred, saying (as is my habit) that I was so sorry to turn her down, that I was already in a relationship, that perhaps I would disappoint her, she kept the game at a high level.  “Your wife better keep a close eye on you, handsome,” she said.

I did my best to keep the level of things high by asking Selma where she had been seven years ago when I had been at liberty and would have taken her up on her offer, and she giggled happily.

Being the object of Selma’s attention, even for a minute, was like hearing Louis launch into a second chorus of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING: she was a master improviser, able to negotiate any turn with comic timing that would have pleased Jack Benny.

Paul Blair, the dear editor at HOT HOUSE — the great New York jazz magazine, died of a sudden heart attack.  He would have been 70 in January 2012.  I met him through the Beloved, who had gone on several of his jazz walking tours, and he welcomed me to the magazine.

Although I sometimes chafe against editing, cherishing my own peculiarities, working with Paul was a writer’s dream.  He was careful, witty, tactful — but his suggested changes were so good that I took them without a word of fuss.  Reading my prose, he quickly saw what it might be and moved speedily yet gently to make that ideal possible.  I also enjoyed the witty emails he sent me — often with information I hadn’t known.

I only met him once in person: I had been urging him to come to The Ear Inn to hear The EarRegulars, and one night he did.  I didn’t recognize him in person, but he found me and we had a conversation that began in laughter and ended in an deep friendly empathy.  A casually-dressed man who easily made himself comfortable, he sat near the band and I could see him enjoying the sounds of the music: his face clearly reflected what was being played.  I could see that he was a perfectly intuitive listener, which is why  he was such a fine editor.

Paul was also master of the unexpected sweet generosity.  Once, with no prelude (after he had come to know my taste) he told me of some cassettes he had, recorded at a jazz party in the Seventies, featuring jazz pianists, some of whom are now dead.  Would I like these cassettes?  I was enthusiastic; they arrived a week later; he wanted nothing in return.

With the deaths of Bill, Selma, and Paul, my circle of people I love and admire has constricted, and my world is a little smaller.  I will do them the only honor I can — remembering them with love and hoping that others do so also.

And although I hope to make new friendships with other people memorable for their generosity, their style, these three will not be replaced or forgotten.

‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN CORONA, QUEENS (June 26, 2011)

Louis Armstrong was (appropriately) born in Louisiana, but his country is everywhere someone is humming a few notes from BLUEBERRY HILL or remembering that his face (in the words of Ida Melrose) radiates “kindness and compassion.”

But perhaps the capital of the land of Louis, the vortex, is in the garden of a brick house in Corona, Queens, where he and Lucille lived for over twenty-five years.   It’s now called the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and it will be the site of jazz concerts and other celebrations this summer: check out http://www.louisarmstronghouse.org. for the good news.

Louis and the neighbors in Corona, celebrating on July 4, 1969

What could be more appropriate than assembling there, among friends, for a Sunday afternoon celebration of Ricky Riccardi’s moving new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS? 

Here are three video clips from Ricky’s presentation.  Hide the children: Louis himself utters a naughty word . . . . but with good reason, as the story is one of his being treated in a demeaning way because of the color of his skin.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Thank you, Ricky, for working on that beautiful book and telling us all about it.  Thank you, Louis, for being!

LOUIS, GLUTEN-FREE

Thanks to Rich Liebman of Dallas, who writes, correctly, “Louis lives on!”

Serve with Morton’s Hot Peppers and Hawkins’ Red Beans . . . .

P.S.  Cook it all here: the kitchen of Louis and Lucille’s Corona, Queens house — the Louis Armstrong House Museum:

Photograph courtesy of Louis Armstrong House Museum

If you haven’t been to the house . . . don’t wait!  And when you get there, ask at the desk for the free red beans and rice recipe . . .to complete the circle.  Visit http://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/ for details.  Happy cooking!

“BLACK AND BLUE”: LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND RACE by RICKY RICCARDI (Feb. 12, 2011)

Ricky Riccardi has been intensely focused on Louis Armstrong for half of his life, with extraordinary results. 

His book on Louis’s later life and music — a book that will destroy some wrong-headed assumptions with new evidence — will be out in June 2011.  I’ve seen one or two pages of the galleys, and only because the author was across the table was I cajoled into releasing my hold and giving it back.

To whet your appetite — and also to make it easy to find a copy in that rarest of places, the bookstore, here’s the cover picture, an inspiring one.  You can “pre-order” the book online as well.

But this post isn’t about a forthcoming book. 

It’s about a talk that Ricky gave recently at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND RACE.

(That title was so imposing that Michael Cogswell suggested, whimsically, that Ricky could have called it RED BEANS AND RACE, a play on Louis’s favorite dish.) 

Many times, lectures of this sort relate the indignities that African-Americans suffered (and still suffer) at the hands of Caucasians.  We know there’s plenty of evidence. 

And Ricky didn’t ignore it — from the policeman who hit the boy Louis over the head when for politely asking what time it was to the jazz critic who called his performance in the early Fifties “a coon carnival.”  Louis had gone to New Orleans in triumph in 1931 — an international star — only to have an announcer say, “I just can’t announce that nigger on the radio.” 

But what may have wounded Louis much more was his abandonment and rejection by the members of his own race, “my own people,” who called him “a plantation character” (the words are Dizzy Gillespie’s, although Dizzy later apologized) and an “Uncle Tom.”  These slights may have hurt him as much as seeing authorities beating African-American schoolchildren in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Charcteristically Ricky had more than enough material for an entire afternoon (he promises that it’s all in the book) but he gave us an hour filled with insight, pathos, humor, and wit.  Rather than read Louis’s words aloud, he drew on the private tapes Louis made at home and on the road — a priceless document of his expressiveness, his emotions, his consciousness: in his home, his hotel rooms, talking about his hopes and disappointments. 

Here’s Ricky’s presentation, for those who couldn’t make it to the LAHM and those who want to know what’s in store on the 26th:

First, Deslyn Dyer introduces Ricky: through him, we meet the Louis some people never knew — not only the musician, light-heartedly entertaining for fifty years and more, but the man in search of social justice, the civil rights pioneer:

Ricky then shares the story of the young sailor who greeted Louis by saying, “I don’t like Negroes, but I admire you,” a compliment that might have embittered a lesser man:

More stories: the New Orleans policeman; lynchings in the South.  Louis also explains his often misinterpreted relations with manager Joe Glaser:

Next, Louis tells his friends why an African-American artist would need “a white captain,” talks about being elected King of the Zulus in 1949, about recording SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH for Decca, and the pervasiveness of racism:

When Nat Cole, playing for a segregated audience in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1956, was beaten by four men who jumped onstage, the African-American press condemned him, rather than sympathizing with him — which outraged Louis; he also responds to the segregation in New Orleans:

Louis’s violent reaction to what he saw on television in 1957 — in Little Rock, Arkansas: “I have a right to blow my top over injustice”:

And — as a triumphant, mournful climax — Louis’s shattering BLACK AND BLUE in East Berlin (1965), from which I’ve taken the title of this piece:

Louis’s story remains the saga of someone mis-seen and under-acknowledged, a man wounded by the people — of all races — he thought would understand him. 

But Louis prevailed and continues to prevail by embodying great joy in his music.

Ricky will be delivering this lecture again at the Louis Armstrong House Museum on Saturday, February 26th, at 1 and 3 PM.  The house is a remarkable down-to-earth shrine.  And Ricky’s a treasure.

FOR THE LOVE OF LOUIS, CLICK HERE.  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS.

https://.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQASwww

 

GIFTS FROM LOUIS — ONLINE!

Louis Armstrong was a generous man and artist — and his legacy of generosity continues through the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, which I visited Wednesday night. 

But this isn’t about the house itself, delightful as that shrine is (a combination of modest comfort and lovely trappings): it was about the splendid news that the museum director, Michael Cogswell, laid on us (as Louis would say).

The Louis Armstrong House Museum has launched an online catalog of its vast collections.  It’s the world’s largest archives devoted to a jazz musician available to all on the World Wide Web. 

The 24/7 offering can be accessed at the LAHM site — http://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/.  By the end of 2011, the Museum’s entire catalog will be online.  New items will be added every week!  

The direct link is http://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/collections/online_catalog.htm.  But don’t take my word for it.  Try it for yourself!  

The Museum’s collections encompass more that 5,000 sound recordings, 15,000 photographs, 30 films, 100 scrapbooks, 20 linear feet of letters and papers, and (last but not least) six trumpets.  The essential core of the archives is the Louis Armstrong Collection — Louis’s personal treasures: home-recorded tapes, photographs, scrapbooks, collaged tape-boxes, manuscript band parts, and other delights discovered inside the Corona house after the death of his wife, Lucille, in 1983.  

A grant from the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation made it possible for the Museum to acquire the world’s largest private collection of Armstrong material — the loving life-work of Louis’s friend Jack Bradley, the noted jazz photographer.  Hundreds of candid, never before seen photographs taken or collected by Bradley are a highlight of the collection.  The materials are currently housed in the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library at Queens College, New York.  And it’s so delightful that the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences offered a two-year grant that made processing the Bradley collection and publishing the Museum’s catalog online. 

Noted Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi has worked for the past fifteen months documenting, arranging, preserving, and cataloging more than two hundred cubic feet of Armstrong material.  “Working with this collection has been an absolute dream come true, but getting to share it online with other Armstrong lovers from around the world really makes this something special.  And it’s not just for Armstrong experts; the online collection will appeal to music fans, art historians, 20th-century pop culture buffs, musicians, photographers, you name it.  “There’s something for everyone,” says Riccardi. 

And that’s no stage joke!

When I went to the LAHM — the Corona house that Louis and Lucille loved so, where they lived for almost thirty years — I captured Michael Cogswell and Ricky Riccardi describing the online catalog, fielding questions from the audience, and playing one of Louis’s private tapes — in honor of the holiday season, one recorded close to Christmas, 1950.  Some of you might find the prospect of so many video clips daunting . . . but at the end of Michael’s explanation, he hands the stage (in a manner of speaking) over to Ricky to play excerpts from that never-before-heard tape . . . a priceless experience.  (In the second clip, the woman who asks about Lucille Armstrong is Phoebe Jacobs, Lucille’s close friend and intimate of many famous jazzmen.)

Just as a postscript: I just about made myself late for work this morning because I couldn’t stop looking at the rare, delightful, hilarious, moving photographs. 

Long live Louis!  May he never be forgotten!

And if you would like to skip the videos and read a detailed explanation by the young master of all things Strong, go right to Ricky’s blog: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2010/12/louis-armstrong-house-museum-online.html

DOIN’ THE MIDTOWN LOWDOWN at Birdland (Dec. 1, 2010)

Wise New Yorkers know that the place to be on Wednesdays from 5:30 to 7:15 is Birdland, where tubaist David Ostwald leads the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band through music associated with the man Eddie Condon affectionately called “Mr. Strong.” 

Last Wednesday, even though the rain was occasionally torrential, we were warm, even hot, indoors, listening to a wonderful edition of the LACB, with Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dan Block, clarinet, alto, and vocal; Jim Fryer, trombone, euphonium, and vocal; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Kevin Dorn, drums.  And here are some highlights:

The LACB always begins its set with a living homage to Louis and the All-Stars: a powerful reading of WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH that picks up the tempo for a rousing BACK HOME IN INDIANA:

In keeping with Louis’s avowed romantic nature, they played I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME at a bouncing tempo — exultant rather than pensive — imagine Louis hearing that Lucille would marry him!  Beautiful creamy alto playing from Dan Block, and some apt cantorial comments from Jon-Erik Kellso:

In the same mood (although a little slower), Eubie Blake’s YOU’RE LUCKY TO ME, where Jon-Erik’s solo, full of death-defying leaps, has a good deal of Eldridge bravura:

SHINE has appalling lyrics, but Louis, Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, and Benny Goodman had a wonderful time playing and singing it:

THE MEMPHIS BLUES is another classic by “Debussy” Handy – – -and Jim Fryer sings it most convincingly without strain (don’t miss Jon-Erik on air trombone in the chorus!):

Bless Harry Barris — not only WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, IT MUST BE TRUE, and IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL, but I SURRENDER, DEAR.  Mellow and ruminative indeed, suggesting Eldridge, Hilton Jefferson, and Bing (with Jim picking up his euphonium, which sounds like a lower-pitched French horn rather than a baby tuba, owing to his graceful playing).  Rossano’s little interlude is another gem:

The LACB usually ends its Birdland gigs with a romping statement of purpose: they’re as happy as they can be when they SWING THAT MUSIC for us.  And please watch the hilarious yet meaningful pantomime before the song begins (Jon-Erik is directing the band, not making shadow puppets on the rear wall).  The result is a wonderful vocal interlude from Dan, someone who doesn’t sing enough on gigs, and a seriously swinging performance, thanks to everyone, especially Rossano and Kevin. 

When we had said our good-byes and left Birdland, the rain had stopped; the skies were clear.  The Weather Channel must have had its own explanation, but I think the hot music inside chased the clouds and torrents away.

MR. ARMSTRONG by MR. RICCARDI (or “DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL!”)

The person pictured at top should be immediately recognizable, although some of you might wonder when Louis joined the armed forces.  (The answer is, “1952, along with Abbott and Costello.”) 

Here’s a candid shot of Ricky Riccardi, my nomination for pre-eminent Louis Armstrong scholar, present and future.

The Beloved and I went uptown to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (104 East 126th Street) on last Tuesday night for Ricky’s presentation of rare Louis films.  It turned out to be ninety minutes of Louis on television — a medium that embraced him and one he was made for. 

In the audience were a number of jazz luminaries — Phoebe Jacobs, who’s been a friend to the music and musicians for a long time, and George Avakian, who’s been responsible for many of the finest jazz recordings on the planet . . . since 1940.  And — dispensing medical assistance and goodwill — the Jazz Acupuncturist Marcia Salter.   

Loren Schoenberg, director of the Museum, introduced Ricky — but reminded everyone that on the next four Tuesdays in September he will be sharing excerpted performances from the very exciting Bill Savory collection — not to be missed!  For the complete schedule, visit http://www.jmih.org/.

Ricky’s cornucopia of films covered the last two decades of Louis’s life.   Those who stereotype Louis might think that these performances would be the offerings of an exhausted man, coasting along on his pop hits.  (Some people still believe that Louis played and sang his final significant notes around 1927.  A pox on such delusions!) 

No, what we saw was lively, moving, creative, and witty.  Ricky went back to 1950 to CAVALCADE OF BANDS for a duet between Louis and Velma Middleton — both exquisite comedic talents — on THAT’S MY DESIRE — also showing brief vies of Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, and Cozy Cole.  On a 1952 Frank Sinatra show, Louis sang and played I’M CONFESSIN’, accompanied by Bill Miller, Sinatra’s long-time pianist.  In that same year, Louis appeared on the COLGATE COMEDY HOUR alongside Abbott and Costello — in a skit that had him blowing BUGLE CALL RAG instead of REVEILLE.  

Ricky jumped forward to a 1958 Times Jazz special — one of those weirdly delightful extravaganzas that offered everyone from George Shearing to Lionel Hampton to Jaye P. Morgan and Garry Moore, Jack Teagarden and Gerry Mulligan.  Louis played SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET and then various characters took over a blues that segued into — what else? — the ST. LOUIS BLUES. 

Because all of these clips were “live,” there were odd, pleasing surprises.  While Mulligan was playing his eloquent solo on a slow blues, you could see Jack Teagarden quickly checking his watch (“How much time do we have left?”)  Considering that the sponsor was Timex, and that there had been commercials featuring John Cameron Swayzee, was this a subliminal plug on Jack’s part?

An extraordinary (and rare) sequence from a 1960 BELL TELEPHONE HOUR had Louis singing SUNNY SIDE (and substituting the word “treaders” for “feet” in the lyrics), blowing splendidly on LAZY RIVER, seguiing into a heartbreaking SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, and ending up with a bouncy MUSKRAT RAMBLE — accompanied by a gospel quartet of sorts! 

Later, after clips from talk shows where we got to see Louis interacting with everyone including Dr. Joyce Brothers, there were more tender moments — a version of MOON RIVER (accompanied, rubato, by Billy Taylor) and a sweetly loving I’M CONFESSIN’ that Louis sang to Lucille — her choice!  Another precious moment was being able to watch Bing Crosby appreciate every nuance of Louis, singing and playing SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH in early 1971 — and, of course, a deeply felt version of WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD. 

Of course Louis played and sang magnificently — butalso showed himself a moving actor, a natural comedian.  In conversation on the talk shows, he displayed a gift for instant repartee.  (“Why did he have to die?” I kept thinking.)

If you weren’t there, you missed a wonderful evening.  All this is prelude, of course, to Ricky’s splendid book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS.  I am waiting eagerly for its 2011 publication.  I know it will be full of insights, new evidence, and love.

“SATCHMO SWINGS IN CONGO” and MORE

A very brief newsreel from October 31, 1960 — narrated by the once-ubiquitous Ed Herlihy — showing us the exultant reception Louis Armstrong received on his African tour.  Unfortunately, the music that would have accompanied a few seconds of this newsreel has been removed (perhaps it was difficult to record a soundtrack for Louis being carried through the streets?) and a generic “jazzy” one substituted, but one has only to see the proliferation of smiles to know the prevailing happiness:

Uwe Zanisch, the creator and proprietor of “Satchmotube” (http://satchmotube.blogspot.com/)  a website devoted to collecting and sharing footage of Louis on film of all kinds, told me about this extended profile — in German — of Louis, overseas in spring 1965.  I wish the dubbed translation hadn’t overpowered Louis’s voice, but even with my nonexistent German, much of this is accessible.  And I am now considering the purchase of a striped bowtie, whether or not it clashes with my Hawaiian shirts.  I am sure that the Beloved will avoid a horizontally-striped coat such as Lucille’s, but she’s more discreet:

It’s not often that I feel grateful to the news media, but I do now!

MAY I JOIN YOU?

From the Joe Bushkin website — www.joebushkin.com — a galaxy of stars, seated in a club:

Louis and Lucille Armstrong, Eddie Condon, a lovely young woman (unknown to me), Jack Teagarden, Joe Bushkin.  Circa 1949, perhaps?  Oddly for a nightclub scene, the tablecloth is almost bare (no glasses, whether full or empty) and Louis has his handkerchief.  Was this at one of his gigs?  Research, please!

The Bushkin site has many other interesting photos (unidentified) and a video of Joe with, among others, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby.

P.S.  Maggie Condon (Eddie’s daughter) has informed me that the attractive woman is Joe’s wife Francice.

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance.  And Charles Peterson. 

Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility.  Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his.  That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes.  (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)  

Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions.  That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways.  He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into.  He saw what other photographers didn’t. 

Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with.  Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.

But who was Charles Peterson?

His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life.  And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission. 

Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street.  Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900.  On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop.  Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels.  By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing.  But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon.  He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone.  But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group.  Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road.  With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair. 

Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club.  He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers.  His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazinesDon remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening.  The participants?  Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends. 

During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951.  Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.   

Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.

The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company.  Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button.  He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment.  It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long.  Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand.  Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.”  A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either.  But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.  

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The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939.  Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine.  (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!) 

Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.   

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 In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable.  If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face. 

Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on.  “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent.  Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle.  His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt.  (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work.  Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?) 

What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light.  Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot. 

Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of  round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge.  Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it.  The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.  

Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall.  Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.   00000002

Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note.  Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn.  This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases.  Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is.  To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number.  The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist.  Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically.  Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused.  Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.        

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In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe.  This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run.  Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina.  Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts. 

In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills.  Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort.  Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free.  Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow.  His face is serious, even pained.  Were his teeth bothering him?  Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet?  Was he only playing a quiet countermelody?  It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it. 

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This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk.  There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan.  Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear.  Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying.  What’s the secret?  Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice?  We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too. 

And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation.  When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it.  His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”

More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises. 

“SECRETS OF SATCHMO UP FOR SALE”

Previously unknown private letters from Louis Armstrong to a British journalist have been unearthed

GUARDIAN, Sunday, 24 May 2009

Previously unknown private letters from Louis Armstrong to a British friend have been unearthed.  The letters, to the journalist Lionel Crane, reveal the strong conviction the American jazz virtuoso had that he should stay close to his own class, in spite of his international fame.

Crane visited the musician in his Bronx home in the late 60s and the two struck up a correspondence. The rare letters from the trumpeter, who was called Satchmo or Pops by his fans, are being put up for sale next week by Crane’s daughter, writer Rosemary Bailey.

Crane wrote about his visit, including descriptions of the impoverished area where Armstrong still chose to live. The musician replied:

“My neighbours … were very proud that you thought enough of them to mention them … they are all real people. The warmth that we have for each other is out of this world,” Armstrong writes.

Continuing in his characteristic disjointed prose style, Armstrong points out that he and his wife, former Cotton Club dancer Lucille Wilson, had the money to move away to what he refers to as a “Dickty Neighbourhood”, or a wealthier area.  “But, what about these people … the whole year that I’ve been out sick, it was my fine neighbours who love’s and understands us.”

Armstrong developed a peculiar use of grammar to give his writing a distinctive rhythm. In one touching passage he wrote: “If I miss one day warming up – calls come into Lucille asking is Pops OK?  We did not hear that today.  Man, that’s neighbours.”

A comment is necessary: Louis’s neighbo(u)rhood was far from “impoverished,” and he deserves more than this mildly condescending pat on the head.  This UK journalist could learn something about “warmth” from Louis and his letters.  However, it’s always rewarding to find more of Louis’s  prose emerging.  Will the buyer make these texts — much more “touching” than “peculiar” — to jazz scholars?  I hope so.

FOR THE LOVE OF LOUIS AND DOC

Louis Armstrong understandably provoked awe, admiration, protectiveness, gratitude, reverence.  And those who know his life will think without hesitation of the people who cherished him: his beloved wife Lucille, his manager Joe Glaser, his friend Jack Bradley, recently celebrated in The New York Times for his astonishing collection of sacred artifacts. 

You can read the story about Jack here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/29/nyregion/29satchmo.html?_r=2&ref=nyregion&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

But Gosta Hagglof, perhaps less famous, has done heroic things to keep Louis’s music alive.  Gosta is an Armstrong scholar and aficionado as well as an enterprising record producer.  On his own Ambassador label, he has created a wonderful multi-disc edition of Louis’s 1935-49 recordings, primarily for Decca, including alternate takes, airshots, and film soundtracks.  Much of this material is not only new to CD but new to everyone.  And it’s beautifully annotated and carefully speed-corrected: the ideal!  On his Kenneth label, its label imitating the Gennett company’s baroque whorls, he also made it possible for us to hear Bent Persson’s awe-inspiring recreations and imaginings of Louis’s 1927 Hot Choruses and Breaks.

With typical generosity, Gosta has just issued / re–issued a Doc Cheatham CD tribute to Louis, a gem.  It’s called THE EMINENCE, VOLUME 2: DOC CHEATHAM: “A TRIBUTE TO LOUIS ARMSTRONG,” and nothing in that title is hyperbolic.  (Kenneth Records CKS 3408)

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Cheatham is someone I think of as jazz’s Yeats, getting wiser and deeper and subtler as he grew older.  Brassmen have a hard time because trumpets and trombones require such focused physical energy and skill just to get from one note to another with a pleasing tone.  Doc truly did seem ageless, pulling airy solos out of nowhere, then embarking on weirdly charming vocals that mixed crooning, speech, and bits of Wallerish comedy.  He hasn’t been well represented on compact discs, and this one is a particular pleasure because his Scandinavian friends, both reverent and playful, inspire him to majestic yet casual playing and singing.  Those players, as an aside, are Gosta’s stock company — many of them playing nobly behind Maxine Sullivan in her finest late recordings (five compact discs worth!), the ambiance being somewhere between the Teddy Wilson Brunswicks and the Fifties John Hammond Vanguard sessions.

The original sessions from 1988 and 1989 also feature wonderful playing — piano and Eb alto horn — and arrangements by Dick Cary, someone who knew Louis well, having been the first pianist in the All-Stars at the irreplaceable Town Hall Concert.  (Gosta asked Cary to replicate his original piano introduction to “Save It Pretty Mama,” which Cary does here.  It is immensely touching.)  The gifted but less-known pianist Rolf Larsson shines on two songs not originally issued.  The gutty, loose trombone work of Staffan Arnberg is delightful, and the reed section — Claes Brodda, Goran Eriksson, Erik Persson, and Jan Akerman are all original, fervent players.  I heard hints and echoes of Pete Brown and Charlie Holmes, of Herschel Evans, early Hawkins and Hodges, but they have their own styles, a swinging earnestness.  The rhythm section, collectively featuring Mikael Selander, guitar; Olle Brostedt, bass, guitar; Goran Lind, bass, and Sigge Dellert, drums, rocks in a gentle, homemade, Thirties fashion.  I imagine everyone in shirtsleeves.  I especially enjoyed the hardworking lyricism of Selander, combining the great acoustic guitar styles of the period without imitating anyone: he has a Reinhardt eloquence without entrapping himself in QHCF cliches.

The sessions embraced the expected hot tunes: “Swing That Music,” “Our Monday Date,” a version of “Sweethearts on Parade” with Cary’s alto horn and Cheatham’s trumpet in jousting tandem, “I Double Dare You,” and “Jeepers Creepers,” all essayed with the looseness you would expect from expert players who love to take chances.  The Swedish All-Stars play with daredevil ease — I don’t mean high notes or technical displays — but we hear them experimenting with the possibilities of the songs and the ensembles.  The result is impromptu rather than overly polished, and I can imagine the musicians grinning triumphantly at the end of each take, as if to say, “Hey! We did it!” or the equivalent.

But the best performances here are painted in deep romantic, yearning hues.  “Confessin,” a trio performance for Doc, Selander, and Lind, is the very epitome of tenderness, as is “I’m in the Mood for Love,” complete with the rarely-heard verse.  “Save It Pretty Mama” has Cheatham at his most convincing as a singer; he pours his heart into “A Kiss To Build A Dream On,” a rueful “I Guess I’ll Get the Papers and Go Home” (the song with which he concluded his Sunday brunch performances at Sweet Basil for years), a slow “Dinah” and “Drop Me Off At Harlem,” “Sugar,” and “That’s My Home.”  We often associate Louis with bouncy numbers, with “Tiger Rag” and “Indiana,” but Cheatham draws on his awareness of Louis the romantic, early and late.

Especially in these performances, Cheatham and his young colleagues get at Louis’s huge heart — his wistfulness, hopefulness, and deep feeling, without ever overacting.  Many of these slow performances left me with a lump in my throat.  The results are music to treasure.  Visit Classic Jazz Productions (http://www.classicjazz.eu) for more details.

THE NEXT GENERATION, or POPS IS TOPS

Since 1988, the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens — the house where Louis and Lucille lived — has been hosting programs to introduce neighborhood children to Louis’s music. It has never been a serious classroom exercise, rather an exuberant offering of hot jazz, spirituals, and blues in the beautiful garden behind the Armstrong house.

Louis loved children, although he never had any; he lived to “play for the people,” and his earliest musical experiences were on city streets, with music that didn’t come from an Ipod. I was thrilled to get an invitation from Baltsar Beckeld, Projects Manager of the Armstrong House Museum, to see “Pops Is Tops” for myself. Every year, some of New York’s best musicians gather on three consecutive days, at unnaturally early hours for them, to play for the children, tell some stories, and have a good time. Jazz musicians yearn for receptive audiences, and children are open to rhythm and fun. When the weather is fine, as it was today, the garden is filled with more than two hundred children. Most of them are from the third, fourth, and fifth grades at local schools (P.S. 92 and 19, precisely) but there were four-year olds in the audience as well as enthusiastic grownups like myself.

This year’s concerts feature David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band — celebrated elsewhere in this blog — Kevin Louis, trumpet and vocals; Dion Tucker, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet and eminence grise; James Chirillo, banjo, David Ostwald, tuba and leader; Marion Felder, drums. Muranyi holds a special distinction as being one of the last, if not the last, of Louis’s alumni still playing, and playing splendidly.

I missed David’s introduction, where he and the musicians demonstrated their instruments, and the band was finishing a slow blues as I came into the garden, but the air brightened when he announced “High Society,” and Felder beat off the right tempo. Not all the children were immediately captivated: feet jiggled in time here and there, but even those who turned around to talk to their friends were happy. But one little girl not far from me sat rapt, attentive, nearly mesmerized by the music. When Chirillo soloed and Felder accompanied him with sticks on the wooden rim of his snare, little boys leaned forward: they had never heard anything like it.

David knows his audiences, so he became a fine cheerleader several times during the hour-long program. “Can you say Louis Armstrong?” he asked the crowd, and when they responded sedately, he said, “I can’t hear you!” until they shouted it out in cheerful unison. He then invited children to come up and strut their stuff, their best dance moves, in front of the band, which was a hit, especially with trumpeter Kevin Louis doing his best New Orleans exhortation, “Ain’t gonna dance / Better get / out of my way!” while rapping on a tambourine, creating a down-home parade in Corona. A serious “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” followed, and when the band shifted into tempo, the children were treated to a Muranyi / Chirillo duet where Joe showed he remembered Louis’s trick from “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” of repeating a simple phrase over changing chords. And, although none of the children had ever heard of Louis’s buddy Zutty Singleton, Felder’s drum solo — press rolls and bass-drum accents — showed he certainly had. The band ended with a rousing “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” but the music didn’t end: Louis’s majestic sound filled the garden with songs from his Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography sessions. At the end, the children crowded around trumpeter Kevin Louis, eager for his autograph.

Who knows if this audience held the next Louis, Lester, Billie, or Bird? But there was an extraordinary musical and spiritual osmosis in that garden. Louis, I am sure, was pleased. For more information on next year’s “Pops Is Tops” programs, the Armstrong House Museum (worth a trip from anywhere, if only to see the lovely turquoise kitchen, the mirrored bathroom, and to hit the gift shop), visit www.satchmo.net., or the “Louis Armstrong House and Museum” link on the blogroll.