Tag Archives: Malcolm Earle-Smith

“KEEP SEARCHING”: EPHIE RESNICK, CONTINUED (August 1, 2020)

First, some music.  I’m told it speaks louder than words.  Ephie Resnick, trombone, and Marty Grosz, guitar — the epitome of passionate tenderness in IT MUST BE TRUE:

and the same pair of brave improvisers, energized beyond belief, for ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE, a frolicsome RUNNIN’ WILD, and STRUT MISS LIZZIE:

My first post on Ephie Resnick, based on a phone conversation we had on July 6 (and a few postscripts afterwards) here, got some deserved attention.  Some time later, Ephie’s remarkable friend Cyra Greene called and we chatted at length; she told me that Ephie had more stories for me.  I was elated and said I would be delighted to write more, so the phone rang and it was Ephie, who — after brief courtesies — said, “Thank you for making me relevant,” and we agreed to extend his musical memoir a bit more.  It is more a free-association than a chronological journey, but these gaps Ephie and I were eager to fill in.

I was in London for ten years, and I played with a Dixieland band — and the leader, I wish you’d put his name down, Chas McDevitt — incidentally, he had an uncle who was a trumpet player, who was a doctor, and he told me, it didn’t matter what time he came home, how tired he was, he would go into a room and play for half an hour, to keep up his chops.  So I thought that was a great thing.  With Chas, we played almost every week.  We played clubs all over the country.  We did some festivals, and we did a record.  And on that record I play a couple of solos that are the most beautiful solos I’ve done on record.  I don’t have a copy.  Maybe I can ask him for one.  And that’s that.

I did a six-week tour with the pianist Billy Taylor.  The other guys in the band, except for the trombone player, who was Eddie Bert, were all from a black collective.  It was a black band except for Eddie and myself, and Billy Taylor was a beautiful guy, and I just wanted to mention that.

I’m on the recording of the original HELLO, DOLLY!, and they had a black DOLLY, and I’m on that recording too.  That was with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, and that was superlative, something special.

I studied with Lennie Tristano.  I took a couple of lessons from him, and he said I was a schizophrenic trombone player, because I played Dixieland and I wanted to play his stuff.  He was a popular teacher then, and he had sessions, like once a week, with his regular people and a lot of students.  I never worked with him, but he played with us.  The idea was not to repeat yourself if possible.  Whatever you’re doing, don’t repeat yourself.  So you have to keep searching.  That was an important experience for me, I loved that.

The trumpet player Charlie McCarty was a sub-leader for Lester Lanin.  I worked a lot for Lester Lanin.  And Meyer Davis, if you remember that name.  Both of them were horrible people.  Just absolutely horrible.  But they worked a lot.  Meyer Davis, he was busy.  He worked two jobs every day.  So he bought an ambulance.  After the first job was over, he’d get in the ambulance, change his clothes, and with the siren blowing, he’d get to the next job on time.  I don’t know, that’s sort of interesting.  About Charlie, when the business was ending, and he was getting sick, we started having sessions in his house, for about five years, every week, with all kinds of people.  He was very good.

One of the guys I played with with Billy Taylor called me and said there was a benefit for somebody.  And at the time, I’d had an accident and I was out of work again.  So I got up on stage and in a couple of minutes Teddy Wilson walked in, and he played four or five tunes.  He was old, but beautiful nonetheless.

I did a record with Stan Getz, well, not with him, but with an orchestra behind him.  He did two of those things — big, splashy things.  FOCUS by Eddie Sauter is one of them, the other with a small band.  I was on the one with the big band.  He had his son with him at the session, and from the beginning to the end, he didn’t make one mistake.  Everything was perfection.  Absolute perfection.

In the early Forties, I started to play with all kinds of people, I ran into Willie “the Lion” Smith.  We played a couple of — not jobs — but a session, and he invited me to come back to another one.  He was crazy.  He was wonderful.

I worked in that Buddy Rich group with Sweets Edison and Zoot Sims.  Buddy was mean.  Mean and cantankerous and sort of rotten.  He exuded evilness, or something.  He would make the band get up on the stand at the time we were going to play, but he wouldn’t get up.  He’d stay down, maybe ten more minutes, and then he’d get up.  Somebody once said, “Why do we have to get up here early?  Why aren’t you up here?” and he said, “I want you there.”  Once in a while he’d invite a drummer from the crowd to come up and play, and then he’d play something as fast as he could play.  The greatest drummer in the world, absolutely sensational.  He could do anything.  He could play a roll with brushes that sounded like sticks.  He used to play theatres with his big band, and he couldn’t read, so all he had to do was hear something once, and he knew it.  So he was positively a genius of some sort.  Zoot and Sweets were sweet people, wonderful people.  And the band just swung. No fancy arrangements, we just played standards.  It was fun.  Beautiful, easy.

I didn’t see Monk, but can I tell you a story about Monk?  I was listening to a religious station, and the guy talking, he was a schoolteacher then, and he was supposed to play for us.  He told the story that someone walked in — he had a funny hat on and he sat akimbo on the piano stool, and then he started to play, and it was weird stuff, he didn’t understand what he was doing, and then after a while he came to the conclusion that this guy was special.  He was wonderful.  And it was Thelonious Monk.  And coming from a religious guy, that amazed me.  He was willing to hear.

Kenny Davern and I played together a lot when we were younger.  He had a peculiar style, but it was his own style of playing.  Nobody played like him.  He was wonderful.

I saw Charlie Parker quite a bit at Birdland, because it was cheap — I think it was two dollars — so I went a lot. 

Eddie Condon was such a sweet man, but he was drunk all of the time.  ALL of the time.  But when I played with him, occasionally, subbing for Cutty Cutshall, once in a while with Wild Bill.  But he said when I came there that he wouldn’t call his guitar a porkchop.  He’d call it a lambchop.  He knew I was Jewish.  So I thought that was nice.  He was a funny man.  And for what he did, he was the best.  His chords were good, his time was good, he’d really fill in, whatever you’d need.  He was wonderful in his own way of playing.  George Wettling was a sweet, wonderful guy until he got drunk.  Then he was a terrible person.

I went down to see Bunk Johnson.  I didn’t play with him, but I saw him a lot.  I was really into that music, and I loved that trombone player, Jim Robinson, he was one of the best I’ve ever heard for that type of music.  He didn’t play much but he stuck those notes in in absolutely correct and invigorating places.  And Bunk, nobody played like that, nobody ever played like that.  Beautiful.  And there were crowds every night when he was there.  Dancers.  It was an exciting time.

I loved playing with Max Kaminsky.  I worked a lot with him, for years.  He was a simple player, but he kept the time.  His time was great.  I played with Jimmy McPartland, but I never liked him much, except on old records.  But when I played with him in person, I didn’t like him.  His wife was wonderful.  I loved her.  I played with her a couple of times, with him.  She was a total piano player, boy, she was great.

I have a book that a friend gave me a couple of months ago, and my picture’s in that book — it’s called THE BEAT SCENE.  In the back there are signatures.  Barbara Ferraro is one, Gregory Corso and his address, 170 East 2nd Street, George Preston with an address, then Jack Kerouac, Seven Arts Coffee Shop, 82 Club, 2nd Avenue, the Cedar, Chinatown, the Five Spot — that’s where he hung out, in case you wanted to get him.  And then there was Dean Dexter, Artie Levin, Bob Thiemen.  I never played at the Five Spot or the Open Door.  I didn’t do that.

[I’d asked Ephie — of all the musicians he’d played with, who gave the greatest thrills, and he sighed.]  Look, when I was playing badly, I didn’t care who I was playing with.  When I was playing well, it didn’t matter to me.  They all were above me.  Every one of them was above me.

Ephie wanted me to make special mention of Max Steuer, that when Ephie went to London and stayed for ten years,” that Max — reader emeritus at the London School of Economics, who liked jazz  — and his wife Christine (who, as Christine Allen, worked as an agent for jazz musicians to help them find broader audiences) were very kind to him, subsidized his CD NEW YORK SURVIVOR, and that he lived with them when he first came to the UK.  (By the way, Ephie’s British friends, thanks to Malcolm Earle Smith and Chas McDevitt, have sent me wonderful stories — loving and hilarious and insightful — that will appear in a future Ephie post.)

Speaking of real estate, Ephie told me that he had lived in Jackson Heights, New York, for sixty years before moving to Brooklyn, and that his rent in Jackson Heights had started at ninety-five dollars a month.

Incidentally, to someone unaccustomed to it, Ephie’s voice can sound gruff, but I’ve learned through these telephone calls that his heart is large, and he has people who love him all over the world.  And he has a sweet puckish sense of humor.  In another phone conversation, when he inquired about my health with the greatest sincerity, I said, “I’m going to call you Doctor Resnick,” and he said, not missing a beat, “My father was ‘Dr. Resnick.’  He was a dentist.  And we always got mail for ‘Dr. Resnick.’  When I moved out, and I started getting mail for ‘Mr. Resnick,’ I felt cheated.”

I’ve mentioned that Ephie is very deeply engaged in what I would call informal physical rehabilitation, and in our conversations, I revealed myself as seriously sedentary (it takes many hours in a chair in front of a computer to create blogposts like this) which concerned him.  At the end of our second conversation, there was this wonderfully revealing sign-off from Ephie, whose compassion for someone he’d never met before the summer of 2020 is beautiful.  I present it here so that you can hear his voice, and because I am touched by it:

I will have more to share with you about this remarkable human being, whose singularity does not stop when he is not playing music.

May your happiness increase!

 

WHEN THE FENCES HAVE BEEN TAKEN DOWN: “I’LL BE SEEING YOU: THREE WAY STRETCH” (Malcolm Earle Smith, Dave Wickins, Liam Noble)

Years ago, jazz seemed like a lovely meadow, stretching in all directions, that critics and journalists (I don’t need to name the squabbling troublemakers) had divided into little paddocks, each with its own electrified fence.  So if Fats Navarro and Jimmy Knepper wanted to talk mouthpieces with Shorty Baker and Vic Dickenson, they knew not to venture too far for fear of getting punished.  (Patrick McGoohan, “Number Six,” will do as an encapsulation.)

Much of this silliness has died down in print, but it remains lively among the fan bases, those who look skeptically at “that old stuff” or criticize a slightly streamlined performance as “too swingy.”  The electrified fences still proliferate in Facebook’s exclusionary groups, but you’re on your own there.

I say this because I have just listened to a wonderful new CD, with six selections.  The composers: Ornette Coleman, Irving Berlin, Victor Schertzinger / Johnny Mercer, Charles Mingus, Eddie Harris, Sammy Fain / Irving Kahal.  The songs: RAMBLIN’ / ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND / I REMEMBER YOU / DUKE ELLINGTON’S SOUND OF LOVE / FREEDOM JAZZ DANCE / I’LL BE SEEING YOU.  Consider the beautiful expansiveness of that list for a moment: imagine a windowsill of wildly different plants — cherry tomato, orchid, succulents — all given space to grow and flourish.

This wholly rewarding CD is I’LL BE SEEING YOU, by “THREE WAY STRETCH,” Malcolm Earle Smith, trombone, vocal, effects; Liam Noble, piano; Dave Wickins, drums.  The band’s “cover photo” is a study in itself, and says something about the whimsical powers at work, with Malcolm, Liam, and Dave, from the left:


A few words from the band:

Recorded in November 2018, this album documents a joyful afternoon of music making. Sadly, this was to be drummer Dave Wickins’s last recording. This album is dedicated to Dave, a unique artist and special human being. His passion, humour, and love for the whole tradition of jazz drumming can be heard in these six tracks.

The album artwork, which celebrates Dave’s life and music, is best appreciated by buying the CD, but is also available as a PDF for all digital purchases.

In memory of Dave, we are contributing some of the funds from sales to Prostate Cancer UK. If you would like to contribute a little extra to this charity please consider the ‘pay more’ option above. Or, if you prefer, you can donate directly here: davewickins.muchloved.com.

Here‘s the Bandcamp link to hear more and, I hope, to purchase.

About the music.  I am sent CDs still with some frequency, and I try to listen to at least a few minutes of each; some of them, even with high-powered personnels, make me think, “Well, I am supposed to like this, even though I don’t.  Can I give it another ten minutes?”  And sometimes I can.  But there are others — whose names might not be quite so familiar — that feel both ingenious and comfortable at the same time.  My first reaction to THREE WAY STRETCH was “Wow!” and then, “This is really splendid.”  Its looseness and true improvisation captivated me, and at times I laughed aloud to hear what sport these three ingenious gentlemen had just created.

I should state here that this is a trio recording rather than the standard ensemble theme statement – solos – e.t.s. format.  At times it is a somber dance, a street parade, a musical Frisbee game in the park.  Each of these musicians is masterful not only in imagination but in execution, but at times I thought I was listening to a game rather than a recording session.  It is the music that is made before the audience has arrived or after they have gone.

And the playfulness goes hand-in-hand with deep feeling: quietly impassioned readings of SOUND OF LOVE and I’LL BE SEEING YOU; the puckishness of ALEXANDER’S; the irresistible swing of RAMBLIN’.  (By the way, Malcolm is not only a wonderful trombonist but a surprising and emotive singer.)  Each performance is its own playlet, and the CD feels like an immensely satisfying full-course meal of wonderfully flavored dishes: filling but not overwhelming.  It seems impudent to dissect the trio into its component human parts, since the synergy at work here is rich and honest, but the disc makes me regret that I never saw Dave, Liam, and Malcolm in performance: somewhere between the best improvisatory dramatic troupe and a tap-dance jam session.

No cutting contest, but the sounds of three musicians who love the melody and deep swing, who love the music and the places it can go, and who clearly love and respect each other. . . . and who are having the time of their lives in musical conversation.

At times it sounds as if three masters of comic timing are telling jokes; at times Malcolm, Liam, and Dave compose overlapping soliloquies; at times it’s the wind in the reeds, the branches gently tapping the house, the songs of morning birds.

A truly splendid recording, full of life-energies.  Investigate for yourself.

May your happiness increase!

“LUCKY ALL MY LIFE”: EPHRAIM RESNICK, TROMBONE and PIANO (July 6, 2020)

My phone rang on July 3.  This in itself would not be unusual.  But that the caller ID panel read “Ephraim Resnick” was a surprise.  I had been on a quest to find the wonderful and elusive trombonist (now pianist) Ephie Resnick for a few years, and had enlisted my dear friend — also a fine trombonist — Dick Dreiwitz in the search.

I knew Ephie first as a beautiful soulful viruoso heard on live recordings from George Wein’s Storyville in 1952 — alongside Pee Wee Russell and Ruby Braff; later, I’d seen him with the New York Jazz Repertory Company in their 1972 tribute to Louis Armstrong, some of which was released on Atlantic, and then Bob Greene’s Jelly Roll Morton show in 1974, issued on RCA Victor.  Perhaps eight years ago I had heard him playing piano at Arthur’s Tavern with the Grove Street Stompers.  He asked me to refrain from videoing him, but he was friendly and I did buy his two recent CDs, NEW YORK SURVIVOR and THE STRUGGLE.  Still more recently, a musical friend of his, Inigo Kilborn, had asked me if Ephie was still on the planet.  He is.  At 92, he’s a clear speaker and thinker, although his memory is “sometimes OK, sometimes not too good.”

Ephie and I made a date to talk on the morning of Monday, July 6.  He doesn’t have a computer.  “I live in the last century,” and when I asked if he wanted me to transcribe the interview and send it to him for corrections, he said no.  So this is what he told me of his life, with my minimal editing to tie loose ends together.  It’s not only the usual story of early training, gigs played, musicians encountered, but a deeper human story.  If you’d never heard Ephie play, you’d think he wasn’t all that competent, given his protestations.  I wonder at the gap between the way we perceive ourselves and the way the world does.

With musical examples, I present our conversation to you here.

I began with the most obvious question, “When you were a kid, did you want to be a musician?” and Ephie began his tale.

I come from a family of anger and bitterness and humiliation, and all that stuff, so I was in confusion most of the time.  When I was in first grade, and this is really important, I was born left-handed, and they made me right-handed, so it really did away with my focus.  I got asthma, and I started stuttering soon after that.  So my life was a turmoil. 

And when I was about sixteen, I guess, I hadn’t any idea of doing anything.  I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything.  And I heard a Louis Armstrong recording, and that really made me crazy.  It showed me a way out, the way out of my turmoil.  So when I went to school, they gave me a trombone.  Because the guy said, “I want somebody to play the trombone,” and he pointed at me.  At that point, it was difficult to breathe, it was difficult to talk, and I couldn’t get a sound out of the horn.  And I didn’t understand it until just recently, when I moved to Brooklyn, after I was finished, finally.  I wasn’t breathing.  I couldn’t breathe.

I took the trombone home from school, I tried to play it, and really couldn’t play it much.  But I listened to a lot of records.  I listened to a lot of Louis Armstrong then.  I got as much as I could out of him.  And then I started, for some reason, to go out playing.  In little clubs and things.  I don’t know how I could play — I didn’t practice.  But I played, mostly with black people at the beginning.  And there were two places, especially, where I could play.  A guy named Bob Maltz had a place downtown, all the way downtown.  And across the street a guy named Jack Crystal — there’s a comedian, Billy Crystal, and Jack was his father. [The Stuyvesant Casino and the Central Plaza.]  Both of these guys hired mostly black musicians from the Thirties, and I started out just sitting in, and then I started getting paid.  And that was the beginning of my jazz playing.

And then I made a record [in 1947].  Irv Kratka, the guy who started Music Minus One, was in our little group.  I went into — I forget what it’s called now — it was on Broadway and they had studios and rehearsal studios.  I walked into one and there was Bob Wilber and his little group with Denny Strong on drums.  The trumpet player turned out to be the Local 802 president years after that [John Glasel] but they gave me the names of some guys, and I got together a little group and made a record.  I was just around 17 or 18, I was just playing about a year.  It was OK, it was sort of nice.

Here’s Ephie with Knocky Parker, piano; Irv Kratka, drums, May 1, 1949:

I turned 18, and my mother wanted me to go to a college.  And I thought, I could never do that.  I couldn’t focus.  I couldn’t learn anything.  Whatever I knew, I knew from having read myself or having heard, or something, so I got good marks in English and history.  But anything I had to study and learn something, I couldn’t do it: language or science or something like that.  So with all this, she wanted me to go to a college.  So I applied to Juilliard, and they gave me a date for an audition.  I picked a piece, and I couldn’t play it.  I couldn’t play it at all.  It sat there on my music stand, and once in a while I tried, but I couldn’t do it. 

I should have called them up and told them I couldn’t make the audition, but I went there anyway.  I played the piece perfectly.  That was my life.  Sometimes I played really good, sometimes I played terrible.  Sometimes I played mediocre, but this time I played really good and they clapped me on the back and said, “You’ll go far, young man.”  My teacher was there, Ernest Clarke, Herbert Clarke’s brother.  Herbert Clarke was a trumpet virtuoso.  Ernest Clarke was some sort of a name, I don’t know what he did, but he was well-known there.  He was 83 then.  And he opened up his book when I took my first lesson.  The first page was a row of B-flats.  B-flat with a hold on it, more B-flats and more B-flats.  And I couldn’t play it.  I couldn’t play the note.  He would walk back and forth, his hands behind his back, he couldn’t figure it out.  So I did that for a couple of weeks, I showed up once a week, and then after a while he turned to the second page.  And there were F’s, a little higher but medium-low.  And I couldn’t play that note either.  And then he retired.  I always say that he retired because of me. 

Anyway, whatever it was, while this was happening, I was playing outside.  I was sitting in and playing, going to clubs and stuff.  I played a lot at the beginning with Sol Yaged.  He was a clarinet player who played in the clubs where they used to have jazz and now they had strippers.  So I played for the strippers with Sol Yaged.  I still couldn’t get a sound on my own.  When I was in the house, I couldn’t practice.  I couldn’t play a scale, I couldn’t do anything.  I fell apart.  And I went to a lot of teachers.  Nobody gave me anything.  And when I moved to Brooklyn, I quit playing the trombone when I was here.  I started to figure out, what it was was so simple — I guess I wasn’t breathing.  I was tight.  I never could find an embouchure, except once in a while it happened.  It came in by itself, and when it happened, I could really play well.  But I wasn’t practicing, I couldn’t play a scale, I couldn’t play anything like regular trombone players could.  But I knew that. 

My first year at Juilliard I got a straight A because all they did was ear stuff — ear training — and I was good at that.  And piano playing, and I could do the piano.  And that was it.  The second year, I started getting academic subjects: science, languages and stuff, and I couldn’t do it.  So I stopped going to school.  And years ago, before they fixed up Forty-Second Street, it was a mess, but there was one movie theatre called The Laugh Theatre, and they had, once in a while, regular movies, but usually short subjects, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and all that stuff.  So I was there, and I was laughing.  My life was awful, but I was laughing.  I did that for the rest of my school year, and then I got out of Juilliard.  Finally.  And years later I figured out that, you know, going to school would have depressed me and made me feel really awful, but being away from the school I was laughing.  I felt OK.  Laughing is very good for you.  

Anyway, I don’t know how it was, but I got out of school, and I started working.  I still couldn’t play, I still didn’t practice.  So my first job was with Eddie Heywood.  He was a piano player.  It was an all-black band, at Cafe Society Downtown.  There was also a club, Cafe Society Uptown.  I was there six weeks or so, and then somebody recommended me — I don’t know how it happened — to Buddy Rich.  It’s hard for me to believe.  I played six weeks with Buddy Rich: Zoot Sims and Harry Edison were in the band, I forget the bass player and the piano player.  So I did that, and then I came out, and that was the end of the big band era.  So then I went out, maybe two or three weeks, maybe a weekend, with big bands, but they were beginning to close down.  I played with a lot of them, but the only ones I could remember were Buddy Morrow, Ray McKinley, and Charlie Barnet.  And with these bands, I was the jazz player. 

With Charlie Barnet I also played lead, but I had one solo — that was the audition.  There were about eight trombone players who auditioned for Charlie Barnet, and later on he told me that when he saw me he figured I would be the last guy to get it.  But the audition was a song — I forget the name of it — [Ephie hums ESTRELLITA] — a Spanish song.  It had a trombone solo, there was a high E in the middle or someplace, and I really smacked that thing.  I took a chance, you know, I got it, and I was great.  The other guys played that E, but they played it hesitantly, so I got the job.  And that was great.  I had that one solo, and I played lead, which was great for me, because I learned how to do that.  

Here’s Ephie with Marty Grosz, guitar; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, string bass; Tommy Benford, drums; Hugh McKay, cornet; John Dengler, baritone saxophone; Frank Chace, clarinet.  June 6, 1951: comparative listening thanks to “Davey Tough”:

And then I started to work with small bands.  I don’t know how I got this work either. Dixieland bands.  Wild Bill Davison, who was at Condon’s for I guess twelve years, lost that job — they closed down or something — he went on the road and I went with him, and we made a record. Then I played with Buddy Morrow, and I was the jazz player in that band.  He was a great, great trombone player, but a little stiff for my taste.  Then Ray McKinley, and I was the jazz player in that band.  And Bill Davison, we made a record with that.  And then I went with Pee Wee Russell, Ruby Braff was in that, and I forget who else.  And we made a record with him.  So, so far, I made a lot of records.  I got a little bit of a fan club in England because of those records.  And Pee Wee — those records were in Boston, and they recorded a whole night, and they put out four ten-inchers.  And then they made an lp out of it, or two lps.  I don’t imagine any of these things are available now.  That Pee Wee thing, it sold well, I don’t understand how, exactly.  Can’t figure out those things.)

Here’s Ephie in 1952, with Pee Wee Russell, Ruby Braff, Red Richards, John Field, Kenny John — the second part of this presentation (the first offers Johnny Windhurst, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, George Wein, John Field, and Jo Jones).  For the impatient among us, Ephie’s portion begins at 16:00:

While I was working, I was still struggling.  I wanted to finally learn how to play.  Since I was working, I might as well learn how to play.  I still couldn’t play a scale without falling apart.  But in context, I could play, somehow.  I saved enough money for a couple of years and went to Philadelphia and studied with a guy named Donald Reinhardt who had a system.  His system was really good, but you had to figure out the system.  He couldn’t, by himself, help you. 

Art DePew, a marvelous trumpet player who played lead with Harry James and a few other bands, went to him and got fixed up.  Kai Winding used to run there once in a while.  He had problems.  His mouthpiece would slip down.  Sometimes he could get it back up, sometimes he couldn’t. 

Reinhardt didn’t teach me anything.  He couldn’t tell you what you were doing wrong or what you should be doing.  He had a book and a system.  He had a lot of people, and they could look at what he had to say and do it.  I couldn’t do that.  I had to be told what I was doing wrong.  And nobody told me I wasn’t breathing.  Lots of times I couldn’t get a sound out.  I had no control over it.  When I played well, it had nothing to do with me. It just happened.  When I played badly, there was no way for me to fix it.  

I spent a couple of years there in Philadelphia, and I met my wife.  She was a singer, a wonderful oratorio singer.  And there was a jazz club over there, and I was playing once a week.  I was playing piano in strip clubs with another guy, a very strange man.  He wore a toupee, but never bought one.  He wore other people’s old toupees; everybody gave him their old toupee.  So he just dropped them on top of his head.  I spent four years there, learned nothing, and still couldn’t figure out what was happening. 

I had to come back to New York, because we got married, and she had a six-and-a half-year old son.  We became friends, and that was really good.  I did various things, and then a contractor called me.  In those days, there was a lot of money around, money flowing freely.  In music, there was a shortage of musicians, and I came in at that point. 

I’ve been lucky all my life, actually. 

I got a job playing in various theatres around the city, short things.  There was a theatre on Sixth Avenue and Forty-Eighth Street, I believe, the contractor liked me, and he had some shows coming to New York.  He said I could pick one, and one of them was HELLO, DOLLY!  I did that for seven years.  Playing a show, especially if you’re a jazz player, is terrible.  You’re doing the same thing all the time.  But I took off a lot.  You could take off as long as you got somebody good, and I always got somebody better than me. 

I worked with Lester Lanin and played all around the world — Ireland, France, Paris, the Philippines.  The guy whose wife had all those shoes [Imelda Marcos], I played their thirtieth anniversary.  We went to Hawaii, to Hong Kong, and then I came back, was home for a couple of weeks.  They started a group in New York, playing different types of music, so I was in that group, and then they had a small group out of that.  I was picked out of that, and we went to Russia — a jazz  group.  We traveled all over the country, and that was really interesting.  That was during the Khruschev era.  When I came back, I continued to do club dates,  but I couldn’t really progress, I couldn’t learn anything.  When I was forty, I still couldn’t play a scale.  I was making my living as a trombone player, and I couldn’t play a scale once up and down without falling apart.

Somebody introduced me to marijuana.  I tried that, and it was wonderful.  Absolutely wonderful.  It saved my life.  The first thing I started to do after I started to smoke was to go downstairs to the basement every morning.  We had small radios, and I hung the radio up, right next to my ear, as loud as I could.  Not music, but talking.  I started to play scales, and it sounded awful, because I couldn’t really hear it.  I did that for a couple of years, and finally I got rid of the radio.  I began a regular practice, for the first time in my life, when I was about forty. 

But by that time I was sort of on the way down, in a way.  And then I did a job with Lester Lanin in London, and I met a guy there — I knew him was I was nineteen or twenty.  He became rich: his father died.  Max, his father, was not too smart, and he couldn’t come to a decision: he didn’t know how to make a decision.  So his father, who was a lawyer but a Mob lawyer, he was powerful with a lot of connections those days, so he put Max on the Supreme Court.  He couldn’t make a decision.  That was his life’s work.  So I met this guy, and stayed at his house for a while, and then I stayed in London and made a record there.  I have two left, of those records.  The other stuff I don’t have any copies of. 

Then I had an accident.  I’m not sure of the timeline now.  I was hit by a car, and broke both my legs and my pelvis.  My ankles were messed up.  I was in the hospital for about three months.  When I came out, I couldn’t really move around, so I didn’t work for a couple of years.  But I was lucky, again, because they just had passed a law in Albany, and if you had an accident, they called it “no fault insurance,” and gave you fifty thousand dollars and services.  So I was in the hospital, and they would send me a check once a month to live on.  So I didn’t work for a couple of years, but I was taken care of.    

I came out, and I wasn’t working very much at all, so I called Marty Grosz.  I knew him from years ago.  We had worked together, in a bar someplace.  Not in New York, someplace else.  I forget where it was.  And I called him, and we made a record.  [THE END OF INNOCENCE.]  And it got a great review from John S. Wilson, the Times music reviewer.  He wrote a really good review of it, not in the paper, but in an international magazine.  So I sold about a thousand records.  People wrote in.  One guy sent it back to me because he didn’t like it.  So I sent him back his ten dollars.  [I complimented Ephie on the record.] Well, thank you.  But I hadn’t worked for three years before that.  Again, I was lucky it came out OK.  [I reminded Ephie that he and Marty had recorded before, in 1951.]  Oh, those records!  Those records were nice!  Those were really good.  I was really happy with those records.  I’d forgotten about that.  I don’t have any of that stuff, but somehow they turned out to be really good.  Frank Chace was nice.  Yes, I liked the way he played.  Years before, Marty and I had a summer job together.  He was just learning how to play and I was learning also.  And I never paid him for that record, THE END OF INNOCENCE.  He did it for nothing.

I will offer THE END OF INNOCENCE — a glorious duet — in a future posting.

I was in England for ten years, and I did a record there.  [Two: NEW YORK SURVIVOR and THE STRUGGLE.]  Well, that was close to the end of my career.  After my accident, I didn’t do too much.  I hung around for a while, and everything got slowed down to nothing.  My wife got sick, she got Parkinson’s.  So I got a job — I was lucky again — working for Catholic Charities, playing piano for Alzheimers people, various venues, different bosses, for almost twelve years.  They just closed down, in March, because of the virus.  So I was lucky, I was working all this time, until right now. 

So now I’m in one room, I’m hiding out, and I’ve got an electronic piano.  I guess you’d say I’m an old-fashioned piano player.  Pretty much old-fashioned, with a couple of things thrown in, contemporary.  And a couple of months ago, in February, before the virus became widely known, I made a record with a trombone player from England, Malcolm Earle Smith.  I hadn’t played in a while.  My playing was — I don’t know how to describe it.  Except on the last two pieces, there I kind of relaxed.  I was careful — I was too careful, so I don’t know about that record.  I have a couple of copies.  Some people liked them, and some people I sent them to didn’t like it at all. 

Ephie at the piano, briefly but evocatively:

[I also mentioned Inigo Kilborn, one of Ephie’s musical colleagues, to him.]  Inigo heard me playing in a club in England, and wanted me to come down.  He was living in Spain then, he went from London to Spain, he was retired.  He wanted me to play in clubs, and I wasn’t working much, I still didn’t have an embouchure, and I still didn’t know how to play.  I put him off and finally he gave up.

One of the people I sent the record to was a guy in Sweden.  He sent me a letter, that he loved the record, and he wanted me to play all over Europe, he had  contacts in clubs all over Europe.  And I couldn’t do it.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.  Maybe I could play one day or two days, but I’d fall apart.  I fell apart, here and there, when I was playing.  So I didn’t answer him, and he came to New York and then he called me.  He wrote me another letter, and he called me and called me, but I didn’t answer the phone.  That was the end of that.  I couldn’t have done it.  It would have been wonderful for my future, my present, but I couldn’t do it.  So that was that.

Then, little by little, I faded away, until I got this job.  This job saved my life, this piano job.  That’s it.  

So that’s my story up till now.  And here I am.  I’m practicing every day, trying to play a little more contemporary, make the chords closer together.  Not so old-fashioned.  So I’m working on that a little bit, but I’m not working at all now. 

I’m just old.  And that’s my story.

Ephie at the piano, Malcolm Earle Smith, trombone:

[Ephie had delivered almost all of what you read above in a diligent narrative, and I had not wanted to interrupt him, to distract him.  But now, after forty minutes, I thought I could ask some — perhaps idle — questions.  I told Ephie I’d seen him onstage, at Alice Tully Hall in 1974, with Bob Greene’s “The World of Jelly Roll Morton.”]

Oh!  I forgot about that.  That was great.  He played like Jelly Roll Morton, and he started a band, a Jelly Roll Morton band.  We played all those songs, and I could really do that.  I was good at that.  I could really blast out.  The record doesn’t show that, but we traveled all around the country, and we had standing ovations on every job except one.  I don’t know exactly why that one.  But that was easy for me, easy and natural.  It paid well, and it was fun.  Those were happy moments in my life. 

I was with Kai Winding — four trombones.  It was a tour.  We started out someplace — I can’t remember where it was but it was a restaurant.  We were above the eaters, so we couldn’t play too loud, and we were close together.  And for some reason I played just great — just wonderful, all the way along.  and he was talking about making a tour with just the two of us.  The job ended, and we had a three-day layoff, and then went into the Little Mirror, a place in Washington.  There was an echo, we were spread out, it was loud, I lost what I had in that previous gig, I never found it.  I looked for that embouchure for years and years and never got it back.  We made a record with Kai Winding.  I made a lot of records with different people, but that one was OK.  That turned out nice.    

[I asked Ephie if he could tell me about people — heroes of mine — he’d encountered, from the Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza, on.]  There was one guy, Jerry Blumberg [a Bunk Johnson protege on cornet and a pianist].  He was wonderful.  He got one job someplace, and hired that famous pianist from the Thirties, James P. Johnson.  I played one night with him.  That was interesting. He was old, but he still played OK.  I never worked with Sid Catlett, but I saw him play.  I played with Frankie Newton a couple of times.  He was fun to play with.  Very easy to play with. 

When I was in Boston, I was with Pee Wee Russell.  He had his own pianist.  It wasn’t Wein, and Red Richards came later.  There was another guy [Teddy Roy] who I didn’t know, but had played with Pee Wee for years and years.  And he had a book, with all the chords in it, which he didn’t need.  Every tune that was called, he’d open up the book.  He never looked at the book, but the chords were there.  He was sort of tied to that.  

Ruby Braff was a fantastic player.  Nobody ever played like him.  He didn’t play like anybody else.  He had phenomenal technique, and he used it in very personal ways.  A wonderful player.  He had his personal problems, like we all do.  Sometimes, we were playing someplace, and he didn’t feel he was playing right, or he wasn’t doing justice to what he was doing, someone would come up to him and say, “Ruby, you sounded wonderful,” he would say, “Aaahhh, what do  you know?” and dismiss it, insult the guy who liked him.  He felt vulnerable all the time, but a great player.  And later on, he played with Benny Goodman.  He couldn’t read, but Benny would put him at the end of the line of trumpets, and once in a while call upon him to play.  He did that for a while.

Did you know Johnny Windhurst?  I did one job with him and Ed Hubble on trombone, and I played piano, and Ed Phyfe on drums.  He was a wonderful player also. 

I didn’t hang out with anybody in Boston.  I wasn’t a hanger-on.  I went right home after the last tune we played.  And I don’t want to hear any of my old stuff.  The only records I have are the ones I made in England, THE STRUGGLE and NEW YORK SURVIVOR.  THE STRUGGLE is a terrible record, but the other one turned out good.   

I played for six-eight months with Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s.  He was playing trumpet then — with the mute, not ebullient, but great.  Those records with Dizzy are really wonderful.  At one point, I was on staff with ABC for three years, subbing for one of the jazz guys.  Dick Dreiwitz is such a sweet man, and his wife Barbara, who plays tuba.  For a while I was playing ball games with them — they had a Dixieland band.  Between innings, we’d walk up and down the aisles and play.  People used to throw stuff in the tuba — peanuts, papers, everything — so the tuba players put a pillowcase over the bell.  People aren’t naturally nice, you know.  Some are, some aren’t.  

I’m 92, and I hope I don’t have too many years left.  So far, I’m OK.

At that point, we thanked each other, and I assured Ephie he was safe from me. But in the next few days, the phone rang again, as Ephie remembered some other stories:

Ephie played about six weeks at the Cinderella Club with pianist Bross Townsend and a bassist, not Peck Morrison, whose name he didn’t remember.  He thought that cornetist Hugh McKay played really well on the 1951 Marty Grosz records and wondered what happened to him.  [Does anyone know?]  He saw Vic Dickenson once at some uptown Manhattan gig and thought he was wonderful.  When working in San Francisco with Wild Bill Davison, he found out that Jack Teagarden was playing in Los Angeles and took the bus to see him.  But this was when Jack had quit drinking and Ephie thought he sounded dull.

Another postscript: an extended list of Ephie’s performance credits, which are staggering:

Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Eddie Condon, Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Zoot Sims, Lennie Tristano, Teddy Wilson, Kai Winding and Willie the Lion Smith. He has also played with a variety of rock and pop bands including The Bee Gees, The Four Tops and Englebert Humperdink, and has worked for Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Woody Allen and Norman Mailer.

Ephie spent much of the 1990s working in London, during a period in his life when he felt trapped in New York. During that stay he met and played with a number of British musicians as well as becoming something of a mentor for many of them. He also played at a number of society parties with the world renowned orchestra headed by veteran bandleader Lester Lanin. The musicians included: Dick Morrissey, Alex Dankworth, Huw Warren, Tim Whitehead, Martin Speake, Mike Pickering, Steve Watts, Julian Siegel, Chris Gibbons, Andrew Jones, Carl Dewhurst, Dave Whitford and Jean-Victor de Boer. He recorded two albums whilst in the UK: New York Survivor and The Struggle (both released on Basho Records)

Although he stopped playing trombone in 2010, Ephie continues to lead an active musical life in back in New York, playing piano in care homes. Still an inspiration to his friends and colleagues, his passion for music is still as strong as it was decades ago.

Taken and adapted from Ephie’s profile page at Jazzcds.co.uk

Blessings and thanks to Ephie, to Dick Dreiwitz, to Inigo Kilborn, to Malcolm Earle Smith, who made this informal memoir of a fascinating man and musician possible.

May your happiness increase!

SPLENDID SWING: THE BASIN STREET BRAWLERS, “IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT”

I encounter a number of youthful players who have formed improvising bands. Many of these small orchestras, to my delight, attempt to bring their own personalities — ferocious or tender — to the great repertoire of the last century. But few of them succeed so consistently as a new British group, THE BASIN STREET BRAWLERS.  Their debut CD, IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT, is a recent issue — a limited edition of 500 copies — and I encourage you to investigate both the band and the disc.

BRAWLERS

Here’s their “showreel,” a collection of samples from their live performances:

You’ll notice certain things from this video tasting menu: the band has a light, easy bounce; trumpeter Peter Horsfall is a concise, lyrical player and an especially fine singer.  (Imagine if Bob Howard or Louis Prima had been born in London — swinging, impassioned, but never overstated.)  The rest of the band is equally convincing, never trying too hard, but gently leaning into the swing winds: trombonist / vocalist Malcolm Earle-Smith and guitar master Martin Wheatley (whom I’ve seen and admired often at Whitley Bay) are the official representatives from a slightly older generation, but they fit right in with clarinetist / saxophonist Ewan Bleach, pianist Colin Good, string bassist Dave O’Brien, and drummer Mez Clough.

The repertoire on this CD — structured with a beginning, middle, and end — says a great deal about this band’s love and expertise — with small evocations of Teddy Wilson, Louis, Jack Teagarden, Goodman small groups, and more: A SMOOTH ONE (Intro) / IF DREAMS COME TRUE / JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS / IF ONLY YOU KNEW (an original hinting at Hodges and Strayhorn) / ALL MY LIFE / HOW AM I TO KNOW? / STARS FELL ON ALABAMA / ONCE IN A WHILE / IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT! / SWING THAT MUSIC / A SMOOTH ONE (Outro) / LOTUS BLOSSOM (Bonus track).  There’s even two very brief but pleasing appearances by one Natty Bo as “guest M.C.”

It’s beautifully recorded at the renowned Porcupine Studios, and the CD is a consistent pleasure.

(I didn’t have to do any mind-editing: “Oh, this would be wonderful if only _____ didn’t do this,” which dogs some of the new CDs I am asked to comment on.)

If you’d like to purchase the CD — an indication of sound judgment, I think, the best place is the “SHOP” section of the band’s website. For those who can’t wait for a physical disc, they can be satisfied by a download here. Candidly, as engaging as the “showreel” is, the CD is even more rewarding.

Once I heard the music, I became both advocate and fan. But I had one quibble — with the band’s chosen appellation. I admired the alliteration, but asked Peter if he was fully aware of the connotations of “brawlers.” (Yes, Yeats referred to a sparrow making that noise in the eaves, but I somehow thought this was not an avian swing group.) Peter’s answer was charmingly candid: “Brawlers  – came really from my understanding of the roots of this music. Trying to give a little light hearted reference to the bar brawls and whorehouses that hot jazz accompanied!”

I couldn’t argue with that.  And I assure any timorous listeners that neither the band or the CD will ruin your furniture, behave badly, or irritate the neighbors.

And the BSB has or have a Facebook page, with a gig schedule — crucial in these busy days and nights.

May your happiness increase!