Tag Archives: Marc Caparone

“SWINGIN’ FOR THE FENCES”: BRIAN HOLLAND AND DANNY COOTS (AND MORE)

Oh, no.  Another wonderful CD?  Will those musicians ever let us alone?  When the musicians are pianist Brian Holland and drummer Danny Coots, the answer is a joyous NO.

But first.  Let’s assume you’ve never heard Brian and Danny.  Nothing simpler than remedying this deficiency. From the 2017 Santa Cruz Ragtime Festival, here is their rendition of two Fats Waller compositions, JITTERBUG WALTZ and BACH UP TO ME:

and here are the two gentlemen, caught by a still camera:

Holland (left), Coots (right), for those who have never had the good fortune to see and hear them in person or in action or both.

Their new CD is a delightfully varied offering:

The songs:  Charleston Rag / Jimmy McHugh Medley (Spreadin’ Rhythm Around – I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed) / Memphis Blues / Doll Dance / Wolverine Blues / Black and Blue / Tico Tico – Besame Mucho / Root Beer Rag / Hymn to Freedom / Violet Wedding (A Song for Marcia) / Rubber Plant Rag / Ragtime Nightingale / Troublesome Ivories / Planxty.

Students of the music will notice some well-deserved homages to great composers and players: Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Nacio Herb Brown, Jimmy McHugh, Joseph Lamb, and a few slightly less expected sources: Oscar Peterson, Glenn Jenks, Billy Joel, and an original by Brian.  Ragtime, stride, novelty piano, deep blues, venerable pop tunes, and more.

The title of the CD — even for those who shy away from professional sports, like me — would explicitly suggest that virtuosic larger-than-life musical athleticism is in store.  And in a few instances that impression is correct.  Brian and Danny romp with great grace and power, and they can show off in the most impressive musical ways.  You won’t find players who are more deft at fast tempos than these two, and their quickest skirmishes still make great artistic sense: the listener never feels pummeled with notes.  They work together splendidly as a telepathic team, hearing each other’s impulses and subtexts as well.

But leave aside the gorgeous rapid beauties of the up-tempo performances –CHARLESTON RAG, DOLL DANCE, RUBBER PLANT RAG, TROUBLESOME IVORIES, to consider BLACK AND BLUE, which Brian says he began, musingly, in an effort to get into the mind of Thomas Waller — whose affecting song about racial prejudice this is. It is the most quiet and searching show-stopper I can imagine, beginning with pensive suspended chords, an improvisation that hints at Beiderbecke and Gershwin, before gaining emotional power as it climbs to a moving end.  I call it a show-stopper because once it had concluded, I was overpowered and needed to pause before moving on to the next track.

In an entirely different way, HYMN TO FREEDOM begins as a solo human being’s prayer — for what and to whom I leave to you — and ends up as a jubilant prayer meeting.  PLANXTY starts as a small utterance of grief and ends up a funeral procession, without its volume increasing that much.

But lamenting is not always what Danny and Brian have in mind.  Some of these duets are seriously cinematic: listening more than once to TICO-TICO / BESAME MUCHO, I found myself imagining the brightly colored musical film for which they had invented a provocative soundtrack.  I see elegant, formally dressed dancers all through RAGTIME NIGHTINGALE as well.  I have to say a word about TROUBLESOME IVORIES — perhaps too much autobiography — but had I the ability to dance, and a willing partner, I would not be typing these words now, being otherwise occupied.

The disc is beautifully recorded and, even better, splendidly sequenced, so one never has the sense of listening to ten or twelve minutes of the same thing. Piano and drums — no gimmicks, no novelty vocals or sound effects.  Just lovely music.

You can purchase the CD here.  Or you can find it on Facebook.

And . . . speaking of pleasures that won’t grow old quickly, the Holland-Coots Quintet has just released a new disc, a tribute to Fats Waller, THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL, with Marc Caparone, Evan Arntzen, Steve Pikal as the additional merry-makers.  I was at the sessions in Nashville in July 2017, and this band made thrilling music, which I wrote about here.  (Caution: HOT VIDEO ALERT.)

I will have more to say when the actual disc flutters into my mailbox.  And don’t let the title fool you: quantity purchases are not only legal, but medically-recommended.

May your happiness increase!

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HAMILTON!

This isn’t a blogpost about Alexander Hamilton, or about Lin-Manuel Miranda, or even about the Jeff Hamilton who plays drums with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

It’s about “our” Jeff Hamilton, shown above — seriously “above,” some  years ago. He is one of the great subversives, often in all caps.  Evidence:

But his music is serious, even when Jeff is giggling.  Here he is on the drums, with Marc Caparone, cornet; Butch “John” Smith, alto; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Mike Fay, string bass in Paso Robles, California, in August 2013:

I first met Jeff as a pianist, a delightfully melodic, swinging one, through recordings.  Then I encountered the drummer, the rough-hewn lyrical trombonist, the secret vocalist . . . each of his selves completely rewarding. During my California sojourns, I saw Jeff play with Clint Baker, Ray Skjelbred, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Rebecca Kilgore, and others — always lifting the band.  And I will see and hear him again at this November’s San Diego Jazz Fest, which is a pleasure.

Photograph by Angela Bennett.

Most recently, Jeff Hamilton Jazz, a trio of Jeff, piano / vocal; Clint Baker, trumpet and more; Robert Young, saxophones, played a gig at Eric Whittington’s San Francisco   Bird and Beckett Books.  (Eric has extraordinarily good taste: note the Josef Skvorecky books on the table.)
The indefatigable videographer and fan Rae Ann Hopkins Berry —  known to her YouTube flock as  SFRaeAnn — was right in front on the evening of September 23, and she captured much of the music performed that night.

Here are several performances that give me special joy.  One is Jeff’s quiet vocal and eloquent piano on CABIN IN THE PINES (a song that triangulates perfectly, with vocal recordings by Bing, Mildred, and Louis) while Clint does his Louis on trumpet:

Here’s my favorite song of romantic self-abnegation, I SURRENDER, DEAR (with Jeff Hamilton Jazz at full strength):

Once the imaginary lovebirds settled who was surrendering to whom, and why, they could head to Capri to enjoy themselves, thanks to the ghost of Wingy Manone:

And, suitably enlightened, the couple could settle into Buddhist enlightenment, embracing uncertainty:

On December 2, the Baker / Hamilton Trio will again visit Bird & Beckett Books. Perhaps this time Jeff can be prevailed on to do his Fuzzy Knight tribute.  One can only hope.

Until then, I urge you to visit his website and learn the truth, that he is the REAL Hamilton.  Accept no imitations.

May your happiness increase!

THE WARM SOUNDS OF BILL NAPIER (1926-2003)

Clarinetist Bill Napier might be one of the finest musicians that few people outside of California have ever heard, or heard of.  Marc Caparone says, “I only played music with him twice, but he was a god, a very quiet man who didn’t get much publicity but was always superb.”  Leon Oakley remembers him as a “warm, creative player.”  Hal Smith told me that Bill cared about the music more than “traditional” ways of playing a chorus.

Almost all of the recordings Bill made, and the live performances captured outside of the studio have him in the middle of six or seven-piece units.  What I now can share with you here is intimate, touching music, with Bill the solo horn in a congenial trio.

The personnel of these live recordings is Napier, clarinet; Larry Scala, banjo; Robbie Schlosser, string bass.  They were recorded on August 8, 1994, outdoors at Stanford University, by Dr. Arthur Schawlow, who won the Nobel Prize (with others) for his work on the laser beam.  Dr. Schawlow not only liked jazz, but was an early adopter of high-tech: Larry says that he recorded these performances on a digital recorder, the first one he had ever seen.

Here are five delicious chamber performances, beginning with ALL MY LIFE.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

I’M CONFESSIN’:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

IF I HAD YOU:

and a masterpiece:

Napier’s sound comes in the ear like honey.  He never plays a superfluous note; he honors the melody but in the most gentle supple way.  It is rather as if he were leaning forward, softly saying something heartfelt that was important to him and that he knew would uplift you.  Beauty and swing without affectation.

Before we move on to precious oral history, a few words about one of the other members of this trio.  After you have bathed in the liquid gold of Napier’s sound, listen once again to the very relaxed and gracious banjo playing of Larry Scala. Like Napier, he understands melodic lines (while keeping a flexible rhythm going and using harmonies that add but never distract).  Banjos in the wrong hands can scare some of us, but Larry is a real artist, and his sound is a pleasure to listen to.  (You can find examples of his superb guitar work elsewhere on this blog.) And this post exists because of his generosity, for he has provided the source material, and Larry’s gift to us is a great one.  Music to dance to; music to dream by.

I asked California jazz eminences for memories of Napier, and this is some of what people remembered.  Bill was obviously A Character, but everyone I asked was eager to praise him, and you’ve heard why.

From Hal Smith: I was going through tapes in the archive of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation. One tape had several of the bands which performed at the Clancy Hayes benefit at Earthquake McGoon’s in May of 1970. Napier led a band for the occasion. I heard him get onstage, walk to the mic and say “Here we are!” Then, a couple of seconds later, “Where ARE we?”

By the way, Bill’s real name was James William Asbury.  I’m not sure how it got changed to “Bill Napier.”  When he would tell stories about his youth, or time in the Army, he always referred to himself as “little Jimmy Asbury.”

Bill told me about the clarinetists he admired, including Jimmie Noone and Jimmy Dorsey. He also liked Albert Nicholas and went to hear him at Club Hangover in San Francisco. He asked to sit in, but was turned down. As he described it, “I asked Albert Nicholas if he needed any help and he said he didn’t think so.”

Bill was the original clarinetist with Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band. He left the group following Jack Sohmer’s mean-spirited review of Schulz’s CD which was published in The Mississippi Rag. After that, whenever Schulz would ask if Bill was available to play a gig, Bill would say, “No. Jack Sohmer may be in the audience.”  Before he left the Schulz band, we played a concert at Filoli Mansion outside San Francisco. M.C. Bud Spangler asked each musician to explain why they play music for a living. There was a wide range of responses, but Bill’s was the best: “Well, I have to pay my taxes!”

From Clint Baker:  Bill Napier was a bit of a prodigy, as a teenager he was playing at the Dawn Club as part of a young band that was one of the substitute bands for the wartime Yerba Buena Jazz Band.  By the late 40’s he was working with Wingy Manone in San Francisco. He went on to have a couple of stints with the Turk Murphy band and also with Bob Scobey, a band for which he was better suited for sure. He later worked with all the better bands around here; he was not all that interested in playing music on the road and kept close to home for the most part after the Fifties.

I encountered him many times when I was coming up.  He was always the consummate sideman, and always played with great imagination; he had the most amazing tone, liquid would best describe his.  But he NEVER ran out of ideas, he was a wellspring of original musical thought. If he did fall back on a device such as quote, it was always the most obtuse thing one could come up with.

Bill was one of the only players I ever played with who perfectly combined the elements of swing clarinet and New Orleans style clarinet; he all at once sounded like Goodman or Shaw or Simeon or Bigard.  He was hip to all of it and could combine all of the musical DNA of those styles in to his own rich sound. I remember speaking with him about to old masters and he told Simeon was one of his main favorites.  BUT he was truly his own man with the richest of musical imaginations.  I was always honored to work with him, and wish I had had more chances, but the times I did, I cherish. You knew when you were on the bandstand with him you were in the presence of greatness.  Bill was a master.

From Paul Mehling: I worked with him for nearly thirty years in a trio of bass, guitar, and clarinet, and he is on two of our CDs.  He was very shy, quiet, and private. He loved his two (or more?) cats. He and his wife would take the two cats camping and one year when it was time to leave they couldn’t find one of their cats. They called and called but feared he’d been abducted or eaten so they drove home very sad. Next year, they went camping again, same spot/campground. Guess who showed up!  They were overjoyed.  He never really believed how much I loved his playing and all I aspired to at that time was to be GOOD ENOUGH TO SHINE HIS SHOES (musically). I used to try to get into his head during each song and try to give him the kind of rhythm that he’d be most comfortable with.

I was 18 when I first played a full gig with him, but I first met him at the Alameda County Fair when I was 16, long-haired, and didn’t know anything about music but had enough gumption to drag my acoustic guitar into the fairgrounds and find those guys- Lueder Ohlwein, banjo; maybe Ev Farey, trumpet; for sure Bob Mielke, trombone, was there and probably Bill Carrol on bass.  They said Do you know any songs?” I said “Sure, whaddabout Avalon and I Got Rhythm,” and probably one other song.  I played, they liked it, and a few years later Napier remembered me!

He and I bonded early on over comedy. He liked how often I quoted Groucho. We had a shared love for bad puns:
Napier: “Let’s play the suspenders song.”
Me: “ What song is that?”
Napier: “It all depends on you.”
Me: “What?”
Napier : “It hold de pants on you.”

Napier: “You like to golf?”
Me: “Uh, no. You?”
Napier: “No, I never wanted to make my balls soar.”

We’d come up with all manner of re-titling songs to keep us from feeling bad about playing background music and getting almost zero love from “audiences.”

When the Bob Scobey band did a two-year stint in Chicago, Benny Goodman used to show up just to dig on Napier’s playing (which sounded like Goodman/Bigard/Noone!

One thing for sure: the guy never did NOT swing. Never. Even a song he didn’t know. In fact, and more curious was that I could throw all kinds of (gypsy) chord substitutions at him (I didn’t know any better, I thought that’s what jazz musicians did: reharmonize everything) and he never, EVER said “No” or so much as cast an evil eye in my direction. I think the years he played with Bill Erickson at Pier 23 were his favorite years.  He didn’t speak much of Erickson, but I could just tell.

Oh, here’s the BEST story. I just remembered: we were at a swanky Sunday brunch on the Stanford Campus, near that big Stanford Mall with Bloomingdales and other stores.  We would often try to engage diners by chatting and asking if they had a request. Most people wanted to hear something from CATS (ugh). Or they wanted to hear In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.  So we went up to this table, and there’s a guy there, of a certain age. With an attractive woman half his age.  One of us said, “What would you like to hear?”
Man: “ I want to you to play “It Had To Be You” but not fast, about here- ….”(snaps his fingers indicating a medium slow tempo)
Me, aside to Napier: “Why don’t you ask MR. CONDUCTOR what KEY he’d like to SING it in?”
Napier, whispering to me: “I think MR. CONDUCTOR is MR. Getz.”
Boy, did I feel stupid: Stan Getz, doing a residency at Stanford, one of Napier’s heroes.

Obviously, a man well-loved and well-remembered.

I have foregone the usual biography of Bill, preferring to concentrate on the music for its own sake.  But here is a lovely detailed sketch of his life — unfortunately, it’s his obituary, and here is another week’s worth of rare music — Napier with bands — provided thanks to Dave Radlauer.  There are more trio performances, also.

Now, go back and listen to Napier play.

May your happiness increase!

BEWARE OF THE BIG BAD DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE

from Martha Stewart, of course

 

If this song is known at all in this century, it is justifiably because of this version:

That’s Shirley Temple in the 1934 film BRIGHT EYES.  The song is by Richard A. Whiting, music, and Sidney Clare, lyrics, as the UK sheet music notes.

I had had only the vaguest sense of the song as a cross between BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN and another “Please go to sleep, child!” lullaby-lament. Listening to the verse brought new insights: Shirley as aviator — perhaps modeling herself on Amelia Earhart? — which makes the scene in the film take place on an actual plane rather than a bus, very “moderne” for 1934. Wikipedia, whether accurate or not, notes that the airplane is “a taxiing American Airlines Douglas DC-2.”  That Shirley doesn’t want a dolly to be a mommy to but rather sees herself as a pilot is a very cheering example of female empowerment. Women had earned pilot’s licenses early on (Bessie Coleman, in 1921, was the first African-American woman to do so) and one Helen Richey was a commecial co-pilot in 1934, but the first American commercial pilot — “the first woman captain,” Emily Howell Warner, did not begin her routes until 1973.  And, yes, I looked this all up online.

LOLLIPOP would have remained nothing more than a candied fossil in my memory.  (I have taught Toni Morrison’s lacerating novel THE BLUEST EYE for years now, where Shirley is the looming symbol of oppressive white beauty: although some of my students say they know her, I wonder how many are aware of this song.)

But thanks to Marc Caparone, I can share with you a frolicsome version of the song, airborne in its own way, with a little Father / Little Boy dialogue enacted by Mr. Manone and Mr. Lamare.

Wingy Manone, trumpet, vocal; Matty Matlock, clarinet; Eddie Miller, tenor saxophone; Gil Bowers, piano; Nappy Lamare, guitar, talk; Harry Goodman, string bass; Ray Bauduc, drums; recorded March 8, 1935.

I don’t know whether Wingy and Shirley would have gotten along, but what a good record that is (Bauduc’s drums behind Miller, Wingy’s eccentric happiness) — but neither version gives me a bellyache.  Jazz history has done a good job of ignoring Wingy (although the people at Mosaic Records did not) but his recorded legacy is at the same level as Fats Waller’s and Henry “Red” Allen’s.

And I wonder how contemporary hot jazz bands would do with this song.

May your happiness increase!

OUT OF TOWN, FOR THE BEST REASONS (July 25-29, 2017)

Last week I left my comfortable suburban burrow to travel to what turned out to be a very rewarding city:

No, JAZZ LIVES has not gone country.  Rather, I came down for a record date featuring these fellows.

Marc Caparone, cornet; Steve Pikal, string bass; Danny Coots, drums; Brian Holland, piano;  Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor (rear); myself (front); Derek Garten (recording engineer). Photograph by Amy Holland.

and, just because it exists, another photograph:

This session was to create a CD — their debut on disc — of the Holland-Coots Quintet, a group that had already appeared with great success at the Durango Ragtime Festival.  Here — with videos captured by Judy Muldawer — is my post about this glorious band.  I spent two happy days in the studio — a place of music, insights, deep feeling, and laughter, overseen by the masterful engineer / all-round whiz Derek Garten — as the band made magic happen, song after song.

The theme of the CD (which doesn’t yet have a title) was the music of Fats Waller, and the music associated with him.  Experienced listeners know that people have been paying tribute to Fats for more than eighty years now, which means they were doing it at the same time HE was doing it, if that logical turn isn’t too annoying.  (Think of Bob Howard and Putney Dandridge, and later Pat Flowers and Johnny Guarnieri.)

But many musicians and bands (1934 to the present!) have taken the easy way out, walking off with the most obvious superficial mannerisms: stride piano at a fast tempo, a half-dozen Waller phrases thrown in at random, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, YOUR FEETS TOO BIG, the illusion of eyebrows moving up and down in time, ad-libs that are no longer improvised, and so on.  The most studied tributes have a trumpet player who has studied Autrey, a reed player deep into Sedric, and if the budget allows, an acoustic guitarist who has done post-doctoral in Casey.

Add gestures, stir lightly, and you have a recognizable product that people who don’t know the musicians will pick up off the table, and, with luck, purchase. Microwave-Fats.

This CD is fresh, not frozen.  It captures Fats’ deep soul in all its aspects.

This quintet rejected shallow caricature in favor of music that is light-hearted but full of feeling, swinging without artifice.  For one thing, song choices that showed a deep understanding of Fats and his world.  A few volcanic explosions (MINOR DRAG, I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU), a nod to a classic Waller-Razaf standard (KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW), one to James P. Johnson (IF I COULD BE WITH YOU),  some Fats songs that don’t get played (MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’, THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL, LONESOME ME, LIVER LIP JONES), several from the early, dewy Rhythm sides (WHOSE HONEY ARE YOU, I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES, I’VE GOT MY FINGERS CROSSED), and a romantic ballad — Fats was a deep romantic — composed by Russ Columbo and two people I’d not heard of, and gorgeously sung by Evan, LET’S PRETEND THAT THERE’S A MOON, which is my new favorite recording.

The music is sincere but never self-consciously so; no one is “acting” a part, but in Roswell Rudd’s words, they are playing their personalities.  I will let you know more about the CD as it comes up to the surface, ready to be bought and loved.

I can’t share the music from the CD with you: that will come in due course.  (I will be writing about the new Holland-Coots duet CD, SWINGIN’ FOR THE FENCES, soon.)  But I have something to enthrall and delight.  I’d asked Brian if he and the band would consider, when the session was over, performing something for my camera, so that I could share it with the JAZZ LIVES audience as a token of generosity (the band’s) and a hint of things to come.  It’s ragtime via the DeParis Brothers’ band, RUSSIAN RAG, and it’s a wow:

Festival producers, take note!

(The sound of the video is captured by the RODE microphone on top of my camera; the CD’s sound is light-years better, but I wanted people to hear this joyous expert outburst now.)

Blessings and gratitude to Danny, Brian, Marc, Evan, Steve, Derek, Kimberly C, Bella C, Hannah C, Amy G, Amy H, Cheryl P, Rona from Waffle House, and Miss Rose from Kroger — not only for the music but for the encompassing warmth.

May your happiness increase!

“JUST LIKE 1943, ONLY BETTER”: AT THE BOOTLEGGERS’ BALL! with CLINT BAKER, MARC CAPARONE, ROBERT YOUNG, DAWN LAMBETH, JEFF HAMILTON, MARTY EGGERS, BILL REINHART, RILEY BAKER (July 15, 2017)

I couldn’t make it to the Bootleggers’ Ball (I’ve supplied the apostrophe, if anyone wants to know) in San Francisco on July 15, 2017, because they haven’t perfected Swing Teleportation yet — or if they have, it’s out of my price range for now — but JAZZ LIVES’s readers are well-covered.

First, Clint Baker’s Golden Gate Swing Band was in charge: Clint, trombone and vocal; Marc Caparone, trumpet; Dawn Lambeth, vocal; Robert Young, saxophone and vocal; Jeff Hamilton, piano; Marty Eggers, string bass; Bill Reinhart, guitar; Riley Baker, drums.  RaeAnn Berry was on the case, possibly in the second balcony, shooting video, which I can now share with you.  I also knew that things would go well with Lori Taniguchi at the microphone and (unseen but sending out swing vibrations) Brettie Page on the dance floor.

My title is my invention: that is, everything in this band is beautifully in place in ways that connect to the jazz paradise we love — but the music is better, because it is created and accessible in the here and now.  I love blue-label Decca 78s with surface noise, but we’re also living in 2017, and Miniver Cheevy’s life in swingtime is not I one I think is a good model.

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (with the delightful Dawn Lambeth, whose phrasing is a model of swing elegance):

I WANT A LITTLE GIRL (at a nice tempo, with riffs, no charge):

LINGER AWHILE (I feel Harry Lim, Fred Sklow, Jack Crystal, and Milt Gabler grinning):

MILENBERG JOYS (with the Palme du Joy to Messrs. Caparone and Hamilton — but the whole band is a marvel.  During the outchorus, the spice jars in my kitchen were swinging.):

IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE (Dawn eases us into the moral lesson: lying and romance don’t mix: and what an easy tempo for this!)  And by the way, was that Dicky Wells who just walked in?:

And that nifty Ellington blues, SARATOGA SWING:

Making the most of a documented meteor shower, Dawn sings STARS FELL ON ALABAMA:

They sparkle!  They bubble!  (Dawn sings THEM THERE EYES):

Care for an extended ocean voyage on the S.S. ROMANTIC CAPTIVITY? Dawn sings ON A SLOW BOAT TO CHINA:

JOE LOUIS STOMP (with an unexplained shriek at 2:57, echoed by quick-thinking Maestro Hamilton.  I hope it was a shriek of delight):

MY BUDDY (sung by ours, Robert Young):

DIGA DIGA DOO (for Lips Page and Specs Powell — some Krazy Kapers there, too, as mandated by moral law):

I like Dawn’s reading of Mercer’s optimism: “DREAM . . . and they might come true”:

A dozen performances are still yours to watch here. “Mighty nice,” as we say.

May your happiness increase!

ON BLUEBERRY HILL

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

I fell in love with him when I was 9.  He broke my heart when I was 14, and he died when I was 19.  I forgave him for both things, although it took a long time. We lived perhaps twenty miles apart, although I only visited his house after he had been gone for many years.

In the suburban house I grew up in, my mother, Toby, sang along with Barbra Streisand while dusting.  My father, Louis, a short man with black-framed eyeglasses, felt music deeply and brought home unusual records for us.  One was this Louis Armstrong record.  I fell in love.

Falling in love is not a rational action: Cupid gives us no choice.

Unlike the glossy women in glossy magazine advertisements I fantasized about, Louis Armstrong was not a conventional Love Object, but a stocky, sweating older man in a tuxedo, glimpsed at intervals on the television screen. But his music spoke to my heart, and now life “Before Louis” seems indistinct.

My fifth-grade classmates chattered happily about the Beatles and I tried to join their party.  But in secret, I retreated to my nest of books and records, staring at the cloth grille of the speaker and the black-and-silver or red labels of the records.  “I found my thrill / On Blueberry Hill.”  “No one to talk to / all by myself / no one to walk with / but I’m happy on the shelf.”

Louis gave himself utterly to the music without self-consciousness.  His trumpet was eloquent, daring.  I delighted in the final chorus of his 1927 record of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE.  That this was “old music” ignored by my peers only added to the secret pleasure.  When he sang love ballads, his yearning or exultation filled the room, with no shame or embarrassment.

I tried to emulate him.  On a borrowed trumpet, I attempted WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN.  The saints, sadly, were unimpressed and stayed put. I was the least accomplished trumpet player in the elementary school band.  The band director suggested I practice more before returning.  I knew what that meant.

My fifth grade teacher asked the class to write about a dream or to create and illustrate a story.  I knew better than to tell Mrs. Blumenthal my dream of the naked woman with the lion face.  But I had no reservations about describing my playing SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH next to Louis on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.  I drew the stage, red velvet curtains, myself next to Louis, our horns aloft.  In dreams I had stature, and no one could remove me from the band.

In 1967, when I was fourteen, I read in Newsday that Louis and All-Stars were playing at an auditorium in Hempstead, seven miles away.  Intent, devoted, I made it clear that I had to be there, stating that I would walk there and back in the dark if necessary, so my father accompanied me, protecting his fragile son.

We arrived too early and sat on metal folding chairs, two people in a large hall empty of others.

Louis entered the hall, chatting with his musicians.  “There he is,” my father said.  “Go get his autograph.”

Before the concert, I had agonized over what totem to bring for this moment, the encounter I dreamed of.  What would best show my admiration and adoration?  Frozen in uncertainty, I had taken only a blank index card, which I offered, awestruck and mute, to the man who had no idea how important he was to me.  I had imagined an Olympian figure, radiantly backlit, grinning as he always did onstage.  The real man in front of me seemed small, deflated, even bored.  He signed the card and returned it, saying nothing to me, continuing to speak with his musicians.

Stunned, feeling unworthy, I asked his trombonist to autograph the card, then returned to my seat, invisible. I heard the concert through a loud hum of painful self-criticism.  I kept the story to myself.  I framed the signed card but could not bear to hang it.

Had Louis said to me, “Hey, Pops, you dig my music?” it would have been a gift I would prize forever.  Years later, I part-understood that he had enough to do to play and sing, to get ready to be the man who gave us his essence night after night.  Now I think that expecting him to be telepathic was too much.

Though I had felt stung and ignored in that moment, I continued to follow Louis on television and radio, to collect more records, a devotion that continues to this day.  Each new performance was thrilling; familiar ones revealed new shifts of light: I understood him more as a galactic phenomenon within a human body.

In adolescence, I was compelled to see myself as an outsider, and I silently recreated Louis as a model, uniquely freakish, endearingly individualistic.  I had taken on the expected regalia of the late Sixties, long hair, floral shirt, bell-bottom trousers, but the clothing felt like a uniform I was expected to wear as a foot soldier of Officially Sanctioned Nonconformity.  True subversion was in taking as my hero a man who wiped his sweating face with a handkerchief, who referred to himself as “Satchmo.”  Cheerfully, he seemed to encourage me, “It’s OK to be different.  Have a good time!”  Telling a skeptical classmate that I preferred Louis’ BLACK AND BLUE to anything on the radio was my open radicalism.

Louis died on this date in 1971.  I thought I would have no more opportunities to show my love, nor he to see it.  But after his death I slowly remade myself, moving from Invisible Boy, silent and timid, to Visible Man, wearing my unusual devotion proudly.  A few years later, at jazz concerts, I met other subversives who conversed in code.  “Do you have the German issue with the second take?  Isn’t it wonderful?  I’ll make you a cassette copy.”  “Are you coming next Sunday?  Bobby Hackett will be playing . . . !”  The mocking voices of the uninitiated were loud, “Do you really like that cartoon music?” “Why do you listen to those scratchy records?”  But I felt that our community would shield us.

In my twenties, I grew secure enough to speak to the players I most admired – Ruby Braff and Jo Jones among them – and they spoke to me and saw me.  Now, decades later, I am proud that musicians who revere Louis as I do greet me by name when I come into the club.

Like any satisfying romance, this tale has several endings.

Forty years after that fateful concert, the Armstrong scholar (and angel) Ricky Riccardi told me that Louis was in the middle of a full-fledged bout with pneumonia when I saw him and was not himself.  That fact, and the passage of time, made me feel that it was time to release myself from the old wound.  I have written this piece and offered it in public to forgive Louis for making me invisible.  In doing so, I have also tried to forgive myself for bungling my one chance to show him how much I loved him.  I stood silent in front of him, but I am not silent now.

My dream of playing his music rather than simply listening to it was long dormant but did not die.  A dear friend and inspired trumpet player, Marc Caparone, gave me a beautiful vintage cornet.  When I took it out of its case, I blew the opening phrase of a song Louis had recorded in 1932.  Half of the notes were wrong; my tone was rough, but it was satisfying, a direct link to the red curtains of my fifth-grade dream. In post-retirement life I aspire to be the substitute cornet player in the Elderly Gentleman’s Monday Night Jazz Band, location TBA.  Even to have a cornet in my living room is a kind of fulfillment.

In 2011, nearly fifty years after I fell in love with Louis, I volunteered to be a docent at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  There I could demonstrate my love, my high fidelity, and willingness to serve the ideals he so joyously represented.  From the upstairs suburban bedroom of my childhood, I had arrived at another such room, and for a few months I could act on my love for the man, in his house.  I could show people the bed where Louis and his wife made love, where he died.  Part of the tour had me show visitors photographs.  In one, a short, stocky, brown-skinned man with black-framed glasses smiles broadly in his den.  That man looks remarkably like my father, who shaped my life through music.  Recent photographs show me as continuing the bodily lineage, my eyeglasses the least of it.

By his generous example, Louis Armstrong showed me that my life’s work was to spread joy.  I hear him now, “Though we’re apart, I follow you still.”

May your happiness increase!