Tag Archives: Marian McPartland

A FEW WORDS FOR “CLEVELAND JAZZ LEGEND,” PIANIST HANK KOHOUT (1923-2006)

The jazz world is full of Stars — the people who attract crowds, who get five-star reviews and adoring press.  But those of us who have been around for more than sixteen bars know that not every excellent musician becomes a Star.  There is that really superb singer in a small town who refuses to travel; the guitarist who doesn’t want to record or to be on YouTube, the musicians who don’t end up in this or the other alphabetical reference of Famous Musicians.  The locals know these people, and the musicians who travel from town to town know and admire them also.

Cleveland’s Theatrical Grill and owner “Mushy” Wexler: home to pianist Hank Kohout.

One such excellent musician who’s hardly known is pianist Hank Kohout, whose professional career spanned more than forty years.  If you hadn’t heard him in person, you missed your chance, because he left us in 2006, just before his 83rd birthday.  Some months ago, his brother Jerry found me and asked if I’d heard of Hank.  I hadn’t — but I certainly had heard of guitarist Bill De Arango, Red Norvo, Harry James, and Bobby Hackett.  And before Hank had turned twenty, he was praised in DOWN BEAT as a promising newcomer.

Jerry’s note to me suggests that not only was Hank a splendid musician but a fine person to have in your family: I miss him on a daily basis . . . . I can’t say he was the best, but he certainly could hold his own and would not embarrass himself.  I’ve listened to my fair share of piano men in my time, and I’ll describe him in this way.  In my full time job I traveled quite a bit, and if there was a piano player to be found, I would more often than not find him.  In many cases, I would not stay long, and rarely would I find someone who would captivate my time and attention, and who actually understood my requests (usually Little Rock Getaway was way out of their league) — conversely, they would come in to hear my brother . . . and stay till closing.  

After his passing, I found no less than 40 autographed photos, most with glowing remarks from the likes of Eddie Heywood, Teddy Wilson, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Durante, Bobby Hackett, etc.

Here’s an informal sample of Hank — his playing strongly melodic, his harmonic understanding subtle yet deep, admiring but not copying Teddy Wilson.

And the full story can be found in this beautifully detailed piece on Hank from “Jazzed in Cleveland,” written by Joe Mosbrook in 2005:

For more than 60 years, Hank Kohout has been one of Cleveland’s leading jazz pianists. He is probably best remembered for playing with the Bob McKee Trio, the house band at the Theatrical Grill on Vincent Avenue, for 17 years, but Hank also played with some of the giants of jazz on New York City’s famous 52nd Street, with leading big bands, and with network broadcast orchestras as well.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Kohout graduated from West Tech High School and studied classical music for ten years before he was exposed to jazz. “One day,” he recalled, “I heard Teddy Wilson play piano and suddenly asked myself, ‘What took me so long?’” He quickly dropped classical music. “I listened to Teddy’s records.” he said, “and tried to copy what he was doing. Teddy was a very clean player and that’s what I like to hear; I like to hear every note nice and clear.”

In 1939, after studying classical music for ten years, teenager Kohout immersed himself in jazz, playing everywhere he could. “There were a lot of people playing jazz in Cleveland at that time,” he said, “and they used to have jam sessions which I attended. I learned a lot just sitting in.” During some of those jam sessions, Hank met and played with an amazing young guitarist from Cleveland Heights who had gone to Ohio State University. “Bill de Arango called me,” Hank recalled, “and wanted to put together a trio. We started playing at some of the nightclubs on Short Vincent.

Eventually the trio went on the road. One day in Indiana, Hank ran into a friend who was playing with the Red Norvo band and said Red was looking for a piano player. “I decided to take a crack at it,” said Hank. “I left the trio and went to New York.” He auditioned for the vibraphonist and bandleader, got the job, and began to tour with the Norvo big band.

They played the theatre circuit including the Palace Theatre in Cleveland. On the bill with the Norvo band were such entertainers as comedian Jimmy Durante, singer Mildred Bailey, and dancers Step ‘n Fetch It. But the Norvo big band was not a huge success. “When we got back to New York,” said Kohout, “the war broke out and the band broke up. We put together a sextet which we took into the Famous Door.”

The Famous Door was one of the jazz clubs along New York City’s fabled 52nd Street where every night for years the top jazz artists were performing. Clevelander Kohout found himself right in the middle of the action. He said, “Red hired Shorty Rogers on trumpet, Eddie Bert on trombone, Aaron Sachs on clarinet and Specs Powell was the drummer. We had Johnny Guarnieri’s brother Leo playing bass with us. And Red and myself.”

When the Norvo Sextet broke up, Kohout continued playing on 52nd Street. In 1942, he was playing piano in the house band down the street at the Three Deuces. The other members of that house band were Powell and bassist Milt Hinton. They regularly backed such saxophonists as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Flip Phillips and Georgie Auld. Looking back, Hank smiled and admitted, “That was pretty fast company!”

In the early 1940s, there were still seven jazz clubs concentrated on New York’s 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Top jazz musicians seemed to be almost everywhere on “the street.” Kohout said, “That was an era that will never be duplicated again. There were a whole bunch of clubs and at any given time they had some of the best music in the world by some of the best players.”

For several weeks, Kohout substituted for native Cleveland pianist Al Lerner, playing with the Harry James Orchestra, including an engagement at New York’s Paramount Theatre. He also played briefly with the Bobby Byrne big band. But, he decided to leave New York City in 1943.

“I left because they were looking for a piano player in Cleveland,” he said. “I came back to Cleveland and auditioned for a job with the WHK studio orchestra.” The orchestra, led by Willard Fox, was doing regular radio broadcasts from Cleveland to about 300 stations of the Mutual network. Kohout played for ten years with the radio orchestra, plus six or seven years on a program called The Ohio Story on WTAM. He also did TV work in Cleveland including The Mike Douglas Show which was produced at Channel 3 for a national audience. While working the studio jobs, Kohout was also playing jazz gigs at night at a variety of clubs. He said, “I think I played about every club in town.”

Beginning in 1963, Kohout was the pianist in the house band at the Theatrical Grill for 17 years. With drummer Bob McKee and bassist Ken Seifert, he played six nights a week at the popular club that featured national jazz artists. “It got to the point,” recalled Kohout, “that some of the touring musicians came in without their groups and we would play with them, people like Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson and Doc Severinsen.” When Red Norvo came to the Theatrical, Hank pulled double-duty, playing piano with both his old boss’ group and with the McKee Trio. When Jimmy and Marian McPartland played at the Theatrical, Hank joined Jimmy’s group for several numbers and then sat side-by-side with Marian, playing four-handed piano. Newspaper reports said It brought down the house.

Mushy Wexler, who ran the Theatrical, liked traditional jazz and hired a lot of dixieland bands. Kohout remembered Wilbur de Paris, Billy Maxted, Jonah Jones and many others. “There were so many that I can’t remember them all.”

The Theatrical, Cleveland’s leading night spot for more than 50 years, attracted a wide variety of customers. They included politicians, lawyers, newspaper people, and sports figures. Hank said, “We had them all, clergy sitting next to guys in the Mafia. We had strippers. They were all there and they were like family.”

Kohout finally left the Theatrical in 1979 after Wexler died and the music policy changed. The club stopped presenting live jazz in 1990 and closed a few years later. “If Mushy had lived another ten or twenty years,” said Kohout, “it wouldn’t have changed at all. It would still be today like it used to be.”

Kohout, now 81 and living quietly in Parma, teaches a little, but he is not playing piano very much. He said, “I have Parkinson’s now and it hasn’t helped my playing at all. I get disgusted. I can still do it, but if I can’t do it the way I want to do it, I don’t want to do it.”

Like his early idol, Teddy Wilson, Kohout always played with a clean, pure technique. Performing in almost every musical style, the native Clevelander, who has been heard and appreciated by millions, is still remembered as a piano player’s piano player.  

Jerry also sent me an informally-recorded sample of his brother in his native habitat, obviously enjoying himself and making the audience happy.  I hear a witty, playful synthesis of Wilson, Tatum, Hines, and others — fused in a gracious individualistic style.

What’s the moral to this tale?  People who don’t go on the road or make records, who aren’t “known,” can really play and should be acknowledged for their talent.

May your happiness increase!

HOLY RELICS, BEYOND BELIEF (Spring 2020 Edition)

The eBay seller “jgautographs,” from whom I’ve purchased several marvels (signatures of Henry “Red” Allen, Rod Cless, Pee Wee Russell, Pete Brown, Sidney Catlett, among others) has been displaying an astonishing assortment of jazz inscriptions.  I haven’t counted, but the total identified as “jazz” comes to 213.  They range from “traditional” to “free jazz” with detours into related musical fields, with famous names side-by-side with those people whose autographs I have never seen.

As I write this (the early afternoon of March 21, 2020) three days and some hours remain.

Here is the overall link.  Theoretically, I covet them, but money and wall space are always considerations.  And collectors should step back to let other people have a chance.

The signers include Benny Carter, Betty Carter, Curtis Counce, Jimmy Woode, Herb Hall, Bennie Morton, Nat Pierce, Hot Lips Page, Rolf Ericson, Arnett Cobb, Vernon Brown, Albert Nicholas, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Sammy Margolis, Ed Polcer, Ed Hall, Billy Kyle, Sam Donahue, Al Donahue, Max Kaminsky, Butch Miles, Gene Krupa, Ray McKinley, Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, Arvell Shaw, Barrett Deems, Buck Clayton, Babs Gonzales, Benny Bailey, Joe Newman, Frank Wess, Pharoah Sanders, Kenny Burrell, Reggie Workman, Stanley Turrentine, Louis Prima, Wayne Shorter, Tiny Bradshaw, Harry Carney, Juan Tizol, Bea Wain, Red Rodney, Frank Socolow, Bobby Timmons, George Wettling, Roy Milton, Charlie Rouse, Donald Byrd, Kai Winding, Kenny Drew, Kenny Clarke, Steve Swallow, Shelly Manne, Frank Bunker, Charlie Shavers, Ben Pollack, Jess Stacy, Ron Carter, Bob Zurke, Jimmy Rushing, Cecil Payne, Lucky Thompson, Gary Burton, Jaki Byard, Noble Sissle, Muggsy Spanier, Don Byas, Pee Wee Russell, Slam Stewart, Hazel Scott, Ziggy Elman, Buddy Schutz, Ernie Royal, Boyd Raeburn, Dave McKenna, Claude Thornhill.

And signatures more often seen, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Hoagy Carmichael, Artie Shaw, Sidney Bechet, Gerry Mulligan, Cab Calloway, Rosemary Clooney, Wynton Marsalis,Tommy Dorsey, Oscar Peterson, Billy Eckstine, Mel Torme, Chick Corea, Count Basie.

In this grouping, there are three or four jazz-party photographs from Al White’s collection, but the rest are matted, with the signed page allied to a photograph — whether by the collector or by the seller, I don’t know.  And there seems to be only one error: “Joe Thomas” is paired with a photograph of the Lunceford tenor star, but the pairing is heralded as the trumpeter of the same name.

My head starts to swim, so I propose some appropriate music — sweet sounds at easy tempos, the better to contemplate such riches, before I share a half-dozen treasures related to musicians I revere.

Jess Stacy’s version of Bix Beiderbecke’s CANDLELIGHTS:

Harry Carney with strings, IT HAD TO BE YOU:

Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Gene Ramey, Jo Jones, PRISONER OF LOVE:

Here are a double handful of autographs for your amazed perusal.

Bob Zurke:

Charlie Shavers, name, address, and phone number:

Lucky Thompson, 1957:

Jimmy Rushing, 1970:

Harry Carney:

Juan Tizol:

Bill Coleman:

Buck Clayton:

Hot Lips Page (authentic because of the presence of the apostrophe):

Joe Sullivan:

Don Byas:

George Wettling:

Frank Socolow:

Benny Carter (I want to see the other side of the check!):

And what is, to me, the absolute prize of this collection: Lester Young, whom, I’m told, didn’t like to write:

Here’s music to bid by — especially appropriate in those last frantic seconds when the bids mount in near hysteria:

May your happiness increase!

LIGHT-HEARTED MELODIC DANCES: ALEX LEVIN TRIO, “A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE” (ALEX LEVIN, PHIL ROWAN, BEN CLINESS)

I gravitate towards music that welcomes me in.  I approve of melodies.  I even love them, and I love those that I remember.  There!  I’ve said it.

And the pianist Alex Levin has the same affectionate relations with song: he’s not a prisoner of the written notes, but he respects what the composer has created, and his own original compositions have the gamboling pleasure of the great songs that some of us still hum in the car or in the grocery-store line.

I first heard (and heard of) Alex almost a decade ago, when he released his first CD, which I liked a great deal: you can read my review here.

And I like Alex’s new CD even more.

Here’s what I wrote, offhandedly, after hearing only two or three tracks through my computer’s speakers.

Some ninety years ago, jazz began to position itself as the delinquent of music.  In opposition to all those sweet bands with violins, playing the melody in harmony, tied to the notes in front of them, jazz took a puff on its Marlboro, abruptly stood up from its seat (frightening the kittens) and made unpredictable sounds.  That was HOT, a spiritual barrage against the apparent dullness of SWEET.  And jazz listeners followed the narrow often unmarked ideological path: think of all those 78s whose grooves remain black, shiny, unplayed except for the eight bars of Bix or Purvis or Jack.  Sweet was for Aunt Martha; hot was for rebellious enlightened  outsiders.  It created a pervasive false dichotomy: if you could hear the melody, was it true improvisation? 

And — to oversimplify (because Bird and Trane could play melodically with great art) jazz aimed at abstraction, sharp edges and magical paths into the labyrinth.  Thus, so many listeners tell themselves and others that they don’t understand jazz, as if  it became a subject one had to study for to pass the final.

But the great players and singers knew and still know that melody is at the heart of any musical expression, and that “sweetness” was, in itself, a goal rather than a trap.  Think of Lester Young, “I don’t like a whole lot of noise — trumpets and trombones…I’m looking for something soft. It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig?”

It is in this spirit of an apparent conservatism that becomes radical that I commend to you Alex Levin’s new trio CD, A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE, where the trio does more than glue themselves to the written notes, but they treat melodies with love and respect . . . the result being quietly affecting swing playing of the highest order.  Some might not be able to hear the lights and shadows, preferring instead the sounds of the piano dropped to the street below, but that would be their loss.

Because readers are sometimes hurried, you can hear samples, download the music, or purchase a CD here.  And I caution the unwary listener to not jump to conclusions: “It sounds too easy,” for as that great master of contemporary jazz, Ovid, was fond of saying, ars est celare artem [he recorded it for Clef], which Monk transposed into “Simple ain’t easy.”

Now back to our regularly scheduled basket of prose.

I left off there, because Life (the hussy) interfered, with her racket of parking tickets, laundry, dinner, recycling, and more — make your own list.  But I came back and listened to the CD in a sitting, my enthusiasm just as strong.

Some facts.  Alex, who has a light touch on a well-recorded piano, is accompanied — in the truest sense of the word — by the fine string bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Ben Cliness.  And they have the ease, intuitive comfort, and wit one would expect from a working band: they catch each other’s signals without having to be told to turn the page.  incidentally, I’ve seen a review of this CD calling it “modern” and “clever.”  I can’t argue with those terms, but to me it seems “heartfelt” and “playful,” which qualities are audible.

Alex has divided the repertoire on this disc between standards that, for the most part, got their greatest exposure in the Fifties: the title track (which, for those of us over fifty, has a yearning nostalgia — rather like THE THINGS WE DID LAST SUMMER — even though my adolescence came later), SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP, THE BEST THING FOR YOU (Would Be Me), WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? and I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR — which, for the purists in the audience, is a much older composition, but I would guess most memorably allied with jazz because of Sonny Rollins (although Annie Ross, Marian McPartland, and others returned to it).

And of course one could say, “There are a million piano trio recordings that draw on Rodgers, Berlin, Porter, and Kern,” but the other five tracks — all Levin originals — SWEETS, THE JETSETTERS, BLUES FOR WYNTON K., AT LEAST WE’RE TOGETHER, STROLLING THROUGH YONKERS — are strong jazz compositions on their own, with one foot delicately poised in the past, Alex not trying to hide that his heart belongs to 1956 Prestige, but moving around happily in this century.  His songs ARE songs rather than lines over slightly modified chord progressions; they have the breath of life rather than the aroma of the Xerox machine.

Convinced?  It’s music that befriends the listener, which is sometimes rare.  Hear for yourself here, and then download or purchase, as the spirit moves you.

May your happiness increase!

HANK O’NEAL CELEBRATES BOB WILBER (August 17, 2019)

Bob Wilber with the superb drummer Bernard Flegar, after their gig in Bülach, Switzerland, June 11th 2005.

Once again, it is my great privilege to have asked Hank O’Neal to talk about the people he knows and loves — in this case, the recently departed jazz patriarch Bob Wilber, whom Hank knew and recorded on a variety of rewarding projects.

But even before we begin, all of the music Bob and other luminaries (Earl Hines, Joe Venuti, Zoot Sims, Dick Wellstood, Dave McKenna, Lee Konitz, Ruby Braff, Dick Hyman, Buddy Tate, Don Ewell, Mary Lou Williams and dozens more) created can be heard 24/7 on the Chiaroscuro Channel. Free, too.

Here’s the first part, where he recalls the first time he saw Bob, and moves on — with portraits of other notables — Marian McPartland and Margot Fonteyn, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Soprano Summit, Bobby Henderson, Pug Horton, Summit Reunion, and more:

Bob’s tribute (one of many) to his wife, singer Pug Horton, from 1977, with Scott Hamilton, Chris Flory, Phil Flanigan, and Chuck Riggs:

With Kenny Davern, George Duvivier, Fred Stoll, and Marty Grosz, SOME OF THESE DAYS (1976):

Here’s the second part of Hank’s reminiscence:

and a magical session from 1976 that sought to recreate the atmosphere of the Thirties dates Teddy did with his own small bands — the front line is Bob, Sweets Edison (filling in at the last minute for Bobby Hackett, who had just died), Vic Dickenson, Major Holley, and Oliver Jackson:

Summit Reunion’s 1990 BLACK AND BLUE (Bob, Kenny Davern, Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden):

and their 1995 WANG WANG BLUES, with the same personnel:

Too good to ignore!  DARLING NELLY GRAY:

and my 2010 contribution to the treasure-chest or toybox of sounds:

Thank you, Hank.  Thank you, Bob and colleagues.

May your happiness increase!

THRILLING TERRIBLE CHILDREN, SEDATELY WELL-BEHAVED ADULTS (IN JAZZ, OF COURSE)

Consider this very truncated list: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Purvis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Jabbo Smith, Sandy Williams, Cassino Simpson, Dave Tough, Tony Fruscella, Fud Livingston, Dick McDonough, Serge Chaloff, Fats Navarro, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan.

What do they have in common?  Would you, were you a recording supervisor, hire them for a record date?  Would you hire them for your orchestra or gig?  Could you count on them to do the work asked of them?  (A hint here: as much as I revere, let’s say, Fruscella or Livingston, I wouldn’t want them driving the kids to summer camp.)

That list contains poets of the music, artistic trailblazers, instantly recognizable creators, memorable improvisers.  But it is also a list of people who didn’t show up on time or at all for the gig or has to be awakened in the middle of a song to play, people who were addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, and sex; people who had borderline personality disorder; people who stole, lied, and destroyed property; people who refused to bathe or change their clothes . . . and more.

Even if this seems blasphemous, do me the kindness to read on.

And if you proclaim that Genius must be forgiven anything because it’s Genius, I wonder how you would feel if the Genius vomited on your living room rug or stole money from you.

I suspect that most jazz fans are Apollonian (in Nietzsche’s dichotomy): they drive in the proper lane; they shower regularly; they hold jobs; they change the registration sticker on their car when the law says they must.  But, perhaps as a result, they are fascinated by the Dionysiac, the Bad Boys and Girls of Jazz, the people whose behavior is flashy, self-destructive, eccentric, illegal.

Consider this: if someone could come up with an authenticated needle used by Billie or Bird, or a piece of Bix’s mummified blue sweater, how much would those holy relics — the jazz Shroud of Turin — fetch on eBay?

Violently erratic “bad” behavior makes good copy.  How many biographies of Bix are there, as compared to his more restrained contemporaries? How many theatrical presentations “recreating” Billie are there, as opposed to the lives of other singers who drank Seven-Up?

I was motivated to write this piece because of the just-issued biography of Johnny Guarnieri, SUPERSTRIDE, beautifully written and researched by Derek Coller, depicts a good husband and father, and a craftsman, someone serious about his art even when striding joyously.

I think of others of the same general character: people who kept pocket notebooks and were thus early to gigs, who came prepared to make music, with horns that worked and a knowledge of the charts; musicians who could transpose and knew their keys; who came to the club date in appropriate, even elaborate formal wear; whose clothes were clean; who conducted themselves as professionals and whose behavior might have been placid and thus not worthy of chronicling, but who behaved as adults.

Think of Maxine Sullivan, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, Teddi King, Eddie Barefield, Al Hall, Ed Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Bennie Morton, and Buster Bailey among others: artists who didn’t use “genius” as an excuse for childishness.  Sadly, I sense a silent snobbery among jazz fans, who look down on these mature men and women because their personal lives are uneventful.  And, aside from Hinton, Wilder, and Ed Hall, how many of the artists in the list above have been properly chronicled?   Men and women who didn’t destroy themselves and others are proper figures to contemplate and admire.  Even if they are tediously busy being professional, monogamous, and sober, their lives  have much to show us.

Obviously it’s not thrilling to write about someone who does his or her job without drama, but we should be celebrating these artists as grownups.  And grownups are hard to find in any field.

Here’s music made by several grownups: musicians, classically trained who could cut the charts and swing like mad, who appear on many record dates because they were both creative and reliable: William C. Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee, coincidentally backed by Osie Johnson, drums, and that very same Johnny Guarnieri among others:

I wonder what would happen to us, as an audience, if we chose not to fetishize childish self-destructive behavior, and instead celebrated adult behavior?

Inspiration for this post is, as it often is, thanks to Sammut of Malta, whose thoughts are always inspiring.

May your happiness increase!

HOT MUSIC, GOOD STORIES, LASTING FRIENDSHIP, KINDNESSES: HANK O’NEAL RECALLS SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT (Nov. 2, 2018)

Here is one perspective on Hank O’Neal — writer, archivist, record producer, photographer, friend of Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott . . . and many jazz musicians from Willie “the Lion” Smith to Borah Bergman.  Hank is also an incredible resource and storyteller, someone I am thrilled to call a friend: reasons that Hank visits JAZZ LIVES, as he speaks with great fondness of Squirrel Ashcraft.  If you say, “Wow, Squirrel!” then you have come to the right place.  If you say, “Who IS that?” you’re also in for pleasure and enlightenment.

Hank O’Neal by Annie Tritt for the Boston Globe, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And since Hank is a masterful photographer, here is another character study, one I like even more — shot by Sherry Sereboff (2017, near Fort Worth, Texas) even better.  When I meet Hank next, I will ask what was on his plate:

I had asked Hank to speak about Squirrel for JAZZ LIVES, and the conversation began very informally, as he was paging through Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft’s scrapbook.  I just started videoing . . . with happy results — little anecdotes about sacred objects connected to Bix, Tesch, and Dick Voynow.  But for future researchers, any time someone you respect says the words, “Letters from Brad Gowans,” you know something important is being revealed:

“Who was Squirrel Ashcraft and how did I meet him?”:

Paging through Squirrel’s 1928-9 notebook, “JAZZ MUSIC,” with entries devoted to the Wolverines, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, the Georgians, Jack Pettis, Leon Roppolo, Henderson’s adaptation of RHAPSODY IN BLUE, and more:

I first learned about Squirrel through EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (a book Eddie did with Hank) and then through Squirrel’s home recordings, later issued on rare lps by . . . Hank.  Here’s the story of Squirrel’s career — about fifteen years — as an archivist of home recordings, often aluminum, including performances by Johnny Mercer, Joe Rushton, Jimmy McParland, George Barnes, Boyce Brown, Bob Zurke, Spencer Clark, Rosy McHargue, also Joe Rushton, his motorcycle, and Pee Wee Russell, and Squirrel’s later playing career in Washington, D.C., and sidelights on Jean Bach, Jimmy Dorsey, and jazz reunions at Princeton University from 1975-79:

Finally . . . Hank brings us up to date (Squirrel died in 1981, but his relics are going to a good place.  And don’t miss the story about the Bob Crosby band: Squirrel and friends obviously knew how to live:

The best part of this story, just over an hour with Hank, is his obvious affection and indebtedness to Squirrel, and Squirrel’s sweet feelings for the music and musicians.  Thank you, Hank, for making the reclusive Squirrel appear to us in this century.

And . . . because Hank is a wonderful writer, here’s his “little piece” on Squirrel from his book on pianists. Some of the stories you will have heard from the videos above, but they don’t wilt with a second telling:

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

Edwin Maurice Ashcraft III, better known as “Squirrel”, is the least known pianist in this book, but he was by far the most important to me. It all started because of two courses I’d taken at Syracuse University; one in Russian Studies and another in African Studies. The Russian Studies course ultimately led me to be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The African Studies course, particularly one taught by Eduardo Mondlane, who was later to lead and win the revolution in Mozambique, led me to the CIA’s Office of Operations, where Squirrel Ashcraft was the Director.

Though forgotten today, Squirrel was a legendary figure in the world of jazz, at least into the mid-1970s, but much can be lost and forgotten in a quarter of a century. He was, for example, the only person I knew who had heard Louis Armstrong and King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, and had known and associated with a host of other legendary players from the 1920s, who were just names in a book or music in the grooves of old records to me. He was the kind of man who could make a simple telephone call and John Hammond, Neshui or Ahmet Ertegun would welcome me warmly. The same was true of any number of musicians of a certain age, i.e. the Austin High Gang, and their musical associates or disciples.

He was the first jazz artist I ever heard perform in an informal setting, that is away from a concert hall or club, where I was a paying spectator. By that time, he was in his 60s, hadn’t played regularly for years, never had been a first rank player anyway, and now had an affliction in one of his hands that affected his dexterity. But for someone of my age, and limited experience, it was more thrilling to be standing two feet from a legendary figure in his living room than hearing a great pianist from the top balcony in Carnegie Hall.

He was also the man who first introduced me to an active jazz musician, in this case, Jimmy McPartland. Later, he would introduce me to many others, and simply because he made the introduction, I was accepted by these men and women without question.

A little background is in order. Squirrel was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1905. His family was socially prominent and well situated. In the early 1920s he discovered jazz and became as deeply involved with it as possible. He was active in Chicago in the same way John Hammond was in New York, and he met many of the up and coming young jazz musicians in that city long before they had come up, befriended them, helped them whenever possible, and continued to for years and years.

Squirrel came east in the late 1920’s and attended Princeton. He played both piano and accordion, was part of Princeton’s Triangle Club, wrote songs, recorded with the Triangle Jazz Band, was known to and played informally with such legendary figures as Bix Beiderbecke, and even corralled the elusive cornet player one night, convincing him to record with the Princeton band. It almost came off, but not quite; Bix was there when everyone fell asleep but had vanished when they woke up. He continued at Princeton, but eventually returned to Chicago in the early 1930s, and took up his post in the family law firm.

He opened his home to every jazz musician who could find their way to Evanston, and hundreds did, usually on Monday nights. The sessions at Squirrel’s featured a who’s who of whoever was in Chicago at the time. He began to record these proceedings in about 1933 and, until he left for World War II, hundreds of private discs were made, sometimes with the help of his friend John Steiner. Steiner eventually issued some of the goings-on on Paramount 78 rpm discs and later on 10” LPs.

World War II closed down the Monday night sessions; Squirrel was inducted in the U.S Navy, and assigned to naval intelligence. After the war, he returned to Chicago, his law practice, and the music and recording began again, this time on a crude tape recorder that used paper tape. The music didn’t last long, however, because in the late 1940s Squirrel was selected by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency to run its Chicago field office, and the music slowed down once again. He was so good at the CIA game, he was urged to become the Director of all domestic operations in the early 1950’s.

Squirrel accepted the challenge, closed down the house in Evanston, moved to Washington, and vanished into another world, his whereabouts unknown, except to the musicians and friends with whom he kept in touch. There were no sessions at Squirrel’s massive apartment in Washington. When I arrived on the scene in 1964, his piano sounded a bit like one from a Charles Addams’ haunted house. But that was soon to change.

Suddenly there was someone around who knew his past, and even had one of those old John Steiner-issued Paramount records to prove it. I was the junior guy in the Office of Operations, but I had immediate access to the Director because of the music. This is when I learned that love of jazz of a certain sort could cross any cultural divide, regardless of age, race, or anything else.

It didn’t take long before the piano was tuned and regulated, and informal musical gatherings began. The first was with Jimmy and Marian McPartland, and two wonderful local Washington musicians, clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney (who founded and owned Blues Alley) and guitarist Steve Jordan. Squirrel got his hands back in shape, so he could spell Marian when she wanted to relax and, just like in the old days, everything was recorded. The first “new” informal session was eventually issued as a record that was given away to anyone who wanted one. I cut my recording teeth on Squirrel’s Ampex F-44 and two Electrovoice microphones.

Listening back to the old acetate and aluminum recordings from the 1930s, Squirrel reminds me of a pianist like Frank Melrose. A great deal more passion than technique, but good enough to get the job done. He was a better than average amateur in those days, and could easily hold his own with his peers, and provide good accompaniment to A-list artists when it was required. I remember him telling me that one night the entire Bob Crosby band came out to his house for a Monday night session. The thing that pleased him most was that the first complaint was from a neighbor whose house was three blocks away. And he got to play with the band when Bob Zurke was doing something else.

Squirrel’s influence in the jazz world was not as a pianist. He was always behind the scenes and, eventually, way behind the scenes. If Eddie Condon couldn’t get a liquor license to open Condon’s; Squirrel could make the call to the right person so it could be worked out, despite the checkered past of some of the club’s owners. If a certain player were down on his luck, there would be a check in the mail. There were any number of people he supported for life. He was a safety net for many, many of the first generation of jazz musicians, and probably some of the second and third. My guess is he was a safety net for a lot of people I didn’t know about, musicians, old friends down on their luck, or even a struggling bullfighter.

After he officially retired in the late 1960’s, Squirrel spent less and less time in Washington and more time at his home in Spain. Sometimes a year would pass and I wouldn’t see him, except perhaps to see him off on either the ocean liners Michaelangelo or Rafaello, his favorite modes of transportation between New York and Spain. When in Spain, he had little time for music, but towards the end of a letter from there, dated November 12, 1969, he says, “We are listening, which we do seldom at all, to Miles’ Sketches, and I wish so very, very much that Bix could have heard it…. We think about you often. Please write the whole story.” I’m not sure I ever did, but in the 1970s, and early 1980s, he had a burst of musical energy, at least every June, for half a dozen years.

In 1975, Jack Howe liberated a funny little band, affectionately called The Sons of Bix, from cornetist Tom Pletcher. Jack was an amateur tenor saxophone player, who’d been part of the in the Princeton Triangle Jazz band with Squirrel in the 1920s. He augmented the SOBs with Princeton alumni musicians, aided by the likes of Spencer Clarke, Bob Haggart, Max Kaminsky, Maxine Sullivan and others. The band only had one certain engagement each year, to play a class reunion at Princeton. It turned out, however, the band played the reunion of the Class of 1929 or the Class of 1930, every year until at least 1982. Squirrel actually played a little piano on all the dates until 1981. I recorded the performances, which, as often as not, were presented in tents. Squirrel and Jack then chose their favorite tunes, and I arranged for a few LPs to be pressed up and distributed to the dwindling faithful. The records are often spirited, but not landmark recordings. A friendly souvenir, but little more. Much to my surprise, some of them have been listed in Tom Lord’s landmark The Jazz Discography.

In those years, if I had to be in Washington, for whatever reason, Squirrel’s Watson Place apartment was always open, whether Squirrel and his wife, Patter, were in residence or not. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Washington since 1960; but to confess, I only went back a few times after Squirrel died in 1981. The last time I was there was at the urging of his wife. She telephoned in the mid-1980s and said she was cleaning out files and had found some correspondence from me in a box of music-related junk in the back of a closet. Would I please come down and save all these found items from the trash collector? I was also urged to pick up the crank-up Victrola with the bamboo needle cutter that was now stored in the basement. I’d first seen it at an old filling station somewhere in Virginia in the mid-1960s, offered the owner $10, which he was happy to have, and had passed it on to Squirrel, so he could play his old Hot Five 78s as he played them in the 1920s, when they were fresh and new. I was happy to have it back, and it still works just fine.

I drove down, had a nice visit with Patter, and loaded all the papers, the boxes of stuff she’d found in the closet, and the old Victrola in the back of my car. I had a last look around, and never went back, but stayed in touch with Patter until she became ill and her Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where she didn’t know who I was.

When I got home after that last trip, I had a good time looking at the correspondence, the old clippings from the 1930’s and 1940s. At the bottom of the box I saved from the trash man, I found the bell of a battered cornet, with a note from Jimmy McPartland. This was all that was left of the cornet Bix had bought him, when Jimmy replaced Bix in the Wolverines. This was the kind of thing that turned up at Sqiurrel’s house. And I’ll bet things like that don’t turn up too many other places.

Squirrel Ashcraft was a kind and generous man who touched the lives of many men and women in a positive way. When he found time to touch a piano, it was equally positive. I never heard him play the blues.

May your happiness increase!

“WONDROUS THINGS”: A CONVERSATION WITH HANK O’NEAL: JUNE 12, 2018 (Part One)

Hank O’Neal and Qi, 2003, by Ian Clifford

Like many of us, I’ve been the recipient of Hank O’Neal‘s wise active generosities for decades.  I greeted each new offering of Chiaroscuro Records (this would have been starting around 1972) with hungry avidity; I went to concerts he produced at The New School; I devoured his prose and delighted in the enterprises he made happen, such as the book EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ.  The very energetic and kind Maggie Condon brought us together in this century, and I came to Hank’s office to chat and then have lunch.  And then Hank agreed to sit for my video camera to talk about a fascinating subject: George Wettling as painter and photographer.  Here are the videos and some artwork from our October 2017 session.  You will notice immediately that Hank, soft-voiced and at his ease, is a splendid raconteur, a storyteller who speaks in full sentences and always knows where he’s going.

I returned this June to ask Hank about his life in the record business — specifically, those Chiaroscuro records and compact discs I treasure, featuring Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Dick Wellstood, Kenny Davern, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Bob Wilber, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, Buddy Tate, Don Ewell, Flip Phillips, Joe Venuti, and many others.

If — unthinkable to me — you’ve never heard of Chiaroscuro Records, do us both a favor and visit here — free, streaming twenty-four hours a day.  And how bad can a website be when a photograph shows Bennie Morton and Vic Dickenson in conversation?

Part One, with stories about Zutty Singleton, Earl Hines, E. Howard Hunt, Earl Hines, John Hammond, and others:

Part Two, which touches on Don Ewell, Richard M. Nixon and Spiro Agnew, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Marian McPartland, Willie “the Lion” Smith and other luminaries:

Part Three, which begins with money matters, then touches on Ruby Braff, Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna, Buddy Tate, Dicky Wells, and Wild Bill Davison:

Hank shared forty-five minutes more of stories, which will appear in a later post.

May your happiness increase!

WARM AND SWINGING: AN EVENING WITH BILL CROW and FLIP PETERS (PROJECT 142: January 28, 2016)

BILL CROW

On January 28, 2016, I had the rare privilege of seeing / hearing / recording a duo session (under the aegis of project142) featuring the eminent Bill Crow — at 88 still a peerless string bassist, engaging raconteur, and surprisingly effective singer — and his friend and colleague, guitarist / singer Flip Peters.  (Thanks to Scot Albertson for making this all possible!)

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Here, in six parts, is that evening, one I won’t ever forget for swing, elegance, humor, feeling, and the joy of being alive, the joy of playing music.  And here is what I posted about the evening as prelude — don’t miss Flip’s beautiful words about Bill.

Bill describes his childhood immersion with music — all the way up to hearing Nat Cole for the first time:

Bill’s sings and plays SWEET LORRAINE for Nat Cole; his arrival in New York, memories of Birdland, Lester Young and Jo Jones, of Charlie Parker and Stan Getz:

More about Stan Getz, Claude Thornhill, Terry Gibbs, and the Detroit players: Billy Mitchell, Paul Chambers, Curtis Fuller (with a wicked cameo by Miles Davis) — then Bill and Flip play YARDBIRD SUITE:

Working with Marian McPartland and with Gerry Mulligan, and a swinging vocal from Flip on NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT:

Studying with Fred Zimmerman, a concert with Duke Ellington, then (in tribute to Duke) ROSE ROOM / IN A MELLOTONE:

Bill on his writing career, tales of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and a touching bonus, his vocal rendition of a forgotten 1936 swing tune, SING, BABY, SING:

I hope some person or organization, seeing these videos, says, “Let’s have Bill and Flip spend an evening with us!”  You know — for sure — that they have more music to offer and certainly more stories.  And their rich musical intimacy is wondrous.  To learn more about Bill, visit www.billcrowbass.com/.  To find out about booking the duo, contact Flip at flippeters@gmail.com or call him at 973-809-7149.  I hope to be able to attend the duo’s next recital: watch the videos and you will know why, quickly.

May your happiness increase!

HE’S JUST OUR BILL: AN EVENING WITH BILL CROW and FLIP PETERS (January 28, 2016)

BILL CROW

Bill Crow is one of the finest jazz string bassists ever.  But don’t take my word for it — hear his recordings with Marian McPartland, Jo Jones, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Al Haig, Jimmy Raney, Hank Jones, Jimmy McPartland, Manny Albam, Art  Farmer, Annie Ross, Jimmy Cleveland, Mose Allison, Benny Goodman, Cliff Leeman, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Morello, Clark Terry, Ben Webster, Jackie and Roy, Bob Wilber, Ruby Braff, Eddie Bert, Joe Cohn, Mark Shane, Jay McShann, Al Grey, Barbara Lea, Claude Williamson, Spike Robinson, and two dozen others.

Here’s Bill, vocalizing and playing, with guitarist Flip Peters on SWEET LORRAINE:

And if you notice that many of the names on that list are no longer active, don’t make Bill out to be a museum piece.  I’ve heard him swing out lyrically with Marty Napoleon and Ray Mosca; I’ve heard him lift the room when he sat in with the EarRegulars, and he plays just as beautifully on JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE as he does on a more intricate modern piece.

Bill Crow - From Birdland to Broadway

Bill is also a splendid raconteur — someone who not only has a million stories, but knows how to tell them and makes the experience enjoyable.  You should know of his book JAZZ ANECDOTES, which grew into a second volume, and his FROM BIRDLAND TO BROADWAY, a charmingly casual but never meandering autobiography.  (Like  his colleague and friend Milt Hinton, Bill is also a wonderful photographer.)

And did I mention that Bill recently turned 88?

I don’t know which of these three offerings of evidence should take precedence, but put them all together and they are excellent reasons to join in the musical pleasures offered this Thursday, January 28, 2016 — details below:

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To reiterate, thanks to www.project142.org

Thurs. – Jan. 28, 2016 – 8:00pm – 9:30 pm. – The DiMenna Center for Classical Music – NYC – Bill Crow Project 142 Concert with Flip Peters – 450 West 37th St. (between 9th & 10th Aves.) – Benzaquen Hall (elevator to 1st Floor) – Doors open @ 7:30p. – $15.00 Concert Charge @ door.

I asked the delightful guitarist / singer Flip Peters to speak about his relationship with Bill:

I first became aware of Bill Crow in the early 1960s when as a young jazz fan I heard him with Gerry Mulligan. I remember around that time reading a quip in Down Beat about bass players with bird names, Bill Crow, Gary Peacock, and Steve Swallow.

In the early 1980s, I began to read Bill’s column, “The Band Room,” in the Local 802 paper, Allegro. That column is a highlight and I turn to it first each month when I get that paper. I received a copy of his Jazz Anecdotes as a Christmas present a few years back and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I first played gigs with Bill in 2014. The first one we played on together was a Gatsby-themed party with Marti Sweet’s Sweet Music (www.sweetmusic.us). On that gig Bill doubled on bass and tuba and I was struck by his mastery of the tuba. After that we played private party gigs and some Dixieland gigs with trumpeter Tom Keegan. Then in 2015, I played on gigs with Bill in Rio Clemente’s band (www.rioclemente.com). On one of those gigs, Bill asked me to join him at Shanghai Jazz where he had been hired to speak and play for the Jersey Jazz Society. After that gig I decided that it would be a good idea to present this to a wider audience. Anyone who loves jazz would be fascinated to hear Bill recount some of his many stories, and of course to hear him play.

I am honored and thrilled to play music with Bill. He is a rare person and musician. Not only is he a virtuoso on his instruments but he is a true gentleman. When you are in his presence you can’t help but feel comfortable. When he relates his experiences, everyone present feels as though they are sharing those moments with him. And he continues to play at an extremely high level. He has truly stayed at the top of his game for many years. He maintains a busy playing schedule and plays with the energy of a young musician who possesses the experience of an elder statesman.

You can find out more about Bill at his website but I politely urge you to put the phone down, back away from the computer, and join us on Thursday night to hear Bill and Flip, in music and story.  Evenings like this are rare.

May your happiness increase!

STRENGTH, POISE, FEELING: ROBERTA PIKET, “EMANATION”

In a world where we are asked to pretend that the hologram is human, pianist / composer Roberta Piket’s music is so refreshing for its integrity and honesty. I feel that she approaches her music with that most winning openness: “Let me see what can come of it,” and the results are elating.  She has power but she isn’t angry at the keyboard or at us.  Rather, hers is a singular balance between toughness and gentleness: her music peers into the darkness without getting downtrodden and brings back light from surprising angles.

Her playing is original without being self-consciously “innovative,” and it isn’t a catalogue of familiar gestures, audience-pleasing bobs and weaves . . . there is nothing formulaic in her art.  Honoring her and our Ancestors, she pays them the best tribute, which is to sound like herself.

Her art — deep and subtle — is wonderfully on display on her new solo CD, which is (happily for us) her second solo exploration, EMANATION.

Roberta-Piket-Emanation-Cover-300x268Roberta’s chosen repertoire is for the most part recognizable — not an ego-display of one “original” after another) but she isn’t trapped by the Past.  Her evocations of Monk, Romberg, Gillespie, Arthur Schwartz, Kern, McPartland, and Hancock are both reassuring and playfully lit from within. One could play this CD for someone who “doesn’t like jazz” without causing trauma, but it is galaxies away from Easy Listening Piano For People Who Aren’t Listening.

Her two originals, the wistful SAYING GOODBYE and the sweetly curious EMANATION, are full of feeling — novellas of sound.  The CD closes with her variations on a Chopin theme . . . both a loving bow to the source and a gentle statement of her own identities.  The CD — beautifully recorded, with wonderful notes by the eminent Richie Beirach — is a fifty-minute journey into other worlds, both nearby and tantalizingly far-off.

Visit here for sound samples and ordering information and here to learn more about Roberta, her music, and upcoming gigs.

Because I know my audience is honest and trustworthy, I offer a boon for those who check out the CD and Roberta’s site (I’ll know!): music from a divine duo concert by Roberta and Lena Bloch, from February of this year, at The Drawing Room — here.  Gorgeous searching music from two modern masters.  (Learn more about Lena here.  Music and musicians like Roberta and Lena give me hope.

May your happiness increase!

“GEORGE WETTLING, MARCH 1953”

That’s written on the back of this snapshot — originally taken by drummer Walt Gifford, later held by jazz enthusiast Joe Boughton:

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I am assuming that it was taken in the Boston area, but Wettling is the main attraction.  In the great tradition, Wettling played drums for the band — caring more for that than for any extended solo, although his four-bar breaks at the end of Eddie Condon recordings (Commodore, Decca, and Columbia) are justly famous.  He wasn’t as dramatic as some of his more celebrated peers, but any group that had Wettling in the rhythm section could relax, secure that the tempo would be steady, that every accent or sound would make sense as a complementary part of the whole.

Here are two samples of George at work — atypically visible as well — along with Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Al Hall, and Eddie himself — from a 1964 television program:

and

and — nearly a quarter-century earlier, sounds only:

and

If you follow the recordings he left behind — with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Hot Lips Page, Lou McGarity, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, Muggsy Spanier, Jess Stacy, Frank Teschemacher, Frank Melrose, Boyce Brown, Paul Mares, Omer Simeon, Wingy Manone, Jimmy McPartland, Joe Marsala, Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, Pete Brown, Jack Teagarden, Joe Bushkin, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, Max Kaminsky, Danny Polo, Herman Chittison, Joe Thomas, Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Carter, Miff Mole, Brad Gowans, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, Ed Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Rod Cless, James P. Johnson, Yank Lawson, Jerry Jerome, Billy Butterfield, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Benny Morton, Jonah Jones, Errol Garner, Billie Holiday, Bujie Centobie, Red McKenzie, Chuck Wayne, Lucky Thompson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Martha Tilton, Connee Boswell, Sidney Bechet, Frank Newton, Bing Crosby, Art Hodes, Doc Evans, Bob Wilber, Tony Parenti, Charlie Parker, Ralph Sutton, Barbara Lea, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Kenny Kersey, Frank Signorelli, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Urbie Green, Marian McPartland, Stuff Smith, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Claude Hopkins, Nat Pierce, Jimmy Jones, Marty Napoleon, Buster Bailey, Shorty Baker, Tyree Glenn, Kenny Davern, and many others — you will always hear rewarding music.

May your happiness increase!

IN A RIGHTEOUS GROOVE: “THE GIRLS IN THE BAND”

I did not get to see the film THE GIRLS IN THE BAND when it had a New York screening in April 2013, but thanks to the Beloved, we saw it last night on the other coast.  It is a superb film, with much to say to everyone: you don’t have to be a jazz scholar or a student of women’s history to be pleased by the music, enlightened and heartened by the courageous and insightful women portrayed in the film, and appalled by the world in which they struggled for equality and visibility.

The music known as jazz — however you choose to define it — has cherished its reputation as free-wheeling, radical in its approach to established texts.  It  has presented itself as music played by courageous innovators for people who were willing to go beyond what was immediately accessible, aimed at the widest audience.  Much of that remains true. So it is an unpleasant irony that some people associated with jazz — including the musicians themselves — have excluded and derided artists who didn’t fit their narrow criteria for acceptance. The wrong color? Ethnicity? Sexual preference? Gender? We have made some progress in believing that you need not be an African-American from New Orleans to be “authentic,” but jazz has long been the self-declared playground of men.

Women have been accepted on the bandstand for more than the last century — as singers whose job was to sound pretty and look prettier.

But women instrumentalists and improvisers have only recently begun to gain anything but a grudging acceptance from their male peers. Lovie Austin, Dolly Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Mary Osborne, Marjorie Hyams, Melba Liston, and Vi Redd come to mind as twentieth-century pioneers, facing discrimination and rejection. “Can she play?” should have been the only question, but it often was never asked. And “all-women” bands, no matter how compelling their music, were often seen as freakish, the improvising equivalent of Dr. Johnson’s lady preacher. Sherrie Maricle and others might tell us that the situation is improving . . . but some barriers still remain.

THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, directed by Judy Chaikin and produced by Nancy Kissock, is a concise yet powerful documentary — eighty minutes of music, reportage, and vivid film memoir taken from over three hundred hours of material. It isn’t a history as such, tied to chronology, nor is it pure polemic. It is human and humane: we hear the stories of women who, early on, were intoxicated by the music and the desire to create it, then made their way into public performance — overcoming the obstacles put in their way by everyone who had a stake in keeping things the way they were: male musicians, critics, record producers, clubowners, concert promoters, and more.

Here’s the trailer, which can convey the film’s exuberance better than I can hope to:

and a second one, also worth watching:

I have to say that I am a very reluctant movie-goer. I get restless quickly; I am impatient with films that are too simple or too elusive; when a film is concerned with a subject I know well, the slightest error turns me chilly.  I thoroughly admired and enjoyed THE GIRLS IN THE BAND and encourage JAZZ LIVES readers to seek it out. The pioneering women, candid and self-aware yet unassuming, telling their stories, will stick with you long after the final credits have rolled.

The Beloved was appalled at the women’s history she had not known and entranced by the sound of Melba Liston’s trombone on a ballad. I made a commitment of my own: I bought a THE GIRLS IN THE BAND t-shirt and will add it to my fashion repertoire. Here is the film’s Facebook page.

And in the discussion that ensued, this point was made — I offer it in my own way. When we read in the popular press that a restaurant chain does not serve or employ people of a certain ethnicity or sexual orientation or religious belief, we are outraged and we do not eat there anymore.  “There are laws against such things,” we say proudly.

But when there is evidence of gender bigotry in jazz, many of us do not even see it, nor do we protest. I would not insist that a band in a club be comprised as if by census, but we should notice when the faculty at jazz studies programs is uniformly male. When a jazz camp has no women as instructors, is it because there are no competent women players? Where are the women in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?  The list is longer than I could write here.

The late Carline Ray, a shining light of the film, reminds us that if we heard a man or a woman playing from behind a curtain, we could not correctly identify the player’s gender.  Where are the “blind auditions” now common practice in symphony orchestras?

One of the ways to learn more about this chapter of history — not just women’s history — is to see THE GIRLS IN THE BAND and to encourage others to do so.  And, just incidentally, you will have witnessed a real accomplishment in film-making.

May your happiness increase!

TOMMY THUNEN, SEEN (THANKS TO MARK CANTOR)

The very diligent film historian Mark Cantor reminded me that unsung trumpeter Tommy Thunen (chronicled here)can be seen on film in the 1929 Vitaphone short, RED NICHOLS AND HIS FIVE PENNIES.  Understandably, much has been made of the short film for its hot qualities — Pee Wee Russell soloing, two vocals from Eddie Condon — but at the two-minute mark, Nichols and two other trumpeters (John Egan to his right, Thunen to his left) play an a cappella chorus of WHISPERING:

This is the sort of research we’ve relied on Mark for — and his generosity is legendary.  But you don’t have to be in the inner circle of jazz film collectors to enjoy his offerings.  In January, March, and May 2014, Mark will be offering his annual film programs at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco at 3200 California Street, (415) 292-1200.  We attended last year and found the program and Mark both equally delightful and informative. You can read more about Mark here.

January 25 – Treasures From the Archive – a potpourri of rarities from the collection.  “Join us for an evening of film clips showcasing some of the finest names in big band and small combo jazz, including many never before screened at the JCCSF. Among the artists to be featured are Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Shorty Rogers, Buddy Rich and Thelonious Monk.”

March 22 – Showtime at the Apollo – a compilation of artists and bands that appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. “The stage shows at the Apollo had it all: jazz bands and combos, vocalists, R&B, dance and comedy routines. Join us to watch clips of Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra, Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, “Moms” Mabley, The Berry Brothers, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and many more.”

May 3 – Broadway to Hollywood – jazz performances based on music from the Broadway and Hollywood musicals.  “A lot of the repertoire of classic jazz can be largely traced to the Broadway stage and Hollywood musical. Join us for an evening of film featuring jazz performances of compositions by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and many more.”

Mark says he has been digging through his treasures for these three programs and expects to offer performances by Joe Venuti, “Red” Allen All Stars, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Thelma White, Buddy Rich, Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, Stan Getz, Billy Eckstine, Yusef Lateef. John Coltrane. Nat “King” Cole, Marian McPartland . . .

The programs begin at 8 PM; tickets for non-members are $25.  Details and ordering here.

May your happiness increase!

CLIFF LEEMAN’S SOUND LIVES ON

Drummer Cliff Leeman had a completely personal and identifiable sound, a seriously exuberant approach to the music.  You can’t miss him, and it’s not because of volume.

He’s audible from the late Thirties on in the bands of Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet, then most notably in Eddie Condon’s bands, later with the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Bob Crosby reunions, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood, and Soprano Summit.  Cliff died in 1986, but his slashing attack and nearly violent exuberance are in my ears as I write this . . . including his trademark, the tiny splash cymbal he used as an auditory exclamation point.  He spoke briefly about his approach in this interview for MODERN DRUMMER magazine.

In case Cliff is someone new to you, here he is on a 1975 television program with Joe Venuti, Marian McPartland, and Major Holley, elevating CHINA BOY:

In spring 2008, Kevin Dorn and I paid a call on Irene (Renee) Leeman, his widow, then living comfortably in New Jersey.  I have very fond memories of that afternoon, hearing stories and laughing.  Until recently, I thought that those memories were all I had.  But a recent stint of domestic archaeology uncovered the small notebook in which I had written down what Mrs. Leeman told us.  Here are some of her comments and asides, shared with you with affection and reverence (and with her permission).

But first: Cliff on film in 1952 with Eddie Condon . . . the epitome of this driving music.  Also heard and seen, Edmond Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder, Bob Casey:

Some words from Mrs. Leeman to go with all those good sounds:

I first met Clifford at Nick’s.  I didn’t go there by myself, but because of a friend who had a crush on Pee Wee Erwin.

Roger Kellaway always asked for Clifford.

He wore Capezios on the job.

He had a colorful vocabulary and didn’t repeat himself.  He thought Bing Crosby was the best, but Clifford was always very definite in his opinions.

He came from a Danish-Scandinavian family where the men didn’t hug one another.

Clifford once asked Joe Venuti, “How do you want me to play behind you?” and Venuti said, “Play as if I’m five brass.”

He worked on THE HIT PARADE with Raymond Scott, who timed everything with a stopwatch, “The hardest job I ever had.”

Clifford was the drummer on Bill Haley and the Comets’ Decca recording of ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK, and when the session ended, he said, “I think I just killed my career.”

Sidney Catlett was Clifford’s idol.  Jo Jones, Ben Webster, Charlie Shavers and Clifford loved each other.  They all hung out at Hurley’s Bar, Jim and Andy’s, and Charlie’s Tavern.

Clifford played piano — not jazz, but ROCK OF AGES and MOTHER MACHREE, as well as xylophone.  And he could read music.  He was always surprised that other musicians couldn’t, and would come home after a gig and say, “Do you know _____?  He can’t read!”

Clifford was left-handed but he played with a drum kit set up for right-handed drummers.

He thought the drummer was supposed to keep the time and drive the band and pull everything together.  Clifford listened. He was fascinated with rock drummers he saw on television, and would tell me how bad they were.

“Cliff is the best timekeeper,” Billy Butterfield said.  Billy was so cute.

He loved his cymbals.

He was hard on himself, and on other people, but he loved working with Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart.  They had a good time.  They respected each other. They thought that music should be fun. Yank and Bob used to rehearse the band in Lou Stein’s basement in Bayside, New York.

Kenny Davern!  Kenny was a challenge to the world and a thinker. He was an angry young man who became an angry old man.  He and Clifford were a comedy team wherever they went.

Clifford didn’t embrace the world, and he could be abrasive if people bothered him.

Clifford played with Bob Crosby and Louis Armstrong on one of those Timex television jazz shows.  He was so proud of working with Louis you couldn’t stand it.

I have always liked musicians as a group, and never had a 9 to 5 life. Because of Clifford, I got to meet Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Gene Krupa.  In those days, rhythm sections stuck together, so I knew a lot of bass players and their wives: Milt Hinton, Major Holley, George Duvivier, Jack Lesberg.  I was lucky to have known such things and such people.  How fortunate I was!

We are all fortunate to have lived in Clifford Leeman’s century, and his music lives on.  And I thank Mrs. Leeman for her enthusiastic loving candor.

May your happiness increase!

GETTING RESPECT ON THE BANDSTAND: “THE GIRLS IN THE BAND”

The music known as jazz — however you choose to define it — has cherished its reputation as free-wheeling, radical in its approach to established texts, a music for those who knew there were worlds of experience beyond the canon.  And much of that remains true.  So it is an unpleasant irony that some people associated with jazz have been less than open in their acceptance of artists who didn’t fit their narrow criteria for acceptance.  The wrong color?  Ethnicity?  Sexual preference?  Gender?

Women have been accepted on the bandstand for more than the last century — as singers.  Even then, they were treated with condescension, mockery, derision.  “Do you know the one about the chick singer who taps at your door . . . ?”   But even the most rigidly patriarchal musicians and club owners have accepted singers as necessary parts of the Show.

But women instrumentalists and improvisers have only recently begun to gain anything but a grudging acceptance — and by that I mean acceptance from their male peers.  Lovie Austin, Dolly Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Mary Osborne, Marjorie Hyams, Melba Liston, and Vi Redd come to mind as twentieth-century pioneers, facing discrimination, subtle and overt, that should have never happened.  “Can she play?” should have been the only question, but it often was never asked.  And “all-women” bands, no matter how compelling their music, were — at best — regarded as freakish, the improvising equivalent of Dr. Johnson’s lady preacher.  Sherrie Maricle and others might tell us that the situation is improving . . . but how slowly?

Given all this, I have been looking forward to the new documentary, THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, for some time. Here is the film’s website, Facebook page, and here’s the trailer:

The film will be screening for one week, starting May 10, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, New York City.  Tickets can be purchased here.

GITB-Harlem_5Oct10

For information on this beautiful photograph — an updating and homage to Art Kane’s portrait, fifty years earlier, click here.

I hope to see you at the screening!

May your happiness increase.

ROBERTA PIKET, “SOLO”: SWEET PUNGENCY

Although others have justly celebrated her, I was unaware of pianist Roberta Piket until she sat in on a Lena Bloch gig at Somethin’ Jazz at the end of April 2012.  Then I heard the lovely, inquiring sounds that she made: she appears on the final two performances here.

ROBERTA PIKET Solo

I am even more impressed by her latest CD, called simply SOLO.

My early introductions to solo piano were, not surprisingly, based in swing: Waller, Wilson, James P., Hines, Williams, Tatum, and their modern descendants — players who appropriately viewed the instrument as orchestral, who balanced right-hand lines against continuous, sometimes forceful harmonic / rhythmic playing in the bass.  I still admire the Mainstream piano that encompasses both Nat Cole and Bud Powell, but I no longer feel deprived if I listen to a solo pianist who approaches the instrument in a more expressive way, freeing both hands from their traditional roles.  To me, James P. Johnson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE, Wilson’s DON’T BLAME ME, Tatum’s POOR BUTTERFLY, and almost anything by Jimmie Rowles scale the heights. But I know there are fresh fields and pastures new beyond those splendid achievements.  And players who are willing to explore can often take us on quite rewarding journeys.

Roberta Piket is on her own quest — although she notes that SOLO was, in some ways, a return to her own comfort zone.  But within that zone she both explores and provides comfort for us.  For one thing, her choices of repertoire are ingenious and varied: Arthur Schwartz, Monk, Strayhorn – Ellington, Bruno Martino, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Chick Corea, Marian McPartland, and Frederick Piket.

Her work surprises — but not for novelty’s sake alone — and whose variety of approaches is intuitively matched to the material she has chosen.  Some solo artists have one basic approach, which they vary slightly when moving from a ballad to a more assertive piece, but the narrowness of the single approach quickly becomes familiar and even tiresome.  SOLO feels more like a comprehensive but free exploration of very different materials — without strain or pretension, the result feels like the most original of suites, a series of improvised meditations, statements, and dances based on strikingly chosen compositions.

The first evidence of Piket’s deep understanding of line and space, of shade and light, comes almost immediately on the CD, as she approaches the repeated notes of I SEE YOUR FACE BEFORE ME with a serious tenderness reminiscent of a Satie piece, an emotion that echoes in its own way in the final piece.  (I hope Jonathan Schwartz has been able to hear this: it is more than touching.)

Then, as soon as the listener has been sweetly and perhaps ruefully lulled, two strong, almost vigorous improvisations on Monk themes follow.  Many pianists have reduced Monk to a handful of by-the-numbers dissonances; not Piket, who uses his melodic material as a starting point rather than attempting to show that, she, too, can “sound Monkish.”

Lovely songs by Strayhorn (SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR) and McPartland (IN THE DAYS OF OUR LOVE) are treated with sincerity and reverence, but Piket does far more than simply play the familiar melody and chords: her voicings, her touch, illuminate from within.  ESTATE shows off Piket’s easy versatility, as she places the melody in the bass and ornaments in the treble during the performance.  Roberta’s precise power and energetic technique are shown in the uptempo original CLAUDE’S CLAWED, Shorter’s NEFERTITI, and Corea’s LITHA — at times powerful investigations that bridge post-bop jazz and modern classical, at times a series of unanswered questions.

The disc ends as it began, with tenderness — Sam Rivers’ BEATRICE,  an easy swinger that seems light-hearted without losing its essential serious affection.  And there’s a prize.  I didn’t know about Roberta’s father, Viennese-born composer Frederick Piket (whose life and work is examined here).  Although he wrote much “serious” music — secular and religious — IMPROVISATION BLUE is a lovely “popular” song I kept returning to: its melody is haunting without being morose, and I imagined it scored for the Claude Thornhill band in a Gil Evans chart.  It should have been.

SOLO begins sweetly and tenderly and ends the same way — with vigorous questioning and exploring of various kinds in the middle.  Roberta is an eloquent creator who takes chances but is true to her internal compass, whichever way it might point for a particular performance.

You can hear some of SOLO at Roberta’s website and at CDBaby.

On Facebook: Roberta Piket’s Music and Roberta Piket.

And this January 31, you will be able to hear Roberta, the inspiring percussionist Billy Mintz (he and Roberta are husband and wife, a neat match), celebrating tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch’s birthday — with bassist Putter Smith and legendary saxophonist John Gross.  Fine Israeli food and wine are part of the party at the East End Temple.  Tickets are $18 in advance, $22 at the door; $15 for students: click here to join the fun.

May your happiness increase.

“THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS,” by JUDITH SCHLESINGER

“Has JAZZ LIVES gone crazy?” some of you might ask.  No, even though the book I offer for your consideration might seem to some to have only a tenuous connection to jazz.

But Judith Schlesinger’s new book, THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS, is immensely relevant to the mythological accretions that jazz has had foisted on it for the last century.  And the book is also immensely lively and entertaining.

Any jazz listener might list those jazz musicians celebrated for the irresistible combination of deep creativity and — to some — inevitable mental illness.  Shall we begin with Charlie Parker?  Buddy Bolden.  Then add Leon Roppolo, Cassino Simpson, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.  A quick scan of “jazz musician” “mental illness” on Google brings up Charles Mingus, Billy Tipton, Rosemary Clooney, right there alongside Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh.  Let’s not even talk about Billie Holiday, shall we?

These creative artists make good copy, and their “mental instability” has been used as modern-day evidence that Plato was right: to be creative, one must be beyond the “normal” that many people demonstrate.  Schlesinger states it simply: “The mad genius is a beloved cultural artifact, a popular spectacle . . . . It provides the perfect container for every romantic fantasy about both madness and genius–and doesn’t have to be any more precise than that to be useful.  But a fact, it is not.  There is simply no good reason to believe that exceptionally creative people are more afflicted with psychopathology than anyone else.”

What fascinates Schlesinger is not so much arguing about biographical details: were Mozart’s scatological jokes evidence of a disordered mind?  But she is much more intrigued, and sometimes horrified, by the ways that modern “scientists” and “chroniclers” have distorted, invented, appropriated, and misread evidence to make it fit their portrait: Creative = Crazy.  And the misrepresentations are sometimes set in stone: Schlesinger has done all kinds of fascinating homework: her detective work about Beethoven’s “death mask” is a delight.

She is especially drawn to — and sympathetic to — jazz musicians and the burden of half-truth and complete fallacy attached to them, especially posthumously.  She proudly asserts that the creative people she admires are “heroic,” rather than “mentally disabled,” and — without making lists, points us towards the much more stable, well-adjusted figures in the music business who don’t get the press because their narratives can’t be forced into romantic myth.  Consider Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane — musicians too busy practicing their craft and having a good time in the process to be Mad Geniuses.

When it comes to the way in which jazz musicians are perceived by psychologists and therapists, the examples Schlesinger finds would be hilarious if they weren’t so appalling.  Did you know that Coltrane’s “excessive practicing” and search for “the perfect mouthpiece” were dead-on symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder?  So writes Gregory Wills.  Ask Arnold M. Ludwig’s opinion about Bix Beiderbecke and you get this: Bis had “mental problems” because he had trouble, late in life with his embouchure.

THE INSANITY HOAX shows off Schlesinger’s sharp eye and sharp wit, but she’s more than George Carlin riffing on the absurdities she has read about, observed, and experienced.  Although she has a free-swinging style, the book is no improvisation: it offers thirty-five pages of endnotes and bibliography.  No doubt it will irritate those — patients, academics, therapists, and practitioners — who see the DSM as a sacred book, those who take Kay Redfield Jamison’s simple equation (all great artists are or have been mentally ill to be such great artists) as true.  But it is intelligent, forthright, full of information, and a pleasure to read: one of those books I wished were longer.

You can find out more about the book here.

BLUES FOR BOYCE

Boyce Brown (1910-1959) is a tantalizing, elusive figure.  Although he played hot jazz with the great Chicagoans, he was not one of them — hard-living and hard-drinking.  The picture above shows him in 1956, surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon, and George Wettling, at his final recording session.

Scott Yanow calls Boyce “eccentric,” “outlandish,” “an erratic individual,” although those characterizations sound ungenerous.  I think of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s THE FAMILY REUNION, “In a world of fugitives, it is those that turn away that appear to run away.”

In the case of Boyce Brown, it is difficult to know if he chose to turn away from the world of musicians and gigs for the world of the spirit, or if the earthly world scorned him.  All we know are the facts of his short life.  He became a professional musician at 17 and recorded with some of the greatest Hot players — but his path was an unusual one outside the clubs and recording studios.

Boyce loved marijuana and what it could do, but it didn’t contribute to his death.  He didn’t die of tuberculosis or freeze on a Harlem doorstep, but prejudice and sorrow seem to have shortened his life.  He is certainly underrated and not well-known or well-remembered.  I agree with Jim Denham (of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST) who thinks that Boyce should be both remembered and celebrated.  And although I’ve never met Jeff Crompton (of HELLO THERE, UNIVERSE) I and other jazz fans are indebted to him for his generosities.  (You can find the blogs written by Jim and Jeff on my blogroll.)

What facts I have collected seem at first an assortment of weird personality traits, but viewed lovingly, they are the markings of a rare bird.

Boyce was someone who “saw” musical notes as colors.  He nearly died at birth; the midwife saved him by reshaping his unformed skull.  His parents encouraged him to take up the saxophone in hopes that it would strengthen his weak chest.  When he played, he had a habit of stretching his neck out like a bird — causing him to be rejected at an audition for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

Eddie Condon said Boyce was “a slow reader,” Condon-speak for partial blindness.  Boyce lived with his mother, wrote poetry, listened to Delius.  Condon’s SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ contains Boyce’s whimsical poem about ROYAL-T (slang for the best marijuana), hilarious and tenderly decorated by Boyce himself — a Hot illuminated manuscript.

He named his alto saxophone Agnes, and thought deeply about her personality and moods; if a recording disappointed him, he blamed himself for not being in harmony with his instrument.  All of this might seem freakish on first perusal, but other musicians have spoken of their synesthesia (Marian McPartland, whom no one considers an eccentric, told Whitney Balliett that the key of D was daffodil yellow), and Ben Webster, hardly an introvert, called his saxophone Betsy or Ol’ Betsy.

But before we get caught up in the debris of habit and personal history, let us — as Al Smith used to say — look at the record.  Or listen.  Two, in fact, from 1939: CHINA BOY and JAZZ ME BLUES:

Boyce sounds like himself.  Those rolling, tumbling figures are the playing of a man on a mission, someone with a message for us in the eight or sixteen bars allotted him.

The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing his volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker.  I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat.  More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis and Frank Teschemacher.  Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”

(Boyce’s descendants in this century might be Michael McQuaid and John “Butch” Smith — players who know that the alto saxophone needs a great deal of punch to keep it from sounding like a polite older relative.)

Here is a link to Jeff Crompton’s excellent, generous survey of Boyce’s life — where he shares with us a rare disc, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, where Boyce and Wild Bill Davison are the front line:

http://jeffcrompton.blogspot.com/2010/05/brother-matthew.html

The Boyce Brown discography is brief — his recordings could fit on three compact discs — but it is choice.  His better-known associates surely valued the reticent altoist.

I apologize for the onslaught of data, but in trying to explain something about Boyce Brown, the details of his recording sessions are valuable when we have so little else.  As far as I can tell, no one interviewed him during his playing career, and the press coverage he received at the end of his life emphasized (however gently) his uniqueness: the lady preacher with an alto saxophone.

Boyce was first recorded as a member of a working band, Paul Mares And His Friars Society Orchestra (a John Hammond idea?) : Paul Mares (tp) Santo Pecora (tb) Omer Simeon (cl) Boyce Brown (as) Jess Stacy (p) Marvin Saxbe (g) Pat Pattison (b) George Wettling (d).  One session, the results unissued in the 78 era, took place on January 7, 1935.  (The music came out on Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society # 6, twenty years or so after Boyce’s death.)  The same four songs were re-recorded on January 26, and were issued on two OKeh 78s that I imagine were quite hard to find even in 1935: NAGASAKI, REINCARNATION, MAPLE LEAF RAG, THE LAND OF DREAMS (the last based on BASIN STREET BLUES).  These four (and a MAPLE LEAF RAG from the first date) have been issued on the 2-CD Retrieval set of the complete New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  Theoretically all eight titles have been issued on “Chicago 1935,” a CD on the Gannet label, but I’ve never seen it.  REINCARNATION, possibly a composition of Boyce’s, was named for one of his spiritual beliefs — unusual but not unknown in 1935 Chicago.

On March 11, 1935, Boyce returned to the studios with Charles LaVere And His Chicagoans : Johnny Mendell, Marty Marsala (tp) Jabbo Smith (tp,vcl) Preston Jackson (tb) Joe Marsala (cl,ts-1) Boyce Brown (as) Bud Taylor (ts-2) Charles LaVere (p,vcl) Joe Young (g) Leonard Bibbs (b) Zutty Singleton (d) The Chicagoans (vcl) for BOOGABOO BLUES and UBANGI MAN, neither title issued on 78. On April 5, the LaVere band tried again, without Jabbo Smith;  Joe Masek (ts) Israel Crosby (b) replaced Bud Taylor, Leonard Bibbs.  They recorded I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU, SMILES, ALL TOO WELL, and BOOGABOO BLUES.  Again the sides were not released on 78, but several lp issues exist — one of the strangest issues a later dub (a copy given to me by Ralph O’Callaghan) — a 16 rpm 7″ record labeled “Black Diamond.”  On the other side was a 1933 Reuben Reeves session.

Four years later, on October 11, 1939, Boyce was recorded again, and these sides had wider distribution; he was a member of Jimmy MacPartland’s band: Jimmy McPartland (cnt) Bud Jacobson (cl) Boyce (as) Floyd Bean (p) Dick McPartland (g) Jim Lannigan (b) Hank Isaacs (d).  These sides have been made possible by the Friend of Jazz George Avakian and Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft and George Avakian, and they appeared in the Decca CHICAGO JAZZ album:JAZZ ME BLUES, CHINA BOY, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, and SUGAR.

Hank O’Neal tells me that Boyce joined in on the private sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the late Thirties, and that one track from these sessions was issued on a 1965 collection called MORE INFORMAL SESSIONS AT SQUIRREL’s, a recording worth searching for.  Hank also recalls that Squirrel, thirty years later, characterized Boyce as gifted but troubled.

Boyce’s most hard-to-find session (also in Chicago, February 12, 1940) was as a member of THE COLLECTOR’S ITEM CATS, which featured the then also little-known Wild Bill Davison, cornet; Boyce; Mel Henke (a pianist who gained later fame on the West Coast); Walter Ross on bass; Joe Kahn on drums.  Two sides, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, came out on Collector’s Item 102: a 78 issue — shared with us by Jeff Crompton.

Boyce also worked in the “ideal” band co-led by cornetist Pete Daily and pianist-composer Frank Melrose.  A good deal of their privately recorded music has been released on the Delmark CD BLUESIANA.  (The thought of Boyce and Kansas City Frank on gigs — creative individuals who did not fit the stereotypical idea of the hard-drinking Chicago jazz musician — is intriguing, and it makes me regret, not for the first time, that few fans at that time carried stenographer’s notebooks to interview these men.)

The late Bob Thiele spent some time in Chicago (where he recorded a band with clarinetist Bud Jacobson and Frank Melrose, something to bless Thiele for).  An unissued 1945 session for Bud Jacobson and His Hot Club Orchestra includes Bill Stapleton (cnt) Jacobson (cl,ts) Boyce (as) Mel Grant (p) Dick McPartland (g) Pat Pattison (b) Lew Finnerty (d), playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE, WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING, INDIANA, and HOT CLUB BLUES.  Does anyone know who or where the Signature masters are held, and have any of my readers ever heard this music?

Also in 1945, the jazz scholar / collector / recordist John Steiner held a series of concerts at the Uptown Playhouse Theater in Chicago.  His Jimmy Noone Memorial Concert (in August) featured Darnell Howard (clarinet), Boyce, Baby Dodds (drums), Gideon Honoré (piano), Jack Goss (guitar), Tut Soper (second piano), and Pat Pattison (bass).   On another occasion, Steiner sponsored a “jamboree” resulting in forty-five minutes of recordings of Lee Collins, Boyce, Darnell Howard, Volly DeFaut, pianists Gideon Honoré, Tut Soper, Jack Gardner, Mel Henke, and Chet Roble, among others.  and drummer Jim Barnes were among the contributors.  But in April 1946, a fire destroyed the Playhouse, and Steiner lost 150 unissued sides by Jack Gardner and groups, 20 sides by groups led by Boyce, a few by Frank Melrose, and location recordings by Honoré, Zinky Cohn, Punch Miller, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Jimmy Yancey.  (A sorrowing moment of silence is appropriate here.)  This information comes from the fascinating website devoted to S D (Steiner-Davis) Records: http://www.hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sd.html.

Boyce’s last session was a decade later.  His absence from the recording studios might have been in part the result of changing fashions in music; what had been sought-after Hot Jazz was soon pushed aside with the popularity of bop, but I imagine that Boyce became more reclusive.  All this is supposition, but he seems to have been unfitted with the survival skills jazz musicians require: call up a club owner, create an opportunity to record.  One thinks of the nearly-blind Art Tatum and the completely blind George Shearing and Jeff Healey, but they might have been recognized as stronger personalities with more audaciously commanding technique than Boyce’s subtle ways.

Boyce seems always to have been contemplating the eternal rather than the quotidian, and he was baptized a Catholic in 1952.  The LIFE magazine story notes that a club owner “objected to” Boyce’s habit of for blessing himself before beginning to play.  I can only imagine that scene, and JAZZ LIVES readers might write the dialogue — the club owner astounded and irate, Boyce gently explaining that this was what he did before he played.  I have written of other musicians (Frank Newton as my prime example) who loved the music without reservation but recoiled from the business of music, and Boyce seems to be one of that tender breed.  Putting his beliefs into action, Boyce entered the Servite monastery as a friar in 1953 — devoting himself to chastity, poverty, and the contemplation of spiritual ideals and sorrows.

When Boyce went into a New York recording studio on April 2-3, 1956, he was no longer “Boyce Brown” but “Brother Matthew,” a monk, someone who wanted his royalties from the sale of the recording to go to missions in Africa.  The session was the idea of a record company executive, and certainly it had journalistic potential as good copy in that era of “comeback” stories, reuniting a monk who still could play Hot with his internationally famous colleagues.  Boyce was showcased with the Eddie Condon band of the time, and a LIFE photograph shows him gingerly accepting a drink from Wild Bill Davison, peering tentatively into the glass — whether from blindness or caution, one cannot say.

Since Condon was under contract to Columbia Records (thanks again to Avakian) he may not have played guitar on the sessions — guitar credit goes to Paul Smith, Eddie’s brother-in-law, but Condon “conducted,” which is what he did so well.  This group was Wild Bill Davison (cnt) Cutty Cutshall (tb) Pee Wee Russell (cl) Boyce (as) Ernie Caceres (bar) Gene Schroeder (p) Bob Casey (b) George Wettling (d) Eddie Condon (cond), and they recorded OUT OF NOWHERE, I NEVER KNEW, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, MY BLUE HEAVEN, LINGER AWHILE, BLUES FOR BOYCE, SISTER KATE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.

Those who collect Fifties television kinescopes may have seen Boyce on the Garry Moore Show (Moore loved hot jazz) or I’VE GOT A SECRET.  I can’t envision Brother Matthew being comfortable on show as a genial oddity — the jazz-musician-monk — but perhaps he did it because it would bring good publicity and contributions to the Order.

This link contains the LIFE story (pages 173-6) on that final session: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SE8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq=Boyce+brown+alto+sax&source=bl&ots=_QEpuuHPor&sig=TbeyWW0CUzC6-OjG8fS09vtg03k&hl=en&ei=eP9ATvOOHM-whAfYxP2xCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFsQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Boyce%20brown%20alto%20sax&f=false.

Note: the link above opens most easily if one is willing to copy it whole and paste it into a new browser; then you will be able to peruse 1953 weekly pictorial journalism, including ads for durable house paint and Blue Cross hospital insurance.

After the session, Boyce went back into the monastery to devote himself to things of the spirit; pictures show him playing music with the other monks and making sandwiches in the kitchen.  He remained there until his death three years later.  Jim Denham believes that the Servites wouldn’t give Boyce final confirmation as a priest and he died of a heart attack shortly after that bitter disappointment in the monastery outside Granville, Wisconsin.

George Avakian told the late Richard M. Sudhalter in Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, “Looking back, I think he’s just as interesting now as I thought he was then.  The things he did, people are doing that kind of thing much more now.  But at that time nobody was: the element of surprise was a big factor. People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted.  I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing?  Where did it come from?  I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that.  Part of what makes it so interesting.”

Interesting, but tragic as well.  In a society that prides itself on cherishing the appearance of individualism, it is sad that Boyce Brown — surely an individualist with something beautiful on his mind — became marginalized as freakish, not only because he looked different, but because of his piety.  And although the jazz world prides itself on music and behaviors that go against the grain; it didn’t always do so effectively in this instance.  Thoreau’s different drummer didn’t get the gig.

But perhaps Boyce was fortunate that he had a monastery to retreat to, and spiritual things to which he could devote himself.  I think ruefully that had he been born fifty years later, he might have borne the weight of the popular-psychological tags we now take for granted.  Would we have classified him as a depressive, as differently abled, as someone suffering from social phobia, someone exhibiting Asperger’s, a victim of low self-esteem?  Birdlike and half-blind, he seems to me a creative spirit who turned away from this coarse world of fleshly realities to contemplate larger things, someone who wanted to do good for those who could not help themselves.

This post would not have been possible without the information from and gracious help of Jim Denham, Jeff Crompton, Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, Tom Kelly, Hank O’Neal, Hal Smith, David J. Weiner, and Aunt Ida Melrose.  I have remembered (perhaps hazily) information I read long ago in Dave Dexter, Jr.’s THE JAZZ STORY, and a February 1999 profile in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, whose author I cannot trace.   If any JAZZ LIVES readers have more information or links to people who knew or knew of Boyce, I would be delighted to read their comments or to incorporate them into a future post.  Boyce Brown deserves more than partial oblivion.

DRUMATIC CYMBALISM is COMING!

Artist Alex Craver, Mike Burgevin, and Sadiq Abdu Shahid

“DRUMATIC CYMBALISM” CONCERT SERIES

May – October 2011, Stamford, New York

Two of Central New York’s top kit drummers will perform six concerts of  spell-binding rhythms and creative drumming. The focus will be The American Drum Kit from the 1930’s until the present day.

Professional drumming is a way of life for these seasoned performers “Mike” Burgevin and Sadiq Abdu Shahid (formerly Archie Taylor, Jr.).

“Sadiq,”who resides with his family on their farm in Masonville, New York, was born and raised in the Midwest and studied with Cleveland Symphony Orchestra percussionist Charles Wilcoxon.  He performed and recorded with many famous avant-garde jazzmen: Pharaoh Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor (among others) and was a resident drummer for Motown Records in Detroit, there recording many albums backing R&B groups.

His father, Archie Taylor, Sr., was also a famous drummer accompanying Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, and the one and only Billie Holiday.

Michael “Mike” Burgevin, now a resident of Bainbridge, New York, began drumming professionally at age 15.  From the mid 1960’s through the 1980’s he worked regularly at famous NYC jazz clubs, Jimmy Ryan’s, Sweet Basil, Eddie Condon’s, and Brew’s side by side with many of the great jazz “Swing” players (now legends) Max Kaminsky, “Doc” Cheatham, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, Roy Eldridge, Wild Bill Davison, Warren Vaché and many, many others.

He has had the honor and privilege of playing with Joe Thomas, Herman Autrey, Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, Bobby Gordon, Rudy Powell, Dill Jones, Dick Wellstood, Al Casey, and many others.  It was my privilege to see him swing the band every time he started a gentle beat with his brushes or tapped his closed hi-hat.

Mike studied with Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra percussionist Richard Horowitz.  He also performed in several of the “Journey in Jazz” concerts with saxophonist Al Hamme in Binghamton University’s Anderson Center as well as producing many jazz concerts in the historic Town Hall Theatre in Bainbridge between 2001 and 2007.

No two DRUMNASTIC CYMBALISM concerts are ever the same!

Drumming becomes a musical art form in the hands of these outstanding percussionists.  A show may begin with “Curious Curlicues & Nimble Noodles” then move to whisper-quiet ruffs and other rudiments… then pass through sonorous tonalities before roaring into layered polyrhythmic styles of Jazz, and Free Form drumming.  Sadiq and Mike totally explore the drum set with all its possibilities.  Their concerts open with a brief discourse on the history and development of the drum and the evolution of various styles of drumming.

A Master Creative Drum Workshop will take place on July 16th from 3:00 to 5:00 at The Gallery East, 71 Main Street, Stamford, NY.  Workshop fee is $25. Students should bring sticks, a practice pad or snare drum and stand.

Questions?  Call The Gallery in Stamford at 607 652 4030.

Before the concerts: Come early and enjoy dining in one of Stamford’s fine restaurants.  Then visit artist Timothy Touhey’s two galleries, both located on Main Street (Route 23).

You will be uplifted by the art and music!

So mark your calendar: May 21st / June 18th / July16th / August 21st / Sept.17th / Oct.15th — Performances begin at 7:00. Tickets at the door are $10.00 / $8.00 in advance.

For information in advance call:   THE GALLERY EAST 71 MAIN ST. STAMFORD, NY @ 607 652 4030.   On the day of the concert please call 607 353 2492.   Tour The Gallery at www.touhey.com.

DICK SUDHALTER, CELEBRATED

Marianne Mangan sent in her heartfelt note about last week’s memorial concert in honor of Richard M. Sudhalter, a man so missed that one evening couldn’t hope to do him, his music, and his memory justice:

In the two hours that we were able to be at the Richard Sudhalter Memorial (lovingly arranged by Dan Levinson this past Monday) there were riches enough for many evenings–spoken and sung, played on the piano (Marian McPartland, impossibly frail, still incomparably gifted; Steve Kuhn, teenage band brother and lifelong friend), and jammed by various configurations of musicians in numbers from two to many–the best talent in town. All in the name of one outstanding horn player, scholar, jazz historian, and, quite apparently, friend.

It seemed especially fitting that the passing of this man of prodigious talents, so good at showcasing others’ talents (who could forget the Paul Whiteman recreations and the 1979 Hoagy Carmichael concert?) should be the occasion for several notable partnerships to shine once more. Peter Ecklund rejoined co-Orphan Newsboy Marty Grosz for “Jubilee”, and it was a swinging affair, propelled from the first by Marty’s rhythmic guitar to Peter’s final rousing high notes. With Dan Levinson and Scott Robinson on bass saxophone jubilating along… Sam Parkins was “revered in the Sudhalter household” sister Carol said and in a sort of ghost reunion, the wily reedman and musical sibling put their heads together for an utterly charming “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. As is his wont (“Someone!”), Sam literally passed the baton to Howard Alden, Dick Katz, Bill Kirchner and Ray Mosca… And then there were two: Marty Grosz and Joe Muranyi, sans Dick(s) Wellstood and Sudhalter, playing lustily on “Louisiana” (with verse) and “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans,” making us miss the The Classic Jazz Quartet, making us glad they’re still here…

Dick Sudhalter recognized what good jazz was and how to make it live again, and it seems he’s still at it.