Tag Archives: Martin Block

“ALOHA.”

rich-conaty-portrait

RICH CONATY 1954-2016

In the history of jazz, people who do not play instruments do as much, in different ways, to sustain the art without getting equal credit. Think of Milt Gabler, George Avakian, Henry Sklow, Norman Granz, George Wein, Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, and other catalysts. Then there are broadcasters. “Broadcasting” meant something even before radio and television: spreading something widely, effectively: a newsboy shouting the headlines or a farmer distributing seed over a field. Jazz radio broadcasters — in previous decades Martin Block, Art Ford, Fred Robbins, Sid Torin; in our time Ed Beach, John S. Wilson, Phil Schaap, Dan Morgenstern, Alisa Clancy, Linda Yohn and many others – do more than play records. They become our friends, teachers, and benefactors. We look forward to their voices, personalities, and insights. Before there was streaming radio, we arranged our schedules around them; we tape-recorded their programs, which became sweet swinging libraries, introducing us to new artists or rare records.

Rich Conaty, who died of cancer on December 30, 2016, gave his energy and ultimately his life in the reverent and delighted service of the music he loved: the pop and jazz of the teens, Twenties, and Thirties, roughly 1911-1939. For forty-four years, he shared that music on a Sunday-night broadcast on Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV-FM (90.7). Rich’s THE BIG BROADCAST, named in homage to the 1932 film with Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, the Boswell Sisters, Arthur Tracy, Cab Calloway, and others, was a consistent pleasure.

Rich was enchanted by this music when he was thirteen or fourteen, began broadcasting as a high school student on New York’s Hofstra College radio station. When he had to choose a college, he picked Fordham University because of its radio station, and beginning in January 1973, was on the air every Sunday night, live perhaps fifty weeks every year, taping shows in advance when he went away, perhaps to visit his mother in Florida.

Early on, Rich formed an alliance with Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks, and these two did more to introduce this music to a wider, younger audience than perhaps anyone. Rich said that his program was “for the old and the old at heart,” for his humor was sharply wry (occasionally painfully self-deprecating) but he was most happy to learn that some seventeen-year old was now collecting Chick Bullock 78s or had fallen in love with Lee Wiley. He had other interests – vintage Nash automobiles, cats, and other kinds of vintage pop culture – but was devoted to the music and musicians above all.

Listening to Rich for decades, I was able to trace the subtle development of a scholarly intelligence.  Years ago, his library of recordings was small (as was mine) so he played the Mills Brothers’ TIGER RAG frequently.  As he became the person and the scholar he was meant to become, his awareness, knowledge, and collection deepened.

We’ve heard earnest but ignorant radio announcers – those who call the Ellington clarinetist “Barney Biggered,” or the King of Jazz “Paul White Man,” but Rich knew his music, his musicians, and his history. Every show, he created tributes to musicians, songwriters, and other figures whose birthday he would celebrate: not just Bix, Bing, Louis, Jolson, Annette; his enthusiasm for songwriters and figures, once renowned, now obscure, was astonishing. He had interviewed Bob Effros, Edward Eliscu, Ben Selvin, and Vet Boswell on the air; he was friends with Dolly Dawn, had gotten drunk with Cab Calloway. Connee Boswell sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him over the phone; Arthur Tracy performed at his wedding to Mary Hayes (“Manhattan Mary,” who also died too young of cancer).

Rich expanded our knowledge and our joy by playing an astonishing range of music from his own collection of vintage records. Every Sunday that I heard the program, I would say several times, “What is that? I never heard that record before!” and this was true in 2015 and 2016, where it seems as if everything is accessible on CD, download, or YouTube. He spent his life surrounded by 78s – those he had acquired at auction, those he was selling at record shows. Because the idea of THE BIG BROADCAST was not just famous, documented recordings, he would often play a record about which little was known. But he could offer an educated guess about the true band behind the Crown label pseudonym, whether the singer was Irving or Jack Kaufman, when the song had been premiered – much more than statistics gleaned from books. He took requests from his devoted audience, gave away tickets to jazz concerts, and with Bryan Wright, created a series of BIG BROADCAST CDs — I have more than a few — which are wonderful cross-sections of the period.

I should say that his taste was admirable.  He didn’t play every 78 he had found — no sermons, no organ recitals of light classics, no comedy records — but within the “pop and jazz” area I could trust him to play the good stuff, the music that would otherwise be forgotten.  He left IN THE MOOD to others, but he played Henry Burr, Bill Coleman, Jane Green, Johnny Marvin, Fred Rich, Ben Selvin, Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Emmett Miller, Eddie Lang, Jack Purvis, Luis Russell, The Sunshine Boys, Kate Smith, Ted Weems, early Ellington, Jean Goldkette, and on and on.

And part of the pleasure of his expertise and of radio in general (at its best, when the programmer is subtle and wise) is not just the delighted shock of one record, but of the juxtapositions Rich created in three-sides-in-a-row.  THE BIG BROADCAST was rather like being invited to an evening at Jeff Healey’s house, where you knew the music would be embracing, uplifting, and educational in the best way.  (I should also say that Rich did talk — digressing into his own brand of stand-up comedy, with little bits of slightly off-key a cappella singing — but music made up the bulk of the program.  He wouldn’t tell you the personnel of the thirteen-piece big band, by choice, I am sure, because it would mean he could play fewer recordings.)

On a personal note: I, like many others, made cassettes of the program and played them in the car.  I fell asleep to the program on hundreds of Sunday nights.  When I was young and diligent, I graded student essays to it. Although Rich and I had much of the same focused obsession with the music, we met in person only a few times (I think always at Sofia’s when the Nighthawks were playing) and THE BIG BROADCAST was his world — and by extension the health and welfare of WFUV.  So our conversations were brief, before the band started or in between sets.  But my debt to him is immeasurable, and it would not have increased had our conversations been lengthy.

rich-conaty-at-wfuv

I do not know what will happen to Rich’s recorded legacy – more than eight thousand hours of radio. Some shows have been archived and can be heard through wfuv.org, but whether the station will share others as a tribute is not yet decided. More information can be found on the Facebook page devoted to Fans of the WFUV Big Broadcast.

I think of Wild Bill Davison’s puzzled question about Frank Teschemacher, dead in an auto accident in Bill’s car, “Where are we going to get another sax player like Tesch?” Paraphrase the question to apply to Rich Conaty, and the answer is, “We never will.” But his generosity will live on.

Aloha.  And Mahalo.

May your happiness increase!

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IT’S SAVORY! (THE SWING TREASURE CHEST OPENS FOR US.)

JAZZ LIVES, like its creator, is a little eccentric (I write those words with pride): I don’t always rush to cover what everyone else is covering.  But in the past few days, I’ve met several people, one a brilliant young musician, unaware of the riches made available by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Bill Savory Collection in two volumes with more to come . . . so I write these lines as a Swing Public Service.

A Savory Disc

A Savory Disc

Here’s Loren Schoenberg, the guiding genius of all things Savory, on NPR, just a few days ago on November 6, 2016.

Let me backtrack a bit.  Some years back, the “Savory collection” was mythic and tantalizing.  Jazz fans had heard of Bill Savory, an audio engineer and Benny Goodman devotee, who had recorded hours of live material off the air in the late Thirties.  The evidence existed tangibly in a collection of BG airshots issued by Columbia Records to follow up on the incredible success of the 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.  Some years back, the indefatigable Loren unearthed the collection.  I knew, step by painstaking step, of the heroic work that the peerless sound engineer and disc restorer Doug Pomeroy was doing in his Brooklyn studio.

Collectors were anxious to hear the Savory treasures: some made the trek uptown to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to do auditory research. Excerpts were shared in news stories.  But we wondered about the legalities (dealing with the estates of the musicians) and the eventual price to us. Recently, we learned that at least part of the Savory material was to be issued digitally through iTunes.

Like many listeners of a certain age, I grew up with music being available tangibly.  I went to Sam Goody or King Karol and bought discs.  Others I borrowed and taped.  So the notion of, say, a Coleman Hawkins performance that I could hear only through my computer was mildly eerie.  But some of the downloaded music can be burned to homegrown CD — with a reasonably easy learning curve — and once downloaded, they won’t go away even if your computer suddenly starts to emit purple smoke.  If all of this is off-putting, one can buy a $25 iTunes gift card at the local supermarket or chain store; one can enlist someone under 30 to do the dance; one can hear treasures, most in gorgeous sound, never heard before.  And the price is more than reasonable: each of the two volumes costs less than a CD.

On the subject of money: as always, enterprises like this stand or fall on our willingness to join in.  I’m  not saying that anyone should starve the children, but this music is terribly inexpensive.  In speaking to some collectors, I found it wryly hilarious that more than one person said, “Oh, I only bought ____ tracks,” when I, being an elder, stifled my response that this was self-defeating.

In 1976, if you had said to me, “Michael, would you like to hear a jam session with Herschel Evans, Lionel Hampton, Dave Matthews, Charlie Shavers, Milt Hinton, Cozy Cole, and Howard Smith?  Give me six dollars,” I would have been removing bills from my wallet even though I was earning a pittance in academia.

I also note that some jazz fans have commented on Facebook that they are enthusiastic in theory but waiting to purchase the volume that will contain their favorite band.  If you don’t find something to admire here and now, I wonder about you.

Doug Pomeroy’s remastering of these precious discs is marvelous.  The immediacy of the sound is both intense and immense, especially for those of us used to “airshots” recorded by some amateur Angel of Hot with the microphone up to the speaker of the radio console . . . then playing the disc a hundred times. Savory had an actual recording studio and could record the radio signal directly. On a few tracks, there is some gentle static, I believe caused by a lightning storm, but it’s atmospheric rather than distracting.

Here’s a detailed essay on Savory and his collection.

Having learned how to navigate iTunes, I have been listening to the first volume for the last few days.  The second volume, sixty-two minutes of incredible live material in vibrant sound of the Count Basie Orchestra 1938-40 featuring Lester Young (also Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing) has proven too intense for me: I started to play the whole set and then found myself overcome, as if I’d tried to eat a whole chocolate cake in a sitting.  I can see that I will spread out this disc over a week or more of intermittent listening, and then more weeks to come.

A very literate San Francisco guitarist, Nick Rossi (you should know him!) has written, at my request, a short appreciation of a Herschel Evans solo from the first volume — to be published here shortly.

The first volume starts off with a triumph — a monumental performance, tossed off casually by Coleman Hawkins.  BODY AND SOUL, nearly six minutes (twice the length of the legendary Bluebird 78), followed by BASIN STREET BLUES, not something I’d associate with Hawkins, but it’s spectacular — also a leisurely performance.  Two Ella Fitzgerald performances remind us of how girlish she sounded at the start: irreplaceable and tenderly exuberant.  Next, a series of Fats Waller effusions live from the Yacht Club on Fifty-Second Street (now probably obliterated to make space for a chain pharmacy) where Fats is wonderfully ebullient, although the standouts for me are I HAVEN’T CHANGED A THING and YOU MUST HAVE BEEN A BEAUTIFUL BABY — the latter a new song at the time.  There’s a spirited reading of HEAT WAVE by Carl Kress and Dick McDonough (amazing as a team) and one of CHINA BOY by the Emilio Caceres Trio featuring Emilio on violin and brother Ernie on reeds.  And that jam session.

Jam sessions, when considered coolly decades later, tend to be lopsided affairs: someone rushes or drags, the tempo is too fast.  But this jam session offers us the poignant evidence of one of our great lost heroes, Herschel Evans, not long before his death.  He isn’t at full power, but he sounds entirely like himself — and the choruses here expand his recorded discography by a substantial amount.

The second volume offers what I noted above, but it bears repeating in boldface — sixty-two minutes of Lester Young and the Count Basie band in glorious sound — with more unfettered leisurely improvisation (how happy the band sounds to be playing for dancers and to have escaped the constraints of the recording studio).  I’ve only heard three tracks: a jam session on ROSETTA, a very fast I AIN’T GOT NOBODY with a Jimmy Rushing vocal, and one other.

Words fail me, and that is not my usual reaction.  I don’t think the rhythm section ever sounded so good, Freddie Green’s guitar so luminous.  My friends tell me that Lester is astonishing throughout (this I would not argue) but that there are also clarinet solos.  And in a complete loss of self-control, I found the superb full chorus for Vic Dickenson on I NEVER KNEW. Let joy be unconfined.

Here is the most expansive description of both sets, with sound samples.

I’ll stop now, because readers have already gotten the point or have stopped reading.  But please do visit the Savory Collection sites.  And I suggest that the perfect holiday gift for yourself is acquiring both volumes.  I don’t endorse a major corporation here, and I have been Apple-averse for as long as I can remember, but when the reward is Lester, Jimmy Rushing, Buck, Sweets, Jo Jones, Herschel, Hamp, Ella, Fats, Hawk, Vernon Brown, Milt, etc., I can conquer my innate distrust.  And so can you.

May your happiness increase!

WOW! MORE SAVORY SNIPPETS

Last Tuesday night at the Jazz Museum in Harlem, Loren Schoenberg played us Teddy Wilson, Bob Zurke, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie recordings we had never heard before (and he’s going to keep it up for three more Tuesday evenings in a row).  And today he and Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong Archive at Queens College (a most inviting and convivial place) did a radio show for NPR’s WBUR.  Click on the link below and hear these tantalizing excerpts —

a searing passionate blues chorus by Bunny Berigan which will astound you, followed by Slam Stewart creating the blues in his own image (this from a Martin Block radio program);

a version of SING SING SING by the 1939 Benny Goodman band;

almost all of a very famous and brief HONEYSUCKLE ROSE from another Block show, featuring Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Al Casey, and George Wettling;

and a sweetly charging medium-tempo chorus of ROSETTA for Gene Krupa and an unknown clarinetist who might be Joe Marsala, again from 1938.

WOW! might be the only possible response.  Visit http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/09/new-jazz-gems and you’ll say it, too!