Tag Archives: Marty Napoleon

“JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE, FROM ITS ORGINS IN NEW ORLEANS TO FASCIST ITALY AND SINATRA,” by ANNA HARWELL CELENZA

“I prefer books that tell me things I don’t know,” said Mark Twain. Or if he didn’t, he should have.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is such a book — wide-ranging, full of intriguing information, and refreshingly straightforward.

I will say that I thought I knew a great deal about the title and the subject.  After all, I know Rossano Sportiello, Marc Caparone, Paolo Alderighi, and Larry Scala. I have recordings by Frank Sinatra, Joe and Marty Marsala, Leon Roppolo, Louis Prima, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Wingy Manone, Jimmy Durante, Tony Sbarbaro, Nick La Rocca, Marty Napoleon, Phil Napoleon, Lino Patruno, and others.  Years ago, I owned a vinyl anthology on Italian Odeon called ITALIAN JAZZ OF THE 50s, which had music from the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band and Romano Mussolini, with other bands I do not recall.  In the very early Seventies, I ate authentic Italian food at the Half Note, under the loving supervision of the Canterino family.  (All of the above is true, although not meant to be taken with the utmost seriousness.)

But the glory of Celenza’s book is the information it offers — subtle illumination of areas of the subject that I was ignorant of, and I am sure my ignorance is not my sole property.  And the fruits of her investigation are the substance of this appreciation of her book.

But first: we are told, even before the book starts, that Celenza is “the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University, where she teaches courses in music history, radio journalism, and the music industry.”  To some readers, those credentials will seem either the kiss of death or the black hand: another academic book, indigestible, a forest of footnotes, theoretical and ideological beyond endurance.  Calm yourselves.  Celenza is an engagingly straightforward writer, clear, candid, and witty.  (I saw the wit when I opened my copy at random and saw she had translated “Il Quattro Buffoni,” a band name on a record label, as “The Four Idiots.”

She doesn’t talk down to the general reader, and the book down’t labor under chunks of undigested digressive facts.  And leaving aside the useful documentation and index, the book is a compact 192 pages, because Celenza has not felt an obsessive need to include every fact that wanders by, and her chosen time period is under half a century.  It isn’t a book-length study of Sinatra, fascism, or every Italian who’s ever improvised, and that adds to its charm and effect.  Rather, like effective cultural studies, it traces the interweavings of many phenomena: radio and the growth of the recording industry, political struggles and performance, and much more.

As I promised above, I salute this book for adding information to my mental hoard.  Here are a number of things I didn’t know before reading JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE.

•     “The most horrific mass lynching in US history occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Italian immigrants were shot and strung up by an angry mob after a  jury found them innocent of assassinating the local police chief, David Hennessey.”

•     In 1919, Chevalier Bruno Zuculin wrote a description of the musical scene in New Orleans — and the music itself — for Italian readers.  The article was published two months before Ernest Ansermet’s famous celebration of Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which included the young Sidney Bechet.

•     “D. Onivas,” whose orchestra is on the reverse of some 78s by Cliff Edwards, is the pseudonym of Domenico Savino, composer and conductor.

•     Jazz first came to Italy with the USAAS (United States Army Ambulance Service) and its American Jazz Band landed  — and when members of the American and Italian armies recorded for Fonotopia in December 1918.

•     I had assumed that Mussolini, like Hitler, was hostile to jazz as decadent music: not so, in fact, Il Duce “embraced” it as an expression of the Futurist art he celebrated.

•     Josephine Baker, Herb Flemming, and Al Wynn visited and worked in Italy.  Louis Armstrong gave two concerts in Turin in January 1935 and wrote a detailed happy letter to an Italian fan and record collector.

•     I had never heard or heard of the female vocal trio, “the three graces of the radio,” the Trio Lescano — Alexandra, Judith, and “Kitty,” originally from the Netherlands, who became singing stars in Italy.

•  During the Second World War, when recordings by American artists were played on the radio, new Italianized names for the musicians were invented: Luigi Braccioforte, La Colema, Del Duca, and Beniamino Buonuomo.  (Answer key on request.)

•     Sinatra’s four trips to Italy, in 1945, 1953, 1962, and 1987 — and the audience’s elation when he described his Genoan heritage, then their silence when he revealed his family was also half-Sicilian.

These excerpts are, of course, not the substance of this book.  Celenza has a wonderful understanding of the widespread forces that go into the development and growth of jazz in Italy, and one will come away from this book with a much deeper understanding of the mingling of history, race, ideology, and politics — during war and in peacetime.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is very rewarding, but never ponderous.  Here are the publisher’s resources for the book, and this is the link for the CD label offering for sale almost all the jazz described in the book.  And since a book like this cries out for a soundtrack, here is the one Celenza has generously created — 124 relevant musical examples that delight and illustrate.

May your happiness increase!

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THE UNFAILING LIGHT OF LOUIS

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Thanks to scholar and co-producer Ricky Riccardi, another wonderful set of Louis Armstrong recordings has emerged, complete: the Mercury recordings Louis and the All-Stars made between 1964 and 1966, with the pop hit MAME and the lesser hit SO LONG, DEARIE as the most famous among them.

louis-mame-cover

Ricky has done his usual wonderfully exhaustive job of annotating these digital releases.  Here (from his Louis blog) are the notes as they can be read online. And here is the link to read his notes as a PDF.

The music is available only as a digital download through Apple / iTunes: the complete package is $24.99, each song available at $1.29.  Details here.   And, as I wrote in my post on the the new issue of Louis’ complete Decca singles, if you hate “downloads” for their insubstantiality, I understand.  I too like music in physical packages (my apartment is furnished in Early Music) but we listen to live music and go home without being furious that we can’t take the players with us; in olden days, we listened to the radio, etc.  So if you reject this music because you “hate Apple,” to quote Billie, you’re just foolin’ yourself.

Now, if you are someone who deeply feels Louis, you probably already know about these issues and might already be listening, rapt.  If you are someone new to Louis or one of the people who believes the “beginning of his long decline” happened ninety years ago, I urge you to read on.  First, some facts.

The fifty-three performances are, first, the original contents of the “vinyl” issue: MAME / THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS / SO LONG DEARIE / TIN ROOF BLUES / I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY / WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN / CHEESE CAKE / TYREE’S BLUES / PRETTY LITTLE MISSY / FAITH / SHORT BUT SWEET / BYE ‘N BYE / then followed by alternate takes, rehearsal takes, monaural takes of BYE ‘N BYE / FAITH / DEARIE (7) / MISSY (5) / FAITH (8) / SHORT BUT SWEET (6) / CIRCLE (6) / PARTY (5) / THE THREE OF US (3).  The performances are almost all three minutes long — not harking back to OKeh 78s but to the currency of the times, the 45 rpm single that would be played on AM radio.  The other musicians include Buster Bailey, who had worked with Louis in 1924-5; Eddie Shu; Tyree Glenn; Big Chief Russell Moore; Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Everett Barksdale, and more.

Louis, like other innovators, had a long history of taking “popular” material and creating immortal improvisations, so jazz fans dismayed at seeing unfamiliar titles should not be.  Not all of the songs are deathless — a few are paper-thin — but it almost seems as if the worse the material, the more room Louis has to work magic on it.  For me, the finest performances are of songs I doubt others could have done much with: SHORT BUT SWEET, THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS, FAITH, I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY, THE THREE OF US (never before issued), SO LONG DEARIE, and others to lesser effect.

Here is the issued take of SHORT BUT SWEET:

A quietly warm melodic statement (helped by Tyree Glenn’s vibes and, for once, a rhythm guitar) leads into an equally warm vocal — on a song that resembles eight other classics — calling it “derivative” would be excessive praise.  Although the lyrics consistently disappoint, as if the writers had made a bet how many cliches they could jam into thirty-two bars, Louis is even warmer, with freer phrasing, on the vocal bridge to the end of the chorus.  And then that trumpet bridge!  “Tonation and phrasing,” passion, vibrato, and courage.  It might not leap out at a listener the way the beginning of WEST END BLUES does, but I know I couldn’t get those eight bars out of my head after just one hearing.

If you do not warm to that, may I suggest an immersion?  If it doesn’t get to you after three more playings, we may have little to say to one another.  But you might want to read to the end to discover the depths of my apparently foolish devotion.  And you might keep in your head what Bobby Hackett said to Nat Hentoff (I am paraphrasing here): “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come alive like that?”

I have a serious sentimental attachment to this music, because when this record came out, I was nearly fourteen.  This was my Louis Armstrong.  This was the heartfelt, occasionally comic entertainer I saw regularly on television — performing two songs with the All-Stars, conversing briefly and jocularly with the host, and then the show would move on to the acrobats, the writer plugging a new book, the actress doing the same for her new film.  I thrilled to these moments: Louis emerging from behind the curtain to sing and play MAME, DEARIE, later CABARET and WONDERFUL WORLD.  I lived in suburbia, a mile’s walk from several stores with record departments, and I recall going to Times Square Stores [known to some of us by our adolescent translation of its initials into Tough Shit, Sonny] or Mays or Pergaments, thumbing through the Louis records I knew by heart, and buying this new one in an excited flurry.  (My mother would have looked patient but puzzled; my father would have said, “Don’t you have enough records?” but not argued the point.) I would have disappeared into my bedroom and played it over and over.  I no longer have my mid-Sixties copy, but this recent release has brought all that experience back.

And what was there on this Mercury record?  Joy is the simple answer, with a substantial emotional range: the mocking dismissal of DEARIE, the celebration of the imaginary hedonist Auntie Mame on the title song, the blues — familiar and impromptu — the cheerful satire of FAITH, and the love songs that were CIRCLE and SHORT BUT SWEET, the alcohol-free gathering of PARTY, and more.  Each song was its own brief dramatic playlet, with a good deal of Louis’ singing and short but very affecting trumpet interludes.

He was no longer the star of the Vendome Theatre show; he was no longer playing 250 high C’s at the end of CHINATOWN.  But those age-related limitations were, to me, a great good thing.  These trumpet interludes are incredibly subtle and moving because his wisdom. Young, he could dramatically create expansive masterpieces, sometimes on record, sometimes legendary and unrecorded.  And those creations are awe-inspiring displays of virtuosity.

But we hear that this older man, with fifty years’ musical experience behind him, knows so much more about what to play and what not to — so an eight-bar passage on any song is intense, full of emotion.  Every note counts, because it has to.  And if you think this is special pleading on behalf of the elderly, ask any improvising musician to listen deeply to one of these solos.

I am not yet a senior citizen.  But I think a good deal about aging and what the proper responses might be to the calendar, the passage of days measured in the speed I climb stairs or the ease with which I carry groceries.  For decades, I’ve looked to Louis as a spiritual model.  I don’t take Swiss Kriss; I don’t tell prospective life-partners “The horn comes first”; I’m not a Mets fan.  But I think the aging Louis — as icon, as artist — has so much to tell us, no matter how old we are now.

The question we must ask ourselves is large: “Since our time on the planet is finite, what should we do with it, even if we have a long time before the final years approach?”  I think his answer, audible on the Mercury sides, is plain: “Do what you and you alone do well.  Do it will your heart.  And strive to do it better and with greater purity of intent for as long as you can.  That action is you, and it will stop only when you do.”

Whether you subscribe to this philosophical notion or not, this music is seriously uplifting.  Thank you, Louis.

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!

MARTY NAPOLEON (1921-2015)

Pianist, singer, composer Marty Napoleon “made the transition” from this earthly world to another one on Monday night, April 27.  His dear friend Geri Goldman Reichgut told me that on his last night on the planet he ate some dessert and listened to music: the signs of what my Irish friends call “a beautiful death.”

I can’t find it in my heart to be too mournful about Marty’s moving out of this earthly realm.  It seems to me that the New Orleanians have the right idea: cry a little at the birth, because that spirit taking corporeal form might have some bumps in this life, and rejoice at the death, because the spirit is free — to ramble the cosmos in the company of other spirits.

I was in conversation with the wonderful pianist Mike Lipskin last night — we sat on a bench in Greenwich Village and lamented that fewer people are playing particular kinds of the music we both love . . . and we both envisioned a future where it might not even be performed.  But I said fervently, “The MUSIC will always be here,” and I believe that.

It is true in Marty’s case as well.  And as a tribute to the man and his spirit, I offer some tangible immortal evidence here and here.

And a closing story.  One of my heroes is the writer William Maxwell, also no longer around in his earthly shape.  Late in his life, he began taking piano lessons and working his way through some simple classical pieces.  I think this gave him great pleasure but was also frustrating — in the way making music is even more difficult for those who have spent their lives appreciating the superb performances of others.  In his final year, a dear friend said to him, “Bill, in the life to come you will be able to play the piano with ease, won’t you?”  And he replied, “In the next life I will not be making music.  I will be music.”

And he is.  As is Marty.

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:

GEORGE WETTLING 3 53

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!

A SECOND TASTE: BRIA SKONBERG, MARTY NAPOLEON, BILL CROW, RAY MOSCA (July 5, 2013)

Fabulous musicians at play in Glen Cove, New York, with a single purpose: “Remembering Pops.”  That’s Marty Napoleon, swinging out on the piano (88 keys, 92 years); the sweetly incendiary Bria Skonberg on trumpet; and reliable experts Bill Crow, string bass; Ray Mosca, drums.  Recorded by our pal Jim Balantic; concert turned from an idea into a reality by our comrade Geri Goldman Reichgut.  And rumor has it that more video from this concert is being posted, as I write this, by the ever-true-blue Neal Siegal.

I’d like to hear more of this band . . . any suggestions for future gigs?

May your happiness increase!

FOR THE LOVE OF LOUIS: MARTY NAPOLEON, BRIA SKONBERG, BILL CROW, RAY MOSCA (July 5, 2013)

What a wonderful band, and a wonderful evocation of the man Eddie Condon called “Mister Strong” — recorded live at a concert two days ago at Glen Cove, New York.  The players are Marty Napoleon, piano / vocal; Bria Skonberg, trumpet; Bill Crow, string bass; Ray Mosca, drums.  And they begin the concert in the best way: a gripping, lovely SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH — that gave me chills — into INDIANA, which is the way Louis did it:

You don’t need me to explain just how good this music is.  It’s so evident that it leaps out of speakers or earbuds, and I don’t mean volume.  Bria lights up the sky; Marty continues to surprise us* (at 92, he is the very opposite of “old-time,” isn’t he?) and pals Bill and Ray remind me of Milt and Jo while sounding very much like themselves.

Beauty needs friends to get it out in the light, and while this concert wouldn’t exist without the four masterful players, it also comes to us through the loving diligence of Geri Goldman Reichgut and videographer Jim Balantic.  So let’s have thanks all ’round.  Now I’m going back to listen and watch again.  It’s a deep pleasure.

*Mister Napoleon is available for high-quality gigs, too.

May your happiness increase!