Tag Archives: Mary Lou Williams

I GOT IN THE GROOVE(S) AT DOWN HOME

I went record-shopping yesterday (January 11, 2014) at one of my favorite places on the planet, the Down Home Music Store on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, California — details here.  The only fault I’ve ever found with DHMS is that they are only open from Thursday through Sunday, so I have to plan my life accordingly.  But I came home with a cardboard box of 78s, one 45, 10″ and 12″ lps.  Total price: less than a hundred dollars for hours of fun and amazement.

A brief list follows, just to encourage all of you who have such leanings to pay the lovely amiable folks at the DHMS a visit soon.  Of course, the records I bought aren’t there in multiple copies, but they have an astonishing selection of new compact discs covering every kind of music I can think of, and some I haven’t even imagined.

One 45 EP of the late-Forties West Coast Fletcher Henderson band with Vic Dickenson as prominent soloist.

Several 10″ lps: Paul Lingle solo on Good Time Jazz; Pee Wee and Ruby at Storyville, 1952; early Artie Shaw with strings;

12″ lps: a Queen-Disc Italian bootleg of Goodman 1938, all with Dave Tough; another copy of the Harry James 1937 Brunswicks on Tax; Edmond Hall’s PETITE FLEUR on United Artists; Eddie Barefield with Vic and Taft Jordan on UK RCA Victor’s SWING TODAY series; the New Hampshire Library of Traditional Jazz collection of 1949 airshots from the Savoy in Boston with Hall, Windhurst, and Vic; Wingy Manone’s late-Fifties Deccas as TRUMPET ON THE WING; TUTTI’S TRUMPETS on Buena Vista; Jimmy Rowles playing Ellington / Strayhorn on Columbia . . .

78s: a 12″ Commodore of MEMPHIS BLUES / SWEET SUE with Muggsy and Pee Wee; the Asch album set of Mary Lou Williams with Bill Coleman and Al Hall; two copies of THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE / MOOD AT TWILIGHT by Mel Powell and a clarinetist (one for Kati P); I WANNA WOO by Joe Haymes; Musicrafts by Joe Marsala and Joe Thomas, by Teddy Wilson’s Quintet; late-Twenties Brunswicks by Nick Lucas; early-Twenties ditto by the Cotton Pickers; Tab Smith and Trevor Bacon on Decca; Betty Roche with Earl Hines, Pettiford, Hodges, and Catlett on Apollo; several Forties sides by the Charioteers, one “with orchestra directed by Mannie Klein”; an Edison 78 of some hopeful dance tune; an early Vocalion of TESSIE! STOP TEASING ME; one of the Bluebirds with Peg La Centra and Jerry Sears and Carl Kress . . . and more.  (I am doing this from memory and haven’t even looked at the box.)

And the experience of buying records is so sweetly nostalgic for someone like myself who found great pleasure in stores like the DHMS.  The results are more than “collecting,” “amassing,” and “having”; I learn something every time.  For instance: the soundtrack to this post is the 1938 Goodman band, with glorious work from the Man Himself, Bud Freeman, Vernon Brown, Dave Tough, and Jess Stacy — but did you know that when DON’T BE THAT WAY was announced for a repeat performance on Camel Caravan, it was credited as being “Professor Goodman’s own tune.”  I feel very sorry for Edgar Sampson and hope that the royalty checks made up for the erasure.

Some of the records had identifying labels on them; many were well-played and well-loved.  I thank you, dear Collectors with Taste whose possessions I am now enjoying.  What gifts you pass on!

And as far as record-buying, I know that someone could read this as another example of excessive materialistic self-gratification, when there are people on the planet so much less fortunate.  I know I do not need more music, but I retreat into KING LEAR mode and mutter, “O, reason not the need!”  Records are less expensive than bringing a hundred knights with me wherever I go.

So, if you can get down to the Down Home Music Store, I commend it to you.  If you can’t, I understand, so play some music for yourself today.  It lifts the heart.

May your happiness increase! 

MUSIC IN THE AIR: STEVE WRIGHT, RAY SKJELBRED, CANDACE BROWN, DAVE BROWN (October 3, 2013)

Thirty years ago, if you had told me that a quartet — Steve Wright (cornet, reeds), Ray Skjelbred (piano), Candace Brown (banjo, guitar), Dave Brown (string bass) had performed in a restaurant in Washington (a place beyond my reach at the moment), my thoughts would have run something like this, “Oh, I wish I had been there.  I wish I had heard them play.  Maybe someday they will make a record together and I can purchase it?”

The technology that we take for granted in this century, which can be so irritating at its worst, has made my wistful questions irrelevant.

Here are video-recordings of this delightful hot band on the job on October 3, 2013: the First Thursday Jazz Band at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle, Washington.  The associations reach far and wide: a jealous lover bent on vengeance, a Southern railroad line; Sigmund Romberg, Red McKenzie, Pee Wee Russell, boogie-woogie, Bing Crosby, Bix Beiderbecke, Irving Berlin, Earl Hines, King Oliver, and many other mythical figures — who come to life in the sounds of this quartet.

HELLO, LOLA:

LOVER, COME BACK TO ME:

A very sweet WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD:

Asking the perennial question, HAVE YOU EVER FELT THAT WAY?:

A thoughtful BLUES IN THIRDS:

Ray plays Mary Lou Williams’ OVERHAND:

A romping YELLOW DOG BLUES:

The generous Mister Wright has also posted other videos on YouTube — see them here and on his Facebook page.

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.

PETER VACHER’S SUBTLE MAGIC: “MIXED MESSAGES:

The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility.  Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us.  This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling.  Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t.  Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.

Vacher

MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good.  The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly.  But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself.  One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).

Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude.  They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent.  The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling.  New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography.  Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.

But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories.  (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.)  Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.

Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:

He was a pretty self-centered guy.  Kinda selfish.  When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show.  He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were.  He’d say, “People come to see me.  I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.”  He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.”  I’d say to myself, “Good show!  I feel like crying.”

Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:

. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix.  He said, “Why don’t you turn to music?  You can get more girls.”  He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.” 

Trumpeter John Eckert:

I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965].  A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups.  Louis ended the concert.  I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded.  I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.

To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.

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.

START THE NEW YEAR HOT: REMEMBERING LOVIE AUSTIN at WHITLEY BAY 2012 (RENE HAGMANN, THOMAS WINTELER, JENS LINDGREN, MARTIN LITTON, ROLY VEITCH, JOSH DUFFEE)

Lovie Austin

Doe anyone mind my beginning the new year (January 1, 2013) with some hot jazz — obscure songs played energetically by the best musicians?  I thought not.

Who remembers Lovie Austin (1887-1972) today?  I would bet that her name is not familiar to many, but she led bands that accompanied many of the greatest blues singers, including Ma Rainey and Ida Cox.  Austin impressed no less a person than Mary Lou Williams, who remembered her in 1977:

“When I was between 8 or 10 years of age (1918 or 1920), my stepfather and my brother-in-law, Hugh Floyd, often took me to dances and theatres to listen to musicians. Well, there was a T.O.B.A theatre in Pittsburgh where all black entertainers came. I remember seeing this great woman sitting in the pit and conducting a group of five or six men, her legs crossed, a cigarette in her mouth, playing the show with her left hand and writing music with her right. Wow! I never forgot this episode… My entire concept was based on the few times I was around Lovie Austin. She was a fabulous woman and a fabulous musician too. I don’t believe there’s a woman around now who could compete with her. She was a greater talent than many of the men of this period.”

Ninety years after Austin’s greatest fame, a small hot group assembled at the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party to pay her tribute and play some less-familiar repertoire as well.

The fellows in the band?  Rene Hagmann, multi-instrumentalist, here on cornet; Thomas Winteler, clarinet / soprano saxophone; Martin Litton, piano; Roly Veitch, guitar / banjo; Josh Duffee, drums / washboard.

TRAVELLIN’ BLUES:

CHICAGO MESS AROUND:

GALLION STOMP:

FROG TONGUE STOMP:

Let’s hope for a swinging, creative 2013!  (And check out the details for this year’s Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party here.

May your happiness increase.

LES SWINGBERRIES: “LAUGHING AT LIFE” (2012)

Imagine a small group — in Whitney Balliett’s words, “flesible, wasteless,” that successfully evokes the best jazz of the Swing Era without copying recorded performances, that is fresh, witty, precise.  Need an anlalogue?  How about Glenn Miller’s Uptown Hall Gang with arrangements and originals by Mel Powell?

This group exists, and they’ve made their first CD — consistently splendid music.    A few of my readers complain that my musical endorsements are nudging them towards ruin, but LES SWINGBERRIES are worth it.

About thirteen months ago, I wrote happily about this group — propelled by their 2011 YouTube videos: click here for that post.

One of the video performances that so captivated me is Les Swingberries’ transformation of Johann Strauss’ RADETZKY MARCH (“JAZZETSKY MARCH” in their hands):

From left to right, they are Jerome Etcheberry, trumpet / arrangements; Aurelie Tropez, clarinet; Jacques Schneck, piano; Nicolas Montier, guitar.  I haven’t had any contact with Monsieur Schneck, but I admire his light, elegant playing immensely; Monsieur Etcheberry has absorbed all of the good trumpet sounds of this fertile time and processed them through his instrument so that he sounds like himself (with side-glances at the great figures).  Our contact has been limited to mail and cyber-message, but how could I not admire a man who signs himself “Trumpetfully yours“?  (The only inscription that comes close to that is from Hot Lips Page: “Very Blowingly.”)

I’ve been fortunate enough to exchange a few sentences with Mlle. Tropez at the International Jazz Festival at Whitley Bay — where she was not only a charter member of Les Red Hot Reedwarmers but also played some memorable casual swing duets with pianist Paul Asaro.

And Monsier Montier I met for the first time (I hope there will be others) as a wonderfully agile tenor saxophonist at last year’s Sacramento Music Festival.  It came as a huge shock to find out that he is the immensely gifted guitarist in this group, not only echoing Charlie Christian but also Tiny Grimes and a host of other fine players.

But I hear you saying, “OK, I’m sold.  But I can’t fly to France to catch this group in a club or jazz festival.  What shall I do?”

The answer, dear readers, is only a few clicks away.  Les Swingberries have issued their first CD, which is called LAUGHING AT LIFE — not only a song they play but an indication of their buoyant spirits.

The thirteen selections on the disc are varied and lively — two Mary Lou Williams compositions, CLOUDY and GHOST OF LOVE; Leonard Feather’s SCRAM!  Three other themes are “classics” by Strauss, Tschaikovsky, and Offenbach — initially, I thought of the John Kirby Sextet, but then the heretical whisper came into my mind, “This is better than the Kirby Sextet ever did,” because of a light-hearted rhythmic looseness owing something more to Wilson and Waller than to Kirby.  The group seems to float, and the performances seem too brief (although they are between three and five minutes).  The arrangements are beautifully subtle; on a second or third listening, I found myself marveling at the writing for two horns that suggested a larger ensemble; the fact that a rhythm section of piano and guitar never seemed thin or under-furnished.

Both CLOUDY and GHOST OF LOVE are lovely mobile mood pieces with inspired playing by each member of the quartet.  LAUGHING AT LIFE has equally hip writing / voicing / harmonized lines that suggest an unissued Keynote Records session tenderly waiting for a twenty-first century jazz archaeologist to uncover it for us.  The group lights up BLUE ROOM and HALLELUJAH! from within; the remaining four performances are originals — one a funny tribute to Rex Stewart, REXPIRATION (where the rhythm section gets some of the waiting-for-Benny feeling of Christian and Johnny Guarnieri, always a good thing).  SCHNECK IT OUT has surprising harmonies yet a walking-down-the-street feeling I associate with YACHT CLUB SWING.  BERRY CRUMBLE is built on BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA, but in such a sly way that it would take any listener two or three minutes to uncover those familiar harmonies.

Listening to this CD, I never had the feeling of surfeit that many CDs produce (“Oh, this has been wonderful . . . but eight more tracks?”) — it is a subtle, enriching musical experience, and a lot of fun.

I have some trepidation about delivering my readers into the Land of Downloads, but here is the link to the iTunes site — where one can purchase a song for 0.99 or the whole CD for 10.99. Or, if you prefer your music delivered by the Amazon conglomerate, here is their link.

May your happiness increase.

MORE HOT NOTES (Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, Oct. 27, 2013)

More random impressions from the second day of the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party:

The elegant Martin Litton merging himself and Teddy Wilson for the first set of the day, a solo recital of pretty songs (BODY AND SOUL) and more energetic ones (LIZA);

a ferocious evocation of the New Orleans Bootblacks and Wanderers (recording aliases with not a little of the expected condescension of the time featuring Lillian Hardin Armstrong, George Mitchell, Johnny Dodds) — by Bent Persson, Jens Lindgren, Stephane Gillot, Matthias Seuffert, Martin Seck, Martin Wheatley, and Malcolm Sked — music that nearly unsettled the foundations of the Village Hotel Newcastle (PAPA DIP, DROP THAT SACK, TOO TIGHT, GEORGIA BO BO, MY BABY, and two others).  Down-home exuberance!  I was delighted by Gillot’s alto playing, which (from my perch) made the band echo the late-Twenties Sam Morgan recordings . . . with magnificent ensemble and solo work from the others;

a tribute to Red Nichols from 1926-30, with Andy Schumm stepping into the role masterfully, Alistair Allan summoning up the Master Miff Mole (shoes off or on), Michael McQuaid reminding us, once again, how much Lester Young must have learned from Jimmy Dorsey, Frans Sjostrom singing pretty songs through his bass saxophone, and Nick Ward creating hot castles in the air.  That would have been sufficient pleasure for anyone, but when Rico Tomasso and Duke Heitger joined for the trumpet trio on ECCENTRIC, it was nearly too much pleasure to bear;

reed wizard Thomas Winteler sitting close to the bandstand, smiling;

Rene Hagmann, on cornet; Jean-Froncois Bonnel, soprano, giving their own individualistic version of the Bechet-Spanier Big Four — the expected songs, but full of surprising light and shade — the landscape we expected but seen anew, with Hagmann suggesting not Muggsy but Cootie, marvelously;

Spats Langham singing the songs of Al Bowlly (accompanying himself on guitar) so tenderly that I thought I saw tears in many eyes — but also suggesting that Bowlly could easily have visited the ARC studios in 1937 and made himself at home with a small elegant hot band;

a wonderfully romping evocation of the Graeme Bell-Humphrey Lyttelton collaborations led by Michael McQuaid, with fires stoked by Duke Heitger, Bent Persson, and Nick Ward;

Josh Duffee’s loving and energized McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (all new songs) with vocal refrains by Mike Durham, Spats Langham, and Keith Nichols — reminding us that there are rainbows around our shoulders when we know how to do the ZONKY;

trombone hero Kris Kompen donning the mantle of Jack Teagarden — for a sweetly swinging DIANE and a BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME that truly cut loose;

Cecile McLorin Salvant, Bent Persson, Thomas Winteler, Keith Nichols, and Martin Wheatley suggesting that the 1928 OKeh studios had moved right next to the local Marks and Spencer, with visits from Lille Delk Christian and Little Louis;

I missed the tributes to Mary Lou Williams (at the head of the Andy Kirk band) and the Missourians, as well as what I was told was an exuberant jam session in the Victory Pub — video-recording and note-taking can be draining, too — but what I did see was choice and more.

A continued pleasure was the beautiful natural sound provided by Chris and Veronica Perrin — I’d hire them for every jazz party!

People are already reserving their places for 2013.  You come, too.

May your happiness increase.

EDDIE CONDON’S FLOOR SHOW (Nov. 16, 1948) CONCLUDED: JOHNNY MERCER, MARY LOU WILLIAMS, PEE WEE RUSSELL, BRAD GOWANS, and MORE

My goodness, there’s more!  That’s the closing performances of the Nov. 16, 1948 Eddie Condon Floor Show — audio only — with Wild Bill Davison, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Mary Lou Williams, Dick Cary, Eddie, Jack Lesberg, George Wettling, Johnny Mercer, with commentary by Lord Buckley.

On DOWN AMONG THE SHELTERING PALMS, what might have seemed a novelty number suddenly opens up because of Mercer’s absolutely relaxed singing (with a touch of the giggles at one point) and lovely work from Brad, Pee Wee, and the rhythm section.

The SLOW BLUES keeps Johnny at the mike (with Wild Bill muttering behind him) — some witty lyrics which lead to that marvel, a Pee Wee stop-time blues performance (the video here is from the 197 THE SOUND OF JAZZ, by the way); a beautiful Wettling drum break takes it up and out we go, with Lord Buckley telling us all about the show next week, with Louis, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw, Sidney Catlett, and Velma Middleton.

As an aside, if you follow Charles Ellsworth Russell’s fortunes and career, wasn’t he apparently disintegrating in 1948, and with a great enmity towards Eddie Condon?  The music wouldn’t prove either of those contentions: he sounds positively elevated and not at all unhappy with the surroundings.  Perhaps history after the fact isn’t as substantial as the evidence.  And here’s another mystery: the cornetist who’s playing as the program is fading out is clearly Davison.  But the first horn soloist after Wettling’s break doesn’t sound like Bill, or Henry “Red” Allen for that matter.  I wonder, I wonder — will the experts in the audience listen in and tell me that I am wrong for thinking it to be my hero, the Atlas of the trumpet, HOT LIPS PAGE?  It wouldn’t be the first or last time Lips showed up at the Floor Show.

I don’t know if Channel 11 — WPIX-TV in New York City — even exists, but I’d guess that their programming in 2012 is not quite as surprising as this.  Thanks once again to the energetic Franz Hoffmann for opening the cornucopia . . . with more to come!

This one’s for Maggie, Romy, and Phyllis and Liza as well.

“ONE BLASTED SURPRISE AFTER ANOTHER”: THE EDDIE CONDON FLOOR SHOW (Nov. 16, 1948)

The title comes from surrealist-hipster-comedian Lord Buckley, who was master of ceremonies for this half hour of startling juxtapositions.  Thanks to magician Franz Hoffmann, we have the soundtrack and some non-synchronized film footage from the November 16, 1948 Eddie Condon Floor Show.*

I offer these videos not only as tribute to the individual artists, but as a kind of swinging rebuttal.  In the last thirty or so years, conventional jazz history has relegated Eddie Condon to, at best, a condescending footnote. “Yes, he organized early interracial recording sessions, but after that his music was no longer important.”  This is what the late Richard Ellmann called the “friend-of” syndrome: that Eddie is important only in his relations to Major Jazz Players Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.  I beg to differ.  Evaluating creation by skin color has never been a good idea, and in this case it ignores a great deal of evidence.   

Eddie’s Floor Show reminds us, once again, how expansive Condon’s musical vision was.  Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Brad Gowans, Dick Cary, Jack Lesberg, and George Wettling are strongly present — but so is Johnny Mercer.  And Sidney Bechet, Henry “Red” Allen, Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Hale, Thelma Carpenter,  Pearl Primus, and Lord Buckley having a fine time satirizing both himself and the proceedings (with a quite accurate Louis Armstrong impersonation).  This is not simply a formulaic group of musicians gathered to read through MUSKRAT RAMBLE once again.  I would have Mr. Condon celebrated as a man who embodied jazz — not simply a pale shadow of its former glories.  Some faithful JAZZ LIVES readers may have noted my attempt to revise history so that everyone appreciates Eddie Condon: I won’t give up until everyone does. 

But music speaks louder than . . . .

So here, thanks to Franz, is the music from November 16, 1948.  More important than Milton Berle, boxing, or wrestling.  In his generous desire to give us a true multi-media experience, Franz has also offered still photos and video clips of the relevant artists: the matchup isn’t always perfect, but his efforts are a gift to us all. 

I AIN’T GONNA GIVE NOBODY NONE OF MY JELLY ROLL into HAPPY BIRTHDAY — vocal by Johnny Mercer, who was quite a singer:

CARAVAN — a feature for Mary Lou Williams:

JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS — featuring Sidney Bechet and the rhythm section:

CONGO DRUMS — perhaps hard to visualize Pearl Primus capering around the small screen, but she loved to dance to jazz accompaniment (there’s a picture of her at Gjon Mili’s 1943 jam session, where she is dancing, barefoot, to a little band playing HONEYSUCKLE ROSE . . . the little band is made up of Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Lou McGarity, Edmond Hall, Johnny Williams, and Sidney Catlett — a pretty fine pickup group!):

For me, what follows is the prize of the session — a new song for Henry “Red” Allen to sing, the rather tough-minded love ballad (after a fashion), I TOLD YA I LOVE YOU, NOW GET OUT (a song composed by the Soft Winds — John Frigo, Lou Carter, and Herb Ellis):

I don’t know whether having dancers on the show was Eddie’s idea or not, but someone understood that television was a visual medium — and while a band could play for an hour on radio, viewers needed other kinds of stimulation to keep their attention: hence a BLUES played as background for the brilliant tap-dancing of Teddy Hale:

A tribute to Louis by Wild Bill Davison, I’M CONFESSIN’:

And a neat combination of Johnny Mercer (whose lyrics we hear) and Thelma Carpenter on COME RAIN OR COME SHINE:

What a bonanza — thanks to Eddie, his friends, and to Franz Hoffmann.

*I believe the yearning for the kinescopes of this television show will forever be unsatisfied: the details are not appropriate here, but the primary kinescopes no longer exist.  One may, of course, imagine a jazz fan with a sound film camera aiming it at the television screen — but the combination of happy events that would have made this possible in 1948 is frankly unlikely.  Better to treasure what we have!

AUBADE FOR RUBY: HOWARD ALDEN, JON-ERIK KELLSO, FRANK TATE at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 16, 2011)

This too-brief set took place at Jazz at Chautauqua on Sept. 17, 2011, at a time most jazz musicians would find uncongenial, but this trio transcended the early hour and the bright sunlight to create wonderful intimate music in honor of Ruby Braff. 

Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso knew Ruby and continues to be inspired by his hot lyricism, but Jon-Erik has his own approach and sound, so his work is a soulful evocation, not an attempt to imitate the Master’s dips and whorls.  Guitarist Howard Alden and bassist Frank Tate were the compact creative unit that embraced and supported Ruby in his final decades, creating small masterpieces from songs both familiar and unexpected.  Ruby drew his “aesthetic vitamins” from jazz sources — Louis Armstrong and Lester Young — but also from Judy Garland and Fred Astaire — and imbued those songs and images with his own deep romanticism, ever surprising.

Here are three performances that summon up Ruby’s eloquence and strength while giving this creative trio of individualists more than enough room to be themselves.

A Mary Lou Williams composition from the mid-Forties, LONELY MOMENTS, always seems like music for a deeply introspective film:

Ruby said he learned the seductive Gershwin song DO IT AGAIN from Judy Garland’s recording.  This performance epitomizes the lullaby-like quality of the song, drawing us ever closer:

And the set concluded with a Louis-inspired romp through a song Ruby was playing as far back as 1967, Don Redman’s NO ONE ELSE BUT YOU:

Beautiful creations at an early hour!

BARNEY JOSEPHSON, CAFE SOCIETY, and MORE

It’s a long time since I got so wrapped up in a book that I didn’t want to stop reading it — but CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE (Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009) is just that book.

Who was Barney Josephson (1902-88)?  If he hadn’t worked very hard to make his dreams become reality, we would only know him as a successful businessman: his specialty, stylish shoes. 

Happily for us, Barney had thoughts beyond Cuban or French heels: a yearning to run a nightclub in New York City, a keen sensitivity to talent, a hatred of social injustice.  And CAFE SOCIETY is the book his life and accomplishments deserve.  It could have been dull, academic, or third-hand.  But it’s a lively memoir of Barney’s life, taken from the tape recordings he made — he was a born raconteur — subtly annotated and expanded by his widow Terry Trilling-Josephson.  

CAFE SOCIETY (like the Downtown and Uptown nightclubs that had that name) is energetic, memorable, full of memorable anecdote and gossip.  Josephson was someone who had good instincts about what artists — musicians, comedians, or actors — whose work had substance.  He said he viewed himself as a “saloon impresario”: “I love it when people say that because I’m not more than that.  It’s the way I view myself.  In this business if you’re an ‘impresario,’ I say that with quotation marks around the word, you have a feeling.  You hear something, and you say, ‘This is it!’  You go ahead and you do it.  You don’t analyze.  You have to follow your hunches.”

Josephson had the good fortune to have John Hammond as his guide, instigator, and occasional arm-twister.  When Barney wanted to start a New York night club with music, it was Hammond who urged him to hire the three boogie-woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, the blues singer Big Joe Turner, and Billie Holiday. 

Cafe Society is remarkable for the improvisers who played there: Teddy Wilson with a band including Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, or Bill Coleman; Benny Morton; Ed Hall or Jimmy Hamilton; Sidney Catlett.  Frank Newton with Sonny White, Kenneth Hollon, Tab Smith, Eddie Dougherty, Johnny Williams.  Ed Hall with Mouse Randolph and Henderson Chambers.  Ellis Larkins with Bill Coleman and Al Hall. 

Later on, at the Cookery, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams.  Josephson brought back Helen Humes and Alberta Hunter for successful late-life “comebacks.”  And it wasn’t simply jazz and popular songs: think of the Revuers (with Judy Holiday and Adolph Green), of Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel, of the now-forgotten Jimmy Savo, all given encouragement and room to develop by Josephson.   

But this isn’t purely a list of who-sang-what and how they were received, a collection of press clippings and schedules.  Josephson was a first-class storyteller with a remarkable memory, and the stories he remembered are priceless.  Nowhere else would I have learned that Emmett Berry, when trying to get someone to take a drink, would ask, “Will you have a drink of Doctor Berry’s rootin’ tootin’ oil?”  For me, that’s worth the price of the book.  Wonderful photographs, too. 

And the stories!

Billie Holiday, at first not knowing what to do with the lyrics of STRANGE FRUIT when they were handed to her, and showing her displeasure in the most effective non-verbal way when an audience annoyed her.

Zero Mostel, always onstage, making life difficult for the man trying to fit him for clothing.

Barney’s firing of Carol Channing and his missing a chance to hire Pearl Bailey.

Tallulah Bankhead complaining — at high volume — about what she’d encountered in the ladies’ room.

Teddy Wilson’s drinking problem, late in his career.

The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.

The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.

Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.

Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.

 And there is a deep, serious undercurrent throughout: the difficulty of having an establishment where neither the bands nor the audiences were segregated, and the looming shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  (Leon Josephson, Barney’s brother, was a particular target, which cast a shadow over Barney’s endeavors.)

Ultimately, the book is delightful for its stories (and the wonderful photographs) and the way Terry Trilling-Josephson has woven recollection and research together.  And the book is — on every page — the embodiment of Barney’s achievements and of the deep love he and Terry shared.  Not to be missed!

BREATHING THE SAME AIR

Were I a different sort of person, I could blame my parents, who were lovingly overprotective.  I could be irked at them now for not encouraging me to leave my suburban nest at 14 or 15 to go into New York City.  Had they been more adventurous souls themselves, I might have seen Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart in the flesh.  But by the time I began to make the trek, Ben Webster had left for Europe; Coleman Hawkins had died. 

Rather than lament the ones I’ve missed, I will list the names of the heroic players and singers  — now dead — I did get to see.

Trumpets / cornets: Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Ray Nance, Louis Metcalf, Herman Autrey, Doc Cheatham, Pat Jenkins, Joe Newman, Joe Thomas, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Erwin, Dick Sudhalter, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Jimmy McPartland, Johnny Windhurst, Taft Jordan, Franc Williams, Jimmy Maxwell.

Trombones: Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Benny Morton, Bobby Pratt, Georg Brunis, Dick Rath, Tyree Glenn, Eli Robinson.

Reeds: Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Al Klink, Herb Hall, Kenny Davern, Sal Pace, Russell Procope, Benny Carter, Johnny Mince, Bud Freeman, Buddy Tate, Phil Bodner, Sam Margolis, Harold Ashby, Earle Warren, Rudy Rutherford, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Clifford Jordan, Rudy Powell, Budd Johnson, Eddie Barefield, Lockjaw Davis, Allen Eager, Barney Bigard, Paul Quinichette, Illinois Jacquet, George Kelly.

Pianos: Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Claude Hopkins, Dill Jones, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Jane Jarvis, Hank Jones, John Bunch, Jimmy Rowles, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Ross Tompkins, Joe Bushkin, Ellis Larkins, Sammy Price, Art Hodes.

Guitars: Eddie Condon, Freddie Green, Wayne Wright, Herb Ellis, Al Casey, Bernard Addison, Carmen Mastren, George Barnes.

Basses: Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Charles Mingus, Al Hall, Bill Pemberton, Gene Ramey, Jack Lesberg, Bob Haggart, Franklyn Skeete.

Drums: Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Cliff Leeman, Chauncey Morehouse, Buzzy Drootin, Tommy Benford, Oliver Jackson, Eddie Locke, Sonny Greer, Sam Woodyard, Gus Johnson, Jake Hanna, Connie Kay, Freddie Moore.

Vibraphone (or Vibraharp): Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo.

Violin: Joe Venuti.

Vocals: Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, Lee Wiley, Bing Crosby, Al Hibbler, Maxine Sullivan.

I miss them all, but feel so fortunate that I was there to breathe the same air, to hear their sounds.

MILDRED BAILEY by JULIA KEEFE

Mildred Rinker Bailey

“The Rocking Chair Lady”

February 16, 1900 – December 12, 1951

Mildred Rinker was born one hundred and ten years ago today in Tekoa, Washington.  Her mother, Josephine Lee Rinker, was an enrolled member of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe.  Mildred’s early childhood was spent on the family’s tribal allotment near DeSmet, Idaho, where she spent many happy hours riding her pony, Buck.

The Rinker family moved to Spokane’s North Central neighborhood when Mildred was thirteen, and she graduated from St. Joseph’s School. Mildred and her younger brother Al spent many happy hours singing and playing piano under the instruction of their mother, an excellent pianist who could play both classical and ragtime music.

Mildred’s musical talent inspired both her brother Al and one of his band mates, a singing drummer named Bing Crosby, who once said, “I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life.  I learned a lot from her.  She made records which are still vocal classics, and she taught me much about singing and interpreting popular songs.”

Shortly after her mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1917, Mildred moved to Seattle and found work singing from sheet music at a local music store.  Her career path led her throughout the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where she joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and became the first full-time female big band singer in America.  Mildred Bailey’s groundbreaking achievement opened the door of opportunity for later jazz greats including Billie Holiday, Helen Ward, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Mildred Bailey’s earliest recordings were made in 1929, and she recorded nearly three hundred songs over the years, several of which became best-sellers.  Mildred had her own radio show in the 1940s, and was voted either first or second most popular female jazz vocalist in the first three annual Esquire Magazine jazz polls. The most famous artists from the swing era recorded and performed with Mildred, including Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, the Dorsey brothers, and Artie Shaw.

In 1944, Time magazine reviewed her show at the Café Society in New York and called her “just about the greatest songbird in the U.S.”  Mildred and her husband, pioneer xylophone and vibes great Red Norvo were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing” during this phase of her career.

Mildred Bailey died on December 21, 1951 in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she lived on a farm with her beloved dachshunds, Spotty and Susan.  In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of stamps honoring legendary jazz and blues singers, including “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey.  One jazz historian said of Mildred, “She had a magic. So many people down the line, so many singers, benefited from her, owe debts to her – and they don’t even know it.”

Thank you, Mildred, for the trail you blazed and the beautiful songs you left behind.  You demonstrated that a little girl from an Idaho Indian reservation can dream big dreams, and make those dreams come true.  We’ll never forget you. Thanks for the memory!

Julia Keefe, Nez Perce tribal member

www.juliakeefe.com

(For those of you who haven’t heard of Julia Keefe, I promise that you will.  She’s more than an articulate Mildred Bailey fan; more than a diligent researcher — who provided these pictures of a seventeen-year old Mildred about to leave Spokane for the big time (the pictures came from Mildred’s niece, Julia Rinker Miller, whose father was Al Rinker) . . . she’s also a 20-year old jazz singer with a future.   She reveres Mildred and sings some of her songs, but Julia is wise enough to know that imitation is both impossible and no one’s idea of flattery.  More from and about her in future!)  And Julia went to the same Spokane high school, Gonzaga Prep, as that fellow Crosby . . . it’s a small world after all. 

REVISITING BENNY GOODMAN’S TRIUMPH, JANUARY 16, 1938

In the past year, there’s been much well-deserved attention paid to the life and music of Benjamin David Goodman, clarinetist supreme, cultural icon, King of Swing, trail-blazer and phenomenal improviser — because he was born a hundred years ago.  In 2008, there was another reason to celebrate while invoking his name — the seventieth anniversary of his Carnegie Hall concert. 

I don’t wish to take an iota away from the significance of that event, nor do I wish to dull our reverence both for it and the recordings of that evening.  It may be heretical that I find the records uneven — but, then again, attempting to capture any live jazz is risky, and that Carnegie came off so spectacularly is a tribute to everyone’s creative energies.  (As an aside, I don’t have much enthusiasm for the recent concert recreations where a first-rate jazz band plays the concert, from first note to last, “live.”  The original event is irreproducible, another tribute to its essence.)  Perhaps my reaction is the result of having listened to the original recordings too many times in my youth, although the jam session on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE is still thrilling.

Here, to celebrate the event, is a snippet from a Goodman documentary: I include it not because of the leaden commentary, but for the silent newsreel footage taken in the hall that night. 

A celebration of January 16, 1938 that I can applaud whole-heartedly is Jon Hancock’s wonderful book: BENNY GOODMAN – THE FAMOUS 1938 CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT (Prancing Fish Publishing, 2009).

Before I explain this book’s virtues, I must reveal my own reactions to much of what is published on the subject of jazz in general and Goodman in specific.  Having read the best prose and criticism, I dislike sloppy research, poor attribution and inept paraphrase, polemical ideological statements passed off as evidence.  I applaud Whitney Balliett and Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern and Richard M. Sudhalter even when I disagree with them, because of their insight and their evidence-gathering.  But many “jazz writers” have only the opinions and attitudes of others to offer: leftovers presented as fresh. 

Goodman, too, is a special case.  I have savored Bill Crow’s brilliantly lacerating memoir of the 1962 trip to Russia; Ross Firestone’s affectionate, forgiving biography of Benny, SWING, SWING, SWING told me things I hadn’t known and was therefore valuable.  Ultimately, Goodman the musician is a more absorbing study than Benny the neurotic. 

Hancock’s book is exciting because it does offer new information about this most singular event.  Even better, he has made a point of not taking familiar statements as gospel without tracing them back to their original sources.  The result is a fascinating mosaic.  I knew, for instance, that Harry James said, “I feel like a whore in church,” joking about his being in the august hall, but I knew nothing of the newspaper reports before the concert: predictions that Big Joe Turner might sing and W.C. Handy might appear, that Mary Lou Williams was writing a “Jazz concerto,” and, even better, that Lionel Hampton was composing a “Swing Symphony” for the occasion. 

And there’s just as much pleasure in the visual memorabilia.  John Totten was the stage manager at Carnegie, and he collected signatures in his autograph book.  One page of this book (beautifully reporduced) has the signatures of Benny, Jess Stacy, Hampton, “Ziggie” Elman, Gordon Griffin, and others; another page has the signatures of George Koenig, Martha Tilton, Pee Wee Monte, and “best remembrances” from Joseph Szigeti.  That’s priceless.

There’s also a photogrraph from the Ferbuary 1938 Tempo Magazine of a pre-concert rehearsal for the jam session: Freddie Green, Benny, Lester Young, his high-crowned hat pushed back on his head, a grinning Gene Krupa, an intent Harry James.  Is it evidence of Benny’s over-preparation that he would have musicians rehearse to jam on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE — or is it just that he wanted the opportunity to play a few choruses with Lester and Freddie? 

A beautiful picture of a young (he had just turned 29) Gene Krupa adjusting his tie between sets in the Madhattan Room has him against a background of brass instruments that, curiously, looks like the work of Stuart Davis or someone inspired — at first glance, I thought that the painter (and occasional drummer) George Wettling had been the artist. 

Hancock’s book also reproduces the twelve-page concert program; here one finds announcements for upcoming concerts by Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch, advertisements for Schrafft’s and the Russian Tea Room, for Maiden Form brassieres and Chesterfield cigarettes, and (something to live for) notice that the Gramophone Shop would have on sale on January 22, 1938, Teddy Wilson’s Brunswick record of MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU and IF DREAMS COME TRUE.

 These lovely artifacts, including a ticket from the concert, shouldn’t make us forget that the real glory of the book is Hancock’s meticulous (but never stuffy) eye for detail — that pro-Franco demonstrators picketed Carnegie the night of the concert, chanting “Benny Goodman is a red from Spain,” necause Benny had played a concert for the Spanish Loyalists in December 1937.  Ziggy Elman’s rejoinder, “No, he isn’t, he’s a clarinet player from Chicago!” satisfies me, even if it did little to placate the protesters. 

The centerpiece of the book is Hancock’s easy, unforced commentary on the music played at the concert — forty pages of analysis and commentary, neither highflown musicology in the Gunther Schuller way or a fan’s yipping enthusiasm — something to read while the compact discs of the concert are playing.  Anything about the concert — the microphone setup, the photographs and newsreel footage — as well as the recordings made, the mythic story of their re-discovery, their various issues . . . . up to Benny’s later appearances at Carnegie — all are meticulously covered by Hancock.  And there’s a touching reminiscence of BG at home by his daughter Rachel Edelson that is a masterpiece of gentle honesty. 

Reviewers have to find flaws, so I will say that a few names are misspelled, as in the pastoral “Glen Miller,” but since none of these musicians were in the Goodman band, I and other enthusiasts forgive Hancock . . . while applauding his tremendous effort, both enthusiastic and careful.  Writing this post, I must add, took a long time — not because my mind wasn’t made up within the first fifteen minutes of looking at the book, but because I kept getting distracted from writing to reading and re-reading.  Good job!

Jon has a website, www.bg1938.com., where you can find out more about the book — and the more important information about how to get your own copy.  And you can add your own opinion about Just Who the Mystery Man is.  Someone has to know!

BENNY VISITS “AVALON”

In the last few days I’ve been listening to the Benny Goodman Festival being broadcast on WKCR-FM (if you’re out of range of this New York City FM station, you can hear it online at www.wkcr.org).  Whenever I turn on the radio a Goodman small group is eagerly exploring AVALON at a jaunty tempo, a coincidence that both amuses and puzzles me.

BGNow, I don’t plan to accuse Goodman of being an aging artist caught in his own boredom, but the frequency with which jazz musicians return to their own narrowing repertoire of familiar songs to improvise on is worth comment.

I know that Hot Lips Page famously said (to whom?) “The material is immaterial,” and Bob Rusch has gently reminded me that jazz is about what one does with the material rather than the material itself.  “‘T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it,” sang Trummy Young.

And anyone brave enough to improvise in public at the tempos Goodman favored should, by law, have the right to choose his or her own favorite set of chord changes — no matter whether the improviser in question is Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, or John Coltrane.  But I’ve also heard some of the finest jazz artists turn in established solos on familiar pieces for their features, occasionally playing something quite moving, but more often falling back on set routine.  I think of Jo Jones’s CARAVAN, of Buddy Tate’s BODY AND SOUL, of Vic Dickenson’s IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD, and so on.

One could, of course, make the case that jazzmen have “master solos” and “polished performances” to fall back on, because improvisation is such a demanding art.  And Ricky Riccardi has made the point that Louis Armstrong’s versions of INDIANA that often began his later performances were anything but rote repetition.

But Benny himself (according to Ross Firestone’s sweet-natured biography) seems to have been dissatisfied with the music he played in his last decade, saying to someone, “You can’t play LADY BE GOOD forever.”  But he did play AVALON for fifty years.

Did he play it so regularly because it was a song he loved from his childhood (it first appeared in 1920)?  Did he return to it because it was one of his proven hits, a selection that his audience — sometimes made up of people who had cheered him on in 1937 — wanted, expected, and waited for?  Did he feel a responsibility to please the people who had paid to hear him with a medley of his Greatest Hits?  Or was playing AVALON something that gave him pleasure in itself — both as a stunning ride over the chord changes and as a way of making an exciting performance?  I can’t begin to say.

And some of the performances of AVALON I’ve heard on WKCR-FM are justly thrilling — not just in terms of technique and facility, but as musical expressions — evidence of an older artist still finding “something new to say” on a familiar text.  Some of them sound like Goodman playing at being Benny Goodman — with playing that is technically exciting but not especially creative improvised music.

The only time I was fortunate enough to see Goodman in person — at a great distance — was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 or 1975, with a truly all-star group including Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge (!).  Of course, the King offered us AVALON, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and DON’T BE THAT WAY to enthusiastic applause, but I was much more moved by Hackett’s choice of a feature number — an uptempo SECRET LOVE, which I can still dimly hear in my head as I write this.

Does this make me a snob for asking my beloved jazz heroes to “be original”?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if I had been able to ask Benny why he explored and re-explored AVALON, he would have said, “I like it.”  And that would have been enough, even for me.  Any artist who’s given us so much for such a long time is entitled to his idiosyncracies.

THE ELUSIVE FRANK NEWTON

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the remarkable jazz trumpeter Frank Newton in the last few weeks, even before having the opportunity to repost this picture of him (originally on JazzWax) — taken in Boston, in the late Forties, with George Wein and Joe Palermino. 

Jazz is full of players who say something to us across the years, their instrumental voices resounding through the murk and scrape of old records.  Some players seem to have led full artistic lives: Hawkins, Wilson, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Bob Wilber come to mind at the head of a long list.  Others, equally worthy, have had shorter lives or thwarted careers.   Bix, Bird, Brownie, to alliterate, among a hundred others.  And all these lives raise the unanswerable question of whether anyone ever entirely fulfills him or herself.  Or do we do exactly what we were meant to do, no matter how long our lifespan?  Call it Nurture / Nature, free will, what you will.     

But today I choose Frank Newton as someone I wish had more time in the sun.  His recorded legacy seems both singular and truncated.     

Frank Newton (who disliked the “Frankie” on record labels) was born in 1906 in Virginia.  He died in 1954, and made his last records in 1946.  A selection of the recorded evidence fills two compact discs issued on Jasmine, THE STORY OF A FORGOTTEN JAZZ TRUMPETER.    His Collected Works might run to four or five hours — a brief legacy, and there are only a few examples I know where an extended Newton solo was captured for posterity.  However, he made every note count. 

In and out of the recording sudios, he traveled in fast company: the pianists include Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Sonny White, Mary Lou Williams, Buck Washington, Meade Lux Lewis, Kenny Kersey, Billy Kyle, Don Frye, Albert Ammons, Joe Bushkin, Joe Sullivan, Sonny White, and Johnny Guarneri.  Oh, yes — and Art Tatum.  Singers?  How about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Although Newton first went into the studio with Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys in 1929 for Victor, the brilliant trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dicky Wells blaze most notably on those sessions. 

It isn’t until 1933 that we truly hear Newton on record.  This interlude, lasting less than a minute, takes place in the middle of Bessie Smith’s “Gimme A Pigfoot,” one of four vaudeville-oriented songs she recorded at her last session, one organized by John Hammond, someone who re-emerges in Newton’s story.  It was a magnificent all-star band: Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry, Benny Goodman (for a moment), Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, Billy Taylor on bass.  Hammond wanted Sidney Catlett on drums, but Bessie refused: “No drums.  I set the tempo.”  For all the rent-party trappings of the song, “Pigfoot” is thin material, requiring a singer of Bessie’s majesty to make it convincing.   

What one first notices about Newton’s solo is his subversive approach, his unusual tone and attack.  In 1933, the jazz world was rightly under the spell of Louis, which led to understandable extroversion.  Project.  Hit those high notes loud.  Sing out.  If you were accompanying a pop or blues singer, you could stay in the middle register, be part of the background, but aside from such notable exceptions as Joe Smith, Bubber Miley, trumpets were in the main assertive, brassy.  Dick Sudhalter thought Newton’s style was the result of technical limitations but I disagree; perhaps Newton was, like Tricky Sam Nanton, painting with sounds. 

Before Newton solos on “Pigfoot,” the record has been undeniably Bessie’s, although with murmurings from the other horns and a good deal of Washington’s spattering Hines punctuations.  But when Newton enters, it is difficult to remember that anyone else has had the spotlight.  Rather than boldly announce his presence with an upwards figure, perhaps a dazzling break, he sidles in, sliding down the scale like a man pretending to be drunk, whispering something we can’t quite figure out, drawling his notes with a great deal of color and amusement, lingering over them, not in a hurry at all.  His mid-chorus break is a whimsical merry-go-round up and down figure he particularly liked.  It’s almost as if he is teasing us, peeking at us from behind his mask, daring us to understand what he is up to.  The solo is the brief unforgettable speech of a great character actor, Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton, scored for jazz trumpet.  Another brassman would have offered heroic ascents, glowing upwards arpeggios; Newton appears to wander down a rock-choked slope, watching his footing.  It’s a brilliant gambit: no one could equal Bessie in scope, in power (both expressed and restrained) so Newton hides and reveals, understates.  And his many tones!  Clouded, muffled, shining for a brief moment and then turning murky, needling, wheedling, guttural, vocal and personal.  Considered in retrospect, this solo has a naughty schoolyard insouciance.  Given his turn in the spotlight, Newton pretends to thumb his nose at us.  Bessie has no trouble taking back the spotlight when she returns, but she wasn’t about to be upstaged by some trumpet-playing boy.     

Could any trumpet player, jazz or otherwise, do more than approximate what Newton plays here?  Visit http://www.redhotjazz.com/songs/bessie/gimmieapigfoot.ram to hear a fair copy of this recording.  (I don’t find that the link works: you may have to go to the Red Hot Jazz website and have the perverse pleasure of using “Pigfoot” as a search term.) 

The man who could play such a solo should have been recognized and applauded, although his talent was undeniably subtle.  (When you consider that Newton’s place in the John Kirby Sextet was taken by the explosively dramatic Charlie Shavers, Newton’s singularity becomes even clearer.)  His peers wanted him on record sessions, and he did record a good deal in the Thirties, several times under his own name.  But after 1939, his recording career ebbed and died. 

Nat Hentoff has written eloquently of Newton, whom he knew in Boston, and the man who comes through is proud, thoughtful, definite in his opinions, politically sensitive, infuriated by racism and by those who wanted to limit his freedoms.  Many jazz musicians are so in love with the music that they ignore everything else, as if playing is their whole life.  Newton seems to have felt that there was a world beyond the gig, the record studio, the next chorus.  And he was outspoken.  That might lead us back to John Hammond. 

Hammond did a great deal for jazz, as he himself told us.  But his self-portrait as the hot Messiah is not the whole story.  Commendably, he believed in his own taste, but he required a high-calorie diet of new enthusiasms to thrive.  Hammond’s favorite last week got fired to make way for his newest discovery.  Early on Hammond admired Newton, and many of Newton’s Thirties sessions had Hammond behind them.  Even if Hammond had nothing to do with a particular record, appearing on one major label made a competing label take notice.  But after 1939, Newton never worked for a mainstream record company again, and the records he made in 1944-1946 were done for small independent labels: Savoy (run by the dangerously disreputable Herman Lubinsky) and Asch (the beloved child of the far-left Moses Asch).  The wartime recording ban had something to do with this hiatus, but I doubt that it is the sole factor: musicians recorded regularly before the ban.  Were I a novelist or playwright, I would invent a scene where Newton rejects Hammond’s controlling patronage . . .  and falls from favor, never to return.  I admit this is speculation.  Perhaps it was simply that Newton chose to play as he felt rather than record what someone else thought he should.  A recording studio is often the last place where it is possible to express oneself freely and fully.  And I recall a drawing in a small jazz periodical from the late Forties, perhaps Art Hodes’ JAZZ RECORD, of Newton in the basement of an apartment building where he had taken a job as janitor so that he could read, paint, and perhaps play his trumpet in peace.  

I think of Django Reinhardt saying, a few weeks before he died, “The guitar bores me.”  Did Newton grow tired of his instrument, of the expectations of listeners, record producers, and club-owners?  On the rare recording we have of his speaking voice — a brief bit of a Hentoff interview — Newton speaks with sardonic humor about working in a Boston club where the owner’s taste ran to waltzes and “White Christmas,” but using such constraints to his advantage: every time he would play one of the owner’s sentimental favorites, he would be rewarded with a “nice thick steak.”  A grown man having to perform to be fed is not a pleasant sight, even though it is a regular event in jazz clubs.     

In addition, John Chilton’s biographical sketch of Newton mentions long stints of illness.  What opportunities Newton may have missed we cannot know, although he did leave Teddy HIll’s band before its members went to France.  It pleases me to imagine him recording with Django Reinhardt and Dicky Wells for the Swing label, settling in Europe to escape the racism in his homeland.  In addition, Newton lost everything in a 1948 house fire.  And I have read that he became more interested in painting than in jazz.  Do any of his paintings survive?  

Someone who could have told us a great deal about Newton in his last decade is himself dead — Ruby Braff, who heard him in Boston, admired him greatly and told Jon-Erik Kellso so.  And on “Russian Lullaby,” by Mary Lou WIlliams and her Chosen Five (Asch, reissued on vinyl on Folkway), where the front line is bliss: Newton, Vic Dickenson, and Ed Hall, Newton’s solo sounds for all the world like later Ruby — this, in 1944. 

In her notes to the Jasmine reissue, Sally-Ann Worsford writes that a “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” Newton “made his final appearance at New York’s Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950s.”  That large hall, peopled by loudly enthusiastic college students shouting for The Saints, would not have been his metier.  It is tempting, perhaps easy, to see Newton as a victim.  But “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” is never the sound we hear, even on his most mournful blues. 

The name Jerry Newman must be added here — and a live 1941 recording that allows us to hear the Newton who astonished other players, on “Lady Be Good” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” in duet with Art Tatum (and the well-meaning but extraneous bassist Ebenezer Paul), uptown in Harlem, after hours, blessedly available on a HighNote CD under Tatum’s name, GOD IS IN THE HOUSE.  

Jerry Newman was then a jazz-loving Columbia University student with had a portable disc-cutting recording machine.  It must have been heavy and cumbersome, but Newman took his machine uptown and found that the musicians who came to jam (among them Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Don Byas, Thelonious Monk, Joe Guy, Harry Edison, Kenny Clarke, Tiny Grimes, Dick Wilson, Helen Humes) didn’t mind a White college kid making records of their impromptu performances: in fact, they liked to hear the discs of what they had played.  (Newman, later on, issued some of this material on his own Esoteric label.  Sadly, he committed suicide.)  Newman caught Tatum after hours, relaxing, singing the blues — and jousting with Newton.  Too much happens on these recordings to write down, but undulating currents of invention, intelligence, play, and power animate every chorus.

On “Lady Be Good,” Newton isn’t in awe of Tatum and leaps in before the first chorus is through, his sound controlled by his mute but recognizable nonetheless.  Newton’s first chorus is straightforward, embellished melody with some small harmonic additions, as Tatum is cheerfully bending and testing the chords beneath him.  It feels as if Newton is playing obbligato to an extravagantly self-indulgent piano solo . . . . until the end of the second duet chorus, where Newton seems to parody Tatum’s extended chords: “You want to play that way?  I’ll show you!”  And the performance grows wilder: after the two men mimic one another in close-to-the-ground riffing, Newton lets loose a Dicky Wells-inspired whoop.  Another, even more audacious Tatum solo chorus follows, leading into spattering runs and crashing chords.  In the out- chorus, Tatum apparently does his best to distract or unsettle Newton, who will not be moved or shaken off.  “Sweet Georgia Brown” follows much the same pattern: Tatum wowing the audience, Newton biding his time, playing softly, even conservatively.  It’s not hard to imagine him standing by the piano, watching, letting Tatum have his say for three solo choruses that get more heroic as they proceed.  When Newton returns, his phrases are climbing, calm, measured — but that calm is only apparent, as he selects from one approach and another, testing them out, taking his time, moving in and outside the chords.  As the duet continues, it becomes clear that as forcefully as Tatum is attempting to direct the music, Newton is in charge.  It isn’t combat: who, after all, dominated Tatum?  But I hear Newton grow from accompanist to colleague to leader.  It’s testimony to his persuasive, quiet mastery, his absolute sense of his own rightness of direction (as when he plays a Tatum-pattern before Tatum gets to it).  At the end, Newton hasn’t “won” by outplaying Tatum in brilliance or volume, speed or technique — but he has asserted himself memorably.   

Taken together, these two perfomances add up to twelve minutes.  Perhaps hardly enough time to count for a man’s achievement among the smoke, the clinking glasses, the crowd.  But we marvel at them.  We celebrate Newton, we mourn his loss.

Postscript: in his autobiography, MYSELF AMONG OTHERS, Wein writes about Newton; Hentoff returns to Newton as a figure crucial in his own development in BOSTON BOY and a number of other places.  And then there’s HUNGRY BLUES, Benjamin T. Greenberg’s blog (www.hungryblues.net).  His father, Paul Greenberg, knew Newton in the Forties and wrote several brief essays about him — perhaps the best close-ups we have of the man.  In Don Peterson’s collection of his father Charles’s resoundingly fine jazz photography, SWING ERA NEW YORK, there’s a picture of Newton, Mezz Mezzrow, and George Wettling at a 1937 jam session.  I will have much more to write about Peterson’s photography in a future posting.

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.