Tag Archives: Mason “Country” Thomas

THE PAST, PRESERVED: “TRIBUTE TO JIMMIE NOONE”: JOE MURANYI, MASON “COUNTRY” THOMAS, JAMES DAPOGNY, JOHNNY WILLIAMS, ROD McDONALD, HAL SMITH (Manassas Jazz Festival, Dulles, Virginia, Nov. 30, 1986)

One moral of this story, for me, is that the treasure-box exists, and wonderfully kind people are willing to allow us a peek inside.

A jazz fan / broadcaster / amateur singer and kazoo player, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, Jr. (1923-1990), — he was an accountant by day — held jazz festivals in Manassas and other Virginia cities, beginning in 1966 and running about twenty years.  They were enthusiastic and sometimes uneven affairs, because of “Fat Cat”‘s habit, or perhaps it was a financial decision, of having the finest stars make up bands with slightly less celestial players.  Some of the musicians who performed and recorded for McRee include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, James Dapogny, Don Ewell, John Eaton, Maxine Sullivan, Bob Wilber, Pug Horton, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Bob Greene, Johnny Wiggs, Zutty Singleton, Clancy Hayes, George Brunis, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Tommy Gwaltney, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barker, Edmond Souchon, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Gordon, Marty Grosz, Hal Smith, Kerry Price . . . .

McRee also had business sense, so the proceedings were recorded, issued first on records and then on cassette.  I never got to Manassas while the Festival was happening, but I did buy many of Fat Cat’s lps (with their red and yellow label) and years later, when I met Hank O’Neal, he told me stories of recording the proceedings on Squirrel Ashcraft’s tape machine here.

My dear friend Sonny McGown, who was there, filled in some more of the story of the music you are about to see and hear.  The 1986 festival was dedicated to Jimmie Noone and these performances come from a Sunday brunch set.  “It was a very talented group and they meshed well. Mason ‘Country’ Thomas was the best clarinetist in the DC area for years; he was a big fan of Caceres. . . . Fat Cat’s wife, Barbara, often operated the single VHS video camera which in later years had the audio patched in from the sound board. As you well know, the video quality in those days was somewhat lacking but it is better to have it that way than not at all. Several years later Barbara allowed Joe Shepherd to borrow and digitize many of the videos. In his last years Fat Cat only issued audio cassettes. They were easy to produce, carry and distribute. FCJ 238 contains all of the Muranyi – Dapogny set except for “River…”. However, the videos provide a more enhanced story.”

A few years back, I stumbled across a video that Joe had put up on YouTube — I think it was Vic Dickenson singing and playing ONE HOUR late in his life, very precious to me for many reasons — and I wrote to him.  Joe proved to be the most generous of men and he still is, sending me DVDs and CD copies of Fat Cat recordings I coveted.  I am delighted to report that, at 93, he is still playing, still a delightful person who wants nothing more for his kindnesses than that the music be shared with people who love it.

Because of Joe, I can present to you the music of Jimmie Noone, performed on November 30, 1986, by Joe Muranyi, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocal; Mason “Country” Thomas, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Rod McDonald, guitar; Johnny Williams, string bass [yes, Sidney Catlett’s teammate in the Armstrong Decca orchestra!]; Hal Smith, drums; Johnson McRee, master of ceremonies and vocalist.  The songs are IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (vocal, Joe); CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES (vocal, Fat Cat); MISS ANNABELLE LEE (Joe); SO SWEET; RIVER, STAY ‘WAY FROM MY DOOR; APEX BLUES; SWEET LORRAINE (Fat Cat).

Some caveats.  Those used to videocassette tapes know how quickly the visual quality diminishes on duplicates, and it is true here.  But the sound, directly from the mixing board, is bright and accurate.  YouTube, in its perplexing way, has divided this set into three oddly-measured portions, so that the first and second segments end in the middle of a song.  Perhaps I could repair this, but I’d rather be shooting and posting new videos than devoting my life to repairing imperfections.  (Also, these things give the busy YouTube dislikers and correcters something to do: I can’t take away their pleasures.)

One of the glories of this set is the way we can see and hear Jim Dapogny in peak form — not only as soloist, but as quirky wise ensemble pianist, sometimes keeping everything and everyone on track.  Joe has promised me more videos with Jim . . . what joy, I say.

Don’t you hear me talkin’ to you?  It IS tight like that:

Who’s wonderful?  Who’s marvelous?

I’ve just found joy:

I started this post with “a” moral.  The other moral comes out of my finding this DVD, which I had forgotten, in the course of tidying my apartment for the new decade.  What occurs to me now is that one should never be too eager to tidy their apartment / house / what have you, because if everything is properly organized and all the contents are known, then surprises like this can’t happen.  So there.  Bless all the people who played and play; bless those who made it possible to share this music with you.  Living and “dead,” they resonate so sweetly.

May your happiness increase!

GOODBYE TO MISS BARBARA LEA (1929-2011)

Young Miss Lea

The remarkable jazz singer Barbara Lea has left us.  Her dear friend Jeanie Wilson writes, “I am deeply saddened to have to report the death of our own Barbara Lea, “The High Priestess of Popular Song”. She died peacefully yesterday, Monday, December 26, here in Raleigh, North Carolina; I was with her as were my husband, Bill, and our dear friend, Junk. And as most of you already know, Barbara has been battling Alzheimer’s for quite some time. So, “Sleep Peaceful”, dear Barbara… we will miss you but now you are free to sing once again.”

I know that many JAZZ LIVES readers have their own memories of hearing and working with Barbara, which I will share in an upcoming post.  For now, this is the way I and so many others will think of her:

It’s an informal exploration of SKYLARK at the 1983 Manassas Jazz Festival — where Barbara is backed empathically by tenor saxophonist Mason “Country” Thomas, who also left us in 2011; Larry Eanet, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Van Perry, bass; Tom Martin, drums.  Thanks to Sflair for the original video and for sharing it with us on YouTube.

A musician who worked and recorded with Miss Lea several times is the fine drummer Hal Smith, who had this to say, “She had a lovely voice, terrific intonation, perfect diction and her voice aged very well.  I had heard that she adopted the last name of “Lea” as a tribute to Lee Wiley.  If that’s true, she deserved to invoke Ms. Wiley’s name. At the recording session she was well-prepared with a list of songs and keys, easy-to-read charts and ideas for routines.  In that respect, and in her pleasant demeanor, she reminded me of another great vocalist — with the last name of Kilgore.”

Saxophonist, pianist, and director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Loren Schoenberg, also worked with and learned from Barbara: “Barbara Lea passed away this week and the world has lost an exemplary interpreter of 20th century popular music and I’ve lost a dear friend and mentor.

I was driving Benny Carter down Seventh Avenue to a rehearsal years ago and Louis Armstrong came over the radio playing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” . Benny’s response was “Listen to that – no bullshit!” And in the generous sense in which Benny meant it, one can transpose the same comment to Barbara’s music, though I’m sure she wouldn’t be happy with that language.

She was above all an intelligent and classy lady, with a gift for discovering the melodic and lyrical essence of a song. We started working together in the late 70’s and continued up to the point her illness made it impossible several years ago.  If I heard her sing one tune, I heard her sing several hundred, because I was first and foremost a fan, and went to as many of her gigs as I could, many times with my parents. The Mr. Tram ensemble we had with Dick Sudhalter and Daryl Sherman was nothing less than a joy. You should have heard the conversations; they were as good as the music! Barbara was incapable of coasting when she sang.  No wonder so many composers, starting with Alec Wilder, were so crazy about her. What a variety of timbres she had, and a variety of ways of phrasing to match the words.  Scatting wasn’t for her, and she was forthright about her opinions, and blessedly empathetic with others who didn’t necessarily agree with her.  There’s much more to be said about her, but for the essence, just listen. It’s ALL there.”

We’ll miss Barbara Lea.

(Thanks to David J. Weiner, Hal Smith, and Loren Schoenberg for their help.)