It’s all because of this devoted young person, Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera, who makes ideas become reality. And let us say immediately that the Hot Club of New York is a welcoming place — intent on sharing the music the way it was first heard, on actual 78 rpm records. You don’t have to be a jazz scholar or aficionado (there are always blues and calypso records as well) because there is no final examination. Admission is free; there will be food and drink “for purchase” (as the airlines say) and it will congenial, live, and swinging.
These sessions began in October 2019 and continued until March 2020, when some molecules interfered with our fun. I’m delighted to see them come back, not only for the music but for the community the music engenders. I hope you can join us: new friends and old ones gathered for shared joy.
At the end of 2022, I went to Matthew’s Brooklyn burrow to gather his thoughts and music on the lovely Hot Club phenomenon:
Matthew has the righteous passion but he always lets the records speak for themselves, and they do, gloriously.
And because the Law is always ready to make its presence known, I did this brief legal notice — for the record, as you might say:
See you there! It’s a brief walk from the Christopher Street stop on the #1.
Coleman Hawkins’ birthday was the 21st of November. Although he’s no longer here to celebrate with us, we continue to celebrate him. He was the tenor saxophonist before other musicians had figured out ways to make that horn an effective part of a jazz ensemble, and — even more tellingly — a compelling solo voice. And then he blazed a path for forty-five years.
Two weeks ago, at the Monday-night Zoom meeting of the Hot Club of New York, our friend-scholar Matthew Rivera played the issued take of MY BUDDY — several times — with the affectionate reverence and admiration it deserves. But the band, this wonderful mix of Americans and Europeans, recorded it three times, and some members had never heard the alternate takes.
I want to fill that gap here, and am also offering the two takes of PARDON ME, PRETTY BABY, a sweet rouser of a whimsical-romantic appeal (these versions are instrumental, so you won’t hear the winsome question, “Don’t I look familiar to you?” and the rest of the chipper lyrics by Ray Klages and Jack Meskill).
The band was led by Hawkins’ friend and colleague, the masterful Benny Carter, who played trumpet, alto saxophone, and clarinet; also joining in the swing were Freddy Johnson, piano; George Chisholm, trombone; Jimmy Williams, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Ray Webb, guitar; Len Harrison, string bass; Robert Montmarche, drums — all of this recorded in the Netherlands for Decca / Vocalion on August 18, 1937.
A word about “alternate takes.” I gather that the term was first used in film production.) I suspect that the recording executives, having such a band in their studios, were ready to say — even if a performance was excellent — “Let’s try another.” Or it might have been Carter himself. One of the musicians might have said, “I’d like another try at that: I wasn’t happy with my solo.” The listener will notice on this session that the soloists follow some of the same general path from take to take, but the variations are fascinating, particularly on MY BUDDY, where the general looseness is more prevalent from one take to the next.
Exuberant, inventive, ingenious playing on all five performances. And we hear Hawkins and Carter plunging into their solos with fervor and exactitude, followed closely behind by Freddy Johnson. Let us also praise Benny’s wondrous trumpet playing! He may have been responsible for the little but telling arranging touches, or they may have been “head arrangements,” invented on the spot, but they give these performances shape and focus. And consider — in this era of performances with no time limit — how much music these people created in three-minutes-and-change. Two players sharing a thirty-two bar chorus (a “split chorus”) makes so much eloquent compression possible.
PARDON ME, PRETTY BABY (master take):
and the alternate take:
Walter Donaldson’s MY BUDDY (master take):
The first alternate:
The second alternate:
Finally, for the detail-minded, a few words about the presumed sequence of performances and record-keeping. It would be natural to count #1 and #2 as the first and second performances created, but those official designations might only be ways of noting first and second choice, by the musicians or the record-company people. But the music is what matters, and it is happily timeless.
If you haven’t checked out the Hot Club of New York (the link is above), you will enjoy it — timeless music in a community of people enjoying it, every Monday night from 7-10 PM.
It’s so delightful to know that scholars of this music — brilliant young ones! — are carrying on the great work of honoring our collective ancestors. You have already heard about Matthew Rivera, Charles Iselin, Andrew Sammut, and Colin Hancock, among others. To this list I again add the name of Sterling J. Mosher III, pianist, researcher, archivist and more, who has now brought us filmed performances of stride pianist extraordinaire Donald Lambert, early and late. Here is his compact, friendly annotation:
As of November 2021, this is the full filmography of Donald Lambert. Dreams are that a full video of the 1960 Stride All Stars Program at the Newport Jazz Festival will be made public. As well as any possible amateur films of Don, perhaps by a visiting customer at Wallace’s or distant family.
00:03 The first film we see is from March of 1932, from the film “Ten Minutes To Die” (Oscar Micheaux.) Donald Lambert only is featured in one song with the band.
02:01 May of 1932, “Veiled Aristocrats” (Oscar Micheaux.) Donald walks in from stage right with the “piano tuner,” he is initially standing behind the piano while the tuner plays and a woman sings. Donald takes over for the tuner and performs for 2 songs. The final song is “Dragging My Heart Around.” Mabel Garrett sings and tap dances. Donald and all other persons on screen exchange goodbyes and exit stage left and right. We get a clear sound of Donald’s voice, sounding young at the age of 28. (Special Thanks to ARK THEATRE for uploading the cleanest film of both of these rare early pieces of Afro-American Cinema history.)
08:49 01 July, 1960. Newport Jazz Festival (Newport, R.I.) Stride All Stars Program. Donald appears in 3 clips here. The original speed, pitch, and quality is retained in these clips as they originally appeared. Some folks have taken the crystal clear audio from the recorded concert and placed it over the video at correct speed. Some of these videos are available at UNIGONFILMS on youtube. A television announcer narrates through all 3 clips. In order of the concert, Donald plays Anitra’s Dance, later plays Liza, then plays “Charleston” for two takes with Eubie Blake playing the upper register and The Danny Barker Trio. Willie The Lion Smith is seated off camera. Rudi Blesh is heard speaking several times, announcing to the concert attendees.
GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN.
Just astonishing. Thank you, Sterling, for your labors of love. Bless you, Donald Lambert, Oscar Micheaux, and Rudi Blesh.
Matthew Rivera, music lover, filmmaker, scholar, writer, record collector, broadcaster, someone devoted to sharing not one but several Gospels, has been someone I admire for a few years now. I first heard him playing wondrous music on WKCR-FM, then met him in person in Greenwich Village, playing rare jazz 78 rpm records to live people in public — imagine that! — then as the Proprietor and Democratic Guide of the Hot Club of New York, which holds free Zoom sessions every Monday night from 7-10 PM, where you can hear surprising music and lively discussion. (Visit the site to get the Zoom link.) In October 2019, I did a video interview with Matthew, which you can see here. Matthew also presents on various aspects of jazz — in a relaxed erudite way — for the New York Adventure Club. I predict we will read, see, and hear more from this flourishing young man.
Some music to get you in the mood: OUT OF NOWHERE, by Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, and Veronica Lake (thanks to Emrah Erken for the clear transfer):
It was a real pleasure to be able to write a profile of Matthew for the remarkable and durable (the January 2021 issue is their sixtieth) The Syncopated Times — that issue’s cover story is devoted to the splendid Jen Hodge. Matthew’s story can be read here (with illustrations) but I trust that the good-natured Andy Senior, editor of TST, will forgive me for offering the full text here, under the same elastic law that allows the person doing the cooking to sample the soup to see if it’s done. I encourage you to subscribe to TST — which is why I have been running an ad for it at the bottom of JAZZ LIVES posts for many moons now.
But here’s Matthew himself.
APOSTLE OF SHELLAC: MATTHEW “FAT CAT” RIVERA
Born in 1996, in Louisville, Kentucky, Matthew Rivera is making jazz vibrate to new audiences in many ways. I met him first as a sound-phenomenon on the radio: who was this young man playing rare hot music from 78 rpm discs he treasured, and offering wise commentary? He started “Hot Club” 78-listening sessions in New York jazz clubs, regularly at Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village, New York, then founded the Hot Club of New York, which has free Monday-night Zoom sessions, he continues to broadcast; he gives erudite yet relaxed presentations of jazz for the New York Adventure Club, and has a book in progress.
MS: Did jazz hit you like a conversion, or was it a gradually growing fascination?
Both. We’re fascinated when music catches us off guard, but we’re converted when we return to it. For instance, I first heard Billie Holiday’s “Did I Remember” on a movie soundtrack and I was smitten, but my ear truly changed after I sought out the recording and heard it again and again. I try to balance my love for the familiar with fascination for the unfamiliar, though often the familiar wins out. To use Amiri Baraka’s phrase, we have to “Keep Digging.”
MS: Was there jazz on the family soundtrack when you were growing up?
There were only scraps of jazz to hear or see in my youth. Maybe I’d see something in a movie, or hear a blues based tune on the oldies station. That truly sad fact indicates jazz’s position in our contemporary world. Somewhere we lost sight of the ongoing struggle for jazz’s power. The incredible thing you have to stress about jazz history is that in 1938 everyone was listening to jazz. Whether you wanted to or not, or even whether you knew it or not, in 1938, near a high point in the industrialization of music, it was impossible to escape an essentially non-conformist music that spoke about the conditions of life in America. That didn’t happen simply because people liked jazz then or because it was a new thing, it happened because of the tough fight the musicians put up to be seen and heard. What we may have forgotten is that this struggle, like all social struggles, is recurring. The fight for jazz was obviously not won forever in 1938. On every level—socially, economically, in essence politically—the situation today is completely different from the height of jazz’s popularity. We have to change our strategy. I have no prescription for how to change things, but I spend a lot of time thinking, “How did we get here?”
MS: I first encountered you as a disembodied voice, broadcasting music rarely if ever heard in public, such as Red Allen’s 1935-36 delights, on an afternoon jazz program on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, in 2017. How did you get there?
I arrived at Columbia in 2014 with the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Coleman Hawkins stuck in my head. My friend Evan Sennett and I had just made a movie in Louisville about two friends of ours who are searching for a fictional jazz musician, and I added in lines like, “I like Prez better than Hawk.” It was just a complete fantasy about my friends also liking jazz from the ’30s. I was walking around campus on the first day thinking “I bet no one here knows who Bunny Berigan is,” having no clue about the incredible jazz legacy of Columbia’s radio station or that I was standing on the sundial in the middle of campus where Red Allen had once played. Then someone approached me with a box of LPs to promote WKCR. The first thing I saw was a Bunny Berigan record. When I picked up my jaw, I found out where WKCR was, and there I eventually met the great Charles Iselin who was hosting a multi-part show on Red Allen. Shortly thereafter, a tall, boisterous man in a seersucker suit and pink socks appeared and did a voluminous impression of Red Allen driving his car around Times Square, said a few things about the California Ramblers, made a point about Tommy Ladnier that trailed into Muggsy Spanier, and then stormed out of the station to catch the subway. When I caught my breath, Charles told me that was Phil Schaap.
I went to Columbia to study film, though I ended up studying English and anthropology instead because of professors like Ann Douglas, Brent Edwards, and Robert O’Meally who incorporate jazz heavily into their literature courses and teach cultural history. My love for jazz came about initially from movies. My parents wisely took me to see The Aviator when I was eight and I remember being affected not only by the planes and movie cameras, but by the jazz age soundtrack. Later on I saw Anatomy of a Murder one summer at the Palace Theater. After I saw Duke Ellington in that film and heard the truly ‘noirvana’ soundtrack, I went to Highland Records in Louisville and asked if they had any Ellington LPs. They didn’t have any, which only added to my curiosity. I felt provoked to hear the music whenever I could.
When I showed up at WKCR, I already loved jazz, but I didn’t quite yet realize its importance or vastness. That came from Phil Schaap and older students like Charles Iselin, David Beal, and Francis Mayo. Suddenly I was thrown into a tradition of 24-hour birthday broadcasts, memorial broadcasts, morning listening sessions, five-hour profiles, and discographical inquiries. I came to the station thinking Star Dust by Louis Armstrong, Easy to Love by Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, Burgundy Street Blues by George Lewis, and If I Were a Bell by Miles Davis were all I would ever need to know and now I’m seeing Charles spinning these heavy, fragile 78s and listing off personnel and dates from fat red volumes. Early on, Fran Mayo organized a caravan — three vans of students — to drive to Bessie Smith’s grave and pay our respects. Not long after that the Norwegian solographer Jan Evensmo showed up at the station. Charles and I spent the day listening to rare Roy Eldridge airshots with him that only exist at the station. I learned about the station’s efforts to save Eldridge’s collection when it washed up on the beaches of Far Rockaway during Hurricane Sandy. I heard Schaap’s 45- minute mic breaks, I learned about the Dizzy Gillespie red chair, I saw the thousands of interview reels in the vaults. I was in the middle of complete and total love for music which up to that point I had only known in solitude.
Ultimately what amazed me about WKCR was what I would learn more formally from Phil Schaap when he became my mentor without me even realizing it. First, I learned from him that all music is present tense and not to get caught up in ideologies about progress or overvalue either the future or the past. Secondly, I learned not to be a swing chauvinist or a BeBop chauvinist. One of the most beautiful traditions we have on WKCR is our back to back Ornette Coleman and Bix Beiderbecke birthday broadcasts and I have learned, albeit rather belatedly, to love both dearly. Ultimately, I learned that music has a social and political function, and this, and the biographies of musicians, is inseparable and essential to understanding the sounds I loved. I learned from friends at WKCR and my teachers at Columbia to hear the essential spirit of the music’s makers. I learned to appreciate the very real connections that popular taste and criticism have largely overlooked. I learned that tastes are mutable, therefore I can’t let my taste or the taste of others guide my ears or changes my direction. I learned to follow musical daring.
MS: For those who don’t know Phil Schaap, who is he?
Phil is a radio host, educator, sound engineer, and historian—simply a worker for jazz and the hardest working person I’ve ever met. There is an unbelievable passion in the man who speaks on air for 45 minutes straight listing record personnel, dates, and Dodgers scores by heart, remembering what he ate when he met Duke Ellington, flipping, cuing, EQing, and playing a 78 in a matter of seconds, excerpting the eight-bar Chu Berry solo and playing it twenty times in a row, working for jazz like he is running a lifelong marathon. What he teaches is basically music appreciation, not performance. Phil has aimed to get musicians better gigs, to teach listening to experts and newcomers alike, to introduce new generations of listeners to jazz, and to make jazz sound better through high quality sound productions.
I never would be able to learn as much as I have without Phil because he taught me how to find the music, not just to settle with what I already knew. Because of his unusual methods and his aversion to mediocrity, people like to imagine Phil as a modern version of Balzac’s Père Goriot: a tragically misunderstood artifact from a different world. But Phil became a friend, a mentor, and my main influence because his mission is to bring people to jazz. He showed me what work needed to be done, and what a worker for jazz should be.
The other person I have to explain and give a big shout out to is CHARLES ISELIN! When I met Charles, I was interested in 78s because I had seen Crumb and was curious about the records in that movie. I’m a collector at heart and I don’t think that’s a shameful or embarrassing thing if the collector reflects upon him or herself, reads some Walter Benjamin, and remembers to shower once in a while. I asked Charles if he had any 78s and he went back to the archive and hauled out a box of records he had just bought. Flipping through the stack, I noticed Who by Frankie Newton on Bluebird, not because of Newton, who is now my hero, but because of Mezz Mezzrow, whose book Really the Blues I had just read and loved! Charles grinned and put on Who. I think that devil knew I was about to get hooked on some deep s*** because sure enough that night I went on eBay and bought a Red Allen Vocalion though I didn’t even have a way to play it. He showed me that the 78s were the closest I could get to the music.
MS: What led up to your founding the Hot Club of New York, whose central purpose is offering listeners “a chance to hear scarce records in their historic and aesthetic contexts, and to discuss jazz in a relaxed environment”?
Remember, I’m a filmmaker who likes jazz, but slowly there were events that led to the Hot Club. I met Parker Fishel and David Beal, two righteous fellows who loved the music, and particularly loved the Blues which was always the heart of it. That’s the main thing: the Blues is the spirit and when jazz loses the Blues, jazz loses the spirit. Everyone from Freddie Keppard to Cecil Taylor knew that. So I know that anyone who loves the Blues, like Parker and David do, is going to be a friend. Parker invited me over to his place to listen to Pete Brown records, and David and Ben Young showed up too. That was the first Hot Club I went to, and the beginning of the Neo Hot Club Movement. I’d never had that experience, other than with Charles, of listening to the music deeply and quietly, and lovingly. That’s the experience I’ve always tried to recreate with the Hot Club, whether it was at a dressed up cellar in the Village or on Zoom on Monday nights.
MS: They call you “Fat Cat.” But you’re not a bulky plutocrat.
Yes, I hope that handle is unlike me in more ways than one—like Tiny Parham. That really gets us to the first official Neo Hot Club: Morristown, hosted by Melissa Jones. Phil, Ben, Charles, Emily Fenster, Sam Engel, and a whole bunch would drive or ride the train out to Morristown, New Jersey, to listen to rare 78s on a top of the line sound system. I still didn’t have a turntable or anything at that time. I was only listening to my 78s at WKCR, which didn’t sound as good as at Melissa’s. On the ride back from Morristown once, Phil mentioned a Sippie Wallace 78 of which he had only known two copies to exist. There was his, and there was Johnson “Fat Cat” McRree Jr.’s, a collector and jazz festival host from Virginia. I was shocked because I had just bought the record for $8 on the internet, only it had a sizable dig in the grooves near the end. So the next time we went out to Morristown, I brought the Sippie Wallace record and showed it to Phil. It was the first time I had ever seen him impressed by anything. He was sweating, his eyes were bulging like a Crumb cartoon, his voice was cracking, and he told me to put on the record which I’m already in the middle of doing. As we were all listening to this unbelievably emotional, soulful blues record with Louis Armstrong and someone who wants to sound like Bechet, it gets to the chip in the grooves and Phil goes absolutely berserk, stands up in his chair, his face red, shouting “That’s Fat Cat’s copy!! You’re the Fat Cat! Fat Cat Rivera.” I had bought Fat Cat McRree Jr.’s copy for eight dollars.
MS: You took piano lessons for ten years: tell us your James P. Johnson story.
My first encounters with music were encounters with the piano. My uncle and grandmother both played and inspired me to play. I took lessons with a true friend Calvin Pinney, a kind, churchgoing woman who would not stand for rushing or fast tempos and would have no deviation from the notes on the page. I still have her look of “You didn’t practice, did you?” burned into my mind. I took lessons up to the point where I was playing Bach two-part inventions and the four Gershwin preludes pretty solidly. Then I found a transcription of James P. Johnson playing If Dreams Come True. I listened to that music non-stop, I tried to play it, and it basically broke me down completely. I realized then, I can read music, I can interpret the old masters, I play the Rodgers and Hart songbook at a party for tips, I can even slide into Gershwin, but I can’t do THAT. I realized I was an audience member.
MS: It’s obvious you aren’t traveling this rocky road alone.
I learn from my peers, and it’s here I must thank Colin Hancock, the single most important jazz scholar living today and one of my best friends. Vince Giordano has helped me quite a bit, and with his working orchestra, The Nighthawks, he has shown us all the power of the jazz age ten piece big bands. I didn’t realize it until about ten years later, but one of my first introductions to jazz, watching The Aviator, was an introduction by Vince Giordano who performed most of the music for that film. Not to lift the curtain, Michael, but you are also an important peer and friend. Al Vollmer, David Sager, Ricky Riccardi, Scott Wenzel, Jan Evensmo, Lloyd Rauch, Andrew Oliver, Scout Opatut, Evan Arntzen, Lucy Yeghiazaryan, and countless others have taught me more than a thing or two about jazz. Still the people I learn the most from are my close friends Sam Fentress, Alex Garnick, Evan Sennett, Aaron Friedman, Laura Cadena, and Sophie Kovel, and most importantly my love, Elena Burger. They are all tuned in to our generation. They understand what the Hot Club mission is about and the sociality and politics of art and history. In their own individual ways, they are all non-conformist thinkers which is what I want to be. Then there’s the rarest of them all, a non-conformist thinker who understands jazz: my professor Ann Douglas who wrote Terrible Honesty and has guided me in everything from Charlie Parker to Raymond Chandler. She is someone I am honored to say is my friend.
MS: How does jazz fit into your other passions — politics, film, American culture? Are there connections between Charlie Johnson and your literary heroes?
Jazz is the most specific of these topics because it relies essentially on an attitude and outlook towards life. It is the best part of American culture, but it is obviously not all of American culture. The outlook is, plainly enough, the Blues outlook—an honest square look at all of life’s nasty stuff that is deeply hurt by it and still finds a way to laugh it off, to see light not only at the other side of the tunnel but in the tunnel itself. Though not always successful at looking, or at laughing, and not always the most approachable thing, if you judge jazz at its best (as we should always judge) it’s the only light. I appreciate other music through jazz—certainly Cuban son, Puerto Rican plena, Old Time mountain music, Cajun, gospel, Dominican merengue, Hawaiian hula, Bach, Bob Dylan, West African palm wine, Greek rebetika—but I’ve learned I basically appreciate everything that has the Blues outlook. Outside of jazz, film noir and noir literature have been the strongest expression of this Blues spirit. The spirit, of course, predates the modern Blues as well, and it can be seen in the novels of Balzac and the poems of Sappho. Although Charlie Johnson, as a person and artist, was basically nothing like David Goodis, they both dug into the Blues with a feeling, as a song by Duke Ellington is titled.
MS: How did you get from being “A 78 record collector” to founding the Hot Club of New York, and what do you see as its future?
Through the path people like Phil, Charles, Melissa, David, and Parker have shown me, I have seen that jazz is a social phenomenon. There’s a book called Musicking by Christopher Small which says the music is more than the object on stage, but the entire social interaction, the space, the love and the people. Dancing, record collecting, record listening, and most certainly performance attending are all acts of musicking with almost as much importance for the social space as the performance itself.
This way of understanding music is lost on us. Generally, we have lost sight of the need for an audience. If there are more musicians on stage than audience members in the house — which I’m sad to say I have witnessed — then it’s only public practice. I realized the same thing about collecting the records. If I’m only playing them for myself I’m not getting them all they’re worth. Even having the 78s is only half the battle. I’ve got to play them for people, and I have to find people who want to listen and teach more people to want to listen. The ultimate mission of the Hot Club is to introduce a new audience to jazz, and to create a space of active jazz musicking.
Melissa Jones, whom I first met as a classmate at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Swing University, basically lives this idea of music, supporting and bringing together the jazz community in any way possible. I’ve already mentioned the Hot Club of Morristown. Melissa would host young musicians and listeners at her house, feeding all of us to the gills. It didn’t matter who we were as long as we loved jazz. I think the most important part of the Neo Hot Club came from Melissa as she constantly reminded me of jazz’s ultimate cause: to bring people together. She exemplified an angel of musicking to a generation of young jazz people, and when the future hit all too soon this year I took her cue to begin hosting Zoom Hot Club meetings on Monday nights. Her presence there has continued to bond the group of listeners from all backgrounds. I dedicate this interview to Melissa Jones.
MS: What are some prizes of your collection? Do you have desert island discs?
Well, assuming I can take a ship the size of the Titanic to the island…. My number one is Out of Nowhere by Coleman Hawkins with a stunning muted trumpet by Benny Carter on HMV.
I’m also grateful to say I have a mint copy of Cecil Scott’s Lawd, Lawd on Victor, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band’s Chattanooga Stomp and Camp Meeting Blues on Columbia, Chick Webb’s If Dreams Come True on Columbia, Jack Purvis’s Down Georgia Way, Charlie Johnson’s Charleston is the Best Dance After All, both takes of Louis Armstrong’s Star Dust, Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue on OKeh, a west coast pressing of Art Karle’s Lights Out with my favorite Frankie Newton solo, Tell Me, Dreamy Eyes by Perley Breed’s Shepard Colonial Orchestra on Gennett (thanks to Colin Hancock), Wipe ’em Off by the Seven Gallon Jug Band, Noah’s Blues by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Ice Freezes Red by Fats Navarro, My Baby’s Blues by the Blues Man on Juke Box, a vinylite pressing of Coleman Hawkins’s Talk of the Town, a vinylite of Bird of Paradise on Dial and my favorite Charlie Parker Thriving on a Riff on a beautiful sounding vinylite Savoy. Every record I own is one I could never part with! A test pressing of With a Smile and a Song, an unissued side from a Teddy Wilson session with the beautiful singer Sally Gooding and the tenor great Chu Berry, is a crown jewel.
MS: Does record collecting feed the music or vice versa?
Through collecting records I came to understand that there are alternative ways to listen to and find music. Jazz came to have a context, and context is never icing on the cake. Context is always the thing itself when you get down to it. We’ve lost sight of that fact through the current ways of distributing music, and that’s why I think we are left with an understanding of music that is supporting an ideology that handicaps the music and strips it of its active life. Jazz is not an abstract music just like Pollock and Krasner were not abstract painters. Pollock painted about the censorship of the cold war; he danced around the oppressors to say exactly what they were afraid art was capable of saying, which is what the jazz musicians he was listening to had already done. Jazz musicians danced around power to create something seemingly nonsensical to the unhip, but explicitly communicative to its righteous audience. Spotify, YouTube, and all of the current ways of distributing music decontextualize and deactivate music. The way these apps envision music shows exactly where those in power want it to be: in the background. Ironically, their outlook inadvertently acknowledges the importance and power of jazz. It’s our way out.
MS: You’ve been doing intriguing research on Frankie Newton. Why is he a hero?
Frankie Newton is important to me because he was on the first 78 I heard, and he has since become more important to me because he showed me the way to the music. For someone who was dead for over forty years before my birth to show me the way is nothing short of the ultimate vision of jazz’s power. The same can be said of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, or Billie Holiday, but for me Newton has had the loudest voice because whenever you find him, he is never caught up in the zero sum game of the culture industry, playing hide and seek to make a living and still not lose his soul. Perhaps Coltrane equals him in this regard. Newton was politically minded, but even before I knew about his politics I knew about his activities as a painter.
As someone who was balancing playing jazz records and making films and studying literature I found any character who delved into another medium from a jazz perspective to be fascinating and exceptional. The more I’ve learned about Newton, combing through newspapers, periodicals, and an interview disc I found in a junk shop, the more I’ve found that his position on the margins of jazz popularity shows the fault lines in our understanding of the music, and a point of view that contrasts revealingly with the more famous artists of his time. Moreover, and most importantly, Frankie Newton is a truly great musician. He is the best kind of soloist—he speaks for the whole group when he solos, not just for himself. I’m always curious to hear what he has to say.
MS: We feel the same way about Matthew Rivera!
Although I’ve thanked a lot of people in this interview, ultimately there are two groups of people to whom I’m most grateful. First, my parents and family in Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, and Puerto Rico, and secondly, the pioneering jazz musicians of every generation. They are the original jazz workers, and all I want to do is work for them.
Matthew can be found broadcasting (from his apartment) via wkcr.org on Mondays 12-3 PM EST. Join the Hot Club of New York at http://hotclubny.com(there’s also a HCNY Facebook page) where you can find the Zoom link for his Monday night sessions from 7-10 PM. Information about his programs for the New York Adventure Club can be found at https://nyadventureclub.com.
I am slowly getting back into 78-record collecting, thanks to Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera, and I emphasize “slowly”: no bidding wars, and many of the records I’ve purchased would be considered “common” by more well-established collectors, although I will — immodestly — begin with a picture of a record I treasure, bought a few years ago.
However, this post isn’t primarily about the recorded obsession. It is about the beauty of the ordinary: the paper sleeves once personalized by record stores. I saw an eBay site devoted to jazz records from Denmark, and was thrilled by the more ornate labels of the records themselves and the beautifully creative sleeves. There will be only three minutes of music on this post, but you can follow my lead to YouTube, where many of these recordings are waiting for your tender, approving touch. Today my subject is advertising art at its most sweetly distinctive.
The eBay seller I directed people to in April 2020 has stopped selling his wares, but he has begun compiling Danish shellac sleeves: see more here.
Tommy Ladnier, in high style:
Billie, originally on Commodore:
Louis, for my friend Katherine:
Hawkins, solo, a two-sided meditation:
This (below) is my absolute favorite of the whole series, and it it were not $10 for the Morton disc and $18 for the shipping, it would be on its way to me now. Please, someone, buy this so I don’t have to?
Ella and Louis:
Fats meets Freddy:
I don’t know the artist but could not resist the sleeve:
and here Aladdin points the way to swing:
I think ten of these beauties is enough for one post, but if there is interest, I have nineteen or twenty more sleeve-images to share with you. And would.
I promised you three minutes of music, so that no one would go to bed feeling deprived. Here’s REINCARNATION by Paul Mares and his Friars Society Orchestra : Paul Mares, trumpet; Santo Pecora, trombone; Omer Simeon, clarinet; Boyce Brown, alto saxophone; Jess Stacy, piano; Marvin Saxbe, guitar; Pat Pattison, string bass; George Wettling, drums — January 1935, Chicago:
I know my title must seem excessive, but what if it’s true? The young singer Lucy Yeghiazaryan has got it, and I’ve experienced it both on recording and in live performance. And if you think I am oddly subjective, you could also ask Greg Ruggiero or Michael Kanan, people whose opinion about singers is certainly trustworthy. Here’s a sample, from recent performances with Greg, guitar; Neal Miner, string bass; Fukushi Tainaka, drums:
and another standard:
Admire how much music she and her three esteemed colleagues pack into such short spaces (each of these performances could fit on one side of a 78 rpm recording, for the readers who understand that yardstick). She does everything well and with panache: she’s on pitch, her diction is splendid, she swings (!), her scat is not a series of formulaic ba-ba-ba‘s, her second choruses are not identical to her first, she lands on pitch, and . . . perhaps most important, she sends a message of ebullient joy. Not only is she having a good time, but she wants us to have one as well, and I don’t mean attempting to reach us by eccentric vocalizing or tricks, but by singing. Louis would say she has “more ingredients,” but they are subtly part of her recipe.
Here’s a soulful I WISH I KNEW (with Greg; Grant Stewart, tenor saxophone; Daniel Duke, string bass; Steve Williams, drums) where her voice has the quiet intensity of a great jazz soloist while she honors melody and lyrics:
Dramatic without dramatizing, as you hear. Here’s something from Fats:
The first fourteen seconds of that performance are delicious and what follows is no letdown. Lucy performs “old songs” with affection, not condescension; her phrasing is witty but gentle. She knows what the lyrics mean — the emotional script beneath the words — and although she’s absorbed the Great Singers, she’s not selling us musical knock-offs from a folding table on the street. (“Hey, gitcha Ella here! I gotta new Sarah, and some Anita just came in. No, all out of Billie. Come back Thursday.”)
You don’t need many more words from me. Her virtues are charming and consistently audible. And the good thing — for New Yorkers and other fortunate denizens — is that she’s performing often in a variety of contexts. Follow her on Facebook here; on the Smalls website, read a brief biography — she comes from someplace more distant even than Red Hook — and see her in performance.
But the best thing is to see her live (and buy the CD after). At the end of 2019, my dear friend Matt Rivera got me in to meet and hear Lucy at a fund-raiser in New Jersey. Her two brief sets were models of professional performance that wasn’t so rehearsed as to be stale. She chose fitting tempos, interacted beautifully with the band, spoke to the audience with deft politeness, knew her material perfectly but improvised freely within it . . . in short, she was a delight.
So, even though I have retired from teaching, I can still assign homework, and yours is to go see Lucy, before the ticket prices become too high, and you can tell your provincial friends that you discovered her. It can be our secret.