Tag Archives: Max Roach

STREET FOOD, AN EXOTIC HONEYMOON, EXUBERANT DANCE, 1936

If you asked me to give an overview of jazz and popular music in 1936, I might summon up Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Putney Dandridge, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Hill, Gene Krupa, Fifty-Second Street, Red Allen, Art Tatum, Bob Howard, Mildred Bailey, Jones-Smith, Incorporated, Teddy Wilson, and twenty others.  It would be a little after THE MUSIC GOES ROUND AND ROUND but just right for I’SE A-MUGGIN’, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, and RHYTHM IN MY NURSERY RHYMES, perhaps DINNER FOR ONE, PLEASE JAMES.

But in even broader strokes, this was the early triumph of the Swing Era, dominated by well-rehearsed bands, using intricate arrangements for dancers.  But art, however you define it, is never homogeneous: while Joyce and Woolf were exploding the conventions of narrative, many traditional linear novels were published and read.  In jazz, we know that Max Roach and Baby Dodds were on the same radio broadcast in most congenial fashion.  And in the very late Fifties, Herbie Nichols, Steve Lacy, Ed Allen, and Cecil Scott were all gigging in New York City simultaneously.

These musings come about because of Briscoe Draper’s posting on Facebook of a song I’d never heard, LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON, which delights me.  It features the clarinet playing of Arnett Nelson, someone I’ve heard about from one of my other teachers, Sammut of Malta — whose expert playing has nothing to do with the elegant playing of Benny and Artie, so much in fashion in 1936.  These tracks were issued under the all-inclusive but unspecific name “Chicago Rhythm Kings,” which jazz fans will recognize as a nom-de-disque for young white Chicagoans in 1928.

Here is the recording data, edited from Tom Lord.  Steve Abrams suggests that Guy Kelly is the trumpeter, but I feel that the player we hear is less assured.  And is the pianist Black Bob or Jimmy Blythe?  I do not know, nor are such matters my focus.

Lord notes: prob. Alfred Bell (cnt) Roy Palmer (tb) Arnett Nelson (cl,vcl) prob. Black Bob (p) prob John Lindsay (b) Jimmy Bertrand (d).  Chicago, March 11, 1936: YOU BATTLE-HEAD BEETLE- HEAD Vocalion 3208 / IT’S TOO BAD (WHEN THE SISTERS START TRUCKIN’ AROUND) in two takes; Voc 3208.
Same personnel but unknown (as-1) added.  Chicago, April 3, 1936: SHANGHAI HONEYMOON Bluebird 6371 / LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON (same, unknown vocalist).

Because Steve Abrams has generously made available his 78 transfer of IT’S TOO BAD / YOU BATTLE-HEAD, I have included that as well as the YouTube transfers, which might be from the RST CD collection.  (There are pitch and sonic differences: I would assume that the 78 transfer is a more trustworthy source, but such waters are deep and dark.)

I invite you to turn away from the news and immerse yourself in a different world, thanks to these “Hot Dance with Vocal Chorus” records.  I’ll have some listening comments at the end.

and the 78 version:

Flip it over, as they used to say:

This seems the same take as the 78, unless they followed the routines closely:

If you are enamored of SHANGHAI HONEYMOON, there are many versions with vocal refrains and ostentatious “Chinese” cliches.  However, Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have performed this opus — you can find it on YouTube — with its ethnic-racial tendencies tamed, and a duet by Ray and Katie Cavera (also on the Jazzology CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO):

and my new favorite ditty, which I hope to hear Dave Stuckey sing when we meet again (although that is a suggestion rather than an order — greetings, Pappy!):

Depending on how deeply you have steeped yourself in the music of the period, you may hear many different things.
First, the material itself is cheerfully homemade: except for SHANGHAI, the songs are composed by the players, and they are miles away from Rodgers and Hart or Arlen and Koehler.  That is not to condescend, for listeners respond strongly to campfire songs as well as poetry, but BEETLE and TOO BAD seem more enthusiastic than expert: the end-rhymes are inexact, and occasionally the lyrics and music do not fit neatly.  They are set-pieces for an audience who wanted to party: the “you’re a fool for getting so drunk” song; the “let’s celebrate wild action on the dance floor” song — reminiscent of a contemporaneous Tampa Red blues — especially because the Chicago blues records of this period employed many of the same musicians.  I hear echoes of MAMA DON’T ALLOW and HOW’M I DOIN’ as well as YOU RASCAL YOU.
LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON aspires to be one of those songs mingling love and the bill of fare (think WHEN LOVE DROPPED IN TO TEA) but it doesn’t get there; the composer(s) are more focused on what’s for sale than in a Billy Wilder meet-cute with someone’s hamburger being shared by thrifty lovers.  (I hear echoes of ACE IN THE HOLE in the first strain.)
SHANGHAI HONEYMOON is the most “professional” song of the four, possibly going back to 1927, and whether Lester Melrose had anything to do with writing it or simply required a portion of the royalties in exchange for getting it published, played, and recorded, I do not know, but the three other songs did not have any currency outside of this record date, where HONEYMOON did.  I have seen no sheet music for the other songs.
Second, these recordings are stylistically earlier than 1936 (no offense meant there either); rather than being “streamlined,” “innovative,” or “harmonically forward-looking,” they happily live in the musical world that Dick Wellstood called “grease and funk,” with TOO BAD and BEETLE sounding, to me, like Saturday-night-party music.  The closest parallel in jazz is the long series of Clarence Williams recordings, but these sides are genuine crossover music before the name ever emerged, with sideways connections to blues and roots music.
And this is understandable, given the histories of the players: for most of them, this was their last recording session, and some of them had been recording since 1921 or 1923.  I delight in Arnett Nelson’s wildly opinionated clarinet — “I have something to say and I have to say it loudly and right now,” and the powerful rhythm section. But we are miles away from the Benny Goodman Quartet, Toto.  I also have a special affection for the rather sweetly amateurish singer on SANDWICH: was he someone’s relative or friend?  (I wonder what the significance of “He didn’t serve no rice” is.  An easy rhyme for “nice,” or are there deeper meanings?
Finally, I wonder how these record dates came to be.  In New York, Williams made no records between 1935 and 1937, and his 1934 sides for the Decca “Sepia Series” were issued as the “Alabama Jug Band.” Did a Vocalion recording executive in Chicago perceive that this band — of known reliable musicians who were also appearing on blues records — should be given the chance to make two sides of their own compositions with the hope of a jukebox hit?  Musicians recorded such sessions with little preparation; they were paid scale.  It would not have cost Vocalion much, but clearly the records did not make a stir.  Did Nelson or someone else in the band take the test pressings over to the Victor studios and request a date in April?
I have stayed away from discussing race in this post, but I will suggest that a 1936 record buyer would recognize these four sides as being performed and aimed at a “colored” audience, to use the description of the times.  Yet I know Bluebird (by which I mean Victor) also used the “Chicago Rhythm Kings” name to issue a record or records by what I believe are white orchestras.
All this must, I think, remain mysterious.  What we have is rollicking, enthusiastic hot music played by Chicago veterans.  Thank goodness for records, and particularly for odd, cheerful ones like these four.
May your happiness increase!

IN A SPIN, TWICE: CLUB BOHEMIA OFFICIALLY OPENS! (October 17, 2019) and FAT CAT MATTHEW RIVERA’S HOT CLUB!

You might be walking along Barrow Street, on the Bleecker Street side of Seventh Avenue South (all this conjecture is taking place in Greenwich Village, New York City, New York, the United States); you could look up and see this sign.

You might just think, “Oh, another place to have an ale and perhaps a burger,” and you’d be correct, but in the most limited way.

Surprises await the curious, because down the stairs is the sacred ground where the jazz club Cafe Bohemia existed in the Fifties, where Miles, Lester, Ben, Coltrane, Cannonball, Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Pettiford played and live sessions were recorded.

Here’s the room as it is now.  Notice the vertical sign?

This isn’t one of those Sic Transit Gloria Mundi posts lamenting the lost jazz shrines (and certainly there is reason enough to write such things) BECAUSE . . .

On Thursday, October 17, yes, this week, the new Cafe Bohemia will open officially.  This is important news to me and I hope to you.  So let me make it even more emphatic.

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 17, THE NEW CAFE BOHEMIA OPENS. 

That is as emphatic as WordPress permits.  I was there on September 26, for the club’s trial run (more about that below) and I was delighted to find very friendly staff, good food and drink, pleasing sight lines and a receptive crowd, so it was a nostalgic return to a place I’d never been.

But back to current events.  On this coming Thursday, there will be two shows, an early show at 6:45 and a late one at 9:30.  These shows will be, as they say in retail, “value-packed”!  Each show will feature wonderfully entertaining and enlightening record-spinning of an exalted kind by Fat Cat Matthew Rivera, bringing his Hot Club to the Village on a regular basis, AND live jazz from the Evan Arntzen Quartet including guitarist Felix Lemerle, string bassist Alex Claffy, and drummer Andrew Millar.  Although the Bohemia hasn’t yet posted its regular schedule, their concept is both ambitious and comforting: seven nights of live jazz and blues music of the best kind.

Evan Arntzen, photograph by Tim Cheeney

Buy tickets here for the early show, here for the late one.  It’s a small room, so be prepared.  (I am, and I’ll be there.)  And here is the Eventbrite link for those “who don’t do Facebook.”

If you follow JAZZ LIVES, or for that matter, if you follow lyrical swinging jazz, I don’t have to introduce Evan Arntzen to you.  And if, by some chance, his name is oddly new to you, come down anyway: you will be uplifted.  I guarantee it.

But who is Matthew Rivera?

I first met Matt Rivera (to give him his full handle, “Fat Cat Matthew Rivera,” which he can explain to you if you like) as a disembodied voice coming through my speakers as he was broadcasting on WKCR-FM a particularly precious musical reality — the full spectrum of jazz from before 1917 up to the middle Fifties, as captured on 78 RPM disks.

It isn’t a dusty trek into antiquity: Matt plays Miles and Bird, Gene Ammons and Fats Navarro next to “older styles.”  Here’s Matt in a characteristically devout pose, at Cafe Bohemia:

and the recording (you’ll hear it on this post) that is the Hot Club’s theme song:

About two weeks ago, I visited the Fat Cat in his Cafe Bohemia lair and we chatted for JAZZ LIVES.  YouTube decided to edit my long video in the middle of a record Matt was spinning, but I created a video of the whole disk later.  Here’s the nicely detailed friendly first part:

and the second part:

and some samples of the real thing.  First, the complete WHO?

DEXTERITY, with Bird, Miles, and Max:

and finally, a Kansas City gem featuring tenor player Dick Wilson and Mary Lou Williams and guitarist Floyd Smith:

Cafe Bohemia isn’t just a record-spinning listening party site, although the Fat Cat will have a regular Hot Club on Monday nights.  Oh, no.  When I attended the club’s trial run on September 26, there was live jazz — a goodly helping — of the best, with Mara Kaye singing (acoustically) blues and Billie with the joyous accompaniment of that night’s Cafe Bohemia Jazz Band: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Brian Nalepka, string bass.  Here’s their opening number, ST. LOUIS BLUES:

The first word Mara utters on that video is “Wow,” and I echo those sentiments.  Immense thanks are due owner Mike Zieleniewski and the splendid Christine Santelli as well as the musicians and staff.

See you downstairs at Cafe Bohemia on Thursday night: come over and say hello as we welcome this birth and rebirth to New York City.

May your happiness increase!

POETS IN THEIR YOUTH (October 11, 1938)

Thanks to Loren Schoenberg for sharing this gem with us.  If, like me, you grew up after the Swing Era had ended, the great creators were still in evidence: Benny, Teddy, Lionel, Gene, Harry, Basie, Duke, Benny Carter, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton, and half a hundred others.  But sometimes they seemed more venerable than lively, and that was to be expected: routine, age, and aging audiences had had their effect.  But it is lovely to be thrust back into late 1938, with fiercely beautiful evidence of just why they were seen as Masters.

Here, in under three minutes, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton — the last on drums — play a fiery but delicate I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW, at top speed, never smudging a note or resorting to cliché.

They were young: Hampton, the eldest of the three (one never thinks of him as such) had turned thirty only six months earlier: Goodman and Wilson were still in the latter half of their twenties.  (Gene Krupa had left Goodman and formed his own band earlier in 1938.)

I invite JAZZ LIVES listeners to do the nearly-impossible, that is, to clear their minds and ears of associations with these artists, their reputations, our expectations, and simply listen.  And thus admire: the precision, the near-audacity of improvisations at such speed, the intensity and the clarity with which the details are offered to us.  The unflagging swing, and the compact art: seven choruses in slightly less than three minutes.  The architecture of this performance, balancing solo and ensemble, giving each of the players the spotlight in turn.  And the fact that it was live — no second takes or studio magic.  One can admire this as a chamber-music performance thoroughly animated by the impulses that made “hot jazz” hot:

It’s easy to hear this in historical context: ten years earlier, Jimmie Noone and his Apex Club Orchestra had fashioned their own variations (Cliff Edwards, a dozen years earlier, had sung it with his Hot Combination) and Goodman had played it as an orchestral piece from 1935 on — with special mention to the Martin Block jam session of early 1938 where Benny, Teddy, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Benny Heller, and Sid Weiss had jammed on the Vincent Youmans song.  And it comes out of a larger musical world: I hear late-Twenties and early-Thirties Louis and Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, and Zutty Singleton standing behind this trio.

But I can also imagine the radio audience of 1938 — not only the children and adolescents who nagged their parents for drum sets, clarinets, pianos and piano lessons (some signing up for the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists) but also the youthful Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach hearing and studying, thinking of ways to emulate and then outdo.  It would have been considered “popular music” or “entertainment,” but now we can value it as it deserves.

It’s a magnificent performance, with details that glisten all the more on subsequent listenings.  Thanks to Benny, Teddy, Lionel, Loren, and the noble Sammut of Malta for art and insights into the art.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS CHARLIE PARKER (December 15, 2017)

I think what follows is just amazing, and it’s not inflated pride at having been the one who brought the camera and clipped the microphone to Dan’s shirt.  The first-hand sources in any field are few and precious.  Of course, there are many borrowers and interpreters, capable people who weren’t on the scene but are ready to theorize.  “Nay nay,” to quote Louis.

Jazz, so long viewed as “entertainment,” did not get the serious coverage it deserved for its first decades.  Thus we could search in vain for an interview with Bubber Miley or A.G. Godley.  And few people wrote their memoirs of involvement with Jimmie Blanton or Don Murray or Larry Binyon . . . but we have Dan, who was there and has a good memory.  And he has a novelist’s gift for arranging those memories in pleasing and revealing shapes.

When the subject is Charlie Parker, so many recollections of Bird veer between adulation for the musician and a superior attitude towards a man often portrayed as suffering from borderline personality disorder.  Thus Dan’s gentle affectionate inquiring attitude is honest and delightful.  His memories of Bird go back to the Three Deuces, the Royal Roost, Cafe Society, Bob Reisner’s Open Door, with strings at Birdland with Dizzy’s unsolicited clowning, his “last stand” at Birdland where Bud Powell could not accomplish what was needed, and a “miraculous” one on one encounter late in Bird’s life, balanced by a kind of exploitative incident in which Dan’s friend Nat Lorber was the victim, as well as a sad story of Bird’s late attitude towards life, and a portrait of the Baroness Nica.

Since Dan’s first-hand involvement with Bird was in the latter’s last years, I offer a very early Bird as a counterbalance — the recordings Parker made in Kansas City c. 1943 with the legendary guitarist Efferge Ware and drummer “Little Phil” Phillips, the latter celebrated by Bob Brookmeyer in his memories of K.C.  Thanks to Nick Rossi for reminding me of this.

Thank you, Dan.  And thank you.  Once is insufficient.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS STAN GETZ (March 3, 2017)

This is the sixth part of a series of video-interviews the irreplaceable Dan Morgenstern sat for on the afternoon of Friday, March 3, 2017.  The previous five parts can be found here.

In those segments, Dan shares remarkable stories about the people he’s heard and met and become close with: everyone, including Lester Young, Jimmy Rowles, Tony Fruscella, Tommy Benford, Brew Moore, John Carisi, Nat Lorber, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Rushing, and two dozen more.

Here he speaks lovingly of the magnificent Stan Getz — including an anecdote of one way to deal with noisy spectators at a jazz club:

I would have you notice — as well as Dan’s eye for the telling detail (that quality that makes great storytellers as well as novelists) — that even his retelling of incidents that might be painful is shot through with kindness.  These interviews are not a settling of scores; rather, they are graceful homages to the giants and friends he has known — and Dan continues to make friends in 2017.

Here, for those who have other thoughts about Stan, a sweet yet little-known 1954 performance by him, Jimmy, Bob Whitlock, and Max Roach, of the early-Thirties song, DOWN BY THE SYCAMORE TREE:

Dan refers to Stan’s PARKER 51:

and one of Stan’s duets with Kenny Barron at the end of his life:

I look forward to a second set of interviews.  Dan has hinted that he has tales of Cecil Scott.  Who could resist such knowledge?

May your happiness increase!

HOD O’BRIEN, WRITER

Hod O'Brien and wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian

Hod O’Brien and wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian

Pianist Hod O’Brien is a master of melodic improvisations.  If you missed his July 2015 gig at Mezzrow with bassist Ray Drummond, the evidence is here.

But here’s the beautiful part.  Some jazz musicians keep words at a distance and their expressiveness comes out through the keyboard, the brass tubing, and so on.  But Hod has written a pointed, light-hearted memoir that operates the way he plays.  His words seem simple, his constructions are never ornate, but he gets to the heart of things and leaves the reader enlightened, renewed.

HOD BOOK

The first thing to say about this book is how pleased I am to read a book by someone who, like Hod, has been an active part of jazz for six decades.  It’s not “as told to,” nor is it embellished by a jazz scholar as a posthumous tribute.  Here is part of  Hod’s preface, which reveals much about his character:

“This book is not intended to be a strictly biographical text, but, rather a collection of funny, little incidents and stories I’ve witnessed and heard along my way, on my path as a freelance jazz musician over the past 60 years of my professional life.

It’s intended mostly for fans of mine, whomever and wherever you all are, and fellow musicians, who might be interested in hearing a little bit more about me from another perspective, rather than from just my music and recordings alone. . . . The jazz community is a small, but hip part of the world, of which I’m happy and proud to be a member, and to whom I wish to express my deep gratitude — to those of you in it and interested in my work.”

I was immediately struck by Hod’s self-description as “happy and proud,” and the book bears him out.  “Proud” doesn’t mean immodest — in fact, Hod constantly seems delighted and amazed at the musicians he’s gotten to play with, but his happiness is a great and reassuring undercurrent in the book.  (When was the last time you met someone deeply nourished by his or her work?  Hod is that person.)

His  book moves quickly: at the start he is a child picking out one-finger melodies on the piano, learning boogie-woogie, hearing JATP and bebop recordings; a few pages later it is 1955 and he filling in for Randy Weston at a gig in Massachusetts, hearing Pepper Adams, getting threatened by Charles Mingus, meeting and playing with Zoot Sims and Bob Brookmeyer.  Oscar Pettiford (called “Pet” by Thad Jones) gets a longer portrait.  The O.P. portrait is so good that I won’t spoil it, but it has cameo appearances by Bill Evans and Paul Chambers, Chet Baker, and Philly Joe Jones.  In case you are realizing that Hod has managed to play with or hear or meet many jazz luminaries in the past sixty years, that alone is reason to buy the book.  There’s J.R. Monterose and a defective piano, a compromised Wilbur Ware, friendliness from Max Roach and Arthur Taylor.

The book (and Hod’s life) takes a surprising turn with Hod losing interest in his jazz career, studying with Charles Wuorinen, and delving into physics, higher mathematics, and early computer programming.  But a reunion with his old friend Roswell Rudd moves him back to performance and the club scene.

Interruption: for those of you who can only read about doomed heroic figures, victims, or the chronically self-destructive, this is not such a book.  Hod has setbacks but makes friends and makes music; he marries the fine singer Stephanie Nakasian, and they remain happily married, with a singer in the family, daughter Veronica Swift (born in 1994) — who just won second place in the Thelonious Monk jazz competition.  Now back to our regularly scheduled narrative.

Hod’s experiences as a clubowner are somewhere between surreal, hilarious, and sad — but his reminiscences of Sonny Greer (and a birthday gift), Joe Puma, Chuck Wayne, Al Haig, Stan Getz, and the little East Side club called Gregory’s (which I remember although I didn’t see Hod there).  There’s  Hod’s playing a set with Dizzy, Ornette, Ed Blackwell, and Teddy Kotick . . . and much more, including more than fifty photographs, a discography, and a list of Hod’s compositions: very nicely done at 122 pages.

You can buy it here — and you can also find out more about Hod . . . such as his return to Mezzrow on March 18-19, 2016. But until then, you can entertain yourself with a copy of HAVE PIANO . . . WILL SWING! — a book that surely lives up to its title.

May your happiness increase!

OSCAR PETTIFORD, FOUND

OP front

Bassist, cellist, and composer Oscar Pettiford is in the odd position of being both legendary and forgotten (as Whitney Balliett wrote of Pee Wee Russell). If you ask any aficionado of jazz string bass playing to name a dozen favorites — living and dead — it’s likely that the names will come easily.  But Pettiford’s is often not among them.

Yes, he died young, but not before performing and recording every famous musician (with some notable exceptions) in a short career.  An incomplete list would include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Julius Watkins, Ben Webster, Sammy Price, Ruby Braff, Mel Powell, Ellis Larkins, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Clifford Brown, Buddy De Franco, Phineas Newborn, Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Don  Byas, Clyde Hart, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Martial Solal, Attlia Zoller, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Eckstine, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson, Charlie Shavers, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Ed Hall, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, Maxine Sullivan, Dick Hyman, Eddie Bert, Joe Derise, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Buck Clayton, Helen Humes, Benny Harris, Boyd Raeburn, Serge Chaloff, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Wynonie Harris, Vic Dickenson, Red Rodney, Tal Farlow, Denzil Best, Jo Jones, Leo Parker, Al Haig, Al Hibbler, Nat Pierce, Bill Harris, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Art Taylor, Wynton Kelly, Lockjaw Davis, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Dave McKenna, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Chris Connor, Hank Jones, Earl Coleman, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, Chuck Wayne, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Frank Wess, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, Joe Morello, Joe Wilder, Harry Lookofsky, Jimmy Jones, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal, Herbie Mann, George Barnes, Clark Terry, Dave Schildkraut, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Raney, Horace Silver, Doug Mettome, Quincy Jones, Duke Jordan, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne, Toots Thielmans, Red Garland.

This suggests that Oscar’s peers respected him and called him for gigs and recordings.  It’s not as if he was obscure: his career was longer than, say, Blanton’s or Steve Brown’s.  But, oddly for jazz, which loves to mythologize the musicians who die young and abruptly (and Pettiford died as the result of a 1960 automobile accident) he hasn’t received the benefit of the weird reverence fans and writers have for the young dead.

Of course, it could be that bass players don’t get the respect they and their instruments deserve, but it is and was hard to ignore Pettiford on a session. He offered a rhythmic foundation that was powerful rather than obtrusive, but when he soloed, his lines have the solid eloquence that any horn player would aspire to — while seeming light rather than ponderous.  And as the list of players above suggests, his musical range was exceedingly broad: he wasn’t captured on record in free jazz or ragtime, but he elevated every other variety of jazz and jazz vocal performance he was part of.  Had he lived longer, he might have enjoyed the visibility of a Milt Hinton or a Ray Brown, but we have only brief moments of him on film (the 1945 THE CRIMSON CANARY) and a few seconds of his speaking voice.

Surely he should be better known.

Enough words and keystrokes for the moment: listen to his 1960 feature on WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:

and here he is, playing his own BLUES IN THE CLOSET — from a little-known 1953 television broadcast — on cello (which he took to for a time after breaking an arm in a baseball game):

And his stirring solo on STARDUST:

Now, two pieces of good news that might go some distance in making Oscar’s name and music known to a larger audience.  One is that there is a YouTube channel, PettifordJazz, with sixty videos of Pettiford solos, ensembles, and compositions.  That means that no one has to start collecting Oscar’s music — it is being made available to all for free.

Oscar (or “O.P.”, as his colleagues called him) also spent the last two years of his life in Europe (mostly in Scandinavia and Germany), and recorded often there.  Sessions with guitarist Attila Zoller have been issued and reissued on a variety of labels (in the vinyl era, they appeared on Black Lion) and a famous 1960 concert in Essen with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Coleman Hawkins was available forty years ago.  Recordings made in 1958-59 for the German radio network have now been issued for the first time on compact disc, in beautiful sound, as OSCAR PETTIFORD: LOST TAPES — GERMANY 1958 / 1959, on SWR Music.

American expatriates Lucky Thompson (on soprano sax for a gorgeous, melancholy SOPHISTICATED LADY) and Kenny Clarke (drums on the final five performances of the disc) are the “stars,” but Zoller stands out as a beautifully measured guitarist.

OP cover rear

And although some US critics of the time might have been condescending to European players, this disc shows their equal mastery. Trumpeter Dusko Goykovich duets with Oscar on the opening BUT NOT FOR ME.  Other notable players here are clarinetist Rolf Kuhn; light-toned tenorist Hans Koller; baritone saxophonists Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl; altoist Rudi Feigl; guitarist Hans Hammerschmid; drummers Jimmy Pratt and Hartwig Bartz.  The songs are a mix of standards and originals: BUT NOT FOR ME / SOPHISTICATED LADY / A SMOOTH ONE / O.P. (Hans Koller) / MINOR PLUS A MAJOR (Kuhn) / POOR BUTTERFLY / ANUSIA (Hans Koller) / MY LITTLE CELLO (Pettiford) / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / YESTERDAYS / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET (Pettiford) / BIG HASSLE (Hammerschmidt) / ATLANTIC (Helmut Brandt) / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET — the last two are live performances.

And just because it’s accessible and stirring, here is that film clip — from an otherwise undistinguished 1945 murder mystery, THE CRIMSON CANARY, which features Hawk, Pettiford, Howard McGhee, trumpet; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Denzil Best, on a fast SWEET GEORGIA BROWN line by Hawkins called HOLLYWOOD STAMPEDE:

Ultimately, I think if you’d asked Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, or any number of jazz luminaries, “What about this O.P. fellow?  Should I listen to him?” the answer would have been a very strong affirmative.  So let us do just that. These tapes were lost, but have been found: spread the word about Oscar.  Remind those who have forgotten; introduce those who never knew.  “Learn it to the younguns!” as the youthful protagonist of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN hears at the start of that novel.

May your happiness increase!

BENNY, BUDDY, BUCKY, JIMMY, JACK, MERV

Don Robertson pointed out this video on Facebook: perhaps it is new to you, as it was to me.

Nothing complicated: Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich playing together for the first time in thirty years, with Jimmy Rowles, piano; Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar; Jack Six, string bass — on the Merv Griffin Show in 1979.  The songs — nothing complicated there, either — AS LONG AS I LIVE and I GOT RHYTHM.  The “Sextet”: someone’s math was off that night.

Benny is in splendid form; Buddy, grinning wildly, offers masterful support and heroically beautiful brushwork throughout; Bucky and Jack are indispensably generous in their swing-pulse.

But what draws my attention throughout is Jimmy (I think he preferred “Jimmie,” so I apologize to him) Rowles.  Once you’ve heard / seen the video once and admired the Stars, I beseech you to go back and listen solely to the piano.

THAT may not be the only way to play the piano — I am not going to be narrowly didactic here — but Rowles so beautifully fuses the worlds of 1940 Lester, Basie, Duke, and Ben, with the later worlds of Miles and Bird, Dizzy and Roach.  And he always sounds like no one else.

Initially, you might say of a Rowles phrase or accent or voicing, “What is he doing?” and then it becomes both inevitable, perfectly right, and a choice only he could have made.  It is the very opposite of formulaic playing; listening to him provides us with a series of lovely small gifts — “How did you know that was exactly what we wanted?”  I miss Jimmie Rowles.  I do.

Listen again.

This one’s for Michael Kanan.

May your happiness increase.

“FROM NOTES TO WORDS”: JON-ERIK KELLSO, MATT MUNISTERI, SCOTT ROBINSON, PAT O’LEARY, SEAN SINGER, ANN ROWER: THE THIRD ANNUAL JAZZ AND POETRY FESTIVAL (School of Visual Arts, New York City, March 22, 2012)

Does music speak louder than words?  At the Jazz and Poetry Festival hosted by the School of Visual Arts a few weeks ago in New York City, there was no such competition — just a series of amiable statements with both sides having their say.  The musicians were the Jon-Erik Kellso Quartet (otherwise known as the EarRegulars when found on Sunday nights at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City): Jon-Erik on trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone, alto and bass taragota; Pat O’Leary, string bass).  The writers were Sean Singer and Ann Rower.   As you’ll see and hear.

The Quartet offers SOME OF THESE DAYS (with a brief foray into SHINE ON HARVEST MOON); WABASH BLUES; ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS (for Bix Beiderbecke):

Here’s the conclusion of ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS and I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES:

After an introduction by Robert Lobe, Sean Singer takes the microphone to read selections from his 2002 poetry collection DISCOGRAPHY — poems touching on John Coltrane, Ellington, Albert Ayler, Scott Joplin, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and others:

Maryhelen Hendricks introduced the writer Ann Rower, who read a series of excerpts from her untitled novel in the form of a journal — which moved from sharply-realized anecdotes to memories of her uncle, the lyricist Leo Robin:

And the program concluded with a return to musical improvisations, as the Quartet continued the tribute to Leo Robin with THANKS FOR THE MEMORY (music by Ralph Rainger); a romping SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL; a wistful Scott Robinson feature on another Robin-Rainger song, WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE; YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY:

And YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, concluded:

Thanks to all the musicians and writers, to Robert Lobe and Maryhelen Hendricks — and special thanks to the Jonnybogue Video Rescue Service (“No job too small.  Baked while you sleep”).  Make a note of that.

May your happiness increase.

“WHO, ME?” “YES, ‘YOU’!”

My silly title shouldn’t distract you from the hot jazz to follow.  The song is YOU (no, not the Cole Porter classic) — music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Harold Adamson, performed first in the 1936 THE GREAT ZIEGFELD.  I think of it as the songwriter’s solution to the problem of potential sheet music buyers being unable to remember the title. 

Here’s a hot performance of YOU by Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band — at the New Orleans Restaurant in Seattle on March 1, 2012: Steve Wright, alto; Ray, piano; Dave Brown, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums:

I know that in this century we value NEW and IMPROVED very highly, but music isn’t detergent.  And what I love about this rocking performance is the way it eagerly and expertly brings musical styles of “the past” into “the present” so convincingly that these distinctions fall away.  Since everything is transitory, we may live in the Moment that this music offers so generously.  Yes, Virginia, people did play this way before Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Jimmy Garrison, and Max Roach changed the musical landscape — to say nothing of Ornette Coleman, whose radicalism is now fifty years old . . .

Anyway, put aside the musical categories and critical “schools” and listen to the beautiful swinging sounds: the sweet racing turns of Steve’s alto; the rollick and frolic of Ray’s right and left hands; the sustaining heartbeat of Mister Brown to You on the bass; the exuberant slap and dance of Mike’s drums. 

Music for YOU, YOU — and especially YOU!

Thanks to “islandstarfish” and “swr2408018,” a great team, for making it possible for us to see and hear this wonderful jazz.

“WHAT DO YOU CALL THAT?”

With some regularity, I get an email note from a sincere, curious JAZZ LIVES reader or viewer who has encountered a stirring, perhaps unclassifiable musical performance: “What style is that?” or “What do you call that kind of jazz?”

The questions make me sad.  Sometimes it seems as if listeners are made nervous by the music’s potential to surprise, as if jazz had become a little dog, very sweet-natured, that could turn around and bite badly.

Uncertainty makes us tremble, but I didn’t think that the need for certainties would have so infected our ability to love the music on its own terms.  Some people with good hearts and ears will only be truly easy and happy when they know that a performance of ATLANTA BLUES is “down-home,” “Mainstream,” “pre-bop,” “trad,” “neo-retro,” and the like.  Pick your terminology.  It reminds me of those charts in INTRODUCTION TO JAZZ books with everyone neatly listed, either in tables or in timelines, from Buddy Bolden (he was “New Orleans,” we knew) to Charlie Parker (safe at home in “be-bop”).  Roy Eldridge gave birth to Dizzy Gillespie, and so on.  I always found those charts annoying because of their conservative narrowness: were Ben Webster and Lester Young “Swing” players who weren’t allowed to go out of their front yards?  And the charts left so many people out: I never saw Joe Thomas anywhere.

Although I am an “academic” by profession (I have taught English to college freshmen and sophomores for longer than Bix Beiderbecke’s time on earth) I blame the academics even before there were Jazz History courses, in their attempts to standardize, categorize an organic art form into something teachable — with final exam questions to be determined later.  Charts and boxes, timelines and categories are attempts to quantify something that threatens to spill out and over the edges.  These restrictive mechanisms have governed literary anthologies (organized by “schools” and arranged by the birthdates of the writers being studied) for many generations.

It’s a tribute to any art — jazz, poetry, painting — that such well-meaning acts haven’t killed it dead.

Then, of course, jazz is a music that blessedly stirs up fierce allegiances.  That’s a good thing!  I love to see people who hug their music to their hearts: both they and the music are fully alive in such moments.  But allegiance devolves into party skirmishes and ideological statements: my music is PURE; yours is COMMERCIAL.  Mine is THE TRUTH; yours is CORRUPTED.  The journalists and critics saw good copy here and thus we had DIXIELAND versus BE-BOP and the like, the ancient doing battle with the new.  The musicians knew better and respected each other: Baby Dodds and Max Roach weren’t at war.

But the need to name, to classify, to take big living entities and force them into little boxes — a chilling process — hasn’t gone away.  Too bad.  It gets in the way of our ability to sink deeply into the collective creativity that jazz offers us if we’re wondering what to call what we’re hearing.

Let us be guided by Eddie Condon: WE CALLED IT MUSIC.

GEORGE WETTLING’S RIGHTEOUS RAGE

The man in the picture looks serious, intent, but hardly dangerous.  He is George Wettling — known for his wonderful drumming with Eddie Condon, Max Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland, Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Art Hodes, and many others. 

In my recent, quite amiable discussion of Moldy Figs and Mossy Stones with Nate Chinen, one of my friends, drummer Mike Burgevin, brought up a piece of jazz legend: he had read somewhere that “George Wettling flattened a critic.”

Inquiring minds want to know, of course, and so Stompy Jones (my Canadian ally) asked me what I knew about this incident.  I knew nothing, but suggested that the critic in question might have been Leonard Feather, who expended a great deal of energy in the Forties making fun of the Condon bands — so much so that Condon dedicated a mocking title to him, and later on Muggsy Spanier made a record called FEATHER BRAIN. 

I inquired of fellow scholars and drummers Hal Smith and Kevin Dorn, but no one seems to have particular details of this incident.  And the less I know about it, the more it piques my interest.  Let us assume that it actually happened, of course.  Did Wettling read something in DOWN BEAT, say, by Mike Levin, the critic who compared Lester Young’s tone to cardboard, meet him on the street, swing once, connect, and leave Levin horizontal?  Or was it a critic who actually came to hear Wettling in person who may have told George that his style of drumming was old-fashioned.  “Stop playing that bass drum.  Go take some lessons from Tiny Kahn or Max Roach.”  BOOM!

Those with information are invited and encouraged to write in; aspiring playwrights are also encouraged to submit five-minute playlets on the theme. 

And then, when we’ve collectively solved this mystery, perhaps someone can explain the astonishing and continuing interest in photographs of Billie Holiday’s “man,” Louis McKay.  Hundreds of people seem to be searching for Mr. McKay.  With all due respect, why?

SIDNEY CATLETT AT 100

A  jazz blog like this one might easily become necrological– mourning the deaths of musicians and jazz scholars or sadly celebrating players who have been dead a long time.  It’s a battle to tear one’s eyes away from the rear-view mirror and focus on the present.  But since I do not expect to see the celebrations for Big Sid Catlett’s two-hundredth birthday, readers will forgive me. 

Sidney Catlett was born on January 17, 1910 and died before I was born.  I don’t believe in “the best,” but Big Sid might well be The Master — at least Max Roach thought so, as did Jo Jones.  Beyond legend, there is the recorded evidence: he could play propulsively and eloquently with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Mildred Bailey, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster . . . and those are only the recorded performances I can call to mind.

Ruby Braff remembered that when he listened to Louis Armstrong’s records with their creator, Louis said to him, “There’s that Catlett again!  Seems like he was on every swinging record I ever made.” 

But being versatile, in itself, is not enough: many musicians have been versatile without being particularly distinguished.  What made Sidney Catlett so special? 

For one thing, his instantly recognizable beat.  Even simply keeping time — using one of his seemingly numberless varieties of wire-brush sweep or playing the hi-hat — his time is identifiable.  Whitney Balliett, who first helped me to listen so closely to Sid, noted that Catlett played a fraction ahead of the beat — many drummers find the best and sit right down on it — but Sid’s time seemed to urge the band forward in the most jubilant way, although he didn’t ever rush.

Along with that beat there is his gallery — or galaxy — of sounds.  His drums sound alive.  The snap of his closed hi-hat.  The seductive come-with-me of his brushwork.  The thump of his tom-toms.  The masterful NOW! of a Catlett rimshot.  Drummers of the Forties and beyond tried to copy him and some came close to capturing the broadest outlines of his style — J.C. Heard for one — but their sounds are somehow flatter, narrower, more monochromatic.  So his sound is immediately identifiable — dance music, no matter what the context. 

As with all the great artists, much of Sidney’s mastery is not just in what he did — but what he wisely chose not to do. 

Many drummers, then and now, play at the same volume as the horns.  Sidney knew how to play very softly — which made his thundering climaxes so impressive.  Some drummers insist on filling up all the spaces.  Or they accent every note, enthusiastically but unthinkingly.  The result gets tiresome before a chorus is over, rather like a forest of exclamation marks or someone with a point to make who emphasizes every word. 

Sidney knew when not to play, when not to dramatize, when not to continue the pattern.  There were exceptions: I think of Lou McGarity’s bridges on Benny Goodman records, where Sidney, either enjoying McGarity’s exuberance or wanting to push him along, drives the rhythm section along with relentless accents that could fell a sequoia.  But Catlett understood space and variety, and surprise.  He was a great dramatist behind his drums. 

So his percussive world sounds undated — springy, elegant, and funky.  The listener says, “That’s Big Sid!” but that awareness isn’t because Catlett thrusts himself to the forefront; rather, it was because he makes his fellow musicians sound better than they themselves thought possible.

I’ve been admiring his playing for as long as I can remember — one of my earliest musical experiences was hearing Louis’s RCA Victor TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, and delighting in the way Sid pushed everyone along on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’.  Later, I heard him with the Blue Note Jazzmen and every jazz group I could find.  But he continues to amaze.

“Amaze?” you say.    

As an experiment, take any record on which Sid plays a particularly engaging, swinging part (that would be ALL of them) and listen to it once.  Admire the sounds he makes, the comments he provides, the support he gives to the band.  Then, play it again, and try to anticipate his shifts, his accents.  Experienced listeners will be able to divine some of the general motions — here, Sid will shift to the hi-hat; here’s a break coming up.  But if you try to play his accents along with him, it’s nearly impossible.  Sid’s pulsing work, his amazing accompaniment, is never rote.  I would suggest ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall and the Blue Note Jazzmen — his playing is stirring, as is his work on the recently discovered 1945 Town Hall concert with Bird and Diz. 

His music is amazingly generous.  He lived a very short life and his recorded career is only slightly over two decades.  But he gave so much to his fellow musicians and to us that it seems as if he played more — and at a higher level — than the musicians who lived longer.

And he mastered the problem of being a forceful individualist while serving the community with every breath.  A question of Ego, if you will.  Catlett shouts for joy, but he does it so the band is even more joyous as a result.   

He died backstage at a concert, his arms around Helen Humes, telling her a funny story.  An admirable death, I think.  A a life well-lived. 

Jim Denham, on his fine blog, SHIRAZ SOCIALIST, has just written a tribute to Sidney: http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/big-sid-b17-jan-1910-d25-march-1951/

Ricky Riccardi really understands the majesty of Sidney: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2010/01/celebrate-big-sid-catletts-centennial.html

And, or those seeking legal ecstasy, there’s a live ROYAL GARDEN BLUES from 1948:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/09/one-hot-garden.html

Ricky also sent this from British jazz drummer John Petters — information about BBC radio programs about Sidney:

 Here are two programmes about this sensational musician this Saturday:
The Late Paul Barnes @ 23:00 on BBC Cambrideshire, Essex, Kent, Norfolk, Northampton, Suffolk & Three Counties. (Paul celebrates the
Django Reinhardt Centenary next week)

The live link on line will be:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_norfolk/

and from Sunday until the following Saturday on Iplayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002mhdx

And Alyn Shipton discusses Big Sid with drummer Richard Pite on ‘Jazz Library’ on BBC Radio 3 at 16:00 on Saturday. This is from the Radio 3 website:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ps0sk

The show will be on the BBC iplayer following the broadcast

Big Sid Catlett was arguably one of the most naturally talented percussionists in jazz history. To celebrate Catlett’s centenary in January 2010, Alyn Shipton is joined by drum expert Richard Pite to pick the highlights of a recorded catalogue that includes work with the swing orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the original Louis Armstrong All Stars.

Big Sid Catlett – born 17 January 1910, Evansville, Indiana, USA, died 25 March 1951.

Coda: A word or two about the audio-visual aids.  The Drumerworld video (posted on YouTube, of course) brings together Sidney’s three main filmed appearances (leaving aside JAMMIN’ THE BLUES) — two quickly-made films from 1946-7, SEPIA CINDERELLA and BOY! WHAT A GIRL, with a guest shot by one Gene Krupa, as well as a Soundie of YOU RASCAL YOU by Louis.  I treasure these film clips but find that they need to be absorbed on two levels.  Since musicians were required to pre-record their music and then mimic playing it for the camera, what one hears and what one sees are always slightly out of step . . . so one must be able to adapt to this.  But the games Sidney and Charlie Shavers play . . . !  I have also liberally seasoned this blogpost with what might seem an odd phenomenon: YouTube videos of famous jazz records a-spinning.  For those who did not grow up with vinyl or shellac records, what could be more dull?  But I find it nostalgic in the best way — because I spent so many hours of my childhood and youth staring at the spinning label in a kind of happy trance while the music poured out of the speakers . . . very life-enhancing, and a way of getting Sidney’s sound into this post.

HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE

Two biographies of jazz musicians have recently gotten much well-deserved media attention: Robin G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk, Terry Teachout’s Louis Armstrong book. 

The Mercury Press has just published jazz scholar Mark Miller’s biography of pianist-composer Herbie Nichols.  It’s a small paperback, 224 pages, without accompanying fanfare. 

But HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE is, in its own quiet way, equal and perhaps superior to the larger competition.  It could fascinate a reader who had never heard Nichols on record or in person: Miller is that fine a writer and researcher. 

At this point, “full disclosure” is essential: I have admired Miller’s books before; my praise of his Valaida Snow biography is on the back cover here; I also tried to help him speak to New York musicians who might have played alongside Nichols, among them Leroy “Sam” Parkins and Joe Muranyi.  But if I had received a copy of this book with its author’s name erased, I would have been mightily impressed. 

But more about that later.  Who was Herbie Nichols?  “Dead at 44 of leukemia” is one answer.  “Brilliantly original but underacknowledged in his lifetime.”  “Peer of Monk, not a disciple.”  “Inimitable pianist and composer.”  “He could work with Danny Barker and Roswell Rudd and please them both.” 

Nichols rarely made his living playing the music he had created.  The paying gigs were with rhythm and blues bands or playing for cabarets, chorus lines, and shows, and most often “Dixieland.”  In fact, I first heard him on records with Rex Stewart and Joe Thomas.  (Nichols’ last record was the Atlantic MAINSTREAM session.) 

But Nichols knew a wide variety of music, and didn’t bring his own ideology to the gig, even though the jazz critics were busily pitting “Dixieland” against “modern.”  He was a fine stride pianist, choosing Jelly Roll Morton’s THE PEARLS as his feature when he played with a traditional band. 

But he retained his identity, and the players who worked with Nichols understood that he was going his own way in the traditional ensembles of the time, not always easily.  Dixieland gigs proliferated, even though writers might now see the Fifties as the era of cool jazz or hard bop.  He worked in bands led by drummer Al Bandini (a friend of Pee Wee Russell) at the Greenwich Village club The Riviera, which may still be active, although without music, on Seventh Avenue South.  Buell Neidlinger recalled what I hope wasn’t a typical scene: “I can’t tell you the number of times I trudged over there with my bass just to get a chance to play with Herbie, even with Al there — just to make Herbie feel better.  Al was nasty to Herbie.  Herbie’d be playing one of his tunes and Al would say, ‘Let’s stop that shit now!  Right in the middle of the tune!  Let’s stop that shit now.  Let’s play When the Saints Go Marching In.‘ He’d say that real loud and the audience would scream, ‘Yeah!  Go, man, go, go, go!” 

Nichols’ brief life, the scant recognition he got, and such scenes might encourage a writer to depict him as a victim.  One imagines the Down Beat headline: JAZZ MODERNIST FORCED TO PLAY “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.”  Intrigued by Nichols the man, Miller avoids the conventional portrait of the suffering jazzman, and shows us that Nichols — refiined, intellectual, chess-player, poet, and painter — was not self-destructive, an alcoholic, an addict.  African-American, he was not victimized by racism — no more than any man of his race in those decades.   

Rather, Miller is sympathetic without being idolatrous, candidly describing the missed chances, the system of jazz-stardom that put Thelonious Monk on the cover of TIME but had Nichols playing the piano for female impersonators.  Nichols is a particularly challenging subject for a biography because the evidence that exists nearly forty-five years after his death is slim. 

However, readers who are intrigued by famous names and the people a working musician might encounter will be delighted by the players Nichols worked with or knew: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, Dick Rath, Ed Polcer, Conrad Janis, Wilbur deParis, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Dave Frishberg, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey.  We find him on a Turkish cruise ship playing traditional jazz with Steve Swallow.  A Nichols melody caught Billie Holiday’s ear and was retitled, with lyrics, LADY SINGS THE BLUES.  He helps a ten-year old Phil Schaap negotiate the New York subway system. 

Miller knits together all these incidents, bits of hearsay and anecdotage without making his book seem like a banquet of crumbs.  The biography moves chronologically, but Miller isn’t tied to the calendar (some jazz books read as if the author wanted to follow the subject gig by gig, month by month); Miller is both expert and free, so the book moves sideways when the material needs it, without losing the thread.  The biography is compact (Miller considers that not every artist needs a five-hundred page monograph) but it is both dense and quickly-paced. 

And in the essential small things, Miller is splendid: he has a fine emotional intelligence that allows him to be fond of Nichols (as everyone except Bandini was, apparently) without idealizing him.  Although the evidence is often sketchy, Miller doesn’t hypothesize excessively; he avoids psychoanalyzing his subject; he doesn’t get irritated by Nichols, nor does he pad the biography by quoting large excerpts from Nichols’ prose.  His musical analysis is pointed but not over-technical; Miller captures the flavor and sensibility of Nichols playing, composing, and imagination.

Another writer might have made himself the subject of the book: “Look how much detective work I had to do to find out this shred of information about that neglected pianist — I forget his name.”  Someone might have shaped the facts of his subject’s life to fit a particular ideology.  Because Miller illuminates Nichols and gently stays out of the way, his subject’s personality shines through, even when the evidence is most thin.  I began the book with great eagerness because I admire Miller’s writing, his perspective, and his research — but very soon I was forcing myself to read it more slowly, because I did not want it to end.  That may be the best tribute a reader can pay — to Nichols and to his chronicler.       

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 

ON TREASURE ISLAND

No, my title isn’t a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson, or the 1935 pop song recorded by Louis and Wingy Manone.  It’s how I think of the back quadrant of the antiques-and-collectables shop called CAROUSEL on Warren Street in Hudson, New York.  In a previous post, I happily showed off the Jelly Roll Morton HMV 78 I had uncovered . . . but I hadn’t bothered to look down.  What I found was two boxes of 10″ and 12″ 78s and a few 10″ lps — many of them suggesting that their previous owner had far-ranging and excellent jazz taste.  Here are my latest acquisitions, arranged in rough chronological order for the purists out there . . .

Let’s begin with some classic acoustic blues: two Columbias by a famous pair:

78s from Carousel 001

78s from Carousel 002

78s from Carousel 003

78s from Carousel 004

78s from Carousel 005

This one was fairly dull, but I didn’t expect roaring improvisation.

78s from Carousel 006

Well, we live in hope. SUSAN has some faux-hot playing in its final chorus, where potential buyers might not be scared away, but nothing memorable.

78s from Carousel 007

I recall this tune from Mildred Bailey’s little-girl version, but don’t know the vocalist.

78s from Carousel 008

This 78 is cracked, but this side’s a real prize.  With the song taken at a slower tempo than usual, there’s a good deal of growling from Bubber Miley in the last minute of the record, out in the open and as part of the ensemble.  A find!

78s from Carousel 009

What first caught my eye was the lovely UK label . . . then when I saw this and the next ones were mint Bings from 1933, I couldn’t resist.  And Eddie Lang is added to the Royal Canadians.  Legend has it that the British pressings are quiet and well-behaved.  Is this true?

78s from Carousel 010

Not a memorable song, but I can hear Bing becoming pastoral as I type these words.

78s from Carousel 011

78s from Carousel 012

And my favorite of the four sides — a jaunty naughty song about love-addiction, and perhaps other things, too.  I always knew that “I must have you every day / As regularly as coffee or tea,” didn’t entirely refer to Twining’s Earl Grey.

78s from Carousel 013

Now you’re talking my language!  We jump forward into the Forties (I left aside a number of familiar Commodores and Keynotes, because of the economy) — with a record I’d only heard on an Onyx lp compilation.  Here’s the original 12″ vinyl pressing, with “Theodocius,” as Mildred called him on a 1935 record, who was under contract to Musicraft at the time.  A wonderful quintet!

78s from Carousel 014

And a tune that only one other jazz group (Benny Morton-Red Allen, 1933) ever recorded.

78s from Carousel 015

For whatever reason, 10″ jazz lps are even more scarce than 78s, so this one was a real surprise — even without its cover.

78s from Carousel 016

Just as good!

78s from Carousel 017

The other side of the ideological divide, but equally thrilling.

78s from Carousel 018

Did Mingus overdub his bass lines on this issue, I wonder?

78s from Carousel 019

Take it on faith that side 2 is exactly the same except for the altered digit.  Now, to conclude — a pair of oddities!

78s from Carousel 021

I can see myself listening to this two-sided piece of history once, if that — but the near-mint record and the original sleeve made it an essential purchase.  I’ll also send this photo to my friend, poet Amy King, who isn’t abdicating her throne any time soon.

78s from Carousel 022

Finally, a real gamble and entirely irresistible for that reason.  The logical half of the brain says that what looks like “Hawk” will turn out to be “Hank,” singing about his girl Nona, accompanying himself on the musical saw.  The hopeful side of the brain says “Coleman Hawkins, of course . . . ”  Stay tuned!  My next purchase, obviously, has to be a three-speed turntable.

And two antique-store stories, both cheering.  In Carousel, the gentleman behind the counter saw me come puffing up with my armload of precious 78s.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think the store does a brisk business in 78s, so he was happy to see me.  “I have twelve,” I said, with that hopeful expectant canine look on my face that says, silently, “Can you give me a break on the price, especially if I don’t haggle with you?”  His intuition was splendid.  He grinned at me and said, “Looks like ten to me.”  I was pleasantly flustered and said, conspiratorially, “You knew I was hoping for some sort of discount, didn’t you?” and his smile got bigger.  “No,” he said, “I just count better than you do.”  Very sweet indeed!

And a few days before this, the Beloved and I had spent some time in a store in an odd location — where, I don’t exactly remember.  Its owner was even more amiable, even when we couldn’t find a thing to buy in his place, including gardening books and a small stash of vinyl records.  But we had an exceedingly amusing and thoughtful conversation with him about the changing nature of the area, and how it affected local businesses.  We exchanged friendly good wishes at the end, and went outside to get in the car.  A few beats later, we saw him emerge from the store.  “Did I tell you my clown joke?” he said, and we said no, he hadn’t — hoping for the best but expecting something positively weird or terrifying.  (One never knows, do one?)  “Two cannibals are eating a clown, and one of them looks at the other and says, suspiciously, ‘Does this taste  funny to you?”  It caught me by surprise and, after a moment for cogitation, we were laughing loudly.  Now you can tell it to someone else.