Tag Archives: McKinney’s Cotton Pickers

LONDON’S HOTTEST RHYTHM JUGGLERS: THE VITALITY FIVE, “SYNCOPATION GONE MAD”

I’ve had an alarm clock / clock radio at the side of my bed for decades now, and its message is unvarying and irritating. Time to go to school!  Time to go to work! Time to move the car to avoid a ticket! 

But playing the new CD by The Vitality Five, its title noted above, I thought if I could rig up a musical machine that would, at first softly, play one of their glorious lively evocations of a vanished time, I would be much more willing to get out of bed and face the world.

The Vitality 5 is inherently not the same as many other bands performing Twenties hot repertoire.  For one thing, the 5’s reach is informed and deep: of the seventeen songs on this disc, perhaps four will be well-known to people who “like older jazz.”  Be assured that even the most “obscure” tunes are melodic and memorable.  More important to me is the 5’s perhaps unstated philosophy in action.  Many bands so worship the originals that they strive to create reverent copies of the original discs, and in performance this can be stunning.  But the 5 realizes something in their performances and arrangements that, to me, is immensely valuable: the people who made the original records were animated by joyous exuberance.

The players we venerate were “making it up as they went along,” as if their lives depended on it.  Theirs did, and perhaps ours do as well.

So these performances are splendidly animated by vivacious personality: they leap off the disc.  I don’t mean that the 5 is louder or faster, but they are energized.  You can’t help but hear and feel it.

Facts.  The band has been together since 2015, and it is that rare and wonderful entity — a working band.  Two of its members should be intimate pals to JAZZ LIVES readers: David Horniblow, reeds, and Andrew Oliver, piano — they are the one and only Complete Morton Project.  The other three members who complete the arithmetic are special heroes of mine, people I’ve admired at the Whitley Bay / Mike Durham jazz parties: Michael McQuaid, reeds and cornet; Martin Wheatley, banjo; Nicholas D. Ball, drums.

And they are superb players — not only star soloists, but wonderful in ensemble, making the 5 seem much more a flexible orchestra than the single digit would suggest.  They are, as Louis would say, Top Men On Their Instruments.  Each performance has its own rhythmic surge, the arrangements are varied without being “clever,” and the band is wise enough to choose material that has a deep melodic center — memorable lines that range in performance from sweetly lyrical to incendiary.  The back cover proclaims that there are “17 CERTAIN DANCE HITS!” and it’s true.

A final word about repertoire — a subject whose narrowing I find upsetting, as some “Twenties” groups play and replay the same dozen songs: this disc offers songs I’d either never heard before (JI-JI BOO) or not in decades (THE SPHINX) as well as classics that aren’t simply transcriptions from the OKeh (FIREWORKS, EVERY EVENING, COPENHAGEN) — across the spectrum from Nichols-Mole to Clarence Williams to McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and more.

I know it’s heresy to some, but the Vitality 5 performs at a level that is not only equal to the great recordings, but superior to them.  A substantial claim, but the disc supports it.

Visit here to hear their hot rendition of COPENHAGEN — also, here you can buy an actual disc or download their music.  Convinced?  I hope so.

And to the Gentlemen of the Ensemble: if you perfect the Vitality Five Rise-and-Shine machine, suitable for all electric currents, do let me know.  I’ll be your first purchaser.  Failing that, please prosper, have many gigs, and make many CDs!

May your happiness increase!

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THE SKIES WILL CLEAR UP: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE at MEZZROW

Barbara Rosene EhudBarbara Rosene is a great, subtly emotive singer.  Her warm voice caresses the melody and lyrics, and her deep feeling takes us inside each song, making each composition its own small drama or comedy.  New Yorkers like myself have known this for more than a decade; if you’ve heard Barbara with the Harry James Orchestra, you know it as well.

Barbara and the splendid pianist Ehud Asherie performed two sets at Mezzrow (West Tenth Street, New York City) a week ago, on May 17, 2016.  Early in the evening, Barbara and Ehud offered one of my favorite songs, LAUGHING AT LIFE.  As she points out, most people know the song from Billie Holiday’s rollicking version — with elating assistance from Lester Young and Roy Eldridge — but it goes back to 1930, with recordings by Ruth Etting and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.  (My guess is that John Hammond, who loved the older songs, suggested it to Billie, although the Goodman band was playing it on broadcasts a few years earlier.)

Laughing_at_Life_FilmPoster

A sidelight: I had not known about this 1933 pre-Code film, which might not even have the song included, but who can pass up a poster like this?

To get back to our subject: I was instantly moved by Barbara’s rendition of the song — which could be sweetly maudlin in less subtle hands or sped up to “swing it.”  The tempo is perfect, and her delivery is sweetly, endearingly convincingly.  The rich textures of her voice are marvelous in themselves.

I don’t think anyone will be guffawing or chortling in empathy once the video has left its mark, but I know that Barbara and Ehud add to our collective happiness, as they always do.  (Ehud’s medium tempos are a wonderful education in themselves.)

And Barbara always has my permission to sit down.

Here’s the relevant evidence.  And there will be more music from this delightful evening at Mezzrow.  (A word about that club: it is comfortable in every possible way, and the music is lovingly the center of attention, as it should be.)

May your happiness increase!

PROPINQUITY COULD BE BLISS, AND AFTER THE FIRST SIXTY MINUTES ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE

IF I COULD BE WITH YOU

A short series of blissful interludes, courtesy of James P. Johnson and Henry Creamer (1930).  First, Bobby Hackett floating over an orchestra “conducted” by Jackie Gleason:

Ruby Braff, cornet; Dick Hyman, Baldwin organ — with a closing chorus of great majesty:

and for the historians among us, where it all started, with thanks to Red McKenzie, Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell, and Glenn Miller (note that the label of the Bluebird reissue credits the song to “McKenzie-Kruppa”: when asked, did one of them tell the recording supervisor that the composition, ONE HOUR, was theirs?):

and the 1930 recording by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, with vocal refrain by one of my favorite singers, George Thomas:

Eva Taylor’s very tender version:

Near the end of Vic Dickenson’s life, he created this touching performance — holding up TWO fingers:

And — at the end  because nothing could follow it — Louis, explicated by our very own Ricky Riccardi here.

Who knew that the state of yearning, of wanting a complete love and not yet attaining it, could be the source of such healing music?

May your happiness increase!

SWING FOR ROMANTICS (1931)

When the conversation turns to the great swinging bands before “the Swing Era,” the names that are mentioned are usually the Luis Russell Orchestra and Bennie Moten’s Kansas City aggregations, Henderson, Ellington, Goldkette, Calloway, and Kirk.  Each of these bands deserves recognition.  But who speaks of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers?  (Is it the name that so embarrasses us these days?)

mckinneyscottonpickers

The song and performance that so enthralls me is from their last record date in September 1931 — DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT SIGHT? — composed by Ted Fio Rito and Gus Kahn. I am assuming that it was originally meant as a love ballad, given its title and world-view, but the band takes it at a romping tempo. (Was it played on one of their “coast to coast radio presentations”?  I hope so.) Several other marvelous features of this recording have not worn thin: the gorgeous melody statement by Doc Cheatham; the incredible hot chorus by Rex Stewart; the charming vocal by Quentin Jackson; the tenor saxophone solo by Prince Robinson, the arrangement by Benny Carter, and the wondrous sound of the band as a whole — swinging without a letup.

The personnel is listed as Benny Carter, clarinet, alto saxophone, arranger / leader: Rex Stewart, cornet; Buddy Lee, Doc Cheatham, trumpet;  Ed Cuffee, trombone; Quentin Jackson, trombone, vocal; Joe Moxley, Hilton Jefferson, clarinet, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Todd Rhodes, piano, celeste; Dave Wilborn, guitar; Billy Taylor, brass bass; Cuba Austin, drums. Camden, New Jersey, September 8, 1931.  (The personnel offered by Tom Lord differs, but I think this one is more accurate.)

Here, thanks to our friend Atticus Jazz — real name available on request! — who creates one gratifying multi-media gift after another on YouTube — is one of the two takes of DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT SIGHT?:

I love Doc Cheatham’s high, plaintive sound, somewhat in the style of his predecessor, Joe Smith — and how the first chorus builds architecturally: strong ensemble introduction, trumpet with rhythm only (let no one tell you that tuba / guitar doesn’t work as a pairing), then the Carter-led sax section — imagine a section with Carter, Hilton Jefferson, and Prince Robinson — merging with the brass.  By the end of the first chorus, you know this is A BAND. (I’m always amused by the ending of the chorus, which exactly mimics the end and tag of THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Nothing new under the sun.) And whose idea — Carter’s? — was it to so neatly use orchestra bells throughout this chart?  Lemon zest to the ear.

But then there’s Rex Stewart’s expert and hilarious solo — he wants to let you know he is here, immediately.  I always think of him as one of those bold trumpeters who, as the tempo speeded up, he played even more notes to the bar, rather than taking it easy and playing whole and half notes.  In this chorus, he seems like the most insistent fast-talker, who has so much to say and only thirty-two bars in which to say it.  Something else: at :56 there is a small exultant sound. It can’t be Rex taking a breath and congratulating himself (as he does in WILD MAN BLUES on THE SOUND OF JAZZ) so I believe it was one of his colleagues in the band saying without the words, “Yeah, man!”

Then a gloriously “old-fashioned” vocal from Quentin Jackson, but one that no one should deride.  He told Stanley Dance that he learned to sing before there were microphones, so that you had to open your mouth and sing — which he does so splendidly here.  He’s no Bing or Columbo, wooing the microphone: this is tenor singing in the grand tradition, projecting every word and note to the back of the room.

The final chorus balances brass shouts and the roiling, tumbling Prince Robinson, who cuts his own way amidst Hawkins and Cecil Scott and two dozen others: an ebullient, forceful style.  And by this chorus, I always find myself rocking along with the recording — yes, so “antiquated,” with tuba prominent, but what a gratifying ensemble.  Yes, I believe!

Here is what was to me the less familiar take one:

It is structurally the same, with the only substantial difference that Rex continues to play a rather forceful obbligato to Quentin’s vocal — almost competing for space, and I suspect that the recording director at Camden might have suggested (or insisted on) another take where the vocalist was not being interfered with.  How marvelous that two takes exist, and that they were recorded in Victor’s studios in Camden — a converted church with fine open acoustics.

There is a third version of this song, recorded in 1996 by Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton — sixty-five years later, but for me it is a descent from the heights.  You can find it on YouTube on your own.

Whether or not you believe in love at sight (that’s a philosophical / emotional / practical discussion too large for JAZZ LIVES) I encourage you to believe in the singular blending of hot and sweet, of solo and ensemble, that is McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.  One has to believe in something.

May your happiness increase!

JANICE DAY IS OPTIMISTIC AND RIGHTLY SO

And in a few seconds more than three minutes — the length of a 78 — she makes us all feel more optimistic.  Janice can affect us in many ways, but at her core is a gentle winsomeness, which comes through so easily here.

This performance of LAUGHING AT LIFE — at its 1930 tempo — comes from the 2014 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, and Janice’s accompanists are Keith Nichols, piano; Menno Daams, cornet; Graham Hughes, trombone; Mauro Porro, reeds; Martin Wheatley, guitar /banjo; Malcolm Sked, bass; Emma Fisk, violin; Richard Pite, drums:

“Why not grin?” indeed.  We have Janice Day and Her Gang to inspire us.  And this November, there will be another Party — celebrating a quarter-century of the best hot music, November 6-8, 2015.

May your happiness increase!

WHEREVER THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY

Let me begin with a jubilant piece of music from the 1929 McKinney’s Cotton Pickers — featuring a wistful vocal by Don Redman, rousing solos from Coleman Hawkins and Fats Waller and beautiful ensemble playing from Joe Smith, Leonard Davis, Sidney De Paris, Claude Jones, Benny Carter, Ted McCord, Dave Wilborn, Billy Taylor, Kaiser Marshall:

That cheerful recording will seem an odd introduction to my topic, which is Death.

I think about that subject a great deal — not in a terrified way — because I am surrounded by reminders of those dear ones who have moved on (or away) and the Things that people leave behind.

When I go to an estate sale and I learn that the beautiful shirt I am wearing belonged to a man who is now dead, it is a spiritual lesson — intense and to the point.  When I go to Amoeba Music or the Down Home Music Store and find a dozen records all autographed to the same person — let us call him Dewey — I can safely guess that Dewey is no longer here, listening to those discs.

I feel grateful to be the recipient of objects that people cherished so when they were alive, yet sad that they are no longer here to enjoy them, and of course it makes me think of the finite shape of our lives.

So let us assume you have — as many jazz-lovers have — amassed a hoard, large or small, of objects related to the music you love.  Maybe they are records (cylinder to CD), autographs, photographs, ephemera (DOWN BEAT from 1939, a necktie that once belonged to _____): there are a thousand possibilities.

I wish no one of my readers of JAZZ LIVES to vanish, but I must ask them, collectively and singly, to imagine the possibility, and then to ask the question, “What will happen to my Treasures when I’m not here?”

For those who are prepared, the answer is easy.  “I’ve made a will.  I have an executor.  I have another name should that executor not be able to do what I’ve asked.  My executors have copies of the will; we have discussed what I have asked them to do. The will is recent; it was witnessed, notarized, and is properly done.  I do not like to think of my own death, but I have Taken Care of Business.”

Others say, “Oh, this is such a dreadful topic.  I don’t want to think about it today [this month, this year, ever, ever].  I know I should do something but I find it so depressing.  Besides, I have great plans for my collection of Tiny Parham Victors. And I think my infant grandchild Parham will want them when she grows up.  I’ll take care of it.”

I understand this.  It is very difficult for some of us to imagine the universe without us. But it will happen.

In my most kind voice, may I suggest that this pretending it will not happen is not wise. When the jazz collector dies, if (s)he dies without a will, the collection and all the deceased’s possessions have to be appraised — which costs money — before an item can be given away, disposed of, sold. This process isn’t quick, and establishing the value of anyone’s things — unless the dead person was a true minimalist — takes time and costs money.

If you have a partner or children, do you wish to add to their grief the burden of this legal and economic maze?  Or, if you have no one close to you, what will happen to your precious collection of deep-groove blue label Riversides?  My guess is that the landlord will haul them out to the curb or perhaps sell them to the local record store (not the worst thing).

Let me suggest an alternative, although I am not a lawyer nor do I pretend to be offering legal advice.  One can find an online form to create one’s own will.  Make it as specific as possible.  If you want your magazines to go to Clement, your 78s to go to Marjorie, and so on, put it in writing.  Such directions will not take the place of a will, but wills themselves need not be complicated, and I believe you can name someone (preferably somewhat younger and in good health) to be your executor, and then give that person a clear idea of what you would like.  “When I die, please check my email to see whom I have corresponded most frequently about the music.  Since we have spoken, you know the names of the people involved in jazz of whom I am most fond.  Invite them to the house; let them take home what they want.  Have a little party in my honor.  Save a thousand dollars from my savings.  Hire my favorite band.  Have they play FLEE AS A BIRD TO THE MOUNTAIN . . . and then DIDN’T HE RAMBLE.”

Of late, I am observing the partners of several friends who did not write wills, and their troubles are truly painful.  I am not talking about, “My goodness, I hear that all of Joe’s Paramounts went to Goodwill!  It was horrific!”  I am talking about the bereaved partner who not only has to deal with loss, but has to deal with The Stuff.

It is all too easy to say, “Oh, I think it should all go to this jazz institution or the other. They will want my Harry James and Benny Goodman 78s.”  Don’t be too sure. Libraries and institutions do not have infinitely expanding budgets, and to collect your beloved records, catalog them, store them in the proper fashion . . . all of this requires money and a staff.  Be sure to be sure — before saying, “I’d like my collection to go to ______,” that they really want it and will want it in some time in the future.

All this will sound too grim to some readers, and I apologize.

It was not easy for me to write a will, nor is it pleasant dinner conversation to discuss such things with the Beloved.

But benign neglect is a terrible — even a selfish — burden on the people who live on, and if you care about them, if you care about your Things, you might want to take what I am writing seriously.  (For me, my concern is with the people: once I am dead, I hope that my cherished objects go away in the most easy manner — ideally in to the hands of people I love and admire, but if my records go to Goodwill, it’s no disaster, since I bought many of them there.)

And I’m not just writing this to jazz collectors. Please pass this blogpost on to anyone you know who has more than a few of Anything — whether it’s copies of MARTHA STEWART LIVING in MSL binders or first editions or swizzle sticks.

Please do consider this yourself, though, and act on it, promptly.  I write these paternalistic nagging words with love.

May your happiness increase! 

A JAZZ VALENTINE, 1931

Yes, I know it’s about five weeks early.  But Emrah has provided us with a double delight — a great romantic ballad in swingtime, beautifully sung by Quentin Jackson, with solos by Doc Cheatham, Rex Stewart, and Benny Carter . . . as well as a Carter reed-section passage and rollicking piano accompaniment from Todd Rhodes.

The whole band — McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in their last sides for Victor, although the band went on for a few more years — is Benny Carter, clarinet, alto saxophone, director; Rex Stewart, cornet; Buddy Lee, Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Ed Cuffee, trombone; Quentin Jackson, trombone, vocal; Joe Moxley, Hilton Jefferson, clarinet, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Todd Rhodes, piano, celeste; Dave Wilborn, banjo, guitar; Billy Taylor, brass bass; Cuba Austin, drums. Recorded in Camden, New Jersey, September 8, 1931:

The delights of this performance are many, and they grow with repeated listenings.  The supple, fluid sweetness of Doc Cheatham’s melody statement; the vigorous “I will play a note or two to every beat” solo chorus, so flavorful and personal, by Rex Stewart; the lusciously slippery Carter reeds; the dashing vocal chorus by Quentin Jackson (play this for everyone who insists that before Crosby, all male singers sounded insufficiently masculine), and the rocking motion of this ensemble, thanks to Wilborn, Taylor, and Austin, refuting another canard, that jazz musicians were waiting to get rid of banjo and brass bass so that Modernity could burst forth.

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovers. Start your romantic engines early.  Work on becoming just as swoony and loving as the men and women portrayed on Emrah’s photographs and postcards.

May your happiness increase!