Tag Archives: Meade Lux Lewis

FRED GUY, TRICKY SAM NANTON, CHANO POZO, MEADE LUX LEWIS, J.C. HIGGINBOTHAM, BABS GONZALES, ABBEY LINCOLN, SAM JONES, LEE KONITZ, KARIN KROG, JOHN LEWIS, COUSIN JOE, BUD FREEMAN, EDDIE GOMEZ, ANDY KIRK, MED FLORY, CHUBBY JACKSON, WILBUR LITTLE, HELEN HUMES, FREDDIE GREEN, TAFT JORDAN, and MANY MORE, FROM JG AUTOGRAPHS on eBay

The astonishing eBay treasure chest called jgautographs has opened its lid again.  Apparently the trove is bottomless, since the latest offering is 118 items under “jazz,” with only a few debatable entries.  “Donovan,” anyone?  But the depth and rarity and authenticity are dazzling.

Consider this Ellington collection, including Joe Nanton, Billy Taylor, Fred Guy, Juan Tizol, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and the Duke himself:

The appropriate soundtrack, give or take a few years — Ellington at Fargo, 1940 with the ST. LOUIS BLUES (wait for “WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK”):

Incidentally, someone wrote in and said, “Michael, are they paying you to do this?” and the answer is No, and that’s fine.  Imagine my pleasure at being able to share Joe Nanton’s signature with people who just might value it as I do.

Here’s Meade Lux Lewis:

And his very first Blue Note issue, from 1939, MELANCHOLY BLUES:

Taft Jordan, star of Chick Webb, Duke, and his own bands:

Taft in 1936, singing and playing ALL MY LIFE with Willie Bryant:

“Mr. Rhythm,” Freddie Green, with an odd annotation:

a 1938 solo by Freddie (with Pee Wee, James P. Dicky, Max, and Zutty):

Tyree Glenn, a veteran before he joined Louis (Cab Calloway and Duke):

Tyree’s ballad, TELL ME WHY:

The wonderful Swedish singer Karin Krog:

Karin and Bengt Hallberg, joining BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL and SENTIMENTAL AND MELANCHOLY:

The link at the top of this post will lead you to more than a hundred other marvels — the delighted surprises I will leave to you.  And as in other eBay auctions, you or I are never the only person interested in an item . . .

May your happiness increase!

IN 1959, THEY SAT RIGHT DOWN AND WROTE HIM LETTERS

I don’t know what happens today if a young fan writes a letter to Lady Gaga, let us say, requesting a signed photograph or, better yet, asking a question.  That rhetorical question in itself may mark me as hopelessly antique, since fans can find out everything online as it happens.  But my guess is that the Lady doesn’t have time to send back handwritten personalized replies, and that is nothing against her.  Even in the Swing Era, musical personalities had their secretaries or staff sign photos for fans.  On my wall, for instance, is a lovely shot of Connee Boswell — her name signed in pen — but inscribed to the fan in a different hand, leading me to believe that Connee took a stack of a hundred photographs and signed her name on each one.

So what came up on eBay several days ago is remarkable.  I can’t do much detective work, because the seller seems innocent about the trove, and perhaps (s)he has no other connection.  Here’s the listing description:

This 1950’s collection of famous jazz musicians includes autograph letters, signed photographs and autographs. There is an autograph letter signed “Pops Foster” and a photograph signed “George Pops Foster.” There is an autograph note signed “Don Redman” and an 8 x 10 inch photo of Redman also signed. There is an autograph note signed “Meade “Lux” Lewis” There is an autograph note signed “Pete Johnson” and a letter by Pete Johnsons wife. There are two autograph letters signed “Alberta Hunter.” There is an autograph note signed “Buster Baily” and an autograph letter signed “Terry Spargo.” There is also a typed letter by Terry Spargo and a signed photograph. There are several autographs including “Moondog” “Israel Crosby” and a few others. All the letters, notes, photographs and autographs are in very good condition! NO RESERVE!

While you peruse and consider, here is a most appropriate musical soundtrack:

“Christopher,” whose last name may have been “Jameson,” seems to have been a young aspiring pianist and fan who wrote to his heroes, either asking a question and / or asking for an autographed photograph.  We don’t have any of his inquiries, but they must have been polite and admiring, because he received gracious unhurried answers.  And what strikes me is that in 1959 he wasn’t writing to Dizzy, Trane, or Mobley, but — for the most part — jazz pioneers.  A few of the pages in his collection look like in-person autographs, but much is unknown and will probably remain so.  But we have the most delightful evidence: paper ephemera of a kind not often seen.  Here, without further ado:

POPS FOSTER gives his address twice, clearly pleased by this correspondence:

DON REDMAN, smiling and fashionably dressed:

TONY SPARGO, handing off to Eddie “Daddy” Edwards:

More from TONY SPARGO:

PETE JOHNSON wasn’t up to much writing, but his wife was encouraging and Pete did send a nice autograph:

“Musically yours,” MEADE LUX LEWIS:

Are the signers (from Brunswick, Georgia) a vocal group I don’t recognize?  I do see MOONDOG:

I don’t recognize the signatures on the first page, but below I see VERNEL FOURNIER, AHMAD JAMAL, and ISRAEL CROSBY:

BUSTER BAILEY signs in kindly and also mentions his new recording, perhaps the only long-playing record under his own name:

an extraordinary and extraordinarily generous letter from ALBERTA HUNTER:

and an even more generous second chapter:

Christopher must have written extremely polite letters to have received such answers, but this selection of correspondence speaks to the generosity and good will of people who were actively performing, who took the time to take a young person seriously.

When the bidding closed, the collection sold for $660 a few minutes ago.  So you can no longer possess these holy artifacts, but you can lose yourself in rapt contemplation of the images and the kind people who not only created the art we revere, but wrote to Chris.

May your happiness increase!

LOUIS GOES WEST: 1946 and 1950

I believe that most people reading these words understand the sustained power of Louis Armstrong through the decades.  (If you think he went into “a deep decline” or “became commercial,” please go away and come back next week.)

But I think that many are in danger of taking Louis for granted, in the same way we might take air or sunlight as expected.  Yet there is always something new and uplifting to experience.  My text today is the glory of Louis in his and the last century’s late forties, as displayed on two very different but equally desirable CDs.  “Mid-century modern,” we could call it, with no side glances at  architecture aside from Louis’ own creations.

Two new CDs provide heartening reminders.  Both are equally delightful: suitable as gifts to others or to oneself, with no greater occasion needed than “Wow, I got through that week!”

The first, on the Dot Time label, presents music few have ever heard, taken from Louis’ own archives, the “Standard School Broadcast” of January 30, 1950, recorded in San Francisco, featuring Louis, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, and a clarinetist, string bassist, and drummer whose names are not known or are — in the case of the clarinetist — a guess.  (If anyone known more about “Lyle Johnson,” please write in.)  Clancy Hayes is the master of ceremonies — he doesn’t sing — and the premise is that he is helping Jack Cahill, “Matt the Mapmaker,” construct a musical map of America: in this case, New Orleans jazz.

There is a good deal of music issued that presents Louis alongside Jack and Earl.  But this CD is better than what we already know.  For one thing, there is a very small studio audience, and the recorded sound is superb: when Hayes picks up his acoustic guitar to add rhythm, it’s nicely audible.  And everyone sounds relaxed, playful, inventive, even with familiar repertoire.  I know that some listeners might pass this CD by because, “I already have two versions of Louis playing LAZY RIVER and I don’t need another.”  That would be an error, I suggest. Not a note on this disc sounds routine or stale.

About that repertoire: DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS?  [plus two rehearsal takes] / MUSKRAT RAMBLE / BASIN STREET BLUES / STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / BOOGIE WOOGIE ON THE ST. LOUIS BLUES / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / PANAMA / LAZY RIVER / BACK O’TOWN BLUES [issued performance plus Louis playing along with the 1950 tape two years later].  Those wise enough to purchase this CD and play it — attentively — all the way through will have a wondrous aural surprise on the final track, where Louis duets with himself.  When the performance is over, he’s still practicing, and there is a solo exposition of the first sixteen bars of the current pop tune, I COULDN’T SLEEP A WINK LAST NIGHT, that is positively awe-inspiring.  Louis, completely alone and at his peak, one of many.

DotTime Records is releasing the Louis Armstrong Legacy Series — four CDs, of which this is the first, and the second, “Night Clubs,” has just come out.  For more information, visit their website.  These issues have funny, friendly, edifying notes by Ricky Riccardi, the Louis-man of great renown.

The other Louis issue is possibly more familiar to collectors but is musically thrilling.  Here’s Bert Stern’s famous photograph to get you in the mood, or perhaps the groove.

That photograph comes from the film NEW ORLEANS, which starred Louis and Billie Holiday, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and others too rarely seen on film.

I remember sitting in front of the television in the den of my parents’ house in early adolescence, having waited all week for this movie to be shown, perhaps on MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE on a weekday afternoon.  The consensus was that the film was disappointing.  As a showcase for my heroes, even more so.  Watching it, waiting for my idols to break through the terrible script, was depressing.  I had grown up on false representations of the jazz-past (“The Roaring Twenties,” starring Dorothy Provine, for example) but NEW ORLEANS was spectacularly bad, especially when Louis and Billie would appear, read a few lines, do their feature numbers, and disappear.

Some years later, an album — music recorded for the film but for the most part not used — was issued on the Giants of Jazz label.  I see in the discography that the Giants of Jazz issue was “reissued” on several bootleg CDs, and it now appears, with even more music, on the Upbeat label — which issue I recommend to you.   The music was recorded in Hollywood in late 1946, and the participants, in addition to Louis, Billie, Bigard, and Kid Ory, are Charlie Beal, Red Callender, Zutty Singleton, Minor Hall, Meade Lux Lewis, Arthur Schutt, Mutt Carey, Lucky Thompson, Louis’ 1946 big band (that recorded for Victor) and more.

As poor as the film was, the music on this CD is just as wonderful.  Anything even tangentially associated with “my old home town” made Louis happy, and that happiness and relaxation comes through the music.  I expect that because he and Billie were pre-recording music for the film, they had not been compelled to face what their roles in the film would be . . . Billie playing a maid, a grievous insult.

The CD enables us to spend seventy minutes embraced by the music itself, with Louis in the company of old friends and mentors Ory and Mutt Carey, playing “good old good ones” — the cadenza to WEST END BLUES, FLEE AS A BIRD, SAINTS, TIGER RAG, BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES, DIPPERMOUTH BLUES, KING PORTER STOMP, MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, heard in multiple versions.  For one example, there is DIPPERMOUTH, played as a medium-slow-drag with Mutt Carey in the lead, as if taking Joe Oliver’s place, then a version at the expected romping tempo with the young “modernist” Lucky Thompson audible in the ensemble before Barney Bigard takes the Johnny Dodds solo.  Fascinating, and I looked in astonishment to see that the second version was only one minute and thirty-four seconds, because it felt so complete.

SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE, BALLIN’ THE JACK, KING PORTER STOMP, and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP also feature this splendidly hybrid band of Louis, Mutt, Lucky, Ory, Bigard, Beal, Callender, and Zutty: realizations of what was possible in 1946. One could do a fascinating study of ensemble playing as created by Ory and Lucky, side by side.  They solo in sequence on KING PORTER STOMP as well.  Incidentally, if you are familiar with the jazz “journalism” of this period, as practiced by Feather, Ulanov, Blesh, and others, you might believe that the “beboppers” loathed and feared “the old men,” and the detestation was mutual. Nothing of the sort.  What is audible is pure pleasure: hear Louis on the two versions of MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, leisurely and intense.  Attentive listeners will also delight in the very fine string bass work of Callender — someone who deserves more celebration than he has received.

I have said little of Billie Holiday’s recorded performances on this CD: DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS (twice), FAREWELL TO STORYVILLE, THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’ — these tracks have often been issued in various forms, and she sounds wonderful.

I thought of printing the complete discography of what music had been issued, but it was a confusing labyrinth, so I will simply list the titles on the Upbeat release and hope that purchasers will be guided by their ears:  FLEE AS A BIRD – SAINTS / WEST END BLUES / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? / BRAHMS’ LULLABY / TIGER RAG / BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES (2) / BASIN STREET BLUES / RAYMOND STREET BLUES / MILENBERG JOYS / WHERE THE BLUES WERE BORN IN NEW ORLEANS / FAREWELL TO STORYVILLE / BEALE STREET STOMP / DIPPERMOUTH BLUES (2) / SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE / BALLIN’ THE JACK / KING PORTER STOMP / MAHOGANY HALL STOMP (2) / THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’ / ENDIE / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS? / HONKY TONK TRAIN / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS? / WHERE THE BLUES WERE BORN IN NEW ORLEANS / MAHOGANY HALL STOMP / ENDIE / THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’.

The Upbeat issue is generous: the last five titles are from issued Victor 78s of the same songs, giving us an opportunity to compare.  Here is the Upbeat site where this disc can be ordered.

Incidentally, to see the wonderful photographs Phil Stern took of Louis and other luminaries, visit here.

And for those who have never seen the film NEW ORLEANS or don’t believe me, here is the whole thing uploaded to YouTube.  But don’t get your hopes up: once the first three minutes of WEST END BLUES is over, we have left the reality of the “Orpheum Cabaret” for the melodrama of a routine script:

At times the subtitles are the most diverting thing.  But we have the music, in full flower, on the Upbeat CD.

May your happiness increase!

THE SECOND SET: MIND-DANCES AND HEART-TALES: JOEL FORRESTER AT THE PIANO (Cafe Loup, May 27, 2017)

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

Here is the first set (and what I wrote about Joel) of that glorious afternoon.

And now, as the night follows the day or some equivalent, is the second.  Joel at his poetic unpredictable best.  Each piece feels like a short story, and the whimsical titles add to the effect.

BUNNY BOY (a Blues Frolick for the Afternoon):

NIGHT AND DAY (for Mr. Porter of Peru, Iowa, a rendition that seems built from the rhythmic surge up to the spare melody):

MILDEW LIZA (as explained by the composer, also an adept Joycean):

AMAZING GRACE:

TWICE AROUND:

ON MARY’S BIRTHDAY (Joel’s most recent composition as of that afternoon, a rhythmic celebration of his wife’s natal day):

A beautifully somber reading of GHOST OF A CHANCE:

Having heard several performances of Joel’s INDUSTRIAL ARTS, excerpts and improvisations on sections of this piece, which he has been known to perform for eight hours, I asked him to write something about it, because the piece so stands out — in its incantatory splendor — in what I think of as his oeuvre.  Joel writes: I’ve been improvising on it since l974, my first year in New York. When I’m feeling emotionally generous, I give my wife Mary co-composer credit: the music has its genesis in our weekly Saturday mornings at Washington Square Church. I’d improvise at the piano while watching her dance; she feels time in a deeper way than any dancer I’ve ever seen. This would go on for several hours (we were quite young). Then we’d wax ‘n’ buff the floor. The music grew, its interlocking rhythms calling out weird overtones I would learn to embrace if never truly to corral. In its entirety, INDUSTRIAL ARTS occupies 8 hours. I’ve only played it straight-through once: at The Kitchen in l977. I’ve always striven to play a precis of the tune on my solo gigs, borrowing ideas from the 8 one-hour sections. At least 11 times, over the years, I’ve either been warned, fired, or not asked back…all on account of this one, highly-repetitive tune. The most humorous instance of this took place in 1980 at a Bowery art bar called Sebossek’s. I was only five minutes into INDUSTRIAL ARTS when the Israeli cook burst out of the kitchen with blood in her eyes and a sizzling pan in her hand. What she wanted to do was to show me that she had burned herself, thanks to my music. But, of course, what I saw was a furious woman holding a frying pan. For my sins, I admit that I cowered under the piano. …Over the last five years, all that has changed—who can tell me why? Have listeners become inured to repetitive music, if presented in different forms from mine? Short attention spans promoting selective deafness? In any case, a 10- or 15-minute version of INDUSTRIAL ARTS has become part of my standard repertoire; and I seem to be getting away with it. And longer “concert” versions are sometimes called for. Who knew?

INDUSTRIAL ARTS:

YOUR LITTLE DOG (exceedingly tender, my new favorite):

ANYTHING GOES (its opening measures truncated because of videographer-error, but there’s still enough Romp left to see by):

As I write these words, Joel has a steady Saturday afternoon gig (12:30 to 3:30) at Cafe Loup (135 West 13th Street at Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village, New York City) and June is an extraordinarily rich month for Forrester-sightings, so check them out http://joelforrester.com/calendar/.

May your happiness increase!

MIND-DANCES AND HEART-TALES: JOEL FORRESTER AT THE PIANO, PART ONE (Cafe Loup, May 27, 2017)

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

As I’ve written recently, here, pianist-composer Joel Forrester creates music — tender, sensuous, surprising — always rewarding, never pre-cooked.  I’ve been delighting in his recorded work for a decade now, but haven’t stirred myself to see him perform in a long time.  But I did just that last Saturday, May 27, 2017, at his solo recital (12:30 – 3:30) at Cafe Loup , 105 W 13th St, New York (very close to the #1 train), (212) 255-4746. (And at the risk of sounding like a Yelp review, service — thank you, Byron! — was solicitous, and the food was fresh and nicely presented.)

The musical experiences Joel offered that afternoon were, to me, deeper than simple music.  It felt as if he was a repertory company: each performance seemed its own small world — balancing on its own axis — and then gave way to the next.  A gritty blues was followed by a romantic lament, then a rollicking saunter through an unknown landscape, then a dance from a traveling carnival . . . as you will hear for yourself.

Joel is always balancing strong rhythms and subtle melodies, creating his own shapes and changing those created by others.  The range of his inspirations is amazingly broad: in the course of the afternoon’s recital for an admiring audience, he evoked and improvised on the blues and boogie woogie, Billie Holiday, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Meade Lux Lewis, James Joyce, hymns, the Beatles, and Sam Cooke.

STAGGER JOEL (his variations on an ancient folk blues with a similar name):

GG’S BLUES (paying affectionate tribute to Gershwin’s RHAPSODY):

IN THE RING (a bubbling dance):

BILLIE’S SOLITUDE (for Lady Day and Duke):

IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY (FOR THE MOMENT) (musing on Parisian weather):

CARAVAN (Juan Tizol reminding us that the journey, not the destination, matters):

WHITE BLUES (a title explained by Joel, as prelude):

SKIRMISH (with variant titles explained by the composer):

YOU SEND ME (Forrester meets Sam Cooke):

BACK IN BED (implicitly a paean to domestic bliss):

FATE (half-heard melodies care of Meade Lux Lewis):

There’s more to come from this afternoon at Cafe Loup, and more from Joel in his many guises, all restorative.  He has many and various gigs: visit here.

May your happiness increase!

AMONG THE FAMOUS, A FEW REMAIN MYSTERIOUS

One of the most pleasures of JAZZ LIVES is that some people find it to offer information or to ask for help in solving mysteries. A few weeks ago I received a most pleasant email from a woman in the Middle West. Margaret had found JAZZ LIVES and hoped I could answer a few questions.

I’m writing to you because I think you may like jazz as much as my dad did. He loved jazz, had a huge record collection (now gone, sadly) and large library of jazz related books. One of them, Jazzmen, by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. and Charles Edward Smith, he took with him when he went to hear his favorite players, and got autographs.
 
It’s a very special book, with autographs from: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Marshall Brown, Pee Wee Russell, Herman Autrey (trumpet), George Wettling, Ruby Braff, Joe Sullivan (they were friends; Joe came to our house and he and dad exchanged Christmas cards) Jimmy MacPartland, Henry “Red” Allen, George Brunis, Meade “Lux” Lewis, Joe Venuti, Al Kipp, Muggsy Spanier, Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman.   
 
There’s also a  Jim? P…? or Dueguis?, and possibly Gene Gifford. Also interesting, under Pew Wee Russell’s name is “e e mudder”. Please can you help me fill in the blanks?
My time in the English Department was helpful, and I told Margaret that I thought “e e mudder” was Pee Wee’s take on the poet e e cummings, someone he might have met or read or certainly heard of in all those years playing south of Fourteenth Street in Greenwich Village. But although I’ve done a good amount of handwriting-deciphering for book projects (as well as trying to figure out what my students might be writing in their untrained calligraphy) I couldn’t solve the mysteries. Perhaps JAZZ LIVES’ readers can?
Here are several pages from the writer’s father’s copy of JAZZMEN.
jazzpg1
Left, Marshall Brown, Pee Wee Russell and his alter ego, e e mudder, Herman Autrey, George Wettling, Ruby Braff.
Right, Joe Sullivan, Jimmy McPartland, Eddie Condon, Henry “Red” Allen.
jazzpg2
Left, Louis Armstrong in green, Earl Fatha Hines in red, and . . . Jim Deeguis?
News flash: my friend Kris Bauwens says the mysterious signature isn’t so mysterious: it’s Dizzy Gillespie.
Right, Bud Freeman, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison.
jazzpg3

Left, possibly Zutty Singleton, certainly Georg Brunis, Meade Lux Lewis, Joe Venuti.
Right, Al Kipp, Muggsy Spanier.
Any suggestions about “Jim Deeguis”? and perhaps-Zutty Singleton?  And some biography on Al Kipp? Thanks to Margaret for searching me out, and thanks for the devoted Phil, who had such friends . . .
May your happiness increase!

JAZZ ARCHAEOLOGY, or A NEW TROVE

After my most recent venture into unexpected hot music (finding Lester Young and Charlie Parker 78s) Mal Sharpe told me I was a “jazz archaeologist,” which I take as a great compliment.

I have emerged from another rich unexpected dig, brushed the dust off of my khakis, taken my pith helmet off, and put down my shovels.  Here is my tale.

Yesterday afternoon, while much of the world was engaged in its own pursuits, the Beloved and I were meandering around Sebastopol, California: a paradise of nurseries and antique shops.  We arrived at one of our favorites, FOOD FOR THOUGHT ANTIQUES (2701 Gravenstein Highway South), a non-profit enterprise which gives the proceeds from its sales to the local food bank.  In the past, I’ve found some sheet music there and the odd record or two.  Nothing could have prepared me for the treasure that had arrived there four or five days ago. See for yourself:

Photograph by Lorna Sass

Photograph by Lorna Sass

Yes, perhaps eight hundred ten-inch 78 RPM records in their original paper sleeves. I thought the hoard had some connection to a record store, since many of the discs were blue-label Bing Crosby from 1936 onwards, but I was told that this wasn’t the case: a woman brought them to the store, explained that they were her much-loved collection, and that she now felt it was time to pass them on. I wish I could find out her name to send her thanks, but that might never happen.

And since you’d want to know, the records were one dollar each.

The first afternoon I went through about one-half of the collection: it was a good omen that the first record I picked up was the Victor ST. JAMES INFIRMARY BLUES by Artie Shaw featuring Hot Lips Page. Yes, there were many red-label Columbias by the early-Forties Harry James band, but that’s not a terrible phenomenon.

I gravitated towards the more unusual: KING JOE by Count Basie and Paul Robeson; a Bluebird coupling by Freddy Martin of MILENBERG JOYS and WOLVERINE BLUES; several Fats Waller and his Rhythm sides; a Bob Howard Decca; many Dick Robertson sides featuring a dewy Bobby Hackett; INKA DINKA DOO by Guy Lombardo on Brunswick; BLUE PRELUDE and WE’RE A COUPLE OF SOLDIERS by Bing Crosby on the same label; Johnny Hamp and Arnold Johnson; OLD MAN MOSE by Willie Farmer; a Meade Lux Lewis album set on Disc; Joe Sullivan and his Cafe Society Orchestra on OKeh; WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME by Ted Weems on Victor; a blue wax Columbia by Ted Lewis of TEN THOUSAND YEARS AGO — with his special label; a Johnny Marvin Victor solo and duet; THE LADY WHO SWINGS THE BAND (that’s Mary Lou Williams) by Andy Kirk on Decca; Bunny Berigan’s SWANEE RIVER; a Gene Kardos Melotone; the Rhythm Wreckers’ TWELFTH STREET RAG on Vocalion; the Bluebird BODY AND SOUL by Coleman Hawkins; JEEPERS  CREEPERS by Ethel Waters; Deccas by Lennie Hayton and Edgar Hayes.

(Who can tell me more about Willie Farmer?)

I returned this afternoon, and found the little flowered stool Valerie had offered me in the same place, so I resumed my inspection — many records but with far fewer surprises.  Wingy, BG, Fats, Jack Leonard, Ginny Simms, Bob Howard, Dick Robertson, Milt Herth (with Teddy Bunn and the Lion) and a few oddities. FOOTBALL FREDDY and FRATERNITY BLUES by “Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys” on Columbia (with, yes, Jack Purvis as the sole trumpet); the Mills Brothers singing lyrics to Pete Johnson’s 627 STOMP.  Les Brown performing two James P. Johnson songs from his 1939 POLICY KINGS: YOU, YOU, YOU and HARLEM WOOGIE. Jean Sablon singing TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE . . . and a few more.

I passed up a few country records, Julia Sanderson solos, Nat Shilkret and Charles Dornberger waltzes . . . but the collection was a rich cross-section of good popular music of the Thirties and middle Forties, with a few detours into the late Twenties. No specialist jazz labels, no country blues rarities — but the middle-of-the-road pop music of that period was rich and honest.

I feel honored to be partaking of this experience — this voyage into a time when Freddy Martin and Coleman Hawkins occupied the same space in the collective consciousness. . . . and when a purchase of a thirty-five cent Decca or Bluebird was a real commitment to art, both economic and emotional.

On the way home yesterday, the Beloved (after congratulating me on this find and rejoicing with me — she’s like that!) asked me pensively, “What do you get out of those records?”

I thought for a minute and said, “First, the music. I am trying not to buy everything just because it’s there, so I am buying discs I don’t have on CD or on my iPod. Second, there’s a kind of delight in handling artifacts from a lost time, relics that were well-loved, and imagining their original owners. Third, and perhaps it’s peculiar to me, these records are a way of visiting childhood and adolescence once again, going back to a leisurely time where I could sit next to a phonograph, listen to the music, and absorb joy in three-minute portions. I know that I won’t keep these records forever, and I hope — maybe in twenty years? — to pass them on to someone who will delight in them as I do now.”

And delight is at the heart of the experience.

To find out more about the Food For Thought antiques store and the food bank the proceeds go to (the staff is not paid; they volunteer their time and friendship) see here. The store — which has other surprises for those immune to “old records” — is at  2701 Gravenstein Highway South, Sebastopol. Lovely people, and cookies at the cash register for the low-blood-sugar crowd (like myself: record-hunting is draining work).

May your happiness increase!

SWING IN PARADISE (The First Set): ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, STEPHANIE TRICK, NICKI PARROTT, HAL SMITH at FILOLI (July 29, 2012)

The nymphs and shepherds of pastoral verse, playing their pipes, weaving garlands of flowers, are hard to find.  But there’s one place where a beautiful setting and uplifting jazz improvisations come together — the remarkable gardens and estate at Filoli in Woodside, California.  On July 29, 2012, these four players showed everyone how it’s done — Rossano and Stephanie, striding or musing, at the pianos, Nicki singing and playing the string bass; Hal swinging out at the drums.

Here’s the first set:

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS:

I’M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER:

I NEVER KNEW:

Stephanie offered James P. Johnson’s lovely, ruminative SNOWY MORNING BLUES:

Then, in the name of efficient public transit, she gave us her version of Donald Lambert’s improvisation on Judy Garland’s THE TROLLEY SONG:

Stephanie knows how to get a crowd moving (the sheep would have been bleating on 2 and 4) and she did it again with BOOGIE WOOGIE STOMP:

Nicki made people loosen their collars and ask for ice water with FEVER:

And she followed up with an insinuating BESAME MUCHO:

Rossano, who moves so easily between his musical worlds, offered a Scarlatti sonata before the foursome dug into RUNNIN’ WILD:

And, yes, shepherds and nymphs of the twenty-first century, there is a second set.  But for now, revel in this one.

May your happiness increase.

“AND MANY OTHER RHYTHM ARTISTS”

We could go to this concert . . . even though a decade later, having been there might lose us our jobs as dangerous subversives:

The fact that the poster was red, white, and blue wouldn’t convince the House Un-American Activities Committee for a moment.

Or we could visit Lady Day, Duke, Anita, and Big Sid in California:

But perhaps we should stay closer to home, and if we’re lucky, eventually Mezz will stop playing and let someone else solo.  Imagine Pete Seeger singing with James P. Johnson accompanying him:

I can think of no better way to spend New Year’s Eve.  Can you?

May your happiness increase.

SONNY’S BLUES (and MORE): DIXIELAND MONTEREY, March 4, 2011

When the sweet-natured pianist and singer Carl Sonny Leyland took the stage at Dixieland Monterey, I expected rocking rhythms and down-home singing.  I wasn’t mistaken.

But mere recordings and videos don’t entirely summon up the romping momentum and good humor of this entirely complete player / vocalist / understated showman.  Carl does nothing more dramatic than pat his foot, adjust his glasses, speak softly to the audience between sips of water.  But he’s a jazz and blues volcano, someone whose motion is perpetual and perpetually exciting.  On the surface, he might initially sound like “a boogie-woogie pianist,” which he is — but he has (like Pete Johnson) tugged at the form to make it less restrictive.  He isn’t locked into eight-to-the-bar and his swing is ferocious but light, with echoes of Hines and Fats and Stacy woven into a beautifully organic style.

In this session, he had the finest musical comradeship in bassist Marty Eggers and drummer Jeff Hamilton (“our” Jeff Hamilton, I will point out).  The teamwork of this trio is sensational.  Marty plays the bass with the grace and fervor of Pops Foster or Milton John Hinton, no less.  And Jeff could swing a seventeen-piece band with just his hi-hat, and creates swaying columns of sound all over his set.

Without a hint of antiquarianism, we’re back in the Thirties with Little Brother Montgomery’s SHREVEPORT FAREWELL:

Groovy as a ten-cent movie!  Jimmy Yancey’s JIMMY’S ROCKS:

Sad, wistful, and blue: W.C. Handy’s variations on a folk lament, LOVELESS LOVE:

A favorite rag, BLAME IT ON THE BLUES:

Just an ordinary BOOGIE WOOGIE, inspired by Meade Lux Lewis:

For my dear Aunt Ida Melrose, a rocking OH, BABY:

YANCEY SPECIAL (plus litigation):

You made me what I am today — that’s THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART:

Carl’s own RAT CATCHER’S BLUES, funny and gruesome too.  To paraphrase Ogden Nash, “I’d hate to be  / the rat / That Carl is angry / At.”:

An exuberant HINDUSTAN BOOGIE:

And a romping set closer for Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner, ROLL ‘EM PETE:

Want to learn more?  Visit http://www.carlsonnyleyland.com., http://www.jeffhamiltonjazz.com.  It doesn’t seem that Marty has his own website — he has bigger and better things to do (such as play the bass in a way that reminds me of Walter Page) — but you can find him in many places online and in real life.

Carl Sonny Leyland is so much more authentic than James Baldwin’s story.

THE MUSICIANS GIVE US SO MUCH: CLICK HERE!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

BARNEY JOSEPHSON, CAFE SOCIETY, and MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the stories!

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

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

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

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

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

The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.

The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.

Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.

Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.

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

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

“THE BOY IN THE BOAT”

Another mystery solved, or perhaps another text explicated. 

In May 2010, I posted videos (courtesy of Rae Ann Berry) of a party thrown by Alisa Clancy that featured wonderful duets by Jeff Hamilton on piano and Clint Baker on trumpet. 

In case you missed them, here they are: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/alisas-party-jeff-hamilton-and-clint-baker-may-18-2010/

One of their most saucy outings was SQUEEZE ME, which made me think of its origins in a cheerfully bawdy song called THE BOY IN THE BOAT.  The title had little to do with nautical adventures, and I have included the Winslow Homer image above only as a jape. 

I had only a partial recollection of the lyrics and asked my readers for assistance.  Surprisingly, no explicators or archivists emerged to assist me. 

But when I recently found the YouTube channel of “blindleroygarnett” enlightenment came along as a bonus — a late Paramount (circa 1931) of one George Hannah singing about that boy with accompaniment by Meade Lux Lewis. 

Listen, my children, and you shall hear. 

Now you know!

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance.  And Charles Peterson. 

Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility.  Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his.  That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes.  (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)  

Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions.  That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways.  He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into.  He saw what other photographers didn’t. 

Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with.  Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.

But who was Charles Peterson?

His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life.  And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission. 

Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street.  Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900.  On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop.  Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels.  By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing.  But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon.  He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone.  But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group.  Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road.  With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair. 

Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club.  He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers.  His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazinesDon remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening.  The participants?  Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends. 

During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951.  Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.   

Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.

The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company.  Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button.  He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment.  It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long.  Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand.  Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.”  A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either.  But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.  

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The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939.  Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine.  (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!) 

Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.   

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 In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable.  If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face. 

Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on.  “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent.  Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle.  His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt.  (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work.  Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?) 

What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light.  Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot. 

Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of  round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge.  Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it.  The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.  

Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall.  Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.   00000002

Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note.  Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn.  This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases.  Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is.  To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number.  The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist.  Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically.  Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused.  Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.        

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In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe.  This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run.  Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina.  Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts. 

In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills.  Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort.  Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free.  Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow.  His face is serious, even pained.  Were his teeth bothering him?  Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet?  Was he only playing a quiet countermelody?  It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it. 

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This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk.  There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan.  Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear.  Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying.  What’s the secret?  Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice?  We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too. 

And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation.  When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it.  His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”

More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises. 

THE ELUSIVE FRANK NEWTON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“BOTTOM BLUES” BY ALBERT AMMONS AND HIS RHYTHM KINGS

Although I can’t envision life without daily infusions of stride piano, I’ve never managed to warm up much to boogie-woogie. At its peak, that late-Thirties style featured three rotund, cheerful players — Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson — whose collective sonic effect was a roaring express train aimed at the listener. But each one of the trio was a splendid soloist who could venture beyond eight-to-the-bar conventions, given the chance. Their slow and medium-tempo blues, especially, moaned and rocked. And they were superb leaders and accompanists: Big Joe Turner and Johnson made a wonderful team. But Albert Ammons is not often given his due.

Born in 1907, Ammons died young, but he made some marvelous band recordings. There’s a 1936 Decca session recorded in Chicago featuring trumpeter Guy Kelly (whose mournful voice you hear on Jimmie Noone’s “The Blues Jumped A Rabbit,” recorded around the same time). That’s the band pictured at the top of this posting, his “Rythm Kings.”

Slightly later, there was a romping session with Harry James (a Texan who knew how to play the blues), the Port of Harlem Jazzmen for Blue Note, and a 1944 Commodore session that produced four titles. One of them is an instrumental slow blues, “Bottom Blues.” Whether the title refers to the tempo, the overall funkiness, or the reference is anatomical, the music is imperishable.

On February 12, Milt Gabler, the patron saint of Commodore (pictured here in his record shop — thanks to the late William Gottlieb for capturing this shrine for posterity), put together one of those compact bands that blossomed in 1944 on Keynote, Savoy, Blue Note, Wax, Jamboree, and other small jazz labels. Most jazz historians ritually excoriate James C. Petrillo, then president of the musicians’ union, for provoking the record ban of that period, but the irony is that the ban provoked some enterprising jazz-lovers into capturing transcendent music that the major labels wouldn’t have been interested in. For once, commerce and art — however unintentionally — worked together.

Jazz listeners are always frustrated record producers, who think, “That band would have been just perfect if I had been able to replace Kid Pippin with Sox McGonigle,” on into the night, but this sextet admits no such after-the-fact meddling.

In the jazz family tree of recording dates, we can find connections among the three horn players, but this is the only record date I know of with this front line: Hot Lips Page on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone, and Don Byas on tenor sax. As a teenager, bassist Israel Crosby had worked and recorded with Ammons in Chicago, and Big Sid Catlett — everyone’s first choice — was in town.

The four selections recorded that day are all blues — medium slow, medium, fast, and slow. Page and Dickenson were known as splendid bluesmen, squeezing Dionysiac ecstasies into the narrow confines of twelve bars. Byas’s style may have seemed more urbane, but he had deep Basie – Kansas City roots as well, and he plays nobly. The slow tempo, in addition, keeps him from falling back on the up-hill-and-down-dale rhythmic patterns he liked when he picked up speed, echoing Coleman Hawkins.

Gabler liked to give his musicians a chance to stretch out both live and in the studio, and he usually recorded on 12″ 78 RPM records — almost always earmarked for classical discs — that allowed another full minute of playing.  (Had this been recorded on the much more common 10″ disc, the ensemble would have concluded, probably in haste, when Lips Page’s chorus was over.) 

“Bottom Blues” is structurally very simple — a series of solo improvisations on the twelve-bar blues form, leading up to ensemble riffing at the end. Ammons begins with a musing, suspended-animation four-bar introduction, almost tentatively setting the key, the tempo, and the mood, before moving into a simply played blues — with only Catlett, on brushes, behind and alongside him. It’s as if he’s thinking about what he might be playing while he is doing it.

Catlett, as I’ve written in this blog, could play with great force and volume.  Although he adds notable intensity as the performance builds, he sticks to the wire brushes rather than using sticks.  In his solo chorus, Ammons offers brief glimpses of familiar piano blues motifs, but with surprising delicacy.  He does suggest eight-to-the-bar rolling rhythms at several points, but they are implied rather than stated: his bass patterns hint at Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, even Fats Waller. The effect is thoughtful rather than assertive, and someone hearing this recording for the first time might not identify him as a famed boogie-woogie stylist.

Vic Dickenson takes the next two choruses, and Ammons’s accompaniment has a simple, forceful architectural logic, as he restricts himself to simple block chords in the first chorus and becomes more ornate in the second. Dickenson’s playing has always been praised for its “vocal” quality, its smears, growls, and moans. Justly so, but was there ever was a singer as eloquent as Vic is here? Could any voice create such sounds, bearish growls and sinewy moans, moving from side-of-the-mouth satirical asides and grief?  At points it sounds as if his sound is huge, barely contained, exploding into our ears.  Vic’s second chorus, propelled by Catlett accents, takes a simple phrase and turns it around and around, holding it up to the light before moving more rapidly into double-time and a few exultant shouts, like a man with so many things to say who knows his time is running out.  We should also hear, behind the growls and snorts that seem to characterize Vic’s solo and his style, a deep allegiance to the vein of exuberant melancholy we hear in Twenties and Thirties Louis — play this solo next to “Gully Low Blues” and hear the emotional kinship.   

By contrast, Byas sounds supple and suave, gliding from one phrase to another, extending the harmonies as if to remind us that this is, in fact, 1944, and that Dizzy and Bird are in town.  He is aided immensely by the two horns humming behind him, felt more than heard — voices in the choir adding harmonic support. 

Saving Lips Page for last was not just a good idea; it was inevitable, for no one wanted to follow him on a blues performance.  His solo isn’t appreciably high, loud, or fast, but it is the very quintessence of intensity.  Like Vic, he manages to get so many different sounds out of an unforgiving piece of brass tubing — slides, glissandos, half-valve effects — that would be impossible to notate.  And I defy any trumpet player today to reproduce these twenty-four bars convincingly.  But what we hear is light-years away from trumpet plus rhythm, as the four players drift into electrifying multi-layered polyphony, with Crosby getting even more earnest, Ammons varying his accompaniment, and Catlett urging, commenting, and agreeing to what he’s just heard.

When Ammons returns, it’s not merely an interlude to give the horns time to get into position: he is more rhythmically assertive, with wonderful dialogues going on between his spattering Hines right-hand figures and the ocean-motion of his bass line.  The orchestral polyphony broadens, as the three horns take the simplest moaning figure, as old as King Oliver’s solo on “Dipper Mouth Blues” — rocking back and forth between two notes with plenty of vibrato — and balance it against Ammons’s interjections, Catlett’s accents (he has become an entire section in himself!) building and building, with his cymbal crash the last word.  What a moving interlude!                 

Jazz, like other arts, always implicitly asks the question of how can we make the familiar new and vividly alive?  In this case, how do these six musicians, individually and collectively, take the same phrases that every jazz improviser in 1944 knew by heart and make them seem fresh?  The answer may lie in a strong sense of self, of defiantly individual voices, of superb technical mastery, of intense passion.  The question of HOW may defy words, but “Bottom Blues” shows itself as lasting, emotionally powerful art.

Happily, I can report that someone besides myself cares deeply about Albert Ammons — in this case, his granddaughter Lila has set up a site to celebrate his memory: www.albert-ammons.com.  And although the ASV CD which contains some of his finest work may be out of print, “Bottom Blues” should be available.  It is down-to-earth and celestial at the same time, worth repeated listenings.