Tag Archives: memoir

A FRIENDLY BOOK: CLIVE WILSON’S “THE TIME OF MY LIFE: A JAZZ JOURNEY FROM LONDON TO NEW ORLEANS” (University Press of Mississippi, 2019)

Many memoirs have, at their center, trauma: abuse, addiction, imprisonment, death, disease, or more.  And many jazz books these days are indigestible: deadened by theoretical labyrinths or limited by the author’s narrow range or by inaccuracies.  Thus it’s a tremendous pleasure to celebrate trumpeter Clive Wilson‘s memoir, gentle, humane, and full of good stories.  It’s available from the usual online sources, and a good overview is here.

The facts first: Clive (you’ll understand why I do not call him by the more formal “Wilson”) heard traditional jazz in England in his youth — George Lewis, Kid Ory, Henry “Red” Allen and others — and was inspired to take up the trumpet.  Although he studied physics in college, he was emotionally connected to jazz, and he gigged at home with New Orleans-style bands before making the leap to visit in New Orleans in 1964.  There he met local musicians, and eventually settled in the city he now calls home.  The cover shows a youthful Clive next to Punch Miller . . . which says a great deal.

At this point, some aural evidence would be fitting: Clive and the Shotgun Jazz Band in 2014, playing WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE, alongside Marla Dixon, Twerk Thomson, and Tommy Sancton:

What makes this book so appealing is almost subliminal.  I love first-hand jazz experiences and anecdotes, and for me the three brief encounters Clive has with Henry “Red” Allen — the gradual incline from eager young fan to being seen as a musician — are worth the price of the book.  And the book is generously fleshed out by detailed gracious portraits of many New Orleans luminaries: Dick Allen, Dave “Fat Man” Williams, Barbara Reid, Punch Miller, Raymond Burke, Slow Drag, George Guesnon, Kid Howard, Kid Sheik, Kid Thomas (keep the Kids together!), Lewis James, Peter Bocage, De De Pierce, Herb Hall, Teddy Buckner (gently but decisively winning a nonverbal argument in music with a vindictive Leonard Feather), Buster Holmes, Harold Dejan, Percy Humphrey, Emilie Barnes, Manuel Manetta, and more.  There are brief glimpses of Louis Armstrong in New York and California and an actual Clayton “Sunshine” Duerr sighting — someone who was only a name in a discography.  (Between 1933 and 1936, Duerr played guitar in three New York sessions, alongside Benny Carter, Floyd O’Brien, Teddy Wilson, Pops Foster, Frank Froeba, Joe Marsala, Jack Purvis, Bunny Berigan, and Eddie Dougherty: someone should have recorded his recollections!)

Thus the book is full of close-ups, and since Clive is and was a practicing musician rather than simply a fan, the stories have substance — not only watching Harold Dejan in a street parade, but playing in one.  And Clive has a wonderful ear for the way people speak, which he shares with love rather than condescension.  Two examples: when he arrives at the New Orleans bus station — fifty dollars in his pocket — he hears two men arguing.  One says to the other: “Now tell me this.  What I did you that made you do that to me?!”  That’s memorable: I’ve been trying to work it into conversation since I read it.  Then there’s Tom Albert’s memory of hearing the Bolden band c. 1904: “I stood there with my mouth open so long, it got full of dirt!”

My copy has fifty or more page-corners turned down to remind me of where the irreplaceable stories, sights, and memories are.  And any reader will find his or her own memorable pages.  (There’s a lovely short piece at the end about what Louis means to him and to us.)  But this book is more than the record of someone who aimed for the right place and stayed there, more than a series of anecdotes (how much a plate of red beans and rice cost at Buster Holmes’ in the mid-Sixties and the secret of its deep flavor).

Clive does not fashion himself in a self-conscious way: the book is not a narcissist’s holiday or a diary.  He isn’t Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, or Stephen Dedalus.  But from the first pages of this narrative, it’s clear that he is someone on a quest — not simply to learn to play the trumpet as they do in New Orleans, but to answer the deep questions “Who am I?  Where do I belong?  What is my purpose on this earth?”  To me, Clive’s search for those answers — his journeys back and forth from the UK to NOLA — is the most rewarding part of this book, because we see him as serious in his introspective scrutiny, whether he is asking his rather rigid father a dangerous question across the dinner table or continuing the same deep inquiries as an adult.  In this way, the book has a resonance beyond his musical aspirations and realizations.  It becomes more than a “jazz book”; it feels, without pretensions, much like the chronicle of the development of a personality, an awareness, a developed consciousness.

Clive is modest both in his description of his endeavors, and there is no self-congratulation, but we see the growth of someone we can value for a kind of gentle honesty as well as for his trumpet playing.  And that makes TIME OF MY LIFE a book not only to enjoy, but to recommend to those who wouldn’t know Kid Howard from Kid Rock.

A soft-spoken, friendly, yet meaningful work of art, “ça c’est plein.”

And here’s a little taste:

I recommend it with pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

THE JAZZ ADVENTURES OF TIMME ROSENKRANTZ

Imagine if Huckleberry Finn in all his naivete, enthusiasm, and observation had landed in Harlem in 1934 and sought out the best jazz and its players . . .

If an adult Huck with a Danish accent had written his memoirs — with space for everyone from Erroll Garner to Billie Holiday, from Chick Webb to Art Tatum — that book would be the late Timme Rosenkrantz’s HARLEM JAZZ ADVENTURES: A EUROPEAN BARON’S MEMOIR 1934-1969 (adapted and edited by Fradley Hamilton Garner, published this year by Scarecrow Press).

You can find out more and order the book  here, and watch a brief video-introduction by Fradley Garner.

Born in 1911, Timme (a Baron from a noble Danish family) lost his heart to hot jazz early on and came to New York City in 1934.  Disregarding those who said he would be murdered in Harlem, he took the A train uptown — years before taking that train became a Swing commonplace.

His eager good nature and enthusiasm endeared him to the jazz masters immediately, and they insisted on showing him where the best music was to be found at 5 or 6 in the morning, accompanied by large quantities of dubious liquor and fine fried chicken.  Perhaps it was also the novelty of a “white boy” so delighted and so knowledgeable about hot jazz, years before the jitterbugs swarmed, that caused Benny Carter and John Hammond, among many others, to take him as one of their own.

Timme was very good-hearted but a terrible businessman, and all of his doomed or precarious ventures had to do with jazz — jazz magazines that ran for an issue, a Harlem record shop, jam sessions in clubs and concert halls, recording sessions — were for the betterment of the art rather than for his own needs.

He may be best known for his 1945 Town Hall concert and two official recording sessions (one in 1938 for Victor, as “Timme Rosenkrantz and his Barrelhouse Barons,” with Rex Stewart, Billy Hicks, Tyree Glenn, Don Byas, Russell Procope, Rudy Williams, Billy Kyle, Brick Fleagle, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Timme’s life partner, singer Inez Cavanagh), the other in 1945 for Continental, with Red Norvo, Charlie Ventura, Johnny Bothwick, Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney, Jimmy Jones, John Levy, Specs Powell.

Some will know him for his short essays on Chick Webb (which ran as the liner notes for the Columbia vinyl collection of Webb recordings) and Coleman Hawkins, or for the recently published collection of his photographs, IS THIS TO BE MY SOUVENIR?

And there is a wonderful — still untapped — treasure chest of private recordings Timme made at his apartment.  Anthony Barnett has arranged for the Stuff Smith material to be released on his AB Fable label, and some of the Erroll Garner material has made its way to issue . . . but hours of rare 1944-5 jazz have yet to be heard by the public.

Timme’s memoirs give an accurate picture of what was endearing in the man: his enthusiasm for the music, his love of eccentrics (he was one himself), his amused comic view of the world.  This is not a book of grievances and grudges; reading it is like spending time with a jovial elder who fixes you a drink and launches into yet another hilarious tale of men and women long gone — all first-hand, told with a fan’s ardor.

Some of the stories are of the famous — Coleman Hawkins’ prowess and pride, his one Danish phrase; Timme’s attempt to defend Art Tatum from an audience of jazz-deaf gangsters; the generosities of Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, and Duke Ellington, the beauty of Billie Holiday; the power of Mezz Mezzrow’s marijuana; the appeal of the new duo of Slim and Slam.

But since Timme didn’t just meet his heroes in clubs, there are more intimate glimpses: Fats Waller in an overflowing bathtub, trombonist / arranger Harry “Father” White, in alcoholic delirium, arranging for a rehearsal of his new band — its members all dead, including Chick Webb, Jimmy Harrison, and Bix, Timme’s being measured for a shirt by Lil Armstrong, and more.

Billie Holiday invites Timme to a party; Louis explains to him that his favorite record is Berigan’s I CAN’T GET STARTED; Bud Powell tells Timme what time it is; Duke Ellington warns about “fresh-air poisoning.”

Even better than the previously unseen photographs and the careful documentation by Donald Clarke and Timme’s friend, jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern, even more enticing than the lengthy discography of issued and unissued recordings, are the stories of people we know little of.

Michigan cornetist Jake Vandermeulen, the forever-thirsty Fud Livingston, little-known guitarist Zeb Julian, the inexplicable demi-deity Leo Watson, the lovely Sally Gooding, suitcase-percussionist Josh Billings, urbane Adrian Rollini.  And they come in clusters: at Rollini’s own club, we encounter Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, and Charlie Barnet . . .

Timme gives us an insider’s view of Harlem night life and early morning revels, of the numbers racket, of running a record store uptown — the characters and details.  The book is the very opposite of analytic “jazz literature” in its warm embrace of the scene, the musicians, and the reader.

It is irresistible reading for jazz fans who wish, like Timme, to have been behind the scenes.  He was there, and his stories sparkle with life.  I know that jazz fans have been waiting a long time to read these pages, and I would have expected nothing less from the man Fats Waller dubbed “Honeysuckle Rosenkrantz.”

PAGES WORTH READING: “HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE” by JAMES LEIGH

I knew Jim Leigh as a writer covering the West Coast scene for THE MISSISSIPPI RAG — someone observant, witty, occasionally satiric.  Later, I knew him as a solidly rough-hewn trombonist, with plenty of pep and lowdown spice, what Dicky Wells called “fuzz.” 

But it’s only recently that I have had the opportunity to savor his prose at length, and his memoir, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is a splendidly moving book.  I apologize to Jim for coming to it so late — it was published in 2000 — but I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for it.  When a friend gave me a copy in September, I found myself reading it while standing up in my hotel room, and I quickly was so entranced that I rationed myself to only a few pages at a time because I didn’t want it to end too quickly.

Readers familiar with the literature of jazz know that many jazz memoirs follow predictable patterns.  Some musicians offer us the familiar path: early discovery of the music, early study, scuffling, the first breakthrough, then a listing of gigs and encounters.  Other books are a series of vignettes — associations with famous people . . . “and then I told Louis,” and so on.  Other chronicles depict battles with addiction and other unhappinesses — ideally they end in triumph and freedom.  All of these books can be irresistible on their own terms, but they often become cheerfully formulaic once the subject has succeeded.   

Jim’s book is not only a history of his own musical development (how he learned to play “Whispering” in its key, not Bb), or his brushes with the great and near-great . . . but, like A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, it is a record, seen retrospectively, of the growth of a consciosness, the creation of a discerning self.  The combination of his prose (modest, expert, not calling attention to itself) and the insights he has come to — makes for a book that’s not only readable but memorable.

I won’t summarize the insights — that would do Jim an injustice — but they have to do with his development not only as a trombonist and a listener, but as a full-fledged adult with a deep understanding of himself, of his relations with others, and of the music.  In these pages, we observe someone grow, which restores us as we participate in it.

The temptation for me, as someone fascinated by HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is to retype great chunks of it.  I will let readers take their pleasures and surprises on their own — and offer only one excerpt from the book, Jim’s encounter with the great and somewhat inscrutable Herb Flemming (world-traveler and Ellington alumnus) in Fuengirola, Spain, circa 1965:

. . . a man considerably older than I lived with a small white mixed-breed dog.  I kept imagining that I heard the sound of a trombone from his second-floor apartment, often playing a part of “Sophisticated Lady” or “In My Solitude,” typically the bridge, repeating it, perfectly, perhaps a dozen times.  Discreet inquiry in the large and heterogeneous foreign community provided only a rumor that the man, “some kind of an Arab,” had “played with Duke Ellington, a long time ago.”  Whether because he was too self-sufficient to require conversation or too anti-social to permit it, he was said to be taciturn to the point of utter silence.  Or, as Wacker, the retired Australian soap opera writer down the street, put it, “Bloke seems to be missing the old vocal chords.”

One day when I was walking along the Paseo Maritimo, next to the beach, I saw him coming, as always with his dog on a leash.  Thinking that it was perhaps now or never, I spoke to him.  He stopped and listened, impassive, his eyes focused on a patch of Mediterranean somewhere beyond my shoulder, but did not answer.  “I’ve  heard that you used to play with Duke,” I said. 

He echoed me tonelessly.  “Duke,” as if the word meant nothing to him.

“Ellington.”

He let me wait a bit.  “Yes, I did.”

I told him my name, and that I lived across the street from him.  “Next to the Casa Blanca,” I said.  “You know, the Danish bar?”

“I don’t pass my time in bars,” he said.  He let his eyes rest steadily on my face then.  I saw his calm gaze, but decided not to mention that I, too, had played the trombone, and waited.  He must have reached some sort of decision, because, without looking away, he stuck his free hand inside his jacket and brought forth a calling card, which he handed me.  I thanked him.

“Mm,” he said, and resumed his stroll.  The card read Nicolaiih El-Michelle (Formerly Herb Flemming),” and below that “Trombonist”.  It bore a Paris address, pencilled out but not amended.  He and his doggy were already on their way.  We never spoke again.

There are writers who would make an equisitely sad little vignete out of the former Herb Flemming.  I might have been one of them 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer.  If our brief experience taught me anything at that time it was that the former Herb Flemming did not require pity any  more than he required conversation.  He had his dog,  he had his trombone: what more, his manner said, did a man need?  Someone might call him for a gig, I thought.  As Sister Rosetta Tharpe so memorably sang, strange things happen every day.  If someone did call, I was sure the Former Herb Flemming would have his chops together.

The book is full of these brief moments of revelation, quietly persuasive but never self-congratulatory.  Any of us might have encountered Herb Flemming, and perhaps with similar results, but only Jim Leigh would have come to understand that moment as he has . . . and only Leigh would have written of it in such a sweetly understated way.  HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE is full of personalities and stories, from Turk Murphy to Louis to Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and Django Reinhardt, to Dan Barrett and Clint Baker . . . but what compels me is the steady, often amused, man and writer, experiencing his life and learning from it, every chorus, every day. 

It’s an invaluable book.  Visit http://www.xibris.com/sales to obtain a copy.  An actual bookstore (they still exist!) could order it under its ISBN number, which is 0-7388-5602-9.

LIZA, MAGGIE, PHYLLIS, and EDDIE. ESSENTIAL READING: “HOUSEDEER,” Issue No. 1

I am always fascinated by the music that my beloved players and singers make — how do they do that? — but I am also intrigued by them as people.  Since many of my older heroes are now dead, I have occasionally tried to speak to their spouses and children to find out more about the mysteries of creativity.  I realize that some of this is the sweet silly fantasy of a born hero-worshipper, that if I knew what Bobby Hackett liked to eat for dinner I would understand just a little more about how he made those sounds.

My questing hasn’t always been rewarding.  Many of the spouses of jazz musicians have understandably been reluctant to retell “the good old days” at length because the memory of all those who are no longer here is mixed with the awareness of their age and pain . . . making them blue.  And the children of jazz musicians (with some lovely exceptions like Leo McConville, Jr.) have often been reticent.  I once spoke to the daughter of one of my heroes and asked if she would be willing to talk about her father to me, someone who admired him greatly.  She was truly puzzled.  “What would there be for me to tell you?” she asked, and when I made some suggestions, she politely said she would have to think about it,  which we all know is a sweet way of saying No.  And the conversation never happened.

Eddie Condon is one of my demigods — small in stature, deaf in one ear, but the catalyst for some of the greatest moments of the last century (if you think I hyperbolize, please listen to any recording of his Town Hall Concerts or — if you have only three minutes, try TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL) and someone who made racial harmony possible two decades before Jackie Robinson.  I have met and talked with his older daughter Maggie — and am honored by her conversation and grace.  I never spoke to Eddie’s Phi Beta Kappa wife Phyllis, and I only saw Eddie’s younger daughter Liza (she died in 1999) at a distance, when she was photographing the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Your Father’s Mustache in 1972.

All this is long prelude to an announcement.  Romy Ashby (writer and artist) sat down with Maggie in early 2011 — in the Washington Square North apartment that was once Amy Vanderbilt’s, then Eddie and Phyllis’s — and the two of them spoke at length about the Condon family and especially Liza, beautiful, creative, mysterious, irreplaceable.  It has been published as the first issue of a magazine called HOUSEDEER (that’s another story) and it is available for six dollars here: http://www.housedeer.com.

Much of what is called “memoir” has a certain self-absorbed rancidity.  People who have not been able to accept the past as in some ways past use their pages to punish the dead, to settle old scores — or to explain their own unhappiness.  The essay on Liza and her family in HOUSEDEER is free from rancor.  It is full of feeling but not formally sentimentalized.  Liza’s beauty and strangeness and generosity of spirit comes through.  At the end of my first reading, I felt so sorry that I had missed her (even though my nineteen-year old self would not have known the right thing to say) but I felt as if she had been brought back, living and supple, to enter my thoughts.

For those of you who live for jazz gossip. there’s a-plenty here as well.  You can visit or eavesdrop or spy on Eddie shaving, on Phyllis lying on the bed reading the newspaper, on Eddie as a domestic sculptor, of dinner with Johnny Mercer and ice-cream sodas with Lee Wiley . . . and it develops into a full-scale portrait of Liza, someone who always insisted on taking the scenic route.

If you love this music and you are fascinated by how human beings try to progress through this world, you will want to read the first issue of HOUSEDEER.

JOTTINGS OF A JAZZMAN

The best biographical or autobiographical writings make a person the reader has never encountered come to life on the page.  JOTTINGS OF A JAZZMAN: SELECTED WRITINGS OF LEN BARNARD, edited by his niece Loretta Barnard, has just that magic. 

When I was a few pages into it, I felt as if I had met and heard Len, which says much — not only about the power of Len’s personality and insights but also about Loretta’s loving presentation. 

Len Barnard was a major figure in Australian jazz, and the players and singers from Oz are, at their best, possessed of a fierce focus, a strength of purpose, an intensity.  Len was an excellent drummer and washboardist and first-rate pianist and composer. 

But he also thought about his music, the world around him, and the way people behaved — a philosopher without the heavy weight of an official philosophy.  His writings show him as curious, opinionated, amused, sharp-eyed, both unsparing and generous.  Here are a few samples:

Len was a reader.  Here he quotes from an obscure cookery book in a letter:

An excerpt from THE ACCOMPLISHT COOK (1712) with the correct verbs for dismembering of various meats and game: lift that swan, rear that goose, unbrace that mallard, allay that pheasant, unlace that coney, unjoynt that bittern, unlatch that curlew, break that egript, thigh that woodcock.  Try a few of those to the bridge of ‘Old Man Ribber.’

From his journal, 1969:

Played Clarence Williams at breakfast.  I’ve always felt that too little has been said of the charm of his music, of its atmosphere, its complete absence of vulgarity, stridency, over-accentuation, and all the other faults of lesser jazz – its easy humour and almost kindly glow, its integrity as art.  Every Clarence Williams record is a benediction.

After offering a tape of a superb live performance to a record producer:

My fears of philistinism were confirmed.  He liked it, but didn’t think that full spontanaiety plus on-stage noises were suitable for his needs.  Offered to buy “Mood Indigo” for $25.  I declined.  Told him he had the studio sickness which is induced by surgically produced recordings and the unimaginative parading of an oft-repeated routine before the microphone before perfection is attained.  A bloodless, sterile perfection . . .This attitude of businessmen is what they call ‘progress,’ bit it is merely satndardization as opposed to less pretentious individualism of the true musician.  It’s a minor form of industrialisation, which nowadays means bad food, pointless bustle and jittery nerves, whereas the other road means good digestion and serenity.

On playing the drums:

Drums have seemed to be bonny imposters at times, as regards the perfection of extension of arm and rhythmic slap on a chair arm.  An in-ness, a tactile link with music that has been hard to replace.  Came close (digression) when in 1982, played a large lobster pot with open palms and a pair of wooden salad servers.  These got shorter as they shattered brittley and there is that wonderful elan andimmediacy that is expedited by this and you extemporise and bring out dishes of ham that even you didn’t know were in your larger of tricks.  The other feeling is the knife in hand, but the heel of hand marking the rhythm on the tablecloth.

The voice is at times cranky, observant, poetic,ruminative — a combination of Larkin, Balliett, S. J. Perelman.  The book is wonderfully amplified by photographs and remebrances of Len by his family and admirers.  When I finished the book, I felt as if I’d been privileged to overhear a fascinating and complex man.  And although I never got any closer to Len than through the medium of a dozen CDs, this book made me miss him terribly. 

As I write this, I have not yet acquired the needed mercantile information — how to buy the book, its price, the best way to acquire it.  I hope to find these things out soon. 

But I would urge anyone who is interested in what an articulate artist sees and hears to read this book. 

Len Barnard was a jazzman but his perceptions were deeper than 4 / 4, larger than his drum kit.  And Loretta Barnard has given us a fine gift of her late uncle and his world.

A postscript: I was so enthralled by the book and by Len that I omitted something delightful and informative — the lengthy section at the end with quick, witty, crisply written biographical portraits of all the people who were part of the book — written by the jazz scholar Bill Haesler, who knows his Oz thoroughly.  Published by itself, this section would be an invaluable overview of Australian jazz and more.