Tag Archives: Mercedes Ellington

EVERYBODY LOVES BENNY

That was the general mood of today’s hour-long conversation sponsored by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  “Memories of You,” which was a three-way chat among Martin E. Segal (now ninety-three and a Lincoln Center luminary, emeritus) and Phoebe Jacobs (now ninety, and a jazz / show business beacon) — moderated by George Boziwick.  Because both of the participants had known Benny Goodman (“Mr. Goodman” to Ms. Jacobs) as a friend and as a non-musical employer, there were no stories about the King of Swing being a difficult boss or a perfectionistic bandleader.  So we heard about Benny the pioneer against racism, the salmon-fisherman and sports enthusiast, the generous man who paid Teddy Wilson’s doctor bills and sent money to Wilson’s wife for a year after Teddy’s death, the fond parent (daughters Sophia and Benjie were in the audience, as was a youthful Goodman grandson, as was Mercedes Ellington), loving husband, a son devoted to his parents, a thoughtful brother. 

It was as if the afternoon had been arranged to get rid of those wicked stories about Benny’s inability to deal with people — especially his sidemen and women — decently.  And his famous obliviousness was only touched on once, in Phoebe’s story about Goodman’s having his fly open on the Dick Cavett Show.

But several things rescued the afternoon from amiable blandness.  One was watching Segal and Jacobs, people who won’t see ninety again, sharp, witty, and totally in command of their material and of the audience.  Enthusiastic, too, as Lorna Sass’s portrait of Phoebe in full flight proves:

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And Martin Segal, sly rather than ebullient, kept on reminding me of someone.  This photo doesn’t entirely capture the resemblance, but it dawned on me that Segal looked a good deal like a shorter version of his friend Benny:

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Finally, two other highlights — one before the conversation, one after.  When the Beloved and I sat down, an elegantly dressed woman in a dark paisley jacket chose to sit next to us and said that she had met Goodman at a Segal party (she had been Segal’s right-hand woman when he created the Film Society of Lincoln Center).  Sallie Blumenthal, for that is her name, had many charming stories — most of them about the actor Louis Calhern, a generous and gracious man.  We never got back to her Goodman story, but now I know that Calhern was a sweet man who remembered everyone he had ever met. 

After the conversation, we went to the third floor of the library to look at their Goodman memorabilia — a quite impressive collection of things that were almost all new to me: a Gil Evans chart for the song DELIA’S GONE, another, earlier chart with Mel Powell’s name penciled in; photos that I hadn’t seen — all curated by a quietly industrious young librarian whose first name is Jonathan (I apologize for not getting his full name). 

A pleasant afternoon, with all the usual (occasionally venomous and hilarious) Goodman gossip put to rest for a change.  Next week, slightly later in the afternoon, Goodman’s musical legacy — as opposed to his social one — will be celebrated and considered by a sextet of musicians who are unfamiliar to me.  But I’m sure they will swing: Goodman’s music is a powerful inspiration!

Photographs copyright 2009 by Lorna Sass.  All rights reserved. 

GEORGE AVAKIAN’S 90th BIRTHDAY PARTY (Birdland, March 18, 2009)

George’s birthdate is March 15, 1919.  So his celebration last night was slightly late — but neither he nor anyone in the audience that filled Birdland to capacity last night seemed to mind.  It made sense to celebrate George amidst the music he loves — Louis, Duke, and Fats, played live and joyously.

We heard heartfelt tributes to George from Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Bob Newhart, Michel Legrand, Quincy Jones, and Joe Muranyi — a stellar assortment for sure.

And Birdland was filled with the famous — Tony Bennett, Dan Morgenstern, Daryl Sherman, Vince Giordano, Michael Cogswell, Mercedes Ellington, Lloyd Moss, Phoebe Jacobs, Robert O’Meally, Ricky Riccardi, the Beloved, and myself.

All of us were there to honor George, who has recorded and supported everyone: Louis and Duke, Brubeck and Rushing, Eddie Condon, Garner and Mathis, Rollins, Miles Davis, John Cage, and Ravi Shankar — in a wonderful career beginning with the first jazz album (CHICAGO JAZZ, for Decca, in 1939), helped reissue unknown jazz classics, made recordings of the first jazz festival.

The Louis Armstrong Centennial Band played a marvelously uplifted version of its regular Wednesday gig — with Paquito D’Rivera sitting in with his clarinet when the spirit moved him — that’s David Ostwald, tuba; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and vocals; Anat Cohen, clarinet; Mark Shane, piano and vocals; Kevin Dorn, drums.  I was recording the whole thing (audio and video) and offer some video clips.

However, I have not chosen to post the version of ST. LOUIS BLUES during which my tabletop tripod collapsed and sent the camera, still running, into the Beloved’s salad.  It’s cinema verite as scripted by Lucy and Ethel.

Here’s a tribute by Wycliffe to Louis, to Hoagy Carmichael, and to George — ROCKIN’ CHAIR:

And a gently trotting version of the 1927 Rodgers and Hart classic, THOU SWELL, remembering George’s reissuing the best of Bix Beiderbecke:

Duke Ellington said that he was born at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, and George’s stewardship of the famous Columbia recording of that concert was the occasion for the band to recall Duke, pre-Newport, with a wonderfully deep-hued MOOD INDIGO (also for Mercedes Ellington, honoring us all by her presence):

George never recorded Fats Waller, but he did help Louis record the peerless SATCH PLAYS FATS, so the band launched into a perfectly jubilant I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY, complete with the verse (“I’m walking on air . . . .”) and an extraordinarily evocative vocal by Mark Shane, who known more about the many voices of Fats than anyone:

Finally, here’s George himself to say a few words.

Happy birthday, Sir!  Thanks for everything!  Keep on keeping on!