Tag Archives: Mezz Mezzrow

FOR NOONE IN PARTICULAR: The CHICAGO CELLAR BOYS at the JUVAE JAZZ SOCIETY MINI-FEST: ANDY SCHUMM, DAVE BOCK, JOHNNY DONATOWICZ, JOHN OTTO, PAUL ASARO (Decatur, Illinois: March 30, 2019)

I had a wonderful time last weekend at the one-day jazz festival — the little party thrown by the Juvae Jazz Society in Decatur, Illinois.  Friendly kind people, hot music, sweet sounds, and good feelings in the Flatland.

The two bands I made the trek to hear are Petra van Nuis’ Recession Seven (more about them soon) and the Chicago Cellar Boys: Andy Schumm, cornet, clarinet, tenor saxophone, arrangements; John Otto, clarinet, alto saxophone; Paul Asaro, piano, vocals; Dave Bock, tuba; Johnny Donatowicz, banjo, guitar.

Andy made his name with most jazz audiences (I saw him, with Dave Bock, first in 2007, alongside Dan Barrett at Jazz at Chautauqua) as a hot cornetist, the closest thing to “the dear boy” possible.  But in the intervening years, he’s branched out to embody a whole variety of cornet styles, and he’s also shown himself to be a fine tenor player in the Jack Pettis mold, and a spectacular  clarinetist, evoking Tesch, Mezz, and Jimmie.  That’s Teschemacher, Mezzrow, and Noone for the newcomers.

The last fellow on that list — facetiously called “Jimmie No-One” by Kenny Davern, who loved his playing, is our subject today.  Noone’s little Apex Club band featured himself on clarinet, Doc Poston on alto, Earl Hines on piano, Bud Scott on banjo, Johnny Wells on drums, and Lawson Buford or Bill Newton on tuba.  This little band’s most remarkable trademark was the interplay between Noone and Poston, who had worked with Freddie Keppard and Doc Cook earlier.  Incidentally, I’m told that the Apex Club was at 330 East 35th Street on the South Side of Chicago.  Here is a current view of that address, not inspiring.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

Even though the architecture is obliterated, the music remains, so here are the Chicago Cellar Boys becoming the Apex Club Orchestra on two selections — one unrelated to Noone, the other a direct hit.

EL RADO SCUFFLE was in the band’s book, and I read somewhere that the club Noone’s group was working at was the El Dorado, but some letters were missing from the sign or some lights didn’t function.  If that was the Scuffle or something larger I can’t know: create your own stories to this soundtrack:

I associate KEEP SMILING AT TROUBLE with Bunny Berigan, Bud Freeman, Joe Marsala, Vic Lewis, Eddie Condon, Jim Goodwin and Ray Skjelbred, Marty Grosz, Bobby Gordon, Dan Levinson — so it is a song with a wonderful pedigree. Here the Cellar Boys are already grinning, and Trouble has left the building — Trouble don’t like verses:

Delicious.  And more to come.

May your happiness increase!

TRIO SONATAS FOR CLARINET, PIANO, and PERCUSSION, OPUS 9.25.16: KRIS TOKARSKI, ANDY SCHUMM, HAL SMITH at SNUG HARBOR

No, not Cortot-Thibaud- Casals, or any more formally garbed trio.  Rather, another visit to the marvelously melodic world of Hot Classicism, the trio of Kris Tokarski, piano; Andy Schumm, cornet and clarinet; Hal Smith, drums, described here.

One of the pleasures of visiting New Orleans last September for the Steamboat Stomp was the opportunity to visit some places new to me off the steamboat, one of them being Snug Harbor — living up to its name — to hear the trio perform on September 25, 2016.  I posted five glowing performances, glowing even in the purple haze, here, some time back, so now it’s time for more.

What makes these performances a little different is that they all have Andy on clarinet, which he plays with his usual passion and precision, here summoning up Noone, Dodds, early Benny, Don Murray, Fud, Tesch, Mezz who had stuck to practicing, and a few others — all nicely combined in his own beautiful personal synthesis. Incidentally, Andy does play some cornet here, but you already noticed that.  Kris and Hal show why they are intensely and intently reliable, creative, swinging, and surprising.

And some beautifully obscure, seldom-played songs to improvise on.

I’D RATHER CRY OVER YOU:

ORIENTAL MAN (where “Oriental” means generically Asiatic rather than Chinese, if I recall correctly):

FORGET-ME-NOT:

RED RIVER BLUES (with the most gorgeous Hal Smith press rolls):

There’s more to come from this peerless hot chamber trio.

May your happiness increase!

DID MARVIN GO?

Here’s a little mystery, courtesy of the great attic / basement / rummage sale / museum that is eBay: two sides of a postcard, and the question of my title.

maltz-stuyvesant-casino-front

Flip it over . . .

maltz-stuyvesant-casino

Maybe Marvin was tired from his workweek; $1.50 meant much more in 1948 than it does today.  But I hope he got to the Stuyvesant Casino and heard the band, and had a wonderful time.  In my ideal fantasy, he saved the postcard because he did go . . . he’d kept it in his shirt pocket and his fountain pen leaked on the bottom right corner above.

Incidentally, the eBay seller (link here) is asking one hundred times the admission price for this artifact: make of that what you will.  Inflation, for sure. But shipping is free.

Internet research, always treacherous, shows me that 41-63 Frame Place still exists, and that there is “a” Marvin Dunenfeld, 89, who now lives in Willis, Texas. The age would be right, but it’s a much longer trip from Flushing to Willis than it might have been from Flushing to the East Village.

The moral to the story (there must be a moral) is that we don’t always know what Wonders are happening in our midst: almost seventy years later, this casual Friday night concert seems to us like a gathering of deities, correctly.  Get out and hear some live music if you can, while you can.  If you can’t, then buy a CD. If that’s not possible, have a friend over and play some music . . . spread the word.  Chippie Hill isn’t showing up for gigs any more, but we can still hear her.

May your happiness increase!

MAGGIE FEELS THE HEAT (November 8, 2015)

MAGGIE Swing label

SWING indeed.  It gets very hot in Newcastle during the long weekend when the Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party gently but firmly occupies the Village Hotel in Newcastle, England.

Nick Ball and Graham Hughes at the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party. Photograph by Emrah Erken.

Nick Ball and Graham Hughes at the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party. Photograph by Emrah Erken.

This year, the Party begins with a jam session on Thursday, November 3 . . . and runs almost without a letup until late Sunday (really, early Monday morning) — either November 6 or 7, depending on what your watch or smartphone tells you.

I’ve posted links to the Party site below, but before you venture into the land of Clicks, how about some hot music?  This rousing performance (from November 8, 2015) was part of a set led by Thomas Winteler paying tribute to the 1938-41 recordings Bechet made for Victor Records.

The heroes onstage are Thomas Winteler, soprano saxophone; Bent Persson, trumpet; Graham Hughes, trombone; Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Jacob Ullberger, guitar; Henry Lemaire, string bass; Nicholas Ball, drums.

Visit the Party’s Facebook page here.

To see who’s playing, click here.  And to book your seat, click here.

The Party’s webpage has a number of delightful videos, so prepare to spend some happy (hot) minutes.  I’ve posted a substantial number myself from 2009 on, on this site, too.  Maybe we’ll see each other there this November.

May your happiness increase!

ONCE RARE, NOW HERE: LOU McGARITY and FRIENDS, 1955

 LOU McGARITY ArgoTrombonist and very occasional violinist and singer Lou McGarity, who died in 1971, was both reliable and inspiring.  I think I first heard him on recordings with Eddie Condon, with Lawson-Haggart, and with a wild 1941 Goodman band that included Mel Powell, Billy Butterfield, and Sidney Catlett, who gave McGarity the most extravagant backing.  Lou was a delightful presence, someone who could electrify a performance with a shouting yet controlled eight bars.  I also gather from his discography that he was an expert section player and reader, for many of his sessions have him surrounded by other trombonists.  But Lou very rarely got to lead a session on his own aside from two late-Fifties ones.
He traveled in very fast company, though, as in this gathering at the Ertegun party, held at the Turkish Embassy in 1940.  (Photo by William P. Gottlieb):
LOU McGARITY Turkish Embassy 1940
Let us have a long pause to imagine what that band sounded like, and to lament that it wasn’t recorded.
But onwards to 1955.  I imagine that someone at M-G-M, not the most jazzy of labels, decided that it would be a good idea to have some “Dixieland” to compete with the product that other labels were making money on.  I don’t know who arranged this session (Leroy Holmes? Hal Mooney?) but McGarity was an unusual choice: a thorough professional with fifteen years’ experience, however with no name recognition as a leader.  Was he chosen as nominal leader because he wasn’t under contract to any other label or leader?  And, to make the session more interesting, the four titles are all “originals,” suggesting that M-G-M wanted to publish the compositions themselves or, at the very least, pay no royalties for (let us say) MUSKRAT RAMBLE.  I’d guess that the compositions and arrangements were by the very talented Bill Stegmeyer.
LOU McGARITY EP
Most of the personnel here is connected, on one hand, to Eddie Condon sessions of the Fifties, on the other to the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band. There’s Lou, Yank Lawson, both Peanuts Hucko and Bill Stegmeyer on reeds, Gene Schroeder, Jack Lesberg, and Cliff Leeman.  And here’s the music.  I say gently that it is more professional than explosive, but I delight in hearing it, and hope you will too.
MOBILE MAMA:

NEW ORLEANS NIGHTMARE:

BANDANNA:

BIRMINGHAM SHUFFLE (not SUFFLE as labeled here):

A mystery solved, with pleasing results.

May your happiness increase!

CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS (Part Five): REBECCA KILGORE, HAL SMITH, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, ANDY SCHUMM at the CLEVELAND CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY, September 11, 2015

This cheerful graphic is seriously at odds with the poignant song and performance that follows, but I love it.

FATS WALLER'S HAPPY FEELING

As you probably already know, Hal Smith (drums, leadership, ideas) and Rebecca Kilgore (song, inspiration) joined with Andy Schumm, clarinet; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass, for a set at the 2015 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, devoted to lesser-known Fats Waller songs.

The closing song of this set, DIXIE CINDERELLA, is one of my favorites — written for the 1929 revue, CONNIE’S  HOT CHOCOLATES — on a theme that needed and needs to be expressed.  We know the Waller-Andy Razaf BLACK AND BLUE, but DIXIE CINDERELLA, although the singer is apparently just a child, is aimed directly at the same target, racial discrimination.  No, it wasn’t the first song to express outrage and pain at this treatment (I think of PICKIN’ ON YOUR BABY and others) but it is very touching — and this performance captures its poignancy.

Becky’s verse and chorus couldn’t be more delicately lovely . . . and when she comes back, she expresses an intense bluesy wail — making deep sadness swing.

(I want to write, “Isn’t she wonderful?” but if you don’t get that from this performance and her sustained body of work, there’s no point in my saying so.)

And here are the four performances that preceded DIXIE CINDERELLA — each one perfectly poised, casually masterful.  Why isn’t this band on every festival roster?  Where’s the PBS special?  The DVD?  The pop-up book?  Jeepers.

May your happiness increase!

CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS (Part Four): REBECCA KILGORE, HAL SMITH, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, ANDY SCHUMM at the CLEVELAND CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY, September 11, 2015

Heart-Vs-Brain

Neurological research tells us that the condition known as infatuation can have serious effects on cognition, that the romantic individual often suffers from the most pleasing kind of attention-deficit disorder.  Fats Waller and Andy Razaf knew this well, and created a delightful song from this pleasant malady, CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU.

Heart brain i-hate-it-when-you-make-me-look-like-an-idiot

Drummer / scholar Hal Smith, some years back, created a CD called CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS — on which his Rhythmakers featured, among others, the wondrous Rebecca Kilgore.  They held a kind of swing reunion at the Allegheny Jazz Party (now known as the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party) on September 11, 2015.  Hal and Rebecca joined forces for an all-too-brief homage to lesser-known Fats songs — with Andy Schumm, clarinet; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass.

Here are the three songs that preceded this beauty.

Never has ADD sounded so delightful.

There’s one more gorgeous Fats song to come.  I hope there will be more like this at the 2016 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party.

May your happiness increase!

CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS (Part One): REBECCA KILGORE, HAL SMITH, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, ANDY SCHUMM at the CLEVELAND CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY, September 11, 2015

FATS WALLER'S HAPPY FEELING

Rebecca Kilgore makes us glad to be alive whenever she sings, even if the song is melancholy.  I’ve been admiring her work for a long time, and it is a great comfort to know that her glowing presence is no more distance than her latest CD.  But while you are waiting for that CD to arrive, may I offer you a treat that I think is beyond compare?

Perhaps twenty years ago, the superb jazz drummer Hal Smith (read more about Hal here) had a delightful little band in California that he called the RHYTHMAKERS, homage to the hottest band to ever record — ask Philip Larkin.  That band made a handful of superb CDs, discs I return to regularly, and one was a collection of lesser-known Fats Waller songs, CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS.  The singer on those discs was one Becky Kilgore, floating and swinging magnificiently.

When Hal and Becky found that they were going to be among the stars of the 2015 Allegheny Jazz Party — now called the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party — Hal suggested that they do a set of those Waller songs, and Rebecca, who loves good songs and rare ones as well as the Songbook classics, agreed.

Hence, a wonderful little band, with Rebecca, Hal, Nicki Parrott, string bass; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Andy Schumm, clarinet.  (Yes, clarinet. Wonderfully, too.  As I was listening, I heard familiar sounds and tones — not Pee Wee or Tesch, exactly — but then “the penny dropped,” as they say in the UK.  Andy is inspired by Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, and the result is as if Mezz had studied hard and practiced for hours — a very inspiring result.)

And here’s the first gem, HOW JAZZ WAS BORN, from 1928, and one of the hit songs of KEEP SHUFFLIN’:

I could listen to this band all day.  (Frankly, I’d like to see the concert tour, the NPR and PBS series, to say nothing of the associated merchandise.)

And be assured that they performed more songs in this set.

If you are still unsure of the origins of jazz, I know that Professors KilgoreSmithParrottSchummSportiello will be happy to explain in words and music at the 2016 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party and their other gigs.

May your happiness increase!

THE TRIUMPHS OF JAMES P. JOHNSON

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Baby Dodds, 1946, by Charles Peterson

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Danny Barker, 1946, by Charles Peterson

When the Student is more dramatically visible than the Teacher, even the most influential mentor and guide might become obscure.  James Price Johnson, pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, has become less prominent to most people, even those who consider themselves well-versed in jazz piano.  He was a mentor and teacher — directly and indirectly — of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum. “No James P., no them,” to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie. But even with memorable compositions and thirty years of recording, he has been recognized less than he deserves.

CAROLINA SHOUT eBay OKeh

 

Fats Waller eclipsed his teacher in the public eye because Waller was a dazzling multi-faceted entertainer and personality, visible in movies, audible on the radio.  Fats had a recording contract with the most prominent record company, Victor, and the support of that label — he created hit records for them — in regular sessions from 1934 to 1943.  Tatum, Basie, and Ellington — although they paid James P. homage in words and music — all appeared to come fully grown from their own private universes.  Basie and Ellington were perceived not only as pianists but as orchestra leaders who created schools of jazz composition and performance; Tatum, in his last years, had remarkable support from Norman Granz — thus he left us a series of memorable recordings.

Many of the players I’ve noted above were extroverts (leaving aside the reticent Basie) and showmanship come naturally to them.  Although the idea of James P., disappointed that his longer “serious” works did not receive recognition, retiring to his Queens home, has been proven wrong by Johnson scholar Scott Brown (whose revised study of James P. will be out in 2017) he did not get the same opportunities as did his colleagues.  James P. did make records, he had club residencies at Cafe Society and the Pied Piper, was heard at an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert and was a regular feature on Rudi Blesh’s THIS IS JAZZ . . . but I can look at a discography of his recordings and think, “Why isn’t there more?”  Physical illness accounts for some of the intermittent nature of his career: he had his first stroke in 1940 and was ill for the last years of his life.

There will never be enough.  But what we have is brilliant.  And the reason for this post is the appearance in my mailbox of the six-disc Mosaic set which collects most of James P.’s impressive recordings between 1921 and 1943.  (Mosaic has also issued James P.’s session with Eddie Condon on the recent Condon box, and older issues offered his irreplaceable work for Blue Note — solo and band — in 1943 / 44, and the 1938 HRS sides as well.)

JAMES P. Mosaic

Scott Brown, who wrote the wise yet terse notes for this set, starts off by pointing to the wide variety of recordings Johnson led or participated in this period.  And even without looking at the discography, I can call to mind sessions where Johnson leads a band (with, among others, Henry “Red” Allen,  J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett — or another all-star group with Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Lionel Hampton on drums, Artie Bernstein, Ed Hall, and Higginbotham); accompanies the finest blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, is part of jivey Clarence Williams dates — including two takes of the patriotic 1941 rouser UNCLE SAMMY, HERE I AM — works beautifully with Bessie Smith, is part of a 1929 group with Jabbo Smith, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Fats Waller on piano); is a sideman alongside Mezz Mezzrow, Frank Newton, Pete Brown, John Kirby, swings out on double-entendre material with Teddy Bunn and Spencer Williams. There’s a 1931 band date that shows the powerful influence of Cab Calloway . . . and more.  For the delightful roll call of musicians and sides (some never before heard) check the Mosaic site here.

(On that page, you can hear his delicate, haunting solo BLUEBERRY RHYME, his duet with Bessie Smith on her raucous HE’S GOT ME GOING, the imperishable IF DREAMS COME TRUE, his frolicsome RIFFS, and the wonderful band side WHO?)

I fell in love with James P.’s sound, his irresistible rhythms, his wonderful inventiveness when I first heard IF DREAMS COME TRUE on a Columbia lp circa 1967.  And then I tried to get all of his recordings that I could — which in the pre-internet, pre-eBay era, was not easy: a Bessie Smith accompaniment here, a Decca session with Eddie Dougherty, the Blue Notes, the Stinson / Asch sides, and so on.  This Mosaic set is a delightful compilation even for someone who, like me, knows some of this music by heart because of forty-plus years of listening to it.  The analogy I think of is that of an art student who discovers a beloved artist (Rembrandt or Kahlo, Kandinsky or Monet) but can only view a few images on museum postcards or as images on an iPhone — then, the world opens up when the student is able to travel to THE museum where the idol’s works are visible, tangible, life-sized, arranged in chronology or thematically . . . it makes one’s head spin.  And it’s not six compact discs of uptempo stride piano: the aural variety is delicious, James P.’s imagination always refreshing.

The riches here are immense. All six takes of Ida Cox’s ONE HOUR MAMA. From that same session, there is a pearl beyond price: forty-two seconds of Charlie Christian, then Hot Lips Page, backed by James P., working on a passage in the arrangement.  (By the way, there are some Charlie Christian accompaniments in that 1939 session that I had never heard before, and I’d done my best to track down all of the Ida Cox takes.  Guitar fanciers please note.)  The transfers are as good as we are going to hear in this century, and the photographs (several new to me) are delights.

Hearing these recordings in context always brings new insights to the surface. My own epiphany of this first listening-immersion is a small one: the subject is HOW COULD I BE BLUE? (a record I fell in love with decades ago, and it still delights me).  It’s a duo-performance for James  P. and Clarence Williams, with scripted vaudeville dialogue that has James P. as the 1930 version of Shorty George, the fellow who makes love to your wife while you are at work, and the received wisdom has been that James P. is uncomfortable with the dialogue he’s asked to deliver, which has him both the accomplished adulterer and the man who pretends he is doing nothing at all.  Hearing this track again today, and then James P. as the trickster in I FOUND A NEW BABY, which has a different kind of vaudeville routine, it struck me that James P. was doing his part splendidly on the first side, his hesitations and who-me? innocence part of his character.  He had been involved with theatrical productions for much of the preceding decade, and I am sure he knew more than a little about acting.  You’ll have to hear it for yourself.

This, of course, leaves aside the glory of his piano playing.  I don’t think hierarchical comparisons are all that useful (X is better than Y, and let’s forget about Z) but James P.’s melodic improvising, whether glistening or restrained, never seems a series of learned motives.  Nothing is predictable; his dancing rhythms (he is the master of rhythmic play between right and left hands) and his melodic inventiveness always result in the best syncopated dance music.  His sensitivity is unparalleled.  For one example of many, I would direct listeners to the 1931 sides by Rosa Henderson, especially DOGGONE BLUES: where he begins the side jauntily, frolicking as wonderfully as any solo pianist could — not racing the tempo or raising his volume — then moderates his volume and muffles his gleaming sound to provide the most wistful counter-voice to Henderson’s recital of her sorrows.  Another jaunty interlude gives way to the most tender accompaniment.  I would play this for any contemporary pianist and be certain of their admiration.

I am impressed with this set not simply for the riches it contains, but for the possibility it offers us to reconsider one of my beloved jazz heroes.  Of course I would like people to flock to purchase it (in keeping with Mosaic policy, it is a limited edition, and once it’s gone, you might find a copy on eBay for double price) but more than that, I would like listeners to do some energetic reconstruction of the rather constricted canon of jazz piano history, which usually presents “stride piano” as a necessary yet brief stop in the forward motion of the genre or the idiom — as it moves from Joplin to Morton to Hines to Wilson to Tatum to “modernity.”  Stride piano is almost always presented as a type of modernized ragtime, a brief virtuosic aberration with a finite duration and effect. I would like wise listeners to hear James P. Johnson as a pianistic master, his influence reaching far beyond what is usually assumed.

JAMES P. postage stamp

I was happy to see James P. on a postage stamp, but it wasn’t and isn’t enough, as the Mosaic set proves over and over again. I would like James P. Johnson to be recognized as “the dean of jazz pianists”:

jamesp-johnsongravemarker

Listen closely to this new Mosaic box set six compact discs worth of proof that the genius of James P. Johnson lives on vividly.

May your happiness increase!

I’M GETTING MY BONUS IN STRIDE: JAMES P. FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Everyone who follows jazz devotedly has theories about why some musicians become Stars and others remain Obscure.  It clearly isn’t artistic quality, as one could find out quickly by playing recordings of famous and neglected artists. No, other factors interfere.

In that wonderfully uplifting sub-genre known as Harlem stride piano, the pantheon seems to have room for only one man, Fats Waller.  His fame is well-deserved: his genial embellishments, his rhythmic drive, his delicious pianistic surprises.  But we also have to consider the effect of Fats as a Personality (many recordings and some film appearances) and a Composer.  (In the jazz mythology, he is also remembered as a joyous Dionysiac child who died young — elements that stick in our minds.) Willie “the Lion” Smith seems a collection of delightful eccentricities — melodies, derby hat, cigar, scraps of Yiddish, an elegant braggadocio.  In our time, pianists Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell, and their current counterparts have (or had) the advantage of being accessible.

But what of the man who came first (leaving aside Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts), Fats’ teacher, James P. Johnson?  He was not a Personality; the one or two times he sings on record he seems uncomfortable; a quiet man, almost shy, he did not thrust himself forward.  It would seem that he didn’t record sufficiently, but the discographies prove otherwise.  Wellstood once said in print that James P.’s recordings didn’t always document his greatness — although for those of us who didn’t see and hear James P. at all, that would be a moot point.

Mosaic Records, blessedly, has seen fit to put Wellstood’s casual assertion to the test.

JAMES P. Mosaic

This box set will be available in mid-December; it offers the usual Mosaic largesse spread over six CDs; rare material (eleven sides not previously issued), beautiful photographs; a lengthy essay by Dr. Scott Brown, James P.’s biographer, familiar material in the best sound.

And should some worry about six CDs of stride piano, fear not: we hear James P. accompanying blues and pop singers (including Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, and Ethel Waters) and as a sideman in bands that include Frank Newton, Jabbo Smith, Clarence Williams, Garvin Bushell, Louis Metcalf, Fats Waller, Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsel, King Oliver, Jimmy Archey, Teddy Bunn, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Smeck, Tommy Ladnier, Sidney DeParis, Mezz Mezzrow, John Kirby, Cozy Cole, Sidney Catlett, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Christian, Ed Hall, and others.

Here‘s the discography, for those who (like myself) find listings of music we are going to hear very enticing.  And if you haven’t heard James P. recently — someone Thelonious Monk admired — scroll down on this Mosaic page and listen.

My holiday shopping list is now complete — my gift to myself, I mean.

May your happiness increase!

A REMARKABLE MUSICAL FAMILY

Before you read a word of mine, I urge you to set aside fourteen minutes (multi-tasking discouraged) and enjoy this performance of SWEET SUE and GEORGIA CABIN by Evan Arntzen, reeds / vocal; his grandfather Lloyd Arntzen, reeds / vocal; his brother Arnt Arntzen, guitar / vocal; James Meger, string bass; Josh Roberts, guitar; Benji Bohannon, drums. Recorded at the Vancouver 2013 Jazz Band Ball by Bill Schneider.

There have been some families in jazz but it’s a fairly uncommon phenomenon; in this century I can think of the Marsalis clan, then an A B C — Au, Baker, and Caparone — and I am sure my readers will tell me of others I am unintentionally slighting.  But the Arntzen dynasty is truly impressive. (I’ve heard Evan at close range a number of times, and his talent is no fluke.)

The occasion for this celebration is my listening to two fairly recent CDs, both cheerfully swinging without tricks — and they both suggest that the Arntzens have are a musically functional family. (I’m old-fashioned enough to be in favor of families that not only don’t hate each other, but that create something supportive and lasting.)

The first CD, BLACKSTICK, offers a sweet story as well as authentic hot jazz.

BLACKSTICK

This CD is an expression of gratitude to Grandpa Lloyd Arntzen, who taught Evan and Arnt, as children, not only musical fundamentals but gave them a deep love of melodic improvisation and hot jazz.  And the best part of the CD is that it is not an elegy or eulogy — but that Lloyd plays and sings (even a Tom Waits paean to New Orleans) throughout the disc.  Aside from Evan, Lloyd, and Arnt, the  other musicians are Jennifer Hodge, string bass, Dan Ogilvie, guitar; Benji Bohannon, drums.  The sound of the music is comfortable, too: what could be better than recording it — with only two microphones — in Lloyd’s “basement rec. room,” where it all began?  The music is a happy and free evocation of the Apex Club Orchestra, Sidney Bechet with and without Mezz Mezzrow, and even Soprano Summit: moving from gentle serenades to ferocious swing.  Here you can hear the CD and — if you are so moved — purchase an actual copy or downloads.

INTRO BROS ARNTZEN

The second CD, cleverly titled INTRODUCING THE BROTHERS ARNTZEN, is just that, a compact but winning introduction to their musical world — which features not only a good deal of expert instrumental interplay but almost as much delightful harmony singing.

BROS ARNTZEN photo

The CD isn’t slick or slickly produced: it sounds most gratifyingly like the music dear friends might make in their living room for the enjoyment of a small group of like-minded people.  (It is properly advertised on the cover as MUSIC FOR DANCING.)

I am not a fan of manufactured country-and-western music, but this disc has a lovely “roots” flavor to it . . . and when I was only on the second track, a stomping VIPER MAD, which was followed by a truly touching HOME, I was convinced.  Jennifer Hodge is back on string bass, and Andrew Millar plays drums most effectively. Evan sticks to the clarinet, Arnt to the banjo, but this foursome creates a rich sound.  As before, you may hear / purchase here.

The Brothers aren’t entirely down-home antiquarians: they have their own fraternal Facebook page.  They have already brought a good deal of restorative music and good emotions into my world: welcome them into yours.

May your happiness increase!

ALEX BELHAJ’S CRESCENT CITY QUARTET: “SUGAR BLUES”

ALEX B playing

Photograph by Jocelyn Gotlib

You may not have heard of young guitarist / singer / composer Alex Belhaj, unless you live near Ann Arbor, Michigan.  And for some readers, “guitarist / singer / composer” may be slightly unsettling, suggesting a musician more like Leonard Cohen than Leonard “Ham” Davis. But these sounds should quell any anxieties:

and the same band, live in 2011:

Both of these performances were the work of Alex’s CRESCENT CITY QUARTET, which has released its debut CD, “SUGAR BLUES,” on the Raymond Street Records label.

The quartet is Alex Belhaj, guitar; Jordan Schug, string bass; Ray Heitger, clarinet; Dave Kosmyna, cornet — each of them adding “vocal refrain” or backgrounds as noted below.  Yes, the tunes are familiar, but these performances are deeply felt and vivid: WEARY BLUES / MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT [RH] / SUGAR BLUES [AB] / CARELESS LOVE / VIPER MAD [RH and the Quartet] / HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW [RH] / FOUR OR FIVE TIMES [AB / DK] / MY MAN ROCKS ME (WITH ONE STEADY ROLL) / TIGER RAG / SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD [AB] / YOU DON’T LOVE ME [DK] / TAKE MY HAND, PRECIOUS LORD [RH].

ALEX B cover

I confess that when I first saw this CD, I felt a mild skepticism: I admire Ray Heitger, but he was the only player I knew.  I had no idea that Alex had connections with a number of my heroes and friends, James Dapogny, Michael Karoub, Erin Morris, Laura Wyman among them.

But hearing the music was a wonderful conversion experience.  It’s not as if there aren’t other New Orleans-imbued small improvising jazz groups, and there are other versions of the songs on this disc.  But the CCQ understands and inhabits the music in the best way — not turning each song into a nearly violent joust in the fashion of the hallowed Spanier-Bechet sides, or choosing to offer only a series of solos . . . but making each selection its own entrancing emotional drama, with an emphasis on sweetly rocking ensemble interplay.  Each of the four players is a convincing instrumentalist (and singer) so I floated from track to track, from spiritual to swinging multi-strain instrumental, in a satisfying music-dream.

The disc is one of those rare creations that seems too brief.  I’ve heard new things every time I’ve played it.  SUGAR BLUES feels genuine: these musicians know and feel what this music is supposed to sound like, simultaneously rooted in tradition and as fresh as the moment.

SUGAR BLUES is also beautifully recorded, with liner notes by “arwulf arwulf,” an Ann Arbor music scholar and broadcaster, that I would have been pleased to have written myself.

In his closing lines, he refers to VIPER MAD as a defiantly hedonistic number premiered by Noble Sissle and Sidney Bechet in 1938.  The CCQ’s realization of this ode to Mezz Mezzrow’s favorite herbal analgesic features a spirited group vocal similar to what Ann Arborites have come to expect from Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings.  Impressionable souls may feel the need to stand up and strut around with one index finger in the air.

I’m impressionable and proud of it.  Here’s VIPER MAD:

Now, JAZZ LIVES does not officially espouse the use of such substances, but in the words of that song (slightly altered) I urge you to “wrap your chops / around this new CD.” Here is Alex’s site and his Facebook page.

May your happiness increase! 

A FEW CHORUSES AGO

The Nice Jazz Festival, 1948.  Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Robert Sage Wilber, clarinet / soprano saxophone; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Pops Foster, string bass; Sammy Price, piano; Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet.  Not photographed: Baby Dodds, drums.

Mezzrow Band

Happily, Mr. Wilber — then the baby of the band — is still with us, playing, recording, and traveling. Music keeps you young. Thanks to Pug Horton for providing this glimpse of the past, only sixty-six years ago.

May your happiness increase!

MEET ME AT THE CORNER OF THEN AND NOW

Although the physicists explain gravely that time — make that Time — is not a straight line but a field in which we may meander, it often feels as if we are characters in a Saul Steinberg cartoon, squinting into the looming Future while the Past stretches behind us, intriguing but closed off.  We anxiously stand on a sliver of Now the thickness and length of a new pencil, hoping for the best.

Jazz, or at least the kind that occupies my internal jukebox, is always balancing (not always adeptly) Then and Now.  For some, Then is marked in terms of dates: this afternoon in November 1940, or this one in July 1922. The most absorbed of us can even add artifacts and sound effects: uncontrollable coughing, a trout sandwich, the sound of dancers’ feet in a ballroom.

But for me, Then is a series of manifestations, imagined as well as real, that have no particular date and time.

Bix and Don Murray watching a baseball game. The Chicago flat where Louis and friends drank Mrs. Circe’s gin and told stories. Mezz Mezzrow on the subway. Strayhorn auditioning in Ellington’s dressing room. Mystics Boyce Brown, Tut Soper, and Don Carter, each imagining the universe in his own way. Eddie Condon picking up the tenor guitar. Hot Lips Page shaking a Texan’s hand. Art Hodes and Wingy Manone politely deciding who gets to wear the bear coat tonight. Francene and Frank Melrose having Dave Tough and friends over for a scant but happy meal of rice and peppers. E.A. Fearn making a suggestion. Billy Banks arriving late for the record date. Bird washing dishes while hearing Art Tatum. Joe Oliver having a snack in a Chinese restaurant.

Any jazz fan who has read enough biography can invent her own mythography of the landmarks of Then.

Now, although it recedes as I write this, is a little easier to fix in time and space, in the way one pushes a colored push-pin through a map.

Andy Schumm, cornet and archives; Dan Barrett, trombone; Dan Levinson, reeds; John Sheridan, piano; Howard Alden, banjo; Kerry Lewis, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums: late in the evening of September 20 at the 2013 Jazz at Chautauqua, now reinvented as the Allegheny Jazz Party.

OLD MAN SUNSHINE (LITTLE BOY BLUEBIRD):

SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL:

LITTLE WHITE LIES (in an arrangement inspired by British Pathe sound film of the Noble Sissle band — and piling rarity upon rarity — giving us a glimpse of Tommy Ladnier playing):

DEEP NIGHT:

GET GOIN’ (in honor of the Bennie Moten band, which also had spiders to deal with in Kansas City):

KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW (Sheridan’s verse gets everyone in the right mood):

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

18TH AND RACINE (a street intersection in Chicago / an Andy Schumm original / the title track of the Fat Babies’ delicious new CD on Delmark Records):

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL (with a wonderful surprise at 3:00 — why isn’t there a whole CD of this?):

See you in Cleveland, Ohio, between September 18 and 21, 2014, for more of the same delicious time-superimpositions, courtesy of the Allegheny Jazz Party, where such things happen as a matter of course.

May your happiness increase!

LOOK. LISTEN.

Considering the context — James P. Johnson, solo piano, playing his own HARLEM STRUT — the advertising exhortations seem reasonable.

BLACK SWAN

Over a twenty-five year period, James P. was recorded — in the studio, on radio, and in concert — alongside Bessie Smith, Clarence Williams, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Henry “Red” Allen, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, Freddie Green, Dicky Wells, Max Kaminsky, Zutty Singleton, Perry Bradford’s Jazz Phools (with Louis, Buster Bailey, Kaiser Marshall), Lavinia Turner, Trixie Smith, Fats Waller, Sadie Jackson, Louis Metcalf, Cootie Williams, Garvin Bushell, Jabbo Smith, Gene Sedric, Johnny Dunn, Ethel Waters, King Oliver, Teddy Bunn, Spencer Williams, Cecil Scott, Roy Smeck, Mezz Mezzrow, Tommy Ladnier, Eddie Dougherty, Rod Cless, Sterling Bose, Pops Foster, Omer Simeon, Ida Cox, Pete Brown, Frank Newton, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Hot Lips Page, J.C. Higginbotham, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Al Casey, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Russell, Brad Gowans, Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy Rushing, Vic Dickenson, Vernon Brown, Sidney Bachet, Tommy Dorsey, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, Johnny Windhurst, George Brunis, Albert Nicholas, Bunk Johnson, George Wettling . . . which sounds as if he recorded with everyone in creation.

Here is his 1923 solo, BLEEDING HEARTED BLUES:

And his 1930 romp, JINGLES:

And the musing 1944 ARKANSAW BLUES:

From the middle of the Twenties, James P. (1894-1955) was comfortably earning money because of royalties on his most famous compositions (consider CHARLESTON, ONE HOUR) but he wasn’t satisfied to be a composer of hit songs.  He wanted to be known and respected as a serious composer of extended works, perhaps the race’s answer to George Gershwin.  He didn’t gain the respect and attention he desired, which hurt him. Both his discography and biography suggest that he was not always in good health — another good reason for our not having even more recorded evidence.

I wonder if James P. was more than the cliche of the popular entertainer yearning for serious acceptance, but a man who knew that he had more to offer than writing thirty-two bar songs and playing piano, solo or in bands.  Did he distance himself from “the music business” or did it ignore him because he would not fit in to one of its tidy categories?

James P.’s pupil Fats Waller died younger, but received more attention because of his ebullient personality: hundreds of recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances.  Willie “the Lion” Smith outlived them both and was always ready to play, sing, and talk.

I wish James P. had recorded more, had received more attention of the kind his talents deserved. If someone uncovers a James P. trove, I’d like to know about it.

Because this blogpost threatens to slide into the morose, I will offer a recording that has never failed to cheer me up: the duet of James P. and Clarence Williams on HOW COULD I BE BLUE? What a pleasure to hear James P. somewhat awkwardly negotiate the vaudeville dialogue . . . and then to hear his intense rhythmic lead, his melodic inventiveness, in the duet that follows:

May your happiness increase!

ESCAPING THE BOX

William Carlos Williams: “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet—gosh, how I hate sonnets—is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through, you don’t have a crab any more.”

Robert Frost: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Younger, I would have sided with Frost: too much freedom leads to chaos. But I celebrate Williams’ position (even though his metaphor makes me wince) more as I age, feel, and listen.  Tidiness is a wonderful thing in the kitchen cabinets, but it might lead to the slow death of creative improvising.

In that spirit, I present the latest works of saxophonist / composer / historian / scholar / seeker Allen Lowe, a four-CD set of original compositions with one exception, a spoken-word piece by the novelist Rick Moody.

field recordings cover bc

JAZZ LIVES readers will be familiar with many of the names on that cover; others will provide engaging and sometimes quizzical surprises in listening and emotion.

Lowe’s works don’t seek to present snapshots of particular eras; they don’t offer “styles or schools.” Rather, his imaginations are intense, deep, yet unfettered. FIELD RECORDINGS, Lowe says in his liner notes, grew out of an argument he had with Wnton Marsalis — during Lowe’s attempt to interview Marsalis.  Disagreeing about “minstrelsy,” Marsalis characterized Lowe — in Lowe’s words — as “merely another in a long line of deluded white academics.”

Lowe spent the next six years immersing himself in “early entertainments of every racial persuasion,” which led him to compositions — song forms — that reflected what he had heard and experienced.  He also plays and improvises on many of these performances heard in this CD set.  More details here.

Lowe writes, “There is a tradition in certain kinds of writing in which the writer takes past works and puts them to his own use for very specific philosophical and artistic reasons. Brecht called this copien, as in the use of older texts as a means to something new and different, as a method from which to challenge prior ideas and forms. This project was done in exactly this spirit, as a way of altering certain received ideas of popular and jazz song. It is also a challenge to certain formal and intellectual assumptions.”

I haven’t heard more than one quarter of the set, but found the music so inspiring that I wanted to spread the word about it.   The performances weren’t always easy to listen to — Lowe, as composer and player, doesn’t shy away from improvisation’s rough edges, but he doesn’t run into harshness for its own sake.

What I appreciate most about the music — I was listening both with and without the benefit of Lowe’s commentaries — was its depth of feeling and innate ability to surprise.  The surprises weren’t ones I could predict (I know that sounds like an illogical paradox, but listening to many of the great musicians, I feel I know “where (s)he might be going” in the next chorus).

Rather, I felt the ground shifting under me in the best sense of the metaphor. Over and over, I felt beautifully startled, gently lifted out of my expectations and planted somewhere else, experiencing the sounds from a different perspective.  Each voyage was a fascinating series of what Emerson calls “zig-zag tacks.”  I heard echoes of New Orleans polyphony and street parade, dark unrequited blues, ensemble questing that echoed Mingus and freer improvsations, with searching, winding melodic lines, unpredictable harmonies that felt good as soon as they found my ears.

Language has a hard time describing music in the best of circumstances, and words are particularly inadequate here. One must be a creative listener to feel Lowe’s many musics, but they are well worth the investigation.  He is honest, inquiring, and sly — as is his work on these four CDs.  But beware!  This set is not ear-cushioning, to be listened to in conjunction with household chores, nor is it meant to be heard as one hears some discs: seventy-five minutes of supple protection from the world.  I predict that the listener wise and brave enough to purchase the FIELD RECORDINGS will approach the music as one does a new book of poems: a poem or two at a time, rather than as an artistic devouring of it all.

As a measure of the breadth and often witty depths of Lowe’s imagination, I would list some of the names he calls in his notes and compositions: Bunk Johnson, Tony Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Ernest Hogan, Mantan Moreland, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Lennie Tristano, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Thelonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Varese, Dave Schildkraut, Bud Powell, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Melrose, Paul Whiteman, Bill Challis, Harry Barris, George Bacquet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James P. Johnson, Albert Ayler, Ran Blake, Henry Mancini, Sun Ra, Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Daily, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Bill Triglia, George Gershwin, Frank Teschemacher, Jess Stacy, Bix Beiderbecke, Arizona Dranes, Bert Williams, George Wheeler, Barbara Payne, Clyde Bernhardt, Ma Rainey, Anthony Braxton, Joe Jordan, Jaki Byard, Fess Manetta, Lester Young, Duke Ellington . . . and more.

The curious — and I hope there are many — will listen to samples here and then plunge in — this set costs less than two CDs and is wonderfully lively. You can also learn more at Allen’s website and blog (called EVERYTHING ELSE IS POST MODERNISM) — where Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and Norman Mailer, compelled to share a subway seat, eye each other with suspicion.

I admire Allen Lowe’s courage, range, and audacities. The music is often, on first hearing, “weird,” but that’s a compliment. A little weirdness is like good seasoning: so much missed in the music we are sold, so richly enhancing in the right proportions.

And to return to the austere Robert Frost.  My letter to him, unsent and unread, is as follows:Dear Mr. Frost. If you removed the net, you might not have tennis, but you certainly would have an engaging dance.”

May your happiness increase!

“GEORGE WETTLING, MARCH 1953”

That’s written on the back of this snapshot — originally taken by drummer Walt Gifford, later held by jazz enthusiast Joe Boughton:

GEORGE WETTLING 3 53

I am assuming that it was taken in the Boston area, but Wettling is the main attraction.  In the great tradition, Wettling played drums for the band — caring more for that than for any extended solo, although his four-bar breaks at the end of Eddie Condon recordings (Commodore, Decca, and Columbia) are justly famous.  He wasn’t as dramatic as some of his more celebrated peers, but any group that had Wettling in the rhythm section could relax, secure that the tempo would be steady, that every accent or sound would make sense as a complementary part of the whole.

Here are two samples of George at work — atypically visible as well — along with Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Al Hall, and Eddie himself — from a 1964 television program:

and

and — nearly a quarter-century earlier, sounds only:

and

If you follow the recordings he left behind — with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Hot Lips Page, Lou McGarity, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, Muggsy Spanier, Jess Stacy, Frank Teschemacher, Frank Melrose, Boyce Brown, Paul Mares, Omer Simeon, Wingy Manone, Jimmy McPartland, Joe Marsala, Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, Pete Brown, Jack Teagarden, Joe Bushkin, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, Max Kaminsky, Danny Polo, Herman Chittison, Joe Thomas, Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Carter, Miff Mole, Brad Gowans, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, Ed Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Rod Cless, James P. Johnson, Yank Lawson, Jerry Jerome, Billy Butterfield, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Benny Morton, Jonah Jones, Errol Garner, Billie Holiday, Bujie Centobie, Red McKenzie, Chuck Wayne, Lucky Thompson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Martha Tilton, Connee Boswell, Sidney Bechet, Frank Newton, Bing Crosby, Art Hodes, Doc Evans, Bob Wilber, Tony Parenti, Charlie Parker, Ralph Sutton, Barbara Lea, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Kenny Kersey, Frank Signorelli, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Urbie Green, Marian McPartland, Stuff Smith, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Claude Hopkins, Nat Pierce, Jimmy Jones, Marty Napoleon, Buster Bailey, Shorty Baker, Tyree Glenn, Kenny Davern, and many others — you will always hear rewarding music.

May your happiness increase!

FOR CAREN BRODSKY, A SMALL SWING ADIEU: JOHN SHERIDAN, SOLO (September 20, 2013)

I just learned yesterday of the death of Philadelphia-based jazz fan Caren Brodsky, someone deeply in love with the music. She died in her sleep on January 31.

Caren loved the hot jazz of the Twenties and the swing of the Thirties and Forties; her heroes were Marty Grosz and Vince Giordano. I believe I first met her at a Jazz at Chautauqua weekend. I am grieved that she left us so young.

Somehow, this sweet adieu — a farewell, for now — seems the right music.

The song is I HATE TO LEAVE YOU NOW (our man Thomas Waller, with lyrics by Harry Link and Dorothy Dick), played with great sweetness by John Sheridan, with a rapt audience at the 2013 Jazz at Chautauqua (now the Allegheny Jazz Party) on September 20, 2013:

Two choruses, a key change, and an extended ending, conjuring up a beautiful world in under three minutes.

The unseen musical figure here is Louis, who recorded this lovely song in 1932.  Click here and be transported, thanks to Louis, Chick Webb, Mezz Mezzrow, and Ricky Riccardi.

Caren was a true enthusiast.  I post this in her honor, and send my sorrow to her husband Chris and her family.

Friends and family will be celebrating Caren’s life at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael Sacks memorial chapel, at 310 Second Street Pike, Southhampton, Pennsylvania 18966. It will be conducted on Sunday, February 9 at 3 pm.  Memorial contributions can be made to House Rabbit Society, Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware Chapter, 478 East Ayres Street, Newport DE 19084-2503, or Little Furries Rescue & Referral, 154 Newton Street, Browns Mills NJ 08015.

Caren, we will miss you.

THE NEWTON-LEACOCK PAPERS

Having good friends is a delight in themselves.  When the friends are generous, that’s more than one can hope for. Here’s evidence: Jeanie Gorman Wilson, who took very good care of the singer Barbara Lea in Barbara’s last years, shared these pieces of paper with me . . . and with the readers of JAZZ LIVES.

What you’ll see below is admittedly a small collection but absolutely irreplaceable: two 1951 missives from trumpeter / composer Frank Newton to the youthful but impressive Miss Barbara Leacock.  These aren’t simply rare pieces of paper, but artifacts from a gifted man, his life too short — but testimony to his humanity, his affectionate wisdom.

The envelope, please:

NEWTON letter 1 envelope

And the contents:

NEWTON letter 2 first

Dear Barbara:

     Here’s thanking you for whatever contribution you made toward the wonderful birthday party.

     Let me wish you lots of success with your singing. Don’t be discouraged by a lot of your friends’ opinions, neither feel too exalted by their compliments, but try to work as hard as time will allow, out of which will come something of which you are deserving and will be proud of.

     Give Larry [Eanet] my regards.

     As ever, your well-wishing friend.

                                          Frankie Newton

Eight months later, when Newton was working as a counselor at KIDDIE KAMP in Sharon, Massachusetts (the postcard’s motto is “Thanks feller, for the swell vacation!”):

NEWTON letter 3 front of Kiddie Kamp

And his note, which ends “hurry and write”:

NEWTON letter 4 Kiddie Kamp

Hello Barbara: — Just to let you know where I am, and what I am doing. I am counsler at this camp for kids and I am having a ball.  I shure wish you could drive over here and see the camp it is only 20 some miles from Boston George Wein and the band were up here last week. If you can write me and tell me what’s what is happening to you

hurry and write

love

Frankie Newton

Yes, Newton’s handwriting, spelling, and punctuation are much more informal, but I imagine him dashing off this note, leaning against a tree, while children around him demanded his attention.

More information on KIDDIE KAMP can be found here — thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Thanks to Jeanie for allowing us to read some of Newton’s words.  He has been gone for nearly sixty years. If his sound isn’t distinctive in your ears, here is a deep, mournful sample: his 1939 THE BLUES MY BABY GAVE TO ME (with Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Brown, James P. Johnson, Al Casey, John Kirby, and Cozy Cole — the session supervised by Hughes Panassie):

Barbara Lea is nearer to us: December 26 was only the second anniversary of her death, but it’s always a privilege to hear her remarkable voice once again. Here she is, with Dick Sudhalter and James Chirillo, performing the uplifting IT’S ALL IN YOUR MIND:

And since we can all dream of hearing Mr. Newton and Miss Leacock together, I offer here (yet unheard) evidence of such a musical meeting. Newton’s actual birthday was January 4, so it is possible that this disc was cut at the birthday party he mentions in his first letter.  Someday . . .

May your happiness increase!

RIMSHOTS, CYMBALS, STOMP and SWING: MISTER GEORGE STAFFORD

My friend and mentor Andrew and I have been having a conversation in cyberspace about the delicious unerring playing of drummer George Stafford. Stafford drove the Charlie Johnson orchestra, but he appeared on precious few recordings.  Here’s a particularly brilliant one — led by the Blessed Eddie Condon — as “Eddie’s Hot Shots.”  They were, and they are: Leonard “Ham” Davis, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone and vocal; Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, C-melody saxophone; Happy Caldwell, tenor saxophone; Eddie, banjo; Joe Sullivan, piano; Stafford, drums.

This is the first take of I’M GONNA STOMP MR. HENRY LEE — part incitement to Dionysiac ecstasies, part ominous warning:

Please listen to Stafford!  His rimshots behind the first ensemble chorus, lifting everything up — emphatic YESes all through; choke cymbal behind the earnest saxophone; pistol-shot rimshots all behind Teagarden’s singing; divine rattling and cackling on the wooden rims alongside Sullivan’s piano — excited commentaries; cymbal crashes and rolls into the final ensemble chorus, and a closing cymbal crash.

I am away from my books as I write this, so I cannot be sure, but I think Stafford died young — 1935? — which is a great sadness, although what he had to say to us was plenty.  Priceless, I think.

As much as I revere Catlett, Jo, and Gene, I would make space in my own Directory of Percussive Saints for George Stafford.  He goes right alongside Walter Johnson, Eddie Dougherty, O’Neil Spencer, and two dozen more.  They made the earth move in the most graceful and exultant ways.  Bless them.

P.S.  I’M GONNA STOMP has four composers — Jack and Eddie, Eddie’s friend George Rubens, and the magically invisible pianist Peck Kelley.  There’s a novel in itself . . .

May your happiness increase. 

A SPY FOR DIXIELAND

Ian Fleming never gave me a thought.  I never had a specially-equipped car, dangerous gadgets.  But I was a spy for Dixieland.

In a recent seminar with one of my mentors, Prof. Figg, he asked the question, “What are your secret guilty musical pleasures?”

I think the Professor expected that I was listening to Justin Bieber or to marimba orchestras.  Toy pianos.  Singing dogs.  Kate Smith.  Anthony Braxton.  Rossini overtures.  Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And although I thought hard, I couldn’t come up with any guilty musical pleasures.  Oh, I love sentiment: Connee Boswell’s LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY makes me cry.  But I am proud of my reaction to her singing, so there’s nothing guilty in it.

But then I started to remember the time when I was a jazz operative in enemy country.

When I was nine or ten, I was already seriously hooked by hot jazz.  Louis Armstrong, first and foremost.  I recall spending birthday money on a Louis record, and I was thrilled when he appeared on television.

I was in the fifth grade when the Beatles came to the United States, and I found them fascinating — but for only a short time.  They were fun, energetic, new, uninhibited.  I remember pestering my father to buy me the soundtrack album from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.  When I could, I bought those records, borrowed them from friends, tried so hard to make them my personal soundtrack.  (Everyone else did.)

I got all the way up to RUBBER SOUL before I decided that I didn’t really like this music all that much.  What I was entranced by was the possibility of being liked because you like what everyone else likes.

I had already begun to notice, although I probably did not articulate it to myself, that one’s musical preferences were ways definitions of one’s self, stated publicly or otherwise.  One’s taste was an ideological / emotional badge.

If you liked Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ THIS DIAMOND RING (why do I remember this now?) you were possibly a member of the club that could be considered worthy of being inspected for possible admission to the clubhouse.

But walking around telling my peers that I listened to Louis Armstrong — the truth — was clearly not the way to be accepted, to be cool, to be “in” or popular.  I remember telling some adults, who looked at me indulgently.  Perhaps they thought my preference more strange than the loud music their children were listening to.  My conscious anachronism must have struck them as at best, a benign eccentricity; at worst, inexplicable.

Among my peers, anything that new and rebellious was good.  Ancient and entrenched was definitely not.  When I met the pretty granddaughter of our French-Canadian neighbors, I knew I could not tell her that I preferred Fats Waller to Iron Butterfly and expect her to swoon.  “Our” music was supposed to unsettle the old folks who fed and clothed you; it wasn’t supposed to have any comforting connections to their world.  Jini Hendrix, not Jimmie Blanton.

So I kept my love to myself.  I told very few people that I listened to Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland in my room, that I read Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES (and was then violently disappointed by his playing — I was too young to appreciate those Bluebird sides).  I couldn’t really confess to anyone that I loved Bobby Hackett’s air-traceries on ballads, that “Dixieland jazz” on television — those small groupings of oddly-dressed men — thrilled me.  I even remember watching Lawrence Welk’s program for the brief “hot” interludes (not knowing at the time that I would someday see and admire Bob Havens in person).  Even my parents, who were very indulgent and loving, did not quite know what to make of my obsession: they had lived through the Depression and the Swing Era, but the depth of my ardor must have puzzled them.

In this century, a broader acceptance is the rule.  It is much easier to say, “Oh, I listen to Bulgarian hip-hop,” or “I am working on my harpsichord on the weekends,” than it was.  I know a young woman in middle school who dresses in elaborate clothing every day, plays the ukulele, analyzes 1905 Sousa records.  She seems to have gained much more flexibility to be unusual in this century than I had in mine.

My generation may have marched to Thoreau’s different drummer, but to call the metaphorical figure of independence Dave Tough did not do.   It still seems a towering irony that my nonconformist friends were obliviously conformist.

I had to go underground because I identified so strongly with the music of an earlier generation and one before that.  I didn’t dance, so I hadn’t met the swing-dance generation who would teach me the Balboa and know, instinctively, which version of SWINGIN’ THE BLUES they liked.  In 1966, had I come out of the aesthetic closet and said, “The music I like was the popular music — or at least one strain of it — in 1936,” I would be marked as even more freakish than I already was.

I could and did wear the flowered shirts and bell-bottom trousers (both of which pleased me for their own sake) but I could not admit to an admiration for Pee Wee Russell.  To do so would be to say, “I want to be just like your grandparents,” not readily accepted among my peers.

It might have been easier if I had had the ability and patience to seriously attempt a musical instrument.  Then I could have hung out in the bandroom with the other trumpet geeks and said, “Have you heard what Ray Nance does here?”  But that community was denied me.

Even when I was in an independent study program in my senior year of high school, I knew I had to practice secrecy.  It was difficult to unmask.  My friend Stu Zimny has reminded me of our being on field trips into Manhattan, and my running off during our lunch break to buy Commodore 78s.  He would ask, “What did you buy?” and I would say, “Oh, nothing really.  You wouldn’t be interested,” or some similar falsehood.

I was afraid of being laughed at if I was seen buying archaic recordings of strange music with odd-sounding players.  Red, Muggsy, Big Sid, Little T . . . these heroic affectionate sobriquets were encouraged in baseball but not elsewhere.

My affections did not transfer easily.  My seventeen-year-old self — suave, stylish, ineffably debonair, thought that Jack Teagarden’s 1954 recording of A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY was the best seduction music ever.  What woman could resist his wooing?  (All of them.)

I don’t remember when and how the mists began to lift.  It may have been when I began to encounter other young men at jazz concerts.  We glanced at each other cautiously, suspiciously.  “You like this music too?”  “Yeah.”  “Don’t tell anyone, OK?”  “I like hot jazz.”  “Shhhh!  Keep it down.  They’ll hear us!”

But I only began to “come out” in college, perhaps defensively but more proud.  “Yes, I listen to Louis Armstrong records.  Do you want to come to my house and hear what I am listening to?”

It wasn’t always easy.  “Cartoon music” was often the way my records were described.  “How can you listen to that old stuff?  What do you hear in it?” “Wow, that’s old-fashioned!”

At this point in the imagined black-and-white film, calendar pages fall off the wall.  We are now in NOW, this century, where I am entirely comfortable with my own love for hot music.

It fascinates me that when the Beloved lovingly introduces me, “Oh, this is my Sweetie — he has a great jazz video blog!” I can see people’s eyelids begin to flutter — with puzzlement or tedium, it is hard to say.  I can only imagine what people think.  “Oh, no.  Jazz, for God’s sake.  One step less interesting than toy trains.  What shall I say?  I never ‘understood jazz,’ and this fellow is obviously so interested in it that he’s vibrating as he stands there.”  So they say, generously, “Jazz!  Wow, that’s interesting.  Do you like Miles Davis?”  Or “I think John Coltrane was a very spiritual being.  I like electro-fusion.  Do you like Diana Krall?”

And they are being as gracious as human beings can be, so it pains me to redirect their enthusiasm.  But I have to say, “Well, I admire Miles and Coltrane, but my heart is with older stuff.”  “Oh, what do you mean?”  “Louis Armstrong is my hero.  Billie Holiday.  Duke Ellington,” keeping it as plain as possible.  And it is clear that with those words and those names I have marked myself as An Oddity.  The most kind people say, “Did you see ANTIQUES ROADSHOW last night?  There was a woman who had a whole collection of autographed band photographs from the Big Band Era, and one of them was signed by Louis Armstrong?”  Others smile sweetly, vaguely, and head for the white wine spritzers.

Jazz still remains a mystery to most people, and those of us who truly resonate to it are destined to remain Outsiders.  It’s a pity.  Why shouldn’t everyone be able to share the great pleasures that we know?

I am now a Spy Emeritus, now able to view these episodes with nostalgia and amusement tempering my puzzlement.  Call me 0078, retired.  But I remember the feeling of being out of step with the culture of my times, and being made to feel weird.

Yet I followed what I loved, and jazz has paid me back for my loyalty a million times over.  And it continues to do so.

This one’s for my friends AJS and KD — and, as always, for the Beloved, who knew that it don’t mean a thing . . . before I ever came along.

May your happiness increase.

“MAKIN’ FRIENDS”: THE JAZZ LIVES 2012 YEAR-END REPORT

At the end of a calendar year, many people take stock of where they’ve been and where they will be going.  I hope my readers will forgive me if I offer a brief JAZZ LIVES version.

Since the spring of 2004, I have been having the time of my life.  Not only have I been able to hear more live music than ever before; I have been able to travel to hear it; I have been able to document it in words and pictures and videos.  A year ago, at the start of 2012, I decided — with the heedless enthusiasm and joy of someone one-third my age, “I am going to follow every impulse I can.  My life is finite.  The lives of the people I revere are also finite.  Not only do I want to extend myself to the utmost; I feel I must do it.”

And I set out on this path, or these paths.  If you were to look at my kitchen calendar or my datebook or the notebooks I write when / where / who played / what did it sound like, you would see that I have been busy.  Jazz parties in Connecticut, Chautauqua, San Diego, Monterey, Sacramento, Atlanta, Whitley Bay.  Club gigs in New York and California.  And I might have left some things out.

I flew so often and slept so little that by the last third of 2012, I was at the bottom edge of my energy, and I felt it.  The Blessed Milton J. Hinton used to have a joking expression: FUMP, which was his synonym for the excrement of whales . . . nothing could be lower than that, because it rested on the ocean floor.  I felt like fump, I assure you.  But I am coming back to my ordinarily resilient self, so do not worry.  (The combination of being with the Beloved, sleep, acupuncture by Marcia Salter, antibiotics, and homeopathy is wondrous.)

JAZZ LIVES is not a profit-making proposition.  Had I a financial advisor, (s)he would say, “You cannot continue to do this.  You will have no money,” and 2012 would prove him / her right.  But that, too, is not entirely important.

What is important — to me — is that I have gained new friends.  Some of them I have been able to meet.  And if I called 2012 THE YEAR OF THE HUGS, I think it would be accurate.  I have been hugged in cyber-space, on the telephone, by mail.  And in person.  And although (as they say at the Academy Awards) I accept this award for myself, it is really because I realized that my role in life is to attempt to spread joy through music.

I am so indebted to the real creators — the musicians — who so generously and good-humoredly allow and encourage me to help their notes and phrases be heard by audiences who will never be able to see and hear them live.  JAZZ LIVES both spreads and receives love, and I am proud of this.

So 2012 has been a year where I have been able to accomplish things I never thought possible.  I send love and thanks to everyone who has ever clicked on a page, even if it was searching “dressed as a girl by my mother,” which still comes up in Search Engine Terms.

And I hope no one will mind if I close this love letter to all the musicians in the house, all the viewers and all the readers — with the lesson from Mezz Mezzrow’s autobiography.  The lesson took place in 1929, but it never grows old.

I used to sit huddled up on my [subway] seat, shrinking into a corner, my head shoved down between my knees and my arms wrapped tight around it, to keep from screaming.

One day, just as the train pulled into 110th Street, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder, and when I worked up enough courage to raise my head, there was a nice-looking old colored man with a thick crop of snow-white hair, looking down at me with the kindest, most sympathetic expression I ever saw. “Son,” he said to me real soft, “if you can’t make money, make friends,” and with that he stepped out on the platform and drifted away. He saved my life that day.

Make friends.  Spread joy.  Swing out.

May your happiness increase.