Perhaps because I am both nearsighted and fallible, “I MAY BE WRONG (But I think You’re Wonderful)” is a favorite song of mine — written by Henry Sullivan (music) and Harry Riskin (lyrics) no matter what the cover states. The lyrics only make sense if one realizes that the singer is seriously myopic. Here’s the verse:
A delightful November 929 recording (the song was a duet in the original presentation) thanks to the splendidly musical Peter Mintun:
and here is my favorite instrumental version, with decades of playing this track on the “Swingville All-Stars” session on the Prestige-Swingville label. (Coleman Hawkins, Joe Newman, J.C. Higginbotham, Jimmy Hamilton, and Claude Hopkins were on another session, which is why Hawk is credited here.)
The band is a gathering of gentle idiosyncratic deities, each singing his own song: Joe Thomas, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Al Sears, Buddy Tate, tenor saxophone; Cliff Jackson, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Joe Benjamin, string bass; J.C. Heard. drums. New York, May 19, 1961:
I think these performances are wonderful, and in this I don’t think I’m wrong.
My gratitude to Peter Mintun and to Michael Burgevin, who introduced me to Joe Thomas.
My dear friend Michael Burgevin was the first person I knew who used the expression “Give me a shout,” when he meant “Call me when you can,” or “Be in touch,” and it’s almost archaic these days. But I know MB would enjoy what I am about to post.
It’s only a few minutes long, but it is both Prime and Choice — and the result of the kind energetic generosity of our friend Enrico Borsetti, who took his video camera to the JazzAscona, Switzerland, and captured a set by Dan Barrett’s Blue Swing — a noble band that had, alongside Dan, Jon-Erik Kellso, Brian Ogilvie, John “Butch” Smith, Ray Sherman, Eddie Erickson, Joel Forbes, and Jeff Hamilton.
Here’s a wonderful blues with flourishes, composed by Luis Russell and Charlie Holmes for the splendid band (featuring also Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Albert Nicholas, Paul Barbarin, and Pops Foster) the former led from 1926-34, named for the Saratoga Club, where they romped:
I’ll let Jon-Erik have the last word: “Can’t believe this was 17 years ago already. Fond memories of playing with Dan Barrett’s Blue Swing at the JazzAscona fest in Switzerland. “Saratoga Shout” by Luis Russell. I miss our friend Brian Ogilvie, the tenor player here, very much, he left us much too young. I also miss this band, one of the finest I’ve been a part of.”
And Enrico, our Benefactor, promises to share the rest of the set with us. Grazie, amico!
As we know, sometimes The Past comes out of the darkness and raps us sharply across the bridge of the nose. In this case, it’s given us a very warm hug.
A little gift of music — three minutes of Sammy Price and Sidney Catlett playing a boogie-woogie blues in July 1945:
To me, this is not simply piano, drums, and the blues. It is a small glowing exercise in bringing infinite variety into what could otherwise be a closed form. Listen to the textures — the varied and ever-shifting sound of Sidney’s drums alongside the piano, the shifting rhythms he and Sammy set up and move through, the varied harmonies and melodies. Of course, listened to casually from another room, “it’s just boogie-woogie.” But that would be so limiting, so unjust to the rich textures heard here.
And Sammy and Sidney did not set out to make a classic; they had time at the end of a King Jazz record session and decided to play some blues: this is what they casually and splendidly created.
This post is for my departed friend Michael Burgevin, who loved this record. And for Carl Sonny Leyland, who is deeply in the music and creates it infallibly: he understands!
In conversation, I have been known to say, “Music saved my life.” And the other person smiles and nods, sometimes saying, “Yes, I understand,” or “Me, too.” But very few people know how serious my four words are.
Although I am by nature optimistic and hopeful, before 2004 I was seriously unhappy for long periods of time — situational rather than biochemical despair. The reasons for my sadness are not relevant here. When I was most hopeless, I thought seriously of ending my life. I checked out the Hemlock Society website (earnest but very complicated) and lay on my bed thinking of the items I would purchase from Home Depot that would do the job.
But one thought recurred in the darkness, “Is there any guarantee you will be able to hear music — Louis Armstrong first and everyone else you love — if you kill yourself?” It kept me from putting my plans into action.
We know that music heals, that beautiful sound itself is a form of moving energy much like prayer. The Beloved thinks that the sustaining power of the jazz we love is in its rhythm, the way it connects our beating hearts to the rhythms of the cosmos, and I think she is correct. Myself, I hear warm tender voices coming from the instrumentalists and singers I love. Those voices send love deeper than notes or words. They tell us, “It can get better. There is beauty in this world, no matter how cold and dark it seems now.”
And the voices were and are right: the proof is that I am writing these words now, able to tell this story from a safe distance, and I have never been happier.
At this point, some readers might object to what they see as a logical flaw. To them, music never “saved” my life in the way Lassie saved Timmy. True. But the thought of an unfathomably silent existence was more frightening, more painful than my current ordeal.
A corollary: some years after I emerged from this emotional abyss I was in one of those philosophical discussions — simultaneously silly and profound — where the question was “If you were going to be deprived of one sense, which one would you choose?” Immediately I said I prized my hearing, would choose to be blind rather than deaf (making the people around the table both incredulous and scornful of what they saw as bad judgment.)
Writing this post about the life-saving powers of music, I wanted to offer my readers a taste of the music that made me then and makes me now glad to be alive. You know that this is my unstated purpose in my travels with a video camera, my hours spent creating JAZZ LIVES. I am sure I could compile a long list of songs and performances that delight me now and always, but that would be “favorites” rather than “miraculous healers,” a different thing entirely.
One of the recordings that kept me from leaving this earthly existence I can share with you now, three minutes of glowing sound, a recording I have known for forty years. I first heard it in the company of Michael Burgevin, my dear MB.
It said to me then and says to me now that the universe is filled with love and protection and compassion if we only open ourselves to them.
The record is BLACK BUTTERFLY, an Ellington composition played here with ardor and sensitivity by the trumpeter Joe Thomas and friends for a Keynote Records session in 1946:
Writing this post, I thought I would invite my readers to join in on the chorus, and ask them, “What music do you reach for, would you reach for, when Gloom puts his cold hand on your heart?”
My only requests are these: ONE song only, details as specific as possible. I am not stepping on anyone’s desert-island-discs or ten-best-list, but those lists too often seem contrived, and often are ways for us to show how wide our range is, how much we know. So please don’t comment, “Anything by X,” if you don’t mind. And, as you can tell, this inquiry is very serious to me. So no small comedies. Simply, “If I wanted a cure for deep misery, what one record would do the trick?”
With luck, readers can send in a performance that has a YouTube video attached to it so that others can hear the saving beauty that sustains you.
I look forward to hearing the music that makes burdens lighter for you, and collectively I must say that this business of being alive — often fraught with deep dark surprises — is all we have, and we should be very very grateful that we are allowed to roam around in the meadow we call Life for our short span. And even in the blackness of our sorrow, there is the a butterfly of healing music.
The heroes and the people we cherish forever don’t always have their names written in huge capital letters. But we know who they are.
One of them was the drummer, artist, raconteur, dear friend and gracious man Michael Burgevin. We lost him — abruptly, of a sudden heart attack — on June 17, 2014. If you look in Tom Lord’s discography, the listing of official recordings MB (how he signed his emails — a man with things to do!) made is brief, but that is in no way a measure of his effect, his swing, his sweet presence.
MB and Cornelius, 2001, by Penny Haddad
I had met Mike in 1973, in New York City, and although we were out of touch for about twenty years, he was always in my thoughts as someone I was grateful to.
Because I miss him and admire him — first as a musician, then as a generous friend, then as a thinker who knows and feels the truth — what follows below is the leisurely narrative of my friend MB. The dates are fuzzy, my feelings sharply realized.
When I met him in 1973, I was a college student, deeply involved in jazz, without much money to spend on it. But I read in The New Yorker that there was a little bar / restaurant on East 34th Street, Brew’s, that featured live hot jazz.
You can read more about Brew’s here — on a blog called LOST CITY — with MB’s comments.
I read the names of Max Kaminsky and Jack Fine. I didn’t know about Jimmy Andrews, piano, and Mike Burgevin, drums. But when I saw a listing that advertised “trumpeter Joe Thomas,” I began to pay attention.
Joe Thomas remains one of the great subtle players in the swing idiom, recording with Benny Carter, Ed Hall, Don Byas, Sidney Catlett, Art Tatum, Claude Hopkins, and many other luminaries: he was one of Harry Lim’s favorite players and gets a good deal of exposure on Keynote Records.
I worried that my trip to Brew’s would turn out to be a jazz mirage; how could one of my heroes be playing in a club just ten minutes from Penn Station? “Joe Thomas” is a very plain name, but I got myself out of my suburban nest, brought my cassette recorder (of course) and came to Brew’s. When I came in the door, the sounds told me I was in the right place. Not only was Joe on the stand, instantly recognizable, but he had Rudy Powell and Herb Hall with him; Jimmy Andrews was striding sweetly and quietly.
The man behind the drums was tall, elegantly dressed. His hairline receding, he looked a little like a youthful Bing Crosby without his hat on. And he sounded as if he’d gone to the magic well of Swing: without copying them, I heard evocations of Dave Tough and George Wettling, of Sidney Catlett and Zutty Singleton: a light, swinging, effortless beat. Quietly intent but restrained, with not too much flash and self-dramatization. He didn’t play anything that would have been out of place on a Commodore 78 but it seemed fresh, not a collection of learned gestures and responses. I can hear his hi-hat and rimshots as I write this, his brushes on the snare drum. He was leading the band, but he let the men on the stand direct traffic: in retrospect, he was a true Condonite, letting the music blossom as it would.
I was shy then, but I got my courage together and spoke to him — I must have seemed an unusual apparition, a college student breathless with enthusiasm about swing drumming and especially about Sidney Catlett. I had just purchased the three records (from England) of the complete 1944 Metropolitan Opera House Jam Session, and I asked Mr. Burgevin if he had them or would like a tape of that concert. He hadn’t known of this music (like many musicians, he loved hearing new things but wasn’t an obsessive collector himself). And so we arranged something: perhaps I asked him for a copy of the records he had made with Doc Cheatham.
That night, Joe Thomas took a solo on a set-ending CRAZY RHYTHM, and although Joe is no longer with us, and the performance is now forty years away, I can hum the beginning of his solo, upon request. To say the music I heard that night made an impression is putting it mildly.
Memory is treacherous, but what I remember next is being invited to the apartment he and his wife Patty — Patricia Doyle, if we are being formal — shared on East 33rd Street in an apartment building called The Byron. At some point MB persuaded me to stop calling him “Mr. Burgevin,” and I was made welcome. And often. I had been brought up to be polite, but I blush to think of how many meals I ate in their apartment, how long I stayed, how much time I spent there.
Often MB was at work on a piece of commercial art in his little studio, wedged in a corner: I played the records he had or the ones I had just bought for him. Louis, Bing, Condon, stride piano, Billie, Bud Freeman and his Chicagoans, Dave Tough, Lee Wiley, Mildred Bailey. We had much to talk about, and I learned to hear more under his gentle tutelage. We didn’t speak of anything deep: I don’t think I knew how at that time, skating over the surface of my life, moving from one small triumph or failure to the next. But we admired J. Fred Coots’ YOU WENT TO MY HEAD and other beauties.
(I cringe now to think that MB and Patty might have liked to be left in peace a little more. I wonder how many meals were stretched to include a hungry guest. When, in this century, I apologized to MB and Patty for my late-adolescent oblivious gaucheries, they said they remembered nothing of the sort. I take this as a great kindness.)
Chicken cacciatore, Dave Tough, a feisty little terrier named Rex, are all inextricably combined in my mind. I can see that rectangular apartment now. MB lent me records and books, tapes and other music-related treasures, and in general made his house mine, open-handedly and open-heartedly.
In ways I didn’t verbalize then, I felt his kindness, although I didn’t at the time understand how powerfully protective the umbrella was. It was all subtle, never dramatic. One thing MB encouraged me to do was to bring recording equipment along to gigs he was playing. And (again in this century) he told me this story that I had not been aware of while it was happening. One night at Brew’s, the musicians were MB, the Welsh pianist Dill Jones, and Kenny Davern, then alternating between clarinet and soprano saxophone. Blithely, I came in, said hello to MB, and began setting up my reel-to-reel recorder. Davern turned to MB and said — out of my hearing, but referring to me, “WHAT is THAT?” and MB told Kenny to calm down, that I was a friend, not to worry about me. As a result, Kenny, with some polite irascibility, showed me where to set up my microphone for better results. Now I know that he would have just as energetically told me where the microphone could be placed, but for MB’s quiet willingness to protect his young friend, myself.
In the next two years, I was able to hear Joe Thomas, Doc Cheatham, Al Hall, Al Casey, Vic Dickenson (at length), Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Wayne Wright, Red Richards, Dick Wellstood, Susannah McCorkle, Norman Simmons, and a dozen others at close range. MB shared his tape library with me, so I heard him as a glowing, uplifting presence with Herman Autrey, Bobby Gordon, Benny Morton, Bobby Hackett, and others. He delighted especially in the sounds of Fats Waller and his Rhythm, and took every advantage possible to get together with Jimmy Andrews, Al Casey, Herman Autrey, and Rudy Powell to recapture some of that jovial spirit.
MB told stories of spending time with Vic Dickenson, of how Bobby Hackett insisted he play sticks, not brushes, behind him, of meeting Pee Wee Russell late in the latter’s life, and a favorite anecdote of an early encounter with Cliff Leeman at Condon’s, in the eraly Fifties, when MB was on leave from the Merchant Marine (I think): he had come into Condon’s and was listening to the band, which then took a break. Leeman stepped down from the drums and MB asked politely if he could sit in with the intermission players — Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone and Ralph Sutton, piano. Leeman, always tart, said to MB, “Whaddaya want to do with the drums? Fuck ’em all up?” but he let MB play.
Here is a photograph of Michael Burgevin, young, jamming on board the USS IOWA, circa 1955-7:
My friendly contact stopped abruptly when MB had a heart attack. I was terrified of going to a hospital to visit anyone (I have said earlier in the piece that I was young, perhaps far too young). Before I could muster the maturity to visit him, he and Patty seemed, as if in a snap of the fingers, to flee the city for points unknown upstate. I wondered about him in those years, heard his music, and thought of him with love — but we had drifted apart.
We reconnected around 1997, and I am sure I can’t take credit for it, for I felt guilty for my emotional lapses. I think that Vic Diekenson drew us together once again, through the research Manfred Selchow was doing for his book, and MB got in touch with me when he planned to come down to New York City to play on a Monday night with the Grove Street Stompers at Arthur’s Tavern. Once before, he had played with that group. I don’t know who else was in the band, but I recorded a version of HINDUSTAN that had MB stretching out for a long solo in the manner of STEAK FACE.
I didn’t have sufficient opportunities to video-capture MB at play in this century, although there are examples of him on YouTube with his concert presentation of three men at drumsets “drumatiCymbalism” — but here is a 2009 video he made to promote his concerts and his paintings. It seems odd to hear him gently trying to get gigs, but it is a good all-around picture of Michael Burgevin, his sound (solo and in an ensemble with Warren Vache, Dan Block, Harry Allen, Howard Alden, and others) and it gives glimpses of his paintings:
A few years ago, MB seriously mastered the computer and moved from writing letters to writing emails, and we stayed in contact, sometimes several times a week, that way. I sent him music and jazz arcana, and we had deep philosophical conversations — the ones I had not been ready for in the early Seventies. I hadn’t known that he had become a Jehovah’s Witness (as had Trummy Young and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Joe Thomas and Babe Matthews) but our discussions were fervent, even when we were gently disagreeing about our views of the world. Recently he burst forth of Facebook, and had a delighted time sharing photographs of his friends from the old days.
If Ricky Riccardi posted some new Louis / Sidney Catlett on his blog, I forwarded it to MB, and we shared our joy and excitement often. A few years ago, he came down to New York City to meet the Beloved, and he and our mutual friend Romy Ashby had lunch together. MB was beautifully dressed and as always sweetly gallant.
It was foolish of me to think we would always have our email conversations, or another meeting in person, but we never want the people we love to move to another neighborhood of existence. I know he read JAZZ LIVES and delighted in the videos and photographs of the men and women we both revered. That thought gave and continues to give me pleasure.
He wrote a little self-portrait more than a decade ago: As a child was riveted by marching band drums in firemen’s parades on Long Island. Born with rhythm! Given a pair of drumsticks at age seven and a 1920’s style trap set at age 15 and began his professional career playing weekends at Stanbrook Resort in Dutchess Co. (NYS) Played with bands in high school and at Bard College. Strongly influenced by his uncle George Adams’ jazz collection of 78’s (rpm records). Studied drums in Pine Plains High School (1950’s) and later under Richard Horowitz percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera Symphony Orchestra (1970’s). Studied (and uses) many of the early African tribal rhythms- Dinka, Bini, Malinke, Bakwiri, Watusi. About 10 years away from music working as a freelance commercial artist and graphic designer. Returned to drumming in 1968. Spent many nights sitting in at famed Jazz clubs Jimmy Ryan’s on 57th Street and Eddie Condon’s 55th St. There met legends Zutty Singleton, Freddie Moore, and Morey Feld often subbing for them. Lived in Manhattan. Worked steadily at Ryan’s with Max Kaminsky’s band. Also became friends with George Wettling, Cliff Leeman and Jo Jones. Worked full time with almost all the titans of small band jazz during this period of time (late 1960’s through 1980’s) including Roy Eldridge, “Wild Bill” Davison, “Doc” Cheatham, Bobby Hackett, Claude Hopkins, Bobby Gordon, Marian and Jimmy McPartland. Toured Canada & USA with Davison’s Jazz Giants. Made Bainbridge, NY, situated on the beautiful Susquehanna River, a permanent residence in the 1990’s. Traveled to NYC for many engagements. Connected with Al Hamme, professor of Jazz Studies at SUNY Binghamton, playing several concerts there. Since 2001 has been producing Jazz concerts in the 100-year-old, Historic Town Hall Theatre in Bainbridge, featuring world-class jazz personalities: Kenny Davern, Warren Vaché, Peter Ecklund, James Chirillo, Joe Cohn, Howard Alden, Harry Allen, Joel Forbes, Phil Flanigan, Dan Block and many, many others.
Why do I write so much about this man?
Michael Burgevin seems to me to be the embodiment of kind generosity. Near me, as I write, I have a little 1933 autograph book full of inscriptions of jazz musicians that he bought and gave to me. Invaluable, like its owner.
But MB’s giving was more than the passing on of objects: he gave of himself so freely, whether he was behind the drum set or just sharing ideas and feelings. Reading these words, I hope his warmth and gentle nature comes through, his enthusiasm for Nature and for human nature, for the deep rhythms of the world and the way a good jazz ensemble could make us feel even more that life was the greatest privilege imaginable. A deeply spiritual man, he preached the most sustaining gospel without saying a word.
I have a story I can only call mystical to share. Yesterday, on the morning of the 17th, I was writing a blogpost — which you can read here. I had indulged myself in the techno-primitive activity of video-recording a spinning record so that I could share the sounds on JAZZ LIVES. It was a slow blues featuring, among others, Joe Thomas and Pee Wee Russell, two of MB’s and my heroes. Through the open window, the softer passages had an oddly delightful counterpoint of birdsong, something you can hear on my video. I was not thinking about MB while I was videoing — I was holding my breath, listening to music and birdsong mixed — but now I think that strange unearthly yet everyday combination may have been some part of MB’s leaving this earthly realm — music from the hearts of men now no longer with us overlaid by the songs of the birds, conversing joyously.
Patty, Michael’s wife, tells me that the funeral will be Friday, June 20, at the C.H. Landers Funeral Home in Sidney, New York (the place name is appropriate for those who understand): the visitation at noon, the service at 1 PM. Landers is on 21 Main Street, Sidney, New York 13838. (607) 563-3545.
Adieu for now, Michael Burgevin. Kind friend, lovely generous man, beautiful musician. Born January 10, 1936. Made the transition June 17, 2014.
It seems odd to close this remembrance in the usual way — but someone like MB increases my happiness, even in sadness, that I will continue as I always have. May you, too, have people like him in your life, and — more importantly — may you be one of the loving Elders to others, and older brother or sister or friend who shelters someone who might not, at the time, even recognize the love he or she is being shown.
On the surface, what follows is a video recording of a vinyl record turning, the sound captured by the most primitive means — the camera’s microphone aimed vaguely at the “record player”‘s speaker.
Were I more willing to concentrate on the niceties of technology, you would all have this music in more precisely-edged sound, but I have a nostalgic fondness for such archaisms as this. And while I was recording it, I heard a good deal of birdsong — audible while Tony is soloing — from the world outside. I think it a great melding of songs rather than an interference.
(For those who deplore my methodology, this session is available on two Tony Scott bootleg CDs, but you’ll hear no birdsong. Your choice.)
Going a little deeper, one could discern that the record, called 52nd STREET SCENE, was originally issued on Coral Records in 1958 under clarinetist Tony Scott’s name. (Tony — Antonio Sciacca — was born on June 17, 1921, and left us on March 28, 2007.)
Here, on BLUES FOR THE STREET and LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, he is joined by Sonny White, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Oscar Pettiford, string bass; Wilbur DeParis and J. C. Higginbotham, trombone (Wilbur takes the second solo); Joe Thomas, trumpet; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet.
I took the trouble of videoing this disc because it speaks to me — and I hope to you — in many ways. For one thing, it is a slow blues, a form of expression often neglected in post-World War Two improvisation, except for rural blues musicians. Everything gets faster, so musicians and audiences often grew restless during a slow blues. Ballads were fine, because they lasted only a chorus. But recording a slow blues — aside from wisely utilizing the technology of the time — was a tribute to the way it all used to be, when we all had the time to linger, to muse, to sink deep into a musical world without feeling irritably restless after three or four minutes.
Intentionally, it was called BLUES FOR THE STREET — that block on New York’s Fifty-Second Street, now anonymous, that in the decade between the mid-Thirties and the mid-Forties held a cornucopia of jazz clubs. People who were there said the crowds were loud, the drinks watered, the atmosphere in general anything but reverential, but all the musicians one ever wanted to hear played and sang there, from deep New Orleans traditionalists to the most modern of modernists.
And they seem to have enjoyed a convivial respect and pleasure in one another’s company, even when journalists and publicists tried to divide them into schools and warring factions. Elders took care of youthful strivers (Tony Scott was mentored and fathered by Ben Webster, for one) without any personal motive larger than the flowering and continuation of the music they all loved. Postwar cultural shifts (once you settle down in the suburbs, raise a family, watch television, and mow the lawn, you can’t stay out all night anymore) and other factors made the Street vanish. But its memory remained bright, a vision of a musical Eden where all was possible.
I first heard BLUES FOR THE STTREET perhaps forty years ago, on Ed Beach’s radio program honoring trumpeter Joe Thomas — the patron saint of sweet, measured simplicities that turn out to be deeply emotional — and his gentle, probing solo stays with me still. Notice, though, that each of the players exhibits a truly personal voice — leisured but intense — while saying how much they miss The Street.
Later, in 1973-5, I was blessed — I do not use that word casually — to hear Joe Thomas in person, thanks to his dear friend, colleague, and advocate Michael Burgevin. I will have more to say about Michael in the near future.
I hear this music as the conversation of the elders, the people who have Been There and Felt Deeply, murmuring their regrets at the loss, their joy at the coming-together, their hope to create something that would live longer than their breaths transmuted into sound. “Out of our sorrows at what has vanished we might make lovely songs.”
LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER was a quietly exuberant tribute to Pee Wee Russell and to the Commodore Music Shop, for Milt Gabler encouraged Pee Wee to stretch out on this pop song — a Bing Crosby movie hit — for one of the new Commodore Records in 1938. Tony Scott, perhaps hearing in his memory the duetting of Pee Wee and Jimmy Giuffre on the December 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ, steps up alongside the Elder to say his own piece.
Music, like love, is always around the corner — even if that corner has been obliterated.
The ideal jazz club experience, if you were to take fabled movies as a guide, is an exuberantly chaotic spectacle. One trumpet player vanquishes another by playing higher and louder; two drummers pound away in grinning synchronicity; musicians magically get together in thunderous ensembles. Everyone knows what the song is and what key they are playing in; musical routines miraculously coalesce without rehearsal. Inevitably the audience is on its feet, cheering. Long live the new king of jazz! Everybody join in! (Consider, if you will, “Second Chorus,” “The Glenn Miller Story,” or “The Five Pennies,” and other deliciously unreal episodes.)
I doubt that many of these fanciful scenes ever happened away from the soundstage. Even if they did, hey aren’t my idea of pleasure. Everything is too loud, and the movies assume that everyone in the crowd is hip, attentive, listeners unified into an appreciative community. I wonder if this audience ever existed, although in Charles Peterson’s glorious photographs of 52nd Street jam sessions, no one is texting or even reading a newspaper.
For me, the ideal scenario is quieter: a small audience, paying attention, in a quiet club — quiet enough so that I can hear the music. And the improvising shouldn’t be self-consciously exhibitionistic, one player trying to outdo another. My dream, rarely realized, needs an intuitive connection between players and audience. It happened often in the sessions Michael Burgevin led at Brew’s, featuring Joe Thomas, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Jimmy Andrews, Kenny Davern, Dill Jones, Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Marshall Brown, Wayne Wright, and others.
Last night (Sunday, December 7) was frigid and the winds were unkind — perfect weather fo staying indoors. But I made my way to the Ear Inn to hear the EarRegulars. Because Jon-Erik and Jackie Kellso are off somewhere around the Mexican Riviera, the Regulars were led by the brilliantly soulful guitarist Matt Munisteri. He arrived first, his hands cold, looking harried but greeting me pleasantly.
Next in the door was the fine, surprising tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, whose playing I had appreciated greatly on the only other occasion I had heard him — also at the Ear. Bassist Lee Hudson and trombonist Harvey Tibbs completed this quartet. Matt, Harvey, and Lee have all played together at the Ear and I would imagine other places, so they know and respect each other.
Michael, about whom I wrote some weeks ago, fit in immediately. By his playing, I would guess that he isn’t one of those deeply archival types who thinks, when someone mentions a song title, “Oh, yes, Billie recorded that with Bunny and Artie in 1936. In two takes.” But when either Matt or Harvey called Walter Donaldson’s IT’S BEEN SO LONG as their first tune, I could hear Michael listening intently for the first few measures, perhaps to remind himself. Then he, like Lester, leaped in. His jazz radar is exquisite. Someone said of Milt Gabler, the Saint of Commodore Records, that he “had ears like an elephant.” Michael deserves the same accolade: he is a peerless ensemble player, finding countermelodies, call-and-response, and harmony parts while everything was moving along at a brisk tempo.
Harvey Tibbs, resplendent as always in white shirt, was in execptional form as well: several songs began with trombone-guitar duets, beautiful vignettes. Like Michael, Harvey can fit himself into any ensemble, galloping or loitering. He has a wonderful musical intelligence, which he displayed on James P. Johnson’s OLD FASHIONED LOVE, which had a truly churchy ambiance to start — helped immeasurably by Matt’s delicate single-note lines, music for a troubadour under his Beloved’s balcony. Lee Hudson kept lively, limber time, saving himself for an intense solo on WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS in the second set.
A lively JUST YOU, JUST ME followed James P.’s paean to the more seemly days of yore; here, Blake exploded into his solo, sounding at times like a supercharged Lester Young with modern sensibilities. Michael’s tone is often consciously dry instead of pretty, and he approaches his lines in a sideways fashion (his phrases begin and end in surprising places). A phrase might have an audacious shape — a Slinky tumbling down an irregular staircase — but each one landed without mishap. I could hear the whole history of jazz tenor in his work — not only Lester, but Lucky Thompson and Al Cohn, Sonny Rollins as well. He and Harvey took off on a song I didn’t expect — JAZZ ME BLUES — their version harking back not to Bix but to Glenn Hardman or to some imagined jam session in the afterlife, with Bird sitting amidst the Dixielanders at Copley Square. Although Tom Delaney’s Twenties classic is full of breaks, Blake bobbed and weaved in the ensembles. A moody WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? followed — suggesting that the four players were really considering that question on the tiny square of floor they claim as the Ear’s bandstand. Finally, in deference to inescapable holiday music, someone called for a Bird-and-Diz version of WHITE CHRISTMAS, and it joyously closed the set.
A long pause for the quartet’s dinner ensued, but a noble visitor, his tenor saxophone at his side, joined them: none other than Dan Block. The two players had a good time, playing their solos while standing at the bar, one listening deeply to the other, or forming a loose circle.
Harvey, perhaps, called for the Basie classic 9:20 SPECIAL to begin the second set, then they all became optimistic (the only way to face the economic news) with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, then, in honor of the gales outside, a trotting GONE WITH THE WIND. They ended with a jubilant IF DREAMS COME TRUE, where Blake got so caught up in the vehemence of his double-time phrases that he was almost kneeling on the floor as he soloed.
It was an extraordinary night of music. Perhaps it would have seemed insufficiently dramatic for the movies, but my jazz dreams came true for a few hours.
P.S. The delghtful jazz singer Barbara Rosene was also in the audience. Her new Stomp Off CD, “It Was Only A Sun Shower,” is perhaps her finest recording to date. A new one is in the works, devoted to naughty double-entendre songs from the Twenties, where the He-Man (whether Handy or Military) always stands at attention, can trim any girl’s garden and make her coffee boiling hot. What delights await us!