Tag Archives: Minor Hall

SWINGING FOR THE KID: HAL SMITH’S “ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND”

Edward Ory — that’s the Kid to those of us who admire and keep his name and music alive — is a fabled figure.  His 1925-28 Chicago recordings with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Luis Russell, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin, George Mitchell, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey, even Tiny Parham are bedrock masterpieces of the pre-World War Two jazz canon, and many bands celebrate them.

But the California climate — whether you consider the ground-breaking 1922 recordings or the evidence of Ory’s second career — must have agreed with him, because the music he made from 1943 on, while less celebrated, is as gratifying, to some even more so.  In the middle Forties, Ory’s band was not a formulaic “trad” group; like Bunk Johnson, he played popular songs.  Rather than have a two-beat rhythm section with banjo, tuba, and a pianist playing their impressions of an older style, the Ory band carried a rhythm guitarist, a string bassist who mized 2/4 and 4/4,  and often had the elegantly down-home pianist Don Ewell keeping things light, bright, and swinging.  At its most gliding, the Ory band suggested a fraternal meeting of New Orleanians still in beautiful form and a swing rhythm section with hints of Basie’s . . . quite a lovely blend.

Ory’s music of the Forties and Fifties  has been well-documented on disc, because the band was caught live on radio broadcasts, and, later, for Norman Granz, but I think many lovers of “traditional jazz” associated him with a rough-hewn trombone style over their idea of “traditional” rhythms.  That is, until the superb drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith assembled a group of congenial players for his new “On the Levee” Jazz Band, its title referring to a San Francisco club owned by Ory, where he and his band played from 1957-61.

I asked Hal about his first awareness of this period of Ory’s music, and he told me, Back when I bought my first Lu Watters record, the owner of the record store handed me the Watters LP, looked at the label and said “Oh — ‘Good Time Jazz.’ I have another Good Time Jazz record here that someone ordered, but never came in to pick up.” The LP she offered me was “Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, 1954.” I gladly accepted it, and from the first hearing the combination of Ory’s tailgate trombone and the swinging rhythm section (Minor Hall, Ed Garland and Don Ewell in particular) became some of my favorite sounds in Jazz.

Hal later told me, Based on our performances in New Orleans and Pensacola, I think the On The Levee group most closely resembles the GOOD TIME JAZZ ensembles, circa 1953 – 1955. A lot of that is due to Kris’ admiration for Ewell, and Josh Gouzy’s Ed Garland-inspired bass. (Ory’s sound changed considerably after Ewell and Garland left, and even more in the late ’50s and early ’60s).

The band has already played gigs in New Orleans and in Pensacola, Florida, with Clint Baker nobly filling the Ory role; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  And early in 2018 they will again play in New Orleans . . . and will appear at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November.  I am sure that there will be many other opportunities to hail this group in between.

For now, here is the band’s website, and here are a few videos.  Many more are on YouTube, and the site has a whole cloud of audio-only performances, more than enough to roll up the rugs (if anyone does that) and invite the neighbors over for swinging cheer.

WEARY BLUES:

DOWN HOME RAG:

CARELESS LOVE:

PANAMA:

Many bands are playing this repertoire, but few are doing it in this fervent;y swinging way.  And since the club no longer exists on the Embarcadero — 987 would be part of the Ferry Plaza Maketplace — we should embrace this new band, so nicely keeping a jazz legacy vibrantly alive.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

LOUIS GOES WEST: 1946 and 1950

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your happiness increase!

TOKARSKI’S NIGHTINGALE (AND OTHER RARE SPECIES)

Although I’ve only met the young pianist / composer Kris Tokarski a few brief times in person, I admire him as a remarkable musician with great wit, warmth, flexibility, and swing.

Kris Tokarski. Photograph by Scott Myers.

Kris Tokarski. Photograph by Scott Myers.

About sixteen months ago, Kris made his first CD as a leader, DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM — a delightful musical collation with Kris among his friends and peers James Evans, Evan Christopher, and Benji Bohannon.  Here’s what I wrote about Kris (with music samples) in April 2014.

Although Kris’ musical and emotional range is substantial, he is a great subtle player of older music with the right feeling — without being hemmed in by written manuscript, older recordings, or restrictive stylistic conventions.  Here is a recent video-recording Kris did especially for JAZZ LIVES — at home and informally — of Joseph Lamb’s RAGTIME NIGHTINGALE:

Notice his lovely touch, his gentle approach.  Would you like to hear more? That is easily accomplished.

Kris, photographed by Don Keller, in front of Jelly's house, Frenchmen and Robertson Streets, New Orleans

Kris, photographed by Don Keller, in front of Jelly’s house, Frenchmen and Robertson Streets, New Orleans

In March of this year, Kris, Hal Smith, drums, and Cassidy Holden, string bass, went into the GHB Studios in New Orleans to create a CD that would consider classic rags from a Mortonian perspective, with performances modeled on Jelly’s own evocations as well as songs known to be familiar during his career but not recorded.  The compositions are Pastime Rag #3 / Heliotrope Bouquet / Kinklets / Peacherine Rag / Elite Syncopations / Ragtime Nightingale / Grace And Beauty / Please Say You Will / Sunflower Slow Drag / Swipesy / Magnetic Rag / The Easy Winners / Cataract Rag / St. Louis Rag.  If you understand the concept, the CD is a magnificent invention; if you’ve never heard the Morton Library of Congress recordings, the CD will please just as deeply.

I was delighted to be asked to write the liner notes.  Here’s what I said:

SOFT, SWEET, PLENTY RHYTHM

In 1972, I had several opportunities to marvel at Eubie Blake, then nearing ninety.  He would play MEMORIES OF YOU, TROUBLESOME IVORIES, STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER, or CHARLESTON RAG, but he always concluded with a virtuosic display and a triumphant shout, “That’s RAGTIME!” It certainly was, but the music was more than notes on the page; it was shaped by the personality and experiences of its creator. Jazz improvisation is never pure (thank goodness): it’s all subliminal osmosis and hybridization.  Eubie’s ragtime was broad-minded: it cuddled up with stride, eight-to-the-bar, orchestral flourishes owing as much to Rachmaninoff as Joplin. 

I’ve heard many musicians approach the ragtime repertoire according to their spirit animal.  Some storm through a rag as if preparing for a martial arts tournament.  Others play it with reverent rigidity, the way a child in an antique shop sits tensely on the chair to which he’s been affixed.  This CD presents one, two, and three musicians embodying a radical idea: “Let’s play the music with joy and attention to detail, and whatever happens, it will be good.”     

On this CD, Jelly Roll Morton’s proud, playful New Orleans spirit is strong, although Kris Tokarski wisely avoids the Morton caricature: lesser pianists turn Morton into a large papier-mache figure at the keyboard. 

Kris’s playing is, as always, warm and delicate but you know there is stomping power beneath the surface. I admire his beautiful touch, the logic of his phrases, but he’s never so precise as to be chilly.  Kris animates the rags, reminding us that ragtime is swinging syncopated dance music: pastoral but not effete.

Masterful playing by Cassidy Holden and Hal Smith makes this a genuine trio, democratic and empathic.  Hear the low woody propulsive sound Cassidy gets (the right notes, the right changes, a wonderful pulse) as well as his cellolike clarity.  Hal’s playing appears uncomplicated, but it takes decades of devoted playing to know what to leave out, what sounds to make, how and when to make them.  I thought occasionally of Minor Hall and Tommy Benford, but most often of Hal.

These performances aren’t “recreations” of some imagined past, but neither are they free-form improvisations on the harmonies.  I hear echoes of the jungle (ANIMULE BALL) in CATARACT RAG, the Spanish tinge in MAGNETIC RAG.  But each song sounds like a movement in a dance suite – with echoes of marches, quadrilles, and street parades. PLEASE SAY YOU WILL moves so deliciously from waltz to a gently swinging rhythm ballad with a few closing moments of stomp (as Morton did on MY GAL SAL).  ST. LOUIS RAG – in the words of Jake Hanna – starts swinging from the beginning.  GRACE AND BEAUTY shows off this trio’s many virtues: they don’t get louder or faster, but you know the train is moving on the right track and it will arrive on time. 

SUNFLOWER SLOW DRAG is a history of the first decades of jazz, as it progresses from a tender, almost shy start to a romp.

We owe this session to Hal Smith, not only a master percussionist but a jazz scholar and detective.  He had long been fascinated by Morton’s transformations of famous ragtime pieces, and wondered how other rags would sound if played in Jelly’s style.  He knew that Kris would be perfect for the project, making the performances vibrant, not dusty.  Hal put together a list of rags that might have been played in New Orleans between 1900 and 1917 – and after swapping music and recordings, this wonderful group was ready – not for the river, but for the studio.  Thank you, Kris, Hal, Cassidy, for opening the magic toybox and offering us so much joy.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Or perhaps I have.

To purchase the CD, visit here. Or if you encounter Kris at a gig, I am sure he will be happy to arrange a mutually satisfying transaction.

And I am looking for several chances to enjoy Kris and friends in the coming months.  His trio — with Hal Smith and Tim Laughlin (yes, you did read that correctly!) — is a highlight of the Evergreen Jazz Festival in Colorado at the end of July; the “Hot Classicism” trio of Kris, Hal, and Andy Schumm will also appear at the 2016 Steamboat Stomp in New Orleans.

May your happiness increase!