Tag Archives: Mort Stuhlmaker

FROM AUSTIN COMES JAZZ: HAL SMITH’S INTERNATIONAL SEXTET and FRIENDS at SACRAMENTO (May 28, 2011)

What you will see and hear below is the second half of a set of music performed outdoors at the 2011 Sacramento Jazz Jubilee by Hal Smith’s International Sextet and some musical friends from Austin, Texas. 

The Sextet is comprised of Hal, drums; Kim Cusack, tenor sax, clarinet; Anita Thomas, alto sax, clarinet; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano [in this case a keyboard, which he transformed heroically into an almost-piano]; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass. 

The guests were bassist Ryan Gould and clarinetist Stanley Smith (the latter leader of the Jazz Pharoahs). 

To give Ryan a chance to show off his bass playing, Clint switched over to cornet and there is an unannounced guest appearance by a steam train during Anita’s solo on the first song, which is a hymn to the United States Post Office (vocal by Carl), ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU:

Here’s a rocking HONEYSUCKLE ROSE:

And an even more exuberant closer, with Clint singing, SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

Jazz al fresco!

Just a note about my title, a JAZZ LIVES in-joke.  In 1940, John Hammond arranged for a session with Bud Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude Orchestra.  A nearly perfect group with Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Max Kaminsky, Dave Bowman, Eddie Condon, and a variety of bassists and drummers, including Mort Stuhlmaker, Clyde Newcombe, Al Sidell, Fred Moynahan, Stan King, and Dave Tough.  For the recording, Hammond (an inspired meddler) brought in Jack Teagarden instead of Gowans (for which Gowans never forgave Hammond, understandably) and the rest of the band was the same: Bud, Max, Pee Wee, Bowman, Condon, Mort Stuhlmaker, and an incandescent Tough.  The eight sides they made are in their own way as glorious as the Kansas City Seven or any Ellington small group, although only Richard M. Sudhalter, I think, has properly celebrated them.  They were (not incidentally) recorded in Liederkrantz Hall, and their sound was and is resonantly beautiful.  Search out THAT DA DA STRAIN, AFTER AWHILE, PRINCE OF WAILS, SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE, AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL, JACK HITS THE ROAD, FORTY-SEVENTH AND STATE, MUSKRAT RAMBLE.

WHAT does all this have to do with the title?  The Chicagoans — real, imagined, and honorary — stem from fellows who went to Austin High School, thus the title of the 78s in their album: “From Austin High COMES JAZZ.”  My title has everything to do with Austin, Texas, but I could not resist writing encomia about those 1940 sides.  If you haven’t heard them, you are missing something luminous, moving, and thrilling; if you know them but haven’t heard them recently, you will feel the same way, I am sure.

And it is a tribute to Hal Smith’s International Sextet that I associate them with these 1940 marvels!

A postscript: I was web-searching for material about the 1940 session, and found this March 1954 review of the music in the UK GRAMOPHONE by Edgar Jackson, someone I believed had taste that was allied alongside mine.  But to call Pee Wee Russell a “cackler”?  My word, indeed . . . !

Just why this has been named “Comes Jazz” I am at a loss to understand.

Jazz had ” arrived ” long before Bud Freeman and his cohorts here became prominent, towards the end of the mid-1920’s. Admittedly the music is in a mode brought about by the younger, mostly collegiate amateur, white musicians of Chicago, such as Freeman, Benny Goodman, et al, as a result of the influence of various New Orleans coloured jazz musicians who had commenced to emigrate north and made Chicago more or less their headquarters. But it adhered too closely to the New Orleans tradition to be looked upon as anything sufficiently different to warrant any suggestion that it was a new jazz, let alone one which came to be accepted as the jazz. That distinction remained then, as it still does, the honour of the original New Orleans jazz.

Furthermore the purists will tell you that for all their enthusiasm the Chicagoans missed something of the basic New Orleans character that was the essence of what they still call true jazz, and that in fact there was something slightly phoney about their music.

As time went on, and jazz became even more adulterated by the dictates of “commerciality”, this accusation was dropped. For at any rate the Chicagoans had come much nearer to playing real jazz than did such other so-called jazz bands of the time, as for instance Paul Whiteman’s, and to-day Chicago jazz is accepted as more or less righteous.

This LP shows that some of the practitioners of Chicago style deserve the esteem in which they are still held, but that others do not.

Taking Freeman’s Chicagoans as a group, and remembering that these records by them were made in 1940, by when all those who were ever going to understand must have reached that stage, we find an ensemble which is not only technically competent, but which, with the excellent Dave Tough driving it exhilaratingly, also swings in the better sense of the word.

But the solos are not all so impressive. Jack Teagarden proves that he well merits the great reputation he has for so long enjoyed. Max Kaminsky also does well. So does Freeman himself, except that his style has dated somewhat noticeably and his ideas are rather limited. He is best remembered for his work in The Eel by Eddie Condon’s Orchestra (Parlophone R28o7), and no matter what the tune might be, Bud always still played The Eel.

Of Pee Wee Russell I am afraid I can only say that he indicates all too clearly that he was never much more than a cackler whose melodic lines were more conspicuous for the ” jazzy ” way in which he played them than for anything worth praising in their construction.

Which leaves among the soloists pianist Dave Bowman—the problem child of the proceedings because his style is a curious mixture of Chicago, New Orleans and ragtime. But somehow he gets there all the same.

Thank you, Mr. Jackson.  Here in the Colonies we have a saying, “There’s no accounting for the lack of taste.”

CHARLES PETERSON: HACKETT and RUSSELL

image0000007A_007To have the man you consider one of the greatest photographic artists capture your heroes at work and play . . . what could be better?

I am happy to present three of Charles Peterson’s on-the-spot portrait studies of Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell in their native habitat.  Hackett met Russell when Bobby was quite young, and, much later, credited Pee Wee with “teaching him how to drink,” not the best lesson. 

But if you listen to their playing — captured on records for more than twenty-five years — they were busy teaching each other more salutary things.  Standing next to Russell on a bandstand would have been a joyously emboldening experience: “Here, kid, close your eyes and jump off.  Nothing to be afraid of!”  Pee Wee’s willingness to get himself into apparently impossible corners was always inspiring.  “What could possibly go wrong?”  And, for Russell, having Hackett nearby, that sound, those lovely melodies, that sensitivity to the harmonies, would have been soul-enhancing: “Listen to the beautiful chorus the kid just played!” 

The portrait above was taken at one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, January 19, 1941, and it presents another Ideal Moment in Time and Space that Peterson captured.  It’s possible that Brad Gowans (playing his “valide,” a combination slide / valve trombone of his own manufacture). Bobby, and Pee Wee are doing nothing more adventurous than holding whole notes behind someone else’s solo: they seem remarkably easy, effortless.  But that would have been enough for me. 

They all look so young.  And — adopting the slang of the period — spiffy.  Pee Wee’s crisp suit, folded pocket handkerchief; Brad’s bowtie; their hair, neatly slicked back.  Of course, the combination of Pee Wee’s height and the low ceiling — as well as the angle of Peterson’s shot — makes the three men seem too big for the room.  Which, in terms of their talent, was always true.

As always with Peterson’s work, I find the details I didn’t catch immediately are as enthralling as the big picture.  There’s another musician on the stand — a drummer I can’t immediately identify.  Is it Zutty Singleton?  He is hidden behind Gowans, both the man and the instrument, and less than half his face is visible.  But from what we can see, he is taking it all in, delighted. 

This photograph, with Eddie Condon’s taciturn caption, “TRIO,” appears in the irreplaceable EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal — one of the many things we have to thank Mr. O’Neal for.

The next view comes from a rehearsal for a Commodore Records date a few years earlier — I believe in the rather claustrophoblic Brunswick studios.   (It seems that every studio of that time except for Victor’s Camden church and Columbia’s Liederkrantz Hall stifled both the sound and the musicians.  That so much stirring jazz was captured in such circumstances makes me agree with Norman Field who said, “Can you imagine what those guys sounded like live?”).  The recognizable figures are again Bobby and Pee Wee, with Bud Freeman to the right.  The man I didn’t recognize until Don Peterson identified him, second from left, is jazz enthusiast and amateur drummer Harry Ely.  This is a rehearsal rather than a jam session, so it’s possible that the three men are trying out chords for a background,  Russell and Freeman are intent, but Hackett is at his ease.  His shirt-sleeve is neatly rolled up (revealing his boyish, thin arm), he holds the horn casually.  Musicians dressed beautifully for recording sessions even when no photographers were present — their habit and custom! — thus the neckties and suspenders, the fresh white shirts. 

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Here, again, the photograph can’t convey the sound these men made.  And if you were new to the art and had been handed the photograph, it would just seem reasonably antique: three men in archaic dress with instruments to their lips, a metal folding chair, its paint worn off in spots, in front.  But look at Ely’s face!   Head down, a mild smile, eyes closed to block off any visual distraction — although he never got to make a record, he is IN the music, serene and thrilled.

Finally, a photograph from one of the “Friday Club” sessions at the Park Lane Hotel, circa 1939, with an unusual lineup.

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Of course, that’s Eddie Condon on the left, Hackett, Zutty Singleton at the drums, Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax, left-handed Mort Stuhlmaker at the bass, and the intrepid Mr. Russell on the far right.  Condon is exhorting as well as strumming, and everyone else is floating along (Dorsey watching Condon to see what will happen next). 

Pee Wee has struck out for the Territory, jazz’s Huckleberry Finn, and where he’s going is not only uncharted and exciting but the journey requires every bit of emotional and physical effort.  I can hear a Russell wail soaring above the other horns.  And — perhaps as a prefiguring? — Russell’s face, almost cavernous with the effort, is an unearthly echo-in-advance of the famously skeletal man in the hospital bed in 1951, when Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong came to comfort and solace him. 

After Russell’s death, Hackett wrote of his friend, “Pee Wee and I were very close friends for many years and what little musical knowledge I may have I owe plenty to him.  He was truly a great artist and a very honorable man.  His music will live forever, along with his wonderful spirit.  I’m sure we all miss him, but thank God he was here.”

I feel much the same way about Charles Peterson, who saw, recorded, and preserved marvels for us.