Tag Archives: Mosaic Records

GUILTY, AS CHARGED

This morning, Connor Cole, a young Facebook friend, someone with good taste, casually asked me to list the recordings that had impressed me in the past year.  I’ve stopped composing “ten best” lists because I know that I will hurt the feelings of someone I’ve left off.  (I once applied for a job where there were openings for five people, and was told afterwards that I was number six, a memory which still, perhaps absurdly, stings.)  But Connor’s request pleased me, so I began thinking of the recordings of 2019.

Perhaps it was that I wasn’t fully awake, but I came up with almost nothing, which troubled me.  So I began searching through blogposts and came up with these reassuring entities (new issues only) in approximate chronological order, with apologies to those I’ve omitted, those discs which I will write about in 2020:

IN THIS MOMENT, Michael Kanan, Greg Ruggiero, Neal Miner

NEW ORLEANS PEARLS  Benny Amon

UNSTUCK IN TIME  Candy Jacket Jazz Band

NO ONE ELSE BUT YOU  Danny Tobias, Mark Shane

RAGTIME — NEW ORLEANS STYLE, Volume 2  Kris Tokarski, Hal Smith

PICK IT AND PLAY IT  Jonathan Stout

BUSY TIL’ ELEVEN  Chicago Cellar Boys

TENORMORE  Scott Robinson

UPTOWN  The Fat Babies

COMPLETE MORTON PROJECT  Andrew Oliver, David Horniblow

A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE, Alex Levin

DREAM CITY  David Lukacs

THE MUSIC OF THE BIRD AND THE BEE  Charles Ruggiero, Hilary Gardner

LESTER’S BLUES  Tom Callens

WINTER DAYS  Rebecca Kilgore, Echoes of Swing

The majority of those discs are musician-produced, funded, and released — which is yet another blogpost about “record companies” and their understandable attrition.  Economics, technology, and a changing audience.

But that list made me go back in time, decades of trading money for musical joy.

In late childhood, I would have walked or bicycled the mile to Times Square Stores and bought Louis’ Decca JAZZ CLASSICS for $2.79 plus tax.  A few years later, Monk cutouts on Riverside at Pergament or Mays. E.J. Korvette. Lester Young and Art Tatum Verves at Sam Goody’s.  A British enterprise, Tony’s, for exotic foreign discs.  In New York City, new Chiaroscuro issues at Dayton’s, Queen-Discs at Happy Tunes.

In the CD era, I would have stopped off after work at Borders or the nearby Tower Records for new releases on Arbors, Concord, Pablo, and import labels.  Again in the city, J&R near City Hall for Kenneth, French CBS, and more.  But record stores gave way to purchasing by mail, and eventually online.  Mosaic Records was born, as was Amazon, eventually eBay.

So today the times I actually visit “a record store,” it is to browse, to feel nostalgic, to walk away with a disc that I had once coveted — often with a deceased collector’s address sticker on the back — but I am much more likely to click on BUY IT NOW in front of this computer, or, even better, to give the artist twenty dollars for a copy of her new CD.

What happened?  I offer one simple explanation.  A musician I respect, who’s been recordings since 1991, can be relied upon to write me, politely but urgently and at length, how I and people like me have ruined (or “cut into”) his CD sales by using video cameras and broadcasting the product for free to large audiences.

So it’s my fault.  I killed Decca, Columbia, and Victor — Verve, Prestige, and Riverside, too.  Glad to have that question answered, that matter settled.  Now I’m off to do more damage elsewhere.

May your happiness increase!

HEROES WITH FOUNTAIN PENS AND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

The eBay seller jgautographs continues to delight and astonish.  They (she? he?) have several thousand items for sale as I write this, for auction or at a fixed price, and even if the later items are unusual yet unsigned photographs, what they have to show us is plenty, from Jacquelie Kennedy Onassis’ stationery, a Playbill signed by Arthur Miller (DEATH OF A SALESMAN, of course), Joey Heatherton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Redford, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Frederick Douglass, Stephen Sondheim, and more.  When people signed their name in cursive, and often before ballpoint pens were ubiquitous.

And did I mention they have jazz autographs for sale?  I remarked upon such wonders here and here about ten days ago.  I’ll leave it to you to search the thousands of items, but here are some of very definite jazz interest.  (This time, the seller is not showing the reverse of these signatures, as (s)he did earlier, so there is a slight air of mystery to these offerings.  But someone was hip.)

There must still be thousands of Tommy Dorsey signatures still circulating, but this one’s unusual: did TD sign it for a family friend, or for someone who asked what his middle name was?  I’ve not seen another like it, and the flourishes mark it as authentic.

Coleman Hawkins had gorgeous handwriting, which does not surprise me.  I have no idea if the signature and photograph are contemporaneous, though:

Someone who worked on and off with Hawk, including time in the Fletcher Henderson band and reunions in the 1956-7 period, my hero, Henry “Red” Allen:

and a signature rarely seen, Leon “Chu” Berry — also from the time when musicians not only signed their name but said what instrument they played:

So far, this post has been silent, but it would be cruel to not include the two small-group sides that bring together Hawk, Red, and Chu — under the leadership of Spike Hughes in 1933 (also including Sidney Catlett, Lawrence Lucie, Wayman Carver, Benny Carter, and Dicky Wells — truly all-star!

HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?

SWEET SUE, JUST YOU (with a glorious Carver flute chorus):

Back to Chu Berry . . . he was playing in Cab Calloway’s band at the end of his life; in the trombone section was Tyree Glenn, who lived much longer (I saw him with Louis):

A star of that orchestra and a star in his own right, trumpeter Jonah Jones:

Here’s BROADWAY HOLDOVER, originally issued on the Staff label under Milt Hinton’s name, featuring Jonah, Tyree, Al Gibson, Dave Rivera, and J.C. Heard:

Our autograph collector friend also made it to a club where Pete Brown was playing — again, another signature rarely seen:

Pete, Tyree, Hilton Jefferson, Jerry Jerome, and Bernie Leighton join Joe Thomas for one of my favorite records, the Keynote YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME:

And (exciting for me) our collector made a trip to Nick’s in Greenwich Village, from whence the signatures of Pee Wee Russell and Miff Mole came.  Now, two musicians from the same schools of thought — the short-lived Rod Cless:

and trumpet hero Sterling Bose:

and because they have been so rare, here are the four sides by the Rod Cless Quartet with Bose, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster on the Black and White label — I am told that the Black and White sides will be a Mosaic box set, which is fine news.  Here’s HAVE YOU EVER FELT THAT WAY? (with verse):

MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR:

FROGGY MOORE:

and James P., brilliantly, on I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW:

If I could play clarinet, I would like to sound like Cless.

And a postscript of a personal nature: the auction ended a few minutes ago.  I bid on the Cless, the Pete Brown, the Bose, and on a whim (because I knew it would go for a high price) the Chu Berry.  Chu went for nearly $171; someone beat me by a dollar for Sterling Bose, but my bids — not exorbitant — won the Cless and Pete.  When they come in the mail, I envision a frame with Pee Wee, Rod, and Pete.  It will give me pleasure, and some years from now, it will give someone else pleasure also.

May your happiness increase!

“THE SAVORY COLLECTION 1935-1940” (Mosaic Records MD6-266, 6 discs)

Along with many of the faithful, I have been waiting and hoping since 2010 that this set would become a reality. When it arrived, I turned immediately to the fifth disc — one of a pair containing thirty-nine live performances by the Count Basie band from May 1938 to February 1940, and I was open-mouthed and astonished three minutes into the first performance (one of four particularly extravagant frolics from the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing) — music that I thought I would never have the good fortune to hear.

Mosaic Records box sets usually have a similar effect on me, but this one is — as a character in a Sean O’Faolain story says — “beyond the beyonds.”  And, as a point of information, the box set contains substantially more music than was released through iTunes downloads.

You can learn more and hear something Savory here.

This set is more than a dream come true: it feels like a whole freight train of them.  In a postscript below, I’ve copied Loren Schoenberg’s list of the enlightened and generous people who this set possible.  Full disclosures: one, I was asked to write a few hundred words for this set, and thus one of my dreams came true, and two, I bought mine — with my allowance.

A Savory Disc

I will write primarily about the Basie cornucopia, but it is true for the set.

Many listeners forget the distinction between music created and captured in a recording studio and the sounds played “live.”  Many of the performances in the Mosaic box explode with happy ebullience.  Some of that is the freedom to play without being stopped at three minutes and twenty seconds (I hear John Hammond’s voice saying “Too long, Basie!” at the end of a take that could not be issued at the time) — in fact, the freedom to play without any recording supervisor (Hammond, Oberstein, Stephens, Hanighen) or their disapproving presence (Jack Kapp’s wooden Indian) in the room: the freedom to make a mistake and convert it into something remarkable by proceeding on.  Often, the recording studio is all we have or will ever have, but its stated and unstated restrictions can make for a chilly environment.

Some of the joy comes from playing from dancers — the radio airshots from the Randall’s Island festival are particularly frolicsome.  And we can’t discount the freedom to have a drink or something to inhale.

On the Basie sides, so much is both new and reassuring.  Lester Young, Dicky Wells, and Jo Jones sound like schoolboys who’ve been told the school has burned down.  Herschel Evans, so passionate, is in wonderful form (here and elsewhere in the set).  I can’t leave out Bennie Morton and Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, a particularly eloquent Jimmy Rushing, and Helen Humes’ most tender singing the lyrics to BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL.

I hear the arrangements anew — often, the Basie band is perceived as a springboard for soloists, and there’s much justification for that — but these airshots make it possible to hear the sections as if for the first time.  (Also, it’s evident how the arrangements become more complex.)  And the rhythm section!  Before hearing these recordings, I didn’t take in that Jo Jones was still playing temple blocks in mid-1938, and it’s a common assumption that Freddie Green and Walter Page were going along in a serious 4/4, four quarter notes to the bar, but their work is full of wonderful variations, accented notes and syncopations.  Even when a soloist closely follows the version created in the recording studio (some audience members wanted to “hear it the way it was on the record”) everything sounds joyous and free.

And since Bill Savory had professional equipment and the discs were splendidly restored by Doug Pomeroy, overall the recording quality is superb — far from the airshots we know recorded by a fan in the living room holding a microphone to the radio speaker to funnel sounds onto his Recordio disc.  The sound is not only clear — one hears details and the gentle enthusiasm of the audience — but large.  I can’t explain what “hearing the sound of the room” actually means, but there is a spaciousness that is delightful.

The new repertoire — not just Basie — is also a treat, as if we had been offered an audio equivalent to Bob Inman’s SWING ERA SCRAPBOOK . . . Basie performing RUSSIAN LULLABY (with Jimmy singing), ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, ROSETTA, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, and BUGLE CALL RAG.

To the other gems, some of which have already been well publicized:  Coleman Hawkins’ six-minute rhapsody on BODY AND SOUL; Fats Waller at the Yacht Club — so revealing of what he was like as pianist, singer, personality, and entertainer — with dance medleys of songs by J.Fred Coots (a close friend) and Sammy Fain; windows into his world that the Victor sides never provide.  Five minutes of young Ella; the Martin Block Jam session with the painfully lovely STARDUST featuring an ailing Herschel Evans; another Block session featuring Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, Zutty Singleton, Charlie and Jack Teagarden, and Fats; Mildred Bailey singing TRUCKIN’ with the verse; Leo Watson taking on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE with the John Kirby Sextet and JEEPERS CREEPERS with Johnny Mercer; pearly Bobby Hackett, more from Joe and Marty Marsala, who didn’t get to record enough; Stuff Smith; Ben Webster, Albert Ammons, Chick Webb, Albert Ammons, Carl Kress and Dick McDonough, Ernie and Emilio Caceres, Roy Eldridge, Stew Pletcher, Ram Ramirez, Red Norvo, Teddy Bunn, Kenneth Hollon, Vernon Brown, Milt Hinton; Lionel Hampton, Charlie Shavers, Cozy Cole, Buster Bailey, Joe Thomas, George Wettling, Ed Hall, Carmen Mastren (with several long solos!), Jonah Jones, new music from the here-and-gone Teddy Wilson big band, the wondrous Benny Carter ensemble, and Glenn Miller; a set of four solo piano improvisations by Joe Sullivan, one of them ten minutes long — a true picture of the artist as a barrelhouse Joyce, wandering brilliantly.  And I am sure I’ve left someone out.

These six CDs are the Arabian Nights of swing, documents of a time and place where magic came out of your radio all the time.

I think it is obvious that I am urging listeners to purchase this set while they can.  But I must modulate to another key — that is, to quietly comment on the culture of entitlement, which, sadly, also infects people who love this music.  When some of the Savory material was issued on iTunes, some complained, “I don’t do downloads.” Now that it is all — plus more music — available on CD, I’ve heard some whinge, and yes, that is the right word, that they don’t want to buy this box set for various reasons.  Some think, incorrectly, that the six discs of the box have only what was released on iTunes, which is incorrect.  Check the Mosaic discography.

I’ve even heard people being petulant, “Why doesn’t this set include X or Y?” not understanding that the artists’ estates were paid for the music — think of that! a legitimate reissue! — and that some estates wanted extravagant reimbursement.

Consider what this set offers — rarities never even dreamed of — and do some simple math, how much each prized track costs the purchaser.  And, on another level, what you would pay to keep Mosaic Records afloat.  I know that, say, ten years ago, if you’d told me I could have thirty-nine new Basie performances for slightly more than a hundred dollars, I would have leaped at the opportunity, and I am no plutocrat.  Of course, one is free to ruminate and grumble . . . but this is a limited edition of 5000 sets.  Expect to see Savory boxes on eBay for $500 in a few months.  You’ve been warned.

And, by the way, visit here.

Loren’s thank-you note!

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem’s The Savory Collection Mosaic CD set has been issued after many years of planning. Many people were a part of the team who made it possible. Let’s start with Sonny McGown, who led me to the late Gene Savory, Bill’s son. Jonathan S. Scheuer, long-time board member of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, purchased the collection and donated it to the museum. Frank Rich helped spread the word, as did Ken Burns, and within a few months, the Savory story graced the front page of the NYTimes. Fellow board member and attorney Daryl Libow stepped right in to handle all the myriad legal challenges. Doug Pomeroy rescued all that was salvageable from the discs. Dr. Susan Schmidt-Horning had interviewed and written about Bill and gave us lots of help from the academic/acoustic realms. Garrett Shelton was invaluable at iTunes for the initial releases, as was Ken Druker and the production team he assembled to make all of that happen. Samantha Samuels created first-class promo videos for us, and then Scott Wenzel, to whom the jazz world owes a huge debt for his unflagging production of the Mosaic catalogue (along with the rest of the Mosaic team, read: Michael Cuscuna and Fred Pustay) hopped back aboard to bring this collection to fruition; he had been there at the git-go, joining me and Kevin Cerovich in Malta, Ill., to catalogue and drive the discs to NYC.

The album is graced by essays of some of the finest writers out here, starting with Dan Morgenstern and Ricky Riccardi, Tom Piazza, David Fletcher, Michael Steinman, Vincent Pelote, Anthony Barnett, James Carter, Ethan Iverson, and Kenny Washington.

And none of the music would have been issuable without the cooperation of the artist’s estates, and the dedication of the board and staff of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  So it’s been a long haul, well worth the wait; here’s hoping Bill Savory would be pleased.

May your happiness increase!

PERFECTION OF THE ART: “CLASSIC BRUNSWICK AND COLUMBIA TEDDY WILSON SESSIONS 1934-1942” (Mosaic Records)

Teddy Wilson was soft-spoken and reticent, so this is a rare interlude, a 1950 radio interview (from WNYC) by Ralph Berton, a good prelude to the recent banquet of Teddy’s recordings on Mosaic Records:

I’ve been waiting for this set every since I heard rumors of it, and it has not disappointed me in the slightest.

But I must start with a small odd anecdote.  Like many, I have a mildly unhealthy attachment to Facebook, and when this set entered the emotionally-charged world of FB dialogue, one jazz fan said that he was waiting to read the reviews before purchasing it.  It was as if he had said, “I hear about this writer Toni Morrison.  I want to read some reviews before buying one of her books.”  Substitute “Brahms” or “Modigliani” or “Connee Boswell” and you get the idea.  Cue rueful laughter.

Readers of this blog know how fervently I support Mosaic Records (and I don’t get copies for free) so I offer correctives to misperceptions of Wilson and, by  extension, the recordings in this box set.

Wilson gets less praise than he deserves, because of unavoidable events in his life and the lives of his contemporaries.  One is the looming dramatic presence of Billie Holiday, without debate one of the finest artists in the music but also someone (like Charlie Parker) wrapped in a mythology that blots out those associated with her.  The recordings in this set do not have Miss Holiday, so some listeners might perceive them as second-string.  True, so far there has been no coffee-table book chronicling a week in the life of, say, Boots Castle.  But the singers here are never inept, and some of them — Helen Ward and Nan Wynn, with brief appearances by Ella and Lena (!) — are memorable.  Removing Lady Day from the equation makes it possible to actually savor the instrumental performances, and they are consistently remarkable.

His greatest public exposure was as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and the Trio and Quartet records are splendid.  But being typecast as the hero’s friend in the movies is not the same as being the hero.  I am sure that Wilson could claim a better salary from 1935 on, but it took some time for him to be understood for his own virtues.  And there was always Fats Waller and Art Tatum — talk about looming presences.

Wilson’s consistency has, perversely, made him a quiet figure in jazz hagiography.  From his introduction to Louis’ 1933 WORLD ON A STRING to his last recordings in 1985, he was recorded so often that there is a feeling of abundance and perhaps over-abundance.  There is no single monumental recording — no WEST END BLUES, no BODY AND SOUL, no SHOE SHINE BOY — to bow down to. (Something of the same fate — almost a punishment for excellence — has befallen Benny Carter, for one.)  Some have reduced Wilson to caricature: a medium-to-uptempo sliding right-hand piano arpeggio; true, that some of his late performances were beautifully-done but cast in bronze, with few surprises.  I wish his detractors might spend an afternoon with a transcribed solo and see how easy it is to reproduce even four bars of it.

He was always himself — balancing elegance and passion — and the recordings in this set are so consistently rewarding that they tend to overwhelm the listener who sits down to ingest them in large gulps.  Not for the first time in reviewing a Mosaic box, I have wanted to compel listeners to take the contents as they were offered in 1936: two sides at a time, no more than once a week.  In this way, even an “average” side — say, SING, BABY, SING — emerges as marvelously multi-layered.  I will point out that these sessions were intended to be “popular” and thus ephemeral: records to be listened to on jukeboxes at a nickel a side: current tunes, music to dance to.  I suspect the musicians were paid scale and went home with the idea that they had made some extra money, not that they had made Great Art.  They’ve been proven wrong, but in the nicest ways.

The music impresses and moves me on several levels.  One is that it is operating at a high level of excellence, hugely professional and still charmingly individualistic.  Everyone’s voice is heard: Buster Bailey, Mouse Randolph, Cozy Cole.  There are no dull solos; the swing is wondrous, never mechanical.  The ensemble playing is the easy mastery of people who play in sections night after night and thus know all there is about ensemble dynamics and blending — but who are also feeling the pleasure of loose improvising amidst respected colleagues.  The three-minute concertos are dense with musical information but are easy to listen to, apparently simple until one tries to mimic any part.  The soloists are a cross-section of worthies, a list of them too long to type.  Check the Mosaic discography.

In addition, the singers — who range from merely excellent on up — are charming reminders of a time when “jazz” and “pop music” were comfortable with one another.  Imagine a time when young and old could hear a new recording of a song from a new Bing Crosby movie (let’s say LAUGH AND CALL IT LOVE) and appreciate it, appreciate a Jonah Jones solo — all on the same aesthetic plane.  The most creative improvising was accepted as wonderful dance music, an exalted period where highbrow and lowbrow met, where snobberies were not so deeply ingrained, and certainly the audience was not fragmented and sectarian.

The result is an amiable perfection: I never want to edit a passage on a Wilson record.  Perhaps paradoxically, I also understand why Bird, Dizzy, and Monk — who admired Wilson and his colleagues deeply — felt the need to go in different directions.  What more could one create within this form?  How could one’s swing and improvisation of this type be more perfect?

Eight decades later, these records still sound so buoyant, so hopeful. The news from Europe was grim, and became more so.  But in the face of apocalypse, these musicians swung, sang tenderly, and gave us reason to go on.

I first heard Wilson early in my jazz apprenticeship; he was one of the first musicians, after Louis, to catch my ear.  Blessedly, I saw him in person several times in 1971-4, and I bought the records I could find — the French “Aimez-vous le jazz?” of his 1935-7 solos, the later Columbia two-lp sets of the small groups issued here and in Japan, Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society discs.  When compact discs took over, I bought the Classics and Neatwork, the Masters of Jazz compilations.  However, I can write what I have written before: this Mosaic box offers music that I’ve never heard before, in splendid sound.

I’ve written elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES of my strong feeling that Mosaic Records is a noble enterprise.  Supporting their efforts is that rare double reward: a moral act that offers deep rewards.  So I won’t belabor that point here.  If you insist that everything should be for free online, that view that troubles me, especially if you expect a salary for the work you do.  But I will leave that to others to argue.

I confess that I am writing this review early, rather than waiting until I’ve arrived at the last track of the seventh disc — I have been savoring the earliest sides over and over.  And I have been appreciating Loren Schoenberg’s especially fine liner notes — over and above his unusually high standard! — for their subtleties and research.  And the photographs.  And the splendid transfers.  I haven’t even gotten to the unissued sides at the end of the package: 2018 is still young.

For more information, go here — either to purchase this limited edition while it is still available.  Or, so the people who say, “Well, how many unissued sides are there in this box?  Is it a good value?  I already have a lot of this material already,” can make up their own minds.  Those unaware of the beauty of this music can be amazed.

And those who, like me, look at this music as a series of aesthetic embraces, can prepare themselves for seven compact discs of joy and surprise, music both polished and warm.

May your happiness increase!

LET’S GET SAVORY: “IT’S JUST VERY EXCITING.”

Not just another pretty disc. Read on!

Let us revisit 2010 for a brief tour of the Bill Savory Collection, with commentary by two of our heroic benefactors, Loren Schoenberg and Doug Pomeroy.

And from another angle, this 2016 article tells the tale.

Starting in 2016, through iTunes, listeners have been able to purchase and savor four volumes of downloaded music: featuring Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, John Kirby, Jack Teagarden, Joe Marsala, Leo Watson, Teddy Wilson, Glenn Miller, Bobby Hackett, Ella Fitzgerald, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, Ernie Caceres, Vernon Brown, George Wettling, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Shavers, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Charlie Teagarden, Milt Hinton, Albert Ammons, Chick Webb, Joe Sullivan, Joe Bushkin, Ben Webster . . . and — for some of us — the great treasure of live Count Basie with Lester Young and Herschel Evans.  I’ve written a preview of Volume Four here.  It’s been the soundtrack for the past few days.

I and other collectors have heard rumors — whispered four-bar breaks — that in our lifetimes Mosaic Records would arrange to issue more of the Savory material on compact discs, and that blissful fantasy has taken shape.

In February 2018, a six-disc set will be released: $99 plus shipping.  As always, it will be a limited edition of 5000 copies.  It will have gorgeous photographs and the extensive annotation Mosaic is known for: most of the prose coming from Loren Schoenberg, but with some writers sitting-in: David Fletcher, Anthony Barnett among them.

Here you can read more.  And here is my definition of auditory bliss.

The four volumes of iTunes downloads offered 76 tracks.  The Mosaic box will contain 108 tracks: the new music will be by Mildred Bailey, Stuff Smith, Joe Sullivan, and Count Basie — 39 tracks by Basie alone.  (That’s eighteen new Basie tracks, four of them from the legendary Randall’s Island swing festival.)  Two of the Sullivan solo piano improvisations are astounding creative rambles: one is ten minutes long, the other seven.  Incidentally, many performances are longer than the three-minute-and-some-seconds limit of the 78 records of the time; most of them are in far superior sound.

I didn’t take any college courses in Marketing, and I don’t make my living in retail, but this post is an open advertisement for the set, and for Mosaic Records in general.  (I’ve purchased my Savory box set — full price, should you need to know.)  Since the iTunes downloads started to appear, I’ve read vituperative blurts from some collectors who “hate Apple” and others who want to know when the music will appear on CD.  Now, fellows (I am gender-specific here for obvious reasons), now’s the time to convert words into action.

If others of you are under economic pressures, which are — as we know — so real, pardon my words and go to the “auditory bliss” section of this post and enjoy what’s there.  If the kids need braces or the car a new battery, all bets are off.  Those who fulminate on Facebook because the set offers no performances by X Orchestra or Y should know that not all the heirs and estates of the musicians Savory recorded have agreed to permit music to be issued.

However, if there were to be the groundswell of support that this set deserves,  some people who are currently saying NO to issuing music might change their tune to a more expansive YES.  And I believe fervently that Mosaic Records deserves our support.  In an age where people sitting in front of their monitors, expecting everything for free, some enterprises cost money.  (I come from that generation where not everything was easily accessible, so I appreciate this largesse from my heart.)

So consider this post encouragement to purchase the long-awaited six-disc set.  Feast your eyes on the track listing and soon you will be able to feast your ears.

DISC I:

COLEMAN HAWKINS: 1. Body And Soul (X) (5:51) / 2. Basin Street Blues (X) (5:50) / 3. Lazy Butterfly (X) (1:03)

ELLA FITZGERALD: 4. A-Tisket, A-Tasket (II) (2:22) / 5. (I’ve Been) Saving Myself For You (II) (2:50) /

FATS WALLER: 6. Yacht Club Swing (theme and intro) / Hold My Hand (RR) (3:39) / 7. I Haven’t Changed A Thing (RR) (3:56) / 8. (Medley): Summer Souvenirs / Who Blew Out The Flame? (RR) (5:38) / 9. (Medley): You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby / Sixty Seconds Got Together (RR) (3:44) / 10. I’ve Got A Pocketful Of Dreams (RR) (2:26) / 11. When I Go A-Dreaming (RR) (2:50) / 12. Alligator Crawl (RR) (1:38) / 13. The Spider and the Fly (RR) (2:40) /

LIONEL HAMPTON JAM SESSION: 14. Dinah (W) (7:01) / 15. Star Dust (W) (2:58) / 16. Chinatown, My Chinatown (W) (2:25) / 17. Blues (W) (9:52) / 18. Rosetta (W) (4:06) /

CARL KRESS & DICK McDONOUGH: 19. Heat Wave (EE) (2:20)

EMILIO CACERES TRIO: 20. China Boy (S) (2:26)

DISC II:

ALBERT AMMONS: 1. Boogie Woogie Stomp (A) (3:03)

ROY ELDRIDGE: 2. Body And Soul (II) (4:23)

ROY ELDRIDGE / CHICK WEBB: 3. Liza (II) (2:03)

FATS WALLER: 4. Honeysuckle Rose (QQ) (6:31) / 5. China Boy (QQ) (5:57) / 6. I’m Comin’ Virginia (QQ) (4:35) / 7. Blues (QQ) (5:24) / 8. I Got Rhythm (QQ) (2:05) /

JOHN KIRBY: 9. From A Flat To C (CC) (2:39) / 10. Blues Petite (DD) (3:43) / 11. Front And Center (AA) (2:50) / 12. Effervescent Blues (Z) (2:43) / 13. Minnie The Moocher’s Wedding Day (DD) (2:23) / 14. Echoes of Harlem (Z) (3:36) / 15. Boogie Woogie (BB) (2:56) / 16. Milumbu (Z) (3:23) /17. Rehearsin’ For A Nervous Breakdown (CC) (3:27) /18. Honeysuckle Rose (Y) (1:07)

BENNY CARTER: 19. More Than You Know (T) (4:26) / 20. Honeysuckle Rose (T) (1:21) /

JOE SULLIVAN AND HIS CAFE SOCIETY ORCH.: 21. China Boy (MM) (1:28)

DISC III:

JOE MARSALA: 1. Jazz Me Blues (FF) (5:26) / 2. California, Here I Come (FF) (6:53) / 3. When Did You Leave Heaven? (FF) (7:21) / 4. The Sheik Of Araby (FF) (4:42) /

BOBBY HACKETT: 5. Body And Soul (U) (2:12) / 6. Embraceable You (V) (2:48) / 7. Muskrat Ramble (V) (2:09) /

JACK TEAGARDEN: 8. Honeysuckle Rose (PP) (5:04) / 9. Jeepers Creepers (PP) (6:10) /

MILDRED BAILEY: 10. My Melancholy Baby (B) (3:41) / 11. Truckin’ (B) (2:41) / 12. Rockin’ Chair (theme) / More Than You Know (C) (4:14) / 13. The Day I Let You Get Away (C) (2:08) /

STUFF SMITH:  14. Crescendo In Drums (KK) (3:57) / 15. I’se A’ Muggin (JJ) (2:28) /

DISC IV:

TEDDY WILSON: 1. Coconut Groove (SS) (2:17) / 2. Jitterbug Jump (SS) (4:28) / 3. Sweet Lorraine (SS) (3:48) /

GLENN MILLER: 4. By The Waters Of The Minnetonka (GG) (4:42) / 5. Tuxedo Junction (HH) (4:20) / 6. In The Mood (HH) (3:16) /

JOE SULLIVAN: 7. Gin Mill Blues (OO) (3:08) / 8. Just Strollin’ (LL) (1:33) / 9. Little Rock Getaway (LL) (2:16) / 10. Improvisation #1 (NN) (10:00) / 11. Improvisation #2 (NN) (7:11) / 12. Improvisation #3 (NN) (2:29) / 13. Improvisation #4 (NN) (5:12) /

DISC V:

COUNT BASIE:  1. One O’Clock Jump (#1) (D) (4:38) / 2. Every Tub (#1) (D) (3:07) / 3. Boogie Woogie (#1) (D) (3:35) / 4. Farewell Blues / Moten Swing (closing theme) (D) (3:09) / 5. I Ain’t Got Nobody (E) (3:10) / 6. Every Tub (#2) (E) (4:06) / 7. Honeysuckle Rose (F) (4:01) / 8. Stop Beatin’ Around The Mulberry Bush (G) (2:17) / 9. Roseland Shuffle (#1) (H) (4:48) / 10. Texas Shuffle (#1) (H) (2:00) / 11. Alexander’s Ragtime Band (H) (4:19) / 12. St. Louis Blues (H) (3:31) / 13. Rosetta (I) (3:25) / 14. Blue And Sentimental (I) (2:40) / 15. He Ain’t Got Rhythm (I) (3:06) / 16. Moten Swing (I) (3:08) / 17. Harlem Shout (J) (2:51) / 18. Oh, Lady Be Good (#1) (J) (2:28) /

DISC VI:

COUNT BASIE:  1. Limehouse Blues (#1) (K) (2:33) / 2. Texas Shuffle (#2) (K) (4:22) / 3. Russian Lullaby (K) (2:25) / 4. Shout And Feel It (L) (2:17) / 5. Good Morning Blues (M) (3:05) / 6. Limehouse Blues (#2) (M) (2:25) / 7. I Never Knew (#1) (N) (2:22) / 8. One O’ Clock Jump (#2) (O) (2:49) / 9. Sent For You Yesterday (O) (3:24) / 10. Swingin’ The Blues (O) (3:43) / 11. Every Tub (#3) (P) (2:47) / 12. Jumpin’ At The Woodside (P) (2:45) / 13. Pound Cake (P) (1:38) /14. Roseland Shuffle (#2) (P) (3:03) / 15. Boogie Woogie (#2) (P) (4:32) / 16. Panassie Stomp (P) (2:28) / 17. Oh, Lady Be Good (#2) (P) (2:51) / 18. The Apple Jump (#1) (Q) (3:03) / 19. The Apple Jump (#2) (R) (2:42) / 20. I Never Knew (#2) (R) (3:27) / 21. Bugle Call Rag (R) (2:42)

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear that glorious Basie band play RUSSIAN LULLABY and ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND.  Come on along . . .

May your happiness increase!

TEDDY TAKES TO THE COUNTRY, 1939

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

For a quarter of a century, perhaps more, Teddy Wilson was unmatched as solo pianist, accompanist, and ensemble inspiration.  Consistently inventive, reliable without being stale, he seems now both traditional and forward-looking, swinging and harmonically inventive, his melodic lines clear and memorable.  And it is our good fortune that he worked and recorded with three of the great star-legends of the period, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey, in addition to recordings under his own name.  To me, his great period begins with his 1933 work with Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter and gradually tapers off by the end of the Verve recordings — although he could still play magnificently.

He had many opportunities to record, not simply because of his splendid improvisations. Because Wilson was personally responsible — a quiet, businesslike man — you could count on him showing up on time, being prepared, being sober — no small collection of virtues.  And he had a champion in John Hammond, who perhaps recognized not only the astonishing musician but a fellow patrician, a courtly intellectual.  Thus, between 1935 and 1942, Hammond helped to get Wilson recorded often as soloist and leader for the ARC labels (Columbia, Vocalion, Okeh, Brunswick) and he was of course recording with Goodman for Victor and on Decca with Putney Dandridge and Bob Howard.

Wilson’s most famous sides are frequently reissued — think of MISS BROWN TO YOU and BODY AND SOUL with Billie and Benny, respectively, but many glorious ones are overlooked.  Mosaic Records, the jazz benefactor, will be issuing a seven-CD set of Wilson’s recordings — leaving aside the ones made with Holiday — under his own name for the ARC family of labels between 1934 and 1942: details below.  “Under his own name” is important here, because a few sideman sessions had to be omitted, some because they appeared on other Mosaic sets (Mildred Bailey, Chu Berry) and others because they don’t fit the premise of the set.

Two are glorious and worth searching out: I know Chick Bullock is scorned by some, but his sessions with Wilson’s band backing him are priceless, as are the sides made with Eddy Howard as the star (consider this personnel: Wilson, Bill Coleman, Bud Freeman, Benny Morton, Ed Hall, Charlie Christian . . . . ).  The Bullock sides are on a Retrieval CD; the Howard ones on Neatwork or Classics.  I’ve also heard the “safety” disc from the Howard session, which has the singer having trouble with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS.  It may have emerged on the Sony Charlie Christian box set.

But two sessions led by the elusive Redd Evans “and his Billy Boys” have never been reissued.  JAZZ LIVES to the rescue! — although the sonic quality is flawed.  (The Customer Service Department is out back; form a single line.)

Redd Evans (1912-72) was most famous as a lyricist, whose hits included “Rosie the Riveter,” “There! I’ve Said It Again.” “Let Me Off Uptown,” “No Moon at All,” “Don’t Go to Strangers,” “American Beauty Rose,” “The Frim Fram Sauce,” and “If Love Is Good to Me.”  He was also a singer and he may have been a better-than-competent ocarina player, possibly at one time a member of the Horace Heidt dance orchestra.  But for me, Evans is fascinating because of the rare 1939 recordings with Wilson, and, in one instance, Buster Bailey.

I know that Evans was born in Mississippi, but how deep his “hillbilly” roots went is hard to discern.  On IN THE BAGGAGE COACH AHEAD, where Mother’s coffin is part of the lyric, he sounds seriously influenced by Jerry Colonna. THEY CUT DOWN THE OLD PINE TREE is yet another example of morbidity in swing, a “country” song written by people whose idea of “the country” might well have been a day trip to Long Island, Edward Eliscu and either David or Milt Raskin.  “Brown” could have been a dozen people, so I leave that to you.

I am certain that John Hammond was involved in these recordings, and although their initial affect may seem strange, they are another reason to be grateful to Hammond for his limitless ambitions.  For one thing, even though Wilson’s name is not on the label, Evans calls out to him on one side, and he is unmistakable.  The sessions, also, were made when Wilson had left Goodman to lead his own band, which was an aesthetic success but not a financial one, so they may have been Hammond’s way of helping Wilson make money and re-establish an identity that had been subsumed with Goodman.

Too, Hammond was always looking for ways to merge his jazz stars with more popular artists — perhaps hoping for what we would now call a “crossover” hit that would give him even more freedom to record his improvisers.  Think of the Glenn Hardman date with Lester Young, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones — perhaps a sideways glance at the sides Milt Herth was making for Decca with Willie “the Lion” Smith, Teddy Bunn, and O’Neil Spencer.  Had Hammond known of the 1938 Pinky Tomlin Decca sides, which pair a “countrified” singer with a hot band — one of the issued sides being RED WING?  Pairing Wilson — and other African-American musicians — with Evans would not only be crossing genres but also gently eroding race barriers.  Perhaps the people who enjoyed Western Swing would find this side appealing, as well.

Evans made a few vocal sides with Charlie Barnet in 1945, but his 1939 sides are of most interest here, documented by Tom Lord:

Redd Evans (vcl) acc by tp, ts, g, Buster Bailey (cl) Teddy Wilson (p) unknown (b) J.C. Heard (d).  New York, April 17, 1939.
W24381 They cut down the old pine tree Voc 4836
W24382 Red wing –
W24383-B Carry me back to the lone prairie 4920
W24384-A Red River Valley –

Redd Evans And His Billy Boys : Willis Kelly (tp) Floyd Brady (tb) Reggie Merrill (as) Clark Galehouse (ts) Teddy Wilson (p) Al Casey (g) Al Hall (b) Cozy Cole (d) Redd Evans, “Hot Sweet Potato” (vcl).  New York, August 11, 1939.
25189-1 Milenberg joys (re vcl) Voc 5173
25190-1 In the baggage coach ahead (re vcl) –
25191-1,2 Am I blue ? (re,hsp vcl) (unissued)
25192-1,2 When it’s springtime in the Rockies (hsp vcl) –

I find the personnel above intriguing, because it mixes players from Wilson’s band — the rhythm section and Floyd Brady — with “studio” players: Galehouse shows up on a Quintones session, Merrill on an Alec Wilder date.  Willis Kelly, anyone?

I’ve never seen a copy of MILENBERG / BAGGAGE, but I was delighted to find a worn copy of RED WING / OLD PINE TREE on eBay.  Again, I advise that my method of getting the sounds to you is at best odd, but it will have to do until the Real Thing Comes Along.

Wilson is immediately recognizable — admire his neat modulations out and in to Evans’ vocal key, the way he shines through the ensemble also.  Whoever the ocarina player is, I like his work immensely, and the unidentified trumpeter has certainly listened to Roy Eldridge.  The tune — with its memorably odd lyrics — bears some small melodic resemblance to WHEN YOU AND I WERE  YOUNG, MAGGIE.  Was it written tongue-in-cheek (rather like the story told about SONNY BOY) as a collection of down-home cliches?

RED WING is more familiar — an ancient campfire favorite, with connections to Robert Schumann and Kerry Mills, eventually to Woody Guthrie — and this recording is thirty seconds shorter, but it has the pleasure of a chorus split between Wilson and Buster Bailey, which is no small gift.  I’ll take it on faith that the drummer is J.C. Heard, who was part of Wilson’s orchestra, and the record pleases me, even though the subject is sad indeed, the Native American maiden weeping over her dead lover night after night:

And here are the two other sides from April 1939, in a format that may or may not work for you (if it doesn’t, I invite you to Google “Redd Evans and his Billy Boys” and find them on your own).

https://archive.org/details/78_red-river-valley_redd-evans-and-his-billy-boys-redd-evans_gbia0003699a

https://archive.org/details/78_carry-me-back-to-the-lone-prairie_redd-evans-and-his-billy-boys-redd-evans-robison_gbia0003699b

A few words about the Mosaic set — seven discs, expected at the end of this year.  As always, the Mosaic boxes are often highlighted for the previously unknown and unheard music they contain, which leads some value-minded collectors to sniff, “Only seven unissued sides?  Why, that costs $ – – – a side!”  I can’t tell anyone how to apportion their money, but Mosaic issues, to me, always expose the larger picture: hearing familiar sides in a context not available previously; hearing the chronological development of an artist’s work, as far as it can be documented in visits to the recording studio.  I will say that the set begins with the May 22, 1934 piano solo SOMEBODY LOVES ME and ends with the July 31, 1942 B FLAT SWING, both in two takes.  In between, there are previously unheard band sides, and a 1942 trio date with Al Hall and J.C. Heard that was issued in part — but now we have the whole thing, more than two dozen performances, because Bill Savory was the recording engineer for Columbia.

I have been fascinated by Wilson since the late Sixties, and one of the thrills of my college-student life was getting his autograph at a suburban shopping center concert.  Of course I sought out the Billie and Mildred sets on Columbia, and then graduated into the deep territory that only Collectors know.  But I do not have all of the issued sides on this Mosaic set, and I have (or had) the Meritt Record Society lps, the three-disc French Columbia Wilson box set, the Masters of Jazz CDs . . . and so on.  So this will be a set to treasure.

And this is true: in today’s mail, I received a traffic ticket from a red-light camera (the county I live in loves such things) that will cost me more than the Wilson set.  And paying that fine will give much less pleasure than listening to Teddy in his prime.

Come to a full stop.  But not for Mosaic Records.

May your happiness increase!

“YOU HAD TO WORK FOR YOUR MUSIC”: DAN MORGENSTERN on RECORD-COLLECTING (April 21, 2017)

More delightful memories and stories from Dan Morgenstern.  I’d asked him, “What was it like to buy records in the Forties?” — a scene that few people reading this post have experienced.

First-hand narrative: there’s nothing to compare with it.

Here’s another part of the story of Big Joe Clauberg, as excerpted from Amanda Petrusich’s excellent book, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE.

I took my title for this post from Dan’s recollections of his first phonograph, a wind-up acoustic one, but it has larger meaning for me.

There is still something wondrous about going in to a shop that happens to have a pile of records — an antique store or something else — getting one’s hands dirty, going through a pile of mail-order classical records, red-label Columbias of Dorothy Shay, incomplete sets, and the like — to find a 1938 Brunswick Ellington, Teddy Wilson, or Red Norvo.

Later, the pleasure of going in to an actual record store and looking through the bins — name your dozen favorite artists — and finding something that you didn’t know existed — in my case, recordings of the Eddie Condon Floor Show on Queen-Disc.  More recently, the same experience with compact discs at now vanished chain record stores.

All gone.  The alternative?  Stream forty hours of your cherished jive through one of the services that doesn’t pay the musicians.  Oh, there are happy exceptions: the Blessed Mosaic Records.  But nothing replaces finding treasure on your own.

And, in case the thought hasn’t yet occurred to you, Dan Morgenstern is one of those treasures.

Here’s one of the sides from Dan’s birthday present:

May your happiness increase!

“IF I MAY,” or BECOMING A PIECE OF THE MOSAIC

My dear friend Michael Burgevin, drummer and artist, told me that when the trumpeter Joe Thomas would begin to address an audience, he often would say, “If I may . . . ” which seems the height of an eighteenth-century courtesy.  I have borrowed his words, and I hope, a light tread, for what follows.

I know that of late I have chosen to utilize JAZZ LIVES as a place to raise funds for one or two worthy jazz enterprises.  Both Kickstarter endeavors have met their goals, so I am hoping for a third kind of generous good luck.

Mosaic Records is in financial trouble.  Learn more about them here.

Please read this, from co-founder Michael Cuscuna.

Dear Mosaic Friend,

In this time and place, the Mosaic business model is becoming harder and harder to sustain in this rapidly changing world. We aren’t sure what the future will hold for us, but we want to let all of you know how much we appreciate that your support has allowed us to constantly make our dreams come true with set after set and that we intend to persevere. The way we operate may change but our mandate remains steadfast.

Charlie Lourie and I started Mosaic Records in 1982 and our first releases were in 1983. The company was almost an afterthought. The idea of definitive boxed sets of complete recordings by jazz masters at a crucial time in their careers was a small part of a proposal that we made to Capitol Records in 1982 to relaunch the Blue Note label. Even before Capitol turned us down, it occurred to me one night that the release of these boxed sets could be a business unto itself if we made them deluxe, hand-numbered limited editions sold directly to the public.

Our first release was The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk, which came about because I’d found about 25 minutes of excellent unissued Monk on Blue Note. It was too short for an album and I was obsessed with how to get this music released. . It then dawned on me that all of this important material needed to be retransferred and assembled in chronological order as a significant historic document. I solved my problem of releasing those 25 minutes of Monk music and Mosaic Records was born. We had a wonderful run of projects. The Tina Brooks, Herbie Nichols, Serge Chaloff, Count Basie and Nat Cole sets were among those that were especially near and dear to our hearts.

Charlie was my best friend and working together was a joy. Mosaic was slow getting started and it took a few years before we could even draw a meager salary. I remember during those lean years worrying if we could afford to put out a Tina Brooks set. Charlie looked at me in amazement. “Isn’t that why we started this thing – to do what’s important without anyone telling us no?!” He only had to say it once.

In 1989, we moved out of Charlie’s basement and into our own facility. Scott Wenzel joined us in 1987. We added employees as the business grew. We started issuing sets on CD as well as LP and eventually had our own website.

We lost Charlie to scleroderma on December 31, 2000. We managed to keep the tone and spirit of the company up to the level that Charlie created and continued to put out thoroughly researched vital sets of importance in jazz history. But in the early 2000s, the record business began to shrink and morph for a variety of reasons and we were forced to downsize our staff, move to smaller quarters and reduce the flow of sets.

We’ve always tried to be diligent about warning you when sets were running low so you wouldn’t miss out on titles that you wanted. But at this point, some sets which are temporarily out of stock may not be pressed again. We are not certain how Mosaic Records will continue going forward or how many more sets we will be able to create and release. We’ve got a lot of great plans but few resources.

Scott and I want to thank every single person who has supported us, made suggestions, given advice and shown us such love and affection. If you are thinking about acquiring a certain set, now’s the time.

– – Michael Cuscuna

If you love jazz and if you follow this blog, you know what beautiful productions the Mosaic label has created — for everyone from George Lewis and Kid Ory to Andrew Hill.  The sets, which are limited editions, are a jazz fan’s dream: rare material, intelligently and comprehensively presented in lovely sound, with rare photographs, deep research, and wise annotations.  When Mosaic first started, I was not terribly financially secure, so, although I coveted many of the sets, I could only purchase a few.  (I had the vinyl collection of the Blue Note Jazzmen and the CDs of the Condon Columbia sessions and the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions, and I treasure them now.)  Incidentally, a word about cost: one of my role models used to say, “You amortize,” which — once you remove it from the mortgage broker’s vocabulary — means that an initial investment pays off over time.  I know it might strike some as specious reasoning, but a $150 purchase, savored wholly two times, costs one-half each playing . . . and one can, I suppose reach the philosophical accounting point where the set is now for free.

About “for free,” while those slippery words arise.  We have long been accustomed to getting our art for free.  (And, yes, I do understand that the videos on JAZZ LIVES are in some ways a manifestation of the problem — although I put money in the tip jar when I video, as a token of love and gratitude.)  One can drown in free music on YouTube — often in poor sound, inaccurately presented — or on Spotify — where the artists receive at best pennies for their work.  Or one can burn a copy of a CD and give it away.  All those things are, to me, the equivalent of lifting sugar packets from the cafeteria to fill the sugar bowl at home.  But that is, simply, not nice, and it denies the artist or the artist’s heirs proper reward.  Mosaic Records is an honest company, and people get paid.  And quality product and quality work is never free.

I am not an accountant.  I cannot promise that if many of JAZZ LIVES’ readers treat themselves to a Mosaic Records set, it will do the trick of keeping the company solvent.  But I would like to see an outpouring of love and support for this very spiritually and musically generous company.  If you haven’t got the money for a set, perhaps you can wheedle your family members into buying you an early birthday or holiday present.  Or you can assemble the jazz-lovers you know and collectively buy one.  I made a purchase this afternoon.

In my time as a jazz fan, I’ve seen clubs vanish (the Half Note and two dozen others) and record labels come to a stop.  Radio stations (WRVR-FM) have gone silent.  Rather than say, “Gee, that sucks!” (in the elegant parlance of the times) and look for the best buy on Mosaic sets on eBay, why not ride to the rescue NOW?  I would rather not have to lament the hole in the universe where this beautiful enterprise used to be.

If you may, I hope you can and will.

May your happiness increase!

RHAPSODIES IN SWING, MARCH 8, 1934

hawkins-autographed-bluebird

I have been listening ardently to the Mosaic Records Coleman Hawkins 1922-1947 set, which is like reading all the works of a great author in chronological order — a wondrous journey.  (It’s now no longer available: Mosaic is serious about “limited editions,” so the race is to the somewhat-swift.)

There are many points on the journey where I put down my coffee and listened to one track a half-dozen times, marveling, before moving on.  But here’s a glorious interlude: a brief visit to a studio in New York City on March 8, 1934, for a series of duets between Hawkins and the seriously underrated pianist Buck Washington (born Ford Lee) who had recorded with his partner John W. Bubbles as well as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

Together, they recorded IT SENDS ME (two versions), I AIN’T GOT NOBODY, OLD-FASHIONED LOVE (a piano solo), and ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET (two versions).  The session was one of John Hammond’s ideas: the sides were released first in England, where the listening public was much more aware of African-American creative improvisers.

The alternate takes of SENDS and SUNNY are available only on the Mosaic set, but I can offer here YouTube transfers of the issued sides, slightly out of sequence.

I’ve been drawn back to this music by its beauty and assurance.  Hawkins seems so much in command of both his instrument and his imagination.  It’s not arrogance but mastery, the grace of a great artist sure of his powers, rather like a magnificent actor or athlete who is sure of what needs to be done, what can be done, and what is possible beyond the expected.

Hawkins displays his marvelous embracing tone — play this music in another room and you might think there is a small orchestra at work or a glorious wordless singer, caressing the melody, pausing to breathe, to reflect.  Nothing is rushed; all is both serene and deep.  And on the faster sections, he offers us a joyous playfulness.

About Hawkins as a “singer”: you can find his recording of LOVE CRIES (which I think is very dear) also on YouTube . . . but for me, the people traveling on the same path are not other instrumentalists but Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby. Listen and consider.

hawkins-autograph

Washington, never given his due, presents a relaxed but never lazy stride piano but we hear an elegant wildness in his embellishments (and a harmonic sophistication) that shows he, like others, had assimilated not only James P. Johnson but also Earl Hines and Art Tatum.  He’s a superb accompanist, but his sparkling playing demands our attention, and his solo passages do not disappoint.

The four sides are a venerable pop / jazz / vaudeville classic, almost a decade old; a newer pop song, a small homage both to James P. Johnson and the folk tradition, and a Hawkins ballad.  I gather that there was some rivalry between Hawkins and Louis, and I imagine that a Hawkins – Washington duet date was a way for Hawkins to say, “I’ve heard Louis and Buck on DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND, and I have my own statement to make to Louis and to anyone who thinks Louis is the sole monarch.”  So SUNNY SIDE, taken at that tempo, was a Louis specialty in 1933 — Taft Jordan recorded his own Louis-impersonation before Louis had made his own record of it.  It would have been impossible for Hawkins, a champion listener / absorber, to not know what Louis was doing in New York and elsewhere.

and

and the recording that, to me, is the gem:

and — in a jaunty, assured mood, here’s Buck:

Orchard Enterprises could find a copy of that track that doesn’t start with a hiccup, although I find such eccentricities nostalgic in small doses, having spent decades listening to dusty and scratched records.

And something about the history of listening, one’s personal history.  When I began to buy records in wallet-depleting seriousness in the very early Seventies, there were so many Coleman Hawkins recordings available — from his early work with Henderson up to the beautiful and touching late recordings (SIRIUS, on Pablo) that I glutted myself.  And predictably I burned out for a long time on Hawkins — hearing the swooping majesty of the Thirties and Forties get more powerful but occasionally almost mechanical in the Fifties and beyond (a similar thing happened, rhythmically, to Don Byas).  I turned with obsessive love to Lester Young and Ben Webster: one who never seemed predictable, one who wrapped me in the softest blanket of loving sounds.  So I confess I bought the Mosaic Hawkins box set on the principle of “You’re going to be sorry when this one goes away,” which is a valid notion . . . but I have been reminding myself of his genius, over and over, from the early work with Mamie Smith to the 1947 I LOVE YOU.  There are many good reasons to love Coleman Hawkins, and, not incidentally, Mosaic Records as well.

Listen, and be startled by beauty.  Or remember the beauty that is there, perhaps overlooked for a moment.

hawkins-sunny-side

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaten we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

DING!

VIC Forties Lucille Hall

Today would have been Vic Dickenson’s birthday.  And although I would get worn out using JAZZ LIVES to celebrate births and mourn deaths, I can’t let this one go by.

For the story behind the photograph, please click here.

Vic was the master of Sounds.  He didn’t push himself to the forefront — in fact, when I saw him called upon to lead his own group in a concert setting, he seemed uncomfortable making announcements, choosing songs, being in charge. It required too much talking, something he preferred not to do if he could avoid it.

But he added special flavors to any group, was instantly recognizable in any ensemble, and — like Sid Catlett and Eddie Condon (these three a small mutual admiration society) — he made any group sound better.  People who know Vic know his work with Louis, Billie, Lester, Ruby, Bobby (we could make the list much longer) but I don’t think many people know these Capitol sides.  I apologize for not being able to present all four, and I apologize even more for their dubious provenance (it’s clear that they were taken from the glorious Mosaic Records Capitol set) but hearing the music counts for a great deal.  I’ve included the personnel at the bottom, and whether they were recorded during the ban or not, I can’t say — but they come from Vic’s mid-Forties sojourn on the West Coast.

A ghost story:

and a prayer with a very odd ending:

and another minor etude:

I can’t offer the fourth side, just the 78 label, which will satisfy no one:

scatman-crothers-rare-mabel-the-lush-alcoholic-song-capitol-78_1340268

The details, according to Tom Lord, with an amended date, are Scat Man Crothers With Riff Charles And His Friends : Scat Man Crothers, vocal; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Riff Charles, piano; others (guitar, bass, drums) unknown.  Los Angeles, late 1947.

I saw Vic as often as I could in the years 1971-81 in New York City, and he was always memorable.  I miss him today, and think that I could spend a pleasant week playing nothing but recordings (and private sessions) on which he appeared.  He was never histrionic, but he was never dull or predictable, even when playing IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD for the thousandth time.  (Think of the lyrical mindset that would make a musician choose that for a feature, and you will understand more about the great “singer” — and singer — who had labels hung on him throughout his life, by people who couldn’t hear more than his “sly wit” and “naughty asides.”  His was, and is, a beautiful soul.

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!

“REJECTED TAKES,” DECEMBER 17, 1937

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

Most jazz aficionados, if asked what pianist / bandleader Teddy Wilson was doing in the recording studio in 1937, would reply that he was a member of the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet — recording for Victor — and creating brilliant small-group sessions with Billie Holiday for Brunswick.  Some might check the discography and report that Teddy had also recorded, under John Hammond’s direction, with singers Helen Ward, Boots Castle, and Frances Hunt.

But few people know about one session, recorded on December 17, 1937, with an unusually rewarding personnel: Teddy; Hot Lips Page; Chu Berry; Pee Wee Russell; possibly Al Hall; Allan Reuss; Johnny Blowers.  The singer is the little-known Sally Gooding.  (All of this material has been released on Mosaic Records’ Chu Berry box set, and two sides appeared on a Columbia/Sony compilation devoted to Lips Page, JUMP FOR JOY, with nice notes by Dan Morgenstern.  My source is the French Masters of Jazz label, two Wilson CDs in their wonderful yet out-of-print series.)

Teddy Wilson And His Orchestra : Hot Lips Page (trumpet); Pee Wee Russell (clarinet); Chu Berry (tenor sax); Teddy Wilson (piano); Allen Reuss (guitar); possibly Al Hall (string bass); Johnny Blowers (drums); Sally Gooding (vocal on the first three sides only)
New York, December 17, 1937
B22192-2 MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU
B22193-1 WITH A SMILE AND A SONG
B22193-2 WITH A SMILE AND A SONG
B22194-2 WHEN YOU’RE SMILING
B22195-2 I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME

All of the instrumentalists on this session are well-known.  One can imagine Hammond selecting Chu from the Calloway band, Pee Wee and Blowers from Nick’s, Reuss from Goodman.  Lips and Al Hall were presumably free-lancing, although Lips may have been on the way to his own big band.

Sally Gooding is now obscure, although she was famous for a few years, making records with the Three Peppers and appearing at the 1939 World’s Fair. Here, thanks to www.vocalgroupharmony.com, you can see and hear more of Sally.  And this 1933 Vitaphone short allows us to see her with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band:

with-a-smile-and-a-song

WITH A SMILE AND A SONG (by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey) comes from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which had not even been released in theatres when this session was made:

with a smile and a song two

The singer whose voice you hear is Adriana Caselotti.  Nearly sixty years later, our own Rebecca Kilgore recorded the finest version of this song for an Arbors Records session led by Dan Barrett:

MOON SONG Becky Barrett

The obvious question for some readers is “Where’s Billie?” Although Miss Holiday recorded several sessions with Wilson in 1937, I presume she was on the road with Count Basie — which also explains the absence of Lester, Buck, Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones.  Hammond and Billie didn’t always get along, and he was trying out other singers when he could.  Someone else has hypothesized that Billie would have been opposed to recording a song associated with SNOW WHITE, but this seems less plausible.  When she and Wilson reunited in the recording studio in 1938, they did IMPRESSION, SMILING, and BELIEVE, which may add credence to the theory.

Here are “the rejected takes” — each one mislabeled on YouTube:

MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU (from another 1937 film, HAVING A WONDERFUL TIME, also known as HAVING WONDERFUL TIME, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Ginger Rogers — and Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Red Skelton, early on):

This version — for those who know Billie’s — is taken at a jaunty tempo, which makes the melodic contours seem to bounce.

All I can say is that both Chu and Lips Page leap in — not at high volume or extremely quickly — with swing and conviction.  (I love Lips’ flourish at the end of the bridge.)  Sally Gooding’s singing is not easy to love for those who know Billie’s version by heart, but she is — in a tart Jerry Kruger mode — doing well, with quiet distractions from Pee Wee and the bassist.  Wilson is energized and surprising, as is Pee Wee, and there is a moment of uncertainty when one might imagine Chu and Lips wondering whether they should join in, as they do, yet the record ends with a solid ensemble and a tag.

The first take of WITH A SMILE AND A SONG:

I love Chu’s introduction, and Teddy sounds typically luminous as the horns — almost inaudibly — hum harmonies behind him.  (When was the last time you heard a front line play so beautifully behind a piano solo?)  Then, Pee Wee at his most identifiable, lyrically sticking close to the bridge but with two of his familiar turns of phrase leading into a Lips Page interlude — sweetly restrained, as if modeling himself after Buck Clayton.  Sally Gooding, who may have seen the sheet music for the first time only a few minutes ago, sounds slightly off-pitch and seems to sing, “With a life and a song,” rather than the title.  But she gains confidence as she continues, and her bridge is positively impassioned (although her reading of the song is less optimistic than the lyrics).  No one should have to sing in front of a very on-form Pee Wee, whose obbligati are delightfully distracting.  When the band comes back for the closing sixteen bars, they are in third gear, ready to make the most of the seconds allotted them, although it is far from a triumphant ride-out (think of the closing seconds of WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO, in contrast). The rhythm section is quite restrained, but the bassist, Al Hall or not, adds a great deal.

The second take of WITH A SMILE AND A SONG has, alas, eluded me on YouTube (thus I cannot post it here).  It is similar in its outline to the first take, although everyone seems more comfortable with the song.  I wonder if Gooding had had real trouble avoiding her singing “life” on the first take, so each time she sings — correctly — “smile” on this version, there is the slightest hesitation, as if she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t make the mistake again.  You’ll have to imagine it.

WHEN YOU’RE SMILING:

The conception of how one could play this simple tune had changed since Louis’ majestic 1929 performance, and with four star soloists wanting to have some space within a 78 rpm record, the tempo is much quicker and the band much looser (hear Lips growl early on).  The ambiance is of a well-behaved Commodore session or three minutes on Fifty-Second Street, the three horns tumbling good-naturedly over one another.  In fact, the first chorus of this record — lasting forty-five seconds — would stand quite happily as the heated rideout chorus of another performance.   Behind Wilson, the rhythm section is enthusiastically supporting him, Blowers’ brushes and Hall’s bass fervent. When Chu enters, rolling along, he has a simple riff from the other two horns as enthusiastic assent and congregational agreement; his full chorus balances a behind-the-beat relaxation characteristic of Thirties Louis as well as his characteristic bubbling phrases.  Behind Pee Wee, the guitar is happily more prominent (did someone think of the lovely support Eddie Condon gave?) and Lips’ phrases at the end are — without overstatement — priceless.

I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME:

Like SMILING, this 1930 song was already a classic. Wilson is sublimely confident, chiming and ascending, followed by a tender, perhaps tentative Lips (had Hammond asked him to play softly to emulate Buck?): the eight bar interludes by Chu and Lips that follow are small masterpieces of ornamented melody.  Wilson’s half-chorus has the rhythm section fully audible and propulsive beneath him.  Pee Wee, who had been inaudible to this point, emerges as sage, storyteller, and character actor, transforming the expected contours of the bridge into his own song, with hints of the opening phrase of GOOFUS, then Wilson returns.  (What a pity Milt Gabler didn’t record those two with bass and drums for Commodore.) Chu glides on, his rhythmic motion irresistible, then the guitarist (audibly and plausibly Reuss) takes a densely beautiful bridge before the too-short — twelve seconds? — rideout, where Blowers can be heard, guiding everyone home.

“Rejected” might mean a number of things when applied to these records.  Did Sally Gooding’s vocal error at the start of SONG convince Hammond or someone at  Brunswick (Bernie Hanighen?) that the session was not a success? Was Hammond so entranced by the combination of Billie and the Basie-ites that these records sounded drab by comparison?  Were there technical problems? I can’t say, and the participants have been gone for decades.  The single copies of these recordings are all that remain.  I am thankful they exist.  This band and this singer are musical blessings, music to be cherished, not discarded.

May your happiness increase!

EDDIE CONDON, BUD FREEMAN, and THE CREATION OF JOY

Commodore Love

Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, and I go ‘way back, although those two gentlemen would not have noticed me all that much.  I only saw Eddie once at close range, in the summer of 1972, and at several late concerts; I saw Bud once at a Newport in New York tribute to Eddie.

But I have been following both men since I was a youth in suburbia, when department stores had record departments and there was always a reason to walk to the one nearby or tag along when my parents, who loved to shop for what I think of as home-trivia, went to one that I couldn’t walk to.

I started collecting Louis Armstrong records, which should not shock anyone. But soon I decided that Jack Teagarden was fascinating as well, and bought THE GOLDEN HORN OF JACK TEAGARDEN, which featured Pee Wee Russell, Eddie, Wild Bill Davison, George Wettling, and others.  Then, in 1969, the Mainstream label started to issue vinyl compilations drawn from the Commodore Records catalogue.  Most, if not all, were in reprocessed stereo, had obtuse liner notes, limited discographical information . . . but here I could hear SERENADE TO A SHYLOCK.  I was hooked for life.  And I became a deep convert to Condonia, and the territory known as the Land of Bud.

Both of them are ferociously underrated musicians and their music, when mentioned, is often viewed patronizingly.  More about that later.  But I would fight for the Commodores and later Deccas to be taken as seriously as any small-group recordings of the period.  Click here for several sound samples: clear your mind of jazz-history debris (the categorization of this music as Not Terribly Innovative and Created Mostly by Caucasians) and listen.

CONDON MOSAIC

I’ve had the new Mosaic Records cornucopia of the Condon / Freeman Commodore / Deccas 1938-1950 sitting on my coffee table, the box unwrapped but the discs still virginal, for two weeks now.  I think I was afraid of breaking the spell.  Sometimes the hallowed records one remembers just aren’t what one has idealized, and one hears all the flaws.

But I began to listen, and disillusionment never appeared.  I approached the set in two ways — front and back — starting with the first Commodore session (admiring the way that I could hear shadings and subtleties I’d never heard before) and then the later Deccas . . . unheard Dave Tough, James P. Johnson, Johnny Windhurst, and more.

Here are the details.  Eight CDs, 199 tracks, many new Decca alternates, everything in gorgeous sound, $136.00.  Wonderful photographs, many new to me — and I’m a Condon obsessive.  Notes by Dan Morgenstern, a real plus.

The Commodore and Decca band sides of the first period, 1938 to 1944, are elated and elating music.  Even at slow tempos, a delicious energy bubbles through.  Condon and the Blessed Milt Gabler, the guiding light of Commodore, favored obscure pop songs of the early Twenties — PRAY FOR THE LIGHTS TO GO OUT, TELL ‘EM ABOUT ME, YOU CAN’T CHEAT A CHEATER, IT’S TULIP TIME IN HOLLAND, as well as impromptu blues and durable ballads. Where some of the later Commodore sessions (for example, those led by Muggsy Spanier) sound heavy in their earnestness, the Condons sound light, frisky.  One can study a record like MEET ME TONIGHT IN DREAMLAND or TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL for its ensemble lightness or densities, as well as the glowing solos.

And the Deccas that follow are almost as glorious — with alternate takes of beloved performances (IDA and JUST YOU, JUST ME) as well as familiar ones in wonderfully clear sound.

As with any Mosaic set, the incautious listener will go down into the depths and arise befuddled by an over-abundance of beauty.  Although the price is far lower than a collection of the original 78s, I urge any student of the music to listen with serious caution, as one might have in 1938 or 1945: two sides, at most, making up a listening session.

I have written elsewhere at length about my hopes for a re-evaluation of Eddie Condon as a color-blind prophet of authentic music, but here I wish to praise him as a beautiful Intuitive, someone who knew what tempos (the plural is intentional) would work, a guitarist who knew the right chords and whose beautiful sound uplifted any group.  Even in his last appearances, when the guitar was more an ornament than an instrument, Eddie knew how to make a group cohesive and sprightly.  I mean to take nothing away from Freddie Green, but rhythm guitarists and aspiring swingsters should study his work on these sides.  And if you take contemporaneous sides recorded by similar bands where Condon is not present, his absence is immediately heard and felt.  That’s the musician.  As for the man, history — taking his actions and utterances as the only evidence — has leaned towards a portrait of a man more enamored of alcohol than anything else, a wise-cracking smart-ass whose jibes were often mean. Some of that might be true: his quick-witted retorts were often not gentle, but the music, ultimately, is what counts.  And the Mosaic set offers it in glorious profusion.  (I would offer the WOLVERINE JAZZ sides as an engaging way to play “jazz repertory” that isn’t bound and gagged by the originals.)

Several heroes also shine through these sides.  One of the most noble is Jack Teagarden — as singer and trombonist.  I suspect that Teagarden has been ill-served by his durability (which is an odd statement, I admit) and his narrowing repertoire.  If one were to see him merely as a re-creator, say, of BASIN STREET BLUES into infinity, one would do him a great disservice.  I defy any trombonist to be as limber, as inventive, as surprising.  And as a singer he is simply glorious, even on the less inspiring material, such as IT’S TULIP TIME IN HOLLAND (which I find and always found terribly endearing).

I can’t say enough about Charles Ellsworth Russell, so I will simply say this.  To me he is the equal of Lester Young, of Benny Carter, and (yes!) of the King of Swing.  Too much has been made of his “eccentricities,” which are ultimately the hallmarks of an utterly self-aware and courageous musician.

The later Commodores often featured a violently effective front-line pairing of Wild Bill Davison and George Brunis, but these sides most often have Bobby Hackett and other lyrical trumpeters / cornetists: Max Kaminsky, Billy Butterfield, even Johnny Windhurst.  Hackett is my idea of angelic music: let that statement stand by itself, and Kaminsky’s even, compact playing is a wonderful model.  The rhythm sections on these records are delights in themselves: consider Jess Stacy or Joe Bushkin, George Wettling, Dave Tough, coming-to-the-rescue Lionel Hampton and even on one long delicious 1943 date, Sidney Catlett.  I can’t ignore delicious cameos by Fats Waller and Lee Wiley.

In 1969 and onwards, I tended to skip over the Bud Freeman trio sessions (with Stacy and Wettling).  How narrow my perspective was.  I now hear them as gloriously radical creations, slyly subversive answers to the Goodman Trio. In some ways, they are the most “free” recordings before the term became more common in jazz: three rollicking eccentrics going at it, each on his own path, improvising wildly and sometimes acrobatically.

And since Miles Davis is the Great Exalted Potentate of All Jazz in the past decades, I present this little passage (found my accident) where he speaks of Lawrence Freeman:

Lester had a sound and an approach like Louis Armstrong, only he had it on tenor sax. Billie Holiday had that same sound and style; so did Budd Johnson and that white dude, Bud Freeman. They all had that running style of playing and singing. That’s the style I like, when it’s running. It floods the tone. It has a softness in the approach and concept, and places emphasis on one note.

I didn’t make that up.

Rather than reading more of my words, I hope you listen to the music presented on the Mosaic site.  These sessions are as precious as any of the more “hallowed” contemporaries.  I would put them next to the Ellington, Hampton, Basie small groups of the period, and they stand up splendidly in comparison to the independent-label recordings of the Forties.  Clear your mind of the odious categorizations and enjoy.

Postscript: before writing this post, I intentionally did not read the beautiful liner notes by Dan Morgenstern, who was on the scene and knew Eddie . . . because Dan’s influence is so strong (in the best way) that I wanted to attempt to write this from my own perspective.  But I know that Mister Morgenstern and I will agree.

May your happiness increase!

JAMES P.’S SPACIOUS UNIVERSE

Someone unknown to me — a generous anonymous benefactor — has posted on YouTube two of the irreplaceable 1939 piano solos by James P. Johnson.  I think they are uplifting creations that never grow over-familiar.

BLUEBERRY RHYME, Johnson’s own musing original composition, has not only several strains but feels multi-layered, as if two moods were moving along in time and sound throughout the piece.  One is sweetly, sadly ruminative — thoughts of a solitary seeker in a meadow, perhaps, with calm and loss intermingled.  The other is joyous — all of James P.’s most elegant trickeries offered to us at half-speed and half-volume, so that we could think, for an evanescent moment, “Hey, I could play the piano like that if I only practiced.” In this stratum, we hear what so many pianists — Tatum, Fats, Basie — worshipped and borrowed from him.  (There’s a tinkling figure at :20 that Tatum nipped off with and made his own.)

Is BLUEBERRY RHYME sweet thoughts of home, or of a love that might have been, musings on a pie, or something private to James P.?  We cannot know, but we can enter this world for a few minutes, its gently rocking motions and lingering melodies both comforting and elusive.

BLUEBERRY RHYME is followed by one of my favorite interludes, a joyous yet stately romp on Edgar Sampson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE.  This recording has been one of my consolations and dear musical friends for perhaps forty-five years, and it not only provides happiness but embodies it.  Within the first ten seconds — that prancing bassline, the treble chords announcing the melody — we know we are somewhere elation is the common language, where all will be given over to the dance.

Each chorus is a complete utterance in itself, and each chorus’ variations look backwards to its predecessor and anticipate what is to come.  Stride piano is also misunderstood by some as a metronomic left hand with a freer but rhythmically-obedient right hand creating variations in its own realm, but notice the playful elasticity between the steady bass lines and the widening rhythmic freedom of the treble, in a playful push-and-pull that we feel as the performance continues. The dance gets more and more ambitious, but James P.’s time and volume are both steady delights, and form is never abandoned.

Compare, for instance, the opening chorus where the melody is explicitly stated in contract to what happens at 5:30, magical in itself. Although the performance has offered a certain ornateness, the thrilling competitive display the Harlem players loved, here James P. seems to pull back into softer enigmatic utterances, offering space and an abstraction of what he has been playing instead of attempting to dazzle the hearer even more.  And the three ascending chords at 6:19!  So simple and yet so memorable.  On my admittedly untuned piano, they are a C, D, and E — the first do re mi of a beginning student, but what ringing sounds they are here.

Should I end my days in a hospice, I hope I will have these recordings with me to take on the journey.  And I exult in them now.

Hear for yourself:

Coincidentally, James P. was the subject of a brief cyber-discussion the fine pianist Michael Bank and I were having, and Michael (lyrical in prose and music) wrote that James P. “creates a portal to the universe.”  James P. Johnson was and is his own universe, vast, inviting, heartfelt.  How fortunate we are to hear such beauty!

(Blessings on the often-imperious John Hammond, who booked the studio time in 1939 to make these recordings and treasured them when Columbia Records would not issue them, saving them for future generations.)

I have heard that Mosaic Records is preparing a James P. Johnson set.  Talk about DREAMS coming true.

May your happiness increase!

MILT GABLER APPROVES: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, JIM BUCHMANN, KATIE CAVERA, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH at SAN DIEGO (Nov. 4, 2014)

Few readers of JAZZ LIVES were actually enjoying the music on Fifty-Second Street, or at a Jimmy Ryan’s jam session, or were in the audience after-hours in Harlem, Chicago, or Kansas City.  What we have now are reminiscences, photographs, and the very rare live recording.  We have to rely on issued recordings for evocations of those times and places, and — infrequently — live performances in this century.  Every so often, I am sitting in front of a band whose musical energy is so wise, so deep, and so intense, that I say to myself, “That’s what it might have sounded like at the Lincoln Gardens,” or “uptown in 1941,” or “at the Reno Club.”

This performance — recorded on November 4, 2014, at the San Diego Jazz Fest — made me think, “This is an unissued Commodore session . . . rejected because it ran too long.”  I don’t have higher praise than that, and since I think the dead know, I believe that Milt Gabler is feeling the good spirits too.

Milt Gabler

Milt Gabler

 

The musicians (or wizards of feeling?) are Ray Skjelbred, piano and inspiration; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jim Buchmann, clarinet; Katie Cavera, guitar; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

The song chosen is really a layer-cake of three.  First, DIGA DIGA DOO (by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields) — a song made for romping, even though its people-of-color-are-so-hedonistic lyrics are now hard to sing.  It’s overlaid by KRAZY KAPERS, a riff created at the 1933 “Chocolate Dandies” session overseen by John Hammond (the awful band title aside, it was a hot mixed group), and then the song that Ray murmurs about — the one that went too long at Carnegie Hall — Louis Prima’s SING SING SING, with or without commas, which gives Ray a chance to evoke Jess Stacy, always welcome.

When I was busily setting up the video on YouTube — writing a title, description, and creating tags, one of the suggested tabs that the YT machinery came up with was

Wow

My feelings exactly.

It’s in moments like this — nearly seven minutes of moments — that I feel I’m doing the important work of my life (with no offense meant to the students I teach) . . . attempting to make the evanescent permanent, attempting to make the local heroes world-famous.  It makes the knapsack with cameras and tripod feel feathery, not burdensome.

Commodore label

And — quite relevant to this music — I just read that Mosaic Records has completed an eight-CD set of the complete Commodore and Decca recordings of Eddie Condon and Bud Freeman, which will be available in mid-April.  Need I say more?

May your happiness increase!

 

WE CELEBRATE MISTER MORGENSTERN!

Dan Morgenstern turns 85 on Friday, October 24.  But we celebrate him every day.  I know I have learned so much from reading his quiet, straightforward prose (I can recite passages from his Louis liner notes, his Hot Lips Page ones, and a hundred more), his magazine articles and Mosaic notes, his voice coming through the radio (“Jazz From the Archives” on WBGO-FM), and in person. He’s been generous to me and thousands of other researchers in his time at Rutgers, and his generosity didn’t stop when he retired.

He is a model of perception, and his range is never limited.  If it’s good, you’ll find him in the audience.  Yes, he is a link to the past (ask about naby hallowed musicians from 1947 onwards and he saw them and sometimes spoke with them) but he is also very much living in the present, someone who is excited about the gig he went to last night — not an elder who thinks all the glories are gone.

You will have two special opportunities to celebrate Dan, and to celebrate with Dan, this week.

On Wednesday, David Ostwald and the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band (that Birdland perennial) will be celebrating Dan with one of their special late-afternoon / early evening gigs. The musicians David has lined up for this celebration include Bjorn Ingelstam, Adrian Cunningham, Marion Felder, and Vince Giordano — but I’m sure that other notables will be in the house and on the stand to celebrate Dan.

Morgenstern Birdland

On Thursday, Will Friedwald is hosting one of his inimitable CLIP JOINT presentations of video performances that Dan has picked out himself as well as a few surprises . . .

Morgenstern clip

To reserve your seat, RSVP to Levis4402@yahoo.com — it’s $10 to join in.

I know both of these events will sell out, so make your reservations early so you aren’t left on the sidewalk.  And if you can’t make either one, a simple, “Mister Morgenstern, happy birthday and thanks so much!” will do when you encounter Dan at a gig.

May your happiness increase!

“A CONTROLLED, FEVERISH LYRICISM”: COLUMBIA AND RCA VICTOR LIVE RECORDINGS OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND THE ALL STARS

A musician friend of mine who is listening to this new set of rare Louis Armstrong music from 1947-58 wrote me that he has been waiting for this set for ten years. Without being competitive, I can say that I have been waiting for this Mosaic box set — a glorious and rewarding one — for almost fifty.

louis-armstrong-mosaic-records

Yes, I was introduced to Louis and his music through the sessions with Gordon Jenkins and THE FIVE PENNIES, but I treasured my copy of TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS and (later) AMBASSADOR SATCH, playing those records over and over. (When I bought my first Hot Five compilation — the Louis Armstrong Story, Volume One, with a bow to George Avakian — it sounded strange and distant, as did the Creole Jazz Band sessions.  But Thirties – Fifties Louis came to me like a vibrating force of nature.)

There are still too many listeners — and writers, unfortunately — who hold to the great myths we so love in this century — the great narrative of Early Promise and Later Stagnation.  Louis has been a true victim of such mythography: people who don’t listen think that he stopped being creative in 1929, that the All-Stars’ performances were simply crowd-pleasing note-for-note repetitions of perhaps a dozen tunes.

I do not write what follows casually: the music contained on these nine compact discs (over eleven hours of music) will be a revelation.

My title comes from Whitney Balliett’s review of Louis’ concert at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and it is so very true.  Louis plays, throughout this set, like a man on a fierce mission of joy. Forget the cliche of the small, stocky, tired man, sweating and grinning and mopping his face while he grins his way through some paper-thin song about what a wonderful world it is or some woman named Dolly or Mame.  What you hear on these discs is not tired, not ever.

Indeed, if you were able to take one of the performances on this set and play it for someone whose ears were open, whose mind and heart were wiped clean of stereotype and assumption, I guarantee that my imagined listener would be in awe at the powerful energies to be experienced here.  The Mosaic set is not a loving tribute to a failing Elder; it is an explosive package of evidence showing that Louis was truly powerful and energized in his forties and fifties, playing and singing wonderfully — full of life.  Although a well-known reviewer in a well-known jazz publication called Louis’ performances with his chosen band a “cage,” and others have created platitudes about “antebellum” music, the sounds on this box set transcend all such shallow reportage.

Here is some musical evidence.  And for those of you who might say, “Oh, gee, another version of BLUEBERRY HILL?  For goodness’ sakes, I’ve heard Pops do that song a thousand times,” I would ask only that you sit still, put the iPhone or other distractions at a safe distance, and listen.  Listen anew.  Listen once again. What you hear is not routine, not repetition, not rote — but subtle creations, music springing to life for the millionth time, a piece of metal tubing and a human voice sending gifts of love and wisdom to all of us.

Listening to Louis Armstrong is not only a pleasurable experience but a transformative one, because Louis reminds us to not get weary, to never say, “You know, I am bored with doing, with making, with being.”  Louis never tired of that “show,” of letting music pass through him so it could be aimed like a caress at every member of the audience.  And even though Louis’ mortal body is no more, those vibrations are still able to rattle us in the nicest ways.

Larry Eanet, pianist, trombonist, creative thinker, once said that a gift (1940 or 41) of a set of Louis Armstrong 78s changed his life.  “It hit me,” he said, “like Cupid’s arrow.”

The Mosaic set has the loving power of a whole quiver of such arrows.  They stick but they never wound.

The recordings that changed Larry Eanet’s life were produced (and in some cases unearthed) by the man who, next to Louis and his musicians, is most responsible for this joy: producer and jazz-lover extraordinaire George Avakian.  When Louis was signed by Columbia Records, his record dates were supervised, shaped, and imagined by George — still with us at 95.  It’s clear that Louis trusted George to help him get his message across to as many people as possible, and the idea of AMBASSADOR SATCH owes much to George’s expansive, playful imagination. Almost seventy percent of the music in this set was overseen by George, and the box is a vibrant testimony to the power of someone who never played an instrument to create art that will outlive us all.

There are other figures to be thanked: Mosaic guardian angel Scott Wenzel; heroic engineer Andreas Meyer, and Louis Armstrong scholar and enthusiast and biographer Ricky Riccardi, who first had his encounter with Cupid’s arrow some years back. (Ricky’s is a particular triumph, because he wrote the eloquent notes; he worked to get this project moving into reality for more than a few years; this music was his entrance to the Universe of Louis as well.  The set, not incidentally, makes the perfect soundtrack to his book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS.)

It is tribute to all of these men that this set exists, and to Ricky’s dogged loving persistence that we can hear HOURS of previously unheard music in beautiful sound, exquisitely annotated, with rare photographs.

incidentally, in the name of candor, I contributed a rare photograph to the set and its liner-note writer thanks me.  I was honored to be even a small part of the effort — and the glowing result.

I could not leave out the Victor recordings on this set. And though the Columbia material pairs Louis with his most powerful front-line friends, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall, I have a personal delight in the 1947-9 All Stars because of the otherworldly playing of Sidney Catlett and Jack Teagarden — also the too-brief appearances of Dick Cary. The Mosaic set offers the twenty performances from the life-changing Town Hall Concert (it changed mine, so it’s not hyperbole) in the best sound, and then — an entire and previously unheard All Star concert (ninety minutes is all, but that’s a plenty) from Carnegie Hall that same year. And although the same songs are performed, don’t think for a minute these are identical performances.

I know that it is a critical commonplace to look down upon Louis as someone who traded in his vital jazz creativity for “showmanship.”  Louis thought that “pleasing the people” was a good thing, giving them soaring melodies, hot rhythms, and hilarious comedy was what he was on stage for.  I can listen to improvised music that goes in different directions, but the snobbery that puts Louis down is frankly inconceivable and intolerable to me.  Miles Davis, the enduring icon of cool disdain for the audience, loved Louis and was not ashamed to say so.  James Baldwin, too.  Louis had so deeply mastered the art of multifaceted and multilayered art that when he looked like he was “clowning,” he was delivering very subtle music and very deep performance.

A few candid words about Mosaic sets in general.  In my long experience of purchasing and listening, I think they have no equal. Rare material, issued legitimately for the first time, beautiful thorough documentation, wonderful sound. I know that box sets like this seem costly.  $149.00 plus shipping. But there are more than one hundred and sixty performances and interviews here. And I would propose that one purchases a Mosaic set in the same way one buys a new edition of Proust, of the complete Shakespeare, the Mozart symphonies. One is not expected to listen to the nine discs all at once, in one continual immersion, on the bus, while eating, and so on.  The music blurs and may even cloy.  One purchases such a set as a long-term investment: a wise listener would play ONE Louis track a day — that would take half a year — and savor each moment.  And then one could take a brief rest and begin in 1947, all over again.  This set has been produced in a limited edition of 5000 copies, and I can guarantee that when they are all purchased, they will appear on eBay for much much more.

And if you really want to say, “Well, I have heard enough (later) Louis Armstrong for my life,” I am afraid you will get no sympathy from me.  It’s rather like saying, “I don’t feel like laughing any more.  Been there, done that.”  And I am someone who, this last Friday, when a Louis record came on over the sound system at Cafe Borrone, I stood up and put my hand over my heart.  I wasn’t exaggerating my feelings at all. I don’t exaggerate them here.

Just for inspiration: Louis signs someone's telephone book in France.

Just for inspiration: Louis signs someone’s telephone book in France.

May your happiness increase!

THE ASTONISHING MISTER AVAKIAN in NEW ORLEANS (2013)

There are the great artists — such as Louis Armstrong — without whom our lives would be incomplete.  But there are other great artists who make so much possible.  They don’t play or sing.  And they are always loved by the people in the know — but they aren’t always brought to the forefront, aren’t always celebrated for their remarkable imaginations, ingenuity, and love.

One such man is George Avakian, now 95, who has done so much for jazz since 1939 or 1940 up to the present day.

Here he is, in an hour-long interview / conversation with two younger saints of the music, Ricky Riccardi and David Ostwald, at the 2013 Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans.  Towards the end of the interview, the 94-year-old Avakian listens to audio of a conversation he had with Armstrong in 1956, resulting in a beautiful moment and a magnificent standing ovation:

We are grateful than people like Mister Avakian exist.  He has increased our happiness in so many ways. And JAZZ LIVES readers know how much we owe to Young(er) Masters Riccardi and Ostwald. For more information on George Avakian, see here.

May your happiness increase!

THE ELLINGTON MOSAIC, 2011

This post is a being written on the Duke’s 112nd birthday, but in my mind every day we can hear his music is a kind of birthday.  

I confess I am not an Official Ellington Idolator: you won’t catch me, here or elsewhere, referring to him as “the Maestro.”  But for me, his music accomplishes so many things that no one else’s did.  It exists at the intersection of Sound and Stomp, or beautiful tone-paintings and gutbucket rhythms.

Oh, I hear you saying — all jazz does that in some way. 

True, but Ellington knew how to balance both of those qualities so that neither obliterated the other.  And in his world the relentless plunging rhythms (think of Sonny Greer’s drums, Ellington’s smashing chords on the piano) enhanced the cloudlike auras of sound he loved — that saxophone section.  Debussy meets Sidney Catlett, both of them happy uptown.  And oone of the delights of his Thirties recordings is to hear him experimenting with the textures and timbres of “sweet music” mingled with distinctly vernacular sounds and rhythms. 

The apex of Ellington’s art — depending on which ideologist you choose — is commonly held to be the Victor period, specifically those two years when Ben Webster and Jimmie Blanton were illuminating the band — in the recording studio, at a dance date in Fargo, North Dakota, and more.  I think the music captured during that period is irreplaceable and unimprovable: MAIN STEM, the airshots, the pure sound and pulse of that band.  Across town, Basie and Lester and Buck, Walter, Herschel, and Jo, were accomplishing something of equal beauty and force, but Ellington’s Victors are something else!*

But the critical emphasis on those recordings has tended to flatten out the music that preceded that glorious period.  Until now, with the Mosaic set of the recordings for Brunswick, Master, and Columbia from 1932 to 1940, which I am listening to in astonishment and joy as I write these words.

A digression about Mosaic sets.  Some find them expensive, others are intimidated, and others say, “Gee, I have much of this music elsewhere.”  All these statements are valid reactions.  I felt differently about some of the sets that were objects I KNEW I had to have — the Buck Clayton Jam Session box, for instance, many years ago.

And I, like many collectors, thought all of the above — plus, “The sound on those cramped, stuffy Ellington Brunswicks was so irritating.”  This set transcends the limitations of the original 78s and the sound is bright (but never harsh) throughout; there is wonderful unfussy scholarship from Steven Lasker, and marvelous photographs.  There might be, perhaps, an Ellington collector who had managed to amass all of the 78s (including the alternate takes on Japanese Lucky), the Up-to-Date, Raretone, Blu-Disc, FDC microgroove issues . . . but who among us has been invited into George Avakian’s basement to hear and copy his previously unheard test pressings?

But the point of any Mosaic set is not, I submit, the six or seven new tracks.  It is the wonderful totality — all neatly bound up with a figurative bow, rather like having the best scholarly edition of Shakespeare you can find, or the complete DVD set of the Astaire-Rogers films. 

I used to hear a radio commercial for some very expensive watch, where the oleaginous announcer would intone, “You don’t buy a [insert name here] for yourself, you merely keep it for the next generation.”  It irritated me no end, because I am perfectly happy with drugstore timepieces, but in the case of the Mosaic boxes I understand the principle perfectly.  I hope to live long enough to have heard all the music in this set forty or fifty times, to have indulged myself in the sound of the reeds on DROP ME OFF AT HARLEM, the sound of Tricky Sam Nanton on IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, the slow-motion TIGER RAG that is SLIPPERY HORN, every note that Ivie Anderson sang, the bright splash of Sonny Greer’s cymbals . . . too many delights to enumerate! 

Here’s the link.  And the set is limited to an edition of 5000 copies; mine is number 3099 . . . does that suggest something about TEMPUS FUGIT?  Or, “What are you waiting for, Mary?”

*For the people whose musical world is bounded by Blanton and Ben — the final session on this elaborate banquet of a box set has them both, along with Ivie, singing a meltingly sad SOLITUDE . . .

“I WANT! I WANT!”

I have been trying to put all my compact discs away neatly in alphabetical order, and the very dullness of doing this made me think . . .

When I was collecting records in my late teens (before CDs and cyber-space) the music I could obtain was narrowly defined by fixed circumstances: money was one, availability another.  Originally what I heard and could possess was limited to what was played on the radio; what records were available from department stores and the Salvation Army; the records my friends had, and not much more.

Eventually my horizons (but not necessarily my fortune) blossomed: there were wonderfully enticing record stores on and near Eighth Street in New York City; I could send money off to “Tony’s” in the UK for treasures unheard and unimagined. 

But it was nearly impossible to get more than a sampling of the work of an artist or band, so that when I was able to buy a copy of Brian Rust’s two-volume JAZZ RECORDS, I began checking off the performances I had copies of.  I still have those books nearby, their bindings worn through being handled and loved and held. 

So underneath listening and acquiring was The Quest.  Occasionally there would be a jazz rescuer on the horizon — say, the late Jerry Valburn, who put out record after record containing performances that had been marked “rejected” in Rust and performances no one knew existed.  And it moved listeners like myself closer to the elusive goal of “having it all.” 

“Having it all” became easier through vinyl box sets and European issues — for instance the French CBS Ellington two-record sets or the French Victors, which I bought earnestly.  

Oddly, though, although the music was delicious, I would often play those records once or twice and put them on my shelf, where their spines were very fulfilling to look at: I was that much closer to having it all, complete! 

If I woke up seized with the desire to hear the two takes of STARS, to pick the most esoteric example I can now think of, they were there, on the shelves, ready to be played.  That was comforting, although I can’t think of playing STARS more than once or twice.

With box sets, as well, I knew but didn’t want to admit to myself that the allure of completeness was different from listening to the music.  Would I ever sit down and work my way through (note the language of obligation) the entire output of Fats Waller and his Rhythm, although I loved Fats?  Not likely, because the sheer imposing bulk of that collection quickly began to feel like homework.  “Uh oh, I’ve been bad and neglected my aesthetic responsibilities; I’ve got to listen to 1939 before nightfall or I won’t get any supper.”

Forward to 2010, where CD collections and internet access are both so taken-for-granted that the idea of not being able to hear a particular performance for twenty years seems fascinatingly, weirdly antiquated . . . . when we are able to buy all the recordings of Louis or Django at one expensive shelf-filling gulp, do we listen to them completely?  Or are we perversely overawed by the completeness, the profusion? 

I love the Mosaic box sets I’ve bought and would fight to keep them, but the experience of having them, gazing on their spines, and listening to them is somehow different than the Quest of my teens, where hearing on the radio one three-minute track I did not know about was an illuminating experience. 

The extension of this idea, of course, is the spiritual balancing act: in one hand you hold Everything; in the other Just One Thing — and I am reminded of my conversation with a musician who is now eighty, who talked about being able to buy one 78 record a week, so it had better be perfect.  I am sure that had he, in 1944, been able to visualize the Complete Art Tatum Solo Performances in one package, he would have seen it as a wondrous mirage.  How does it make us feel, I wonder.  When our wants are gratified, will we be happier?