Tag Archives: mysteries

LIZA, MAGGIE, PHYLLIS, and EDDIE. ESSENTIAL READING: “HOUSEDEER,” Issue No. 1

I am always fascinated by the music that my beloved players and singers make — how do they do that? — but I am also intrigued by them as people.  Since many of my older heroes are now dead, I have occasionally tried to speak to their spouses and children to find out more about the mysteries of creativity.  I realize that some of this is the sweet silly fantasy of a born hero-worshipper, that if I knew what Bobby Hackett liked to eat for dinner I would understand just a little more about how he made those sounds.

My questing hasn’t always been rewarding.  Many of the spouses of jazz musicians have understandably been reluctant to retell “the good old days” at length because the memory of all those who are no longer here is mixed with the awareness of their age and pain . . . making them blue.  And the children of jazz musicians (with some lovely exceptions like Leo McConville, Jr.) have often been reticent.  I once spoke to the daughter of one of my heroes and asked if she would be willing to talk about her father to me, someone who admired him greatly.  She was truly puzzled.  “What would there be for me to tell you?” she asked, and when I made some suggestions, she politely said she would have to think about it,  which we all know is a sweet way of saying No.  And the conversation never happened.

Eddie Condon is one of my demigods — small in stature, deaf in one ear, but the catalyst for some of the greatest moments of the last century (if you think I hyperbolize, please listen to any recording of his Town Hall Concerts or — if you have only three minutes, try TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL) and someone who made racial harmony possible two decades before Jackie Robinson.  I have met and talked with his older daughter Maggie — and am honored by her conversation and grace.  I never spoke to Eddie’s Phi Beta Kappa wife Phyllis, and I only saw Eddie’s younger daughter Liza (she died in 1999) at a distance, when she was photographing the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Your Father’s Mustache in 1972.

All this is long prelude to an announcement.  Romy Ashby (writer and artist) sat down with Maggie in early 2011 — in the Washington Square North apartment that was once Amy Vanderbilt’s, then Eddie and Phyllis’s — and the two of them spoke at length about the Condon family and especially Liza, beautiful, creative, mysterious, irreplaceable.  It has been published as the first issue of a magazine called HOUSEDEER (that’s another story) and it is available for six dollars here: http://www.housedeer.com.

Much of what is called “memoir” has a certain self-absorbed rancidity.  People who have not been able to accept the past as in some ways past use their pages to punish the dead, to settle old scores — or to explain their own unhappiness.  The essay on Liza and her family in HOUSEDEER is free from rancor.  It is full of feeling but not formally sentimentalized.  Liza’s beauty and strangeness and generosity of spirit comes through.  At the end of my first reading, I felt so sorry that I had missed her (even though my nineteen-year old self would not have known the right thing to say) but I felt as if she had been brought back, living and supple, to enter my thoughts.

For those of you who live for jazz gossip. there’s a-plenty here as well.  You can visit or eavesdrop or spy on Eddie shaving, on Phyllis lying on the bed reading the newspaper, on Eddie as a domestic sculptor, of dinner with Johnny Mercer and ice-cream sodas with Lee Wiley . . . and it develops into a full-scale portrait of Liza, someone who always insisted on taking the scenic route.

If you love this music and you are fascinated by how human beings try to progress through this world, you will want to read the first issue of HOUSEDEER.

THE “POTATO HEAD” MYSTERY SOLVED AT LAST!

The genial man to the left doesn’t exactly resemble Sherlock Holmes or even Dr. Watson, but he’s helped me solve a nagging mystery.  He’s Dr. Julius “Boo” Hornstein, longtime resident of Savannah, Georgia, and chronicler of its varied jazz scenes.  His research, memories, and appropriate photographs have been published in his book, SITES AND SOUNDS OF SAVANNAH JAZZ (Gaston Street Press).  In it, I found more than I’d expected about King Oliver’s last days and his benefactor Frank Dilworth — and anecdotes about Jabbo Smith, Johnny Mercer, Ben Tucker, and other improvising natives.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing this post.  Exhibit A:

Recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven in 1927, POTATO HEAD BLUES has been a mystery to many for nearly eighty years.  The music itself isn’t mysterious — exultant, rather — but the title has puzzled jazz enthusiasts forever.  Some plausibly have thought it came from the teasing way New Orleans musicians made up names for each other based on essential physiognomy — and one of my readers, Frank Selman, wisely suggested that the title was a sly dig at Clarence Williams, whose cranial structure resembled an Idaho Russet.

Eighty pages into Dr. Hornstein’s book, we meet Sam Gill — not the Brooklyn-born bassist who recorded and played with Randy Weston, Monk, and Blakey, but a Savannah-born trumpet player who (as a young man) had met the down-on-his-luck Joe Oliver. 

But I’ll let Dr. Hornstein lead us back to POTATO HEAD BLUES:

Sam Gill is the kind of guy who likes to tell a story.  Consider this.  We’re sitting around City Market Cafe one early summer afternoon, and Sam is holding forth.  “You ever heard the expression ‘potato head’?  You know, ‘So-and-so is nothing but a potato head?’  No one in our group can rightly say that we have, so Sam proceeds to set us straight.  ‘Well, the expression goes way back in time and has to do with the parades which frequently took place on West Broad Street.  If you were an important figure in the black community, say, a businessman, it was expected of you to have your own band to march in the parades.  The bigger the band, the better in terms of your the image.  So, every now and then you would beef up your band with one or two good-looking men.  The problem was, a lot of the time these fellows looked good, but they couldn’t play.  So, you’d put a potato in the bell of their horns and let them march.  Of course, no sound came out, but that was okay ’cause you only wanted the guys to look good.  That’s how they got to be known as potato heads.” 

You have no idea how relieved I am by this riddle, now unraveled for all time.  And how prescient of Louis not to have turned to his band and said, “Boys, I have a new song for us: it’s about those street parades in New Orleans.  You’ll never forget it: BLUES FOR THE CATS WHO COULDN’T PLAY SO WE HAD TO MAKE SURE WE COULDN’T HEAR THEM PLAY A NOTE EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE SHARP-LOOKING CATS.  One, two!”

Thank you, Sam Gill; thank you, Dr. Hornstein — we’ll all sleep better tonight!

RED NORVO’S SPOTLIGHT BAND on FILM

The distinguished jazz film scholar Mark Cantor offers another cinematic mystery:

“In Back Beats and Rim Shots, Warren Vache and Johnny Blowers discuss a band put together by Red Norvo, under the sponsorship of Coca Cola, for an overseas tour during World War II.  The tour never happened, but before the band broke up a film  — called THE VICTORY PARADE OF SPOTLIGHT BANDS — was made of (in Johnny’s words) “the show.”  At least one performance from this film is known to me, and I have pulled a small set of pictures of the band from this film.  Coverage is not great, and the guys are somewhat disguised by the costume hats they are wearing.  I do see Eddie Condon on rhythm guitar, and Flip Phillips is one of the saxophonists. From what Johnny said, both in an interview and in his book, Dale Pearce and Dick Taylor should be in the brass section, but you don’t get close enough to really see most of these players clearly. There are five reeds in the band, and I am almost certain that Flip Phillips is to the far right.  Hymie Schertzer and Aaron Sachs are supposedly in the section, but I am not sure where.  The rhythm section is quite possibly Ralph Burns, Eddie Condon (for certain), probably Clyde Lombardi and Johnny Blowers (again, a certainty).

Please let me know what your readers think.”

The hats, oh, those hats.  Eddie Condon looks as if he is beginning a long prison term.  

I would love to hear the soundtrack.  

I’d also like to know whatever possessed the film director to dress everyone up — although it is indeed possible that they wore period clothing as part of their “show.”

A postscript.  Eddie Condon loathed big bands and was not shy about saying so.  Phyllis Smith Condon, his wife, was a copywriter for the D’Arcy agency — and she was in charge of the Coca-Cola account.  During the war, she, Eddie, and Ernie Anderson tried to market jazz to the servicemen and women under the beverage’s sponsorship — one project that never quite materialized resulted in a late-1942 recoding session for Condonites and famous friends.  But Eddie still looks miserable under his hat.

WHO ARE THEY? A JAZZ MYSTERY

Although I have very little patience for detective fiction and mystery novels (except for the witty ones by Josef Skvorecky), I savor the mysteries that jazz is full of.  Why didn’t Frank Newton record for a major label after 1939?  What happened to James P. Johnson’s recording career after the Twenties?  And there are mysteries of influence: what Bing Crosby recordings did Louis know when he entered his “crooning” period?  And how did Irving Kaufman feel about singing — with the utmost sincerity — a song called “My Wedding Gown”?  Where are the kinescopes of the Eddie Condon Floor Show?  Ernie Anderson told a story of a private recording session featuring the remarkable trio of Bobby Hackett, Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, and Sidney Catlett: where did the records go?  And more . . . .    

But today’s mystery is called WHO ARE THEY?  All of this came about when I learned that jazz film scholar Mark Cantor had located a photographs from a short film made for television in 1948 featuring the Adrian Rollini Trio.  Rollini, a heroic multi-instrumentalist, had given up the bass saxophone, on which he had no equals.  He then concentrated on the vibraphone, forming a trio with a guitarist and bassist. 

Mark says that he originally thought the guitarist in this picture might be Frank Victor, the bassist Sandy Block, but no longer thinks this.  He would like to know if anyone recognizes the guitarist and bassist below.  As they say in Britain and Ireland, I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue, but I thought some of my very hip readers might.  All I can say about these three musicians is that I admire their sharp suits and neatly folded handkerchiefs.  Here they are:

adrian-rollini-trio

Of course, not all fine jazz musicians or studio musicians are famous, their faces instantly recognizable.  The mysterious picture evokes a departed past where every town and metropolis had a host of players who could read the charts, swing, and improvise.  It’s still true in New York City — one of the delights of going to clubs is hearing someone wonderful whose name I don’t know — and I get to say, politely, “Damn, but you can play.  Why haven’t you got a raft of CDs?”  But I digress.

If anyone thinks they know the identity of the bassist or the guitarist, please let me know and I will pass the information along to Mark.  And if, perchance, you’re listening to one of the Rollini CD reissues still available while you read this (on Jazz Oracle and Retrieval), our collective pleasure will be doubled and redoubled.