Tag Archives: Nat “King” Cole

“A SWELL GUY / NO JIVE.”

My business card has a photograph of Sidney Catlett on it, and when people stop mis-identifying him (no, that’s not Nat King Cole or Morgan Freeman) some ask me why he’s there.  I answer, “He made everyone sound better; he died after telling a good joke in the intermission of a concert, and people still miss him.”  And depending on my listeners, I might repeat what Billie Holiday said of him.

After Louis, he remains my pole star.  So I was astonished and delighted to see this photograph, which was new to me, on sale at eBay.  Torn right corner and all.  I know Sid’s handwriting, so the capital B S and C make me know the signature is genuine, and his fountain pen was working: obviously Marvin was someone special, because the inscription is carefully done, probably on a table or other flat surface.

and a closeup:

Through eBay serendipity, I found out that “Marvin” was Marvin Kohn, who had been the New York State Athletic Commissioner — and a jazz fan.  (He also had an autographed photograph of Will Bradley.)  Here’s a sketch of Marvin by Leroy Neiman:

I had invented a scenario where Sid and Marvin met at a boxing match, where Marvin offered Sid a ticket to some sporting event and then asked (as one might) for an autographed glossy in return, but I believe what might have happened would be different.  Here is Marvin’s obituary in the New York Times:

Marvin Kohn; Boxing Publicist, 70
Published: February 8, 1994

Marvin Kohn, a longtime figure in New York boxing, died Sunday at New York Hospital. He was 70.  He died three days after suffering a stroke.  Mr. Kohn was appointed a publicist for the New York State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing, in 1951, and he later served as a deputy commissioner of the agency before retiring in 1989.  He also was a press agent for many actors and had served as publicity director for the old Hotel Astor.  He is survived by his widow, Mildred.

And a memory of Marvin from Mervyn Gee, whose blog on boxing is called SLIP & COUNTER:

Back in 1987, more than 25 years after moving to London, I was security manger at The Cumberland Hotel, a 1,000 bedroom hotel situated in the Marble Arch area. The reason I mention this is that the World Boxing Council (WBC) held their annual convention there that year and a glittering array of their champions and their entourages were at the hotel. . . . Caroline Fransen was our liason officer  . . . . [she] introduced me to Marvin Kohn, who at the time was secretary to the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) based in New York. Kohn was also deputy commissioner at the New York Athletic Commission for over 30 years and over the next decade I visited the Big Apple a number of times and Marvin introduced me to so many fascinating and influential people in the boxing scene.

Long before there were public tours of Madison Square Garden, I was privileged to be a frequent visitor and Marvin was even the only non-actor to have his caricature on the wall at Sardi’s famous restaurant. To this day, the BWAA present a “Good Guy” prize each year named after my late friend as the ‘Marvin Kohn award’. As a result of my friendship with Marvin I was even invited to the VIP lounge and restaurant at the United Nations buildings. Not bad for a little boyo from the valleys!

And from Mervyn’s site, a lovely photograph of Marvin at his desk:

But back to Sidney Catlett.  January 1944, the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, with Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, for ROSE ROOM:

and one hero speaking of another:

Now I just have to figure out where to hang the picture — because I won it.

P.S.  This post is in honor of master jazz-sleuth David Fletcher.

May your happiness increase!

ARTIFICE TRANSFORMED: CLIFF EDWARDS and DICK McDONOUGH, 1933

I spent some time yesterday morning trying to find in tangible shape what I could hear in my mind’s ear — a complete recording of what was a new song in 1933 — lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and perhaps Billy Rose, music by Harold Arlen — IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, sung and played by Cliff Edwards with accompaniment by Dick McDonough, guitar. Yes, it’s on YouTube, but because reissues removed the verse, those video postings are unsatisfying.


Since the Forties, the song has been performed without the verse, as above, and in the most famous recordings by Sinatra / Nat Cole / Ella / Goodman, at a swinging medium-up tempo, which to me undermines its sweet flavor.  The version I present here is a tender love ballad, hopeful rather than swaggering.

The Wikipedia entry notes, “It was written originally for an unsuccessful Broadway play called The Great Magoo, set in Coney Island. It was subsequently used in the movie Take a Chance in 1933.”  Wikipedia doesn’t add that there seem to have been two films released that year with that title; the other one with James Dunn and Buddy Rogers, the one song in the film by Vincent Youmans.  In his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder notes that in its first incarnation it was called IF YOU BELIEVE IN ME, a much less lively title than the one we know.

The composer credits intrigue me: Arlen’s melody, of course, souunds so simple but that simplicity has made it memorable (thus the appeal of the song to instrumentalists).  He didn’t write dull songs.

As to the lyrics, I wonder what, if anything, Billy Rose contributed to the song. Did he say to a stagehand, “Don’t drop that!  Yeah, it’s only a paper moon, but it costs more than your salary!”  Or is it a quiet reference to the wonderful prop in photo studios of the preceding century, where couples could snuggle in the crescent curve, pretending to be miles aloft because of love?

Yip Harburg’s lyrics are a marvel, bridging contemporary and eternal in the most moving yet casual way.  Leave aside “bubble” and “rainbow,” which were cliches even then, but savor “a temporary parking place,” “a canvas sky,” — and the entire bridge, which is beautiful, affecting and sharp, ” “Without your love, it’s a honky-tonk parade.  Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.” Urban folk poetry at the highest level.  (Wilder calls the lyrics “innocent,” which is puzzling, but he admires Arlen’s bridge . . . .)  In Harburg, I hear his sense of a whole world no more grounded than a series of stage props, created to fool an audience but clearly unreal.  His words are Manhattan-tough but the toughness is there only to convey great wistful feeling.  You’d have to live in the city to understand the resonance of a temporary parking place; not only might it disappear, but you might be punished by the authorities.

A few sentences about Cliff Edwards, who seems a sculpture with so many surprising facets that when he is looked at from different angles, he is unrecognizable each time.

There’s Jiminy Cricket. There’s the goofily appealing Twenties vocalist, ukulele player, and scat singer — “eefin'” his way through one “novelty” chorus after another, often on dim-sounding Pathe 78s.  (I suspect that if Edwards had come to prominence ten years later and had had no ukulele, he would be much better known and regarded today.)  A comic film actor. There are the party records: I LOVE MOUNTAIN WOMEN comes to mind, and, yes, you can imagine the lyrics.  Later, there’s the unstable older man capering around with the Mouseketeers, and what we know of as the terrible husband and self-destructive alcoholic who dies in poverty.

But what I’ve consciously left off of that ungenerous list is Edwards the truly convincing ballad singer, someone whose wistful voice and sweet delivery stays in my ear.  He never got the attention or opportunities to woo audiences, perhaps because he had natural comic talents, but more, I think, because he wasn’t perceived as sufficiently handsome.  He could not rival Bing or Russ in erotic power, so in films and on records he was rather a light-hearted comic foil instead of the leading man.  Alas, audiences in the  Twenties and Thirties — as they do today — tend to listen to singers with their eyes rather than their ears.  I suppose that becoming Jiminy Cricket was a great thing for Edwards’ career, but being invisible and an animated insect did not help him as a romantic singing star.

But back to IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON.

Thanks to the generosity of Laurie Kanner and Jonathan Alexiuk, I can offer both takes, complete, to be accessed at https://archive.org/details/CliffEdwardsCollection1927-1933/ItsOnlyAPaperMoon1933CliffEdwards-Take1.mp3 — a collection of mp3’s of his complete 1927-1935 recordings.

I’ve left the whole ungainly web address visible so that if the link doesn’t work for you, I encourage you to go to the archive.org site for Edwards and hear IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON and more.

I think this performance is a model of the most endearing singing — he means every word, and it’s not by rote. It’s also the gentle tempo that I hear PAPER MOON at.  I haven’t analyzed these records nuance by nuance because they work their way into the heart instantly.  Or, if they don’t for you, listen intently, without distractions or preconceptions, from the rubato verse to the hip little ending.

In preparing this post, I shared these two sides with the fine guitarist and scholar Nick Rossi, a solid sender from San Francisco, who admires Dick McDonough as I do, and he wrote, “What a masterclass it is in sensitive guitar accompaniment to a vocal.”  And — we might add — in McDonough’s staying out of the way yet never upstaging Cliff’s ukulele.

But I keep coming back to the affectionate hopeful totality of Edwards, Arlen, Harburg, and even Billy Rose, who in these recordings say — no, sing — to us, “Love miraculously transfigures artifice,” which is a wondrous thought.  Cherish its power to create new realities.

May your happiness increase!

A GENUINE PAGE-TURNER: “SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES,” by PETER VACHER

I’m a very tough audience when it comes to jazz history books.  Many of them, understandably, are pastiches of familiar evidence with big helpings of speculation mixed in.  Nice enough for people new to the subject, but give me first-hand information rather than paraphrases of what has already been published.

In addition, most jazz literature seems star-struck, fixated on the forty or fifty BIG NAMES.  That’s splendid: books about Louis, Lester, Ben, Hawkins, Roy, Red, and others are treasures.  But since the musicians themselves didn’t always get the attention they merited, much jazz biography is brilliant posthumous research.  If someone were to turn up pages by Walter or Hot Lips (I couldn’t resist) they would be priceless.  And the people who never get to report on what they saw, felt, heard, experienced are likely to have the best stories to tell.  This brings us to Peter Vacher’s new book, SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, 331+ pages, many photographs).

It is an irresistible book, and I speak as someone who finds many books — after decades of reading — utterly resistible.

SWINGIN' ON CENTRAL AVENUE

Peter Vacher (much like the recently-departed John Chilton, although Peter is still very much alive) is one of those rare multi-talented writers: a splendid unaffected prose stylist, a very diligent researcher and “connecter,” someone with an eye for what’s true and what’s intriguing.  In this case, he offers us oral histories and historical research into the lives and music of sixteen musicians — his research done over more than two decades.  The musicians profiled are Andrew Blakeney, Gideon Honore, George Orendorff, “Monk” McFay, Floyd Turnham, Betty Hall Jones, “Red Mack” Morris, Caughey Roberts, Chester Lane, Monte Easter, Billy Hadnott, Norman Bowden, John “Streamline” Ewing, Chuck Thomas, Jesse Sailes, “Red” Minor William Robinson.

I knew of perhaps one-half of those musicians: Blakeney had played with Kid Ory; Honore with Jimmie Noone; Orendorff with Les Hite and Louis; “Red Mack” with Lee and Lester Young’s band; Caughey Roberts had been replaced in the early Basie band by Earle Warren; Billy Hadnott was on famous JATP recordings as well as with Nat Cole; Norman Bowden had recorded with Zutty Singleton; “Streamline” Ewing had played with Hines, McShann, Horace Henderson.

Because of the “star-system” in jazz, many might assume that these interviews with people who — apparently — were on the fringes of the big time would be narrow and not terribly interesting.  To assume this would be a huge error.  For one thing, these sixteen people hadn’t been interviewed much, if at all, so their reminiscences are fresh and eager, full of good stories.  Not one page in Vacher’s book has the stale, “Must we go through this again?” quality of the recitals the stars have given so often they take on an inescapable sleepiness (both in the speaker and the reader).  Although many older musicians expressed themselves through their instruments, sometimes their narratives are enthusiastic but closed: “Big Boy was a terror when he got into that whiskey, but he sure could blow.”  Not here.  And Vacher’s interludes are brief, lively, and the very antithesis of narcissism: he shines the light with great skill and affection on his subjects.

And the stories are amazing.  Andy Blakeney was in Chicago when Louis joined King Oliver; he played in a Doc Cooke band.  Streamline Ewing was asked to join the Basie band; he heard Charlie Parker before Bird had made records.  Speaking of Bird, he stayed with Billy Hadnott and his wife — and it’s a sad story — before the Hadnotts were compelled to ask him to leave.  Ewing also mentions seeing both Mutt Carey and Nat Cole at the union — consider that pairing!  Norman Bowden talks of rehearsing with Jelly Roll Morton, “the most sophisticated man I ever met in my life,” in 1940.  We hear of Benny Goodman sitting in with Mutt’s band in 1925; the book offers the first substantial sketches of drummer Cuba Austin, of bandleaders Reb Spikes, Sonny Clay, the pianist Lady Will Carr. We learn — in just a sentence — that the short-lived and extremely talented pianist Margaret “Countess” Johnson was Lester Young’s “heartbeat.”That Eddie Nicholson was Billie Holiday’s drug supplier.  There are extended stories about a young Charlie Christian, about Lester, about the Basie band at the Reno Club in 1935, about Louis, marijuana, Charles Mingus, Buck Clayton in Shanghai, Lionel Hampton in 1936 . . .  And some musicians, like Kid Ory and Christian, pop up in different contexts, so one has the advantage of seeing them as if they were characters in a Faulkner novel, from many angles.

I deplore the kind of advertising assertion that suggests, “If you don’t buy / read / eat ____________, your life will be joyless, devoid of meaning.”  But I found myself thinking, “Every jazz fancier I know would find something delightfully memorable in these pages.”

And there’s more.  Extraordinary photographs, many from the subjects’ personal hoards.  Interludes of fact taken from contemporary music magazines. And, should you think this to be simply a collection of oral histories of little-known musicians retelling their careers, the book presents so much more — as in race and racism from the Twenties onwards.  Not all the stories are grim, but they are all revealing.  I offer only one example — in Billy Hadnott’s section, Vacher includes this comment from DOWN BEAT, March 15, 1944, where Frankie Laine and a four-piece “mixed group” are praised for their music, then the reporter notes, “Despite their excellent air shots the group has found difficulty in club bookings because of the racial angle involved in the mixed group. Setup includes two colored and three ofays, and it will be interesting to find if this group can break through the Jim Crowism so strong out here.”  That quotation — both in subject and style — is worth a good deal of study, and it reminds us that there were two unions at the time in Los Angeles.

Such fascinating evidence spills out of Vacher’s book — because his subjects haven’t simply played or lived locally, and they are people one would otherwise know only as names in discographies or on record labels.

The book is entertaining, powerful, and eye-opening.  Peter Vacher has surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal.  Now I’m going back to read more.  As a postscript, I opened the book at random and found Chester Lane’s story about working with Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings in El Dorado, Arkansas, circa 1928, with Louis Jordan . . . and the band is taken over by one Wilson, who owns Wilson’s Tell-‘Em-‘Bout-Me Cafe.  I’ll stop there, but you will see why such real-life details make the book a deep pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

WARM AND SWINGING: AN EVENING WITH BILL CROW and FLIP PETERS (PROJECT 142: January 28, 2016)

BILL CROW

On January 28, 2016, I had the rare privilege of seeing / hearing / recording a duo session (under the aegis of project142) featuring the eminent Bill Crow — at 88 still a peerless string bassist, engaging raconteur, and surprisingly effective singer — and his friend and colleague, guitarist / singer Flip Peters.  (Thanks to Scot Albertson for making this all possible!)

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Here, in six parts, is that evening, one I won’t ever forget for swing, elegance, humor, feeling, and the joy of being alive, the joy of playing music.  And here is what I posted about the evening as prelude — don’t miss Flip’s beautiful words about Bill.

Bill describes his childhood immersion with music — all the way up to hearing Nat Cole for the first time:

Bill’s sings and plays SWEET LORRAINE for Nat Cole; his arrival in New York, memories of Birdland, Lester Young and Jo Jones, of Charlie Parker and Stan Getz:

More about Stan Getz, Claude Thornhill, Terry Gibbs, and the Detroit players: Billy Mitchell, Paul Chambers, Curtis Fuller (with a wicked cameo by Miles Davis) — then Bill and Flip play YARDBIRD SUITE:

Working with Marian McPartland and with Gerry Mulligan, and a swinging vocal from Flip on NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT:

Studying with Fred Zimmerman, a concert with Duke Ellington, then (in tribute to Duke) ROSE ROOM / IN A MELLOTONE:

Bill on his writing career, tales of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and a touching bonus, his vocal rendition of a forgotten 1936 swing tune, SING, BABY, SING:

I hope some person or organization, seeing these videos, says, “Let’s have Bill and Flip spend an evening with us!”  You know — for sure — that they have more music to offer and certainly more stories.  And their rich musical intimacy is wondrous.  To learn more about Bill, visit www.billcrowbass.com/.  To find out about booking the duo, contact Flip at flippeters@gmail.com or call him at 973-809-7149.  I hope to be able to attend the duo’s next recital: watch the videos and you will know why, quickly.

May your happiness increase!

WHEN BLISS HAPPENS! AT THE SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, JIM BUCHMANN, KATIE CAVERA, HAL SMITH, BEAU SAMPLE (Nov. 30, 2014)

SAN DIEGO 2015 flyer 2

One of my friends recently asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving, and I said, “I’m flying to San Diego for a wonderful jazz festival,” and this is why: the San Diego Jazz Fest (all schedules subject to change, but this is a filling menu indeed).

The names you don’t see on the flyer above are Marc Caparone, Kim Cusack, Chris Dawson, Carl Sonny Leyland, Conal Fowkes, Kevin Dorn, Orange Kellin, Tom Bartlett, Duke Heitger, Leon Oakley, Clint Baker, Dawn Lambeth, and many others.  I know that some of you will say, with good reason, “That’s too far away,” and I understand that.  But if you say, “Oh, that’s just another California trad festival,” I hope you are not within swatting range, for it isn’t.  But rather than take this uncharacteristic vehemence as merely the expression of the writer’s personality, look below.

Evidence from November 30, 2014: a small-group session led by Ray Skjelbred, piano and vocal; Hal Smith, drums; Beau Sample, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jim Buchmann, clarinet and saxello, Marc Caparone, trumpet.  I’ve posted other videos from this session, but here are the two that closed it.  One lyrical, one steaming.

The first song, ANYTIME, ANY DAY, ANYWHERE, which I associate with Lee Wiley — who recorded it a half-dozen times between 1950 and 1972.  Wiley wrote the lyrics; Ned Washington and Victor Young the melody.  I suspect that Ray knew it first from the Mills Brothers recording, but perhaps from the Chick Bullock, Ellington, Hackett, or Nat Cole sides, too.

It is one of those rare love songs that isn’t I WISH I HAD YOU or YOU BROKE MY HEART, but a seriously intent paean to fidelity (rather like I’LL FOLLOW YOU, I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU, or I’D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN).  Yet unlike those two songs, it doesn’t stress super-heroic behavior as testimony of diligent indefatigable fidelity.  There are no caveats: “I have to check my calendar.  I can’t be devoted to you this Tuesday.  How about Wednesday?” There aren’t any mighty distances, rivers, or mountains.  The singer simply says, “Ask for me and I’ll be there,” which I find touching. And Ray’s spare, whispered declaration of the lyrics makes it even more so.  I don’t hear his singing as evidence of a limited vocal range; rather, he sounds like someone uttering his deepest heart-truths about devotion in the form of a vow. A Thirties pop song about love — what could be more common — that suddenly seems a sacred offering:

From a sacred offering delivered in hushed tones to another song-of-relationships, the critical / satirical NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW, which — with lyrics — details the small-town girl who has come to the big city and quickly become unrecognizable.  Perhaps she’d come to the South Side of Chicago and started hanging around the Lincoln Gardens?  If so, I’d assess her transformation as an improvement.  Note the easy hot tempo — that’s no oxymoron — and how Marc Caparone sounds a bit like a holy ancestor from Corsicana, Texas.  To quote Ring Lardner, you could look it up.  Or you could simply immerse yourself in the video:

Here’s the festival’s home page and the relevant Facebook page.  I hope you’ll heed the siren call of Good Music and join us there.  Festivals need more than enthusiastic watchers-of-videos to survive.

I hope I will be forgiven for ending on an autobiographical note.  Five years ago, I had some cardiac excitement that was repaired by the best kind of Western medicine: open the patient up and put a little machine in.  It works; I’m fine.  Ask my electrocardiologist.  But when I watch and listen to music at this level — music that I experienced then and have revisited often — I think, “Goodness, I could have died and never seen / heard this,” in a state of astonished gratitude. Not a bad place to be. Rather like the San Diego Jazz Fest.

May your happiness increase!

THE COMFORT OF SWING: ROB ADKINS, DAN BLOCK, DALTON RIDENHOUR at CASA MEZCAL, APRIL 12, 2015 (Part One)

The music I love conveys deep feeling in a few notes; it engages me.  I may not know the players as people but I feel their friendship in sounds.  When the music is spirited but calm, expert but experimental, playful without being goofy, I feel at home in the world, embraced by dear sounds.  It can happen in the first eight bars of the first song.

I had one of those wonderful musical interludes at Casa Mezcal on Orchard Street in April of this year — one of the divine Sunday afternoon sessions often led by Tamar Korn.  But when Tamar is out of town, her friends do their best to make sure we feel wonderful — instrumentally speaking.

Rob Adkins, musically and emotionally trustworthy — with his bass, with his fingers, with his bow — picked two great players to make up an uplifting trio: Dan Block, clarinet and tenor; Dalton Ridenhour, piano.  Here are some selections from the first half of the afternoon.  Yes, there’s audience chatter, but try to feel compassion for the people whose Sunday brunch is their social highlight, an escape from their apartments.  Or, if you can’t ascend to compassion, just listen to the music.  It’s what I do.

I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING:

NIGHT AND DAY (One):

NIGHT AND DAY (Two) — the reason for the break was that the battery in my Rode microphone passed out and could not be revived by the battery EMT crew, so there is a gap.  Imagine it as the music missed while Jerry Newman put a new acetate on the turntable and lowered the cutting arm.  Or not:

I NEVER KNEW:

YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY:

A few words about the players.  I’ve been admiring and following Dan Block for over a decade now: his music is a bright light in a sometimes murky world, always surprising but in its own way a deeply kind phenomenon. When he puts any horn to his lips, what comes out is intense yet playful: I’ve been moved to tears and have had to stifle laughter — the best kind — listening to his music.

Rob Adkins is terribly modest and gently low-key, but he reminds me — without saying a word — of Milt Hinton’s axiom that the bass was the foundation of the band.  Harmonically, rhythmically, emotionally, morally.  He knows and loves his instrument, and he plays for the comfort of the ensemble, never egotistically — although he is proud to swing and he is always ready to be lyrical. And as you can see and hear here, he is a great catalyst.

Dalton Ridenhour gets a few more words.  Because the Music Business — as distinguished from the music — encourages non-musicians to make people into commodities, into products, I first encountered Dalton as “a ragtime pianist” and a “stride pianist.”  These little boxes are accurate: he can play superbly in both idioms.  But when I actually heard Dalton — both words need emphasis here — I understood that his musical soul was much more expansive than the careful reproduction of one idiom.  He’s a free bird, someone whose imagination moves through decades and idioms with grace.  You’ll hear his brave light-heartedness through this session (I also had wonderful opportunities to hear him at the Atlanta Jazz Party this year: more about that in time) — he makes music, something that is very rare and very endearing.  So far, he has only one solo CD, but ECCENTRICITY on Rivermont Records (2o12) is a constant delight. I urge you to “check it out,” as they used to say on Eighth Avenue in New York City in the Seventies, and you will hear that Dalton has all the accuracy and sparkle of the Master, Dick Hyman, with his own very personal warmth.

And a small personal caveat.  Some of my listeners, who love making connections between the Now and the Hallowed Past, will leap to do this and hear Lester Young – Nat Cole – Red Callendar, or perhaps Lucky Thompson – Oscar Pettiford, etc.  I know it’s meant as high praise.  “Sounding Like” is a great game, and I do it myself.  But I beseech such wise historiographers to for once leave the records behind and hear the music for itself.  It is even more magnificent when it is not compared to anything or anyone.

There will be more music from this trio to come.  I look forward to someday encountering them again as a group.  Such things are possible and quite wonderful.

May your happiness increase! 

A VIVID MAN: CHARLES “DUFF” CAMPBELL (1915-2014)

Charles “Duff” Campbell — jazz aficionado and art dealer and close friend of the famous — was born on January 9, 1915.  He died on October 3, 2014, peacefully, at his home in San Francisco. Even if he had never become friends with Jelly Roll Morton, Nat Cole, Mary Lou Williams, and many others, he would have been a remarkable man: a childhood in Vladivostok and Shanghai before he returned to California to stay.

Here is an official obituary — but Duff led such a richly varied life this summary cannot begin to tell more than the smallest bit of his tale.

Through the good offices of his dear friend, cornetist Leon Oakley, I was invited to Duff’s house on the afternoon of April 16, 2014, and I brought my video camera.  Duff’s memory was not perfect, and occasionally it took a few questions from Leon to start a story going, but we knew we were in the presence of a true Elder.

He recalled seeing the Ellington band in California in the late Thirties (“They were so damned good”) and hanging out with Mary Lou Williams when she took a solo piano job at a hotel.  “I went to hear everybody,” he said.  “Everybody” meant the Basie  band on an early trip west; Louis and Jack Teagarden in the first All-Stars; Joe Sullivan, Earl Hines, Don Ewell, Darnell Howard, Muggsy Spanier. Duff remembered sitting near Sullivan at Doc Daugherty’s Club Hangover and Sullivan turning to him and saying, “Well, what would you like to hear?”

For me — a born hero-worshipper — Duff was the most real link with the past imaginable.  He sat in a car with Jelly Roll Morton; he drove Art Tatum to and from the gig; he had listening parties with Nat Cole as a guest.

Before anyone turns to the video, a few caveats.  Duff had lost his sight but could still get around his house without assistance, and he had some involuntary muscle movements — so the unsuspecting viewer might think he was terribly comfortable, but he wanted to talk about the days he recalled, and when the afternoon was over he was intent on having us come back soon for more.  It was a warm day and he had dressed formally for his guests, so he was perspiring, but a gentleman didn’t strip down while company was there.  Here are some excerpts from that long interview, with Leon asking Duff questions:

on his encounters with Jelly Roll Morton:

and with Nat King Cole:

a brush with the law:

memories of Art Tatum:

Everyone I’ve ever mentioned Duff to, before and after his passing, has had the same reaction.  We knew and and know now we were in the presence of an Original: quirky, independent, someone who knew what was good and supported it no matter what the crowd liked. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I first met him at one of Mal Sharpe’s Big Money in Jazz afternoons at the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach San Francisco.  I saw an older gentleman sitting in front of the band, as close as he could get, a drink on the table.  He was dancing in his chair, his body replicating every wave of the music.  When I found out who he was and introduced myself (we had a dear mutual friend, Liadain O’Donovan) he was as enthusiastic in speech as he had been in dance.  And I suspect that enthusiasm, that deep curiosity and energy, sustained him for nearly a century.

Goodbye, Duff.  And thank you. It was an honor to be in your presence.

May your happiness increase!