Tag Archives: Norman Granz

IMAGINATIVE THEN, INVISIBLE NOW: THE ABSENCE OF FRAN KELLEY

Even now, when it seems that everything can be known, some people appear for a moment and then vanish.  One such is Fran Kelley, whose work as an imaginative record producer came to me some months ago, as I describe here.

Before I offer more information and speculation — all of the print data excavated by the diligent, generous Professor Brian Kane of Yale University — please hear one of the two sides that Fran made possible. Ethereal music:

A gentle caution: if you come to JAZZ LIVES only for videos, I’ll see you tomorrow or the next day.  I think this is a terribly important post, though: my attempt to make sense of a brilliant life from fragments of information.  And I can’t promise any melodrama: death from automobile accident or medical crisis: no, Fran Kelley seems to have turned from “the scene” to choose another life.

Here is not only a portrait (a disembodied one, alas) but the most thorough biographical sketch we have, even though it might be based on her answers to a questionnaire, when Fran was West Coast Editor of METRONOME (1953-57):

For the moment, a few additional facts.  1246 Orange Grove Avenue would have been near Spaulding Square, in what is now considered “West Hollywood,” once a residential area of single-family houses and small apartment buildings, but Google turns up no photographs, which leads me to think Fran’s residence was torn down sometime after 1957.  Whether the “Met” was the opera or the museum, I could find nothing relevant about her father.  Clyde Reasinger, famous for his work with Kenton and for being a section trumpeter on the television performance of MILES AHEAD, was long-lived, 1927-2018.  He has a Facebook page (whose administrator did not reply to my inquiry); his spouse has none.

Based on decades of reading, but jazz writing circa 1945-1957 (the years in which we have the most evidence) was primarily if not exclusively done by men, exceptions being Helen Oakley Dance and a few others, so even given the mildly patronizing tone of the sketch, it shows the regard in which Fran was held by her colleagues.  (In my previous post, I note the stories / reviews she’d written for Metronome.)  I am sure no one asked Bill Coss what he cooked, but that merits only a sigh.  By the way, if you think it condescending of me to call her “Fran,” I am writing this post out of fond admiration: “Kelley” seems icy.  Please don’t write in to lecture.

She accomplished great things, and I say here to readers, “Fran is now invisible in a landscape of Gene Norman, Norman Granz, George Wein and more, all of whom deserve their fame.  Her name is absent from studies of Dizzy, of Bird, of Benny Carter.  Had Fran been Francis, would she be so erased?”

She feels so much, at this distance, like Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s sister.”

Let us follow the paper trail.

DOWN BEAT, 15 November 1945: “Fran Kelly [sic] of Hollywood House of Music will launch her new international label with star jazz headliners.”

More about “the Hollywood House of Music,” from      https://peggyleediscography.com/p/LeeResearchCapitolEarly.php:

The Nebraskan son of an Union Pacific Railway accountant, Glenn Everett Wallichs had been interested in electronics since his childhood — focusing on the design of radio sets and the mechanics of train railroads. A North Hollywood transplant (at 16 years of age, in his family’s company), he started his adult workdays locally, as a radio station technician (at WFWB) and then as the owner of a car-radio repair shop (at Ivar Avenue). Wallichs’ small shop evolved into a radio and electronics store, and that one store brought enough profit to allow for its multiplication into a chain (a total of five stores, all of them in the Hollywood area). In 1938, Wallichs took his business ventures even further. Accompanied by his brother Clyde, he joined forces with former WFWB co-worker Al Jarvis (the pioneering disc jockey, who also happened to be an LA record shop owner) to create Hollywood House of Music, a compound that merged Jarvis’ record shop with the fifth, youngest of Wallichs’ electronics stores. The most noteworthy aspect of the merger was that the latter was no longer just a retail store: it was converted into a small specialty recording studio, whose specialty became custom recordings. Though “normal civilian” requests for recordings of events such as weddings or parties were certainly taken, the studio primarily catered to artists’ requests of airchecks from radio broadcasts. It also chiefly became the place from which Jarvis’ legendary creation, the Make Believe Ballroom show, was broadcast during the late 1930s. Known to have been recorded there in 1938 is a novelty tune that featured Wallichs himself along with Stan Kenton, Paul Weston, Jo Stafford and others (all of them playing instruments, Stafford included, and some of them under pseudonyms). The resulting instrumental number was chucklingly titled “The World’s Worst Record.”

METRONOME Yearbook, 1956, showing the astonishing roster of musicians who performed at the concert Fran organized on April 12, 1946:

My friend Nick Rossi — guitarist, jazz scholar, painter — magically turned up the program for the concert here.  Someone’s bought it, but what can be seen here is stunning.

One exception to the contemporary erasure of Fran Kelley is Douglas Daniels’ 2002 biography of Lester Young, LESTER LEAPS IN, where he writes of this concert:

In Los Angeles, [Norman] Granz, Billy Berg, and Fran Kelly [sic] typified a new type of jazz promoter dedicated to racial equality. Kelly, with the aid of Lester Young, Ray Bauduc, Kay Starr, Lucky Thompson, Red Callender, Charlie Parker, Nat Cole, Benny Carter, and other artists, sought to foster racial tolerance by booking UCLA’s Royce Hall for a performance to benefit the scholarship fund of the George Washington Carver Club, named after the famous Tuskegee scientist. A Metronome recap reported that Young and Parker offered ‘‘the best number of the program.’’ All the musicians either donated their services or received a nominal fee, with proceeds going to the scholarship fund. This marked a first for UCLA. . . .

Granz gets top billing; Kell[e]y is unidentified.

DOWN BEAT, 6 May 1946, a very small comment on the concert, compared to the coverage of Les Brown’s “ball team”:

CLEF, June 1946, a concert review which begins with a beautiful quote:

METRONOME, August 1946.  More about the concert.  Linger, please, over the names of the musicians, and when you are through with time-travel, also note that a new Lester Young record gets a “C+”:

Because online research is part pearl diving and part trash collection, my continued inquiries into the George Washington Carver Club led me to this site, which I avoided as if made of Kryptonite: Twin Towers 911 Video Clips Video De Sexo De Paris Hilton …8.aksuchess.ru › VkjWBA.  

We move on.

BAND LEADERS AND RECORD REVIEW, August 1946, notes “Kelly,” “gal platter impresario”:

DOWN BEAT, 6 May 1949, noting that the Fran-Tone masters were sold to Capitol (which Wallichs, Johnny Mercer, and Buddy De Sylva had founded) — my guess is that they did not sell and they were never issued on that label . . . plus a famous Lester interview:

DOWN BEAT, 14 December 1955, a nameless reviewer mocks Fran’s liner notes for a Chico Hamilton record:  “Only clinker are the notes on the individual numbers by Fran Kelley, written in her inimitable prose, a cross between science fiction and theosophy.”

DOWN BEAT, 4 April 1956, an approving review of Jimmy Rowles’ first session as a leader, where Fran is called “the only pretty jazz critic”:

And here are the notes for that album, with a tiny portrait of the author:

METRONOME, February 1957, Fran’s imaginative profile of Keely Smith:

DOWN BEAT, 3 April 1958: the last mention of Fran — “poetess,” working for Ellington:


There the trail stops, except for Ellington’s coda in MUSIC IS MY MISTRESS: “And there is one more person–Fran Kelley, musician, poet, songwriter, singer, orchestrator, manager, executive. This great woman with all these talents gave up running a radio station and record company in Los Angeles to pursue her
spiritual quests in San Francisco.”

I have not been able to find out anything about Fran Kelley’s life after 1958.  And that may have been the way she wanted it, to turn away from the secular world, “the music business,” to shuck off being called “pretty,” and live another life.  If you are born Fran Kelley and you enter a religious order and take the name of Sister Angela, even Google cannot find you.  (Consider Boyce Brown, “Brother Matthew.”)  And even a rudimentary glance at actuarial tables would suggest that she is no longer living.

But I hope she wasn’t driven away by misogyny.  Yes, regarding the past through the lenses of the present can distort, but someone so sensitized might want to abandon the world where music was for sale and one’s best efforts got ignored.  A world where Lester Young got a C+.

I feel her absence.  A great loss.  Her legacy is and should be more than a dozen or so clippings from jazz trade papers.

This post is in memory of Fran Kelley, once remarkable and now unknown, with no biography and no Wikipedia page. And it is also in honor of all the women who create imaginative ideas and art and don’t get heard at the meetings or find their ideas vacuumed up and presented by men, but still keep creating.

Thanks to Katherine Vasile, Brian Kane, and Richard Salvucci: without them, this post would never have happened.

May your happiness increase!

PIECES OF PAPER, CONTINUED: LOUIS, BILLIE, ELLA, BUDDY DE FRANCO, ELLIS LARKINS, AL HALL

Paper ephemera — but hardly ephemeral — from a recent eBay expedition.

“SATCHMO,” to you, in an unusual newspaper photograph, sporting what looks like Playboy cufflinks, and a white belt.

and the reverse:

and something even more unusual: a copy of Sidney Finkelstein’s 1948 JAZZ: A PEOPLE’S MUSIC, translated into German, with signatures and candid photographs enclosed:

and

The “Daniel” is mysterious; it’s been attached to Louis’ first name in various canned biographies, but as far as I know he never used it himself, and that does not look like his handwriting.  Unlike this uncomplicated signature:

and (I believe that’s Norman Granz on the left):

and the seller’s description:

Signed book `Jazz` (by Sidney Finkelstein), 200 pages – with four affixed unsigned candid photos (three of Ella Fitzgerald), 5 x 8,25 inch, first edition, publisher `Gerd Hatje`, Stuttgart 1951, in German, signed on the title page in blue ballpoint ink “Billie Holiday” – with an affixed postcard (Savoy Hotel): signed and inscribed by Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) in pencil “Daniel – Louis Armstrong” & signed by Buddy DeFranco (1923-2014) in blue ballpoint ink “Buddy DeFranco”, with scattered mild signs of wear – in fine to very fine condition.

Here‘s the seller’s link.  Yours for $2492.03.  Or the easy payment plan of $120 a month for 24 months.  Plus $16.00 expedited shipping from Switzerland to the United States.

Once you’ve caught your breath, here’s something that was within my price range.  Reader, I bought this — although I haven’t played it yet — a souvenir of the East Side New York jazz club, Gregory’s, where (among others) Ellis Larkins and Al Hall played . . . also Brooks Kerr, Russell Procope, and Sonny Greer; Mark Shane, Al Haig . . . .

The front:

The back:

May your happiness increase!

“TAL FARLOW: A LIFE IN JAZZ GUITAR / AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY,” JEAN-LUC KATCHOURA and MICHELE HYK-FARLOW

Tal Farlow, photograph by Francis Wolff, 1953

Once again, I am in the odd position of writing a review of a book I have not finished.  I am a very quick reader of fiction, but books full of new information are imposing.  The good news is that I feel compelled to write about this book now because it is expansive and delightful: a gorgeous large-format 340-plus page book about Tal Farlow, in English and French, illustrated with many rare photographs and at the end, “Gifts from Tal,” a CD of rare music.  Unlike many substantial research volumes, it is splendidly designed and visually appealing, with so many color photographs, magazine covers, and priceless ephemera that one could spend several days, entranced, without ever looking at the text.

Here is the link to purchase this delightful volume.

Recently, I finally decided to take the more timid way into the book, and started by playing the CD — rare performances with Red Mitchell, Jimmy Raney, Gene Bertoncini, and Jack Wilkins, some recorded at Tal’s home in Sea Bright.  Interspersed with those performances, quietly amazing in their fleet ease, are excerpts from interviews with Tal done by Phil Schaap, edited so that we hear only Tal, talking about Bird, about technique, about his childhood.  I think the CD itself would be worth the price of the book, which is not to ignore the book at all.  (It is playing as I write this blogpost.)

And a digression that might not be digressive: here is the author speaking (in French) about his book and about working with Tal and Tal’s wife to create it:

and a small musical sample (Neal Hefti’s classic, here titled very formally) for those who might be unfamiliar with Tal’s particular magic: he was entirely self-taught and could not read music:

The book brims with first-hand anecdotes about Tal in the company of (or being influenced by) Charlie Christian, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Billy Kretchmer, Dardanelle, Red Norvo (whose extended recollections are a  highlight), Charles Mingus, Mary Osborne, Eddie Costa, Norman Granz, Oscar Pettiford, and Tal’s brothers of the guitar, including Herb Ellis, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel.

It’s a dangerously seductive book: I began revisiting it for this blog and two hours went by, as I visited text and photographs from Tal’s childhood to his death.  For guitar fanciers, there are pages devoted to his Gibsons as well.

This book deserves a more comprehensive review, but I know JAZZ LIVES readers will happily write their own.  And I have my entrancing jazz reading for the winter to come.

May your happiness increase!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WEARY BLUES:

DOWN HOME RAG:

CARELESS LOVE:

PANAMA:

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

May your happiness increase!

THE JOHN OCHS CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY OF SEATTLE: RAY SKJELBRED, JIM GOODWIN, HAM CARSON (April 8, 1988)

Jim Goodwin, photo courtesy of Dave Radlauer

There are musicians, and there are people who make the music possible: record producers, archivists, concert promoters, club owners, managers, and more. Think of George Wein, Norman Granz, Milt Gabler, Jerry Newman, (even) Joe Glaser, George Avakian, Bill Savory, the Ertegun brothers, and three dozen more.  To this list must be added the name (and living presence) of John Ochs, who has generously produced records and CDs on his Rhythm Master label. I have long admired those recordings, but hadn’t known of John as a video-archivist prince until meeting him (and wife Pamela) at the November 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest, when he told me of the marvels I can share with you below.

A youthful Ray Skjelbred, again courtesy of Dave Radlauer.

John is also the authority of Northwest Pacific boxing promoter Jack Hurley, and has just published a three-volume bio-history.  Details here.  (I have no interest in boxing but was caught by these irresistible stories.)

But this post is about some treasured music — by heroes — that I hadn’t known existed.  It’s my pleasure to let John himself introduce it:

The video was recorded at the RhythmMaster recording session in my basement on April 8, 1988.  I borrowed a neighbor’s video camera with auto-focus (as you will see, only sometimes, and even then it was not very good).  The session featured primarily Ray Skjelbred on piano and Jim Goodwin on cornet.  I asked reed man Hamilton Carson to come around for second half of the session to add another voice. Unfortunately, the footage from the session’s first half (the entire portion of the session featuring Jim and Ray as a duo. Damn!) was stolen in a house break-in along with the VCR with which I had been reviewing it.

What remains is the last part of the session just as Ham had come aboard. Unfortunately, after a few tunes, our “cameraman,” had to leave early, and the special lighting was dimmed and the camera put on auto-pilot for the rest of the session.  The quality of the video is not up to your normal standard, but despite the major focus problems, I think it is worth sharing.

Goodwin’s cornet work here might seem a little ragged to some people.  Certainly he is blowing a very breathy horn.  There are several reasons for this.  For one thing, this session took place at a lull in Jim’s musical life when he had moved back to Portland to live with his mother.  What little music he played was mostly for himself on the upright piano in the living room rather than on the cornet.  So also, Jim being the Jim Goodwin we know and love so well, was never one to place a premium on the condition or quality of his horn.  If it had a few leaky valves or hadn’t been cleaned in a while, that was just a challenge to be navigated around rather than fixed.  Most importantly though, as a follower of such musicians as Wild Bill Davison (maybe his earliest as well and most enduring influence), Rex Stewart, Red Allen, and Herman Autrey, etc., Jim naturally gravitated to an expressive, earthy-toned method of horn playing.

These aspects of his style are in full display here, but, more importantly, the footage provides a visual closeup of the creative warmth and vitality Goodwin brought to his music and to the musicians in the band.  When Ham Carson blows an especially beautiful solo, Jim is right there listening and encouraging him. And when the solo ends, Jim can hardly wait to take his turn, not to upstage Ham, but to continue the mood and complement the good work he has done.  So too, when Skjelbred acknowledges Goodwin’s descending run with a tip of his own musical hat, Jim is quick to return the compliment with a smile even as he gets on with the business of making music.  It was this infectious use of his creativity, and his desire to make the band sound better, which made him such a joy to work with and to listen to.  Jim simply brought out the best in those around him. I hope that these video clips might help round out the picture of Jim Goodwin, the musician, and afford those who never saw him play an opportunity to visualize what was happening on the bandstand or studio when they listen to his other sound recordings.

This video also may serve to introduce many of your viewers to the music of clarinetist Ham Carson.  It may be hard to believe, but I am quite sure that neither Goodwin nor Skjelbred, who at the time lived in Berkeley, California, had met Ham prior to the the session. Ham moved to Seattle from Los Angeles about 10 years earlier and had been a fixture in Seattle’s jazz circles ever since. I was familiar with Ham’s affinity for Chicago-style (i. e., Pee Wee, Tesch) playing and thought the styles of the three musicians would be compatible.  Boy, for once, was I ever right!  Ham fit right in!  His playing here is impressive throughout — prodigious even.  As for Ray’s playing on the session, no comment is required.

My dear friend Candace Brown shared two pieces of journalism which are more than relevant.  Sadly, they are obituaries, but written with care and warmth: Ham Carson and Jim Goodwin.  If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know of my reverence for pianist Ray Skjelbred, who is very much with us as I write these words.  

But enough words.  To the music, which speaks louder.  Than.

PART ONE: Recorded by John Ochs, April 8, 1988. Ray Skjelbred, piano; Jim Goodwin, cornet; Ham Carson, clarinet: EMALINE; GEE, BABY, AIN’T I GOOD TO YOU; COPENHAGEN; RUNNIN’ WILD.

PART TWO: RUNNIN’ WILD (concluded); SQUEEZE ME (piano solo); I AIN’T GOT NOBODY; NOBODY’S SWEETHEART.

PART THREE:  NEW BALK BLUES; POOR BUTTERFLY (Carson-Skjelbred duet); DIGA DIGA DOO; SAY IT SIMPLE; TRYING TO STOP MY CRYING.

A few things need to be said.  First, ninety minutes of this!  Second, many “rarities” are more rare than gratifying: I hope you all will take the time to savor this hot chamber music recital.

To me, there are four heroes in these three videos: Skjelbred, Carson, Goodwin, and Ochs.  Their generosities uplift us, and we are grateful.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES CHARLIE SHAVERS and FRIENDS (April 21, 2017)

When Dan Morgenstern and I had concluded our first series of video interviews, he reminded me that we hadn’t spoken of Charlie Shavers, and I was also eager to do this when we met for a second time.  Charlie was an extraordinary trumpeter, arranger, and singer — someone not celebrated in this century as he deserves.

Why stardom seems to come naturally to one artist and not another is mysterious, but I hope that Dan’s wise, affectionate, and first-hand recollections will help people rediscover Mister Shavers:

“Smother me!” Charlie with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and Louis Bellson:

This is why sound film was invented, so that we could see and hear Charlie and Sidney Catlett have a delightful conversation — also John Kirby, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, and Russell Procope (or is it Charlie Holmes?) in 1947:

and late in life with Ben Webster, playing some “dirty blues”:

and the quartet that Dan referred to:

Previous interview segments with Dan can be found here.  And there are more to come.

May your happiness increase!

“ALOHA.”

rich-conaty-portrait

RICH CONATY 1954-2016

In the history of jazz, people who do not play instruments do as much, in different ways, to sustain the art without getting equal credit. Think of Milt Gabler, George Avakian, Henry Sklow, Norman Granz, George Wein, Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, and other catalysts. Then there are broadcasters. “Broadcasting” meant something even before radio and television: spreading something widely, effectively: a newsboy shouting the headlines or a farmer distributing seed over a field. Jazz radio broadcasters — in previous decades Martin Block, Art Ford, Fred Robbins, Sid Torin; in our time Ed Beach, John S. Wilson, Phil Schaap, Dan Morgenstern, Alisa Clancy, Linda Yohn and many others – do more than play records. They become our friends, teachers, and benefactors. We look forward to their voices, personalities, and insights. Before there was streaming radio, we arranged our schedules around them; we tape-recorded their programs, which became sweet swinging libraries, introducing us to new artists or rare records.

Rich Conaty, who died of cancer on December 30, 2016, gave his energy and ultimately his life in the reverent and delighted service of the music he loved: the pop and jazz of the teens, Twenties, and Thirties, roughly 1911-1939. For forty-four years, he shared that music on a Sunday-night broadcast on Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV-FM (90.7). Rich’s THE BIG BROADCAST, named in homage to the 1932 film with Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, the Boswell Sisters, Arthur Tracy, Cab Calloway, and others, was a consistent pleasure.

Rich was enchanted by this music when he was thirteen or fourteen, began broadcasting as a high school student on New York’s Hofstra College radio station. When he had to choose a college, he picked Fordham University because of its radio station, and beginning in January 1973, was on the air every Sunday night, live perhaps fifty weeks every year, taping shows in advance when he went away, perhaps to visit his mother in Florida.

Early on, Rich formed an alliance with Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks, and these two did more to introduce this music to a wider, younger audience than perhaps anyone. Rich said that his program was “for the old and the old at heart,” for his humor was sharply wry (occasionally painfully self-deprecating) but he was most happy to learn that some seventeen-year old was now collecting Chick Bullock 78s or had fallen in love with Lee Wiley. He had other interests – vintage Nash automobiles, cats, and other kinds of vintage pop culture – but was devoted to the music and musicians above all.

Listening to Rich for decades, I was able to trace the subtle development of a scholarly intelligence.  Years ago, his library of recordings was small (as was mine) so he played the Mills Brothers’ TIGER RAG frequently.  As he became the person and the scholar he was meant to become, his awareness, knowledge, and collection deepened.

We’ve heard earnest but ignorant radio announcers – those who call the Ellington clarinetist “Barney Biggered,” or the King of Jazz “Paul White Man,” but Rich knew his music, his musicians, and his history. Every show, he created tributes to musicians, songwriters, and other figures whose birthday he would celebrate: not just Bix, Bing, Louis, Jolson, Annette; his enthusiasm for songwriters and figures, once renowned, now obscure, was astonishing. He had interviewed Bob Effros, Edward Eliscu, Ben Selvin, and Vet Boswell on the air; he was friends with Dolly Dawn, had gotten drunk with Cab Calloway. Connee Boswell sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him over the phone; Arthur Tracy performed at his wedding to Mary Hayes (“Manhattan Mary,” who also died too young of cancer).

Rich expanded our knowledge and our joy by playing an astonishing range of music from his own collection of vintage records. Every Sunday that I heard the program, I would say several times, “What is that? I never heard that record before!” and this was true in 2015 and 2016, where it seems as if everything is accessible on CD, download, or YouTube. He spent his life surrounded by 78s – those he had acquired at auction, those he was selling at record shows. Because the idea of THE BIG BROADCAST was not just famous, documented recordings, he would often play a record about which little was known. But he could offer an educated guess about the true band behind the Crown label pseudonym, whether the singer was Irving or Jack Kaufman, when the song had been premiered – much more than statistics gleaned from books. He took requests from his devoted audience, gave away tickets to jazz concerts, and with Bryan Wright, created a series of BIG BROADCAST CDs — I have more than a few — which are wonderful cross-sections of the period.

I should say that his taste was admirable.  He didn’t play every 78 he had found — no sermons, no organ recitals of light classics, no comedy records — but within the “pop and jazz” area I could trust him to play the good stuff, the music that would otherwise be forgotten.  He left IN THE MOOD to others, but he played Henry Burr, Bill Coleman, Jane Green, Johnny Marvin, Fred Rich, Ben Selvin, Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Emmett Miller, Eddie Lang, Jack Purvis, Luis Russell, The Sunshine Boys, Kate Smith, Ted Weems, early Ellington, Jean Goldkette, and on and on.

And part of the pleasure of his expertise and of radio in general (at its best, when the programmer is subtle and wise) is not just the delighted shock of one record, but of the juxtapositions Rich created in three-sides-in-a-row.  THE BIG BROADCAST was rather like being invited to an evening at Jeff Healey’s house, where you knew the music would be embracing, uplifting, and educational in the best way.  (I should also say that Rich did talk — digressing into his own brand of stand-up comedy, with little bits of slightly off-key a cappella singing — but music made up the bulk of the program.  He wouldn’t tell you the personnel of the thirteen-piece big band, by choice, I am sure, because it would mean he could play fewer recordings.)

On a personal note: I, like many others, made cassettes of the program and played them in the car.  I fell asleep to the program on hundreds of Sunday nights.  When I was young and diligent, I graded student essays to it. Although Rich and I had much of the same focused obsession with the music, we met in person only a few times (I think always at Sofia’s when the Nighthawks were playing) and THE BIG BROADCAST was his world — and by extension the health and welfare of WFUV.  So our conversations were brief, before the band started or in between sets.  But my debt to him is immeasurable, and it would not have increased had our conversations been lengthy.

rich-conaty-at-wfuv

I do not know what will happen to Rich’s recorded legacy – more than eight thousand hours of radio. Some shows have been archived and can be heard through wfuv.org, but whether the station will share others as a tribute is not yet decided. More information can be found on the Facebook page devoted to Fans of the WFUV Big Broadcast.

I think of Wild Bill Davison’s puzzled question about Frank Teschemacher, dead in an auto accident in Bill’s car, “Where are we going to get another sax player like Tesch?” Paraphrase the question to apply to Rich Conaty, and the answer is, “We never will.” But his generosity will live on.

Aloha.  And Mahalo.

May your happiness increase!

BY THE LIGHT OF LOUIS

LOUIS and ALPHA and dog

I’ve written this before, but when I hear Louis Armstrong, I have great difficulty keeping myself from standing up instantly and putting my hand over my heart.

LOUIS cartoon in Melody Maker Jan. 1933

But I also feel that way about music that reminds me of Louis.  I don’t simply mean WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH or THE FAITHFUL HUSSAR, but any music that’s beautifully and reverently played, with emphasis on melodic improvisation in swing.  That happens fairly regularly, thank goodness, with the musicians I follow.  And it happened most beautifully at the end of the 2015 Allegheny Jazz Party (now the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party) during the closing ballad medley.

I know that Norman Granz got the credit for introducing the ballad medley to jazz concerts — that is, rather than have everyone on stage take a long solo on a ballad, thus making for a musical interlude of nearly an hour at a slow tempo, he would have his soloists take one chorus only on a ballad that they’d chosen, with the rhythm section keeping the same slow tempo but changing key — but I wonder if credit shouldn’t go first or simultaneously to Eddie Condon, for whom this was a regular feature in clubs and broadcasts and even recordings.  Condon’s medleys were a bit more brisk — what generations ago musicians and listeners called “rhythm ballads” — but they were delightful interludes.

Joe Boughton, founder of the Allegheny Jazz Party (and Jazz at Chautauqua and other gifts) would have followed the Condon model — I think JATP was anathema to him.  Since he loved obscure show tunes and songs that would otherwise be forgotten, he insisted that his parties close with an extended ballad medley before a final jam tune.

A beautiful evocation of what Riley and Clint Baker call LOUISNESS happened once again at the 2015 Party (September 13, 2015) when all the musicians trooped onstage to play or sing one heartfelt chorus.  Here are six of the best: soloists Scott Robinson, tenor [WAS I TO BLAME?}; Duke Heitger, trumpet [BODY AND SOUL]; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet [HOME] with lovely rhythm section support from Rossano Sportiello, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

I think of Joe Oliver sternly telling his protege that people wanted to hear that lead . . . and of Louis always embodying that the song was lovely and that one had to play it from the heart.

What music is all about; what music does at its best.

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!

MASTERS OF LIGHTNESS: MISTER CARTER, MISTER WILSON, MISTER JONES (and MISTER CROSBY) 1954, 1934

Benny-Carter-3-4-5

I remember being astonished by this session when it came out — not that many years ago — on CD.  Presumably Norman Granz had some reason for not issuing it at the time (it is hard to see why) or someone was less than pleased with the results.  But it is a trio session: Benny Carter, alto saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Jo Jones, drums, recorded in New York City, September 20, 1954.  Did the bassist not make the session or was this an updated version of the Goodman Trio?  Whatever the reason, this is beautifully deep but translucent music.  Here Benny, Teddy, and Jo take the usually sad Rodgers and Hart LITTLE GIRL BLUE and swing it in true mid-Thirties fashion:

and here’s a tender rendition of JUNE IN JANUARY, by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, irrevocably associated with Bing in 1934*:

How to play the melody, how to improvise with great delicacy and precision without ever seeming cold — the lessons of these Masters.

*I couldn’t leave Bing out, so here is the precious, witty, and romantic sequence devoted to JUNE IN JANUARY in the 1934 film HERE IS MY HEART:

May your happiness increase!

A DREAM WE CAN SEE — JATP IN EUROPE: ROY ELDRIDGE, COLEMAN HAWKINS, DON BYAS, BENNY CARTER, LALO SCHIFRIN, SAM JONES, JO JONES (November 25, 1960, Paris)

Recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on November 25, 1960 — directed by Jean-Christophe Averty. Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Benny Carter, alto saxophone; Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Lalo Schifrin, piano; Sam Jones, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.

Brought to you through the kind diligence of the indefatigable Franz Hoffmann.

TAKE THE “A” TRAIN:

BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA:

I don’t have my Verve recordings of the JATP in Europe tour to compare these with, but even if the television broadcasts are identical to the recordings, what rapture to see these men in their prime!  (And even if Jo’s lengthy solo on INDIANA was by this time a set-piece, how remarkable to have it on film to see and study.)

Yes, giants did walk the earth.  Tell it to the children.

May your happiness increase!

BALLADS BY HARRY ALLEN, DAN BLOCK, BOB HAVENS, DUKE HEITGER, JON-ERIK KELLSO, RANDY REINHART, ANDY SCHUMM, REBECCA KILGORE, DAN BARRETT, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, MARTY GROSZ, FRANK TATE, JOHN VON OHLEN (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 22, 2013)

Norman Granz took credit for inventing what came to be called “the ballad medley” for his concert performances.  Rather than have everyone stand onstage and take solo choruses on what might be a fourteen-minute BODY AND SOUL, Granz proposed — for variety’s sake — that each of the musicians would emerge from the wings, hastily tell the rhythm section what (s)he had chosen, both song and key, and play or sing a chorus of it, then exit.

For the audience, it is a parade of small memorable delights. First, it reminds us what great players and singers can create within the space of one chorus of a song — note that, at their most leisurely, these performances are two minutes apiece. They offer us subtle embellishments on enduring melodies.  And the tempos!  Once upon a time, there was a precious little thing called the RHYTHM BALLAD, which meant that even if the lyrics said, “I am throwing myself out of the window because you don’t love me,” the rhythm ticked quietly underneath in medium tempo.  The ballad medley requires a perfectly attentive and wise rhythm section, especially a pianist who can respond in a second to something muttered, “WHEN DAY IS DONE, three flats,” modulate in to the proper key and be ready.

The late Joe Boughton, who delighted in jazz ballads, made sure that his jazz parties always included such interludes.

On September 22, 2013, at the closing set of Jazz at Chautauqua, a series of small miraculous evocations came and went in front of our eyes.  I am honored to have been there and privileged to capture much of the ballad medley for you.

The participants are Rossano Sportiello, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar / vocal; Frank Tate, string bass; John Von Ohlen, drums; Jon-Erik Kellso, Andy Schumm, Randy Reinhart, Duke Heitger, trumpets; Dan Barrett, Bob Havens, trombones; Andy Stein, violin; Harry Allen, Dan Block, reeds; Rebecca Kilgore, vocal.

EASY LIVING (Harry Allen), DAY DREAM (Dan Block), CAN’T HELP LOVIN’ THAT MAN (Bob Havens), I KNOW WHY (Duke Heitger):

I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME (Jon-Erik Kellso):

MY FUNNY VALENTINE (Randy Reinhart); PLEASE (Andy Schumm); LAURA (Andy Stein); IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN (Marty Grosz); SOPHISTICATED LADY (Rossano Sportiello):

And a wonderful closing serenade, OHIO by Rebecca Kilgore and Dan Barrett:

OHIO offers a perfect transition.  Jazz at Chautauqua has changed its name and moved west — to Cleveland, Ohio — but I know its essential musical nature will not diminish or change.  It’s now the Allegheny Jazz Party, beginning on Thursday, September 18, and concluding (with a ballad medley) on Sunday, September 21.  I hope your life-path and travel plans allow you to be there!

May your happiness increase!

FIRST TENOR

Lester Young made the transition in 1959, but his soul and his sound are as real and gently tangible as the moon and the breezes.

I present a holy relic of that most gentle man, from the Larry Rafferty Collection:

PRES REED

What can one say?

May your happiness increase!

DO WHAT ORY SAY: “CREOLE TROMBONE: KID ORY AND THE EARLY YEARS OF JAZZ,” by JOHN McCUSKER

It’s always a pleasure to encounter a new jazz book that’s not a rehash of overexposed source materials or burdened by academic ideologies, and John McCusker’s fresh look at the life and music of trombonist / composer / bandleader Edward “Kid” Ory (1886-1973) is just such an engaging book.

In CREOLE TROMBONE, McCusker carefully documents Ory’s roots, his development as an artist, and the scenes in which he lived and workd — not only rural Louisiana and New Orleans, but California in the early years of the twentieth century and Chicago in the Twenties.

We learn a great deal about a variety of subjects — life on a sugar cane plantation, New Orleans band battles and etiquette, early recordings and the music business.  And there are portraits, some of them from an unusual angle or an unexpected perspective, of Joe Oliver, young Louis Armstrong, Mutt Carey, Jelly Roll Morton, Freddie Keppard, Buddy Bolden, and others.

McCusker is praised for his “meticulous research” in three of the back-cover blurbs, and the book does not disappoint here.  Not only does he make use of published work by scholars including David Sager, Henry Kmen, Al Rose, and interviews with the surviving musicians held in the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, but he has spoken to Ory’s relatives and drawn liberally on Ory’s unpublished autobiography (made available to him through the generosity of Ory’s daughter Babette).  As usual, there are brief “historical” passages in which the author works to set the scene for those unfamiliar with it, and the expected use of census and baptismal records.

The book offers thirty pages of endnotes, contains twenty photographs of Ory, his family, and the bands — only three of which will be familiar.  CREOLE TROMBONE also reproduces lead sheets from six unpublished Ory songs — the most intriguing being MUSSOLINI CARRIES THE DRUM FOR HITLER and DON’T FORGET THE SANTA FE TRAIN AND BUS.  (Do I hear a CD project, “The Unrecorded Kid Ory,” in the works?)

I came away from the book with an increased awareness of and respect for Ory — not only as independent and ambitious, but someone with a keen eye for making his musical activities pay off.  I was struck by Ory the entrepreneur (circa 1912-13) who not only booked his own dances — arranging for his band to play in a hall he had rented — but because he was worried about competition, paying to rent a hall two blocks away and keep it dark that night.

The most animated parts of the book, of course, are the first-hand recollections of the musicians: a leisurely word-picture of the worst place Ory ever played, Spano’s, that catered to prostitutes and “freakish” men and women; his depiction of life in a Storyville brothel, where a customer who hung his trousers over a chair would find himself wishing he had been more cautious.  McCusker’s research delves into the musical communication between more formal ragtime-dance music and hotter jazz, between Ory and his colleagues and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  Ory and Joe Oliver were advertising their band as playing “Jazz” as early as November 1917; in 1922, “Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra” was broadcasting on the radio in California.

McCusker is by profession a photographer and journalist, someone obviously wanting to add to the record and to make it accurate, so that Ory would not be overshadowed, forgotten, or ignored — very good reasons to research and write a book.  McCusker clearly admires Ory but the book is not worshipful.  His writing is lively and the book moves quickly; although he relies greatly on sources, it does not resemble an academic thesis.

Because McCusker sees Ory as a seriously influential figure, I was not surprised to find a great deal of study devoted to the years before Ory made his first recordings in 1922.  Ory’s musical career continued until 1933 or so, then — after a decade of non-musical work) it resumed for nearly two decades.  But CREOLE TROMBONE covers the years from 1943 to Ory’s death in a few quick pages.

Had Ory retreated into an old man’s obscurity, I could understand this, but in that period Ory made more than two-thirds of his recordings, many for major labels (Columbia, Decca, Victor, and the Norman Granz conglomerate) toured Europe several times — and was more popular than ever before.

Since I first encountered Ory’s music in this period — as a member of a 1946 Armstrong group and on two Verve recordings that paired him effectively with Henry “Red” Allen, I find the omission curious, and the book feels to me hurried or deflating.  This could have been an economic decision (a press choosing a manuscript of X words only and its author deciding to concentrate on the less explored early period), but the last pages of this otherwise rewarding book feel truncated.

But here’s my offering to make up for it:

Another view of the authorship of MUSKRAT RAMBLE from Louis himself — twice (thanks to Ricky Riccardi) — here.  Who knew that fried muskrat had such powers?

May your happiness increase.

“WELCOME TO NUTVILLE”: A BUDDY RICH DOCUMENTARY

The filmmaker Brian Morgan seems to me to be someone full of energy, creativity, and humor.  And he’s set out on a course of action that seems both logical and daring: to make an expansive documentary film that will do justice to the life and music of the remarkable jazz drummer Buddy Rich.  From every bit of evidence we have — the recordings, the interviews, the television and film appearances — Rich was not only a monumental musician but someone determined to go his own way in all things — thus a first-rate subject for a large study on both counts.  And since so many jazz legends have been documented many years after they are dead, timing is everything . . . while the people who knew and worked with Buddy are still on the planet.

Brian has one great advantage in that he has the enthusiastic commitment of Cathy Rich, Buddy’s daughter — someone blessed with some of her father’s determination.

Projects like this are no longer funded by major grants or huge Hollywood studios (we know that if one of the latter got hold of this idea, it wouldn’t resemble Buddy’s life or music at all when it was through) . . . so Brian and Cathy are asking for your help, your support, and your contribution.  Even if you can’t bankroll the project in some dramatic way, I urge you to watch the video here.  This site is accepting one-dollar donations, although I am sure they wouldn’t mind more sweeping largesse — and since just about everyone who ever sat down at a drum set since 1937 has in some way been conscious of Mr. Rich, I wish that all the drummers — professional, amateur, and people who tap on the table — would take this appeal seriously.

And as a reward for your patience and generosity, here is a seventeen-minute collection of excerpts from the 1950 film Norman Granz never saw to its completion, tentatively titled IMPROVISATION, which finds Buddy among Hank Jones, Ray Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bill Harris, Harry Edison, Flip Phillips, and Ella Fitzgerald . . . not only showing off the fast company who worked with and admired Buddy, but how wonderfully he fit into this varied presentation by musicians with very different styles:

May your happiness increase.

SO LITTLE TIME (A Shopping Pilgrimage to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Corona, New York)

I was very excited to read all the good press surrounding yesterday’s blogpost by Elvis Costello where he urged his fans to buy the ten-CD Louis Armstrong box set, SATCHMO: AMBASSADOR OF JAZZ, instead of his own (overpriced) one.

Hooray for Mister Costello’s candor and love!

But I didn’t own a copy of SATCHMO.  And that bothered me.  I have some of the music on other sources, but I felt like a hypocrite.  How could I urge my readers to get to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, New York, if I wasn’t ready to go there myself, unsheath my trusty credit card, and walk out with a box for myself?

This afternoon I made a Jazz Pilgrimage to the LAHM, and I can report that the Universal Music box is sitting next to me (like a well-trained rectangular puppy) as I write this.  I feel richer rather than poorer.  That’s the good news.

The less-than-good news is that the LAHM is the only place you can buy the box — it was produced in the United Kingdom in limited quantities, and they bought the remaining stock from the distributor.  Today I found out that there are fewer than forty copies for sale.  And when they’re gone . . .

So don’t wait for January 2012 to lament that the boxes are no longer available (although I am sure someone is planning to buy a few to sell on eBay at inflated prices).  The LAHM opens at 10 AM!  Here’s the link to contact them:

http://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/visiting/overview.htm

Now, what’s in the nifty box seen above?  The first seven discs are a comprehensive survey of Louis’s recorded career, from the Creole Jazz Band’s 1923 JUST GONE to two tracks recorded at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival.  Then, there’s a seventy-five minute segment from Louis talking with friends Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley in 1965, with some assistance from Papa Slivovice.  And — courtesy of our very own Ricky Riccardi, there are two discs of material — unissued and alternate takes — no one’s ever heard before, including scorching material from a Hollywood Bowl concert that concludes with a version of WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN that has the All-Stars joined by the Norman Granz JATP troupe; much new material with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson . . . and on.  I have attached Ricky’s marathon blogpost about the set — complete with track listings and explanations — for your dining and dancing pleasure:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2011/07/satchmo-louis-armstrong-ambassador-of.html

And if you can’t get to Corona, can’t afford the set, but love Louis, call the LAHM anyway.  They are wonderful people down there, full of ideas on how to make the legacy of Louis continue in soaring shape.  (There’s the gala on December 6, and any monetary contribution would come in W.C. Handy.)

RHYTHM IS THEIR BUSINESS: DUKE HEITGER’S SWING BAND (with BECKY KILGORE) at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011

Sometimes the best things happen when the more moderate types have gone to bed.  Here’s “Late Night Swing” from Jazz at Chautauqua (Sept. 16, 2011), featuring a hot swing band and singer in peak form.

Duke Heitger’s Swing Band featured the man himself on trumpet and vocals; Dan Barrett on trombone and arrangements; Dan Block, Scott Robinson, reeds; John Sheridan, piano and arrangements; Howard Alden, guitar; Glenn Holmes, bass; Pete Siers, drums; Becky Kilgore, vocals.  It was a twenty-first century version of the band that recorded a Fantasy CD (9684-2) which I hope you’re still able to find:

Here’s a link: http://www.amazon.com/Rhythm-Business-Duke-Heitger-Swing/dp/B00004SAZ8

But what we enjoyed at Chautauqua was more than sound coming out of speakers: catch the happy expressions on the musicians’ faces as they listened to these swinging arrangements and to Ms. Kilgore.

The set began with one of the best Thirties let’s-introduce-the-stars-in-the-band songs (courtesy of Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, and the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra), which Duke sang, RHYTHM IS OUR BUSINESS:

Then something for Louis and for Billie, YOURS AND MINE, again with a lovely Duke vocal.  (What a fine singer he is — on his horn or his vocal chords!):

A little Ellington excursion (thanks to Cootie Williams and his Rug Cutters, Master Records, and the Irving Mills complex), the wittily-titled SWING PAN ALLEY.  Remember to open up Letter B:

More Ellington (of a romantic tendency) from Becky, JUST SQUEEZE ME:

And for those who need the etiology of Swing explained to them, here is the big hit of late 1935, THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND, made perfectly clear by Becky:

Memories of the Goodman band, thanks to arranger John Sheridan, and a lilting I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU.  It’s hard to see Duke at the start, but his sound is unmistakable:

And a hot salute to Sweets, Pres, Jo, Sidney, Illinois, Gjon, Norman, and the Brothers Warner, in JAMMIN’ THE BLUES.  (Thank you, Pete Siers!):

“Business sure is swell!”

CLASSIC BALLADS FROM JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 19, 2010)

The late Joe Boughton, commander-in-chief of Jazz at Chautauqua and other jazz parties, had very definite ideas about what should go on in a jazz performance and what was verboten, taboo, unforgivable.  So it would have caused him some astonishment to be told that he and Norman Granz (whose Jazz at the Philharmonic — with its long themeless blues, drum solos, and explorations of I GOT RHYTHM changes — represented everything he deplored) agreed on anything.  But they both understood something crucial about the performance of jazz ballads before a live audience.

Both men knew, through experience, that having all the musicians on the stand play BODY AND SOUL, for instance, each one taking two choruses, could lead to a certain sameness, not only for the audience but for the players.  Granz got there first with the solution: a ballad medley, where each of the horn players told the rhythm section what their chosen song was, the key (the tempo remained fixed throughout) and played a chorus in leisurely fashion.  You can hear this on Granz’s recordings, live and in the studio.

Joe Boughton didn’t release any of his ballad medleys, but the one that closed off the 2010 Jazz at Chautauqua — the most recent party, and not the last — was particularly moving.  Here are three videos that capture most of it (with some editing for a variety of reasons, none of them musical).

We begin with an extraordinary rhythm section of Rossano Sportiello, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Jon Burr, bass; Pete Siers, drums, and an unusual combination of songs: Rossano tenderly delineates I GOT IT BAD (AND THAT AIN’T GOOD) then turns it over to Marty, who sings and plays the Louis Armstrong – Horace Gerlach IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN:

Randy Reinhart climbs the stage to deliver an absolutely velvety APRIL IN PARIS, a performance that seems untoppable until Dan Barrett convincingly explains how THAT OLD FEELING is still in his heart.  (The crowd properly gives it a small ovation, and Dan looks does a comic double-take of surprise, “Me?”  Yes, you!) 

The very gentlemanly and polite Bob Havens asks PLEASE — doing Bing very proud.  Continuing in this most gallant fashion, clarinetist Bob Reitmeier very quietly asks us in for TEA FOR TWO.  Harry Allen sweetly tells us I WISH YOU LOVE, with Dan Block coming up immediately after!  

The Man of Feeling, Dan Block, assures us (the stakes are getting higher with each delicious cameo) that EVERYTHING I HAVE IS YOURS.  Scott Robinson isn’t a combative, competitive player, but his version of SLEEPY TIME GAL — on the bass sax, which he carries — would be a masterpiece anywhere.  Scott Robinson heroically lifts the bass sax for SLEEPY TIME GAL.  Bobby Gordon tenderly whispers his love for the music in SUGAR; Andy Stein devotes himself to LAURA; Jon Burr emotes lyrically with PRELUDE TO A KISS — which is received with the proper hush (how nice to hear a bass solo receive such quiet attention):

Extraordinarily lovely, with not a hackneyed or overdramatized note in the bunch.  I’d like to make these clips required viewing for jazz musicians and singers of all vintages — to say nothing of those of us who can’t live without beauty.  And not incidentally — the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua will be held from September 15-18.  If you have already purchased your 2011 calendar . . . .

HEAR ELLA, STUFF, and BEN in 1937!

Ella Fitzgerald, Stuff Smith, and Ben Webster recorded together in the late Fifties for a Norman Granz project — “Ella Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook.”  But they had been captured on disc twenty years before in what are much more fascinating circumstances.

The good news is that the CD that is so delighting me is available and intensely rewarding — musically, not simply for its rarity.  Anticipation over a long period rarely pays off.  If you wait twenty years for something to appear, often the results, however fine, may not seem worth the wait.  Not in this case.  I first heard an I GOT RHYTHM by a related unit — Teddy Wilson, Jonah Jones, Ben, Lawrence Lucie, John Kirby, Cozy Cole — in the late Seventies, and learned that much more material from these sources existed.

Trust the UK jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett to unearth it, research it, and present it to us with his usual style.  (The session that I’m referring to — with exquisite singing by Helen Ward, including a winsome DID YOU MEAN IT? — has been issued on another of Barnett’s AB Fable CDs — one capturing the live recordings Stuff Smith made with members of Fats Waller’s little band and other gems (ABCD1-015 STUFF SMITH: That Naughty Waltz.  COMPLETE 1937–1942 TENOR SAX SEPTETS FEATURING 1942 FATS WALLER ALUMNI AND 1937 TEDDY WILSON ORCHESTRA.)

But LET’S LISTEN TO LUCIDIN (AB Fable ABCD I-024) is even more unusual.  Barnett’s detailed and witty liner notes tell the story better than I could, but the Lucidin eye-lotion company decided to present fifteen-minute broadcasts (three times weekly) over New York’s WMCA featuring an all-star band of Black musicians.

The singer was a young Ella Fitzgerald in pearly, playful form.  Some of my readers found my comments about Ella in an earlier blogpost positively blasphemous — but this Ella I could listen to forever: girlish, earnest, sweet, tenderly improvising.

The orchestra — fourteen pieces — was led by the irreplaceable violinist Stuff Smith, and featured (among others) trumpeter Jonah Jones in his best neo-Louis mode, the delightfully risk-taking Sandy Williams on trombone, altoist Edgar Sampson (also responsible for a number of compositions and arrangements), reedmen Garvin Bushell and Walter Thomas, pianist Clyde Hart, bassist John Kirby, and drummer Cozy Cole.  It was a hand-picked organization that drew on the best Black bands of the time (leaving aside Ellington and Basie): Calloway and Chick Webb.  I’d assume that the players and Ella were happy to have opportunities to broadcast and make extra money, and the band sounds well-rehearsed, even on pop material.  (Chick Webb, always ambitious for Ella, obviously did not discourage her from performing with Stuff’s aggregation.)

One of the great pleasures of this CD is in hearing a band that didn’t record elsewhere splendid hot soloists.  And the CD presents a goodly number of solos by the young Ben Webster, in top form — not yet the player who would spark the 1940 Ellington organization, but a fine, emotive player nonetheless.  The selections (including “trailer” or “teaser” incomplete versions of tunes that would be played the next week) include jazz standards: STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, I GOT RHYTHM, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, STARDUST, I FOUND A NEW BABY, SHINE, BASIN STREET BLUES, and HONEYSUCKLE ROSE.  But the current pop hits are also covered: Ella is touching on CHAPEL IN THE MOONLIGHT and GOODNIGHT MY LOVE, sweetly energetic on COPPER-COLORED GAL.  Cozy Cole and John Kirby are properly supportive; the under-recorded Clyde Hart is just fine.  For my taste, there isn’t enough Stuff, but he has some features and offers a lovely obbligato to Ella’s vocal on GOODNIGHT MY LOVE.  His feature on CLOUDS is a treat.  And IT’S DE-LOVELY, split between Ella and Ben, is a gem.

This music comes from radio broadcasts, another delight.  Jazz collectors know the Ellington Victors, the Basie Deccas, but they are finite.  To find new “live” material from the Swing Era is always a great gift, especially because thousands of hours of music were broadcast between the early Thirties to the end of World War Two.  We have only the smallest portion, and certain orchestras and players were not well-documented.

This CD is also an anthropological trove of Thirties pop culture, sometimes unintentionally hilarious — because Barnett has wisely kept in all the announcements, commercial and musical.  By the time this disc was finished, I was eager to buy Lucidin: I would have been a loyal consumer!  The commercials are truly amusing, because announcer Don Kerr was required to promote a product not yet available.  But even better, the Lucidin people were unhappy with the frequency and length of their competitors’ commercials.  So Kerr tells us frequently that the company finds such announcements boring and painful, and won’t do them.  Some of Kerr’s disquisitions do go on, but neither he or Lucidin seems to have been indulging in subversive ironies.

A few tracks have unavoidable surface noise, but only the most finicky listeners will reject the opportunity to hear these players in new performances.

It’s a delightful disc throughout, one of those rare CDs I can listen to all the way through at one sitting.  It offers not just Ella, Stuff, and Ben, but what a now-vanished population heard on WMCA.  And Barnett’s meticulous research is a real pleasure: the liner is illustrated with rare photographs and drawings.  It was worth the wait!

It can be ordered through the AB Fable website: www.abar.net.

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance.  And Charles Peterson. 

Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility.  Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his.  That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes.  (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)  

Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions.  That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways.  He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into.  He saw what other photographers didn’t. 

Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with.  Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.

But who was Charles Peterson?

His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life.  And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission. 

Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street.  Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900.  On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop.  Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels.  By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing.  But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon.  He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone.  But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group.  Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road.  With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair. 

Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club.  He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers.  His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazinesDon remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening.  The participants?  Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends. 

During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951.  Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.   

Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.

The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company.  Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button.  He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment.  It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long.  Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand.  Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.”  A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either.  But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.  

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The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939.  Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine.  (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!) 

Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.   

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 In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable.  If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face. 

Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on.  “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent.  Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle.  His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt.  (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work.  Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?) 

What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light.  Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot. 

Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of  round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge.  Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it.  The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.  

Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall.  Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.   00000002

Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note.  Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn.  This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases.  Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is.  To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number.  The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist.  Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically.  Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused.  Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.        

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In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe.  This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run.  Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina.  Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts. 

In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills.  Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort.  Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free.  Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow.  His face is serious, even pained.  Were his teeth bothering him?  Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet?  Was he only playing a quiet countermelody?  It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it. 

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This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk.  There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan.  Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear.  Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying.  What’s the secret?  Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice?  We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too. 

And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation.  When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it.  His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”

More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises. 

SMILING JO JONES

As a high school student, I supplemented my intermittent jazz record purchases by listening to the records available at my local public library.  One of the librarians was hip.  Someone had good taste!  The collection included Ellington and George Lewis, Jimmy Rushing and Vic Dickenson, Benny Goodman and “The Sound of Jazz,” among others.  On those records — particularly the Vanguard sessions supervised in the early and middle Fifties by John Hammond — I first heard the sound of Jo Jones, his swishing hi-hat cymbals, his emphatic rimshots, his irresistible swing. 

I had already fallen in love with the propulsion and pure sounds of Catlett and Wettling, but Jo was a revelation: I can still hear the way he brought the band in on Vic’s RUNNIN’ WILD, or the three perfectly placed accents (all different) he used to propel Tommy Ladnier in a fast WEARY BLUES at the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.  And, a little later, when I bought my first Billie Holiday records, the Kansas City Fiva and Six, the Decca Basie band . . . I wanted to hear every record Jo Jones had ever been part of.   

Here is Jo — exuberant, explosive, grinning, soloing at the end of a fast blues, on a 1957 Nat King Cole television show devoted to Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe.  This clip begins at the end of Roy Eldridge’s solo (in mid-scream) and at the end Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown are visible:

But that clip gives way to my own memories of Jo in person, onstage and off. 

This post is motivated by a recent conversation I had with the Beloved about the subject of retiring from one’s job, leaving a career behind.  I told her one of the stories below and she said, astonished, “You spoke to Jo Jones?  Smiling Jo Jones?” hence my title. 

Not only did I speak to Jo Jones: I took this photograph of him in 1981:

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

True, the shot is amateurish: a head is in the way, my flash’s explosion is visible, the overall hue suggests Halloween . . . but Jo’s slow-motion mallet, on its ways down, pleases me greatly.  And the photo evidence that I was there, capturing this moment, which is no small thing.

Many other moments come back to me now. 

My friend Stu Zimny found out, sometime before 1972, that one could see Jo at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop.  We decided to go there, as if we were making a pilgrimage to some sacred place.  Was Jo holding court there, as befits an artist and aristocrat, or was he making a few dollars in a job unworthy of him, as I have read?  I don’t know.  I do remember buying a pair of 5B parade drumsticks from him — to practice with — and snippets of this conversation. 

In person, Jo was animated, inscrutable, vehement.  Something in his manner and approach defied easy explanation.  It felt as if we were speaking to a character in a play — and only Jo had the script.  There was also some element of unpredictability, even of danger, as if he might suddenly get furious at you in the middle of a conversation, as I saw happen with Ruby Braff.   

(Ruby, incidentally, told us a wonderful story about working with Jo at Storyville, almost twenty years earlier: Jo would never say, “Let’s play ROSETTA,” but start a rhythmic pattern and tempo on his hi-hat or snare and leave it up to the musician to guess which tune might best go with that tempo.  Ruby shook his head in disbelief when he recalled, somewhat in desperation, picking some song that he thought might be fine at that tempo, and Jo saying, “That’s it!  You got it!” as if Ruby had telepathically found the answer.  “I don’t play with him any more.  He’s nuts,” said Ruby.) 

Even when speaking to people he knew and liked, Jo had a particular tone of voice that in someone else might have been ironic verging on contemptuous.  But with him it was a form of emphasis.  You could hear capital letters, boldface, italics in his voice.  And he had a fierce energy in his speech: a conversation with him was like being strapped into a centrifuge, an untiring monologue, rising and falling. 

Spotting Jo at Ippolito’s, I imagine that we introduced ourselves as jazz listeners, fans, admirers.  And then one of us asked Jo where we could hear him play.  Was he gigging anywhere?   

He looked at us with weary resignation, two innocent Caucasian college boys who had asked a silly question.

“I’m re-ti-red,” he said, by way of explanation.  “I don’t play the drums anymore.  Leave all that to the kiddies,” he continued.  We couldn’t believe it, and asked him again.  He wasn’t playing any gigs, no festivals?  All he would say was that he was “re-ti-red.”  If we needed a drummer, he suggested that we call Buddy Rich.  Stu points out that Jo offered no contact information for Buddy.  

We went away from that encounter half grieving, half amazed.  We had gone to the mountaintop to meet one of the elders, to receive counsel and inspiration, and the elder had said he had packed it in.

The sequel to all this is that some months later we saw Jo’s name prominently advertised as one of the musicians who would appear in the Newport-New York Jazz Festival.  I think, now, that he had been putting us on.  But perhaps in his own head he had decided to retire.      

In the next decade, we had the opportunity to see him in a variety of situations: concert halls and jazz clubs.  He drove Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS at their 1972 concert appearance (a band that included Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and an out-of-tune Bernard Addison) and took a long solo in the middle of SLEEP — a virtuosic exercise that stopped the song and the show.  Two years later, he appeared at the Newport “Hall of Fame,” as part of a quintet with Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Wilson, and Hinton, his playing was immaculate, sensitive, not showy — Hackett turned the last bridge in “Body and Soul” over to Jo, who filled the air with urging, whispering brush strokes and accents.  

Tom Piazza, then a student at Williams College, arranged a concert of the jazz elders — when such things were still possible: Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton, Budd Johnson, Claude Hopkins, and Jo.  Stu and I went there, armed with a heavy tape recorder, and (in the face of numerous obstacles: an inebriated Budd, a student running the sound board who turned the record level up and down for no reason, an over-exuberant audience) we focused on the band.  Jo traded eights and fours with Milt on a leisurely STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and did his volcanic version of CARAVAN, with every grimace, every surprise firmly choreographed. 

He smiled incessantly when he played: he glowed.  But when we saw Jo in clubs, at close range, he often appeared to be brimful of some barely contained anger.  And though we had come to the gig hoping to hear something delicate, witty — that magical hi-hat sound, those quietly insistent brushes that had levitated so many recordings — he would beat out the time loudly, indefatigably, on a brassily resonant ride cymbal.  It was clear that there were two Jonathan David Samuel Joneses: one, the player we had heard on records, lifting the band with what Donne called “gold to airy thinness beat”; the other, furious at something, wanting to control it by pure sound and pure volume.  Stanley Dance told me about producing a 1961 session that paired Jo with some Ellington alumni — Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Ray Nance, Sir Charles Thompson — and Jo being infuriated about something, then playing as loudly as he could. 

I recall several instances of this irritation-translated-into-music.  When there was a ragtag band of “Basie alumni” assembled at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage: sic transit gloria mundi), Jo walloped the ride cymbal as if wanting to drown everyone out.  At a short-lived spinoff of the Half Note, “The Onliest Place,” a venture that lasted only a few weekends, Jo led a little band one night.  If I remember correctly, it included bassist Tommy Bryant, Ben Richardson on clarinet, Skeeter Best on guitar, and one or two other players.  They embarked on a nearly forgotten Thirties pop tune, CALL ME DARLING, which was not terribly familiar, and some members of the band got lost.  I can hear Jo shouting, “The middle!  The middle!” although I am not sure that this advice averted chaos.  Irritability and delighted in-jokes always characterized his appearances with “The Countsmen,” a group that included Doc Cheatham, Benny Morton, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Chuck Folds, Franklyn Skeete, and Jo.   

Jo could play magically in clubs, though.  I remember going to Gregory’s, a tiny room, to hear Ellis Larkins and Al Hall.  That duo played splendid embroidered jazz for one set and then Jo walked in, unfurled his newspaper, took out a set of folding wire brushes, spread the paper on a chair, and played with elegance, amusement, and grace.   

At the West End Cafe, thanks to Phil Schaap, Jo had a fairly steady gig: “Jo Jones and Friends,” which was most often a quartet of Harold Ashby on tenor, a pianist (sometimes Don Coates), and bassist John Ore, who had played with Monk.  One rainy night in particular stands out.  It was time for the band to begin and Ore had not arrived.  Jo began his sets with a medium-tempo blues in G, and, muttering to himself, he set the tempo by tapping his snare drum with his fingers.  Ashby soloed; the pianist soloed, and when it came to the two or four choruses that would have been taken by Ore, Jo grimaced, muttered loudly and incomprehensibly to himself, and played choruses of accompaniment — as if Ore had been there — with the tenor and piano silent.  It was mildly eerie.  Ore came in soon after, apologized for being late (he lived in Brooklyn), but it took the rest of the night for Jo to become calmer.      

One summer on Long Island, I read that Buddy Tate would be bringing a band, including Jo, to play a free outdoor concert somewhere miles from Manhattan on the North Fork.  It may have been Southold.  We drove out there and saw Tate’s outfit play the first half of the concert, with some of their members, including Jo, missing.  Jo’s son may have subbed for his father on drums.  Eventually, much later, a fire engine drove up, with a few cars following.  Jo came out of one of them.  They had gotten lost and asked directions at a firehouse.  I would like to report that the Tate band, plus Jo, played magnificently, but that wasn’t the case.  The group reassembled itself, and Jo demanded his feature on CARAVAN.  It went on, no nuance or flourish omitted, for something like eleven minutes.  After that, there was only time for Tate to play a hasty LESTER LEAPS IN, and the concert ended.  Perhaps it was because of episodes like this that when we mentioned Jo’s name to musicians of a certain era, their expressions grew wary and guarded.  “He’s crazy, man,” was the response we got from more than one well-established player.

But he could be politely accessible to fans.  I recall approaching him at the West End, before the gig had started, with a new vinyl copy of a record, FOR BASIE.  I had bought it that afternoon and hoped that Jo would autograph it for me.  Recorded in 1957 for Prestige-Swingville, it brought together Shad Collins on trumpet, Paul Quinichette on tenor, Nat Pierce on piano, Walter Page on bass (one of his last recordings), and Jo.  The cover picture showed Jo in a heavy flannel buffalo-plaid shirt with wide suspenders over it, and he grew animated and showed the other musicians at the table.  “See that?” he demanded of them.  “That is style!” he insisted, happily.  And he autographed the back side of the cover in a large ornate hand.  When he was through signing, he said to me that he had never heard the music.  I could take a hint, and offered him this copy (I had another at home).  I hope that it gave him pleasure. 

At another, later West End gig, I had with me a new record, OUR MAN, PAPA JO! — on the Denon label, which had a picture of Jo in full glower at his drum set, on the cover.  Thinking that one can never have too many Jo Jones signatures, I asked him to autograph this one also.  He stared at the cover, held it at arm’s length.

This will keep the burglars from your house!” he gleefully told me. 

In 1981 and early 1982, he was getting more frail and having more difficulty.  Jo played with great delicacy at a “Salute to Pres” concert, offering his familiar dancing trades with Milt Hinton — but he had to be helped up on the drum throne.  At the last West End gig I recall, playing was becoming more and more arduous for him.  When I heard about him next it was the news of his death in 1985.

Photographer Richard H. Merle was at Jo’s funeral, and he caught this poignant moment of Max Roach at Jo’s coffin — the flag draped over the back because Jo had served  — with great reluctance — in the Army in World War Two. 

 

Jo Jones Funeral

Jo Jones’s body has been gone for almost twenty-five years.  Yet his sound remains, and his smile — like the Cheshire Cat’s — has never been effaced.  

Copyright 1985 by Richard H. Merle.  All rights reserved.

RAY BRYANT IS THRIVING

I can’t recall the first time I heard a recording of pianist Ray Bryant — perhaps because he was captured so often and so well during the Fifties and onward.  Was it with Miles or Sonny Rollins?  No, more probably it was as a member (along with brother Tommy) of the Jo Jones Trio.  Or as a sideman on any number of Prestige swing-to-bop sessions.  I even recall finding a used copy of his Columbia record THE MADISON TIME, which featured Buddy Tate and Benny Morton, among others.  Then he made some records for Norman Granz (a solo album, one with Zoot Sims, among others) but he didn’t have as high a profile as other pianists.  That struck me as odd, because Bryant’s approach to the piano was expertly orchestral, without any narrow definitions.  He struck me as a musician, a pianist rather than someone limited to a single approach. 

ray-bryant1Thus it is a great pleasure to report that there is a new solo piano CD by Bryant and that it is even better than I thought it would be.  It’s called IN THE BACK ROOM and appears on the Evening Star label — a label known for its beautifully done CDs featuring Benny Carter, Joe Wilder, Phil Woods, Randy Sandke, among others.  Prodcer Ed Berger has a long association with the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University– he is one of the finest jazz scholars we have — and all of the twelve performances on this CD were recorded at the university in 2004 and 2008, some during a Fats Waller Centennial celebration.  Five tracks are Waller compositions, and one is IF I COULD BE WITH YOU, by his teacher James P. Johnson.  The other tracks include EASY TO LOVE and ST. LOUIS BLUES — and, most importantly, four Bryant compositions.   

Most pianists have the same difficulty considering Fats Waller’s music that trumpet players asked to pay tribute to Louis do, I assume: the musical personalities are so strong, their effect so definite, that the musician paying homage might be tempted to imitate the model.  This isn’t terrible in itself: if I knew someone who could play POTATO HEAD BLUES or AFRICAN RIPPLES at will, I would have them come to my apartment often.  But the wiser course might be to honor the durable melodies as improvisatory material and go from there.  With Waller, however, the risks are immense: what can a player bring to HONEYSUCKLE ROSE that is reasonably authentic and still new? 

No one need worry.  Bryant is a mature artist, wholly comfortable with his own identity so that he relaxes into his own style — which, one notes immediately, is not built on well-worn figures and pianistic cliches.  Rather, he seems to love the way the piano can be made to sound, full and rich, without straining for effect.  He is happy to play the melody, to ornament its harmony subtly.  His solos sing; his rhythm is relaxed yet consistent.  And he is a master of the small variations possible within medium tempo. 

Although Bryant is known for his deep immersion in the blues and his originals such as “Little Susie,” the most moving music on this CD comes when he plays his own compositions.  One of them, “The Impossible Rag,” is a tour-de-force that pianists might find it hard to reproduce, but Bryant’s virtuosity is more a matter of deep feeling.  It comes out most strongly in “Lullaby and” “Little Girl” (the latter dedicated to his wife Claude).  “Little Girl,” an almost grieving meditation, sounds cantorial in its minor harmonies: in it, we hear someone considering the possibilities of simple melodic motifs — eloquently and sorrowfully.  I didn’t think of jazz when I heard it; rather, of Dvorak.  “Lullaby” also takes an apparently simple idea and explores it, gently and sweetly — with contrasting brief sections balancing against each other.  Both pieces stayed in my memory for a long time, which says a good deal about Bryant’s powers to evoke emotions.  Even if you think you know Bryant’s work, this CD is worth searching out.  And if the Evening Star label is new to you, delights await.  Visit http://www.bennycarter.com/common/eveningstar/