Tag Archives: obituary

“DOING THINGS RIGHT”: EDDY DAVIS, PRESENT TENSE (1940-2020)

Eddy Davis — that bright light, never very far from his banjo, always ready to propel the band, to play the proper chords, to uplift everyone with song — one that he wrote or a venerable classic — moved on after his illness yesterday afternoon.  My title for this post is because I think it will never be possible for me to think of him as was.

Eddy Davis and Conal Fowkes, Cafe Bohemia, Dec. 26, 2019.

Although I witnessed him in all his splendor over fifteen years, I didn’t get to know him in the way I might have others whom I saw and spoke to more regularly.  So in Eddy’s case, the music — eloquent, subtle, brightly-colored —  will speak for him here.  The last time I saw him was December 26, 2019, at Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village, where he was one-fourth of that night’s swinging quartet: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, reeds and vocal; Conal Fowkes, string bass and vocal.  I’ve presented a hot performance from that evening here.

And now, with more complicated emotions, I offer the first three performances of that night.  They start off easily — I think of the way musicians feel the pulse of the room, get used to their instruments (even if it’s only been a day since they were last playing), take the  measure of their friends on the stand.  But don’t underestimate this music: I think of spicy cuisine that initially tastes tame but then after a few spoonfuls, you realize just how hot it is.

BOGALUSA STRUT:

and some basic math — doin’ things right:

and a dream of the place where they make you welcome all the time:

I will devote the next few days to honoring the sly, expert, exuberant Eddy — through performances I captured and through the recollections of others who were at closer range . . . who were playing rather than behind a camera.  He remains is.

And someone I respect deeply, Scott Robinson, has written this tender essay about Eddy, which I offer to you here:

I’ve just lost one of the dearest friends I’ve ever had in music. Eddy Davis was a highly significant and influential presence in my life. He was a fiercely individualistic performer… a veteran of the old Chicago days when music was hot, joyful, exuberant and unselfconscious. A character and a curmudgeon, who could hold court for hours after the gig. And a loving mentor who helped younger musicians like myself learn and grow in this music.

I had only played with Eddy a handful of times when he called me in late 1998 to say that he was forming a new band to fill a weekly Wednesday spot at the Cajun on 8th Avenue. He wanted me to play lead on C melody saxophone, in a little group with two reeds, and no drums. This by itself gives a clue to what an original thinker he was.

I already knew that Eddy was a proficient and highly individualistic stylist on the banjo, who sounded like no one else. What I didn’t know, but soon found out, was that this man was also a walking repository of many hundreds if not thousands of tunes of every description, ranging far beyond the standard repertoire… with a fascinating background story at the ready for nearly every one. I quickly learned that he was also a prolific and idiosyncratic composer himself, with a wonderfully philosophical work ethic: write original music every day, keep what works, and throw the rest away without a backward glance.

Eddy was also what used to be called a “character”: affable, opinionated, hilarious, and irascible all in one, and above all highly passionate about music. What I learned over the ensuing 7 ½ years in Eddy’s little band, I cannot begin to describe. I came to refer to those regular Wed. sessions as my “doctor’s appointment” — for they fixed whatever ailed me, and provided the perfect antidote to the ills of the world, and of the music scene. Over the years we were graced with the presence of some very distinguished musicians who came by and sat in with us, including Harry Allen, Joe Muranyi, Bob Barnard, Howard Johnson, and Barry Harris.

Eddy was generous with his strong opinions, with his knowledge and experience, and with his encouragement. But he was a generous soul in other ways as well. When he heard that I was building a studio (my “Laboratory”), he had me come by the apartment and started giving me things out of his closets. A Roland 24-track recorder… three vintage microphones… instruments… things that I treasure, and use every single day of my life. When my father turned 75, Eddy came out to New Jersey and played for him, and wouldn’t take a dime for it.

When I got the call today that Eddy had passed — another victim of this horrible virus that is ruining so many lives, and our musical life as well — I hung up the phone and just cried. Later I went out to my Laboratory, and kissed every single thing there that he had given to me. How cruel to lose such an irreplaceable person… killed by an enemy, as my brother commented, that is neither visible nor sentient.

THE CAJUN, by Barbara Rosene –a Wednesday night.

One night at the Cajun stands out in my memory, and seems particularly relevant today. It was the night after the last disaster that changed New York forever: the World Trade Center attack. There was a pall over the city, the air was full of dust, and there was a frightful, lingering smell. “What am I doing here?” I thought. “This is crazy.” But somehow we all made our way to the nearly empty club. We were in a state of shock; nobody knew what to say. I wondered if we would even be able to play. We took the stage, looked at each other, and counted off a tune. The instant the first note sounded, I was overcome with emotion and my face was full of tears. Suddenly I understood exactly why we were there, why it was so important that we play this music. We played our hearts out that night — for ourselves, for our city, and for a single table of bewildered tourists, stranded in town by these incomprehensible events. They were so grateful for the music, so comforted by it.

The simple comfort of live music has been taken from us now. We must bear this loss, and those that will surely follow, alone… shut away in our homes. I know that when the awful burden of this terrible time has finally been lifted, when we can share music, life, and love again, it will feel like that night at the Cajun. My eyes will fill, my heart will sing, and the joy that Eddy Davis gave me will be with me every time I lift the horn to my face, for as long as I live.

Scott Robinson

Eddy Davis at ScienSonic Laboratories

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC FOR A DETERMINED MAN (October 6, 2014)

ERIC

You could say many things about Eric Offner.  You could note his birthplace (Austria, 1928) or the date of his death (June 3, 2014). You could sum up his distinguished career in trademark law, or refer to his autobiography. But what might be most important about Eric is that he was transformed by the experience of jazz, and, as a result, founded the Sidney Bechet Society which produced 17 seasons of live hot jazz concerts. (The true-to-life photograph of Eric was taken by our friend, photographer Geri Goldman Reichgut.)

We know that people can contribute greatly to the health and vitality of an art form without being artists themselves, and Eric was one of those people. His distinguishing characteristic, to me, was a determined focus on an ideal: the kind of music his hero Sidney Bechet both played and embodied: hot, intense, impassioned, reaching back to a New Orleans past but simultaneously alive in the present.

The Sidney Bechet Society is honoring its president and founder with a concert this coming Monday (at the late-twilight hour of 7:15) at Symphony Space, which is at 95th Street and Broadway in New York City.  It features the clarinetist Evan Christopher, trumpeter Byron Stripling, pianist Bobby Floyd, string bassist Kelly Friesen, and drummer Marion Felder.  I know they will fill the room with music that both celebrates and mourns a man wholly devoted to the sounds that have so often healed us.

Here is the link where you can purchase tickets.

SBS 10 6 14

Like the music he believed in, Eric was determined — devoted to an ideal.  And that ideal will show its durability, its joy and ferocity this Monday night.

May your happiness increase! 

NATE CHINEN: “FIGS AND STONES”

Nate Chinen writes about jazz for The New York Times, JazzTimes, the Village Voice, and he also has a thriving blog, “The Gig”: http://thegig.typepad.com/blog/2010/04/mossy-stone.html#more

Until this year, I would have perceived him as living on the other side of the Jazz Divide, because we clearly loved very different — even irreconcilable — music.  But my opinion changed last January when Nate sent me a friendly email:

I don’t believe we’ve met, but I wanted to get in touch. I’m working on a JazzTimes column about the “new” strain of jazz traditionalism, and the ways in which the culture(s) of swing and bebop have continued to thrive, often well out of the reach of mainstream-media coverage. You struck me as an ideal person to sound off on such matters, so I’m wondering whether you might have some spare time this afternoon or evening. We could speak by phone or I could shoot you a few questions over email. Please let me know, in any case. I’ll look forward to making your acquaintance.

I was delighted — someone was graciously asking whether I would like to discuss my favorite subject!  So we spent an hour on the phone.  Nate asked pertinent questions, listened closely, and let me talk.  I told him that this “new traditionalism” was deep and inventive.  It wasn’t simply young people copying old records. 

I spoke at length about the performances I had seen in New York and elsewhere — musicians comfortable with many approaches to improvising, able to encompass Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and James P. Johnson in a single solo without seeming exhibitionistic or synthetic.  I told Nate about nights at The Ear Inn, where musicians of different “schools” found a common language  — connecting George Mitchell and Don Cherry — that was communal, genuine, and satisfying.  (I also urged him to join me there some Sunday, and he said he would.) 

Of course, I mentioned the names of my living heroes (my readers will be able to name a dozen) throughout the conversation, in hopes that he would understand that jazz — the religion of JAZZ — was very much alive here and now. 

As our conversation progressed, Nate was enthusiastic about his inventing a new name for the old — derisive — term for people who loved older jazz players and styles.  In the ideological wars of the Forties, they were “moldy figs,” defending their territory against the interlopers Bird and Dizzy.  Nate had come up with “mossy stones,” and his coinage made me think of a quotation from W.B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”  If I had been worried at the start that Nate was uncomprehending or hostile to my sensibilities, this phone conversation had given me reason to relax.

Yesterday, Nate informed me that the article had been published:   

Figs & Stones

Some time ago Michael Steinman, a professor of English at Nassau Community College, was out to dinner on vacation when the conversation turned to jazz. Hearing of his love for the music, someone at another table proudly claimed that he had been at Carnegie Hall in the early ’60s, for a concert that included tenor titans John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. “I told him my taste in jazz went back a bit further than that,” Steinman recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you a moldy fig?’”

The fact that you’re here, dear reader, probably means you know that them’s fightin’ words. To be seen as a moldy fig, at this point in jazz’s post-history, is to be lumped together with the loonies and curmudgeons, hopelessly out of step, terminally uncool. Like Renaissance faire habitués and Civil War reenactors, the moldy fig longs for some receding point on the timeline, striving to transplant its bygone values to an inhospitable soil. Jazz, for such a creature, is a firm ideal, lovingly and narrowly circumscribed.

What’s funny is the fact that “moldy fig” connotes two distinct jazz factions that should be fundamentally at odds. The term originally referred to the early jazz traditionalists who saw the music as having peaked in the 1920s. Soon it was also leveled at swing adherents who decried the advancing tide of bebop. Both meanings were in circulation in the 1940s, reflecting a pair of schisms in jazz at the time. As Bernard Gendron once put it, in a definitive essay on the subject: “The first of these conflicts pitted swing against the newly revitalized New Orleans jazz that it had previously supplanted, and the second against the bebop avant-garde movement that threatened to make it obsolescent.”

Pluck in the face of obsolescence is what unites the moldy figs of both persuasions today: the Benny Goodman fan club, say, with members of the Sidney Bechet Society. The term has even become a badge of honor among some listeners—though not for Steinman, who runs a blog called Jazz Lives. “Traditionalism to me is not tuba and banjo,” he writes in an explanatory note, distancing himself from the moldiest of fig trappings. But he’s clear about the music he loves—“[My] heroes include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Eddie Condon,” he writes—and he uses his platform to champion it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the moldy-fig legacy as it applies to the next wave of jazz traditionalists. While the music has advanced (I’ll refrain from writing “evolved”), the shadow of obsolescence has been lengthening. It no longer stops at the breakthroughs of bebop, or the refinement of modal jazz. So even though jazz’s mid-century modern constituency still has a lot to be thankful for—the Jazz Icons DVD series, for one, and present-day paragons like tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander—the center of the music no longer reflects that reality.

Perhaps you can identify. Depending on your tastes, you might be among the jazz diehards disillusioned with what’s become of the jazz media, with its fetish for newness. You nod your head when you hear of the death of jazz, as it’s commonly understood. Well, don’t look now, but you might be a mossy stone.

Allow me to explain. A mossy stone is a jazz adherent whose core stylistic allegiance is to the music pioneered in the 1940s, streamlined in the ’50s and diversified in the ’60s. This region of inquiry begins with bebop and ends with free jazz, cutting off at the early stirrings of fusion. Wynton Marsalis, once disparaged by critic Gene Santoro as a “latter-day moldy fig,” actually fits this bill: Though vocal in his advocacy of swing and earlier jazz, he’s a modernist at heart, as his own track record proves. (Listen again to his last few albums on Blue Note.) But you could despise Marsalis and still be a mossy stone. All it takes is a tacit understanding that jazz innovation peaked by about 1967, and that nothing of real, lasting value has changed in the music since.

Right about now you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of a mossy stone. Simple: I made the term up, while pondering the distance between results in critics’ polls and readers’ polls. Obviously I’m riffing on the aphorism “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” with its valorization of forward motion. I’m also invoking the Rolling Stones, and rock, with its progressive connotations. A mossy stone finds no traction in the straight-eighth groove and fusionlike flow of so many jazz albums today. He or she appreciates the Monkish aspects of a pianist like Robert Glasper or Jason Moran, but not so much the hip-hop inflections. You can be a mossy stone at any age—I bet there are more than a few working at the high school level—as long as you possess the same stubbornness exhibited by the moldy figs all those years ago.

As someone sympathetic to the mossy stone agenda—I too have wondered why young musicians can’t occasionally carve up a standard, or just swing a little—let me offer a reassurance. Moss may be disconcertingly similar to mold, but that’s fine. As Gendron observed, regarding the two schisms in 1940s jazz: “Both contests were fought on much of the same discursive terrain.” Likewise, the mossy stone and the moldy fig have two very different record collections, but they’re cousins in many respects.

Of course moldy figs have had a longer time to refine their contrarianism, honing an admirable combination of staunch defiance and pragmatic resignation. When I mentioned my new bit of jazz taxonomy to Steinman, he picked up on this right away, despite his reflexive wariness about labels, especially those dreamt up by jazz critics.

“Have you read ‘Easter, 1916,’ the Yeats poem?” he asked. Yes, but it had been a while. When I consulted the text, I found its vivid image of a stone planted in a stream. The water moves, as do the reflections of clouds along its surface. A horse and rider splash along. “Minute by minute they live,” Yeats writes. “The stone’s in the midst of all.”

Anyone who’s been interviewed dreads being misquoted, so I was thrilled to find that Nate had paid me the great compliment of accuracy.  And he had given me a short solo at the start, middle, and end — generous journalism.   But the piece does raise a few issues for me, and since Nate invited me to address them here, I will take him up on it. 

I am delighted that he gives such serious attention to this “new traditionalism.”  It would be very easy to depict this phenomena as more evidence of The Death of Jazz: “See, all we have left is these shrinking audiences on cruise ships and jazz parties listening to stale perfomances of jazz-by-rote.  People who are almost dead listening to music that certainly is.” 

Although I am not ready for Medicare, it would also have been easy to satirize or stereotype me: an eager chronicler of a moribund art, recording its final wheezes.  I am pleased that neither of these approaches color Nate’s essay in the slightest.    

But I find it curious that the musicians whose names I utter in his essay are all dead.  It suggests that my “new traditionalism” is entirely antiquarian, as if I did not delight in current performances by players very much alive.  Yes, my iPod is full of now-dead players, but I’ll bet Nate listens to some dead folks, too.  He even writes obituaries of them, as in the case of John Bunch. 

Was it that Nate didn’t want to turn his essay into a list of names?  Or was it that he did not want to offen worthy players by omitting their names?  I admire tact, but Nate’s editing makes me and the Mossy Stones (who share my initials) seem to be the Emily Griersons or Miss Havishams of Dixieland, if you will.

At first glance, changing Figs into Stones sounds wonderful.  But “moldy fig” is such an archaic term that only those deeply involved in jazz history (“Jazz Battle” or “Squabblin,” if you like) would even recognize it.  True, I am pleased to no longer be compared to rotting produce.  And Nate does generously praise the “mossy stones” for their insistent devotion to the art they love. 

But do these names really matter? 

Given the minute notice jazz gets in the larger media, is this meditation on nomenclature the most profound way to bring attention to rewarding music?  And, given the divisive nature of much of the writing purportedly about jazz, is setting up a new sub-category of listeners a good thing?  Perhaps we should be attempting to bring the “schools” and “allegiances” together, so everyone could be open to music that could go back to ragtime and forward to hard bop and beyond. 

But this is the beginning of a deeper conversation — an optimistic one, not mourning the death of jazz but celebrating the life around us.  Nate and I agree that there is astonishing music to be heard and loved, now and in the future. 

And my invitation to dinner at The Ear Inn is still open!

AL DUFFY (1906-2006)

Courtesy of AB Fable Archive

I don’t print the obituary of every worthy jazz musician, singer, writer, record producer . . . simply because I want to celebrate as well as mourn in this blog.  But jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett’s notice (from the New York musicians’ union, Local 802) of the death of violinist Al Duffy deserves all the attention it can get, I think:

Adolph Daidone – professionally known as Al Duffy – died on Dec. 22. The violinist was 100 years old and had been a member of 802 since 1924.  He was born in Brooklyn and was a resident of Freehold, New Jersey, since 1978.  Mr. Daidone was a nationally renowned violin virtuoso whose career spanned several decades of entertainment in radio, recording, and stage.  He was awarded the Philco Radio Hall of Fame Citation for outstanding artistry.  He played for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Bell Telephone Orchestra with such luminaries as the Dorsey Brothers, Bobby Hackett, Dinah Shore, JimmyDurante, and many others.  He is survived by four children: Vincent and his wife Barbara, Theresa Kimmel and her husband Monroe, John and his wife Elna, and Louis and his wife Teri; eight grandchildren; and eleven great grandchildren.

Anthony Barnett adds: According to my files he was born Gandolfo Daidone 20 September 1906 which would make him older than 100.

Courtesy of AB Fable Archive

The moral has to be that jazz taps in to the Fountain of Youth for a few lucky people!  Also that originality is a saving grace: Duffy was an accomplished player who took his own route rather than attempting to imitate Joe Venuti.

JAZZ SUSTAINS US

I don’t think I ever heard an actual solo by the acoustic guitarist Huey Long on the recordings he made with Fletcher Henderson and Lil Armstrong, but no matter.  Guitarists then were expected to keep good time, move subtly from chord to chord, and blend with the band — which he did ably.  He comes to our notice today because of a long and detailed obituary in the New York Times.  What a wonderful long creative life he had!  Some of it, no doubt, is the result of character and genetics, but a good part must also be traced to the healing, energizing powers of the music we love.  Hail, Huey Long!

Here’s a link to his obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/13/arts/music/13long.html