Tag Archives: oral history

“HAVE YOU TRIED THE ELEPHANT BEER?”: INSPIRED STORIES: “JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS,” by MONK ROWE with ROMY BRITELL

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Monk Rowe is a jazz musician — saxophonist, pianist, composer, arranger — and he has a day gig at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, as the  Joe Williams Director of the Filius Jazz Archive there.  The Archive will be twenty-one in 2016, and it is indeed remarkably adult.

So far, Monk has conducted video interviews with more than 325 musicians, ranging from the great forbears (Doc Cheatham, Eddie Bert, Kenny Davern, Jerry Jerome, Ray Conniff, Joe Williams, Milt Hinton) to the living legends of the present and future (Nicki Parrott, Kidd Jordan, Sherrie Maricle, Bill Charlap, Holly Hofmann, Maria Schneider).  And excerpts from those interviews, thematically and intelligently arranged, now form a compact yet impressive book (with a brief foreword by jazz eminence Dan Morgenstern) whose title is above.

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A friend at Hamilton sent me a copy of the book some weeks back, and I have been slow to write about it — for two reasons.  One, the semester got in the way, unforgivably, and two, I was often making notes and laughing so hard that I couldn’t read much at a sitting.  But my instant recommendation is BUY IT.  So those of you who want to skip the evidence can zoom to the bottom of this post. Others can linger.

A brief prelude.  I am immensely in favor of oral history although it cannot replace the best analysis or aesthetic criticism.  I wouldn’t give up Whitney Balliett, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Anthony Barnett, Frank Buchmann-Moller, Manfred Selchow, or John Chilton . . . the list goes on and I know I am leaving two dozen worthy writers out.  But what wouldn’t we give for a ten-minute interview with Tony Fruscella, Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy Harrison, Herschel Evans, Eddie Lang, Jimmy Blanton, or Buster Bailey?  True, some musicians were and are shy or not always able to articulate much about the music, but others — as we know — are born raconteurs, sharp observers, comedians, anthropologists.  Their stories, no matter how brief, are precious.  Two pages by Clark Terry where he speaks of being beaten by Caucasians because he was a “Nigerian” while in Mississippi — and then being rescued by another group of Caucasians — say more about race relations in the United States than twenty hours of PBS footage could ever do.

The material is organized thematically, enabling the reader to hear, for instance, stories of life on the road from Kenny Davern, Lanny Morgan, and Phil Woods. Then there are sharp observations — one can almost hear the rimshot that follows.  Dave Pell calls Stan Getz “the greatest dressing room player that ever lived.”  Stan Kenton stops his band from swinging too much and says, “This is not Basie.  This is Stan Kenton.”  Bobby Rosengarden talks about Toscanini, Joe Wilder about punctuality, Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli about life in the recording studio.  Keter Betts, as a high-school student, is bought lunch by Milt Hinton; Jean Bach explains the Ellington habit of “seagulling”; Sherrie Maricle recalls her metal clarinet.  Dan Barrett gives advice to young musicians.  Randy Sandke talks about the perils of thinking.  Karl Berger talks about his conducting; Kidd Jordan deconstructs a song’s title.  And there’s a historical perspective covering nearly a century: we hear Doc Cheatham talk about Ma Rainey, then Jerry Jerome describe the first Glenn Miller band — all the way up to the present.

It’s an enthralling book.  And since Monk Rowe is a professional musician, his interludes and commentary are more than useful; his questions are on the mark. Other writers put themselves into the dialogue merely to say, “Well, Dizzy always used to say to me,” but Monk is a gracious interpreter rather than a narcissist.

To find out the story of the elephant beer and the priceless answer, visit Monk’s JAZZ BACKSTORY blog here  and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  Then you can read the rest of Phil Woods’ words and — by the way — find out exactly what Dizzy Gillespie said when presented with the key to the city of Syracuse, New York.

JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS is available here through Amazon.  And the proceeds from the book support the Archives.

NEWS FLASH: Monk is going to be teaching a free online course on jazz, starting February 2, 2016: details here.

May your happiness increase!

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MEL POWELL REMEMBERS: CHARLIE CHRISTIAN and the UNITED STATES ARMY; BENNY GOODMAN at REHEARSAL

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“Charlie Christian turns out to be–according to many of the historians–one of the generating forces of bebop, and certainly we knew that Charlie was very special and playing very beautifully.  He and I were quite good friends . . . . I took Charlie down to the draft board and — now, I should tell you now, because he’s been gone for so many years, Charlie had virtually every disease in the world. I think I now have them, but he had them at a very young age. And they were kind of ugly. You know, tuberculosis, and syphillis, and God knows what else. And so we went down to the draft board. He asked me to come along with him, down at the Armory someplace. We went down there and I remember the doctor saying, ‘Well, Mr. Christian, is there any reason why you should not be drafted?’ Well, Charlie thought for a minute and said, ‘Well, I wear eyeglasses. I’ve never forgotten that . . . soon enough they found out there was no reason to draft him, but I loved that, thinking about wearing eyeglasses!”

BENNY GOODMAN 1941

“[Benny Goodman’s band] was a tremendous ensemble. I think Benny was a very, very fine band leader who was inarticulate. Words were not the thing. It was ‘do it again,’ and then he would demonstrate what phrasing he wanted for this or that part of the piece. He knew exactly what he wanted. It was very clear in his mind. He did not make it clear except by doing it again and doing it himself.

I remember one day I was in Chicago, and I had something to do — probably a girl to meet or something — in the afternoon. This was 8:30 in the morning when we were rehearsing, and [when] I looked at the clock it was noon; we’d been at it for three-and-a-half hours, maybe two or three pieces.  And I said, ‘Benny, do you know when we’re going to wrap up this?’ Well, he was furious at me for the question. He said, ‘When something happens!’ Well, it’s a very good picture of him, you see. When something happens.”

Excerpts from Mel Powell’s oral histories (c. 1994): questions by Alex Cline. Reprinted by kind permission of Kati Powell.

And a little aural evidence: the 1941 CAPRICE XXIV PAGANINI, arranged by Skip Martin, with wonderful playing from Benny, Mel, Sidney Catlett, and George Berg:

Because I couldn’t resist, here’s the Goodman Sextet with Charlie, Count Basie, George Auld, Cootie Williams, Jo Jones . . . I FOUND A NEW BABY:

May your happiness increase!

BARNEY JOSEPHSON, CAFE SOCIETY, and MORE

It’s a long time since I got so wrapped up in a book that I didn’t want to stop reading it — but CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE (Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009) is just that book.

Who was Barney Josephson (1902-88)?  If he hadn’t worked very hard to make his dreams become reality, we would only know him as a successful businessman: his specialty, stylish shoes. 

Happily for us, Barney had thoughts beyond Cuban or French heels: a yearning to run a nightclub in New York City, a keen sensitivity to talent, a hatred of social injustice.  And CAFE SOCIETY is the book his life and accomplishments deserve.  It could have been dull, academic, or third-hand.  But it’s a lively memoir of Barney’s life, taken from the tape recordings he made — he was a born raconteur — subtly annotated and expanded by his widow Terry Trilling-Josephson.  

CAFE SOCIETY (like the Downtown and Uptown nightclubs that had that name) is energetic, memorable, full of memorable anecdote and gossip.  Josephson was someone who had good instincts about what artists — musicians, comedians, or actors — whose work had substance.  He said he viewed himself as a “saloon impresario”: “I love it when people say that because I’m not more than that.  It’s the way I view myself.  In this business if you’re an ‘impresario,’ I say that with quotation marks around the word, you have a feeling.  You hear something, and you say, ‘This is it!’  You go ahead and you do it.  You don’t analyze.  You have to follow your hunches.”

Josephson had the good fortune to have John Hammond as his guide, instigator, and occasional arm-twister.  When Barney wanted to start a New York night club with music, it was Hammond who urged him to hire the three boogie-woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, the blues singer Big Joe Turner, and Billie Holiday. 

Cafe Society is remarkable for the improvisers who played there: Teddy Wilson with a band including Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, or Bill Coleman; Benny Morton; Ed Hall or Jimmy Hamilton; Sidney Catlett.  Frank Newton with Sonny White, Kenneth Hollon, Tab Smith, Eddie Dougherty, Johnny Williams.  Ed Hall with Mouse Randolph and Henderson Chambers.  Ellis Larkins with Bill Coleman and Al Hall. 

Later on, at the Cookery, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams.  Josephson brought back Helen Humes and Alberta Hunter for successful late-life “comebacks.”  And it wasn’t simply jazz and popular songs: think of the Revuers (with Judy Holiday and Adolph Green), of Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel, of the now-forgotten Jimmy Savo, all given encouragement and room to develop by Josephson.   

But this isn’t purely a list of who-sang-what and how they were received, a collection of press clippings and schedules.  Josephson was a first-class storyteller with a remarkable memory, and the stories he remembered are priceless.  Nowhere else would I have learned that Emmett Berry, when trying to get someone to take a drink, would ask, “Will you have a drink of Doctor Berry’s rootin’ tootin’ oil?”  For me, that’s worth the price of the book.  Wonderful photographs, too. 

And the stories!

Billie Holiday, at first not knowing what to do with the lyrics of STRANGE FRUIT when they were handed to her, and showing her displeasure in the most effective non-verbal way when an audience annoyed her.

Zero Mostel, always onstage, making life difficult for the man trying to fit him for clothing.

Barney’s firing of Carol Channing and his missing a chance to hire Pearl Bailey.

Tallulah Bankhead complaining — at high volume — about what she’d encountered in the ladies’ room.

Teddy Wilson’s drinking problem, late in his career.

The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.

The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.

Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.

Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.

 And there is a deep, serious undercurrent throughout: the difficulty of having an establishment where neither the bands nor the audiences were segregated, and the looming shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  (Leon Josephson, Barney’s brother, was a particular target, which cast a shadow over Barney’s endeavors.)

Ultimately, the book is delightful for its stories (and the wonderful photographs) and the way Terry Trilling-Josephson has woven recollection and research together.  And the book is — on every page — the embodiment of Barney’s achievements and of the deep love he and Terry shared.  Not to be missed!

FIRST-HAND: PAUL NOSSITER REMEMBERS JO JONES and SIDNEY BECHET

My favorite character of all the drummers was Jo Jones.  Jo was at a Newport Jazz Festival convocation of jazz drummers, and all of the big names were there, including Art Blakey.  There had been a Basie reunion that year, 1957  — Lester and Jo had played with the band.  At the afternoon session, Jo was last.  All of the big names had played the shit out of the drum set, and Jo put the sticks aside and played finger drums for ten minutes.  And then he stopped and smiled and walked off.  It was a lesson for the kiddies.  Less is more.   

I sat in with Sidney Bechet in Juan-les-Pins when he was playing with Claude Luter.  Much to Luter’s annoyance.  But I knew Sidney for a long time, because he and my brother chased the same Australian girl in 1942 or so!  He was very sad being in France, though, because he was treated like a god.  People approached him like a deity.  And there was nobody to hang with.  He was afraid of going back to America because the woman who ran the Savoy in Boston was suing him for non-appearance.

FIRST-HAND: PAUL NOSSITER REMEMBERS ROD CLESS

This is the first of what I hope is a long series — first-hand testimony from the men and women who were there, about their jazz heroes and more. 

Paul Nossiter is a veteran jazz improviser, educator, and writer — on the scene for a long time and still gigging in the New England area.  We spoke in October 2010 about his early experiences with the legendary clarinetist Rod Cless.

I had an older brother, Bud (for Bernard): he was my guru.  He was a swing fan in the early Forties, and I worshipped him, so I became a swing fan.  My idea was that Benny Goodman must have been 25 or 30 years old.  Benny was going to die, and I was going to replace him!  He was going to fade away, and I had to be prepared to take his place. 

We had been collecting big-band jazz records, and then one Thanksgiving my brother saw that the Village Vanguard was going to have a jam session, and he and my cousin (who was a year older, in high school) persuaded my mother to take them, and I horned in on it. 

It wasn’t a jam session.  It was a quartet I will never forget.  Zutty Singleton, Pops Foster, Art Hodes (the only white man I ever heard who really could play the blues) and this lean, tall, weird-looking clarinet player.  So tall that they called him Pee Wee — Pee Wee Russell.

It was a karmic experience for both my brother and me.  We felt we’d heard the truth.  we went home and began to throw our 78 records of swing out the window into the courtyard below, until the super came up, cursed us roundly, and we stopped.

We got into that kind of jazz, and he began to collect records by the Condon gang, all those wonderful people, and I finally got a clarinet and began to take lessons.  We went to concerts, and eventually heard Bunk Johnson at Stuyvesant Casino.

Once, Bud was in Nick’s in Greenwich Village, and Rod Cless was playing with a group.  (I was too young to go by myself.)  And he said to Rod, “I’ve got a kid brother who wants to learn to play jazz.”  Rod said, “Well, I’ve never taught anyone.”  Bud said, “Why don’t you give him some lessons, and see?”  And that’s how it started.  I can’t remember what he got paid — maybe ten dollars. 

Once a week, Rod would come up to the apartment we lived in on West 77th Street, and teach me by ear the jazz repertoire that Condon and Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band played.  Rod would teach me, bit by bit, JADA, BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME, and some of the faster ones.  He would play the melody, and then I would play after him.  He would say, “No, that note’s wrong.  You need to use two fingers.”  It was very much Montessori-ish.  Then when I finally learned the tune, I would have to play it for him, and he would play a counter-melody behind me. 

One of the things Rod had with him when he came up was a pint bottle, because he drank continuously.  He probably put away a fifth during the day, nibbling at it, and another fifth at night, when he worked.  It didn’t seem to affect his playing (eventually I went to places where I could hear him play).  He had a very large nose — almost a fighter’s nose or an alcoholic’s nose — and when he drank it got bright red.  Once, Rod was taking a sip from his pint bottle when my father walked in.  And I thought, “Oh, shit!  There goes my lessons.”  My father turned on his heel, shut the door and went out.  And he came back about ten minutes later and said to Rod, “If you’re going to drink, drink something good,” and put a bottle of Scotch on the table.   

After school, I used to practice with the Commodore records that we collected, playing melody with those records.  (And the nice thing was that if the band made a mistake, I could pick up the needle and start over again!)

That was another very important part of my life, when we started to collect records — going down Sixth Avenue and visiting all the used record stores, looking for Louis and Bessie and Muggsy.  Then I would wind up at the Commodore Record Shop.  It was wonderful — walls of records stacked up and four or five listening booths!  Can you believe it?  You would ask for the records you wanted, they would hand them to you, and you would take them back into a booth and sit in a leather chair and play them.  I could afford one record a week, so the record I bought had to be absolutely perfect.  Every solo had to be just right, every chorus, the ensemble . . . so bit by bit I amassed a collection of these records. 

After about eight months or a year of these once-a-week sessions with Rod, he said, “Right.  Now I’m going to play the melody.  You play something else.”  And I said, “What?  What will I play?”  Rod said, “Haven’t you been listening?”  And that’s how I got thrown into the water.  I did have an ear for harmony, and I played very simple stuff behind him, and we would play duets this way. 

Rod was not a very vocal person.  He didn’t speak a lot.  He was very quiet, and very gentle.  Never critical of my playing.  He was absolutely different from any teacher I’d had before or since.  And by the time I was a senior in high school, I could sit in at Jimmy Ryan’s occasionally.  The last number, BUGLE CALL RAG, anybody in the house who had an instrument could play two choruses.       

(I got to meet James P. Johnson because Rod was working in a band that included him at the Pied Piper — a wonderful band with James P. playing, and you’d go up to him and he’d carry on a conversation with you without stopping.)

I’ve been wonderfully lucky!

THEIR IRRESISTIBLE STORIES

It’s taken me some time to write about Hank O’Neal’s book, THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM (Vanderbilt University Press), but admiration slowed me down.  What follows is only the smallest sample of its contents. 

Between 1985 and 2007, O’Neal (an excellent home-grown journalist who knew how to ask questions and get out of the way) interviewed forty-two jazz giants.  Some were well-known (Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Illinois Jacquet, Cab Calloway, Andy Kirk, Sy Oliver, Jonah Jones, Benny Carter, Maxine Sullivan, Buddy Tate), others no less deserving but in semi-obscurity to all but jazz devotees and scholars (Al Cobbs, Ovie Alston, Gene Prince).  Almost all of O’Neal’s subjects have now died: Frank Wess, Terry, and Billy Taylor might be the sole survivors. 

Rather than ask each musician for a long autobiographical summary, O’Neal focused on their memories of Harlem.  Fascinating stories resulted, which eventually proved stronger than their grief for a way of life that they had seen vanish.  

O’Neal is also a fine photographer from the old school — Berenice Abbott was his occasionally irritable mentor — so the book has large-format photographs of its subjects, often in their homes, as well as invaulable jazz memorabilia (advertisements and posters, record labels and the like) and photographs of the buildings that now stand where the uptown clubs used to be.  I find those transformations hard to take; that Connie’s Inn is now a C-Town supermarket makes me gloomy.

But because many of the musicians had never been asked to talk about Harlem, they responded with fresh stories that were hilarious, profound, touching.  

Fats Waller’s advice to guitarist Al Casey: “Don’t ever let your head get too big because there is always that little boy around the corner that can outplay you and outdo everything you do.”

Harry Edison, recalling his mother’s economic advice: ” [When I was fourteen or fifteen] I played with a guy named Earl Hood.  I remember I had to have a tuxedo and my mother paid two dollars for it.  We played little jobs around Columbus and every time I got home my mother used to ask me, ‘How much did you make?’  I’d tell her that Mr. Hood told me I was playing for the experience, and she said, ‘To hell with experience, you might as well stay home if you’re not going to get paid.’ ”

Edison’s memory of pianist Don Lambert taunting Art Tatum at an uptown jam session: “Get up off that chair.  You can’t play, you’ve got no left hand, you’re the world’s worst piano player.”

How clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton asked Teddy Wilson for a raise: “Teddy, I think you ought to put a little yeast in the money.”

Al Cobbs, remembering what Louis Armstrong said about the crowds he drew: “Let me tell you something.  The kind of music I’m playing makes people feel good–the folks come in and they buy steaks.  But some of the things people are playing make people sad, and these folks will just sit there, drink a Coca-Cola, and stay all night.”

The record session that Nat Cole wanted to organize in California, with Illinois Jacquet: “He’d be on piano.  I’d play my horn, and Jimmy Blanton, Sid Catlett, and Charlie Christian would make up the rhythm section.  That sounded great to me.”

The book is full of stories: impatient Stuff Smith wandering out on the ledge of a tall building.  How Coleman Hawkins explained his record of BODY AND SOUL to Thelma Carpenter as musical love-making.  What Milt Hinton’s teacher said to him.  Danny Barker explaining the difference between New Orleans and New York in terms of hospitality.  Al Casey paying tribute to Teddy Bunn.  Buddy Tate remembering the last time he saw Charlie Parker alive. 

And the book comes with a compact disc of many of the giants playing (and talking) — musical history.

THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM is too cumbersome to take to the beach, but it’s a masterpiece.  To learn more about it, visit http://www.vanderbiltuniversitypress.com/books/335/the-ghosts-of-harlem, where you can see twenty beautiful sample pages.

JACK TRACY’S WONDERFUL STORIES

For some delicious anecdotage from former Down Beat anchor Jack Tracy, now eighty-two, be sure to visit Steven Cerra’s JAZZ PROFILES – – http://jazzprofiles.blogspot.com/2009/04/jack-tracy.html — where Tracy, who was there, shares first-hand tales of Bill Harris’s boxer shorts, Dorothy Donegan’s napkin, Duke Ellington’s wise, generous con, Artie Shaw’s bad behavior, Oscar Peterson, Sidney Catlett, as well as a gracious and near-saintly owner of a Chicago jazz club, and much more.

Worth every penny, to quote David Ostwald!