Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Willis Conover, late Forties: photograph by Norm Robbins. Photograph courtesy University of North Texas Music Library, Willis Conover Collection.
Once upon a time, what we like to call “jazz” was divided into warring factions. Divided, that is, by journalists. Musicians didn’t care for the names or care about them; they liked to play and sing with people whose artistry made them feel good. And gigs were gigs, which is still true. So if you were, let us say, Buck Clayton, and you could work with Buddy Tate playing swing standards and blues, or rhythm and blues, that was fine, but playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE with Tony Parenti was just as good, as was playing NOW’S THE TIME with Charlie Parker.
But this was not exciting journalism. So dear friends Jimmy McPartland and Dizzy Gillespie were asked to pose for a photograph as if they were enemies, and people like Hughes Panassie, Leonard Feather, Rudi Blesh, and Barry Ulanov fought the specious fight in print. Even some musicians caught the fever and feuded in public, but perhaps that was jealousy about attention and money rather than musical taste.
One positive effect was that musical “battles” drew crowds, which musicians and promoters both liked.
Since every moment of Charlie Parker’s life seems to have been documented (the same for Bix Beiderbecke, by the way) we know that he played a concert in Washington, D.C.’s Washington [or Music?] Hall on May 23, 1948; that the masters of ceremonies were Willis Conover and Jackson Lowe, and that the collective personnel was Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker, Wild Bill Davison, Joe Sullivan, Sir Charles Thompson, George Wettling, Tony Parenti, Earl Swope, Benny Morton, Charlie Walp, Sid Weiss, Ben Lary, Mert Oliver, Sam Krupit, Joe Theimer, Arthur Phipps. We know that the concert began at 2:30 PM, and — best of all — that private acetate recordings exist. A portion of the concert, heavily weighted towards “modernism,” appeared on the CD above, on Uptown Records, and copies of that disc are still available on eBay and elsewhere.
Details from Peter Losin’s lovely detailed Charlie Parker site here and here.
But for those of us who hadn’t bought the Uptown disc, there it might remain. However, through the kindness and diligence of Maristella Feustle of the University of North Texas Digital Library, excavating recordings in the Willis Conover collection, we now have twenty-seven minutes of music — some of it unheard except by those who were at the concert. There’s the closing C JAM BLUES / a partial RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, talk, and a partial SQUEEZE ME / S’WONDERFUL / TINY’S BLUES / TINY’S BLUES (continued). Yes, we have no Charlie Parker here . . . but a great deal of lively fine music. (Do I hear Eddie Condon’s voice in this or do I dream?).
Here’s the link to hear the music.
But wait! There’s more. My dear friend Sonny McGown sent me a photograph I’d never seen before, from a similar concert of the same vintage, at the National Press Club, with this description: “Your email this morning reminded me of a photo that belonged to my father. He is in the picture with his head visible just above the bell of the trombonist on the far left. Some of the musicians’ identities are obvious such as Jimmy Archey, Wild Bill Davison, Ben Webster, and George Wettling. The rest are unknown to me. I wonder if the trumpet at the microphone is Frankie Newton? The clarinetist looks a bit like Albert Nicholas. It is quite possible that some of the fellows are locals.” [Note: in an earlier version of this post, I had assumed that the photograph and the concert tape were connected: they aren’t. Enthusiasm over accuracy.]
My eyes and ears were ringing while I stared at this gathering. I couldn’t identify the others in the photograph, but did not think the tall trumpeter in the middle was Newton. (And Sonny’s father, Mac, was a spectator, not a player.) Sonny then found two more photographs from the concert that we hear the music — their source being Maggie Condon, which would place Eddie there, logically, as well.
Tony Parenti, George Wettling, Wild Bill Davison, either Sid Weiss or Jack Lesberg, Bennie (the spelling he preferred) Morton:
Joe Sullivan, happy as a human can be:
This photograph popped up online, labeled “Washington Press Club,” but I wonder if it is from the same occasion. Even if it isn’t, it’s always a pleasure to portray these sometimes-ignored majesties:
Now, might I suggest two things. One, that JAZZ LIVES readers go back and listen to this almost half-hour of joys here — giving thanks to the University of North Texas Digital Library at the same time — for instance, the five-hour interview Louis gave to Conover on July 13, 1956, which starts here, and ten years later, something astonishing, Louis playing COLUMBIA, THE GEM OF THE OCEAN and singing “This is the Voice of America,” the former of which I would like as a ringtone: here.
Still hungry for sounds? A January 31, 1956, interview with Eddie Condon here; a brief 1946 interview with Duke Ellington where he seems to say nothing about the death of Tricky Sam Nanton — the music section begins with Ellington’s BLUE ABANDON, which contains a stunning solo by Oscar Pettiford, which is then followed by lovely records by Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and Kenton: here.
There are many more gems in the University of North Texas Music Library, which seems better than any ancient debate about the merits of different kinds of jazz. There is music to listen to and photographs to stare at . . . and gratitude to express, nor only to the musicians and Mr. Conover, but to Ms. Feustle and Mr. McGown. Those who keep the archives tidy and share their gifts are our lasting friends.
May your happiness increase!