Tag Archives: Paul Mehling

THE WARM SOUNDS OF BILL NAPIER (1926-2003)

Clarinetist Bill Napier might be one of the finest musicians that few people outside of California have ever heard, or heard of.  Marc Caparone says, “I only played music with him twice, but he was a god, a very quiet man who didn’t get much publicity but was always superb.”  Leon Oakley remembers him as a “warm, creative player.”  Hal Smith told me that Bill cared about the music more than “traditional” ways of playing a chorus.

Almost all of the recordings Bill made, and the live performances captured outside of the studio have him in the middle of six or seven-piece units.  What I now can share with you here is intimate, touching music, with Bill the solo horn in a congenial trio.

The personnel of these live recordings is Napier, clarinet; Larry Scala, banjo; Robbie Schlosser, string bass.  They were recorded on August 8, 1994, outdoors at Stanford University, by Dr. Arthur Schawlow, who won the Nobel Prize (with others) for his work on the laser beam.  Dr. Schawlow not only liked jazz, but was an early adopter of high-tech: Larry says that he recorded these performances on a digital recorder, the first one he had ever seen.

Here are five delicious chamber performances, beginning with ALL MY LIFE.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

I’M CONFESSIN’:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

IF I HAD YOU:

and a masterpiece:

Napier’s sound comes in the ear like honey.  He never plays a superfluous note; he honors the melody but in the most gentle supple way.  It is rather as if he were leaning forward, softly saying something heartfelt that was important to him and that he knew would uplift you.  Beauty and swing without affectation.

Before we move on to precious oral history, a few words about one of the other members of this trio.  After you have bathed in the liquid gold of Napier’s sound, listen once again to the very relaxed and gracious banjo playing of Larry Scala. Like Napier, he understands melodic lines (while keeping a flexible rhythm going and using harmonies that add but never distract).  Banjos in the wrong hands can scare some of us, but Larry is a real artist, and his sound is a pleasure to listen to.  (You can find examples of his superb guitar work elsewhere on this blog.) And this post exists because of his generosity, for he has provided the source material, and Larry’s gift to us is a great one.  Music to dance to; music to dream by.

I asked California jazz eminences for memories of Napier, and this is some of what people remembered.  Bill was obviously A Character, but everyone I asked was eager to praise him, and you’ve heard why.

From Hal Smith: I was going through tapes in the archive of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation. One tape had several of the bands which performed at the Clancy Hayes benefit at Earthquake McGoon’s in May of 1970. Napier led a band for the occasion. I heard him get onstage, walk to the mic and say “Here we are!” Then, a couple of seconds later, “Where ARE we?”

By the way, Bill’s real name was James William Asbury.  I’m not sure how it got changed to “Bill Napier.”  When he would tell stories about his youth, or time in the Army, he always referred to himself as “little Jimmy Asbury.”

Bill told me about the clarinetists he admired, including Jimmie Noone and Jimmy Dorsey. He also liked Albert Nicholas and went to hear him at Club Hangover in San Francisco. He asked to sit in, but was turned down. As he described it, “I asked Albert Nicholas if he needed any help and he said he didn’t think so.”

Bill was the original clarinetist with Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band. He left the group following Jack Sohmer’s mean-spirited review of Schulz’s CD which was published in The Mississippi Rag. After that, whenever Schulz would ask if Bill was available to play a gig, Bill would say, “No. Jack Sohmer may be in the audience.”  Before he left the Schulz band, we played a concert at Filoli Mansion outside San Francisco. M.C. Bud Spangler asked each musician to explain why they play music for a living. There was a wide range of responses, but Bill’s was the best: “Well, I have to pay my taxes!”

From Clint Baker:  Bill Napier was a bit of a prodigy, as a teenager he was playing at the Dawn Club as part of a young band that was one of the substitute bands for the wartime Yerba Buena Jazz Band.  By the late 40’s he was working with Wingy Manone in San Francisco. He went on to have a couple of stints with the Turk Murphy band and also with Bob Scobey, a band for which he was better suited for sure. He later worked with all the better bands around here; he was not all that interested in playing music on the road and kept close to home for the most part after the Fifties.

I encountered him many times when I was coming up.  He was always the consummate sideman, and always played with great imagination; he had the most amazing tone, liquid would best describe his.  But he NEVER ran out of ideas, he was a wellspring of original musical thought. If he did fall back on a device such as quote, it was always the most obtuse thing one could come up with.

Bill was one of the only players I ever played with who perfectly combined the elements of swing clarinet and New Orleans style clarinet; he all at once sounded like Goodman or Shaw or Simeon or Bigard.  He was hip to all of it and could combine all of the musical DNA of those styles in to his own rich sound. I remember speaking with him about to old masters and he told Simeon was one of his main favorites.  BUT he was truly his own man with the richest of musical imaginations.  I was always honored to work with him, and wish I had had more chances, but the times I did, I cherish. You knew when you were on the bandstand with him you were in the presence of greatness.  Bill was a master.

From Paul Mehling: I worked with him for nearly thirty years in a trio of bass, guitar, and clarinet, and he is on two of our CDs.  He was very shy, quiet, and private. He loved his two (or more?) cats. He and his wife would take the two cats camping and one year when it was time to leave they couldn’t find one of their cats. They called and called but feared he’d been abducted or eaten so they drove home very sad. Next year, they went camping again, same spot/campground. Guess who showed up!  They were overjoyed.  He never really believed how much I loved his playing and all I aspired to at that time was to be GOOD ENOUGH TO SHINE HIS SHOES (musically). I used to try to get into his head during each song and try to give him the kind of rhythm that he’d be most comfortable with.

I was 18 when I first played a full gig with him, but I first met him at the Alameda County Fair when I was 16, long-haired, and didn’t know anything about music but had enough gumption to drag my acoustic guitar into the fairgrounds and find those guys- Lueder Ohlwein, banjo; maybe Ev Farey, trumpet; for sure Bob Mielke, trombone, was there and probably Bill Carrol on bass.  They said Do you know any songs?” I said “Sure, whaddabout Avalon and I Got Rhythm,” and probably one other song.  I played, they liked it, and a few years later Napier remembered me!

He and I bonded early on over comedy. He liked how often I quoted Groucho. We had a shared love for bad puns:
Napier: “Let’s play the suspenders song.”
Me: “ What song is that?”
Napier: “It all depends on you.”
Me: “What?”
Napier : “It hold de pants on you.”

Napier: “You like to golf?”
Me: “Uh, no. You?”
Napier: “No, I never wanted to make my balls soar.”

We’d come up with all manner of re-titling songs to keep us from feeling bad about playing background music and getting almost zero love from “audiences.”

When the Bob Scobey band did a two-year stint in Chicago, Benny Goodman used to show up just to dig on Napier’s playing (which sounded like Goodman/Bigard/Noone!

One thing for sure: the guy never did NOT swing. Never. Even a song he didn’t know. In fact, and more curious was that I could throw all kinds of (gypsy) chord substitutions at him (I didn’t know any better, I thought that’s what jazz musicians did: reharmonize everything) and he never, EVER said “No” or so much as cast an evil eye in my direction. I think the years he played with Bill Erickson at Pier 23 were his favorite years.  He didn’t speak much of Erickson, but I could just tell.

Oh, here’s the BEST story. I just remembered: we were at a swanky Sunday brunch on the Stanford Campus, near that big Stanford Mall with Bloomingdales and other stores.  We would often try to engage diners by chatting and asking if they had a request. Most people wanted to hear something from CATS (ugh). Or they wanted to hear In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.  So we went up to this table, and there’s a guy there, of a certain age. With an attractive woman half his age.  One of us said, “What would you like to hear?”
Man: “ I want to you to play “It Had To Be You” but not fast, about here- ….”(snaps his fingers indicating a medium slow tempo)
Me, aside to Napier: “Why don’t you ask MR. CONDUCTOR what KEY he’d like to SING it in?”
Napier, whispering to me: “I think MR. CONDUCTOR is MR. Getz.”
Boy, did I feel stupid: Stan Getz, doing a residency at Stanford, one of Napier’s heroes.

Obviously, a man well-loved and well-remembered.

I have foregone the usual biography of Bill, preferring to concentrate on the music for its own sake.  But here is a lovely detailed sketch of his life — unfortunately, it’s his obituary, and here is another week’s worth of rare music — Napier with bands — provided thanks to Dave Radlauer.  There are more trio performances, also.

Now, go back and listen to Napier play.

May your happiness increase!

“JOHN PAUL GEORGE AND DJANGO”: THE HOT CLUB OF SAN FRANCISCO

2016hcsflivingroom

I think I am older than Paul Mehling, but we both came up in a time when the Beatles were not only the sensational mop-tops who had made all the girls scream at concert performances but when their songs were the ubiquitous popular soundtrack.  I can remember buying each new album as it came out and listening avidly.  Of course, both Paul and I felt drawn to a different kind of music, as he writes in the brief notes to this new CD:

The idea that Django Reinhardt would have played the Beatles’ tunes has haunted me ever since I took up the guitar.  Like so many of my generation who were galvanized by their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, I became part of the ‘culture of guitar’ and never looked back.  But unlike my guitar brethren who stayed on for sex, drugs, and/or rock ‘n’ roll, I was devastated by the breakup of the Beatles and I quit listening to rock entirely, foolishly believing that the best was now over.  Luckily, I was already deeply inspired by traditional jazz — Goodman, Bechet, Dorsey, Shaw, & others of the swing era, especially Django.  This record was inevitable in that regard.

johnpaulgeorgedjangocdcover

For those impatient with words, here you can hear sound samples, learn more about the Hot Club of San Francisco, and purchase the music.

The HCSF is a venerable band — much of its personnel staying the same for a long time — and it has the ease and intensity of a working band.  The players are Paul Mehling, Evan Price, SAm Rocha, Iabelle Fontaine, Jordan Samuels, with guests Jeff Hamilton, Nate Ketner, Jeff Magidson, Michel Saga.

The repertoire neatly balances the familiar (going all the way back to 1964) and the less well-known: ALL MY LOVIN’ / BECAUSE / MICHELLE / I WILL / HERE THERE AND EVERYWHERE / YOU WON’T SEE ME / THE FOOL ON THE HILL / IF I NEEDE SOMEONE / JULIA / YOU CAN’T DO THAT / FOR NO ONE / DON’T BOTHER ME / HEY JUDE – DUKE & DUKIE / THINGS WE SAID TODAY / YELLOW SUBMARINE.  Because Mehling is a gleeful subversive, there is a French group vocal, visits from musical saw, banjo, melodica, and barrel organ. It isn’t the Beatles on hallucinogens visiting an abandoned gypsy caravan, but it has immense wit, verve, and variety.  As impatient as I can be, I listened to this CD without a break many times.

In the Sixties and beyond, there were many recordings of Beatles “covers”: the Hollyridge Strings Play Lennon and McCartney; Nelson Eddy Sings the Beatles; Wilbur Sweatman Plays the Hits of Today (seriously, both Basie and Ellington attempted this, and Louis sang — most convincingly — GIVE PEACE A CHANCE).  In general, these recordings were often an attempt to bridge the generations and to give record buyers senior and junior something to purchase. But the end result was often watery.

Not so the HCSF CD.  Each song is quietly linked to the ones before and after — so the end result is a charming Beatles suite, a too-brief immersion.  But it’s also a brightly colored journey, with each track exhibiting its own glowing personality: brilliant and sometimes surprising arranging makes this delightfully possible.  And if you are worried about such things, the session swings mightily and is wonderful dance music. To describe this CD track-by-track would be to spoil the fun, but I can see why devoted fans of the HCSF had been after Paul to make a CD like this.

May your happiness increase!

GOIN’ TO SAN DIEGO (The San Diego Jazz Fest, November 23-27, 2016)

california-here-i-come-eddie

Why, you ask?  Why would a reasonably stable person spend most of a day traveling across the country on Thursday and then do the same on Sunday night? The answer is the 37th San Diego Jazz Fest, which runs from November 23 through the 27th.  Many of my friends — musical, personal, and both! — will be there.  (Facebook page here).

Here’s a sample of what happened in November 2015:

and in 2014:

a day earlier in 2014:

and in 2013:

Optimism in 2012:

and a feature for the rhythm section in 2012.

Tim and Connie won’t be there this year — Connie has retired from playing, alas — but these videos sum up what I find most endearing about the Fest.  There’s nothing like it.  And it’s worth sitting in seat 7C, coming and going.  I assure you. And here is the schedule: if you can’t find something / someone to listen to, you might not be trying at all.

And, as a joyous bit of laginappe, here is a Frolick from Dixieland Monterey 2011 (John Reynolds, ever polite, calls this song, CALIFORNIA, HERE I BREATHE HEAVILY):

Dixieland Monterey is no more.  You — yes, you — are essential to keeping these mammoth enterprises afloat.  But you know that.

May your happiness increase!

 

GENTLY BUT FIRMLY: HOT CLUB PACIFIC: “JIVE AT FIVE”

HCP front

Looking at the sleeve, one could underrate this sweet session from a group of West Coast players as just another “Hot Club” effort.  But the listener who goes within the cardboard has pleasant surprises in store.

For one thing, the HCP is not bowing low to the Quintette of the Hot Club of France in its most famous — and most imitated — Thirties incarnation, with one solo guitar, two rhythm, one violin, one string bass.

Rather, it emulates in its instrumentation the later Reinhardt – Rostaing efforts, clarinet instead of violin. And the group eschews some of the more limiting aspects of “Gypsy jazz,” especially the note-laden guitar solos at searing tempos.

No, this Hot Club leans more towards a Basie / Charlie Christian aesthetic, which is fine with me. The prime movers here are Marc Schwartz (lead guitar), Jack Fields (rhythm guitar), Dale Mills (clarinet), Nat Johnson, Bill Bosch, or Matt Bohn (bass), Olaf Schipiacasse (drums).  And you’ll see from the tune list below that they have neatly sidestepped some of the most overplayed numbers in the G.S. repertoire, for which relief much thanks.

HCP back

I know what follows next might seem like faint praise, but as I was listening to JIVE AT FIVE, I kept noting those corners and musical niches where lesser players might have stuffed in familiar quotes, phrases taken from famous records — in short, cliches.  And each time the band went its own happy swinging way, which is always reassuring.

Here is the HCP Facebook page, and here is what I wrote about them a few years back — with convincing videos.

The HCF has regular gigs in the Santa Cruz / Monterey area, best checked on the Facebook page.  But for pictures of the band and booking information, there’s no better place than here.

The CD is a limited edition, so don’t wait too long to snap up a copy — or else you will be fishing around on eBay.  And if you don’t feel that my endorsement is sufficient proof, how about this: guitar maestri Paul Mehling, Howard Alden, and Larry Coryell have visited and sat in during the band’s ten-year run.  That’s good enough for me.

 May your happiness increase!

GOING MY WAY? (to the JAZZ BASH BY THE BAY, March 6-7-8, 2015?)

bash

I hope that posts such as these aren’t too frustrating for those JAZZ LIVES readers who are far away from the particular Mecca of Hot.  If you’re in Illinois or Newcastle, you are hereby let off the hook.  But for those readers who can, or could, or might . . . read on.

The 2015 Jazz Bash by the Bay is happening soon — an opening concert / dance on Thursday, March 5, then full-steam ahead for Friday through Sunday. I have delightful memories of being there from 2011 on — a very friendly and hospitable festival, the staff and volunteers exceedingly nice, the rooms in which one hears and sees music very comfortable.  And the music itself, although the players and singers shift slightly from year to year, is always both superb and varied.  Your favorite bands — including High Sierra, the Carl Sonny Leyland Trio, Ivory & Gold, Ellis Island Boys, Crescent Katz, Cocuzzi/Vache All Stars, Le Jazz Hot, Royal Society Jazz Orchestra.  Soloists: Dan Barrett, Eddie Erickson, Rebecca Kilgore, Ehud Asherie, Stephanie Trick, David Boeddinghaus, Banu Gibson, Dawn Lambeth, Yve Evans, Jeff Barnhart, Jason Wanner, Marc Caparone, Bob Draga, John Reynolds, Jeff Hamilton, Paul Mehling, Clint Baker, John Cocuzzi, Allan Vache, Danny Coots, Virginia Tichenor, Marty Eggers, and many more.  Everything from hot jazz to swinging rhythmic ballads to ragtime, stride, and boogie-woogie, with offferings of zydeco and gypsy swing.

It’s a lovely place to visit, also — my meteorological memories of Monterey in March (say that once at a conversational tempo) are lovely: sunny and warm.

Here are the band schedules.  I spent a happy fifteen minutes this morning with a green highlighter, noting sets I absolutely wanted to be at — and there were no idle hours.

And just for our collective happiness, here are my videos of a March 2011 performance featuring Clint Baker, Marc Caparone, Howard Miyata, Mike Baird, Dawn Lambeth, Katie Cavera, Jeff Hamilton, and Marty Eggers — mixing sweet, swing, and hot.

I am eagerly looking forward to it.  And I hope to see you there, too.  No fooling. And if you’re hungry for more music, you can search this site for “bash” or “Monterey” and find videos from 2011-14 . . . better yet, you can make plans to attend.

May your happiness increase!

THEY’RE WONDERFUL: THE IVORY CLUB BOYS at ARMANDO’S (May 31, 2014)

This is more joyous evidence from a great evening of music created by the Ivory Club Boys — this time at Armando’s in Martinez, California, on May 31, 2014.

The ICB are devoted to the hot and sweet swing music often associated with Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys — a Fifty-Second Street small jazz group of the middle Thirties, featuring Jonah Jones and Cozy Cole among others.  Their twenty-first century incarnation includes Paul Mehling, guitar / vocal; Evan Price, electric violin; Isabelle Fontaine, guitar / vocal; Sam Rocha, string bass / vocal.  This night, sitting in for Clint Baker, we had Marc Caparone, cornet, who will be familiar to readers of JAZZ LIVES.  I’ve posted other music from this evening in half a dozen posts — this is a special favorite of mine.

But here are two more: a sweet one (written by Stuff) and a hot one (written by several people including Puccini).

IT’S WONDERFUL:

AVALON:

The Ivory Club Boys gig here and there, hither and yon — most recently in Santa Cruz, which I couldn’t get to.  I dream of regular gigs, a CD, a DVD, and more.

“Ask for them by name!  Accept no imitations!”

May your happiness increase! 

SAY FORWARD, THEY’LL SWING: MORE FROM THE IVORY CLUB BOYS AT ARMANDO’S (MAY 31, 2014): PAUL MEHLING, EVAN PRICE, MARC CAPARONE, SAM ROCHA, ISABELLE FONTAINE at ARMANDO’S

A New York jazz friend just wrote me, “Michael, are there any more videos from that Ivory Club Boys gig you posted from May 2014?  That is such a great band!”

Happy to oblige, dear NYJF, with more from that spectacular evening at Armando’s in Martinez — featuring Paul Mehling, guitar, vocal; Evan Price, electric (and electrifying) violin; Marc Caparone (sitting in for Clint Baker), cornet; Sam Rocha, string bass, vocal; Isabelle Fontaine, guitar, vocal.  They paid tribute, in their own way, to the mighty swing and joyously eccentric humor of Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys.

One kind of crazy?  Yes, a second take of CRAZY RHYTHM:

Something searching and melancholy, I COVER THE WATERFRONT:

And another type of crazy, as in YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY / MOTEN SWING:

And here, for those of you unaware of the ICB, here are the other selections from that night that I’ve posted on JAZZ LIVES:

endless-summer-in-swing

double-your-fun

rhythm-crazy

from-spiritual-to-swing

bugle-call-rag

Forget the morning news for a moment.  It’s a benevolent world that has this music in it.

May your happiness increase!