Tag Archives: Pee Wee Erwin

A MUSICAL LANDSCAPE: MARCH 13, 1951

LANDSCAPE WITH BUSHES, Ivana Falconi Allen, 2020.  In a private collection.

The little world we know as jazz has moved so quickly in its hundred-plus years that sometimes it seems precariously balanced between the beloved Living and the heroic Dead.  I can go out in New York City to hear people I admire tremendously blow breath through horns and out of mouths, to make music right in front of me.  But at times jazz seems like a well-tended graveyard, with death announcements hitting me between the eyes every morning, adding to the great graveyard where Buster, Bessie, Billie, Bean, Brownie, Blanton, Ben, Bix, Big Sid, and Bunny are buried.

Where the music I am about to present — thanks to our great friend “Davey Tough” — fits in this formulation is a large charming paradox.  I do not think any of the players on this transcription disc, recorded before my birth, are alive in 2020.  But their music is resoundingly alive, and their ability to make a shining personal statement in sixteen bars, a time span of under thirty seconds, is marvelous.  Their names are announced, and you can read more on the label.

What’s the moral?

Emulate our great heroes, by doing something so well that when our bodies have said, “All right, that’s enough!” our selves live on.

And like “Davey Tough,” share your joys generously.

And a postscript: if you don’t know the artwork of the endearingly imaginative Ivana Falconi Allen, you are missing work as sharply realized and as delightful as any jazz solo you cherish.  Here is her website, full of sweet shocks.

May your happiness increase!

MARK IT DOWN! THE CENTRAL ILLINOIS JAZZ FESTIVAL (March 30, 2019: Decatur, Illinois)

Here’s something for the intellectual puzzle-solvers in the JAZZ LIVES audience.

One.

 

Two.

 

 

 

 

Three.

Kenny Davern, Yank Lawson, Connie Jones, Pee Wee Erwin, Doc Cheatham, Chuck Folds, George Masso, Don Goldie, Johnny Varro, Jon-Erik Kellso, Paul Keller, Ed Polcer, Eddie Higgins, Marty Grosz, Bill Allred, Bob Schulz, Bobby Rosengarden, Milt Hinton, Brian Torff, Johnny Frigo, Peter Ecklund, John Sheridan, Brian Holland, Rebecca Kilgore, Dan Barrett, Eddie Erickson, Ken Peplowski, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, the Fat Babies, and more.

Figured it out?  The answers, although indirect, are below, and they relate to the Juvae Jazz Society and the Central Illinois Jazz Festival: the story of their inception is here.

I confess that Decatur, Illinois has really never loomed large in my vision of bucket-list places.  But I have been terribly myopic about this for the past quarter-century.  Consider the poster below, please:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Juvae Jazz Society is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and rather than expecting people to bring them silver plates and candelabra, they are throwing a one-day jazz party, which you might have understood from the poster above.  (The list of musicians is just some of the notables who have played and sung for them in the last quarter-century.)

Although I admire Petra van Nuis and Andy Brown immensely, I’ve never had a chance to hear Petra and the Recession Seven live.  The Chicago Cellar Boys are one of my favorite bands and would even be so if Dave Bock wore a more sedate bow tie.  Other surprises are possible as well.

Some groovy evidence for you:

and those Boys:

So I’m going to be there.  Care to join me?

May your happiness increase!

JULY 21, 1975: NICE, NICER, NICEST

 

“La grande parade du jazz” is what the people in charge of the Nice Jazz Festival called it in the last half of the 1970s.  And that it was for sure.  Here, through the good offices of the scholar Franz Hoffmann, is a nearly ten-minute SWEET GEORGIA BROWN with sixteen of the great players (Bob Wilber and Marty Grosz, still happily with us) participating.

Twelve horns in the front line might mean chaos, but there is expert, funny traffic direction here by experienced musicians who knew (this was the last performance of a set) that allowing everyone to play three choruses could extend the performance well past plausibility.  And SWEET GEORGIA BROWN is so familiar that no one could mess up the chords on the bridge.  And although the director / cinematographer on some of these Nice videos made them hard to watch by cutting from one angle to another every few seconds, here the editing is much more sedate and pleasing.

The performance is full of sweet little touches — the affectionate respect these musicians had for each other and the idiom.  After an ensmble where — even amidst all the possibility for clamor — Bobby Hackett is audibly leading, with mutters from Vic Dickenson, which then turns into a very characteristic propulsive Art Hodes solo, all his traits and signatures beautifully intact.  Watch Barney Bigard’s face as Maxim Saury plays a patented Bigard motive, how amused and pleased he is with the younger man’s tribute, and how he (Barney, that is) pays close attention afterwards.  (For what it’s worth, Herb Hall and Barney sound so sweetly demure after Saury.)  After some inaudible asides, Alain Bouchet (brave man!) trades phrases with a very impressive Hackett, then, before any kind of disorder can take over, Vic takes control over the trombone section, with Willcox and Hubble having fun playing at being Vic.  A conversation between Dick Sudhalter and Pee Wee Erwin reveals two concise lyricists; Bob Wilber, so durable and so profound, soars through his choruses (notice Wingy trying to break in after the first).  Wingy takes his turn in opposition to a beautifully-charged Hackett, with supporting riffs coming in for the second chorus (Hackett quotes WITH PLENTY OF MONEY AND YOU, so gorgeously) before the whole ensemble charges for the exit, Moustache commenting underneath, his four-bar break hinting at a deep study of Cliff Leeman:

Wingy Manone, Bobby Hackett, Alain Bouchet, Pee Wee Erwin, Dick Sudhalter, cornet / trumpet; Vic Dickenson, Eddie Hubble, Spiegel Willcox, trombone; Barney Bigard, Herb Hall, Maxim Saury, clarinet; Bob Wilber, clarinet, soprano saxophone; Art Hodes, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Placide Adams, string bass; Moustache Galepides, drums.

Almost ten minutes of bliss, with no collisions and no train wrecks.  And if you care to, on the third or fourth viewing, watch the musicians themselves closely — the ones who aren’t playing, as they smile and silently urge their friends, colleagues, and heroes on.  Their love is tangible as well as audible.

It’s a cliche to write that “Giants walked the earth,” but this summer performance proves the truism true.  And one of the most dear of the giants — never in stature — the blessed Bobby Hackett — wouldn’t live another full  year.  Oh, what we lost.

For more from Franz Hoffmann, and he has marvels, visit his YouTube channel.

May your happiness increase!

THE MYSTERIES OF JANUARY 17, 1936, or WHO WAS CHEECH?

If it please Your Honor, Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Those are two unassuming-looking sides of a Decca “sunburst” label 78 disc.  Fine music with small mysteries attached, and no one around to tell the tale(s).  This 78 is not easy to find these days but it seems to have been a popular issue: I have had two copies, the first a (now-vanished) sunburst, the second (near me as I write) a later Decca reissue.  It was also issued on UK Decca.

This group, not a working band, recorded only these two sides in the New York Decca studios on January 17, 1936.  The personnel was Pee Wee Erwin, trumpet; Joe Marsala, clarinet; Frank Signorelli, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Stan King, drums.  Erwin and Mastren would work with Tommy Dorsey in early 1937, but at the time Erwin was in New York with the young Benny Goodman band before it went to Chicago; the rest of this group might have been together on Fifty-Second Street with Manone or Louis Prima, or freelancing in other record or radio studios.

Marsala and Mastren had been in the Decca studios for another small-group date, apparently organized by Wingy Manone, in whose recording groups they were working consistently for Bluebird — “the Delta Four,” with Roy Eldridge and Sid Weiss making up a quartet, also completing only two sides, FAREWELL BLUES and SWINGIN’ ON THAT FAMOUS DOOR, on December 20, 1935.  Signorelli and Mastren had done a date at Decca with Bunny Berigan as “Bob Terry’s Orchestra” on the 15th; Signorelli, King, and possibly Mastren were in the Decca studios on the 20th with Red McKenzie.

What or who brought these musicians together is one of the mysteries.  It could  have been that one of the six got a call from someone at Decca, perhaps Bob Stephens, saying, “We need a small band tomorrow in the studios at 11.  No more than six, and for scale,” and whoever picked up the phone or got the message at Hurley’s (the bar-gathering place before Jim and Andy’s) talked to other musicians down the bar or made some phone calls.

One more small gush of data: the Six Blue Chips were a late-morning or afternoon assemblage: blues singer Georgia White (piano, vocal, with unknown bass) recorded three sides earlier in the day, and Mike Riley (of THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND fame or infamy) recorded four sides later. American Decca, still quite a new company, was busy recording music and selling discs at lower prices than, say, Victor, as shown by three disparate sessions in one day.

Note the absence of composer credits, something unusual on Decca recordings of current pop tunes, but seen often on their recordings of “hilbilly” music, where the company could pretend that there were no people owed royalties.  It suggests even more that this was a hurry-up session, or perhaps someone’s idea to add to the Delta Four (whose labels do have composer credits).

Incidentally, the reason that all this prose is speculative is because no one connected with the session seemed to remember it or wrote about it.  If King, Shapiro, and Signorelli were ever interviewed, I haven’t encountered it.  I met Carmen Mastren once — on either Lloyd Rauch’s or Dave Weiner’s radio show — and at the time did not know of this recording.  He was very kind . . . and I don’t know where the V-Disc he autographed for me went.

The most likely candidate for an informed recollection would have been Pee Wee Erwin, who told his life story to Warren Vache, Sr., over four hundred pages, in what would be published as THIS HORN FOR HIRE.  But although Vache mentions this disc in an appendix, it seems as if that discography was assembled after Erwin’s death. Pee Wee mentions meeting Bob Stephens in the very early Thirties (when Stephens was a trumpet player) but nothing of substance is offered about the date or the other musicians.  One of the sad surprises of that biography is that Pee Wee had a substantial alcohol problem, which might have erased his memory of casual record dates.

None of this would matter if the music wasn’t delightful. Here it is:

STEEL ROOF, of course, steals from TIN ROOF BLUES, but it took me decades to realize this.  The side begins with a familiar — to some of us painfully familiar — piano introduction, with which Frank Froeba began all of the Dick Robertson sides, much loved because of the opportunity they offer to hear a young Bobby Hackett.  I’m always struck by the ease with which everyone plays this medium-slow blues, and how readily identifiable their sounds are, including King’s idiosyncratic but telling accents.  Erwin runs parallel to Bunny, but with his own sound; how lovely to hear Mastren out in the open, and Marsala always charms — even though this is “a slow blues,” he is charmingly optimistic.  The solos and closing ensemble have deep roots in the past: Oliver, Noone, Lang or Lonnie Johnson, but it’s clearly 1936, not a decade earlier.  And what a pleasant surprise to find that same piano passage used to wind down the performance — with the punchline being a King bass drum accent.  Unpretentious and completely effective.

Then, the reverse, with its elusive title: was Cheech someone who cheated or were they describing the process of cheating him (or her)?

There really isn’t much to CHEECH — it sounds like two or three familiar cadences taped together to make a chorus, but the overall effect is jolly, with the wonderful emphasis that the great improvisers placed on individual sound.  The record seems over before it’s through, but I hear Marsala’s luminescence and Mastren taking a trip into the land of what I first associated with McDonough, but Nick Rossi, who can play, suggests it is much more like Lang.  (I know the game of “sounds like” is silly, but I wonder how much Carmen had absorbed of Teddy Bunn and Lonnie Johnson as well?)

How these sides came to be remains mysterious, but they are little slices of Swing Street life, captured forever.  These discs, incidentally, come to us through the generosity of “Cliff,” whom I’ve been unable to identify further, but who has a wonderful YouTube channel, cdbpdx — full of now-rare 78 discs.

May your happiness increase!

THREE AND ONE-HALF MINUTES OF GRATIFICATION

In the taxonomy of older jazz, we know where we stand, or at least where the classifiers tell us we should be standing.  There are Hot Bands (usually African-American) and Sweet or Dance Bands (Caucasian).  There are, of course, groups that snip the barbed wire to escape or to visit the other side — Claude Hopkins performing TREES in a very arboreal manner, then, several years later, Bunny Berigan setting the forest on fire with the same song.  (The Louis – Gordon Jenkins version of that same song, fifteen years later, is beyond dispute, and I’ve started disputes when people looked askance at it.)

But it has been my experience that most jazz fans of a certain ideological bent prefer — mutely or vividly — their music Hot and either played by African-Americans or by Caucasians in the Hot style.  Or in cases where a Sweet band offers a Hot solo, we can find the 78s that have that twenty-second interlude played to a fine powder, the rest of the record nearly pristine.

What do we do with this curious and wonderful artifact, however?  It is at once a superb dance record; it swings easily and well; it is a wholly satisfying performance and presentation.  I present it to JAZZ LIVES’ listeners in hopes that they can listen to this buff Bluebird 78 from 1933 with open and appreciative ears, enjoying the recording for what it is.

The group is the Joe Haymes Orchestra — Haymes had played piano and arranged for the Ted Weems band — but under the nominal leadership of Mike Doty, thus Roy Wager, Pee Wee Erwin, trumpet; Ward Silloway, trombone; Mike Doty, clarinet, alto saxophone, vocal; Toots Mondello or Dan D’Andrea, Paul Ricci, Bud Freeman, reeds; Paul Mitchell, piano; probably Mac Cheikes, banjo; Gene Traxler, string bass; Charlie Bush, drums; Joe Haymes, leader / arranger.  New York, November 9, 1933.

And the song is PUDDIN’ HEAD JONES — recorded also by a Ben Selvin group, Don Redman, Hal Kemp, and perhaps a half-dozen other bands in 1933.

Here’s the performance:

From the start, this is an assured, swinging band.  The melody statement — muted trumpets, possibly a baritone saxophone line, Gene Traxler’s strong string bass and Charlie Bush’s rocking drums — is easy and non-threatening for the dancers who simply wanted a fast fox trot, but the band is splendidly rehearsed without being at all stiff.  And a gorgeous modulation follows — leisurely, with clarinet (I guess Paul Ricci) on top, while Bush shifts to either a low-boy or a hi-hat cymbal.  Without overstating my praise, the Haymes band — under Doty’s name — is grooving at the first minute in such a lilting easy way that other bands never reached.  In the first seconds of Doty’s vocal, he sounds more declamatory than the song requires — but that’s a 1933 style of singing when there wasn’t a microphone, and the singer needed to be emphatically clear so that the witty bits of the lyrics were heard and understood.  Beneath him, the band swings and Ricci ornaments it all.  (I’ll get to the lyrics in a bit.)  Even though the lyrics are hilarious and verging on the naughty, the band doesn’t emphasize the punchlines: no rimshots or bass-drum hits.  The listener must pay attention. After the vocal, the band subtly says, “WE can swing like mad, too!” with delicious interludes for clarinet and I think Dick Clark on tenor saxophone (it’s not Bud), supported beautifully by the wonderfully focused slap of Bush’s wire brushes.

(A one-bar digression: what is known about Charlie Bush?  HE COULD PLAY.)

When well-executed, “glee club” choruses for the band are just marvelous — if you needed a musical definition of logical architecture or building momentum, you have it in the way the band voices rock wordless riffs behind Doty.  And although his voice isn’t up to the challenge of shouting over the band at the end, he certainly delivers the message.

Those lyrics.  One encounters this song, depending on one’s level of empathy, with some doubts.  Will this be a narrative about how stupid an elementary-school student was — the equivalent of the polite dozens for middle-class Caucasians?  You know, the sort of humor that builds on “You’re so dumb . . . ” But — the clever turn of the bridge, where the fictional character we have been invited to laugh at turns out to be the Teacher’s Teacher (a folk take in swingtime) with a real punchline in the last words of the bridge — something has turned around, and in some ways we are a little embarrassed at underestimating Puddin’ Head, who is much smarter than we thought and probably much smarter than we are.  Are we meant to assume that  Teacher has already spent time in interdisciplinary studies with Puddin’s older brother?  I leave that to you. But our young dunce turns into an expert wooer, and as an adult a diligent citizen, frugal and energetic — so much so that in this 1933 Depression-era saga, he is presumably the only man in the neighborhood who is well-loved, securely affluent, perhaps even wealthy.  An American success story: from dunce to happy successful man in three minutes and change.

“Underestimate people at your own risk” might be the moral of this tale.

I knew I had to write a blogpost about this record when I needed to hear it four or five times in a row — with great joy — from YouTube.  (And I also purchasesd or re-purchased the three Haymes reissues that exist, and await their arrival.)

Of course, there might be grumbling in the imaginary cyber-audience, “Great record.  But how much better it would be with, say Jimmy Rushing singing, and Ben Webster on tenor.” Perhaps.  But I love what we have, and cherish it as a perfectly accomplished piece of hilarious swinging art that needs no improvements.

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ ON SUNDAY, and LIPS SIGNS IN

I think that on Sunday, October 27, 1968, I might have been helping my father rake leaves in the backyard, or perhaps doing my homework for the next day.  (I was in eleventh grade.)

jazz-on-sunday-cover

I can say with regret that I wasn’t at the jazz event above.  And I certainly didn’t have a video camera yet.  The forces in the cosmos didn’t work together on my behalf that Sunday — but it’s very pleasing to know that these musicians had a gig.  And that we can see the evidence now.

jazz-on-sunday-inside

Before WCBS-AM radio in New York became an all-news station, Jack Sterling had a famous morning show, which is why he would have been a good host for this concert.  Here’s more about Jack:

jack-sterling-obit

From the same eBay prowl, I offer another holy relic.  True, that Oran Thaddeus Page felt that his nickname needed an apostrophe makes the English professor in me wince, but Hot Lips Page could do whatever he wanted.

lips

And here’s why (with the noble assistance of Earle Warren, Lucky Thompson, Hank Jones, Slam Stewart, and Sidney Catlett):

May your happiness increase!

WITH A TWIST, PLEASE: JULY 1962

Before “genre-bending” or “crossover music,” there were recordings such as this, purchased for one dollar at a local yard / garage sale a few days ago — worth so much more:

DIXIELAND WITH A TWIST BEAT

This music was recorded in New York, July 1962, in what I can assume was an attempt to merge two audiences — those elders, who still liked “Dixieland jazz,” and didn’t think that term was something to shrink from, and their children, who were busy Twisting on the living room rug, thanks to Chubby Checker and a clearly defined loud rhythm pattern.

Both “Dixieland” and “the Twist” were recognizable — and thus saleable — genres that the average consumer of music could be expected to know about.  (A few years earlier, there had been successful recordings called DIXIELAND GOES MODERN, SWING GOES DIXIE, DIXIELAND HITS COUNTRY AND WESTERN . . . a series of experiments that often produced good — if occasionally odd — musical results.)  Perhaps some consumers saw this disc as a doubly interesting product, a musical two-for-one.

Somerset Records were also offering “popular long play albums” including SING ALONG WITH THE HONKY TONKS, SYMPHONY FOR GLENN, OLDIES FOR PIPE ORGAN, LA PACHANGA!!, POLKA EXTRAVAGANZA, and several records attempting to capture the market for original cast albums (two compressed shows with nearly anonymous singers). I think this label, like Bravo, Design, and Spinorama, was sold in racks near the cashier in your local supermarket.

In John Updike’s short story, “A&P,” coincidentally also published in 1962, the nineteen-year old narrator, Sammy, describes such products pitilessly as “records at discount of the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on.”

The “liner notes” on the reverse are enthusiastic almost beyond endurance.  I can’t reproduce the many fonts, but please imagine an exuberant art director who believed in visual stimulation:

THE DIXIE ALL-STARS

FOR YOUR LISTENING OR TWISTIN’ PLEASURE

BLOW UP A STORM OF

DIXIELAND

with a TWIST BEAT

SIDE ONE

SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE

TWISTIN’ DIXIE

GOLDEN SLIPPERS TWIST

LONESOME RAILROAD BLUES

MIDNITE IN MEMPHIS

THE SAINTS

SIDE TWO

MISSISSIPPI MUD

STARBURST RAG

RAMPART ST. STOMP

DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

MUSKRAT RAMBLE

BOURBON STREET FISHFRY

PEANUTS HUCKO, “CUTTY” CUTSHALL, PEE WEE ERWIN – MY WHAT FINE DIXIE COMPANY. SHADES OF MOTHER COME ON HERE!!!! – ADD THE KING OF THE TWIST DRUMMERS, GARY CHESTER, AL CAIOLA ON GUITAR, BILL RAMAL HONKIN’ SAX, AND MOE WECHSLER ON PIANO (OOPS, WE NEARLY FORGOT “THE BEAVER) – ON BASS, JERRY “BEAVER” BRUNO AND FORGET IT; IT’S A DOWN HOME PARTY THAT SAYS “DIG WHAT YOU WANT – EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.” PARTY TIME!!

Directed by D. L. Miller     Cover art – G.L. Phillips

This stereophonic 33 1/3 R.P.M. long playing record has been mastered employing the Westrex cutter head system driven by a Sculley lathe. We do not claim full fidelity when played on a monaural phonograph. This is a stereo recording manufactured to the highest stereophonic audio standards.

At this point, I know some of my readers want nothing more than to hear a sample — a wish I can easily gratify. Come with me back to 1962.  And let your impulses take you where they may.  It is indeed PARTY TIME!!

Side One:

Side Two:

Should anyone think I focus on this disc in a spirit of mockery, that isn’t my intention. The “jazz soloists” play their parts with spirit, expertise, and conviction — soloing as they would in any context, given these songs to improvise on. I do not hear disdain or ironic distance; rather, I hear professionalism and enthusiasm. The rhythm was perhaps not what they were accustomed to, but a heavy underpinning was not all that different from a rhythm and blues date . . . and it was a paying gig playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE, which was better than many other options offered them. At the end of the sessions, I am sure everyone went home (or to the gig at Condon’s or Nick’s) reasonably satisfied that they had been given a chance to play — and if these records became hits, so much the better. “We called it music,” one of their guiding spirits had said, and what I hear is just that, Twist or not.

May your happiness increase!

 

GOODBYE, RED BALABAN. FAREWELL, BOB GREENE

I’ve written very sparingly about the deaths of jazz musicians in JAZZ LIVES — for one reason, thinking that turning this blog into an ongoing necrological record was at odds with its title. But without saying that one musician is more important than another (Bobby Gordon, Frank Wess, Al Porcino, Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Sam Ulano, and a dozen others I am not mentioning here) I want to write and share a few words about two deaths of late 2013.

One was the bassist / guitarist / singer / impresario Leonard “Red” Balaban, the other, pianist Bob Greene.  Both of them were ardent workers in the jazz vineyards, and both (in their own subtle ways) did as much to advance the music as more-heralded musicians.

I had occasion to observe and interact with Red Balaban many times in 1972-5, again in 1975-the early Eighties, and once in 2013. In the summer of 1972, I learned from reading the listings in THE NEW YORKER that Sunday-afternoon jazz sessions were being held at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage — sic transit gloria mundi) on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street.  I and several friends made pilgrimages there.  The Mustache was a huge hall with sawdust on the floor, creaking long tables and wobbly chairs.  But for a nominal admission charge and the purchase of food and drink of dubious quality, we could sit as close to the bandstand as possible and (often) illicitly record the music.  The house band — Balaban and Cats — harking back to Red’s heritage in show business with the Chicago movie theatre chain created by Balaban and Katz — was usually a sextet, with Red playing string bass and singing, occasionally guitar or banjo, rarely tuba.  He called the tunes in consultation with the guest star, chose tempos, and led the session.  The Cats I remember were Marquis Foster, Buzzy Drootin, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Pratt, Chuck Folds, Red Richards, Sal Pace, Kenny Davern, Joe Muranyi, Dick Rath, Herb Gardner, Ed Polcer, Doc Cheatham, and I am sure there were others.  The guest stars, stopping in from Olympus or Valhalla, were Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buddy Tate, Jo Jones, Dicky Wells, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Bob Wilber — enough stiumlation for a lifetime.  I was a college student with limited funds, so I didn’t see every session: missing Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, Lou McGarity, and others.  But I did see Eddie Condon in the audience, which would make the Sunday sessions memorable even if no music had been played.  And his daughter Liza was there now and again, photographing the musicians.

A few years later, I saw Red occasionally as a member of Mike Burgevin’s little band at Brew’s, playing alongside Vic Dickenson and other luminaries.  Eventually, Red and Ed Polcer created the “last” Eddie Condon’s, on 54th Street, and I went there when I could — the house band, as I recall it, included Ed, Vic, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, John Bunch, Connie, Kay, Ronnie Cole, and another galaxy of visitors, including Helen Humes, Al Hall, Jimmy Rowles, Brooks Kerr, Marty Grosz, Bob Sparkman, Ruby Braff, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones.  At Condon’s one could also see Billy Butterfield, Dan Barrett, Soprano Summit, Zoot and Al — a midtown oasis, now gone.

Finally, I got to meet Red once again, after a lapse of decades, at the October 2012 house party created by Joel Schiavone and Jeff Barnhart. I introduced myself as someone who had good reason to be grateful to him for those Sunday sessions, and we chatted a bit.

Thanks to CineDevine, we have two samples of Red, late in his career, gently entertaining the room, with assistance from Jim Fryer, Jeff Barnhart, and others.  In a Waller-Razaf mood:

and something pretty from Rodgers and Hart:

A musician I respect, someone around in those New York years, had this to say about Red: “Not only did he love the music, but thousands upon thousands of dollars went through his hands and into the hands of musicians.  What he did with Condon’s # 3 is part of New York City jazz history.  He was a kind man who came from a very interesting family.  He wasn’t Ray Brown or Bob Haggart, but he kept jazz alive.”

Without Red Balaban, I doubt that I — and many others — would have heard as much memorable music as we did in those New York years.  So we owe him a great deal.  And he will be missed.  Another view of Red can be found here.

Pianist Bob Greene also left us late in 2013.

Bob devoted his life to celebrating Jelly Roll Morton and his music. He wasn’t the only pianist who has done so, but his emulation was fervent. I saw him summon up the Master at Alice Tully Hall in 1974 with a lovely little band (Pee Wee Erwin, Ephie Resnick, Herb Hall, Alan Cary, Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford).  They couldn’t quite turn that austere space into a Storyville bordello or the Jungle Inn (it would have required an architectural reconstruction taking years) but the music floated and rocked.  Across the distance of the decades, I think of Bob as a brilliant actor, committed with all his heart and energy to one role and to the perfection of that role — not a bad life-goal.

Bob was respected by his peers.  Mike Lipskin said, “Bob was a fine performer of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, and devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of this giant early jazz pioneer alive. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert many years ago.”  And a man we just lost, Bobby Gordon, told me, “I have fond memories of Bob for 40 years. He was always enthusiastic about music. I recorded with him 40 years ago and most recently for Jazzology. It was wonderful to record with him again, and a joy to be with such a remarkable talent. I will miss him……..a dear friend.”

Here’s a beautiful expansive piece by Hank O’Neal, a very lively evocation of Bob:

The first time I saw Bob Greene, he was playing a poor electric piano with a fairly loose ensemble, on the back of a flat bed truck. The band on the truck was trying, unsuccessfully, to recreate the feeling generated by old time bands on wagons in New Orleans. It is a long way from New Orleans to Manassas, Virginia, and 1967 was a half a century removed from those heady days in the Crescent City. I don’t remember the enterprise stirring up much support for the first Manassas Jazz Festival, but Bob was on board because his old friend, Edmund “Doc” Souchon was also there, and Doc had probably asked him to come along. I know it happened because I have a snapshot to prove it. In another snapshot from the same day he’s playing cornet.

You had to look pretty hard to find out anything about Bob. He’s not well-known today, rarely mentioned in any of the standard jazz reference books, and you have to dig pretty deep to come up with any information at all, but the bits and pieces are there if you look for them. And the story and the music he’s made along the way are both wonderful.

Bob’s first love was Benny Goodman, Jess Stacy and the swing guys who were all over the place when he was a teenager. He could still, when asked, do the best imitation of Stacy I’ve ever heard, but at some point he heard Jelly Roll Morton, and was hooked. Until his death in 2013, he remained one of the foremost exponent of Jelly’s music in the land. There are other guys who could play more notes, play King Porter Stomp louder or Fingerbuster faster, but when it came to really delivering the goods, with just the right mix of technique, exuberance and sentiment, nobody else even came close.

There are other guys who play Morton’s compositions well, in the style, often with more sheer technique, but, for the most part, this is just a portion, usually a small portion, of their repertory. The music of Jelly Roll Morton and some of his circa 1900 contemporaries, made up about 90 percent of Bob’s playbook, and the telephone doesn’t ring very often these days, or any other days for the past few decades, for someone to play a recital of Morton’s music. Which was just fine for Bob. He never had any intention of being a full time musician. The world was just full of too many other things to try.

Bob made his first recordings in 1950 with Conrad Janis (Circle) and in 1951 with Sidney DeParis (Blue Note) and recorded intermittently for the next sixty years, whenever it was convenient. His performance schedule was about the same. He played in and around New York City in the 1950s and Washington D.C. in the 1960s because he was writing some pretty fancy stuff for assorted notables to read on radio or in political speeches. Goodness knows what else he may have been up to. When he wrote a book about the OSS exploits of his cousin, Paul Blum, he had no difficulty gaining access to the highest levels of the intelligence community. But back to the music.

After Bob climbed down off the back of the truck during the ill-fated parade in Manassas, I discovered he could also play a real piano and when he played Morton it was special. As I’ve suggested, he made up in spirit and authenticity what he may lacked in a formidable technique. Not that he made mistakes, he didn’t, but to this particular pianist, passion was the point, not technique. He had all he needed to get his point across. Much in the same as Thelonoius Monk. Other people played Just A Gigolo better than Monk, but nobody played it with more quirky feeling.

The first time I really heard Bob was when I was asked to round up the gear to record a band to be led by the then legendary, now largely forgotten drummer, Zutty Singleton. The gear came from Squirrel Ashcraft, the recorder, microphones, even the take-up reels. It was February 12, 1967, I remember the date with great affection because it was the very first commercially released record I ever worked on. It was also my first encounter with Zutty, still a marvelous drummer, and the only person I ever heard in person who could almost simulate a melody on the drums.

Bob Greene was a strong presence among many exceptional players that day and the highlight of the recording, to me at least, was a duo, just Zutty and Bob, on Cake Walking Babies From Home. I don’t know if Jelly ever played the tune, but if he did, he would have played it like Bob played it that day, and maybe Zutty would have been around to make sure. This was Johnson McRee’s first record for his Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and except for a solo outing by Don Ewell, perhaps the best record he ever produced.

In the 1970s, I asked Bob to record for Chiaroscuro on many occasions, but he always declined. There was always a semi-legitimate excuse. He was the only person I asked to record in those years who didn’t jump at the chance, including Bob’s first idol, Jess Stacy. In the late 1970’s Bob assembled his World of Jelly Roll Morton band, made a fine record for RCA, played Carnegie Hall a few years and toured successfully with the group. But most of the time he was in between New Orleans, Paris, Tokyo and New York, rarely in any place for very long. He slowed down long enough to record all the Jelly Roll Morton tracks for Louis Malle’s fine film, Pretty Baby and he enthralled audiences with his Jelly Roll show at numerous Floating Jazz Festivals. I recorded one of these shows in the late 1980s. Maybe I’ll listen to it one day and see if it should be released.

In 1994 we produced an event for Cunard on Queen Elizabeth 2, a 12-day survey of the music of New Orleans, and Bob was on board, as both Jelly Roll Morton and as the pianist with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The New Yorker’s noted critic, Whitney Balliett, was also on board, in disguise as Baby Dodds, tastefully accompanying Bob on a snare and cymbal. Romantic that he was, Bob fell in love with the ship and was heartbroken when he learned that much of the furniture in the ship’s Theater Bar, where he held forth nightly with Whitney, was to be taken off QE2 when it reached New York, and given to the Salvation Army. He decided he had to have a table and four leather chairs and set about finding a way to work it out.

When we docked, I left via the crew gangway, and saw Bob at the other end of the pier in heated conversation with a man in a Salvation Army uniform. Longshoreman were hauling the furniture and putting it inside a truck. I later learned that Bob got his furniture. The deal was for a table and four leather chairs, in the best condition possible, delivered to his home on 92nd Street. In exchange, Bob promised to assemble a band, including Whitney, to play for a Salvation Army Christmas party. A decade or so later Bob moved out to the end of Long island and that old Theater Bar furniture moved with him, a few miles closer to Southampton. This is the kind of thing that appealed to Bob.

If Bob had worked at a career in music half as hard as he worked at getting that furniture, who knows what might have happened? But perhaps nothing would have happened, which is the case with most people who try to have a career in jazz, and he wouldn’t have had nearly as good a time as he had for the past 91 years. He was one of a handful of pianists I’d go out of my way to hear because he always made me happy. He had the same effect on others.

In November 2006 he toured Japan and a lot of other people went out of their way to hear him. After that he began working on a project to present a Jelly Roll Morton show at Jazz At Lincoln Center but it didn’t work out. A year or so after that he asked what I thought of getting him together with Joshua Bell for some duets. I thought it sound like a good idea, that Bell could do a lot worse. That didn’t work out either but an awful lot did and the music that resulted with simply wonderful.

Bob and friends:

MAMIE’S BLUES (2006):

I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (2010):

TIGER RAG (2011):

Thinking about these men, all I can say is this.

Not everyone is a Star, but everyone counts.  And fortunate are those who can follow their life’s calling and share their passions with us.

May your happiness increase!

CLIFF LEEMAN’S SOUND LIVES ON

Drummer Cliff Leeman had a completely personal and identifiable sound, a seriously exuberant approach to the music.  You can’t miss him, and it’s not because of volume.

He’s audible from the late Thirties on in the bands of Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet, then most notably in Eddie Condon’s bands, later with the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Bob Crosby reunions, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood, and Soprano Summit.  Cliff died in 1986, but his slashing attack and nearly violent exuberance are in my ears as I write this . . . including his trademark, the tiny splash cymbal he used as an auditory exclamation point.  He spoke briefly about his approach in this interview for MODERN DRUMMER magazine.

In case Cliff is someone new to you, here he is on a 1975 television program with Joe Venuti, Marian McPartland, and Major Holley, elevating CHINA BOY:

In spring 2008, Kevin Dorn and I paid a call on Irene (Renee) Leeman, his widow, then living comfortably in New Jersey.  I have very fond memories of that afternoon, hearing stories and laughing.  Until recently, I thought that those memories were all I had.  But a recent stint of domestic archaeology uncovered the small notebook in which I had written down what Mrs. Leeman told us.  Here are some of her comments and asides, shared with you with affection and reverence (and with her permission).

But first: Cliff on film in 1952 with Eddie Condon . . . the epitome of this driving music.  Also heard and seen, Edmond Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder, Bob Casey:

Some words from Mrs. Leeman to go with all those good sounds:

I first met Clifford at Nick’s.  I didn’t go there by myself, but because of a friend who had a crush on Pee Wee Erwin.

Roger Kellaway always asked for Clifford.

He wore Capezios on the job.

He had a colorful vocabulary and didn’t repeat himself.  He thought Bing Crosby was the best, but Clifford was always very definite in his opinions.

He came from a Danish-Scandinavian family where the men didn’t hug one another.

Clifford once asked Joe Venuti, “How do you want me to play behind you?” and Venuti said, “Play as if I’m five brass.”

He worked on THE HIT PARADE with Raymond Scott, who timed everything with a stopwatch, “The hardest job I ever had.”

Clifford was the drummer on Bill Haley and the Comets’ Decca recording of ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK, and when the session ended, he said, “I think I just killed my career.”

Sidney Catlett was Clifford’s idol.  Jo Jones, Ben Webster, Charlie Shavers and Clifford loved each other.  They all hung out at Hurley’s Bar, Jim and Andy’s, and Charlie’s Tavern.

Clifford played piano — not jazz, but ROCK OF AGES and MOTHER MACHREE, as well as xylophone.  And he could read music.  He was always surprised that other musicians couldn’t, and would come home after a gig and say, “Do you know _____?  He can’t read!”

Clifford was left-handed but he played with a drum kit set up for right-handed drummers.

He thought the drummer was supposed to keep the time and drive the band and pull everything together.  Clifford listened. He was fascinated with rock drummers he saw on television, and would tell me how bad they were.

“Cliff is the best timekeeper,” Billy Butterfield said.  Billy was so cute.

He loved his cymbals.

He was hard on himself, and on other people, but he loved working with Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart.  They had a good time.  They respected each other. They thought that music should be fun. Yank and Bob used to rehearse the band in Lou Stein’s basement in Bayside, New York.

Kenny Davern!  Kenny was a challenge to the world and a thinker. He was an angry young man who became an angry old man.  He and Clifford were a comedy team wherever they went.

Clifford didn’t embrace the world, and he could be abrasive if people bothered him.

Clifford played with Bob Crosby and Louis Armstrong on one of those Timex television jazz shows.  He was so proud of working with Louis you couldn’t stand it.

I have always liked musicians as a group, and never had a 9 to 5 life. Because of Clifford, I got to meet Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Gene Krupa.  In those days, rhythm sections stuck together, so I knew a lot of bass players and their wives: Milt Hinton, Major Holley, George Duvivier, Jack Lesberg.  I was lucky to have known such things and such people.  How fortunate I was!

We are all fortunate to have lived in Clifford Leeman’s century, and his music lives on.  And I thank Mrs. Leeman for her enthusiastic loving candor.

May your happiness increase!

THE REAL THING and SOMETHING ELSE

More from eBay — with a touch of caveat emptor.

First, a canvas board dating from early 1977 — whether from sessions at the Nice Festival or two American sojourns.  Signers include Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins, Earl Hines, Wallace Davenport, Fred Kohlman, Dick Hyman, Pee Wee Erwin, Jimmy Maxwell, Clark Terry, Johnny Mince, Zoot Sims, Benny Carter, Vic Dickenson, Teddy Wilson, Trummy Young, Milt Hinton, Joe Williams, Orange Kellin, and Barney Bigard.

$T2eC16JHJGsFFMtLsrjuBR7boGPoSQ~~60_57

Those of us who have followed a number of these artists know that the signatures are genuine.  But here are two documents advertised as being signed by Louis Armstrong.  The first is not even a convincing forgery:

LOUIS forgery

This one (context notwithstanding) is the real thing.

LOUIS diet plan real signature

No one at eBay has asked me, but I would give the seller of the first item Swiss Kriss regularly.  Perhaps that would increase his candor.

May your happiness increase!

BREAKING NEWS OF 1942: PEE WEE ERWIN LAUNCHES OWN NAME IN THE BIG TIME!

This full-page advertisement (a musical history in photographs) comes from the 1942 Conn instruments advertisement book / brochure.  It’s a delightful piece of ancient musical history but also serves as a reason to celebrate George “Pee Wee” Erwin, one of the great yet underrated lyrically hot trumpeters for more than four decades.  Early on (as the photographs show) he worked with Joe Haymes, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Ray Noble, Tommy Dorsey — in that latter situation, being asked in 1937 to follow Bunny Berigan, a nearly impossible task.  I don’t know how long his 1942 fame lasted, but after the end of the Swing Era he led memorable small “Dixieland” bands at Nick’s and Lou Terassi’s . . . I saw him play in 1974 as part of Bob Greene’s THE WORLD OF JELLY ROLL MORTON — in a concert recorded and issued on RCA Victor (the other members of the band were Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford, Alan Cary, Herb Hall, and Ephie Resnick).  Late in life Pee Wee was able to record several relaxed, unhackneyed sessions under his own name for the Qualtro label — one a duet with Bucky Pizzarelli, others just as sweetly expert.

I don’t understand how someone “Launches own Name IN THE BIG TIME,” but perhaps that’s why I was never an advertising copywriter.

As a lead trumpeter or a hot soloist, he is someone we miss!

May your happiness increase.

LET’S ALL GET TOGETHER AND CHIP IN, SHALL WE?

How about purchasing an autograph book?

No, not my fifth-grade one where cute Suzanne DeVeaux signed her name and then wrote “Yours till bacon strips,” which was not the declaration of love it might have seemed to be, alas.

But THIS autograph book is something special — even given the twenty thousand dollar price tag on eBay.  Its owner was a deep swing and jazz fan in the Thirties, and (s)he got everyone’s signature . . . at gigs, at the Arcadia Ballroom, and other places.  It is the calligraphic companion to the late Bob Inman’s SWING ERA SCRAPBOOK, summoning up a magical and vanished time where you could wait patiently at the stage door and get “Art Shaw” to sign his name as well as his new singer, “Billie Holiday.”

Feast your eyes.

And, just as an aside, several people — musicians and collectors alike — who have seen this — keep muttering something about how their birthdays are coming soon.  I don’t blame them.  The eBay link is

JAZZ-AUTOGRAPH-BOOK-HAND-SIGNED-BILLIE-HOLIDAY-SATCHMO

Here are some sample pages.  WOW is all one can say — and that’s even before one encounters the signatures of Eddie Durham, Maurice Purtill, a young Milt Hinton, and the others.  And as my friend David Weiner has pointed out on other occasions, the pencil and sometimes odd handwriting prove that these are on-the-spot signatures, not neat calligraphy done in someone’s office by the hundreds.

I don’t know who Anthony is on the left, but there’s Billie and “Art” on the right.

Earle Warren (Every Good Wish, Count Basie, Billie, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham.  And — I think from a later date! — Paul Gonsalves.  “Roseland Shuffle,” I think.  And this comes from the era when musicians, signing a fan’s autograph book, identified themselves by the instrument(s) they played.  That suggests a sweet lack of ego: I’m not a star yet!  (And Buck’s signature was very much the same about forty years later.)

Sincerely, Nat King Cole, Johnny Miller, and Oscar Moore — people who knew about sincerity.

Harry Goldfield (father of Don Goldie) on the left — and some other trumpeters named “Satch” and “Red,” as well as drummer Sammy Weiss.

Another trumpet player.  He could get started — don’t let his theme song fool you.  But why do these trumpet players all have nicknames?  Wouldn’t “Bernard” have done just as well?

1936.  The Blessed Thomas Waller.

Did someone say HI-DE-HO?  And there’s youthful Milt — not yet the Judge.

The Duke is on the page — along with Ivie, Sonny, Rex, Juan Tizol, Cootie Williams, Fred Guy, and one or two others.

Noble Sissle and his Orchestra with Sidney Bechet, Wendell Culley, Don Pasquall, and Sara Turner . . .

Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, Part One: Johnny Mince, Maurice Purtill, Carmen Mastren, Bud Freeman, Gene Traxler, Jack Leonard, Lee Castaldo (later Castle), Andy Ferretti, Freddie Stulce, and one or two others.

Part Two!  Mince signs in again, the Sentimental Gentleman himself, Edythe Wright, and Pee Wee Erwin.

Hamp, before FLYIN’ HOME.

Isn’t this frankly astounding?

I knew you’d agree.

And what we have here is perhaps fifteen pages out of one hundred and twenty.

THE HOT JAZZ ALLIANCE SWINGS OUT (April 20, 2011)

When my learned and hot Australian friend Michael McQuaid (clarinet, alto sax, cornet, and leader of the Late Hour Boys) told me sometime last year about a tour he and his colleagues intended to do, I badly wanted to join them as an aging roadie, carrying the cases and music stands, finding places to recharge my video camera’s batteries, recording every second for posterity.  I would have worn a cap and held the door open.

My idea was one whose time had not yet come.  But thanks to fellow reed wizard Jason Downes, we now have eighteen video performances to thrill us.  Michael and Jason on their own are — to quote the late Pee Wee Erwin, “hotter than a depot stove” (you could look it up) . . . and here they are joined by guitarist / banjoist John Scurry, bassist Leigh Barker, and two Americans whose names will be familiar to JAZZ LIVES: Andy Schumm on cornet and Josh Duffee on drums.  The results are nearly incendiary, and would be so even if the surroundings didn’t suggest Hades reborn as a speakeasy in color and decor.

I think I am performing a public service by alerting my readers of these clips.  See if you don’t agree.  And I can’t wait for the double CD-DVD set.  (Yes, one of the titles below is DON’T WAKE ME UP, LET ME DREAM, but any causal connection here is incidental, of course.)

Wow!  As we say in the States.

This session was recorded on April 20, 2011, in Club Cursley, Near Cobargo, NSW, Australia.  I was told that this lavish interior is inside a generous host’s country house . . . one with its own stage.  Some people know how to live.

How about a searing WILD MAN BLUES, styled after Johnny Dodds’ Black Bottom Stompers — and hear young Mister Schumm get into his 1927 Louis-regalia in the most convincing way:

Here is the aforementioned request (or command?), DON’T WAKE ME UP, LET ME DREAM (which has a chorus-ending tag that sounds like a thousand other tunes — I thought of WHY COULDN’T IT BE POOR LITTLE ME and GOOD LITTLE, BAD LITTLE YOU but might be mistaken in both counts).  From the title, I would have expected a snoozy sweet composition, so this romper is a delightful surprise.  The closing chorus is superheated:

And a slow-drag, almost melancholy BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? (in keeping with the yearning lyrics):

And a nearly ominous reading of BLACK SNAKE BLUES:

I have purposely left the remaining fourteen videos unposted: visit “jasondownes” on YouTube and enjoy yourselves.  If you are measured in your enjoyment, that’s two weeks of joy at breakfast.  I still wish with all my heart that I had been along on this tour — maybe next year if I buy a cap that has THE HOT JAZZ ALLIANCE embroidered on it in gold braid, the fellows will make room for me in the band bus?

BREATHING THE SAME AIR

Were I a different sort of person, I could blame my parents, who were lovingly overprotective.  I could be irked at them now for not encouraging me to leave my suburban nest at 14 or 15 to go into New York City.  Had they been more adventurous souls themselves, I might have seen Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart in the flesh.  But by the time I began to make the trek, Ben Webster had left for Europe; Coleman Hawkins had died. 

Rather than lament the ones I’ve missed, I will list the names of the heroic players and singers  — now dead — I did get to see.

Trumpets / cornets: Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Ray Nance, Louis Metcalf, Herman Autrey, Doc Cheatham, Pat Jenkins, Joe Newman, Joe Thomas, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Erwin, Dick Sudhalter, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Jimmy McPartland, Johnny Windhurst, Taft Jordan, Franc Williams, Jimmy Maxwell.

Trombones: Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Benny Morton, Bobby Pratt, Georg Brunis, Dick Rath, Tyree Glenn, Eli Robinson.

Reeds: Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Al Klink, Herb Hall, Kenny Davern, Sal Pace, Russell Procope, Benny Carter, Johnny Mince, Bud Freeman, Buddy Tate, Phil Bodner, Sam Margolis, Harold Ashby, Earle Warren, Rudy Rutherford, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Clifford Jordan, Rudy Powell, Budd Johnson, Eddie Barefield, Lockjaw Davis, Allen Eager, Barney Bigard, Paul Quinichette, Illinois Jacquet, George Kelly.

Pianos: Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Claude Hopkins, Dill Jones, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Jane Jarvis, Hank Jones, John Bunch, Jimmy Rowles, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Ross Tompkins, Joe Bushkin, Ellis Larkins, Sammy Price, Art Hodes.

Guitars: Eddie Condon, Freddie Green, Wayne Wright, Herb Ellis, Al Casey, Bernard Addison, Carmen Mastren, George Barnes.

Basses: Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Charles Mingus, Al Hall, Bill Pemberton, Gene Ramey, Jack Lesberg, Bob Haggart, Franklyn Skeete.

Drums: Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Cliff Leeman, Chauncey Morehouse, Buzzy Drootin, Tommy Benford, Oliver Jackson, Eddie Locke, Sonny Greer, Sam Woodyard, Gus Johnson, Jake Hanna, Connie Kay, Freddie Moore.

Vibraphone (or Vibraharp): Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo.

Violin: Joe Venuti.

Vocals: Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, Lee Wiley, Bing Crosby, Al Hibbler, Maxine Sullivan.

I miss them all, but feel so fortunate that I was there to breathe the same air, to hear their sounds.

MISS BARBARA LEA

April 10 was Barbara Lea’s eighty-first birthday.  I am quite late, but hope that no one minds my tardiness. 

She is deeply respected by those who know, although by my reckoning there could be many more people aware of her special approach.  Barbara has always worked wonderfully with jazz performers of a subtle kind — she is not someone shouting over a full-tilt ensemble . . . but like her idols Mildred Bailey and Lee Wiley, she is a singer comfortable with a few horns threading through her vocal and a supportive rhythm section. 

In some ways, she is the musical equivalent to Ruby Braff, somewhat of a delicious anachronism, making her peaceful way amidst the noise of the last fifty years.  The recordings I most treasure of Barbara’s find her alongside players who summon up great emotional force without ever raising their voices: Johnny Windhurst (her Bobby Hackett), Dick Sudhalter, and Vic Dickenson at the very end of his recording career. 

Barbara’s recording career began with a two-song session for Graham Prince’s Cadillac label in 1954 (those days of transition where a new single was issued both on 45 and 78): a pop trifle called I’LL BET YOU A KISS backed with Barbara’s choice, ANYPLACE I HANG MY HAT IS HOME.  The band?  Amateurs . . . Pee Wee Erwin, Cutty Cutshall, Bill Pemberton, George Wettling, and Bill Austin.  Here’s a photograph from that session:

Here’s Barbara with an unknown fan, some hanger-on:

At the Village Vanguard, 1956:

With the noted cellist Morey Amsterdam:

And in the present day, with her dear friend Jeanie Wilson, both in high style:

It’s sad to report that Barbara no longer sings, owing to Alzheimer’s disease.  But she enjoys listening to music and is strong in body — and much loved.  We have the music she made — a substantial legacy.

EMPTY THOSE CLOSETS AND GET RICH!

A scan of eBay’s “Entertainment Memorabilia” section last night shows that treasures once held in secret are now up for sale — did the flagging economy force jazz conoisseurs (or their heirs) to put their cherished artifacts in the market?

Here’s a young Pee Wee Erwin.  Who was lucky Diane?

http://cgi.ebay.com/PEE-WEE-ERWIN-Trumpet-Original-Jazz-Photo-SIGNED-1940_W0QQitemZ220528589398QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item3358873a56

And another famous trumpet player, in a checked shirt, signing with his characteristic green pen:

Was Maynard’s last name Ferguson?  Or perhaps Krebs? 

http://cgi.ebay.com/Louis-Armstrong-Signed-8×10-Photo-Jazz-Fine_W0QQitemZ360219545316QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item53dec20ee4

And this fellow — not precisely a jazz musician but someone jazz musicians and listeners hold dear:

http://cgi.ebay.com/George-Gershwin-Signed-8×10-Photo-1929-Composer-Jazz_W0QQitemZ330389790952QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item4cecc420e8

And the woman who signed the pink page certainly knew how to sing Gershwin:

http://cgi.ebay.com/7-Signed-Jazz-Musicians-Carter-Butterfield-Gillespie_W0QQitemZ360221170785QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item53dedadc61

In the presence of all these riches, who needs groceries?

P.S.  It’s obvious, though, that the sellers often don’t have the faintest idea of what they are putting up for sale: in the set of autographs above, one is identified as “Berry Carter,” and another seller is offering a fine photograph of Louis — identified as “Count Bassie.”

WHAT’S NEW?

 

The Beloved and I have been on the road for more than a month now.  While we are in the car, the CD player is (as Pee Wee Erwin used to say) hotter than a depot stove, with respites for cassettes (the Braff-Hyman Concord duet version of MY FAIR LADY) or the CBC. But most often we are listening to one of the two hundred-plus compact discs I brought along. (If ever someone was a candidate for an iPod, I nominate myself.)

Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins arrangements, 1937 Basie airshots, Dick Sudhalter, Jack Purvis, Lester Young, Seger Ellis, 1940 Ellington, Ben Webster, Spirituals to Swing, early Crosby, late Jimmy Rowles, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, and so on.

This musical buffet has led me to think, admittedly not for the first time, about artistic originality, creativity, and “influence.” Especially in jazz, listeners and critics privilege a musician’s having an individualistic, recognizable sound, something that musicians worked towards with some earnestness.  And it went beyond sound: musicians were proud of their origins but even more proud of telling their own stories.     

But taken to an extreme, this pride in individuality might have its limitations. It leads us to make the appearance of originality the greatest virtue, so that a cliche of jazz prose or oral history is, “When K came on the scene, we were amazed, because he didn’t sound like P, the main man at the time.”

So, when I listen to Jones-Smith, Inc. romping through “Lady Be Good” or “Shoe Shine Boy,” I think of the impact those sides must have had on 1937 listeners who knew nothing of Lester, Tatti Smith, Basie, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. The quintet we hear still seems daringly “original.” Certainly Lester sounds so unlike Hawkins and his disciples, unlike other musicians,even now. His rhythm, his tone, his flight. And it is certainly valid to praise the Basie rhythm trio for the same driving singularity.  I do not mean to slight Carl “Tatti” Smith in all this, but his percussive attack was not uncommon among trumpeters of that era.     

So it is a commonplace to cherish these sides for their singularity, that they sounded so unlike the records made in late 1936.  But what shall we then say of the Fats Waller turns of phrase and whole phrases so evident in Basie’s playing? (Earl Hines and James P. Johnson are in there, too.)  What of the influence of older bassists Steve Brown, Wellman Braud, and Pops Foster, on Page’s work here? Jo Jones’s drumming was certainly a revelation, but one can hear Sidney Catlett in his accents and Walter Johnson in his hi-hat work.  Perhaps some of Gene Krupa and George Stafford as well. 

And when one listens closely to the riffs that the Basie band threw around with such headlong delight on, say, “One O’Clock Jump,” one hears familiar late-Twenties / early-Thirties jazz figures: one of them in particular, is the phrase Louis sings to the words “Oh, memory” on that take of “Star Dust.”

Of course we might fold our hands and say meditatively, “Oh, everyone comes from somewhere,” which is undeniable.  But this makes me think of the way the conceive of jazz improvisation, the ways in which jazz finds us, and the technology that enwraps it. If you were to take someone who knows little about jazz to a club or concert performance, the novice usually says, with a hint of astonishment, “How do they know what they are playing? How do they know where to come in?” And the more experienced listener can say, “There is a common language in this music as in othercommunal arts. If one of the players says, ‘Let’s do “Undecided” in two flats,” the other players are familiar with that melody, its harmony, rhythmic patterns, the conventions that go with it.  All this is learned through intent listening, bandstand-practice, and intuitive empathy.”  So what looks “made up on the spot” both is and isn’t. And only the musicians, perhaps, know whether the trombonist is playing the solo she always plays or if she is stepping bravely out into space.  Whether she herself knows, at the time or after, is beyond our knowing and perhaps hers.   

Playing a musical instrument competently is difficult.  Inventing something that even approaches “originality” while playing an instrument, among other musicians, the notes moving by inexorably, is even more daunting.  So, as a result, many musicians have a set of learned patterns they can call upon while speeding through familiar repertory: their “crib,” some call it.  Thus, if you hear Waltie King speed through “It’s You Or No One,” one night, Waltie may dazzle with a wondrous display of technique allied to feeling.  “What a solo!” you say.  If you follow Waltie to his other gigs and hear him play that same song twenty times, would you be disillusioned if his solo on Thursday bore close resemblance to his brilliant exploits of Monday?  How many listeners truly know when a musician is inspired one night, playing it safe the next?  And, frankly, does it make a difference if the solo — ingenious or worked-out — charms our ears? 

This brings us to Lester Young, who said that a musician had to be original, and that he did not want to listen to his old records for fear of being influenced by them and becoming a “repeater pencil.”  His fellow musicians testify that he was astonishingly inventive, that he could play dozens of choruses at a jam session and never repeat himself. But even given that piece of mythology, can we be sure that his improvisations on the Vocalion “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” were not, in some way, workings-out of ideas he had already played in other contexts?  Were those solos as original to him as they continue to appear to us?

We cannot know, since we have no recordings of Lester before this one (Jo Jones spoke of a “little silver record” (you’d have to imagine his odd verbal style here) he had once owned of Lester, circa 1934, but told Stu Zimny and myself that it had disappeared long ago).  And even if we had acetates stacked to the ceiling, the question might be both unanswerable and moot. 

And records themselves complicate the issue.  Before there were strings of alternate takes and session tapes, records were singular artifacts: three minutes capturing one unrepeatable occasion.  Think of the Armstrong-Hines “Weather Bird” or the Webster-Blanton “Star Dust” duet from Fargo 1940. Unique.  Irreplaceable.  But the same worrying questions apply to the music captured by microphones.  And the dazzling singularity of a recorded performance, by people who are now dead, puts a weight on the shoulders of living players whom we hope will create fresh solos each time they lift their horns.  I think that this also accounts for some of the pressure musicians feel when they must step into the recording studio, that their improvisations will attain a certain permanence, a permanence they might never intend. 

And jazz critics condescend to musicians who create solos and, with only minor variations, repeat them for years. I have quietly groaned when faced with yet another late Jack Teagarden performance of “Basin Street Blues,” but perhaps, in retrospect, I should not have done so.  It could not have been easy for him or anyone to a) find something new to say about that particular piece of music, and b) to play and sing so beautifully, even if every nuance had been worked out.  I was a trifle disappointed whenever Vic Dickenson, whom I saw often in his last years, would embark upon “In A Sentimental Mood,” because every note, sigh, and slur in it had been perfected through repetition. But, and some may find this sentimental, I would love to have him here to play it again. And it was an exquisite piece of music.

Such ruminations might seem to have no particular beginning and certainly no end.  Perhaps the only conclusion we might draw is the oldest one, that all kinds of human creativity are miraculous.  We should cherish those pieces of music that are both intelligent and impassioned, whether they seem “original” or derivative.  And road travelers might find a great deal of pleasure, as I do, listening to what Jack Purvis plays behind Seger Ellis on the unissued “Sleepy Time Gal” — but more about that in a future posting.