Tag Archives: PeeWee Russell

NINA LEEN’S JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS

I had never heard of Nina Leen until I found her wonderful photographs of jazz musicians printed in LIFE in 1944. 

Vic Dickenson, Eddie Heywood, perhaps Lem Davis

Vic Dickenson, Eddie Heywood, perhaps Lem Davis

Mildred Bailey, wistful

Mildred Bailey, wistful

Gene Krupa, in the moment!

Gene Krupa, in the moment!

Jess Stacy, dapper as always

Jess Stacy, dapper as always

Ed Hall at Cafe Society, with Mouse Randolph and Johnny Williams

Ed Hall at Cafe Society, with Mouse Randolph and Johnny Williams

Charles Ellsworth Russell, "the Pied Piper of Jazz"

Charles Ellsworth Russell, "the Pied Piper of Jazz"

Those photographs are so alive that they made me wonder if Ms. Leen was a pioneering jazz photographer I had never heard of.  That isn’t the case: she was simply another great professional, specializing in different species, as her New York Times obituary points out:
Nina Leen Is Dead; A Photographer
January 5, 1995
Nina Leen, one of the first female photographers for Life magazine, died on Sunday at her home in New York City. Ms. Leen was secretive about her age, but Alison Hart, a press agent for Life, said she was believed to be in her late 70’s or early 80’s. Ms. Leen photographed many subjects but was best known for her pictures of animals. Among her 15 books were two studies of bats, published in the 1970’s. To make the pictures for these books, she used special cameras and lighting and overcame an aversion to the animals. One of her most famous images is a 1950 photograph of the Abstract Expressionist artists known as the Irascibles, including Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock. Ms. Leen was married for many years to Serge Balkin, a fashion photographer. No immediate family members survive.
(Like bats, jazz musicians are nocturnal by nature — but which series of portraits came first?  Which fascination inspired the other?)

RUSSELL, SMITH, CONDON, DAVISON, FELD, LLC.

A gathering of individualists, playing the blues in two moods.

PeeWee Russell, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, Morey Feld.  The film, made for Canadian television, purports to capture what it was like after hours at Condon’s club (the midtown version) in December 1963.  How close it is to reality is anyone’s guess.  Did Helen Ward, looking so pretty here, drop by to sing when there was no camera crew in attendance, and was there usually someone sitting at a table, sketching?

But the music that initially feels tenuous, ready to fall off the edge into disunity, comes together surprisingly.  The sounds are genuine, and so are the smiles on everyone’s face at the close.  “All the Olympians,” to quote Yeats.

Thanks to Bob Erwig for posting this on Dailymotion, and to David Weiner for reminding me about it.

THE DEAR DEPARTED PAST: 1948, 1959

Billie Holiday on the Eddie Condon Floor Show, 1948, by Genevieve Naylor

Billie Holiday on the Eddie Condon Floor Show, 1948, by Genevieve Naylor

George Wettling and Hot Lips Page, Eddie Condon's Floor Show, 1948, by Genevieve Naylor

George Wettling and Hot Lips Page, Eddie Condon's Floor Show, 1948, by Genevieve Naylor

Newport 1959: Buck Clayton, PeeWee Russell, Buzzy Drootin, Ruby Braff

Newport 1959: Buck Clayton, PeeWee Russell, Buzzy Drootin, Ruby Braff

EDDIE CONDON, 1945, TOWN HALL (by Gjon Mili)

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Had I a jazz time machine, the front row of Town Hall at this moment would be on the list of my musical Paradises.

From the left, courtesy of Gjon Mili and Ernie Anderson: Cozy Cole, perhaps James P. Johnson, Miff Mole, Benny Morton, Bobby Hackett, possibly Bill Coleman, Max Kaminsky, Muggsy Spanier, Ed Hall, PeeWee Russell, Ernie Caceres (on clarinet, too), Eddie Condon, leading the congregation, and Kansas Fields.  As I write this, the other musicians don’t reveal themselves, but I am sure my sharp-eyed readers will have educated surmises.

FATS WALLER AT CARNEGIE HALL, 1942 (and 1944)

Adventures in jazz discography follow.

Because my friend Agustin Perez (proprietor of the wonderful blog “Mule Walk & Jazz Talk,” often devoted to stride piano) asked me for some information, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Fats Waller’s uneven Carnegie Hall concert of 1942.  And my very hip readers are on the same wavelength, because two people searching for “Fats Waller,” “Carnegie Hall,” “lost acetates,” found this blog.

So — as a brief respite from grading student essays — let me share my ruminations on this subject and a related one — the 1944 Memorial Concert.

fats-jpegIf ever anyone deserved his own concert, it would have been Fats — for his compositions, his joyous playing and singing, his ability to become an entire orchestra at the piano, to say nothing of the way he could drive a band.  And the 1942 Carnegie Hall concert (an idea of Ernie Anderson’s) would have been splendid except for Fats’s nervousness and the resulting over-imbibing.

Eddie Condon recalled that the second half of the concert was nearly disastrous, with Fats unable to free himself from “Summertime.”  (Condon’s recollections come from his WE CALLED IT MUSIC, and the later EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, and there are some comments — and photographs by Charles Peterson — in the book of Peterson’s photographs, SWING ERA NEW YORK.  Several of them show Fats getting dressed and are thus scarily irreplaceable.)

I don’t think that I need recordings of Fats imprisoned in “Summertime,” but two tantalizing pieces of recorded evidence do remain, both impressive.

One is a duet for Fats and Lips Page, an unbeatable idea, playing the blues both slow and fast.  I never think of Fats as a compelling blues player, but he is in splendid form alongside Lips, and the duet ends too soon . . . about an hour too soon for my taste.  It was originally issued on a French bootleg lp (Palm Club) and an American one (Radiola) and most recently was dropped into the French Neatwork CD of Lips Page alternate takes, probably out of print.

The other comes from the closing jam session, and is predictably HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, with Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman, PeeWee Russell, Condon, John Kirby, and Gene Krupa — issued circa 1974 on the very first Jazz Archives lp (one of the many labels invented by Jerry Valburn), CHICAGO STYLE.  This suggests that Valburn, who had resources beyond my imagination and a phenomenal jazz collection — his Ellington collection is now in the Library of Congress — had managed to acquire the acetates of the concert.  From whom, from whence, I cannot say.

What interests me even more is both Waller and Valburn-related: music recorded at the 1944 Waller Memorial Concert.  One track, a rather lopsided LADY BE GOOD by the “Mezz Mezzrow Sextet,” turned up on a Valburn collection devoted to Ben Webster.  Ben is there for sure, alongside a piping Mezz and an unidentified tenor player, possibly Gene Sedric, a pianist who paddles away in the background rather mechanically, Sidney Catlett doing the best he could, and a trombonist mis-identified as Dicky Wells who clearly is Trummy Young.

Others who appeared at the concert were James P. Johnson, Art Hodes, and Frank Newton — and, as readers of this blog know, the possibility of hearing some otherwise unknown Newton would make my year.  Valburn also issued two songs from the concert performed by a Teddy Wilson sextet — HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, again, and a blues called GET THE MOP, on a Lips Page anthology full of errors, famously.  First, the record was called “Play the Blues in B,” which few musicians would think of doing — those blues were audibly in the most common key of Bb; Lips didn’t play with the Wilson group (Emmett Berry, Benny Morton, Ed Hall, Wilson, Al Hall, and Catlett), and the final track on the recording had Paul Quinichette identified as Lester Young even though Lips hailed his tenor player by name.   Such things might not seem important to those beyond the pale, but they received a good deal of attention from the faithful.  Valburn also issued an AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ by the whole Basie band — including the real Lester — on a Lester compilation on his “Everybody’s” label.

Where’s the rest of this music?  Could we hear it now?  Please?

“ROSES OF PICARDY” AND “SUNDAY”: WHAT FUN!

I’m indebted to Flemming Thorbye, whom I’ve never met, for video-recording these two songs and putting them on YouTube, where they held me transfixed through several viewings.  The performances might look informal, but it takes a great deal of hard-earned mastery to be so casual.  Thorbye captured this band at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa, July 2005.

The band was officially billed as Spats Langham and his Rhythm Boys, but this ensemble has a democratic strolling feel: routines are improvised on the stand and no one monopolizes the stage.  Even at a distance, you can see the players grinning at each other’s solos, which is not as common as you might think.

The Anglo-American players — what players! — are Thomas “Spats” Langham, guitar and vocal; Tom Pletcher, cornet; Paul Munnery, trombone; Norman Field, clarinet; Jeff Barnhart, piano; Frans Sjostrom, bass sax; Nick Ward, drums.

The first song was one of Jule Styne’s earliest — “Sunday,” whose lyrics make the trek through the week to arrive at the one day when romance can flourish.  Bix recorded it as a member of the Jean Goldkette band — with an enthusiastic, cheery vocal by the Keller Sisters and Lynch.  Apocryphally, Lynch was the Sisters’ brother, but that might be too confusing a fact to incorporate.

I know “Sunday” from years of listening to jazz sessions that took place on that day: it was and is a comfortable tune to begin with.  Ruby Braff and Bobby Hackett did it often, and Jon-Erik Kellso continues the tradition now.

After a few cinematographic shudders, we settle down with Pletcher’s firm, nuanced lead — helped immeasurably by neat improvisations from Field and Munnery.  The limber rhythm section moves things along: Sjostrom, as always doing the work of two or perhaps three men, playing rhythm and soloing.  After Tom ends his solo with a “Holiday for Strings” lick, Munnery comes on like a supple Harlem trombonist c. 1931, with easy grace.  Pletcher’s solo outing is full of Bix sound-castles, beautiful architecture, but I would also have you listen closely to Nick Ward’s rocking choke-cymbal (and then his accents behind Field on what Jo Jones used to call “elephants’ nuts”).  Feld is deep into the idiom, but he doesn’t copy anyone’s phrases.  Spats (at Pletcher’s direction) takes a winsome vocal, backed by Barnhart and then Sjostrom.  When Frans solos, it’s easy to get swept away in his pure sound — but on a second listening, one comes to admire the shapes of his phrases, echoing the whole reed tradition.  Jeff Barnhart drifts into some nifty Zez Confrey flourishes in the middle of his solo, paving the way for a fervent but still measured ensemble, driven home by Nick once again.

“Roses of Picardy,” a sentimental favorite from the First World War, is even better.  It was the last tune of the set, and (as often happens) all the horns and the players and their instruments had warmed up.  I can’t connect Bix with this song, but it was a popular favorite of his teens.  Everyone is even more lyrical — Frans, Tom, a very Russellish Field, Langham blending Django and Lang, and Munnery, leading into the final ensemble.  Although the audience drowns out Nick Ward’s break, we know it was there, so that will have to do.  What great ease!

Some discographical comments:

I first heard Nick Ward, Spats Langham, and Norman Field on a Stomp Off CD, THE CHALUMEAU SERENADERS (1394) which also features the reed wizard Matthias Seuffert in the front line.  Spats appeared on only one track — a vocal on a song I associate with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, “Okay, Baby,” but his singing was so wonderful that I sought out the two Lake CDs he had made under his own name — a duet with pianist Martin Litton called LOLLIPOPS (LACD 226) and a small band — also featuring Norman! — THE HOTTEST MAN IN TOWN (LACD 228).  The duet album has its serenely beautiful moments; the small band is cheerfully frisky.  Norman shows off his beautiful alto work as well on these CDs.  And Nick Ward is a quiet powerhouse, rocking the band without getting loud or louder.

I apologize for my not having any Paul Munnery CDs to report on — but a bit of online research suggests that he is a Higginbotham – Nanton man on CD, so I will look for his smaller group, SWING STREET, and his work with a big repertory band, HARLEM.

Jeff Barnhart has made many CDs with multi-instrumentalist Jim Fryer, and he’s also recorded a lovely solo piano CD for Arbors, IN MY SOLITUDE (19324).

I’ve praised Frans Sjostrom elsewhere in this blog and will continue to do so: search out his extraordinary HOT JAZZ TRIO on the Kenneth label (CKS 3417) with Bent Persson, and he also is an essential part of the ensemble on I’M GLAD: TOM PLETCHER AND THE CLASSIC JAZZ BAND (Stomp Off 1353).  Tom has appeared on many earlier vinyl issues with the Sons of Bix — have they made it to CD?  But most recently, he has impresed me deeply on CD, not as a player, but as a writer and annotator of a most special kind.  Many of you will know of Tom’s late father, Stewart (or Stu or even Stew) Pletcher, a wonderfully lyrical player whose most notable recordings were made as a member of Red Norvo’s Thirties orchestra and combos.  I was delighted that the Jazz Oracle label issued THE STORY OF STEWART PLETCHER (BDW 8055) in 2007.  Marvelously researched as always, it gives a thorough picture of Pletcher Sr.’s playing — through rare recordings, of course, from 1924 to 1937.  That would be enough for me.  But I was tremendously moved by his son’s essay on his father.  It is loving yet candid, a tribute to a man much-loved but not always easy to know.  I do not overpraise it by calling it an affecting memoir, honoring both father and son at once.

If you don’t know these players, I hope I’ve given you reason to regret your previous ignorance and repent yourselves of it as soon as possible.

P.S.  The espression “What fun!” comes from Liadain O’Donovan — of Kinvara, Dalkey, New York, and San Francisco — and I hope she doesn’t mind my borrowing it.

GJON MILI’S 1943 JAM SESSION

gjon-mililipsteddymezzkansas-fieldsal-lucas

Thanks to jazz scholar and old friend David Weiner, I encountered this glorious photograph two nights ago.  Gjon Mili is known to most of us as the man behind the 1944 film JAMMIN’ THE BLUES, but he made his primary mark as a still photgrapher, shooting many pictures at jam sessions staged for LIFE.  Now that Google has made the picture archives of that long-lived weekly magazine available, we can all enjoy such lively archaeology.

If you can’t wait to see previously unknown pictures of Mildred Bailey, James P. Johnson, Eddie Condon and friends, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and others, the link to the site is http://images.google.com/hosted/life and I’ve already spent a good deal of time there.  It is fascinating not only for the jazz players, but for the glimpses of what is, for most of us, a lost world — where, as John Cheever once wrote, all the men wore hats.  If you enter the search term “jam session,” always a good idea, you will find 183 images including everyone from Gene Krupa to George Wettling to Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Dickenson.

The picture above is a wonderfully odd mix of players: the man at far left, holding a glass, might be drummer Zutty Singleton.  To his right, the altoist has been identified as a young Leo Parker.  Then there’s Hot Lips Page at the microphone.  Nearly hidden behind him is clarinetist Buster Bailey and bassist Al Lucas.  The drummer (in Navy uniform) is Kansas Fields, the pianist Teddy Wilson.  And, inescapably, in the back, clarinet at the ready, is Mezz Mezzrow.  Any guesses about the other players will be appreciated — and I’m indebted to the discussion already held by members of the jazz research group moderated by Michael Fitzgerald for the additional identifications above.  This jam session and one other was recorded for V-Disc, but legend has it that the recordings were rejected because the assembled multitudes were having a noisy good time.  Given these musicians, I would have shouted, too.

Here’s another from the same session:

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My long-time myopia holds me back here, but I see Eddie Heywood at the piano, Buster Bailey again, and the wondrous pairing of Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Dickenson, at a time before producers, clubowners, and other people had decided that one played “bebop” and the other one “Dixieland.”

Too many players to list them all (even if I recognized everyone) but I’ll bet that the musical atmosphere was both festive and creative when Mili clicked his shutter:

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How about Mezz Mezzrow, Muggsy Spanier, bassist Al Hall, Dizzy, and Duke?

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Then, there’s a less ecumenical gathering: drummer George Wettling (who could play in anyone’s band), the irreplaceable PeeWee Russell, and a bassist who might well be Al Lucas once again.

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A rare early portrait of Vic Dickenson, with Heywood at the piano.

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Properly at the center of things — he could shape a jam session like no one else — is William Basie.  You know, the fellow from New Jersey?

I had to stop myself before posting more than a dozen images on this blog, although I will return to this site for uniquely posed evidence of the lost Golden Age, the Eden that very few people now alive got to visit.  Thank you, Gjon Mili!  And thank you, LIFE, which I once thought hopelessly middlebrow: these pictures prove me wrong.