Tag Archives: Pete Johnson

IN 1959, THEY SAT RIGHT DOWN AND WROTE HIM LETTERS

I don’t know what happens today if a young fan writes a letter to Lady Gaga, let us say, requesting a signed photograph or, better yet, asking a question.  That rhetorical question in itself may mark me as hopelessly antique, since fans can find out everything online as it happens.  But my guess is that the Lady doesn’t have time to send back handwritten personalized replies, and that is nothing against her.  Even in the Swing Era, musical personalities had their secretaries or staff sign photos for fans.  On my wall, for instance, is a lovely shot of Connee Boswell — her name signed in pen — but inscribed to the fan in a different hand, leading me to believe that Connee took a stack of a hundred photographs and signed her name on each one.

So what came up on eBay several days ago is remarkable.  I can’t do much detective work, because the seller seems innocent about the trove, and perhaps (s)he has no other connection.  Here’s the listing description:

This 1950’s collection of famous jazz musicians includes autograph letters, signed photographs and autographs. There is an autograph letter signed “Pops Foster” and a photograph signed “George Pops Foster.” There is an autograph note signed “Don Redman” and an 8 x 10 inch photo of Redman also signed. There is an autograph note signed “Meade “Lux” Lewis” There is an autograph note signed “Pete Johnson” and a letter by Pete Johnsons wife. There are two autograph letters signed “Alberta Hunter.” There is an autograph note signed “Buster Baily” and an autograph letter signed “Terry Spargo.” There is also a typed letter by Terry Spargo and a signed photograph. There are several autographs including “Moondog” “Israel Crosby” and a few others. All the letters, notes, photographs and autographs are in very good condition! NO RESERVE!

While you peruse and consider, here is a most appropriate musical soundtrack:

“Christopher,” whose last name may have been “Jameson,” seems to have been a young aspiring pianist and fan who wrote to his heroes, either asking a question and / or asking for an autographed photograph.  We don’t have any of his inquiries, but they must have been polite and admiring, because he received gracious unhurried answers.  And what strikes me is that in 1959 he wasn’t writing to Dizzy, Trane, or Mobley, but — for the most part — jazz pioneers.  A few of the pages in his collection look like in-person autographs, but much is unknown and will probably remain so.  But we have the most delightful evidence: paper ephemera of a kind not often seen.  Here, without further ado:

POPS FOSTER gives his address twice, clearly pleased by this correspondence:

DON REDMAN, smiling and fashionably dressed:

TONY SPARGO, handing off to Eddie “Daddy” Edwards:

More from TONY SPARGO:

PETE JOHNSON wasn’t up to much writing, but his wife was encouraging and Pete did send a nice autograph:

“Musically yours,” MEADE LUX LEWIS:

Are the signers (from Brunswick, Georgia) a vocal group I don’t recognize?  I do see MOONDOG:

I don’t recognize the signatures on the first page, but below I see VERNEL FOURNIER, AHMAD JAMAL, and ISRAEL CROSBY:

BUSTER BAILEY signs in kindly and also mentions his new recording, perhaps the only long-playing record under his own name:

an extraordinary and extraordinarily generous letter from ALBERTA HUNTER:

and an even more generous second chapter:

Christopher must have written extremely polite letters to have received such answers, but this selection of correspondence speaks to the generosity and good will of people who were actively performing, who took the time to take a young person seriously.

When the bidding closed, the collection sold for $660 a few minutes ago.  So you can no longer possess these holy artifacts, but you can lose yourself in rapt contemplation of the images and the kind people who not only created the art we revere, but wrote to Chris.

May your happiness increase!

HAL SMITH’S SWING CENTRAL AT THE REDWOOD COAST MUSIC FESTIVAL, PART TWO: HAL SMITH, STEVE PIKAL, DAN WALTON, JAMEY CUMMINS, JONATHAN DOYLE (May 11, 2019)

Hal Smith swings:

and his bands do also:

 

 

Hal Smith’s SWING CENTRAL is a splendid little band, greeted enthusiastically in person and in cyberspace, which will become evident in sixty-four bars.  (The lovely weird artwork below is the cover of their debut CD, by the way.)

Here’s Part One, where you can savor LITTLE GIRL; LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER; HELLO, FISHIES; BATS ON A BRIDGE; BIG AL; PIPELINER’S BLUES; WINDY CITY SWING; HELLO, LOLA.

And the second portion, beginning with LONG-DISTANCE MAN, which has a beautiful story behind it even before the deeply lyrical music begins — for me a highlight of the 2019 Redwood Coast Music Festival:

Dan Walton’s exuberant ROLL ‘EM, PETE:

Jamey Cummins’ THE SHEIK OF airbnb:

The poignant BLUE LESTER:

And a rollicking THE LADY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU:

Truly a band to know and to follow.  On a related note — in a major key — the 30th Anniversary Redwood Coast Music Festival will take place in Eureka, California, from May 7-10, 2020.  I’ll be there, and Hal and many of my hero-friends also.

May your happiness increase!

SYCHRONIZED SWINGING: PAOLO ALDERIGHI / STEPHANIE TRICK, “BROADWAY AND MORE”

Listen, first, to Paolo and Stephanie on two pianos, playing Irving Berlin:

I’ve been at many of their live performances and I think this is the first CD to full capture the scope of what they offer so generously.  Perhaps some of it has to do with their being able to record on two pianos: they are a devoted couple for sure, but the freedom, never verbalized on stage, to have the whole bench and keyboard to oneself, could be liberating.  I won’t ask.  Even in 2018, some facts should stay private.

When I’ve seen them perform, audiences are on their feet at the end of the concert — and it’s not because they want to be the first out to their cars.  Rather, Paolo and Stephanie are not only wonderful pianists and great players, but they are old-fashioned performers, dazzling us every time.

The notion of “performers” may get under the skin of some fans, who insist that their beloved artists are akin to Plato’s mad creators, letting the made-up-right-this-moment transformative energy flow through them like electricity.  What those severe elders don’t understand is that everyone who plays or sings rehearses — so the “jam session” “impromptu” glories we revel in are, in fact, the results of years of practice.  So what Paolo and Stephanie create is polished: let’s say their spiritual model is Dick Hyman, not George Zack (you could look him up).  And what they have to play is plenty.

If you know Paolo and Stephanie, you know that initially they had very different ways of approaching the piano: Paolo’s hero is Erroll Garner; Stephanie comes straight from James P. Johnson and his not-brother Pete.  And as they’ve grown and played together, their influences have melded in the nicest ways, but each of them has retained a deep individuality.  Thus it’s not two artists trying to sound like each other, but working lovingly to complement each other.

The result is delightfully varied: each performance is, without artifice, a whole history of jazz piano, from Joplin to the present moment, seamless and convincing.  Since Paolo and Stephanie are world-travelers and multi-lingual, this ease of movement makes each performance a small yet deeply felt travelogue.  We’re invited to come along, and the cabin is first-class.

The repertoire on this new disc is wide-ranging, but always deeply melodic, and the melodic thread is never lost or abandoned even in the most elaborately glittering improvisations.  An analytical jazz fan will find much to marvel at; your relative who protests that (s)he “hates jazz” will also.  Here’s the tune list:

1. Call Me Madam Medley (Berlin) – 6:30
2. Marie (Berlin) – 4:55
3. Make Believe (Kern, Hammerstein II) – 5:01
4. The Lambeth Walk (Gay, Furber) – 3:49
5. Torna a Surriento / Anema e Core (Curtis, Curtis / D’Esposito, Manlio) – 6:44
6. If I Had a Million Dollars (Malneck, Mercer) – 4:04
7. Heartaches (Hoffman, Klenner) – 3:29
8. The Music Man Medley (Willson) – 7:07
9. An Affair to Remember (Warren, Adamson, McCarey) – 4:50
10. West Side Story Medley (Bernstein, Sondheim) – 7:28
11. Penny Lane (McCartney, Lennon) – 4:57
12. Mr. Sandman (Ballard) – 3:59

If you’re not humming one melody or another, reading those words, you need this CD even more.  And for those who know and love these songs, BROADWAY AND MORE is a treat.

Another helping:

Here you can hear other samples from BROADWAY AND MORE, purchase a disc or download the music.

May your happiness increase!

TAKE IT FROM THEM: NEVILLE DICKIE and DANNY COOTS PLAY FATS WALLER (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival; Sedalia, Missouri; May 31, 2018)

One of the great pleasures of the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival was their Fats Waller tribute concert — guess who was second row center with camera and tripod as his date?  I will share videos of the Holland-Coots Quintet playing and singing superbly, but first, something rich and rare, the opportunity to hear Neville Dickie in person.  I’ve heard him on recordings for years, but how he plays!  Steady, swinging, inventive, and without cliche.

Some pianists who want to be Wallerizing go from one learned four-bar motif to the next, but not Neville, who has so wonderfully internalized all kinds of piano playing that they long ago became him, as natural as speech.  Eloquent, witty speech, I might add.

Some might think, “What’s a drummer doing up there with that pianist?” but when the drummer is Danny Coots, it’s impudent to ask that question, because Danny adds so much and listens so deeply.  And there is a long tradition of Piano and Traps.  I thought immediately of James P. Johnson and Eddie Dougherty, of Frank Melrose and Tommy Taylor, of Donald Lambert and Howard Kadison, of Willie “the Lion” Smith and Jo Jones, of Sammy Price and Sidney Catlett, of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Jimmy Hoskins . . . and I am sure that there are other teams I have left out here.

Danny’s tap-dancer’s breaks may catch your ear (how expert!) but his steady color-filled but subtle support is what I admire even more.  He’s always paying attention, which is no small thing no matter what instrument you play.  In life.

Here are the four selections this inspired duo performed at the concert: only one of them a familiar Waller composition, which is also very refreshing.  Need I point out how rewarding these compact performances are — they are all almost the length of a 12″ 78 but they never feel squeezed or rushed.  Medium tempos, too.

A NEW KIND OF A MAN WITH A NEW KIND OF LOVE comes, as Neville says, from a piano roll — but this rendition has none of the familiar rhythmic stiffness that some reverent pianists now think necessary:

TAKE IT FROM ME (I’M TAKIN’ TO YOU) has slightly formulaic lyrics by Stanley Adams, but it’s a very cheerful melody.  I knew it first from the 1931 Leo Reisman version with Lee Wiley and Bubber Miley, which is a wondrous combination.  But Neville and Danny have the same jovial spirit.  And they play the verse!  Catch how they move the rhythms around from a very subtle rolling bass to a light-hearted 4/4 with Danny accenting in 2 now and again:

Then, the one recognized classic, thanks to Louis and a thousand others, I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING.  Neville, who certainly knows how to talk to audiences, is a very amusing raconteur in addition to everything else.  And the feeling I get when he and Danny go from the rather oratorical reading of the verse into tempo!

Finally (alas!) there’s CONCENTRATIN’ (ON YOU) which I know from recordings by the peerless Mildred Bailey and Connie (not yet Connee) Boswell: I can hear their versions in my mind’s ear.  But Neville and Danny have joined those aural memories for me:

What a pair!  Mr. Waller approves.  As do I.  As did the audience.

May your happiness increase!

SOUTH OF FOURTEENTH STREET (March 4, 1944)

When I am in conversation with someone new and the talk turns to my pursuit of live jazz in New York City, the question will be, “I suppose you go uptown to hear music?  Do you go to . . . ”  And then my questioner will mention some club, usually now-vanished, in what he or she thinks of as “Harlem.”  My answer nearly always causes surprised perplexity, “No, almost every place I frequent is below Fourteenth Street — you know, Greenwich Village.”

Nearly seventy-five years ago (before my time) the Village was a thriving place for hot jazz to flourish, with clubs and venues now legendary but long gone.

One of the quiet heroes of hot piano was Cliff Jackson, who began his career as accompanist to female blues singers but always as a striding player on his own or as the leader of a big band, an in-demand sideman, intermission pianist, and valued soloist.  (And he was married to Maxine Sullivan until his death in 1969.)

Cliff Jackson, 1947, photograph by William P. Gottlieb

In the last years of the Second World War, several independent record companies (notably Black and White and Disc) took the opportunity to record Jackson, either solo or in bands.  He was a remarkable player, full of charging percussive energy, with singularly strong left-hand patterns (just this week I found out, thanks to the great player / informal historian Herb Gardner, that Jackson was left-handed, which explains a good deal).

Here are three sides from a remarkable and remarkably little-known session for Black and White by the Cliff Jackson Quartet, featuring Pee Wee Russell, Bob Casey, and Jack Parker.  Pee Wee and Casey were long associated with Eddie Condon bands (Eddie featured Cliff in concert and on the television “Floor Show” often).  I am assuming that Jack and Jack “the Bear” Parker, both drummers, are one and the same, recording with Eddie Heywood, Don Byas, Eddie South, Hot Lips Page, Mary Lou Williams, Pete Johnson, Leo Parker, Babs Gonzales — and he’s on Louis’ BECAUSE OF YOU and Nat Cole’s 1946 THE CHRISTMAS SONG as well).

The quartet speaks the common language with grace and eloquence.  We get to hear Cliff at length, and Bob Casey has a fine solo.  Pee Wee seems particularly unfettered: he was the sole horn on sessions that happened once every few years (with Joe Sullivan and Jess Stacy for Commodore) and I think not being placed between trumpet, trombone, and baritone saxophone made for greater freedom. That freedom means great sensitivity on ONE HOUR, and wonderfully abstract phrases on WEARY BLUES.

from Fats to James P. Johnson:

and back in time to Artie Matthews:

Readers who are well-versed or have discographies (some might be both) will note that the YouTube poster has not offered us Cliff’s minor original, QUIET PLEASE.  Yes, there are a number of offerings of this song by Cliff, but they are of a 12″ Black and White session including Bechet, the DeParis brothers, Gene Sedric, Everett Barksdale, Wellman Braud, Eddie Dougherty — a true gathering of individualists. But — before there is wailing and gnashing of teeth from the cognoscenti — a nearly new copy of the quartet’s QUIET PLEASE arrived yesterday from my most recent eBay debauch, and if the stars are in proper alignment, it could emerge on this very site.

May your happiness increase!

WHAT SID DID (December 18, 1943)

SIDNEY CATLETT with WIRE BRUSHES

Sidney Catlett, that is.  Big Sid.  Completely himself and completely irreplaceable.  And here’s COQUETTE by the Edmond Hall Sextet on Commodore — Ed on clarinet, Emmett Berry, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Eddie Heywood, piano; Billy Taylor, string bass; Sid, drums, on December 18, 1943.

After Heywood’s ornamental solo introduction, which sounds as if the band is heading towards I WOULD DO MOST ANYTHING FOR YOU, Sid lays down powerful yet unadorned support for the first sixteen bars, yet he and Emmett have an empathic conversation on the bridge, Sid catching every flourish with an appropriate accent.  More of that to come, but note the upwards Louis-hosanna with which Emmett ends his solo (Joe Thomas loved this motif also) and Sid’s perfectly eloquent commentary, urging the Brother on.  His drumming has an orchestral awareness, as if the full band plus Heywood’s leaves and vines is dense enough as it is, and what it needs is support.  But when it’s simply Emmett and himself and the rhythm section, Sid comes to the fore.

The timbre of the second chorus is lighter: Ed Hall dipping, gliding, and soaring, with quiet ascending figures from Emmett and Vic, then quiet humming.  So Sid’s backing, although strong, is also lighter.  Hall, in his own way, was both potent and ornate, so Sid stays in the background again.

The gorgeous dialogue between Emmett and Sid in the third chorus (from 1:44 on) has mesmerized me for thirty years and more.  One can call it telepathy (as one is tempted to do when hearing Sid, Sidney DeParis, and Vic on the Blue Note sides of the same period); one can say that Emmett’s solo on COQUETTE was a solo that he had perfected and returned so — you choose — but these forty-five seconds are a model of how to play a searing open-horn chorus, full of space and intensity, and how to accompany it with strength but restraint, varying one’s sound throughout.  Even when Sid shifts into his highest gear with the rimshots in the second half of the chorus, the effect is never mechanical, never repetitive: rather each accent has its own flavor, its own particular bounce.  It’s an incredibly inspiring interlude.  And the final chorus is looser but not disorderly — exultant, rather, with Sid again (on hi-hat now, with accents) holding up the world on his shoulders at 2:40 until the end.  He isn’t obtrusive, but it’s impossible to ignore him.

Here’s another video of COQUETTE, this time taking the source material from a well-loved 78 copy:

I confess that I think about Louis fairly constantly, with Sid a close second — marveling at them both.  An idle late-evening search on eBay turned up this odd treasure, something I did not need to buy but wanted to have as another mental picture.  It’s the cardboard album for a 1946 four-song session under Sid’s leadership for Manor Records, with Pete Johnson, Jimmy Shirley, Lockjaw Davis, Bill Gooden, Gene Ramey.  Because of the boogie-woogie format and the piano / organ combination, the four sides have a rather compressed effect.

s-l1600

What one of the original 78s looked like.

SID Humoresque BoogieUnfortunately, no one as of yet has put this music on YouTube, so you’ll have to do your own searching.  (The sides were issued on CD on the Classics CD devoted to Sidney.)

I present the cardboard artifact here as one of the very few times that Sidney would have seen his own name on an album — although he’d seen his name on many labels, even a few sessions as a leader.  Sid recorded from 1929 to 1950; he lived from 1910 to 1951.  Not enough, I say — but so generous a gift to us all.  “Good deal,” as he often said.

May your happiness increase!

THERE’S A PARTY AT CARL’S!

Relaxing at Pier 23, San Francisco

Relaxing at Pier 23, San Francisco

I present to you one of the finest CDs I’ve ever heard.  But it’s also one of the least-known.

It is a House Party.  And Carl is pianist / singer / composer Carl Sonny Leyland. He invites all of us to share the joys with Marc Caparone, trumpet / string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass / clarinet.

CSL cover

This exact group has not been videoed, but you can hear a good deal of the exuberant spirit Carl, Marc, and Jeff bring to the music — with the help of Butch Smith, alto saxophone, and Mike Fay, string bass:

Now, I know that some listeners pigeonhole Father Leyland as an eight-to-the bar wizard, a boogie-woogie marvel.  And in this they would be correct.  But he is a musician and a fine jazz improviser whose talent is not constricted by a label, so he goes where the music takes him, most often to the land of Swing.  The sounds you’ll hear on this CD make me think of Kansas City — the small-band music made by Hot Lips Page, Pete Johnson, Walter Page, Jo Jones and their friends.  And when Carl starts to sing the blues . . . we could be back at the Reno Club in 1935.  (The original premise was, I think, a contemporary evocation of Pete Johnson’s 1944 add-an-instrument “Housewarming” records — a good lively model to have.)

Many jazz recordings hew to a certain stylistic definition (I think of the pigeonholes in which one inserts mail) and that’s fine if that is what you’re in the mood for.  Here’s the reproduction of Fly and his Swatters; here’s the tribute to “Unknown White Teenager”; here’s the solo xylophone recital of early Sondheim.  (My examples are satirical but not too far from CDs now on my kitchen counter.)

Carl and his friends have a different end in view, which is why this CD is a House Party — recorded in Marc Caparone’s living room in Paso Robles, California. Carl explains, “Armed with good faith and plenty of liquor, the four of us got together and made the music you are hearing now.  There was no rehearsing, and in most cases I just launched directly into whatever came into my head at that moment.  Spontaneous creativity is what really turns me on in music and I will gladly take it over ‘tight,’ ‘clever,’ and ‘refined,’ every time.  I believe the results we attained that day combined spontaneous creativity with honest emotion.  Unrestricted by notions of trying to please anyone than ourselves, we played without inhibition.  Chances were taken, nothing was held back, and in addition to being artistically gratifying, it was a heck of a lot of fun.” 

I find the music that Carl, Marc, Clint, and Jeff make on this disc wholly life-affirming, whether it’s a groovy slow blues with a dark theme or a romp on a time-honored standard . . . but I also support the philosophy stated above.  This is honest music, aimed at our hearts.  So in my ideal world, this band would be headlining at festivals and concert halls, appearing at schools across the world. Until that happens, I urge you to invite yourselves to Carl’s House Party.

To buy the CD (and to hear and see much more of Carl), visit his website.

May your happiness increase!

“WILL YOU PLEASE PAGE MR. TRUMPET?” (1946)

Rarely do recordings duplicate hearing musicians live, but when the musician we think of has passed into spirit in 1954, records are all we have.

LIPS PAGE photo

I’m speaking of the most exalted Oran Thaddeus “Hot Lips” Page, trumpet, mellophone, vocals, born in Corsicana, Texas.  On January 26 and 31, 1946, a group of musicians led by pianist / composer Pete Johnson assembled in a New York studio to make records.  Thankfully.  Someone had the idea of asking the musicians to simulate a house party, a “housewarming,” where Pete would play a solo (one record side), then musicians would be added.  They were given a few words to say at the beginning of each side — which have been edited out of almost all contemporary issues.  The collective personnel was Lips, Ben Webster, J. C. Higginbotham, Albert Nicholas, Pete Johnson, Jimmy Shirley, Al Hall, J.C. Heard.  For PAGE MR. TRUMPET, the front line is simply Page and Nicholas, a combination not otherwise on record.

Here’s what I believe is the first take (the alternate), a rocking medium blues:

And the master take, with a cleaner start from an apparently inexhaustible Lips:

And, because no scrap of Lips Page is to be ignored, here is a transfer from the original 78 that includes the opening dialogue:

If this posting has so excited you that you feel thirsty, may I suggest a bottle of this.  Lips himself took the test and the results are in:

LIPS PAGE COLA

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ ARCHAEOLOGY, or A NEW TROVE

After my most recent venture into unexpected hot music (finding Lester Young and Charlie Parker 78s) Mal Sharpe told me I was a “jazz archaeologist,” which I take as a great compliment.

I have emerged from another rich unexpected dig, brushed the dust off of my khakis, taken my pith helmet off, and put down my shovels.  Here is my tale.

Yesterday afternoon, while much of the world was engaged in its own pursuits, the Beloved and I were meandering around Sebastopol, California: a paradise of nurseries and antique shops.  We arrived at one of our favorites, FOOD FOR THOUGHT ANTIQUES (2701 Gravenstein Highway South), a non-profit enterprise which gives the proceeds from its sales to the local food bank.  In the past, I’ve found some sheet music there and the odd record or two.  Nothing could have prepared me for the treasure that had arrived there four or five days ago. See for yourself:

Photograph by Lorna Sass

Photograph by Lorna Sass

Yes, perhaps eight hundred ten-inch 78 RPM records in their original paper sleeves. I thought the hoard had some connection to a record store, since many of the discs were blue-label Bing Crosby from 1936 onwards, but I was told that this wasn’t the case: a woman brought them to the store, explained that they were her much-loved collection, and that she now felt it was time to pass them on. I wish I could find out her name to send her thanks, but that might never happen.

And since you’d want to know, the records were one dollar each.

The first afternoon I went through about one-half of the collection: it was a good omen that the first record I picked up was the Victor ST. JAMES INFIRMARY BLUES by Artie Shaw featuring Hot Lips Page. Yes, there were many red-label Columbias by the early-Forties Harry James band, but that’s not a terrible phenomenon.

I gravitated towards the more unusual: KING JOE by Count Basie and Paul Robeson; a Bluebird coupling by Freddy Martin of MILENBERG JOYS and WOLVERINE BLUES; several Fats Waller and his Rhythm sides; a Bob Howard Decca; many Dick Robertson sides featuring a dewy Bobby Hackett; INKA DINKA DOO by Guy Lombardo on Brunswick; BLUE PRELUDE and WE’RE A COUPLE OF SOLDIERS by Bing Crosby on the same label; Johnny Hamp and Arnold Johnson; OLD MAN MOSE by Willie Farmer; a Meade Lux Lewis album set on Disc; Joe Sullivan and his Cafe Society Orchestra on OKeh; WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME by Ted Weems on Victor; a blue wax Columbia by Ted Lewis of TEN THOUSAND YEARS AGO — with his special label; a Johnny Marvin Victor solo and duet; THE LADY WHO SWINGS THE BAND (that’s Mary Lou Williams) by Andy Kirk on Decca; Bunny Berigan’s SWANEE RIVER; a Gene Kardos Melotone; the Rhythm Wreckers’ TWELFTH STREET RAG on Vocalion; the Bluebird BODY AND SOUL by Coleman Hawkins; JEEPERS  CREEPERS by Ethel Waters; Deccas by Lennie Hayton and Edgar Hayes.

(Who can tell me more about Willie Farmer?)

I returned this afternoon, and found the little flowered stool Valerie had offered me in the same place, so I resumed my inspection — many records but with far fewer surprises.  Wingy, BG, Fats, Jack Leonard, Ginny Simms, Bob Howard, Dick Robertson, Milt Herth (with Teddy Bunn and the Lion) and a few oddities. FOOTBALL FREDDY and FRATERNITY BLUES by “Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys” on Columbia (with, yes, Jack Purvis as the sole trumpet); the Mills Brothers singing lyrics to Pete Johnson’s 627 STOMP.  Les Brown performing two James P. Johnson songs from his 1939 POLICY KINGS: YOU, YOU, YOU and HARLEM WOOGIE. Jean Sablon singing TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE . . . and a few more.

I passed up a few country records, Julia Sanderson solos, Nat Shilkret and Charles Dornberger waltzes . . . but the collection was a rich cross-section of good popular music of the Thirties and middle Forties, with a few detours into the late Twenties. No specialist jazz labels, no country blues rarities — but the middle-of-the-road pop music of that period was rich and honest.

I feel honored to be partaking of this experience — this voyage into a time when Freddy Martin and Coleman Hawkins occupied the same space in the collective consciousness. . . . and when a purchase of a thirty-five cent Decca or Bluebird was a real commitment to art, both economic and emotional.

On the way home yesterday, the Beloved (after congratulating me on this find and rejoicing with me — she’s like that!) asked me pensively, “What do you get out of those records?”

I thought for a minute and said, “First, the music. I am trying not to buy everything just because it’s there, so I am buying discs I don’t have on CD or on my iPod. Second, there’s a kind of delight in handling artifacts from a lost time, relics that were well-loved, and imagining their original owners. Third, and perhaps it’s peculiar to me, these records are a way of visiting childhood and adolescence once again, going back to a leisurely time where I could sit next to a phonograph, listen to the music, and absorb joy in three-minute portions. I know that I won’t keep these records forever, and I hope — maybe in twenty years? — to pass them on to someone who will delight in them as I do now.”

And delight is at the heart of the experience.

To find out more about the Food For Thought antiques store and the food bank the proceeds go to (the staff is not paid; they volunteer their time and friendship) see here. The store — which has other surprises for those immune to “old records” — is at  2701 Gravenstein Highway South, Sebastopol. Lovely people, and cookies at the cash register for the low-blood-sugar crowd (like myself: record-hunting is draining work).

May your happiness increase!

CATLETT, COTTON, ELLINGTON, BIGARD . . . ALSO FEATURING JACK OAKIE.

I’ve been eBaying — looking at the surprises offered for sale.

First, a piece of sheet music tied in to a 1946 record date for the Manor label — with Pete Johnson, Sidney Catlett, Jimmy Shirley, and Gene Ramey.  I had never heard of the Duchess Music Publishers, perhaps an attempt to connect with a hoped-for hit record.  The arranger’s name caught my eye:

ARRANGED BY SID CATLETT

Notice that someone energetically claimed ownership of this sheet.

Then, some paper ephemera connected to the downtown Cotton Club.  I know the name is demeaning, and the club wouldn’t admit patrons of color, but with such music and those prices, one could ignore those facts:

COTTON CLUB front

Don’t forget to give the card to the headwaiter (decades before email):

COTTON CLUB rear

The Perfect Evening, no argument:

COTTON CLUB 2

And Bill Robinson:

COTTON CLUB 4

Did you know Jack Oakie was so talented? This is a publicity still for the 1934 film MURDER AT THE VANITIES, with two very recognizable musicians:

DUKE 1934 front

Ah, show business!

May your happiness increase!

AT THE VERY PEAK: MUSIC FROM THE STRIDE SUMMITS (DICK HYMAN, MIKE LIPSKIN, STEPHANIE TRICK, CLINT BAKER, PAUL MEHLING: Lesher Arts Center, August 24, 2013)

Stride piano, beautifully performed, is amazing.  For one, there is the simple athleticism required.  Try keeping your left hand moving (on a table) at a typical Waller tempo for three minutes without letting the tempo drop or accelerate. And movement in itself isn’t enough; the keyboard is more than a snare-drum head.
But it’s not simply a matter of pounding out single notes and chords (widely-spaced) in the left hand.  The best stride players understand that the form has within it the potential to become mechanical, so they create rhythmic tension between bass and treble; they vary dynamics; they add shade and light through chord voicings.
It’s rather like writing a sonnet: that iambic pentameter, those fourteen lines, that set rhyme scheme can be a prison or its apparent limitations can inspire the most dazzling creativity.
And stride duets are even more intense, more precarious: when they come off splendidly, it is beyond remarkable art and precision.
We are fortunate that even after the great stride triumvirate — Waller, James P., and the Lion — left us, there were many successors (think of Wellstood, Ewell, Sutton in the recent past) and there is a wonderfully creative gang of striders, here and globally, who continue to delight.
The form stretches across the generations.  In the Stride Summits held in Walnut Creek and San Francisco at the end of August 2013, concerts invented and sustained by Mike Lipskin, we had Stephanie Trick and Dick Hyman, separated by six decades . . . with Mike, Clint Baker, and Paul Mehling, nestled happily in the chronological middle.
Mike Lipskin — known to most as someone who learned from the Lion, from Eubie Blake, and many other elders, a fine pianist, singer, composer, and wit  — is also a diligent musical thinker, so his concerts don’t degenerate into Fast and Loud.  These three concerts were beautifully planned and the music was varied throughout.
The Beloved and I saw all three concerts (August 24-25) and enjoyed every note.  I was able to bring my camera to the Lesher Arts Center and although I recorded them from one side of the stage, then the other, “waiting in the wings” has never been such a pleasure.
Here is a handful of keys (and, yes, that is the first song) from these happy stride nights that didn’t take place uptown in Harlem some time in 1936 — but in our century.
Fats’s early showpiece, HANDFUL OF KEYS, by Dick and Mike:
Eubie Blake’s TROUBLESOME IVORIES, by Stephanie, who tames the keyboard with grace:
Rocking the house in a different way with BOOGIE WOOGIE STOMP by Stephanie and friends (who couldn’t stop themselves from joining in):
Serene and mystical — the early Gershwin theme, LULLABY, by Dick:
Pastoral ruminations in 3 / 4, with Fats’ JITTERBUG WALTZ, by Dick:
A tribute to James P. Johnson, the worthy patriarch, with OLD-FASHIONED LOVE / KEEP OFF THE GRASS, by Stephanie and Mike:
Pete Johnson’s DEATH RAY BOOGIE (inspired by early science fiction, films, or comic books, I wonder?), by Stephanie:
And something truly “ancient,” Cole Porter’s IT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME, by Mike and Dick:
It was all right — and more — with three audiences, I assure you.
Did you miss these concerts?  You might have, since they were sold out very quickly.
But there’s good news.  “Mark it down,” as Billie said on MISS BROWN TO YOU.
There will be another Stride Summit at the positively gorgeous Filoli on August 10, 2014.  It is not too early to plan for this ecstatic happening.
P.S.  Dinah Lee also sang beautifully at the three concerts.  Sadly, the technical limitations of my camera prevented her from being shown off as she should be.  But there will be videos of Dinah to come!
May your happiness increase!

SWING IN PARADISE (The Second Set): ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, STEPHANIE TRICK, NICKI PARROTT, HAL SMITH at FILOLI (July 29, 2012)

The only mournful thing about the music that follows is that it’s the last set of two divine concerts by this happy group — Rossano and Stephanie, piano; Nicki, vocal and string bass; Hal, drums — that took place at Dominican University, San Rafael (July 28) and at extraordinary Filoli, Woodside (July 29).

Rossano and Nicki began this set with a patented Sportiello – Parrott Extravaganza, which took in SCENES FROM CHILDHOOD, a bit of Bach, LULLABY OF BIRDLAND, and more.  I’ve called it JAZZ MEETS THE CLASSICS, and it’s a wondrous ride:

For something more familiar by this stellar group, Henri Woode’s ROSETTA:

And that 1930 celebration of love found at last, EXACTLY LIKE YOU:

Stephanie is the least threatening of mortals, so it’s amusing that she plays Pete Johnson’s ominously-named DEATH RAY BOOGIE (had Mr. Johnson been reading Thirties science-fiction in pulp magazines, I wonder?):

She goes to town on Fats Waller’s MINOR DRAG:

Who knew Nicki was so deeply involved in Yiddischkeit?  Hear for yourself — BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN:

And the question remains — posed with such insouciant swing by Nicki — IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T MY BABY?:

The appropriate finale was AFTER YOU’VE GONE:

But the wise crowd didn’t want to let these four players out of their sight, so the quartet baked a delicious two-layer cake of an encore, TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE- LIZA:

Now, who among us will begin to book the global concert tour for this group?  They and the rest of the world surely deserve it.

May your happiness increase.

SWING IN PARADISE (The First Set): ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, STEPHANIE TRICK, NICKI PARROTT, HAL SMITH at FILOLI (July 29, 2012)

The nymphs and shepherds of pastoral verse, playing their pipes, weaving garlands of flowers, are hard to find.  But there’s one place where a beautiful setting and uplifting jazz improvisations come together — the remarkable gardens and estate at Filoli in Woodside, California.  On July 29, 2012, these four players showed everyone how it’s done — Rossano and Stephanie, striding or musing, at the pianos, Nicki singing and playing the string bass; Hal swinging out at the drums.

Here’s the first set:

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS:

I’M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER:

I NEVER KNEW:

Stephanie offered James P. Johnson’s lovely, ruminative SNOWY MORNING BLUES:

Then, in the name of efficient public transit, she gave us her version of Donald Lambert’s improvisation on Judy Garland’s THE TROLLEY SONG:

Stephanie knows how to get a crowd moving (the sheep would have been bleating on 2 and 4) and she did it again with BOOGIE WOOGIE STOMP:

Nicki made people loosen their collars and ask for ice water with FEVER:

And she followed up with an insinuating BESAME MUCHO:

Rossano, who moves so easily between his musical worlds, offered a Scarlatti sonata before the foursome dug into RUNNIN’ WILD:

And, yes, shepherds and nymphs of the twenty-first century, there is a second set.  But for now, revel in this one.

May your happiness increase.

“AND MANY OTHER RHYTHM ARTISTS”

We could go to this concert . . . even though a decade later, having been there might lose us our jobs as dangerous subversives:

The fact that the poster was red, white, and blue wouldn’t convince the House Un-American Activities Committee for a moment.

Or we could visit Lady Day, Duke, Anita, and Big Sid in California:

But perhaps we should stay closer to home, and if we’re lucky, eventually Mezz will stop playing and let someone else solo.  Imagine Pete Seeger singing with James P. Johnson accompanying him:

I can think of no better way to spend New Year’s Eve.  Can you?

May your happiness increase.

APRIL 23, 1941 at CARNEGIE HALL: CAFE SOCIETY CONCERT (featuring the COUNT BASIE BAND, RED ALLEN’S BAND . . . )

Jam session ecstasies, anyone?  Thanks to jazz scholar Franz Hoffmann, who has just started sharing his incredible treasures on YouTube . . . here are three recordings from an incredible jam session that concluded a Carnegie Hall concert that utilized the talents of musicians playing and singing at Cafe Society.

First, DIGA DIGA DOO by Henry “Red” Allen’s band, with Red, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Ed Hall, clarinet; Ken Kersey, piano; Billy Taylor, bass; Jimmy Hoskins, drums:

How about some BLUES?  And let’s add a few players: Red Allen, Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Bunny Berigan, Henry Levine, Max Kaminsky, trumpet; Will Bradley, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Buster Bailey, Ed Hall, clarinet; Russell Procope, Tab Smith, alto sax; Don Byas, Buddy Tate, tenor sax; Eddie South, violin; Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Stan Facey, Ken Kersey, Count Basie, Calvin Jackson, Buck Washington, Billy Kyle, Art Tatum, piano; Freddie Green, Gene Fields, guitar; Walter Page, John Kirby, Billy Taylor, Doles Dickens, bass; Jo Jones, Specs Powell, Jimmy Hoskins, Ray McKinley, O´Neil Spencer, drums:

I didn’t have enough blues to satisfy me . . . so let the fellows play ONE O’CLOCK JUMP:

I first heard the latter two performances perhaps twenty-five years ago on cassette from another collector . . . they were perilously hush-hush and not to be distributed to others.  Now all can be revealed and shared, to our hearts’ content.  In the interests of accuracy, I have to point out that the visuals provided — the “silent”films — do not match up with the music, and in one case I believe altoist Tab Smith is soloing while tenorist Don Byas is onscreen.  But such things are infinitesmal when compared to the glory of the music . . . even when it seems as though everyone on stage is wailing away at once.

I wonder what treasures Professor Hoffmann has for us in the coming days!  (Even now, there’s the precious audio of Red, Clark Terry, and Ruby Braff playing LOVER, COME BACK TO ME for a Newport Trumpet Workshop . . . )

TOO GOOD TO IGNORE: CONDON’S WEST: HAL SMITH and FRIENDS at SACRAMENTO (May 29, 2011)

I published this post slightly more than five years ago, and the music remains so delightful that I thought it would be a sin not to offer it to the eager public once again.

hal-6-2011

My title isn’t hyperbole.  For when the band hit the first four bars of LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, I felt as if I had been time-and-space transported to the original Eddie Condon’s on West Third Street . . . even though I’d never been to the actual club.

This was the penultimate set I saw and recorded at the 2011 Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, and it was one of the high points.  I had been enjoying Hal Smith’s International Sextet through the Memorial Day weekend, but this version hit not one but many high notes.  The regulars were there in splendid form: Hal on drums, Katie Cavera on guitar and vocals; Anita Thomas on clarinet, alto, and vocals; Kim Cusack on clarinet, tenor, and vocals.  But Clint Baker had shifted from string bass to trombone (sounding incredibly like a gutty evocation of Sandy Williams and Jimmy Harrison, taking tremendous chances throughout), and Austin, Texas, native Ryan Gould played bass.  And — as a special treat — Bria Skonberg joined in on trumpet and vocal.

Here’s what happened.

Hal called LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (always a pleasant thought), surely inspired by the memory of that famous Commodore session in 1938 with Pee Wee, Bobby, Brunis, Bud, Stacy, Condon, Shapiro, and Wettling: the 2011 band had a similar instrumentation and the same drive:

How about something rocking and multi-lingual for the charming Ms. Skonberg to sing and play — like BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN:

Something for our canine friends?  LOW DOWN DOG, featuring Carl Sonny Leyland, is reminiscent of both Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson — a neat trick!

The next selection — deliciously low-down — poses a philosophical question.  When Katie Cavera sings and plays about SISTER KATE, is it meta-jazz, or M.C. Escher in swingtime?  Puzzle me that.  Anyway, it’s a wonderful performance complete with the tell-it-all verse:

Then a jazz gift from Hal and the band — a POSTCARD TO AUNT IDA, celebrating one of the warmest people we will ever know, Ida Melrose Shoufler of Farmer City, Illinois, the surviving child of Chicago piano legend Frank Melrose, a pianist, singer, and deep-down jazz fan herself — here’s Kim Cusack to tell us all that THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Today!

Anita told us all how everything would be make-believe if love didn’t work, in IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON:

Then, some hi-jinks.  Jazz and comedy have always gone together, even if Gunther Schuller sneered at “showmanship,” and what follows is hilarious impromptu choreography.  I don’t know which of the happily high-spirited players noticed that this was a two-camera setup (independently, Rae Ann Berry on the band’s right, myself on their left) and said, “Do something for the camera.  So you have Clint exuberantly singing DINAH while the rest of the band plays the most musical of musical chairs:

I’d like to see that video get international exposure: could we start the first (and last) JAZZ LIVES chain letter, where readers send this clip of DINAH to their friends?  The world needs more joy . . .

Finally, Bria sang and played her own version of LULU’S BACK IN TOWN to close off this exultantly satisfying performance:

It was a big auditorium, with advertisements for a Premier Active Adult Community behind the band, but it looked and sounded like the original Eddie Condon’s to me. . . .

SWING MASTERS: BECKY KILGORE and FRIENDS at DIXIELAND MONTEREY (March 5, 2011)

I’ve admired Becky Kilgore’s singing and grace for some years now: her creamy voice, her understated, convincing dramatic sense, her innate swing.  And although she is poised, she is also a great chance-taking improviser, someone able to abandon herself to the song, shining her light through it, letting it reveal its beauties to us.

At Dixieland Monterey, she was most often joined by the noble members of her Quartet: Dan Barrett on trombone, vocals, and piano; Eddie Erickson on banjo, guitar, and vocals; Joel Forbes on string bass.

But there came a time when a few more pals — old and new — crept onto the stage to create a lovely little jazz party within the jazz party: Carl Sonny Leyland, rocking piano man; Bryan Shaw, trumpet wizard; Jeff Hamilton, drum stylist.

I am thrilled to be able to share some of the music created that evening with my readers.  It is a special pleasure — everyone was so happy and relaxed, witty and swinging.  Propulsive and gentle, masterful and casual: the great art that is a matter of skill, practice, nonchalance, and relaxation.

Let’s begin with I’M GOING TO SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER that swings so persuasively from the first note — and Becky gets herself up on the streamline train without spilling her coffee!  Hear the horns and that rhythm section — eloquent and easy.

I would like my friends to use this clip as a Blindfold Test.  Say, for instance, you have friends who “don’t like jazz,” or “don’t get that old jazz,” or find “Dixieland” boring.  Let them hear this — without naming anyone’s name or explaining a thing.  Then ask, “Does that make you feel good?”  Let them get into the absolutely impromptu Kilgore – Hamilton discussion: it makes everyone on stage feel BETTER!

(Musicians’ in-joke: this song is sometimes called I’M GOING TO  SIT RIGHT DOWN AND KNIT MYSELF A SWEATER, but the weather is warming up rapidly, even in Farmer City, Illinois, so a letter might be all that was needed.)

HARD-HEARTED HANNAH comes from the intersection of vaudeville, pop music, and hot improvisation.  Once she’s been properly attired in Guitar, she treats the hyperbolic lyrics with just the right mixture of amusement and seriousness.  And, dear viewers, look how happy everyone on that stand is!  That isn’t always the case, and it is meaningful — a tribute to the easy grace of all concerned.  The interplay between Dan and Bryan is priceless (think of Teagarden and Davison, please?) over that splendidly-swinging Vanguard Records rhythm section (could someone direct me to the Reno Club or the Famous Door, 1938?).  Eddie digs deep into his stash of bent notes and witty banjo run before Dan decides to let us know all about the verse — in his upper register, but we get the point!  And Becky rocks us out through the rather gruesome lyrics (she is a stellar musical comedienne, isn’t she, in the great tradition?):

Although both Eddie Erickson and Thomas Waller are usually associated with hi-jinks and romping jazz, both of them shared a deep yearning tenderness.  (Hear Fats’ late recording of I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN if you need proof.)  Eddie is often asked to make people laugh, but his first vocal chorus is a sweet, feeling masterpiece in miniature — followed by Dan’s Dickensonian ruminations on the theme and Carl’s special mixture of Fats, Pete Johnson, and Jess Stacy, to great effect.  After Joel’s deep-down chorus, the key changes so that Becky can come in and float over the band.  She’s more than believable: the embodiment of tender commitment!

Even if you had left all your mischief behind, you might have to take a fast train to see your Beloved — and Carl Sonny Leyland, Joel Forbes, and Jeff Hamilton show us how with an easy but intense HONKY TONK TRAIN BLUES, with its own deep swinging pulse:

Less expert musicians would have tried to top the HONKY TONK TRAIN with something faster and louder — but not this group.  Becky chooses ALL OF ME, which (since 1931) has been turned into a jaunty offering.  But it’s really a song of near-romantic immolation: let me take myself apart to offer the pieces and the totality to you, as complete tribute to you and love.

She never sounds soggy or self-pitying, but she offers the imagined hearer and the audience her entire being.  Eddie’s chiming guitar solo doesn’t lose the mood (and Jeff’s cymbals are just-right commentary); Dan plays around wtih the opening phrase of the song in the best singing Benny Morton tradition, handing off to Carl (who is ornate without a superfluous note).  Becky, soaring and crooning, improvising without smudging a note or a word, is absolutely compelling without seeming to strain even the smallest muscle.  A perfect rhythm ballad and dramatic utterance:

I think it was an honor to be in that audience, a stroke of good fortune to have my video camera, and a privilege to be able to share this music with the readers of JAZZ LIVES.

These video performances were made possible by the editorial stewardship and support of the Shuzzit Charitable Trust.  JAZZ LIVES thanks to the SCT and to all the artists for performing as they did and do!

OH, SHAKE THAT THING!  CLICK HERE TO GIVE SOMETHING BACK TO THE MUSICIANS YOU SEE IN THESE VIDEOS (ALL MONEY COLLECTED GOES TO THEM):

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SONNY’S BLUES (and MORE): DIXIELAND MONTEREY, March 4, 2011

When the sweet-natured pianist and singer Carl Sonny Leyland took the stage at Dixieland Monterey, I expected rocking rhythms and down-home singing.  I wasn’t mistaken.

But mere recordings and videos don’t entirely summon up the romping momentum and good humor of this entirely complete player / vocalist / understated showman.  Carl does nothing more dramatic than pat his foot, adjust his glasses, speak softly to the audience between sips of water.  But he’s a jazz and blues volcano, someone whose motion is perpetual and perpetually exciting.  On the surface, he might initially sound like “a boogie-woogie pianist,” which he is — but he has (like Pete Johnson) tugged at the form to make it less restrictive.  He isn’t locked into eight-to-the-bar and his swing is ferocious but light, with echoes of Hines and Fats and Stacy woven into a beautifully organic style.

In this session, he had the finest musical comradeship in bassist Marty Eggers and drummer Jeff Hamilton (“our” Jeff Hamilton, I will point out).  The teamwork of this trio is sensational.  Marty plays the bass with the grace and fervor of Pops Foster or Milton John Hinton, no less.  And Jeff could swing a seventeen-piece band with just his hi-hat, and creates swaying columns of sound all over his set.

Without a hint of antiquarianism, we’re back in the Thirties with Little Brother Montgomery’s SHREVEPORT FAREWELL:

Groovy as a ten-cent movie!  Jimmy Yancey’s JIMMY’S ROCKS:

Sad, wistful, and blue: W.C. Handy’s variations on a folk lament, LOVELESS LOVE:

A favorite rag, BLAME IT ON THE BLUES:

Just an ordinary BOOGIE WOOGIE, inspired by Meade Lux Lewis:

For my dear Aunt Ida Melrose, a rocking OH, BABY:

YANCEY SPECIAL (plus litigation):

You made me what I am today — that’s THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART:

Carl’s own RAT CATCHER’S BLUES, funny and gruesome too.  To paraphrase Ogden Nash, “I’d hate to be  / the rat / That Carl is angry / At.”:

An exuberant HINDUSTAN BOOGIE:

And a romping set closer for Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner, ROLL ‘EM PETE:

Want to learn more?  Visit http://www.carlsonnyleyland.com., http://www.jeffhamiltonjazz.com.  It doesn’t seem that Marty has his own website — he has bigger and better things to do (such as play the bass in a way that reminds me of Walter Page) — but you can find him in many places online and in real life.

Carl Sonny Leyland is so much more authentic than James Baldwin’s story.

THE MUSICIANS GIVE US SO MUCH: CLICK HERE!

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BARNEY JOSEPHSON, CAFE SOCIETY, and MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the stories!

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

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

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

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

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

The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.

The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.

Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.

Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.

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

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

MR. LEYLAND CONSENTS!

Thanks to Tom Warner, generous videographer, you and I can revel in the solo piano of Carl Sonny Leyland.  Here he is here levitating ‘DEED I DO at the 2009 West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento, California. 

Mr. Leyland would not be insulted, I am sure, if I mention the now-departed pianists his rollicking playing reminded me of: how about Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Cassino Simpson, Pete Johnson, Bob Zurke — listen to him and he provides a ticket to a wondrous piano party.  Hooray!  And I’ve added his website — www.carlsonnyleyland.com. — to my blogroll.  Visit early and often.

PARADISE, 1940

William P. Gottlieb’s arresting photo of a jam session at the National Press Club features a drummer I don’t recognize who’s having the time of his life, Art Hodes, Red Allen, Pete Johnson, Lou McGarity, Lester Young.  What would you like to bet that they are playing a blues?  And that the very heavens are rocking?

wpg-natl-press-club-1940

“BOTTOM BLUES” BY ALBERT AMMONS AND HIS RHYTHM KINGS

Although I can’t envision life without daily infusions of stride piano, I’ve never managed to warm up much to boogie-woogie. At its peak, that late-Thirties style featured three rotund, cheerful players — Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson — whose collective sonic effect was a roaring express train aimed at the listener. But each one of the trio was a splendid soloist who could venture beyond eight-to-the-bar conventions, given the chance. Their slow and medium-tempo blues, especially, moaned and rocked. And they were superb leaders and accompanists: Big Joe Turner and Johnson made a wonderful team. But Albert Ammons is not often given his due.

Born in 1907, Ammons died young, but he made some marvelous band recordings. There’s a 1936 Decca session recorded in Chicago featuring trumpeter Guy Kelly (whose mournful voice you hear on Jimmie Noone’s “The Blues Jumped A Rabbit,” recorded around the same time). That’s the band pictured at the top of this posting, his “Rythm Kings.”

Slightly later, there was a romping session with Harry James (a Texan who knew how to play the blues), the Port of Harlem Jazzmen for Blue Note, and a 1944 Commodore session that produced four titles. One of them is an instrumental slow blues, “Bottom Blues.” Whether the title refers to the tempo, the overall funkiness, or the reference is anatomical, the music is imperishable.

On February 12, Milt Gabler, the patron saint of Commodore (pictured here in his record shop — thanks to the late William Gottlieb for capturing this shrine for posterity), put together one of those compact bands that blossomed in 1944 on Keynote, Savoy, Blue Note, Wax, Jamboree, and other small jazz labels. Most jazz historians ritually excoriate James C. Petrillo, then president of the musicians’ union, for provoking the record ban of that period, but the irony is that the ban provoked some enterprising jazz-lovers into capturing transcendent music that the major labels wouldn’t have been interested in. For once, commerce and art — however unintentionally — worked together.

Jazz listeners are always frustrated record producers, who think, “That band would have been just perfect if I had been able to replace Kid Pippin with Sox McGonigle,” on into the night, but this sextet admits no such after-the-fact meddling.

In the jazz family tree of recording dates, we can find connections among the three horn players, but this is the only record date I know of with this front line: Hot Lips Page on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone, and Don Byas on tenor sax. As a teenager, bassist Israel Crosby had worked and recorded with Ammons in Chicago, and Big Sid Catlett — everyone’s first choice — was in town.

The four selections recorded that day are all blues — medium slow, medium, fast, and slow. Page and Dickenson were known as splendid bluesmen, squeezing Dionysiac ecstasies into the narrow confines of twelve bars. Byas’s style may have seemed more urbane, but he had deep Basie – Kansas City roots as well, and he plays nobly. The slow tempo, in addition, keeps him from falling back on the up-hill-and-down-dale rhythmic patterns he liked when he picked up speed, echoing Coleman Hawkins.

Gabler liked to give his musicians a chance to stretch out both live and in the studio, and he usually recorded on 12″ 78 RPM records — almost always earmarked for classical discs — that allowed another full minute of playing.  (Had this been recorded on the much more common 10″ disc, the ensemble would have concluded, probably in haste, when Lips Page’s chorus was over.) 

“Bottom Blues” is structurally very simple — a series of solo improvisations on the twelve-bar blues form, leading up to ensemble riffing at the end. Ammons begins with a musing, suspended-animation four-bar introduction, almost tentatively setting the key, the tempo, and the mood, before moving into a simply played blues — with only Catlett, on brushes, behind and alongside him. It’s as if he’s thinking about what he might be playing while he is doing it.

Catlett, as I’ve written in this blog, could play with great force and volume.  Although he adds notable intensity as the performance builds, he sticks to the wire brushes rather than using sticks.  In his solo chorus, Ammons offers brief glimpses of familiar piano blues motifs, but with surprising delicacy.  He does suggest eight-to-the-bar rolling rhythms at several points, but they are implied rather than stated: his bass patterns hint at Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, even Fats Waller. The effect is thoughtful rather than assertive, and someone hearing this recording for the first time might not identify him as a famed boogie-woogie stylist.

Vic Dickenson takes the next two choruses, and Ammons’s accompaniment has a simple, forceful architectural logic, as he restricts himself to simple block chords in the first chorus and becomes more ornate in the second. Dickenson’s playing has always been praised for its “vocal” quality, its smears, growls, and moans. Justly so, but was there ever was a singer as eloquent as Vic is here? Could any voice create such sounds, bearish growls and sinewy moans, moving from side-of-the-mouth satirical asides and grief?  At points it sounds as if his sound is huge, barely contained, exploding into our ears.  Vic’s second chorus, propelled by Catlett accents, takes a simple phrase and turns it around and around, holding it up to the light before moving more rapidly into double-time and a few exultant shouts, like a man with so many things to say who knows his time is running out.  We should also hear, behind the growls and snorts that seem to characterize Vic’s solo and his style, a deep allegiance to the vein of exuberant melancholy we hear in Twenties and Thirties Louis — play this solo next to “Gully Low Blues” and hear the emotional kinship.   

By contrast, Byas sounds supple and suave, gliding from one phrase to another, extending the harmonies as if to remind us that this is, in fact, 1944, and that Dizzy and Bird are in town.  He is aided immensely by the two horns humming behind him, felt more than heard — voices in the choir adding harmonic support. 

Saving Lips Page for last was not just a good idea; it was inevitable, for no one wanted to follow him on a blues performance.  His solo isn’t appreciably high, loud, or fast, but it is the very quintessence of intensity.  Like Vic, he manages to get so many different sounds out of an unforgiving piece of brass tubing — slides, glissandos, half-valve effects — that would be impossible to notate.  And I defy any trumpet player today to reproduce these twenty-four bars convincingly.  But what we hear is light-years away from trumpet plus rhythm, as the four players drift into electrifying multi-layered polyphony, with Crosby getting even more earnest, Ammons varying his accompaniment, and Catlett urging, commenting, and agreeing to what he’s just heard.

When Ammons returns, it’s not merely an interlude to give the horns time to get into position: he is more rhythmically assertive, with wonderful dialogues going on between his spattering Hines right-hand figures and the ocean-motion of his bass line.  The orchestral polyphony broadens, as the three horns take the simplest moaning figure, as old as King Oliver’s solo on “Dipper Mouth Blues” — rocking back and forth between two notes with plenty of vibrato — and balance it against Ammons’s interjections, Catlett’s accents (he has become an entire section in himself!) building and building, with his cymbal crash the last word.  What a moving interlude!                 

Jazz, like other arts, always implicitly asks the question of how can we make the familiar new and vividly alive?  In this case, how do these six musicians, individually and collectively, take the same phrases that every jazz improviser in 1944 knew by heart and make them seem fresh?  The answer may lie in a strong sense of self, of defiantly individual voices, of superb technical mastery, of intense passion.  The question of HOW may defy words, but “Bottom Blues” shows itself as lasting, emotionally powerful art.

Happily, I can report that someone besides myself cares deeply about Albert Ammons — in this case, his granddaughter Lila has set up a site to celebrate his memory: www.albert-ammons.com.  And although the ASV CD which contains some of his finest work may be out of print, “Bottom Blues” should be available.  It is down-to-earth and celestial at the same time, worth repeated listenings.