Tag Archives: Pete Johnson

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!

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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!