Tag Archives: Peter Ballance

REMEMBERING BILL DUNHAM (1928-2016)

Often the latest jazz news is an obituary notice. It’s not surprising given the age of some of my friends and heroes, but I don’t always linger on such news: if I immersed myself in it, I might become too sad to continue stating confidently that JAZZ LIVES.

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But I will make an exception for William B. Dunham — known to me as Bill, known earlier in his life as Hoagy.  For more than half a century he was the regular pianist with the Grove Street Stompers, who play on Monday nights at Arthur’s Tavern in Greenwich Village, New York.

Bill died on January 11: details here.

Like most of us, Bill had many facets he showed to the world.  Officially he was a New York City real estate eminence who signed his emails thusly:

William B. Dunham
Licensed Real Estate Broker
Barrow Grove Associates Inc.
P.O. Box 183, Cooper Station P.O.
New York, NY 10276-0183

But this serious signature was only one side of a man who was at heart puckish. I’d met him perhaps a decade ago and we had become friendly, so when I hadn’t seen or heard from him last year, I emailed him in August to ask if all was well, and got this response:

Hey Michael……………….Thanks for asking. For a couple of doddering old geriatrics we are doing OK – not quite at the strained food stage. I have had a little problem which has kept me out of Arthur’s. Getting better.

Blog recommendation. Every Sunday from 12:30 – 2:30 a great trio at Cafe Loup on 13th Street. Piano, bass and guitar. Not to be missed! Could you video there?

Our cat population has dwindled by 50%. We had to download Manning because he tended to bite. Love bites mind you. I used to enjoy the occasional love bite – but not by a cat!

Let me know if you ever want to visit Cafe Loup on a Sunday…………

Best……Bill

PS……….LOVE your blogs!!

That was the Bill Dunham I will always remember: the enthusiastic jazz-lover who turned up at gigs, always beautifully dressed, the man who marveled at the music and the musicians, who would email me to share his delight in a video I’d just posted.  He and his wife Sonya were a reliable couple at New York City jazz gigs, cheerful and ardent.

I don’t remember whether I first met Bill at Arthur’s Tavern and then at gigs or the reverse, but our early correspondence was often his urging me to come down to hear the Grove Street Stompers on a Monday night, or telling me what wonderful things had happened the previous Monday.  I am afraid I put him off fairly consistently, because I have taught early-morning Tuesday classes for thirty years and even when the GSS gig ended at ten, I yawned my way through my work.  But I did make my way down there — with camera — one night in 2010, and recorded this performance, the regular band with guest stars Dan Barrett, cornet; J. Walter Hawkes, trombone (later in the evening Rossano Sportiello took to the piano):

Others in that band are Peter Ballance, trombone (seen here in front of the narrow bandstand, keeping track of the songs played that night); Joe Licari, clarinet; Giampaolo Biagi, drums; Skip Muller, string bass.

Here is a more recent still photograph of that band, with Scott Ricketts, cornet; Steve Little, drums:

BILL D at Arthurs Ballance Ricketts Licari Little perhaps MullerAs a pianist, Bill was an ensemble player who offered the plain harmonies as the music moved along.  He knew this, and did not seek to inflate his talents: when I saw him at a gig where Rossano Sportiello or Mark Shane was at the keyboard, he spoke of them and their playing as versions of the unreachable ideal.  He was proud of the Grove Street Stompers as a durable organism upholding the collective love of jazz, but modest about himself.

A digression.  Bill became one of my most enthusiastic blog-followers but he often found technology baffling, which is the right of people who came to computers late in life.  WordPress would inexplicably unsubscribe him from JAZZ LIVES, and I would get a plaintive telephone call and then attempt — becoming Customer Service — to walk him through the steps that would re-establish a connection.  Once the complication was beyond my powers to fix on the telephone, and since I knew I was coming in to Manhattan, I offered to come to his apartment and fix things there, which he happily accepted.  There I found out about the four cats — I don’t remember their names, and since I was a stranger, they went into hiding (perhaps they didn’t like something I’d posted on the blog?) and I never saw them.

Once I fixed the connection, because it was noon, Bill offered me a glass of iced gin, which I declined, and spoke of his other jazz obsession — Wild Bill Davison. Wild Bill, when he was in New York City in between gigs, would come down to Arthur’s and play, and Bill (Dunham) spoke happily of those encounters: he’d also become a WBD collector, but not in the usual way: Bill’s goal was to acquire a copy of every recording WBD had ever made, perhaps on every label and every speed. I was awe-struck, but perhaps tactlessly asked if this was like collecting stamps, because WBD’s solos had become more worked-out than not. To his credit, Bill agreed.

He also had a substantial collection of paper ephemera and memorabilia. However, by the time I’d met him and had this blog, any ideas of an interview were brushed aside, “Michael!” he’d say, laughing, “I can barely remember my wife’s name!”

Before I’d ever met Bill, though, I knew of him as a youthful eminence in ways more important to me.  He had graduated from Harvard in 1952.  To my mind, this made him a truly sentient being — even if gentlemen at Harvard those days aimed no higher than a C, I believe those C grades meant something.  He was seriously involved with jazz before I was able to crawl.

Thanks to my dear friend John L. Fell, I heard a tape of Bill in 1951 as part of the Harvard jazz band, the Crimson Stompers — including drummer Walt Gifford — on a session where clarinetist Frank Chace, visiting Boston, had been the star. In Manfred Selchow’s book on Edmond Hall, I learned that Hall had been recorded at an informal session in 1948, and “Hoagy Dunham” had played piano on ROYAL GARDEN BLUES. I had a cassette copy of what remained of those sessions.  At some point I copied these tapes onto another cassette and sent them to Bill, who was ecstatic.  Through Jeanie Wilson, Barbara Lea’s dearest friend, I learned that Bill — for a very short time — had dated Barbara, and I got Bill to write his memories when Barbara died, which you can read here.  Here is a post in which Bill figures — both in a black-and-white photograph of himself, Barbara, and the Stompers, and a Harvard news story where he is “Hoagie” Dunham.

Another photograph of the Crimson Stompers, from drummer Walt Gifford’s scrapbook, tenderly maintained by Duncan Schiedt:

CRIMSON STOMPERS 11 48

And here is Bill, as a JAZZ LIVES stringer or jazz town crier, with some New York news (hilariously).

A few memories from cornetist Scott Ricketts, seen above with Bill on the bandstand —

“At the end of a set, Bill would refer to Arthur’s as ‘The West Side’s Finest Supper Club’. But the only food I ever saw there was in the 25 cent glass peanut machine in the front.”  

“Bill would always close the set (over Mood Indigo) by telling the audience, “Have a couple of Wild Turkeys, we’ll be right back.” At the band’s 50th anniversary party, I asked Bill if he was having a Wild Turkey? He said ‘No, I don’t drink that stuff!'”

And a neat summation from a cousin of  Bill’s:

“Bill was a terrific guy, who served in the military in Korea and then came back to attend Harvard on the GI bill. He was a bit of a renaissance man; having gone to Harvard, worked on Wall Street, been a noted jazz musician (his real passion), and then into real estate. I was fortunate enough to get to see him just a few weeks ago, and we coaxed him to play some music on the piano in the front lobby of the assisted living home they were visiting with their daughter. He still had it then.”

How might people count their lives well-lived?  To me (and the person who has made the transition can only know this in some spiritual way) if you’ve lived your life properly, people miss you when you are no longer there.  I know I will from now on think, “I wonder if  Bill will show up tonight?” when I am seated at a particular gig — and then have to remind myself that he won’t.  I send my condolences to Sonya, and Bill’s daughter Amy.

My jazz universe and my personal universe are smaller and less vibrant because of Bill’s death.

Thanks so much to Alison Birch for her generous help in this blogpost.

And “this just in,” thanks to Joseph Veltre and ancestry.com — Bill’s picture from the 1952 Harvard yearbook:

BILL DUNHAM 1952

May your happiness increase!

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DAN BARRETT, THE GROVE STREET STOMPERS, and FRIENDS (Oct. 18, 2010)

Bill Dunham, the pianist-leader of the Grove Street Stompers, will proudly tell you that the band’s unbroken run of Monday nights at Arthur’s Tavern, the “West Side’s smartest supper club,” began in 1959 — a record indeed! 

Monday, October 18, 2010, was a special night because Dan Barrett brought his own jubilant energy and a borrowed cornet.  Dan’s cornet playing is a great joy, both clipped and lyrical.  On this horn, he comes from the great tradition, echoing Louis, Bobby, Ruby, Sweets, Buck, and more, but the result always sounds like Barrett, which is the way it’s supposed to be.

Dan inspired the GSS: Bill on piano, Peter Ballance on trombone and announcements, Joe Licari on clarinet, Skip Muller on bass, and Giampaolo Biagi on drums.

Here are three selections from that evening.  JUST A CLOSER WAlK WITH THEE is one of those “Dixieland chestnuts” that usually descends into cliche, but not with the preaching trombone of guest J. Walter Hawkes, welcome at any gig:

A rousing THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE called to mind the ecstatic Condon recording for Columbia in the early Fifties:

And at the end of the evening, Bill gracefully gave up his seat at the piano to the Maestro, Rossano Sportiello, and they swung out on OH, BABY!: 

At the Tavern, the Creole Cooking Jazz Band (featuring Lee Lorenz, Dick Dreiwitz, Barbara Dreiwitz, and others) plays on Sundays, Eve Silber (often with Michael Hashim) holds down Wednesdays, and the Monday-night ensemble includes Peter Ecklund or Barry Bryson on trumpet / cornet.  Other guests have included Bria Skonberg, Emily Asher, and Bob Curtis.  Arthur’s Tavern (some spell it Arthurs) is located at 57 Grove Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, and the Sunday sessions run from 7-10 PM.

THE GROVE STREET STOMPERS

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As fond as I am of the West Village, I can’t say that Grove Street is architecturally distinguished.  But it is memorable for the landmark shown above — Arthur’s Tavern — where pianist Bill Dunham has led the Grove Street Stompers for forty-seven years of Monday nights.  By even the most stringent calculations, that’s over seven thousand sets of loose improvised jazz, over seven thousand brief renditions of “Mood Indigo,” the song that the Stompers use as their closing theme.  I’ll leave it to Bill, who is charmingly gregarious, to list the great jazz players who have been regulars or guests in that astonishing long run.

Last night was a particularly unusual Monday for me: my college had closed itself down because of the snow, and I was unexpectedly free to hear some live jazz.  I hadn’t been at Arthur’s for some time, so I decided to visit an old haunt.  Bill had told me that his front line was going to feature cornetist Randy Reinhart and clarinetist Joe Muranyi, which was an inducement to brave the cold winds.  Bill would be on piano, and regulars Peter Ballance (trombone and general keeper-of-decorum) and drummer Giampaolo Biagi would be there.  Bassist Tim Ferguson and pianist-visitor Ron Ferry completed the dramatis personae.

The Stompers are a home-grown jazz band in the finest old style: drawing on a wide variety of material, they take medium-tempo jogs through spirituals, pop tunes, Tin Pan Alley classics, Condon and Armstrong favorites, and jazz evergreens.  Last night, “Dixieland” was represented by CHINA BOY, CHANGES MADE, DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS?, I FOUND A NEW BABY, JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN and a few more.  But the band’s range is happily broader: THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE, WININ’ BOY BLUES, OUT OF NOWHERE, and MY BUDDY lit up the place.

A word about “lighting up the place.”  The Tavern should be seen not only for the music, but for its general decor.  On the wall above my head, signs wishing me a Happy Halloween were much in evidence; over the bar’s cash register was a sign reading CLOSED, and strings of brightly colored lights — Christmas, probably — are always on.  The wine list is, shall we say, limited, but the amiable waitress was busy supplying everyone’s alcohol-related needs.  I was fortunate to be among friendly Spouses: Sonya Dunham and Nina Favara (Mrs. Reinhart) who were listening intently and cheering the band on.

And the music?  Well, the Stompers are the very antithesis of slick.  Yes, there is an occasional lead sheet passed around in case someone in uncertain about the chords on the bridge, but any arranging is done in the heat of the moment.  Last night, Randy decided, as he always does, to act as a prime mover, and he drove the band, choosing to play brass eight-bar trades with trombonist Peter, to leap into solos as if his life depended on it, to show off his beautiful command of the horn from bottom to top, mixing Berigan and Fifties Mainstream with delicacy and fervor.  Joe Muranyi, who’s seen many ensembles come and go, including Louis’s, was in fine quiet form, showing off his lovely chalumeau register.  The regulars — Bill, Peter, and Giampaolo — aren’t fancy, and their solos are concise, but they’ve got the feeling.  And Tim Ferguson, someone I’d not heard before, kept everything in good order and took nice resonant solos.

This musical convocation takes place from 7-10 on Monday nights, and worth the trip — just south of the Christopher Street / Sheridan Square subway stop.  The Stompers won’t necessarily be there for another forty-seven years, so you might well want to visit.

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