Tag Archives: Philip Larkin

FORTY YEARS OF PEE WEE RUSSELL, WITH DELIGHTED AMAZEMENT

Those of you who get excited by genuine paper ephemera (as opposed to this, which is not even a careful forgery) will have noticed my recent posting with many signatures of jazz greats here.  After I had posted my elaborate cornucopia of collectors’ treasures, I returned to  eBay and found this holy relic I had overlooked:

I find the card very pleasing, and fountain pen blots add to its c. 1944 authenticity.  But here’s the beautiful part:

and another version:

There wasn’t enough time between my discovery and the end of the bidding to post it, so (I hope readers will forgive me) I offered a small bid and won it.  I am completely surprised, because usually someone swoops down in the last two minutes and drives the price up beyond what I am willing to pay.

But the card now belongs to someone who loves Pee Wee Russell in all his many incarnations.  Here is a quick and idiosyncratic tour of Charles Ellsworth Russell’s constantly changing planetary systems — all held together by surprise, feeling, and a love for the blues.

Incidentally, some otherwise perceptive jazz listeners have told me that they don’t “get” Mr. Russell: I wonder if they are sometimes distracted from his singular beauties by their reflex reaction to, say, the conventions of the music he was often expected to play.  If they could listen to him with the same curiosity, openness, and delight they bring to Lester or Bix they would hear his remarkable energies even when he was playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE.

The famous IDA from 1927:

Philip Larkin’s holy grail — the Rhythmakers with Red Allen:

and CROSS PATCH from 1936:

even better, the 1936 short film with Prima, SWING IT:

DOIN’ THE NEW LOW DOWN, with Bobby Hackett, Brad Gowans, Eddie Condon:

and the first take, with Max Kaminsky, James P. Johnson, Dicky Wells, Freddie Green and Zutty Singleton:

and thank goodness a second take survives:

and Pee Wee with Eddie and Brad:

in 1958, with Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, and Nat Pierce:

and this, so beautiful, with Buck Clayton and Tommy Flanagan, from 1960:

with Coleman Hawkins, Emmett Berry, Bob Brookmeyer, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones:

an excerpt from a Newport Jazz Festival set in 1962:

a slow blues with Art Hodes in 1968, near the end of Pee Wee’s life:

and another wonderful surprise: the half-hour documentary on Pee Wee, in which our friend Dan Morgenstern plays a great part:

Pee Wee truly “kept reinventing himself,” and it would be possible to create an audio / video survey of his career that would be just as satisfying without repeating anything I’ve presented above.  His friends and associates — among them Milt Gabler, George Wein, Ruby Braff, and Nat Pierce — helped him share his gifts with us for forty years of recordings, a wonderful long offering.

May your happiness increase!

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS (Part Five): REBECCA KILGORE, HAL SMITH, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, ANDY SCHUMM at the CLEVELAND CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY, September 11, 2015

This cheerful graphic is seriously at odds with the poignant song and performance that follows, but I love it.

FATS WALLER'S HAPPY FEELING

As you probably already know, Hal Smith (drums, leadership, ideas) and Rebecca Kilgore (song, inspiration) joined with Andy Schumm, clarinet; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass, for a set at the 2015 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, devoted to lesser-known Fats Waller songs.

The closing song of this set, DIXIE CINDERELLA, is one of my favorites — written for the 1929 revue, CONNIE’S  HOT CHOCOLATES — on a theme that needed and needs to be expressed.  We know the Waller-Andy Razaf BLACK AND BLUE, but DIXIE CINDERELLA, although the singer is apparently just a child, is aimed directly at the same target, racial discrimination.  No, it wasn’t the first song to express outrage and pain at this treatment (I think of PICKIN’ ON YOUR BABY and others) but it is very touching — and this performance captures its poignancy.

Becky’s verse and chorus couldn’t be more delicately lovely . . . and when she comes back, she expresses an intense bluesy wail — making deep sadness swing.

(I want to write, “Isn’t she wonderful?” but if you don’t get that from this performance and her sustained body of work, there’s no point in my saying so.)

And here are the four performances that preceded DIXIE CINDERELLA — each one perfectly poised, casually masterful.  Why isn’t this band on every festival roster?  Where’s the PBS special?  The DVD?  The pop-up book?  Jeepers.

May your happiness increase!

CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS (Part Four): REBECCA KILGORE, HAL SMITH, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, ANDY SCHUMM at the CLEVELAND CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY, September 11, 2015

Heart-Vs-Brain

Neurological research tells us that the condition known as infatuation can have serious effects on cognition, that the romantic individual often suffers from the most pleasing kind of attention-deficit disorder.  Fats Waller and Andy Razaf knew this well, and created a delightful song from this pleasant malady, CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU.

Heart brain i-hate-it-when-you-make-me-look-like-an-idiot

Drummer / scholar Hal Smith, some years back, created a CD called CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS — on which his Rhythmakers featured, among others, the wondrous Rebecca Kilgore.  They held a kind of swing reunion at the Allegheny Jazz Party (now known as the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party) on September 11, 2015.  Hal and Rebecca joined forces for an all-too-brief homage to lesser-known Fats songs — with Andy Schumm, clarinet; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass.

Here are the three songs that preceded this beauty.

Never has ADD sounded so delightful.

There’s one more gorgeous Fats song to come.  I hope there will be more like this at the 2016 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party.

May your happiness increase!

CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS (Part One): REBECCA KILGORE, HAL SMITH, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, ANDY SCHUMM at the CLEVELAND CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY, September 11, 2015

FATS WALLER'S HAPPY FEELING

Rebecca Kilgore makes us glad to be alive whenever she sings, even if the song is melancholy.  I’ve been admiring her work for a long time, and it is a great comfort to know that her glowing presence is no more distance than her latest CD.  But while you are waiting for that CD to arrive, may I offer you a treat that I think is beyond compare?

Perhaps twenty years ago, the superb jazz drummer Hal Smith (read more about Hal here) had a delightful little band in California that he called the RHYTHMAKERS, homage to the hottest band to ever record — ask Philip Larkin.  That band made a handful of superb CDs, discs I return to regularly, and one was a collection of lesser-known Fats Waller songs, CONCENTRATIN’ ON FATS.  The singer on those discs was one Becky Kilgore, floating and swinging magnificiently.

When Hal and Becky found that they were going to be among the stars of the 2015 Allegheny Jazz Party — now called the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party — Hal suggested that they do a set of those Waller songs, and Rebecca, who loves good songs and rare ones as well as the Songbook classics, agreed.

Hence, a wonderful little band, with Rebecca, Hal, Nicki Parrott, string bass; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Andy Schumm, clarinet.  (Yes, clarinet. Wonderfully, too.  As I was listening, I heard familiar sounds and tones — not Pee Wee or Tesch, exactly — but then “the penny dropped,” as they say in the UK.  Andy is inspired by Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, and the result is as if Mezz had studied hard and practiced for hours — a very inspiring result.)

And here’s the first gem, HOW JAZZ WAS BORN, from 1928, and one of the hit songs of KEEP SHUFFLIN’:

I could listen to this band all day.  (Frankly, I’d like to see the concert tour, the NPR and PBS series, to say nothing of the associated merchandise.)

And be assured that they performed more songs in this set.

If you are still unsure of the origins of jazz, I know that Professors KilgoreSmithParrottSchummSportiello will be happy to explain in words and music at the 2016 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party and their other gigs.

May your happiness increase!

SAD SONGS SWUNG: TAMAR KORN, MARK LOPEMAN, JON WEBER at CASA MEZCAL (January 25, 2015)

When asked why his writing was so melancholy, Philip Larkin quoted the French dramatist Montherlant — “Happiness writes white” — which I take to mean that bliss is not an enthralling subject for fiction or drama.

Montherlant’s aphorism has been embodied in what we call the Great American Songbook, where (on a rough guess) songs of desolation outnumber those of elation by 2 or 3 to 1.  But from the early Thirties onwards, jazz improvisers — vocal and instrumental — figured out that what a musician friend calls “draggy ballads” were not always restorative . . . so they kept the sad words and lifted the tempo.

Here are three examples of this wonderful melding — as enacted on the spot in this century by the brave explorer Tamar Korn, with the assistance of the multi-talented reedman Mark Lopeman (one of the secret heroes of the New York jazz scene) and the adventurous pianist Jon Weber.  All of this happened last Sunday, January 25, 2015, at my Sunday oasis on 86 Orchard Street, Casa Mezcal.

If you studied the words deeply for themselves, could you keep from weeping? But these musical dramas blend sorrow and swing.

A homage to Bing, the lovely JUST ONE MORE CHANCE:

Desolation indeed, in WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE:

That yearning, returning, in WHEN DAY IS DONE:

I especially admire Tamar’s elasticity of phrasing — how she stretches the lyric and melodic line into new shapes without ever obliterating their sense or emotional impact.

I hope you have only short bursts of sadness, if at all, and that they can be made to swing. And if you haven’t seen it, here is the sweetly brave Korn-Lopeman improvisation on MOOD INDIGO that concluded this January 25 session.

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ WORTH READING: “STRICTLY A MUSICIAN: DICK CARY” by DEREK COLLER

STRICTLY A MUSICIAN

Usually a reviewer waits until (s)he has finished the book before writing. I’ve only read one-sixth (one hundred pages) of Derek Coller’s biography of multi-instrumentalist / composer / arranger Dick Cary, but I didn’t want to wait to tell you how good it is

I think it is one of the most important books about how it feels and what it means to play jazz in public.

Cary (1916-1994) is one of those figures in jazz — invaluable but shadowy — whose identity is defined by associations with famous names.  A long time ago, I knew him the pianist in Louis Armstrong’s first All-Stars. Listening to TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS over and over, I heard him as a masterful accompanist, deferentially but beautifully showing the way, never intruding, quietly swinging in delicate fashion.  Later I delighted in his brilliant, nimble trumpet work — soaring in ways reminiscent of Bobby Hackett.  But it was as the great swinging exponent of the Eb alto horn (the “peck” horn) that he made the greatest impression on me: hear him on Eddie Condon’s JAM SESSION COAST TO COAST or JAMMIN’ AT CONDON’S. More recently, I admired his arrangements and compositions performed and recorded with his “Tuesday Night Friends” on Arbors issues.

But even when I noticed his always welcome presence, I never attempted to piece together the evidence to ask, “Who was this Dick Cary?”

I am so glad that Derek Coller — a very well-respected researcher and a fine straightforward writer — has done so. Derek has a well-earned reputation for intelligence, empathy, and candor, so the book is honest and thorough, without being ungenerous.

So many respected volumes (in and out of jazz) are well-crafted syntheses of what others have written. STRICTLY A MUSICIAN is entrancing because of its tireless use of first-hand “new” materials. The book has been written with the help and complete cooperation of pianist Jim Turner, who inherited the Dick Cary Estate and maintains the Cary website.  Cary was interviewed by a number of people, including the late Floyd Levin; friends saved his correspondence and recalled his stories.  But the spine of this book is Cary’s diaries, which he kept (with a few gaps) from 1931 to 1994 — 56 diaries in all.

Diaries.

I feel so grateful for this possibly vanished phenomenon.  Had Cary lived in our times, and communicated by email and social media, his introspective recollections would be gone.  His diaries are essential to our understanding of his life, his work, and his sensibilities.  Keeping a diary is by definition a private act but Cary kept his (unlike Philip Larkin) because he wanted to share — posthumously, I assume — what he had seen, done, and felt.

Anyone’s diary might be intriguing as a candid record of daily experiences and perceptions, but the diaries of musicians — creative individuals making a living in the public sphere by being asked to “perform” in public, to interact with the audience at close range — are bound to be fascinating.

Being human asks us to balance one’s public and private selves.  It isn’t always a battle, I hope, but musicians are on display.  They smile at the bandleader; they shake hands with fans; they might speak more candidly to their colleagues on the stand, but in general we meet their public selves when we ask for an autograph or thank them for a great set. A musician who is candid without tact on the microphone may enjoy the sensation for the moment, but might lose an opportunity for a job, so the Public Self is firmly in place for most of them until they speak among themselves or with others they trust.

Cary’s diaries — and this rewarding book — give a reader a deep feeling for what a working musician sees and experiences, and Coller uses this material wisely, sparingly, yet to great effect.  The book is not a day-to-day record of aches and pains, physical and emotional (although Cary does complain). The diaries contain details that make a typical jazz fan excited: who was on the gig last night, who played what, who was “helpless” from alcohol before the evening was over.   We learn what a night’s work paid in 1944. We find out who is a pleasure to work with, who is a total bore or sharp-tongued mocker.

Through these excerpts from Cary’s diary, we are taken behind the scenes.  Those of us who do not play professionally will find it as close as we will ever come to being part of the band.  No, bands, for their are many. Reading this book, I often felt as if I were sitting with Cary at a small table, and he had decided I was a trusted friend, someone to whom he could share his inner life.

This is invaluable, and it goes beyond the anecdotal.  Coller admires Cary but does not pretend that The Jazz Hero was saintly, so we get a clear sense of Cary as someone who speaks his mind, and not only to his diary. But Coller (unlike many other modern biographers) is not interested in revealing that The Jazz Hero was A Bad Person. When Cary is irritating or foolish — in retrospect — we learn of it, and the book moves on.

A pause for some glorious sounds.  Here’s a sample of what Cary sounded and looked like in performance (with the Climax Jazz Band — he’s the bearded fellow playing an alto horn to the right):

Back to the book.  In the first hundred pages, I encountered head-spinning details of jam sessions, of arranging for Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman.  What it was like to walk home after a gig with Eddie Condon.  How Jack Teagarden came and tuned the piano first on every gig he was on.  That Rod Cless asked Cary (in Pee Wee Russell’s hearing) what he, Rod, could do to be more like Frank Teschemacher. What it felt like to hear Tatum in the forties.  How Dick Hyman — age 21 — appeared to Cary. Cary’s hearing and meeting Charlie Parker. A dinner with Charlie Creath and Zutty Singleton (gumbo!). What being typecast as a “Dixieland” musician did to Cary. An early sighting of Barney Kessel.  The Eddie Condon Floor Shows and the 1944-5 concerts. Working for Billy Butterfield and Jean Goldkette, and Cary’s six-month tour with the first Louis Armstrong All Stars. Cary, in 1941, playing BODY AND SOUL and THE SHIEK OF ARABY with Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Catlett at a Boston gig. Portraits of Brad Gowans, Wild Bill Davison, George Brunis, Danny Alvin, and Nick Rongetti.

Cary was articulate — one of those straightforward writers who captured one aspect (perhaps a transient one) of someone’s personality in a few sharp strokes.  And he was also just as ready to put his own playing and conduct under the microscope.

STRICTLY A MUSICIAN (a phrase that Barney Bigard used to praise Cary instead of Earl Hines) is an enthralling book — one that I have been rationing my reading . . . so that I won’t finish it too quickly. If you love this music, it is invaluable.  Rare photographs, a comprehensive discography, indices, and more. And Coller — who by choice remains almost invisible — is a fine careful graceful writer, shining the light on Cary and his colleagues all the time.

The book is available here, but I also encourage you to contact Jim Turner here and visit the Dick Cary Music site, which has treasures to share. Jim tells me that Dick’s “Tuesday Night Friends,” his rehearsal band, is still going strong after twenty years — because of the devotion of the musicians to Dick’s music.

May your happiness increase!

IT HAPPENS IN MONTEREY (March 7-9, 2014)

These two worthies found love at the Jazz Bash by the Bay:

I am not proposing that everyone who goes to this year’s festival (March 7-9) will come away with the Love of His / Her Life — maybe you are all already spoken for.

But the music will be wonderful. And I write this as someone who’s been there since 2010.

For me, the Jazz Bash by the Bay was a transformative experience.

I had not been to California since having been conceived there . . . . insert your own witticism here. And when I had the notion in March 2010 of going to see and hear the people I so admired in their video appearances, I expected to have a good time in a new jazz setting, perhaps make a few new friends.

It was a life-altering experience: I came back to New York and said to the Beloved, “I’ve never had such a good time in my life. Do you think we could spend the summer in California?”

Fast forward to 2014, where I am writing this from Novato, with serious plans to make the Golden State my retirement home.

So if the Jazz Bash by the Bay can make one couple find love; if it can make a native New Yorker say, “I’ll move to California,” I think its powers are . . . powerful.  But enough personal narratives.  What’s in store for you?

As always, a wide variety of well-played music.

You can visit the site to find out if Your Favorite Band is going to be there, but here are some kinds of music that will be played: blazing stride piano in solo and duo, boogie-woogie, sweet singing in so many forms, rocking small-band swing, New Orleans ensemble polyphony, trad, Dixieland, blues, zydeco, gypsy swing, classic songs from the Great American Songbook, Jazz Age hot dance music, ragtime piano, stomp, swing, music to dance to, San Francisco jazz, washboard rhythm, music to hold hands to.

And the stars?  Well . . . Ray Skjelbred, High Sierra, Carl Sonny Leyland, Bob Draga, Rebecca Kilgore Trio, Dan Barrett, Ivory and Gold, Ellis Island Boys, Marc Caparone, Le Jazz Hot, Jeff Hamilton, Dawn Lambeth, Virginia Tichenor, Marty Eggers, Yve Evans, Katie Cavera, Paul Mehling, Clint Baker, Stephanie Trick, Paolo Alderighi, Frederick Hodges, Jim Buchmann, Eddie Erickson, Jason Wanner, John Cocuzzi, Howard Miyata, Big Mama Sue, Ed Metz, the Au Brothers, Bob Schulz, Pieter Meijers, Brady McKay, Tom Rigney, Royal Society Jazz Orchestra . . . and more, and more.

Important links.

The BAND LINEUP.

The all-important too-Much-Of-A-Good-Thing-Is-Wonderful SCHEDULE, which calls for careful planning (“If I go to see X, then I have to miss part of Y, but it puts me in a good place to be right up front for Z.  Anyone have a Tylenol?”) — with four or five sessions going on at the same time.

And most important — with a Sidney Catlett drum roll or a Vic Berton tympani flourish — the GET TICKETS NOW page.

I try to hold down the didactic tendencies that four decades of standing in front of sleepy (good-natured) young men and women have solidified, but I hope readers will permit me this basic logic exercise.  Festivals where people buy tickets last forever.  Festivals where people don’t vanish.  And then there is a wailing and a gnashing of teeth — very hard on the neighbors and harder on the dental work.  I think of the California festivals that have moved into The Great Memory even in my short acquaintanceship with this state.

(Or, as William Carlos Williams — or was it Philip Larkin? — wrote: “Want it to stay?  Do not delay.”)

So I hope to see throngs of friends and even strangers at the Jazz Bash by the Bay.  Anything that makes live jazz in profusion go on is a good thing.

P.S.  Need more evidence?  Go to YouTube and type in “Dixieland Monterey,” or “Jazz Bash by the Bay,” or the name of your favorite artist.  I, Rae Ann Berry, and Tom Warner, among others, have created many videos — enough to while away the hours in the most energized ways.  Proof!

May your happiness increase!

GREATNESS SIGNS ITS NAMES

A few more remarkable pages from the recent eBay explosion — Joe’s autograph book, most of the signatures from 1936-40 with a few later additions.  Some of the appeal is deeply simple: Sidney Bechet touched this object and it has his power.  For me, these pages also summon up a time and place where people would throng around jazz players and singers and ask (or demand) their autographs — a time in our recent past when Jess Stacy and Edythe Wright (obviously left-handed) were stars rather than footnotes.  Whatever their appeal to others, these pages resonate.

Roy Eldridge and guitarist John Collins, presumably from their 1939 appearance at the Arcadia Ballroom in New York City.

More members of that same band: Truck Parham, the short-lived and legendary Clyde Hart, Joe Eldridge, Billy Bowen, Dave Young, Harold “Doc” West.

To some, Blanche Calloway is notable only because she was Cab’s sister — but she recorded with Louis and led good bands in the Thirties.

What would Philip Larkin say?  As a vocal stylist, Banks was more odd than memorable, but he had been the figurehead for some of the hottest records ever made — not simply in 1932-33, but for all time — the Rhythmakers — records that Larkin thought were one of the high points of Western art.

Noble Sissle’s band also gave Sidney Bechet a regular gig in the Thirties.

Andy Kirk’s men were exceptionally polite, adding sweet-natured wishes as well as their names — the outstanding signature on that page is that of saxophonist Dick Wilson, influential, handsome, and short-lived.

A few Goodmen and women: Peg LaCentra, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Harry Goodman, Benny himself, Gordon “Chris” Griffin, both Gene Krupa and Dave Tough — this page, like others in the book, suggests that Joe asked musicians to sign in on relevant pages at different occasions.  I haven’t yet figured out whether he glued the photos onto the pages before asking for autographs or after . . .

More heroes: Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, and the other vocalist in Norvo’s band, Terry Allen.

Two other minute points of swing anthropology come to mind.  I wonder when the practice of musicians identifying themselves by their instrument was in fashion?  And — as my friend David Weiner has pointed out — the often hasty signatures are further proof of authenticity: a studio portrait of, say, Glenn Miller with “his” name signed in a flowing hand is more likely to be the creation of a secretary in his office: the Mildred and Red signatures above, for one example, are much more likely to be real — the product of someone standing up, leaning on a small book for support.

Ultimately, these pages are resilient evidence that once all our heroes and heroines were alive — they had fountain pens, you could ask them to sign your book, perhaps have a few sentences of conversation.

May your happiness increase.

HOTTER THAN THAT: HENRY “RED” ALLEN AND FRIENDS, 1932-33

Thanks to the indefatigable jazz scholar Franz Hoffmann, here are four hot records featuring Henry “Red” Allen and Pee Wee Russell, Fats Waller, Tommy Dorsey, Eddie Condon, Zutty Singleton, among others.  The band name was the RHYTHMAKERS and Philip Larkin was not alone in thinking this series of hot records the apex of Western civilization.  You can see a variety of 78 record labels and photographs and read the personnel in Franz’s videos, but the real substance is the joyous music, unbridled but expert. 

OH, PETER:

YES SUH!:

SOMEONE STOLE GABRIEL’S HORN:

And an amazing 1933 jam-session-on-record on SWEET SUE, under the nominal leadership of UK composer / string bassist Spike Hughes — the participants are Allen, Dicky Wells, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Benny Carter, Wayman Carver (flute), Nicholas Rodriguez, Lawrence Lucie, and Sidney Catlett —

May your happiness increase.

TOO HOT FOR WORDS: MATTHIAS SEUFFERT’S RHYTHMAKERS at the 2011 WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (thanks to Flemming Thorbye)

In 1932 and 1933, a small but determined group of New York jazz musicians took part in a series of recording sessions that might well still be the hottest jazz on record.  Henry “Red” Allen, Gene Krupa, Joe Sullivan, Fats Waller, Pee Wee Russell, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Lord, Happy Caldwell, Zutty Singleton, Pops Foster, Jack Bland, Eddie Condon . . .   The vocalists were Red himself, Fats, Chick Bullock, and the elusive Billy Banks — who, like Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, specialized in singing in an abnormally high register.

The sessions were recorded for the Banner and Melotone labels and were meant to be sold inexpensively in “dime-stores,” so I imagine that the recording directors didn’t notice or didn’t care just how unfettered the performances were.  And no one seemed to care that “colored” and “white” musicians were playing together, either — a good omen of things to come, albeit slowly.

Many recordings of this time begin sedately, wooing the prospective buyers with a calm exposition of the melody before launching into improvisation in the last third of the disk: not the Rhythmakers.  It’s often been stated that Philip Larkin saw these sessions as one of the high points of the twentieth century, perhaps of Western civilization.  I wouldn’t argue with this position, although Larkin, chronically morose, saw everything else that came after as somehow small, which is a pity.

The superb reedman (here on clarinet) Matthias Seuffert was asked to close off the 2011 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party with his own version of the Rhythmakers.  He had help, of course, in Bent Persson (trumpet); Rico Tomasso (using his many voices and having fun vocalizing); David Sager (trombone); Steve Andrews (tenor sax); Philippe Guignier and Keith Stephen (banjo and guitar); Martin Seck (piano); Henry Lemaire (bass); Richard Pite (drums).

BUGLE CALL RAG:

YELLOW DOG BLUES:

I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU:

OH, PETER:

SPIDER CRAWL:

WHO’S SORRY NOW?:

MEAN OLD BEDBUG BLUES:

An ecstatic conclusion to the 2011 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, although JAZZ LIVES will have a postscript — courtesy of Flemming Thorbye, who also captured these sets — to come.

PHILIP LARKIN’S “LETTERS TO MONICA”

I admired Philip Larkin first as a poet, then as an obstinately reactionary jazz critic, then as a writer of letters. 

The first two roles have been examined many times, but I want to say something about his correspondence: thoughts provoked by a new collection of letters to Monica Jones, the woman he had a relationship with for over thirty years.  The phrase “had a relationship” is murky, but their encounters on the page and off defy easy classification.

Larkin could be exceedingly gracious in his correspondence if he chose to: the scholar William McBrien (an authority on both Stevie Smith and Cole Porter) told me that the poet was extremely courteous and modest in their exchanges. 

But more often Larkin is writing to people he has known for decades, and the letters are difficult to read (even when hilarious) because he comes through so completely as someone who knows how flawed he is while hugging his flaws to himself proudly.  He can’t help himself, but who can?  Selfish and complaining, irritable and ungenerous, he also can turn the harsh light on himself and writes of his horror at what he perceives.  At such times I forgave him his meanness of spirit.  But as soon as that moment passed, the next letter returned him to his familiar self, disappointed in almost everything around him.

So his letters are often appalling, often irresistible character studies.  It would have taken a great novelist to delineate him without caricature.   

Larkin experienced hot jazz as a religious revelation and never faltered in his devotion to the Truth as he saw it.  For him, the acme of Western civilization was the recording sessions of the Rhythmakers in 1933 — featuring Henry “Red” Allen and Pee Wee Russell. 

The pianist Larry Eanet once wrote that the first jazz records he heard, the Louis Armstrong – Earl Hines sessions of 1928, hit him “like Cupid’s arrow,” and this was Larkin’s experience also. 

The Rhythmakers records were the standard by which everything, live or on record, had to be judged . . . and as a result, almost everything Larkin ever heard after his first ecstasy, with the exception of Sidney Bechet, seemed flawed. 

Larkin’s letters to Monica are sometimes claustrophobic studies in bewilderment and barely-suppressed rage.  We observe Larkin being selfish on one page, sometimes apologizing for it two pages later.  That he and Monica kept up a running lovers’ narrative of themselves as two rabbits is surprisingly charming but, even with that as counterpoint I could read only a dozen pages at a time before I needed to put the book down, if not away.

I also understand more than ever the wisdom of some public figures who refuse to have their private papers made accessible to “scholars” after their deaths.  I think Larkin would have been enraged to know that readers were poking into his letters: in fact, he supervised the destruction of his diaries.

But this post is about Larkin’s devotion to jazz — and his letters are often lifted up from his annoyance, his sulks, his self-absorption, by his love for this transfiguring music. 

I offer a few passages here, the first two suggesting what it was to be a British record collector of American jazz.  (In these days of apparent plenty, with so much music made available, some forget what it was like to have so little at our fingertips.)

I am leaving out the passage where Larkin is furious because an acquaintance who has been to the States has brought him Volume Two of a Bechet Blue Note collection rather than Volume One — you’ll have to buy the book to read his small yet explosive reaction.

23 November 1950 (Belfast, p. 23)  . . . . I looked round the shops, buying a copy of Wild Bill Davison’s Tishomingo Blues that so insinuatingly wound itself into all last summer; but a sense of having been rebuffed remains with me, perhaps because the cow in the record shop wouldn’t let me — or didn’t want to let me — look through a pile of Jazz Collector & Tempo records she had just unpacked — cow of Hell!  I have never seen any before, & Belfast is the last place I expected to find them: I’m sure they will never sell them.  They are the Real McKoy, fantastic private dubbings of entirely irrevocable records: the Malone Reprint Society in terms of jazz . . . .

1 November 1951 (Belfast, 66-67) . . . . played my new records — six unsuspected sides by Muggsy Spanier, Pee Wee Russell et al. discovered by me in Tempo lists, 6/6 each.  I ordered them blind, & played them trembling, fearing lest they should be a fearful let down, but they weren’t: not a dud among them: six sides of aggressive attacking jazz, touching greatness here & there, but what John Hewitt would call ‘good bread’.  They date from Feb & March 1945: already ‘history’, really — wartime.  My great prayer is now to have scooped Kingsley [Amis] over them, wch I’m almost sure to have done.

Our heroes, seen through Larkin’s acerbic, disappointed eyes:

25 January 1957 (Hull, p. 213)  The Condon evening was too strange to describe fully — there were two ‘houses’, each an hour [Humphrey Lyttelton] an hour Condon — or supposedly.  The first was almost empty: the second almost full.  Condon was a little neurotic-lipped man, like a jockey retired by age & drink, with a drunkard’s careful movements.  W. Bill was a fat fiftyish Jack-Oakie College-Humor man, who chewed gum & clowned about.  I couldn’t adjust myself to the thought that these were friends of Bix, and that WB had been driving the car in 1932 when Teschmacher was killed.  They played fairly routine stuff, not as good as their records, though WB did some of his notorious tricks of tone.  I was in the front row: Condon sat playing his guitar about 6′ from my head.  The Lyttelton group was as usual, Johnny Picard blowing away manfully & very well.  But it was all very odd.  A lone shop girl sat beside me, who’d never heard a jazz concert before, & never heard of Condon.  I admired her resolution . . . .   

And two elegies in his own fashion:

7 May 1959 (Hull, p. 249)  I was saddened to hear of the death of Bechet tonight: of course, he hadn’t produced much lately — living among the French had brought out his Creole side musically — but he was a wonderful player in his day, as exemplified by the 2 choruses of Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Mornin’ they played on Radio Newsreel tonight.  At least one could understand his music: not like this modern stuff . . . cacophony (mumble mumble), deliberate atonalism (mumble mumble) etc etc.  Of course one wanted to take him back to New York and put him behind a good blues singer & in front of a good guitarist for a session or two, but I suppose we shall have to be content with what there is.  I’ve always wanted to hear a 12″ Summertime (c. 1940) on which the musicians ‘burst into spontaneous applause’ at the end of the record . . . .

19 February 1969 (Hull, p. 397)  My record player has broken & been taken away, & life is very narrow.  Did you see that Pee Wee Russell is dead?

Larkin understood so well that life without jazz was indeed very narrow. 

REMEMBER: ALL MONEY COLLECTED BELOW GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!  OH, CLICK THAT LINK!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

FOR BIX: ANDY SCHUMM AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 18, 2010)

To those who haven’t yet heard him, the delight I and others take in Andy Schumm’s playing might seem a bit excessive. 

“Who is this young whipper-snapper?  If he were any good — to paraphrase Larkin’s Law of Reissues — I’d have all his Orthophonic Victors in green sleeves by now.  There are no entries for ANDY SCHUMM AND HIS SHOOTING STARS in any of my discographies!”

Andy has us all waiting for his first — of many — compact disc as a leader.  But what he have in the meantime is evidence of his mastery.

He has a serene way of phrasing (although his notes can rush and tumble when the musical context is red hot), a clarion tone, a way of creating melodic lines that stick in the memory after the song is ended.  Like another young Midwestern cornet player, he balances energetic propulsion and cool musing consideration, memorably.  And although he knows the records by heart (he’s quite the scholar of the period he loves — see more on his new website, http://www.andyschumm.com — he’s no reverent antiquarian content with copying what he’s heard on those black-label OKehs.  (By the way, he also understands Joe Oliver and Ed Allen, among others, from the inside out.)

Andy got to lead two sets at the 2010 Jazz at Chautauqua (I’ve posted the first).  This one found him among players who understand his vision — swinging, emotionally lively, often witty:  Dan Barrett, Dan Block, John Sheridan, Marty Grosz, Vince Giordano, Pete Siers.

The program was called SPOTLIGHT ON BIX, but Andy didn’t choose the most famous of the Beiderbecke-associated repetoire.  Rather, he and the band peered into less-frequently investigated corners and came up with songs that rewarded us more than another go-round on ROYAL GARDEN or SINGIN’ THE BLUES.

TIA JUANA was his opener — reminding us both of the Wolverine Orchestra and of the 1939 records by Bud Freeman (on Decca) that Eddie Condon wanted to call SONS OF BIXES:

LAZY DADDY comes from the same period, and is rarely played:

Jumping forward to the end of Bix’s Whiteman period, Andy offered the sad yet hopeful Irving Berlin composition WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD, which I always hear in my imagination with a vocal by the youthful Bing Crosby:

When was the last time you heard a  band play FLOCK O’BLUES (with or without solos!):

Finally, Andy called for LOVE AFFAIRS — an undistinguished yet bouncy tune (I hear the vocal refrain on this one, too, although with more amusement than affection) that we wouldn’t think of if illustrious improvisers hadn’t played it.  I’m especially fond of the pairings of two horns here (the two Dans) balancing melody and improvised embellishment:

I’m going to see this young fellow in person on Sunday, October 24, and will report back: it may be premature elation, but I’m looking forward to it!

JOTTINGS OF A JAZZMAN

The best biographical or autobiographical writings make a person the reader has never encountered come to life on the page.  JOTTINGS OF A JAZZMAN: SELECTED WRITINGS OF LEN BARNARD, edited by his niece Loretta Barnard, has just that magic. 

When I was a few pages into it, I felt as if I had met and heard Len, which says much — not only about the power of Len’s personality and insights but also about Loretta’s loving presentation. 

Len Barnard was a major figure in Australian jazz, and the players and singers from Oz are, at their best, possessed of a fierce focus, a strength of purpose, an intensity.  Len was an excellent drummer and washboardist and first-rate pianist and composer. 

But he also thought about his music, the world around him, and the way people behaved — a philosopher without the heavy weight of an official philosophy.  His writings show him as curious, opinionated, amused, sharp-eyed, both unsparing and generous.  Here are a few samples:

Len was a reader.  Here he quotes from an obscure cookery book in a letter:

An excerpt from THE ACCOMPLISHT COOK (1712) with the correct verbs for dismembering of various meats and game: lift that swan, rear that goose, unbrace that mallard, allay that pheasant, unlace that coney, unjoynt that bittern, unlatch that curlew, break that egript, thigh that woodcock.  Try a few of those to the bridge of ‘Old Man Ribber.’

From his journal, 1969:

Played Clarence Williams at breakfast.  I’ve always felt that too little has been said of the charm of his music, of its atmosphere, its complete absence of vulgarity, stridency, over-accentuation, and all the other faults of lesser jazz – its easy humour and almost kindly glow, its integrity as art.  Every Clarence Williams record is a benediction.

After offering a tape of a superb live performance to a record producer:

My fears of philistinism were confirmed.  He liked it, but didn’t think that full spontanaiety plus on-stage noises were suitable for his needs.  Offered to buy “Mood Indigo” for $25.  I declined.  Told him he had the studio sickness which is induced by surgically produced recordings and the unimaginative parading of an oft-repeated routine before the microphone before perfection is attained.  A bloodless, sterile perfection . . .This attitude of businessmen is what they call ‘progress,’ bit it is merely satndardization as opposed to less pretentious individualism of the true musician.  It’s a minor form of industrialisation, which nowadays means bad food, pointless bustle and jittery nerves, whereas the other road means good digestion and serenity.

On playing the drums:

Drums have seemed to be bonny imposters at times, as regards the perfection of extension of arm and rhythmic slap on a chair arm.  An in-ness, a tactile link with music that has been hard to replace.  Came close (digression) when in 1982, played a large lobster pot with open palms and a pair of wooden salad servers.  These got shorter as they shattered brittley and there is that wonderful elan andimmediacy that is expedited by this and you extemporise and bring out dishes of ham that even you didn’t know were in your larger of tricks.  The other feeling is the knife in hand, but the heel of hand marking the rhythm on the tablecloth.

The voice is at times cranky, observant, poetic,ruminative — a combination of Larkin, Balliett, S. J. Perelman.  The book is wonderfully amplified by photographs and remebrances of Len by his family and admirers.  When I finished the book, I felt as if I’d been privileged to overhear a fascinating and complex man.  And although I never got any closer to Len than through the medium of a dozen CDs, this book made me miss him terribly. 

As I write this, I have not yet acquired the needed mercantile information — how to buy the book, its price, the best way to acquire it.  I hope to find these things out soon. 

But I would urge anyone who is interested in what an articulate artist sees and hears to read this book. 

Len Barnard was a jazzman but his perceptions were deeper than 4 / 4, larger than his drum kit.  And Loretta Barnard has given us a fine gift of her late uncle and his world.

A postscript: I was so enthralled by the book and by Len that I omitted something delightful and informative — the lengthy section at the end with quick, witty, crisply written biographical portraits of all the people who were part of the book — written by the jazz scholar Bill Haesler, who knows his Oz thoroughly.  Published by itself, this section would be an invaluable overview of Australian jazz and more.

JAMAICA SHOUT: BENT PERSSON PLAYS RED ALLEN (July 9, 2010)

As promised, the second half of the glorious session (inventive yet very free-minded) that was Bent Persson’s tribute to Henry “Red” Allen’s early recordings — captured at the 2010 Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival, in a downstairs room that was part of the hotel’s health club.  Healthy music, though — seriously aerobic for players and audience!

The players were Bent and Michel Bastide, trumpets; Paul Munnery (standing in for Red’s pal, J.C. Higginbotham), trombone, Robert Fowler and Jean-Francois Bonnel, reeds, Jeff Barnhart, piano and vocals; Jacob Ullberger, guitar and banjo; Henri Lamaire, bass; Josh Duffee, drums. 

The second half began with one of the atypical small-group recordings with men from the Luis Russell band, issued under the euphonious title J.C. HIGGINBOTHAM AND HIS SIX HICKS — playing a serious blues, HIGGINBOTHAM BLUES:

Then, moving forward to one of the Russell recordings less celebrated than their characteristic rompers — a sweet ballad, HONEY, THAT REMINDS ME (originally recorded in 1931 with a lovely, earnest Vic Dickenson vocal — here reimagined by Jeff Barnhart):

Bent scaled down to a rocking small group to give his own version of the incendiary Rhythmakers records (the originals were Philip Larkin’s favorites):

WHO’S SORRY NOW? had a Barnhart vocal (instead of Billy Banks’ warbling):

I WOULD DO MOST ANYTHING FOR YOU (which became Claude Hopkins’ theme):

YES, SUH! (a piece of spirited hot vaudeville):

In 1933, Allen and Coleman Hawkins — comrades from the Fletcher Henderson band — teamed up for a series of recordings aimed at the jukebox market.  Some of the songs they recorded were charmingly ephemeral, among them MY GALVESTON GAL, HUSH MY MOUTH (If I Ain’t Goin’ South).  Bent chose to revisit three classic recordings:

SISTER KATE (an old-time tune in 1933):

HEARTBREAK BLUES (where one can hear the cross-fertilization of influence between Hawkins and Bing Crosby):

JAMAICA SHOUT:

The program ended with the moody THERE’S A HOUSE IN HARLEM FOR SALE — a somber conclusion to an uplifting program of hot music: 

You’ll notice that although the players reflect back on the original recordings and the fabled players, there is very little direct imitation of Red, Hawk, Higgy, Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, etc. — the way it’s supposed to be.  Bravo, Bent!

LETTERS FROM FRANK CHACE, 1998-2002

I first heard the Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace on 1951 broadcast recordings from Storyville (issued on Savoy records and reissued in the late Seventies) where he held his own alongside Wild Bill Davison, Ephie Resnick, and a loud rhythm section.  (Later, Frank would tell me that he was half-deafened by Davison’s habit of blowing into the clarinetist’s ear.)  Chace impressed me as having absorbed Pee Wee Russell’s style without exactly copying Pee Wee.  Years later, I thought that he was to Pee Wee what Buck Clayton was to Louis — a loving reflection, a distillation.  But in the early days of my vinyl-searching, there was no other Chace to be found on record. 

in 1986, when I began corresponding and trading tapes with John L. Fell — film scholar, amateur clarinetist, and erudite jazz collector — he sent a cassette of private Chace performances: some with Marty Grosz, others with the guitarist / cornetist Bill Priestley.  On this tape, I heard thoughtful questing that had only been hinted at on the Storyville recordings.  And I wanted to hear more.  After asking all the collectors I knew (among them the late Bob Hilbert and the still-active Joe Boughton, Wayne Jones, Gene Kramer) to dig into their Chace holdings, I had a good deal of music in settings where he felt comfortable enough to explore, from 1951 duets with Don Ewell to a Marty Grosz nonet and various small groups.  Frank’s brilliance and subtlety — his willingness to take risks — moved me greatly.  I iamgine I was also intrigued by his elusiveness: his name appeared in none of the jazz reference books; his issued recordings were out of print, except for a Jim Kweskin session on Vanguard. 

Quite by accident I learned that he was still playing.  WBGO-FM broadcast live remotes from the Chicago Jazz Festival over the Labor Day weekend.  In 1997, listening idly to the proceedings, I heard the announcer say, “Up next, the Frank Chace Quintet.”  I scrambled for a new cassette, and, feeling as if the heavens had opened to let divinity in, heard Frank play, marvelously, including a bossa nova and LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY.  This gave me hope that he was alive and well, and I imagined that I might see him play sometime or have a new Chace recording to study. 

Because I had spent much of my academic life as a literary detective, poring over unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, I became fascinated by Frank as a subject for study.  I knew that he lived in Evanston, Illinois, and when I had his address confirmed by the Chicago musicians’ union, Marty Grosz, and John Steiner, I felt bold enough to proceed by writing to him.

I don’t have my letters to Frank, although his friend and executor Terry  Martin tells me that Frank saved them, but I am sure that I introduced myself as an admirer, someone who would like to write about him (I had been reviewing CDs for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors Journal and was soon to start writing for The Mississippi Rag).  In this post, I present his side of the correspondence.  I have omitted only a few telephone numbers and addresses of individuals; otherwise I have left the letters intact.  I have guessed at the placement of the few undated items; readers are free to do their own reshuffling if my logic offends. 

I must have sent him some Pee Wee Russell cassettes, and addressed him (politely) as Mr. Chace:

12 Apr 98

Dear Michael,

     A hasty note of thanks for the astounding packet.  Golly, Pee Wee was even better than I thought.

     I had no idea anyone was tracking my transgressions.  If I recall, some of those pallid Pee Wee-ish peregrinations are even lousier than others.

     You still think I should be interviewed?

     I wish Hilbert had looked me up.  I might have filled in a few spaces, e.g. PWR for Jack T. at Curley’s in Springlfield IL Oct 93 [sic], et alia.  Five glorious drunken nites. 

     My father was from Mayville, N.Y.  Any relation?

Cordially, Frank.

P.S.  I’m Mr. Chace only to the IRS.

Frank’s opinion of his playing here is positively sunny.  “Hilbert” was Robert Hilbert, who had written a Russell biography and compiled a discography.  Later, Frank told me that the Curley’s gig was meant to be a Jack Teagarden quartet — Teagarden was by then appearing only with Don Ewell, a bassist Frank remembered only as “Pappy,” who was derisive about the other players, and drummer Barrett Deems.  When Teagarden took sick, Pee Wee filled in for him, and Frank remembered long explorations of each song that would end with many choruses of eight-bar and four-bar trades among the quartet.  Don Ewell was his great friend and musical mentor.  And “Mayville” is a mild joke; I was living in Melville, New York.

Encouraged by his response, I sent Frank a photocopy of my then amorphous Chace discography:

 20 April 1998

Dear Michael,

     I’ve entered some guesses along with one or two certainties.  I recall some of these sessions vividly, others not at all.

     As for the penultimate entry on the reverse side, if you send a cassette I might sort it out.  But aside from a few tunes with Marty [Grosz] and a bassist [Dan Shapera] from the Chi. Jazz Institute’s Jazz Fair in Jan. 1984 I haven’t listened to myself since before 1982, when I stopped drinking.  Too grisly.  (Except for a few S[alty] D[og] ensembles, below*.)

     There was a 1968 session (at John Steiner’s, like many of them) during Marty’s brief affair with electricity: Lullaby in Rhythm, Exactly Like You.  These should be around, God knows, if the rest of this stuff is.

     Birch Smith sent me a CD “Selty Dogs 1955” last year.  He finally issued them (Windin’ Ball) but so far as I know distributes from his home, only.  I’d make you a dub but don’t know how.  (I have only a Sony Diskman for playing.)

     Do you have the 1961 Jabbos?  Lorraine Gordon issued [a] two-LP boxed set around 1984.  Sure enough, we didn’t try any Jazz Battles or Boston Skuffles, but we thought Jabbo was wonderful seapite reviewers’ demurrers.  I never had other than a tape dub but gave it away 30 years ago!

Cheers back atcha,

 Frank

I don’t remember when I asked Frank if we might talk on the telephone; he agreed, although our conversations were intermittent at best, usually on Sunday evenings.  Once I interrupted him when he was about to eat some soup; other times I would let the phone ring twenty or so times before giving up.  I now assume, and Terry Martin agrees, that Frank was at home — as he aged, his mobility was limited by illnesses — but did not want to talk. 

I do recall his amusement when I asked his permission to record our conversations for a profile of him; he was both flattered and puzzled.  He had said that he didn’t write to me as often as he would like because he lacked paper and pens; ever enterprising (or overbearing?) I sent him some.  Now, I think he was being polite and evasive; I was more interested in interviewing him than he was in being interviewed.  Gene Kramer, who had co-written a book on Don Ewell, had sent me a collection of Pee Wee rarities, which I copied for Frank:            

24 Aug 98

Dear Michael,

     It’s yet unclear how churlish I can get — might at least have sent a thank you card, but didn’t think I had any stamps.  (NO — please don’t send stamps – I found some.)

     *I haven’t listened to it all so far — it’s easier to replay the marvelous alternate Ida.  Marty once opined that PW’s style came to fruition only around Home Cooking time, but it seems PW was annoying and perplexing his colleagues years earlier.  And, how those other guys could play B I Y O Backyard.  I’m reminded again of hos much I love Max.

     *I’ve wondered for a long time how the US got this way — a week ago at the N[orthwestern] U[niversity] library I read NSC 68 (to be found in “Foreign Relations of the United States,” 1950 Vol I page 234).  Example: “We seek to achieve (our values) by the strategy of the Cold War.”  The whole thing is absorbing.  Books I might have mentioned to youare The Frozen Republic by Daniel Lazare and Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948 by Frank Kofsky.  If you’re interested.

     Later.  it’s to hot and humid for now.

     *The “I” violated your code.

     SPPFL = Society for the Preservation of Pete Fountain’s Legacy.

 Love, Yakov, master of the ocarina.

The “Ida” was an alternate take of the 1927 Red Nichols recording.  In retrospect, this letter mirrors our phone conversations.  Frank was articulate and well-read.  Although he could be wheedled into talking about himself (briefly and grudgingly) and the musicians he admired, his real subject was the downfall of the United States.  I was much less well-informed about global history, and this seemed to exasperate him.  I shared some of his views, but his gloom and rage were far deeper.  I suspect now that he humored me when we spoke of jazz, but that it struck him as almost irrelevant.  His comments about “I” and the “SPPFL,” which he had written on the envelope, need explanation.  Frank disdained players he thought “synthetic”; Fountain was one.  And I had mock-apologized in a letter for beginning several paragraphs in a row with “I”; hence his asterisks.

I didn’t hear from Frank until the end of the year, when a Seasons Greetings card arrived. 

  Dear Michael,

     A bacterial infection put me in the hospital (out cold) Sept 14 – Oct 13 and Rehab Oct 13 – Dec 4, but I recover apace.  Sorry about the hiatus.  Hope you are well and prospering in this psychotic Republic.

 

[undated]

Dear Michael,

     Hoping all’s well with you.  You wanted a picture.  All I’ve unearthed so far are pix from Aspen, where Marty got me a few weeks with The Village Stompers.  The wide angle shot shows Alfie Jones, a dandy Toronto trombonist, greeting Lou McGarity.  The others you know or are listed.

     I’ve been out of touch with Sandy Priestley, Bill’s younger son, the one most interested in his dad’s music.  He one told me that Avis, Squirrel [Ashcraft]’s daughter, had rescued some stuff from the Evanston Coachouse and needed ID’s for some of the players.  He, Seymour, lives in or near Milwaukee.  I don’t want to put him in touch with you without your permission.  The 1951 tracks with Nichols and Rushton, and Bill’s anthem Isn’t It Romantic might interest Sandy and Avis a lot, but it’s been a while . . . . This makes me miss the old “Club 55” (Lake Forest).  John Steiner, too.  The old order passeth.

Cheers anyway,

As ever, Frank.

I had sent Frank a private tape (original source possibly John Steiner, the great archivist of Chicago jazz) of a 1951 Squirrel Ashcraft session featuring Red Nichols and Joe Rushton.

2 Feb 1999

Dear Michael,

     I only just uncovered your Prima cassette amidst four cases of accumulated mail, mostly junko.  I had never even known of the enhanced orch. of side B.  PWR’s chorus-long trill on Dinah has me confounded.  Never knew him to do the circular breathing thing.  Prima clearly exhilarated him.  Egged him on.  Exhorted him.  PWR IS SUPERMAN.

     I (hereby disobeying your paragraph rule) never replied to your probe for an 8 x 10 glossy.  Fact is, I never had one.  The J D Salinger of the clarinet.

     Yet another fellow, a Brit, has written about doing a piece on me for IAJRC publication of Miss. Rag.  I’ve come across his note ten times, but now can’t find it.  Name of Derek Coller from County Berkshire if I recall.  Do you know of him?  I might never find his address.  I am less churlish than lazy and disorganized.

     Your cassettes are better for me that Wodehouse’s BUCK-YOU-UPPO.

Cheers,

Frank

Frank was referring to the Brunswick recordings Pee Wee had made as a member of Louis Prima’s band, which show off Prima as successfully ouis-inspired, and Pee Wee responding with great enthusiasm.  Ironically, Derek Coller (a fine jazz scholar) and Bert Whyatt did finish a long essay on Frank for JAZZ JOURNAL — in 2009 — and an accompanying discography for the IAJRC Journal in the same year.  Like Bix and some of the Austin High Gang, Frank loved P.G. Wodehouse.

9 March 1999

Dear Michael,

      You Leave Me Breathless.  What?  No Simeon too?  Do I not play like Simeon?  Beale (Billy) Riddle thought I played like Simeon.  Possibly not like him on”Bandanna Days” tho.  Beautiful. 

      Your encomiums had me groping for my blue pencil, but I won’t query you less’n you want.  The finale, or coda, “inspired improvisation,” is a dandy.  STET.  I told you I was fighting for my life.

     As for your S[umma] C[um] L[aude] submissions, they only fortify my esteem for those guys.  How competent they are.  The medley, stitched together with modulations ouf of Easy to Get, seems an outstanding ploy.  Signature segues.  The Miff unissued V-Disc: I heard Peg O’My Heart at Nick’s, then on Commodore, but PWR is positively SEIZED on this on.  And on what you call “Notes on Jazz,” see if you don’t identify Mel Powell.  The Bushkin right-hand grupetti, the fleeting salute to the Lion.  And if Bert Naser is Bob Casey, why?  AFM?  And Joe Sullivans, I’d never heard these.  No wonder [Richard] Hadlock’s fixation. 

     And Swing It.  Priceless.  My undying gratitude is yours.  I’ve watched it only once so far, perhaps refusing to believe it.

     And that fool Brunis.  (Ending tape segment.)  PWR phoned from the hotel upon arriving [in] Chicago with McP (MaFathead) for that NPR thing (Oct. 67?).  I said, “Pee Wee!  You called me”!*  He said, “Who would I call, Brunis”? (Georg was his lifelong tormentor.)

     I found the Coller letter and replied saying that the recounting of my legendary career had been already besought, but omitting your name and address.  If you care to write him . . . .

     Instead of dredging out my apartment I did so with my wallet and found the enclosed.  It’ll have to do.  Soon I’ll be “a tattered coat upon a stick.”  Whence the quote?

Love and XXX,

Frank

*I have to watch my punctuation p’s and q’s, Prof.

P.S.  My regards to [Gene] Kramer.  We’ve got out of touch.

Have you read “the Ends of the Earth” by Robert D. Kaplan?  An outstanding travel book.

Frank admired the Fifties John Coltrane, and “You Leave Me Breathless” was one of his favorites.  I had written an exultant review of the 1955 Salty Dogs CD to the IAJRC Journal and sent Frank a copy.  Since it infuriated him when people assumed he was imitating Pee Wee, I made the point that Frank had reinvented many of the classic clarinet styles — Dodds and Noone among them.  Beale Riddle was a jazz fan, amateur drummer, and recordist who had captured an early trio of Frank, Don Ewell, and himself for posterity.  “Bandanna Days” was recorded by “the Carnival Three” in 1947 for Disc — Simeon, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster.  I had sent Frank airshots of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (with Kaminsky, Gowans, Pee Wee, and Bud) from the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in 1940, as well as an unissued V-Disc performance of “Peg O’My Heart” by Miff Mole, Pee Wee, Stirling Bose, and others.  “Notes on Jazz” captured a number of Condon concert performances — before the Blue Network series began in 1944 — for distribution to South America.  I had been given thirty minutes of this material by John L. Fell; the announcements were in Portuguese.  I had also sent Frank a videocassette copy of the Thirties film short subject SWING IT — featuring Pee Wee and Louis Prima at their most lively, and may have included the 1967 JAZZ ALLEY television show with Hodes, McPartland, and Pee Wee.  (Frank was in the audience, and remembered that Pee Wee offered McPartland five dollars to change places with him onstage.)  Richard Hadlock continues to be an active West Coast jazz historian and reedman; he did a good deal for an aging Joe Sullivan in the Sixties.  The quotation was from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which Frank knew I knew.  Still looking for a picture to send me, he had found an outdated bus pass in his wallet and enclosed it, which I still have.  Obviously he was in a happier mood.  And I was thrilled to be purveyor-of-jazz-treats, sharing pleasures.

28 June 99

Dear Michael,

      I went straight to the Marty-Ephie music.  Was there ever a one-man gang like Mart?  And Effie’s dry wit.  I can’t always tell whether he’s trying to be expressive or funny.  And he can play anything, sometimes all at once. 

     Grateful too for the Dodds stuff.  It seems the Harlem hot-shots foreswore mocking him musically – let’s hope they didn’t do so personally.  Terry Martin suggests he probably could hold his own in eiher context, Ewell’s fears notwithstanding.

     I never dreamt the Ashcraft stuff had been orgaznied and documented like that.  Pee Wee, guesting at Priestley’s in 1967, calimed he could identify Joe [Rushton’s] clarinet anywhere.  So far I’ve heard only a little from these cassettes.  Speaking of bass sax I have from the lib. “ART DECO” Sophisticated Ladies (Columbia, 2 CD’s set).  Ella Logan sings I Wish I Were Twins, with Adrian [Rollini], Max, Bud, [Carl] Kress, [Roy] Bargy, [Stan] King.

     It’s raining on this sheet.  Grateful to know someone who connects with my frame of reference.  Must run for cover.  WITH THANKS                      

FC

This time, I had sent a duet recording of Marty Grosz and trombonist Ephie Resnick, as well as the Decca sides pairing Johnny Dodds with Charlie Shavers, Pete Brown, and Teddy Bunn.  The Rushton recordings are informal duets recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft’s — Rushton on clarinet, Bob Zurke on piano.  Whether then or at another date, I had sent Frank a collection of other informal sessions at Squirrel’s: on the telephone, he told me that a prized listening experience was hearing Pee Wee on a 1939 or 1940 “Clarinet Marmalade.”

 27 Mar 00

Dear Michael,

     Don’t get a paper cut from these sheaves.  Not that these observations from K. Amis’s memoirs are new to you.

     I love the references to Hodes, with whom I played off and on between 1957 and 1984.

     Young J. Dapogny introduced me to Lucky Jim.  I evened up by playing him Tea for Two by one T. Monk, of whom he’d never heard.

As ever,

Frank   

The pages were excerpts from Kingsley Amis’s memoirs:  Amis, like his friend Philip Larkin, revered Pee Wee and especially the 1932 Rhythmakers sides.  In 1947, moving into an apartment, Amis glued to the wall “an over-enlarged photograph of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, with a typed caption adapted from the last stanza of Tennyson’s poem, ‘To Virgil’: I salute thee, Pee Wee Russell, / I that loved thee since day began, Wielder of the wildest measure / ever moulded by the lips of man.’  Frank also took pleasure in Larkin’s dismissal of Hodes: “he sounded as if he had three hands and didn’t know what to do with any of them.”  When I see James Dapogny (now Professor Emeritus) I will ask him if the Monk anecdote is as he remembers it.

17 Jan 00

Dear Michael,

     I write this on my lap in front of football TV, having no surfaces owing to apt. mucking-out, and having no pen I like andneeding to buy six encased in plastic to find out.

     So this should be short – a mercy considering a sentence like the above.

     Nice to hear Jack [Gardner or Teagarden?] again.  An altogether agreeable cohort.  And such exciting Lester and Fats. Listening to that radio announcer makes my blood run cold.  I hate this f…..g country. 

     In that vein I’m reading Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised.  My high school’s history text was Charles Beard.  Reading him now suggests the textbook was seriously bowdlerized.  No wonder we’re all so ignorant.  Oh by Jingo.

     Do you have, I mean do you know, Bud’s I Remember Rio, done latterly in Chi?  Typical Bud.  He’s like a favorite uncle.  

     At the library I check[ed] out the 2 CD Art Deco, Sophisticated Ladies on Columbia.  I Wish I were Twins: Max, Bud, Adrian, Kress, Ella Logan? 1934.  You Go To My Head unusual sunny Pee Wee yet controlled.  Nan Wynn?  Lee W.[iley] and a flock of canaries w/ nice acc.

     I hear of a complete Django – might buy.

     Ask me sometime about who I thought  (whom, Prof.) was Jerry Winter — turns out to be Jerry Winner who hung around North Brunswick, NJ in 1951-2.  Nice cl. With Raymond Scott 1947/8.

     Also ask about the Victory Club.

TaTa,

Frankie

P.S.  I used “nice” 3 X, C-.

Terry Martin tells me that Frank discarded nothing and hoarded things in stacks and piles.  Were the frequent references to desperate cleaning real or merely rhetorical?  What incensed him so much in this letter was a live 1938 broadcast Fats Waller did from the Yacht Club — infamous for a condescending racist announcer who persists in calling Fats “boy.”  Frank loved football but was aghast at the way the announcers spoke: he told me more than once of a famous sports figure, trying to sound polished, making a grammatical error.  Now, this letter seems to combine politeness and impatience: I did not get the opportunity to ask  about the subjects he threw in at the end.  He had told me that as a young clarinetist, he failed to get involved in the rivalry of Goodman and Shaw; he cited Winner as someone he admired.

29 June 00,

Dear Michael,

     I never expected that fooling around with a clarinet would fetch me such bounty as your books and cassettes.  This Buddy Clark sure had accurate pitch, is it not so?

     As for your Salty Dogs (Saline Canines: MOG) inquiries, as far as those of D. Coller about [Tony] Parenti, [Bill] Reinhardt and [Jimmy] Ille, I wouldn’t know what to say.

     Did I ever tell you of my European summers (’51 and ’52) with the Amherst Delta Five?  Their clarinet player preferred to sell used cars in Utica.  One “Bosh” (Wm. H.) Pritchard came along on guitar (’51) which h’d never played.   Someone showed him how to make a G7 chord.  Some girls on board ship told him he sounded like Eddie Condon.  Protchard became Henry Luce Prof. of Eng. at his alma mater.

Hastily,

Frank

I had sent Hilbert’s Pee Wee biography.  The Buddy Clark session was an oddity — for the Varsity label in 1940, where he is accompanied by a version of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, with Freeman and Pee Wee taking surprising solo passages.  “MOG” is Martin Oliver Grosz.  I hope that the story of Prof. Pritchard is true.

2 January 01

Dear Michael,

     Glad to have your letter, but saddened indeed at news of your mother.  Please accept my condolences.  What good is it to know that it happens to most of us before we depart, and that there’s always regret at what we failed to do or say in time.

     As for me, I’m trying to emerge from the Nov. – Dec. blahs — respiratory congestion followed by the BLAHS of SNOW and cabin fever.  Yes, I played a couple of gigs in Nov., just down the street really at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, a last refuge of cigarette smokers.  I paid for it.  [Bob] Koester showed up both times, and Paige Van Vorst, and someone named Jerry (a friend of Bill Russell of Am. Music) and an OTIS who is a P. W. fancier.  A katzenjammer quartet: [mandolinist  / guitarist Don] Stienberg, [Mike] Waldbridge, me, and an EAGER but blatty trumpet player.  Later, Paige sent me a year’s worth of  Miss. Rag.  Don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

     Koester keeps wanting a record session and I keep demurring.  As for your discography and entries I question the Jazz At Noon dates as to my presence, my having been absent with a misdiagnosed biliary tract infection.  I was in hosp. during the assassination of Fred Hampton.  The Oct. 18, 1968 date shows an odd title inversion suggestive of Steiner: “Pick Yourself Up” is really Let Yourself Go.

Hang in there,

Frankie

My mother had died, at 85, a few months before.  Frank’s comments transcend formula, I think.  And I take it as indicative of his worldview and political awareness that he should recall his hospital stay because of Fred Hampton:  the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, killed by police at the direction of the FBI.

02 Nov 02

Dear Michael,

     Terry Martin sent me a photocopy of D. Coller’s thing on Floyd O’Brien.  Takes me back, if not quite aback. 

     Here’s hoping you are somewhat restored to the quotidian world, the humdrum, what an Army buddy and I referred to as the drab mundane.  Meanwhile, I thought you might be bemused by the enclosed pic, from 1978 I think under a wedding-reception tent in Priestley’s backyard. (Lake Forest, IL).  Bill, left, has his back to the crowd as was his wont, duels with Warren Kime.  Your congenial leader is at back, looking like Bergen Evans.  Not shown: Bob Wright, piano; Joe Levinson, bass; Bob Cousins, drums.  Nice gig.

     I’m looking for a cassette to send you: a string of tunes from the Chi. Jazz Fest, Jan. 1984.  Doubt that you’ve heard them.  A trio: Marty, me, Dan Shapera, hass.  Last time Mart and I tangled.  Trying to get my apt. under control – I’m not exactly a fussy taxonomist.

As Ever,

Frank

I will share this photograph in a future posting. 

18 Dec 02

Dear Michael,

     So you laughed out loud at M[ichael]. Chabon – I coarsen myself listen to the enclosed examples of obtuseness, banality, and dead-ass playing.  I wrote Price and Thompson thanking them for the check and rhapsodic blurb, respectively.  Also mentioned that I was both terrified and pissed off throughout.

     Thanks anyway, but I can’t listen to Braff.  Musically, verbally and in print, he is, for me, a prototype of The  Boston Asshole.

     I really must learn to curb my expressionism.

     As Marty once abjured me, For Your Eyes Only.  I continue to rummage for that cassette – my housekeeping is execrable.

Ever,

Frank

The remarks above may offend, but at this late date I prefer candor to ellipsis.  I had sent Frank a copy of a Braff CD I particularly liked; he sent me the 2-CD set of his live recordings from 1967 with Jimmy Archey and Don Ewell — an odd group of players, their styles rarely coalescing.

This is the last letter from Frank — and my Sunday evening attempts to call met with no response.  I assumed he had fallen ill or no longer wanted to talk or correspond.  Thus I was greatly surprised to receive a package months later — that long-promised cassette, with a scrawled note on a tiny scrap of paper, which read something like, “Sorry, man — I’ve been sick with ascites (?)”  That was the last I heard from him.

Frank’s letters were always leavened to some extent by his wit, even when it was extremely dark.  I don’t, however, know if he would have written to me at all if he didn’t feel the need to thank me for the things I sent him, which he did seem to appreciate. 

Talking to him on the telephone, however, was often a depressing experience as conversation wound down.  I found Frank’s mixture of annoyance, contempt, and sadness sometimes difficult, often frustrating.  I wanted to celebrate and gossip about the older music (a fan’s ardor); he wanted me to listen to Coltrane.  But more, he wanted to vent his rage at United States imperialism and the decline of the West.  In retrospect, we had little to talk about.  Someone listening in might have considered our sonversations as little dramas, with each of us wanting to make things go his way, succeeding only briefly.  I know that musicians and non-musicians are often separated by an invisible wall, but these conversations had even greater barriers, although we were enthusiastic about the same things. 

But Frank often seemed as if he was going through some elaborate set of motions; whether he wearied of me, an enthusiastic correspondent who attempted to ply him with cassettes, whether he wearied of talking about what was now the receding past, whether he was weary of people, I do not know.  That enigma, still fascinates me, although the possibilities are saddening.       

Thus I was surprised when I heard from Terry Martin, perhaps in 2006, telling me that Frank was ailing (which did not surprise me: the long spaces between calls or letters were often the result of hospitalizations) and that Frank had mentioned my name to Terry as someone he wouldn’t mind speaking to.  I feel some guilt about this now, but I told Terry I couldn’t attempt to restart the conversation.  I was going through a difficult period and Frank’s darkness was too much to face.  Terry, to his credit, understood.  The next news I heard was that Frank had died at 83.   

I consider myself fortunate that I had these exchanges, and that we can hear him play on recordings.  Frank had something to tell us, and he still does.      

Frank Chace: July 22, 1924 – December 28, 2007. 

A postscript: when I was attempting to interview Frank for a profile, I amassed five or six pages of transcriptions of those taped conversations.  In the spirit of Frank’s housekeeping, these pages have vanished.  However, I recall a few fragments.  When young, Frank was initially intrigued by the sounds coming from the apartment below — a neighbor was a symphony flautist.  When he began to take up the clarinet (moved to do so, of course, by a Pee Wee Russell record), he listened to “everything” and thought it was his responsibility as a musician to do so.  He recalled with great glee a recording with  Don Ewell in the house band at Jazz Ltd: the band was playing the SAINTS, a song Don loathed, and he kept playing MARYLAND through his piano chorus.  (The details may be awry, but the intent is clear.)  When asked what recordings he particularly liked, Frank eventually called to mind the Mezzrow-Bechet OUT OF THE GALLION, Bud Jacobson’s BLUE SLUG, and expressed a special desire to hear Pee Wee’s solo on the Commodore Muggsy Spanier Ragtimers SWEET SUE, which I did not have, but acquired through Gene Kramer.  When Frank heard it, he remembered that he and Marty played it many times, their verdict being that Pee Wee’s solo “scraped the clouds.” 

But he saved his most enthusiastic words for two extremely disparate recordings: Coltrane’s YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS and Jerry Colonna’s comic version of EBB TIDE.  Since Frank’s death, I’ve heard both, and was much more impressed by the Coltrane.  Colonna’s version of that pop song has the singer nearly drowned by sound-effects waves — surely an acquired taste.   

Frank had seen my hero Sidney Catlett in concert once (a wartime presentation by Deems Taylor); he had played alongside Bobby Hackett once in an informal session, probably at Priestley’s.  But there were almost no contemporary musicians he admired, and fewer he could see himself playing or recording with: Marty Grosz certainly, Dick Hyman, possibly.  He was sure he was able to play a whole session and that he didn’t need to practice.  Terry Martin and Bob Koester have first-hand experience with Frank’s reluctance to record.  In fairness, few of the recordings he did make usually do not find him in the most congenial settings: he felt comfortable alongside Ewell and Marty and some of his younger Chicago friends, but such congeniality was rare. 

Frank deserved better, but it is difficult to make him into another jazz-victim-of-oppression, as his stubbornness often got in the way of musical opportunities.  I offer these letters and recollections as tribute to a great musician and enigmatic figure.     

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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PERFECT!

The Perfect image (1932) below is a generous gift from Rob Rothberg, who has a collection that Philip Larkin would envy and a sensibility that Larkin would (at least in its more historical moments) share.  

rhythmakers

This label always cheers me, because of the two figures (Arabic?  Indian?  Pre-Colombian?) at top who seem to be kneeling reverently, genuflecting if you will, to the shrine of Hot Jazz and Pop Music of the time.  Or they may well be worshipping Electricity.  I am also amused to find the title slightly elided or truncated: it was either I WOULD DO MOST ANYTHING FOR YOU or I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU, perhaps depending on the sincerity of the singer at the moment — but the ARC people had only so much space available on the label.  So be it.  A great song, courtesy of the under-praised Claude Hopkins and the far less-acknowledged Alex Hill.  Bob Williams was, I believe, a trumpeter in Hopkins’ band. 

Does anyone know the verse?

HOT JAZZ: FOR PHILIP LARKIN

The poet and acerbic jazz lover Philip Larkin wrote in ALL WHAT JAZZ (his collected jazz criticism) that he had spent his life waiting for a reissue of the 1932 sides issued under various permutations — mostly THE RHYTHMAKERS — featuring Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Fats Waller, Frank Froeba, Jack Bland, Eddie Condon, Al Morgan, Pops Foster, Zutty Singleton, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Lord, Happy Caldwell, Tommy Dorsey, and unique vocalizing by Billy Banks (also Chick Bullock and, happily, Allen himself). 

Having referred to this music in a previous post (FINE FIG JAM) I felt duty-bound to explore the web . . . these records have been in and out of circulation for eighty years now, in a variety of forms.  My CD, on the Collector’s Classics label, has the distinct advantage of being taken from original 78s remastered by my hero John R.T. Davies — but it was issued in 1992!  So, in the name of doing public service, I offer two YouTube clips of the RHYTHMAKERS.  Before you fall over in a faint, there’s no motion picture attached.  That may have to wait for the next life, I fear.  What the generous poster, who calls himself “formiggini,” has provided, is a slideshow of the participating musicians and a good transfer from a mint-copy CD.  Larkin, no doubt, would have had scathing things to say about a world where we could no longer hear records without going to the computer, but I worried that there might be someone in my audience who had never ever heard the fiery interplay of BUGLE CALL RAG (which features Allen, Russell, Sullivan, Condon, Bland, Morgan, Krupa, and Banks) and SPIDER CRAWL (Singleton on drums). 

Larkin thought all of jazz had declined from this point.  I can’t quite agree, but it surely is the apex of a particular kind of rare, cherished Hot Music.

BUGLE CALL RAG:

SPIDER CRAWL:

And if anyone needs a scholarly explication of the lyrics, I will happily provide one,

FINEST FIG JAM

fig jam

Some history might be needed here.  “A fig,” “a Moldy Fig,” even “a Mouldy Figge,” is now-archaic language invented during the Forties, when jazz found itself divided into warring factions called Dixieland and Bebop.  This divisiveness may have splintered the music and its audiences irrevocably.  Much of the noisy conflict was fomented by journalists and publicists seeking to attract audiences through controversy.  At this distance, we know that GROOVIN’ HIGH is only WHISPERING with a new blouse, but people allowed themselves to ignore this.  I find the poet Philip Larkin very endearing in his art and his vinegary energies, but his jazz prose embodies this point of view, where the world had reached an artistic peak in 1932 with the Rhythmakers recordings and had gone steadily downhill.  I agree with the first part of this formulation but not the second. 

I began my devotional listening as a Fig, so it took a long gradual period of contemplative immersion before I could understand that, say, John Coltrane wasn’t The Enemy out to destroy the music I loved.  In truth, I was never an extremist but I had strong, narrow likes and dislikes.  I remember having a brief conversation with another student in a middle-school Music Appreciation class who was deeply immersed in the New Thing — this was forty-plus years ago and the new thing was Archie Shepp, and the conversation went like this:

“Alan,” which might not be his name, but is a good guess: “I hear you like jazz.”

Me (brightening at having found a fellow subversive): “Oh, yes, I do!”

“Alan”: “Do you listen to Archie Shepp?”

Me (horrified that he hadn’t mentioned Louis, and coming up with a wise-acre New Yorker rejoinder): “Archie Shepp?! I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it!”

“Alan”: “Well, the hell with you!”

So goes critical discourse at its finest! 

I would like to boast that I’ve seen the light and the scales have dropped from my eyes, but if you told me I had to choose only one jazz recording to spend eternity with, it still might be AFTER YOU’VE GONE by the Blue Note Jazzmen, even though I can understand and appreciate music that would have perplexed and repelled me in my youth.  And the music was always there, I just didn’t get it. 

This self-scrutiny is provoked by a phone conversation I had yesterday with Bob Rusch (or RDR), editor and chief spiritual guide of the quarterly journal devoted to Creative Improvised Music, CADENCE.  Full disclosure requires me to say that I write reviews for CADENCE, and I continue to admire the journal’s honesty.  And working with Bob has always been a pleasurable lesson in Emersonian candor: when I have felt an inexplicable need to tactfully cloak the truth in polite words, he has always asked, “Why?” 

If you’ve never read CADENCE, you have been missing something special and rare.  See for yourself (www.cadencebuilding.com).

In the course of our conversation — we speak infrequently, but over the past five years it has always been both bracing and affectionate — Bob said gently that he thought I was “getting more figgish,” and I agreed.  But it made me think, and perhaps my experience will ring true with my readers. 

There used to be “the jazz record industry,” and I am not talking about sixty-five years ago, the Commodore Music Shop, and listening booths.  Ten years ago, perhaps, there were many more active companies producing compact discs.  (If you want to have a sobering experience, casually inspect the spines of any fifty CDs in your library and note how many of those labels no longer exist.)  This, of course, has to do with the economy, an aging audience, and more. 

It has had an double-edged result.  On one hand, no more new issues from Chiaroscuro, no more Pablo, fewer ways for musicians to be encouraged by a label.  But because labels no longer exist, many energetic musicians have gone into business for themselves and produce their own discs.  

This can be a boon: musicians can record what they want, have it sound the way they want, without the interference of recording engineers or the heads of record companies . . . and splendid personal statements emerge.  But this asks musicians to be both courageous and affluent (or at least credit-worthy): a self-produced CD might require a $10,000 investment that the artist might get back over ten years of selling the discs one at a time on the gig.  We should all live and be well! 

(Musician joke: “My latest CD is a million-seller.  I’ve got a million in my cellar.”)

Many players I know have made a virtue of necessity, but I think many of them look back nostalgically to the dear dead days when they got a call to go to a studio at noon to make a date, they played their hearts out, they got paid, and eight months later they knew that the disc they had appeared on was being sold all over the world.  Yes, their control over the music was compromised, their pay was a percentage of the profit, but someone else was handling all the annoying business.  

What this means for someone like myself, reviewing CDs, is that a good deal of what I am asked to listen to is by artists new to me (a good thing) who are offering their own music (potentially a good thing).  And occasionally it leads me to sit up in my chair and say, “By God, (s)he’s got it!”  Melissa Collard was new to me when I first heard her OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, and she is one of those singers whose work I most treasure.  Mark Shane, Kevin Dorn, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Danny Tobias, Lyle Ritz, Andy Brown, Petra van Nuis, and more.  

But much of what I hear is both competent yet entirely forgettable.  I know that Lips Page said, “The material is immaterial,” but hand me a CD full of original compositions by a player and I wonder, “Gee, you’ve already decided that there’s nothing new for you to say on the blues or on I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR?”  Funny, that hasn’t occurred to Sonny Rollins.

And it is sad to receive a CD by a singer or musician, male or female, where great effort has gone into burnishing the exterior at the expense of other things.  When the artist credits his or her hair stylist and wardrobe person first, I think, “Oh no.  Repertoire, not manicure.  No one listens to the cover.” 

So my “figgishness” or “figitude” (both my own coinings) is a way to get back to what music means to me — a spiritual / intellectual / experience that makes me want to grin foolishly and shout exultantly.  I would indeed rather hear a wonderful performance of an original composition by musicians I don’t know than a tired rendition of OUR BUNGALOW OF DREAMS, but I need to hear jazz that makes me remember why I began to listen to the music in the first place: joy, inventiveness, clear delight in being alive in the face of death.  If your listening is purely an intellectual exercise and you find that gratifying, fine, but mine is tied up with the emotions.  Is the music beautiful?  Does it make me feel some strong emotion, preferably happiness?  Can I admire the players?            

So I close this post with a new example of FINEST FIG JAM — pure, organic, and locally sourced.  It’s another YouTube clip from the lucky and generous SFRaeAnn of the Eldorado Serenaders, whose front line is Don Neely on reeds, Robert Young on reeds, trumpet, and vocal, Dave Frey, plectrum banjo, Jim Young, tenor banjo, Steven Rose, sousaphone, Stan Greenberg, percussion.  This performance of BALTIMORE (one of those delightful songs-about-a-new-dance-craze) honors Bix and Wingy and Red, and I think this band is terribly, admirably brave to be shouting it out in a bookstore.  “Fit audience, though few,” said Milton, but he never had to worry about the tip jar.  It was recorded on October 25, 2009 at North Light Books in Cotati, California.