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!