Tag Archives: Pied Piper

REVERE THE DEAD, EMBRACE THE LIVING

From an English formal garden, 2010, a flower that is very much alive. Photograph by Michael Steinman

When does deep reverence become a self-created prison?

With my video camera, I attempt to capture what I think of as emotionally powerful performances by musicians playing and singing in 2012.  I don’t expect everyone to share my preferences.  But a comment posted on a YouTube video of an artist who isn’t yet forty took me by surprise.  Here it is, paraphrased:

Younger Artist’s performance is alright but isn’t distinct enough. Where are the Xs, Ys, and Zs (insert the names of Great Dead Musicians here)?

My first reaction was annoyance on behalf of the Younger Artist, someone whose work I admire, being made tiny in comparison with The Heroic Dead.

And then I felt sad for the commenter, whose ears were so full of the dead artists he loved that he didn’t have room in his consciousness for someone living who sounded different.

Many of us who love this music have spent a long time entranced by the sounds and images of those people who have “made the transition,” who are no longer on the planet.  Charlie Christian and Jimmie Blanton died before I was born, and that doesn’t obstruct my admiration for them.  So a historical perspective — something to be cultivated — has a good deal of reverence for the dead as its foundation.  Otherwise the reader / listener / viewer chases Novelty: this is the best band because it’s the newest, and Thursday’s child is fairer of face than Tuesday’s.  What was his name again?

But for some listeners, the dark shadow of NOT AS GOOD AS hangs over their experience of this lively art.  So that Kid J, a wonderful musician, is somehow unworthy when compared to Bix, Louis, Bunk, Coltrane, Jo, Billie . . .  And because we can so easily acquire almost every note that Lester Young or Peggy Lee (to pick names at random) recorded, we can fill our ears and iPods with the almost three-dimensional aural presence of our Gods and Goddesses from morning to night.  Very seductive!

What if that idolatry closes the door on our ability to appreciate the men and women who are creating it LIVE for us in clubs, concerts, dance halls, videos, discs, and the like?  The experience of being in the same place as musicians who are improvising is not the same as listening to a recording or even watching the video clip.

The improviser or improvisers creates something new and tangy, something that didn’t exist before, right in front of us.  And if there’s no one recording it with a video camera or an iPhone, it’s gone into memory.  The people on the bandstand giggle, take a deep breath, wipe their faces, take a swig of water, and prepare to create something vibrant on the next song.

This williingness to take risks in the name of music is very brave and very beautiful, and we should embrace the living people who are attempting to make a living by making art.  There will be time to sit on the couch and listen to records or mp3s.  There will be time to make critical judgments that the Living aren’t as good as the Dead.

In the recent past, I have heard tenor saxophonists who made me feel the same way Ben Webster does, pianists who make me as elated as Mel Powell does . . . and I could keep both perceptions in my mind, honoring the living and the dead.

I am not, by the way, saying that Everyone has to like Everything.  My own range is narrow by many people’s standards.  But when I hear an artist I’ve never encountered before, and (s)he elates me, it is a deep reward.  It doesn’t mean I am being disloyal to the dead if I applaud a living musician, does it?  But I think some people live in the land of Either / Or and thus, unwittingly, cut themselves off from possible pleasure.

I imagine someone, seventeen or so, walking past the Greenwich Village club called THE PIED PIPER or the RIVIERA (the latter stands, although without music) in 1944, looking at the sandwich sign on the street, advertising James P. Johnson, Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, Frank Orchard . . . and thinking, “Nah.  He’s no Fats Waller; he’s no Bix; he’s no Tesch; he’s no Jimmy Harrison,” and choosing not to go in . . . and having the next fifty or sixty years to regret his choice.

Artists (and people) are perhaps only Different . . . not Better or Worse.

May your happiness increase.

THE PIED PIPER, 1940

Pee Wee Russell, in the center of a group of admiring children at the Little Red School House, New York City, 1940 — photographed by the ever-inventive Charles Peterson:

As is the case with any Peterson photograph, one not only reads the visual information on the surface but intuits a story of a moment or moments captured for those of us not even born in 1940. 

We don’t get to see enough of the children’s faces, but their expressions — ranging from exultant to puzzled — say a great deal about the sounds Charles Ellsworth Russell gave to his listeners. 

I don’t know what to say about the oddly industrial-looking ceiling, and I assume that horizontal stripes were the thing in children’s fashions in 1940.  Pee Wee (whisper it) needs a shave, although he’s wearing a neat striped suit, pocket handketchief properly aligned . . . so we can assume that a morning session with the young students was far too early for him. 

But his expression was exultant: if he was hungover, if he hadn’t been to bed, no matter: he was the Pied Piper leading this young band of boys and girls to jazz.

Thanks to Charles (Russell) and Charles (Peterson) and Don (Peterson) for this precious portrait.

FIRST-HAND: PAUL NOSSITER REMEMBERS ROD CLESS

This is the first of what I hope is a long series — first-hand testimony from the men and women who were there, about their jazz heroes and more. 

Paul Nossiter is a veteran jazz improviser, educator, and writer — on the scene for a long time and still gigging in the New England area.  We spoke in October 2010 about his early experiences with the legendary clarinetist Rod Cless.

I had an older brother, Bud (for Bernard): he was my guru.  He was a swing fan in the early Forties, and I worshipped him, so I became a swing fan.  My idea was that Benny Goodman must have been 25 or 30 years old.  Benny was going to die, and I was going to replace him!  He was going to fade away, and I had to be prepared to take his place. 

We had been collecting big-band jazz records, and then one Thanksgiving my brother saw that the Village Vanguard was going to have a jam session, and he and my cousin (who was a year older, in high school) persuaded my mother to take them, and I horned in on it. 

It wasn’t a jam session.  It was a quartet I will never forget.  Zutty Singleton, Pops Foster, Art Hodes (the only white man I ever heard who really could play the blues) and this lean, tall, weird-looking clarinet player.  So tall that they called him Pee Wee — Pee Wee Russell.

It was a karmic experience for both my brother and me.  We felt we’d heard the truth.  we went home and began to throw our 78 records of swing out the window into the courtyard below, until the super came up, cursed us roundly, and we stopped.

We got into that kind of jazz, and he began to collect records by the Condon gang, all those wonderful people, and I finally got a clarinet and began to take lessons.  We went to concerts, and eventually heard Bunk Johnson at Stuyvesant Casino.

Once, Bud was in Nick’s in Greenwich Village, and Rod Cless was playing with a group.  (I was too young to go by myself.)  And he said to Rod, “I’ve got a kid brother who wants to learn to play jazz.”  Rod said, “Well, I’ve never taught anyone.”  Bud said, “Why don’t you give him some lessons, and see?”  And that’s how it started.  I can’t remember what he got paid — maybe ten dollars. 

Once a week, Rod would come up to the apartment we lived in on West 77th Street, and teach me by ear the jazz repertoire that Condon and Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band played.  Rod would teach me, bit by bit, JADA, BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME, and some of the faster ones.  He would play the melody, and then I would play after him.  He would say, “No, that note’s wrong.  You need to use two fingers.”  It was very much Montessori-ish.  Then when I finally learned the tune, I would have to play it for him, and he would play a counter-melody behind me. 

One of the things Rod had with him when he came up was a pint bottle, because he drank continuously.  He probably put away a fifth during the day, nibbling at it, and another fifth at night, when he worked.  It didn’t seem to affect his playing (eventually I went to places where I could hear him play).  He had a very large nose — almost a fighter’s nose or an alcoholic’s nose — and when he drank it got bright red.  Once, Rod was taking a sip from his pint bottle when my father walked in.  And I thought, “Oh, shit!  There goes my lessons.”  My father turned on his heel, shut the door and went out.  And he came back about ten minutes later and said to Rod, “If you’re going to drink, drink something good,” and put a bottle of Scotch on the table.   

After school, I used to practice with the Commodore records that we collected, playing melody with those records.  (And the nice thing was that if the band made a mistake, I could pick up the needle and start over again!)

That was another very important part of my life, when we started to collect records — going down Sixth Avenue and visiting all the used record stores, looking for Louis and Bessie and Muggsy.  Then I would wind up at the Commodore Record Shop.  It was wonderful — walls of records stacked up and four or five listening booths!  Can you believe it?  You would ask for the records you wanted, they would hand them to you, and you would take them back into a booth and sit in a leather chair and play them.  I could afford one record a week, so the record I bought had to be absolutely perfect.  Every solo had to be just right, every chorus, the ensemble . . . so bit by bit I amassed a collection of these records. 

After about eight months or a year of these once-a-week sessions with Rod, he said, “Right.  Now I’m going to play the melody.  You play something else.”  And I said, “What?  What will I play?”  Rod said, “Haven’t you been listening?”  And that’s how I got thrown into the water.  I did have an ear for harmony, and I played very simple stuff behind him, and we would play duets this way. 

Rod was not a very vocal person.  He didn’t speak a lot.  He was very quiet, and very gentle.  Never critical of my playing.  He was absolutely different from any teacher I’d had before or since.  And by the time I was a senior in high school, I could sit in at Jimmy Ryan’s occasionally.  The last number, BUGLE CALL RAG, anybody in the house who had an instrument could play two choruses.       

(I got to meet James P. Johnson because Rod was working in a band that included him at the Pied Piper — a wonderful band with James P. playing, and you’d go up to him and he’d carry on a conversation with you without stopping.)

I’ve been wonderfully lucky!

WHO REMEMBERS ROD CLESS?

Many of the greatest artists make their creations sound simple.  Think of Bing Crosby, Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Count Basie.

Clarinetist Rod Cless belongs to their ranks, but seems a forgotten man.

And he deserves better.

In the ensembles, he has some of the daredevil quality one associates with Pee Wee Russell and Frank Teschmacher, diving-off-the-high-board descents from a quavering note.  But the rough edges are smoothed down, the vibrato more songful, less fierce.

In his solos, Cless sounds like someone who knows the beauty of the clarinet’s low register, the virtues of thoughtful space.  He takes his time.  He has something to convey, and it can’t be hurried; it needs a kind of plaintive candor.

And although his harmony is not abstruse, his phrases more regular than abrupt, what he has to tell us sounds familiar only because so many players coming after him have absorbed his message without even being entirely aware of it.

I hear the influence of Jimmie Noone in the full, round lower register, as well as touches of deep New Orleans blues.  But also — even though there are no phrases copied from the master, it is not hard to hear the ghostly influence of Bix in Cless’s soulful restraint.

Here are three more sides with Hodes from a 1942 Decca date with an illustrious personnel that didn’t otherwise gather in the studios: Sidney DeParis, trumpet; Brad Gowans, valve-trombone; Cless; Hodes; Condon; Earl Murphy, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.

LIBERTY INN DRAG, another slow blues, where Cless gets only a chorus, but the rest of the band is so fine:

On a sprightly INDIANA, Cless sounds at his most Russelian.  Both he and Gowans play wonderful ensemble embroideries in the opening and closing choruses (the sound of Condon’s guitar thoughout is a special pleasure, as are Zutty’s drums behind Hodes):

GEORGIA CAKE WALK (also known as AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING) reminds of how well Sidney DeParis played in these settings.  A floating Hodes interlude leads into one of those Cless statements that seem perfectly simple until one listens closely:

Who was Cless?  Much of what I’ve learned comes from the biography by Bob Najouks to be found on http://www.kcck.org/iowa_jazz_connections.php.  I’ve added some details from other surveys written by Eugene Chadbourne (whose account is to be found on the fine ON THIS DAY IN JAZZ AGE MUSIC site):

Cless was born in 1907 in Lennox, Iowa.  He was a fine athlete and accomplished clarinetist who also doubled on saxophone.  The start of his enlightenment seems to have been a six-week engagement that Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverine Orchestra played in Riverview Park Ballroom in Des Moines in 1925: Cless came every night.

Frank Teschmacher, the brilliant young Chicagoan, befriended Cless, and Cless came to Chicago two years later as a professional musician — an intimate of Eddie Condon and Bud Freeman (Cless married Freeman’s sister).  I’ve read that Cless played in the Varsity Five, a hot band much admired at Iowa State University, but do not know if he attended college there.

In Chicago, both Tesch and Cless worked with Charles Pierce, whose name is on a number of famous hot recordings of that period.  He toured with Frank Quartrell’s band and visited New Orleans for the first time.  (Did he hear Raymond Burke and Johnny Wiggs, and did they talk about Bix?  One wonders.)

Returning to Chicago, he worked with trumpeter Louis Panico at the Wig Wam Club and found employment in reed section of dance orchestras.  He also made extra money teaching clarinet.

He may have gained the most attention as a member of Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band in 1939 — that band had an extended run at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago (where they played opposite Fats Waller and his Rhythm) and were enough of a sensation to make sixteen sides for the Bluebird label.  (A CD reissue of this material, with alternate takes, brings the total to 24.)

After Spanier disbanded the Ragtime Band, Cless worked with Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes, Ed Farley, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, and Bobby Hackett.

But Cless’s marriage failed, and his drinking grew heavier.  Walking home from the last night of a job at the Pied Piper (where he played alongside his friend Max Kaminsky) in December 1944, Cless fell over the balcony of his apartment building and died four days later at 37.  In his autobiography, Kaminsky blamed himself for not walking Cless home — even though Cless insisted that he could make it himself.

Here’s an extended solo by Cless on the Hodes-led FAREWELL BLUES, for Art’s short-lived Jazz Record label.  The casual listener may hear in it only variations on familiar arpeggiated patterns, with suggestions of Johnny Dodds, but there’s more:

And to conclude (for this post), here’s something quite atypical — JAZZ ME BLUES by Frank Teschmacher’s Chicagoans, recorded in April 1928.  Tesch plays clarinet and alto; Cless plays alto; Mezz Mezzrow is on tenor saxophone; the rhythm section is Joe Sullivan, Jim Lanigan, Eddie Condon, and Gene Krupa.  This track comes from www.redhotjazz.com: http://www.redhotjazz.com/ftc.html.

Those fascinated by the sound of Rod Cless can find several more examples on YouTube — where a number of the Bluebird sides from 1939 by Muggsy Spanier and his Ragtime Band — are available.

Cless also turns up on a singularly relaxed session for Commodore which features Kaminsky, valve trombonist Frank Orchard, and James P. Johnson.  Nearly the same band — with Willie “the Lion” Smith on piano recorded for Decca and for Black and White.

And in Cless’s last year, ironically, he had his only opportunity to lead a record session — for the Black and White label, featuring James P., Stirling Bose, and Pops Foster.  Those four sides were once available on a Pickwick anthology CD.

Eight others (plus a few alternate takes) by a 1940 Hodes group called the CHICAGO RHYTHM KINGS (pictured at top) — one session featuring Marty Marsala, Cless, Hodes, Earl Murphy, and Jack Goss on guitar; four trio sides with Cless, Hodes, and Murphy (originally recorded by Bob Thiele and several of the trio sides reissued on Doctor Jazz) are difficult to find (the last complete issue of the issued takes was a 10″ Riverside lp, which is now fifty-five years ago).

More accessible are the recordings Hodes made for his own short-lived Jazz Record label, which have been reissued on a Jazzology CD.  (One of the ironies is that Hodes admired Cless greatly and used him on record dates whenever possible, which is a great blessing — although many Hodes recordings have extended outings from their leader, sometimes restricting the other members of the band in their solos on a 78 issue.)

I plan to return to Cless as a subject in a future post, although from a different angle.  I hope to interview one of the elder members of the jazz tribe, someone who actually took lessons from Cless in the early Forties.  Until then, I suggest that Cless is worth close and repeated listenings.