Tag Archives: Randall’s Island

TAKING RISKS, HAVING A BALL: TWO CINEMATIC MASTERPIECES from “THE SOUND OF JAZZ” (1957)

Next to JAMMIN’ THE BLUES and HOT HOUSE, the 1933 footage of Louis in Copenhagen, Duke in CHECK AND DOUBLE CHECK, the silent newsreel film of the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing, the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ might be the most famous film of jazz performance extant.  I’ve seen it in various forms: on a muzzy VCR copy, an improved DVD, and in bits and pieces on YouTube.

And I hope everyone has seen it so many times that it has the gleam of photographs of a dear old friend — lovingly glimpsed from many angles in a leisurely way.

But when the generous collector Franz Hoffmann opened his Henry “Red” Allen box of wonders, I thought, “What if there are some people who haven’t seen ROSETTA and WILD MAN BLUES — ever?”  So in the same way we return to stand awestruck in front of a Sargent portrait or we settle in for a long night with KING LEAR, let us return to these two magical filmed performances.

The first thing, of course, is the music — music made by titans at the peak of their casual achievements.  Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet and vocal; Rex Stewart, cornet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, tenor sax; Nat Pierce, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Milt Hinton, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.

Let us be frank about this band.  It was a gathering of strong personalities — players who demanded space for themselves (perhaps with the exception of Pierce and Barker) who — given the wrong audience, could caricature themselves.  To some this will seem like heresy, but the evidence exists.  But what remains here is an exuberant jostling in the name of the music:  the combat between Red and Rex is subtle and sly, and Jo’s solo — although perhaps a digression — is constrained rather than a show-stopper.

Careful observers will note that in a program ostensibly devoted to the blues, neither ROSETTA nor WILD MAN BLUES is one, although the latter descends into those emotional depths with great fervor.

So one could watch these clips over and over, marveling at the balance between individual ego and cohesion.  What Red Allen does is also an advanced course in leadership.  I know that the band had had a “rehearsal” for the purposes of recording the music for Columbia Records (more about that later) but it’s clear that not much had been worked out aside from the basics: who solos first and for how long.

But I would propose another reason to marvel at these clips, and it’s a silent one — almost in the name of moving sculptures and shadows.  The director of the program, Jack Smight, was a great jazzman himself — not that he played an instrument, but in the chances he took.  This was live television, so his decisions were made on the spot and there were no retakes.  He had five cameramen — their names Bob Heller, Harold Classen, Joe Sokota, Jack Brown, and Marty Tuck.  And Smight moved from one to the other with great logic, sensitivity, and freedom.  Musicians hard at work — in love with their art — are great studies, and these five cameras captured not only the usual visual cliches: the sweating face, distended cheeks, intake and outflow of breath, but the musicians listening and responding to one another.  And to their own creations: one of the most memorable seconds of this is the expression on Rex Stewart’s face after he has pulled off what he understands is a particularly felicitous epigram in WILD MAN BLUES.  It’s self-congratulatory but in a sweetly hilarious way, “Hey, Ma!  Look what I just played!”  And who would deny Rex his pleasure in his own art?

In an era where multiple-camera setups often lead to restlessness that is difficult to endure (even before everyone had a video camera) these cuts and chance-takings are both beautiful and highly rewarding.  I propose something nearly audacious: one could watch these films with the sound off and marvel at the faces and their expressions.  Truly rewarding film of a musical performance is not only the soundtrack, but the way the players present themselves to us, as we see here.

WILD MAN BLUES:

ROSETTA:

And a purely aural note.  In the vinyl era, both a monaural and a stereo record were issued.  They captured the music at the “rehearsal,” December 5, 1957.  (I assume that this session also captured the disembodied voices we hear on the television program, explaining what the blues meant to them.)  Both of those issues were slightly different: at one point in the last minutes of DICKIE’S DREAM, the brass and reeds got out of synch with one another; on one issue, the raggedness is documented (very reassuring for those of us who are not giants on the scale of these players!); on the other, a neater passage and a different Basie piano bridge have been spliced in.  George Avakian was apparently not involved with this project, but Irving Townsend seems to have picked up some of George’s skill with a razor blade.  But — even better! — the CD issue, now possibly difficult to find (Columbia Legacy CK 66082) includes a previously unissued take of WILD MAN BLUES that runs almost nine minutes.  (Much harder to find is the late Bob Hilbert’s vinyl issue on his own Pumpkin label, THE “REAL” SOUND OF JAZZ, which presents the audio from the television show.)

Even if you think you know these performances, I will wager whatever you like that something will come and surprise you in a repeat viewing.  Bless these musicians; bless Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff; bless Smight and his cameramen; bless Franz Hoffmann, too.

SAVORY DELIGHTS

Like many other jazz fans, I first heard the name Bill Savory in the liner notes (by George Avakian) to a series of Benny Goodman airshot performances issued on Columbia Records after the astonishing success of their 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert issues.  I learned that Savory was a pioneering engineer, friend to many jazz musicians, with a special fondness for Goodman and his associates, who had made disc recordings of radio broadcasts in the Thirties. 

Some memorable performances had been made available through his devotion to the music: one that I can hear in my head as I write this was a Goodman Trio version of SWEET LEILANI, complete with energetic tom-tom playing by Gene Krupa, that gave the demure Hawaiian maiden a decidedly uptown flavor.

Through the various Goodman discographies, I later learned that Savory’s collection was substantial.  But that was where it ended until recently — where, in the New York jazz circles I frequent, I began hearing rumors about those discs. 

Now it’s progressed past gossip and whispers: the stuff is here (more or less) and it defines “mellow.” 

How about music from the fabled Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing, which has existed only as silent newsreel footage of the Count Basie band? 

How about performances by Goodman (of course), Teddy Wilson (once on harpsichord), Leo Watson, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Mildred Bailey, Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Charlie Christian, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Bunny Berigan, Bobby Hackett, Billie Holiday . . . . ? 

The collection has been brought to light through the long-term and tireless efforts of Loren Schoenberg — not only a fine tenor saxophonist and bandleader in his own right, but the head of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem — who made the pilgrimage to Malta, Illinois, where Savory’s son had kept the thousand or so discs.  And who better to take over the difficult job of transferring those that could be rescued but our friend Doug Pomeroy, who decided that he didn’t exactly feel like retiring once he heard some of the music coming from those unique recordings. 

Now the whuspers have turned into reality, and we wait to hear the results.  I don’t know how long — or in what fashion — the music will eventually reach us.  Loren has proposed that this musical treasure will become part of the Museum’s digital trove . . . but until that happens, here’s some more fascinating information . . . taken from the pages of The New York Times, which doesn’t often make a point of mentioning Chu Berry in its first section!

But wait!  There’s more!  How about some tantalizing snippets from the collection (just enough to induce hysteria among the faithful).  (Click on JAZZ LOST AND FOUND under the photograph to the left for some audio magic):

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/arts/music/17jazz.html?hp=&pagewanted=all

And (closer to the end of the article) there’s an astonishing video showing the esteemed Messrs. Schoenberg and Pomeroy . . . the latter, a master at work, restoring these treasures.

And a Times story on Coleman Hawkins, 1940:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/18/arts/music/18savory.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1
=y

And the Museum will be presenting four programs on these treasures as part of their Tuesday evening JAZZ FOR CURIOUS LISTENERS series, held from 7:00 – 8:30PM at our Visitors Center, 104 E. 126th Street, NY, NY 10035.  

September 7 – You Won’t Believe It – An Overview

September 14 – Tenor Madness – Lester Young/Coleman Hawkins/Chu Berry/Herschel Evans

September 21 – Trumpet Titans – Louis Armstrong/Roy Eldridge/Harry James/Bunny Berigan

September 28 – Jam Sessions – Benny Goodman/Bobby Hackett/Lionel Hampton/Slim and Slam

Savory indeed!

P.S.  I apologize to the New York jazz aficionados, for whom this post is already old news; they have already made their appointments to visit the Museum.  This is for my readers for whom New York jazz gossip is not their daily breakfast chat . . . and for the sheer pleasure of writing about these treasures!

TEARING IT UP! (Vic Berton and Friends, 1928)

Walt Roesner and his Capitolians — the large all-star all-purpose orchestra that appeared at the Capitol Theatre in New York City — made a Vitaphone short film in 1928.  Two-thirds of the film is given over to 1) an impassioned tenor singing O SOLE MIO, and 2) an impassioned tenor singing ANGELA MIA.  Although these specialties are beautifully performed, they lack a certain savor or liveliness. 

But the last number by the orchestra is Hot, truly so.  And members of the band get to show off their considerable (sometimes quirky) solo talents in brief outings — with some of the most famous names in jazz doing their bit: how about Jimmy Dorsey, Arthur Schutt, Rube Bloom, Miff Mole, Leo McConville, Bruce Yantis, Vic Berton, Nat Brusiloff, Jimmy Lytell . . . ?!

I would not have posted this for the famous names alone — but I saw the entire short film recently for the first time and found myself watching the last number several times in a row, delighting in the music and the smiles on the faces of the musicians while their fellow players went at it.  And I found myself insisting that the Beloved watch Rube Bloom and vic Berton in tandem — and that pleased her, too.  I found this segment posted on Dailymotion with very accurate identifications, thanks to  somename who goes by the alias “lordlister.” 

So here it is, with commentary:

 

The eye is at first struck by the sheer number of beautifully-dressed men on the bandstand: twenty-five, perhaps, all with white flowers in their buttonholes.  Two pianos, a plethora of violins, bowed string bass, bowed cello.  Drummer Vic Berton standing in the rear amongst a good deal of percussion, including tympani.  Roesner opens this number with the cheerful explanation that his musicians have had an appropriately “heated argument” about which one of them is the hottest man in the band.  Not a bad idea.  The bouncy tune that opens the proceedings is I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED by Fats Waller and Jo Trent (a song, which, like many famous hummable Waller tunes, repeats one catchy phrase often as a melody line) — recorded most memorably in this period by two fellows named Beiderbecke and Trumbauer, as “The Chicago Loopers.”  Berton is particularly marvelous to watch, keeping time on the tympani with one hand while accenting a choked cymbal, sometimes visiting the head of his huge wooden bass drum — his legs spread to allow him to reach both places, raher like a wooden soldier in those white trousers.  I would have been very happy for the band to explore this tune at this tempo for the rest of the film, but the premise moves into a solo features, which allow us to see these musicians on camera in their prime rather than as faces in the ensemble.  (Many of them look particularly dark around the eyes: whether this was cinematic makeup or lighting of the time or a lack of sleep, I am sure one of my readers knows.)  And the cameraman seems reasonably content with having one-half of an additional musician in the frame, and neatly lopping off the head or hairline of a soloist — but he seems to know what’s going on and to go in for a close-up before everything has concluded. 

Up first after a piano modulation, Jimmy Dorsey on alto saxophone offers one of his particularly virtuosic solo choruses (in a manner beloved of Frank Trumbauer and Rudy Wiedoeft) showing off his incredible technique instead of hot improvisation.  This kind of playing — here superimposed over TIGER RAG — was a JD specialty (hear OODLES OF NOODLES, for one example).  Violinist Nat Brusiloff, next to Dorsey, is enjoying the chorus immensely.  And JD must have been famous by this time; he is announced by name.

Then, showing that you don’t have to go fast to play Hot, we have a memorable twenty or so seconds of one of jazz’s most forgotten men, trombonist Miff Mole, offering a chorus of HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO? complete with breaks (Berton has switched to wire brushes, as we see).  From this distance, Miff no longer seems as radical, as dashing as, say, Jack Teagarden or Dicky Wells, but his solo is masterful: the variations in tone and the way he gets gracefully but precisely from note to note, vocalizing the melody beautifully — and adding that lovely coda.  It sounds very simple but it’s an example of how much he must have amazed all the musicians, Hot and legit, for a long time.   I call your attention to Miff’s easy command of the horn and especially his glistening upper register, not the usual realm for most Twenties trombonists.

Violinist Nat Brusiloff (famous in radio as a conductor and for his early work with Kate Smith — his grandson is trombonist David Sager) offers more variations on the same theme . . . on what sounds like an intensely scratchy violin, with no apparent bow.  I’m told he is playing a “single-hair” solo, which I assume is one hair taken from his bow, but the physics of the whole thing are beyond me, in a good way.  Tell me where the other end of the single-hair is, please?  And at the very end of the solo, Brusiloff permits himself the slightest glimmer of an impish grin, “Geez, I pulled that one off, didn’t I, now?”  More violin acrobatics will follow. 

Banjoist Lou (Luigi) Calabrese, who might have been noticeable from the start for the way he has stretched his legs out in front of him, then plays an incredibly fast and stunning chorus of IDA, romping in what seems like double double time over ensemble chords, his fingers flashing over the frets more quickly than anyone would expect them to — and not a note smudged or smeared.  Something pretty follows (it would have to):  clarinetist Jimmy Lytell, looking shlyly sideways, gently swaying his body, pensively ambling through the melody of his own A BLUES SERENADE (composed with pianist Frank Signorelli), the reed player to his right curiously impassive through it all.  (Lytell gets lovely backing from the bowed bass seen to his right and from Berton’s tympani.)

What happens next is a highlight.  Pianist-singer-composer (DON’T WORRY ‘BOUT ME) Rube Bloom gets up from the piano for his limber almost-comic turn on DINAH.  He isn’t a splendid singer, but he’s got a rocking rhythmic engine reminiscent of Harry Barris, and he’s clearly having a fine time.  The long shot allows us to notice Berton, shifting around his set with tympani mallets, but then, halfway through, our attention shifts to Berton, who is “tearing it up” in a way that goes beyond the hip cliche — he’s actually tearing strips off of something (a square piece of fabric?) with each tear a rhythmic accent like a tap dancer or a sand dancer.  And the cameraman is sufficiently entranced eventually to move in for a close-up of this hilarious and marvelous rhythmic feat, remembering at the end that Bloom is supposed to be the headliner, even though he has had the spotlight stolen away from him.  (Incidentally, the much more sedate second pianist to the right is Arthur Schutt.) 

But violinist Bruce Yantis (someone I know only from a few late-Twenties sides with Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, and Gene Krupa) is ready to follow Berton and Bloom with his violin solo a la  Joe Venuti, his bow disassembled and strapped around his violin so that the hairs play all four strings at once — it looks like fun but it isn’t easy to do well.  Luigi Calabrese has clearly heard Eddie Lang, as he should have. 

Before the ensemble gets itself together (we never find out who the hottest man in the band is or was, although my vote is split between Miff and Vic Berton) trumpeter Leo McConville, usually hidden next to Red Nichols, gets off with a very brief Hot solo (a half-valve flourish at the end?)  on the closing I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED.

This short seems an ideal window into the best of the Hot late Twenties: that decade’s version of the 1938 Randall’s Island footage, but with sound and close-ups.  A ripping yarn!