Tag Archives: Raymond Burke

DISMISSED, DERIDED, DELICIOUS: THE VARSITY SEVEN: 1939 and 1940

If you consider an artist’s works in chronological sequence (bibliography as well as discography) certain landmarks blot out their neighbors.  In the case of Coleman Hawkins, there’s BODY AND SOUL, then the Hampton Victor date, then his big band — leading up to the small-group sessions of 1943-44 for Signature, Keynote, Savoy, and more.

The Varsity Seven sides — full of delights — recorded in December 1939 and January 1940 — haven’t received the admiration they deserve.  Hawkins’ admiring biographer, the diligent John Chilton, calls them “a pastiche of Dixieland.”  I disagree.

The Varsity label (please note the transparent pseudonyms for Hawkins and Carter) was run by Eli Oberstein, and it never seems to have been entirely out in the open.  I don’t know that Oberstein was the equal of Herman Lubinsky of Savoy, but Eli seems to have been ingenious in his dealings.  I believe the masters of these and other sessions were bought by Savoy, and thus the trail to licit reissues is complex.  Were they Victor sessions, they would have been available straightforwardly for decades now, including “official” CD issue.

Another side-note is that the session — one or both? — was co-produced by Leonard Feather and Warren Scholl, which may account for a Feather composition being there.  I knew two sides from this date because my Long Island friend Tom Piazza played them for me, forty-plus years ago: SHAKE IT AND BREAK IT and A PRETTY GIRL IS LIKE A MELODY.  I don’t know where each of the musicians was working in 1939-40, whether Fifty-Second Street or Cafe Society or uptown, but they come together to create great jazz.  Cheerful Jeanne Burns (known for work with Adrian Rollini and Wingy Manone) is a liability, but we’ve all heard less polished singers.  Here’s the information for the first session.

Benny Carter, trumpet, alto saxophone; Danny Polo, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Joe Sullivan, piano; Ulysses Livingston, guitar, vocal; Artie Bernstein, string bass; George Wettling, drums; Jeanne Burns, vocal.  New York, December 14, 1939.

IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (Burns, vocal).  The first two choruses — bless Sullivan and Wettling, who are bringing Jimmy Ryan’s to a record date or doing the Commodore? — are flawless.  Ms. Burns has pitch trouble, but I concentrate on Sullivan behind her.  Polo and Livingston (the latter sounding much like a sweet Teddy Bunn) aren’t derailed by the young lady, and then Hawkins charges in, “I’m back from Europe, and let me remind you who is still King!”  My idea of perfection is of course subjective, but the instrumental portions of this recording stand up with any other of this period:

EASY RIDER (Burns, Livingston, vocal).  Hawkins starts off rhapsodically, and is then relieved by Polo, whose sound in itself is an aural landscape, no matter how simple his phrases.  (In this, he reminds me of poets Joe Marsala, Raymond Burke, and Edmond Hall.)  Ms. Burns Is much more at ease at this tempo and in this range, and her unusual mixture of Mae West and Mildred Bailey is her most successful vocal.  Livingston’s vaudeville couplets are harmlessly archaic counterpoint, leading in to an ensemble where Carter and Polo take up most of the space, leaving Hawkins little to do.  One must admire the lovely drumming of Wettling — and how beautifully Artie Shapiro’s bass comes through — before the consciously “old-timey” ending:

SCRATCH MY BACK is the one Leonard Feather composition, and a charming one, revisited by Dan Barrett a few years ago.  I can’t figure out the changes beneath the melody — an experienced friend / musician says the first strain is similar to YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME.  I love the opening ensemble, and Shapiro’s deep notes behind Polo, then Sullivan’s rollicking solo chorus, where Wettling is having a wonderful time — and the passage where Sullivan abstracts the melody for great dramatic effect.  Then — what’s this? — a glorious alto solo by “Billy Carton” (heir to the cardboard box fortune) punctuated by a Livingston blues-pastoral.  Everyone steps aside for Hawkins, and a recap of the theme with Livingston adding sweet arpeggiated chords.  No complaints here:

SAVE IT PRETTY MAMA (Burns, vocal).  Aside from the ending, I don’t think of this as “Dixieland”: rather a series of splendid improvisations from Carter, Sullivan, and two choruses from Hawkins — over a gently propulsive and balanced rhythm section.  I find Burns’ version of Mildred Bailey’s upper-register-vibrato jarring, but I was listening to Polo, murmuring sweet limpid asides, and the rhythm section while she sang:

Fast forward to January 15, 1940: the same personnel except Big Joe Turner replaces Burns, an improvement.

And in his honor, they began with HOW LONG, HOW LONG BLUES.  In the opening ensemble, Hawkins is nearly submerged (could this have been what irritated Chilton?) which leads into a lovely chorus by Polo — with plain-spoken rhythm section work.  Then, Big Joe, in glowing voice, supported by a very powerful Sullivan, with lovely ensemble encouragements.  It almost seems as if Hawkins has been waiting his chance, and he takes it eloquently, before Big Joe and the band return.  At 2:23, apparently Turner has momentarily forgotten the lyric couplet or has gotten distracted.  A fine improvised ensemble closes off the record, with a Wettling accent.  This side seems slightly under-rehearsed, but the looseness adds to its charm:

SHAKE IT AND BREAK IT has always been a favorite, and this vocal version is a prize.  If there’s a sound more engaging than this rhythm section following Sullivan, I have yet to hear it.  Big Joe sounds positively exuberant (in touch with the lyrics); Polo and Livingston keep the forward motion going , and everyone is even more gleeful for Joe’s second chorus (“rub it all over the wall”) before particularly hot choruses by Carter and Hawkins follow, leading to jamming (with Wettling happily prominent) to end the record.  If this is “Dixieland,” I want many more sides:

A PRETTY GIRL IS LIKE A MELODY was not a song much utilized for jam session recordings, but to have it here is a pleasure.  I wonder if Oberstein said, “No more blues, fellows!  Let’s have a hot one!” as Big Joe left the studio.  Or it just seemed like a melodic yet under-played Berlin song, taken a little quicker than I imagine it was done in the Ziegfeld Follies.  A very simple — even cliched — vamp led by Livingston starts things off before Polo takes the lead — which surprisingly turns into an ensemble passage, then a wonderfully quirky Sullivan solo AND Hawkins leaping into his chorus with the zeal of a great athlete (powerful playing from Shapiro, Livingston, and Wettling) — then a magnificent Carter solo and a romping ensemble close.  This is one of the most successful sides of the eight:

And, finally, POM POM, a Carter original which might be a phrase from one of his solos scored for small band, with a particularly light scoring: I would have thought the opening 16 was scored for alto, clarinet, and tenor, but for the speed with which Carter plays trumpet on the bridge.  Polo’s chorus is so tenderly levitating that if you, hearing his work on this session, don’t want to hear more, then I have failed.  Hawkins is energized in his two-chorus solo, reminding me of the trio records he made in 1937, especially in his powerful second chorus — but Carter is as elegant a mountain-climber as I can imagine (with a distinct similarity to Joe Thomas or Bill Coleman of this period); another piece of swing lace-weaving from Livingston, and the record gracefully winds down — simultaneously hot and gentle.  Is that a recording engineer’s “fade” or simply everyone getting softer?  I don’t know, but it’s very sweet:

These aren’t flawless records. Some of them might have benefited from a second take.  But they are uplifting examples of the stars willing to come in and play two dates for what I imagine was scale.  All in a day’s work — and how glorious the results are.

May your happiness increase!

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“I GIVE UP!” TIMES TEN

surrender1

Is surrender capitulating to an enemy, saying “I give up.  You are stronger.” or is it an enlightened act, a realization that there are powers we can’t conquer and that the idea of conquering anything is futile?

I SURRENDER DEAR

I’ve always found I SURRENDER, DEAR — so powerfully connected to Bing Crosby — both touching and mysterious.  As Gordon Clifford’s lyrics tell us, the singer is saying, in effect, “Take me back. Here is my heart.  I give up all pretense of being distant.  I need you,” which is deeply moving, a surrender of all ego-barriers and pretense.  But I’ve never been able to figure out whether “Here, take my heart,” is  greeted with “I’d love to welcome you back,” or “No thanks, I’m full.”  Other songs hold out the possibility of reconciliation (consider IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE or WE JUST COULDN’T SAY GOODBYE) but this one ends unresolved.  It’s also one of those songs that lends itself to a variety of interpretations: both Bing and Louis in the same year, then a proliferation of tenor saxophonists, and pianists from Monk to Garner to Teddy. And (before the music starts) probably thanks to Roy Eldridge, there’s also an honored tradition of slipping into double-time.

I_Surrender_Dear_(1931_film)_advert

Here, however, are ten versions that move me.

January 1931: Bing Crosby with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra.  Note the orchestral flourishes:

Later that same year: Victor Young and the Brunswick Concert Orchestra, featuring Frank Munn, not enough of the Boswell Sisters (acting as their own concert orchestra) and a few seconds of Tommy Dorsey.  I think this was an effort to show that Paul Whiteman didn’t have a monopoly on musical extravagance, and I’ve never seen a label credit “Paraphrased by . . . “.  I also note the vocal bridge turns to 3/4, and Munn sings “are doing” rather than “were doing,” but we wait patiently for the Sisters to appear, and they do:

Imagine anyone better than Ben Webster?  Here, in 1944, with our hero Hot Lips Page:

Forward several decades: Joe Venuti, Zoot Sims, John Bunch, Milt Hinton, Bobby Rosengarden 1975:

1978 — a duet of Earl Hines and Harry Edison:

Raymond Burke, Butch Thompson, Cie Frazier in New Orleans, 1979:

and something I was privileged to witness and record, flapping fan blades and all, from February 2010 (Tamar Korn, Gordon Au, Dennis Lichtman, Marcus Milius, Debbie Kennedy):

Ray Skjelbred, Marc Caparone, Jim Buchmann, Katie Cavera, Beau Sample, Hal Smith, at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2014:

Nobody follows Louis.  1931:

and the majestic version from 1956:

A little tale of the powers of Surrender.  In years past, I would drive into Manhattan, my car full of perishables, and search for a parking spot.  Of course there were none.  I could feel the gelato melting; I could feel my blood pressure rising contrapuntally.  Frustrated beyond belief, I would roll down my window and ask the Parking Goddess for her help.  “I do not ask for your assistance that often, and I admit that I cannot do this on my own.  I am powerless without your help.  Will you be merciful to me?”  And I would then circle the block again and a spot would have opened up.  My theory is that such supplication works only if one is willing to surrender the ego, the facade of one’s own power.  Of course it has also been known to work for other goals, but that is an essay beyond the scope of JAZZ LIVES.

For now, surrender whole-heartedly and see what happens.

May your happiness increase!

A FRIEND OF OURS: JIM BRANSON REMEMBERS GEORGE FINOLA

Cornetist George FInola (1945-2000) didn’t live long enough, but was loved and respected by many.  (Hoagy Carmichael was a fan.) He spent his life in Chicago and New Orleans, playing gigs and advancing jazz scholarship — helping to establish the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

I had only known of George because of his 1965 debut recording — where he is paired with notable friends Paul Crawford, Raymond Burke, Armand Hug, Danny and Blue Lu Barker:

george finola lpand, just because they exist, here’s a Finola autograph:

george finola autograph

and a matchbook ad for a New Orleans gig:

george-finola-on-cornet-matchbook

My friend Harriet Choice, the esteemed jazz writer, had spoken to me of George — “a very dear person” — but I had never met anyone who had known him, not until September 2014.

Jim Branson and I later found out we had been at many of the same California jazz events (Jim and his wife live in Berkeley) but until Jim said something about George from the audience of the Allegheny Jazz Party, I had no idea of their close and long-term connection.  On my most recent visit to California, Jim very graciously told me stories of a precocious and singular friend.  And it seemed only appropriate to have George’s record playing in the background:

Later, Jim remembered this: When George taught himself to play cornet he learned the incorrect fingering, holding down the third valve instead of the first and second for certain notes and correcting by altering his lip pressure slightly.  This is the same mistake that Bix reputedly made when he taught himself to play.  Did George do it by mistake, or did he do it on purpose because he knew that Bix had done the same thing?

Randy Sandke had crossed paths with George as well:  George and I went to different high schools in Chicago but both grew up on the South Side, him in South Shore and me in Hyde Park. I met him at Bob Koester and Joe Siegel’s record shop, Seymour’s. I put on a record and he came over and said “is Bix on that?” After that we became friends and discovered we both played cornet. We met and jammed together and also exchanged reel-to-reel tapes of 78s we had that at that time had not been reissued. I saw him in New Orleans a few times after that. I always enjoyed his playing and he has a lot of friends from NO that I still see, so his name comes up in conversation. I was very sad to hear of his premature death. More people should have heard him play and known who he was.

Other people who have stories of George are New Orleanians Banu Gibson, David Boeddinghaus, and Connie and Elaine Jones . . . perhaps there will be more tales of this beautiful player and intriguing man — and I am sure that some JAZZ LIVES readers knew him too.

May your happiness increase!

CORNET MASTERS: GEORGE FINOLA, DOC EVANS, REX STEWART

Cornet

Although I never was drawn to cigarette smoking, I remember personalized matchbooks with fondness — whether they encouraged you to sign up for correspondence courses or to revisit a restaurant or night club.  They were portable advertising before Facebook, business cards that had more than one use.  Here are two jazz-related ones, courtesy of eBay, that house of surprises.

One celebrates a New Orleans gig and a much-missed cornet player, a man of great lyricism, who made his debut recording in the company of Armand Hug, Raymond Burke, Danny Barker, which should tell you something about the esteem in which he was held — the late GEORGE FINOLA:

GEORGE FINOLA on CORNET matchbook

Here’s George, late in his short career, in a very Hackett mood for CABIN IN THE SKY:

Then, we venture, somewhat whimsically, into politics:

DOC EVANS FOR PRESIDENT

and an encouraging bit of wordplay on the reverse.  Was Doc Evans in competition with Dizzy Gillespie or well in advance of the front-runners?

DOC EVANS FOR PRESIDENT rear

This is why Paul “Doc” Evans deserves your vote — a brief clip of Doc, Art Hodes, and Bob Cousins burning through WOLVERINE BLUES in 1969 (from the public television series JAZZ ALLEY):

Most people don’t think of Rex Stewart as a cornetist, but it’s clear — in the film footage that we have of him — that it was his preferred brass instrument.  What a pleasure to find this piece of sheet music on sale:

BOY MEETS HORN

and the back is indeed priceless.  I want all those orchestrations!

BOY MEETS HORN backFifty cents each, too.

And here’s Rex (although not visible), performing BOY MEETS HORN, the fanciful enactment of what a young player’s first halting steps might sound like.  From the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, announced by Ellington:

and in France, 1947:

The cornet is a demanding instrument — but it takes even more ingenuity (and pressing valves only half-way down) to make those glorious eccentric sounds as Rex does.

May your happiness increase!

A COMFORTABLE PASTORAL: JOHNNY WIGGS and RAYMOND BURKE on CD

The recordings that cornetist Johnny Wiggs, clarinetist Raymond Burke, guitarist / singer Dr. Edmond Souchon, and string bassist / singer Sherwood Mangiapane made in two sessions in New Orleans (in 1952 and 1955) have been both glorious and elusive.  Issued on two ten-inch microgroove recordings on the even more elusive Paramount and Steiner-Davis labels, they were wonderful yet invisible.  I first heard some of this music on a cassette copy made for me by the late Bob Hilbert, and I knew much more existed but had never heard it.  A year ago, I saw one of the records on eBay at a low price and (atypically) was able to buy it without eroding my savings. I thought the front was very impressive.

WIGGS-BURKE 10

But the reverse was a real surprise (the eBay seller either didn’t turn the record over or wasn’t interested): it was autographed by Doctor Souchon to Pinky Vidacovitch:

WIGGS-BURKE 10 back

But this is a post about music, not about record collecting, so I hope my digression is pertinent here. I should say that the sessions were originally envisioned by collector / archivist / scholar John Steiner as trios — clarinet, guitar, bass — echoing the recordings of George Lewis that William Russell had made earlier.  Russell agreed to record the Burke-Souchon-Mangiapane trio, but — happily for us — Johnny Wiggs came by with his horn and the group became a quartet.  The two vinyl issues collected sixteen performances.

I — and no doubt others — have been waiting, hoping for this music to be effectively issued on compact disc. And it happened!  The American Music label has issued a two-disc set of the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR. Not only does it offer the original sixteen tracks but a good many alternate takes, performances that didn’t make the original issues, and three tracks from 1957 that bring together Burke, Wiggs, Souchon, Art Hodes, and Freddie Moore. On one or two tracks, Raymond plays the harmonica (not a high point in recorded music, but we needed to know about it, and a tin flute.  Wise notes by the deeply-involved Butch Thompson and some rare photographs make the set complete.  The recorded sound is fine and the discs are well-programmed, so each disc sounds like a small rewarding session on its own.

BURKE-WIGGS CD

The songs are (asterisks denoting a title with more than one version) PUT ON YOUR OLD GREY BONNET / ALL NIGHT LONG* / AT SUNDOWN / BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES* / MEMORIES / RAY’S TUNE* / CONGO SQUARE / BUCKTOWN BOUNCE / I CAN’T USE IT / IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE / HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?* / MAMA’S BABY BOY* (a/k/a DO WHAT ORY SAY) / ALL THE WRONGS YOU’VE DONE TO ME / MILENBERG JOYS / POSTMAN’S LAMENT* / BLACK SNAKE BLUES / SMILES / SINGIN’ THE BLUES / SPANISH TINGE* / HARMONICA BLUES / WALKIN’ THE DOG / TULIP STOMP (a/k/a WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP) / DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL / GOING HOME / CHINATOWN / JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE / BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? / JOHNNY’S BOUNCE / BUCK TOWN / HEEBIE JEEBIES / MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR / SISTER KATE / TIN CAN ALLEY / UNKNOWN TUNE / CITY OF A MILLION DREAMS.

Here  is Jazzology Music (the GHB Jazz Foundation): the primary site where the discs can be bought — and if you notice the Index, bottom right of the page, with a careful scrolling motion you can hear the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR play PUT ON YOUR OLD GREY BONNET.  If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

I don’t usually become hyperbolic and tell my readers that this is “the one disc they must buy,” “the one festival they must go to,” etc., because there is so much enticing and enduring music both being reissued and being made live even as I write this.  Yet I think that the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR has given me an extraordinary amount of the pleasure in the months that I have had and played it . . . and played it.  And I certainly think that the musicians who think of themselves as “traditionalists” and beyond should be listening intently to this music for its lightness, its depth of feeling, and its expertise. Let me explain.

Although I don’t identify myself as purely a New Orleans jazz aficionad0 (in my mind, the Armstrong Town Hall Concert, Jones-Smith Inc., the 1938 Basie band, the Goodman Trio, the 1940-1 Ellington band, the Keynotes, the Vanguards . . . all have their assured places in my affections) but I do love collective improvisation as a musical way of life.  In fact, some of my favorite moments in hearing / video-recording live jazz in 2013 are provided by those groups that understand their existence as BANDS — improvising, creating backgrounds, playing riffs, working as ensembles — whether they model themselves on Bunk’s Last Testament band or much more “modern” in their approach.

Wiggs, Burke, Souchon, and Mangiapane very occasionally present themselves as a single-soloist-with-rhythm; more often, we hear four sweetly idiosyncratic voices going their own ways while fulfilling their roles as members of a band.  So “there’s always something going on” to interest a close listener.

Souchon and Mangiapane create a firm, fluid, old-time but swinging acoustic rhythm: the way guitar and bass used to be played before the late Thirties (guitar) and Forties (string bass).  They don’t push or drag; they provide the most delightful swing counterpoint.  As well, Souchon (especially) is an instantly compelling, saucy singer — with a wink or a twinkle for the listener. I doubt that a few of his naughty vocals (hardly so by 2013 standards) are his own invention, but the metaphors of the songs are hilarious in the fashion of mid-Twenties blues.  Since I carry a backpack for work and play, I empathize with his earnest reading of POSTMAN’S LAMENT, whose refrain is “Lord, take this pack off my back.”

The great voices on this disc are paradoxically the sounds that come through Burke’s clarinet and Wiggs’ cornet — sounds I found endearing as soon as I heard them, years back.  Wiggs heard Joe Oliver in the flesh in the very early Twenties and was impressed by the King for the rest of his life — thus he has some of Oliver’s terse power.  But he also heard Bix, and I think the latter’s lyricism won out: Wiggs (although not as harmonically ambitious as Bobby Hackett) captured something of Bix’s brief epigrammatic ways: a Wiggs phrase is like a great, sometimes sad, utterance: it hangs in the air the way a Joe Thomas phrase did, and we are musing over its meaning while he is eight bars away.  In his own fashion, Wiggs is a great sad poet: his melancholy is always lightened by his joy in the rolling rhythms beneath him, but his sound is autumnal, dark red and gold.

Burke, for his part, can at first sound like an elliptical version of the great New Orleans clarinetists — I am thinking specifically of Ed Hall, of Bujie Centobie — but he has his own phrasing and his own, always surprising sound.  And, just in passing, I must say that the most famous group with this instrumentation was the Bechet-Spanier Big Four of 1940, but the Wiggs-Burke quartet is far more easy, less pugilistic. Friends playing for their own enjoyment, weaving melodies for the sake of song, not musicians out to show who’s boss of the session.

My friend Joe Shepherd made available two videos of Johnny, Raymond, Danny Barker, Graham Stewart, Bob Green, and Freddie Moore and he shot at the 1972 Manassas Jazz Festival.  Time hasn’t treated the visual image well, but the music is eternal:

OLD STACK O’LEE BLUES:

TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL:

Why my title?  The music on the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR discs suggests a kind of informal play among friends that very rarely takes place in a recording studio — more often in a living room or on a porch when only the musicians and their friends are there.  Certainly this would be a perfect set of CDs for a backyard party . . . sweet melodies in swing.

May your happiness increase!

THE REAL THING: “OLD STACK O’LEE”: THE BLUES at MANASSAS (December 2, 1972): JOHNNY WIGGS, RAYMOND BURKE, GRAHAM STEWART, BOB GREENE, DANNY BARKER, FREDDIE MOORE

Through the kindness of Joe Shepherd, we have another trip backwards in time to view and hear the magic of the music.  In case you missed the first excursion, do visit here.

Be forewarned: the visual quality of this video is quite murky — almost twenty thousand leagues under the sea, although Verne never heard such music.  One can get used to it.  This is what much-transferred forty-years-old videotape looks like, but the audio is loud and clear.

This video is a valuable document, because it and its predecessor from the same session are (as far as I know) the only performance footage of cornetist Johnny Wiggs and clarinetist Raymond Burke — lyrical heroes of mine — here accompanied by Graham Stewart, trombone, Bob Greene, piano, Danny Barker, guitar, Freddie Moore, drums: Johnny Wiggs’ Bayou Stompers, introduced by Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, sometime singer / kazooist and eternal jazz lover – festival creator.  They play a nice old blues (close to MAKE ME A PALLET ME ON THE FLOOR) at a sweet tempo, the beat marked off in a special old-time way by Freddie.  And Raymond Burke’s sliding, gliding feet (in very shiny loafers) are a visual treat in themselves; even the cameraperson thought so.

Burke and Wiggs are uplifting poets of the music: sad but not maudlin or frozen in time, playing the blues from deep knowledge of what they are, where they came from, and how they feel to listeners.  There’s a good deal of Jelly Roll Morton here, too, which is always uplifting.

This video — although its originator is not known to me — comes to us through the loving diligence of trumpeter / archivist Joe Shepherd, Sflair on YouTube, someone who cares a great deal for and about this music.  Thank you, Joe!  And this one’s for you — John Gill and Leon Oakley, Roger Wade, Doug Pomeroy, Chris Tyle, Sam McKinistry, Trygve Hernæs, and Hank O’Neal!  (“By popular demand” — more from Johnny Wiggs and Raymond Burke!)

May your happiness increase.

RUEFUL AND LOVELY: “TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL”: JOHNNY WIGGS, RAYMOND BURKE, GRAHAM STEWART, DANNY BARKER, BOB GREENE, FREDDIE MOORE (Manassas Jazz Festival. December 2, 1972)

Be forewarned: the visual quality on the performance that follows is sub-standard, although you can get used to it.  This is what much-transferred forty-years-old videotape looks like, but the audio is loud and clear.

This video is a valuable document, because I don’t know of any other performance footage of cornetist Johnny Wiggs and clarinetist Raymond Burke — lyrical heroes of mine — here accompanied by Graham Stewart, trombone, Bob Greene, piano, Danny Barker, guitar, Freddie Moore, drums: Johnny Wiggs’ Bayou Stompers, introduced by Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, sometime singer / kazooist and eternal jazz lover – festival creator.

The song is elusive — TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL — and I couldn’t find any lyrics online, but the opening phrase so neatly fits the title that I am sure JAZZ LIVES readers can (silently) invent their own narratives with the proper scansion.

I am amused by Raymond Burke’s endearing personal choreography — his body mirrors what he is playing more than is true with many players.  And his tone is so singular, sweet-tart in the manner of Ed Hall — but you wouldn’t mistake one player for the other.  A great underacknowledged poet of the clarinet.

Wiggs continues to astonish.  He saw Joe Oliver in New Orleans (I seem to remember this was 1919) and Oliver left a lasting impression.  But then Wiggs heard Bix and those wandering odes took over — haunting but always mobile.

I hear in Wiggs, who was 73 at the time of this video, a sweet, sad evocation of what Bix might have sounded like had he lived on this long.  Wiggs’ music plunges forward while looking over its shoulder in a melancholy, ruminative way.  And although Wiggs recorded early (1927) and from 1949 into the fifties, his late work fully expresses a kind of autumnal sensibility, delicate without being timid or maudlin — the sweet voice of an elder who has seen a great deal and knows that life is sadly finite but celebrates that life with his cornet.

One other thing occurs to me, with special relevance to my own video efforts, where musicians justly want the performances that will be disseminated and preserved for posterity to be as free from flaws as possible.  Anyone who watches this video to the end — and why wouldn’t you? — notices a small train wreck (with no one hurt) because the band is not clear whether to go on or stop. I find this, like Burke’s body language, quite endearing.  I’d rather have imperfect Wiggs and Burke than know that this flawed performance had been consigned to the trash.

This video — although I do not know the originator — comes to us through the loving diligence of trumpeter / archivist Joe Shepherd, Sflair on YouTube, someone who cares a great deal for and about this music.  Thank you, Joe!

May your happiness increase.