Tag Archives: Red Balaban

ERNIE HACKETT REMEMBERS HIS JAZZ FAMILY: “DAD,” “UNCLE VIC,” “PAPA JO,” “MR. SINATRA,” and MORE (December 2020)

Bobby, listening to Vic Dickenson at Childs Paramount, October 1952

Bobby Hackett remains one of my musical heroes, and I cherish his recordings, the few times I saw him in person, and the sound of his horn in my memory, a sound I can call up at will.  In case you need a reminder of Bobby’s delicate mastery, here is his 1975 performance of SWEET LORRAINE at the Grande Parade du Jazz in July 1975.

Bobby’s son Ernie — swinging drummer and vivid individualist — has fascinated me since I encountered him on Facebook years ago.  Outspoken, tender, kind, hilarious, a man of deep perceptions and deep emotions, he’s been a remarkable presence to me.  Recently, thanks to our mutual friend Clyde Groves — who appears here and here (Clyde is Billy Butterfield’s son-in-law) — Ernie and I had a delightful long phone conversation about the people we both love, a few noted in my title, which it is my honor to share with you here.

Now . . . here’s what Ernie told me, just before Christmas 2020 — a big present for all of us.

Simplicity was Dad’s art. He loved the melody, and he knew how to play around with the melody, but he never got out of control. He didn’t like the spotlight, the glamour, and he rarely took the first chorus. What always hit me in the family, blessed as I was, was his wonderful sense of humor, his dry, witty sense of humor. He was going through Customs once, and the agent looked at the cornet case and said, “Is that a musical instrument?” Dad’s one-word reply was, “Occasionally.” Little things like that: all my life I was familiar with those little things.

He was one of nine children, in Providence, and he dropped out of school at a very early age, because he started playing gigs, I believe on violin, then ukulele in the beginning. He didn’t play horn until he was in his teens. I didn’t know many of my aunts and uncles, except Aunt Dottie was very very close with Dad, and she had the same type of humor. She and her husband used to visit us, after the family relocated to Cape Cod, because they were coming in from Providence. There’s something about a dry sense of humor with musicians to begin with. I can’t say why, but I’m sure you’ve spotted it. Dad’s favorite phrase, if anybody asked him about politics, was “When the President tells me how to play the horn, then I’ll tell him how to run the country.” Plain and simple, to the point.

When he was home, he constantly practiced in the living room. In his boxer shorts. He never played a tune in his practicing, nothing but scales. Modulating scales, up and down, that’s all he ever practiced. And if people were coming over, he might put his robe on, or a t-shirt. That’s how Billy Butterfield was also. I knew Billy to some degree, because when Dad and Billy happened to be in New York at the same time, and Billy was passing through, he would always stay with us at our house in Jackson Heights. And I’ll always remember, Billy, first thing in the morning, coming down in his shorts – at least he had a t-shirt on – hair all messed up, saying good morning to everybody. He was like a shorter, stubbier Dad.

[I’d asked Ernie about Bobby’s generous nature, which sometimes led him to be taken advantage of, and his reaction.] I’d say he shrugged his shoulders, and always moved forward. The one thing that comes to mind would be the Jackie Gleason records. He never berated Jackie Gleason for that. My mother blamed Jack Philbin, his manager at the time, who I just recently learned was Regis Philbin’s father. It was Dad’s decision. He took the ten thousand dollars, because he wanted to buy a house for the family, for us, not knowing what was going to happen in the future. He wasn’t bitter about it. Nobody in the family ever begrudged him for making that decision. He did it for us.

He got along with just about everybody.

Mom was from Fall River, Mass., and Dad was from Providence. I don’t know exactly how they met, but I do know they married on Nantucket, and I think he was with the Casa Loma band at the time. Of course, this is way before my time, so it’s all hearsay and articles that I’m remembering. [Ernie asked his niece, Michelle, and she added this wonderful story: “Grandpa had a two week gig at a posh resort on Nantucket, with full accommodations. He asked Grandma to go with him, but she said she couldn’t travel with him as a single lady. So he suggested that they get married the first day they were there, then they had a two week (all paid) honeymoon on Nantucket.”]

They were wonderful friends. It was a rocky marriage at times: we’ve all been through that. I’m sure you know that Dad was an alcoholic. We’ve always been realistic about that. It was out in the open. Dad’s loving term to refer to Mom was “The Warden.” I’m not going to say he never drank at home: he slipped a couple of times. It became ugly when that happened. My sister and I used to spend nights crying at the top of the stairs with Mom and Dad going at it, arguing. A day or two, they’d get over it and Dad would straighten up again.

Incidentally, contrary to popular belief of “Ernie Caceres” – I was named after my Mom’s older brother named Ernest – who died at an early age in a freak bus accident.

Eddie Condon was my Godfather! I always figured that my parents thought if anything should ever happen to them that Eddie would be sure to teach me how to handle alcohol!

When I was about seventeen, I dropped out of high school. I was still playing drums. From what I understand, George Wettling showed me how to hold a pair of drumsticks when I was about five years old, though I don’t remember that. I’d spent a couple of years playing electric guitar in a high school rock and roll band, but I still had a set of drums.

If I hadn’t become a jazz drummer, I probably would have become a rock drummer. Actually my first choice of music was always rock! What sort of pushed me towards jazz was my association with all the guys that worked with Dad!

Dad had a detached garage that he converted into a sound studio, outside the house. I was in there one night and Dad knocked on the door, came in, and said, “How’d you like to come out on the road with me and learn how to play drums?” I was flabbergasted – I was seventeen — and the first thing that came to my mind was “You don’t dare say no to that.” What an experience. And that’s what proceeded to happen over the next couple of years.

The first thing I realized was that when Dad was on the road, he was off the wagon. My first professional gig with Dad was in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was about a two or three-week stint, and Dave McKenna was with us. And I learned how to drive because it was very rare that Dad and Dave were on the road and could drink together, because Dad had to drive back to the hotel every night. However, they learned quickly that if the kid drove them back home at night, they could have fun during the gig. And that’s how I got my license. It could be sad at times: Dad’s playing suffered quite a bit when he drank, and it was obvious. He was always apologetic to me the next day. He was embarrassed that I saw him like that. But we muddled through it.

I really learned on the job. It was a good education. One of my fortes as a drummer was keeping very good time, not dragging or rushing. And the reason I got that way was because in the beginning, if I started to drag the slightest shade, Dad would stomp his foot, on stage, to the right beat. And, boy, I probably turned beet red. That’s embarrassing! If I started rushing, he would slow me right down. He would correct me immediately. But it paid off. I talk a lot about going into parochial schooling and then into the army, and all the discipline I went through, but when you look back at it as an adult, you’re thankful for it. It taught you. Things were done the right way.

[I asked Ernie about Bobby’s dear friend and colleague (and my hero) Vic Dickenson.] Oh, boy. My uncle. He and Dad had a brotherly relationship. The thing that hit me the most is that after Dad passed, Mom and I relocated to New York City from Cape Cod. That’s when I started hanging around Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s, and getting ready to make my move in that direction, and Vic just took me under his wing like you wouldn’t believe. I’ll talk about the risqué parts – the many, many breaks we spent in his Oldsmobile 98, “The Office,” for our smoke breaks.

His sense of humor was astonishing also. Subtle, so subtle. One night at Condon’s, we came out from being in his car on one of the breaks. I remember standing there – he always had the best stuff in the world – I remember getting up on the stage and saying, “How the heck am I going to get through this? My God.” Usually getting high didn’t affect my playing, at least I didn’t think so, anyway, because I was high. So, we started playing, and it was during the first chorus. Now Vic, at Eddie Condon’s, always sat right in front of the mounted tom-tom. And Connie Kay, God bless him, always left his drums for me. So we were playing, and Vic turned around to me with a big smile, and he tapped the tom-tom, and said, “Whaddaya think?” And I said, “Whoa!” and his reply was, “Wait another minute or two. Just wait.”

What a wonderful soul he was, a loving person. You could easily see the love affair between him and Dad. In fact, I was just watching the JUST JAZZ program, where they were doing JITTERBUG WALTZ. You could just see the love between the two of them. It was just amazing. It was a wonderful show. They had such mutual respect for one another – not only as musicians, but as people. It was really quite a friendship. Vic was family. There was no other way around it. We all loved Uncle Vic, and he was just a sweetheart to all of us. And he never acted drunk. He’d drink Cutty Sark all night long, a straight shot in a glass, and a back of water, but he never lost his cool, ever, no matter how much of it he drank. God bless him. He knew himself – very much so.

I have to tell you about Vic and his joints. When Vic rolled a joint, it was the most perfect joint, and the trick was you’d have to roll it quite loose, and leave some room at the end to tuck that end in with the blunt end of a wooden match. So that way the grass wouldn’t fall out of it. And it was perfectly shaped, like an English Oval cigarette. So I taught myself how to do it, so I could roll a joint just like Uncle Vic. So one night we were in his car, hanging out, and I said, “Here, Vic. Do my stick here,” and he said, “All right, OK,” and I lit it up and handed it to him, and he looked at me and said, “Did I give you this?” And I just had the biggest smile, and I said, “Nope. I made that.” He said, “Get outta here!” I said, “No, I taught myself how to roll like you!” and he just got the biggest kick out of that. What an honor!

Dad had a clique of musician friends who came to the house.  I’m told that Louis would occasionally visit our house in Jackson Heights! But I was too young to even remember.  There was Ruby Braff, and I think Sam Margolis a couple of times. He was another sweetheart. Sam subbed from time to time at Condon’s, but we also worked together with Max Kaminsky, after Max’s regular drummer, Freddie Moore, a funny gentleman, really nice guy, wanted to retire, and Max asked me if I wanted to be in the band.

I could go on about Max: we had a love-hate relationship. Max could be pretty nasty when he wanted to be. There was one gig he got for us in North Carolina, a wedding at a golf resort. It turned out to be a pain in the neck: Sam was on it with us. We had to fly down, and the gig happened, and then the next day we were supposed to play in the garden for the reception, and it became obvious that we weren’t going to get paid at the end of the gig, but at the month, like a club date, he would have our money. Well, I was living completely hand to mouth at that time, struggling to keep my studio apartment on Central Park West, and I got so mad at him, really mad. We were returning, and we were at the airport in North Carolina, at a long gateway, and I saw Max walking down from the opposite direction. I was just staring at him, because he knew I wanted my money. But sometimes you’d have to love Max, too. He took me off to the side, and he looked really nervous. He gave me a hundred-dollar bill, maybe half of what I was supposed to get, and he said, “I can’t give you the whole thing now, Ernie, but take this, I hope it helps you. Please don’t tell any of the other guys.” So I shook his hand and I kept his secret. We used to get mad at each other a lot, but we forgot about it the next day and hugged each other.

Tony Bennett wasn’t a frequent visitor to the house, but from time to time he’d pop in. Whenever Dad had these visits, everybody disappeared into the garage – are you familiar with the air freshener / deodorizer Ozium? They used to use that to cover up the marijuana.

On that subject: a few years later, before I was going in to the service, I was doing a four-week gig with Dad in New Orleans, my first opportunity to be in New Orleans, and we were at Al Hirt’s nightclub. At the time Dad had a pseudo-manager named Leo Kappos, a Greek gentleman, short little guy, likeable. Mom hated him, because she knew that he was Dad’s enabler. The funny thing was, that at that time, I’ll be honest with you, I was already a pothead. Dad used to try to smoke grass to stay away from alcohol, but it never really worked for him. So one night, I was going downstairs to the gig, in a tux, and I got in the elevator, and Leo was in there too, just Leo and me. And Leo started laughing, and he said, “Listen, I gotta get you and your Dad together, because the two of you are smoking pot all the time and not letting each other know about it. You gotta get to know each other!” I never forgot that.

Dad would try it from time to time, but his high of choice was beer. He had a very low tolerance, because he had a very slight frame, he always suffered with diabetes, which didn’t make drinking any easier. Half a Heineken and he’d almost be on the floor. It was difficult. He had quite a battle to stay away from that.

I’ll slide that around to another story that involves me introducing myself to Frank Sinatra.  [Here you can enjoy Frank and Bobby.]

Dad and I were playing at the Riverboat in New York, in the basement of the Empire State Building, 1966 or 1967. It had to be around July 4. Dad was featured, and I guess a six or seven-piece band. And one night, I noticed Tony [Bennett] came in, and he was only there for ten or fifteen minutes. He and Dad kind of disappeared. And at the next break, Dad came over to me, and said, “Listen. Tony told me that Frank’s going to be at Jilly’s tonight. He’s having a party. We’re all welcome to stop in there and join him.” My sister idolized Frank Sinatra all her life, so Dad said to me, “Call Barbara, and have her and her boyfriend meet us at Jilly’s, around 12:30 or 1 AM,” which I did. Dad and I got in a cab – I wasn’t quite driving at that time – up to Jilly’s, on 55th Street, I think it was, and we went in.

The party was in a private room at the back, and people were throwing firecrackers around the bar. It was Frank’s crew, because it was the Fourth of July and he felt like throwing firecrackers around. We went in the back room, Dad and I, and Dad started to drink, had a Heineken. My sister and her boyfriend showed up, and that was it for the family, the four of us, we’re at a table. Off to my left was a long Last Supper-type of table with Mr. Sinatra in the middle of it, with his back against the wall, and he was entertaining the people at the table. So all of a sudden, Dad said, “Ernie, I want you to go over and introduce yourself to Mr. Sinatra.” My legs almost crumpled out from under me, I almost fainted. When Dad was drinking, you didn’t dare say no. So I had to toughen up for this.

I walked behind the back of the table, and I came up right behind – I don’t like calling him Frank, he was Mr. Sinatra to me. He was in the middle of a story, a joke, whatever, and the two goons on either side of him, with their hands in their laps, were staring at me, like, “What are you doing here?” Nothing was said, but they would not take their eyes off me. I was waiting for Mr. Sinatra to end the story so I could quickly tap him on the shoulder and say, “Hi, I’m Ernie Hackett. My Dad said I had to say hi to you,” which is what happened. When I went to tap him on the shoulder, the two goons went to stand up, so right away, I blurted out, “Mr. Sinatra, I’m Ernie Hackett, Bobby Hackett’s son. He told me to come over, I should say hi.” And he was very gracious, stood up, shook my hand, gave me a big smile, said, “Thank you so much, Ernie. Very nice to meet you,” and that was that.

Now we fast-forward ten to fifteen years. Now I was playing at Eddie Condon’s. Dad had passed. Wild Bill Davison was in town, which is going to lead me into another story. I don’t know if you remember at Condon’s, the big table was the round one right in front of the bandstand, and that’s where the celebrities would sit. Sinatra came in with his wife Barbara, and a priest who always traveled with him – I think that was in case he needed the last rites – and three or four other people at the table, to enjoy Wild Bill. After the set ended, and remember, at Eddie Condon’s, the stage was about two or three feet off the ground, I got down from the drums onto the floor, and there was a table right there, and someone started chatting with me, I don’t know, about Dad or something, two or three minutes. All of a sudden I feel a tap on my shoulder, I turn around, and it’s Frank Sinatra. I couldn’t believe it. He shook my hand, and all he said was, “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your playing, Ernie. It was just fantastic.” I didn’t know what to say! I just thanked him. I often wonder, with my sense of humor, if I had pulled a Don Rickles on him and said, “Hey, Frank. I’m just talking to people here. Can you wait a minute? I’ll be right with you!” but thank God I didn’t do that. He might have shot me: I don’t know.

But I always liked Frank Sinatra as a person. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, very gracious. He donated – I don’t remember the amount of money – the New Jersey Jazz Society had a benefit for Mom, and I think he donated two or three thousand dollars, which at that time was like ten thousand dollars. And he was at Condon’s one night, waiting for the rest of his entourage to come up from the rest room, and he was under the portrait at the end of the bar, just standing there, staring off into the distance. He wasn’t a very tall gentleman, if you recall. I went up to him and said, “Frank, I’m Ernie Hackett. I don’t know if you remember me,” and he just nodded his head. “I just want to thank you so much for the donation you made for Dad’s benefit,” and all he did was nod his head in acceptance. He wouldn’t talk about anything nice that he did. That was very private to him.

But the punchline is this. And I always wondered, and I would almost guarantee that he came up and tapped me on the shoulder because he remembered that’s how I introduced myself to him. I’ll bet you anything, he said to himself, “I remember that kid. He’s Bobby Hackett’s son. He tapped me on the shoulder once.”

Here’s the side story about Wild Bill. You must know about him and his background. He wasn’t the quietest of souls. Cliff Leeman, of course, was his favorite drummer. And Wild Bill would come in to Condon’s, maybe two or three times a year, for a two-week stint. He always insisted on Cliff being there. This time around, Cliff was starting to fail, and he wasn’t feeling well any longer. So he told Ed Polcer and [Red] Balaban, who ran the place, that he couldn’t make it this time around. Well, Ed and Red decided to give me a shot at it, which I was very thankful for. I get to replace Cliff? Good enough that I’m replacing Connie Kay every night!

So, Monday came, and I’m coming in again with my snare and my stick bag, because Connie always left his drums there for me. I walked in to the club, and I saw that Wild Bill and his wife Anne were sitting all the way in the back, having coffee or something. We had never met. I walked in to the club, deposited my snare drum and bag on the stage, and came up, introduced myself. I said, “Hey, Wild Bill, a pleasure to meet you. I’m Ernie Hackett and I’ll be playing drums with you for the next couple of weeks.” He stood up and shouted, “WHERE THE FUCK IS CLIFF?” Well, that’s a fine how-d’you-do! How do you get over that one? Well, the ending of it was a sweet story. After the first set, Wild Bill came up to me and said, “I like the way you play.” And then he insisted, going forward, that if Cliff couldn’t make it, I had to be his replacement. So I had another medal on my chest. My head got a little bit bigger at that time. But I’ll never forget WHERE THE FUCK IS CLIFF? That was typical Bill.

Another one was Papa Jo Jones. You know how cantankerous he could be. He took me under his wing, and I used to love hanging with him at the bar after the gig, with the two of us getting drunk, or high, whatever, and he would go on a real rant, a tirade about anything! And then he’d turn around with a sly little smile, and wink at me, like “What kind of reaction did I get from that one?” He was letting me in on his game. He was very much an actor. God, what a talent. He used to sit in at the drums sometimes, after the gig, and just go up there with the brushes and play the drums. And my jaw would be on the floor. Then, the honor of letting me sit next to him at the bar, in his court.

One time, Ruby Braff and I had a falling-out. I joined the club! I interrupted him, one night when he was telling a joke. Oh my God. He stopped talking to me. I tried calling him, and he wouldn’t pick up the phone. Well, he’d pick up the phone (we didn’t have Caller ID back then) and hang up on me. We parted ways. We stayed away from each other a good amount of time, maybe six-seven-eight months. And then, all of a sudden, one night the Magic White Powder parade was marching downstairs and Ruby looked at me and said, “Come on. Come with us.” We both did that. And we came downstairs, we looked at each other, and started laughing, and he gave me a hug and said, “OK. The hatchet’s buried.” I said, “Thank you. It took you long enough,” and we were fine after that.

I loved Jimmy Andrews. Jimmy and I were the closest of friends. He was very quiet, but what a sense of humor, and a gentleman. I loved Mike Burgevin. Jimmy and Mike, they were like brothers. And Mike, a quiet guy but a real gentleman of a person.

My splash on the scene was after Dad passed, and I’m kind of happy it worked like that. It allowed me to be more of myself.

So when Dad passed, we were living up on Cape Cod there, and I was doing a lot of odd gigs there – Mom had the house. Mom wanted to sell the house and move back to New York, which is what we ended up doing, and I got married to my second wife at the time. We went back from Cape Cod to New York and got an apartment there. I thought, I have my drums here, I have a car, I’ve got to start getting into the scene. I’d drive into Manhattan and start hanging out at Condon’s and Ryan’s, three-four times a week, just to hang out, and eventually to sit in, which kind of broke the ice for me, because these guys got to hear what the Hackett kid could do.

And all the Black people had such respect for Dad and everyone took me under their wing. Do you know Jackie Williams? I understand he’s still going — another wonderful friend of the family, a funny, funny guy. I played with Roy Eldridge quite a bit, a wonderful guy, but I don’t think he enjoyed my style of playing as much as Condon’s did. But that didn’t get me. I don’t expect everyone in the world to love my style of drumming. But Roy was a wonderful guy. I loved him, and he always treated me with the utmost respect. I loved Jimmy McPartland too, a great character. And his wife! We weren’t that close as friends because he wasn’t as much a hanger-outer. I think he was curbing his drinking. Marian was very polite and demure, such a lady, and a fantastic musician. The two of them took me up to Salem, Massachusetts for a one-week gig with Frank Tate – he and I were great buddies, through Dad – and we had a great time.

The hangouts after the gig were the cream of the crop at Condon’s. The gigs were great, but I had to stay sober until the end of it, so I used to ration one Heineken at a break. But then, after the last set, I started mixing shots of Johnnie Black with it, and that’s when the party would begin. It was such an honor to be exposed to all that, to get to know all these guys.

There’s a thirty-minute video on YouTube of a night at Eddie Condon’s. That’s me on drums. I’ll never forget that night. It was, I believe, a Monday night, and I was subbing for Connie. I came in and was setting up my snare drum, and a couple of college-looking kids were setting up very professional video equipment, right in front of the bandstand. And I was always a rabble-rouser. I’m not proud of it all the time, but if there was trouble to be started it was started by me. I got done setting up the drums and rearranging the stands, and then I came down the stairs and the one guy who seemed to be more in charge – as it turned out, it was Red Balaban’s cousin – I politely asked him, “What are you going to be filming this for?” “Oh, it’s just a college project. It’s nothing more than that.” But there were two very professional-looking cameras. I said, “Oh, really. Is the club planning to pay the band scale for this, for the videotaping?” And he said, “No, we’re just a couple of college students.” I said, “Oh. I have to talk to Eddie Polcer about this,” and that’s how I left it. I think I told one of the college kids, “If the red light goes on, and we’re not getting paid scale, I’m not playing,” and evidently the kid went back to Eddie and told him.

So Eddie came in, and it was getting closer to hit time, maybe 8:30, and we were supposed to be going on in ten or fifteen minutes. I went outside to have a cigarette, and Polcer always bummed cigarettes off of me – that’s another story. Eddie came outside, and said, “So, you’re not going to play if the red light goes on?” I said, “Yeah, exactly. Eddie, you know how this works. You’re going to make a video, you’ve got to pay the musicians.” We were going back and forth. He didn’t want to give in. Finally, he said to me, “Do you know how much scale is?” “No,” I said, “but we can both find out in the morning with a call to Local 802.” This is what really got under his skin. He said, “If I pay you scale, will you play?” My reply was, “If you pay the whole band scale, yes,” and he just looked at me like he wanted to kill me, and he gave in at that point, “All right. You got it. They’ll all get scale.”

Years later, he was at the Atlanta Jazz Party, and my wife and I, when she was still here, God bless her, we used to go every year and visit with the guys from New York, and Eddie and I remained close friends. We’d hug each other and reminisce. And he told me, years later, “Red Balaban went to his death never knowing that you did that, that night. If I’d ever told him, he would have banned you from the club completely.” I said, “Thank you.” I was always on the ins and the outs with Eddie Condon’s. They finally stopped using me. If you go back and look at that video, Jimmy Andrews and I were the only two they didn’t interview – because we were the rough guys!

The good old days. Just an honor! And as Vic would say, “Ding ding!”

“Just an honor!” sums it up for me.  Bless Ernie, and all our heroes above.

May your happiness increase!

FOUR TROMBONES, FOUR RHYTHM, at the MANASSAS JAZZ FESTIVAL: SPIEGLE WILLCOX, HERB GARDNER, BILL ALLRED, GEORGE MASSO, DICK WELLSTOOD, MARTY GROSZ, VAN PERRY, CLIFF LEEMAN (December 2, 1978)

The Manassas Jazz Festival, 1969: those names!

The video captures a completely spur-of-the-moment session, arranged at a few minutes’ notice by Johnson (Fat Cat) McRee at the Manassas Jazz Festival.  The trombonists are Spiegle Willcox, the Elder; George Masso, Herb Gardner, and Bill Allred.  Happily, the last two are still with us and Herb is gigging in New England as I write this.  The rhythm section is impressive as well: Dick Wellstood, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums.  The repertoire is familiar and not complicated (the better to avoid train wrecks, my dear): JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE / YES, SIR, THAT’S MY BABY / SUMMERTIME / RUNNIN’ WILD, and the eight gentlemen navigate it all with style and professionalism:

Some personal reflections: I never met Van Perry or Spiegle Willcox at close range, although I saw and heard Spiegle at one or two Bix-themed concerts performed by the New York Jazz Repertory Company in 1973-4 (alongside Chauncey Morehouse).  Herb Gardner stays in my mind in the nicest way because of more history: Sunday-afternoon gigs with Red Balaban at Your Father’s Mustache in New York City, where he ably played alongside Bobby Hackett, Doc Cheatham, Kenny Davern, and other luminaries.  And Herb graciously gave me his OK to post this.  I had the real privilege of meeting and hearing the very humble George Masso in 2012, playing alongside Ron Odrich, when George was 85, and he allowed me to video-record him also: see it here.  Bill Allred, also a very kind man, brightened many sets at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party: you can find some performances including him on JAZZ LIVES: one, from 2015, here.

That rhythm section!  As a 19-year old with a concealed cassette recorder, I was too timid to approach either Dick Wellstood or Cliff Leeman for a few words or an autograph, something I regret.  But I just saw Marty Grosz this year — March 4th — at his ninetieth birthday party, so perhaps that makes up for the timidities of my youth?  I doubt it, but it’s a useful if fleeting rationalization.

The music remains, and so do the players.  This one’s for my dear friends Dick Dreiwitz and Joe McDonough, who know how to make lovely sounds on this instrument.

May your happiness increase!

I CALL ON MICHAEL HASHIM, PART TWO (July 19, 2017)

Because he is justifiably one of the most busy musicians I know, it was hard to find a time when saxophone master and master raconteur Michael Hashim and I could sit down and talk at leisure.  And because Michael is so busy gigging, it was hard to find a photograph of him without a horn attached to him, but I did.  (I love the dashing color palette here.)

Michael and I had a long afternoon’s conversation last July, the first two segments of which I posted here.

Now, throwing caution to the winds — or another apt cliche — I offer the four remaining segments of our talk.  And, as you’ll hear, Michael is one of those rare creatures who can speak beautifully, extemporaneously, without hesitation: lovely long sentences, full of information, feeling, and wit, come tumbling out.  A master of improvised prose as well as one of improvised music.

Three.  In which Michael speaks so well and affectionately of Jimmy Rowles — the pianist, the man, and the artist — with side-glances at Robert Mitchum, Henry Mancini, and The Fifth Dimension, Tommy Flanagan, Phyllis Diller, Benny Carter, Michael’s own recording with Rowles, Ray Brown, and some comments on race:

Four.  In which Michael tells anecdotes of encounters with heroes in New York, saxophonist Pony Poindexter, trombonist Benny Morton, as well as jazz clubs Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s, with memories of Red Balaban, Jo Jones, Bobby Pratt, Tony Bennett, Joe Muranyi, Artie Baker, Roy Eldridge, Scott Hamilton, Lou Donaldson, Freddie Freeloader, and others:

Five.  In which Michael remembers not only individual musicians but the feeling and understanding of their art that they embodied, including Cab Calloway, the Widespread Depression Orchestra, Eddie Barefield, Sammy Price, Jerry Potter, Earle Warren, Phil Schaap,Toots Mondello, Percy France, Doc Cheatham, Scott Robinson, Roy Eldridge, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Lester Bowie, Haywood Henry:

Six. In which Michael lovingly speaks of the importance of the drums and remembers memorable percussionists and the players surrounding them, including Buddy Rich, Philly Joe Jones, Eddie Locke, Ray Mosca, Oliver Jackson, with a special pause for the master Jo Jones, for Sonny Greer, Johnny Blowers, Brooks Kerr, Russell Procope, Harold Ashby, Aaron Bell, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Irvis, Bubber Miley, Elmer Snowden, Freddie Moore, Eddy Davis, Kenny Washington, Billy Higgins, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, George Butler, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Joe Henderson:

What an afternoon it was, and what a person Michael Hashim is.

May your happiness increase!

A FEW GLOWING SECONDS OF GLORY

When I returned to my apartment in New York, I thought, “I need music in here. Music will help remind me who I am, what I am supposed to be doing, where my path might lead.”  Initially I reached for some favorite performances for consolation, then moved over to the crates of homemade audiocassettes — evidence of more than twenty-five years of tape-trading with like-minded souls.

One tape had the notation PRIVATE CHICAGO, and looking at it, I knew that it was the gift of Leonora Taylor, who preferred to be called “Gypsy,” and who had an unusual collection of music.  When I asked drummer / scholar Hal Smith about her, he reminded me that she loved the UK clarinetist Archie Semple. Although I don’t recall having much if any Archie to offer her, we traded twenty or thirty cassettes.

PRIVATE CHICAGO had some delightful material recorded (presumably) at the Evanston, Illinois house of Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft — amateur pianist, sometime composer, friend / benefactor to jazz musicians. Squirrel was both a dear friend of Pee Wee Russell, Joe Rushton, Eddie Condon, Boyce Brown, Johnny Mercer, George Barnes, Lee Wiley, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and many others — one facet of a very intriguing life.  He deserves a biography.

But back to the music.

I played through the side of the cassette, rewound it, and played it again.  And I kept returning to a short improvisation: BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, played by Johnny Windhurst (cornet or trumpet) and Jack Gardner (piano) with possibly other players in the background — I hear a murmuring clarinet offering harmony notes — recorded, Gypsy’s typed notes say, circa 1950.

Neither Windhurst nor Gardner is as well known as they should be. Windhurst (1926-1981) was recognized young as a brilliant player, and got to play with the best — Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster in Boston when he wasn’t voting age, then Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Kenny Kersey, John Field, Jimmy Crawford a few years later, moving on to be one of Eddie Condon’s regulars, briefly recording with Jack Teagarden and on his own date with Buell Neidlinger, on a Walt Gifford session, with Barbara Lea (he was both colleague and boyfriend) then moving upstate to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he died too young (once being mugged and beaten) of a heart attack.

I saw him in person once, at Your Father’s Mustache in New York in 1972 — with Herb Hall and Herb Gardner (the latter someone who is very much with us) and Red Balaban.  Windhurst was capable of the most beautiful melodic flights of fancy — a cross between heavenly music of the highest order and Bobby Hackett — but he couldn’t read music, disdained the idea of doing so, and thus turned down higher-paying and possibly higher-visibility gigs from bandleaders.  I read somewhere that Woody Herman wanted to hire him, offered him good pay, promised to teach him to read, but Windhurst — a free spirit — would have none of it.

There is one video extant of Windhurst — I wrote about it, and him, in 2009 (and received wonderful comments from people who had played alongside him) here.

I did not know much about pianist Gardner, except that what I’ve heard suggests a delicate barrelhouse approach, and I seem to recall he was a large man called by some “Jumbo Jack.” But an exquisite biographical sketch of Jack by the diligent writer and researcher Derek Coller can be found here.  (Our Jack Gardner is not the man who led an orchestra in Dallas in 1924-5.)  Jack first recorded with Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland, then got more visibility with Harry James (you can hear him on SLEEPY TIME GAL and he is also on Sinatra’s first recording with James) 1939-40, then he crops up with Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Bud Freeman, and after being captured on sessions at Squirrel’s from 1950-52, we hear no more from him.

I know THE BATTLE  HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC as a very assertive religious song in which the enemies of the Lord receive divine punishment:  “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and so on, even though later verses of the song — known to how many? — suggest that there is a balm of kindness.

More importantly than the theological, I and others know it as a hot number — think of “Red Nichols” as played by Danny Kaye and “Louis Armstrong” as played by himself in THE FIVE PENNIES, sending the sermon. Everyone from Art Hodes to George Lewis to Gerry Mulligan has recorded it, but I suggest that no version you will ever hear matches the sweet delicacy of this brief celestial interlude by Windhurst and Gardner.

Windhurst doesn’t venture far from the melody — the recording catches less than a whole chorus, and aside from a bluesy transformation near the end, it is melodic embellishment rather than harmonic improvisation.  But he treats the melodic line with lightness, fervor, and love; every note is caressed; his tone is so beautiful as to make “golden” into an affront.  Gardner plays a simplified version of barrelhouse support but never gets in Windhurst’s way. The whole duet is tender, yearning — the music of the spheres in under a minute.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

May your happiness increase!

GOODBYE, RED BALABAN. FAREWELL, BOB GREENE

I’ve written very sparingly about the deaths of jazz musicians in JAZZ LIVES — for one reason, thinking that turning this blog into an ongoing necrological record was at odds with its title. But without saying that one musician is more important than another (Bobby Gordon, Frank Wess, Al Porcino, Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Sam Ulano, and a dozen others I am not mentioning here) I want to write and share a few words about two deaths of late 2013.

One was the bassist / guitarist / singer / impresario Leonard “Red” Balaban, the other, pianist Bob Greene.  Both of them were ardent workers in the jazz vineyards, and both (in their own subtle ways) did as much to advance the music as more-heralded musicians.

I had occasion to observe and interact with Red Balaban many times in 1972-5, again in 1975-the early Eighties, and once in 2013. In the summer of 1972, I learned from reading the listings in THE NEW YORKER that Sunday-afternoon jazz sessions were being held at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage — sic transit gloria mundi) on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street.  I and several friends made pilgrimages there.  The Mustache was a huge hall with sawdust on the floor, creaking long tables and wobbly chairs.  But for a nominal admission charge and the purchase of food and drink of dubious quality, we could sit as close to the bandstand as possible and (often) illicitly record the music.  The house band — Balaban and Cats — harking back to Red’s heritage in show business with the Chicago movie theatre chain created by Balaban and Katz — was usually a sextet, with Red playing string bass and singing, occasionally guitar or banjo, rarely tuba.  He called the tunes in consultation with the guest star, chose tempos, and led the session.  The Cats I remember were Marquis Foster, Buzzy Drootin, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Pratt, Chuck Folds, Red Richards, Sal Pace, Kenny Davern, Joe Muranyi, Dick Rath, Herb Gardner, Ed Polcer, Doc Cheatham, and I am sure there were others.  The guest stars, stopping in from Olympus or Valhalla, were Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buddy Tate, Jo Jones, Dicky Wells, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Bob Wilber — enough stiumlation for a lifetime.  I was a college student with limited funds, so I didn’t see every session: missing Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, Lou McGarity, and others.  But I did see Eddie Condon in the audience, which would make the Sunday sessions memorable even if no music had been played.  And his daughter Liza was there now and again, photographing the musicians.

A few years later, I saw Red occasionally as a member of Mike Burgevin’s little band at Brew’s, playing alongside Vic Dickenson and other luminaries.  Eventually, Red and Ed Polcer created the “last” Eddie Condon’s, on 54th Street, and I went there when I could — the house band, as I recall it, included Ed, Vic, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, John Bunch, Connie, Kay, Ronnie Cole, and another galaxy of visitors, including Helen Humes, Al Hall, Jimmy Rowles, Brooks Kerr, Marty Grosz, Bob Sparkman, Ruby Braff, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones.  At Condon’s one could also see Billy Butterfield, Dan Barrett, Soprano Summit, Zoot and Al — a midtown oasis, now gone.

Finally, I got to meet Red once again, after a lapse of decades, at the October 2012 house party created by Joel Schiavone and Jeff Barnhart. I introduced myself as someone who had good reason to be grateful to him for those Sunday sessions, and we chatted a bit.

Thanks to CineDevine, we have two samples of Red, late in his career, gently entertaining the room, with assistance from Jim Fryer, Jeff Barnhart, and others.  In a Waller-Razaf mood:

and something pretty from Rodgers and Hart:

A musician I respect, someone around in those New York years, had this to say about Red: “Not only did he love the music, but thousands upon thousands of dollars went through his hands and into the hands of musicians.  What he did with Condon’s # 3 is part of New York City jazz history.  He was a kind man who came from a very interesting family.  He wasn’t Ray Brown or Bob Haggart, but he kept jazz alive.”

Without Red Balaban, I doubt that I — and many others — would have heard as much memorable music as we did in those New York years.  So we owe him a great deal.  And he will be missed.  Another view of Red can be found here.

Pianist Bob Greene also left us late in 2013.

Bob devoted his life to celebrating Jelly Roll Morton and his music. He wasn’t the only pianist who has done so, but his emulation was fervent. I saw him summon up the Master at Alice Tully Hall in 1974 with a lovely little band (Pee Wee Erwin, Ephie Resnick, Herb Hall, Alan Cary, Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford).  They couldn’t quite turn that austere space into a Storyville bordello or the Jungle Inn (it would have required an architectural reconstruction taking years) but the music floated and rocked.  Across the distance of the decades, I think of Bob as a brilliant actor, committed with all his heart and energy to one role and to the perfection of that role — not a bad life-goal.

Bob was respected by his peers.  Mike Lipskin said, “Bob was a fine performer of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, and devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of this giant early jazz pioneer alive. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert many years ago.”  And a man we just lost, Bobby Gordon, told me, “I have fond memories of Bob for 40 years. He was always enthusiastic about music. I recorded with him 40 years ago and most recently for Jazzology. It was wonderful to record with him again, and a joy to be with such a remarkable talent. I will miss him……..a dear friend.”

Here’s a beautiful expansive piece by Hank O’Neal, a very lively evocation of Bob:

The first time I saw Bob Greene, he was playing a poor electric piano with a fairly loose ensemble, on the back of a flat bed truck. The band on the truck was trying, unsuccessfully, to recreate the feeling generated by old time bands on wagons in New Orleans. It is a long way from New Orleans to Manassas, Virginia, and 1967 was a half a century removed from those heady days in the Crescent City. I don’t remember the enterprise stirring up much support for the first Manassas Jazz Festival, but Bob was on board because his old friend, Edmund “Doc” Souchon was also there, and Doc had probably asked him to come along. I know it happened because I have a snapshot to prove it. In another snapshot from the same day he’s playing cornet.

You had to look pretty hard to find out anything about Bob. He’s not well-known today, rarely mentioned in any of the standard jazz reference books, and you have to dig pretty deep to come up with any information at all, but the bits and pieces are there if you look for them. And the story and the music he’s made along the way are both wonderful.

Bob’s first love was Benny Goodman, Jess Stacy and the swing guys who were all over the place when he was a teenager. He could still, when asked, do the best imitation of Stacy I’ve ever heard, but at some point he heard Jelly Roll Morton, and was hooked. Until his death in 2013, he remained one of the foremost exponent of Jelly’s music in the land. There are other guys who could play more notes, play King Porter Stomp louder or Fingerbuster faster, but when it came to really delivering the goods, with just the right mix of technique, exuberance and sentiment, nobody else even came close.

There are other guys who play Morton’s compositions well, in the style, often with more sheer technique, but, for the most part, this is just a portion, usually a small portion, of their repertory. The music of Jelly Roll Morton and some of his circa 1900 contemporaries, made up about 90 percent of Bob’s playbook, and the telephone doesn’t ring very often these days, or any other days for the past few decades, for someone to play a recital of Morton’s music. Which was just fine for Bob. He never had any intention of being a full time musician. The world was just full of too many other things to try.

Bob made his first recordings in 1950 with Conrad Janis (Circle) and in 1951 with Sidney DeParis (Blue Note) and recorded intermittently for the next sixty years, whenever it was convenient. His performance schedule was about the same. He played in and around New York City in the 1950s and Washington D.C. in the 1960s because he was writing some pretty fancy stuff for assorted notables to read on radio or in political speeches. Goodness knows what else he may have been up to. When he wrote a book about the OSS exploits of his cousin, Paul Blum, he had no difficulty gaining access to the highest levels of the intelligence community. But back to the music.

After Bob climbed down off the back of the truck during the ill-fated parade in Manassas, I discovered he could also play a real piano and when he played Morton it was special. As I’ve suggested, he made up in spirit and authenticity what he may lacked in a formidable technique. Not that he made mistakes, he didn’t, but to this particular pianist, passion was the point, not technique. He had all he needed to get his point across. Much in the same as Thelonoius Monk. Other people played Just A Gigolo better than Monk, but nobody played it with more quirky feeling.

The first time I really heard Bob was when I was asked to round up the gear to record a band to be led by the then legendary, now largely forgotten drummer, Zutty Singleton. The gear came from Squirrel Ashcraft, the recorder, microphones, even the take-up reels. It was February 12, 1967, I remember the date with great affection because it was the very first commercially released record I ever worked on. It was also my first encounter with Zutty, still a marvelous drummer, and the only person I ever heard in person who could almost simulate a melody on the drums.

Bob Greene was a strong presence among many exceptional players that day and the highlight of the recording, to me at least, was a duo, just Zutty and Bob, on Cake Walking Babies From Home. I don’t know if Jelly ever played the tune, but if he did, he would have played it like Bob played it that day, and maybe Zutty would have been around to make sure. This was Johnson McRee’s first record for his Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and except for a solo outing by Don Ewell, perhaps the best record he ever produced.

In the 1970s, I asked Bob to record for Chiaroscuro on many occasions, but he always declined. There was always a semi-legitimate excuse. He was the only person I asked to record in those years who didn’t jump at the chance, including Bob’s first idol, Jess Stacy. In the late 1970’s Bob assembled his World of Jelly Roll Morton band, made a fine record for RCA, played Carnegie Hall a few years and toured successfully with the group. But most of the time he was in between New Orleans, Paris, Tokyo and New York, rarely in any place for very long. He slowed down long enough to record all the Jelly Roll Morton tracks for Louis Malle’s fine film, Pretty Baby and he enthralled audiences with his Jelly Roll show at numerous Floating Jazz Festivals. I recorded one of these shows in the late 1980s. Maybe I’ll listen to it one day and see if it should be released.

In 1994 we produced an event for Cunard on Queen Elizabeth 2, a 12-day survey of the music of New Orleans, and Bob was on board, as both Jelly Roll Morton and as the pianist with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The New Yorker’s noted critic, Whitney Balliett, was also on board, in disguise as Baby Dodds, tastefully accompanying Bob on a snare and cymbal. Romantic that he was, Bob fell in love with the ship and was heartbroken when he learned that much of the furniture in the ship’s Theater Bar, where he held forth nightly with Whitney, was to be taken off QE2 when it reached New York, and given to the Salvation Army. He decided he had to have a table and four leather chairs and set about finding a way to work it out.

When we docked, I left via the crew gangway, and saw Bob at the other end of the pier in heated conversation with a man in a Salvation Army uniform. Longshoreman were hauling the furniture and putting it inside a truck. I later learned that Bob got his furniture. The deal was for a table and four leather chairs, in the best condition possible, delivered to his home on 92nd Street. In exchange, Bob promised to assemble a band, including Whitney, to play for a Salvation Army Christmas party. A decade or so later Bob moved out to the end of Long island and that old Theater Bar furniture moved with him, a few miles closer to Southampton. This is the kind of thing that appealed to Bob.

If Bob had worked at a career in music half as hard as he worked at getting that furniture, who knows what might have happened? But perhaps nothing would have happened, which is the case with most people who try to have a career in jazz, and he wouldn’t have had nearly as good a time as he had for the past 91 years. He was one of a handful of pianists I’d go out of my way to hear because he always made me happy. He had the same effect on others.

In November 2006 he toured Japan and a lot of other people went out of their way to hear him. After that he began working on a project to present a Jelly Roll Morton show at Jazz At Lincoln Center but it didn’t work out. A year or so after that he asked what I thought of getting him together with Joshua Bell for some duets. I thought it sound like a good idea, that Bell could do a lot worse. That didn’t work out either but an awful lot did and the music that resulted with simply wonderful.

Bob and friends:

MAMIE’S BLUES (2006):

I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (2010):

TIGER RAG (2011):

Thinking about these men, all I can say is this.

Not everyone is a Star, but everyone counts.  And fortunate are those who can follow their life’s calling and share their passions with us.

May your happiness increase!

KENNY DAVERN, REMEMBERED

First, some comedy.  The last time I saw Kenny Davern in action was at Sunnie Sutton’s 2006 Rocky Mountain Jazz Party — only a few months before his death.  At the dinner for musicians and friends the night before the party started, Kenny took a napkin off one of the tables, draped it over his arm, and transformed himself into an elderly, mournful New York Jewish waiter, asking each table, “Is anything all right?”

Then, in the middle of a set, he told one of his many jokes.

Jake always wanted to be a professional actor and appear on Broadway, but the fates are against him.  Finally, his agent gets so tired of Jake’s begging, whining, and pleading that he arranges — as a favor — for Jake to have a one-line walk-on in a production far from Broadway.  Jake’s line?  “Hark!  I hear a cannon roar!”  Jake is thrilled and spends every minute before the production practicing in front of the mirror.  “HARK!  I hear a CANNON roar!”  “Hark . . . I HEAR a cannon ROAR!”  The big night comes, Jake is pinned into his costume and stands muttering his one line in the wings.  He’s pushed out on stage; the cannon fires a thunderous blast, and Jake says, “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!”

But Davern was much more than a comedian, although his timing was impeccable — combined with his mobile face, his vocal inflections.

The Davern we remember is the peerless clarinetist, with a heroic top register and a lustrous chalumeau sound — with plenty of “grease and funk,” to quote Marty Grosz, in between.  Luckily for us, a great deal of Davern’s best playing is documented on Arbors record sessions.  (One of my favorites is EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, with a front-line of Dan Barrett and Joel Helleny.)

Even though at times I thought I knew what Kenny was going to play next — what variation on a Jimmie Noone passage he was going to use for those particular chords — he never coasted, even on the thousandth version of A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID.

I had seen him several decades earlier — in the very early Seventies — when his partnership with Bob Wilber was beginning.  Soprano Summit was a high-intensity group, and when its two horns got going on the closing ensembles of something like EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY they had the force of the great Spanier-Bechet Hot Four.  I also remember Davern as a regular member of the Sunday jam sessions put on by Red Balaban in 1972 — when Kenny was primarily playing the straight soprano with operatic (if not dangerous) focused intensity.  I remember his overwhelming less assertive trumpet and trombone players — as if saying “Get the hell out of my way, if you please.”

Courtesy of Bob Erwig, here is Kenny’s performance of TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE from the 1989 Bern International Jazz Festival — backed by Howard Alden, Milt Hinton, and Gus Johnson — where Kenny is ardent without being shrill, powerful while playing quietly.  No wonder John L. Fell, who knew about such things, called Davern “the Coleman Hawkins of the clarinet.”  We miss him.

And one more Davern-sighting.  In 1972, friends and I saw Kenny and company at a Sunday afternoon jam session at Your Father’s Mustache and we then went downtown to The Half Note where Ruby Braff was leading a quartet — possibly with Dill Jones, George Mraz, and Dottie Dodgion.  The door opened during a set break and Davern walked in.  I was excited and envisioned a wonderful jam session.  My exuberant college-age self got the better of me, and I greeted Davern with an enthusiastic “Kenny!” then realized that I had perhaps overstepped myself and retreated into a quieter, “Mister Davern.”  With his usual glint of a half-smile, he looked at me and murmured, “Oh, pardonnez-moi,” and turned away.  I’m still decoding that one.

WHAT, NO CAKE? (April 22, 2010)

There are Underrated Musicians, Musicians Deserving Wider Recognition, Neglected Musicians, and Ignored Musicians.

Here’s a picture of a very fine jazz individualist, born one hundred years ago today.  How many people will recognize him?

“That’s BUZZY DROOTIN!” I hear some of my readers saying.  Right you are. 

Buzzy played most often with Eddie Condon’s bands — in the club and on records — but you can also hear him with Ruby Braff, George Wein’s Newport All-Stars, Max Kaminsky, Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden, Vic Dickenson, Jimmy McPartland, Ralph Sutton, Wild Bill Davison, Herman Autrey, Herb Hall, Claude Hopkins, Benny Morton, Pee Wee Russell, and family members Al and Sonny Drootin. 

I was lucky enough to see him at close — sometimes deafening range — in 1972, at the Sunday afternoon jam sessions run by Red Balaban at Your Father’s Mustache.  We sat right up in front of the bandstand, so Buzzy and his drums were about ten feet away, and his characteristic snare and ride-cymbal work drove the band.  His playing wasn’t fussy; he didn’t make aural jokes as did Jo Jones — but his tempos never faltered, and he had immense energy.  His sound was entirely his own, and I can still hear and see in my mind’s eye the simultaneous open-mouthed sounds (somewhere between a roar and a growl) that he made in the last sixteen bars of his solo. 

His intensity was remarkable: I never saw George Wettling or Dave Tough in the flesh, but Buzzy had some of that same “I don’t care!” energy and ferocity.  Yet who remembers him today? 

Kevin Dorn met Buzzy and celebrates him in his own playing, of course. 

I would like to take credit for remembering his birthday, his centenary, but I have to give credit to Confetta Ras and her magnificent ON THIS DAY IN JAZZ AGE MUSIC website (one of the most generous cornucopias I’ve ever seen) for reminding us all of what April 22 is all about (http://jazzagemusic.blogspot.com/). 

P.S.  I know I have among my readers not only people who’ve heard Buzzy but also those rare folks who have played alongside him.  Comments and celebrations, anyone?

JOHNNY WINDHURST, MUCH MISSED

Few people today know of the cornetist Johnny Windhurst, but those who do speak of him with awe and affection. 

I first heard him on a Folkways record called JAZZ OF THE FORTIES, which contained excerpts from a concert put on by Bob Maltz in 1946.  The other participants inckuded Sidney Bechet, Pops Foster, Vernon Brown, Mezz Mezzrow, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson.  Windhurst had a ballad feature on “She’s Funny That Way” that wasn’t very long — perhaps two choruses — but it was instantly memorable.  The idea of a brass player having a golden tone is and was an obvious cliche, but it applied to Johnny.  He had built his style on a synthesis of Bobby Hackett and Louis and moved on from there.  His playing had a simplicity and tenderness I haven’t heard anyone else approach.  At the time, the only Windhurst I could hear was on recordings he had made with the fine singer Barbara Lea. 

In mid-1972, when I began to go into New York City to hear live jazz (with Stu Zimny and Rob Rothberg) the Sunday afternoon sessions led by bassist Red Balaban at Your Father’s Mustache were a special treat.  Balaban was not a stirring leader, bassist, banjoist, or singer, but he had good taste in guest stars.  One of them was Windhurst, who came down from Poughkeepsie, where his mother lived, to lead the band — either Dick Rath or Herb Gardner on trombone, Herb Hall on piano, either Chuck Folds or Red Richards on piano, and Marquis Foster or Buzzy Drootin on drums.

Windhurst looked much as he had ever looked — boyish, small, bespectacled, with a natty bow tie.  He seemed a little distant, a little tired, but he played beautifully.

After that Sunday, I began to ask my collector-friends for the private tapes they had.  John L. Fell, generous and erudite, shared his treasures.  Joe Boughton, a true Windhurst friend and fancier, let me hear tapes of Windhurst playing in the early Fifties at college gigs; later, I found the two lps on which he had appeared (one, a quartet session under his own name; the other, a session led by the drummer Walt Gifford).  He had recorded with Condon for Decca.  Still later, the “Jazz Nocturne” programs of 1945, where a 19-year old Windhurst stood next to Sidney Bechet and didn’t give an inch, came out on the Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and the “Doctor Jazz” broadcasts from 1952 or so, also appeared on Storyville.  I even found a semi-private recording made in Poughkeepsie at “The Last Chance Saloon,” where Johnny and his friend, trombonist Eddie Hubble, played in front of a local session.  Later, I heard broadcasts from the Savoy Cafe in Boston, where in 1947, Windhurst had run in the quickest of company: Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson,Kenny Kersey, John Field, and Jimmy Crawford.   

In all these recordings, Windhurst took risks but never faltered, and his tone never grew acrid or shrill.  But, for whatever reasons, he stayed out of the limelight.  Because he never cared to learn to read music, he had turned down gigs with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, preferring informal jamming.  He died in Poughkeepsie at 54.  The reference books I have say that he died of a heart attack, but I recall that having been mugged had something to do with his early death. 

Had he lived . . . alas.  And the recordings that have come out in the last few years — one a 1947 jazz concert where Windhurst and Jack Teagarden play beautifully alongside one another — are beautifully stirring, saying much about the musician we lost. 

These thoughts are motivated by a cyber-find: I haven’t given up on my quest for the 1946 “March of Time” clip featuring Dave Tough at Eddie Condon’s.  My quest led me to www.dailymotion.com., where trumpeter and film scholar Bob Erwig has posted excerpts from a 1958 “Jazz Party,” a television show hosted by jazz disc jockey Art Ford.  Ford’s program was simultaneously broadcast on the radio, so some diligent collectors have tapes that are as close to stereo as we shall get.  The programs tended to be informal to the point of messiness, with players ranging from Lester Young to Willie the Lion Smith to Mary Osborne and Teddy Charles.  Here is the only film footage of Windhurst, accompanied by pianist Roland Hanna, Osborne, bassist Mark Goldberg, and drummer Morey Feld (the last a particular favorite of our own Kevin Dorn).   

On this 1958 clip, an earnest Windhurst considers “Pennies From Heaven” in yearning style, reminding us of the pretty song that Bing Crosby, Hackett, and Louis explored.  In it, we see a player not afraid to take his time, to make beautiful sounds, to gently explore the melody.  It’s a lovely performance, and it doesn’t give up all its secrets on one viewing. 

Did any readers of this blog hear Johnny or play alongside him?  I would love to hear your memories.  Without them, who will remember Johnny Windhurst?

DICK, DOUG, BIX, DICK (AND JOE SULLIVAN)

Jazz-lovers owe Dick Sudhalter a great deal for his hot, lyrical playing, his elegantly-written research, and his long-time devotion to artistic causes we hold dear.  Whether as an jazz historian, biographer of Bix and of Hoagy, a member of the Classic Jazz Quartet a/k/a/ The Bourgeois Scum, as a radio broadcaster (WBAI, “Bix and Beyond”), or as a bandleader, he has left his mark.  This list is far from comprehensive: Dick is someone whose generosities have touched us all. 

As you should know, after a stroke he suffered in 2003, he is quite ill with Multiple Systems Atrophy.  The picture of him at the top of this page is from a 2006 benefit held in his honor.  His medical care costs a great deal.  This post is to publicize the latest effort to raise more — but a Hot Jazz Treat is involved.   

That Treat is a two-disc set of rare recordings made during Bix Beiderbecke’s short lifetime by musicians vividly influenced by his playing — one disc of American performances, one of European ones.  Many of the recordings were unfamiliar to me.  Some have never been on CD, some are previously unknown, unissued takes.  Visit http://bixography.com/BixInfluenceFinal.html for details.  All proceeds from the sale of this set — reasonably priced and well-documented — go to defray Dick’s medical costs.   

Doug Ramsey is a well-regarded jazz writer and critic of long standing, someone whose enthusiasms are always expressed in thoughtful words.  I found out about this set on Doug’s blog, “Rifftides,” (http://www.artsjournal.com/rifftides, where jazz is central but far from the only subject he and his expert writers touch upon. 

There, under the heading of “Correspondence: About Wellstood,” on August 8, Doug posted letters from Toronto broadcaster Ted O’Reilly and Dave Frishberg on the subject of Dick Wellstood . . . and told of young Dick encountering his hero, Joe Sullivan, after searching earnestly.  I won’t spoil the story but will add two Wellstood anecdotes of my own.  (Sudhalter and Wellstood were one-half of the aforementioned CJQ, a memorably eccentric group, whose music has been collected on a Jazzology CD set.) 

I didn’t get to see Wellstood enough in New York City, even though he played often at Hanratty’s, but one Sunday afternoon gig in 1972 sticks in my mind.  Bassist and singer Red Balaban led sessions at Your Father’s Mustache (on the site of the old Nick’s), where peanut shells and sawdust crunched beneath our feet.  One Sunday, the band was a pre-Soprano Summit gathering: Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern on clarinets and sopranos, with Dick Rath on trombone, Wellstood, Balaban, and drummer Buzzy Drootin.  Before the first set began, Dick Rath, modest and genial, saw Vic Dickenson heading into the hall, trombone case in hand, and said something like, “I’m going to step down now!” and gave the place in the middle of the two horns to Vic, staying to revel in the music as a spectator. 

Through the afternoon, Wellstood made that badly-tuned piano sing out — whether he was embellishing a medium-tempo melody or in full stride.  One set ended with a fast “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and in the middle of his second chorus, Wellstood did the key-changing trick that Tatum liked on “Tea for Two,” but his harmonies were wilder and weirder, memorably so.  I didn’t know how he returned to the familiar parade of sevenths in time, but he did.  To begin another set, Wellstood and Davern began with an intentionally droopy, whining rendition of “Somewhere My Love” as if for a tea dance on a particularly timid cruise.  Drootin, someone I’d never thought of as a satirist, added intentionally dull snare-drum rolls.  Jazz loves to poke fun at dance-band conventions, and this was a hilarious live example.  Wellstood died in 1987, far too young, and we miss him. 

Whether satiric or exploratory, impassioned or funky, jazz lifts our souls, and its players have earned our thanks and more.  I hope you’ll investigate the Bix-influenced CD set as a way of giving something back to Richard M. Sudhalter, hot cornetist and stylish writer, who’s given us so much.