Tag Archives: Red Callendar

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaten we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

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THE COMFORT OF SWING: ROB ADKINS, DAN BLOCK, DALTON RIDENHOUR at CASA MEZCAL, APRIL 12, 2015 (Part One)

The music I love conveys deep feeling in a few notes; it engages me.  I may not know the players as people but I feel their friendship in sounds.  When the music is spirited but calm, expert but experimental, playful without being goofy, I feel at home in the world, embraced by dear sounds.  It can happen in the first eight bars of the first song.

I had one of those wonderful musical interludes at Casa Mezcal on Orchard Street in April of this year — one of the divine Sunday afternoon sessions often led by Tamar Korn.  But when Tamar is out of town, her friends do their best to make sure we feel wonderful — instrumentally speaking.

Rob Adkins, musically and emotionally trustworthy — with his bass, with his fingers, with his bow — picked two great players to make up an uplifting trio: Dan Block, clarinet and tenor; Dalton Ridenhour, piano.  Here are some selections from the first half of the afternoon.  Yes, there’s audience chatter, but try to feel compassion for the people whose Sunday brunch is their social highlight, an escape from their apartments.  Or, if you can’t ascend to compassion, just listen to the music.  It’s what I do.

I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING:

NIGHT AND DAY (One):

NIGHT AND DAY (Two) — the reason for the break was that the battery in my Rode microphone passed out and could not be revived by the battery EMT crew, so there is a gap.  Imagine it as the music missed while Jerry Newman put a new acetate on the turntable and lowered the cutting arm.  Or not:

I NEVER KNEW:

YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY:

A few words about the players.  I’ve been admiring and following Dan Block for over a decade now: his music is a bright light in a sometimes murky world, always surprising but in its own way a deeply kind phenomenon. When he puts any horn to his lips, what comes out is intense yet playful: I’ve been moved to tears and have had to stifle laughter — the best kind — listening to his music.

Rob Adkins is terribly modest and gently low-key, but he reminds me — without saying a word — of Milt Hinton’s axiom that the bass was the foundation of the band.  Harmonically, rhythmically, emotionally, morally.  He knows and loves his instrument, and he plays for the comfort of the ensemble, never egotistically — although he is proud to swing and he is always ready to be lyrical. And as you can see and hear here, he is a great catalyst.

Dalton Ridenhour gets a few more words.  Because the Music Business — as distinguished from the music — encourages non-musicians to make people into commodities, into products, I first encountered Dalton as “a ragtime pianist” and a “stride pianist.”  These little boxes are accurate: he can play superbly in both idioms.  But when I actually heard Dalton — both words need emphasis here — I understood that his musical soul was much more expansive than the careful reproduction of one idiom.  He’s a free bird, someone whose imagination moves through decades and idioms with grace.  You’ll hear his brave light-heartedness through this session (I also had wonderful opportunities to hear him at the Atlanta Jazz Party this year: more about that in time) — he makes music, something that is very rare and very endearing.  So far, he has only one solo CD, but ECCENTRICITY on Rivermont Records (2o12) is a constant delight. I urge you to “check it out,” as they used to say on Eighth Avenue in New York City in the Seventies, and you will hear that Dalton has all the accuracy and sparkle of the Master, Dick Hyman, with his own very personal warmth.

And a small personal caveat.  Some of my listeners, who love making connections between the Now and the Hallowed Past, will leap to do this and hear Lester Young – Nat Cole – Red Callendar, or perhaps Lucky Thompson – Oscar Pettiford, etc.  I know it’s meant as high praise.  “Sounding Like” is a great game, and I do it myself.  But I beseech such wise historiographers to for once leave the records behind and hear the music for itself.  It is even more magnificent when it is not compared to anything or anyone.

There will be more music from this trio to come.  I look forward to someday encountering them again as a group.  Such things are possible and quite wonderful.

May your happiness increase! 

“DID YOU EVER KNOW ART TATUM?”

HUMPH book

From Humphrey Lyttelton’s posthumous “Autobiographical Medley,” LAST CHORUS:

Ben Webster was ejected by the police from the Nottingham club where he was appearing as star soloist, and asked the young policeman who had him in an armlock, “Did you ever know Art Tatum?”  Ben Webster was part-Red Indian and, below a certain specific gravity, the sweetest man who ever walked.  When flash level was reached, he developed a suicidal tendency to attack anyone in official uniform.  Stories of Ben ending a foray with a squad of policemen or hotel night staff sitting on his protesting head would always get the same affectionate but gleeful response from Buck [Clayton], “Yeah, that’s Ben” (197).

That’s one man — indiscriminately dangerous when intoxicated.

Here’s the other side of the human coin:

We are mysterious to each other and, if we can admit it, mysterious to ourselves. Tales of Ben’s murderous drunken behavior — to women, to musicians he ordinarily respected — are many.  Yet that same man made the most beautiful music.  I draw no conclusions and offer no analysis, except to present Ben, Art, Red Callendar, and Bill Douglass, making the music of the spheres for all time.

And you can read and see more about Humph here — it’s a gorgeous site.

This just in: some invaluable words from Dan Morgenstern on the subject of Ben:

The wildness may have been true in his early and middle years, but he changed. Ironically, I well remember Ben doing his best to keep a very drunk Oscar Pettiford (now there was a problem drinker) from harming himself and others at the Copper Rail, eventually almost carrying him out into a cab (Ben was strong, also at Copper Rail, he caught me eating some soul food seldom consumed by ofays and lifted me off the counter stool and held me up, shouting “He’s eating pig’s ears!”)
I’ll never forget taking a stroll with Ben on a summer night, we were at a party on Central Park West, where at the time Ben was sharing an apartment with Joe Zawinul–odd couple if there ever was one. Ben knew that I was European-born and bred and wanted ti talk to me about going abroad for the first time in his life. He was most concerned about communicating, and I was happy to assure him that most people in Western Europe understood and even spoke English and that he would have no problems.* It was amazingly, and charmingly naive. Of course he not only visited, but stayed in Europe until his death. Last time I saw him, he was leaning out the window of his Copenhagen apartment, which I’d just left after a visit during which he lamented the recent loss of Charlie Shavers, and of other dear friends. and we left a bunch of empty beer bottles, waving goodbye. I loved Ben, he really was what his music says. (Among the many treasures in the Mary Lou Williams Collection at IJS, there is a ca. l939 love letter from Ben, and an acetate of him singing “Prelude to a Kiss”. there thanks to Fr, Peter O’Brien, S.J., a dear man whom we just lost.)

Thank you, as always, Dan.

May your happiness increase!