Tag Archives: RHAPSODY IN BLUE

HOT MUSIC, GOOD STORIES, LASTING FRIENDSHIP, KINDNESSES: HANK O’NEAL RECALLS SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT (Nov. 2, 2018)

Here is one perspective on Hank O’Neal — writer, archivist, record producer, photographer, friend of Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott . . . and many jazz musicians from Willie “the Lion” Smith to Borah Bergman.  Hank is also an incredible resource and storyteller, someone I am thrilled to call a friend: reasons that Hank visits JAZZ LIVES, as he speaks with great fondness of Squirrel Ashcraft.  If you say, “Wow, Squirrel!” then you have come to the right place.  If you say, “Who IS that?” you’re also in for pleasure and enlightenment.

Hank O’Neal by Annie Tritt for the Boston Globe, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And since Hank is a masterful photographer, here is another character study, one I like even more — shot by Sherry Sereboff (2017, near Fort Worth, Texas) even better.  When I meet Hank next, I will ask what was on his plate:

I had asked Hank to speak about Squirrel for JAZZ LIVES, and the conversation began very informally, as he was paging through Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft’s scrapbook.  I just started videoing . . . with happy results — little anecdotes about sacred objects connected to Bix, Tesch, and Dick Voynow.  But for future researchers, any time someone you respect says the words, “Letters from Brad Gowans,” you know something important is being revealed:

“Who was Squirrel Ashcraft and how did I meet him?”:

Paging through Squirrel’s 1928-9 notebook, “JAZZ MUSIC,” with entries devoted to the Wolverines, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, the Georgians, Jack Pettis, Leon Roppolo, Henderson’s adaptation of RHAPSODY IN BLUE, and more:

I first learned about Squirrel through EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (a book Eddie did with Hank) and then through Squirrel’s home recordings, later issued on rare lps by . . . Hank.  Here’s the story of Squirrel’s career — about fifteen years — as an archivist of home recordings, often aluminum, including performances by Johnny Mercer, Joe Rushton, Jimmy McParland, George Barnes, Boyce Brown, Bob Zurke, Spencer Clark, Rosy McHargue, also Joe Rushton, his motorcycle, and Pee Wee Russell, and Squirrel’s later playing career in Washington, D.C., and sidelights on Jean Bach, Jimmy Dorsey, and jazz reunions at Princeton University from 1975-79:

Finally . . . Hank brings us up to date (Squirrel died in 1981, but his relics are going to a good place.  And don’t miss the story about the Bob Crosby band: Squirrel and friends obviously knew how to live:

The best part of this story, just over an hour with Hank, is his obvious affection and indebtedness to Squirrel, and Squirrel’s sweet feelings for the music and musicians.  Thank you, Hank, for making the reclusive Squirrel appear to us in this century.

And . . . because Hank is a wonderful writer, here’s his “little piece” on Squirrel from his book on pianists. Some of the stories you will have heard from the videos above, but they don’t wilt with a second telling:

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

Edwin Maurice Ashcraft III, better known as “Squirrel”, is the least known pianist in this book, but he was by far the most important to me. It all started because of two courses I’d taken at Syracuse University; one in Russian Studies and another in African Studies. The Russian Studies course ultimately led me to be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The African Studies course, particularly one taught by Eduardo Mondlane, who was later to lead and win the revolution in Mozambique, led me to the CIA’s Office of Operations, where Squirrel Ashcraft was the Director.

Though forgotten today, Squirrel was a legendary figure in the world of jazz, at least into the mid-1970s, but much can be lost and forgotten in a quarter of a century. He was, for example, the only person I knew who had heard Louis Armstrong and King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, and had known and associated with a host of other legendary players from the 1920s, who were just names in a book or music in the grooves of old records to me. He was the kind of man who could make a simple telephone call and John Hammond, Neshui or Ahmet Ertegun would welcome me warmly. The same was true of any number of musicians of a certain age, i.e. the Austin High Gang, and their musical associates or disciples.

He was the first jazz artist I ever heard perform in an informal setting, that is away from a concert hall or club, where I was a paying spectator. By that time, he was in his 60s, hadn’t played regularly for years, never had been a first rank player anyway, and now had an affliction in one of his hands that affected his dexterity. But for someone of my age, and limited experience, it was more thrilling to be standing two feet from a legendary figure in his living room than hearing a great pianist from the top balcony in Carnegie Hall.

He was also the man who first introduced me to an active jazz musician, in this case, Jimmy McPartland. Later, he would introduce me to many others, and simply because he made the introduction, I was accepted by these men and women without question.

A little background is in order. Squirrel was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1905. His family was socially prominent and well situated. In the early 1920s he discovered jazz and became as deeply involved with it as possible. He was active in Chicago in the same way John Hammond was in New York, and he met many of the up and coming young jazz musicians in that city long before they had come up, befriended them, helped them whenever possible, and continued to for years and years.

Squirrel came east in the late 1920’s and attended Princeton. He played both piano and accordion, was part of Princeton’s Triangle Club, wrote songs, recorded with the Triangle Jazz Band, was known to and played informally with such legendary figures as Bix Beiderbecke, and even corralled the elusive cornet player one night, convincing him to record with the Princeton band. It almost came off, but not quite; Bix was there when everyone fell asleep but had vanished when they woke up. He continued at Princeton, but eventually returned to Chicago in the early 1930s, and took up his post in the family law firm.

He opened his home to every jazz musician who could find their way to Evanston, and hundreds did, usually on Monday nights. The sessions at Squirrel’s featured a who’s who of whoever was in Chicago at the time. He began to record these proceedings in about 1933 and, until he left for World War II, hundreds of private discs were made, sometimes with the help of his friend John Steiner. Steiner eventually issued some of the goings-on on Paramount 78 rpm discs and later on 10” LPs.

World War II closed down the Monday night sessions; Squirrel was inducted in the U.S Navy, and assigned to naval intelligence. After the war, he returned to Chicago, his law practice, and the music and recording began again, this time on a crude tape recorder that used paper tape. The music didn’t last long, however, because in the late 1940s Squirrel was selected by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency to run its Chicago field office, and the music slowed down once again. He was so good at the CIA game, he was urged to become the Director of all domestic operations in the early 1950’s.

Squirrel accepted the challenge, closed down the house in Evanston, moved to Washington, and vanished into another world, his whereabouts unknown, except to the musicians and friends with whom he kept in touch. There were no sessions at Squirrel’s massive apartment in Washington. When I arrived on the scene in 1964, his piano sounded a bit like one from a Charles Addams’ haunted house. But that was soon to change.

Suddenly there was someone around who knew his past, and even had one of those old John Steiner-issued Paramount records to prove it. I was the junior guy in the Office of Operations, but I had immediate access to the Director because of the music. This is when I learned that love of jazz of a certain sort could cross any cultural divide, regardless of age, race, or anything else.

It didn’t take long before the piano was tuned and regulated, and informal musical gatherings began. The first was with Jimmy and Marian McPartland, and two wonderful local Washington musicians, clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney (who founded and owned Blues Alley) and guitarist Steve Jordan. Squirrel got his hands back in shape, so he could spell Marian when she wanted to relax and, just like in the old days, everything was recorded. The first “new” informal session was eventually issued as a record that was given away to anyone who wanted one. I cut my recording teeth on Squirrel’s Ampex F-44 and two Electrovoice microphones.

Listening back to the old acetate and aluminum recordings from the 1930s, Squirrel reminds me of a pianist like Frank Melrose. A great deal more passion than technique, but good enough to get the job done. He was a better than average amateur in those days, and could easily hold his own with his peers, and provide good accompaniment to A-list artists when it was required. I remember him telling me that one night the entire Bob Crosby band came out to his house for a Monday night session. The thing that pleased him most was that the first complaint was from a neighbor whose house was three blocks away. And he got to play with the band when Bob Zurke was doing something else.

Squirrel’s influence in the jazz world was not as a pianist. He was always behind the scenes and, eventually, way behind the scenes. If Eddie Condon couldn’t get a liquor license to open Condon’s; Squirrel could make the call to the right person so it could be worked out, despite the checkered past of some of the club’s owners. If a certain player were down on his luck, there would be a check in the mail. There were any number of people he supported for life. He was a safety net for many, many of the first generation of jazz musicians, and probably some of the second and third. My guess is he was a safety net for a lot of people I didn’t know about, musicians, old friends down on their luck, or even a struggling bullfighter.

After he officially retired in the late 1960’s, Squirrel spent less and less time in Washington and more time at his home in Spain. Sometimes a year would pass and I wouldn’t see him, except perhaps to see him off on either the ocean liners Michaelangelo or Rafaello, his favorite modes of transportation between New York and Spain. When in Spain, he had little time for music, but towards the end of a letter from there, dated November 12, 1969, he says, “We are listening, which we do seldom at all, to Miles’ Sketches, and I wish so very, very much that Bix could have heard it…. We think about you often. Please write the whole story.” I’m not sure I ever did, but in the 1970s, and early 1980s, he had a burst of musical energy, at least every June, for half a dozen years.

In 1975, Jack Howe liberated a funny little band, affectionately called The Sons of Bix, from cornetist Tom Pletcher. Jack was an amateur tenor saxophone player, who’d been part of the in the Princeton Triangle Jazz band with Squirrel in the 1920s. He augmented the SOBs with Princeton alumni musicians, aided by the likes of Spencer Clarke, Bob Haggart, Max Kaminsky, Maxine Sullivan and others. The band only had one certain engagement each year, to play a class reunion at Princeton. It turned out, however, the band played the reunion of the Class of 1929 or the Class of 1930, every year until at least 1982. Squirrel actually played a little piano on all the dates until 1981. I recorded the performances, which, as often as not, were presented in tents. Squirrel and Jack then chose their favorite tunes, and I arranged for a few LPs to be pressed up and distributed to the dwindling faithful. The records are often spirited, but not landmark recordings. A friendly souvenir, but little more. Much to my surprise, some of them have been listed in Tom Lord’s landmark The Jazz Discography.

In those years, if I had to be in Washington, for whatever reason, Squirrel’s Watson Place apartment was always open, whether Squirrel and his wife, Patter, were in residence or not. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Washington since 1960; but to confess, I only went back a few times after Squirrel died in 1981. The last time I was there was at the urging of his wife. She telephoned in the mid-1980s and said she was cleaning out files and had found some correspondence from me in a box of music-related junk in the back of a closet. Would I please come down and save all these found items from the trash collector? I was also urged to pick up the crank-up Victrola with the bamboo needle cutter that was now stored in the basement. I’d first seen it at an old filling station somewhere in Virginia in the mid-1960s, offered the owner $10, which he was happy to have, and had passed it on to Squirrel, so he could play his old Hot Five 78s as he played them in the 1920s, when they were fresh and new. I was happy to have it back, and it still works just fine.

I drove down, had a nice visit with Patter, and loaded all the papers, the boxes of stuff she’d found in the closet, and the old Victrola in the back of my car. I had a last look around, and never went back, but stayed in touch with Patter until she became ill and her Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where she didn’t know who I was.

When I got home after that last trip, I had a good time looking at the correspondence, the old clippings from the 1930’s and 1940s. At the bottom of the box I saved from the trash man, I found the bell of a battered cornet, with a note from Jimmy McPartland. This was all that was left of the cornet Bix had bought him, when Jimmy replaced Bix in the Wolverines. This was the kind of thing that turned up at Sqiurrel’s house. And I’ll bet things like that don’t turn up too many other places.

Squirrel Ashcraft was a kind and generous man who touched the lives of many men and women in a positive way. When he found time to touch a piano, it was equally positive. I never heard him play the blues.

May your happiness increase!

THE SECOND SET: MIND-DANCES AND HEART-TALES: JOEL FORRESTER AT THE PIANO (Cafe Loup, May 27, 2017)

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

Here is the first set (and what I wrote about Joel) of that glorious afternoon.

And now, as the night follows the day or some equivalent, is the second.  Joel at his poetic unpredictable best.  Each piece feels like a short story, and the whimsical titles add to the effect.

BUNNY BOY (a Blues Frolick for the Afternoon):

NIGHT AND DAY (for Mr. Porter of Peru, Iowa, a rendition that seems built from the rhythmic surge up to the spare melody):

MILDEW LIZA (as explained by the composer, also an adept Joycean):

AMAZING GRACE:

TWICE AROUND:

ON MARY’S BIRTHDAY (Joel’s most recent composition as of that afternoon, a rhythmic celebration of his wife’s natal day):

A beautifully somber reading of GHOST OF A CHANCE:

Having heard several performances of Joel’s INDUSTRIAL ARTS, excerpts and improvisations on sections of this piece, which he has been known to perform for eight hours, I asked him to write something about it, because the piece so stands out — in its incantatory splendor — in what I think of as his oeuvre.  Joel writes: I’ve been improvising on it since l974, my first year in New York. When I’m feeling emotionally generous, I give my wife Mary co-composer credit: the music has its genesis in our weekly Saturday mornings at Washington Square Church. I’d improvise at the piano while watching her dance; she feels time in a deeper way than any dancer I’ve ever seen. This would go on for several hours (we were quite young). Then we’d wax ‘n’ buff the floor. The music grew, its interlocking rhythms calling out weird overtones I would learn to embrace if never truly to corral. In its entirety, INDUSTRIAL ARTS occupies 8 hours. I’ve only played it straight-through once: at The Kitchen in l977. I’ve always striven to play a precis of the tune on my solo gigs, borrowing ideas from the 8 one-hour sections. At least 11 times, over the years, I’ve either been warned, fired, or not asked back…all on account of this one, highly-repetitive tune. The most humorous instance of this took place in 1980 at a Bowery art bar called Sebossek’s. I was only five minutes into INDUSTRIAL ARTS when the Israeli cook burst out of the kitchen with blood in her eyes and a sizzling pan in her hand. What she wanted to do was to show me that she had burned herself, thanks to my music. But, of course, what I saw was a furious woman holding a frying pan. For my sins, I admit that I cowered under the piano. …Over the last five years, all that has changed—who can tell me why? Have listeners become inured to repetitive music, if presented in different forms from mine? Short attention spans promoting selective deafness? In any case, a 10- or 15-minute version of INDUSTRIAL ARTS has become part of my standard repertoire; and I seem to be getting away with it. And longer “concert” versions are sometimes called for. Who knew?

INDUSTRIAL ARTS:

YOUR LITTLE DOG (exceedingly tender, my new favorite):

ANYTHING GOES (its opening measures truncated because of videographer-error, but there’s still enough Romp left to see by):

As I write these words, Joel has a steady Saturday afternoon gig (12:30 to 3:30) at Cafe Loup (135 West 13th Street at Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village, New York City) and June is an extraordinarily rich month for Forrester-sightings, so check them out http://joelforrester.com/calendar/.

May your happiness increase!

MIND-DANCES AND HEART-TALES: JOEL FORRESTER AT THE PIANO, PART ONE (Cafe Loup, May 27, 2017)

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

As I’ve written recently, here, pianist-composer Joel Forrester creates music — tender, sensuous, surprising — always rewarding, never pre-cooked.  I’ve been delighting in his recorded work for a decade now, but haven’t stirred myself to see him perform in a long time.  But I did just that last Saturday, May 27, 2017, at his solo recital (12:30 – 3:30) at Cafe Loup , 105 W 13th St, New York (very close to the #1 train), (212) 255-4746. (And at the risk of sounding like a Yelp review, service — thank you, Byron! — was solicitous, and the food was fresh and nicely presented.)

The musical experiences Joel offered that afternoon were, to me, deeper than simple music.  It felt as if he was a repertory company: each performance seemed its own small world — balancing on its own axis — and then gave way to the next.  A gritty blues was followed by a romantic lament, then a rollicking saunter through an unknown landscape, then a dance from a traveling carnival . . . as you will hear for yourself.

Joel is always balancing strong rhythms and subtle melodies, creating his own shapes and changing those created by others.  The range of his inspirations is amazingly broad: in the course of the afternoon’s recital for an admiring audience, he evoked and improvised on the blues and boogie woogie, Billie Holiday, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Meade Lux Lewis, James Joyce, hymns, the Beatles, and Sam Cooke.

STAGGER JOEL (his variations on an ancient folk blues with a similar name):

GG’S BLUES (paying affectionate tribute to Gershwin’s RHAPSODY):

IN THE RING (a bubbling dance):

BILLIE’S SOLITUDE (for Lady Day and Duke):

IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY (FOR THE MOMENT) (musing on Parisian weather):

CARAVAN (Juan Tizol reminding us that the journey, not the destination, matters):

WHITE BLUES (a title explained by Joel, as prelude):

SKIRMISH (with variant titles explained by the composer):

YOU SEND ME (Forrester meets Sam Cooke):

BACK IN BED (implicitly a paean to domestic bliss):

FATE (half-heard melodies care of Meade Lux Lewis):

There’s more to come from this afternoon at Cafe Loup, and more from Joel in his many guises, all restorative.  He has many and various gigs: visit here.

May your happiness increase!

“VINCE GIORDANO: THERE’S A FUTURE IN THE PAST”

vincegirodano_poster

About seventy-five minutes into this gratifying portrait of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, trombonist and keen observer Jim Fryer describes its subject as “an intense man . . . a driven man . . . consumed” by the ideals he’s devoted the last forty years to.  And his goal?  As Vince says in the film, it is “to get the great music out there for the people.”

From his early introduction to the music — the hot jazz 78s on his grandmother’s Victrola — to the present moment, where he is the inspired creator of a ten-piece Jazz Age big band possibly without equal, Vince’s ideal has been complex. Reproduce live the sound, accuracy, and vitality of the music he heard on the records, and add to that repertoire by playing, vividly and authentically, music that never got recorded. His quest has been to have a working band, the contemporary equivalent of the great working bands, sweet and hot, of the Twenties and Thirties, visiting the Forties on occasion. Add to this the constant schlepping (you could look it up) of the equipment for that band; finding a new home after Sofia’s could no longer stay open; finding gigs; keeping this organization running against the odds.  The film wholly captures how difficult Vince’s consuming obsession is to accomplish, and to keep afloat day after day.

Many readers of JAZZ LIVES are fervent Giordanians or perhaps Vinceites, and we crossed paths for years in the darkness of Sofia’s, at the Christmas teas.  I have a long history with this band, going back to a Nighthawks gig in the preceding century, in the eastern part of Long Island, New York, where the night sky darkened, the thunder rumbled louder than Arnie Kinsella’s drum set, lightning flashed, but the band kept playing until the last possible minute before the deluge.  So I’ve experienced Vince’s dedication firsthand.

Here’s the film’s trailer — a delightful encapsulation that doesn’t give away all the surprises:

The narrative follows Vince and the band over two years and more, from Sofia’s to Wolf Trap for PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION with Garrison Keillor, to Aeolian Hall with Maurice Peress for a recreation of Paul Whiteman’s presentation RHAPSODY IN BLUE — the opening clarinet solo brilliantly played by Dan Block — to the Nighthawks’ search for a new home, which they found at Iguana.  The film brings us up in to the present with the New York Hot Jazz Festival and a band led by Nighthawk Dan Levinson (his “Gotham Sophisticats”) as well as a new generation of musicians inspired by Vince, who has shown that it is possible to play hot music at the highest level with accuracy and spirit.

So much credit for this beautifully-realized film, must, of course, go to its intensely-charged subject, the Nighthawks, and their music. But filmmakers Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards are expert visionaries.

Even given this vibrant multi-sensory material, formulaic filmmakers could have created something dull.  They might have been satisfied to simply document performance: aim cameras at the Nighthawks and record what they play, as videographers like myself have done, which would have been accurate but limiting as cinema. Or, given the many people willing to talk about Vince and the Nighthawks, Edwards and Davidson could have given us a pageant of New York’s most erudite talking heads, some of whom would have been happy to lecture us.

Instead, by beautifully combining both elements and adding some surprises, they have created a wholly engaging, fast-moving portrait of Vince, the Nighthawks, and their world.  THERE’S A FUTURE IN THE PAST never seems to stand still, and the cameras take us places that even the most devoted fans have never gone.  We get to peek in at Terry Gross’s interview of Vince, to travel downtown for a Nighthawk-flavored session of the EarRegulars at The Ear Inn and a recording session for BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

One of the film’s most pleasing aspects is candid, often witty commentary from people who know — the musicians themselves. Edwards and Davidson have fine instincts for the telling anecdote, the revealing insight.  We see and hear Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Levinson, Mike Ponella, Mark Lopeman, Peter Yarin, Andy Stein, Cynthia Sayer, Jim Fryer, and others, people who have worked with Vince for twenty-five years and more, and their stories are as essential to the film as is the music.

Edwards and Davidson quietly capture telling details, visual and otherwise: the box of doughnuts brought on the bus; the rivets on Vince’s aluminum double bass; Jon-Erik Kellso’s hand gestures — contrapuntal choreography — during SHAKE THAT THING; the voices of the Nighthawks joking about being fired as they head into a band meeting.  The film is admiring without being obsequious, so we also see a short, revealing episode of Vince losing his temper. But the details ever seem excessive.  In this era of fidgety multi-camera over-editing, the film’s charged rhythm — appropriately, a peppy dance tempo — is energetic but never overdone, never cleverly calling attention to itself.

There’s vivid photographic evidence of the spectacle at Sofia’s and the Iguana: the tuxedo-clad Nighthawks not only playing hot but enacting it; the dancers jubilantly embodying what they hear in ecstatic motion.  A documentary about Vince would be empty without the music.  I noted SUGAR FOOT STOMP, THE MOON AND YOU, PUBLIC MELODY NUMBER ONE featuring Catherine Russell, WHITE HEAT, SWEET MAN, Kellso burning up the cosmos on SINGING PRETTY SONGS, THE STAMPEDE, ONE MORE TIME, YOU’VE BEEN A GOOD OLD WAGON, even BESAME MUCHO at a rainy Midsummer Night Swing at Lincoln Center.  And the sound recording is just splendid.

One of the secret pleasures of this film, for the true believers, is in spotting friends and colleagues: Matt Musselman, Will Friedwald, Tina Micic, Jim Balantic, John Landry, Molly Ryan, Sam Huang, Chuck Wilson, and a dozen others.  (I know I’ve missed someone, so I apologize in advance.)

In every way, this film is delightful, a deep yet light-hearted portrait of a man and an evocation of a time and place, a casual yet compelling documentary that invites us in.  First Run Features is presenting its New York theatrical premiere at Cinema Village on January 13, 2017, and I believe that Vince and the filmmakers will be present at a number of showings.

May your happiness increase!