Tag Archives: roger Wolfe Kahn

FLYING, GLIDING: THE JACOB ZIMMERMAN 3: JACOB ZIMMERMAN, COLE SCHUSTER, MATT WEINER (July 2019)

Some ensembles need many people to make a statement: Jacob Zimmerman, Cole Schuster, and Matt Weiner (reeds, guitar, string bass) create memorable vignettes in a small space: it’s a band that could travel comfortably in a subcompact car.  They have a new CD coming out, and Jacob has posted two selections recorded last month — what ease and grace, what quiet impact.

Jacob wrote of the first selection, LANTERN OF LOVE (a 1925 tune),
A few weeks back my trio that plays Tuesdays at IL Bistro got together to rehearse some of the fancier arrangements I’ve written. I first heard this song on a Roger Wolfe Kahn record. I love the elegance of this melody. I tried to channel the spirit of the Jean Goldkette orchestra and feature Matt Weiner playing his version of Steve Brown style slap and arco bass playing.

and here’s the more familiar THE SONG IS ENDED — a remarkable treatment of a lovely Berlin melody which makes me think of Ruby Braff at the start and then segues into what I think of as 1945 Jamboree Records swing, up on the aesthetic mountaintop in less than four minutes (I kept waiting for Joe Thomas to appear and take the bridge):

I don’t see a trip to Seattle soon (although anything is possible) but I believe I will see Jacob again as part of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet at the San Diego Jazz Fest and Swing Extravaganza in November, and I certainly look forward to that new CD!

May your happiness increase!

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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!

NINETY MINUTES at HIGH HEAT: THE FAT BABIES SWING OUT at the BIXFEST (Davenport, Iowa, August 4, 2017)

For no particular medical reason aside from age-based entropy, I’ve slowed down the mad pace of recent years.  At my most passionate peak of obsession and love, I flew or drove to seven or eight jazz festivals or parties in twelve months.  I haven’t given up, just slowed down.  One of the festivals I was sorry to miss was the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival held in Davenport, Iowa, at the start of this August.  I knew that — unlike the tree in the metaphysical forest — that the bands I love would play even if I were not there to video them — but still.

So I was very glad that “jazzmanjoe100” recorded the wonderful music that Hal Smith’s SWING CENTRAL  performed at that festival.  And I am delighted that “CANDC” did the same for several sets: the one most pleasing being by The Fat Babies.  “CANDC” isn’t an impossible-to-pronounce word; rather, it stands for “Chris-and-Chris,” (pronounced as a rapid triplet) a Swedish pair, immaculately dressed as if going out for a carriage ride c. 1917: he videos; she dances.  In general, they both light up the place.

As do The Fat Babies, the beloved brainchild (b. 2010) of string bassist Beau Sample; featuring Andy Schumm, cornet, clarinet, and other instruments; Dave Bock, trombone and tuba; John Otto, reeds; Paul Asaro, piano and vocals; Johnny Donatowicz, banjo and guitar; Alex Hall, drums.  For this set, alumnus and guest Jonathan Doyle joined in on clarinet and tenor.

For this set, they offered their usually varied program that leans towards the esoteric, which is always a nice change.  They began with a hot CHANGES MADE, and then summoned up 1926 Luis Russell (in Chicago, before the incandescent days of Red and Higgy) with SWEET MUMTAZ.

I must ask: is MUMTAZ another slang word for muggles, muta, or pot?  Google has not been terribly forthcoming.

Then, SHE’S CRYING FOR ME from old New Orleans, Jon Doyle’s evocative SWEET IS THE NIGHT, and a heady — c. 1925 Henerson — MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND.

Paul Asaro sings THE SPELL OF THE BLUES, which I associate with 1928 Bing; WILL YOU, WON’T YOU BE MY BABE? — splitting its associations between McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and 1934 Louis.  It’s followed by Tiny Parham’s ROCK BOTTOM, a reed feature on THE BATHING BEAUTY BLUES, a sweet LAZY WEATHER (do I correctly think of the underrated 1936 Don Redman band here?) and a closing romp with Clarence Williams 1933 HARLEM RHYTHM DANCE.

And another wonderful helping.

Paul starts things off with I DON’T CARE (obviously not the case!), and then they move to the Nichols-associated SALLY OF MY DREAMS.  Then Walter Donaldson’s SAY YES TODAY (memorable in the Roger Wolfe Kahn version), followed by the Tiny Parham CLARICE — a wonderful hot rhythm ballad with a tango interlude.  Then, Ellington’s BIRMINGHAM BREAKDOWN; Paul and Johnny Donatowicz summon up Bing and Eddie Lang on DID YOU EVER SEE A DREAM WALKING? — always a good question to ask.

Next, Willard Robison’s DEEP ELM, and Frank Bunch’s FUZZY WUZZY — talk about obscure yet delightful.  Then, FOR MY BABY, a 1927 hit, mixing hot dance and romance; Paul essays TEA FOR TWO all by himself, and beautifully, echoing Don Lambert’s habit of mixing tunes with THINKING OF YOU, APRIL SHOWERS, I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY, KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW, FRENESI, and a few whose title proved elusive, for a wonderfully low-key display of virtuosity — where he resists the temptation to triple the tempo.

Finally MONA, thanks to Harold Austin’s New Yorkers (a double obscurity to me), and Benny Carter’s KRAZY KAPERS, based on DIGA DIGA DOO — precious to me in its 1933 incarnation and in its 2017 one: the final chorus is my idea of jubliation.

Quite a good deal of beautifully played hot and sweet music indeed.  What makes this band notable, for me, is their mastery of the late Twenties – mid Thirties hot dance sound (with arrangements that summon up the original records and in some cases, build on their glories), soloists who are convincing on a jungle romp or a danceable ballad.  But the band as a whole sounds so good: their intonation, their voicings, so people used to listening for the hot sixteen bars also find themselves admiring the ensemble.  As I do, as you will.

May your happiness increase!

A MENU WITH ONLY THREE ITEMS

If I end up in a restaurant with a six-page menu, I can be sure that I will stare helplessly, dither, and then order something that I will regret three ways: instantly, while I am eating it, and while I am paying for it.  Alas.  Too much choice induces a kind of paralysis in me.

COFFEE SANDWICH

So that’s one reason this bouncy Twenties romance-song (mixing love and food, always a pleasing idea) has always appealed to me.  I like all three items on this musical menu!

Did someone think of modernizing Omar Khayyam’s jug and loaf — because of Prohibition or modesty?

Of course I wonder about the depth of Billy Rose’s contribution to the lyrics and would credit to the always-clever Al Dubin, who — as his daughter’s reminiscences of him describe — was so devoted to food that it shortened his life.

I am amused by the sheet music cover, where He has the coffee (one cup only) and She sits demurely, hands folded, in front of what looks like one-half of the most chaste sandwich imaginable.  (Finally, my proofreading self yearns to put a comma after SANDWICH, but one cannot edit the untidy universe. On the Roger Wolfe Kahn label below, there isn’t a serial comma in the Spanish title, either.)

Here’s a rather sedate version by Jack Buchanan and Gertrude Lawrence which is intriguing — although not jazz-tinged at all — because it has both Boy and Girl choruses and the verse:

Now, something more heated: the Roger Wolfe Kahn version from December 1925 — with beautiful playing throughout: the trumpets on the verse, the reed section on the first and last sixteen (with a sweet interlude on the bridge). And, yes, that’s Venuti swinging out, followed by the pride of Roosevelt, Long Island, Miff Mole — noble support from Schutt and Berton as well.  New York’s finest.

Tommy Gott, Leo McConville, trumpet; Chuck Campbell, Miff Mole, trombone; Arnold Brilhart, Owen A. Bartlett, Harold Sturr, reeds; Arthur Schutt, piano; Domenic Romeo, banjo / guitar; Arthur Campbell, tuba;  Joe Venuti, Joe Raymond, violin; Vic Berton, drums; Roger Wolfe Kahn, leader.

If you couldn’t dance to that record, something was wrong.

Something quite different, possibly from the mid-Fifties, a recording that mixes big-band conventions and hipster cool, making me wonder what was in the coffee Matt Dennis was offering the fair maiden, what flavoring:

Incidentally, attentive viewers will see that the executives at RCA Victor (I assume) thought it clever wordplay to call this record WELCOME MATT and have the star apparently arriving with one under his arm.  No one thought, “Hmmm.  You stand on the WELCOME mat, you wipe your shoes on it. Does this work for all of you?”

And this delicious oddity on the Starck label, in 1926, when the song was new, a performance by the seriously energetic pianist Vera Guilaroff and singer Herbert S. Berliner — son of Emile Berliner, who invented the flat disc record.  I love the dissonance between her rollicking playing and his stiff “singing”:

Now, some of you might be getting impatient.  “Where’s the Hot Jazz, Michael?”  Calm yourselves.  All things come to he, she, it, who wait.

YouTube is like eBay.  I cannot predict what I am going to find there at any moment, but it teems with surprises.  I went looking for versions of COFFEE yesterday morning to play for a friend who had never heard it, and I nearly leaped out of my chair when I saw that someone had posted Jeff Healey’s 2001 version from AMONG FRIENDS, one of my favorite recordings.  Ever.  Healey (much-missed) is on vocal and guitar, and then there’s the Anglo-American Alliance contingent, Dick Sudhalter, trumpet; John R.T. Davies, alto saxophone; Jim Shepherd, trombone . . . and Reide Kaiser, piano; Colin Bray, string bass.  From the opening wink at YOU’RE THE CREAM IN MY COFFEE, this record soars:

And when you’ve listened to it once, go back and savor all the other pleasures and in-jokes.  What a fine singer Healey was.  Sudhalter’s ANYTHING GOES. Healey’s Fats-like asides about hot coffee and smooth butter.  Shepherd’s individual approach and fine sound.  Ristic’s HUCKLEBUCK.  Sudhalter and Shepherd humming behind the bridge.  Bray’s slap-bass; Kaiser’s relentless stride push.  Healey’s guitar solo — Django meets Lang — and then the riotous ensemble, bass break, and out.  I wish this band had made a hundred recordings. I never tire of this, a delicious, satisfying Fats Waller ebullience without imitation.

I saw Healey only once in person — at a 2006 benefit for an ailing Sudhalter, and Jeff was gone in 2008.  But with music like COFFEE, I can’t think of him as dead, merely taking a set break.

I hope that wherever you are, the menu offerings please.

May your happiness increase!

BELIEF and GOODNESS (in SWING)

Here’s a taste of something good — easy and spicy, honestly in the tradition but not copying any famous recording robotically.

The very endearing song, I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME (Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill) has been recorded and performed by many jazz musicians, beginning with a 1927 hot dance record by Roger Wolfe Kahn.  The song truly took off with memorable records by Louis, Red McKenzie (a favorite swooning tempo), Billie, Basie, Cootie, Ed Hall, Marty Grosz, and so on.

Here is an outdoors performance by Austin, Texas pianist / bandleader Floyd Domino and his All-Stars, featuring Alice Spencer, vocal; David Jellema, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor sax; Brooks Prumo, guitar; Ryan Gould, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. Recorded at Central Market North in Austin, Texas on Aug. 3, 2014:

The very adept videoing is thanks to  Luke Hill (Austin guitarist / vocalist / bandleader) and it came to YouTube thanks to percussionist, scholar, instigator, video creator Hal Smith.

The virtues of this performance should be immediately apparent to any listener who can feel the good vibrations. But I would point out that Domino’s quirky piano lines are engaging and always surprising, and the rhythm trio is always energetic but never obtrusive.  Jellema and Doyle (the former serious; the latter on springs) know what Louis, Buck, Ruby, Lester, and others have done with this song, but they cut their own lyrical paths through the familiar thickets of imitation. And Miss Spencer delightfully avoids the temptation of becoming yet the fifteen-hundredth Billie clone, dragging behind the beat in “meaningful” ways. She sounds like herself, with no postmodern ironies, and if I heard any Swing Goddess with a dainty hand on Miss Alice’s shoulders, it would be Lena Horne, and that is not a bad invisible guide through the song.  The band swings and they are having a subtle good time — instantly transmittable to us through the flat screen.

I believe it.  Don’t you?

And (as they say on the news) THIS JUST IN!  The same band, without Miss Spencer (although you can see her nimbly seat-dancing), performing LADY BE GOOD:

Nicely!  And in one of those moments that couldn’t be staged for anything, at about 3:53 an unidentified bird flies across the scene from right to left and contentedly perches in a branch above and behind the band, happily enjoying the swing.  Is it the ghost of Bill Basie or of the Yardbird, who knew the Jones-Smith record by heart, by heart?  I leave it for the mystically-minded to assign their own identities to this Bird.

May your happiness increase!

DUSTING THE DISCS, or MILDEW BEGONE! (WITH A POSTSCRIPT)

Several times this summer, I have come back from thrift or antique stores with a small collection of vintage 78s.  The Beloved, who loves hot jazz and loves to see me happily in my element, encourages such pastimes.  But her nose is sensitive to mildew, mold, dust, and the aromas that accompany elderly objects (records, paper sleeves, albums, and sheet music) stored for decades in basements, attics, closets.

Do any readers have suggestions for de-funkifying such precious artifacts?

Because the rainy season here is not yet upon us, I have left the records and albums and sheet music outdoors at night and for part of the day (watching them carefully so that they do not bake and warp in hot sun) but I would welcome other advice. One thought is to discard the paper and purchase new 10″ heavy paper green sleeves for the discs.

For the moment, I thought some of my readership would appreciate the view of Roger Wolfe Kahn, Ray Miller, Philip Spitalny, Gene Austin, “Chester Leighton,” the Light Crust Doughboys, Buddy Rogers and his Famous Swing Band, Mildred Bailey, Fats Waller, and a few others*, lazing in the Novato sun, with the Beloved’s beautiful garden as a backdrop.

DISCS, GARDEN, LS 001

*You can’t see it, but there’s a real oddity, presumably from the late Forties, there — an RCA Victor promotional disc, with the singer Mindy Carson warbling the timeless ditty I WANT A TELEVISION CHRISTMAS.  Same song, both sides.  Could I resist such weirdness?

Several hours later.  I have disposed of all the aromatic paper sleeves and washed all the records in perhaps a rudimentary way. From top: clean, almost-entirely dry discs, rinse water, soapy water, clean, much-wetter discs, arrangement of succulents (courtesy of the Beloved);

stage 2 records 001

And for those collectors who are horrified that I would be doing this outdoors, and without a toothbrush, I understand.  But I watched the records carefully (it was cloudy) so they didn’t bake and warp, and my sole toothbrush is right now used for dental purposes. The result is several piles of clean — or less dirty — records, so with luck Hooley and Helen Rowland, Lee Wiley and Ray Miller, Helen Rowland and Dale Wimbrow, Bob Howard and Stirling Bose . . . will be happier and sound better.

May your happiness increase!

WHEN LOVE GETS HOT, SPECIAL INSTRUMENTS ARE REQUIRED

ROSES OF PICARDY was a famous ballad of the First World War, composed by Frederic Weatherly (lyrics) and Haydn Wood (music), gracefully describing the lasting love of an Englishman and a Frenchwoman . . .

Verse: She is watching by the poplars, / Colinette with the sea-blue eyes, / She is watching and longing, and waiting / Where the long white roadway lies, / And a song stirs in the silence, / As the wind in the boughs above, / She listens and starts and trembles, / ‘Tis the first little song of love.

Chorus: Roses are shining in Picardy, / In the hush of the silver dew, / Roses are flow’ring in Picardy, / But there’s never a rose like you! / And the roses will die with the summertime, / And our roads may be far apart, / But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy, / ‘Tis the rose that I keep in my heart.

Verse: And the years fly on forever, / Till the shadows veil their skies, / But he loves to hold her little hands, / And look into her sea-blue eyes, / And she sees the road by the poplars, / Where they met in the bygone years, / For the first little song of the roses, / Is the last little song she hears:

Chorus: Roses are shining in Picardy, / In the hush of the silver dew, / Roses are flow’ring in Picardy, / But there’s never a rose like you! / And the roses will die with the summertime, / And our roads may be far apart, / But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy, / ‘Tis the rose that I keep in my heart.

For the full effect, here is a glorious reading of the song by Ben Heppner:

But my subject is a recording of PICARDY by Red Nichols — full of surprises.  I first encountered the Nichols records of this period when I was young; I was especially intrigued by them because of my childhood affection for the film THE FIVE PENNIES.  My local suburban librarian was hip: the library’s holdings included Vic Dickenson, Jimmy Rushing, THE SOUND OF JAZZ, Ellington, and a Brunswick reissue of Nichols circa 1927-30, where I first heard IDA, AVALON, CHINA BOY, THE SHEIK, and others.

I hadn’t heard ROSES OF PICARDY until my recent purchase of the very gratifying sets of the Nichols Brunswicks (1926-32) on the Jazz Oracle label.  It became one of those essential recordings for me — one that I could play ten times in a row on the way to work.

I haven’t found a good explanation for Nichols’ fondness for what might be called “chestnuts” or “good old good ones” — solidly established classic pop hits of ten or more years earlier: IDA, MY GAL SAL, JAPANESE SANDMAN, WHISPERING, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, MARGIE, ALICE BLUE GOWN, INDIANA, SMILES, DINAH, WHO.  In this, he wasn’t so different from other jazz players, then and now, who knew that familiar favorites would both attract an audience and be part of the common knowledge.  (if the leader suggests SWEET SUE — in 1929 or 2013 — few musicians look puzzled or uncomfortable.)

But ROSES OF PICARDY had a sentimental identification, and I wonder if Nichols’ “jazzing” it struck some older listeners as heretical: “That’s not the way to play that pretty song!”  It might serve as a reminder that improvisation, no matter how established and safe it seems to our ears now, always sounds radical to some listeners.

This version was recorded on February 16, 1929, as the fifth performance of a date where the musicians had already completed two takes apiece of ALICE BLUE GOWN and ALLAH’S HOLIDAY.  I wonder if they had some time left at the conclusion and decided to create a head arrangement — somewhat less complex than the Glenn Miller charts for the preceding songs.  The personnel for the first four songs was Nichols, Mannie Klein, Miller, Dudley Fosdick, Jimmy Dorsey, Fud Livingston, Adrian Rollini, Arthur Schutt, Carl Kress, and an unidentified drummer.  I hear a smaller group on PICARDY and we know for sure that Miller was not present, but whether there was a second trumpet is not certain.

The band charges into the song, Nichols presenting the melody in a clear, assertive way — more like a wonderfully adept cornetist at a band concert than a hot jazz player leaving the melody behind.  One hears the dry slap of the drummer’s wire brushes, the sound of the bass saxophone (could it be anyone except Rollini?).  Apparently there is a high-pitched trombone playing staccato phrases and a thin but graceful clarinet line.  I take it on faith that there is a pianist (I do not hear a guitar) but the former is simply laying down the plain harmonies in support.

I also notice that the band — in subtle opposition to Nichols’ chosen tempo or perhaps simply finding a better groove — gently slows down as it proceeds through the two minutes and thirty-one seconds.  (The piano-drum duet in the first half of the final chorus is especially leisurely.)  I would not have noticed this so much had I not played the recording over and over and heard that the opening chorus was taken at a much brighter tempo than the closing.  The first chorus is very satisfying: one could use it is a compact example of simple melodic embellishment (in terms of ornamented melody) and neat ensemble playing.

Just as a listener might be settling into complacency, Rollini leaps in with a break, a marvel in itself.  One could point to its simplicity — arpeggios and repeated notes — but the combination of grace and ferocity is delightful.  It also suggests the small devices that Nichols and his contemporaries set up for variety, so that a recording was more than four or five choruses of ensemble – solo – ensemble.

The first half of the second chorus is given over to another embellished improvisation on the theme — by a brass player over a slightly ornate piano, bass saxophone, and drums.  On first hearing, one automatically assumes “trombone in the Miff Mole style, staccato yet elegant,” but the range is somewhat higher, the tone lighter.  The player’s approach is close to Nichols’ opening exposition, yet the second solo is slightly more fluid, punctuated by the pianist’s upward arpeggios.

In the second half of this chorus, we hear Jimmy Dorsey on alto saxophone over an even lighter background.  For some reason, there is no bass saxophone, so the texture is much lighter — and, listening closely, one has the delightful sensation of expectations being reversed.  Instead of textures becoming more rich, volume and density increasing, we are hearing the instruments of the orchestra — Papa Haydn in Hot — taking a break, leaving the stand.  The Incredible Shrinking Orchestra!

And then someone takes another break — with key change — to lead us into a world of even more playful marvels.  We’ve just heard the sonorities of Dorsey’s alto (the rich yet light sound that other players delighted in) — what is this squeaky thing that follows?

It might be a clarinet — Nichols often employed Pee Wee Russell and Fud Livingston, both of whom departed from orthodox clarinet sound in favor of explorations — but it sounds stranger than strange, even a bit elementary.  Did someone’s kid brother or sister bring a student model clarinet into the session to sit in for a chorus?

The ear is first mystified, then delighted.

And for a moment it seems as if all the other musicians have fled, leaving only the unusual reed player and the pianist, chiming behind perfectly, the drummer, hitting a cymbal (this has been worked out, one senses in retrospect) in front of the microphones.  Bass saxophone, alto, possibly other reeds, cornet and other brass — everyone’s in the alley next to the Brunswick studios taking a break, trading gossip or lighting up.

But no.  The third chorus is given over to a duet for two instruments that sound almost familiar — trombone and clarinet, we assume — for sixteen bars. For forty seconds — a short interlude in anyone’s lifespan but a substantial part of this 78 RPM recording — these two instruments cavort deliciously.  The “trombone” continues an ornamented exploration of PICARDY — in case listeners might have been led so far astray by the uncontrollable impulses of Reckless Jazz to forget where land is — as the “clarinet” dances overhead.  That “clarinet” has an oddly choked sound and a small range, so the player contents himself with deeply swinging emphases, rather like a speaker who has a small vocabulary but is vigorously concerned that the audience miss the point: here it is, and here it is again — getting somewhat more adventurous as the chorus continues, even venturing a series of upward plaintive phrases, the “trombone” sounded muffled but still agile beneath.

On my first hearing, driving to work as I was, I couldn’t check the personnel listings, but I played this exuberantly odd interlude over and over, thinking, “Is that Fud on clarinet and Miff on trombone?”  But I felt as if something otherworldly was taking place: had I been transported to an alternative realm, or was this soundtrack music for a pre-FANTASIA fantasia, where an animated lemur hopped around with a giraffe?

What has happened — bewitching and mystifying the ear for forty seconds — is so weirdly distant from what we might expect to hear (rather like the first appearance of Herschel Evans on clarinet on a Basie recording) that the piano half-chorus that follows seems theatrical, even stagy by comparison — with the drummer’s flourishes matching the pianist.  Again, we might wonder, “Where did everyone go?  Did these musicians have some urgent need to leave the studio at intervals?  Was there food poisoning from the previous night’s chili at Plunkett’s?”)

Before we have sufficient time to consider all these mysteries, the opening ensemble reasserts itself for a closing sixteen bars.  No tags, no flourishes, everything is as it was.  We awake from young Robin Molyneux’s dream — did those forty seconds happen?  Are we back in a Red Nichols session at the Brunswick studios?

Happily, the mystery I have encouraged here has tangible answers, and they take the shape of the ever-inventive Adrian Rollini and his “hot fountain pen,” the forgotten Dudley Fosdick and his mellophone.  Thanks to Albert Haim for the Melody Maker pages below — now it can be told!

HotFountainPen

and here is more gossip about the hot fountain pen:

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And even more here about the hot fountain pen from Sandy Brown’s website.

A fine explanation of the mellophone can be found here.  But the most engrossing reading on the subject can be found in the Nichols Jazz Oracle notes — a three-page essay by Phil Melick, witty and informed, on Dudley Fosdick (whose first recorded solo on the instrument is on the 1924 Ted Weems record of BIG BOY) and the mellophone itself.

Incidentally, the Incredible Shrinking Orchestra and the piano-drum duet make sense in retrospect as brief interludes enabling Rollini to leave his bass saxophone and approach the microphone alongside Fosdick.  And unlike the 1928 recording of BASIN STREET BLUES featuring Louis, Earl, and Zutty, no one stumbles audibly on the way.

This record of ROSES OF PICARDY is a joy.  Perhaps the musicians thought of it as an end-of-session romp: “We have a little time.  Let’s jam PICARDY, and do a whole chorus on your pen and your ‘phone.  OK?”  But that forty-second conversation between two unexpected jazz horns, played by two masters, resonates long after the performance is over.  Woe and alas that there wasn’t a Rollini-Fosdick Quintet under contract to Brunswick.  But I could live comfortably in the universe of those forty seconds.  ‘Tis the chorus that I keep in my heart.

(A digression: Fosdick recorded actively with Weems, Nichols, “the All Star Orchestra,” and Roger Wolfe Kahn for a ten-year period ending in December 1933, according to Tom Lord’s discography.  Then, he worked in Henry King’s orchestra and Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, eventually migrating into studio work and teaching before his death in 1957.  It would be lovely if someone had interviewed him.)

And for my friend and mentor Reb Malcolm, a small offering — Frankie Laine with Buck Clayton, Ray Copeland, Lawrence Brown, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Hilton Jefferson, Budd Johnson, “Big Nick” Nicholas, Dave McRae, Al Lerner, Skeeter Best, Milt Hinton, Bobby Donaldson.  I see the inspired hand of George Avakian in this, although Laine had been working with jazz players for years, as Jess Stacy remembered:

Thanks also to Messrs. Riccardi and Sammut, whose posts provide the inspiration for this one.

May your happiness increase!