Tag Archives: Roy Smeck

GEORGE BARNES COULD DO IT ALL, AND HE DID

"Georgie," youthful

“Georgie,” youthful.  Photograph reproduced with permission from the owner.  Copyright 2013 The George Barnes Legacy Collection.

Alec Wilder told George Barnes that the latter’s music offered “Reassurance, reaffirmation, wit, warmth, conviction and, best of all, hope!”  I agree.

I first heard the magnificent guitarist (composer, arranger) George Barnes without knowing it.  His sound cut through the Louis Armstrong Musical Autobiography sessions for Decca — in the late Sixties. Even listening to Louis — as any reasonable person does — I was aware of this wonderful speaking sound of George and his guitar: a man who had something important to tell us in a short space (say, four bars) and made the most of it.  Not loud, but not timid.

As I amassed more jazz records, George was immediately evident through his distinctive attack.  I believe that I took in more Barnes subliminally in those years, in the way I would hear Bobby Hackett floating above my head in Macy’s. (George recorded with Roy Smeck, Connie Francis, Richard M. Jones, Bill Harris, Anita O’Day, Artie Shaw, Pearl Bailey, Jeri Southern, Connee Boswell, the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Dinah Washington, Coleman Hawkins, George Wettling, LaVern Baker, Earl Bostic, Joe Venuti, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Redman, Little Willie John, Della Reese, Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Hans Conried, Solomon Burke, Sy Oliver, Buddy Rich, Bud Freeman, Tony Bennett, Bucky Pizzarelli, Carl Kress  — just to give you an idea of his range.  And those are only the sessions documented in jazz discographies.)

In the early Seventies I actually saw George and heard him play live — he was sometimes five or six feet from me — in the short-lived quartet he and Ruby Braff led.  And then he was gone, in September 1977.

But his music remains.

George Barnes Country JAzz

And here’s a new treasure — a double one, in fact.

Now, some of you will immediately visit here, bewitched and delighted, to buy copies.  You need read no more, and simply wait for the transaction to complete itself in the way you’ve chosen.  (Incidentally, on eBay I just saw a vinyl copy of this selling for $150.)

For the others. . . . I don’t know what your feelings are when seeing the words COUNTRY JAZZ.  Initially, I had qualms, because I’ grew up hearing homogenized “country and western” music that to me seems limited.  But when I turned the cardboard sleeve over and saw that Barnes and friends were improvising on classic Americana (OLD BLACK JOE, THE ARKANSAS TRAVELER, CHICKEN REEL, IN THE GLOAMING, MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME) I relaxed immediately.  No cliche-stew of wife / girlfriend / woman / dog / truck / rifle / beer / betrayal / pals here.  Call it roots music or Americana, but it’s not fake.

And the band is exciting: George on electric guitar, bass guitar, and banjo [his banjo feature is extraordinary]; Allan Hanlon, rhythm guitar; Jack Lesberg, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums, percussion; Phil Kraus, vibes on one track; Danny Bank, mouth harp on one track.  The sixteen tracks (and one bonus) come from this 1957 session recorded for Enoch Light — in beautiful sound.  The improvisations rock; they are hilarious, gliding, funky, and usually dazzling. There’s not a corny note here.  And gorgeously expansive documentation, too.

george-barnes_thumb

That would be more than enough fun for anyone who enjoys music.  But there’s much more.  George began leading a band when he was 14 (which would be 1935) but made a name for himself nationwide on an NBC radio program, PLANTATION PARTY, where he was a featured from 1938 to 1942. The fourteen additional airshots on this generous package come from the PARTY, and they are stunning.  Each performance is a brief electrifying (and I am not punning) vignette, and sometimes we  get the added pleasure of hearing announcer Whitley Ford introduce the song or describe George’s electric Gibson as a “right modern contraption,” which it was.

I can’t say that it’s “about time” for people to acknowledge George as a brilliant guitarist and musician, a stunning pioneer of the instrument — because the jazz and popular music histories should have been shaken and rewritten decades ago. But I’d bet anything that Charlie Christian and a thousand other players heard PLANTATION PARTY, and that a many musicians heard George, were stunned, and wanted to play like that.

I’m writing this post a few days before July 4, celebrated in the United States with fireworks.  George Barnes sounds just like those fireworks: rockets, stars, cascades, and explosions.  I don’t know that fireworks can be said to swing, but with George that is never in doubt.

To buy the CD, visit here — and at the George Barnes Legacy site, you can learn much more about George, his music, his family, his career.  Worth a long visit.

May your happiness increase!

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I’M GETTING MY BONUS IN STRIDE: JAMES P. FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Everyone who follows jazz devotedly has theories about why some musicians become Stars and others remain Obscure.  It clearly isn’t artistic quality, as one could find out quickly by playing recordings of famous and neglected artists. No, other factors interfere.

In that wonderfully uplifting sub-genre known as Harlem stride piano, the pantheon seems to have room for only one man, Fats Waller.  His fame is well-deserved: his genial embellishments, his rhythmic drive, his delicious pianistic surprises.  But we also have to consider the effect of Fats as a Personality (many recordings and some film appearances) and a Composer.  (In the jazz mythology, he is also remembered as a joyous Dionysiac child who died young — elements that stick in our minds.) Willie “the Lion” Smith seems a collection of delightful eccentricities — melodies, derby hat, cigar, scraps of Yiddish, an elegant braggadocio.  In our time, pianists Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell, and their current counterparts have (or had) the advantage of being accessible.

But what of the man who came first (leaving aside Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts), Fats’ teacher, James P. Johnson?  He was not a Personality; the one or two times he sings on record he seems uncomfortable; a quiet man, almost shy, he did not thrust himself forward.  It would seem that he didn’t record sufficiently, but the discographies prove otherwise.  Wellstood once said in print that James P.’s recordings didn’t always document his greatness — although for those of us who didn’t see and hear James P. at all, that would be a moot point.

Mosaic Records, blessedly, has seen fit to put Wellstood’s casual assertion to the test.

JAMES P. Mosaic

This box set will be available in mid-December; it offers the usual Mosaic largesse spread over six CDs; rare material (eleven sides not previously issued), beautiful photographs; a lengthy essay by Dr. Scott Brown, James P.’s biographer, familiar material in the best sound.

And should some worry about six CDs of stride piano, fear not: we hear James P. accompanying blues and pop singers (including Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, and Ethel Waters) and as a sideman in bands that include Frank Newton, Jabbo Smith, Clarence Williams, Garvin Bushell, Louis Metcalf, Fats Waller, Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsel, King Oliver, Jimmy Archey, Teddy Bunn, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Smeck, Tommy Ladnier, Sidney DeParis, Mezz Mezzrow, John Kirby, Cozy Cole, Sidney Catlett, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Christian, Ed Hall, and others.

Here‘s the discography, for those who (like myself) find listings of music we are going to hear very enticing.  And if you haven’t heard James P. recently — someone Thelonious Monk admired — scroll down on this Mosaic page and listen.

My holiday shopping list is now complete — my gift to myself, I mean.

May your happiness increase!

LOOK. LISTEN.

Considering the context — James P. Johnson, solo piano, playing his own HARLEM STRUT — the advertising exhortations seem reasonable.

BLACK SWAN

Over a twenty-five year period, James P. was recorded — in the studio, on radio, and in concert — alongside Bessie Smith, Clarence Williams, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Henry “Red” Allen, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, Freddie Green, Dicky Wells, Max Kaminsky, Zutty Singleton, Perry Bradford’s Jazz Phools (with Louis, Buster Bailey, Kaiser Marshall), Lavinia Turner, Trixie Smith, Fats Waller, Sadie Jackson, Louis Metcalf, Cootie Williams, Garvin Bushell, Jabbo Smith, Gene Sedric, Johnny Dunn, Ethel Waters, King Oliver, Teddy Bunn, Spencer Williams, Cecil Scott, Roy Smeck, Mezz Mezzrow, Tommy Ladnier, Eddie Dougherty, Rod Cless, Sterling Bose, Pops Foster, Omer Simeon, Ida Cox, Pete Brown, Frank Newton, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Hot Lips Page, J.C. Higginbotham, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Al Casey, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Russell, Brad Gowans, Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy Rushing, Vic Dickenson, Vernon Brown, Sidney Bachet, Tommy Dorsey, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, Johnny Windhurst, George Brunis, Albert Nicholas, Bunk Johnson, George Wettling . . . which sounds as if he recorded with everyone in creation.

Here is his 1923 solo, BLEEDING HEARTED BLUES:

And his 1930 romp, JINGLES:

And the musing 1944 ARKANSAW BLUES:

From the middle of the Twenties, James P. (1894-1955) was comfortably earning money because of royalties on his most famous compositions (consider CHARLESTON, ONE HOUR) but he wasn’t satisfied to be a composer of hit songs.  He wanted to be known and respected as a serious composer of extended works, perhaps the race’s answer to George Gershwin.  He didn’t gain the respect and attention he desired, which hurt him. Both his discography and biography suggest that he was not always in good health — another good reason for our not having even more recorded evidence.

I wonder if James P. was more than the cliche of the popular entertainer yearning for serious acceptance, but a man who knew that he had more to offer than writing thirty-two bar songs and playing piano, solo or in bands.  Did he distance himself from “the music business” or did it ignore him because he would not fit in to one of its tidy categories?

James P.’s pupil Fats Waller died younger, but received more attention because of his ebullient personality: hundreds of recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances.  Willie “the Lion” Smith outlived them both and was always ready to play, sing, and talk.

I wish James P. had recorded more, had received more attention of the kind his talents deserved. If someone uncovers a James P. trove, I’d like to know about it.

Because this blogpost threatens to slide into the morose, I will offer a recording that has never failed to cheer me up: the duet of James P. and Clarence Williams on HOW COULD I BE BLUE? What a pleasure to hear James P. somewhat awkwardly negotiate the vaudeville dialogue . . . and then to hear his intense rhythmic lead, his melodic inventiveness, in the duet that follows:

May your happiness increase!

FROM THE McCONVILLE ARCHIVES (Part One)

Last week, I met Leo McConville, Jr. and his wife Linda in New York City . . . they are warm, friendly people and we had a laughter-filled time.

Leo brought copies of some photographs that included his father, and I was able to identify a few more characters — Vic Berton, Miff Mole, Red Nichols, possibly Larry Binyon (these photos will emerge on JAZZ LIVES in time).  But here are several photographs that would benefit from collective explication.

What can my readers tell us?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Let’s start with a fairly straightforward one:

I’d say Miff Mole, then the pride of Ogden, Utah — Loring “Red” Nichols, and Leo.  I originally thought the mellophone player was Dudley Fosdick, but Enrico Borsetti explained that this was the brass section of Don Voorhees’ EARL CARROLL’S VANITIES orchestra and that the mellophonist (?) was Bill Trone.

Recognize anyone?  I’d place this — at the latest — 1934 — but that’s only because Leo left New York City and the music business around then.  He is standing in the middle, behind the right shoulder of the seated man (the leader?).

News flash from a friend in 2014: that’s the Paul Specht Orchestra with guitarist Roy Smeck as featured soloist.  

And something charming but more mysterious.  Who are these people?  Jimmy Dorsey is the driver.  But the ladies?

Here’s Jimmy and “Jamie” on their wedding day, Valentine’s Day, 1928:

As an experiment, here are the photographs at double the size above to aid JAZZ LIVES readers reaching for magnifying glasses.  The ratio is distorted, but the details are larger.  Here’s the Peerless Quartet:

And that mysterious band:

What car is Jimmy driving?

I couldn’t omit the happy couple — watch fob and bouquet in full splendor.

Your thoughts, fellow scholars?

MATT MUNISTERI SPEAKS!

The wizard guitarist (plectrist, rather) Matt Munisteri has a ferocious beat, is a cornucopia of new melodies, and is a demonic wit — in addition.  Here’s his latest gig-posting, worth reading even if you are going to be miles away on the dates he indicates here.  And if you can come to one or all of these gigs, so much the better . . . .

Munisteri

Peoples. There are musical rewards aplenty for folks who hang in town this coming Memorial Day weekend.

Thursday May 21st 10pm Barbes

For my first “Third Thursday” gig in two months, I’ll joined by Jon Dryden on piano and Tim Luntzel on bass. One very small part of Jon’s load of genius involves his rather incendiary (to me, to me at least) Floyd Cramer touch on 3-chord chestnuts, so I’m busy scheming.

Friday May 22nd 9pm Jalopy $12

SMECK! A Celebration of String Wizardry

Roy Smeck, “The Wizard of The Strings”, was a 1920’s and 30’s multi-string virtuoso and a vaudeville star, and I’ve recruited two of the most powerful string wizards I know, Doug Wamble and Charlie Burnham, to join me in conjuring the spirits of wizards past and future. All three have us have played with Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, but I believe this will mark the first time we’ve ever trio-ed. The evening will begin with Alan Edelstein’s great ’86 Academy Award nominated film “Wizard of the Strings” – with an in person introduction by the auteur – followed by a selection of ultra-rare short films of various by-gone string virtuosi, curated by the mad archivist Russell Scholl. Then we’ll all take a deep breath (of something) and see just how much voodoo Doug, Charlie, and myself can summon with a heap of guitars, banjos and mandolins. And the blood of one dead chicken.

Sunday May 24th 8-11 The Ear Inn – Spring St, off Washington

The EarRegulars

Our leader and savior Jon Kellso will be absent this Sunday, but we’ll be blessed with a visitation of two of the baddest sorcerers-of-the-reeds, Evan Christopher, of New Orleans LA, and Scott Robinson, of Teaneck NJ. Also on hand will be Danton Boller, of Malcolm X Blvd., on bass. Be afraid. And get there early, to plant your booty firmly in a seat – there exists the distinct likelihood that such a lineup will, ahem, “turn this mother out”.

Later that same night, at 1am, (!), Evan, Danton, and I will be playing for a grand celebration in honor of what, up until April 27th 2009, would have been Frankie Manning’s 95th birthday. Actually, earlier that same day we’re playing a private event for the Sidney Bechet Society, but don’t worry; we’ll Man Up. Monday, I rest.

And, of course there’s always a “Law and Order” re-run on somewhere if you’d rather stay home. Yes, I’ve seen to that too. I seek only to keep you entertained.