Tag Archives: Shad Collins

IT’S SAD BUT TRUE: UNA MAE CARLISLE (1915-56)

If Una Mae Carlisle is known at all today, it is as a jazz footnote and “friend-of”: protege (perhaps mistress) of Fats Waller; singer on the lone and lovely record date that Lester Young’s band did in 1941; composer of WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER, someone recording with Danny Polo, John Kirby, Big Nick Nicholas, Buster Bailey, Ray Nance, Budd Johnson, Walter Thomas.  Sadly, her life was very short, made even shorter by illness.  I propose that she deserves admiration for her own art, not just for her associations with greater stars.

Una Mae had all the qualities that would have made her a success, and she did get some of the attention she deserved.  She had a big embracing voice; she could croon and swing; she was a splendid pianist — more than a Waller clone.

Here are two samples of her genial, casual art, in 1940 and 1941.  First, the song she composed (its title suggested by John Steinbeck).  The wonderful small group is Benny Carter, trumpet; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.  Una Mae plays piano. Were Ed Berger here with us, he could tell us how Benny came to be in that studio — perhaps a rehearsal for his own Bluebird big-band date a few days later:

Here is one side from the famous session with Lester Young, Shad Collins, Clyde Hart, John Collins, Nick Fenton, Harold “Doc” West in 1941:

I come from that generation of listeners who discovered the sides with Lester through a lp compendium called SWING! — on Victor, with notes by Dan Morgenstern.  I think I was not alone in listening around Una Mae, regarded at best as someone interfering with our ability to hear Lester, purring behind her.  But if we could have shaken ourselves out of our Prez-worship for three minutes, we would have found much pleasure in Una Mae’s singing for its own sake, not in comparison to Billie.  As I do now.

This small reconsideration of Carlisle’s talents springs from a nocturnal prowl through eBay, then on to YouTube, then Google, then here — a familiar path, although the stops are not always in that order.

First, an autographed postcard, 1940-2, when she was recording for Bluebird:

I then visited  YouTube to find — to my delight — two brief but very entertaining film clips (from the 1948 BOARDING HOUSE BLUES) where her magnetism comes through:

I savor her ebullience — while trying to ignore the thinness of the song (which, in fairness, might be more sophisticated than GOT A PENNY, BENNY, which Nat Cole was singing a few years earlier) — and her expert piano work, with its small homages to Fats and Tatum.

I write the next sentence with mixed emotions: it cannot have hurt her fame in this period that she was slender and light-skinned.  Had she lived, she might have achieved some of the acclaim given other singer-entertainers, although I wonder if her easy accessibility would have hampered her with the jazz purists of the Fifties, while making her a pop star of sorts.  Certainly her last recordings (1950) show her being targeted for a large popular audience, which is to say the songs are awful and beyond.

The other song from BOARDING HOUSE BLUES is equally thin, built on RHYTHM changes — but it is not the THROW IT OUT YOUR MIND that Louis and the All-Stars performed in WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (1965):

Looking for more information on Una Mae, I found that others had — admiringly and sadly — done deep research here and elsewhere.  Because the internet encourages such digressions, I now know more about mastoiditis than I would have otherwise.  It shortened her life.  The disease is now rare.

I present all this as a collage in tribute to someone who should not be forgotten.  And I think of Una Mae as one of the talented people who died just short of great fame.  I can imagine her, as I can imagine Hot Lips Page, on the television variety shows of my childhood, appearing in the nightclubs I was too young to go to.

Although the lyrics are those of a formulaic love song, the mood is apt for her epitaph.  May she live on in our hearts:

May your happiness increase!

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!

THANK YOU, SIR CHARLES (1918-2016)

Sir Charles Trio

The news from Yoshio Toyama (from Mike Fitzgerald’s online jazz research group):

“Sir Charles Thompson left us on June 16th in Japan.

He was a very unique pianist with style in between swing and bebop, also very close to great Count Basie’s piano style. He was married to Japanese wife Makiko Thompson in 1990s, lived in Japan in 1990s and 2002 to this day. Funeral will be held in Tokyo, Japan, Higashi Kurume, by his wife Makiko Thompson and family and friends on June 21st.

He was born March 21, 1918, and he just turned 98 last March. He started as professional when he was very young, played with and admired people like Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins . . . .

He was very active in Bebop era also, and his style has lots of Bebop flavor mixed with mellow swing. He was very good golf player too.

He left so many great jazz records including “Vic Dickenson Showcase”. In Japan, he made recording with Yoshio and Keiko Toyama in late 1990s.  Had appeared in many concerts held by Toyama’s Wonderful World Jazz Foundation.  Sir Charles and Toyama stayed very close friends.

We all miss him. Yoshio and Keiko”

sircharlesthompson

Readers will know that I have worked very hard to keep this blog focused on the living thread of the music I and others love.  Were it to become a necrology (and the temptation is powerful) it would slide into being JAZZ DIES.  But I make exceptions for musicians whose emotional connection with me is powerful.  I never met Sir Charles, but he was an integral part of recordings I loved and knew by heart forty-five years ago.  Here he is in 1955 with Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones.  You could make a case that anyone would swing with those three people, but Sir Charles was consistently his own subtle swing engine: he could light up the sonic universe all by himself.

Hearing that, you can understand why Lester Young knighted him.

And — from that same period — another glorious Vanguard session featuring Vic Dickenson (the second volume, since I presume the first was a success, both musically and for its wonderful clarity of sound) on EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, where Vic and Sir Charles are joined by Shad Collins, trumpet; Ruby Braff, cornet; Ed Hall, clarinet; Steve Jordan, guitar; Walter Page, string bass; Jo Jones, drums:

That’s been one of my favorite recordings since my teens, and it continues to cheer and uplift.  But listen to Sir Charles — not only in solo, but as a wonderfully subtle ensemble player.  With a less splendid pianist (I won’t name names) these soloists would have been less able to float so gracefully.

If you measure a musician’s worth by the company (s)he keeps, Sir Charles was indeed remarkable: the pianist of choice for the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions; work with Coleman Hawkins early and late, with Charlie Parker both in the studio and on the air in Boston, with Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Buck Clayton, Danny Barker, Lucky Millinder, Shadow Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, Pete Brown, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Rushing, Earl Bostic, Ike Quebec, Buddy Tate, Paul Gonsalves, Paul Quinichette, Joe Williams, Harry Edison, Ben Webster, Eddie Condon, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bobby Hackett, Don Byas, Humphrey Lyttelton, Herbie Steward . . . and on and on.

If you want to hear more of Sir Charles, YouTube is full of musical evidence, from the 1945 sides with Bird and with Hawkins, all the way up to 2012 with Yoshio’s band (playing, among other things, RUSSIAN LULLABY) and as a speaking member of a panel — with Allan Eager and Hank Jones — talking about Charlie Parker.

But I will remember Sir Charles as the man who — in his own way and with his own sound — played a good deal like Basie, but understanding that impulse from within rather than copying him, adding in Fats, Wilson, and more advanced harmonies.  His sound, his touch, and his swing are unmistakable, and although he lived a very long life and had a long performance career, his death leaves a void in the swing universe.

I’ll let the poetic pianist Ray Skjelbred have the last word: “He was a perfect player who knew the force of silence around his notes. An inspiration to me.”

There is a silence where Sir Charles Thompson used to be.

“HIS TALE NEEDED TELLING”: THE ODD BRILLIANCE OF P.T. STANTON

PT STANTON

I am fascinated by those great artists whose stories don’t get told: Frank Chace, Spike Mackintosh, and George Finola among many.  I revere the heroes who have been celebrated in biographies, but where are the pages devoted to Quentin Jackson, George Stafford, Danny Alvin, Dave Schildkraut, Gene Ramey, Joe Smith, John Nesbit, Denzil Best, Vernon Brown, Shad Collins, Ivie Anderson, Walter Johnson, John Collins, Allan Reuss, and fifty others?

But there are people who understand.  One is Andrew Sammut, who’s written beautifully about Larry Binyon and others.  Another scholar who has a great love for the worthy obscure is Dave Radlauer.  Dave’s diligence and willingness to share audio evidence are remarkable.  He has done noble work on the multi-instrumentalist Frank “Big Boy” Goudie on his website JAZZ RHYTHM, an apparently bottomless offering, splendidly intimidating in its munificence — with webpages and audio programs devoted to many luminaries, well-known (Louis, Goodman, Shaw, Carter) as well as the obscure (Jerry Blumberg, Benny Strickler, Bill Dart, and three dozen others).  It’s not just music, but it’s cultural context and social history — close observation of vanished landscapes as well as loving portraits of characters in unwritten jazz novels.

Here’s a quick example.  For me, just to know that there was a San Francisco bar called BURP HOLLOW is satisfying enough.  To know that they had live hot jazz there is even better.  To hear tapes of it delights me immensely.

And listen to this, another mysterious delight: a quartet from the MONKEY INN, led by pianist Bill Erickson in 1961, with trombonist Bob Mielke and a glistening trumpeter or cornetist who had learned his Hackett well.  Was it Jerry Blumberg or Johnny Windhurst on a trip west?  I can’t say, but Unidentified is a joy to listen to.

But back to P.T. Stanton. I will wager that his name is known only to the most devoted students of West Coast jazz of a certain vintage. I first encountered him — and the Stone Age Jazz Band — through the gift of a Stomp Off record from my friend Melissa Collard.

STONE AGE JAZZ BAND

Radlauer has presented a rewarding study of the intriguingly nonconformist trumpeter, guitarist, occasional vocalist Stanton here.  But “here” in blue hyperlink doesn’t do his “The Odd Brilliance of P.T. Stanton” justice.  I can only warn the reader in a gentle way that (s)he should be willing to spend substantial time for a leisurely exploration of the treasure: nine pages of text, with rare photographs, and more than fifty otherwise unknown and unheard recordings.

Heard for the first time, Stanton sounds unusual.  That is a charitable adjective coined after much admiring attention.  A casual listener might criticize him as a flawed brassman. Judged by narrow orthodoxy, he isn’t loud enough; his tone isn’t a clarion shout. But one soon realizes that what we hear is not a matter of ineptitude but of a different conception of his role.  One hears a choked, variable — vocal — approach to the horn, and a conscious rejection of the trumpet’s usual majesty, as Stanton seems, even when officially in front of a three-horn ensemble, to be eschewing the traditional role in favor of weaving in and out of the ensemble, making comments, muttering to himself through his horn. It takes a few songs to accept Stanton as a great individualist, but the effort is worth it.

He was eccentric in many ways and brilliant at the same time — an alcoholic who could say that Bix Beiderbecke had the right idea about how to live one’s life, someone who understood both Bunk Johnson and Count Basie . . . enigmatic and fascinating.  And his music!

In the same way that JAZZ LIVES operates, Dave has been offering his research and musical treasures open-handedly.  But he has joined with Grammercy Records to create a series of CDs and downloads of remarkable music and sterling documentation. The first release will be devoted to the Monkey Inn tapes; the second will be a generous sampling of Stanton and friends 1954-76, featuring Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and Bunky Coleman (clarinets), Bob Mielke and Bill Bardin (trombones) and Dick Oxtot (banjo and vocals). Radlauer has plans for ten more CD sets to come in a series to be called Frisco Jazz Archival Rarities: unissued historic recordings of merit drawn from live performances, jam sessions and private tapes 1945-75.

I will let you know more about these discs when they are ready to see the light of day.  Until then, enjoy some odd brilliance — not just Stanton’s — thanks to Dave Radlauer.

May your happiness increase!

LISTEN TO VIC DICKENSON

Vic Dickenson, trombonist, singer, composer.  Photograph by Robert Parent (circa 1951).  Inscribed to drummer Walt Gifford.  From Gifford’s scrapbook, courtesy of Duncan Schiedt.

VIC by ROBERT PARENT

I dream of a jazz-world where everyone gets the credit they deserve, where Vic is as celebrated — and as listened to — as his contemporaries and friends Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Sidney Bechet, Mary Lou Williams, Frank Newton, and many more.

I’d like writers to pay attention to his delicate lyricism, his melodic improvisations, his way of illuminating a song from within.  This would require new language and new hearing: no longer putting Vic into the familiar compartments of “sly,” “witty,” “naughty,” and so on.

It would also require some writers and listeners to put aside their barely-concealed disdain for jazz as it was played before Charlie Parker came to town.  No disrespect to Bird, mind you, who jammed happily with Vic and Doc Cheatham and knew that they were masters. But Vic was more than a “Dixieland” trombonist, more than someone chained to TIN ROOF BLUES and SLOW BOAT TO CHINA.

Would Vic have been taken more seriously had he played trumpet? The trombone blends so well, so often, that it (like the string bass) is taken for granted. And Vic was one of the more reticent of jazz players: someone who wanted to play rather than chat or announce. But the musicians knew how special he was, and is.  (Some people celebrated Vic during his lifetime and still do: I think of Dan Morgenstern, George Wein, John Hammond, Dan Barrett, Mal Sharpe, Manfred Selchow, and others.)

We could begin to truly hear Vic, I think.  Perhaps the beginning of the campaign would be if we asked everyone we knew to listen — and listen with all their perception and love — to music like this:

It is indeed true that having Shad Collins, Ed Hall, Sir Charles Thompson, Steve Jordan, Walter Page, and Jo Jones along — in gorgeous sound — did no one any harm.  But I ask my listeners to do the difficult task of putting Vic first: his sonority, open and muted.  His time, his phrasing, the vocal quality of his sounds (plural).  His love for the melody and for the melodies that the original suggested.  His delicate concise force: what he could say in four quarter notes, or eight bars.  There was and is no one like him.

May your happiness increase!

BASIE SAYS YES

Miles Davis has often been quoted as saying, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

I would never disagree with this. I don’t wish to set up any competition, but I think everyone should give thanks to Count Basie — and not just once. And not just musicians, either.

It is fashionable, still, to affect hipness, and that is not limited to people under 30. And some intriguing theoretician has suggested that the qualities we praise as hip — subtlety, originality, a wry way of perceiving the world — were exemplified by Lester Young before Kerouac and the Beats took them as their own. I like this theory, although what Pres would have made of a Williamsburg or Berkeley or Portland hipster is not known.

But I would propose Basie as the original Parent of many virtues we prize. Singularity, although a loving reverence for one’s ancestors (as in Basie’s affectionate nods to Fats Waller), an awareness that joy and sorrow are not only wedded but interdependent (that the blues are at the heart of everything), and a deep emotional commitment to swinging one’s way through life.  Swinging, as embodied by Basie, his peers and their descendants, meant the maximum of grace with the minimum of visible labor.  The style later exemplified by Astaire with a Kansas City world-view. Passion and fun, no less powerful for being streamlined to their essentials. His playing and his approach have been characterized and parodied as “minimalist,” but I think of it more as a Thoreau-inspired simplicity. Don’t need that note, do we? Let it be implied. Unheard melodies and all that. How Basie knew what he knew is beyond us, but the evidence is there for us to hear.

Here’s an audible example of what Basie did. And does:

That’s the 1939 Chicago session, issued in the Seventies as “Basie’s Bad Boys”: Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, trumpets; Dan Minor, trombone (audibly?), Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Basie, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page; string bass; Jo Jones, drums. Yes, the studio sound is foggy and dense, but the music just flies and smiles and rocks.

These thoughts are provoked by two photographs for sale on eBay — from the Frank Driggs Collection (each one for three hundred dollars plus) — of Basie and his colleagues and friends in 1941 and 1943.  Lester had leapt out, but they seemed to be doing fine on their own.  Here’s a rehearsal session at the New York studio of Columbia Records. They are apparently listening to a playback.  Details first:

BASIE IN THE STUDIO 1941 true front

The front:

COUNT BASIE REHEARSAL 1941

What I notice first, always (this is a photograph often reproduced but also often cropped) is Basie’s dreamily unfocused expression which might be deep concentration.  Jo’s nearly angry attentiveness, his thinness (that protruding Adam’s apple), his full head of hair and tidy mustache.  Walter Page’s substantial girth. The handkerchief not quite tucked away in his back pocket.  The way his vest is strained by what’s in it.  The height of Jo’s beautiful trousers, and his suspenders.  The way Page (casually?) is listening to what handsome Buck Clayton is playing.  How beautifully everyone is dressed, in an era before jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and knapsacks.

And a more formal pose, 1943, where cake predominates:BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 back

Jimmy Rushing steals the show, and all eyes are on him (although Buck is somewhat quizzical and Basie — aware of the photographer — doesn’t turn around; Jo’s smile is world-weary).  What, I must know, is Rushing saying to that forkful? “Sent for you yesterday and here you come today,” perhaps? Or “Tell me, pretty baby, how you want your lovin’ done”?  Or perhaps the plainer, “I am going to EAT YOU ALL UP!” 

BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 front

I chose to title this posting BASIE SAYS YES because I believe he always did. Although Basie spent his life “playing the blues,” his approach to them was always life-affirming.  Even on the darkest dirge, there is a slight grin. “Look how sad I can make this music sound.  Isn’t it a lot of fun to play such sad music?”

Cool, swinging, affirmative.  We could follow him, a Sage, for life-lessons.

May your happiness increase! 

WOW! DECEMBER 29, 1940: LESTER YOUNG, SHAD COLLINS, J.C. HIGGINBOTHAM, SAMMY PRICE, HAROLD “DOC” WEST

Here’s the good news.  What many of us have only read about in discographies exists: discs preserving thirty minutes of a Village Vanguard jam session, overseen by Ralph Berton, then broadcasting jazz on the air on New York City’s municipal radio station, WNYC.

And thanks to the Library of Congress, National Public Radio, and the tireless Franz Hoffmann, we can hear two minutes and thirty-six seconds of a jump blues, caught in the middle of Lester’s solo.  The sound is good; the discs were well-preserved.

The less good news is that the NPR commentator (perhaps unconsciously modeling himself on Alistair Cooke) talks over the music at the start and it is such a brief excerpt.  But it gives one hope for more glorious jazz archaeology:

Thank you, Lester, Shad (trumpet); Higgy (trombone); Sammy Price (piano); Doc West (drums); Ralph Berton; anonymous WNYC engineer / recordist; the Library of Congress; National Public Radio; Franz Hoffmann.

May your happiness increase.

LESTER YOUNG’S MESSAGE: “BLITZKRIEG BABY”

This March 10, 1941 recording is not as well-known in the Lester Young canon as it should be.  Singer / pianist Una Mae Carlisle, a Fats Waller protege, landed a Bluebird Records date, possibly with the help of Fats.  Carlisle was an engaging, low-key singer.  How she and Lester Young’s short-lived little band came together in the studio has never been established, but it was fortunate for us and for posterity.

If you were a singer looking for the best band in that year, the choice would have been simple, given the perfect accompaniment and solos Lester had been playing with Billie Holiday for the previous four years.  The rest of the band — Shad Collins, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; John Collins, guitar; Nick Fenton, bass; Harold “Doc” West, drums — was also splendid, although to my ears they sound slightly hesitant, perhaps constrained by their roles in the recording studio.

The song (one of four) we are considering is unambitious, its lyrics odd: an attempt to blend current events — the German bombings — with a cautionary love song to an undefined lover.  Is the person being addressed an actual soldier or simply someone the singer wants to threaten by violence into good behavior?  The lyrics speak of bombing, a hand grenade, a parachute, propaganda, the infantry, a raid, dynamite; the only peaceful comment is about neutrality, which seems forlorn.  A perverse romantic utterance at best.

But the music shows once again how great jazz musicians and singers make the thinnest material imperishably beautiful.  The record begins with a thump leading us into an ensemble passage — a trumpet-tenor riff that would have been well-trodden by 1941.  (Quick, on which Louis recording did it first appear?) And the rhythm section, although everyone is pointed in the right direction, is more steadfast than airborne, heavier than the Basie ideal.  Carlisle’s cheerful, earnest-though-amused reading of the lyrics lightens the collective gravity, and Shad Collins’ muted arabesques behind her vocal don’t sound like anyone else’s — although muted trumpet behind a singer was also a familiar convention.  But aside from his brief appearance in harmony with Collins to start, Lester has been silent.

But he emerges into the sunlight in the second chorus, beginning with a simple ascending three-note phrase I associate with the exposition of a twelve-bar blues chorus, then after a brief pause for breath — and space — expanding that initial statement into a line that winds and climbs, not quickly or predictably, taking its time, the notes climbing a stairway that Lester is creating at the moment he ascends and descends, dipping down in the middle of the phrase before climbing easily again.  Visually, it might be a line drawn by William Steig.

So it might seem that Lester has offered us three improvisations on a simple climbing motif — not surprising, because many solos start low and climb for pure drama.  All this has happened in the space of fifteen seconds. Were we watching the original record move on, the stylus and tone arm tracing preordained paths through the grooves, it would seem as if a great distance had been traveled, the needle moving more quickly than the notes, bringing us that much closer to the end of the performance.

But Lester thought structurally: a sixteen-bar solo had its own logic, a balance apparent to the ear and would be visible in a transcription to someone who could only observe Up and Down, Long and Short.

A more conventional player would have repeated and varied the upwards motif (a trumpet player might have embellished the initial phrase until it would end on an impressive high note) — but Lester’s imagination was more spacious, and by 1941 he had heard thousands of formulaic solos next to him on bandstands across the country.

The second half of his too-brief solo begins from a height — although not “high” — that his first exploration has barely hinted at.  And Lester, having climbed his imaginary stairway, then proceeds to play on it as if he were a child rolling down those same stairs, one downwards-moving phrase tumbling after another, without haste or urgency, ending his solo with an echo (or a playful parody?) of the first upward phrase with which he began.

Lester’s solo is at most thirty seconds long. To ears accustomed to life after Bird, Trane, Ornette, Braxton, it seems simple, unadorned, even plain (leaving aside that dark creamy tone, the rubato hesitations and anticipations too subtle to notate).  But like a great Japanese brush painting, its magnificence is in the depths under its apparent ease.  Following Lester, pianist Clyde Hart, harmonically subtle and swinging, offers his own version of Basie-and-minimalist-stride that (one says ruefully) seems heavy in comparison with Lester’s ease.

When Una Mae Carlisle returns for her second exposition of the lyrics, the horns riff around and behind her: Shad Collins plays straight man to Lester, offering a simple phrase that Lester weaves around rather like ivy twining around a post.  I recall what Lester and Roy Eldridge create in the final minutes of Billie Holiday’s LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Shad and Lester offer a quiet miniature of the Basie band in performance, the saxophones explaining the truth to the trumpets or the reverse.  Lester seems to converse with his friend Shad while the rhythm and the bar lines move along beneath them, until the gentle festivities have to come to an ending.

Hear for yourself:

As always, Lester’s playing has so much to say to us, seventy and more years after he created it.  He speaks to us.  And although he seems like the least didactic of men, he has much to tell us by his example:

Use simple materials but treat them reverently.  No matter how few measures you have to say your piece, make it beautiful.  

Go your own way but don’t be bizarre for the sake of novelty.  Surprise us but don’t shock us. 

Honor the other members of the ensemble by making sure they sound good.  Give everyone a chance to shine. 

Take your time.  Breathe deeply.  Do nothing by rote.  Float on the rhythm.

Even if the lyrics speak of death and imminent destruction, don’t let anyone mess up your cool (to quote Vic Dickenson).

And — as a final sad irony — Lester could make beauty out of the impending blitzkrieg, but the Army didn’t see fit to extend him reciprocal courtesies.  But on March 10, 1941, he was on his own sweetly winding, hopeful path.  We can follow him always.

WISHING WILL MAKE IT SO

Every jazz fan who’s’ ever owned a record, a CD, or even a download has a mental list of recorded music he or she has never heard but yearns to hear.  I’m not talking about the Bolden cylinder or the Louis Hot Choruses, but here are some new and old fantasies.  Readers are invited to add to this list (my imagined delights are in no particular order).

The 1929 OKeh recording of I’M GONNA STOMP MISTER HENRY LEE — what would have been the other side of KNOCKIN’ A JUG, with Louis, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Lang, Joe Sullivan, Happy Caldwell, and Kaiser Marshall.  Did Jack sing or did Louis help him out?  Was the take rejected because everyone was giggling?

The “little silver record” of Lester Young, circa 1934, probably one of those discs recorded in an amusement park booth, that Jo Jones spoke of as his earliest introduction to Pres.  When I asked Jo about it (more than thirty-five years later), he stared at me and then said it had disappeared a long time ago.

On the subject of Lester, the 1942 (?) jam session supervised by Ralph Berton, who broadcast some of the results on WNYC — the participants were Shad Collins, Lester Young, J.C. Higginbotham, Red Allen, Lou McGarity, Art Hodes, Joe Sullivan, Doc West . . .

UNDER PLUNDER BLUES by Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, Hal Singer and Herb Hall: from the session released on Atlantic as MAINSTREAM.  We know that the tapes from this and other sessions were destroyed in a fire, but the fire seems to have happened almost eighteen years after the recording.  Hmmm.

The 78 album Ernest Anderson said he created — one copy only — for the jazz-fan son of a wealthy friend, a trio of Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, Bobby Hackett, and Sidney Catlett.

The 1928 duets of Red McKenzie and Earl Hines.

SINGIN’ THE BLUES, by Rod Cless, Frank Teschemacher, and Mezz Mezzrow.

DADDY, YOU’VE BEEN A MOTHER TO ME — by Lee Wiley, Frank Chace, Clancy Hayes, and Art Hodes, recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house.  (I’ve actually heard this, but the cassette copy has eluded me.)

Frank Newton’s controbution to the 1944 Fats Waller Memorial Concert.

The VOA transcriptions from the 1954-55 Newport Jazz Festivals — Ruby Braff, Lester Young, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Jo Jones; Lee Wiley, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson; Billie Holiday, Lester, Buck, and Teddy Wilson.  (I have hopes of Wolfgang’s Vault here.)

Some of these are bound to remain out of our reach forever; some are tantalizingly close.  But the Savory discs show us that miracles of a jazz sort DO happen.  As do the acetates Scott Black rescued from a dumpster in New Orleans.

What discs do you dream about?  This post, incidentally, has been taking shape in my mind for weeks, but what nudged it towards the light was our visit to a wonderful Berkeley, CA flea market / second-hand store called BAZAAR GILMAN, where there were records.  No revelations, but a splendid mix of oddities, including a few RCA Victor vinyl home recording discs and a few Recordio-Gay ones.  All full, with dispiriting titles such as WEDDING MARCH, BERCEUSE, and PIPE ORGAN.  But one never knows!

While you’re up, would you put on those airshots from the Reno Club, 1935?  (There was a radio wire: how else could John Hammond have heard the nine-piece Basie band in his car?)

NOVEMBER 12, 1943 AND MORE

eBay, so irresistible:

From November 12, 1943: Cab Calloway, Quentin Jackson, Illinois Jacquet, Hilton Jefferson, Jonah Jones, Shad Collins, and two signatures I can’t figure out.  I’d buy it for Shad, Quentin, and Hilton:

And there’s an autograph from that Parker fellow — called “Bird.”  Heard of him?

Finally, the underrated but Hot trumpeter Sidney DeParis — signing his portrait on the cover of Art Hodes’s JAZZ RECORD magazine:

Serious temptation lurks in eBay at the intersection of “Entertainment Memorabilia” and “Jazz.”

BLANK PAGES AND SILENCES

Serious jazz scholarship (as opposed to reviews) began more than seventy years ago: early books by Robert Goffin, Hughes Panassie, Charles Delanay, Wilder Hobson, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey come to mind, as well as essays by Ernst Ansermet, Otis Ferguson, and Roger Pryor Dodge. 

In 2010, there is no scarcity of books on jazz, from musicology to polemical ideology.  Biographies and autobiographies — from Armstrong to Zwerin with perhaps one hundred subjects between — the autobiographies of Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Bob Wilber, biographies of Monk, Mingus, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Parker, Paul Desmond, Ellington.  Books have been published about musicians who are still relatively obscure: Mark Miller on Herbie Nichols, Anthony Barnett on Henry Crowder.  

John Chilton’s studies of Bechet, Hawkins, Eldridge, and Red Allen are models of the form.  Ed Berger and his father did right by Benny Carter; Ed devoted a book to George Duvivier and is working on one about Joe Wilder.  My shelves are full, and I’m not listing criticism and discography. 

Most of what I have noted above (with admiration) is jazz scholarship from the outside — by enthusiastic listeners who have immersed themselves in jazz.  I would be the last to disparage that as an art form, as writers who do it include Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern, Gene Lees, Chris Albertson, Frank Driggs, Nat Hentoff and two dozen others.  A few musicians — rare souls — who were also fine writers: Dick Wellstood, Richard M. Sudhalter, Rex Stewart, Dick Katz.    

But even given all of this, how often have jazz musicians been asked to tell their stories? 

I know that there is a history of popular journalism — early on in urban Black newspapers — of getting quotations from musicians, but I wonder how many utterances that were attributed were actually spoken by the musicians themselves.  Later on, one had DOWN BEAT and METRONOME, and smaller magazines — Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD, here and abroad.  Some of this “journalism” perpetuated the stereotype of the musician as an eccentric character who spoke an unintelligible hipster gibberish.     

There are, of course, the pioneering recorded interviews of Jelly Roll Morton done in 1938 — mythic in many ways — that might be the first oral history of a jazz musician.  Whether you take them as an extended piece of performance art or as first-hand narrative / reportage, they remain invaluable.

Others have attempted to let the players speak — the Oral History Project had musicians interviewing their peers and friends, Stanley Dance’s series of books, the Shapiro / Hentoff HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YA, Gitler’s SWING TO BOP, the diligent work of Bill Spilka, Hank O’Neal’s book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM, collections of interviews and profiles by Whitney Balliett, Peter Vacher, Max Jones.  Phil Schaap has done extensive, rewarding radio interviews for forty years now.  Lester Young spoke to Chris Albertson and Francois Postif.  And irreplaceable video-documentaries focus on Ben Webster, Lester, Goodman, Phil Woods.  Fifty years ago, Riverside Records recorded Coleman Hawkins and Lil Hardin Armstrong telling their stories.             

But all of this is outweighed by the invisibility, the unheard voices of musicians. 

Who thought to ask Kaiser Marshall or Walter Johnson anything after they had finished a set with the Fletcher Henderson band?  Who interviewed Ivie Anderson?  Allen Reuss?  Jimmy Rowles?  Dave McKenna?  Al Cohn?  Shad Collins?  Barry Galbraith?  Shorty Baker?  Did anyone ask Denzil Best or Nick Fenton about what it was like to play at Minton’s?  Who spoke with Joe Smith or Joe Nanton about their experiences?  George Stafford, Tiny Kahn, Nick Fatool, Dave Tough?  (I know some of these figures were interviewed or analyzed by my hero Whitney Balliett, but the burden of jazz history of this sort shouldn’t have to rest on one writer’s shoulders.)

Granted, many stellar musicians were once anonymous sidemen and women, and the leaders of bands got all the attention.  So there are more interviews of Ellington than of Johnny Hodges, more of Goodman than of Vido Musso, more of Basie than of Jack Washington.  But Swing Era fans knew every member of the reed section in their favorite orchestras.

Thus claims of “obscurity” have to be taken less seriously: there was a time when Cootie Williams was nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson would be — you may substitute names you prefer in this equation of “famous jazz musician” and “famous sports figure.” 

I can imagine a number of reasons for musicians being ignored.

Some musicians would rather play than talk about their playing; some are even taciturn, although articulate.  And sometimes even the most garrulous players are not the best interview subjects.  “What was it like to play with Big Boy Smith?” one asks.  “Oh, it was a ball!  We had a great time!” the musician answers.  The interviewer waits for more.  “Do you remember any specific incidents?”  “Oh, no.  It was a lot of fun.  We couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”  And so on.  I’ve had this happen to me with the most sophisticated players here and in Europe.  They wereen’t reluctant to talk, but they weren’t intuitive novelists themselves.

Although cordial to outsiders, many musicians also don’t see the point of discussing serious matters — like music — with them.  Too much explaining.  Life is short; the next set is coming soon.   This does say something about the unseen wall between themselves and fans — people who don’t know what it is to play, to improvise professionally, come from a different planet.  Nice folks, but aliens.  Even sweet-natured Bobby Hackett referred to the audience as “the enemy.”  “Fans” and “academics” are friendly, “critics” and “writers” might be useful, but none of them really know

And oftentimes, musicians are ambushed by people who want to talk wishing to talk at inopportune times.  A musician asked to comment on the music she’s just played after a forty-five minute set may well be drained by the effort.  When they’re not playing, musicians talk of other subjects, including the cost of things, their most recent car repair, health care proposals.  Anything is more interesting than responding to “What inspires you when you take a solo?”  Some may want to be left in peace, to eat their scrambled eggs while they’re somewhat hot.  And who could blame them?       

When some venerable musicains are finallyinterviewed when they have become venerable, they have forgotten the details.  What they did forty years ago wasn’t musical history, but a way of making a living.  And even those who have sharp memories may not want to tell all: candor might mean losing friends or gigs.  And some aren’t interested in reliving their pasts: autobiographies and interviews are career-ending landmarks: what musicians do when they can no longer play.  Doing beats talking and theorizing.      

Others are “saving it for their book” — books that might get poublished posthumously if ever.  And when musicians die, sometimes their spouse discards “all that old clutter,” including letters and memorabilia.  Sometimes a divorce means that possessions get thrown out, or a son or daughter believes that Papa’s papers are worth millions and refuses to let anyone make money from themsee them.    

Having said all that, I want to put it aside. 

There were all the reasons that musicians might not want to be asked. 

But so many, I have to believe, would have been delighted to tell their stories.  Why weren’t they?

Much comes from the earliest perception of jazz as entertainment, hardly serious.  It was played at night in places where people talked loudly, smoked, drank, and danced.  Real art could be found in museums and in concert halls.  Jazz players weren’t ordinary people; they existed outside polite society; some thought them licentious madmen working themselves into ecstasies on the bandstand.  Who would be so bold as to ask one of them a question?  And what savage reply would result? 

The subject of race can’t be pushed aside.  If both White and Black listeners thought that jazz was primarily dance music, why study it?  Why take its players seriously?  And the early preponderance of White jazz scholars and critics — some Europeans and White Americans — can be traced to the idea that jazz was no more than “good-time music,” denying Afro-Americans proper dignity.  Would you want your daughter to marry a jazz musician?  Would you want your African-American child to concentrate his or her academic efforts on Cab Calloway, on Louis Armstrong?  But the initial racial imbalance did shift, and I suspect that Joe Nanton would have been happy to speak with a White college student if the student was both sincere and aware.  As would Rod Cless have been.       

I think of Emerson in “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1846, urging his audience to study their own culture — only in this way could a nation exist.  Many years after Emerson’s death, an American college student couldn’t expect to do advanced study about the authors of his time and place: a college education required German, Chaucer, rather than James T. Farrell and Charlie Chaplin.  To say nothing of Sidney Catlett.  And so it was for jazz.  By the time that academia caught up with it, so many of the progenitors were dead, their stories untold. 

The losses are irreparable.  To urge readers to interview a jazz musician today won’t replace what has been lost. 

What might Frank Teschmacher or Freddie Webster have told us, have someone thought it sufficiently important to ask them?

Those pages remain irrevocably blank.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
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THE VANGUARD SESSIONS

Vanguard Ruby disc

Between 1953 and 1957, John Hammond supervised a series of record dates for the Vanguard label.  I first heard one of those records — the second volume of the THE VIC DICKENSON SHOWCASE — at my local library in the late Sixties, and fell in love. 

The Vanguard sessions featured Ruby Braff, Shad Collins, Buck Clayton, Joe Newman, Emmett Berry, Pat Jenkins, Doug Mettome, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Benny Green, Urbie Green, Lawrence Brown, Henderson Chambers, Ed Hall, Peanuts Hucko, Jimmy Buffington, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate, Rudy Powell, Earle Warren, Lucky Thompson, Frank Wess, Pete Brown, Paul Quinichette, Mel Powell, Sir Charles Thompson, Jimmy Jones, Hank Jones, Sammy Price, Ellis Larkins, Nat Pierce, Steve Jordan, Skeeter Best, Kenny Burrell, Oscar Pettiford, Walter Page, Aaron Bell, Jo Jones, Bobby Donaldson, Jimmy Crawford, Jimmy Rushing, and others.

The list of artists above would be one answer to the question, “What made these sessions special?” but we all know of recordings with glorious personnel that don’t quite come together as art — perhaps there’s too little or too much arranging, or the recorded sound is not quite right, or one musician (a thudding drummer, an over-amplified bassist) throws everything off. 

The Vanguard sessions benefited immensely from Hammond’s imagination.  Although I have been severe about Hammond — as someone who interfered with musicians for whom he was offering support — and required that his preferences be taken seriously or else (strong-willed artists like Louis, Duke, and Frank Newton fought with or ran away from John).  Hammond may have been “difficult” and more, but his taste in jazz was impeccable.  And broad — the list above goes back to Sammy Price, Walter Page, and forward to Kenny Burrell and Benny Green. 

Later on, what I see as Hammond’s desire for strong flavors and novelty led him to champion Dylan and Springsteen, but I suspect that those choices were also in part because he could not endure watching others make “discoveries.”  Had it been possible to continue making records like the Vanguards eternally, I believe Hammond might have done so.   

Although Mainstream jazz was still part of the American cultural landscape in the early Fifties, and the artists Hammond loved were recording for labels large and small — from Verve, Columbia, Decca, all the way down to Urania and Period — he felt strongly about players both strong and subtle, musicians who had fewer opportunities to record sessions on their own.  At one point, Hammond and George Wein seemed to be in a friendly struggle to champion Ruby Braff, and I think Hammond was the most fervent advocate Vic Dickenson, Sir Charles Thompson, and Mel Powell ever had.  Other record producers, such as the astute George Avakian at Columbia, would record Jimmy Rushing, but who else was eager to record Pete Brown, Shad Collins, or Henderson Chambers?  No one but Hammond. 

And he arranged musicians in novel — but not self-consciously so — combinations.  For THE VIC DICKENSON SHOWCASE, it did not take a leap of faith to put Braff, Vic, and Ed Hall together in the studio, for they had played together at Boston’s Savoy Cafe in 1949.  And to encourage them to stretch out for leisurely versions of “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Russian Lullaby” was something that other record producers — notably Norman Granz — had been doing to capitalize on the longer playing time of the new recording format.  But after that rather formal beginning, Hammond began to be more playful.  The second SHOWCASE featured Shad Collins, the masterful and idiosyncratic ex-Basie trumpeter, in the lead, with Braff joining in as a guest star on two tracks. 

Vanguard Vic

Now, some of the finest jazz recordings were made in adverse circumstances (I think of the cramped Brunswick and Decca studios of the Thirties).  And marvelous music can be captured in less-than-ideal sound: consider Jerry Newman’s irreplaceable uptown recordings.  But the sound of the studio has a good deal to do with the eventual result.  Victor had, at one point, a converted church in Camden, New Jersey; Columbia had Liederkrantz Hall and its 30th Street Studios.  Hammond had a Masonic Temple on Clermont Avenue in Brooklyn, New York — with a thirty-five foot ceiling, wood floors, and beautiful natural resonance. 

The Vanguard label, formed by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon, had devoted itself to beautiful-sounding classical recordings; Hammond had written a piece about the terrible sound of current jazz recordings, and the Solomons asked him if he would like to produce sessions for them.  Always eager for an opportunity to showcase musicians he loved, without interference, Hammond began by featuring Vic Dickenson, whose sound may never have been as beautifully captured as it was on the Vanguards. 

Striving for an entirely natural sound, the Vanguards were recorded with one microphone hanging from the ceiling.  The players in the Masonic Temple did not know what the future would hold — musicians isolated behind baffles, listening to their colleagues through headphones — but having one microphone would have been reminiscent of the great sessions of the Thirties and Forties.  And musicians often become tense at recording sessions, no matter how professional or experienced they are — having a minimum of engineering-interference can only have added to the relaxed atmosphere in the room. 

The one drawback of the Masonic Temple was that loud drumming was a problem: I assume the sound ricocheted around the room.  So for most of these sessions, either Jo Jones or Bobby Donaldson played wire brushes or the hi-hat cymbal, with wonderful results.  (On the second Vic SHOWCASE, Jo’s rimshots explode like artillery fire on RUNNIN’ WILD, most happily, and Jo also was able to record his lengthy CARAVAN solo, so perhaps the difficulty was taken care of early.)  On THE NAT PIERCE BANDSTAND — a session recently reissued on Fresh Sound — you can hear the lovely, translucent sound Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones made, their notes forming three-dimensional sculpture on BLUES YET? and STOMP IT OFF. 

Vanguard Vic 2(Something for the eyes.  I am not sure what contemporary art directors would make of this cover, including Vic’s socks, and the stuffed animals, but I treasure it, even though there is a lion playing a concertina.)

What accounted for the beauty of these recordings might be beyond definition.  Were the musicians so happy to be left alone that they played better than ever?  Was it the magisterial beat and presence of Walter Page on many sessions?  Was it Hammond’s insistence on unamplified rhythm guitar?  Whatever it was, I hear these musicians reach into those mystical spaces inside themselves with irreplaceable results.  On these recordings, there is none of the reaching-for-a-climax audible on many records.  Nowhere is this more apparent than on the sessions featuring Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins.  Braff had heard Larkins play duets with Ella Fitzgerald for Decca (reissued on CD as PURE ELLA) and told Hammond that he, too, wanted to play with Larkins.  Larkins’ steady, calm carpet of sounds balances Braff’s tendency towards self-dramatization, especially on several Bing Crosby songs — PLEASE and I’VE GOT A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS.  Vanguard Ruby

Ruby and Ellis were reunited several times in the next decades, for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label and twice for Arbors, as well as onstage at a Braff-organized tribute to Billie Holiday, but they never sounded so poignantly wonderful as on the Vanguards. 

Hammond may have gotten his greatest pleasure from the Basie band of the late Thirties, especially the small-group sessions, so he attempted to give the Vanguards the same floating swing, using pianists Thompson and Pierce, who understood what Basie had done without copying it note for note.  For THE JO JONES SPECIAL, Hammond even managed to reunite the original “All-American Rhythm Section” for two versions of “Shoe Shine Boy.”  Thompson — still with us at 91 — recorded with Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones for an imperishable quartet session.  If you asked me to define what swing is, I might offer their “Swingtime in the Rockies” as compact, enthralling evidence. 

Hammond was also justifiably enthusiastic about pianist Mel Powell — someone immediately identifiable in a few bars, his style merging Waller, Tatum, astonishing technique, sophisticated harmonies, and an irrepressible swing — and encouraged him to record in trios with Braff, with Paul Quinichette, with Clayton and Ed Hall, among others.  One priceless yet too brief performance is Powell’s WHEN DID YOU LEAVE HEAVEN? with French hornist Jimmy Buffington in the lead — a spectral imagining of the Benny Goodman Trio. 

Vanguard Mel 2

The last Vanguards were recorded in 1957, beautiful sessions featuring Buck Clayton and Jimmy Rushing.  I don’t know what made the series conclude.  Did the recordings not sell well?  Vanguard turned to the burgeoning folk movement shortly after.  Or was it that Hammond had embarked on this project for a minimal salary and no royalties and, even given his early patrician background, had to make a living?  But these are my idea of what jazz recordings should sound like, for their musicality and the naturalness of their sound.

I would like to be able to end this paean to the Vanguards by announcing a new Mosaic box set containing all of them.  But I can’t.  And it seems as if forces have always made these recordings difficult to obtain in their original state.  Originally, they were issued on ten-inch long-playing records (the format that record companies thought 78 rpm record buyers, or their furniture, would adapt to most easily).  But they made the transition to the standard twelve-inch format easily.  The original Vanguard records didn’t stay in print for long in their original format.  I paid twenty-five dollars, then a great deal of money, for a vinyl copy of BUCK MEETS RUBY from the now-departed Dayton’s Records on Twelfth Street in Manhattan.  In the Seventies, several of the artists with bigger names, Clayton, Jo Jones, and Vic, had their sessions reissued in America on two-lp colletions called THE ESSENTIAL.  And the original vinyl sessions were reissued on UK issues for a few minutes in that decade. 

When compact discs replaced vinyl, no one had any emotional allegiance to the Vanguards, although they were available in their original formats (at high prices) in Japan.  The Vanguard catalogue was bought by the Welk Music Group (the corporate embodiment of Champagne Music).  in 1999, thirteen compact discs emerged: three by Braff, two by “the Basie Bunch,” two by Mel Powell, two by Jimmy Rushing, one by Sir Charles, one by Vic.  On the back cover of the CDs, the credits read: “Compilation produced by Steve Buckingham” and “Musical consultant and notes by Samuel Charters.”  I don’t know either of them personally, and I assume that their choices were controlled by the time a compact disc allows, but the results are sometimes inexplicable.  The sound of the original sessions comes through clearly but sessions are scrambled and incomplete, except for the Braff-Larkins material, which they properly saw as untouchable.  And rightly so.  The Vanguard recordings are glorious.  And they deserve better presentation than they’ve received.

P.S.  Researching this post, I went to the usual sources — Amazon and eBay — and there’s no balm for the weary or the deprived.  On eBay, a vinyl BUCK MEETS RUBY is selling for five times as much.  That may be my twenty-five dollars, adjusted for inflation, but it still seems exorbitant. 

On eBay I also saw the most recent evidence of the corruption, if not The Decline, of the West.  Feast your eyes on this CD cover:

Vanguard Visionaries corrupt

Can you imagine Jimmy Rushing’s reaction — beyond the grave — on learning that his reputation rested on his being an influence on Jamie Cullum, Norah Jones, and Harry Connick, Jr.?  I can’t.  The Marketing Department has been at work!  But I’d put up with such foolishness if I could have the Vanguards back again.

INSPIRED ABANDON! (Thanks to Dan Barrett)

DAN BARRETT’S NEW YORK CITY TOUR, Part One

Thursday, October 15, 2009, was a depressing night to be outside.  Any hopes that Indian Summer was here to stay were banished by frigid drizzle that kept many people indoors . . . but some of us made our way to Smalls, on West Tenth Street, to hear Ehud Asherie and Dan Barrett — early on in his East Coast tour — play duets for an hour.  Here’s the first part of that session.  Ehud was in rare form, even facing an exceptionally out-of-tune piano (we could charitably blame it on the humidity), striding, swinging from his introductions, playing the unknown verses to familiar songs, accompanying with rare grace.  And Dan Barrett is, to my ears, the complete musician, blessed with astonishing technique and the maturity to use it in the service of the music, an extraordinary range of sonorities, irresistible, witty swing . . . all without having to do more to warm up than to put the horn together and spray oil on his slide. 

Dan and Ehud began with one of the favorite gig-starting numbers (another is SUNDAY), I NEVER KNEW — although jazz knowledge was everywhere on the bandstand, Louis in high UK style grinning at what he was hearing:

Because James P. Johnson is one of our heroes — as composer as well as pianist — Ehud called ONE HOUR at a lightly swinging tempo, perhaps subliminally thinking of how long the duet session was supposed to last:

As an ironic nod to the weather, he then suggested Berlin’s jaunty ISN’T IT A LOVELY DAY — music to make us forget that our trouser cuffs might still be wet:

A bouncy THOU SWELL came next — no rhythm section needed here!

One of the most beautiful ballads I know is Oscar Levant’s BLAME IT ON MY YOUTH — I think of an early Crosby version and a later recording by Mary Eiland.  This version stands along any I know:

Back to James P. for an ambling OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, perhaps also a remembrance of one of Dan’s idols, Vic Dickenson, who recorded this memorably for Vanguard with Ed Hall, Ruby Braff, Shad Collins, Walter Page, and Jo Jones: 

Jazz listeners will recognize that my title was originally used for a Lawrence Brown record session for Impulse — but it surely applies to the music recorded on Thursday at Smalls.  And there’s more to come!

BASIE’S BAD BOYS: ADVENTURES IN LISTENING

In jazz, the most rewarding art combines mature technique, deep feeling, and the willingness of players and singers to become carefree children, trying new things with no censorious adults looking on.

Consider a four-song Chicago recording session that took place one day before Valentine’s Day in 1939.  In total, the results are slightly less than twelve minutes.  But what a memorable brief expression!  The players, perhaps named years later, are “Basie’s Bad Boys,” a title both accurate and inspired.  Basie played not only piano but organ (according to Jo Jones, the organ was particularly ancient, recalcitrant).

He was joined by the rest of his irreplaceable late-Thirties rhythm section: Walter Page, bass; Freddie Green, guitar; Jo Jones, drums.  Jimmy Rushing sang the blues on one number and trombonist Dan Minor accompanied him on it; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Shad Collins stood side-by-side with Lester Young, playing clarinet as well as tenor on “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Goin’ to Chicago,” “Live and Love Tonight,” and “Love Me Or Leave Me.”

I have occasionally been severe about John Hammond-as-mythologizer in this blog, but this session was one of his finest ideas, a worthy addition to “Jones-Smith, Inc.” and the 1940 rehearsal session that paired Goodman and Basie, Young and Christian.  The November 1936 session that produced “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Lady Be Good” was Hammond’s revenge on Decca, the company that had signed Basie to a restrictive contract, the payoff being $750, a paltry sum even in 1936 dollars.  I believe that the Basie band was just about to escape from its Decca servitude in early 1939, so this session might have been another naughty gesture on Hammond’s part – making recordings for Vocalion while the band was still under contract to Decca, sides that then could be issued once the band was free.  These sides were recorded in Chicago, in what Hammond remembered as a really terrible studio, making them impossible to issue.  Ironically, the studio was called United – and that the Basie small band certainly was on this date.

I first heard this music on a precious vinyl record issued in Sweden on the Tax label, “The Alternative Lester,” which contained, among other things, previously unissued takes of “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Dickie’s Dream,” and “Lester Leaps In,” heady stuff in the late Seventies.

Tidied up, all four sides then appeared on a two-record Columbia anthology, “Super Chief,” which had a color drawing of Basie’s smiling visage superimposed on the front of a locomotive (Basie, like Ellington, loved trains and the music they made).  This anthology also offered brilliantly idiosyncratic notes by Michael Brooks, a writer who took chances: some of his swooping metaphorical leaps are audacious.  Brooks had also interviewed Jones and other Basieites, and their recollections are priceless.

The four sides are now available on the Lester Young Mosaic box set (MD4-239), and they sound spectacular.  I had not heard them for a few years, having been separated from my copy of “Super Chief,” but they burst through the speakers.

They represent an Edenic glimpse into what the Basie band truly was – a good-natured, intense traveling jam session made up of supremely telepathic players.  For me, the great period of that band was delineated by Lester Young’s arrival and departure.  I can still marvel at individual solos recorded from 1940 onwards by Clayton, Dicky Wells, Buddy Tate. Don Byas, Vic Dickenson, that gliding rhythm section, Rushing and Helen Humes.  But the demands or expectations of the marketplace made the band outgrow itself.  What was a small group at the Reno Club in Kansas City was compelled to become a Swing Era big band – nearly doubling in size and heft.  It gained power yet lost mobility.  Some of the early Deccas show the ghost of the Reno Club band: “Panassie Stomp” and “Out the Window” come to mind.  But as arrangers came in, capable ones, and popular tunes became part of the repertoire in hopes of a hit record, the Basie band sounds like someone who has gained fifty pounds overnight.  On the 1938 radio airshots from the Famous Door (the two versions of “Indiana”) – soloists have room to invent, to play. Behind a trumpet solo, Lester creates a background, which the reeds fall in with instantaneously.  The two dozen-plus men on the stand function as a small group, musically jostling and joking.  The best recordings of the period balance soloists, the rhythm section, and spare riff backgrounds.  But as the Basie band became identified with “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” those sliding trombones, trumpets fanning their metal derbies, saxes repeating patterns, became the norm.  What had been extemporaneous became more mechanical.  Arrangements might have been necessary as the band grew, to prevent small collisions, but no wonder Lester complained that rehearsals had become tiresome, that Vic Dickenson, legend has it, was fired for falling asleep on the stand.  The unthinkable had happened: the band had become dull.

But it had not happened yet at this session.  “I Ain’t Got Nobody” had been a favorite of both Basie and Hammond as a piano feature; on another clandestine 1938 session, Basie, Page, and Jones, strolled through that potentially lachrymose song, first as a meditative Fats Waller medium-tempo rhapsody, full of baroque excursions – a tribute to Basie’s friend and mentor.  Then, as if moving into Modern Times, away from His Master’s Voice, Basie played it in his own faster tempo, leaving spaces all along for Page and Jo to propel, to encourage.  This three-minute lesson in jazz piano history is available on the Vanguard “From Spirituals to Swing” set and the Phontastic “Lester – Amadeus” disc.

The 1939 “I Ain’t Got Nobody” from Chicago begins at the brisk tempo Basie had concluded with in 1938, yet with an unusual Basie-with-rhythm introduction: his first phrase a characteristic simple riff owing something to “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me.” I suspect that it was one of Basie’s beloved gestures, but it would have been a sly in-joke if he had been thinking of “Habit,” whose opening phrase states that the lover is addicted to the Love Object – while playing “Nobody,” whose lyrics drip lonely self-pity.  His second figure moves into an upwards chromatic run, something Basie would often use to end a number rather than begin it.  Even though Green’s guitar is deeply buried, felt rather than heard at best, the sound of the rhythm is so instantly infectious that a listener does not notice the oddity of Basie’s introduction at first.

Then he launches into the familiar melody, leaving only the most bare contours, stating the theme in widely spaced, ringing chords.  Basie casually alternates passages of embellished melody with his familiar catch-phrases: what makes this potentially threadbare style so winning is his rhythmic sense, as well as the nearly choral support the rhythm section gives, Page’s bass resounding like a reassuring heartbeat.  Even when the gesture Basie launches into (the phrase just before the bridge) is such a timeworn Waller phrase, his good humor and rhythmic delight maskits familiarity.  (Even when borrowing from Waller, Basie’s individuality is as strong as Louis’s or Bird’s: who, on hearing this, would mistake him for another pianist?)

During that bridge, I hear some talking, perhaps merely an affirmative grunt from Basie or one of the musicians?  Was Basie telling Lester that he was up next, or was Hammond directing traffic?  It’s clearly not a Fats-aside, meant to be heard, but a private nudge or reminder – teasingly audible but not decipherable, even given the clarity of the CD.  Readers with better hearing than mine — it has stumped fellow listeners! — are invited to send their conjectures for appropriate prizes.

But musicians did not give such verbal cues on record unless it was an informal session or if the take was to be scrapped.  This makes me wonder if this performance, the first one mastered that session, was originally a casual warm-up, a run-through to get a balance in this murky studio.  But I can imagine that the musicians and Hammond, at the end of this take, thought that this performance too good to discard.  Basie ends his chorus with a single repeated note, one of his trademarks (where else did Harry Edison get this ultimately irritating mannerism from?) that perhaps he used as a signal, “I’m finished.  Your turn now.”

Everything we might expect is transformed when Lester enters, not dancing in on a complex swooping tenor phrase, but announcing his presence on clarinet.  His announcement is a simple phrase followed by a rest, but it is arresting.  What strikes the listener is Lester’s particular tone.  Early in his career, he played a cheap metal clarinet – the kind of instrument students and band musicians, who marched outdoors, would have used instead of the more delicate wooden models.  And Lester’s particular sound is supposed to have been the result of this instrument.  Benny Goodman is supposed to have been so entranced with the way Lester played clarinet that he gave Lester a better one (one rebuttal to tales of Goodman’s stinginess).  This instrument was stolen some time during Lester’s stay with the band, but his colleagues say that he never played a metal clarinet on records.  But his tone, piping, narrow, almost shrill, forceful, is not like any other clarinetist’s, not Shaw, Bigard, Noone . . . .

A digression here.  While vacationing in Maine, the Beloved and I went twice to an open-air flea market, the most varied and intriguing one I ever saw.  There I saw not one but two metal clarinets for sale, and nearly succumbed to their lure.  Visible rust kept me from even inquiring the price.  If I could have been sure that a metal clarinet would enable me to approach Lester’s sound(s), I would have bought one happily.  But I remembered a conversation with a musician in his eighties, who said that everyone who plays an instrument inevitably sounds different, because of the shape of one’s skull and the cavities within it govern what happens when a player buzzes into a metal mouthpiece or makes the reed vibrate.  That anyone could sound like anyone else would be miraculous, and that someone like Paul Quinichette succeeded so well in copying aspects of Lester’s tone is remarkable rather than deplorable.

But back to Lester.  we hear that tone first, then his eloquent use of space, one tumbling phrase separated from the next by breathing-pauses.  Although his range is consciously limited (most clarinetists cannot resist the temptation to fill the air with ornamental notes that show off technique but destroy potential architecture) and his note choices restrained, he is bobbing and weaving over the background.  What we hear is greatly influenced by Basie’s spareness, translated into Lester’s vocabulary, sensibility, and instrument.

That background is both plain and propulsive: the muted trumpets of Clayton (left) and Collins (right)  doing four doo-wahs in succession behind him.  No doubt that phrase was a familiar one for jazz players well before Ellington popularized it in capital letters as part of the lyrics and music of the 1932 “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”  But one doesn’t notice its familiarity because it fits so well.  A listener senses only that something dynamic and irresistible has taken place, as the texture of the rhythm section (Basie’s treble line, Page’s steady tread, the whish of Jones’s hi-hat) has suddenly exploded into a much more richly textured sound, Lester’s thin, penetrating line undulating over the deeper, half-muffled choral punctuations of the horns.  Basie’s chorus was anything but monochromatic, but when the horns enter, color explodes in the listener’s consciousness.

And the dynamic contrast is not only strong but unexpected: often, recordings began with the piano or the rhythm section, then went to a chorus of a soloist over that rhythm, then (and only then) was the soloist joined by other horns in support.  Because of the time limitations of the 78 rpm record, everything seems telescoped: not overly fast, but moving at top speed with no time for elaborate transitions between one kind of display and the next.  As was common practice, the trumpets laid out during the bridge, their absence letting us hear the dry slap of Jo Jones’s wire brushes on his snare drum.  (In my mind’s eye, I see him, even late in life, boisterous, grinning, wrists and elbows in motion.) Lester remembered his childhood in New Orleans with affection, and here he offers his own version of the clarinet’s traditional place in the ensemble, dancing in arcs of notes over the brass.  The remainder of his solo, its balance between a bridge made up mostly of passages of repeated notes, the upward arpeggios that bookend that bridge (their highest note verging on the shrill) — could be committed to memory, genuinely his, simple yet inevitable.  And its tonal variations, so different from what a “better” clarinet player might have offered, and so much more rewarding. Another clarinet player might have worked up to a high note, a dazzling technical flurry to conclude his solo; Lester, making way for the next player, winds down into a sweet decrescendo, a musing figure, generously bowing out as if to prepare the way.

When he concludes, the transition is seamless and wondrous.  From clarinet-backed-by-trumpets, we have Buck backed by Lester and Shad, the two of them using another simple Swing Era convention that develops the earlier backing riff but doesn’t repeat it.  (This was the glory of the Basie “Kansas City” style that other orchestras tried to imitate but failed at, choosing instead to repeat the same riff for chorus after chorus.)  This figure seems an orchestral transcription of one of Basie’s favorite triplet figures.

In some ways, what one realizes in this performance is the strength and pervasive durability of Basie’s personality.  Although he was a modest, reticent man, his artistic identity was so strong that his soloists seem to share his most characteristic thoughts, shapes, and utterances, as he is drawing upon theirs.  This record is of course the triumph of individualists, having their instantly recognizable time to say their piece, but it is also the triumph of a completely integrated artistic community, where ideas have become generously-shared communal property.  And the two kinds of expression balance.  Soloists step forward, testify, and then take their place in the congregation so that the next person can speak.

Clayton’s solo is another triumph of what Louis called “tonation and phrasing,” Buck’s sound, his way of attacking his notes.  Like Lester, he announces himself – his choice being a punchy, staccato phrase reminiscent of the spare closing riffs of “Every Tub.”  Although the trumpet style of the late Thirties was often commanding, insisting, Clayton’s sound (his horn cup-muted as it often was) asks rather than demands, hitting some notes precisely, bending and slurring others.  But his originality is paramount.  Even when he fills his second phrase with one of the oldest motifs in jazz, a direct reference to Bolden’s “funky butt, funky butt, take it away,” the borrowing does not intrude.  The listener, again, doesn’t think, “Oh, that old thing?” because the notes tumble on, one of Clayton’s talents being in rhythmic placement, instinctively knowing how many notes would fit neatly in a scalar phrase.  His solo is not made of a series of ascents, but a progression of descending phrases, somewhere between Bill Robinson dancing down the stairs and a waiter with a full tray of dishes making his way, carefully but rapidly.  And Buck seems to improvise on his own ideas: the beginning of his bridge contains a clearly articulated descending figure, which he later turns into a half-comedic slide down an imagined slope.  At times, the solo uses repeated notes (not as Lester did) in a way that players like Muggsy Spanier would flatten into predictable pounding of simple ideas.  What makes Clayton’s work pleasing is his vocalized tone, his rhythmic subtleties.  And, as Basie had signaled the end of his solo by playing with one note, Clayton earnestly turns the same figure over and over as his thirty-two bars come to a close.

On a more predictable recording, with everyone given a turn, the next soloist would have been Collins, but that would have courted the monotony of one trumpet following another.  What comes next is a brilliant offering, something that didn’t happen often: Lester coming back for another solo, this time on tenor.  (It happens on the Kansas City Six recording of “Them There Eyes” and on the Glenn Hardman session, on “China Boy” and perhaps elsewhere.)  With feline grace, Lester doesn’t “leap in” immediately, but there is the pause of a short breath, the silence heightening our expectations: what will happen next?  And instead of a horn or horns backing him, there is only the rhythm section – but Basie has become his own orchestra, his simple bell-like rhythmic figures (new ones this time) urging Lester on.  Behind him, one must marvel at the supple, pulsing time that Jo, Walter, and Freddie grant – a rhythmic wave that could sustain a weaker soloist and push a strong one to creative heights.  Again, in Lester’s solo, one hears those arpeggios, up and down, his turning melodic lines into a blues.  This second solo seems to encapsulate all of his style.  It could be sung; it is full of unexpected pauses; it has its own wandering yet logical shape.  On tenor, he purrs, cajoles in a more mellow way.  I would love to hear his two solos on this recording played simultaneously, Lester as one-man band, playing counterpoint with himself.  I’d be nearly as happy to see the two solos notated in parallel, to see their shapes over the same chords.  Until then, I will simply play this record over and over.

Records made for issue on the expected 10″ 78 discs were planned to be somewhere between three and three-and-a-half minutes long.  Studios had clocks, but experienced musicians had to know how many choruses could fit at a particular tempo.  After Lester’s chorus, one way to conclude the record – with time for one chorus – would have been a collective improvisation, or a riff beneath another soloist leading to a final four bars of jamming.  (Think of the Holiday-Wilson “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and how it ends, for instance.)  This record’s final chorus is an egalitarian one, audibly something worked out in progress, which completes the circle that records were.  In the first instance, Clayton’s chorus came between Lester’s two solos, affording him time to put down his clarinet and clip his tenor on to his neck strap – something that big-band reed players were expected to do with ease, even in the middle of an arrangement, although photographs show them having stands for their instruments on the job.  However, after Lester’s tenor chorus is concluded, there is a brief space, not quite strictly delineated, where all one hears is Basie responding with punctuations to the initial two-trumpet riff, Jones’s accents moving the music along.  It takes Lester four bars, more or less, to get his clarinet into play, and then we hear him begin to dance over the background again.  The listener who is prepared for another clarinet-with-rhythm bridge is in for a surprise, as that bridge is given over to trumpeter Shad Collins, a new member of the band whose style came out of the same roots as Clayton’s – but one would never mistake one for the other.  Jo Jones said that Shad made each note pop out as if he were making spitballs, but there is more to his style than a simple percussive attack.  As Clayton’s tone is beseeching, fragile, Collins’s tone is nearly derisive, needling, a buzzing that is, in some way, insect-like.  Yes, there is a stylized bit of Armstrong declaration, but also the teasing sonic play of Rex Stewart.  His solo goes by so fast but deserves a rehearing.  And, in the last eight bars, everything coalesces precisely because the band seems willing to go on forever, happily unchecked – Lester singing his wry song over the trumpets, Basie commenting and urging everyone on, and the rhythm pulsing without strain or exhaustion.  Everyone pedals happily off into some imagined swing paradise.

Ezra Pound, always writing manifestoes, had a simple one: MAKE IT NEW.  This 2:55 of recorded time is a true embodiment of that principle.  Take ideas going back to Economy Hall and make them ardent, emotionally strong, by blending individuality and community.  Synthesize without ever seeming synthetic.  All this in a badly-designed recording studio in Chicago one day in February nearly seventy years ago.

The other three sides will reveal their beauties with repeated listening, but I will suggest only these.  The sound that Basie got from the organ on “Goin’ to Chicago,” his familiar piano gestures transfigured by that instrument, and the beautiful depth of Page’s bass.  The way Basie and Jo accompany Clayton’s lovely open blues chorus; the sound of Lester’s clarinet behind Jimmy Rushing’s voice, veering in 1939 between entreaty and delicacy; Dan Minor’s plainer version of Dicky Wells’s familiar phrases behind Jimmy, and Shad’s commentary, which gives way to another rocking episode of Lester, on clarinet, riffing over the two trumpets in what was the simplest of blues riffs.  (Where was Dicky?  Had he misbehaved, or was Minor finally being given a chance to have a solo – a mere twelve bars of traditional blues accompaniment?  Hammond must have approved of Minor’s playing, because Minor stands alongside Bechet, Ladnier, James P. Johnson, Page, and Jo – some band! – on the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert.)  On “Live and Love Tonight,” a 1934 movie song – recorded by the Ellington band and who else in a jazz context, and whose choice was it? – Basie’s organ introduction is melodramatic, suggesting the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Bijou, his volume nearly overwhelming the microphone, before it settles down into a marvelous Clayton melodic statement.  Listeners who don’t quite understand the reverence musicians had for Basie might listen closely to his accompaniment – on a bulky and balky instrument – behind Clayton.  It is a graduate seminar on how to guide, cheer, and raise a soloist and the band.  And Basie’s solo chorus that follows is anything but a solo – in fact, the soloists who should get our attention are Page and Jones.  February in Chicago might have been brutal, for someone coughs quietly during that bridge, too.  And the Waller-Basie trill that he can’t help inserting near the end of the chorus is hilarious: given the bulk of the organ’s sound, it is like Oliver Hardy on point, executing a pirouette.  Lester’s chorus is emotionally and rhythmically moving, apparently a series of easy ascents and descents through the chorus – but his tone is earnest and unfulfilled, as if whatever request he was making was, he knew, not going to be granted.  The ending is more pious than one might have expected, but I suspect it was a combination of time running out and no one having anything to say after Lester’s exposition.  Jo Jones said of “Love Me Or Leave Me,” happily, that he could be heard now, which is true, and we hear him closing his hi-hat cymbals decisively rather than keeping them part open, but the sound is crisp, especially considering the murk which dominated the previous three sides.  This version of Donaldson’s edgy lament predates “Dickie’s Dream,” but it suggests that these chord changes were meat and drink to this Basie band much as “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” also by Donaldson, pared down to “Moten Swing,” was for the 1932 band on into 1937 or so, as broadcast openings and closings show.  This, one feels, is what the band must have sounded like when everyone was fully warmed up: hear how Clayton manages to turn a phrase over and over in the middle of his solo, how Lester dances in to his, followed by a full Collins chorus, and then an abbreviated chorus, the sound of a band running out of time.  This recording – a simple series of solos over rhythm with a get-it-all-in final sixteen bars – is a banquet, even though it leaves us wanting more.

Artists at play, blessedly and brilliantly.

POSTSCRIPT: Both Dan Block and Doug Pomeroy, whose opinions I trust, feel that Lester was probably playing a metal clarinet on the 1938 Kansas City Six recordings.