Tag Archives: Sid Catlett

OF COURSE, THEY WEREN’T “TRAINED SINGERS”!

Anna Moffo, one of my mother’s favorite sopranos: my definition of a “trained singer.”

Everyone of us has pet theories: there’s a secret way to fold fitted sheets; day-old bagels, toasted, are better than fresh, and so on.  You, no doubt, have yours.

One of mine that is relevant to JAZZ LIVES is that often, singers who never sing because they are busy playing are the best singers of all.  I don’t mean those who are clearly identified as singers — Louis, Jelly, Teagarden, Cleo Brown — but those instrumentalists who have recorded once or twice only.  So I assembled a host of my favorites, leaving out scat choruses.  Some recordings were inaccessible: Sid Catlett’s OUT OF MY WAY, Basie’s HARVARD BLUES (where he, not Jimmy, takes the vocal) Ed Hall’s ALL I GOT WAS SYMPATHY — but this is, I hope, a pleasing, perhaps odd offering.  I present them in no particular order, except for Lester being the last, because that recording so touches me.

James P. Johnson, 1944 (with Frank Newton, Al Casey, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty).  The story is that Alan Lomax thought that James P. was a blues pianist when he interviewed him for the Library of Congress — and compelled him to sing this.  I don’t know: James P. is having a good time:

Coleman Hawkins, 1936, highly impassioned (when was he not?):

Vic Dickenson, crooning in 1931 with the Luis Russell Orchestra:

Vic — nearly fifty years later — singing his own composition with Ralph Sutton:

Benny Carter, aiming for Bing and having a dear good time in the process, 1933.  (This has been one of my favorite records since 1974.  Catch Benny’s trumpet solo and clarinet solo.  And Sid Catlett pleases.)  Those clever lyrics aren’t easy to sing at that tempo: ask Dan Barrett:

And another helping of Benny-does-Bing, gliding upwards into those notes.  Another favorite:

Yes, Art Tatum could sing the blues.  Uptown, 1941:

I save this for last, because it leaves me in tears.  Lester Young, 1941, and since this is the only copy of a much-played acetate, there’s a lot of surface noise.  Be patient and listen deeply:

Little is known about that recording, but I remember learning that one side of it was a dub of SHOE SHINE BOY by Jones-Smith, Inc., and this — a current pop tune with glee-club embroideries — was the other.  It’s been surmised that this was a demo disc for Lester’s new small band that he hoped to make flourish after leaving Basie.  Some of the sadness, to me, is that the attempt worked poorly, and although Lester loved to sing, there is only one other recording (the 1953 IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO) that exists.

These singers go right to my heart.

May your happiness increase!

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WHAT SID DID (December 18, 1943)

SIDNEY CATLETT with WIRE BRUSHES

Sidney Catlett, that is.  Big Sid.  Completely himself and completely irreplaceable.  And here’s COQUETTE by the Edmond Hall Sextet on Commodore — Ed on clarinet, Emmett Berry, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Eddie Heywood, piano; Billy Taylor, string bass; Sid, drums, on December 18, 1943.

After Heywood’s ornamental solo introduction, which sounds as if the band is heading towards I WOULD DO MOST ANYTHING FOR YOU, Sid lays down powerful yet unadorned support for the first sixteen bars, yet he and Emmett have an empathic conversation on the bridge, Sid catching every flourish with an appropriate accent.  More of that to come, but note the upwards Louis-hosanna with which Emmett ends his solo (Joe Thomas loved this motif also) and Sid’s perfectly eloquent commentary, urging the Brother on.  His drumming has an orchestral awareness, as if the full band plus Heywood’s leaves and vines is dense enough as it is, and what it needs is support.  But when it’s simply Emmett and himself and the rhythm section, Sid comes to the fore.

The timbre of the second chorus is lighter: Ed Hall dipping, gliding, and soaring, with quiet ascending figures from Emmett and Vic, then quiet humming.  So Sid’s backing, although strong, is also lighter.  Hall, in his own way, was both potent and ornate, so Sid stays in the background again.

The gorgeous dialogue between Emmett and Sid in the third chorus (from 1:44 on) has mesmerized me for thirty years and more.  One can call it telepathy (as one is tempted to do when hearing Sid, Sidney DeParis, and Vic on the Blue Note sides of the same period); one can say that Emmett’s solo on COQUETTE was a solo that he had perfected and returned so — you choose — but these forty-five seconds are a model of how to play a searing open-horn chorus, full of space and intensity, and how to accompany it with strength but restraint, varying one’s sound throughout.  Even when Sid shifts into his highest gear with the rimshots in the second half of the chorus, the effect is never mechanical, never repetitive: rather each accent has its own flavor, its own particular bounce.  It’s an incredibly inspiring interlude.  And the final chorus is looser but not disorderly — exultant, rather, with Sid again (on hi-hat now, with accents) holding up the world on his shoulders at 2:40 until the end.  He isn’t obtrusive, but it’s impossible to ignore him.

Here’s another video of COQUETTE, this time taking the source material from a well-loved 78 copy:

I confess that I think about Louis fairly constantly, with Sid a close second — marveling at them both.  An idle late-evening search on eBay turned up this odd treasure, something I did not need to buy but wanted to have as another mental picture.  It’s the cardboard album for a 1946 four-song session under Sid’s leadership for Manor Records, with Pete Johnson, Jimmy Shirley, Lockjaw Davis, Bill Gooden, Gene Ramey.  Because of the boogie-woogie format and the piano / organ combination, the four sides have a rather compressed effect.

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What one of the original 78s looked like.

SID Humoresque BoogieUnfortunately, no one as of yet has put this music on YouTube, so you’ll have to do your own searching.  (The sides were issued on CD on the Classics CD devoted to Sidney.)

I present the cardboard artifact here as one of the very few times that Sidney would have seen his own name on an album — although he’d seen his name on many labels, even a few sessions as a leader.  Sid recorded from 1929 to 1950; he lived from 1910 to 1951.  Not enough, I say — but so generous a gift to us all.  “Good deal,” as he often said.

May your happiness increase!

WKCR-FM, www.wkcr.org, 212-851-2699

microphoneI don’t like pledge drives on public radio or public television.  More often than not, I have reacted to the extended earnest pleas for financial support by turning off the flow of words.  When I returned to New York this morning and heard that WKCR-FM was asking its listeners for financial support, my initial response was a muffled groan.  But two factors changed my thinking.  One is that the station (Columbia University’s jazz station, on the air steadily since October 1941) was broadcasting Benny Goodman’s music around the clock until June 1 — in honor of BG’s hundredth birthday.  And while I was listening to the flow of familiar BG sides from 1939, I heard a few Helen Forrest vocals I hadn’t heard before.

And — more to the point — the Beloved and I have spent the last week-plus in Utah.  Utah is extraordinarily beautiful, even oppressively and overwhelmingly so — but we couldn’t find any good music on the radio.  Seventies rock and religious music in profusion, but no Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Charlie Barnet, or Charlie Green.  Even when a station such as WKCR is broadcasting music that isn’t to my taste, it seems a cultural oasis in the American landscape.

I also remember WRVR-FM and Ed Beach — a glorious aesthetic and educational experience that vanished one day because someone wanted that particular frequency for a station that made more money.

So I called 212-851-2699 and made a contribution.  And I encourage blog-readers to do the same.  Even if you are out of the New York metropolitan area, you can access the station online at http://www.wkcr.org.  And if you did so, you’d hear Benny’s 1941 band with Sid Catlett, Cootie Williams, Lou McGarity, Mel Powell . . . music worth supporting.  Please do!

HIS GRIEF, HIS ART: BEN WEBSTER, 1970

I’ve been listening to a new double-CD set of Ben Webster recordings assembled in honor of his hundredth birthday, titled THE BRUTE AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Storyville 103 8407).  Most of the music in this set comes from Webster’s last years in Europe.  Depending on the musicians accompanying Ben and his own health, the results are either lovely or uneven.  Occasionally a boppish rhythm section intrudes, or sweet symphonic orchestrations threaten to drown everything.  But two recordings in this set done with Teddy Wilson are irreplaceable — one, a version of STARDUST done in Copenhagen in 1969, is yearning and intense.  (The video of this performance, once available on YouTube, apparently has been removed, which is a pity.)

But the more dramatic OLD FOLKS (Hugo Rasmussen, bass; Ole Streenberg, drums) from May 1970, is still accessible.  It is also very deep music.

Webster is casually, almost sloppily dressed, his great bulk protruding in front of him.  Because he had broken an ankle in a fall eight months before, he is seated.  The performance begins with a small display of will, as Ben refuses to play the song at the medium-tempo jog Wilson chose.  Instead, Ben snaps his fingers insistently, slowing the tempo to a ballad, a lament.

Teddy Wilson also has the sheet music in front of him and gazes at it intently, his lips moving silently.  During the last twenty-five years of his career, Wilson stuck to his own familiar repertoire, medleys of songs associated with Waller, Goodman, Gershwin, Basie, and so on, so this is unusual.  The unfmiliarity of OLD FOLKS accounts for the atypical mistake he makes at the end of his second chorus.  Viewers will notice the difficulty or pain evident in his right hand as he pauses between phrases to turn his wrist inwards, perhaps the inevitable result of so much muscular exertion at the piano night after night.  Watching these two men play, one is aware of their age, their occasional struggles; hearing them is a different matter.

This performance is Webster’s, although Wilson’s accompaniment is gentle, supportive, and simple.  Ben’s first chorus is apparently close to the melody, with some tender arpeggios and pauses, but playing melody in this fashion is anything but simple, something only learned through forty years of devotion and practice.  The song comes alive.  Ben’s sound, his tone, his phrase-ending vibratos, full of air, are the very opposite of uninflected playing.  In the middle of the bridge, Ben removes the mouthpiece from his lips, shakes his head in exasperation (with himself or with his instrument?) but does not stop or give in.

To me, the polite applause that greets the end of his chorus is inadequate response, suggesting that the audience does not entirely grasp what they have just heard, but that might do them an injustice.  Teddy’s  chorus is a mixture of embellishments and his patented arpeggios.  Midway through it, though, the camera pulls back and we see Ben nodding silently, “Yes, I know,” empathic, hearing Wilson’s playing.  They had known and worked with each other as early as 1935, so there may havebeen the kinship of people who have shared the same experiences over time.  Ben told the British interviewer Henry Whiston in 1971 that he had leased a “beautiful piano” for his home, “I got that piano so that Teddy Wilson could have a piano to play on.”

(While Wilson is concluding his seond chorus, the camera pans to a handsome African-American of this same generation, dressed in a pink shirt, the trumpeter Bill Coleman, another long-term expatriate.)

Then we see that Webster has been crying: a tear is spilling out of his eye.  And he nods again, sadly agreeing with what Wilson has been saying without words, before picking up his horn a few beats later.

When I first saw this performance perhaps twenty years ago, I was unaware of any context, and thought perhaps that Ben had been moved to tears by the beauty of Wilson’s solo, which I still believe.  Was he also thinking of his peers — the American jazz musicians who knew and lived the music he loved — the men and women he had left behind to come to Europe?  The friends he had lost, the musicians he might never play with again?  Johan van der Keuken, who knew Ben well in Scandinavia, has spoken of the “essential loneliness” that “became more heavy” for him as he remained there.

But I read in Frank Buchmann-Moller’s excellent biography of Webster, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, that Ben had learned of the death of Johnny Hodges only a short time before this broadcast.  Although Ben might very well be weeping over Wilson’s solo, its beauty and its larger implications, his grief takes on a new dimension.

The fine tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo said of Ben, “He was 100 percent honest.  Everything came from the heart; there was no acting involved.  He wasn’t very good at sweeping things under the carpet.”

Ben had sat in the reed section of the Ellington band for almost four years, hearing Johnny Hodges every night and marveling.  He had come to the band a fully developed soloist, but he learned so much about the subtleties of technique and emotion, about singing from Hodges.  A year before this performance, Coleman Hawkins had died — an event that had upset Ben greatly.  Hodges’s sudden death — a heart attack in the dentist’s chair — was even more devastating.  Ben told Whiston, “It was . . . like if you hit me in the head with a sledgehammer.  It knocked me down.  I really didn’t know what to do.”

I do not think that Ben chose OLD FOLKS as a tribute to Hodges: that song, that piece of Americana, had been part of his repertoire since 1969, and an Ellington ballad such as I GOT IT BAD or SOPHISTICATED LADY would have been more predictable.  But OLD FOLKS was Ben’s idea rather than Wilson’s, the evidence suggested by Wilson’s unfamiliarity.

However it came to be part of this performance, OLD FOLKS is an integral part of the emotions we and the musicians come to feel.  Written by Willard Robison and performed by Mildred Bailey, among others, it is an affectionate, sly, sentimental portrait of a grandfatherly character whose habits are rustic, who tells “tall tales” that everyone knows are doubtful . . . yet he is beloved.  The lyrics emphasize his age; someday “Old Folks” will be dead and everyone will grieve.

Was Ben Webster weeping not only for the deaths of Hawkins and Hodges, Sid Catlett and Jimmy Blanton, but for an entire generation of his friends, artistic colleagues?  For the inevitability of their deaths, all the Old Folks of jazz?  Was he even wondering how long he would live?  Perhaps.

But his tears do not disable him.  He does not, in Yeats’s words, “break up his lines to weep.”  It all had to be saved for the music — a professional musician, a grown man, he had his job to do, whether or not tears were spilling out of his eyes.  And so he continues playing OLD FOLKS, hesitantly, but with such feeling.  It almost makes me weep, watching it: Ben’s slow pace, his patient, sorrowful exploration of its lines.

But it took me twenty years to realize that ben’s closing solo is a musical evocation of the weeping he would not surrender to.  His eyes dry up; he gains control of himself.  But he weeps through his horn.  What are his brief, irregular phrases, separated by gulps of air, but sobs and gasps?  His loss, his tenacity, his art — inseparable.  Watch closely: here is Ben Webster, a man, majestic and infirm at once, someone who would die in two years, racked by emotions, playing as beautifully as any musician ever did.  Without ever being didactic, this performance has so much to say to us, to teach us.

Two postscripts.

One: this clip has detestable advertisements crawling along the bottom of the frame.  But a reasonably nimble viewer can find the X and make the ads vanish.  I know that jazz needs financial support, but the ads seem a repellent intrusion here.

Two, much happier: the quotations here come from Buchmann-Moller’s biography of Ben, published in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press.  Buchmann-Moller is also the author of two indispensable books on Lester Young’s life and music, their titles taken from Lester’s own defining expressions: YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, and YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN!  His work is accurate, compassionate, and fair — worthy of the great John Chilton.

EDDIE CONDON’S FLOOR SHOW, REMEMBERED

My esteemed correspondent Mr. Jones (“Stompy” to his poker friends) writes,

You mentioned Eddie Condon’s Floor Show.  We got a TV early, in the fall of ‘49.  There were lots of little musical programs in those early, primitive days of live TV: Morton Downey, the Kirby Stone Quartet, a black pianist-singer named Bob Howard, others.  I think they were all 15 minutes.  They were filler; the stations didn’t have enough programming to fill their schedules.  (Hey, we thought it was exciting to watch a test pattern!)

I watched Eddie Condon’s Floor Show (on channel 7) before I knew anything about jazz.  I remember immediately noticing this trumpeter who played out of the side of his mouth.  They had a regular segment in which someone from the studio audience (probably 15 people dragged in off the street) requested songs for the band to play. Once somebody requested “Rag Mop”.  In those days, when a novelty like “RM” hit, it hit huge.  For a few weeks it would be everywhere, I mean everywhere – then it would disappear without a trace.  (The same thing happened with “One Meatball” and “Open the Door, Richard”.) Well, it was the fall of ‘49 and the Ames Brothers’ record of “RM” had just hit – only it hadn’t hit Condon and his cohorts, so when somebody requested it, the Condonites were incredulous and dismissive.  I remember them laughing derisively saying “There ain’t no such song” or some such.  Too bad they didn’t know it was just a blues.  Wild Bill would have played the hell out of it.

You can see our Stromberg-Carlson with 12-1/2” screen in the attached photo, taken during my Bar Mitzvah party in Jan. ‘52.  Amazing that such larger-than-life memories (Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, the Army-McCarthy hearings, Edward R. Murrow, Sugar Ray Robinson, Toscanini conducting with fire in his eyes, countless Dodger games, Jackie Gleason breaking his leg on live TV, my first encounter with Wild Bill Davison) could have come out of such a little box!

1952-frontroom-stompy-jones-tv

That one of my readers saw the Eddie Condon Floor Show on television is wonderful and startling.  For those of you who aren’t as obsessed as I am with this particular bit of jazz history, I will say briefly that Condon, who was organizing jazz events before most of us were born, had angled a few brief television programs in 1942 — when the medium’s reach was unimaginably small.  Then, in 1948, he began a series of programs that offered live hot jazz with everyone: Louis, Lips Page, Billy Butterfield, Roy Eldridge, Muggsy Spanier, Jonah Jones, Jimmy McPartland, Cootie Williams, Wild Bill Davison, Dick Cary, Jack Teagarden, Cutty Cutshall, Benny Morton, Brad Gowans, Big Chief Russell Moore, Peanuts Hucko, Ernie Caceres, Sidney Bechet, Pee Wee Russell, Willie the Lion Smith, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Gene Schroeder, Sammy Price, Ralph Sutton, Cliff Jackson, Joe Bushkin, Teddy Hale, Avon Long, Jack Lesberg, Zutty Singleton, Sid Catlett, George Wettling, Kansas Fields,Buzzy Drootin,  J. C. Heard, Buddy Rich, Lee Wiley, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah vaughan, Thelma Carpenter, June Christy, Johnny Desmond, Helen Ward, and on and on . . .

In case some of the names surprise you, Condon’s appreciation of good music was deep and never restrictive.  Ironically, his name is now associated with a blend of “Dixieland” and familiar routines on Twenties and Thirties pop songs.

Some music from the Floor Shows was preserved and eventually issued on the Italian Queen-Disc label.  To my knowledge, nothing from these recordings (and the collectors’ tapes) has made it to CD.

In addition, no one has found any kinescopes (they were films of television programs, often recorded directly from the monitor or set) of the programs.  We continue to hope.  Perhaps one of my readers has a pile of 16mm reels in the basement.  Let me know before you begin the obligatory spring cleaning!  My father was a motion picture projectionist, so such things are in my blood.

“YOU ARE GENE KRUPA.”

Gene Krupa was born one hundred years ago today, January 13, 1909.

Krupa, alive and dead, has been the subject of a good deal of speculation — trying to establish his place in jazz, in history, in American culture.  I prefer to celebrate him as a musician who was at one with his instrument, someone who kept his artistic identity intact (except for a brief period in the late Forties, when the band wore berets to show that they too were beboppers).

My title comes from a film clip — from a movie that must have been made in two days, if that, called BOY! WHAT A  GIRL!  The scene below includes my hero Sidney Catlett, Benny Morton, Dick Vance, Don Stovall, and a few others . . . with a surprise visit from Mr. Krupa.  He plays, incidentally, as he did in 1927 with Condon and McKenzie, in 1938 with Goodman, and as he did at the New School in 1972, the last time I saw him: throwing himself fully into the beat.   ‘

The conceit of Krupa surprising Catlett (who is asked to pretend that he doesn’t recognize his friend Gene, one of the most famous figures in the world in 1947) is fanciful, somewhat like one of those cameos Hope and Crosby used to do in each other’s movies, but Sidney’s tagline, “You are Gene Krupa,” makes me pause.

One of Krupa’s great gifts was that he made a whole generation, perhaps two, want to do “tricks with the sticks” just as he did.  Think of Louis Bellson, of Mel Torme, of a young Kevin Dorn.  And think of all those people, practicing paradiddles on their Slingerland Radio Kings, who wanted to be Gene Krupa.  And they believed that they could be Gene.  Bing Crosby made millions of people think that they could sing just as well as he did.  That gift — of making people think such mastery was possible  — is a rare one, and we dare not undervalue it.  Some artists — Charlie Parker and Art Tatum come to mind — are so far beyond the ordinary that we know emulating them is a lifetime’s work.  But Krupa, whose art was no less subtle, humbly suggested by his very presence that his art and the resulting pleasure was within our reach.  It was as powerful a democratic idea as FDR talking to Americans through their radios as if they and he were . . . just people, to whom you could tell the truth.

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I will conclude this post with a picture of a man who looks out of place in a jazz blog.  He doesn’t have a suit; he doesn’t hold a musical instrument.  (His clothes, mind you, are something we all should aspire to.)

But he belongs here.  Readers will have noticed that the Beloved and I have been visiting Maui (from where I am writing this).  A few days ago, we drove to Makawao and visited the church’s thrift store, where we both bought excellent clothing.  On our way out, this gentleman — energetic, garrulous, and enthusiastic — arrived to donate a chair he had made himself (you can see it in the picture) to the thrift store.  He didn’t want any money for it, although he said they should charge $75 for it, and told me that he made it just to keep himself healthy.

In the fashion of such conversations, he asked me where I was from.  When I said, “New York,” he got very excited and told me that he had been in New York in 1942, as a member of the 82nd Division, that he had been a paratrooper with 300 jumps, that he had stayed in New York at the Hotel Chesterfield (for two dollars a night), had been to the Statue of Liberty.

And then he paused, for dramatic emphasis.  “I went to Madison Square Garden.  Do you know who I saw there?  I saw GENE KRUPA!  Do you know who Gene Krupa is?  He (pantomining) played the drum!”

He was beaming, and so was I.

This man, who must be in his late eighties, still has Gene Krupa in his thoughts, in his memory, as if 1942 was yesterday.

If you give yourself generously to people, as Krupa did, you never die.  Happy Birthday, Gene.

THE ELUSIVE FRANK NEWTON

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the remarkable jazz trumpeter Frank Newton in the last few weeks, even before having the opportunity to repost this picture of him (originally on JazzWax) — taken in Boston, in the late Forties, with George Wein and Joe Palermino. 

Jazz is full of players who say something to us across the years, their instrumental voices resounding through the murk and scrape of old records.  Some players seem to have led full artistic lives: Hawkins, Wilson, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Bob Wilber come to mind at the head of a long list.  Others, equally worthy, have had shorter lives or thwarted careers.   Bix, Bird, Brownie, to alliterate, among a hundred others.  And all these lives raise the unanswerable question of whether anyone ever entirely fulfills him or herself.  Or do we do exactly what we were meant to do, no matter how long our lifespan?  Call it Nurture / Nature, free will, what you will.     

But today I choose Frank Newton as someone I wish had more time in the sun.  His recorded legacy seems both singular and truncated.     

Frank Newton (who disliked the “Frankie” on record labels) was born in 1906 in Virginia.  He died in 1954, and made his last records in 1946.  A selection of the recorded evidence fills two compact discs issued on Jasmine, THE STORY OF A FORGOTTEN JAZZ TRUMPETER.    His Collected Works might run to four or five hours — a brief legacy, and there are only a few examples I know where an extended Newton solo was captured for posterity.  However, he made every note count. 

In and out of the recording sudios, he traveled in fast company: the pianists include Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Sonny White, Mary Lou Williams, Buck Washington, Meade Lux Lewis, Kenny Kersey, Billy Kyle, Don Frye, Albert Ammons, Joe Bushkin, Joe Sullivan, Sonny White, and Johnny Guarneri.  Oh, yes — and Art Tatum.  Singers?  How about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Although Newton first went into the studio with Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys in 1929 for Victor, the brilliant trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dicky Wells blaze most notably on those sessions. 

It isn’t until 1933 that we truly hear Newton on record.  This interlude, lasting less than a minute, takes place in the middle of Bessie Smith’s “Gimme A Pigfoot,” one of four vaudeville-oriented songs she recorded at her last session, one organized by John Hammond, someone who re-emerges in Newton’s story.  It was a magnificent all-star band: Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry, Benny Goodman (for a moment), Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, Billy Taylor on bass.  Hammond wanted Sidney Catlett on drums, but Bessie refused: “No drums.  I set the tempo.”  For all the rent-party trappings of the song, “Pigfoot” is thin material, requiring a singer of Bessie’s majesty to make it convincing.   

What one first notices about Newton’s solo is his subversive approach, his unusual tone and attack.  In 1933, the jazz world was rightly under the spell of Louis, which led to understandable extroversion.  Project.  Hit those high notes loud.  Sing out.  If you were accompanying a pop or blues singer, you could stay in the middle register, be part of the background, but aside from such notable exceptions as Joe Smith, Bubber Miley, trumpets were in the main assertive, brassy.  Dick Sudhalter thought Newton’s style was the result of technical limitations but I disagree; perhaps Newton was, like Tricky Sam Nanton, painting with sounds. 

Before Newton solos on “Pigfoot,” the record has been undeniably Bessie’s, although with murmurings from the other horns and a good deal of Washington’s spattering Hines punctuations.  But when Newton enters, it is difficult to remember that anyone else has had the spotlight.  Rather than boldly announce his presence with an upwards figure, perhaps a dazzling break, he sidles in, sliding down the scale like a man pretending to be drunk, whispering something we can’t quite figure out, drawling his notes with a great deal of color and amusement, lingering over them, not in a hurry at all.  His mid-chorus break is a whimsical merry-go-round up and down figure he particularly liked.  It’s almost as if he is teasing us, peeking at us from behind his mask, daring us to understand what he is up to.  The solo is the brief unforgettable speech of a great character actor, Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton, scored for jazz trumpet.  Another brassman would have offered heroic ascents, glowing upwards arpeggios; Newton appears to wander down a rock-choked slope, watching his footing.  It’s a brilliant gambit: no one could equal Bessie in scope, in power (both expressed and restrained) so Newton hides and reveals, understates.  And his many tones!  Clouded, muffled, shining for a brief moment and then turning murky, needling, wheedling, guttural, vocal and personal.  Considered in retrospect, this solo has a naughty schoolyard insouciance.  Given his turn in the spotlight, Newton pretends to thumb his nose at us.  Bessie has no trouble taking back the spotlight when she returns, but she wasn’t about to be upstaged by some trumpet-playing boy.     

Could any trumpet player, jazz or otherwise, do more than approximate what Newton plays here?  Visit http://www.redhotjazz.com/songs/bessie/gimmieapigfoot.ram to hear a fair copy of this recording.  (I don’t find that the link works: you may have to go to the Red Hot Jazz website and have the perverse pleasure of using “Pigfoot” as a search term.) 

The man who could play such a solo should have been recognized and applauded, although his talent was undeniably subtle.  (When you consider that Newton’s place in the John Kirby Sextet was taken by the explosively dramatic Charlie Shavers, Newton’s singularity becomes even clearer.)  His peers wanted him on record sessions, and he did record a good deal in the Thirties, several times under his own name.  But after 1939, his recording career ebbed and died. 

Nat Hentoff has written eloquently of Newton, whom he knew in Boston, and the man who comes through is proud, thoughtful, definite in his opinions, politically sensitive, infuriated by racism and by those who wanted to limit his freedoms.  Many jazz musicians are so in love with the music that they ignore everything else, as if playing is their whole life.  Newton seems to have felt that there was a world beyond the gig, the record studio, the next chorus.  And he was outspoken.  That might lead us back to John Hammond. 

Hammond did a great deal for jazz, as he himself told us.  But his self-portrait as the hot Messiah is not the whole story.  Commendably, he believed in his own taste, but he required a high-calorie diet of new enthusiasms to thrive.  Hammond’s favorite last week got fired to make way for his newest discovery.  Early on Hammond admired Newton, and many of Newton’s Thirties sessions had Hammond behind them.  Even if Hammond had nothing to do with a particular record, appearing on one major label made a competing label take notice.  But after 1939, Newton never worked for a mainstream record company again, and the records he made in 1944-1946 were done for small independent labels: Savoy (run by the dangerously disreputable Herman Lubinsky) and Asch (the beloved child of the far-left Moses Asch).  The wartime recording ban had something to do with this hiatus, but I doubt that it is the sole factor: musicians recorded regularly before the ban.  Were I a novelist or playwright, I would invent a scene where Newton rejects Hammond’s controlling patronage . . .  and falls from favor, never to return.  I admit this is speculation.  Perhaps it was simply that Newton chose to play as he felt rather than record what someone else thought he should.  A recording studio is often the last place where it is possible to express oneself freely and fully.  And I recall a drawing in a small jazz periodical from the late Forties, perhaps Art Hodes’ JAZZ RECORD, of Newton in the basement of an apartment building where he had taken a job as janitor so that he could read, paint, and perhaps play his trumpet in peace.  

I think of Django Reinhardt saying, a few weeks before he died, “The guitar bores me.”  Did Newton grow tired of his instrument, of the expectations of listeners, record producers, and club-owners?  On the rare recording we have of his speaking voice — a brief bit of a Hentoff interview — Newton speaks with sardonic humor about working in a Boston club where the owner’s taste ran to waltzes and “White Christmas,” but using such constraints to his advantage: every time he would play one of the owner’s sentimental favorites, he would be rewarded with a “nice thick steak.”  A grown man having to perform to be fed is not a pleasant sight, even though it is a regular event in jazz clubs.     

In addition, John Chilton’s biographical sketch of Newton mentions long stints of illness.  What opportunities Newton may have missed we cannot know, although he did leave Teddy HIll’s band before its members went to France.  It pleases me to imagine him recording with Django Reinhardt and Dicky Wells for the Swing label, settling in Europe to escape the racism in his homeland.  In addition, Newton lost everything in a 1948 house fire.  And I have read that he became more interested in painting than in jazz.  Do any of his paintings survive?  

Someone who could have told us a great deal about Newton in his last decade is himself dead — Ruby Braff, who heard him in Boston, admired him greatly and told Jon-Erik Kellso so.  And on “Russian Lullaby,” by Mary Lou WIlliams and her Chosen Five (Asch, reissued on vinyl on Folkway), where the front line is bliss: Newton, Vic Dickenson, and Ed Hall, Newton’s solo sounds for all the world like later Ruby — this, in 1944. 

In her notes to the Jasmine reissue, Sally-Ann Worsford writes that a “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” Newton “made his final appearance at New York’s Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950s.”  That large hall, peopled by loudly enthusiastic college students shouting for The Saints, would not have been his metier.  It is tempting, perhaps easy, to see Newton as a victim.  But “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” is never the sound we hear, even on his most mournful blues. 

The name Jerry Newman must be added here — and a live 1941 recording that allows us to hear the Newton who astonished other players, on “Lady Be Good” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” in duet with Art Tatum (and the well-meaning but extraneous bassist Ebenezer Paul), uptown in Harlem, after hours, blessedly available on a HighNote CD under Tatum’s name, GOD IS IN THE HOUSE.  

Jerry Newman was then a jazz-loving Columbia University student with had a portable disc-cutting recording machine.  It must have been heavy and cumbersome, but Newman took his machine uptown and found that the musicians who came to jam (among them Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Don Byas, Thelonious Monk, Joe Guy, Harry Edison, Kenny Clarke, Tiny Grimes, Dick Wilson, Helen Humes) didn’t mind a White college kid making records of their impromptu performances: in fact, they liked to hear the discs of what they had played.  (Newman, later on, issued some of this material on his own Esoteric label.  Sadly, he committed suicide.)  Newman caught Tatum after hours, relaxing, singing the blues — and jousting with Newton.  Too much happens on these recordings to write down, but undulating currents of invention, intelligence, play, and power animate every chorus.

On “Lady Be Good,” Newton isn’t in awe of Tatum and leaps in before the first chorus is through, his sound controlled by his mute but recognizable nonetheless.  Newton’s first chorus is straightforward, embellished melody with some small harmonic additions, as Tatum is cheerfully bending and testing the chords beneath him.  It feels as if Newton is playing obbligato to an extravagantly self-indulgent piano solo . . . . until the end of the second duet chorus, where Newton seems to parody Tatum’s extended chords: “You want to play that way?  I’ll show you!”  And the performance grows wilder: after the two men mimic one another in close-to-the-ground riffing, Newton lets loose a Dicky Wells-inspired whoop.  Another, even more audacious Tatum solo chorus follows, leading into spattering runs and crashing chords.  In the out- chorus, Tatum apparently does his best to distract or unsettle Newton, who will not be moved or shaken off.  “Sweet Georgia Brown” follows much the same pattern: Tatum wowing the audience, Newton biding his time, playing softly, even conservatively.  It’s not hard to imagine him standing by the piano, watching, letting Tatum have his say for three solo choruses that get more heroic as they proceed.  When Newton returns, his phrases are climbing, calm, measured — but that calm is only apparent, as he selects from one approach and another, testing them out, taking his time, moving in and outside the chords.  As the duet continues, it becomes clear that as forcefully as Tatum is attempting to direct the music, Newton is in charge.  It isn’t combat: who, after all, dominated Tatum?  But I hear Newton grow from accompanist to colleague to leader.  It’s testimony to his persuasive, quiet mastery, his absolute sense of his own rightness of direction (as when he plays a Tatum-pattern before Tatum gets to it).  At the end, Newton hasn’t “won” by outplaying Tatum in brilliance or volume, speed or technique — but he has asserted himself memorably.   

Taken together, these two perfomances add up to twelve minutes.  Perhaps hardly enough time to count for a man’s achievement among the smoke, the clinking glasses, the crowd.  But we marvel at them.  We celebrate Newton, we mourn his loss.

Postscript: in his autobiography, MYSELF AMONG OTHERS, Wein writes about Newton; Hentoff returns to Newton as a figure crucial in his own development in BOSTON BOY and a number of other places.  And then there’s HUNGRY BLUES, Benjamin T. Greenberg’s blog (www.hungryblues.net).  His father, Paul Greenberg, knew Newton in the Forties and wrote several brief essays about him — perhaps the best close-ups we have of the man.  In Don Peterson’s collection of his father Charles’s resoundingly fine jazz photography, SWING ERA NEW YORK, there’s a picture of Newton, Mezz Mezzrow, and George Wettling at a 1937 jam session.  I will have much more to write about Peterson’s photography in a future posting.