Tag Archives: Sir Charles Thompson

“ASSES IN SEATS” AND THE JAZZ ECOSYSTEM

Here’s something comfortable, enticing, seductive.

It’s not my living room, I assure you: too neat, no CDs.

Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Chuck Wilson, alto saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Kelly Friesen, string bass; Andrew Swann, drums.  “Sweet Rhythm,” October 26, 2008, THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE:

Tal Ronen, string bass; Mark Shane, piano; Dan Block, tenor sax.  “Casa Mezcal,” October 26, 2014, I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU:

(This is not a post about numerology or the significance of October 26 in jazz.)

Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Clint Baker, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  “Sweet and Hot Music Festival,”  September 5, 2011, TOGETHER:

Ray Skjelbred and the Cubs: Ray, piano, composer; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass, Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums. “Sacramento Music Festival,” May 25, 2014, BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES:

I will explain.

“Sweet Rhythm” was once “Sweet Basil,” a restaurant-with-jazz or the reverse, in New York City.  Now it is just a restaurant.  “Casa Mezcal,” across the street from the Tenement Museum, also offered jazz as well as food.  Now, only food.  The two California festivals depicted above are only memories now.  (I could have included the Cajun, Bourbon Street, Roth’s Steakhouse, Banjo Jim’s, the Garage, the Bombay Club, Jazz at Chautauqua, and perhaps a dozen other vacancies in the cosmos — in my time, which isn’t the whole history of the music.)  Jazz clubs become apartments, drugstores, dormitories, nail salons.  Or what was once a jazz bar now has karaoke night and game night.

That’s not difficult to take in.  Everything changes.  “Things are tough all over,” as my father said.

But I’ve included the chair and ottoman because so many jazz listeners prefer the comforts of home to live music, and thus, venues collapse and are not replaced.

The expression I’ve heard from festival producers is the blunt ASSES IN SEATS. It presumes that other body parts are attached to the asses, of course.  But it’s simple economics.  When a club owner looks out at the landscape of empty chairs and tables with napkins undisturbed, when there are more musicians on the stage than there are people in the audience, you can imagine the mental cogitations that result.  This has nothing to do with musical or artistic quality — I’ve heard terrible music played to filled rooms, and once in a New York club I was the audience (let that sink in) — not even me, myself, and I — for the first few songs by a peerless band.  And if you think that musicians are a substantial part of the club budget, it isn’t so: a world-famous jazz musician told me once of being paid sixty dollars for three hours’ work, and some of my favorite musicians go from fifty-and-seventy-five dollar gigs, or they play “for the door.”

And as an aside, if you go to a club and sit through two sets with your three-or-five dollar Coke or well drink or standard beer, you are subsidizing neither the club or the music.  Festival economics are different, but even the price of the ticket will not keep huge enterprises solvent.  I hear, “Oh, the audience for jazz is aging and dying,” and the numbers prove that true, but I think inertia is a stronger factor than mortality, with a side dish of complacency.  And people who study the swing-dance scene say that what I am writing about here is also true for younger fans / dancers.

So before you say to someone, “I’m really a devoted jazz fan,” or proudly wear the piano-keyboard suspenders, or get into arguments on Facebook over some cherished premise, ask yourself, “How active is my commitment to this music?  When was the last time I supported it with my wallet and my person?”

I do not write these words from the summit of moral perfection.  I could have gone to two gigs tonight but chose to stay home and write this blog.  And I do not go to every gig I could . . . energy and health preclude that.  And I am also guilty, if you will, in providing musical nourishment for viewers through technology, so that some people can live through YouTube.  I admit both of these things, but on the average I go to more jazz gigs than some other people; I eat and drink and tip at the jazz clubs; I publicize the music here and elsewhere.

But you.  Do you take the music for granted, like air and water?  Do you assume it will go on forever even if you never come out of your burrow and say hello to it, that other people will keep supporting it?  Do you say, “I must get there someday!” and not put wheels under that wish?  Mind you, there are exceptions.  Not everyone lives close enough to live music; not everyone is well-financed, energetic, or healthy.  But if you can go and you don’t, then to me you have lost the right to complain about clubs closing, your favorite band disbanding, your beloved festival becoming extinct. Jazz is a living organism, thus it needs nourishment that you, and only you, can provide.  Inhaling Spotify won’t keep it alive, nor will complaining about how your fellow citizens are too foolish to appreciate it.

If you say you love jazz, you have to get your ass out of your chair at regular intervals and put it in another chair, somewhere public, where living musicians are playing and singing.  Or you can stay home and watch it wither.

May your happiness increase!

YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EARS: “DIXIELAND VS. BE-BOP,” MAY 23, 1948, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Consider this.

Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Willis Conover, late Forties: photograph by Norm Robbins. Photograph courtesy University of North Texas Music Library, Willis Conover Collection.

and this:

Once upon a time, what we like to call “jazz” was divided into warring factions.  Divided, that is, by journalists.  Musicians didn’t care for the names or care about them; they liked to play and sing with people whose artistry made them feel good.  And gigs were gigs, which is still true.  So if you were, let us say, Buck Clayton, and you could work with Buddy Tate playing swing standards and blues, or rhythm and blues, that was fine, but playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE with Tony Parenti was just as good, as was playing NOW’S THE TIME with Charlie Parker.

But this was not exciting journalism.  So dear friends Jimmy McPartland and Dizzy Gillespie were asked to pose for a photograph as if they were enemies, and people like Hughes Panassie, Leonard Feather, Rudi Blesh, and Barry Ulanov fought the specious fight in print.  Even some musicians caught the fever and feuded in public, but perhaps that was jealousy about attention and money rather than musical taste.

One positive effect was that musical “battles” drew crowds, which musicians and promoters both liked.

Since every moment of Charlie Parker’s life seems to have been documented (the same for Bix Beiderbecke, by the way) we know that he played a concert in Washington, D.C.’s Washington [or Music?] Hall on May 23, 1948; that the masters of ceremonies were Willis Conover and Jackson Lowe, and that the collective personnel was Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker, Wild Bill Davison, Joe Sullivan, Sir Charles Thompson, George Wettling, Tony Parenti, Earl Swope, Benny Morton, Charlie Walp, Sid Weiss, Ben Lary, Mert Oliver, Sam Krupit, Joe Theimer, Arthur Phipps.  We know that the concert began at 2:30 PM, and — best of all — that private acetate recordings exist.  A portion of the concert, heavily weighted towards “modernism,” appeared on the CD above, on Uptown Records, and copies of that disc are still available on eBay and elsewhere.

Details from Peter Losin’s lovely detailed Charlie Parker site  here and here.

But for those of us who hadn’t bought the Uptown disc, there it might remain.  However, through the kindness and diligence of Maristella Feustle of the University of North Texas Digital Library, excavating recordings in the Willis Conover collection, we now have twenty-seven minutes of music — some of it unheard except by those who were at the concert.  There’s the closing C JAM BLUES / a partial RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, talk, and a partial SQUEEZE ME / S’WONDERFUL / TINY’S BLUES / TINY’S BLUES (continued).  Yes, we have no Charlie Parker here . . . but a great deal of lively fine music.  (Do I hear Eddie Condon’s voice in this or do I dream?).

Here’s  the link to hear the music.

But wait!  There’s more.  My dear friend Sonny McGown sent me a photograph I’d never seen before, from a similar concert of the same vintage, at the National Press Club, with this description: “Your email this morning reminded me of a photo that belonged to my father. He is in the picture with his head visible just above the bell of the trombonist on the far left. Some of the musicians’ identities are obvious such as Jimmy Archey, Wild Bill Davison, Ben Webster, and George Wettling. The rest are unknown to me. I wonder if the trumpet at the microphone is Frankie Newton? The clarinetist looks a bit like Albert Nicholas. It is quite possible that some of the fellows are locals.”  [Note: in an earlier version of this post, I had assumed that the photograph and the concert tape were connected: they aren’t.  Enthusiasm over accuracy.]

My eyes and ears were ringing while I stared at this gathering.  I couldn’t identify the others in the photograph, but did not think the tall trumpeter in the middle was Newton.  (And Sonny’s father, Mac, was a spectator, not a player.)  Sonny then found two more photographs from the concert that we hear the music — their source being Maggie Condon, which would place Eddie there, logically, as well.

Tony Parenti, George Wettling, Wild Bill Davison, either Sid Weiss or Jack Lesberg, Bennie (the spelling he preferred) Morton:

Joe Sullivan, happy as a human can be:

This photograph popped up online, labeled “Washington Press Club,” but I wonder if it is from the same occasion.  Even if it isn’t, it’s always a pleasure to portray these sometimes-ignored majesties:

Now, might I suggest two things.  One, that JAZZ LIVES readers go back and listen to this almost half-hour of joys here — giving thanks to the University of North Texas Digital Library at the same time —  for instance, the five-hour interview Louis gave to Conover on July 13, 1956, which starts here, and ten years later, something astonishing, Louis playing COLUMBIA, THE GEM OF THE OCEAN and singing “This is the Voice of America,” the former of which I would like as a ringtone: here.

Still hungry for sounds?  A January 31, 1956, interview with Eddie Condon here; a brief 1946 interview with Duke Ellington where he seems to say nothing about the death of Tricky Sam Nanton — the music section begins with Ellington’s BLUE ABANDON, which contains a stunning solo by Oscar Pettiford, which is then followed by lovely records by Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and Kenton: here.

There are many more gems in the University of North Texas Music Library, which seems better than any ancient debate about the merits of different kinds of jazz.  There is music to listen to and photographs to stare at . . . and gratitude to express, nor only to the musicians and Mr. Conover, but to Ms. Feustle and Mr. McGown.  Those who keep the archives tidy and share their gifts are our lasting friends.

May your happiness increase!

SPLENDIDLY GENUINE: “MORE OF THAT,” JACOB ZIMMERMAN and his PALS

This is not really a post about shopping, but since shopping is one of the experiences held in common by so many of us, it works as metaphor.  A dozen years ago, if I thought I needed a new shirt, I would have headed to The Mall, where I could gaze at two dozen machine-made shirts, identical except for size and perhaps color.  The plenitude was a reassuring reminder that we live in the Land of Too Much, and often I bought more than I needed.

As my clothing style became more personal, the racks of identical product no longer charmed.  I began to go thrift-shopping for the quest for unique pleasures.  Surprise was the rule, even among the inexplicable proliferation of plaid shirts (why?). I would spot something thirty shirts away, move towards it as if magnetized, and might have a small breath-taking experience.  “That’s for me!  I could wear that!  That looks like it belongs to me!”

Illustration by Jesse Rimler

Such impassioned bonding happens with music also: I was two minutes into the first track of a new CD — its cover above — and my mental soundtrack alternated between, “Oh, my goodness, this is wonderful!” and the more defensive, “You’re not getting this CD away from me.”  And then,addressing the invisible JAZZ LIVES audience, “You need to hear this,” I thought.

“This” is the debut CD of Jacob Zimmerman and his Pals called MORE OF  THAT, and to use my own catchphrase, it has increased my happiness tremendously.

The cover drawing, which I love, by Jesse Rimler, says much about the cheerful light-heartedness of the enterprise.  Why has this twenty-first century Nipper got his head in a protective cone?  Has he been biting himself?  Is the cone a visual joke about the morning-glory horn?  Is this the canine version of cupping a hand behind your ear to hear your singing better?  All I know is that this dog is reverently attentive.  You’ll understand why.

Here is Jacob’s website, and you can read about his musical associations here.

I had heard Jacob’s name bandied about most admiringly a few years ago; he appeared in front of me in the Soho murk of The Ear Inn and was splendidly gracious.  He’d also received the equivalent of the Legion of Honor: he was gigging with Ray Skjelbred.  But even these brightly-colored bits of praise did not prepare me for how good this CD is.

The overall ambiance is deep Minton’s 1941, Keynote, and Savoy Records sessions, that wonderful period of music where “swing” and “bop” cuddled together, swinging but not harmonically or rhythmically constrained.  And although Jacob and Pals have the recorded evidence firmly in their ears and hearts, and under their fingers as well, this is not Cryogenic Jazz or Swing Taxidermy (with apologies to Nipper’s grandchild on the cover).

As a leader, Jacob is wonderfully imaginative without being self-consciously clever (“Didja hear what the band did there?  Didja?”)  Each performance has a nifty arrangement that enhances the song rather than drawing attention from it — you could start with the title tune, MORE OF THAT, which Jacob told me is based on MACK THE KNIFE, “MORITAT,” so you’ll get the joke — which begins from elements so simple, almost monochromatic, and then builds.  Each arrangement makes full use of dynamics (many passages on this CD are soft — what a thing!), there’s some dark Ellingtonia and some rocking neo-Basie.  And each song is full of delightful sensations: when I get through listening to BALLIN’ THE JACK (a song often unintentionally brutalized) I think, “That’s under three minutes? How fulfilling.”  So the Pals are a friendly egalitarian organization with everyone getting chances to shine.

A few words about the compositions.  SIR CHARLES is Ray’s homage to our hero Sir Charles Thompson; Jacob says RADIATOR “was composed as a feature for Ray and was inspired by the Earl Hines record “Piano Man.” It’s based on “Shine.”  SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY “is a feature for bassist Matt Weiner and pays homage to the record of that tune by Lester Young and Slam Stewart.”  “FIRST THURSDAY is based on”Sunday.” My monthly gig at the jazz club “Egan’s Ballard Jam House” has happened every first Thursday for over 5 years.” And SCULPT-A-SPHERE “is based on “Nice Work If You Can Get It”…I tried to imagine what it would be like if Thelonious Monk and Lester Young wrote a tune together.”

Before I get deeper into the whirlpool of praise, some data.  Jacob plays alto and clarinet (more about that in a minute), aided immeasurably by: Matt Weiner, string bass; Josh Roberts, guitar; Ray Skjelbred, piano; D’Vonne Lewis, drums; Cole Schuster, guitar; Christian Pincock, trombone; Meredith Axelrod brings voice and guitar to the final track.  And the compositions: RADIATOR / SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY / FIRST THURSDAY / SONG OF THE ISLANDS / BLUE GUAIAC BLUES / BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES / IN A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN / MORE OF THAT / BALLIN’ THE JACK / BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME? / SCULPT-A-SPHERE / I AIN’T GOT NOBODY.  All immensely tasty, none crowding its neighbor.

This being the twenty-first century, many saxophonists live in a post-Parker era, which works for some. But Jacob has deeply understood that there are other sounds one can draw upon while playing that bent metal tube: a mix of Pete Brown (without the over-emphatic pulse), Hilton Jefferson (rhapsodic but tempered), and Lee Konitz (dry but not puckering the palate).  On clarinet, he suggests Barney Bigard but with none of the Master’s reproducible swoops and dives: all pleasing to the ear.

Because I have strongly defined tastes, I often listen to music with an editor’s ear, “Well, they’re dragging a little there.”  “I would have picked a brighter tempo.”  “Why only one chorus?” and other mind-debris that may be a waste of energy.  I don’t do that with MORE OF THAT, and (imagine a drumroll and cymbal crash) I love this CD so fervently that I will launch the JAZZ LIVES GUARANTEE.  Buy the disc.  Keep the jiffybag it came in.  Play it twice.  If you’re not swept away, write to me at swingyoucats@gmail.com, send me the CD and I’ll refund your money and postage.  I don’t think I will be reeling from a tsunami of mail, and should some people (inexplicably) not warm to this disc, I’ll have extra copies to give away.

You heard it here first.

May your happiness increase!

“IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN”: DUKE HEITGER, DAN BLOCK, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, ANDY BROWN, JOEL FORBES, PETE SIERS (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, Sept. 14, 2017)

In his seriously masterful AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder was unkind to “IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN,” calling it “nostalgic,” but adding that “its melody simply isn’t that good.”  Songs have feelings, too, and I disagree.  I’ve never been jilted at the altar (or a week before) but I always find the song touching and it works well as a ballad or in medium tempo.  In my mind’s ear I hear Joe Thomas playing and singing it, getting particularly impassioned in the last eight bars.  I wish he’d recorded a long vocal version.  And that Louis had done so also.

First, the song as a new pop hit, performed by the marvelously emotive Connie Boswell (sweet and then swung gently):

Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson, 1933:

and with Sir Charles Thompson, 1945:

and from this century — September 14, 2017 — at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, a version nicely balancing melancholy and swing, by Rossano Sportiello, piano; Pete Siers, drums; Joel Forbes, string bass; Andy Brown, guitar; Dan Block, clarinet; Duke Heitger, trumpet.  Keynote / Vanguard style, with split choruses, easy rocking lyricism, climbing to the stars:

May your happiness increase!

ANOTHER WIN FOR THE CUBS! (July 8, 2017)

I don’t know baseball well enough to carry on the analogy for the length of this sentence, but Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs are my favorite sports team.  The logic of that might not work, but you get the idea.

They performed — splendidly — as part of the annual Skjelbred California Tour — on July 8, 2017, at the Napa Valley Dixieland Jazz Society, and we have lovely videos thanks to the indefatigable chronicler of all things Skjelbred, RaeAnn Berry.  The Cubs were at full strength for this performance — no designated hitters: Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass.

Here’s a sampling:

Where Basie meets Handy, OLE MISS:

Asking the immortal question, HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?

One of my favorites, beginning with a properly martial introduction by General Hamilton, SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE:

For Sir Charles Thompson and Fred Robbins, ROBBINS’ NEST:

A romping SHINE:

And, for Durante and Noone in equal measure, INKA DINKA DOO:

RaeAnn captured the afternoon’s performance — twenty-three videos — so there is even more pleasure to be had from these Major League Champions.

May your happiness increase!

“BIRD, JO JONES, AND THAT CYMBAL”: DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, THANKS TO GENE RAMEY, DOUG RAMSEY, DAN MORGENSTERN

After the film WHIPLASH became popular, people visited JAZZ LIVES to investigate the mythic story of drummer Jo Jones hurling a cymbal across the room at a youthful Charlie Parker at a jam session to stop him in mid-solo.

In 2011, I’d written a post debating the validity of that story.  Would Jo, known as volatile, have treated his cymbals so disrespectfully?  Here is my post, which I now disavow as emotionally valid but factually inaccurate.

I thank Dan Morgenstern yet again, whose comments directed me to Doug Ramsey’s book, JAZZ MATTERS (University of Arkansas Press, 1989) where he had the good sense and good fortune to ask the august string bassist Gene Ramey, who was there, what happened.

The chapter is called “Bass Hit / Gene Ramey,” and Ramsey tells us that Ramey was drinking a grape Nehi, to me a sure sign of authenticity, while telling the tale of meeting the fourteen-year old Parker in 1934, then moving on to the jam session at the Reno Club in 1936.

“Nobody remembers what the tune was.  It would be amazing for anybody to remember.  There were dozens of tunes they used to jam. . . . Bird was doing pretty well until he attempted something that took him out of the correct chord sequence, and he couldn’t get back in.  He kept getting lost, and Jo Jones kept hitting the ball of his cymbal like a gong, Major Bowes style — remember on his amateur hour on the radio Bowes hit the gong if somebody wasn’t making it.  Jo kept hitting that cymbal, but he couldn’t get Bird off the stand.  So finally he took the cymbal off and dropped it on the  floor.  When it hit, it skidded a little.  I read one story where Jo was supposed to have thrown the cymbal all the way across the floor.  But he just dropped it at Bird’s feet, and that stopped him. . . . it was comical but still pitiful to see the reaction on Bird’s face.  He was dumbfounded. He came over and I said, ‘Well, Bird, you almost straightened it out.  I remember you made that turn back, but somewhere down in there you got off on the wrong thing.’  We kidded him about it, and he kept telling me, ‘Oh, man, I’ll be back. Don’t worry, I’m comin’ back'” (116-17).

And rather than offer familiar video evidence of Jo Jones and Charlie Parker, here (in two parts) is a 1961 film of Buck Clayton’s All Stars with Gene Ramey, Sir Charles Thompson, Buddy Tate, Oliver Jackson, Dicky Wells, Earle Warren, Emmett Berry, and Jimmy Witherspoon — Gene in his natural habitat.  Part One:

Part Two:

As a tip of the hat to Mr. Ramsey, and a token of gratitude, I suggest you visit his estimable jazz blog, Rifftides.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS FRIENDS AND HEROES (Part Three: March 3, 2017)

Dan Morgenstern is a remarkable person, lively and kind, and would be so if he had been a veterinarian with only a passing interest in music.  But even better for us: he hung out with [and wrote about] some of the greatest artists we know and still revere.  I continue to feel immensely fortunate that I could visit him, and that he so generously shared some candid loving stories of people who many of us know only as a photograph or a sound emerging from a speaker.

For those of you who have been otherwise occupied, and I understand, I have posted videos where Dan speaks of Tommy Benford, Frank Newton, Al Hall, Mary Lou Williams and her friends, Donald Lambert, Eubie Blake, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Nat Lorber, Buddy Tate, Gene Ramey, Lester Young (twice for Pres).

But before you leap in, a small caveat.  Dan is soft-spoken, and my few comments from behind the camera are louder.  Friends have pointed this out, and I have been penitent, citing inexperience rather than ego and I will balance the audio better on our future encounters.  The first five videos are here.

More friends and heroes.  Eddie Condon (and I had to say a few things, given my reverence for Eddie):

Buster Bailey, Stanley Dance, Coleman Hawkins, cameos by Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Joe Thomas, John S. Wilson, Billy Kyle, Louis, and Dan’s thoughts on writing about artists:

More about Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, with comments about Sir Charles Thompson, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker as well:

Notice in the second interview that Dan took an unpaid gig because “it will be good for the musicians.”  And I am touched by Coleman Hawkins’ generosities (acceptance in to the tribe) to Dan — which Dan has repaid us ten thousandfold.  More to come.

May your happiness increase!

“REJOICE.”

sircharlesthompson

In New Orleans, traditionally, the band plays a mournful hymn on the way to the cemetery, FLEE AS A BIRD TO THE MOUNTAIN, and once the dear departed is buried, the band swings out OH, DIDN’T HE RAMBLE — because the troubles of this life are over.

We will miss Sir Charles Thompson, who died on June 16, but rather than write more mournful words, as I did here about twelve hours ago, I present an alternative.

I think of one of my favorite pieces of literature, William Maxwell’s “The old man at the railroad crossing,” which is also the title of his collection of improvisations — this one about that same friendly but cryptic figure, who says just one word to each person he meets.  That word is my title for this post.

One way of rejoicing is to celebrate the person who has moved our of our temporal realm by evoking him in the art that (s)he did so beautifully.  No finer example than this:

Ray Skjelbred, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums — recorded at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2014. These four musicians deeply understand who Sir Charles is and what he did so generously for decades — lifting our hearts.

To me, it sometimes seems that we have only two choices in life: weeping or swinging.  I leave it to you.

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.

“RHYTHM COCKTAILS” FOR CHRIS (October 12)

Many people in the United States celebrate today in honor of Christopher Columbus.  (My college does not.)  I’m not planning to enter into charged historical dialogue except to say that we now know most of what we learned in elementary school was wrong or intentionally misleading, a pattern that continues onwards in education.  But that is a dark subject, which I will forego.

This is one kind of historical representation:

Portrait of a man said to be Christopher Columbus

Portrait of a man said to be Christopher Columbus

But I prefer this kind, created by Leon “Chu” Berry and Andy Razaf, music and words, in 1936:

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS Henderson

A Roy Eldridge small group, a rejected take from 1936, with Roy (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Chu Berry (ts) Teddy Cole (p) John Collins (g) John Kirby (b) Sidney Catlett (d):

The Fletcher Henderson band’s hit version in the same year, with Dick Vance (tp,arr) Joe Thomas, Roy Eldridge (tp) Fernando Arbello, Ed Cuffee (tb) Buster Bailey (cl,as) Scoops Carey (as) Skippy Williams, Chu Berry (ts) Horace Henderson (p,arr) Bob Lessey (g) John Kirby (b) Sidney Catlett (d):

and the 1937 attempt at a follow-up hit, with Dick Vance (tp,arr) Emmett Berry, Russell Smith (tp) John McConnell, Albert Wynn, Ed Cuffee (tb) Jerry Blake (cl,as,vcl,arr) Hilton Jefferson (cl,as) Skippy Williams, Chu Berry (cl,ts) Fletcher Henderson (p,arr) Lawrence “Larry” Lucie (g) Israel Crosby (b) Pete Suggs (d) Chuck Richards (vcl) Horace Henderson (arr):

A Buck Clayton Jam Session, 1953, with Buck, Joe Newman (tp) Urbie Green, Henderson Chambers (tb) Lem Davis (as) Julian Dash (ts) Charlie Fowlkes (bar) Sir Charles Thompson (p,celeste) Freddie Green (g) Walter Page (b) Jo Jones (d):

(I love that this record has a click in it, early and often.  Seems like old times.)

and the classic 1936 version by Fats Waller, with Herman Autrey (tp) Gene Sedric (cl,ts) Al Casey (g) Charlie Turner (b) Yank Porter (d):

and just to cool down, Maxine Sullivan in 1956, with Charlie Shavers (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Jerome Richardson (as) Dick Hyman (p) Wendell Marshall (b) / Milt Hinton (b) Osie Johnson (d):

Professor Razaf tells us, “He used the rhythm as a compass.”  That’s something I can celebrate, as I hope you can.

May your happiness increase!

THE OCEANIC MOTION OF SWING: JANUARY 22, 1954

Yes, “the Swing Era” was over by January 1954.  But swing — as a concept easily and authentically realized — was not.  (It is lively and possible today.)

SCT4

I offer as evidence one of my favorite recordings, another gem — issued by who-knows-what “authority” on YouTube, SWINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES by the Sir Charles Thompson Quartet — from one of the sessions supervised by John Hammond for Vanguard Records.  Sir Charles, who is still with us in his nineties (born March 21, 1918) was joined by three angelic presences of rhythm — three-quarters of the original Count Basie rhythm section, Jo Jones, drums; Walter Page, string bass; Freddie Green, guitar, for this exploration of Jimmy Mundy’s swing classic, more usually encountered as a big-band performance.

Jake Hanna, who not only knew everything that could be known about swing but embodied it, said (often), “Start swinging from the beginning!” and Charles does just that with his solo passage to begin the performance: a simple figure that is already the most effective dance music possible.  Then the “rhythm men” join in, with more than fifteen years of experience from playing together night after night.  One hears the shimmer of Jo’s brushes on the hi-hat, with the dry slap and slide of those brushes on the snare drum, the resonant strings of Walter and Freddie, all complementing the bright percussive sound of Charles at the piano:

It all seems simple — and it goes by so quickly — but lifetimes of expert work in the field of swing are quietly on display here.  Note, for instance, how the overall sound changes at the bridge of the first chorus when Jo moves from his cymbal to the snare head, padding and patting away.  When they turn the corner into the second chorus (which, for Charles, has been a straightforward chordal exposition of the simple melodic line) we hear what set Charles apart from the great forebears, Waller, Basie, Wilson, Tatum, Cole, Kyle — his intriguing single-note lines which have a greater harmonic freedom than one might initially expect.  (Look at Charles’ discography and you see early work alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, Leo Parker.)  Hear the bridge of the second chorus, and delight in Charles’ wonderful mixture of stride, Kansas City swing, and bebop: James P. Johnson meets Al Haig, perhaps.  The Basie influence —  paring everything down to its most flowing essence — comes out more at the start of the third chorus, with the theme simplified for the greatest rhythmic effect, as if a trumpet section was playing these chords.

At this point I find it impossible to continue annotating because I am simply floating along on the music.  But two things stand out.  One is that all that I’ve described has taken around two minutes to be, to happen.  That’s a rich concision, a conservation of energy.  The other is Charles’ intentional use of space, to let us hear the three other players, who are — as they all know, not just subordinates but in some ways the Masters.  Charles could certainly swing as a soloist but this is so much more fun.

There’s a brief nod to CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS at 3:04, but it’s just a nod: the pattern of joyous riffing on the opening and closing sections, alternating with single-line explorations on the bridge has been set.  And I think — this is all surmise — that the four musicians did not spend more than a few minutes preparing.  SWINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES is, except for the bridge, harmonically dense, so I can imagine Charles saying, “I’ll do four bars to start; you join in at two, and let’s do this as an ending — I’ll let you know how many choruses we want, and let’s do a take.”  And I love the way the last chorus is an ornamented version of the first, with Jo returning to the hi-hat.

I think I first heard this record thanks to Ed Beach on his Sir Charles program: this might have been forty years ago.  SWINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES remains at the very apex of glowing inexhaustible swing.  It is so reassuring to know that it was created and we can hear it again — to soothe and uplift and remind us of what is indeed possible.

In one way, I think of having a book on the shelf with the most beautiful ode or short story, known and loved for decades, that we can always revisit simply by moving a few feet across the room.  But I think the pleasure of SWINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES goes deeper, at least for me: it’s like waking up, seeing the sun, breathing the air, going to the kitchen faucet for a glass of cold water, feeling one’s needs filled.

Listen.  Charles, Freddie, Walter, and Jo create a small universe of motion and joy that reminds us of the dancing universe around us.

May your happiness increase!

A NEST IN SOHO: THE EARREGULARS PLAY SIR CHARLES THOMPSON: JON-ERIK KELLSO, ENGELBERT WROBEL, DAN BLOCK, JAMES CHIRILLO, NICKI PARROTT (April 26, 2015)

This wonderful leisurely performance of ROBBINS’ NEST (written in honor of disc jockey and Forties jazz personage Fred Robbins) is in honor of nonagenarian Sir Charles Thompson, still with us.

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But it’s also in honor of a kind of playing that is often neglected: suave, elegant but funky, taking its time, honoring the individual but building community.  I wasn’t born in the heyday of Fifty-Second Street, and I suspect that the clubs there were noisy, crowded, and that miraculous music didn’t happen at every set

Miracles happen at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York) regularly, beginning around 8:15 Sunday evenings, when The EarRegulars assemble in their favorite corner.

On April 26, 2015, the band was Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; James Chirillo, guitar; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Engelbert Wrobel (an Angel from Germany), clarinet, and guest Dan Block, tenor saxophone.  And they made a cozy nest of sounds for us:

Make yourself comfortable in this wondrous Nest.

May your happiness increase!

“BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH (SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, November 28, 2014)

Often, “Blues for X” is a memorial for the departed X — grief in the shape of an improvisation.  It’s thus a pleasure to offer this BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES, a celebration, not an elegy, for the remarkable pianist Sir Charles Thompson, born March 21, 1918, still with us, living happily in Japan (playing golf, I understand).

Knighted by Lester Young, Sir Charles has and had a distinctly personal style: the casual listener could mistake him — for a few bars only — for Basie, and his rhythmic engine is just as reliable, but Charles heard and employed a broader harmonic palette than did the Count, so one is always delighted by the strong swing he engenders allied to the boppish harmonies.

He’s recorded for John Hammond’s Vanguard series and also crops up memorably on the Columbia Buck Clayton Jam Sessions.  My friend Bill Gallagher has created a Thompson discography, accessible here.

But I have something more rewarding to offer as a tribute to Charles, which is Ray Skjelbred’s rocking piano evocation of the great man, performed on November 28, 2014, at the San Diego Jazz Fest:

Marc Caparone brilliantly manages to evoke a whole host of Basie trumpeters — Tatti Smith, Lips Page, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, Bobby Moore — while sounding just like his natural self; Beau Sample rocks the rhythm in the great tradition of Walter Page, and Hal Smith’s sweeping hi-hat and accents in the final choruses could swing Mount Fuji joyously.  And Master Skjelbred takes the opportunity to honor his hero with some deliciously unexpected runs and chords, suggesting not only Joe Sullivan on a straightaway but also Monk at Minton’s, 1941.

If you can listen to the final minute of this performance — starting with the riffing hide-and-seek of Marc and Ray — without moving around in your chair, I wonder if your blood pressure might be dangerously low.  Consult your physician. Do not operate any heavy machinery.

May your happiness increase!

NAOMI AND HER HANDSOME DEVILS

I first met Naomi Uyama in a downtown New York music club five years ago. Soon, we adjourned to the sidewalk.

It’s less melodramatic or noir than it appears.  The club was Banjo Jim’s — ‘way down yonder on Avenue C — where a variety of jazz-folk-dance groups appeared in 2009. The most famous was the Cangelosi Cards, in their original manifestation, featuring among others Tamar Korn, Jake Sanders, Marcus Milius, Cassidy Holden, Gordon Webster, Kevin Dorn. Tamar, who has always admired the Boswell Sisters, got together with singers Naomi and Mimi Terris to perform some Boswell numbers as “The Three Diamonds.” On one cold night, the three singers joined forces on the sidewalk to serenade myself, Jim and Grace Balantic, and unaware passers-by with a Boswell hot chorus of EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY. Tamar has recorded on her own, as has Mimi, but I and others have been waiting for Naomi to record, to share her sweet swing with the world. And the disc is delightful.

NAOMI

The first thing one notices about the disc is its authentic swing feel courtesy of players who have a deep affection for a late-Basie rhythmic surge and melodic ingenuity: Jake Sanders, guitar; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Jared Engel, string bass; Jeremy Noller, drums, and a two-person frontline of Adrian Cunningham, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Matt Musselman, trombone.  The band is neither over-rehearsed or overly casual; they provoke regular movements of the listener’s head, torso, and limbs.  (I can attest to this.)  They aren’t busily copying the sound of classic recordings; they are swinging out in fine style. I heard echoes of Illinois Jacquet and Al Grey, of a Buddy Tate band uptown or a Forties Jay McShann small group, of Tiny Grimes and Sir Charles Thompson — those players who swung as reliably as breathing. The band never gets in Naomi’s way, and they make happy music for dancers, riffing as if to the manner born.

But this might seem to ignore Naomi, which would be unthinkable. She came to jazz through lindy hop, which means her rhythm has a cheerful bounce to it, even on slower numbers. But she knows well that making music is more than beating a solid 4/4 so that the dancers know where one is. Naomi is an effective melodist, not tied to the paper but eminently respectful of the melodies we know. Her improvisations tend to be subtle, but when she breaks loose (trading scat phrases with the horns on MARIE) she never puts a foot wrong. (MARIE, incidentally, is the fastest track on the disc — 223 beats per minute — and it never seems rushed. I approve that Naomi and her Handsome Devils understand the beautiful shadings possible within medium-tempo rocking music.)

Naomi’s voice is a pleasure in itself — no rough edges, with a wide palette of timbres, but perfectly focused and with an effective phrase-ending vibrato. She doesn’t sound like someone who has spent her life memorizing Ella, Billie, or a dozen others; she sounds, rather, like someone who has fallen in love with the repertoire and decided to sing it, as if she were a bird bursting into song. In swingtime, of course. On Lil Johnson’s seductive encouragement, TAKE IT EASY, GREASY, she does her own version of a Mae West meow, but she doesn’t go in for effects and tricks. Her phrases fall in the right places, and she sounds natural — not always the case among musicians offering milkless milk and silkless silk in the name of Swing.

And I had a small epiphany while listening to this CD. A front-line of trombone and reed (mostly tenor) is hardly unusual, and it became even less so from the middle Forties onwards, but it makes complete aesthetic sense here, because the spare instrumentation (two horns, powerful yet light rhythm section) gives Naomi the room she needs to be the graceful and memorable trumpet player of this little band. Think, perhaps, of Buck Clayton: sweet, inventive, bluesy, creating wonderful phrases on the simplest material, and the place Naomi has made for herself in the band seems clear and inevitable.

The songs also suggest a wider knowledge of the Swing repertoire than is usual: Basie is represented not with a Joe Williams blues, but with the 1938 GLORIANNA, and the Dorsey MARIE is an evocation rather than a small-band copy. There are blues — I KNOW HOW TO DO IT and the aforementioned TAKE IT EASY, GREASY — as well as classic pop standards that feel fresh: I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, ONE HOUR, LOVER, COME BACK TO ME, AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY, GOODY GOODY, IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T MY BABY, WHAM, and THIS CAN’T BE LOVE.

The disc offers nothing but good music, never ironic or post-modern, neither copying nor satirizing, just beautifully crafted melodic Swing.  Welcome, Naomi — with your Handsome Devils alongside. On with the dance!

Now, some bits of information. You can find Naomi on Facebook here; the band has its own page here. To buy the disc (or a download), visit here, where you also can hear samples of the songs. To hear complete songs, visit here. Naomi and a version of her Devils can be found on YouTube, and here is her channel. Enough data for anyone: listen to the music and you’ll be convinced.

May your happiness increase!

“WHO’S SORRY NOW?” “NOT ME.” PAOLO ALDERIGHI, PHIL FLANIGAN, JEFF HAMILTON at MONTEREY (March 8, 2014)

May I humbly suggest that you put everything down (yes, leave the pretense of multi-tasking alone) and enjoy yourself for six minutes’ plus.

I present three modern swing masters exploring WHO’S SORRY NOW? at the 2014 Jazz Bash by the Bay: Paolo Alderighi, piano; Phil Flanigan, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

You’ll find your own delights in this performance: there’s the heartbeat sound of Phil’s bass, his time so “right” and his solo voice so sweetly deep; Jeff’s variety of sounds, his dancing wire-brush playing on the cymbals and drumheads; his witty conversation with Paolo — who here reminds me a little of his hero Erroll Garner, but much more of a pianist who’s rarely celebrated, Sir Charles Thompson (still active in his early nineties!) — with a beautiful blend of light-hearted swing and subtle harmonic explorations, offering us the sacred past and his own 2014 variations on theme, sound, voicing, melodic embellishment, dynamics.

I’d offer this performance to any rhythm-section players as a model of communal gracefulness: in it, the soloists speak for themselves but build lovely creations that are far more than three players proceeding down familiar roads together.  Thanks to Rebecca Kilgore for getting these three fellows together, and for creating an atmosphere where such things happen naturally.

This performance is a lesson in beautiful PLAY.

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!

OSCAR PETTIFORD, FOUND

OP front

Bassist, cellist, and composer Oscar Pettiford is in the odd position of being both legendary and forgotten (as Whitney Balliett wrote of Pee Wee Russell). If you ask any aficionado of jazz string bass playing to name a dozen favorites — living and dead — it’s likely that the names will come easily.  But Pettiford’s is often not among them.

Yes, he died young, but not before performing and recording every famous musician (with some notable exceptions) in a short career.  An incomplete list would include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Julius Watkins, Ben Webster, Sammy Price, Ruby Braff, Mel Powell, Ellis Larkins, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Clifford Brown, Buddy De Franco, Phineas Newborn, Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Don  Byas, Clyde Hart, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Martial Solal, Attlia Zoller, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Eckstine, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson, Charlie Shavers, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Ed Hall, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, Maxine Sullivan, Dick Hyman, Eddie Bert, Joe Derise, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Buck Clayton, Helen Humes, Benny Harris, Boyd Raeburn, Serge Chaloff, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Wynonie Harris, Vic Dickenson, Red Rodney, Tal Farlow, Denzil Best, Jo Jones, Leo Parker, Al Haig, Al Hibbler, Nat Pierce, Bill Harris, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Art Taylor, Wynton Kelly, Lockjaw Davis, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Dave McKenna, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Chris Connor, Hank Jones, Earl Coleman, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, Chuck Wayne, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Frank Wess, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, Joe Morello, Joe Wilder, Harry Lookofsky, Jimmy Jones, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal, Herbie Mann, George Barnes, Clark Terry, Dave Schildkraut, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Raney, Horace Silver, Doug Mettome, Quincy Jones, Duke Jordan, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne, Toots Thielmans, Red Garland.

This suggests that Oscar’s peers respected him and called him for gigs and recordings.  It’s not as if he was obscure: his career was longer than, say, Blanton’s or Steve Brown’s.  But, oddly for jazz, which loves to mythologize the musicians who die young and abruptly (and Pettiford died as the result of a 1960 automobile accident) he hasn’t received the benefit of the weird reverence fans and writers have for the young dead.

Of course, it could be that bass players don’t get the respect they and their instruments deserve, but it is and was hard to ignore Pettiford on a session. He offered a rhythmic foundation that was powerful rather than obtrusive, but when he soloed, his lines have the solid eloquence that any horn player would aspire to — while seeming light rather than ponderous.  And as the list of players above suggests, his musical range was exceedingly broad: he wasn’t captured on record in free jazz or ragtime, but he elevated every other variety of jazz and jazz vocal performance he was part of.  Had he lived longer, he might have enjoyed the visibility of a Milt Hinton or a Ray Brown, but we have only brief moments of him on film (the 1945 THE CRIMSON CANARY) and a few seconds of his speaking voice.

Surely he should be better known.

Enough words and keystrokes for the moment: listen to his 1960 feature on WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:

and here he is, playing his own BLUES IN THE CLOSET — from a little-known 1953 television broadcast — on cello (which he took to for a time after breaking an arm in a baseball game):

And his stirring solo on STARDUST:

Now, two pieces of good news that might go some distance in making Oscar’s name and music known to a larger audience.  One is that there is a YouTube channel, PettifordJazz, with sixty videos of Pettiford solos, ensembles, and compositions.  That means that no one has to start collecting Oscar’s music — it is being made available to all for free.

Oscar (or “O.P.”, as his colleagues called him) also spent the last two years of his life in Europe (mostly in Scandinavia and Germany), and recorded often there.  Sessions with guitarist Attila Zoller have been issued and reissued on a variety of labels (in the vinyl era, they appeared on Black Lion) and a famous 1960 concert in Essen with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Coleman Hawkins was available forty years ago.  Recordings made in 1958-59 for the German radio network have now been issued for the first time on compact disc, in beautiful sound, as OSCAR PETTIFORD: LOST TAPES — GERMANY 1958 / 1959, on SWR Music.

American expatriates Lucky Thompson (on soprano sax for a gorgeous, melancholy SOPHISTICATED LADY) and Kenny Clarke (drums on the final five performances of the disc) are the “stars,” but Zoller stands out as a beautifully measured guitarist.

OP cover rear

And although some US critics of the time might have been condescending to European players, this disc shows their equal mastery. Trumpeter Dusko Goykovich duets with Oscar on the opening BUT NOT FOR ME.  Other notable players here are clarinetist Rolf Kuhn; light-toned tenorist Hans Koller; baritone saxophonists Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl; altoist Rudi Feigl; guitarist Hans Hammerschmid; drummers Jimmy Pratt and Hartwig Bartz.  The songs are a mix of standards and originals: BUT NOT FOR ME / SOPHISTICATED LADY / A SMOOTH ONE / O.P. (Hans Koller) / MINOR PLUS A MAJOR (Kuhn) / POOR BUTTERFLY / ANUSIA (Hans Koller) / MY LITTLE CELLO (Pettiford) / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / YESTERDAYS / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET (Pettiford) / BIG HASSLE (Hammerschmidt) / ATLANTIC (Helmut Brandt) / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET — the last two are live performances.

And just because it’s accessible and stirring, here is that film clip — from an otherwise undistinguished 1945 murder mystery, THE CRIMSON CANARY, which features Hawk, Pettiford, Howard McGhee, trumpet; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Denzil Best, on a fast SWEET GEORGIA BROWN line by Hawkins called HOLLYWOOD STAMPEDE:

Ultimately, I think if you’d asked Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, or any number of jazz luminaries, “What about this O.P. fellow?  Should I listen to him?” the answer would have been a very strong affirmative.  So let us do just that. These tapes were lost, but have been found: spread the word about Oscar.  Remind those who have forgotten; introduce those who never knew.  “Learn it to the younguns!” as the youthful protagonist of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN hears at the start of that novel.

May your happiness increase!

EMMETT BERRY’S BUESCHER TRUMPET, 1952

This Buescher trumpet, the advertisement tells us, is the model Emmett Berry plays with Johnny Hodges.  For tremendous power and range, which Mr. Berry would have had on any horn.

Emmett Berry came from the tradition of individualistic players — with an intense near-ferocity no matter what the context . . . with Fletcher or Horace Henderson, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Edmond Hall, Bennie Morton, Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, Buddy Tate, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Walter Thomas, Ben Webster, Budd Johnson, Oscar Pettiford, Harry Carney, Johnny Guarneri, Illinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood, Vic Dickenson, John Kirby, Gerald Wilson, Betty Roche, Helen Humes, Johnny Thompson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Al Sears,Al Hibbler, Lem Davis, Dodo Marmarosa, Slim Gaillard, John Simmons, Zutty Singleton, Sidney Catlett, Sammy Price, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Eddie Bert, Lucky Thompson, Bennie Green, Lawrence Brown, Sidney Bechet, Ruby Braff, Art Farmer, Claude Hopkins, Pee Wee Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, Andy Gibson, Paul Gonsalves, Cannonball Adderley, Shorty Baker, Chu Berry, Earl Hines, Joe Williams.  On Keynote he was the third trumpet player with Joe Thomas and Roy Eldridge.  He was in the trumpet section for a Miles Davis and Gil Evans session.

Between 1937 and 1967, he seems to have been active on gigs and in the recording studio, even if some of that work had him playing second trumpet to Buck Clayton or as part of the brass section behind a singer.  But this record of activity says to me that various people (Harry Lim, John Hammond, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Buddy Tate) valued him as a powerful, reliable, creative player — someone who could swing, improvise, blend with a section, sight-read music the first time he saw it.

Buck Clayton’s story of Berry whacking Jimmy Witherspoon in the head with his trumpet when Spoon had been particularly out of line suggests that Berry was not someone to be trifled with, and his phrasing does suggest an expert boxer and dangerous counterpuncher.

But no one seems to have interviewed him during his playing career, and I have it in my memory (true?) that he suffered some sort of late-life mental collapse and retired from music.  (What does anyone know of him in the years from 1967 to 1993?)

His sound– so vehement — remains in my ears.  On the early Clef sessions with Hodges, on THE SOUND OF JAZZ, backing Rushing on Vanguard — unmistakable.

Here’s “a little good blues” with Earle Warren, Sir Charles Thompson, Gene Ramey, and Oliver Jackson, from 1961:

Berry doesn’t take enough space, and his vehemence is hinted at rather than fully released, but his sound and physical presence are fully evident.

He’s someone I miss.

May your happiness increase.

THE STEM, THE MOOD, THE NEST at ATLANTA 2012: CHUCK REDD, HARRY ALLEN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, RICHARD SIMON, ED METZ (April 21, 2012)

A simple set: celebrating New York as jazz’s central heating system; amorous feelings; the comforts of home.  By that I mean Ellington’s MAIN STEM, the Fields-McHugh I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, and Sir Charles Thompson’s tribute to disc jockey and friend of jazz Fred Robbins, ROBBINS’ NEST — all performed with grace and style by Chuck Redd, vibraphone; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Richard Simon, string bass; Ed Metz, drums — at the 2012 Atlanta Jazz Party.

MAIN STEM:

I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, featuring Harry, Rossano, Richard, and Ed:

ROBBINS’ NEST:

May your happiness increase.

BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD

People who listen to jazz, read about it, write about it, seem to be entranced by drama.  So many of them are drawn to artists whose careers and lives are boldly delineated: the arc of early promise and a life cut short through self-destructive behavior or illness; the narrative of great achievement that tails off into stark decline.  Early Fame, Great Decline.  Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Jimmie Blanton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young . . . the list is long.

But what of those musicians who had long careers, functioned at a high level of creativity, were undramatic in their professionalism?  They get less media attention in life and in death; their sheer reliability makes them almost shadowy figures.  (Of course, if they happen to live long lives — Doc Cheatham, Benny Waters, Eubie Blake, Hank Jones, Lionel Ferbos — then they may get a story in the paper.  But that’s another subject.)

One of the greatest trumpet players — also a wonderful composer and arranger — doesn’t get the attention he should: Buck Clayton from Parsons, Kansas, whose recordings over a thirty-year span are exceptional but not always celebrated as they should be.  Anyone familiar with the best music of that period can call to mind a dozen sessions that Buck not only plays on, but elevates: consider the dates with Basie, the Kansas City Five and Six and Seven, Billie, Mildred, Teddy and Ben, Hawkins on Keynote, Ike Quebec on Blue Note, his own dates for HRS, the Jam Sessions for Columbia and the later ones for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label, his recordings with Mel Powell at Carnegie Hall, the Vanguard sessions, a Verve date with Harry Edison, his own small band (circa 1961), recordings with Jimmy Rushing and Ada Moore and Mae Barnes, with Earl Hines, Bill Coleman, Don Byas, Flip Phillips, Horace Henderson, Sir Charles Thompson, Charlie Parker, Ed Hall, Alex Combelle, Joe Turner, Big Joe Turner, “Jazz From A Swinging Era,” Humphrey Lyttelton, Eddie Condon, J. J. Johnson, Benny Goodman . . . and I am sure I am leaving out many sessions.

Shanghai, 1934

Even though Buck was playing jazz in Shanghai in 1934, before he came home and stopped off in Kansas City, he seems to have been a rather undramatic man for all his exploits.  He showed up on time for the gig; he could talk to the audience; he wrote excellent charts and swinging originals; he was beautifully dressed; he transcended late-in-life health problems to launch a new career as a bandleader when the trumpet no longer responded to his urgings.  How unfortunate to be so bourgeois.

I only encountered him in person once: in 1971, there was a New York Jazz Museum Christmas party (if I have this right) where he was among a large number of musicians advertised as performing.  Buck was there, not playing, but splendidly dressed and very polite to a young fan who asked for his autograph.  (A side story: the musicians who actually did play, beautifully, were Chuck Folds, Gene Ramey, and Jackie Williams.  Someone requested MISTY and Ramey, upon hearing the song title, said, quietly, “I don’t play that shit,” and leaned his bass against the wall for the next three minutes, returning when the music was more to his liking.)

I also saw Buck — perhaps in 1980 — at a Newport in New York concert possibly paying tribute to Billie, with musicians including Zoot Sims and Harry Edison — attempting to return to playing.  His beautiful tone was intact on a fairly fast SUGAR, but he was having trouble hitting the notes one could sense he was aiming for . . . heroic but painful.)

Let’s listen to Buck again.

Here are the two takes of WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS from the 1938 Kansas City Six session for Commodore — with Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones.  It’s hard not to focus on Lester — but it can be done. Hear Buck, golden, easeful, and lithe . . . the only trumpet player I know who approaches his sly mobility is Bill Coleman of the same period.  Like Louis, he constructs his solos logically, one phrase building on its predecessors and looking forward to the next, each one acting as a small melodic building block in a larger arching structure — melodic embellishment with a larger purpose:

Any improvising musician would say that Buck’s solo choruses are not the work of an immature musician and not easy to do; his graceful ensemble playing is the work of a master.  But it sounds so easy, as if he were singing through his horn.  And that tone!

Here he is in a 1954 session that few know of — a Mel Powell-led jam session at Carnegie Hall, with Ruby Braff, Jay Brower (trumpet), Vernon Brown, Urbie Green (trombone), Tony Scott (clarinet), Lem Davis (alto sax), Buddy Tate, Eddie Shu (tenor sax), Romeo Penque (baritone sax), Mel Powell (piano), Steve Jordan (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Jo Jones, Gene Krupa (drums):

Buck appears near the end –just before Gene and Jo trade phrases.  And, yes, you read that correctly.  A marvel!

Here’s Buck with Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones in C JAM BLUES (1959):

And after his playing days had ended, as leader / composer / arranger of his own Swing Band, captured in France (1991) on RAMPAGE IN G MINOR:

The other swingers on that stage are Gerry Dodgion, alto; James Chirillo, guitar; Joe Temperley, baritone sax; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Matt Finders, trombone; Doug Lawrence and Arthur “Babe” Clarke, tenor saxophones; Phillipe Combell, drums.; Dick Katz, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Bobby Pring, trombone; John Eckert, Greg Gisbert; trumpet.

Someone who hasn’t forgotten Buck Clayton is the UK bassist / writer / radio host Alyn Shipton, who has performed often with Buck’s compositions and arrangements as the Buck Clayton Legacy Band.  Here they are in this century performing Buck’s tribute to his friend and fellow brassman Humph, SIR HUMPHREY:

That band is full of people who understand Buck and his music (some of them heroes of mine): Menno Daams, Ian Smith, Adrian Fry, Alan Barnes, Matthias Seuffert, Martin Litton, Martin Wheatley, Alyn Shipton and Norman Emberson.

I would encourage anyone reading this post to go to his or her shelves and take down a recording by Buck and revel in its glories.  Milt Hinton used to have a memo pad with this heading (because of his nickname “The Judge”):”You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music.”  If you were to explore and re-explore Buck Clayton’s jazz world, you would have more than a month of pleasure.

He never provoked controversy; I doubt he will ever have his own online forum with vigorous acrimonious discussion of the minutiae of his life . . . but he created beauty whenever he raised his trumpet, composed a melody, or led a band.

May your happiness increase.

BORN TO PLAY: THE RUBY BRAFF DISCOGRAPHY and DIRECTORY OF PERFORMANCES

THIS JUST IN (Sept. 8, 2012): BORN TO PLAY is available at a special discount price.  I feel honored — this is the first official JAZZ LIVES promotional code!

JAZZ LIVES SPECIAL PRICE: Available directly from the publisher with 25% discount ($71.25 + $5.00 shipping): https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780810882645 and enter special Jazz Lives promotion code in shopping cart: 7M12BTPRB

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time, and it’s even better than I anticipated.  It is the latest volume in the Scarecrow Press “Studies in Jazz” series, nearly 750 pages of information about the late cornetist.

Its author, Thomas P. Hustad, knew Ruby, spoke with him, and had Ruby’s full cooperation and enthusiastic advocacy.  Although the book isn’t a biography, nearly every page offers a deeper understanding of Ruby, musician and personality, and the contexts within which he operated.

Ruby would have been a challenging subject for a typical biography.  For one thing, although jazz musicians seem to lead unusual lives (nocturnal rather than diurnal hours, for one thing) they take their work with the utmost seriousness, and their daily responsibilities are not much different from ours.  A diary of what Ruby, for instance, accomplished when the horn was not up to his lips, might not be particularly revealing.  And Ruby’s strong, often volatile personality might have led a book astray into the darker realms of pathobiography: a chronological unfolding of the many times Ruby said exactly what was on his mind with devastating results would grow wearying quickly, and would leave even the most sympathetic reader with a sour impression.

No, Ruby wanted to be remembered for his music, and Tom honored that request.  So there is no psychoanalysis here, in an attempt to explore why Ruby could be so mercurial — generous and sweet-natured to some, vocal in defense of his friends, furious at injustice, fiercely angry without much apparent provocation otherwise.  True, the reader who peruses this book for tales of inexplicably bad behavior will find some, but BORN TO PLAY offers so much more.

Its purpose is to celebrate and document Ruby’s playing and recording over more than half a century.  What a body of recordings he left us!  From the earliest Boston broadcasts in 1949 to his final August 2002 appearance in Scotland with Scott Hamilton (happily available on an Arbors Records 2-CD set), Ruby played alongside the greatest names in jazz history.

Without looking at the book, I think of Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Nat Pierce, Dave McKenna, Freddie Green, Milt Hinton, Walter Page, Buck Clayton, Buddy Tate, Dick Hafer, Scott Hamilton, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Dick Hyman, Teddi King, Lee Wiley, Ellis Larkins, Mel Powell, Oscar Pettiford, George Wein, George Barnes, Michael Moore, Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Howard Alden, Frank Tate, Jack Lesberg, John Bunch, Sir Charles Thompson, Trummy Young, Bob Wilber, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Dan Barrett, Tony Bennett, Coleman Hawkins, Lawrence Brown, Ernie Caceres, Bob Brookmeyer, Benny Morton, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Rushing, Urbie Green.

BORN TO PLAY is more than a straightforward discographical listing of Ruby’s issued recordings (although even there I found surprises: Ruby’s sessions with the Weavers, a final unissued Vanguard session, work with Larry Adler, Lenny Solomon, and others).  From his earliest appearances, listeners noticed that Mr. Braff was something special.  Jazz critics made much of him as an “anachronism,” someone whose style came out of Louis Armstrong rather than Miles Davis, but such assessments missed the point.

Ruby was one of the great romantics and improvising dramatists: he could take the most familiar melody and find new lyricism in it, singing it out as if he had become Fred Astaire or Judy Garland or Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS rather than “a saloon entertainer with a bit of tin in his hand.”  Ruby’s playing touches some hidden impulses in us — our need to express emotions without holding back — but his wasn’t the “barbaric yawp,” but quiet intensity with many surprises on the way.

His admirers (among whom I count myself) paid tribute to their hero by recording his performances whenever possible — the chronicle of private recordings begins in 1949 and continues to the end.  Those private recordings are  more than tantalizing: Ruby’s encounters with Louis, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Buddy Rich, Danny Moss, Sidney Catlett, Benny Carter . . .as well as his day-to-day gigs with musicians both famous and little-known across the globe.

One of the surprises in this book is that Ruby worked so often: before he became known for his singular approach to melodic improvisation, he was a diligently gigging musician.  (In print, Ruby sometimes complained about his inability to find congenial work: these listings suggest that aside from some early stretches where it was difficult to get gigs, he was well-employed.)

BORN TO PLAY also contains rare and unseen photographs, and the text is interspersed with entertaining stories: Nat Pierce and the sardine cans, Benny Goodman and the staircase, and more.

What this book reminds us of is the masterful work of an artist performing at the highest level in many contexts for an amazing length of time . . . all the more remarkable when you recall that Ruby suffered from emphysema as early as 1980.  Without turning his saga into a formulaic one of the heroic artist suffering through disabling illnesses, Hustad subtly suggests that we should admire Ruby much more for his devotion to his art than stand back in horrified wonder at his temper tantrums.  And Tom is right.

Ruby emerges as a man in love with his art, someone so devoted to it that the title of the book becomes more and more apt as a reader continues.  I have only read it intermittently, but find it both entrancing and distracting.  Much of this is due to Tom Hustad: a tireless researcher (still finding new information after the book’s publication), a fine clear writer, and someone Ruby trusted . . . so the book floats along on a subtle friendship between subject and chronicler.  And Tom was there at a number of sessions, providing valuable first-hand narratives that enlighten and delight — especially telling are his stories of relationships between Ruby and his champions: John Hammond, George Wein, Hank O’Neal, Tony Bennett, Mat and Rachel Domber, and others.

And the little details that make a book even better are all in place: a loving introduction by one of Ruby’s long-time friends, Dan Morgenstern; a cover picture showing Ruby and Louis (the photographer another great friend of the music, Duncan Schiedt) . . . and orange was Ruby’s favorite color — one he associated with the aural experience of hearing Louis for the first time, his sound blazing out of the radio speaker.  The layout is easy on the eye, all in nicely readable type.

In the interests of full disclosure (as the lawyers and politicians say) I should point out that I admire Ruby’s playing immensely, met him in 1971, spoke with him a number of times, saw him at close range, and contributed information about some private sessions that I recorded to this book.

BORN TO PLAY is a fascinating document, invaluable not only for those who regarded Ruby as one of the marvels of jazz — it is also a chronicle of one man’s fierce determination to create beauty in a world that sometimes seemed oblivious to it.  Many large-scale works of scholarship are thorough but cold, and the reader feels the chill.  Others have adulation intrude on the purpose of the work.  Tom Hustad’s book is an ideal mixture of scholarship, diligence, and warm affection: its qualities in an admirable balance.  I think the only way this book could have been improved would have been for Ruby to continue on past 2002 and the book to follow him.

Click here to purchase a copy.

And here’s something to beguile you as you click — the Braff-Barnes Quartet of 1974 (Ruby, George Barnes, Wayne Wright, Michael Moore) sauntering through LIZA:

May your happiness increase.

“THIS BAND PLAYS WITH A PASSION”: RAY SKJELBRED and HIS CUBS (Feb. 10, 2012

Many jazz bands — hoping to please their audiences — specialize in Fast and Loud.  The team of F&L has their place, for sure, but they grow wearisome quickly.

A band that shows what can be done within the infinite variety of “medium tempo” and with remarkable dynamics is one led by pianist / singer / composer Ray Skjelbred — his CUBS.  For this occasion, the Cubs are Kim Cusack, clarinet; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

Sweet, soft, plenty rhythm!

And it seems to me that everyone in this band grows more lyrical each time I hear them — in solos and in their cohesive ensemble playing.

A lovely Thirties song immortalized by Billie, Lester, Teddy, Buck, and the Basie rhythm section without the Count, A SAILBOAT IN THE MOONLIGHT:

Memories of Ethel Waters and Jack Teagarden in I JUST COULDN’T TAKE IT, BABY — sung casually and with heart by Hal Smith:

Paul Dresser’s MY GAL SAL, with a conversational vocal chorus by Mr. Skjelbred (this performance is the source of my title):

BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES — that’s the still-active (at 93) swing master Sir Charles Thompson; in this performance the Cubs evoke the lovely glide that Charles and friends created on the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions:

Thanks to the peripatetic Rae Ann Berry for recording these videos for us, and the Fresno Dixieland Society for creating their “Sounds of Mardi Gras,” presented Feb. 9-12 in Fresno, California.  If you visit Rae Ann’s YouTube channel, SFRaeAnn,  you’ll see many more performances by the Cubs, by the Grand Dominion Jazz Band, and the Climax Jazz Band — beautifully captured for your listening and dancing pleasure.

Tasty!