Tag Archives: Skeeter Best

THE REMARKABLE MS. GIBSON, BETTER KNOWN AS BANU: “BY MYSELF”

Banu Gibson, triumphant, by Elsa Hahne

Banu Gibson, triumphant, by Elsa Hahne

The ebullient woman shining her light in the photograph, Banu Gibson, is a superb singer who doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a singer.

If you have no idea of what she sounds like, here, take a taste:

Banu, Bucky, and Berlin — endearing adult music, no tricks.

I think Banu is undervalued because she is so powerfully distracting as an entertainer, and this is a compliment.  We hear the wicked comic ad-libs, we see the flashing eyes, we admire the dance steps, we are entranced by the Show she puts on (that, too, is a good thing) but I think we don’t always hear her fine voice as we should — her warm timbre, her dramatic expression, her phrasing, her intuitive good taste, her swing.

banu-by-myself

But with her new CD, we have a chance to hear her, deeply.  That CD, BY MYSELF, is delightfully swinging, at times poignant.  The song list is a perceptive assortment of songs that haven’t been overdone: BY MYSELF / MEET ME WHERE THEY PLAY THE BLUES / ILL WIND / THE MOON GOT IN MY EYES – MOONRAY / WAITIN’ FOR THE TRAIN TO COME IN / YOU LET ME DOWN / UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG / THEY SAY / STOP THE SUN, STOP THE MOON (MY MAN’S GONE) / MY BUDDY / NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS / OH! LOOK AT ME NOW / DAYTON, OHIO – 1903 / OUR LOVE ROLLS ON / LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES.  And Banu’s wonderfully empathic band is Larry Scala, guitar; Ed Wise, string bass; Rex Gregory, tenor sax and clarinet; Tom McDermott, piano on DAYTON and OUR LOVE.

Banu is a great connoisseur of songs, with a wide range of under-exposed great ones, as opposed to the two dozen that many singers favor.  I’ve only heard her in performance a few times, but when she announces the next song, I always think, “Wow!  How splendid!  She knows that one!” rather than thinking, “Not another MY FUNNY VALENTINE or GOD BLESS THE CHILD, please, please.”

Song-scholars will notice that a number of these songs have sad lyrics, but this is not a mopey or maudlin disc.  Every performance has its own sweet motion, an engaging bounce, as the musicians explore the great veldt of Medium Tempo.

Although a handful of songs on this disc are associated with other singers — Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, and Billie Holiday — BY MYSELF is not in a tribute to any of those great foremothers, nor is there any ill-starred attempt to recapture those recorded performances.  If Rex and Larry happen to sound a little like Pres and Charlie Christian on these sides, that is a wonderful side-effect, but no one’s been asked to pretend it’s 1937 and John Hammond is in the studio.  Everyone swings gently — the shared goal, with no artificial ingredients.

The disc is not narrow in its conception, either.  Banu and the band approach each song as a separate dramatic playlet with its own mood, tempo, and feeling. It’s one of those rare and delicious discs where the emotions are not only intense but fully realized.  I could not listen to it all in one sitting — not because it bored me, but because I felt full of sensations after a few tracks, and few CDs are so quietly arresting.  Each song is treated tenderly and attentively, and although I suspect the underlying theme of this disc is deeper than “Hey, I haven’t made a CD in a few years and here are some songs I like,” we’re not whacked over the head with one emotion.  Rather, it’s as if Banu wanted us to consider the whole spectrum of intimate personal relationships.  She and her band have deep true stories to tell, but you have to figure out what they are, performance by performance.

Incidentally, I am snobbish, narrow, hard to please (ask people who have heard me discuss what I do and don’t like) but I fell in love with this disc in the first twenty or so seconds of BY MYSELF, which is a rubato duet between Banu and Larry Scala.  (When is the world going to wake up about Scala?  Come ON, now! But I digress.)  Her diction is remarkable; her solo swing a model, and her voice is rich and full of feeling.  Her sweet vibrato is so warm: there’s nothing mechanical in her delivery and her superb phrasing: the second variation on the theme is never a clone of the first.  (Hear her variations on “He made a toy of romance!” in MOONRAY: nothing that a lesser artist could do or what have envisioned.)  By the way, the Gregory-Scala-Wise swing machine (with two interludes from McDermott) is perfectly lyrical and swinging — Basie plus Lester with Basie taking a smoke break in the hall, or perhaps Skeeter Best / Oscar Pettiford / Lucky Thompson if you prefer.  On many singer-plus-band sessions, the disparity between one and the other is sharp, so the listener waits through the instrumental interlude for the Singer to come back, or vice versa.  Here, every note seems right, and the result is very affecting.

In the ideal world, Banu and her band would be touring the world — giving concerts and clinics and workshops — and I would hear this music from other cars’ radios when we were at red lights.  But until this happens, I commend this splendidly-recorded disc to you: the emotional density of a great volume of short stories combined with the elation of a book of coupons to your favorite ice-cream shoppe.  BY MYSELF — after many listenings — seems a series of gems.  You can buy it here.  You will rejoice.

May your happiness increase!

BRAVE, PATIENT BEAUTY: SAM TAYLOR, “MY FUTURE JUST PASSED”

Possibly you haven’t yet heard of the tenor saxophonist Sam Taylor.  But I guarantee you will.  He has a rare gift.

When I was opening the plastic wrapping enclosing Sam’s debut CD, I confess I was expecting more-of-the-same: in this century, many young musicians are technically gifted in ways that would astonish the Ancestors.  There isn’t anything they can’t play.  Complex harmonies at top speed, chorus after chorus, are their basic vocabulary.  They often make Bird sound like Honore Dutrey. They have spent their youth practicing, and it shows.  And that in itself is a wonderful accomplishment — if technique is your primary goal.  But often it is cold — music that doesn’t ring in the listeners’ hearts.

I come back to what I think of as the basic ideal of instrumental music: to communicate something, without words, that makes us feel and reflect.  To “tell a story.”  To “sing on your horn.”

I knew Sam Taylor had a good chance of being different — of reaching our hearts — when I saw the song he had chosen as the title of his CD, a beautiful obscure 1930 song.  Not an original, although full of original sentiment.

SAM TAYLOR cover 700

Here are two versions of MY FUTURE JUST PASSED.  The first, by Annette Hanshaw, is hopeful rather than morose:

I know that the lyrics of the verse (George Marion, Jr.) suggest a certain light-heartedness (rhyming “not less” and “spotless” but the melody is haunting, especially the bridge — thanks to Richard Whiting.

Here is the 1963 version by Shirley Horn (gorgeous arrangements by Jimmy Jones) at a heartfelt tempo:

Beautiful — and I admire her willingness to take her time, to let the song unfold.

Now, listen to this — and understand why I think so highly of Sam Taylor:

If your first reaction is, “Oh, he’s only playing the melody,” I offer two options. The more polite one is, “Please listen again,” and the less is, “Please go away.”

I think of a comment (reported by Nat Hentoff, I believe) of Bobby Hackett listening to Louis Armstrong, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come that alive?”

In Sam’s playing I hear the great melodists — Louis of course, but also Bing and Sinatra, Ben, Hawk, and Pres — but he sounds like himself as he patiently and lovingly devotes himself to the song.  No self-referential playing (those quotes that show us “ingenuity” and no ostentatious “virtuosities”) — nothing but rapt attention to the song, to melody, to the way a great artist can make us feel.  I admire his ease but also his patience, as if he is saying to us through his horn, “I have something to tell you, but it is at once both very simple and too deep for words.  It is a story of hope, but hope tinged with melancholy and risks that might not come off.  Please sit down, shut off your phone, join with me in the great ritual of music-making and truth-exploring.”

You can find out more about Sam Taylor here, and you can also download the CD.   Of course you should search out Sam at a gig and buy a copy directly, but it can also be ordered from CellarLive.comIt will soon be available on Amazon as well.

I like my CDs physically tangible, especially in this case where Sam has written the notes himself — simple, full of feeling.  Here are his opening lines:

Sometimes, a song enters our life at the perfect moment.  It gives clarity and meaning to seemingly random events.  It speaks and gives voice to our feelings of love, heartache, joy and jubilation.  It taps into our memories, both personal and collective, taking root in our hearts, stirring our imagination.

And the music on this CD exemplifies this philosophy, both simple and deep. Sam is wonderfully assisted by bassist Aidan O’Donnell and drummer Taro Okamoto — who do not fade into the background nor do they overpower.  This trio has the balanced lightness and weight of the trio sessions Lucky Thompson did with Oscar Pettiford and Skeeter Best, yet it sounds entirely fresh, not a “recreation.”

The songs reflect Sam’s love for lasting melodies: LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME / MY FUTURE JUST PASSED / DO SOMETHING (based on a Cole Porter melody) / SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY / WHY DON’T I / MEAN TO ME / ERONEL / YOU ARE TOO BEAUTIFUL / T.O.’S BLUES.

I am certain you will welcome him as someone not afraid to create beauty.

May your happiness increase!

WHEN LOVE GETS HOT, SPECIAL INSTRUMENTS ARE REQUIRED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ear is first mystified, then delighted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HotFountainPen

and here is more gossip about the hot fountain pen:

MMHfpnewsitem1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your happiness increase!

“DELICIOUS!”: THE DAVID LUKACS TRIO

Ruby Braff wasn’t terribly interested in food . . . but one of his prime words of praise was DELICIOUS.  And it came into my mind in the first few seconds of these performances by tenor saxophonist David Lukacs,tenor saxophone; Henk Sprenger, guitar; Uli Glaszmann, string bass — recorded on November 13, 2011, in the Theatre De Meerpaal, Dronten, the Netherlands.

Here they make something positively translucent out of Victor Herbert’s INDIAN SUMMER:

And a collection of jazz standards beginning with the witty, twisty Fifties anthem, BERNIE’S TUNE, before moving to a limpid clarinet reading of YOU TURNED THE TABLES ON ME,and a bit of BESAME MUCHO (the Swing Era is back!), a touch of INDIAN SUMMER, a mournful glance at SEPTEMBER SONG, a sniff at CLARINET MARMALADE, and some FLYING HOME to get us there.

Every note’s beautifully in place, but nothing’s chilly or over-intellectualized.  This swinging trio reminds me greatly of Lucky Thompson / Oscar Pettiford / Skeeter Best or — in this century — the nifty playing of Americans Chris Madsen, Andy Brown, Dan Elfland, Joe Policastro.  I first encountered David (through the magic of YouTube) as a member of the Menno Daams small band, and was instantly won over.  I hope there are more videos of this group, and a CD, and a concert tour . . . world stardom, riches beyond the dreams of avarice . . . they deserve it and more!  (I’m ready!)

THREE REEDS, FOUR RHYTHM = DELIGHT (Sept 18, 2010)

My title is particularly true when you have Dan Block, Harry Allen, and Scott Robinson as the three reed wizards, floating over and around the playing of Rossano Sportiello, piano; Gene Bertoncini, guitar; Jon Burr, bass; Pete Siers, drums.  All of this took place in front of “my own two looking eyes” at Jazz at Chautauqua this past September. 

I’ve seen same-instrument extravaganzas slide into machismo, but it didn’t happen with these improvisers, who know how to play softly, with feeling, with intensity.  Dan Block certainly knows how to program a set — some Fifties Basie (composed by Freddie Green, I believe), a less-played Irving Berlin composition from CALL ME MADAM, and a sweet Ellington classic.   

CORNER POCKET (or UNTIL I MET YOU) started things off in a properly rocking groove: Rossano easily gets that Basie glide without copying the most tired trademarks of the Count’s style.  Pete Siers and Jon Burr rock without raising the volume, and even when you don’t quite hear what Gene Bertoncini is doing, the musicians do — he’s in there, as they used to say:

And the sweetly swaying conclusion (I was so delighted by what Gene had played and by the smiles on the musicians’ faces that I missed the start of Rossano’s solo):

THE BEST THING FOR ME (WOULD BE YOU) is often mis-announced as THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE, but we know that the first title is sometimes truer than the second.  I first heard the song on a wonderful Vanguard session led by Mel Powell, with Ruby Braff, Skeeter Best, Oscar Pettiford, and Bobby Donaldson, all masters.  Here the first chorus is For Saxes Only, then with the rhythm section joining in, Scott, Harry, Dan, Rossano, and Gene — each one his own brilliant shooting star:

And the best thing for us is more (beginning with an energetic conversation among the horns and ending at such a high level of collective improvisation, those lines weaving and swirling masterfully):

I associate IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD with Vic Dickenson and the sound of the early-Thirties Ellington band (Otto Hardwick singing out the lead): here, the eloquent melody statement and embellishment is handled nobly by Jon Burr, before the horns have a quietly rueful conversation backed by the whispering rhythm section:

More than enough inspiration for anyone!

DAN BLOCK’S VIVID IMAGINATIONS

Dan Block is a peerless reed player, arranger, composer, bandleader.  A new CD captures his many imaginations whole.  The picture (by Dan’s daughter Emma) adorns the cover of his Ellington tribute, FROM HIS WORLD TO MINE. 

Tributes to Ellington, hoever well-intentioned, have often become self-limiting, even formulaic.  Some musicians try to duplicate the sound of famous recordings; others rely upon Duke’s hit songs; others nod to an Ellington line for a chorus and then go off on their own.  Dan Block’s way is his own.  No SATIN DOLL, no transcriptions.   Rather, the most familiar songs on this CD are OLD KING DOOJI and KISSING BUG.  (Ask anyone who admires Ellingtonian to hum DOOJI and you’ll see what I mean.)  The repertoire, although not consciously esoteric, encompasses both COTTON CLUB STOMP and SECOND LINE. 

Dan didn’t try to find musicians who could simulate Cootie, Blanton, Greer.  And while he can evoke Jimmy Hamilton, Webster, Gonsalves, Bigard, Hodges, he doesn’t ever shed his own identity.  Every track has its own sound — respectfully inventive.  So an Ellington composition from 1940 (MORNING GLORY) is treated as if it were timeless (which it is) material for melodic improvisation, but never imprisoned by its “period” and “genre.”

Duke’s compositions are deeply re-imagined: KISSING BUG, which leads off, has Dan wistfully playing the line — only after he has perched atop the rattling percussion of Renato Thoms, the drums of Brian Grice, the chiming vibes of Mark Sherman, alternating with 4 /4 sections where we hear James Chirillo’s guitar, Lee Hudson’s bass, Mike Kanan’s piano.  The rhythm section work throughout — in shifting permutations — is energized without being restrictively “modern” or “traditional.”  Although Dan is the only horn player on this CD, I never tired of his sounds or styles.     

I also noticed and applauded the natural sound of the sessions, for which I thank not only Dan but fellow saxophonist Andy Farber, who did the recording and shared mixing duties with Andrew Williams.  The players whose work I knew — James Chirillo, Pat O’Leary, Lee Hudson — sound beautifully and thoroughly realized.  The players who were new to me impress me thoroughly. 

Each track has its own suprises — a brief but wholly musical drum solo on BUG; an unaccompanied tenor cadenza on a musing NEW YORK CITY BLUES.  Dan understands that a slight shift of tempo (changing a ballad into a Fifties walk) makes a new composition although the notes seem the same. 

Dan has a searching lyricism, but he also loves to rock, as I see whenever he performs.  Not only does he vary his approach from performance to performance, but his horn (alto, tenor, a variety of clarinets, bass clarinet, and basset horn) without the result becoming gimmicky. 

The disc is full of marvels — but three in particular stand out.  One is THE BEAUTIFUL INDIANS (originally from 1947) that Dan makes into a shimmering impressionist painting through multi-tracking four reed voices (on as many instruments) — reed lines echo and intertwine, then hum and waft — all supported exquisitely by Hudson on bass and O’Leary on cello. 

Another is the ambling ballad medley of ALL HEART and CHANGE MY WAYS, a track combining duets for clarinet and piano, then alto sax and piano.  Mike Kanan is wondrously intuitive, his lines gliding from one beautiful voicing to the next. 

But I marvel the most at the pensive A PORTRAIT OF BERT WILLIAMS reconsidered at a slightly faster tempo as a four-minute chamber piece for Dan, bass clarinet; Chirillo, guitar; O’Leary, cello; Hudson, bass.  Imagine the Budapest Quartet playing Dvorak’s “American” Quartet / hybridized with the Basie rhythm section, with a touch of Lucky Thompson, Oscar Pettiford, and Skeeter Best . . . that would hint at this irresistible performance.  (Chirillo’s acoustic playing is both funky and delicate.)  This quartet returns for a sweetly lamenting ROCKS IN MY BED which reminds me of Jimmy Giuffre, Pee Wee Russell, and Danny Barker: you’ll understand when you hear it. 

But this disc is full of pleasures, some instantly apparent, some appearing only on repeated hearings.  The music honors Ellington but no one is subsumed into an already-established idea of “Ellingtonia.”  And the title says a great deal: Dan and friends play approach Ellington’s music by finding revelations within it.     

The disc costs $20.  To order yours, email its creator at BlockDan@aol.com.

A THREE-WEEK GIG

Jim Eigo (of Jazz Promo Services) sent this along — from 1973, by Stan Hunt in THE NEW YORKER:

THE VANGUARD SESSIONS

Vanguard Ruby disc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanguard Vic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanguard Mel 2

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

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

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

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

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

Vanguard Visionaries corrupt

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

SMILING JO JONES

As a high school student, I supplemented my intermittent jazz record purchases by listening to the records available at my local public library.  One of the librarians was hip.  Someone had good taste!  The collection included Ellington and George Lewis, Jimmy Rushing and Vic Dickenson, Benny Goodman and “The Sound of Jazz,” among others.  On those records — particularly the Vanguard sessions supervised in the early and middle Fifties by John Hammond — I first heard the sound of Jo Jones, his swishing hi-hat cymbals, his emphatic rimshots, his irresistible swing. 

I had already fallen in love with the propulsion and pure sounds of Catlett and Wettling, but Jo was a revelation: I can still hear the way he brought the band in on Vic’s RUNNIN’ WILD, or the three perfectly placed accents (all different) he used to propel Tommy Ladnier in a fast WEARY BLUES at the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.  And, a little later, when I bought my first Billie Holiday records, the Kansas City Fiva and Six, the Decca Basie band . . . I wanted to hear every record Jo Jones had ever been part of.   

Here is Jo — exuberant, explosive, grinning, soloing at the end of a fast blues, on a 1957 Nat King Cole television show devoted to Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe.  This clip begins at the end of Roy Eldridge’s solo (in mid-scream) and at the end Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown are visible:

But that clip gives way to my own memories of Jo in person, onstage and off. 

This post is motivated by a recent conversation I had with the Beloved about the subject of retiring from one’s job, leaving a career behind.  I told her one of the stories below and she said, astonished, “You spoke to Jo Jones?  Smiling Jo Jones?” hence my title. 

Not only did I speak to Jo Jones: I took this photograph of him in 1981:

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

True, the shot is amateurish: a head is in the way, my flash’s explosion is visible, the overall hue suggests Halloween . . . but Jo’s slow-motion mallet, on its ways down, pleases me greatly.  And the photo evidence that I was there, capturing this moment, which is no small thing.

Many other moments come back to me now. 

My friend Stu Zimny found out, sometime before 1972, that one could see Jo at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop.  We decided to go there, as if we were making a pilgrimage to some sacred place.  Was Jo holding court there, as befits an artist and aristocrat, or was he making a few dollars in a job unworthy of him, as I have read?  I don’t know.  I do remember buying a pair of 5B parade drumsticks from him — to practice with — and snippets of this conversation. 

In person, Jo was animated, inscrutable, vehement.  Something in his manner and approach defied easy explanation.  It felt as if we were speaking to a character in a play — and only Jo had the script.  There was also some element of unpredictability, even of danger, as if he might suddenly get furious at you in the middle of a conversation, as I saw happen with Ruby Braff.   

(Ruby, incidentally, told us a wonderful story about working with Jo at Storyville, almost twenty years earlier: Jo would never say, “Let’s play ROSETTA,” but start a rhythmic pattern and tempo on his hi-hat or snare and leave it up to the musician to guess which tune might best go with that tempo.  Ruby shook his head in disbelief when he recalled, somewhat in desperation, picking some song that he thought might be fine at that tempo, and Jo saying, “That’s it!  You got it!” as if Ruby had telepathically found the answer.  “I don’t play with him any more.  He’s nuts,” said Ruby.) 

Even when speaking to people he knew and liked, Jo had a particular tone of voice that in someone else might have been ironic verging on contemptuous.  But with him it was a form of emphasis.  You could hear capital letters, boldface, italics in his voice.  And he had a fierce energy in his speech: a conversation with him was like being strapped into a centrifuge, an untiring monologue, rising and falling. 

Spotting Jo at Ippolito’s, I imagine that we introduced ourselves as jazz listeners, fans, admirers.  And then one of us asked Jo where we could hear him play.  Was he gigging anywhere?   

He looked at us with weary resignation, two innocent Caucasian college boys who had asked a silly question.

“I’m re-ti-red,” he said, by way of explanation.  “I don’t play the drums anymore.  Leave all that to the kiddies,” he continued.  We couldn’t believe it, and asked him again.  He wasn’t playing any gigs, no festivals?  All he would say was that he was “re-ti-red.”  If we needed a drummer, he suggested that we call Buddy Rich.  Stu points out that Jo offered no contact information for Buddy.  

We went away from that encounter half grieving, half amazed.  We had gone to the mountaintop to meet one of the elders, to receive counsel and inspiration, and the elder had said he had packed it in.

The sequel to all this is that some months later we saw Jo’s name prominently advertised as one of the musicians who would appear in the Newport-New York Jazz Festival.  I think, now, that he had been putting us on.  But perhaps in his own head he had decided to retire.      

In the next decade, we had the opportunity to see him in a variety of situations: concert halls and jazz clubs.  He drove Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS at their 1972 concert appearance (a band that included Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and an out-of-tune Bernard Addison) and took a long solo in the middle of SLEEP — a virtuosic exercise that stopped the song and the show.  Two years later, he appeared at the Newport “Hall of Fame,” as part of a quintet with Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Wilson, and Hinton, his playing was immaculate, sensitive, not showy — Hackett turned the last bridge in “Body and Soul” over to Jo, who filled the air with urging, whispering brush strokes and accents.  

Tom Piazza, then a student at Williams College, arranged a concert of the jazz elders — when such things were still possible: Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton, Budd Johnson, Claude Hopkins, and Jo.  Stu and I went there, armed with a heavy tape recorder, and (in the face of numerous obstacles: an inebriated Budd, a student running the sound board who turned the record level up and down for no reason, an over-exuberant audience) we focused on the band.  Jo traded eights and fours with Milt on a leisurely STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and did his volcanic version of CARAVAN, with every grimace, every surprise firmly choreographed. 

He smiled incessantly when he played: he glowed.  But when we saw Jo in clubs, at close range, he often appeared to be brimful of some barely contained anger.  And though we had come to the gig hoping to hear something delicate, witty — that magical hi-hat sound, those quietly insistent brushes that had levitated so many recordings — he would beat out the time loudly, indefatigably, on a brassily resonant ride cymbal.  It was clear that there were two Jonathan David Samuel Joneses: one, the player we had heard on records, lifting the band with what Donne called “gold to airy thinness beat”; the other, furious at something, wanting to control it by pure sound and pure volume.  Stanley Dance told me about producing a 1961 session that paired Jo with some Ellington alumni — Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Ray Nance, Sir Charles Thompson — and Jo being infuriated about something, then playing as loudly as he could. 

I recall several instances of this irritation-translated-into-music.  When there was a ragtag band of “Basie alumni” assembled at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage: sic transit gloria mundi), Jo walloped the ride cymbal as if wanting to drown everyone out.  At a short-lived spinoff of the Half Note, “The Onliest Place,” a venture that lasted only a few weekends, Jo led a little band one night.  If I remember correctly, it included bassist Tommy Bryant, Ben Richardson on clarinet, Skeeter Best on guitar, and one or two other players.  They embarked on a nearly forgotten Thirties pop tune, CALL ME DARLING, which was not terribly familiar, and some members of the band got lost.  I can hear Jo shouting, “The middle!  The middle!” although I am not sure that this advice averted chaos.  Irritability and delighted in-jokes always characterized his appearances with “The Countsmen,” a group that included Doc Cheatham, Benny Morton, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Chuck Folds, Franklyn Skeete, and Jo.   

Jo could play magically in clubs, though.  I remember going to Gregory’s, a tiny room, to hear Ellis Larkins and Al Hall.  That duo played splendid embroidered jazz for one set and then Jo walked in, unfurled his newspaper, took out a set of folding wire brushes, spread the paper on a chair, and played with elegance, amusement, and grace.   

At the West End Cafe, thanks to Phil Schaap, Jo had a fairly steady gig: “Jo Jones and Friends,” which was most often a quartet of Harold Ashby on tenor, a pianist (sometimes Don Coates), and bassist John Ore, who had played with Monk.  One rainy night in particular stands out.  It was time for the band to begin and Ore had not arrived.  Jo began his sets with a medium-tempo blues in G, and, muttering to himself, he set the tempo by tapping his snare drum with his fingers.  Ashby soloed; the pianist soloed, and when it came to the two or four choruses that would have been taken by Ore, Jo grimaced, muttered loudly and incomprehensibly to himself, and played choruses of accompaniment — as if Ore had been there — with the tenor and piano silent.  It was mildly eerie.  Ore came in soon after, apologized for being late (he lived in Brooklyn), but it took the rest of the night for Jo to become calmer.      

One summer on Long Island, I read that Buddy Tate would be bringing a band, including Jo, to play a free outdoor concert somewhere miles from Manhattan on the North Fork.  It may have been Southold.  We drove out there and saw Tate’s outfit play the first half of the concert, with some of their members, including Jo, missing.  Jo’s son may have subbed for his father on drums.  Eventually, much later, a fire engine drove up, with a few cars following.  Jo came out of one of them.  They had gotten lost and asked directions at a firehouse.  I would like to report that the Tate band, plus Jo, played magnificently, but that wasn’t the case.  The group reassembled itself, and Jo demanded his feature on CARAVAN.  It went on, no nuance or flourish omitted, for something like eleven minutes.  After that, there was only time for Tate to play a hasty LESTER LEAPS IN, and the concert ended.  Perhaps it was because of episodes like this that when we mentioned Jo’s name to musicians of a certain era, their expressions grew wary and guarded.  “He’s crazy, man,” was the response we got from more than one well-established player.

But he could be politely accessible to fans.  I recall approaching him at the West End, before the gig had started, with a new vinyl copy of a record, FOR BASIE.  I had bought it that afternoon and hoped that Jo would autograph it for me.  Recorded in 1957 for Prestige-Swingville, it brought together Shad Collins on trumpet, Paul Quinichette on tenor, Nat Pierce on piano, Walter Page on bass (one of his last recordings), and Jo.  The cover picture showed Jo in a heavy flannel buffalo-plaid shirt with wide suspenders over it, and he grew animated and showed the other musicians at the table.  “See that?” he demanded of them.  “That is style!” he insisted, happily.  And he autographed the back side of the cover in a large ornate hand.  When he was through signing, he said to me that he had never heard the music.  I could take a hint, and offered him this copy (I had another at home).  I hope that it gave him pleasure. 

At another, later West End gig, I had with me a new record, OUR MAN, PAPA JO! — on the Denon label, which had a picture of Jo in full glower at his drum set, on the cover.  Thinking that one can never have too many Jo Jones signatures, I asked him to autograph this one also.  He stared at the cover, held it at arm’s length.

This will keep the burglars from your house!” he gleefully told me. 

In 1981 and early 1982, he was getting more frail and having more difficulty.  Jo played with great delicacy at a “Salute to Pres” concert, offering his familiar dancing trades with Milt Hinton — but he had to be helped up on the drum throne.  At the last West End gig I recall, playing was becoming more and more arduous for him.  When I heard about him next it was the news of his death in 1985.

Photographer Richard H. Merle was at Jo’s funeral, and he caught this poignant moment of Max Roach at Jo’s coffin — the flag draped over the back because Jo had served  — with great reluctance — in the Army in World War Two. 

 

Jo Jones Funeral

Jo Jones’s body has been gone for almost twenty-five years.  Yet his sound remains, and his smile — like the Cheshire Cat’s — has never been effaced.  

Copyright 1985 by Richard H. Merle.  All rights reserved.

SUMMIT SESSION WITH THE SIDNEY BECHET SOCIETY

Last Wednesday, the Sidney Bechet Society, created by Eric Offner, held two concerts at Symphony Space, paying tribute to Kenny Davern, who died in 2006, and Bob Wilber, happily still with us. Here’s what took place at the 9 PM show, with Wilber himself, Dan Levinson, and Nik Payton on a vast assortment of reeds, Dick Hyman on piano, Vince Giordano on vocals, string bass, bass sax, and tuba, Matt Munisteri on guitar, and Kevin Dorn on drums.

After a very brief introduction by Donald Gardner, who, with Phil Stern, will be running the shows in future (Eric will continue to savor them from the audience), Dan and Nik launched into a Soprano Summit original, “Please Clarify,” in the spirit of a 1941 Eddie Sauter composition for Benny Goodman — ornate, needing superb technique.

I noticed, happily, that Hyman’s piano had a lovely acoustic sound rather than the over-miking one so often must endure. Dan commented, as a segue, that Kenny Davern was the reason he had wanted to become a jazz musician — a good thing for us all!

A looser “Love Me Or Leave Me” followed, with earnest playing by Nik and Matt, and sterling work from Kevin on his hi-hat; “Elsa’s Dream,” a Davern line on the chords of “I Found A New Baby,” let us hear the two reedmen trade fours, then twos — very exciting! Nik then had the stage to himself for a too-brief, heartfelt exploration of Bechet’s own “Premier Bal,” where he showed off his rich, woody clarinet tone. “Hindustan,” from the 1918 hit parade, had the horns — in true Summit fashion — swapping the lead and harmony roles. Matt was especially lively, as was Hyman, on this romp. Nik then played his tribute to Wilber (his mentor) whose middle name, he explained, is “Sage,” thus, “The Sage,” an attractive minor theme that suggested both a Goodman Sextet theme with echoes of “Dark Eyes.”

Dan took center stage himself to work out on a Davern variant of Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp,” aptly dubbed “Fast As A Bastard.” It certainly was, offering Hyman a chance to show his amazing stride, and Vince to slap his aluminum string bass, resonant and focused as ever. Dan’s arrangement of PeeWee Russell’s “PeeWee’s Blues” brought Nik back, but the spotlight belonged to Matt, who bent notes as if Symphony Space had become the Delta for a few choruses. The first half of the concert ended with a deeply felt version of “Trav’lin All Alone.”

The second half began with The Man Himself, Bob Wilber, looking bouncy and boyish, announcing “Eighty is the new fifty!” (I still haven’t figured out how old that makes me: it’s a puzzlement.) Over the rocking rhythm section, with Kevin becoming Jo Jones, Bob and Nik played Kern’s “I Won’t Dance,” delighting in its singular bridge. Bob handed things over to Nik for a ballad, “You Are Too Beautiful,” that initially was a duet with Vince’s bass, reminding me of the Lucky Thompson – Oscar Pettiford – Skeeter Best recordings of the Fifties. A Condon-inspired “California, Here I Come” changed the mood in a flash, with Hyman boiling away behind the horns. Hyman announced his solo feature as a song with three titles: “Moritat,” “The Theme from The Threepenny Opera,” and “Mack the Knife,” and went from a brooding introduction to a minimalist exploration of the simple theme (echoes of Dave McKenna), to his patented uptempo stride, clipped and reminiscent of Forties Johnny Guarneri. It was truly a virtuoso exhibition with every note in place.

Much of the music that had preceded was cheerful, extroverted, which is as a tribute to Davern and Wilber should be. But for me the highlight of the evening was Wilber’s tribute to Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn, “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” where Wilber showed that his tone and power, his singing melodic conception, were all intact. (The brilliant young pianist Ehud Asherie was in the audience; at Smalls, the next night, he created a sorrowing version of Strayhorn’s song, clearly with Wilber’s notes in his head.)

The mood changed for a rollicking Vince vocal on “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” No tribute to Soprano Summit could conclude without “The Mooche,” and the evening concluded with a romp on “Bye Bye Blues,” with a guest spot for Wilber’s newest prodigy, Alex Mendham, on alto, as the youngest member of the lineage that began with Wilber as Bechet’s student in 1946. It was a generous concert — over two hours — in honor of reed players who gave their all to their audiences. Future concerts will feature Evan Christopher (September 15) and Vince’s “Mini-Hawks” (October 20). The smaller room at Symphony Space, by the way, has clear sight lines, good acoustics, and it’s a splendid place to hear jazz like this.