I first heard the Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace on 1951 broadcast recordings from Storyville (issued on Savoy records and reissued in the late Seventies) where he held his own alongside Wild Bill Davison, Ephie Resnick, and a loud rhythm section. (Later, Frank would tell me that he was half-deafened by Davison’s habit of blowing into the clarinetist’s ear.) Chace impressed me as having absorbed Pee Wee Russell’s style without exactly copying Pee Wee. Years later, I thought that he was to Pee Wee what Buck Clayton was to Louis — a loving reflection, a distillation. But in the early days of my vinyl-searching, there was no other Chace to be found on record.
in 1986, when I began corresponding and trading tapes with John L. Fell — film scholar, amateur clarinetist, and erudite jazz collector — he sent a cassette of private Chace performances: some with Marty Grosz, others with the guitarist / cornetist Bill Priestley. On this tape, I heard thoughtful questing that had only been hinted at on the Storyville recordings. And I wanted to hear more. After asking all the collectors I knew (among them the late Bob Hilbert and the still-active Joe Boughton, Wayne Jones, Gene Kramer) to dig into their Chace holdings, I had a good deal of music in settings where he felt comfortable enough to explore, from 1951 duets with Don Ewell to a Marty Grosz nonet and various small groups. Frank’s brilliance and subtlety — his willingness to take risks — moved me greatly. I iamgine I was also intrigued by his elusiveness: his name appeared in none of the jazz reference books; his issued recordings were out of print, except for a Jim Kweskin session on Vanguard.
Quite by accident I learned that he was still playing. WBGO-FM broadcast live remotes from the Chicago Jazz Festival over the Labor Day weekend. In 1997, listening idly to the proceedings, I heard the announcer say, “Up next, the Frank Chace Quintet.” I scrambled for a new cassette, and, feeling as if the heavens had opened to let divinity in, heard Frank play, marvelously, including a bossa nova and LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY. This gave me hope that he was alive and well, and I imagined that I might see him play sometime or have a new Chace recording to study.
Because I had spent much of my academic life as a literary detective, poring over unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, I became fascinated by Frank as a subject for study. I knew that he lived in Evanston, Illinois, and when I had his address confirmed by the Chicago musicians’ union, Marty Grosz, and John Steiner, I felt bold enough to proceed by writing to him.
I don’t have my letters to Frank, although his friend and executor Terry Martin tells me that Frank saved them, but I am sure that I introduced myself as an admirer, someone who would like to write about him (I had been reviewing CDs for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors Journal and was soon to start writing for The Mississippi Rag). In this post, I present his side of the correspondence. I have omitted only a few telephone numbers and addresses of individuals; otherwise I have left the letters intact. I have guessed at the placement of the few undated items; readers are free to do their own reshuffling if my logic offends.
I must have sent him some Pee Wee Russell cassettes, and addressed him (politely) as Mr. Chace:
12 Apr 98
A hasty note of thanks for the astounding packet. Golly, Pee Wee was even better than I thought.
I had no idea anyone was tracking my transgressions. If I recall, some of those pallid Pee Wee-ish peregrinations are even lousier than others.
You still think I should be interviewed?
I wish Hilbert had looked me up. I might have filled in a few spaces, e.g. PWR for Jack T. at Curley’s in Springlfield IL Oct 93 [sic], et alia. Five glorious drunken nites.
My father was from Mayville, N.Y. Any relation?
P.S. I’m Mr. Chace only to the IRS.
Frank’s opinion of his playing here is positively sunny. “Hilbert” was Robert Hilbert, who had written a Russell biography and compiled a discography. Later, Frank told me that the Curley’s gig was meant to be a Jack Teagarden quartet — Teagarden was by then appearing only with Don Ewell, a bassist Frank remembered only as “Pappy,” who was derisive about the other players, and drummer Barrett Deems. When Teagarden took sick, Pee Wee filled in for him, and Frank remembered long explorations of each song that would end with many choruses of eight-bar and four-bar trades among the quartet. Don Ewell was his great friend and musical mentor. And “Mayville” is a mild joke; I was living in Melville, New York.
Encouraged by his response, I sent Frank a photocopy of my then amorphous Chace discography:
20 April 1998
I’ve entered some guesses along with one or two certainties. I recall some of these sessions vividly, others not at all.
As for the penultimate entry on the reverse side, if you send a cassette I might sort it out. But aside from a few tunes with Marty [Grosz] and a bassist [Dan Shapera] from the Chi. Jazz Institute’s Jazz Fair in Jan. 1984 I haven’t listened to myself since before 1982, when I stopped drinking. Too grisly. (Except for a few S[alty] D[og] ensembles, below*.)
There was a 1968 session (at John Steiner’s, like many of them) during Marty’s brief affair with electricity: Lullaby in Rhythm, Exactly Like You. These should be around, God knows, if the rest of this stuff is.
Birch Smith sent me a CD “Selty Dogs 1955” last year. He finally issued them (Windin’ Ball) but so far as I know distributes from his home, only. I’d make you a dub but don’t know how. (I have only a Sony Diskman for playing.)
Do you have the 1961 Jabbos? Lorraine Gordon issued [a] two-LP boxed set around 1984. Sure enough, we didn’t try any Jazz Battles or Boston Skuffles, but we thought Jabbo was wonderful seapite reviewers’ demurrers. I never had other than a tape dub but gave it away 30 years ago!
Cheers back atcha,
I don’t remember when I asked Frank if we might talk on the telephone; he agreed, although our conversations were intermittent at best, usually on Sunday evenings. Once I interrupted him when he was about to eat some soup; other times I would let the phone ring twenty or so times before giving up. I now assume, and Terry Martin agrees, that Frank was at home — as he aged, his mobility was limited by illnesses — but did not want to talk.
I do recall his amusement when I asked his permission to record our conversations for a profile of him; he was both flattered and puzzled. He had said that he didn’t write to me as often as he would like because he lacked paper and pens; ever enterprising (or overbearing?) I sent him some. Now, I think he was being polite and evasive; I was more interested in interviewing him than he was in being interviewed. Gene Kramer, who had co-written a book on Don Ewell, had sent me a collection of Pee Wee rarities, which I copied for Frank:
24 Aug 98
It’s yet unclear how churlish I can get — might at least have sent a thank you card, but didn’t think I had any stamps. (NO — please don’t send stamps – I found some.)
*I haven’t listened to it all so far — it’s easier to replay the marvelous alternate Ida. Marty once opined that PW’s style came to fruition only around Home Cooking time, but it seems PW was annoying and perplexing his colleagues years earlier. And, how those other guys could play B I Y O Backyard. I’m reminded again of hos much I love Max.
*I’ve wondered for a long time how the US got this way — a week ago at the N[orthwestern] U[niversity] library I read NSC 68 (to be found in “Foreign Relations of the United States,” 1950 Vol I page 234). Example: “We seek to achieve (our values) by the strategy of the Cold War.” The whole thing is absorbing. Books I might have mentioned to youare The Frozen Republic by Daniel Lazare and Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948 by Frank Kofsky. If you’re interested.
Later. it’s to hot and humid for now.
*The “I” violated your code.
SPPFL = Society for the Preservation of Pete Fountain’s Legacy.
Love, Yakov, master of the ocarina.
The “Ida” was an alternate take of the 1927 Red Nichols recording. In retrospect, this letter mirrors our phone conversations. Frank was articulate and well-read. Although he could be wheedled into talking about himself (briefly and grudgingly) and the musicians he admired, his real subject was the downfall of the United States. I was much less well-informed about global history, and this seemed to exasperate him. I shared some of his views, but his gloom and rage were far deeper. I suspect now that he humored me when we spoke of jazz, but that it struck him as almost irrelevant. His comments about “I” and the “SPPFL,” which he had written on the envelope, need explanation. Frank disdained players he thought “synthetic”; Fountain was one. And I had mock-apologized in a letter for beginning several paragraphs in a row with “I”; hence his asterisks.
I didn’t hear from Frank until the end of the year, when a Seasons Greetings card arrived.
A bacterial infection put me in the hospital (out cold) Sept 14 – Oct 13 and Rehab Oct 13 – Dec 4, but I recover apace. Sorry about the hiatus. Hope you are well and prospering in this psychotic Republic.
Hoping all’s well with you. You wanted a picture. All I’ve unearthed so far are pix from Aspen, where Marty got me a few weeks with The Village Stompers. The wide angle shot shows Alfie Jones, a dandy Toronto trombonist, greeting Lou McGarity. The others you know or are listed.
I’ve been out of touch with Sandy Priestley, Bill’s younger son, the one most interested in his dad’s music. He one told me that Avis, Squirrel [Ashcraft]’s daughter, had rescued some stuff from the Evanston Coachouse and needed ID’s for some of the players. He, Seymour, lives in or near Milwaukee. I don’t want to put him in touch with you without your permission. The 1951 tracks with Nichols and Rushton, and Bill’s anthem Isn’t It Romantic might interest Sandy and Avis a lot, but it’s been a while . . . . This makes me miss the old “Club 55” (Lake Forest). John Steiner, too. The old order passeth.
As ever, Frank.
I had sent Frank a private tape (original source possibly John Steiner, the great archivist of Chicago jazz) of a 1951 Squirrel Ashcraft session featuring Red Nichols and Joe Rushton.
2 Feb 1999
I only just uncovered your Prima cassette amidst four cases of accumulated mail, mostly junko. I had never even known of the enhanced orch. of side B. PWR’s chorus-long trill on Dinah has me confounded. Never knew him to do the circular breathing thing. Prima clearly exhilarated him. Egged him on. Exhorted him. PWR IS SUPERMAN.
I (hereby disobeying your paragraph rule) never replied to your probe for an 8 x 10 glossy. Fact is, I never had one. The J D Salinger of the clarinet.
Yet another fellow, a Brit, has written about doing a piece on me for IAJRC publication of Miss. Rag. I’ve come across his note ten times, but now can’t find it. Name of Derek Coller from County Berkshire if I recall. Do you know of him? I might never find his address. I am less churlish than lazy and disorganized.
Your cassettes are better for me that Wodehouse’s BUCK-YOU-UPPO.
Frank was referring to the Brunswick recordings Pee Wee had made as a member of Louis Prima’s band, which show off Prima as successfully ouis-inspired, and Pee Wee responding with great enthusiasm. Ironically, Derek Coller (a fine jazz scholar) and Bert Whyatt did finish a long essay on Frank for JAZZ JOURNAL — in 2009 — and an accompanying discography for the IAJRC Journal in the same year. Like Bix and some of the Austin High Gang, Frank loved P.G. Wodehouse.
9 March 1999
You Leave Me Breathless. What? No Simeon too? Do I not play like Simeon? Beale (Billy) Riddle thought I played like Simeon. Possibly not like him on”Bandanna Days” tho. Beautiful.
Your encomiums had me groping for my blue pencil, but I won’t query you less’n you want. The finale, or coda, “inspired improvisation,” is a dandy. STET. I told you I was fighting for my life.
As for your S[umma] C[um] L[aude] submissions, they only fortify my esteem for those guys. How competent they are. The medley, stitched together with modulations ouf of Easy to Get, seems an outstanding ploy. Signature segues. The Miff unissued V-Disc: I heard Peg O’My Heart at Nick’s, then on Commodore, but PWR is positively SEIZED on this on. And on what you call “Notes on Jazz,” see if you don’t identify Mel Powell. The Bushkin right-hand grupetti, the fleeting salute to the Lion. And if Bert Naser is Bob Casey, why? AFM? And Joe Sullivans, I’d never heard these. No wonder [Richard] Hadlock’s fixation.
And Swing It. Priceless. My undying gratitude is yours. I’ve watched it only once so far, perhaps refusing to believe it.
And that fool Brunis. (Ending tape segment.) PWR phoned from the hotel upon arriving [in] Chicago with McP (MaFathead) for that NPR thing (Oct. 67?). I said, “Pee Wee! You called me”!* He said, “Who would I call, Brunis”? (Georg was his lifelong tormentor.)
I found the Coller letter and replied saying that the recounting of my legendary career had been already besought, but omitting your name and address. If you care to write him . . . .
Instead of dredging out my apartment I did so with my wallet and found the enclosed. It’ll have to do. Soon I’ll be “a tattered coat upon a stick.” Whence the quote?
Love and XXX,
*I have to watch my punctuation p’s and q’s, Prof.
P.S. My regards to [Gene] Kramer. We’ve got out of touch.
Have you read “the Ends of the Earth” by Robert D. Kaplan? An outstanding travel book.
Frank admired the Fifties John Coltrane, and “You Leave Me Breathless” was one of his favorites. I had written an exultant review of the 1955 Salty Dogs CD to the IAJRC Journal and sent Frank a copy. Since it infuriated him when people assumed he was imitating Pee Wee, I made the point that Frank had reinvented many of the classic clarinet styles — Dodds and Noone among them. Beale Riddle was a jazz fan, amateur drummer, and recordist who had captured an early trio of Frank, Don Ewell, and himself for posterity. “Bandanna Days” was recorded by “the Carnival Three” in 1947 for Disc — Simeon, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster. I had sent Frank airshots of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (with Kaminsky, Gowans, Pee Wee, and Bud) from the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in 1940, as well as an unissued V-Disc performance of “Peg O’My Heart” by Miff Mole, Pee Wee, Stirling Bose, and others. “Notes on Jazz” captured a number of Condon concert performances — before the Blue Network series began in 1944 — for distribution to South America. I had been given thirty minutes of this material by John L. Fell; the announcements were in Portuguese. I had also sent Frank a videocassette copy of the Thirties film short subject SWING IT — featuring Pee Wee and Louis Prima at their most lively, and may have included the 1967 JAZZ ALLEY television show with Hodes, McPartland, and Pee Wee. (Frank was in the audience, and remembered that Pee Wee offered McPartland five dollars to change places with him onstage.) Richard Hadlock continues to be an active West Coast jazz historian and reedman; he did a good deal for an aging Joe Sullivan in the Sixties. The quotation was from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which Frank knew I knew. Still looking for a picture to send me, he had found an outdated bus pass in his wallet and enclosed it, which I still have. Obviously he was in a happier mood. And I was thrilled to be purveyor-of-jazz-treats, sharing pleasures.
28 June 99
I went straight to the Marty-Ephie music. Was there ever a one-man gang like Mart? And Effie’s dry wit. I can’t always tell whether he’s trying to be expressive or funny. And he can play anything, sometimes all at once.
Grateful too for the Dodds stuff. It seems the Harlem hot-shots foreswore mocking him musically – let’s hope they didn’t do so personally. Terry Martin suggests he probably could hold his own in eiher context, Ewell’s fears notwithstanding.
I never dreamt the Ashcraft stuff had been orgaznied and documented like that. Pee Wee, guesting at Priestley’s in 1967, calimed he could identify Joe [Rushton’s] clarinet anywhere. So far I’ve heard only a little from these cassettes. Speaking of bass sax I have from the lib. “ART DECO” Sophisticated Ladies (Columbia, 2 CD’s set). Ella Logan sings I Wish I Were Twins, with Adrian [Rollini], Max, Bud, [Carl] Kress, [Roy] Bargy, [Stan] King.
It’s raining on this sheet. Grateful to know someone who connects with my frame of reference. Must run for cover. WITH THANKS
This time, I had sent a duet recording of Marty Grosz and trombonist Ephie Resnick, as well as the Decca sides pairing Johnny Dodds with Charlie Shavers, Pete Brown, and Teddy Bunn. The Rushton recordings are informal duets recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft’s — Rushton on clarinet, Bob Zurke on piano. Whether then or at another date, I had sent Frank a collection of other informal sessions at Squirrel’s: on the telephone, he told me that a prized listening experience was hearing Pee Wee on a 1939 or 1940 “Clarinet Marmalade.”
27 Mar 00
Don’t get a paper cut from these sheaves. Not that these observations from K. Amis’s memoirs are new to you.
I love the references to Hodes, with whom I played off and on between 1957 and 1984.
Young J. Dapogny introduced me to Lucky Jim. I evened up by playing him Tea for Two by one T. Monk, of whom he’d never heard.
The pages were excerpts from Kingsley Amis’s memoirs: Amis, like his friend Philip Larkin, revered Pee Wee and especially the 1932 Rhythmakers sides. In 1947, moving into an apartment, Amis glued to the wall “an over-enlarged photograph of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, with a typed caption adapted from the last stanza of Tennyson’s poem, ‘To Virgil’: I salute thee, Pee Wee Russell, / I that loved thee since day began, Wielder of the wildest measure / ever moulded by the lips of man.’ Frank also took pleasure in Larkin’s dismissal of Hodes: “he sounded as if he had three hands and didn’t know what to do with any of them.” When I see James Dapogny (now Professor Emeritus) I will ask him if the Monk anecdote is as he remembers it.
17 Jan 00
I write this on my lap in front of football TV, having no surfaces owing to apt. mucking-out, and having no pen I like andneeding to buy six encased in plastic to find out.
So this should be short – a mercy considering a sentence like the above.
Nice to hear Jack [Gardner or Teagarden?] again. An altogether agreeable cohort. And such exciting Lester and Fats. Listening to that radio announcer makes my blood run cold. I hate this f…..g country.
In that vein I’m reading Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised. My high school’s history text was Charles Beard. Reading him now suggests the textbook was seriously bowdlerized. No wonder we’re all so ignorant. Oh by Jingo.
Do you have, I mean do you know, Bud’s I Remember Rio, done latterly in Chi? Typical Bud. He’s like a favorite uncle.
At the library I check[ed] out the 2 CD Art Deco, Sophisticated Ladies on Columbia. I Wish I were Twins: Max, Bud, Adrian, Kress, Ella Logan? 1934. You Go To My Head unusual sunny Pee Wee yet controlled. Nan Wynn? Lee W.[iley] and a flock of canaries w/ nice acc.
I hear of a complete Django – might buy.
Ask me sometime about who I thought (whom, Prof.) was Jerry Winter — turns out to be Jerry Winner who hung around North Brunswick, NJ in 1951-2. Nice cl. With Raymond Scott 1947/8.
Also ask about the Victory Club.
P.S. I used “nice” 3 X, C-.
Terry Martin tells me that Frank discarded nothing and hoarded things in stacks and piles. Were the frequent references to desperate cleaning real or merely rhetorical? What incensed him so much in this letter was a live 1938 broadcast Fats Waller did from the Yacht Club — infamous for a condescending racist announcer who persists in calling Fats “boy.” Frank loved football but was aghast at the way the announcers spoke: he told me more than once of a famous sports figure, trying to sound polished, making a grammatical error. Now, this letter seems to combine politeness and impatience: I did not get the opportunity to ask about the subjects he threw in at the end. He had told me that as a young clarinetist, he failed to get involved in the rivalry of Goodman and Shaw; he cited Winner as someone he admired.
29 June 00,
I never expected that fooling around with a clarinet would fetch me such bounty as your books and cassettes. This Buddy Clark sure had accurate pitch, is it not so?
As for your Salty Dogs (Saline Canines: MOG) inquiries, as far as those of D. Coller about [Tony] Parenti, [Bill] Reinhardt and [Jimmy] Ille, I wouldn’t know what to say.
Did I ever tell you of my European summers (’51 and ’52) with the Amherst Delta Five? Their clarinet player preferred to sell used cars in Utica. One “Bosh” (Wm. H.) Pritchard came along on guitar (’51) which h’d never played. Someone showed him how to make a G7 chord. Some girls on board ship told him he sounded like Eddie Condon. Protchard became Henry Luce Prof. of Eng. at his alma mater.
I had sent Hilbert’s Pee Wee biography. The Buddy Clark session was an oddity — for the Varsity label in 1940, where he is accompanied by a version of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, with Freeman and Pee Wee taking surprising solo passages. “MOG” is Martin Oliver Grosz. I hope that the story of Prof. Pritchard is true.
2 January 01
Glad to have your letter, but saddened indeed at news of your mother. Please accept my condolences. What good is it to know that it happens to most of us before we depart, and that there’s always regret at what we failed to do or say in time.
As for me, I’m trying to emerge from the Nov. – Dec. blahs — respiratory congestion followed by the BLAHS of SNOW and cabin fever. Yes, I played a couple of gigs in Nov., just down the street really at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, a last refuge of cigarette smokers. I paid for it. [Bob] Koester showed up both times, and Paige Van Vorst, and someone named Jerry (a friend of Bill Russell of Am. Music) and an OTIS who is a P. W. fancier. A katzenjammer quartet: [mandolinist / guitarist Don] Stienberg, [Mike] Waldbridge, me, and an EAGER but blatty trumpet player. Later, Paige sent me a year’s worth of Miss. Rag. Don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
Koester keeps wanting a record session and I keep demurring. As for your discography and entries I question the Jazz At Noon dates as to my presence, my having been absent with a misdiagnosed biliary tract infection. I was in hosp. during the assassination of Fred Hampton. The Oct. 18, 1968 date shows an odd title inversion suggestive of Steiner: “Pick Yourself Up” is really Let Yourself Go.
Hang in there,
My mother had died, at 85, a few months before. Frank’s comments transcend formula, I think. And I take it as indicative of his worldview and political awareness that he should recall his hospital stay because of Fred Hampton: the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, killed by police at the direction of the FBI.
02 Nov 02
Terry Martin sent me a photocopy of D. Coller’s thing on Floyd O’Brien. Takes me back, if not quite aback.
Here’s hoping you are somewhat restored to the quotidian world, the humdrum, what an Army buddy and I referred to as the drab mundane. Meanwhile, I thought you might be bemused by the enclosed pic, from 1978 I think under a wedding-reception tent in Priestley’s backyard. (Lake Forest, IL). Bill, left, has his back to the crowd as was his wont, duels with Warren Kime. Your congenial leader is at back, looking like Bergen Evans. Not shown: Bob Wright, piano; Joe Levinson, bass; Bob Cousins, drums. Nice gig.
I’m looking for a cassette to send you: a string of tunes from the Chi. Jazz Fest, Jan. 1984. Doubt that you’ve heard them. A trio: Marty, me, Dan Shapera, hass. Last time Mart and I tangled. Trying to get my apt. under control – I’m not exactly a fussy taxonomist.
I will share this photograph in a future posting.
18 Dec 02
So you laughed out loud at M[ichael]. Chabon – I coarsen myself listen to the enclosed examples of obtuseness, banality, and dead-ass playing. I wrote Price and Thompson thanking them for the check and rhapsodic blurb, respectively. Also mentioned that I was both terrified and pissed off throughout.
Thanks anyway, but I can’t listen to Braff. Musically, verbally and in print, he is, for me, a prototype of The Boston Asshole.
I really must learn to curb my expressionism.
As Marty once abjured me, For Your Eyes Only. I continue to rummage for that cassette – my housekeeping is execrable.
The remarks above may offend, but at this late date I prefer candor to ellipsis. I had sent Frank a copy of a Braff CD I particularly liked; he sent me the 2-CD set of his live recordings from 1967 with Jimmy Archey and Don Ewell — an odd group of players, their styles rarely coalescing.
This is the last letter from Frank — and my Sunday evening attempts to call met with no response. I assumed he had fallen ill or no longer wanted to talk or correspond. Thus I was greatly surprised to receive a package months later — that long-promised cassette, with a scrawled note on a tiny scrap of paper, which read something like, “Sorry, man — I’ve been sick with ascites (?)” That was the last I heard from him.
Frank’s letters were always leavened to some extent by his wit, even when it was extremely dark. I don’t, however, know if he would have written to me at all if he didn’t feel the need to thank me for the things I sent him, which he did seem to appreciate.
Talking to him on the telephone, however, was often a depressing experience as conversation wound down. I found Frank’s mixture of annoyance, contempt, and sadness sometimes difficult, often frustrating. I wanted to celebrate and gossip about the older music (a fan’s ardor); he wanted me to listen to Coltrane. But more, he wanted to vent his rage at United States imperialism and the decline of the West. In retrospect, we had little to talk about. Someone listening in might have considered our sonversations as little dramas, with each of us wanting to make things go his way, succeeding only briefly. I know that musicians and non-musicians are often separated by an invisible wall, but these conversations had even greater barriers, although we were enthusiastic about the same things.
But Frank often seemed as if he was going through some elaborate set of motions; whether he wearied of me, an enthusiastic correspondent who attempted to ply him with cassettes, whether he wearied of talking about what was now the receding past, whether he was weary of people, I do not know. That enigma, still fascinates me, although the possibilities are saddening.
Thus I was surprised when I heard from Terry Martin, perhaps in 2006, telling me that Frank was ailing (which did not surprise me: the long spaces between calls or letters were often the result of hospitalizations) and that Frank had mentioned my name to Terry as someone he wouldn’t mind speaking to. I feel some guilt about this now, but I told Terry I couldn’t attempt to restart the conversation. I was going through a difficult period and Frank’s darkness was too much to face. Terry, to his credit, understood. The next news I heard was that Frank had died at 83.
I consider myself fortunate that I had these exchanges, and that we can hear him play on recordings. Frank had something to tell us, and he still does.
Frank Chace: July 22, 1924 – December 28, 2007.
A postscript: when I was attempting to interview Frank for a profile, I amassed five or six pages of transcriptions of those taped conversations. In the spirit of Frank’s housekeeping, these pages have vanished. However, I recall a few fragments. When young, Frank was initially intrigued by the sounds coming from the apartment below — a neighbor was a symphony flautist. When he began to take up the clarinet (moved to do so, of course, by a Pee Wee Russell record), he listened to “everything” and thought it was his responsibility as a musician to do so. He recalled with great glee a recording with Don Ewell in the house band at Jazz Ltd: the band was playing the SAINTS, a song Don loathed, and he kept playing MARYLAND through his piano chorus. (The details may be awry, but the intent is clear.) When asked what recordings he particularly liked, Frank eventually called to mind the Mezzrow-Bechet OUT OF THE GALLION, Bud Jacobson’s BLUE SLUG, and expressed a special desire to hear Pee Wee’s solo on the Commodore Muggsy Spanier Ragtimers SWEET SUE, which I did not have, but acquired through Gene Kramer. When Frank heard it, he remembered that he and Marty played it many times, their verdict being that Pee Wee’s solo “scraped the clouds.”
But he saved his most enthusiastic words for two extremely disparate recordings: Coltrane’s YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS and Jerry Colonna’s comic version of EBB TIDE. Since Frank’s death, I’ve heard both, and was much more impressed by the Coltrane. Colonna’s version of that pop song has the singer nearly drowned by sound-effects waves — surely an acquired taste.
Frank had seen my hero Sidney Catlett in concert once (a wartime presentation by Deems Taylor); he had played alongside Bobby Hackett once in an informal session, probably at Priestley’s. But there were almost no contemporary musicians he admired, and fewer he could see himself playing or recording with: Marty Grosz certainly, Dick Hyman, possibly. He was sure he was able to play a whole session and that he didn’t need to practice. Terry Martin and Bob Koester have first-hand experience with Frank’s reluctance to record. In fairness, few of the recordings he did make usually do not find him in the most congenial settings: he felt comfortable alongside Ewell and Marty and some of his younger Chicago friends, but such congeniality was rare.
Frank deserved better, but it is difficult to make him into another jazz-victim-of-oppression, as his stubbornness often got in the way of musical opportunities. I offer these letters and recollections as tribute to a great musician and enigmatic figure.
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