Tag Archives: Squirrel Ashcraft

LEGENDS REVISITED: THE SONS OF BIX (Manassas Jazz Festival, December 1, 1978: Tom Pletcher, Don Ingle, John Harker, Don Gibson, Russ Whitman, Dave Miller, Glenn Koch) with an APPRECIATION by DAVID JELLEMA

Of course, the Legends are Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Adrian Rollini, and their majestic colleagues.  But from this distance — can it be a little more than forty years ago? — Messrs. Pletcher, Ingle, Harker, Gibson, Whitman, Miller, and Koch are legendary as well.

I asked someone who is too young to be a legend but certainly plays like one, David Jellema, to write an appreciation of this band, this video, and Tom Pletcher, and I am delighted to present it to you.  David, whom I’ve known for more than a few years, is a world-class cornet and clarinet hero, hot and lyrical, his work intelligent and passionate, his style all his own even when he is paying tribute to the Masters who have inspired him.  At the end of this presentation, I’ll share a few videos where David shines and list a few sessions that delightfully showcase his work.

But now, to the Sons, through David’s affectionate and perceptive lens.

In the 1970s and 80s, many of the founding fathers of jazz and swing, although in their twilight years, were fortunately yet with us. It was also a great time for the second generation of jazzmen not only to be personally influenced by the ancestors, but to be mingling and collaborating to make their own unique sweet preserves of musical fruits. Bands featured at many of the revival traditional jazz festivals tapped specific, living veins of American jazz heritage.

There were a few bands on the scene that dedicated themselves to the memorialization of the legend of Bix Beiderbecke, some featured over the years at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society jazz festival in Davenport, Iowa where Bix was born. One such specialty band, western Michigan’s “The Jackpine Savages,” formed in 1971, had the expected repertoire of traditional jazz standards and many tunes that Beiderbecke had recorded, but had the honored distinction of including leader Don Ingle (Baldwin, Michigan) on valve trombone and vocals, and Tom Pletcher (Montague, Michigan) on cornet.

Ingle’s father, Ernest ‘Red’ Ingle, played tenor sax and violin,and over his career had recorded with Ted Weems, Spike Jones Orchestra, and his own group,the Natural Seven. For an engagement in Cincinnati in May and June 1927, Red appeared on tenor sax with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. So Don Ingle (1931-2012, who, as an infant, had been held in Bix’s own arms), inheriting his father’s music, humor, and artistic talents, was tutored on cornet by Red Nichols, on arranging by Matty Matlock, and played at Chicago’s Jazz Limited in the mid ‘60s. When he formed The Jackpine Savages in the early 1970s to play at the Lost Valley Lodge on Lake Michigan’s shore near Montague (also for various appearances locally and at aforementioned festivals), he switched to the valve trombone and hired local business-man Pletcher to play the cornet.It was just a few years later that Ingle collaborated with Chicago-based bandleader and piano player Don Gibson (Al Capone Memorial Jazz Band) in forming the Bix-style repertory band heard here, the “Sons of Bix,” whose repertoire and arrangements were primarily informed by Bix’s recordings and as well by period tunes Bix may have played.

This cornet player, Tom Pletcher (1936-2019), was fortunate to have been born to a sterling jazz trumpet player who had played in a few of the earliest jazz groups in collegiate circles. Stewart (“Stu” or “Stew”) Pletcher had friends and associates among the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, and Roy Eldridge (who had once exclaimed to young Tom sweet profanities of praise about his dad), and played professionally for Ben Pollack, Smith Ballew, Red Norvo. Young Tom had the nurturing environment of the earliest of the jazz pioneers even in his home growing up; and at 15, hearing his first Bix record, decided to take up the cornet. After formative youth years on the West Coast, adult Pletcher ended up taking over his grandfather’s decorative metal business in the White Lake, Michigan area (something his jazz musician father was not in position nor disposition to do) throughout a good deal of his life. This metal fabricator shop was a little more than 7 miles from where Ingle’s band would play at that lone restaurant overlooking Lake Michigan shores.

Pletcher’s fascination with Beiderbecke’s music led him into remarkable musical circumstances and personal associations that fueled and lent credence to his knowledge of Bix’s life and music. He corresponded with and visited the homes of the guys who had known and played with Bix. As a layman, he was diligent in seeking, and lucky in finding, not only information, facts, and stories about Bix, but even unseen pictures and a previously unheard recording, thereby to a small degree aiding in the research of Phil Evans toward two different exhaustive books about Bix. In that respect alone he deserves some credit toward the shaping of a factual account of Bix’s life beyond romantic and apocryphal mythologies and fantasies, something the dreamy jazz icon was victim to even before his tragic early death.

Pletcher’s acute intimacy with Bix’s music found its real recognition, however, in how he played a Getzen Eterna cornet(–one from 1965 that Ingle sold to him when Tom joined the Jackpines, and another large bore Eterna he bought in 1987). Certainly Pletcher had been influenced by his own father, Stu, and the musicians Stu associated with (especially Armstrong and Teagarden). Pletcher was an avid fan of Bobby Hackett, and often could deliver a solo sounding convincingly like the gentle man from Providence. He loved the recordings of Bunny Berigan, listening til the end of his life. Tom had acquired and absorbed all the lp records of Chet Baker. (Pletcher was also a keen listener, with Bix, to the music of the French Impressionist composers, Debussy, Ravel, and Delius, beautiful sounds that also influenced how he felt the music.) So a broad base of jazz (and classical) sounds made for a rich depth and diversity of the ideas that he expressed on the horn: he didn’t just play Bix’s licks or try to copy Bix. (The note-for-note tribute solo features like “Singin’ the Blues” mark the rare exception).

It was the extent to which Pletcher had absorbed and internalized technical aspects of Bix’s playing (attack and articulation, tone, vibrato, dynamics, effects and idiosyncrasies, and often, humor) without slavishly or consciously copying Beiderbecke that allowed him the acclaim among fans and musicians, contemporaneous to his generation and that of Beiderbecke’s, that he had come closest to Bix’s sound and spirit of anyone to date. All the other influences that had seasoned his playing allowed him freedom to express his own modern feel of the Bixian sound, keeping those sounds fresh.

Among musicians in the 1980s and early 1990s, he would be the first call to sit in “Bix’s chair” for a host of projects that recreated that period in repertory bands. While yet still alive, Bill Challis, the Bix-friendly arranger for the famous Jean Goldkette Orchestra and Paul Whiteman Orchestra (and the man who transcribed and published Bix’s piano compositions), joined with protégé Vince Giordano to do some newer, expanded renditions of songs from the Goldkette years, including tunes Bix had recorded and some he hadn’t. Legendary piano demi-god and musical powerhouse Dick Hyman had Pletcher featured in a 92nd Street Y concert in New York City (and subsequent CD for Arbors Records) called “If Bix Played Gershwin,” a delicious pallet of all Gershwin tunes rendered as if they had been played in some of the formats that Bix had been grouped in. (Actually, only one Gershwin song from the concert was one that Bix had recorded, “Sunny Disposish.”) An Italian film producer had Pletcher playing the Bixian lead and solos for the stellar soundtrack of a not-so-stellar film loosely based on Bix’s life called “Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend.” John Otto’s “Hotel Edison Roof Orchestra” made in two recordings the perfect setting for Pletcher’s sound: hot jazz arrangements from Jean Goldkette, California Ramblers, Ted Weems, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Sam Lanin, Frank Skinner, and more.

A word must be said about one of Pletcher’s longest standing gigs of fairly consistent personnel. Pletcher played yearly among a group of musicians who gathered to play at Princeton 50th class reunions (months of June, 1975-1981), partly to entertain alumni, but mostly to enjoy their own private ongoing reunions of musicians who were fond of Bix’s music and some who were there when Bix played at Princeton near the end of his life. Squirrel Ashcraft, Bill Priestley, Jack Howe, and other Princeton grads had continued playing music under Bix’s spell at jam sessions in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; they were joined by later Princeton grads like Ron Hockett and Doug James, and collegiate and commercial band alumni like Spencer Clark, Bud Wilson, and Bob Haggart. The music had Eddie Condon-like small group spirit and freedom, and a relaxed approach. Live recordings from these were privately issued on vinyl for the musicians, friends, and alumni. They too called themselves “Sons of Bix.” They later went into Jazzology studios to record formal lps under Haggart’s name, with arrangements on “Clementine” and “In a Mist” by Hockett. They also did a number of private parties on the east coast that carried the reunion flames forth, one among many in Vero Beach which produced a nice album of cassettes with a complete 8-page history of the various “Sons of Bix” configurations over the decades, written by Jack Howe.

The Sons of Bix that you hear in this video (originally calling themselves, tongue in cheek, “The Sons of Bix’s”) only have Pletcher in common with the Princeton Reunion Sons of Bix, although their personnel may have had associations in the Evanston, Illinois jam sessions at Squirrel’s. These SOBs had three lp albums that were released (“A Legend Revisited” on Fairmont Records;“Ostrich Walk,” “Copenhagen”both on Jazzology). One was recorded but not issued on vinyl, and only in part much later online, called “San.” They played at the popular traditional jazz festivals like San Diego, Central City, and Sacramento. They toured Europe in 1979, playing in numerous countries and at the Breda Jazz Festival. (That is no small feat for loads of luggage, many horn and drum cases, a bass sax, train schedules and coaches, plane rides, small alleys, streets, and bars, wives and my own tagging aunt and uncle..)

In their “first East Coast appearance,” introduced here by the director of the DC-area Manassas Jazz Festival, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, the personnel consists of Glenn Koch, drums; Don Ingle, announcer, valve trombone, arranger, co-leader; Don Gibson, piano, arranger, co-leader; John Harker on clarinet and alto sax; Dave Miller, banjo and guitar; Tom Pletcher, cornet; and Russ Whitman, bass saxophone. In this video you’ll hear six songs that Beiderbecke had recorded, and one traditional tune they occasionally played.

I heard this band live for the first time at this very festival. I was a little boy, almost 14, with a bowl-cut Dutch-boy head of blonde hair and corduroy pants climbing high over white socks. I joined some of them for a brief after-hours jam session, along with another young Bix-Pletcher protégé named Ralph Norton, whose hair was slicked back and parted down the middle. (By the next time I heard them live, Ralph and I were in a cordial race to see who could part with his hair first.)Fast forward. In August 1987, I was just graduated from college, and for that summer was at my family farmhouse near Montague, Michigan (within a 12-minute walk from the Lost Valley Lodge where I first had heard the Jackpine Savages as a lad). The Sons of Bix had two appearances in the area the 8th and 9th, one at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp with guest Marian McPartland, in which she joined the band for a standard, played “In a Mist” solo, and did a haunting duet of “Stardust” with Pletcher. The next day,the SOBs were at a country club near Muskegon. Tom was playing that weekend on a brand new, large-bore Getzen Eterna, and any adjustments he needed to get used to the feel of the new horn on its maiden voyage Saturday night had been made into a crackling performance for the local jazz society the next day.

Unfortunately, life was making demands on me that did not allow me any further opportunities to hear this band live. But the lp records had to suffice, and the magic had been done on me. In either case, here was a band that liked playing together, liked the specific material they were reviving and reshaping, played with energy and cohesion, joked and giggled a lot. They had intelligent arrangements when needed, they could hug the ballads, and could fire up listeners with the standard barn-burners of the genre. Each musician was a seasoned, veteran master at his craft. Each one had remarkable personal connection to his antecedents at a time when some of those musical forebears were still alive to enjoy their own memories and these new achievements.

I have resisted a number of other opportunities herein to insert myself further into the narrative about this band and its roots, about Ingle, and especially about Pletcher. I will simply close with a note of gratitude to them for their loving treatment of their musical heroes and their influence on the younger musicians they had the chance to shape, to the two horn players that especially mentored me, to all the other musicians who play in these sounds, and finally to the historians, archivists, and documenters that have the cultivating hands in making this tree continue to grow in the shape of a musician from Davenport, Iowa.

And now, that 1978 session.  SUSIE / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / BORNEO / CARELESS LOVE / THOU SWELL / CLEMENTINE / FIDGETY FEET // Introduced by Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee: Tom Pletcher (cornet), Don Ingle (valve trombone), John Harker (clarinet), Don Gibson (piano), Russ Whitman (bass sax), Dave Miller (guitar, banjo), Glenn Koch (drums).

Back to David for a rewarding short interlude.

What could be nicer than four friends romping through a jazz evergreen: Albanie Falletta, David, Jonathan Doyle, and Jamey Cummins in 2014:

More friends, the Thrift Set Orchestra (yes, that’s Hal Smith!) in 2013, doing KRAZY KAPERS:

Many of the same rascals, plus the wonderful Alice Spencer, in 2014:

You can also hear David on the Brooks Prumo Orchestra’s THIS YEAR’S KISSES, two sessions by the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet, THE ROAD TO LEAVING and LIVE AT THE SAHARA LOUNGE, as well as FLOYD DOMINO ALL-STARS.

May your happiness increase!

THE PAST, PRESERVED: “TRIBUTE TO JIMMIE NOONE”: JOE MURANYI, MASON “COUNTRY” THOMAS, JAMES DAPOGNY, JOHNNY WILLIAMS, ROD McDONALD, HAL SMITH (Manassas Jazz Festival, Dulles, Virginia, Nov. 30, 1986)

One moral of this story, for me, is that the treasure-box exists, and wonderfully kind people are willing to allow us a peek inside.

A jazz fan / broadcaster / amateur singer and kazoo player, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, Jr. (1923-1990), — he was an accountant by day — held jazz festivals in Manassas and other Virginia cities, beginning in 1966 and running about twenty years.  They were enthusiastic and sometimes uneven affairs, because of “Fat Cat”‘s habit, or perhaps it was a financial decision, of having the finest stars make up bands with slightly less celestial players.  Some of the musicians who performed and recorded for McRee include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, James Dapogny, Don Ewell, John Eaton, Maxine Sullivan, Bob Wilber, Pug Horton, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Bob Greene, Johnny Wiggs, Zutty Singleton, Clancy Hayes, George Brunis, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Tommy Gwaltney, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barker, Edmond Souchon, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Gordon, Marty Grosz, Hal Smith, Kerry Price . . . .

McRee also had business sense, so the proceedings were recorded, issued first on records and then on cassette.  I never got to Manassas while the Festival was happening, but I did buy many of Fat Cat’s lps (with their red and yellow label) and years later, when I met Hank O’Neal, he told me stories of recording the proceedings on Squirrel Ashcraft’s tape machine here.

My dear friend Sonny McGown, who was there, filled in some more of the story of the music you are about to see and hear.  The 1986 festival was dedicated to Jimmie Noone and these performances come from a Sunday brunch set.  “It was a very talented group and they meshed well. Mason ‘Country’ Thomas was the best clarinetist in the DC area for years; he was a big fan of Caceres. . . . Fat Cat’s wife, Barbara, often operated the single VHS video camera which in later years had the audio patched in from the sound board. As you well know, the video quality in those days was somewhat lacking but it is better to have it that way than not at all. Several years later Barbara allowed Joe Shepherd to borrow and digitize many of the videos. In his last years Fat Cat only issued audio cassettes. They were easy to produce, carry and distribute. FCJ 238 contains all of the Muranyi – Dapogny set except for “River…”. However, the videos provide a more enhanced story.”

A few years back, I stumbled across a video that Joe had put up on YouTube — I think it was Vic Dickenson singing and playing ONE HOUR late in his life, very precious to me for many reasons — and I wrote to him.  Joe proved to be the most generous of men and he still is, sending me DVDs and CD copies of Fat Cat recordings I coveted.  I am delighted to report that, at 93, he is still playing, still a delightful person who wants nothing more for his kindnesses than that the music be shared with people who love it.

Because of Joe, I can present to you the music of Jimmie Noone, performed on November 30, 1986, by Joe Muranyi, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocal; Mason “Country” Thomas, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Rod McDonald, guitar; Johnny Williams, string bass [yes, Sidney Catlett’s teammate in the Armstrong Decca orchestra!]; Hal Smith, drums; Johnson McRee, master of ceremonies and vocalist.  The songs are IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (vocal, Joe); CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES (vocal, Fat Cat); MISS ANNABELLE LEE (Joe); SO SWEET; RIVER, STAY ‘WAY FROM MY DOOR; APEX BLUES; SWEET LORRAINE (Fat Cat).

Some caveats.  Those used to videocassette tapes know how quickly the visual quality diminishes on duplicates, and it is true here.  But the sound, directly from the mixing board, is bright and accurate.  YouTube, in its perplexing way, has divided this set into three oddly-measured portions, so that the first and second segments end in the middle of a song.  Perhaps I could repair this, but I’d rather be shooting and posting new videos than devoting my life to repairing imperfections.  (Also, these things give the busy YouTube dislikers and correcters something to do: I can’t take away their pleasures.)

One of the glories of this set is the way we can see and hear Jim Dapogny in peak form — not only as soloist, but as quirky wise ensemble pianist, sometimes keeping everything and everyone on track.  Joe has promised me more videos with Jim . . . what joy, I say.

Don’t you hear me talkin’ to you?  It IS tight like that:

Who’s wonderful?  Who’s marvelous?

I’ve just found joy:

I started this post with “a” moral.  The other moral comes out of my finding this DVD, which I had forgotten, in the course of tidying my apartment for the new decade.  What occurs to me now is that one should never be too eager to tidy their apartment / house / what have you, because if everything is properly organized and all the contents are known, then surprises like this can’t happen.  So there.  Bless all the people who played and play; bless those who made it possible to share this music with you.  Living and “dead,” they resonate so sweetly.

May your happiness increase!

HOT MUSIC, GOOD STORIES, LASTING FRIENDSHIP, KINDNESSES: HANK O’NEAL RECALLS SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT (Nov. 2, 2018)

Here is one perspective on Hank O’Neal — writer, archivist, record producer, photographer, friend of Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott . . . and many jazz musicians from Willie “the Lion” Smith to Borah Bergman.  Hank is also an incredible resource and storyteller, someone I am thrilled to call a friend: reasons that Hank visits JAZZ LIVES, as he speaks with great fondness of Squirrel Ashcraft.  If you say, “Wow, Squirrel!” then you have come to the right place.  If you say, “Who IS that?” you’re also in for pleasure and enlightenment.

Hank O’Neal by Annie Tritt for the Boston Globe, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And since Hank is a masterful photographer, here is another character study, one I like even more — shot by Sherry Sereboff (2017, near Fort Worth, Texas) even better.  When I meet Hank next, I will ask what was on his plate:

I had asked Hank to speak about Squirrel for JAZZ LIVES, and the conversation began very informally, as he was paging through Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft’s scrapbook.  I just started videoing . . . with happy results — little anecdotes about sacred objects connected to Bix, Tesch, and Dick Voynow.  But for future researchers, any time someone you respect says the words, “Letters from Brad Gowans,” you know something important is being revealed:

“Who was Squirrel Ashcraft and how did I meet him?”:

Paging through Squirrel’s 1928-9 notebook, “JAZZ MUSIC,” with entries devoted to the Wolverines, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, the Georgians, Jack Pettis, Leon Roppolo, Henderson’s adaptation of RHAPSODY IN BLUE, and more:

I first learned about Squirrel through EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (a book Eddie did with Hank) and then through Squirrel’s home recordings, later issued on rare lps by . . . Hank.  Here’s the story of Squirrel’s career — about fifteen years — as an archivist of home recordings, often aluminum, including performances by Johnny Mercer, Joe Rushton, Jimmy McParland, George Barnes, Boyce Brown, Bob Zurke, Spencer Clark, Rosy McHargue, also Joe Rushton, his motorcycle, and Pee Wee Russell, and Squirrel’s later playing career in Washington, D.C., and sidelights on Jean Bach, Jimmy Dorsey, and jazz reunions at Princeton University from 1975-79:

Finally . . . Hank brings us up to date (Squirrel died in 1981, but his relics are going to a good place.  And don’t miss the story about the Bob Crosby band: Squirrel and friends obviously knew how to live:

The best part of this story, just over an hour with Hank, is his obvious affection and indebtedness to Squirrel, and Squirrel’s sweet feelings for the music and musicians.  Thank you, Hank, for making the reclusive Squirrel appear to us in this century.

And . . . because Hank is a wonderful writer, here’s his “little piece” on Squirrel from his book on pianists. Some of the stories you will have heard from the videos above, but they don’t wilt with a second telling:

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

Edwin Maurice Ashcraft III, better known as “Squirrel”, is the least known pianist in this book, but he was by far the most important to me. It all started because of two courses I’d taken at Syracuse University; one in Russian Studies and another in African Studies. The Russian Studies course ultimately led me to be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The African Studies course, particularly one taught by Eduardo Mondlane, who was later to lead and win the revolution in Mozambique, led me to the CIA’s Office of Operations, where Squirrel Ashcraft was the Director.

Though forgotten today, Squirrel was a legendary figure in the world of jazz, at least into the mid-1970s, but much can be lost and forgotten in a quarter of a century. He was, for example, the only person I knew who had heard Louis Armstrong and King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, and had known and associated with a host of other legendary players from the 1920s, who were just names in a book or music in the grooves of old records to me. He was the kind of man who could make a simple telephone call and John Hammond, Neshui or Ahmet Ertegun would welcome me warmly. The same was true of any number of musicians of a certain age, i.e. the Austin High Gang, and their musical associates or disciples.

He was the first jazz artist I ever heard perform in an informal setting, that is away from a concert hall or club, where I was a paying spectator. By that time, he was in his 60s, hadn’t played regularly for years, never had been a first rank player anyway, and now had an affliction in one of his hands that affected his dexterity. But for someone of my age, and limited experience, it was more thrilling to be standing two feet from a legendary figure in his living room than hearing a great pianist from the top balcony in Carnegie Hall.

He was also the man who first introduced me to an active jazz musician, in this case, Jimmy McPartland. Later, he would introduce me to many others, and simply because he made the introduction, I was accepted by these men and women without question.

A little background is in order. Squirrel was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1905. His family was socially prominent and well situated. In the early 1920s he discovered jazz and became as deeply involved with it as possible. He was active in Chicago in the same way John Hammond was in New York, and he met many of the up and coming young jazz musicians in that city long before they had come up, befriended them, helped them whenever possible, and continued to for years and years.

Squirrel came east in the late 1920’s and attended Princeton. He played both piano and accordion, was part of Princeton’s Triangle Club, wrote songs, recorded with the Triangle Jazz Band, was known to and played informally with such legendary figures as Bix Beiderbecke, and even corralled the elusive cornet player one night, convincing him to record with the Princeton band. It almost came off, but not quite; Bix was there when everyone fell asleep but had vanished when they woke up. He continued at Princeton, but eventually returned to Chicago in the early 1930s, and took up his post in the family law firm.

He opened his home to every jazz musician who could find their way to Evanston, and hundreds did, usually on Monday nights. The sessions at Squirrel’s featured a who’s who of whoever was in Chicago at the time. He began to record these proceedings in about 1933 and, until he left for World War II, hundreds of private discs were made, sometimes with the help of his friend John Steiner. Steiner eventually issued some of the goings-on on Paramount 78 rpm discs and later on 10” LPs.

World War II closed down the Monday night sessions; Squirrel was inducted in the U.S Navy, and assigned to naval intelligence. After the war, he returned to Chicago, his law practice, and the music and recording began again, this time on a crude tape recorder that used paper tape. The music didn’t last long, however, because in the late 1940s Squirrel was selected by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency to run its Chicago field office, and the music slowed down once again. He was so good at the CIA game, he was urged to become the Director of all domestic operations in the early 1950’s.

Squirrel accepted the challenge, closed down the house in Evanston, moved to Washington, and vanished into another world, his whereabouts unknown, except to the musicians and friends with whom he kept in touch. There were no sessions at Squirrel’s massive apartment in Washington. When I arrived on the scene in 1964, his piano sounded a bit like one from a Charles Addams’ haunted house. But that was soon to change.

Suddenly there was someone around who knew his past, and even had one of those old John Steiner-issued Paramount records to prove it. I was the junior guy in the Office of Operations, but I had immediate access to the Director because of the music. This is when I learned that love of jazz of a certain sort could cross any cultural divide, regardless of age, race, or anything else.

It didn’t take long before the piano was tuned and regulated, and informal musical gatherings began. The first was with Jimmy and Marian McPartland, and two wonderful local Washington musicians, clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney (who founded and owned Blues Alley) and guitarist Steve Jordan. Squirrel got his hands back in shape, so he could spell Marian when she wanted to relax and, just like in the old days, everything was recorded. The first “new” informal session was eventually issued as a record that was given away to anyone who wanted one. I cut my recording teeth on Squirrel’s Ampex F-44 and two Electrovoice microphones.

Listening back to the old acetate and aluminum recordings from the 1930s, Squirrel reminds me of a pianist like Frank Melrose. A great deal more passion than technique, but good enough to get the job done. He was a better than average amateur in those days, and could easily hold his own with his peers, and provide good accompaniment to A-list artists when it was required. I remember him telling me that one night the entire Bob Crosby band came out to his house for a Monday night session. The thing that pleased him most was that the first complaint was from a neighbor whose house was three blocks away. And he got to play with the band when Bob Zurke was doing something else.

Squirrel’s influence in the jazz world was not as a pianist. He was always behind the scenes and, eventually, way behind the scenes. If Eddie Condon couldn’t get a liquor license to open Condon’s; Squirrel could make the call to the right person so it could be worked out, despite the checkered past of some of the club’s owners. If a certain player were down on his luck, there would be a check in the mail. There were any number of people he supported for life. He was a safety net for many, many of the first generation of jazz musicians, and probably some of the second and third. My guess is he was a safety net for a lot of people I didn’t know about, musicians, old friends down on their luck, or even a struggling bullfighter.

After he officially retired in the late 1960’s, Squirrel spent less and less time in Washington and more time at his home in Spain. Sometimes a year would pass and I wouldn’t see him, except perhaps to see him off on either the ocean liners Michaelangelo or Rafaello, his favorite modes of transportation between New York and Spain. When in Spain, he had little time for music, but towards the end of a letter from there, dated November 12, 1969, he says, “We are listening, which we do seldom at all, to Miles’ Sketches, and I wish so very, very much that Bix could have heard it…. We think about you often. Please write the whole story.” I’m not sure I ever did, but in the 1970s, and early 1980s, he had a burst of musical energy, at least every June, for half a dozen years.

In 1975, Jack Howe liberated a funny little band, affectionately called The Sons of Bix, from cornetist Tom Pletcher. Jack was an amateur tenor saxophone player, who’d been part of the in the Princeton Triangle Jazz band with Squirrel in the 1920s. He augmented the SOBs with Princeton alumni musicians, aided by the likes of Spencer Clarke, Bob Haggart, Max Kaminsky, Maxine Sullivan and others. The band only had one certain engagement each year, to play a class reunion at Princeton. It turned out, however, the band played the reunion of the Class of 1929 or the Class of 1930, every year until at least 1982. Squirrel actually played a little piano on all the dates until 1981. I recorded the performances, which, as often as not, were presented in tents. Squirrel and Jack then chose their favorite tunes, and I arranged for a few LPs to be pressed up and distributed to the dwindling faithful. The records are often spirited, but not landmark recordings. A friendly souvenir, but little more. Much to my surprise, some of them have been listed in Tom Lord’s landmark The Jazz Discography.

In those years, if I had to be in Washington, for whatever reason, Squirrel’s Watson Place apartment was always open, whether Squirrel and his wife, Patter, were in residence or not. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Washington since 1960; but to confess, I only went back a few times after Squirrel died in 1981. The last time I was there was at the urging of his wife. She telephoned in the mid-1980s and said she was cleaning out files and had found some correspondence from me in a box of music-related junk in the back of a closet. Would I please come down and save all these found items from the trash collector? I was also urged to pick up the crank-up Victrola with the bamboo needle cutter that was now stored in the basement. I’d first seen it at an old filling station somewhere in Virginia in the mid-1960s, offered the owner $10, which he was happy to have, and had passed it on to Squirrel, so he could play his old Hot Five 78s as he played them in the 1920s, when they were fresh and new. I was happy to have it back, and it still works just fine.

I drove down, had a nice visit with Patter, and loaded all the papers, the boxes of stuff she’d found in the closet, and the old Victrola in the back of my car. I had a last look around, and never went back, but stayed in touch with Patter until she became ill and her Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where she didn’t know who I was.

When I got home after that last trip, I had a good time looking at the correspondence, the old clippings from the 1930’s and 1940s. At the bottom of the box I saved from the trash man, I found the bell of a battered cornet, with a note from Jimmy McPartland. This was all that was left of the cornet Bix had bought him, when Jimmy replaced Bix in the Wolverines. This was the kind of thing that turned up at Sqiurrel’s house. And I’ll bet things like that don’t turn up too many other places.

Squirrel Ashcraft was a kind and generous man who touched the lives of many men and women in a positive way. When he found time to touch a piano, it was equally positive. I never heard him play the blues.

May your happiness increase!

“WONDROUS THINGS”: A CONVERSATION WITH HANK O’NEAL: JUNE 12, 2018 (Part One)

Hank O’Neal and Qi, 2003, by Ian Clifford

Like many of us, I’ve been the recipient of Hank O’Neal‘s wise active generosities for decades.  I greeted each new offering of Chiaroscuro Records (this would have been starting around 1972) with hungry avidity; I went to concerts he produced at The New School; I devoured his prose and delighted in the enterprises he made happen, such as the book EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ.  The very energetic and kind Maggie Condon brought us together in this century, and I came to Hank’s office to chat and then have lunch.  And then Hank agreed to sit for my video camera to talk about a fascinating subject: George Wettling as painter and photographer.  Here are the videos and some artwork from our October 2017 session.  You will notice immediately that Hank, soft-voiced and at his ease, is a splendid raconteur, a storyteller who speaks in full sentences and always knows where he’s going.

I returned this June to ask Hank about his life in the record business — specifically, those Chiaroscuro records and compact discs I treasure, featuring Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Dick Wellstood, Kenny Davern, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Bob Wilber, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, Buddy Tate, Don Ewell, Flip Phillips, Joe Venuti, and many others.

If — unthinkable to me — you’ve never heard of Chiaroscuro Records, do us both a favor and visit here — free, streaming twenty-four hours a day.  And how bad can a website be when a photograph shows Bennie Morton and Vic Dickenson in conversation?

Part One, with stories about Zutty Singleton, Earl Hines, E. Howard Hunt, Earl Hines, John Hammond, and others:

Part Two, which touches on Don Ewell, Richard M. Nixon and Spiro Agnew, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Marian McPartland, Willie “the Lion” Smith and other luminaries:

Part Three, which begins with money matters, then touches on Ruby Braff, Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna, Buddy Tate, Dicky Wells, and Wild Bill Davison:

Hank shared forty-five minutes more of stories, which will appear in a later post.

May your happiness increase!

LEE WILEY AND FRIENDS: “DADDY, YOU’VE BEEN A MOTHER TO ME”

The video that follows is visually unrewarding, but aurally I hope it will make up for the eight minutes of blackness.  What follows is both rare and odd: a performance of a forgotten sentimental 1920 pop song by Fred Fisher —

MOTHER one

Most of us know Fisher as the composer of DARDANELLA, PEG O’MY HEART, CHICAGO, and a few others, but this maudlin ballad (Mother is in Heaven, admiring the fine job Daddy has done of taking her place and raising the singer) must have stuck in someone’s mind, for at an informal session at Bill Priestley’s house on August 29, 1959 (recorded by John Steiner) this song emerged — in two versions — performed by an unusual collection of musicians: Lee Wiley, vocal; Frank Chace, clarinet; Art Hodes, piano; an uncredited Bud Wilson, trombone; Clancy Hayes, drums.  (Hayes was usually singing and playing guitar or banjo; drumming was not his forte.)  I have some small doubts that it is indeed Hodes at the piano, for the accompaniment lacks any of his trademarks.  Did Squirrel Ashcraft take over the piano chair and begin this song, reminding everyone of how memorable this ancient ballad was?

Here is the performance:

and here is the sheet music for those of you who wish to serenade and accompany at home:

MOTHER two

and

MOTHER three

and

MOTHER four

and

MOTHER five

Now, a postscript about the provenance of this music.  My dear (late) friend John L. Fell sent this cassette around 1988, but I thought I’d lost the tape.  And when I’d mention to a few people that I had a copy of a John Steiner tape where Lee sang and Frank Chace accompanied her, they would grow animated.  Then I’d say, “One of the songs is ‘DADDY, YOU’VE BEEN A MOTHER TO ME,'” and their response would usually be skepticism, widened eyes, and hilarity — because in the circles I travel in, to “be a mother” often has meanings that aren’t quite maternal.

When yesterday afternoon I had the right combination: a functioning cassette deck, my video camera, and a reasonably quiet room, I decided to make this video . . . and share it with you.  Lee’s fans will appreciate another example of her beautiful tone; Frank’s admirers will note his rather subdued and lovely accompaniment.  I wonder how they came to this song, and whether there were jokes made about its title before they tried it out.  It’s all mysterious, but I hope you find the music repays close listening and amateurish film-making.

May your happiness increase!

A FEW GLOWING SECONDS OF GLORY

When I returned to my apartment in New York, I thought, “I need music in here. Music will help remind me who I am, what I am supposed to be doing, where my path might lead.”  Initially I reached for some favorite performances for consolation, then moved over to the crates of homemade audiocassettes — evidence of more than twenty-five years of tape-trading with like-minded souls.

One tape had the notation PRIVATE CHICAGO, and looking at it, I knew that it was the gift of Leonora Taylor, who preferred to be called “Gypsy,” and who had an unusual collection of music.  When I asked drummer / scholar Hal Smith about her, he reminded me that she loved the UK clarinetist Archie Semple. Although I don’t recall having much if any Archie to offer her, we traded twenty or thirty cassettes.

PRIVATE CHICAGO had some delightful material recorded (presumably) at the Evanston, Illinois house of Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft — amateur pianist, sometime composer, friend / benefactor to jazz musicians. Squirrel was both a dear friend of Pee Wee Russell, Joe Rushton, Eddie Condon, Boyce Brown, Johnny Mercer, George Barnes, Lee Wiley, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and many others — one facet of a very intriguing life.  He deserves a biography.

But back to the music.

I played through the side of the cassette, rewound it, and played it again.  And I kept returning to a short improvisation: BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, played by Johnny Windhurst (cornet or trumpet) and Jack Gardner (piano) with possibly other players in the background — I hear a murmuring clarinet offering harmony notes — recorded, Gypsy’s typed notes say, circa 1950.

Neither Windhurst nor Gardner is as well known as they should be. Windhurst (1926-1981) was recognized young as a brilliant player, and got to play with the best — Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster in Boston when he wasn’t voting age, then Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Kenny Kersey, John Field, Jimmy Crawford a few years later, moving on to be one of Eddie Condon’s regulars, briefly recording with Jack Teagarden and on his own date with Buell Neidlinger, on a Walt Gifford session, with Barbara Lea (he was both colleague and boyfriend) then moving upstate to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he died too young (once being mugged and beaten) of a heart attack.

I saw him in person once, at Your Father’s Mustache in New York in 1972 — with Herb Hall and Herb Gardner (the latter someone who is very much with us) and Red Balaban.  Windhurst was capable of the most beautiful melodic flights of fancy — a cross between heavenly music of the highest order and Bobby Hackett — but he couldn’t read music, disdained the idea of doing so, and thus turned down higher-paying and possibly higher-visibility gigs from bandleaders.  I read somewhere that Woody Herman wanted to hire him, offered him good pay, promised to teach him to read, but Windhurst — a free spirit — would have none of it.

There is one video extant of Windhurst — I wrote about it, and him, in 2009 (and received wonderful comments from people who had played alongside him) here.

I did not know much about pianist Gardner, except that what I’ve heard suggests a delicate barrelhouse approach, and I seem to recall he was a large man called by some “Jumbo Jack.” But an exquisite biographical sketch of Jack by the diligent writer and researcher Derek Coller can be found here.  (Our Jack Gardner is not the man who led an orchestra in Dallas in 1924-5.)  Jack first recorded with Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland, then got more visibility with Harry James (you can hear him on SLEEPY TIME GAL and he is also on Sinatra’s first recording with James) 1939-40, then he crops up with Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Bud Freeman, and after being captured on sessions at Squirrel’s from 1950-52, we hear no more from him.

I know THE BATTLE  HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC as a very assertive religious song in which the enemies of the Lord receive divine punishment:  “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and so on, even though later verses of the song — known to how many? — suggest that there is a balm of kindness.

More importantly than the theological, I and others know it as a hot number — think of “Red Nichols” as played by Danny Kaye and “Louis Armstrong” as played by himself in THE FIVE PENNIES, sending the sermon. Everyone from Art Hodes to George Lewis to Gerry Mulligan has recorded it, but I suggest that no version you will ever hear matches the sweet delicacy of this brief celestial interlude by Windhurst and Gardner.

Windhurst doesn’t venture far from the melody — the recording catches less than a whole chorus, and aside from a bluesy transformation near the end, it is melodic embellishment rather than harmonic improvisation.  But he treats the melodic line with lightness, fervor, and love; every note is caressed; his tone is so beautiful as to make “golden” into an affront.  Gardner plays a simplified version of barrelhouse support but never gets in Windhurst’s way. The whole duet is tender, yearning — the music of the spheres in under a minute.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

May your happiness increase!

CREATING BEAUTY: THE THRIFT SET ORCHESTRA

Festival promoters, swing dance bookers, people who love good music, beautifully played, take note!

(If John Hammond were alive, this band would already have a contract with English Parlophone, be playing at Smalls Paradise, and be broadcasting over WEVD . . . but it’s 2014, and we have to make such things happen for ourselves):

KRAZY KAPERS (take 1):

and another set of KAPERS:

Who are these Swing miracle-workers?  Why, they are the Thrift Set Orchestra, a band based in Austin, Texas.  At their site, you can read the biographies of the individual musicians and learn more about the group. I don’t see a place where one can request an autographed picture of the TSO, but soon that will be necessary, as jazz and swing dance fans coast-to-coast get the message.

If the Thrift Set Orchestra looks familiar to you, it might be because I posted two versions of their THE MOOCHE in honor of the band and of Ellington’s birthday here.

What makes them so special? I have to put them in context. There are many other youthful jazz bands out there devoted to the music of the Swing Era (and by that I do not mean formulaic versions of IN THE MOOD for dancers), and they all serve a useful function.  But few of them play as convincingly and with as much inventiveness as the TSO.

Some bands execute transcriptions of the original arrangements and recorded solos splendidly (no harm done there); other bands offer their own improvisations (likewise); some bands woo audiences with energy and vintage clothing or snappy uniforms and Art Deco stands (visually appealing for those who like spectacle).

But for me the deepest question is always: “What does the music sound like if I close my eyes?  Does it please my deepest self?”

I know it might seem odd, but for me, the test for a new CD is the car — my Old New Car with a decent sound system.  Driving somewhere with a previously unheard disc in the player, I can’t read the liner notes or check who’s soloing on track six.  I can only listen. And my response to the TSO disc was nearly ecstatic. I played it once, then again. And in the next few days I played it every time I drove, even for a five-minute errand. Driving on a main street in a suburban business district, I made sure to lower my windows so that everyone could hear the TSO put their own stamp on NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, BLUE DRAG, or HELLO BABE. No one came over at a stop light to ask the source of this joy, but I am convinced that I did some good, even subliminally, by offering this swinging beauty to innocent bystanders. Spreading joy to children who have never read a book about improvisation.  “Mama, that man had music coming from his car!” “Hush, child! We’re going home right now.”

Back to the sounds. The TSO is a compact, energetic, and accurate jazz-swing orchestra, with players who can read and improvise in an idiomatic yet loose manner, and who can swing convincingly on their own solos. Their ensemble playing is authentic but not stiff, the solos inventive and personal. The band echoes Ellington and Bennie Moten, but it has its own Western Swing spiciness too.  The CD offers a pleasing mix of classic songs and originals, as well as less familiar Thirties evocations (not copies) of Freddy Taylor, Cab Calloway, Bob Crosby, Jean Goldkette, informal sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s featuring Bill Priestley on cornet. Guitarist / vocalist Albanie Faletta sings deliciously on BLUE DRAG, and trombonist Mark “Speedy” Gonsalez plays Roy Eldridge’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR marvelously as a feature for the lower-register horn, getting every note splendidly in place. David Jellema’s cornet shines throughout, nimbly evoking early Hackett, and he adds his clarinet to the ensemble when a trio is called for. The two-man sax section of Graulty and Doyle, switching horns, is absolutely a model — and their soloing is individual yet idiomatic in the best way.  Anchored by Hal Smith’s perfect drumming (you could listen to any of these tracks for the drumming alone and be refreshed), the rhythm section rocks — no pianists need apply.

The overall sound of the band is both light and intense, and there is no hint of pretension or stiffness. They don’t sound as if they can’t wait to get back to their post-Coltrane modal studies. The rhythm section is powerful but never obtrusive, and the horns glide from lyrical solos to speaking gutty truths through their horns (trombonist Mark could be our generation’s Snub Moseley, and we welcome him!).  The TSO, in addition, has the sound of a working band: people who are used to playing together and who enjoy each other’s musical company.

Had this CD had simply been expert recreations of recordings, I would have been far less enthusiastic.  Although eleven of the tracks here display some allegiance to recorded performances, each of them has small delicious surprises: brief horn solos where one wouldn’t expect them, a brief horns-only passage in SUNDAY; the welcome presence of a banjo on HELLO BABE; friendly adjustments, adaptations, and inventions: new touches that seem just right, something that Foots Thomas or Bill Challis would have liked just fine.  Witty musical ingenuity rather than idolatrous museum-quality reproduction is the result.

And in case you are someone with a record collection, muttering, “I’d rather hear the originals,” the TSO has some new originals to offer you, danceable melodies with memorable lines — most of them taking a single melodic phrase and moving it around in the best Waller style to create tunes that don’t leave your head.

The musicians are David Jellema, cornet, clarinet; Jonathan Doyle, soprano, alto, clarinet; Lyon Graulty, tenor, clarinet, vocal; Albanie Faletta, guitar, vocal; Westen Borghesi, banjo, vocal; Ryan Gould, string bass, vocal; Hal Smith, drums, performing NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW / SURE FINE / BLUE DRAG / SHAGTOWN JUBILEE / ROCKIN’ CHAIR / SNOWBOUND IN A CABIN / SUNDAY / SUGAR / HELLO BABE / SWEET IS THE NIGHT / WHO’S SORRY NOW? / KRAZY KAPERS / HANG ON EVERY WORD / MAMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM / THE MOOCHE.  Good sound from sessions recorded July 2013.

You can purchase the CD here for $15 plus $3 shipping.

original

I predict a brilliant future for the TSO. I’m delighted they exist. We need them — a musical embodiment of Bach’s Rescue Remedy.

And as for its band name — the Thrift Set Orchestra, here’s what its creator Jonathan Doyle told me: “The name came from a thought around the idea of the economy of size of the orchestra, or maybe about an economy of musical style. It might have been about recycled culture too, finding clothes and records in thrift stores and putting all of the styles from the different eras together as one pleases, embracing beautiful and interesting things from the past that have lost value in contemporary society.”

The TSO embodies a beautiful philosophy in their music.

May your happiness increase!

GOODBYE, RED BALABAN. FAREWELL, BOB GREENE

I’ve written very sparingly about the deaths of jazz musicians in JAZZ LIVES — for one reason, thinking that turning this blog into an ongoing necrological record was at odds with its title. But without saying that one musician is more important than another (Bobby Gordon, Frank Wess, Al Porcino, Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Sam Ulano, and a dozen others I am not mentioning here) I want to write and share a few words about two deaths of late 2013.

One was the bassist / guitarist / singer / impresario Leonard “Red” Balaban, the other, pianist Bob Greene.  Both of them were ardent workers in the jazz vineyards, and both (in their own subtle ways) did as much to advance the music as more-heralded musicians.

I had occasion to observe and interact with Red Balaban many times in 1972-5, again in 1975-the early Eighties, and once in 2013. In the summer of 1972, I learned from reading the listings in THE NEW YORKER that Sunday-afternoon jazz sessions were being held at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage — sic transit gloria mundi) on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street.  I and several friends made pilgrimages there.  The Mustache was a huge hall with sawdust on the floor, creaking long tables and wobbly chairs.  But for a nominal admission charge and the purchase of food and drink of dubious quality, we could sit as close to the bandstand as possible and (often) illicitly record the music.  The house band — Balaban and Cats — harking back to Red’s heritage in show business with the Chicago movie theatre chain created by Balaban and Katz — was usually a sextet, with Red playing string bass and singing, occasionally guitar or banjo, rarely tuba.  He called the tunes in consultation with the guest star, chose tempos, and led the session.  The Cats I remember were Marquis Foster, Buzzy Drootin, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Pratt, Chuck Folds, Red Richards, Sal Pace, Kenny Davern, Joe Muranyi, Dick Rath, Herb Gardner, Ed Polcer, Doc Cheatham, and I am sure there were others.  The guest stars, stopping in from Olympus or Valhalla, were Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buddy Tate, Jo Jones, Dicky Wells, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Bob Wilber — enough stiumlation for a lifetime.  I was a college student with limited funds, so I didn’t see every session: missing Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, Lou McGarity, and others.  But I did see Eddie Condon in the audience, which would make the Sunday sessions memorable even if no music had been played.  And his daughter Liza was there now and again, photographing the musicians.

A few years later, I saw Red occasionally as a member of Mike Burgevin’s little band at Brew’s, playing alongside Vic Dickenson and other luminaries.  Eventually, Red and Ed Polcer created the “last” Eddie Condon’s, on 54th Street, and I went there when I could — the house band, as I recall it, included Ed, Vic, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, John Bunch, Connie, Kay, Ronnie Cole, and another galaxy of visitors, including Helen Humes, Al Hall, Jimmy Rowles, Brooks Kerr, Marty Grosz, Bob Sparkman, Ruby Braff, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones.  At Condon’s one could also see Billy Butterfield, Dan Barrett, Soprano Summit, Zoot and Al — a midtown oasis, now gone.

Finally, I got to meet Red once again, after a lapse of decades, at the October 2012 house party created by Joel Schiavone and Jeff Barnhart. I introduced myself as someone who had good reason to be grateful to him for those Sunday sessions, and we chatted a bit.

Thanks to CineDevine, we have two samples of Red, late in his career, gently entertaining the room, with assistance from Jim Fryer, Jeff Barnhart, and others.  In a Waller-Razaf mood:

and something pretty from Rodgers and Hart:

A musician I respect, someone around in those New York years, had this to say about Red: “Not only did he love the music, but thousands upon thousands of dollars went through his hands and into the hands of musicians.  What he did with Condon’s # 3 is part of New York City jazz history.  He was a kind man who came from a very interesting family.  He wasn’t Ray Brown or Bob Haggart, but he kept jazz alive.”

Without Red Balaban, I doubt that I — and many others — would have heard as much memorable music as we did in those New York years.  So we owe him a great deal.  And he will be missed.  Another view of Red can be found here.

Pianist Bob Greene also left us late in 2013.

Bob devoted his life to celebrating Jelly Roll Morton and his music. He wasn’t the only pianist who has done so, but his emulation was fervent. I saw him summon up the Master at Alice Tully Hall in 1974 with a lovely little band (Pee Wee Erwin, Ephie Resnick, Herb Hall, Alan Cary, Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford).  They couldn’t quite turn that austere space into a Storyville bordello or the Jungle Inn (it would have required an architectural reconstruction taking years) but the music floated and rocked.  Across the distance of the decades, I think of Bob as a brilliant actor, committed with all his heart and energy to one role and to the perfection of that role — not a bad life-goal.

Bob was respected by his peers.  Mike Lipskin said, “Bob was a fine performer of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, and devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of this giant early jazz pioneer alive. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert many years ago.”  And a man we just lost, Bobby Gordon, told me, “I have fond memories of Bob for 40 years. He was always enthusiastic about music. I recorded with him 40 years ago and most recently for Jazzology. It was wonderful to record with him again, and a joy to be with such a remarkable talent. I will miss him……..a dear friend.”

Here’s a beautiful expansive piece by Hank O’Neal, a very lively evocation of Bob:

The first time I saw Bob Greene, he was playing a poor electric piano with a fairly loose ensemble, on the back of a flat bed truck. The band on the truck was trying, unsuccessfully, to recreate the feeling generated by old time bands on wagons in New Orleans. It is a long way from New Orleans to Manassas, Virginia, and 1967 was a half a century removed from those heady days in the Crescent City. I don’t remember the enterprise stirring up much support for the first Manassas Jazz Festival, but Bob was on board because his old friend, Edmund “Doc” Souchon was also there, and Doc had probably asked him to come along. I know it happened because I have a snapshot to prove it. In another snapshot from the same day he’s playing cornet.

You had to look pretty hard to find out anything about Bob. He’s not well-known today, rarely mentioned in any of the standard jazz reference books, and you have to dig pretty deep to come up with any information at all, but the bits and pieces are there if you look for them. And the story and the music he’s made along the way are both wonderful.

Bob’s first love was Benny Goodman, Jess Stacy and the swing guys who were all over the place when he was a teenager. He could still, when asked, do the best imitation of Stacy I’ve ever heard, but at some point he heard Jelly Roll Morton, and was hooked. Until his death in 2013, he remained one of the foremost exponent of Jelly’s music in the land. There are other guys who could play more notes, play King Porter Stomp louder or Fingerbuster faster, but when it came to really delivering the goods, with just the right mix of technique, exuberance and sentiment, nobody else even came close.

There are other guys who play Morton’s compositions well, in the style, often with more sheer technique, but, for the most part, this is just a portion, usually a small portion, of their repertory. The music of Jelly Roll Morton and some of his circa 1900 contemporaries, made up about 90 percent of Bob’s playbook, and the telephone doesn’t ring very often these days, or any other days for the past few decades, for someone to play a recital of Morton’s music. Which was just fine for Bob. He never had any intention of being a full time musician. The world was just full of too many other things to try.

Bob made his first recordings in 1950 with Conrad Janis (Circle) and in 1951 with Sidney DeParis (Blue Note) and recorded intermittently for the next sixty years, whenever it was convenient. His performance schedule was about the same. He played in and around New York City in the 1950s and Washington D.C. in the 1960s because he was writing some pretty fancy stuff for assorted notables to read on radio or in political speeches. Goodness knows what else he may have been up to. When he wrote a book about the OSS exploits of his cousin, Paul Blum, he had no difficulty gaining access to the highest levels of the intelligence community. But back to the music.

After Bob climbed down off the back of the truck during the ill-fated parade in Manassas, I discovered he could also play a real piano and when he played Morton it was special. As I’ve suggested, he made up in spirit and authenticity what he may lacked in a formidable technique. Not that he made mistakes, he didn’t, but to this particular pianist, passion was the point, not technique. He had all he needed to get his point across. Much in the same as Thelonoius Monk. Other people played Just A Gigolo better than Monk, but nobody played it with more quirky feeling.

The first time I really heard Bob was when I was asked to round up the gear to record a band to be led by the then legendary, now largely forgotten drummer, Zutty Singleton. The gear came from Squirrel Ashcraft, the recorder, microphones, even the take-up reels. It was February 12, 1967, I remember the date with great affection because it was the very first commercially released record I ever worked on. It was also my first encounter with Zutty, still a marvelous drummer, and the only person I ever heard in person who could almost simulate a melody on the drums.

Bob Greene was a strong presence among many exceptional players that day and the highlight of the recording, to me at least, was a duo, just Zutty and Bob, on Cake Walking Babies From Home. I don’t know if Jelly ever played the tune, but if he did, he would have played it like Bob played it that day, and maybe Zutty would have been around to make sure. This was Johnson McRee’s first record for his Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and except for a solo outing by Don Ewell, perhaps the best record he ever produced.

In the 1970s, I asked Bob to record for Chiaroscuro on many occasions, but he always declined. There was always a semi-legitimate excuse. He was the only person I asked to record in those years who didn’t jump at the chance, including Bob’s first idol, Jess Stacy. In the late 1970’s Bob assembled his World of Jelly Roll Morton band, made a fine record for RCA, played Carnegie Hall a few years and toured successfully with the group. But most of the time he was in between New Orleans, Paris, Tokyo and New York, rarely in any place for very long. He slowed down long enough to record all the Jelly Roll Morton tracks for Louis Malle’s fine film, Pretty Baby and he enthralled audiences with his Jelly Roll show at numerous Floating Jazz Festivals. I recorded one of these shows in the late 1980s. Maybe I’ll listen to it one day and see if it should be released.

In 1994 we produced an event for Cunard on Queen Elizabeth 2, a 12-day survey of the music of New Orleans, and Bob was on board, as both Jelly Roll Morton and as the pianist with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The New Yorker’s noted critic, Whitney Balliett, was also on board, in disguise as Baby Dodds, tastefully accompanying Bob on a snare and cymbal. Romantic that he was, Bob fell in love with the ship and was heartbroken when he learned that much of the furniture in the ship’s Theater Bar, where he held forth nightly with Whitney, was to be taken off QE2 when it reached New York, and given to the Salvation Army. He decided he had to have a table and four leather chairs and set about finding a way to work it out.

When we docked, I left via the crew gangway, and saw Bob at the other end of the pier in heated conversation with a man in a Salvation Army uniform. Longshoreman were hauling the furniture and putting it inside a truck. I later learned that Bob got his furniture. The deal was for a table and four leather chairs, in the best condition possible, delivered to his home on 92nd Street. In exchange, Bob promised to assemble a band, including Whitney, to play for a Salvation Army Christmas party. A decade or so later Bob moved out to the end of Long island and that old Theater Bar furniture moved with him, a few miles closer to Southampton. This is the kind of thing that appealed to Bob.

If Bob had worked at a career in music half as hard as he worked at getting that furniture, who knows what might have happened? But perhaps nothing would have happened, which is the case with most people who try to have a career in jazz, and he wouldn’t have had nearly as good a time as he had for the past 91 years. He was one of a handful of pianists I’d go out of my way to hear because he always made me happy. He had the same effect on others.

In November 2006 he toured Japan and a lot of other people went out of their way to hear him. After that he began working on a project to present a Jelly Roll Morton show at Jazz At Lincoln Center but it didn’t work out. A year or so after that he asked what I thought of getting him together with Joshua Bell for some duets. I thought it sound like a good idea, that Bell could do a lot worse. That didn’t work out either but an awful lot did and the music that resulted with simply wonderful.

Bob and friends:

MAMIE’S BLUES (2006):

I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (2010):

TIGER RAG (2011):

Thinking about these men, all I can say is this.

Not everyone is a Star, but everyone counts.  And fortunate are those who can follow their life’s calling and share their passions with us.

May your happiness increase!

WE ALL THANK THE INTENSELY GENEROUS TOHRU SEYA of FACEBOOK for PREVIOUSLY UNHEARD MUSIC BY MARTY GROSZ, FRANK CHACE, and JOHN DENGLER, 1951

If you’re not “on” Facebook, this man might change your mind.

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One of my Facebook friends is a very generous and astute Japanese collector of hot jazz, named Tohru Seya.  Although other collectors hold their treasures close and gloat over their possessions, allowing few to approach close to the Valued Objects, Tohru has the right attitude: generosity is love in action, not only love of the music, but love of other listeners.

While I and others are sleeping or doing ordinary errands, Tohru has come up with some records we have only read about.  He places the record tenderly on a very solid RCA transcription turntable, lowers the tone arm, and lets it play.  And did I mention he also creates a video of this generosity so that we can all see and hear the music?  Yes, he does.

Some months ago Tohru posted a set of three 78 discs recorded by a Princeton University jazz band — THE INTENSELY VIGOROUS JAZZ BAND — featuring cornetist John Dengler.  That was interesting in itself because one of the tunes was a slightly ribald effort called LET ME OVERHAUL YOUR CAR.  (The “BABY” was implied.)

Then, a short time later, Tohru posted pictures of a 10″ lp that had the INTENSELY VIGOROUS boys but with two ringers — Marty Grosz and clarinetist Frank Chace.  I know Marty and I knew Frank, and they are heroes to me, absolutely.  I confess that I asked Tohru how I could get to hear this music — eight songs recorded in 1951 by this band.  Just a day or so ago, these links appeared on Facebook.  We can ALL hear this magic music.

Here is the first side of the record.  Here is the second.

And here is the relevant information:

The Intensely Vigorous Jazz Band Vol.2.  10-inch LP (no number U.N.39) 300 copies pressed.  John Dengler (co); Marty Ill (tb); Frank Chace (cl); Hal Cabot (p); Marty Grosz (4-string-g); Stan Bergen (d); Squirrel Ashcraft (p-4). Princeton, NJ., May 1951.

1. At The Jazz Band Ball / 2. Basin Street Blues / 3. The Sheik Of Araby / 4. I’ve Found A New Baby / 5. The Charleston / 6. Buddy Bolden’s Blues (JD vo) / 7. When The Saints Go Marching In (JD, Band vo) / 8. Nobody’s Sweetheart Now.

I think this world would be a far better place if there were more people like Tohru Seya in it, and the principle of behavior I am espousing has really nothing to do with hot jazz records or Facebook, if you think about it for four bars.

Thank you, Tohru!  (His Facebook page is here.)

P.S.  If you are resolutely opposed to being on Facebook, I do understand.  And I think the links above will work only for people who are signed up for it . . . but I am sure you can find a friend or relative who will let you in the doorway for this purpose.

May your happiness increase!

WELCOME TO HANK O’NEAL’S NEW BLOG

You can find it here: http://www.hankoneal.com/index.php?option=com_lyftenbloggie&view=lyftenbloggie&category=0&Itemid=73.

I’m thrilled that Hank has entered the blogosphere.  We have so much to thank him for: the long series of Chiaroscuro recordings, the concerts at the New School (I was there for a few and treasure the experience), his Floating Jazz Festivals, his wonderful photographs, his book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM.  In general, he’s been one of the most energetic and thoughtful friends this music has.  (And any man who was a friend of Eddie Condon, Ruby Braff, and Squirrel Ashcraft deserves canonization.)

Now he’s got a wonderful blog — with long, lively entries on Earl Hines, John Bunch, Hank Jones (all of whom he knew and worked with), and this splendid picture of Jacqueline Onassis:

Hank is also a very fine writer: gracious, natural, sharp-eyed.  What he writes is first-hand; it’s not a series of other people’s observations.  I’ve added his blog to my list of morning must-reads and think you’ll want to do so also.

LETTERS FROM FRANK CHACE, 1998-2002

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

Dear Michael,

     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?

Cordially, Frank.

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

Dear Michael,

     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,

 Frank

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

Dear Michael,

     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. 

  Dear Michael,

     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.

 

[undated]

Dear Michael,

     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.

Cheers anyway,

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

Dear Michael,

     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.

Cheers,

Frank

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

Dear Michael,

      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,

Frank

*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

Dear Michael,

      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                      

FC

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

Dear Michael,

     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.

As ever,

Frank   

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

Dear Michael,

     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.

TaTa,

Frankie

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,

Dear Michael,

     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.

Hastily,

Frank

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

Dear Michael,

     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,

Frankie

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

Dear Michael,

     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.

As Ever,

Frank

I will share this photograph in a future posting. 

18 Dec 02

Dear Michael,

     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.

Ever,

Frank

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.     

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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RARE DISCS FOR SALE

I find it soothing to visit eBay on a regular basis to see what’s for sale and to muse about it. 

Our topic for today is 78 rpm jazz records, which used to be the only kind until the early Fifties.  I was somewhat overwhelmed the profusion of them on eBay — 1,183 items!  Of course, some of them had no business being in that category — a Dutch hand organ record, Clyde McCoy picture discs, records by Dinah Shore, Xavier Cugat . . . but there were more than enough authentic jazz rarities to make my head spin.  Here are some remarkable ones:

78 1

The combination of the Gennett label and Earl Hines is a potent one.

78 3

When was the last time you saw a Jack Purvis 78 for sale?

78 6

Squirrel Ashcraft and the boys, when they were very youthful.

78 9

Eddie sang on this one and apologized later . . . but it has Tesch, Sullivan, and Krupa, too.

78 11

I think this is a song from an otherwise forgotten musical production; if memory serves, the other side is YOU HAVE MONEY, DON’T YOU? — a song title that doesn’t make my heart leap with anticipation.  I want to know what the record under this one is!

78 12

Early Barry Harris and Frank Foster in Detroit, on the NEW SONG label.

78 14

The other side of this Wardell Gray record is called THE TOUP, no kidding.

78 16

I believe, although perhaps incorrectly, that this record has an early Jess Stacy solo passage; at least he remembered playing with this band.  (The leader would say, “Are you ready, Kittens?”  And they would have to answer “Meow!”  The life of a working musician.)

78 Fats Japan

And finally . . . an eBay seller is offering a dozen Japanese Victor Fats Waller and his Rhythm records . . . for some exorbitant price.  Who knew that Fats had such a reputation in Japan?  Did that country enter the Second World War because they wanted Fats to play for them?  It’s a theory no one, as far as I know, has yet explored.

The larger social significance of this list might be summarized quickly.  78s are unplayable artifacts for almost everyone in this iPod era and they look like valuable antiques that will fetch pleasing prices.  But the economy has made many people look for things to sell that they would otherwise have held on to.  Better that these records get sold on eBay to enthusiasts who can play them, so the music doesn’t vanish entirely.  Who knows how many wonderful 78s get thrown out when collectors die?  “Provide, provide,” as Robert Frost wrote.