Tag Archives: Stan Getz

GIFTS FROM FRANCE

Like the British, the French embraced American jazz before the Americans did, and jazz players found France welcoming as well as nearly colorblind.  I haven’t visited France, but INA — the French National Audiovisual Institute — sent me some holiday presents that I have been enjoying greatly.  

INA has created a national archives of what has been broadcast over French radio and television, over 1.5 million hours, of which 28,000 hours are available on the site.  You can see what treasures they hold at http://www.ina.fr.  And each day new content is added.  Eighty percent of these video and audio programs are available online for free, and the remaining ones can be purchased for downloading or burning to DVD at boutique.ina.fr.

When I first  heard about the jazz videos available for viewing, I lost myself for a few hours on the site, watching, among other things, a 46-minute video filmed at the 1958 Jazz de Cannes festival, featuring Vic Dickenson, Sidney Bechet, pianist Joe Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Bill Coleman, and others.   

Two new CD sets show how deeply the French love this music. 

http://boutique.ina.fr/cd/musique/jazz/PDTINA001734/jazz-aux-champs-elysees.fr.html

This disc (76 minutes) draws on the radio program JAZZ AU CHAMPS-ELYSSES, which had a twenty-year run.  Its creative director was pianist Jack Dieval, and some idea of its spirit can be heard at the very start of the disc where — after an introductory theme written by Dieval, you hear JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID. 

The programs featured a fine French house band, full of local jazz talent, as well as appearances by American and European jazz luminaries, and occasionally a jam session where the participants would be playing from different European radio studios. 

This disc — I hope the first of a long series — concentrates on the luminaries and the JACE house band.  Those who know their French jazz will recognize the names of Geo Daly, Gerard Badini, Daniel Humair, Michel de Villers, Rene Thomas, Guy Lafitte among others.  But the special delights (for me) of this disc come from Blossom Dearie, Stephane Grappelli, the Delta Rhythm Boys, Donald Byrd, Bobby Jaspar, Chet Baker . . . and a trio of exalted tenor saxophonists. 

First, there are two performances by Stan Getz and a large orchestra with arrangements by Michel Legrand — a melting I REMEMBER CLIFFORD and an energized PERDIDO. 

Then (we are climbing the mountain, in my estimation) Lucky Thompson — with rhythm — explores LOVER MAN (briefly) and DON’T BLAME ME.

Finally (at the apex), two joyous performances by Lester Young in 1956: LESTER LEAPS IN with the SDR big band (Horst Jankowski, piano) and JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID (backed by a trio including pianist Rene Urtreger).  Joyous music. 

And the other gift is a two-disc set of live performances from the Cannes Jazz Festival, all recorded between July 8-13, 1958:

What could be better than this picture of Dizzy, testing the waters?

The Cannes set is divided between jazz “classique” and “moderne,” distinctions which have blurred in the past fifty years, although the music has not. 

The “classique” performances include Bechet ferociously bullying his Fernch compatriots on three selections, tenderly playing ONCE IN A WHILE with Vic Dickenson and Teddy Buckner; pianists Sammy Price and Joe Turner, Albert Nicholas playing the blues. 

Then we move into even more exalted realms: a Coleman Hawkins solo on INDIAN SUMMER, four songs by Ella Fitzgerald, and two jam sessions — one featuring Vic, Hawkins, and Roy with French hornmen de Villers and Hubert Rostaing, and a final trumpet joust on JUST YOU, JUST ME — Bill Coleman, Dizzy, Roy, and Buckner.  Hot stuff!  And the rhythm sections are varied and fine: Martial Solal, Lou Levy, Arvell Shaw, J. C. Heard among others. 

The “moderne” disc offers bassist Doug Watkins — always rewarding — as well as Art Taylor, Solal, and lots of Kenny Clarke and the reliable Pierre Michelot.  There are substantial explorations by Donald Byrd and Bobby Jaspar, Zoot Sims, Tete Montoliu, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Barney Wilen, Michel Hausser, Berney Wilen, Sacha Distel, Stan Getz, and Dizzy — I assume having changed his clothes for his appearance onstage.

http://boutique.ina.fr/cd/musique/jazz/PDTINA001684/jazz-sur-la-croisette.fr.html

These sets (and the videos one can watch or buy from INA) are marvelous glimpses of Olympians who won’t come again.

BREATHING THE SAME AIR

Were I a different sort of person, I could blame my parents, who were lovingly overprotective.  I could be irked at them now for not encouraging me to leave my suburban nest at 14 or 15 to go into New York City.  Had they been more adventurous souls themselves, I might have seen Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart in the flesh.  But by the time I began to make the trek, Ben Webster had left for Europe; Coleman Hawkins had died. 

Rather than lament the ones I’ve missed, I will list the names of the heroic players and singers  — now dead — I did get to see.

Trumpets / cornets: Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Ray Nance, Louis Metcalf, Herman Autrey, Doc Cheatham, Pat Jenkins, Joe Newman, Joe Thomas, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Erwin, Dick Sudhalter, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Jimmy McPartland, Johnny Windhurst, Taft Jordan, Franc Williams, Jimmy Maxwell.

Trombones: Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Benny Morton, Bobby Pratt, Georg Brunis, Dick Rath, Tyree Glenn, Eli Robinson.

Reeds: Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Al Klink, Herb Hall, Kenny Davern, Sal Pace, Russell Procope, Benny Carter, Johnny Mince, Bud Freeman, Buddy Tate, Phil Bodner, Sam Margolis, Harold Ashby, Earle Warren, Rudy Rutherford, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Clifford Jordan, Rudy Powell, Budd Johnson, Eddie Barefield, Lockjaw Davis, Allen Eager, Barney Bigard, Paul Quinichette, Illinois Jacquet, George Kelly.

Pianos: Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Claude Hopkins, Dill Jones, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Jane Jarvis, Hank Jones, John Bunch, Jimmy Rowles, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Ross Tompkins, Joe Bushkin, Ellis Larkins, Sammy Price, Art Hodes.

Guitars: Eddie Condon, Freddie Green, Wayne Wright, Herb Ellis, Al Casey, Bernard Addison, Carmen Mastren, George Barnes.

Basses: Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Charles Mingus, Al Hall, Bill Pemberton, Gene Ramey, Jack Lesberg, Bob Haggart, Franklyn Skeete.

Drums: Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Cliff Leeman, Chauncey Morehouse, Buzzy Drootin, Tommy Benford, Oliver Jackson, Eddie Locke, Sonny Greer, Sam Woodyard, Gus Johnson, Jake Hanna, Connie Kay, Freddie Moore.

Vibraphone (or Vibraharp): Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo.

Violin: Joe Venuti.

Vocals: Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, Lee Wiley, Bing Crosby, Al Hibbler, Maxine Sullivan.

I miss them all, but feel so fortunate that I was there to breathe the same air, to hear their sounds.

ERNIE KRIVDA KNOWS

It’s possible that some readers have never heard of Cleveland-born saxophonist Ernie Krivda, now 65.  I’d like to change that, for I have been impressed by his work in various contexts for some time.  And musicians in the know (among them Quincy Jones and Joe Lovano) have always admired Ernie as a person and a player. 

Thanks to Bob Rusch, I first heard Ernie on a magical tribute to Stan Getz, where Ernie had assembled a large ensemble, including forty strings. to play Eddie Sauter’s film music for FOCUS and then, taking Getz as his inspiration but not copying him, had soared over that background.  The disc, “Ernie Krivda: Focus on Stan Getz: Live at Severance Hall,” (Cadence Jazz 1165)  remains one of my favorites — tumultuous, tender, sweet, ferocious — and I am not exaggerating when I say that I bought a copy of Getz’s FOCUS and preferred Ernie’s version.  (Heresy, I know, but true.)  Here’s some first-hand (or first-heard evidence of what Ernie does so magnificently: his 1993 duo exploration of LOVE WALKED IN with pianist Bill Dobbins):

Although Ernie clearly has a whole range of saxophone influences in his mind, from early Hawkins and Young onwards to Rollins, he is an individualist with his own sound and approach.  He’s not one of those musicians who has only two approaches: one, the respectful first chorus of a ballad; two, the abrupt deconstruction of the melody and harmony into abstract fragments.  Krivda, as you can hear in LOVE WALKED IN, honors George Gershwin’s melody, but is also making the terrain his own, gently pulling and tugging at the music’s familiar contours, experimenting with timbre, harmony, rhythmic alterations.  His playing is hard to categorize (for those who need categories), but I hear the sound of a man thinking, feeling, and exploring. 

Since this blog is often devoted to musicians who are no longer with us, I am pleased to be able to write about one who is alive and inventive.  Ernie had three new CDs: a solo saxophone effort, “November Man,”a second, “The Art of the Trio,” and a third (in process), “Ernie Krivda and The Detroit Connection,” featuring Dominick Farinacci and Sean Jones.  Krivda has also received the nationally recognized Cleveland Arts Prize for career achievement and a major fellowship acknowledging him as a player and composer.  His next album with The Detroit Connection is a tribute to the music of John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins.  The Detroit Connection band includes 78-year-old pianist Claude Black, Marion Hayden on bass (the matriarch of the Detroit jazz world), and Paul Gonsalves’ son Renell Gonsalves on drums.  It will be Ernie’s 30th album.

To learn more about Ernie, visit http://www.erniekrivda.com/index.php.. One of the categories I invented for this blog, early on, is “Pay Attention!” — profoundly relevant to the man and the music I’ve been describing here.

EDDIE HIGGINS (1932-2009)

My good friend Bill Gallagher was lucky enough to know the late pianist Eddie Higgins.  With Eddie’s help, Bill became his discographer as well.  Here is Bill’s beautiful elegy for Eddie:

Eddie Higgins: 2/21/1932 – 8/31/2009

The world of jazz has lost one of its most talented pianists and I have lost a good friend.  Eddie Higgins’ life was brought to an end by complications of lymphatic and lung cancer, an event that seemed to have developed in a matter of a few months.  I had seen Eddie perform in Sacramento in late May, had dinner with him, and he showed no evidence or indication of what was to come in a few brief months.

Eddie was a generous and talented person in so many ways.  He not only played great piano, but he could write well and discuss matters outside of music in ways that were thoughtful and revealing.  Although he could be generous with his time, it took a while to crack the veneer of New England reserve that was part of his persona.  But the effort and the result was worth it.  Underneath was a man who was a gentleman in every sense of the word, a man of taste, a highly developed wit, and one hell of a pianist.

His career was established in Chicago during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s where his longest running gig was a 12 year stint as the resident trio at the London House.  Eddie could play just about anything and with anybody, but he mainly stuck to Mainstream.  He once described Free Jazz as sounding like “a fire in a pet store.” Over the course of a number of years, he played with Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Al Grey and Eddie South. And that’s just the short list. Other well known piano trios that performed at the London House were intimidated by Eddie’s group. Some of the tales that came out of his London House experience were more than entertaining, such as the one involving Buddy Rich. Buddy was drumming like crazy but the customers were leaving because of the volume. The manager asked Eddie to turn down the amplifiers before everyone had left and Eddie did so – but Buddy caught him at it. Accusations were hurled at Eddie, Buddy drummed louder and threatened to get Eddie after the set. Sure enough, he came after Eddie and Eddie hightailed it into the restroom and locked himself in a stall. Buddy found the locked stall and proceeded to do a limbo under the door while Eddie vaulted over the top of the door and out the building. Later, each would avoid bringing up the event when their paths crossed.

Also during his Chicago years, Eddie was invited by Art Blakey to join his Jazz Messengers. Eddie refused because he had two young children at the time and it wasn’t a good time to go on the road. He also had an offer to become Carmen McRae’s accompanist but he turned down the opportunity for the same reasons and the job went to Norman Simmons. When further pressed for his reasons for turning down Blakey, he said that he didn’t want to be the odd man in the group. Eddie would have been the only white musician, the only non-user and Blakey had a habit of paying his connections before he paid his musicians.

Eddie’s versatility was amazing. During the 70’s he was exposed to some of the early recordings coming out of Brazil and was taken by the new rhythms of the Bossa Nova. Many of his albums include a track or two of a South American composition, but he also produced one of the finest albums of Jobim compositions that exists, “Speaking of Jobim.” If you haven’t heard it, you must.

There will be some who read this who will have no idea who Eddie Higgins was or how brilliantly he played. This won’t surprise me because Eddie traveled in certain jazz circuits and was probably better known in Japan and Korea, where his recordings on the Japanese Venus label are among the top jazz sellers. However, Eddie enjoyed deep respect among fellow musicians who admired him as a consummate professional. So, to those who might say, “Eddie, we hardly knew ye,” I understand. But to those who did know him, he was a national treasure and will be missed more than words can express.

Bill and Eddie at Sacramento

Bill and Eddie at Sacramento

About Eddie: he was one of those rare musicians who can make a melody, apparently unadorned, sing.  Any of his Venus recordings (solo, trio, or quartet) demonstrate that he was someone working beneath the surface of the music, giving himself fully to the song.  I also can testify to his gracious nature: having reviewed a Venus CD in Cadence (I believe it was his quartet with Scott Hamilton) I got a letter from Eddie, thanking me for what I had written in the most perceptive way.  I hope that more people come to his music as the years pass.

Jazz photographer John Herr, another Higgins devotee, captured Eddie at the leyboard during the April 2006 Atlanta Jazz Party:

Eddie Herr 406

Eddie’s widow, the singer Meredith D’Ambrosio, sent along this piece on Eddie from the Chicago Tribune — http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/chi-obit-ed-higgins-02sep02,0,1489219.story — a fitting tribute to a man who brought so much music to that city.  We send our condolences to Meredith and to Eddie’s family.  Thanks to Judith Schlesinger, Bill Gallagher, and John Herr.

BIG BAND JAZZ — FREE! — IN NEW YORK CITY

(To my readers in the tristate area: there’s no JVC Jazz Festival this year, and free jazz events of this caliber don’t happen often, if at all . . . so consider this one!)

BIG BAND JAZZ CELEBRATED

AT ACCLAIMED BMI JAZZ COMPOSER WORKSHOP’S

21st ANNUAL SHOWCASE CONCERT

Darcy J. Argue, Dan Morgenstern, and Dennis Mackrel to Judge Tenth Annual Charlie Parker

Jazz Composition Prize

NEW YORK, June 2, 2009 — The BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, a noted creative forum for musical exploration and development, will highlight the best new jazz compositions created during the last year at its 21st Annual Summer Showcase Concert.  The concert is free to the public, and will be held on Friday, June 26 at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church (120 West 69th Street) at 7:30 p.m. The concert will feature the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra, a 17-piece modern repertory ensemble made up of leading New York musicians.  Seating is first-come, first-served; doors open at 7:00 p.m.   The evening will also feature a competition to choose the winner of the BMI Foundation’s tenth annual Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, which will be given to the writer of the best new work composed in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop.  This year’s judges include noted jazz authority Dan Morgenstern; Secret Society bandleader and composer Darcy J. Argue; and noted jazz drummer and composer Dennis Mackrel.

The winning composer will receive a cash award and a $3,000 commission to compose a new piece for the following year’s concert.  Named in memory of the Workshop’s co-founder and longtime musical director, last year’s “Manny Albam Commission” winner, Jeff Fairbanks, will premiere his commissioned work.  The BMI Jazz Composers Workshop is led by internationally renowned composers Jim McNeely and offers a unique collaborative environment for professional jazz musicians with an emphasis on composition for the large jazz (big band) ensemble.  The Workshop – a well-known forum for creative excellence – provides an environment where composers are free to explore new avenues in the creative process, while at the same time honing their skills.  McNeely has performed with and written for Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, among others; is a six-time Grammy Award nominee; and The New York Times has called his writing “exhilarating.”

About BMI

BMI’s impressive roster of jazz artists includes such legends as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton and Charles Mingus, as well as today’s new jazz stars like Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Kevin Eubanks, Joshua Redman, Mark Whitfield and Bobby Watson. Broadcast Music, Inc.® (BMI) is an American performing right organization that represents more than 375,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers in all genres of music and more than 6.5 million works.

About the BMI Foundation, Inc.

The BMI Foundation, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation founded in 1985 to support the creation, performance, and study of music through awards, scholarships, commissions and grants. Tax-deductible donations to the Foundation come primarily from songwriters, composers and publishers, BMI employees and members of the public with a special interest in music. Because both the Foundation staff and the distinguished members of the Advisory Panel serve without compensation, over 95% of all donations and income are used for charitable grants.

THREE WISE MEN (OF JAZZ)

three-wise-men-jpeg

The wonderful reed player Frank Roberscheuten, pianist Rossano Sportiello, and drummer Martin Breinschmid mad a CD — they call their trio THREE WISE MEN.  And they are!  Here’s what I had to say in Cadence (January-March 2008) about the disc:

Often, the most traditional Jazz trio format – a reed player, pianist, and drummer – leads well-intentioned players into tributes to Goodman. That is hardly a bad thing, and I’ve heard many stirring evocations, but there is more to say from the instrumentation and the format. This CD goes its own way in featuring a balanced international small group whose scope reaches from James P. Johnson and Bud Freeman to Horace Silver, Monk, and Miles, never compromising the material or forcing it into stylistic boxes. Roberschuten can purl through a lovely rubato verse and then shift into tempo to deliver swinging improvisations, concise yet musically expansive. He has learned a great deal from his instrumental ancestors but his approach is a creative synthesis. On tenor, he has a Getz-Cohn fluidity, which doesn’t stop him from doing a splendid version of Bud Freeman’s bubbles and flourishes on “The Eel.” His clarinet playing is nuanced, caressing, and free from cliché, whether he is playing a Thirties pop song or a Jim Hall waltz. And his charming alto sound blends Phil Woods and Hilton Jefferson to great effect. He loves to linger over the melody, as on “You’re Mine, You,” a rewarding song that hasn’t been overdone. And his original, “From the East,” suggests late-period Ellington and Strayhorn. Throughout, I was reminded of the marvelous cohesiveness of sound, rhythm, and conception that distinguished the early Fifties Vanguard sessions – in particular the trios of Ruby Braff or Paul Quinichette with Mel Powell and Bobby Donaldson. Pianist Sportiello remains a champion: hear his beautiful touch on “Detour Ahead,” and “You’re A Sweetheart,” his astonishing whirlwind on “Dearest,” and marvel at his pushing accompaniment throughout. He suggests Jimmy Rowles or Tommy Flanagan when he is being serene; Ralph Sutton, Donald Lambert, and Dave McKenna when he chooses to stomp. A loud, uneven, or passive-aggressive drummer can sink a trio, but there’s no danger here. Breinschmid has listened closely to Krupa, but isn’t hemmed in by that style: his work on “Dark Eyes” is both homage to the originals and his own improvement on them; his brushwork on “You’re A Sweetheart” is reminiscent of Jo Jones in his prime. I never yearned for the absent bass player or guitarist, and there’s no monotony on this disc. I would begin with “How Deep Is the Ocean?” which combines deep feeling and forward motion at the same time. (The session is beautifully recorded, too.) If Roberscheuten is an unfamiliar name, he has also been an integral part of the debut CD by “Three’s A Crowd,” which matches him with the fine singer Shaunette Hildabrand and pianist Bernd Lhozsky. And the witty, ambling liner notes by trombonist Dan Barrett are assurance of Jazz quality.

The good news is twofold.  First, you can order the CD from frank.roberscheuten@planet.nl for $18, including shipping.  And I recommend that you do so!

Even better: the trio recorded another excellent session last month, which they are calling GETTING TOGETHER.  It should be available for purchase in a few weeks.  I will point out, immodestly, that I wrote the notes for the CD — music that’s easy to praise.

JOURNEY TO BOHEMIA: DICK TWARDZIK, SERGE CHALOFF, CHARLIE PARKER, and DYLAN THOMAS: THANKS TO SAM PARKINS

dick-t-photo-with-chetRichard Twardzik, Boston jazz pianist, was dead at 24.  And I don’t believe he ever saw any of his recordings issued.  His name has emerged once again in the jazz press (a fine appreciation by Ted Gioia at www.jazz.com) and there is a new biography out (BOUNCIN’ WITH BARTOK, by Jack Chambers, Mercury Press).  The photograph above shows him with trumpeter Chet Baker.

But The Real Thing is closer to home.  Sam Parkins, who never ceases to amaze, sent me this long essay — fascinating and heartbreaking in its immediacy — an excerpt from his book JOURNEY TO BOHEMIA, whose title refers both to the land beyond the familiar and to Cafe Bohemia.  Even if you’ve never heard Dick’s recordings, Sam’s essay-meditation is enthralling.

DICK TWARDZIK 1931-’55

Greetings gentle readers (that’s a 19th century locution. May not hold in today’s world): There’s a way over due bio published (back-ordered at Amazon) which may cause me to modify this and that – ‘though I bet I know stuff he doesn’t. As is true with all of these writings, this goes out to a dozen or so persons. Alta Ann is my first wife, member of my family and a good pal.

DICK TWARDZIK, d.’55; heroin overdose in Paris, with Chet Baker, age 24, is known to any even slightly modern jazz pianist because there’s a small recorded legacy. He’s the only junkie I knew – and I knew and loved this guy and could still weep for him – that wasn’t depressed. He had the joy of youth, always excited about what might come next. I wrote my first piano sonata for him, but death intervened…

$ [Alta Ann – you were in on the end – the night before he went off with Chet Baker. We had invited him to dinner; with desert I played him some of the Billy Banks sides with Fats Waller. He sat down at that great Bechstein grand in the living room and got very upset because he – a marvelous technician – couldn’t lay a glove on some of those triplet filigrees that Waller tosses off like cake frosting. It was you who asked – our friend now really clean after six months in the Bridgewater detox unit – “Dicky – why are you doing this – going off with all those junkies?” “To prove that I can do it”. You all know of course that he got dead in Paris instead. 1955]. Fine.

* * *

Dicky’s parents had restored the old house in Danvers (north of Boston) to its late seventeenth century state. Sure – it was central heated, had storm windows, sheep weren’t allowed to wander in and out of the kitchen. But they got it right, furniture and all – except for the big Steinway in the living room.

The kitchen was the showpiece. Discretely, at the far end of the big room, was a modern electric stove, refrigerator, butcher block island for chopping vegetables and having breakfast, but what you saw when you walked in the door, revealed by removing layers of sheetrock, plaster and wallpaper, was the ancient fireplace and chimney, with the hooks, rods and movable grills used to boil, broil, fry etc.; the oven to the right where bread was made, and the warming oven above it.

And on the left? A little door in the wall about a foot off the floor. Dick said that when they uncovered it and checked it out they left everything exactly the way it was:

He opened the door – and there was a little stairway – maybe a dozen steps, child-sized, that went nowhere. And, each exactly in the middle of its stair, climbing one at a time, were seven genuine, hand made, 17th century left shoes.

It’s late fall 1945. I’m on a long furlough, in the uniform of the buck-assed private I was. I get on a Cambridge bound trolley to Bobby Thayer’s house; he’ll drive us to the session.

But a note about Thayer, whom we won’t meet again. He had been in the trumpet section of the ‘kid band’ I played in through high school and early college, and had the distinction of being the first trumpet player in greater Boston – only a couple of months after those first mind-blowing Diz/Bird records – to master the complexities of Dizzy Gillespie’s style, which required blinding technique. He did make one little adjustment. He played all those licks at half-speed.

I meet his pretty wife, who spoke with a fashionable lisp. Go out to his ratty old Pontiac. Remember we’re all about 19. Head for downtown Boston to a jam session with (for me) mostly strangers – turns out to be the super stars of the region – Joe Gordon, Sam Rivers, Floogie Williams. Bobby, an otherwise lousy trumpet player, is accepted because of his curious quasi-mastery of Dizzy’s stuff. Turns out I can play with these guys because be-bop, which I never mastered, wasn’t the coin of the realm yet.

On the way, Bobby lights the first joint (marihuana) I had ever seen, let alone tried. Passed it over to me. Lovely.

The First Whorehouse. That was the working title in my early notes about Dick Twardzik. Most of the truly valid jazz joints I played in from 1944 on had a core ‘sin’ that defined them. The Golfers club, Ithaca, gambling. The Melody Lounge, Lynn MA, heroin. Harold’s House of Dixie, W. Orange NJ, money laundering and clubhouse for the North Jersey mafia. Barbara Kelly’s Glass Hat, Manhattan, blatant high-end prostitution. The Bowdoin Bar and Grill (where we’re going now) – really low-end prostitution. A sailor who had been all over the world said he never found a joint as rotten as this one in Calcutta. (To obfuscate matters – they weren’t all real ‘joints’. The Golfers Club was an old theater – take out the seats, add a bar and you have a dance hall. Gambling hidden in the back. Ditto Harold’s House of Dixie. College kids hangout. Bowling alley, cafeteria, two bars – and a big dance hall upstairs. Half a dozen hoods meet in an alcove under the stairs maybe twice a month. Black suits, navy shirts, silver ties, grey fedoras).

We’re driving but you could take the scenic route: Get off the trolley at Boylston St.; walk northeast (you’re on Tremont St.) the full length of the Boston Common past the Park St. Church. Tremont curves around to the left and becomes Cambridge St., headed for the river. If you’re walking in the 21st century you’ll come to a desolate moonscape called Government Center.

But if your journey is in 1945 you’ll find Scollay Square, the “Armpit of Boston”, a bustling market place with porn shops – dildos, vibrators, 8 m.m. ‘blue’ movies. Strip joints [being Boston, they didn’t quite take it all off – except for a flash when facing away from the audience – and toward the band], and the venerable Old Howard Theater, home of Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee. As you keep going toward the river the sleaze quotient becomes more pronounced and you come to Bowdoin Square – the back-side of Beacon Hill, with its Christopher Wren houses and some of the oldest money in America. Hang a left on Grove St. and there’s The Bowdoin Bar and Grill.

As you tour around this neighborhood keep in mind that WW II is just over and the Boston Navy Yard has hordes of sailors and marines in need of entertainment.

Ambience? Wasn’t any. No amenities. Maybe forty feet square. Row of tables on the left as you enter; kitchen on the right – a square chunk subtracted from the room. Past the kitchen in the resulting indent, three booths, followed by the men’s room – and the bandstand stretching across the back of the room. No sit-down bar; kitchen acted as a service bar. ‘Bar & Grill’? Massachusetts law requires that any establishment serving liquor must serve food, so the ‘Grill’ part was covered by remarkably good hamburgers when needed. The rest was dance floor.

Personnel: The kitchen – and the staff (patience my dears) were utterly dominated by Mary, the chef/bartender/boss. What in those politically incorrect days was called a bull dyke. At least 280 pounds, and I’m afraid it was all muscle. And two waitresses named Dusty and Dry Run. (For non-military readers, a ‘dry run’ is when the troops hold their rifles up, aim them at something, the sergeant says “Fire!”, pull the triggers – and nothing happens. No bullets). Well into their thirties, good-looking in a rough and ready way.

This was a non-resident brothel. The ladies had an apartment nearby, and one or the other would disappear for a half-hour periodically. When asked they would dance with the sailors; when not asked they danced with each other, with running commentary. Sample: “Hey Dusty, you stupid cunt. Your fucking slip is showing”.

Bobby and I climb on the (crowded) bandstand. Band as good as it gets; launch into some variant of the blues. Never was introduced to anybody. The stage is about 2 1/2 feet high; I’m perched at the edge, blowing leaning back a bit, eyes closed – and feel an unaccustomed draft around my crotch. Look down. My fly is open. “Oh – Dusty always does that to the new boy”. She had danced by, and…

One last tableau of The Bowdoin Bar and Grill: It’s a long set, strenuous, serious blowing. The joint is mobbed – it’s Friday night. Payday, and the sailors have money to burn. A crowd at the middle booth on the left gets my attention – three guys on the far side, four jammed in the near side and another half-dozen leaning on the table or the booth, laughing like hell. The guy in the middle of the far side is slumped down, head back, eyes closed in an expression of ecstasy — I peer under the table at his outstretched legs and there’s Dry Run on her knees, administering – well – in the Clinton era it was called oral sex…

Funky club, great session, great players – but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to meet the piano player. The closet that was the men’s room stuck out into the dance floor right by the bandstand; the piano was tucked in behind it, the piano player faced away from us. All I noticed was a little guy, playing music I’d never heard before (but he had. Bud Powell) hunched over the piano with an inch thick pile of hand-written music on the bench beside him.

At eleven the trumpet player looked at his watch and said, “Hey Dicky – you gotta get outa here!”. We declared a break, the piano player turned around, slightly dazed – and I saw a kid.
Dicky said “Oh migod”, grabbed his music and fled. The trumpet player explained: “He’s only fourteen. His mother wants him home by midnight and the last train out of North Station is at 11:30”. I asked the obvious question, “Who is he?”

“That’s Dick Twardzik. He wrote out every tune we might play, but hasn’t memorized them yet – that’s what the pile of music is about…”

I didn’t see Dick again until I came back to Boston in 1950. He had been with Serge Chaloff’s band for about a year and that’s where the trouble started.  (If you don’t know who Chaloff is, you could start with the Wikipedia entry online: brilliance, heroin, cancer. )

There’s a back-story about Chaloff’s cancer that came from Dick Wetmore, the great cornetist/violinist I played with around Boston for years. It happened that Dick and Serge Chaloff developed testicular (NOT spinal – that’s later) cancer at about the same time. The treatment was to lose the infected ball, (leaves one ball and leaves you sterile so Dick, with no condom, could blithely screw his heart out – which he did). And to go for twenty weekly radiation treatments. Dick Wetmore did it and is living in Florida as we speak.

Serge went for two weeks, “Oh the hell with it”, stopped going for treatment, went back to music and junk (heroin) – and that particular cancer’s first migration is to the nearest bones, in this case, the spine…

Woody’s Second Herd? Formed in 1947 after the huge success of the First Herd (see ‘Woody ‘n Igor’, module 4). Propelled Stan Getz to stardom with his ethereal solo on “Early Autumn”. Getz, Chaloff, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn made up the most famous “Four Brothers” sax section mentioned above (other players not so illustrious came and went). All addicts. In fact half the Second Herd were junkies. The stated reason for the break-up of the band in 1949 was financial – the dancers didn’t understand heavily be-bop tinged music. David Young, who knew Woody and most of the musicians, told it a little differently:

“Woody had to break up the band because guys were throwing up all over the bandstand”.

Gene Lees, Woody’s biographer, says “Hiring him must be accounted one of Woody’s worst errors: Serge was a serious heroin addict and, like so many of his kind, a dedicated proselytizer for the drug”.

Band breaks up in ’49, Chaloff returns to Boston with enough of a reputation as a star to be able to start a band of very young men (age 19 or so) and keep them working. And still proselytizing. It is here that Dick Twardzik and his band mates became heroin addicts.

The yin and the yang of the Chaloff family: Serge’s mother, Margaret Chaloff, was considered one of the finest piano teachers in Boston, with a studio over Symphony Hall. Dick studied with her for years. Gene Lees has high praise for her in his bio of Woody Herman.

I came back to Boston June, 1950, and into a steady Saturday night ballroom job for the summer – Nuttings on the Charles (river) – near the end of the ballroom era. Sparsely attended, only one night a week. After a six-year absence I knew almost no one. Circulated, went to sessions, slowly got back on the scene – and started four years of graduate school in composition at the New England Conservatory in the fall (playing constantly to pay for it). In getting back on the scene I encountered Dick Twardzik all over the place. Sessions, the occasional gig – not much of that though. I veered away from bop into New Orleans while Dick forged ahead as one of the few major ‘modern’+ piano players – remember 1950 is early days in be-bop, est. 1945. (+ let’s dispose of that right here. There was a lot of silliness about terminology. Be-bop, modern jazz, with a slightly different twist, but inaudible to the un-hip ear, progressive jazz. George Russell in desperation called his version ‘the New Thing’. Composers in the early 14th century faced the same problem. Came up with the ‘Ars Nova’).

But I particularly I encountered him at The New England Conservatory of Music (likewise encountered the legendary avant-garde pianist, Cecil Taylor, who gets a long look later). Dick was studying composition, and – and this is one of the real artistic drags about his death: He was studying harp with Louise Pappoutsakis, the Boston Symphony harpist, and would have evolved into – not the first, but the only be-bop harpist.

There is a warren of practice rooms on the second floor of the conservatory; each with a pretty good grand piano (and a dungeon in the basement with maybe fifty cubicles with not so good uprights). I’d see Dick at one of those grands, join him and he would show me what he was pursuing at the moment. For instance, what he called his ‘speed bass’. True stride piano in the manner of Fats Waller requires the left hand to drop at least two octaves (a leap of about a foot and a half) for a bass note on beats 1 and 3, leaving the chord indicating the harmony back up in the middle on beats 2 and 4. Playing a lot of Chopin helps. Dick kept his left hand in the middle position and hit the nearest ‘correct’ note (bass equivalent) to the south with as little hand motion as possible. (Any readers who know Dave McKenna’s music will hear this technique in frequent use).

I went to hear him with Serge, and particularly with Bird when he came to town – unlike classical performers, jazz players on tour then and now almost always go out alone and are at the mercy of local rhythm sections.+ It’s the Hi-Hat club, described elsewhere (the second burned-for-insurance fire closed it permanently). Of course I went. But missed the first tune of the first night. [+one of those half-truths that are taken for gospel at the time. Two Charlie Parker CDs, both taken from broadcasts in Boston clubs, have Charles Mingus, bass, Roy Haynes, drums – and Dick Twardzik, piano. For the non-jazz reader – Mingus and Haynes, New Yorkers, were about to become international stars].

Music lesson: Pop music back into the mists of history has been pretty simple. During the Golden Age of American Song – Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter et al – the harmony would change typically every two measures; once in a while, as in ‘The Song is You’, every measure, and on the lazy side, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, every four measures, with four beats to each measure. Until be-bop came along. The improvisers took to modifying the songs in the direction of complexity, putting in as many as one chord change per beat.

So Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker comes to the Hi-Hat and Dick Twardzik is tapped for the piano chair. “Ohmigod – I’m going to play with the Great Master”. Dick sat down at the piano and worked out complex re-harmonizations of every tune he could think of that might be in play and went to the gig*.

First song up is the above mentioned ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. ‘F7′ for four measures, ‘B-flat 7′ for four measures and so forth. Dicky is ready. He has a different chord for each beat, totaling sixteen chord changes for every four measures where there had only been one. At the end of the song, Bird – having never bothered to shake hands with his piano player before the gig – comes around behind the piano and says in Dicky’s ear, “Kid – just play ‘F7′. I’ll do all the diddley shit”.

[* typical sad Charlie Parker story. He was hired to play seven nights – Monday thru Sunday – at the Hi-Hat. He actually showed up for only five. One absent night was a mystery, during the other he was found out cold in a gutter. And he was so revered that he was invited back anyway. His legendary absences were part of the mystique. I’ll say right here, noting as I read about the Hip-Hop world that nothing has changed except the be-bopping junkies of my youth didn’t shoot each other**, that the general irresponsible lifestyle of our heroes made great newspaper copy and influenced a lot of kids]. [**But once in a while someone else did. Lee Morgan was shot on the bandstand by an outraged wife; Wardell Gray was shot by the outraged husband of his girlfriend – or so said the tale that circulated at the time (1955). The current internet bio has a mafia/drug-tinged story instead. The joys of history].

Dylan Thomas made four trips to America, beginning in February, 1950. America didn’t interest him; he came mostly for the money. The job that got him here the first time was a reading at New York’s YMHA, which paid $500 plus airfare. Factor in inflation – in 2006 dollars that’s closer to five grand. Once he got here he took his show on the road, making substantial money, much of which he drank…He died in New York during the fourth tour, of acute alcohol poisoning, November ’53.

Of all the scenes described in these writings – some hazy memories, some Hi-Definition Technicolor – the most vivid is this:

Dick’s mother was an artist. Her day job was as an illustrator at MIT for books and scientific papers produced by the faculty. Dylan Thomas came to America for the third time in April of 1953 and his first stop was MIT, Cambridge, for a lecture/reading. 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon, end of the school week.

Mother picked us up at school (New England Conservatory) at 2:30 on a beautiful spring afternoon; Dick had those bright red spots on his cheeks that showed he was really flying. Mother says indulgently, “Oh Dicky…” (must have shot up in the men’s room after lunch), and drove us across the Harvard Bridge to MIT.

The reading was closed to the public; it took place in a very ordinary classroom – teacher’s desk up front on the left, equal size table on the right for the guest. We were almost late. Walked into a nearly full house and found seats just as the presiding faculty member was introducing Dylan Thomas.

What did he look like? The picture of him in the BBC bio shows an uncanny resemblance to Orson Welles as Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’. Attractive, perspiring, mop of wild curly hair, red-faced, really drunk, but the kind of drunk that can function normally when he should be in a coma. He began his lecture, interspersed with readings from his poetry – and you couldn’t tell them apart. His language was luminous – beyond beautiful, and his presence eerily commanding [the Welsh and Irish can do that. Celts]. It isn’t often given to any of us to be in the same room with true genius. Palpable, vibrating genius.

So where am I? In the presence of two great artists, both doomed to die real soon of substance abuse – Thomas, gone at 39, with a substantial body of work behind him, the other, Dick, 24, with the barest hint of what’s coming in his sparse recorded legacy.

Here’s a glimpse of Dick’s genius. He is simply not ‘just another be-bop piano player’ In recordings with Chet Baker and Serge Chaloff he sounds more conventional, but that’s what a sideman is supposed to do. Not upstage the leader [and more than by-the-way, note his gorgeous piano sound. Gene Lees in his Woody Herman biography says that that sound quality is a hallmark of all of Margaret Chaloff’s students].

And there is a home recording, 1954 Improvisations. Boston. June-October 1954, where, in a fragment of Jerome Kern’s ‘Yesterdays’ the future really shows. He deconstructs the tune the way Charles Ives might have – and then he’s gone.

Dick’s is the only early death among musicians/composers that really bothers me artistically [it killed me emotionally]. Mozart made it to 35. And left a complete life’s work. I’ve always felt that he lived a compressed, accelerated existence and died of old age. Ditto, Bird, also gone at 35.

Charlie Christian? Dead of TB at 26, with less than two years in the public eye and ear. But heavily recorded, and – here’s the Internet quickie: “was the founding father and primary architect of the modern jazz guitar style”. And revolutionary. Someone else would have done it, but in fact it was Christian that set the stage for guitar driven rock and roll, comin’ at you a little over ten years after his death in 1942.

Dick Twardzik left only the barest hint of what was to come…

I realized, whizzing around the park on my bike yesterday, what I uncovered here. Note the extreme contrast of the house Dick lived in and the joint he – and we all – played in. A couple of observations: No matter what your background – in Dick’s case it seems clear that there was substantial wealth in his family – you were likely to play in the scuzziest possible circumstances unless you became a star and Storyville (or its equivalent in any city) could afford you. More likely in a joint with the mafia lurking in the background. And of course – as an only child from an affluent family, how could he not have been rescued from his virtual suicide? It wasn’t exactly a secret. Let’s look:

His father was one of only two stained glass window designers and builders in the United States. Had an atelier on St. Botolph St., the front 3 stories high so they could assemble a finished window, then take it apart for (very careful) shipping. St. Botolph – that funky little street that petered out behind the Conservatory, coming over from Mass. Ave. just across the tracks from the ‘colored district’. David Young’s studio was there in the early 50s.

[What follows is probably from my friend Jack Lawlor, the left-handed bass player who shows up on several records and attended the sessions we held at Dick’s parent’s home. As I write, the long promised biography of Dick remains back-ordered at Amazon and people in Dick Twardzik chat rooms are getting pretty upset. So 1) I have no confirmation of the health issue; 2) Jack Chambers, the biographer, could conceivably have missed this. Families are pretty close-mouthed about health disasters].

It matters that Dick was a sickly child. He had a rare disease – here’s the Internet word:

“…probably had polyarticular arthritis, a form that affects children in at least five joints. Samantha at 16 months had 11 swollen joints, in her knees, wrists, toes, elbows and fingers. NY Times 9.30/03, Health & Fitness”

People that knew him told me that by the time he was 11 Dick had every joint in his body operated on. Helps explain the indulgent mother. How could you not spoil an only child with such a dreadful illness?

There was just forming up when I returned to Boston in 1950 a consortium of young modern musicians that called themselves ‘The Jazz Workshop’+; their mission to provide a space where students and professionals could play and study together. They found a bar downtown that had a little used back room; they persuaded the owner that jazz would bring in customers and were given carte blanche to do whatever they liked. I paid my dues with saw, hammer and nails many an afternoon helping to build the stage. [+Those musicians, led by trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, became the core faculty of the internationally famous Berklee School of Music. They are now of course very senior faculty or emeritus]. It prospered; a Monday night big band session was laid on, with Jaki Byard writing the arrangements and sitting in the tenor sax chair rather than piano.

And eventually they had to move to larger quarters; a club called The Stable on nearby Huntington Ave.

Dick Twardzik was a frequent member of the Jazz Workshop ‘in house’ rhythm section and it was here that he asked his fellow musicians for help with his heroin addiction. We have seen that his family was no help at all.

Now look: This may be apocryphal in places; it went around town as scuttlebutt. But it rings true. He asked the guys in the band for help “…and they laughed at him”. So after the gig, at two o’clock in the morning, on a cold December night, he walked up to a cop on Huntington Ave. and said, “Officer – I’m an addict and need to quit. Can you help me?”

Bless that cop. I’m sure there was and is a city agency set up for this. They helped get Dicky into the Massachusetts detox unit in Bridgwater, where he stayed for six months, met a priest he really liked and started going to church. Came out squeaky clean and full of the joy of life. He had finally beaten it.

In a musical composition that returns to the beginning for the last few measures, there is a convention that we’ll use here. “Dal Segno” – “to the sign”, which is a squiggle not on the keyboard. We’ll use $.

“Dal segno $ al fine [finish]”

If you don’t want to bother, it goes like this:

$ [Alta Ann – you were in on the end – the night before he went off with Chet Baker. We had invited him to dinner; with desert I played him some of the Billy Banks sides with Fats Waller. He sat down at that great Bechstein grand in the living room and got very upset because he – a marvelous technician – couldn’t lay a glove on some of those triplet filigrees that Waller tosses off like cake frosting. It was you who asked – our friend now really clean after six months in the Bridgewater detox unit – “Dicky – why are you doing this – going off with all those junkies?” “To prove that I can do it”. You all know of course that he got dead in Paris instead. 1955].

Fine.

Copyright © 2006 Leroy Parkins

[Here’s Sam’s own biographical sketch, taken from his MySpace page:

Leroy (Sam) Parkins: born in reign of Calvin Coolidge. Heard Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton 1936 – 1945. Charlie Parker from then on. Normal life no longer possible. Cornell for composition; New England Conservatory for Masters. Saxophonist-in-residence two whorehouses (Bowdoin Bar & Grill, Boston, 1945; Barbara Kelly’s Glass Hat, NYC 1960), the Heroin Capital of the North Shore (Melody Lounge, Lynn MA, 1954 but didn’t sample the wares); Carnegie Hall (one-shot, 1976) etc.etc. Sixteen years with two major society orchestras. Duties included playing New Years Eve for the Carnegies and Mellons at Rolling Rock Country Club, Ligonear, PA.; deb parties as far away as St. Louis, MO. Joined production staff CBS Masterworks 1967. Recorded the complete Charles Ives chamber music. One Grammy (European); four Grammy nominations. Recorded Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Charles Wuorinen et al for New World Records, 1975. Black composers series, various labels: Music of Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Cecil Taylor, Benny Carter, Scott Joplin. Stravinsky’s ‘Ebony Concerto’ with Richard Stolzman and Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, RCA Victor, 1987. Grammy nomination. As featured soloist, ‘Take Me To the Land of Jazz’, Aviva records. Stereo Review, Album Pick of the Year, Acoustic Jazz, 1979. Recorded ‘Preservation Hall Live!’ for Sony Classical, 1991. Miscellaneous recordings since; clarinetist-in-residence, Cajun Restaurant, NYC; ditto weekly stint New York Public Library. Commence writing ‘Journey to Bohemia’ 1997. Lived.]

CAST OUT OF PARADISE: LESTER YOUNG

lester-in-parisSam Parkins, who was there, attentive, muses about Lester Young:

September 1945 I found myself back in the infantry at Fort McClellan, Alabama. The army had lost some of my training records and they needed me to fire the Bazooka and the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle – 30 cal. and a real bear to shoot), and they were in no hurry. I was going to have to re-graduate from basic training. Most of the rest of this rag-tag company were hardened combat veterans who had been fucked over by the army losing their records. It’s after VJ day.

The sergeants in charge were totally sympathetic; roll-call in the morning, traditionally out on the company street, included a lot of hung-over guys in bed, shouting from the sack, “I’m here sergeant.” Days on end with nothing to do so I found the band, started doing parades, the officers club ($5.00),the non-coms club ($4.00), and the USO. Played baritone with the big band. The drummer was a veteran of the entire European campaign, had been running into a fire fight with his best buddy beside him and watched the guy’s head being completely blown of by a mortar shell. He simply didn’t give a shit, and kept a bottle of Gordon’s gin under the bed for breakfast to keep the boogies away.

The army was totally, and I mean totally, segregated. The colored soldiers had their own gate, and there was a 100 yard lawn – a DMZ – between the two posts. No one allowed to pass in either direction. But their band had Count Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones, other Basieites, Lester Young (Basie’s star saxophonist) had just been drafted, was in basic training and played with the band when he could. Our drummer was the only one of us with the balls to walk across the lawn to rehearsals and dances and to get to know the black musicians.

He came back one night with a really lousy story. Lester Young (street name ‘Pres’) was in the guard house. He had pleaded to be excused from basic and be allowed in the band; the band leader petitioned the authorities, to no avail (and I wonder if a white musician would have made out better. I knew some who did, and after all, the war was over…).

In Geoff Dyer’s book, “But Beautiful” (great book if you can stand unvarnished tragedies), the author, using the Freedom of Information Act, got the transcript of the trial; there’s a lot of detail, all brutal, that I wasn’t privy to, but this here narrative is missing from all biographical accounts. No way any latter day historian could know it.

It’s night firing on the fifty caliber machine-gun range. Outside of the noise, it’s a pretty sight. Maybe twenty machine-guns lined up about eight feet apart, shooting down a slight incline at cardboard cutouts of enemy soldiers; every tenth bullet (tracer bullets) lights up as it’s fired so you see slightly arched lines of electric magic flowing from each gun barrel.

The sergeant, off to the side and slightly down-range, notices one line of magic markers disappear. He goes to investigate, and finds Lester Young lying on his back smoking a joint. Sergeant is aghast. “On your feet soldier!” Pres’ reply is to hand the sergeant the joint and – “Hey sarge — aren’t the stars pretty up in the sky?”

In his left hand pocket of his fatigue jacket were five more joints; sergeant calls the MPs and the founder of a style that was to sweep the country (think Stan Getz and “The Girl From Ipanema”) is led off to jail.

There was no rush to bring him to trial. He started acting up in his cell, noisy, woke guys at night, he wanted his horn. So the guard got it for him. End of the world. He played 24 hours a day, made everyone crazy, so they took it away from him. And he really lost it. I have no details, but the guards were white – and so forth.

Disobeying a direct order, possession of narcotics, 400 days in an army detention center.

Finally, mid-November, I fired the bazooka at a rusted-out shell-shocked hulk of a tank and was declared through with basic – again – and was awarded a 15 day furlough. And re-enlisted for an extra year (paid a lot more GI bill) and they tacked on another 30 days, so I was home from Thanksgiving to New Year and then some.

[Here I had a memory lapse, because I have remembered this over the years as 1946, after Pres had served his sentence. Wrong. Jazz impresario Norman Granz got in touch with the authorities, applied some kind of heat, and got him sprung in a few weeks].

Of course I went to the Savoy and there on the bandstand was Lester Young, leading a quintet with trumpeter Jesse Drakes and rhythm section. He was struggling – and in the middle of a tune pulled the horn from his chops and began to cry.

He never again played with the fluency of the Basie days. There are, captured on record, moments of magic, but something was broken. And the last time I saw him, at Storyville a month before his death, you knew you were hearing and seeing a dead man. He was drinking and starving himself to death… You don’t want to hear it from me. Read “But Beautiful” (Geoff Dyer; North Point Press, 1996. Paperback).

ca 2.19.03 notes

Regarding the Army vs. Lester Young: Goeff Dyer makes it clear that the army had a pretty good idea from Lester Young’s pre-induction physical what they were getting – a wired, messed up addict with syphilis – and they took him anyhow. Here we can damn the army, but show a mitigating factor.

Damning: After the war, the army essentially apologized for doing such a lousy job of screening draftees, and vowed to do better next time. My wife, Camilla Kemple, spent her academic life teaching the battery of psychological tests used for this purpose, and she tells me that they were mostly in place by the early forties when she started teaching (at the New School in New York). The army made little or no use of them.

An example right under my nose covers two wondrously disconnected elements. In the bus with me (during the Battle of the Bulge) on the way to the army induction center (Ft. Devens, Ayer, Mass.) was a cute little cat named Little Pres. Always showed up at sessions (along with a baritone player who called himself Lester Parker in order to cover all bases). Little Pres didn’t play all that well, but he was a pioneer. Lester Young hadn’t hit yet; us tenor players were still consumed with Hawkins/Webster fever. So Little Pres tried to show us the new way. He was round, maybe 5 ft. 2, had fashioned a pork-pie hat in the manner of his master, and preached the superiority of Pres Senior.

I have to interrupt here to describe what we apprentice tenor players were up against when we encountered the real thing. Little Pres and I, with our horns, were wandering the streets of Boston one Sunday afternoon and said, “Hey – Arnett Cobb is at the Savoy. Let’s go see if we can blow with him”. Arnett Cobb, veteran of Lionel Hampton’s band, one of those huge sounding Texas guys, master interpreter of the Illinois Jacquette “Flying Home” solo (which I had to play four times a night a few years later at the Golfer’s Club in Ithaca – that black after-hours dance hall/gambling club).

Get to the joint – “Sure boys, come right on up.”  And in the most kindly way possible, Arnett Cobb blew us right across the Charles River. There’s no point trying to put on paper how loud those guys were. Amplification for anyone but singers was unknown; the sheer power of the big bands came from acoustically loud (remember the girdles worn by the Condoli brothers, trumpets in Stan Kenton’s band. Prevented hernias).

I was in the army with a tenor player from Sam Donahue’s band. He described what the power-players did (Eddie Miller, Tex Beneke, Bud Freeman were of another, quieter, order). They bought the most open metal mouthpiece, filed it more open yet, got #5 hard reeds and clipped them. I tried a set-up like that and couldn’t make a sound. Not strong enough.

Back to Little Pres. He had seemed a little flaky, but what else is new? Drafted at the same time, we rode the bus together, had our uniforms fitted together, and parted. Assigned to different outfits, where a senior sergeant taught us to make a bed, army style. I didn’t see Little Pres again, but a week later heard about him. He was discharged. The flakes must have showed in some non-military way and he was sent home with a Section Eight. The most coveted premature discharge in the army. Medical discharge. Dishonorable discharge or discharge-without-honor can screw you up in later life. Means the induction center did no screening of this guy at all. I could have told them he was unfit.

Mitigation: Lester Young was inducted in August of 1944 when he was 35 years old. The Battle of the Bulge was raging, we weren’t at all sure we weren’t losing the war, and there loomed the horrendous prospect of invading Japan, code name ‘Operation Downfall’ (a novelist, using all available planning records from our army and Japan’s, wrote a fictional history of what would have happened had we invaded Japan. You don’t want to know). The atom bomb decision came very late in the game.

Green troops were pulled out of basic before they learned anything; were flown across the Atlantic to try to plug the leaks in our too thin lines across the neck of the Bulge. The draft was scraping the bottom of the barrel; the draft age was raised to forty. In my first go at basic training, while the Bulge was still on, we had a guy come in late – one of those poor slobs whose training records had been lost. He had been sent back from combat in the Bulge because: I noted his Coke-bottle glasses and asked him how come he was sent home. Here’s what he said:

“I was running into battle when this lieutenant came up to me and said, ‘Soldier – why are you wearing your gas mask?’  I said, ‘Sir, I’ve broken my glasses and I can’t see without the gas mask.'” If you had really rotten vision, your GI gas mask had prescription lenses. This guy had 20/400 vision; drafted anyhow.

So the drafting of Lester Young in this context makes it make a little more sense. But Geoff Dyer observes that Young consistently infuriated the army from physical on by being so weak and so passive. In an account of a white lieutenant making him tear up a picture of Billie Holiday (perceived as white) in the presence of the rest of the company, Dyer portrays the officer’s feelings:

“…He’d never encountered a man more lacking in strength, but he made the whole idea of strength and all the things associated with it seem irrelevant, silly. Rebels, ringleaders, and mutineers – they could all be countered: they met the army head-on, played by its rules. However strong you were, the army could break you – but weakness, that was something the army was powerless to oppose because it did away with the whole idea of opposition on which force depends. All you could do with the weak was cause them pain – and Young was going to get plenty of that.”

But it ain’t that simple. Here’s Dyer from an earlier time in Lester Young’s life: “When they jammed together Hawk tried everything he knew to cut him but he never managed it. In Kansas City in ’34 they played right through the morning; Hawk stripped down to his singlet, trying to blow him down with that big hurricane tenor, and Lester slumped in a chair with that faraway look in his eyes, his tone still light as a breeze after eight hours of playing. The pair of them wore out pianists until there was no one left and Hawk walked off the stand, threw his horn in the back of his car, and gunned it all the way to St. Louis for that night’s gig”.

That’s hardly a description of a weakling. But it’s ten years earlier, Pres is 25, and in that he freely admitted to having been an addict for ten years when he was drafted at 35, was at the time of this session drug free (‘though it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t blow a little gage – the term for smoking pot in the thirties). Here it should be noted that several Lester Young scholars find signs of his eventual disintegration in recordings made in the period just before he went in the army.

So what happened in 1944-45? Maybe the drugs. He had to be smoking pot, and admitted to amphetamines. Benzedrine, legal at the time, is truly vicious, starting with the cardio-vascular system and finishing with the brain. A combination of drugs may have begun to wreck his nervous system. And don’t forget the syphilis. It can go underground and leap out at you years – decades – later, and it eventually destroys the brain

But more likely – this from personal experience. In that session where he wasted Coleman Hawkins, he was on native turf, doing what he was born to do. In the army? Here’s an abbreviated version of my tale. Some of us have some schizophrenia and a touch of epilepsy in their ancestry; in my family, a lot (and look around you. More than you thought?). In 1950 my soon-to-be wife’s father came bombing up to Ithaca to prevent an unholy marriage. Ours. Late afternoon harangue. No dinner. Later and later harangue. I couldn’t walk away from it because it wold have put my wife-to-be at risk. Somewhere in the early AM I partially fainted. Still conscious, but removed from the scene. (We got married anyhow).

I’ll bet that under the brutal pressure Lester Young was subjected to, he simply shut down. It’s a mild seizure – protective circuitry kicks in. There was no way out of this. No Joe Glaser* to call. So the organism crawled into its shell. [* Joe Glaser – Louis Armstrong’s connected manager, never let anything remotely bad come near Louis]. And most likely, a combination of the above.

Here’s the day after I wrote all that, and I find it dissatisfying, in part because it exposes an arrogant attitude on my part which implies that Lester Young might have acted “better,” or “stronger,” for which I abjectly apologize. Don’t delete the above, because it includes contributing factors, and will stand as “out-takes” but let’s take another crack at it:

First of all, this is 1945, civil rights legislation is years away, we’re in the South, Lester Young, however light, is black, and the officers are white. The situation mirrors slavery because the officers have absolute power.

Now go ahead to about 1972. The magazine ‘Psychology Today’ reported a failed experiment at Stanford in the psychology department. The mission was to examine the dynamics of being a warden/prison guard as against being a prisoner. So the entire graduate department was enlisted; half the students were assigned prisoner status, the other half became guards. They were to be observed for two weeks at which point their roles would be reversed; guards would become prisoners and vice versa.

It lasted barely a week. The faculty had to abort the experiment abruptly because the prisoners were having crying jags and some were approaching a nervous breakdown. The guards were showing increasing meanness bordering on brutality – physical violence was looming. Remember that this was a reasonably random cross-section of the population. Now go back to Lester Young in the army and take another look at it with this experiment in mind.

For another vision of Lester’s story, read Frank Buchmann-Moller’s extraordinary biography, YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE — which draws on the Army’s files to give the facts behind this most traumatic story.  And, yes, it is just as painful as the mythic versions we all knew before the files came to light.

NOTHING BUT THE BLUES!

When you travel far from urban centers, you meet wonderful new people and see sights and sites you wouldn’t otherwise.  All quite exciting and often rewarding.  And I don’t miss the wild proliferation of cellphone stores and nail salons of my native New York.  But I must be a born homebody, for I miss so many things while on the road, mostly food — spicy cuisine, the easy availability of goods I’m used to (tasty wholegrain bread, bagels, Martin’s pretzels).  You can make your own list.  Johnny Hodges, who knew about life on the road, wrote a song, THE THINGS YOU MISS.   

And I miss hip FM radio, especially jazz radio.  (I know I could pay for Sirius or XM, but I’m not ready: remember that I still have cassettes at home and have only recently begun to covet an Ipod and you will know how far behind the curve I am.  But I digress, unapologetically.)  Driving from Maine into Canada, I’ve been struck, once again, by how lucky people are who can hear NPR — to say nothing of the joys of idiosyncratic college radio stations. 

In Canada, I heard some reassuring Dvorak and Bach, but much more generic pop-rock and a good deal of local newsbreaks about the man who died after police used a stun gun on him . . . .

So it was a soul-stirring pleasure today to hear the strains of a later-period Goodman-Sextet style ROYAL GARDEN BLUES come out of the car speakers, without fanfare.  The guitar soloist went on indefatigably, in the manner of the late Charlie Christian, leading me to suspect that it might be Herb Ellis, bluesy, profane, profound.  When he was followed for a few choruses by two of the most recognizable soloists in jazz — Stan Getz and Roy Eldridge — I thanked the Fates for this six-minute interlude.  And to hear the announcer then render the album title as RIEN MAIS LES BLUES or some such was an added treat.  (My faux-French shouldn’t obscure that what I heard came from a Verve CD reissue of a Herb Ellis session, NOTHING BUT THE BLUES, truly worth searching out.)