Tag Archives: Stan Kenton

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

Consider this.

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

and this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s  the link to hear the music.

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

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

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

Joe Sullivan, happy as a human can be:

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

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

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

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

May your happiness increase!

“LITTLE THINGS THAT DON’T GET INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS”: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of SYMPHONY SID TORIN, WILLIS CONOVER, ARTIE SHAW, and COOTIE WILLIAMS (June 8, 2018)

I am so fortunate in many ways, some of them not evident on this site.  But JAZZ LIVES readers will understand that my being able to interview Dan Morgenstern at his home from March 2017 on — at irregular intervals — is a gift I would not have dreamed possible when I was only A Wee Boy reading his liner notes and DOWN BEAT articles.

Dan is an unaffected master of small revealing insights that show character: in some ways, he is a great short-story writer even though he is working with factual narrative.  Watching these interviews, you’ll go away with Artie Shaw pacing the room and talking, Willis Conover’s ashtrays, Cootie Williams reverently carrying Louis’ horn back to the latter’s hotel, and more.

About ten days ago, we spent another ninety minutes where Dan told affectionate tales of Jaki Byard, Ulysses Kay, Randy Weston, Kenny Dorham, and more.  Those videos will come to light in time.  But we had a marathon session last June, with stories of Louis, Cozy Cole, Milt Hinton, Coltrane, Roy, Teddy, Basie, Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, Perry Como and others — which you can savor here.  And, although it sounds immodest, you should.  (I also have videos of a July session with Dan: stay tuned, as they used to say.)

Here are more delightful stories from the June session.

Dan remembers Symphony Sid Torin, with sidebars about John Hammond, Nat Lorber, Rudi Blesh, Stan Kenton at Carnegie Hall, Roy Eldridge, and jazz radio in general:

Dan’s affectionate portrait of another man with a mission concerning jazz — the Voice of America’s Willis Conover:

and some afterthoughts about Willis:

and, to conclude, another leisurely portrait, early and late, of Artie Shaw:

with Artie as a “champion talker,” and a gig at Bop City, and sidelights about Benny Goodman and Cootie Williams, the latter reverent of Louis:

Thank you, Dan, for so generously making these people, scenes, and sounds come so alive.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS STAN GETZ (March 3, 2017)

This is the sixth part of a series of video-interviews the irreplaceable Dan Morgenstern sat for on the afternoon of Friday, March 3, 2017.  The previous five parts can be found here.

In those segments, Dan shares remarkable stories about the people he’s heard and met and become close with: everyone, including Lester Young, Jimmy Rowles, Tony Fruscella, Tommy Benford, Brew Moore, John Carisi, Nat Lorber, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Rushing, and two dozen more.

Here he speaks lovingly of the magnificent Stan Getz — including an anecdote of one way to deal with noisy spectators at a jazz club:

I would have you notice — as well as Dan’s eye for the telling detail (that quality that makes great storytellers as well as novelists) — that even his retelling of incidents that might be painful is shot through with kindness.  These interviews are not a settling of scores; rather, they are graceful homages to the giants and friends he has known — and Dan continues to make friends in 2017.

Here, for those who have other thoughts about Stan, a sweet yet little-known 1954 performance by him, Jimmy, Bob Whitlock, and Max Roach, of the early-Thirties song, DOWN BY THE SYCAMORE TREE:

Dan refers to Stan’s PARKER 51:

and one of Stan’s duets with Kenny Barron at the end of his life:

I look forward to a second set of interviews.  Dan has hinted that he has tales of Cecil Scott.  Who could resist such knowledge?

May your happiness increase!

“HAVE YOU TRIED THE ELEPHANT BEER?”: INSPIRED STORIES: “JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS,” by MONK ROWE with ROMY BRITELL

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Monk Rowe is a jazz musician — saxophonist, pianist, composer, arranger — and he has a day gig at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, as the  Joe Williams Director of the Filius Jazz Archive there.  The Archive will be twenty-one in 2016, and it is indeed remarkably adult.

So far, Monk has conducted video interviews with more than 325 musicians, ranging from the great forbears (Doc Cheatham, Eddie Bert, Kenny Davern, Jerry Jerome, Ray Conniff, Joe Williams, Milt Hinton) to the living legends of the present and future (Nicki Parrott, Kidd Jordan, Sherrie Maricle, Bill Charlap, Holly Hofmann, Maria Schneider).  And excerpts from those interviews, thematically and intelligently arranged, now form a compact yet impressive book (with a brief foreword by jazz eminence Dan Morgenstern) whose title is above.

JazzTalesCover

A friend at Hamilton sent me a copy of the book some weeks back, and I have been slow to write about it — for two reasons.  One, the semester got in the way, unforgivably, and two, I was often making notes and laughing so hard that I couldn’t read much at a sitting.  But my instant recommendation is BUY IT.  So those of you who want to skip the evidence can zoom to the bottom of this post. Others can linger.

A brief prelude.  I am immensely in favor of oral history although it cannot replace the best analysis or aesthetic criticism.  I wouldn’t give up Whitney Balliett, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Anthony Barnett, Frank Buchmann-Moller, Manfred Selchow, or John Chilton . . . the list goes on and I know I am leaving two dozen worthy writers out.  But what wouldn’t we give for a ten-minute interview with Tony Fruscella, Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy Harrison, Herschel Evans, Eddie Lang, Jimmy Blanton, or Buster Bailey?  True, some musicians were and are shy or not always able to articulate much about the music, but others — as we know — are born raconteurs, sharp observers, comedians, anthropologists.  Their stories, no matter how brief, are precious.  Two pages by Clark Terry where he speaks of being beaten by Caucasians because he was a “Nigerian” while in Mississippi — and then being rescued by another group of Caucasians — say more about race relations in the United States than twenty hours of PBS footage could ever do.

The material is organized thematically, enabling the reader to hear, for instance, stories of life on the road from Kenny Davern, Lanny Morgan, and Phil Woods. Then there are sharp observations — one can almost hear the rimshot that follows.  Dave Pell calls Stan Getz “the greatest dressing room player that ever lived.”  Stan Kenton stops his band from swinging too much and says, “This is not Basie.  This is Stan Kenton.”  Bobby Rosengarden talks about Toscanini, Joe Wilder about punctuality, Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli about life in the recording studio.  Keter Betts, as a high-school student, is bought lunch by Milt Hinton; Jean Bach explains the Ellington habit of “seagulling”; Sherrie Maricle recalls her metal clarinet.  Dan Barrett gives advice to young musicians.  Randy Sandke talks about the perils of thinking.  Karl Berger talks about his conducting; Kidd Jordan deconstructs a song’s title.  And there’s a historical perspective covering nearly a century: we hear Doc Cheatham talk about Ma Rainey, then Jerry Jerome describe the first Glenn Miller band — all the way up to the present.

It’s an enthralling book.  And since Monk Rowe is a professional musician, his interludes and commentary are more than useful; his questions are on the mark. Other writers put themselves into the dialogue merely to say, “Well, Dizzy always used to say to me,” but Monk is a gracious interpreter rather than a narcissist.

To find out the story of the elephant beer and the priceless answer, visit Monk’s JAZZ BACKSTORY blog here  and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  Then you can read the rest of Phil Woods’ words and — by the way — find out exactly what Dizzy Gillespie said when presented with the key to the city of Syracuse, New York.

JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS is available here through Amazon.  And the proceeds from the book support the Archives.

NEWS FLASH: Monk is going to be teaching a free online course on jazz, starting February 2, 2016: details here.

May your happiness increase!

PEPPER ADAMS’ JOY ROAD: AN ANNOTATED DISCOGRAPHY by GARY CARNER

I had not known much about baritone saxophonist / composer Pepper Adams before a friend lent me a copy of Gary Carner’s book on him (now in paperback from Scarecrow Press) but I commend both Pepper and the book to you.

JOY ROAD 2

First, some music — an excerpt from an uptempo STRAIGHT, NO CHASER with Clark Terry, recorded in 1978:

The book is well-researched, rather than opinion.  Not only did its author speak with Pepper and JOY ROAD is introduced by the eminent Dan Morgenstern, but no other book I know has enthusiastic blurbs from both Phil Woods (alto) and Philip Levine (poetry).

JOY ROAD is an annotated discography.  To those not deeply involved in the music, such a work may seem a collection of marginally-useful pieces of arcane information, suitable only to those strange creatures, “record collectors,” concerned with whether that Charlie Parker solo recorded on a cardboard disc was issued on a Bolivian compact disc. I am exaggerating, but not that much.

But as an annotated bibliography would tell us a great deal about the artistic life of a writer and her relations with the marketplace, an annotated listing of a musician’s recordings would map an artistic journey. The book does not purport to be a biography — Carner is working on one now and hopes it will be finished by Adams’ centennial — but it is full of information about Adams’ life and music from 1947 to his death in 1986.  And that information is more than listings of songs, original compositions, recording data, issued or unissued performances. What makes Carner’s book more than a useful reference work is the interviews he conducted with Pepper and the people who knew and worked with him.

When I received a copy of JOY ROAD, I opened it at random, out of curiosity. I had not been terribly involved in Adams’ work — coming from a long immersion in Harry Carney and Ernie Caceres, among others.  But I stood in the middle of the living room, reading eagerly for a half hour, before remembering that a) I could sit down, and b) other tasks had to be taken care of.  If a book can “stop me in my tracks,” it is one I will read, keep, and value.

Many jazz musicians, so eloquent as creators, grow reticent when asked to speak about their art and their colleagues.  Much of what is published as treasured narrative is frankly insubstantial: “Oh, she liked her drink after the set was through!” “Did I ever tell you the story of X at the diner and what he said to the waiter?” “Y couldn’t stand Z, and always called Z names, but when they got on the stand, they blew!” If we didn’t feel that our heroes were so precious that any scrap of anecdotage, no matter how thin, brought us a step closer, no one would retell such stories. But JOY ROAD is not a collection of shards and detritus important only because they connect with someone we value. Carner’s musicians have been unsually articulate, and their stories have shape and heft.

We read about a bizarre and satisfying gig (even televised) where Pepper, David Amram, and Elvin Jones played at a Horn and Hardart automat in midtown Manhattan; Hank Jones tells Carner, “I never felt I was up to his standards, to tell you the truth.  I was reaching to play along with him”; we learn of Adams’ early work with Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman; encounters with Alfred Lion, Joihn Hammond, and Rudy Van Gelder; concert performances with Mingus and Monk; encounters with younger European musicians and elders of the tribe including Fess Williams, Cozy Cole, Joe Wilder, Benny Carter, Milt Hinton; the birth and development of the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra; an informal session in Eugene H. Smith’s loft with Adams playing piano to Zoot Sims’ tenor; recordings with Donald Byrd, Oliver Nelson, Duke Pearson, Blue Mitchell, Jimmy Rowles, Joshua Breakstone, and a hundred other notables.

Equally intriguing are glimpses into the life of a valued New York session player, for Adams was understandably in-demand for pop recordings, often as an uncredited member of the ensemble, with Aretha Franklin, Dakota Staton, Sonny and Cher, The Cowsills, The Nice, The Rascals, Brook Benton, Jon Lucien, Esther Phillips, film soundtracks, industrial films, and more.

Ultimately, JOY ROAD did a number of things for me, even though my first reading of this 550-plus page book was of necessity quick rather than deep. I found recordings I’d known nothing about — Carner has had access to Adams’ personal appointment book, and has spoken with more than a hundred musicians. But more than that, I have a sense of Adams as an individual — reading Dostoevsky, listening to Berg, encouraging younger musicians, fierce when he felt unjustly treated — and I look forward to the biography, which Carner is tentatively calling In Love with Night.

I will close with my single Pepper Adams sighting. In 1972, several friends and I followed Ruby Braff to gigs.  Although Ruby was unpredictable and unreasonably given to rage, he was always pleasant to us and allowed us to tape-record him. On July 19 of that year, my friend Stu and I came to the Half Note to record Ruby with the Welsh pianist Dill Jones, bassist George Mraz (then working with Pepper in the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis ensemble, and Dottie Dodgion on drums.  About two -thirds through the evening, where the music had been very sweet, with Ruby’s characteristic leaps through the repertoire of Louis, Duke, and Billie, a tall man ascended the stand with a baritone saxophone, was greeted warmly by the players, and the quintet launched into an extended blues in Ab.  I remember Dottie Dodgion being particularly enthusiastic about the unnamed musician’s playing, who packed his horn and went off into the warm Greenwich Village night.  Who was that unmasked man?  The subject of Carner’s book, and yes, the tape exists, although not in my possession.

To learn more about Adams, JOY ROAD, and Carner, visit his Pepper Adams website and his Pepper Adams blog, THE MASTER.

May your happiness increase!

SIGN IN, PLEASE

At the risk of turning JAZZ LIVES into a blog wholly devoted to jazz “paper ephemera,” I have to make sure my readers see this — again on eBay.  The heading is “AMAZING COLLECTION OF JAZZ BAND MUSICIANS AUTOGRAPHS,” and this, for once, is correct — 290 autographs, with pictures and clippings: a Swing Era dream scrapbook with so many famous (and lesser-known) signatures that I was astonished.  How about Irving Fazola, Vic Dickenson, “Joe Jones,” Stan Kenton, members of every band you can think of?  I just hope the purchaser doesn’t lock it away in a dark room forever. 

The link (to see the collection below made visible through generous enlargement of the images) is http://cgi.ebay.com/AMAZING-COLLECTION-of-JAZZ-BAND-MUSICIANS-AUTOGRAPHS_W0QQitemZ180422145256QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item2a01ff74e8.  AMAZING it is. 

And its source?  Here’s what the eBay seller says (slightly edited, and with some spelling corrections):

This is by far the largest collection of vintage original Jazz autographs to have been offered on Ebay. The collection has over 290 autographs from various Jazz musicians, singers, actors, actresses etc. The collection came from an estate in Massachusetts. The man (Nick Kirikos) who collected these autographs was a Jazz musician and composer himself. He was a Jazz trumpet player in the 1930’s & 40’s. He obtained all of these autographs himself and can be seen in a photo (included) with Gene Krupa. He put them in a photo album as shown along with some loose signatures as well. Every important artist in Jazz history is in this book. There are some multiple signatures from different artists. The collection also has some actors and actresses signatures along with letters from Joan Valerie & Mari Grey. Here is a list of some of the names we can make out:

Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Marion Hutton, Ella Fitzgerald, Ziggy Elman, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Ray Eberle, Clyde Hurley, Bob Crosby, Dizay Gillespie, Bob Haggart, Eddie Miller, Gil Rodin, John Best, Jimmy Lunceford, Joe Kearns, Joe Sullivan, Irving Fazola, Warren Smith, Jimmy Crawford, Earl Caruthers, Chris Griffin, Bruce Squires, Toots Mondello, Hymie Shertzer, Mickey McMickle, Billy Butterfield, Ted Buckner, Austin Brown, Billie Smith, Russell Boles, Sy Oliver, Eddie Durham, Elmer Crumbley, Paul Webster, Al Norris, Moses Allen, Jimmy Young, Eddie Tompkins, Joe Thomas, Gerald Wilson, Herb Tompkins, Bob Eberly, Helen O’Connell, Jimmy Dorsey, Milt Yaner, Corky Cornelius, Roy Cameron, Al Sherman, Count Basie, Dave Matthews, Al Killian, Jimmy Blake, Mal Hallett, Clark Yocum, Andy Anderson, Midge Williams, Joe Garland, Lee Blair, Sidney Catlett, Gigi Bohn, Teddy Wilson, Pete Clark, Earl Hines, Al Casey, Floyd Brady, Jimmy Campbell, J. C. Heard, Harry Rodgers, Dominick Buono, Rudy Powell, Janet Gilbert, Gus Devito, Monte Green, Cozy Cole, Louis Bellson, Al Sears, Robert Scott, Lynn Gardner, Woody Kessler, Pee Wee Hunt, Richard Gilbert, Ted Toll, Paul Rendarvis, Harry Carr, Charles Atlas, Peggy Mann, Cab Calloway, Chu Berry, Frank Carlson, Woody Herman, Joan Valerie, The Andrew Sisters, The Four Ink Spots, Shady Nelson, Mary Lou Williams, Andy Kirk, Frankie Masters, Sonny Greer, Fletcher Henderson, George Hall, Phyllis Myles, Terry Allen, Ray Nance, Ida James, Teddy Grace, Dolly Dawn, and many many more.  allautographs

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.