Tag Archives: Stu Zimny

“THE SOURCE OF ALL OUR JOY”: REMEMBERING MILT HINTON

MILT

Milton John Hinton (1910-2000).

“The Judge.”  Universally beloved.  Here, with Herb Ellis, guitar; Larry Novak, piano; Butch Miles, drums:

I have The Judge in my mind as a sweetly heroic presence because he is on so many of the recordings that have shaped my consciousness.  I also have two photographic portraits of him (which he autographed for me in 1981) in my apartment, next to the door.  When I come in or go out, he is there to welcome me home or to wish me safe passage on the day’s journey.

He’s also powerfully in my thoughts because I went to the house in which he and Mona Hinton lived for decades — 173-05 113rd Avenue, Jamaica, New York — last Saturday (June 13) for an estate sale.  More about that later.

First, a reminiscence of Milt from a friend, Stu Zimny, whom I’ve known since high school, 1969.  We were comrades in eccentricity, united in our shared secret love of Milt, of Jo Jones, of Ed Beach, S.J. Perelman — playing records at each others’ houses, going to concerts and clubs.  Swing spies.  Jazz acolytes.

Danny Barker, Stu Zimny, Milt Hinton 1995

Danny Barker, Stu Zimny, Milt Hinton 1995

From Stu:

It was in the late-70’s sometime when I first met Milt Hinton.

It was a strange time in the music’s history. Although rock music had firmly enveloped the attention of most of my generation, my own musical trajectory was towards the the jazz of the 1930’s.  I had heard the incandescence of Louis Armstrong and his many disciples and was converted quickly. There was a power to this music unique in my experience. It is more common now in the internet age but we, myself and the author of this sacred blog in particular, formed a distinct minority, a sort of rear-guard action devoted to preserving this music.  Yet at that time there were still significant numbers of players of that “swing generation” alive and at least semi-active and one could see them play intermittently in certain mostly short-lived clubs in Manhattan and the occasional concert.  Although the general sentiment was that we had arrived a few decades too late.

I had heard that Milt was teaching a jazz seminar at Hunter College, I had taken up study of the double-bass shortly before, had lucked upon and acquired an excellent “axe,” and Milt was a legendary figure to bassists in particular.

In a fortuitous stroke of luck I encountered Milt on the subway on the ride to Hunter. (Milt was a frequent rider of the NYC subway system since he did not drive a car. The story goes that he had been driving a vehicle in Chicago decades before, as a gofer of some sort for the Al Capone organization, and a bad accident occurred which had traumatized him for life against driving a motorized vehicle.) I drove him to a fair number of gigs during the next few years for the mere opportunity to hang out and absorb what I might. Capone’s loss was my gain.

On the “A” train I gathered up my courage and struck up a conversation with him, the ultimate outcome of which was that if I wanted some tutoring I could drop by his home in Queens.  He did not need to make the offer twice. Especially since his attendance at Hunter was spotty due to his being on the road quite a bit.

Milt never really offered me “lessons” as such.  Although he did hand me a manuscript of scale patterns and suggested I work on them “for the next thirty years” and gave me a whole lot of physical advice about dealing with the bass. I would bring him bass music, usually some classical etude or duet, and we would play through it together. He was always up for the challenge. The mere fact that he would be willing to play with me and treat me like a colleague was a huge confidence boost.

Of course it was not only me who benefited from his largesse. Many bassists (and other instrumentalists) would drop by, most often just to hang out with an elder, “The Dean of Jazz Bassists.” Milt and Mona were extremely gracious and generous in opening their home to musicians. And feeding us, and making us feel like family, and part of a lineage that required support and protection.

Throughout the next decade or so I would drop by, often in a vain attempt to help him organize the pile of the concert tapes and recordings collecting in his basement.

In 1989 I departed the east for directions west. When I came back for visits if Milt was in town he was always open for a rendezvous “between sets.”

I recall seeing him at the 1995 Monterey Jazz Festival and in San Diego at some sort of convocation. On the latter occasion, with minimal rehearsal, he was offered some pretty complex charts and played through them with ease. This was not an old guy resting on past accomplishments, he was fully alive to the music, to all music.

Sometimes players like Clark Terry and Major Holley would drop by. The basement couch was famous for having been used for sleep by Ben Webster during a period when he lived with the Hintons or at least paid an extended visit: I never knew which. Sometimes it is better not to ask too many questions.

The last time I saw Milt was around 1997 after I had returned east and lived in the Boston area. By that time he had stopped playing for physical reasons.  I heard of his passing via an NPR broadcast in 2000 at age 90.

Milt has been a major influence in my life, musically and moreover in modeling what it means to be an elder and the tribal obligation and joy of passing on knowledge and skills and musical tradition.

He was cross-cultural in the warmest and most charming and sincere ways; he insisted on wearing a yarmulka when attending the Jewish wedding of a mutual friend of ours.

Despite the hardships he had experienced growing up in the south, the depredations of growing up as a Black person in that era, he never harbored personal resentment about any of it that I could tell towards any individual.  He had an immense sense of dignity and a conscious sense of his own worth and that of his colleagues as men and artists; race was a secondary consideration.  He would say that “music has no color”.  This was also what motivated his legendary photographic documentation.  History was important, preserving it is important, this music is important. And if one was sincere in wanting to learn, he was available.

I am a better person for having known Milt Hinton, tribal chief, The Judge!

We cannot live through the dead, but we can invite them to live through us.

I love him always and forever.

It would be an impudence to follow that with my own tales of Milt.

I will say only that the phrase I’ve taken as my title was spoken by Ruby Braff from the stage of The New School in New York City, at a “Jazz Ramble” concert produced by Hank O’Neal on April 8, 1973 — featuring Ruby, Sam Margolis, Benny Aronov, and Milt.  Ruby spoke the truth.  Thanks to Tom Hustad, whose BORN TO PLAY — the Ruby Braff discography — for helping me be exact in my recollection.

MILT autograph 1983

Fast forward to June 13, 2015.

I had been seriously ambivalent about going to this estate sale.  As I told more than one friend, I didn’t know whether I would be frozen at the door, or, once in, would burst into tears.  Happily, neither took place.  My spiritual guide and comic comrade on line (as opposed to “online”) was Scott Robinson, and we made the time spent waiting in the sun telling tales of Milt. (Later, I met Phil Stern, and we, too, talked of music, joy, and sorrow, of empires rising and falling.)

Here, thanks to Phil, is the promotional video created by the company running the sale:

By the time I was able to enter the house, sometime around 10:00, I discerned that much of the more glossy contents had already been sold.  (I would have bought a chair covered in plastic from this shrine without thinking twice.)  And I sensed that the house had — apparently — been unoccupied since Mona’s death in 2008.  It was not quiet indoors: people shouted and argued.  I was in the land of secular commerce rather than dear worship.  I do not know how many people going in knew who Milt was; before and after my time indoors, I explained what I could of his majesty to a number of people outside who simply had seen ESTATE SALE and stopped by.

I have a limited tolerance for loud voices in small spaces, so I did not look through the hundreds of records in the basement (in cardboard boxes on and in front of the couch on which Ben Webster had slept).  But I bought about ten of Milt’s lps — going back to the early Fifties, mostly records I’d not heard or heard of on which he played.  His collection — even when I got there — was broad, with children’s records and comedy as well.  And he collected his friends’ records also.

Sitting by themselves on top of a pile of books — two 78s.  One, a 1932 Brunswick, Connee Boswell performing HUMMIN’ TO MYSELF and THE NIGHT WHEN LOVE WAS BORN — which touched me and made me think of Milt as a young man rapt in the beauty of Connee’s voice and her wonderful accompaniment of the time (Berigan, the Dorsey Brothers, Dick McDonough, Artie Bernstein, Venuti, Stan King).

The other deserves its own picture.  It has been well-played, but that is a triumph rather than a criticism.

MILT 78Although Milt and Billie Holiday were not regularly recording together, their history on record is a long one — 1936 to 1959 — and I am sure he was proud of the music they made together.  I imagine Milt in 1939 bringing home this new release, which he would have been thrilled to possess and hear — perhaps showing his name on the label to his new bride. (Incidentally, the Brunswick people invented a new guitarist — Dave Barber — instead of properly identifying Milt’s dear comrade in the Cab Calloway band, Danny Barker.  The other side, WHAT SHALL I SAY? has the same error.)

Such a beloved artifact made all the clangor of commerce worthwhile, although I still think sadly of the rubble of mugs in the kitchen, the piles of posters, aging books and records.  Where did they go?  I hope that the rarer items had already gone to a place where they would be treasured.

Stu learned lessons about playing the bass from Milt that he couldn’t have learned any other way, and I celebrate his experience.  But I think we both learned much — even though we might not have understood it at the time — from these men who were, without proclaiming it, great spiritual parents.  We learn from the open-hearted behavior of the greatest teachers.

They treated us with gentleness and respect, an amused kindness, saying by their openness that we were welcome in their world.  No one ever said, “Kid, I’m busy now.  Go away.”

Our real parents might have taken our devotion for granted, or been very busy trying to make us become what they thought we should be, but many of these Elders were happy to know we existed — without trying to get us to buy anything from them.  They accepted our love, and I feel they welcomed it and returned it. In their music and their behavior, they taught by example: the value of beauty, of simplicity; how to say in a few notes something that would take the hearer years to fully grasp.  How to make our actions mean something.

We were able to see and hear and speak with the noblest artists on the planet, and it is an honor to celebrate one of them, The Judge, whose quiet modest majesty will never fade.

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!

DON’T WAIT UNTIL YOU’RE DEAD

Many of us have made plans, whether vague and silent or specific and detailed, about what should happen to our STUFF (thank you, George Carlin) after we are no longer around to enjoy it.

But this post isn’t to urge people to make such plans. I would like readers to consider the idea of spontaneous philantropies while the giver and the recipient are both alive and sentient.  

Suppose you know that a jazz friend has never heard an unusual or rare record. You could make a bequest of that disc in your will . . . or you could give it to your friend NOW. If that’s too painfully a precursor of your own death, you could invite your friend over to hear it. You could send a copy now — before other responsibilities get in the way of this impulse.

If you know that your niece is playing saxophone in the school band, why not make sure she has AFTERNOON OF A BASIE-ITE, Ben Webster with Strings, and Buddy Tate records to enjoy? Again, NOW. A fledgling singer has never heard Mildred Bailey or Jimmy Rushing? You’re beginning to see a pattern.

These generosities make a number of happy results possible. Who doesn’t love getting a gift that, in its essence, says, “The person who gave this to me knows me so well and loves me”? So your gesture becomes an offering of affection and joy. In addition, acts like these are quiet ways of letting the music reverberate through the universe: jazz proselytizing, if you will.

A good deal of my musical happiness has been the direct result of the active generosity of many people, living and dead, friends and collectors who said, “You HAVE to hear this!”  Marc Caparone, Ricky Ricccardi, Manfred Selchow, Stu Zimny, David Weiner, Rob Rothberg, Bill Gallagher, David Goldin, Butch Smith, John L. Fell, Joe Boughton, Hal Smith, Wayne Jones, Bob Erdos, Bill Coverdale, Roy Bower, Bert Whyatt, Derek Coller, and two dozen others. Without them, my musical range would have been much more narrow. I remember the giver as much as I do the gift.

Much of my work on this blog is my own attempt to give gifts of music old and new. “Wait, you have never heard HAVEN’T NAMED IT YET?” “You never heard Lips Page or Tricky Sam Nanton play the blues?”

It’s a paradox, but giving precious artifacts away to someone who will appreciate them does not diminish your ownership; it intensifies your pleasure.

I am skirting the practical details of sharing; I don’t mean to suggest that you simply burn CDs, because that deprives the original artists of royalties or income. But I do urge people to open their treasure troves and share the music.

So rather than thinking about the next record or CD you absolutely must possess, why not turn the impulse on its head and think, “Who in my life would be thrilled to listen to what I so enjoy? Who deserves a gift of music, and how might I make this possible?”

In return, you will hear their pleasure and gratitude and be warmed by it. Such acts are love embodied, and the energy behind them is never wasted.

P. S.  If you’re reading this and thinking, “All that is very nice, but I have no rare jazz records to share with other people,” there are always chances to make generosity take shape without spending money. Consider the Ethel Waters principle:

If you say to someone today, “I love you,” “Thanks for everything,” “I’m grateful to you,” “I’m so sorry,” “Can you forgive me?” “What can I do for you?” or “It’s been a long time since we spoke,” those words have the ringing beauty of a Bix solo or a Lester Young chorus.

May your happiness increase!

A SPY FOR DIXIELAND

Ian Fleming never gave me a thought.  I never had a specially-equipped car, dangerous gadgets.  But I was a spy for Dixieland.

In a recent seminar with one of my mentors, Prof. Figg, he asked the question, “What are your secret guilty musical pleasures?”

I think the Professor expected that I was listening to Justin Bieber or to marimba orchestras.  Toy pianos.  Singing dogs.  Kate Smith.  Anthony Braxton.  Rossini overtures.  Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And although I thought hard, I couldn’t come up with any guilty musical pleasures.  Oh, I love sentiment: Connee Boswell’s LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY makes me cry.  But I am proud of my reaction to her singing, so there’s nothing guilty in it.

But then I started to remember the time when I was a jazz operative in enemy country.

When I was nine or ten, I was already seriously hooked by hot jazz.  Louis Armstrong, first and foremost.  I recall spending birthday money on a Louis record, and I was thrilled when he appeared on television.

I was in the fifth grade when the Beatles came to the United States, and I found them fascinating — but for only a short time.  They were fun, energetic, new, uninhibited.  I remember pestering my father to buy me the soundtrack album from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.  When I could, I bought those records, borrowed them from friends, tried so hard to make them my personal soundtrack.  (Everyone else did.)

I got all the way up to RUBBER SOUL before I decided that I didn’t really like this music all that much.  What I was entranced by was the possibility of being liked because you like what everyone else likes.

I had already begun to notice, although I probably did not articulate it to myself, that one’s musical preferences were ways definitions of one’s self, stated publicly or otherwise.  One’s taste was an ideological / emotional badge.

If you liked Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ THIS DIAMOND RING (why do I remember this now?) you were possibly a member of the club that could be considered worthy of being inspected for possible admission to the clubhouse.

But walking around telling my peers that I listened to Louis Armstrong — the truth — was clearly not the way to be accepted, to be cool, to be “in” or popular.  I remember telling some adults, who looked at me indulgently.  Perhaps they thought my preference more strange than the loud music their children were listening to.  My conscious anachronism must have struck them as at best, a benign eccentricity; at worst, inexplicable.

Among my peers, anything that new and rebellious was good.  Ancient and entrenched was definitely not.  When I met the pretty granddaughter of our French-Canadian neighbors, I knew I could not tell her that I preferred Fats Waller to Iron Butterfly and expect her to swoon.  “Our” music was supposed to unsettle the old folks who fed and clothed you; it wasn’t supposed to have any comforting connections to their world.  Jini Hendrix, not Jimmie Blanton.

So I kept my love to myself.  I told very few people that I listened to Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland in my room, that I read Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES (and was then violently disappointed by his playing — I was too young to appreciate those Bluebird sides).  I couldn’t really confess to anyone that I loved Bobby Hackett’s air-traceries on ballads, that “Dixieland jazz” on television — those small groupings of oddly-dressed men — thrilled me.  I even remember watching Lawrence Welk’s program for the brief “hot” interludes (not knowing at the time that I would someday see and admire Bob Havens in person).  Even my parents, who were very indulgent and loving, did not quite know what to make of my obsession: they had lived through the Depression and the Swing Era, but the depth of my ardor must have puzzled them.

In this century, a broader acceptance is the rule.  It is much easier to say, “Oh, I listen to Bulgarian hip-hop,” or “I am working on my harpsichord on the weekends,” than it was.  I know a young woman in middle school who dresses in elaborate clothing every day, plays the ukulele, analyzes 1905 Sousa records.  She seems to have gained much more flexibility to be unusual in this century than I had in mine.

My generation may have marched to Thoreau’s different drummer, but to call the metaphorical figure of independence Dave Tough did not do.   It still seems a towering irony that my nonconformist friends were obliviously conformist.

I had to go underground because I identified so strongly with the music of an earlier generation and one before that.  I didn’t dance, so I hadn’t met the swing-dance generation who would teach me the Balboa and know, instinctively, which version of SWINGIN’ THE BLUES they liked.  In 1966, had I come out of the aesthetic closet and said, “The music I like was the popular music — or at least one strain of it — in 1936,” I would be marked as even more freakish than I already was.

I could and did wear the flowered shirts and bell-bottom trousers (both of which pleased me for their own sake) but I could not admit to an admiration for Pee Wee Russell.  To do so would be to say, “I want to be just like your grandparents,” not readily accepted among my peers.

It might have been easier if I had had the ability and patience to seriously attempt a musical instrument.  Then I could have hung out in the bandroom with the other trumpet geeks and said, “Have you heard what Ray Nance does here?”  But that community was denied me.

Even when I was in an independent study program in my senior year of high school, I knew I had to practice secrecy.  It was difficult to unmask.  My friend Stu Zimny has reminded me of our being on field trips into Manhattan, and my running off during our lunch break to buy Commodore 78s.  He would ask, “What did you buy?” and I would say, “Oh, nothing really.  You wouldn’t be interested,” or some similar falsehood.

I was afraid of being laughed at if I was seen buying archaic recordings of strange music with odd-sounding players.  Red, Muggsy, Big Sid, Little T . . . these heroic affectionate sobriquets were encouraged in baseball but not elsewhere.

My affections did not transfer easily.  My seventeen-year-old self — suave, stylish, ineffably debonair, thought that Jack Teagarden’s 1954 recording of A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY was the best seduction music ever.  What woman could resist his wooing?  (All of them.)

I don’t remember when and how the mists began to lift.  It may have been when I began to encounter other young men at jazz concerts.  We glanced at each other cautiously, suspiciously.  “You like this music too?”  “Yeah.”  “Don’t tell anyone, OK?”  “I like hot jazz.”  “Shhhh!  Keep it down.  They’ll hear us!”

But I only began to “come out” in college, perhaps defensively but more proud.  “Yes, I listen to Louis Armstrong records.  Do you want to come to my house and hear what I am listening to?”

It wasn’t always easy.  “Cartoon music” was often the way my records were described.  “How can you listen to that old stuff?  What do you hear in it?” “Wow, that’s old-fashioned!”

At this point in the imagined black-and-white film, calendar pages fall off the wall.  We are now in NOW, this century, where I am entirely comfortable with my own love for hot music.

It fascinates me that when the Beloved lovingly introduces me, “Oh, this is my Sweetie — he has a great jazz video blog!” I can see people’s eyelids begin to flutter — with puzzlement or tedium, it is hard to say.  I can only imagine what people think.  “Oh, no.  Jazz, for God’s sake.  One step less interesting than toy trains.  What shall I say?  I never ‘understood jazz,’ and this fellow is obviously so interested in it that he’s vibrating as he stands there.”  So they say, generously, “Jazz!  Wow, that’s interesting.  Do you like Miles Davis?”  Or “I think John Coltrane was a very spiritual being.  I like electro-fusion.  Do you like Diana Krall?”

And they are being as gracious as human beings can be, so it pains me to redirect their enthusiasm.  But I have to say, “Well, I admire Miles and Coltrane, but my heart is with older stuff.”  “Oh, what do you mean?”  “Louis Armstrong is my hero.  Billie Holiday.  Duke Ellington,” keeping it as plain as possible.  And it is clear that with those words and those names I have marked myself as An Oddity.  The most kind people say, “Did you see ANTIQUES ROADSHOW last night?  There was a woman who had a whole collection of autographed band photographs from the Big Band Era, and one of them was signed by Louis Armstrong?”  Others smile sweetly, vaguely, and head for the white wine spritzers.

Jazz still remains a mystery to most people, and those of us who truly resonate to it are destined to remain Outsiders.  It’s a pity.  Why shouldn’t everyone be able to share the great pleasures that we know?

I am now a Spy Emeritus, now able to view these episodes with nostalgia and amusement tempering my puzzlement.  Call me 0078, retired.  But I remember the feeling of being out of step with the culture of my times, and being made to feel weird.

Yet I followed what I loved, and jazz has paid me back for my loyalty a million times over.  And it continues to do so.

This one’s for my friends AJS and KD — and, as always, for the Beloved, who knew that it don’t mean a thing . . . before I ever came along.

May your happiness increase.

FOUR BEAUTIES FOR MR. EVANS: HOWARD ALDEN, SCOTT ROBINSON, JON BURR, RICKY MALICHI at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (September 22, 2012)

Most of the music I hear on the jazz-party circuit stops at an invisible wall labeled 1945 or BEBOP, as if harmonic extensions and rhythmic shifts were a kind of influenza.  Of course the musicians slip in and out of larger conceptions of improvised music all the time, but if they don’t announce to a traditionally-minded audience, “We’re now going to play something you won’t like,” no one notices.

And some more “modern” listeners dismiss anything that sounds “old” as “that corny shit,” which is equally sad.  It is as if jazz was a small country, and crossing the border meant you couldn’t come in.  Or as if there were Dixieland or avant-garde cooties.  You get the idea.

Rigidity like this reminds me of children who burst into tears if the mustard is not on the hot dog in the appropriate way.  At what point does one’s “comfort zone” become confining?

But it’s all MUSIC, and those who can hear more deeply than the surface find rewards they might not have expected.

Thus, when Messrs. Alden (guitar), Robinson (tenor saxophone), Burr (string bass), and Malichi (drums) embarked on a set of Bill Evans’ compositions at Jazz at Chautauqua, I was delighted.  Not, mind you, because I am an Evans fan or conoisseur, particularly.  But I thought, “I could hear something new — something not IF I HAD YOU — and I trust the four players on the stand are people who will lead me into beauty, whatever the name of the songs are.”

The music proves it.  Yes, to some listeners in that audience, these four selections were unfamiliar, even angular — but they swung and the melodies were often sweet.  Worth the trip, and worth suspending one’s anxious prejudices for some part of an hour.  Hear for yourself.

FIVE:

VERY EARLY:

TURN OUT THE STARS:

FUNKALLERO:

This post is dedicated to Bob Rusch, Stu Zimny, and my father, who would say to me, “How do you know that you won’t like it if you won’t even taste it?”

May your happiness increase.

SPREADING JOY, MAKING THE EVANESCENT TANGIBLE, WITH COMPLEXITIES ON THE SIDE

It all goes back to my father, who loved music and was intrigued by the technology of his time.  We had a Revere reel-to-reel tape recorder when I was a child, and I, too, was fascinated.

I could put on a tape and hear his voice coming out of the speaker; I could record myself playing the accordion; I could tape-record a record a friend owned.  Recording music and voices ran parallel to my early interest (or blossoming obsession) with jazz.

I realized that when I saw Louis Armstrong on television (in 1967, he appeared with Herb Alpert and the Tia Juana Brass) I could connect the tape recorder and have an audio artifact — precious — to be revisited at my leisure.

I knew that my favorite books and records could be replayed; why not “real-time performances”?  At about the same time, my father brought home a new toy, a cassette player.  Now I could tape-record my favorite records and bring them on car trips; my sister and her husband could send us taped letters while on vacation in Mexico.

In 1969, I had the opportunity to venture into New York City for my first live jazz concert (after seeing Louis and the All Stars in 1967).  I think the concert was a Dick Gibson extravaganza with The World’s Greatest Jazz Band (Eddie Hubble and Vic Dickenson on trombones) and a small group of Zoot and Al, Joe Newman, a trombonist, and a rhythm section.  Gibson told the story of THE WHITE DEER in between sets.

I had a wonderful time.  But I also made my first foray into criminality.  In a bright blue airline bag I brought and hid that very same cassette recorder and taped the concert.  (I no longer have the tapes.  Alas.  Zoot and Al played MOTORING ALONG and THE RED DOOR; the WGJB rocked and hollered gorgrously.)

I brought the same recorder to a concert at Queens College, capturing Ray Nance, Newman, Garnett Brown, Herb Hall, Hank Jones, Milt Hinton, and Al Foster . . . names to conjure with for sure.  And from that point on, when I went to hear jazz, I brought some machinery with me.  Occasionally I borrowed another recorder (my friend Stu had a Tandberg) or I brought my own heavy Teac reel-to-reel for special occasions.

Most of the musicians were either politely resigned to the spectacle of a nervous, worshipful college student who wanted nothing more than to make sure their beautiful music didn’t vanish.  Joe Thomas was concerned that the union man was going to come along.  Kenny Davern briefly yet politely explained that I hadn’t set the microphone up properly, then showed me what would work.

I can recall two players becoming vigorously exercised at the sight of a microphone and either miming (Dicky Wells) or saying (Cyril Haynes) NO . . . and Wild Bill Davison tried to strike a bargain: “You want to tape me?”  “Yes, Mister Davison.”  “Well, that’ll be one Scotch now and one for each set you want to tape.”  My budget wasn’t large, so I put the recorder away.

Proceedingly happily along this path, I made tape recordings of many musicians betwen 1969 and 1982, and traded tapes with other collectors.  And those tapes made what otherwise would have been lost in time permanent; we could revisit past joys in the present.

Early in this century, I began to notice that everyone around me seemed to have a video camera.  Grandparents were videoing the infants on the rug; lovers were capturing each other (in a nice way) on the subway platform.  I thought, “Why can’t I do this with the music?”  I started my own YouTube channel in 2006, eighteen months before JAZZ LIVES saw the light.

I had purchased first a Flip camera (easy, portable, with poor video) and then a mini-DVD Sony camera.  At the New York traditional-jazz hangout, the Cajun, and elsewhere, I video-recorded the people I admired.  They understood my love for the music and that I wasn’t making a profit: Barbara Rosene, Joel Forrester, John Gill, Kevin Dorn, Jon-Erik Kellso, Craig Ventresco, and many others.

If my recording made musicians uncomfortable, they didn’t show it.  Fewer than five players or singers have flatly said NO — politely — to me.

Some of the good-humored acceptance I would like to say is the result of my great enthusiasm and joy in the music.  I have not attempted to make money for myself on what I have recorded; I have not made the best videos into a private DVD for profit.

More pragmatic people might say, “Look, Michael, you were reviewing X’s new CD in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG or CADENCE; you wrote liner notes for a major record label.  X knew it was good business to be nice to you.”  I am not so naive as to discount this explanation.  And some musicians, seeing the attention I paid to the Kinky Boys or the Cornettinas, might have wanted some of the same for themselves.  Even the sometimes irascible couple who ran the Cajun saw my appearances there with camera as good publicity and paid me in dubious cuisine.

The Flip videos were muzzy; the mini-DVDs impossible to transfer successfully to YouTube, so when I began JAZZ LIVES I knew I had to have a better camera, which I obtained.  It didn’t do terribly well in the darkness of The Ear Inn, but Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri and their friends put up with me and the little red light in the darkness.  Vince Giordano never said anything negative.

I began to expand my reach so much so that some people at a jazz party or concert would not recognize me without a camera in front of my face.

The video camera and the jazz blog go together well.  I used to “trade tapes” with other collectors, and if I came to see you, I brought some Private Stock as a gift.  Now, that paradigm has changed, because what I capture I put on the blog.  Everything good is here.  It saves me the time and expense of dubbing cassettes or CDs and putting them in mailers, and it’s also nearly instantaneous: if I didn’t care about sleep (and I do) I could probably send video from the Monday night gig around the world on Tuesday afternoon.  Notice also that I have written “around the world.”

The video camera has made it possible for me to show jazz lovers in Sweden what glorious things happen at The Ear Inn or at Jazz at Chautauqua; my dear friends whom I’ve never met in person in Illinois and Michigan now know about the Reynolds Brothers; Stompy Jones can hear Becky Kilgore sing without leaving his Toronto eyrie . . . and so on.

Doing this, I have found my life-purpose and have achieved a goal: spreading joy to people who might be less able to get their fair share.  Some of JAZZ LIVES’ most fervent followers have poorer health and less freedom than I do.  And these viewers and listeners are hugely, gratifyingly grateful.  I get hugged by people I’ve never seen before when I come to a new jazz party.

And I hug back.  Knowing that there are real people on the other end of the imaginary string is a deep pleasure indeed.

There are exceptions, of course: the anonymous people who write grudging comments on YouTube about crowd sounds; the viewers who nearly insist that I drop everything and come video the XYZ Wrigglers because they can’t make it; the Corrections Officers who point out errors in detail, fact, or what they see as lapses of taste; the people who say “I see the same people over and over on your blog.”  I don’t know.

Had I done nothing beyond making more people aware of the Reynolds Brothers or the EarRegulars, I would think I had not lived in vain.  And that’s no stage joke.

But the process of my attempting to spread joy through the musical efforts of my heroes is not without its complexities, perhaps sadness.

If, in my neighborhood, I help you carry your groceries down the street to your apartment because they’re heavy and I see you’re struggling, I do it for love, and I would turn away a dollar or two offered to me.  But when I work I expect to get paid unless other circumstances are in play.  And I know the musicians I love feel the same way.

The musicians who allow (and even encourage) me to video-record them, to post the results on JAZZ LIVES and YouTube know that I cannot write them a check at union rates for this.  I can and do put more money in the tip jar, and I have bought some of my friends the occasional organic burger on brioche. But there is no way I could pay the musicians a fraction of what their brilliant labors are worth — the thirty years of practice and diligence that it took to make that cornet sound so golden, to teach a singer to touch our hearts.

I would have to be immensely wealthy to pay back the musicians I record in any meaningful way.  And one can say, “They are getting free publicity,” which is in some superficial way undeniable.

But they are also donating their services for free — for the love of jazz — because the landscape has shifted so in the past decade.  They know it and I know it.  When I was illicitly tape-recording in Carngie Hall in 1974, I could guess that there were other “tapers” in the audience but they were wisely invisible.

At a jazz party, the air is often thick with video cameras or iPhones, and people no longer have any awareness of how strange that is to the musicians.  I have seen a young man lie nearly on his back (on the floor in front of the bandstand) and aim his lighted camera up at a musician who was playing until the player asked him to stop doing that.  The young man was startled.  In the audience, we looked at each other sadly and with astonishment.

I started writing this post because I thought, not for the first time, “How many musicians who allow me to video them for free would really rather that I did not do it?”  I can imagine the phrase “theft of services” floating in the air, unspoken.

Some musicians may let me do what I do because they need the publicity; they live in the hope that a promoter or club booker will see the most recent video on YouTube and offer them a gig.  But they’d really rather get paid (as would I) and be able to control the environment (as would I).  Imagine, if you will, that someone with a video camera follows you around at work, recording what you do, how you speak.  “Is that spinach between my teeth?  Do I say “you know” all the time, really?  Did you catch me at a loss for words?”

Musicians are of course performers, working in public for pay.  And they always have the option to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to be videoed.  Thank you!”  I have reached arrangements — friendly ones — with some splendid musicians — that they will get to see what I have recorded and approve of it before I post it.  If they dislike the performance, it never becomes public.  And that is perfectly valid.  I don’t feel hurt that the musicians “don’t trust [Michael’s] taste,” because Michael is an experienced listener and at best an amateur musician.

But I sometimes feel uncomfortable with the situation I have created.  Wanting to preserve the delicate moment — a solo on STARDUST that made me cry, a romping TIGER RAG that made me feel that Joy was surrounding me in the best possible way — I may have imposed myself on people, artists, who weren’t in a position, or so they felt, to ask me to put the camera away.  I wonder often if the proliferation of free videos has interfered with what Hot Lips Page called his “livelihood.”  I would be very very grieved to think I was cutting into the incomes of the players and singers who have done so much for me.

Were musicians were happier to see me when I was simply an anonymous, eager, nervous fan, asking, “Mr. Hackett, would you sign my record?”  Then, in 1974, there was no thought of commerce, no thought of “I loused up the second bar of the third chorus and now it’s going on YouTube and it will stay there forever!”

I can’t speak for the musicians.  Perhaps I have already presumed overmuch to do so.  I embarked on this endeavor because I thought it was heartbreaking that the music I love disappeared into memory when the set was over.

But I hope I am exploiting no one, hurting no one’s feelings, making no one feel trapped by a smiling man in an aloha shirt with an HD camera.

I don’t plan to put the camera down unless someone asks me to do so.  And, to the musicians reading this posting — if I have ever captured a performance of yours on YouTube and it makes you cringe, please let me know and I will make it disappear.  I promise.  I’ve done that several times, and although I was sorry to make the music vanish, I was relieved that any unhappiness I had caused could be healed, a wrong made right.  After all, the music brings such joy to me, to the viewers, and often to the musicians creating it, they surely should have their work made as joyous as possible.

I dream of a world where artists are valued for the remarkable things they give us.

And I think, “Perhaps after I am dead, the sound waves captured by these videos will reverberate through the wide cosmos, making it gently and sweetly vibrate in the best way.”  To think that I had made pieces of the music immortal merely by standing in the right place with my camera would make me very happy.

And to the players, I Revere you all.

May your happiness increase.

THE ELUSIVE MR. WILSON

teddy

Although I have tried to hear all the recordings Teddy Wilson ever made over more than half a century, the man himself was harder to find.  True, I did hear him in person several times at Newport Jazz Festival concerts in New York City, once at the Highlights in Jazz concert series, at The New School (alongside Claude Hopkins, Dill Jones, and Eubie Blake!), and once at a shopping mall, Roosevelt Field, where, in the winter of 1971, he was one of four or so jazz performers who had hour-long gigs among the shoppers.  (I recall that one other group was Roy Eldridge, an organist whose name I can’t recall, and the recently departed Eddie Locke; another was Joe Farrell, Wilbur Little, and Elvin Jones.  My friend Stu Zimny was there, too, and might have driven the car as well.)  Wilson brought with him the veteran bassist Al Lucas and drummer Gary Mure, son of the guitarist Billy Mure — if I remember correctly.  In his perfformance, Wilson did what had, by that time, become an “act”: his Benny Goodman medley, his Gershwin medley, his Fats Waller medley, his Count Basie medley — glistening but routine.  

I was a terribly earnest jazz-mad college student; one of my most precious records was the 1956 PRES AND TEDDY, reuniting Lester Young, Teddy, Gene Ramey, and Jo Jones.  After the concert was over, I stood by the piano, waiting patiently until some of the fans and hand-shakers had dispersed (perhaps some of them were telling how much they remembered Teddy’s work with the Benny Goodman Trio in 1935).  I shyly came up to Wilson, told him how much I admired his work and how much I loved this recording and would he sign it for me (all in one breath), and he gave me the faintest hint of a polite smile, said, “Thank you very much,” signed his name neatly and handed the record back to me.  And that was it.  

The photograph at the top of the page — with Teddy, Lester, and Jo — comes from that session, I believe. 

In retrospect, Teddy’s reticence makes a good deal of sense.  Playing music for shoppers can’t have been good for the psyche: Wilson logically would want to have collected his fee and gone home.  And he was perfectly polite: I just had the sense that talking to fans was alien, that I had unwittingly attempted to breach his privacy, the door had opened a crack and had closed quickly and decisively. 

I was reminded of this experience today in my small expedition to the New York State Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. 

As someone whose fact-chasing predates the internet — I like doing research in libraries.  I’ve spent a good deal of my life in the stacks, or in Special Collections, or in handling one-of-a-kind documents (while protective librarians usually come up behind me and hiss that I am NOT to put my elbow on the page). 

Which brngs us back to Teddy Wilson.  Years ago, I found a 10″ lp on the Jolly roger label in a second-hand store (price four dollars) of his solo performances of songs I had never heard before — among them WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE — which I bought, clutching my treasure until the moment I could put it on the phonograph.  The solos were new to me, and they were splendid, including a version of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS which had a sweet little descending figure in the bass after the first statement of the title phrase. 

Eventually I learned that these 1938-39 performances were part of a business enterprise called THE TEDDY WILSON SCHOOL FOR PIANISTS.  I don’t think Wilson was terribly ambitious, but he was looking for ways to capitalize on the fame and recognition his work with Goodman and Holiday had brought him in the second half of the Thirties.  And someone (was it Wilson?) suggested that he could set up a correspondence course for the young men and women who wanted to play in the Wilson manner.  Leo Feist and other music publishers had tried to capitalize on this by selling music books of Waller, Tatum, James P., and other pianists’ transcribed solos — how accurate the transcriptions were is always open to dispute.  Wilson’s “school” was different in one crucial aspect: at the end of his Brunswick sessions, he would record one or two solos, which would be pressed as 78 records with the SCHOOL label and sold through the mail, as well as transcriptions of what had been played.  Theoretically, the student could follow along — hearing the record and reading the score — to know exactly what Wilson was doing. 

In his oral history, TEDDY WILSON TALKS JAZZ, Wilson recalled this about the experience (an excerpt I found at www.doctorjazz.co.uk., a thrilling site for anyone interested in piano jazz and jazz arcana of the highest order):

I have done quite a bit of private teaching in my life, too, and the young people I’ve had as pupils have always been between sixteen and twenty years of age. At one time I had my own school in New York, “The Teddy Wilson School for Pianists,” from 1936 to 1939, with three excellent partners, and we turned out some very good students. J. Lawrence Cook was my chief assistant there and he was great on the theoretical side of the jazz piano and shaped the printed courses we had, containing sheet music of my improvisations on popular melodies. They proved very successful in teaching by mail. However, I had to give it up in the end because costs just kept soaring. Advertising and copyright payments were heavy items, especially as the latter were always for very popular songs. The other partners in my school were Eve Ross and Teddy Cassola. Their contribution rounded out the work done by the [sic] Cook and me. My having to be away traveling and performing so much of time led some to believe I only “fronted” the school. Not so. I was completely involved. [TW 110-111]

I have never seen an original SCHOOL 78, although a vinyl issue on one of Jerry Valburn’s collectors’ labels — probably Meritt — collected all the issued and alternate takes from this series, and I have it — a prize!  And later the SCHOOL recordings were issued chronologically on the Classics and Neatwork CDs.  (The Commodore Music Shop was involved in this project as well, so I think that the music was first “officially” reissued on the first Mosaic Commodore box set.

But ever since I’ve had a computer, I’ve been checking Google for the scores themselves.  I am a sub-amateur pianist, but I harbor the hope that if I had a Wilson score in front of me, something placid, not TIGER RAG, then perhaps I could spend a winter working my way through thirty-two bars.  (I have the “Teddy Wilson” music books from the Thirties and Forties, but don’t trust them.)

Nothing emerged in cyberspace until a year or so ago, when I found that the Performing Arts Library (in the Lincoln Center complex) had an entry for the scores.  It seems that an American composer-pianist-arranger named Brainerd Kremer left his papers to the library, and in one of the boxes he had a set of the Wilson School scores. 

I filed this information away in the back of my mind until today, when I found myself with several hours of free time twenty blocks north of Lincoln Center, and set out, a brave researcher in search of the jazz Grail. 

The quest required a series of small perseverances on my part, taking me from one floor of the library to the other.  I hadn’t had a New York Public Library card for nearly fifteen years, so I had to reapply for one (simple and pleasant), had to log onto their system and find my way (reasonably simple), had to explain myself to the reference librarian (easy and quite pleasant) and then take my slip of paper to the third-floor Special Collections print department, hand it in, and wait for my number — 24 — to be displayed on the indicator above.  They were both busy and understaffed, so the ten minutes I had been told it would take turned out to be more like thirty-five, but then 24 was visible and I approached the desk.  The pleasant young woman had nothing in her hands but a piece of paper, always a bad sign, and she politely told me that they could not find what I was asking for, but that I should give them my name, phone, and email, and they would call me in a week if they found it. 

I hope they do, even if I have to buy a pad of music staff paper and start copying (for nothing so simple as photocopying happens without labyrinthine restrictions in most Special Collections) but I’m not optimistic.  Do any of my readers have a copy of the Wilson scores they wouldn’t mind lending me?  Or any good suggestions?  I need to learn how to play I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS as Teddy did.  I know this.  And I would hate to think that the elusive Mr. Wilson had eluded me after death in the library, too.

SMILING JO JONES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

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

Many other moments come back to me now. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jo Jones Funeral

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

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

REMEMBERING JOE THOMAS

The trumpeter Joseph Eli Thomas — fabled but truly little-known — is almost always confused with his higher-profile namesake, who played tenor sax and sang in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. 

But a quick scan of the people our Joe Thomas played with should suggest that his colleagues thought very highly of him.  How about Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Guarneri, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Catlett, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Emmett Berry, Cozy Cole, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Claude Hopkins,  Buddy Tate, Pee Wee Russell, Tony Scott, Buck Clayton, Woody Herman, Trummy Young, Rudy Powell, Eddie Condon, Benny Carter, Jo Jones, Benny Morton, Al Hall . . . . ?  Clearly a man well-respected.  But he is an obscure figure today. 

He can be seen as a member of Art Kane’s famous 1958 Harlem street assemblage.  Shirtsleeved and hatless, he stands with Maxine Sullivan and Jimmy Rushing to one side, with Stuff Smith on the other.  Fast company, although the sun must have been bothering him, for he looks worried. 

In another world, Thomas would have had little reason to worry, but he came up in jazz when hot trumpeters seemed to spring out from every bush.  To his left, Red Allen and Rex Stewart; to the right, Bill Coleman, Emmett Berry, Bobby Hackett.  Rounding the corner, Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams, Benny Carter, Frank Newton.   So the competition was fierce.  And Thomas often had the bad fortune to be overshadowed: in Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS band — the one that recorded extensively for Victor and Vocalion — his section-mate was a fireball named Eldridge.  In Fats Waller’s big band, Thomas played section trumpet and the prize solos in Fats’ Rhythm went to Herman Autrey or Bugs Hamilton.  And then there was a colossus named Armstrong, apparently blocking out the sun.  John Hammond was busy championing other players, all worthy, and never got around to pushing Joe Thomas into the limelight.  Although he recorded prolifically as a sideman, he never had a record date under his own name after 1946. 

But Thomas got himself heard now and again: his solos shine on Decca recordings (alongside Chu Berry) under Lil Armstrong’s name, and on a famous Big Joe Turner date for the same label that featured Art Tatum and Ed Hall.  On the much more obscure Black and White label, he recorded alongside Tatum and Barney Bigard; for Jamboree, he was captured side-by-side with Don Byas, Dave Tough, and Ted Nash. 

Later in his career, the British jazz scholar Albert McCarthy featured him on a Vic Dickenson session (Vic, like Tatum, seems to have admired Joe’s quiet majesty), and he popped up on sessions in the Fifties and Sixties in the best company.  Whitney Balliett celebrated him in an essay, and the drummer Mike Burgevin used him on gigs whenever he could.

Thomas’s most important champion has to have been the Javanese jazz enthusiast and record producer Harry Lim, whose biography should be written — producing jam sessions and heading one of the finest record labels ever — Keynote — then shepherding another label, Famous Door, through perhaps a dozen issues in the Seventies.  I gather that his day job was as head of the jazz record section in the Manhattan Sam Goody store: probably I saw him, but was too young and uninformed to make the connection. 

Lim loved Thomas’s playing and featured him extensively on sessions between 1944 and 1946.  Regrettably those sessions were reissued in haphazard fashion in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies — vinyl anthologies on the Emarcy and Trip labels — then in a wonderful box set first appearing in Japan, then briefly in the US, then disappearing for good.  A number of compilations drawn from that set — featuring Hawkins, Eldridge, Norvo, and Young — made it to CD but seem to have gone out of circulation.  And wise collectors aren’t putting them up on eBay.  Thomas also appears on a few sessions for the HRS (Hot Record Society) label, and those sessions have been collected in a Mosaic box set, which I believe is still available — although the Keynotes show him off far better. 

What made Thomas so special?  His tone was luminous but dark, rich — not shallow and glossy or brassy.  His notes sang; he placed his notes a shade behind the beat, giving the impression of having all the time in the world at a fast tempo.  Like Jack Teagarden, he wasn’t an improviser who started afresh with every new solo.  Thomas had his favorite patterns and gestures, but he didn’t repeat himself.  Listening to him when he was on-form was beautifully satisfying: he sounded like a man who had edited out all the extraneous notes in his head before beginning to play.  His spaces meant something, and a Thomas solo continued to resonate in one’s head for a long time.  I can still hear his opening notes of a solo he took on CRAZY RHYTHM on a New York gig in 1974. 

What made his style so memorable wasn’t simply his tone — a marvel in itself — or his pacing, steady but never sluggish.  It was his dual nature: he loved upward-surging arpeggios that spelled out the chord in a gleaming way, easy but urgent.  Occasionally he hit the same note a few times in a delicate, chiming way (much more Beiderbecke than Sweets Edison) — and then, while those notes rang in the air, he would play something at one-quarter volume, which had the shape of a beautiful half-muttered epigram, something enclosed in parentheses, which you had to strain to hear.  That balance between declarations and intimacy shaped many a memorable solo. 

And when Thomas was simply appearing to play the melody, he worked wonders.  I don’t know where a listener would find the Teddy Wilson V-Disc session that produced only two titles (and one alternate take) with a stripped-down version of Wilson’s Cafe Society band in 1943: Thomas, Ed Hall, Wilson, and Sidney Catlett.  I mean them no disrespect, but Benny Morton and Johnny Williams may have wanted to go home and get some sleep.  The two titles recorded were RUSSIAN LULLABY and HOW HIGH THE MOON — the latter of interest because it is one of the first jazz recordings of that song (including a fairly straight 1940 reading by a Fred Rich studio band with Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge as guest stars!) that I know of.  But RUSSIAN LULLABY is extra-special, taken at a slow tempo, enabling Thomas to illuminate the melody from within, as if it were a grieving anthem. 

Alas, there are no CD compilations devoted to Thomas; someone eager to hear him on record might chase down the Keynotes in a variety of forms.  One session finds him alongside Eldridge and Emmett Berry, and it’s fascinating to see how easily Thomas’s wait-and-see manner makes his colleagues seem a bit too eager, even impetuous.  His playing alongside Teagarden and Hawkins on a session led by drummer George Wettling couldn’t be better, especially on HOME and YOU BROUGHT A NEW KIND OF LOVE TO ME. 

But he came to prominence, at least as far as the record studio executives were concerned, most often in the years of the first record ban, during World War Two.  After that, he emerged now and then in a variety of Mainstream revivals — he played at Central Plaza on an elusive “Dr. Jazz” broadcast; he was a member of an Eddie Condon troupe in the Forties that did a concert in Washington, D.C.  

I was lucky enough to hear him a few times in the early Seventies, primarily because of the enthusiastic generosity of Mike Burgevin, a classic jazz drummer whose heroes were Catlett, Tough, and Wettling — someone who also sang now and again, his model (wisely) being early-and-middle period Crosby. 

For a time, Mike took care of the jazz at a club named Brew’s — slightly east of the Empire State Building — that had a little room with tables and chairs, a minute bandstand, a decent upright piano.  His sessions usually featured himself and the quietly persuasive stride pianist Jimmy Andrews (or Dill Jones), perhaps Al Hall on bass, and a noted horn player.  It could be Ruby Braff or Kenny Davern, but often it was Max Kaminsky, Herb Hall, Herman Autrey, or Joe Thomas.  (One week, blessedly, Vic Dickenson played three or four nights with a shifting rhythm section: glorious music and a rare opportunity to observe him on his own.) 

The sessions were even noted in The New Yorker.  I remember noting that these players — people I had heard only on record — seemed to be gigging about ten minutes away from Penn Station.  When Joe Thomas’s name came up in print, I was nearly-incredulous.  Could this be our Joe Thomas, the trumpeter who was nearly luminescent on his choruses on SHE DIDN’T SAY YES?  I think I prevailed on my friend Stu Zimny to come into the city and see whether this was miracle or mirage, and I remember one brilliant set — Joe, Waller-altoist Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, and Burgevin — that featured Rudy on WHERE OR WHEN and there was a closing CRAZY RHYTHM for the whole band.  Of course I had my cassette recorder, but where these tapes are I cannot say.  Joe’s chorus, however, is fresh in my mind’s ear.  

We struck up a friendship with Mike Burgevin, who was thrilled to find college-age kids who were deeply immersed in the music he loved, and he told us that Joe and he would be leading a quartet for an outdoors concert in a park at the very southern end of Manhattan.  I remember that Stu and I brought a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder, the better to capture Joe’s golden sound, and set it up in the shade, near a tree.  This provoked the only conversation I remember having with him.  Understandably, perhaps, the sight of young strangers with a big tape recorder made him nervous, and he kept on telling us that we shouldn’t do this, because “the union man” could come by.  Perhaps impatiently, we assured him that Local 802 representatuves didn’t seem to be hiding in the bushes, and that we would take the blame if anyone came around.  He could pretend that he had no knowledge of our criminalities.  It was a less memorable occasion: the quartet was filled out with someone of moderate abilities on a small electric keyboard, the bassist played an over-amplified Fender.  Joe fought his way upstream, but it was difficult.  In retrospect, I feel guilty: was he worrying about the union man all the time he was playing?  I hope not. 

He also got a chance to shine twice at the 1972 Newport in New York concerts, once at an affair devoted to Eddie Condon and his music.  It was a characteristically uneven evening.  The sound engineer at Carnegie Hall amplified the piano so that it sounded other-worldly, and Thomas (perhaps playing the role of a more modest Hot Lips Page) was brought on, along with J.C. Higginbotham, for a closing version of IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  Of that occasion, I remember a stunning Bobby Hackett chorus and break, but Thomas didn’t get the space to do what we knew he could.  He also was a member of Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS big band — its rhythm section featuring Teddy Wilson, Bernard Addison, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones (!) and Thomas took a wonderful solo on a very fast rendition of SLEEP.

I don’t know what kept him out of the limelight after that, whether it was ill health or tiredness?  Was it that more showily assertive trumpeters (and there were plenty) got the gigs?  Whatever the reasons, he seems to have faded away. 

Ironically, Mike Burgevin had issued three vinyl recordings on his own Jezebel label that featured Herman Autrey, Jack Fine, Rudy Powell, and Doc Cheatham . . . which, in a way, led to Cheatham’s rediscovery and second or third period of intense (and well-deserved) fame.  Had circumstances been different, perhaps it would have been Joe Thomas playing alongside Nicholas Payton, and that is to take nothing away from Cheatham.

I had begun to write a post about Joe Thomas very shortly after beginning this blog, but shelved it because so little of his work is now available on CD.  But the impetus to celebrate him came in the past few days when the Beloved and I had the great good luck to hear Duke Heitger on a brief New York City tour.  I have admired Duke’s work for a number of years, and think of him as one of those players who honors the tradition — subtly yet passionately — without imitating anyone.  But on a few occasions this last week, Duke would get off a beautiful phrase that hung, shimmering in the air, for a second, and I would think, “Who does that remind me of?”  And the answer, when it came, startled me: the last time I had heard something quite so lovely was in listening to Joe Thomas in his prime.  Duke is too much his own man to have copied those Keynotes, but it’s an honor (at least in my estimation) to come close to some of Thomas’s quiet majesty. 

One other person who thought Joe Thomas was worthy of notice was the esteemed photographer William P. Gottlieb.  In this shot, taken at the Greenwich Village club “The Pied Piper,” sometime between 1946 and 1946, Thomas is third from the left, the only African-American.  To his left is Harry Lim:

Joe Thomas 1

Here he is playing alongside pianist Jimmy Jones, at the same club:

Joe Thomas 2

Ultimately, Thomas got a number of opportunities to record and to perform, so that a few people still remember him, but it’s sad that his work is so difficult to find.  He deserves so much more.

CANGELOSI CARDS: SWEET SATORI!

bamjo-jims

Because of a much-appreciated friendly email nudge from Jim Balantic, the Beloved and I (with Flip tagging along) wended our way down to Banjo Jim’s last Monday night.

Banjo Jim’s sits at the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue C.  The area feels much like the mysterious East but it was worth the trip.  The club is a small squarish room with tables, stools, and a bar (the latter presided over by the cheerfully expert “Banjo” Lisa).  Banjo Jim’s is a neighborhood hangout, and it offers a dazzling variety of groups who play for the tip basket.

The crowd is mostly younger people, which I find encouraging, and even when the chat level gets high, they get reverently quiet when the band begins a ballad or they sense something unusual is happening.  (And, when feelings run high, there’s a good deal of fervent jitterbugging and even slow-motion tangoing in front of the band.)

Of course the club has a website: www.banjojims.com., and a MySpace page:  www.myspace.com/banjojims — everyone seems to have a MySpace page except the Beloved and myself.  (Flip isn’t telling.)

We were there because of the regular Monday night gig of the Cangelosi Cards, that musical cornucopia, and Jim’s news that their splendid singer Tamar Korn had been working on Boswell Sisters-inspired repertoire with two other harmonizing women.

And — this is no small matter — Tamar had graciously agreed to do some of the new trio material in the band’s first set (their gig ordinarily runs from 9 PM to 2:30 AM) so that the nine-to-fivers could hear some of it before their ancient eyelids began to sag.  I was especially grateful to her for this kindness, because my clock radio makes itself known four mornings a week at 5:45 AM.

When we arrived, we were met on the sidewalk by Jim and his wife Grace and a beaming Tamar; Tamar and I talked happily until our faces began to grow numb from the cold.  We spoke of the Boswell Sisters, and how their vocal arrangements seemed to have the same intense purity of chamber music — to be revered, but also to be improvised on in a personal style.  Tamar said that she and her two friends — Mimi Terris and Naomi Uyama — found that they could do instant improvisation in the style they loved on songs the Boswells had never recorded, which suggests that they have moved well beyond imitative groups, and there have been a few.  (Copying the Boswell Sisters, incidentally, is not at all easy to do.)

Inside, a young band, calling itself “The Scandinavian Half Breeds,” no fooling, was plunking away.  That foursome, offered surrealistic gypsy swing, some Thirties songs, and some lopsided yet earnest singing. The Scandinavians have a CD for sale — a mere five dollars — and they also have a MySpace page with audio samples: www.myspace.com/scandinavianhalfbreeds.

But they were what my people call a forshpeits — an appetizer, an amuse-bouche before the entree.

The Cards were at full strength: in addition to Tamar, they had Marcus Millius on harmonica, Karl Meyer on violin, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Jake Sanders on guitar (he set tempos and routines as well), Cassidy Holden on string bass, Matt Musselman on trombone, and Gordon Webster on piano.

Here’s some of what Flip, that tidy little fellow, captured.  I have to point out that Banjo Jim’s isn’t a movie set, so that people walk in front of Flip (he’s used to it) and there were couples gyrating in front of the lens.  These clips offer atmospheric cinema verite of a particularly unbuttoned sort, but I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of the club and the Cards, who are more like an ecstatic travelling ceremony than a formal orchestra.  And that’s high praise.

Here’s a wonderful rocking version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody”:

In the name of accuracy, I have to say it begins in darkness — but soon your eyes make out the nimble fingers of Jake Sanders playing his National steel guitar in the wonderful manner I associate with the West Coast genius Craig Ventresco.  Then it starts to rock, and rock hard.  This is the kind of music that great improvisers of any kind make when no one is paying attention, when they are blissfully playing for themselves.  And the dancers!  Tamar couldn’t keep still at the beginning, and the whole room was swaying, although Flip couldn’t take his little monocular self away from the band.  (He’s a fan.  Now it can be told.)

The Cards decided to slow the tempo down — and Tamar explored a truly lovely ballad, “It’s Like Reaching For the Moon,”  which most people know, if at all, through Billie’s version.  Examined closely, the song is a rather simple motif, repeated, and the lyrics aren’t exactly Larry Hart.  (Charlie Levenson, jazz man-about-town, was sitting next to me, and he kept muttering ecstatically, “I love this song.  This is my favorite song!” so perhaps I am being too harsh.)  But what lifts it above the ordinary is Tamar’s singing — full of genuine yearning.  We believe her, as do the Cards.

After two songs about unfulfilled love, even at different tempos, it was time to explore another dramatic situation, and the Cards turned to Irving Berlin’s satiric Socialism (like “Slummin’ On Park Avenue,” it has a sharp political subtext).  Catch the weaving, seductive tempo they choose, and admire Matt’s wicked trombone playing:

Then it was time for what Jim had promised: Tamar, Mimi Terris, and Naomi Uyama got together on the tiny bandstand (this is one of those clubs where nothing delineates the end of the Audience and the beginning of the Stage, which is a truly good thing in this case) for “Moonglow,” which was properly ethereal.  These girls have it:

We were glowing!  The set ended with another loving consideration of meteorological phenomena, “Stardust,” which Tamar said she “learned from the music,” but clearly she, Naomi, and Mimi are well beyond the notes on the page, into some beautifully mystical realm:

When the Cards’ set was over, it was around 11:30 — time for the aging wage-slaves to find their cars and drive home.  But there was more!

As we were getting ready to go, Tamar said there was one more Boswell Sisters piece that she, Mimi, and Naomi had been working on.  They planned to perform it much later on but knew we would want to hear it.  Would we mind waiting for them?  Jim, Grace, and I looked at each other, grinned, wrapped our coats a little tighter, and waited on Avenue C.  In a few minutes, the Girl Trio came out (as an unrequested surrogate parent, I checked that their coats were properly buttoned up).

The trio positioned themselves in front of us on Ninth Street, and began a most unearthly beautiful a cappella rendition of the Sisters’ radio theme, “Shout, Sister, Shout.”  As you may remember, that’s a moody slow-drag, all about how singing the right way has Satan on the run.  (Would that this were the case.)  Their voices were pure and low-down at the same time, soulful and intense.  I listened, transfixed.

In an odd way, it was as close to being a royal patron of the arts as I will ever be — with Mozart playing his new piece near the dinner table to give the guests a little night music.  It was eerie, lovely, and awe-inspiring. . . as if Beauty had slipped her arms around me while I stood out in the cold.

Listening to live jazz is, with luck, a series of special moments when a listener feels that Something Rare is taking place, and it often is.  But it’s even rarer for a musician or musicians to create such tender intimacy that the listener feels, “They are playing this song just for me.”

Even though I knew it was an illusion, I felt that way while Lee Wiley sang in her 1972 farewell concert in Carnegie Hall, and I remember a much more personal example.  Once, Stu Zimny and I went to hear Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s — this would have been the same year.  Ryan’s was an inhospitable place for college kids who wanted to make their bottle of Miller High Life (awful beer even at $2.50 a bottle) last for hours.  Roy must have been playing another gig, so his place was taken by the veteran Louis Metcalf, who had played with King Oliver and Duke Ellington in the Twenties.  He was a far less electrifying player than Roy, but one moment cannot be erased.  On a medium-tempo “Rosetta,” Metcalf put his Harmon mute (the stem still attached) in his horn and went from table to table, playing a half-chorus here and there, six inches from our ears.  I can no longer remember the shape of his solo or the contours of the melodic paraphrase, but the experience — jazz at the closest possible range — gave me delighted chills then and I can see it now.

This version of “Shout, Sister,Shout,” girlish and earnest, graceful and disembodied — their three voices harmonizing as if in the middle of the darkness — was even more electrifying.  As I drove home, shaken and levitated, I thought, “I might have died and never heard this.  My God, I am lucky!”

To experience something of the same repertoire — although I can’t promise that you will have a private serenade on the sidewalk — be sure to follow the Cards wherever they go.  If you judge musicians by the quality of their formal wear, the Cards seem loose and casual, but the musical experiences they offer you won’t encounter elsewhere.  Blazing enlightenment is possible if you’re listening closely.

JOHNNY WINDHURST, MUCH MISSED

Few people today know of the cornetist Johnny Windhurst, but those who do speak of him with awe and affection. 

I first heard him on a Folkways record called JAZZ OF THE FORTIES, which contained excerpts from a concert put on by Bob Maltz in 1946.  The other participants inckuded Sidney Bechet, Pops Foster, Vernon Brown, Mezz Mezzrow, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson.  Windhurst had a ballad feature on “She’s Funny That Way” that wasn’t very long — perhaps two choruses — but it was instantly memorable.  The idea of a brass player having a golden tone is and was an obvious cliche, but it applied to Johnny.  He had built his style on a synthesis of Bobby Hackett and Louis and moved on from there.  His playing had a simplicity and tenderness I haven’t heard anyone else approach.  At the time, the only Windhurst I could hear was on recordings he had made with the fine singer Barbara Lea. 

In mid-1972, when I began to go into New York City to hear live jazz (with Stu Zimny and Rob Rothberg) the Sunday afternoon sessions led by bassist Red Balaban at Your Father’s Mustache were a special treat.  Balaban was not a stirring leader, bassist, banjoist, or singer, but he had good taste in guest stars.  One of them was Windhurst, who came down from Poughkeepsie, where his mother lived, to lead the band — either Dick Rath or Herb Gardner on trombone, Herb Hall on piano, either Chuck Folds or Red Richards on piano, and Marquis Foster or Buzzy Drootin on drums.

Windhurst looked much as he had ever looked — boyish, small, bespectacled, with a natty bow tie.  He seemed a little distant, a little tired, but he played beautifully.

After that Sunday, I began to ask my collector-friends for the private tapes they had.  John L. Fell, generous and erudite, shared his treasures.  Joe Boughton, a true Windhurst friend and fancier, let me hear tapes of Windhurst playing in the early Fifties at college gigs; later, I found the two lps on which he had appeared (one, a quartet session under his own name; the other, a session led by the drummer Walt Gifford).  He had recorded with Condon for Decca.  Still later, the “Jazz Nocturne” programs of 1945, where a 19-year old Windhurst stood next to Sidney Bechet and didn’t give an inch, came out on the Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and the “Doctor Jazz” broadcasts from 1952 or so, also appeared on Storyville.  I even found a semi-private recording made in Poughkeepsie at “The Last Chance Saloon,” where Johnny and his friend, trombonist Eddie Hubble, played in front of a local session.  Later, I heard broadcasts from the Savoy Cafe in Boston, where in 1947, Windhurst had run in the quickest of company: Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson,Kenny Kersey, John Field, and Jimmy Crawford.   

In all these recordings, Windhurst took risks but never faltered, and his tone never grew acrid or shrill.  But, for whatever reasons, he stayed out of the limelight.  Because he never cared to learn to read music, he had turned down gigs with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, preferring informal jamming.  He died in Poughkeepsie at 54.  The reference books I have say that he died of a heart attack, but I recall that having been mugged had something to do with his early death. 

Had he lived . . . alas.  And the recordings that have come out in the last few years — one a 1947 jazz concert where Windhurst and Jack Teagarden play beautifully alongside one another — are beautifully stirring, saying much about the musician we lost. 

These thoughts are motivated by a cyber-find: I haven’t given up on my quest for the 1946 “March of Time” clip featuring Dave Tough at Eddie Condon’s.  My quest led me to www.dailymotion.com., where trumpeter and film scholar Bob Erwig has posted excerpts from a 1958 “Jazz Party,” a television show hosted by jazz disc jockey Art Ford.  Ford’s program was simultaneously broadcast on the radio, so some diligent collectors have tapes that are as close to stereo as we shall get.  The programs tended to be informal to the point of messiness, with players ranging from Lester Young to Willie the Lion Smith to Mary Osborne and Teddy Charles.  Here is the only film footage of Windhurst, accompanied by pianist Roland Hanna, Osborne, bassist Mark Goldberg, and drummer Morey Feld (the last a particular favorite of our own Kevin Dorn).   

On this 1958 clip, an earnest Windhurst considers “Pennies From Heaven” in yearning style, reminding us of the pretty song that Bing Crosby, Hackett, and Louis explored.  In it, we see a player not afraid to take his time, to make beautiful sounds, to gently explore the melody.  It’s a lovely performance, and it doesn’t give up all its secrets on one viewing. 

Did any readers of this blog hear Johnny or play alongside him?  I would love to hear your memories.  Without them, who will remember Johnny Windhurst?

I CONFESS! A JAZZ CRIMINAL TELLS ALL

If the phonograph record had never been invented, jazz might have remained a local art form heard only on a visit to New Orleans.  Charlie Parker might well be only a remote name, an unheard legend to listeners born after 1955. 

Phonograph records are objects that make music accessible and permanent, and I grew up surrounded by them.  My father, a motion picture projectionist, was also expected to be an unpaid disc jockey, someone who would fill the theatre with music between shows by spinning records from the projection booth.  I remember his story of the first explosion of rock ‘n’ roll.  During an intermission, he reached for a record whose title meant nothing to him, put it on with the volume turned off in the booth, and turned back to his book.  Then the theatre manger called him in a near-frenzy, “Take that God-damned record off!  The kids are dancing on the seats and ripping up the theatre!” 

It was the famous (or infamous) record here.   

As 78 rpm records gave way to microgroove, my father would occasionally bring an outmoded record home rather than see it thrown away.  He was intrigued by technology, and we had a Revere reel-to-reel tape recorder, which I learned how to use early on. 

Later, around 1968, he brought home something new, a portable cassette recorder and a few blank tapes. 

By this time, I had become converted to jazz, which I thought of as my music.  It as a secret pleasure: I thought of myself as a subversive, listening to Louis while everyone around me was deeply absorbed by rock.  In my suburban hermitage, I recorded jazz radio shows — John S. Wilson’s “World of Jazz,” Ed Beach’s “Just Jazz,” and made them my soundtrack.  Records were not easy to get and I couldn’t afford all that I wanted, so the idea of tape-recording a precious performance and listening to it over and over shaped my first experiences of the music.  I lived for the moment when everything seemed cosmically aligned: Beach would be playing two hours of rare Jo Jones records on WRVR-FM; I would be home at the right time with a reel of blank tape; I could listen to it while the show was being broadcast; I would tape it to hear it again.  It would become mine.  In my memory, I can see those tape boxes, each one holding a precious hour or two of Buck Clayton, of 1940 Ellington, or Lee Wiley.    

I grew up on Long Island, an environment defined by the distance from one shopping mall to the next, and I recognize its inherent provincialism.  But for someone like myself, entranced by jazz, being born there rather than in Cape Breton was great good fortune.  In The New Yorker, I could read the names of musicians I had heard on radio or records.  They were playing live in New York City, an hour away by train and subway or car.          

I do not remember the details of the first live jazz I heard in Manhattan.  Was it in Town Hall or the Half Note?  But I prepared for this precious experience by bringing my cassette recorder with me.  It seemed logical rather than perverse to be a jazz anthropologist, a swing explorer.  Vasco DaGama of Dixieland, if you will.  I could poke my nose beyond my comfortable suburban environment, venture into the uncharted City, capture a performance live and return home with the reward.  Not gold or pepper or notes on the marriage rituals in New Guinea, but a homemade recording, however flawed, of the music I had heard last night.  A prize — to revisit, to study, to treasure.

Of course the idea wasn’t new.  Jazz enthusiasts had been capturing the music in its native habitat since the Thirties, perhaps earlier.  I had read about airshots, “on location” acetates, and live recordings, essential parts of jazz’s mythology.  That these recordings had often been made secretly by amateurs happily breaking the rules was even better.  Their illicit behavior was evidence of deep devotion to the art.  They wanted to keep what they had heard once from vanishing forever.  Even though I didn’t think about the implications of what I wanted to do, I now think there was a touch of late-Sixties political rebellion implicit in it.  Why should the recording companies control the music, and why should I be deprived of doing so?  When I had seen Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars in 1967, I had been too naive to bring my Instamatic camera to take twelve snapshots.  Now Louis was dead, and I had only an autograph and my memory of what he had looked like, what he had played. 

I was not sufficiently prideful or self-deluded to think of myself as the Long Island reincarnation of Jerry Newman at Minton’s or Dean Benedetti in search of Bird.  But perhaps I could capture a memorable chorus or ensemble, even in low-fidelity.  Would it become valuable over time?  What did that matter?  It would be precious now.          

This may strike some readers as more peculiar than collecting stamps or baseball cards.  Some jazz-lovers may be satisfied to hear a beautiful performance once, never again.  But this art is so splendidly evanescent that the thought of it going away is nearly painful.  It cries out to be preserved.  In terms of jazz’s brief chronological history, I am a late-comer.  Many of the great players were dead by the late Sixties; many of their portraits greeted me when I turned to the obituary page of The New York Times: I saved those clippings until the sheaf got too depressing.  It felt as if all the creators were leaving town, and this may have goaded me into illicit tape-recording as a way of snaring what moments I could before it was too late. 

I would never see PeeWee Russell or Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins or Rex Stewart . . . but when Benny Morton or Jimmy Rushing played a gig, I would not let their sounds escape me.   

Thus my life of crime began.  Being a criminal is difficult, let me tell you.         

Many club-owners did not care about a couple of college kids with their cassette recorder, sitting as close to the bandstand as possible, as long as the kids bought beer or hamburgers at regular intervals, but some establishments were very serious about such infractions.  I nearly got thrown out of the Village Vanguard a few years ago when the waiter noticed something glittering in my lap – a minidisc recorder, its display a bright phosphorescent blue.  He said that I could stop recording right now or I would have to leave, in tones that suggested New York’s finest were pounding down Seventh Avenue South in hot pursuit of Another Jazz Miscreant.        

And it was even worse in larger places, with notices hanging everywhere that The Taking Of Photographs and The Use Of Recording Devices Is Prohibited By Law.  But I had seen that the ushers were not athletic enough to arrest everyone with a tiny Kodak (flashbulbs went off at many performances) so I thought that I might get away with my criminalities.  I became sly, sidling into a concert hall with a blue plastic shoulder bag, trying to look nonchalant, always a failed enterprise.  The bag held a newspaper or magazine – a thin subterfuge – covering my cassette recorder, a $60 Shure microphone, and extra batteries.  Illegal and delicious.  I evaded what I thought were the peering eyes of the usher, usually someone who wanted only to give me a program and seat me in the right place, then scuttle away.  In the semi-darkness, while people talked, rattled their programs, unwrapped their cough drops, I would connect the microphone to the recorder and drop the heavy wire down through the sleeve of my jacket so that the microphone could be hidden in my lap.  I knew that my applause –the sound of two hands clapping — would be deafening on the tape, so I learned to look enthusiastic while pretending to clap. 

Emboldened by success, I brought a tape recorder to nearly every jazz performance I could.  Sometimes those tapes, heard the next day, were mediocre: routine music, badly recorded, turns out to be not worth the effort.  Occasionally, there were what college radio stations call “technical difficulties” and I had recorded nothing.  In those cases, crime certainly did not pay.  But I captured hours and hours of jazz that gave me pleasure.  Even the roll call of the players delights me now: just to think of pianists, I come up with Earl Hines, Eubie Blake, Dick Wellstood, Art Hodes, Joe Bushkin, Dave McKenna, Jimmy Andrews, Count Basie, Mark Shane, Teddy Wilson, Dick Hyman, Bill Evans, Jimmy Rowles, Ralph Sutton, Dill Jones, Hank Jones, Claude Hopkins, Chuck Folds, Don Friedman, Red Richards, Ellis Larkins, and two dozen others. 

Concert halls were usually terrible places for surreptitious recording because they were often terrible places to hear music.  The sound technicians at Carnegie Hall, for instance, where many of the Newport-New York concerts were held, apparently took perverse pleasure in making the piano sound as much unlike itself as possible.  The eye saw Teddy Wilson seated at a Steinway: the ear heard metal striking metal.  And you can imagine the acoustics at the top of Radio City Music Hall.  At the first of the 1972 jam sessions, Stu Zimny and I were seated in what seemed the upper reaches of the earth, next to a pair of Texas women who whooped happily when Gene Krupa hit his splash cymbal or when Roy Eldridge went for a high note.  Before the concert and during it, they most cordially offered us whiskey from bottles they had hidden in their pocketbooks; not to be outdone in gallantry, I offered them chocolate.  Both of us stuck to the stimulants we knew best.  But I cannot complain.  When I hear those tapes again, their exuberant hollering is part of the experience of the music, of having been there.      

Small clubs were easier to record in, and there was a better chance to be forgiven my wickedness, especially if I had spoken to the musicians beforehand and gotten their permission.  Since I looked at my jazz heroes with reverence, this approach often worked.  Kenny Davern, who had a powerful prejudice against playing into a microphone, showed me how to set mine so that it would record effectively.  Ruby Braff got so used to me and my friends that he dubbed us “Tapes,” as in, “Hey, Tapes!” when he saw us.  

One Sunday in 1972, Bobby Hackett, a gracious man, looked down at my brand-new Teac reel-to-reel recorder, perhaps forty pounds, that I had lugged into Your Father’s Mustache in hopes of recording him.  I was sweating already, and his noticing the machine made me even more moist, from anxiety.  What if he growled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  But all he said was, mildly, “What brand is that?”  And when I told him, he smiled and said, “I have one like it at home,” and went about the business of getting ready for the gig.     

But my criminality wasn’t always well-received.  The trumpeter Joe Thomas fretted about our taping him at an outdoor concert in Battery Park.  He was insistent that that “the union man” would find us out and that he would get in trouble.  I don’t remember how we soothed his fears (did we hide the recorder in a flowerbed?) but it took a good deal of placating before he let us go ahead. 

Some musicians were unwilling to be taped, and, in retrospect, I can’t blame them.  Perhaps someone unscrupulous had taken advantage in the past.  The pianist Cyril Haynes refused to play a note until I put my recorder away.  

I can see in my mind’s eye the brilliantly eccentric trombonist Dicky Wells, at the back of the bandstand clogged with other musicians, shaking his head from side to side in vehement “No-no-no!” and waving his arm and outstretched index finger in energetic arcs.  I remember a session featuring cornetist Wild Bill Davison, where I set up my microphone right under the bell of his horn.  He asked, gruffly, “Are you planning to record me with that?”  “Yes, Mr. Davison,” I politely replied.  “Well, that will cost you one Scotch now and one for each set you record,” he said in what seems now to have been a well-rehearsed speech.  I considered my budget for a moment and put the recorder back in the bag.  Was he disappointed at the failure of his bargain?  I couldn’t tell. 

Many players looked horrified and refused, politely but vigorously, when I asked if they wanted me to mail them a copy of what they had just played.  Was it modesty?  Perhaps they had no particular desire to relive what they had done in what was supposed to be an informal situation.  I recall Ray Nance playing splendidly as part of a large ad-hoc ensemble at a Queens College concert (with Joe Newman, Garnett Brown, Hank Jones, Milt Hinton, Al Foster, and others), and I recorded it from the audience.  Some months later, he appeared for a few nights at a tiny local club that had – for whatever reason – ventured into jazz.  Few people came to hear him, and on the second night, I brought a tape copy of that concert, approached him and offered it to him, thinking I was giving him a present.  He was pleasant enough, but I recall his looking at the box, now his, with mild puzzlement, as if I had given him a parakeet or a box of raisins.     

But taping made for delightfully weird interchanges with some players, made more aware of our presence by the machinery set in front of them.  Ruby Braff came over to Rob Rothberg and myself during a set-break one Tuesday night when he was guest star at the 54th Street Eddie Condon’s.  He peered at the small notebook in which I was writing down personnel and song titles for future reference.  “What is that?” he asked.  I showed him, and he said, “Want my autograph?”  “Sure,” I said, although we had met a dozen or more times already.  He took my pen and spent more time than I expected before handing the book to me, proudly chortling.  He had drawn a pistol, smoke curling out of its muzzle, with “Lucky Luciano” signed boldly beneath it.  A fellow law-breaker!     

After beginning my life of crime, in a few years I had piles of tapes, annotated and organized.  It may have made no sense to anyone not a member of the jazz world, but it meant that I could hear Vic Dickenson play Louis’s famous WEST END BLUES, the cadenza note-for-note, as he had in an outdoor concert at Port Jefferson, New York.  I could hear Marty Grosz sing ISN’T LOVE THE STRANGEST THING, as he did when Soprano Summit appeared at the Jazz Museum in midtown.  On a precious cassette, I still have perhaps ten minutes of what might have been the ultimate small group — Hackett, Vic, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones — strolling through JUST YOU, JUST ME, BODY AND SOUL, and a slow blues — from a Newport concert in 1974. 

Having these tapes did not prevent any of my heroes from dying, but bits and pieces of their music have been saved.

But “saved” is, alas, an overstatement.  The blank tapes I used were thin and inexpensive; even the best ones were inherently fragile.  The coating flaked off, or their sound got dimmer and dimmer.  So I no longer have many of my original tapes, surely an irony in itself.  In my mind’s ear, I hear Al Cohn, Joe Newman, and Zoot Sims surging through THE RED DOOR and MOTORING ALONG at a Town Hall concert sponsored by Dick Gibson (was it 1970?).  The tape has been gone for years, proving that all things fall or decay, that objects disintegrate or scurry away, beyond our reach.  I didn’t succeed in making permanent records, or at least the tapes I made proved to be impermanent.  But the idea of capturing — or nearly-capturing — jazz in full flight appealed to me then and continues to now.

And (as a postscript) such taping allowed me to make friends from Florida to Westoverledingen, Germany – friends who also loved the music and broke the rules.  I will write about such partners-in-crime in a future posting, among them the brilliant and generous John L. Fell. 

My crimes continue unabated, I state proudly.  The ancient cassette recorder gave way to a Sony minidisc recorder in 2005, thanks to my mentor Kevin Dorn, and I try to be an ethical, polite lawbreaker and ask the musicians’ permission to record whenever possible.  But if you see me in a club, vigorously enjoying the music, nodding my head, smiling broadly, but not applauding, you can be fairly sure that I am continuing my wicked (although fairly harmless) ways.  Come say hello – but not while the music is playing, if you don’t mind.      

WHAT’S NEW?

 

The Beloved and I have been on the road for more than a month now.  While we are in the car, the CD player is (as Pee Wee Erwin used to say) hotter than a depot stove, with respites for cassettes (the Braff-Hyman Concord duet version of MY FAIR LADY) or the CBC. But most often we are listening to one of the two hundred-plus compact discs I brought along. (If ever someone was a candidate for an iPod, I nominate myself.)

Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins arrangements, 1937 Basie airshots, Dick Sudhalter, Jack Purvis, Lester Young, Seger Ellis, 1940 Ellington, Ben Webster, Spirituals to Swing, early Crosby, late Jimmy Rowles, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, and so on.

This musical buffet has led me to think, admittedly not for the first time, about artistic originality, creativity, and “influence.” Especially in jazz, listeners and critics privilege a musician’s having an individualistic, recognizable sound, something that musicians worked towards with some earnestness.  And it went beyond sound: musicians were proud of their origins but even more proud of telling their own stories.     

But taken to an extreme, this pride in individuality might have its limitations. It leads us to make the appearance of originality the greatest virtue, so that a cliche of jazz prose or oral history is, “When K came on the scene, we were amazed, because he didn’t sound like P, the main man at the time.”

So, when I listen to Jones-Smith, Inc. romping through “Lady Be Good” or “Shoe Shine Boy,” I think of the impact those sides must have had on 1937 listeners who knew nothing of Lester, Tatti Smith, Basie, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. The quintet we hear still seems daringly “original.” Certainly Lester sounds so unlike Hawkins and his disciples, unlike other musicians,even now. His rhythm, his tone, his flight. And it is certainly valid to praise the Basie rhythm trio for the same driving singularity.  I do not mean to slight Carl “Tatti” Smith in all this, but his percussive attack was not uncommon among trumpeters of that era.     

So it is a commonplace to cherish these sides for their singularity, that they sounded so unlike the records made in late 1936.  But what shall we then say of the Fats Waller turns of phrase and whole phrases so evident in Basie’s playing? (Earl Hines and James P. Johnson are in there, too.)  What of the influence of older bassists Steve Brown, Wellman Braud, and Pops Foster, on Page’s work here? Jo Jones’s drumming was certainly a revelation, but one can hear Sidney Catlett in his accents and Walter Johnson in his hi-hat work.  Perhaps some of Gene Krupa and George Stafford as well. 

And when one listens closely to the riffs that the Basie band threw around with such headlong delight on, say, “One O’Clock Jump,” one hears familiar late-Twenties / early-Thirties jazz figures: one of them in particular, is the phrase Louis sings to the words “Oh, memory” on that take of “Star Dust.”

Of course we might fold our hands and say meditatively, “Oh, everyone comes from somewhere,” which is undeniable.  But this makes me think of the way the conceive of jazz improvisation, the ways in which jazz finds us, and the technology that enwraps it. If you were to take someone who knows little about jazz to a club or concert performance, the novice usually says, with a hint of astonishment, “How do they know what they are playing? How do they know where to come in?” And the more experienced listener can say, “There is a common language in this music as in othercommunal arts. If one of the players says, ‘Let’s do “Undecided” in two flats,” the other players are familiar with that melody, its harmony, rhythmic patterns, the conventions that go with it.  All this is learned through intent listening, bandstand-practice, and intuitive empathy.”  So what looks “made up on the spot” both is and isn’t. And only the musicians, perhaps, know whether the trombonist is playing the solo she always plays or if she is stepping bravely out into space.  Whether she herself knows, at the time or after, is beyond our knowing and perhaps hers.   

Playing a musical instrument competently is difficult.  Inventing something that even approaches “originality” while playing an instrument, among other musicians, the notes moving by inexorably, is even more daunting.  So, as a result, many musicians have a set of learned patterns they can call upon while speeding through familiar repertory: their “crib,” some call it.  Thus, if you hear Waltie King speed through “It’s You Or No One,” one night, Waltie may dazzle with a wondrous display of technique allied to feeling.  “What a solo!” you say.  If you follow Waltie to his other gigs and hear him play that same song twenty times, would you be disillusioned if his solo on Thursday bore close resemblance to his brilliant exploits of Monday?  How many listeners truly know when a musician is inspired one night, playing it safe the next?  And, frankly, does it make a difference if the solo — ingenious or worked-out — charms our ears? 

This brings us to Lester Young, who said that a musician had to be original, and that he did not want to listen to his old records for fear of being influenced by them and becoming a “repeater pencil.”  His fellow musicians testify that he was astonishingly inventive, that he could play dozens of choruses at a jam session and never repeat himself. But even given that piece of mythology, can we be sure that his improvisations on the Vocalion “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” were not, in some way, workings-out of ideas he had already played in other contexts?  Were those solos as original to him as they continue to appear to us?

We cannot know, since we have no recordings of Lester before this one (Jo Jones spoke of a “little silver record” (you’d have to imagine his odd verbal style here) he had once owned of Lester, circa 1934, but told Stu Zimny and myself that it had disappeared long ago).  And even if we had acetates stacked to the ceiling, the question might be both unanswerable and moot. 

And records themselves complicate the issue.  Before there were strings of alternate takes and session tapes, records were singular artifacts: three minutes capturing one unrepeatable occasion.  Think of the Armstrong-Hines “Weather Bird” or the Webster-Blanton “Star Dust” duet from Fargo 1940. Unique.  Irreplaceable.  But the same worrying questions apply to the music captured by microphones.  And the dazzling singularity of a recorded performance, by people who are now dead, puts a weight on the shoulders of living players whom we hope will create fresh solos each time they lift their horns.  I think that this also accounts for some of the pressure musicians feel when they must step into the recording studio, that their improvisations will attain a certain permanence, a permanence they might never intend. 

And jazz critics condescend to musicians who create solos and, with only minor variations, repeat them for years. I have quietly groaned when faced with yet another late Jack Teagarden performance of “Basin Street Blues,” but perhaps, in retrospect, I should not have done so.  It could not have been easy for him or anyone to a) find something new to say about that particular piece of music, and b) to play and sing so beautifully, even if every nuance had been worked out.  I was a trifle disappointed whenever Vic Dickenson, whom I saw often in his last years, would embark upon “In A Sentimental Mood,” because every note, sigh, and slur in it had been perfected through repetition. But, and some may find this sentimental, I would love to have him here to play it again. And it was an exquisite piece of music.

Such ruminations might seem to have no particular beginning and certainly no end.  Perhaps the only conclusion we might draw is the oldest one, that all kinds of human creativity are miraculous.  We should cherish those pieces of music that are both intelligent and impassioned, whether they seem “original” or derivative.  And road travelers might find a great deal of pleasure, as I do, listening to what Jack Purvis plays behind Seger Ellis on the unissued “Sleepy Time Gal” — but more about that in a future posting.

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.     

 

I THOUGHT I HEARD RUBY BRAFF SAY

In 1971, when I read in The New Yorker that cornetist Ruby Braff was going to play a week at the Half Note in New York City, this was exciting news. I had first heard his playing on one of the famous Vanguard recordings, The Vic Dickenson Showcase. On “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “Old-Fashioned Love,” he had added remarkable deep indigo shadings to the ensembles, his solos mixing melodic embellishment, passionate surs and moans.

Soon after, the legendary jazz broadcaster Ed Beach devoted four hours to Ruby on WRVR-FM, and I began to search out his records. In the Fifties, Ruby had been in the studios with the best players: Lee Wiley, Coleman Hawkins, Dave McKenna, Lawrence Brown, PeeWee Russell, Benny Morton, Jo Jones, Walter Page . . . and he was featured as a member of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars.

What Wein has done for jazz in the last half-century and more with the Newport Jazz Festival and its incarnations is beyond dispute. But he is in the odd position of being simultaneously an impresario and a musician of limited gifts who saw it as his right to play in the bands he sponsored and hired. The pleasure he takes in playing is visible, but no one ever wished a Wein solo longer, no one ever delighted in the subtlety of his accompaniment. But he got gigs, he loved Ruby. Ruby derided him in interviews and no doubt in person but accepted the gigs.

Shortly before the Half Note gig, I had just bought Wein’s newest record — “George Wein and the Newport All-Stars” on Atlantic, featuring Ruby, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Red Norvo, Larry Ridley, and Don Lamond. And Wein, of course. The players were superb soloists but there was little ensemble unity. One of the high points, I thought, was Ruby’s lovely solo on “My Melancholy Baby.”

Full of anticipation. I went to the Half Note with two friends, Stu Zimny and Rob Rothberg, both of whom were equally excited about seeing Ruby. Being bold, Stu had driven us from our suburban familiarities to the unknown reaches of West Greenwich Village (the Half Note was on the corner of Spring and Hudson Streets, no longer uncharted territory); Rob, an amateur trumpet player, had brought a rare record — Ruby with Ellis Larkins — for Ruby to autograph.

We came into the club, which was typically small and dark, with a raised stage at one end of the room, under it the bar. Ruby was standing nearby. He wore a blazer and tie. I had expected him to be diminutive, and he was, with a cigarette in one hand. We approached him.

I was meeting one of my idols, someone I had spent hours listening to. I had Braff solos by heart and could call them to memory. I was nervous and eager. Being a respectful nineteen-year old, I called Ruby “Mr. Braff,” told him that I loved his playing and had been collecting his records. He may have smiled. What I do remember most clearly is this exchange:

Me: “I especially like the solo you played on ‘My Melancholy Baby’ on the new Newport All-Stars record.”

Ruby: “That shit?”

Me: Embarrassed silence. When I replay this scene in my mind, I say something elegant, perhaps, “Well, I liked it,” but I don’t know if courage deserted me. The music Ruby played that night (and I illicitly recorded) is another story, but that was my first introduction to him in person.

THREE WAYS OF LOOKING AT MONA HINTON

Mona Hinton, Milt’s widow, died yesterday at 89 after a long illness.  Those are the spare facts.  Here are three stories:

When Milt was a rather exuberant young musician, Mona made him behave himself, save his money, take care of business.  Irene Leeman, married for years to the great (and under-acknowledged) drummer Cliff, said recently, “Mona was always pushing and encouraging Milt.  ‘Get out there, Judge, and sing that song.  Take another solo, Judge.'”  Milt was a wonderful player and warm personality, but Mona’s loving prodding no doubt made him the beloved public figure he was.

My good friend Stu Zimny, a fine bass player who took a few lessons (and a good deal of on-the-spot spiritual guidance) from Milt, told me about being the happy recipient of Milt and Mona’s generosity.  And, he has emphasized more than once, her fried chicken was delicious, her portions generous.

When I saw Milt at an outdoor concert in 1981 in Glen Cove, New York (he was with Dick Hyman, Joe Wilder, Phil Bodner, and Bobby Rosengarden) I asked him, “Where’s Mona?” not seeing her anywhere.  With some amusement, Milt said, “Oh, man, she’s heard all my shit already.”

People like Mona — loving, generous — should always be celebrated.  We’ll miss her!