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!  

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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.