Some artists are too big to fit into one designated category or title: drummer George Wettling is one of them, even though his name is left out of many histories of the music, and when he is mentioned, it is as a “Dixieland” musician or one of “Eddie Condon’s barefoot mob,” both designations either condescending or arcane at this remove. He was one of those players whose energies went to the band, so I think he was often taken for granted — but replace Wettling in any situation with a lesser drummer, and the change is immediately not only heard but felt. I proudly say that I was listening to Wettling on records in my childhood, and continue to do so with pleasure. Consider this one. I know it’s difficult to put Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, and Joe Thomas to one side, but listen to Wettling’s drumming: intuitive, thoughtful, joyous, propulsive without being narcissistic:
Here is a post I created ten years ago, with more evidence of Wettling’s flexible, uplifting playing. And here‘s another — with more video and audio. Wettling was quite the painter — a student and disciple of Stuart Davis — as explained here, beautifully, by Hank O’Neal, in 2017.
But the occasion for this post is something new and wonderful — a living lesson in what Wettling DID, offered to us by the wonderful musician (and dear friend) Kevin Dorn, whose bright light is always visible in the night sky:
I had the immense good fortune of hearing Kevin swing out last night with a stellar band led by Evan Arntzen at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Evan, Kevin, Jon-Erik Kellso, Mara Kaye, Harvey Tibbs, Rossano Sportiello, Adam Brisbin, Tal Ronen) and in the best Wettling tradition, he sounded like himself without having to try hard to do so.
Although Hank O’Neal (writer, archivist, photographer, record and concert producer) and I agreed that out of a thousand people in New York City, few if any would recognize the name George Wettling, this is how the few would most likely know him:
or this 1940 side:
But how many know George as an artist? Here’s a sketch he mailed himself:
Signed, sealed, delivered:
and what we used to call a “mash note” to his wife:
On October 27, I visited Hank at his studio and he gave me a personal and wonderful tour of George’s art world, a world that Hank has plans to document in a book. And Hank sat patiently for my camera, which is no small graciousness.
First, how Hank came to be an unplanned rescuer and archivist of Wettling’s art, including photographs, sketches, and more:
George the photographer and his relationship with painter Stuart Davis:
and, finally, the sad but perhaps not surprising end:
I look forward to Hank’s book, and hope that others do too.
I was at The Ear Inn last Sunday night, delighting in the sounds so generously offered by The EarRegulars. So it seems the most natural thing to share with you the second half of my post on the beauty laid before us on May 15, 2016, and its implications for people devoted to that beautiful phenomenon, jazz as created by living musicians in front of an appreciative audience.
In that post, you’ll hear two glorious performances by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone, octavin, bass taragoto; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Greg Cohen, string bass.
Here are two more extended musical journeys — with a small travelogue by Scott Robinson about his unusual instruments in the middle.
Mister Morton’s WOLVERINE BLUES, beautifully presented. Pay close attention to the closing minutes, where the gentlemen of the ensemble add some wonderfully surrealistic ornamentation to the familiar themes. At the close, you’ll hear an excited voice adding an unexpurgated affirmation: that’s the young reed wizard Evan Arntzen, seated to my right at the bar:
That deserves more than one viewing / hearing. And I agree with Evan.
Scott Robinson is always asked about his magical musical implements, and this time I captured his words and gestures on video:
And, finally, the wistful question, DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME? — served hot:
I think that what the EarRegulars (and many other noble strivers) create is life-enhancing. But without getting too didactic, such beauty deserves and needs our tender care, which takes the shape of active participation and personal support. You know how to do that.
Many people devoted to certain art forms are afflicted with incurable nostalgia. “What wouldn’t I give to hear Henrietta McGillicuddy play the blues on her Eb alto horn? They say she could play a whole year without repeating herself!” And it doesn’t limit itself to jazz. “Oh, yeah? Pergolesi could kick your guy’s ass! And on a bad day Stuart Davis was better than anything now hanging in MOMA.”
I could go on, and possibly I already have.
But I remember a refrigerator magnet I saw in the very early Eighties, that had these words on it:
Sage advice. I understand the deep longing to hear one more note of Bix, of Bird, of Billie — to time-travel back to hear Louis in 1929 or Blanton with Jeter-Pillars. But while some are busily dreaming of such things (I think of Miniver Cheevy with his collection of Black Swan acetates), the present is both glowing and going. As in going away.
So I am always urging the people who love this art form to enjoy what is happening in the present moment rather than licking the dust off the statues. A hundred years from today, should we survive as a species, I suspect that cultural historians will be writing about the Golden Age of the early twenty-first century. And if they aren’t, they will be ignoring some irreplaceably precious evidence.
Here are two glorious examples (with two more to come) of the superb art that is happening now. The artists are Matt Munisteri, guitar; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone and unusual reeds; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Greg Cohen, string bass — recorded just this month at the Soho Savoy, The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, New York City) at one of the regular Sunday-night epiphanies from about eight to about eleven PM.
WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM:
A “peppy” LOUISIANA:
Yes, we could all sit at home and play our records. But beauty, completely satisfying, is happening all around us.
In the past year, there’s been much well-deserved attention paid to the life and music of Benjamin David Goodman, clarinetist supreme, cultural icon, King of Swing, trail-blazer and phenomenal improviser — because he was born a hundred years ago. In 2008, there was another reason to celebrate while invoking his name — the seventieth anniversary of his Carnegie Hall concert.
I don’t wish to take an iota away from the significance of that event, nor do I wish to dull our reverence both for it and the recordings of that evening. It may be heretical that I find the records uneven — but, then again, attempting to capture any live jazz is risky, and that Carnegie came off so spectacularly is a tribute to everyone’s creative energies. (As an aside, I don’t have much enthusiasm for the recent concert recreations where a first-rate jazz band plays the concert, from first note to last, “live.” The original event is irreproducible, another tribute to its essence.) Perhaps my reaction is the result of having listened to the original recordings too many times in my youth, although the jam session on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE is still thrilling.
Here, to celebrate the event, is a snippet from a Goodman documentary: I include it not because of the leaden commentary, but for the silent newsreel footage taken in the hall that night.
A celebration of January 16, 1938 that I can applaud whole-heartedly is Jon Hancock’s wonderful book: BENNY GOODMAN – THE FAMOUS 1938 CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT (Prancing Fish Publishing, 2009).
Before I explain this book’s virtues, I must reveal my own reactions to much of what is published on the subject of jazz in general and Goodman in specific. Having read the best prose and criticism, I dislike sloppy research, poor attribution and inept paraphrase, polemical ideological statements passed off as evidence. I applaud Whitney Balliett and Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern and Richard M. Sudhalter even when I disagree with them, because of their insight and their evidence-gathering. But many “jazz writers” have only the opinions and attitudes of others to offer: leftovers presented as fresh.
Goodman, too, is a special case. I have savored Bill Crow’s brilliantly lacerating memoir of the 1962 trip to Russia; Ross Firestone’s affectionate, forgiving biography of Benny, SWING, SWING, SWING told me things I hadn’t known and was therefore valuable. Ultimately, Goodman the musician is a more absorbing study than Benny the neurotic.
Hancock’s book is exciting because it does offer new information about this most singular event. Even better, he has made a point of not taking familiar statements as gospel without tracing them back to their original sources. The result is a fascinating mosaic. I knew, for instance, that Harry James said, “I feel like a whore in church,” joking about his being in the august hall, but I knew nothing of the newspaper reports before the concert: predictions that Big Joe Turner might sing and W.C. Handy might appear, that Mary Lou Williams was writing a “Jazz concerto,” and, even better, that Lionel Hampton was composing a “Swing Symphony” for the occasion.
And there’s just as much pleasure in the visual memorabilia. John Totten was the stage manager at Carnegie, and he collected signatures in his autograph book. One page of this book (beautifully reporduced) has the signatures of Benny, Jess Stacy, Hampton, “Ziggie” Elman, Gordon Griffin, and others; another page has the signatures of George Koenig, Martha Tilton, Pee Wee Monte, and “best remembrances” from Joseph Szigeti. That’s priceless.
There’s also a photogrraph from the Ferbuary 1938 Tempo Magazine of a pre-concert rehearsal for the jam session: Freddie Green, Benny, Lester Young, his high-crowned hat pushed back on his head, a grinning Gene Krupa, an intent Harry James. Is it evidence of Benny’s over-preparation that he would have musicians rehearse to jam on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE — or is it just that he wanted the opportunity to play a few choruses with Lester and Freddie?
A beautiful picture of a young (he had just turned 29) Gene Krupa adjusting his tie between sets in the Madhattan Room has him against a background of brass instruments that, curiously, looks like the work of Stuart Davis or someone inspired — at first glance, I thought that the painter (and occasional drummer) George Wettling had been the artist.
Hancock’s book also reproduces the twelve-page concert program; here one finds announcements for upcoming concerts by Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch, advertisements for Schrafft’s and the Russian Tea Room, for Maiden Form brassieres and Chesterfield cigarettes, and (something to live for) notice that the Gramophone Shop would have on sale on January 22, 1938, Teddy Wilson’s Brunswick record of MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU and IF DREAMS COME TRUE.
These lovely artifacts, including a ticket from the concert, shouldn’t make us forget that the real glory of the book is Hancock’s meticulous (but never stuffy) eye for detail — that pro-Franco demonstrators picketed Carnegie the night of the concert, chanting “Benny Goodman is a red from Spain,” necause Benny had played a concert for the Spanish Loyalists in December 1937. Ziggy Elman’s rejoinder, “No, he isn’t, he’s a clarinet player from Chicago!” satisfies me, even if it did little to placate the protesters.
The centerpiece of the book is Hancock’s easy, unforced commentary on the music played at the concert — forty pages of analysis and commentary, neither highflown musicology in the Gunther Schuller way or a fan’s yipping enthusiasm — something to read while the compact discs of the concert are playing. Anything about the concert — the microphone setup, the photographs and newsreel footage — as well as the recordings made, the mythic story of their re-discovery, their various issues . . . . up to Benny’s later appearances at Carnegie — all are meticulously covered by Hancock. And there’s a touching reminiscence of BG at home by his daughter Rachel Edelson that is a masterpiece of gentle honesty.
Reviewers have to find flaws, so I will say that a few names are misspelled, as in the pastoral “Glen Miller,” but since none of these musicians were in the Goodman band, I and other enthusiasts forgive Hancock . . . while applauding his tremendous effort, both enthusiastic and careful. Writing this post, I must add, took a long time — not because my mind wasn’t made up within the first fifteen minutes of looking at the book, but because I kept getting distracted from writing to reading and re-reading. Good job!
Jon has a website, www.bg1938.com., where you can find out more about the book — and the more important information about how to get your own copy. And you can add your own opinion about Just Who the Mystery Man is. Someone has to know!