Tag Archives: SUPERSTRIDE

THRILLING TERRIBLE CHILDREN, SEDATELY WELL-BEHAVED ADULTS (IN JAZZ, OF COURSE)

Consider this very truncated list: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Purvis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Jabbo Smith, Sandy Williams, Cassino Simpson, Dave Tough, Tony Fruscella, Fud Livingston, Dick McDonough, Serge Chaloff, Fats Navarro, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan.

What do they have in common?  Would you, were you a recording supervisor, hire them for a record date?  Would you hire them for your orchestra or gig?  Could you count on them to do the work asked of them?  (A hint here: as much as I revere, let’s say, Fruscella or Livingston, I wouldn’t want them driving the kids to summer camp.)

That list contains poets of the music, artistic trailblazers, instantly recognizable creators, memorable improvisers.  But it is also a list of people who didn’t show up on time or at all for the gig or has to be awakened in the middle of a song to play, people who were addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, and sex; people who had borderline personality disorder; people who stole, lied, and destroyed property; people who refused to bathe or change their clothes . . . and more.

Even if this seems blasphemous, do me the kindness to read on.

And if you proclaim that Genius must be forgiven anything because it’s Genius, I wonder how you would feel if the Genius vomited on your living room rug or stole money from you.

I suspect that most jazz fans are Apollonian (in Nietzsche’s dichotomy): they drive in the proper lane; they shower regularly; they hold jobs; they change the registration sticker on their car when the law says they must.  But, perhaps as a result, they are fascinated by the Dionysiac, the Bad Boys and Girls of Jazz, the people whose behavior is flashy, self-destructive, eccentric, illegal.

Consider this: if someone could come up with an authenticated needle used by Billie or Bird, or a piece of Bix’s mummified blue sweater, how much would those holy relics — the jazz Shroud of Turin — fetch on eBay?

Violently erratic “bad” behavior makes good copy.  How many biographies of Bix are there, as compared to his more restrained contemporaries? How many theatrical presentations “recreating” Billie are there, as opposed to the lives of other singers who drank Seven-Up?

I was motivated to write this piece because of the just-issued biography of Johnny Guarnieri, SUPERSTRIDE, beautifully written and researched by Derek Coller, depicts a good husband and father, and a craftsman, someone serious about his art even when striding joyously.

I think of others of the same general character: people who kept pocket notebooks and were thus early to gigs, who came prepared to make music, with horns that worked and a knowledge of the charts; musicians who could transpose and knew their keys; who came to the club date in appropriate, even elaborate formal wear; whose clothes were clean; who conducted themselves as professionals and whose behavior might have been placid and thus not worthy of chronicling, but who behaved as adults.

Think of Maxine Sullivan, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, Teddi King, Eddie Barefield, Al Hall, Ed Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Bennie Morton, and Buster Bailey among others: artists who didn’t use “genius” as an excuse for childishness.  Sadly, I sense a silent snobbery among jazz fans, who look down on these mature men and women because their personal lives are uneventful.  And, aside from Hinton, Wilder, and Ed Hall, how many of the artists in the list above have been properly chronicled?   Men and women who didn’t destroy themselves and others are proper figures to contemplate and admire.  Even if they are tediously busy being professional, monogamous, and sober, their lives  have much to show us.

Obviously it’s not thrilling to write about someone who does his or her job without drama, but we should be celebrating these artists as grownups.  And grownups are hard to find in any field.

Here’s music made by several grownups: musicians, classically trained who could cut the charts and swing like mad, who appear on many record dates because they were both creative and reliable: William C. Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee, coincidentally backed by Osie Johnson, drums, and that very same Johnny Guarnieri among others:

I wonder what would happen to us, as an audience, if we chose not to fetishize childish self-destructive behavior, and instead celebrated adult behavior?

Inspiration for this post is, as it often is, thanks to Sammut of Malta, whose thoughts are always inspiring.

May your happiness increase!

“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!