Tag Archives: Sweets Edison

“KEEP SEARCHING”: EPHIE RESNICK, CONTINUED (August 1, 2020)

First, some music.  I’m told it speaks louder than words.  Ephie Resnick, trombone, and Marty Grosz, guitar — the epitome of passionate tenderness in IT MUST BE TRUE:

and the same pair of brave improvisers, energized beyond belief, for ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE, a frolicsome RUNNIN’ WILD, and STRUT MISS LIZZIE:

My first post on Ephie Resnick, based on a phone conversation we had on July 6 (and a few postscripts afterwards) here, got some deserved attention.  Some time later, Ephie’s remarkable friend Cyra Greene called and we chatted at length; she told me that Ephie had more stories for me.  I was elated and said I would be delighted to write more, so the phone rang and it was Ephie, who — after brief courtesies — said, “Thank you for making me relevant,” and we agreed to extend his musical memoir a bit more.  It is more a free-association than a chronological journey, but these gaps Ephie and I were eager to fill in.

I was in London for ten years, and I played with a Dixieland band — and the leader, I wish you’d put his name down, Chas McDevitt — incidentally, he had an uncle who was a trumpet player, who was a doctor, and he told me, it didn’t matter what time he came home, how tired he was, he would go into a room and play for half an hour, to keep up his chops.  So I thought that was a great thing.  With Chas, we played almost every week.  We played clubs all over the country.  We did some festivals, and we did a record.  And on that record I play a couple of solos that are the most beautiful solos I’ve done on record.  I don’t have a copy.  Maybe I can ask him for one.  And that’s that.

I did a six-week tour with the pianist Billy Taylor.  The other guys in the band, except for the trombone player, who was Eddie Bert, were all from a black collective.  It was a black band except for Eddie and myself, and Billy Taylor was a beautiful guy, and I just wanted to mention that.

I’m on the recording of the original HELLO, DOLLY!, and they had a black DOLLY, and I’m on that recording too.  That was with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, and that was superlative, something special.

I studied with Lennie Tristano.  I took a couple of lessons from him, and he said I was a schizophrenic trombone player, because I played Dixieland and I wanted to play his stuff.  He was a popular teacher then, and he had sessions, like once a week, with his regular people and a lot of students.  I never worked with him, but he played with us.  The idea was not to repeat yourself if possible.  Whatever you’re doing, don’t repeat yourself.  So you have to keep searching.  That was an important experience for me, I loved that.

The trumpet player Charlie McCarty was a sub-leader for Lester Lanin.  I worked a lot for Lester Lanin.  And Meyer Davis, if you remember that name.  Both of them were horrible people.  Just absolutely horrible.  But they worked a lot.  Meyer Davis, he was busy.  He worked two jobs every day.  So he bought an ambulance.  After the first job was over, he’d get in the ambulance, change his clothes, and with the siren blowing, he’d get to the next job on time.  I don’t know, that’s sort of interesting.  About Charlie, when the business was ending, and he was getting sick, we started having sessions in his house, for about five years, every week, with all kinds of people.  He was very good.

One of the guys I played with with Billy Taylor called me and said there was a benefit for somebody.  And at the time, I’d had an accident and I was out of work again.  So I got up on stage and in a couple of minutes Teddy Wilson walked in, and he played four or five tunes.  He was old, but beautiful nonetheless.

I did a record with Stan Getz, well, not with him, but with an orchestra behind him.  He did two of those things — big, splashy things.  FOCUS by Eddie Sauter is one of them, the other with a small band.  I was on the one with the big band.  He had his son with him at the session, and from the beginning to the end, he didn’t make one mistake.  Everything was perfection.  Absolute perfection.

In the early Forties, I started to play with all kinds of people, I ran into Willie “the Lion” Smith.  We played a couple of — not jobs — but a session, and he invited me to come back to another one.  He was crazy.  He was wonderful.

I worked in that Buddy Rich group with Sweets Edison and Zoot Sims.  Buddy was mean.  Mean and cantankerous and sort of rotten.  He exuded evilness, or something.  He would make the band get up on the stand at the time we were going to play, but he wouldn’t get up.  He’d stay down, maybe ten more minutes, and then he’d get up.  Somebody once said, “Why do we have to get up here early?  Why aren’t you up here?” and he said, “I want you there.”  Once in a while he’d invite a drummer from the crowd to come up and play, and then he’d play something as fast as he could play.  The greatest drummer in the world, absolutely sensational.  He could do anything.  He could play a roll with brushes that sounded like sticks.  He used to play theatres with his big band, and he couldn’t read, so all he had to do was hear something once, and he knew it.  So he was positively a genius of some sort.  Zoot and Sweets were sweet people, wonderful people.  And the band just swung. No fancy arrangements, we just played standards.  It was fun.  Beautiful, easy.

I didn’t see Monk, but can I tell you a story about Monk?  I was listening to a religious station, and the guy talking, he was a schoolteacher then, and he was supposed to play for us.  He told the story that someone walked in — he had a funny hat on and he sat akimbo on the piano stool, and then he started to play, and it was weird stuff, he didn’t understand what he was doing, and then after a while he came to the conclusion that this guy was special.  He was wonderful.  And it was Thelonious Monk.  And coming from a religious guy, that amazed me.  He was willing to hear.

Kenny Davern and I played together a lot when we were younger.  He had a peculiar style, but it was his own style of playing.  Nobody played like him.  He was wonderful.

I saw Charlie Parker quite a bit at Birdland, because it was cheap — I think it was two dollars — so I went a lot. 

Eddie Condon was such a sweet man, but he was drunk all of the time.  ALL of the time.  But when I played with him, occasionally, subbing for Cutty Cutshall, once in a while with Wild Bill.  But he said when I came there that he wouldn’t call his guitar a porkchop.  He’d call it a lambchop.  He knew I was Jewish.  So I thought that was nice.  He was a funny man.  And for what he did, he was the best.  His chords were good, his time was good, he’d really fill in, whatever you’d need.  He was wonderful in his own way of playing.  George Wettling was a sweet, wonderful guy until he got drunk.  Then he was a terrible person.

I went down to see Bunk Johnson.  I didn’t play with him, but I saw him a lot.  I was really into that music, and I loved that trombone player, Jim Robinson, he was one of the best I’ve ever heard for that type of music.  He didn’t play much but he stuck those notes in in absolutely correct and invigorating places.  And Bunk, nobody played like that, nobody ever played like that.  Beautiful.  And there were crowds every night when he was there.  Dancers.  It was an exciting time.

I loved playing with Max Kaminsky.  I worked a lot with him, for years.  He was a simple player, but he kept the time.  His time was great.  I played with Jimmy McPartland, but I never liked him much, except on old records.  But when I played with him in person, I didn’t like him.  His wife was wonderful.  I loved her.  I played with her a couple of times, with him.  She was a total piano player, boy, she was great.

I have a book that a friend gave me a couple of months ago, and my picture’s in that book — it’s called THE BEAT SCENE.  In the back there are signatures.  Barbara Ferraro is one, Gregory Corso and his address, 170 East 2nd Street, George Preston with an address, then Jack Kerouac, Seven Arts Coffee Shop, 82 Club, 2nd Avenue, the Cedar, Chinatown, the Five Spot — that’s where he hung out, in case you wanted to get him.  And then there was Dean Dexter, Artie Levin, Bob Thiemen.  I never played at the Five Spot or the Open Door.  I didn’t do that.

[I’d asked Ephie — of all the musicians he’d played with, who gave the greatest thrills, and he sighed.]  Look, when I was playing badly, I didn’t care who I was playing with.  When I was playing well, it didn’t matter to me.  They all were above me.  Every one of them was above me.

Ephie wanted me to make special mention of Max Steuer, that when Ephie went to London and stayed for ten years,” that Max — reader emeritus at the London School of Economics, who liked jazz  — and his wife Christine (who, as Christine Allen, worked as an agent for jazz musicians to help them find broader audiences) were very kind to him, subsidized his CD NEW YORK SURVIVOR, and that he lived with them when he first came to the UK.  (By the way, Ephie’s British friends, thanks to Malcolm Earle Smith and Chas McDevitt, have sent me wonderful stories — loving and hilarious and insightful — that will appear in a future Ephie post.)

Speaking of real estate, Ephie told me that he had lived in Jackson Heights, New York, for sixty years before moving to Brooklyn, and that his rent in Jackson Heights had started at ninety-five dollars a month.

Incidentally, to someone unaccustomed to it, Ephie’s voice can sound gruff, but I’ve learned through these telephone calls that his heart is large, and he has people who love him all over the world.  And he has a sweet puckish sense of humor.  In another phone conversation, when he inquired about my health with the greatest sincerity, I said, “I’m going to call you Doctor Resnick,” and he said, not missing a beat, “My father was ‘Dr. Resnick.’  He was a dentist.  And we always got mail for ‘Dr. Resnick.’  When I moved out, and I started getting mail for ‘Mr. Resnick,’ I felt cheated.”

I’ve mentioned that Ephie is very deeply engaged in what I would call informal physical rehabilitation, and in our conversations, I revealed myself as seriously sedentary (it takes many hours in a chair in front of a computer to create blogposts like this) which concerned him.  At the end of our second conversation, there was this wonderfully revealing sign-off from Ephie, whose compassion for someone he’d never met before the summer of 2020 is beautiful.  I present it here so that you can hear his voice, and because I am touched by it:

I will have more to share with you about this remarkable human being, whose singularity does not stop when he is not playing music.

May your happiness increase!

 

EXTREMELY NICE: HOMAGE TO COUNT BASIE, with SWEETS EDISON, JOE NEWMAN, CLARK TERRY, VIC DICKENSON, EARLE WARREN, ZOOT SIMS, BUDDY TATE, LOCKJAW DAVIS, ILLINOIS JACQUET, JOHNNY GUARNIERI, MARTY GROSZ, GEORGE DUVIVIER, RAY MOSCA, HELEN HUMES (Grande Parade du Jazz, July 22, 1975)

Jake Hanna said it best, “You get too far from Basie, you’re just kidding yourself.”  So this post and the performance it contains are as close to Basie as anyone might get in 1975 — the loose jam-session spirit of the 1938-9 band at the Famous Door.  Some of the originals couldn’t make it for reasons you can investigate for yourself, but more than enough of the genuine Basieites were on this stage to impart the precious flavor of the real thing.

For the first song, JIVE AT FIVE, the composer, Harry “Sweets” Edison was on hand, among friends: Buddy Tate, Zoot Sims, tenor saxophone; Earle Warren, alto saxophone; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; George Duvivier, string bass; Ray Mosca, drums.

Then, LESTER LEAPS IN, with the addition of Lockjaw Davis, Illinois Jacquet, tenor saxophone; Clark Terry, Joe Newman, trumpet.  And deliciously, Miss Helen Humes recalled those sweet songs from her Basie days, SONG OF THE WANDERER / BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL / DON’T WORRY ‘BOUT ME.

I’m certain Jake would have approved, and the Count also.

May your happiness increase!

 

THE TREASURE CHEST REOPENS, or HOLY RELICS, CONTINUED

Less than a week ago, I published a post here, marveling at the riches made available in an eBay auction by “jgautographs” which have been all bought up now, including this glorious relic. 

and this:

I don’t know how much Lester’s signature fetched at the end of the bidding, but Mr. Page’s (with the telltale apostrophe, another mark of authenticity) sold for $147.50, which says there is an enlightened and eager audience out there.  That auction offered more than 200 items, and I would have thought the coffers were empty.

Now, the gracious folks as “jgautographs” have offered another seventy items for bid.  I can say “gracious with certainty,” because I’ve had a conversation with the head benefactor.

This is the eBay link, for those who want to get in line early.  The new listing has only one item held over from the past sale, and it is full of riches (including blues luminaries).  I’ll mention only a portion: Ellington, Brubeck, Armstrong, Cootie Williams, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Horace Silver, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Desmond, Don Byas, Dizzy Gillespie, Cat Anderson, Alberta Hunter, Little Brother Montgomery, Coleman Hawkins, Sippie Wallace, Rex Stewart, Ruby Braff, Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims, Jay McShann, Flip Phillips, Billy Butterfield, Phil Woods, Buck Clayton, Buddy Tate, Benny Carter, Bud Freeman, Thad Jones, Charlie Ventura, Teddy Wilson, Eubie Blake, Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison, Erroll Garner, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Rollins — you can explore these delights for yourself, and if you have disposable income and wall space, some treasure might be yours.  Those whose aesthetic scope is larger than mine will also see signatures of Chick Corea, Archie Shepp, and Keith Jarrett among others . . .

For now, I will offer only five Ellingtonians.  And as David Weiner pointed out to me years ago, a sloppy signature is more likely to be authentic, since musicians don’t have desks to sit at after gigs.

Cootie:

Rex:

Cat:

Paul:

Johnny:

Incidentally, “jgautographs” has an astounding website — not just jazz and not just their eBay store: spend a few hours at www.jgautographs.com.

May your happiness increase!

“UNDER THE INFLUENCE”: DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES ALTERED STATES OF BEING, LOUIS, LESTER, GIL, ZOOT, HAWK, BUSTER, VIC, DEXTER, and MORE (Sept. 5, 2019)

Another highly elevating conversation with Dan Morgenstern at his Upper West Side apartment — the most recent in a series of encounters that began in March 2017.

But first, several relevant musical interludes: VIPER MAD, with Sidney Bechet, sung by O’Neil Spencer:

YOU’SE A VIPER, Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, vocal by Jonah Jones:

Cab Calloway’s 1932 THE MAN FROM HARLEM:

and Louis’ WAS I TO BLAME (For Falling in Love With You):

Dan talks about the magical herb, with comments on the music of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young in the military, Zoot Sims, Gil Evans, and more:

Tales of Ralph Burns, Buster Bailey, Condon’s club, Vic Dickenson, and more:

The magical tale of Louis and Coleman Hawkins at Newport, Hawk, Benny Carter, Zutty and Marge Singleton, and more:

Under the influence with heroes, including Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, seeing Sweets Edison gracefully handle things, and an early venture into LSD:

To close, I hope you’ll hum this playful exhortation from Buster Bailey in the days to come.  “Let’s all get mellow!”:

May your happiness increase!

EMBRACED WARMLY BY MUSIC: DANNY TOBIAS, GEORGE RABBAI, PHIL ORR, PAT MERCURI, JOE PLOWMAN (Part One): March 24, 2018

It’s lovely to see and hear indebtedness, art, and gratitude all combined into a glowing musical gift.  I’m not at all being hyperbolic, as you will understand.

But before I get wrapped up in the music, let me point out that this all happened yesterday, Saturday, March 24, at a place you should know about — the 1867 Sanctuary Arts and Culture Center at Ewing, New Jersey.


And what was “this”?

Now you know.  But in all fairness to the graphic designer and the copywriter here, that advertisement might have made people who didn’t know Danny, George, Pat, Phil, or Joe leap to incorrect conclusions.  “Pops to Bop” might have suggested a-history-of-jazz-trumpet, or an afternoon vacillating between WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD and DIZZY ATMOSPHERE.  But these musicians meet on common ground; they love one another, and the music was so warmly played and presented that there was not even a thirty-second note of the formulaic here.  It wasn’t a battle of genres: quite the contrary, if you squinted in just the right way through the stained glass windows, you could see Buck, Louis, Sweets, Basie, and Dizzy grinning like mad.

And although the brass instruments displayed and played here are often quite assertive, there was none of that signifying stuff, no “I can play higher, I can play louder,” so the sound was resonant, glowing, and in its own way serene, even at faster tempos.  

Introducing the second song, HALF NELSON, Danny talks about how George was and is his inspiration, and even if he hadn’t explained that, we could hear it in the air.

Let me share the first four performances with you.

Danny’s original (in the spirit of the season to come) PASS OVER:

Following that thread, I’M CONFESSIN’:

HALF NELSON, credited (I think) to Miles, but who can tell?

And to close off this segment, George’s lovely reading of BODY AND SOUL:

It was a nearly six-hour round trip by car from my place to Ewing: I’d do it every weekend ti hear this band.  Aren’t they wonderful?  Savor this quartet of beauties: there are ten more to come.

May your happiness increase!

MONK ROWE’S TREASURE CHEST

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

A the end of the preceding century, while many of us were standing at Tower Records, considering which CD to buy, Monk Rowe — musician and scholar — was busy doing good work in the land of jazz.

Monk is a modest fellow, so he will probably protest all this praise aimed at him and say, “It’s not me . . . it’s the Filius Jazz Archive at Hamilton College,” but he will have to put up with the adulation for the time being.  Monk’s ongoing gift to is a series of video interviews done with jazz artists and luminaries from 1995 on.  More than 300 interviews have been conducted, and they are appearing — almost daily — on the Archive’s YouTube channel.  Most of the interviews run an hour, which is a wonderful visit with people you and I haven’t had the opportunity for such sustained conversations with.

I confess that I have been slow in alerting JAZZ LIVES’ readers to this magic toybox, because I feared for the collective health.  The interviews are wonderfully informative in a low-key, friendly way — Rowe does not obsess over musicological details but is interested in letting the artist speak — and they are devilishly addictive.  I’ve lost hours in front of the computer because of them, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And the interview subjects often are people who have not been fussed over in public — at all or in such gratifying ways.  Here are a dozen names: Manny Albam, Eddie Bert, Bill Charlap, Benny Waters, Keith Ingham, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Sherrie Maricle, Stanley Kay, Grover Mitchell, Rossano Sportiello, Ron Carter — and those interviews have been posted on YouTube in the past month.  Let that sink in.

Here’s Monk himself — in under two minutes — introducing the channel.  You can see how low-key and amiably focused he is.  He mentions the book that he co-authored, drawn from the interviews: I’ve written about it here.

Here are several interviews that will fascinate JAZZ LIVES’ readers.  prepare to be entranced, amused, moved, informed.

Monk talks to Tom Baker — someone we miss seriously — in 1997: it amuses me that this interview was recorded in a corner of the Hotel Athenaeum at Chautauqua, New York — the fabled home of Jazz at Chautauqua:

and the illustrious Marty Grosz in 1995:

Kenny Davern, Part One, in conversation with Dr. Michael Woods:

and Part Two:

and “just one more,” Nicki Parrott in 2010:

Set aside a few weeks: this is much more rewarding than several semesters deep in the Jazz Studies curriculum, I assure you.  And I haven’t even included Helen and Stanley Dance, Vi Redd, Ruth Brown, Jean Bach, Jerry Jerome, Chubby and Duffy Jackson, Ralph Sutton, Bob Wilber, Joe Wilder, Sweets Edison . . . . that you can do for yourself.

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaten we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

IN THE GROOVE AT ATLANTA: ALLAN VACHÉ, RUSS PHILLIPS, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, CHUCK REDD, WAYNE WILKINSON, NICKI PARROTT, DANNY COOTS (April 17, 2015)

I was tempted to call this post TWO JUSTS AND A JIVE, but my legal staff talked me out of it.

It wasn’t formally billed as a Swingtet, but after sixteen bars you’ll know it couldn’t be called anything else. This romping set took place at the 2015 Atlanta Jazz Party, under the leadership of clarinetist Allan Vaché. The other notables on the stand are Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Danny Coots, drums; Wayne Wilkinson, guitar; Russ Phillips, trombone; Chuck Redd, vibes.

Cole Porter’s JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS:

Harry “Sweets” Edison’s JIVE AT FIVE:

Jesse Greer’s JUST YOU, JUST ME (which goes all the way back to 1929):

The slightly unusual instrumentation is just delicious — what ensemble work and what solos!  In the groove for sure.

And the good news is that there is grooving planned at the 27th Atlanta Jazz Party April 15, 16, 17, of 2016.  “Good deal,” as one of my heroes was wont to say.

May your happiness increase!

BRILLIANT VERSATILITY: KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: THE GLASGOW SUITE / CLARINET GUMBO

Here’s what I wrote about Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra when I first heard their three CDs (one devoted to Louis, one to Jelly, one to a jazz panorama) in 2010.  Five years later, it’s just as true.

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Ken Mathieson, the leader-percussionist-arranger of the Classic Jazz Orchestra, but this post is designed to remedy this omission right away. For Ken Mathieson is a truly ingenious man who has made the CJO an equally flexible, innovative orchestra.

The CJO has been working since 2004, and Ken is a veteran leader, arrangger, and drummer with impeccable credits.  For fifteen years, he was the resident drummer at the famous Black Bull Club near Glasgow — where he supported and learned from Bud Freeman, King Benny Carter, Wild Bill Davison, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Bobby Hackett, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Teddy Wilson, Tal Farlow, and more.

And he’s offered his own solution to one of the problems of classic jazz performance.  Suppose the leader of a “classic” jazz ensemble wants to pay tribute to Ellington, Morton, Carter, or Armstrong.  Commendable enough.  One way is to transcribe every note and aural flutter on the great records.  Then, the imaginary leader can gather the musicians, rehearse them for long hours until they sound just like a twenty-first century rendition of this or that hallowed disc.

Admirable, but somewhat limited.  Emerson said that imitation is suicide, and although I would love to have my own private ensemble on call to reproduce the Morton Victors, what would be the point?  (In concert, hearing a band pretend to be the Red Hot Peppers can be thrilling in the same way watching acrobats — but on record, it seems less compelling.)

Getting free of this “repertory” experience, although liberating, has its disadvantages for some who take their new freedom too energetically.  Is POTATO HEAD BLUES still true to its essential self if played in 5/4. as a waltz, as a dirge, by a flute quintet?  Is it possible to lose the thread?

Faced with these binary extremes — wanting to praise the past while remembering that the innovations we so prize were, in fact, innovations, Mathieson has steered an imaginative middle course.  On two new CDs, he has managed to heed Ezra Pound’s MAKE IT NEW while keeping the original essences. Ken and the CJO have an open-ended and open-minded approach to jazz history and performance.  The original compositions stay recognizable but the stylistic approach to each one is modified.  Listening to the CJO, I heard not only powerful swinging reflections of the original recordings and period idioms, but also a flexibility that suggested that Mingus, Morton, Oliver Nelson, and Benny Carter were on an equal footing, respectfully swapping ideas.

The CJO has an unusual instrumentation which allows it to simulate a Swing Era big band or a hot trio: Billy Hunter plays trumpet; Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet; Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, tenor, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Tom Finlay or Paul Harrison, piano; Roy Percy, bass; Ken, drums and arrangements.

Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: the solos exist in a broadly-defined area of modern Mainstream: thus, you are much more likely to think of Roy Williams or Scott Robinson than of Clarence Williams or Prince Robinson. I’ll leave the surprises on these three CDs to the buyers and listeners.  But in almost every case I found myself hearing the music with a delighted grim, thinking, “Wow!  That’s what they’re doing with that old chestnut?”

Now.  Here we are in 2015, with more good music on two new CDs.

The new CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: CLARINET GUMBO /WITH EVAN CHRISTOPHER (Lake LACD 133) and ALAN BARNES with KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: THE GLASGOW SUITE: THE MUSIC OF BENNY CARTER (Woodville WVCD 133).

CLARINET GUMBO, as you can guess, draws fervently and superbly on the New Orleans clarinet tradition, with delightful reed work from Evan, Dick, Konrad, and Martin — as well as several Jelly Roll Morton rarities which were part of the library of his abortive late big band, GANJAM, STOP AND GO, and JAZZ JUBILEE. evocations of Bechet, Bigard, Noone, Fazola, Simeon, and others — all voiced imaginatively and without cliche.  You can gather something about Ken and the CJO’s consistent ingenuity by noting this: the disc has five Morton pieces, including the venerable BLACK BOTTOM STOMP and the less well-known SUPERIOR RAG, but Ken has also reimagined Mingus’ JELLY ROLL as a musical scuffle between Messrs. Ferdinand and Chazz, each earnestly proposing that his way is the only right way.  Throughout the disc, even when the melodies are familiar (DARDANELLA, for instance, a tribute to Ed Hall) the scoring is fresh and lively without ever going against the essential nature of the song or its associations.  Beautifully recorded and nicely annotated, too.

Here’s FAZOLA from the clarinet CD: 

and the lovely, moody PELICAN DRAG: 

Tributes to Benny Carter are not as frequent as they might be, perhaps because his music is orchestral as well as featuring a saxophone soloist; it’s not easy to play well, and Carter himself created glowing examinations of his music while he was alive — which was only right, since his “old” charts still sounded wonderful. (I think of hearing his Swing Masters onstage at the first Newport in New York, in 1972.)

For this wonderfully varied tribute to Carter, the great Alan Barnes plays alto and clarinet — but as in the case of CLARINET GUMBO, he is one of many delights.  Those familiar with Carter’s recorded history will know A WALKIN’ THING, SYMPHONY IN RIFFS, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, MALIBU, DOOZY, and a few others, but it is Carter’s five-part GLASGOW SUITE, composed in 1987, that is the delight of this CD.  Mathieson had the opportunity to work with Carter, and the two became friends as well as colleagues, something that shines through this recording.  It is not at all the endeavor of musicians hired for the moment to play scores they don’t love deeply.  Again, beautiful sound and warmly personal notes.

From the Carter tribute, here’s the perfectly sprightly DOOZY: 

and EASY MONEY .

(As an aside, I have grave reservations about YouTube’s practice of offering CDs in this fashion — no doubt without asking permission of the artists or offering them a thousandth of a cent royalty per view.  But I also feel that people need to hear the music before deciding to buy the CD . . . so I hope that these glimpses propel some readers to purchase rather than to “get it for free,” which has unpleasant effects on artists everywhere.)

Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found here, and he Lake Records site is here.

These two discs, as is the case with all the CJO’s efforts, show a bright path into the future that carries the past along with it in the most tender way — while understanding that the innovations of the past need to be treated in living ways.

May your happiness increase!

“BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH (SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, November 28, 2014)

Often, “Blues for X” is a memorial for the departed X — grief in the shape of an improvisation.  It’s thus a pleasure to offer this BLUES FOR SIR CHARLES, a celebration, not an elegy, for the remarkable pianist Sir Charles Thompson, born March 21, 1918, still with us, living happily in Japan (playing golf, I understand).

Knighted by Lester Young, Sir Charles has and had a distinctly personal style: the casual listener could mistake him — for a few bars only — for Basie, and his rhythmic engine is just as reliable, but Charles heard and employed a broader harmonic palette than did the Count, so one is always delighted by the strong swing he engenders allied to the boppish harmonies.

He’s recorded for John Hammond’s Vanguard series and also crops up memorably on the Columbia Buck Clayton Jam Sessions.  My friend Bill Gallagher has created a Thompson discography, accessible here.

But I have something more rewarding to offer as a tribute to Charles, which is Ray Skjelbred’s rocking piano evocation of the great man, performed on November 28, 2014, at the San Diego Jazz Fest:

Marc Caparone brilliantly manages to evoke a whole host of Basie trumpeters — Tatti Smith, Lips Page, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, Bobby Moore — while sounding just like his natural self; Beau Sample rocks the rhythm in the great tradition of Walter Page, and Hal Smith’s sweeping hi-hat and accents in the final choruses could swing Mount Fuji joyously.  And Master Skjelbred takes the opportunity to honor his hero with some deliciously unexpected runs and chords, suggesting not only Joe Sullivan on a straightaway but also Monk at Minton’s, 1941.

If you can listen to the final minute of this performance — starting with the riffing hide-and-seek of Marc and Ray — without moving around in your chair, I wonder if your blood pressure might be dangerously low.  Consult your physician. Do not operate any heavy machinery.

May your happiness increase!

NO COMEDY, JUST MUSIC: “THE BOB AND RAY SHOW” (BOB SCHULZ / RAY SKJELBRED)

The CD I present to you is a good idea whose time has come — growing out of the inevitable amusement one would have at a jazz duo CD titled THE BOB AND RAY SHOW.  No Elliott or Goulding, just Schulz (cornet, vocals), and Skjelbred (piano) in duets recorded in 2009 and 2013.

Here’s how the duo sounded — on a slightly crowded bandstand — on May 26, 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival:

The songs on this wonderful CD, each one with singular associations, are ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO (Robison, Bix, Whiteman, Crosby); WININ’ BOY BLUES (Mr. Morton); I AIN’T GOT NOBODY (everyone from Bessie Smith onwards); SHOE SHINE BOY (Louis, Basie, and Bing); SAVE IT, PRETTY MAMA (again Louis, Earl Hines, Don Redman); BECAUSE MY BABY DON’T MEAN ‘MAYBE” NOW (Bix, Whiteman, Bing); PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Bing, Louis, and almost everyone else from Billie to Dick Wellstood); MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND ( Clarence Williams into the twenty-first century); ‘TIL TIMES GET BETTER (Jabbo Smith); REACHING FOR SOMEONE (Bix and Tram, also Dick Sudhalter); I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA (Bix and Jimmy Rushing); MONDAY DATE (Earl, Louis, and more); KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW (Fats, Ruby Braff, and more); OH, BABY! (Tesch, Sullivan, Condon, Krupa, and more); WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS (Bing, Louis, and many others); WEATHER BIRD RAG (King Oliver; Louis and Earl; Braff and Hyman, and more).

The tempos chosen for this disc are primarily pretty Medium Tempos, reminding us of the infinite variations possible in that sonic meadow, the results neither soporific nor hasty.

I imagine that the improvising duet of cornet and piano goes back to the late eighteen-hundreds, when that brass instrument was a feature of homegrown ensembles and pianos were in many parlors. On record, I think of Oliver and Morton, first in a long line including Louis and Earl, Ruby and Ellis, Ruby and Dick, Sweets and Earl, a long series of trumpet duets with Oscar Peterson . . . a lineage continuing as I write this.

The duo of Schulz and Skjelbred is special — for its consistent pervasive lyricism. Many of these pairings have a playful acrobatic quality, with one of the musicians saying to the other, “Oh, yeah?  Top this!”  Some of the playfulness becomes cheerfully competitive, assertive or even aggressive. The two players trot along through each song as friendly equals, neither trying to overpower the other. Bob and Ray aren’t out to show off; they like beautiful melodies and the little surprises that can be found within even the most familiar song.  Hear, for instance, Skjelbred’s harmonic surprises and suspensions that he offers early in the video of SHOE SHINE BOY.

One of the pleasures of the disc is the easy, ardent yet understated singing of Bob — he is known to burst into song when the mood and the material are appropriate during a session of his Frisco Jazz Band, but I find his vocals particularly charming: a Crosby mordent here or there. His singing — clear, unaffected, gentle — is the expression of his cornet playing, which is a model of middle-range melodic improvisation. (In it, one hears a spring-water clarity out of Bix and Hackett, then a Spanier-intensity when Bob takes up the plunger mute.)

Bob’s partner in these explorations, Ray Skjelbred, continues to amaze and delight: his off-center approach, original yet always elating, his rollicking rhythms, his bluesy depths. Ray takes risks, and his playing is deliciously unpredictable, but it is always in the  groove. (With headphones, I could hear Bob say, softly, “Yeah!” at a felicitous Skjelbred pathway — over the rough road to the stars.) Yes, that’s a Sullivan rattle, a Stacy octave, or a Hines daredevil-leap you are hearing, but it’s all transformed in the hands of Mr. Skjelbred, who is one of the finest orchestral pianists I will ever hear — but whose orchestra is shot through with light and shade, never ponderous.

And this is not a disc of two great soloists who happen, perhaps against their will, to find themselves asked to become members of a team and do it with some reluctance. It’s clear that Bob and Ray are musical comrades who look forward to exchanging ideas, celebrating the dear old tunes while making them feel just like new.  Incidentally, the disc offers — in the best homage to George Avakian — an example or two of judicious overdubbing, with Bob both singing and playing at once. . . . something we would like to hear and see in real life, but he hasn’t managed such magic on the stand. Yet.

The thoughtful musical conversations Bob and Ray have on this disc are emotionally sustaining. Each performance has its own dramatic shape, its own structure — more than a series of ensemble / solo choruses — and I would send copies of this disc to all the young musicians in and out of this idiom.  And a test: I would ask purchasers to pick out what they think is the most “overplayed” song on the disc and listen seriously to the Bob-and-Ray version, to see what magic can be made when two earnestly playful masters go to work on rich materials. Not incidentally, the sound on this disc captures all the nuances without any engineering-strangeness, and the neatly comprehensive liner notes by drummer / historian / writer Hal Smith are a pleasure.

You can hear musical samples here (go to the “CD” section — this disc is at the top of the page). Even better, you can search out Bob or Ray at an upcoming gig and press some accepted local currency into one or the other master’s hand. As I’ve noted, Ray is touring California (that’s San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Menlo Park, Sonoma, and back to San Francisco) between July 8 and the 14th, so you can have the double pleasure of hearing him live and purchasing a CD.

Unlike the shows put on by Elliott and Goulding, I didn’t find myself laughing while I was listening, although I was smiling all the time, at the beautiful, wise, mellow music.  Get yourself some.

May your happiness increase!

 

JAZZ FOR SVETLANA: BOB ARTHURS / STEVE LAMATTINA

SvetlanaTheoretically, if you were to attempt to fit trumpeter Bob Arthurs into one of those categories jazz writers love so well, he would be a “cool” trumpeter.  Bob has played alongside Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Sal Mosca, Ted Brown, Warren Vache, Larry Coryell, Bucky Pizzarelli, Chuck Wayne, Tal Farlow, and many others.  He knows and likes the music of Lennie Tristano.

I can envision some of you turning over the leaf and choosing another page, to paraphrase Chaucer; others might be going to another room to, shall we say, put on a sweater.

But be calm: frigidity is not on the menu, for Bob is an appealing warm trumpeter.

He doesn’t look back to the Thirties (more to the Fifties) but his approach is gently melodic rather than a clinical exploration of extended harmonies, and although he is on good terms with sixteenth and thirty-second notes, he does not careen through a chorus in the manner of virtuosic beboppers.

In fact, when I was listening to Bob a few nights ago at Somethin’ Jazz, leading a quintet that featured the esteemed tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, it clicked into my head.  A resemblance — not an imitation, but a shading.

I know that some musicians dislike being compared to the great dead figures, and I understand that: we all, in Yeats’ words, want to be loved for ourselves alone, but I took a chance and said to Bob, “I just realized.  If Ted is Lester Young, his own version of Lester, then you are Harry Edison.  Perhaps?”  And Bob looked pleased and said I had given him a great compliment.  I meant it.  Not the beep-beep-beep self-parodying Sweets, but the agile swinger, the to-the-point melodic player whose lines had the snap of epigrams.

You will hear and see more from that evening at Somethin’ Jazz.

But I have something more tangible for JAZZ LIVES — an actual compact disc of an intimate jazz session — trumpet and guitar and two vocals — that is sweet, to the point, and very rewarding.

Without being in the least “antique” or “repertory,” Bob and guitarist Steve LaMattina create wonderful jazz that is reminiscent of a Sweets Edison – Charlie Byrd record date for Norman Granz or Carl Jefferson.  Easy, melodic, dense with feeling but not with flurries — nothing artificial.  The songs are easy medium-tempo explorations . . . but no one will doze off: HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN / ALL OF ME* / BIRKS’ WORKS / I THOUGHT ABOUT YOU* / NIGHT IN TUNISIA / LONNIE’S BLUES / STELLAR PROBE / MELANCHOLY SERENADE / SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.  Bob plays softly but with intensity (often muted) and Steve provides swinging supportive counterpoint.  And his singing on two numbers is easy, heartfelt, inventive without being showy: musicians who put down their horns often are wonderful singers (Zoot Sims walking through I CAN’T GET STARTED, for one) and Bob fits right in.

And the story behind the CD is fittingly sweet.  I’ll let Bob tell it:

The making of our new album, “Jazz for Svetlana,” was a labor of love. The guitarist Steve LaMattina and I have been playing together off and on for about ten years.  Our good friend Svetlana, who is a wonderful classical pianist, really loved hearing Steve and I play as a duo.  She also kept telling her husband Yuri how much she loved our music.  Yuri decided to give her a very special birthday present.  He called me one day and said that he would like to produce a duo album of Steve and myself.  All he wanted out of it was the first CD to give to Svetlana for her birthday.  After that he said we could promote and sell the album wherever and however we wanted.  So here we are. The CD has been well received by everyone who got an advance copy.  It was a pleasure to record, and I’m happy to say that Svetlana loved her birthday present.

A present by a loving husband to his musical wife turns out to be a substantial present to us — one that won’t be worn out in a year.

Here is Bob’s website, with the smiling fellow greeting you.  At the top left, you can click on the appropriate icon and hear some music, so you will know I am not inventing what is not there.

And here is the link to CD Baby to hear brief excerpts from the songs and — I hope — purchase the CD.

May your happiness increase.

DON’T JUST SIT THERE . . . SWING SOMETHING! (Hanna Richardson, Phil Flanigan, Randy Reinhart, Stefan Vasnier, Jared Mulcahy: DO SOMETHING)

I’ve been waiting for this CD for a long time . . . and it satisfies!  Not only does it have a sweetly spiky Modernist cover; inside the paper sleeve is some of the best swinging music you’ll hear.  No hyperbole; no jokes.

“What could cause Michael to make such extravagant claims?” one might ask.  Well, some history.  In the beginning of this century, I was reviewing CDs for The Mississippi Rag, a periodical I miss almost as much as I miss its editor, the sainted and funny and sharp Leslie Johnson.  A new CD came to me featuring a singer I’d never heard of, Hanna Richardson, and a bassist I knew, Phil Flanigan.  I put it on and was immediately happy: they swung without pretense, they improvised sweetly; they made fine melodies sound better, turning them this way and that to the light.  Warmth without sentimentality was their goal, and they accomplished it on every track — often leavened with sly wit.

Eventually I got to meet Hanna and Phil, to see them in the recording studio and to delight in their live performance.  Then, through the Jazz Grapevine, news leaked out from a secret spot in upstate New York.  Hanna and Phil had picked up electrified tenor guitars (four strings, no waiting) and had added them to the Richardson-Flanigan entourage.  And videos started to appear on YouTube of a group they called — with tongue-in-cheek (but not so seriously that Hanna’s sterling enunciation was hampered) TENOR MADNESS.

Your Honor, Exhibit A, WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS (Hanna, Phil, Tom Bronzetti):

EXHIBIT B, WHAT HAVE YOU GOT THAT GETS ME? (Hanna, Phil, Stefan Vasnier):

I rest my case.  Ain’t they something?

And now, Hanna, Phil (alternating between string bass and tenor guitar), Randy Reinhart (cornet), Stefan Vasnier (piano), Jared Mulcahy (string bass) have made what they used to call AN ALBUM . . . with the provocative title DO SOMETHING.  The songs are THREE LITTLE WORDS (with the sweet verse) / FOOLIN’ MYSELF (where Hanna goes her own wistful way, not copying Billie) / WHAT HAVE YOU GOT THAT GETS ME? / THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU / A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID (where housework is the way to Romance) / THE LADY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU / ME MINUS YOU (with great wit — remembering Miss Connee Boswell!) / ROMANCE WITHOUT FINANCE (for the shade of Tiny Grimes) / TALK TO ME BABY (a twentieth-century realistic love ditty) / DO SOMETHING (a call to arms!) / I DOUBLE DARE YOU / SHOW YOUR LINEN, MISS RICHARDSON (where Johnny Mercer has never sounded so good).

Not only does our Miss Richardson sound better than ever, but the band, the band . . . is a marvel — rhythm that you could use to walk to Florida, and Randy’s glowing cornet, suggesting Sweets Edison here and Bobby Hackett there.

It is possible that my readers need this CD.  Birthdays, Christmas, Hanukah, Thanksgiving, no occasion at all.  It’s a beauty.  Learn more (as we say) here.

May your happiness increase.

RHYTHM IS THEIR BUSINESS: DUKE HEITGER’S SWING BAND (with BECKY KILGORE) at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011

Sometimes the best things happen when the more moderate types have gone to bed.  Here’s “Late Night Swing” from Jazz at Chautauqua (Sept. 16, 2011), featuring a hot swing band and singer in peak form.

Duke Heitger’s Swing Band featured the man himself on trumpet and vocals; Dan Barrett on trombone and arrangements; Dan Block, Scott Robinson, reeds; John Sheridan, piano and arrangements; Howard Alden, guitar; Glenn Holmes, bass; Pete Siers, drums; Becky Kilgore, vocals.  It was a twenty-first century version of the band that recorded a Fantasy CD (9684-2) which I hope you’re still able to find:

Here’s a link: http://www.amazon.com/Rhythm-Business-Duke-Heitger-Swing/dp/B00004SAZ8

But what we enjoyed at Chautauqua was more than sound coming out of speakers: catch the happy expressions on the musicians’ faces as they listened to these swinging arrangements and to Ms. Kilgore.

The set began with one of the best Thirties let’s-introduce-the-stars-in-the-band songs (courtesy of Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, and the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra), which Duke sang, RHYTHM IS OUR BUSINESS:

Then something for Louis and for Billie, YOURS AND MINE, again with a lovely Duke vocal.  (What a fine singer he is — on his horn or his vocal chords!):

A little Ellington excursion (thanks to Cootie Williams and his Rug Cutters, Master Records, and the Irving Mills complex), the wittily-titled SWING PAN ALLEY.  Remember to open up Letter B:

More Ellington (of a romantic tendency) from Becky, JUST SQUEEZE ME:

And for those who need the etiology of Swing explained to them, here is the big hit of late 1935, THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND, made perfectly clear by Becky:

Memories of the Goodman band, thanks to arranger John Sheridan, and a lilting I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU.  It’s hard to see Duke at the start, but his sound is unmistakable:

And a hot salute to Sweets, Pres, Jo, Sidney, Illinois, Gjon, Norman, and the Brothers Warner, in JAMMIN’ THE BLUES.  (Thank you, Pete Siers!):

“Business sure is swell!”

FIFTY-SECOND STREET, SOUTHWEST at THE EAR INN (May 15 / 22, 2011)

In the Thirties and Forties, “Swing Street” was the name given to one special block — New York City’s Fifty-Second Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, where jazz flourished. 

Given tectonic shifts and climate change, it’s no surprise that everything we know has moved — so Swing Street reappears every Sunday night from 8-11 PM at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City).

Here are glimpses of two enchanted evenings — May 15 and 22, 2011, with the EarRegulars and friends at their best.  The magicians that first Sunday were Dan Block, reeds; Harvey Tibbs, trombone; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Jon Burr, bass.  How about a tender ballad — Irving Berlin’s SAY IT ISN’T SO:

Then, trombonist Jim Fryer joined in for UNDECIDED (no dithering here):

And Matt gave up his seat (his guitar and amplifier, too) to Chris Flory, who made TOPSY sound just like uptown, 1941:

Fast-forward. 

The calendar pages fall off the wall.  The work week evaporates. 

It’s Sunday, May 22.  On the imaginary Ear Inn bandstand: Danny Tobias, cornet; Pete Anderson, reeds; James Chirillo, guitar; Frank Tate, bass — joined later by friends Andy Stein, violin, Mike Carrubia, cornet.   In the audience, Sir Robert Cox and family, on their New York City jazz tour.

W.C. Handy didn’t know about rayon and soymilk a hundred years ago, but he certainly understood the perils of LOVELESS LOVE:

Yes, I WANT TO BE HAPPY.  Easily accomplished at The Ear Inn:

Another good old good one — circa 1922 — THAT DA DA STRAIN:

And the romantic pleasure of I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, a rhapsody for two cornets and friends in 4 / 4 time:

A Dixieland classic, not too fast — THAT’S A PLENTY:

Without leaving their seats — RUNNIN’ WILD, courtesy of James P. Johnson:

Ballads are never out of season — so Danny called for SPRING IS HERE (perhaps a geographical comment more than an emotional utterance?):

And to conclude the evening, the groovy blues line called CENTERPIECE by Sweets Edison:

The EarRegulars will be celebrating their fourth anniversary in early July 2011.  What a remarkable accomplishment!  And these Sunday evenings are marvels, best viewed first-hand.

KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Ken Mathieson, the leader-percussionist-arranger of the Classic Jazz Orchestra, but this post is designed to remedy this omission right away.

For Ken Mathieson is a truly ingenious man who has made the CJO an equally flexible, innovative orchestra. 

The CJO has been working since 2004, and Ken is a veteran leader, arrangger, and drummer with impeccable credits.  For fifteen years, he was the resident drummer at the famous Black Bull Club near Glasgow — where he supported and learned from Bud Freeman, the aforementioned King, Mr. Carter, Wild Bill Davison, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Bobby Hackett, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison,  Teddy Wilson, Tal Farlow, and more.

And he’s offered his own solution to one of the problems of classic jazz performance.  Suppose the leader of a “classic” jazz ensemble wants to pay tribute to Ellington, Morton, Carter, or Armstrong.  Commendable enough.  One way is to transcribe every note and aural flutter on the great records.  Then, the imaginary leader can gather the musicians, rehearse them for long hours until they sound just like a twenty-first century rendition of this or that hallowed disc. 

Admirable, but somewhat limited.  Emerson said that imitation is suicide, and although I would love to have my own private ensemble on call to reproduce the Morton Victors, what would be the point?  (In concert, hearing a band pretend to be the Red Hot Peppers can be thrilling in the same way watching acrobats — but on record, it seems less compelling.) 

Getting free of this “repertory” experience, although liberating, has its disadvantages for some who take their new freedom too energetically.  Is POTATO HEAD BLUES still true to its essential self if played in 5/4. as a waltz, as a dirge, by a flute quintet?  Is it possible to lose the thread? 

Faced with these binary extremes — wanting to praise the past while remembering that the innovations we so prize were, in fact, innovations, Mathieson has steered an imaginative middle course.  On three CDs, he has managed to heed Exra Pound’s MAKE IT NEW while keeping the original essences.

Ken and the CJO have an open-ended and open-minded approach to jazz history and performance.  The original compositions stay recognizable but the stylistic approach to each one is modified.  Listening to the CJO, I heard not only powerful swinging reflections of the original recordings and period idioms, but also a flexibility that suggested that Mingus, Morton, Oliver Nelson, and Benny Carter were on an equal footing, respectfully swapping ideas.

The CJO has an unusual instrumentation which allows it to simulate a Swing Era big band or a hot trio: Billy Hunter plays trumpet and fluegelhorn; Ewan McAllan or Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Keith Edwards or Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, alto, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Paul Kirby or Tom Finlay, piano; Roy Percy, bass. 

And what’s most refreshing is that both Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: so the solos on CORNET CHOP SUEY do not emulate Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory; the ensemble work on SORRY doesn’t hark back to 1928 Bix and his Gang; the sound of BOJANGLES reflects on 1940 Ellington without copying it.  And the solos exist in a broadly-defined area of modern Mainstream: thus, you are much more likely to think of Roy Williams or Scott Robinson than of Clarence Williams or Prince Robinson. 

I’ll leave the surprises on these three CDs to the buyers and listeners.  But in almost every case I found myself hearing the music with a delighted grim, thinking, “Wow!  That’s what they’re doing with that old chestnut?” 

(Ironically, one of Matheson’s triumphs as an arranger is the wisdom to leave well enough alone.  So one of the memorable tracks on his Louis CD (with the glowing Duke Heitger in the lead) is a very simple and touching AMONG MY SOUVENIRS.) 

The experience of listening to these discs was as if my old friends had gotten new wardrobes and hairstyles — immensely flattering but startling at first.  And Ken seems to have the same playful idea, for his Morton CD is called JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES.  On the back there is the famous portrait of Jelly, his arms raised to conduct, wearing a suit with six huge buttons and pressed white trousers.  On the front, Mathieson has reinvented Jelly as a twenty-first century hip teenager, wearing a short-sleeved yellow t-shirt, earbuds around his neck, the cable leading to an iPod, baggy denim jeans, running shoes.  And Jelly looks happy!

Their three CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA SALUTES THE KINGS OF JAZZ (Lake LACD 261), JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES (CJO 001), and CELEBRATING SATCHMO, featuring Duke Heitger (LACD 286). 

Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found at http://www.classicjazzorchestra.org.uk/diary.htm

Information about their Lake Records CDs is available here: http://www.fellside.com/Shop/Results1.asp?Category=2

DAN BARRETT, THE GROVE STREET STOMPERS, and FRIENDS (Oct. 18, 2010)

Bill Dunham, the pianist-leader of the Grove Street Stompers, will proudly tell you that the band’s unbroken run of Monday nights at Arthur’s Tavern, the “West Side’s smartest supper club,” began in 1959 — a record indeed! 

Monday, October 18, 2010, was a special night because Dan Barrett brought his own jubilant energy and a borrowed cornet.  Dan’s cornet playing is a great joy, both clipped and lyrical.  On this horn, he comes from the great tradition, echoing Louis, Bobby, Ruby, Sweets, Buck, and more, but the result always sounds like Barrett, which is the way it’s supposed to be.

Dan inspired the GSS: Bill on piano, Peter Ballance on trombone and announcements, Joe Licari on clarinet, Skip Muller on bass, and Giampaolo Biagi on drums.

Here are three selections from that evening.  JUST A CLOSER WAlK WITH THEE is one of those “Dixieland chestnuts” that usually descends into cliche, but not with the preaching trombone of guest J. Walter Hawkes, welcome at any gig:

A rousing THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE called to mind the ecstatic Condon recording for Columbia in the early Fifties:

And at the end of the evening, Bill gracefully gave up his seat at the piano to the Maestro, Rossano Sportiello, and they swung out on OH, BABY!: 

At the Tavern, the Creole Cooking Jazz Band (featuring Lee Lorenz, Dick Dreiwitz, Barbara Dreiwitz, and others) plays on Sundays, Eve Silber (often with Michael Hashim) holds down Wednesdays, and the Monday-night ensemble includes Peter Ecklund or Barry Bryson on trumpet / cornet.  Other guests have included Bria Skonberg, Emily Asher, and Bob Curtis.  Arthur’s Tavern (some spell it Arthurs) is located at 57 Grove Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, and the Sunday sessions run from 7-10 PM.

THEIR IRRESISTIBLE STORIES

It’s taken me some time to write about Hank O’Neal’s book, THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM (Vanderbilt University Press), but admiration slowed me down.  What follows is only the smallest sample of its contents. 

Between 1985 and 2007, O’Neal (an excellent home-grown journalist who knew how to ask questions and get out of the way) interviewed forty-two jazz giants.  Some were well-known (Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Illinois Jacquet, Cab Calloway, Andy Kirk, Sy Oliver, Jonah Jones, Benny Carter, Maxine Sullivan, Buddy Tate), others no less deserving but in semi-obscurity to all but jazz devotees and scholars (Al Cobbs, Ovie Alston, Gene Prince).  Almost all of O’Neal’s subjects have now died: Frank Wess, Terry, and Billy Taylor might be the sole survivors. 

Rather than ask each musician for a long autobiographical summary, O’Neal focused on their memories of Harlem.  Fascinating stories resulted, which eventually proved stronger than their grief for a way of life that they had seen vanish.  

O’Neal is also a fine photographer from the old school — Berenice Abbott was his occasionally irritable mentor — so the book has large-format photographs of its subjects, often in their homes, as well as invaulable jazz memorabilia (advertisements and posters, record labels and the like) and photographs of the buildings that now stand where the uptown clubs used to be.  I find those transformations hard to take; that Connie’s Inn is now a C-Town supermarket makes me gloomy.

But because many of the musicians had never been asked to talk about Harlem, they responded with fresh stories that were hilarious, profound, touching.  

Fats Waller’s advice to guitarist Al Casey: “Don’t ever let your head get too big because there is always that little boy around the corner that can outplay you and outdo everything you do.”

Harry Edison, recalling his mother’s economic advice: ” [When I was fourteen or fifteen] I played with a guy named Earl Hood.  I remember I had to have a tuxedo and my mother paid two dollars for it.  We played little jobs around Columbus and every time I got home my mother used to ask me, ‘How much did you make?’  I’d tell her that Mr. Hood told me I was playing for the experience, and she said, ‘To hell with experience, you might as well stay home if you’re not going to get paid.’ ”

Edison’s memory of pianist Don Lambert taunting Art Tatum at an uptown jam session: “Get up off that chair.  You can’t play, you’ve got no left hand, you’re the world’s worst piano player.”

How clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton asked Teddy Wilson for a raise: “Teddy, I think you ought to put a little yeast in the money.”

Al Cobbs, remembering what Louis Armstrong said about the crowds he drew: “Let me tell you something.  The kind of music I’m playing makes people feel good–the folks come in and they buy steaks.  But some of the things people are playing make people sad, and these folks will just sit there, drink a Coca-Cola, and stay all night.”

The record session that Nat Cole wanted to organize in California, with Illinois Jacquet: “He’d be on piano.  I’d play my horn, and Jimmy Blanton, Sid Catlett, and Charlie Christian would make up the rhythm section.  That sounded great to me.”

The book is full of stories: impatient Stuff Smith wandering out on the ledge of a tall building.  How Coleman Hawkins explained his record of BODY AND SOUL to Thelma Carpenter as musical love-making.  What Milt Hinton’s teacher said to him.  Danny Barker explaining the difference between New Orleans and New York in terms of hospitality.  Al Casey paying tribute to Teddy Bunn.  Buddy Tate remembering the last time he saw Charlie Parker alive. 

And the book comes with a compact disc of many of the giants playing (and talking) — musical history.

THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM is too cumbersome to take to the beach, but it’s a masterpiece.  To learn more about it, visit http://www.vanderbiltuniversitypress.com/books/335/the-ghosts-of-harlem, where you can see twenty beautiful sample pages.

COUNT ME IN (at THE EAR INN): June 13, 2010

None of the musicians at The Ear Inn last Sunday night consciously voiced the sentiment, “Hey, let’s put on a show of the music of Count Basie and his sidemen.”  That would have made the evening into a Tribute Concert.  Jon-Erik Kellso and Andy Farber didn’t go out of their way to adopt the mantles of Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, Lester Young, or Herschel Evans; Chris Flory didn’t offer Charlie Christian licks, and Neal Miner played himself rather than Walter Page or Oscar Pettiford. 

But for whatever happy reasons, the Basie spirit — light, floating, intense — was in the air, even without a piano or hi-hat cymbal.  I hear many rewarding echoes of the 1938 Kansas City Six in these performances, and I don’t know higher praise.  

The EarRegulars often begin by seeming to test a piece out, looking in its corners, considering its possibilities.  Someone plays the melody; the other horn hums an improvisation.  By the time the second ensemble chorus is done, they are ready!  Their ensemble momentum, solo building on solo and band choruses building, is extraordinary: there’s no exhibitionism, no excessively long solos, but this band rocks.   

Perhaps because some of the Ear Inn patrons bring their well-behaved dogs along, the EarRegulars offered DOGGIN’ AROUND:

I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW was taken far from its earliest incarnations in Jimmie Noone’s band:

Another evocation of Herschel and Buck is BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL, a song Ruby Braff played whenever he could:

And a pretty two-tenor feature (the invaluable Dan Block came in, and Fumi Tomita took Neal’s place) on THESE FOOLISH THINGS, a ballad I associate with Lester and Billie:

Swing, brothers, swing!

P.S.  This post is dedicated — in delight — to Peter Lind and Margareta Aberg Lind from Uppsala, Sweden, who visited with me at the set break and told me that they had found the Ear and The EarRegulars because of my blog-postings and videos.  Welcome, welcome!

BREATHING THE SAME AIR

Were I a different sort of person, I could blame my parents, who were lovingly overprotective.  I could be irked at them now for not encouraging me to leave my suburban nest at 14 or 15 to go into New York City.  Had they been more adventurous souls themselves, I might have seen Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart in the flesh.  But by the time I began to make the trek, Ben Webster had left for Europe; Coleman Hawkins had died. 

Rather than lament the ones I’ve missed, I will list the names of the heroic players and singers  — now dead — I did get to see.

Trumpets / cornets: Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Ray Nance, Louis Metcalf, Herman Autrey, Doc Cheatham, Pat Jenkins, Joe Newman, Joe Thomas, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Erwin, Dick Sudhalter, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Jimmy McPartland, Johnny Windhurst, Taft Jordan, Franc Williams, Jimmy Maxwell.

Trombones: Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Benny Morton, Bobby Pratt, Georg Brunis, Dick Rath, Tyree Glenn, Eli Robinson.

Reeds: Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Al Klink, Herb Hall, Kenny Davern, Sal Pace, Russell Procope, Benny Carter, Johnny Mince, Bud Freeman, Buddy Tate, Phil Bodner, Sam Margolis, Harold Ashby, Earle Warren, Rudy Rutherford, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Clifford Jordan, Rudy Powell, Budd Johnson, Eddie Barefield, Lockjaw Davis, Allen Eager, Barney Bigard, Paul Quinichette, Illinois Jacquet, George Kelly.

Pianos: Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Claude Hopkins, Dill Jones, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Jane Jarvis, Hank Jones, John Bunch, Jimmy Rowles, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Ross Tompkins, Joe Bushkin, Ellis Larkins, Sammy Price, Art Hodes.

Guitars: Eddie Condon, Freddie Green, Wayne Wright, Herb Ellis, Al Casey, Bernard Addison, Carmen Mastren, George Barnes.

Basses: Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Charles Mingus, Al Hall, Bill Pemberton, Gene Ramey, Jack Lesberg, Bob Haggart, Franklyn Skeete.

Drums: Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Cliff Leeman, Chauncey Morehouse, Buzzy Drootin, Tommy Benford, Oliver Jackson, Eddie Locke, Sonny Greer, Sam Woodyard, Gus Johnson, Jake Hanna, Connie Kay, Freddie Moore.

Vibraphone (or Vibraharp): Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo.

Violin: Joe Venuti.

Vocals: Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, Lee Wiley, Bing Crosby, Al Hibbler, Maxine Sullivan.

I miss them all, but feel so fortunate that I was there to breathe the same air, to hear their sounds.

NOT SO NICE, 2009

World traveler Bill Gallagher sent along his photograph of the latest Nice Jazz Festival lineup:

Nice 2009

Some of my readers will rejoice at the names of venerable jazz players Rollins, Corea, and Burton; others will be pleased to see younger players. 

It must mark me as someone of a nearly-extinct generation when I write that I miss the old days.  European friends, over the years, sent me on-location tapes from Nice festivals in the Seventies, featuring Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Bill Coleman, Vic Dickenson, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Joe Venuti, Jo Jones, Sir Charles Thompson, Mark Shane . . . proving that swinging jazz was what prevailed. 

Now they’ve been replaced by  James Taylor?

Of course, many of the players at Nice in the Seventies are now dead.  But there are five or six dozen younger musicians — from Kellso to Caparone, Block to Blake, Dorn to Nick Ward . . . who would show anyone that jazz existed before Madeline Peyroux.

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.