Tag Archives: Swing Street

A MAGICAL SESSION IN JAM: JUNE 27, 1945

 

 

 

In case you can’t read the label, these four sides — two 78 discs — were created by the Don Byas All Stars: Byas, tenor saxophone; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Eddie Safranski, string bass; Denzil Best, drums, in New York City on June 27, 1945, almost seventy-five years ago.

This session has been part of my consciousness for a long time, perhaps going back before 1980.  Don Byas doesn’t get his name written large in those jazz-history-trees I have seen recently, and in the taxonomy of jazz Stars of the tenor saxophone, he’s rarely noticed in the rush to oversimplify: it’s Hawk and Lester and Ben — leaving out Don, Chu Berry, Dick Wilson, Bud Freeman, Gene Sedric, Video Musso, Prince Robinson, George Auld, Herschel Evans, Eddie Miller, Buddy Tate, Robert Carroll, and many others.  But Byas continues to amaze: his lovely expressive ballad playing, his indefatigable work at fast tempos, and his intense swing in general.  He knew his harmonies, and his arpeggios never put a foot wrong.  You might know his early work on a 1938 record date for Victor under the nominal leadership of Timme Rosenkrantz, or his classic opening solo on the 1941 HARVARD BLUES with Basie, but he made perhaps a hundred consistently realized small band sides for small independent labels between 1944-46 before leaving for Europe, where he spent the rest of his life, coming back to New York a few times before his death.

On these four sides, he’s in the company of giants who also rarely get their proper recognition.  Eddie Safranski, then a young bassist in Hal McIntyre’s big band, was at the start of a long career — his last recordings are in 1975 — and he played and recorded with everyone from Stan Kenton to Teresa Brewer.  Denzil DaCosta Best began at the top — his playing career ended in 1962 and he died a few years later, sadly, but he also recorded with everyone from Ben Webster to George Shearing to Erroll Garner to Sheila Jordan.

Johnny Guarnieri is one of the finest pianists and musicians, but he also seems neglected.  An ebullient virtuoso, he was a regular life-enhancer on small-group dates going back to the Benny Goodman Sextet: he could do so many things beautifully that he might not be well-known for his delightful swing.

I left the graceful and astonishingly consistent Buck Clayton for last: his autobiography tells of his long career better than I could (BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD) but I can’t think of an uninspired performance in his forty-plus years of recordings.  I have some late-career trumpet videos I will post, and even when his embouchure was not completely certain and his range was seriously limited, he made lovely melodies out of the fewest notes and he always swung.

As to the recordings themselves: you must discover their marvels on your own, but each is both wonderfully impromptu and a careful orchestral composition on its own, their texts being familiar pop songs from 1930-1, with DEEP PURPLE being the newest theme (a piano solo in 1934, a hit with lyrics in 1939).  I can imagine them discussing tunes, tempos, and approach briefly before making a take.  They knew how many choruses would fit on a side; someone took the lead and someone improvised a countermelody; someone took the bridge; they decided on how to begin and how to end — but the records document a peak of this music, the great meeting of experience, professionalism, and passion.

Walter Donaldson’s ode to candor:

and the lovely violet ballad, so rarely played or sung these days:

The eyes are the windows of the soul, aren’t they?

and a more hopeful ballad, about a sudden magical romantic appearance:

Now, a different perspective on these lovely creations.  I never knew anything about the Jamboree Records issues except that they must have sold well — there’s one label in red and silver, another in red and gold — and used copies continue to be offered for sale.  The label had a short run: three four-song sessions with Byas as leader (one where he is the only horn, this one with Clayton, and a third with Joe Thomas), a Dave Tough-led session (with Thomas and Ted Nash), a Horace Henderson-led date featuring Clayton, Eddie Bert, and two reeds (recorded for Harry Lim’s Keynote label and sold to Jamboree), a trio session recorded in Detroit in 1947 featuring pianist Willie Anderson and one vocal by Kenny Hagood, and finally a 1949 date led by pianist Skip Hall, featuring Clayton, Buddy Tate, Walter Page, with six issued and two unissued sides.

Jazz fans deep into the wonderful music of this period know that small labels with terrible pressings were frequent, owing to the number of brilliant improvisers at large (without recording contracts with major labels) and the end of the first Petrillo record strike or ban . . . think of Regis, Manor, Session, Guild, National, Apollo, Signature, Comet, Hub, and a dozen others.

I’ve been aided in my fragmentary research into Jamboree by Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera, founder of The Hot Club of New York, so thanks to him.  The head of Jamboree Records was one Morty Kline, who ran Melody Record Supply and Record Associates on 314 West 52nd Street, although another address has it on Tenth Avenue.

Where Melody Record Supply once stood.

That address allows one of my favorite hypotheses (“favorite” because I find it plausible but lack any specific evidence that it happened).  Did jazz musicians walk into Melody Record Supply, talk to Morty, and walk out with a handshake agreement to cut four sides next Thursday — bring a quintet at 9 AM for scale, or words to that effect?  Had Morty known Byas’s recordings from his Basie days, or from those on Savoy in 1944, or had he been in the audience for the Town Hall concert produced by Timme Rosenkrantz?  Or did Morty walk east after he closed the shop to have a drink on Swing Street and offer some of the musicians on the stand a record date at the bar?  I don’t know if Morty took a hand in the music’s direction (as did people like Harry Lim and Milt Gabler) or if he was simply the businessman-producer.  I suspect that it was an excellent business move for Melody Record Supply to have its own issues to sell: “product,” as we now say. I can’t ask Morty: he died in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1997.  But I can thank him for the commerce that allowed these beautiful minutes of imperishable music to exist and live on.

May your happiness increase!

“FAMOUS FOR GENUINE HICKORY-LOG-BROILED STEAKS AND CHOPS” and for MR. RUSSELL ALSO

Hungry?

Got a match?

And some more ephemera, documenting the New York jazz club The Hickory House (the first photograph is from 1937):

another view:

still another postcard, to mail to the folks back home to show you were having a grand time in the big city:

But that’s mighty thin substance for a jazz blog.  How about this?  (I wish sellers would erase their pencil annotations from holy relics, but that may be just me.)

and the front:

The eBay link is here; the seller’s price is $79.99 “or Best Offer.”  Free US shipping too — who could resist?

The signature looks genuine, and the seller asserts, “Rare Hickory House New York Jazz Club Postcard Signed by Pee Wee Russell. I guarantee the authenticity of the autograph as I discussed it with the wife of the owner who received it from the jazz legend.”

Here‘s a glimpse of the hickory House drink menu . . . although the modern annotator misses the point that a seventy-five cent drink was not “cheap” at all in the Thirties and Forties.

Alas, here is what 144 West 52nd Street looks like (according to Google) now.  I daresay there are no aromas of broiled steaks and chops — for my vegan friends, no baked potato, either.  And I certainly can’t imagine the music of Pee Wee Russell or Joe and Marty Marsala coming out into the street:

But Mr. Russell is always generous with his sounds, and is thus always alive:

That’s what he, Joe Sullivan, and Zutty Singleton sounded like in 1941.  There are, of course, many other samples of Pee Wee’s expansive career on YouTube and elsewhere.  Even if you don’t want to make an offer for the postcard, you could spend many joyous and enlightening hours with him.

May your happiness increase!

IT COMES OUT HOT: DAVE STUCKEY, MARC CAPARONE, NATE KETNER, RILEY BAKER, DAVID AUS, SAM ROCHA, GARETH PRICE: Fresno “Sounds of Mardi Gras,” February 8, 2019

I find “novelties” charming: their goofy allure harks back to my childhood.  This one has stuck since I saw Danny Kaye perform it in THE FIVE PENNIES.

We can (in the best Amazon way) peek inside:

In 1935, it was a phenomenal hit for this band, and one of them, probably Mike Reilly, had an ancient brass instrument, very complicated, that he used in the nightclub presentation:

But this post isn’t a nostalgic ramble down “Swing Street” (New York’s Fifty-Second Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, its raucous charm obliterated for decades) — it’s about living hot music, with a touch of comedy, performed right now, at the Fresno “Sounds of Mardi Gras,” by a lively hot band.  They’re Dave Stuckey and the Hot House Gang, for this occasion, Dave on guitar, vocal, and amusement; Marc Caparone, cornet, verbal japes; Nate Ketner, reeds; David Aus, piano; Sam Rocha, string bass; Gareth Price, drums, with guest star Riley Baker, trombone — he only gets a few bars on this number, but he makes the most of them.

If you don’t understand the circular course that hot music takes, watch the video again.  Share with your friends who need to be enlightened.  It will turn up on the final exam in your Doctorate in Hot.  Until then . . .

May your happiness increase!

THE MYSTERIES OF JANUARY 17, 1936, or WHO WAS CHEECH?

If it please Your Honor, Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Those are two unassuming-looking sides of a Decca “sunburst” label 78 disc.  Fine music with small mysteries attached, and no one around to tell the tale(s).  This 78 is not easy to find these days but it seems to have been a popular issue: I have had two copies, the first a (now-vanished) sunburst, the second (near me as I write) a later Decca reissue.  It was also issued on UK Decca.

This group, not a working band, recorded only these two sides in the New York Decca studios on January 17, 1936.  The personnel was Pee Wee Erwin, trumpet; Joe Marsala, clarinet; Frank Signorelli, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Stan King, drums.  Erwin and Mastren would work with Tommy Dorsey in early 1937, but at the time Erwin was in New York with the young Benny Goodman band before it went to Chicago; the rest of this group might have been together on Fifty-Second Street with Manone or Louis Prima, or freelancing in other record or radio studios.

Marsala and Mastren had been in the Decca studios for another small-group date, apparently organized by Wingy Manone, in whose recording groups they were working consistently for Bluebird — “the Delta Four,” with Roy Eldridge and Sid Weiss making up a quartet, also completing only two sides, FAREWELL BLUES and SWINGIN’ ON THAT FAMOUS DOOR, on December 20, 1935.  Signorelli and Mastren had done a date at Decca with Bunny Berigan as “Bob Terry’s Orchestra” on the 15th; Signorelli, King, and possibly Mastren were in the Decca studios on the 20th with Red McKenzie.

What or who brought these musicians together is one of the mysteries.  It could  have been that one of the six got a call from someone at Decca, perhaps Bob Stephens, saying, “We need a small band tomorrow in the studios at 11.  No more than six, and for scale,” and whoever picked up the phone or got the message at Hurley’s (the bar-gathering place before Jim and Andy’s) talked to other musicians down the bar or made some phone calls.

One more small gush of data: the Six Blue Chips were a late-morning or afternoon assemblage: blues singer Georgia White (piano, vocal, with unknown bass) recorded three sides earlier in the day, and Mike Riley (of THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND fame or infamy) recorded four sides later. American Decca, still quite a new company, was busy recording music and selling discs at lower prices than, say, Victor, as shown by three disparate sessions in one day.

Note the absence of composer credits, something unusual on Decca recordings of current pop tunes, but seen often on their recordings of “hilbilly” music, where the company could pretend that there were no people owed royalties.  It suggests even more that this was a hurry-up session, or perhaps someone’s idea to add to the Delta Four (whose labels do have composer credits).

Incidentally, the reason that all this prose is speculative is because no one connected with the session seemed to remember it or wrote about it.  If King, Shapiro, and Signorelli were ever interviewed, I haven’t encountered it.  I met Carmen Mastren once — on either Lloyd Rauch’s or Dave Weiner’s radio show — and at the time did not know of this recording.  He was very kind . . . and I don’t know where the V-Disc he autographed for me went.

The most likely candidate for an informed recollection would have been Pee Wee Erwin, who told his life story to Warren Vache, Sr., over four hundred pages, in what would be published as THIS HORN FOR HIRE.  But although Vache mentions this disc in an appendix, it seems as if that discography was assembled after Erwin’s death. Pee Wee mentions meeting Bob Stephens in the very early Thirties (when Stephens was a trumpet player) but nothing of substance is offered about the date or the other musicians.  One of the sad surprises of that biography is that Pee Wee had a substantial alcohol problem, which might have erased his memory of casual record dates.

None of this would matter if the music wasn’t delightful. Here it is:

STEEL ROOF, of course, steals from TIN ROOF BLUES, but it took me decades to realize this.  The side begins with a familiar — to some of us painfully familiar — piano introduction, with which Frank Froeba began all of the Dick Robertson sides, much loved because of the opportunity they offer to hear a young Bobby Hackett.  I’m always struck by the ease with which everyone plays this medium-slow blues, and how readily identifiable their sounds are, including King’s idiosyncratic but telling accents.  Erwin runs parallel to Bunny, but with his own sound; how lovely to hear Mastren out in the open, and Marsala always charms — even though this is “a slow blues,” he is charmingly optimistic.  The solos and closing ensemble have deep roots in the past: Oliver, Noone, Lang or Lonnie Johnson, but it’s clearly 1936, not a decade earlier.  And what a pleasant surprise to find that same piano passage used to wind down the performance — with the punchline being a King bass drum accent.  Unpretentious and completely effective.

Then, the reverse, with its elusive title: was Cheech someone who cheated or were they describing the process of cheating him (or her)?

There really isn’t much to CHEECH — it sounds like two or three familiar cadences taped together to make a chorus, but the overall effect is jolly, with the wonderful emphasis that the great improvisers placed on individual sound.  The record seems over before it’s through, but I hear Marsala’s luminescence and Mastren taking a trip into the land of what I first associated with McDonough, but Nick Rossi, who can play, suggests it is much more like Lang.  (I know the game of “sounds like” is silly, but I wonder how much Carmen had absorbed of Teddy Bunn and Lonnie Johnson as well?)

How these sides came to be remains mysterious, but they are little slices of Swing Street life, captured forever.  These discs, incidentally, come to us through the generosity of “Cliff,” whom I’ve been unable to identify further, but who has a wonderful YouTube channel, cdbpdx — full of now-rare 78 discs.

May your happiness increase!

SWING SCENE: MONDAY NIGHT at LE COLONIAL SF with THE IVORY CLUB BOYS (PAUL MEHLING, EVAN PRICE, CLINT BAKER, SAM ROCHA, ISABELLE FONTAINE: April 28, 2014)

A week ago, last Monday night, I was making the scene at Le Colonial SF (20 Cosmo Place, San Francisco) on the site of the famous Trader Vic’s.

Virtuoso guitarist Paul Mehling and friends usually play hot gypsy jazz — homage to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli — as the Hot Club of San Francisco. But Paul brought a new variation on swinging themes, The Ivory Club Boys, to Le Colonial on April 28, 2014.

The Ivory Club Boys evoke the jazz scene of the late Thirties on New York City’s fabled Swing Street (Fifty-Second Street) with a special emphasis on the hot music of violinist Stuff Smith.

Along with Paul, the ICB are Evan Price, electric violin; Clint Baker, trumpet AND trombone AND vocal; Isabelle Fontaine, guitar, vocal, and non-Boyishness; Sam Rocha, string bass, vocal.

OPENING BLUES (like the old days, and wonderful):

CRAZY RHYTHM:

CARELESS LOVE (a blues Stuff Smith adored):

An assertively quick reinvention of SWEET AND LOVELY:

DESERT SANDS:

DINAH:

Le Colonial is a fine place to be on Mondays — to hear hot music; to dance to it; to watch the exuberantly acrobatic dancers; to eat Vietnamese food and drink all sorts of intriguing liquids.  And now “20 Cosmo Place” is in my GPS, so I feel both secure and excited.

May your happiness increase!

SWING STREET COMES TO NICASIO (Part Two): THE IVORY CLUB BOYS: PAUL MEHLING, EVAN PRICE, CLINT BAKER, SAM ROCHA, and MIKE LIPSKIN (March 2, 2014)

A second helping of The Ivory Club Boys, a hot band that satisfies. (Here is the first helping, for those who’d rather listen than read.)

On Sunday, March 2, 2014, while the rest of America was watching the Oscars, the Beloved and I were having a wonderful time with the Ivory Club Boys (presented by the Hot Club of San Francisco) paying tribute to violinist Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, at Rancho Nicasio in Nicasio, California.

The Ivories were (for this occasion) Paul Mehling, guitar and vocal; Evan Price, violin; Clint Baker, trumpet, euphonium, clarinet, and vocal; Sam Rocha, string bass, and guest star Mike Lipskin, piano.

And before we proceed: the Ivories aren’t a repertory band devoted to reproducing Stuff and Jonah’s hot sounds right off the record — so the scholars may find a certain liberty in their improvisations.  (Whisper this: the Ivories even perform songs Stuff never recorded.)  But they don’t want to make history; they just want to swing. Four-four, if you don’t mind. Charlie Christian and Teddy Bunn are at the bar, too.

Here are more rocking numbers from their second set:

ROSETTA (vocal Sam Rocha):

Stuff’s own IT’S WONDERFUL:

SOME OF THESE DAYS:

I COVER THE WATERFRONT:

‘S’WONDERFUL:

MOONGLOW:

SOLID OLD MAN:

MOTEN SWING:

This band was so rewarding.  I’m looking forward to their next gig, their CD, their DVD, the world tour, the t-shirts, keychains, their own Facebook page. Until the Ivory Club Boys come to your town, enjoy this set.

May your happiness increase!

SWING STREET COMES TO NICASIO (Part One): THE IVORY CLUB BOYS: PAUL MEHLING, EVAN PRICE, CLINT BAKER, SAM ROCHA, and MIKE LIPSKIN (March 2, 2014)

On Sunday, March 2, 2014, while the rest of America was watching the Oscars, the Beloved and I were muggin’ lightly with the Ivory Club Boys (presented by the Hot Club of San Francisco) paying tribute to Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, at Rancho Nicasio in Nicasio, California.

The Ivories were (for this occasion) Paul Mehling, guitar and vocal; Evan Price, violin; Clint Baker, trumpet, euphonium, clarinet, and vocal; Sam Rocha, string bass, and guest star Mike Lipskin, piano.

And before we proceed: the Ivories aren’t a repertory band devoted to reproducing Stuff and Jonah’s hot ecstasies right off the record — so the scholars among us may find a certain liberty in their improvisations.  My goodness, they even perform songs Stuff never recorded!  But they don’t want to make history; they just want to swing. Four-four, if you don’t mind. Charlie Christian and Teddy Bunn are at the bar, too.

Here are eight rocking numbers from their first set:

CRAZY RHYTHM:

SARATOGA SWING:

I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY (vocal by Paul Mehling):

DESERT SANDS (a Stuff original, very atmospheric):

CHINA BOY (Mike strides in):

I’M CONFESSIN’ (with commentary by Mister Lipskin at the start):

JEEPERS CREEPERS (ditto and likewise — hear the band shift into tempo after the verse!):

ONE HOUR (vocal by Clint Baker after Mike’s lovely exposition of the verse):

We were with them two hours that night, and the band was so very rewarding.  I’m looking forward to their next gig, their CD, their DVD, the world tour, the t-shirts, keychains, their own Facebook page. Until the real thing comes along, enjoy this set — and there’s more to come.

May your happiness increase!

ONCE THERE WAS A HOUSE ON FIFTY-SECOND STREET (Henry “Red” Allen, 1946)

The Soundies — a kind of early video jukebox — seem very primitive today.  Watch more than two at a time by the same band, and it’s clear they were done rapidly, cheaply, and without much emphasis on variety.  The same sets and presentation continue throughout a series,  and the musicians are clearly miming to a pre-recorded soundtrack.  But how else would we see Henry “Red” Allen and his sidekick J. C. Higginbotham in performance in 1946?

This Soundie — HOUSE ON 52nd STREET — was not intended as a follow-up to Red’s moody THERE’S A HOUSE IN HARLEM, but it seems an extension of songs like GIMME A PIGFOOT and THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’ — efforts to invent a party scene in less than three minutes.

Its rather thin melody and lyrics already must have seemed nostalgic for a scene rapidly slipping away. By 1946, I think “the Street” was in decline: the returning servicemen had already decided to take their girlfriends to the suburbs, own some lawn, raise families — and I do not scoff at these activities, for they delineate aspects of my early life . . . but domesticity meant that you didn’t stay up late listening to jazz in the city.  And then there was television, a few years later . . .

In Manhattan, I believe that the block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues on Fifty-Second Street is called SWING STREET on the green-and-white sign, but that’s possibly the only thing swinging there now.

But we can return to this invented scene — sixty-five years ago now! — and hear Red, Higgy, Don Stovall, alto; Bill Thompson, piano; Benny Moten, string bass; Alvin Burroughs, drums; Johni Weaver and Harry Turner, dancers.  And Red obviously didn’t develop his stage presence only at the Metropole: he has it here, exuberantly selling this song:

Thanks again to Franz Hoffmann for delving even deeper into his treasure-chest and letting us see and hear these prizes.

SWING STREET, BURBANK, CALIFORNIA (Aug. 15, 2011)

To a New Yorker like myself, “Burbank, California,” summons up memories of Luther Burbank and his hybridizing of fruits and vegetables, and (on another, less serious level) the jokes Dan Rowan and Dick Martin used to make about the city on LAUGH-IN, so many years ago.

But it’s possible that Burbank may go down in local jazz history as the place where Hal Smith’s FOUR DEVILS AND AN ANGEL had their first gig.  (The band was really THREE DEVILS, but all that can be clarified.)  JAZZ LIVES readers will remember that one of our roving correspondents, Henry Maldon, went to Joe’s in Burbank on August 15 and came back with a glowing report about the music he had heard.

No surprise there, considering that the band was Hal on drums, Katie Cavera on bass and vocals, Albert Alva on tenor sax, and Chris Dawson on piano.  (You can guess who the ANGEL is, although the three other men on the stand aren’t exactly on the Satanic payroll.)  The fourth DEVIL came along in the person of guitarist / vocalist Dave Stuckey, who also made these informal videos of the band at work.

On ROSETTA, the mood is definitely Keynote — a Basie feel with hints of Red Allen on THE SOUND OF JAZZ, 1957.  You forget immediately that Chris is playing a keyboard, and although Hal isn’t well-captured by the camera microphone, he’s felt even when not heard.  And the rest of the band rocks along in a delightfully easeful way:

And here’s a sweetly swinging version of CHERRY, where Chris reminds us of his beautiful sensitivity to the groove, his Wilsonian subtleties:

The glories of Fifty-Second Street, way out West . . .

THE EARREGULARS AT “THE FAMOUS EAR” (June 12, 2011)

I had a minor jazz-history epiphany last Sunday at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) early in the second set, when past and present coincided.

The Ear Inn, for those who have never been there, isn’t a huge space (it is New York real estate) but everyone gets comfortable. 

The second set at the Ear began with that Sunday’s edition of the EarRegulars: charter members and co-founders Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri on trumpet and guitar, respectively; Greg Cohen on string bass; Michael Blake (a risk-embracer who loves Lester Young) on tenor saxophone. 

Here, they embark on RIFFTIDE, a variation on LADY BE GOOD chord changes that began with Coleman Hawkins and ended up in the hands of Thelonious Monk as HACKENSACK:

For good reasons, musicians often come to the Ear — not only to sit in, but to enjoy the sounds.  Last Sunday the musicians were bassist Jon Burr and singer Lynn Stein, reed master Dan Block, then (slightly later) tenorist Nick Hempton and drummer Dan Aran (toting a snare drum).  The observant Nan Irwin was there, also, keeping everyone reasonably honest. 

Michael Blake thought aloud about a great tune whose title he couldn’t quite remember — one of those riffy Basie things connected (like so many jazz classics) to trains — and Jon-Erik or Matt remembered it, 9:20 SPECIAL.  They invited Dan Block to join them, and the two tenors had much pleasing interplay:

Then, Jon-Erik invited Nick and Dan to join in, and what marvels ensued!

The first was a long, swaying WABASH BLUES — with Jon-Erik using both his metal mute and an empty beer glass to make growling, hallooing, far-away Cootie Williams musings.  That interlude (Beery or Hoppy?) lasted only a minute, but it was remarkable and remains so now.  And the ensemble swelled and reinvented itself throughout:

And that nifty swing tune of Edgar Sampson’s, beloved by stride pianists and bands, by James P. and Billie, Lester and Dick Wellstood, a masterpiece of quiet optimism, IF DREAMS COME TRUE:

For a finale — JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE — where Jon-Erik, for a moment, becomes a hilarious three-man Basie trombone section:

At some point during those final three performances, I looked at the bandstand, saw the musicians and their instruments — trumpet, guitar, bass, drum, and three tenor saxophones jammed in (my choice of words is no accident) shoulder to shoulder, having a good time.  

I thought, “Where have I seen this before?”  And — as my UK friends might say — the penny dropped. 

Basie.  1938.  The Famous Door.

Some will know the story of that Fifty-Second Street paradise.  A small club with a low ceiling, it had been host to a variety of bands in the middle Thirties but — with no air-conditioning — had always closed in the summer.  John Hammond, always full of ideas, paid for the installation of an air-conditioning system so that his favorite band, led by one Bill Basie from New Jersey, could play there in the summer.  The Basieties had to play softly at first, but it’s clear from the radio airshots that exist — not enough for my taste! — that they had a wonderful time and made irreplaceable music.

Here’s a photo essay from the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University(photographs from the Frank Driggs Collection) of that musical splendor.  Look for Herschel Evans, short-lived and insufficiently-photographed:

http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/ijs/cb/famousDoor.htm

Yes, the physical resemblance between The Famous Door and The Ear Inn is not exact, but the two places share the same ebullient spirit, with brilliant musicians improvising at the peak of their powers in a small space. 

Henceforth, I dub 326 Spring Street THE FAMOUS EAR.  It well deserves the new name!

And to finish the thought: the EarRegulars continue to swing as beautifully and as joyously as the 1938 Basie band.  No doubt about it!

P.S.  If you’re reading this in real time (however you wish to define it) you might want to know that The EarRegulars will be celebrating their fourth anniversary of steady Sunday-night gigs at The Famous Ear this Sunday, June 19, 2011.  Gifts, please!  (I meant their gifts — not that people have to show up with trinkets, although trinkets might be pleasant, too.)

P.P.S.  On June 12, I was able to savor Abigail Riccards and Michael Kanan, creating music with delicacy and strength — then I drove from Brooklyn to Soho to capture these five performances, hilariously creative.  This, to me, says only one thing:  JAZZ (emphatic pause) LIVES (exultant exclamation point)!

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.

SO RARE: SAYING GOODBYE TO “CADENCE”

I think sometimes that becoming a complete human being requires immense daily practice in the art of saying goodbye. 

Our emails (and perhaps the morning paper) tell us all about the deaths of people we love and know, or perhaps have never met.  Jazz blogs like this one have to resist very strongly the urge to turn into the Daily Necrology. 

And we say goodbye to things and situations that are meaningful to us — and I don’t just mean the lost iPod or the very sweet person who used to work at the grocery store who has moved away. 

For the jazz devotee, loss is tangible all around us.  We awaken into this music with the sharp mournful awareness of the people we will never get to encounter in person.  My readers can compile their own list of names. 

Places, too.  Think of all the concerts we never got to, the clubs closed, the record stores now turned into banks and forgettable restaurants.  Nick’s, the Commodore Music Shop, Swing Street, 47 West Third . . . and so on.

The past few years have been especially hard on print journalism, not simply for jazz periodicals, although in my own experience CODA and THE MISSISSIPPI RAG have both ended fruitful existences; JAZZ JOURNAL died and was reborn. 

About a week ago I got an email from CADENCE, which opened (after a polite salutation): By now you have heard that Cadence will stop publishing at the end of this year unless other arrangements come forth. (Any of you want to be a publisher?)

I sidestepped the parenthetical question, but I read the announcement with sorrow and inevitability.  In this century, any periodical that publishes with a minimum of advertising and a commitment to candor is remarkable.  To do it for what will be thirty-six years at the end of 2011 (if my math is correct) is remarkable . . . and when you consider that the subject of CADENCE is and has been Creative Improvised Music, its continued stamina is an accomplishment to be celebrated at the same time we mourn the announced end of their epoch. 

I can’t speak for the world of, say, opera journalism or that of hip-hop.  But about jazz publishing I do know something. 

And because it is a particularly cloistered world, with a smaller (sometimes more intense) audience than many other arts, it has certain inescapable qualities, one of them often a certain slyness. 

In this world, candor is particularly rare: when the business end of a magazine must keep its advertising income up, the possibility of true assessments narrows. 

I have been told, explicitly, by two editors that writing negative reviews did jazz harm; their journals were there to encourage the music.  So if I wrote that the Great Neck Jalapeno Boys were out of tune, my words did jazz an injustice. 

I was younger and more eager for an outlet, so I subsumed my criticisms in my reviews . . . and, to be fair, I was being asked to write about music I liked, for the most part.  But I continue to see “reviews” (in quotations) and advertisements on adjacent pages in journals other than CADENCE

Which came first, the chicken-journalism or the egg-money for the ads?

CADENCE has been different.  I confess that my first experience with the magazine goes a long way back — the Eighties — when Tower Records carried it, and I would stand in their magazine racks and skim it, looking for the names of people I recognized.  My horizons were much narrower, and often I went away from my quick and selfishly unpaid-for reading thinking that it was full of discs by people I didn’t know and whose music I wouldn’t like if I did know.

That changed after I got a chance to write about some CDs that were more to my taste and after I spoke on the telephone to its editor, Bob Rusch (or RDR).  He was imposing on the phone, but we got along fine — he only needled me that I was slow in sending reviews. 

And as our friendship deepened, I had — and have — the deepest respect for him as a person of feeling and perception, someone willing to commit himself to an ideal.  The ideal had a hard time making money, and it would have been so much easier to be polite, take the ad money, make the deals.  But Bob and the Crew are stubborn: their stubbornness coming from ethics and a love for the music. 

When, at the end of 2011, CADENCE might call it quits, I will have writen for it for about six years.  They have been a rewarding experience.  I haven’t liked all of what I’ve been asked to review, but I have been exposed to music and musicians — deeply gratifying — I never would have encountered otherwise.  And Bob’s guidance has made me a better writer, a deeper thinker, a better listener.  Hilariously, he’s only chided me when he thought I was being slippery-tactful, and he’s never asked me to change a word, even if I disliked music he thought was fine. 

I gather that even after CADENCE ceases to publish as a print journal, its other enterprises — creating CDs by worthy artists who aren’t well-represented in the mainstream, and promoting top-flight audio products by way of North County Audio — will continue.  And there may be more, although I don’t know the details.

I will be very sad when it all comes to a close — no more cardboard boxes of surprises! — but I salute Bob and the Crew for their wonderful example of loving fortitude.  And if a publisher were willing to take over the magazine, I could certainly continue to do my bit . . . there is a small mound of CDs on the coffee table near me that I have to write about, now!

Hail, hail!

REMEMBER: ALL MONEY COLLECTED BELOW GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!  OH, CLICK THAT LINK!

 https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

HAPPY NEW EAR! (Jan. 2, 2011)

One of the regular features of JAZZ LIVES is my reporting on what delights occurred at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) on the preceding Sunday night.  Saying that I have a good time would be an understatement.   

But even I — expecting the finest kind of jazz synergy on a regular basis — was astonished by what happened on January 2, 2011.

The EarRegulars and their friends created extraordinary music last Sunday night as 2011 took hold.  I had the privilege of watching individual creative impulses coalesce into something larger, something casually magnificent — all only a few feet from my camera.      

If this seems overstatement, a kind of “witness to history” pronouncement appropriate only to breaking news, the music will explain my feelings.  I’m delighted to present some of the evening’s many highlights. 

The EarRegulars, for the first set, were a quartet of friends: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Nicki Parrott, bass; John Allred, trombone; Matt Munisteri, guitar. 

They began with OH, BABY! — a song beloved of Jazz Age Chicagoans and of Eddie Condon and friends.  Because of the season, this performance was full of sly references to wintry / holiday tunes, causing Matt to say it should have been called OH, BROTHER!  But now that I am safe from FROSTY THE SNOWMAN for another eleven months, I didn’t mind.  See if you can catch all the in-and-out jokes.  And see if you can keep from laughing at the musical frolics:

Another good old good one, AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL, reminiscent of Bix as well, could easily have been the title for this posting.  Enjoy the conversational games played so well by these four brilliant improvisers:

To cool things off a bit, Jon-Erik asked John to choose one with a trombone lead, and John suggested the timeless “rhythm ballad” THESE FOOLISH THINGS, a performance full of quiet feeling:

Early on in the evening, there were intimations of a jam session to come.  I had spotted trombonist Emily Asher sitting at one table, then saxophonist Lisa Parrott, then trumpeter Bria Skonberg.  To my right appeared (like a belated holiday gift) the cornetist Dan Tobias, who was invited to join the festivities for a romping FROM MONDAY ON:

When the first set had ended, even more musicians came in, among them the ever-faithful Dan Block, clarinet at the ready.  I chatted with another clarinet wizard, Pete Martinez, about the Albert system, Johnny Windhurst, Eddie Condon in the 1950s, Skeets Tolbert and his Gentlemen of Swing, and TISHOMINGO BLUES.  Where else but at The Ear Inn?

Later, Howard Alden came in — first to listen — and I eventually noticed the broad back of someone I didn’t recognize, but when he began to play wire brushes on the paper-covered table, I knew that he knew: it was Chuck Redd!

(In the break, the actor James Gandolfini had come in, had a drink or two, and decided not to stay — a grave mistake.  When Jeremy Irons had visited The Ear Inn some years back, he had the good sense to stick around for The EarRegulars!)

The second set was masterfully orchestrated by Maestro Kellso, who invited these friends up one at a time.  It swelled into a thirteen-piece ensemble for AFTER YOU’VE GONE (which — if you’re keeping score — began with the last eight bars — more accurately, the last sixteen played double-time, says Jon-Erik).  And please note how each jam-session performance levitates itself on a flying carpet of Kellso-driven riffs, some from Basie, some from Louis, all in the grand tradition:

Then, a more moderate approach to WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM, an unlikely prospect for both players and audience.  In F, please:

Seeing the three trombones, Jon-Erik suggested TIGER RAG — an ecstatic romp presented here in two parts, because I couldn’t bear to lose even the final thirty-five seconds:

The last little bit (good to the last drop!):

Writing about this experience two days later, I don’t think that this music — simultaneously ecstatic and expert — needs much explication.  But more was going on at The Ear Inn than musicians stopping by to play a chorus or two. 

It was the creation of an inspired, mutually supportive community, nothing less. 

Jon-Erik, Matt, Victor Villar-Hauser (behind the bar but so much more than a mere pourer of libations), and the owners of The Ear Inn have all worked without calling attention to themselves to make 326 Spring Street on Sunday nights a remarkable place. 

It’s that rare spot where jazz musicians know they will be allowed and encouraged to play their own music with their peers.  Those of us who value such an unusual occurrence come to the Ear as if on a pilgrimage  — and the musicians feel the same way.  (In the audience but not playing were Chuck Wilson, Barbara Dreiwitz, and many others.)

And there’s more. 

In our time, where texting offers itself as equal to experience, the creation of such a community is both beautiful and special.  The sense of separateness that underlies much of our daily life disappears while the music is playing. 

Here we are!” say the musicians.  “Come with us!”  The smiles of the players and the observers light the dark room.  And a singular cohesiveness blossoms, a solace we seek all through our waking hours without knowing it.

As the new year begins, may we all embody our work as beautifully as these musicians do.  May we  all wear our accomplishments with such easy grace.   

And while writing these words, I felt for a moment, “I have witnessed something that will never come again,” but who knows?  There’s always next Sunday at The Ear Inn, which is hopeful and uplifting. 

Eight o’clock (really seven-thirty or earlier if you like sitting). 

You come, too. 

Bring your appreciative self and something for the tip jar.  The EarRegulars will supply the joy.

CHARLES PETERSON’S GENEROUS ART, 1942

The photographs Charles Peterson took offer magic windows into places and emotions we would otherwise never experience.  Here’s what he captured on a truly magical afternoon in 1942, shared with us through the generosity of his son, Don.

It’s a jam session — hardly unusual for Peterson — but this is no ordinary gathering.

This jam session didn’t take place at some smoky Fifty-Second Street club or a hotel ballroom, but at the Walt Whitman School where Don was a fifth-grade student.  Whitman was an extremely forward-looking school, whose students got to see foreign films, adventurous art, and more.  So when Charles Peterson suggested that some of his musician friends might come down and play for the kids, none of the administrators raised a worried eyebrow.

Peterson, I assume, had more than one motive — staging a jam session with the finest musicians he knew would bring pleasure to everyone, and the photographs that resulted might very well be charming enough (Hot Jazz in the Schoolroom; Hot Jazz Goes to School) that a major magazine would want to buy them.  Hot jazz, good publicity for the musicians, possibly a paying gig for the photographer.  Considering that Eddie Condon and friends — including Joe Sullivan and Pee Wee Russell, depicted below — were also playing odd daytime gigs in Lord and Taylor’s for the holiday shoppers, any way to let people know about the gospel of Hot would have been welcome.

I’m sure that Peterson asked his friend Eddie to get the musicians together.  And it’s a tribute to how much these men would have looked forward to playing alongside one another that they woke up early for a non-paying gig, no drinks and nothing to smoke in sight.  For the kiddies!

To begin: Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Zutty Singleton, perhaps a group Condon had assembled for nighttime work at Nick’s in Greenwich Village:

image0000010A_010

The band first: Sullivan is poised to launch a powerful right-hand chord, perhaps one of his ringing, thunderous octaves; Zutty is bent attentively over the cymbal, his face both serious and contented.  Pee Wee is, for once, not caught in brave-explorer anguish.  Kaminsky is watching Gowans, who is intent, and Condon is gleefully vocalizing (exhorting, encouraging) and grinning.  In fact, Condon looks even more gleeful than usual: his face looks cherubic, transported, the same age as the students!

Don pointed out — with amusement — the little boy on the left who is, for the moment, sorry that he has pushed his way into the front row, and is now holding his hands over his ears against the volume.

But there’s more here.  The settling is so atypical — to find these musicians in a large, well-ornamented room (note the plaster decorations on the wall) — is so far from the usual “night club” world of smoke and darkness, that it lends this photo a Magritte aura, as if two worlds have been superimposed on one another, peacefully but oddly.  The effect is intensified when we see those boys and girls, their school clothes all quite neat, except for one little boy in the rear who seems to have gotten the seat of his trousers dirty from his shoes.  Even from the rear, they look so beautifully-tended, as if they should be singing Christmas carols rather than hearing this band explore SOMEDAY SWEETHEART.

One other photographic digression.  I don’t know the speed of Peterson’s exposure, but think it might have been longer than we are accustomed to in this century.  So did he often opt to photograph the musicians when they were holding whole notes (or “footballs”) behind a soloist, expecting that they would be holding still?  I wonder.

Now to the full band.  If you asked Bobby Hackett if he would like to play his horn alongside his idol, he wouldn’t have had to think about his answer.  And when Louis had a choice (say, at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival tribute to him which had what seemed like a dozen trumpeters ready to accompany him), he only wanted “little Bobby Hackett,” who found those “pretty notes,” every time.

image0000001A_001

This famous shot has sometimes been cropped because of its imperfections, such as the soft focus on Gowans and Hackett, and the lighting making Louis’s very sharp suit look just this side of garish.  But the overall effect suggests that Louis is divine or at least from another planet, and has brought his own luminescence with him — a jazz god who has decided to play at being a mortal for an afternoon.  And the viewer’s eye is inextricably drawn to the glowing bell of Louis’s horn — from whence all good things came.

(It is possible that the group shot below was taken before the close-up, but I trust my readers will not object excessively.)

image0000005A_005

Can you imagine the sound coming from that now-crowded bandstand?  Its embodiment is on the face of the smiling little girl, whose profile we see at the right.

image0000003A_003

I would draw your attention to four faces in this photograph.  Louis is hitting a high note or making a point with all the sincere dramatic eloquence he could command.  Head thrown back with emotion, his neck full of energy, his hand on his heart.  And he’s delightedly making the music, with the music, and wholly IN the music.  Look at how lovingly and happily Zutty’s face echoes Louis’s — they went all the way back and had been the best of friends two decades earlier.  Hackett might be taking a breath, but it looks as if he’s ready to laugh with pure joy — as if he can’t contain himself.  And here we see the grown-ups.  Because this was a program for the boys and girls, the adults had to stay off to the side, but I delight in the woman who is to the extreme left, her grin perilously broad, having the time of her life.  (And the older woman who is standing behind her is almost as transported.)

In the late Bob Hilbert’s biography of  Pee Wee Russell, I found this: “Another special date was a benefit at the “progressive” Walt Whitman School in New York in which the guest of honor was Louis Armstrong.  Louis jammed with the Condon band, but the trumpeter drew the line at singing the blues because, as he explained, the only ones he could remember were dirty and not fit for the kids.  For more than an hour, the band thrilled the students and an overflow crowd of adults as well” (141).

Maybe Louis reached back to 1936 and sang PENNIES FROM HEAVEN for the kids, with its optimistic message, or reminded them that “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you!”

This photograph, not irrelevantly, reaches forward to Nina Leen’s shots of Louis at the Eddie Condon Floor Show, telling the story of THE THREE BEARS to the children, and the famous shot of Louis in Corona, on the porch, with two little boys, one of whom is paying homage to his friend and idol with a plastic toy trumpet.  Maybe some jazz musicians are hard-pressed to be ideal parents, but Louis deserved a troop of children of his own.  Alas.

image0000004A_004

Speaking of children: during a break between numbers, we find Pee Wee as kindly uncle (his usual nature), perhaps responding to the little girl at the bottom right who is smiling).  Louis is holding court, telling a story — look at Hackett’s face!  Condon is watching everything.

But my attention is always drawn to the little girl in the front row who has turned her head and is clearly saying something defensive or offensive to the child near her.  Those of us who recall elementary school or have taught it know that expression well.  It’s trouble, and whether it’s “Sally stepped on my dress!” or “Make Timmy stop pulling my hair!”  It doesn’t bode well.  But chaos threatens only when the music isn’t playing.  Music hath charms, we know . . .

image0000006A_006

Harmony reigns over the land.  That same little girl is now transfixed by the sound of Louis’s horn, its bell less than two feet from her face.  She doesn’t need to clap her hands over her ears.  If she could have gotten closer, she would have, for she knows what she’s hearing!

None of the musicians in this photograph are alive (Max Kaminsky left us in 1994) and most of those boys and girls would be in their eighties now . . . but if any of them see these photographs, I would give a great deal to hear their memories of that afternoon.

As I’ve written, part of the essential charm of these photographs is that Peterson took his camera to places most of us never got to visit.  I wasn’t born in 1942, and if you count up the people in this room, perhaps fifty mortals were able to have this experience.  And it seems to me that the Walt Whitman School is no longer in existence.  So these photos are gifts to us, welcoming us into worlds now long gone.  But Peterson’s gift was also in what he saw and captured for us.  These are living examples of Peterson’s most generous art.