Tag Archives: Teddy Wilson School for Pianists

A FEW PAGES FROM ROBERT BIERMAN, formerly of IRVINGTON, NEW YORK

Another eBay prowl (taking a long respite from grading student essays) with glorious results.

The seller is offering an amazing collection of autographs, some dating back to 1938.  Since a few items were inscribed to “Bob” or “Robert” Bierman, it was easy to trace these precious artifacts back to the man of the same name, a Krupa aficionado, now deceased (I believe his dates are 1922-2009) who lived for some time on Staten Island.

The jazz percussion scholar Bruce Klauber tells me: Bob passed several years ago. He had things you wouldn’t believe and was kind enough to share several audios with me. Anything he was connected with was rare and authentic.

My friend David Weiner recalls Bierman as quiet, reticent, with wonderful photographs and autographs.

I never met Mr. Bierman in my brief collectors’ period, but in 1938 he must have been a very energetic sixteen-year old who went to hear hot jazz and big bands, asking the drummers and sidemen for their autographs.  The collection is notable for the signatures of people not otherwise documented — as you will see.

Incidentally, the seller has listed the items as “Buy It Now,” which means that indeed the race is to the swift.

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Three heroes from what I presume is Art Hodes’ Forties band that recorded for his own JAZZ RECORD label: Rod Cless, Georg[e] Bruni[e]s, Danny Alvin.

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Bunny and his Orchestra.

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Basieites, circa 1940: Walter Page, Joe Jones, Buck Clayton, Tab Smith, Freddie Greene, and James Rushing.  The story is that John Hammond convinced Jo and Freddie to change the spelling of their names . . . perhaps to be more distinctive and memorable to the public?  I don’t know if this is verifiable.

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Gene!  But where and when?

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Wettling, promoting Ludwig drums — when he was with Paul Whiteman.

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And some advice to the young drummer.

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Teddy Wilson.  It’s so reassuring to see that there was actually letterhead for the School for Pianists.

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Some wonderful players from the Bob Crosby band: Jess Stacy, Eddie Miller, Bob Haggart, Matty Matlock, Hank D’Amico, Nappy Lamare.

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Liz Tilton, Ray Bauduc.

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Gil Rodin from Ben Pollack and Crosby.

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Earle Warren of Basie fame.

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Al Donahue, and another Bunny signature.

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To me, a page with the signatures of Hank Wayland, and George Rose — plus a caricature — is worth many thousand letters with a secretary’s “Bing” or “Benny” at the bottom.

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You want famous?  Here’s famous: Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti.

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and Mary Lou Williams.

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Peggy Lee.

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Some fairly obscure Benny Goodman sidemen — Buff Estes, Toots Mondello, Arnold “Covey” — and the leader-turned-sideman Fletcher Henderson.

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Gentlemen from the reed section of Fats Waller’s big band: Jackie Fields and Bob Carroll.

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Fats’ “Honeybear,” Gene Sedric.

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A letter from Art Hodes!  (“Bob, there’s a letter for you!”)

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Finally, the Hawk. 1943.

It makes me think, “What will happen to our precious stuff [see George Carlin] when we are dead?  eBay certainly is better than the dumpster, although these pages remind me that everything is in flux, and we are not our possessions. Beautiful to see, though, and to know that such things exist.  You, too, can have a piece of paper that Rod Cless touched — no small thing.

May your happiness increase!

THE ASTONISHING WORLDS OF TEDDY WILSON

For some, my title may sound hyperbolic — a sideways glance at a Fifties science-fiction anthology.  But it represents accurately the way I feel about Wilson’s best playing.

In a jazz landscape that occasionally seems dominated by the Coarse (showy playing and singing for effect), Wilson’s solo recordings seem the lyrical embodiment of delicacy.  By that I don’t mean effete playing, a series of tiny gestures, the aural equivalent of someone hunched over the harpsichord keyboard, making almost no sound.

Wilson was clearly a definite player: his rhythms move; his single-note lines gleam; he swings from start to finish at any tempo.  But he doesn’t come out in clown costume and wave his arms wildly for our attention.  His lovely multi-layered playing is there for us, should we choose to give it our ears and hearts and minds.

Teddy Wilson was a man of astonishing gifts, although he offered them in the middle register; he was soft-spoken in person and in his playing.  A YouTube benefactor named sepiapanorama has quietly been very generous — creating two videos that offer eighteen pearly Wilson solos from his great period.  Here are the first ten “issued” performances:

and eight alternate takes:

For those readers who think, “Where did this music come from?” here is an answer.

In the Twenties and beyond, music publishers saw that there was a market for music books that would help you play more like Red Nichols, Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Miller, Art Tatum, Louis, and so on.  You can find them on eBay.  (I wish you good luck — both in the quest to find these books and then to absorb their knowledge.)  Wilson had published one such collection in 1937 — a series of transcribed solos — but he then had the bright entrepreneurial idea of creating the “Teddy Wilson School for Pianists”: a business located in midtown Manhattan — probably simply an office where someone received checks and sent out packages.

What seems to have happened was that Wilson went into the Brunswick studios — the company for whom he was already recording — or stayed there after a Billie Holiday date was over — and recorded several solo improvisation on classic pop songs.  They were not issued by the company for general purchase, but given a special yellow label.  These 78s are now exceedingly rare.

One could become a student at the School (details unknown) and receive a record of, say MY BLUE HEAVEN and one other song — along with printed commentary on what to listen for in the performance.  I once thought that complete transcriptions of the solos were offered, but have been told that I was misinformed.  The School didn’t last long, but those chroniclers who champion the efforts of musicians, twenty years later, to form their own record labels and publishing companies, to take charge of their own economic destinies, should look to Teddy Wilson as an early prescient pioneer in this.

In the Seventies, I found a copy of a bootleg 10″ lp on the Jolly Roger label which contained Teddy Wilson performances I had never heard of before — WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE stands out in my memory — and I bought it.  I then learned that the eight sides were from the School.  Later, Jerry Valburn issued a Merrit Record Society of all eighteen sides, and even later they came out on three European CDs (Classics and Neatwork).

Some friends have suggested that Wilson “simplified” his style for the prospective students.  I don’t know — these seem like incredibly complex recordings, and I think they would be difficult to imitate.  For myself (a very amateurish pianist) I listen to and marvel at the apparent simplicities of Wilson’s melody statements — say, the first eight bars of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS — and think that these performances are marvels: intricate, delicate, beautifully crafted.

These sides make me very happy and I hope they do the same for you.  And each one is the result of a long period of study, so try to listen to them one at a a time — otherwise they might become glittering Swing background music.

May your happiness increase.

HOW DOES HE DO IT?

We expect that someone’s speaking voice is immediately identifiable, a personal signature.  But it seems magical that a pianist, seated at a complex of wires and wooden hammers, does the same thing in a few notes.  Teddy Wilson is one of those masters; there’s no mistaking him.

Each of us who has been listening to jazz for more than a few years has a kind of mental iPod (some will imagine a jukebox) of music first heard decades ago that stays in the mind.  Wilson’s 1938 solo performance of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS is a favorite touchstone — ever since I first encountered a 10″ lp on the bootleg Jolly Roger label in a New York secondhand shop — a series of otherwise unidentified Wilson solos I knew nothing of at the time.

How does he make the piano sound so clearly an extension of himself?  Pianists will speak of the individual instrument, the player’s physical approach to the keys and pedals, of chord voicings and note choices, of Wilson’s ringing treble lines and mixture of walking tenths and stride bass  — all matters I understand in a rather indefinite way.  All of that is true, but there always is something mystical in the relations between player and instrument, deep and elusive.  One can attempt to copy a Wilson transcription by playing the notes off of the page and the result will not sound like him.

I heard Teddy in ten or twelve different settings live between 1972 and 1981: at the overamplified Carnegie Hall piano; outdoors at a Suffolk County airport; in a suburban shopping mall; in Radio City Music Hall: he sounded like himself, no matter where you put him.

This solo is even more remarkable to me because it was originally intended as a way for Wilson to teach people how to play in his style — by correspondence.  (He had become much more famous through his appearances and recordings with Goodman, Holiday, and others, and I am happy that he entered into this business venture, for it left such lovely evidence behind.)  In 1938, one could enroll as a student in the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, its headquarters at 1650 Broadway, and for some fee (I wish I knew how much it cost) receive printed instruction sheets and commentary on piano solo recordings.

I note that the label says “Score and analysis text” available at the school: does anyone possess the transcriptions of these performances?

But the music is what counts.  Wilson had mastered the great paradox: his playing sounds calm, unhurried, but his lines that push forward with a quiet rhythmic intensity.  And a Wilson performance at a slow or medium tempo has some of the same false ease one experiences while listening to Bing Crosby: an optimistic listener thinks, “That doesn’t sound too hard.  With a few lessons, I could do that, too.”  But the goal is elusive.  I’ve tried to reproduce some version of the four-bar introduction by playing the recording and then going to the piano: its easy translucency is not easily reproduced.

Wilson clearly learned a good deal from Louis and Hines, from Fats and the great horn players — but there’s a classical reserve in his playing, a translucency that I think comes from playing Bach and Chopin: knowing how to make simple melodies come alive, to make notes ring.  There’s nothing formulaic or mechanical in this performance, even though he had chosen a simpler-than-usual approach in the first two choruses, saving some complexities for the final one.  His rhythms pulsate; even the most formal statement of the melody swings; the interplay between his left-hand harmonies and his melodic inventions is something to marvel at.  And although the performance is a sterling example of “keeping time” — it never accelerates or drags — Wilson’s rubato hesitations and suspensions at unexpected moments keep it flexible and full of surprises, even when the surprises are understated.

I think of 1938 — hardly a year for global optimism — as a time when people actually wanted to study Teddy Wilson’s piano improvisations.  That speaks of an idyllic past, perhaps lost.  But we can still hear Teddy Wilson in our dreams.

BACK TO SCHOOL

I think I’ve been in the classroom — sitting in a student desk or perched on top of the desk at the front of the room — for ninety percent of my life.  And as someone who went straight through from grade school to graduate school, I have very little desire to go back to school.  I would be a bad student, shifting in my chair, drawing in my notebook, thinking “I could do this better.”

And — in parallel — the signs in stores and online ads that proclaim BACK TO SCHOOL in yellow and red (the colors of pencils and erasers) are not cheering to me: they haven’t been for a long time.

But if I could enroll in any program on earth in September 2011, it would be this one:Because of the fame he had won as a member of the Goodman small groups, Teddy Wilson started this enterprise in 1938.  From what I can gather, the records were made available to students, who also bought text — explaining certain subtleties of what Wilson was playing and why — so that they, too, could walk their tenths or perfect their arpeggios.  I picture young men and women in their basements or rec rooms, listening hard to a particular four-bar passage on their recording, trying to duplicate it at the keyboard.  Not easy!

The music on this 78 (and perhaps eighteen other performances, including unissued takes) was not readily available to people not enrolled in the program.  A bootleg 10″ lp on the Jolly Roger label offered six or eight sides in the Fifties, and perhaps twenty-five years later Jerry Valburn issued all the sides on the Merrit Record Society label, and they have come out on CD, divided between the Classics and Neatwork labels.  They are fascinating interludes in the Wilson discography, for it seems that after he had recorded a few sides that would be issued on Brunswick 78s, he then took additional studio time to record several selections for his School for Pianists. (I can’t call all the titles to mind, but I remember I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, LOCH LOMOND, TIGER RAG, MY BLUE HEAVEN, THAT OLD FEELING . . . )

When I encountered him at close range (in 1971), Wilson was the very definition of taciturn.  Not impolite, but hardly warm.  But if I could sit in any classroom, I would fill out my program to be in Professor Teddy’s class, hoping that I could make my fingers move in a Wilsonian fashion.

CHANGES MADE

This post is motivated by email conversations with friends, some of them musicians, who confess in hushed tones that they really can’t listen to X, no matter how famous or renowned (s)he is. 

So I hereby reveal my contributions to this secret dialogue.  It interests me that some of the music I adored in my twenties I no longer can put up with. 

I find Ella Fitzgerald chilly and detached except when she is warmed by Ellis Larkins or Louis.  Once I thrilled to Tatum’s rococco wanderings for Norman Granz and Hines’s late-period bubblings-over.  No more.  No can do.  No Oscar Peterson; no Buddy Rich.  Rush the tempo, no matter how famous you are, and I want to walk away.     

Some of this may be the result of my aging impatience.  I’ve heard a lot, on record and in performance, and much pales by comparison.  Of course, my reaction may sound snobbish.  “What an over-critical view!  Jazz needs all the friends it can get,” some might say. 

But now I want a certain intense passionate simplicity (or it has to sound like simplicity — even though it isn’t simple at all!) rather than displays of technique.  Tell your story and let someone else play, please.  It’s not a matter of disliking, but a paring-away of what now seems to me inessential.  Maybe my ears are saying, “You know, life isn’t long enough to listen to four choruses of that solo.”  I know that some readers will find my choices wrong, inexplicable.  And I applaud their doing so.  We must listen to and love that which makes us vibrate in the best ways.

And I still have my treasures.  Certain recordings (I restrict myself to dead players and singers) I will carry with me to the grave, and beyond.  Lee Wiley’s Liberty Music Shop recordings.  Louis’s THAT’S MY HOME, KNOCKIN’ A JUG, and two dozen others.  The Chocolate Dandies’ I NEVER KNEW.  Eddie Condon’s TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL.  Sidney Catlett’s STEAK FACE.  Teddy Wilson’s I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (School for Pianists).  Red Allen’s ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON.  Billie’s I’LL BE SEEING YOU.  Mildred’s WILLOW TREE and BORN TO BE BLUE.  Joe Thomas’s YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME.  James P. Johnson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE and AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  The Basie rhythm section.  Almost anything by Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, Buck Clayton, Emmett Berry, Lawrence Brown, the Boswell Sisters.  Red Norvo on xylophone.  Ben Webster with strings.  Lester Young in good company.  Jack Purvis’s work on the Seger Ellis SLEEPY TIME GAL.  The Ellington-Hodges STOMPY JONES.  The 1934 Fats Waller sessions with Bill Coleman.  Dicky Wells in the Thirties.  Hot Lips Page and Dave Tough on Artie Shaw’s 1941 THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Teddy Bunn.  frank Newton.  Early Crosby, and the Bing-Mercer MR. CROSBY AND MR. MERCER.  Bix, Tram, and Lang.  Mercer’s THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN.  Early Jack Teagarden.

But many other famous players and recordings do not move me.  However, one of the freedoms of no longer attempting to be a completist, not having to listen to everything the Jazz Heroes / Heroines did is that I can spend time discovering less-publicized delights, the living players I celebrate in this blog.

And then there’s the larger issue, or burden, of perception.   

Some time ago, I began to write a blogpost called IS ANYONE LISTENING?  It remains a valid question.  Occasionally jazz seems based on a star system that rigidifies.  You come to the music of Kid Flublip early, fall in love with it, and are loyally obligated to keep to your early allegiance.  That’s wonderful, if the music continues to satisfy.  But I wonder if listeners are actually listening to what they hear or are so wrapped up in their adoration that they no longer hear.  Can an acolyte hear what the band is playing or is (s)he wholly in love with the name of the leader?     

Everyone might try a self-imposed Blindfold Test, or what CADENCE calls “Flying Blind”: take a treasured recording and listen to it as if you’d never heard it before.  It requires a playing-tricks-on-the-self, but the result is exciting.  Familiar recordings give up new bits of lovely evidence; others crumble.  The Famous Bassist is out of tune; the Revered Soloist goes on for too long. 

A listening public — as opposed to a sentiment-driven one — might find new disenchantment.  The music we actually hear might not measure up to what we think we remember.  But that would enable us, as well, to put aside our adorations and hear something or someone new, a different kind of reward.

And if the musicians or singers I’ve grown away from still sing to you, consider yourself fortunate; it must be idyllic to find everything in an art form equally rewarding.  I can’t do it, and I am not sure that it would be a rewarding activity.

THE ELUSIVE MR. WILSON

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Although I have tried to hear all the recordings Teddy Wilson ever made over more than half a century, the man himself was harder to find.  True, I did hear him in person several times at Newport Jazz Festival concerts in New York City, once at the Highlights in Jazz concert series, at The New School (alongside Claude Hopkins, Dill Jones, and Eubie Blake!), and once at a shopping mall, Roosevelt Field, where, in the winter of 1971, he was one of four or so jazz performers who had hour-long gigs among the shoppers.  (I recall that one other group was Roy Eldridge, an organist whose name I can’t recall, and the recently departed Eddie Locke; another was Joe Farrell, Wilbur Little, and Elvin Jones.  My friend Stu Zimny was there, too, and might have driven the car as well.)  Wilson brought with him the veteran bassist Al Lucas and drummer Gary Mure, son of the guitarist Billy Mure — if I remember correctly.  In his perfformance, Wilson did what had, by that time, become an “act”: his Benny Goodman medley, his Gershwin medley, his Fats Waller medley, his Count Basie medley — glistening but routine.  

I was a terribly earnest jazz-mad college student; one of my most precious records was the 1956 PRES AND TEDDY, reuniting Lester Young, Teddy, Gene Ramey, and Jo Jones.  After the concert was over, I stood by the piano, waiting patiently until some of the fans and hand-shakers had dispersed (perhaps some of them were telling how much they remembered Teddy’s work with the Benny Goodman Trio in 1935).  I shyly came up to Wilson, told him how much I admired his work and how much I loved this recording and would he sign it for me (all in one breath), and he gave me the faintest hint of a polite smile, said, “Thank you very much,” signed his name neatly and handed the record back to me.  And that was it.  

The photograph at the top of the page — with Teddy, Lester, and Jo — comes from that session, I believe. 

In retrospect, Teddy’s reticence makes a good deal of sense.  Playing music for shoppers can’t have been good for the psyche: Wilson logically would want to have collected his fee and gone home.  And he was perfectly polite: I just had the sense that talking to fans was alien, that I had unwittingly attempted to breach his privacy, the door had opened a crack and had closed quickly and decisively. 

I was reminded of this experience today in my small expedition to the New York State Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. 

As someone whose fact-chasing predates the internet — I like doing research in libraries.  I’ve spent a good deal of my life in the stacks, or in Special Collections, or in handling one-of-a-kind documents (while protective librarians usually come up behind me and hiss that I am NOT to put my elbow on the page). 

Which brngs us back to Teddy Wilson.  Years ago, I found a 10″ lp on the Jolly roger label in a second-hand store (price four dollars) of his solo performances of songs I had never heard before — among them WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE — which I bought, clutching my treasure until the moment I could put it on the phonograph.  The solos were new to me, and they were splendid, including a version of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS which had a sweet little descending figure in the bass after the first statement of the title phrase. 

Eventually I learned that these 1938-39 performances were part of a business enterprise called THE TEDDY WILSON SCHOOL FOR PIANISTS.  I don’t think Wilson was terribly ambitious, but he was looking for ways to capitalize on the fame and recognition his work with Goodman and Holiday had brought him in the second half of the Thirties.  And someone (was it Wilson?) suggested that he could set up a correspondence course for the young men and women who wanted to play in the Wilson manner.  Leo Feist and other music publishers had tried to capitalize on this by selling music books of Waller, Tatum, James P., and other pianists’ transcribed solos — how accurate the transcriptions were is always open to dispute.  Wilson’s “school” was different in one crucial aspect: at the end of his Brunswick sessions, he would record one or two solos, which would be pressed as 78 records with the SCHOOL label and sold through the mail, as well as transcriptions of what had been played.  Theoretically, the student could follow along — hearing the record and reading the score — to know exactly what Wilson was doing. 

In his oral history, TEDDY WILSON TALKS JAZZ, Wilson recalled this about the experience (an excerpt I found at www.doctorjazz.co.uk., a thrilling site for anyone interested in piano jazz and jazz arcana of the highest order):

I have done quite a bit of private teaching in my life, too, and the young people I’ve had as pupils have always been between sixteen and twenty years of age. At one time I had my own school in New York, “The Teddy Wilson School for Pianists,” from 1936 to 1939, with three excellent partners, and we turned out some very good students. J. Lawrence Cook was my chief assistant there and he was great on the theoretical side of the jazz piano and shaped the printed courses we had, containing sheet music of my improvisations on popular melodies. They proved very successful in teaching by mail. However, I had to give it up in the end because costs just kept soaring. Advertising and copyright payments were heavy items, especially as the latter were always for very popular songs. The other partners in my school were Eve Ross and Teddy Cassola. Their contribution rounded out the work done by the [sic] Cook and me. My having to be away traveling and performing so much of time led some to believe I only “fronted” the school. Not so. I was completely involved. [TW 110-111]

I have never seen an original SCHOOL 78, although a vinyl issue on one of Jerry Valburn’s collectors’ labels — probably Meritt — collected all the issued and alternate takes from this series, and I have it — a prize!  And later the SCHOOL recordings were issued chronologically on the Classics and Neatwork CDs.  (The Commodore Music Shop was involved in this project as well, so I think that the music was first “officially” reissued on the first Mosaic Commodore box set.

But ever since I’ve had a computer, I’ve been checking Google for the scores themselves.  I am a sub-amateur pianist, but I harbor the hope that if I had a Wilson score in front of me, something placid, not TIGER RAG, then perhaps I could spend a winter working my way through thirty-two bars.  (I have the “Teddy Wilson” music books from the Thirties and Forties, but don’t trust them.)

Nothing emerged in cyberspace until a year or so ago, when I found that the Performing Arts Library (in the Lincoln Center complex) had an entry for the scores.  It seems that an American composer-pianist-arranger named Brainerd Kremer left his papers to the library, and in one of the boxes he had a set of the Wilson School scores. 

I filed this information away in the back of my mind until today, when I found myself with several hours of free time twenty blocks north of Lincoln Center, and set out, a brave researcher in search of the jazz Grail. 

The quest required a series of small perseverances on my part, taking me from one floor of the library to the other.  I hadn’t had a New York Public Library card for nearly fifteen years, so I had to reapply for one (simple and pleasant), had to log onto their system and find my way (reasonably simple), had to explain myself to the reference librarian (easy and quite pleasant) and then take my slip of paper to the third-floor Special Collections print department, hand it in, and wait for my number — 24 — to be displayed on the indicator above.  They were both busy and understaffed, so the ten minutes I had been told it would take turned out to be more like thirty-five, but then 24 was visible and I approached the desk.  The pleasant young woman had nothing in her hands but a piece of paper, always a bad sign, and she politely told me that they could not find what I was asking for, but that I should give them my name, phone, and email, and they would call me in a week if they found it. 

I hope they do, even if I have to buy a pad of music staff paper and start copying (for nothing so simple as photocopying happens without labyrinthine restrictions in most Special Collections) but I’m not optimistic.  Do any of my readers have a copy of the Wilson scores they wouldn’t mind lending me?  Or any good suggestions?  I need to learn how to play I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS as Teddy did.  I know this.  And I would hate to think that the elusive Mr. Wilson had eluded me after death in the library, too.

KING JOE / KING LEAR

King OliverMy iPod isn’t always a subject for philosophical contemplation.  More often it’s merely a calming talisman in my battle against airplane claustrophobia and tedium.  But recent experiences have made me think about it as more thought-provoking than a twentieth-century version of the transistor radio and cassette player of my past. 

It began when I unintentionally erased not only the contents of my iPod but also my iTunes library.  How that happened is not a subject for this blog, but I erased eight thousand tracks.  (Or, to use “the male passive,” I could write “eight thousand tracks had been erased,” but no matter.)  Preparing to go off on vacation far from my CD collection, I began to stuff compact discs into my iTunes library.  This, as readers will know, is a nuisance, and at times I wished for a youthful niece or nephew to whom I could say, “Want a hundred dollars?  Put each of the CDs in that bookcase into iTunes for me, will you?”  The computer did its job well, but it required me to check on it every six or seven minutes.  I began with the tail end of my collection — that’s Lester Young, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Ben Webster, Lee Wiley, and so on, and worked my way back to the Allens, Harry and Henry Red, in the space of ten days. 

And a King — Joe Oliver, pictured top left.   

This combination of obsessiveness and diligence resulted in an iPod with more than fifteen thousand tracks on it — the Hot Fives and Sevens, the Basie Deccas, the Lester Verves, the Billie Vocalions, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Fats Waller from 1922 to 1935, Mel Powell on Vanguard, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins . . . all I could desire, more than a hundred full days of music.

But I kept silently asking myself, “What do you need all this music for, knowing that you couldn’t listen to it all in the space of the next twelve months?”

King LearAnother King kept insisting that I pay attention to him.  He didn’t play cornet; he would have been out of place at the Lincoln Gardens.  I had taught a course in Shakepearian tragedy this summer, and ended it with KING LEAR — adding a few scenes from the 1982 Granada television presentation with Sir Laurence Olivier.  

Early in the play, when Lear still thinks he has imperial powers (even though he has renounced the throne), he bargains with his daughters about whose house he shall stay at first, casually letting them know that he will arrive with a hundred knights.  Although Goneril and Regan are cruelly inhuman, I always feel for them at this point, as they ask their father, with some irritable reasonableness, why he, no longer King, needs a retinue.  Lear responds:    

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.

In the most commonsensical way, I take these lines to suggest that the difference between a reasonably privileged person and a Maltese terrier is that the person, when the impulse strikes, can go to the kitchen cabinet and have another cookie or pretzel.  Choice is at work here, unlike the dog who has to wait for the owner to fill his bowl.  “Need” is constricting; luxury is the freedom to transcend mere needs.  Or, in other terms, to have merely “enough” — the spiritual equivalent of eight hundred calories a day — is emotionally insufficient.

I knew that I didn’t “have to have” Ella Fitzgerald singing MY MELANCHOLY BABY (Teddy Wilson, Frank Newton, Benny Morton, 1936) in the same way I need food and drink.  I could capably replay most of that performance in my mind.  But not having it accessible provokes feelings of inadequacy, of being separated from my music.  To some, this will seem like an exercise in superfluity: I know there are people in other countries who don’t have clean water, let alone alternate takes of the Albert Ammons Commodores, and I feel for them, but the sensation of having more music than I can possibly listen to is luxuriant bliss.  It means that if, upon awaking, I really NEED to hear Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman play SWEET SUE . . . there it is.

Which leads me to the most brilliant feature of the iPod — not the ability to reproduce album cover artwork (!) but the ability to shuffle songs.  I plugged it in here and started it up . . . so that Dizzy Gillespie followed Mamie Smith who followed the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings who followed Hawkins . . . . a floating Blindfold Test, full of surprises and gratifications.  And no worrying about the hundred knights drinking up all the milk in the refrigerator. 

iPod

Olivier and Oliver, in perfect harmony.

WHAT’S NEW?

 

The Beloved and I have been on the road for more than a month now.  While we are in the car, the CD player is (as Pee Wee Erwin used to say) hotter than a depot stove, with respites for cassettes (the Braff-Hyman Concord duet version of MY FAIR LADY) or the CBC. But most often we are listening to one of the two hundred-plus compact discs I brought along. (If ever someone was a candidate for an iPod, I nominate myself.)

Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins arrangements, 1937 Basie airshots, Dick Sudhalter, Jack Purvis, Lester Young, Seger Ellis, 1940 Ellington, Ben Webster, Spirituals to Swing, early Crosby, late Jimmy Rowles, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, and so on.

This musical buffet has led me to think, admittedly not for the first time, about artistic originality, creativity, and “influence.” Especially in jazz, listeners and critics privilege a musician’s having an individualistic, recognizable sound, something that musicians worked towards with some earnestness.  And it went beyond sound: musicians were proud of their origins but even more proud of telling their own stories.     

But taken to an extreme, this pride in individuality might have its limitations. It leads us to make the appearance of originality the greatest virtue, so that a cliche of jazz prose or oral history is, “When K came on the scene, we were amazed, because he didn’t sound like P, the main man at the time.”

So, when I listen to Jones-Smith, Inc. romping through “Lady Be Good” or “Shoe Shine Boy,” I think of the impact those sides must have had on 1937 listeners who knew nothing of Lester, Tatti Smith, Basie, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. The quintet we hear still seems daringly “original.” Certainly Lester sounds so unlike Hawkins and his disciples, unlike other musicians,even now. His rhythm, his tone, his flight. And it is certainly valid to praise the Basie rhythm trio for the same driving singularity.  I do not mean to slight Carl “Tatti” Smith in all this, but his percussive attack was not uncommon among trumpeters of that era.     

So it is a commonplace to cherish these sides for their singularity, that they sounded so unlike the records made in late 1936.  But what shall we then say of the Fats Waller turns of phrase and whole phrases so evident in Basie’s playing? (Earl Hines and James P. Johnson are in there, too.)  What of the influence of older bassists Steve Brown, Wellman Braud, and Pops Foster, on Page’s work here? Jo Jones’s drumming was certainly a revelation, but one can hear Sidney Catlett in his accents and Walter Johnson in his hi-hat work.  Perhaps some of Gene Krupa and George Stafford as well. 

And when one listens closely to the riffs that the Basie band threw around with such headlong delight on, say, “One O’Clock Jump,” one hears familiar late-Twenties / early-Thirties jazz figures: one of them in particular, is the phrase Louis sings to the words “Oh, memory” on that take of “Star Dust.”

Of course we might fold our hands and say meditatively, “Oh, everyone comes from somewhere,” which is undeniable.  But this makes me think of the way the conceive of jazz improvisation, the ways in which jazz finds us, and the technology that enwraps it. If you were to take someone who knows little about jazz to a club or concert performance, the novice usually says, with a hint of astonishment, “How do they know what they are playing? How do they know where to come in?” And the more experienced listener can say, “There is a common language in this music as in othercommunal arts. If one of the players says, ‘Let’s do “Undecided” in two flats,” the other players are familiar with that melody, its harmony, rhythmic patterns, the conventions that go with it.  All this is learned through intent listening, bandstand-practice, and intuitive empathy.”  So what looks “made up on the spot” both is and isn’t. And only the musicians, perhaps, know whether the trombonist is playing the solo she always plays or if she is stepping bravely out into space.  Whether she herself knows, at the time or after, is beyond our knowing and perhaps hers.   

Playing a musical instrument competently is difficult.  Inventing something that even approaches “originality” while playing an instrument, among other musicians, the notes moving by inexorably, is even more daunting.  So, as a result, many musicians have a set of learned patterns they can call upon while speeding through familiar repertory: their “crib,” some call it.  Thus, if you hear Waltie King speed through “It’s You Or No One,” one night, Waltie may dazzle with a wondrous display of technique allied to feeling.  “What a solo!” you say.  If you follow Waltie to his other gigs and hear him play that same song twenty times, would you be disillusioned if his solo on Thursday bore close resemblance to his brilliant exploits of Monday?  How many listeners truly know when a musician is inspired one night, playing it safe the next?  And, frankly, does it make a difference if the solo — ingenious or worked-out — charms our ears? 

This brings us to Lester Young, who said that a musician had to be original, and that he did not want to listen to his old records for fear of being influenced by them and becoming a “repeater pencil.”  His fellow musicians testify that he was astonishingly inventive, that he could play dozens of choruses at a jam session and never repeat himself. But even given that piece of mythology, can we be sure that his improvisations on the Vocalion “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” were not, in some way, workings-out of ideas he had already played in other contexts?  Were those solos as original to him as they continue to appear to us?

We cannot know, since we have no recordings of Lester before this one (Jo Jones spoke of a “little silver record” (you’d have to imagine his odd verbal style here) he had once owned of Lester, circa 1934, but told Stu Zimny and myself that it had disappeared long ago).  And even if we had acetates stacked to the ceiling, the question might be both unanswerable and moot. 

And records themselves complicate the issue.  Before there were strings of alternate takes and session tapes, records were singular artifacts: three minutes capturing one unrepeatable occasion.  Think of the Armstrong-Hines “Weather Bird” or the Webster-Blanton “Star Dust” duet from Fargo 1940. Unique.  Irreplaceable.  But the same worrying questions apply to the music captured by microphones.  And the dazzling singularity of a recorded performance, by people who are now dead, puts a weight on the shoulders of living players whom we hope will create fresh solos each time they lift their horns.  I think that this also accounts for some of the pressure musicians feel when they must step into the recording studio, that their improvisations will attain a certain permanence, a permanence they might never intend. 

And jazz critics condescend to musicians who create solos and, with only minor variations, repeat them for years. I have quietly groaned when faced with yet another late Jack Teagarden performance of “Basin Street Blues,” but perhaps, in retrospect, I should not have done so.  It could not have been easy for him or anyone to a) find something new to say about that particular piece of music, and b) to play and sing so beautifully, even if every nuance had been worked out.  I was a trifle disappointed whenever Vic Dickenson, whom I saw often in his last years, would embark upon “In A Sentimental Mood,” because every note, sigh, and slur in it had been perfected through repetition. But, and some may find this sentimental, I would love to have him here to play it again. And it was an exquisite piece of music.

Such ruminations might seem to have no particular beginning and certainly no end.  Perhaps the only conclusion we might draw is the oldest one, that all kinds of human creativity are miraculous.  We should cherish those pieces of music that are both intelligent and impassioned, whether they seem “original” or derivative.  And road travelers might find a great deal of pleasure, as I do, listening to what Jack Purvis plays behind Seger Ellis on the unissued “Sleepy Time Gal” — but more about that in a future posting.