Tag Archives: The Five Pennies

“WHEN LOUIS MET BIX”: ANDY SCHUMM, ENRICO TOMASSO, MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, ALISTAIR ALLAN, SPATS LANGHAM, MORTEN GUNNAR LARSEN, MALCOLM SKED, NICK BALL (LAKE RECORDS)

A wise philosopher — Gladys Bentley or Blanche Calloway — once said, “There are a thousand ways to do something wrong, but only four or five ways to do it right.”  One of the most eagerly-awaited CDs of recent memory, WHEN LOUIS MET BIX,  on Lake Records, is a shining example of beautiful imaginations at work.

WHEN LOUIS MET BIX two

The assertive cover photograph is slightly misleading, suggesting that we might be getting ready for one of those Battle of the Valves scenes so beloved of film directors.  I offer as evidence one of the most musical (having seen this scene from THE FIVE PENNIES when I was perhaps eleven, it made a deep impression):

Beautiful as it is, that scene is all about mastery and power: the unknown challenger coming out of the shadows (the club dramatically silenced) to claim territory for himself, and being accepted by the gracious King, who makes space for him on the regal bandstand.  It might be satisfying but we know it’s not the way things happen.

And this myth isn’t the story of WHEN LOUIS MET BIX, either historically or in this evocative CD.  Consider this fraternal conversation, instead:

Immediately, the ear understands that this CD succeeds at being more than a recreation of a 1927 or 1928 after-hours jam session or cutting contest.  The music on this disc, even when it is searing hot, is carried along by a fundamental gentleness of spirit, an aura of brotherly love and deep admiration.  No skirmishes, no high notes except as they would logically occur.

As I mentioned at the start, there would have been many ways to make this noble idea turn into a leaden result.  One would have been to hew strictly to factoids: to use only songs that we knew Bix and Louis played or recorded, and perhaps narrow the repertoire to a choking narrowness by sticking to compositions both of them had done.  (By this time, certain well-played songs are reassuring to the audience but must feel like too-tight clothing to the musicians, restricting free movement.)  Another would have been to envision the music as competitive: the Bix of BARNACLE BILL pitted against the Louis of POTATO HEAD BLUES.  Nay, nay, to quote the Sage of Corona.

Instead, the repertoire is spacious — Louis and Bix loved melodies — and it offers Broadway show music by Rodgers and Blake next to pop classics of the time, alongside “jazz standards” and obscurities by Morton, Chris Smith, Fats Waller — and one evocative original by Andy Schumm.  And rather than simply say to the noble players in the studio, “All right.  MILENBERG JOYS, and find your own way home,” or “Meet you at the end,” the performances on this disc are delicately yet effectively shaped so that each seems a complete musical expression.  There are small arrangements on each track, and rather than that being an impiety (affront to the Goddess of Hot, who supposedly loathes anything worked out — although we know better) these little sketches make the performances even more satisfying.  Split choruses, four-bar trades, modulations, duet interludes, balanced conversations where X plays the melody and Y improvises around it, stop-time choruses . . . the wonders that musicians had and have accessible to them instead of the possible monotony of ensemble-solo-ensemble.

On that score, one of the reasons it has taken me longer than usual to review this worthy disc is that I kept falling in love with one track so that I wanted to play it all the way to work and all the way home.  By definition, CDs are economy-sized packages of music, and I think I would have been happier (although weighed down) if this Lake Records CD could have been sold as eight 12″ 78 discs in a heavy cardboard binder, to be listened to deeply one at a time, on and on.  But longing for the past, although understandable, has its limits.  And the imagined 78s would have warped in my car.

For the record, and what a record! –the songs are OL’ MAN RIVER / MILENBERG JOYS / CHLOE / MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND / WHO’S IT / PUT ‘EM DOWN BLUES / WHISPERING / MANHATTAN / SKID-DAT-DE-DAT / BESSIE COULDN’T HELP IT (the one Louis-Bix recording overlap) / COME ON AND STOMP, STOMP, STOMP / MY MELANCHOLY BABY / WHEN SHE CAME TO ME/ I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY / THE BALTIMORE.

And the players.  Rico (Louis) and Andy (Bix) are joined by absolutely stellar folk.  And since neither Bix nor Louis tried to take up all the space on a recording, democracy prevails; thus we hear beautiful work from Alistair Allan, trombone; Matthias Seuffert, reeds; Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Spats Langham, banjo and guitar; Malcolm Sked, string bass; Nicholas D. Ball, drums.

More evidence:

Through this CD, we are able to travel to an alternate universe, where glorious improvised music evokes and summons up the Great Departed.  And unlike actually attending the after-hour jam session at the Sunset Cafe or the Savoy Ballroom and thinking, “Where is all this beauty going?” we can have this dramatic evocation to visit over and over again (without our clothes smelling of smoke, spilled whiskey, or beer).

Incidentally, may I urge you to do the most venerable thing and purchase the actual physical disc (from Amazon US or UK or elsewhere).  Not only does the glorious sound Paul Adams got through his vintage microphones deserve to be reproduced in the highest fidelity (as opposed to mp3s played through earbuds on a noisy train in the common fashion) but you’ll miss out on wonderfully detailed but light-hearted liner notes by scholar-producer Julio Schwarz Andrade and many wonderful photographs that convey the joy that reigned at this session.

My hope is that Lake Records will continue this series of mystical voyages that make an imagined past into tangible present reality.  I’m sure that Julio, Paul, and the fellows have even more thrilling ideas for us in future.  And I hope that there is an on-the-spot Louis / Bix meeting at the 2016 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party so that we can marvel again.

Thanks to all the participants for making a visit to the alternate universe possible and so joyous. . . . a world where lyricism, abandon, passion, and expertise shape the music.

May your happiness increase!

A FEW GLOWING SECONDS OF GLORY

When I returned to my apartment in New York, I thought, “I need music in here. Music will help remind me who I am, what I am supposed to be doing, where my path might lead.”  Initially I reached for some favorite performances for consolation, then moved over to the crates of homemade audiocassettes — evidence of more than twenty-five years of tape-trading with like-minded souls.

One tape had the notation PRIVATE CHICAGO, and looking at it, I knew that it was the gift of Leonora Taylor, who preferred to be called “Gypsy,” and who had an unusual collection of music.  When I asked drummer / scholar Hal Smith about her, he reminded me that she loved the UK clarinetist Archie Semple. Although I don’t recall having much if any Archie to offer her, we traded twenty or thirty cassettes.

PRIVATE CHICAGO had some delightful material recorded (presumably) at the Evanston, Illinois house of Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft — amateur pianist, sometime composer, friend / benefactor to jazz musicians. Squirrel was both a dear friend of Pee Wee Russell, Joe Rushton, Eddie Condon, Boyce Brown, Johnny Mercer, George Barnes, Lee Wiley, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and many others — one facet of a very intriguing life.  He deserves a biography.

But back to the music.

I played through the side of the cassette, rewound it, and played it again.  And I kept returning to a short improvisation: BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, played by Johnny Windhurst (cornet or trumpet) and Jack Gardner (piano) with possibly other players in the background — I hear a murmuring clarinet offering harmony notes — recorded, Gypsy’s typed notes say, circa 1950.

Neither Windhurst nor Gardner is as well known as they should be. Windhurst (1926-1981) was recognized young as a brilliant player, and got to play with the best — Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster in Boston when he wasn’t voting age, then Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Kenny Kersey, John Field, Jimmy Crawford a few years later, moving on to be one of Eddie Condon’s regulars, briefly recording with Jack Teagarden and on his own date with Buell Neidlinger, on a Walt Gifford session, with Barbara Lea (he was both colleague and boyfriend) then moving upstate to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he died too young (once being mugged and beaten) of a heart attack.

I saw him in person once, at Your Father’s Mustache in New York in 1972 — with Herb Hall and Herb Gardner (the latter someone who is very much with us) and Red Balaban.  Windhurst was capable of the most beautiful melodic flights of fancy — a cross between heavenly music of the highest order and Bobby Hackett — but he couldn’t read music, disdained the idea of doing so, and thus turned down higher-paying and possibly higher-visibility gigs from bandleaders.  I read somewhere that Woody Herman wanted to hire him, offered him good pay, promised to teach him to read, but Windhurst — a free spirit — would have none of it.

There is one video extant of Windhurst — I wrote about it, and him, in 2009 (and received wonderful comments from people who had played alongside him) here.

I did not know much about pianist Gardner, except that what I’ve heard suggests a delicate barrelhouse approach, and I seem to recall he was a large man called by some “Jumbo Jack.” But an exquisite biographical sketch of Jack by the diligent writer and researcher Derek Coller can be found here.  (Our Jack Gardner is not the man who led an orchestra in Dallas in 1924-5.)  Jack first recorded with Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland, then got more visibility with Harry James (you can hear him on SLEEPY TIME GAL and he is also on Sinatra’s first recording with James) 1939-40, then he crops up with Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Bud Freeman, and after being captured on sessions at Squirrel’s from 1950-52, we hear no more from him.

I know THE BATTLE  HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC as a very assertive religious song in which the enemies of the Lord receive divine punishment:  “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and so on, even though later verses of the song — known to how many? — suggest that there is a balm of kindness.

More importantly than the theological, I and others know it as a hot number — think of “Red Nichols” as played by Danny Kaye and “Louis Armstrong” as played by himself in THE FIVE PENNIES, sending the sermon. Everyone from Art Hodes to George Lewis to Gerry Mulligan has recorded it, but I suggest that no version you will ever hear matches the sweet delicacy of this brief celestial interlude by Windhurst and Gardner.

Windhurst doesn’t venture far from the melody — the recording catches less than a whole chorus, and aside from a bluesy transformation near the end, it is melodic embellishment rather than harmonic improvisation.  But he treats the melodic line with lightness, fervor, and love; every note is caressed; his tone is so beautiful as to make “golden” into an affront.  Gardner plays a simplified version of barrelhouse support but never gets in Windhurst’s way. The whole duet is tender, yearning — the music of the spheres in under a minute.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

May your happiness increase!

MORE FROM THE NATIONAL ATTICS: BG, GENE, LEE, LOUIS, EDDIE and FRIENDS

Artifacts and relics and remembrances!

BG autographs 1935

A very prescient autograph collector captured Benny, Gene, Helen, and Frank Froeba (at the “piana”) in mid-1935.

Lee Wiley 1933 frontFor a newspaper story, Miss Lee Wiley in 1933, billed as “Indian radio singer.”

Lee Wiley 1933 back

The other side of the news story: “Just as I finally learned how to knit.”THE FIVE PENNIES Israel poster

An Israeli film poster!

CONDON'S postcardFrom Facebook, thanks to Stephen Hester: someone made a pilgrimage!  Cutty Cutshall, Freddie Ohms, Walter Page, Wild Bill Davison, Edmond Hall, and the Master himself.  “Good luck” for sure.  And “Best regards.”

May your happiness increase!

MAKING MELODY COME ALIVE: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO and DAN BARRETT at the Sacramento Music Festival (May 2012)

I find these performances from the 2012 Sacramento Music Festival very moving — a solo and duet from players who know the truth of Bobby Hackett’s assertion, “Melody is a must.”

The Maestro, Rossano Sportiello, brings Western classical music and hot jazz together in a matter of minutes, making his extraordinary light shine through the notes.  His solo feature begins with a reading of Lizst’s Consolation # 3 — unusual material for a jazz festival, but it produced an attentive hush in the audience . . . then Rossano segued into a swinging stride exploration of the 1931 pop tune, LITTLE GIRL.  I don’t think the two compositions are linked by their possible alphabetical proximity — or, as Sylvia Fine wrote and Louis sang, “Put Lizst on that list!” — they are just both awe-inspiring music with different shadings and approaches to beauty:

Then Rossano invited the splendid Dan Barrett on stage for a searching, tender performance of Billy Strayhorn’s CHELSEA BRIDGE.  (Dan begins by thanking Rebecca Kilgore for this interlude — Miss Kilgore knows all their is to know about making melody come alive, as you will see if you don’t already know):

Here is missionary work for my readers: why not forward this post to all the people you know who say, “Well, I really like music.  But I don’t like / don’t understand / don’t get what you hear in jazz.”  Perhaps Maestri Sportiello and Barrett could do some subtle enlightening and make more people open themselves to this music — spreading the good word without seeming to preach.

May your happiness increase.

LOOKING FOR LOUIS, THEN AND NOW

But which one?  The sound on the records, the iconic image on the television screen, or the actual person?

In the spring of 1967, I was fourteen — someone who had been secretly listening to Louis Armstrong records for a few years.  And I was fortunate enough to be alive when Louis was popular — HELLO, DOLLY! was still vivid in his repertoire and in people’s memories so that he appeared on the Hollywood Palace, with Danny Kaye, alongside Herb Alpert and the Tiajuana Brass, on Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson.

I don’t recall how I learned that Louis and the All-Stars would be playing a concert at the Island Gardens in Hempstead, New York, only a few miles from where we lived.  But the Gardens were terribly far off for me: I had been to New York City but never on my own, and Hempstead had a bad reputation at night.

I begged my father to let me go to the concert, promising that I would not inconvenience anyone but would take a bus there and back.  I think I was a particularly awkward child, myopic and naive, and I am sure that my father shuddered at the thought of me making my way in the bus station.  Both he and my mother enjoyed a wide range of music, although not jazz, and they tolerated the loud rhythmic sounds that came through the floor of my upstairs bedroom.  At least if I was upstairs playing Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland, they knew where I was.  Other children were far more rebellious.

As a result of whatever behind-the-scenes negotiations I can’t imagine now, my father told me that he would take me to the concert, attend it, and take me home.  I was delighted — and the memory of his generous impulse pleases me now.  I wonder only why my mother didn’t want to join us.  Perhaps it was frugality; perhaps there was something she wanted to watch on television that night; she might have welcomed a night to herself.

I was bad at waiting, but as the days ticked down to the concert, it ballooned in my thoughts.  Although I had a pocket Instamatic camera (capable of poor pictures under most circumstances) I never thought of bringing it along. Perhaps I feared that my father would suggest to Louis that he pose with me (or the reverse) and I didn’t take much pleasure at seeing myself in pictures then.  I hadn’t yet been introduced to the cassette recorder, so that was a number of years in the future.  But I could and did spend a good deal of time obsessing over getting Mr. Armstrong’s autograph.

The problem was — in what format?  I had a few of his records, but found reasons to undermine the idea.  The soundtrack of THE FIVE PENNIES somehow didn’t seem appropriate, nor did SATCHMO’S GOLDEN FAVORITES or HELLO, DOLLY!  I could have brought along my precious 10″ LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND GORDON JENKINS, or TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, or even my more recent acquisition, LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS HOT FIVE, a Columbia record produced by George Avakian.  I may have had a half-dozen more, but the idea got more and more complicated.  I didn’t know how deeply Louis loved his own recordings, and I might have thought, “What if he says, ‘I don’t like this record,’ and that ruins the whole encounter?”

I had spent countless hours next to the phonograph’s speaker drinking in the 1927 STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE and its triumphant outchorus, the sweet ruckus of the 1947 AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, the glorious melding of Louis and Gordon Jenkins.  But one by one I dismissed them all.  What would I do with an autographed record album?  How would I display it?  Would it evoke the proper response in Mr. Armstrong, in the one chance I had to approach him?

I’ve read of studies in how much choice people are comfortable with, the extreme end being placing a child at a breakfast table with ten or twelve boxes of cereal . . . and the result is a child in tears.  I didn’t begin to cry at any point in my autograph-considerations, but ultimately I swept all the possibilities away and thought of the simplest situation: a plain unadorned piece of paper for Mr. Armstrong to sign.  True, the 3 x 5 index card I chose lacked character, but it could cause no offense.

I don’t remember going to the concert, although I would guess now that I gave my indulgent father a journey-long informal talk on why Louis Armstrong was important.  And I don’t remember him asking me to be quiet: he understood hero-worship even if he would have chosen a different object for it.

The Island Gardens, which may no longer exist, was a large hall with a semi-circular roof — rather like an elongated Quonset hut — and many rows of pale-grey metal folding chairs.  I am sure we were there early, seated in the front row, and my father bought me the official concert program.  (I may still have it.  As a jazz irrelevancy, I remember that it listed Buster Bailey as the clarinetist, although he had died not long before.)

Then, with no fanfare, no massed bands at the airport, Louis and his musicians entered through a doorway to the right.  I don’t remember what anyone was wearing, but they came in casually, with no one seeming to notice.  They were chatting to themselves.  Probably the bus was parked right outside the door, or had Louis been driven from Corona, perhaps a half-hour away?  I am sure I said in a near-hysterical whisper to my father, “There he is!” and my father would have said, “All right, then, go up and get his autograph.”

Timidly, I got out of my seat, clutching my program and my blank index card.  I remember approaching Louis, with Tyree Glenn standing nearby.  I would not have made any particular impression on any of the musicians: I didn’t have a trumpet case; I wasn’t an attractive young woman.  But this was going to be one of the great moments of my life up to that point: I was going to stand on the same ground as my hero and speak with him, and he would see me.

And (in retrospect) I wanted him to recognize the intensity of my devotion: “Mr. Armstrong, I might say, while everyone around me has been listening to the Beatles and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, I have been in love with your music.  I know every note on this record, and this one, and this one.  I have tape-recorded all your television appearances . . . I ask for your records for birthday presents!”

But when I got close to my hero, the unspoken telepathic communication didn’t happen.  And I was not able to put my impassioned inner monologue into words.  So I simply approached — noticing that he was smaller than I would have expected, having seen him only on record covers and television — and waited.

I hope I waited until he saw me, but I may have put my blank card in front of him and said, nervously, “Mr. Armstrong, would you sign this?”  He barely registered that I was there.  He signed his name and handed the card back, then continued the conversation I probably had interrupted.  For forty years before, he had been signing his name on pieces of paper: what was an extraordinary experience for a little boy hovering in front of the great man was something the great man did every day of his life.

At fourteen I was anything but audacious, so I didn’t even think of saying, “Hey, Mr. Armstrong, what about me?  I love your music!”

All I could do was to turn to Tyree Glenn and ask him for his autograph, which he neatly signed in the space Louis had left.

Disappointed, I went back to my seat and showed my father, who asked me, “Did he say anything to you?”  “No, ” I said — not whimpering, but probably close to it.  I didn’t embellish on that, as I recall, but I might have been thinking, “Here’s the man who seems to be continually having a good time, his features animated by a wonderful grin.  He didn’t look at me.  He didn’t look happy.  Did I do the wrong thing?”

I don’t remember much about the All-Stars show that followed.  Louis, I am sure, gave his all.  He got the audience clapping along on HELLO, DOLLY!  Tyree and he clowned around; Marty Napoleon rippled up and down the keyboard; Buddy Catlett and Danny Barcelona did their features; Jewel Brown (the performer who most intrigued my patient father) sang.  I don’t remember the clarinetist at all, although Ricky Riccardi, my guide in such things, tells me it was probably Johnny Mince.  And Louis?  What I remember most is watching him sit, at the rear of the bandstand, sipping from a paper cup of water, while his All-Stars played.  He seemed drained.  I remember noticing this, but I was wrapped up in my own disappointment.  My ears and eyes may have been so full of the iconic Louis that I was unable to take in the human man in front of me.

I thanked my father when it was all over and we went home.  I had my program and my card (the latter of which I still have — an emotionally-charged piece of paper) and I never got to see Louis again.

The closest I came was being in New York City in early 1971 and seeing posters (two stapled together) around lampposts advertising his appearance at the Waldorf-Astoria, a place that was even more beyond my reach than the Island Gardens had been.  Then he died.

I went on collecting his records, making myself even more of a worshipful Louis-acolyte, and musically he has rarely let me down: in fact, as I have grown older, I have come to hear more in his playing and singing, which both can bring me to tears.

But I have also harbored a small kernel of disappointment, even resentment — both of which are of course unreasonable, but hurt feelings are often not grounded in fact.  How could I have expected Louis to see me, a nearly speechless child, and recognize, “This boy loves my music!  This kid has been listening to my records for years!  He loves me!” if I was unable to say so?

And Louis may simply have been exhausted.  Ricky tells me that Louis’s health was none too good in early 1967, so perhaps he was gathering his strength for a night of exertion.

It has taken me a long time, as much as I revere Louis’s music, to forgive the man for looking right through me.  But it is the adult’s responsibility to do so.

Certainly we expect far more than we should of artists: not only do we demand that they perform up to and beyond our expectations, night after night, but we also crowd around the stage door, asking to be seen, to be acknowledged, when all they may want is to unwind in peace.

Because of the larger-than-life persona Louis created through his music, I expected him to be more than human — to transcend his mortal self.  And when he proved to be — to my eyes — ordinary, life-sized, I was disappointed.  And I remained so, in a small corner of my self, for years.  There is that child-self that is prone to such disillusionments, whether they come from our heroes or our families.  With luck, we never quite leave it behind but it comes to govern us less.

I can imagine an alternate universe where I have stature, where I have brought my Hot Five recording, where the sight of it makes Louis beam — not only recalling the music, but beaming upon the child who has brought him such tribute, obviously a child who understands . . .  But such incidents perfected after the fact are mere indulgences, and I must acknowledge that Louis is dead, 1967 is a long way gone, and I can only have what actually happened, not what should have.

But ultimately Louis was there that night in 1967.  And he remains with us.

BLISS IN THE NIGHT (APRIL 18, 2010)

You know how “the jam session” is handled in films of a certain vintage.  Magically, the cameras take us to a clearly fictive basement club where Art Tatum is playing.  He plays for a few bars, then the door opens and a whole troop of musicians who apparently have unpacked their horns outside on the sidewalk burst in, exchange a few words of greeting, and a whirlwind jam session begins, only to end in two or three minutes.  (The 1947 THE FABULOUS DORSEYS.)

Or there’s the cutting contest between trumpet players, perhaps the Young Cub and the Old Lion, aiming their horns at each other, playing higher and louder.  (The scene here is between Louis and “Red Nichols,” played by Danny Kaye in 1959 THE FIVE PENNIES, is a most benign example, and Louis gets to make some good, albeit scripted jokes.)

But real jam sessions, especially the magical ones that happen during the second set at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street in New York City) have little to do with either fantasy.  For one thing, they are a collection of friends.  In the videos below the two trumpeters (or, to be precise, the trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and the cornetist Marc Caparone) or the two guitarists (Matt Munisteri on electric and Julian Lage on acoustic) and the reed players (Dan Block on clarinet, Andy Farber on tenor saxophone, Nick Hempton on alto) have no aggression in their souls.  No one seeks to play higher, faster, louder.  And those single men — Harvey Tibbs on trombone and Jon Burr on bass — don’t pick fights with anyone.  It’s all congenial. 

Imagined dialogue, overheard in part: “What would you like to play?”  “RITE OF SPRING?”  “Sure.  How many flats?  Your tempo . . . ”  And off they go.  There’s no JATP crowd-pleasing (or crowd-baiting); the music just grows.  The musicians smile at each other.  They listen closely, even if the crowd sometimes doesn’t. 

The second set of Sunday, April 18, 2010, began with a swinging version of AVALON that harked back to the Benny Goodman Quartet — in arrangement only, since the Ear Regulars had cleverly decided that they didn’t need a vibraphone, piano, or drum kit.  But hear how nimbly they negotiate the closing chorus — “they” being Jon-Erik, Harvey, Matt, Jon, and guest Julian Lage, playing somewhere over my left shoulder:

Then Jon-Erik called up the Pride of Paso Robles, California — someone I would give every honor I could — the noble cornetist Marc Caparone, here on a week’s visit to New York City.  Marc should be better known here: he is a plain-spoken but subtle player who favors such delightful left-handers as Henry “Red” Allen and Jim Goodwin.  In his approach, ferocity and delicacy are pals.  Here, he makes the quintet of AVALON a sextet for a lively ONE HOUR, a performance that would have pleased the very finicky Ruby Braff.  His wife, the wonderful singer Dawn Lambeth, watched Marc happily (I was grinning widely from behind my video camera, I assure you):

Each selection seemed to add a new player: next up was the gifted Dan Block, who joined in for a strolling WHISPERING, while Jon-Erik caught his breath:

Tenorist Andy Farber joined in (his back is to the camera, but I didn’t take it personally) for PERDIDO, a song with a historically-established countermelody.  Tizol’s line lends itself to long performances, and this one needed two sections to be visible on YouTube.  What passes for a bandstand at The Ear Inn (flat on the floor, really a space cleared among the diners) was too small for the musicians, so Jon-Erik was now playing somewhat over my right shoulder, with Marc employing a thoroughly Ellingtonian plunger mute. 

Some viewers will be disturbed by the intrusive white piece of paper at the lower right: it is the banner reading TIPS that lets people know what the jar was for.  I preferred to keep on filming rather than miss a note by indulging in feng shui): 

And the conclusion:

To finish, something melodic, a long romp on THREE LITTLE WORDS.  The common language is so well established here that all Jon-Erik had to do was to say to the horns, “A little Lester,” and everyone fell into the riff taken from the 1943 Kansas City Six date for Commodore — you can’t miss it.  And, in true Hollywood fashion, the Australian Nick Hempton appeared, apparently from nowhere, to offer his singular evocation of right-this-minute mixed with 1940 Charlie Parker:

The concluding moments:

I know that the “three little words” of the title are “I love you” — but certainly “The Ear Inn” is a close second.  If you know of another place where such marvels happen on a weekly basis, do write in!

WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE

Please note that my title isn’t “If . . . . ”

The ideal jazz club experience, if you were to take fabled movies as a guide, is an exuberantly chaotic spectacle.  One trumpet player vanquishes another by playing higher and louder; two drummers pound away in grinning synchronicity; musicians magically get together in thunderous ensembles.  Everyone knows what the song is and what key they are playing in; musical routines miraculously coalesce without rehearsal.  Inevitably the audience is on its feet, cheering.  Long live the new king of jazz!  Everybody join in!  (Consider, if you will, “Second Chorus,” “The Glenn Miller Story,” or “The Five Pennies,” and other deliciously unreal episodes.)

I doubt that many of these fanciful scenes ever happened away from the soundstage.  Even if they did, hey aren’t my idea of pleasure.  Everything is too loud, and the movies assume that everyone in the crowd is hip, attentive, listeners unified into an appreciative community.  I wonder if this audience ever existed, although in Charles Peterson’s glorious photographs of 52nd Street jam sessions, no one is texting or even reading a newspaper.

For me, the ideal scenario is quieter: a small audience, paying attention, in a quiet club — quiet enough so that I can hear the music.  And the improvising shouldn’t be self-consciously exhibitionistic, one player trying to outdo another.  My dream, rarely realized, needs an intuitive connection between players and audience.  It happened often in the sessions Michael Burgevin led at Brew’s, featuring Joe Thomas, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Jimmy Andrews, Kenny Davern, Dill Jones, Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Marshall Brown, Wayne Wright, and others.

Last night (Sunday, December 7) was frigid and the winds were unkind — perfect weather fo staying indoors.  But I made my way to the Ear Inn to hear the EarRegulars.  Because Jon-Erik and Jackie Kellso are off somewhere around the Mexican Riviera, the Regulars were led by the brilliantly soulful guitarist Matt Munisteri.  He arrived first, his hands cold, looking harried but greeting me pleasantly.

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Next in the door was the fine, surprising tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, whose playing I had appreciated greatly on the only other occasion I had heard him — also at the Ear.  Bassist Lee Hudson and trombonist Harvey Tibbs completed this quartet. Matt, Harvey, and Lee have all played together at the Ear and I would imagine other places, so they know and respect each other.

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Michael, about whom I wrote some weeks ago, fit in immediately.  By his playing, I would guess that he isn’t one of those deeply archival types who thinks, when someone mentions a song title, “Oh, yes, Billie recorded that with Bunny and Artie in 1936.  In two takes.”  But when either Matt or Harvey called Walter Donaldson’s IT’S BEEN SO LONG as their first tune, I could hear Michael listening intently for the first few measures, perhaps to remind himself.  Then he, like Lester, leaped in.  His jazz radar is exquisite.  Someone said of Milt Gabler, the Saint of Commodore Records, that he “had ears like an elephant.”  Michael deserves the same accolade: he is a peerless ensemble player, finding countermelodies, call-and-response, and harmony parts while everything was moving along at a brisk tempo.

cork-1108-ear-inn120708006Harvey Tibbs, resplendent as always in white shirt, was in execptional form as well: several songs began with trombone-guitar duets, beautiful vignettes.  Like Michael, Harvey can fit himself into any ensemble, galloping or loitering.  He has a wonderful musical intelligence, which he displayed on James P. Johnson’s OLD FASHIONED LOVE, which had a truly churchy ambiance to start — helped immeasurably by Matt’s delicate single-note lines, music for a troubadour under his Beloved’s balcony.  Lee Hudson kept lively, limber time, saving himself for an intense solo on WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS in the second set.

A lively JUST YOU, JUST ME followed James P.’s paean to the more seemly days of yore; here, Blake exploded into his solo, sounding at times like a supercharged Lester Young with modern sensibilities.  Michael’s tone is often consciously dry instead of pretty, and he approaches his lines in a sideways fashion (his phrases begin and end in surprising places).  A phrase might have an audacious shape — a Slinky tumbling down an irregular staircase — but each one landed without mishap.  I could hear the whole history of jazz tenor in his work — not only Lester, but Lucky Thompson and Al Cohn, Sonny Rollins as well.  He and Harvey took off on a song I didn’t expect — JAZZ ME BLUES — their version harking back not to Bix but to Glenn Hardman or to some imagined jam session in the afterlife, with Bird sitting amidst the Dixielanders at Copley Square.  Although Tom Delaney’s Twenties classic is full of breaks, Blake bobbed and weaved in the ensembles.  A moody WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? followed — suggesting that the four players were really considering that question on the tiny square of floor they claim as the Ear’s bandstand.  Finally, in deference to inescapable holiday music, someone called for a Bird-and-Diz version of WHITE CHRISTMAS, and it joyously closed the set.

A long pause for the quartet’s dinner ensued, but a noble visitor, his tenor saxophone at his side, joined them: none other than Dan Block.  The two players had a good time, playing their solos while standing at the bar, one listening deeply to the other, or forming a loose circle.

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Harvey, perhaps, called for the Basie classic 9:20 SPECIAL to begin the second set, then they all became optimistic (the only way to face the economic news) with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, then, in honor of the gales outside, a trotting GONE WITH THE WIND.  They ended with a jubilant IF DREAMS COME TRUE, where Blake got so caught up in the vehemence of his double-time phrases that he was almost kneeling on the floor as he soloed.

It was an extraordinary night of music.  Perhaps it would have seemed insufficiently dramatic for the movies, but my jazz dreams came true for a few hours.

P.S.  The delghtful jazz singer Barbara Rosene was also in the audience.  Her new Stomp Off CD, “It Was Only A Sun Shower,” is perhaps her finest recording to date.  A new one is in the works, devoted to naughty double-entendre songs from the Twenties, where the He-Man (whether Handy or Military) always stands at attention, can trim any girl’s garden and make her coffee boiling hot.  What delights await us!