Tag Archives: THE JAZZ RECORD

“I THOUGHT I HEARD”: November 1945

No blues lyrics that I know begin with “The mail carrier came today, and (s)he brought me good news,” but it happens to be the case.  Evidence herewith:

Once again, prowling eBay about ten days ago, I saw ten issues of Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD — a short-lived and wonderful magazine on sale — and I took money out of the  grandchildren’s retirement fund and splurged.  The issues were the prized possession of someone whose name I can’t quite read, and their original owner not only read them avidly, but had a cigarette in his hand . . . typical of the times.

I will in future offer selections — a concert review, or a letter to the editor complaining about varying prices for King Oliver Gennetts — but this is what caught my eye immediately, and the neighbors called to complain that my whimpering was upsetting the dogs in this apartment building.  You will understand why.

On the inside front cover, there is a print column titled I Thought I Heard . . . Buddy Bolden wasn’t audible in 1945, but his heirs and friends were certainly active in New York City.

Stuyvesant Casino, 2nd Ave. at 9th St. — Bunk Johnson’s New Orleans Band

Nick’s, 7th Ave. and 10th St. — Miff Mole and orchestra with [Bujie] Centobie, [Muggsy] Spanier, [Gene] Schroeder, George Hartman, bass, Joe Grauso.

Down Beat, 52nd St. — Art Tatum.

Onyx, 52nd St. — Roy Eldridge.

Three Deuces, 52nd St. — Slam Stewart, Erroll Garner, Hal West. 

Ryan’s, 52nd St. — Sol Yaged, clarinet; Danny Alvin, drums; Hank Duncan, piano.

Cafe Society Downtown, Sheridan Sq. — Benny Morton band, Cliff Jackson, piano.

Cafe Society Uptown, 58th St. — Ed Hall and band.

Spotlight, 52nd St. — Ben Webster.

Yes, Sol Yaged is still with us — the only survivor of those glorious days.

To keep the mellow mood going, here is twenty-nine minutes of Art Hodes and friends from those years.  Spot the typo, win a prize:

May your happiness increase!

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EVERYBODY LOVES CECIL SCOTT

Photograph by Nat Goodwin

Photograph by Nat Goodwin

Clarinetist and saxophonist Cecil Scott remembered by Art Hodes:

I’ll never forget the day Baby Dodds and I visited Cecil at his home in Harlem (N.Y.C.).  He had what we referred to as “a railroad flat.”  It was a first floor apartment with a long hallway running through the length of the apartment. Cecil took us into the kitchen for a taste, then called in the family. He had 11 children, from the baby to the eldest going on seventeen. I had to ask, “Man, how do you guys operate?” To which he answered, “We eat in shifts and we sleep in tiers.”

One of the warmest people I knew, Cecil Scott.  His smile was contagious. Here’s a guy, operating on one leg (and I won’t go into how he lost the other; the only story I heard was hearsay); always jolly and passing it on. People running in and out of his home; all day. Plus a few cats and a dog. Life all around him. And the spirit of that home, unbelievable.

I had a trio at Jimmy Ryan’s that consisted of Cecil (sax and clarinet) and Baby Dodds (drums) plus Chippie Hill (Bertha) doing the vocals. There was a performer. She’d go out, a’singing, to the end of the room, and start from there.  And by the time she’d hit the bandstand she’d have “gathered her children” in; that whole audience was like in the palm of her hand. No mike. And Cecil could charm her. For when she came to work she could be in a mood; but Scott would look at her, and then say, “Chippie, where did you get that hat; you look beautiful.” And she’d wild, and beam.  And we’d be together. They were beautiful people.

There was a style of clarinet playing we used to call “dirty.” Then there was a way of playing it that would make me think of someone a’callin’ to a chicken. Cecil knew all about that. It was later that I learned that the recording by Clarence Williams that I loved to listen to, especially because of the clarinet playing on it, was something Cecil had done. Yeh! And when my boy Bob was born, Cecil sent his oldest daughter over to my house to take care of things while my wife was hospitalized. “Man, don’t mention money, what do you wanna do? Insult me? I’m your friend.” And then one scene that keeps comin’ back.

I’d gone out to Harlem to do a benefit with Scott and others.  It was a warm affair, and I partook of the goodies. In fact I “over” partook. Now we had to get to our gig (J. Ryan’s). I drove and Cecil sat beside me. It seemed bouncey, beautiful, with lights flashing on; most enjoyable. Even sirens. Eventually I got the message and stopped. I had been “bouncing” up and down on the snow-covered street, and the lights and sirens were the po-lice. I was “in a cast.” The one-legged man had to get out and talk to the gendarmes. He must have sounded convincing because I got off with a lecture. You know I’ll never forget Cecil.

EVERYBODY LOVES CECIL (by H. B. M.)

Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, c. October 1946

Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, c. October 1946

Cecil Scott was sitting on the stool before the piano, his elbow on the keys and his right leg thrust stiffly forward. I sat across from him on a metal framed settee that looked a little like a double seat on a bus. There were several similar chairs in the room, a few music stands, and a tenor sax case on top of the piano. On the walls were several posters and many photographs showing Cecil at various times in his career. His weight varied with each picture, for his hobby is food and he eats until he weighs 210, diets until he weighs 160, and starts all over again. He is about 170 now, going down.

Almost as soon as I had met him, I liked Cecil. He is as warm and companiable as a fireplace. He is an energetic man, too, despite that awkward, unwieldy, artificial right leg. He’d suddenly lunge across the room to show me something, and lunge back again. It was more like an idiosyncrasy than a handicap.

“I suppose you want to know about the children,” he said. “There are thirteen of them, and I’ve got three grandchildren, with one more on the way. They’re from my eldest daughter, the one that deserted me. She’s the only one of my girls to get married.” He seemed to be peeved about that. “I’ll bet that’s her in the hallway right now. She’s in this house most of the day.”

It was the prodigal daughter. She entered the house very spryly.

“Has he been tellin’ you ’bout my children?” she asked. “They call him ‘Big Brother.’ You trying to keep young, Daddy?”

Actually Cecil looked very young, more like a man of thirty than a grandfather, and his wife, who entered then, didn’t look old enough to be a grandparent either. A little girl, about nine years old, was with her. She looked timidly about the room. There was a large white bandage about her ankle. 

“This is Elaine,” said Cecil. “She’s always wearing bandages. This morning it was her head. Now it’s her ankle. You run along, Elaine, and don’t you come back with that bandage ’round your nose.”

“But, let’s see now. About the music. It started when I was eleven years old out in Springfield, Ohio. I wanted to be a surgical doctor; spent all my time in doctors’ offices, and I figured I could make money with music. For two years I took lessons in clarinet and theory three times a week, and never missed a day. Started playin’ home dates with my brother Lloyd’s band. When I was seventeen I got married.”

“Eating is our big problem,” Cecil informed me. “Everybody has to eat in shifts. The little ones eat first shift, the middle ones second shift, and the big ones last shift. The dogs eat every shift.”

The house was full of children now. I could hear them moving everywhere. I met some more of the family, and Cecil coninued. He had come to New York and played with Lloyd’s band at the Saratoga Club. By 1928 he had his own band, and by 1930 was quite famous, playing at the Renaissance Ball Room with a band that had Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, Dicky Wells, Frankie Newton, and Don Frye. Then he moved to the Savoy and trouble started.

“There was a girl at the Savoy,” said Cecil. “She had a man who was takin’ care of her, but she was makin’ quite a play for me. I didn’t pay her no mind until one night she asked me to a ‘rent party’ that her landlord was giving. It was one of those parties where they sold pigmeat and ‘white mule.’ There was a crap game going on and I started to win. I began buying everybody big pitchers of that white mule. Then her boy friend came in. There was some kind of misunderstanding right away. He slapped her, and she slapped him, and a fight started. Pitchers of while mule started flying through the air. Well, I had a big name, I had a reputation. I had to get out of there. I ran to the front door, but it had six locks I couldn’t open, so I ran to the back door. That had six locks too.

Well, I was a very active man in those days, so I jumped out the window, but it was a three story drop and I broke my ankle real bad.

Gangrene set in and they had to amputate several times. For a while the doctors didn’t have much hope. Chu Berry, my pupil, held the band together for me. Everyone was real nice. But, when I got out I didn’t feel like playin’. I was a very active man, used to jump off the piano with my saxophone and do a split on the floor, and things like that. I didn’t feel right standing with that band, a a cripple. So I disbanded it, although the boys sure didn’t want me to.

Then the neighbors started doing things for me. They brought me soup and stew, and stuff like that, and started sending me their kids to teach. First one, then two, then seven, eight, ten. I soon forgot about playing. For four and a half years I taught twelve to eighteen kids a day, and never had to advertise. At the same time I studied theory with Clarence Hall three times a week and took up weight lifting. I was too busy, and liked it that way.

It wasn’t until Albert Socarras, a flute player with a Latin band, came to see me that I started playing again. He needed a sax player real bad. I didn’t want to go but he and his wife finally persuaded me. I played three days, and they gave me leader’s pay. I’ve been playin’ off and on ever since.

I think that my wife is the real reason for most of my success. When I lost my leg and became sensitive, afraid to face people, she was the one who revived me and gave me confidence again. She’s always encouraged me. We were born in the same town, in the same month, in the same year. We went to the same school together! Why, she’s been with me all my life!”

from SELECTIONS FROM THE GUTTER, edited by Hodes and Chadwick Hansen, pp. 214-16.

May your happiness increase!

SAY IT SIMPLE: JESS STACY

This is the first of an intermittent series of quotations that seem to me to get to the heart of the matter.

They [the public] want a thing to look hard.  You can work up something that is very extremely difficult technically, but if it doesn’t look difficult, they don’t pay any attention to it.  But if you beat your brains out all over the stage, they think it’s wonderful, and yell for more.  What do they know?”

from RIVERBOAT JESS, by Mary Peart, originally printed in Art Hodes’ Forties jazz magazine, The Jazz Record.

BIG SID, CHICK, and PRES (from eBay)

Sidney Catlett, on the front cover of Art Hodes’s little magazine, THE JAZZ RECORD, December 1946:

I admire the eBay seller of the next item for honesty, admitting that Chick Webb’s secretary probably signed the photograph.  But it would still look good over my piano:

And for fashion, who’d be a better model than the Pres?

Beloved icons, all for a high, timely bid . . .

BLANK PAGES AND SILENCES

Serious jazz scholarship (as opposed to reviews) began more than seventy years ago: early books by Robert Goffin, Hughes Panassie, Charles Delanay, Wilder Hobson, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey come to mind, as well as essays by Ernst Ansermet, Otis Ferguson, and Roger Pryor Dodge. 

In 2010, there is no scarcity of books on jazz, from musicology to polemical ideology.  Biographies and autobiographies — from Armstrong to Zwerin with perhaps one hundred subjects between — the autobiographies of Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Bob Wilber, biographies of Monk, Mingus, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Parker, Paul Desmond, Ellington.  Books have been published about musicians who are still relatively obscure: Mark Miller on Herbie Nichols, Anthony Barnett on Henry Crowder.  

John Chilton’s studies of Bechet, Hawkins, Eldridge, and Red Allen are models of the form.  Ed Berger and his father did right by Benny Carter; Ed devoted a book to George Duvivier and is working on one about Joe Wilder.  My shelves are full, and I’m not listing criticism and discography. 

Most of what I have noted above (with admiration) is jazz scholarship from the outside — by enthusiastic listeners who have immersed themselves in jazz.  I would be the last to disparage that as an art form, as writers who do it include Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern, Gene Lees, Chris Albertson, Frank Driggs, Nat Hentoff and two dozen others.  A few musicians — rare souls — who were also fine writers: Dick Wellstood, Richard M. Sudhalter, Rex Stewart, Dick Katz.    

But even given all of this, how often have jazz musicians been asked to tell their stories? 

I know that there is a history of popular journalism — early on in urban Black newspapers — of getting quotations from musicians, but I wonder how many utterances that were attributed were actually spoken by the musicians themselves.  Later on, one had DOWN BEAT and METRONOME, and smaller magazines — Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD, here and abroad.  Some of this “journalism” perpetuated the stereotype of the musician as an eccentric character who spoke an unintelligible hipster gibberish.     

There are, of course, the pioneering recorded interviews of Jelly Roll Morton done in 1938 — mythic in many ways — that might be the first oral history of a jazz musician.  Whether you take them as an extended piece of performance art or as first-hand narrative / reportage, they remain invaluable.

Others have attempted to let the players speak — the Oral History Project had musicians interviewing their peers and friends, Stanley Dance’s series of books, the Shapiro / Hentoff HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YA, Gitler’s SWING TO BOP, the diligent work of Bill Spilka, Hank O’Neal’s book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM, collections of interviews and profiles by Whitney Balliett, Peter Vacher, Max Jones.  Phil Schaap has done extensive, rewarding radio interviews for forty years now.  Lester Young spoke to Chris Albertson and Francois Postif.  And irreplaceable video-documentaries focus on Ben Webster, Lester, Goodman, Phil Woods.  Fifty years ago, Riverside Records recorded Coleman Hawkins and Lil Hardin Armstrong telling their stories.             

But all of this is outweighed by the invisibility, the unheard voices of musicians. 

Who thought to ask Kaiser Marshall or Walter Johnson anything after they had finished a set with the Fletcher Henderson band?  Who interviewed Ivie Anderson?  Allen Reuss?  Jimmy Rowles?  Dave McKenna?  Al Cohn?  Shad Collins?  Barry Galbraith?  Shorty Baker?  Did anyone ask Denzil Best or Nick Fenton about what it was like to play at Minton’s?  Who spoke with Joe Smith or Joe Nanton about their experiences?  George Stafford, Tiny Kahn, Nick Fatool, Dave Tough?  (I know some of these figures were interviewed or analyzed by my hero Whitney Balliett, but the burden of jazz history of this sort shouldn’t have to rest on one writer’s shoulders.)

Granted, many stellar musicians were once anonymous sidemen and women, and the leaders of bands got all the attention.  So there are more interviews of Ellington than of Johnny Hodges, more of Goodman than of Vido Musso, more of Basie than of Jack Washington.  But Swing Era fans knew every member of the reed section in their favorite orchestras.

Thus claims of “obscurity” have to be taken less seriously: there was a time when Cootie Williams was nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson would be — you may substitute names you prefer in this equation of “famous jazz musician” and “famous sports figure.” 

I can imagine a number of reasons for musicians being ignored.

Some musicians would rather play than talk about their playing; some are even taciturn, although articulate.  And sometimes even the most garrulous players are not the best interview subjects.  “What was it like to play with Big Boy Smith?” one asks.  “Oh, it was a ball!  We had a great time!” the musician answers.  The interviewer waits for more.  “Do you remember any specific incidents?”  “Oh, no.  It was a lot of fun.  We couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”  And so on.  I’ve had this happen to me with the most sophisticated players here and in Europe.  They wereen’t reluctant to talk, but they weren’t intuitive novelists themselves.

Although cordial to outsiders, many musicians also don’t see the point of discussing serious matters — like music — with them.  Too much explaining.  Life is short; the next set is coming soon.   This does say something about the unseen wall between themselves and fans — people who don’t know what it is to play, to improvise professionally, come from a different planet.  Nice folks, but aliens.  Even sweet-natured Bobby Hackett referred to the audience as “the enemy.”  “Fans” and “academics” are friendly, “critics” and “writers” might be useful, but none of them really know

And oftentimes, musicians are ambushed by people who want to talk wishing to talk at inopportune times.  A musician asked to comment on the music she’s just played after a forty-five minute set may well be drained by the effort.  When they’re not playing, musicians talk of other subjects, including the cost of things, their most recent car repair, health care proposals.  Anything is more interesting than responding to “What inspires you when you take a solo?”  Some may want to be left in peace, to eat their scrambled eggs while they’re somewhat hot.  And who could blame them?       

When some venerable musicains are finallyinterviewed when they have become venerable, they have forgotten the details.  What they did forty years ago wasn’t musical history, but a way of making a living.  And even those who have sharp memories may not want to tell all: candor might mean losing friends or gigs.  And some aren’t interested in reliving their pasts: autobiographies and interviews are career-ending landmarks: what musicians do when they can no longer play.  Doing beats talking and theorizing.      

Others are “saving it for their book” — books that might get poublished posthumously if ever.  And when musicians die, sometimes their spouse discards “all that old clutter,” including letters and memorabilia.  Sometimes a divorce means that possessions get thrown out, or a son or daughter believes that Papa’s papers are worth millions and refuses to let anyone make money from themsee them.    

Having said all that, I want to put it aside. 

There were all the reasons that musicians might not want to be asked. 

But so many, I have to believe, would have been delighted to tell their stories.  Why weren’t they?

Much comes from the earliest perception of jazz as entertainment, hardly serious.  It was played at night in places where people talked loudly, smoked, drank, and danced.  Real art could be found in museums and in concert halls.  Jazz players weren’t ordinary people; they existed outside polite society; some thought them licentious madmen working themselves into ecstasies on the bandstand.  Who would be so bold as to ask one of them a question?  And what savage reply would result? 

The subject of race can’t be pushed aside.  If both White and Black listeners thought that jazz was primarily dance music, why study it?  Why take its players seriously?  And the early preponderance of White jazz scholars and critics — some Europeans and White Americans — can be traced to the idea that jazz was no more than “good-time music,” denying Afro-Americans proper dignity.  Would you want your daughter to marry a jazz musician?  Would you want your African-American child to concentrate his or her academic efforts on Cab Calloway, on Louis Armstrong?  But the initial racial imbalance did shift, and I suspect that Joe Nanton would have been happy to speak with a White college student if the student was both sincere and aware.  As would Rod Cless have been.       

I think of Emerson in “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1846, urging his audience to study their own culture — only in this way could a nation exist.  Many years after Emerson’s death, an American college student couldn’t expect to do advanced study about the authors of his time and place: a college education required German, Chaucer, rather than James T. Farrell and Charlie Chaplin.  To say nothing of Sidney Catlett.  And so it was for jazz.  By the time that academia caught up with it, so many of the progenitors were dead, their stories untold. 

The losses are irreparable.  To urge readers to interview a jazz musician today won’t replace what has been lost. 

What might Frank Teschmacher or Freddie Webster have told us, have someone thought it sufficiently important to ask them?

Those pages remain irrevocably blank.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
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THE ELUSIVE FRANK NEWTON

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the remarkable jazz trumpeter Frank Newton in the last few weeks, even before having the opportunity to repost this picture of him (originally on JazzWax) — taken in Boston, in the late Forties, with George Wein and Joe Palermino. 

Jazz is full of players who say something to us across the years, their instrumental voices resounding through the murk and scrape of old records.  Some players seem to have led full artistic lives: Hawkins, Wilson, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Bob Wilber come to mind at the head of a long list.  Others, equally worthy, have had shorter lives or thwarted careers.   Bix, Bird, Brownie, to alliterate, among a hundred others.  And all these lives raise the unanswerable question of whether anyone ever entirely fulfills him or herself.  Or do we do exactly what we were meant to do, no matter how long our lifespan?  Call it Nurture / Nature, free will, what you will.     

But today I choose Frank Newton as someone I wish had more time in the sun.  His recorded legacy seems both singular and truncated.     

Frank Newton (who disliked the “Frankie” on record labels) was born in 1906 in Virginia.  He died in 1954, and made his last records in 1946.  A selection of the recorded evidence fills two compact discs issued on Jasmine, THE STORY OF A FORGOTTEN JAZZ TRUMPETER.    His Collected Works might run to four or five hours — a brief legacy, and there are only a few examples I know where an extended Newton solo was captured for posterity.  However, he made every note count. 

In and out of the recording sudios, he traveled in fast company: the pianists include Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Sonny White, Mary Lou Williams, Buck Washington, Meade Lux Lewis, Kenny Kersey, Billy Kyle, Don Frye, Albert Ammons, Joe Bushkin, Joe Sullivan, Sonny White, and Johnny Guarneri.  Oh, yes — and Art Tatum.  Singers?  How about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Although Newton first went into the studio with Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys in 1929 for Victor, the brilliant trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dicky Wells blaze most notably on those sessions. 

It isn’t until 1933 that we truly hear Newton on record.  This interlude, lasting less than a minute, takes place in the middle of Bessie Smith’s “Gimme A Pigfoot,” one of four vaudeville-oriented songs she recorded at her last session, one organized by John Hammond, someone who re-emerges in Newton’s story.  It was a magnificent all-star band: Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry, Benny Goodman (for a moment), Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, Billy Taylor on bass.  Hammond wanted Sidney Catlett on drums, but Bessie refused: “No drums.  I set the tempo.”  For all the rent-party trappings of the song, “Pigfoot” is thin material, requiring a singer of Bessie’s majesty to make it convincing.   

What one first notices about Newton’s solo is his subversive approach, his unusual tone and attack.  In 1933, the jazz world was rightly under the spell of Louis, which led to understandable extroversion.  Project.  Hit those high notes loud.  Sing out.  If you were accompanying a pop or blues singer, you could stay in the middle register, be part of the background, but aside from such notable exceptions as Joe Smith, Bubber Miley, trumpets were in the main assertive, brassy.  Dick Sudhalter thought Newton’s style was the result of technical limitations but I disagree; perhaps Newton was, like Tricky Sam Nanton, painting with sounds. 

Before Newton solos on “Pigfoot,” the record has been undeniably Bessie’s, although with murmurings from the other horns and a good deal of Washington’s spattering Hines punctuations.  But when Newton enters, it is difficult to remember that anyone else has had the spotlight.  Rather than boldly announce his presence with an upwards figure, perhaps a dazzling break, he sidles in, sliding down the scale like a man pretending to be drunk, whispering something we can’t quite figure out, drawling his notes with a great deal of color and amusement, lingering over them, not in a hurry at all.  His mid-chorus break is a whimsical merry-go-round up and down figure he particularly liked.  It’s almost as if he is teasing us, peeking at us from behind his mask, daring us to understand what he is up to.  The solo is the brief unforgettable speech of a great character actor, Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton, scored for jazz trumpet.  Another brassman would have offered heroic ascents, glowing upwards arpeggios; Newton appears to wander down a rock-choked slope, watching his footing.  It’s a brilliant gambit: no one could equal Bessie in scope, in power (both expressed and restrained) so Newton hides and reveals, understates.  And his many tones!  Clouded, muffled, shining for a brief moment and then turning murky, needling, wheedling, guttural, vocal and personal.  Considered in retrospect, this solo has a naughty schoolyard insouciance.  Given his turn in the spotlight, Newton pretends to thumb his nose at us.  Bessie has no trouble taking back the spotlight when she returns, but she wasn’t about to be upstaged by some trumpet-playing boy.     

Could any trumpet player, jazz or otherwise, do more than approximate what Newton plays here?  Visit http://www.redhotjazz.com/songs/bessie/gimmieapigfoot.ram to hear a fair copy of this recording.  (I don’t find that the link works: you may have to go to the Red Hot Jazz website and have the perverse pleasure of using “Pigfoot” as a search term.) 

The man who could play such a solo should have been recognized and applauded, although his talent was undeniably subtle.  (When you consider that Newton’s place in the John Kirby Sextet was taken by the explosively dramatic Charlie Shavers, Newton’s singularity becomes even clearer.)  His peers wanted him on record sessions, and he did record a good deal in the Thirties, several times under his own name.  But after 1939, his recording career ebbed and died. 

Nat Hentoff has written eloquently of Newton, whom he knew in Boston, and the man who comes through is proud, thoughtful, definite in his opinions, politically sensitive, infuriated by racism and by those who wanted to limit his freedoms.  Many jazz musicians are so in love with the music that they ignore everything else, as if playing is their whole life.  Newton seems to have felt that there was a world beyond the gig, the record studio, the next chorus.  And he was outspoken.  That might lead us back to John Hammond. 

Hammond did a great deal for jazz, as he himself told us.  But his self-portrait as the hot Messiah is not the whole story.  Commendably, he believed in his own taste, but he required a high-calorie diet of new enthusiasms to thrive.  Hammond’s favorite last week got fired to make way for his newest discovery.  Early on Hammond admired Newton, and many of Newton’s Thirties sessions had Hammond behind them.  Even if Hammond had nothing to do with a particular record, appearing on one major label made a competing label take notice.  But after 1939, Newton never worked for a mainstream record company again, and the records he made in 1944-1946 were done for small independent labels: Savoy (run by the dangerously disreputable Herman Lubinsky) and Asch (the beloved child of the far-left Moses Asch).  The wartime recording ban had something to do with this hiatus, but I doubt that it is the sole factor: musicians recorded regularly before the ban.  Were I a novelist or playwright, I would invent a scene where Newton rejects Hammond’s controlling patronage . . .  and falls from favor, never to return.  I admit this is speculation.  Perhaps it was simply that Newton chose to play as he felt rather than record what someone else thought he should.  A recording studio is often the last place where it is possible to express oneself freely and fully.  And I recall a drawing in a small jazz periodical from the late Forties, perhaps Art Hodes’ JAZZ RECORD, of Newton in the basement of an apartment building where he had taken a job as janitor so that he could read, paint, and perhaps play his trumpet in peace.  

I think of Django Reinhardt saying, a few weeks before he died, “The guitar bores me.”  Did Newton grow tired of his instrument, of the expectations of listeners, record producers, and club-owners?  On the rare recording we have of his speaking voice — a brief bit of a Hentoff interview — Newton speaks with sardonic humor about working in a Boston club where the owner’s taste ran to waltzes and “White Christmas,” but using such constraints to his advantage: every time he would play one of the owner’s sentimental favorites, he would be rewarded with a “nice thick steak.”  A grown man having to perform to be fed is not a pleasant sight, even though it is a regular event in jazz clubs.     

In addition, John Chilton’s biographical sketch of Newton mentions long stints of illness.  What opportunities Newton may have missed we cannot know, although he did leave Teddy HIll’s band before its members went to France.  It pleases me to imagine him recording with Django Reinhardt and Dicky Wells for the Swing label, settling in Europe to escape the racism in his homeland.  In addition, Newton lost everything in a 1948 house fire.  And I have read that he became more interested in painting than in jazz.  Do any of his paintings survive?  

Someone who could have told us a great deal about Newton in his last decade is himself dead — Ruby Braff, who heard him in Boston, admired him greatly and told Jon-Erik Kellso so.  And on “Russian Lullaby,” by Mary Lou WIlliams and her Chosen Five (Asch, reissued on vinyl on Folkway), where the front line is bliss: Newton, Vic Dickenson, and Ed Hall, Newton’s solo sounds for all the world like later Ruby — this, in 1944. 

In her notes to the Jasmine reissue, Sally-Ann Worsford writes that a “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” Newton “made his final appearance at New York’s Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950s.”  That large hall, peopled by loudly enthusiastic college students shouting for The Saints, would not have been his metier.  It is tempting, perhaps easy, to see Newton as a victim.  But “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” is never the sound we hear, even on his most mournful blues. 

The name Jerry Newman must be added here — and a live 1941 recording that allows us to hear the Newton who astonished other players, on “Lady Be Good” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” in duet with Art Tatum (and the well-meaning but extraneous bassist Ebenezer Paul), uptown in Harlem, after hours, blessedly available on a HighNote CD under Tatum’s name, GOD IS IN THE HOUSE.  

Jerry Newman was then a jazz-loving Columbia University student with had a portable disc-cutting recording machine.  It must have been heavy and cumbersome, but Newman took his machine uptown and found that the musicians who came to jam (among them Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Don Byas, Thelonious Monk, Joe Guy, Harry Edison, Kenny Clarke, Tiny Grimes, Dick Wilson, Helen Humes) didn’t mind a White college kid making records of their impromptu performances: in fact, they liked to hear the discs of what they had played.  (Newman, later on, issued some of this material on his own Esoteric label.  Sadly, he committed suicide.)  Newman caught Tatum after hours, relaxing, singing the blues — and jousting with Newton.  Too much happens on these recordings to write down, but undulating currents of invention, intelligence, play, and power animate every chorus.

On “Lady Be Good,” Newton isn’t in awe of Tatum and leaps in before the first chorus is through, his sound controlled by his mute but recognizable nonetheless.  Newton’s first chorus is straightforward, embellished melody with some small harmonic additions, as Tatum is cheerfully bending and testing the chords beneath him.  It feels as if Newton is playing obbligato to an extravagantly self-indulgent piano solo . . . . until the end of the second duet chorus, where Newton seems to parody Tatum’s extended chords: “You want to play that way?  I’ll show you!”  And the performance grows wilder: after the two men mimic one another in close-to-the-ground riffing, Newton lets loose a Dicky Wells-inspired whoop.  Another, even more audacious Tatum solo chorus follows, leading into spattering runs and crashing chords.  In the out- chorus, Tatum apparently does his best to distract or unsettle Newton, who will not be moved or shaken off.  “Sweet Georgia Brown” follows much the same pattern: Tatum wowing the audience, Newton biding his time, playing softly, even conservatively.  It’s not hard to imagine him standing by the piano, watching, letting Tatum have his say for three solo choruses that get more heroic as they proceed.  When Newton returns, his phrases are climbing, calm, measured — but that calm is only apparent, as he selects from one approach and another, testing them out, taking his time, moving in and outside the chords.  As the duet continues, it becomes clear that as forcefully as Tatum is attempting to direct the music, Newton is in charge.  It isn’t combat: who, after all, dominated Tatum?  But I hear Newton grow from accompanist to colleague to leader.  It’s testimony to his persuasive, quiet mastery, his absolute sense of his own rightness of direction (as when he plays a Tatum-pattern before Tatum gets to it).  At the end, Newton hasn’t “won” by outplaying Tatum in brilliance or volume, speed or technique — but he has asserted himself memorably.   

Taken together, these two perfomances add up to twelve minutes.  Perhaps hardly enough time to count for a man’s achievement among the smoke, the clinking glasses, the crowd.  But we marvel at them.  We celebrate Newton, we mourn his loss.

Postscript: in his autobiography, MYSELF AMONG OTHERS, Wein writes about Newton; Hentoff returns to Newton as a figure crucial in his own development in BOSTON BOY and a number of other places.  And then there’s HUNGRY BLUES, Benjamin T. Greenberg’s blog (www.hungryblues.net).  His father, Paul Greenberg, knew Newton in the Forties and wrote several brief essays about him — perhaps the best close-ups we have of the man.  In Don Peterson’s collection of his father Charles’s resoundingly fine jazz photography, SWING ERA NEW YORK, there’s a picture of Newton, Mezz Mezzrow, and George Wettling at a 1937 jam session.  I will have much more to write about Peterson’s photography in a future posting.