Tag Archives: The Mississippi Rag

THE VOICE OF MUSIC

I began my jazz life rather innocently as a Listener: a child sitting close to a V-M (The Voice of Music, it said on the inside lid) three-speed phonograph.  I can summon up the worn brown felt of the turntable, the pattern of the speaker grille.  And as I listened to the record of the moment I watched the label revolve, transfixed both by the music and by the whirling shapes the writing on the label made.  When the record ended, I picked up the tone arm and placed it in the outer groove to hear and watch it, dreamily, again. 

I progressed through different phonographs, tape recorders, portable cassette recorders, and learned (as life became busier) to start the music playing and do other things at the same time: type an undergraduate Milton essay while Louis and his Hot Seven played in the background, make breakfast while listening to Lee Wiley.  But the musicians had no more tangible presence than what I might see on television or in the pictures adorning a record’s liner notes.  I did see Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars in the spring of 1967, but that is another essay. 

Aside from Louis, I didn’t truly see live jazz until 1969 or 1970.  I think it was at Town Hall in New York City, produced by the late Dick Gibson, featuring not only the World’s Greatest Jazz Band but also Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Joe Newman, and perhaps Garnett Brown.  Heady stuff!  Now, from my seat (clutching my forbidden cassette recorder) I could watch Al and Zoot speak to one another; I could see my hero Vic Dickenson, tall, thin, leaning slightly to one side.   

I had moved away from the speaker, even though concerts in large halls kept the musicians as tiny, eloquent figures whom I could hear but not converse with.  It was only in the very early Seventies that I was able to see jazz performed in clubs — where I could timidly approach Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Bob Wilber, and others to ask for their autographs.  And the conversations that sprang out of these encounters were barely defined as “conversation.”  Nervous and admiring, a Fan, a record album clutched under my arm, I would timidly ask, “May I have your autograph?” or “Would you sign this for me, Mr. Sims?”  (I showed Zoot Sims an album he had appeared on for English RCA, and he said, “Gee, they must have made this when Bucky and I were appearing at Soerabaja.  I’ve never heard it.”  I said, “Would you like me to make you a copy of it?” He grimaced and said, “Oh, no, no thanks.”) 

While I was busy being a Fan (and occasionally an Amateur Photographer), I was also bringing various tape-recorders, which made me a Taper . . . evoking occasionally strong reactions.  Cyril Haynes refused to play until I put my cassette recorder away; Wild Bill Davison wanted to be paid off in Scotch; Dicky Wells pantomimed vigorous negation; Kenny Davern rather kindly told me that my microphone placement was all wrong (after Mike Burgevin had assured him I was on the right side of things); Ruby Braff lectured me by mail on the importance of having fresh batteries.  I saw Ray Nance several nights in a row in a Long Island club — he played and sang marvelously — and when I gave him a reel-to-reel copy of a concert he had performed in two years earlier, he looked at it as if he didn’t quite know what he was supposed to do with it, although collectors had been offering him such things for decades. 

Being a Taper was delicate business, but often rewarding, although musicians (with justification) tend to view me with skepticism: what is going to happen to those tapes that kid is making?  Does he have his own bootleg label; is he going to make money out of my work?

I became more than a Taper in 2000, when I began to write CD reviews . . . first for the IAJRC Journal, then the Mississippi Rag, for Cadence and All About Jazz (associations that happily have continued), for Coda and Jazz Improv . . . and liner notes.  These effusions brought me into a different relationship with the musicians. 

Simply put, I got closer to the players but often my distance increased.

A paradox, you say?  As a Listener, I was invisible and anonymous; as a Fan, I appeared and had substance for a minute or two.  As a Taper, I was mostly a nuisance, although some musicians actually wanted to hear what the tapes sounded like. 

But as a Reviewer, a Writer, a (whisper this), a Critic, I had a name and perhaps the power to exalt or to annoy.  Most often, I was the person who said to Bill Charlap, “You don’t know me, but I loved your _______ CD and wrote a very enthusiastic review of it for Cadence.”  And he politely, happily, said, “Yes, I remember that review.  It was very nice — thank you so much!” 

I haven’t had to deal with musicians who are irritated by what I’ve written, although I’ve received a few sharp-edged emails from a producer and another jazz critic, both of them who told me I was being deeply unfair when I thought I was telling the truth. 

But when I began to be someone ever so slightly known in local jazz circles as the fellow who could help you publicize your upcoming gig in the Mississippi Rag, or the person who might write a laudatory review of your self-produced CD, a slight edge crept into some interchanges.  Nothing dramatic happened, but I felt that relations between me (a non-Musician) and the Musicians were simpler when I was not in a position to say something in print about their latest efforts, to effect their livelihood.

 There were immense rewards, of course: I got to meet and talk to many more of my heroes on a different footing — a Friend of the Music as well as a Member of the Jazz Press, and I am always happy when people come over and say hello. 

All of this changed slightly more than two years ago when I created this blog, and acquired the first of a series of video cameras.  The experience of this blog has been more favorable than I can say, and I have used it to celebrate improvisations from the whole range of jazz’s history and to make it possible for people who live far away to see and hear their heroes. 

The video camera, however, is a different matter.  The cassette recorder, the reel-to-reel recorder, the digital recorder, all came with their own baggage or perhaps freight, all understandable.  The musician who has a cold, or would rather be elsewhere, looks down at the technology and might say, inwardly, “Oh, damnit — all my imperfections are going to be recorded for posterity; jazz collectors who are this guy’s friends are going to be getting free copies of my music; they won’t have to buy my CDs.  What will I get out of it?”  But when I discovered YouTube — probably years after many more technologically-sophisticated jazz fans — the world opened up for me.  Not only could I bring home an audio recording of what I’d just heard (to copy for the musicians and a few friends): I could record the event visually as well as audibly, and send it around the world. 

Most of the musicians have been exceptionally tolerant and gracious.  And there have been only a few times in two years of video recording where a musician has asked me to remove a performance from circulation, which I’ve done quickly in the spirit of fairness.  Were I the proverbial fly on the wall — certainly not a unique phenomenon at any jazz club — would I be happy with the way I was characterized?  “Does any musician see me at a club and think, “I surely will be happy when Michael goes away for a few months, then I can play in peace without looking up and seeing that little camera staring at me, capturing everything . . . “?

I originally felt that this posting was heading for gloom, a rumination on the equation between intimacy and distance, on the responsibilities that begin in dreams, even musical ones, but there were three cheering encounters last week at the Ear Inn, my Sunday night haunt.  One of the musicians came over (unsolicited) to say he thought what I was doing was worthwhile and that he thought the new camera was swell; later on in the evening, I was approached from left and right (Peter and Margarethe from Uppsala and Fumi from New York) by grateful people who said that they had found the club solely by watching these videos. 

I can imagine that in the future my age, health, and circumstances would make it difficult for me to get to jazz clubs as I am doing now.  And I can envision ending my career of jazz love and appreciation as I began, as a Listener, although the Voice of Music phonograph has been supplanted.  But maybe I will spend the last chapter of my jazz life delighting in the music’s sounds and shapes through YouTube and other versions not yet discovered, even if I’m not behind the camera.  

I hope that there will always be the kindness of strangers who know how to swing.  And know what it is to share their pleasures.

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TENOR MADNESS (Hanna, Phil, and Tom)

If you saw the title and assumed that this was a Sonny Rollins tribute band, get that thought right out of your head.  As much as I admire Rollins, the tenor saxophone is sufficiently well-established in jazz so that it doesn’t need the extra publicity.

No, TENOR MADNESS looks like this:TENOR MADNESS

I’m only sorry that the picture is bite-sized, for it captures Phil Flanigan, heroic bassist, his wife Hanna Richardson, a wonderfully unaffected yet hip singer (and tenor guitarist), and Tom Bronzetti (also on tenor guitar).  Oh, say can they swing! 

They have a MySpace page, where you can hear them and see where they are playing next: http://www.myspace.com/tenorguitarmadness

I’ve been an admirer of Hanna and Phil’s for some years now, ever since I was asked to review their first CD (on the LaLa label) for the late lamented Mississippi Rag — I became a fan as well as a convert to their insouciant swing.  Jazz party producers, are you paying attention?  This trio is compact yet their swinging music pours out generously.  And they don’t care if the piano in your living room is out of tune.  I predict great things!

LESLIE JOHNSON AND THE MISSISSIPPI RAG

This afternoon, I got an email from Jody Hughes, Leslie’s sister, announcing a jazz memorial to be held on March 22, 2009.  I won’t be in the vicinity, but some of my readers might.  Here are the details:

It will be held at the Mainstreet Bar and Grill from 4-8 PM, which is located at 814 Mainstreet, Hopkins (which I assume is in Minnesota): 952-938-2400 is the phone number, www.mainstreetbar.com, the website.  There will be no cover charge, but donations to the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic are encouraged.  Of course there will be music: from Butch Thompson, the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band, the Pig’s Eye Jass Band, Doug Haining and the Twin Cities Seven, and the Mouldy Figs.  Maryann Sullivan, who hosts “Corner Jazz” on KBEM Radio, JAZZ88-FM, will host this event.

Jody adds: “Currently the future of the RAG website is undecided.  We are in the process of going through everything in the office, which we expect to take some time.  Please check the website in late May for information about RAG’s future.”  That website is, of course, www.mississippirag.com.

Leslie gave so much to the jazz that she loved; it’s only fitting that she be honored to its strains.

GOODBYE, LESLIE

Freud, among others, points out that we all need love and work in equal measure to make our lives fulfilling.  

Fortunate are the people who can work with all  with all their hearts at something they love and then share the work, the love, and the glorious results with us.  We all benefit beyond measure — not just because of  the results, but because of the inspiring examples these people offer us: models of how life should be lived. 

Leslie Johnson, who edited and published The Mississippi Rag for thirty-five years, was  just such a person.   

I’ve written about Leslie several times in this blog — most recently, LESLIE JOHNSON, JAZZ HERO (January 15), and yesterday I posted the news of her death.  

 Here is the email I received last night from her family:   

It breaks my heart to write this letter and I know how hard it will be for you to read it. Leslie passed away Saturday afternoon, January 17, 2009.
 
Leslie had five goals going into the end of 2008; completing 35 years of publishing the RAG with the December 2008 issue, enjoying Christmas with her family, sending a personal letter to the writers, writing a final letter to post on the website and sending the monthly email notification. Once all of the goals were completed to her satisfaction, she was able to let go of everything tying her down. Although we knew this day was coming, we were unprepared for how quickly it actually happened. Fortunately, the entire family was able to be there and the hospice staff made sure her time there was beautiful, peaceful and pain-free. For this we will be eternally grateful.
 
With warm regards,
Willard,
children Tony & Renee,
sisters Jody & Debbie
 
 Visitation: Wednesday, January 21st, 5-8 p.m., Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapel, 5000 W. 50th St., Edina, MN 55436
Funeral Mass: Thursday, January 22nd, Noon, St. Richard’s Catholic Church, 76th St. and Penn Ave. S., Richfield, MN
 

LESLIE JOHNSON, GUIDING SPIRIT

I have just learned that Leslie Johnson, editor and publisher and guiding spirit of The Mississippi Rag, died yesterday.  Funeral arrangements are incomplete as I write this.

Leslie spent her considerable energies taking very good care of the music she and  readers of this blog love. 

She was and is much loved and she will be deeply missed.

LESLIE JOHNSON, JAZZ HERO

Jazz is full of people who burn brilliantly for only a short time.  Then there are heroic figures who keep on keeping on for decades, selflessly giving. 

Leslie Johnson has been the editor and publisher of THE MISSISSIPPI RAG since 1973.  Today I received an email from Leslie saying that she could no longer go on in those demanding roles because of her illness: she’s been fighting cancer for three and a half years.  You can read her farewell at www.mississippirag.com., but I just wanted to add a few words that perhaps Leslie herself would read. 

I started to write reviews for the RAG in 2000, and became the paper’s New York correspondent in 2007.  In the early days, I often picked up the phone and called Leslie when I had a question — because it was such a pleasure to talk to her, and because she worked such long hours putting out the paper that she didn’t always get to her hundreds of emails.  She was fervent, cheerful, determined, and genuine.  And I think she worked the longest hours of anyone I’ve ever encountered.  For thirty-five years, mind you.  It wasn’t for the money: operating a traditional jazz paper is not the Way to Wealth that Benjamin Franklin had in mind.  It was because she loved the music, believed in it, and believed in the people who played it, those who produced the CDs, put on festivals, and wrote about it. 

She believed in jazz in a practical way.  And this came through in the first conversation I had with her about the house style, or what she expected from reviewers.  I don’t remember exactly how she said it, but she made it clear that hers was not a paper that delighted in putting artists down.  To her, traditional jazz was having a hard enough time.  Her paper’s mission was to celebrate and praise rather than to carp about faults.  Fair enough, I remember saying, “But what if I think a CD is really an inferior piece of work?”  Well, she said, she would return it to the musicians and say that she didn’t think the CD was up to their usual standard and the RAG would rather not review it.  That was Leslie’s tough-minded kindness all out — and readers of the paper will note we reviewers were encouraged to tell the truth, but to check our razors at the door. 

Our phone conversations were also delightful for me — a born-and-bred New Yorker — because Leslie spoke what I think of as pure Minnesotan.  I remember (and I can hear her voice now) responding to some statement of mine that she seconded, “That’s for darn sure!”  It’s not a typical Manhattan form of agreement, and it gave and gives me great pleasure.

I said above that Leslie believed in jazz.  Many people I know would make the same statement of themselves, but their belief takes shape as pure enjoyment: “I believe in jazz, therefore I listen to _________ every night when I get home.”  Leslie’s belief went beyond a set of speakers out of which music came, although she loved to listen to the music.  It wasn’t an abstact reaction to jazz, either.  She worked for thirty-five years FOR jazz, and the RAG has been the result, month after month. 

It’s been a privilege, and honor, and an education to work with and for Leslie Johnson — a true jazz hero.

A JAZZ HOLIDAY — CHAUTAUQUA 2008

Jazz at Chautauqua, the cherished baby of Joe Boughton and the Allegheny Jazz Society, whirled around for yet the eleventh year — filling the hours of September 18 – 21 with hot jazz, rare songs, and sweet, swinging lyricism.  It was my fifth visit there, and the Beloved’s first.  We had a wonderful time, tearing ourselves away from the music at regular intervals to walk the Chautauqua grounds, with their elaborately done houses, the leaves already changing, and the glory of Lake Chautauqua.  We took a number of meals on the wide wooden porch of the Athenaeum Hotel, with high-level sitters-in who were carrying plates of food rather than horns and charts: Marty Grosz, Bob Reitmeier, Nina Favara . . . and we got to hang out with Jackie Kellso and Becky Kilgore, Ray Cerino and Carol Baer, David and Maxine Schacker (creators of BEING A BEAR).

By my count, there were about forty sets of music, starting at breakfast and going on until 1:30 AM.  When I was younger and more vigorous in 2004, I devoted myself with a pilgrim’s determination to hearing every last note, with Coffee as my friend and non-prescription ally.  Eventually, I couldn’t sit and listen to even the world’s best jazz for that long.  Everything, including the cerebral cortex, set up a protest.

So here are some highlights, admittedly a subjective list, but, as the narrator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight says, “To tell all the tale would tax my five wits.”  I was too busy taking notes to take pictures, so readers who want visual stimuli should go to www.mississippirag.com for the October issue, which will be festooned with photographs by John Bitter.

I’ve written about the Thursday festivities (see WITH DISPATCH AND VIGOR) but Friday began to pop with two wonderful sets.  One was led by Jon-Erik Kellso, oddly, his only formal opportunity to do this all weekend, which I find mysterious. because he is an engaging, funny leader.  His set featured lively old songs at the front and back, “Alice Blue Gown” and a Louis-inflected “Some of These Days,” but the middle was even better — Dan Block and Jon-Erik on the 1933 romance “The Day You Came Along,” which managed to summon up both Bing and Hawkins, a neat trick.  Then Bob Havens, exploding all over the horn like a teenager, charged through Harry Warren’s “42nd Street,” a song neglected by jazz players, more’s the pity.  And a delicate, plaintive “Always” featured Block on bass clarinet and Bob Reitmeier on clarinet — not evoking Soprano Summit or the Apex Club Orchestra, but some otherworldly strain, Debussy with a beating Thirties heart.

Becky Kilgore’s set was too short but each song was a neat surprise.  Backed by the endearing Joe Wilder, who moved from bucket mute to his red-and-white metal derby to his fluegelhorn, Dan Barrett being himself, and the ever-thoughtful Rossano Sportiello, Becky offered a happy “Getting Some Fun Out of Life,” whose title seemed more true than ever, “But Not For Me” with a pensive verse, and a sly “Little White Lies,” dedicated to “the politicians.”  In an enlighted administration, our Becky could sing at the Inaugural Ball, but I don’t hold out great hopes for this.

A Saturday-morning Duke Heitger extravaganza was notable for a slow-dance “Whispering” which began with a lovely Ingham introduction, romantic and sweet.  Music to hug by!  Eventually the band decided they had had enough of good behavior and doubled the tempo (Duke turned into Bunny Berigan at points) moving on to a riotous Condon finale with earth-shaking breaks from Arnie Kinsella, unbridled even before lunchtime.

Rather like Becky’s cameo of the previous evening, a Joe Wilder – Rossano Sportiello duet seemed over before we had had time to accustom ourselves to the magical idea of hearing them together with no interference (and with Joe getting to pick the songs he wanted to play, which isn’t always the case).  Tender versions of “Embraceable You” and “Skylark” paved the way for a steadily moving “Idaho,” memorably energetic.  Joe’s glossy tone has become more a speaking utterance in recent years, which is even more personal, and Rossano is my idea of Jazz Ecumenism — getting Fats Waller and Bud Powell to shake hands whenever he plays.

A Marty Grosz set was devoted to the memory of the vocalist, comb-and-tissue paper virtuoso, and bandleader Red McKenzie, about whose music no one is lukewarm.  Typically, we enjoyed a long winding Marty-narrative, full of priceless jazz arcana and some wicked comedy, but it showed off his convincing crooning on “I’ve Got The World On A String.”  The group that backed him — Block, Andy Stein on violin, and the irreplaceable Vince Giordano, seemed the perfect modern embodiment of Joe Venuti’s Blue Four.  About enjoyment, incidentally: Joe Boughton introduced Marty and ended with the ritualistic crypto-command, “Enjoy.”  Marty, who can be as dangerous as a drawer full of scissors, replied, while he was settling in, “I don’t make music to be enjoyed,” as if the concept offended his fastidious self.  But we did, anyway.  So there!

The Wisconsin Bixians (Andy Schumm and Dave Bock) once again got to play with their heroes — Reitmeier, Stein, James Dapogny, Vince, Marty, and Arnie Kinsella — the all-star rhythm team of the weekend or perhaps of this century? — and proved themselves up to the challenge.  Except for a pretty “At Sundown,” they chose Bix-rompers from 1927-8, “Jazz Me Blues,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” and “Somebody Stole My Gal,” making me think of Bix and Miff Mole in some ideal alternate universe, backed by Tesch, Sullivan, Condon, Artie Bernstein, and Krupa.

Keeping the momentum and the mood, Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks showed themselves off as the Jazz Larks.  We”ve all heard the band parse early Pollack, Challis, Isham Jones, Ellington — but this was a leaping ensemble of veteran alumni, fully warmed up.  The Beloved turned to me and murmured, “Vince is in his glory,” and we all were.  Kellso, Block, and Havens sang out — no surprise!

That evening, a lovely set featured Duke Heitger, Havens, Bobby Gordon, the priceless rhythm section mentioned above, and Kellso.  After a casual “Tea for Two,” everyone cut loose (especially Gordon) on “Mahogany Hall Stomp.”  Jon-Erik and Duke are old Midwestern pals, and Kellso was Duke’s model and mentor when neither of them had a driver’s license.  It wasn’t a cutting contest but a friendly reunion, but the two of them gave me chills on “If We Never Meet Again.”  The rafters rang — not with volume, but with passion and a shouting tenderness, which is no oxymoron when you have players who have devoted their lives to it.

Later that night, a set led by Randy Reinhart again showed off two trumpets, as he and Jon exploded into “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” reminding me of Louis’s Decca big band version and a short passage from a film about Dick Gibson’s jazz parties where Ruby Braff and Clark Terry duetted on the sidewalk while fireworks went off around them.  Another touching Reitmeier-Block duet (clarinet and bass-clarinet) on “I Got It Bad” made me wish that every set had had two ballad performances.  (At parties, musicians get excited about playing with their friends, so tempos and volume sometimes rise.)

Sunday morning — at a pre-consciousness hour for most musicians — began with a solo set by Dapogny.  I haven’t said much about him in this post, but I was tremendously impressed with him as an ensemble pianist as well as a soloist.  I had gotten happily used to the idea of his stomping propulsion at previous Chautauquas, his forceful accuracy (think Sullivan, Hines, Fats) but time and again he surprised us all by going into unexpected harmonic corners, playing phrases that were the very opposite of formulas.  And how he swung the bands he was in!

Marty Grosz’s Sunday set honored mid-Thirties Red Allen.  In fairness, the musicians were sight-reading the charts, so there was an uncertain passage here and there . . . but who among us would do better?  I was nearly stunned by the band’s vehement “Jamaica Shout,” which I would assume refers to the Queens neighborhood rather than the Caribbean, but this may be mere speculation.

Finally, a marvelous quartet took the stand — Bob Wilber, his tone still glossy, his rhythmic intensity still intact at eighty, Jon-Erik, blinking slightly in the unaccustomed daylight, Marty and Vince — the best people to summon up the ferocious glories of the 1940 Bechet-Spanier Big Four recordings for the Hot Record Society.  (When I visited guitarist Craig Ventresco, he had the original 12″ 78s, which seemed holy relics — and they still sounded fine on his three-speed phonograph!)  A peerless quartet, deep in contrapuntal hot ensembles and soaring solos.

With regret, the Beloved and I left before it was all over to begin the day-long drive back to New York City, both exhausted and thrilled by the music.

The rewarding thing about Jazz at Chautauqua is that I began to write this post with the idea of including only a few highlights — but there were so many asterisks and exclamation points in my notebook that the idea of a “few” quickly became impossible.  For every set I mentioned, for every solo, there were two or three more of equal quality — a true jazz holiday!  The music rings in my ears as I sit at the keyboard.