Tag Archives: The Sound of Jazz

EMMETT BERRY’S BUESCHER TRUMPET, 1952

This Buescher trumpet, the advertisement tells us, is the model Emmett Berry plays with Johnny Hodges.  For tremendous power and range, which Mr. Berry would have had on any horn.

Emmett Berry came from the tradition of individualistic players — with an intense near-ferocity no matter what the context . . . with Fletcher or Horace Henderson, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Edmond Hall, Bennie Morton, Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, Buddy Tate, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Walter Thomas, Ben Webster, Budd Johnson, Oscar Pettiford, Harry Carney, Johnny Guarneri, Illinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood, Vic Dickenson, John Kirby, Gerald Wilson, Betty Roche, Helen Humes, Johnny Thompson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Al Sears,Al Hibbler, Lem Davis, Dodo Marmarosa, Slim Gaillard, John Simmons, Zutty Singleton, Sidney Catlett, Sammy Price, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Eddie Bert, Lucky Thompson, Bennie Green, Lawrence Brown, Sidney Bechet, Ruby Braff, Art Farmer, Claude Hopkins, Pee Wee Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, Andy Gibson, Paul Gonsalves, Cannonball Adderley, Shorty Baker, Chu Berry, Earl Hines, Joe Williams.  On Keynote he was the third trumpet player with Joe Thomas and Roy Eldridge.  He was in the trumpet section for a Miles Davis and Gil Evans session.

Between 1937 and 1967, he seems to have been active on gigs and in the recording studio, even if some of that work had him playing second trumpet to Buck Clayton or as part of the brass section behind a singer.  But this record of activity says to me that various people (Harry Lim, John Hammond, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Buddy Tate) valued him as a powerful, reliable, creative player — someone who could swing, improvise, blend with a section, sight-read music the first time he saw it.

Buck Clayton’s story of Berry whacking Jimmy Witherspoon in the head with his trumpet when Spoon had been particularly out of line suggests that Berry was not someone to be trifled with, and his phrasing does suggest an expert boxer and dangerous counterpuncher.

But no one seems to have interviewed him during his playing career, and I have it in my memory (true?) that he suffered some sort of late-life mental collapse and retired from music.  (What does anyone know of him in the years from 1967 to 1993?)

His sound– so vehement — remains in my ears.  On the early Clef sessions with Hodges, on THE SOUND OF JAZZ, backing Rushing on Vanguard — unmistakable.

Here’s “a little good blues” with Earle Warren, Sir Charles Thompson, Gene Ramey, and Oliver Jackson, from 1961:

Berry doesn’t take enough space, and his vehemence is hinted at rather than fully released, but his sound and physical presence are fully evident.

He’s someone I miss.

May your happiness increase.

TAKING RISKS, HAVING A BALL: TWO CINEMATIC MASTERPIECES from “THE SOUND OF JAZZ” (1957)

Next to JAMMIN’ THE BLUES and HOT HOUSE, the 1933 footage of Louis in Copenhagen, Duke in CHECK AND DOUBLE CHECK, the silent newsreel film of the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing, the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ might be the most famous film of jazz performance extant.  I’ve seen it in various forms: on a muzzy VCR copy, an improved DVD, and in bits and pieces on YouTube.

And I hope everyone has seen it so many times that it has the gleam of photographs of a dear old friend — lovingly glimpsed from many angles in a leisurely way.

But when the generous collector Franz Hoffmann opened his Henry “Red” Allen box of wonders, I thought, “What if there are some people who haven’t seen ROSETTA and WILD MAN BLUES — ever?”  So in the same way we return to stand awestruck in front of a Sargent portrait or we settle in for a long night with KING LEAR, let us return to these two magical filmed performances.

The first thing, of course, is the music — music made by titans at the peak of their casual achievements.  Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet and vocal; Rex Stewart, cornet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, tenor sax; Nat Pierce, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Milt Hinton, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.

Let us be frank about this band.  It was a gathering of strong personalities — players who demanded space for themselves (perhaps with the exception of Pierce and Barker) who — given the wrong audience, could caricature themselves.  To some this will seem like heresy, but the evidence exists.  But what remains here is an exuberant jostling in the name of the music:  the combat between Red and Rex is subtle and sly, and Jo’s solo — although perhaps a digression — is constrained rather than a show-stopper.

Careful observers will note that in a program ostensibly devoted to the blues, neither ROSETTA nor WILD MAN BLUES is one, although the latter descends into those emotional depths with great fervor.

So one could watch these clips over and over, marveling at the balance between individual ego and cohesion.  What Red Allen does is also an advanced course in leadership.  I know that the band had had a “rehearsal” for the purposes of recording the music for Columbia Records (more about that later) but it’s clear that not much had been worked out aside from the basics: who solos first and for how long.

But I would propose another reason to marvel at these clips, and it’s a silent one — almost in the name of moving sculptures and shadows.  The director of the program, Jack Smight, was a great jazzman himself — not that he played an instrument, but in the chances he took.  This was live television, so his decisions were made on the spot and there were no retakes.  He had five cameramen — their names Bob Heller, Harold Classen, Joe Sokota, Jack Brown, and Marty Tuck.  And Smight moved from one to the other with great logic, sensitivity, and freedom.  Musicians hard at work — in love with their art — are great studies, and these five cameras captured not only the usual visual cliches: the sweating face, distended cheeks, intake and outflow of breath, but the musicians listening and responding to one another.  And to their own creations: one of the most memorable seconds of this is the expression on Rex Stewart’s face after he has pulled off what he understands is a particularly felicitous epigram in WILD MAN BLUES.  It’s self-congratulatory but in a sweetly hilarious way, “Hey, Ma!  Look what I just played!”  And who would deny Rex his pleasure in his own art?

In an era where multiple-camera setups often lead to restlessness that is difficult to endure (even before everyone had a video camera) these cuts and chance-takings are both beautiful and highly rewarding.  I propose something nearly audacious: one could watch these films with the sound off and marvel at the faces and their expressions.  Truly rewarding film of a musical performance is not only the soundtrack, but the way the players present themselves to us, as we see here.

WILD MAN BLUES:

ROSETTA:

And a purely aural note.  In the vinyl era, both a monaural and a stereo record were issued.  They captured the music at the “rehearsal,” December 5, 1957.  (I assume that this session also captured the disembodied voices we hear on the television program, explaining what the blues meant to them.)  Both of those issues were slightly different: at one point in the last minutes of DICKIE’S DREAM, the brass and reeds got out of synch with one another; on one issue, the raggedness is documented (very reassuring for those of us who are not giants on the scale of these players!); on the other, a neater passage and a different Basie piano bridge have been spliced in.  George Avakian was apparently not involved with this project, but Irving Townsend seems to have picked up some of George’s skill with a razor blade.  But — even better! — the CD issue, now possibly difficult to find (Columbia Legacy CK 66082) includes a previously unissued take of WILD MAN BLUES that runs almost nine minutes.  (Much harder to find is the late Bob Hilbert’s vinyl issue on his own Pumpkin label, THE “REAL” SOUND OF JAZZ, which presents the audio from the television show.)

Even if you think you know these performances, I will wager whatever you like that something will come and surprise you in a repeat viewing.  Bless these musicians; bless Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff; bless Smight and his cameramen; bless Franz Hoffmann, too.

“RHYTHM IS MY BUSINESS”: AN EVENING WITH MARTY GROSZ

In the last year, whenever I encountered Marty Grosz at a jazz party, he would tell me that someone good was doing a documentary with him as the subject.  Since we know that many projects never get completed, I didn’t dare to anticipate that I would ever see the results.  But the DVD is out and it’s a thorough pleasure.  Here’s a six-minute plus excerpt — Marty and the Hot Winds urging us to be candid, honest, and frank in all things:

RHYTHM IS MY BUSINESS: AN EVENING WITH MARTY GROSZ is a superb hour-long performance film / documentary by filmmaker / acoustic guitarist Jay Brodersen, capturing Marty, Dan Block, Scott Robinson, and Vince Giordano in concert.  It’s available from Jay himself for $25 (including first-class mail shipping) and you can contact him at jaybrodersen@yahoo.com., or at 6859 N Road, Escanaba, Michigan 49829.

Most of the film is the music — Marty and the Hot Winds in a small concert hall swinging through eleven songs — many of them Grosz classics, and a few surprises: I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / I’M BUILDING UP TO AN AWFUL LET-DOWN / EMALINE / I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY / JUST A GIGOLO / IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE / YOU BROUGHT A NEW KIND OF LOVE TO ME / WABASH BLUES / IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN – JUBILEE / JUST FRIENDS . . . and the strains of DREAM MAN can be heard as the credits roll.

The beauty of this film is that, from the first minute, it presents experiences that even those intent listeners in the front row do not have.  First of all, the sound and lighting are terrific: everything’s audible and the audience is quiet yet appreciative.  Then there’s the wonderful camerawork.  As an amateur videographer, I know the limits of the single camera, which can (at best) follow the photographer’s eye, and zoom in or out.  Of course, such videos are often marred by extraneous noise or real-life distractions.

Jay has used a multi-camera setup to show us things we would never see, and he’s done this with restraint and taste.  Some multi-camera videos are always on the move: the camera rests only a few seconds in any shot.  The result can seem dizzying, all in the name of novelty.  But this film isn’t afraid to patiently watch something that’s interesting, yet (in the manner of THE SOUND OF JAZZ) it takes us to surprising places: things we would never see if Jay had simply aimed one high-quality camera at the stage and switched it on.  In addition, Jay has interviewed the members of the band and expert admirers — so there are very short interludes, always relevant to the music at hand, where Dan, Scott, and Vince talk about what Marty creates; where Marty speaks about his background and his father’s art.  But the “talking heads” are entertaining and they never dominate the film.

Every time I’ve watched it I’ve seen something new: the expression on one musician’s face when someone else is soloing, a fantastic duet in WABASH BLUES (which has delightful playing by Dan on baritone sax) between Vince and Scott, making beautiful music in unorthodox ways: Scott buzzing through a clarinet with the mouthpiece removed and Vince playing his bass sax with the tuba mouthpiece . . . or so it seems.  And although the concert is greatly devoted to swing numbers, Marty offers a sweetly convincing reading of EMALINE and a mournfully tender exploration of JUST FRIENDS that once again shows what a great balladeer he is.

The DVD has received a showing on the local PBS channel: I’m hoping that someone at the national level gets a chance to preview it.  It’s just that good, and not only because it features one of the best bands we will ever hear.  Kudos to Jay Brodersen for creating this film, and to the musicians for playing so splendidly.

CHARLES and WILLIAM, AN ALTERNATE TAKE (Chicago Tribune, December 1957)

Take one or take two?

Who knew?  Twenty-four hours ago, I thought that the photograph of Count Basie and Pee Wee Russell in connection to THE SOUND OF JAZZ was unique.  Now eBay has (from another seller) a less-formal version — although the two players look rather stiffly posed, even though their suit jackets are off.  What will tomorrow bring?

CHARLES AND WILLIAM, December 1957, New York City

Yes, Charles Ellsworth Russell (clarinet) and William Basie (piano) in the CBS television studio, December 1957, probably for the rehearsal for THE SOUND OF JAZZ. 

There is only one other photograph I’ve ever seen of the two great individualists together — at the Leadbelly Memorial Concert.  Here’s the reverse of the 1957 candid portrait:

It makes me wonder how many other previously unseen photographs (this one isn’t by Milt Hinton but by a CBS staff phogorapher) exist.

But I don’t have to wonder about the composition Pee Wee Russell and Count Basie are embarking on — no, I’d bet my 2012 salary that it’s a Bb blues.  And I wish I’d been able to hear it . . .

CHRIS TYLE, CL.

I know Chris Tyle as a wonderful hot cornetist, a superb drummer, an affecting singer.  What more would anyone want? 

But Chris is a splendid clarinetist as well — and I’ve just been reminded of this by one of the most consistently stirring new CDs to burst out of its mailer.  It won’t be out until mid-October (so says Amazon) but this will give you time to get excited, to anticipate, and (if you like) to pre-order.  It’s a honey of a session!

Since the photograph is a bit small, I will offer subtitles: the band is CHRIS TYLE’S PACIFIC PLAYERS, and the disc is “TRIBUTE TO PEE WEE RUSSELL” (Jazzology JCD 378). 

The Pacific Players are Chris, clarinet, vocals; Katie Cavera, solo guitar, bass, vocals; Ray Skjelbred, piano; June Smith, rhythm guitar; Hal Smith, drums. 

Most CDs by one jazz group — even the ones I earnestly yearn for — begin to seem long.  Maybe it’s my late-life-attention-deficit-disorder, but it’s more the unintentional lack of variety on those discs.  Seventy-five minutes of the same thing can get monotonous.  

Happily, I listened to this disc all the way through, delighting at the varied tempos and instrumental textures this little group accomplished with great style and knowledge. 

Creating a tribute to someone whose sound and approach were so distinctive could pose its own problem for a musician less intuitive than Chris Tyle.  Russell’s twists and turns, his mutters and wails have tempted less gifted clarinetists to attempt to “be” Pee Wee for a day.  And since Russell’s vocabularly was always vividly aduible, from his talking-to-himself chalumeau musings to his out-and-out arching hollers, lesser musicians might simply offer almost-identical collections of gestures within familiar repertoire.  The result, a shadow Pee Wee. 

But Tyle, rather like the late Frank Chace, knows better.  We have the original recordings, and someone attracted to a Russell tribute is likely to know them well, so imitation is suicide, to reiterate Emerson. 

Tyle has some of Russell’s characteristic phrases under his fingers and in his emotional library, but he blends his own left-handed approach with the Master’s.  If I heard this CD in a Blindfold Test (or a CADENCE “Flying Blind”) I would say, “That’s someone who loves Pee Wee but has his own musical identity.”  Chris has an innate rhythmic energy (he is a hot player even when purling his way through a ballad) and his own sound, both within and enveloped by Russell’s. 

And the CD — wisely — roams throughout Russell’s career and wide range of musical situations: there’s a WILD MAN BLUES that suggests the 1957 performance on television on THE SOUND OF JAZZ, a number of songs associated with Russell’s late quartet with Marshall Brown (MY MOTHER’S EYES and HOW ABOUT ME), some Condonia (MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND and SAVE YOUR SORROW) and homages to the Rhythmakers among others.  This multi-faceted approach — without making the disc a chronological tour through Pee Wee’s recordings — adds a great deal to its charm and vitality.  I heard the rhythm section taking on some of the characteristics of Russell’s later recordings with Nat Pierce, Jo Jones, and George Wettling, and they manage to make SHINE ON YOUR SHOES and HELLO, LOLA romp with one horn only.

Chris would have had a steeper uphill climb with a lesser rhythm section, to be sure.  The first sound I heard on this disc was the joyous swish of Hal Smith’s hi-hat, and I will say only that his drumming through this session is supportive and exultant: he uses every part of his drum kit in the most swinging ways.  Katie Cavera adds her girlish singing (very sweet indeed) to a few numbers, her solo guitar most effectively, and her solid bass work throughout — sounding much like Walter Page, no small compliment.  June Smith is a wonderful guitarist with an authentic rhythm wave that can echo Freddie Green or Condon most delightfully.  And Ray Skjelbred is just invaluable — his rocking accompaniment and brilliant solo playing do honor to Hines and Frank Melrose, to Stacy and Sullivan . . . boiling away through the ensembles. 

I think this is a thrilling CD.  Hail Chris Tyle and his mighty colleagues!

TRIPLE PLAY

Dan Vernhettes has been celebrated in these pages as the author of the thoroughly illuminating study of trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, TRAVELING BLUES.  So I knew and admired him as a diligent and original jazz scholar, someone devoted to doing more than repeating the same facts and assertions printed elsewhere. 

But I had almost forgotten that Dan is a fine jazz trumpeter himself.

Here’s his nine-piece band, SWING FEELING, doing a lovely job on DICKIE’S DREAM (homage to the 1957 version from THE SOUND OF JAZZ) — recorded in August 2007:

Dan takes the second (open) trumpet solo.

And, going perhaps sixty years in conception — from Basie to Bolden — here are the VINTAGE JAZZMEN playing DON’T GO ‘WAY NOBODY (which surfaces later as HOW’M I DOIN’ and other variants):

Here, Dan’s colleagues are Tommy Sancton (cl, ts), Olivier Beuffe (tb), Siphan Upravan (bj), Enzo Mucci (b, g, bj), Guillaume Nouaux (dm). Filmed at Jazzclub Mülheim (Germany) in May 2006.  Visit http://d-vernhettes.club.fr

It’s always inspiring to see someone who puts his love of a subject into action!

WHO ERASED MILDRED BAILEY?

I have been listening to Mildred Bailey’s singing since the early Seventies, when I found the three-record Columbia set devoted to her recordings from 1929-47.  And she never fails to move me — with her tenderness, her technique, her wit.  But Mildred has very few champions these days.  Even the late Whitney Balliett, whose taste and judgment were unparalleled, wrote that Mildred succeeded neither as a pop singer or a jazz one.  And if you were to ask the most well-informed listener who the greatest women jazz singers are, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would head the list (if not two dozen others ranging from Diana Krall to Shirley Horn to Ella Logan to Marion Harris) . . . but Mildred is forgotten, or all but forgotten.

Why?

It can’t be because of her race.  We finally have come to accept that White folks can swing, can’t we?

Some of her invisibility has to do with her elusiveness.  Billie and Ella have established, defined “personalities,” which ironically might have little relationship to what they sang.  “Billie Holiday” as an iconic figure equals self-destructive heroin addict, short-lived victim, a tortured figure, someone for whom MY MAN or DON’T EXPLAIN was painful autobiography.  Subject of a bad melodramatic movie; a ghost-written “autobiography” and several biographies as well as documentary films.  And the most accessible visual image of Billie is from the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ — careworn, rueful, lovely.  There is the engaging rasp of her voice in te Thirties, the moody cry and croak of her later recordings.

“Ella Fitzgerald” is sunny exuberance, scat-singing, someone making a jazzy version of the American songbook accessible to anyone in the Fifties who owned a record player.  A cheerful endurance, whether alongside Chick Webb, Louis, Basie, or Ellington.  Everyman and woman’s identifiable Jazz Singer, easy to understand. 

Today marketers call this “branding,” boiling down the unique self into a few immediately recognizable qualities — as if people were products to be put in the shopping cart in a hurry.   

Then there is the issue of size. 

In Charles Peterson’s 1939 photographs of Billie that I have posted recently, we see a seriously chubby young woman.  Ella was always a large woman, but no one said anything about it.  Some astute listeners did not worry about a woman singer’s weight.  Think of Wagnerian sopranos.  Think of Kate Smith.  Did anyone care that Connee Boswell could not get off the piano bench?  And men are forgiven a great deal.   

But in pop music, listeners tend to be much more fickle, visually oriented, even shallow.  It is difficult to escape Mildred Bailey’s appearance.  She was fat, and not “fat” in a jolly way — not the way that some Twenties blues singers could use to their advantage: Helen Humes or Edith Wilson singing about their weight as a sexual asset (Miss Wilson’s lyric: “Why should men approach with caution / For this extry-special portion?”).  Aside from laughing at herself during the January 1944 Metropolitan Opera House jam session — while singing “Pick me up / On your knee” in SQUEEZE ME, she and the band are chuckling at the difficulty of such a task — Mildred did not joke about her size, nor did she make it part of “an act.” 

Many listeners want their popular icons to be erotically desirable.  Sex sells; sex appeals.  Eventually, as they age,  singers pass an invisible boundary and become Venerable.  Think of all the cover pictures of singers, male and female, posed as if on magazine covers — Lee Wiley reclining on a couch on one of the Fifties RCA Victors; Julie London smoldering, her long red-blonde hair flowing.  Misses Krall and Tierney Sutton, today.  (I receive many new CDs by young women who consider themselves singers.  They look like models.  They credit a hair stylist, a wardrobe consultant, a make-up artist.  I think, “Can you sing?”)

Consider Mildred’s contemporaries: pretty, svelte, apparently youthful forever: Peggy Lee, Edythe Wright, Helen Ward, even Doris Day.  But Mildred’s photographs make her look matronly, and she is making no effort to woo the viewer. 

Let us even give audiences of the Thirties and Forties the benefit of the doubt.  If you did not live in a big American city, how many opportunities would you have to see Mildred Bailey and to judge her on the basis of her size rather than her art?  Possibly you saw her on the cover of a piece of sheet music or stared at the label of one of her Vocalion 78s, heard her on the radio.  No film footage exists of her.   

There is the nature of Mildred’s art.  Many artists have one approach, whether they are singing EMPTY BED BLUES of SILENT NIGHT.  If she was singing DOWNHEARTED BLUES, she was lowdown and melancholy (while swinging); LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN and GIVE ME TIME brought out different kinds of tenderness.  On CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU and ARTHUR MURRAY TAUGHT ME DANCING IN A HURRY, she was hilarious.  IT’S SO PEACEFUL IN THE COUNTRY was calm and pastoral, THANKS FOR THE MEMORY rueful, knowing.  And IN LOVE IN VAIN is, althought masterfully understated, a heartbreaking performance.  Versatility is bad for branding; it confuses the consumer.   

As a band singer — the first woman to be hired in that role — with Paul Whiteman and her husband Red Norvo, she recorded a good many songs that were forgettable: THREE LITTLE FISHIES, for one.  Perhaps the girlish quality of Mildred’s upper register may have disconcerted some listeners, who would prefer their jazz singers to be plaintive and husky.  But arguing over the definitions of a jazz singer and a pop singer seems a silly business.  Do you like what you hear?  

Although we can feel both fascinated and sympathetic while considering Billie’s difficult life, Ella’s poor childhood, Mildred would have had a hard time making diabetes and obesity intriguing to us. 

I also suspect that those who ignore her Mildred do so not because her voice displeases them, but because she subliminally represents OLD.  I don’t mean OLD in the sense of the past, but in the sense of elderly, of senior citizen.  What bad luck made Mildred identify herself “The Rockin’ Chair Lady?”  Of course, her performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR was superb; she took it as her theme song.  But — when we want our stars to be aerobically bouncy — for Mildred to portray herself as immobilized, unable to get out of her chair, was not a good way to market herself.  (And artists were products even in the Thirties.)     

Alas, poor Mildred.  Were she to apply for a job and be turned down because of her appearance, she could sue, win, and collect a substantial settlement.  But dead artists can’t sue an ignorant public for discrimination. 

Listen to her sing

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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SMILING JO JONES

As a high school student, I supplemented my intermittent jazz record purchases by listening to the records available at my local public library.  One of the librarians was hip.  Someone had good taste!  The collection included Ellington and George Lewis, Jimmy Rushing and Vic Dickenson, Benny Goodman and “The Sound of Jazz,” among others.  On those records — particularly the Vanguard sessions supervised in the early and middle Fifties by John Hammond — I first heard the sound of Jo Jones, his swishing hi-hat cymbals, his emphatic rimshots, his irresistible swing. 

I had already fallen in love with the propulsion and pure sounds of Catlett and Wettling, but Jo was a revelation: I can still hear the way he brought the band in on Vic’s RUNNIN’ WILD, or the three perfectly placed accents (all different) he used to propel Tommy Ladnier in a fast WEARY BLUES at the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.  And, a little later, when I bought my first Billie Holiday records, the Kansas City Fiva and Six, the Decca Basie band . . . I wanted to hear every record Jo Jones had ever been part of.   

Here is Jo — exuberant, explosive, grinning, soloing at the end of a fast blues, on a 1957 Nat King Cole television show devoted to Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe.  This clip begins at the end of Roy Eldridge’s solo (in mid-scream) and at the end Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown are visible:

But that clip gives way to my own memories of Jo in person, onstage and off. 

This post is motivated by a recent conversation I had with the Beloved about the subject of retiring from one’s job, leaving a career behind.  I told her one of the stories below and she said, astonished, “You spoke to Jo Jones?  Smiling Jo Jones?” hence my title. 

Not only did I speak to Jo Jones: I took this photograph of him in 1981:

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

True, the shot is amateurish: a head is in the way, my flash’s explosion is visible, the overall hue suggests Halloween . . . but Jo’s slow-motion mallet, on its ways down, pleases me greatly.  And the photo evidence that I was there, capturing this moment, which is no small thing.

Many other moments come back to me now. 

My friend Stu Zimny found out, sometime before 1972, that one could see Jo at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop.  We decided to go there, as if we were making a pilgrimage to some sacred place.  Was Jo holding court there, as befits an artist and aristocrat, or was he making a few dollars in a job unworthy of him, as I have read?  I don’t know.  I do remember buying a pair of 5B parade drumsticks from him — to practice with — and snippets of this conversation. 

In person, Jo was animated, inscrutable, vehement.  Something in his manner and approach defied easy explanation.  It felt as if we were speaking to a character in a play — and only Jo had the script.  There was also some element of unpredictability, even of danger, as if he might suddenly get furious at you in the middle of a conversation, as I saw happen with Ruby Braff.   

(Ruby, incidentally, told us a wonderful story about working with Jo at Storyville, almost twenty years earlier: Jo would never say, “Let’s play ROSETTA,” but start a rhythmic pattern and tempo on his hi-hat or snare and leave it up to the musician to guess which tune might best go with that tempo.  Ruby shook his head in disbelief when he recalled, somewhat in desperation, picking some song that he thought might be fine at that tempo, and Jo saying, “That’s it!  You got it!” as if Ruby had telepathically found the answer.  “I don’t play with him any more.  He’s nuts,” said Ruby.) 

Even when speaking to people he knew and liked, Jo had a particular tone of voice that in someone else might have been ironic verging on contemptuous.  But with him it was a form of emphasis.  You could hear capital letters, boldface, italics in his voice.  And he had a fierce energy in his speech: a conversation with him was like being strapped into a centrifuge, an untiring monologue, rising and falling. 

Spotting Jo at Ippolito’s, I imagine that we introduced ourselves as jazz listeners, fans, admirers.  And then one of us asked Jo where we could hear him play.  Was he gigging anywhere?   

He looked at us with weary resignation, two innocent Caucasian college boys who had asked a silly question.

“I’m re-ti-red,” he said, by way of explanation.  “I don’t play the drums anymore.  Leave all that to the kiddies,” he continued.  We couldn’t believe it, and asked him again.  He wasn’t playing any gigs, no festivals?  All he would say was that he was “re-ti-red.”  If we needed a drummer, he suggested that we call Buddy Rich.  Stu points out that Jo offered no contact information for Buddy.  

We went away from that encounter half grieving, half amazed.  We had gone to the mountaintop to meet one of the elders, to receive counsel and inspiration, and the elder had said he had packed it in.

The sequel to all this is that some months later we saw Jo’s name prominently advertised as one of the musicians who would appear in the Newport-New York Jazz Festival.  I think, now, that he had been putting us on.  But perhaps in his own head he had decided to retire.      

In the next decade, we had the opportunity to see him in a variety of situations: concert halls and jazz clubs.  He drove Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS at their 1972 concert appearance (a band that included Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and an out-of-tune Bernard Addison) and took a long solo in the middle of SLEEP — a virtuosic exercise that stopped the song and the show.  Two years later, he appeared at the Newport “Hall of Fame,” as part of a quintet with Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Wilson, and Hinton, his playing was immaculate, sensitive, not showy — Hackett turned the last bridge in “Body and Soul” over to Jo, who filled the air with urging, whispering brush strokes and accents.  

Tom Piazza, then a student at Williams College, arranged a concert of the jazz elders — when such things were still possible: Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton, Budd Johnson, Claude Hopkins, and Jo.  Stu and I went there, armed with a heavy tape recorder, and (in the face of numerous obstacles: an inebriated Budd, a student running the sound board who turned the record level up and down for no reason, an over-exuberant audience) we focused on the band.  Jo traded eights and fours with Milt on a leisurely STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and did his volcanic version of CARAVAN, with every grimace, every surprise firmly choreographed. 

He smiled incessantly when he played: he glowed.  But when we saw Jo in clubs, at close range, he often appeared to be brimful of some barely contained anger.  And though we had come to the gig hoping to hear something delicate, witty — that magical hi-hat sound, those quietly insistent brushes that had levitated so many recordings — he would beat out the time loudly, indefatigably, on a brassily resonant ride cymbal.  It was clear that there were two Jonathan David Samuel Joneses: one, the player we had heard on records, lifting the band with what Donne called “gold to airy thinness beat”; the other, furious at something, wanting to control it by pure sound and pure volume.  Stanley Dance told me about producing a 1961 session that paired Jo with some Ellington alumni — Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Ray Nance, Sir Charles Thompson — and Jo being infuriated about something, then playing as loudly as he could. 

I recall several instances of this irritation-translated-into-music.  When there was a ragtag band of “Basie alumni” assembled at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage: sic transit gloria mundi), Jo walloped the ride cymbal as if wanting to drown everyone out.  At a short-lived spinoff of the Half Note, “The Onliest Place,” a venture that lasted only a few weekends, Jo led a little band one night.  If I remember correctly, it included bassist Tommy Bryant, Ben Richardson on clarinet, Skeeter Best on guitar, and one or two other players.  They embarked on a nearly forgotten Thirties pop tune, CALL ME DARLING, which was not terribly familiar, and some members of the band got lost.  I can hear Jo shouting, “The middle!  The middle!” although I am not sure that this advice averted chaos.  Irritability and delighted in-jokes always characterized his appearances with “The Countsmen,” a group that included Doc Cheatham, Benny Morton, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Chuck Folds, Franklyn Skeete, and Jo.   

Jo could play magically in clubs, though.  I remember going to Gregory’s, a tiny room, to hear Ellis Larkins and Al Hall.  That duo played splendid embroidered jazz for one set and then Jo walked in, unfurled his newspaper, took out a set of folding wire brushes, spread the paper on a chair, and played with elegance, amusement, and grace.   

At the West End Cafe, thanks to Phil Schaap, Jo had a fairly steady gig: “Jo Jones and Friends,” which was most often a quartet of Harold Ashby on tenor, a pianist (sometimes Don Coates), and bassist John Ore, who had played with Monk.  One rainy night in particular stands out.  It was time for the band to begin and Ore had not arrived.  Jo began his sets with a medium-tempo blues in G, and, muttering to himself, he set the tempo by tapping his snare drum with his fingers.  Ashby soloed; the pianist soloed, and when it came to the two or four choruses that would have been taken by Ore, Jo grimaced, muttered loudly and incomprehensibly to himself, and played choruses of accompaniment — as if Ore had been there — with the tenor and piano silent.  It was mildly eerie.  Ore came in soon after, apologized for being late (he lived in Brooklyn), but it took the rest of the night for Jo to become calmer.      

One summer on Long Island, I read that Buddy Tate would be bringing a band, including Jo, to play a free outdoor concert somewhere miles from Manhattan on the North Fork.  It may have been Southold.  We drove out there and saw Tate’s outfit play the first half of the concert, with some of their members, including Jo, missing.  Jo’s son may have subbed for his father on drums.  Eventually, much later, a fire engine drove up, with a few cars following.  Jo came out of one of them.  They had gotten lost and asked directions at a firehouse.  I would like to report that the Tate band, plus Jo, played magnificently, but that wasn’t the case.  The group reassembled itself, and Jo demanded his feature on CARAVAN.  It went on, no nuance or flourish omitted, for something like eleven minutes.  After that, there was only time for Tate to play a hasty LESTER LEAPS IN, and the concert ended.  Perhaps it was because of episodes like this that when we mentioned Jo’s name to musicians of a certain era, their expressions grew wary and guarded.  “He’s crazy, man,” was the response we got from more than one well-established player.

But he could be politely accessible to fans.  I recall approaching him at the West End, before the gig had started, with a new vinyl copy of a record, FOR BASIE.  I had bought it that afternoon and hoped that Jo would autograph it for me.  Recorded in 1957 for Prestige-Swingville, it brought together Shad Collins on trumpet, Paul Quinichette on tenor, Nat Pierce on piano, Walter Page on bass (one of his last recordings), and Jo.  The cover picture showed Jo in a heavy flannel buffalo-plaid shirt with wide suspenders over it, and he grew animated and showed the other musicians at the table.  “See that?” he demanded of them.  “That is style!” he insisted, happily.  And he autographed the back side of the cover in a large ornate hand.  When he was through signing, he said to me that he had never heard the music.  I could take a hint, and offered him this copy (I had another at home).  I hope that it gave him pleasure. 

At another, later West End gig, I had with me a new record, OUR MAN, PAPA JO! — on the Denon label, which had a picture of Jo in full glower at his drum set, on the cover.  Thinking that one can never have too many Jo Jones signatures, I asked him to autograph this one also.  He stared at the cover, held it at arm’s length.

This will keep the burglars from your house!” he gleefully told me. 

In 1981 and early 1982, he was getting more frail and having more difficulty.  Jo played with great delicacy at a “Salute to Pres” concert, offering his familiar dancing trades with Milt Hinton — but he had to be helped up on the drum throne.  At the last West End gig I recall, playing was becoming more and more arduous for him.  When I heard about him next it was the news of his death in 1985.

Photographer Richard H. Merle was at Jo’s funeral, and he caught this poignant moment of Max Roach at Jo’s coffin — the flag draped over the back because Jo had served  — with great reluctance — in the Army in World War Two. 

 

Jo Jones Funeral

Jo Jones’s body has been gone for almost twenty-five years.  Yet his sound remains, and his smile — like the Cheshire Cat’s — has never been effaced.  

Copyright 1985 by Richard H. Merle.  All rights reserved.

ENTERING BILLIE’S WORLD

This morning I gave a talk to a group sponsored by the Molloy (College) Institute for Lifelong Learning  at a church in Rockville Centre.

My subject? “Miss Billie Holiday,” as John Crosby respectfully calls her.

billie-1These talks let me stand up in front of a group of attentive, aware people and discuss something and someone I love.  (I came late to Billie — buying my first Holiday records in 1967 — but I fell hard.)

To be able to share Billie’s records of BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD or MISS BROWN TO YOU and see someone twenty feet away from me gently rocking with the beat is a pleasure.  And because the people who come to these talks aren’t taking required courses for a grade, the atmosphere is free from the emotions so often associated with academia — on either side of the desk.

STRANGE FRUIT casts its own spell as a unique piece of music, of political oratory, of theatre.  As does the Commodore I’LL BE SEEING YOU and (of course) the film clip of FINE AND MELLOW from “The Sound of Jazz,” which I can no longer watch without a lump in my throat.

But the chat afterwards is often even more rewarding.  And surprising.  Today, for instance, we drifted into a discussion of trained and untrained singing voices, diction, Kate Smith, honoring the song GOD BLESS AMERICA, high drape pants, the Rosenberg children, and more.

Best of all, to me, are the bits of anecdote that surface.  If you looked at this crowd, you might sniff dismissively, “Oh, senior citizens from the suburbs.  What would they bring to such an experience?”  But that assumption would be both unfair and wrong, as today’s experience proved.

A man told me about going to jazz clubs in the Village circa 1948 and sitting there forever for very little money, perhaps a quarter.

A woman off to one side picked up on something I had said about Benny Goodman and told me that her husband’s childhood friend was Jay Finegold, who had been Benny’s manager for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties.  I had spoken about Goodman’s focus on his playing — to such an extent that he seemed eccentric, oblivious, or even cruel — and she pointed out that BG came to Jay’s funeral, contradicting much of what I had thought of the King of Swing as a boss or employer.

A woman in the back of the room raised her hand politely and said, “I saw Billie Holiday in a bar on Post Avenue in Westbury.”  (An aside: Post Avenue does have two-way car traffic, but it is distinguished by a CVS, a supermarket, various ethnic eateries, donut shops, delis.  52nd Street isn’t and never was.)

I stopped cold and begged her to elaborate.  She said that this sighting took place around 1954, that Billie sang beautifully but was so stoned (drunk or high, I didn’t know) that she almost knocked the narrator over on the way to the ladies’ room.

A rather shy woman came up at the end and told me that she and her husband had met at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1941 or 1942.  They were high school students who came to dance to the jazz.  She remembered sharing a Tom Collins (they were underage but no one cared).  And she brought up sacred names: bassist Al Morgan, who gave her a brooch in the shape of a bass, and Zutty Singleton.  I beamed at her, awestruck.

On the surface, such talks seem to be one-sided.  I am The Expert; I offer information; my hearers might ask a question or two.  And sometimes that is what the interchange feels like.  But I go away from these experiences thinking that I have been well-taught by the people sitting in front of me.  And they have made me feel more than I ever expect.

My hearers have lived the experiences I am explaining in ways that are no longer possible.  So to talk with someone who saw Billie or Zutty is something extraordinary, not to be repeated as the years go on.  And I am allowed into the most affectionately cherished memories of my audience.  In me, a stranger with esoteric enthusiasms, they find someone eager to hear, someone who cares about a small piece of their past.  Perhaps they tell me something they haven’t told their children, who know so little of the music of fifty or sixty years ago.

The casual generosity of these people, offering irreplaceable stories, is a rare gift.

[The photographs at top and bottom — showing Billie looking healthy and cheerful — come from a German website, and I believe they were taken during her 1954 European tour.  Is the clarinetist a young Tony Scott?  I am sure that it is Red Norvo at the vibraharp, as he would have called it.)

billie-2