Tag Archives: THE SYNCOPATED TIMES

“APOSTLE OF SHELLAC”: MATTHEW RIVERA (The Syncopated Times, January 2021)

Matthew Rivera, music lover, filmmaker, scholar, writer, record collector, broadcaster, someone devoted to sharing not one but several Gospels, has been someone I admire for a few years now.  I first heard him playing wondrous music on WKCR-FM, then met him in person in Greenwich Village, playing rare jazz 78 rpm records to live people in public — imagine that! — then as the Proprietor and Democratic Guide of the Hot Club of New York, which holds free Zoom sessions every Monday night from 7-10 PM, where you can hear surprising music and lively discussion.  (Visit the site to get the Zoom link.)  In October 2019, I did a video interview with Matthew, which you can see here.  Matthew also presents on various aspects of jazz — in a relaxed erudite way — for the New York Adventure Club.  I predict we will read, see, and hear more from this flourishing young man.

Some music to get you in the mood: OUT OF NOWHERE, by Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, and Veronica Lake (thanks to Emrah Erken for the clear transfer):

It was a real pleasure to be able to write a profile of Matthew for the remarkable and durable (the January 2021 issue is their sixtieth) The Syncopated Times  — that issue’s cover story is devoted to the splendid Jen Hodge.  Matthew’s story can be read here (with illustrations) but I trust that the good-natured Andy Senior, editor of TST, will forgive me for offering the full text here, under the same elastic law that allows the person doing the cooking to sample the soup to see if it’s done.  I encourage you to subscribe to TST — which is why I have been running an ad for it at the bottom of JAZZ LIVES posts for many moons now.

But here’s Matthew himself.

APOSTLE OF SHELLAC: MATTHEW “FAT CAT” RIVERA

Born in 1996, in Louisville, Kentucky, Matthew Rivera is making jazz vibrate to new audiences in many ways.  I met him first as a sound-phenomenon on the radio: who was this young man playing rare hot music from 78 rpm discs he treasured, and offering wise commentary?  He started “Hot Club” 78-listening sessions in New York jazz clubs, regularly at Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village, New York, then founded the Hot Club of New York, which has free Monday-night Zoom sessions, he continues to broadcast; he gives erudite yet relaxed presentations of jazz for the New York Adventure Club, and has a book in progress. 

MS: Did jazz hit you like a conversion, or was it a gradually growing fascination?

Both. We’re fascinated when music catches us off guard, but we’re converted when we return to it. For instance, I first heard Billie Holiday’s “Did I Remember” on a movie soundtrack and I was smitten, but my ear truly changed after I sought out the recording and heard it again and again. I try to balance my love for the familiar with fascination for the unfamiliar, though often the familiar wins out. To use Amiri Baraka’s phrase, we have to “Keep Digging.”

MS:  Was there jazz on the family soundtrack when you were growing up?

 There were only scraps of jazz to hear or see in my youth. Maybe I’d see something in a movie, or hear a blues based tune on the oldies station. That truly sad fact indicates jazz’s position in our contemporary world. Somewhere we lost sight of the ongoing struggle for jazz’s power. The incredible thing you have to stress about jazz history is that in 1938 everyone was listening to jazz. Whether you wanted to or not, or even whether you knew it or not, in 1938, near a high point in the industrialization of music, it was impossible to escape an essentially non-conformist music that spoke about the conditions of life in America. That didn’t happen simply because people liked jazz then or because it was a new thing, it happened because of the tough fight the musicians put up to be seen and heard. What we may have forgotten is that this struggle, like all social struggles, is recurring.  The fight for jazz was obviously not won forever in 1938.  On every level—socially, economically, in essence politically—the situation today is completely different from the height of jazz’s popularity.  We have to change our strategy.  I have no prescription for how to change things, but I spend a lot of time thinking, “How did we get here?”

MS:   I first encountered you as a disembodied voice, broadcasting music rarely if ever heard in public, such as Red Allen’s 1935-36 delights, on an afternoon jazz program on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, in 2017.  How did you get there?

 I arrived at Columbia in 2014 with the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Coleman Hawkins stuck in my head. My friend Evan Sennett and I had just made a movie in Louisville about two friends of ours who are searching for a fictional jazz musician, and I added in lines like, “I like Prez better than Hawk.” It was just a complete fantasy about my friends also liking jazz from the ’30s. I was walking around campus on the first day thinking “I bet no one here knows who Bunny Berigan is,” having no clue about the incredible jazz legacy of Columbia’s radio station or that I was standing on the sundial in the middle of campus where Red Allen had once played. Then someone approached me with a box of LPs to promote WKCR. The first thing I saw was a Bunny Berigan record. When I picked up my jaw, I found out where WKCR was, and there I eventually met the great Charles Iselin who was hosting a multi-part show on Red Allen. Shortly thereafter, a tall, boisterous man in a seersucker suit and pink socks appeared and did a voluminous impression of Red Allen driving his car around Times Square, said a few things about the California Ramblers, made a point about Tommy Ladnier that trailed into Muggsy Spanier, and then stormed out of the station to catch the subway. When I caught my breath, Charles told me that was Phil Schaap.

I went to Columbia to study film, though I ended up studying English and anthropology instead because of professors like Ann Douglas, Brent Edwards, and Robert O’Meally who incorporate jazz heavily into their literature courses and teach cultural history. My love for jazz came about initially from movies. My parents wisely took me to see The Aviator when I was eight and I remember being affected not only by the planes and movie cameras, but by the jazz age soundtrack.  Later on I saw Anatomy of a Murder one summer at the Palace Theater. After I saw Duke Ellington in that film and heard the truly ‘noirvana’ soundtrack, I went to Highland Records in Louisville and asked if they had any Ellington LPs. They didn’t have any, which only added to my curiosity. I felt provoked to hear the music whenever I could.

When I showed up at WKCR, I already loved jazz, but I didn’t quite yet realize its importance or vastness. That came from Phil Schaap and older students like Charles Iselin, David Beal, and Francis Mayo. Suddenly I was thrown into a tradition of 24-hour birthday broadcasts, memorial broadcasts, morning listening sessions, five-hour profiles, and discographical inquiries. I came to the station thinking Star Dust by Louis Armstrong, Easy to Love by Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, Burgundy Street Blues by George Lewis, and If I Were a Bell by Miles Davis were all I would ever need to know and now I’m seeing Charles spinning these heavy, fragile 78s and listing off personnel and dates from fat red volumes. Early on, Fran Mayo organized a caravan — three vans of students — to drive to Bessie Smith’s grave and pay our respects. Not long after that the Norwegian solographer Jan Evensmo showed up at the station.  Charles and I spent the day listening to rare Roy Eldridge airshots with him that only exist at the station. I learned about the station’s efforts to save Eldridge’s collection when it washed up on the beaches of Far Rockaway during Hurricane Sandy. I heard Schaap’s 45- minute mic breaks, I learned about the Dizzy Gillespie red chair, I saw the thousands of interview reels in the vaults.  I was in the middle of complete and total love for music which up to that point I had only known in solitude.

Ultimately what amazed me about WKCR was what I would learn more formally from Phil Schaap when he became my mentor without me even realizing it. First, I learned from him that all music is present tense and not to get caught up in ideologies about progress or overvalue either the future or the past. Secondly, I learned not to be a swing chauvinist or a BeBop chauvinist. One of the most beautiful traditions we have on WKCR is our back to back Ornette Coleman and Bix Beiderbecke birthday broadcasts and I have learned, albeit rather belatedly, to love both dearly. Ultimately, I learned that music has a social and political function, and this, and the biographies of musicians, is inseparable and essential to understanding the sounds I loved. I learned from friends at WKCR and my teachers at Columbia to hear the essential spirit of the music’s makers. I learned to appreciate the very real connections that popular taste and criticism have largely overlooked. I learned that tastes are mutable, therefore I can’t let my taste or the taste of others guide my ears or changes my direction. I learned to follow musical daring.

MS:  For those who don’t know Phil Schaap, who is he?

Phil is a radio host, educator, sound engineer, and historian—simply a worker for jazz and the hardest working person I’ve ever met. There is an unbelievable passion in the man who speaks on air for 45 minutes straight listing record personnel, dates, and Dodgers scores by heart, remembering what he ate when he met Duke Ellington, flipping, cuing, EQing, and playing a 78 in a matter of seconds, excerpting the eight-bar Chu Berry solo and playing it twenty times in a row, working for jazz like he is running a lifelong marathon. What he teaches is basically music appreciation, not performance. Phil has aimed to get musicians better gigs, to teach listening to experts and newcomers alike, to introduce new generations of listeners to jazz, and to make jazz sound better through high quality sound productions. 

I never would be able to learn as much as I have without Phil because he taught me how to find the music, not just to settle with what I already knew. Because of his unusual methods and his aversion to mediocrity, people like to imagine Phil as a modern version of Balzac’s Père Goriot: a tragically misunderstood artifact from a different world. But Phil became a friend, a mentor, and my main influence because his mission is to bring people to jazz. He showed me what work needed to be done, and what a worker for jazz should be.

The other person I have to explain and give a big shout out to is CHARLES ISELIN! When I met Charles, I was interested in 78s because I had seen Crumb and was curious about the records in that movie. I’m a collector at heart and I don’t think that’s a shameful or embarrassing thing if the collector reflects upon him or herself, reads some Walter Benjamin, and remembers to shower once in a while. I asked Charles if he had any 78s and he went back to the archive and hauled out a box of records he had just bought. Flipping through the stack, I noticed Who by Frankie Newton on Bluebird, not because of Newton, who is now my hero, but because of Mezz Mezzrow, whose book Really the Blues I had just read and loved! Charles grinned and put on Who. I think that devil knew I was about to get hooked on some deep s*** because sure enough that night I went on eBay and bought a Red Allen Vocalion though I didn’t even have a way to play it. He showed me that the 78s were the closest I could get to the music.

MS: What led up to your founding the Hot Club of New York, whose central purpose is offering listeners “a chance to hear scarce records in their historic and aesthetic contexts, and to discuss jazz in a relaxed environment”?

Remember, I’m a filmmaker who likes jazz, but slowly there were events that led to the Hot Club. I met Parker Fishel and David Beal, two righteous fellows who loved the music, and particularly loved the Blues which was always the heart of it. That’s the main thing: the Blues is the spirit and when jazz loses the Blues, jazz loses the spirit. Everyone from Freddie Keppard to Cecil Taylor knew that. So I know that anyone who loves the Blues, like Parker and David do, is going to be a friend. Parker invited me over to his place to listen to Pete Brown records, and David and Ben Young showed up too. That was the first Hot Club I went to, and the beginning of the Neo Hot Club Movement. I’d never had that experience, other than with Charles, of listening to the music deeply and quietly, and lovingly. That’s the experience I’ve always tried to recreate with the Hot Club, whether it was at a dressed up cellar in the Village or on Zoom on Monday nights.

 MS: They call you “Fat Cat.”  But you’re not a bulky plutocrat.

Yes, I hope that handle is unlike me in more ways than one—like Tiny Parham. That really gets us to the first official Neo Hot Club: Morristown, hosted by Melissa Jones. Phil, Ben, Charles, Emily Fenster, Sam Engel, and a whole bunch would drive or ride the train out to Morristown, New Jersey, to listen to rare 78s on a top of the line sound system. I still didn’t have a turntable or anything at that time. I was only listening to my 78s at WKCR, which didn’t sound as good as at Melissa’s. On the ride back from Morristown once, Phil mentioned a Sippie Wallace 78 of which he had only known two copies to exist. There was his, and there was Johnson “Fat Cat” McRree Jr.’s, a collector and jazz festival host from Virginia. I was shocked because I had just bought the record for $8 on the internet, only it had a sizable dig in the grooves near the end.  So the next time we went out to Morristown, I brought the Sippie Wallace record and showed it to Phil.  It was the first time I had ever seen him impressed by anything. He was sweating, his eyes were bulging like a Crumb cartoon, his voice was cracking, and he told me to put on the record which I’m already in the middle of doing. As we were all listening to this unbelievably emotional, soulful blues record with Louis Armstrong and someone who wants to sound like Bechet, it gets to the chip in the grooves and Phil goes absolutely berserk, stands up in his chair, his face red, shouting “That’s Fat Cat’s copy!! You’re the Fat Cat! Fat Cat Rivera.” I had bought Fat Cat McRree Jr.’s copy for eight dollars.

MS:  You took piano lessons for ten years: tell us your James P. Johnson story.

My first encounters with music were encounters with the piano. My uncle and grandmother both played and inspired me to play. I took lessons with a true friend Calvin Pinney, a kind, churchgoing woman who would not stand for rushing or fast tempos and would have no deviation from the notes on the page. I still have her look of “You didn’t practice, did you?” burned into my mind. I took lessons up to the point where I was playing Bach two-part inventions and the four Gershwin preludes pretty solidly. Then I found a transcription of James P. Johnson playing If Dreams Come True. I listened to that music non-stop, I tried to play it, and it basically broke me down completely. I realized then, I can read music, I can interpret the old masters, I play the Rodgers and Hart songbook at a party for tips, I can even slide into Gershwin, but I can’t do THAT. I realized I was an audience member.

MS: It’s obvious you aren’t traveling this rocky road alone.

I learn from my peers, and it’s here I must thank Colin Hancock, the single most important jazz scholar living today and one of my best friends. Vince Giordano has helped me quite a bit, and with his working orchestra, The Nighthawks, he has shown us all the power of the jazz age ten piece big bands. I didn’t realize it until about ten years later, but one of my first introductions to jazz, watching The Aviator, was an introduction by Vince Giordano who performed most of the music for that film. Not to lift the curtain, Michael, but you are also an important peer and friend. Al Vollmer, David Sager, Ricky Riccardi, Scott Wenzel, Jan Evensmo, Lloyd Rauch, Andrew Oliver, Scout Opatut, Evan Arntzen, Lucy Yeghiazaryan, and countless others have taught me more than a thing or two about jazz. Still the people I learn the most from are my close friends Sam Fentress, Alex Garnick, Evan Sennett, Aaron Friedman, Laura Cadena, and Sophie Kovel, and most importantly my love, Elena Burger. They are all tuned in to our generation. They understand what the Hot Club mission is about and the sociality and politics of art and history.  In their own individual ways, they are all non-conformist thinkers which is what I want to be. Then there’s the rarest of them all, a non-conformist thinker who understands jazz: my professor Ann Douglas who wrote Terrible Honesty and has guided me in everything from Charlie Parker to Raymond Chandler. She is someone I am honored to say is my friend.

MS:  How does jazz fit into your other passions — politics, film, American culture?  Are there connections between Charlie Johnson and your literary heroes?

Jazz is the most specific of these topics because it relies essentially on an attitude and outlook towards life. It is the best part of American culture, but it is obviously not all of American culture. The outlook is, plainly enough, the Blues outlook—an honest square look at all of life’s nasty stuff that is deeply hurt by it and still finds a way to laugh it off, to see light not only at the other side of the tunnel but in the tunnel itself. Though not always successful at looking, or at laughing, and not always the most approachable thing, if you judge jazz at its best (as we should always judge) it’s the only light. I appreciate other music through jazz—certainly Cuban son, Puerto Rican plena, Old Time mountain music, Cajun, gospel, Dominican merengue, Hawaiian hula, Bach, Bob Dylan, West African palm wine, Greek rebetika—but I’ve learned I basically appreciate everything that has the Blues outlook. Outside of jazz, film noir and noir literature have been the strongest expression of this Blues spirit. The spirit, of course, predates the modern Blues as well, and it can be seen in the novels of Balzac and the poems of Sappho.  Although Charlie Johnson, as a person and artist, was basically nothing like David Goodis, they both dug into the Blues with a feeling, as a song by Duke Ellington is titled.

MS:  How did you get from being “A 78 record collector” to founding the Hot Club of New York, and what do you see as its future?

Through the path people like Phil, Charles, Melissa, David, and Parker have shown me, I have seen that jazz is a social phenomenon. There’s a book called Musicking by Christopher Small which says the music is more than the object on stage, but the entire social interaction, the space, the love and the people. Dancing, record collecting, record listening, and most certainly performance attending are all acts of musicking with almost as much importance for the social space as the performance itself.

This way of understanding music is lost on us.  Generally, we have lost sight of the need for an audience. If there are more musicians on stage than audience members in the house — which I’m sad to say I have witnessed — then it’s only public practice. I realized the same thing about collecting the records. If I’m only playing them for myself I’m not getting them all they’re worth. Even having the 78s is only half the battle. I’ve got to play them for people, and I have to find people who want to listen and teach more people to want to listen. The ultimate mission of the Hot Club is to introduce a new audience to jazz, and to create a space of active jazz musicking. 

Melissa Jones, whom I first met as a classmate at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Swing University, basically lives this idea of music, supporting and bringing together the jazz community in any way possible. I’ve already mentioned the Hot Club of Morristown. Melissa would host young musicians and listeners at her house, feeding all of us to the gills. It didn’t matter who we were as long as we loved jazz. I think the most important part of the Neo Hot Club came from Melissa as she constantly reminded me of jazz’s ultimate cause: to bring people together. She exemplified an angel of musicking to a generation of young jazz people, and when the future hit all too soon this year I took her cue to begin hosting Zoom Hot Club meetings on Monday nights. Her presence there has continued to bond the group of listeners from all backgrounds. I dedicate this interview to Melissa Jones.

MS: What are some prizes of your collection?  Do you have desert island discs?

Well, assuming I can take a ship the size of the Titanic to the island…. My number one is Out of Nowhere by Coleman Hawkins with a stunning muted trumpet by Benny Carter on HMV. 

I’m also grateful to say I have a mint copy of Cecil Scott’s Lawd, Lawd on Victor, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band’s Chattanooga Stomp and Camp Meeting Blues on Columbia, Chick Webb’s If Dreams Come True on Columbia, Jack Purvis’s Down Georgia Way, Charlie Johnson’s Charleston is the Best Dance After All, both takes of Louis Armstrong’s Star Dust, Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue on OKeh, a west coast pressing of Art Karle’s Lights Out with my favorite Frankie Newton solo, Tell Me, Dreamy Eyes by Perley Breed’s Shepard Colonial Orchestra on Gennett (thanks to Colin Hancock), Wipe ’em Off by the Seven Gallon Jug Band, Noah’s Blues by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Ice Freezes Red by Fats Navarro, My Baby’s Blues by the Blues Man on Juke Box, a vinylite pressing of Coleman Hawkins’s Talk of the Town, a vinylite of Bird of Paradise on Dial and my favorite Charlie Parker Thriving on a Riff on a beautiful sounding vinylite Savoy. Every record I own is one I could never part with! A test pressing of With a Smile and a Song, an unissued side from a Teddy Wilson session with the beautiful singer Sally Gooding and the tenor great Chu Berry, is a crown jewel.

MS:  Does record collecting feed the music or vice versa?

Through collecting records I came to understand that there are alternative ways to listen to and find music. Jazz came to have a context, and context is never icing on the cake. Context is always the thing itself when you get down to it. We’ve lost sight of that fact through the current ways of distributing music, and that’s why I think we are left with an understanding of music that is supporting an ideology that handicaps the music and strips it of its active life. Jazz is not an abstract music just like Pollock and Krasner were not abstract painters. Pollock painted about the censorship of the cold war; he danced around the oppressors to say exactly what they were afraid art was capable of saying, which is what the jazz musicians he was listening to had already done. Jazz musicians danced around power to create something seemingly nonsensical to the unhip, but explicitly communicative to its righteous audience. Spotify, YouTube, and all of the current ways of distributing music decontextualize and deactivate music. The way these apps envision music shows exactly where those in power want it to be: in the background. Ironically, their outlook inadvertently acknowledges the importance and power of jazz.  It’s our way out.   

MS: You’ve been doing intriguing research on Frankie Newton.  Why is he a hero?

Frankie Newton is important to me because he was on the first 78 I heard, and he has since become more important to me because he showed me the way to the music.  For someone who was dead for over forty years before my birth to show me the way is nothing short of the ultimate vision of jazz’s power. The same can be said of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, or Billie Holiday, but for me Newton has had the loudest voice because whenever you find him, he is never caught up in the zero sum game of the culture industry, playing hide and seek to make a living and still not lose his soul. Perhaps Coltrane equals him in this regard. Newton was politically minded, but even before I knew about his politics I knew about his activities as a painter.

As someone who was balancing playing jazz records and making films and studying literature I found any character who delved into another medium from a jazz perspective to be fascinating and exceptional. The more I’ve learned about Newton, combing through newspapers, periodicals, and an interview disc I found in a junk shop, the more I’ve found that his position on the margins of jazz popularity shows the fault lines in our understanding of the music, and a point of view that contrasts revealingly with the more famous artists of his time. Moreover, and most importantly, Frankie Newton is a truly great musician.  He is the best kind of soloist—he speaks for the whole group when he solos, not just for himself. I’m always curious to hear what he has to say.

MS:  We feel the same way about Matthew Rivera! 

Although I’ve thanked a lot of people in this interview, ultimately there are two groups of people to whom I’m most grateful.  First, my parents and family in Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, and Puerto Rico, and secondly, the pioneering jazz musicians of every generation.  They are the original jazz workers, and all I want to do is work for them.

Matthew can be found broadcasting (from his apartment) via wkcr.org on Mondays 12-3 PM EST.  Join the Hot Club of New York at http://hotclubny.com (there’s also a HCNY Facebook page) where you can find the Zoom link for his Monday night sessions from 7-10 PM.  Information about his programs for the New York Adventure Club can be found at https://nyadventureclub.com.

May your happiness increase!

 

AND NOW, A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR (thanks to HAL SMITH and THE SYNCOPATED TIMES, November 2020)

Your only-intermittently-Humble-Correspondent, 2012. Photograph by Marcia Salter.

I am honored by being the subject of a piece in November 2020 The Syncopated Times, whose link you can find below.  All credit goes to my friend Hal Smith — most of you know him as a percussive sparkplug, but he’s a fine intuitive journalist as well as being a great writer-archivist.  I’ve been interviewed twice before, by Andrew Sammut and Mike Zirpolo, but I was thrilled to have the email conversation with Hal that resulted in this piece.  I didn’t tell him what questions to ask: he just knew and I felt comfortable.  And the piece doesn’t start with my musical training at my mother’s knee, because it didn’t go that way.

I characterize myself as a Shy Extrovert: someone who thrives on attention in very short bursts — if the light is too bright, I run for cover.  Those who know me well might say, “Yes, Michael.  He shows up and hugs everyone and then he hides behind that camera.”  But I am very proud of this and hope you won’t mind a blogpost’s worth of muted preening.  Thanks in advance for reading.  (And if someone chose to subscribe to TST, that wouldn’t bother me at all.)  None of this would have happened without the kind enthusiasm of TST’s editor, Andy Senior, who lives the music also.

The link is here.  And there are color photographs toooooooooo! (Alas, I didn’t credit the fine photgrapher / videographer Laura Wyman for them.)

May your happiness increase!

SHE TAKES US ALONG ON HER JOURNEYS: EMILY ASHER’S GARDEN PARTY, “IF I WERE A WINDOW”

The inspiring and inspired Ms. Asher, in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Some new compact discs lend themselves to instant approving review; others, I love but have to take time to write about with proper appreciation.  Their impact has to sink in.

Emily Asher‘s latest, IF I WERE A WINDOW, is one of the second kind.  It’s not because I had to look under the bed to find the adjectives.  Rather, it is like a slim volume of short stories with each story so full of flavor, so different from its neighbors, so that I couldn’t read them all in one sitting.  The sensory offerings are so rich, each one its own multi-layered narrative, that I had to take my time and listen to at most two or three performances at a time.

If that has scared off prospective buyers (“Oh, no!  This sounds like work!”) let me assure you that this recording is fun and lively and full of good surprises.  You’ll be dancing in the kitchen as you carefully (with gloves) remove the seeds from the hot peppers that are going to be part of dinner.

I think I first encountered Emily a decade ago, sitting in at the Ear Inn — in itself a mark of achievement — and was delighted by this elegant young woman who got around the horn so nimbly but also understood the trombone’s less polite origins.  Later, I saw her with her own Garden Party and other assemblages, and she was a charming mixture of earnestness, playfulness, and deep feeling: playing, singing, composing.  As she is now.

You can read the names of the performers in the photograph below, but they are so admirable that I should write them again: Emily Asher, Mike Davis, Jay Rattman, James Chirillo, Dalton Ridenhour, Rob Adkins, Jay Lepley, Sam Hoyt. They are musical heroes to me, and if you’ve not made their acquaintance, be prepared to be impressed by them as soloists, as ensemble players, as thoughtful soulful artists.

Emily has described the CD as a mix of hot jazz and songs inspired by “the Southern Sun,” as she encountered it in her extended stay in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Let us start with some Davenport-infused hot jazz:

Emily’s done a good deal to celebrate the music of Hoagy Carmichael, so I couldn’t neglect her SMALL FRY:

Those performances of venerable tunes are what I would call Old Time Modern.  No dust on them but a frisky liveliness in the solos and Emily’s singing (how deftly she winks at us through the lyrics: her phrasing is a marvel) — music that says, “Come on in and make yourself comfortable.”

But Emily’s not content to sprawl on the couch and eat pistachios; she is a curious energized explorer.  Here’s CHICO MEZCALERO, explication below:

This song, and several of her intriguing compositions, were inspired by her late-2019 trip to Oaxaca to learn Spanish, and they have the psychic depth of the short stories I mentioned above.  CHICO MEZCALERO, “little boy mezcal maker,” came from her meeting just such a person at his family’s mezcal plant.  She told Brian R. Sheridan in the August 2020 The Syncopated Times, “After I got back to New York, I was thinking about every step of how the mezcal is made — where the boy picks up pieces of the agave plant and throws them into a big smoking fire.  I also thought about how his family makes their living, creating this spirit that is precious to the community there.  I just sat and listened for the melody of that little boy . . . . ”

Few CDs that I know take listeners on a journey so evocatively.

Here’s Emily’s pensive hymnlike melody I find irresistible, as is its wistful title:

That melody and that performance remind me so beautifully of the Gil Evans – Miles Davis collaborations of the Fifties, and I’ve returned to this song several times in a row.  I predict you will do the same with this CD and with the individual performances.  They offer delightful evidence of the feathery breadth of Emily’s imaginations, the musical community she has nurtured, and the varied, rewarding results.

You can purchase the music — digitally or tangibly — here.  This is a CD you won’t tire of.

And, in the name of self-indulgence, here are the Oaxaca Wanderers: I met them in 2008, and must ask Emily if she gigged with them.  I hope they haven’t bought identical brightly-colored polo shirts (the band uniform with appropriate OW logo) since then.

 May your happiness increase!

JIMMY MAZZY’S SOULFUL SELVES: SARAH SPENCER, BILL SINCLAIR, ART HOVEY (2019, 2016)

I first have to thank my dear friend Sarah Spencer — essential in so many ways — for telling me about the first video (as well as being the central part of those that follow).  This small post is about the divinely inspired Jimmy Mazzy, banjo icon, magnificent singer, and occasionally philosopher-humorist.

Jimmy was inducted into the American Banjo Museum’s Hall of Fame in September 2019, and happily there is a video tribute.  The first five minutes are a respectful overview of his career, with delightful photographs and a snippet of performance, leading up to his own solo turn on MY PRAYER.

Dear viewers, please make time to drink in the majesty of this performance.  I think of Jimmy as at heart shy — but when he begins to sing, passion courses through him and comes straight to us.  It’s electrifying, and it is a prayer.

As a kind of aesthetic palate-cleanser (that’s a compliment, son) here is Steve Provizer’s wonderful profile of Jimmy in THE SYNCOPATED TIMES, notable for Jimmy’s deeply-felt candor and humanity.

I have had only one extended occasion to witness Jimmy — majestic, funky, hilarious, and completely soulful — right up close, at Sarah’s Wine Bar, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, when he appeared with Sarah, Art Hovey, and Bill Sinclair on August 28, 2016.  Again, divinely inspired, joyous, and touching.  The performance is here in three parts: here, here,  and here.  At the time, we knew this evening was something special: it radiates even more strongly now.

May your happiness increase!

LOVE SONGS ARE JUST AROUND THE CORNER — VALENTINE’S DAY 2020 with YAALA BALLIN and MICHAEL KANAN

You can figure out from the banner above what I’m suggesting as a way to spend a Friday evening with someone you’re fond of.  To borrow from James Chirillo, music will be made: Yaala and Michael have a wonderful playful sensibility; they are a special musical pair. 

Their most recent engagement was at Mezzrow last December, and here is some delicious evidence.  I present the remainder of their Mezzrow performance for your delectation, amorous or simply aesthetic.

MORE THAN YOU KNOW:

YESTERDAYS:

After the JEOPARDY theme, an Alec Wilder classic:

I LOVE PARIS:

I WAS DOING ALL RIGHT:

The closing medley: AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, I COULD WRITE A BOOK, and FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE:

I hope your February 14th plans include this emotionally lively music by Yaala and Michael.

May your happiness increase!

THE PAST, PRESERVED: “TRIBUTE TO JIMMIE NOONE”: JOE MURANYI, MASON “COUNTRY” THOMAS, JAMES DAPOGNY, JOHNNY WILLIAMS, ROD McDONALD, HAL SMITH (Manassas Jazz Festival, Dulles, Virginia, Nov. 30, 1986)

One moral of this story, for me, is that the treasure-box exists, and wonderfully kind people are willing to allow us a peek inside.

A jazz fan / broadcaster / amateur singer and kazoo player, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, Jr. (1923-1990), — he was an accountant by day — held jazz festivals in Manassas and other Virginia cities, beginning in 1966 and running about twenty years.  They were enthusiastic and sometimes uneven affairs, because of “Fat Cat”‘s habit, or perhaps it was a financial decision, of having the finest stars make up bands with slightly less celestial players.  Some of the musicians who performed and recorded for McRee include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, James Dapogny, Don Ewell, John Eaton, Maxine Sullivan, Bob Wilber, Pug Horton, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Bob Greene, Johnny Wiggs, Zutty Singleton, Clancy Hayes, George Brunis, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Tommy Gwaltney, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barker, Edmond Souchon, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Gordon, Marty Grosz, Hal Smith, Kerry Price . . . .

McRee also had business sense, so the proceedings were recorded, issued first on records and then on cassette.  I never got to Manassas while the Festival was happening, but I did buy many of Fat Cat’s lps (with their red and yellow label) and years later, when I met Hank O’Neal, he told me stories of recording the proceedings on Squirrel Ashcraft’s tape machine here.

My dear friend Sonny McGown, who was there, filled in some more of the story of the music you are about to see and hear.  The 1986 festival was dedicated to Jimmie Noone and these performances come from a Sunday brunch set.  “It was a very talented group and they meshed well. Mason ‘Country’ Thomas was the best clarinetist in the DC area for years; he was a big fan of Caceres. . . . Fat Cat’s wife, Barbara, often operated the single VHS video camera which in later years had the audio patched in from the sound board. As you well know, the video quality in those days was somewhat lacking but it is better to have it that way than not at all. Several years later Barbara allowed Joe Shepherd to borrow and digitize many of the videos. In his last years Fat Cat only issued audio cassettes. They were easy to produce, carry and distribute. FCJ 238 contains all of the Muranyi – Dapogny set except for “River…”. However, the videos provide a more enhanced story.”

A few years back, I stumbled across a video that Joe had put up on YouTube — I think it was Vic Dickenson singing and playing ONE HOUR late in his life, very precious to me for many reasons — and I wrote to him.  Joe proved to be the most generous of men and he still is, sending me DVDs and CD copies of Fat Cat recordings I coveted.  I am delighted to report that, at 93, he is still playing, still a delightful person who wants nothing more for his kindnesses than that the music be shared with people who love it.

Because of Joe, I can present to you the music of Jimmie Noone, performed on November 30, 1986, by Joe Muranyi, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocal; Mason “Country” Thomas, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Rod McDonald, guitar; Johnny Williams, string bass [yes, Sidney Catlett’s teammate in the Armstrong Decca orchestra!]; Hal Smith, drums; Johnson McRee, master of ceremonies and vocalist.  The songs are IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (vocal, Joe); CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES (vocal, Fat Cat); MISS ANNABELLE LEE (Joe); SO SWEET; RIVER, STAY ‘WAY FROM MY DOOR; APEX BLUES; SWEET LORRAINE (Fat Cat).

Some caveats.  Those used to videocassette tapes know how quickly the visual quality diminishes on duplicates, and it is true here.  But the sound, directly from the mixing board, is bright and accurate.  YouTube, in its perplexing way, has divided this set into three oddly-measured portions, so that the first and second segments end in the middle of a song.  Perhaps I could repair this, but I’d rather be shooting and posting new videos than devoting my life to repairing imperfections.  (Also, these things give the busy YouTube dislikers and correcters something to do: I can’t take away their pleasures.)

One of the glories of this set is the way we can see and hear Jim Dapogny in peak form — not only as soloist, but as quirky wise ensemble pianist, sometimes keeping everything and everyone on track.  Joe has promised me more videos with Jim . . . what joy, I say.

Don’t you hear me talkin’ to you?  It IS tight like that:

Who’s wonderful?  Who’s marvelous?

I’ve just found joy:

I started this post with “a” moral.  The other moral comes out of my finding this DVD, which I had forgotten, in the course of tidying my apartment for the new decade.  What occurs to me now is that one should never be too eager to tidy their apartment / house / what have you, because if everything is properly organized and all the contents are known, then surprises like this can’t happen.  So there.  Bless all the people who played and play; bless those who made it possible to share this music with you.  Living and “dead,” they resonate so sweetly.

May your happiness increase!

HOW THE MASTERS DO IT: BOB HAVENS // MARTY GROSZ (Jazz at Chautauqua, September 16, 2011)

I am moderately accident-prone: I can trip over an uneven sidewalk; have the last bit of salad dressing adhere to my shirt; while driving, I may unsuccessfully avoid a pothole with an $800 repair bill as the result.  I laugh about it.

So I admire those who see the looming catastrophe, however its size and shape, and step around it without spilling their tea.  They aren’t Bojangles, Fred, or Gene — just people who sense the landmine and gracefully avoid it.  Jazz musicians are especially good at fixing errors before they turn into train wrecks.

Two of these Masters — you could call them spiritual acrobats or merely veterans of the trade — are trombonist Bob Havens and guitarist / singer / arranger Marty Grosz.  Both of these heroes are born in 1930, so when this brief interlude took place on September 16, 2011, they were 81.  Decades of experience!  The occasion was the yearly Jazz at Chautauqua, the beloved child of Joe Boughton, that was held at the Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua, New York (ninety minutes from Buffalo).  It was a memorable jazz weekend, with about thirty musicians playing and singing from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon.

One of the particular delights of Chautauqua grew out of Joe’s love for beautiful semi-forgotten songs.  Thus the weekend began and ended with a ballad medley.  Four musicians were chosen as a skilled rhythm section, and from one side of the stage, everyone else walked on, indicated briefly to the rhythm section what song they had chosen and in what key, played or sang a chorus at a slow tempo, and walked offstage from the other side.  Emotionally powerful, visually charming, full of surprises and sweet sensations.

For the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua’s closing medley, the rhythm section was Keith Ingham, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Marty Grosz, guitar; Arnie Kinsella, drums.  The complete medley ran perhaps twenty minutes: I’ve excerpted a segment I find particularly touching.

You’ll see at the start of this excerpt Bob Havens step onstage and explain by words and gestures that he plans to play — in seconds — LOVE LETTERS IN THE SAND, the nostalgic creation of Charles and Nick Kenny and Danny Coots’ great-uncle, J. Fred.  It’s a favorite song of mine, first recorded in 1931 by (among others) Ruth Etting, then made into a huge success by Pat Boone.  I won’t comment on what the trajectory from Ruth to Pat suggests to me, especially because it was one of Vic Dickenson’s favorites also (his medium-bounce version can be found on YouTube).  In its homespun way, it’s a seventeenth-century poem: human love always loses the battle with nature and time, and tears are inevitable.

The opening phrase is familiar, the harmony simple, but unless my ears deceive me, there is a slight uncertainty in the rhythm section about the harmonies that follow, so Havens, used to this sort of thing for decades, “spells out” the harmony by emphasizing arpeggiated chords as he goes along — and the performance not only reaches its goal but our hearts as well.

Then Marty, who always goes his own way, thank goodness, asks everyone to be silent while he essays EMALINE.  That in itself would be brave — the lyrics to the chorus are pure Waltons-Americana, but they might be fairly well known.  No, our hero Martin Oliver Grosz begins with the verse and gets about one-third of the way before realizing his memory of the lyrics is incomplete: hear his inimitable rescue!  And the chorus is just lovely.  Incidentally, Frank Tate is someone I deeply admire: watch and listen to this clip again, and look at his facial expressions as Marty walks the thorny path he has chosen for himself.

For those who need to know (I had to look them up) the pretty although seriously hackneyed lyrics to the verse are: Ev’ning breezes hum a lullaby / There’s a million candles in the sky / I’ve put on my Sunday suit of blue / Emaline, just for  you / Here I’m standing at your garden gate / While the village clock is striking eight / Hurry up! Hurry down! / Honey, don’t be late!  (I especially like the “up” and “down,” but I’m a sentimentalist.)

The musicians on this stage (and their friends) are my role models.  What does a brief error matter if you either head it off or make a joke out of it: in both cases, they not only avoid trouble but cover it up so stylishly that the result is even better than plain old competence.  All hail!

There will be more previously unknown treasures from the Jazz at Chautauqua weekends — and then its successor, the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party — in months to come.  “Too good to ignore,” said Eddie Condon, who spoke truth.

May your happiness increase!

BLISS (Part Two): DANNY TOBIAS, LARRY McKENNA, SILAS IRVINE, JOE PLOWMAN (1867 Sanctuary, Ewing, New Jersey, Sept. 21, 12019)

I saw the sign, and stopped for it.

Here is the first part of BLISS, and you will hear I don’t exaggerate: four songs performed by Danny Tobias, trumpet, fluegelhorn; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Silas Irvine, piano; Joe Plowman, string bass, at the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, New Jersey, on September 21, 2019.

Celestial music, to be sure.

Here are some still photographs of the four illuminators, thanks to Verizon:

and

and

and

You’ve been patient.  Now for the moving pictures (with sound, too)!

Gershwin and Gershwin:

Rodgers and Hart:

Edgar Sampson:

Lerner and Loewe:

Youmans and Caesar:

What lovely unaffected music.  I can’t wait for this quartet’s return engagement.

May your happiness increase!

“AND THE ANGELS SWING”: THE DAN BARRETT – ENRIC PEIDRO QUINTET

Swing is hard to define, but it’s the difference between ripe cherries and a cherry candy “with natural flavors” synthesized in a laboratory.  I’m happy to report that the CD that pairs tenor saxophonist Enric Peidro and trombone legend Dan Barrett is satisfying swinging jazz throughout.  In fact, it reaches new heights in the most refined yet impassioned ways.

Let’s start at the back of the bandstand, or the bottom of the band (no offense intended), the fine rhythm section.  I didn’t know pianist Richard Busiakewicz, bassist Lluis Llario, or drummer Carlos “Sir Charles” Gonzalez before this recording, but I love them.  Their swing is unforced and easy; they know how, what, when, why, and when not to . . .

But before I write more, here’s a sonic sample, celebrating both Vic Dickenson (the composer) and his horticultural endeavors:

The question of what is “authentic” is treacherous, because we defend our subjectivities with a lover’s defensive ardor, but that performance feels both expressive and controlled in the best ways.  Forget for a moment the warm twenty-first century recording technology.  If I heard that track, coming after a 1945 Don Byas-Buck Clayton Jamboree 78 and a Mel Powell Vanguard session, I would not think VIC’S SPOT an impostor.  Swing is more than being able to play the notes or wear the hat; it’s a world-view, and this quintet has it completely.

Barrett remains a master — not only of the horn, but of what I’d call “orchestral thinking,” where he’s always inventing little touches (on the page or on the stand) to make any performance sound fuller, have greater rhythmic emphasis and harmonic depth.  I’ve seen him do this on the spot for years, and his gentle urgency makes this quintet even more a convincing working band than it would have been if anyone took his place.  And as a trombonist, he really has no peer: others go in different directions and woo us, but he is immediately and happily himself, totally recognizable, with a whole tradition at his fingertips as well as a deep originality.

But Dan would be the first one to say that he is not the whole show: this CD offers us a swinging little band.  We’ve all heard recordings, some of them dire, where the visiting “star” is supported by the “locals,” who are not up to the star’s level: many recorded performances by Ben Webster immediately come to mind.

AND THE ANGELS SWING is the glorious countertruth to such unbalanced affairs, because Enric Peidro, who was new to me before I heard this CD, is a masterful player.  He’s no one’s clone — I couldn’t predict what his next phrase would be or where his line of thought would go — and although he is not cautious, he never puts a foot wrong.  You can hear his gliding presence on the track above, and for me he summons up two great and under-praised players, primarily Harold Ashby, but also a cosmopolitan Paul Gonsalves with no rough edges.  He is a fine intuitive ensemble player, with an easy sophistication that charms the ear.  I think of the way Ruby Braff appeared in the early Fifties: someone not afraid to play the melody, to improvise in heartfelt ways, to eschew the harder aspects of “modernism” without being affected in any reactionary ways.

Add to this a set of delightful song choices, with a great deal of variety but not so much that the ear is startled when track 4 becomes track 5, and you have a delightful session.  The tunes are: I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME into KANSAS CITY STRIDE / ‘DEED I DO / LIMEHOUSE BLUES / AND THE ANGELS SWING / SERENADE TO SWEDEN / IF I DIDN’T CARE / MY BLUE HEAVEN / VIC’S SPOT / SULTRY SERENADE — you’ll hear echoes of 1939 Basie and Ellington, but there’s no attempt to “reproduce” — just to play with ease, warmth, and wisdom.

If you need any more verification, know that Scott Hamilton approves of Enric!

You can learn more about Enric and his love of swing here — where I just learned that he and Dan have a new CD coming out this October, called IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING . . . what fun!

And here’s another taste from AND THE ANGELS SWING:

Let us — metaphorically at least — carry this band around the room on our shoulders.  Or we can strew flowers at their feet, whichever is easier.

May your happiness increase!

EXPERIMENTS IN MUSIC THERAPY, THANKS TO DOCTORS HILL AND WALLER, AND OTHER PRACTITIONERS OF THE HEALING ARTS

Here’s the recipe, or perhaps the prescription:

And the first musical exhortation, this by Mamie Smith (Note: I’ve consciously not written out the known personnel on each of these musical therapies, thinking it a distraction.  If you need to know who’s in the section, write in and I will look it up in Tom Lord’s discography.):

Step two:

and another contemporaneous version, by Lou Gold and his Orchestra:

and the next step:

and the Fletcher Henderson version, arranged by Benny Carter:

Another step:

and the Ellington version that thrills me — vocal by Chick Bullock (whom I like):

Another step:

and the Red Nichols version, where Jack Teagarden delivers the sermon:

and the frankly amazing recording of Bill Robinson.  Follow along!

That’s a hard act to follow, but here are three “modern” versions that have delicious energy of their own.  First, Jeff Barnhart:

and one version by Marty Grosz (there’s another, easily found, on YouTube) where he borrows liberally from Fats’ DON’T LET IT BOTHER YOU for the opening:

and this Teddy Wilson-styled small-group masterpiece by Rebecca Kilgore and Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers:

May your happiness increase!