Tag Archives: Tommy Benford

MR. WILBER, THE SAGE

Days gone by: December 1946, Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Johnny Glasel, Charlie Trager, Eddie Phyfe. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

Robert Sage Wilber, born in 1928, who never played an ugly or graceless note in his life, has left us.  I first heard him on recordings more than fifty years ago, and saw him in person first in 1970 with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band.  He was a magnificently consistent player — his time, his intonation, his creativity, his vital force, his melodic lyricism — and one of the world’s most versatile.  He didn’t care to be “innovative” in the best modern way, but kept refining his art, the art of Louis and Bechet and Teddy Wilson, every time he played.

People who didn’t quite understand his masteries (the plural is intentional) thought of him as derivative, whatever that means, but even when he was playing SONG OF SONGS in the Bechet manner or WARM VALLEY for the Rabbit, he was recognizably himself: passionate and exact at the same time, a model of how to do it.  And if you appreciate the jazz lineage, a man who performed with Baby Dodds, Tommy Benford, Kaiser Marshall, Joe Thomas, Sidney Catlett, Billy Strayhorn, Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Cliff Leeman . . . so deeply connected to the past while remaining fiercely active, has moved to another neighborhood.  I send my condolences to his wife, the singer Pug Horton, and his family.

I was extremely fortunate to cross paths with Bob — not only as an admiring spectator of Soprano Summit, where he and Kenny Davern were equally matched — but as an admiring jazz journalist and videographer.  He was not worried about what I captured: he was confident in himself and he trusted that the music would carry him.  Here are some glimpses of the Sage in action, in music and in speech.

Rare photographs and music from 1947 here.

A session with David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band (2010) and Daryl Sherman here.

Two parts of an intimate session at Smalls in 2012 with Ehud Asherie and Pug Horton as well here and here.

And a particular prize: a two-part 2015 interview session (thanks to Pug!) here and here.

More than a decade ago, when I began this blog, I worked hard to keep away from the temptations of necrology — my joke is that I didn’t want it to be JAZZ DIES — but if I didn’t write and post something about Robert Sage Wilber, I’d never forgive myself.  We will keep on admiring and missing him as long as there is music.

May your happiness increase!  

“NO CHARGE FOR TABLES”: MR. ARNOLD GOES DOWNTOWN, HEARS JAZZ

The Stuyvesant Casino, Second Avenue and Ninth Street, visually:

And audibly:

One of the nicest parts of having JAZZ LIVES is that generous like-minded people want to share.  I received an email from Mr. Madison Arnold some time back, with this photo-enclosure, a Bob Maltz postcard from 1950, autographed by James P. Johnson, Joe Sullivan, Gene Sedric, Hot Lips Page, Jimmy Archey.  To the left, Tony Spargo and Pops Foster.  Below, that Sidney Bechet fellow:

I was one of the steady jazz loving week-end customers at the Central Plaza and Stuyvesant Casino from around 1950 to 1952 and got these post cards weekly. This is the only one I kept. I started when I was still in Erasmus Hall H.S. (they didn’t card in those days). My favorites were Bechet & Wild Bill but I loved them all. Among my memories: I helped Pops Foster put his bass in a cab one night and we went to the Riviera on Sheridan Sq., Red Allen pulled me up on stage once and we sang “The Saints Go Marching In” together. I became friendly with Baby Dodds and invited him over for dinner one evening to our apartment in Brooklyn. I also visited his place in Harlem. I have a Xmas card he sent me, written, I think, by his lady friend as I don’t think he could write. My personal Louis Armstrong stories are even better! (at least to me). He was a wonderful guy.

You can imagine that I asked Mr. Arnold to tell all.  And he did:

First time I met him was Xmas time 1949. I had just bought a Louie 78 at Big Joe’s record store on W.46th St. I’m walking down B’way and I’m shocked to see Louie walking up B’way.  I remember shouting “Satchmo” and the 2 of us walked, with our arms around each other, uptown to the Capitol Theatre where he was playing. I was so excited, I almost broke my record showing it to him. He invited me to visit him in his dressing room someday. A few days later, with a friend of mine, we bought tickets for a matinee show at the Capitol (75 cents?). I remember that, besides Louie and his group, Jerry Lewis’s father performed some comic stuff. Anyway, after the show, we went to the stage door and I told the door man that Louie invited me to come up. He phoned up to his room, got the OK and up we went. Louie was resting in a cot and the first thing I noticed was the Star of David hanging from his neck and thought, can’t be, he can’t be Jewish! I have no idea what we said but, coming from school, I had my note book which had his picture pasted on the inside cover. He signed it (green ink) and it hangs on my wall today along with a second one he signed at another time.

The second time was my graduation night from H.S. We were having a marshmallow roast on the beach at Coney Island when I remember saying, “Satchmo’s playing at Bop City. Let’s go.” About 5 or 6 of us took the subway and ended up at Bop City on, I believe, 47th and B’way. I told Louie who we were and he made an announcement, the exact words I still remember: “There’s a buncha kids just graduated from Erasmus High School and I’d like to dedicate my next number to them.” He put his horn to his lips and blew Auld Lang Syne ending by skat singing,”old acquaintance, be forgot baba ba doo zip, yeah” all the time looking at me (us).  A great musician and a warm wonderful person.

Louis, as we know, remains a warm wonderful person.  But right next to him is Mr. Arnold, so generous to us all.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS STAN GETZ (March 3, 2017)

This is the sixth part of a series of video-interviews the irreplaceable Dan Morgenstern sat for on the afternoon of Friday, March 3, 2017.  The previous five parts can be found here.

In those segments, Dan shares remarkable stories about the people he’s heard and met and become close with: everyone, including Lester Young, Jimmy Rowles, Tony Fruscella, Tommy Benford, Brew Moore, John Carisi, Nat Lorber, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Rushing, and two dozen more.

Here he speaks lovingly of the magnificent Stan Getz — including an anecdote of one way to deal with noisy spectators at a jazz club:

I would have you notice — as well as Dan’s eye for the telling detail (that quality that makes great storytellers as well as novelists) — that even his retelling of incidents that might be painful is shot through with kindness.  These interviews are not a settling of scores; rather, they are graceful homages to the giants and friends he has known — and Dan continues to make friends in 2017.

Here, for those who have other thoughts about Stan, a sweet yet little-known 1954 performance by him, Jimmy, Bob Whitlock, and Max Roach, of the early-Thirties song, DOWN BY THE SYCAMORE TREE:

Dan refers to Stan’s PARKER 51:

and one of Stan’s duets with Kenny Barron at the end of his life:

I look forward to a second set of interviews.  Dan has hinted that he has tales of Cecil Scott.  Who could resist such knowledge?

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS FRIENDS AND HEROES (Part Three: March 3, 2017)

Dan Morgenstern is a remarkable person, lively and kind, and would be so if he had been a veterinarian with only a passing interest in music.  But even better for us: he hung out with [and wrote about] some of the greatest artists we know and still revere.  I continue to feel immensely fortunate that I could visit him, and that he so generously shared some candid loving stories of people who many of us know only as a photograph or a sound emerging from a speaker.

For those of you who have been otherwise occupied, and I understand, I have posted videos where Dan speaks of Tommy Benford, Frank Newton, Al Hall, Mary Lou Williams and her friends, Donald Lambert, Eubie Blake, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Nat Lorber, Buddy Tate, Gene Ramey, Lester Young (twice for Pres).

But before you leap in, a small caveat.  Dan is soft-spoken, and my few comments from behind the camera are louder.  Friends have pointed this out, and I have been penitent, citing inexperience rather than ego and I will balance the audio better on our future encounters.  The first five videos are here.

More friends and heroes.  Eddie Condon (and I had to say a few things, given my reverence for Eddie):

Buster Bailey, Stanley Dance, Coleman Hawkins, cameos by Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Joe Thomas, John S. Wilson, Billy Kyle, Louis, and Dan’s thoughts on writing about artists:

More about Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, with comments about Sir Charles Thompson, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker as well:

Notice in the second interview that Dan took an unpaid gig because “it will be good for the musicians.”  And I am touched by Coleman Hawkins’ generosities (acceptance in to the tribe) to Dan — which Dan has repaid us ten thousandfold.  More to come.

May your happiness increase!

TOKARSKI’S NIGHTINGALE (AND OTHER RARE SPECIES)

Although I’ve only met the young pianist / composer Kris Tokarski a few brief times in person, I admire him as a remarkable musician with great wit, warmth, flexibility, and swing.

Kris Tokarski. Photograph by Scott Myers.

Kris Tokarski. Photograph by Scott Myers.

About sixteen months ago, Kris made his first CD as a leader, DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM — a delightful musical collation with Kris among his friends and peers James Evans, Evan Christopher, and Benji Bohannon.  Here’s what I wrote about Kris (with music samples) in April 2014.

Although Kris’ musical and emotional range is substantial, he is a great subtle player of older music with the right feeling — without being hemmed in by written manuscript, older recordings, or restrictive stylistic conventions.  Here is a recent video-recording Kris did especially for JAZZ LIVES — at home and informally — of Joseph Lamb’s RAGTIME NIGHTINGALE:

Notice his lovely touch, his gentle approach.  Would you like to hear more? That is easily accomplished.

Kris, photographed by Don Keller, in front of Jelly's house, Frenchmen and Robertson Streets, New Orleans

Kris, photographed by Don Keller, in front of Jelly’s house, Frenchmen and Robertson Streets, New Orleans

In March of this year, Kris, Hal Smith, drums, and Cassidy Holden, string bass, went into the GHB Studios in New Orleans to create a CD that would consider classic rags from a Mortonian perspective, with performances modeled on Jelly’s own evocations as well as songs known to be familiar during his career but not recorded.  The compositions are Pastime Rag #3 / Heliotrope Bouquet / Kinklets / Peacherine Rag / Elite Syncopations / Ragtime Nightingale / Grace And Beauty / Please Say You Will / Sunflower Slow Drag / Swipesy / Magnetic Rag / The Easy Winners / Cataract Rag / St. Louis Rag.  If you understand the concept, the CD is a magnificent invention; if you’ve never heard the Morton Library of Congress recordings, the CD will please just as deeply.

I was delighted to be asked to write the liner notes.  Here’s what I said:

SOFT, SWEET, PLENTY RHYTHM

In 1972, I had several opportunities to marvel at Eubie Blake, then nearing ninety.  He would play MEMORIES OF YOU, TROUBLESOME IVORIES, STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER, or CHARLESTON RAG, but he always concluded with a virtuosic display and a triumphant shout, “That’s RAGTIME!” It certainly was, but the music was more than notes on the page; it was shaped by the personality and experiences of its creator. Jazz improvisation is never pure (thank goodness): it’s all subliminal osmosis and hybridization.  Eubie’s ragtime was broad-minded: it cuddled up with stride, eight-to-the-bar, orchestral flourishes owing as much to Rachmaninoff as Joplin. 

I’ve heard many musicians approach the ragtime repertoire according to their spirit animal.  Some storm through a rag as if preparing for a martial arts tournament.  Others play it with reverent rigidity, the way a child in an antique shop sits tensely on the chair to which he’s been affixed.  This CD presents one, two, and three musicians embodying a radical idea: “Let’s play the music with joy and attention to detail, and whatever happens, it will be good.”     

On this CD, Jelly Roll Morton’s proud, playful New Orleans spirit is strong, although Kris Tokarski wisely avoids the Morton caricature: lesser pianists turn Morton into a large papier-mache figure at the keyboard. 

Kris’s playing is, as always, warm and delicate but you know there is stomping power beneath the surface. I admire his beautiful touch, the logic of his phrases, but he’s never so precise as to be chilly.  Kris animates the rags, reminding us that ragtime is swinging syncopated dance music: pastoral but not effete.

Masterful playing by Cassidy Holden and Hal Smith makes this a genuine trio, democratic and empathic.  Hear the low woody propulsive sound Cassidy gets (the right notes, the right changes, a wonderful pulse) as well as his cellolike clarity.  Hal’s playing appears uncomplicated, but it takes decades of devoted playing to know what to leave out, what sounds to make, how and when to make them.  I thought occasionally of Minor Hall and Tommy Benford, but most often of Hal.

These performances aren’t “recreations” of some imagined past, but neither are they free-form improvisations on the harmonies.  I hear echoes of the jungle (ANIMULE BALL) in CATARACT RAG, the Spanish tinge in MAGNETIC RAG.  But each song sounds like a movement in a dance suite – with echoes of marches, quadrilles, and street parades. PLEASE SAY YOU WILL moves so deliciously from waltz to a gently swinging rhythm ballad with a few closing moments of stomp (as Morton did on MY GAL SAL).  ST. LOUIS RAG – in the words of Jake Hanna – starts swinging from the beginning.  GRACE AND BEAUTY shows off this trio’s many virtues: they don’t get louder or faster, but you know the train is moving on the right track and it will arrive on time. 

SUNFLOWER SLOW DRAG is a history of the first decades of jazz, as it progresses from a tender, almost shy start to a romp.

We owe this session to Hal Smith, not only a master percussionist but a jazz scholar and detective.  He had long been fascinated by Morton’s transformations of famous ragtime pieces, and wondered how other rags would sound if played in Jelly’s style.  He knew that Kris would be perfect for the project, making the performances vibrant, not dusty.  Hal put together a list of rags that might have been played in New Orleans between 1900 and 1917 – and after swapping music and recordings, this wonderful group was ready – not for the river, but for the studio.  Thank you, Kris, Hal, Cassidy, for opening the magic toybox and offering us so much joy.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Or perhaps I have.

To purchase the CD, visit here. Or if you encounter Kris at a gig, I am sure he will be happy to arrange a mutually satisfying transaction.

And I am looking for several chances to enjoy Kris and friends in the coming months.  His trio — with Hal Smith and Tim Laughlin (yes, you did read that correctly!) — is a highlight of the Evergreen Jazz Festival in Colorado at the end of July; the “Hot Classicism” trio of Kris, Hal, and Andy Schumm will also appear at the 2016 Steamboat Stomp in New Orleans.

May your happiness increase!

IN THE MAIN STREAM: HOWARD ALDEN, EHUD ASHERIE, FRANK TATE, PETE SIERS, RANDY REINHART, DAN BLOCK, BILL ALLRED at CLEVELAND (September 10, 2015)

Long-playing high fidelity turned into song by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler:

as-long-as-i-live-cotton-club-parade-24th-ed-1

and performed here at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party (formerly known as the Allegheny Jazz Party) on September 10, 2015, by Howard Alden, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass; Ehud Asherie, piano; Pete Siers, drums; Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Bill Allred, trombone; Randy Reinhart, cornet.

“Mainstream” was the term invented by jazz critic Stanley Dance to describe this easy, uncluttered, floating kind of improvisation — a music that had carefully dismantled all the boundaries created by sectarian listeners and journalists to take a wide-ranging approach to jazz without ruling anything out if it drank deeply of melody, swing, and harmony.  Hank Mobley and Buster Bailey could talk about reeds; Tommy Benford and Art Blakey could discuss calfskin versus plastic.  You get the idea: a sweet world that no longer saw “Dixieland” and “bebop” as hostile antitheses.

Music of this free-breathing variety happens all the time in the places I frequent, but one of the most comfortable places for it is the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, which will happen again this September 15-18, 2016.  Get in the Main Stream.

May your happiness increase!

HOT CLASSICISM: The TOKARSKI-SCHUMM-SMITH CHAMBER TRIO IN CONCERT, JANUARY 13, 2016

Kris Tokarski Trio

Here is video evidence of an extraordinary trio concert of the Kris Tokarski Trio — Kris Tokarski, piano; Andy Schumm, cornet / clarinet; Hal Smith, drums — performed at the Old US Mint, New Orleans, on January 13, 2016.  The stuff that dreams are made on:

Albert Wynn’s PARKWAY STOMP:

Tiny Parham’s CONGO LOVE SONG:

Doc Cooke’s HERE COMES THE HOT TAMALE MAN:

SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY:

Mister Morton’s ode to Joe Oliver, MISTER JOE:

FROG-I-MORE RAG (or FROGGIE MOORE, if you prefer):

In honor of Danny Altier, MY GAL SAL:

ANGRY:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

Please note: these lovely performances, simultaneously delicate and intense, aren’t copies of the recordings, but evocations of cherished multi-layered creations.  Yes, you’ll hear echoes of Beiderbecke, Keppard, Dominique, Oliver, Noone, Simeon, Livingston, Hines, Morton, James P. Johnson, Alex Hill, Catlett, Benford, Singleton, Stafford, Pollack, Krupa, Dodds . . . but what you are really hearing is the Kris Tokarski Trio, graciously embracing present and past, leading us into the future of hot music.  And in its balance, the trio reminds me of the legendary chamber groups that embody precision and passion in balance, although Mozart, Brahms, and Dvorak created no trios for piano, cornet, and trap kit.  Alas.  They didn’t know what was possible.

I’m thrilled that these videos exist, and although I am fiendishly proud of my own efforts, these are much better than what I could have done.  Now, all I want is the Kris Tokarski World Tour, with a long stopover in New York.

Here is Kris’s Facebook page, and here is  his YouTube channel.  Want more? Make sure your favorite festival producer, clubowner, concert promoter, or friends with a good piano and a budget experiences these videos.

May your happiness increase!