Tag Archives: Tommy Ladnier

MAKING THE MUNDANE BEAUTIFUL, or LONG SLEEVES (Part One)

I am slowly getting back into 78-record collecting, thanks to Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera, and I emphasize “slowly”: no bidding wars, and many of the records I’ve purchased would be considered “common” by more well-established collectors, although I will — immodestly — begin with a picture of a record I treasure, bought a few years ago.

However, this post isn’t primarily about the recorded obsession.  It is about the beauty of the ordinary: the paper sleeves once personalized by record stores.  I saw an eBay site devoted to jazz records from Denmark, and was thrilled by the more ornate labels of the records themselves and the beautifully creative sleeves.  There will be only three minutes of music on this post, but you can follow my lead to YouTube, where many of these recordings are waiting for your tender, approving touch.  Today my subject is advertising art at its most sweetly distinctive.

The eBay seller I have borrowed these images from is https://www.ebay.com/usr/seuk880, and the 78s are still for sale, as I write this in the last week of April 2020.  The seller has a large and varied collection, but here are a few that caught my eye — and might catch yours as well.

Tommy Ladnier, in high style:

Billie, originally on Commodore:

Louis, for my friend Katherine:

Hawkins, solo, a two-sided meditation:

This (below) is my absolute favorite of the whole series, and it it were not $10 for the Morton disc and $18 for the shipping, it would be on its way to me now.  Please, someone, buy this so I don’t have to?

Ella and Louis:

Glenn Miller:

Fats meets Freddy:

I don’t know the artist but could not resist the sleeve:

and here Aladdin points the way to swing:

I think ten of these beauties is enough for one post, but if there is interest, I have nineteen or twenty more sleeve-images to share with you.  And would.

I promised you three minutes of music, so that no one would go to bed feeling deprived.  Here’s REINCARNATION by Paul Mares and his Friars Society Orchestra : Paul Mares, trumpet; Santo Pecora, trombone; Omer Simeon, clarinet; Boyce Brown, alto saxophone; Jess Stacy, piano; Marvin Saxbe, guitar;  Pat Pattison, string bass; George Wettling, drums — January 1935, Chicago:

May your happiness increase!

MAGGIE FEELS THE HEAT (November 8, 2015)

MAGGIE Swing label

SWING indeed.  It gets very hot in Newcastle during the long weekend when the Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party gently but firmly occupies the Village Hotel in Newcastle, England.

Nick Ball and Graham Hughes at the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party. Photograph by Emrah Erken.

Nick Ball and Graham Hughes at the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party. Photograph by Emrah Erken.

This year, the Party begins with a jam session on Thursday, November 3 . . . and runs almost without a letup until late Sunday (really, early Monday morning) — either November 6 or 7, depending on what your watch or smartphone tells you.

I’ve posted links to the Party site below, but before you venture into the land of Clicks, how about some hot music?  This rousing performance (from November 8, 2015) was part of a set led by Thomas Winteler paying tribute to the 1938-41 recordings Bechet made for Victor Records.

The heroes onstage are Thomas Winteler, soprano saxophone; Bent Persson, trumpet; Graham Hughes, trombone; Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Jacob Ullberger, guitar; Henry Lemaire, string bass; Nicholas Ball, drums.

Visit the Party’s Facebook page here.

To see who’s playing, click here.  And to book your seat, click here.

The Party’s webpage has a number of delightful videos, so prepare to spend some happy (hot) minutes.  I’ve posted a substantial number myself from 2009 on, on this site, too.  Maybe we’ll see each other there this November.

May your happiness increase!

I’M GETTING MY BONUS IN STRIDE: JAMES P. FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Everyone who follows jazz devotedly has theories about why some musicians become Stars and others remain Obscure.  It clearly isn’t artistic quality, as one could find out quickly by playing recordings of famous and neglected artists. No, other factors interfere.

In that wonderfully uplifting sub-genre known as Harlem stride piano, the pantheon seems to have room for only one man, Fats Waller.  His fame is well-deserved: his genial embellishments, his rhythmic drive, his delicious pianistic surprises.  But we also have to consider the effect of Fats as a Personality (many recordings and some film appearances) and a Composer.  (In the jazz mythology, he is also remembered as a joyous Dionysiac child who died young — elements that stick in our minds.) Willie “the Lion” Smith seems a collection of delightful eccentricities — melodies, derby hat, cigar, scraps of Yiddish, an elegant braggadocio.  In our time, pianists Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell, and their current counterparts have (or had) the advantage of being accessible.

But what of the man who came first (leaving aside Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts), Fats’ teacher, James P. Johnson?  He was not a Personality; the one or two times he sings on record he seems uncomfortable; a quiet man, almost shy, he did not thrust himself forward.  It would seem that he didn’t record sufficiently, but the discographies prove otherwise.  Wellstood once said in print that James P.’s recordings didn’t always document his greatness — although for those of us who didn’t see and hear James P. at all, that would be a moot point.

Mosaic Records, blessedly, has seen fit to put Wellstood’s casual assertion to the test.

JAMES P. Mosaic

This box set will be available in mid-December; it offers the usual Mosaic largesse spread over six CDs; rare material (eleven sides not previously issued), beautiful photographs; a lengthy essay by Dr. Scott Brown, James P.’s biographer, familiar material in the best sound.

And should some worry about six CDs of stride piano, fear not: we hear James P. accompanying blues and pop singers (including Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, and Ethel Waters) and as a sideman in bands that include Frank Newton, Jabbo Smith, Clarence Williams, Garvin Bushell, Louis Metcalf, Fats Waller, Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsel, King Oliver, Jimmy Archey, Teddy Bunn, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Smeck, Tommy Ladnier, Sidney DeParis, Mezz Mezzrow, John Kirby, Cozy Cole, Sidney Catlett, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Christian, Ed Hall, and others.

Here‘s the discography, for those who (like myself) find listings of music we are going to hear very enticing.  And if you haven’t heard James P. recently — someone Thelonious Monk admired — scroll down on this Mosaic page and listen.

My holiday shopping list is now complete — my gift to myself, I mean.

May your happiness increase!

“I KEEP CHEERFUL ON AN EARFUL / OF MUSIC SWEET”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 28, 2014)

Better than anything you could buy in a chain drugstore or any prescription pharmaceutical, this will keep the gloomies at bay.  Unlike those little pink or blue pills, it lasts longer than four hours and there are no cases recorded of drastic side effects.

One of the highlights of 2014, of this century, of my adult life — let’s not let understatement get in the way of the truth! — was a quartet set at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest featuring Ray Skjelbred, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  I’ve been sharing it one or two performances at a time on JAZZ LIVES in the same way you never want a delicious experience to end.

Here is the quartet’s very groovy, very hot HAPPY FEET (Jack Yellen – Milton Ager, originally from THE KING OF JAZZ):

And since this song “has history,” I offer a few more variations on this terpsichorean theme.

Leo Reisman with Bubber Miley, 1930, at a truly groovy tempo:

Noble Sissle, also in 1930, with the only film I know of Tommy Ladnier:

Frank Trumbauer and Smith Ballew:

and the irresistible 1933 version by the Fletcher Henderson’s band, with specialists Dr. Horace Henderson, Dr. Henry Allen, Dr. Dicky Wells, and Dr. Coleman Hawkins called in:

There’s also a life-altering live performance with Hot Lips Page and Sidney Catlett from the Eddie Condon Floor Show, but you’ll have to imagine it for now.

I hope you’re feeling better, and that your feet and all points north are happier.

May your happiness increase!

THE THINGS YOU MISS

I am not nostalgic for my adolescence.  If you offered me time-travel back to my seventeenth year, I would rapidly although politely turn down the offer.

But the experience of encountering music in days beyond recall (before the computer, before the internet) is something I miss because of its communal nature.

I grew up in suburbia, and found perhaps a half-dozen people my age (all male) who were interested in jazz.  And when I had gotten my driver’s license, it was not difficult to go to someone’s house with a new record or a particular track one wanted to share or to hear.  Someone had bought a new Lester Young record from Sam Goody; someone had picked up a hot 78 at the Salvation Army; someone had a 12″ 78 of Whiteman and Bix; someone had tapes of everything Bing recorded between 1926. Another friend had a new rare record which he wouldn’t let out of his sight, but would make a cassette copy of it.

I heard new music, new old music, in the company of other people.  We sat on the bed or the floor, getting up to change a record or to put the needle back, saying energetically, “Did you hear THAT?!” and looking to the other person for shared joys, empathy, understanding.

I have more jazz friends in 2014 than I ever would have dreamed possible in 1974.  They are very dear to me.  Through YouTube and videos, we share music internationally.  I can send someone an mp3 of an exciting track, or get one in my email. I just came back from a jazz party in England where there was so much music I occasionally felt perforated by hot music. I do not lack for sounds; if I turn ninety degrees from this computer, there are boxes of tapes and a wall of CDs.

But the human connection — two or three people in a room, perhaps drinking soda and eating supermarket potato chips, getting into a delighted frenzy about three Jo Jones accents after Tommy Ladnier’s particularly declamatory phrase* — is nearly gone.  In the last decade, I’ve been part of perhaps four or five such listening sessions, and I miss them.  I don’t mean a formal “collectors’ group,” with everyone guessing the soloist or the like or showing off that their N- copy is more shiny than your V+; I mean friends getting together to share their musical joys.  Yes, there’s Facebook, but it isn’t quite the same.

I have had a few musical sessions at my house, where I’ve probably overwhelmed my visitors with jazz — in my eagerness to play everything delightful I could think of — and, oddly enough, have been part of a few sessions on wheels, where my driving host played music from his iPod, which is always gratifying. But it’s a rare pleasure.

That’s our century: we have an intense intimacy or faux-intimacy with constant accessibility through the internet.  Physically, we exist at immense distances, too busy to be in the same room to rejoice over the things and heroes we love.

Of course, it could just be me. But somehow I doubt it.

*I am referring specifically to WEARY BLUES from the Spirituals to Swing concerts, with Ladnier, Jo, Sidney Bechet, Dan Minor, James P. Johnson, and Walter Page. Hear it here (amidst a 49-track playlist; such are the ways of YouTube):

May your happiness increase! 

THE MIGHTY MEZZ: A NEW NYC JAZZ CLUB OPENS (September 3, 2014)

MEZZROW club

Spike Wilner, pianist, clubowner, and a true Disciple of Swing, has another bold idea: a new New York City jazz club that presents genuine improvised music in kind settings.

Simple facts first: the club opens on September 3, 2014.  It will thrive in the basement of 163 West 1oth Street, steps away from the happily thriving SMALLS, co-piloted by Spike and Mitch Borden.  (For those who worry about such things, both clubs are a few minutes’ walk from the Christopher Street / Sheridan Square station on the Seventh Avenue subway line. And it’s a calm area to be in.)

The club is a “piano room,” which is a term that needs a little explanation.  I don’t mean a “piano bar,” where people accost the pianist at close range and insist (s)he play songs whose title they half know, or where sing-alongs explode like small wildfires — with much the same result.  No.

Once upon a time, New York City had a number of such rooms, usually small, with well-tuned pianos where solos and duos were what you came to hear.  I saw Jimmy Rowles at Bradley’s, Ellis Larkins and Al Hall at Gregory’s.  Although horn players might sit in, these rooms were meant for thoughtful improvisation. In this century, where patrons have a hard time keeping still, paying attention, turning their phones off, Spike’s determination to make such a spot possible is a beautiful and courageous act — in a city that prides itself on having every kind of entertainment and enlightenment in profusion, his new club is a rarity if not a solitary gem.  (Yes, there is the Knickerbocker, and thankfully so, but that large room is a different species entirely.)

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

Spike has named the club for one of his musical heroes, the clarinetist / saxophonist / organizer / man with plans Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. Mezzrow was a fascinating figure, someone whose deep-hued nearly-surrealistic autobiography REALLY THE BLUES made a profound impression on me when my sister gave it to me as a birthday gift (I was, I think, 14).  The dream of this century and the preceding one is “You can be anything you want to be if you only want it fiercely enough,” and Mezz — in his own way — exemplified that romantic notion.  Mezz was a White Jewish Chicago kid (those identifiers are important to the story) who was so entranced by the Black music he heard that he knew that was what he wanted to play.  More importantly, he knew that “that” was the person he wanted to be, the life he wanted to lead.

So, although he was never a great musician, he became a friend to Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier; he heard and hung around Bix, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, and the rest.  He organized record dates with Teddy Bunn, Bechet, Hot Lips Page, Chick Webb, Frank Newton, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Benny Carter, J.C. Higginbotham, Sidney Catlett, Art Hodes, George Wettling, Zutty Singleton, and more.  He was deeply involved in a near-religious crusade to offer marijuana as a more healthy alternative to whiskey or hard drugs.

And he crossed the color line early and without pretense.  In an era when having mixed-race record sessions was rare, Mezzrow (like Eddie Condon) pushed this idea forward with historic results.  He led a band, the Disciples of Swing, where “white” and “colored” musicians played together.  And more seriously, he identified as Black — marrying a woman of color, and taking his convictions into everyday life.

I think (although I could be presuming here) that this latter figure — the man so deeply committed to a music and the ideas behind it: community, equality, creativity — is the man Spike honors by naming this new club MEZZROW.

Here is the club’s website, where you can learn more about it — the schedule, ticketing, about Mezz himself, and more. I don’t know when I’ll make my first visit, but since I see my friends Rebecca Kilgore, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello, Michael Kanan, Scott Robinson, Neal Miner . . . I expect to be there often, and it may well be a deeply needed oasis of quiet creativity in New York. And https://www.facebook.com/mezzrowclub is the club’s Facebook page.

Blessings on you, Spike.

May your happiness increase!

MEET ME AT THE CORNER OF THEN AND NOW

Although the physicists explain gravely that time — make that Time — is not a straight line but a field in which we may meander, it often feels as if we are characters in a Saul Steinberg cartoon, squinting into the looming Future while the Past stretches behind us, intriguing but closed off.  We anxiously stand on a sliver of Now the thickness and length of a new pencil, hoping for the best.

Jazz, or at least the kind that occupies my internal jukebox, is always balancing (not always adeptly) Then and Now.  For some, Then is marked in terms of dates: this afternoon in November 1940, or this one in July 1922. The most absorbed of us can even add artifacts and sound effects: uncontrollable coughing, a trout sandwich, the sound of dancers’ feet in a ballroom.

But for me, Then is a series of manifestations, imagined as well as real, that have no particular date and time.

Bix and Don Murray watching a baseball game. The Chicago flat where Louis and friends drank Mrs. Circe’s gin and told stories. Mezz Mezzrow on the subway. Strayhorn auditioning in Ellington’s dressing room. Mystics Boyce Brown, Tut Soper, and Don Carter, each imagining the universe in his own way. Eddie Condon picking up the tenor guitar. Hot Lips Page shaking a Texan’s hand. Art Hodes and Wingy Manone politely deciding who gets to wear the bear coat tonight. Francene and Frank Melrose having Dave Tough and friends over for a scant but happy meal of rice and peppers. E.A. Fearn making a suggestion. Billy Banks arriving late for the record date. Bird washing dishes while hearing Art Tatum. Joe Oliver having a snack in a Chinese restaurant.

Any jazz fan who has read enough biography can invent her own mythography of the landmarks of Then.

Now, although it recedes as I write this, is a little easier to fix in time and space, in the way one pushes a colored push-pin through a map.

Andy Schumm, cornet and archives; Dan Barrett, trombone; Dan Levinson, reeds; John Sheridan, piano; Howard Alden, banjo; Kerry Lewis, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums: late in the evening of September 20 at the 2013 Jazz at Chautauqua, now reinvented as the Allegheny Jazz Party.

OLD MAN SUNSHINE (LITTLE BOY BLUEBIRD):

SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL:

LITTLE WHITE LIES (in an arrangement inspired by British Pathe sound film of the Noble Sissle band — and piling rarity upon rarity — giving us a glimpse of Tommy Ladnier playing):

DEEP NIGHT:

GET GOIN’ (in honor of the Bennie Moten band, which also had spiders to deal with in Kansas City):

KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW (Sheridan’s verse gets everyone in the right mood):

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

18TH AND RACINE (a street intersection in Chicago / an Andy Schumm original / the title track of the Fat Babies’ delicious new CD on Delmark Records):

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL (with a wonderful surprise at 3:00 — why isn’t there a whole CD of this?):

See you in Cleveland, Ohio, between September 18 and 21, 2014, for more of the same delicious time-superimpositions, courtesy of the Allegheny Jazz Party, where such things happen as a matter of course.

May your happiness increase!

LOOK. LISTEN.

Considering the context — James P. Johnson, solo piano, playing his own HARLEM STRUT — the advertising exhortations seem reasonable.

BLACK SWAN

Over a twenty-five year period, James P. was recorded — in the studio, on radio, and in concert — alongside Bessie Smith, Clarence Williams, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Henry “Red” Allen, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, Freddie Green, Dicky Wells, Max Kaminsky, Zutty Singleton, Perry Bradford’s Jazz Phools (with Louis, Buster Bailey, Kaiser Marshall), Lavinia Turner, Trixie Smith, Fats Waller, Sadie Jackson, Louis Metcalf, Cootie Williams, Garvin Bushell, Jabbo Smith, Gene Sedric, Johnny Dunn, Ethel Waters, King Oliver, Teddy Bunn, Spencer Williams, Cecil Scott, Roy Smeck, Mezz Mezzrow, Tommy Ladnier, Eddie Dougherty, Rod Cless, Sterling Bose, Pops Foster, Omer Simeon, Ida Cox, Pete Brown, Frank Newton, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Hot Lips Page, J.C. Higginbotham, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Al Casey, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Russell, Brad Gowans, Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy Rushing, Vic Dickenson, Vernon Brown, Sidney Bachet, Tommy Dorsey, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, Johnny Windhurst, George Brunis, Albert Nicholas, Bunk Johnson, George Wettling . . . which sounds as if he recorded with everyone in creation.

Here is his 1923 solo, BLEEDING HEARTED BLUES:

And his 1930 romp, JINGLES:

And the musing 1944 ARKANSAW BLUES:

From the middle of the Twenties, James P. (1894-1955) was comfortably earning money because of royalties on his most famous compositions (consider CHARLESTON, ONE HOUR) but he wasn’t satisfied to be a composer of hit songs.  He wanted to be known and respected as a serious composer of extended works, perhaps the race’s answer to George Gershwin.  He didn’t gain the respect and attention he desired, which hurt him. Both his discography and biography suggest that he was not always in good health — another good reason for our not having even more recorded evidence.

I wonder if James P. was more than the cliche of the popular entertainer yearning for serious acceptance, but a man who knew that he had more to offer than writing thirty-two bar songs and playing piano, solo or in bands.  Did he distance himself from “the music business” or did it ignore him because he would not fit in to one of its tidy categories?

James P.’s pupil Fats Waller died younger, but received more attention because of his ebullient personality: hundreds of recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances.  Willie “the Lion” Smith outlived them both and was always ready to play, sing, and talk.

I wish James P. had recorded more, had received more attention of the kind his talents deserved. If someone uncovers a James P. trove, I’d like to know about it.

Because this blogpost threatens to slide into the morose, I will offer a recording that has never failed to cheer me up: the duet of James P. and Clarence Williams on HOW COULD I BE BLUE? What a pleasure to hear James P. somewhat awkwardly negotiate the vaudeville dialogue . . . and then to hear his intense rhythmic lead, his melodic inventiveness, in the duet that follows:

May your happiness increase!

ALBERT AMMONS and FRIENDS: PERPETUAL SWING, 1936, 1944

Everyone knows those famous boogie-woogie pianists were best on their own, and they were stylistically limited.  Wrong.  Hear these three recordings by the heroic Albert Ammons (1907-1949) and noble hot colleagues.

In the first two, reedman Dalbert Bright is as nimble and enthusiastic as any swing-to-bop player; trumpeter Guy Kelly, although somewhat more taciturn in the manner of Tommy Ladnier, executes some heartfelt Louis. Ike Perkins, young Israel Crosby, and Jimmy Hoskins were Ammons’ preferred rhythm team, and it’s easy to hear why.  On the last recording, it’s as if Milt Gabler got the most rocking, riffing players he or anyone could find . . . evoking jam sessions in Kansas City that could go on for hours.

MILE-OR-MO BIRD RAG* (based on a strain of OL’ MISS):

NAGASAKI:

Guy Kelly, trumpet; Dalbert Bright, alto and clarinet; Ammons, piano; Ike Perkins, guitar; Israel Crosby, string bass; Jimmy Hoskins, drums.  Chicago, February 14, 1936.

JAMMIN’ THE BOOGIE:

Hot Lips Page, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Don Byas, tenor; Ammons, piano; Israel Crosby, string bass; Sidney Catlett, drums.  New York, February 12, 1944.

Extraordinary tireless, gravity-defying swing, no?  And Ammons holds it all together, strides, encourages everyone . . .

*I always thought that this first title referred to a bird that could fly impossibly long distances.  Some online research revealed that the M-O-M-B exists only in boyishly naughty local legends involving avian body parts.  You’ll have to look these tales up for yourself.

May your happiness increase!

START THE NEW YEAR HOT: REMEMBERING LOVIE AUSTIN at WHITLEY BAY 2012 (RENE HAGMANN, THOMAS WINTELER, JENS LINDGREN, MARTIN LITTON, ROLY VEITCH, JOSH DUFFEE)

Lovie Austin

Doe anyone mind my beginning the new year (January 1, 2013) with some hot jazz — obscure songs played energetically by the best musicians?  I thought not.

Who remembers Lovie Austin (1887-1972) today?  I would bet that her name is not familiar to many, but she led bands that accompanied many of the greatest blues singers, including Ma Rainey and Ida Cox.  Austin impressed no less a person than Mary Lou Williams, who remembered her in 1977:

“When I was between 8 or 10 years of age (1918 or 1920), my stepfather and my brother-in-law, Hugh Floyd, often took me to dances and theatres to listen to musicians. Well, there was a T.O.B.A theatre in Pittsburgh where all black entertainers came. I remember seeing this great woman sitting in the pit and conducting a group of five or six men, her legs crossed, a cigarette in her mouth, playing the show with her left hand and writing music with her right. Wow! I never forgot this episode… My entire concept was based on the few times I was around Lovie Austin. She was a fabulous woman and a fabulous musician too. I don’t believe there’s a woman around now who could compete with her. She was a greater talent than many of the men of this period.”

Ninety years after Austin’s greatest fame, a small hot group assembled at the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party to pay her tribute and play some less-familiar repertoire as well.

The fellows in the band?  Rene Hagmann, multi-instrumentalist, here on cornet; Thomas Winteler, clarinet / soprano saxophone; Martin Litton, piano; Roly Veitch, guitar / banjo; Josh Duffee, drums / washboard.

TRAVELLIN’ BLUES:

CHICAGO MESS AROUND:

GALLION STOMP:

FROG TONGUE STOMP:

Let’s hope for a swinging, creative 2013!  (And check out the details for this year’s Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party here.

May your happiness increase.

LUCKY THIRTEEN: A NIGHT with the SIDNEY BECHET SOCIETY (Monday, November 5, 2012) featuring JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN CHRISTOPHER, MATT MUNISTERI, EHUD ASHERIE, PAT O’LEARY, MARION FELDER

The days slip away, and I see that I haven’t written a word about the final 2012 concert of the Sidney Bechet Society — an evening devoted to Sidney’s involvement with the New Orleans trumpet players.  Even though he said he disliked trumpeters because they got in his way, Sidney played alongside the very best.  This band at the Kaye Playhouse evoked but didn’t copy the great recordings he made:  in their thirteen performances, they managed not only to summon up Bechet’s musical worlds from 1925 on, but suggested how his spirit animated music being made in November 2012.

In short, a hot time was had by all.  

The members of this band exuded the fraternal delight one would expect from long-time comrades: Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, and Pat O’Leary are regular EarRegulars, with Evan Christopher an honored guest; Ehud Asherie and Marion Felder bring their own associations with sessions at Smalls and Birdland to the mix.

The first half of the concert was a more formal evocation of the title and of the hallowed recordings (some of them rather complex songs with multiple themes) highlighted by three vigorous romps — WEARY BLUES and I FOUND A NEW BABY (harking back to the 1932 Feetwarmers session with Tommy Ladnier and Hank Duncan); CAKE WALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME (honoring Bechet’s early collaboration — or battle — with young Louis Armstrong on Clarence Williams’ dates).

A slower COAL CART BLUES swung with all its might, even though the tempo was less arduous (echoing the 1940 Decca “reunion” session for George Avakian’s NEW ORLEANS JAZZ album).  Three mood pieces took seriously divergent directions: Matt sang BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME in his own half-earnest, half-ironic way, very combustible; Evan took center stage for one of Bechet’s Haitian rhapsodies, TROPICAL MOON (“kind of a funky thing”) which had everyone swaying . . . as did the band’s EGYPTIAN FANTASY — with an “exotic” flavor that also drew on the “Spanish tinge.”

After an intermission during which we all could compare tales of Storm Sandy (many in the audience, I think, were going home to dark cold houses and apartments), the band reassembled for a looser second half . . . as if they had done their required assignment and could now play a bit more.

Some of the repertoire for the second half was drawn from the Kellso-Christopher-Munisteri BLUE ROOF BLUES: A LOVE LETTER TO NEW ORLEANS (Arbors) — one of the most completely realized jazz CDs I know: an intoxicating habanera-flavored PANAMA, a street-parade HIGH SOCIETY, with the famous Picou chorus played softly at first; Kellso’s lyrical JUST LIKE THAT, Evan’s intense improvisation on Tommy Ladnier’s MOJO BLUES, a solo feature for Ehud on WILLOW TREE, where Art Tatum, Cliff Jackson, and Christopher Columbus came for brief visits with Mr. Asherie; the concert ended with a rousing HINDUSTAN, with the always-surprising and always-gratifying key changes.

It was a great band: Marion Felder is one of those exalted drummers who cares deeply about sound, dynamics, and rhythms — a phenomenon rarer than you might think.  He will patiently stay on his snare drum or tom-toms and play simple rhythms for their sweetly intensifying dramatic effect; he can play a song as did Zutty Singleton but he’s always playing himself.  Pat O’Leary stayed in the background, but he is one of the essential guiding forces of any ensemble: his tone, taste, and choice notes keep everyone focused on melodic swing.

Matt Munisteri never fails to surprise: guitarists marvel at his technique, but I marvel more at the way every kind of music seems to osmotically work its way through him — and the end result never seems like a conscious synthesis.  Ehud Asherie continues to delight: his deep soulful range, bridging Then and Now, is a pleasure — because the influences have long since become a cohesive artistic whole, without one saying, “Oh, there’s a Fats lick!” again.

The horn players, as we have come to expect, worked together in friendship but there was the slightest edge of playful tussling — the kind of sweet competition that makes sessions rise above the ordinary.  Both of them are instantly recognizable, with big sounds: you know who’s playing in a bar or two, and the restrained intensity bubbles with elegant down-home ferocity.

It was fun — in case you haven’t guessed.  I’ll say more about the 2013 concerts when we cross into the spring.

May your happiness increase.

DO YOU HAVE PLANS FOR APRIL 20, 1939?

Can you spare $2.50?

And are you free to join me uptown — Thursday night into Friday morning — for some remarkable hot jazz?

It’s not every day you get to hear Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow and his Blue Bird Recording Orchestra featuring Tommy Ladnier on Trumpets, is it?  I have never been to a Sensational Attraction and Dance, myself.

Here’s the official invitation if a newspaper clipping seems too gauche:

I want to know who else was in the band.  Teddy Bunn, Elmer James, Manzie Johnson, James P. Johnson, Wellman Braud, Zutty Singleton . . . .?  And who knew that Mezz was living at 126th Street and Fifth Avenue at the time.  Tommy Ladnier, alas, would be dead on June 4.

Who were the Park Royal Boys?  And when did the Congress Casino Ballroom become an office building or an apartment complex?

Thanks to David J. Weiner, sleuth extraordinaire, for this eBay find!

May your happiness increase.

TEDDY BUNN, GUITAR

It’s that point in the semester when I end up having more informal conversations with students about their aspirations.  Today I was talking to a young man who is taking a jazz course and plays guitar.  Blues guitar, it turns out.  Immediately, I said, “I’m going to give you homework.  Listen to Teddy Bunn!” and he copied down the unfamiliar name.  Over the years, I’ve urged other guitar-playing students to devote themselves to Teddy Bunn’s recorded work.  Today, for the first time, I thought to myself, “Why Teddy Bunn rather than Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt?”

For me, the answer is in Bunn’s emotional accessibility.  To young guitarists raised on flamethrowing displays of technique (usually electrified) Bunn might sound unambitious.  But he has a country-blues depth of feeling: his simple phrases come from someplace that belies his birthplace — Freeport, Long Island, perhaps twenty-five miles from where I am now writing and certainly miles away from the Mississippi Delta.  His blues phrases are plain-spoken, logical, affecting.  But he also has a distinctly urban swing: if you had Teddy Bunn in your rhythm section, you hardly needed anyone else.

And I am always trying to consider what my students might have heard before — and how my frankly antiquarian tastes in music will strike them.  To get to Charlie Christian, they have to get past the “Swing Era” in the person of Benny Goodman, although I suppose some of them could go directly to Jerry Newman’s recordings of Christian, uptown.  And to get to Django, they have to make a detour around Grappelly and the Quintet.

Bunn’s simplicity is deceptive.  It would please me immensely to have one of my self-possessed young players say to himself, “Oh, I can do that,” and try to duplicate a Bunn solo — a simple twelve bars — and then realize that his imitation was lacking something essential — perhaps in its tonal qualities or its rhythmic subtleties.  I imagine that Teddy Bunn might teach someone more about inventiveness and humility than I had been able to in fifteen weeks in a classroom.  (Charles Peterson caught him in action at a 1939 Blue Note session with trumpeter Frank Newton, who is standing in front of Sidney Catlett . . . fast company!)

A place to find out some more about Teddy Bunn is Mike Kremer’s CLASSIC JAZZ GUITAR site, http://classicjazzguitar.com/aboutus/about_us.jsp, the source of the images here.

During his lifetime, everyone knew about Teddy Bunn.  Sammy Price called him for the Decca “race records” sessions of the late Thirties; he was a charter member of the Spirits of Rhythm, also accompanying Ella Logan and Red McKenzie; he sat in with the Ellington band in 1929; Mezzrow and Bechet made good use of his talents, as did Hot Lips Page, Clarence Profit, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, and Spencer Williams.  Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff made him part of their early Blue Note sessions and gave him a four-song solo date of his own.  Later on, he pops up (now playing electric guitar) with Lionel Hampton, Hadda Brooks, and others.  Unfortunately, he didn’t get much attention in the Fifties, and a combination of poor health, early rock ‘n’ roll, and gigs in Hawaii kept him out of the public eye as far as jazz was concerned.  I do recall a late interview (done by Peter Tanner for JAZZ JOURNAL, if memory serves me) where Bunn talked about his older recordings and was thrilled to hear them again.

Here are some samples of the man whose name comes first to my lips when the subject of blues guitar comes into the conversation:

IF YOU SEE ME COMIN’ is from 1938, and shows Teddy Bunn’s talents in three ways — first, as a singer, intense yet understated; second, with some of those same characteristics in his solo (notice how he lets his notes ring, how he doesn’t feel the need to fill up the spaces); third, as a rhythm player.  Who’s the pianist?  There isn’t any — those harmonies and rhythmic pushes you hear are Teddy’s.  The other musicians on this date are the co-leaders Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Tommy Ladnier, trumpet; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.  (The player closest in spirit to Bunn on this record is Ladnier, who has just been chronicled with eloquent thoroughness in Dan Verhettes’ book TRAVELLIN’ BLUES.)

Here’s I GOT RHYTHM, recorded in 1933 by the Spirits of Rhythm, featuring the irreplaceable singer Leo Watson, Douglas and Wilbur Daniels on tipples (which I believe are twelve-string versions of ukuleles), Teddy Bunn — whose solo and trades come after Leo’s vocal episodes — and Virgil Scoggins on “drums,” more likely whiskbrooms on a brown-paper-covered suitcase:

And two reasonably unsatisfying film clips (from the point of view of hearing Teddy Bunn play) although they offer other rare delights.  TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY, comes from the 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS, and is out of synch.  It is mainly given over to Leo Watson (which is not a problem) but it shows us Teddy Bunn on electric guitar.  I’ll even ignore that the clip shows Black musicians as having to be distracted from their onstage crap game to perform their act — on a particularly terrible song:

And a new find — the 1941 equivalent of a Soundie, obviously terribly low-budget, which brings together Jackie Greene, impersonating Eddie Cantor, and the “Five Spirits of Rhythm,” who are here cast as railroad porters in charge of shoe-shines.  Here we don’t see Bunn playing but his electric guitar is quite audible on the soundtrack.  But it’s a reminder of how badly Black performers were treated in films until years later (even with such luminaries as Sam Coslow and Dudley Murphy supervising).  There’s comedy, cheesecake, and a good deal of Greene rolling his eyes.  At least the Spirits get to hold out their hands for their tip at the end:

I don’t want to overstate Teddy Bunn’s place in the history of jazz.  He did most often find himself playing the blues, or playing thirty-two bar songs with a deep blues flavoring.  His solos tended to be variations on simple motifs, and his later playing had lost some of its spark, its inventiveness.  When he took up the electric guitar, his identifiable acoustic sound was blurred, and his solos sound rather familiar.

But in his prime he was a remarkable musician, and I look forward to the day when one of my students (or former students) says that hearing Teddy Bunn was a marvelous — even if not life-changing — experience.

“MUSIC FOR DRUMMERS”: EXTRAORDINARY LARGESSE

Although I’ve always understood that part of the urge to collect has in it the urge to keep something for oneself — “Mine!  Mine!  Not yours!” screams the toddler self — I am delighted beyond words when someone in the jazz collecting world says, “Here!  Listen to this!  Let everyone listen to this!”  The Italian jazz scholar Enrico Borsetti is one of these heroic figures.  And now I’ve met another person, in cyberspace to be sure, who has showered riches upon us.  His name is Mike Tarani.   

I found the blog MUSIC FOR DRUMMERS through a Google Alert for “Jo Jones.”  I have now seen a great deal of information about Susie Jo Jones, and Jolanda Jo Jones, and Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones.  I’m sure they are all beyond compare, but none of them played drums in the Basie rhythm section, none of them fired rimshots and accents behind Tommy Ladnier at Carnegie Hall.  You understand.

MUSIC FOR DRUMMERS has devoted an astounding post to Jonathan David Samuel Jones (and kindly mentions my piece on Jo in this blog) — which includes YouTube videos.  AND it includes mp3 versions of Jo’s famous two-record set, THE DRUMS.

But wait!  There’s more!  MFD also offers — free and gleefully — the tape of an oral history interview of Jo done by Milt Hinton, circa 1973.  Hearing those voices nearly brought me to tears.   

My goodness!

And, as Mae West never said, “Goodness has everything to do with it.”  Blessings on Mike Tarrani for his generosities.

See for yourself at http://drumz4sale.blogspot.com/2010/02/papa-jo-jones.html

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!

TRAVELING BLUES: TOMMY LADNIER

Ladnier 5For the second time this season, a jazz book has so astonished me that I want to write about it before I take the time to read it at the leisurely pace it deserves.  This book is published in a limited edition of 500 copies, so I hope that someone might be moved sufficiently to order a copy before they are all gone.  TRAVELING BLUES: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF TOMMY LADNIER, byBo Lindstrom and Dan Vernhettes, is a lively yet scholarly study of the life and music of the short-lived trumpeter.  Many jazz books are enthusiastic but lopsided; books that collect beautiful photographs sometimes have minimal or unsatisfying text; scholarly books are often not appealing to the eye.  This book strikes sparks in every way: the diligent research that has gone into it, the expansive prose; the wonderful illustrations.  I have been reluctant to put it down.  Each page offers surprises.    Ladnier 1

Tommy Ladnier isn’t widely known: he has been dead seventy years.  The fame he deserved never came, even though he had enthusiastic champions in Mezz Mezzrow, Hughes Panassie, and Sidney Bechet.  But a brief list of the people Ladnier played alongside will testify to his talent: Bechet, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins, Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Noone, Fletcher Henderson, Clarence Williams, Sam Wooding, Doc Cheatham, Noble Sissle, Chick Webb, James P. Johnson, Teddy Bunn, Walter Page, Jo Jones.  He was known as a “sensational” trumpeter in Chicago in 1921: he appeared in Carnegie Hall in 1938.   

The reasons he is so little known have nothing to do with the quality of his art.  Ladnier did not enjoy the high-pressure urban scene, and he occasionally retreated from it (in 1934-8, when he could have been playing more often in the city, he he lived upstate); he also spent a good deal of his playing career in Europe (including a sojourn in Russia) before it was fashionable.  And in a period when hot trumpet playing was fashioned in splendidly extravagant Louis-fashion, someone like Ladnier — quieter, even pensive, choosing to stay in the middle register — might have been overlooked.  (At times, he makes me think of a New Orleans version of Joe Thomas, Shorty Baker, or Tony Fruscella.) 

Ladnier 3

I first came to Ladnier’s music indirectly, by way of his most enthusiastic colleague, reedman, pot-supplier, and proseltyzer Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who saw Tommy as someone with pure jazz instincts.  Mezzrow idolized Tommy as a quiet prophet of soulful New Orleans jazz, music not corrupted by the evil influence of big-band swing.  My youthful purchase of the RCA Victor record THE PANASSIE SESSIONS (circa 1967) was motivated by my reading of Mezzrow’s autobiography, REALLY THE BLUES.  But Mezzrow played and improvised so poorly, never stopping for a moment, that I could hardly hear Ladnier properly.   

Ladnier 4

Eventually I heard the 1932 New Orleans Feetwarmers session, where Ladnier and Bechet were effectively the front line, and too-brief live performances from John Hammond’s 1938 FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING concert where Ladnier, Bechet, Dan Minor, James P. Johnson, Walter Page, and Jo Jones roared through WEARY BLUES.  Finally, I understood what it was that others admired so in Ladnier’s work.  A terse, nearly laconic player, he placed his notes and phrases perfectly.  His solos never overwhelm; his forthright earnestness is convincing; he doesn’t care to shout and swagger, but he is intense.  

As is this book.  Other scholars might have rearranged the easily accessible evidence: the recollections of Mezzrow, Bechet, and Panassie, written admiringly of Ladnier’s recording career, and left it at that.  Some writers might have brought melodrama to the facts of Ladnier’s life — his ambitious wife jeopardized a number of opportunities for him (one possible drama).  Ladnier died of a heart attack at 39, and could perhaps have been saved (another drama).  One could cast him as a victim of a variety of forces and people including the recording supervisor Eli Oberstein.  But the authors avoid these inviting errors.

They succeed not only in examining every scrap of evidence they could find — their research has been cautious, comprehensive, and lengthy — about Ladnier as a musician, born in Louisiana, migrating to Chicago, taking on the life of a jazz player in the Twenties and Thirties, dying in Harlem. 

But there’s more.  These scholars are also thoughtful historians who delight in placing the subject of their loving scrutiny in a larger context.  “What did it mean?” I can hear them asking.  So that their inquiry broadens beyond the simple chronological tracing of Ladnier’s life.  When we learn (through a beautiful reproduction of Ladnier’s draft card) that he worked for the Armour meat-packing company — so justly excoriated in Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE — we can read about Armour and what it meant to Chicago and Chicagoans.  What did it mean to be an African-American musician traveling overseas in the Twenties?  The appropriate footnotes are easily accessible on each page.  The book also concludes with a detailed discography — noting not only the labels and issues, but on which performances Ladnier has a solo, a break, accompaniment, and the like. 

And the book is also visually quite beautiful.  A large-format book (the size of a 12″ record, appropriately) it is generously illustrated in color, with fine reproductions, nicely varied.  I was happily reminded of a beautifully-designed history or biology textbook, where the book designers had sought to set up harmonious vibrations between print and illustrations.  Indeed, one could spend an afternoon immersed in the illustrations: maps, a handwritten letter from Ladnier, record labels, photographs of individual players and of bands.  One illustration I particularly prize is an advertising handbill for a dinner-dance, “A Night At Sea,” to be held at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights, New York, on January 22, 1939.  In part, the music was provided by “Milton ‘Mez’ Mezzrow and his Bluebird Recording Orchestra featuring Tommy Ladnier.”  Even better: heading the bill were Henny Youngman and Molly Picon.  Without this book, I would never have known.

The music?  Well, the authors have taken care of that, too.  As part of the complete Ladnier experience, they have created a CD containing all 189 of Tommy’s recordings in mp3 format.  I don’t entirely understand the technology, but the CD is certainly the ideal companion to the book — containing the equivalent of eight CDs of music. 

I urge you to visit http://www.jazzedit.org/Traveling-blues.html and see for yourself.  In this era of deeply discounted books, the initial price of this one might seem serious, but its beauty, thoroughness, and devotion make it a masterpiece.

As a coda: the noted jazz scholar and collector of rare photographs Frank Driggs wrote an introduction to the book.  Here’s its closing paragraph: “This remarkable book is loaded with details on the lives of Tommy Ladnier and most of the people he played with.  There are hundreds of illustrations, photos of people I’ve never even seen before and I’ve seen most of the photos of jazz musicians over the last fifty years.  The depth of research is I believe unparalleled.  God bless these two fanatics who have devoted so much of their time and energy to bring this work of love to fruition.”

My sentiments exactly! 

GIFTS FROM AGUSTIN

Agustin Perez Gasco is the sole proprietor of the wondrous blog MULE WALK AND JAZZ TALK.  Its website’s name, http://thereisjazzbeforetrane.blogspot.com., says a good deal about his ideological bent, one that I certainly share. 

I am convinced that Agustin is the sorcerer of jazz paper — newspaper clippings, old magazines, anything remotely connected with wood pulp and swing. But he’s outdone himself this time.  See this 1929 advertising flyer, which contains multitudes:

GraystoneGarden-Detroit-1929_06_25 a

First, I was astonished by LOU.  Louis himself referred to Luis Russell on recordings as “Lou,” but I can’t think of an example on record where someone calls him (Mr. Strong) anything but Dipper or Papa Dip or Satchelmouth or Louis (pronounced Lew-is, not Loo-ie).    I like “Ball Room,” too: perhaps the printer thought it was more high-class to make it into two words.  And that picture, so distant to us now, was a fairly recent one of the star (who would be in front of “America’s Greatest Broadcasting Orchestra,” suggesting of course that they were on the radio.  Acetates, anyone? 

GraystoneGarden-Detroit-1929_06_25 b

I hope that the letter from Carroll and Lou brought many thousand friends in!  And that everyone, uplifted by a man who was “rarin’ to go,” with a trumpet “too tight,” was ready to sing I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE — starting with the verse.

And, just when I was about to content myself with this “borrowing,” which I mean only to shine some light on Agustin’s noble works for those who might not know his blog, he came up with this one.

A scholarly study of Tommy Ladnier.  What?!

On his blog, I found out about this new book, published in a limited edition of 500 copies by two French jazz scholars — TRAVELING BLUES — devoted to the little-known but eloquent and short-lived trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, someone who recorded with Ida Cox, Lovie Austin, Sidney Bechet, and other luminaries.  Visit  http://www.jazzedit.org/Traveling-blues.html for details.  The book looks remarkably detailed; it can be purchased with a CD that contains (in mp3) form all of Ladnier’s 189 recordings.  It’s a delight that Ladnier should be so splendidly celebrated: he was a great, thoughtful player with deep feeling.  I’ll have more to say about this enterprise when my copy arrives!

THANK YOU, Agustin!

From “INFINITE PLAYLIST,” by Alex Ross

 From The New Yorker, August 10/17. 2009:

For a century or so, the life of a home listener was simple: you had your disks, whether in the form of cylinders, 78s, LPs, or CDs, and, no matter how many of them piled up, there was a clear demarcation between the music that you had and the music that you didn’t.  The Internet has removed that distinction.  Near-infinity awaits on the other side of the magic rectangle.  Video and audio stream in from around the world. . . . but these meandering journeys across the Internet soundscape can be taxing.  The medium too easily generates anxiety in place of fulfillment, an addictive cycle of craving and malaise.  No sooner has one experience begun than the thought of what else is out there intrudes.  Putting on an old-fashioned disk and letting it play to the end restores a measure of sanity.  This may explain why the archaic LP is enjoying an odd surge of popularity among younger listeners: it’s a modest rebellion against the tyranny of instant access.

At times, I enjoy “the tyranny of instant access,” and I think that in some small way my blog-videos have contributed a rivulet to the deluge, but I know well what Ross is writing about.  I propose (in my ancient way) that we take it back even one step deeper into the past, with One-Track Moments: where we play one recording a half-dozen times in a row to hear it deeper and deeper.  This, of course, is a poor substitute for the tactile thrill of placing the stylus once again at the beginning of the track, or (an infinitely more seductive pleasure, now half-denied us) of replaying a particular passage or even a moment — a series of three Jo Jones accents behind Tommy Ladnier, or the different ways Billie Holiday sings “Yesterdays” on her 1939 Commodore record, or the glorious pots-and-pans clatter Dave Tough makes on “Tappin’ the Commodore Till.”  Let us occasionally listen to jazz as they did in 1939, intently, intensely, dipping ourselves neck-deep in its pleasures, rather than moving through twenty-five tracks of a compact disc as if we were someone mowing a meadow, one strip closer to going home.  Try it!  It satisfies . . . .

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.