Tag Archives: Tony DiNicola

MAKING IT SOUND EASY: BILLY BUTTERFIELD

The great jazz trumpet players all — and deservedly so — have their fan clubs (and sometimes Facebook groups): Louis, Bix, Bobby, Bunny and three dozen others.  But some musicians, remarkable players, get less attention: Ray Nance, Jimmie Maxwell, Marty Marsala, Emmett Berry, Joe Thomas come to mind.

Then there’s the luminous and rarely-praised Billy Butterfield, who navigated a fifty-year career in small hot groups, in big bands, in the studios, and more: lead and jazz soloist for Bob Crosby, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw.  When Dick Sudhalter asked Bobby Hackett who was the best trumpeter playing now (circa 1971) Bobby named Billy.

Billy at one of the Conneaut Lake Jazz Parties, perhaps early Eighties.

Coincidentally, Professor Salvucci and I have been discussing Billy (in the gaps in our conversations when we focus on the positive) and it is thus wonderful synchronicity to find my friend “Davey Tough” (who has perfect taste) having posted two beautiful examples of Billy’s playing on YouTube.

Here’s Billy in 1942, with the Les Brown Orchestra, performing SUNDAY:

And in 1955, something I’d never known existed:

and Billy on flugelhorn with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band:

My contribution to the great hoard of Butterfieldiana is this video (thanks to kind Joe Shepherd) of a session at the Manassas Jazz Festival, December 1, 1978, with luminaries surrounding Billy: Tony DiNicola, Van Perry, Marty Grosz, Dick Wellstood, Spencer Clark, Kenny Davern, Spiegle Willcox: savor it here.

And one other piece of beautiful evidence:

How many people have memorized that record, or at least danced to it, without knowing who the trumpet soloist — bravura and delicate both — was?

Here is an excerpt from a 1985 interview with Billy, so you can hear his voice.

Wondering why some artists become stars and others do not is always somewhat fruitless.  I suspect that Billy played with such elegant power and ease that people took him for granted.  Looking at his recording career, it’s easy to say, “Oh, he didn’t care if he was a leader or a sideman,” but he did have his own successful big band (recording for Capitol) and in the mid-Fifties, inconceivable as it seems now, his small band with Nick Caiazza and Cliff Leeman was a hit on college campuses and made records; he also led large groups for RCA Victor.

But I suspect he was just as happy playing LADY BE GOOD with a pick-up group (as he did at the last Eddie Condon’s) as he was reading charts for a studio big band or playing beautiful solos on a Buck Clayton Jam Session.  I also suspect that he wasn’t instantly recognizable to the general audience or even the jazz fans as were his competitors for the spotlight: Hackett, Jonah Jones, Charlie Shavers, Ruby Braff.  He didn’t have a gimmick, nor did he care to.

And once the big band era ended, other, more extroverted trumpeters got more attention: Harry James, Clark Terry, Doc Severinsen, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Hirt.  When I’ve watched Billy in videos, he seems almost shy: announcing the next song in as few words as possible and then returning to the horn.  Unlike Berigan, whom he occasionally resembles, he didn’t bring with him the drama of a self-destructive brief life.

Finally, and sadly, because he began with Bob Crosby, was an honored soloist at the Eddie Condon Town Hall concerts, and ended his career with a long glorious run with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band (where I saw him) I believe he was typecast as a “Dixieland” musician, which is a pity: he had so much more in him than JAZZ ME BLUES.

Consider this: a duet with Dick Wellstood that bears no resemblance to straw-hat-and-striped-vest music:

Billy should be more than a half-remembered name.

May your happiness increase!

BRILLIANCE IN A SMALL SPACE: BILLY BUTTERFIELD, SPIEGLE WILLCOX, KENNY DAVERN, SPENCER CLARK, DICK WELLSTOOD, MARTY GROSZ, VAN PERRY, TONY DiNICOLA (MANASSAS JAZZ FESTIVAL, December 1, 1978).

What was lost can return — some papers I thought were gone for good have resurfaced — but often the return needs the help of a kind friend, in this case my benefactor, trumpeter Joe Shepherd, who (like Barney the purple dinosaur) believes in sharing.

Sharing what?  How about forty-five minutes of admittedly muzzy video of Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Spiegle Willcox, trombone; Kenny Davern, clarinet; Spencer Clark, bass sax; Dick Wellstood, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Tony DiNicola, drums, recorded at the Manassas Jazz Festival on December 1, 1978.

But first, a few lines, which you are encouraged to skip if you want to get right to the treasure-box.  My very dear generous friend John L. Fell sent me this on a VHS tape in the mid-to-late Eighties, and I watched it so often that now, returning to it, I could hum along with much of this performance.  It’s a sustained example of — for want of a better expression — the way the guys used to do it and sometimes still do.  Not copying records; not playing routinized trad; not a string of solos.  There’s beautiful variety here within each performance (and those who’d make a case that old tunes should stay dead might reconsider) and from performance to performance.  Fascinating expressions of individuality, of very personal sonorities and energies — and thrilling duets made up on the spot with just a nod or a few words.  There’s much more to admire in this session, but you will find your own joys.

YouTube, as before, has divided this video into three chunks — cutting arbitrarily.  The songs in the first part are I WANT TO BE HAPPY / SWEET SUE / I CRIED FOR YOU (partial) //

The songs are I CRIED FOR YOU (completed) / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / I CAN’T GET STARTED (Billy – partial) //

The songs are I CAN’T GET STARTED (concluded) / CHINA BOY //

I feel bathed in joy.

And another example of kindness: my friend and another benefactor, Tom Hustad (author of the astonishing book on Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY) sent along a slightly better — visual — copy that has none of the arbitrary divisions imposed by YouTube.  And here it is!  It will be my companion this morning: let it be yours as well.

May your happiness increase!

OH, HOW THEY SWING! (Part One): DANNY TOBIAS, WARREN VACHÉ, PHILIP ORR, PAT MERCURI, JOE PLOWMAN (September 22, 2018: 1867 Sanctuary, Ewing, New Jersey)

I love that I live about an hour from the jazz-metropolis that is New York City, but I will drive for hours when the music beckons.  It did last Saturday, when brassmen Danny Tobias and Warren Vaché joined with Philip Orr, piano; Joe Plowman, string bass; Pat Mercuri, guitar, for a wonderful afternoon of acoustic improvisations at the lovely 1867 Sanctuary Arts and Culture Center in Ewing, New Jersey.  (101 Scotch Road will stay in my car’s GPS for that reason.) Here’s some evidence — thanks to the very subtle photographer Lynn Redmile — to document the scene:

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the two Swing perpetrators:

It’s an immense compliment to the melodic swinging inventiveness of this ad hoc quintet, that their music requires no explanation.  But what is especially touching is the teamwork: when portrayed in films, trumpet players are always trying to outdo each other.  Not here: Danny and Warren played and acted like family, and a particularly loving branch.  They have very individual voices, but if I said that the approving ghosts up in the rafters were Ruby Braff, Joe Wilder, Kenny Davern, and Tony DiNicola, no one would object.  Phil, Joe, and Pat listened, responded, and created with characteristic grace.  Thanks to Bob and Helen Kull, the guiding spirits of the 1867 Sanctuary, for making us all so welcome with such fine music.

It was a memorable afternoon, and I wish only that this was a regular occasion, to be documented by CD releases and general acclamation.  We can hope.

I have a dozen beauties to share with you.  Here are the first four.

Irving Berlin’s ALL BY MYSELF, and someone in the band breaks into song, most effectively:

Another Berlin treasure, CHANGE PARTNERS:

Edgar Sampson’s paean to hope, IF DREAMS COME TRUE:

To celebrate the start of Fall, AUTUMN LEAVES:

May your happiness increase!

MR. TOBIAS COMES ON!

THE BRONZE MESSENGER, by Ericka Midiri

I’m very happy to report that cornetist Danny Tobias has finally come out with his own CD, aptly called CHEERFUL LITTLE EARFUL — a subtle trio session, intimate yet propulsive.

I was fortunate enough to write the very brief notes for the CD:

Danny Tobias is an old-fashioned jazz player in the best modern way, at home in any swinging jazz context. Like his heroes Buck Clayton and Ruby Braff, he loves melody, his improvisations have a beautiful shape, and he is always recognizably himself. Danny didn’t learn his jazz from a textbook but through experience – early gigs with Ed Metz, Jr., Paul Midiri, and Joe Holt, and a fifteen-year musical apprenticeship with drummer Tony Di Nicola and master clarinetist Kenny Davern.

Kenny was an inspiration. He taught me what not to play, how to play in an ensemble, and how to construct a solo. He could build a solo as well as anyone who has ever played. Period. Tony and Kenny were always willing to teach me and I loved every night that I had the privilege to work with them. Since those two passed away I’ve been traveling with the Midiri brothers to festivals all over the country and leading my own groups whenever possible. It’s funny but when I looked at the tunes I’d picked for this CD almost all of them were written between 1925 and1935. I don’t think of these songs as old. They speak to me and remind me of Tony and Kenny.

When I asked Danny about his original compositions, he said, The names of my tunes are rather silly. I rehearse with an organ trio once a week in Trenton saxophonist Dom DeFranco’s cellar. Hence the name DOMINIC’S BIG CELLAR, which is based on LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME. When I brought up NO MATH, he just grinned. And the song with the most striking title has an intriguing explanation: HOW’S YOUR MOTHER was first written as a Christmas song for my three sons. The title comes from a gag of mine (with people I know very well): when someone mentions something off color or foul, I will say “How’s your mother?” as if the bawdy comment has jogged a memory.

Danny’s trio is completed by two very sympathetic and supportive players. Pianist Joe Holt is a fixture in jazz rooms along the Eastern Seaboard, and he and Danny have been playing together for years, often with the Midiri brothers. (You can see them on YouTube.) Gary Cattley has his Ph.D. from North Texas State University, plays tuba in addition to string bass, and appears with the Princeton Symphony as well as Marty Grosz.

This easy-going trio got together for sessions in summer 2009, with the head arrangements done by Danny. The results remind me of the finest sessions for Keynote Records in the Forties or the John Hammond sessions for Vanguard a decade later: neat but inspired. Each performance was completed in one or two takes. This CD captures the kind of jazz that musicians play for their own pleasure when only the attentive customers are in the club. It’s comfortable, late-evening music, from the sorrowing SAY IT ISN’T SO to the romping CHICAGO RHYTHM and the title tune, a perfect description of Danny Tobias’s jazz.

The disc is available from the modest, soft-spoken Mr. Tobias himself for $15.00.  Send check, cash, or other negotiable instruments to Danny at 38 Fenwood Avenue, Mercerville, New Jersey 08619.  More to come!

P.S.   When Dan Barrett started his New York City tour — sadly too brief — one of the first things he said to me was that he had played two concerts in New Jersey with a wonderful cornet player, Danny Tobias.  Did I know him?  (I murmured assent but Dan was so intent that I don’t know if it registered.)  That young Mr. Tobias was so good, so melodic that he reminded the elder Dan why he had taken up the cornet himself: to play the melody.  Dan (Barrett) continued, looking at me sternly, “You really ought to mention Danny in your blog,” and I happily said, “I have, at length, and he’s coming out with his own CD.  He’s a fine player and a fine person!”  All true!

“SOME BLISS, PLEASE?” DECEMBER 1, 1978

This song — Vincent Youmans’ I WANT TO BE HAPPY — evoked small verbal comedies from two musicians I saw in New York years ago.  Wild Bill Davison would announce the title and then leeringly say in his best W.C. Fields voice, “Don’t we all,” drawling the last word for four beats.  Kenny Davern, on the other hand, was more academic, seeing the simple declarative statement as the opening for a basic ESL class, “I want to be happy, she wants to be happy, they want to be happy,” trailing off, an amused look on his face.  But comedy isn’t the theme in this gathering of happy improvisers at the Manassas Jazz Festival: Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Spiegle Willcox, trombone, Davern, clarinet; Dick Wellstood, piano, Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, bass; Spencer Clark, bass sax; Tony DiNicola, drums.  See how Butterfield works hard, building and soaring; how Davern turns his familiar figures in every possible direction, animated by the thryhm deep inside; Wellstood’s opening jab at “Perdido,” and the way Marty Grosz, intent, relaxes when he can put his guitar down, take a sip of his drink, and revel in Wellstood’s playing.  And the ensemble joyousness.  We think of the Golden Age of Jazz — suggest your decade — but this performance is evidence that 1978 was a pretty good year for it, too.