Tag Archives: Tony Fruscella

THRILLING TERRIBLE CHILDREN, SEDATELY WELL-BEHAVED ADULTS (IN JAZZ, OF COURSE)

Consider this very truncated list: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Purvis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Jabbo Smith, Sandy Williams, Cassino Simpson, Dave Tough, Tony Fruscella, Fud Livingston, Dick McDonough, Serge Chaloff, Fats Navarro, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan.

What do they have in common?  Would you, were you a recording supervisor, hire them for a record date?  Would you hire them for your orchestra or gig?  Could you count on them to do the work asked of them?  (A hint here: as much as I revere, let’s say, Fruscella or Livingston, I wouldn’t want them driving the kids to summer camp.)

That list contains poets of the music, artistic trailblazers, instantly recognizable creators, memorable improvisers.  But it is also a list of people who didn’t show up on time or at all for the gig or has to be awakened in the middle of a song to play, people who were addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, and sex; people who had borderline personality disorder; people who stole, lied, and destroyed property; people who refused to bathe or change their clothes . . . and more.

Even if this seems blasphemous, do me the kindness to read on.

And if you proclaim that Genius must be forgiven anything because it’s Genius, I wonder how you would feel if the Genius vomited on your living room rug or stole money from you.

I suspect that most jazz fans are Apollonian (in Nietzsche’s dichotomy): they drive in the proper lane; they shower regularly; they hold jobs; they change the registration sticker on their car when the law says they must.  But, perhaps as a result, they are fascinated by the Dionysiac, the Bad Boys and Girls of Jazz, the people whose behavior is flashy, self-destructive, eccentric, illegal.

Consider this: if someone could come up with an authenticated needle used by Billie or Bird, or a piece of Bix’s mummified blue sweater, how much would those holy relics — the jazz Shroud of Turin — fetch on eBay?

Violently erratic “bad” behavior makes good copy.  How many biographies of Bix are there, as compared to his more restrained contemporaries? How many theatrical presentations “recreating” Billie are there, as opposed to the lives of other singers who drank Seven-Up?

I was motivated to write this piece because of the just-issued biography of Johnny Guarnieri, SUPERSTRIDE, beautifully written and researched by Derek Coller, depicts a good husband and father, and a craftsman, someone serious about his art even when striding joyously.

I think of others of the same general character: people who kept pocket notebooks and were thus early to gigs, who came prepared to make music, with horns that worked and a knowledge of the charts; musicians who could transpose and knew their keys; who came to the club date in appropriate, even elaborate formal wear; whose clothes were clean; who conducted themselves as professionals and whose behavior might have been placid and thus not worthy of chronicling, but who behaved as adults.

Think of Maxine Sullivan, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, Teddi King, Eddie Barefield, Al Hall, Ed Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Bennie Morton, and Buster Bailey among others: artists who didn’t use “genius” as an excuse for childishness.  Sadly, I sense a silent snobbery among jazz fans, who look down on these mature men and women because their personal lives are uneventful.  And, aside from Hinton, Wilder, and Ed Hall, how many of the artists in the list above have been properly chronicled?   Men and women who didn’t destroy themselves and others are proper figures to contemplate and admire.  Even if they are tediously busy being professional, monogamous, and sober, their lives  have much to show us.

Obviously it’s not thrilling to write about someone who does his or her job without drama, but we should be celebrating these artists as grownups.  And grownups are hard to find in any field.

Here’s music made by several grownups: musicians, classically trained who could cut the charts and swing like mad, who appear on many record dates because they were both creative and reliable: William C. Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee, coincidentally backed by Osie Johnson, drums, and that very same Johnny Guarnieri among others:

I wonder what would happen to us, as an audience, if we chose not to fetishize childish self-destructive behavior, and instead celebrated adult behavior?

Inspiration for this post is, as it often is, thanks to Sammut of Malta, whose thoughts are always inspiring.

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 Five: March 3, 2017)

It is a great tribute to Dan Morgenstern that this series of video interviews is captivating.  (If you think I am being immodest in writing this, the light shines on Dan.)

Some of this comes from Dan’s warmth: these are not only the musicians he respects, but also people he likes and feels connected to. (I use the present tense intentionally, because no one in these segments is truly dead when remembered so clearly and fondly.)  Here you can find all the earlier segments, with affectionate and sharply-realized portraits of everyone from Lester Young to Jimmy Rowles, with interludes about race relations in Georgia and soul food in Harlem.

And these interviews offer the rare pleasure of first-hand narratives: rather than reading a book whose pages tell us about what a writer thinks a musician sounds like, we have Dan talking about drinking Ballantine’s with tenor saxophonist Brew Moore.  In the two segments that follow, we also have a Charlie Parker story — where, for once, Bird is not treated with appropriate reverence — and one of Lee Wiley behaving ungraciously.  Soon to be major motion pictures!

and . . . .

Two more interview segments from the March 3 session (we did thirteen in all) will be posted soon, and Dan and I have a date to meet again for more.  Thank you, Dan!

P.S.  In the segment above, I mis-remembered the name of the record producer who arranged for Lee Wiley’s final session: it is Bill Borden, not Dick Borden.

May your happiness increase!

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

On Friday, March 3, 2017, I had the immense honor of visiting Dan Morgenstern at his home on the Upper West Side of New York City.  I brought my video camera.  Dan and I sat in his living room and he graciously talked about the wonderful people he has encountered.  I am writing this simply, without adjectives, because I truly don’t know how to convey the pleasure of being able to ask this delightful man questions about his friends and heroes.  Our heroes, too.

Dan offered telling portraits of Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Tony Fruscella, Brew Moore, Lee Wiley, Donald Lambert, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Dick Wilson,Olivia de Havilland, Andy Kirk, Ben Webster, Curly Howard, Bud Powell, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Rushing, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Joe Thomas, Jimmy Rowles, Buster Bailey, Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, and more.

My premise, which Dan had approved of, was that I would ask him about people, “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” in the DOWN BEAT phrase, who didn’t get the attention they deserve.  I thought it best to speak of musicians who have moved on, because if the conversation was about the living (who are also deserving of recognition!) someone’s feelings might be hurt by being left out.

We spent more than four hours together, and the cliche that the “time just flew” is appropriate.  I recorded twelve segments, and present the first three here. Look for the others soon.  If you’ve never heard or seen Dan in person, you will soon delight in his enthusiasm, wit, sharp recollection of details — the kind of telling details that a novelist would envy — and graciousness.  And he was seriously pleased to be able to tell true first-hand stories to you — this audience of people who know who Hot Lips Page is.

and!

and!

We have another afternoon session planned, with a list of  people we did not talk about the first time.  As I say, I have kept my language restrained for fear of gushing, but we are blessed to have such a generous wise unaffected fellow in our midst.  Of course he has great material to share with us, but he is a magnificent storyteller.  And for those who savor such details: Dan is 87.  Amazing, no?

May your happiness increase!

“HAVE YOU TRIED THE ELEPHANT BEER?”: INSPIRED STORIES: “JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS,” by MONK ROWE with ROMY BRITELL

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Monk Rowe is a jazz musician — saxophonist, pianist, composer, arranger — and he has a day gig at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, as the  Joe Williams Director of the Filius Jazz Archive there.  The Archive will be twenty-one in 2016, and it is indeed remarkably adult.

So far, Monk has conducted video interviews with more than 325 musicians, ranging from the great forbears (Doc Cheatham, Eddie Bert, Kenny Davern, Jerry Jerome, Ray Conniff, Joe Williams, Milt Hinton) to the living legends of the present and future (Nicki Parrott, Kidd Jordan, Sherrie Maricle, Bill Charlap, Holly Hofmann, Maria Schneider).  And excerpts from those interviews, thematically and intelligently arranged, now form a compact yet impressive book (with a brief foreword by jazz eminence Dan Morgenstern) whose title is above.

JazzTalesCover

A friend at Hamilton sent me a copy of the book some weeks back, and I have been slow to write about it — for two reasons.  One, the semester got in the way, unforgivably, and two, I was often making notes and laughing so hard that I couldn’t read much at a sitting.  But my instant recommendation is BUY IT.  So those of you who want to skip the evidence can zoom to the bottom of this post. Others can linger.

A brief prelude.  I am immensely in favor of oral history although it cannot replace the best analysis or aesthetic criticism.  I wouldn’t give up Whitney Balliett, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Anthony Barnett, Frank Buchmann-Moller, Manfred Selchow, or John Chilton . . . the list goes on and I know I am leaving two dozen worthy writers out.  But what wouldn’t we give for a ten-minute interview with Tony Fruscella, Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy Harrison, Herschel Evans, Eddie Lang, Jimmy Blanton, or Buster Bailey?  True, some musicians were and are shy or not always able to articulate much about the music, but others — as we know — are born raconteurs, sharp observers, comedians, anthropologists.  Their stories, no matter how brief, are precious.  Two pages by Clark Terry where he speaks of being beaten by Caucasians because he was a “Nigerian” while in Mississippi — and then being rescued by another group of Caucasians — say more about race relations in the United States than twenty hours of PBS footage could ever do.

The material is organized thematically, enabling the reader to hear, for instance, stories of life on the road from Kenny Davern, Lanny Morgan, and Phil Woods. Then there are sharp observations — one can almost hear the rimshot that follows.  Dave Pell calls Stan Getz “the greatest dressing room player that ever lived.”  Stan Kenton stops his band from swinging too much and says, “This is not Basie.  This is Stan Kenton.”  Bobby Rosengarden talks about Toscanini, Joe Wilder about punctuality, Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli about life in the recording studio.  Keter Betts, as a high-school student, is bought lunch by Milt Hinton; Jean Bach explains the Ellington habit of “seagulling”; Sherrie Maricle recalls her metal clarinet.  Dan Barrett gives advice to young musicians.  Randy Sandke talks about the perils of thinking.  Karl Berger talks about his conducting; Kidd Jordan deconstructs a song’s title.  And there’s a historical perspective covering nearly a century: we hear Doc Cheatham talk about Ma Rainey, then Jerry Jerome describe the first Glenn Miller band — all the way up to the present.

It’s an enthralling book.  And since Monk Rowe is a professional musician, his interludes and commentary are more than useful; his questions are on the mark. Other writers put themselves into the dialogue merely to say, “Well, Dizzy always used to say to me,” but Monk is a gracious interpreter rather than a narcissist.

To find out the story of the elephant beer and the priceless answer, visit Monk’s JAZZ BACKSTORY blog here  and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  Then you can read the rest of Phil Woods’ words and — by the way — find out exactly what Dizzy Gillespie said when presented with the key to the city of Syracuse, New York.

JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS is available here through Amazon.  And the proceeds from the book support the Archives.

NEWS FLASH: Monk is going to be teaching a free online course on jazz, starting February 2, 2016: details here.

May your happiness increase!

“IT’S GOT TO BE SWEETNESS, MAN, YOU DIG?”: MICHAEL KANAN, NEAL MINER, GREG RUGGIERO at MEZZROW, MARCH 23, 2015 (Part Two)

Lester Young told François Postif in 1959, “It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig? Sweetness can be funky, filthy, or anything, but which part do you want?”*

As someone who has sought sweetness all his life, I delight in that statement. I don’t mean stickiness or sentimentality, but a gentle approach to the subject being considered, loving rather than aggressive or passive-aggressive.

I have met many people who are acquainted with jazz in an intellectual way, who value Miles and Trane as modernists influential as Kandinsky or Joyce, but who have missed or disdained the sweetness that can be so integral to the music.

For some of them, jazz is a mystery to be wary of.  It is intricate, cerebral, complex, a closed system with no way in for the lay person. This might spring from a sensibility that equates anger with authenticity.  Thus, they experience sweet warm music as banal, the faded dance music of oblivious grandparents shuffling around the floor, clinging to each other as the ship tilts dangerously.

“Ben Webster with strings? Oh, that’s beautiful saxophone playing, but does it challenge the listener? It’s too pretty for me!”

I warm to art that embraces me rather than one that says, “Sorry.  You are not educated enough or radical enough to appreciate this.”  Complexity is always intriguing but not as an aggressive rebuke to the listener.  Sweetness can elevate a music that creates a direct line from the creators’ hearts to the hearers’.

And sometimes the dearest and deepest art is a masquerade, where the artists act as if nothing particularly difficult is being created.  But consider Edmond Hall, Harry Carney, Tony Fruscella, Bobby Hackett, Frank Chace, or Benny Morton playing a melody, or the 1938 Basie rhythm section, or four quarter notes by Louis on YOU ARE MY LUCKY STAR.  To fully understand such gorgeous phenomena would take a lifetime, but at the same time the sounds are immediately accessible as beautiful.  This music woos the listener’s ears, brain, heart, and spirit.

Such sweetness, delicate intricacy, conviction, expertise, and deep feeling were all evident when Michael Kanan, piano; Neal Miner, string bass; Greg Ruggiero, guitar, took the stage at Mezzrow on March 23, 2015. Here are three more deep examples:

Michael’s ADORÉE, which he wrote for the late singer Jimmy Scott:

A brisk THE NEARNESS OF YOU:

Ellington’s wonderful THE MOOCHE:

(I thought this performance was especially delicious: in the ideal world, there would be the two-CD set of this trio performing Ellington and Strayhorn.)

Here is the first part of the beautiful music created that evening.

Lester would have loved to play with this trio. I felt his admiring spirit in the room.

*This quotation comes from THE LESTER YOUNG READER, ed. Lewis Porter (Smithsonian, 1991): 189.

May your happiness increase!

PERFECTLY CRAFTED: “PLAYGROUND” by the UNACCOUNTED FOUR

I am delighted to share with you the debut CD of an inspired quartet — the Unaccounted Four — a disc called (appropriately) PLAYGROUND, where the arranged passages are as brilliant as the improvisations, and the two kinds of expression dance beautifully through the disc.

playground_front

Menno plays cornet, wrote the arrangements, and composed three originals; David plays clarinet and tenor saxophone; Martien plays guitar; Joep is on string bass; Harrie ven de Woort plays the pianola on the closing track, a brief EXACTLY LIKE YOU.  The disc was recorded at the PIanola Museum in Amsterdam on four days in May 2014 — recorded superbly by bassist Joep.

The repertoire is a well-stirred offering of “classic” traditional jazz repertoire: STUMBLING, CHARLESTON, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, JUBILEE, EXACTLY LIKE YOU; beautiful pop songs: AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, JEANNINE (I DREAM OF LILAC TIME), ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT RHYTHM, LULLABY OF THE LEAVES; originals: WHAT THE FUGUE, UNGUJA, PLAYGROUND; unusual works by famous composers: Ellington’s REFLECTIONS IN D; Bechet’s LE VIEUX BATEAU; and Ravel’s SLEEPING BEAUTY.  Obviously this is a quartet with an imaginative reach.

A musical sample — the Four performing JUBILEE and LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

Here is Menno’s own note to the CD:

A few years ago, I wanted to have my own jazz quartet to play what is known as “classic jazz.” Besides being nice to listen to, I intended the quartet to be versatile, convenient and different. That is why I bypassed the usual format of horn + piano trio. Our instrumentation of two horns, guitar and bass allows for varied tone colors. The venues where we play don’t need to rent a piano, and we don’t have to help the drummer carry his equipment from the car. As for versatility, David Lukacs, Merien Oster and Joep Lumeij are excellent readers and improvisers. They are also great company to hang out with (convenience again).

Our repertoire dates from the 1920s and 30s. The earliest piece is the adaptation of Ravel’s Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (1912); the latest is Ellington’s Reflections in D (1953), not counting my own tunes. While writing the charts, I chose to frame the familiar (and not-so-familiar) tunes in a new setting, rather than following the original recordings. So, for better or worse, the Unaccounted Four sounds like no other band. I promise you will still recognize the melodies, though!

The recording was made at the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam by Joep Lumeij with only two microphones. Minimal editing and postprocessing was done (or indeed possible).

On the last track, Harrie van de Voort operated a pianola which belted out Exactly Like You while we joined in. It is the only completely improvised performance on this disc. Autumn in New York is at the other end of the spectrum with every note written out.

I hope you will enjoy the Unaccounted Four’s particular brand of chamber jazz.

Menno’s statement that the Unaccounted Four “sounds like no other band” is quite true.  If I heard them on the radio or on a Blindfold Test, I might not immediately recognize the players, but I wouldn’t mistake the band for anyone else. I think my response would be, “My goodness, that’s marvelous.  What or whom IS that?”

Some listeners may wonder, “If it doesn’t sound like any other band, will I like it?”  Fear not.  One could put the Four in the same league as the Braff-Barnes quartet at their most introspective, or the Brookmeyer-Jim Hall TRADITIONALISM REVISITED.  I think of the recordings Frankie Newton made with Mary Lou Williams, or I envision a more contemplative version of the 1938 Kansas City Six or the Kansas City Four.

But here the CD’s title, PLAYGROUND, is particularly apt. Imagine the entire history of melodic, swinging jazz as a large grassy field.  Over there, Bobby Hackett and Shorty Baker are talking about mouthpieces; in another corner, Lester Young, Gil Evans, and Miles Davis are lying on their backs staring at the sky.  Billy Strayhorn and Claude Thornhill are admiring blades of grass; Frank Trumbauer is introducing Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang to Lennie Tristano and Oscar Pettiford; Tony Fruscella and Brew Moore are laughing at something witty Count Basie has said. Someone is humming ROYAL GARDEN BLUES at a medium tempo; another is whistling a solo from the Birth of the Cool sides.

You can continue this game at your leisure (it is good for insomniacs and people on long auto trips) but its whimsical nature explains PLAYGROUND’s particular sweet thoughtful appeal.

It is music to be savored: translucent yet dense tone-paintings, each three or four-minute musical interlude complete in itself, subtle, multi-layered, full of shadings and shifts.  The playing throughout is precise without being mannered, exuberant when needed but never loud — and happily quiet at other times. Impressionism rather than pugilism, although the result is warmly emotional.

Some CDs I immediately embrace, absorb, and apparently digest: I know their depths in a few hearings.  With PLAYGROUND, I’ve listened to it more than a half-dozen times, and each time I hear new aspects; it has the quiet resonance of a book of short stories, which one can keep rereading without ever being bored.

For me, it offers some of the most satisfying listening experiences I have had of late.

The CD can be downloaded or purchased from CDBaby, downloaded from iTunes or Amazon; or one can visit Menno’s own site here, listen to sound samples, and purchase the music from him.

Enjoy the PLAYGROUND.  You have spacious time to explore it.

May your happiness increase!

YOUNGBLOODS AND ELDER STATESMEN JOIN IN TO SWING OUT

In jazz, the Infant Prodigies become the Youngbloods, Established Heroes, and Elder Statespersons in what seems like sixty-four bars. Tempus fugit rapidly in 4 / 4!

Here are two CDs by young fellows — with the gracious assistance of a Senior Sage — that I commend to you.  The first features American brothers Peter and Will Anderson; the second UK pals Jamie Brownfield and Liam Byrne.

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Most often, Will and Pete, superb players, have been found in situations I would call lovingly retrospective — recreating the music of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, sitting in the reed section of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks.  But they aren’t repeater pencils; their range is both broad and deep. Their latest CD, MUSIC OF THE SOPRANO MASTERS, (Gut String Records), shows how easily and comfortably they move in expansive musical worlds. There is a great deal of swinging brotherly love on this CD (no fraternal head-cutting), and each selection seems like its own small improvised orchestral cosmos.

Another delight of this disc is the way in which the Andersons have dug into the repertoire to offer us beauties not so often played, by reedmen not always known as composers — Lucky Thompson, Roland Kirk, and the ever-energetic Bob Wilber, who is represented here by his compositions and his vibrant playing. The rhythm section of Ehud Asherie, Mike Karn, and Phil Stewart couldn’t be nicer or more attentive, and the recorded sound is a treat. Sweetly sculpted liner notes by Robert Levin complete this package . . . a present ready for any occasion.

The songs are Home Comin’ (Lucky Thompson) / A Sack Full of Soul (Roland Kirk) / Vampin’ Miss Georgia (Bob Wilber) / Caressable (Thompson) / Jazzdagen Jump (Wilber) / Bechet’s Fantasy (Sidney Bechet) / My Delight (Kirk) / Warm Inside / Haunted Melody (Thompson/Kirk) / Lou’s Blues (Wilber). It’s available in the usual places, but the best way to get it (if you can’t come to the gig) is here.

Some months ago, a friend passed along a YouTube video of youthful trumpeter Jamie Brownfield and saxophonist Liam Byrne, and I was delighted. They, too, didn’t exactly copy the past, but they swung mightily in an idiom I would call post-Lestorian with dashes of Tony Fruscella, Harry Edison, George Auld.  With the addition of guitarist Andrew Hulme, Nick Blacka, string bass, Marek Dorcik, drums, and Tom Kincaid, a special guest pianist, they sound wonderful — as if the Kansas City Six had time-traveled forward to meet Barney Kessel and Jimmy Rowles in the ether.

Their new CD is appropriately called B. B. Q. for the Brownfield // Byrne Quintet, and although they don’t perform the Hot Five classic, there is a good deal of unaffected joyous strutting on this disc.

BBQ

Here is a selection of videos (posted on trumpeter Jamie Brownfield’s blog), and here is the band’s Facebook page. The repertoire on the CD might make it seem to some listeners that the band is looking in the rear-view mirror, but their performances are fresh, personal, and lively — on Wynton’s HAPPY FEET BLUES, Liam’s own IVEY-DIVEY, and a variety of classics, each with its own sweet deep associations: TICKLE-TOE, SINGIN’ THE BLUES, BOUNCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY, NOSTALGIA / CASBAH, WEST END BLUES, JOAO, WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS, 9:20 SPECIAL.

Jazz isn’t dead, dear readers; its hair isn’t even graying.

May your happiness increase!

QUESTIONS OF “TASTE”

Once upon a time, I was a very eager student in Miss Golab’s middle-school music-appreciation class.  She knew I liked jazz and introduced me to another student who was similarly obsessed.  He was much hipper.  He had a chin tuft.  He asked me, “Well, who do you listen to?” and I said “Louis Armstrong!” (my unspoken “of course” hung in the air).  Quizzically, he replied, “What about Archie Shepp?”  I said, “That stinks.  I say to hell with it,” and he, indignantly, said, “And I say to hell with you!” and stalked away.

Two jazz critics in the making, I point out.

A few years later, I still couldn’t hear Archie Shepp . . . but I also had little patience for Charlie Parker, late Lester Young, and a thousand others.  If it didn’t sound like the 1937 Basie band, Louis, or the Blue Note Jazzmen and their modern heirs, my ears were closed.

It has taken me forty years to be able to listen to a much wider variety of musics, and I am happy that my horizons have widened: if you can find beauty in Ran Blake as well as in James P. Johnson, aren’t your delights multiplied?

But not everyone feels that way.  One JAZZ LIVES reader told me that I was a traitor to the real jazz, which he defines as happy music played by “Negroes” in New Orleans.  All I can say (having calmed down) is that I hope he gets much pleasure out of the music he loves — as much as I do in listening to what I love.

This brings me to the question of what we call taste.

“I have good taste,” we say to ourselves.  “I know what I like.  What I like is really good.”

Others, we think, have slightly less reliable taste.  And we gossip about them in jazz terms.  “I can’t hang with him at the festival.  All he wants to do is go hear the Roly-Poly Piranhas play AT THE CODFISH BALL.”  Or, in more intimate terms, “I could never sleep with a (wo)man who digs the Roly-Poly Piranhas.”  I understand this sharp-edged perspective, but I am working hard to tame the snobbish divisiveness in my personality.

For whatever reasons, we grow attached to certain artistic expressions early in our lives.  Dr. John Money, an eminent medical researcher on the subject of sex (based at Johns Hopkins) said that our erotic attraction was based on childhood experiences we might not have been conscious of — not Freudian so much as experiential and genetic.  He called it a person’s “lovemap.”

Before I was able to vote, I heard records by Louis Armstrong (with Gordon Jenkins and the 1947 All-Stars), Vic Dickenson, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Jo Jones, the Boswell Sisters . . . so they are part of my musical “lovemap.”

And still — for all the ecumenicalism I am encouraging about “taste,” which, after all, is just something we make up to make ourselves feel better about our visceral reactions — if you tell me that you find Louis Armstrong boring, if the Basie rhythm section irritates you, I will feel pity . . . and think, “Wow!  That is WRONG!”

If you say “I do not like the way Hot Lips Page plays the blues,” I will try not to look at you as if you had just said, “I dislike breathing.  Breathing bores me.”  I might ask you, “What don’t you like about his playing?” and then we could get into a discussion.

But the word “like” is important here, because it shows that Hot Lips Page’s essence is not really in question; what is up for discussion is your subjective visceral reaction to it.

If you say to me, “I prefer the way Tony Fruscella plays the blues to the way Hot Lips does,” at least I can understand this, although I may still be surprised.  However, if you say, “Hot Lips Page is a bad trumpet player.  He can’t play,” then I must take my leave, because you have raised your subjective assessment into a statement of what you consider to be factual evidence.  I would say, as I go away, “You might want to ask a professional trumpet player if your assertion is correct.”

Ultimately I think that such “expressions of taste” are about what moves us deeply.  Does Connee Boswell’s singing of IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND store make you want to weep?  Does Sidney Catlett’s STEAK FACE solo make you want to get up and dance around the room?  (Please insert your own examples here.)  Are they the only musical expressions that move people to tears or joy?  I think not.

But maybe we could back off a little.

mushrooms

I don’t like the flavor of cooked mushrooms.  Too dark, too earthy.  I will eat them to be polite, and I don’t wrinkle my nose, gag, or toss my plate on the floor.  But if you think mushrooms are the most delicious thing in the world, and you pity me my culinary myopia, we could still go out to dinner.  And while you are thinking, “Michael doesn’t like mushrooms?  What is WRONG with him?” I would give you all the mushrooms on my plate so that you could enjoy them.

It holds true for music.  To my ears, there is little better than art of the musicians I hold dear.  But if you really want to go off and hear a band I don’t like, perhaps you hear something in them I do not.

Back to food.  If we are going to go out to lunch and you want me to join you for a paper sack full of McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, I will not only say NO but I will tell you what I know about processed genetically modified food from animals that have never been allowed to live.  I might even say, “Hey, do you want to die?  Have you ever had real roast chicken?”  And we could not dine together, at least not at the Golden Arches.

However, should I think you are evil or stupid?  I think the most rancorous I should allow myself — in an echo of CASABLANCA — is to say, “You were misinformed.”

But if you want to spend all your time at the festival listening to the RPP, I hope you get a chance to walk in and hear a lyrical cornetist take a beautiful solo on a ballad.  Only then can you say you want to be exclusive.  Telling me that the lyrical cornetist “would put you to sleep” is true for you, but it makes me sad.

The principles of criticism stand solidly here: what are the artists attempting to do, and how well do they accomplish those goals?  If a band proposes to swing in a certain manner, to improvise on themes in ways that are melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically varied and skillful . . . we should judge them on those criteria.

For me, if the tempo drags or races, if the band is not in tune, if they rely on crowd-pleasing volume rather than shadings of dynamics, then I feel sad for the people who are hollering joyously in that room.  And also I feel sad that such displays of enthusiasm often shape the decisions of festival promoters.  I once talked with someone who ran a New York City jazz club, who told me, “The only way I know if a band is good is if they fill the room.”  That was understandable in economic terms, but not always so artistically.

I will hold on to my set of experiences and loves and I hope you will allow me to.  And I will try to be gentle.  If you tell me that the RPP is THE BEST BAND YOU HAVE EVER HEARD.  I might say, “Gee, have you ever heard Louis and Lonnie Johnson on HOTTER THAN THAT?” but I will try to disperse my unspoken scorn.

Want some mushrooms?  (Could I have those olives you aren’t eating?)

May your happiness increase.

“PEACEMAKERS, HEALERS, RESTORERS, STORYTELLERS AND LOVERS OF ALL KINDS”: ANDY SCHUMM’S GANG at JAZZ at CHAUTAUQUA (September 23, 2012)

Reading my colleague M. Figg’s blogpost on Don Murray — meditations witty and sad — made me think, not for the first time that although the Great Hallowed Figures are dead and their recorded legacies are small (think of Frank Melrose, Frank Teschemacher, Rod Cless, George Stafford, Tony Fruscella, Leon Roppolo, Guy Kelly and a hundred others) there are vivid compensations in 2012.

We don’t have to restrict ourselves to the anguished study of too-short solos on a few records (think of Teagarden and Tesch having the sweetest conversation that you almost can’t hear on the Dorsey Brothers’ ROUND EVENING) . . . we have Living Players who bridge past and present right in front of us.  “In front of my video camera, too,” I think with unbounded gratitude.

One of these fellows is the sly, surprising, lyrical, hot Andy Schumm, already legendary.  (I know there are gatherings of listeners who are out-Schumming one another: “I knew Andy was a genius when I heard him in 1993,” “You did? I knew he was a genius before he was out of diapers,” etc.)  My own acquaintance with Mister Schumm only started in this century, but he amazes every time, on cornet, piano, clarinet, drums, comb . . . more to come!

Here are Andy and friends at Jazz at Chautauqua just a few months ago: Mike Greensill, piano; Howard Alden, guitar; Bob Reitmeier, clarinet; Jon Burr, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums — honoring the music of the early Twenties into the middle Thirties, with associations with Fats Waller, Jabbo Smith, James P. Johnson, Bing Crosby, Garvin Bushell, Phil Napoleon, Bix, Eddie Condon, and others.  Lovely subtle forceful romping hot jazz — for our listening and dining pleasure, performances one can marvel at over and over.

MY SWEETIE WENT AWAY:

PERSIAN RUG:

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN:

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

Thank you, gentlemen, for so bravely creating this music for us — right out there in the open.

I take my title from sweet deep words uttered by the Dalai Lama — connected so strongly to this music: “The planet does not need more successful people.  The planet needs desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”  Hail, Andy, Mike, Bob, Howard, Jon, Ricky . . . who fit so many of those categories in their musical generosities.

May your happiness increase.

ROSES IN DECEMBER: TED BROWN, THE EARREGULARS GO NORTH, LENA BLOCH (December 2 / December 9 / December 13, 2012)

“Mark it down.”

Rather than spending your energies on Black Friday hysteria, how about some inspired music?

The memorable tenor saxophonist / composer Ted Brown will be celebrating his eighty-fifth birtthday in December . . . in the best possible way, avoiding the sheet cake and M&Ms but choosing instead to give us all thoughtful, sweet-natured lessons on what improvisation is all about.  Two gatherings deserve your attention.

One — on Sunday, December 2, will take place at Michael Kanan’s serene studio in Brooklyn, The Drawing Room, on Willoughby Street.  The musical gathering will also celebrate the release of two new Ted Brown CDs — POUND CAKE, with cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and TWO OF A KIND with reedman Brad Linde.  The gala starts at 7:30 PM; admission is a mere $10, and the location is 70 Willoughby Street, # 2A.  Also appearing will be Matt Wilson, Murray Wall, Taro Okamoto, Sarah Hughes, Michael Kramer, Michael Kanan, and special guests.  Here’s the Facebook event page.

Cornetist Kirk Knuffke is someone new to me — but as you’ll hear, he has a deep lyricism reminiscent of Tony Fruscella.  With pianist Jesse Stacken, he explores Ellington’s SUNSET AND THE MOCKINGBIRD:

Two — On Thursday, December 13, the eloquent trumpeter Bob Arthurs will be hosting a continuation of the party for Ted — with Ted himself — at Somethin’ Jazz Club 212 East 52nd Street, third floor, from 7 to 9 PM.  The Facebook event page is here.  Joining Ted and Bob will be Jon Easton, piano; Joe Solomon, bass; Barbara Merjan, drums.

Here are Ted and Michael Kanan in duet at the Kitano (January 12, 2011) creating a tender, searching PRISONER OF LOVE:

Moving right along, in swing time . . .

For those who find it difficult to be at The Ear Inn on a Sunday night (a problem I have never been troubled by), the EarRegulars are playing a rare off-site gig on Sunday, December 9 — at 2 PM at the Rockland Center for the Arts.  This edition of the EarRegulars will have Matt Munisteri, guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet (the co-founders); Pete Martinez, clarinet; Neal Miner, string bass.  Not to be missed!  Details / reservations as noted above.

Here’s a near-match: the EarRegulars in 2011, playing RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE  joyously — Kellso, Munisteri, Martinez, and bassist Greg Cohen:

On that same Sunday, the coolly intent, always swinging tenorist Lena Bloch will be playing at the Firehouse Space in Brooklyn, with Dan Tepfer, piano; Dave Miller, guitar; Billy Mintz, drums.  The gig starts at 8 PM, and the Space is at 246 Frost Street in Brooklyn, New York: more details here.

Here’s Lena with Dave Miller, Putter Smith, and Billy Mintz from 2012 — appropriately playing Ted Brown’s FEATHER BED:
I would like to be at all four of these gigs and will do my best — but my presence and my video camera (when permitted) can’t fill the room or the tip jar — is that sufficiently subtle? — so I hope friends of the music will join me to celebrate these happy occasions.
May your happiness increase.

BAD BOYS, NAUGHTY GIRLS: JAZZ MYTHOGRAPHY

This post grew out of an online conversation with my friend Julio Schwarz Andrade, a fine young musician currently exploring the music of short-lived trumpeter Tony Fruscella.  Julio said he found Fruscella both moving and inconsistent, and asked my opinion.  I said that Fruscella was one of those musicians elevated to mythic status not only because he could play beautifully (hear his I’LL BE SEEING YOU) but because the jazz audience seems eager to create a posthumous mythography, celebrating behavior they themselves don’t indulge in.

“Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” is the philosophy of Studs Lonigan in James T. Farrell’s fiction.

I think it ironic that men and women who pay their bills, have two beers on a Friday night and then stop, wear their seat belts — people who not only espouse all the bourgeois middle-class virtues but live them — are secretly entranced by those who do not or cannot: the OUTLAW, the SUPERNOVA, the ECCENTRIC.

Were I asked by a young jazz musician how to ensure posthumous fame, one answer would be “Practice your instrument so that you play brilliantly, memorably.  Learn from those who have gone before you and listen closely on the bandstand.”

But that isn’t always enough to merit a place in the great jazz mythography.  So my advice (delivered ironically) might sound like this: “Want to make sure that your life in jazz will be chronicled long after your death?  Take heroin; you’re much more interesting if you’re tortured.  Die young.  Break the law.  Be dramatically inconsistent, so that someone narrating the arc of your career can chart your “early beginnings,” “meteoric rise,” “sad end.”  Behave in an apparently erratic fashion.  Steal someone’s horn; give up hygiene.  Cultivate intellectual arrogance; antagonize your fellow players.  Avoid the ordinary, the conventional, give up all attempts at social awareness.”

Of course, the musicians and singers I know view these personality traits — echoes of a presumed hipster way of life — with pained skepticism at best.  They may see themselves as outsiders, but they prize bourgeois virtues: showing up early for the gig, ready to play, one’s clothes clean, being a professional, knowing the key.  They like to work alongside reliable individuals, not those too stoned to play.

But these habits don’t make for dramatic mythography, so they don’t get celebrated.

Although the players and singers who outlived the most famous self-destructive figures in jazz speak with reverence and affection of the dead, it can’t have been easy to deal with these “jazz titans” on the stand.  In retrospect, they describe how A stole someone’s horn, how B didn’t bathe, how C broke the plate-glass window; how D nodded off while the band was playing, how E apparently committed suicide through excess of food or drink.  Great stories after the fact, but not easy to tolerate in real life.  In this century, nonconformity seems expected, and Thoreau still has validity, but is it essential to creative improvisation?

The voyeuristic fascination with the painful details of the lives of some musicians puzzles me.  I wonder how many people who see Billie Holiday as an iconic victim have heard more than a few of her performances.

Do some people secretly envy the outlaw his or her defiance, self-destructive boldness?  Are prudent listeners enthralled by myths of people who defied everything that was “good” for them because the short lives of their musical heroes make them feel comfortable and secure?  Or are others so entranced by the Jazz Martyr, whose life is so deeply focused on the music that all else becomes unimportant?

In a world where people — kindly and sometimes officiously — tell us what to do (get that taillight fixed, lose fifteen pounds, be on time for work) I wonder if some well-behaved people find stories of disobedience vicariously gratifying?

Could we make a case that (for one example) Fats Waller had to behave the way he did — or thought he did — to create the music that lives on after him?  EARLY TO BED was the name of his last musical show . . . but a way of life he chose to reject.

Speculating on the inner lives of the people we admire must always be both intriguing and futile: they take their secrets with them.  Who among us fully understands what motivates his or her behavior?

I don’t see the doomed-artist mythography diminishing any time soon, as long as readers want to immerse themselves in tales of Outsider rule-breaking.  But I wish we could simply listen to the music without getting distracted by the figures we have invented.

Perhaps we could also honor a Barry Harris, a Buck Clayton, an Ed Hall, a Benny Morton, a Joe Wilder, an Eddie Higgins, a Milt Hinton.  These players — and so many others — show that one can be a middle-class citizen and a creative improviser.  But the bad boys and girls get all the press.

P.S.  As a real-life postscript.  Last night (Feb. 21, 2012) I went to a new room where a fine jazz trio was playing.  Behind me were two “jazz fans,” talking throughout the music about their favorites and when they had discovered each musician.  At one point, the conversation about pianists took this turn: “I can’t think of the name of that druggie jazz pianist.  Very famous,” (presumably Bill Evans?) and a few songs later, one fan opined to the other, “I liked Chet Baker.  But he wasn’t a very nice person.  And, you know, he took drugs.”

TED BROWN AND FRIENDS (Part One): SOFIA’S, JAN. 13, 2011

To me jazz is still such a surprising expansive field — a huge meadow, in fact — that there are wonderful players I have never heard. 

I am trying to make up for these lapses, though. 

I confess that the tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, now 82, was only a name on the back of a record cover until he came to sit in on a Joel Press – Michael Kanan quartet gig at the very end of June 2010.  I already admired Joel immensely, and I could add Ted to the list of musicians whose playing spoke to me.

Ted came back to play gigs in New York City this month — the first one on Jan. 12, 2011, at the Kitano Hotel, with Michael Kanan, Murray Wall, bass, and Taro Okamoto, drums.  I hope to have some performances to share with you from that night.

But the next night (it was still dreadfully cold and snowy) Michael surprised all of us by saying that the quartet was going to be appearing at Sofia’s.  I had other non-musical obligations for the evening, which I quickly sloughed off so that I could see this quartet again.  And I am delighted that I did so!

Where the Kitano gig was lovely and serene, Sofia’s was much more like a convocation of friends.  Not exactly a jam session, but a sweet series of “Come on, join us!” as the evening progressed. 

After a first set by the quartet, a number of jazz-pals brought their horns and sat in for a number or two, with fine results.  No one tried to outdo anyone, no solos went on for long, but it gave me the feeling that I do not always have in jazz clubs, “This is the way the musicians would be playing if they were alone!”  A rare sensation.

I wouldn’t presume to point out highlights from each performance, but I would ask listeners to pay particular attention to Ted’s dry, sometimes hesitant, questioning sound and approach.  It isn’t a matter of physical inability: his powers are intact.  Rather it is a kind of focused purity, of paring-away the inessentials in the manner of late Lester Young, not running through long-held figures and phrases but choosing the two notes, perfectly placed, that have greater impact.  Ted’s spaces and pauses are as beautiful, architecturally, as the notes he plays. 

Michael Kanan is, quite simply, a great pianist, someone who nibbles away at the edges of a song — its melody, its harmony, displacing its familiar rhythms, setting up teasing tensions between left and right-hand lines and accents.  He reminds me of Jimmy Rowles, in the surprising, sometimes intentionally asymmetrical castles he builds in the music. 

Murray Wall is at one with the beat: see him rock with what he plays, bringing enthusiasm and precision to those notes, that pulse.  And Taro Okamoto has a ringing sound and great variety, no matter what parts of his drum kit he is experimenting on at that moment. 

And the delightful guest stars were up to their level: tenor saxophonist Brad Linde, a husky other-voice responding affectionately to Ted’s lines; the young trumpeter Felix Rossy (he and his father, drummer Jorge, hail from Barcelona) who recalls a young Miles, bassist Stephanie Greig, energizing the band with her rhythmic propulsion; trumpeter Bob Arthurs, cool yet impassioned.  And more to come!

The quartet began the evening with an easy melodic choice — Gershwin’s SOMEBODY LOVES ME taken at a fast clip:

SWEET AND LOVELY, its harmonies more complex, brought out the inherent striving lyricism not only in Ted but in the other players:

Michael suggested to Ted that they do the latter’s line SMOG EYES (a play on STAR EYES and Ted’s comment on the climatological burdens of Los Angeles, where he had moved from New York City — and an improvisation on the chord changes of THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU):

Then Felix Rossy, tentative in posture but not approach, joined in.  Felix has his back to the camera, but his sound — reminiscent of Tony Fruscella — comes through!  His father told me that Felix was 16 (he’ll be 17 on April Fool’s Day) and when I said to Jorge, “You did a good job!” Jorge grinned and blushed but said, “Thank you, but he did it himself,” which is a lovely compliment to them both.  The quintet embarked on a long exploration of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE:

Someone suggested LESTER LEAPS IN (the spirit of Pres is never far when Ted is playing) but Michael wanted to make the tempo much less frenetic than it might have been, calling this version LESTER REASONABLY STROLLS IN, with Murray giving his bass over to Stephanie, who plays jauntily:

At Brad Linde’s telephonic urging, a true star walked in — raincoat tightly belted around him, his hair in a near crew-cut, said hello, made himself comfortable at the bar, ordered a Corona, and listened intently.  It was Lee Konitz, whose presence you must imagine through the next performances.  With his august (perhaps austere) presence, the second set ended with RELAXIN’ AT CAMARILLO, the Bird blues, with Felix sitting out, Stephanie remaining:

After a break, Brad Linde joined the quartet for a splendidly evocative YOU STEPPED OUT OF A DREAM — the two tenors graciously making way for one another, their sounds distinct but never clashing:

And the momentum of that DREAM carried them through an equally leisurely investigation of I’LL REMEMBER APRIL:

Then Bob Arthurs took Brad’s place for the Lennie Tristano 317 EAST 32nd STREET (Tristano’s address at the time), an improvisation on OUT OF NOWHERE:

Six more lengthy performances remain in this most fulfilling evening.  Join me for Part Two!

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! 

DESERT ISLAND DISCS (FEBRUARY 3, 2009)

desert-island-discsAt the suggestion of my friend Bill Gallagher, I am compiling this afternoon’s list of Desert Island Discs — named for the famous BBC radio program — and invite readers to do likewise.

The rules?  There are always rules, although readers may wish to be less stringent with themselves.  One item by any musician: no ostentatious duplications, although overlaps are inevitable.  Box sets (a generous self-indulgence) are of course allowed and encouraged.  Half of the list may be devoted to the Dearly Departed; the remainder must include a majority of living artists.  Alphabetical order, so as not to imply a ranking by virtue.

Here goes (as of a snowy February 3, 2009) — done off the top of my head, without visits to the CD stacks!  Try it yourself and send in your lists, which I am sure will be revealing.

Louis Armstrong 1935-49 Decca releases (Ambassador)

Bob Barnard / John Sheridan: The Nearness of Two (Nif Nuf)

BED, Four + One (Blue Swing)

The Blue Note Jazzmen (Blue Note)

Melissa Collard, Old-Fashioned Love (Melismatic)

The Vic Dickenson Showcase (Vanguard)

Eddie Condon Town Hall Concerts (Jazzology)

Billie Holiday: Lady Day (Sony)

Jon-Erik Kellso, Blue Roof Blues (Arbors)

Barbara Rosene, It Was Only A Sun Shower (Stomp Off)

Mark Shane: Riffles (Amber Lake)

I lament that I didn’t invent an Honorable Mention category — but there’s always next week, next month . . . . Then I can sneak in Dan Block, Basie at the Famous Door, the Fargo dance date, Tony Fruscella, Bix, Buck, Bobby . . . . the mind it simply reels! And if you’re going to write in, taking me to task for leaving out Bent Persson, Ben Webster (with or without strings), Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden, Hal Smith, Red Allen, Marc Caparone, Dawn Lambeth, Dave Frishberg, Bennie Moten in 1932, Goodman, Jess Stacy, Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell, Ehud Asherie . . . . I know, I know, I know.  It’s only a game, mind you.

Thanks to http://www.colindussault.com for the image above!

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.     

 

I GOT THEM REISSUE BLUES, THEY HAUNT ME NIGHT AND DAY

Does anyone else suffer with this particular moral dilemma?

The major American record companies are massively uninterested in keeping their catalogues of what is, after all, essential music in print.  So that Columbia (now absorbed into the Sony-BMG megalith) let its seminal THE JAZZ ODYSSEY OF JAMES RUSHING, ESQ., vanish.  The sessions John Hammond did for Vanguard in the Fifties with Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, Paul Quinichette, Coleman Hawkins, Mel Powell, Sir Charles Thompson, Jo Jones, etc., got sold to a company who issued them piecemeal, picking assorted tracks blindly to create “anthologies” they assumed would sell.  Ellis Larkins playing Victor Young on Decca; Lou McGarity on Argo; Tony Fruscella on Atlantic . . . all disappeared as if the ground opened up.

If readers have the original vinyl issues and a functioning turntable, perhaps haunt used record shops, where the price may be wondrously inflated, all may be well.   But for those of us who like our CDs, a morally slippery solution whispers to us.  Because European and UK copyright laws are less stringent — or, perhaps, because the authorities have other crimes to investigate beyond illicit issues of JAMMIN’ AT CONDON’S, inconceivable as that may seem, bootleg issues seem to escape notice.

Thus, mea maxima culpa, I have purchased Lone Hill Jazz issues of Jimmy Rushing’s Jazz Odyssey; Lou McGarity playing music from Some Like It Hot, the Ellis Larkins Deccas, a four-CD Tony Fruscella collection on Jazz Factory, and many others.   I feel guilty.

I don’t know which, if any, of these musicians have living children or other relatives — but the new CD reissues don’t ask players or their estates for permission, nor do they offer payment for the rights to the material.  You could say that all of this is permitted in the name of music, and that the publicity given the dead artist by such reissues offsets the offense.  Perhaps if a bootleg issue had to take on the cost of permissions and royalties, nothing would be issued.

All these things are true.  But my pleasure at hearing Jimmy Rushing swing “Lullaby of Broadway,” a transcendent pleasure, is undermined just a little by the thought that I am cheating his estate by buying this CD or others.

Do any readers have a solution to such dilemmas?