Tag Archives: Tony Fruscella

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!