Tag Archives: Tony Sbarbaro

“JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE, FROM ITS ORGINS IN NEW ORLEANS TO FASCIST ITALY AND SINATRA,” by ANNA HARWELL CELENZA

“I prefer books that tell me things I don’t know,” said Mark Twain. Or if he didn’t, he should have.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is such a book — wide-ranging, full of intriguing information, and refreshingly straightforward.

I will say that I thought I knew a great deal about the title and the subject.  After all, I know Rossano Sportiello, Marc Caparone, Paolo Alderighi, and Larry Scala. I have recordings by Frank Sinatra, Joe and Marty Marsala, Leon Roppolo, Louis Prima, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Wingy Manone, Jimmy Durante, Tony Sbarbaro, Nick La Rocca, Marty Napoleon, Phil Napoleon, Lino Patruno, and others.  Years ago, I owned a vinyl anthology on Italian Odeon called ITALIAN JAZZ OF THE 50s, which had music from the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band and Romano Mussolini, with other bands I do not recall.  In the very early Seventies, I ate authentic Italian food at the Half Note, under the loving supervision of the Canterino family.  (All of the above is true, although not meant to be taken with the utmost seriousness.)

But the glory of Celenza’s book is the information it offers — subtle illumination of areas of the subject that I was ignorant of, and I am sure my ignorance is not my sole property.  And the fruits of her investigation are the substance of this appreciation of her book.

But first: we are told, even before the book starts, that Celenza is “the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University, where she teaches courses in music history, radio journalism, and the music industry.”  To some readers, those credentials will seem either the kiss of death or the black hand: another academic book, indigestible, a forest of footnotes, theoretical and ideological beyond endurance.  Calm yourselves.  Celenza is an engagingly straightforward writer, clear, candid, and witty.  (I saw the wit when I opened my copy at random and saw she had translated “Il Quattro Buffoni,” a band name on a record label, as “The Four Idiots.”

She doesn’t talk down to the general reader, and the book down’t labor under chunks of undigested digressive facts.  And leaving aside the useful documentation and index, the book is a compact 192 pages, because Celenza has not felt an obsessive need to include every fact that wanders by, and her chosen time period is under half a century.  It isn’t a book-length study of Sinatra, fascism, or every Italian who’s ever improvised, and that adds to its charm and effect.  Rather, like effective cultural studies, it traces the interweavings of many phenomena: radio and the growth of the recording industry, political struggles and performance, and much more.

As I promised above, I salute this book for adding information to my mental hoard.  Here are a number of things I didn’t know before reading JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE.

•     “The most horrific mass lynching in US history occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Italian immigrants were shot and strung up by an angry mob after a  jury found them innocent of assassinating the local police chief, David Hennessey.”

•     In 1919, Chevalier Bruno Zuculin wrote a description of the musical scene in New Orleans — and the music itself — for Italian readers.  The article was published two months before Ernest Ansermet’s famous celebration of Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which included the young Sidney Bechet.

•     “D. Onivas,” whose orchestra is on the reverse of some 78s by Cliff Edwards, is the pseudonym of Domenico Savino, composer and conductor.

•     Jazz first came to Italy with the USAAS (United States Army Ambulance Service) and its American Jazz Band landed  — and when members of the American and Italian armies recorded for Fonotopia in December 1918.

•     I had assumed that Mussolini, like Hitler, was hostile to jazz as decadent music: not so, in fact, Il Duce “embraced” it as an expression of the Futurist art he celebrated.

•     Josephine Baker, Herb Flemming, and Al Wynn visited and worked in Italy.  Louis Armstrong gave two concerts in Turin in January 1935 and wrote a detailed happy letter to an Italian fan and record collector.

•     I had never heard or heard of the female vocal trio, “the three graces of the radio,” the Trio Lescano — Alexandra, Judith, and “Kitty,” originally from the Netherlands, who became singing stars in Italy.

•  During the Second World War, when recordings by American artists were played on the radio, new Italianized names for the musicians were invented: Luigi Braccioforte, La Colema, Del Duca, and Beniamino Buonuomo.  (Answer key on request.)

•     Sinatra’s four trips to Italy, in 1945, 1953, 1962, and 1987 — and the audience’s elation when he described his Genoan heritage, then their silence when he revealed his family was also half-Sicilian.

These excerpts are, of course, not the substance of this book.  Celenza has a wonderful understanding of the widespread forces that go into the development and growth of jazz in Italy, and one will come away from this book with a much deeper understanding of the mingling of history, race, ideology, and politics — during war and in peacetime.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is very rewarding, but never ponderous.  Here are the publisher’s resources for the book, and this is the link for the CD label offering for sale almost all the jazz described in the book.  And since a book like this cries out for a soundtrack, here is the one Celenza has generously created — 124 relevant musical examples that delight and illustrate.

May your happiness increase!

THE SOUNDS OF MUSIC: PLEASING SHOCKS FROM PAPA JOE, LITTLE LOUIS, BIX, KID ORY, and THEIR FRIENDS

By the time I started listening seriously to jazz, King Oliver had been dead for almost thirty years, Bix nearly forty.  And every year that I delved deeper into the music, more of the original players died.  So recordings became the only way for me to encounter many players, singers, and bands.

I first heard King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band on microgroove vinyl reissues on the Milestone and Epic labels; the Wolverine sessions likewise.  I had read about these records in books about jazz and the musicians had described them reverently (Louis speaking lovingly of his musical father to Richard Meryman and Larry L. King; Richard M. Sudhalter writing about Bix, and so on).

But the sounds that came through the phonograph speaker were disappointing.  Peggy Lee had not yet sung IS THAT ALL THERE IS? but her words would be appropriate.  I could distinguish cornets and clarinets,  banjos and pianos, but it was like putting my head underwater.  The sound could be made loud but it was impossible to make it clear.  Some of my reaction, of course, was the result of my own training in listening to live music and records of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties — clear, electrically recorded, bright.

Eventually I got better at extracting the music from acoustic recordings, better at “filling in” what I imagined the original bands sounded like in the studio.  But the Creole Jazz Band and the Wolverines were always at a distance.  It was rather like hearing someone describe transcendent spiritual experiences I hadn’t had.

Until now.

I know I am coming late to this particular party, but five compact discs issued in the past few years have been astonishing musical experiences.  The first set, KING OLIVER: OFF THE RECORD, presents all the 1923 recordings by the Creole Jazz Band — originally issued on Gennett, OKeh, and Paramount.  37 tracks on two CDs, with all the alternate takes, everything in chronological order, with a beautifully detailed / scholarly set of liner notes.

(A word about the liner notes for these CDs — writer, scholar, trombonist David Sager deserves a round of applause with a hug after for his candor.  Most liner-note writers know that their job is to say every note is a masterpiece, but Sager praises the high points and also honestly notes when things are ever so slightly collapsing.  Hooray for objective listening, even to hallowed masterpieces!)  Beautiful rare photographs and newspaper clippings, too — pages to get lost in.

But all this wouldn’t mean much if the sound was murky or overly processed.  (Some issues of the Oliver band had been made into “stereo,” shrill on the left and thumpy on the right, a bad idea for sure.)

The sound that comes out of the speaker from these CDs is bright without being fraudulent.  One can hear the individual instruments in a way not previously possible.  I can actually HEAR the interweaving of Papa Joe and Louis on cornets; I can get an idea of how the ensemble parts twined around each other.  Without hyperbole, I hear the music — the band — for the first time.

The same is true for Off The Record’s CD devoted to the Wolverine Orchestra.

The Wolverine recordings, like the Olivers, were also seen and packaged, because of the star system in jazz, as showcases for one musician.  True, Bix stands out, across the decades, as THE player in that band.  But these new transfers allow us to hear him in the larger context — not simply as the loudest player in the group.  It is possible to appreciate the particular rhythmic swagger that these young fellows brought to the studio — “sock time,” intense yet relaxed, that strikes us as both new and familiar.  Sager makes a good case for the band being “modern,” which allows us a deeper understanding of what they were attempting and how they did (and didn’t) succeed.

Four tracks by post-Wolverine groups featuring Bix — the SIOUX CITY SIX and BIX AND HIS RHYTHM JUGGLERS — are here, as well as the two later Wolverine sides with Jimmy McPartland (1924) and four from 1927.  But a great pleasure of this CD comes at its close with two recordings from May 24, 1928, billed as THE ORIGINAL WOLVERINES — LIMEHOUSE BLUES and DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND, with a clarinetist / saxophonist who could only be Frank Teschemacher (Bud Freeman and Jess Stacy said they heard Tesch on these sides, and who would argue with that?)

The third set, although it initially doesn’t have the “star power” of the Oliver – Louis – Bix issues, is deliciously rewarding.

Most jazz fans of a certain age will have heard at least a few Creole Jazz Band or Wolverine tracks.  But perhaps only diligent musical archaeologists will have heard the music on CABARET ECHOES.

Again, the recordings are wonderfully bright (and I don’t mean harsh with an overemphasis on the treble).

Much of what we call “New Orleans jazz” was inevitably at a distance.  Musicians from that city recorded in Chicago and New York once they had migrated North; some returned home in the Forties and later.  This collection, although it begins with Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, recorded in Santa Monica, California, offers twenty-four selections recorded in New Orleans by OKeh between March 1924 and January 1925.  I had read about Johnny DeDroit, Fate Marable (with a young Zutty Singleton), the Original Crescent City Jazzers (Stirling Bose, likewise), Johnny Bayersdorffer, the Half-Way House Orchestra (with Leon Roppolo), Anthony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys, Billy and Mary Mack (with Punch Miller), Brownlee’s Orchestra, John Tobin’s Midnight Serenaders, and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra — but I’d heard perhaps three or four sides of this grouping.

It’s easy to hear — from the six sides by Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra — how powerfully energetic that band was in 1922.  And even earlier, there are enthusiastic sides by a 1918-1920 jazz band featuring one Jimmy Durante on piano.  A world of delights that most of us have never heard.

That would be enough for most listeners.  But a surprise awaits,  Between the discs themselves, this collection offers excerpts from oral histories, so that we can hear Kid Ory, his daughter Babette, Johnny DeDroit, Amos White, Yvonne Powers Gass (daughter of saxophonist Eddie Powers), Abbie Brunies, Joe Loyocano, Tony Parenti, Tony Sbarbaro, Billy Mack and Mary McBride, Norman Brownlee, “Baba” Ridgley, and Arnold Loyocano — an amazing set of first-hand narratives from the original sources . . . in their own voices.

Back to the Sound for a moment.  As “new technologies” come into view, many individuals have tried to make the old recordings “listenable.”  Some have seen their role as removing all extraneous noise — which, when done without subtlety, also removes much of the music.  Doug Benson, with help from generous collectors, has done a magnificent job of preserving the sound without reshaping it to a set of arbitrary aesthetics of what it “should” sound like in 2012.

This was accomplished through simple intelligent methods: get the best available copy of the original disc; play it with the stylus that offered the most sound; make sure that the disc was playing at the right speed (so that the music was in a recognizable key); judiciously apply the most subtle digital restoration.

It’s taken me this long to write this review because I’ve been entranced by the sound — and the sounds — and have gone back to the old paradigm of playing one track at a time rather than making the CDs into hot background music.  But each track is a powerful auditory experience.  The veils are lifted.

Click CREOLE  to read more about the Oliver CDs.  Click BIX to read more about the Wolverines CD.  And CABARET  will tell you all about CABARET ECHOES.  You can, when visiting these pages, click on a variety of links to hear brief audio samples, but hearing excerpts through earbuds or your computer’s speakers will give only a small fraction of the sonic pleasures that await.

I seriously suggest that any jazz fan who wants to hear — to know, to understand — what “those old records” really sounded like (and thus be transported) should consider these compact discs.

And — with equal seriousness — I suggest them as aids to a happy relationship: every partner who has ever walked through the room where the “old records” are being played and said, gently or scornfully, “How can you listen to those scratchy old records?  How can you hear anything?” might pick up the Off the Record CDs as a gift — not only for the jazz-loving partner, but to actually HEAR what (s)he loves so deeply.  (“Can these marriages be saved?”  “Yeah, man!”)

May your happiness increase.

“NO EXTRA CHARGE FOR TABLES” (1948-49)

There was Chicago’s South Side in the mid-to-late Twenties.  There was Fifty-Second Street in New York for a decade starting in 1935 or so.  There was always Harlem and Kansas City . . . but these three advertisements speak to me of a Golden Age that was happening before I was born.

Let’s get prepared.  We need some money, acetates for my Presto disc cutter, several cameras, rare Okehs and Paramounts for everyone’s autograph . . . and be sure to let your parents know we won’t be home early.  All set?

October 8, 1948:

The Beloved has her back cushion.  We’re all set!

December 3, 1948:

We’ll swing by Emily’s house to pick her up: Eric, Noya, Jon-Erik, Matt, and Kevin are meeting us there.  If anyone tends to get carsick, they have to come by subway.

March 25, 1949:

Gordon, Veronica, Lena, and Tamar promised they’d come.

Enough fantasy, perhaps.  All I know is that one of these evenings would have changed my life.

May your happiness increase.