Tag Archives: trombone

“LUCKY ALL MY LIFE”: EPHRAIM RESNICK, TROMBONE and PIANO (July 6, 2020)

My phone rang on July 3.  This in itself would not be unusual.  But that the caller ID panel read “Ephraim Resnick” was a surprise.  I had been on a quest to find the wonderful and elusive trombonist (now pianist) Ephie Resnick for a few years, and had enlisted my dear friend — also a fine trombonist — Dick Dreiwitz in the search.

I knew Ephie first as a beautiful soulful viruoso heard on live recordings from George Wein’s Storyville in 1952 — alongside Pee Wee Russell and Ruby Braff; later, I’d seen him with the New York Jazz Repertory Company in their 1972 tribute to Louis Armstrong, some of which was released on Atlantic, and then Bob Greene’s Jelly Roll Morton show in 1974, issued on RCA Victor.  Perhaps eight years ago I had heard him playing piano at Arthur’s Tavern with the Grove Street Stompers.  He asked me to refrain from videoing him, but he was friendly and I did buy his two recent CDs, NEW YORK SURVIVOR and THE STRUGGLE.  Still more recently, a musical friend of his, Inigo Kilborn, had asked me if Ephie was still on the planet.  He is.  At 92, he’s a clear speaker and thinker, although his memory is “sometimes OK, sometimes not too good.”

Ephie and I made a date to talk on the morning of Monday, July 6.  He doesn’t have a computer.  “I live in the last century,” and when I asked if he wanted me to transcribe the interview and send it to him for corrections, he said no.  So this is what he told me of his life, with my minimal editing to tie loose ends together.  It’s not only the usual story of early training, gigs played, musicians encountered, but a deeper human story.  If you’d never heard Ephie play, you’d think he wasn’t all that competent, given his protestations.  I wonder at the gap between the way we perceive ourselves and the way the world does.

With musical examples, I present our conversation to you here.

I began with the most obvious question, “When you were a kid, did you want to be a musician?” and Ephie began his tale.

I come from a family of anger and bitterness and humiliation, and all that stuff, so I was in confusion most of the time.  When I was in first grade, and this is really important, I was born left-handed, and they made me right-handed, so it really did away with my focus.  I got asthma, and I started stuttering soon after that.  So my life was a turmoil. 

And when I was about sixteen, I guess, I hadn’t any idea of doing anything.  I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything.  And I heard a Louis Armstrong recording, and that really made me crazy.  It showed me a way out, the way out of my turmoil.  So when I went to school, they gave me a trombone.  Because the guy said, “I want somebody to play the trombone,” and he pointed at me.  At that point, it was difficult to breathe, it was difficult to talk, and I couldn’t get a sound out of the horn.  And I didn’t understand it until just recently, when I moved to Brooklyn, after I was finished, finally.  I wasn’t breathing.  I couldn’t breathe.

I took the trombone home from school, I tried to play it, and really couldn’t play it much.  But I listened to a lot of records.  I listened to a lot of Louis Armstrong then.  I got as much as I could out of him.  And then I started, for some reason, to go out playing.  In little clubs and things.  I don’t know how I could play — I didn’t practice.  But I played, mostly with black people at the beginning.  And there were two places, especially, where I could play.  A guy named Bob Maltz had a place downtown, all the way downtown.  And across the street a guy named Jack Crystal — there’s a comedian, Billy Crystal, and Jack was his father. [The Stuyvesant Casino and the Central Plaza.]  Both of these guys hired mostly black musicians from the Thirties, and I started out just sitting in, and then I started getting paid.  And that was the beginning of my jazz playing.

And then I made a record [in 1947].  Irv Kratka, the guy who started Music Minus One, was in our little group.  I went into — I forget what it’s called now — it was on Broadway and they had studios and rehearsal studios.  I walked into one and there was Bob Wilber and his little group with Denny Strong on drums.  The trumpet player turned out to be the Local 802 president years after that [John Glasel] but they gave me the names of some guys, and I got together a little group and made a record.  I was just around 17 or 18, I was just playing about a year.  It was OK, it was sort of nice.

Here’s Ephie with Knocky Parker, piano; Irv Kratka, drums, May 1, 1949:

I turned 18, and my mother wanted me to go to a college.  And I thought, I could never do that.  I couldn’t focus.  I couldn’t learn anything.  Whatever I knew, I knew from having read myself or having heard, or something, so I got good marks in English and history.  But anything I had to study and learn something, I couldn’t do it: language or science or something like that.  So with all this, she wanted me to go to a college.  So I applied to Juilliard, and they gave me a date for an audition.  I picked a piece, and I couldn’t play it.  I couldn’t play it at all.  It sat there on my music stand, and once in a while I tried, but I couldn’t do it. 

I should have called them up and told them I couldn’t make the audition, but I went there anyway.  I played the piece perfectly.  That was my life.  Sometimes I played really good, sometimes I played terrible.  Sometimes I played mediocre, but this time I played really good and they clapped me on the back and said, “You’ll go far, young man.”  My teacher was there, Ernest Clarke, Herbert Clarke’s brother.  Herbert Clarke was a trumpet virtuoso.  Ernest Clarke was some sort of a name, I don’t know what he did, but he was well-known there.  He was 83 then.  And he opened up his book when I took my first lesson.  The first page was a row of B-flats.  B-flat with a hold on it, more B-flats and more B-flats.  And I couldn’t play it.  I couldn’t play the note.  He would walk back and forth, his hands behind his back, he couldn’t figure it out.  So I did that for a couple of weeks, I showed up once a week, and then after a while he turned to the second page.  And there were F’s, a little higher but medium-low.  And I couldn’t play that note either.  And then he retired.  I always say that he retired because of me. 

Anyway, whatever it was, while this was happening, I was playing outside.  I was sitting in and playing, going to clubs and stuff.  I played a lot at the beginning with Sol Yaged.  He was a clarinet player who played in the clubs where they used to have jazz and now they had strippers.  So I played for the strippers with Sol Yaged.  I still couldn’t get a sound on my own.  When I was in the house, I couldn’t practice.  I couldn’t play a scale, I couldn’t do anything.  I fell apart.  And I went to a lot of teachers.  Nobody gave me anything.  And when I moved to Brooklyn, I quit playing the trombone when I was here.  I started to figure out, what it was was so simple — I guess I wasn’t breathing.  I was tight.  I never could find an embouchure, except once in a while it happened.  It came in by itself, and when it happened, I could really play well.  But I wasn’t practicing, I couldn’t play a scale, I couldn’t play anything like regular trombone players could.  But I knew that. 

My first year at Juilliard I got a straight A because all they did was ear stuff — ear training — and I was good at that.  And piano playing, and I could do the piano.  And that was it.  The second year, I started getting academic subjects: science, languages and stuff, and I couldn’t do it.  So I stopped going to school.  And years ago, before they fixed up Forty-Second Street, it was a mess, but there was one movie theatre called The Laugh Theatre, and they had, once in a while, regular movies, but usually short subjects, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and all that stuff.  So I was there, and I was laughing.  My life was awful, but I was laughing.  I did that for the rest of my school year, and then I got out of Juilliard.  Finally.  And years later I figured out that, you know, going to school would have depressed me and made me feel really awful, but being away from the school I was laughing.  I felt OK.  Laughing is very good for you.  

Anyway, I don’t know how it was, but I got out of school, and I started working.  I still couldn’t play, I still didn’t practice.  So my first job was with Eddie Heywood.  He was a piano player.  It was an all-black band, at Cafe Society Downtown.  There was also a club, Cafe Society Uptown.  I was there six weeks or so, and then somebody recommended me — I don’t know how it happened — to Buddy Rich.  It’s hard for me to believe.  I played six weeks with Buddy Rich: Zoot Sims and Harry Edison were in the band, I forget the bass player and the piano player.  So I did that, and then I came out, and that was the end of the big band era.  So then I went out, maybe two or three weeks, maybe a weekend, with big bands, but they were beginning to close down.  I played with a lot of them, but the only ones I could remember were Buddy Morrow, Ray McKinley, and Charlie Barnet.  And with these bands, I was the jazz player. 

With Charlie Barnet I also played lead, but I had one solo — that was the audition.  There were about eight trombone players who auditioned for Charlie Barnet, and later on he told me that when he saw me he figured I would be the last guy to get it.  But the audition was a song — I forget the name of it — [Ephie hums ESTRELLITA] — a Spanish song.  It had a trombone solo, there was a high E in the middle or someplace, and I really smacked that thing.  I took a chance, you know, I got it, and I was great.  The other guys played that E, but they played it hesitantly, so I got the job.  And that was great.  I had that one solo, and I played lead, which was great for me, because I learned how to do that.  

Here’s Ephie with Marty Grosz, guitar; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, string bass; Tommy Benford, drums; Hugh McKay, cornet; John Dengler, baritone saxophone; Frank Chace, clarinet.  June 6, 1951: comparative listening thanks to “Davey Tough”:

And then I started to work with small bands.  I don’t know how I got this work either. Dixieland bands.  Wild Bill Davison, who was at Condon’s for I guess twelve years, lost that job — they closed down or something — he went on the road and I went with him, and we made a record. Then I played with Buddy Morrow, and I was the jazz player in that band.  He was a great, great trombone player, but a little stiff for my taste.  Then Ray McKinley, and I was the jazz player in that band.  And Bill Davison, we made a record with that.  And then I went with Pee Wee Russell, Ruby Braff was in that, and I forget who else.  And we made a record with him.  So, so far, I made a lot of records.  I got a little bit of a fan club in England because of those records.  And Pee Wee — those records were in Boston, and they recorded a whole night, and they put out four ten-inchers.  And then they made an lp out of it, or two lps.  I don’t imagine any of these things are available now.  That Pee Wee thing, it sold well, I don’t understand how, exactly.  Can’t figure out those things.)

Here’s Ephie in 1952, with Pee Wee Russell, Ruby Braff, Red Richards, John Field, Kenny John — the second part of this presentation (the first offers Johnny Windhurst, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, George Wein, John Field, and Jo Jones).  For the impatient among us, Ephie’s portion begins at 16:00:

While I was working, I was still struggling.  I wanted to finally learn how to play.  Since I was working, I might as well learn how to play.  I still couldn’t play a scale without falling apart.  But in context, I could play, somehow.  I saved enough money for a couple of years and went to Philadelphia and studied with a guy named Donald Reinhardt who had a system.  His system was really good, but you had to figure out the system.  He couldn’t, by himself, help you. 

Art DePew, a marvelous trumpet player who played lead with Harry James and a few other bands, went to him and got fixed up.  Kai Winding used to run there once in a while.  He had problems.  His mouthpiece would slip down.  Sometimes he could get it back up, sometimes he couldn’t. 

Reinhardt didn’t teach me anything.  He couldn’t tell you what you were doing wrong or what you should be doing.  He had a book and a system.  He had a lot of people, and they could look at what he had to say and do it.  I couldn’t do that.  I had to be told what I was doing wrong.  And nobody told me I wasn’t breathing.  Lots of times I couldn’t get a sound out.  I had no control over it.  When I played well, it had nothing to do with me. It just happened.  When I played badly, there was no way for me to fix it.  

I spent a couple of years there in Philadelphia, and I met my wife.  She was a singer, a wonderful oratorio singer.  And there was a jazz club over there, and I was playing once a week.  I was playing piano in strip clubs with another guy, a very strange man.  He wore a toupee, but never bought one.  He wore other people’s old toupees; everybody gave him their old toupee.  So he just dropped them on top of his head.  I spent four years there, learned nothing, and still couldn’t figure out what was happening. 

I had to come back to New York, because we got married, and she had a six-and-a half-year old son.  We became friends, and that was really good.  I did various things, and then a contractor called me.  In those days, there was a lot of money around, money flowing freely.  In music, there was a shortage of musicians, and I came in at that point. 

I’ve been lucky all my life, actually. 

I got a job playing in various theatres around the city, short things.  There was a theatre on Sixth Avenue and Forty-Eighth Street, I believe, the contractor liked me, and he had some shows coming to New York.  He said I could pick one, and one of them was HELLO, DOLLY!  I did that for seven years.  Playing a show, especially if you’re a jazz player, is terrible.  You’re doing the same thing all the time.  But I took off a lot.  You could take off as long as you got somebody good, and I always got somebody better than me. 

I worked with Lester Lanin and played all around the world — Ireland, France, Paris, the Philippines.  The guy whose wife had all those shoes [Imelda Marcos], I played their thirtieth anniversary.  We went to Hawaii, to Hong Kong, and then I came back, was home for a couple of weeks.  They started a group in New York, playing different types of music, so I was in that group, and then they had a small group out of that.  I was picked out of that, and we went to Russia — a jazz  group.  We traveled all over the country, and that was really interesting.  That was during the Khruschev era.  When I came back, I continued to do club dates,  but I couldn’t really progress, I couldn’t learn anything.  When I was forty, I still couldn’t play a scale.  I was making my living as a trombone player, and I couldn’t play a scale once up and down without falling apart.

Somebody introduced me to marijuana.  I tried that, and it was wonderful.  Absolutely wonderful.  It saved my life.  The first thing I started to do after I started to smoke was to go downstairs to the basement every morning.  We had small radios, and I hung the radio up, right next to my ear, as loud as I could.  Not music, but talking.  I started to play scales, and it sounded awful, because I couldn’t really hear it.  I did that for a couple of years, and finally I got rid of the radio.  I began a regular practice, for the first time in my life, when I was about forty. 

But by that time I was sort of on the way down, in a way.  And then I did a job with Lester Lanin in London, and I met a guy there — I knew him was I was nineteen or twenty.  He became rich: his father died.  Max, his father, was not too smart, and he couldn’t come to a decision: he didn’t know how to make a decision.  So his father, who was a lawyer but a Mob lawyer, he was powerful with a lot of connections those days, so he put Max on the Supreme Court.  He couldn’t make a decision.  That was his life’s work.  So I met this guy, and stayed at his house for a while, and then I stayed in London and made a record there.  I have two left, of those records.  The other stuff I don’t have any copies of. 

Then I had an accident.  I’m not sure of the timeline now.  I was hit by a car, and broke both my legs and my pelvis.  My ankles were messed up.  I was in the hospital for about three months.  When I came out, I couldn’t really move around, so I didn’t work for a couple of years.  But I was lucky, again, because they just had passed a law in Albany, and if you had an accident, they called it “no fault insurance,” and gave you fifty thousand dollars and services.  So I was in the hospital, and they would send me a check once a month to live on.  So I didn’t work for a couple of years, but I was taken care of.    

I came out, and I wasn’t working very much at all, so I called Marty Grosz.  I knew him from years ago.  We had worked together, in a bar someplace.  Not in New York, someplace else.  I forget where it was.  And I called him, and we made a record.  [THE END OF INNOCENCE.]  And it got a great review from John S. Wilson, the Times music reviewer.  He wrote a really good review of it, not in the paper, but in an international magazine.  So I sold about a thousand records.  People wrote in.  One guy sent it back to me because he didn’t like it.  So I sent him back his ten dollars.  [I complimented Ephie on the record.] Well, thank you.  But I hadn’t worked for three years before that.  Again, I was lucky it came out OK.  [I reminded Ephie that he and Marty had recorded before, in 1951.]  Oh, those records!  Those records were nice!  Those were really good.  I was really happy with those records.  I’d forgotten about that.  I don’t have any of that stuff, but somehow they turned out to be really good.  Frank Chace was nice.  Yes, I liked the way he played.  Years before, Marty and I had a summer job together.  He was just learning how to play and I was learning also.  And I never paid him for that record, THE END OF INNOCENCE.  He did it for nothing.

I will offer THE END OF INNOCENCE — a glorious duet — in a future posting.

I was in England for ten years, and I did a record there.  [Two: NEW YORK SURVIVOR and THE STRUGGLE.]  Well, that was close to the end of my career.  After my accident, I didn’t do too much.  I hung around for a while, and everything got slowed down to nothing.  My wife got sick, she got Parkinson’s.  So I got a job — I was lucky again — working for Catholic Charities, playing piano for Alzheimers people, various venues, different bosses, for almost twelve years.  They just closed down, in March, because of the virus.  So I was lucky, I was working all this time, until right now. 

So now I’m in one room, I’m hiding out, and I’ve got an electronic piano.  I guess you’d say I’m an old-fashioned piano player.  Pretty much old-fashioned, with a couple of things thrown in, contemporary.  And a couple of months ago, in February, before the virus became widely known, I made a record with a trombone player from England, Malcolm Earle Smith.  I hadn’t played in a while.  My playing was — I don’t know how to describe it.  Except on the last two pieces, there I kind of relaxed.  I was careful — I was too careful, so I don’t know about that record.  I have a couple of copies.  Some people liked them, and some people I sent them to didn’t like it at all. 

Ephie at the piano, briefly but evocatively:

[I also mentioned Inigo Kilborn, one of Ephie’s musical colleagues, to him.]  Inigo heard me playing in a club in England, and wanted me to come down.  He was living in Spain then, he went from London to Spain, he was retired.  He wanted me to play in clubs, and I wasn’t working much, I still didn’t have an embouchure, and I still didn’t know how to play.  I put him off and finally he gave up.

One of the people I sent the record to was a guy in Sweden.  He sent me a letter, that he loved the record, and he wanted me to play all over Europe, he had  contacts in clubs all over Europe.  And I couldn’t do it.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.  Maybe I could play one day or two days, but I’d fall apart.  I fell apart, here and there, when I was playing.  So I didn’t answer him, and he came to New York and then he called me.  He wrote me another letter, and he called me and called me, but I didn’t answer the phone.  That was the end of that.  I couldn’t have done it.  It would have been wonderful for my future, my present, but I couldn’t do it.  So that was that.

Then, little by little, I faded away, until I got this job.  This job saved my life, this piano job.  That’s it.  

So that’s my story up till now.  And here I am.  I’m practicing every day, trying to play a little more contemporary, make the chords closer together.  Not so old-fashioned.  So I’m working on that a little bit, but I’m not working at all now. 

I’m just old.  And that’s my story.

Ephie at the piano, Malcolm Earle Smith, trombone:

[Ephie had delivered almost all of what you read above in a diligent narrative, and I had not wanted to interrupt him, to distract him.  But now, after forty minutes, I thought I could ask some — perhaps idle — questions.  I told Ephie I’d seen him onstage, at Alice Tully Hall in 1974, with Bob Greene’s “The World of Jelly Roll Morton.”]

Oh!  I forgot about that.  That was great.  He played like Jelly Roll Morton, and he started a band, a Jelly Roll Morton band.  We played all those songs, and I could really do that.  I was good at that.  I could really blast out.  The record doesn’t show that, but we traveled all around the country, and we had standing ovations on every job except one.  I don’t know exactly why that one.  But that was easy for me, easy and natural.  It paid well, and it was fun.  Those were happy moments in my life. 

I was with Kai Winding — four trombones.  It was a tour.  We started out someplace — I can’t remember where it was but it was a restaurant.  We were above the eaters, so we couldn’t play too loud, and we were close together.  And for some reason I played just great — just wonderful, all the way along.  and he was talking about making a tour with just the two of us.  The job ended, and we had a three-day layoff, and then went into the Little Mirror, a place in Washington.  There was an echo, we were spread out, it was loud, I lost what I had in that previous gig, I never found it.  I looked for that embouchure for years and years and never got it back.  We made a record with Kai Winding.  I made a lot of records with different people, but that one was OK.  That turned out nice.    

[I asked Ephie if he could tell me about people — heroes of mine — he’d encountered, from the Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza, on.]  There was one guy, Jerry Blumberg [a Bunk Johnson protege on cornet and a pianist].  He was wonderful.  He got one job someplace, and hired that famous pianist from the Thirties, James P. Johnson.  I played one night with him.  That was interesting. He was old, but he still played OK.  I never worked with Sid Catlett, but I saw him play.  I played with Frankie Newton a couple of times.  He was fun to play with.  Very easy to play with. 

When I was in Boston, I was with Pee Wee Russell.  He had his own pianist.  It wasn’t Wein, and Red Richards came later.  There was another guy [Teddy Roy] who I didn’t know, but had played with Pee Wee for years and years.  And he had a book, with all the chords in it, which he didn’t need.  Every tune that was called, he’d open up the book.  He never looked at the book, but the chords were there.  He was sort of tied to that.  

Ruby Braff was a fantastic player.  Nobody ever played like him.  He didn’t play like anybody else.  He had phenomenal technique, and he used it in very personal ways.  A wonderful player.  He had his personal problems, like we all do.  Sometimes, we were playing someplace, and he didn’t feel he was playing right, or he wasn’t doing justice to what he was doing, someone would come up to him and say, “Ruby, you sounded wonderful,” he would say, “Aaahhh, what do  you know?” and dismiss it, insult the guy who liked him.  He felt vulnerable all the time, but a great player.  And later on, he played with Benny Goodman.  He couldn’t read, but Benny would put him at the end of the line of trumpets, and once in a while call upon him to play.  He did that for a while.

Did you know Johnny Windhurst?  I did one job with him and Ed Hubble on trombone, and I played piano, and Ed Phyfe on drums.  He was a wonderful player also. 

I didn’t hang out with anybody in Boston.  I wasn’t a hanger-on.  I went right home after the last tune we played.  And I don’t want to hear any of my old stuff.  The only records I have are the ones I made in England, THE STRUGGLE and NEW YORK SURVIVOR.  THE STRUGGLE is a terrible record, but the other one turned out good.   

I played for six-eight months with Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s.  He was playing trumpet then — with the mute, not ebullient, but great.  Those records with Dizzy are really wonderful.  At one point, I was on staff with ABC for three years, subbing for one of the jazz guys.  Dick Dreiwitz is such a sweet man, and his wife Barbara, who plays tuba.  For a while I was playing ball games with them — they had a Dixieland band.  Between innings, we’d walk up and down the aisles and play.  People used to throw stuff in the tuba — peanuts, papers, everything — so the tuba players put a pillowcase over the bell.  People aren’t naturally nice, you know.  Some are, some aren’t.  

I’m 92, and I hope I don’t have too many years left.  So far, I’m OK.

At that point, we thanked each other, and I assured Ephie he was safe from me. But in the next few days, the phone rang again, as Ephie remembered some other stories:

Ephie played about six weeks at the Cinderella Club with pianist Bross Townsend and a bassist, not Peck Morrison, whose name he didn’t remember.  He thought that cornetist Hugh McKay played really well on the 1951 Marty Grosz records and wondered what happened to him.  [Does anyone know?]  He saw Vic Dickenson once at some uptown Manhattan gig and thought he was wonderful.  When working in San Francisco with Wild Bill Davison, he found out that Jack Teagarden was playing in Los Angeles and took the bus to see him.  But this was when Jack had quit drinking and Ephie thought he sounded dull.

Another postscript: an extended list of Ephie’s performance credits, which are staggering:

Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Eddie Condon, Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Zoot Sims, Lennie Tristano, Teddy Wilson, Kai Winding and Willie the Lion Smith. He has also played with a variety of rock and pop bands including The Bee Gees, The Four Tops and Englebert Humperdink, and has worked for Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Woody Allen and Norman Mailer.

Ephie spent much of the 1990s working in London, during a period in his life when he felt trapped in New York. During that stay he met and played with a number of British musicians as well as becoming something of a mentor for many of them. He also played at a number of society parties with the world renowned orchestra headed by veteran bandleader Lester Lanin. The musicians included: Dick Morrissey, Alex Dankworth, Huw Warren, Tim Whitehead, Martin Speake, Mike Pickering, Steve Watts, Julian Siegel, Chris Gibbons, Andrew Jones, Carl Dewhurst, Dave Whitford and Jean-Victor de Boer. He recorded two albums whilst in the UK: New York Survivor and The Struggle (both released on Basho Records)

Although he stopped playing trombone in 2010, Ephie continues to lead an active musical life in back in New York, playing piano in care homes. Still an inspiration to his friends and colleagues, his passion for music is still as strong as it was decades ago.

Taken and adapted from Ephie’s profile page at Jazzcds.co.uk

Blessings and thanks to Ephie, to Dick Dreiwitz, to Inigo Kilborn, to Malcolm Earle Smith, who made this informal memoir of a fascinating man and musician possible.

May your happiness increase!

FINE VINTAGES (Part Two): J. WALTER HAWKES, TODD LONDAGIN, MATT RAY at DOMAINE (April 5, 2017)

I had a fine time on April 5 at Domaine Wine Bar in Long Island City. Excellent small plates, friendly solicitous service from Candace behind the bar, the Vernon-Jackson subway stop right in front.

And music!  Talk about cheerful multi-tasking by J. Walter Hawkes, trombone / vocal / ukulele; Todd Londagin, trombone / vocal; Matt Ray, piano / vocal.  I was excited to come to this gig because I have admired Walter in all of his manifestations for more than a dozen years; Todd, the same; although I only encountered Matt at one gig, he is memorable. And how many two-trombone trios do you ever encounter?  Not only two trombones plus piano, but when I wrote Walter to ask his blessing to bring my camera as well as its owner, he said, “We’ve been delving into some 3 part vocal harmonies for fun…”

Fun indeed.

Domaine is an atmospheric wine bar and thus dark.  The lighting scheme is red (which you’ll have to imagine) with disco-ball lighting. But the music is stellar and I was dangerously close to the two sliders, so you’ll hear everything.  Walter is to the left of the piano; Todd is to its right.  Matt is playing it.  Here is the first part of the evening.

One of Walter’s masterpieces, his slow wooing ROSE ROOM, which takes the Hickman song back to its dreamy pre-Goodman roots:

The venerable and much-loved EXACTLY LIKE YOU:

The tender THESE FOOLISH THINGS:

To close, a song about bedding (and so much else): MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR:

I look forward to future appearances by this trio: a very generous outpouring of creative melodic improvised music.

May your happiness increase!

SLIDE AND SLIDE ALIKE // WHISTLE WHILE YOU . . . WORK?: MATT MUSSELMAN, RYAN SNOW, KRIS KAISER, ROB ADKINS at FRAUNCES TAVERN (August 1, 2015)

Trombone

Memorable music blossoms forth without fanfare when the right creative spirits come together.  And such music isn’t always created by Stars — people who win polls, who record CDs for major labels.  Two examples from a Saturday brunch gig in New York City follow.

Matt Musselman, welcoming us in

Matt Musselman, welcoming us in

The very perceptive Rob Adkins, string bassist extraordinaire, arranged this session on August 1, 2015 — Matt Musselman on trombone, Kris Kaiser on guitar. And they made lovely music.  But then someone came in — new to me but very talented: trombonist / jazz whistler Ryan Snow.

There’s a small tradition of two-trombone teams: Cutshall and McGarity, Johnson and Winding, Vic and Eddie Hubble are the first teams that come to mind.  And two trombones lend themselves to trading off: you play eight bars, I’ll play the next, and so on.

Matt and Ryan knew and respected each other, and everyone was eager to hear Ryan play.  So they began to trade phrases — on the one horn, passing it back and forth without missing a beat or smudging a note.  It was a lovely exercise in jazz acrobatics, but it was more — wonderful music.  I thought, at the end, “This is why I carry a knapsack full of video equipment to jazz gigs, because anything can happen and usually does.”

(If you can’t tell who’s who, Matt has a rolled-up long-sleeve white shirt; Ryan is wearing short sleeves.)

OUT OF NOWHERE:

And for the next number, I CAN’T GET STARTED, Ryan proved himself a superb jazz whistler:

Marvels take place amidst the hamburgers and Cobb salads, the gallons of beer and Diet Coke . . .

Since I’d never heard of Ryan, I asked for a brief biography.  You should know that his August 2015 visit to New York was prelude to his attending law school at the UVA School of Law in Charlottesville.  He will do great things . . . but I hope he visits New York again to play and whistle, to lift our spirits.

Here’s Ryan’s self-portrait:

Born and raised in Stanford, CA, child of two professors and avid music lovers, grew up surrounded by music in the home and going to see live music of all kinds. Started playing piano privately at 9 (hated it), trombone at 10 (loved it) playing in the school band. Parents gave me Blue Train, Kind of Blue, and a J.J. Johnson on Columbia album for my 12th birthday and I began listening to jazz obsessively, buying CDs and spinning them till I knew every note, then going to get more. That and being lucky enough to have a good jazz program in middle school and high school really developed my ears. I had fun playing in small combos with friends. I toured Japan four summers with the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Big Band, through which I connected with some amazing young players (including Ambrose Akinmusire, Jonathan Finlayson, Charles and Tom Altura, Justin Brown, Milton Fletcher, Ryan Scott, Bram Kincheloe to name a few); I learned a lot and caught a glimpse of professional music life on the road.

I went to Oberlin College and Conservatory to study jazz and political science, earning bachelor’s degrees in both. There I connected with a really strong community of improvisers (including Peter Evans, Matt Nelson, Nick Lyons, Kassa Overall, Theo Croker, Nate Brenner, and our friend Rob Adkins among others) and found myself pulled towards the avant-garde and to Brooklyn, where I moved after graduation in 2005. I knew at 22 that if I ever wanted to do serious work in music that I would need to start right away, and I’m very thankful I made that choice. I spent the next six years playing as much as possible and contributing to a vibrant improvised music community in Brooklyn, including curating and hosting a regular music series in my basement for two years. During this time I also helped found and build a soul-rock-funk band called Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds that quickly gained a strong following and began touring nationally in 2011. Three years, 200,00 miles and over 500 shows in 45 states later I found that my underlying passions had shifted, that I was spending my down time on the road reading about politics and public policy rather than working on my own music and setting up playing opportunities. I was making music that mattered to people, and having fun doing it, but part of me wasn’t fulfilled; however meaningful my music was to the audience and to my peers it wasn’t making a significant impact on their lives and opportunities, let alone those of the millions (billions) beyond earshot. I felt called, I felt at 30 about political action as had at 22 about music, that I needed to immediately begin working in service of my values and towards a government and a society that I believe in.

About whistling:

My dad used to whistle a lot when I was really young. I don’t remember learning it at any particular point, but when I began listening to jazz obsessively in middle through high school I got in the habit of whistling along just walking around with my Discman all day. So it just became natural to whistle bebop. I kind of had a running stream of quarter note swing going through my head in those days (still notice it at times now but it’s further in the background) and I would often start whistling lines out loud, just externalizing what I was hearing in my head. Plenty of complaints from mom and friends. Did this daily through college and while I never really whistled with other people I was whistling a lot. After moving to NYC I had some opportunities to whistle professionally, laying down a few studio tracks as a guest and busting it out every few shows with Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, and have also done a few jam sessions where I’ve been just whistling. I think the best thing about it actually is being able to sit in credibly and comfortably in a jazz setting even if I don’t have my horn with me, it’s just really fun and freeing, and I’m always thankful for the opportunity to share it with people.

There are a lot of similarities with the trombone in that they’re both fretless instruments and so essentially require some kind of attack (air or tongue) to delineate individual notes, which can get tricky at fast tempos. But they’re also so different it’s fun to have both. I hope to continue to develop my whistling and ultimately make some recordings that I can share.

Thank you, Rob, Matt, Ryan, and Chris, for transforming a Saturday afternoon most memorably.

May your happiness increase!

WHERE THE QUALITY MEETS: CHARLIE HALLORAN AND THE “QUALITY SIX”

CHARLIE HALLORAN QUALITY SIX

It is possible I have clothing older than jazz trombonist Charlie Halloran, but I am thrilled to let you know about his CD, which contains some wonderful music.

The first thing you might notice about the disc’s cover above — leaving aside the energetic graphic design — is that it advertises a band rather than a soloist, and that is all to the good.  When you notice that Charlie has surrounded himself with people who have been making recordings longer than he has — their names follow this extended sentence — you know that he knows quality, as do they.

Who are those people surrounding Mister Halloran and his slide trombone? How about Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Steve Pistorius, piano; Tom Saunders, string bass; Charlie Fardella, trumpet; Walter Harris, drums; Jimbo Mathus, vocals.  I know half of this band personally, and even if I’d never heard the CD, their presence would be a living testament to their faith in Charlie and the sincerity and joyous wisdom of his music.

Back to the band and to the overall idea of this disc.  Since it is a band whose members embody an ensemble tradition in their work, something is always going on, even surreptitiously, throughout each of the tracks.  In fact, the music is dense with surprises: backgrounds behind a soloist, interesting ensemble modifications, a rhythm section that is part Second Line, part timeless Mainstream.  But everything has a fluid romping motion underneath it.

And each of the front-line players is perfectly poised, a distinctive voice, immediately recognizable.  I’d call the general aesthetic of this disc a modern version of hot lyricism.  The Quality 6 swings throughout — no tempo too slow or too fast for dancers — but every note has a particular singing quality. And Jimbo’s voice, tough-tender, is the perfect counterpart to the instrumental glories.

You’ll know that a great deal of music is marketed these days as “authentic” New Orleans.  I keep away from any debates on authenticity, but will say only that the music on this disc is not loud jive for the tourists, nor is it museum-safe reverent recreation.  It sounds like music, where the individuals are fully aware (in the most affectionate ways) of the tradition but know that their task on the planet is to express themselves — and that’s glorious.

The repertoire is another treat.  There are times in my life when a beautifully done JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE has hit the spot, but I take a special pleasure from picking up a disc and seeing, “Wow, they’ve done that song?  I can’t wait to hear what they’ve done with it.”

The songs are:  In The Gloaming / Bouncing Around / St. Louis Cemetery Blues / Dreaming The Hours Away / The Ramble / Let’s Put Our Heads Together / Beautiful Dreamer / Memphis Blues / If We Never Meet Again / Weather Bird / June Night.

I asked Charlie for his thoughts on the repertoire, and he told me, “Most of these tunes are songs I’ve learned in the past 4 or 5 years and just don’t have the opportunity to play very often. Although, as I’m playing with these veterans more, that is starting to change.  I play Dreaming the Hours Away with Steve Pistorius pretty regularly and Tim has been calling If We Never Meet Again at the Palm Court recently. St. Louis Cemetery Blues is a Squirrel Nut Zippers song that we never played when the band was touring, so I really wanted to get that down and have Jimbo, the composer, sing it. I share his love of Stephen Foster, so I thought he would be perfect for Beautiful Dreamer, the arrangement and cadenza I ripped off a bootleg recording of Pops on the Ed Sullivan show via Ricky Riccardi. The Ramble is from those killer, Lawrence Brown heavy, recordings of the Paul Howard band. I get a kick out of how the song holds up to a New Orleans treatment. Bouncing Around I’d only ever played from the music with Orange Kellin’s band. I was trying to give it more just a raggy feel, how a band where not everybody could read might play it, half from memory, approximation. June Night I learned from Ed Polcer, Weather Bird I was thinking of those Jelly Roll trios as much as the Louis/Hines version.

A few more words about Charlie (someone who knows his history but is not condemned to repeat it).  The trombone is a delicious but devouring instrument, one that leads the incautious into acrobatics, self-parody, or restrictive styles. Charlie clearly knows the whole range of the instrument from Ory to the present, and although I hear echoes of other big-toned players from Quentin Jackson to Benny Morton to Sandy Williams to Teagarden, what I hear most is an affecting personal synthesis of the Past — operating gleefully and skillfully in the Present. (Did I say he was a wonderful ensemble trombonist, someone who knows how just the right harmony or the right epigram can add so much in just a few notes? And although he knows and can do a properly rough-hewn style, he loves melody and has a deep awareness of contemporary traditional jazz — which words should not scare anyone away.  Nothing is fake or faux or glaring here. It all sounds good.)

Enough words for the moment.

Here’s a minute with this amiable expert fellow:

Charlie’s biography, for those who like that thing, is here.

Here are two links to the music — and the music.  And of course, here’s Charlie’s Facebook page.

Young Mister H is not someone I greet at the beginning of his brilliant career.  He’s already living it, and his debut CD shows it beautifully.  The only fault I could find with this issue is that it isn’t a two-disc set.  And I do not write those words casually.

May your happiness increase!

THE FROLICS AT FRAUNCES (Part One): ROB ADKINS, MIKE DAVIS, CRAIG VENTRESCO (July 25, 2015)

Fraunces Tavern

To some, Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan is most famous as the spot where George Washington held a farewell dinner for his troops in 1789.  Others like it because of their wonderfully extensive beer list and straightforward food — nice servers always, too.  Also, it’s a fine place to bring the family if you’re coming or going to Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty.

For me, it’s a little-known hot spot of rhythm on Saturday afternoons from 1-4. I came there a few months ago to enjoy the hot music of Emily Asher’s Garden Party Trio [plus guest] — which you can enjoy here — fine rocking music.

But let us live in the moment!  Here are four performances by Rob Adkins, string bass; Craig Ventresco, guitar (the legend from San Francisco and a friend for a decade); Mike Davis, cornet AND trombone.

“Trombone?” you might be saying.  Mike is very new to the trombone — a number of months — and he was playing an instrument not his own.  So he was a little sensitive about my making these performances public (those dangerous eyebrows went up and threatened to stay there) but I assured him that his playing was admirable, even if he was severe on himself.  His cornet work is a complete delight.  The music Rob, Craig, and Mike make is delicate and forceful, incendiary and serene.  You’ll see and hear for yourself on these four performances.  Rob swings out with or without the bow, by the way.

LILA, which I associate with a Frank Trumbauer / Bix Beiderbecke OKeh — a song I’ve never heard anyone play live, so thank you!

WHISPERING, which was once one of the most-played songs in this country and is now terribly obscure:

WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD, with memories of Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Andy Secrest, Bix Beiderbecke, and Irving Berlin:

ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, another Berlin classic, this performance evoking Red Nichols and Miff Mole:

And although it gets me in trouble with some people every time I write it, these three musicians are not necrophiliac impersonators.  They know the old records — those cherished performances — intimately and lovingly, and the records might act as scaffolding, but they are not restricted to copying them. (Ironically, this session reminds me more than a little of the lovely impromptu recordings made by Johnny Wiggs and Snoozer Quinn, although those two musicians didn’t have the benefit of a wonderful string bassist of Rob’s caliber in the hospital.)

There will be more to come from this Saturday’s glorious hot chamber music performance.  And this coming Saturday (August 1) Rob Adkins has asked trombonist Matt Musselman and guitarist Kris Kaiser to start the good works.  I know they will.

May your happiness increase!

MY CREATIVE DOUBLE: “CURRENT RESIDENCE”

My name is not all that unusual, if Google is any indication. There’s me, then a Michael Steinman who’s a doctor, an authority on world government, an attorney, a provost, the deceased frontman for the band Inch, a realtor, an actor, a college dean, an author of a book on domestic abuse, a math teacher.  I gave up on the fourth page of the search because the apartment seemed crowded with ectoplasmic figures who were insisting that they were real and I wasn’t.

But I was greatly amused and pleased to encounter the Michael Steinman who is an appealing jazz trombonist and singer.  Born in Santa Clarita, California, this MS has lived and studied in Bloomington, Indiana, and now calls Six-Fours-les-Plage, France, home.  I was delighted — after the initial shock of seeing “my” name in print attached to another person — to meet this other (and talented) Michael here.

MS tbn w Alamel Giles

Michael, trombone, with Alamel Gilles

 

And the pleasure continues with Michael’s new CD, appropriately called CURRENT RESIDENCE.  It is an appealing blend: “traditional” repertoire with a charmingly quirky twist.  The songs would lead you to believe that the approach would be firmly grounded in early-jazz conventions: STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / DARKTOWN STRUTTERS BALL / IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T MY BABY? / AFTER YOU’VE GONE / ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET / BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN / I DIDDLE / JACK, YOU’RE DEAD / JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID / JUST A GIGOLO — but there are no straw hats, striped blazers, or sleeve garters here.  An unorthodox yet swinging instrumentation also helps the music be lively rather than formulaic.

What makes this CD special is a combination of a few things.  First, Michael is a splendid trombonist.  He doesn’t see the instrument as a way of spraying notes at a captive audience; he is a swinging melodist, a modern mainstreamer who doesn’t copy anyone.  He is also a really fine — and not ordinary — singer, someone who seems like a distant cousin of Mose Allison and one of the Everly Brothers (you can pick) without ever losing a jazz feel.  And the strolling players who accompany him (most often alto saxophone and a small quiet rhythm section) are on the same wavelength: thoughtful without being numb, enthusiastic without being raucous. Praise to his colleagues: Jonathan Soncasse, Willy Quiko, Lionel Pellister, Eric Merdiano, Gerard Murphy, Anne Carriere, Eric Fillou, Lorenzo Brignone, and Gabriel Charrier.

Here’s an auditory sample: 

Serious and ready for swing action

Serious and ready for swing action

I would have a listener begin at the end — a fitting tribute to quirkiness with its own reward — with a deeply tender reading of JUST A GIGOLO that begins with a smoothed down Monkish piano solo, then moves to trombone / piano, alto saxophone / piano, and finally vocal / piano — sweetly and sadly, more Crosby than Prima.  It’s one of those recorded musical performances that is shapely, quiet yet deep, and completely satisfying.

Here are more sound samples, and a way to make a purchase for the motivated among us.

michael-steinman-album-cover

The CD is also available through the usual sources — as a download on Amazon or iTunes, and at Michael’s website, herewhere the essay that accompanies the CD cover is both charming and candid.

This other MS has a future: his music is lively and full of feeling, and his CD sounds as if he knows the past but is not condemned to repeat it.  I recommend it highly, and would do so even if his name was not so melodious to my ears.

May your happiness increase!

TWO MINUTES AND TWENTY-SEVEN SECONDS

My title doesn’t refer to someone’s hallowed solo or a famous 78 recording.  No, it’s music created this month, March 2015.

I have watched with pleasure and amusement the birth and development of a new band — no, a new instrumental ensemble with its own gravely whimsical music.  The object of my affection is the Endangered Species Trio, which brings together Emily Asher, trombone; Tom Abbott, bass saxophone; Rob Reich, accordion.

I could make a case for all species as being endangered these days, but the title refers more to the three instruments, which have been the subject of curiosity (at best), sliding down to active mockery, contempt, disdain, and incredulity. Except for the trombone, which has a certain acceptance — although there are many jokes about trombones and trombonists — the bass saxophone and the accordion are regarded, at best, as highly miscellaneous instruments, even though both of them are capable of great beauty.

Tom, Emily, and Rob just returned from a brief stay at an artists’ retreat in Banff, and they shared this delicious musical vignette, TOM AND LIZ, on YouTube.

Humor me.  Even if you have deep reservations about “original compositions” by jazz artists; even if the thought of the accordion brings up deep childhood traumas, experience this beautiful cockeyed swinging melodic many-textured interlude:

I expect to have a good day — pleasing experiences have already taken place and there are more to come — but for sheer compact pleasure, these two minutes and twenty-seven seconds will be hard to top.

Go ahead:  see if you can listen to it only once.  I dare you.

More about this wonderful group here.

May your happiness increase! 

MUSIC TO LOVE BY: DAN BARRETT, JOHN ALLRED, JASON WANNER, EDDIE ERICKSON, RICHARD SIMON, BUTCH MILES (2014 San Diego Jazz Party)

We’re not always aware of all the beauty surrounding us, so I post this video as a spiritual-public service: an old love song played with the utmost tender mastery in a swinging 4 / 4. (“Basie tempo,” the scientists tell us, is a proven aphrodisiac. Ask anyone.)

It’s IF I HAD YOU, performed with great style by trombonists Dan Barrett and John Allred, with Jason Wanner, piano; Eddie Erickson, guitar; Richard Simon, string bass; Butch Miles, drums:

This was recorded on February 22, 2014 at the very happy jazz weekend known as the San Diego Jazz Party, where sweet swing is the main dish on the very welcoming menu.

May your happiness increase!

BOB HAVENS, SUPERHERO (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 21, 2012)

Trombonist Bob Havens looks nothing like a Marvel Comics star.  In fact, his quiet Midwestern appearance and demeanor make Clark Kent look rather raunchy by comparison.  But Bob shows us, every time he puts together his trombone, that a man may be in his eighties and have his superpowers remain undiminished, and that red and blue costuming is not essential.

Here he is with Randy Reinhart, cornet; Alex Hoffman, tenor saxophone; Bob Reitmeier, clarinet; Keith Ingham, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Pete Siers, drums — recorded at Jazz at Chautauqua on Friday, September 21, 2012.

Just because it’s amusing and surprising, Randy began the set with the classic end-of-the-night I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS:

A tribute to Bix and Tram in SINGIN’ THE BLUES:

Then Mr. Havens leaps into action on ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE:

And they end the set with IN A MELLOTONE:

You don’t have to take it from me that Bob Havens is simply remarkable — the Douglas Fairbanks Sr. of the sliphorn.  Just look at the expressions on the faces of his colleagues.  I want to know what Bob eats (or doesn’t eat) for breakfast.  Surely we could all try it, too.

May your happiness increase.

ATLANTA 2012: RUSS PHILLIPS, JOHN ALLRED, MARK SHANE, FRANK TATE, CHUCK REDD (April 22, 2012)

Not FLYIN’ HOME but its brass cousin — SLIDIN’ HOME as two of the best jazz trombonists show off their wonderful musical teamwork at the 2012 Atlanta Jazz Party.  Closer to my lens was John Allred, next to him (and at the microphone) was Russ Phillips; they were aided and abetted by Mark Shane, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Chuck Redd, drums — a stellar rhythm trio.

We were more than satisfied!

The Rodgers and Hart classic THIS CAN’T BE LOVE:

Even more venerable, Isham Jones’ ON THE ALAMO:

An invitation to nocturnal spooning and the like, GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON:

And, appropriately, Gordon Jenkins’ GOOD-BYE:

All this group needs is a nifty title or acronym.  JARP doesn’t convey their excellence sufficiently, nor does FSFT (Famous Sons of Famous Trombonists) but I am sure someone will suggest something better.

May your happiness increase.

PAGES WORTH READING: “HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE” by JAMES LEIGH

I knew Jim Leigh as a writer covering the West Coast scene for THE MISSISSIPPI RAG — someone observant, witty, occasionally satiric.  Later, I knew him as a solidly rough-hewn trombonist, with plenty of pep and lowdown spice, what Dicky Wells called “fuzz.” 

But it’s only recently that I have had the opportunity to savor his prose at length, and his memoir, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is a splendidly moving book.  I apologize to Jim for coming to it so late — it was published in 2000 — but I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for it.  When a friend gave me a copy in September, I found myself reading it while standing up in my hotel room, and I quickly was so entranced that I rationed myself to only a few pages at a time because I didn’t want it to end too quickly.

Readers familiar with the literature of jazz know that many jazz memoirs follow predictable patterns.  Some musicians offer us the familiar path: early discovery of the music, early study, scuffling, the first breakthrough, then a listing of gigs and encounters.  Other books are a series of vignettes — associations with famous people . . . “and then I told Louis,” and so on.  Other chronicles depict battles with addiction and other unhappinesses — ideally they end in triumph and freedom.  All of these books can be irresistible on their own terms, but they often become cheerfully formulaic once the subject has succeeded.   

Jim’s book is not only a history of his own musical development (how he learned to play “Whispering” in its key, not Bb), or his brushes with the great and near-great . . . but, like A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, it is a record, seen retrospectively, of the growth of a consciosness, the creation of a discerning self.  The combination of his prose (modest, expert, not calling attention to itself) and the insights he has come to — makes for a book that’s not only readable but memorable.

I won’t summarize the insights — that would do Jim an injustice — but they have to do with his development not only as a trombonist and a listener, but as a full-fledged adult with a deep understanding of himself, of his relations with others, and of the music.  In these pages, we observe someone grow, which restores us as we participate in it.

The temptation for me, as someone fascinated by HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is to retype great chunks of it.  I will let readers take their pleasures and surprises on their own — and offer only one excerpt from the book, Jim’s encounter with the great and somewhat inscrutable Herb Flemming (world-traveler and Ellington alumnus) in Fuengirola, Spain, circa 1965:

. . . a man considerably older than I lived with a small white mixed-breed dog.  I kept imagining that I heard the sound of a trombone from his second-floor apartment, often playing a part of “Sophisticated Lady” or “In My Solitude,” typically the bridge, repeating it, perfectly, perhaps a dozen times.  Discreet inquiry in the large and heterogeneous foreign community provided only a rumor that the man, “some kind of an Arab,” had “played with Duke Ellington, a long time ago.”  Whether because he was too self-sufficient to require conversation or too anti-social to permit it, he was said to be taciturn to the point of utter silence.  Or, as Wacker, the retired Australian soap opera writer down the street, put it, “Bloke seems to be missing the old vocal chords.”

One day when I was walking along the Paseo Maritimo, next to the beach, I saw him coming, as always with his dog on a leash.  Thinking that it was perhaps now or never, I spoke to him.  He stopped and listened, impassive, his eyes focused on a patch of Mediterranean somewhere beyond my shoulder, but did not answer.  “I’ve  heard that you used to play with Duke,” I said. 

He echoed me tonelessly.  “Duke,” as if the word meant nothing to him.

“Ellington.”

He let me wait a bit.  “Yes, I did.”

I told him my name, and that I lived across the street from him.  “Next to the Casa Blanca,” I said.  “You know, the Danish bar?”

“I don’t pass my time in bars,” he said.  He let his eyes rest steadily on my face then.  I saw his calm gaze, but decided not to mention that I, too, had played the trombone, and waited.  He must have reached some sort of decision, because, without looking away, he stuck his free hand inside his jacket and brought forth a calling card, which he handed me.  I thanked him.

“Mm,” he said, and resumed his stroll.  The card read Nicolaiih El-Michelle (Formerly Herb Flemming),” and below that “Trombonist”.  It bore a Paris address, pencilled out but not amended.  He and his doggy were already on their way.  We never spoke again.

There are writers who would make an equisitely sad little vignete out of the former Herb Flemming.  I might have been one of them 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer.  If our brief experience taught me anything at that time it was that the former Herb Flemming did not require pity any  more than he required conversation.  He had his dog,  he had his trombone: what more, his manner said, did a man need?  Someone might call him for a gig, I thought.  As Sister Rosetta Tharpe so memorably sang, strange things happen every day.  If someone did call, I was sure the Former Herb Flemming would have his chops together.

The book is full of these brief moments of revelation, quietly persuasive but never self-congratulatory.  Any of us might have encountered Herb Flemming, and perhaps with similar results, but only Jim Leigh would have come to understand that moment as he has . . . and only Leigh would have written of it in such a sweetly understated way.  HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE is full of personalities and stories, from Turk Murphy to Louis to Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and Django Reinhardt, to Dan Barrett and Clint Baker . . . but what compels me is the steady, often amused, man and writer, experiencing his life and learning from it, every chorus, every day. 

It’s an invaluable book.  Visit http://www.xibris.com/sales to obtain a copy.  An actual bookstore (they still exist!) could order it under its ISBN number, which is 0-7388-5602-9.

UKE AND THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC

 Let’s see.  How many jazz musicians / singers do you know who have performed and recorded with Norah Jones, Kevin Dorn’s Traditional Jazz Collective (and the Big 72), the Grove Street Stompers, Blue’s Clues, J.C. Hopkins, Willie Martinez, the Pre-War Ponies, and more? 

Let’s complicate matters.  Make this imaginary personage a singer, trombonist, ukulele virtuoso, composer . . . give up?

Why, it’s Mississippi-born J. Walter Hawkes, someone who raises the spirits of the band and the audience by just walking into the club.  I first heard JWH at the Cajun in late 2004 and have delighted in his playing and singing since then.   

I knew him primarily as a profoundly moving singer — someone who combined down-home openheartedness with urban subtlety (imagine someone with a Southern flavor — sounding much like a local boy singing with the band, if that local boy knew all about Bing and Hot Lips Page and Buddy Holly).  JWH believes what he sings, without any overlay of dramatization: his phrasing comes from the heart.  (I was thrilled to be able to capture his slow, innocent-lascivious ROSE ROOM on video.) 

And then he picked up his trombone, once again melding the two Greens, Bennie and Big, playing with force and delicacy, bringing hip harmonies into a traditional ensemble.

I’d never had the good luck to hear him show off his ukulele talents on a gig (although I’d seen him do this on YouTube) but JWH is now out in the open for all of us who haven’t yet had the pleasure — he’s recorded and released his first CD as a leader, something we’ve been waiting for.  It comes in a brown wrapper — a recycled cardboard sleeve — but there’s nothing low-budget or ordinary about the music within. 

And, yes, it is an indication of JWH’s sense of humor that it’s called UKE AND THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC.  The songs are COQUETTE / IF I LOVE AGAIN (taken at a rocking tempo) / UNDERNEATH A BROOKLYN MOON (a pretty original by J.C. Hopkins) / YOU AND THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC / SAY IT SIMPLE / BUY ME A BEER, MR. SHANE (not too difficult to unravel) / SUNDAY SUIT (THE GAY 90’s) / WHAT CAN I SAY, DEAR (AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY) / CRYIN’ FOR THE CAROLINES.  JWH plays trombone, ukulele, and sings; the fine bassist Doug Largent adds his melodic self (and “Vectrex Dreams,” whatever it or they might be), and Andy Burns is heard on drums and vocals.  “Skullduggery,” too.  It’s a wonderfully rewarding disc — varied, heartfelt, comic, and tender.  You can buy it direct from JWH on a gig (the best way, I think) for $12 or a cassette for $7. 

JWH’s gig schedule: http://www.blatboy.blogspot.com/

Or to purchase the CD from his site, visit http://www.blatomaster.com/music.php.

I admire JWH and his work, if that isn’t made clear above — and I was eager to hear this disc.  But I’ve been playing it over and over: good music to drive to work by, fine in headphones . . . an all-purpose musical offering.  And there are clever overdubs, changes of mood — it’s a well-planned disc, so when it ends, you’ll say, “Give me more!”

Need proof?  Here are JWH and Doug (with drummer Russ Meissner) performing the title tune live in May 2010:

VIC DICKENSON in LIFE

Some jazz musicians are garrulous, bubbly; Vic Dickenson barely spoke, and when he did address a comment to someone else on the stand, it was hard even for a practiced eavesdropper to catch what he was saying.  Often his words were punctuated by a laugh that would be difficult to describe. 

When Vic was photographed, because of the trombone’s intrusive size and shape, he often looked like a man at the mercy of his instrument, his brow furrowed.  Photographs also captured him looking angry — which was misleading, for he seemed the least contentious of men.

Here’s an uncredited photo study of Vic from LIFE magazine, presumably from the Fifties (I date it by his hairline).  It captures his seriousness, as well as some delightful reflections in the trombone’s bell, although it can’t summon up his sense of humor, his wonderful sound and sounds. 

For that, thankfully, we have the recordings he made over nearly half a century.

OGDEN, UTAH / RED AND MIFF VISIT THE 21st CENTURY

Yesterday the Beloved and I drove through Ogden, Utah.  That town is quite removed from our usual route, but we are here so that she can teach three classes in pressure cooking at the amiable Love to Cook / Kitchen Kneads (!) store in Logan . . . and then we can drink in the natural beauty that so characterizes the state — snow-topped mountains so astonishing that on first glance they look unreal, and the wondrous birds who casually inhabit the Wild Bird Refuge at Bear River. 

All right, what has any of this to do with jazz?

A good deal, by luck and serendipity.  Ogden, as some of you might know, is the birthplace of Loring “Red” Nichols, the cornetist and bandleader whose name, nearly forty-five years after his death — still has the power to stir up ideological controversy among jazz fans.  Some of his best “Five Pennies” recordings feature the revolutionary-for-his-time trombonist Miff Mole, who was born in Freeport, Long Island, a community not far from the one where I spent my childhood.  Red and Miff favored a kind of jazz that was “modern,” harmonically sophisticated, and complex . . . but their performances have always been mildly condescended to by those who prefer their jazz scalding Hot — those who listened to the Five Pennies recordings for the solos of Teagarden, Goodman, Lang, or Teschmacher, the rhythmic support of Sullivan, Krupa, Vic Berton, or Tough.  Next to the hot players of his generation, Nichols can — on occasion — sound a bit mannered, and one might hear the echoes of “Carnival of Venice,” which he played as a boy, coming through.  But he was a better-than-average player, he employed the best players he could find, and he gave them solo space.  And, unlike Ted Lewis, he didn’t sing or talk over anyone else’s solos.  I think the bad things said about Nichols have to do with the unconscious or conscious Marxism that hovers over jazz.  Nichols had the bad taste to be Caucasian, middle-class, prosperous — someone who made a living from jazz and lived a long comfortable life.  Had Nichols died of tuberculosis, or had he frozen to death on a Harlem doorstep, would he be held in higher esteem among the jazz purists? 

Miff Mole is somewhat of a different story.  The trombone requires so much from the person behind the mouthpiece, that there are very few trombonists who keep their initial style intact (I think of Morton, Teagarden, and Vic Dickenson as a celestial trio) — but Mole’s early solos are acrobatic and graceful.  It’s impossible to imagine that Teagarden, Jimmy Harrison, and Charlie Green didn’t notice what Miff was doing, quietly, in the early Twenties.

One of the wonderful things about this music is that younger players can look back to the past, honor it, and then give their homage its own individuality. 

While we were driving through Ogden, Utah, Jamaica Knauer was posting one of her delightful videos from the 2009 Bix Fest — Andy Schumm, Dave Bock, Kim Cusack, Paul Asaro, Leah Bezin, John Otto, and Josh Duffee, “Bix and his Chicago Gang,” here payting tribute to Miff’s recording (from 1928, I think) of ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND.  Initially, it sounds ragtime-and-brass band flavored, but the boys (then and now) take themselves to the land of jazz, in a lovely manner.