Tag Archives: Tyree Glenn

ON BLUEBERRY HILL

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

I fell in love with him when I was 9.  He broke my heart when I was 14, and he died when I was 19.  I forgave him for both things, although it took a long time. We lived perhaps twenty miles apart, although I only visited his house after he had been gone for many years.

In the suburban house I grew up in, my mother, Toby, sang along with Barbra Streisand while dusting.  My father, Louis, a short man with black-framed eyeglasses, felt music deeply and brought home unusual records for us.  One was this Louis Armstrong record.  I fell in love.

Falling in love is not a rational action: Cupid gives us no choice.

Unlike the glossy women in glossy magazine advertisements I fantasized about, Louis Armstrong was not a conventional Love Object, but a stocky, sweating older man in a tuxedo, glimpsed at intervals on the television screen. But his music spoke to my heart, and now life “Before Louis” seems indistinct.

My fifth-grade classmates chattered happily about the Beatles and I tried to join their party.  But in secret, I retreated to my nest of books and records, staring at the cloth grille of the speaker and the black-and-silver or red labels of the records.  “I found my thrill / On Blueberry Hill.”  “No one to talk to / all by myself / no one to walk with / but I’m happy on the shelf.”

Louis gave himself utterly to the music without self-consciousness.  His trumpet was eloquent, daring.  I delighted in the final chorus of his 1927 record of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE.  That this was “old music” ignored by my peers only added to the secret pleasure.  When he sang love ballads, his yearning or exultation filled the room, with no shame or embarrassment.

I tried to emulate him.  On a borrowed trumpet, I attempted WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN.  The saints, sadly, were unimpressed and stayed put. I was the least accomplished trumpet player in the elementary school band.  The band director suggested I practice more before returning.  I knew what that meant.

My fifth grade teacher asked the class to write about a dream or to create and illustrate a story.  I knew better than to tell Mrs. Blumenthal my dream of the naked woman with the lion face.  But I had no reservations about describing my playing SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH next to Louis on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.  I drew the stage, red velvet curtains, myself next to Louis, our horns aloft.  In dreams I had stature, and no one could remove me from the band.

In 1967, when I was fourteen, I read in Newsday that Louis and All-Stars were playing at an auditorium in Hempstead, seven miles away.  Intent, devoted, I made it clear that I had to be there, stating that I would walk there and back in the dark if necessary, so my father accompanied me, protecting his fragile son.

We arrived too early and sat on metal folding chairs, two people in a large hall empty of others.

Louis entered the hall, chatting with his musicians.  “There he is,” my father said.  “Go get his autograph.”

Before the concert, I had agonized over what totem to bring for this moment, the encounter I dreamed of.  What would best show my admiration and adoration?  Frozen in uncertainty, I had taken only a blank index card, which I offered, awestruck and mute, to the man who had no idea how important he was to me.  I had imagined an Olympian figure, radiantly backlit, grinning as he always did onstage.  The real man in front of me seemed small, deflated, even bored.  He signed the card and returned it, saying nothing to me, continuing to speak with his musicians.

Stunned, feeling unworthy, I asked his trombonist to autograph the card, then returned to my seat, invisible. I heard the concert through a loud hum of painful self-criticism.  I kept the story to myself.  I framed the signed card but could not bear to hang it.

Had Louis said to me, “Hey, Pops, you dig my music?” it would have been a gift I would prize forever.  Years later, I part-understood that he had enough to do to play and sing, to get ready to be the man who gave us his essence night after night.  Now I think that expecting him to be telepathic was too much.

Though I had felt stung and ignored in that moment, I continued to follow Louis on television and radio, to collect more records, a devotion that continues to this day.  Each new performance was thrilling; familiar ones revealed new shifts of light: I understood him more as a galactic phenomenon within a human body.

In adolescence, I was compelled to see myself as an outsider, and I silently recreated Louis as a model, uniquely freakish, endearingly individualistic.  I had taken on the expected regalia of the late Sixties, long hair, floral shirt, bell-bottom trousers, but the clothing felt like a uniform I was expected to wear as a foot soldier of Officially Sanctioned Nonconformity.  True subversion was in taking as my hero a man who wiped his sweating face with a handkerchief, who referred to himself as “Satchmo.”  Cheerfully, he seemed to encourage me, “It’s OK to be different.  Have a good time!”  Telling a skeptical classmate that I preferred Louis’ BLACK AND BLUE to anything on the radio was my open radicalism.

Louis died on this date in 1971.  I thought I would have no more opportunities to show my love, nor he to see it.  But after his death I slowly remade myself, moving from Invisible Boy, silent and timid, to Visible Man, wearing my unusual devotion proudly.  A few years later, at jazz concerts, I met other subversives who conversed in code.  “Do you have the German issue with the second take?  Isn’t it wonderful?  I’ll make you a cassette copy.”  “Are you coming next Sunday?  Bobby Hackett will be playing . . . !”  The mocking voices of the uninitiated were loud, “Do you really like that cartoon music?” “Why do you listen to those scratchy records?”  But I felt that our community would shield us.

In my twenties, I grew secure enough to speak to the players I most admired – Ruby Braff and Jo Jones among them – and they spoke to me and saw me.  Now, decades later, I am proud that musicians who revere Louis as I do greet me by name when I come into the club.

Like any satisfying romance, this tale has several endings.

Forty years after that fateful concert, the Armstrong scholar (and angel) Ricky Riccardi told me that Louis was in the middle of a full-fledged bout with pneumonia when I saw him and was not himself.  That fact, and the passage of time, made me feel that it was time to release myself from the old wound.  I have written this piece and offered it in public to forgive Louis for making me invisible.  In doing so, I have also tried to forgive myself for bungling my one chance to show him how much I loved him.  I stood silent in front of him, but I am not silent now.

My dream of playing his music rather than simply listening to it was long dormant but did not die.  A dear friend and inspired trumpet player, Marc Caparone, gave me a beautiful vintage cornet.  When I took it out of its case, I blew the opening phrase of a song Louis had recorded in 1932.  Half of the notes were wrong; my tone was rough, but it was satisfying, a direct link to the red curtains of my fifth-grade dream. In post-retirement life I aspire to be the substitute cornet player in the Elderly Gentleman’s Monday Night Jazz Band, location TBA.  Even to have a cornet in my living room is a kind of fulfillment.

In 2011, nearly fifty years after I fell in love with Louis, I volunteered to be a docent at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  There I could demonstrate my love, my high fidelity, and willingness to serve the ideals he so joyously represented.  From the upstairs suburban bedroom of my childhood, I had arrived at another such room, and for a few months I could act on my love for the man, in his house.  I could show people the bed where Louis and his wife made love, where he died.  Part of the tour had me show visitors photographs.  In one, a short, stocky, brown-skinned man with black-framed glasses smiles broadly in his den.  That man looks remarkably like my father, who shaped my life through music.  Recent photographs show me as continuing the bodily lineage, my eyeglasses the least of it.

By his generous example, Louis Armstrong showed me that my life’s work was to spread joy.  I hear him now, “Though we’re apart, I follow you still.”

May your happiness increase!

BLOWINGLY, 1951

As part of my continuing quest to make the world more aware of Oran Thaddeus Page — known to those who know as Lips or Hot Lips, here is SWEET SUE, recorded at a session organized by Rudi Blesh in New York City on February 10, 1951, with Lips, Tyree Glenn, trombone; Burnie [or “Burney”?] Peacock, clarinet, alto saxophone; Paul Quinichette, tenor saxophone; Kenny Kersey and Dan Burley, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Walter Page, string bass; Sonny Greer, drums.  Some of the shorter tracks from what was eventually issued as JAMMIN’ AT RUDI’S came out on Circle 78s; the most recent official CD issue is on the Jazzology label (JCD 262) with five tracks from this 1951 date, and a good deal of it — circuitously — has found its way to YouTube.  (Blesh had sponsored an earlier, more “traditional” session with Conrad Janis, Bob Wilber, Ralph Sutton, Eubie Blake, and others, so this was JAMMIN’ No. 2.)  Thanks to Jon-Erik Kellso for reminding me to revisit this session, a few weeks ago.

I’ve always been fascinated by this session because it successfully replicates the feel of an actual jam session — in good sound — with musicians who didn’t usually work together.  Some of them did play gigs as members of Hot Lips Page’s little band of the time, but others seem assembled as former Swing Era stars who were no longer working with big bands: Page (Basie); Greer (Ellington); Barker and Glenn (Calloway); Kersey (Kirk and others), Peacock (Calloway, Basie).  I suspect that these musicians, for Blesh, were perilously “modern,” and I admire him for venturing into unusual territory.  Peacock, for me, was the least-known of the bunch: here is a Wikipedia entry with some possibly verifiable facts.

But there is a wonderful looseness, a let’s-start-this-and-see-if-we-can-get-out-of-it-safely feel to this performance, that speaks to familiar repertoire and no charts in sight.  I suspect Blesh might have even encouraged this as “authentic” and frowned on head-arrangement riffs and backgrounds, something Lips and the others created masterfully as a matter of course.  What else do we hear?  A nicely unhurried tempo, the tender expressiveness of Lips’ lead in the first chorus (a sweet conversational approach), Greer rattling and commenting all through; the sounds Lips got with his plunger — an emphasis on pure sound — before Quinichette dances in, Lester-airy; the powerful motion of Walter Page’s bass in duet with Danny Barker’s single-string solo.  Then the contrast between Lips, apparently at full power, alternating with Greer, before Tyree peaceably returns us to the melody.  How beautifully individualistic his sound is!  A more familiar Barker chordal solo (again, with impressionistic support from Walter Page and Sonny) before Lips returns, as if to say, “You thought I was piling it on before?  Hear THIS!”  Pure drama, and it — like the Jerry Newman recordings and a MUSKRAT RAMBLE recorded in Philadelphia (issued on a Jerry Valburn recording years ago) — shows Lips’ intuitive understanding of dynamics, and even more, the dramatic construction of a large-scale solo.

Never mind that the YouTube picture makes Walter Page the leader of the session and that the cover picture is of his own orchestra, decades ago.  We live in strange times.

And here is more tangible evidence of Mr. Page’s gracious spirit, if you didn’t hear it coming through those notes — a thank-you note to (I am assuming) some Swedish friends:

This emerged on eBay a week ago, and the lucky owner ventured much more money for it than I was willing to spend (the imaginary grandchildren tell me they need sneakers) but you can see it here for free.  I know it’s authentic because of the way Lips made his capital L (he went to school when “penmanship” was still part of your report card) and, for better or worse, “Lip’s” as part of his signature.  I’ve also seen an autograph where Lips — enthusiastically, I assume, signed VERY BLOWINGLY above his name.

SWEET SUE, to me, equals VERY BLOWINGLY by all.  And it didn’t cost $103.56.

May your happiness increase!

THE UNFAILING LIGHT OF LOUIS

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Thanks to scholar and co-producer Ricky Riccardi, another wonderful set of Louis Armstrong recordings has emerged, complete: the Mercury recordings Louis and the All-Stars made between 1964 and 1966, with the pop hit MAME and the lesser hit SO LONG, DEARIE as the most famous among them.

louis-mame-cover

Ricky has done his usual wonderfully exhaustive job of annotating these digital releases.  Here (from his Louis blog) are the notes as they can be read online. And here is the link to read his notes as a PDF.

The music is available only as a digital download through Apple / iTunes: the complete package is $24.99, each song available at $1.29.  Details here.   And, as I wrote in my post on the the new issue of Louis’ complete Decca singles, if you hate “downloads” for their insubstantiality, I understand.  I too like music in physical packages (my apartment is furnished in Early Music) but we listen to live music and go home without being furious that we can’t take the players with us; in olden days, we listened to the radio, etc.  So if you reject this music because you “hate Apple,” to quote Billie, you’re just foolin’ yourself.

Now, if you are someone who deeply feels Louis, you probably already know about these issues and might already be listening, rapt.  If you are someone new to Louis or one of the people who believes the “beginning of his long decline” happened ninety years ago, I urge you to read on.  First, some facts.

The fifty-three performances are, first, the original contents of the “vinyl” issue: MAME / THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS / SO LONG DEARIE / TIN ROOF BLUES / I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY / WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN / CHEESE CAKE / TYREE’S BLUES / PRETTY LITTLE MISSY / FAITH / SHORT BUT SWEET / BYE ‘N BYE / then followed by alternate takes, rehearsal takes, monaural takes of BYE ‘N BYE / FAITH / DEARIE (7) / MISSY (5) / FAITH (8) / SHORT BUT SWEET (6) / CIRCLE (6) / PARTY (5) / THE THREE OF US (3).  The performances are almost all three minutes long — not harking back to OKeh 78s but to the currency of the times, the 45 rpm single that would be played on AM radio.  The other musicians include Buster Bailey, who had worked with Louis in 1924-5; Eddie Shu; Tyree Glenn; Big Chief Russell Moore; Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Everett Barksdale, and more.

Louis, like other innovators, had a long history of taking “popular” material and creating immortal improvisations, so jazz fans dismayed at seeing unfamiliar titles should not be.  Not all of the songs are deathless — a few are paper-thin — but it almost seems as if the worse the material, the more room Louis has to work magic on it.  For me, the finest performances are of songs I doubt others could have done much with: SHORT BUT SWEET, THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS, FAITH, I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY, THE THREE OF US (never before issued), SO LONG DEARIE, and others to lesser effect.

Here is the issued take of SHORT BUT SWEET:

A quietly warm melodic statement (helped by Tyree Glenn’s vibes and, for once, a rhythm guitar) leads into an equally warm vocal — on a song that resembles eight other classics — calling it “derivative” would be excessive praise.  Although the lyrics consistently disappoint, as if the writers had made a bet how many cliches they could jam into thirty-two bars, Louis is even warmer, with freer phrasing, on the vocal bridge to the end of the chorus.  And then that trumpet bridge!  “Tonation and phrasing,” passion, vibrato, and courage.  It might not leap out at a listener the way the beginning of WEST END BLUES does, but I know I couldn’t get those eight bars out of my head after just one hearing.

If you do not warm to that, may I suggest an immersion?  If it doesn’t get to you after three more playings, we may have little to say to one another.  But you might want to read to the end to discover the depths of my apparently foolish devotion.  And you might keep in your head what Bobby Hackett said to Nat Hentoff (I am paraphrasing here): “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come alive like that?”

I have a serious sentimental attachment to this music, because when this record came out, I was nearly fourteen.  This was my Louis Armstrong.  This was the heartfelt, occasionally comic entertainer I saw regularly on television — performing two songs with the All-Stars, conversing briefly and jocularly with the host, and then the show would move on to the acrobats, the writer plugging a new book, the actress doing the same for her new film.  I thrilled to these moments: Louis emerging from behind the curtain to sing and play MAME, DEARIE, later CABARET and WONDERFUL WORLD.  I lived in suburbia, a mile’s walk from several stores with record departments, and I recall going to Times Square Stores [known to some of us by our adolescent translation of its initials into Tough Shit, Sonny] or Mays or Pergaments, thumbing through the Louis records I knew by heart, and buying this new one in an excited flurry.  (My mother would have looked patient but puzzled; my father would have said, “Don’t you have enough records?” but not argued the point.) I would have disappeared into my bedroom and played it over and over.  I no longer have my mid-Sixties copy, but this recent release has brought all that experience back.

And what was there on this Mercury record?  Joy is the simple answer, with a substantial emotional range: the mocking dismissal of DEARIE, the celebration of the imaginary hedonist Auntie Mame on the title song, the blues — familiar and impromptu — the cheerful satire of FAITH, and the love songs that were CIRCLE and SHORT BUT SWEET, the alcohol-free gathering of PARTY, and more.  Each song was its own brief dramatic playlet, with a good deal of Louis’ singing and short but very affecting trumpet interludes.

He was no longer the star of the Vendome Theatre show; he was no longer playing 250 high C’s at the end of CHINATOWN.  But those age-related limitations were, to me, a great good thing.  These trumpet interludes are incredibly subtle and moving because his wisdom. Young, he could dramatically create expansive masterpieces, sometimes on record, sometimes legendary and unrecorded.  And those creations are awe-inspiring displays of virtuosity.

But we hear that this older man, with fifty years’ musical experience behind him, knows so much more about what to play and what not to — so an eight-bar passage on any song is intense, full of emotion.  Every note counts, because it has to.  And if you think this is special pleading on behalf of the elderly, ask any improvising musician to listen deeply to one of these solos.

I am not yet a senior citizen.  But I think a good deal about aging and what the proper responses might be to the calendar, the passage of days measured in the speed I climb stairs or the ease with which I carry groceries.  For decades, I’ve looked to Louis as a spiritual model.  I don’t take Swiss Kriss; I don’t tell prospective life-partners “The horn comes first”; I’m not a Mets fan.  But I think the aging Louis — as icon, as artist — has so much to tell us, no matter how old we are now.

The question we must ask ourselves is large: “Since our time on the planet is finite, what should we do with it, even if we have a long time before the final years approach?”  I think his answer, audible on the Mercury sides, is plain: “Do what you and you alone do well.  Do it will your heart.  And strive to do it better and with greater purity of intent for as long as you can.  That action is you, and it will stop only when you do.”

Whether you subscribe to this philosophical notion or not, this music is seriously uplifting.  Thank you, Louis.

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ ON SUNDAY, and LIPS SIGNS IN

I think that on Sunday, October 27, 1968, I might have been helping my father rake leaves in the backyard, or perhaps doing my homework for the next day.  (I was in eleventh grade.)

jazz-on-sunday-cover

I can say with regret that I wasn’t at the jazz event above.  And I certainly didn’t have a video camera yet.  The forces in the cosmos didn’t work together on my behalf that Sunday — but it’s very pleasing to know that these musicians had a gig.  And that we can see the evidence now.

jazz-on-sunday-inside

Before WCBS-AM radio in New York became an all-news station, Jack Sterling had a famous morning show, which is why he would have been a good host for this concert.  Here’s more about Jack:

jack-sterling-obit

From the same eBay prowl, I offer another holy relic.  True, that Oran Thaddeus Page felt that his nickname needed an apostrophe makes the English professor in me wince, but Hot Lips Page could do whatever he wanted.

lips

And here’s why (with the noble assistance of Earle Warren, Lucky Thompson, Hank Jones, Slam Stewart, and Sidney Catlett):

May your happiness increase!

MASTERY UNACKNOWLEDGED: THE ARTS OF RAY SIMS

zoot-the-swinger

Most people who have heard of Ray Sims (1921-2000), trombone and vocal, know him as Zoot’s brother, which is understandable.  On record, he was captured between 1945 and 1979, primarily as lead trombone or session player in the bands of Jerry Wald, Earle Spencer, Lyle Griffin, Bobby Sherwood, Benny Goodman, Les Brown, Anita O’Day, Dave Pell, Billy Eckstine, The Four Freshmen, Ray Anthony, Peggy Lee, Bill Holman, Harry James, Jackie and Roy, Lena Horne, Georgia Carr, Red Norvo, John Towner Williams, Jerry Gray and Maxwell Davis [supermarket recordings in tribute to Glenn Miller and Harry James] Ernie Andrews, Frank Capp, Corky Corcoran.  He stayed the longest with with Brown and James.  He never made a recording under his own name except for four tracks in a Capitol session called THE LES BROWN ALL STARS — available on CD — where he is featured, with strings, as one of Brown’s sidemen, and THE SWINGER (about which more below).

But I think trombonists who know him hold him in high regard.

Here is the only piece of Ray on film I have found, although I am sure he was captured on television many times, for both the Brown and James bands were very visible.  It is a ballad medley from the James band’s tour of Japan in 1964, and Ray is the middle soloist, between Joe Riggs, alto saxophone, and Corky Corcoran, tenor:

It would be easy to see Ray’s solo as simply “playing the melody,” but we know how difficult it is to accomplish that, and we can hear his huge gorgeous tone and his respectful, patient caress of Richard Rodgers’ lines.  Although it’s clear that he has the technique to sail over the horn, he is devotedly in the service of the song, with a tone reminiscent of Benny Morton.  Indeed, although he came of age as a musician in the middle Forties, when bebop had changed trombonists’ approach to their instrument, I hear not only Bill Harris but Tyree Glenn in his work.

And because I can’t go on without presenting more evidence of Ray’s beautiful playing, here is ON THE ALAMO, from the properly titled Pablo Records recording, THE SWINGER — with Zoot, Ray, Jimmy Rowles in spectacular form, John Heard, Shelly Manne, and one track with Michael Moore and John Clay:

But Ray Sims also sang.  I don’t know if he ever took voice lessons, but his warm heartfelt lyricism is very touching.  (The reason for this blog is my re-purchasing THE SWINGER on compact disc — the original record vanished in one seismic disorder or another — but I have remembered Ray’s singing for thirty-five years.)

I’ve found half a dozen vocals by Ray (found, not necessarily heard) from 1949 to his last session forty years later, with Brown, Pell, James, brother Zoot.  He seems to have been the musician-in-the-band who could put over a ballad or a love song without breaking into scat, someone who would be multi-talented and thus useful for the band payroll.  There’s IT ISN’T FAIR (a current pop hit), THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL, RED SAILS IN THE SUNSET, LET’S FALL IN LOVE, as well as a few possible vocals with Harry James, one with Corky Corcoran in 1973, and the final track on THE SWINGER from 1979.

Here is Ray’s vocal feature with Corcoran, IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND. It’s not a polished performance, but it is warm naturalness is enchanting.  He means it, which is beautiful in itself:

Here is what I think of as a masterpiece of loose, feeling singing: Ray performing the Lunceford band’s hit DREAM OF YOU.  My guess is that Rowles suggested this: he had a deep affinity for that band — although there is extraordinary trombone playing on that Decca recording, which might have made a tremendous impression on young Ray:

And Ray Sims was obviously a wonderfully devoted parent.  Evidence here:

Here’s what Danielle herself had to say when posting this track in 2010:

Song written by Al Cohn by request of my dad (Ray Sims) and my uncle Zoot. it was recorded on Zoot Sims-The Swinger
Trombone Ray Sims (Zoot’s brother). Growing up I remember my dad playing this song to me and my mom would always say “he’s playing your song” it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that it really was “my song”. I am so blessed to have had such a wonderful family to love and so blessed to have such a wonderful man in my life to make such a beautiful video for me so I can share that love. Thank you.  Video made by JeeperG for Danielle

Jazz, like any other art, is full of people who create beauty without calling much attention to themselves.  Let us always remember their names, their creativity, and the results.

May your happiness increase!

“POCATELLO,” or SWING LYRICISM, 1946

The trumpeter Joe Thomas would have celebrated his birthday yesterday, but since he left us in 1984, I will do it in another fashion here.

joe-thomas-1

Throughout his career, Thomas was surrounded by more assertive, even aggressive trumpeters, who could play louder, faster, higher.  And thus he did not always get the attention he deserved for his lyrical balanced style, which shone.  But he is a great poet of shadings, tone, and beautifully placed phrases.  At first, his playing might seem simple: ascending arpeggios that woo the ear.  But his singing tone, the darks and lights of his sound, are permanently memorable.  I saw him a few times in the early Seventies, and solos I heard still ring in my memory.  That, to me, is the highest art.

POCATELLO is an improvisation over the harmonies of the then-famous IDAHO, recorded in 1946 by Thomas and friends for his great champion Harry Lim of Keynote Records.  (Thomas had other musical friends who recognized him as special: he recorded with Lil Hardin Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Vic Dickenson, Claude Hopkins — so his beautiful sound and phrasing was heard, as we say.)

The other players on this brief poetic interlude — a swinging one! — are Tyree Glenn, trombone; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Hy White, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Lee Abrams, drums.

The YouTube video has a verbal introduction by “Leif Smoke Rings Anderson,” which initially startles but is clearly affectionate.  I encourage you to hear and re-hear Joe’s opening chorus and the way he rides out over the band.  Although this was his session, he so graciously makes room for everyone else:

Joe Thomas, a true poet of the idiom.  His work never fades.  I wrote at greater length about his quiet majesty here in 2009.  Happily, much more of his work is available on CD and on YouTube, so he can be heard and loved in this century.

May your happiness increase!

POP SONGS, HOT TUNES, WILD BILL DAVISON and the JAZZ GIANTS

It’s not often that I receive a new CD on Monday, play it on Monday and Tuesday, and sit down to write about it on Wednesday, but the new reissue (I know, illogical but true) of a March 1968 session led by Wild Bill Davison, issued on Delmark Records, has inspired me.  The session was originally recorded by John Norris for Sackville Records, and the band — for once — deserved the title, with Wild Bill, cornet; Benny Morton, trombone; Herb Hall, clarinet; Claude Hopkins, piano; Arvell Shaw, string bass; Buzzy Drootin, drums.  

Davison CD

What makes this CD so endearing is not a whole host of rare / previously unissued material — although there is one new performance and one unissued take.  No, it is the band, the music, and the repertoire.

Although Davison was praised by none other than Ruby Braff, who said that the pride of Defiance, Ohio, had “drama,” I found Davison’s appeal limited in his later years.  He passionately got up and played for all he was worth — he never seemed to coast — but his solos were often set-pieces, established in 1947 and played verbatim night after night.  I recall seeing him in New York City in the Seventies, and it was rather like watching a polished stand-up comedian do identical material.  All one could say was, “Well, Bill’s timing tonight is off,” or “He’s on fire tonight!” but he rarely surprised.  But on this disc he seems inspired sufficiently by his colleagues to venture from his time-tested solos, and the result often made me look up and think, “I never heard him play that before,” which, for me, is one of the great pleasures of improvisation.

Herb Hall sounds lovely and liquid; Arvell Shaw is more than reliable.  Claude Hopkins was never captured enough on record, so his particular version of stride — polite but classically perfect — is a delight, in solo and in ensemble.

But this CD is unusually valuable for the opportunity to hear Buzzy Drootin and Benny Morton — players held dear by their colleagues but rarely given any opportunity to lead sessions.  I saw Buzzy in person many times in the early Seventies, and I fear I did not appreciate him sufficiently.  But now, heard afresh, how arresting he sounds!  Yes, there are echoes of Catlett in his four-bar breaks, but he is entirely his own man with his own sound-galaxy and his own way of thinking, as individualistic as Cliff Leeman.  Instantly recognizable, always propulsive, ever engaged.  And Benny Morton, who recorded with a wide range of players and singers over a half-century (appearing live with Louis, Bird, and Benny Carter!) is in peerless form, his eloquent phrasing, his yearning tone, a great boon.  Sadly, Morton, a terribly modest man, doesn’t have a solo feature (which might have been WITHOUT A SONG).

The CD isn’t perfect.  A few of the solo features sound overdone and the band is, for me, a little too cleanly miked (each instrument rings through, as if there were six separate tracks rather than one — the perils of modern recording and the horror of “leakage”), but it is a rewarding hour-plus.

And it made me think, which is always an enjoyable unexpected benefit — about the repertoire.  Consider this list: STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / DARDANELLA / BLACK AND BLUE (two takes) / I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / I FOUND A NEW BABY / BLUE AGAIN / I SURRENDER, DEAR / YESTERDAYS / THEM THERE EYES / THREE LITTLE WORDS.  What struck me about that assortment is that most of the band’s choices were “popular songs” known to the larger audience rather than “jazz favorites” known only to the cognoscenti.

Repertoire in jazz has often served artists as ways to define themselves and their allegiances.  If you are a young singer or player, and you offer a performance (or a CD) of your original compositions, you are in effect saying, “Take me seriously as a composer; I have ideas and feelings to offer you that aren’t Cole Porter, Shelton Brooks, or Ornette Coleman.”

Some players and singers use repertoire as loving homage: Bix Beiderbecke played AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL because his heroes, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, had written and recorded it; Eddie Condon and his friends played the song because it was a good one but also as a loving bow to Bix; players in this century offer it as an extension of the Condon tradition.  In any jazz club or festival, one can hear people playing the music of Louis, Bird, Hawkins, or a hundred others.  Even if one is playing the blues or a song built on familiar changes, the choice of the melodic line superimposed on top says, “Here’s to Don Byas.  Here’s to Roy Eldridge,” and so on.

But this CD reminds me of something Davison told an interviewer.  When he came to New York City in 1943, he was asked by Commodore Records’ saintly founder Milt Gabler to make 12″ 78s of “classic jazz tunes,” for instance PANAMA, THAT’S A PLENTY, and more.  Davison remembered that these songs were not what he was used to playing — for audiences that had come to hear jazz — in Chicago and Milwaukee, but they had played popular songs of the day. And when I heard him in New York, he was most likely to play AS LONG AS I LIVE, SUNDAY, or THEM THERE EYES.  And no one, sitting in the audience, demanded their money back because he wasn’t playing “authentic” jazz.

What the moral of all this is I can’t say.  Perhaps it’s only that I would like to hear Mainstream / traditional ensembles remember the treasures of popular song. There are worlds to be explored beyond the same two dozen favorites — favorites often chosen as markers of ideology / regional or stylistic pride (BIG BEAR STOMP and RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE).  I’d love to hear such bands play THERE’S A SMALL HOTEL, YOU CALL IT MADNESS, or WHERE THE BLUE OF THE NIGHT MEETS THE GOLD OF THE DAY.

I offer musical evidence:

Wild Bill paying tribute to Louis at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival by playing THEM THERE EYES, supported by Dave McKenna, Larry Ridley, Oliver Jackson (there is an unsubtle edit in the film, probably removing a Ridley solo, alas) with even more beautiful — although subtle — backing from Ray Nance, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, and Tyree Glenn.  “Indecent exposure” for sure.

May your happiness increase!