Tag Archives: V-Disc

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS BIG SID CATLETT and JOE THOMAS (April 21, 2017)

I’m thrilled that I could visit Dan Morgenstern again at his apartment and we could talk and create something permanent that people could enjoy and learn from.  The first session took place on March 3, 2017, and the results are here.

About six weeks later, we got together again so that Dan, an enchanting storyteller whose stories have the virtue of being true, could share his love for his and our heroes.

The first segments we did that April afternoon were tributes to mutual deities, Sidney Catlett and Joe Thomas.  First, Big Sid:

and then the lyrical, melodic trumpeter Joe:

with a sweet postscript:

Here are Joe, Big Sid, Teddy Wilson, and Ed Hall on a 1943 V-Disc session:

and the Keynote Records side Dan refers to, with Joe, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Trummy Young, Earl Hines, Teddy Walters, and Billy Taylor:

and Louis’ Decca WOLVERINE BLUES with Big Sid:

There’s much more to come.

May your happiness increase!

FOR THE TROOPS: BLUES AT V-DISC (MARCH 12,1944)

EDDIE CONDON V-DISC CD

It’s possible you have never heard this nine-minute treasure before, and its intended audience did not either.  Recorded for V-Disc on March 12, 1944, it is one of Eddie Condon’s IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLES — that is, a blues with surprises — a concert finale reproduced most happily in a recording studio.  I don’t know whether it was a collaboration between Eddie and recording supervisor George T. Simon, but the pairing is memorable.  The basic personnel is a “Condon group”: Wild Bill Davison, cornet; George Lugg, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Joe Bushkin, piano; Pops Foster, bass; Kansas Fields, drums.  The delightful guests are James P. Johnson, piano; Ed Hall, clarinet, Jimmy Rushing, vocal.

(The picture above is of the CD issue of these V-Disc sides, which can be found online if one is willing to search for a minute or two.)

A very similar band had played (and they had been recorded) at Town Hall the day before, with the results also issued on an out-of-print CD, so there is some connection: I don’t know whether the V-Disc sides, which can be slightly wayward, were recorded after midnight the next day.

However.  I post this not only because I delight in the music, and because many JAZZ LIVES readers will find it new, but it is also my quiet rebuke to those who can’t tolerate stylistic encroachment of any kind.  You know: this isn’t “authentic,” it’s not “jazz,” but it’s been corrupted by “swing” — the people who divide the music into schools.  Pops Foster?  He’s a New Orleans bassist.  James P. Johnson?  A Harlem stride pianist.  Jimmy Rushing?  A Kansas City blues shouter.  But the musicians had no interest in such restrictive labeling.  And I am uncomfortable with the notion of Eddie as an intent political activist specializing in racial equality.  These were guys who could play, and that was all.  The results are precious.

May your happiness increase!

DUKE’S APPLE, OR ADVENTURES IN SOUND

IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, composed in 1905 by Williams and Van Alstyne, may have seemed nostalgic even when it first appeared.  The lyrics describe some caressing and blushing and a promise of pastoral fidelity although they are now apart.  But no one has been thrown out of the Garden.

To establish the song, here’s a 1929 Max Flesicher SCREEN SONGS cartoon — a whole show in itself, with a comic prelude, the cynical vaudeville patter (is the singer Billy Murray?), then two verses, two choruses.  The satire of the cartoon jostles the innocence of the lyrics and melody.  (As the lyrics describe pastoral pleasures — the birds, bees, and flowers — the sandwich refuses to be eaten, the dachshund is nearly caught in the shrinking building: slapstick proliferates.)

Here’s Duke Ellington’s version from August 15, 1933:

This has been one of my favorite recordings for years, showing once again how beautifully jazz improvisers take the most simple material and make it spacious, relaxing in the freedom that simple melodies and harmonies afford.

It begins with the reed section stating the first notes of the melody against a simple stride figure from Ellington’s piano — a stripped-down Willie “the Lion” Smith motif, perhaps? — that suggests both a vaudeville vamp and someone ambling down the street.  The reeds and piano (over Wellman Braud’s happily prominent string bass) converse in a most pastoral manner . . . suggesting that a sweet band is taking the stand (although Duchin could never have managed that piano figure with such swing) until ominous rumblings are heard in the background.

Did a large dog make its way into the Brunswick studios?  No, it’s just Cootie Williams with his plunger mute.  I think in the second half of the chorus either Freddy Jenkins or Rex Stewart takes over to continue the sweet satire.  If, in the first thirty seconds, the Jungle Band was peeking sideways through the sweet foliage, the second half of the first chorus is more raucously comic — the apple tree gets connected to horse racing, to a repeated blues phrase, and the trumpet soloist ends his chorus with what sounds like a genuine guffaw.  Obviously more than “the dull buzz of the bee” is evident here.

So far, by the way, one might think this a small band recording — a three-piece rhythm section, a reed section, and one or two trumpeters at most.  None of the annunciatory “big band” power of trading sections.

The next eight bars suggest that satire — or at least a distinctively mocking voice — has taken the upper hand.  Could anyone mistake the half-muted plunger sound of Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, offering his own wry commentary on what exactly might be going on in the wildwood — certainly blushing and caressing are the least of it, for the imagined lovers have given full vent to their animal passions!  Then Tricky (in the next eight bars) seems to jam his plunger mute fully into the bell of his horn, sounding like another musician completely, ending his chorus with a huge guffaw or Bronx cheer.

So far we’ve had the counterpoint between the decorous (although swinging) reeds delineating the melody and the much naughtier brass voices.  Ellington saves his most dramatic soloist for the next chorus — the golden sound of Johnny Hodges, turning this simple melody into a blues, then adding a Louis-inspired upwards phrase to move us completely away from melodic embellishment.  There is no satire here — rather a mixture of the blues and a dramatic aria.

One more chorus remains.  What sounds like the whole ensemble (did Ellington have all his thirteen players in the studio for this or was it a smaller band?) — muted brass playing staccato phrases, supported by the reed section . . . but wait!  A beautiful embroidery of woody, swooping phrases (“that’s Barney Bigard on clarinet / you ain’t never heard nothing like him yet”) decorates the clipped phrasing.  That phrasing, to my ears, is so reminiscent of music for a tap-dance routine that I wonder if Ellington began playing this piece in theatres for a group like the Four Step Brothers.

And after a decorous, rather formal ending, the piece closes with a reiteration of those brass mockeries, doo-wahs that look backwards to the Jungle Band and IT DON’T MEAN A THING.  Whatever happened under the Old Apple Tree might have been less nostalgic, in Ellington’s imagination.

On paper, this is a very simple series of inventions: the reed section (and then the brass) keeps stating a pared-down version of the melody, while a small number of soloists improvise over it.  But what a variety of sounds!  And although I may have heard this recording several hundred times, and I know who and what is coming next, it never fails to be a delightful surprise.  No drama in volume, just a beautiful series of dance-vignettes celebrating individual sounds.

Twelve years later, Ellington returned to the piece and offered it regularly as part of his 1945 radio broadcasts from theatres.  One such version, recorded on May 26 in Chicago, made its way onto a V-Disc, which is how we have it here.  The band is larger: Rex Stewart, Shelton Hemphill, Taft Jordan, Cat Anderson (tp) Ray Nance (tp,vln,vcl) Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Claude Jones, Lawrence Brown (tb) Jimmy Hamilton (cl,ts) Johnny Hodges (as) Otto Hardwick (as,cl) Al Sears (ts) Harry Carney (bar,cl,b-cl) Duke Ellington (p) Fred Guy (g) Junior Raglin (b) Sonny Greer (d).

The outlines of the original performance are still visible, but the whole recording has a rather leisurely — even lazy — feel to it, as if this was a piece that Ellington’s band didn’t have to work too hard to perform:

And just in case you’d like another taste of the Apple . . . here’s my own personal Paradise, a sublime quintet:

May your happiness increase.

MEET “LES SWINGBERRIES”!

These delightful performances — poised yet utterly relaxed — emerged on YouTube only two weeks ago.  I’ve been enjoying them over and over: they owe a good deal to the glory days of the John Kirby Sextet, always a debt to be celebrated.  The four musicians here are trumpeter / arranger Jérôme Etcheberry, the cherished clarinetist Aurélie Tropez,  pianist Jacques Schneck, and guitarist Nicolas Montier.  In the great tradition of “swinging the classics,” les Swingberries offer Offenbach’s “Cancan” from Orpheus in the Underworld:

From Hades to religious exaltation might be a substantial leap, but not for this compact hot band — here, they perform Youmans’ HALLELUJAH:

It looks like a happy band — that’s why LAUGHING AT LIFE (with hints of BROADWAY, Charlie Christian, and Lester Young) seems just right:

Another “classical” piece — the RADETZKY MARCH by Johann Strauss — is transformed into the “JAZZETZKY MARCH,” and not a moment too soon.  Admire the clarinet-guitar duet: simple splendor!

Here’s a romping BLUE ROOM (leaving no time for “my wee head upon your knee,” because that knee is rocking so violently):

I hear beautifully-executed ensemble work, lovely tempos, exquisite solo playing (not a note too many), and a deeply felt intuitive swing.  The group isn’t copying — they’re evoking and reinventing in their own ways — but if I heard this music in the other room, I could be fooled into thinking that 1941 had come again.  And I would want to follow those notes!  And for connoisseurs of “. . . they sound like,” I would offer the little band that Lester and Shad Collins led in 1941, the Goodman Sextet of that same year, the early-Forties Teddy Wilson groups with joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, Ed Hall, Jimmy Hamilton.  V-Discs and Keynote Records, too.  But they sound just wonderful — as a new species of delicious jazz fruit.

My only complaint is that they seem to be playing in someone else’s living room.  Why not mine?

EDDIE CONDON: CHANGING THE WORLD ONE HOT CHORUS AT A TIME

Having taken the opportunity to celebrate the 105th birthday of one Eddie Condon, I remain convinced that he did much more than play rhythm guitar and talk to the customers at a variety of saloons in New York City. 

Although some I’ve spoken to seem to find the topic of racial integration no longer interesting, Condon has never gotten the credit he deserves as a pioneer. 

His achievement was more than shepherding Fats Waller to the Victor studios so that he could make two sides with a mixed band in 1929.  It was larger than quietly playing his banjo alongside Louis Armstrong and the Luis Russell band in that same year. 

It can’t be overemphasized that Eddie was one of the earliest figures to make sure that black and white musicians could stand on an equal footing, playing their music for posterity. 

It was one thing to have a mixed jam session at 4 AM in Harlem; it was quite another thing for records featuring mixed-race bands to be made, to be known as such, to be recognized as classics.  Much attention has been paid (rightly so) to the roles of Benny Goodman and John Hammond in encouraging mixed ensembles in public. 

But that was 1936: Condon’s efforts had been going on for seven or more years.  If you could get listeners accustomed to hearing mixed bands on record, then they would be more eager to see their favorite artists perform in public.  Condon had the first mixed band on Fifty-Second Street; his mixed troupe of jazz artists was closed out of a Washington, D.C., concert hall because of protests from the DAR.

He was genuinely color-blind when it came to music, and that equality of thought and feeling had an impact.  When white and black troops were serving in the legally sagregated armed forces, both sets of soldiers could hear color-blind music coming from V-Discs and AFRS transcriptions. 

I think of Charles L. Black, a young Southern lawyer who found himself shaken out of his racist assumptions by hearing Louis Armstrong in 1931: Black went on to write the legal brief for Linda Brown in Brown vs. the Board of Education, the decision that made such segregation illegal in the United States.  

I believe that soldiers who thought that “Negroes” were inferior had their beliefs changed, however subtly, by hearing Hot Lips Page and Pee Wee Russell play thousands of miles away at a Condon concert.  Consider someone with similar inbred views, ten years later, seeing Ralph Sutton, Walter Page, Edmond Hall, and George Wettling play at Eddie’s club, noting that these four men got along especially well, no one was superior or inferior to anyone else on the stand.

Eddie Condon made such things possible.  It’s a cliche of the theatre that you can make people think about larger issues if you make them laugh in the process or if you set the ideas to music: Eddie did both, in person and as part of many ensembles.   

He also improved every band he was a part of: Joe Bushkin insisted on acknowledging Condon’s phenomenal harmonic sense and knowledge of songs (and, in fact, Eddie helped Bushkin through his early shaky beginnings on Fifty-Second Street by calling out the chords to songs Bushkin only half-knew).  

Eddie also had a fine dramatic or structural sense — listen closely to any recorded performance, in the studio or in concert.  Riffs, backgrounds, knowing when to encourage one player to go on or to subtly say to another, “You’ve had your say,” all of this was second nature to Eddie — a great orchestrator who didn’t work from a printed score. 

How anyone ends up to be what they are as an adult may be mysterious, but Condon’s growth and development seem particularly remarkable.  His birthplace, Goodland, Indiana, was not exactly the cradle of jazz.  He came from a large family; his father was somewhere between a saloon-keeper and the man who greeted people in the saloon, sat down and chatted with them.  It would have been very easy for Eddie to become nothing more serious than a young man who played the banjo now and again while someone else sang pop hits of the day, or while someone else played the C-melody saxophone. 

But something hit the young man from Goodland with the force of religious revelation.  I don’t know quite how it appeared to him: was it a record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, or one by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings?  Was it the proximity to Chicago?  Jazz music — and playing that music — must have seemed the most thrilling things possible.  However it grew, the transformation from Indiana boy to Chicago jazzman was quick, and it gave shape to Eddie’s life, and thus gave pleasure to so many. 

Eddie Condon’s club on West Third Street no longer exists: it is now part of the New York University conglomeration of buildings.  Nick’s on West Tenth Street is now a gourmet supermarket.  So the Condon landscape has shifted and been obliterated. 

But one shrine remains:  the New York apartment still inhabited by his daughter Maggie, her husband Peter, their son Michael.  I paid them a return visit (with my camera) and have some new delights to share — holy artifacts, as far as I’m concerned.

Although many of Eddie’s effects “went away” after hie death (Maggie thought that Phyllis Condon had simply given away many things to Eddie’s relatives), she still has “Slicker” Condon’s first banjo, circa 1924.  It no longer has its neck or strings, but what remains is delicate and precious (even if a few of these photographs unintentionally intensify its resemblance to a nicely browned souffle).  The stenciled lettering on the front reads _ _ _ _ _ JAZZ BAND, but the top line is somewhat difficult to decipher.

From the top!

An alternate take . . .

“Slicker” Condon!  I don’t know if that is Eddie’s Twenties handwriting or not . . .

Another view . . .

And one more.  That looks like May 1, 1924, but rry Kaylor is elusive, although I don’t have my copy of WE CALLED IT MUSIC nearby.

And one more series of photographic studies.  Consider this:Collage, anyone?

Not an exhibit at MOMA (not yet).

One of Eddie’s trademarks was his hand-tied bowties, and here’s a whole stash of them (with a birthday drawing done by brother-in-law Paul Smith as ornament).

More to come!  But for the moment, listen closely to one Eddie Condon recording and celebrate the man who made it possible.  And, in doing so, slowly changed the world.

JUST PERFECT, THANK YOU

As a long-time jazz listener, I find myself mentally editing and revising many recordings (silently, without moving my lips).  “Tempo’s too fast for that song, “”That side would have been even better if the tempo had stayed steady,” or “Why couldn’t he have taken just one more chorus?”  Since the musicians can’t hear my silent amending and since the recordings remain their essential character, I think I am permitted this fussy but harmless pastime.  Fruitless, of course, but amusing exercises in alternate-universe construction that serious readers of fiction know well: every close reader is by definition an unpaid and unheard editor.  

But there are some jazz recordings no one could improve on.  Here are two flawless sides.     

This music was issued on a non-commercial V-Disc (“V” stands for Victory) recorded during the Second World War especially for the men and women in the armed forces.  The musicians gave their services for free; the sessions were supervised by (among others) George T. Simon; the discs were 12″ rather than the usual 10″, allowing for blessedly longer performances.  And many sessions took place after midnight, when the musicians had finished their gigs, lending them a certain looseness; as well, the recording companies gave up their usual restrictions, so that musicians under contract to one label were free to cross over from the land of, say, Victor, into Decca. 

This October 1943 session was led by Teddy Wilson (itself a near-guarantee of success); it is a quartet taken from his working sextet, which would have also included Benny Morton (trombone) and Johnny Williams or Al Hall (bass).  Perhaps those men were tired after a night’s work; perhaps they didn’t want to record without getting paid.  But as much as I revere Morton and Williams or Hall, the men who remained made irreplaceable music. 

What follows is a series of impressionistic notes on the music: keen listeners will hear much more as they immerse themselves in the music, as I’ve been doing for thirty-five years. 

The four voices are powerful ones — Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, and Joe Thomas — but this quartet is not a display of clashing ego.  Of the four, Thomas is least known, but his work here is deeply moving. 

After the little end-of-tune flourish that brings on Wilson’s (scripted) introduction, his harmonically-deep, crystalline lines and embellishments float over Sidney’s steady brush tread (forceful but not loud.  I think of the padding of a large animal in slippers).  Wilson’s second chorus is pushed forward by a Catlett accent early on; the two men dance above and around the chords and rhythm. 

In the third chorus, Hall joins them: as much as I admire the Goodman Trio, how unfortunate that this group never was asked to record — Hall’s tonal variations are beyond notating, in their own world. 

Thomas’s entry, clipped but mobile, provokes Catlett into tap-dance figures.  No one’s ever matched Joe’s tone, velvet with strength beneath it, the slight quavers and variations making it a human voice.  The annunciatory figure midway through his chorus is a trademark, those repeated notes looking backwards to 1927 Louis and forward to a yet-unrecorded Ruby Braff.  (Thomas was Frank Newton’s favorite trumpet player, a fact I can’t over-emphasize.)  He seems to stay close to the melody, but the little slurs and hesitations, the dancing emphases of particular notes are masterful, the result of a lifetime spent quietly embellishing the written music, making it entirely personal. 

And then Sidney comes on.  The sound of his brushwork is slightly muffled and muddied by the 78 surface, but his figures are joyous, especially his double-timing, the closing cymbal splashes.  Try to listen to his solo and remain absolutely still: hard, if not impossible! 

Then the ensemble plays (with everyone facing in the same direction, not breathing hard) a variation on the melody — something taken for granted well before the official birth of bop — with a jammed bridge in the middle.  Notice how Catlett and Wilson ornament and encourage the line that the two horns share.  And the side concludes with a little jam session finish (Sidney urging everyone on) with Thomas recalling the “Shoot the likker to me, John boy,” that was already a familiar convention perhaps eight years before. 

Incidentally, the swing players had discovered HOW HIGH THE MOON as early as 1940: Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter, guest stars on a Fred Rich Vocalion session in that year, improvise on it.

As delightful as I find HOW HIGH THE MOON, the masterpiece –subtler, sorrowing — is RUSSIAN LULLABY.  Berlin’s melody was already familiar, and I wonder what thoughts of the Russian Front might have been going through the heads of these four players, what political or global subtext. 

Often LULLABY is taken briskly, but this version is true to its title.  After Wilson’s introduction, Joe essays the melody: if he had recorded nothing else than this statement, I’d hail his unique trumpet voice: his tone, his vibrato, his use of space, his pacing.  Hall sings quietly behind him — but that soaring, melancholy bridge is a creation that is both of the trumpet and transcending it.  I hear the passion of an aria in those eight bars, with little self-dramatization.   

Wilson, following him, is serious, his lines restating and reshaping.  (Some listeners find Wilson’s arpeggios and runs so distracting that they miss out on his melodic invention: he was a superb composer-at-the-keyboard, and his solo lines, transcribed for a horn, would seem even more stunning.  Not accidentally, he learned a great deal about melodic embellishment and solo construction from his stint in Louis Armstrong’s 1933 band.) 

Keeping Wilson’s mood, Catlett plays very quietly, although you know he’s there.  Hall’s approach is more forceful and Catlett follows suit. 

Then . . . a drum solo?  At this tempo?  Most drummers would have found it hard to be as relaxed, as restrained.  He quietly paddles along in between the horns’ staccato reduction of the melody, making it clear that he is a serious servant of the rhythm, the time, devoted to the sound of the band — until he moves to double-time figures and two cymbal accents.  Music like this is deceptively simple: a casual listener might think it is easy to play in this manner, but how wrong that mild condescension would be!  Wilson and Catlett join forces for a momentary interlude before the horns return — Joe, sorrowing deep inside himself, Hall soaring. 

How marvelous that we have these two sides! 

Thanks to vdiscdaddy for posting them on YouTube; his channel is full of music worth hearing that has been hidden from us.  Thanks of a larger sort to Wilson, Thomas, Hall, and Catlett — brilliant creators who knew how to bring their individual selves together to create something brilliant, immortal.  And I don’t use the word “immortal” casually.

P.S.  I first heard these sides thanks to the late Ed Beach, and then savored them on an Italian bootleg lp on the Ariston label, THE V-DISC.  In 1990, they came out on CD — with an incomplete alternate take of RUSSIAN LULLABY — on the Vintage Jazz Classics label (TEDDY WILSON: CENTRAL AVENUE BLUES, VJC 1013-2), a production that brought together, although not face to face, John Fell, Doug Pomeroy, and Lloyd Rauch.  I don’t think a copy of that CD would be easy to find today, though.

GJON MILI’S 1943 JAM SESSION

gjon-mililipsteddymezzkansas-fieldsal-lucas

Thanks to jazz scholar and old friend David Weiner, I encountered this glorious photograph two nights ago.  Gjon Mili is known to most of us as the man behind the 1944 film JAMMIN’ THE BLUES, but he made his primary mark as a still photgrapher, shooting many pictures at jam sessions staged for LIFE.  Now that Google has made the picture archives of that long-lived weekly magazine available, we can all enjoy such lively archaeology.

If you can’t wait to see previously unknown pictures of Mildred Bailey, James P. Johnson, Eddie Condon and friends, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and others, the link to the site is http://images.google.com/hosted/life and I’ve already spent a good deal of time there.  It is fascinating not only for the jazz players, but for the glimpses of what is, for most of us, a lost world — where, as John Cheever once wrote, all the men wore hats.  If you enter the search term “jam session,” always a good idea, you will find 183 images including everyone from Gene Krupa to George Wettling to Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Dickenson.

The picture above is a wonderfully odd mix of players: the man at far left, holding a glass, might be drummer Zutty Singleton.  To his right, the altoist has been identified as a young Leo Parker.  Then there’s Hot Lips Page at the microphone.  Nearly hidden behind him is clarinetist Buster Bailey and bassist Al Lucas.  The drummer (in Navy uniform) is Kansas Fields, the pianist Teddy Wilson.  And, inescapably, in the back, clarinet at the ready, is Mezz Mezzrow.  Any guesses about the other players will be appreciated — and I’m indebted to the discussion already held by members of the jazz research group moderated by Michael Fitzgerald for the additional identifications above.  This jam session and one other was recorded for V-Disc, but legend has it that the recordings were rejected because the assembled multitudes were having a noisy good time.  Given these musicians, I would have shouted, too.

Here’s another from the same session:

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My long-time myopia holds me back here, but I see Eddie Heywood at the piano, Buster Bailey again, and the wondrous pairing of Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Dickenson, at a time before producers, clubowners, and other people had decided that one played “bebop” and the other one “Dixieland.”

Too many players to list them all (even if I recognized everyone) but I’ll bet that the musical atmosphere was both festive and creative when Mili clicked his shutter:

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How about Mezz Mezzrow, Muggsy Spanier, bassist Al Hall, Dizzy, and Duke?

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Then, there’s a less ecumenical gathering: drummer George Wettling (who could play in anyone’s band), the irreplaceable PeeWee Russell, and a bassist who might well be Al Lucas once again.

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A rare early portrait of Vic Dickenson, with Heywood at the piano.

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Properly at the center of things — he could shape a jam session like no one else — is William Basie.  You know, the fellow from New Jersey?

I had to stop myself before posting more than a dozen images on this blog, although I will return to this site for uniquely posed evidence of the lost Golden Age, the Eden that very few people now alive got to visit.  Thank you, Gjon Mili!  And thank you, LIFE, which I once thought hopelessly middlebrow: these pictures prove me wrong.