Maxine Sullivan reminds me of sunlight coming through the window: her cheery delivery, her preference for medium-up tempos, as if saying, “Look, it’s all going to be all right,” her delight in pure singing and in improvising subtle variations. Even when she sings songs theoretically about heartbreak, such as EV’RY TIME (“I’m going to hate all you men.”) it’s clear she is grinning at the hyperbole of the lyrics, as she does with what’s really a tale of romantic betrayal, SURPRISE PARTY. She isn’t the Princess of Darkness; she is a good-humored beacon of swing.
Here’s a short set filled with songs (Maxine liked, in Louis’ words, to “keep it rolling”) from the 1980 Manassas Jazz Festival, with an extra-special band, even though only Dill Jones gets an extended solo. Maxine is accompanied by Connie Jones, cornet; Dill Jones, piano; Spencer Clark, bass saxophone; Cliff Leeman, drums; Van Perry, string bass; Butch Hall, guitar, performing SURPRISE PARTY / I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING / EV’RY TIME / A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY / THEY ALL LAUGHED / YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINA / WE JUST COULDN’T SAY GOODBYE // This video is from the collection of the late Joe Shepherd:
Over the past few months, I’ve been attempting to assemble a portrait, words and music, of Kenny Davern. He’s been the subject of an extensive biography, JUST FOUR BARS, by Edward Meyer, but I wanted to talk to musicians who had known and played with him while everyone, including me, is still around. This first part is a wonderful reminiscence of Kenny by his friend and ours, trumpeter Danny Tobias, who looks and sees, hears and remembers. At the end there’s music that will be new to you. And Part Two is on the way.
He had a reputation of being crabby, and he was all that, but he liked me, and he liked the way I played — most of the time — if he didn’t like it, he let me know . . . there was no bullshit. If I did something dumb, he would say it right there. If I screwed up an ending, he would say, “Why did you do that?” and I would explain, and he would say, “Don’t do that.” So I learned a lot from him. He didn’t pull any punches, but he genuinely liked the way I played. Once he told me I was a natural blues player, and that meant the world to me. I had a feel for it. When he said something nice, it meant a lot to me.
He introduced me to the music of Pee Wee Russell. He knew who was on every record. He’d say, “Did you ever hear those Red Allen records or the Mound City Blue Blowers from —– ?” and I’d say no, and he’d come in the next week with a cassette. Then, after the gig, we’d go out to the car, and he would smoke his Camels, and we would listen to a whole side of a tape! He was also very much into Beethoven, into classical music, in particular the conductor Furtwangler. He’d say, “Check this out,” and I’d get in his car and he’d play a whole movement from one of the symphonies. And then I started collecting recordings, mostly so I could talk to him about it. And if I heard anything, I could call him and say, “Do you know this record?” and “What do you think of this?” When he died, that was what I missed most — being able to call and ask him about this record or that record.
I’m still picking up recordings of Kenny I never heard before. Dick Sudhalter put together a concert of Kenny and Dick Wellstood at the Vineyard Theatre. It was terrific. I still get thrilled by these recordings.
I got to play with him, for about ten years, at a hotel in Princeton called Scanticon, If he wasn’t on the road, he could have that gig if he wanted it. He was there a lot — maybe half the Saturday nights. Here’s what I don’t regret. Some people say, ‘I wish I’d appreciated the time I spent with _____,” but I appreciated every night I spent with Kenny. I was in seventh heaven playing next to him.
The things I take away from him that I try to incorporate . . . He could build a solo. If he was playing three or four choruses, there was a growth. It was going somewhere. Everything would build. The tune would build. If you were in an ensemble with him, it was going forward. When I play now, he’s not here, but I try to keep that thought: build, build, build.
The other thing about him, and it’s a treasure — these aren’t my words, but somebody said he could play the melody of a song with real conviction. It would be unmistakably him. No hesitation. If he played a wrong note, it wouldn’t matter. He played with total conviction. And that’s kind of rare. I can hear other people getting distracted — it didn’t happen to him much, because he played with that sureness.
And he had more dynamic range than any clarinet player I’ve ever heard. He could play in the lower register, and I’d hear Jimmie Noone — he did that so well — in the middle register I could hear Fazola in his sound, and a thing he could do that I don’t hear anyone else do, he could soar. In an outchorus, he could play a gliss, it was the biggest sound you’d ever heard. And not just loud, but a big wide sound. Not a shrill high sound. It’s a thing I haven’t heard anyone else do. Irving Fazola had that same kind of fat sound. Who knows where that comes from? It’s a richness, I guess. Not loud, but big, Round.
He taught me how to play in ensembles. He said, “In an ensemble, don’t just leave space, but musically — ask a question and wait for the answer.” Play something that will elicit a response. And there’s nothing in the world more fun than that. You have a real dialogue going on. He’s the first person who explained that to me. People are afraid to talk to each other on the bandstand, we don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings, but he’s the first person who said, “Do that,” and it made playing in ensembles so much more fun. I can get responses from other players by setting something up. Being the lead horn player, you have to set that up. It doesn’t just happen.
He had such varied interests. He would read all kinds of books. I don’t know where he got the time. I don’t think he slept. Not just music. He would read novels. A lot of it was over my head. He was all self-taught. He could speak really good German. He could communicate really well in several languages. I always wanted to be like him, to get a touring schedule and go here and there, because it seemed very exotic to me, in my thirties, and I’m sure it wasn’t as exotic as I pictured it. He complained about everything, but I think he loved it.
On a gig, Kenny would talk to the audience . . . he would just tell stories — how he just got back from Scotland and how everything was awful, the conditions were awful, how he had to spend a night in a hotel and couldn’t use the bar. He would go on diatribes — funny, acerbic. I remember one time he was playing at Trenton State, where I went to college. I went to hear him, and he was playing in the student center, talking about the architecture and how bad it was. The audience was laughing but the administrators were a little uncomfortable. He would talk as if he were in a conversation rather than just announcing songs . . . as if he was letting you in on the inside dirt.
He really loved the final group he had, with Greg Cohen, and Tony Di Nicola, and James Chirillo. He’d been to all the jazz parties and festivals, and so on, but he got to the point where that was he wanted to do. If you hired him, he wanted to be there with his band. He was happier being the only horn. And he loved guitar — you know, after Wellstood . . . I mean he loved playing with Art Hodes and with John Bunch, but in that group he liked guitar. In that group, it was freer for him. The piano can pin you in to certain harmony rules; it can be too busy. With the guitar, he got real freedom: he could play whatever he wanted. If he wasn’t with a great piano player, he would cut them out when it was his turn to play. He didn’t like extraneous stuff. I felt bad for them sometimes, but Kenny could just play with the bass and the drums. And sound great, of course.
He had a reputation for making fun of things, but he was so good to me. He went out of his way to introduce me to records he thought I should listen to, he put me on bands where I was in over my head a little bit, and he got me playing with great guys. He couldn’t have been nicer to me.
The music: Davern, clarinet; Dick Wellstood, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Eddie Phyfe, drums; Tommy Saunders, cornet; Bill Allred, trombone; Mason Country Thomas, tenor saxophone. I WANT TO BE HAPPY / WABASH BLUES / SWING THAT MUSIC. Thumbscrews, no extra charge.
Billy, at work / at play, at one of Joe Boughton’s Conneaut Lake jazz weekends.
When I was compiling yesterday’s post — a conversation with Billy Butterfield’s family that revealed him to be a sweet-natured, generous man who loved being with them — read ithere — I also returned to the music he made, and there’s a proliferation of it on YouTube, showing Billy in many contexts. (Trust me: this post will not be silent . . . )
I knew about the breadth of Billy’s working career — more than forty years of touring with big bands, small jam-session groups, concerts here and overseas, radio and studio work, club dates and gigs a-plenty — which pointed me to Tom Lord’s discography.
Recordings are only a slice of a musician’s career, a narrow reflection of what (s)he may have created, but in Billy’s case, the list of people he recorded with is astonishing in its breadth: it says so much about his professionalism and versatility, and the respect his peers afforded him.
For my own pleasure and I hope yours, here is a seriously edited list — in alphabetical order — of some of the people Billy recorded with . . . many surprises. I did get carried away, but it was impossible to stop.
Louis Armstrong, Georgie Auld, Mildred Bailey, Pearl Bailey, Tallulah Bankhead, George Barnes, Andy Bartha, Tony Bennett, Eddie Bert, Johnny Blowers, Will Bradley, Ruby Braff, Lawrence Brown, Oscar Brown, Jr., Kenny Burrell, Connie Boswell, Dave Bowman, Les Brown, Vernon Brown, John Bunch, Ernie Caceres, Nick Caiazza, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Sidney Catlett, Charlie Christian, Buck Clayton, Al Cohn, Cozy Cole, Eddie Condon, Ray Conniff, Jimmy Crawford, Bing Crosby, Bob Crosby, Cutty Cutshall, Delta Rhythm Boys, John Dengler, Vic Dickenson, Tommy Dorsey, Buzzy Drootin, Dutch College Swing Band, Billy Eckstine, Gil Evans, Nick Fatool, Irving Fazola, Morey Feld, Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Bud Freeman, Barry Gailbraith, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Brad Gowans, Teddy Grace, Freddie Green, Urbie Green, Tyree Glenn, Henry Grimes, Johnny Guarnieri, Bobby Hackett, Bob Haggart, Al Hall, Edmond Hall, Sir Roland Hanna, Coleman Hawkins, Neal Hefti, J.C. Higginbotham, Milt Hinton, Billie Holiday, Peanuts Hucko, Eddie Hubble, Dick Hyman, Chubby Jackson, Harry James, Jack Jenney, Jerry Jerome, Taft Jordan, Gus Johnson, Osie Johnson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Roger Kellaway, Kenny Kersey, Carl Kress, Yank Lawson, Peggy Lee, Cliff Leeman, Jack Lesberg, Abe Lincoln, Jimmy Lytell, Mundell Lowe, Joe Marsala, Carmen Mastren, Matty Matlock, Jimmy Maxwell, Lou McGarity, Red McKenzie, Hal McKusick, Johnny Mercer, Eddie Miller, Miff Mole, Benny Morton, Tony Mottola, Turk Murphy, Hot Lips Page, Walter Page, Oscar Pettiford, Flip Phillips, Mel Powell, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Jimmy Rushing, Babe Russin, Pee Wee Russell, Doc Severinsen, Charlie Shavers, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Jess Stacy, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, Bill Stegmeyer, Lou Stein, Rex Stewart, Joe Sullivan, Maxine Sullivan, Ralph Sutton, Buddy Tate, Jack Teagarden, Claude Thornhill, Martha Tilton, Dave Tough, Sarah Vaughan, Helen Ward, Earle Warren, Dick Wellstood, George Wettling, Paul Whiteman, Margaret Whiting, Bob Wilber, Joe Wilder, Lee Wiley, Roy Williams, Shadow Wilson, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Bob Zurke . . .
This list is breathtaking. Sure, some of the associations come from Billy’s being a Swing-Era-and-beyond big band star, sparkplug, and valued section player. And some of the associations come from studio work. But the whole list says so much about Billy’s marvelous combination of skills: he could play a four-chorus solo that would astonish everyone in the room, but he could also blend in and let other people take the lead.
And these associations speak to a wonderful professionalism: you could be the most luminous player in the firmament, but if you showed up late, were drunk or stoned, didn’t have your instrument ready, couldn’t sight-read the charts or transpose or take direction, your first studio date would be your last. Clyde and Judi Groves (Billy’s son-in-law and daughter) told me that Billy’s house in Virginia had that most odd thing, a flat roof over the garage, and it was spectacularly reinforced . . . so that a helicopter could land on it, and I am sure that was to get Billy to a New York City record date quickly. In today’s parlance, that’s “essential services,” no? And it says how much in demand he was for his beautiful sound, his memorable improvisations, and the maturity he brought to his work.
Now, to move from words to music. One of the video-performances I most cherish is from the December 1, 1978, Manassas Jazz Festival, featuring Billy, Spiegle Willcox, trombone; Kenny Davern, clarinet; Spencer Clark, bass saxophone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Tony Di Nicola, drums. “Fantastic!” says Marty when the second number suggested is SWEET SUE in G. I can’t disagree:
Judi also mentioned that Billy had — under duress — essayed a vocal on one of his Capitol sides, that he disliked the result and said that the company was trying to save money. Here’s one example, showing his gentle, amused voice . . . with a searing trumpet solo in between the vocal interludes (followed by the instrumental JALOUSIE):
You may decide to skip the next performance because there is an added echo and a debatable transfer — but Billy sings with easy conviction and plays splendidly:
There is a third vocal performance (very charming) of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ on YouTube, but the owner plays the record on a seriously ancient portable wind-up gramophone that allows very little sound to emerge, so you’ll have to find that one on your own.
For a palate-cleanser, a little of the famous Butterfield humor, from my friend Norman Vickers, a retired physician who is one of the founders of Jazz Pensacola in Florida:
My late friend, record producer Gus Statiras, would sometimes handle a tour for the group—Lawson, Haggart, Butterfield – remnants of World’s Greatest Jazz Band. There was a practicing physician in Georgia who played piano. He would sponsor the group so he could play piano with them. Of course, they would have preferred a professional pianist, but he doc was paying for the gig. During the event, Haggart said to Butterfield, “How’d you like to have him take out your gall-bladder?” To which Butterfield replied, “ Yeah, and I think he’s doing it RIGHT NOW!”
To return to music. When I asked the multi-instrumentalist Herb Gardner if I had his permission to post this, he wrote back in minutes, “Fine with me. Those guys were great fun to work with.” That says it all.
This brief performance comes, like the one above, from the Manassas Jazz Festival, this time December 3, 1978, where Billy plays alongside Bob Wilber, clarinet, alto, soprano saxophones; Herb Gardner, trombone; John Eaton, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Dean Keenhold, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums: SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / STARDUST / a fragment of STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY — that performance does not exist on this tape although Johnson McRee issued it on an audiocassette of this set / COTTON TAIL / SINGIN’ THE BLUES:
Savor that, and help me in my quest to make sure that the great players — the great individuals — are not forgotten. Gratitude to Clyde, Judi, and Pat (the Butterfield family), Norman Vickers, and my enthusiastic readers. And there is more Manassas video featuring Billy, and others, to come . . .
By day a tax accountant and perhaps a financial advisor, by night a deep jazz enthusiast, concert producer, record producer, singer and kazoo player, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee” knew and loved Eddie (and Phyllis) Condon, and the music that Eddie and friends made.
When “Fat Cat” began his jazz festivals in Manassas, Virginia, Eddie, Wild Bill Davison, George Brunis, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy McPartland, Cliff Leeman, Buzzy Drootin, Vic Dickenson, Bob Wilber, and many of Eddie’s stalwart individualists were alive and well. By 1989, few were left and playing (Max Kaminsky had just turned eighty and was advised by his doctor not to join in). But over the weekend of May 19-21, 1989, he staged a series of CONDON REVISITED / CONDON REUNION concerts, each attempting to reproduce a precious 1944-45 Town Hall or Carnegie Hall or Blue Network broadcast from 1944-45. It was a hot jazz repertory company: Connie Jones acted the part of Bobby Hackett, Betty Comora played Lee Wiley, Bobby Gordon was Pee Wee Russell, Tommy Saunders became Wild Bill Davison, and so on.
The results were sometimes uneven yet the concerts were beautiful.
I’ve acquired these videos through the kindness of deep jazz collectors and here’s a listing of everyone who takes part, to the best of my record-keeping ability. I asked permission to post from the Survivors who appear in this and other concert videos — the very gracious Brooks Tegler, drums; Jimmy Hamilton, baritone saxophone and clarinet; Tommy Cecil, string bass; Betty Comora, vocals. (Update: my friend Sonny McGown told me that John Jensen, Clyde Hunt, and Al Stevens are still with us, which I had not known. I’ve reached out to John and Clyde but haven’t found Al. Any leads gratefully accepted.) Had I been able to, I might have edited out the kazoo solos, but I leave them in as a tribute to “Fat Cat.” Imperial privilege.
Originally I thought this weekend was part of the Manassas Jazz Festival, but my friend Sonny McGown (who was there) reminded me that the MJF was held in the autumn, that this was a special weekend. Sonny also sent this flyer:
Here’s the bill of fare: ‘S’WONDERFUL Clyde Hunt, trumpet; Tommy Saunders, cornet; Art Poncheri, trombone; Tommy Gwaltney, Bobby Gordon, clarinet; Jimmy Hamilton, baritone saxophone; Al Stevens, piano; Steve Jordan, guitar; Johnny Williams, string bass; Johnny Blowers, drums; Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, kazoo / DINAH Marty Grosz – Bobby Gordon / CLARINET CHASE Bobby Gordon, Tommy Gwaltney, Kenny Davern / THE ONE I LOVE / I’VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU Betty Comora, vocal; Connie Jones, cornet; John Jensen, trombone / THAT DA DA STRAIN / RIVERSIDE BLUES Connie Jones, Al Stevens, Marty Grosz, Johnny Williams, Johnny Blowers / OL’ MISS McRee, ensemble.
Thank goodness for such tributes — full of individualists who have the right feeling — and for the video-recording. As Eddie would say, WHEE!
The video captures a completely spur-of-the-moment session, arranged at a few minutes’ notice by Johnson (Fat Cat) McRee at the Manassas Jazz Festival. The trombonists are Spiegle Willcox, the Elder; George Masso, Herb Gardner, and Bill Allred. Happily, the last two are still with us and Herb is gigging in New England as I write this. The rhythm section is impressive as well: Dick Wellstood, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums. The repertoire is familiar and not complicated (the better to avoid train wrecks, my dear): JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE / YES, SIR, THAT’S MY BABY / SUMMERTIME / RUNNIN’ WILD, and the eight gentlemen navigate it all with style and professionalism:
Some personal reflections: I never met Van Perry or Spiegle Willcox at close range, although I saw and heard Spiegle at one or two Bix-themed concerts performed by the New York Jazz Repertory Company in 1973-4 (alongside Chauncey Morehouse). Herb Gardner stays in my mind in the nicest way because of more history: Sunday-afternoon gigs with Red Balaban at Your Father’s Mustache in New York City, where he ably played alongside Bobby Hackett, Doc Cheatham, Kenny Davern, and other luminaries. And Herb graciously gave me his OK to post this. I had the real privilege of meeting and hearing the very humble George Masso in 2012, playing alongside Ron Odrich, when George was 85, and he allowed me to video-record him also: see it here. Bill Allred, also a very kind man, brightened many sets at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party: you can find some performances including him on JAZZ LIVES: one, from 2015, here.
That rhythm section! As a 19-year old with a concealed cassette recorder, I was too timid to approach either Dick Wellstood or Cliff Leeman for a few words or an autograph, something I regret. But I just saw Marty Grosz this year — March 4th — at his ninetieth birthday party, so perhaps that makes up for the timidities of my youth? I doubt it, but it’s a useful if fleeting rationalization.
The music remains, and so do the players. This one’s for my dear friends Dick Dreiwitz and Joe McDonough, who know how to make lovely sounds on this instrument.
The great jazz trumpet players all — and deservedly so — have their fan clubs (and sometimes Facebook groups): Louis, Bix, Bobby, Bunny and three dozen others. But some musicians, remarkable players, get less attention: Ray Nance, Jimmie Maxwell, Marty Marsala, Emmett Berry, Joe Thomas come to mind.
Then there’s the luminous and rarely-praised Billy Butterfield, who navigated a fifty-year career in small hot groups, in big bands, in the studios, and more: lead and jazz soloist for Bob Crosby, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. When Dick Sudhalter asked Bobby Hackett who was the best trumpeter playing now (circa 1971) Bobby named Billy.
Billy at one of the Conneaut Lake Jazz Parties, perhaps early Eighties.
Coincidentally, Professor Salvucci and I have been discussing Billy (in the gaps in our conversations when we focus on the positive) and it is thus wonderful synchronicity to find my friend “Davey Tough”(who has perfect taste) having posted two beautiful examples of Billy’s playing on YouTube.
Here’s Billy in 1942, with the Les Brown Orchestra, performing SUNDAY:
And in 1955, something I’d never known existed:
and Billy on flugelhorn with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band:
My contribution to the great hoard of Butterfieldiana is this video (thanks to kind Joe Shepherd) of a session at the Manassas Jazz Festival, December 1, 1978, with luminaries surrounding Billy: Tony DiNicola, Van Perry, Marty Grosz, Dick Wellstood, Spencer Clark, Kenny Davern, Spiegle Willcox: savor it here.
And one other piece of beautiful evidence:
How many people have memorized that record, or at least danced to it, without knowing who the trumpet soloist — bravura and delicate both — was?
Hereis an excerpt from a 1985 interview with Billy, so you can hear his voice.
Wondering why some artists become stars and others do not is always somewhat fruitless. I suspect that Billy played with such elegant power and ease that people took him for granted. Looking at his recording career, it’s easy to say, “Oh, he didn’t care if he was a leader or a sideman,” but he did have his own successful big band (recording for Capitol) and in the mid-Fifties, inconceivable as it seems now, his small band with Nick Caiazza and Cliff Leeman was a hit on college campuses and made records; he also led large groups for RCA Victor.
But I suspect he was just as happy playing LADY BE GOOD with a pick-up group (as he did at the last Eddie Condon’s) as he was reading charts for a studio big band or playing beautiful solos on a Buck Clayton Jam Session. I also suspect that he wasn’t instantly recognizable to the general audience or even the jazz fans as were his competitors for the spotlight: Hackett, Jonah Jones, Charlie Shavers, Ruby Braff. He didn’t have a gimmick, nor did he care to.
And once the big band era ended, other, more extroverted trumpeters got more attention: Harry James, Clark Terry, Doc Severinsen, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Hirt. When I’ve watched Billy in videos, he seems almost shy: announcing the next song in as few words as possible and then returning to the horn. Unlike Berigan, whom he occasionally resembles, he didn’t bring with him the drama of a self-destructive brief life.
Finally, and sadly, because he began with Bob Crosby, was an honored soloist at the Eddie Condon Town Hall concerts, and ended his career with a long glorious run with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band (where I saw him) I believe he was typecast as a “Dixieland” musician, which is a pity: he had so much more in him than JAZZ ME BLUES.
Consider this: a duet with Dick Wellstood that bears no resemblance to straw-hat-and-striped-vest music:
Soprano Summit, now just a memory because only Marty Grosz, 90, survives, was one of the finest working groups it was my privilege to see — from my first sighting of them in 1973 to their eventual end. It’s strange now to think that in New York, they were so ubiquitous for a time that I and others took them for granted. Now, their performances seem precious evidence of a shining era: a band capable of roaring out-choruses and great lyrical delicacy.
Here is a forty-five minute session, performed and recorded on December 1, 1978, as part of the Manassas Jazz Festival –Bob WIlber and Kenny Davern, clarinet and soprano saxophones; Marty Grosz, guitar and vocal; Van Perry, string bass; Tony Di Nicola, drums. The site was the “Olde Towne Inn” in Manassas, where, I am pleased to note, one can get a room at a reduced rate of $60 / night. Here‘s the Inn’s Facebook page, should you care to visit, although I have no idea who’s playing in the lounge.
But music counts more than vacation lodging, especially these days. Tucked away in a corner in 1978, the quintet makes exquisite music: EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY / APEX BLUES / JAZZ ME BLUES / YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY OYSTER IN THE STEW (Marty, solo vocal) / CHANGES (Marty) / LADY BE GOOD:
What was lost can return — some papers I thought were gone for good have resurfaced — but often the return needs the help of a kind friend, in this case my benefactor, trumpeter Joe Shepherd, who (like Barney the purple dinosaur) believes in sharing.
Sharing what? How about forty-five minutes of admittedly muzzy video of Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Spiegle Willcox, trombone; Kenny Davern, clarinet; Spencer Clark, bass sax; Dick Wellstood, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Tony DiNicola, drums, recorded at the Manassas Jazz Festival on December 1, 1978.
But first, a few lines, which you are encouraged to skip if you want to get right to the treasure-box. My very dear generous friend John L. Fell sent me this on a VHS tape in the mid-to-late Eighties, and I watched it so often that now, returning to it, I could hum along with much of this performance. It’s a sustained example of — for want of a better expression — the way the guys used to do it and sometimes still do. Not copying records; not playing routinized trad; not a string of solos. There’s beautiful variety here within each performance (and those who’d make a case that old tunes should stay dead might reconsider) and from performance to performance. Fascinating expressions of individuality, of very personal sonorities and energies — and thrilling duets made up on the spot with just a nod or a few words. There’s much more to admire in this session, but you will find your own joys.
YouTube, as before, has divided this video into three chunks — cutting arbitrarily. The songs in the first part are I WANT TO BE HAPPY / SWEET SUE / I CRIED FOR YOU (partial) //
The songs are I CRIED FOR YOU (completed) / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / I CAN’T GET STARTED (Billy – partial) //
The songs are I CAN’T GET STARTED (concluded) / CHINA BOY //
I feel bathed in joy.
And another example of kindness: my friend and another benefactor, Tom Hustad (author of the astonishing book on Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY) sent along a slightly better — visual — copy that has none of the arbitrary divisions imposed by YouTube. And here it is! It will be my companion this morning: let it be yours as well.
The remarkable jazz singer Barbara Lea has left us. Her dear friend Jeanie Wilson writes, “I am deeply saddened to have to report the death of our own Barbara Lea, “The High Priestess of Popular Song”. She died peacefully yesterday, Monday, December 26, here in Raleigh, North Carolina; I was with her as were my husband, Bill, and our dear friend, Junk. And as most of you already know, Barbara has been battling Alzheimer’s for quite some time. So, “Sleep Peaceful”, dear Barbara… we will miss you but now you are free to sing once again.”
I know that many JAZZ LIVES readers have their own memories of hearing and working with Barbara, which I will share in an upcoming post. For now, this is the way I and so many others will think of her:
It’s an informal exploration of SKYLARK at the 1983 Manassas Jazz Festival — where Barbara is backed empathically by tenor saxophonist Mason “Country” Thomas, who also left us in 2011; Larry Eanet, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Van Perry, bass; Tom Martin, drums. Thanks to Sflair for the original video and for sharing it with us on YouTube.
A musician who worked and recorded with Miss Lea several times is the fine drummer Hal Smith, who had this to say, “She had a lovely voice, terrific intonation, perfect diction and her voice aged very well. I had heard that she adopted the last name of “Lea” as a tribute to Lee Wiley. If that’s true, she deserved to invoke Ms. Wiley’s name. At the recording session she was well-prepared with a list of songs and keys, easy-to-read charts and ideas for routines. In that respect, and in her pleasant demeanor, she reminded me of another great vocalist — with the last name of Kilgore.”
Saxophonist, pianist, and director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Loren Schoenberg, also worked with and learned from Barbara: “Barbara Lea passed away this week and the world has lost an exemplary interpreter of 20th century popular music and I’ve lost a dear friend and mentor.
I was driving Benny Carter down Seventh Avenue to a rehearsal years ago and Louis Armstrong came over the radio playing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” . Benny’s response was “Listen to that – no bullshit!” And in the generous sense in which Benny meant it, one can transpose the same comment to Barbara’s music, though I’m sure she wouldn’t be happy with that language.
She was above all an intelligent and classy lady, with a gift for discovering the melodic and lyrical essence of a song. We started working together in the late 70’s and continued up to the point her illness made it impossible several years ago. If I heard her sing one tune, I heard her sing several hundred, because I was first and foremost a fan, and went to as many of her gigs as I could, many times with my parents. The Mr. Tram ensemble we had with Dick Sudhalter and Daryl Sherman was nothing less than a joy. You should have heard the conversations; they were as good as the music! Barbara was incapable of coasting when she sang. No wonder so many composers, starting with Alec Wilder, were so crazy about her. What a variety of timbres she had, and a variety of ways of phrasing to match the words. Scatting wasn’t for her, and she was forthright about her opinions, and blessedly empathetic with others who didn’t necessarily agree with her. There’s much more to be said about her, but for the essence, just listen. It’s ALL there.”
We’ll miss Barbara Lea.
(Thanks to David J. Weiner, Hal Smith, and Loren Schoenberg for their help.)
Rhythm guitar — with its bouncing pulse, its swinging elasticity, and the ripe-fruit sound of those strings — isn’t a dying art, as I’ve seen happily on both coasts and overseas. But the late Steve Jordan was one of the art’s finest creators — hired by Benny Goodman, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Buck Clayton, and others (the thread here is the enthusiastic advocacy of John Hammond). Later in his career, Jordan got more opportunities to show off his soloing in support of his dry, witty singing.
Here he is, captured by my YouTube friend Sfair (I know his real name but keep it to myself) at a National Press Club function in Washington, D.C., on December 4, 1980, with bassist Van Perry, a Virginia stalwart who played so often and so well on Johnson McRee’s Manassas Jazz Festival recordings:
Jordan’s feature is a 1938 song — music by Matty Malneck, lyrics by Frank Loesser, I GO FOR THAT, a slangy, snappy version of what I call The Insulting Love Song (the earlier MY FUNNY VALENTINE is a much more gentle example) where the lover rues the inadequacies of the loved one and finds him/herself smitten nevertheless. The version I hear in my head is Mildred Bailey’s, but Steve Jordan is doing a good job, two decades later, of displacing it.
This song — Vincent Youmans’ I WANT TO BE HAPPY — evoked small verbal comedies from two musicians I saw in New York years ago. Wild Bill Davison would announce the title and then leeringly say in his best W.C. Fields voice, “Don’t we all,” drawling the last word for four beats. Kenny Davern, on the other hand, was more academic, seeing the simple declarative statement as the opening for a basic ESL class, “I want to be happy, she wants to be happy, they want to be happy,” trailing off, an amused look on his face. But comedy isn’t the theme in this gathering of happy improvisers at the Manassas Jazz Festival: Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Spiegle Willcox, trombone, Davern, clarinet; Dick Wellstood, piano, Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, bass; Spencer Clark, bass sax; Tony DiNicola, drums. See how Butterfield works hard, building and soaring; how Davern turns his familiar figures in every possible direction, animated by the thryhm deep inside; Wellstood’s opening jab at “Perdido,” and the way Marty Grosz, intent, relaxes when he can put his guitar down, take a sip of his drink, and revel in Wellstood’s playing. And the ensemble joyousness. We think of the Golden Age of Jazz — suggest your decade — but this performance is evidence that 1978 was a pretty good year for it, too.