Tag Archives: Vic Dickenson

“FESTINA LENTE”: RAY SKJELBRED, CLINT BAKER, RILEY BAKER at BIRD and BECKETT (July 11, 2019)

σπεῦδε βραδέως.  “Make haste slowly.” 

Yes, this post begins with classical Greek and a photograph of Louis Armstrong singing to a horse — all relevant to the performances below, recorded just ten days ago at the remarkable cultural shrine of San Francisco, Bird and Beckett Books and Records (653 Chenery Street).  Thanks, as always, to the faithful Rae Ann Berry for documenting this facet of Ray Skjelbred’s California tour.

As bands play familiar repertoire over the decades, tempos speed up.  Perhaps it’s to stimulate the audience; perhaps it’s a yearning to show off virtuosity . . . there are certainly other reasons, conscious as well as unexamined, that are part of this phenomenon.  But Medium Tempo remains a lush meadow for musicians to stroll in, and it’s always pleasing to me when they count off a familiar song at a groovy slower-than-expected tempo.  I present two particularly gratifying examples, created by Ray Skjelbred, piano; Clint Baker, trumpet; Riley Baker, drums.  Here, JEEPERS CREEPERS is taken at the Vic Dickenson Showcase tempo, or near to it, reminding us that it’s a love song, even if sung to a horse:

and a nice slow drag for AFTER YOU’VE GONE, in keeping with the lyrics:

I don’t know how many people have seen the film clip below from the 1938 Bing Crosby film GOING PLACES, where Louis Armstrong introduced the Harry Warren – Johnny Mercer song JEEPERS CREEPERS.  (There is a brief interruption in the video: the music will resume.)

For the full story of Louis, the horse (a mean one), and the movie, you’ll have to wait for Ricky Riccardi’s splendid book on Louis’s “middle years,” 1929-47, HEART FULL OF RHYTHM.  For now, who knows the uncredited rhythm section on this clip?. I imagine it to be Joe Sullivan and Bobby Sherwood, but that may be a fantasy, one I happily indulge myself in.

And what Eric Whittington makes happen at Bird and Beckett Books is no fantasy: he deserves our heartfelt thanks, whether in classical Greek or the San Francisco demotic of 2019.

May your happiness increase!

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“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

RUNNING WITH SWINGERS: JEFF BARNHART, CLINT BAKER, NATE KETNER, ANDY REISS, STEVE PIKAL, DICK MALEY (Stomptime, 4.27.19)

I am sure you’re not supposed to run on a cruise ship — dangerous, that.  And RUNNIN’ WILD would be frowned upon even more.  But a small group of swinging, daring musicians pulled it off in the opening set of the STOMPTIME Eastern Caribbean cruise just concluded.

I knew this song — nearly a century old — because of Vic Dickenson’s and Benny Goodman’s recordings — but I didn’t know it had been portrayed as an EBONY JAZZ TUNE, nor that the verse and choruses were about the singer, male, whose “gal” had treated him with disrespect . . . and now he was enjoying the pleasures of being solo.  You could look up the whole narrative for yourself.

But here are the loose-limbed pleasures of April 27, 2019, created and recorded somewhere between Miami and Puerto Rico.  The creators are Jeff Barnhart, piano; Steve Pikal, string bass; Dick Maley, drums; Nate Ketner, reeds; Andy Reiss, guitar; Clint Baker, trumpet.

More to come.  Not only on this blog, but in STOMPTIME’s June 2020 Alaska cruise.  You could look that up, too.

May your happiness increase!

A LETTER FROM RUBY TO JACK, APRIL [3?], 1987

A small surprise from eBay, where surprises flourish: here‘s the link.  The seller’s price is $175 and $12 shipping, The latter substantially more than the original postage.

Ruby Braff, at home on Cape Cod, c. 1995. Photograph by George Borgman.

It’s a letter from Ruby Braff, who left us in 2003, to Jack Bradley, his friend and sometime manager, and of course close friend of Louis Armstrong.

Louis and Jack.

The letter isn’t dated, but the envelope is postmarked April 4, 1987:

Dear Jack (Fuckey),

I’m looking forward & backward to our gig. As we draw closer I’ll get the name of everything—oh, by the way, you’ve got plenty time now to get cash for me that nite, if possible.

You know I’m down in Zinno’s every nite, all our cats are so happy I’m there that it’s like 1941. Everybody’s in to see me. Buck Clayton, Morey, everybody. Packed!!!

Bad news—I’m depressed we lost Buddy Rich tonite. I played anyway. What a drag!

Every nite is Cafe Society for me! Unbelievable. Wild!!

Anyway ding ding you 2.

Later

love

Ruby.

Written in pencil on Braff’s letterhead. Folding creases, some light smudging, overall fine with original envelope. 8.5 x 11 inches (21.5 x 28 cm).

and . . .

and . . . .

A few annotations.  Buddy Rich died on April 2, 1987.  “Ding ding!” was Vic Dickenson’s all-purpose salutation, celebration, toast.  Buck Clayton should need no annotation.  “Morey” cannot be drummer Morey Feld, who died in 1971.

As to “Fuckey,” one interprets as one wishes.

Here, because I can —  life is not all about objects for sale — is what remains of the Braff-Steinman correspondence, two 1971 letters from Ruby to me.  Although Ruby was subject to unpredictable outbursts of rage (I witnessed one) his letters are gentle, touching, kind, and I did nothing special to evoke this kindness.

And an appropriate song — Ruby in duet with Dick Hyman in that same 1987:

We were lucky — and beyond — to have Ruby with us for fifty years.  And his music has no expiration date.

Should you want to know more — more than you ever thought you could know — about Ruby and his times, this book is a delightful and wise mountain of information and stories, Thomas Hustad’s BORN TO PLAY.

May your happiness increase!

THE WORLD’S GREATEST JAZZ BAND: YANK LAWSON, BOB HAGGART, GUS JOHNSON, DICK WELLSTOOD, BOB WILBER, BUD FREEMAN, SONNY RUSSO, BENNIE MORTON, MAXINE SULLIVAN // AL KLINK, PEANUTS HUCKO, GEORGE MASSO, RALPH SUTTON, BOBBY ROSENGARDEN (1975)

I wouldn’t have known of these programs (now shared with us on the Musikladen YouTube channel) except for my good friend, the fine drummer Bernard Flegar.  They are rich and delicious.

The WGJB lasted from the late Sixties (when they were a development of the Nine / Ten Greats of Jazz, sponsored by Dick Gibson) to 1978.  In some ways, they were both a touring assemblage of gifted veteran players — I believe Robert Sage Wilber, known to his friends worldwide as Bob, is the sole survivor — and a versatile band that echoed the best of the Bob Crosby units, big and small.  The WGJB came in for a good deal of sneering because of their hyperbolic title, which was Gibson’s idea, not the musicians’, but from the perspective of 2019, they were great, no questions asked.  And they weren’t just a collection of soloists, each taking a turn playing jazz chestnuts (although JAZZ ME BLUES was often on the program); Haggart’s arrangements were splendid evocations of a Swing Era big band with plenty of room, and the WGJB brought its own down-home / Fifty-Second Street energy to current pop tunes (I remember their UP, UP, AND AWAY with delight).  And they played the blues.

I remember them with substantial fondness, because the second jazz concert I went to (the first was Louis in 1967, which is starting at the apex) was held in Town Hall, with Gibson as host, probably in 1970, and it featured the WGJB — Vic Dickenson and Eddie Hubble on trombones — and a small group with Al and Zoot, possibly Joe Newman, where they performed THE RED DOOR and MOTORING ALONG, titles no one would forget, and Gibson told his anecdote of the white deer.

These two programs seem to have been sophisticated television offerings: multi-camera perspectives with a great deal of editing from one camera to the other, and beginnings and endings that suggest that these were not finished products.  The absence of an audience — or their audible presence — on the first program seems odd, but I don’t mind the quiet.  The WGJB could certainly add its own charging exuberance — hear the final ensemble of CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME — that few bands have matched.

The first program features co-leaders Yank Lawson, trumpet; Bob Haggart, string bass, arrangements; Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Bob Wilber, clarinet, soprano; Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone; Bennie Morton, trombone; Sonny Russo, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Gus Johnson, drums; Maxine Sullivan, guest vocalist, and the songs performed are BLUES / MERCY, MERCY, MERCY / DOODLE DOO DOO / THE EEL (featuring its composer, Bud Freeman) / THAT’S A PLENTY (featuring Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood) / A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY (featuring Maxine Sullivan) / THE LADY IS A TRAMP (Maxine) / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE/ MY INSPIRATION (closing theme) //:

And here’s another forty-five minute program, presumably aired October 17 of the same year, with certain personnel changes — this time there’s an audience but the band is also dressed with great casualness: Ralph Sutton, piano; Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Bobby Rosengarden, drums; George Masso and Sonny Russo, trombones; Lawson, Haggart, Butterfield, and Maxine, performing AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL / BASIN STREET BLUES (featuring Masso) / CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME (featuring Sutton) / BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME (featuring Lawson and Butterfield) / LIMEHOUSE BLUES (featuring Russo and Masso) / HARLEM BUTTERFLY / EV’RY TIME (featuring Maxine Sullivan) / ST. LOUIS BLUES / STAR DUST (featuring Klink) / RUNNIN’ WILD (featuring Hucko) / BIG NOISE FROM WINNETKA (featuring Haggart and Rosengarden) / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE / MY INSPIRATION //:

The repertoire for the longer program is more familiar, with few surprises, but that band could roar as well as play pretty ballads and its own version of Thirties funk.  What unexpected treasures these programs are.

May your happiness increase!

“MARGARET, CAN YOU RECALL THE DAYS OF OUR YOUTH?” “YES, DARLING, THEY WERE WONDERFUL”: MARC CAPARONE and CONAL FOWKES (San Diego, Nov. 24, 2018)

Conal Fowkes, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet, at the 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest.

This venerable song — WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE — is a sweet reminiscence of love that lasts.  It has become an ineradicable part of our popular culture: Exhibit A is a Big Top peanut butter glass (first a jar full of BTPB) devoted to the song:

and

I learned it first, decades ago, when I was young, from Vic Dickenson’s Vanguard version, which I can still play in the mental-emotional jukebox of the mind. But I am grateful that Marc Caparone and Conal Fowkes keep it fresh and green in this century, as they did at the 2018 San Diego Jazz Fest:

Here’s another treasure, created on the spot.  There are thousands of versions of George and Ira Gershwin’s vernacular yelp of delight, ‘S’WONDERFUL, but the one this reminds me of is an early-Fifties session for Vanguard, led by Mel Powell, supervised by John Hammond, featuring Mel, Buck Clayton, Henderson Chambers, Ed Hall, Steve Jordan, Walter Page, and Jimmy Crawford.  (That’s me applauding: if you have to ask why, you need to go back to Remedial Swing.)

Marc and Conal — what a pair of glorious musical artists, creating worlds of sound, rollicking and tender, for our pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

The ON THE LEVEE BAND at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Part One: Nov. 24, 2018)

Official Jazz history, which tends to compress and simplify, has often portrayed Edward “Kid” Ory as both a limited trombonist and a man lodged in the earliest decades of the music.  Both of these suppositions are wrong; as far as the first, ask any trombonist how easy it is to play what Ory played, and for the second, Ory’s later groups played for dancers in the Forties and Fifties and thus he was very much aware of the subtleties of the Swing Era-and-beyond four-four rhythmic pulse, as his later recordings show.  Drummer / scholar Hal Smith’s ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND takes its name from a club Ory ran in California, and its musical inspiration from those later performances.

Unlike some quite respected traditional jazz bands, the OTL floats rather than pounds, and its horn soloists clearly enjoy the freedom of playing with and among such gliding pulsations.  It’s their secret, one that perceptive listeners enjoy, even if they are not aware of the swinging feel of the group.  At times, they remind me happily of the ad hoc groups of Swing Era veterans recruited to perform “Dixieland” tunes c. 1959-60: think of Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, and Buster Bailey over a grooving rhythm section — playing the opening ensembles correctly and respectfully but going for themselves in solos.

In addition to Hal, the band as it performed at the 39th San Diego jazz Fest featured Charlie Halloran, trombone, Ben Polcer, trumpet, Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano, Alex Belhaj, guitar, Josh Gouzy, string bass. These selections come from a set the band did on November 24, 2018.

AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING:

TISHOMINGO BLUES, with a vocal by Ben:

Joe Oliver’s SNAG IT:

SAN, named for a King:

DUSTY RAG, a feature for Kris, Josh, and Hal — reimagining classic ragtime in New Orleans — that means Morton — style:

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?:

HIGH SOCIETY / WITHOUT YOU FOR AN INSPIRATION:

What a pleasure this band is.  And here is their website, as well as news of their debut CD here . And here is my review.  I approve!  And the band also has the Gretchen Haugen Seal of Approval, which is not an accolade easily won.

Catch them at a gig; buy the CD.  Have a good time.

May your happiness increase!