Tag Archives: Vic Dickenson

A FEW WORDS FOR “CLEVELAND JAZZ LEGEND,” PIANIST HANK KOHOUT (1923-2006)

The jazz world is full of Stars — the people who attract crowds, who get five-star reviews and adoring press.  But those of us who have been around for more than sixteen bars know that not every excellent musician becomes a Star.  There is that really superb singer in a small town who refuses to travel; the guitarist who doesn’t want to record or to be on YouTube, the musicians who don’t end up in this or the other alphabetical reference of Famous Musicians.  The locals know these people, and the musicians who travel from town to town know and admire them also.

Cleveland’s Theatrical Grill and owner “Mushy” Wexler: home to pianist Hank Kohout.

One such excellent musician who’s hardly known is pianist Hank Kohout, whose professional career spanned more than forty years.  If you hadn’t heard him in person, you missed your chance, because he left us in 2006, just before his 83rd birthday.  Some months ago, his brother Jerry found me and asked if I’d heard of Hank.  I hadn’t — but I certainly had heard of guitarist Bill De Arango, Red Norvo, Harry James, and Bobby Hackett.  And before Hank had turned twenty, he was praised in DOWN BEAT as a promising newcomer.

Jerry’s note to me suggests that not only was Hank a splendid musician but a fine person to have in your family: I miss him on a daily basis . . . . I can’t say he was the best, but he certainly could hold his own and would not embarrass himself.  I’ve listened to my fair share of piano men in my time, and I’ll describe him in this way.  In my full time job I traveled quite a bit, and if there was a piano player to be found, I would more often than not find him.  In many cases, I would not stay long, and rarely would I find someone who would captivate my time and attention, and who actually understood my requests (usually Little Rock Getaway was way out of their league) — conversely, they would come in to hear my brother . . . and stay till closing.  

After his passing, I found no less than 40 autographed photos, most with glowing remarks from the likes of Eddie Heywood, Teddy Wilson, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Durante, Bobby Hackett, etc.

Here’s an informal sample of Hank — his playing strongly melodic, his harmonic understanding subtle yet deep, admiring but not copying Teddy Wilson.

And the full story can be found in this beautifully detailed piece on Hank from “Jazzed in Cleveland,” written by Joe Mosbrook in 2005:

For more than 60 years, Hank Kohout has been one of Cleveland’s leading jazz pianists. He is probably best remembered for playing with the Bob McKee Trio, the house band at the Theatrical Grill on Vincent Avenue, for 17 years, but Hank also played with some of the giants of jazz on New York City’s famous 52nd Street, with leading big bands, and with network broadcast orchestras as well.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Kohout graduated from West Tech High School and studied classical music for ten years before he was exposed to jazz. “One day,” he recalled, “I heard Teddy Wilson play piano and suddenly asked myself, ‘What took me so long?’” He quickly dropped classical music. “I listened to Teddy’s records.” he said, “and tried to copy what he was doing. Teddy was a very clean player and that’s what I like to hear; I like to hear every note nice and clear.”

In 1939, after studying classical music for ten years, teenager Kohout immersed himself in jazz, playing everywhere he could. “There were a lot of people playing jazz in Cleveland at that time,” he said, “and they used to have jam sessions which I attended. I learned a lot just sitting in.” During some of those jam sessions, Hank met and played with an amazing young guitarist from Cleveland Heights who had gone to Ohio State University. “Bill de Arango called me,” Hank recalled, “and wanted to put together a trio. We started playing at some of the nightclubs on Short Vincent.

Eventually the trio went on the road. One day in Indiana, Hank ran into a friend who was playing with the Red Norvo band and said Red was looking for a piano player. “I decided to take a crack at it,” said Hank. “I left the trio and went to New York.” He auditioned for the vibraphonist and bandleader, got the job, and began to tour with the Norvo big band.

They played the theatre circuit including the Palace Theatre in Cleveland. On the bill with the Norvo band were such entertainers as comedian Jimmy Durante, singer Mildred Bailey, and dancers Step ‘n Fetch It. But the Norvo big band was not a huge success. “When we got back to New York,” said Kohout, “the war broke out and the band broke up. We put together a sextet which we took into the Famous Door.”

The Famous Door was one of the jazz clubs along New York City’s fabled 52nd Street where every night for years the top jazz artists were performing. Clevelander Kohout found himself right in the middle of the action. He said, “Red hired Shorty Rogers on trumpet, Eddie Bert on trombone, Aaron Sachs on clarinet and Specs Powell was the drummer. We had Johnny Guarnieri’s brother Leo playing bass with us. And Red and myself.”

When the Norvo Sextet broke up, Kohout continued playing on 52nd Street. In 1942, he was playing piano in the house band down the street at the Three Deuces. The other members of that house band were Powell and bassist Milt Hinton. They regularly backed such saxophonists as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Flip Phillips and Georgie Auld. Looking back, Hank smiled and admitted, “That was pretty fast company!”

In the early 1940s, there were still seven jazz clubs concentrated on New York’s 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Top jazz musicians seemed to be almost everywhere on “the street.” Kohout said, “That was an era that will never be duplicated again. There were a whole bunch of clubs and at any given time they had some of the best music in the world by some of the best players.”

For several weeks, Kohout substituted for native Cleveland pianist Al Lerner, playing with the Harry James Orchestra, including an engagement at New York’s Paramount Theatre. He also played briefly with the Bobby Byrne big band. But, he decided to leave New York City in 1943.

“I left because they were looking for a piano player in Cleveland,” he said. “I came back to Cleveland and auditioned for a job with the WHK studio orchestra.” The orchestra, led by Willard Fox, was doing regular radio broadcasts from Cleveland to about 300 stations of the Mutual network. Kohout played for ten years with the radio orchestra, plus six or seven years on a program called The Ohio Story on WTAM. He also did TV work in Cleveland including The Mike Douglas Show which was produced at Channel 3 for a national audience. While working the studio jobs, Kohout was also playing jazz gigs at night at a variety of clubs. He said, “I think I played about every club in town.”

Beginning in 1963, Kohout was the pianist in the house band at the Theatrical Grill for 17 years. With drummer Bob McKee and bassist Ken Seifert, he played six nights a week at the popular club that featured national jazz artists. “It got to the point,” recalled Kohout, “that some of the touring musicians came in without their groups and we would play with them, people like Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson and Doc Severinsen.” When Red Norvo came to the Theatrical, Hank pulled double-duty, playing piano with both his old boss’ group and with the McKee Trio. When Jimmy and Marian McPartland played at the Theatrical, Hank joined Jimmy’s group for several numbers and then sat side-by-side with Marian, playing four-handed piano. Newspaper reports said It brought down the house.

Mushy Wexler, who ran the Theatrical, liked traditional jazz and hired a lot of dixieland bands. Kohout remembered Wilbur de Paris, Billy Maxted, Jonah Jones and many others. “There were so many that I can’t remember them all.”

The Theatrical, Cleveland’s leading night spot for more than 50 years, attracted a wide variety of customers. They included politicians, lawyers, newspaper people, and sports figures. Hank said, “We had them all, clergy sitting next to guys in the Mafia. We had strippers. They were all there and they were like family.”

Kohout finally left the Theatrical in 1979 after Wexler died and the music policy changed. The club stopped presenting live jazz in 1990 and closed a few years later. “If Mushy had lived another ten or twenty years,” said Kohout, “it wouldn’t have changed at all. It would still be today like it used to be.”

Kohout, now 81 and living quietly in Parma, teaches a little, but he is not playing piano very much. He said, “I have Parkinson’s now and it hasn’t helped my playing at all. I get disgusted. I can still do it, but if I can’t do it the way I want to do it, I don’t want to do it.”

Like his early idol, Teddy Wilson, Kohout always played with a clean, pure technique. Performing in almost every musical style, the native Clevelander, who has been heard and appreciated by millions, is still remembered as a piano player’s piano player.  

Jerry also sent me an informally-recorded sample of his brother in his native habitat, obviously enjoying himself and making the audience happy.  I hear a witty, playful synthesis of Wilson, Tatum, Hines, and others — fused in a gracious individualistic style.

What’s the moral to this tale?  People who don’t go on the road or make records, who aren’t “known,” can really play and should be acknowledged for their talent.

May your happiness increase!

BENNY CARTER and FRIENDS // TEDDY WILSON — with KAI WINDING, VIC DICKENSON, RAY BRYANT, HANK JONES, SLAM STEWART, MILT HINTON, MEL LEWIS, J.C. HEARD (La Grande Parade du Jazz, July 7, 9, 10, 1977)

I can’t believe how many people who love jazz are asleep on Benny Carter.

The King, a few years before 1977.

The hierarchy of stardom in jazz gets narrower with time, so it feels as if there is only room at best for a dozen boldface Names from Louis to Ornette.  Can contemporary jazz audiences understand the absolute reverence that Benny Carter received from his peers during his lifetime and now?  How many students in jazz education programs know him as he should be known?  After 1945, Charlie Parker cast a giant shadow, but Carter, quietly indefatigable, pursued his half-dozen careers with immense grace.  Perhaps his life lacked drama: he wasn’t a tragic figure; he lived a long time and was happily married (his widow, Hilma, is with us at 99!); he was a professional who made it all look easy: alto, trumpet, clarinet, trombone, compositions, arranging, bandleading, film and television scores — a genuine Renaissance man.  Ben Webster said that Benny could bake a cake as light as a feather and whip any man: what better testimonial could anyone want?  But I wonder how many fans today could name more than one Benny Carter record?

Recently a Irish collector-friend, Mchael O’Donovan, has passed on to me a substantial assortment of videos, some broadcast on French television, of La Grande Parade du Jazz, in the second half of the Seventies.  I’ve shared a duet between Jimmie Rowles and Sir Roland Hanna here.  I think these videos are precious, even though the cinematography is unusual: multi-camera setups where no shot is longer than a few seconds, and the videos came to me arbitrarily cut into time-chunks, so one will end at twenty minutes, no matter what is happening . . . but these are small complaints when one considers the wonderful assortments of jazz stars, the good sound, the leisure to stretch out.  Occasionally someone in the band rushes, but we’re all human.

And now, for some Benny Carter — with a wondrous feature for Vic Dickenson (I saw Vic play this perhaps twenty times, but watching him at close range is something I never dared to think I would see on video), delightful Mel Lewis, and some late-period but refreshing Teddy Wilson.

7-9-77 THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE Carter, Kai Winding, Ray Bryant, Slam, J.C. Heard 7-7-77 IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD Vic, Hank Jones, Bill Pemberton, Oliver Jackson (identified by Bo Scherman, who was there!) 7-10-77 THREE LITTLE WORDS Benny, Bryant, Milt Hinton, Mel Lewis and the first few notes of the next song.

7-10-77 WAVE Carter, Ray Bryant, Milt, Mel Lewis
7-7-77 SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER – I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING – AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ – HONEYSUCKLE ROSE // SOPHISTICATED LADY – SATIN DOLL (partial) Teddy solo.

Doc Cheatham told James Dapogny that his secret to a long life was to listen to Louis Armstrong every morning, sound medical advice.  Matt Rivera begins his Monday-night Zoom sessions of the Hot Club of New York (7-10 PM, the link can be found here) with a Carter record.   Maybe that’s a perfect healing regimen: breakfast with Louis, dinner with the King.  In between, you’re on your own.  You can do this.

May your happiness increase!

SHOOT FIRST. ASK QUESTIONS LATER.

Zoot, riding the range.

The splendid people at jgautographs (on eBay) have reached into the apparently bottomless treasure chest and come up with an assortment of photographs for sale.  The auction has a time limit, so don’t (as we say) dither.

Bill, Kenny, and Bob, also riding the range, although dressed like city slickers.

Question: what do Bobby Hackett, George Barnes, Flip Phillips, Bob Wilber, Bud Freeman, Connie Jones, Max Kaminsky, Joe Venuti, Lou Stein, Joe Wilder, Zoot Sims, Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Scott Hamilton, Milt Hinton, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Greg Cohen, Dick Hyman, Urbie Green, Trummy Young, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, Bob Haggart, Dick Cathcart, Jess Stacy, Joe Bushkin, Dave McKenna, John Best, Franz Jackson, Wild Bill Davison, Butch Miles, Jack Lesberg, Dick Johnson, Bob Havens, and a few others have in common . . . . aside from their musical glories?

Urbie, the one, the only.

Answer: They were all caught in performance by Al White and his roving camera (many of them at Dick Gibson’s Colorado jazz parties) — asked to sign the photos — the ones I’ve seen have all been inscribed to Al — and these 8 x 10″ black and white beauties are now being offered at the site above.

In 2000, Al and Ralph Sutton’s biographer James D. Schacter created a large-format book, JAZZ PARTY, with over a hundred of these inscribed photographs, but that book is now out of print, although copies can be found.

Al started life as an amateur drummer and jazz fan, then put on concerts and parties in Arkansas . . . . and at some point began to specialize in candid shots of the musicians he admired.

The noble Dick Cathcart.

The photographs offered on eBay have, for me, a special resonance.  For a moment in time, Bobby or Urbie had to touch this piece of paper to sign it, so they are beautiful artifacts or relics or what you will.

I’ve been running out of wall space for some time now (and it would be disrespectful as well as damp to start hanging photographs in the bathroom) so the field is clear for you to visually admire and place bids, even though I might be tempted in two days and twenty-something hours.

I thought you might like some jazz-party-jazz, so here is the priceless 1977 color film (102 minutes) of the Dick Gibson party, “The Great Rocky Mountain Jazz Party,” featuring everyone:

May your happiness increase!

HOLY RELICS, BEYOND BELIEF (Spring 2020 Edition)

The eBay seller “jgautographs,” from whom I’ve purchased several marvels (signatures of Henry “Red” Allen, Rod Cless, Pee Wee Russell, Pete Brown, Sidney Catlett, among others) has been displaying an astonishing assortment of jazz inscriptions.  I haven’t counted, but the total identified as “jazz” comes to 213.  They range from “traditional” to “free jazz” with detours into related musical fields, with famous names side-by-side with those people whose autographs I have never seen.

As I write this (the early afternoon of March 21, 2020) three days and some hours remain.

Here is the overall link.  Theoretically, I covet them, but money and wall space are always considerations.  And collectors should step back to let other people have a chance.

The signers include Benny Carter, Betty Carter, Curtis Counce, Jimmy Woode, Herb Hall, Bennie Morton, Nat Pierce, Hot Lips Page, Rolf Ericson, Arnett Cobb, Vernon Brown, Albert Nicholas, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Sammy Margolis, Ed Polcer, Ed Hall, Billy Kyle, Sam Donahue, Al Donahue, Max Kaminsky, Butch Miles, Gene Krupa, Ray McKinley, Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, Arvell Shaw, Barrett Deems, Buck Clayton, Babs Gonzales, Benny Bailey, Joe Newman, Frank Wess, Pharoah Sanders, Kenny Burrell, Reggie Workman, Stanley Turrentine, Louis Prima, Wayne Shorter, Tiny Bradshaw, Harry Carney, Juan Tizol, Bea Wain, Red Rodney, Frank Socolow, Bobby Timmons, George Wettling, Roy Milton, Charlie Rouse, Donald Byrd, Kai Winding, Kenny Drew, Kenny Clarke, Steve Swallow, Shelly Manne, Frank Bunker, Charlie Shavers, Ben Pollack, Jess Stacy, Ron Carter, Bob Zurke, Jimmy Rushing, Cecil Payne, Lucky Thompson, Gary Burton, Jaki Byard, Noble Sissle, Muggsy Spanier, Don Byas, Pee Wee Russell, Slam Stewart, Hazel Scott, Ziggy Elman, Buddy Schutz, Ernie Royal, Boyd Raeburn, Dave McKenna, Claude Thornhill.

And signatures more often seen, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Hoagy Carmichael, Artie Shaw, Sidney Bechet, Gerry Mulligan, Cab Calloway, Rosemary Clooney, Wynton Marsalis,Tommy Dorsey, Oscar Peterson, Billy Eckstine, Mel Torme, Chick Corea, Count Basie.

In this grouping, there are three or four jazz-party photographs from Al White’s collection, but the rest are matted, with the signed page allied to a photograph — whether by the collector or by the seller, I don’t know.  And there seems to be only one error: “Joe Thomas” is paired with a photograph of the Lunceford tenor star, but the pairing is heralded as the trumpeter of the same name.

My head starts to swim, so I propose some appropriate music — sweet sounds at easy tempos, the better to contemplate such riches, before I share a half-dozen treasures related to musicians I revere.

Jess Stacy’s version of Bix Beiderbecke’s CANDLELIGHTS:

Harry Carney with strings, IT HAD TO BE YOU:

Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Gene Ramey, Jo Jones, PRISONER OF LOVE:

Here are a double handful of autographs for your amazed perusal.

Bob Zurke:

Charlie Shavers, name, address, and phone number:

Lucky Thompson, 1957:

Jimmy Rushing, 1970:

Harry Carney:

Juan Tizol:

Bill Coleman:

Buck Clayton:

Hot Lips Page (authentic because of the presence of the apostrophe):

Joe Sullivan:

Don Byas:

George Wettling:

Frank Socolow:

Benny Carter (I want to see the other side of the check!):

And what is, to me, the absolute prize of this collection: Lester Young, whom, I’m told, didn’t like to write:

Here’s music to bid by — especially appropriate in those last frantic seconds when the bids mount in near hysteria:

May your happiness increase!

JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE

Mal Sharpe and the “Big Money in Jazz” band

Mal Sharpe moved to another neighborhood on March 10, 2020.  He refuses to go away, so it is both an obligation and a privilege to honor him here.  His official obituary depicts him as a comedian:  

Mal Sharpe, ‘The Man on the Street’ radio gag man, dies at 83

That’s one way to see Mal, but between 2011 and 2014,  I knew him well as the leader of a band of idiosyncratic individualists, playing traditional jazz and standards, and as a friend.  I brought my camera and videoed him and his band, “Big Money in Jazz,” at the No Name in Sausalito, at the Savoy Tivoli and Fior d’Italia in San Francisco, at an outdoor concert in North Beach, and once in Armando’s in Martinez.  You can find my videos on YouTube, of course. 

Even though I celebrate Mal as musician and friend, this demands to be included, with all respect to Larry Scala, who told Mal the joke and was never credited:

You know.”

I checked my email files and found that I first met him through my friend Jeff Hamilton in 2011: I’d written to Mal for permission to video his gig at Armando’s, and he was very gracious, telling me that he had seen my blog many times.  Later, I came to his regular gigs, chatted with him, and took pleasure in the band.  He was physically large — tall and broad-shouldered, even though he slumped down in his chair while playing — well dressed in an intentionally casual way.

In those years I was commuting-for-romance from New York, and although I loved being in California, I missed the banquet of music at home.  I was sustained by Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All-Stars and the occasional swing dance gig, but initially found driving to and parking in San Francisco terrifying.  Going to Sausalito was easier — I clearly recall parking my car on Bridgeway and walking past a vertical bank of nasturtiums, which I ate liberally, much to the horror of my companion: I compromised by eating only those above dog-height.  I digress, of course.

The No Name Bar in Sausalito was quite awful, and since I had not been a bar-goer in my youth, I recoiled from its most remarkable features: the broken toilet in the men’s room, the bill of fare that was microwaved popcorn in paper bags, local beer, ordinary spirits, an odd clientele, Nancy, behind the bar, gracious in a rough-hewn way, the band assembled on a narrow stand parallel to the bar.  I remember coming outside after the gig and feeling that the world was strange because it was so clean and bright.  

I never knew in advance who was going to be on the stand with Mal — sometimes superb players, sometimes those who had once been superb, and some others — but the music was always interesting, if only because it was precarious: would X know the chords to the bridge? would Y accelerate his usual glacial pace to get to the end of the chorus when everyone else did?  And there was always Mal, who had his routines, but delivered them with that combination of “I know this by heart” and “I just made this up” that I found charming.  Hearing and watching him do something as mundane as gently hector the crowd to put tips in the jar was worth the drive. 

Mal also had regular improvisations.  One of them was that he would go to a local thrift store (was it in Berkeley or in Oakland?) and buy nearly-useless trinkets — little plastic toys or medical items of no value but much strangeness — and set up mock-contests whose winners would receive some bizarre prize.  I don’t think I am making this up, but once it was the empty case in which one could carry an enema bag.  The takers were few. 

Here is Mal’s New-England based improvisation with which he closed the afternoon’s music:

He played trombone and sang.  As a singer he could be marvelously affecting, and one of the delights of the band was that it was not a stereotypical Bourbon Street band.  If they played the SAINTS, I don’t recall.  And — in the fashion of the great postwar ensembles of Boston (where Mal had grown up (he’d been to George Wein’s Mahogany Hall) and New York, where I had, the band explored standards.  You were much more likely to hear PENNIES FROM HEAVEN than BOURBON STREET PARADE, although they did perform ICE CREAM and Mal liked women singers who favored Billie and Ella, so the band had a less-raucous air to it.  Here’s an example I found moving at the time and still do:

That’s classic Mal — singing with sly tenderness, but also with new lyrics he probably made up on the drive from Berkeley to the gig.

Mal and I bonded because he saw that I was going to use the blog and camera to celebrate him — not embarrass him — and he once said to me, after a post, “Michael, you made us sound so good!” which pleased me.  He knew he was an amateur trombonist, and he said as much, but he stayed within his limitations and thus did no harm. 

We also drifted into a sideways friendship over delicatessen sandwiches at Saul’s, and talked of our mutual hero Vic Dickenson.  I gave him copies of recordings I’d made of Vic, and sometimes our phone conversation would start with his commenting about what Vic had done on the second chorus of SONNY BOY on the CDs I’d made for him.  When I visited him at home once or twice, he invited me into his den, which had photographs of his and my heroes on the wall, a barber’s chair that he sat in to practice, and other oddments. 

I emailed him often, mostly propelled by my finding a new picture or video that I knew he would like, and his brief responses had a telling comical snap.  Face to face, Mal and I spoke of recordings we were listening to; I brought him jazz gossip from New York and he talked about chance meetings with great people and odd ones, taking perhaps more delight in the latter than the other. 

As noted in the newspaper obituary, he was a great on-the-spot improviser of nearly-surreal sketch comedies, and once that I recall I felt (years after the fact) that I had become a character in a Sharpe sketch.  We both knew someone on the New York scene — a fan, amateur musician, and schnorrer (Mal loved Yiddish) who was always on the lookout for some apparently-altruistic scheme that would benefit no one but himself.  He came into the conversation and Mal and I took turns enthusiastically narrating his small-time thieveries.  The next time we met I brought him up with vengeful glee and told of his latest feats while Mal sat silent, listening.  When I ran out of energy, Mal looked at me after a long pause and said that he had decided to speak of this person no more, that it was not what he should be doing, and so on.  At the time, I felt as if Mal had let me walk blindfolded into a hole he had just dug, and said, “Hey, you could have stopped me at the start of blackening this person’s character,” and I don’t recall what he said.  Years later I understood that he had let me go on for the pleasure of the punchline, and I appreciated it as much as I could.

I am not sure if I discerned it or Mal himself told me, but he was a classic paradox — a shy man who sought the limelight as long as he could control it.  I think he needed to be onstage, to make people laugh and applaud, but (with the tuna or turkey sandwich he had Nancy get for him) he needed even more to drive home in silence, then be at home with no one bothering him.  Later on he told me that it wasn’t just shyness, it was anxiety, and I felt very sorrowful, but it also helped me understand him better: as if someone afraid of drowning forced himself to take swimming lessons, even though they scared him terribly and he never got any better.  

When I came back to New York in January 2015, I was happy to be home but I missed Mal greatly, and I would pick up the phone and call him.  I think the last time we spoke was in 2017, and I sensed that he had retreated from the world more than a little.  He stopped responding to emails as well.  But that is too sad a note to end my recollections on.  

How could you not love a man whose email signature (edited by me) was . . . .

MAL SHARPE
Host of KCSM’s Back on Basin Street 91.1
Man On The Street Productions & Big Money in Jazz
Home phone xxx xxx xxxx cell xxx xxx xxxx
Teenage Home phone in Newton, Ma. Bi-4-9509 (If my mother answers, hang up)

DON’T LOOK AT THE TROMBONES, IT ONLY ENCOURAGES THEM—RICHARD STRAUSS

and then there’s this song and performance.  Larry told me today, as we spoke of Mal, that it was Mal’s opening song for gigs:

I think Mal would be embarrassed by having more than fifteen hundred words written about him, but when he could be by himself in his barber chair, he would be secretly pleased.  Perhaps he would have emailed me to say he never ate turkey.

My condolences to Sandra and Jennifer Sharpe.  And my gratitude to Mal for letting me be one of the band in my own way

.

May your happiness increase!

IN 1959, THEY SAT RIGHT DOWN AND WROTE HIM LETTERS

I don’t know what happens today if a young fan writes a letter to Lady Gaga, let us say, requesting a signed photograph or, better yet, asking a question.  That rhetorical question in itself may mark me as hopelessly antique, since fans can find out everything online as it happens.  But my guess is that the Lady doesn’t have time to send back handwritten personalized replies, and that is nothing against her.  Even in the Swing Era, musical personalities had their secretaries or staff sign photos for fans.  On my wall, for instance, is a lovely shot of Connee Boswell — her name signed in pen — but inscribed to the fan in a different hand, leading me to believe that Connee took a stack of a hundred photographs and signed her name on each one.

So what came up on eBay several days ago is remarkable.  I can’t do much detective work, because the seller seems innocent about the trove, and perhaps (s)he has no other connection.  Here’s the listing description:

This 1950’s collection of famous jazz musicians includes autograph letters, signed photographs and autographs. There is an autograph letter signed “Pops Foster” and a photograph signed “George Pops Foster.” There is an autograph note signed “Don Redman” and an 8 x 10 inch photo of Redman also signed. There is an autograph note signed “Meade “Lux” Lewis” There is an autograph note signed “Pete Johnson” and a letter by Pete Johnsons wife. There are two autograph letters signed “Alberta Hunter.” There is an autograph note signed “Buster Baily” and an autograph letter signed “Terry Spargo.” There is also a typed letter by Terry Spargo and a signed photograph. There are several autographs including “Moondog” “Israel Crosby” and a few others. All the letters, notes, photographs and autographs are in very good condition! NO RESERVE!

While you peruse and consider, here is a most appropriate musical soundtrack:

“Christopher,” whose last name may have been “Jameson,” seems to have been a young aspiring pianist and fan who wrote to his heroes, either asking a question and / or asking for an autographed photograph.  We don’t have any of his inquiries, but they must have been polite and admiring, because he received gracious unhurried answers.  And what strikes me is that in 1959 he wasn’t writing to Dizzy, Trane, or Mobley, but — for the most part — jazz pioneers.  A few of the pages in his collection look like in-person autographs, but much is unknown and will probably remain so.  But we have the most delightful evidence: paper ephemera of a kind not often seen.  Here, without further ado:

POPS FOSTER gives his address twice, clearly pleased by this correspondence:

DON REDMAN, smiling and fashionably dressed:

TONY SPARGO, handing off to Eddie “Daddy” Edwards:

More from TONY SPARGO:

PETE JOHNSON wasn’t up to much writing, but his wife was encouraging and Pete did send a nice autograph:

“Musically yours,” MEADE LUX LEWIS:

Are the signers (from Brunswick, Georgia) a vocal group I don’t recognize?  I do see MOONDOG:

I don’t recognize the signatures on the first page, but below I see VERNEL FOURNIER, AHMAD JAMAL, and ISRAEL CROSBY:

BUSTER BAILEY signs in kindly and also mentions his new recording, perhaps the only long-playing record under his own name:

an extraordinary and extraordinarily generous letter from ALBERTA HUNTER:

and an even more generous second chapter:

Christopher must have written extremely polite letters to have received such answers, but this selection of correspondence speaks to the generosity and good will of people who were actively performing, who took the time to take a young person seriously.

When the bidding closed, the collection sold for $660 a few minutes ago.  So you can no longer possess these holy artifacts, but you can lose yourself in rapt contemplation of the images and the kind people who not only created the art we revere, but wrote to Chris.

May your happiness increase!

THE PAST, PRESERVED: “TRIBUTE TO JIMMIE NOONE”: JOE MURANYI, MASON “COUNTRY” THOMAS, JAMES DAPOGNY, JOHNNY WILLIAMS, ROD McDONALD, HAL SMITH (Manassas Jazz Festival, Dulles, Virginia, Nov. 30, 1986)

One moral of this story, for me, is that the treasure-box exists, and wonderfully kind people are willing to allow us a peek inside.

A jazz fan / broadcaster / amateur singer and kazoo player, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, Jr. (1923-1990), — he was an accountant by day — held jazz festivals in Manassas and other Virginia cities, beginning in 1966 and running about twenty years.  They were enthusiastic and sometimes uneven affairs, because of “Fat Cat”‘s habit, or perhaps it was a financial decision, of having the finest stars make up bands with slightly less celestial players.  Some of the musicians who performed and recorded for McRee include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, James Dapogny, Don Ewell, John Eaton, Maxine Sullivan, Bob Wilber, Pug Horton, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Bob Greene, Johnny Wiggs, Zutty Singleton, Clancy Hayes, George Brunis, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Tommy Gwaltney, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barker, Edmond Souchon, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Gordon, Marty Grosz, Hal Smith, Kerry Price . . . .

McRee also had business sense, so the proceedings were recorded, issued first on records and then on cassette.  I never got to Manassas while the Festival was happening, but I did buy many of Fat Cat’s lps (with their red and yellow label) and years later, when I met Hank O’Neal, he told me stories of recording the proceedings on Squirrel Ashcraft’s tape machine here.

My dear friend Sonny McGown, who was there, filled in some more of the story of the music you are about to see and hear.  The 1986 festival was dedicated to Jimmie Noone and these performances come from a Sunday brunch set.  “It was a very talented group and they meshed well. Mason ‘Country’ Thomas was the best clarinetist in the DC area for years; he was a big fan of Caceres. . . . Fat Cat’s wife, Barbara, often operated the single VHS video camera which in later years had the audio patched in from the sound board. As you well know, the video quality in those days was somewhat lacking but it is better to have it that way than not at all. Several years later Barbara allowed Joe Shepherd to borrow and digitize many of the videos. In his last years Fat Cat only issued audio cassettes. They were easy to produce, carry and distribute. FCJ 238 contains all of the Muranyi – Dapogny set except for “River…”. However, the videos provide a more enhanced story.”

A few years back, I stumbled across a video that Joe had put up on YouTube — I think it was Vic Dickenson singing and playing ONE HOUR late in his life, very precious to me for many reasons — and I wrote to him.  Joe proved to be the most generous of men and he still is, sending me DVDs and CD copies of Fat Cat recordings I coveted.  I am delighted to report that, at 93, he is still playing, still a delightful person who wants nothing more for his kindnesses than that the music be shared with people who love it.

Because of Joe, I can present to you the music of Jimmie Noone, performed on November 30, 1986, by Joe Muranyi, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocal; Mason “Country” Thomas, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Rod McDonald, guitar; Johnny Williams, string bass [yes, Sidney Catlett’s teammate in the Armstrong Decca orchestra!]; Hal Smith, drums; Johnson McRee, master of ceremonies and vocalist.  The songs are IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (vocal, Joe); CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES (vocal, Fat Cat); MISS ANNABELLE LEE (Joe); SO SWEET; RIVER, STAY ‘WAY FROM MY DOOR; APEX BLUES; SWEET LORRAINE (Fat Cat).

Some caveats.  Those used to videocassette tapes know how quickly the visual quality diminishes on duplicates, and it is true here.  But the sound, directly from the mixing board, is bright and accurate.  YouTube, in its perplexing way, has divided this set into three oddly-measured portions, so that the first and second segments end in the middle of a song.  Perhaps I could repair this, but I’d rather be shooting and posting new videos than devoting my life to repairing imperfections.  (Also, these things give the busy YouTube dislikers and correcters something to do: I can’t take away their pleasures.)

One of the glories of this set is the way we can see and hear Jim Dapogny in peak form — not only as soloist, but as quirky wise ensemble pianist, sometimes keeping everything and everyone on track.  Joe has promised me more videos with Jim . . . what joy, I say.

Don’t you hear me talkin’ to you?  It IS tight like that:

Who’s wonderful?  Who’s marvelous?

I’ve just found joy:

I started this post with “a” moral.  The other moral comes out of my finding this DVD, which I had forgotten, in the course of tidying my apartment for the new decade.  What occurs to me now is that one should never be too eager to tidy their apartment / house / what have you, because if everything is properly organized and all the contents are known, then surprises like this can’t happen.  So there.  Bless all the people who played and play; bless those who made it possible to share this music with you.  Living and “dead,” they resonate so sweetly.

May your happiness increase!

JAMES P. JOHNSON’S “BLUE MIZZ,” PLUS VIC DICKENSON

I’ve loved the 1943-44 recordings by the Blue Note Jazzmen since I first heard them in the early Seventies.  Here’s James P. Johnson’s pensive yet dramatic composition, BLUE MIZZ, from 1944 — with the personnel listed on the label.  I’ve kept this link even though the disc has serious skips:

Thanks to friend and swing star Michael Gamble, here’s a link that doesn’t skip:

And here’s a holy relic just spotted a few minutes ago on eBay.  The seller (link      here) is asking slightly more than eighty-five dollars for the disc, which is not within my budget at the moment (is it too boastful to say that I have two Vic autographs, one that he signed for me?) . . . but I thought you would like to see the combination of sound, object, and the touch of a hero’s hand:

Bless the artists who made these sounds, and let us not forget a single one.

May your happiness increase!

A postscript: I created this posting about ninety minutes ago: someone bought the record described above, which makes me feel quite good . . . Vic devotees are reading JAZZ LIVES!  Also — the race IS to the swift.  Twenty-four hours later, I realized that the disc might have been bought by someone who’s never read this blog — but the illusion of my connecting the cosmic dots is one I will hang on to a little longer.

HOW THE MASTERS DO IT: BOB HAVENS // MARTY GROSZ (Jazz at Chautauqua, September 16, 2011)

I am moderately accident-prone: I can trip over an uneven sidewalk; have the last bit of salad dressing adhere to my shirt; while driving, I may unsuccessfully avoid a pothole with an $800 repair bill as the result.  I laugh about it.

So I admire those who see the looming catastrophe, however its size and shape, and step around it without spilling their tea.  They aren’t Bojangles, Fred, or Gene — just people who sense the landmine and gracefully avoid it.  Jazz musicians are especially good at fixing errors before they turn into train wrecks.

Two of these Masters — you could call them spiritual acrobats or merely veterans of the trade — are trombonist Bob Havens and guitarist / singer / arranger Marty Grosz.  Both of these heroes are born in 1930, so when this brief interlude took place on September 16, 2011, they were 81.  Decades of experience!  The occasion was the yearly Jazz at Chautauqua, the beloved child of Joe Boughton, that was held at the Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua, New York (ninety minutes from Buffalo).  It was a memorable jazz weekend, with about thirty musicians playing and singing from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon.

One of the particular delights of Chautauqua grew out of Joe’s love for beautiful semi-forgotten songs.  Thus the weekend began and ended with a ballad medley.  Four musicians were chosen as a skilled rhythm section, and from one side of the stage, everyone else walked on, indicated briefly to the rhythm section what song they had chosen and in what key, played or sang a chorus at a slow tempo, and walked offstage from the other side.  Emotionally powerful, visually charming, full of surprises and sweet sensations.

For the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua’s closing medley, the rhythm section was Keith Ingham, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Marty Grosz, guitar; Arnie Kinsella, drums.  The complete medley ran perhaps twenty minutes: I’ve excerpted a segment I find particularly touching.

You’ll see at the start of this excerpt Bob Havens step onstage and explain by words and gestures that he plans to play — in seconds — LOVE LETTERS IN THE SAND, the nostalgic creation of Charles and Nick Kenny and Danny Coots’ great-uncle, J. Fred.  It’s a favorite song of mine, first recorded in 1931 by (among others) Ruth Etting, then made into a huge success by Pat Boone.  I won’t comment on what the trajectory from Ruth to Pat suggests to me, especially because it was one of Vic Dickenson’s favorites also (his medium-bounce version can be found on YouTube).  In its homespun way, it’s a seventeenth-century poem: human love always loses the battle with nature and time, and tears are inevitable.

The opening phrase is familiar, the harmony simple, but unless my ears deceive me, there is a slight uncertainty in the rhythm section about the harmonies that follow, so Havens, used to this sort of thing for decades, “spells out” the harmony by emphasizing arpeggiated chords as he goes along — and the performance not only reaches its goal but our hearts as well.

Then Marty, who always goes his own way, thank goodness, asks everyone to be silent while he essays EMALINE.  That in itself would be brave — the lyrics to the chorus are pure Waltons-Americana, but they might be fairly well known.  No, our hero Martin Oliver Grosz begins with the verse and gets about one-third of the way before realizing his memory of the lyrics is incomplete: hear his inimitable rescue!  And the chorus is just lovely.  Incidentally, Frank Tate is someone I deeply admire: watch and listen to this clip again, and look at his facial expressions as Marty walks the thorny path he has chosen for himself.

For those who need to know (I had to look them up) the pretty although seriously hackneyed lyrics to the verse are: Ev’ning breezes hum a lullaby / There’s a million candles in the sky / I’ve put on my Sunday suit of blue / Emaline, just for  you / Here I’m standing at your garden gate / While the village clock is striking eight / Hurry up! Hurry down! / Honey, don’t be late!  (I especially like the “up” and “down,” but I’m a sentimentalist.)

The musicians on this stage (and their friends) are my role models.  What does a brief error matter if you either head it off or make a joke out of it: in both cases, they not only avoid trouble but cover it up so stylishly that the result is even better than plain old competence.  All hail!

There will be more previously unknown treasures from the Jazz at Chautauqua weekends — and then its successor, the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party — in months to come.  “Too good to ignore,” said Eddie Condon, who spoke truth.

May your happiness increase!

HANK O’NEAL CELEBRATES BOB WILBER (August 17, 2019)

Bob Wilber with the superb drummer Bernard Flegar, after their gig in Bülach, Switzerland, June 11th 2005.

Once again, it is my great privilege to have asked Hank O’Neal to talk about the people he knows and loves — in this case, the recently departed jazz patriarch Bob Wilber, whom Hank knew and recorded on a variety of rewarding projects.

But even before we begin, all of the music Bob and other luminaries (Earl Hines, Joe Venuti, Zoot Sims, Dick Wellstood, Dave McKenna, Lee Konitz, Ruby Braff, Dick Hyman, Buddy Tate, Don Ewell, Mary Lou Williams and dozens more) created can be heard 24/7 on the Chiaroscuro Channel. Free, too.

Here’s the first part, where he recalls the first time he saw Bob, and moves on — with portraits of other notables — Marian McPartland and Margot Fonteyn, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Soprano Summit, Bobby Henderson, Pug Horton, Summit Reunion, and more:

Bob’s tribute (one of many) to his wife, singer Pug Horton, from 1977, with Scott Hamilton, Chris Flory, Phil Flanigan, and Chuck Riggs:

With Kenny Davern, George Duvivier, Fred Stoll, and Marty Grosz, SOME OF THESE DAYS (1976):

Here’s the second part of Hank’s reminiscence:

and a magical session from 1976 that sought to recreate the atmosphere of the Thirties dates Teddy did with his own small bands — the front line is Bob, Sweets Edison (filling in at the last minute for Bobby Hackett, who had just died), Vic Dickenson, Major Holley, and Oliver Jackson:

Summit Reunion’s 1990 BLACK AND BLUE (Bob, Kenny Davern, Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden):

and their 1995 WANG WANG BLUES, with the same personnel:

Too good to ignore!  DARLING NELLY GRAY:

and my 2010 contribution to the treasure-chest or toybox of sounds:

Thank you, Hank.  Thank you, Bob and colleagues.

May your happiness increase!

FORTY YEARS OF PEE WEE RUSSELL, WITH DELIGHTED AMAZEMENT

Those of you who get excited by genuine paper ephemera (as opposed to this, which is not even a careful forgery) will have noticed my recent posting with many signatures of jazz greats here.  After I had posted my elaborate cornucopia of collectors’ treasures, I returned to  eBay and found this holy relic I had overlooked:

I find the card very pleasing, and fountain pen blots add to its c. 1944 authenticity.  But here’s the beautiful part:

and another version:

There wasn’t enough time between my discovery and the end of the bidding to post it, so (I hope readers will forgive me) I offered a small bid and won it.  I am completely surprised, because usually someone swoops down in the last two minutes and drives the price up beyond what I am willing to pay.

But the card now belongs to someone who loves Pee Wee Russell in all his many incarnations.  Here is a quick and idiosyncratic tour of Charles Ellsworth Russell’s constantly changing planetary systems — all held together by surprise, feeling, and a love for the blues.

Incidentally, some otherwise perceptive jazz listeners have told me that they don’t “get” Mr. Russell: I wonder if they are sometimes distracted from his singular beauties by their reflex reaction to, say, the conventions of the music he was often expected to play.  If they could listen to him with the same curiosity, openness, and delight they bring to Lester or Bix they would hear his remarkable energies even when he was playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE.

The famous IDA from 1927:

Philip Larkin’s holy grail — the Rhythmakers with Red Allen:

and CROSS PATCH from 1936:

even better, the 1936 short film with Prima, SWING IT:

DOIN’ THE NEW LOW DOWN, with Bobby Hackett, Brad Gowans, Eddie Condon:

and the first take, with Max Kaminsky, James P. Johnson, Dicky Wells, Freddie Green and Zutty Singleton:

and thank goodness a second take survives:

and Pee Wee with Eddie and Brad:

in 1958, with Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, and Nat Pierce:

and this, so beautiful, with Buck Clayton and Tommy Flanagan, from 1960:

with Coleman Hawkins, Emmett Berry, Bob Brookmeyer, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones:

an excerpt from a Newport Jazz Festival set in 1962:

a slow blues with Art Hodes in 1968, near the end of Pee Wee’s life:

and another wonderful surprise: the half-hour documentary on Pee Wee, in which our friend Dan Morgenstern plays a great part:

Pee Wee truly “kept reinventing himself,” and it would be possible to create an audio / video survey of his career that would be just as satisfying without repeating anything I’ve presented above.  His friends and associates — among them Milt Gabler, George Wein, Ruby Braff, and Nat Pierce — helped him share his gifts with us for forty years of recordings, a wonderful long offering.

May your happiness increase!

“AND THE ANGELS SWING”: THE DAN BARRETT – ENRIC PEIDRO QUINTET

Swing is hard to define, but it’s the difference between ripe cherries and a cherry candy “with natural flavors” synthesized in a laboratory.  I’m happy to report that the CD that pairs tenor saxophonist Enric Peidro and trombone legend Dan Barrett is satisfying swinging jazz throughout.  In fact, it reaches new heights in the most refined yet impassioned ways.

Let’s start at the back of the bandstand, or the bottom of the band (no offense intended), the fine rhythm section.  I didn’t know pianist Richard Busiakewicz, bassist Lluis Llario, or drummer Carlos “Sir Charles” Gonzalez before this recording, but I love them.  Their swing is unforced and easy; they know how, what, when, why, and when not to . . .

But before I write more, here’s a sonic sample, celebrating both Vic Dickenson (the composer) and his horticultural endeavors:

The question of what is “authentic” is treacherous, because we defend our subjectivities with a lover’s defensive ardor, but that performance feels both expressive and controlled in the best ways.  Forget for a moment the warm twenty-first century recording technology.  If I heard that track, coming after a 1945 Don Byas-Buck Clayton Jamboree 78 and a Mel Powell Vanguard session, I would not think VIC’S SPOT an impostor.  Swing is more than being able to play the notes or wear the hat; it’s a world-view, and this quintet has it completely.

Barrett remains a master — not only of the horn, but of what I’d call “orchestral thinking,” where he’s always inventing little touches (on the page or on the stand) to make any performance sound fuller, have greater rhythmic emphasis and harmonic depth.  I’ve seen him do this on the spot for years, and his gentle urgency makes this quintet even more a convincing working band than it would have been if anyone took his place.  And as a trombonist, he really has no peer: others go in different directions and woo us, but he is immediately and happily himself, totally recognizable, with a whole tradition at his fingertips as well as a deep originality.

But Dan would be the first one to say that he is not the whole show: this CD offers us a swinging little band.  We’ve all heard recordings, some of them dire, where the visiting “star” is supported by the “locals,” who are not up to the star’s level: many recorded performances by Ben Webster immediately come to mind.

AND THE ANGELS SWING is the glorious countertruth to such unbalanced affairs, because Enric Peidro, who was new to me before I heard this CD, is a masterful player.  He’s no one’s clone — I couldn’t predict what his next phrase would be or where his line of thought would go — and although he is not cautious, he never puts a foot wrong.  You can hear his gliding presence on the track above, and for me he summons up two great and under-praised players, primarily Harold Ashby, but also a cosmopolitan Paul Gonsalves with no rough edges.  He is a fine intuitive ensemble player, with an easy sophistication that charms the ear.  I think of the way Ruby Braff appeared in the early Fifties: someone not afraid to play the melody, to improvise in heartfelt ways, to eschew the harder aspects of “modernism” without being affected in any reactionary ways.

Add to this a set of delightful song choices, with a great deal of variety but not so much that the ear is startled when track 4 becomes track 5, and you have a delightful session.  The tunes are: I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME into KANSAS CITY STRIDE / ‘DEED I DO / LIMEHOUSE BLUES / AND THE ANGELS SWING / SERENADE TO SWEDEN / IF I DIDN’T CARE / MY BLUE HEAVEN / VIC’S SPOT / SULTRY SERENADE — you’ll hear echoes of 1939 Basie and Ellington, but there’s no attempt to “reproduce” — just to play with ease, warmth, and wisdom.

If you need any more verification, know that Scott Hamilton approves of Enric!

You can learn more about Enric and his love of swing here — where I just learned that he and Dan have a new CD coming out this October, called IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING . . . what fun!

And here’s another taste from AND THE ANGELS SWING:

Let us — metaphorically at least — carry this band around the room on our shoulders.  Or we can strew flowers at their feet, whichever is easier.

May your happiness increase!

“UNDER THE INFLUENCE”: DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES ALTERED STATES OF BEING, LOUIS, LESTER, GIL, ZOOT, HAWK, BUSTER, VIC, DEXTER, and MORE (Sept. 5, 2019)

Another highly elevating conversation with Dan Morgenstern at his Upper West Side apartment — the most recent in a series of encounters that began in March 2017.

But first, several relevant musical interludes: VIPER MAD, with Sidney Bechet, sung by O’Neil Spencer:

YOU’SE A VIPER, Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, vocal by Jonah Jones:

Cab Calloway’s 1932 THE MAN FROM HARLEM:

and Louis’ WAS I TO BLAME (For Falling in Love With You):

Dan talks about the magical herb, with comments on the music of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young in the military, Zoot Sims, Gil Evans, and more:

Tales of Ralph Burns, Buster Bailey, Condon’s club, Vic Dickenson, and more:

The magical tale of Louis and Coleman Hawkins at Newport, Hawk, Benny Carter, Zutty and Marge Singleton, and more:

Under the influence with heroes, including Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, seeing Sweets Edison gracefully handle things, and an early venture into LSD:

To close, I hope you’ll hum this playful exhortation from Buster Bailey in the days to come.  “Let’s all get mellow!”:

May your happiness increase!

A LEISURELY CONVERSATION OF KINDRED SOULS, or “BLUES FOR MANNIE”: MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, HELGE LORENZ, ENGELBERT WROBEL, BERT BOEREN, MENNO DAAMS, ENRICO TOMASSO, BERNARD FLEGAR, NICO GASTREICH, NIELS UNBEHAGEN (April 10, 2016)

You wouldn’t imagine that the serious man (second from left in the photograph, holding a corner of the check) could inspire such joy, but it’s true.  That fellow is my friend and friend to many, Manfred “Mannie” Selchow, jazz concert promoter, jazz scholar, enthusiast, and so much more.  He even has his own Wikipedia page that gives his birthdate, his work history, and more — but it also says that he has organized more than thirty concert tours of Germany that have resulted in many joyous concerts and CDs from them (released on the Nagel-Heyer label) featuring Ralph Sutton, Marty Grosz, Harry Allen, Randy Sandke, Eddie Erickson, Menno Daams, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Barrett, Kenny Davern, Bob Wilber, Mark Shane, Rossano Sportiello, and hundreds more.

I first met Manfred through the mail: he had published a small but fascinating bio-discography of one of his great heroes, Edmond Hall (whom he heard in 1955 when Ed came to Germany with Louis).  Eager as always, I wrote him to let him know about some Hall I’d heard that he hadn’t.  We began corresponding and traded many tapes.  The slim monograph grew into a huge beautiful book, PROFOUNDLY BLUE, and Manfred then began working on an even more expansively detailed one about Vic Dickenson, DING! DING! which I am proud to have been a small part of.  In 2007, I visited him in his hometown for a weekend of music; I came over again in April 2016 for “Jazz im Rathaus,” which takes place in Imhove.  This 2016 concert weekend was in celebration not only of thirty years of wonderful music, but of Manfred’s eightieth birthday.

The concert weekend was marvelous, full of music from the people you see below and others, including Nicki Parrott, Stephanie Trick, and Paolo Alderighi. However, one of the most satisfying interludes of the weekend took place near the end — a JATP-themed set led by Matthias Seuffert.  And Matthias, who has excellent ideas, had this one: to play a blues for Mannie.  Now, often “Blues for [insert name here]” is elegiac, since the subject has died.  Happily, this isn’t the case.  What it is, is a medium-tempo, rocking, cliche-free evocation of the old days made new — honoring our friend Mannie.  The players are Bernard Flegar, drums; Niels Unbehagen, piano; Helge Lorenz, guitar; Nico Gastreich, string bass; Bert Boeren, trombone; Engelbert Wrobel, Matthias Seuffert, reeds; Menno Daams, Enrico Tomasso, trumpet.  What a groove!

I think the world — in its perilous state — needs blues like this (homeopathically) to drive away the real ones we face, and this nearly ten-minute example of singular individuals working together lovingly in swing for a common purpose is a good model for all of us.  Thanks to the always-inspiring Mannie for all he’s done and continues to do.

P.S.  This post was originally prepared for the faithful readers and listeners shortly after the music was performed, but technical difficulties of a rather tedious sort interfered . . . and now you can see what we all saw a few years back.  Thanks for holding, as they say in telephone conversations.  And if Manfred is still somewhat computer-averse, I hope someone will share this post with him.

May your happiness increase!

MR. WILBER, THE SAGE

Days gone by: December 1946, Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Johnny Glasel, Charlie Trager, Eddie Phyfe. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

Robert Sage Wilber, born in 1928, who never played an ugly or graceless note in his life, has left us.  I first heard him on recordings more than fifty years ago, and saw him in person first in 1970 with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band.  He was a magnificently consistent player — his time, his intonation, his creativity, his vital force, his melodic lyricism — and one of the world’s most versatile.  He didn’t care to be “innovative” in the best modern way, but kept refining his art, the art of Louis and Bechet and Teddy Wilson, every time he played.

People who didn’t quite understand his masteries (the plural is intentional) thought of him as derivative, whatever that means, but even when he was playing SONG OF SONGS in the Bechet manner or WARM VALLEY for the Rabbit, he was recognizably himself: passionate and exact at the same time, a model of how to do it.  And if you appreciate the jazz lineage, a man who performed with Baby Dodds, Tommy Benford, Kaiser Marshall, Joe Thomas, Sidney Catlett, Billy Strayhorn, Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Cliff Leeman . . . so deeply connected to the past while remaining fiercely active, has moved to another neighborhood.  I send my condolences to his wife, the singer Pug Horton, and his family.

I was extremely fortunate to cross paths with Bob — not only as an admiring spectator of Soprano Summit, where he and Kenny Davern were equally matched — but as an admiring jazz journalist and videographer.  He was not worried about what I captured: he was confident in himself and he trusted that the music would carry him.  Here are some glimpses of the Sage in action, in music and in speech.

Rare photographs and music from 1947 here.

A session with David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band (2010) and Daryl Sherman here.

Two parts of an intimate session at Smalls in 2012 with Ehud Asherie and Pug Horton as well here and here.

And a particular prize: a two-part 2015 interview session (thanks to Pug!) here and here.

More than a decade ago, when I began this blog, I worked hard to keep away from the temptations of necrology — my joke is that I didn’t want it to be JAZZ DIES — but if I didn’t write and post something about Robert Sage Wilber, I’d never forgive myself.  We will keep on admiring and missing him as long as there is music.

May your happiness increase!  

“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!

“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!