Tag Archives: Village Vanguard

IRRESISTIBLE READING: “TRAVELS WITH LOUIS” and “RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN”

I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN.  Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.

I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me.  I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could.  So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)

Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.

But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked.  I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them?  If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)

Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves.  Louis first.

TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter.  Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician.  I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger.  But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through.  And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us.  In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!”  The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises.  (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)

Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere.  So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library.  Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once.  Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience.  Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life.  The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.

RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians.  Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia.  At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)

Both books work.  I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book.  Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.”  “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.”  “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.”  “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.”  “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.

But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.

And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.

These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences!  Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.

And who knows?  Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer.  All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie.  It should swing.

Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt.  I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.

You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.

May your happiness increase!

WOW! DECEMBER 29, 1940: LESTER YOUNG, SHAD COLLINS, J.C. HIGGINBOTHAM, SAMMY PRICE, HAROLD “DOC” WEST

Here’s the good news.  What many of us have only read about in discographies exists: discs preserving thirty minutes of a Village Vanguard jam session, overseen by Ralph Berton, then broadcasting jazz on the air on New York City’s municipal radio station, WNYC.

And thanks to the Library of Congress, National Public Radio, and the tireless Franz Hoffmann, we can hear two minutes and thirty-six seconds of a jump blues, caught in the middle of Lester’s solo.  The sound is good; the discs were well-preserved.

The less good news is that the NPR commentator (perhaps unconsciously modeling himself on Alistair Cooke) talks over the music at the start and it is such a brief excerpt.  But it gives one hope for more glorious jazz archaeology:

Thank you, Lester, Shad (trumpet); Higgy (trombone); Sammy Price (piano); Doc West (drums); Ralph Berton; anonymous WNYC engineer / recordist; the Library of Congress; National Public Radio; Franz Hoffmann.

May your happiness increase.

FIRST-HAND: PAUL NOSSITER REMEMBERS ROD CLESS

This is the first of what I hope is a long series — first-hand testimony from the men and women who were there, about their jazz heroes and more. 

Paul Nossiter is a veteran jazz improviser, educator, and writer — on the scene for a long time and still gigging in the New England area.  We spoke in October 2010 about his early experiences with the legendary clarinetist Rod Cless.

I had an older brother, Bud (for Bernard): he was my guru.  He was a swing fan in the early Forties, and I worshipped him, so I became a swing fan.  My idea was that Benny Goodman must have been 25 or 30 years old.  Benny was going to die, and I was going to replace him!  He was going to fade away, and I had to be prepared to take his place. 

We had been collecting big-band jazz records, and then one Thanksgiving my brother saw that the Village Vanguard was going to have a jam session, and he and my cousin (who was a year older, in high school) persuaded my mother to take them, and I horned in on it. 

It wasn’t a jam session.  It was a quartet I will never forget.  Zutty Singleton, Pops Foster, Art Hodes (the only white man I ever heard who really could play the blues) and this lean, tall, weird-looking clarinet player.  So tall that they called him Pee Wee — Pee Wee Russell.

It was a karmic experience for both my brother and me.  We felt we’d heard the truth.  we went home and began to throw our 78 records of swing out the window into the courtyard below, until the super came up, cursed us roundly, and we stopped.

We got into that kind of jazz, and he began to collect records by the Condon gang, all those wonderful people, and I finally got a clarinet and began to take lessons.  We went to concerts, and eventually heard Bunk Johnson at Stuyvesant Casino.

Once, Bud was in Nick’s in Greenwich Village, and Rod Cless was playing with a group.  (I was too young to go by myself.)  And he said to Rod, “I’ve got a kid brother who wants to learn to play jazz.”  Rod said, “Well, I’ve never taught anyone.”  Bud said, “Why don’t you give him some lessons, and see?”  And that’s how it started.  I can’t remember what he got paid — maybe ten dollars. 

Once a week, Rod would come up to the apartment we lived in on West 77th Street, and teach me by ear the jazz repertoire that Condon and Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band played.  Rod would teach me, bit by bit, JADA, BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME, and some of the faster ones.  He would play the melody, and then I would play after him.  He would say, “No, that note’s wrong.  You need to use two fingers.”  It was very much Montessori-ish.  Then when I finally learned the tune, I would have to play it for him, and he would play a counter-melody behind me. 

One of the things Rod had with him when he came up was a pint bottle, because he drank continuously.  He probably put away a fifth during the day, nibbling at it, and another fifth at night, when he worked.  It didn’t seem to affect his playing (eventually I went to places where I could hear him play).  He had a very large nose — almost a fighter’s nose or an alcoholic’s nose — and when he drank it got bright red.  Once, Rod was taking a sip from his pint bottle when my father walked in.  And I thought, “Oh, shit!  There goes my lessons.”  My father turned on his heel, shut the door and went out.  And he came back about ten minutes later and said to Rod, “If you’re going to drink, drink something good,” and put a bottle of Scotch on the table.   

After school, I used to practice with the Commodore records that we collected, playing melody with those records.  (And the nice thing was that if the band made a mistake, I could pick up the needle and start over again!)

That was another very important part of my life, when we started to collect records — going down Sixth Avenue and visiting all the used record stores, looking for Louis and Bessie and Muggsy.  Then I would wind up at the Commodore Record Shop.  It was wonderful — walls of records stacked up and four or five listening booths!  Can you believe it?  You would ask for the records you wanted, they would hand them to you, and you would take them back into a booth and sit in a leather chair and play them.  I could afford one record a week, so the record I bought had to be absolutely perfect.  Every solo had to be just right, every chorus, the ensemble . . . so bit by bit I amassed a collection of these records. 

After about eight months or a year of these once-a-week sessions with Rod, he said, “Right.  Now I’m going to play the melody.  You play something else.”  And I said, “What?  What will I play?”  Rod said, “Haven’t you been listening?”  And that’s how I got thrown into the water.  I did have an ear for harmony, and I played very simple stuff behind him, and we would play duets this way. 

Rod was not a very vocal person.  He didn’t speak a lot.  He was very quiet, and very gentle.  Never critical of my playing.  He was absolutely different from any teacher I’d had before or since.  And by the time I was a senior in high school, I could sit in at Jimmy Ryan’s occasionally.  The last number, BUGLE CALL RAG, anybody in the house who had an instrument could play two choruses.       

(I got to meet James P. Johnson because Rod was working in a band that included him at the Pied Piper — a wonderful band with James P. playing, and you’d go up to him and he’d carry on a conversation with you without stopping.)

I’ve been wonderfully lucky!

MISS BARBARA LEA

April 10 was Barbara Lea’s eighty-first birthday.  I am quite late, but hope that no one minds my tardiness. 

She is deeply respected by those who know, although by my reckoning there could be many more people aware of her special approach.  Barbara has always worked wonderfully with jazz performers of a subtle kind — she is not someone shouting over a full-tilt ensemble . . . but like her idols Mildred Bailey and Lee Wiley, she is a singer comfortable with a few horns threading through her vocal and a supportive rhythm section. 

In some ways, she is the musical equivalent to Ruby Braff, somewhat of a delicious anachronism, making her peaceful way amidst the noise of the last fifty years.  The recordings I most treasure of Barbara’s find her alongside players who summon up great emotional force without ever raising their voices: Johnny Windhurst (her Bobby Hackett), Dick Sudhalter, and Vic Dickenson at the very end of his recording career. 

Barbara’s recording career began with a two-song session for Graham Prince’s Cadillac label in 1954 (those days of transition where a new single was issued both on 45 and 78): a pop trifle called I’LL BET YOU A KISS backed with Barbara’s choice, ANYPLACE I HANG MY HAT IS HOME.  The band?  Amateurs . . . Pee Wee Erwin, Cutty Cutshall, Bill Pemberton, George Wettling, and Bill Austin.  Here’s a photograph from that session:

Here’s Barbara with an unknown fan, some hanger-on:

At the Village Vanguard, 1956:

With the noted cellist Morey Amsterdam:

And in the present day, with her dear friend Jeanie Wilson, both in high style:

It’s sad to report that Barbara no longer sings, owing to Alzheimer’s disease.  But she enjoys listening to music and is strong in body — and much loved.  We have the music she made — a substantial legacy.