Tag Archives: W.B. Yeats

THE SWEETNESS OF FRIENDSHIP: NEW ORLEANS / NEW YORK CITY (April 2015)

Friends keep us afloat in this world.

Pianist / composer Kris Tokarski is a dear friend I’ve not yet met in person; the same is true for videographer / free spirit Kelley Rand.  Together with the fine tenor saxophonist Rex Gregory they conspired to give me a delicious gift.

Recently, Kris and I were in conversation online about his upcoming gig (April 23, 2015) at the Bombay Club in New Orleans in duet with Rex . . . and the subject of the 1956 quartet session, PRES AND TEDDY [that’s Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Gene Ramey, and Jo Jones] came up.  I told Kris my story about seeing Teddy in person at a shopping center in 1971 and asking him to autograph my record, which he did, speaking only two words, “Thank you.”

Half-facetiously, I said to Kris that he and Rex should play LOUISE, one of the great lyrical songs from that session — one rarely performed by jazzmen, Bix and Tram being a notable exception.  I thought that would be the extent of my cyber-meddling, until Kelley dropped this gem at my feet.  Don’t miss the spoken dedication:

How lyrical, how joyous.  And connoisseurs of improvisation will note that Kris and Rex know the places where one could insert an easy cliché, a glib quotation; they nimbly dance around such temptations to create something light and heartfelt.

I’m both honored and delighted — by the lovely music and the generous intent behind it all.  And if you subscribe to Kelley Rand‘s YouTube channel, there are more videos of Kris and friends . . . . and I know other surprises are on the way.

The other instance of what I call Love in Swingtime — after the Ellington performance — came during a Sunday afternoon appearance on April 5, 2015, at Casa Mezcal on Orchard Street in New York City by Tamar Korn, that celestial butterfly of song; Ehud Asherie, piano; Rob Adkins, string bass.

I had told Tamar, whom I count as a dear friend and cosmic marvel, of some rough times I had been having, and she was compassionate and sympathetic. When she began her set, I expected nothing more to come of her affectionate concern, but when she launched into that wonderful bit of optimistic philosophy, WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, she delivered a great gift at :27.

I was and am immensely touched, and the memory of this moment has made me more buoyant ever since.  Yes, the people at Mezcal are talking, but the music — that bright spiritual beacon — cuts through:

“Say my glory was I had such friends.”  W.B. Yeats, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited.”

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG AND THAT OTHER WORLD

This rectangular slip of paper — with only eleven letters signed by his own hand by one of the gods of creation — makes me feel a deep sadness. Lester Young, one of the most inspired individuals of the twentieth century, is so much larger than his signature on a withholding tax form.  It’s almost like imagining Prometheus in chains to think of Lester having to sign forms so that money could be taken from him, having to pay taxes.

I think this brightly creative person was also one of the most delicate creatures: consider his sadness, which isn’t always so evident in his late playing.  Even though he was tall, physically powerful, his spirit was airborne and thus shackled by the mundane demands of this world. I am not retelling the stories of what happened to him in the United States Army, but here is evidence of an unusual man being required to do the usual:

PREZ TAXES

The President, forced to be ordinary.  Are we surprised that he seems to have willed his life to be over so quickly?

Had we known Lester Young’s sorrow, could we have taken it on ourselves and lessened his pain?  Could his friends and the people who insisted that he sign forms have loved him more, have helped him to be free?

I do not know, and perhaps it is presumptuous even to speculate.  But for a moment I imagine a youthful, ever buoyant Lester Young, going his own way in a world exist where he did not have to rush, could wear soft shoes and make pretty sounds?  Poets and martyrs, Yeats said, more or less, do not live in the world of bankers.  Lester tried to make our world and his  brighter, less painful.

His sound lives on; his music still floats.

May your happiness increase!

BISHOP BERKELEY SWINGS IT, or WHEN JAZZ MIRACLES HAPPEN BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: BENT PERSSON, JENS LINDGREN, RENE HAGMANN, GAVIN LEE, THOMAS WINTELER, MARTIN SECK, FRANS SJOSTROM, MALCOLM SKED, MARTIN WHEATLEY, JOSH DUFFEE (Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party 2012)

George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, by John Smibert

George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, by John Smibert

I was thinking about the Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), Bishop of Cloyne, the other day: I had read about him in W. B. Yeats’ celebration of the intellectual and powerful figures of the Irish past.  What appealed to me was the notion that objects have to be perceived to exist: in whimsical form, the question is “How do you know that your books exist once you leave your house and can no longer see them?”  Is a table “there” if we are not perceiving it?

I’m not about to propose that the jazz fans’ Vocalions and Brunswicks vanish as soon as the collectors leave the music room; I don’t want to face the possible responses, nor do I want to start massive panic.  But for jazz devotees, the Bishop’s ruminations take on an intriguing shape: the subject being the music we know exists or once existed which is inaccessible to us.  When we read somewhere in a Whitney Balliett profile (I believe his subject was Illinois Jacquet speaking) of a 1941 West Coast jam session where the rhythm section was Nat Cole, Charlie Christian, Jimmie Blanton, and Sidney Catlett, we know on the basis of all the evidence of individual recorded performances that this would have been beyond our wildest dreams.  But it is made all the more extraordinary is that we weren’t there.  It thus takes on the magical quality of the Arabian Nights.

Another manifestation of this idealizing of what we can’t reach (a larger human principle, perhaps) is the idea that musicians are playing magically when we are not in the room — when the concert is over, when the club is closed.

It may not always be true, but here is some evidence — recorded with permission at the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party — that miracles happen when no one except the musicians (and someone with a video camera) is around: two performances from one of the rehearsals that took place before the Party officially started — on Thursday, October 25, 2012.

This session was devoted to the Louis Armstrong Hot Choruses (and Breaks).

LOUIS HOT CHORUSES

If you’ve never heard of them, they are perhaps another illustration of what would have pleased the Bishop so.  In the middle Twenties, music publishers were beginning to notice that amateurs would buy music books that proposed to help them play as their idols did.  I believe that the first jazz musician so honored by having his solos transcribed for other players to emulate and copy was the often-maligned Red Nichols.  Walter Melrose, head of a Chicago music publishing firm, engaged Louis Armstrong to create hot choruses on popular songs — most often from the Melrose catalogue — and hot breaks.  Louis was given a cylinder machine and blank cylinders; he played solos and breaks, which were then transcribed by pianist / composer Elmer Schoebel.  The cylinders?  Alas, to quote Shelley, “Nothing beside remains.”

But my hero Bent Persson has  been considering, playing, exploring those choruses and breaks for thirty years and more — in the same way that Pablo Casals kept returning to the Bach cello suites.  The transcribed solos and breaks, in themselves, seem almost holographic: yes, this is Louis; no, this is only a representation.  But Bent has done superhuman creative work in blowing the breath of life into those notes.

Here are two musical rewards for your patient reading.  I first met Bent in person at the 2009 Whitley Bay jazz extravaganza, after having listened to his recordings since the middle Seventies, and he has grown to accept my shadowing him with a video camera — the results, I tell him, are for the feature-length documentary.

I positioned myself in the center of the room while my shirt-sleeved heroes worked their way through a selection of the Louis Hot Chorus material.  They were, in addition to Bent, Jens Lindgren, trombone; Gavin Lee, Thomas Winteler, Rene Hagmann, reeds (with the astonishing M. Hagmann doubling trumpet); and a rhythm section of Martin Wheatley, banjo; Malcom Sked, sousaphone; Martin Seck, piano; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone; Josh Duffee, drums.

These are two of my favorite things, to paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein II.

Here is CAFE CAPERS — and if you need any evidence of how the band is enjoying itself, watch Thomas, Jens, and pay special attention to the moving sneakers of M. Hagmann — and that’s even before Bent becomes our superhero with rocking support from Josh:

Then, SPANISH SHAWL, with the band rocking from the start — with wonderful reed playing, blazing outings from Jens, Rene, and Thomas, Josh, Henri, Frans and Gavin, before the key changes and the band romps home.  “Very good!”:

To me, “Very good!” is rather like the Blessed Eddie Condon muttering, “That didn’t bother me.”  Not at all.  May your sneakers always be as happy as those of Rene Hagmann.

P.S.  Magic like this happens very frequently at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party — click here to learn how you, too, can get in on the fun in November 2013.  Aurelie Tropez and Jean-Francois Bonnel will be there.  Jeff Barnhart and Daryl Sherman, too.  And Bent and his Buddies.

May your happiness increase.

RYAN TRUESDELL PRESENTS “CENTENNIAL: NEWLY DISCOVERED WORKS BY GIL EVANS”

Most tribute recordings or projects labor under several burdens.  The musicians who made the original recordings are, in most cases, no longer alive and playing . . . .although one could make the case that Louis playing POTATO HEAD BLUES thirty years after its issue, Ellington revisiting IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, Billie singing WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO in 1952 . . . are all paying tributes to their earlier selves.

But, in general, artists who choose to “play old records live” in the studio or in concert have the towering presence of those accessible sounds to deal with.

Some tribute projects attempt to impose a modernist sensibility on established repertoire and style . . . with results that require equal parts love, understanding, and daring to pull off — STRANGE FRUIT remixed over techno rhythms wins points for novelty, but to me it feels blasphemous.

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project has none of these self-created burdens to carry up the mountain.  For one thing, Truesdell, a composer and scholar, did not — as others have chosen to do — assemble an orchestra to reproduce recordings everyone knows well.  Rather, he took as his starting point ten compositions — only three of them Evans’ originals — that Evans had arranged but (in most cases) had not recorded.  The details of Truesdell’s discoveries and research are contained in the intriguing and immensely readable booklet for the CENTENNIAL CD. (In my life as a literary researcher, I spent many hours filling in the gaps and appreciating the warmth of otherwise unread first-hand materials — unpublished manuscripts of Frank O’Connor’s short stories and Yeats’ poetry, letters between O’Connor and William Maxwell, between Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner . . . and I immediately saw that Truesdell was honest and searching in his investigations.)

For a number of sessions, he assembled a series of dream orchestras, featuring saxophonists Steve Wilson, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson; brass players Greg Gisbert, Laurie Frink, Ryan Keberle, Marshall Gilkes, rhythm section players James Chirillo, Joe Locke, Frank Kimbrough, Jay Anderson, Lewis Nash; singers Kate McGarry, Wendy Gilles, Luciana Souza, and many other brilliant musicians.

Initially I was intrigued by the project because I so admired the Evans arrangements for Claude Thornhill and the work he did for Miles Davis, most memorably MILES AHEAD and PORGY AND BESS.  The Evans sound I cherish suggests floating clouds, many-hued, that are ever-changing,never static, leaving impressionistic traces as they move across our consciousness.  About the Evans who organized lengthy electric-flavored orations devoted to Jimi Hendrix compositions, I know little.

But once the disc arrived, I was initially delighted by the perceptive diligence Truesdell showed in the research that got him and his orchestras to perform these otherwise “unheard” works.  Some might say that his efforts are no different from a conductor faced with a score of a “new” work, but Truesdell has managed to balance the pull of individualism — assembling an orchestra of mature soloists and section players who can create appropriately within an idiom without offering pastiches of others’ solos — and staying faithful to what is written in the score.

I knew I had to write this post when there were certain tracks on the CD –THE MAIDS OF CADIZ, HOW ABOUT YOU, DANCING ON A GREAT BIG RAINBOW, BARBARA SONG, and — most memorably, WHO’LL BUY MY VIOLETS? — that I wanted to play over and over.  I had been hesitant at first — did I know Evans well enough to appreciate this music?  Would I find it too outre for my well-nourished narrowness?  I need not have worried: the music’s beauty broke through any imagined walls.

This CD honors Evans’ essential spiritual brilliance without getting confined within an idea of “repertory” that is ultimately imprisoning.  I found much to love in this music . . . and I will keep and replay this disc into the future.

For more information about the project, the CD, and future appearances by Truesdell and his master musicians, click here.  Many pleasures await!

May your happiness increase.

A MEMORIAL SERVICE TO CELEBRATE MISS BARBARA LEA (April 16, 2012)

We miss Barbara Lea, who died at the end of 2011.

Her dear friend Jeanie Wilson has planned a memorial service for Barbara — full of deeply felt music and tart stories in honor of “The High Priestess of Popular Song.”

It will take place on Monday, April 16, 2012, at 7:00 PM, at St. Peter’s Church (54th St. & Lexington Ave., New York City), with Barbara’s good friend, singer Daryl Sherman, as host.  The performers and speakers will include Bob Dorough, Steve Ross, Marlene VerPlanck, Ronny Whyte, Melissa Hamilton, Jack Kleinsinger, George Wein, Joyce Breach, Roger Schore, Jan Wallman, Karen Oberlin, Lewis Chambers, Sue Matsuki, Tedd Firth, Harry Allen, Annie Dinerman, Dick Miller, The Speakeasy Jazz Babies, James Chirillo, Boots Maleson, David Hajdu, and others.

W.B. Yeats writes “Say that my glory was I had such friends.”  I hope to see you at the memorial service — to let Barbara know just how much she is loved, missed, remembered.  And although memorial services remind us that the object of our affections is no longer with us, we go out thinking of that person with something deeper than funereal gloom.

EIGHT BARS FOR TESCH and HOORAY FOR “TESCHOLOGY”

The brilliant clarinetist and saxophonist Frank Teschemacher died in 1932 — and today, March 13, we celebrate his birth.  Ordinarily I don’t indulge in too much of “Z would have been 107 today,” because there are living musicians and living music to celebrate . . . but for Tesch, I can’t help but break my own rule.

Serious, high-strung, educated . . . Tesch seems an unlikely explorer, but he was obviously looking for new sounds: his solos leap at the listener with raw energy, a kind of divine fearlessness.  Here he is with Eddie Condon, Joe Sullivan, and Gene Krupa, on July 28, 1928, for OH, BABY!

And even though the online world is full of scraps and debris, wonderful enterprises emerge — who would have thought of a blog entirely devoted to Tesch, with photos I had never seen?  But here it is: teschology

Wild Bill Davison’s plaint — after Tesch had died in an auto accident in Bill’s car — “Where are we going to get another sax player like Tesch?” (or words to that effect) has, I think, been misread as coldness . . . but the question has never been satisfactorily answered.  And it raises a larger question.  I miss Tesch, although I was born well after his death, and he lived — by the usual measures — far too short a life.  But I wonder: did he accomplish all that he was meant to do in those years?  Who can tell?  And I think of a line from Yeats’ elegy for Major Robert Gregory, “What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?”

Gone, gone, gone.

JAMES, CHARLES, SALVATORE: FROM THE McCONVILLE ARCHIVES (Part Nine)

Say that my glory was I had such friends,” writes W.B. Yeats.  If we’d never heard a note of Leo McConville’s playing, never seen him in the Walt Roemer and his Capitolians short film . . . we would know him as a man admired and respected by the finest creators in his field.

See for yourself.

JAMES MELTON is hardly a Jack Purvis man of mystery, but he had more than a handful of careers — as the “hot” alto player in Francis Craig’s 1926 band, as a radio personality beginning in the next year, then an opera star.  Melton was a lyric tenor with a light, high voice — and all the formal hallmarks of that style: the exact enunciation, the rolled R — a style that became less popular when the crooners of the late Twenties came to prominence.

Melton is also known, oddly, to jazz fans, as having led a 1929 session of sacred songs that featured Benny Goodman on clarinet and alto, even though a measure of his jazz fame might be that my edition of Brian Rust’s discography has a Melton entry in the index that lacks a page number.  Did Leo meet him on the radio in the late Twenties?

CHARLES MARGULIS has much more presence to jazz listeners for his trumpet work with Jean Goldkette and with Paul Whiteman — but he continued on as an impressive soloist into the Sixties, and he can be heard on recordings with pop artists (Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte) as well as his own trumpet showcases.  John Chilton notes that Margulis had a chicken farm in the Thirties: I imagine Charles and Leo discussing the intricacies of the best feed, which breeds gave the most reliable output, and so on.  But here he is, completely urbane:

And the prize, as far as I am concerned — EDDIE LANG (born SALVATORE MASSARO) — one of the most distinctive instrumental voices of his era, in ensemble or solo.

The career that Lang might have had if he had not died on the operating table in 1933 is hinted at in these two film appearances.  The first finds him in the BIG BROADCAST with Bing Crosby, performing DINAH (off-screen) and PLEASE (very much a part of the scene).  And from the less-known A REGULAR TROUPER, he accompanies Ruth Etting on WITHOUT THAT MAN!

Although Lang would not be alive today, I can imagine him accompanying a pop or jazz singer on the ED SULLIVAN SHOW or the HOLLYWOOD PALACE.

More to come . . . !

Two postscripts about Charles Margulis: the Bixography Forum (a treasure-house of information, occasionally a hotbed of controversy) offers a 1962 conversation with the trumpeter:

http://bixography.com/MargulisHolbrook/A%20Conversation%20With%20Charles%20Margulis.html

And just to show that Margulis had great fame into the second half of the last century, here is a picture of one of his long-playing recordings:

TO MAXINE FROM . . .

I never met Maxine.  But she was married to the legendary reedman — as long-lived as a great sequoia — Franz Jackson.  And it seems as though she had a fairly reputable set of jazz friends.  These two photographs came to me (and to JAZZ LIVES) as wonderful unexpected gifts from Michelle Jewell, Franz’s daughter, who is writing a book about him and his place in the Chicago jazz scenes.  So, if any of my readers have stories or memories of the esteemed Mr. Jackson, I’ll put you in touch with Michelle — who deserves something very generous in return for her generosity.

Here’s a little-known pianist.  I’ll let the people who argue about such things whether the signature is “authentic” or not.  All I will say is that if you were to look back over a collection of papers you’ve signed over many years, you might notice variations: I am vain about my handwriting but sign my name in different ways, depending on the context.  But enough of that.  What follows is more important.

Neat!  And here’s another obscure fellow.

To quote Yeats, “Say that my glory was I had such friends.”  Blessings of all sorts on Michelle, Maxine, Franz, Art, and Louis — and on the readers of JAZZ LIVES, too.

NATE CHINEN: “FIGS AND STONES”

Nate Chinen writes about jazz for The New York Times, JazzTimes, the Village Voice, and he also has a thriving blog, “The Gig”: http://thegig.typepad.com/blog/2010/04/mossy-stone.html#more

Until this year, I would have perceived him as living on the other side of the Jazz Divide, because we clearly loved very different — even irreconcilable — music.  But my opinion changed last January when Nate sent me a friendly email:

I don’t believe we’ve met, but I wanted to get in touch. I’m working on a JazzTimes column about the “new” strain of jazz traditionalism, and the ways in which the culture(s) of swing and bebop have continued to thrive, often well out of the reach of mainstream-media coverage. You struck me as an ideal person to sound off on such matters, so I’m wondering whether you might have some spare time this afternoon or evening. We could speak by phone or I could shoot you a few questions over email. Please let me know, in any case. I’ll look forward to making your acquaintance.

I was delighted — someone was graciously asking whether I would like to discuss my favorite subject!  So we spent an hour on the phone.  Nate asked pertinent questions, listened closely, and let me talk.  I told him that this “new traditionalism” was deep and inventive.  It wasn’t simply young people copying old records. 

I spoke at length about the performances I had seen in New York and elsewhere — musicians comfortable with many approaches to improvising, able to encompass Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and James P. Johnson in a single solo without seeming exhibitionistic or synthetic.  I told Nate about nights at The Ear Inn, where musicians of different “schools” found a common language  — connecting George Mitchell and Don Cherry — that was communal, genuine, and satisfying.  (I also urged him to join me there some Sunday, and he said he would.) 

Of course, I mentioned the names of my living heroes (my readers will be able to name a dozen) throughout the conversation, in hopes that he would understand that jazz — the religion of JAZZ — was very much alive here and now. 

As our conversation progressed, Nate was enthusiastic about his inventing a new name for the old — derisive — term for people who loved older jazz players and styles.  In the ideological wars of the Forties, they were “moldy figs,” defending their territory against the interlopers Bird and Dizzy.  Nate had come up with “mossy stones,” and his coinage made me think of a quotation from W.B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”  If I had been worried at the start that Nate was uncomprehending or hostile to my sensibilities, this phone conversation had given me reason to relax.

Yesterday, Nate informed me that the article had been published:   

Figs & Stones

Some time ago Michael Steinman, a professor of English at Nassau Community College, was out to dinner on vacation when the conversation turned to jazz. Hearing of his love for the music, someone at another table proudly claimed that he had been at Carnegie Hall in the early ’60s, for a concert that included tenor titans John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. “I told him my taste in jazz went back a bit further than that,” Steinman recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you a moldy fig?’”

The fact that you’re here, dear reader, probably means you know that them’s fightin’ words. To be seen as a moldy fig, at this point in jazz’s post-history, is to be lumped together with the loonies and curmudgeons, hopelessly out of step, terminally uncool. Like Renaissance faire habitués and Civil War reenactors, the moldy fig longs for some receding point on the timeline, striving to transplant its bygone values to an inhospitable soil. Jazz, for such a creature, is a firm ideal, lovingly and narrowly circumscribed.

What’s funny is the fact that “moldy fig” connotes two distinct jazz factions that should be fundamentally at odds. The term originally referred to the early jazz traditionalists who saw the music as having peaked in the 1920s. Soon it was also leveled at swing adherents who decried the advancing tide of bebop. Both meanings were in circulation in the 1940s, reflecting a pair of schisms in jazz at the time. As Bernard Gendron once put it, in a definitive essay on the subject: “The first of these conflicts pitted swing against the newly revitalized New Orleans jazz that it had previously supplanted, and the second against the bebop avant-garde movement that threatened to make it obsolescent.”

Pluck in the face of obsolescence is what unites the moldy figs of both persuasions today: the Benny Goodman fan club, say, with members of the Sidney Bechet Society. The term has even become a badge of honor among some listeners—though not for Steinman, who runs a blog called Jazz Lives. “Traditionalism to me is not tuba and banjo,” he writes in an explanatory note, distancing himself from the moldiest of fig trappings. But he’s clear about the music he loves—“[My] heroes include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Eddie Condon,” he writes—and he uses his platform to champion it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the moldy-fig legacy as it applies to the next wave of jazz traditionalists. While the music has advanced (I’ll refrain from writing “evolved”), the shadow of obsolescence has been lengthening. It no longer stops at the breakthroughs of bebop, or the refinement of modal jazz. So even though jazz’s mid-century modern constituency still has a lot to be thankful for—the Jazz Icons DVD series, for one, and present-day paragons like tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander—the center of the music no longer reflects that reality.

Perhaps you can identify. Depending on your tastes, you might be among the jazz diehards disillusioned with what’s become of the jazz media, with its fetish for newness. You nod your head when you hear of the death of jazz, as it’s commonly understood. Well, don’t look now, but you might be a mossy stone.

Allow me to explain. A mossy stone is a jazz adherent whose core stylistic allegiance is to the music pioneered in the 1940s, streamlined in the ’50s and diversified in the ’60s. This region of inquiry begins with bebop and ends with free jazz, cutting off at the early stirrings of fusion. Wynton Marsalis, once disparaged by critic Gene Santoro as a “latter-day moldy fig,” actually fits this bill: Though vocal in his advocacy of swing and earlier jazz, he’s a modernist at heart, as his own track record proves. (Listen again to his last few albums on Blue Note.) But you could despise Marsalis and still be a mossy stone. All it takes is a tacit understanding that jazz innovation peaked by about 1967, and that nothing of real, lasting value has changed in the music since.

Right about now you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of a mossy stone. Simple: I made the term up, while pondering the distance between results in critics’ polls and readers’ polls. Obviously I’m riffing on the aphorism “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” with its valorization of forward motion. I’m also invoking the Rolling Stones, and rock, with its progressive connotations. A mossy stone finds no traction in the straight-eighth groove and fusionlike flow of so many jazz albums today. He or she appreciates the Monkish aspects of a pianist like Robert Glasper or Jason Moran, but not so much the hip-hop inflections. You can be a mossy stone at any age—I bet there are more than a few working at the high school level—as long as you possess the same stubbornness exhibited by the moldy figs all those years ago.

As someone sympathetic to the mossy stone agenda—I too have wondered why young musicians can’t occasionally carve up a standard, or just swing a little—let me offer a reassurance. Moss may be disconcertingly similar to mold, but that’s fine. As Gendron observed, regarding the two schisms in 1940s jazz: “Both contests were fought on much of the same discursive terrain.” Likewise, the mossy stone and the moldy fig have two very different record collections, but they’re cousins in many respects.

Of course moldy figs have had a longer time to refine their contrarianism, honing an admirable combination of staunch defiance and pragmatic resignation. When I mentioned my new bit of jazz taxonomy to Steinman, he picked up on this right away, despite his reflexive wariness about labels, especially those dreamt up by jazz critics.

“Have you read ‘Easter, 1916,’ the Yeats poem?” he asked. Yes, but it had been a while. When I consulted the text, I found its vivid image of a stone planted in a stream. The water moves, as do the reflections of clouds along its surface. A horse and rider splash along. “Minute by minute they live,” Yeats writes. “The stone’s in the midst of all.”

Anyone who’s been interviewed dreads being misquoted, so I was thrilled to find that Nate had paid me the great compliment of accuracy.  And he had given me a short solo at the start, middle, and end — generous journalism.   But the piece does raise a few issues for me, and since Nate invited me to address them here, I will take him up on it. 

I am delighted that he gives such serious attention to this “new traditionalism.”  It would be very easy to depict this phenomena as more evidence of The Death of Jazz: “See, all we have left is these shrinking audiences on cruise ships and jazz parties listening to stale perfomances of jazz-by-rote.  People who are almost dead listening to music that certainly is.” 

Although I am not ready for Medicare, it would also have been easy to satirize or stereotype me: an eager chronicler of a moribund art, recording its final wheezes.  I am pleased that neither of these approaches color Nate’s essay in the slightest.    

But I find it curious that the musicians whose names I utter in his essay are all dead.  It suggests that my “new traditionalism” is entirely antiquarian, as if I did not delight in current performances by players very much alive.  Yes, my iPod is full of now-dead players, but I’ll bet Nate listens to some dead folks, too.  He even writes obituaries of them, as in the case of John Bunch. 

Was it that Nate didn’t want to turn his essay into a list of names?  Or was it that he did not want to offen worthy players by omitting their names?  I admire tact, but Nate’s editing makes me and the Mossy Stones (who share my initials) seem to be the Emily Griersons or Miss Havishams of Dixieland, if you will.

At first glance, changing Figs into Stones sounds wonderful.  But “moldy fig” is such an archaic term that only those deeply involved in jazz history (“Jazz Battle” or “Squabblin,” if you like) would even recognize it.  True, I am pleased to no longer be compared to rotting produce.  And Nate does generously praise the “mossy stones” for their insistent devotion to the art they love. 

But do these names really matter? 

Given the minute notice jazz gets in the larger media, is this meditation on nomenclature the most profound way to bring attention to rewarding music?  And, given the divisive nature of much of the writing purportedly about jazz, is setting up a new sub-category of listeners a good thing?  Perhaps we should be attempting to bring the “schools” and “allegiances” together, so everyone could be open to music that could go back to ragtime and forward to hard bop and beyond. 

But this is the beginning of a deeper conversation — an optimistic one, not mourning the death of jazz but celebrating the life around us.  Nate and I agree that there is astonishing music to be heard and loved, now and in the future. 

And my invitation to dinner at The Ear Inn is still open!

LETTERS FROM FRANK CHACE, 1998-2002

I first heard the Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace on 1951 broadcast recordings from Storyville (issued on Savoy records and reissued in the late Seventies) where he held his own alongside Wild Bill Davison, Ephie Resnick, and a loud rhythm section.  (Later, Frank would tell me that he was half-deafened by Davison’s habit of blowing into the clarinetist’s ear.)  Chace impressed me as having absorbed Pee Wee Russell’s style without exactly copying Pee Wee.  Years later, I thought that he was to Pee Wee what Buck Clayton was to Louis — a loving reflection, a distillation.  But in the early days of my vinyl-searching, there was no other Chace to be found on record. 

in 1986, when I began corresponding and trading tapes with John L. Fell — film scholar, amateur clarinetist, and erudite jazz collector — he sent a cassette of private Chace performances: some with Marty Grosz, others with the guitarist / cornetist Bill Priestley.  On this tape, I heard thoughtful questing that had only been hinted at on the Storyville recordings.  And I wanted to hear more.  After asking all the collectors I knew (among them the late Bob Hilbert and the still-active Joe Boughton, Wayne Jones, Gene Kramer) to dig into their Chace holdings, I had a good deal of music in settings where he felt comfortable enough to explore, from 1951 duets with Don Ewell to a Marty Grosz nonet and various small groups.  Frank’s brilliance and subtlety — his willingness to take risks — moved me greatly.  I iamgine I was also intrigued by his elusiveness: his name appeared in none of the jazz reference books; his issued recordings were out of print, except for a Jim Kweskin session on Vanguard. 

Quite by accident I learned that he was still playing.  WBGO-FM broadcast live remotes from the Chicago Jazz Festival over the Labor Day weekend.  In 1997, listening idly to the proceedings, I heard the announcer say, “Up next, the Frank Chace Quintet.”  I scrambled for a new cassette, and, feeling as if the heavens had opened to let divinity in, heard Frank play, marvelously, including a bossa nova and LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY.  This gave me hope that he was alive and well, and I imagined that I might see him play sometime or have a new Chace recording to study. 

Because I had spent much of my academic life as a literary detective, poring over unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, I became fascinated by Frank as a subject for study.  I knew that he lived in Evanston, Illinois, and when I had his address confirmed by the Chicago musicians’ union, Marty Grosz, and John Steiner, I felt bold enough to proceed by writing to him.

I don’t have my letters to Frank, although his friend and executor Terry  Martin tells me that Frank saved them, but I am sure that I introduced myself as an admirer, someone who would like to write about him (I had been reviewing CDs for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors Journal and was soon to start writing for The Mississippi Rag).  In this post, I present his side of the correspondence.  I have omitted only a few telephone numbers and addresses of individuals; otherwise I have left the letters intact.  I have guessed at the placement of the few undated items; readers are free to do their own reshuffling if my logic offends. 

I must have sent him some Pee Wee Russell cassettes, and addressed him (politely) as Mr. Chace:

12 Apr 98

Dear Michael,

     A hasty note of thanks for the astounding packet.  Golly, Pee Wee was even better than I thought.

     I had no idea anyone was tracking my transgressions.  If I recall, some of those pallid Pee Wee-ish peregrinations are even lousier than others.

     You still think I should be interviewed?

     I wish Hilbert had looked me up.  I might have filled in a few spaces, e.g. PWR for Jack T. at Curley’s in Springlfield IL Oct 93 [sic], et alia.  Five glorious drunken nites. 

     My father was from Mayville, N.Y.  Any relation?

Cordially, Frank.

P.S.  I’m Mr. Chace only to the IRS.

Frank’s opinion of his playing here is positively sunny.  “Hilbert” was Robert Hilbert, who had written a Russell biography and compiled a discography.  Later, Frank told me that the Curley’s gig was meant to be a Jack Teagarden quartet — Teagarden was by then appearing only with Don Ewell, a bassist Frank remembered only as “Pappy,” who was derisive about the other players, and drummer Barrett Deems.  When Teagarden took sick, Pee Wee filled in for him, and Frank remembered long explorations of each song that would end with many choruses of eight-bar and four-bar trades among the quartet.  Don Ewell was his great friend and musical mentor.  And “Mayville” is a mild joke; I was living in Melville, New York.

Encouraged by his response, I sent Frank a photocopy of my then amorphous Chace discography:

 20 April 1998

Dear Michael,

     I’ve entered some guesses along with one or two certainties.  I recall some of these sessions vividly, others not at all.

     As for the penultimate entry on the reverse side, if you send a cassette I might sort it out.  But aside from a few tunes with Marty [Grosz] and a bassist [Dan Shapera] from the Chi. Jazz Institute’s Jazz Fair in Jan. 1984 I haven’t listened to myself since before 1982, when I stopped drinking.  Too grisly.  (Except for a few S[alty] D[og] ensembles, below*.)

     There was a 1968 session (at John Steiner’s, like many of them) during Marty’s brief affair with electricity: Lullaby in Rhythm, Exactly Like You.  These should be around, God knows, if the rest of this stuff is.

     Birch Smith sent me a CD “Selty Dogs 1955” last year.  He finally issued them (Windin’ Ball) but so far as I know distributes from his home, only.  I’d make you a dub but don’t know how.  (I have only a Sony Diskman for playing.)

     Do you have the 1961 Jabbos?  Lorraine Gordon issued [a] two-LP boxed set around 1984.  Sure enough, we didn’t try any Jazz Battles or Boston Skuffles, but we thought Jabbo was wonderful seapite reviewers’ demurrers.  I never had other than a tape dub but gave it away 30 years ago!

Cheers back atcha,

 Frank

I don’t remember when I asked Frank if we might talk on the telephone; he agreed, although our conversations were intermittent at best, usually on Sunday evenings.  Once I interrupted him when he was about to eat some soup; other times I would let the phone ring twenty or so times before giving up.  I now assume, and Terry Martin agrees, that Frank was at home — as he aged, his mobility was limited by illnesses — but did not want to talk. 

I do recall his amusement when I asked his permission to record our conversations for a profile of him; he was both flattered and puzzled.  He had said that he didn’t write to me as often as he would like because he lacked paper and pens; ever enterprising (or overbearing?) I sent him some.  Now, I think he was being polite and evasive; I was more interested in interviewing him than he was in being interviewed.  Gene Kramer, who had co-written a book on Don Ewell, had sent me a collection of Pee Wee rarities, which I copied for Frank:            

24 Aug 98

Dear Michael,

     It’s yet unclear how churlish I can get — might at least have sent a thank you card, but didn’t think I had any stamps.  (NO — please don’t send stamps – I found some.)

     *I haven’t listened to it all so far — it’s easier to replay the marvelous alternate Ida.  Marty once opined that PW’s style came to fruition only around Home Cooking time, but it seems PW was annoying and perplexing his colleagues years earlier.  And, how those other guys could play B I Y O Backyard.  I’m reminded again of hos much I love Max.

     *I’ve wondered for a long time how the US got this way — a week ago at the N[orthwestern] U[niversity] library I read NSC 68 (to be found in “Foreign Relations of the United States,” 1950 Vol I page 234).  Example: “We seek to achieve (our values) by the strategy of the Cold War.”  The whole thing is absorbing.  Books I might have mentioned to youare The Frozen Republic by Daniel Lazare and Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948 by Frank Kofsky.  If you’re interested.

     Later.  it’s to hot and humid for now.

     *The “I” violated your code.

     SPPFL = Society for the Preservation of Pete Fountain’s Legacy.

 Love, Yakov, master of the ocarina.

The “Ida” was an alternate take of the 1927 Red Nichols recording.  In retrospect, this letter mirrors our phone conversations.  Frank was articulate and well-read.  Although he could be wheedled into talking about himself (briefly and grudgingly) and the musicians he admired, his real subject was the downfall of the United States.  I was much less well-informed about global history, and this seemed to exasperate him.  I shared some of his views, but his gloom and rage were far deeper.  I suspect now that he humored me when we spoke of jazz, but that it struck him as almost irrelevant.  His comments about “I” and the “SPPFL,” which he had written on the envelope, need explanation.  Frank disdained players he thought “synthetic”; Fountain was one.  And I had mock-apologized in a letter for beginning several paragraphs in a row with “I”; hence his asterisks.

I didn’t hear from Frank until the end of the year, when a Seasons Greetings card arrived. 

  Dear Michael,

     A bacterial infection put me in the hospital (out cold) Sept 14 – Oct 13 and Rehab Oct 13 – Dec 4, but I recover apace.  Sorry about the hiatus.  Hope you are well and prospering in this psychotic Republic.

 

[undated]

Dear Michael,

     Hoping all’s well with you.  You wanted a picture.  All I’ve unearthed so far are pix from Aspen, where Marty got me a few weeks with The Village Stompers.  The wide angle shot shows Alfie Jones, a dandy Toronto trombonist, greeting Lou McGarity.  The others you know or are listed.

     I’ve been out of touch with Sandy Priestley, Bill’s younger son, the one most interested in his dad’s music.  He one told me that Avis, Squirrel [Ashcraft]’s daughter, had rescued some stuff from the Evanston Coachouse and needed ID’s for some of the players.  He, Seymour, lives in or near Milwaukee.  I don’t want to put him in touch with you without your permission.  The 1951 tracks with Nichols and Rushton, and Bill’s anthem Isn’t It Romantic might interest Sandy and Avis a lot, but it’s been a while . . . . This makes me miss the old “Club 55” (Lake Forest).  John Steiner, too.  The old order passeth.

Cheers anyway,

As ever, Frank.

I had sent Frank a private tape (original source possibly John Steiner, the great archivist of Chicago jazz) of a 1951 Squirrel Ashcraft session featuring Red Nichols and Joe Rushton.

2 Feb 1999

Dear Michael,

     I only just uncovered your Prima cassette amidst four cases of accumulated mail, mostly junko.  I had never even known of the enhanced orch. of side B.  PWR’s chorus-long trill on Dinah has me confounded.  Never knew him to do the circular breathing thing.  Prima clearly exhilarated him.  Egged him on.  Exhorted him.  PWR IS SUPERMAN.

     I (hereby disobeying your paragraph rule) never replied to your probe for an 8 x 10 glossy.  Fact is, I never had one.  The J D Salinger of the clarinet.

     Yet another fellow, a Brit, has written about doing a piece on me for IAJRC publication of Miss. Rag.  I’ve come across his note ten times, but now can’t find it.  Name of Derek Coller from County Berkshire if I recall.  Do you know of him?  I might never find his address.  I am less churlish than lazy and disorganized.

     Your cassettes are better for me that Wodehouse’s BUCK-YOU-UPPO.

Cheers,

Frank

Frank was referring to the Brunswick recordings Pee Wee had made as a member of Louis Prima’s band, which show off Prima as successfully ouis-inspired, and Pee Wee responding with great enthusiasm.  Ironically, Derek Coller (a fine jazz scholar) and Bert Whyatt did finish a long essay on Frank for JAZZ JOURNAL — in 2009 — and an accompanying discography for the IAJRC Journal in the same year.  Like Bix and some of the Austin High Gang, Frank loved P.G. Wodehouse.

9 March 1999

Dear Michael,

      You Leave Me Breathless.  What?  No Simeon too?  Do I not play like Simeon?  Beale (Billy) Riddle thought I played like Simeon.  Possibly not like him on”Bandanna Days” tho.  Beautiful. 

      Your encomiums had me groping for my blue pencil, but I won’t query you less’n you want.  The finale, or coda, “inspired improvisation,” is a dandy.  STET.  I told you I was fighting for my life.

     As for your S[umma] C[um] L[aude] submissions, they only fortify my esteem for those guys.  How competent they are.  The medley, stitched together with modulations ouf of Easy to Get, seems an outstanding ploy.  Signature segues.  The Miff unissued V-Disc: I heard Peg O’My Heart at Nick’s, then on Commodore, but PWR is positively SEIZED on this on.  And on what you call “Notes on Jazz,” see if you don’t identify Mel Powell.  The Bushkin right-hand grupetti, the fleeting salute to the Lion.  And if Bert Naser is Bob Casey, why?  AFM?  And Joe Sullivans, I’d never heard these.  No wonder [Richard] Hadlock’s fixation. 

     And Swing It.  Priceless.  My undying gratitude is yours.  I’ve watched it only once so far, perhaps refusing to believe it.

     And that fool Brunis.  (Ending tape segment.)  PWR phoned from the hotel upon arriving [in] Chicago with McP (MaFathead) for that NPR thing (Oct. 67?).  I said, “Pee Wee!  You called me”!*  He said, “Who would I call, Brunis”? (Georg was his lifelong tormentor.)

     I found the Coller letter and replied saying that the recounting of my legendary career had been already besought, but omitting your name and address.  If you care to write him . . . .

     Instead of dredging out my apartment I did so with my wallet and found the enclosed.  It’ll have to do.  Soon I’ll be “a tattered coat upon a stick.”  Whence the quote?

Love and XXX,

Frank

*I have to watch my punctuation p’s and q’s, Prof.

P.S.  My regards to [Gene] Kramer.  We’ve got out of touch.

Have you read “the Ends of the Earth” by Robert D. Kaplan?  An outstanding travel book.

Frank admired the Fifties John Coltrane, and “You Leave Me Breathless” was one of his favorites.  I had written an exultant review of the 1955 Salty Dogs CD to the IAJRC Journal and sent Frank a copy.  Since it infuriated him when people assumed he was imitating Pee Wee, I made the point that Frank had reinvented many of the classic clarinet styles — Dodds and Noone among them.  Beale Riddle was a jazz fan, amateur drummer, and recordist who had captured an early trio of Frank, Don Ewell, and himself for posterity.  “Bandanna Days” was recorded by “the Carnival Three” in 1947 for Disc — Simeon, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster.  I had sent Frank airshots of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (with Kaminsky, Gowans, Pee Wee, and Bud) from the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in 1940, as well as an unissued V-Disc performance of “Peg O’My Heart” by Miff Mole, Pee Wee, Stirling Bose, and others.  “Notes on Jazz” captured a number of Condon concert performances — before the Blue Network series began in 1944 — for distribution to South America.  I had been given thirty minutes of this material by John L. Fell; the announcements were in Portuguese.  I had also sent Frank a videocassette copy of the Thirties film short subject SWING IT — featuring Pee Wee and Louis Prima at their most lively, and may have included the 1967 JAZZ ALLEY television show with Hodes, McPartland, and Pee Wee.  (Frank was in the audience, and remembered that Pee Wee offered McPartland five dollars to change places with him onstage.)  Richard Hadlock continues to be an active West Coast jazz historian and reedman; he did a good deal for an aging Joe Sullivan in the Sixties.  The quotation was from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which Frank knew I knew.  Still looking for a picture to send me, he had found an outdated bus pass in his wallet and enclosed it, which I still have.  Obviously he was in a happier mood.  And I was thrilled to be purveyor-of-jazz-treats, sharing pleasures.

28 June 99

Dear Michael,

      I went straight to the Marty-Ephie music.  Was there ever a one-man gang like Mart?  And Effie’s dry wit.  I can’t always tell whether he’s trying to be expressive or funny.  And he can play anything, sometimes all at once. 

     Grateful too for the Dodds stuff.  It seems the Harlem hot-shots foreswore mocking him musically – let’s hope they didn’t do so personally.  Terry Martin suggests he probably could hold his own in eiher context, Ewell’s fears notwithstanding.

     I never dreamt the Ashcraft stuff had been orgaznied and documented like that.  Pee Wee, guesting at Priestley’s in 1967, calimed he could identify Joe [Rushton’s] clarinet anywhere.  So far I’ve heard only a little from these cassettes.  Speaking of bass sax I have from the lib. “ART DECO” Sophisticated Ladies (Columbia, 2 CD’s set).  Ella Logan sings I Wish I Were Twins, with Adrian [Rollini], Max, Bud, [Carl] Kress, [Roy] Bargy, [Stan] King.

     It’s raining on this sheet.  Grateful to know someone who connects with my frame of reference.  Must run for cover.  WITH THANKS                      

FC

This time, I had sent a duet recording of Marty Grosz and trombonist Ephie Resnick, as well as the Decca sides pairing Johnny Dodds with Charlie Shavers, Pete Brown, and Teddy Bunn.  The Rushton recordings are informal duets recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft’s — Rushton on clarinet, Bob Zurke on piano.  Whether then or at another date, I had sent Frank a collection of other informal sessions at Squirrel’s: on the telephone, he told me that a prized listening experience was hearing Pee Wee on a 1939 or 1940 “Clarinet Marmalade.”

 27 Mar 00

Dear Michael,

     Don’t get a paper cut from these sheaves.  Not that these observations from K. Amis’s memoirs are new to you.

     I love the references to Hodes, with whom I played off and on between 1957 and 1984.

     Young J. Dapogny introduced me to Lucky Jim.  I evened up by playing him Tea for Two by one T. Monk, of whom he’d never heard.

As ever,

Frank   

The pages were excerpts from Kingsley Amis’s memoirs:  Amis, like his friend Philip Larkin, revered Pee Wee and especially the 1932 Rhythmakers sides.  In 1947, moving into an apartment, Amis glued to the wall “an over-enlarged photograph of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, with a typed caption adapted from the last stanza of Tennyson’s poem, ‘To Virgil’: I salute thee, Pee Wee Russell, / I that loved thee since day began, Wielder of the wildest measure / ever moulded by the lips of man.’  Frank also took pleasure in Larkin’s dismissal of Hodes: “he sounded as if he had three hands and didn’t know what to do with any of them.”  When I see James Dapogny (now Professor Emeritus) I will ask him if the Monk anecdote is as he remembers it.

17 Jan 00

Dear Michael,

     I write this on my lap in front of football TV, having no surfaces owing to apt. mucking-out, and having no pen I like andneeding to buy six encased in plastic to find out.

     So this should be short – a mercy considering a sentence like the above.

     Nice to hear Jack [Gardner or Teagarden?] again.  An altogether agreeable cohort.  And such exciting Lester and Fats. Listening to that radio announcer makes my blood run cold.  I hate this f…..g country. 

     In that vein I’m reading Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised.  My high school’s history text was Charles Beard.  Reading him now suggests the textbook was seriously bowdlerized.  No wonder we’re all so ignorant.  Oh by Jingo.

     Do you have, I mean do you know, Bud’s I Remember Rio, done latterly in Chi?  Typical Bud.  He’s like a favorite uncle.  

     At the library I check[ed] out the 2 CD Art Deco, Sophisticated Ladies on Columbia.  I Wish I were Twins: Max, Bud, Adrian, Kress, Ella Logan? 1934.  You Go To My Head unusual sunny Pee Wee yet controlled.  Nan Wynn?  Lee W.[iley] and a flock of canaries w/ nice acc.

     I hear of a complete Django – might buy.

     Ask me sometime about who I thought  (whom, Prof.) was Jerry Winter — turns out to be Jerry Winner who hung around North Brunswick, NJ in 1951-2.  Nice cl. With Raymond Scott 1947/8.

     Also ask about the Victory Club.

TaTa,

Frankie

P.S.  I used “nice” 3 X, C-.

Terry Martin tells me that Frank discarded nothing and hoarded things in stacks and piles.  Were the frequent references to desperate cleaning real or merely rhetorical?  What incensed him so much in this letter was a live 1938 broadcast Fats Waller did from the Yacht Club — infamous for a condescending racist announcer who persists in calling Fats “boy.”  Frank loved football but was aghast at the way the announcers spoke: he told me more than once of a famous sports figure, trying to sound polished, making a grammatical error.  Now, this letter seems to combine politeness and impatience: I did not get the opportunity to ask  about the subjects he threw in at the end.  He had told me that as a young clarinetist, he failed to get involved in the rivalry of Goodman and Shaw; he cited Winner as someone he admired.

29 June 00,

Dear Michael,

     I never expected that fooling around with a clarinet would fetch me such bounty as your books and cassettes.  This Buddy Clark sure had accurate pitch, is it not so?

     As for your Salty Dogs (Saline Canines: MOG) inquiries, as far as those of D. Coller about [Tony] Parenti, [Bill] Reinhardt and [Jimmy] Ille, I wouldn’t know what to say.

     Did I ever tell you of my European summers (’51 and ’52) with the Amherst Delta Five?  Their clarinet player preferred to sell used cars in Utica.  One “Bosh” (Wm. H.) Pritchard came along on guitar (’51) which h’d never played.   Someone showed him how to make a G7 chord.  Some girls on board ship told him he sounded like Eddie Condon.  Protchard became Henry Luce Prof. of Eng. at his alma mater.

Hastily,

Frank

I had sent Hilbert’s Pee Wee biography.  The Buddy Clark session was an oddity — for the Varsity label in 1940, where he is accompanied by a version of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, with Freeman and Pee Wee taking surprising solo passages.  “MOG” is Martin Oliver Grosz.  I hope that the story of Prof. Pritchard is true.

2 January 01

Dear Michael,

     Glad to have your letter, but saddened indeed at news of your mother.  Please accept my condolences.  What good is it to know that it happens to most of us before we depart, and that there’s always regret at what we failed to do or say in time.

     As for me, I’m trying to emerge from the Nov. – Dec. blahs — respiratory congestion followed by the BLAHS of SNOW and cabin fever.  Yes, I played a couple of gigs in Nov., just down the street really at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, a last refuge of cigarette smokers.  I paid for it.  [Bob] Koester showed up both times, and Paige Van Vorst, and someone named Jerry (a friend of Bill Russell of Am. Music) and an OTIS who is a P. W. fancier.  A katzenjammer quartet: [mandolinist  / guitarist Don] Stienberg, [Mike] Waldbridge, me, and an EAGER but blatty trumpet player.  Later, Paige sent me a year’s worth of  Miss. Rag.  Don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

     Koester keeps wanting a record session and I keep demurring.  As for your discography and entries I question the Jazz At Noon dates as to my presence, my having been absent with a misdiagnosed biliary tract infection.  I was in hosp. during the assassination of Fred Hampton.  The Oct. 18, 1968 date shows an odd title inversion suggestive of Steiner: “Pick Yourself Up” is really Let Yourself Go.

Hang in there,

Frankie

My mother had died, at 85, a few months before.  Frank’s comments transcend formula, I think.  And I take it as indicative of his worldview and political awareness that he should recall his hospital stay because of Fred Hampton:  the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, killed by police at the direction of the FBI.

02 Nov 02

Dear Michael,

     Terry Martin sent me a photocopy of D. Coller’s thing on Floyd O’Brien.  Takes me back, if not quite aback. 

     Here’s hoping you are somewhat restored to the quotidian world, the humdrum, what an Army buddy and I referred to as the drab mundane.  Meanwhile, I thought you might be bemused by the enclosed pic, from 1978 I think under a wedding-reception tent in Priestley’s backyard. (Lake Forest, IL).  Bill, left, has his back to the crowd as was his wont, duels with Warren Kime.  Your congenial leader is at back, looking like Bergen Evans.  Not shown: Bob Wright, piano; Joe Levinson, bass; Bob Cousins, drums.  Nice gig.

     I’m looking for a cassette to send you: a string of tunes from the Chi. Jazz Fest, Jan. 1984.  Doubt that you’ve heard them.  A trio: Marty, me, Dan Shapera, hass.  Last time Mart and I tangled.  Trying to get my apt. under control – I’m not exactly a fussy taxonomist.

As Ever,

Frank

I will share this photograph in a future posting. 

18 Dec 02

Dear Michael,

     So you laughed out loud at M[ichael]. Chabon – I coarsen myself listen to the enclosed examples of obtuseness, banality, and dead-ass playing.  I wrote Price and Thompson thanking them for the check and rhapsodic blurb, respectively.  Also mentioned that I was both terrified and pissed off throughout.

     Thanks anyway, but I can’t listen to Braff.  Musically, verbally and in print, he is, for me, a prototype of The  Boston Asshole.

     I really must learn to curb my expressionism.

     As Marty once abjured me, For Your Eyes Only.  I continue to rummage for that cassette – my housekeeping is execrable.

Ever,

Frank

The remarks above may offend, but at this late date I prefer candor to ellipsis.  I had sent Frank a copy of a Braff CD I particularly liked; he sent me the 2-CD set of his live recordings from 1967 with Jimmy Archey and Don Ewell — an odd group of players, their styles rarely coalescing.

This is the last letter from Frank — and my Sunday evening attempts to call met with no response.  I assumed he had fallen ill or no longer wanted to talk or correspond.  Thus I was greatly surprised to receive a package months later — that long-promised cassette, with a scrawled note on a tiny scrap of paper, which read something like, “Sorry, man — I’ve been sick with ascites (?)”  That was the last I heard from him.

Frank’s letters were always leavened to some extent by his wit, even when it was extremely dark.  I don’t, however, know if he would have written to me at all if he didn’t feel the need to thank me for the things I sent him, which he did seem to appreciate. 

Talking to him on the telephone, however, was often a depressing experience as conversation wound down.  I found Frank’s mixture of annoyance, contempt, and sadness sometimes difficult, often frustrating.  I wanted to celebrate and gossip about the older music (a fan’s ardor); he wanted me to listen to Coltrane.  But more, he wanted to vent his rage at United States imperialism and the decline of the West.  In retrospect, we had little to talk about.  Someone listening in might have considered our sonversations as little dramas, with each of us wanting to make things go his way, succeeding only briefly.  I know that musicians and non-musicians are often separated by an invisible wall, but these conversations had even greater barriers, although we were enthusiastic about the same things. 

But Frank often seemed as if he was going through some elaborate set of motions; whether he wearied of me, an enthusiastic correspondent who attempted to ply him with cassettes, whether he wearied of talking about what was now the receding past, whether he was weary of people, I do not know.  That enigma, still fascinates me, although the possibilities are saddening.       

Thus I was surprised when I heard from Terry Martin, perhaps in 2006, telling me that Frank was ailing (which did not surprise me: the long spaces between calls or letters were often the result of hospitalizations) and that Frank had mentioned my name to Terry as someone he wouldn’t mind speaking to.  I feel some guilt about this now, but I told Terry I couldn’t attempt to restart the conversation.  I was going through a difficult period and Frank’s darkness was too much to face.  Terry, to his credit, understood.  The next news I heard was that Frank had died at 83.   

I consider myself fortunate that I had these exchanges, and that we can hear him play on recordings.  Frank had something to tell us, and he still does.      

Frank Chace: July 22, 1924 – December 28, 2007. 

A postscript: when I was attempting to interview Frank for a profile, I amassed five or six pages of transcriptions of those taped conversations.  In the spirit of Frank’s housekeeping, these pages have vanished.  However, I recall a few fragments.  When young, Frank was initially intrigued by the sounds coming from the apartment below — a neighbor was a symphony flautist.  When he began to take up the clarinet (moved to do so, of course, by a Pee Wee Russell record), he listened to “everything” and thought it was his responsibility as a musician to do so.  He recalled with great glee a recording with  Don Ewell in the house band at Jazz Ltd: the band was playing the SAINTS, a song Don loathed, and he kept playing MARYLAND through his piano chorus.  (The details may be awry, but the intent is clear.)  When asked what recordings he particularly liked, Frank eventually called to mind the Mezzrow-Bechet OUT OF THE GALLION, Bud Jacobson’s BLUE SLUG, and expressed a special desire to hear Pee Wee’s solo on the Commodore Muggsy Spanier Ragtimers SWEET SUE, which I did not have, but acquired through Gene Kramer.  When Frank heard it, he remembered that he and Marty played it many times, their verdict being that Pee Wee’s solo “scraped the clouds.” 

But he saved his most enthusiastic words for two extremely disparate recordings: Coltrane’s YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS and Jerry Colonna’s comic version of EBB TIDE.  Since Frank’s death, I’ve heard both, and was much more impressed by the Coltrane.  Colonna’s version of that pop song has the singer nearly drowned by sound-effects waves — surely an acquired taste.   

Frank had seen my hero Sidney Catlett in concert once (a wartime presentation by Deems Taylor); he had played alongside Bobby Hackett once in an informal session, probably at Priestley’s.  But there were almost no contemporary musicians he admired, and fewer he could see himself playing or recording with: Marty Grosz certainly, Dick Hyman, possibly.  He was sure he was able to play a whole session and that he didn’t need to practice.  Terry Martin and Bob Koester have first-hand experience with Frank’s reluctance to record.  In fairness, few of the recordings he did make usually do not find him in the most congenial settings: he felt comfortable alongside Ewell and Marty and some of his younger Chicago friends, but such congeniality was rare. 

Frank deserved better, but it is difficult to make him into another jazz-victim-of-oppression, as his stubbornness often got in the way of musical opportunities.  I offer these letters and recollections as tribute to a great musician and enigmatic figure.     

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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“JAZZ IS DEAD,” REDUX

In the past two days, I’ve received several group emails on the gloomy present and worse future of jazz — its aging and shrinking audience, its diminishing sliver of the music market, the lack of recognition and awareness it is granted by the media, etc.  And those emails delve into the usual ruminations on HOW DID THIS HAPPEN and WHAT CAN BE DONE and IS IT TRUE? 

I would find it hard to disprove the grim assertions.  I grew up in a time and place where the local department store had a section for jazz records, where Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were on broadcast television and commercial radio, where there were people in their teens and twenties at jazz concerts and clubs.  A month ago, at Whitley Bay, for instance, I saw the Chicago Stompers — a swinging Italian big band with the right spirit whose eldest member was twenty-four.  Yet the audience was mostly nearing retirement age, and I wondered (as I always do) whether there would be jazz parties and jazz festivals offering the kind of music I love in twenty years.

Both sides of the debate were present in my email box. 

A “cultural critic” with a substantial reputation trotted out the familiar and even more depressing statistics: only a small percentage of Americans go to hear live jazz, and that percentage is getting older, apparently not being replaced by their children and grandchildren.  (Observe the grey-haired audience at a Schubert concert, by the way, and you might feel the same angst.)  Marty Grosz, who makes his living playing hot jazz, said to me a few years ago that the music was in the same position in this century as scrimshaw: an archaic art practiced by a few experts, appreciated by a very small number of people. 

But this rushing-to-embrace doom has a certain tired familiarity to it.  Jazz has never been an art form that enjoyed overwhelming popular success.  For every copy of the Goodman Carnegie Hall concert recordings sold in 1950, more were sold by Earl Grant and Johnnie Ray.  The Swing Era — that Edenic time that makes jazz fans misty-eyed — was also dominated by the Andrews Sisters, Sammy Kaye, Kay Kyser.  Jazz has always enjoyed a narrow audience, and I suspect that this is something its fans secretly enjoy, knowing about Tesch and Tristano when everyone else was listening to the Top Forty.  “Fit audience, though few,” wrote John Milton. 

And journalists and critics know that bad news — the sky is falling, again — gets more attention than the reverse.  Articles of this sort used to be called “thumb-suckers,” and the phrase is devastatingly apt. 

On the other hand, a sincere devotee of “traditional jazz” wrote that things were better than they seem, that jazz was being played at parties and festivals all across the US, and that it was only the slanted nature of surveys, statistics, and media coverage that gave rise to the premature mourning.  Some of this is true.  The Europeans, especially, seem to be doing a far better job of keeping hot jazz alive than the Americans.  Still, it’s hard to predict that jazz will “be alive” forever, especially if your definition of “alive” relies on a fancifully large audience that probably never existed. 

My thoughts on the subject may strike some readers as nihilistic.  Everything comes to an end.  Human beings are finite, and their accomplishments are forgotten.  “All things fall and are built again,” wrote W.B. Yeats, and he was considering something larger than jazz as an idea, a way of life, or a practice.   

Suppose at some time in the unimaginable future no one knew who Lester Young was or why past civilizations had made space for him in their encyclopedia.  Would Lester’s life and work have been meaningless?  I don’t think so.  If what we love as “jazz” is no longer talked about or even played, it will have existed, taken up space in our ears and our consciousness.  Perhaps we should stop glooming over the aticipated “death of jazz” or defending it against statisticians and simply live in the moment to enjoy what is there, while it (and we) are able to do so.

P.S.  People addicted to journalism will recognize the syndrome I have been describing and be able to call to mind grave articles on “The Death of the Broadway Theatre,” “The Death of Print,” “Is Fashion Dead?” “The End of Classical Music,” and such funereal prose has been the fashion in jazz criticism for a long time.  I would bet that a survey of DOWN BEAT circa 1939 could turn up pieces titled “Swing Is Dead, Says _ _ _ _ ,” and to the left of my computer I have a 1999 essay from THE ANTIOCH REVIEW (its special jazz issue), “Where’s The Jazz Audience,” by Willard Jenkins.  Sincere, thoughtful, earnest . . . . but plus ca change.

HIS GRIEF, HIS ART: BEN WEBSTER, 1970

I’ve been listening to a new double-CD set of Ben Webster recordings assembled in honor of his hundredth birthday, titled THE BRUTE AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Storyville 103 8407).  Most of the music in this set comes from Webster’s last years in Europe.  Depending on the musicians accompanying Ben and his own health, the results are either lovely or uneven.  Occasionally a boppish rhythm section intrudes, or sweet symphonic orchestrations threaten to drown everything.  But two recordings in this set done with Teddy Wilson are irreplaceable — one, a version of STARDUST done in Copenhagen in 1969, is yearning and intense.  (The video of this performance, once available on YouTube, apparently has been removed, which is a pity.)

But the more dramatic OLD FOLKS (Hugo Rasmussen, bass; Ole Streenberg, drums) from May 1970, is still accessible.  It is also very deep music.

Webster is casually, almost sloppily dressed, his great bulk protruding in front of him.  Because he had broken an ankle in a fall eight months before, he is seated.  The performance begins with a small display of will, as Ben refuses to play the song at the medium-tempo jog Wilson chose.  Instead, Ben snaps his fingers insistently, slowing the tempo to a ballad, a lament.

Teddy Wilson also has the sheet music in front of him and gazes at it intently, his lips moving silently.  During the last twenty-five years of his career, Wilson stuck to his own familiar repertoire, medleys of songs associated with Waller, Goodman, Gershwin, Basie, and so on, so this is unusual.  The unfmiliarity of OLD FOLKS accounts for the atypical mistake he makes at the end of his second chorus.  Viewers will notice the difficulty or pain evident in his right hand as he pauses between phrases to turn his wrist inwards, perhaps the inevitable result of so much muscular exertion at the piano night after night.  Watching these two men play, one is aware of their age, their occasional struggles; hearing them is a different matter.

This performance is Webster’s, although Wilson’s accompaniment is gentle, supportive, and simple.  Ben’s first chorus is apparently close to the melody, with some tender arpeggios and pauses, but playing melody in this fashion is anything but simple, something only learned through forty years of devotion and practice.  The song comes alive.  Ben’s sound, his tone, his phrase-ending vibratos, full of air, are the very opposite of uninflected playing.  In the middle of the bridge, Ben removes the mouthpiece from his lips, shakes his head in exasperation (with himself or with his instrument?) but does not stop or give in.

To me, the polite applause that greets the end of his chorus is inadequate response, suggesting that the audience does not entirely grasp what they have just heard, but that might do them an injustice.  Teddy’s  chorus is a mixture of embellishments and his patented arpeggios.  Midway through it, though, the camera pulls back and we see Ben nodding silently, “Yes, I know,” empathic, hearing Wilson’s playing.  They had known and worked with each other as early as 1935, so there may havebeen the kinship of people who have shared the same experiences over time.  Ben told the British interviewer Henry Whiston in 1971 that he had leased a “beautiful piano” for his home, “I got that piano so that Teddy Wilson could have a piano to play on.”

(While Wilson is concluding his seond chorus, the camera pans to a handsome African-American of this same generation, dressed in a pink shirt, the trumpeter Bill Coleman, another long-term expatriate.)

Then we see that Webster has been crying: a tear is spilling out of his eye.  And he nods again, sadly agreeing with what Wilson has been saying without words, before picking up his horn a few beats later.

When I first saw this performance perhaps twenty years ago, I was unaware of any context, and thought perhaps that Ben had been moved to tears by the beauty of Wilson’s solo, which I still believe.  Was he also thinking of his peers — the American jazz musicians who knew and lived the music he loved — the men and women he had left behind to come to Europe?  The friends he had lost, the musicians he might never play with again?  Johan van der Keuken, who knew Ben well in Scandinavia, has spoken of the “essential loneliness” that “became more heavy” for him as he remained there.

But I read in Frank Buchmann-Moller’s excellent biography of Webster, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, that Ben had learned of the death of Johnny Hodges only a short time before this broadcast.  Although Ben might very well be weeping over Wilson’s solo, its beauty and its larger implications, his grief takes on a new dimension.

The fine tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo said of Ben, “He was 100 percent honest.  Everything came from the heart; there was no acting involved.  He wasn’t very good at sweeping things under the carpet.”

Ben had sat in the reed section of the Ellington band for almost four years, hearing Johnny Hodges every night and marveling.  He had come to the band a fully developed soloist, but he learned so much about the subtleties of technique and emotion, about singing from Hodges.  A year before this performance, Coleman Hawkins had died — an event that had upset Ben greatly.  Hodges’s sudden death — a heart attack in the dentist’s chair — was even more devastating.  Ben told Whiston, “It was . . . like if you hit me in the head with a sledgehammer.  It knocked me down.  I really didn’t know what to do.”

I do not think that Ben chose OLD FOLKS as a tribute to Hodges: that song, that piece of Americana, had been part of his repertoire since 1969, and an Ellington ballad such as I GOT IT BAD or SOPHISTICATED LADY would have been more predictable.  But OLD FOLKS was Ben’s idea rather than Wilson’s, the evidence suggested by Wilson’s unfamiliarity.

However it came to be part of this performance, OLD FOLKS is an integral part of the emotions we and the musicians come to feel.  Written by Willard Robison and performed by Mildred Bailey, among others, it is an affectionate, sly, sentimental portrait of a grandfatherly character whose habits are rustic, who tells “tall tales” that everyone knows are doubtful . . . yet he is beloved.  The lyrics emphasize his age; someday “Old Folks” will be dead and everyone will grieve.

Was Ben Webster weeping not only for the deaths of Hawkins and Hodges, Sid Catlett and Jimmy Blanton, but for an entire generation of his friends, artistic colleagues?  For the inevitability of their deaths, all the Old Folks of jazz?  Was he even wondering how long he would live?  Perhaps.

But his tears do not disable him.  He does not, in Yeats’s words, “break up his lines to weep.”  It all had to be saved for the music — a professional musician, a grown man, he had his job to do, whether or not tears were spilling out of his eyes.  And so he continues playing OLD FOLKS, hesitantly, but with such feeling.  It almost makes me weep, watching it: Ben’s slow pace, his patient, sorrowful exploration of its lines.

But it took me twenty years to realize that ben’s closing solo is a musical evocation of the weeping he would not surrender to.  His eyes dry up; he gains control of himself.  But he weeps through his horn.  What are his brief, irregular phrases, separated by gulps of air, but sobs and gasps?  His loss, his tenacity, his art — inseparable.  Watch closely: here is Ben Webster, a man, majestic and infirm at once, someone who would die in two years, racked by emotions, playing as beautifully as any musician ever did.  Without ever being didactic, this performance has so much to say to us, to teach us.

Two postscripts.

One: this clip has detestable advertisements crawling along the bottom of the frame.  But a reasonably nimble viewer can find the X and make the ads vanish.  I know that jazz needs financial support, but the ads seem a repellent intrusion here.

Two, much happier: the quotations here come from Buchmann-Moller’s biography of Ben, published in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press.  Buchmann-Moller is also the author of two indispensable books on Lester Young’s life and music, their titles taken from Lester’s own defining expressions: YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, and YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN!  His work is accurate, compassionate, and fair — worthy of the great John Chilton.

RUSSELL, SMITH, CONDON, DAVISON, FELD, LLC.

A gathering of individualists, playing the blues in two moods.

PeeWee Russell, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, Morey Feld.  The film, made for Canadian television, purports to capture what it was like after hours at Condon’s club (the midtown version) in December 1963.  How close it is to reality is anyone’s guess.  Did Helen Ward, looking so pretty here, drop by to sing when there was no camera crew in attendance, and was there usually someone sitting at a table, sketching?

But the music that initially feels tenuous, ready to fall off the edge into disunity, comes together surprisingly.  The sounds are genuine, and so are the smiles on everyone’s face at the close.  “All the Olympians,” to quote Yeats.

Thanks to Bob Erwig for posting this on Dailymotion, and to David Weiner for reminding me about it.

CREATIVE VIOLENCE?

wby1When I was in graduate school, deep in W.B. Yeats-idolatry (my other life has been wound around Irish literature), I admired “Under Ben Bulben”  — his great late poem — immoderately.  But I had very little patience for this quatrain, and wondered if Yeats had made the idea fit his rhymes.

Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

The slightly satiric visual image these lines suggested to me was of the artist as bullyboy, getting ready to wallop someone, the man getting dressed to go out with his ladylove, shaving in front of the mirror in tremendous annoyance.  And as I write this, I am listening to an old record of Johnny Windhurst ambling through a ballad-tempo “Memphis Blues”; he sounds utterly at ease.  And Yeats himself — in the famous photo here — looks more pensive than violent.

But I do know that the creative process, even for writers, is tension-producing, the effort of making something a tiring and often irritating thing.  Although we talk about “relaxation” as an ideal creative state and imagine that the string bassist playing those beautiful lines (I am thinking of Pat O’Leary at the Ear Inn last Sunday) is dreamily easeful, every muscle loose, this may be a fallacy.  I wonder if creative energy, productive anger and violence are much like sexual tension: that state of being ready for action, mildly edgy, on the brink of action.

But these lines came to mind again because Sam Parkins, sage and improviser, sent me something he had written about Louis and the emotional climate needed for creativity.  It also reminds us of Louis’s essential deep seriousness about his art, something that all the grinning pictures occasionally obscure.  Some readers might think that these two examples are atypical, but I wonder.  A great deal!

louis-somber-1

In all the voluminous writing about Louis Armstrong there is something elementary missing, and the minute I tell you about it you’ll agree.  I started looking for it about ten years ago, when I started researching him. Had to be there.  Violence.  The need for it comes at you from all directions.  His start in life, in the funkiest, most criminal part of New Orleans.  The stress of dealing with really bad racial stuff – from both sides, because he was darker than most, and would have got it from lighter folks as well as whites.

And something I know from myself.  When I get deeply involved in music, I go around slightly pissed all the time.  It generates a kind of energy that it’s a good idea to be aware of.  I noticed it only last fall when I had to play clarinet on a critical recording, including memorizing the book, and having to practice my way to more than competence in a hurry.  If you knew Zoot Sims, you would have been aware that it was always there – an undercurrent.  (Don’t take this to include all artists all the time – just a tendency).  But all the writing portrays Louis as this pussy cat.

So finally I found it.  In a recent book, “The Louis Armstrong Companion: 8 Decades of Commentary” (ed. Joshua Berrett, Schirmer Books, 2000), there’s a couple of prime examples:  1) Someone goes into the dressing room just in time to see Louis with his hands around his manager Joe Glaser’s neck – “Lissen motherfucker – if I find you’ve stolen one penny from me you’re dead”.

2) Just before the All Stars are about to go on stage, Louis flattens Jack Teagarden.  Knocks him out.  And goes on to announce sweetly, “Mr. Teagarden will not be able to be with us for this performance”.  (Doesn’t tell us why). I asked biographer James Lincoln Collier if he knew about this, because it’s not in his book. “Yes – I knew about it, but didn’t include it because I have to have something like that from two sources and there’s only one”.