Tag Archives: West Jesmond Rhythm Kings

WE LOST A CHAMPION: MIKE DURHAM

Mike Durham died this morning, peaceably, his family at his bedside.  He had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer six or seven weeks ago.

Some of you might not know Mike Durham — from Newcastle, England.  He played trumpet, cornet, and kazoo; he sang; he told stories and jokes; he ran a large-scale jazz party (the Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival or the Classic Jazz Party) for over two decades.

But all that is not as important as the feeling Mike inspired in people.  When I heard of his death this morning, the words that leaped into my head were Eddie Condon’s — when Eddie was asked to comment on the death of Edmond Hall. And those words are my title.  Mike would be happy to be mentioned in the same paragraph with Eddie and Edmond, for they made his kind of music.  And the reverse was also true.

Mike had so many aspects or facets that it is hard to know where to start — should I begin with the trumpeter, jazz scholar, festival creator, charming man?

He had a deep sense of humor, so perhaps I will begin this post with an example of Mike in action (in front of my video camera, no less) — essaying a Ted Lewis favorite.  Mike would have been amused by the juxtaposition of that title and this occasion, I assure you:

You see there a sly singer, a terse but effective trumpeter (when I first began to hear Mike, I knew he was no exhibitionist, but a subtle creator of epigrams, some sweet, some naughty).  But I first came to know him as the indefatigable organizer of the annual Whitley Bay extravaganzas.  He was gracious and kind, but efficient — and often just a touch exasperated — because he was someone for whom the difference between EXACTLY RIGHT and ALMOST THERE was clear.  So I regret that I rarely had the time to see him when he was not in motion.  I knew, however, that he was a man with depths.

In the four years I knew him (those weekends plus emails) when we could stop talking about the music that was swirling all around us, Mike would speak about something that always surprised me: his experiences in America while working for Proctor and Gamble (or, if I misremember, the large ad agency that handled P&G); his experiences with race relations in the American Midwest; his memories of his father; his serious love of American poetry — ranging from Emily Dickinson to the moderns, all of which he could recite at will.  Right now the Mike I miss is not simply the trumpet player or singer, but the serious man whose utterances, never pompous, seemed deeply felt and deeply observed — I always went away from a conversation with Mike with his gently vehement words ringing in my head.  (By “gently vehement” I mean that he was soft-spoken but emphatic, and his conversation gave one the sense that he had a clear sense of where he was going when he began . . . he didn’t ramble, meander, or repeat himself.)  We had discussed plans to have dinner sometime and actually speak of things . . . but it never came to pass, so the half-dozen hallway conversations were all I ever got to savor.

But I knew him through the music.  Mike loved and understood the hot jazz that shone and blossomed between the wars, and he and his friends took great pleasure in exploring those pathways on their own.  He loved it when a band “got hot” and made the patrons and the room rock.  And you could feel and see his pleasure whether he was leading the band or standing off to one side, tuxedo-clad, ready to introduce the next song.

His pleasure in the music was more serious, his belief in the purity of Hot was deeper than most people’s, and it resulted in his more than two decades’ of nearly religious devotion to its ideals.  Mike didn’t think that simply playing his cornet (he was a great collector of brass instruments) with the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings or playing his records for friends was enough — the music deserved better.  So his Whitley Bay parties were the most vivid, lively, and entertaining jazz “museums” I have ever encountered.  With a cast of international jazz characters — male and female, European, Asian, and South American as well as the usual types — he strove to make the music come alive in front of our eyes and ears.  He didn’t mind an ad hoc group of fellows and gals romping through LESTER LEAPS IN, but that was for the after-hours jam session in the Victory Pub.  Mike’s idea of honoring jazz was serious, and it required much work: to have bands playing the music of particularly notable ensembles and soloists — playing it well, playing it accurately with fervor.  I will offer a video example at the end of this blogpost so that you may understand what Mike did — working all year with his beloved wife Patti — so that we should know what the past REALLY must have sounded like.  And the Rhythmakers, Bix and his Gang, the 1937 Goodman band, Louis and Lillie Delk Christian, and more.  In 2012, he was recovering from an operation and was unable to play the trumpet, but he was a marvel of intense focus and energy — jazz listeners will understand so well that it is not only the musicians on the stand that make the music happen, but the festival organizer who has planned everything twelve months in advance.

A good deal of Mike’s catch-his-breath conversation was based on jokes . . . most of which were new to me, and he never got offended when I held up my hand and said, “Let me save your energy.  Is the punchline ‘And she won’t either?'”  He would move on to one that was even better.

Here I turn to my friend Bob (Sir Robert) Cox, who tells a story: “I knew Mike for 5 years, he always had ready wit and a story or joke to tell.

He was a great fan of Humphrey Lyttelton and his ‘Antidote to panel games’ I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue‘.  Four years ago Mike did a tribute to Humph to include his music and wit.  Unfortunately, Mike left all his notes at home but managed to deliver a side splitting 50 minutes using quotes from a book of Humph’s I just happened to have with me and hastily scribbled notes I handed him from my memory about Samantha, Humph’s scorer on the programme.

Samantha has to go now as she’s off to meet her Italian gentleman friend who’s taking her out for an ice cream.  She says she likes nothing better than to spend the evening licking the nuts off a large Neapolitan.

I will miss Mike as a friend and generous jazz patron.”

Patti Durham very kindly emailed me the news of Mike’s death; it was one of the first things I read this morning.  Later today, at work, I encountered a colleague who told me of the death of her beloved partner — they had been together for four decades — and we both had a hard time not breaking down in the corridor.  With a lump in my throat, I said to her, “The dead know when we weep over them,” something I deeply believe to be true.

But Mike was so impish that I think the tears I shed over him should be in the form of hot jazz.  He was so open-handed in the music he gave us, the music he made possible, that I will close with this video — a small group led by Michel Bastide performing WA WA WA.  “Why is that appropriate for memorial?” some of you might ask.  Oliver, you might know, was a genius at making human sounds with his cornet and a variety of mutes; one of his specialties was imitating a baby crying (he and Bill Johnson had worked up an act that satirized how Caucasian and African-American babies cried).  So my tears, our tears for Mike, will be expressed in JAZZ LIVES through a song whose title reminds me of weeping:

Yes, the 2013 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party will go on — as a living, energized memorial to Mike, run by several of the musicians and his young acolytes Julio and Jonathan.  I am certain of this, and have booked a hotel room for that weekend.

I know, however, that I will be shocked a dozen or more times during the long jazz weekend because I will be looking for Mike — well-groomed, tall and slender, running his hand through his white hair in polite exasperation at something . . . the fact that I can’t sit him down and say, “Tell me more!” will make me sad whenever I think of him.

We lost a champion.  We really did.

I send love and sorrow to Patti, Cassie, Chris, and the extended family.  And now I can write no more.

Mike and Patti Durham

Mike and Patti Durham

 

P.S.  For details of Mike’s funeral (March 21, 2013) please click here.    

May your happiness increase.

KING JOE / KING LEAR

King OliverMy iPod isn’t always a subject for philosophical contemplation.  More often it’s merely a calming talisman in my battle against airplane claustrophobia and tedium.  But recent experiences have made me think about it as more thought-provoking than a twentieth-century version of the transistor radio and cassette player of my past. 

It began when I unintentionally erased not only the contents of my iPod but also my iTunes library.  How that happened is not a subject for this blog, but I erased eight thousand tracks.  (Or, to use “the male passive,” I could write “eight thousand tracks had been erased,” but no matter.)  Preparing to go off on vacation far from my CD collection, I began to stuff compact discs into my iTunes library.  This, as readers will know, is a nuisance, and at times I wished for a youthful niece or nephew to whom I could say, “Want a hundred dollars?  Put each of the CDs in that bookcase into iTunes for me, will you?”  The computer did its job well, but it required me to check on it every six or seven minutes.  I began with the tail end of my collection — that’s Lester Young, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Ben Webster, Lee Wiley, and so on, and worked my way back to the Allens, Harry and Henry Red, in the space of ten days. 

And a King — Joe Oliver, pictured top left.   

This combination of obsessiveness and diligence resulted in an iPod with more than fifteen thousand tracks on it — the Hot Fives and Sevens, the Basie Deccas, the Lester Verves, the Billie Vocalions, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Fats Waller from 1922 to 1935, Mel Powell on Vanguard, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins . . . all I could desire, more than a hundred full days of music.

But I kept silently asking myself, “What do you need all this music for, knowing that you couldn’t listen to it all in the space of the next twelve months?”

King LearAnother King kept insisting that I pay attention to him.  He didn’t play cornet; he would have been out of place at the Lincoln Gardens.  I had taught a course in Shakepearian tragedy this summer, and ended it with KING LEAR — adding a few scenes from the 1982 Granada television presentation with Sir Laurence Olivier.  

Early in the play, when Lear still thinks he has imperial powers (even though he has renounced the throne), he bargains with his daughters about whose house he shall stay at first, casually letting them know that he will arrive with a hundred knights.  Although Goneril and Regan are cruelly inhuman, I always feel for them at this point, as they ask their father, with some irritable reasonableness, why he, no longer King, needs a retinue.  Lear responds:    

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.

In the most commonsensical way, I take these lines to suggest that the difference between a reasonably privileged person and a Maltese terrier is that the person, when the impulse strikes, can go to the kitchen cabinet and have another cookie or pretzel.  Choice is at work here, unlike the dog who has to wait for the owner to fill his bowl.  “Need” is constricting; luxury is the freedom to transcend mere needs.  Or, in other terms, to have merely “enough” — the spiritual equivalent of eight hundred calories a day — is emotionally insufficient.

I knew that I didn’t “have to have” Ella Fitzgerald singing MY MELANCHOLY BABY (Teddy Wilson, Frank Newton, Benny Morton, 1936) in the same way I need food and drink.  I could capably replay most of that performance in my mind.  But not having it accessible provokes feelings of inadequacy, of being separated from my music.  To some, this will seem like an exercise in superfluity: I know there are people in other countries who don’t have clean water, let alone alternate takes of the Albert Ammons Commodores, and I feel for them, but the sensation of having more music than I can possibly listen to is luxuriant bliss.  It means that if, upon awaking, I really NEED to hear Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman play SWEET SUE . . . there it is.

Which leads me to the most brilliant feature of the iPod — not the ability to reproduce album cover artwork (!) but the ability to shuffle songs.  I plugged it in here and started it up . . . so that Dizzy Gillespie followed Mamie Smith who followed the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings who followed Hawkins . . . . a floating Blindfold Test, full of surprises and gratifications.  And no worrying about the hundred knights drinking up all the milk in the refrigerator. 

iPod

Olivier and Oliver, in perfect harmony.

NEW FAVORITES!

Since I am old-fashioned and like my recorded music in tangible form (no liner notes on a mp3 download) I surround myself with compact discs in arrangements both vertical and horizontal.  However, this post is not about Jazz Decor, but to celebrate three new discs that readers should know about.  And, even better, they are performances by living musicians, people you could actually see and hear in person. 

chasing_shadowsThe first is CHASING SHADOWS, by “Spats and his Rhythm Boys.”  (WVR 1005) “Spats,” of course, is singer / plectrist Spats Langham, who’s appeared on this site in a video clip.  On this disc, he’s accompanied by trumpeter Mike Durham, trombonist Paul Munnery, reed wizard Norman Field, Keith Nichols on piano and accordion, John Carstairs Hallam, string bass, Frans Sjostrom, bass sax, Nick Ward, drums, and Mike Piggott, violin.  The sessions were recorded in November 2008, and a glance at the tune listing will tell all: Spats and friends are thoroughly steeped in the “hot jazz with vocal refrain” of the late Twenties, extended forward into the late Thirties (from Cliff Edwards and Bing Crosby to Jimmy Rushing and Putney Dandridge): CRAZY WORDS, CRAZY TUNE / CHASING SHADOWS / I’M IN THE SEVENTH HEAVEN / CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS / HANG ON TO ME / ME AND THE MOON / ACCORDION JOE / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / BROWN BOTTLE BLUES / WHAT DO I CARE WHAT SOMEBODY SAID? / HALFWAY TO HEAVEN / SMILIN’ SAM / OH, IT LOOKS LIKE RAIN / HIAWATHA’S LULLABY / YOU DO THE DARNEDEST THINGS, BABY / SWING BRIDGE STOMP.

Like Barbara Rosene and a very few other singers, Spats isn’t trying to offer CD-quality imitations of the original recordings.  Rather, he gets inside the idiom, so that you hear the sound of the period, the rhythmic energy, the delicate ornamentations — but it’s all new.  And hugely entertaining!  He has a light tenor voice, but he has listened thoroughly to Crosby and post-Crosby as well.  On this disc, his singing is thoroughly integrated into a hot improvising ensemble.  I would have wanted this CD because of Sjostrom, Field, Nichols, and Ward — but the best surprise is the playing of trumpeter Mike Durham.  Many trumpeters are in love with the sheer power of their instrument; they shout and carry on.  Mike can, of course, do this capably — leading an ensemble majestically.  But his more usual mode of expression is tender, inquiring, almost pleading.  You need to hear him if you haven’t already!  And his composition SMILIN’ SAM (dedicated to his happy grandson) is a wonderful mood piece with Norman Field on bass clarinet — instantly memorable. 

For information about ordering this CD, visit http://uk.geocities.com/mdurham@btinternet.com/wjrk/recordings.htm.  By email, contact mikedurham_jazz@hotmail.com., or (the old-fashioned way) write to WVR Records at 60 Highbury, Newcatle upon Tyne, NE2 2LN. 

Ray Skjelbred CDI’ve been listening to pianist Ray Skjelbred and drummer Hal Smith for some time in a variety of settings — Ray, playing Frank Melrose songs or cowboy ballads, Hal, rocking every band he’s ever been with.  Ray’s new CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO (Jazzology Records, recorded August 2008), is a real winner, featuring delectable hot jazz from Ray, Hal, clarinetist Kim Cusack, guitarist Katie Cavera, and Clint Baker on a variety of songs, familiar and rare, each one with deep associations: OH, BABY (DON’T SAY NO, SAY “MAYBE”) / SUGAR / MY GALVESTON GAL / IT’S BEEN SO LONG / I LOST MY GAL FROM MEMPHIS / BULL FROG BLUES / THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE / IDOLIZING / I’LL BET YOU TELL THAT TO ALL THE GIRLS / FRIARS POINT SHUFFLE / DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL / SINCE MY BEST GAL TURNED ME DOWN / SHANGHAI HONEYMOON / I MUST HAVE THAT MAN / NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW / YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME / UP A LAZY RIVER / SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE / AM I BLUE? / LAUGHING AT YOU / RING DEM BELLS.  This group knows how, through long playing experience, to approach each song on its own terms — wistful or fiery — and the down-home vocals by each member of the quintet are charming.  I have a special fondness for the repertoire of the early Red Allen Vocalions, and my hunger has been satisfied by this band’s versions of MY GALVESTON GAL and I’LL BET YOU TELL THAT TO ALL THE GIRLS.  (But it sure sounds good to me!)  This one’s available through Jazzology and perhaps other places online: for information, visit   http://www.jazzology.com/index.php.

GILL 3Finally, a sentimental favorite.  When I encountered guitarist / singer / multi-instrumentalist John Gill in a club in 2007, he casually told me that he was planning to record a tribute to Bing Crosby, focusing on the dreamy (and often swinging) repertoire of 1931-35.  As politely as I could, I beseeched John to let me be part of this project: Crosby is one of my heroes, and that period of Crosbyana is a consistent delight.  John, most graciously, invited me to the sessions and I ended up writing the notes for the CD, which was immensely rewarding.  The performances on this disc are sweet evocations with a pulsing jazz heart — accompaniment and solos by Jon-Erik Kellso (cornet and trumpet), Jim Fryer (trombone), Matt Munisteri (guitar and banjo), Orange Kellin, Dan Levinson, Marc Phaneuf (reeds), Conal Fowkes (piano), Kevin Dorn (drums), Brian Nalepka (bass and tuba), Andy Stein, Matt Szemela (violins).  The songs are beautiful and well-chosen: DID YOU EVER SEE A DREAM WALKING? / HAPPY-GO-LUCKY YOU / A FADED SUMMER LOVE / STAR DUST / I SURRENDER, DEAR / I FOUND A MILLION-DOLLAR BABY / IF I HAD YOU / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / STREET OF DREAMS / BABY – OH WHERE CAN YOU BE? / SWEET LEILANI – BLUE HAWAII / WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS / MUDDY WATER / I’M THROUGH WITH LOVE / PLEASE / WERE YOU SINCERE? / WHEN THE FOLKS HIGH UP DO THE MEAN LOW-DOWN / RED SAILS IN THE SUNSET / WHERE THE BLUE OF THE NIGHT MEETS THE GOLD OF THE DAY / JUST ONE MORE CHANCE / LEARN TO CROON / OUT OF NOWHERE.

I managed to make two of the three sessions, and when I walked into the first one and the band was running through DID YOU EVER SEE A DREAM WALKING? — well, I was transported.  John’s vocals are touching; the band is sensitive and danceable; the session is a priceless tribute.  The CD is available at a variety of online sources (Jazz By Mail, Worlds Records) but the nicest thing would be to buy a copy directly from John himself at a New York gig.  He’ll be happy to sign it, too.  (And he has enough material for another volume or two: I hope to hear him record RIDIN’ ROUND IN THE RAIN someday.)

P.S.  I know all about the economy, and if your restaurant has closed or you are looking for work, I apologize for suggesting that you buy things that are perhaps less essential than coffee or shoes.  But if you’re managing to limp along with some degree of optimism, if you’ve decided that your aging car can hold out another year or that you don’t really need a new suit to go with the others in the closet, then you might consider one or all of these new CDs.  For less than the cost of a prix-fixe dinner, they lift the spirits.