Whitney Balliett (1926 – 2007) the jazz critic for The New Yorker, remains one of my heroes. In music, he shaped my tastes; in writing, he was a lovely idiosyncratic risk-embracing role model. And when I met him in person, he was completely gracious. We corresponded in the old-fashioned way; I sent tapes of our mutual hero Sidney Catlett and he wrote on New Yorker stationery with a fountain pen — casual friendly notes, greeting me as an equal.
That’s his whimsical self-portrait above, for sale here.
When I began to write for publication about jazz, I copied his poetic style, where metaphor was the second language — so much that I had to work to find a voice of my own. But his style, his insights, and his presence remain with me today.
But first, a photograph of one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s on Fifty-Second Street, taken by Charles Peterson on November 23, 1941. I can’t identify everyone, but from the left, I see George Wettling, Eddie Condon (half-hidden), Sandy Williams, Bobby Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Franz Jackson. The trumpeter standing in the striped suit might be Sidney De Paris. Below and to the right is Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan at the piano, an uncharacteristically exuberant Vic Dickenson, and a positively gleeful Al Hall.
What we would give to have been there. Sadly, PBS did not exist, and the March of Time did not take its cameras there to capture the ecstatic BUGLE CALL RAG that closed the afternoon performance. But a series of small marvelous circumstances, with Whitney Balliett the guiding force, bring us closer.
In preparation for a move, I have been tidying my apartment, digging through years of happy and heedless accumulation, focusing most recently on four tall bookcases. I saved the jazz books for last, and a few days ago was anatomizing a shelf of books when I noticed four loose pages sandwiched between two larger books. One was a letter from Whitney himself, friendly, gossipy, loose. And he sent three pages of what we used to call “photostats,” which made me catch my breath. The evidence, first.
I have omitted a non-jazz postscript, which took off the bottom half of Whitney’s signature:
and a week later:
and the careful young man’s tidy enumeration of those two magical visits to Valhalla:
Before moving onward, I suggest you let your mind, heart, and spiritual ears linger on those pages. Imagine!
And, in the magical way things sometimes happen, my tidying turned up an issue of the Atlantic Monthly, from January 1998, which I’d saved because of Whitney’s memoir about playing drums, “Sitting In.” This paragraph is completely and delightfully relevant.
My erratic noncareer as a drummer began in 1942, when I was going on sixteen. I was a freshman at Phillips Exeter Academy, and had been working blindly toward jazz by way of the jazz-flavored dance bands of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and Harry James. During my first Christmas vacation I was taken to one of Milt Gabler’s Sunday-afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, on West Fifty-second Street, in New York. They weren’t really jam sessions except for the closing number, a fast “Bugle Call Rag,” in which all the musicians from the two alternating bands Gabler had hired got up on the tiny bandstand and let go. There might be three or four trumpets, several reeds, a couple of trombones, and a four-man rhythm section; the number, with its many breaks, would become a “cutting” contest, in which the trumpets in particular tried to outshout one another. It was the first head-on live jazz I had heard, and it was shocking and exhilarating. The famous old New Orleans drummer Zutty Singleton was hypnotic. He moved his head to the rhythm in peculiar ducking motions, shot his hands at his cymbals as if he were shooting his cuffs, hit stunning rim shots, and made fearsome, inscrutable faces, his eyelids flickering like heat lightning.
It would be arrogance to suggest that Whitney’s spirit, somewhere, is helping me tidy my apartment — I would not lay that burden on anyone — but I send thanks to him for his (I hope) amused presence.
And here’s some music — not from Ryan’s, but from the Eddie Condon Blue Network broadcasts — to summon up that beautiful world of 1942:
and another helping:
Ah, that vanished world where one could go to hear Pete Brown, Vic Dickenson, Bill Coleman, Hot Lips Page, Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, Eddie Condon, Elmer James, and Sidney Catlett play the BUGLE CALL RAG. At least we know it happened.
Once I was a hero-worshipping autograph-seeker (“hound” is so dismissive). Beginning in 1967, I asked Louis, Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones, Vic Dickenson, Sonny Greer, Buck Clayton, Bobby Hackett, Zoot Sims, and others, for theirs. Oddly, only Jo, who had a reputation for being irascible and unpredictable, asked my name and inscribed my record “To Micheal.” Other musicians I would have liked to ask but either found them intimidating, or — since I was a criminal with a poorly concealed cassette recorder — thought it best to stay hidden.
Autograph-seeking presumes reverential distance. I am a Fan, you are The Star. The Fan approaches the Star, timidly, politely, holds out a piece of paper or some other object, and asks for a signature or an inscription. In that ten-second interchange, the Fan feels seen, and the Star may feel exhausted or be gratified by the appearance of a Fan or a line of them. (In my literary life, I asked Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Richard Ford, and Julian Barnes to sign books. And Whitney Balliett.)
But I no longer chase Stars. Were I to have asked Jim Dapogny, Connie Jones, Jake Hanna, or Joe Wilder for “an autograph,” they would have found the request strange, because I had been talking or eating with them as a presumed equal. I am sure the anthropologists have a name for this kind of cultural transgression, as if your mother made special waffles for your birthday and you left her a tip, even 25%. In my world, at least, many of the Stars have become Friends: whether formality is a thing of the past or my stature has changed, I have no need to investigate.
I will say that, a few years ago, when a musician-friend of mine, thinking to praise me, said I was “the best fan” he knew, I snapped, “I’m not a Fan!” and then explained what I associated with the term. He changed his designation, to what I don’t remember, and it felt better.
Yet I think autographs are sacred — here is a photograph that Sidney Catlett held and wrote on. The Deity comes to Earth for thirty seconds and touches down. I have bought or copied pieces of paper signed by Pete Brown, Rod Cless, Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell (who wrote his first name as two separate words, should you wonder), Adrian Rollini, Claude Hopkins, and more.
I continue to keep track of such holy relics on eBay, as people who follow JAZZ LIVES know. In that spirit, here are manifestations of the autograph dance.
Someone came to Cab Calloway — anywhere between 1942 (when the record was issued) and his death in 1994, and asked him to sign this lovely purple OKeh 78, which he did, with his signature phrase, in the white ink used for record labels:
I have seen enough Cab-signatures to think this one authentic.
And here he is — in his best passionate mode, with a very early reading of Alec Wilder’s classic:
This autograph’s closer to home for me:
Again, completely authentic. But from what I know — from my own experience of Ruby (and this could have been signed any time between 1954 and 2002) I am reasonably sure that when the admiring Fan approached him, Ruby would have said something dismissive, because he disdained his early work vehemently. I recall when I first met him in 1971, praising his MY MELANCHOLY BABY on a new Atlantic recording by George Wein’s Newport All-Stars, and Ruby’s response was terse, curt, and precise, “THAT shit?” Difficult to find shades of ambiguity in that response.
Here’s Ruby’s ELLIE (one of his few compositions) from that date, with Johnny Guarnieri, Walter Page, Bobby Donaldson:
Some artists, remarkably, used the occasion to impart a message — in this case, a moral lesson. Saxophonist Don Lanphere, later in life, was born again and changed his life completely . . . so much so that an inscription became a chance to spread the Gospel:
It feels as if Don had more than a momentary acquaintance with Debbie, Ron, and Bob, but I may be assuming too much.
Here’s his beautiful DEAR OLD STOCKHOLM from the 1983 sessions, a duet with pianist Don Friedman:
Those three examples suggest face-to-face contact, and certainly a few words being exchanged. The closing artifact, here, comes from another dance entirely. For instance, I have a photograph signed by Connee Boswell, in her distinctive hand, and then personalized by her secretary, and I presume this all was done by mail, that the Fan wrote to Miss Boswell asking for an autographed picture — and that Connee, sometime, somewhere, sat down with a pile of them and signed her name a hundred or five hundred times in a sitting, and the photos could then be sent off. (Better, mind you, than Benny Goodman requiring people who worked for him to copy his signature onto photographs.)
I had to do some quick research to find out (to remind myself) that the 8-track tape was popular between 1965 and the late Seventies . . . it was replaced by the smaller, more flexible cassette tape, which could also be recorded on. I saw these tapes and players in action, but neither my parents nor I had an 8-track deck in our respective cars.
But some people did. Thus . . .
I note with amusement the ages of the attractive couple on the cover: would you think that in 1970 they would be close-dancing to Harry rather than the Stones? I doubt it. And inside:
This was on sale on eBay for a very low price: $10 plus 3.99 shipping, and I asked a dear friend who admires Harry if he wanted it as a gift, and he snorted and said, “Please,” in the way that people do when they really mean, “I’ll kill you.” I amused myself by imagining the scene of the person or couple coming across the dance floor to Harry at the set break and asking him to sign their new treasure, which he did quickly and without fanfare. But I was wrong, because a return to eBay showed two other signed sets, which suggests to me that Harry spent some tedious hours at home or in a hotel room, signing set after set, box after box. Hence:
At least those purchasers got a “Sincerely.” I remember sets packaged by the Longines Symphonette Society, but can’t recall whether they were offered on television after 11 PM, and whether the autographed sets cost more.
Here’s a favorite recording by Harry, the October 1939 SLEEPY TIME GAL, in three tempos, with just the rhythm section — Jack Gardner, piano; Brian “Red” Kent, guitar; Thurman Teague, string bass; Ralph Hawkins, drums:
I hope you noticed the profound Louis-influence there, starting with the opening references to SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH. It’s the perfect segue to this delightful photograph — place, date, and photographer unknown (thanks to Loren Schoenberg for the Facebook “Rare Jazz Photos” group) of two men beaming love at each other. Feel free to invent appropriate dialogue:
Our good fortune continues. “Tell us a story, Dan?” we ask, and he kindly obliges. And his stories have the virtue of being candid, genuine, and they are never to show himself off. A rare fellow, that Mister Morgenstern is.
Here are a few more segments from my July 2017 interlude with Dan. In the first, he recalls the great clarinetist, improviser, and man Frank Chace, with glances at Bob Wright, Wayne Jones, Harriet Choice, Bill Priestley, Pee Wee Russell, Mary Russell, Nick’s, Louis Prima, Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes, Frank Teschemacher, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton:
Here, Dan speaks of Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Charles Edward Smith — with stories about George Wein, Stan Getz, Art Tatum, Sidney Bechet:
and a little more, about “jazz critics,” including Larry Kart, Stanley Dance, Helen Oakley Dance, and a little loving comment about Bunny Berigan:
If the creeks don’t rise, Dan and I will meet again this month. And this time I hope we will get to talk of Cecil Scott and other luminaries, memorable in their own ways.
The superb vocal harmony group DUCHESS has released their second CD, LAUGHING AT LIFE, and it’s a wonder.
Here’s a sample of their originality, energy, and fun: EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, at the Jazz Standard, accompanied by Michael Cabe, piano; Matt Aronoff, string bass; Jared Schonig, drums.
For those of you who, like me, didn’t catch every rapid-fire turn of the new “original” lyrics, here they are in slow-motion print:
How did the Bozzie’s do their rapid-fire scatting When they yes-siggle-dirred when they double dogged their Latin There were so many words just a flyin’ and a rat-n-tatting how?
Vet, Martha, Connie gave us all the Heebie Jeebies Said Duchess ought to try it but you know it isn’t easy So we gotta tip our hat to the Bozzie’s oh, they really dazzle, wow!
Harmony and hijinks are the currency we deal in Though we love the Bozzie’s honey, no we ain’t a-stealin’ Got a style that’s all our own and we know it’s so appealing here and now!
There’s only one problem with that gloriously expert and exuberant video. A casual viewer might assume, “Oh, that’s a Boswell Sisters cover band,” in the odd parlance of this century, drop this versatile trio into a convenient classification, and be completely wrong. Someone else might misread the group because of their “vintage” twentieth-century repertoire.
But DUCHESS is not a tour of the local museum of past greatness, and no one pretends to be anyone else.
The glory of this group is their quirky sweet transforming energy, which enables them to do so many things so beautifully and with such deep emotions. LAUGHING AT LIFE is a wonderful showcase for their swinging versatilities.
The CD’s delights begin early, with a modern-Basie version of SWING, BROTHER, SWING — where one can delight in the three piquant voices and their distinctive blend (as well as a solo by postmodern intergalactic rhythm ‘n’ blues tenorist Jeff Lederer).
Then they move into familiar (and possibly dangerous) territory . . . the 1930 SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, a song that I would guess no one has ever called “dangerous.” But as a song, it has become over-familiar and thus open to formulaic run-throughs in the same way as PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. But halfway through this track, after a pleasing rhythm-section interlude, something magical happens. Whitney Balliett called a similar instrumental passage “slow-motion leapfrog,” and on this track, the three voices slide over one another, each singer starting a phrase in a different place, creating a kind of three-dimensional cathedral of sounds.
There’s the rubato voices-plus-Michael Cabe’s sensitive piano reading of the verse of LAUGHING AT LIFE. Then, Amy Cervini’s quite definite reading of GIVE HIM THE OO LA LA, with a fine solo from guitarist Jesse Lewis, a wooing WHERE WOULD YOU BE WITHOUT ME? featuring Melissa Stylianou, and a down-home frolic by Hilary Gardner on HALLELUJAH, I LOVE HIM SO!
The tender ache of EV’RY TIME WE SAY GOOD-BYE is followed by the hilarity of STRIP POLKA (thank you, Mister Mercer!). And the bonus track, DAWN, a song known to only a few, is immensely touching — its author is someone we honor for other reasons.
Buy the CD and find out all. I didn’t linger over every track for its delights: you can find the little bowers of bliss for yourself.
DUCHESS fans already know this, but it bears repeating: each of the three singers is a very distinctive soloist, but their blending is impeccable: their intonation and diction are splendid. The clever and witty arrangements are complex, but only truly attentive listeners will understand just how beautifully layered they are — a key change here, an almost unnoticed shift from a lead voice with support to a unison ensemble, and more. Incidentally, there are guest appearances by clarinetist Anat Cohen and trombonist / vocalist Wycliffe Gordon to add to the mix.
Learn all the secrets here, and follow Duchess on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook if you while away the hours in such revelries. But most important, here you can purchase / download the CD through Bandcamp. Amazon, or iTunes. You’ll find it extremely rewarding.
In the history of jazz, people who do not play instruments do as much, in different ways, to sustain the art without getting equal credit. Think of Milt Gabler, George Avakian, Henry Sklow, Norman Granz, George Wein, Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, and other catalysts. Then there are broadcasters. “Broadcasting” meant something even before radio and television: spreading something widely, effectively: a newsboy shouting the headlines or a farmer distributing seed over a field. Jazz radio broadcasters — in previous decades Martin Block, Art Ford, Fred Robbins, Sid Torin; in our time Ed Beach, John S. Wilson, Phil Schaap, Dan Morgenstern, Alisa Clancy, Linda Yohn and many others – do more than play records. They become our friends, teachers, and benefactors. We look forward to their voices, personalities, and insights. Before there was streaming radio, we arranged our schedules around them; we tape-recorded their programs, which became sweet swinging libraries, introducing us to new artists or rare records.
Rich Conaty, who died of cancer on December 30, 2016, gave his energy and ultimately his life in the reverent and delighted service of the music he loved: the pop and jazz of the teens, Twenties, and Thirties, roughly 1911-1939. For forty-four years, he shared that music on a Sunday-night broadcast on Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV-FM (90.7). Rich’s THE BIG BROADCAST, named in homage to the 1932 film with Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, the Boswell Sisters, Arthur Tracy, Cab Calloway, and others, was a consistent pleasure.
Rich was enchanted by this music when he was thirteen or fourteen, began broadcasting as a high school student on New York’s Hofstra College radio station. When he had to choose a college, he picked Fordham University because of its radio station, and beginning in January 1973, was on the air every Sunday night, live perhaps fifty weeks every year, taping shows in advance when he went away, perhaps to visit his mother in Florida.
Early on, Rich formed an alliance with Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks, and these two did more to introduce this music to a wider, younger audience than perhaps anyone. Rich said that his program was “for the old and the old at heart,” for his humor was sharply wry (occasionally painfully self-deprecating) but he was most happy to learn that some seventeen-year old was now collecting Chick Bullock 78s or had fallen in love with Lee Wiley. He had other interests – vintage Nash automobiles, cats, and other kinds of vintage pop culture – but was devoted to the music and musicians above all.
Listening to Rich for decades, I was able to trace the subtle development of a scholarly intelligence. Years ago, his library of recordings was small (as was mine) so he played the Mills Brothers’ TIGER RAG frequently. As he became the person and the scholar he was meant to become, his awareness, knowledge, and collection deepened.
We’ve heard earnest but ignorant radio announcers – those who call the Ellington clarinetist “Barney Biggered,” or the King of Jazz “Paul White Man,” but Rich knew his music, his musicians, and his history. Every show, he created tributes to musicians, songwriters, and other figures whose birthday he would celebrate: not just Bix, Bing, Louis, Jolson, Annette; his enthusiasm for songwriters and figures, once renowned, now obscure, was astonishing. He had interviewed Bob Effros, Edward Eliscu, Ben Selvin, and Vet Boswell on the air; he was friends with Dolly Dawn, had gotten drunk with Cab Calloway. Connee Boswell sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him over the phone; Arthur Tracy performed at his wedding to Mary Hayes (“Manhattan Mary,” who also died too young of cancer).
Rich expanded our knowledge and our joy by playing an astonishing range of music from his own collection of vintage records. Every Sunday that I heard the program, I would say several times, “What is that? I never heard that record before!” and this was true in 2015 and 2016, where it seems as if everything is accessible on CD, download, or YouTube. He spent his life surrounded by 78s – those he had acquired at auction, those he was selling at record shows. Because the idea of THE BIG BROADCAST was not just famous, documented recordings, he would often play a record about which little was known. But he could offer an educated guess about the true band behind the Crown label pseudonym, whether the singer was Irving or Jack Kaufman, when the song had been premiered – much more than statistics gleaned from books. He took requests from his devoted audience, gave away tickets to jazz concerts, and with Bryan Wright, created a series of BIG BROADCAST CDs — I have more than a few — which are wonderful cross-sections of the period.
I should say that his taste was admirable. He didn’t play every 78 he had found — no sermons, no organ recitals of light classics, no comedy records — but within the “pop and jazz” area I could trust him to play the good stuff, the music that would otherwise be forgotten. He left IN THE MOOD to others, but he played Henry Burr, Bill Coleman, Jane Green, Johnny Marvin, Fred Rich, Ben Selvin, Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Emmett Miller, Eddie Lang, Jack Purvis, Luis Russell, The Sunshine Boys, Kate Smith, Ted Weems, early Ellington, Jean Goldkette, and on and on.
And part of the pleasure of his expertise and of radio in general (at its best, when the programmer is subtle and wise) is not just the delighted shock of one record, but of the juxtapositions Rich created in three-sides-in-a-row. THE BIG BROADCAST was rather like being invited to an evening at Jeff Healey’s house, where you knew the music would be embracing, uplifting, and educational in the best way. (I should also say that Rich did talk — digressing into his own brand of stand-up comedy, with little bits of slightly off-key a cappella singing — but music made up the bulk of the program. He wouldn’t tell you the personnel of the thirteen-piece big band, by choice, I am sure, because it would mean he could play fewer recordings.)
On a personal note: I, like many others, made cassettes of the program and played them in the car. I fell asleep to the program on hundreds of Sunday nights. When I was young and diligent, I graded student essays to it. Although Rich and I had much of the same focused obsession with the music, we met in person only a few times (I think always at Sofia’s when the Nighthawks were playing) and THE BIG BROADCAST was his world — and by extension the health and welfare of WFUV. So our conversations were brief, before the band started or in between sets. But my debt to him is immeasurable, and it would not have increased had our conversations been lengthy.
I do not know what will happen to Rich’s recorded legacy – more than eight thousand hours of radio. Some shows have been archived and can be heard through wfuv.org, but whether the station will share others as a tribute is not yet decided. More information can be found on the Facebook page devoted to Fans of the WFUV Big Broadcast.
I think of Wild Bill Davison’s puzzled question about Frank Teschemacher, dead in an auto accident in Bill’s car, “Where are we going to get another sax player like Tesch?” Paraphrase the question to apply to Rich Conaty, and the answer is, “We never will.” But his generosity will live on.
The response to my first posting with videos of Hal Smith’s Swing Central from August 28 of this year has been so enthusiastic that I offer four more — with thematic connections to three of the greatest lyrical players of jazz: Bis Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Lester Young, and Pee Wee Russell. We know that Lester deeply admired the other three players, and it’s not hard to hear an emotional connection between Pee Wee and Pres when their clarinet explorations are the subject. Four great poets who also swung deliciously.
Swing Central is made up of Hal on drums, Jon Doyle on clarinet, Joshua Hoag on string bass, Dan Walton on piano, Jamey Cummins on guitar. This performance is from a swing dance gig at Central Market in Austin, Texas.
Before you plunge in, might I suggest that you be prepared to listen closely. This is a band that understands the pleasure of playing softly, of placing note after note and harmony upon harmony with great delicacy: yes, they can swing exuberantly (as in the final SUNDAY) but some of what follows is soft, tender, introspective — I think of Japanese paintings, where one brushstroke both is and has depths of implication. Allow this music to reverberate — placidly yet definitely — as you listen.
And the fine videos are the work of Gary Feist of Yellow Dog Films.
FOR NO REASON AT ALL IN C (an improvisation on I’D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN):
PEE WEE’S BLUES (with some real-life end-of-the-night tidying at the start, very atmospheric):
SUNDAY (that Jule Styne opus recorded by all four of these players):
I look forward to a happy future for this gratifying small orchestra, its music so pleasing.
Please put everything else aside. Stop multi-tasking for a few minutes. I invite you to celebrate the birth of a great band: Hal Smith’s Swing Central:
That’s Hal on drums, Jon Doyle on clarinet, Joshua Hoag on string bass, Dan Walton on piano, Jamey Cummins on guitar. This performance is from a swing dance gig at Central Market in Austin, Texas. I’ll have more to say about the music — which really “needs no introduction” and “speaks for itself,” later, but I have asked Hal to tell us everything about the creation and gestation of this fine new ensemble. (Interspersed with his narrative you’ll find other videos from the Central Market gig, like hand-drawn illustrations in a picture book.)
A word about Hal, though. I’ve been listening to him on records and CDs for a long time (putting the needle back over and over to listen to the way he swings the band and takes solos that seem too short rather than “fountains of noise,” as Whitney Balliett called most drum solos) and I have heard him in person for the last five years. He’s a splendid drummer — old-fashioned in the best ways — always dreaming of the bands who can really understand and embody the glories of the past. And he’s always on a quest to put congenial talented people together to form bands: the Roadrunners, his own trios with Bobby Gordon, Albert Alva, James Evans, Ray Skjelbred, Chris Dawson, Kris Tokarski; his California Swing Cats and Rhythmakers, Hal’s Angels, the New El Dorado Jazz Band, the Jazz Chihuauas, the Down Home Jazz Band, and the Creole Sunshine Jazz Band.
Here’s Hal, himself:
In 2015, Dave Bennett and I wanted to put together a jazz quintet. I suggested Dan Walton and Jamey Cummins from Austin and Steve Pikal from the Twin Cities. Even though we had not all played together as a group, I was sure that everything would click.
Interlude: HELLO, FISHIES, by Jon Doyle:
The quintet did click, at the Redwood Coast Music Festival in March, 2016. I secured another engagement for the group at the Capital City Jazz Festival in Madison, Wisconsin but Dave inadvertently double-booked himself that same weekend. Fortunately, the festival organizers were willing to keep the quintet in the lineup with JON DOYLE on clarinet.
Since everyone in the band plays SWING music and lives in the CENTRAL time zone, that was how the group wound up with the name.
Jon and I exchanged many e-mails regarding the repertoire and sound of the band. Since so many swing combos attempt to play in the style of Benny Goodman’s Trio, Quartet, etc. we agreed that a different song list and sound would be the way we would go.
I have always admired Jon’s sound on clarinet, but he really caught my ear one time before a gig with Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Jon was warming up by playing Lester Young’s introduction to the Kansas City Six’s “I Want A Little Girl.” Remembering that, I proposed that Swing Central play songs associated with Lester, then further suggested material recorded by Pee Wee Russell and Frank Chace. Jon agreed enthusiastically and began writing charts.
Interlude: JELLY ROLL
Jon was running late to our first set on Friday evening, and did not have time to go back for his tenor sax — so he played the entire set on clarinet. We kicked off with “Love Is Just Around The Corner,” and the audience responded with enthusiasm, which continued with every number. Jon’s totally unstaged animation and Steve Pikal’s contagious good spirit permeated the crowd. Jamey Cummins scored big with a swinging version of “Shivers.” Jon cued ensembles and solos and kept most performances to 78 rpm length, so with about 20 minutes left on the clock, I got Dan’s attention during a song, and mouthed, “Can you do a boogie woogie feature?” The rollicking version of “Roll ‘Em, Pete” he came up with had the crowd whistling and stomping. Our last song of the first set garnered a standing ovation, and each succeeding set ended the same way.
Fast-forward to August, 2016…I was going to be working with a Western Swing band in South Texas, and coincidentally Jon Doyle was planning to be in Austin also. Jamey and Dan would be in town, so I was able to book an appearance for the band at Central Market-Westgate. (Both Central Market locations in Austin offer a fantastic selection of groceries, an in-store café, and live music by local artists on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In addition to paying the musicians, the market provides a professional soundman and even feeds the band). However, the performance budget would not cover the cost of an airfare from the Twin Cities, so the great Austin bassist Josh Hoag filled in for Steve Pikal.
Gary Feist, of Yellow Dog Films, was available to videotape several performances. He captured the band, the audience, and quite a few local dancers in high spirits.
For me, playing in a band like this makes the aches and pains of the music business worthwhile. Dan, Jamey and Josh are great friends as well as great musicians. All of us look to Jon Doyle for inspiration and he always delivers! Best of all, Jon has immersed himself in the recordings of Young, Russell and particularly Chace. He inhabits the styles without copying note for note, but there is no question regarding his influences. A mutual friend, upon hearing Jon’s clarinet work on an audio clip from this session (“I Must Have That Man”) remarked, “I think the torch has been passed!” It has, and is burning brightly!
I know that Hal is speaking with several jazz festival directors about appearances for SWING CENTRAL, and that they are getting together to record their debut CD in Chicago — all excellent news. There are many other wonderful small jazz groups on the landscape, thank heavens, but this is a real band with its own conceptions. You wouldn’t mistake them for anyone else; they are not locked in one tiny stylistic box, and my goodness, how they swing!
Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser
Monk Rowe is a jazz musician — saxophonist, pianist, composer, arranger — and he has a day gig at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, as the Joe Williams Director of the Filius Jazz Archive there. The Archive will be twenty-one in 2016, and it is indeed remarkably adult.
So far, Monk has conducted video interviews with more than 325 musicians, ranging from the great forbears (Doc Cheatham, Eddie Bert, Kenny Davern, Jerry Jerome, Ray Conniff, Joe Williams, Milt Hinton) to the living legends of the present and future (Nicki Parrott, Kidd Jordan, Sherrie Maricle, Bill Charlap, Holly Hofmann, Maria Schneider). And excerpts from those interviews, thematically and intelligently arranged, now form a compact yet impressive book (with a brief foreword by jazz eminence Dan Morgenstern) whose title is above.
A friend at Hamilton sent me a copy of the book some weeks back, and I have been slow to write about it — for two reasons. One, the semester got in the way, unforgivably, and two, I was often making notes and laughing so hard that I couldn’t read much at a sitting. But my instant recommendation is BUY IT. So those of you who want to skip the evidence can zoom to the bottom of this post. Others can linger.
A brief prelude. I am immensely in favor of oral history although it cannot replace the best analysis or aesthetic criticism. I wouldn’t give up Whitney Balliett, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Anthony Barnett, Frank Buchmann-Moller, Manfred Selchow, or John Chilton . . . the list goes on and I know I am leaving two dozen worthy writers out. But what wouldn’t we give for a ten-minute interview with Tony Fruscella, Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy Harrison, Herschel Evans, Eddie Lang, Jimmy Blanton, or Buster Bailey? True, some musicians were and are shy or not always able to articulate much about the music, but others — as we know — are born raconteurs, sharp observers, comedians, anthropologists. Their stories, no matter how brief, are precious. Two pages by Clark Terry where he speaks of being beaten by Caucasians because he was a “Nigerian” while in Mississippi — and then being rescued by another group of Caucasians — say more about race relations in the United States than twenty hours of PBS footage could ever do.
The material is organized thematically, enabling the reader to hear, for instance, stories of life on the road from Kenny Davern, Lanny Morgan, and Phil Woods. Then there are sharp observations — one can almost hear the rimshot that follows. Dave Pell calls Stan Getz “the greatest dressing room player that ever lived.” Stan Kenton stops his band from swinging too much and says, “This is not Basie. This is Stan Kenton.” Bobby Rosengarden talks about Toscanini, Joe Wilder about punctuality, Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli about life in the recording studio. Keter Betts, as a high-school student, is bought lunch by Milt Hinton; Jean Bach explains the Ellington habit of “seagulling”; Sherrie Maricle recalls her metal clarinet. Dan Barrett gives advice to young musicians. Randy Sandke talks about the perils of thinking. Karl Berger talks about his conducting; Kidd Jordan deconstructs a song’s title. And there’s a historical perspective covering nearly a century: we hear Doc Cheatham talk about Ma Rainey, then Jerry Jerome describe the first Glenn Miller band — all the way up to the present.
It’s an enthralling book. And since Monk Rowe is a professional musician, his interludes and commentary are more than useful; his questions are on the mark. Other writers put themselves into the dialogue merely to say, “Well, Dizzy always used to say to me,” but Monk is a gracious interpreter rather than a narcissist.
To find out the story of the elephant beer and the priceless answer, visit Monk’s JAZZ BACKSTORY blog here and scroll down to the bottom of the page. Then you can read the rest of Phil Woods’ words and — by the way — find out exactly what Dizzy Gillespie said when presented with the key to the city of Syracuse, New York.
JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS is available here through Amazon. And the proceeds from the book support the Archives.
NEWS FLASH: Monk is going to be teaching a free online course on jazz, starting February 2, 2016: details here.
Thirty years ago, I would have defined “rock and rye” musically — as a hot riff number written by Jimmy Mundy for the 1934 Earl Hines band. Then I read a Whitney Balliett profile of Helen Humes, who was then appearing at The Cookery, Barney Josephson’s Greenwich Village Seventies evocation of Cafe Society. In the profile, Josephson teases Humes that she has to have a drink of rock and rye, that he bought a whole case for her, and she had hardly had any. I filed that away in the cerebral spot reserved for Information You Find Fascinating But Will Never Have A Chance To Offer Because No One Else Really Is Interested In It.
At the November 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest, pianist-philosopher Ray Skjelbred — who admires Hines greatly and knew him in his later years — called the tune, and the other members of his ad hoc quartet fell right in. They are Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.
Photograph by Todd Coleman for SAVEUR
But perhaps you’d like to fix yourself a drink before the music starts? I learned that rock and rye was a cocktail in a bottle, a mixture of rye whiskey and rock candy (to take the edge off the whiskey) sometimes also served with lemon and herbs. I imagine that it might have been not only delicious but necessary with Prohibition “rye” whose origins might have been dubious.
Here’s the band:
Even if you choose not to imbibe, the music will have the same elating effect.
In the decades after his death in 1959, Lester Young has been the subject of many published pages, both research and memoir, by Frank Buchmann-Moller, Lewis Porter, Douglas Henry Daniels, Whitney Balliett — as well as anecdotes that continue to crop up even now (even on Facebook).
One would think that there was no need for more writing on the subject, especially since Lester’s life seems to fall in to clearly discernable and well-documented acts in his own play: his childhood experiences in the Young family band; early exposure to Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer; professional gigs with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and then his glorious time in the Count Basie orchestra; small group work with Billie Holiday; his attempts to lead his own small groups; his unhappy time in the United States military; increasing fame balanced against ill-health and a feeling of being overwhelmed by people copying him; his brief final decline and early death.
Would another book on Lester would be superfluous, or it would provide the same stories with new prose connecting them?
I write this to draw my readers to one of the best books on a jazz artist I have ever read — Dave Gelly’s BEING PREZ -(Oxford University Press) – which, although published in 2007, I have only read in the last few months. (I came to it because I was so very impressed with Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW— a book I commend to anyone interested in the delicate, shifting relationships between music and its audiences.)
There are some writers I read with difficulty because their prose is efficient but graceless ways; others are so ornate that meaning gets submerged. I can tolerate either or both if the chosen subject is appealing.
But Gelly is that rare creation: a subtle writer, not in love with the sound of his own rhetorical flourishes, whose work is a pleasure to read for its own sake. Add that he is writing about one of my heroes: this book couldn’t be better. In fact, when I first received a copy of this slim volume — slightly over 170 pages — I put myself on a reader’s diet, putting the book out of sight after each chapter so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly, wouldn’t get to Lester’s sad end too fast.
Gelly handles the facts with grace, but his is not simply a compact retelling of what Buchmann-Moller and Daniels have done more expansively. His book is thoroughly adult in his emotional relation to his subject. He clearly loves Lester, but can at points step back and gently say that a career choice was not something that served Prez well. So his admiration and adoration are fair and moderated by kindness. When some writers depict a subject who has, let us say, cut his life short by alcohol or drugs, there is a constant soundtrack of quiet parental disapproval. The word SHOULD hangs over the book. “Oh, if _____ had only done this, he would be with us today,” as if the writer is trying to hide his annoyance that the subject didn’t live longer, record more, give us more pleasure.
Gelly never treats Lester like a bad child; his recital of the facts of Lester’s life is empathic. It is that sensitivity to what this most sensitive man must have felt that makes BEING PREZ especially poignant and wise. Gelly does not psychoanalyze, but he has great psychological acuity, offered lightly. He does, for instance, see Lester’s character being formed in childhood by his being taken away from his beloved mother, Lizetta (who outlived him) and his often tense relationships with his severe father, Billy Young. BEING PREZ quietly offers these factors to make Lester’s behavior, once viewed as inexplicable, completely logical: a man who cannot tolerate conflict and confrontation instead chooses avoidance — he runs away and disappears. (Gelly is just as wise when it comes to influential figures in Lester’s life, such as Count Basie.)
Gelly is old-fashioned in his love of his subject (he does not seek to make Lester small, ever) but he is also that most ancient creation, a moralist. I mean that as a great compliment: someone who knows that there are right and wrong actions, each with its own set of consequences. Consider this, on Lester’s abduction as a child:
Much has been written about the estimable personal qualities of Willis Handy Young — his unwavering devotion to study and self-advancement, his grim determination to succeed against the odds, his considerable musical gifts, his talent for administration and his dignified conduct under the barely tolerable yoke of Southern racism. But among all these splendid qualities at least one attribute was plainly missing — a tender heart. To take a child away from its mother by means of a trick is a wicked thing to do. When that child is a shy, sensitive little boy with a deep mutual attachment to his mother, it is unforgivable. According to Irma, Lester wept bitterly for a long time afterwards. No doubt Lizetta wept, too.
That passage — on page four — so struck me that I sought out the Beloved to read it to her. “Wicked” is not a word we use often in this century, but a biographer with righteous indignation, a moral sense, and a tender heart is a rare artist indeed.
BEING PREZ also has one great and endearing advantage over any other book on Lester: Gelly is a professional jazz musician whose instrument is the tenor saxophone. And he is humanely articulate about that instrument and what it requires. We aren’t barraged by a Schuller-styled musicological analysis of what Lester is doing (did you hear his implied Db diminished thirteenth over the grace note in the last beat of bar 127?) which makes those who aren’t grounded in music theory turn pale and opt for a newspaper instead, but Gelly conveys certain information about the mechanics of what Lester does better than anyone else I’ve ever read, without intimidating or overwhelming the reader. His musical analyses are brief but convincing, and his explanations of how Lester got certain sounds make what was once completely mysterious clear.
Finally, Gelly does a superb job of balancing his narrative between the two selves: Lester the quiet, tender man who often wants simply to play among congenial souls and then to be left alone in solitude, and Lester the musician who amazes and continues to amaze. Gelly’s aims in this book are noble yet simple — free from a particular ideological slant. He says in his introduction that he took on this book because Lester was always fragmented in this way, and that he wanted to do what he could to bring this elusive, enigmatic man to light. He’s succeeded.
Gelly is not combative, but he is somewhat impatient with the teetering myths of Lester’s life — for one, that Lester was so broken by his army experience that he couldn’t create (many recordings give the lie to that) and that he was so downtrodden by his imitators that he despaired.
Other biographies of Lester have their own delights: first-hand testimony from musicians who played alongside Lester, or extensive data on Lester’s childhood. But BEING PREZ is as beautifully and completely realized as any long solo Lester ever created, and I wait with eagerness for whatever Gelly will write in future.
Lester once told pianist Horace Silver (he spoke of himself in the third person), “I just don’t feel like nobody likes old Prez.” BEING PREZ, had he known of it, would have made him feel better. “Bells!” indeed.
And here’s Prez (in a 1944 masterpiece justly celebrated in this book). He’s never left town:
A musician friend of mine who is listening to this new set of rare Louis Armstrong music from 1947-58 wrote me that he has been waiting for this set for ten years. Without being competitive, I can say that I have been waiting for this Mosaic box set — a glorious and rewarding one — for almost fifty.
Yes, I was introduced to Louis and his music through the sessions with Gordon Jenkins and THE FIVE PENNIES, but I treasured my copy of TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS and (later) AMBASSADOR SATCH, playing those records over and over. (When I bought my first Hot Five compilation — the Louis Armstrong Story, Volume One, with a bow to George Avakian — it sounded strange and distant, as did the Creole Jazz Band sessions. But Thirties – Fifties Louis came to me like a vibrating force of nature.)
There are still too many listeners — and writers, unfortunately — who hold to the great myths we so love in this century — the great narrative of Early Promise and Later Stagnation. Louis has been a true victim of such mythography: people who don’t listen think that he stopped being creative in 1929, that the All-Stars’ performances were simply crowd-pleasing note-for-note repetitions of perhaps a dozen tunes.
I do not write what follows casually: the music contained on these nine compact discs (over eleven hours of music) will be a revelation.
My title comes from Whitney Balliett’s review of Louis’ concert at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and it is so very true. Louis plays, throughout this set, like a man on a fierce mission of joy. Forget the cliche of the small, stocky, tired man, sweating and grinning and mopping his face while he grins his way through some paper-thin song about what a wonderful world it is or some woman named Dolly or Mame. What you hear on these discs is not tired, not ever.
Indeed, if you were able to take one of the performances on this set and play it for someone whose ears were open, whose mind and heart were wiped clean of stereotype and assumption, I guarantee that my imagined listener would be in awe at the powerful energies to be experienced here. The Mosaic set is not a loving tribute to a failing Elder; it is an explosive package of evidence showing that Louis was truly powerful and energized in his forties and fifties, playing and singing wonderfully — full of life. Although a well-known reviewer in a well-known jazz publication called Louis’ performances with his chosen band a “cage,” and others have created platitudes about “antebellum” music, the sounds on this box set transcend all such shallow reportage.
Hereis some musical evidence. And for those of you who might say, “Oh, gee, another version of BLUEBERRY HILL? For goodness’ sakes, I’ve heard Pops do that song a thousand times,” I would ask only that you sit still, put the iPhone or other distractions at a safe distance, and listen. Listen anew. Listen once again. What you hear is not routine, not repetition, not rote — but subtle creations, music springing to life for the millionth time, a piece of metal tubing and a human voice sending gifts of love and wisdom to all of us.
Listening to Louis Armstrong is not only a pleasurable experience but a transformative one, because Louis reminds us to not get weary, to never say, “You know, I am bored with doing, with making, with being.” Louis never tired of that “show,” of letting music pass through him so it could be aimed like a caress at every member of the audience. And even though Louis’ mortal body is no more, those vibrations are still able to rattle us in the nicest ways.
Larry Eanet, pianist, trombonist, creative thinker, once said that a gift (1940 or 41) of a set of Louis Armstrong 78s changed his life. “It hit me,” he said, “like Cupid’s arrow.”
The Mosaic set has the loving power of a whole quiver of such arrows. They stick but they never wound.
The recordings that changed Larry Eanet’s life were produced (and in some cases unearthed) by the man who, next to Louis and his musicians, is most responsible for this joy: producer and jazz-lover extraordinaire George Avakian. When Louis was signed by Columbia Records, his record dates were supervised, shaped, and imagined by George — still with us at 95. It’s clear that Louis trusted George to help him get his message across to as many people as possible, and the idea of AMBASSADOR SATCH owes much to George’s expansive, playful imagination. Almost seventy percent of the music in this set was overseen by George, and the box is a vibrant testimony to the power of someone who never played an instrument to create art that will outlive us all.
There are other figures to be thanked: Mosaic guardian angel Scott Wenzel; heroic engineer Andreas Meyer, and Louis Armstrong scholar and enthusiast and biographer Ricky Riccardi, who first had his encounter with Cupid’s arrow some years back. (Ricky’s is a particular triumph, because he wrote the eloquent notes; he worked to get this project moving into reality for more than a few years; this music was his entrance to the Universe of Louis as well. The set, not incidentally, makes the perfect soundtrack to his book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS.)
It is tribute to all of these men that this set exists, and to Ricky’s dogged loving persistence that we can hear HOURS of previously unheard music in beautiful sound, exquisitely annotated, with rare photographs.
incidentally, in the name of candor, I contributed a rare photograph to the set and its liner-note writer thanks me. I was honored to be even a small part of the effort — and the glowing result.
I could not leave out the Victor recordings on this set. And though the Columbia material pairs Louis with his most powerful front-line friends, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall, I have a personal delight in the 1947-9 All Stars because of the otherworldly playing of Sidney Catlett and Jack Teagarden — also the too-brief appearances of Dick Cary. The Mosaic set offers the twenty performances from the life-changing Town Hall Concert (it changed mine, so it’s not hyperbole) in the best sound, and then — an entire and previously unheard All Star concert (ninety minutes is all, but that’s a plenty) from Carnegie Hall that same year. And although the same songs are performed, don’t think for a minute these are identical performances.
I know that it is a critical commonplace to look down upon Louis as someone who traded in his vital jazz creativity for “showmanship.” Louis thought that “pleasing the people” was a good thing, giving them soaring melodies, hot rhythms, and hilarious comedy was what he was on stage for. I can listen to improvised music that goes in different directions, but the snobbery that puts Louis down is frankly inconceivable and intolerable to me. Miles Davis, the enduring icon of cool disdain for the audience, loved Louis and was not ashamed to say so. James Baldwin, too. Louis had so deeply mastered the art of multifaceted and multilayered art that when he looked like he was “clowning,” he was delivering very subtle music and very deep performance.
A few candid words about Mosaic sets in general. In my long experience of purchasing and listening, I think they have no equal. Rare material, issued legitimately for the first time, beautiful thorough documentation, wonderful sound. I know that box sets like this seem costly. $149.00 plus shipping. But there are more than one hundred and sixty performances and interviews here. And I would propose that one purchases a Mosaic set in the same way one buys a new edition of Proust, of the complete Shakespeare, the Mozart symphonies. One is not expected to listen to the nine discs all at once, in one continual immersion, on the bus, while eating, and so on. The music blurs and may even cloy. One purchases such a set as a long-term investment: a wise listener would play ONE Louis track a day — that would take half a year — and savor each moment. And then one could take a brief rest and begin in 1947, all over again. This set has been produced in a limited edition of 5000 copies, and I can guarantee that when they are all purchased, they will appear on eBay for much much more.
And if you really want to say, “Well, I have heard enough (later) Louis Armstrong for my life,” I am afraid you will get no sympathy from me. It’s rather like saying, “I don’t feel like laughing any more. Been there, done that.” And I am someone who, this last Friday, when a Louis record came on over the sound system at Cafe Borrone, I stood up and put my hand over my heart. I wasn’t exaggerating my feelings at all. I don’t exaggerate them here.
Just for inspiration: Louis signs someone’s telephone book in France.
An excerpt from Whitney Balliett’s memorial for Vic Dickenson:
Dickenson . . . seemed almost ageless. As the years went by, he never looked any older, and his playing never diminished. Keeping his cool was essential to him–it was a matter of pride–and perhaps that insulated him. The only thing that visibly gave out was his feet, and their failure left him in his last decade with a slow, leaning-over gait. He had a tall, narrow frame and a tall, narrow head. His arms and hand and legs were long and thin. The expression in his eyes flickered between humor and hurt, and his smile went to one side. He was a laconic man who said he had become a musician because “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook. I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher. I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.” (“Vic,” 657-8; Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz).
I read that piece when it first appeared in The New Yorker, and it has stayed with me for almost thirty years. Both Vic and Whitney remain heroes — their work always sounds new but has the comfort of an unexpected hug from an old friend, met by surprise. Balliett’s quiet observant power is still my model.
But I am still amazed that Vic could tell an admiring listener that he became what he was because he was so unqualified to do other things. Whether it was a true self-awareness of limitations or an excessive modesty, I don’t know. But he created singular art for five decades without ever shouting his name in our ears.
I also think Vic’s final lines stay with me because anyone’s cool — that delicate serene balance we strive for — is so fragile, so easily damaged. Small slights, casual acts, emotions coming upon us unaware inevitably “mess up our cool.”
Vic didn’t like to speak at length. He didn’t philosophize, but he left us thousands of heartfelt texts to consider. I refer to Pema Chodron at intervals; I might just as well start the day with a Dickenson solo to learn something about how to proceed through life.
Here he is, playing MANHATTAN — with Dick Cary, Jack Lesberg, and Cliff Leeman — on Eddie’s Condon’s tour of Japan in 1964 (other heroes on this voyage were Buck Clayton, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and Jimmy Rushing):
Vic’s version of serenity and balance seems warm and welcoming, as if he is saying, “Isn’t this melody beautiful? I want to shine my sound through the notes so that you will never forget them.”
I hope that no one messes up your cool — or, if it happens, you can think of Vic and set things right.
I’ve written very sparingly about the deaths of jazz musicians in JAZZ LIVES — for one reason, thinking that turning this blog into an ongoing necrological record was at odds with its title. But without saying that one musician is more important than another (Bobby Gordon, Frank Wess, Al Porcino, Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Sam Ulano, and a dozen others I am not mentioning here) I want to write and share a few words about two deaths of late 2013.
One was the bassist / guitarist / singer / impresario Leonard “Red” Balaban, the other, pianist Bob Greene. Both of them were ardent workers in the jazz vineyards, and both (in their own subtle ways) did as much to advance the music as more-heralded musicians.
I had occasion to observe and interact with Red Balaban many times in 1972-5, again in 1975-the early Eighties, and once in 2013. In the summer of 1972, I learned from reading the listings in THE NEW YORKER that Sunday-afternoon jazz sessions were being held at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage — sic transit gloria mundi) on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street. I and several friends made pilgrimages there. The Mustache was a huge hall with sawdust on the floor, creaking long tables and wobbly chairs. But for a nominal admission charge and the purchase of food and drink of dubious quality, we could sit as close to the bandstand as possible and (often) illicitly record the music. The house band — Balaban and Cats — harking back to Red’s heritage in show business with the Chicago movie theatre chain created by Balaban and Katz — was usually a sextet, with Red playing string bass and singing, occasionally guitar or banjo, rarely tuba. He called the tunes in consultation with the guest star, chose tempos, and led the session. The Cats I remember were Marquis Foster, Buzzy Drootin, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Pratt, Chuck Folds, Red Richards, Sal Pace, Kenny Davern, Joe Muranyi, Dick Rath, Herb Gardner, Ed Polcer, Doc Cheatham, and I am sure there were others. The guest stars, stopping in from Olympus or Valhalla, were Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buddy Tate, Jo Jones, Dicky Wells, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Bob Wilber — enough stiumlation for a lifetime. I was a college student with limited funds, so I didn’t see every session: missing Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, Lou McGarity, and others. But I did see Eddie Condon in the audience, which would make the Sunday sessions memorable even if no music had been played. And his daughter Liza was there now and again, photographing the musicians.
A few years later, I saw Red occasionally as a member of Mike Burgevin’s little band at Brew’s, playing alongside Vic Dickenson and other luminaries. Eventually, Red and Ed Polcer created the “last” Eddie Condon’s, on 54th Street, and I went there when I could — the house band, as I recall it, included Ed, Vic, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, John Bunch, Connie, Kay, Ronnie Cole, and another galaxy of visitors, including Helen Humes, Al Hall, Jimmy Rowles, Brooks Kerr, Marty Grosz, Bob Sparkman, Ruby Braff, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones. At Condon’s one could also see Billy Butterfield, Dan Barrett, Soprano Summit, Zoot and Al — a midtown oasis, now gone.
Finally, I got to meet Red once again, after a lapse of decades, at the October 2012 house party created by Joel Schiavone and Jeff Barnhart. I introduced myself as someone who had good reason to be grateful to him for those Sunday sessions, and we chatted a bit.
Thanks to CineDevine, we have two samples of Red, late in his career, gently entertaining the room, with assistance from Jim Fryer, Jeff Barnhart, and others. In a Waller-Razaf mood:
and something pretty from Rodgers and Hart:
A musician I respect, someone around in those New York years, had this to say about Red: “Not only did he love the music, but thousands upon thousands of dollars went through his hands and into the hands of musicians. What he did with Condon’s # 3 is part of New York City jazz history. He was a kind man who came from a very interesting family. He wasn’t Ray Brown or Bob Haggart, but he kept jazz alive.”
Without Red Balaban, I doubt that I — and many others — would have heard as much memorable music as we did in those New York years. So we owe him a great deal. And he will be missed. Another view of Red can be found here.
Pianist Bob Greene also left us late in 2013.
Bob devoted his life to celebrating Jelly Roll Morton and his music. He wasn’t the only pianist who has done so, but his emulation was fervent. I saw him summon up the Master at Alice Tully Hall in 1974 with a lovely little band (Pee Wee Erwin, Ephie Resnick, Herb Hall, Alan Cary, Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford). They couldn’t quite turn that austere space into a Storyville bordello or the Jungle Inn (it would have required an architectural reconstruction taking years) but the music floated and rocked. Across the distance of the decades, I think of Bob as a brilliant actor, committed with all his heart and energy to one role and to the perfection of that role — not a bad life-goal.
Bob was respected by his peers. Mike Lipskin said, “Bob was a fine performer of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, and devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of this giant early jazz pioneer alive. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert many years ago.” And a man we just lost, Bobby Gordon, told me, “I have fond memories of Bob for 40 years. He was always enthusiastic about music. I recorded with him 40 years ago and most recently for Jazzology. It was wonderful to record with him again, and a joy to be with such a remarkable talent. I will miss him……..a dear friend.”
Here’s a beautiful expansive piece by Hank O’Neal, a very lively evocation of Bob:
The first time I saw Bob Greene, he was playing a poor electric piano with a fairly loose ensemble, on the back of a flat bed truck. The band on the truck was trying, unsuccessfully, to recreate the feeling generated by old time bands on wagons in New Orleans. It is a long way from New Orleans to Manassas, Virginia, and 1967 was a half a century removed from those heady days in the Crescent City. I don’t remember the enterprise stirring up much support for the first Manassas Jazz Festival, but Bob was on board because his old friend, Edmund “Doc” Souchon was also there, and Doc had probably asked him to come along. I know it happened because I have a snapshot to prove it. In another snapshot from the same day he’s playing cornet.
You had to look pretty hard to find out anything about Bob. He’s not well-known today, rarely mentioned in any of the standard jazz reference books, and you have to dig pretty deep to come up with any information at all, but the bits and pieces are there if you look for them. And the story and the music he’s made along the way are both wonderful.
Bob’s first love was Benny Goodman, Jess Stacy and the swing guys who were all over the place when he was a teenager. He could still, when asked, do the best imitation of Stacy I’ve ever heard, but at some point he heard Jelly Roll Morton, and was hooked. Until his death in 2013, he remained one of the foremost exponent of Jelly’s music in the land. There are other guys who could play more notes, play King Porter Stomp louder or Fingerbuster faster, but when it came to really delivering the goods, with just the right mix of technique, exuberance and sentiment, nobody else even came close.
There are other guys who play Morton’s compositions well, in the style, often with more sheer technique, but, for the most part, this is just a portion, usually a small portion, of their repertory. The music of Jelly Roll Morton and some of his circa 1900 contemporaries, made up about 90 percent of Bob’s playbook, and the telephone doesn’t ring very often these days, or any other days for the past few decades, for someone to play a recital of Morton’s music. Which was just fine for Bob. He never had any intention of being a full time musician. The world was just full of too many other things to try.
Bob made his first recordings in 1950 with Conrad Janis (Circle) and in 1951 with Sidney DeParis (Blue Note) and recorded intermittently for the next sixty years, whenever it was convenient. His performance schedule was about the same. He played in and around New York City in the 1950s and Washington D.C. in the 1960s because he was writing some pretty fancy stuff for assorted notables to read on radio or in political speeches. Goodness knows what else he may have been up to. When he wrote a book about the OSS exploits of his cousin, Paul Blum, he had no difficulty gaining access to the highest levels of the intelligence community. But back to the music.
After Bob climbed down off the back of the truck during the ill-fated parade in Manassas, I discovered he could also play a real piano and when he played Morton it was special. As I’ve suggested, he made up in spirit and authenticity what he may lacked in a formidable technique. Not that he made mistakes, he didn’t, but to this particular pianist, passion was the point, not technique. He had all he needed to get his point across. Much in the same as Thelonoius Monk. Other people played Just A Gigolo better than Monk, but nobody played it with more quirky feeling.
The first time I really heard Bob was when I was asked to round up the gear to record a band to be led by the then legendary, now largely forgotten drummer, Zutty Singleton. The gear came from Squirrel Ashcraft, the recorder, microphones, even the take-up reels. It was February 12, 1967, I remember the date with great affection because it was the very first commercially released record I ever worked on. It was also my first encounter with Zutty, still a marvelous drummer, and the only person I ever heard in person who could almost simulate a melody on the drums.
Bob Greene was a strong presence among many exceptional players that day and the highlight of the recording, to me at least, was a duo, just Zutty and Bob, on Cake Walking Babies From Home. I don’t know if Jelly ever played the tune, but if he did, he would have played it like Bob played it that day, and maybe Zutty would have been around to make sure. This was Johnson McRee’s first record for his Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and except for a solo outing by Don Ewell, perhaps the best record he ever produced.
In the 1970s, I asked Bob to record for Chiaroscuro on many occasions, but he always declined. There was always a semi-legitimate excuse. He was the only person I asked to record in those years who didn’t jump at the chance, including Bob’s first idol, Jess Stacy. In the late 1970’s Bob assembled his World of Jelly Roll Morton band, made a fine record for RCA, played Carnegie Hall a few years and toured successfully with the group. But most of the time he was in between New Orleans, Paris, Tokyo and New York, rarely in any place for very long. He slowed down long enough to record all the Jelly Roll Morton tracks for Louis Malle’s fine film, Pretty Baby and he enthralled audiences with his Jelly Roll show at numerous Floating Jazz Festivals. I recorded one of these shows in the late 1980s. Maybe I’ll listen to it one day and see if it should be released.
In 1994 we produced an event for Cunard on Queen Elizabeth 2, a 12-day survey of the music of New Orleans, and Bob was on board, as both Jelly Roll Morton and as the pianist with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The New Yorker’s noted critic, Whitney Balliett, was also on board, in disguise as Baby Dodds, tastefully accompanying Bob on a snare and cymbal. Romantic that he was, Bob fell in love with the ship and was heartbroken when he learned that much of the furniture in the ship’s Theater Bar, where he held forth nightly with Whitney, was to be taken off QE2 when it reached New York, and given to the Salvation Army. He decided he had to have a table and four leather chairs and set about finding a way to work it out.
When we docked, I left via the crew gangway, and saw Bob at the other end of the pier in heated conversation with a man in a Salvation Army uniform. Longshoreman were hauling the furniture and putting it inside a truck. I later learned that Bob got his furniture. The deal was for a table and four leather chairs, in the best condition possible, delivered to his home on 92nd Street. In exchange, Bob promised to assemble a band, including Whitney, to play for a Salvation Army Christmas party. A decade or so later Bob moved out to the end of Long island and that old Theater Bar furniture moved with him, a few miles closer to Southampton. This is the kind of thing that appealed to Bob.
If Bob had worked at a career in music half as hard as he worked at getting that furniture, who knows what might have happened? But perhaps nothing would have happened, which is the case with most people who try to have a career in jazz, and he wouldn’t have had nearly as good a time as he had for the past 91 years. He was one of a handful of pianists I’d go out of my way to hear because he always made me happy. He had the same effect on others.
In November 2006 he toured Japan and a lot of other people went out of their way to hear him. After that he began working on a project to present a Jelly Roll Morton show at Jazz At Lincoln Center but it didn’t work out. A year or so after that he asked what I thought of getting him together with Joshua Bell for some duets. I thought it sound like a good idea, that Bell could do a lot worse. That didn’t work out either but an awful lot did and the music that resulted with simply wonderful.
Bob and friends:
MAMIE’S BLUES (2006):
I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (2010):
TIGER RAG (2011):
Thinking about these men, all I can say is this.
Not everyone is a Star, but everyone counts. And fortunate are those who can follow their life’s calling and share their passions with us.
Bassist, cellist, and composer Oscar Pettiford is in the odd position of being both legendary and forgotten (as Whitney Balliett wrote of Pee Wee Russell). If you ask any aficionado of jazz string bass playing to name a dozen favorites — living and dead — it’s likely that the names will come easily. But Pettiford’s is often not among them.
Yes, he died young, but not before performing and recording every famous musician (with some notable exceptions) in a short career. An incomplete list would include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Julius Watkins, Ben Webster, Sammy Price, Ruby Braff, Mel Powell, Ellis Larkins, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Clifford Brown, Buddy De Franco, Phineas Newborn, Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Don Byas, Clyde Hart, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Martial Solal, Attlia Zoller, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Eckstine, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson, Charlie Shavers, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Ed Hall, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, Maxine Sullivan, Dick Hyman, Eddie Bert, Joe Derise, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Buck Clayton, Helen Humes, Benny Harris, Boyd Raeburn, Serge Chaloff, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Wynonie Harris, Vic Dickenson, Red Rodney, Tal Farlow, Denzil Best, Jo Jones, Leo Parker, Al Haig, Al Hibbler, Nat Pierce, Bill Harris, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Art Taylor, Wynton Kelly, Lockjaw Davis, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Dave McKenna, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Chris Connor, Hank Jones, Earl Coleman, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, Chuck Wayne, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Frank Wess, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, Joe Morello, Joe Wilder, Harry Lookofsky, Jimmy Jones, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal, Herbie Mann, George Barnes, Clark Terry, Dave Schildkraut, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Raney, Horace Silver, Doug Mettome, Quincy Jones, Duke Jordan, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne, Toots Thielmans, Red Garland.
This suggests that Oscar’s peers respected him and called him for gigs and recordings. It’s not as if he was obscure: his career was longer than, say, Blanton’s or Steve Brown’s. But, oddly for jazz, which loves to mythologize the musicians who die young and abruptly (and Pettiford died as the result of a 1960 automobile accident) he hasn’t received the benefit of the weird reverence fans and writers have for the young dead.
Of course, it could be that bass players don’t get the respect they and their instruments deserve, but it is and was hard to ignore Pettiford on a session. He offered a rhythmic foundation that was powerful rather than obtrusive, but when he soloed, his lines have the solid eloquence that any horn player would aspire to — while seeming light rather than ponderous. And as the list of players above suggests, his musical range was exceedingly broad: he wasn’t captured on record in free jazz or ragtime, but he elevated every other variety of jazz and jazz vocal performance he was part of. Had he lived longer, he might have enjoyed the visibility of a Milt Hinton or a Ray Brown, but we have only brief moments of him on film (the 1945 THE CRIMSON CANARY) and a few seconds of his speaking voice.
Surely he should be better known.
Enough words and keystrokes for the moment: listen to his 1960 feature on WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:
and here he is, playing his own BLUES IN THE CLOSET — from a little-known 1953 television broadcast — on cello (which he took to for a time after breaking an arm in a baseball game):
And his stirring solo on STARDUST:
Now, two pieces of good news that might go some distance in making Oscar’s name and music known to a larger audience. One is that there is a YouTube channel, PettifordJazz, with sixty videos of Pettiford solos, ensembles, and compositions. That means that no one has to start collecting Oscar’s music — it is being made available to all for free.
Oscar (or “O.P.”, as his colleagues called him) also spent the last two years of his life in Europe (mostly in Scandinavia and Germany), and recorded often there. Sessions with guitarist Attila Zoller have been issued and reissued on a variety of labels (in the vinyl era, they appeared on Black Lion) and a famous 1960 concert in Essen with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Coleman Hawkins was available forty years ago. Recordings made in 1958-59 for the German radio network have now been issued for the first time on compact disc, in beautiful sound, as OSCAR PETTIFORD: LOST TAPES — GERMANY 1958 / 1959, on SWR Music.
American expatriates Lucky Thompson (on soprano sax for a gorgeous, melancholy SOPHISTICATED LADY) and Kenny Clarke (drums on the final five performances of the disc) are the “stars,” but Zoller stands out as a beautifully measured guitarist.
And although some US critics of the time might have been condescending to European players, this disc shows their equal mastery. Trumpeter Dusko Goykovich duets with Oscar on the opening BUT NOT FOR ME. Other notable players here are clarinetist Rolf Kuhn; light-toned tenorist Hans Koller; baritone saxophonists Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl; altoist Rudi Feigl; guitarist Hans Hammerschmid; drummers Jimmy Pratt and Hartwig Bartz. The songs are a mix of standards and originals: BUT NOT FOR ME / SOPHISTICATED LADY / A SMOOTH ONE / O.P. (Hans Koller) / MINOR PLUS A MAJOR (Kuhn) / POOR BUTTERFLY / ANUSIA (Hans Koller) / MY LITTLE CELLO (Pettiford) / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / YESTERDAYS / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET (Pettiford) / BIG HASSLE (Hammerschmidt) / ATLANTIC (Helmut Brandt) / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET — the last two are live performances.
And just because it’s accessible and stirring, here is that film clip — from an otherwise undistinguished 1945 murder mystery, THE CRIMSON CANARY, which features Hawk, Pettiford, Howard McGhee, trumpet; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Denzil Best, on a fast SWEET GEORGIA BROWN line by Hawkins called HOLLYWOOD STAMPEDE:
Ultimately, I think if you’d asked Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, or any number of jazz luminaries, “What about this O.P. fellow? Should I listen to him?” the answer would have been a very strong affirmative. So let us do just that. These tapes were lost, but have been found: spread the word about Oscar. Remind those who have forgotten; introduce those who never knew. “Learn it to the younguns!” as the youthful protagonist of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN hears at the start of that novel.
The sound of Lester Young’s clarinet is beautiful and elusive. Whitney Balliett, I think, who always had the right word, called it “lemony,” and it lingers on the mind’s palate in just that way. There isn’t enough of it on record: a few solos with Basie, on record and live; the Kansas City Six session . . . but now we have about nineteen seconds of beauty — thanks to Loren Schoenberg, Bill Savory, and Herschel Evans, whose BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL (a close relation to CAN’T WE TALK IT OVER) is the foundation for this wistful, too-brief piece of music.
Play it once, play it a dozen times: music when soft voices die lives long in the memory. We celebrate Lester Young as we say a sad goodbye to him. A tender man, a joyously elliptical soul, too tender for this rough world, he blazed and left. “What made us think he would comb grey hair?” said Yeats of another man, dead too soon.
The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility. Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us. This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling. Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t. Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.
MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good. The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly. But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself. One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).
Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude. They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent. The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling. New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography. Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.
But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories. (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.) Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.
Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:
He was a pretty self-centered guy. Kinda selfish. When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show. He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were. He’d say, “People come to see me. I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.” He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.” I’d say to myself, “Good show! I feel like crying.”
Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:
. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix. He said, “Why don’t you turn to music? You can get more girls.” He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.”
Trumpeter John Eckert:
I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965]. A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups. Louis ended the concert. I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded. I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.
To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.
Thomas McGuane’s short story, THE CASSEROLE, published in the September 10, 2012 issue of THE NEW YORKER, is short, sharp, and hard. It begins on page 93, with the nameless narrator and his wife — and by the end of 94, the story is over, the narrator is by himself, not knowing what has hit him.
I was so struck by the story — and I mean that phrase in the literal sense — that I may bring it with me tomorrow morning when my semester begins and read it to my students. But what also struck me is this short passage early on in the story, which I reprint here:
I had an extensive collection of West Coast jazz records, including the usual suspects, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and so on — not everybody has Wardell Gray and Buddy Collette, but I did — and if I’d had a bit more dough I could have added a room on to our house specifically to house this collection, with an appropriate sound system. But when I complained about things like this to Ellie, she just said, “Cue the violins.”
Now, if you read this without any context, it may well seem that our sympathy is with the narrator. Poor fellow, his unsympathetic bitch of a wife doesn’t understand his love for jazz. But the hubris of his boasting to himself that he knows what the real stuff is — I own Wardell Gray records! — comes to bite him a page later, for he is one of those characters (modeled on real people) who don’t see the train coming until it had flattened them.
I don’t present this as an example of how jazz collectors are represented in fiction, nor do I see it as an overarching commentary on marital relations when the soundtrack is jazz music. (By the way, the narrator still has his records at the end of the story: this is not a fictionalized reading of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE.)
Incidentally, trusting the author is slippery business, but McGuane said this in a brief interview (on the magazine’s website), after calling the narrator a “twit,” “I think he has nearly everything wrong. He is a peevish fault-finder who gets what he deserves.”
This passage simply caught my attention not once but twice, and I suppose it is worthy of note when Wardell Gray shows up in THE NEW YORKER now that Whitney Balliett is dead . . .
I am sorry I cannot reprint the story for everyone to read, but you surely can find this issue in your local library or find someone who subscribes to the magazine.
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).
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.
Imagine a small group — in Whitney Balliett’s words, “flesible, wasteless,” that successfully evokes the best jazz of the Swing Era without copying recorded performances, that is fresh, witty, precise. Need an anlalogue? How about Glenn Miller’s Uptown Hall Gang with arrangements and originals by Mel Powell?
This group exists, and they’ve made their first CD — consistently splendid music. A few of my readers complain that my musical endorsements are nudging them towards ruin, but LES SWINGBERRIES are worth it.
About thirteen months ago, I wrote happily about this group — propelled by their 2011 YouTube videos: click here for that post.
One of the video performances that so captivated me is Les Swingberries’ transformation of Johann Strauss’ RADETZKY MARCH (“JAZZETSKY MARCH” in their hands):
From left to right, they are Jerome Etcheberry, trumpet / arrangements; Aurelie Tropez, clarinet; Jacques Schneck, piano; Nicolas Montier, guitar. I haven’t had any contact with Monsieur Schneck, but I admire his light, elegant playing immensely; Monsieur Etcheberry has absorbed all of the good trumpet sounds of this fertile time and processed them through his instrument so that he sounds like himself (with side-glances at the great figures). Our contact has been limited to mail and cyber-message, but how could I not admire a man who signs himself “Trumpetfully yours“? (The only inscription that comes close to that is from Hot Lips Page: “Very Blowingly.”)
I’ve been fortunate enough to exchange a few sentences with Mlle. Tropez at the International Jazz Festival at Whitley Bay — where she was not only a charter member of Les Red Hot Reedwarmers but also played some memorable casual swing duets with pianist Paul Asaro.
And Monsier Montier I met for the first time (I hope there will be others) as a wonderfully agile tenor saxophonist at last year’s Sacramento Music Festival. It came as a huge shock to find out that he is the immensely gifted guitarist in this group, not only echoing Charlie Christian but also Tiny Grimes and a host of other fine players.
But I hear you saying, “OK, I’m sold. But I can’t fly to France to catch this group in a club or jazz festival. What shall I do?”
The answer, dear readers, is only a few clicks away. Les Swingberries have issued their first CD, which is called LAUGHING AT LIFE — not only a song they play but an indication of their buoyant spirits.
The thirteen selections on the disc are varied and lively — two Mary Lou Williams compositions, CLOUDY and GHOST OF LOVE; Leonard Feather’s SCRAM! Three other themes are “classics” by Strauss, Tschaikovsky, and Offenbach — initially, I thought of the John Kirby Sextet, but then the heretical whisper came into my mind, “This is better than the Kirby Sextet ever did,” because of a light-hearted rhythmic looseness owing something more to Wilson and Waller than to Kirby. The group seems to float, and the performances seem too brief (although they are between three and five minutes). The arrangements are beautifully subtle; on a second or third listening, I found myself marveling at the writing for two horns that suggested a larger ensemble; the fact that a rhythm section of piano and guitar never seemed thin or under-furnished.
Both CLOUDY and GHOST OF LOVE are lovely mobile mood pieces with inspired playing by each member of the quartet. LAUGHING AT LIFE has equally hip writing / voicing / harmonized lines that suggest an unissued Keynote Records session tenderly waiting for a twenty-first century jazz archaeologist to uncover it for us. The group lights up BLUE ROOM and HALLELUJAH! from within; the remaining four performances are originals — one a funny tribute to Rex Stewart, REXPIRATION (where the rhythm section gets some of the waiting-for-Benny feeling of Christian and Johnny Guarnieri, always a good thing). SCHNECK IT OUT has surprising harmonies yet a walking-down-the-street feeling I associate with YACHT CLUB SWING. BERRY CRUMBLE is built on BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA, but in such a sly way that it would take any listener two or three minutes to uncover those familiar harmonies.
Listening to this CD, I never had the feeling of surfeit that many CDs produce (“Oh, this has been wonderful . . . but eight more tracks?”) — it is a subtle, enriching musical experience, and a lot of fun.
I have some trepidation about delivering my readers into the Land of Downloads, but here is the link to the iTunes site — where one can purchase a song for 0.99 or the whole CD for 10.99. Or, if you prefer your music delivered by the Amazon conglomerate, here is their link.
The trumpet master Joe Thomas, aplacid, reserved man, didn’t make as many recordings as he should have. But he played alongside the finest musicians: Jack Teagarden, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Herman Chittison, Benny Carter, Barney Bigard, Joe Marsala, Buck Clayton, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Edmond Hall, Art Tatum, Pete Brown, Claude Hopkins, Kenny Kersey, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Russell, Buddy Tate, Tony Scott, Dicky Wells, Oscar Pettiford, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan, Benny Morton, Bobby Gordon. Harry Lim (of Keynote Records) was a special champion of Joe’s and featured him on many sessions.
Here is a 1945 recording — during the great flourishing of small independent jazz labels — on the Jamboree label, which issued perhaps twenty discs in all, most featuring Don Byas; one session under Horace Henderson’s name; another was the only session under Dave Tough’s name — featuring our Mr. Thomas. One of the Byas discs, recorded by Don, Joe, and the mighty rhythm section of Johnny Guarneri, Billy Taylor, and Cozy Cole, is JAMBOREE JUMP — a groovy 32-bar head arrangement:
My ears tell me that JUMP has a close relationship with STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, exceedingly familiar chord changes for that period. The line sounds at first simple, something out of a child’s scale exercise — but it turns more adventurous. There is a suggestion of a phrase we know from DIZZY ATMOSPHERE as well. Swing and Be-Bop were adjacent, simultaneous, rather than two epochs as the journalists wanted us to believe.
Byas swoops and hollers, evoking Ben, over that concisely effective rhythm section, with Guarneri offering his own synthesis of Waller and Basie over Taylor’s powerful bass and Cole’s restrained drums — their sound somewhat swallowed by the whoosh of the 78 surface, although his bass drum is a swing heartbeat.
The quartet glides for two minutes until Thomas announces himself with one of the upwards arpeggios he loved, a sea creature leaping gracefully through the ocean’s surface. His repeated notes never seem mechanical or over-emphatic: he just states he has arrived! Joe, as Whitney Balliett pointed out, had listened hard to the Louis of the Hot Seven period, although Joe always kept his cool. What follows might seem simple, undramatic for those anticipating the attack of an Eldridge or an Emmett Berry. But Joe knew how to structure a solo through space, to make his phrases ring by leaving breathing room between them. Like Bix or Basie, Joe embodied restraint while everyone around him was being urgent. His pure dark sound is as important as the notes he plays — or chooses to omit. Although his bridge is a leisurely series of upwards-moving arpeggios, it is more than “running changes.”
A simple phrase, in Thomas’s world, is a beautifully burnished object. And one phrase flows into another, so at the end of the solo, one has embraced a new melody, resonant in three dimensions, that wasn’t there before, full of shadings, deep and logically constructed. The band returns for the last statement of the theme, but it’s Joe’s solo I return to.
Louis, speaking about playing the trumpet, praised as the greatest good “tonation and phrasing.” Joe’s tone, dark and shining, makes the simple playing of a written line something to marvel at, and each of his notes seems a careful choice yet all is fresh, never by rote: someone speaking words that have become true because he has just discovered they are the right ones for the moment.
I offer JAMBOREE JUMP as prelude to something even more marvelous.
Harry Lim, the guiding genius of Keynote Records — which, session for session, was consistently rewarding — loved Joe and featured him often. The Pete Brown All-Star Quintet had a splendid rhythm section and the contrast between Joe’s stately sweetness and Pete’s lemony ebullience. IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN shows off not only the contrast between them, stylistically, but also in tempos — this 12″ 78 (another one of the independent labels’ of the time’s great ideas — thank Milt Gabler and Alfred Lion) contrasts sweeping elegance with double-time romping.
That song might well have been Joe’s choice. I was fortunate enough to see him in person a few times in the early Seventies, and he took this song as a kind of personal utterance. I don’t know if the lyrics meant something deep to him — he was happily married to the singer Babe Matthews for many years — or if he associated the song with some event or place in his past, but he played it and sang it as if he had composed it. And given Joe’s delight in the possibility of repeated notes in his soloing, TALK provides ample opportunities in its written melody. (Like DARN THAT DREAM, it is a song that — played mechanically — could grow wearisome quickly.)
Here’s the Keynote recording, beautifully annotated by its generous YouTube creator:
If you’ve heard little of pianist Kenny Kersey, his chiming, serious solo introduction is evidence that he is another unheard master.
Then Joe comes to the fore in a sorrowing embellishment of the theme. Hear his vibrato, his tone — without stating anything in melodramatic capital letters, he says, “What you are hearing is very serious to me. It comes from my heart.” Indeed, I think of the great later Louis of THAT’S FOR ME. Joe is somber and tender at once, lingering over a note here, adding a small ornamental flourish, as he does at the end of the first sixteen bars, almost in a casual whisper, his brass voice trailing away.
Around him, the elements are in place: the warm resonance of Milt’s notes; the gentle timekeeping of J.C. Heard; Kersey, pointing the way; the sweet understated agreements provided by Pete’s alto.
When Joe would sing TALK OF THE TOWN, he would get even more emphatic on the bridge. A song that begins, “I can’t show my face” already starts passionately, but the bridge is a drama of disappointment and betrayal: “We sent out invitations / To friends and relations / Announcing our wedding day. / Friends and relations gave congratulations. / How can you face them? / What can you say?” Here, Joe’s trumpet rises to depict this heartbreak without increasing his volume or adding more notes. The run that begins the second half of the bridge is Joe’s version of an early Thirties Louis phrase in sweet slow-motion.
Something startling comes next, and although I have known this recording for several decades, I can’t prepare myself for it: Pete Brown and the rhythm section go into double-time. Pete loved to push the beat, and perhaps the idea of playing TALK OF THE TOWN as an extended ballad seemed too much of a good thing. I also wonder if Pete knew that to follow Joe in the same fashion was not a good idea*. Whatever the reason, the spirit of Roy Eldridge playing BODY AND SOUL at double-time is in the room. Although Pete’s rough bouncy energy is initially startling, his bluesy vocalized tone is delightful, and the rhythm section digs in (Heard’s soft bass drum accents suggest Catlett). And there’s the SALT PEANUTS octave jump at the end of the bridge, too.
It’s left to Kersey to return everyone to the elegiac tempo set at the start, and he does it beautifully, although the section has to settle in. Joe returns, declamatory and delicate. Where many trumpeters of the period might have gone up for a high one, Joe repeats the title of the song as if to himself.
I have loved Joe Thomas’ work for forty-five years, having heard him first on an Ed Beach radio show with the Keynote SHE DIDN’T SAY YES and then on a Prestige-Swingville session led by Claude Hopkins and featuring Buddy Tate. His playing still moves me. Although his simple notes are not difficult to play on the trumpet, to play them as he does, to learn how to sing through metal tubing is a lifetime’s work. There were and are many compelling Louis-inspired trumpeters, and they all brought their own special joy. But there was only one Joe Thomas.
Thanks to SwingMan1937 for posting JAMBOREE JUMP and to sepiapanorama for IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN. These generous YouTube folks have excellent taste!
*About Pete Brown’s double-time section. I came across another YouTube presentation of IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN — Connee Boswell’s lovely 1933 reading with the Dorsey Brothers in an orchestra directed by Victor Young — and she lifts the tempo, too. Perhaps it was a swing convention when the song was first introduced? (The picture of the singer isn’t Connee but Jo Stafford, by the way.)
Next to JAMMIN’ THE BLUES and HOT HOUSE, the 1933 footage of Louis in Copenhagen, Duke in CHECK AND DOUBLE CHECK, the silent newsreel film of the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing, the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ might be the most famous film of jazz performance extant. I’ve seen it in various forms: on a muzzy VCR copy, an improved DVD, and in bits and pieces on YouTube.
And I hope everyone has seen it so many times that it has the gleam of photographs of a dear old friend — lovingly glimpsed from many angles in a leisurely way.
But when the generous collector Franz Hoffmann opened his Henry “Red” Allen box of wonders, I thought, “What if there are some people who haven’t seen ROSETTA and WILD MAN BLUES — ever?” So in the same way we return to stand awestruck in front of a Sargent portrait or we settle in for a long night with KING LEAR, let us return to these two magical filmed performances.
The first thing, of course, is the music — music made by titans at the peak of their casual achievements. Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet and vocal; Rex Stewart, cornet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, tenor sax; Nat Pierce, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Milt Hinton, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.
Let us be frank about this band. It was a gathering of strong personalities — players who demanded space for themselves (perhaps with the exception of Pierce and Barker) who — given the wrong audience, could caricature themselves. To some this will seem like heresy, but the evidence exists. But what remains here is an exuberant jostling in the name of the music: the combat between Red and Rex is subtle and sly, and Jo’s solo — although perhaps a digression — is constrained rather than a show-stopper.
Careful observers will note that in a program ostensibly devoted to the blues, neither ROSETTA nor WILD MAN BLUES is one, although the latter descends into those emotional depths with great fervor.
So one could watch these clips over and over, marveling at the balance between individual ego and cohesion. What Red Allen does is also an advanced course in leadership. I know that the band had had a “rehearsal” for the purposes of recording the music for Columbia Records (more about that later) but it’s clear that not much had been worked out aside from the basics: who solos first and for how long.
But I would propose another reason to marvel at these clips, and it’s a silent one — almost in the name of moving sculptures and shadows. The director of the program, Jack Smight, was a great jazzman himself — not that he played an instrument, but in the chances he took. This was live television, so his decisions were made on the spot and there were no retakes. He had five cameramen — their names Bob Heller, Harold Classen, Joe Sokota, Jack Brown, and Marty Tuck. And Smight moved from one to the other with great logic, sensitivity, and freedom. Musicians hard at work — in love with their art — are great studies, and these five cameras captured not only the usual visual cliches: the sweating face, distended cheeks, intake and outflow of breath, but the musicians listening and responding to one another. And to their own creations: one of the most memorable seconds of this is the expression on Rex Stewart’s face after he has pulled off what he understands is a particularly felicitous epigram in WILD MAN BLUES. It’s self-congratulatory but in a sweetly hilarious way, “Hey, Ma! Look what I just played!” And who would deny Rex his pleasure in his own art?
In an era where multiple-camera setups often lead to restlessness that is difficult to endure (even before everyone had a video camera) these cuts and chance-takings are both beautiful and highly rewarding. I propose something nearly audacious: one could watch these films with the sound off and marvel at the faces and their expressions. Truly rewarding film of a musical performance is not only the soundtrack, but the way the players present themselves to us, as we see here.
WILD MAN BLUES:
And a purely aural note. In the vinyl era, both a monaural and a stereo record were issued. They captured the music at the “rehearsal,” December 5, 1957. (I assume that this session also captured the disembodied voices we hear on the television program, explaining what the blues meant to them.) Both of those issues were slightly different: at one point in the last minutes of DICKIE’S DREAM, the brass and reeds got out of synch with one another; on one issue, the raggedness is documented (very reassuring for those of us who are not giants on the scale of these players!); on the other, a neater passage and a different Basie piano bridge have been spliced in. George Avakian was apparently not involved with this project, but Irving Townsend seems to have picked up some of George’s skill with a razor blade. But — even better! — the CD issue, now possibly difficult to find (Columbia Legacy CK 66082) includes a previously unissued take of WILD MAN BLUES that runs almost nine minutes. (Much harder to find is the late Bob Hilbert’s vinyl issue on his own Pumpkin label, THE “REAL” SOUND OF JAZZ, which presents the audio from the television show.)
Even if you think you know these performances, I will wager whatever you like that something will come and surprise you in a repeat viewing. Bless these musicians; bless Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff; bless Smight and his cameramen; bless Franz Hoffmann, too.
Seen up close, Bobby Hackett appeared to be one of us. A diminutive man, neatly dressed, he spoke quietly, in a deep voice. With Whitney Balliett, he chain-smoked, drank black coffee, and ate peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches. Many other people we know have performed all or some combination of those acts. I was close enough to him to exchange a few sentences; to have him borrow my Flair pen (this was 1972) to autograph my copy of COAST CONCERT. I wasn’t blinded by radiance; I sensed no otherworldly aura in the man.
But when Hackett began to play, it was clear that he existed on another realm, far beyond the ordinary. And this lovely impression remains. Consider his ethereal playing on this 1950 or 1951 recording — billed as the Ink Spots, it’s a feature for singer Bill Kenny:
I know that “immortal” is a cliche of advertising. But it seems to me that someone who played — no, plays music as delicate and resonant as that, so precise yet so deep in feeling, has never died and will never leave us. How could we thank Bobby Hackett sufficiently?
And thank you, Austin Casey, for inviting me into Hackett’s world once again by pointing me to a recording I had not heard. Music of the spheres.