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THE GLORIES OF WALTER DONALDSON: JONATHAN DOYLE – JACOB ZIMMERMAN SEXTET at the REDWOOD COAST MUSIC FESTIVAL: KRIS TOKARSKI, KATIE CAVERA, CHARLIE HALLORAN, HAL SMITH, BRANDON AU (May 12, 2019)

Few people would recognize the portrait on its own.

But Walter Donaldson (1893-1947) wrote songs that everyone knows (or perhaps, in our collective amnesia, once knew): MY BLUE HEAVEN; LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME; AT SUNDOWN; YES SIR, THAT’S MY BABY; HOW YA GONNA KEEP THEM DOWN ON THE FARM?; MAKIN’ WHOOPEE; CAROLINA IN THE MORNING; LITTLE WHITE LIES; MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME; WHAT CAN I SAY AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY; YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, and many more — six hundred songs and counting.  Ironically, the man who created so much of the American vernacular in song is little-chronicled, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, he is buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn.  So much for Gloria Mundi.

On May 12, 2019,  Jonathan Doyle (here playing bass saxophone) and Jacob Zimmerman (clarinet and alto saxophone) created a  wonderful exploration of Donaldson’s less-known and often completely unknown compositions for the Redwood Coast Music Festival.  Joining them were Kris Tokarski (piano); Katie Cavera (guitar); Charlie Halloran (trombone); Hal Smith (drums).  Charlie had to rush off to another set, so Brandon Au takes his place for the final number, JUST THE SAME.  There are some small interferences in these videos: lighting that keeps changing, dancers mysteriously magnetized by my camera, yet oblivious to it (a neat trick) but the music comes through bigger-than-life.

Ordinarily, I parcel out long sets in two segments, but I was having such fun reviewing these performances that I thought it would be cruel to make you all wait for Part Two.  So here are ten, count them, Donaldson beauties — and please listen closely to the sweetness and propulsion this ad hoc ensemble gets, as well as the distinctive tonalities of each of the players — subtle alchemists all.  At points, I thought of a Twenties tea-dance ensemble, sweetly wooing the listeners and dancers; at other times, a stellar hot group circa 1929, recording for OKeh.  The unusual instrumentation is a delight, and the combination of Donaldson’s unerring ear for melodies and what these soloists do with “new” “old” material is, for me, a rare joy.  In an ideal world, this group, playing rare music, would be “Live from Lincoln Center” or at least issuing a two-CD set.  We can hope.

LITTLE WHITE LIES, still a classic mixing swing and romantic betrayal:

DID I REMEMBER? — possibly best-remembered for Billie’s 1936 recording:

SWEET JENNIE LEE! which, for me, summons up a Hit of the Week paper disc and a Frank Chace home jam session:

MAYBE IT’S THE MOON — so pretty and surprisingly unrecorded:

YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO TELL ME (I KNEW IT ALL THE TIME) — in my mind’s ear, I hear Jackson T. singing this:

SOMEBODY LIKE YOU, again, surprisingly unacknowledged:

CLOUDS, recorded by the Quintette of the Hot Club of France:

TIRED OF ME, a very touching waltz:

REACHING FOR SOMEONE (AND NOT FINDING ANYONE THERE), which enjoyed some fame because of Bix, Tram, and Bing:

JUST THE SAME, which I went away humming:

Thoroughly satisfying and intriguing as well.

I dream of the musical surprises that will happen at the 2020 Redwood Coast Music Festival (May 7-10, 2020).  With over a hundred sets of music spread out over four days and on eight stages, I feel comfortable saying there will be delightful surprises.  Their Facebook page is here, too.

May your happiness increase!

MYSTERIOUS PLEASURES, 1934

SAM NOWLIN Champion label

The world of jazz is full of stars, people who receive and deserve a great deal of attention.  Then there are phantoms — musicians who make a brief appearance and then vanish.  The pianist Sam Nowlin is a resounding example of the second group.  I’d made his acquaintance last week, when I took the wrapping off a Document CD called JAZZ AND BLUES PIANO 1934-1947.  Others on this disc are luminaries: Morton, James P.  Then we move into the realm of the less famous but still wondrous: Cassino Simpson, Tut Soper, Dorothy Donegan, Clarence Profit, Dan Burley, even Euday L. Bowman.

DOCUMENT Nowlin

But the disc begins with two solo performances by Sam Nowlin, called SO WHAT and CHANGE.

Meet the elusive Mister Nowlin:

I amuse myself by imagining the dialogue in the recording studio: “Sam, what was the name of that?”  “It doesn’t have a name.”  “Well, it needs one for us to release it.”  “Call it I DON’T KNOW.”  “We can’t do that.”  “Why?  So what?” “That’s it!”

About CHANGE as a title I have nothing even mildly whimsical to offer.

About Nowlin, I find little or nothing online.  He recorded three sides, in Richmond, Indiana, on October 8, 1934, for the Champion label.  The third selection, RIFF, was not issued.  Even with the vast, often unreliable library that is the internet, he remains mysterious.  I did find a notation that had him as co-composer of BLUE BLAZES, with Sy Oliver, but nothing more.  And my library (Chilton and more) has nothing to offer.  Nowlin has no erroneous Wikipedia page; Harry Dial does not take him to task; John Hammond seems never to have heard him.

In June 2016, this copy of the Champion disc sold at auction for $899.00 plus shipping.  Details here.

Nowlin black label

Does anyone know more about Sam Nowlin?

The important thing, of course, is how well he plays: an individualistic synthesis of what was in the air in 1934 — you can supply your own names — with a floating understated grace.  It’s a pity he didn’t record more.  But I am grateful that Document offered these two sides.  Great music is made by people who don’t end up in encyclopedias and dictionaries of jazz.  Bless the folks at Document Records for making such a delicious mystery available.

May your happiness increase!

SWINGING FOR JOHN PENDLETON: HAL SMITH’S INTERNATIONAL SEXTET at SACRAMENTO (May 27, 2011)

What better way to honor a beloved jazz friend, now gone, than with the music he loved so much?  And played so eloquently by the people he admired so deeply. 

The man: John Pendleton, whom you’ll hear spoken of in the videos that follow.

The musicians: Hal Smith’s International Sextet, recorded on May 27 at the 2011 Sacramento Jazz Jubilee.  That’s Hal (drums), Katie Cavera (guitar / vocals), Clint Baker (string bass / vocals), Anita Thomas (clarinet, alto, vocals), Kim Cusack (clarinet, tenor, vocals), Carl Sonny Leyland (piano, vocals).

“Music speaks louder than words,” Charlie Parker told condescending Earl Wilson in that famous film clip, and Bird was right, so I won’t elaborate the virtues of this rocking group at length: viewers can find their own pleasures for themselves. 

But I would point out that Hal, Katie, Sonny, and Clint make a peerless rhythm section, with their four sonorities weaving together, their pulses aligned without their individualities being flattened for some specious idea of the common good.  Hear the ripe-fruit sound of Katie’s guitar; the swish and flow of Hal’s cymbals, the deep commentaries of Clint’s bass, the down-home rock of Carl’s piano.  And the horns intertwine with each other and float over this sweet propulsion: Kim, bringing his own perspective to Bud Freeman, Eddie Miller, Joe Marsala, Pee Wee Russell, and Frank Chace; Anita, completely in control but entirely fearless, following her impulses in the best self-reliant way.  And the vocalizing is wonderful (jazz instrumentalists make the best singers!) neither slick nor amateurish.

Watch everyone on the stand smiling — always a guarantee of heartfelt music and deep gratifications being spread all around. 

Katie and Anita tell us all about the new dance craze that everyone’s doing — or should be doing — that’s TRUCKIN’:

RIDIN’ ON THE L&N celebrates a train that ran between Louisville and Nashville, according to Brother Hal, who knows these things:

John loved baseball and swing.  Hence this funny, surprising TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME:

A hot one!  RUNNIN’ WILD (hear Clint’s bass behind Kim):

SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY is such a simple song, but it works so well on our deepest impulses to go home, or some imagined version of it.  Katie and Anita remind us that Doris Day had a great hit with this song; the rest of the band says (implicitly), “Hey, remember the great Buck Clayton Jam Session?”  Works perfectly:

Here’s Carl’s version of the 1949 hit by Sticks McGhee (younger brother of Brownie), DRINKIN’ WINE (SPO-DEE-O-DEE).  Original lyrics — according to Nick Tosches and Wikipedia — reprinted below, definitely unvarnished and unsanitized.*

Katie is not salacious in person, but she loves songs about Twenties flirtation — perhaps she was a naughty flapper in a past life?  Here’s MA! (HE’S MAKING EYES AT ME):

I couldn’t abide THIS OLD HOUSE even when I owned one (no real-life workmen were ever such models of decorum and skill) but I love LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE, and it’s clear that Anita does too.  Music by J. Fred Coots, Danny’s uncle:

And a little Basie is always good for the soul, as Hal reminds us with JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE:

I never met John Pendleton, but he must have been what the Irish call a grand fellow to have these candid people so deeply devoted to him.  And to have such wonderful music played in his memory!

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*”Drinkin’ that mess is our delight, And when we get drunk, start fightin’ all night. Knockin’ out windows and learnin’ down doors, Drinkin’ half-gallons and callin’ for more. Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Pass that bottle to me!”