Tag Archives: William Maxwell

“REJOICE.”

sircharlesthompson

In New Orleans, traditionally, the band plays a mournful hymn on the way to the cemetery, FLEE AS A BIRD TO THE MOUNTAIN, and once the dear departed is buried, the band swings out OH, DIDN’T HE RAMBLE — because the troubles of this life are over.

We will miss Sir Charles Thompson, who died on June 16, but rather than write more mournful words, as I did here about twelve hours ago, I present an alternative.

I think of one of my favorite pieces of literature, William Maxwell’s “The old man at the railroad crossing,” which is also the title of his collection of improvisations — this one about that same friendly but cryptic figure, who says just one word to each person he meets.  That word is my title for this post.

One way of rejoicing is to celebrate the person who has moved our of our temporal realm by evoking him in the art that (s)he did so beautifully.  No finer example than this:

Ray Skjelbred, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums — recorded at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2014. These four musicians deeply understand who Sir Charles is and what he did so generously for decades — lifting our hearts.

To me, it sometimes seems that we have only two choices in life: weeping or swinging.  I leave it to you.

May your happiness increase!

MARTY NAPOLEON (1921-2015)

Pianist, singer, composer Marty Napoleon “made the transition” from this earthly world to another one on Monday night, April 27.  His dear friend Geri Goldman Reichgut told me that on his last night on the planet he ate some dessert and listened to music: the signs of what my Irish friends call “a beautiful death.”

I can’t find it in my heart to be too mournful about Marty’s moving out of this earthly realm.  It seems to me that the New Orleanians have the right idea: cry a little at the birth, because that spirit taking corporeal form might have some bumps in this life, and rejoice at the death, because the spirit is free — to ramble the cosmos in the company of other spirits.

I was in conversation with the wonderful pianist Mike Lipskin last night — we sat on a bench in Greenwich Village and lamented that fewer people are playing particular kinds of the music we both love . . . and we both envisioned a future where it might not even be performed.  But I said fervently, “The MUSIC will always be here,” and I believe that.

It is true in Marty’s case as well.  And as a tribute to the man and his spirit, I offer some tangible immortal evidence here and here.

And a closing story.  One of my heroes is the writer William Maxwell, also no longer around in his earthly shape.  Late in his life, he began taking piano lessons and working his way through some simple classical pieces.  I think this gave him great pleasure but was also frustrating — in the way making music is even more difficult for those who have spent their lives appreciating the superb performances of others.  In his final year, a dear friend said to him, “Bill, in the life to come you will be able to play the piano with ease, won’t you?”  And he replied, “In the next life I will not be making music.  I will be music.”

And he is.  As is Marty.

May your happiness increase.

THE ODDS ARE ON OBJECTS

Brendan Gill told the story in his book HERE AT THE NEW YORKER of handing a Roman coin to his fellow writer William Maxwell, whose response I have taken as my title.  The objects I’m referring to are also round and ancient, with a different pedigree.

This most recent manifestation of The Quest began in June 2013 in a Novato, California antiques shop.  The Beloved had noted that they had 78s and even checked one to see — it was a Ray Noble Victor — that the pile might have some interest to me.

After assuming the traditional position — somewhere between all-fours and an unsteady squatting balance — I found this one, and walked away with it after offering the natives two dollars and eighteen cents for it:

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Ten days later, we visited the Goodwill in Petaluma, where I’d once found — magically — WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, thanks to Mr. Crosby and some collection of Hidden Powers (a story we treasure).

No such revelations awaited us, but on the floor were four cartons of 78s, most in paper sleeves — more than a few from a Berkeley record store — and some in brown paper albums.  Someone had admired or collected Bing, for two of the cartons held Deccas, from the sunburst 1937 LET’S CALL A HEART A HEART to the early-Fifties duet with son Gary, SAM’S SONG.

I went through them quickly, out of respect for Bing, but my attention was drawn by the scraps of someone’s record collection — the ones I collected for myself reached from the Twenties to the late Forties.  I bypassed any number of sweet bands — Tom Coakley for one — but went for many varieties of Hot and Sweet.  Each was ninety-nine cents plus tax.

The most recent, circa 1946, is a West Coast big band led by reedman Cates — including trumpeter Clyde Hurley:

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Going back nearly a quarter-century earlier, a label that makes collectors’ hearts race:

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January 1924, with Phil Napoleon, Miff Mole, Jimmy Lytell, Frank Signorelli, Tony Colucci or John Cali, Jack Roth.

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Aptly named — from 1940 — conducted and arranged by someone we admire, before he became Paul Weston.

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The way we feel about Miss Wiley.

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Another sweet star — asking a meteorological question.

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Miss Helen Rowland —  a singer memorable but not sufficiently well-known.

2013 104This record isn’t listed in Lord’s discography, but “Comedienne” suggests a certain amount of energy; having heard Miss Walker sing, I wouldn’t expect her to “get hot,” but she’s never a disappointment.

2013 102The other side of this disc appeared first to my eyes: I GOT RHYTHM by the Bud Freeman Trio, with Jess Stacy and George Wettling.  I find it nearly impossible to pass up a Commodore 78 — holy relics of devotion to the Hot Grail! — but this one comes with its own story.

I couldn’t find out anything about William H. Procter, but I do not doubt that he was a swing fan in the late Thirties and mid-Forties.  The two brown paper albums of 78s — mostly Goodman — all had his stickers on the label.  And it took me back to a time before my birth when a proud swing fan would have bought those stickers as a point of pride: “These are my records!” so that when he brought a new group of precious acquisitions to a friend’s house for a listening party, there was never any discussion that his new Bluebird or Blue Note was his.

Where is William H. Procter now?  I hope he is with us — just having decided that he could have the music of his elated youth on his iPod rather than those bulky black discs.  I send him gratitude for his good taste.

And let us consider — at our collective leisure — that these apparently fragile objects (and others) prove to be so durable that they may outlive their first owners.  The Beloved, who is wise, says, “Human beings cannot be stored in closets and attics, which is what happens to records.”

May your happiness increase!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your happiness increase.

EUDORA, BILL, and FATS

Mississippian Eudora Welty isn’t known as a “jazz fiction writer,” but her short story POWERHOUSE is the best imaginative rendition of what Fats Waller and his Rhythm must have seemed like while playing a dance in the Thirties.

When I was fortunate enought to work with William Maxwell (a sensitive writer and peerless editor) I sensed from a comment or two that he preferred other music to jazz.  He and Welty were dear friends for fifty years, writing to one another often, reading each other’s work with delight, exchanging gifts.

But where does Fats Waller come in?  Ah, Mr. Waller always has and had a transformational effect. 

I was reading a proof copy of new book of Welty-Maxwell correspondence, WHAT THERE IS TO SAY WE HAVE SAID (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), edited by Suzanne Marrs, and this jumped out at me, a Maxwell thank-you note from late 1978:

The Fats Waller records are delightful.  Humphrey [Maxwell’s brother-in-law] and Emmy [Maxwell’s wife] go searching earnestly for their favorites.  It is all new to me, or practically, since I was an opera buff at the time when I could have been listening to jazz.

Not to slight opera, but one never knows, do one?

WRITE NOW!

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The American novelist William Maxwell (1908-2000), who wrote searchingly and lovingly about his Illinois childhood, told an interviewer late in life that if people didn’t write down what they remembered, so many beautiful things would vanish forever. 

Maxwell was right, and I am reminded of this now more than ever before.

One of the Beloved’s friends has endured the deaths of her parents, both in their early nineties, in the past year.  I met her parents twice.  They had been political activists in the Thirties; the husband, a writer, had worked with Langston Hughes.  When they heard that I was immersed in the jazz of their era, they — in turn — became happily animated.  They had been to Cafe Society; they had heard Billie Holiday and Fats Waller frequently; they had particularly loved a pianist who played on Fifty-Second Street but couldn’t immediately call his name to mind.  (He was Clarence Profit.)  They had been at the 1941 Count Basie recording session when Paul Robeson tried to sing Richard Wright’s blues in praise of Joe Louis, KING JOE.

Each of these comments seemed to me like a doorway into the miraculous past: people stting in the same room had been there.  They had seen my heroes; they might have magical narratives to share. 

Of course, they no longer remembered any details.  Robeson had had a hard time; the clubs on Fifty-Second Street had been a  great pleasure; they beamed as we exchanged the magic names.  I had come too late.  And they took their stories with them.

I urge my readers to ask questions of the Elders of the Tribe.  The Elders don’t have to be musicians; they can be someone’s aunt, who owned a candy store where Ellington would buy cigarettes.  Or we ourselves can be the Elders, contributing our own memories before they — and we — vanish.  I never saw Clarence Profit, but I did see Bobby Hackett indicating to the band the tempo he wanted for the next number by clicking his tuning slide back and forth in time.  Having written that down, I have hopes that it has a less evanescent existence. 

What do you remember?

MISS HOLIDAY TO YOU

billie-jpegIn the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to talk to groups, often senior citizens, at libraries and community centers.  And although I started out with literary subjects (Frank O’Connor, William Maxwell, Sylvia Townsend Warner) I decided I might have much more fun talking about Louis, Billie, and Fats.  And that has been the case.

Last Friday morning, I spent a pleasant ninety minutes at the JCC (that’s the Jewish Community Center) in Commack, talking about Billie Holiday to a large group of serious, receptive people.  Of course I played “Miss Brown to You,” “Now They Call It Swing,” “Back in Your Own Backyard,” “Strange Fruit,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and the kinescope from The Sound of Jazz where Billie sings “Fine and Mellow.”  I talked about Billie’s Baltimore chum who described her as “don’t-careish,” about Linda Kuehl, Artie Shaw, Lester Young, Count Basie, John Hammond, about gin and heroin, about Louis McKay and Joe Guy, about the jukebox phenomenon that made Billie’s Thirties sessions possible, about Milt Gabler and Billy Crystal.

And the people in the audience were good listeners.  They swayed and rocked to the beat of “Now They Call It Swing,” and one woman in the front softly sang along with “Back in Your Own Backyard.”  “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Strange Fruit” left them appropriately silent, awed.

But this posting isn’t about my talk so much as it is about the questions it provoked.  “Was Billie Holiday Jewish?” (No, I’m afraid not.)  “Did she have any formal training?” (Ditto.  She didn’t need it, did she?)

The best colloquy came from a well-dressed woman with brown hair and lively eyes.  When I mentioned the blessed name of Hot Lips Page, this woman — twenty rows back — got elated and shot me a huge grin.  I stopped and said, “You know about Lips Page?” and her grin got wider.  I told her that she had to come up after the talk to receive a hug.

Well, she did and I did . . . and it turned out that her parents, who ran twenty-four hour candy / convenience stores, were both mad for music.  Although she was raised as an Orthodox Jew, her mother had taken her and her younger brother to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve to hear the holy music.  Her first piano teacher was Conrad Janis.  And she recalled other kinds of holiness: Tuesday night jam sessions at Eddie Condon’s, the Suyvesant Casino, the Central Plaza.  Oh, to have had those experiences!  And I hope she reads this blog.  Whoever you are, dear lady, you made my day.  Thank you!

P.S.  The photograph of Billie with her dog comes from http://www.ladyday.net, “The Unofficial Billie Holiday Website,” which has other lovely photographs.