Tag Archives: William P. Gottlieb

“CONTINUOUS ENTERTAINMENT”: MR. WETTLING GOES TO WASHINGTON AND PLAYS A GIG (March 1953)

If you’ve been wondering about George Wettling’s whereabouts in the first week of March 1953, all will be revealed to you.  A few days ago, I posted this portrait:

GEORGE WETTLING 3 53

The first urban sleuth to point out that the site was the Washington Monument was Eric Elder. Others agreed.

A second photograph, appearing here for the first time, has this identification on the back:

GEORGE WETTLING

AL SIMMONDS

MARCH 4, 1953

BROWN DERBY

WETTLING AL SIMMONDS March 4, 1953 BROWN DERBY

The picture shows that George was gigging there — see the photograph on the wall behind him, underneath a sign ending with “DIXIE BEAT” and “NOW PRESENTING.” I do not recognize the man portrayed in the second picture but some mysteries related to the other man, smiling at the camera, will be untangled below.

I assumed that these photographs were taken in Massachusetts because they came from a drummer Walt Gifford’s collection, and he was based there at this time. Boston, like other cities, did have a nightclub / restaurant called the Brown Derby — perhaps emulating the Hollywood landmark.

But “Al Simmonds” was still unidentified.  Was he a Boston jazz fan? Only when I began to search without preconceptions (a lesson here?) did I find the threads connecting Wettling, Washington, Simmonds, and the Brown Derby.  Whether the two men were friends before 1953, I can’t say. But George and Al had a show-business link, explicated (not surprisingly) through an artifact for sale on eBay in characteristic eBay prose:

“Wonderful Vintage feature and display type matchbook for The Brown Derby, Washington D.C. / matches with the picture of a brown derby and dancing nude women”:

BROWN DERBY matchbook outside

Peek behind the matches and one would read, “The Brown Derby in the Nation’s capital, where Al Simmonds and George Berg, the two international mad monks of buffoonery cavort with all the cash customers.”  (It appears that George played the piano and Al sang . . . but that is mere conjecture.)

BROWN DERBY matchbook inside

And the seller explains, as one must, that the matchbook “is in VG condition, all 21 matches intact / unstruck.”

What has this to do with George Wettling, drummer?  Now it’s clear that he went down to Washington to play at the Brown Derby and he might have taken in the sights or visited an auto show during the day.  He and Al were photographed outside the club in daylight, presumably before their appearances, but their unrecorded dialogue is lost for ever.

And if the Brown Derby’s advertisement for nude women suggests that Wettling’s career had suddenly plunged, photographs by William P. Gottlieb show that the club featured famous jazz musicians in the Forties.  In May 1946, he photographed John Kirby and Buster Bailey performing there. And I believe that prestigious nightclubs might have offered patrons drinks and dinner, a jazz band, comedians, and pulchritude in profusion.

So now you know it all, or as much as two candid snapshots can reveal.

If anyone asks, “What are you spending so much time looking at that thing — that JAZZ LIVES — for?” you might reply, “It provides continuous entertainment.”  We do our best.

May your happiness increase!

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THE SHAPE OF A CAREER: RED McKENZIE, 1924-1947

Photograph thanks to Scott Black: a trio of solid senders, Frank Trumbauer, Red McKenzie, and their former boss Paul Whiteman

William “Red” McKenzie, born in 1899, had a career whose highs and lows might have made a good — and sad — film biography.  Let us begin with a phenomenal hit record, the 1924 ARKANSAS BLUES — a smash for the novelty group, The Mound City Blue Blowers (McKenzie on comb and newspaper, Jack Bland on banjo, Dick Slevin on kazoo):

A word about his musical abilities, unique to him.  McKenzie’s singing isn’t to everyone’s taste; he is earnest, declaratory, even tipping over into barroom sentimentality.  But he could put over a hot number with style, and his straight-from-the shoulder delivery is both charming and a product of the late Twenties.  As an instrumentalist — on the comb and newspaper, a homegrown kazoo with panache — he had no equal, and the remarkable thing about the records on which he appears is how strongly he stands his ground with Coleman Hawkins and Bunny Berigan, powerful figures in their own right.  Both singing and playing, McKenzie reminds me greatly of Wild Bill Davison, someone who had “drama,” as Ruby Braff said.

In the late Twenties McKenzie was not only a musician but an activist for the music, bringing hot jazz players — Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmie Noone, the Spirits of Rhythm — to the attention of record companies and creating early record dates where Caucasians and African-Americans to record.  Without McKenzie, Coleman Hawkins would have waited a number of years to be allowed into the recording studio to perform with mixed groups.

Here is McKenzie in 1929 — out in the open in the short film OPRY HOUSE as a delightfully unrestrained singer, with Bland, banjo; Josh Billings, whiskbrooms and suitcase:

His popularity grew — as s singer and someone whose face might sell sheet music of a new song:

McKenzie was the featured vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra — an orchestra, we should remember, that had launched the careers of Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey — with a pretty 1932 tune, THREE ON A MATCH (featured in the Warner Brothers film of the same name, starring Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis):

He continued to be someone whose presence could help sell new songs — this 1936 number, that most of us know through Billie Holiday’s recording:

and this 1936 song, more famous in Bing Crosby’s recording:

At forty, McKenzie went into a temporary retirement — moving back to his hometown, St. Louis, to work at a brewery for four years.  Apparently he was one of the great heavy drinkers of his time, and only the support of his great friend Eddie Condon kept him in the limelight in the Forties, where he appeared now and again at a Condon concert or a Blue Network broadcast.  The latter, I think, accounts for McKenzie’s 1944 appearance on a V-Disc and a session for Commodore Records — where Milt Gabler also thought the world of him.  Gabler produced record sessions simultaneously for Decca Records and the World Transcription System: here’s a 1944 version of DINAH with McKenzie, Max Kaminsky, Jack Teagarden, and Pee Wee Russell:

Here’s McKenzie as captured by William P. Gottlieb in an October 1946 photograph:

But little was heard from McKenzie for the last years of his life, except for one 1947 record date — shown in a newsprint advertisement for four sides on the National label.  His obscurity is nodded at — another “comeback story” in the sad word REINTRODUCING:

By February 1948 McKenzie was dead — cirrhosis the official cause.  I find IF I HAD MY LIFE TO LIVE OVER and HEARTACHES sad reminders of what had happened.  I would hate to think that his life could be summarized as an equal devotion to hot music and hard liquor, the latter winning out over the former.

Had he been in better health, he could have been one of those apparently ancient but still vivacious stars who appeared on the ED SULLIVAN SHOW and the HOLLYWOOD PALACE alongside Crosby, Sophie Tucker, Durante, and Ted Lewis . . . but it was not to be.

May your happiness increase. 

YOUNG MISTER TOUGH: LOOK CLOSELY

My dear friend Uwe Zanisch is a generous fellow, as his website SATCHMOTUBE proves — on it he collects television appearances of Louis Armstrong, some of them never seen before.

But this post, for a change, isn’t about Mister Strong.

It’s about the New Yorkers — the “New Yorkers Tanzorchester” made up of hot players including George Carhart and Danny Polo and one other, who made some wonderful Goldkette-inflected records in Berlin in late 1927 / early 1928.  Here’s the label of one of the more incendiary sides, OSTRICH WALK:

And something even better — although how many of us have seen a picture of that 78?  Here’s a formal portrait of the band, with young David Tough to the right. 

As a typical Twenties band portrait, it is oddly diffuse: the young men in their tuxedoes look as if they did not know one another, as if their clothing fit very poorly.  Three of them are gazing off to the left — two skeptically, one far away; one stares challengingly, coldly at the camera; one takes its measure.  And then there’s Mister Tough — not even identified by name in the Bear Family booklet from which this picture comes (thanks to Uwe!). 

His hair threatens to explode from its pomaded state; his light eyes are both searching and even suspicious.  Do we read into this face the one that William P. Gottlieb captured in the basement of the Greenwich Village club — amused, mournful, rueful, trapped?  When we see two pictures, two decades apart, we might play the game of IS IT THE SAME PERSON — but all we know of him is the lovely singular music he had in front of him, his intelligence, and the sadness of short life and helpless self-immolation.   

When I think of Tough, I think of his cymbals and bass drum accents on FORTY-SEVENTH AND STATE, of his solo on the Charlie Ventura Town Hall Concert, his relentless playing behind Hot Lips Page on THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE, and those are exaltations of body and spirit.  But it’s impossible to think of him without grieving for him.  And I may assume too much, but sadness and distance are in the early photograph as well.

 

SAY IT SIMPLE: DICK WELLSTOOD

Once the English pianist Harold Bauer gave a concert in San Francisco, and an F-sharp got stuck just after he’d begun his last piece.  He struggled with the note, trying to disguise that from the audience, trying to keep it from ruining the piece, trying to get through.  When he came offstage, his manager said to him, “Harold, I’ve listened to you up and down the world for twenty years, and that last piece was the most moving performance I have ever heard.”  Which means that audiences are rarely on the same wavelength as performers.  In fact, two very different things are going on at once.  The musician is wondering how to get from the second eight bars into the bridge, and the audience is in pursuit of emotional energy.  The musician is struggling, and the audience is making up dreamlike opinions about the music that may have nothing at all to do with what the musician is thinking or doing musically.  If audiences knew what humdrum, daylight things most musicians think when they play, they’d probably never come. 

— told to Whitney Balliett, “Easier Than Working,” American Musicians 312-13.

The Dear Departed Days:

December 1946, Jimmy Ryan’s, New York City: Ed Phyfe (drums), John Glasel (tpt); Bob Wilber, Wellstood, Charlie Traeger (bass).  Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

APOLLO THEATRE, SUMMER 1947

The photograph is by the much-missed William P. Gottlieb, and I was guided to it by John Leifert and David Weiner:

My first reaction was, “When are we going?”  And after that elation died down, amusement that they had made Sid’s last name CATLET.  I thought, “I don’t care how it’s spelled . . . !” 

A few days later, I  looked at the picture and noted that the marquee had turned Arnett into ARNET . . . and then, as they say in the UK, the penny dropped.  Nearly forty years ago, I worked in a local movie theatre as a doorman / usher / all-around functionary in an ill-fitting black jacket.  It wasn’t a career, but a way to put gas in my Volkswagen Beetle and to buy records at Record World.  The minimum wage was $1.85 an hour. 

Once in a while I had the chance to make extra money “changing the marquee,” an annoying business involving ladders and sifting through piles of huge red plastic letters to spell out THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE or whatever the new feature was.  And it dawned on me that the people who changed the Apollo Theatre’s marquee for this week in summer 1947 were running low on the letter T — especially troubling because a marquee has at least two sides. 

It’s not a mystery that kept me up at night, but it’s today’s answer to an unasked question.

REMEMBERING JOE THOMAS

The trumpeter Joseph Eli Thomas — fabled but truly little-known — is almost always confused with his higher-profile namesake, who played tenor sax and sang in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. 

But a quick scan of the people our Joe Thomas played with should suggest that his colleagues thought very highly of him.  How about Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Guarneri, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Catlett, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Emmett Berry, Cozy Cole, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Claude Hopkins,  Buddy Tate, Pee Wee Russell, Tony Scott, Buck Clayton, Woody Herman, Trummy Young, Rudy Powell, Eddie Condon, Benny Carter, Jo Jones, Benny Morton, Al Hall . . . . ?  Clearly a man well-respected.  But he is an obscure figure today. 

He can be seen as a member of Art Kane’s famous 1958 Harlem street assemblage.  Shirtsleeved and hatless, he stands with Maxine Sullivan and Jimmy Rushing to one side, with Stuff Smith on the other.  Fast company, although the sun must have been bothering him, for he looks worried. 

In another world, Thomas would have had little reason to worry, but he came up in jazz when hot trumpeters seemed to spring out from every bush.  To his left, Red Allen and Rex Stewart; to the right, Bill Coleman, Emmett Berry, Bobby Hackett.  Rounding the corner, Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams, Benny Carter, Frank Newton.   So the competition was fierce.  And Thomas often had the bad fortune to be overshadowed: in Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS band — the one that recorded extensively for Victor and Vocalion — his section-mate was a fireball named Eldridge.  In Fats Waller’s big band, Thomas played section trumpet and the prize solos in Fats’ Rhythm went to Herman Autrey or Bugs Hamilton.  And then there was a colossus named Armstrong, apparently blocking out the sun.  John Hammond was busy championing other players, all worthy, and never got around to pushing Joe Thomas into the limelight.  Although he recorded prolifically as a sideman, he never had a record date under his own name after 1946. 

But Thomas got himself heard now and again: his solos shine on Decca recordings (alongside Chu Berry) under Lil Armstrong’s name, and on a famous Big Joe Turner date for the same label that featured Art Tatum and Ed Hall.  On the much more obscure Black and White label, he recorded alongside Tatum and Barney Bigard; for Jamboree, he was captured side-by-side with Don Byas, Dave Tough, and Ted Nash. 

Later in his career, the British jazz scholar Albert McCarthy featured him on a Vic Dickenson session (Vic, like Tatum, seems to have admired Joe’s quiet majesty), and he popped up on sessions in the Fifties and Sixties in the best company.  Whitney Balliett celebrated him in an essay, and the drummer Mike Burgevin used him on gigs whenever he could.

Thomas’s most important champion has to have been the Javanese jazz enthusiast and record producer Harry Lim, whose biography should be written — producing jam sessions and heading one of the finest record labels ever — Keynote — then shepherding another label, Famous Door, through perhaps a dozen issues in the Seventies.  I gather that his day job was as head of the jazz record section in the Manhattan Sam Goody store: probably I saw him, but was too young and uninformed to make the connection. 

Lim loved Thomas’s playing and featured him extensively on sessions between 1944 and 1946.  Regrettably those sessions were reissued in haphazard fashion in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies — vinyl anthologies on the Emarcy and Trip labels — then in a wonderful box set first appearing in Japan, then briefly in the US, then disappearing for good.  A number of compilations drawn from that set — featuring Hawkins, Eldridge, Norvo, and Young — made it to CD but seem to have gone out of circulation.  And wise collectors aren’t putting them up on eBay.  Thomas also appears on a few sessions for the HRS (Hot Record Society) label, and those sessions have been collected in a Mosaic box set, which I believe is still available — although the Keynotes show him off far better. 

What made Thomas so special?  His tone was luminous but dark, rich — not shallow and glossy or brassy.  His notes sang; he placed his notes a shade behind the beat, giving the impression of having all the time in the world at a fast tempo.  Like Jack Teagarden, he wasn’t an improviser who started afresh with every new solo.  Thomas had his favorite patterns and gestures, but he didn’t repeat himself.  Listening to him when he was on-form was beautifully satisfying: he sounded like a man who had edited out all the extraneous notes in his head before beginning to play.  His spaces meant something, and a Thomas solo continued to resonate in one’s head for a long time.  I can still hear his opening notes of a solo he took on CRAZY RHYTHM on a New York gig in 1974. 

What made his style so memorable wasn’t simply his tone — a marvel in itself — or his pacing, steady but never sluggish.  It was his dual nature: he loved upward-surging arpeggios that spelled out the chord in a gleaming way, easy but urgent.  Occasionally he hit the same note a few times in a delicate, chiming way (much more Beiderbecke than Sweets Edison) — and then, while those notes rang in the air, he would play something at one-quarter volume, which had the shape of a beautiful half-muttered epigram, something enclosed in parentheses, which you had to strain to hear.  That balance between declarations and intimacy shaped many a memorable solo. 

And when Thomas was simply appearing to play the melody, he worked wonders.  I don’t know where a listener would find the Teddy Wilson V-Disc session that produced only two titles (and one alternate take) with a stripped-down version of Wilson’s Cafe Society band in 1943: Thomas, Ed Hall, Wilson, and Sidney Catlett.  I mean them no disrespect, but Benny Morton and Johnny Williams may have wanted to go home and get some sleep.  The two titles recorded were RUSSIAN LULLABY and HOW HIGH THE MOON — the latter of interest because it is one of the first jazz recordings of that song (including a fairly straight 1940 reading by a Fred Rich studio band with Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge as guest stars!) that I know of.  But RUSSIAN LULLABY is extra-special, taken at a slow tempo, enabling Thomas to illuminate the melody from within, as if it were a grieving anthem. 

Alas, there are no CD compilations devoted to Thomas; someone eager to hear him on record might chase down the Keynotes in a variety of forms.  One session finds him alongside Eldridge and Emmett Berry, and it’s fascinating to see how easily Thomas’s wait-and-see manner makes his colleagues seem a bit too eager, even impetuous.  His playing alongside Teagarden and Hawkins on a session led by drummer George Wettling couldn’t be better, especially on HOME and YOU BROUGHT A NEW KIND OF LOVE TO ME. 

But he came to prominence, at least as far as the record studio executives were concerned, most often in the years of the first record ban, during World War Two.  After that, he emerged now and then in a variety of Mainstream revivals — he played at Central Plaza on an elusive “Dr. Jazz” broadcast; he was a member of an Eddie Condon troupe in the Forties that did a concert in Washington, D.C.  

I was lucky enough to hear him a few times in the early Seventies, primarily because of the enthusiastic generosity of Mike Burgevin, a classic jazz drummer whose heroes were Catlett, Tough, and Wettling — someone who also sang now and again, his model (wisely) being early-and-middle period Crosby. 

For a time, Mike took care of the jazz at a club named Brew’s — slightly east of the Empire State Building — that had a little room with tables and chairs, a minute bandstand, a decent upright piano.  His sessions usually featured himself and the quietly persuasive stride pianist Jimmy Andrews (or Dill Jones), perhaps Al Hall on bass, and a noted horn player.  It could be Ruby Braff or Kenny Davern, but often it was Max Kaminsky, Herb Hall, Herman Autrey, or Joe Thomas.  (One week, blessedly, Vic Dickenson played three or four nights with a shifting rhythm section: glorious music and a rare opportunity to observe him on his own.) 

The sessions were even noted in The New Yorker.  I remember noting that these players — people I had heard only on record — seemed to be gigging about ten minutes away from Penn Station.  When Joe Thomas’s name came up in print, I was nearly-incredulous.  Could this be our Joe Thomas, the trumpeter who was nearly luminescent on his choruses on SHE DIDN’T SAY YES?  I think I prevailed on my friend Stu Zimny to come into the city and see whether this was miracle or mirage, and I remember one brilliant set — Joe, Waller-altoist Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, and Burgevin — that featured Rudy on WHERE OR WHEN and there was a closing CRAZY RHYTHM for the whole band.  Of course I had my cassette recorder, but where these tapes are I cannot say.  Joe’s chorus, however, is fresh in my mind’s ear.  

We struck up a friendship with Mike Burgevin, who was thrilled to find college-age kids who were deeply immersed in the music he loved, and he told us that Joe and he would be leading a quartet for an outdoors concert in a park at the very southern end of Manhattan.  I remember that Stu and I brought a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder, the better to capture Joe’s golden sound, and set it up in the shade, near a tree.  This provoked the only conversation I remember having with him.  Understandably, perhaps, the sight of young strangers with a big tape recorder made him nervous, and he kept on telling us that we shouldn’t do this, because “the union man” could come by.  Perhaps impatiently, we assured him that Local 802 representatuves didn’t seem to be hiding in the bushes, and that we would take the blame if anyone came around.  He could pretend that he had no knowledge of our criminalities.  It was a less memorable occasion: the quartet was filled out with someone of moderate abilities on a small electric keyboard, the bassist played an over-amplified Fender.  Joe fought his way upstream, but it was difficult.  In retrospect, I feel guilty: was he worrying about the union man all the time he was playing?  I hope not. 

He also got a chance to shine twice at the 1972 Newport in New York concerts, once at an affair devoted to Eddie Condon and his music.  It was a characteristically uneven evening.  The sound engineer at Carnegie Hall amplified the piano so that it sounded other-worldly, and Thomas (perhaps playing the role of a more modest Hot Lips Page) was brought on, along with J.C. Higginbotham, for a closing version of IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  Of that occasion, I remember a stunning Bobby Hackett chorus and break, but Thomas didn’t get the space to do what we knew he could.  He also was a member of Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS big band — its rhythm section featuring Teddy Wilson, Bernard Addison, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones (!) and Thomas took a wonderful solo on a very fast rendition of SLEEP.

I don’t know what kept him out of the limelight after that, whether it was ill health or tiredness?  Was it that more showily assertive trumpeters (and there were plenty) got the gigs?  Whatever the reasons, he seems to have faded away. 

Ironically, Mike Burgevin had issued three vinyl recordings on his own Jezebel label that featured Herman Autrey, Jack Fine, Rudy Powell, and Doc Cheatham . . . which, in a way, led to Cheatham’s rediscovery and second or third period of intense (and well-deserved) fame.  Had circumstances been different, perhaps it would have been Joe Thomas playing alongside Nicholas Payton, and that is to take nothing away from Cheatham.

I had begun to write a post about Joe Thomas very shortly after beginning this blog, but shelved it because so little of his work is now available on CD.  But the impetus to celebrate him came in the past few days when the Beloved and I had the great good luck to hear Duke Heitger on a brief New York City tour.  I have admired Duke’s work for a number of years, and think of him as one of those players who honors the tradition — subtly yet passionately — without imitating anyone.  But on a few occasions this last week, Duke would get off a beautiful phrase that hung, shimmering in the air, for a second, and I would think, “Who does that remind me of?”  And the answer, when it came, startled me: the last time I had heard something quite so lovely was in listening to Joe Thomas in his prime.  Duke is too much his own man to have copied those Keynotes, but it’s an honor (at least in my estimation) to come close to some of Thomas’s quiet majesty. 

One other person who thought Joe Thomas was worthy of notice was the esteemed photographer William P. Gottlieb.  In this shot, taken at the Greenwich Village club “The Pied Piper,” sometime between 1946 and 1946, Thomas is third from the left, the only African-American.  To his left is Harry Lim:

Joe Thomas 1

Here he is playing alongside pianist Jimmy Jones, at the same club:

Joe Thomas 2

Ultimately, Thomas got a number of opportunities to record and to perform, so that a few people still remember him, but it’s sad that his work is so difficult to find.  He deserves so much more.

YEARS GONE BY

Here are two of William P. Gottlieb’s less known but highly evocative photographs from the collection now held by the Library of Congress.  First, a wonderful trio — three musicians who never found themselves in a recording studio, although the pianist and clarinetist joined forces, however briefly, for a famous and elusive 1936 radio broadcast called “A Demonstration of Swing.”  Here they are, circa 1939, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. — Joe Marsala, Zutty Singleton, and Teddy Wilson:

marsala-teddy-zutty-np-club-dc-40-wp-gottlieb

And this must have been a very sedate night at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1947 — featuring Hot Lips Page, J. C. Higginbotham, Bud Freeman, and Freddie Moore, with — no doubt — other stomping compatriots out of the range of the photograph.  Moore looks atypically somber, but I am sure that he was alone in that regard: 

lips-bud-higgy-f-moore-ryans-47-wpgottlieb