Tag Archives: Willis Conover

YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EARS: “DIXIELAND VS. BE-BOP,” MAY 23, 1948, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Consider this.

Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Willis Conover, late Forties: photograph by Norm Robbins. Photograph courtesy University of North Texas Music Library, Willis Conover Collection.

and this:

Once upon a time, what we like to call “jazz” was divided into warring factions.  Divided, that is, by journalists.  Musicians didn’t care for the names or care about them; they liked to play and sing with people whose artistry made them feel good.  And gigs were gigs, which is still true.  So if you were, let us say, Buck Clayton, and you could work with Buddy Tate playing swing standards and blues, or rhythm and blues, that was fine, but playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE with Tony Parenti was just as good, as was playing NOW’S THE TIME with Charlie Parker.

But this was not exciting journalism.  So dear friends Jimmy McPartland and Dizzy Gillespie were asked to pose for a photograph as if they were enemies, and people like Hughes Panassie, Leonard Feather, Rudi Blesh, and Barry Ulanov fought the specious fight in print.  Even some musicians caught the fever and feuded in public, but perhaps that was jealousy about attention and money rather than musical taste.

One positive effect was that musical “battles” drew crowds, which musicians and promoters both liked.

Since every moment of Charlie Parker’s life seems to have been documented (the same for Bix Beiderbecke, by the way) we know that he played a concert in Washington, D.C.’s Washington [or Music?] Hall on May 23, 1948; that the masters of ceremonies were Willis Conover and Jackson Lowe, and that the collective personnel was Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker, Wild Bill Davison, Joe Sullivan, Sir Charles Thompson, George Wettling, Tony Parenti, Earl Swope, Benny Morton, Charlie Walp, Sid Weiss, Ben Lary, Mert Oliver, Sam Krupit, Joe Theimer, Arthur Phipps.  We know that the concert began at 2:30 PM, and — best of all — that private acetate recordings exist.  A portion of the concert, heavily weighted towards “modernism,” appeared on the CD above, on Uptown Records, and copies of that disc are still available on eBay and elsewhere.

Details from Peter Losin’s lovely detailed Charlie Parker site  here and here.

But for those of us who hadn’t bought the Uptown disc, there it might remain.  However, through the kindness and diligence of Maristella Feustle of the University of North Texas Digital Library, excavating recordings in the Willis Conover collection, we now have twenty-seven minutes of music — some of it unheard except by those who were at the concert.  There’s the closing C JAM BLUES / a partial RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, talk, and a partial SQUEEZE ME / S’WONDERFUL / TINY’S BLUES / TINY’S BLUES (continued).  Yes, we have no Charlie Parker here . . . but a great deal of lively fine music.  (Do I hear Eddie Condon’s voice in this or do I dream?).

Here’s  the link to hear the music.

But wait!  There’s more.  My dear friend Sonny McGown sent me a photograph I’d never seen before, from a similar concert of the same vintage, at the National Press Club, with this description: “Your email this morning reminded me of a photo that belonged to my father. He is in the picture with his head visible just above the bell of the trombonist on the far left. Some of the musicians’ identities are obvious such as Jimmy Archey, Wild Bill Davison, Ben Webster, and George Wettling. The rest are unknown to me. I wonder if the trumpet at the microphone is Frankie Newton? The clarinetist looks a bit like Albert Nicholas. It is quite possible that some of the fellows are locals.”  [Note: in an earlier version of this post, I had assumed that the photograph and the concert tape were connected: they aren’t.  Enthusiasm over accuracy.]

My eyes and ears were ringing while I stared at this gathering.  I couldn’t identify the others in the photograph, but did not think the tall trumpeter in the middle was Newton.  (And Sonny’s father, Mac, was a spectator, not a player.)  Sonny then found two more photographs from the concert that we hear the music — their source being Maggie Condon, which would place Eddie there, logically, as well.

Tony Parenti, George Wettling, Wild Bill Davison, either Sid Weiss or Jack Lesberg, Bennie (the spelling he preferred) Morton:

Joe Sullivan, happy as a human can be:

This photograph popped up online, labeled “Washington Press Club,” but I wonder if it is from the same occasion.  Even if it isn’t, it’s always a pleasure to portray these sometimes-ignored majesties:

Now, might I suggest two things.  One, that JAZZ LIVES readers go back and listen to this almost half-hour of joys here — giving thanks to the University of North Texas Digital Library at the same time —  for instance, the five-hour interview Louis gave to Conover on July 13, 1956, which starts here, and ten years later, something astonishing, Louis playing COLUMBIA, THE GEM OF THE OCEAN and singing “This is the Voice of America,” the former of which I would like as a ringtone: here.

Still hungry for sounds?  A January 31, 1956, interview with Eddie Condon here; a brief 1946 interview with Duke Ellington where he seems to say nothing about the death of Tricky Sam Nanton — the music section begins with Ellington’s BLUE ABANDON, which contains a stunning solo by Oscar Pettiford, which is then followed by lovely records by Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and Kenton: here.

There are many more gems in the University of North Texas Music Library, which seems better than any ancient debate about the merits of different kinds of jazz.  There is music to listen to and photographs to stare at . . . and gratitude to express, nor only to the musicians and Mr. Conover, but to Ms. Feustle and Mr. McGown.  Those who keep the archives tidy and share their gifts are our lasting friends.

May your happiness increase!

“YOU’LL GET THE EASY TERMS YOU WANT”: A QUARTER-HOUR WITH LOUIS, 1950

Sometimes the treasure box opens to reveal riches both unimagined and breathtaking.

For the full story behind this 1956 photograph, read here.

Everything in this blogpost is thanks to the kind, diligent archivist Maristella Feustle, the unchallenged expert on broadcaster and innovator Willis Conover.  She’s uncovered rare and previously unknown music and words: “The University of North Texas Music Library is now digitizing the 16-inch radio transcription discs in its Willis Conover Collection. These are in addition to the reel-to-reel tape recordings we digitized under a Grammy Foundation grant in 2015-2016. There are more of these in the pipeline, but the initial set alone has been a highly satisfactory set of unique and unreleased material.”

“Highly satisfactory” indeed.  What follows is a fifteen-minute recording, circa 1950, of Louis Armstrong taking over Willis Conover’s radio microphone before going off to perform with his band at a club called the Blue Mirror, which seems to have been in Washington, D.C..

I know there is a proliferation of Louis to be heard, but this quarter-hour is remarkable and beyond . . . as he reads advertising copy for Philco Balanced Beam television sets and has fun talking about custom reupholstery.  We hear once again, what a fine impovising actor he was.

And!

Louis sings three songs, I MAY BE WRONG, I SURRENDER, DEAR, and BODY AND SOUL to the recorded accompaniment of Billy May (beautiful in itself).  Something to cherish: he never recorded I MAY BE WRONG and improvises some of his own words for the bridge, then scats the second time.  His verbal improvisations are just as much fun.  I won’t explicate more: listen for yourselves.  Here’s the link.

I don’t have a wide-screen television set, but Louis is making me rethink my decision.  Blessings on him, as always, on Willis, and on Maristella.

Postscript: to learn more about the inspiring and influential Willis Conover from someone who knew and admired him, here is my interview of Dan Morgenstern in June 2018.

May your happiness increase!

“LITTLE THINGS THAT DON’T GET INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS”: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of SYMPHONY SID TORIN, WILLIS CONOVER, ARTIE SHAW, and COOTIE WILLIAMS (June 8, 2018)

I am so fortunate in many ways, some of them not evident on this site.  But JAZZ LIVES readers will understand that my being able to interview Dan Morgenstern at his home from March 2017 on — at irregular intervals — is a gift I would not have dreamed possible when I was only A Wee Boy reading his liner notes and DOWN BEAT articles.

Dan is an unaffected master of small revealing insights that show character: in some ways, he is a great short-story writer even though he is working with factual narrative.  Watching these interviews, you’ll go away with Artie Shaw pacing the room and talking, Willis Conover’s ashtrays, Cootie Williams reverently carrying Louis’ horn back to the latter’s hotel, and more.

About ten days ago, we spent another ninety minutes where Dan told affectionate tales of Jaki Byard, Ulysses Kay, Randy Weston, Kenny Dorham, and more.  Those videos will come to light in time.  But we had a marathon session last June, with stories of Louis, Cozy Cole, Milt Hinton, Coltrane, Roy, Teddy, Basie, Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, Perry Como and others — which you can savor here.  And, although it sounds immodest, you should.  (I also have videos of a July session with Dan: stay tuned, as they used to say.)

Here are more delightful stories from the June session.

Dan remembers Symphony Sid Torin, with sidebars about John Hammond, Nat Lorber, Rudi Blesh, Stan Kenton at Carnegie Hall, Roy Eldridge, and jazz radio in general:

Dan’s affectionate portrait of another man with a mission concerning jazz — the Voice of America’s Willis Conover:

and some afterthoughts about Willis:

and, to conclude, another leisurely portrait, early and late, of Artie Shaw:

with Artie as a “champion talker,” and a gig at Bop City, and sidelights about Benny Goodman and Cootie Williams, the latter reverent of Louis:

Thank you, Dan, for so generously making these people, scenes, and sounds come so alive.

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ FROM THE VAULT (February 2010)

Although Wolfgang’s Vault (www.wolfgangsvault.com), that surprising online cornucopia, offers music from bands and performers who make me feel ancient — one of them is named QUIETING SYRUP — it also has rarities and delights for the jazz audience: three live sessions from the 1960 Newport Festival, a gathering marred by rain and bad behavior (not by the musicians, mind you). 

The first concert — the one that drew me immediately — features Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars (Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert, Danny Barcelona, and Velma Middleton), celebrating in advance what Louis believed was his sixtieth birthday.  The concert runs slightly over an hour, and is a fascinating glimpse into what the All-Stars actually played: http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/the-louis-armstrong-all-stars/concerts/newport-jazz-festival-july-01-1960.html

Then, there’s a concert by someone who hung out at Louis’s house in Corona — a trumpet player named Gillespie (with Junior Mance, Leo Wright, Art Davis, Al Drears) on the same evening, July 1, 1960: http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/dizzy-gillespie-quintet/concerts/newport-jazz-festival-july-01-1960.html

Finally, there’s the afternoon concert of July 3 — after which the Festival came to a halt — which was a blues history lesson and jamboree featuring Langston Hughes, dancers Al Mimms and Leon James, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, folklorist Harry Oster, Sammy Price, and Jimmy Rushing, running more than two hours: http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/goodbye-newport-blues/concerts/newport-jazz-festival-july-03-1960-afternoon-show.html

That was the last jazz heard at Newport for 1960 and 1961.  Here’s the history: “In other words, there will be no concert tonight or…again,” [Willis Conover] told the stunned audience. This decision was made following a clash with students and police the preceeding night (Saturday) that by all reports escalated into a full-scale riot. And while this disturbance took place not at Freebody Park where the festival was held but on the main drag in the city of Newport, council members nonetheless met on Sunday morning and voted 4-3 in favor of revoking the entertainment license of the Newport Jazz Festival. As Conover explained to the Sunday afternoon crowd: “The board of directors deeply regret that the true jazz lovers were denied the opportunity to hear their favorite jazz musicians, due entirely to non-ticket holding outside the park.” He added, “I think it’s a shame that the Newport Jazz Festival has to be killed because a bunch of pseudo beatniks and rock ‘n’ roll escapees who had no interest in jazz, had no intention of coming to the concerts and were not inside the park at all, decided to use the Newport Jazz Festival weekend and the City of Newport as an excuse for giving vent to their healthy animal instincts in such a fashion as to qualify them for admission to a zoo rather than a school.” Conover adds, “It does seem to me that in attempting to cure the disease that infected the Newport Jazz Festival activities, they decided to shoot the patient without clearing up the germs.” 

That being said. . . .

A listener willing to register with the Vault (not at all a frightening act) will be able to listen to all of this music for free, and download it in a variety of forms for less than the cost of a compact disc.  A good deal!

BUNNY, LOUIS, WILLIS

Two items from eBay form a lovely combination. 

The first is a Bunny Berigan autograph.  Too bad that the original owner snipped out the signature and glued it to the page, but who knew about acid-free paper and archival storage then?  Probably (s)he just waggled an autograph book open to a blank page in front of Berigan, who signed his name in the neat handwriting characteristic of the time.  

Bunny

Bunny, not surprisingly, idolized Louis Armstrong — and said in an interview that all a trumpeter on the road needed was a toothbrush and a picture of Louis.  For his part, Louis said, “Bunny can’t do no wrong in music.”  They knew.    

Then there’s the photograph below — the Voice of America jazz commentator Willis Conover (who made jazz accessible behind the Iron Curtain) seated with Louis himself, sometime in the late Fifties. 

Willis Louis