Tag Archives: WKCR-FM

“APOSTLE OF SHELLAC”: MATTHEW RIVERA (The Syncopated Times, January 2021)

Matthew Rivera, music lover, filmmaker, scholar, writer, record collector, broadcaster, someone devoted to sharing not one but several Gospels, has been someone I admire for a few years now.  I first heard him playing wondrous music on WKCR-FM, then met him in person in Greenwich Village, playing rare jazz 78 rpm records to live people in public — imagine that! — then as the Proprietor and Democratic Guide of the Hot Club of New York, which holds free Zoom sessions every Monday night from 7-10 PM, where you can hear surprising music and lively discussion.  (Visit the site to get the Zoom link.)  In October 2019, I did a video interview with Matthew, which you can see here.  Matthew also presents on various aspects of jazz — in a relaxed erudite way — for the New York Adventure Club.  I predict we will read, see, and hear more from this flourishing young man.

Some music to get you in the mood: OUT OF NOWHERE, by Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, and Veronica Lake (thanks to Emrah Erken for the clear transfer):

It was a real pleasure to be able to write a profile of Matthew for the remarkable and durable (the January 2021 issue is their sixtieth) The Syncopated Times  — that issue’s cover story is devoted to the splendid Jen Hodge.  Matthew’s story can be read here (with illustrations) but I trust that the good-natured Andy Senior, editor of TST, will forgive me for offering the full text here, under the same elastic law that allows the person doing the cooking to sample the soup to see if it’s done.  I encourage you to subscribe to TST — which is why I have been running an ad for it at the bottom of JAZZ LIVES posts for many moons now.

But here’s Matthew himself.

APOSTLE OF SHELLAC: MATTHEW “FAT CAT” RIVERA

Born in 1996, in Louisville, Kentucky, Matthew Rivera is making jazz vibrate to new audiences in many ways.  I met him first as a sound-phenomenon on the radio: who was this young man playing rare hot music from 78 rpm discs he treasured, and offering wise commentary?  He started “Hot Club” 78-listening sessions in New York jazz clubs, regularly at Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village, New York, then founded the Hot Club of New York, which has free Monday-night Zoom sessions, he continues to broadcast; he gives erudite yet relaxed presentations of jazz for the New York Adventure Club, and has a book in progress. 

MS: Did jazz hit you like a conversion, or was it a gradually growing fascination?

Both. We’re fascinated when music catches us off guard, but we’re converted when we return to it. For instance, I first heard Billie Holiday’s “Did I Remember” on a movie soundtrack and I was smitten, but my ear truly changed after I sought out the recording and heard it again and again. I try to balance my love for the familiar with fascination for the unfamiliar, though often the familiar wins out. To use Amiri Baraka’s phrase, we have to “Keep Digging.”

MS:  Was there jazz on the family soundtrack when you were growing up?

 There were only scraps of jazz to hear or see in my youth. Maybe I’d see something in a movie, or hear a blues based tune on the oldies station. That truly sad fact indicates jazz’s position in our contemporary world. Somewhere we lost sight of the ongoing struggle for jazz’s power. The incredible thing you have to stress about jazz history is that in 1938 everyone was listening to jazz. Whether you wanted to or not, or even whether you knew it or not, in 1938, near a high point in the industrialization of music, it was impossible to escape an essentially non-conformist music that spoke about the conditions of life in America. That didn’t happen simply because people liked jazz then or because it was a new thing, it happened because of the tough fight the musicians put up to be seen and heard. What we may have forgotten is that this struggle, like all social struggles, is recurring.  The fight for jazz was obviously not won forever in 1938.  On every level—socially, economically, in essence politically—the situation today is completely different from the height of jazz’s popularity.  We have to change our strategy.  I have no prescription for how to change things, but I spend a lot of time thinking, “How did we get here?”

MS:   I first encountered you as a disembodied voice, broadcasting music rarely if ever heard in public, such as Red Allen’s 1935-36 delights, on an afternoon jazz program on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, in 2017.  How did you get there?

 I arrived at Columbia in 2014 with the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Coleman Hawkins stuck in my head. My friend Evan Sennett and I had just made a movie in Louisville about two friends of ours who are searching for a fictional jazz musician, and I added in lines like, “I like Prez better than Hawk.” It was just a complete fantasy about my friends also liking jazz from the ’30s. I was walking around campus on the first day thinking “I bet no one here knows who Bunny Berigan is,” having no clue about the incredible jazz legacy of Columbia’s radio station or that I was standing on the sundial in the middle of campus where Red Allen had once played. Then someone approached me with a box of LPs to promote WKCR. The first thing I saw was a Bunny Berigan record. When I picked up my jaw, I found out where WKCR was, and there I eventually met the great Charles Iselin who was hosting a multi-part show on Red Allen. Shortly thereafter, a tall, boisterous man in a seersucker suit and pink socks appeared and did a voluminous impression of Red Allen driving his car around Times Square, said a few things about the California Ramblers, made a point about Tommy Ladnier that trailed into Muggsy Spanier, and then stormed out of the station to catch the subway. When I caught my breath, Charles told me that was Phil Schaap.

I went to Columbia to study film, though I ended up studying English and anthropology instead because of professors like Ann Douglas, Brent Edwards, and Robert O’Meally who incorporate jazz heavily into their literature courses and teach cultural history. My love for jazz came about initially from movies. My parents wisely took me to see The Aviator when I was eight and I remember being affected not only by the planes and movie cameras, but by the jazz age soundtrack.  Later on I saw Anatomy of a Murder one summer at the Palace Theater. After I saw Duke Ellington in that film and heard the truly ‘noirvana’ soundtrack, I went to Highland Records in Louisville and asked if they had any Ellington LPs. They didn’t have any, which only added to my curiosity. I felt provoked to hear the music whenever I could.

When I showed up at WKCR, I already loved jazz, but I didn’t quite yet realize its importance or vastness. That came from Phil Schaap and older students like Charles Iselin, David Beal, and Francis Mayo. Suddenly I was thrown into a tradition of 24-hour birthday broadcasts, memorial broadcasts, morning listening sessions, five-hour profiles, and discographical inquiries. I came to the station thinking Star Dust by Louis Armstrong, Easy to Love by Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, Burgundy Street Blues by George Lewis, and If I Were a Bell by Miles Davis were all I would ever need to know and now I’m seeing Charles spinning these heavy, fragile 78s and listing off personnel and dates from fat red volumes. Early on, Fran Mayo organized a caravan — three vans of students — to drive to Bessie Smith’s grave and pay our respects. Not long after that the Norwegian solographer Jan Evensmo showed up at the station.  Charles and I spent the day listening to rare Roy Eldridge airshots with him that only exist at the station. I learned about the station’s efforts to save Eldridge’s collection when it washed up on the beaches of Far Rockaway during Hurricane Sandy. I heard Schaap’s 45- minute mic breaks, I learned about the Dizzy Gillespie red chair, I saw the thousands of interview reels in the vaults.  I was in the middle of complete and total love for music which up to that point I had only known in solitude.

Ultimately what amazed me about WKCR was what I would learn more formally from Phil Schaap when he became my mentor without me even realizing it. First, I learned from him that all music is present tense and not to get caught up in ideologies about progress or overvalue either the future or the past. Secondly, I learned not to be a swing chauvinist or a BeBop chauvinist. One of the most beautiful traditions we have on WKCR is our back to back Ornette Coleman and Bix Beiderbecke birthday broadcasts and I have learned, albeit rather belatedly, to love both dearly. Ultimately, I learned that music has a social and political function, and this, and the biographies of musicians, is inseparable and essential to understanding the sounds I loved. I learned from friends at WKCR and my teachers at Columbia to hear the essential spirit of the music’s makers. I learned to appreciate the very real connections that popular taste and criticism have largely overlooked. I learned that tastes are mutable, therefore I can’t let my taste or the taste of others guide my ears or changes my direction. I learned to follow musical daring.

MS:  For those who don’t know Phil Schaap, who is he?

Phil is a radio host, educator, sound engineer, and historian—simply a worker for jazz and the hardest working person I’ve ever met. There is an unbelievable passion in the man who speaks on air for 45 minutes straight listing record personnel, dates, and Dodgers scores by heart, remembering what he ate when he met Duke Ellington, flipping, cuing, EQing, and playing a 78 in a matter of seconds, excerpting the eight-bar Chu Berry solo and playing it twenty times in a row, working for jazz like he is running a lifelong marathon. What he teaches is basically music appreciation, not performance. Phil has aimed to get musicians better gigs, to teach listening to experts and newcomers alike, to introduce new generations of listeners to jazz, and to make jazz sound better through high quality sound productions. 

I never would be able to learn as much as I have without Phil because he taught me how to find the music, not just to settle with what I already knew. Because of his unusual methods and his aversion to mediocrity, people like to imagine Phil as a modern version of Balzac’s Père Goriot: a tragically misunderstood artifact from a different world. But Phil became a friend, a mentor, and my main influence because his mission is to bring people to jazz. He showed me what work needed to be done, and what a worker for jazz should be.

The other person I have to explain and give a big shout out to is CHARLES ISELIN! When I met Charles, I was interested in 78s because I had seen Crumb and was curious about the records in that movie. I’m a collector at heart and I don’t think that’s a shameful or embarrassing thing if the collector reflects upon him or herself, reads some Walter Benjamin, and remembers to shower once in a while. I asked Charles if he had any 78s and he went back to the archive and hauled out a box of records he had just bought. Flipping through the stack, I noticed Who by Frankie Newton on Bluebird, not because of Newton, who is now my hero, but because of Mezz Mezzrow, whose book Really the Blues I had just read and loved! Charles grinned and put on Who. I think that devil knew I was about to get hooked on some deep s*** because sure enough that night I went on eBay and bought a Red Allen Vocalion though I didn’t even have a way to play it. He showed me that the 78s were the closest I could get to the music.

MS: What led up to your founding the Hot Club of New York, whose central purpose is offering listeners “a chance to hear scarce records in their historic and aesthetic contexts, and to discuss jazz in a relaxed environment”?

Remember, I’m a filmmaker who likes jazz, but slowly there were events that led to the Hot Club. I met Parker Fishel and David Beal, two righteous fellows who loved the music, and particularly loved the Blues which was always the heart of it. That’s the main thing: the Blues is the spirit and when jazz loses the Blues, jazz loses the spirit. Everyone from Freddie Keppard to Cecil Taylor knew that. So I know that anyone who loves the Blues, like Parker and David do, is going to be a friend. Parker invited me over to his place to listen to Pete Brown records, and David and Ben Young showed up too. That was the first Hot Club I went to, and the beginning of the Neo Hot Club Movement. I’d never had that experience, other than with Charles, of listening to the music deeply and quietly, and lovingly. That’s the experience I’ve always tried to recreate with the Hot Club, whether it was at a dressed up cellar in the Village or on Zoom on Monday nights.

 MS: They call you “Fat Cat.”  But you’re not a bulky plutocrat.

Yes, I hope that handle is unlike me in more ways than one—like Tiny Parham. That really gets us to the first official Neo Hot Club: Morristown, hosted by Melissa Jones. Phil, Ben, Charles, Emily Fenster, Sam Engel, and a whole bunch would drive or ride the train out to Morristown, New Jersey, to listen to rare 78s on a top of the line sound system. I still didn’t have a turntable or anything at that time. I was only listening to my 78s at WKCR, which didn’t sound as good as at Melissa’s. On the ride back from Morristown once, Phil mentioned a Sippie Wallace 78 of which he had only known two copies to exist. There was his, and there was Johnson “Fat Cat” McRree Jr.’s, a collector and jazz festival host from Virginia. I was shocked because I had just bought the record for $8 on the internet, only it had a sizable dig in the grooves near the end.  So the next time we went out to Morristown, I brought the Sippie Wallace record and showed it to Phil.  It was the first time I had ever seen him impressed by anything. He was sweating, his eyes were bulging like a Crumb cartoon, his voice was cracking, and he told me to put on the record which I’m already in the middle of doing. As we were all listening to this unbelievably emotional, soulful blues record with Louis Armstrong and someone who wants to sound like Bechet, it gets to the chip in the grooves and Phil goes absolutely berserk, stands up in his chair, his face red, shouting “That’s Fat Cat’s copy!! You’re the Fat Cat! Fat Cat Rivera.” I had bought Fat Cat McRree Jr.’s copy for eight dollars.

MS:  You took piano lessons for ten years: tell us your James P. Johnson story.

My first encounters with music were encounters with the piano. My uncle and grandmother both played and inspired me to play. I took lessons with a true friend Calvin Pinney, a kind, churchgoing woman who would not stand for rushing or fast tempos and would have no deviation from the notes on the page. I still have her look of “You didn’t practice, did you?” burned into my mind. I took lessons up to the point where I was playing Bach two-part inventions and the four Gershwin preludes pretty solidly. Then I found a transcription of James P. Johnson playing If Dreams Come True. I listened to that music non-stop, I tried to play it, and it basically broke me down completely. I realized then, I can read music, I can interpret the old masters, I play the Rodgers and Hart songbook at a party for tips, I can even slide into Gershwin, but I can’t do THAT. I realized I was an audience member.

MS: It’s obvious you aren’t traveling this rocky road alone.

I learn from my peers, and it’s here I must thank Colin Hancock, the single most important jazz scholar living today and one of my best friends. Vince Giordano has helped me quite a bit, and with his working orchestra, The Nighthawks, he has shown us all the power of the jazz age ten piece big bands. I didn’t realize it until about ten years later, but one of my first introductions to jazz, watching The Aviator, was an introduction by Vince Giordano who performed most of the music for that film. Not to lift the curtain, Michael, but you are also an important peer and friend. Al Vollmer, David Sager, Ricky Riccardi, Scott Wenzel, Jan Evensmo, Lloyd Rauch, Andrew Oliver, Scout Opatut, Evan Arntzen, Lucy Yeghiazaryan, and countless others have taught me more than a thing or two about jazz. Still the people I learn the most from are my close friends Sam Fentress, Alex Garnick, Evan Sennett, Aaron Friedman, Laura Cadena, and Sophie Kovel, and most importantly my love, Elena Burger. They are all tuned in to our generation. They understand what the Hot Club mission is about and the sociality and politics of art and history.  In their own individual ways, they are all non-conformist thinkers which is what I want to be. Then there’s the rarest of them all, a non-conformist thinker who understands jazz: my professor Ann Douglas who wrote Terrible Honesty and has guided me in everything from Charlie Parker to Raymond Chandler. She is someone I am honored to say is my friend.

MS:  How does jazz fit into your other passions — politics, film, American culture?  Are there connections between Charlie Johnson and your literary heroes?

Jazz is the most specific of these topics because it relies essentially on an attitude and outlook towards life. It is the best part of American culture, but it is obviously not all of American culture. The outlook is, plainly enough, the Blues outlook—an honest square look at all of life’s nasty stuff that is deeply hurt by it and still finds a way to laugh it off, to see light not only at the other side of the tunnel but in the tunnel itself. Though not always successful at looking, or at laughing, and not always the most approachable thing, if you judge jazz at its best (as we should always judge) it’s the only light. I appreciate other music through jazz—certainly Cuban son, Puerto Rican plena, Old Time mountain music, Cajun, gospel, Dominican merengue, Hawaiian hula, Bach, Bob Dylan, West African palm wine, Greek rebetika—but I’ve learned I basically appreciate everything that has the Blues outlook. Outside of jazz, film noir and noir literature have been the strongest expression of this Blues spirit. The spirit, of course, predates the modern Blues as well, and it can be seen in the novels of Balzac and the poems of Sappho.  Although Charlie Johnson, as a person and artist, was basically nothing like David Goodis, they both dug into the Blues with a feeling, as a song by Duke Ellington is titled.

MS:  How did you get from being “A 78 record collector” to founding the Hot Club of New York, and what do you see as its future?

Through the path people like Phil, Charles, Melissa, David, and Parker have shown me, I have seen that jazz is a social phenomenon. There’s a book called Musicking by Christopher Small which says the music is more than the object on stage, but the entire social interaction, the space, the love and the people. Dancing, record collecting, record listening, and most certainly performance attending are all acts of musicking with almost as much importance for the social space as the performance itself.

This way of understanding music is lost on us.  Generally, we have lost sight of the need for an audience. If there are more musicians on stage than audience members in the house — which I’m sad to say I have witnessed — then it’s only public practice. I realized the same thing about collecting the records. If I’m only playing them for myself I’m not getting them all they’re worth. Even having the 78s is only half the battle. I’ve got to play them for people, and I have to find people who want to listen and teach more people to want to listen. The ultimate mission of the Hot Club is to introduce a new audience to jazz, and to create a space of active jazz musicking. 

Melissa Jones, whom I first met as a classmate at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Swing University, basically lives this idea of music, supporting and bringing together the jazz community in any way possible. I’ve already mentioned the Hot Club of Morristown. Melissa would host young musicians and listeners at her house, feeding all of us to the gills. It didn’t matter who we were as long as we loved jazz. I think the most important part of the Neo Hot Club came from Melissa as she constantly reminded me of jazz’s ultimate cause: to bring people together. She exemplified an angel of musicking to a generation of young jazz people, and when the future hit all too soon this year I took her cue to begin hosting Zoom Hot Club meetings on Monday nights. Her presence there has continued to bond the group of listeners from all backgrounds. I dedicate this interview to Melissa Jones.

MS: What are some prizes of your collection?  Do you have desert island discs?

Well, assuming I can take a ship the size of the Titanic to the island…. My number one is Out of Nowhere by Coleman Hawkins with a stunning muted trumpet by Benny Carter on HMV. 

I’m also grateful to say I have a mint copy of Cecil Scott’s Lawd, Lawd on Victor, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band’s Chattanooga Stomp and Camp Meeting Blues on Columbia, Chick Webb’s If Dreams Come True on Columbia, Jack Purvis’s Down Georgia Way, Charlie Johnson’s Charleston is the Best Dance After All, both takes of Louis Armstrong’s Star Dust, Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue on OKeh, a west coast pressing of Art Karle’s Lights Out with my favorite Frankie Newton solo, Tell Me, Dreamy Eyes by Perley Breed’s Shepard Colonial Orchestra on Gennett (thanks to Colin Hancock), Wipe ’em Off by the Seven Gallon Jug Band, Noah’s Blues by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Ice Freezes Red by Fats Navarro, My Baby’s Blues by the Blues Man on Juke Box, a vinylite pressing of Coleman Hawkins’s Talk of the Town, a vinylite of Bird of Paradise on Dial and my favorite Charlie Parker Thriving on a Riff on a beautiful sounding vinylite Savoy. Every record I own is one I could never part with! A test pressing of With a Smile and a Song, an unissued side from a Teddy Wilson session with the beautiful singer Sally Gooding and the tenor great Chu Berry, is a crown jewel.

MS:  Does record collecting feed the music or vice versa?

Through collecting records I came to understand that there are alternative ways to listen to and find music. Jazz came to have a context, and context is never icing on the cake. Context is always the thing itself when you get down to it. We’ve lost sight of that fact through the current ways of distributing music, and that’s why I think we are left with an understanding of music that is supporting an ideology that handicaps the music and strips it of its active life. Jazz is not an abstract music just like Pollock and Krasner were not abstract painters. Pollock painted about the censorship of the cold war; he danced around the oppressors to say exactly what they were afraid art was capable of saying, which is what the jazz musicians he was listening to had already done. Jazz musicians danced around power to create something seemingly nonsensical to the unhip, but explicitly communicative to its righteous audience. Spotify, YouTube, and all of the current ways of distributing music decontextualize and deactivate music. The way these apps envision music shows exactly where those in power want it to be: in the background. Ironically, their outlook inadvertently acknowledges the importance and power of jazz.  It’s our way out.   

MS: You’ve been doing intriguing research on Frankie Newton.  Why is he a hero?

Frankie Newton is important to me because he was on the first 78 I heard, and he has since become more important to me because he showed me the way to the music.  For someone who was dead for over forty years before my birth to show me the way is nothing short of the ultimate vision of jazz’s power. The same can be said of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, or Billie Holiday, but for me Newton has had the loudest voice because whenever you find him, he is never caught up in the zero sum game of the culture industry, playing hide and seek to make a living and still not lose his soul. Perhaps Coltrane equals him in this regard. Newton was politically minded, but even before I knew about his politics I knew about his activities as a painter.

As someone who was balancing playing jazz records and making films and studying literature I found any character who delved into another medium from a jazz perspective to be fascinating and exceptional. The more I’ve learned about Newton, combing through newspapers, periodicals, and an interview disc I found in a junk shop, the more I’ve found that his position on the margins of jazz popularity shows the fault lines in our understanding of the music, and a point of view that contrasts revealingly with the more famous artists of his time. Moreover, and most importantly, Frankie Newton is a truly great musician.  He is the best kind of soloist—he speaks for the whole group when he solos, not just for himself. I’m always curious to hear what he has to say.

MS:  We feel the same way about Matthew Rivera! 

Although I’ve thanked a lot of people in this interview, ultimately there are two groups of people to whom I’m most grateful.  First, my parents and family in Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, and Puerto Rico, and secondly, the pioneering jazz musicians of every generation.  They are the original jazz workers, and all I want to do is work for them.

Matthew can be found broadcasting (from his apartment) via wkcr.org on Mondays 12-3 PM EST.  Join the Hot Club of New York at http://hotclubny.com (there’s also a HCNY Facebook page) where you can find the Zoom link for his Monday night sessions from 7-10 PM.  Information about his programs for the New York Adventure Club can be found at https://nyadventureclub.com.

May your happiness increase!

 

“WERELD’S BESTE”

Are you free tonight?

Oh, I wish.  They have a great trio.  Never mind that it’s 1937 in Holland:

That’s Coleman Hawkins with Freddy Johnson, recorded August 13, 1937.

and with the addition of Maurice van Kleef, drums:

You can hear more from this date (and much more rare jazz) at the YouTube channel of Heinz Becker.  But wouldn’t it be nice to get away from the computer for an evening?

I entertain these thoughts because of an autographed postcard that turned up on eBay.  (The winning bid was $223, I believe, and it wasn’t mine.)  The blank back-side is above (although it has the valuable information of address and phone number) but what caught me is the front:

Today, November 21, is Hawk’s birthday.  If you are reading this in what is loosely called “real time,” WKCR-FM in New York is playing his music all day and night: you can hear it online as well at wkcr.org.  He’s never gone away.

May your happiness increase!

JOEL FORRESTER’S MOVING WORLDS

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

My fascination with Joel Forrester and his music goes back more than a decade. I would guess that I heard the quizzically entrancing orchestra THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET on WKCR-FM and was intrigued by its unpredictable mixture of new and old.  And then I heard Joel in person with a few small bands he’d assembled — one called THE TRUTH, which was an accurate description.

Joel doesn’t strive to shock the listener, but he doesn’t follow predictable paths — which is, in an era of reproducible art, an immense virtue. His playing and his compositions can be hilarious, angular, tender — sometimes all at once, and his music is vividly alive, which is no small thing.

I write not only to celebrate Joel — in all his surprises that invite us in — but to remind New Yorkers of opportunities to savor his art.  Every Saturday, he is playing a solo piano gig at Café Loup, 105 West 13th St. at 6th Avenue, in Greenwich Village, from 12:30—3:30 PM.

On Tuesdays, from 6-10, Joel plays solo piano at the Astor Room (located in the Kaufman Studios complex) 34-12 36th St. in Astoria, Queens.  I suggest you mark your calendars for Tuesday, June 6, when there will be a special — no, remarkable — happening, where Joel will begin with a solo piano set (his custom on Tuesdays) and then there will be two sets by The Microscopic Septet with Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone (visiting from Australia!); Don Davis, alto saxophone; Michael Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone; Joel, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums.

And their latest CD — thirteen variations on the blues, with echoes of Johnny Hodges, a Basie small group, Mingus, rhythm ‘n’ blues . . . titled BEEN UP SO LONG IT LOOKS LIKE DOWN TO ME — is frankly extraordinary.  Read more here.

and here’s DON’T MIND IF I DO from that new CD:

And I am not surprised that Joel is a fine writer — think of Joseph Mitchell at a tilt, an affectionate chronicler of urban scenes: read his “Three Memorable Drunks.”

Finally, since I expect that this will awaken some of you to the whimsical glories Joel so generously offers us, here is a link to Joel’s website and gig calendar.  As for me, I have new places to savor, which, even in New York City, is a wonderful thing.

May your happiness increase!

THAT FIRECRACKER BABY (July 4, 2016)

Photograph courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

Photograph courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

The Fourth of July is a national holiday in the United States: our Independence Day.  And it is also the day that Louis Armstrong said was his birthday.  So did his mother, so even though I don’t think he was born in 1900 but in 1901, if your mother says you were her “firecracker baby,” that takes precedence.

FIREWORKS OKeh

Here, the Fourth of July is celebrated with fireworks.  So this 1928 recording is doubly appropriate.  I salute Tim Gracyk and thank him for his lovely YouTube presentation:

And since three minutes of Louis is never enough, I offer the good news that Columbia University’s FM radio station is back online / streaming, and that on both July 4 and August 4, they do twenty-four hour celebrations of Louis’s birthdays.  To hear that broadcast and future broadcasts, click here (the station’s Facebook page) or directly here.

And with a small orthographical variation . . .

May your Louis-ness increase!

JO JONES CENTENNIAL FESTIVAL (Oct. 2 -8, 2011) on WKCR-FM

Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Sir Charles Thompson, Jimmy Woode — London, 1964: CARAVAN

News from a great jazz radio station — WKCR-FM, emanating from Columbia University in New York City:

Tune in to for the Jo Jones Centennial from October 2nd at 2:00 p.m. to October 8th at 12:00 noon. Throughout the day, you’ll be able to hear presentations of the work of Papa Jo Jones by theme, with each show focusing on particular instrumentations, groupings, or musical qualities. Even if you’re an extreme Basie-ite, or know Jones better than most, you’re likely to hear something fresh this week: live performances and airchecks, music from the West End, recordings from Jones’ film appearances, and other stellar rarities. 

Jonathan “Jo” Jones (b. 10/7/11), nicknamed “Papa” to avoid confusion with jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones, stands as one of the most accomplished, influential, and innovative practitioners of his art in the history of jazz. Born in Chicago and raised in Alabama, Jones eventually made his way to Kansas City, Missouri, where he first recorded with Hunter’s Serenaders in 1931. His next recording, the Smith-Jones Inc. session in 1936, began his epochal work with William “Count” Basie, as well as a relationship with Lester “Pres” Young that would last into the ’50s. By the time Basie began recording under his own leadership, Jones was a part of a rhythm section that would redefine jazz and help usher in the pinnacle of the Swing Era. Jones played with Basie nearly continuously until 1944, when he was drafted for two years just at the end of the war. During this pre-war era he also worked with Teddy Wilson in the band for many of Billie Holiday’s greatest recordings. After his return, Jones continued to influence his peers, using his sound to balance Illinois Jacquet’s ferocious swing, Sonny Stitt’s ecstatic lines, and the melodies of singers like Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner. Jones appeared as part of Jazz at the Philharmonic and at Newport as the guest of Basie and the Oscar Peterson Trio in ’57 and ’58, respectively. Eventually, he began recording as a leader with musicians like Ray and Tommy Bryant and old friends like Roy Eldridge. After his time with Basie, the great breadth of his work ensured that his sound persisted through the changes of bebop and beyond. Jones’ method of supporting swing, his talent for adding depth to the human voice, and his consistently impressive conception and execution live on. His sound provided the necessary backbone upon which so much great music was built. Join us in celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday, October 7th, 2011, with nearly a week of his music.

I spent many happy hours listening to and tape-recording the astonishing jazz festivals that WKCR-FM (89.9) had in years past . . . sometimes setting my alarm during the night to wake up at three-hour intervals to turn the tape reel over and go back to sleep, sometimes scheduling my daily activities around what would be broadcast that day.  Because of Phil Schaap, one of the station’s most diligent and enduring members, Jo Jones and WKCR have been linked for many years, with Jo speaking on-air to honor other jazz greats.  The station also broadcast live jazz from the West End Cafe (now no longer a music mecca) with Jo leading small groups that included Harold Ashby, Don Coates, John Ore, Sammy Price, Taft Jordan, Paul Quinichette, and others — even a teenaged Stanley Jordan.  Jo Jones deserves a week-long tribute of this depth and scope, and I’m only sorry that it had to wait for his centennial — after his death.  Listeners outside of the New York metropolitan area should visit WKCR’s online site — http://www.wkcr.org — where (through RealPlayer — the installation takes about six or seven minutes) the broadcasts can be heard without a radio, streaming.  I disposed of my reel-to-reel recorder years ago, but the good news is that RealPlayer entices me: click on a little red button, bottom left, and record the signal “to my library.”  I wonder how many external hard drives the centennial would fill up?  At least I could now get an unbroken night’s sleep.

MEL LEWIS on JAZZ DRUMMING

Here’s a link to a website that offers a series of 1989 interviews that master drummer Mel Lewis (1929-1990) did with Loren Schoenberg on WKCR-FM — exploring the history of jazz drumming from Baby Dodds to Elvin Jones:

http://www.pas.org/experience/oralhistory/mellewis.aspx

A master musician commenting on his ancestors (including Stan King, Paul Barbarin, and Tiny Kahn) and colleagues — invaluable!

AUGUST IN NEW YORK: FOUR DAYS WITH JIM FRYER

Photograph by Lorna Sass, 2008

(This is trombonist / euphonist / vocalist Jim Fryer’s essay on life-as-a-hard-working-jazz-musician . . . as printed in the November 2010 edition of The American Rag and reprinted here with everyone’s permission)

ME & NYC

6 gigs in 4 days: a life of slice

August 15–18, 2010

This is a somewhat random “Report From NYC,” based on a few days of “feet on the sidewalk” activity. It’s certainly not an exhaustive accounting of the activity around here, although it was a bit exhausting. There is so much great music, great jazz, and great trad jazz around here. This is just a slice, my little slice, of the scene. I think it was Hemingway who said you should write about what you know, and what you know best is your own life. It is also true, in my experience, that narcissism is one of the few skills that can improve with age, and I’m definitely on that bandwagon. So here goes. I hope someone else may find this interesting. I know I do.

* * *

Following a big chunk of time and energy expended (along with Jeff & Anne Barnhart) in helping our 5 “International All Stars” from the UK have a swell time in Connecticut, New York, and California (including doing double duty at the Orange County Classic Jazz Festival with the Titan Hot 7, the band that most readers of this journal will know me from), I enjoyed a respite visiting my parents at their house in the Maine woods. A short time after my return to New York, I found myself back on the busy streets & subway trains: the Asphalt Jungle. A small flurry of local gigs helped reorient me to this place where I am trying to live the good – or at least, the interesting – life.

Sunday August 15: From our domicile in West Harlem, I drove south on the Henry Hudson Parkway and West Side Highway, down to the Fat Cat Café, just off Sheridan Square in the West Village. This is one of my favorite joints ever: down the stairs to a very large room that contains games such as ping pong, pool, scrabble, chess, and beer and wine drinking. And oh yes, a small music area off to the side, easy chairs and sofas, a grand piano and a sound system (with a sound engineer!). When I die, if I’m lucky enough to choose my personal heaven, it will look a lot like the Fat Cat. (Our younger daughter once came along to a gig there, and decided that was where she wanted to get married.)

The band at the Fat Cat was a classic: Terry Waldo leading his Gotham City Jazz Band from the piano, singing & striding along; Peter Ecklund (tpt), Chuck Wilson (clr/as), Brian Nelepka (sb), John Gill (dms),and me (with my euphonium along for the ride). Nice, relaxed, easy. Good IPA on tap. 2 sets, no muss, no fuss, just plain fun. Girls boogie to our music while playing foozball. I’m very thankful that there are bandleaders who hire me for such good times. John Gill sang a lovely rendition of Irving Berlin’s When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam’. John continues vocalizing (accompanying himself on guitar) later on Sunday nights over at the National Underground, where he, Brian, & drummer Kevin Dorn play good old rock and roll & country/western.

Normally, after the Fat Cat, I have the option to sit in with the Dixie Creole Cooking Jazz Band (led by cornetist Lee Lorenz) at Arthur’s Tavern, right around the corner from the Fat Cat, on their weekly Sunday gig; and then travel a few blocks down to The Ear, New York’s oldest saloon, for another fantastic session with the Ear-Regulars (led by Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri). But today, it’s back into the car and a scramble against heavy crosstown traffic and over the Williamsburg Bridge, to the Rose Café in Brooklyn. The gig thankfully started late anyhow! I played a duo set with Bliss Blood, the talented singer/songwriter/ukelele-ist from Texas via Brooklyn. We followed a young violinist/singer/synthesizer player who managed to sound like a rock band and symphony orchestra, all by herself. Playing old blues and Bliss’s original songs, our music sounded simple in comparison (one of my goals, actually), but the ‘elite’ (small) audience seemed to enjoy it.

Monday August 16: Every Monday brings me a steady musical diet. I play with a rehearsal big band in the afternoon. Working jazz musos the world over know what that means: get together for a few hours every week and ‘read’ (play) big band ‘charts’ (arrangements) for no commercial purpose whatsoever. The opportunity to sight read new material (often written by someone in the band) and schmooze with friends is sufficient compensation. If you hang out at the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 building on West 48th Street for a week, you’ll hear dozens of these bands, taking advantage of the very low room rental rates.

Next comes one of the musical highlights of my life for the last several years: Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks making their weekly Monday appearance at Club Cache, downstairs from Sofia’s Restaurant in the famed Edison Hotel on West 46th Street, just a few feet west of Times Square. I’m not enough of a wordsmith to adequately bring to life the excitement and dynamism that Vince Giordano brings to each & every gig he plays. He is a one man tornado, playing hot string bass, tuba, and bass sax, singing, performing mc duties, meeting & greeting each customer who comes down the stairs into our subterranean cabaret, and setting up & breaking down equipment for hours each week. A characteristic touch is added by our technician & ‘introducer,’ John Landry (aka Sir Scratchy), and we couldn’t do without our various ‘Mikes’ (Mike being the generic term to describe anyone who helps out on the gig, from moving equipment to playing music). Our steadiest Mike is Carol, Vince’s partner, who [wo]mans the door and seats patrons; we also are lucky to have Earl, who in addition to schlepping equipment, spends his ‘down’ time translating Vince’s antique arrangements into modern notation via Sibelius software – at an incredible clip (he will complete a full 13 piece arrangement during the course of the 3 hour gig, something that would take me weeks).

Vince’s Monday night gig has become enormously popular since its debut in May of 2008. A great dance floor brings in the rugcutters (including many athletic young lindy hoppers), and the room is typically full of customers from the world over. The legendary 88 year old clarinetist Sol Yaged is featured on a tune each set. Vince is the Toscanini of the evening, conducting our journey through the sublime world of Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, and a plethora of songwriters & arrangers: Bill Challis, Raymond Scott, Fats Waller, Irving Berlin. From the downbeat at precisely 8pm to the closing at 11pm, it is truly a world of amazing music & delight. We often have quite well known folks ‘sitting in:’ singers like Michael Feinstein, Nellie McKay, and Daryl Sherman; instrumentalists from around the world; the comedian Micky Freeman; and famous audience members such as cartoonist R. Crumb, a big classic jazz fan.

This particular Monday included all members of what I call the “A Team;” that is, all the first call musicians. (The band hardly suffers when subs come in: John Allred in the trombone chair could not be described as bringing the level down!). Many of these players are quite well known in a variety of genres. Here they are:

Reeds: Dan Block, Dan Levinson, Mark Lopeman

Trumpets: Mike Ponella, Jon-Erik Kellso

Trombone: your humble (ahem!) reporter

Violin/Sax: Andy Stein

Piano: Peter Yarin

Banjo/Guitar: Ken Salvo

Percussion: Arnie Kinsella

Basses/Everything: Vince Giordano

Tuesday August 17: Tuesday daytime may bring a few trombone students to me (in the summer, a handful; during the school year, a full day – if I’m lucky); or an occasional concert in a Connecticut school, with a band called the Cool Cats; then comes a reprise of Monday night. Vince has been working hard since this past June to get a second night established. It’s still the quieter night, and I bet Vince is counting audience members as he’s counting off tunes; but it also can work more as a rehearsal, Vince handing out charts on stage from his vast collection (60,000 in the archives).

At 11:40pm, I’m back on the train from Grand Central Station (busy place, that) to Rye, 25 miles NE of the city, where my wife (sometimes described as “long suffering”) works at a private school, which offers on-campus housing as a benefit for her very hard work. I love the view walking east on 43rd Street, with the Chrysler Building looming over the majestic train terminal. By 12:30am I’m strolling down our very quiet and pretty suburban street, where Peter Cottontail may sometimes be seen munching lettuce in the garden. This particular night a local cop car slows to a stop as I’m walking up to our place. The cop looks me over (trombone, wheelie bag for mutes etc, garment bag with tux), and says, “Ya got everything?” Funny guy. It’s good to know they’re out on the beat. Sometimes I stay “in town,” at the apartment we have in West Harlem (currently also the abode of our eldest daughter, a fervent New Yorker).

Wednesday August 18: Wednesday brings another doubleheader (paydirt for us musos; even better, the rare tripleheader; many years ago I played 4 gigs on the Fourth of July). First the late afternoon session at Birdland, the world famous club on West 44th: David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. This long running (10+ years) weekly gig features a rotating roster of the finest trad players in town. Today, in addition to tuba player & leader Osti, I had the pleasure of being on stage with Jon-Erik Kellso (tpt), Anat Cohen (clr), Ehud Asherie (pn), & Marion Felder (dms). Yours truly was the old guy on stage. (I’m trying to get used to that.) David’s bands are some of the most ‘diverse’ in the biz, in terms of not only age but also gender and race. The general lack of diversity can be a slightly touchy issue in the trad jazz arena, so it’s nice to see Osti put together bands that ‘look like America’ – and also swing like crazy! This Wednesday session was a very special one: Dave Bennett, the young clarinet virtuoso from Michigan, sat in, along with a young also sax player (from Russia, I believe; I didn’t catch his name); and in the audience, 91 year old George Avakian, one of the most esteemed figures in jazz history (George has produced hundreds of classic jazz albums).

Then to Brooklyn (by subway), to play again with Bliss Blood, this time with the Moonlighters (20s/30s swing, with a Hawaiian flavor). Bliss’s vocals & uke are joined by Cindy Ball (guitar & impeccable vocal harmonies), Raphael McGregor (lap steel), Rus Wimbish (string bass), & the horn section: me! I love being the only horn player, it’s nice & quiet, with no temptation to engage in technical battles: who can play faster, higher, or more cleverly. As I get older, I feel pleasure in knowing how to add a bit of value to the music, no pyrotechnics, please. I’m trying to play better by playing less. It’s a thrill to learn brand new songs that Bliss and Cindy write. The art form continues to evolve. I also love this venue. The Radegast Beer Hall, a big open space, with fine beer (of course) and hearty German food, is in the heart of Williamsburg, a neighborhood that feels young and vibrant. It restores my faith in humanity when the band is fed so well on the gig! All kinds of bands play here, including several youthful units, such as Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers, and the Baby Soda band (which includes trombonist Emily Asher of Mighty Aphrodite Jazz Band fame). Several times folks got up and danced around the bar area, in most cases to our music. Finishing after midnight means arriving back in Harlem close to 2am – fortunately, not driving, which reduces the danger and risk (seriously, everyone who’s been in the music business knows musos who have fallen asleep at the wheel late at night); as long as I don’t sleep through my subway stop and end up in Riverdale (a nice neighborhood, but miles north of my pad).

* * *

It was a great little run of gigs. I feel quite lucky to be able to work with so many interesting people. And if sometimes being the oldest on stage is a bit of a bittersweet experience (I guess I ought to get used to it as “As Time Goes By”), it is certainly encouraging for the future of the music. From long time residents (like drummer Kevin Dorn, born in Manhattan about 30 years ago – his band, the Traditional Jazz Collective, gigs all over town) to those newly arrived, NYC is still, as ever, a magnet for young, ambitious, and hardworking people. A few of the young “immigrants:” trombonist Emily Asher, transplanted from Washington state for a couple of years to get her Masters degree; trumpeter Gordon Au, from California (I should mention Gordon’s very musical family: brothers Justin and Brandon are fine players who have blown with the Titans in Pismo Beach CA, and Uncle Howard Miyata plays a mean tailgate trombone with High Sierra Jazz Band); young trombonist Matt Musselman from Maryland, a recent graduate of Manhattan School of Music, and one of my subs in the Nighthawks (his band is called Grandpa Musselman and His Syncopators); and trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg, due to arrive any second now. There is most definitely a youth movement going on! I wouldn’t know how to advise these young people about putting together an actual living in NYC: this is one tough town to pay your bills in – but somehow they are doing it. Perhaps I should ask them for advice! The total take from my 6 gigs (minus the expenses) will buy a few bags of groceries, pay back the loan for a couple of textbooks for my younger daughter’s college degree, with about $1.13 left for my pension contribution. Guess I can’t retire yet. I’ll get up tomorrow and go off in search of more students and gigs. I know one musician who was heard to say: “Retire! How can I retire? I’ve never had a job!”

I would be remiss if I didn’t also tip my cap to the folks around here who have been promoting the classic jazz scene for many years, such as: Bruce McNichols, musician, impresario, and radio OKOM producer; Jack Kleinsinger, whose “Highlghts In Jazz” series has run for 37 years; the Sidney Bechet Society, which puts on fine concerts in Manhattan; New Jersey folks like Bruce Gast & the New Jersey Jazz Society; Connecticut jazzers who put together the Hot Steamed Festival and the Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival; & radio hosts such as Rich Conaty on WFUV-FM and Phil Schaap on WKCR-FM. Youth combined with Experience will carry the day for the music we love!

Jim Fryer

August 2010

For more info:  www.jfryer.com, www.terrywaldo.com, www.blissblood.com, www.myspace.com/vincegiordanothenighthawks, http://www.ostwaldjazz.com/., www.coolcatjazz.info,

LESTER YOUNG’S GRIEF

presToday would have been Lester Young’s one-hundredth birthday. 

His centenarybecame a media event weeks ago.  Smithsonian Magazine and the Wall Street Journal carried articles celebrating Lester’s life and art; Ted Gioia has written what looks like a fine book proposing that everything that was once outsider cutlure, “hip,” “cool,” the property of only a few trend-setters, originated with Pres.  Online, there are sites devoted to the occasion (I could send someone a Pres e-card this morning, or I could subscribe to a jazz video site that promises me a new one emailed every day). 

All these celebrations seem good omens that our culture, typically ignorant or dismissive of jazz, is paying attention to a heroic figure. 

Would the attention have pleased Lester?  I hope so.  I have in my mind’s eye the account of a birthday party given in his honor at Birdland in the Fifties, where Lester cut the obligatory first piece of cake for the photographers while holding his horn in the other hand, playing I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS, both witty and apt.

And I was cheered by the blogpost written by Fernando Ortiz de Urbina, where he states the heretical but resounding truth that Lester’s influence outweigh’s Charlie Parker’s.  You should read it here: http://jazzofftherecord.blogspot.com/2009/08/lester-young.html — his blog, not incidentally, is named EASY DOES IT, in Lester’s honor.  And as I write this, WKCR-FM is playing Lester’s music — for free — and it can be accessed online at http://www.wkcr.org

But I wonder how much posthumous affection and attention we would have to give Lester to make up for the hurts he suffered.  His feelings, once wounded, stayed that way.  His father threw him out of the family band because he couldn’t read music (although he played his part magnificently by ear); later, his section-mates in the 1934 Fletcher Henderson band mocked him because he didn’t sound like their idol Coleman Hawkins, and insisted that Fletcher get another tenor player; John Hammond discouraged Count Basie from raising Lester’s salary although Lester was that band’s star; he could not make a success of his own small band; the United States Army did its best to destroy him; a legion of “grey boys” played his phrases back to him in clubs and concerts for more money; he ended his days in New York, sitting by his window, playing mournful Frank Sinatra records, drinking cognac. 

pres2It is no accident that some of his most unforgettable solos — BLUES IN THE DARK, I LEFT MY BABY, FINE AND MELLOW — sound like a heartbroken man trying to hold back tears.  Can love that comes too late make up for its absence?  I don’t think so.

BENNY VISITS “AVALON”

In the last few days I’ve been listening to the Benny Goodman Festival being broadcast on WKCR-FM (if you’re out of range of this New York City FM station, you can hear it online at www.wkcr.org).  Whenever I turn on the radio a Goodman small group is eagerly exploring AVALON at a jaunty tempo, a coincidence that both amuses and puzzles me.

BGNow, I don’t plan to accuse Goodman of being an aging artist caught in his own boredom, but the frequency with which jazz musicians return to their own narrowing repertoire of familiar songs to improvise on is worth comment.

I know that Hot Lips Page famously said (to whom?) “The material is immaterial,” and Bob Rusch has gently reminded me that jazz is about what one does with the material rather than the material itself.  “‘T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it,” sang Trummy Young.

And anyone brave enough to improvise in public at the tempos Goodman favored should, by law, have the right to choose his or her own favorite set of chord changes — no matter whether the improviser in question is Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, or John Coltrane.  But I’ve also heard some of the finest jazz artists turn in established solos on familiar pieces for their features, occasionally playing something quite moving, but more often falling back on set routine.  I think of Jo Jones’s CARAVAN, of Buddy Tate’s BODY AND SOUL, of Vic Dickenson’s IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD, and so on.

One could, of course, make the case that jazzmen have “master solos” and “polished performances” to fall back on, because improvisation is such a demanding art.  And Ricky Riccardi has made the point that Louis Armstrong’s versions of INDIANA that often began his later performances were anything but rote repetition.

But Benny himself (according to Ross Firestone’s sweet-natured biography) seems to have been dissatisfied with the music he played in his last decade, saying to someone, “You can’t play LADY BE GOOD forever.”  But he did play AVALON for fifty years.

Did he play it so regularly because it was a song he loved from his childhood (it first appeared in 1920)?  Did he return to it because it was one of his proven hits, a selection that his audience — sometimes made up of people who had cheered him on in 1937 — wanted, expected, and waited for?  Did he feel a responsibility to please the people who had paid to hear him with a medley of his Greatest Hits?  Or was playing AVALON something that gave him pleasure in itself — both as a stunning ride over the chord changes and as a way of making an exciting performance?  I can’t begin to say.

And some of the performances of AVALON I’ve heard on WKCR-FM are justly thrilling — not just in terms of technique and facility, but as musical expressions — evidence of an older artist still finding “something new to say” on a familiar text.  Some of them sound like Goodman playing at being Benny Goodman — with playing that is technically exciting but not especially creative improvised music.

The only time I was fortunate enough to see Goodman in person — at a great distance — was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 or 1975, with a truly all-star group including Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge (!).  Of course, the King offered us AVALON, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and DON’T BE THAT WAY to enthusiastic applause, but I was much more moved by Hackett’s choice of a feature number — an uptempo SECRET LOVE, which I can still dimly hear in my head as I write this.

Does this make me a snob for asking my beloved jazz heroes to “be original”?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if I had been able to ask Benny why he explored and re-explored AVALON, he would have said, “I like it.”  And that would have been enough, even for me.  Any artist who’s given us so much for such a long time is entitled to his idiosyncracies.

WKCR-FM, www.wkcr.org, 212-851-2699

microphoneI don’t like pledge drives on public radio or public television.  More often than not, I have reacted to the extended earnest pleas for financial support by turning off the flow of words.  When I returned to New York this morning and heard that WKCR-FM was asking its listeners for financial support, my initial response was a muffled groan.  But two factors changed my thinking.  One is that the station (Columbia University’s jazz station, on the air steadily since October 1941) was broadcasting Benny Goodman’s music around the clock until June 1 — in honor of BG’s hundredth birthday.  And while I was listening to the flow of familiar BG sides from 1939, I heard a few Helen Forrest vocals I hadn’t heard before.

And — more to the point — the Beloved and I have spent the last week-plus in Utah.  Utah is extraordinarily beautiful, even oppressively and overwhelmingly so — but we couldn’t find any good music on the radio.  Seventies rock and religious music in profusion, but no Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Charlie Barnet, or Charlie Green.  Even when a station such as WKCR is broadcasting music that isn’t to my taste, it seems a cultural oasis in the American landscape.

I also remember WRVR-FM and Ed Beach — a glorious aesthetic and educational experience that vanished one day because someone wanted that particular frequency for a station that made more money.

So I called 212-851-2699 and made a contribution.  And I encourage blog-readers to do the same.  Even if you are out of the New York metropolitan area, you can access the station online at http://www.wkcr.org.  And if you did so, you’d hear Benny’s 1941 band with Sid Catlett, Cootie Williams, Lou McGarity, Mel Powell . . . music worth supporting.  Please do!

“INTEGRITY OF BEING”: SONNY ROLLINS ON COLEMAN HAWKINS

hawkins1First, November 21 is Coleman Hawkins’s birthday — not a national holiday, yet.  But WKCR-FM, the jazz station of Columbia University, will play his music for twenty-four hours in his honor.  And if you’re not within reach of an FM radio, you can hear it online at http://www.wkcr.org.

The letter printed below originally came from the esteemed player and thinker Phil Woods, making its way to Jon-Erik Kellso, who sent me a copy of it.  I hope that no one minds my offering it here: I think it is an important document for reasons both musical and spiritual.


10/13/62 P.M.

My Dear Mr. Hawkins,

Your recent performance at the ‘Village Gate’ was magnificent!!  Quite aside from the fact that you have maintained a position of dominance and leadership in the highly competitive field of ‘Jazz’ for the time that you have there remains the more significant fact that such tested and tried musical achievement denoted and is subsidiary to personal character and integrity of being.

There have been many young men of high potential and demonstrated ability who have unfortunately not been ‘MEN’ in their personal and offstage practices and who soon found themselves devoid of the ability to create music.  Perhaps these chaps were unable to understand why their musical powers left them so suddenly.  Or perhaps they knew what actions were constructive as opposed to destructive but were too weak and not men enough to command the course of their lives.  But certain it is that character, knowledge and virtue are superior to ‘Music’ as such.  And that ‘success’ is relative to the evolution of those qualities within us all.  That it has been positive and lasting for you Coleman is to the honor and credit of us, your colleagues, as well as to your credit.  For you have ‘lit the flame’ of aspiration within so many of us and you have epitomized the superiority of ‘excellence of endeavor’ and you stand today as a clear living picture and example for us to learn from.

It has always been a task to explain in words those things which in nature are the most profound and meaningful.  Now you have shown me why I thought so much of you for so long.  Godspeed in your travels and may I be fortunate enough to hear you play the tenor saxophone again in person.

sonny_rollinsYours truly,

Sonny Rollins

The letter is deeply moving, its individuality emphasized by Sonny’s sincerity, his eighteenth-century prose flourishes.  Of course, it is a heartfelt expression of gratitude and admiration.  But what moves me is that Rollins isn’t praising Hawk’s musical inventiveness.  No, he pays tribute is to the maturity of character Hawkins showed; a moral tenacity displayed in his devotion to his art.

When Sonny praises Hawk for resisting the temptations that other, weaker players fell prey to, I suspect that he has Charlie Parker in mind and those players who fell under the spell of Bird’s music and his self-destructive persona.   “Character, knowledge and virtue” — rare qualities in themselves or in such a combination.

We praise Hawkins for making the tenor saxophone into a true jazz instrument, for helping to continue and expand the jazz ballad tradition.  He kept his own identity but he played alongside Mamie Smith in 1920 and with Monk, Coltrane, and Rollins forty years later, still immediately identifiable.  But I think we should also praise Rollins for his humility and his willingness to honor his ancestors.  Many of us might think some of the same thoughts about a person who has inspired us, but how many of us will write the letter?

Hawkins died in 1969, so he cannot hear our praise.  But we can still honor him by reminding others of the celebration on Friday, by listeining to it ourselves, and by keeping his music in our ears whenever we can.