Tag Archives: World’s Greatest Jazz Band

THE WORLD’S GREATEST JAZZ BAND: YANK LAWSON, BOB HAGGART, GUS JOHNSON, DICK WELLSTOOD, BOB WILBER, BUD FREEMAN, SONNY RUSSO, BENNIE MORTON, MAXINE SULLIVAN // AL KLINK, PEANUTS HUCKO, GEORGE MASSO, RALPH SUTTON, BOBBY ROSENGARDEN (1975)

I wouldn’t have known of these programs (now shared with us on the Musikladen YouTube channel) except for my good friend, the fine drummer Bernard Flegar.  They are rich and delicious.

The WGJB lasted from the late Sixties (when they were a development of the Nine / Ten Greats of Jazz, sponsored by Dick Gibson) to 1978.  In some ways, they were both a touring assemblage of gifted veteran players — I believe Robert Sage Wilber, known to his friends worldwide as Bob, is the sole survivor — and a versatile band that echoed the best of the Bob Crosby units, big and small.  The WGJB came in for a good deal of sneering because of their hyperbolic title, which was Gibson’s idea, not the musicians’, but from the perspective of 2019, they were great, no questions asked.  And they weren’t just a collection of soloists, each taking a turn playing jazz chestnuts (although JAZZ ME BLUES was often on the program); Haggart’s arrangements were splendid evocations of a Swing Era big band with plenty of room, and the WGJB brought its own down-home / Fifty-Second Street energy to current pop tunes (I remember their UP, UP, AND AWAY with delight).  And they played the blues.

I remember them with substantial fondness, because the second jazz concert I went to (the first was Louis in 1967, which is starting at the apex) was held in Town Hall, with Gibson as host, probably in 1970, and it featured the WGJB — Vic Dickenson and Eddie Hubble on trombones — and a small group with Al and Zoot, possibly Joe Newman, where they performed THE RED DOOR and MOTORING ALONG, titles no one would forget, and Gibson told his anecdote of the white deer.

These two programs seem to have been sophisticated television offerings: multi-camera perspectives with a great deal of editing from one camera to the other, and beginnings and endings that suggest that these were not finished products.  The absence of an audience — or their audible presence — on the first program seems odd, but I don’t mind the quiet.  The WGJB could certainly add its own charging exuberance — hear the final ensemble of CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME — that few bands have matched.

The first program features co-leaders Yank Lawson, trumpet; Bob Haggart, string bass, arrangements; Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Bob Wilber, clarinet, soprano; Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone; Bennie Morton, trombone; Sonny Russo, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Gus Johnson, drums; Maxine Sullivan, guest vocalist, and the songs performed are BLUES / MERCY, MERCY, MERCY / DOODLE DOO DOO / THE EEL (featuring its composer, Bud Freeman) / THAT’S A PLENTY (featuring Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood) / A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY (featuring Maxine Sullivan) / THE LADY IS A TRAMP (Maxine) / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE/ MY INSPIRATION (closing theme) //:

And here’s another forty-five minute program, presumably aired October 17 of the same year, with certain personnel changes — this time there’s an audience but the band is also dressed with great casualness: Ralph Sutton, piano; Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Bobby Rosengarden, drums; George Masso and Sonny Russo, trombones; Lawson, Haggart, Butterfield, and Maxine, performing AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL / BASIN STREET BLUES (featuring Masso) / CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME (featuring Sutton) / BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME (featuring Lawson and Butterfield) / LIMEHOUSE BLUES (featuring Russo and Masso) / HARLEM BUTTERFLY / EV’RY TIME (featuring Maxine Sullivan) / ST. LOUIS BLUES / STAR DUST (featuring Klink) / RUNNIN’ WILD (featuring Hucko) / BIG NOISE FROM WINNETKA (featuring Haggart and Rosengarden) / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE / MY INSPIRATION //:

The repertoire for the longer program is more familiar, with few surprises, but that band could roar as well as play pretty ballads and its own version of Thirties funk.  What unexpected treasures these programs are.

May your happiness increase!

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PAINTING WITH SOUND: BOBBY GORDON (1941-2013)

The ranks of the Elders are thinning: Bobby Gordon has left us. He died peacefully last night (December 31, 2013).

If you saw the outside only, Bobby was a frail-looking clarinetist and occasional vocalist.  Hearing his playing, you might have thought, “lyric poet,” with unpredictable measures of tenderness, swing, and surprise.

But Bobby’s music was a matter of constantly shifting shadings — words would have been too coarse for him — so I think of him as a great painter, offering us in one chorus the quiet tints of a Turner watercolor, then shifting to the spiky abstractions of a Kandinsky.

Two choruses by Bobby could be a whole world of sound, echoing his mentors Joe Marsala and Pee Wee Russell, but with his own distinctive enthusiasms and investigations.

I had heard Bobby on record and private tapes from the early Seventies on, but had the good fortune to hear (and video-record) him in person at what was then Jazz at Chautauqua.  We only had one conversation (instigated by him in an empty hotel lobby at 2 AM because he had noticed that I was living one suburban town away from his birthplace) but he sang his melodies with sweet intensity, the intensity of a man who knew full well that every note counts.

I wrote a brief biography for Bobby’s Chautauqua appearances:

I first heard Bobby Gordon play in the early 1970s – not in person, but on a tape which included his friend, the great New York drummer Mike Burgevin, where Bobby was teamed with that dynamo, Kenny Davern, in a two-horn quartet. Playing sweetly, quietly, and soulfully, Mr. Gordon cut the extrovert Mr. Davern decisively without having to exert himself. His art is a subtle one – but attentive listeners know just how hard it is to play melodies so simply, with such feeling, so many subtleties of tone and shading. Even when Bobby appears to be hewing closely to the notes we know, he is creating an impressionistic masterpiece. Happily, his quiet brilliance is no longer a secret, nor has it been for some time. Since he moved to San Diego in 1979, where he met his English-born wife, Sue – the reason Bobby often calls the tune “Sweet Sue” — and he began to record prolifically with Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham, Hal Smith, and Rebecca Kilgore among others, listeners have gotten tangible, permanent evidence of his warm musical individuality. We can’t have too many CDs that feature Bobby, but his performances make a reassuring section on anyone’s alphabetically-organized CD shelves. And the good news is that he continues to record regularly, still making San Diego his home base, although fans in England, Japan, and Scotland have showed their enthusiasm for his work as well. Arbors Records has recognized Bobby as a treasure, and his sessions have teamed him with everyone from Joe Marsala’s widow, the harpist Adele Girard Marsala, to Marty Grosz, Dave McKenna, and Bob Wilber: Don’t Let It End (1992), Pee Wee’s Song (1993), Bobby Gordon Plays Bing (996), Clarinet Blue (1999), and Yearnings (2003). But my favorite Gordon CD, I confess, is his JUMP trio with Keith Ingham and Hal Smith – such a popular issue that it is now only available on cassette. Bobby was born in Manhasset, New York, in 1941. Happily for him, his father worked for RCA and sold Tommy Dorsey records for them. Through these connections, young Bobby met the uniquely soulful clarinettist Joe Marsala, becoming what Marsala called his “most gifted student and protégé.” In 1957, Bobby won a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, and continued his studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He’s been lucky to work with many of the original masters: Muggsy Spanier, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy McPartland, Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell. For a time, he was the house clarinetist at the last Eddie Condon’s on 54th Street in Manhattan, as well as working with Jim Cullum’s Jazz Band, The World’s Greatest Jazz Band, and varying Marty Grosz units, all with original names. One opportunity that didn’t materialize was his replacing Buster Bailey in the Louis Armstrong All Stars in 1968. Bobby remembers being measured for the band uniform and learning the repertoire. But Louis suffered a heart attack, “and I never got to play with him.” Bobby has ambitions to be a better songwriter and “to really let my influences come out more…to play like Hackett and Louis and Pee Wee and Marsala and Condon; and I’d like to be able to sing like Red McKenzie.” Audiences at Chautauqua have shown their approval of Bobby’s mastery in set after set.

Bobby’s music — the song not ended — is so much more affecting than my words:

MY MELANCHOLY BABY:

AT SUNDOWN:

PEE WEE’S BLUES:

His melodies linger on, and Bobby Gordon taught us so much about the courage it takes to create beauty every time he played or sang. We thank him. We miss him.

May your happiness increase!

I HEARD A BRASS BAND COMING DOWN THE STREET (March 7, 2012)

Perhaps my title is slightly inaccurate.  I didn’t see this brass band coming down the street; rather, they slowly and cheerfully assembled themselves on the imagined bandstand of Radegast Bierhalle in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, around nine o’clock on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. 

But they were a stirring group.  No surprise, because Gordon Au was in charge (he wields his power very lightly and politely) of this different-yet-exhilarating version of the Grand Street Stompers.  Different in that the front line was entirely brass — not brassy, but three players of brass instruments: Gordon on cornet; Jim Fryer on trombone and euphonium; Matt Musselman on trombone, with a rhythmic rhythm section of Nick Russo, banjo; Peter Maness, string bass; Giampaolo Biagi, drums.  They rocked, they strode, they created a joyous atmosphere.  And the two trombones gave this band a solid center that delighted me — especially since Jim and Matt are wonderful ensemble players, skilled at dancing around the other horns with great grace.  For me, it summoned up sweet memories of one of the first jazz groups I ever saw in concert — the World’s Greatest Jazz Band at a 1969 New York City concert steered by Dick Gibson (Zoot, Al, and Joe Newman were in one group) featuring the trombone duo of Vic Dickenson and Eddie Hubble, memorably. 

At the end of this set, I left to get some sleep before my appointed rounds began on Thursday morning, but I asked Gordon if he would consider other unusual balances and instrumentations for the GSS, since this one was a honey.  We shall see!  Gordon called an easy one to start, but a meaningful choice.  Even though he is a young man, he understands something about jazz’s responsibility to remind people that life is finite and you had better have a good time — so CABARET, a Broadway-via-Christopher Isherwood carpe diem, made sense to set the mood of the evening.  It also harks back to everyone’s patron Saint, Mister Armstrong . . . it’s impossible for me to hear this song without thinking of Louis, which is always a good thing:

To quote Cootie Williams, “Ain’t the gravy good?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if Gordon is telepathic, for he certainly seemed to be reading my mind.  LIMEHOUSE BLUES, with the verse, was the feature number when I saw Vic and Eddie Hubble with the WGJB, so I was more than pleased to hear it here:

On the theme of psychic abilities . . . there’s a lady they call THE GYPSY.  Thank you, Louis!  And thank you, GSS — Jim Fryer’s euphonium sound is good enough to eat:

The GRAND STREET Stompers then launched into CANAL STREET BLUES — a geographical paradox that upset no one::

And here’s Gordon’s winning original, ONCE, DEAR:

I was thrilled to hear I MAY BE WRONG — memories of the John Kirby Sextet and (more memorably for me) a 1960 recording of the song by Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickenson . . . on Prestige-Swingville:

Without a hint of uncertainty, the GSS proceeded to light up Charlie Shavers’ UNDECIDED:

And going back to Louis — BLUEBERRY HILL:

It was a wonderful set by a wonderful band . . . .

May your happiness increase.

“SEARCH ENGINE TERMS,” 2010

It’s that time again: our irregular compendium of the odd ways that 1) people find this blog, and 2) what they think they are looking for, often the answer to a question or an attempt to locate something vaguely defined.  Here are seven, with some often flippant commentary attached.

fats waller vs billie holiday

I wish I knew what the searcher had in mind: was (s)he considering the repertoire Fats and Billie had in common, or their particular approaches to songs, or their respective popularity or the sales figures of their records?  The image it calls to mind is of Jazz Wrestling or Jazz Boxing.  Fats would have been able to stifle Billie by sheer bulk, but she’d have it over him on mobility, tenacity, and perhaps rage.  And what color trunks would they wear? 

what year did mildred bailey get fat

The mind reels.  What is there to say?  The nature of the question ends all inquiry, I think. 

louis armstrong on cakes

I want to know where this bakery is.  My birthday is in November, and I wouldn’t mind a Louis-cake at all.  Or is “on cakes” rather like “on skates,” modifying the subject in a different way; thus, Louis caught in the act of eating some cake?  Do tell.

song title they called her easy

An actual song, or a mis-hearing of something more familiar? 

youtube carl montana trombone

You know, he worked with the WGJB for a short time — a mountainous player with a wonderful range!

what snare drum did nick fatool play

clyde hurley autograph

These two move me from satire to delight.  To think that someone was asking the first question; to think that someone was sufficiently interested in the  great and little-known trumpeter Hurley . . . these are a pleasure.

A postscript, with amusement.  One day after I posted this, a new entry appeared, its subject the fine trombonist Dion Tucker, whom I’ve seen with David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland on Wednesdays:

dion tucker does he have kids

“Who wants to know?” I say.  Dion, if you read my blog, let me know so that I can put someone’s mind at ease . . .

MISS LEE WILEY, 1959 and 1972

LeeWiley

I had never seen this photograph before — Lee Wiley, after her “retirement” from music, at the Grandview Inn in Columbus, Ohio, on September 21, 1959.  The candid shot was taken by the late Ed Lawless.  More of his jazz photographs appear at the website of the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California — http://www.nojcnc.org/nojcphotos.html.

I also have to say a few words about the only time I saw Miss Wiley perform — at her last public appearance, during the two “Newport in New York” concerts in summer 1972 devoted to the music of Eddie Condon and his remaining friends — called EDDIE AND THE GANG.  The Gang included Wild Bill Davison, George Brunis, Barney Bigard, Dick Hyman, Joe Thomas, J.C. Higginbotham, Max Kaminsky, and others.  For those with copies of Hank O’Neal’s EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, a photograph of the closing “Impromptu Ensemble” ornaments the back inner cover.  The first half of the concert, if I am correct, was a set devoted to the World’s Greatest Jazz Band — all of its members with solid Condon associations: Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Vic Dickenson, Eddie Hubble, Bob Wilber, Bud Freeman, Ralph Sutton, Bob Haggart, Gus Johnson, who played their familiar repertoire expertly.  Much of the instrumental music that followed was a reminder of how many years it had been since the Town Hall concerts and the glory days of the Fifties . . . as older musicians went through their paces, backed by an over-miked piano that tinkled and rattled.  Thomas and Hackett played beautifully, but they weren’t asked to do much; the others roared and circled. 

Miss Wiley had one set to herself — where, happily, she was backed by Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Bucky Pizzarelli, George Duvivier, and Don Lamond (if I recall).  She seemed rather nervous at the 5 PM concert but everything was in place — her unmistakable timbre, warmth, and vibrato — for the second concert at 9 PM.  I don’t recall how she was dressed, except that she, too, had changed somewhat since her glamorous portraits of the Thirties and Forties.  But her voice, although more husky, was still beautiful, as you can hear on the Jazzology CD that captures her short set. 

But Miss Wiley did something unforgettable.  Stu Zimny and I were in the first or second row, way off to the side, surrounded by men and women who seemed to have been Condon fans in the Forties and Fifties.  I had my concealed cassette recorder, and was perhaps (in retrospect) so concerned with tape-recording the music that someone without such concerns might have enjoyed it more.  And my tape of the 5 PM session fell apart and vanished, as objects tend to do.  But during Miss Wiley’s WHEN I FALL IN LOVE, I closed my eyes for a moment, a hopeless romantic even then.  I knew, in some rational way, that I was another anonymous face — if she cared to look down and see me — at best.  Performers at Carnegie, I would guess, don’t see people in the audience all that well.  But, with my eyes closed, basking in the lovely warmth of her sound, I could imagine that she was singing directly to me.  I knew it was an illusion then and know it is one now.  But that’s the effect Miss Wiley had on people who heard her . . . and it comes through the recordings.  Bless her.