Tag Archives: Yale University

JAZZ IS “PLAYING YOUR PERSONALITY,” SAYS ROSWELL RUDD

Years ago, my beloved collector-friend John L. Fell sent me a cassette of “One Night Stand” broadcasts from Chicago’s London House, featuring an Eddie Condon unit.  The trumpet and clarinet were immediately identifiable as Johnny Windhurst and Pee Wee Russell, but I had no idea who made up the rest of the excellent small ensemble.  In the last few months, I found out that the pianist was someone I had seen once or twice in New York City (circa 1972) named Buddy Blacklock and that the trombonist was exceedingly famous as a bold explorer, someone still with us: Roswell Rudd.  I’d known that Roswell had played early on with a Yale Dixieland band called ELI’S CHOSEN SIX — but had not recognized him on these tapes.  I sent him a copy through Jerry Suls and, thanks to Verna Gillis, finally got to talk to him about the music:

Boy, that music sure brought back a time and place — the personalities.  These were my heroes — I was a twenty-five year old guy.  It was definitely a high point — exhilarating and humbling at the same time.  I wasn’t copying anybody, and I’ve held on to that.  Really, that’s all I’ve had, and I’ve learned from other musicians — particularly improvisers, that playing your personality is what this music is all about.  And so if I don’t sound like somebody else — and it’s not for lack of trying! — it’s probably because I try to play my personality and get better and better at it. 

I ended up in that band because my friend Buddy Blacklock, who occasionally played piano with Eli’s Chosen Six, the college band that I came up with, was able to bring me on board with Eddie Condon.  And also with Johnny Windhurst, I think Wild Bill Davison a few times, and Jimmy McPartland a few times.  These were the older musicians I came up with, as a kid, so to have finally got to where I could hold my own with them, that was a great feeling and it was very inspiring.  Inspiring and encouraging.  Cutty Cutshall was nice about my sitting in. 

I was lucky.  A lucky guy.  I stood next to Pee Wee Russell, who played his personality — as Louis Armstrong did, and only the greatest people in this music have.  He really achieved something there, and all you can say about him is that you know who it is after a couple of notes — and you know it’s going to be a great musical ride.  Yeah, Pee Wee — it’s all in there with Charlie Parker, it’s all in there with Duke Ellington . . . I think you know the folks!  The musical ingredients, the elements, all the stuff that you need, and they are putting it together in ways nobody else can. 

What a great privilege to be in the same room with it, and also to be on the bandstand.  I wanted to bring everything that I could to the music.  You know, this is a music where you are playing off other people, and you really have to be listening and responding and respecting and complementing what’s going on around you.  This process has been with me all along, and the more I could learn about music — especially being able to hear and react — the better I could play with anybody.  It didn’t really matter who.  It’s a question of how well you can hear and what you can bring to your response.  You know, it’s all about call-and-response.

I can’t play the London House tapes for you — here is what might be a sequence of Roswell in the past, footage from the 1958 JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY with Eli’s Chosen Six, also featuring Lee Lorenz (cornet) and Walt Gifford (drums):

The present and future, for Roswell and for us, are encapsulated in his new project — a CD to be called TROMBONE FOR LOVERS, concentrating on beautiful jazz treatments of standards.  I’ve written about it here: beautiful-standards/ and hope you will read about and then support this project.

If you think of Roswell as someone far distanced from beautiful melodies, please listen to what follows — an idiosyncratic but powerfully lyrical trio performance of DANNY BOY from February 10, 2012 with Lafayette Harris, piano; Ken Filiano, bass:

BILLIE HOLIDAY, SEEN

Most photographs of Billie Holiday show her as beautiful, whether thin or overweight, dressed ornately or plainly.  Often she looks mournful.  Of course it is hard to say what her unposed expressions were like.  Did the photographer ask her to strike a pose, or to think of STRANGE FRUIT?  I prefer to recall a 1935 photograph by Timme Rosenkrantz, outside, with Ben Webster and others.  Billie wears a summer dress, looks sweetly young, glad to be alive among friends.     

Jim Eigo (of Jazz Promo Services) told me that the Beinecke Library at Yale University seems to have thrown open the doors of its photography collection online.  If you enter “jazz” or “blues” as a keyword in the search engine, riches cascade onto your monitor.  But they have the power to make me deeply uncomfortable.   

Most of the photographs were taken by Carl VanVechten, who was fascinated by jazz musicians, but primarily by women — singers (Billie, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Maxine Sullivan, Chippie Hill, Lil Green, Lizzie Miles, Gladys Bentley, Thelma Carpenter as a Seminole Indian) and dancers (Pearl Primus).  They show a good deal of dramatic planning and staging, with costumes, a formal studio, elaborate props, poses from iconic to sordid. 

Yes, there are pictures of W.C. Handy, Tiny Bradshaw, Josh White, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, and even Rudi Blesh . . . but Van Vechten was nearly obsessed by Ethel Waters — photographing her as Carmen; by Bessie Smith, in 1936, in a variety of poses; and perhaps most by Billie Holiday.

I can’t reproduce the photographs, although readers are allowed to view and save them.  Anything else requires the permission of the photographer’s estate and no doubt of the subject’s as well.

The color photographs of Billie, from 1949, give me pause. 

In one set, she is wearing a lavender dress with red trim, next to a vase of showy pink flowers.  In another, Van Vechten has her wearing a black velvet gown; she looks far-away and sad.  In yet another set, she is apparently naked from the waist up: her arms crossed over her breasts, anything buy happily erotic.  In the first of the series, she looks away from the camera; we see a scar on her face; her red lipstick is garish; in the next, she attempts to look casual; in the last of the series, where she is once again looking away from the camera, her face is wounded, her expression that of a soul in pain.  These three portraits are hard to look at; did the photographer sense her distress, or did she say that those three were enough, that she was no pinup girl?  They seem to me to be intrusive, near-violations, even even if Van Vechten thought he was portraying her lovingly, ceebrating her unmistakable erotic appeal.

There are many black-and-white studies, but (as if to compensate for the painful exposure) many are many of Billie with her boxer, Mister — where both she and the dog are happy, affectionate, at their ease, sharing unconditional love and tenderness.   

The Beinecke collection can be viewed here:  

http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/

and the Billie portraits can be accessed here: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2022461&iid=1091648&srchtype=

It is a record of a photographer deeply absorbed by his subjects, often revering them, sometimes exposing them for the sake of his lens.  I believe that I am glad all these photographs exist, but I am not sure.