Tag Archives: Zilner Randolph

HEART FULL OF RHYTHM: THE BIG BAND YEARS OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG, by RICKY RICCARDI (September 1, 2020)

For impatient readers, the compressed review, in the language of vintage advertising, “No home should be without it.”

Because perception is its own kind of reality, if you squint your eyes just right, you can make Louis Armstrong seem an ordinary mortal, a genial fellow who lived in Corona, Queens, ate Chinese food, smoked marijuana, told jokes, typed letters and made phone calls.  Oh, yes, he made music.  And that wrong-end-of-the-telescope view has a certain validity.

Or, if you simply followed his itinerary, you could see him as a mechanical figure, a jazz-machine who got on the bus, slept, got off, made music, and got back on again.  I’ve read  biographies where the writer relied heavily on the subject’s gig notebooks, and the artist becomes a journeyman doing a job, night after night in different places.  Or amplified discographies: “On February 29, _______ went into the studio to wax the classic _______________,” some of which is of course necessary when the artist’s work is primarily a series of recordings, but it’s a shallow lens through which to view an artist’s life and development.

The totality of Louis Armstrong is so much larger.

If you know him, his art, and his life a little better, he seems an astonishing continent, with mountains and orchards, valleys and forests.  And people do like to claim continents for themselves and plant their flag.  Since the early Thirties, Louis has been depicted often in print, and the writers have come to him with their own ideologies and judgments.  So in the books written about him (and with him) since 1936, we have seen Louis the naive country boy who needed Joe Oliver, Lillian Hardin, and Joe Glaser to tell him how to live; the sellout; the Uncle Tom; the aesthetic failure; the tragic victim; the clown; a man unaware of himself.

Louis doesn’t need a defender, but if he did, the man to the rescue, gloriously, is Ricky Riccardi, the scholar who finds marvels and, better, who understands their impact.  Full disclosure: Ricky and I are friends, and I read the galleys of this new book (occasionally saying “No . . . ” as one would to an exuberant puppy.  Louis is my hero on earth and otherwise.  I thought Ricky’s first part of his Louis-saga, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS, a superb book and a model of biography, as I wrote here.

To please me, a book should have new information — facts and first-hand narratives that correct misperceptions, fill in the blanks, and add to the larger tapestry.  Its writer should be as free from ideological bias as possible (many biographers palpably come to loathe their subjects) but, in the nineteenth-century mode, sustain a gentle admiration, unless the subject is monstrous.

The question might be, for some, with all the writing on Louis, why would we need another book?  The book will speak for itself — its thrilling research and the beautiful synthesis of hundreds of sources all work together to portray this man, joyously goofing around with his friends, but all seriousness when it came to creating music.  Since there has been a school of critical opinion (I cannot call it “analysis” or “thought”) that Louis’ records after 1928 are evidence of commercialism, of his losing his way, and the Decca recordings that form much of this period, 1935-44, have been particularly maligned, this book is a needed re-evaluation.  And we cannot ignore Louis as a man steadfast in the pursuit of fair treatment for himself and his race, an artist giving wholly of himself night after night in the quest to bring joy to his hearers.

Ricky’s first biography dealt with Louis’ last twenty-five years, his international fame, his small group, the All-Stars, and his popular successes — being “the cause of happiness” for millions.  HEART FULL OF RHYTHM steps back in time, documenting not only the day-t0-day life of “Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra,” but the subtle shifts in popular awareness.  When this volume begins, in 1929, Louis was no longer making “race records,” but I doubt that record dealers in strictly Caucasian neighborhoods carried his latest hit.  When this book ends, Louis is so known and so loved — starring not only in theatres and dances, not only selling records, but starring in films, having his own radio series, breaking down barriers — that he is no longer relegated to that cruelly narrow perception.

An interlude (1937, with Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, and Paul Barbarin):

Because this biography delineates the middle period of an artist who had already reached artistic pinnacles (think of WEST END BLUES, NEW ORLEANS STOMP, and BEAU KOO JACK) it does not follow the predictable arc of early struggles, recognition, and blossoming fame.  When we meet Louis in 1929, he has come to New York, has recorded KNOCKIN’ A JUG and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP with what were then called “mixed bands,” and records I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, expanding both his repertoire and his identity.  Indeed, if we consider the songs in the canon of pop songs that Louis recorded first or early — BODY AND SOUL, WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, I SURRENDER DEAR, WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, I’M CONFESSIN’, BLUE AGAIN, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, STARDUST and two dozen others, it’s clear that he was moving towards a larger audience and a larger conception of himself — what I sometimes call “Louis the romantic.”

As an aside, the book raises and answers the question, “How does a sincere artist take on popular material and retain his artistic integrity?”  We watch Louis do it again and again by remaining both himself and completely heartfelt.

But the arc, as I suggested above, is different — Louis begins this period appearing in a revue on Broadway (in 1939, in the middle of this book, there is an actual Broadway show, SWINGIN’ THE DREAM, but it closes quickly), in 1936 he co-stars with Bing Crosby in the film PENNIES FROM HEAVEN; when the book concludes he has played at the Metropolitan Opera House, Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall.

Incidentally, those Decca recordings are so labored, the band so under-rehearsed and unswinging.  Here’s a relevant example:

Readers will note that I have not followed this incredibly detailed book chapter by chapter, and when you pick up a copy you will understand why.  I have been listening to and reading about Louis Armstrong for more than fifty years, and if I were to pick three pages in this book at random, I would be greeted by facts I’d never known, and better, threads connecting those facts — Riccardi isn’t a simple hoarder of detail; he finds and creates patterns — and new photographs.  Too, he has diligently used Louis’ scrapbooks and private tape recordings to get the stories first-hand.  Thus, I confess that I can’t create even the most cursory summary of the book in fewer than ten thousand words because what it contains is both fascinating and overwhelming.  But it is written with a light touch and consistent love for the man and his music.

And should you worry that you might get bored in all the information, take heart: there’s blood, violence, opium, laxatives, sex, run-ins with the police, homemade cookies, racial harassment, people who present themselves as allies but turn out to be horrors (Johnny Collins and Leonard Feather) and quiet heroes (Zilner Randolph for one: if anyone wants to start the Zilner Randolph Appreciation Page on Facebook, that’s one group I will gladly join).

For myself, I’m waiting for the third volume of this trilogy in reverse, which will begin nine months before July 4, 1901, in what I hope was an interlude of bliss, include Black Benny, the recipe for a trout sandwich, the lovely and charming Daisy Parker, a long train ride to Chicago, a pair of old-fashioned shoes, and more.

I’ve said enough.  This book is a dense yet entertaining portrait of a man and artist, often minimized and misunderstood, a beautiful work of art that honors him on every page.  Amazon says that the book will be released on September 1, and you can pre-order it here.  September 1 isn’t really that far away (given the way Monday becomes Friday these days) but you certainly could pass the time and entertain yourself with Ricky’s first Louis book, here.

If you look up “Louis Armstrong” and “July 6, 1971,” you will find newspaper stories and television reports that say he died.  Thanks to this splendid book by Ricky Riccardi, you will find it even more impossible to believe those rumors.

May your happiness increase!

HEROIC FIGURES IN THE SHADOWS

A friend recently asked me about a valued musician, now gone, who never seemed to get the honors he deserved. “Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to X?”  I recalled that X was always working in groups led by A Star, a powerful personality.  I have no idea if X wanted to lead a group and couldn’t, but he never said in public that he felt the opportunity had been denied him.

It made me think again about “being a leader” in jazz.  We celebrate the musicians whose names appear on the record labels and the marquees, in boldface in discographies.  Theirs are the sounds we know, and they do deserve our attention and our love. Think of a universe without Count Basie — the sky suddenly grows dark at the mere statement of such a void.

But the Stars rely on the often semi-anonymous players who keep the great ship’s rhythmic engines humming.  Consider Ed Lewis, Joe Muranyi, Fred Guy, Leo McConville, Bobby Tucker, Wendell Marshall, George Stafford, Tommy Thunen, Curley Russell, Dave Bowman — players who didn’t chafe to be center stage.  There is a special cozy corner of Paradise for those who didn’t have the urge to solo, but who created backgrounds and section sounds that delight us, that made the Stars sound so fine.

Although he was a famous leader and a notable Personality, I think of Eddie Condon in this respect, as someone who cared more about how the band sounded than whether he soloed. Dave Tough, Freddie Green, also.

Musicians will tell you that “being a leader” brings what we call “fame,” but this public place can be a nuisance.  Visibility brings recognition: no longer are you third alto in the reed section, one of the Wisconsin Skyrockets, you are THE Skyrocket, and people know your name and recognize you.

But that recognition also means that fans want to talk with you when you are on your way to the bathroom.  People who “just love your music” grab your upper arm.  Some have their own ideas about songs you should be playing, in what tempos, and who you should Sound Like.  Play the clarinet, and you are told about an admirer’s favorite Benny Goodman record.  Sing, and you hear all about Billie Holiday (“Tsk, tsk.  Those drugs.”) or perhaps Diana Krall.

If you are leading a group in a club, the club-owner heads directly for you when something goes wrong.  You have to get the gigs.  You have to handle the money.

You have to deal with the personalities in the band (A, late again; B, grimy again; C, in despair; D, texting when not playing; E, a model in all things but eager to point out the flaws of A, B, C, and D.)

You have to talk on the microphone.  You must encourage the crowd to put money in the tip basket or buy CDs.  You deal with requests, with people who drink too much and talk too loudly.

Often, when your musicians are upset, frustrated, or angry, they blame you, or they simply mutter. “Sixty bucks?  Is that all?”  “My shepherd’s pie is cold.”  I hate that song.  Do we have to play it?”

To paraphrase Judy Syfers, “My God, who would want to lead a band?”

So let’s cheer for the Invaluable Near-Anonymities, the wonderful professionals in the String section of Charlie Parker with Strings, the baritone wizard Charlie Bubeck, who anchored the Ozzie Nelson band — reed players talked of him reverently, but he never led a date; the fellows strumming behind Django and Stephane.  They may have looked deeply into “the music business” and said, “I’d rather drive a cab than lead a band.”

A brief, wholly improvised list:

Zilner Randolph, Les Robinson, Buzzy Drootin, Mary Osborne, Nick Fatool, Ed Cuffee, Bill Triglia, Danny Bank, Dick Vance, Max Farley, Frank Orchard, Bob Casey, Red Ballard, Mickey McMickle, Jimmy Maxwell, Cliff Leeman, George Berg, Al Klink, Lee Blair, Leon Comegys, John Simmons, Les Spann, Allan Reuss, Don Frye, Kansas Fields, Louis Metcalf.

And a thousand more.  And certainly their living counterparts.  (I’ve limited my list to the Departed because I thought that no one I know would like to see their name on a list of the Brilliant Shadowy Underrated.  You and I know the people who make jazz go . . . !)

These people don’t win polls.  They don’t have to stand still for autograph hunters.  But where would we be without them?

May your happiness increase! 

THE MOST RECENT EXPLOITS OF MRS. MOSE MIGHT SURPRISE YOU. THEY CAME AS A SHOCK TO ME.

If you’ve been following the jazz news of the Thirties, it will not come as a shock to learn that Old Man Mose is dead.  The saga of his demise is sad, mysterious, and not a little frightening:

For the extended, fascinating coverage of the variations created by Louis and friends on this theme, I direct you to Ricky Riccardi’s unequalled blogpost here.

Hearing this song, I always wonder at its genesis: my guess is that someone in Louis’ Chicago band — where Zilner Randolph was one of the trumpets and the “straw boss” — fell asleep on the bus or elsewhere and the spectacle struck everyone else as comic.  “Man, you were so asleep you looked just like Old Man Mose.  We didn’t know if you were dead.”  Great art comes from such humble beginnings, you know.  Cultural anthropologists may note that here is another example of African-Americans making fun of the stereotype — its source too deep for me to discover here — that they were afraid of occult creatures, of “hants,” of the dead: make of that what you will.

But I dugress.  From Ricky’s blog, I learned that several “sequels” to this song, hoping to cash in on its popularity, had been created.  (On YouTube, you can even hear a group of Beatles imitators try their hand at it in 1964.  By the time their rendition is over, I do not hold out much hope for Mr. Mose being resuscitated, but that is only one man’s opinion.)

However, it was only on a recent record-shopping afternoon at the Down Home Music Store in El Cerrito that I found this latest chapter, a Bluebird 78 (circa 1939, I surmise) by the Eddie DeLange Orchestra, vocal by diminutive Elisse Cooper, of MRS. MOSE HAS A MILLION BEAUS (Since Old Man Mose Is Dead) — a Fox Trot penned by McCarthy, Redmond, and David.  For the discographically-minded, it is the “B” side of Bluebird 10213; the “A” side is another novelty song, EAGLE EYE FINKLE, which chronicles the exploits of a roving gossip / scandal reporter for an imagined Russian newspaper.

I don’t know who is in the band, nor do I know who plays the chordal guitar solo in the middle* . . . but I thought JAZZ LIVES readers deserved full disclosure of posthumous marital news amongst imaginary characters in novelty songs.  See if you agree:

It leaves me speechless, too.  Especially the part about Old Man Mose’s life insurance policy.  I’m on the edge of my chair, waiting to hear what happens next.

*Wise friend David Weiner tells me that it was recorded in March 1939 and the guitarist is one Guy Smith — no one else in the band is a “famous” musician (my quotation marks, not David’s).  Nice ensemble sound, though.

May your happiness increase!