It’s a wonderful spring day, and I’m thinking of my friend the pianist Bryn Venus who died earlier this month. He loved this kind of music and could play it to a very high standard:
Bill Evans (piano), Scott La Faro (bass), Paul Motion (drums) Dec 1959
An appropriate song for today, from hep-cat Mel Torme (who always wanted to be a drummer):
…but if you want real, classy corn, here’s Al Jolson singing it, acted and lip-synched by Larry Parks (happily, not in black-face):
I often, these days, worry about growing old … until (as Woody Allen once said) I think about the alternative.
But these three elderly gentlemen, filmed in 1981 after 56 years of working together, demonstrate that we can grow old with style, dignity and an intact sense of romance:
Here are some of my jazz heroes, caught on good-quality film: Eddie Condon (guitar), Wild Bill Davison (cornet), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Wille ‘The Lion’ Smith (piano), Morey Feld (drums) and an unexpected but welcome guest, ex-Goodman vocalist Helen Ward (note how she insists upon her ending to I’ve Got A Crush On You)
The date is 1963, which is relatively late in the careers (and lives) of most of those present. Pee Wee died in 1969, Condon and The Lion in 1973. This seems to be an informal jam session at Condon’s club, and the relatively high-quality film gives the engaged viewer a tremendous sense of intimacy: the close-ups of Pee Wee are, alone, priceless. And, please note: with a two-fisted pianist like The Lion, a solid rhythm guitarist like Condon, and a capable drummer like Feld, you don’t need a bass in order to swing:
This latter-day Condon jam session puts me in mind of something the late Richard M. (“Dick”) Sudhalter wrote twenty years ago, about these musicians and their friends (the “Condon gang”) in their heyday in 1940′s New York:
“it’s all an awfully long time ago. All the incomparable one-off characters who light up those records are gone now, their voices stilled. A world without Pee Wee? Without Bobby [Hackett] and Brad [Gowans], Bud [Freeman] and Ernie [Caceres] and Jack Teagarden? Who’d have thought it possible?
“All this brings thoughts of Gentleman George Frazier, and some words he wrote in a 1941 Down Beat. The subject was Nick’s [jazz club], but George was really talking about the music it housed, and the incomparable guys in the dark suits up there on the stand.’Nick’s is a small place,’ he wrote, ‘but there are those who love it … The beers are short and there never is a moment when you can’t cut the smoke with the crease in your pants, but still there are those of us who … in days to come will think of it and be stabbed, not with any fake emotion, but with a genuinely heartbreaking nostalgia. We will think of this place at 7th Avenue and 10th St., and all of a sudden the fragrant past … will sneak up on us and for a little while we will be all the sad old men.’
“Perhaps we never know until it’s too late, that nothing is forever. By the time we realize that, there’s often little left save the ache, the regret, and the sense, as in that medieval phantomland of Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on The Strand, of Elysium glimpsed briefly, then lost in the glow of some heartbreaking sunset.
“But the music. Ah, the music: ever fresh and penny-bright, as new as tomorrow, all the more because it owes nothing to time or to the tin god Novelty. It perseveres and prospers, outliving the moment of its creation, the circumstances — even the creators themselves. Promise and proclaimations it affirms; and in doing so it reminds us, as did that lost New York, of just how good things — and we, all of us, –can be.”
H/t: Roger Healey
At last! Spring is here. And here are two pieces of music to celebrate:
Billy Holiday (lyricist/composer, Irene Kitchings):
Any other suggestions?
I recently came upon a stash of old jazz magazines, including some copies of ‘The Jazz Record’, edited by pianist-bandleader Art Hodes and his sidekick Dale Curran between 1943 and 1947. It’s fascinating stuff, full of contemporary reports of what was going on at Nick’s in Greenwich Village and what the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon and James P. Johnson were up to. The piece reproduced below is from the January 1945 edition of the magazine, and I found it particularly moving. Clarinettist Rod Cless is now all but forgotten, but in the early 1940′s was a well-known and popular figure on the New York jazz scene. He died in December 1944 as a result of a fall over a balcony after heavy drinking, and then drinking some more from a bottle or flask smuggled in to him in hospital. This obituary – by someone who is obviously a close friend – strikes me as worth republishing as an example of how jazz people mourn:
By James McGraw
The rain fell from our hats in rivulets and formed little puddles on the warm mahogany. The old bartender looked annoyed as he served the two drinks we had ordered. We drank the raw whiskey in silence and pushed the shot glasses in front of us to indicate another round. Ray Cless fidgeted with his change. My finger traced designs with the water on the bar. Ray lit another cigarette while the other one in the ash tray still burned. He had brought cartons of them all the way from Greenland for his first leave from army duty in sixteen months. He had come to New York to celebrate the leave with his brother Rod.
We had been like this all the way in the cab. The wind slapped the rain against the misted windows with a force that made it sound like hail. The tires hummed a dirge on the wet pavement. We were wet and cold and gloomy. We tried to make conversation. Whatever subject we chose ended up the same way. No matter what we tried to talk about, Rod’s name was soon brought in and then we became silent again. That’s the way it was when we left St. Vincent’s Hospital and started up to the Medical Examiner’s Office at Bellevue and stopped off at this bar for a drink we both needed badly.
The doctor in the white apron at St. Vincent’s had been polite. Polite and nice in an officious way. He had asked Ray the usual perfunctory questions about relatives, names, dates of birth and so forth. He had escorted us down to an oven-hot basement to identify the body. He had said, “There are the remains of Rod Cless.” No reflection on him. he was hardened by the sight of corpses every day — every hour. He could not be held accountable for saying , “There are the remains of Rod Cless.”
How was he to have known that the real remains of Rod Cless were not on that cold slab before him? How could the poor fellow be expected to know that the best remains of Rod Cless were at that very moment and always would be rooted deeply, indelibly in the hearts and minds and souls of myriad jazz lovers in all corners of this war-torn world? How could he ever understand the lasting enjoyment that Rod’s clarinet had brought to all those who had been fortunate enough to hear his music? Did he ever experience the great thrill of hearing Rod play Eccentric and notice the technical mastery with which he handled his instrument? Did he hear him on records with Muggsy’s Ragtime Band or did he happen to catch him any night this past summer at the Pied Piper with Max Kaminsky when it was 90 outside and 120 in?
No, Doctor, those are not the remains of Rod Cless. His remains are scattered widely — in churches and in saloons, in brothels and in sewing circles, in fox-holes, submarines and bombers, in drug dens and in missionaries’ huts, in schools, in offices, in factories, in spaghetti joints on the south side and in Harlem rib emporiums, in tawdry dance halls and in glittering night clubs — everywhere you look — north, South, East, West, up or down — he’s there and he’s playing the clarinet; blowing his top and loving it, putting his heart, his soul, his guts, yes, his very life into that slender piece of black wood.
Why did he do it? Because he loved it and because tens of thousands of others love it. He was born to be a jazzman and he died just that. No more, no less, Doctor. Here is how it happened:
He was born George Roderick Cless in the year 1907 in Lenox, Iowa. At the age of 16 he played saxophone in the school band. Later, his family moved to Des Moines and at the age of 20, Rod went to Chicago. That was in the days when Chicago was the “toddling town.” Rod hung around the speaks where the finest jazz was being made. He listened for a while and he practiced constantly and then he took a job with a small band. Before long the quality of his playing (he doubled on alto and clarinet) was found out by such noted Chicago jazzmen as Teschmaker, Freeman, Condon and McPartland. Soon he played many dates with these men in top-notch bands and came to be known as one of the outstanding musicians in those parts. One night he went to the Sunset Café to hear Louis’ outfit. Johnny Dodds was sitting in. Rod listened to the clear, beautiful notes that came from Dodds’ clarinet. He was playing Melancholy Blues. The purity of tone and the amazing flash and brilliance with which Dodds used his instrument, decided Rod that this was it. Here is what he was after and he would settle for nothing less. At every opportunity he listened to the wondrous melodies, the variations which Dodds could produce from a well-worn clarinet. He took some lessons from Johnny. He knew now he was on the right path. He never played the sax again. From there he went to Spanier’s Ragtime Band. Read the rest of this entry »
My One and Only Love’s favourite song (this version by the wonderful Ella):
… there’s also a nice instrumental version of this lovely ballad (written by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin in 1952), by the unlikely jazz violin team of Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli …
… and an instrumental/vocal rendition by tenorist John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman…
… and, of course, there’s Frank …
… but My One and Only’s favourite version is this:
Extreme weather and flooding having become a highly-charged political issue in the UK. So I thought Bessie Smith’s blues (superbly accompanied by pianist James P. Johnson) about the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 might be appropriate:
This is dedicated to all the people of the ‘Somerset Levels’ who’ve had to suffer so much over the past weeks. I’d also like to dedicate it to Lord Chris Smith of the Environmental Agency, a decent man whose monumentally inept handling of the situation and lack of PR skills are making it increasingly likely that he’s going to be made the scapegoat for this fiasco.
But, for now, let’s just enjoy Bessie’s incredible voice…
2014 came in badly as far I was concerned: checking old friend Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives blog, I saw that Bobby Gordon died on 31st December.
Most of you will never have heard of Bobby, who was an American jazz clarinettist who came on the scene playing Condon-style jazz and swing, just as that style was going out of fashion. Nevertheless, he played some great music and, thinking about him, I realised he’d been on many of my favourite jazz CD’s of the 1980s and ’90′s, with Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham, Rebecca Kilgore and Hal Smith. His clarinet playing reflected his personality: modest, shy, understated, but intense and very, very beautiful. Back in the early 1960′s American Decca hired him to make an album with strings, in an attempt to emulate Acker Bilk’s UK hit ‘Stranger On The Shore’ : sadly, it didn’t achieve the same kind of sales. The nearest Bobby ever came to fame and fortune was his time in the 1980′s, accompanying singer Leon Redbone – and even that brief moment of relative success involved an horrific air crash, from which both of them were lucky to survive.
Bobby was one of the many unsung greats of jazz: not many people remember him, but those who do will always appreciate his great soul and blue-tinged sad-happy improvisations. Bobby’s main inspiration and mentor was the 1930′s Chicago/New York clarinettist Joe Marsala, to whom he paid musical tribute on several occasions, including two ‘Arbors’ CD’s (Don’t Let It End and Lower Register). Another influence was Pee Wee Russell and here’s Bobby, in 2010, remembering him on Pee Wee’s Blues:
Today is Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.
Here she is, playing and singing ‘This Train’: the sound’s a bit low, so you’ll need to listen carefully. But I’ve chosen this clip because it gives some wonderful glimpses of the Sister’s facial expressions and her great comedic sense – as, for instance, when she gestures towards the piano player at the part of the lyric about “whisky drinkers”:
She could almost make me a believer.