You meet the nicest people … on facebook.
Pee Wee Russell, the eccentric poet-genius of jazz clarinet, has always been a personal favourite of mine.
I’m so grateful to Herb Gardner for sharing his memories of PWR in the course of a facebook exchange a few weeks ago. The exclamation mark after “milk” is significant. Milk was not known to be a favourite tipple of either PWR or Eddie Condon, even at breakfast:
JD: Herb: I’m presently reading Robert Hilbert’s ‘Pee Wee Russell: The Life of a Jazzman’ and have come across a reference to you playing in the ‘New York’ band led by Max Kaminsky, with Pee Wee Russell at the New Orleans ‘Jazzfest ’68’: “The band started off with a hard-hitting ‘Dippermouth Blues,’ with Kaminsky playing a fiery solo and Pee Wee sounding very inventive and self-assured.”
Have you written about this? I’d love to hear your thoughts about PWR, in particular.
Herb Gardner: Yeah, that was a memorable trip. I’ve always felt that I spent a month in NO that weekend. The Haggarts and I asked locals about secret good places to eat, so we had some of the best seafood ever. One evening I got to march in a parade with the Onward Brass Band, including Louis Cottrell and the Barbarins, playing bone next to Frog Joseph.
Pee Wee was always uniquely inventive and unpredictable. When he mumbled you couldn’t tell what he said, but when he played it was inspiring. I also worked a week with him, playing piano in an Eddie Condon Band up in the White Mountains of NH. This was near the end of his life, and my lasting image was of him and Eddie having milk (!) and doughnuts for breakfast in the coffee shop.
I’m ashamed to admit that I came late to Phil Woods and have only been listening intently to his superb playing since news of his death, aged 83, came through earlier this week.
He played his final gig on September 4th using an oxygen mask and, before the final number announced that due to emphysema, he was retiring with immediate effect. Due to his extensive work as a session man on pop records, many people who are not particularly into jazz, will have heard his playing without knowing it: he plays the sax solo on Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are, for instance.
But it is as one of the greatest of post-Parker altoists that he will be properly remembered. Here he is on a live recording from 1976 (‘Live From the Showboat’), in truly magisterial form on ‘Cheek To Cheek’, a difficult song not obviously suited to jazz improvisation – but Woods makes it all sound so easy:
Phil Woods (alto) with Harry Leahey, guitar Mike Melillo, piano Steve Gilmore, drums
H/t: Pete Neighbour, who wrote on facebook, “This is one of ‘THE’ Phil Woods tracks… I remember playing this endlessly when I first got it on vinyl; desperately trying to get somewhere near this masterful performance – and failing dismally I hasten to add. My mind struggling with the harmonic complexities that Phil found in this standard….. desperately trying not to copy…but wanting… so, so wanting to be influenced and to let some of his genius seep through my playing. Today, with everyone seemingly accorded ‘superstar status’ to listen to this brings home the meaning of true musical genius. I know all this sounds ‘gushing’……..but….if it does…..I don’t care!”
Ten years on from Katrina, and New Orleans is still recovering. Great progress has been made (no thanks to the wretched initial response from the federal government under Bush), but it’s been uneven and problems remain – not least in working class black areas like the Lower Ninth Ward.
Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, though based in New York, has long regarded NO has his spiritual home:
“I was there playing at the Satchmo Summer Fest right before the hurricane … and then again at Jazz Fest (the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival), nine months after the hurricane. A dear friend took me on a reality tour, from the ‘blue roofs,’ protective blue tarps on wind-damaged roofs, to the devastation of whole neighborhoods totalled by the flooding. The Ninth Ward looked like a war-ravaged ghost town. It broke my heart to see my beloved New Orleans in such a state’ (quoted by Michael Steinman, of the most excellent Jazz Lives blog, in his notes to Jon-Erik’s fantastic 2007 Arbors CD Blue Roof Blues – A Love Letter To New Orleans).
Now Jon-Erik has released a new CD/album celebrating the Crescent City’s partial recovery: it was recorded in NO in April and as well as Jon-Eric, features his New York pal, guitarist and vocalist Matt Munisteri and two New Orleanians – clarinetist Evan Christopher and bassist Kerry Lewis. The album is entitled In The Land Of Beginning Again, and Jon-Eric writes of the title:
“Why ‘In The Land Of Beginning Again?’ Louis Armstrong spoke of playing this song regularly in his early days as a member of Fate Marable’s band on a Mississippi Riverboat. It was their closing theme. This wistful, seldom-heard song is a fitting theme for this album … as it reflects New Orleans’ resiliency. It is a huge relief to see how this unique and wonderful Gulf Coast city has bounced back and reinvented itself since ‘the storm.’ It seems my hometown of Detroit is now being talked about as another ‘land of beginning again,’ with its ‘keep on keepin’ on spirit.”
NB: I have no commercial interest in this CD (on the Jazzology label), but can personally recommend it. As well as the fantastic music by Jon-Erik, Evan, Matt and Kerry, it comes with notes by the A.J Liebling of jazz writing, Michael Steinman and cover art by Cécile McLorin Salvant – a fine vocalist who turns out to be an equally excellent graphic artist.
My good friend Ricky Ricardi, archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NYC, commemorates the 65th anniversary of Louis’ recording of ‘La Vie En Rose’ (from Ricky’s blog ‘The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong’):
65 Years of “La Vie En Rose”
Louis Armstrong with Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Recorded June 26, 1950
Track Time 3: 26
Written by Mack David, Edith Piaf and Louiguy (Louis Gugliemi)
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Melvin Solomon, Bernie Privin, Paul Webster, trumpet; Morton Bullman, trombone; Hymie Schertzer, Milt Yaner, alto saxophone; Art Drelinger, Bill Holcombe, tenor saxohpne; Earl Hines, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; George Duvivier, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 37113
Currently available on CD: It’s on “Satchmo Serenades” and about a thousand compilations.
Available on Itunes? Yes.
65 years ago today, Louis Armstrong tapped into his French side by recording two songs he’d perform for the rest of his career: “La Vie En Rose” and “C’est Si Bon.” What follows is a slightly updated version of my original 2010 posting on “La Vie En Rose” and I’ll be back in a few days with a fresh look at “C’est Si Bon.” Enjoy!
For the last couple of decades, “What a Wonderful World” easily wins the title of the most ubiquitous Louis Armstrong recording, being used in a countless amount of films, television commercials and high school reports (just check YouTube). But “La Vie En Rose” is definitely a close second. According to Imdb.com, it’s been used in at least eight major motion pictures since 1994, most notably in the Pixar classic “Wall-E,” as well as television shows, commercials, you name it. And anyone who has spent three minutes and 26 seconds in its presence can easily understand the phenomenon. You’d have to have the heart of the Tin Man (pre-Oz) to not be moved by it.
Of course, the song truly belongs to Edith Piaf, the legendary French singer who co-wrote it and made it famous to the point where a documentary and a feature film about her life each bear the title “La Vie En Rose.” Piaf apparently wrote the song in 1946 and sat on it for a while before she finally gave it a go in public, where it was received tremendously. In 1948, she sang her original French lyrics on a recording that was picked up in the United States by George Avakian of Columbia Records. I’ll let George tell the story, as he eloquently did in the liner notes to an Armstrong boxed set on the Hip-O label, “An American Original”:
“That same year, Edith Piaf took New York by storm an me by surprise. I was doubling as International and Pop Album director at Columbia in those days, and when Piaf’s manager told me she was coming back to New York despite a cool reception the first time ’round, I asked our Paris affiliate to send me samples of her interim releases so that I could try to choose something which might appeal to the American public. I recognized one melody as ‘You’re Too Dangerous, Cheire,’ a failed pop tune I had liked a couple of years earlier. The label said ‘La Vie En Rose,’ and the impassioned French lyric was far superior to wishy-washy English words I knew. We gave it a shot and to everyone’s astonishment but ‘Ay-deet’s,’ it sold a million copies.”
For those who aren’t familiar with it, hear’s Piaf’s original French version, courtesy of YouTube:
As of today, multiple YouTube versions have amassed over 20 million views, a testament to the lasting power of Piaf and that song in particular. But who is in second place? Ol’ Pops with just over 19 million views himself. As Avakian added, “Of the countless cover versions that followed, Louis’ was easily the best, and he never stopped singing it.” Read the rest of this entry »
A song for all Labour supporters tonight:
Nat ‘King’ Cole and George Shearing in upbeat mood
In memory of Marty Napoleon:
Marty played piano with Gene Krupa, Red Allen (and – much later – Harry Allen), Doc Cheatham, and (perhaps most memorably) the last editions of the Louis Armstrong All Stars, after Billy Kyle’s death. Now Marty has gone, but here he is, aged 91 in 2012, playing a medley of latter-day Louis songs (he even sings himself at one point) in a New York club that had arranged a special night for him, with fellow-veterans Bill Crow on bass and Ray Mosca at the drums (and just watch – and listen to – those ol’ guys swing!).
As my good friend Michael Steinman (of the great Jazz Lives blog) wrote at the time : “If this is 91, I want to be a rug-cutter in just this Napoleonic manner. Marty, Bill and Ray rocked the room”:
Here’s Michael’s very moving tribute, posted at Jazz Lives a couple of days ago:
Pianist, singer, composer Marty Napoleon “made the transition” from this earthly world to another one on Monday night, April 27. His dear friend Geri Goldman Reichgut told me that on his last night on the planet he ate some dessert and listened to music: the signs of what my Irish friends call “a beautiful death.”
I can’t find it in my heart to be too mournful about Marty’s moving out of this earthly realm. It seems to me that the New Orleanians have the right idea: cry a little at the birth, because that spirit taking corporeal form might have some bumps in this life, and rejoice at the death, because the spirit is free — to ramble the cosmos in the company of other spirits.
I was in conversation with the wonderful pianist Mike Lipskin last night — we sat on a bench in Greenwich Village and lamented that fewer people are playing particular kinds of the music we both love . . . and we both envisioned a future where it might not even be performed. But I said fervently, “The MUSIC will always be here,” and I believe that.
And a closing story. One of my heroes is the writer William Maxwell, also no longer around in his earthly shape. Late in his life, he began taking piano lessons and working his way through some simple classical pieces. I think this gave him great pleasure but was also frustrating — in the way making music is even more difficult for those who have spent their lives appreciating the superb performances of others. In his final year, a dear friend said to him, “Bill, in the life to come you will be able to play the piano with ease, won’t you?” And he replied, “In the next life I will not be making music. I will be music.”
And he is. As is Marty.
The woman who was simply the greatest singer in the entire history of jazz was born 100 years ago. Apart from her extraordinary voice (limited but highly expressive), she tends to be remembered for her “tragic” life, bad choices in lovers and her clashes with the authorities (she was even arrested on narcotics charges as she lay dying in hospital).
She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, or even just heard her records. The British jazz critic Max Jones who met her and got to know her when she visited Britain in 1954 and then just before her death in 1959, is typical:
“Soon reports were coming in regularly of her deteriorating condition. At the end of May she collapsed and was taken to hospital, suffering from liver and heart complaints.
“Still harried by the authorities, she died in degrading circumstances at 3 a.m. on 17 July 1959, with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars in large notes strapped to her leg. She was, by her reckoning, only 44 years old. And I was halfway through a letter to her when friends telephoned to say she was dead. Though half expecting it, I was devastated by the news.
“But still, we have those many lovely or disturbing recorded performances. They will be a pleasure to my ears for the rest of my life and those of future generations for all time, I guess.”
The actor, Billy Crystal (who, it turns out, is the nephew of Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler, who recorded Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939), still remembers her.
Billie is well represented on Youtube, including her incredibly moving 1957 TV recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’ , a reunion with her old (platonic) friend and confidant Lester Young, after some years of estrangement. Then there’s the cry of pain and protest that is ‘Strange Fruit.’
But I prefer to remember the young, joyous and careless Billie of the mid-to-late 1930’s, as can be heard on this little gem from 1936 (below):
Billie even (playfully) puts drummer Cozy Cole in his place in the opening banter. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Artie Shaw on clarinet.
I asked my friend, the clarinettist and incredibly erudite jazz and dance music expert (in fact an expert on lots of things), Norman Field, about whether or not Benny Goodman is using the so-called “French embouchure” in the clip below. His reply follows:
Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
I’d read about it before, but never knew any likely chronology, except that Goodman was said to have changed to the French embouchure (otherwise known as the ‘Old embouchure’) against the advice of the distinguished British classical clarinettist Reginald Kell. Goodman evidently studied under Kell for some time. This was most likely between 1948 and 1958, as Kell spent those years in the U.S.A., but then returned briefly to the U.K. before returning to the U.S.A., where he retired in 1966 and died in 1981. (Wikipedia).
If the video dates from 1953, this would be an ideal period for Goodman, the perfectionist, to have been studying under Kell.
However, the concern about the French vs. the Modern embouchure is indeed important from a Jazz point of view. All the early New Orleans pioneer clarinettists would have been taught the French style. That is, the mouthpiece and reed are supported entirely by the upper and lower lips. The characteristics of this are a light, sweet, flute-like tone (cf. Alphonse Picou & Big Eye Louis Nelson on the Kid Rena ‘Delta’ sides of 1940). Many of the N.O. guys who went on to fame preserved this characteristic – Noone, Bigard, Nicholas, Fazola come to mind. Whether they actually all kept the French embouchure, or just its inherent beauty, is a different question.
Another advantage of the French embouchure was that it facilitated great mobility: one could execute complex rapid runs & arpeggios with less effort. It may well have been this that appealed to Goodman about using it?
The démise of the French embouchure came about, as far as I understand, for three reasons
1: The introduction of vibrato. Ironically, Kell was one of the first players who began to play with vibrato, which was hitherto absent in classical music. I have no idea what embouchure Kell used, but Goodman wanted to adopt the French ‘Old’ style, and Kell advised him against it. It has been said the Kell did not wish to be known as ‘the man who ruined Benny Goodman’! But Goodman persisted. A slow and subltly controlled vibrato is quite difficult with the French embouchure. Indeed, lip-muscle control becomes more difficult still when a player is elderly, and they may then lapse into an excessively wide vibrato. (This will naturally attract condemnation by critics who have no idea of the processes involved.)
2. The introduction of the saxophone, on which most clarinettists were, sooner or later, required to double, at least in jazz. The saxophone was initially played with the French embouchure, and so had a plain, straightforward and rather dull sound. Indeed, Debussy described it as ‘That underwater instrument’. The saxophone in jazz benefitted considerably from vibrato, so this was naturally transferred back into the clarinet playing, and the New embouchure (as described below) was rapidly adopted as being more convenient for vibrato.
3. Volume. As the 1920 went into the 1930s, bands got louder. By the late 1930 they were very loud indeed, but mostly there was still only one microphone, for the bandleader out front and the vocalists. The idea of some guy getting up and playing piercing high notes on clarinet over six brass & fives saxes using the old embouchure is, to me, simply inconceivable! The clarinet was a delicate, ‘indoor’ instrument; trumpets, trombones and saxophones were ‘outdoor’ instruments. There was no contest. Only the most powerful & rugged clarinet players, using the new embouchure which was capable of being louder, might make themselves heard, faintly. Of course, Goodman would have been out the front, with a microphone to hand. You will understand that this is no criticism of Goodman. Bigard recalled that when Teagarden left the Louis Armstrong All-stars and Trummy Young came in, ‘I really had to crowd the microphone’. Q.E.D.
It’s a fascinating subject, and obviously, one very dear to my heart.
Apologies to all (and especially Irish comrades) for failing to mark St Pat’s Day.
To make up for this, here’s Ben Webster (and his performance is beautiful):
Ben Webster (tenor sax), Kenny Drew (piano), Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass), Alex Riel (drums). Denmark, 1965.
Marty Grosz is 85 on Saturday February 28.
As well as being a superb rhythm and chordal guitarist is the tradition of Karl Kress and Dick McDonough, Marty is also an engaging vocalist, a raconteur of Olympian stature, a writer, graphic artist (he is son of George after all) and social commentator … in fact a true renaissance man.
Here he is, a few years ago, playing his ‘Horace Gerlach medley’ with characteristic opening remarks:
And here, from the sleeve notes to his 2000 Jazzology album Left To His Own Devices, is his philosophy of jazz:
“PUT JAZZ BACK INTO THE SALOONS”
Forty years ago I had [a] card printed that bore the legend “Put Jazz Back into the Saloons.” If I were left to my own devices, that is exactly what I would do.
When I got into jazz, during the late Pleistocene era, besides embracing the music, I embraced its anti-establishment climate. I was fond of small improvising groups who played hot music unencumbered by the reams of music manuscript that suffocated individuality in large orchestras. Jamming in some low joint far from the pompous, santitized, pious atmosphere of the concert hall enthralled me.
Nowadays when I tread the boards, I often tread upon the planks of exactly those pristine concert stages – stages intended for the performance of a Schubert Lied or a Stravinsky wind octet. But I’ve never quite acclimatised myself to performing for concert-goers stacked neatly like eggs in their cartons. We hot musicians strut and sweat, toot and bang, scrape and strum; and now and then a fan will register involvement by tapping his or her toe ever so discreetly. Most jazz audiences could be whisked away and plunked down in the midst of a Sunday service at the first Episcopal Church of Greenwich, Connecticut without incurring so much as a raised eyebrow.
Nay, Nay, give me the gin mill of yesteryear, that murky shoe box from whose floors and walls oozed a miasma of tobacco fumes, whiskey breath, stale-beer vapors, the aroma of Tangee Lipstick and Sen-Sen breath pastilles, the scent of Lucky Tiger hair pomade, the odors of show polish, roach paste and toilet disinfectant.
A mahogany bar near the front door was manned by a whey-faced “mixologist” with the sour countenance of one who has heard every joke and clever saying and knows that he is going to hear them again and again until the day the D.T.’s get him and he is carted off.
Flanking the bar like bookends sat two female soldiers of fortune, no longer in the first bloom of youth, perhaps, but not yet inclined towards domestication. Perched insouciantly on leatherette bar stools in ways designed to call attention to their skimpy skirts, mesh stockings and stiletto heels, they cradled long-stemmed glasses filled with a green liqueur and ice cubes that tinkled like little bells. Each wore her version of what columnists used to call a “come-hither look”, cool, sloe-eyed glances that assumed an inner glow at the sight of a big butter-and-egg man unfolding a ten dollar bill or something larger.
At the opposite end of this long dark space stood a bandstand the size of a ouija board. Six or seven or eight musicians plus a drums set, a string bass, and an upright piano fit on the stand like interlocking pieces of a Rubik’s Cube. If a saxophonist on the far left reached into his pocket for a match and inadvertently bumped the drummer, he could cause a chain reaction. The drummer would lean into the bass player, whose bow then prods the piano player’s back just as the latter is raising a tumbler to his lips, causing him to dribble whiskey onto the keyboard. The pianist unleashed a string of oaths and foul imprecations, which are perceived as offensive by a female customer in a tiny pill-box hat, causing her escort to rise off his chair and to castigate the pianist for his improper language, whereupon the pianist challenges the gentleman to “try and do something about it.” This prompts the gentleman to remove his jacket as a foretoken of fisticuffs. Raised voices result in the arrival on the scene of a waiter who doubles as a bouncer and who deftly defuses the conflict by pushing the irate gentleman into his seat while cooing the calming words, “Shut up and sit down.” The orchestra, as is its wont in times of audience unrest, combs its repertoire for a properly soothing selection and settles on ‘Tiger Rag’ or ‘Crazy Rhythm’.
When the rhythm moved them, which was just about anytime the band started up, twenty to thirty dancers jostled, elbowed, and kickedone another, alternately glued together like limpets, or tossing each other about like boomerangs, all on a dance floor intended for ten persons. Laughing, hugging, groping, banging into tables, sending glasses to the floor, they tried to dodge the trombonist’s slide which projected over the edge of the bandstand.
How this frenzied stew of foul air, roistering patrons, long hours and low wages combined to produce beautiful music is not as difficult to explain as one may think. Musicians had a full evening till two or three in the morning, six nights a week, to lock into a groove – something that’s almost impossible to accomplish in the two brief halves of a concert format. Players knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses and could compliment each one another’s styles. Dancers were crucial in that they had a way of encouraging a musician to concentrate on the pulse of the music, causing him to think more of “swinging” and less of showing off with empty technical gestures and cheesy visual tricks. “Swing” was the catchword. Trash all those glib announcements: “Swing Fast”, “Swing Slow”: just Swing.
So how, you may ask, in view of the fact that hot music dives have died and gone to their reward, do I cope? I just pop a time-warp pill, and then, in my mind I’m back in The Peek-A-Boo Lounge, The Tropics, The Bar-O-Music, The Gaslight Club, The Blackstone Hotel, The Old Town Gate, imagining the guys on this CD are with me.