Monk at 100

October 13, 2017 at 8:12 pm (culture, jazz, music, posted by JD)

Thelonious Sphere Monk, born (Rocky Mount North Carolina) Oct 11 1917; died Feb 17 1982


Above: Monk (piano) with Charlie Rouse (thr sax). Larry Gales (bass), Ben Riley (drums), Fairfield Hall, Croydon UK): playing Rhythm a Ning

The always-perceptive Gary Giddins commented, in a 2002 interview:

I can’t imagine anyone confusing Monk with any other performer. If you do a blindfold test and play Monk, the listener is likely going to know it’s him after about two bars. Everything about the way he approaches the piano and music is so distinctive. People used to use words like idiosyncratic and eccentric, but there is, of course, more than that — there is a tremendous beauty in Monk’s music, and it is peculiar to him. Everything about his attack, the particular percussiveness of his style, his use of chords, his astonishing time, can only be described as “Monkian.” And in terms of his almost exclusive reliance on jazz, most great jazz pianists have some classical training that seeps into their approaches to melodic line, time, harmony and everything else. With Monk, when you try to trace him back, you always go back to figures in jazz itself, to stride pianists, to Teddy Wilson, and to musicians who specifically predate him in that music. Even though he quotes from folk songs and all kinds of different material in American popular music, there is nothing obviously European about his influence. You would never say, “His playing comes from the fact that he spent his childhood learning how to play Mozart sonatas.” You just don’t hear that in Monk’s music.

When I was an undergraduate, I spent the summer of my freshman year studying in the South of France. One of the Americans in my group was a classical pianist who had actually toured as a prodigy in the United States and in Europe. He didn’t know a great deal about jazz, but he absolutely worshipped two jazz pianists, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. The reason was that he was astonished at the idea that when these two musicians sat at the keyboard you knew instantly, from the first note, that it was them. The idea that an attack could be that distinct and individual filled him with admiration.

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Buddy Rich: a force of nature

September 30, 2017 at 1:25 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, United States, wild man)

The force of nature that was Buddy Rich, was born 100 years ago today in Brooklyn. He appeared on stage as part of his parents’ vaudeville act before the age of two, and remained an extrovert performer with extraordinary skill, speed and dexterity until close to the end (he died in 1987). As well as being a drummer he could also tap-dance and sing very proficiently. For those who are not familiar with his work, here’s a typical example that looks as though it’s from fairly late in his career:

Rich had a reputation as a tough guy and a martinet bandleader. You can listen to him ranting at his band in this infamous recording:

Yet at least one former sideman claims that a lot of the belligerence was an act, and underneath he was a “pussycat”. He certainly had a sense of humour:

His reputation in some circles, as a loud, heavy and insensitive drummer has some truth to it, but in the right company and circumstances, he could play with taste and restraint, as on this April 1946 session with Nat ‘King’ Cole on piano and Lester Young on tenor:

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Musicians must be free to travel in Europe

September 11, 2017 at 7:40 am (Anti-Racism, Civil liberties, culture, Europe, Human rights, internationalism, music, posted by JD, unions, workers)


published in the Morning Star

Saturday 9th Sept 2017

Freedom of movement in Europe is a vital concern for performers who tour, writes HORACE TRUBRIDGE


THE fact that most unions here at the TUC Conference have put forward motions on Brexit shows just how important the issue of leaving the EU is to workers.

At the Musicians’ Union (MU), we have some very specific concerns that go right to the heart of what our members do and how they work.

Most professional musicians and performers rely on touring and travelling as part of their careers. Many of the MU’s 30,000 members work in Europe either on a freelance basis with orchestras, touring as an individual or group or working for theatre producers or orchestras on touring productions.

Some performers can be working in several different European countries over the course of a few days, and gigs or tours are sometimes arranged at very short notice, so the possible introduction of work permissions and/or visas for British performers touring and working in Europe could be extremely detrimental. Individuals without representation or financial backing are likely to struggle the most with the extra costs and admin that this might entail.

The vote to leave the EU is already having an impact in this area: the European Union Baroque Orchestra has already left the UK for Antwerp, in part due to concerns over restricted freedom of movement for working musicians.

In a post-Brexit Europe will a European festival find it easier to give the gig to a French band rather than a British band? That is my fear.

The MU is campaigning for reciprocal free movement for musicians and performers across the EU’s 27 member states, in the form of an exemption from visa and work permit rules for performers.

Over the past couple of months, we have been asking MPs and peers to sign up to a pledge — to ensure that professional musicians and performers continue to be able to travel easily across Europe post-Brexit for time-limited activities such as touring and performing with minimum administrative burdens.

To date, more than 80 MPs and peers have signed up to our pledge and we will be working with them to help ensure that musicians continue to be able to do their jobs post-Brexit.

Of course freedom of movement is not the only concern that we have associated with Brexit. The majority of copyright law that protects performers’ rights is enshrined in European law, and although we have had assurances that the government does not intend to reduce copyright protections post-Brexit, there are as yet no guarantees on that front.

Equally, the arts currently receive a great deal of funding from the EU. The loss of European Social Funds for arts organisations is going to hit particularly hard.

There are a number of regional music organisations that have been sustained by European Social Funding (ESF) that will see that money cease with very little chance of the shortfall being picked up by local authorities or central government.

During 2014-2020, the ESF and European Regional Development Fund were due to invest around €11.8 billion across the UK. How much of that money we will still receive remains to be seen.

The MU was vehemently against Brexit right from the start, not just for the reasons I have listed so far, but because Brexit threatens the whole culture of our country.

Music, and the performing arts more generally, rely on exchange of ideas and interaction between performers of different nationalities. Music flourishes in an open world with no borders — not a closed-off island that looks inward on itself.

Many of our members are themselves European citizens who have chosen to base themselves in Britain. They contribute massively to the culture and the economic success of our country. What does the future hold for them?

I haven’t even touched on the more general concerns about workers’ rights that we share with our brothers and sisters from other unions; concerns which I am sure will be discussed at length over the course of this conference.

The future looks bleak. And at the MU we would dearly love to see more MPs fighting against what most seem to have accepted as an inevitability. But musicians have faced many great challenges in the past, and we will meet this one just the same. My only hope is that we are able to reach an agreement that does not leave musicians, and the culture of our country, poorer.

  • Horace Trubridge is general secretary of the Musicians’ Union.

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September in the Rain, with Dinah Washington

September 1, 2017 at 2:23 pm (jazz, love, music, posted by JD, Sheer joy, song, Soul, The blues)

There’s only one song for today (and, indeed, for this month), and only one singer:

Dinah Washington was one of the few black jazz/R&B singers to break into the mainstream US hit parade: in 1959, she had her first top ten pop hit, with a version of “What a Diff’rence a Day Made“,[11] which made Number 4 on the US pop chart. Her band at that time included arranger Belford Hendricks, with Kenny Burrell (guitar), Joe Zawinul (piano), and Panama Francis (drums). She followed it up with a version of Irving Gordon‘s “Unforgettable“, and then two highly successful duets in 1960 with Brook Benton, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” (No. 5 Pop, No. 1 R&B) and “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)” (No. 7 Pop, No. 1 R&B). Her last big hit was “September in the Rain” in 1961 (No. 23 Pop, No. 5 R&B).[10]

Early on the morning of December 14, 1963, Washington’s seventh husband, football great Dick “Night Train” Lane, went to sleep with his wife, and awoke later to find her slumped over and not responsive. Doctor B. C. Ross came to the scene to pronounce her dead.[7] An autopsy later showed a lethal combination of secobarbital and amobarbital, which contributed to her death at the age of 39. She is buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois (Wikipedia).

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Louis Armstrong: simply the best

August 4, 2017 at 9:10 am (civil rights, culture, good people, jazz, Jim D, modernism, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy, United States)

Louis Armstrong: born August 4 1901, died July 6 1971


Above: possibly his greatest recording, West End Blues (1928). For a detailed analysis, read what the of the Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum (in Queens, New York), Ricky Riccardi, wrote, here.

Louis Armstrong never knew the date of his birthday. As Terry Teachout writes in his excellent biography Pops – A Life Of Louis Armstrong (2009):

‘Until the day he died, Louis Armstrong claimed that he was born on July 4, 1900. He said so in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and Swing That Music, his two published memoirs, and on innumerable other occasions, and although at least one biographer found the date too pat to be plausible, it was only in 1988 that a researcher located an entry in latin for “Armstrong (niger, illegitimus)” in the handwritten baptismal register of New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to that record, Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, the natural son of William Armstrong (known as Willie), who spent most of his adult life working in a turpentine factory, and Mary Ann Albert (known as Mayann, though her son spelled it different ways over the years), a fifteen-year-old country girl who came to New Orleans to work as a household servant.’

What was never in doubt is the simple fact that Louis was born  at the absolute bottom of the US socio-economic pile. He was black, his mother was an alcoholic and an occasional prostitute and his father deserted the family before he was born. He seemed destined for a life of poverty and petty crime until a Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, took him under their wing and encouraged his musical talent (including lending him the money for his first cornet). Louis never forgot them and wore a Star of David under his shirt for the rest of his life. That early experience also seems to have conditioned his approach to the race question. He was proud of his Afro-American roots but never a seperatist. He almost always had at least one or two whites in his All Stars – a policy that his manager Joe Glaser encouraged for commercial reasons but that Armstrong believed in as a matter of principle. His closest musical friend was the white trombonist Jack Teagarden, to whom he (allegedly) said on their first encounter, “I’m a spade and you’re an ofay. We got the same soul – so let’s blow.”

Armstrong is, simultaneously, by far the best known figure in jazz and one of the most underrated. The reasons for this have little to do with music and everything to do with image, perception and ideology. Most of today’s jazz fans (despite the sterling efforts of Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and others) know little of Armstrong and see him as an avuncular buffoon singing lightweight pop songs in a gravel voice. He’s not considered a real jazz musician like, say, John Coltrane or the oh-so-cool Miles Davis. And then there’s that “Uncle Tom” tag. We’ll come to that in a moment.

What is all too easily forgotten in any discussion about Armstrong is the straightfact that he was the single most revolutionary exponent of the most revolutionary music of the Twentieth Century. Long before he became the jovial entertainer the world remembers, he almost single-handedly created jazz as we know it today.

Anyone who doubts this should listen to Armstrong’s first recordings, made with his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver’s band in 1923: Olver and the others chug along in the staccato semi-ragtime rhythm that characterised early jazz. Armstrong (playing second cornet to Oliver) uses triplet-based quarter and eighth notes, riding on a 4/4 beat that only existed inside his head. It was the rhythm that that twelve-to-fifteen years later would be called “swing” and make Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and a lot of other (mainly white) bandleaders rich and famous. That rhythm, together with the concept of the virtuoso solo, improvised over the chords of the tune, which Armstrong also pioneered, was the springboard for Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and most of what followed in in jazz, up to this very day.

It is of course true that had Armstrong never been born, someone else would have made these musical breakthroughs sooner or later – they were almost necessities waiting to happen. Phillip Larkin (an unstinting Armstrong fan)  oversimplified matters, but had a point when he wrote that Armstrong “simply did what everyone else was doing (but) twenty times better.” We know that Armstrong’s New Orleans contemporary, the clarinet and soprano sax virtuoso Sidney Bechet, was playing along similar lines in the early twenties, with a power and imagination that came close to matching Louis’s. But Bechet was a (literally) wayward character who spent a lot of time travelling in Europe while the epicentre of jazz was the US and, incresingly, New York. He lacked Louis’s personal warmth and although he recorded quite extensively, he didn’t achieve widespread public recognition until he settled in France in the 1950’s where he became something of a folk-hero in his final years.

To understand Armstrong, the man and the performer, you have to understand something of the society he was born into. New Orleans at the turn of the century was a hotbed of vice and violence. It was also, in comparison to the rest of the USA, relatively tolerant in racial, social and cultural matters. The French had founded the city and brought with them a tradition of opera, symphony, dances and parties. This had melded with the work-songs and “shouts” of the black slaves. As a result New Orleans was, as far as can be judged, the birthplace of jazz. The city’s mixed-race “creoles” constituted the vast majority of early jazz musicians of note. It is a myth that early jazz was the preserve of Afro-American “negroes”. In fact creole musicians emphasised their French and/or Spanish heritage and tended to be quite disparaging towards negroes like Armstrong and Oliver.

On New Year’s Eve of 1912 Armstrong was arrested for some high-jinks with a pistol and sent to the “Colored Waif’s Home” – a borstal, albeit a relatively enlightened one for its time. In fact, Louis often stated that being sent there was the single best thing that ever happened to him, mainly because the Home had a band and he soon became lead cornet in it. Years later, in the 1930’s, Louis revisited the place, found his old room and immediately snuggled down on the bunk.

From the Waif’s Home Armstrong went on to become second cornet with King Oliver in Chicago (jazz followed the black migration to the new industries up there), star trumpet soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s sophisticated big band in New York, and then to make the legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings with his old New Orleans confrères Kid Ory (trombone) and Johnny Dodds (clarinet). Listening to the Hot Fives (recorded between November 1925 and December 1927) is an education in personal development: Armstrong soon outstrips and overwhelms his old comrades, making their contributions sound anachronistic, stilted, and generally surplus to requirements.

By the early 1930’s Armstrong was an international star and one of the first black American entertainers to tour Europe; Paul Robeson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (a big influence on Armstrong) were the only others. At this point a big contradiction becomes apparent: Louis’s stage persona was by then that of an extrovert, exuberant virtuoso. Personally, he was completely insecure (remember that visit to the Waif’s Home), always in need of a tough guy (like the ex-Capone man Joe Glaser) or strong woman (notably second wife Lil and final wife Lucille) to look after him. And even after all the plaudits and awards, he desperately needed the approval of an audience. After the last performance of his life (undertaken against medical advice), he watched a TV review of the show in his hotel room and was devasted by the slating he received; he turned to Joe Glaser with tears in his eyes and asked: “You’ll still book me, Joe?”

Louis ‘mugged’ and played the harmless black minstrel to white audiences throughout his life. Younger black musicians and performers accused him of being an Uncle Tom and there was a tiny grain of truth to the charge. Billie Holiday famously said (affectionately) “Louis toms from the heart” and Sammy Davis Jr. (less affectionately) denounced him for being willing to play for segregated audiences. Terry Teachout comments, “Sammy Davis, after all, had a point: the All Stars did play for segregated audiences, and Armstrong never complained to Glaser about it. ‘I never question owners of dance halls or my manager about the racial patterns of places I am contracted to play… I have been with Joe Glaser too many years to worry about where I play and for whom,’ he had told a reporter for the Courier  in 1956. Nor would he ever take part in civil-rights demonstrations.’My life is music,’ he explained to a reporter. ‘They would beat me in the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn…”

But there was one occasion when even the apolitical Armstrong was unable to contain his inner rage in the face of racism: in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision required public schools to de-segregate and allow black puils to enroll. But in Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus openly defied the court’s decison and the Federal Government, ordering the state’s National Guard to join with a mob of howling bigots outside the city’s Central High School to intimidate and obstruct nine black children who were trying to enroll.  Louis, on tour as usual, watched these scenes on his hotel televison shortly before he was interviewd by a cub reporter from a local paper. When the subject of Little Rock came up Louis exploded with rage, calling Faubus a “no good motherfucker” (later changed to “uneducated plowboy”) and denouncing President Eisenhower as “two faced” with “no guts.” He continued: “The way they’re treating my people in the South the government can go to hell,” and vowed that he would not agree to tour the Soviet Union for the State Department, calling Secretary of State Dulles “another motherfucker.” The young reporter had the scoop of a lifetime and Associated Press put the story on the wires.

Eisenhower later sent the army into Little Rock to enforce de-segregation and ensure the Nine were admitted to the school. Whether or not Armstrong’s intervention was a decisive factor in forcing Eisenhower’s hand is still a matter of debate, but the fact that a much-loved and generally apolitical figure had spoken out so strongly must surely have had some effect.

But this was an uncharateristic moment. Louis was not a political person and certainly no black militant. His background and natural inclinations made him an instinctive integrationist. And he generally let his music speak for itself, as when he sang Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen on the Ed Sullivan Show during the Montgomery bus boycott or performed You’ll Never Walk Alone with the All Stars for a segregated black audience in Savannah, Georgia.

Louis’s sheer humanity is summed up by the New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker (quoted in James Lincoln Collier’s 1983 biography Louis Armstrong – An American Genius), describing Louis on tour, in the dressing room:

“…He be sittin’ down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders an’ that white hankerchief on his head, and he’d put that grease around his lips. Look like a minstrel man, ya know…an’ laughin’ you know natural the way he is. And in the room ya see, maybe two nuns. You see a street walker dressed all up in flaming clothes. You see a guy come out of the penitentiary. Ya see maybe a blind man sitting there. You see a rabbi, ya see a priest, see. Liable to see maybe two policemen or detectives, see. You see a judge. All of ’em different levels of society in the dressin’ room and he’s talking to all of ’em. ‘Sister So and So, do you know Slick Sam over there? This is Slick Sam, an ole friend of mine.’ Now the nun’s going to meet Slick Sam. Ole Notorious, been in nine penetentiaries. ‘Slick Sam, meet Rabbi Goldstein over there, he’s a friend of mine, rabbi good man, religious man. Sister Margaret, do you know Rabbi Goldstein? Amelia, this is Rosie, good time Rosie, girl used to work a show with me years ago. Good girl, she’s a great performer. Never got the breaks.’ Always a word of encouragement, see. And there’d be some kids there, white and colored. All the diverse people of different social levels…an’ everybody’s looking. Got their eyes dead on him, jus’ like they was lookin’ at a diamond.”

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I Called Him Morgan

July 28, 2017 at 5:11 pm (cinema, film, humanism, jazz, mental health, music, posted by JD, tragedy)

Although released in the US last year, Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan comes to UK screens for the first time this week. Jordan Hoffman in today’s Guardian gives it five stars and writes, “I Called Him Morgan isn’t just the greatest jazz documentary since Let’s Get Lost, it’s a documentary-as-jazz. Spell-binding, mercurial, hallucinatory, exuberant, tragic … aw hell, man, those are a lot of heavy words, but have you heard Lee Morgan’s music? More importantly, do you know the story of his life?”

Other reviews:

Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan accomplishes the impossible. It renders the story as a Greek tragedy, in which everyone not only has reasons, but spells them out: Morgan, his wife, and the “other woman,” accompanied by a chorus of witnesses like Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin. This is one of the most unconventional, spellbinding music-related documentaries ever made.

— Gary Giddins (jazz & film critic, USA)

Kasper Collin’s excellent documentary “I Called Him Morgan,” a sleek, sorrowful elegy for the prodigiously gifted, tragically slain bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, is as much a visual and textural triumph as it is a gripping feat of reportage. Binding its charismatic gallery of talking heads with woozy, moody evocations of Morgan’s New York City — courtesy of ravishing 16mm lensing by the ingenious cinematographer Bradford Young — Collin’s film is most moving when it delves past the expected struggles with fame, creation and addiction to etch the unusual, affectionate and finally fatal relationship between Morgan and his common-law wife Helen.

— Guy Lodge, VARIETY

Modern music was scarred by the death, at thirty-three, of the trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot in a Lower East Side jazz club in 1972 by his common-law wife, Helen Morgan. The Swedish director Kasper Collin’s documentary “I Called Him Morgan” is anchored by the sole recorded interview that she granted, in 1996, shortly before her death. Collin reveals the vast historical range of her story, starting with her move, in the nineteen-forties, from her native North Carolina to New York, where she confronted the limited employment opportunities for black women and built a sort of freestyle artistic salon. Interviews with Morgan’s great musical cohorts, such as Wayne Shorter and Albert (Tootie) Heath, reveal the jazz circuit’s high-risk behind-the-scenes energies, involving fast cars, sexual adventures, and—in Morgan’s case—drugs. From the story of one complex relationship, Collin builds a resonant portrait of an enduringly influential scene and era.

— Richard Brody, THE NEW YORKER

While it’s technically correct to call “I Called Him Morgan” a documentary, Kasper Collin ’s brilliant film plays like first-rate drama as it tells the tragic story of Lee Morgan. He’s the bop trumpet prodigy who died of wounds after his common-law wife, Helen More, shot him on a snowy night in 1972 in a jazz club in New York’s East Village. The tragedy was shared; Helen, as the movie makes clear, was a compelling figure in her own right, a woman of depth and passion who rose from rural poverty in North Carolina.

— Joe Morgenstern, WALL STREET JOURNAL

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Calling all Jazz lovers!

May 6, 2017 at 8:45 am (Art and design, culture, good people, jazz, music, posted by JD, reblogged)

An important message for all jazz lovers, sent out by Michael Steinman on his Jazz Lives blog:

“IF I MAY,” or BECOMING A PIECE OF THE MOSAIC

My dear friend Michael Burgevin, drummer and artist, told me that when the trumpeter Joe Thomas would begin to address an audience, he often would say, “If I may . . . ” which seems the height of an eighteenth-century courtesy.  I have borrowed his words, and I hope, a light tread, for what follows.

I know that of late I have chosen to utilize JAZZ LIVES as a place to raise funds for one or two worthy jazz enterprises.  Both Kickstarter endeavors have met their goals, so I am hoping for a third kind of generous good luck.

Mosaic Records is in financial trouble.  Learn more about them here.

Please read this, from co-founder Michael Cuscuna.

Dear Mosaic Friend,

In this time and place, the Mosaic business model is becoming harder and harder to sustain in this rapidly changing world. We aren’t sure what the future will hold for us, but we want to let all of you know how much we appreciate that your support has allowed us to constantly make our dreams come true with set after set and that we intend to persevere. The way we operate may change but our mandate remains steadfast.

Charlie Lourie and I started Mosaic Records in 1982 and our first releases were in 1983. The company was almost an afterthought. The idea of definitive boxed sets of complete recordings by jazz masters at a crucial time in their careers was a small part of a proposal that we made to Capitol Records in 1982 to relaunch the Blue Note label. Even before Capitol turned us down, it occurred to me one night that the release of these boxed sets could be a business unto itself if we made them deluxe, hand-numbered limited editions sold directly to the public.

Our first release was The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk, which came about because I’d found about 25 minutes of excellent unissued Monk on Blue Note. It was too short for an album and I was obsessed with how to get this music released. . It then dawned on me that all of this important material needed to be retransferred and assembled in chronological order as a significant historic document. I solved my problem of releasing those 25 minutes of Monk music and Mosaic Records was born. We had a wonderful run of projects. The Tina Brooks, Herbie Nichols, Serge Chaloff, Count Basie and Nat Cole sets were among those that were especially near and dear to our hearts.

Charlie was my best friend and working together was a joy. Mosaic was slow getting started and it took a few years before we could even draw a meager salary. I remember during those lean years worrying if we could afford to put out a Tina Brooks set. Charlie looked at me in amazement. “Isn’t that why we started this thing – to do what’s important without anyone telling us no?!” He only had to say it once.

In 1989, we moved out of Charlie’s basement and into our own facility. Scott Wenzel joined us in 1987. We added employees as the business grew. We started issuing sets on CD as well as LP and eventually had our own website.

We lost Charlie to scleroderma on December 31, 2000. We managed to keep the tone and spirit of the company up to the level that Charlie created and continued to put out thoroughly researched vital sets of importance in jazz history. But in the early 2000s, the record business began to shrink and morph for a variety of reasons and we were forced to downsize our staff, move to smaller quarters and reduce the flow of sets.

We’ve always tried to be diligent about warning you when sets were running low so you wouldn’t miss out on titles that you wanted. But at this point, some sets which are temporarily out of stock may not be pressed again. We are not certain how Mosaic Records will continue going forward or how many more sets we will be able to create and release. We’ve got a lot of great plans but few resources.

Scott and I want to thank every single person who has supported us, made suggestions, given advice and shown us such love and affection. If you are thinking about acquiring a certain set, now’s the time.

– – Michael Cuscuna

If you love jazz and if you follow this blog, you know what beautiful productions the Mosaic label has created — for everyone from George Lewis and Kid Ory to Andrew Hill.  The sets, which are limited editions, are a jazz fan’s dream: rare material, intelligently and comprehensively presented in lovely sound, with rare photographs, deep research, and wise annotations.  When Mosaic first started, I was not terribly financially secure, so, although I coveted many of the sets, I could only purchase a few.  (I had the vinyl collection of the Blue Note Jazzmen and the CDs of the Condon Columbia sessions and the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions, and I treasure them now.)  Incidentally, a word about cost: one of my role models used to say, “You amortize,” which — once you remove it from the mortgage broker’s vocabulary — means that an initial investment pays off over time.  I know it might strike some as specious reasoning, but a $150 purchase, savored wholly two times, costs one-half each playing . . . and one can, I suppose reach the philosophical accounting point where the set is now for free.

About “for free,” while those slippery words arise.  We have long been accustomed to getting our art for free.  (And, yes, I do understand that the videos on JAZZ LIVES are in some ways a manifestation of the problem — although I put money in the tip jar when I video, as a token of love and gratitude.)  One can drown in free music on YouTube — often in poor sound, inaccurately presented — or on Spotify — where the artists receive at best pennies for their work.  Or one can burn a copy of a CD and give it away.  All those things are, to me, the equivalent of lifting sugar packets from the cafeteria to fill the sugar bowl at home.  But that is, simply, not nice, and it denies the artist or the artist’s heirs proper reward.  Mosaic Records is an honest company, and people get paid.  And quality product and quality work is never free.

I am not an accountant.  I cannot promise that if many of JAZZ LIVES’ readers treat themselves to a Mosaic Records set, it will do the trick of keeping the company solvent.  But I would like to see an outpouring of love and support for this very spiritually and musically generous company.  If you haven’t got the money for a set, perhaps you can wheedle your family members into buying you an early birthday or holiday present.  Or you can assemble the jazz-lovers you know and collectively buy one.  I made a purchase this afternoon.

In my time as a jazz fan, I’ve seen clubs vanish (the Half Note and two dozen others) and record labels come to a stop.  Radio stations (WRVR-FM) have gone silent.  Rather than say, “Gee, that sucks!” (in the elegant parlance of the times) and look for the best buy on Mosaic sets on eBay, why not ride to the rescue NOW?  I would rather not have to lament the hole in the universe where this beautiful enterprise used to be.

If you may, I hope you can and will.

May your happiness increase!

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A musical interlude from Miss Lee Wiley

April 14, 2017 at 12:07 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy, song, United States)

Just in case anyone wondered where I’ve been this week, here’s a favourite singer with a clue:

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Happy birthday, Dick Hyman

March 10, 2017 at 5:53 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy)

A slightly belated happy 90th birthday to piano and keyboard wizard Dick Hyman, born in New York on 8 March 1927.

Dick is still gigging and still wowing audiences with his wondrous technique and versatility. He’s as comfortable paying tribute to Jelly Roll Morton as he is playing  Art Tatum-style arpeggios or exploring the experiments of Cecil Taylor. In the course of an amazing career, he’s worked with (amongst many others) Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker, Pee Wee Erwin, Ruby Braff and Soprano Summit/Summit Re-union. In the 50s he even made some commercial honky-tonk records under the name of ‘Knuckles O’Toole.’

Click on the Youtube clip above for a master-class recorded in 2014, in which Dick gives that good ol’ broad Georgia Brown a new lease of life.

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100 years of recorded jazz: the contested legacy of the ODJB

February 25, 2017 at 7:41 pm (black culture, history, jazz, Jim D, music, United States)

It was fortunate for both jazz and the phonograph industry that the emergence of both co-incided: the improvisational music that is jazz was caught in its early days by the phonograph, and jazz repaid the industry a million times over in sales of music that owed its existence to early jazz.

It is generally accepted that the first jazz records were laid down in New York on February 26 , 1917. The band was the Original Dixieland Jazz (or “Jass”) Band from New Orleans, and the records were Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step, which were released as the two sides of a 78 rpm record on April 17, 1917 which became a top-seller (and maybe an early million-seller). So far, so good. But at this point, race enters the story and makes matters difficult.

Because the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (or ODJB, as they are known in jazz history) were, indeed, from New Orleans – the recognised birthplace of jazz — but were white and achieved their success in New York. Jazz is, in its origins at least, primarily Afro-American, so surely the fact that the first jazz records were made by five white guys is a practical demonstration of racism, even in the foremost art-form developed by Afro Americans?

Well, maybe: but even disregarding the (unsubstantiated) legend that the black/creole trumpeter Freddy Keppard turned down a recording deal (on the grounds that rivals would steal his stuff) in 1916, before the ODJB recorded, there is no evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company was motivated by racism when it recorded the ODJB, rather than a black band, for the first time. Where racism does come into the story is the reason the ODJB was such a sensation in New York in the first place. After all, James Reese Europe’s (black) orchestrated ragtime group and Bill Johnson’s Original Creole Band (featuring Keppard), which by all accounts was playing very similar music to the ODJB’s, had both already played New York but not achieved the success that came the way of the ODJB. Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, offers various explanations before concluding: “Finally, the color lines were undoubtedly still drawn so clearly as to make similar success for a comparable Negro group impossible.”

The spurious race issue has been further exacerbated by preposterous rants over the years from the ODJB leader and trumpet/cornetist Nick La Rocca, claiming that he and the ODJB had “invented” jazz and that black musicians had stolen from them: La Rocca’s racism (or, maybe, to be charitable, bitterness from a Sicilian who was himself the victim of prejudice), has antagonised jazz lovers ever since, and contributed to a general consensus in which the ODJB are down-graded as little more than a novelty act who struck lucky (mainly by dint of being white) and happened to make the first (supposed) jazz records.

Philip Larkin, not often cited as an anti-racist, wrote this about La Rocca’s claims (as repeated uncritically in The Story Of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, by H.O.Brunn): “Mr Brunn’s thesis that the ODJB ‘invented’ jazz out of a kind of instrumental ragtime is put forward mainly by the staggering trick of completely omitting all reference to contemporary Negro New Orleansperformers such as Bolden, Oliver, Bunk Johnson or Keppard. No reader of this book would suspect that the Negroes had anything to do with jazz at all. Can this be the official Southern view?”

So was the ODJB actually any good, and are its records (still widely available on LP and CD) worth listening to? I have to admit that I can only listen to the ODJB as an exercise in musical archaeology – something that I wouldn’t say about King Oliver’s Creole Band, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, or, indeed, the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings who started recording in 1923 – all these early bands sound fresh and exciting in a way that the novelty-effects and stiff rhythm of the ODJB simply does not (though the Victor records they made in the course of a brief 1936 re-union are a considerable improvement).

And yet … the ODJB was made up of good musicians. Clarinettist Larry Shields was a fine and surprisingly sensitive player, who influenced Benny Goodman and was respected by black and creole contemporaries, while drummer Tony Sparbaro (later Spargo) was a top-rank percussionist who could hold his own alongside the best black drummers of the day (he was also the only member of the original ODJB lineup to say active in jazz after the demise of the group in 1924: he was still playing and recording in the late 50’s). Even the much-scorned La Rocca can lay claim to having influenced the great Bix Beiderbeck; as Richard M. Sudhalter (in his monumental account of white jazz, Lost Chords) writes: “Visiting Bix in 1931, his old friend Dick Turner found him bitter and disillusioned, complaining that life had passed him by, that there was no one on whom he could depend – and that hot music held no further charms for him. ‘Hell,’ he told Turner, ‘there are only two musicians I’d go across the road to hear now, that’s Louis and La Rocca’.”

And talking of the great Armstrong, it’s worth remembering that his early record collection included discs by Caruso, Al Jolson … and the ODJB, whose Tiger Rag made a lasting impression on the young man and was part of his repertoire throughout his career. Louis even went so far as to state (in his first real autobiography Satchmo): “Between you and me it’s still the best” (ie the ODJB version of the tune).

Probably the fairest assessment of the ODJB comes from Gunther Schuller, in Early Jazz: “Still, in a balanced assessment of the ODJB, its best recordings, like Sensation Rag, Clarinet Marmalade, Dixie Jazz Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues, were an infuriating mixture of bad and good, of tasteless vulgarity and good musical intuitions. But beyond the music the ODJB left behind, it held, for better or worse, a crucial place in the formative period of jazz. It fulfilled the role in a manner that was not altogether unworthy.”


Surviving ODJB members Spargo and Edwards on a TV show in Sept 1960

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