Monday, 26 December 2011

Alley Cats in the broom closet

Like fantasy baseball fans, jazz fans like to speculate about dream lineups: If only A [insert jazz immortal's name here] had recorded with B, C, and D, wouldn't that have been something? Here's a fantasy for you. Start with Mildred Bailey, my favorite singer of the 1930s. Add, say, Teddy Wilson on piano, and for horns -- oh, what the hell, let's go for it -- Bunny Berigan on trumpet and Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone. Now there's a too-good-to-be-true lineup.

Oh, wait -- it actually happened.

On December 6, 1935, in a recording studio so small it was called "the broom closet," four sides were cut and released as "Mildred Bailey and her Alley Cats." Here for your delectation are two of them, the beautiful Fats Waller-Andy Razaf Willow Tree, and Down-Hearted Blues.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Dumbo, Superman, Robin Hood, and a gigolo

The Joe Mooney Quartet
By the time I was seven, my collection of 78s included songs from Dumbo and Pinocchio, eight marches by John Philip Sousa, Burl Ives singing Jimmy Crack Corn, radio's Uncle Don singing The Green Grass Grew All 'Round, someone named Crane Calder singing I am the very model of a modern major-general, and three story albums: Superman's Christmas Adventure starring Bud Collyer who played the man of steel on the radio, a dramatic re-enactment of the sinking of the battleship Maine and Admiral Dewey's victory at Manila Harbor ("You may fire when ready, Gridley"), and a mini-operetta version of the Robin Hood story with songs such as this:

Two by two and three by three,
What a merry band are we;
We are outlaws only in name, hi-ho,
Helping others is our aim, hi-ho!

Not satisfied with my collection, I craved and sought more records (thus establishing a pattern of behavior to which I've faithfully adhered). So occasionally I'd rummage through the records accumulated by my parents and grandparents, an eclectic mix going back to the days of one-sided 78s. Bypassing the classical music (that passion would come later) and relics like Alice Blue Gown and comic monologues by Julius Tannen, I culled and appropriated a few favorites from their shelves, including Paul Robeson singing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and By and By, Larry Clinton and his orchestra doing Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the 1946 recording of Just a Gigolo by the Joe Mooney Quartet. (The quartet had its brief moment of fame as the result of a rave review in The New Yorker. Mom was a subscriber, so this must be how Mooney came to my parents' attention.)

The quartet's Just a Gigolo fascinated me. It was a Decca record, badly cracked but still playable. I didn't know anything about Joe Mooney, the blind accordionist-singer-songwriter whose story is well told hereI didn't know or care what a gigolo was. I had no idea that this was a radical revision of an old song, a hipster's reinvention whose lyrics were as much Mooney's as Irving Caesar's. (It would be another twenty-plus years before I'd hear Bing Crosby's definitive 1931 recording.) And who knew what hipness was?

The flip side of the record was September Song, but Gigolo got the major play-time on my Victrola. (September Song's subtle beauties, including its allusions to Debussy's Clair de lune, would reveal themselves to me to me years later.) I learned every note of Gigolo, accepting and parroting, without questioning or understanding, lines like:

Every day a different chick
Makes him sick,
But he can't kick
Because they're puttin' down dough.

Who cared what the words meant -- I loved the playfulness and the crisp precision of it all. Listening now, I realize I was responding to the extraordinary musicianship and inventiveness of Mooney and his colleagues: Andy Fitzgerald, clarinet; Jack Hotop, guitar; Gaetan "Gate" Friga, bass.

So here -- partly for old times' sake, partly to introduce some readers to the unjustly neglected Joe Mooney -- is today's musical selection (mercifully sans crack). As a bonus, I've appended the quartet's sensational From Monday On.

It sure beats Uncle Don.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Pearl Bailey: "St. Louis Blues" and "Tired"

Yet another Bailey: not the magnificent Mildred, not Buster and his clarinet, not Bill who is constantly being implored by jazz bands to please come home. This time it's the inimitable Pearl: St. Louis Blues and Tired, recorded in 1945 with Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Bill Stegmeyer, clarinet; Hank Ross, tenor sax; Ludwig Flato, piano; Carl Kress, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums. Enjoy.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Because I like it: "Says My Heart"

Frank Loesser
You'll find nothing mind-blowing or earth-shaking or ground-breaking here; just a perfect little song and a perfect record: Says My Heart, music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Frank Loesser, recorded in 1938 by Mildred Bailey and the Red Norvo band. Frank Loesser is one of my songwriting heroes, as lyricist and composer. His lyrics are often so natural-sounding they're easy to take for granted. In this one, there are no lofty, hyperbolic declarations, no word-inversions, no imagery; just the age-old heart vs. head story told with total believability from the female point of view.

"Fall in love, fall in love," says my heart;
"It's romance, take a chance," says my heart.
But each time
That I'm
Almost in your arms,
This old schoolteacher-brain of mine keeps ringing false alarms.
Then my head rules instead and I'm wise
To the scheme of that gleam in your eyes;
So I kiss and run, but the moment we're apart,
"Oh, you fool, that was love!" says my heart.

With a good, professionally crafted lyric, there's always a telling detail or unusual turn of phrase that makes it memorable, which is all you need in the short span of thirty-two bars. In this song it's "this old schoolteacher-brain of mine" -- just right for the character and situation. I wish all songwriters who overload their lyrics with Poetry would heed Frank Loesser's advice:

Try to make everything refer back to the title... Keep focused in on what the title is saying... Avoid colorful language unless you put a rest nearby so that the audience can have time to digest it. Otherwise, they'd be admiring, or wondering, or puzzled about it and lose the next lyric or two, because the purpose of writing is to get their attention and keep it.

You've got it and you've kept it, Mr. Loesser.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Infinite Loop Disorder

I wonder how many of you have suffered from this malady. With Infinite Loop Disorder, the same melody plays over and over without end in an infinite loop on your internal tape player. I.L.D. can strike during the day or at night, but when it hits you at night, it's a surefire sleep-destroyer.

The I.L.D. sufferer has absolutely no control over the choice of music. The melody can be good, it can be bad; doesn't matter. It happened to me once with the scintillating Mildred Bailey-Red Norvo version of the clever Johnny Mercer-Victor Schertzinger song Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry. Even as sublime a melody as the Air from Handel's Water Music can begin to lose its charm when heard for the thousandth time in one night. But the torture is truly unendurable when the melody is bad.

In my particular case, melodies by Burt Bacharach and Marvin Hamlisch can bring on I.L.D. in its most virulent form quite easily, and so are to be avoided at all cost. The worst case of I.L.D. I've ever endured was with Barry Manilow's Copacabana. All I have to think of is the line "Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl" and my nerves are all a-jangle.

I.L.D. hit me again the other night, this time with a good tune, in fact one of my favorite jazz themes: That's the Curfew written by Pete Brown, the great "jump"-style alto saxophonist and recorded in 1945 by his Sextette [sic]: Brown on alto; Ed Lewis, trumpet; Ray Parker, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Al Matthews, bass; Ray Nathan, drums.

I've searched through the pharmacopeia and can find no remedy for I.L.D. except for heavy sedation, so I'm going to try some experimental therapy. Mind you, I have no desire to expunge That's the Curfew permanently from my mind; I like its nifty shifting from minor to major too much for such radical surgery. I merely seek temporary relief, and hope that by posting it here I can find some measure of I.L.D. surcease.

Here goes:

You know something? That feels a lot better.

At the Copa, Copacabana,
The hottest spot north of Havana,
Music and passion were always in fashion,
At the Copa... they fell in love.

Aargh, it's back. Help!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

"And that, my friend, is why they call it a flange."

A few years ago the cable TV company to which we subscribed -- we'll call it Splodgers Cable -- ran a commercial that I can't get out of my mind. The mark of a good commercial, you might say. You'd be wrong. What haunts me is the question: What was the copywriter thinking?

(By the way, the cable service was lousy. We've since switched to a much better non-cable service delivered to our home via a fibre optic network, whatever that means, with no dish required.)

The Splodgers Cable commercial consisted of a mini-drama with an all-male cast, a bunch of beer-drinking buddies who love fixing cars and watching football games. The leading character is a nameless fellow we'll call Mr. Know-It-All, who speaks authoritatively on all things mechanical and high-tech.

The scene is his plushly furnished den, prominently featuring a big-screen TV and Splodgers cable box. As our playlet begins, Mr. K-I-A and a few buddies are entering the den, stage right, in mid-conversation about something or other, and Mr. K-I-A says to one of them, rather condescendingly, "And that, my friend, is why they call it a flange." Mr. K-I-A is not shy about flaunting his expertise.

The topic soon turns to state-of-the-art cable TV, about which Mr. K-I-A naturally knows everything. He proceeds to educate his grateful, knowledge-thirsty friends on the subject, with special emphasis on the boons offered by Splodgers Cable; then they all settle in for a blissful, testosterone-rich afternoon of NFL head-banging. Fade to black.

"And that, my friend, is why they call it a flange."

Though the commercial is long gone, this line has been a constant source of bafflement to me. I like to think I'm pretty good at dialogue but my problem is, I can't imagine any believable guy-to-guy dialogue that could possibly have led up to it. Can you?

The best I can come up with, after years of effort, is this. Before entering the den, the boys were in the garage where Mr. K-I-A was showing off his latest automotive gimcrackery. The conversation must have gone something like:

KNOW-IT-ALL: Look-a this, guys. I just retrofitted my 1986 GT-120 with a new state-of-the-art Type-2 dynanometer on the hydraulic flywheel.

FRIEND #1: Wow!

FRIEND #2: Awesome!

FRIEND #3: The bee's knees!

FRIEND #1: Looks like you put in a new flange, too.

KNOW-IT-ALL: I had to, dummy, to allow for the additional torque-tolerance.

FRIEND #1 (ashamed of himself): Of course.

FRIEND #2: Funny, that flange sorta looks like the flank steak I barbecued last week.

[In the name of artistic license, we must suspend our disbelief for a moment and assume that said friend likes to prepare his flank steak in the shape of a donut.]

KNOW-IT-ALL (who, I forgot to mention, is also an expert etymologist): That's no coincidence. The word "flange," dating back to the 1680s, is of unknown origin but it's probably related to the old French word "flanche," meaning flank or side.

FRIEND #1 (tired of etymology): Say, let's go watch some football.

ALL: Yeah!

(They head for the den.)

KNOW-IT-ALL (to Friend #2 as he enters the den): And that, my friend, is why they call it a flange.

Can any of my readers do any better?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

A question about electricity

Electricity in 1897

Electricity now

To my non-scientific eye, there doesn't seem to be much difference between these two pictures.

We live in a wondrous age of digital, wireless everything, and believe me, I don't take it for granted. As a kid I played 78 rpm records on a wind-up Victrola; now I can hold 130 gigabytes' worth of jazz, pop, and classical music in the palm of my hand. I can read any newspaper in the world with my morning coffee. I can post my reminiscences and favorite pieces of music and share them with the world. I can play Texas Hold 'Em poker against opponents from Poland, Brazil, Thailand, and New Zealand.

And yet, if a tree branch snaps off somewhere, anywhere, and brings down a wire, we're cold, in the dark, and all my Steve Jobs wonders are worthless, their batteries unrechargeable.

Brooklyn Girl and I live in a modern, prosperous city that likes to think of itself as world-class, yet our supply of power is, at best, unreliable. (When the electricity is off, my adjective changes to "third-world.") The weather doesn't have to be bad. It can be a perfectly lovely day, as was yesterday, and zap! the electricity goes off for two hours.

I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where the electrical infrastructure was as old as Edison. I remember our house being dark during the hurricane of 1944, but in all the years I lived on 71st Street I don't recall such an on-again-off-again relationship with our power supply.

Exposed wires and wooden poles? That's pathetic. With universal solar power still a pipe-dream and the cost of burying all those wires too high, our high-tech superstructure rests on a foundation right out of the horse-and-buggy era. Why has there been no breakthrough in this area since 1897?

Right now it's raining and windy outside. I just hope the electri

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Messieurs Legrand, Bechet, et Ansermet

I'm glad I still have this issue of Down Beat from April 2, 1959. There's something quintessentially 1950s about the cover. It's not just the subject matter that dates it; it's the fatuous headlines, which range from the delusional to the incendiary. One look at this cover and memories of being a college-age jazz fan in the late '50s come rushing back.

In many ways it was the best of jazz times, a time when the Cornell Rhythm Club could fill a college field house (as we did) for a concert by the Dizzy Gillespie band, or pack a large hall (as we did) for the concert advertised on the poster shown below. (Check the ticket price!)

The use of the word "Dixie" on the Down Beat cover brings back memories, bad ones. Used by the modernists, the words "Dixie" and "Dixieland" were usually meant condescendingly, if not pejoratively. In the Cornell Rhythm Club, when we weren't busy producing our annual concert, we spent most of our time in heated factional arguments: modern versus trad, bop versus Dixieland, East Coast versus West Coast, hot versus cool, my jazz is better than your jazz, etc. The main benefit of being a Rhythm Clubber was the opportunity to be a once-a-week disc jockey on WVBR (the Voice of the Big Red), playing and commenting on one's own records. The fact that WVBR's signal was barely strong enough to reach the girls' dorms didn't diminish the fun of being a real, live, on-the-air DJ.

But I digress; let's get back to this 1959 Down Beat. So Lionel Hampton and Red Skelton are planning a TV show? Upon further investigation, we learn that they were both working at the Riviera Hotel and (according to the press agent who dreamed up the story) "before one realized it, these two were mulling over an hour-long jazz show for television... When Hamp and Red got together, ideas flowed... They planned the show right there in a hotel room, and are now working to smooth it out. Hampton and his band will provide the jazz music to fit into a pattern narrated by Red Skelton showing the origination of jazz and its growth... 'How can it fail?' asked Red." (By not happening, that's how.)

Another headline from never-never-land concerns Jimmy McPartland's laudable desire "to lobby for good music" and provide more opportunities for young jazz musicians. Unfortunately, all it amounted to was Jimmy's frustration with a 20% tax on club operators. "I can't blame the operators for feeling they can't afford a five or six piece jazz band," says McPartland. "Why doesn't the union do something about it? Why can't they send a lobbying delegation down to Congress, as do other interests, and let the lawmakers know about how that tax cuts down the jobs for musicians. I'd be glad to go to Washington and make a speech, if the union would pay the expenses." I can find no evidence that the musicians' union ever picked up the tab for "Mr. McPartland Goes To Washington."

But the headline that really jumps out at you, like an upraised middle finger, is the brutal "'Bechet Plays Like A Pig,' Says Michel Legrand." Qu'est-ce que c'est? Let's look inside the magazine and find out.

As you can see, Legrand, then 26 years old, was the very picture of l'homme serieux. In the course of the interview he opines favorably on Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Edith Piaf, Miles Davis ("for me, the most important musician") and not-so-favorably on Stan Kenton (who "has been too many years the same"). The last question of the interview is about Sidney Bechet, and Legrand unaccountably goes ballistic: "He makes me sick. He played so many years ago very good. Now he plays like a pig."

Zut alors! -- what could account for such vituperation? I've checked out YouTube clips of Bechet playing in 1958-59, and while he's not the Bechet he used to be, I could detect no porcine sounds emanating from his instrument. Yet we must give M. Legrand every benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was tired of being interviewed and had le mal de tête. Perhaps he'd had a personal run-in with Bechet, whose amour-propre was as outsized as his genius. Perhaps Legrand instantly regretted his intemperate words and has spent the last 52 years in remorse. Or perhaps the interviewer goaded him into his bilious comment. The big question is, why did the editors at Down Beat select this quote to be a front-page headline? -- but I already know the answer: because they wanted to be provocateurs and outrage the "mouldy figs." Alas, this too was typical of the times.

For Gallic commentary on Sidney Bechet, and to end this post on a positive note, I prefer to turn to Ernest Ansermet, who founded l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918 and conducted it until his death in 1969.

In 1919, the 22-year-old Bechet toured Europe with Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Ansermet heard the orchestra and was deeply impressed. Writing in the Swiss publication Revue Romande, Ansermet first lavishes praises on the leader Cook ("a master in every respect") and the orchestra ("its astonishing perfection, the superb taste and the fervor of its playing"), then turns his attention to its obscure young clarinetist:

There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet. I've heard two of them which he elaborated at great length. They are admirable equally for their richness of invention, their force of accent, and their daring novelty and unexpected turns. These solos already show the germ of a new style. Their form is gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself I shall never forget it -- it is Sidney Bechet.

Remember, folks, this was 1919, a time when no one -- and I mean no one, anywhere -- regarded jazz as a subject for serious commentary.

Ansermet closes his review with what must surely be one of the most prescient comments in musical history:

[Bechet] can say nothing of his art except that he follows his "own way" -- and then one considers that perhaps his "own way" is the highway along which the whole world will swing tomorrow.

Along with a hearty, retroactive Bravo! to the perceptive Maestro Ansermet, the only way to end this post properly is with un morceau of Bechet: his haunting Blues in the Air from 1941, with Bechet on soprano saxophone; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Don Donaldson, piano; Ernest Williamson, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, 1938

[This post is dedicated to Brooklyn Baby, who loves boogie-woogie. So do I.]

In the mid-1950s, rock 'n' roll was the new thing and we'd spend summer evenings hanging out on the stoop listening to Alan Freed on WINS. Some early r&r hits had "camp" appeal, meaning they were so silly (make that stupid) that we enjoyed them. Ling Ting Tong by the Five Keys springs to mind; it begins, "I went to Chinatown / Way back in old Hong Kong / To get some egg foo young / And then I heard a gong..." -- and goes downhill from there.

Some of the records Freed played stirred me: Ray Charles' I Got A Woman, Joe Turner's Chains of LoveHoney Hush, Flip Flop 'n' Fly, Corinne Corinna, Shake Rattle 'n' Roll. (To me the Bill Haley megahit cover record of SR&R was, and is, unlistenable.) I've said in a prior post that in 1954 we teenagers thought Joe Turner was a new singer. How little we knew. In the Shapiro-Hentoff oral history Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams recalls the heyday of Kansas City jazz during the early to mid-'30s:

A wild Twelfth Street spot we fell in regularly was the Sunset, owned by Piney Brown who loved jazz... Pianist Pete Johnson worked there... Now the Sunset had a bartender named Joe Turner and while Joe was serving drinks he would suddenly pick up a cue for a blues and sing it right where he stood, with Pete playing piano for him. I don't think I'll ever forget the thrill of listening to big Joe Turner shouting and sending everybody, night after night, while mixing drinks. Pete Johnson was great on boogie, but he was by no means solely a boogie player. It was only when someone like Ben Webster, the Kaycee-born tenor man, yelled "Roll for me -- come on, roll 'em, Pete, make 'em jump," that he would play boogie for us.
In 1938 impresario John Hammond brought boogie-woogie east for his "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, thus igniting a national boogie-woogie craze. This live recording from that concert is the closest we'll get to hearing what the singing bartender and Pete Johnson sounded like at the Sunset Club. Turner's magnificent voice fills the hall as amply as any heldentenor. As for Johnson, nobody did it better.

Roll 'em, Pete.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Caption contest

This photo of a young Mitt Romney (center) and his friends needs a caption. Or maybe it doesn't.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Best song parody ever

Parodies of pop song hits were a rich source of hilarity when I was a kid. It's embarrassing to reveal what we considered falling-down-funny in the 1940s and '50s, but in the name of candor and honest chronicling, I'm compelled to do it. Here's just one example, unusual because it's clean enough for a family blog. In 1951 Nat "King" Cole's record of Too Young was a #1 hit. Its opening line, "They tried to tell us we're too young," was on everyone's lips, only in our 71st Street version it went, "They tried to sell us egg foo young." It wasn't a fully worked-out parody, consisting of just this one line, which was as far as it needed to go. We were all so convulsed with laughter, doubled over holding our bellies or rolling around on the sidewalk gasping for breath, that additional lyrics were both unnecessary and impossible.

It wasn't until many years later that I learned that our song parodies were thin comedic gruel when compared to the best.

One of the big pop hits of early 1932 was Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long, a melodramatic lament with music by Victor Young, lyrics by Sam Lewis. Here's the Bing Crosby portion of the April, 1932 record made with the Boswell Sisters and the Don Redman band:

Soon thereafter, a young nightclub comedian named Milton Berle wrote and performed a parody of Lawd which, for me, takes the prize as the best song parody ever written. Try singing it while Der Bingle warbles the original. A Lower East Side accent out of the early twentieth century (if you can manage it) will help immeasurably in producing the desired effect.

You made the coat and vest fit the best,
You made the lining nice and strong,
But Sam, you made the pants too long!

You made the peak lapel look so swell,
So who am I to say you're wrong?
But Sam, you made the pants too long!

They got a belt and they got suspenders,
So what can I lose?
But what good are belts and what good suspenders
When my cuffs hang over my shoes?

I feel a winter breeze up and down my knees,
My fly is where my tie belongs,
'Cause Sam, you made the pants too long!

In addition to being a consummate wisecracking, knockabout comedian, as well as television's first superstar, Berle was a composer-lyricist of some talent. He wrote such hits as I'd Give a Million Tomorrows and Lucky, Lucky, Lucky Me. He also penned the lyrics for the curtain-raising patter-song delivered weekly by the "merry Texaco-men" on his Texaco Star Theatre TV show. But with Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long Berle surpassed himself. In fact Sam surpassed Lawd, becoming well-known not as a parody but as a comic song in its own right, recorded famously by Barbra Streisand (with cleaned-up lyrics replacing the "fly-tie" line) in the 1970s.

Sam is probably the only instance of a song parody living on long after the original has been largely forgotten.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Too good to ignore

The title of the 1945 song I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So -- music by Duke Ellington, lyrics by Mack David -- is an apt self-description of anyone within earshot of Rebecca Kilgore singing it, or anyone who has discovered the postings on the Jazz Lives website. Although this performance has already been posted elsewhere, it is, in Eddie Condon's phrase, too good to ignore.

Over the years the song has been recorded by many, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and -- a particular favorite of mine -- Jay McShann with Jim Galloway in 1983. Becky's performance here with musical soulmates trombonist Dan Barrett and pianist Rossano Sportiello, all dispensing beauty in equal measure, is as great as any of them.

Whoever this "Jazz Lives" fellow is, we're lucky so-and-so's to have him around. I'm thankful I live in an age when such a performance as this can be captured, preserved, and viewed worldwide, for all time.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The wisdom of planning and preparation

On March 1, 1929, Thomas "Fats" Waller, already a master of Harlem stride piano and songwriting whiz with Ain't Misbehavin' and Black and Blue to his name, entered Liederkranz Hall in New York to lead a recording session. The sides produced that day have been precious to me (in LP and CD form) for most of my adult life, imperishable classics of early jazz.

That these records were made at all is a minor miracle, for which we can thank not just Waller but also Eddie Condon, cast by Providence in the unlikely rôle of guardian angel (which, if you know anything about Condon, is a brilliant example of casting against type).

A couple of weeks after organizing the recording of That's a Serious Thing and I'm Gonna Stomp Mr. Henry Lee, Condon was paid $75 to do something that Victor Records' executives had so far been unable to do: deliver Fats Waller to a recording studio on time, with a well-rehearsed band. "The date is four days from now," Condon was told. "That will give you time to assemble a band and rehearse it."

Andy Razaf's lyric to Ain't Misbehavin', "I don't stay out late / don't care to go, / I'm home about eight / just me and my radio," did not apply to Waller, so Condon realized the task would be difficult. Little did he know that getting Fats to the recording studio would be of the same order of magnitude and difficulty as harnessing the power of the rivers or the sun to produce useable energy.

Condon went up to Harlem to Connie's Inn and introduced himself to his favorite piano player:

He was so amiable, so agreeable, so good-natured [wrote Condon in his memoir We Called It Music] that I felt almost ashamed of my mission, but I performed it; I asked Fats about making a record. A recording date? He'd be delighted, he'd be proud; just any time. In four days? Fine. Wonderful. At noon? Perfect.

Condon phoned the Victor exec and was told, "We shall expect you at noon on Friday. You had better stay close to Waller."

I did but every time I opened my mouth to say something about getting the band together or discussing the numbers to be played, Fats said, "Fine! Wonderful! Perfect!" and handed me another belt of gin. We were in perfect accord on everything. Nothing happened.

After three hazy, gin-drenched days, there was still no band, no music. Condon asked Waller what the band was going to play. "Why, we'll play music," said Fats. "Now let's have a little drink and talk about it." At this point, according to Condon, "things grew faint and finally dark."

At the eleventh hour, Condon and Waller awoke from their respective stupors. Waller made some quick phone calls and rounded up trumpeter Charlie Gaines, trombonist Charlie Irvis, and reedman Arville Harris. Condon, who had not expected to be part of the band, asked Waller: "Well, what are you going to play?" "You mean what are we going to play," replied Fats. ""Man, you're with us."

So the five men decanted themselves into a taxi, swung by the Riverside Towers to pick up Condon's banjo, and careened toward Liederkranz Hall. Inside the cab, Fats was sketching out the musical program:

He hummed a simple, basic pattern of rhythm and melody... When we had it memorized, he explained what each of us was to do. "You got that, Charlie?" he said. Both Charlies said yes. They had it.

So fertile was Waller's musical imagination that he could compose tunes as easily as he could improvise a jazz chorus; "so fluent as a composer," wrote John S. Wilson, "and so eternally in need of money that he was very casual about all but giving away many of his compositions." (It's said Waller composed his six-part London Suite on the spot, at the piano, while his manager, Ed Kirkeby, was describing the various sections of London to be portrayed.)

The taxi arrived at Liederkranz Hall at ten minutes to twelve. "I see you are punctual," said Mr. Adams, one of the execs. "Congratulations. Well, Mr. Waller, what is it to be this morning?" "A little thing we call The Minor Drag," replied Fats.

We set up our instruments and Fats repeated his instructions. He played the theme for us; as soon as I heard him I knew why we didn't need drums -- his left hand would take care of the bass. "Ready?" Fats said. "Let's go," one of the Charlies said.

While acknowledging Condon's importance as an organizer and promoter of jazz, some critics past and present have disparaged his rhythm playing. I disagree. The Minor Drag is closely miked and Condon's banjo is often clearly audible. Seems to me he's kicking things along quite nicely.

We listened to the playback. I had a difficult time believing what I heard because it sounded wonderful. I looked at Mr. Adams. He was smiling. "You see," he said to me, "what careful rehearsal will do?"

After The Minor Drag and Harlem Fuss had been cut, as an afterthought Mr. Adams said, "I wonder, Mr. Waller, if we could have some piano solos now?" "Wonderful!" Fats said. "Perfect!" -- and without moving from the bench he proceeded to toss off two solo masterpieces, Numb Fumblin' and that ne plus ultra of Harlem stride piano, Handful of Keys:

When the session was over, Mr. Adams pronounced himself pleased. "We must have some more of these dates," he said. "This is an excellent example of the wisdom of planning and preparation."

Friday, 14 October 2011

Eddie Condon makes history: That's a Serious Thing

It's February, 1929, New York City; six years before Benny Goodman and impresario John Hammond famously "integrated" jazz with Teddy Wilson and the Goodman Trio; eighteen years before Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball; nineteen years before Harry Truman integrated the armed forces; twenty-five years before the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision.

A young guitarist-banjo player named Eddie Condon goes up to Harlem to hear Charlie Johnson's band at Small's Paradise on 135th Street. "Somebody ought to put this music on records," he says to himself. "It's too good to miss." So Condon goes to Ralph Peer of Victor Records and makes his case: "I want to use [trumpeter Leonard "Ham"] Davis, [tenor saxophonist Happy] Cauldwell, and [drummer George] Stafford" [all from the Johnson band] with some friends of mine -- [trombonist] Jack Teagarden, [pianist] Joe Sullivan, and [reedman Mezz] Mezzrow."

Peer agrees to Condon's idea, saying, "I hope it's good." Here's one of the sides cut that day, That's a Serious Thing. The vocal is by Teagarden.

Not only was it good; it was history-making. As Condon wrote in his memoir, We Called It Music:

When the masters were cut Mr. Peer congratulated me. "You were right about the music," he said. "it is excellent. All in all I should say this has been an interesting experiment." It wasn't until I got out in the street that I realized what he meant. I made some inquiries: so far as I could discover we had made the first mixed recording date on any national label, using both white and Negro musicians. I thought it had been done long before.

The quote is typical of him. Eddie Condon had no socio-ethno-political agenda. He was color-blind for the purest of reasons; the music he loved was his only agenda.

Some years ago I was listening to this record and came to a startling realization. As far as I know, outside of civil rights organizing and lobbying, no other field of human endeavor on earth had blacks and whites working together in 1929 to produce something of lasting value and beauty.

In his long career Eddie Condon arguably did more to organize and promote pure jazz than anyone. He was also the unlikeliest civil rights champion in history. To my mind he's the most important and influential American cultural figure never to have been the subject of a major biography.

A serious thing, indeed.