Friday, April 1, 2016

The Crepuscular Clarinet—Or—Songs For An Insomniac

There’s this word that entered into my world several years ago, “crepuscular.” It’s kind of an ugly sounding word, especially in juxtaposition to it’s meaning, as it describes anything relating to the time of twilight. It first came into my awareness either from a Fitzgerald passage, or maybe out of one of Stephen Fry’s creations, I can’t remember, and was used to describe the sky. As it has settled into my vocabulary, it bubbles to the surface whenever I see a particular shade of blue in the sky that only happens post-dusk and pre-dawn, well, as I said, during twilight. These days I often get my sleep in chunks—a couple hours late at night, and a few more after the sun rises. Many times during those sleepless middles, tonight for instance, I think, “Maybe I’ll get to see that crepuscular blue today.” 

There are creatures, insects and animals, which are most active during these times. I like to think of myself as a crepuscular animal, of a sort. I join the ranks of everything from the romantic firefly to the lumbering moose. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad description of my own range of existence. I’ve read that these animals do not necessarily confine their activity to those brief moments around sunrises and sunsets, but will extend the time during bright, moonlit nights and dull, cloudy days. Those are two of my favorite kinds of light. In my personal vocabularic sense, crepuscular also describes a certain feeling. 

I suffer a vague discontent that can come from examining my life in these quiet, still, most often alone moments. A washed out, questioning feeling. I’m usually tired, but have some sort of energy nonetheless. It’s dark, but not too dark to see. Just enough light left or just enough light coming on, illuminating the things I’ve left undone. But there is real beauty as well, not just in the sky, but also in the rarity of reaching a still point. You might be thinking, “Stop being so fancy, you’re just describing the blues.” But as you know, there are many kinds of blues. And finally that brings me to the music.

Certain songs, musicians and composers provide perfect soundtracks for these moments. Those three things usually met in any Duke Ellington orchestra that was blessed with Barney Bigard’s presence. Musical expression of the crepuscular was no accident for Duke. He came by it organically. Synesthesia is when a response is produced by one of your senses when another of your senses is stimulated. Duke was one of the most well-known of synesthetes. When notes, tones, and chords came into his ears, he saw colors. To me, he came closer than anyone else in capturing the crepuscular in a musical composition. He also didn’t just use notes and chords, he studied and used the specific strengths of each member of his orchestra. He composed for the specific man. When Barney Bigard was on his palette, that specific blue flourished. Barney played a Crepuscular Clarinet. Check out what I mean in one of my current favorite late night numbers:

As you hear from Sue Mitchell’s vocal, it’s a song of regret mixed with a little, perhaps unrealistic, determination. Barney only plays a small role in the beginning of the recording, but he perfectly sets up that feeling of regret before Sue goes ahead and explicitly tells the story. These are the kinds of sounds and thoughts a person experiences when facing a fast-approaching new day with no way to resolve a regret.

There are also darker aspects to the blue, a little more desperate: 

Barney actually composed this one with Billy Strayhorn, saying, “One night I just got tired and started foolin’ around on clarinet, and that’s how I made up ‘Javanette’.” Apparently he was lamenting the women—whom he said looked Hawaiian—who strolled from table to table selling cigarettes on set breaks when the Ellington band was working at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. What he lamented, he didn't say.

I’m going to take a slight detour now from Barney and Duke for a few minutes to play one of my all time crepuscular favorites. “Smoke Rings” was a huge hit and the theme song for Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra back in 1937. 

Clarence Hutchinrider is the clarinetist here. He was not really well-known outside of his work with the Casa Loma band. If I’m honest, much of the credit for the songs crepuscularity (please forgive me, it’s late) goes to Gene Gifford for his arrangement of muted horns for the first full minute of the song. But Clarence took advantage of this gorgeous backdrop. He flirted with the melody, mixing in blue notes and fragile high notes to give the song an extra keening which balances the subdued nature of the muted horns. 

Back to Barney, the ultimate purveyor of the Crepuscular Clarinet. I couldn’t leave off without one of the most perfect expressions of said blueness, “A Lull At Dawn.” I mean, it’s right there in the title! I’m getting crepuscular all over just thinking about it. If you're not sleeping tight, I hope all of this helps.

The Bigard story about "Lament For Javanette" came from Jazz Talking: Profiles, Interviews And Other Riffs On Jazz Musicians by Max Jones

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bix Insanity II

“It was 1927!” A few days ago, the Southside Aces rehearsed in preparation for Bix Beiderbecke Night at the Eagles. We’ll be there March 10th, that otherworldly Iowan’s birthday. Any contemplation of Bix’s music invariably leads to the above exclamation. You say it with heavy incredulity, and often add a remaining-in-denial shake of the head. Sometimes you might substitute one of the surrounding years in that sentence, but really, much of the music with Bix at the center that still inspires musicians today happened in 1927. Here we are ninety years later still trying to figure out how his way of playing—so swinging, hot and traditional, yet somehow with a modernity fifteen years ahead of it’s time—was channeled through him so early in jazz history.

On Friday, February 4th of that year, Frank Trumbauer and his Orchestra went into Okeh Studios in New York to wax a few, one of which—“Singin’ The Blues”—became arguably one of their most well-known recordings. When I say “arguably,” it’s because Bixophiles argue a lot. When I say “most well-known,” it’s most often just among Bixophiles that it is most well-known. I say this because my experience has been that if I mention his name out in public, I usually have to say “Bix” at least three times. And countless are the times I’ve had to explain his surmane, “No, it’s not ‘Spiderbeck’, but I can see how you heard that.” It just happened today, in fact. Bix did have a little personal fame outside of musician ranks during his lifetime. But then, as now, it was mostly the musicians who flocked around him. Then, they clogged the floors in front of bandstands, hungry for every note, like a room full of cats running to the sound of a can of tuna being opened. Now, we gather around whatever apparatus we use to play recordings and shake our heads in amazement.

But this Bixophile won’t argue if you tell me “Singin’ The Blues” was one of their best. It was a 1920 song Frankie and Bix and Eddie reworked into a masterpiece of melancholy swing. The Eddie was Eddie Lang, the guitarist on the session. Per usual, he played as if he were two guitarists, perfectly accompanying the soloists with rich chording and runs. Trumbauer on his C-Melody saxophone gives us an opening chorus that is an exquisite composition in itself, and Bix follows with his special brand of hot jazz meets French Impressionism. There is a short solo on clarinet by Jimmy Dorsey, who sounds perfectly subdued by the blueness of the proceedings. Bill Rank on trombone; Paul Mertz on piano, Howdy quicksell on banjo and Chauncy Morehouse on drums complete the cast. 

Apparently, the first take was scrapped because everyone in the band wanted a solo, so they were only half way through when they ran out of grooves. The second take is what was released, with the two centerpiece solos of Bix’s and Tram’s.

In The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story by Phil and Linda Evans, they captured an interview with a Bix contemporary, Richardson Turner, who played cornet with the Princeton Triangle Jazz Band. Turner had this to say:

“Bix’s chorus on ‘Singin’ The Blues’ was a great one. They made three takes of it at the date, and every chorus of Bix’s was different. He simply did not know what someone meant when they reminded him of some chorus he’d taken on a record. He wasn’t that kind of musician, which is the point. It had to be different and better every time.”

“Trumbology” and “Clarinet Marmalade” were also recorded that day. Memorable recordings themselves, but none match the relaxed poise of “Singin’ The Blues.” There is a wistfulness to this record that makes it one of my go-to songs on any day I have clouds hanging over my head. By the last few bars, Bix and company heat it up, letting you know that no matter how much you like your melancholy, you can just go ahead and walk it off. Not to mention with a little bit of a strut.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Bix Insanity

Thursday, March 10th will mark the 113th anniversary of Bix Beiderbecke's birth. I believe that's the Replace All The Wiring In The House You Built When You Were Married anniversary. If you're married for 113 years...well, it was probably just fifty years and seemed like 113. Har, har. At any rate, the reason I'm celebrating Bix on this odd numbered year, is that this one happens to fall on the second Thursday of the month. That means the Southside Aces are throwing a big Bix bash at the Eagles! This will be the first time we've featured the music of that famous Iowa jazz cornetist. I've gone a little Bix insane at the moment. There's piles of Bix recordings all over my house, my Philip and Linda Evans biography is always close at hand, in the last week I've actually written out C-Melody saxophone parts, and I've been firing off emails and phone calls to my band mates demanding extra preparation. If any of them were in my house right now, they'd placatingly pat me on the shoulder and say, "There, there, Tony, why don't you sit down, listen to 'Singin' The Blues' and drink this gin we made in our bathtub last week." The Aces are rehearsing on February 29th. This is significant because herding all six of us together to work things out is such a rare thing that Dave and I have been joking it's our regularly-scheduled Leap Year rehearsal.

But Bix is worth it. I can't emphasize this enough. He only got to spend 28 of those 113 years walking around on the planet—dying in New York on August 6th, 1931—and didn't get around to picking up the cornet until he was sixteen. He may not have started until he was sixteen, but a year later he already writes his teenage love interest, Vera, that he's "having a good time playing for dances in a hot orchestra making piles of jack..." And think of this: his first recordings began just before his 23rd birthday, and he spent most of the last year of his life ill. It was in those five or so intervening years that he would so profoundly affect jazz for all time. 

I'm going to write more about this in the seventeen days before his birthday, so for now I'll leave you with this, one of my favorite Bix recordings. This is like when Erik says, "This is one of my favorite songs. I know I say that a lot, but it's true!" I have twenty favorite Bix recordings. More. This one's just hot, and I don't have to say much about it. 


Friday, October 23, 2015

The Southside Aces In Vogue

Last Friday, for the first time in our existence, the Southside Aces were in vogue. The Vogue Building at 412 South Wells Street in Chicago houses on it’s seventh floor a karate dojo where the members of the 50Fifty dance group hold their monthly dances. They hired us to play music of a Friday and Saturday, so we drove down. Zack was off in Europe somewhere or another, so we enlisted the aid of trumpeter and Chicago native “Kid” Ben Bell Bern. Otherwise, all the usual suspects were in attendance. 

The elevator pours you directly into the hall. Nice wood floor about fifty by twenty feet. Two rows of necessary, load-bearing pillars in the middle of the floor created an automatic increased degree of difficulty for the dancers. Floorcraft is a dancing term that refers to the etiquette of dancing in public. Basically, you try to dance as if you remember that there are other people on the floor besides you and your partner. Giant pillars are unforgiving teachers in this regard. Add the essence of the karate dojo, and I imagined the movie montage where the sensei keeps making the blindfolded Lindy (grass)hoppers bang into the pillars until they achieved floorcraft ESP. 

The Aces were between a couple of those pillars, but were seated so didn’t risk injury. Amongst some of the standard fare, we played great tunes throughout the weekend like “Back Room Romp,” “Honey Hush,” “Blues In The Air,” New Orleans Bump,” “Bogalusa Strut,” “Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing,” “Stardust,” “He’s A Different Type Of Guy,” handfuls of others. But the absolute hit of the weekend had to be the classic “Deep Henderson.”

I guess this meandering story is one about circling back. King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators had recorded it in 1926. It included some musicians that went on to some greatness of their own, including a couple favorites of mine, Barney Bigard and Albert Nicholas. That recording knocked out and inspired the Hall Brothers Jazz Band to play and record it back in the 1970s. Subsequently, both of those recordings inspired us to record it, releasing it on last year’s Second Thursday. It’s favorite status in the Aces happened back in 2012, when we first played it at the Eagles for a feature on the Hall Brothers Jazz Band. 

So there we were Friday night, done with our work and making plans to go to Lawrence’s for late night shrimp. 

"Shrimply The Best"
Incidentally, the banana pudding with 'Nilla Wafers was also a band favorite.

Ben was going on about “Deep Henderson,” saying, “That’s the cut!” Those three words are about the highest praise a musician can give a song. I said to him, “I’m not going to repeat too many songs this weekend, but we should definitely play that one again tomorrow night.” Ben nodded in agreement and declared, “Chicago needs to know about ‘Deep Henderson’!” 

And there’s the circle. A circle that is making all you jazz history nerds, myself included, already begin to chuckle nerdily. King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators were playing at the Plantation CafĂ© in Chicago, 338 E. 35th Street, back in 1926 when they recorded the song. A mere five miles from the Vogue Building. A lot further away in terms of the racial geography of the time, but that’s a different story. Chicago has known about the song for nearly ninety years. I admit, there’s a good chance they’ve forgotten about it for probably 86 of those years, but it started in the Windy City, and we brought it back. It was kind of like one of those paintings that gets lost in a war and is restored to it’s rightful country after confirming it’s lineage. In our case nobody noticed, not even most members of the band, I would warrant, but it gave me a small twinge of satisfaction to think about it that way. 

Here's the Southside Aces version off of Second Thursday