Saturday, February 26, 2011

In The Cause Of Happiness

There’s a part near the beginning of the most recent biography of Louis Armstrong, “Pops,” written by Terry Teachout that discusses how much awareness Louis may or may not have had about what the press had to say about him:
“I never read no write-ups,” he claimed, though he owned several fat scrapbooks of press clippings and was well aware of what Gillespie and others were saying about his onstage demeanor… “The people expect all that from me-coming out all chesty, making faces,” he said. “That’s me and I don’t want to be nobody else. They know I’m there in the cause of happiness.”
In my soapboxing—if I may take liberties with the language—of February 13th, I made clear how I feel about that beautiful combination of entertainment and serious musicianship. Louis may have been the ultimate distillation of the two. Today, however, I’m going to give my climbing muscles a break and stay down off my soapbox. No, his response to write-ups reminded me of another story.

Now, I’m a clarinetist who has spent most of my clarineting time without much in the way of notice from the Fourth Estate. (Once again I’m taking liberties with the language. Though commonly used, clarineting is not really a word. My spell check tells me I should use “chlorinating” instead. Maybe for poolside jobs. Charlie DeVore tells me he’s always known I was in the swim of things.) This state of relative anonymity has it’s blessings, one being I haven’t had to actually assess how my ego would respond to negative press. I’m such a fragile flower. But the Wielders of the Pen can also go far “in the cause of happiness,” usually by providing a good review, but even sometimes unintentionally. This is what happened:

For a few years in the mid-Oughts I had the great pleasure of being a part of Connie Evingson’s exploration of Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club music. Nights at the Dakota, participation in a couple of recordings, and even a Midwest tour. 

On July 24th, 2008, I joined the Clearwater Hot Club, which consists of Sam Miltich, guitar; Matthew Miltich, bass; and Mark Kreitzer, rhythm guitar, in backing her up for a concert in front of 4,000 people at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Imagine a giant green sward—the back yard of the museum—spread with blankets and lawn chairs, wine bottles and picnic baskets, and a whole bunch of Omaha-ans. Our concert was part of a thirty year history of what they call “Jazz On The Green.” We managed to comport ourselves respectably at the show, and Connie, Mark and I awoke the next morning to go in search of breakfast. 

We found ourselves at Lisa’s Radial Café, 

which offered up greasy spoon fare tilting a good ways toward the yummy with sunny, hole-in-the-wall atmosphere. Connie noticed a fellow patron reading the Omaha World Herald. In the cap of the Living section was her own face looking back at her, with the words, “Night, grass, jazz-Vocal stylist Connie Evingson sings on the green.” We quickly purchased our own copy.

The inside headline read, “Jazz singer’s pipes jingle, Django, jingle.” The chuckling began. Connie said she was looking for new press to put on her website, so she hoped it would be a good review. Indeed she got a great review, but more important than that was how damn funny some of the compliments sounded in the open air. The writer rhapsodized about Connie’s “staccato scat,” her “chesty alto,” and her “milky soprano.” “There’s the quote for your website,” I said as I spread my hands in front of me in the universal gesture of imagine-a-heading-here, “Chesty!” 

We began to fall about the place. Mark wondered aloud if the use of chesty and milky in the same sentence came from the writer’s subconscious. Tears of laughter. But it didn’t stop there. “Miltich’s virtuoso picking dovetailed seamlessly with Evingson’s scat.” Eww… And finally, not as funny, but still one of my favorites, “Rhythm guitarist Mark Kreitzer, clarinetist Tony Balluff, and bassist Matthew Miltich provided thumping, insistent rhythms.” I always aspire to play the clarinet insistently and thumpingly. 

To be fair, the writer did demonstrate knowledge of jazz that would allow him to make well-founded criticism, and most of his phrases didn’t contain such easy double entendre. I have to admit the notice felt good. But what felt even better was laughing nigh on to pulling abdominal muscles. It’s not unheard of for a person to deflect compliments with a healthy sense of humor, which is certainly part of what we were doing that morning. I hope my ability to laugh, however, remains intact the first time some jazz-ignorant, libelous, why-I-oughtta, hack of an ink-slinger doesn’t take a shine to my playing. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Showmanship, or Would You Shut-up And Play Another Song

I’ve promised you shenanigans, so this counts as my first foray into the goofing side of my music world. I spent part of this meltingly beautiful day as a Button with Patty and the Buttons down at the Aster Café. After many of you shed tears of freedom upon being temporarily released from winter’s harsh incarceration, you wiped your eyes dry and made your way down to meet us. Thank you!

Keith Boyles has been doing most of the fastening of the lowest Button on these Sundays by playing his string bass. On account of how he almost always orders the sausage sampler breakfast, we’ve taken to calling him “Meat Plate.” He told me once that he wouldn’t mind if it got around. I hope he remembers telling me that. The sun, especially bright on the bandstand, caused Keith to don shades. He told us, “I’m wearing my sunglasses today, so I guess that makes me ‘Mystery Meat Plate.’” 

A person should know that Patty and the Buttons are definitely not above hokum, and even hilarity. We do draw some lines, but none of us draw very well, so the lines aren’t that straight. Today we pulled off premeditated high hokum with an accomplice even. We’d arranged beforehand with Chris, today’s Aster baristo, to wait all the way until we’d finished the song “Dinah” to shout the question, “What’s the name of that song?” We promptly launched into a super quick reprise with all of us singing the famous repeated line, “The name of that song is Di-nah! The name of that song is Di-nah!” and so on. Several people laughed despite their better judgment regarding encouraging us. After the tumultuous response quieted some, Button Mark Kreitzer went off-script, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Branson, Missouri!” Patrick added, “You’re steamed peas will be out shortly!” After a few more songs the second set ended with Patrick telling the crowd, “We’re going to take a break from this hot sun up here. It’s like an Easy Bake Oven for jazz players. So if you like blueberry muffins...” He wasn’t sure where to go with that one so he let it die a merciful death. 

So what does all of that have to do with jazz? Well, technically nothing. We don’t have to provide antics or great nicknames in order to play good music. I’m sure some people might prefer that we never embark on the train to Zany Town. But I have a firm belief in a healthy mixture of humor and musicianship. Louis Armstrong throughout the last half of his career was often dismissed as a musician because of his “mugging and clowning.” But he replied to such criticism, “showmanship does not mean you’re not serious.” And he had this to say about his own seriousness, “When I pick up the horn that’s all. The world’s behind me, and I don’t concentrate on nothin’ but IT.” Here is a good example of this man perfectly combining both the showmanship and the serious. Listen and watch these two minutes of live playing from the Colgate Comedy Hour:

Now, I’m not trying to get all high and mighty, what with an apparent comparison to Louis Armstrong. We’re just Patty and the Buttons having fun at a brunch. But I take that Louis approach to heart. When it comes to playing the music, you’re going to get your money’s worth out of us. We just have to stop laughing long enough start a song. 

Speaking of which, there was the incident in the third set. We’re in the middle of playing the song “Swing 41” when Patrick signals Meat Plate to take a solo by simply looking at him and calling out, “Bass!” After a great bass solo Patrick called out to me, “Fours!” To the uninitiated, this means that soloists play through a song taking four measures each, trading back and forth. I thought he had shouted, “Chorus!” so I started at the top with the melody until I realized my mistake and righted the ship. When we finished I said to Patrick, “I’m sorry. When you said ‘Fours!’ I thought you said ‘Chorus!’” Meat Plate chimed in, “That’s all right. When he said ‘Bass!’ I thought he said ‘Asshole!’” Sometimes the band is laughing at things we can’t repeat to the crowd. But don’t worry. We NEVER forget that you’re out there. The next tune will come soon, and a lot of times we’ll even let you in on the joke. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Imagine Grown Men Doing This

Some time ago Bill Evans, whom many people describe as a trombonist and bandleader, stood facing the rectangle of carpet his band occupies at Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse. The band’s last notes of the evening had died away a few minutes previous, and we were all packing up to head out onto the St. Paul winter streets. He seemed lost in thought, and I’m not sure he knew anyone overheard him when he said, “Imagine. Grown men doing this.”

I don’t know exactly what he was thinking; you’ll have to ask Bill. I feel fairly certain, however, he wasn’t setting an appropriate age for jazz playing. I don’t think he was implying that jazz is something adult men and women ought to grow out of. When he spoke those words, it recalled to me the feeling I get every time I leave my house to meet up with other proponents of the art. I will often say to myself with downright amazement, “I get to play jazz tonight!” 

Let’s say I had a knock down, dragged out day. Let’s say the snow’s flying and the “Imagine-The-Worst” side of my brain envisions fans deciding upon hibernation over a night of music. Here’s what I tell myself: “It’s 2011, and I get to play jazz!” Then I leave my house and my life intersects with the lives of likeminded folk who happen to possess enough wherewithal to prop up instruments of their own, and before we know it we’re playing “Perdido Street Blues” 85 years after people first heard Lil Hardin Armstrong’s great tune on record. Or you're sitting out there in a Minneapolis café and get to hear Sidney Bechet’s “Premier Bal” on account of me and my cohorts. Or one night downtown the clever, clever lyrics of Noel Coward telling a cautionary Jazz Age tale gets delivered to your ears by a singer and her stalwart accompaniment. These scenarios make fantastic phenomena. I mean, what next? A group of people getting together to ride around on elephants, wear giant shoes and red noses, bicycle on wires two stories in the air and other such nonsense, just to give the rest of us some thrills and laughs?

My pie-eyed romance with the music does occasionally run up against the realities of less than idealistic work environments, management relations, clumsiness in my playing and the like. But if I move on to the next moment, my persistence invariably leads me to immersion in such soul-lifting stuff that I’ll always want to wake up the next day and do it again. Bill Evans has been persisting with that trombone of his for over fifty years. Imagine that grown man doing that.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Heroes—George Lewis

It was easy for me to pick my first hero. A clarinetist who’s driving, soulful sound had one foot in the rhythm section, one foot in the front line. I aspire to the kind of playing that one moment chases the trumpet and the next joins the back line to punch the pulse of the song. That can hold a band together with arpeggiating one moment, and remind the listener of the melody the next. George Lewis was just such a clarinetist.

Joseph Lewis Francis Zeno was born July 13th, 1900 in New Orleans. He was called George, however, from his first moments. Unlike many New Orleans-born musicians, he was not born into a family of music makers. His mother, Alice Zeno, would say that she didn’t know where her son “got that music from,” but he was apparently in possession of a musician’s heart from the beginning. A strong argument can be made that his was a case of environment succeeding over genetics. From an early age he was surrounded by music in his Treme neighborhood. Hopes Hall, a New Orleans dance hall, was across from where young George lived. Hopes Hall, other nearby halls, parades, and musician neighbors ensured that he would hear the music every day. 

Around the age of ten, George used a dime from his mother to purchase a fife from a local five and dime. “Ten cents,” Alice said, “that’s all I ever spent for his music.” She was initially driven to distraction by his constant practice, “but I wanted him to play because he wanted to be a musicianer.” Before long he was playing all manner of tunes and improvisations. Children who set their sights on becoming a “musicianer” would often form what was known as a field band, or what George called “kid parades” and try to imitate the professional brass bands of the day. George would play his fife in such ensembles.

Although accounts vary by as much as eight years, it seems likely that around the age of 16 or 17 his fife-playing attracted enough attention that he was encouraged to get himself a clarinet. Within a year he was playing professionally with the Black Eagle Band. Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s he stayed in New Orleans or the surrounding area while many of his fellow musicians would head north to Chicago and other cities to ply their trade. George was happy to stay with his family in New Orleans and during those two decades ended up playing in nearly every band in the city at one time or another. 

George worked hard. To support his family he not only put in long hours playing his clarinet, but would also work as a laborer during the day. From 1934-36, for instance, he played at a place on Decatur and Ursuline called the Kingfish seven hours a night and worked with WPA projects by day. A dollar per night plus tips at the Kingfish, $28 per month with the WPA. 

It may be that George would have played away in obscurity for his whole life but for the efforts to resuscitate the musical career of cornetist Bunk Johnson, one of the pioneers of jazz. George was one of the musicians assembled for Bunk’s comeback band. Beginning in 1942, recordings and a subsequent 1945 tour taking the band to New York’s Stuyvesant Casino brought attention to George’s clarinet. During the forties he recorded under Bunk’s name and his own. 

Despite his career moving upward along with Bunk Johnson’s return to the limelight, George continued day laboring on the docks of New Orleans. It was there in July of 1944 that he suffered an injury to his chest that sent him home to recuperate and actually threatened to cut his career as a clarinetist short. On the 27th of that month, however, what is considered one of his most famous pieces was put on record for the first time. During George’s recuperation, noted jazz historian Bill Russell brought recording equipment into his home, where they were met by musicians Lawrence Marrero on banjo, and Slow Drag Pavageau on bass. While playing in George’s bedroom, the extraordinary “Burgundy Street Blues” was captured forever. His career was far from over.

Burgundy Street Blues
His association with Bunk would end in 1946, but would be the springboard for a career that, in the fifties and sixties, had him traveling around the country and eventually around the world, on the way to becoming one of the most popular figures in traditional jazz history.

George Lewis died on New Years Eve, 1968, just one month shy of my second birthday. I wouldn’t even learn of his existence until thirty years later, when my mentors from the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band spoke of him and his importance to the music we play. I missed something in not meeting him, and not only on account of his playing. To a one, the men in the Bill Evans band and the fans who met him when he came up to Minnesota to perform speak of what a sweet man he was, how it was a genuine pleasure to know him. 

I have those remembrances, his music, and his biographies. In the fall of 2008 I began the long process of learning “Burgundy Street Blues” in order to perform it around New Years Eve as a surprise to those here in Minnesota who knew him. Submerging myself in those notes taught me much about George’s playing. He infused himself into every phrase, and that song will always be his and his alone. I’ve been playing it for all these months now, and even recorded it recently, and I know I’ll always feel like I’m learning more about jazz every time I have the temerity to venture into those astounding three minutes of music. I play another of George’s compositions, “St. Phillip Street Breakdown,” as well. The Southside Aces recorded that piece, as well as “Gettysburg March,” which we were inspired to play because of a Lewis recording. Both are on our Bucktown Bounce CD from 2006.

Another of George’s recordings that is one of my favorites represents the more traditional line-up of a full New Orleans band. With a rhythm section of drums, bass, piano and banjo; and front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, this is the type of sound you’ll hear sitting in front of the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band or the Southside Aces. “Mahogany Hall Stomp” was first recorded by Louis Armstrong, showing off his unbelievable talent. But I love the George Lewis version just as well, both for it’s obvious nod to the Armstrong recording and for it’s headlong, careening charge from start to finish:

George Lewis-Mahogany Hall Stomp
Source information:
George Lewis A Jazzman from New Orleans, by Tom Bethell 1977 University of California Press