Archive for Jazz

The Old Rugged Cross – George Lewis

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , on April 15, 2022 by telescoper

A descendant of Senegalese slaves, George Lewis was born in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1900 where he learned to play the clarinet and started to play with jazz bands in the 1920s. Many musicians left New Orleans for Chicago during that period but Lewis stayed and lived on in relatively obscurity until the New Orleans “revival” began in the 1940s. After appearing on records with likes of Bunk Johnson, Lewis became a sort of Patron Saint of traditional jazz, with a style rooted in the home-town traditions of Gospel Music and Street Parades that was very different from that of the popular clarinetists of the Swing Era such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Lewis was never a great player from a technical point of view, but he was an authentic emblem of early Jazz and the back-to-basics move he represented proved very popular especially in Western Europe and Lewis had a late renaissance in his career in which he travelled widely playing with “traditional” bands around the world during the height of the “trad” boom of the fifties and sixties. He died in 1968.

Anyway, because it’s Good Friday I thought I would post this video of him in his later years playing the hymn The Old Rugged Cross, which was written in 1912 and has been a staple of New Orleans funeral processions ever since:

Jazz Quiz – Spot the Link

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , , on February 11, 2022 by telescoper

Time, I think, for a quick lunchtime jazz quiz. Here are two great old records from the classical period of Jazz. Can you spot the link between them?

The first is a slow blues recorded in 1928 called Superstitious Blues featuring a formidable singer by the name of Hattie Burleson in the company of Don Albert (trumpet), Siki Collins (soprano saxophone), Allen Van (piano), John Henry Bragg (banjo) and Charlie Dixon (brass bass):

The second, an up-tempo stomp recorded a year earlier in 1927, is one of the hottest jazz records ever made – the way it catches fire for the last 45 seconds or so is absolutely sensational no matter how many times you listen to it. It is performed by the Johnny Dodds (on clarinet) and his Black Bottom Stompers, consisting of George Mitchell and Natty Dominique on cornets, John Thomas on trombone, Charlie Alexander piano, Bud Scott banjo and Johnny Dodds’s younger brother, Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds, drums.

So, what’s the connection?

Well, nobody tried to answer so I will: real name of Don Albert, the trumpet player in the first track, was Albert Dominique and he was the nephew of the more famous Natty Dominique who played on the second track. Not a lot of people know that.

Sugar Rum Cherry – Duke Ellington

Posted in Jazz, Biographical with tags , , , , , on December 3, 2021 by telescoper

Today has been one of those days on which I’ve been quite busy all day but seem to have achieved very little so I eventually retreated home in the rain to have a drink or several before making dinner.

Jazz and classical music don’t always provide a palatable blend, but here’s one cocktail that definitely works, especially as the festive season approaches. It’s from the 1960 album The Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington, based on original music for the ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovksy. Most of the arranging on the album was done by Duke Ellington’s regular collaborator Billy Strayhorn,  and the result is every bit as witty, elegant and charming as you’d expect.  This is their gorgeous take on The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy:

Two Sugars

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , on September 25, 2021 by telescoper

The song Sugar (That Sugar Baby Of Mine) was written by Maceo Pinkard, Edna Alexander and Sidney Mitchell way back in the 1920s and quickly became a jazz standard played in various ways by various musicians. To illustrate its versatility as a vehicle for improvisers here are two very different versions that are favourites of mine that I’ve had reason to remember recently.

In 1980 I bought an album by the extraordinarily underrated Scottish Jazz singer Jeanie Lambe with the Danny Moss Quartet when it first came out. The British tenor saxophonist Danny Moss was married to Jeanie Lambe from 1964 until his death in 2008. Jeanie passed away last year at the age of 79. Many versions of Sugar are slow and slushy but this a straight-ahead swinging take on it, played at a jaunty tempo, with a fine solo by Danny Moss in the middle.

The second version is totally different. It was performed by the Newport All-Stars at a midnight concert in Paris in 1961. The band was led by pianist George Wein who passed away on 13th September. As well as being a musician in his own right, George Wein owned and ran the famous Storyville club in Boston during the late 40s and early 50s but was perhaps most famous for being behind the annual Newport Jazz Festival, which began in 1954 and is still going to this day. It was quite usual at these festivals to have an all-star band playing in support of various solo artists, which is why Jack Teagarden and Buck Clayton turned up playing behind Chuck Berry at the 1958 Festival. George Wein also persuaded Thelonious Monk to allow Pee Wee Russell to sit in with his Quartet on clarinet for a set – I have the record of that gig and it’s every bit as strange and wonderful as you might imagine!

An eccentric character who struggled with alcoholism, Pee Wee Russell (real name Charles Ellsworth Russell) was somewhat unreliable as a musician but although he was frequently wayward he had a unique voice and, when he was on good form, a beautifully lyrical way of playing with a really original approach to harmony. It might surprise you to know that Sidney Bechet was a big fan of Pee Wee as – no less surprisingly – was Benny Goodman. The great Coleman Hawkins said of Pee Wee in 1961:

For thirty years, I’ve been listening to him play those funny notes. I used to think they were wrong, but they weren’t. He’s always been way out, but they didn’t have a name for it then.

I’ve always been drawn to very original musicians like Pee Wee Russell; the sort that when you hear just one note you recognize immediately who it is. It’s not all about technique. Pee Wee had soul. Messrs Bechet, Goodman and Hawkins et al knew that for all his technical deficiencies he was the genuine article, a complete original.

I’ve always felt that one should judge musicians by their best playing rather than their worst and, on that night in Paris, Pee Wee produced this achingly beautiful and hauntingly tender rendition of Sugar, played as a slow ballad. He’s introduced on this track by George Wein who aptly described him as “The Poet of the Clarinet”. You can of course listen to the track and decide for yourself, but I think this is gorgeous.

Ophelia – The Milcho Leviev Quartet, featuring Art Pepper

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2021 by telescoper

One of the LP records that struck a chord when I was going through my stuff in Cardiff last week was this one:

Looking back over the blog I discover that it was almost exactly ten years ago that I wrote about the very same album so I thought I’d post it again, in slightly amended form.

I first heard the track below on Humphrey Lyttelton*’s Radio 2 show The Best of Jazz, which I used to listen to every Monday night when I was at School. I must have heard this sometime around 1981, i.e. about thirty years ago. From the moment I heard the first achingly beautiful phrases of theme of this tune, called Ophelia, I was entranced and it did more than any other single record to fill me with a love of modern jazz. Although I’d always loved jazz, I had tended to think of it as music “of the past” – even the “modern” jazz of e.g. Charlie Parker fell into that category – and usually made in a recording studio. This sounded so new, so exciting, and indeed so beautiful, that it filled me with the urge to hear live jazz whenever and wherever I could. It cost me a lot of money and a lot of late nights, but I think it was worth it.

The performance was recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London in June 1980 and released on the small British record label Mole Jazz, an offshoot of the famous (and sadly now defunct) record shop of the same name that used to be on Gray’s Inn Road. I loved the track Humph played so much I got the album Blues for the Fisherman straight away (by mail order) and, although I still have it, I have almost worn it away by playing it so much. It’s a brilliant, brilliant album, with the intense atmosphere of a live performance adding to the superb playing of the musicians.

The band is listed as the “Milcho Leviev Quartet featuring Art Pepper”, although that was probably for contractual reasons, as this was the same band that toured extensively as “The Art Pepper Quartet”: Art Pepper on alto saxophone, Milcho Leviev on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. I was lucky enough to see this band play live at the Newcastle Jazz festival not long after I got the record and they were great then too. Art Pepper sadly passed away in 1982.

As far as I’m aware this record wasn’t released on CD until very recently and, fortunately, a public-spirited person has put the tracks from the original album and some previous unreleased material on Youtube, so I’ve seized the opportunity to post the track which did so much to inspire me about jazz when I was 18 years old. There’s so much to enjoy in this piece, including the superb drumming of Carl Burnett and virtuosic piano of Milcho Leviev, but the star of the performance for me is Art Pepper (who also wrote the tune). His playing is at times lyrical and at times agonized, but always compelling and this band was especially good at spontaneous transitions of mood and dynamic. I love this performance, and I hope some of you will too.

P.S. Incidentally, Humphrey Lyttelton was born in May 1921 so he would have been 100 this May had he lived.

Pennies from Heaven – Lester Young

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on July 27, 2021 by telescoper

Well, some proper rain has arrived at last. I think the plants in my garden are pleased so I thought I’d celebrate with this lovely version of Pennies from Heaven (“Every time it rains it rains Pennies from Heaven”) by the great Lester Young recorded live in a small club, Olivia Davis’s Patio Lounge in Washington D.C., in 1956. In about 1981 bought a set of several LPs recorded over this six-night residency with a house trio led by Bill Potts on piano. People say that “Pres” was in decline at this stage of his life, but it doesn’t sound like that to me from the recrods. The band was a bit nervous when they met their esteemed guest before the first night’s performance as there was no time for a rehearsal, but they gelled immediately playing a selection of blues and standards. Lester Young didn’t need much to send him on his thoughtful way – he often paid even less attention to the tune than he does here – and he clearly enjoyed himself in this modest setting.

I’m Old Fashioned – Curtis Fuller

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 15, 2021 by telescoper

Saddened to hear of the death last week of the great Jazz trombonist Curtis Fuller I’ve been thinking of an appropriate track to play. Fuller had a long and distinguished career alongside many great artists which makes it difficult to pick just one track as a tribute, but as so often is the case I found myself gravitating back to the late 1950s which I think is probably my favourite period in Jazz history.

Thus I settled on a track from the studio album Blue Train recorded in 1957 by a sextet led by John Coltrane and featuring Curtis Fuller (trombone) and Lee Morgan (trumpet) with Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones on drums. It’s a superb album which is a must-have for any serious collector of this music. I thought I had already posted a track from this album on here, actually, but apparently I haven’t.

John Coltrane is now an established as one of the leading figures in the development of modern Jazz but this record is a reminder that he achieved recognition somewhat later in his life than many other soloists. At 31, he wasn’t exactly old when this album was recorded in 1957 but he was certainly no newcomer either. Obviously it took him a while to find his voice. By contrast the trumpeter Lee Morgan was, astonishingly, only 19 when this record was made; Curtis Fuller was in his mid-twenties.

Everyone plays beautifully on all the tracks on this album, and the blend of trumpet tenor sax and trombone in the ensemble gives this band a very distinctive sound, but I’ve picked a track on which Curtis Fuller really excels as a soloist. The rest of the tunes being based on the blues, this is actually the only ballad on the album, written by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, and called I’m Old Fashioned

R.I.P. Curtis Fuller (1932-2021)

International Jazz Day – A Tribute to Humph

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on April 30, 2021 by telescoper

Today is International Jazz Day which gives me an excuse to post this documentary about the late great Humphrey Lyttelton the anniversary of whose death was last weekend; he passed away on 25th April 2008.

I particularly like this programme because, as well as talking about his own career as a musician and bandleader and as brilliant chairman of the panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, it mentions his radio show The Best of Jazz which I listened to avidly every Monday night and from which I learned a huge amount about the music that I love so much. I taped many of these broadcasts actually, but have long since lost the cassettes. Although his own music was in the mainstream he always played a wide selection of Jazz tracks both ancient and modern on his programme and introduced me to many artists I would otherwise never have heard of.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free – Nina Simone

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on April 6, 2021 by telescoper

First performed in 1963, this classic anthem of the civil rights movement in the USA the words to this song (written by Billy Taylor) seem to me to have a few relevance in this time of enforced isolation.

R.I.P. Chris Barber (1930-2021)

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on March 3, 2021 by telescoper

I just saw the news that British trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber passed away yesterday at the age of 90. Chris Barber was one of the leading lights of the traditional jazz boom of the 1950s and 60s, during which he led a very fine band including trumpeter Pat Halcox and clarinetist Monty Sunshine among others.

I was fortunate to meet Chris Barber on a couple of occasions at Jazz festivals and he struck me as a really nice man as well as an excellent musician: very friendly and cooperative even with a young student wanting to do an interview for a college magazine. An interesting factoid about him is that he was a very fluent speaker of German and his band toured Germany frequently, even performing in East Berlin in 1965; you can see a recording of that concert here.

I was trying to think of a track to put up as tribute and decided on this one because it allows me to answer a question I asked on this blog a couple of years ago. When I was at school I used to listen to Sounds of Jazz a BBC2 Radio 2 programme presented on Sunday evenings by Peter Clayton. I always used to switch over from John Peel when Sounds of Jazz started and would always listen all the way through. It always ended with this track, a lovely version of an old blues tune called Snag It which I think was written by King Oliver.

R.I.P. Chris Barber (1930-2021).