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12/9/09

Chicago 1961 - Part 2 (Embarking)



Having received the go-ahead from Bill Grauer, I started pursuing contacts in Chicago and lining up artists. Billie Wallington sent out a press release that was picked up by Variety and produced a call from Bill Nichols. He was an NBC television producer who happened to be laying the groundwork for a one-hour Dupont Show of the Week called Chicago and All That Jazz. He told me that it would be taped in color—which was very new at the time—and that he wanted it to be as star-studded as an earlier show devoted to ragtime. He asked if l would allow him to join me in Chicago and look over my shoulder for “casting ideas.” In a future post, I will have an account of that show, which survives as a crude black and white kinescope.

Going to Chicago was not going to make me rich. I agreed to do the job for a flat fee of $200 per album and basic expenses—no royalties. When you are young and things are going your way, you have a tendency to not look very far ahead—I looked only as far as the next project, in this case, Chicago. While I think today’s young people are more conscious of the business side of things, I also believe that my nearsightedness was not unusual. In fact, I have never had a royalty agreement on anything but my Bessie Smith biography, and it’s not exactly a best seller. This, of course, is something for which I can only blame myself.

Apropos checks, Bill gave me one of the reality kind when we discussed the budget. Unable to afford studio rental, I would have to find a suitable location and use the Riverside bus, a road-beaten, retired Greyhound that spent most of the year parked in a lot on 8th Avenue, around the corner. Equipped with an electric generator and a control panel, it had all the cables and inputs to serve as a mobile recording unit at Florida’s Sebring race track. The bus was bad news, but the real disaster was that we could not afford to hire Dave Jones, who had done such a splendid job in New Orleans and, more recently, on the Vanguard Bill Evans remote. With Ray Fowler, our in-house audio engineer, scheduled to the max in New York, the choice came down to two staffers, Barrett Clark and Dick Cohn, neither of whom had previously worked with jazz.

I knew them both well and liked them, but I worried about their suitability for this project. Barrett was a TV actor who had done an excellent job of supervising such spoken word recordings as Peter Ustinov’s The Grand Prix of Gibraltar and the wonderful Bentley on Brecht album. He had also produced the Sebring albums and masterfully captured the repetitious clatter of wind-battered shutters and a variety of faucet drips for a series called Sounds of the Home. He loved the well spoken word and, I think, auto racing, but—as his work soon confirmed—senior citizens performing jazz was not his métier, his heart was not in this music and the project presented technical challenges that he was ill equipped to meet.

Bill did give me a fine photographer, Steve Schapiro, whose work I had already admired. Unlike New Orleans, where Ralston Crawford and Florence Mars were respectively assigned to take cover and session photos, Steve was alone. To get a head start on the covers, he flew with me to Chicago a couple of days in advance of the bus. We checked into a lively hotel on Rush Street, the Croydon, where sidemen stayed during the Big Band Era, while leaders were more likely to be found at the Palmer House. Steve immediately hit the streets with his camera and I got on the phone to search for a reasonably priced hall. When it came down to the wire and I hadn’t found a place, one of the legends, Junie C. Cobb, recommended the Prince Hall Masonic Temple at 42nd and Cottage Grove. It offered a choice of three rooms, each with its own piano, two grands and an upright. It was also where our problems began.

Alberta Hunter—then retired from music and working as a nurse in a New York hospital—made her recording comeback with a Prestige session for me two weeks earlier (an album entitled Songs We Taught Your Mother). I wanted to reunite her with pianist Lovie Austin, so she graciously agreed to make a one day stop-over in Chicago enroute to a California vacation. As music director for Paramount Records, Lovie had played an important role in Alberta’s career, so much so that she put her down as co-writer of Downhearted Blues, the song that marked Bessie Smith’s recording debut. This proved to be a greater gift than either of the two ladies could had imagined forty years earlier.

Junie C. Cobb, Lovie Austin, and Darnell Howard at the temple.

Reuniting Lovie and Alberta was important to me, but it had to be done on September 1 and timed so that Alberta could catch a five o’clock train. Imagine my nervousness as the morning hours ticked away and there was no sign of the Riverside bus. Adding to the looming problems was the fact that only one room was available, because nobody could find the keys to the other two. This was, of course, the least desirable of the three rooms, the one with the upright, which needed tuning. It was also awkwardly located on the second floor, which posed a problem with the cables and further distanced the bus from me and the performers.

In the meantime, as we waited near the temple’s entrance, jazz history walked through the doors: trombonist Jimmy Archey, clarinetist Darnell Howard, bassist Pops Foster, drummer Jasper Taylor, and three truly legendary ladies, Lil Armstrong, Lovie, and Alberta. Magical names from a bygone era that only ten years earlier had seemed downright mythological to a young jazz-bitten Scandinavian. When one is young, even twenty years can seem like a shadowy distant past, so imagine how I felt as people whose work and very being had fed my romanticizing imagination began to materialize before me. Even my then recent working encounters with Ida Cox, Lonnie Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis and Elmer Snowden had not lessened the magic.

Jasper Taylor and Lovie waiting at the temple.



To make the most of the waiting period, Steve walked Alberta and Lovie to the front of a nearby house and got us a cover photo.

Then, at noon—an hour after the scheduled start of the session—the bus finally pulled up and the problems I had foreseen became a matter of immediate concern. I knew the guys were tired and it was unfair that they did not get time to rest up before tackling the problems, but they had been told about Albert’s tight schedule and they could have planned an earlier arrival. By the time the cables were in place, the microphones set up, and the equipment tested, only three hours remained before Alberta had to catch her train.

I had to be where the music was, which meant that I couldn’t hear how it sounded on the bus—nobody had thought of that kind of setup. All they gave me was a tinny two-way radio through which to communicate with Barrett. I had to rely on his judgement as to how satisfactory the sound was. To make matters worse, we were in the middle of the first selection, Downhearted Blues, when our cable picked up the signal from a local radio station—Alberta and Lovie were competing with Timi Yuro!

I don’t know how we got through the session, but we ended up with eleven selections. As Lil rushed Alberta to the train station, I boarded the bus to hear a playback. It was horrific, to say the least. The balance was so off that the piano sounded as if coming from a distant room and Jimmy Archey’s trombone all but drowned out Alberta’s voice! “Don’t worry about it,” Barrett said. “We only have one channel working for playback, so you are getting only half of what’s on the tape.” He sounded convincing, but I wasn’t convinced and, as it turned out, what I heard was exactly what was on the tape—I strongly suggested that it not be released.

Apart from our technical nightmare, it was clear that the temple was a less than ideal location, so I looked around for a better one and ended up making arrangements with The Birdhouse, a jazz club on North Dearborn that had Oscar Peterson booked that week—we would have the afternoons and, of course, a well-tuned grand. On the first day, September 5, we completed two albums, one each by Al Wynn and Franz Jackson. I still could not hear proper playback, but I thought Barrett was adjusting to the situation. I was wrong.





The following day, it was Little Brother Montgomery’s turn. With one major frustration after another, this trip lacked the smoothness that had characterizes the previous experience. Too many unexpected twists and turns, saved only by the fact that these musicians, like their New Orleans counterparts, were no strangers to each other. Of course, the unexpected is not always the unwanted; some bends in the road lead to rewards, which was the case when Steve Schapiro and I decided to catch Earl Hines and his band at a club on State Street. Hines was based in California, but he happened to be appearing in town and he was a natural for inclusion in this series. I was hoping that he was free to do an album, which he was, and something wonderful happened on the way to see him. Steve and I were about to cross to the other side of State Street when we heard someone singing Michigan Water Blues with cornet obligati that could have come straight off a 1920s Paramount disc. The sound came from a cocktail lounge, the Hey Rube, the voice belonged to Little Brother Montgomery, and the cornetist was Ted Butterman, who—almost a half century later—is a keeper of the flame. Montgomery, whose recording career began on a Paramount disc, was already on my list, but I had not thought of recording him with a band—that concept was shaped by what I witnessed at the Hey Rube.

Several young players dropped by to sit in while we were there. “These are my friends,” Montgomery told us, but that had become obvious. He introduced us to a shy young lady named Elaine McFarland, a vocalist whom he was coaching. “She is very good,” he said, and I would love to have her sing a number on the record. So Elaine made her recording debut rendering Oh, Daddy, which had been recorded by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey in another era. Many years later, when a Stereo Review reader pointed it out, I learned that this timid protege of Little Brother Montgomery had become “Spanky McFarlane,” a pop/rock star and leader of the chart-climbing group, Spanky and Our Gang. As Fats Waller once said, “one never knows, do one?”

As you can imagine,the Montgomery session hit some bumps. First, one of the Ampex machines broke down and a spare part had to be found. This produced an unscheduled break during which the saxophone player, Bob Skiver, took advantage of the Birdhouse’s liquor license and thereby rendered himself useless for the rest of the session. He also, it turned out, was not a member of the union, so I listed him as “Rufus Brown” and paid him on the side for his brief participation. Skiver was 53 when he passed away during a jam session in Ohio. In all fairness, I should add that Ted Butterman, who knew and frequently worked with Skiver for 15 years, tells me that he never saw him take a drink.

My reaction to the Alberta Hunter session playback seemed to have gotten to Barrett, who now actually had every instrument miked. However, he still didn’t get it right—there was no middle channel, no track that combined left and right—and no control of the mikes. Granted, Barrett, too, was at a great disadvantage by not being able to see the performers, but I gave him advance run-down of solo order, etc. I wish he had told me that he wasn’t picking up a piano solo, for example, and wouldn’t it have been nice if Little Brother’s piano did not appear to be on one side of the room and he on the other?

The first of two Earl Hines sessions at The Birdhouse.

Apropos inexcusable sloppiness, I wanted to record Earl Hines playing solo or, at most, with a rhythm section, but he saw this as an opportunity to promote his band, which was as yet unrecorded, and that was the only way he would agree to do it. He also wanted to sing, which further dismayed me, but—although I was obviously not going to get the album I wanted—having Earl in the series was significant. When the album was released, I received a note from Martin Williams saying that he loved the version of A Monday Date and how much it amazed him that Earl could come up with afresh approach to a tune he so frequently performed. I wish we had performed equally well, but Barrett left Earl’s voice mike throughout the session, giving his rather loud grunts the kind of presence Alberta’s voice and Lovie’s piano should have had. I think Fantasy’s remastering engineer, Phil De Lancie, tried to make some corrections, but there is little that one can do with two tracks.

Then there was Barrett’s misplaced frugality. Wanting to use every inch of tape, he was loath to change reels if there was the slightest chance of the next selection fitting onto the one already in place. Consequently, even with two machines, there were several instances where the tape simply ran out. I was blissfully unaware of this until I started the editing process and had to do exit fades.

I don’t recall where Barrett and Dick stayed while in Chicago, but we didn’t hang out together. One night I returned to the Croydon to find a message from Mayo Williams, a producer and legend in his own right. The grapevine had hipped him to the project and he saw an opportunity to get some of his clients involved. Let me put Mayo on hold, as it were and get back to him in a few days, as I continue my recollections. I will also talk about a violent encounter that prematurely sent Steve Schapiro back to New York, how Lil Armstrong accidentally ended up with a big band, Mama Yancey’s balance, the lively Croydon Hotel bar, and what in its men’s room so intrigued Julie London.

Here is a link to Part II of this recollection.

Please click on images to enlarge them.

12/5/09

Goin' to Chicago (1961)

As I sat down to make pixels out of my Chicago: Living Legends recollections, I'm afraid got a bit carried away in my introduction. This will therefore serve as just that, a lead in. I will post the rest by Monday, December 7.













































My grandparents were married in Rome on March 15, 1901. Sixty years later, courtesy of a generous family friend, they returned to Rome to privately celebrate their anniversary. The big celebration took place in June of 1961 when all their five children and one grandchild gathered in Copenhagen. You guessed it, I was the grandchild. We had all made the trip from abroad: my Uncle Torben and Aunt Armanda flew in from Santo Domingo, Uncle Christian and Aunt Flavie came over from England, my mother, Yvonne came down from Iceland, and I hopped a PanAm flight from New York.











I had only been with Riverside for eight months, but Bill Grauer gave me the time off. As usual, Orrin was not too pleased, although I think he might secretly have been glad to get rid of me for ten days. I would not have been able to make the trip were it not for our audio engineer, Ray Fowler, who offered to lend me the fare. The day before I left New York, Cannonball Adderley asked me if I would pick up some German lenses and other camera accessories for him in Denmark. Japanese cameras were still no match for the German ones, and that sort of thing was much cheaper in Europe. I told Cannon that I’d be glad to do that, thereby, as it turned out, cutting short my stay at Riverside Records.

Celebrating my grandparents' 60th anniversary in Copenhagen. On the left: My uncles Christian and George, Grandmother, Uncle Torben and Aunt Flavie. On the right: Aunt Armanda, Grandfather, my mother and her fourth husband, Styrmir.

When one of the lenses Cannon wanted me to buy had to be ordered from Germany and could not be delivered before my return flight, I wired him and asked him to tell Bill that I would be a couple of days late. That, apparently, was not a problem—after all, Cannon was the label’s most important artist at the time. Still, Orrin eventually used it as an excuse to fire me, but he waited until I had completed the post-production work on the New Orleans series. Cannon took the blame and tried to save my job, but I told him that it was really not a good idea for me to stay. Bill seemed uncomfortable with the situation and suggested that I might do sessions as an outside producer. He could have put his foot down, but Riverside was beginning to have financial problems and I think he had his hands full trying to keep it afloat. It was always Bill who, with help from Herman Gimbel, somehow managed to keep it all going.

I quickly managed to interest Bob Weinstock in letting me do some sessions. He offered me a staff position at Prestige, ostensibly as a producer, but—on paper, at least—as a juggler of hats. Somewhere in those piles of miscellany that sum up my life I have a small collection of Prestige business cards with three or four different job titles. It was not unusual for me to find amid my morning mail a memo from Bob informing me that I no longer was the head of Artist Development, but had, overnight, become Director of Publicity. I don’t recall all the titles, but I barely held any long enough to use more than four or five pertinent business cards, and it was all pro forma. My only real function was a&r and all that such work entails. I only produced a handful of albums during my short tenure at Prestige, and all but one was my own concept. The exception was a flamenco session Bob asked me to do on a few hours notice—to this day, it is my only non-jazz/blues effort. It featured a Spanish Flamenco group, Los Morenos, that seemed to have come out of nowhere on a two-way ticket. I don’t know how good or authentic this group was, but its five members arrived at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio on time, complete with a roll-out dance floor and a routine as tight as any I had seen. They whipped out their castanets, stomped and attitudinized with an impressive flair for the dramatic while I practiced a lesson taken from Orrin’s a&r manual: worked the stopwatch. Unless it was a glaring goof, how would I know when to call for another take? Sound of Flamenco, should you ever come across it, is a self-produced affair.

I liked working for Bob Weinstock, because he had a sense of humor and no oversized ego to get in the way, loved the music and felt secure enough to delegate authority. He pretty much stayed in his office where he played the stock market on the phone and did verbal imitations of Miles Davis. I recall only vaguely what my office looked like at Prestige, it wasn’t even an office, just a desk in a designated corner. I have a more ingrained image of Bob’s father, Pop Weinstock, bent over a rather large floor-mounted electric drill, boring a second hole through the labels of albums that were to be dumped to bargain sales outlets.

Producers like Ozzie Cadena and Ken Goldstein were in and out of the place, but I developed a more lasting rapport with Esmond Edwards. He was New Yorker of Jamaican ancestry whose initial job at Prestige had been as a photographer and driver. The latter function was eventually phased out of his bio, but—the studio being located across the river and most New York-based musicians not owning a car—it was necessary for Bob to furnish transportation back and forth. As a photographer—a damn good one—Esmond witnessed many extraordinary sessions produced by Bob and others, but just as I later played Bob’s musical chairs game, he owed a major career change to Mr. Weinstock’s whim. As Esmond related it to me, one day Bob surprised everyone by walking out in the middle of a session. “You’ve seen enough of these, you know what to do,” he said to Esmond. “Finish this one.” Then he left the studio, never to return. Esmond did very well, eventually holding important a&r positions with a number of major labels. We lost him in 2007, but his legacy of music and images is a rich one.
At my cluttered Riverside desk, 1961.

In August of 1961, I decided to do something about an idea that had been on my mind since returning from the January New Orleans trip. The hackneyed, overly simplified story of jazz moving up the river to Chicago not being a total myth, and remembering Bill’s suggestion that I might do freelance producing for Riverside, I proposed to him a follow-up series: Chicago: The Living Legends. Before I could get into details, Bill’s face lit up and I knew that I had hit his G spot (G, as in Gennett). His romantic obsession with scratchy old 78s and the legends who rested in their grooves now aroused the very passion that had led to the founding of a moldy fig jazz collectors magazine, The Record Changer, and Riverside Records. I confess that I was playing a little calculating game when I mentioned that Bob Weinstock would probably be interested in such a project, hastening to add that I felt it belonged on Riverside. Bill, having lost touch with the reality of looming bankruptcy, was quick to react. “Of course it belongs here,” he blurted out. “Who’s still around?” A couple of venerated names from the past was all it took—Bill was so excited that he reversed the roles and became the persuader.


Lil Armstrong's "Eastown Boogie" (video)

I created a video around one of the Chicago recordings, Lil Armstrong's Eastown Boogie.

11/21/09

New Orleans '61 (The journey begins)


1961 was a productive year for me. In January and September, I made two trips out of New York for Riverside Records, both of which remain remarkably fresh in my memory as I look back on my career. My aim was to capture before it was too late, performances by veteran jazz and blues artists who were still active. In this, the first of two posts, I reminisce about New Orleans, where Audio engineer Dave Jones and I made 12 albums in one week.


The recording trek was not something I had proposed, but it was right in line with my own goals—I had already produced sessions by Lonnie Johnson and Elmer Snowden, so this was a perfect continuation. I think Bill Grauer came up with the idea when Herb Friedwald, an attorney with a jazz passion and father-to-be of Will, offered to sell Riverside recent tapes by Kid Thomas and Peter Bocage. A hopeless romantic, Bill saw his label carrying on the field recording practices of old. Of course, Orrin Keepnews was less enthused and I don't think he was happy about me doing the a&r, but Bill called the shots. Besides, Orrin's studio schedule for that week included sessions by Cannonball and others whose names surely attracted more attention than an obscure bunch of New Orleans old-timers. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Orrin, but he always gave me the impression that I was stepping on his turf, and I think he proved me right a couple of months after New Orleans, when he intruded on my Ida Cox sessions.

So, on a wintry Friday night in January, as thousands of celebrants flocked to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural and even more were left snowbound and with unusable tickets, Dave Jones and I boarded his old van and headed into a New York snowstorm, going south. Given the weather conditions, this was not something reasonable people would do and I must confess to having been a somewhat reluctant passenger. However, about a month earlier, two large passenger planes, a United Airlines jet and a TWA Constellation, had a mid-air collision, strewing wreckage and bodies upon Brooklyn and Staten Island. That crash was still generating headlines when, on the eve of our departure, a Mexican DC-8 crashed into Rockaway Beach Boulevard and burst into flames. Flying was not an attractive option.



I haven’t seen Dave Jones in many years, but I hope he is still around and doing well. No stranger to the music that brought us together for this trip, Dave had recorded Gene Mayl’s Dixieland Rhythm Kings and a George Lewis group in Ohio during the mid-Fifties, and sold or leased the tapes to Riverside. When it turned out that we could not do studio sessions in New Orleans, Bill Grauer thought Dave would be just the right man for the project, and he was so right.


There were no seat belts back then, but we sure could have used them as Dave raced down the icy roads, afraid to slow down lest that might send us into a skid. We did not skid, nor did we stop for more than a quick cup of coffee, refueling, and to take two steps into Florida on Sunday morning, when we found ourselves within walking distance of its northern border. We had by then left the snowstorm behind, but even the “Sunshine State” had frost on the ground that winter.


We arrived in New Orleans that afternoon and headed straight for a rented apartment that awaited us in the French Quarter. It had the look of a Tennessee Williams set, complete with a courtyard from which well-worn wooden steps led to a well-worn balcony and a very lived-in residence. Stella wasn’t there for us to yell at, but, all the same, we saw her standing at the top of the steps. Herb Friedwald was our New Orleans contact, the man who found the picturesque apartment and the perfect recording location, a hall owned by the Societé des Jeunes Amis. He also alerted the jazz community to the project and set up the most remarkable audition on the day of our arrival. Although he really did a great job of laying the groundwork for the project, I vaguely recall his attitude towards me growing a bit frosty, if not hostile, after I returned to the New York office. I think he believed that Bill should have hired him for the project rather than assign it to me. If so, I can understand how he felt and admire even more the graciousness with which he veiled his disappointment. As I recall, Herb did not attend any of the sessions, which I thought was odd, at the time, but I later surmised a reason.
Kid Thomas posing for my camera 1/61


When we arrived in New Orleans, I had not yet decided how many sessions we would do and I carried in my pocket only a tentative list of the artists I wanted to record. Bill Grauer, who all but slept with Paramount 78s under his pillow, was very excited about this project but, typically, stayed out of it and generously left it up to me to decide its scope. It didn’t take me long to see that traditional jazz—although slightly bruised by time—still thrived in the old city. It soon became clear to me that I wouldn’t have to scrounge to find active veterans. I knew that some of them were no longer playing on any regularly basis, and that had thus let their union membership run out, so I had the good sense to call the American Federation of Musicians before leaving New York and request special dispensation to record anybody, regardless of membership status. Henry Zaccardi, the Federation's second in command understood my concern and the importance of preserving this music, so the rules were suspended. As it turned out, the recordings generated sufficient interest in some of the artists to warrant their catching up on their dues.


Having checked out that incredible apartment, we headed for North Robertson Street and dropped Dave's equipment off at the Jeunes Amis hall. Then we followed Herb to a former furniture store on Royal Street, where the powerhouse sound of Kid Thomas’ Algiers Stompers greeted us, full blast.
I immediately added Thomas to my to-do list of artists and, as one group after another gave me goosebumps, that list grew and it became clear that we would be doing several albums. Technical imperfections? Sure, but if the music is honest and from the heart, I'll take the occasional missed note any day over the unemotional stuff Wynton dishes out with flawless technique. No clinker can mar a sound so spirited—I was blown away by everything I heard that afternoon and evening, ready to equate New Orleans with that mythical cul-de-sac some call “heaven.”

Societé Des Jeunes Amis hall entrance
I spent Monday morning making calls and creating a recording schedule while Dave headed for the hall to set up the equipment. The original plan had been to do this the conventional way and rent a studio, but we learned that New Orleans, for all its delights, was still cursed by racism and segregation laws, so—not yet knowing who we would be recording, it behooved us to find a suitable location. Herb steered us right when he suggested renting the Societé des Jeunes Amis hall. It was a wood-framed 19th century black Creole fraternal headquarter and it proved to have every advantage over a studio; apart from its live sound, it gave the performers familiar surroundings, a place where all had played over the years. Back then,they had no problem climbing to the balcony band area, but in 1961, the ground floor was the right spot.

The hall's acoustical sound was exactly what I wanted to recapture: the same kind of ambience that lent such character to Bill Russell’s 1940’s American Music recordings from San Jacinto Hall. This was also the sound I had sought to emulate in a suburban Copenhagen ballroom seven years earlier, when Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan played into my B&O tape machine.

I scheduled the first two New Orlean sessions for Tuesday, January 24, so Dave spent a good part of the previous day in the hall, wiring up the equipment.
Engineer Dave Jones setting up his equipment.
I took a couple of pictures as he placed a group of chairs in a semi-circle around an electronic jumble that, frankly, did not inspire confidence: two Ampex tape decks, spring-mounted on steel supports and surrounded by a confusion of unenclosed instrument panels, tangled cables, and electrical tape. As Dave began hooking it all up, I wondered how good the sound would be, but I need not have had any concern, for he was a master at location recording. He offered even further proof of that five months later, when he used the same equipment to make the highly acclaimed Vanguard recordings with the Bill Evans Trio.


Dave Jones' "control room." and floor model
Ampex decks. He used the same equipment
to record Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard.
Dick Allen of the Tulane Jazz Archive.
Our initial session featured trombonist Jim Robinson’s band, with trumpeter Ernest Cagnolatti and clarinetist Louis Cottrell completing the front line. Cottrell, a student of the truly legendary Lorenzo Tio, was also the head of the black musician's union. Yes, in 1961 New Orleans still had race-based unions! So did Philadelphia, but for a different reason. As a union official, Louis Cottrell cooperated in every way, but it was his playing that impressed me most—so much that I put him down for two trio albums. Our initial Robinson session was Cottrell's first recording since 1936, when he cut some Vocalion sides with Don Albert's big band. Robinson was well known for his post-war work with Bunk Johnson and George Lewis. Bill Grauer had heard him in 1945, with Bunk at New York's Stuyvesant Casino, and most truly moldy Collector types were aware of the 1927 Sam Morgan Jazz Band sides he participated on. Did he recall those sides? Yes, he remembered the sessions, but not the music. I was disappointed, because I had wanted the band to record at least one tune from the Morgan date. Noting that, Dick Allen (pictured here), then Associate Curator of the Tulane Jazz Archives, brought a tape of Morgan recordings to our final session, which again featured Robinson's band.

Having the old recordings gave Dave Jones a great idea. With the band in position and the microphones live, Dave played Morgan's Bogalusa Strut from speakers he had placed behind them. Instruments in hand, Jim and the band listened as the thin, dated sound of the 33 year old recording echoed in the old hall. George Guesnon picked up some chords on his banjo, Jim's had déjà vu written all over his face when that glimmer of recognition lit up his eyes and he raised the trombone to his lips. Slowly, he brought those slides of old into the present and, one by one, the pieces of a puzzle were assembled. I won't even try to describe in words the feeling that came over me when the entire band suddenly burst into full bloom and drowned out the old recording. It was a one-time-only experience, but Dave had captured it all in stereo.

Robinson, Cagnolatti, Cottrell and Guesnon enjoy a playback.
When we heard the playback, we agreed that this wonderful transition had to be included on the album. Sad to say, it wasn't. Columbia Records would not grant us permission to reproduce even that snippet of their Morgan recording, and my close association with that label was a few years in the future. I bet that tape is collecting dust in the Concord vault.

I will eventually get to some of the other wonderful musicians who gave this series life, the Humphrey brothers, Willie and Percy, Billie and Dede Pierce, Kid Thomas, Peter Bocage, who was not very complimentary in his recollections of Buddy Bolden, Sweet Emma Barrett, who jingled her bells and ended up in Glamour magazine. I will also be posting about Bill Russell, the man who really brought us the New Orleans revival of the 1940s, a truly eccentric and interesting man. In 1961, Bill had a little record shop in New Orleans, where he also repaired violins and filed down bumpy LPs. He deserves his own post, so expect that.

One of the bass players, McNeal Breaux, a cousin of Wellman Braud, Duke's bassist, owned a restaurant and invited Dave and me to have dinner there, but we had to enter through the back door, because of our color—by law, we were not allowed to be there at all. One night, I offered to give Homer Eugene a ride home, but when he saw that I was calling a cab, he told me that riding with me would be against the law—a black woman could take a cab with a white baby, but that's as far as that went. Incredible. On a phone call to the office, I told Bill Grauer how cooperative Louis Cottrell and the union people had been. "Take them out to dinner," Bill said. He was as naïve as I had been a couple of days before. I ended up having food and drinks brought in by a caterer, which was much better, anyway.

I could go on about this trip, but let me just say that it was a short but extraordinary chapter of my life. Dave and I didn't have time to enjoy the city, except for a couple of breakfast trips to the docks and a visit with Sidney Bechet's brother.

When I returned to New York, I immediately got busy compiling the albums and editing the tapes. I was doing that when Nesuhi Ertegun gave me a call and asked if I would allow him to hear some of the music. I was delighted, but not surprised that he showed that much interest in traditional New Orleans jazz. He came over and stayed for a few hours, totally immersed in the sounds. Not long thereafter, Neshui sent someone to New Orleans to record more of it, but, of course, for his Atlantic label. That delighted me, too, and I was especially glad that Atlantic included marching bands, which was something I should have done. Apropos parades, the great Alphonse Picou passed away four days after I left the city, so I missed one of the grandest of all funeral parades. Picou was a powerful influence on jazz inits early stages, a man who played with the greatest and was himself on that level. He is probably best known for having created what long since has become the standard High Society clarinet solo. Cottrell told me that Picou had a horse and buggy that transported him to his gigs. He often had too much to drink, but it was not a problem, because they just had to lift him into his buggy—the horse knew the way home.

As for my own ride home, I decided to fly.

I will soon be posting my account of the follow-up trip that yielded the Chicago: The Living Legends series. It was a very different experience, I had left the label so I was doing this project freelance and more for love than money. Riverside was beginning to feel the pinch that soon brought this great label down. Sometime it doesn't pay to do things on the cheap and this was one of those times, as—I am sorry to say—the resulting albums painfully prove. Once again, I met wonderful people and heard great music, but—as far as the recordings are concerned—the New Orleans experience was heaven to Chicago's hell. I'll tell you all about it.

Finally, I have at last figured out how to get some sound into this blog, other than borrowed ones (like the excerpts from my Bill Evans show, which others had posted on YouTube). I wanted to include a sample of the New Orleans recordings, so here is Jim Robinson's Jeunes Amis Blues. I had to throw together a video and upload it to YouTube in order to embed it here. There must be an easier way to post audio. However, this seems to work well so expect to hear (and see) more here, as it were.

Remember, clicking on the images above will enlarge them. Clicking once on the image below will start the show, but clicking again will bring you to YouTube—and then you're on your own.






11/17/09

The Armstrong file (Contract changes)



Here is more from the Armstrong file folder. George Avakian sees Louis's career getting ready to bloom again and wants Columbia to get a piece of the action. With talk of a film based on Louis's life (Hollywood actually never got around to it—which is probably a good thing), he wants to secure him contractually and quickly, thus prevent his working with Bing Crosby in another movie, High Society. The second memo is about contract changes. Notice that item 2 refers to "78 rpm sides"—and this is 1956. Click on the letters to make them readable.




Next comes a letter from Joe Glaser, who returns a note Avakian sent him, It is from a German fan and one wonders what was so special about it; Louis received a lot of fan mail from all over the world, but George thought this one worthy to be forwarded. Am I missing something? Was Ingie Dagmar Fuelle someone whose name I should recognize? No Google results. The February 6, 1956 memo from Avakian shows ongoing concern over Decca's rights.



Finally, there is a hand-written note on economic feasability and the Decca situation, addressed to Avakian from Jim Conkling, the President of Columbia Records. Must not have had a typewriter—and what is that "L" signature?


As we move on, you will probably find this correspondence more interesting.

11/13/09

The Armstrong file (How about them Yankees)


Here is a continuation of the Armstrong file correspondence, which is mainly between his producer, George Avakian, and his manager, Joe Glaser. In subsequent posts, Goddard Lieberson will also figure. He was the head of CBS Records. Click on the letters to make them readable.

I will let the letters speak for themselves...





In retrospect, we have to wonder if the good Reverend was given the answers beforehand.
From the October 26, 1955 edition of the NY Times.

11/11/09

The Armstrong File: Correspondence - Part I


This is another in a series of posts in which we dip into the remarkable Armstrong file folder that popped up in my mail forty years ago. You will find details of that postal miracle at the other end of this link.

Letters and interoffice memos make up the bulk of the file folder’s contents. They offer an interesting peek into behind-the-scenes activity in the mid-Fifties, a time when new audiences were discovering Armstrong and his playing could still be quite extraordinary. The letters show how fragile the relationship between Columbia and Joe Glaser was, and give an occasional glimpse of flavor of the times. They also reflect business diplomacy, which become especially apparent when we get to the inter-office memos.

There are too many letters and memos to post them all, so I have decided to select the more interesting ones and group them in a way that makes sense, while maintaining the chronology.

Here we get a good idea of why so many musicians were not able to retire to a house with swimming pool and room for a pony.


This was at the time when the Columbia Record Club was launched. The 98¢ record mentioned may have been a part of that.


I should point out that Ed Sullivan's weekly offering of music, juggling and standup was a CBS show, so it was all in the family. The This Is Jazz show George refers to in the second letter was a late-Forties jam session kind of thing conducted by Rudi Blesh. Does anybody recall what the "celebrated wisecrack" George Brunies made was? UPDATE: Jeff Crompton posted the answer here. Thank you, Jeff


Finally, there is this from Glaser. I wonder if he ever learned how to spell Ahmet Ertegun's name, and why his offer was turned down. The NY Times clippings are just fillers, a couple of 1947 photos from Rudi's aforementioned This Is Jazz show, and a sad dog story.



The chronology continues here.