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Old Talk, as it were...

The other day when I was rummaging through a stack of old magazines, I came across the October 30, 1971 issue of Saturday Review. Remember that magazine? Its editor back then was Norman Cousins and it had a proud history going back to the 1920s, when it was The Saturday Review of Literature. I had read much that was memorable in its pages, so I felt honored and somewhat humbled when Associate Editor Irving Kolodin asked me for a piece on Lil Armstrong, who had just passed away. He liked what I wrote, so he asked for more. The aforementioned issue, the one I just stumbled upon, contains my review of Ben Sidran's book, Black Talk. I had forgotten all about that—the book as well as my review of it—but curiosity made me take a look. Much changes in the course of 38 years, and my review is obviously as outdated as Sidran's book has become, given that, and the fact that the latter is still available (in an unaltered DaCapo reissue), I don't think I am being unfair when I now dust off my old words. I should add that my opinion did not sit well with Sidran, who wrote me a not-so-friendly letter, which I have not found.

One more thing, I must confess that I am not quite sure what I meant when I alluded to a partial demise of jazz, in the opening sentence. I think "as we have known it" saves me—at least I hope so.

Now that jazz, as we know it, seems well on its way to becoming a thing of the past, white America is finally beginning to take a serious look at Black America's cultural heritage.

Jazz being an important part of that heritage, it was inevitable that someone would devote a book to its socio-cultural aspects. So far, this has been done only tangentially—most notably by LeRoi Jones—and although this music, or rather its offspring (perhaps best referred to as black music), has in recent years moved into such "respectable" quarters as Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art without the stigma of novelty that was attached to Benny Goodman's famous Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 and subsequent all-star jazz events at the Metropolitan Opera House, a majority of white Americans still fail to regard the music of black Americans as anything more than entertainment

In the past, most books on the subject of black music have been written by white authors and critics who had little or no social contact with the jazz makers, outside of the semi-business chats that go with the profession. Consequently, the fair amount of jazz literature published over the past three decades has dealt only lightly with the social significance of black music—except in the writings of Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, and a few newcomers—failing to look beyond its musical impact to the attitudes that fostered its growth and development. Contrary to common belief, racial barriers do exist within the jazz community—they are perhaps more subtle, but they are there. Black performers are often reluctant to reveal their inner feelings to a white interviewer, fearing reprisals in the form of closed doors. Such fears are not unfounded, but we rarely hear of the record sessions or engagements that didn't take place because of personal biases within the power structure.

Caution exercised by performers—particularly of the older generation—combined with much conjecture on the part of writers, has resulted in serious distortion of black music history. Scholarly approaches sometimes yield ludicrous results: Several years ago, a noted French jazz critic devoted three or four paragraphs were very technical explanation of Louis Armstrong's decision to switch from the cornet to the trumpet. When I read the article to Armstrong, he shook his head. "I switched because Erskine Tate didn't like one short horn in his trumpet section," he said. "It didn't look good on the bandstand."

Mr. Sidran has obviously devoted a great deal of time to the study of black Americans and their music, but he has been misled too many times by gaining his knowledge from books. He refers to Louis Jordan as "one of the 'honking' tenor players," but had he listened to Jordan he would have discovered that he neither honked nor played tenor. "The T.O.B.A. circuit," he writes, "was known among black musicians as the 'tough on black artist' circuit. This is perhaps the earliest time the phrase black artists was used by Negro musicians to describe themselves." Actually, the interpretation had been altered by inhibited writers of the past—any black performer who was around at that time will tell you that the real interpretation of those initials was "Tough On Black Asses," a significant difference.

Such avoidable errors—avoidable because performers today speak more freely—mar the book throughout, but he author makes other mistakes, too, such as omitting the influence of Charlie Christian on bop music, almost totally neglecting the highly influential force of gospel music, and overemphasizing the role of "jazz" in black politics. He tends to attach deep social significance to what were strictly musical decisions, as in his description of Miles Davis's 1949 Capitol recordings: "The lack of rhythmic propulsion indicates the guarded nature of the black community, inasmuch as rhythmic assertion had always characterized black cultural assertion." This becomes particularly meaningless in view of the fact of the recordings in question were highly atypical of black music, and the arranger (Gil Evans) as well as half the players were white.

Rife with quotes, many of which come from unidentified sources and reflect opinions that are personal, but which the author nevertheless treats as general, Black Talk rambles on to its conclusion, undoubtedly leaving the uninitiated white reader—for whom this book is surely intended—with the belief that he has gained an insight into the world of black communication. Unfortunately, Black Talk reads more like a term paper, assembled in the school library, and the result is mainly a rehash of a lot of white talk.


A Count, a Diva, a Finkel and a Blimp...

It was forty years ago. George Wein had begun to dilute his Newport Festival with pop additives and there had been a riot in that idyllic place. We were having our own jazz festival in New York and Dan Morgenstern, then editor of Down Beat, wanted a review, so he asked me to attend the Schaefer Jazz Festival, at Randall Island's Downing Stadium. It too had been diluted, but the lineup was interesting. I had lost my friend Timme Rosenkrantz two weeks earlier, so I could use the kind of tonic such festivals can be. Then, too, what the hell, the magazine's $15 fee for a Caught in the Act piece would at least get me transportation and a couple of beers. As it turned out, I would gladly have paid $15 for the shows I witnessed. Here—almost as published—is what I turned in for the October 30, 1960 issue.

The 1969 New York Jazz Festival ran for four nights on two consecutive weekends. The following report covers the final two concerts, Aug. 23 and 24, and is intended more as a review of the festival itself than of the “acts.”

Saturday night’s proceedings were scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. By 7:30, no announcements had been made and only an occasional glimpse of pianist Les McCann wandering around the bandstand indicated that there might be some music in the offing. That hint grew somewhat stronger at 7:40, when the piano was delivered. Ten minutes later, an emcee calling himself Sad Sam waddled on stage and proceeded with strained joviality to hurl inanities at the remarkably patient audience.

It was 8 o’clock before McCann (With Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Donald Dean, drums; Buck Clarke, conga) was able to start, but no sooner had the quartet begun the second chorus of Sunny than pandemonium broke loose. In a mad scramble, the $4.50 to $8 ticket holders descended on the $10 “VIP” Section, stepping on the toes of those legitimately there and, in many cases, securing better seats.

As soon as calm was restored, McCann and Co. tackled Sunny again, but it was no use—this time the competition came in the form of microphone feedback. There followed a ten-minute audio maintenance delay and a second invasion of the VIP section. This time the invaders, folding chairs in hand, filled up the aisles and all other open space in the higher-priced section. All this took place without any form of intervention from the festival’s officials or security guards.

Finally, at 8:20, McCann was able to bring Sunny to a natural conclusion. The sanctified beat continued with Burnin’ That Coal and led to With These Hands, a ballad on which the pianist also sang, then ended with McCann the Soul singer making social commentary with a song entitled Compared To What.

A young singer “all the way from Long Island” was next. Todd Finkel no more belongs in a jazz festival then does Liberace, but then, this was a jazz festival in name only. Even at this early stage, the unintended comic relief provided by Finkel was actually welcomed.

I daresay that Finkel might do well at the resorts or on the Ed Sullivan Show, but the stadium crowd was not ready for his gyration-accompanied Light My Fire. There was no fire there.

This painfully inept performance brought on nervous laughter which had not yet subsided when, in the desperate voice of one who knows he’s bombing out, Finkel bravely announced “a tribute to that great lady whom we all loved so much, Billie Holiday.”

Considering the soul-forsaken rendition of God Bless the Child that followed, and the mood of the predominantly black crowd, it is quite possible that a passing blimp spared Finkel from even greater embarrassment than the one he suffer.

The airship, hovering majestically above the stadium, slightly behind the bandstand, was one of those flying billboards. As soon as the crowd, inattentive to the performance on stage, spotted the ever-changing, flashing, multi-colored messages that moved from the airship’s bow to its stern, they became a modern-day Greek chorus, their voices rising in perfect unison. E-N...J-O-Y Y-O-U-R V-AC-A...T-I-O-N ... each letter was held until the next one appeared ... D-R-I-V-E S-A-F...E-L-Y-the messages kept coming while Finkel’s voice occasionally emerged from the poorly lit stage, “Mama may have, papa may have ...” A paper cup flew toward the singer as the crowd continued its incongruous chant. It missed, and the bewildered performer continued until, as if by design, his voice mike went dead.

The circus continued with Hugh Masekela. Clad in a Texas-cum-mod outfit, he received a tumultuous welcome from his dashiki-sporting fans. I won’t go into the music any more than I would review an art exhibit in the dark. As a matter of fact, the metaphor can be taken literally, since, sound system aside, Masekela and his men almost did perform in the dark.

One of the spotlights that constituted the stage lighting seemed to be out. However, it soon became clear that both spotlights were indeed on—one of the operators simply had poor aim and was missing the stage! Throughout both nights, a soloist would often find himself in total darkness while a stagehand was bathed in light. Add to that the thoroughly inadequate sound system, and you can imagine what a nightmare it all must have been for the performers.

Comedian Redd Foxx entertained while the stage was being set for the Basie band. His opening promise, “I swear to God and three other white men-you’re gonna have some fun now” was fulfilled and his became the only act of the evening to be spared a technical mishap.

As far as I could determine, Basie’s band played well and drummer Harold Jones propelled it along nicely. There were excellent solos by tenor-saxophonist Lockjaw Davis (especially on Cherokee), Eric Dixon, and trombonist Frank Hoods, and all 12 microphones seemed to be working, albeit somewhat off balance.

More insipid small-talk from increasingly sad Sam and, like the three witches in Macbeth, the Delfonics (the King Sisters of Soul) romped on stage, spouting a deluge of wildly animated r&b hits while a large segment of the audience showed where it really was at.

Woody Herman’s band followed and was sadly disappointing, but then, nothing could possibly have sounded good under the prevailing circumstances. Furthermore, it was now past midnight and the audience, which had not been granted the scheduled intermission, had spent at least five hours in sedentary discomfort while its ears had withstood a solid four hours of abuse.

It is clear that the main attraction of the evening was singer Dionne Warwick, for had it been otherwise, the stadium would have emptied out long before she came on, close to 12:30 a.m.

Preceded by a male vocal trio, the Constellations, Miss Warwick made a rather stagy entrance. Using most of the Herman band and the vocal trio to start things off, she began her opening number, Aquarius, from backstage. No sooner had she appeared than the Constellations’ mike went dead and we were again listening to half a performance. After three of Miss Warwick’s rather uninspired past hits, I’d had more than enough. Just before exiting, I looked back at the crowd, now awake and attentively accepting the acoustically garbled sounds of an idol, their rears and ears surely sore.

Sunday night’s event began 75 minutes late with a very good set by the Lou Donaldson Quintet. Trumpeter Gary Chandler provided one of the highlights of the evening with his obbligato work behind a Donaldson blues vocal. The sound system worked reasonably well (all the instruments could be heard) and the set was marred only by Donaldson’s use of the Varitone, particularly his application of strong reverb in the second chorus of the above-mentioned blues.

Sad Sam was back, but he hadn’t improved (where do producers dig up these emcees? Surely in New York…). He repeated some of his bad jokes of the previous night in introducing the next act, a vocal quartet called the Friends of Distinction.

The Friends were a cross between the Hi Lo’s and the Fifth Dimension, but I don’t believe they are any match for either group. I may be wrong, for a bad sound system can be as deceiving as a funhouse mirror, and unless the female half of the group turned to mime in mid-song, those mikes were dying again. During this set, a repeat of Saturday night’s invasion of the VIP section took place.

Chico Hamilton, sporting a small pigtail, did much to save the evening. His sextet (two trombones, two saxes, bass and drums) gave the program's most musically exciting performance, and much credit for that must go to bass trombonist Jimmy Cheatham, whose arrangements cleverly and most pleasantly combine the humor of jazz past with the seriousness of jazz present. I was also impressed with altoist Steve Potts.

After a hilarious set of her routines, Jackie (Moms) Mabley announced that she was going to “step out of character” to sing her latest hit, Abraham, Martin and John. The audience loved it, but I found it rather maudlin and Miss Mabley’s many plugs for the record (“It’s number two now... buy it, Moms needs the money,” etc.) rendered her tears incongruous.

Again, the scheduled intermission was skipped (without a word of explanation) and the program continued with a long but far from dull set by the Unifics. This singing group (four young men) whips around the stage, eight hands gloved in white, creating movements that would make a Siamese temple dancer envious. It’s a Soul group that relates to its audience in much the same way that Bessie Smith and her colleagues must have back in those tent show days. Their choreography was imaginative and their voices good. During a falsetto solo in the group’s second number, a girl in front of me fainted from excitement, and the stadium filled with orgiastic shrieks each time the group struck a suggestive pose.

Hordes of teenagers could be seen exiting the stadium as Lou Rawls stepped in front of a big band and tried to revive a dead mike. It was too far gone; he had to borrow a live one from the sax section.

After a good set by Rawls came Sarah Vaughan. “I brought the Mafia with me,” she said, laughingly, before introducing her trio, all of whom bore Italian names. Then she took a deep bow as she added, “and I’m the moll.”

Miss Vaughan was every bit the diva and she would soon demonstrate how truly cool a seasoned jazz pro can be. With regal majesty, she held the stage and gave a performance that commanded attention from even the rowdiest drinkers in the audience. The piano had been left out in the humid summer air overnight—it was out of tune and some of its keys did not work at all—but Sarah Vaughan seemed undeterred. With a smile, she improvised lyrics and, rather than love, sang about the piano, ”the worst I’ve ever worked with.”

It is hard to say who suffered most from the badly planned, incompetently produced New York Jazz Festival. Surely the performers did, as well as the serious jazz listeners in attendance. Perhaps the sponsors, Schaefer Beer, suffered a different kind of pain at the sight of a competitive brew being sold at the official stands, and by wandering vendors. Ultimately, however, it is jazz itself that must pay the long-term dues for this kind of circus.

Producer Teddy Powell should go back to his record hops until he is ready for the big leagues.

I wonder what became of Todd Finkel.


Harlem in Montmartre - PBS

I just finished watching Harlem in Montmartre, a PBS special that aired in New York this evening. It purports to be about the influx of black musicians in pre-WWII Paris, a fascinating subject that did not go to waste in William A. Shack's book of the same title. Shack died before completing the writing, but his meticulous research was preserved in the posthumous book that materialized after others finished the job. Sad to say, the producers of this film—well-intentioned though they probably were—just didn't get it. I actually had high hopes for this PBS presentation, especially when I saw that it was not another Ken Burns semi-fictional work. However,as it turned out, it might as well have been—in fact, Burns would have dug far deeper for vintage footage.

There is much that can be said about that period in the 1920s and '30s when "le jazz hot" hit Paris and other parts of the Continent, but the film documentary treatment barely scratches the surface and wastes much of its hour and a half fresh footage of a contemporary band pthat makes an attempt at recreation. A good band it is, but one that fails to really capture the period's style. Another group does a far better job evoking the distinct approach created by Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, but it, too, is give excessive time. Using actual recording of that day's music would have made a big difference. I wonder, too, if the producers ever heard Ethel Waters' Harlem on My Mind, a perfect song for the subject at hand—but then, why bother with the subject?

The long asides with these bands interrupts what there is of continuity, which brings me to my main complaint: the meandering script. The writer or writers and producers (the credits rolled by so fast that they looked like the film's bare breasts: a blur) lose focus early on and their script drifts off subject, eventually going all over the place to pursue an irrelevant lead provided by either a clip or that cursed band. I know, it's really unfair to pan these musicians, they were, as I said, quite good, but miscast and, visually, ever so contrived. The feud between Charles Delauney and Hugues Panassié could have been handled better and we really didn't need to sporadically drop everything for mostly extraneous, sometimes inaccurate lessons in jazz history lessons. As I said, I could not find the name of the writer, but is it too much to ask for some research? My good friend, Dan Morgenstern is among the talking heads and he certainly knows the subject thoroughly, but did they run their script past him? I doubt it. Other talking heads also seemed knowledgeable and none were as silly as Burns perennial Stanley Crouch or as removed from their area of expertise as Gerald Early, another member of the Burns repertory company. The script was also rife with omissions that most viewers would not notice, but might be glaring to anyone with only a cursory knowledge of the subject.

Also, although she certainly was a central figure in Paris during this era, Josephine Baker is given too much attention while other entertainers—Alberta Hunter, for example—are not even mentioned. Alberta is seen with Bricktop and Mabel Mercer in one photo (see below), but I guess the film makers didn't recognize them.

At Bricktop's in Paris, 1928 (click on photo to enlarge)

Pardon my repeated reference to Ken Burns, but we are talking about a flawed film documentary, so his name quite naturally comes to mind. Anyway, as is invariably the case when Burns wanders off his mark, there is some compensation to be found in the rare footage his staff unearths. Here, too, the footage helps to make up for the ineptitude and skewed priorities of the film's makers, but a fascinating subject has essentially been wasted and that is a real shame.

Alberta Hunter headed her own revue at Casino De Paris in 1934.

Ted Kennedy 1932 - 2009

He will be missed by a great many people, most of whom never knew him personally.
Senator Kennedy delivered this powerful speech last year in behalf of all of us, but
avarice and ignorance brings other ideas to small minds.


High in a Basement Penthouse

Ma Rainey once sang, "Take me to the basement, that's as low as I can get." Well, substitute high for low and come with me to a most unusual basement.

In a previous post, I recalled the time Ida Cox came to New York for her final recording sessions. I’ll start this post at the first session, April 11, 1961. Pianist George Wallington’s wife, Billie, was Riverside’s PR person. She and I had become close friends, she found for me my first apartment (on West 44th Street, next door to Actors Studio) and we frequently dined with George at his favorite Chinese Restaurant, the Peking on 125th Street. Billie loved the idea of Ida practically stepping from the grave to record for us. She was also overwhelmed by the response to her press releases—it seemed that every important jazz writer wanted to be there—she had never seen anything like it.

Time magazine even wanted to do a story, but Billie turned them down. When I heard that, I couldn’t believe it, turning down a Time story? It made no sense to me, especially since Billie was so excited about Ida, but there was an explanation and it taught me something about the PR side of the business I was in. Time, Billie told me, was almost ready to commit to a cover story on Cannonball, then Riverside’s biggest artist. It was something she had worked on for a long time and it would be killed if they now focused on another of our artists. Billie used the opportunity to confess that she had, for the same reason, turned the magazine down when it expressed interest in a feature on the “Living Legends” sessions, which I had recently produced in New Orleans.

Disappointing, but I understood. I also knew that with so many top writers attending Ida’s sessions, there would be no dearth of coverage. There wasn’t. Whitney Balliet’s piece in The New Yorker was my favorite, and it still pops up in his books. I think the sessions went well, although Orrin Keepnews, who had been against me going to Knoxville in the first place (he was overruled by Bill Grauer), suddenly and shamelessly seized what he saw as an PR opportunity. He all but pushed me aside and took over the sessions, arriving at the studio with stopwatch in hand. Orrin knew how to assemble the right people for a session, but he never had much input when it came to the music. He loved the old jazz styles and—I suppose—developed a taste for that which evolved from it, but I had the impression that he was insecure, so musicians pretty much called the shots while he kept track of time.

One of the visitors to Plaza Sound Studios during the Cox sessions was my old friend from Denmark, Timme Rosenkrantz, others included John Hammond, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett and, I think, Nat Hentoff. Oh yes, someone had dragged in Louis McKay, Billie Holiday’s opportunistic widower, which moves my story closer to the basement. Between takes, Timme and I were having a conversation in Danish, when Louis came over and asked what we were talking about. “Oh,” said Timme, “nothing to do with music, Chris and I are both looking for apartments.”
Norman Brokenshire in his basement penthouse. 

Louis’ eyes lit up and he told us that he had just the place, a great furnished basement apartment on West 84th, right off Broadway. We hadn’t thought of sharing a place, but Timme and I decided to take a look later in the week.

272 West 84th Street was a well-kept brownstone that once had belonged to Norman Brokenshire, a popular radio announcer whose career, according to Time magazine, “had been on the radio almost as long as static.” His initials were still inlaid in metal on the sidewalk in front of the house. He had referred to it as his “basement penthouse” when he made it his den, and—I suspect—remote broadcast location.

The house at 272 West 84th Street.

The walls were acoustical tiling, such as one finds in sound studios, and a row of microphone inputs gave one of the floor panels a distinct look. Adding to that, were the furnishings, which we were told had been Billie’s. They were, mildly put, a bit on the gaudy side. On a small bar, dimly bathed in lights of every rainbow color, rested a red telephone, perfectly matching the blinding crimson drapes that covered the south wall. In the middle of its dial was Billie’s picture, surrounded by rhinestones, and there were other items that might have come from a Times Square novelty shop, but the stand-out was an air-cushioned bubble seat made to resemble a fish bowl, complete with rotating, glittery residents made of the finest plastic. The place was, basically, a large elongated living room with a remarkably orthodox green-tiled bathroom on the left and a no-nonsense kitchen at the far end. That's also where the apartment's only exposed window was found, heavy drapery, black with silver threads, covered two front windows—it all added up to give the place the look of a lower scale after-hours joint.

Having taken all this in, Timme and I exchanged smiley glances and accepted a rent figure that seemed slightly steep, but doable. Louis explained that his aunt, Mrs. Wilson, would come from Harlem once a month to check the boiler and that we were to pay the rent to attorney Flo Kennedy, .a feisty character who wore cowboy hats, worked from a desk chair with a bullet-proof back, and represented the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. This was not your usual rental situation and therein, I suppose, lay its appeal.

A Baron and a Duke in Copenhagen.
As promised, Mrs. Wilson came by to check the boiler once a month. She was a delightful elderly lady who usually joined me for a cup of coffee and morning conversation. On one of her visits, I told her that her nephew had dropped in the day before, to pick up some tapes. That’s when I learned that this was actually her house; she was Louis’ landlady, not his aunt.

That morning, I was rather taken aback when Mrs. Wilson asked me how the diamond business was going. It turned out that Louis McKay had been keeping the rent we paid to Flo and stalling the all-too-patient Mrs. Wilson with a tall tale: the rent would be paid as soon as he and I received an expected million-dollar diamond shipment from Africa! To make matters worse, Louis was charging us twice the amount of the actual rent.

In retrospect, the house on West 84th was a positive sidebar, a place where I got to know Timme better. He was always enjoyable company with wonderful stories to tell and great acetates to play. If you ever read Linda Dahl’s biography of Mary Lou Williams, please disregard the portrait she paints of Timme—the lady had a shameful agenda and, in true Ken Burns fashion, distorted facts in order to maintain it. I caught on to Linda’s agenda when she came to interview me for her book. She was visibly disappointed when I spoke positively of Timme, whom she would portray as an unscrupulous thief who earned the nickname, “The Robber Baron.” That was actually funny, because Timme was perennially poor, the black sheep of his noble family. Yes, he was a bonafide Baron, and that had helped him make important contacts in a country that was wonderstruck by such titles. Timme was a very regular guy who munched on Milkbone dog biscuits, but he often dined in the finest places and rarely had to pick up the tab. No robber baron he, but they did call him “The Baron of Bounce” relating to his passion for jazz, and the “Barrelhouse Baron,” which partly referred to his problem with alcohol. The latter became a problem on and off, but I never saw it make Timme offensive. He was almost a paragon of sobriety in our remarkable basement.

An unidentified guitarist looks over shoulders
as Billie Holiday poses for Timme's box camera,
in the alley behind Harlem's Apollo Theater. She
is flanked by Ben Webster and Johnny Russell
with pianist Ram Ramirez crouched in front, he 
co-wrote "Lover Man", one of Billie's many hits.

Timme had many friends from his early days in Harlem, when he mingled with, and sometimes recorded, the mighty. He also took some great snapshots with his box camera, some of which Frank Driggs "acquired" and published without due credit.

In October of 1961, we were visited by Doug Dobell, who owned a great little record shop at 77 Charing Cross Road, in London, and a fledgling record label, “77 Records”. Doug wanted to do a small-band session for his label, so he visited all the places where he knew he could find jazz players hanging out, including The Copper Rail bar, and that great cheesecake spot, The Turf. With some help from Timme, he put together a fine five-piece band headed by guitarist Bernard Addison. Trumpeter Johnny Letman and altoist Pete Brown were up front and the rhythm section was completed by bassist Hayes Alvis and Sonny Greer.

Doug’s budget was tight, so Timme suggested that he save the studio cost and have the session at our place. He would get his wartime buddy, Jack Jacobsen to bring a tape recorder. Jack was then chief audio engineer on the TV series, The Defenders, and he loved jazz enough to offer his services gratis. Because Doug originally intended to include a pianist, I rented a good upright, but it wasn’t used—not for the session.

Entrance to our basement apartment. The red
light is long gone, but the music and memories
linger on.
Of course, Timme and Doug being big party people, a bunch of guests were invited, so the place was crowded. I remember Dan Morgenstern being there and having a very good time, also Frank Driggs (but it was Sonny Greer who left with my photo of the Washingtonians). With all these people and all that booze, the session eventually morphed into a party. Several musicians dropped by after work, Tadd Dameron played some piano, and a good time was had by all.

At the apartment's entrance I replaced the regular light bulb with a red one and put up a sign to prevent anyone from ringing the doorbell during a take. Unfortunately, I forgot to switch the bulbs back when I removed the sign.

At one point in the early hours of the morning, I went out to Broadway to buy some ice. By that time, the place was thick with smoke, legal and otherwise, so you can imagine how I felt when I returned and found a uniformed member of the NYPD standing just inside the door. I was certain that we had been raided and prepared to do a perp walk when Timme popped up with a large tumbler of liquor in his hand. "Is this alright, officer?," he asked, handing him the drink. "That's fine," replied the cop with a smile. Imagine my relief as I now invited the cop to come in and join the party. He smiled again as he declined and told me not to worry about a thing. He had heard the music emanating from a basement's darkened window and spotted the red light above the door. As it happened, he dug the music and decided to check out what he at first thought was one of New York's many informal after-hours establishment. With Billie's decor, it certainly had that look and, yes, the album we made that night was correctly named

Addendum: Timme Rosenkrantz was truly an unforgettable person to those of us who had the good fortune of knowing him. He was a witty, delightfully eccentric Baron (the real thing) who often wrote of his addiction to jazz and those who performed it. Timme's writing has now been  translated into English and lovingly assembled by Fradley Garner. The book, Harlem Jazz Adventures, is finally here. For details, visit the dedicated site, The Jazz Baron .


When Miss Ida Came To Town

In March of 1961, I flew to Knoxville, Tennessee, in search of Ida Cox. Her name was one of the magic ones that I had so often seen spinning into a blur at 78 rounds per minute. Always the romanticist, I was excited at the thought of possibly meeting this legendary blues diva face to face. Ida had initiated her recording career in 1923, singing into an ominous horn in Paramount's studio, and she had ended it in 1940.
Seventeen years is not a long time, but jazz was still evolving, and doing so rather rapidly, so 17 years represented quite an idiomatic and technical jump. Ida finally decided to retire from show business when she read her own obituary in a trade magazine.

She was, of course, very much alive when I called her from my hotel room and she invited me to her home, a house she shared with her daughter, Helen Goode, a school teacher. The purpose of my visit was to see if I could persuade Ida Cox to step into a recording studio after 21 years of not having done so. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, she did not jump at the chance. In fact, she turned me down, explaining that she hadn't sung in many years, except "a little bit in church" and that the obituary had actually given her a good idea. "If they think I'm dead, I thought to myself, I might as well not disappoint them," she told me with a smile.

I brought up some old names from her past: Lovie Austin and Tommy Ladnier, who had given her great accompaniments, and the famous 1939 Carnegie Hall concert,
From Spirituals to Swing, that put her on stage with some of the greatest names in jazz. The memories I evoked, as we sat there and sipped our coffee, were obviously fond ones—Ida rarely brought up the past, her daughter told me,because most people she met knew little or nothing of it.

After thinking it over, Ida finally said that she would come to New York and record what she called "a final statement." I was delighted. No, she didn't board the plane with me, for there were medical considerations. Ida had health problems, nothing serious,but something that had to be considered before she made the trip. Once back in my New York office at Riverside Records, I stayed in touch with her doctor until he gave us the go-ahead. I also asked my boss, Bill Grauer, to send Ida her check in advance, along with the ticket. After all, she really didn't know me, someone who suddenly popped into her life from a city full of con artists.

And so, in the first week of April, 1961, Ida Cox checked into the Paramount Hotel, where Riverside's offices were located. The irony that lay in the hotel's name did not escape her. I had spent many hours transcribing the lyrics from those old, surface-noise-infested Paramount sides, because Ida told me that she had forgotten them. She had, but only momentarily. Once she was ready to record, she held up the lyrics, took a quick look at the first verse, and sang from memory.

Sitting in a hotel room and watching an old western on a black and white TV with this wonderful old lady was simply unreal.

I scheduled sessions on two consecutive days, gathered a stellar band comprising Coleman Hawkins, the leader, Roy Eldridge, and a rhythm section with Sammy Price at the piano, Milt Hinton on bass, and Jo Jones.

Ida and Jo Jones at the April 11 session.

Ida had worked with Jo at Carnegie Hall 22 years earlier and he was clearly excited to see her again. I had originally wanted Jesse Crump on piano, but he couldn't make it—Sammy was probably a better musician, but I was intrigued by the idea of reuniting Ida with her old love.

Ida's visit to New York was all too brief for me, but I think she was happy to return home. My good friend and coworker, Sarah Cassey took her to Fifth Avenue, where she bought a dress for her daughter, and I took her backstage at the Apollo, where Count Basie was appearing. When we walked into Basie's dressing room, his back was to the door, but he could see us in the mirror. I will never forget his facial expression as he turned around, nor the brief exchange that followed:

"Ida? Is that you?"
"Yes, honey."
"Didn't you die?"
"Yes, honey."


The New Orleans Creole Jazz Band

World War I was still raging in Europe and Lil Hardin was 16 when she found a $3-a-week job demonstrating sheet music at Mrs. Jennie Jones' music store on 3409 1/2 South State Street. She had no experience playing jazz, but that would soon change. Mrs. Jones also ran a booking and employment agency, and she rented space for rehearsals.

During her first two weeks at the store, Lil had a brief but meaningful encounter with Jelly Roll Morton, so she was ready for the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band when it arrived in Chicago and auditioned for Mrs. Jones. This band truly deserves the over-used "legendary" tag. We know little about this group, because it simply arrived on the Chicago scene too soon, never recorded, and was quickly overshadowed by better groups and individuals, most notably King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.

Lil's career was given an early start by the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band:

When they auditioned for Mrs. Jones, I nearly had a fit when they started out on the Livery Stable Blues. I had never heard a real jazz band before and their music made goose pimples break out all over me. They played loud and long, weaving in and out of the melody was a cheese and rhythm, and seemingly enjoying every minute of it. They also obviously enjoyed to fit that I was having over their music. Mrs. Jones didn’t have a fit, but she liked them and immediately booked him into a Chinese restaurant.

The band had six pieces: violin, cornet, clarinet, trombone, bass and drums. They didn’t have a piano but they found out that to play for the entertainers at the Chinese café they would have to add one. They tried out all the available male pianists but were not satisfied with any of them. One night, just for fun, Mrs. Jones sent me over to play with them and I remember grinning and giggling all the way to the place because I was so thrilled at the thought of playing with a real jazz band.

When I sat down at the piano, I asked for the music but they told me that they didn’t use sheet music. Then I asked them in which key they were going to play and they told me just to listen and then “hit it” after hearing two knocks from the leader. I listened and fell right on in with them. When I heard the two knocks, I struck as many the keys as I possibly could at one time, because, that way, I thought to myself, whatever they’d be in, I’d be in it, too! After a few measures, I began to feel a chord changes and I was “in the groove”—and in the band. I remember hearing Eddie Garland, the bass player, say “Listen at that little old gal,” as I grinned and did my best to be a miniature Jelly Roll Morton.

A later Creole Jazz Band w. Freddie Keppard and Jimmy Palao.

When we finished the first number, they asked me how old I was, and all of them nearly fainted when I told them. “They’ll put us all in jail,” one of them said, but they still wanted to keep me, so they just told me to say that I was 21 years old if anyone asked. Lawrence Dewey, the clarinet player, who was also the leader, told me not to report to the music store the next day, because they intended to keep me with them at a salary of $22.50 a week.

Now is really time for me to start worrying. I was afraid that Mrs. Jones would tell Decie that I was working in a cabaret and then it would be all over for me. I didn’t know what to do, but I finally decided that I just couldn’t go back to work in the music store, so I told Decie that I had a new job, playing for a dancing school in the evenings. When I told her that I was to get $22.50 a week she laughed and said that I must have misunderstood them, she had never heard of such a salary.

There was no misunderstanding when I brought home my first pay and Decie counted the money. She and Mr. Miller gasped and stared for they couldn’t believe their eyes. Now I was really walking on clouds, all that money plus the thrill of being with the band.

Things went very smoothly at the Chinese place but I do remember one night when “Dovey,” one of the entertainers gave me a rough time. She rehearsed her song in one key, telling me that it was just right, but when she got out on the floor, she yelled back for me to “drop it.” I became very nervous and I dropped a key for sure, I dropped is so low as she was singing bass! Well, she couldn’t very well yell “raise it,” so she just kept singing. When she finished and came off the floor, she called me every name in the book, words that I had never heard before.

Everybody tried to shame her by telling her that I was nothing but a child. She would answer, “If she’s old enough to be playing here, she’s old enough to be cursed.” I was scared stiff and quiet as a mouse, but the musicians assured me that no one was going to touch me as long as I was with them. A few nights later Dovey apologized and she treated me swell from then on. Somehow I always seem to be to make friends with people, even after getting off to a wrong start.

The other members of the Creole Band were Sugar Johnny on cornet, trombone player Roy Palmer, Jimmy Palao on violin and Tubby Hall on drums. The piano was considered to be a solo instrument in New Orleans and so they had never used one there, but a fellow by the name of Louis Keppard had played guitar with them.

Sugar Johnny never had much to say to anyone, he was ill and always coughing and sneezing between sets the fellows said that it was tuberculosis and I think that’s probably true. I personally didn’t get to learn anything about him or his personality, but I do remember that he played a growling style of cornet. Finally, he became too ill to continue with the band and so he was replaced by Freddie Keppard who growled a little louder and had a better tone.

Freddie, a tall, beefy light-skinned guy, was conceited. He just knew that he was the best cornet player that ever hit the sidewalks of Chicago. Whereas Johnny never drank, Freddie drank all night, and the more he drank the better he played. All he was conceited, he was actually a real good-natured fellow, always laughing and joking on the bandstand between sets. I remember how he used to strut in and out of the place, like a peacock, and he always dressed better than the other fellows—there was no counting all the suits he had. The applause from the patrons would bolster his ego and help to make the place really jump to the surefooted maneuvering that he performed on his horn.

Jimmy Palao, the violinist, was a Creole. He was fair and had straight hair, I rarely understood what he said. They all simply murdered the English language and I often wondered if any of them had ever gone to school. I never asked them though, I was too glad to be a member of the band. Jimmy was undoubtedly the worst violinist ever to hit Chicago and the people didn’t take to him, because, at that time, Chicago was seething with such fine violinists as Elliott Washington, Clara Jones and Clarence Black. This made no difference to the New Orleans guys for they were very clannish stuck with each other, so Jimmy stayed on with the band.

Eddie Garland was also the band’s business manager. He was short, brown, a little stoop-shouldered, and full of fun all the time. The band had kind of adopted me and Eddie took the trouble to explain a lot of things to me, not only about playing in bands but also the facts of sex, love and the different relationships between men and women. Decie hadn’t told me any of these things, but Eddie was a good teacher for, in a couple of months, I knew all I needed to know and then some.

I was always anxious to find out how the guys happen to get into this music game and Eddie delighted in telling all that he knew. He was born in New Orleans and had started playing guitar when he was 14—he and his brother, Johnny, and a four piece band that played for parties around New Orleans. Once while substituting in the famous Imperial band, the trombonist, a fellow by the name of George Fields, suggested that Eddie join a promising young outfit from La Place, in John’s Parish. That was Kid Ory’s band, which also featured Lawrence Dewey, Eddie Robinson on drums, a guy by the name of Stone on guitar, and a cornetist called “Chip.” Eddie, or “Montudi,” as everyone called him, told me that he was the first one to introduce slap bass to Chicago, with George “Pops” Foster and Wellman Breaux following close behind.

Lil and Jimmy Johnson on their wedding day in 1922.

Dewey was a skinny, brown skinned guy who coughed almost as much a Sugar Johnny. I would have sworn that he had the TB, too. Truly the playboy of the band, he had two or three chicks supplementing his salary with money that they made from men that came in the place. He hardly ever spoke to me, so I never found out much about his background.

Tubby Hall was an excellent drummer. He was mild-mannered and real fat. Everyone thought he was too fat for the Army, but Uncle Sam thought he was just right, so it wasn’t long before he was off to do his stint. His brother, “Minor” Hall came to take his place, and he was also a good drummer who never missed a beat. He wasn’t quite as fast as Tubby, but he was a little shorter and he had a violent temper. I remember he was always threatening to beat up somebody.

Roy Palmer was a jolly, carefree sort of guy. The fellows said that he wasn’t too good a trombone player. They accused him of being lazy and kidded him about sliding a note in every other bar. He was actually the band’s great gambler and he was caught in a raid one night at the Pioneer club. He had to slide down a gutter to escape arrest and he tore the seat out of his pants. He came to work without changing clothes and we laughed and kidded all-night. He also thought it was very funny and the incident never dimmed his desire for gambling nor revisiting the Pioneer, club which was quite a gambling joint.

When I look back over those years it seems uncanny that we were able to play for hours without any sheet music. The only time we used music was when it came to accompanying the entertainers. That’s where I was boss, because I could read their music and, from playing at the music store, I knew nearly all the songs they sang. I learned about orchestrations and transposing music for singers once when Mrs. Jones sent me on a gig with Curtis Mosby. He asked me if I could read orchestrations and I answered “If it’s music, yes.” Actually, reading orchestrations is much more difficult than reading music written out for just one instrument, but somehow I picked it all up naturally in that one night.