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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.

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