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Lunch with John Hammond

For at least two years, John Hammond and I saw each other on a daily basis, but only once was our conversation recorded—this is it. I had recently started work on my biography of Bessie Smith and John was one of the many people I interviewed. If our exchange seems to lack the kind of depth one might expect, it is because John and I had so many conversations about Bessie that I pretty much had it covered. 

John and Aretha Franklin at Columbia's 30th Street studio, 1960.
 (Columbia publicity photo)
So, while you probably will not learn much from this taped lunch conversation, it will at least give you an idea of what John sounded like when not standing on a stage or at a lectern. If you have read my previous posts on John Hammond, you might have the impression that we did not get long, but we actually did. Yes, there were some nasty bumps along the way, but neither of us carrie a grudge for long. John was prone to exaggerate his own accomplishments, which he certainly did not need to do, and sometimes his need to live up to an embellished image got in the way of his consideration for others. Somehow, annoying as that could be, one tended to shrug one's shoulders and fluff it off as John being John. We all knew that he had, indeed, played a major role in shaping jazz history, and that earned him a large measure of respect that made the negative aspects of his personality more tolerable.

The tape was made in November, 1970, in a midtown Manhattan luncheonette. There is background noise and there are a few times when the cassette machine cuts out or slows down for a few seconds, but these are fleeing glitches that did not seem to warrant a fix.


Karl Emil Knudsen and N.O. fever hit Copenhagen

We were romantics, young Danes who saw early 20th Century New Orleans and its amazing musicians and singers almost in the same light as we had just a few years before seen Ali Baba, Tarzan, that flute-playing guy from Hamelin, and H.C. Andersen's steadfast tin soldier. We didn't grow up with Batman, Superman, or Mary Marvel—our childhood heroes were much older. But then we grew a little and for some odd reason, quenched our thirst for heroes by turning to legendary jazz players and their music. It was real, but still sufficiently distant from our world to trigger the imagination: An old, toothless man of color, rescued from a rice field and led into the spotlight to play a donated horn through donated teeth. It allowed our imagination to wonder how his music had sounded before dire circumstances silenced it. There was the key. Past personal calamities were important factors, that fueled our need to romanticize and made any comeback all the more stirring. Promotion people took full advantage of that human trait and, although we were smart enough to know what they were doing, we fell in line and did as hyped.

It was amazing, when you think about it. Young people in a Nordic land embracing and fantasizing over a culture that couldn't be more different from their own, and it came complete with a musical score. We loved these sensuous, rhythmic sounds that made our bodies move like no Danish music ever had, and our new pied pipers conjured up all kinds of fantasies. We found magic in such names as Kid Ory, King Oliver, Johnny Dodds, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Some of us became as familiar with the street names of New Orleans as we were with our own. We wanted to be there, to stroll through Congo Square, breathe in the air of what had once been the Storyville district, or just walk down Toulouse Street and make a right  on Dauphine.

Some wanted to take the new obsession beyond fantasy. No, there weren't any attempts to start rice fields, nor did ornate iron balconies alter the look of our neighborhoods, but there were upstart local bands that tried to capture the right sounds, fluffs and all. The relatively sedate Trumbauer-inspired Swing Sweet and Hot Club Band had satisfied a certain need, but it lacked the nitty gritty of newer groups, like the Ramblers and the Bohana Jazz Band, two foot-stomping groups that gave us reasonable simulations of New Orleans music, sans the surface noise.

Karl in my cluttered computorium on one of his visits to NYC.
And then there was Karl Emil Knudsen, a young employee of the Copenhagen telephone company (KTAS), who perhaps was more smitten than the rest of us, but somehow managed to maintain his composure as he made tangible his own fantasies. His first step was to start a record label. Storyville Records made its inauspicious start with three or four re-re-reissues. We are talking 78s here, and, physically, these were about as thick they come, and the sound as bad as it gets, but if you listened carefully, there was Ma Rainey, her voice barely penetrating the surface noise, and James P. Johnson on a roll, a piano roll that someone had pumped at the wrong speed, and there, too, were Louis and Sidney Bechet  with Clarence Williams, drowning out the voice of Alberta Hunter as they all played their derrieres off in glorious sub-fi.

When I said that these were re-re-reissues, I meant it. Karl had simply lifted them from Riverside Records, a new American label that had achieved the seemingly impossible: making the sound quality of Paramount and Gennett 78s twice as muddy as anything we had heard before. It didn't matter to us, not back in those early postwar years. We loved what was coming out of those grooves, even though we only heard the half of it. 

Karl's next step was to find a place where we all could let our hair down and defy our genes with slightly artificial body motion. Take a look at any early, all-white American Bandstand kinescope and you will see what I mean—some of  us just ain't got rhythm. Karl found the perfect spot on Hambroesgade, a dinky Copenhagen street in a dock area. The one-story structure looked like it might have been a place where dockworkers assembled. With its well-worn wood floors, drab cement walls and general lack of color, the place was about as uplifting as a Bozie Sturdivant lament, but, like Bozie's singing, it also had an unmistakable inner beauty. I mean, we wouldn't have wanted it to look like the Copa, or even the Cotton Club—the place was almost tailor-made and Karl made it come alive on Saturday nights.
Diplom's 1953 Winter catalog. The cover was designed by yours
truly, GA, the "G" standing for my middle name, Gunnar.

There were no roving searchlights, furs or shiny limos on the November night in 1952, when it all started. Word had quickly spread about this new club, a place where one could actually dance to live New Orleans music, dress casually, and spend no more than a tram fare. Tax laws required 24-hour advance membership enrollment, which took place at record shops, like Diplom Radio, a favorite hangout where Bent Haandstad guzzled beer, burped, and passionately recommended records.  It cost but a pittance to become a member, and the price of admission to the club was equally affordable.

To give you an idea of the interest in Karl's Storyville Club, I signed up immediately and became member number 299. On opening night, I pointed my bicycle in the direction of Hambroegade, where I added it to a fast-growing tangle of wheels and handlebars. We never talked about it, but I think Karl and his fellow entrepreneurs must have been overwhelmed by the initial turnout—I know that I was. Although I had been consumed by a love for jazz for almost five years, I did not know anyone who shared my interest, and I was too shy to strike up a conversation when I attended lectures on the subject. In fact, I always found a seat way in the back. It's hell to harbor a burning interest in something and not be able to share it with anyone, so I found this new club to be more than just a place to spend Saturday nights, it was a wonderful remedy for my loneliness. Oh, I had friends from art school and work, but they saw my passion for jazz as a passing fancy that surely would dissipate with maturity. My mother thought so, too—when she felt a need to explain why I seemed glued to my HMV gramophone, she assured visitors that it was something I would soon get over. Of course, the real reason for my physical attachment to the old machine was that the spring had broken and I could not afford to have a new one made (the world had moved on to electrically powered turntables). There is an old Danish saying that "the naked woman soon learns how to weave" (i.e. necessity is the mother of invention) and it didn't take me long to realize that I could play my records at the correct speed, 78 rpm, by placing my index finger on the label and pushing as hard as I could, making a circular motion. Of course, this meant that I could not walk away from the machine without the music stopping, but there was also an advantage to my unpatented, manual method: I was forced to give every note of the music my undivided attention. Soon, all my record labels were worn, some to a point where the information could no longer be seen, but I recognized matrix numbers and the visual character that audio frequency lends to a disc. For example, the surge of brass that follows Francis Wayne's vocal on Woody Herman's "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe" tried the limits of the groove's ridges and made that particular side readily identifiable. Yes, it's silly, and so is the fact that I had a callus in the middle of my index finger from passing over the spindle 78 times per minute.

A re-enactment sixty years later.
Getting back to Hambroesgade and the jazz hub that Karl spearheaded into existence. It wasn't the Mocambo, Stork or Cotton Club, but the glitter was there. No, a photo would not have captured it, for it was in our eyes and minds: a glow of anticipation and excitement that lit up this  dreary dockside place on opening night. If there were stars, they were the members of Copenhagen's inner circle of jazz, men (pictured below) whose love for the music drove them to plan great things for the rest of us. Others—not pictured here, but certainly at the forefront of things—were Torben Ulrich, a tennis star who handled a clarinet with as much ease as he did a racket, Arnvid Meyer, his trumpeter and a future jazz archivist of great importance to jazz in Denmark, and Børge Roger-Henrichsen, a fine pianist who headed the Danish Radio's jazz department. There were others, like Anders Dyrup, and the circle was ever growing—the spark that seven years later would ignite the almost legendary Jazzhus Montmartre had been lit.

Of course, the Montmartre became known throughout the world, it was a place that began with New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis on the bandstand but soon became a venue that booked top contemporary players, like Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz. As we stood in line and slowly moved toward the entrance to Karl's club, we couldn't have imagined players of such stature paying Copenhagen more than a quick concert visit. But we weren't even thinking of such things, our minds were on this new adventure. The entrance, as I recall it, was a nondescript wood door, probably one step up from the street. It led to an outer room with a table on which sat a membership roster and a small cash box. A couple of people checked names and sold admission while Karl paced nervously and supervised the mounting of a crude sign over the door. It identified the room beyond as the "Storyville Club."  If I remember correctly, there was also a hastily drawn sign with a magic two-letter word: "ØL" That means beer, which was about all any of us could afford, but it was also a drink of choice. Here it was sold by the bottle, straight out of the wooden box.

The room itself was fairly large, with tables and chairs scattered about and a raised platform with an upright piano. So far, it was all anticipation, but that was thick enough to cut with a knife. Then something began to happen, guys were turning the raised platform into a bandstand. A month earlier, Karl had quietly entered the record business by recording trombonist Chris Barber with a young Danish group, The Ramblers. The four selections were released on a new label, Memory Jazz, around the time of the club opening. The band's leader was trumpeter Jeppe Esper Larsen, who quickly became the hottest local musician round, and now he was mounting that raised platform, instrument case in hand. Chris Barber was there, too, so you can imagine the excitement. I think I saw Karl smile, but I can't be sure.

Soon we all felt that we were, indeed, down by the riverside. At the time, I was working as an apprentice in the art department of Fona, a chain of music stores that covered the country and had several branches in Copenhagen. There were thus many display windows to be made attractive, and we did the artwork, which rotated among the branches, excluding the two huge windows of the main store, which were given special consideration.

One of our assistant branch managers was a guy named Eyvind Lindbo, nicknamed "Fesser". I had seen him a few times, when he came through the art department, but we never spoke, Imagine my surprise when I saw him at the Storyville Club opening, not just as a member, but as one of the "in" people. It took me a while, but I finally got up enough courage to approach him at the club and suggest that a more professional sign would look better over the entrance. He suggested that I make one.

The following Saturday, having spent a good part of the week working on it, I brought the club a new sign. Now the smile on Karl's face was unmistakable and he liked it so much that he asked if I might be able to come up with something to liven up the drab walls. This proved to be my ticket to the inner sanctum.
The inner circle.  On the far left is Boris Rabinowitsch, he was our first post war "modern" pianist, today he writes about the music. Behind him stands Jeppe, whose band performed with Chris Barber at Storyville's opening. That's Karl Emil Knudsen in the center and Bent Haandstad standing behind him, holding his magazine, Jazz Parade. The man seated on the left is J. A. Lakjer, he owned a jazz record shop and published a magazine called Jazz Revy. This was a December, 1952 summit meeting and I was still very much an unknown outsider.

Next week I will conclude this recollection of Karl and reminisce about the time when he brought to Denmark the Ken Colyer Jazz Men band, which I recorded for Storyville's first original release. I will also recall the "Riverboat Shuffle" that Karl created on Øresund, the sound that separates Denmark and Sweden at their closest point (there is now a bridge).  

Here is the first recording I made of the Colyer band, April 11, 1953, when it made a one-time appearance at Lorry's 7-9-13 Club, part of a Copenhagen entertainment complex that featured Alberta Hunter and other notables in the 1930s. This tape was not meant for release, I was really just testing the equipment (a B&O home recorder and a single ribbon microphone), but Karl and I found it worthy of distribution. 

Enjoy "Tiger Rag":

L to R: Monty Sunshine, Lonnie Donegan, Ken Colyer, Ron Bowden, Chris Barber, Jim Bray


Elmer Snowden's Harlem Banjo

I have brought this post back up front because I added another selection by this Elmer Snowden quartet. Here they are  Doin' the New Lowdown, which was quite different from doing the Down Low, as we know it today. I also found the only photo I have from the session, the quality is not the best, but it was scanned from Se & Hør, a Danish TV/Radio magazine that probably no longer exists. (BTW, the depicted packet of guitar string is from Elmer's shoebox)

If you have done some browsing on this blog, you may have come across the name of Elmer Snowden. He was the listener who called me during a show at WHAT and informed me that Lonnie Johnson was in Philadelphia. I subsequently recorded Lonnie and Elmer for the Prestige label and they appeared on my WHAT-FM show.

Elmer's name is not as well known as Lonnie's, but he was a man without whom the history of jazz would be different. That is mainly because it was Elmer who brought Duke Ellington to New York, from Washington, D.C. and eventually allowed him to take over his band, The Washingtonians. That was nearly ninety years ago. More recently, fifty years ago, I suggested to Bill Grauer—my boss and founder of Riverside Records—that we do an album with Elmer.

Bill had a passion for early jazz and Elmer's name was one of those mystical once people read after blowing the dust away. Thinking of him as an old man who hadn't been heard from in several years and at this point probably had only his memories to offer, Bill suggested the kind of album one was most likely to find on Moe Asche's  Folkways label. "Have him talk about the old days and strum a few examples," he said. I knew that we could come up with an album that would surprise and delight him, so I just nodded and began thinking of a suitable group.

Click on image to enlarge
It wasn't as easy as I had thought it would be. It seemed logical to have Ray Bryant on piano, for Elmer had been a mentor to him and his older brother, Tommy, back in Philadelphia. "Elmer always booked me when he had a gig," Ray once told me. "We played weddings and all kinds of parties, and when there was no piano, Elmer had me banging on the bongos." As it turned out, two sessions with Ray's working trio didn't work out. I added Garvin Bushell and Gene Sedric on one of them, but the sound I had in mind just wasn't there, so I aborted both sessions, leaving six hitherto unissued tracks. They are probably boxed in some dark corner of a Concord Records vault. 

Then I remembered that Elmer had spoken of The Red Hot Eskimos, a trio or quartet  that he led and did rent party gigs with during the Depression. That led me to the idea of having Cliff Jackson play piano, Elmer's eyes lit up. "That's it!", he said, "Cliff knows what to do." He explained that he used to hire Jackson to front a Snowden band back in the days when business was booming and he had as many as four running concurrently. Before long, we had Tommy Bryant, Ray's older brother, on bass, and Jimmy Crawford the old Lunceford drummer moving it all along. This was the group we did our third session with, and it worked—we hit our stride, so to speak.

A few months later, I did get Elmer and Ray into the studio for a successful session, with Bud Freeman and another Snowden alumnus, Roy Eldridge, as well as Tommy on bass and Jo Jones on drums. I also did a solo album with Cliff Jackson (whose wife was Maxine Sullivan) and we did a couple of Prestige sessions at Rudy Van Gelder's studio. 

Getting back to the Riverside album, I named it "Harlem Banjo!" and Bill Grauer was, indeed, happily surprised when he heard it.  I have to confess that I never cared much for the banjo as a jazz instrument, but I had never before heard it played the way Elmer did it—he took it to another level. Well, you be the judge. Here is Running Wild from that session. I would really like to hear what you think, so please leave a comment.

Here is the second selection, Doin' the New Lowdown:


My interview with Bill Evans - 1972

This interview with Bill was taped in 1972, when he brought his trio to my weekly TV show, The Jazz Set. Bill and I first met at Riverside Records in 1960. Back then, he looked more like an accountant than a jazz musician, but times change and we try to keep up by adopting trendy looks that eventually become laughable. Here, our long hair is a dead giveaway and my outfit is cringe-inducing. For some reason, I am not smoking during this interview, but most of the shows (we did 26, I think) show me puffing away on that Tareyton with the smoke all but obscuring the face of my guest. Giving it up about 35 years ago was one the wisest decisions I ever made.

The clip I originally posted here came from somebody's account on YouTube. It was subsequently withdrawn due to the uploader's copyright infringements, I think. Thanks to my good friend, John Francis, that situation has now been remedied. He managed to find a copy and gave me my very own. This is from a Japanese DVD release and it looks like it is legitimate, although I was never contacted. At least the credits are correct. One problem, however, I still have not figured out how to post properly synced videos from a DVD. On my computer, video and audio are perfectly matched, but when I get it here, there is a problem. Hope you can enjoy it, anyway. If anyone can tell me what I am doing wrong, please don't hesitate.


Ruby Walker: The Van Vechten party

This relates to a previous post wherein I include a segment from my Bessie Smith biography that describes a party that Bessie and Ruby attended at Car Van Vechten's midtown apartment. You can read that post here: Ruby and Bessie Meet Carlo,  so I won't repeat that, but here is that party described by Ruby in the series of interviews I did for the book, forty years ago. It is one of four recollections that I studied and from which I pieced together my own account of that festive, surprise-filled April evening in 1928. 
Before you listen to Ruby's account, read Van Vechten's own description of Bessie's appearance, which is taken from a 1947 issue of Jazz Record magazine and, understandably, leaves out a few details:
George Gershwin was there and Marguerite d’Alvarez and Constance Collier, possibly Adele Astaire. The drawing room was well filled with sophisticated listeners. Before she could sing, Bessie wanted a drink. She asked for a glass of straight gin, and with one gulp she downed a glass holding nearly a pint. Then, with a burning cigarette depending from one corner of her mouth, she got down to the blues, really down to ‘em, with Porter at the piano. I am quite certain that anybody who was present that night will never forget it. This was no actress, no imitator of a woman’s woes; there was no pretense. It was the real thing—a woman cutting her heart open with a knife until it was exposed for us all to see, so that we suffered as she suffered, exposed with a rhythmic ferocity, indeed, which could hardly be borne. In my own experience, this was Bessie Smith’s greatest performance.

Porter Grainger
You will hear Ruby mention Porter Grainger several times. He was Bessie's pianist and musical director at that time and he was anxious to get in with the Van Vechten crowd, so Bessie made her appearance as a favor to Porter, who she had regarded with more than professional interest. Mr. Grainger was flexible, but he did have his preferences. I should point out that Ruby had never met Carl Van Vechten, but when I mentioned his name, it triggered her memory of the party. In her mind, the event had taken place at one of the posh midtown hotels—"the Waldorf or the Astor"—because Ruby had never seen a private home so luxuriously appointed. This was also the first time she saw a white maid, it shocked her.
Here's how Ruby remembered the Van Vechten party.


Letters from Stanley Dance

Stanley Dance was born in Braintree, England, September 15, 1910.  This anniversary affords me the opportunity to honor his memory and say how much I have missed his presence since his passing, almost twelve years ago. 

I did not see as much of Stanley and his wife, Helen, as I would have liked to, but we always kept in touch, even after they moved to California. Helen would call me just to make sure that I was in good health, and Stanley periodically sent me little notes and letters. We had more in common than our love of the music, for we shared a somewhat cynical view of our profession. While we took our work with the seriousness it merits, we were both ever mindful of the fact that we were bit players sharing a stage with real stars: the creative forces of jazz.

We took off the rose-colored glasses when it came to viewing the many of our colleagues and the business side of jazz. It was something we often couldn't help discussing, something that we  tended to view with a touch of humor. I mean, how could anyone take someone like Leonard Feather seriously—yes, his "blackmail" was not to be lightly dismissed, but he was a pathetic little man who had an all too lofty opinion of himself. Let me give you an example of Leonard's modus operandi, which was, indeed, "blackmail" of a sort. I was not at all surprised when Carl Jefferson (Concord Jazz) told me that Leonard required liner note assignments in return for a mention in his syndicated column—he did that sort of thing all the time. It was not something our colleagues talked about in public, but Stanley and I never played Leonard's game.

I bring up Leonard, because Stanley loved the letter exchange I had with him regarding my liner notes for a Dinah Washington CD set . Here is a link to an earlier post containing the Feather exchange (you have to scroll down to the picture of Dinah).

Nobody loved LF more than LF himself, so the cartoon Stanley sent me as a response was right on the mark  (click on images to enlarge)....

Stanley and Earl Hines (Photo by Brian Kent)
Some of Stanley's letters are reproduced below. There really is no need for me to add text, they speak for themselves and indicate why Stanley and I got along so well. He left us a legacy of books and recordings that will outlast all of us, he let me with many memories of a true gentleman with a wonderful sense of humor, impressive knowledge and insight. Some people thought Stanley's scope could have been wider, but he had been contributing to jazz since 1933, when I was two years old. Stanley made many friends among the musicians and singers whose music he so respectfully fostered. That should tell you a lot. So will these letters.

I was an early computer user/enthusiast (1979). Stanley found that interesting and often referred to it.

That's it. Remember to click on the images, the better to read them.


Scranton 1962

It was the day before Christmas Eve, 1962, a cold and snow-filled day. Elmer Snowden had scrambled up a booking for a concert at Scranton's Everhart Museum of Natural Science and gathered together a small band, a vocalist, and an emcee—yours truly. We were going there in Ray Bryant's station wagon, seven of us plus a set of drums, a tenor sax, banjo, and upright bass. Fortunately, the singer, Pearl's sister, Eura Bailey, came in from Philly, so nobody suffocated, but it was tight like that, as Thomas Dorsey sang before he became heavenly and rich. This was before the law required seat belts, but they would hardly have been necessary—by the time we had piled in and managed to close the doors, there was no room in which to move.

In order to be in Scranton by noon, we had to get an early start, so we figured we'd pick up some breakfast along the way, but that was before we squeezed ourselves into Ray's wagon. If you have ever taken a cigarette from a full pack and tried to put it back, you get the idea: stopping along the way would have been insane. Apart from that, Ray was not finding it easy to negotiate the icy road, so we wouldn't have had time to stop for anything anyway.

Somehow, we made it in time, worn out and hungry. But it was lunch time, wasn't it? There would be something there to eat. There wasn't. We were led to a table that held every kind of liquor you could imagine, but there was not a pretzel or peanut in sight. According to the notes I scribbled down the following day, Herman Autrey, Jo Jones, Elmer, and Ray's brother, Tommy were quick to forget breakfast, "This is the wrong thing to put in front of a man with Indian blood," said Budd Johnson as he scooped ice cubes into a glass, and Eura Bailey declared that this was just what we all needed on such a cold day. Sure, the perfect thing to have on an empty stomach. I never was much of a drinker, but neither did I run away from the stuff. I had knocked myself out only once, when some of my friends took me to a lively Copenhagen joint on my 18th birthday. That was also the only time I was ever thrown out of a place by a bouncer and I do mean thrown, literally. My good friend, Ib Clausen had to bring me home, but he had a difficult time finding a cab driver who would take me. The experience was sobering and I swore never to get that drunk again. Eura seemed to have a different idea.

The place was packed and, of course, there had been no rehearsals, nor had anybody made up a list of tunes to be played. It really didn't matter, this was a band of seasoned individuals who all spoke the same language, and by the time Elmer stomped the intro to the first number, the audience, too, seemed to be up there with us.
Jo Jones

The first set went well, the people applauded enthusiastically—perhaps too much so—and our little backstage "breakfast" table had frequent visitors. There was a man going around with a microphone, interviewing us and getting slurred, happy responses. When he came to me, I wondered why I didn't see a tape recorder, but Eura's liquid breakfast had shortened my attention span considerably, so I only wondered for a fleeting moment.

Elmer Snowden
Soon thereafter I spotted Jo Jones seated in the back and asked him why he wasn't mingling with the audience, like the rest of us. Jo gestured toward a dark corner with his head, and I heard Budd Johnson's voice coming from a small radio—we were on the air, live!

We had not been told that our audience would extended far beyond the museum auditorium, nor had we agreed to any such arrangement. Even the intermission interviews were being broadcast live and without any of us being told that fact.

By the time of this discovery, I was well on my way to a more careless state of being, so I put it aside, but on the following day, when I was back in New York, I allowed myself to become sufficiently angry to dash off a letter to the concert's producer, let him know how he had placed himself and the station in jeopardy, and demand a copy of the tapes. I received an apology to all and two reels of tape.

Having not seen the tapes in a few years, I was glad to find an aircheck of one of my WBAI jazz shows that contains, in full, the concert's closing number. You can hear it here, preceded by the lovely ending Budd Johnson gave to "Talk of the Town" and followed by a bit of my show's theme and a plug for the following week. When I find the tapes, you will hear it all, including Eura and sans my voice.
Ray Bryant

After the concert, we headed home to New York, still on an empty stomach. As you can hear on the tape, I was still standing when I announced the final number,but barely so. I believe I passed out in the car, regaining consciousness as Ray Bryant literally carried me through the chilly air and into a diner, Frankenstein style. Strong black coffee brought me back and allowed me to walk on my own into the building where I still reside and where, in some dark corner of a closet, the rest of the concert is tightly wrapped around two reels. Odd to think that I am the sole survivors at this point.
Here is the audio again.

Clifford Jordan 5 - Outhouse

Here's a re-post (substitute, actually) of a performance donated by the Clifford Jordan Quintet to WBAI in the wee hours of the morning. Again, this is from the first fund-raising marathon, You will hear me announce the tally, so far: $10,602, which is a pittance by today's standards, but our entire goal was $25,000. We reached that in pledges and exceeded it handsomely in actual money.

The tune is "Outhouse", which to me brings back memories of youth spent on Christiansø, a tiny island in the Baltic Sea. It was great, having to use an outhouse was not.



Ruby Tapes 3 - Running from Jack

Here are more of Ruby Smith's recollections of life on the road with Bessie Smith, her aunt by marriage. Please be forewarned that this segment get rather raunchy as Ruby uses explicit language and describes a sex act.

Since mainstream hotels did not open their rooms to black people, touring companies, like Bessie's either stayed on the train (if they owned the car) or at theatrical rooming houses, like Kate's, in Detroit. This extract begins at Kate's, where the show stayed while appearing at the Koppin Theater, and ends in the apartment of a friend of Bessie's in Cincinnati.

In a future segment, Ruby  takes us back to Detroit and a buffet flat. Don't know what a buffet flat was? Bessie sang about one and Claude McKay's 1928 novel, Home To Harlem, has many mentions of these interesting establishment.

As usual, Bessie's husband, Jack Gee pops up and everybody scatters. He loved the money Bessie was making, but he never got used to the show business environment.

Let me once again alert you to the fact that Ruby told it like it was, so this audio contains explicit language and descriptions.    

I look forward to reading your comments and/or questions,

Ruby Tapes 2 - Bessie's stormy marriage

Bessie Smith and Jack Gee radiated happiness on Thursday, June 7, 1923. Papers in hand, they rushed from Philadelphia's Orphan's Court to the home of the Reverend C. A. Tindley, who performed a simple wedding ceremony. Then it was off to a photo studio where the camera captured the happiness. Bessie is said to have been married once before, to a soldier named Love whose life ended on a European battlefield. That may be just a story, said Ruby, adding that "marriage" was a term used very loosely in Bessie's circles. She, for example had been married—with papers—"thirteen times, to nine different men." How was that possible?, I asked. She explained that, when it came to black people, clerks didn't waste any time checking old records. "And we all looked the same to them," she added, "so nobody recognized that I had been there before." Whether it was a first or second marriage, Jack was her last certified husband, but certainly not her last liaison.

Bessie and Jack on their wedding day.
I won't go into details here, suffice it to say that this was an often explosive roller coaster ride that lasted a remarkably long time, all things considered. Of course my book on Bessie goes into all that, at length, but my words don't come close to conjuring up a picture as vivid as Ruby's recollections. 

As her recordings spread her fame, Bessie began spending much of her time touring with her own shows. She did the T.O.B.A. theaters in the winter months and worked under canvas in the summer. To make the latter go more smoothly, she bought her own railroad car, a big one that could accommodate her entire cast, including musicians, as well as props, costumes, and even a huge tent. The car was parked on a side track at each stop and the cast lived in it. 

Bessie had just made her first recordings when she married Jack, but it did not take long for "Downhearted Blues" to establish her as a major act and have the Columbia dealers demand more "product." This resulted in a busy recording schedule and occasionally required Bessie to leave her show on the road for a few days while traveling to New York for recording sessions. In this brief clip, you will hear Ruby recall a time when Bessie rejoined her show after one such trip and learned that Jack had been unfaithful. This was a common occurrence, but the guilty party was more often Bessie herself. 


Lil Armstrong interview - 2 of 3

Lil poses for me with Louis' old trumpet in front of the house on East 41st Street. This is where they lived as newlyweds and where the Hot Five and New Orleans Wanderers rehearsed. Joe Oliver sometimes slept over in an upstairs room. I spent many nights in that same room.
Here is the second part of my interview with Lil. She talks about the King Oliver band's six-month stay in San Francisco, playing for white audiences that complained about not being able to dance to the music of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. A local musical authority sought to remedy that by bringing in a metronome!

This interview is posted in three parts. Here is a link to the 3rd and final part.
As always, your comments and/or suggestions are welcome.


Ruby rescues Aunt Bessie

It was a timely call I received from Sol Stein one morning in 1970. He had noticed a lot publicity in connection with Columbia Records' plan to issue the complete recorded output of Bessie Smith—160 performances on ten LPs. It was not something one expected a major label to do, especially when the material was almost 40 years old. If Columbia saw a market for this, Sol reckoned, surely there it was time for a book on Bessie Smith.

Someone had recommended that he contact me for the job, and when I label it as a timely call, it is not just because a Bessie Smith biography was overdue, but because Ruby Walker had just resurfaced. Of course, Sol did not know that, but I told him that my accepting his request was contingent on Ruby's willingness to cooperate. They were having an editorial meeting the following morning and he would get back to me.

Ruby, then close to seventy, neither looked nor acted her age, but she knew it would eventually catch up with her. "You know," she said to me, "one day you wake up and look in the mirror, and your face has dropped."

I feigned surprise. "Really?"

"Of course!", she said, "and my dream is to get to California before it drops."

When Sol Stein called back to report the nod from his editorial board, I called Ruby and asked the obvious question: "Has it dropped yet?"

"Has what dropped?", she said.

"Your face."

She let out a shriek followed by an emphatic "NO!"

"That's good," I said, adding that she might just make it to California with her face in place. She liked that.

I gave her the choice of taking a percentage of the book or $3000 in cash, which was the amount of my advance. She opted for the latter, life having taught her that "a bird in hand" was no mere adage.

On the road: Bessie and Ruby with The Dancing Sheiks.
The man in the middle is Arthur "Eggie" Pitts.
Shortly thereafter, she came to my apartment for the first in a series of interviews, parts of which I will share with you here. We sat at a small table in the very spot from which I now write my blog posts, and I used a cheap cassette recorder, because our conversations were never meant to be listened to except by me as I worked on the book. I must say that, although I had known Ruby for a couple of months, she totally surprised me with her candor and delighted me with her concern for remembering things correctly. After each session, she would call me upon her return home to her somewhat converted garage in Jersey City and let me know that she had arrived safely. She also always corrected any slip of memory that might have crept into the interview. The name of a town or person, a detail from an incident. It was very important to her to get it right. After the publication of the book, I was sometimes asked if I didn't think Ruby had made up some of her stories. The answer is that I don't think so. There were numerous times when I brought up something that would have provided a teller of fanciful tales with the perfect opportunity to be creative, but Ruby just said, "I guess I wasn't there."

When you think about it, life on the road with Bessie Smith was simply too eventful for Ruby to have seen a need for fabrication. I think you will agree when you hear the tapes.

In 1996, when my old friend, Larry Cohn, called and asked if I would write the notes for a new 10-CD Columbia release of Bessie's entire output, he mentioned that the set would include the soundtrack of "St. Louis Blues," the two-reeler Bessie filmed in 1929. When he told me that they might fill up some space with Bessie's alternate takes, I explained that I had decided against that when I produced the LPs, because they were too similar to the issued takes, but it occurred to me that he might want to add a snippet of Ruby talking about Bessie. Larry liked that idea and asked me to send him a tape. I had put together about seventy minutes where I removed most of my own comments and questions, so I thought he might find about five minutes that he could use.

Larry was floored by Ruby, so he decided to use it all and fill the 10th CD with it, even if he had to put one of Madame Gore's parental advisory stickers on the box. So be advised, Ruby did not mince her words.

So there it is, you may have heard these Ruby tapes before, but I am putting them here because I think most people will not have heard them. Besides, my friend Ruby was anything but dull, so her stories bear repeating. There is also more material from these sessions, so I will probably post some of that, later.

The first story is almost clean enough for prime time. It has Bessie finding herself in a precarious situation after having spent a week in a small Harlem hotel with one of Fletcher Henderson's musicians. She called Ruby for help. Since most people are unfamiliar with Bessie Smith's family situation, let me explain that she married a security guard named Jack Gee in 1923, the year in which she made her first recordings, and that Ruby Walker was Jack's niece. Ruby, however, was not very fond of Uncle Jack, but she loved Bessie and became her confidante, as well as a chorine. Ruby's recollections give us an insight to Bessie that we otherwise would not have—she had many extraordinary stories to tell and she told them with a cadence that in and of itself commanded one's attention. In the course of the many interviews we did over a brief period of time, Ruby's mood often changed. She became downcast at times only to snap out of it when remembering a good time. Well, click here and you'll hear what I mean.

I am not doing this to plug my book, but neither would I complain if you decided to give it a look. Just be sure that it is the extended 2003 edition (Yale University Press) and not my original 1972 attempt (Stein & Day). There is an Amazon link if you scroll down and used paperbacks are as low as five dollars.

As usual, I welcome any comments.


Jimmy Rushing interview at Half Note

It was a Sunday afternoon when Jimmy and I sat down for an interview at the old Half Note on the corner of Hudson and Spring Streets. Jimmy frequently performed there, feeling comfortable in the unpretentious decor and informal atmosphere created by the Canterino family, who owned it. 

If memory serves me right, it was 1968 and the film you hear me refer to at the beginning of the interview is Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree, which had yet to be released. I had been on the air at WBAI a couple of years earlier, playing some of Jimmy's records and talking about him, when Gordon Parks called. He told me that he was in the early stages of turning his book into a film and that hearing Jimmy had given him the idea to cast him as Chappie Logan, a singing saloonkeeper. He needed to know how he could get in touch with Jimmy, and that's how I became a one-line footnote in Jimmy's film career.

Recording with Brubeck - 1960
I don't know why, but Gordon credited Jimmy on the screen as "James" Rushing, which seemed somewhat formal and foolish. After all, Jimmy had spent decades establishing his name and one would have thought that billing him as such could only benefit the film.

As the interview winds up, you will hear someone very loudly announce the presence of trombonist Al Grey and Fred Miles, a somewhat eccentric record producer from Philadelphia. Then there's Patsy Wilkins, I don't know who she was nor where she came from, but she was in luck that afternoon, winning one of Jimmy's many albums in the door prize drawing. So, with competition from the bandstand, the interview does not end gracefully, but think of it as a Half Note moment—atmosphere.

Leukemia claimed Jimmy on June 8, 1972. The following day, Whitney Balliett painted an eloquent word picture, as only he could:

"Jimmy Rushing, the great blues singer, died yesterday, at the age of sixty-eight. He was a short, joyous, nimble, invincible fat man who shouted the blues as if he were wearing kid gloves and carrying a swagger stick. His diction was faultless; in fact, it had an elocutionary quality, for his vowels were broad and sumptuous, his "b"s each weighed a pound, and he loved to roll his "r"s. His lyrics had a pearl-gray, to-the-manor-born cast to them. His voice - light, tenorlike, sometimes straining - was not much, but it was hand-polished and could be, despite his dandyish style, extraordinarily affecting, as in the mourning, deep-blue "How Long Blues" he recorded in memory of his friend Hot Lips Page. But most of the time Rushing's blues were elegant, lifting celebrations of life, and he sang them that way - his voice finally almost threadbare - until the day he died."