Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mini- tour

I've been playing harmonica since I was fourteen years old. What started as an attempt to imitate Keith Relf's part on the Yardbird's version of "I'm a Man" eventually gave way to a lifetime commitment to the Blues.

Later today I'll leave for Cape Cod on a mini- tour of the Cape and Martha's Vineyard, where I will sing, play harmonica and tell stupid self- deprecating stories. And I'll get paid for it!

Seems incredible, doesn't it?

Thanks to a Cape- based harmonica player named Tall Richard, I'll be making my first foray into the world known as "touring". I'll be "on tour", like those Irish guys who aren't Van Morrison.

Okay, so I'll be back Monday. But in those scant four days, I will have been on tour. Finally.

See you on Tuesday, folks!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Happy Birthday, Count Basie!

William "Count" Basie (August 21, 1904, Red Bank, NJ- April 26th, 1984, Hollywood, CA).

The Duke, the King, the Count. Me, I like 'em all, but mostly, I'm down for the Count.

One night, effette jazz snob John Hammond is driving in the midwest, listening to live feeds on his car radio. Suddenly he hears a snatch of a big band out of Kansas City, MO that swings harder than anything he's ever heard before- harder than Duke Ellington's band, harder than Fletcher Henderson's or any of the white bands, like Benny Goodman's. Probably the only band close to it would have been Chick Webb's. (Hard to beat Chick when it came to swing.) Hammond aborts his trip and drives to Kansas City to find this band. The leader's name: Count Basie, of course!

Stranded in Kansas City after an aborted tour, Red Bank NJ native Bill Basie had taken over the Bennie Moten organization, made some key personnel changes, and applied a "less is more" concept to the music that he had been honing for years. Basie's music was firmly rooted in the blues, as opposed to Ellington's, and was designed to get his audience dancing: moving, shaking and generally tearing the house down. Like Louis Armstrong, Basie's arrival was another case of right place, right time. But then again, one would expect his timing to be, well, perfect.

Kansas City, under the Pendergrast machine (the same political machine that brought us Harry Truman) was wide open: gambling, music, drugs, bootleg liquor, prostitution, etc. There were plenty of local venues for musicians, and therefore plenty of musicians came to fill the venues.

Among these was a New Orleans- born tenor sax player who had been in a band made up of his family. His name was Lester Young.

A big- voiced, big man named Jimmy Rushing filled the singer's chair.

Jimmy chows down as the Count looks on

Drummer Jo Jones drove Basie's 4- beat rhythm section. Most jazz at that time was accented on two beats to the measure. Basie said, "I don't dig that two beat jive the New Orleans cats play because my boys and I have four heavy beats to a bar and NO cheatin'!" It was a different sound. What Hammond heard that night was the sound of the future.

Another major component was Basie's piano playing. He strips his parts down to the barest essentials, while maintaining an exceptional virtuosity. A few well- timed quarter and half notes are all he needs, it seems. No one else played like this. The degree of self- confidence it took to play this way is incredible. Even Louis Armstrong played more notes than Basie on his solos. Lots more.

Everyone in the band was committed to Basie's concept. There is no dead weight in his band at this time (or ever, really, although as time went on, the band's sound became far more sophisticated). Early Decca recordings of "Every Tub", "Jumping at the Woodside", and of course "One o'Clock Jump" are like unstoppable freight trains of sound. Lester Young was on his way to becoming the pre-eminent tenor player of the day, alongside Coleman Hawkins.

Basie on piano with Lester (standing)

Combine this with Freddie Green's rock- steady guitar and Walter Page's bass, and you have the protype for every Basie rhythm section to come.

The Count was able to maintain his big band until his death, rolling out onstage in a little scooter- chair and playing Billy Joel songs alongside the classics. I heard him play "I Love You Just the Way You Are" and then segue into "Jumping at the Woodside" a year before his death.

He used Joe Williams as his singer later on, and recorded with Frank Sinatra (not that effective) and Tony Bennett (very effective).

Red Bank's favorite son, vying only with Ozzie Nelson for this title, died in Hollywood where he has a star on the Walk of Fame. He was a beautiful cat, as they say. I wish I'd met him, but I certainly knew him.

Let's watch some videos:
Hard to watch, but very rewarding, this video spotlights the band in 1938. Dig the cool uniforms, and Lester's shades!
I think this is post- Lester (as I don't see him) with Don Byas on tenor, but Jo Jones looks and sounds hot and the Count demonstrates his classic "less is more" piano stylings.
What can I say? Jimmy Rushing rules!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Good News

I found out today that someone outside my immediate family reads this blog, in particular the entry on Johnny Puleo. I'm a) amazed and b) gratified, because even though I find the blog interesting, both in the researching, and the writing, it's hard to believe anyone else would, especially given the eccentric choices of my subjects, and the paucity of comments.

So... a tip of the Littlehales hat to the very gifted Cathy Ponton King (a great singer/ guitarist, by the way) for reading the blog. Thanks, Cathy!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Tough Week for Music

I read once that the words prodigy and genius could only be properly connected to either math or music. I'm not certain that this is completely correct, especially as pertains to genius.

I don't know anything about math. In fact, I've been diagnosed with "math indifference" which, it turns out, is fairly rare. But I do know a little about music, and within our Western concept of the chromatic scale there is certainly room for genius in all genres of music. Another thing I know about music is that not all successful musicians are geniuses and that, conversely, not all geniuses are financially or commercially successful.

This week we lost three great musicians. One, Les Paul, has been justly canonised in the media, including yesterday's blog entry here in L by L. But the other two have been (un)fairly ignored.

Mike Seeger © Jim McGuinn

So, let's say goodnight and Godspeed to Mike Seeger (August 15, 1933 – August 7, 2009), whose contributions to the revival of old-timey music through his wonderful trio The New Lost City Ramblers helped sparked the '60's folk music movement.

I remember years ago when I worked in a record store in Ithaca, New York, Mike was dropped from Mercury Records due to a vinyl shortage. "Why are they dropping me?" he asked. "If they're so concerned about the vinyl shortage, why don't they drop (labelmate) Rod Stewart? He's the one that's selling all the records." Mike Seeger didn't really belong on Mercury anyway. He belonged on Folkways or Asch or Stinson or any of the small, folk- oriented labels that proliferated in the '50's and '60's and that inspired later companies like Rounder.

Seeger's music came from a time when the family would gather around a piano in a parlor or sit on the front porch on a warm summer night with their guitars, banjos and mandolins and sing all the songs they knew. Nowadays, we don't even have a parlor. Or Mike Seeger.

Jim Dickinson at the big red Baldwin

And while we're at it, let's wish smooth sailing and some good 'shrooms to Jim Dickinson (November 15, 1941 - August 15, 2009) on his last voyage. Dickinson knew much about music and the perception of music, and was wonderfully articulate about it. Here's a link to an excellent interview he gave to James Calemine in Swampland Magazine:

Jim Dickinson was one of those guys who was there at the right time and whose career spanned the history of recorded Rock n' Roll.

These are the musicians who matter, the ones who don't make huge sums of money but who soldier on because it's what they do. As John Lee Hooker says, "It's in [them] and it's got to come out."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Goodbye, Mr. Polsfus

Ah, Les Paul.

He was part showman, part huckster, all ego and all musician, the proto-typical all- American genius. Even his music was an amalgram of several styles: jazz, country, and pop, all mixed in with corny jokes, heroic stories and a great sense of supreme self- confidence.

Les with fellow Gibson endorsee, living god Riley B. King

The stories: building the first electric guitar (the log, which really does look like a log- I've seen it), being mistaken for Django Reinhardt at an early gig, having his broken arm set in a picking position, pioneering recording techniques, overdubbing, and lending his name to one of the coolest electric guitars ever made.

He had lots of stories and he loved to tell them at his long- standing engagement at Iridium in New York City every Monday for years. Playing guitar and telling his stories kept Les (born Lester Polsfus in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9th, 1915) alive for 94 years. Like Benny Goodman, Les was able to keep playing almost to the day he died. (Benny practised his clarinet on the day he died.)

Perhaps Les exaggerated his various claims, but not by much. He was an innovator, inventor and visionary. His contributions survive him, and how many 94- year- olds can say that?

It's gratifying to see all the tributes and accolades. He deserved every one of them.

Check this out:

Go Mary! Go Les!
I love the cornfed poise of Mary Ford, not to mention that effortless harmony she dubs in. Are those house numbers on the fake machine? Go low tech!

Ultimately, Les Paul was able to leave as beautifully as he lived. A fitting final achievement.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Elevators at the Hyatt

I shot this during my current BNA/ Tax Management assignment. Thank god for great clients like BNA and its human face Mark Carrington.

This is from the Houston Hyatt. They have those glassed-in elevators that make you feel like you're in a poor man's Disney World for about 27 stories or so.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Louis!

Yesterday was my brand new grandson's birthday, and today is Louis Armstrong's birthday. Coincidence? I think not!

Louis's story is so complex, so miraculous, so archetypal that some of it has to be accepted on faith. Louis died thinking he had been born on the 4th of July 1900, and only recently was it discovered that he was born on this date in 1901. His unmarried parents were very poor, and he lived with his grandmother early in his childhood. His mother, Mayann, a remarkable figure, eventually took him back and he shared a bed with her and his sister Mama Lucy during his adolescent years. I've never found out why his sister was called Mama Lucy.

He grew up on the streets of New Orleans, in a decidedly criminal milieu, during the time of Storyville. His idols were hoodlums, hustlers, petty thiefs and musicians. His nature seemed to be a combination of lovable waif and seasoned street urchin. I think he maintained that balance in a more mature form for the rest of his life. He worked hard for a Jewish family who hauled and collected junk. He wrote and thought about them lovingly for the rest of his life.

When he was eleven years old, he went to jail for discharging a loaded gun on New Years Eve, and was sent to the Colored Waif's Home, which he definitely was.

After reluctantly leaving the Waif's home (he loved it there), he began his apprenticeship as a musician, playing in local bands, marching in funeral processions and parades and generally honing his craft even as he soaked up the music around him like the sponge he was.

Eventually he rose to the top of the local heirarchy after his friend and teacher King Oliver left for Chicago.

King Oliver's Orchestra: Oliver standing first on left

He replaced Oliver in the band that the King had left behind, and then got a job with Fate Marable's steamboat orchestra which gave him a taste for travel.

Fate Marable's Orchestra: Louis, seated third from left

His fellow musicians taught him how to read music, and he also learned how to play to please white people toward whom he amazingly felt little or no ill will. At least, he learned to effectively hide any ill will or anger he may have felt.

King Oliver's band in Chicago: Oliver, seated in front, Louis, standing, third from right

From there he went to Chicago, had considerable success, recorded a group of great records, established himself as the first bona fide soloist in jazz and popular music, went on to New York, changed how everyone played and sang, etc, etc. It's an oft- told story.

Here's the thing about Louis' life: every event has a lesson. There are no inconsequential moments in his story. Furthermore, each event contributes to the uniqueness of his story. He's born in New Orleans during the amazing era of Storyville and the transition of ragtime to jazz. The junk haulers give him a battered bugle. He learns to play cornet in the Waif's school, and is mentored by the music teacher there. (The Armstrong story is filled with mentors, likely and unlikely.)

Louis's story is like the birth of the one planet that will eventually sustain life through an incredible set of unrepeated circumstances. Louis Armstrong is like life on Earth- what are the chances? Billions and billions to one.

So was he really completely human? Yes, of course, but there is something unworldly about Louis. Something with a whiff of myth. Gabriel? Lots of people think so. A force of nature? Lots of people think so. An evolutionary avatar? I could go on and on like this, and have, believe me.

He is indisputably the single most important figure in the history of jazz and therefore the whole of American popular music.

Happy Birthday, Pops!

Hi, Luke Kelly!

Hi, Luke Kelly-

Welcome to this crazy mixed-up world.


Your Grandfather