The Mystery and Grace of “Jeru”

It probably doesn't speak well for my mental health, but often, for no reason I can fathom, I awaken with a particular record deeply imbedded in my mind and ears, almost as though it had been played constantly by jazz elves while I slept, as some kind of weird music-hypnosis therapy. This happened quite early on Saturday morning, when I couldn't get a Gerry Mulligan record called Jeru out of my head even while half asleep. There was nothing for it but to cry "uncle", get up, brew some coffee and put the damn thing on. It sounded wonderful as always, so much so that I replayed it several times and decided to write about it.                                                                        *** On June 30, 1962, Gerry Mulligan recorded an album in New York called Jeru that followed a blueprint common for other saxophonists, but was entirely atypical for him: It's a pick-up blowing date featuring his baritone as the only horn, backed by a conventional piano-bass-drums rhythm section. (Actually, along with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Ben Tucker on bass and Dave Bailey on drums, Alec Dorsey's conga drums were also used, making it even more unusual for Mulligan.) This simply was not the way Gerry Mulligan went about making records under his own name. He generally liked to record his own tightly-knit, well-rehearsed bands, playing either his compositions or his arrangements of standards, with at least more [...]

Jazz Cooking: A Bolognese-Puttanesca Hybrid

Last night, I had a craving for the flavour of a simple tomato sauce over pasta, something I haven't had in a while. It's not really a summery dish, but then again it hasn't been all that summery a summer. I set out to make a straightforward Bolognese sauce, made a blunder and ended up with a cross between a Bolognese and a Puttanesca sauce. Much to my surprise and delight, it turned out to be one of the best sauces I've ever made, it was delicious beyond any reasonable expectations. For this reason, and because writing on various jazz matters is going slowwwwly, I thought I'd write about this. Jazz can sustain you in many ways but, the last time I checked, you can't eat it. If you're lucky though, you can still earn enough from jazz to at least put a decent meal on the table, no small thing these days.                                                                 *** I arrived home armed with a pound of ground pork and a large can of crushed tomatoes, Bolognese sauce on my mind. I put the M.J.Q.'s No Sun In Venice on the box, some olive oil in a skillet to warm, and finely chopped a large onion and four cloves of garlic. I dumped the olives and garlic into the skillet and as they hit the warm oil, they made a crackling sizzle just as Connie Kay played a huge, shimmering splash on his open hi-hats. It made me smile; when you cook with a jazz record, things not only smell good but can also sound good, provided more [...]

The Thrill of First-Nighting

Recently, I began an email correspondence with the multi-faceted, New York-based jazz figure Bill Kirchner [1], on whom more later. Bill stumbled across my blog and left some nice comments, then contacted me by email. We've been back and forth quite a bit, exchanging thoughts, information and stories. We're about the same age and while he's a lot more accomplished than I could ever hope to be, we have a lot in common, including knowing some of the same people. Among other things, he sent me a link to an interview he did with Ethan Iverson, which made for very interesting reading indeed. The other day I sent him some of the following stories which were suggested to me by various things in the interview and other subjects we'd discussed, which I'll explain as I go along. He got back to me urging me to publish these stories, something which some other friends have been after me to do. I've wanted to make the posts a little more personal by including some stories from my own experiences, along with some of the more historical/biographical stuff I've been writing, which tends to be longer and drier. I've been reluctant to do so though, fearing that some "bandstand moments" don't always translate - you know, the old case of "You had to be there...". Also, some of the funniest stories are not always kind to everyone involved, and I have no wish to be unkind, there's enough of that in the world already. For these reasons, I've withheld some names in a couple of these stories to more [...]

The Strange Case of Osie Johnson

One thing leads to another and my recent post about trombonist Eddie Bert touched on the drumming of Osie Johnson, which got me to thinking about him and listening again to some of the many records he played on. I've been thinking of writing something on him for a while as he's long been a great favourite, so here goes. *** Both on records and live, drummer Osie Johnson was just all over the hyperactive New York jazz scene from the early 1950s to the mid '60s. The range of people he played with was imposing - in small groups and big bands, with black and white musicians of several generations and in a variety of styles, on straight "blowing" dates or more complex, written ones - he worked with just about everyone imaginable. His freelance work with Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith and Milt Hinton was so frequent they became known as "The New York Rhythm Section". The Tom Lord discography lists him as playing on 670 jazz sessions, a huge number even for those peak years and doubly impressive when you consider that most of this took place in just twelve years. But Lord's discography doesn't cover his frequent recordings as a staff drummer for the CBS and NBC studio orchestras, which were of a more commercial nature, plus he was all over the place in clubs. Johnson never played with Count Basie or his band that I'm aware of, but he could easily have, as his drumming teemed with Basie's musical values: It was swinging, relaxed, uncluttered, pithy, the very essence more [...]

A ‘Bone For All Seasons

Lester Young and Bill Evans are two examples of the rare breed who achieved an imperishable standing in jazz by creating unique, highly influential styles. Rarer still are those who were beyond category as visionary composers who virtually invented their own musical universe, such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. These are one-of-a-kind geniuses though, originals who come along once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime. But there are mere mortals among us who achieve a similar timeless profile in a more modest, sideman kind of way. Being a career sideman myself and - on my good days - a mere mortal, I reserve special affection and respect for these types of musicians. They have a multidimensional versatility which allows them to work in a wide range of settings and styles, with musicians who cut across generational and even racial barriers. Swing, mainstream, bebop, modern, big band, small group, experimental, straight ahead, tricky originals, standards, blues, ballads - you name it, they can play it, with conviction and authenticity. This range requires not only instrumental proficiency, but a musical open-mindedness, and it is the latter aspect that interests me the most. To play convincingly in such a wide array of 'bags', one must not only be able, but willing. Such musicians are both rare and exceedingly valuable and a definitive example is Eddie Bert, who I think of as the trombonist for all seasons. Bert was never a star exactly, nor more [...]

Young Man With Some Corn

Fairly late the other night I was trawling around the channels, glass of French red in hand, looking for something to watch. There was a ballgame from Seattle on, but it was already 4-0 Orioles in the fifth inning and it had that look of a yawner. I flipped over to TCM just as host Ben Mankiewicz was introducing Young Man With A Horn from 1950, starring Kirk Douglas (!), Doris Day (!!), Lauren Bacall (!!!) and Hoagy Carmichael (!!!!). (I felt like the Jack Lemmon character from The Apartment as he sits down with his TV dinner to watch some boob-tube after a long, hard day at the office - and after waiting for the horny, philandering executives to finish using his pad. He gets all excited as the network schmuck announces the star-studded cast of Grand Hotel, "starring Lionel Barrymore (!), Joan Crawford (!!), Wallace Beery (!!!) ...". With each added star, Lemmon's eyes widen and his jaw drops further, but first there's "a message from our sponsor", only to be followed by the same roll call, but then "a message from our alternate sponsor", at which point Lemmon turns off the box in disgust.) There are no such commercial interruptions on TCM though and of course I watched the whole goddamn movie like the hopeless idiot I am, even though I've seen it enough times to know what a corn-fest it is. The picture has so many drawbacks it's hard to know where to start, but the main problem is that it's based on Dorothy Baker's trashy novel of the same name, a fatuously ripe and over-romanticized more [...]

Bill Harris, Trombone Surrealist

It's as well the trombonist Bill Harris actually existed, because not even the most imaginative novelist or jazz fan could have made him up. He was most certainly unique, but that word doesn't quite do him justice; he was "unique" the way 9/11 was "devastating", as the JFK assassination was "shocking", like Rob Ford is "dissolute." And words such as original, individual, colourful and distinctive, while equally applicable, don't really do it in his case either. In spite of this singularity, he remains somewhat on the sidelines at this point. Very little has been written about him and although he recorded a lot as a sideman, he made just three full LPs as a leader, along with a handful of sporadic sessions, most of them not easy to find. He was certainly admired, even idolized, by many trombonists in his day and exerted an influence on them, but very few sounded like him because he was virtually inimitable. One of his better-known tunes was "Characteristically B.H.", but his outstanding characteristic was that he was uncharacteristic of almost everything, in every sense. Jazz is full of colourful characters and voices, but with Harris, there's such a complex range of contrasts in both the man and his music that he's a special case. His trombone voice was one-of-a-kind - try to imagine all three of Duke Ellington's trombonists from the 1930s rolled into one, with Juan Tizol a little more prominent in the mix than the other two - only playing bebop. His more [...]

Brazilian Players Blame Rout on Using Wrong Hairspray

The following jokes about yesterday’s unbelievable 7-1 drubbing of Brazil by Germany in the World Cup semi-final were rolling around in my head when I woke up this morning. I’m not sure they’re that funny, but I am pretty sure this means I need help.

Q: How do you make a Brazilian soccer player stand tall?

A : Give him feet.

Q : How do you make a Brazilian soccer player run?

A : Turn his countrymen loose on him.

Q : Why was Brazil’s keeper Julio Cesar so often out of position yesterday?

A : He was busy doing an interview with Jian Ghomeshi.

Q : Why did Germany score so much in yesterday’s game?

A : They’ve always been a very goal-oriented people.

Yesterday’s match was not even Kroos, Brazil looked like a Lahm being led to slaughter. They scored one late goal, but got no Klose. 

By the time it was 2-0, you Khedira pin drop in the stadium, it was Ozil quiet.

Of manager Phil Scolari, Brazilian supporters were heard to Mertesacker him. But Germany’s manager had to Loew the result.

Schurrle this spells the end of any Brazilian notions of football supremacy.

Abject apologies and Go Netherlands!

Rabbit & Deacon, Jazz Healers

As listeners, we all know what the different musical instruments sound like....or at least we like to think so. Every once in a while though, a player will escape the tonal boundaries of his horn, making it sound like another one, or even like something we've never heard before. For example, Lester Young's tenor saxophone, which seemed to come at the listener as a vapour through an invisible airshaft, sounding more like a French horn than a tenor. Fittingly, many of these sonic chameleons worked with Duke Ellington, who had an endless appetite for unique tone colours and knew how to use them. Like Rex Stewart, who, through an alchemy known only to him involving his valves, lip and diaphragm, could make his cornet sound like a neighing horse, a nagging woman or a severely troubled colon, among other things. Or reed master Otto "Toby" Hardwicke, whose wispy upper register on alto sounded uncannily like a violin. Ben Webster could achieve similar bowed-string effects, in quieter moments making his tenor sound like a viola or cello. Recently I heard another Ellingtonian turn this trick in arresting fashion, made all the more stunning by the fact that I already knew it was trombonist Lawrence Brown (nicknamed  "Deacon" for his dignified, sober mien), as I'd heard this particular small-group date with Johnny Hodges several times before. What's actually on a record can't change - by definition it's fixed - but how we hear the music can change, circumstances can make us more more [...]

Bird Math

It seems that everything that was supposed to go right for the Blue Jays last year, but didn't  - a deep, potent batting lineup, good defense, a strong starting rotation, a weakened A.L. East ripe for the taking - has come together this year, as though it just took a year for everything to settle. Jays' management could have been forgiven for simply backing up the truck after last year's Murphy's Law-disaster and getting rid of almost everybody, but took a more measured approach, shedding obvious deadwood - Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, Arencibia - while keeping most everybody else, reasoning that this team wasn't just built for one season. At this point last year, I was asking myself if they were just a bad ball club, or a good team playing badly, and at what point did one decide which? Their recent hot stretch and startling zoom into first place has a lot of us reciting the cautionary mantra of "It's still early, it's still early", while wondering if these guys are really this good, still understandably a little gun-shy after last year's dance of death. After their win against the Tigers Wednesday night, the Jays' record stood at 36-24 after 60 games, a conveniently math-friendly and tidy winning-percentage of .600. It's maybe a little early to project ahead this far, but the Jays will likely need to win about 96 games to either take the division or a wild card spot. This means they need to win 60 of their remaining 102 games, a clip of .600 - in other words, they need more [...]

Making Strides, Part 2 – James P.

"There has long been a disturbing tendency among jazz aficionados to regard each innovation in the music as "progress", a practice that sends the musicians who have been supplanted into the outer darkness" - Whitney Balliett. I wanted to revisit the above quotation which began Part 1 of this piece, because the process of marginalization Balliett describes applies to few more than James P. Johnson. Johnson was a key pioneering figure of jazz piano, the founder and widely acknowledged king of stride piano and was, with Jelly Roll Morton, one of the first great jazz pianists. And yet, since well before his death in 1955 and continuing until recently, Johnson has been largely forgotten and this obscurity is easy to demonstrate. For years he rested in an unmarked grave in the Mt. Olive Cemetery in Queen's, N.Y., which is scandalous. The respected Reed College musicologist David Schiff wrote an article on Johnson which was sub-titled "The Invisible Pianist". The noted pianist and jazz scholar Ethan Iverson wrote a very systematic and detailed examination of Johnson's playing and recordings called "In Search of James P. Johnson." Both these titles strongly suggest a neglected, shadowy figure, shrouded in the mists of antiquity. And he's not easy to find on the market either - although Johnson made a great many piano rolls and records between 1917 and the middle '40s, it's still difficult to find his recordings. It took some time and effort, but I've managed to cobble more [...]

Around the Old Ball Yards….

Some random thoughts on the current baseball season.......... There are many ways to spell tough luck in baseball, it's that kind of game...one of the best ways this year is S-a-m-a-r-d-z-i-j-a, as in pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Coming into this week, he had a brilliant ERA of about 1.64, but absolutely zilch to show for it - a record of 0-4. Of course he pitches for a bad team, in fact the 'poster-boy' of all bad teams, the Cubs. This year and last, they're about as bad as they've ever been, I just don't get it.....can't they be good, just once, just for a little while? C'mon, God..... would ya? Pleeze? Samardzija started Wednesday afternoon's inter-league game against the Yanks in Wrigley Field. The night before, the Cubbies shocked themselves and the free world by clobbering the Bronx boys, 6-1. But could this sudden astounding competence and outrageous good fortune continue for our fair-haired boy with the great ERA and eye-chart name? Nooooo. Samardzija threw seven stellar innings, giving up nothing - a couple of measly hits, no walks, no runs and actually lowering his ERA to 1.46. But not only did he not get the win, neither did the Cubs, they lost 3-2 in thirteen.......Jeezus, what does a guy have to do to get a win around there? Sacrifice his mother? Cut off his pitching arm? Samardzija was one of the pitchers the Jays were trying to pry loose in their futile off-season pursuit of a starter, he sure would look good in a Toronto uniform. They'll have to join more [...]

.500, Ho!

The weather around these parts hasn't consistently warmed up yet (a sort of "Prague Spring"), but already the baseball season has reached the quarter-mark, with most teams having played about 40 games. The baseball has been similarly lukewarm, so far it's mostly been characterized by the high number of teams treading water at a winning percentage of .500 or so. Of the 30 MLB teams, 23 are within five games of either side of the break-even mark. If you wanted to use a tighter standard of say, three games either side of even, there are still 18 teams there, which seems high even at this still early point. Only four teams are significantly above .500 - the Tigers (24-12), A's (25-16), Giants (26-15) and, perhaps surprisingly, the Brewers (25-15). (I say perhaps in the Brewers' case because they were a consistent contender recently until falling into a big hole last year, when their star slugger Ryan Braun was forced to take an extended timeout for drinking his classmates' apple juice.) The good news is that there are only three teams far below the .500 mark - the Astros (14-27), the Cubs (13-25) and Arizona (16-27). The first two are hardly a surprise, but few expected the D-backs to be this bad. Everybody else is just kind of plugging along, winning a few, losing a few, week in and week out. There are all sorts of ways to break this down, most of them offering mild to jarring shocks. For example, the two teams who played in last year's World Series - Boston and more [...]

Phew….

It's been a while since my last posting and I'd like to explain.....It's not that I've become lazy of late, or developed a sudden case of writer's block or anything like that, although......For the past few days, I've been unable to log on to the site itself, which is where I do the actual writing. Whenever I tried to get in, I was greeted with the same scary message that the website was temporarily unavailable, due to a "brute force attack" it was undergoing. That was the actual phrase in the displayed message and the creepy, military/sci-fi tone of it filled me with no small dread. It seems that some individual or robotic cyber-virus was infecting or trying to hack into either WordPress or my site, which boggled the mind a little. I mean, who would want to hack into my site, what could possibly be gained by doing so? The stuff I write is of little general interest and even less commercial value; little kids have earned more by selling lemonade for half an hour and I'm not bitching about this, nobody's forcing me to write. I have to tell you though, I didn't fully realize how addicted I've become to writing until this outlet was taken away for a few days. It nearly drove me crazy, admittedly a short trip in my case. Of course, I could have written elsewhere - in Word Perfect or email - then copied the text to the blog, once - and if - the problem was corrected. This occurred to me, and a couple of friends may have noticed they got emails from me that were a little longer more [...]

Making Strides, Part 1 – Labels

"There has long been a disturbing tendency among jazz aficionados to regard each innovation in the music as "progress", a practice that sends the musicians who have been supplanted into the outer darkness" -  Whitney Balliett. The process so neatly described above by Mr. Balliett has bothered me for some time, though I've also been guilty of it myself at times, certainly when I was younger. What troubles me the most is the last part about older musicians being consigned to the shadowy margins. I think a lot of this has to do with labels, those facile attempts to classify and date various ways of playing jazz by assigning a name to them. Dixieland, stride, trad, Chicago, small-group Swing, big-band Swing, bebop, mainstream, progressive, cool, West Coast, hard-bop, avant-garde, neo-whatever-jazz, etc., ad nauseam. I've come to deplore and detest most of these because they do more harm than good. I understand the reason and need for such labels, they provide basic terms of reference and make easy distinctions between different styles so that jazz can be generally discussed and written about, we all try to clarify things by reducing them to bite-sized simple images. I use these labels myself because they're in place and provide a means of avoiding cumbersome explanations. But I'm not really comfortable with them; often I intend to put a disclaimer at the beginning of some pieces saying that whenever one of these labels appears, the reader should assume a default more [...]

Goin’ to Chicago (Sorry, But I Can’t Take You)

Like many of us, I'm a little tired of hearing or thinking about Toronto's disgraced mayor, but his recent crash off the wagon and skedaddle to a rehab shack somewhere in or near Illinois got me to thinking of something more pleasant, namely the classic Count Basie-Jimmy Rushing blues, "Goin' to Chicago". Basie recorded this a number of times in the '40s with Jimmy Rushing singing. I love Rushing to death, but my favourite version of this is on a record from 1959 called Sing Along With Basie, which features Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (and on this track Joe Williams) singing with the band. This is not to be confused with L, H & R's Sing A Song of Basie from 1957, on which the vocal trio recreated the sound of the whole band by singing every instrumental part of the arrangements, backed by Basie's rhythm section with Nat Pierce sitting in for the Count on piano. It's a phenomenal vocal tour de force, but I prefer Sing Along With because it features the singers with the actual band and because Jon Hendricks wrote some great lyrics to the amazing solos from records by the earlier Basie band of the late '30s. Fabulous soloists like Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Dicky Wells, Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison (on tunes like "Jumpin' At the Woodside", "Let Me See", "Every Tub", Tickle Toe") and so on provide wonderful raw material for Hendricks to spin his hip jazz poetry with. This version starts with a soulful two-chorus, slow blues solo sung by Hendricks. I'm not sure more [...]

No Good Seed Goes Un-Pun-ished

As some of you may know, I support my jazz habit by working days at a splendid old law library called The Great Library. Among other things, this makes it easier for people who've heard me play bass to say "Don't quit your day job." The library dates back to the 1840s, when people actually used words like "great" to mean "big" - we've tried to get the name changed to "The Awesome Library", but no luck. One of the more impressive rooms in the library is The American Room, so-called because for years it housed a huge collection of American law reports, before most of them were replaced by digitized versions. (After all, who needs books in a library?) Now it holds a mixture of the American reports we've kept and all of the British law reports. It's an odd combination that gets me to thinking the room would be great for staging re-enactments of American Revolutionary War battles ("hurry, man the catwalk, Washington's crossing University Avenue!"), but so far my employers have resisted this idea. The room is sometimes used for movie and photo shoots, as it just screams "big old law library room from the last century". It has a sixty-foot-high ceiling with a massive stained-glass skylight, plaster mouldings, carved wooden arches and eight hanging bronze chandeliers, each with five lights. There's a wrought iron spiral staircase leading to the catwalk and the second tier of bookshelves. The ground floor has carved, recessed wooden bookshelves all around the walls and there are more [...]

Ben Webster: The Heart of the Matter

Ben Webster fell under the spell of Coleman Hawkins' ground-breaking tenor saxophone style early in his career, but eventually discovered himself and largely formed his own style by about 1938. Shortly after this he found a setting as perfect for him as the Count Basie band was for Lester Young - the Duke Ellington Orchestra, from 1940-43. His time with Ellington and especially the exposure to Johnny Hodges further shaped him. Hawkins may have been Webster's original model, but Hodges and another great alto saxophonist - Ben's lifelong friend Benny Carter - were his biggest influences. From Carter he learned breath control and to smooth out his phrasing with more legato, from Hodges he learned how to project emotion by using glissandi and imbuing his sound with an endlessly nuanced vibrato. Even the Ellington band couldn't contain his Promethian temper for long and he left in a huff after an altercation with Duke in 1943. His style evolved somewhat after this in small ways as he and his life changed, but he never really embraced bebop or other aspects of modernism in jazz, his playing remained essentially the same and true to itself. This individuality was celebrated in the 1950s, when Webster found an ideal outlet in the touring Jazz at the Philharmonic troupes and the attendant record labels (Clef, Norgran, Verve) founded by Norman Granz. His many recordings from that time capture him in a kind of golden middle period and moved critics and listeners alike to belatedly more [...]

Grope Things External

...Sorry, that should be "hope springs eternal"....man, have we needed this. After a harsh winter that tried even the hardiest of souls among us, the Boys of Summer are back with their grand old game and not a moment too soon, Opening Day at last. Cue the massed choirs of the Hallelujah chorus, bring on the William Tell Overture, "Auld Lang Syne","Take Me Out To the Ballgame" and whatever other celebratory music seems appropriate. Play it all, make it festive and stirring because once again, our prayers have been answered. The grass (OK, some fake stuff too), the crack of bat on ball, the whoosh of a high, hard one, the ballet of a niftily turned double-play, even the rancid scent of stale hot dogs and overpriced swill-beer ...man, have we ever needed this. The return of baseball is such a balm and a blessing, especially when the nice weather is dragging its butt and we're not out of the winter woods yet. Its arrival comes with other perks too, like the appearance of the first box-scores in today's morning papers. Amid all the wrenching chaos of change - which, after all, is nothing but the gradual stripping away of all that we hold dear - there's something very comforting in knowing that people have been digesting these lovely, tiny columns of numbers and abbreviations along with their corn-flakes and coffee for well over a century now. Keep progress, give me the box-scores. They provide much better morning reading than the sordid, loutish miasma of politics, business more [...]

Don’t Even Mention My Blue Suede Shoes

The Name Game. As if jazz fans don't feel confused and isolated enough already, there are some snarly name-duplications around just to make matters worse. Take the name Tommy Flanagan, for example. Most jazz fans would think of the pianist, but the general public might think of the Scottish actor. Google is neutral and offers up about an equal number of hits for each, though the actor's come first. Or Tommy Williams - the jazz bassist (who hardly even many jazz fans know about), the equally obscure rock bassist or the Republican Senator from Texas? But surely the granddaddy of these is Carl Perkins, who could be the star-crossed and now little-known jazz pianist, or the rockabilly musician who achieved lasting fame for writing "Blue Suede Shoes". This pair is really confusing as they were both musicians and were active during the same period. (Just to show that confusion also swirls around song titles, it's quite possible to get "Blue Suede Shoes" mixed up with Charlie Parker's "My Little Suede Shoes" if you're not firing on all cylinders. I'm still waiting for someone to request "My Little Blue Suede Shoes" on a gig but, so far, no luck. However, at a Christmas party I once played at, I had the supreme pleasure of witnessing a very drunk East Indian man react to John Alcorn singing "Route 66" by bellowing "Oh goody, Route 67!", sounding for all the world like Peter Sellers in The Party, only much louder. I still don't know how Alcorn managed to continue without laughing more [...]

Early Days, Big or Small, Part Two

It's sort of funny, but because I played bass for ten years in Rob McConnell's big band The Boss Brass (and later, about another decade in his Tentette), some people may think of me as this ace big band bass guy. I suppose it makes sense in a way, they were both very good bands and playing in them became part of my skill set and profile. For sure, I learned a lot about playing in big bands from being in those two groups, and knew a lot more about it with a few years in the Brass under my belt than I did when I joined. And I don't mind people thinking of me as a good big band player, I'm enormously proud to have played in those bands and miss them now that they and Rob are gone. It's just that if people had seen me in my first year in the Jazz Programme at Humber College, well.......let's just say that if there had been a yearbook, I'd have been voted "Person Least Likely To Succeed In A Big Band." By the time I first attended Humber in 1975, I'd improved some as a bass player. I had some basic technique and could play a little jazz, walk a bass line and get through some tunes, though I hadn't done many professional jobs yet. And thanks to my guitar studies with Gary Benson, I had a good grounding in theory and harmony, understood how chords worked and so on. My audition at Humber went pretty well and on the strength of this, the bass teachers - Lenny Boyd and Murray Lauder - slotted me into the top big band ensemble, known as the "A Band", run by the great veteran trumpet more [...]

Thank You

Yesterday’s piece about Gary Benson engendered more immediate and positive response than anything else I’ve written, which is a nice indication of how well and widely Gary was liked, and how much he’ll be missed. I’d just like to take the opportunity to thank everyone for their kind words and comments, both on this site and through email. It was especially moving to hear from Gary’s brother Herb and his son Rod, who I remember meeting many years ago, when we were probably both kids.

I don’t see any harm in passing on the following information about Gary’s funeral service, for those who haven’t heard about it and want to attend. Gary’s service will be held on Wednesday, March 19th at 2:00 p.m. at the Ogden Funeral Home, 4164 Sheppard Ave. E. in Scarborough (between Kennedy Rd. and Midland Ave.)

Thanks again.

In Praise of Gary Benson

Yesterday brought the sad news that guitarist Gary Benson, a fixture on Toronto's jazz scene for many years, died at the age of 75. It was not entirely unexpected as Gary had been very ill for some time, but the news will hit those who knew him in the jazz community hard nonetheless. He was a fine player and an even better person, we'll all miss his even-keeled, modest personality and sense of humour, his jokes and wonderful impersonations. My thoughts go out to those who were closest to him - his family of course - and his cohorts in The Canadian Jazz Quartet (Frank Wright, Duncan Hopkins and Don Vickery, who played weekly with Gary for many years until his illness struck.) His passing has hit me very hard as well, because Gary was my first music teacher way back when I was in my early teens, playing guitar instead of bass. It's no exaggeration to say that Gary taught me most of what I know about music and gave me a great foundation for everything I later learned in playing the bass. Good beginnings are very important and all the riches of the jazz life I've enjoyed - the friendships, laughs, stories, the satisfaction of playing, listening to and talking music for so many years - stem from starting out with Gary. It was he who got me interested in jazz in the first place and all the invaluable information he gave me made learning to play it a lot easier. My parents bought me a little flat-top guitar for Christmas when I was about eleven - it was a Winston, from the more [...]

Early Days, Big or Small? Part One

In connection with the post on The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess, I wanted to include some more general commentary on jazz and big bands, some of it personal and involving my very early days as a jazz fan and player. As that piece was overly long, I'll take up the subject again here. Big bands are not for everybody, they sometimes form a dividing line in jazz not unlike Dixieland. By this I mean that there are jazz musicians and fans who don't care for big bands at all, and others who prefer them, some exclusively. The first group finds them to be too loud or bombastic, not intimate or free-wheeling enough, that they place too many limits on the creativity and space given to improvising soloists. In short, they feel there's not enough jazz played in big bands. These are the people who go running to turn the volume knob down if they hear a big band record on the radio, or who ask, "Why don't the trumpets shut up, and why do the soloists only play one or two choruses, when are they gonna stretch out a little?" Those who can't get enough of big bands love the roaring excitement of them at full blast, the greater range of dynamics, sounds and colours that more instruments can provide. The shouting brass, the sax solis, the sizzling backgrounds, the shorter solos, the chugging rhythm, the increased organization that more written material and ensemble teamwork can bring. When listening to small groups these types might be apt to ask, "So, where's the beat?" Or, "When are more [...]

Keynote Address, Part Two – Notes

These are notes I wanted to include in the post "Keynote Address", but felt it was long enough as it was. [1].  Alfred Lion arrived in New York in 1929, but health issues forced his return to Germany soon thereafter. He worked in South America from 1933 and would return to New York in 1938, in time to hear John Hammond's "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts of 1938 and '39, which inspired him to found his own label. His good friend Francis Wolff joined him, reportedly catching the last passenger boat to leave Germany in early 1939, before the war began. Blue Note was the most cash-strapped of the small New York independent labels, so in the early going their releases were more intermittent and modest than the others. However, slow and steady wins the race, even with jazz record labels. Due to financial problems, Keynote and HRS both folded in the late 1940s, and while Commodore did a few sporadic recordings in the '50s, it was largely done by 1947. But, Blue Note gathered momentum as a bebop label in the late-'40s and really hit its stride in the '50s and '60s as the label went on to great fame and some fortune, before it all ebbed in the early '70s. Of course the label was revived after a long gap and is now part of the Capitol/EMI imprint, surviving its founders with frequent reissues of its large back catalogue and new releases by contemporary musicians. [2]. Of these four independents, only Keynote offered the full range of traditional jazz, small group swing and more [...]

Keynote Address

The invaluable Spanish jazz-reissue company Fresh Sound Records recently entered new territory by out-doing itself with a huge 11-disc reissue called The Keynote Jazz Collection, 1941-47. With a whopping 243 titles performed by 62 different bands, it's a massive compilation of music from one of the key (no pun intended) independent New York jazz labels of those years - Keynote Records. It offers a stunning cross-section of 1940s jazz in all its various styles, during a time when the music was in a process of transition as bebop was developing. More than one commentator has said that although it's still early in the year, this is likely the jazz reissue of 2014. (Technically, it was released in 2013 - but late, in December - and word is just getting out. I missed the advance notice of this, but some jazz friends who have already received their copies informed me of it, also including a good review of the package in Jazz Weekly by George W. Harris.) I was initially reluctant to buy this set, despite glowing reports about it. This didn't have to do with the cost, which, depending on the source, is actually pretty reasonable, ranging between around $100 to $135 Canadian. My concern was that I already have quite a lot of this music, issued on CD by Japanese Mercury - single discs by Lester Young, Benny Carter, Lennie Tristano, a 4-CD set of Coleman Hawkins, as well as issues under group names such as The Keynoters and The Small Herd. My mind was changed by a review I read more [...]

Putting the Potts On

No, this is not another post about food, I swear. The title of this essay is a pun I couldn't resist, which I'll explain. There's an old expression in jazz that when a band is swinging, really cooking as it were, they "have the pots on." This certainly applies to The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess, a wonderful 1959 big band recording of Gershwin's folk-opera, written by the D.C.-based arranger Bill Potts. It features an all-star cast of the best jazz and studio players New York had to offer at the time, probably the richest period in that city's prolific jazz history. I first heard an LP copy of this record about twenty-five years ago and immediately bought it when it was later issued on CD. I've listened to it often with great pleasure ever since, it's the kind of record that you can listen to for your whole life. It sounds better and better each time you hear it, as you become more familiar with its many highlights and nuances and I've had it on a lot recently. Before going into more detail about the record though, some commentary on the context in which it was made and on big bands in jazz generally, for the sake of perspective.                                                                       *** As organized, regularly touring units, big bands ran into hard times in the late-40s and all but a few of them disbanded in those years. They would never again dominate jazz or American popular more [...]

Don’t Burn the Garlic

My last post was about making chili and while I don't intend to make this a food site, this one is about cooking too. It's just that I've become something of a foodie in recent years, because I'm fortunately surrounded by people who either love good food or who are great cooks. Or both, they tend to go hand in hand. I also really enjoy cooking when I have time and seem to do more of this in the winter, when things are slower and there's less to do outside and you don't worry about heating up the kitchen too much as during summer. Italian cuisine is surely one of the world's greatest and having a partner like Anna and getting to know her family has given me something of an insider's view of Italian cooking. Or at least an aspect of it, namely the cuisines of Sicily and southern Italy. That's the thing about Italian food, it's so diverse and regional, there's an almost endless variety of dishes and ingredients and flavours, rivalled perhaps only by Chinese food. You can go high-end and it's fabulous, or you can go low-end and it's great too. Anna's people are from Sicily (on her father's side) and Brindisi - the heel of Italy's boot - on her mother's. Because these are among the poorer areas of Italy, the food from these regions tends to be very simple and basic, more rustico, less fancy. Vegetables like zucchini, eggplant and peppers, onion and garlic, grains in the form of pasta or bread, lemon, olives, cheese, fish. Not a lot of red meat, because it generally wasn't available more [...]

My Kick-Ass Chili

I wanted to post this a few days ago, but the web server for this site went down and then I was off to Mexico for a few days......... Given the Ice Station Zebra conditions outside, I think it's time for something to warm us up, in this case my recipe for chili. I wish the name sounded a little less like chilly but trust me, a bowl of this will heat your innards and stick to your ribs, ward off the cold. I've been fooling around with making chili for 20 or 30 years now and my good friend John Sumner is another enthusiast, we've been swapping tips and ideas for years now; it was John who first introduced me to the idea of making bacon a base and using several kinds of beans. Chili is to cooking what the blues or I Got Rhythm are to jazz, a simple form you can work on for years, adding new things and taking others away as your ideas and expectations evolve. This is not an exact or scientific recipe; the amounts, ratios and ingredients may change a little each time depending on my mood and what's available. The basic method and elements are here though, I've developed it to the point where it's fairly consistent. As I see it, chili is jazz food and I'm a jazz cook, so I want it to be a little different each time, life is too short for assembly line thinking. Despite its name my chili isn't particularly spicy; although there is some heat, it's kick-ass in other ways. It's rich and meaty, has a lot of flavour and body; it's not for the faint of heart, the diet-conscious more [...]

Happy New Year with Annie & Joe

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYnmSAtZuB0#t=366/ Hi and Happy New Year to everyone. A friend sent me the above YouTube clip and it knocked me out so much I wanted to share it with all of you. It seems to be from a 1959 Playboy jazz special, but fortunately that leering creep Hugh Hefner has limited screen time and there's a very young Tony Bennett among the guests, smoking away like everybody else. First off there's Annie Ross, who gets up and sings "Twisted", her signature tune. It was originally a blues solo by the great tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and Annie put lyrics to the whole thing, having to do with psycho-analysis, because of the song's original title and the fact that visiting the shrink was all the rage back then. The words are really clever and her tongue-in-cheek delivery here is very funny. This practice of putting words to instrumental jazz solos became known as vocalese, and Annie was one of the pioneers of it, along with King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, the last two of whom appear here later on. Years after this, Joni Mitchell recorded a version of Twisted and a lot of people think Joni wrote it, which drove her and Annie both nuts, me too. Ms. Ross is backed here by none other than one of my all-time music heroes, Count Basie. There are some great shots of him, looking for all the world like a kind of sly yet benign jazz chipmunk. At the time, Annie was part of the vocal jazz trio called Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, more [...]

Laughter Travels Well Too

As part of the last post about The Wind Journeys I planned to write about a second great road film I watched recently, but got off on a music tangent and decided enough was enough. Don't worry, I'm not setting myself up as some sort of faux film critic, I won't make a habit of these little movie reviews. It's just that I really love movies and have been watching a lot of them recently and happened to bump into a couple of special ones, that's all. A couple of nights after seeing The Wind Journeys, TCM came through again, although at a more reasonable hour this time. My wife Anna and I were watching something that ended at 11 o'clock and flicked over to TCM, arriving in the middle of an old black and white movie. As soon as I recognized Joel McCrea dressed as a hobo riding in a boxcar, I realized it was Sullivan's Travels, one of the greatest movies by that unique master of film comedy, Preston Sturges. I'd seen it once many years ago and didn't remember much about it, or whether I really got it the first time. Sturges is much admired and celebrated as a giant of film-directing and screen-writing, but it's almost rare to see his movies these days. He had a thirty-year career in Hollywood but most of his famous movies were made in a furious burst of creative energy between 1939 and 1944. He developed a kind of Midas touch in film comedy during this peak, ruling the roost as the fair-haired boy of Paramount. He made eight films during this incredible run, seven of them more [...]

The Wind Journeys and Other Musical Travels

As a big movie fan, I don't know what I'd do without Turner Classic Movies, though I'd no doubt be better-rested without it. With so many more channels on TV now showing so little worth watching (and with so many ads), TCM is like an oasis of civilization. I often land in this cinematic Shangri-La at an hour when more reasonable people are sleeping though and the next thing I know I'm down a half-bottle of red and it's 2 a.m. To paraphrase an old W.C. Fields movie title, it's like "The Fatal Glass of Film." The other night was a case in point. I thought I'd be a good boy for a change and try to go to sleep at what I call an early hour, around midnight. But first, I tuned in to good old TCM, you know, just in case the peaceful mantle of Morpheus wouldn't come easily. My timing was perfect, host Robert Osborne was just introducing a guest programmer, who chose a Spanish-language film called The Wind Journeys that Osborne had never heard of - no small accomplishment - and revealed he'd never heard of it either until recently. He introduced it with a few comments, saying it was as visually stunning as Avatar, only without using any special effects, CGI or arty camera work. It was made in 2009 by a Colombian writer-director named Ciro Guerra, a joint productiion of Colombia, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands. He also said that it might be better named "The Devil's Accordion", because it's about an old musician with a very special accordion with two cattle horns pointing more [...]

Apologia, More on Halladay

Yesterday's post on Roy Halladay as usual contained a few small typos and grammatical mistakes but also a factual error - I posted it in some haste because of the time-sensitve nature of his retirement. The typos I can live with, but factual errors bug me, I try not to make many of those. For some reason, I got it into my head that Halladay had an 18-year career, with 14 seasons in Toronto; it was actually 16 years, with 12 in Toronto. This mistake was compounded by being repeated several times through the piece, so I'm sorry. This and the other boo-boos have been corrected. In arguing Roy's HOF case I made comparisons between Halladay and three HOF pitchers with similar borderline-low win totals, but great supplementary stats - Koufax, Vance and Drysdale. After posting the piece, I thought of another famous pitcher I might have added - Whitey Ford - but it's just as well I left him out in the interests of shortening the piece. The more I think about it though, the more relevant and apt the comparison between Whitey and Roy becomes. This may seem laughable at first because of the obvious differences between them. Ford was a small left-hander and Halladay was a big, strapping righty. Whitey was a noted urbanite party animal, a running buddy of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, whereas Halladay was a country boy at heart, with ascetic personal habits that would make a Mormon look like a citizen of Sodom. And Ford pitched for the great Yankees and had a huge post-season more [...]

Is Roy Halladay A Hall-of-Famer?

At 36, pitcher Roy Halladay announced his retirement the other day, signing a one-day contract with the Blue Jays which will allow him to retire as one, a classy move by all concerned. It's gratifying to local baseball fans that this was clearly important to Halladay, and for one glorious moment there, I thought he'd actually signed a real pitching contract for next year, Lord knows we could use him if he were healthy. Roy cited a chronic back condition which led to ongoing shoulder injuries as the reason for his early retirement. I was a bit surprised given his not too advanced age and fanatical devotion to fitness that he couldn't have pitched longer, but I'm glad he's made his peace with retirement, this way he isn't risking permanent physical impairment. So the question on many baseball fans' minds now becomes : Did Roy Halladay have a Hall of Fame-calibre career? And if so, will he be elected? (The two are not quite the same question. The first one could be argued either way, but given the often inexplicable decisions of HOF voters over the years, the only honest and smart answer to the second question is : Who the hell knows?) Most commentators have described Halladay as a borderline HOF candidate, which is about right on the face of things, given his raw numbers alone. This means he is at least in the running and worthy of consideration, it could go either way. I heard TV baseball analyst Steve Phillips interviewed on a local sportscast and he said that in more [...]

Three Pitchers Who Bucked the Odds

  The following is a companion piece to "Shake Hands With the D.L.", which examines injuries to pitchers down through the years. This piece takes a closer look at three pitchers from the distant past - Babe Adams, Eppa Rixey and Dazzy Vance - who overcame serious injuries and went on to have long, interesting, productive careers. In fact, Rixey and Vance are in the Hall of Fame and many think Adams should be.  1. Babe Adams.  He was born Charles Adams in 1882, to an Indiana farming family so dirt-poor they couldn't feed all their children, so Charlie was sent to work and live on a farm in Missouri. There was a lot of baseball played in the area and Adams got interested in pitching as a youth; in his first organized game he was beaten pretty badly. The shortstop from the opposing team befriended Charlie and taught him how to throw a curveball, which would prove to be a turning point in his baseball life. The young Adams practiced throwing it against the side of a barn for a year, shades of Bob Feller, 35 years later. In his first pro game in 1905, Adams threw a one-hit shutout, attracting the attention of scouts and the St. Louis Cardinals promptly bought him. After one game with the Cards in 1906 didn't go so well, they sold him back to the minor leagues and the Pittsburgh Pirates picked him up. His three starts with them in 1907 didn't turn any heads either, so the Pirates sent him down for seasoning, which worked. He pitched well in the minors 1907-8 and more [...]

Shake Hands With the D.L.

In May of this year, I read that 104 pitchers have been on the major-league D.L. (disabled list) since the beginning of 2012, that number likely rose by 50 or 60 more by season's end. If memory serves, at one point in the 2012 season there were something like 35 pitchers out of action and scheduled for Tommy John surgery, many of them relief closers. That procedure deals with the elbow only and doesn't take into account frequent injuries to the shoulder (often rotator cuff), wrist, forearm, back or legs. Of course Blue Jays' fans are well acquainted with this, in 2012 the team lost three of its five starting pitchers to injury in one week, two of them for the whole season (Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison) and the other for a good chunk of it (Brandon Morrow.) This doesn't include relievers Sergio Santos (out again after missing most of last season) and Luis Perez (on the D.L. long-term) or Dustin McGowan, who's been out so regularly he's considering changing his name to D.L. McGowan. Or Ricky Romero, who didn't injure his arm last year but rather his pitching psyche, maybe permanently by the looks of things this year. Nobody could remember seeing anything like what happened with the three Jays starters in 2012; it was quite bizarre and marked the beginning of their season's slide into oblivion, this past season wasn't much better in this regard. Pitchers getting hurt is nothing new of course, they've always been prone to various arm injuries mainly because the human more [...]

The Iron Clarinet

The soprano saxophone has had a fairly schizoid history as an instrument and this is fitting, because it comes in two completely different forms. There's the straight one, which looks like a slightly bloated clarinet that's been dipped in brass. And the curved one, which looks like a miniature alto saxophone, to be used as a kid's toy or as a prop in a staging of Gulliver's Travels. As alto saxophonist Campbell Ryga (more on him later) puts it, the curved soprano isn't a saxophone, it's "more of a brooch". I don't know much about saxophones, but I'm told the curved one is mellower sounding and easier to control and play in tune, intonation problems have often plagued the horn. Most players favour the straight one though, its sound seems to cut through more and the fingering isn't quite as cramped as on the tiny curved model. Or maybe it's because the tubular model doesn't look as ridiculous, I don't know. In keeping with the instrument's physical duality, for many years there were only two main stylistic models aspiring soprano players could look to and each represented an extreme : the original master Sidney Bechet, who epitomized the earliest traditions of jazz, or John Coltrane, who came much later and represented the avant-garde. For a long time Bechet had the soprano field all to himself, he began playing the straight one along with his first instrument, the clarinet, sometime in the early '20s. This established a pattern that would later become common : most play more [...]

The Cement of Lament

There are certain pieces of music which stick in our minds for hours or even days and often these so-called ear-worms are unwelcome, as we chance to hear a snippet of something we don't even like and it just won't leave us alone, goddamnit. I'm very suggestible in this way, sometimes all it takes is for somebody to mention an old TV show or movie and suddenly my inner jukebox kicks in and I have the theme from "Green Acres" or "To Sir With Love" running through what's left of my mind, thanks a lot, pal. Or I'll wake up first thing in the morning with some dumb, arcane song in my head for no reason at all, making me wonder with no small anxiety just what the hell I was dreaming about that makes "I Love Jennifer Eccles" so all-fired important all of a sudden. It's spooky....what? ....was I at some Hollies fan-club convention in my dreams? And if so, what does this say about me? Sometimes though, I get lucky and an actual "adult" piece of music I really love lodges in my mind's ear for a day or two and its persistence is only maddening to those around me, because I can't stop humming bits of its melody, usually in my trombone-impersonation voice. (Honestly, just how annoying could that be? Apparently, very.) Such is the case with J.J. Johnson's lovely ballad/tone poem "Lament", which has been dogging me off and on in recent months, including right now. It's that kind of tune, it just won't let go, burying itself in my ear like cement. But at least it's good company, it more [...]

La-di-dah, di-dah-di-dum……

On a recent gig there were some requests for autumn songs - "Autumn Leaves"' naturally, which never goes away but I never tire of either, as long as it's not played too fast. Its imperishable structure and cyclical chords make it a great vehicle for blowing, plus people know and like it. Also "Autumn In New York", which is maybe the best of this lot, a masterpiece with the great line describing Manhattan's streets as "canyons of steel". "Autumn Nocturne", "Autumn Serenade" and "Early Autumn" are also good tunes for this season, as are "September Song" and "Indian Summer". We thought we'd put a medley of autumn tunes together and my ever febrile sense of punsmanship led me to suggest songs with the word "fall" in them, like "Let's Fall In Love" or "I Fall In Love Too Easily". Naturally these offerings were greeted with groans and blank looks, though no actual violence from my fellow musos. Come to think of it, Wayne Shorter wrote a tune called "Fall", which is never played or asked for because nobody actually knows it. Another one I like is "'Tis Autumn" by a guy named Henry Nemo, no relation to Jules Verne's nutty evil geneticist character. It's a ballad with a really tuneful melody and cute, fanciful words which actually include some scat-like syllables: Old Father Time checked, so there'd be no doubt; Called on the North wind to come on out, Then cupped his hands so proudly to shout, "La-di-dah di-dah-di-dum, 'tis autumn!" Trees say they're tired, they've born too much more [...]

Say It Ain’t So, Joe….

I want to make it abundantly clear that, while I have a fairly active imagination, I'm not one of those nutters given to conspiracy theories...I repeat, I'm not a conspiracy theory guy. But the baseball played by the Cardinals in the early innings of last night's World Series opener was so surpassingly strange, so surreal, that it brought eerie echoes to me of the curious doings in the 1919 Series. Yes, that one, the Black Sox one, the thrown one. I'm not actually suggesting the fix is in here of course, just that the self-destruction of the Cards was so utter and blatant that it almost resembled fixed baseball, they couldn't have played much worse the first couple of innings if they'd tried to. In the first inning of Game One in 1919, the Chicago conspirators (pitchers Cicotte and Williams, fielders Risberg, Gandil, Felsch, Weaver, Jackson and McMullin) were to give a sign to the gamblers that the fix was in. It could have been a fat, hanging pitch, a dropped flyball in the outfield, or a botched double-play, but those might have happened legitimately and naturally, Rothstein and his cabal of gamblers wanted something surer, more deliberate and discernible; the sign was to be Cicotte hitting Cincinnati's lead-off hitter with a pitch in the first inning. Cicotte dutifully plunked Morrie Roth, the high-rollers laid their money down and the rest is history; black, life-ruining, soul-destroying history. The Cardinal implosion was partly bad play, partly bad luck more [...]

Sarahndipity – I Feel Pretty…Good

They might be called jazz serendipity, those odd moments when out of the blue (and often out of context), you chance to hear a great jazz performance and it simply takes your head off, you're just gone, palpably reminded of how great and uplifting this music can be. I had the strangest one of these one summer night after a gig, quite a few years ago. I can almost pinpoint the time because I was working at The Senator and that club closed sometime in 2005, so it was likely the summer of 2004 or 2005. It was a Saturday in August and the city was emptier and quieter than usual, as it gets at that time of the year. I was playing at the club in a trio led by saxophonist Trevor Hogg, with David Braid playing piano. We were presenting the music of Lennie Tristano and his famous pupils Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. The music was challenging but fun, though a bit lonely for me without drums; I think The Senator was cutting back to just trios that summer in an attempt to stay open. I left the club shortly after one in the morning. I'd had a few, wasn't exactly tipsy but I wasn't feeling any pain either. I crossed Victoria St. to cut across Dundas Square on my way to the subway. There had been the usual drecky live show there that night, but by then the crowd had dispersed and the square was fairly deserted, though there were still bright lights on and a crew was tearing down equipment on the stage. Some music was playing really loud over the P.A. system, but for once it wasn't more [...]

After Hours Diary

"It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place...." It was just the four of us, fairly late Wednesday night - John Loach and his trumpet, John Alcorn singing without a mic, Mark Eisenman at the keys and me on bass - huddled around the piano at Loach's place in a tight circle, playing a few "good old good ones", the songs of our lives, making music for our own pleasure. It was all about the mood and the moment and this surely was an after hours, jazz one. There was no audience (save for Patti Loach padding about in the kitchen), no requests, no money, no sound-system or wires, no pressure, no nothin'. Just four guys who love to play together, picking bits of music from the air and sending them back out, the songs and sounds drifting into the silence of the night and fading, never to return. Our little jam session hadn't been planned at all and that's partly why it was so satisfying, so easy and fun. We'd gathered earlier at the Loaches' house to mix 23 tracks that we'd recorded there last October over three nights, with Warren Vache on cornet and Reg Schwager on guitar, Loach at the dials. I don't often say this because it isn't often true, but I really felt back then that we'd caught lightning in a bottle those three nights, especially the last one. The playing seemed very spontaneous and effortless, the result of good musical chemistry, intent listening, superior songs, parked egos, a relaxed atmosphere in a studio just made for making music, i.e. the Loaches' more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Five

The series continues with a look at four bassists who had prolific freelance careers mostly in the mainstream, small-group swing field - John Simmons, Al Hall, Al Lucas and Gene Ramey. These men were born within five years of each other and their careers often overlapped and intersected in the patchwork quilt of New York jazz, especially in the 1940s and '50s. Sometimes, one would replace another with a given artist; for example, each of them played and recorded extensively with Teddy Wilson at one time or another. Simmons and Lucas each played with Illinois Jacquet and pianist Eddie Heywood in the '40s; Lucas and Hall were with Mary Lou Williams for a time. Hall and Simmons both played with Erroll Garner, Simmons and Ramey with Thelonious Monk early in his career and also with Art Tatum. If you have multi-CD sets by certain artists - Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Wilson, Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young - it's not unusual to see two or three of these guys in succession. Each of them was well enough regarded during their prime that they worked constantly with a wide range of people, but this very versatility and the passage of time have pushed these fine bassists into the shadows somewhat. 7.  a) - John Simmons.   I've learned over the years that if you want a meaningful assessment of how a given jazz drummer plays, don't ask another drummer, because they've likely never played with the guy in question and are apt to give information that's too specific or technical. more [...]

I’ve Got the Hippie, Hippie Shakes

Recently I got into a discussion with two female library colleagues who are my age, about the young of today and some of their customs and..... "idioms". You know....Who Bruno Mars is (which they knew but I didn't.) How Facebook is rapidly becoming old-hat and being replaced by things like Instagram and Snapchat. The preponderance of ghastly plaid shorts and stupid, undersized straw fedoras on young men. How old words like "hip", "cool" and "hipster" have become co-opted by the young, but with new and different connotations, which makes their use of them ironic for us oldsters, if we're not too grumpy to see it. One of these ladies mentioned that her teenage daughter downloads new tunes to her (the mother's) iPhone, to keep her informed on the "now sounds of today's music", under the heading "I'm A Hip Mom." I jokingly replied with, "Or a hep mom", but neither of my friends knew that word. I explained that it was an old term we used to use, meaning the "royal we". Fortunately, hep was a word from before our time and I hate to admit it, but there aren't too many of those left, boo-hoo. I'm not sure if hep preceded hip or was just an offshoot of it, but it was used back in the early days of bebop - mid to late-'40s - by modern jazz fans and the music press, it was kind of corny even then. Often it was joined with "cat" as in "hep-cat", one who dug the way-out sounds of progressive jazz and knew how to "go man, wail daddy-o, you dig?" You know, the type who sported a beret, more [...]

Oucho Marks, or Bruising in the Bronx

The Boston Red Sox did some more crazy stuff over the weekend that ties in with the 20-run game I wrote about on Thursday. On Thursday night, I decided to treat myself to some home theatre, the Red Sox against their nemesis at Yankee Stadium II in the first of 4 games, they're always like Troy vs. Sparta. It was a four-and-a-half hour marathon with everything except flying elephants and a public beheading. The Sox won 9-8 after being up 8-2 and then giving up 6 runs to the Yankees in a seventh inning that lasted 45 minutes. Then, as they've done more often than any other team, they got to Mariano Rivera, scoring a run off him in the top of the ninth. The game finally over, I was exhausted, sweaty, panting and when my wife Anna saw me moments later, she asked, "What's wrong?" "Oh nothing.........how was your movie?" The next night we were at my nephew's wedding and I didn't see the Red Sox beat the Yankees 12-8. So, 20 runs, then 9, then 12, that's 41 over three nights, not bad. On Saturday, Anna was recovering from the wedding (think The Wild Bunch meets Flashdance) and spent most of the day in bed, which allowed me to watch Part 3 of Sox-Yankees in the afternoon. It was a rare chance to watch baseball while also achieving domestic brownie points, making lunch, dinner, serving tea, etc. Heh heh..... Anyway, the announcers mentioned on Saturday that the first two games of this set marked the first time the Yankees had scored at least 8 runs in back to back games and lost both more [...]

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Laughers

On Wednesday night, the Boston Red Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 20-4 in Fenway Park, a baseball laugher, so called because these kinds of games are inherently farcical. It's rare for any team to score as many as 20 runs and usually in these cases the losing team stops wasting pitchers and will use some bench/position players to pitch, which also gets pretty funny, often because these guys are not half-bad and stop the bleeding. Strange as the game was, seeing it at all was an odd coincidence too. If I'd been home I would have missed it, but my wife Anna and I went to my son Graeme's place to help him hang some of my dad's paintings. Graeme had the Yankees-White Sox game on with no sound, then switched to the Fenway game on some channel I don't have on my cable TV package. The Sox and Tigers were tied 4-4 in the fifth or so and I thought....hmmm, good game. I finished hanging a picture and noticed the Sox had gone up 5-4. About five minutes later I'd finished another and it was 10-4 - what the hell? Somebody must have hit a grand slam (it was Will Middlebrooks, Boston's suddenly red-hot third baseman.) After that, every time I looked back to the game, the Sox had added on to the score - 12-4, 14-4, 16-4. It was getting silly, the Tigers kept bringing in their minor-league call-up pitchers and the Sox kept bashing them. David Ortiz hit two of Boston's total of eight home runs, a record for each team, but on opposite sides of the baseball. The game had vague echoes for me more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Four

The series continues with a look at the great swing veteran Sid Weiss and three guys who are mostly overlooked, despite (or maybe because of) playing bass with famous big bands - Junior Raglin and Ernie Shepard with Duke Ellington, and Eddie Jones with Count Basie. 5. - Sid Weiss. If a soundtrack of The Swing Era was ever assembled, Sid Weiss would be playing bass on more than his fair share of it. He played with four key big bands - Artie Shaw (1938-9), Tommy Dorsey (1940-41), Benny Goodman (1941-45) and Charlie Barnet (1943) - as well as short stints with Jerry Wald, Bunny Berigan and others. He also did a lot of freelance recordings, some of them very notable. A person can only be in one place at a time, yet from 1935-45 Weiss seemed to defy this, he was all over swing music of both the big and small band variety. And yet he's almost completely forgotten now. Some of this has to do with playing bass in a big band, a sure ticket to anonymity because of the sheer numbers involved and the hierarchy of the Big Band Era star system. Highest up were the leaders, who were like royalty and often had names that reflected this - Duke, Count, The King of Swing etc. Then there were the star soloists, who were often leaders in waiting. For example, Benny Goodman's earliest bands hatched such future leaders as Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. The singers naturally attracted some attention, leaving the section guys further down the more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Three

The series continues with a look at the fine veteran West Coast bassist Buddy Clark and two very good, mostly unknown bassists, Don Prell and William Austin, whose careers were almost as brief and obscure as Gary Mapp's, but not quite. 3. Buddy Clark - Buddy Clark was a very good bassist on the L.A. scene from the early '50s on into the '80s, who's often overlooked. He's become a favourite of mine in random, incremental installments through the years because his career, though busy, followed an intermittent pattern of jazz exposure intermingled with anonymous studio work. I first became aware of him through hearing Supersax in the early '70s, he was co-founder and co-leader of the band along with Med Flory, and did a lot of the arranging of Charlie Parker's solos for five saxophones. Over the years since then, I would hear him on jazz records here and there (often without knowing who was playing at first) and was always really impressed by the rhythmic flow of his playing. There's something about the combination of his firm, full sound, his ringing, slightly percussive attack, his note choices and his placement of the quarter-note just slightly on top of the beat that add up to a very clear, propulsive time-feel, he always seemed to get things off the ground. In this respect his playing is quite similar to Leroy Vinnegar's, though Vinnegar was funkier, had more personality and inventiveness in his playing than Clark, was more of a dyed-in-the-wool jazz player and hence more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Two

Our look at unsung bassists continues with Tommy Williams, who mostly played with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet and is not to be confused with the more recent jazz bassist Thomas Williams or Tommy Williams, the rock guy. 2. Tommy Williams - I'd been heavily involved with jazz - reading about it, listening to it, playing it - for about 25 years before I first came across the bass playing of Tommy Williams and I won't soon forget it. About twelve years ago, I was hanging out with my good friend John Sumner - a terrific drummer and serious jazz record collector - at his apartment. We were listening to records and talking music as usual and he put on an older Art Farmer LP I didn't know, a quartet date from around the late-'50s or so. The pianist sounded just like Tommy Flanagan (and it was) but the bassist and drummer didn't sound familiar, I couldn't place them. Then on came a track with the bass playing the melody to an old standard I also didn't know ("So Beats My Heart For You") and my ears perked right up, this kind of thing wasn't too commonplace back then. The mystery bassist sounded just great, he got the melody to sing (not easy on the plucked bass) with a long, rounded tone and very articulate, smooth phrasing. It was the kind of thing I'd heard from Oscar Pettiford, Red Mitchell and Paul Chambers, but this guy sounded different. I gave up, had no idea, so I finally asked in desperation, "Who the hell is the bass player?!?" "Tommy Williams" answered Sumner, more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part One

The recent post about the mostly forgotten bassist Billy Taylor got me to thinking of other under-recognized ones, of which there have been no shortage through the years. So here's a look at a few other bass players who were never even close to being household names, despite playing very well. First though, a comic rant on the overuse of the word "underrated" in jazz.                                                           *** I was going to call this article "Underrated Bassists", but it occurred to me that the word underrated has become overrated in jazz. It's certainly been overused in that context to the point where its meaning has become fuzzy, if not completely nonexistent. It's almost as bad as "awesome" but not quite, nothing is. I guess we still have a general sense of what underrated means, but how can so many players (even in so underrated a field as jazz) be underrated? (The answer of course, is "easily".) This mostly started with jazz critics and reviewers in the past, they tossed around 'underrated' like it was confetti, to the point where certain names always summoned up the word automatically. Tommy Flanagan, Hank Mobley, Eddie Bert, Kenny Dorham, Chuck Wayne, Jerry Dodgion, Dick Katz, George Tucker, Mickey Roker, etcetera, etcetera. It almost made you wish that jazz writers came equipped with an electronic sensor-chip, so that every time they went to use 'underrated' they'd get a little more [...]

The Bucs Tops Here

Don't look now, but after twenty straight losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates entered August with the best record in baseball at 65-43, two percentage points ahead of the Red Sox. True, they've teased their fans the last two seasons by flirting with contention this late, only to collapse down the stretch like a straw suitcase. This year feels different though, for a few reasons to be examined later. Their last winning season was 1992, the last of three 90-win years from 1990-92. To give some idea of how long ago that was, George H.W. Bush was the President, Desert Storm was in full swing and the Internet was in its infancy. One of the Pirates' star pitchers was Kyle Drabek's father Doug and another was Tim Wakefield, at the beginning of his long, recently finished career. Their main star was Barry Bonds, back when he was skinny, when there were asteroids, deltoids and hemorrhoids, but steroids were a problem for the Olympics and the Tour de France to deal with..... right? The manager was Jim Leyland in his first go-round, looking about a century younger than he does now. They had some other stars in Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla, but it all fell apart abruptly in '93 and the team entered a wasteland, not just losing games, but hope. No payroll, no fans, no prospects, no direction, no nothin'. This pattern is entirely in keeping with the team's past; its history is marked by brief (or sometimes slightly longer) periods of contention built around a few stars, followed more [...]

Surviving Greatness: Wally Pipp & Billy Taylor

A rare few have had the bad luck to be established and very good at what they do, only to be suddenly eclipsed by a wunderkind, relegated to oblivion through no fault of their own. In fact, if these poor souls are remembered at all, it's often only because of the greatness of those who supplanted them. One might call this the Salieri-Mozart dynamic, a most extreme case explored in the movie Amadeus. It's a kind of halo-effect in reverse, as in, "Oh yeah, I remember him...... he's the guy who was replaced by....... (insert famous name)." It was this way with Wally Pipp in baseball, for example. He was a very good first baseman, not quite a star, but good enough to be a regular with the Yankees from 1915-25, before and after Babe Ruth joined them. One fateful day during the 1925 season, he begged out of the line-up with a headache and was replaced by a kid named Lou Gehrig. Baseball fans all know the rest, the kid absolutely tore it up and Pipp never played another game at first base for the Yanks, as Gehrig embarked on his incredible streak of playing 2,130 consecutive games. He was a charter member of "Murderer's Row", eventually became "The Iron Horse" and of course had a mythical career, the stuff glory is made of. He's likely the greatest first baseman of all time, certainly the most famous and best-loved one. His play and statistics established all this, but Gehrig's untimely death from the disease now named after him and his stirring speech to a packed Yankee more [...]

I Hear A Sym-Phony

I'm never sure how far these posts travel or who sees them, so I want to avoid any misunderstanding by clarifying a couple of things in advance. In the following, I poke fun mostly at symphony musicians and eventually the French, a little bit. This is all in the spirit of parody as in my last two posts, which took the piss out of my own, namely jazz bands. I have the utmost respect for symphonic musicians, in fact my grandfather Tom Burry played tympani with the T.S.O. for about 40 years. Besides, having been around orchestral players many times, I know their sense of humour about themselves and their profession may be even more pointed and satirical than mine. As for the French....well, who can resist taking them down a notch or two once in a while?                                                        *** A friend of mine (who shall remain nameless to ensure his continued safety, not to mention survival) suggested that at the rate I was going with the funny-name bands, I would soon have an entire Symphony Orchestra on my hands. "What a horribly delicious idea," I thought, while also noting that some things are best left buried. Deeply. In the end though, I couldn't resist the challenge, thinking, "How hard could it be to come up with 95 cringe-worthy, groan-inducing musical pun-names?" Well, three days later, with the completely unexpected help of my long-suffering wife Anna (who I thought would put the kibosh more [...]

Wilbur, Beware

As the heat-wave continues, and just to show that yesterday's otomatopoeic big band was (unfortunately) no mere passing fancy, no random accident, here's a progressive-bop unit from the late-40s. The band is fronted by a wild singer named Frieda Bagg, who would later go on to influence Betty Carter. Because it's a ten-piece outfit, she calls it Frieda Bagg and The Decadents. Here's the personnel: Trumpet - Bendt Valver (He's Swedish of course and suffers from severe diabetes, otherwise known as Stockholm Sweetnin' Syndrome.) Trombone - Woody Slidemore Alto Sax - Kent Zwing Tenor Sax - Randy Changes Baritone Sax - Roland Thunder (Roland is in high demand, so occasionally Fillmore Cork subs in for him.) Vibes - Otis Mantle Piano - Thelonious Galintown (Very interesting girl pianist, but she suffers from a bad case of halitosis. When the smell gets to be too much, the band sends for Wiley Komper.) Guitar - Al Woodshed (Sometimes, his brother Otto guests.) Bass - Happy Walker (Once in a while, Wilbur B. Ware replaces him.) Drums - Hy Hatchik (When Hy gets too high, the expatriate German drummer Ole Baumdropper "fills in" for him.) They play an interesting book of charts written by such way-out arrangers as Izzy Deff, Tony Scribbler, Les Meeter and Wilbur Nout. Their manager/payroll secretary is Lotta Graaft and the infrequently used roadie is Howie Schlepps. Arturo Versees handles their European bookings, which are understandably rare. As boppers, a lot of them are more [...]

‘Dis Band Should Disband!

In the wilting heat of these dog days I thought we could use a little comic diversion, so here's one of the games jazz guys play on the road when things get boring, which is often enough. The idea is to make up an imaginary band of musicians whose names are onomatopoeic - yes, I realize that's an awfully big word for a bass player. You know, puns for the instruments they play - and how they play them - usually pretty badly to make it more fun. (It helps if you sound out the names below, but don't do this in public or people will think you're an even bigger drooling idiot than you really are.) Here then, is a bad big band of choice names compiled over the years, say Duke O'Bore and his Prairie Stink-o-Pators:   Trumpets: On lead trumpet we have Blair Lowder of course. The not very sure-lipped jazz trumpet soloist is Manny Clams. The section is rounded out by the mistake-prone Willie Cack and Kenny Maykit, who has very limited range, so his parts are often doubled by Betty Won't. Trombones: The lead trombonist is the slippery Russian, Slide Uptopitch. On second 'bone is a veteran of all the name bands who's never been a leader himself, Cy DeMann. The weak-chopped third trombonist is Cuffs Knightley. Bass trombone is handled by Stan Torian, who hails from Armenia and blows like, the lowest. Reeds: As usual, the sax section is a mixed bag of old hacks and overanxious youngbloods. On lead alto is the aging and slightly deaf veteran Otto Retire, backed by Reed Baddeley more [...]

No Walk In the Park

The following article could be seen as a rant or attack on Jays' catcher J.P. Arencibia, but is not really intended as such. It's just that his struggles this year and his attitude about these bring up some larger issues about baseball - what's important in it, how it should be played and so on - that I wanted to comment on. Before going any further though, I want to make two things clear: 1) I don't dislike Arencibia at all; in fact, so far in his still young career I've generally liked him in a personal, subjective way, been pulling for him as a fan. I don't know the man, but he seems to be an outgoing, humorous, friendly sort, the kind of person who gets involved wth the community where he plays, tries to do some good, is popular with his teammates and fans. In short, he seems to be a good guy and Lord knows we need more of those. 2) Believe it or not, this article was not provoked by the recent war of words between Arencibia and Sportsnet commentators Gregg Zaun and Dick Hayhurst. I've been intending to write about Arencibia for some time now, I just haven't found the time. However, the recent outburst makes this post more timely and has some relevance to what I wanted to say, so I'll certainly comment on it.                                                         *** Most would agree that at the very core of baseball lies the constant battle between pitcher and batter. There are other aspects of the game more [...]

Doubling Up

Generally, the ballplayers who hold single-season records in various hitting categories are famous, and rightly so. Take for example home runs, maybe the most glamorous of these categories. For a long time the single-season record was the 60 home runs hit in 1927 by Babe Ruth, still the most famous ballplayer who ever lived. Just for good measure, The Bambino also holds the all-time seasonal records for total bases, slugging average and extra-base hits. Then along came Roger Maris in 1961, breaking Babe's record with 61 dingers, earning himself great fame, an asterisk, largely unsympathetic press, clumps of hair falling out and a near nervous breakdown for his trouble. That record stood till the needle-jumpers came along in the late 1990s. Mark McGwire broke the Maris record with 70 homers in 1998, only to be eclipsed three years later when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. Their PED use has tarnished these records somewhat, but those two (and Sammy Sosa) are still famous and infamous at the same time. With RBIs, it's Hack Wilson with 191 in 1930 with the Cubs, a record that hasn't been nearly approached and Wilson is famous for this alone. Miguel Cabrera has an outside chance of challenging this with 85 so far, but he'll have to get awfully hot in the second half to do it, it's not likely. He may have a shot at breaking Lou Gehrig's American League record of 184, set in 1931. There aren't many players more famous than Gehrig and he was maybe the greatest RBI guy of all time, more [...]

Melodious Thunk, and Other Funk

I've become friends with one of the reference librarians in the Great Library where I work, partly because she's interested in music of all kinds. She's played the piano most of her life and sung in choirs; she also does some Latin dancing, so music is about as important to her as it is to me. We've taken to trading CDs back and forth and recently I left four jazz ones on her desk with an email explaining them. I got carried away with it as usual - especially with some stories about Sweets Edison, who's on one of the discs - so I've decided to post this for everyone's entertainment, hopefully.                                                   *** I thought it was high time you heard some Thelonious Monk, or "Melodious Thunk" as his wife Nellie called him. I fussed over which record to bring you as an introduction to him, but in the end decided it didn't really matter. I have a feeling you're not going to like him much anyway; he's an acquired taste that some people just don't ever acquire. But have a go. This record is one of his better ones and a little unusual, even for him. I love the kiddie-themed cover, unfortunately this is a Japanese issue, so the liner notes are a little hard to read! Normally, Monk used a quartet with him on piano, plus tenor saxophone, bass and drums. This one has a septet with trumpet, alto saxophone, his favourite bassist and drummer and two tenor saxophone giants who represented the past (Coleman more [...]

Oh, So … Minoso

At the end of my last post I wrote, with tongue mainly in cheek, that I wish I could have played major-league ball, but that the chances of this happening were a big fat zero. My friend Ted O'Reilly commented that this was just as well, that my career in music has been much longer than any ballplayer's, with the possible exception of Minnie Minoso, who managed to play in parts of seven decades. This is true and a good point, but also reminds me that I wrote a fairly long piece about Minoso a couple of years ago. So, I thought this was maybe a good time to dig it up and post it. It's a profile of his baseball life and career, as well as an argument on behalf of him deserving to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I wrote it, I felt strongly that Minnie Minoso and Ron Santo were the two best players not in the HOF. Shortly thereafter, Santo was elected, unfortunately a few months after his premature death. Minnie is now 90 and still seems to be mostly in good health, so I'm hoping the HOF voters don't repeat this dumb, 'better too late than never' timing and will put him in while he's still here to enjoy it. I'm not holding my breath though, and I hope Minnie isn't either. Here then is a look at one of the most versatile, durable, interesting and joyous players ever in baseball history.                                                         *** Like single-malt whiskies and jazz records, the Baseball Hall more [...]

It’s Ball In the Family

With over 350 sets of brothers and more than 100 father-son combinations, major-league baseball has had far more family acts in its history than any other sport. This doesn't include the rarer examples of nine sets of twins who played the game or the four instances of players over three generations - grandfather, father and son. There's even a very rare case of baseball spanning four generations (while skipping two) as in the case of Jim Bluejacket, who pitched for Brooklyn and Cincinnati in 1914-16, and his great-grandson Bill Wilkinson, who pitched for the Mariners from 1985-88. Don't get alarmed, I didn't know most of this stuff or anything, I looked it up at a nifty feature of the site BaseballAlmanac.com called The Baseball Family Tree, which lists all of this in detail. The biggest set of baseball-playing brothers were the five Delahanty boys from Cleveland - Ed, Tom, Joe, Jim and Frank - who all played in and around the turn of the century, 1888-1915. Tom, Joe and Frank had relatively short and spotty careers, but Jim played for thirteen seasons in the big leagues and put up some pretty decent numbers. Ed, the eldest, was the real talent in the family though, a major star outfielder of his day, posthumously enshrined in the Hall of Fame since 1945. He hit .346 lifetime and drove in nearly 1,500 runs in a career cut short in the middle of its sixteenth year by his mysterious and sudden death at age 36. Ed was something of a sport, a big socializer and drinker, more [...]

Songs In the Key of Three

Since Ed Bickert retired from playing guitar around 2002, his place in a couple of bands I play in - the Mike Murley Trio and the Barry Elmes Quintet - has been taken by Reg Schwager. It speaks volumes for Reg that these were quite seamless transitions; replacing Ed's unique playing would normally be impossible and generally, his absence has left a sizeable hole on the Canadian jazz scene at large. The Elmes Quintet has released several records with Reg playing guitar, but Murley's trio hasn't managed this yet, despite a pass at a live recording at Mezzetta several years ago. This was a hasty one-off which yielded some material that was good, but not quite good enough to release. Reg does appear on Murley's CD The Melody Lingers On, but that wasn't just the trio, it features Guido Basso and Tara Davidson as guests along with a chamber ensemble of strings. Typically, Reg has been pretty quiet on the subject, but Murley and I both agree that a recording by the trio with him is long overdue, especially when you consider how consistently well the group with Reg has played over the last eleven years. It's criminal really, but that's how it goes sometimes in jazz, people get busy with various other gigs, bands or projects and before you know it, ten years have gone by and you still don't have a CD out. The odd circumstance of an old recording by the first trio surfacing and being released recently also set things back unexpectedly on this front. A move to correct this more [...]

Don’t Look Now, But….

Most baseball fans know that Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers did something last year that no ballplayer has since 1967. He won the batting Triple Crown, which means he lead his league in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and runs-batted-in (RBI), with 139. Oddly enough his teammate Justin Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown - leading in wins, ERA and strikeouts - in 2011. This is not talked about nearly as much and for good reason, the pitching version is a lot easier to manage, a lot more commonplace. The hitting trifecta is extremely hard to pull off, but in the past hitters managed it now and then. In fact, the year before Carl Yastrzemski last turned the trick in 1967 with the Red Sox, Frank Robinson also managed it with the Orioles in his first season in the American League, odd. Nobody has won it in the National League since Joe "Ducky" Medwick with the Cards in 1937, a drought of 75 years and counting. The fact nobody won it for 45 years drew a lot of commentary as to the reasons why, whether somebody would ever do it again, who it would likely be and yadda, yadda. A few players have come close recently - Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Cabrera himself a few other times. One of the theories put forth about the drought was general, but made sense - that, as any field improves and grows stronger, it becomes harder and harder for one individual to dominate it - this could certainly hold true in baseball. Cabrera more [...]

Birds, Songs, Memory and Coincidence

  One of the perks of working at Osgoode Hall is seeing the grounds in spring and summer, all the beautiful trees and gardens maintained by two very hard-working women. There are about five cherry-blossom trees that recently came into spectacular bloom and on Friday morning I saw a flash of orange fly up into one of them. I thought "Baltimore Oriole" right away, but it happened so fast I wasn't sure. So I walked over and stood under the tree, pouring rain and all, peering up through the branches like a gawking idiot, which is pretty much what I am. Sure enough, there were two orioles, orange as pumpkins, flitting around in the lush pink blossoms. It makes sense, orioles like sweet stuff and they're likely getting some nectar here, maybe they'll hang out for a few days. You may have gathered that apart from jazz and baseball, I'm also pretty crazy about birds and songs, which kind of go together. If I'd been with Frank Sinatra and the rest of "The Rat Pack" back in the day (I wish), their motto might have been "Let's get some birds, baseball, bebop, booze and broads and be somebody." I can't tell you what a lovely thrill and surprise it was to see these birds like this, but I'll try. The last time I remember seeing an oriole was in the backyard of my parent's first house in Scarborough, which had several big old elm trees. I have a tiny but crystal-clear memory of looking up through the elm branches one summer day and seeing one perched high up there, the sun glinting more [...]

Bearing Up In the Depression

Given their dismal record of losing and being almost continual baseball chumps from 1946 to this very day, it might strain belief to suggest the Chicago Cubs had a second decade of success nearly equalling that of the 1904-13 teams. Nevertheless, in the Depression years of 1929-38, the Cubs came close to matching the great run of their predecessors. True, the later teams didn't win any championships or nearly as many games, didn't concentrate four pennants in a five-year period. But their record in terms of league-standing over a decade was the same, if more diffuse -they won four pennants (one every three years in 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938) and finished in second or third place the other years. The Cubs from this period have long interested me, they provide a lively and fascinating window into the baseball of that time, which was eventful, exciting, marked by colourful personalities and intense competition. These teams were packed with good and great players, some famous, others less so. There were three regulars who would go into the Hall of Fame - catcher Gabby Hartnett, rightfielder Kiki Cuyler and second baseman Billy Herman. Many believe that another regular - third baseman Stan Hack -also deserves this honour. Apart from these, there were four other Hall-of-Famers who played short stints with the team - second baseman Rogers Hornsby (1929-32), right-fielder Chuck Klein (1934-35), pitchers Burleigh Grimes (1932-33) and Dizzy Dean (1938-41.) They had some real characters more [...]

Bearing Up

  I've been reading The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract off and on for over two years now and it just keeps on giving. It's not the kind of book you read from cover to cover, it's far too big for that. It has to be digested in small portions, but even so, I'm still coming across things I've missed and it continues to yield surprising and thought-provoking information, such as the following from a short piece about the Chicago Cubs of the early 1900s. The 1906 Cubs won 116 games, still a record for wins in a season, equalled by the 2001 Seattle Mariners, playing a 162-game schedule. The Mariners' record was 116-46, the '06 Cubs were an astonishing 116-36 in 152 games. (There was a 154-game schedule back then, but missed games were often not made up unless necessary.) The 1907 Cubs won 107 games; combined with the '06 record, the 223 wins is a record over two years. The '08 Cubs won 99 games and the 322 wins 1906-08 is a record over three years. The pattern continues - they won 426 games from 1906-09 and 530 from 1906-10, both records for a four- and five-year span. They won 622 games over the six years 1905-10, still by far a record. The only team to come close to this was the Cardinals from 1941-46, with 606 wins. The Cubs won 715 games over seven years (1904-10) and 807 over an eight-year period (1904-11), you guessed it, both records. (The Yankees won 799 games in the eight years between 1936-43.) The record-setting string continues with 898 wins 1904-12 and more [...]

Winging It in Buffalo

I wrote this after first making a baseball trip to Buffalo in August of 2011.  With the Blue Jays' AAA farm team now located there, the piece has new relevance, so I thought I'd revive it.  Besides, given how awful the big club has been so far, Buffalo may be the nearest place for Toronto fans to actually see something like major-league baseball being played.  While thousands of Canadian baseball fans made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown yesterday to witness the Hall of Fame inductions of Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick, two friends and I made a baseball trek ourselves on Sunday. Ted O'Reilly, Sam Levene and I shuffled off to Buffalo to take in a Bisons' ball game. Ted and I have been friends for years and he was the main instigator of the trip, put out the initial feelers, did the driving and knows the lay of the land, having made this trip a few times. For this I'm grateful - thanks Ted - it was a great time. High among the pleasures of the day was getting to know Sam Levene better. He and I met once very briefly in a jazz club years ago and we've been back and forth on email of late, but didn't really know one another. As soon as I set eyes on him, I thought "Phil Rizzuto". Like the Scooter, Sam is a small, cheerful, gentle man with wavy grey hair and glasses, though he isn't given to calling anyone a "huckleberry". Sam knows his baseball and jazz, is soft-spoken, good company and a veteran of baseball road trips. Once a year, he and some friends have set out by more [...]

Show Me the Way To Go Home

On the subway the other day I saw someone wearing one of those sweatshirts that say "Member of the All-Harvard Drinking Team" and it got me to thinking of how many drinking men there have been in baseball through the years, so I thought I'd put together an All-Star team of the game's notable boozers. Generally, it seems that excessive drinking was more widespread in the past and since professional baseball began around 1860 or so, it has always reflected American life as a whole. Imagine society back then, with far fewer entertainment and recreational options, far less information on issues like health and well-being, sanitation or medicine. Consider that commercial spirits were being mass-produced and distributed for the first time then, so were widely available. Throw in the horror shows of the Civil War and its fallout, sweatshop working conditions in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, a few disease and flu epidemics, two World Wars sandwiched around the Great Depression, the development of nuclear arms, the onset of the Cold War and other fun stuff. I'm not trying to come off as some kind of Temperance League Herbert Marcuse here or anything, I'm just saying that it was little wonder that people by and large were hitting the bottle with a vengeance back then. I know I would have. In fact, just writing about this makes me feel like having a belt ......aahhh, that's much better, thanks. I get the feeling that early baseball was basically a diversion to be played more [...]

Staff Meeting

  This old music joke was reprinted in an English jazz mag I subscribe to, I read it with my coffee this morning and I thought you all might get a laugh out of it. It mostly works because 'a fifth' is an old-school jazz musician's term for a 40-ouncer of booze. Eddie Condon, the guitarist and dispenser of trenchant jazz wit once said the following to explain the difference between modern jazz and his preferred brand of trad-jazz - "We don't flat our fifths, we drink 'em."  Anyway, here's the joke:   C, E-flat and G go into a bar. The bartender says, "Sorry, but we don't serve minors." So E-flat leaves, and C and G have an open fifth between them. After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished, and G is out flat. F comes in and tries to augment the situation, but isn't sharp enough. D enters and heads straight for the loo, saying, "Excuse me, I'll just be a second." Then A comes in, but the bartender is not convinced that this relative of C is not a minor. The bartender notices B-flat hiding at the end of the bar and says, "Get out! You're the seventh minor I've found in this bar tonight." D-flat arrives looking quite handsome and the bartender decides he's not the best-looking guy he's ever seen, but a close second. E-flat comes back later in a three-piece suit with nicely shined shoes. The bartender says, "You're looking sharp tonight. Come on in, this could be a major development." Sure enough, E-flat soon takes off his suit and everything else and is au natural. Eventually more [...]

Bobby Estalella : Passing Through Shades of Gray

  Many are familiar with songwriter Dave Frishberg and his baseball songs, the most celebrated of which is "Van Lingle Mungo". Those who haven't heard it, should, it's a delightful masterpiece. The lyrics are all old ballplayer's names, arranged so artfully and rhythmically so as to become poetry, with the pitcher's name Van Lingle Mungo repeated throughout the song as a kind of haunting refrain and link. Being a retro-maniac, a mental collector of old ballplayers' names, I was familiar with most of the players in the song the first time I heard it, but there were four names that I didn't know very well : Eddie Basinski, Danny Gardella, Augie Bergamo and Bob Estalella. None of these guys was really a notable player, at least part of the reason they're in the song is that their five-syllable names fit the lilting metric requirements of Frishberg's bossa nova rhythm. In fact Estalella was always known as "Bobby", but Frishberg shortens it to "Bob" to keep the five syllables intact. I decided to look these guys up (as Casey Stengel would have put it), they're all in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Three of them had very short, wartime careers and are justly obscure. The exception is Bobby Estalella, (pronounced Esta-LAY-ah), who had a longer and very interesting career indeed. First though, the other guys : Eddie Basinski was a back-up middle infielder who played with Brooklyn 1944-45 and Pittsburgh in 1947. Altogether he played 203 games, with a batting average of .244. Augie more [...]

Burrowing Teeny-Bopper Ear-Worms

   On Saturday night after an all-day visit, my wife Anna and I dropped our daughter-in-law Sarah and one-year old grandson Charlie off at their place in the west end. We were tired but in a great mood, they're just so much fun to hang out with and Charlie has all kinds of new stuff going on. He's walking now (kinda like Frankenstein sometimes) and has a lot of funny faces, some new laughs and games. He's saying a few words, but seems to understand everything that's said, which is a little scary. The other night Anna said "Granna has to put on her shoes" and Charlie went over, got them and brought them to her, I swear to God. On the way back home, my mistress of schlock Anna had an AM oldies station on in the car and an old tune came on that got our attention right away because it started with just drums, playing the basic rock-beat that every guy I knew in Grade 6 tried to play, either on the drums or in the air. You know the one : Boom Ksshhh, de-Boom Boom Ksshhh.  Boom-Boom Ksshhh, de-Booma-Loom Ksshhh. The rest of the band came in, a cheesy Farfisa organ sound in the mix - don't get me wrong, used properly like this, cheesy Farfisa organ sounds are perfectly fine with me. The boy singer entered : "I went to a da-aannce the o-otherrr night, I saw a girl the-ere who looked outta sight." OK, OK, not exactly Wordsworth I admit, but hey - boy or girl - when you were 13 or 14, going to a dance and seeing somebody who looked outta sight was pretty much what life was more [...]

Earl Averill – Show Me the Money

Sometimes history shows us that everything old is new again, that the roots of what we think of as new issues or developments actually go far back in time. This is certainly true in baseball, as in the case of an old ballplayer named Earl Averill. He's interesting because at a crucial point in his career he took a gutsy stance over a salary issue and this led to a proposed change in baseball's policy regarding player sales which was never adopted, otherwise baseball's later labour strife might have been less costly. Some of you may know about Averill or have heard of him, but maybe not - he played from 1929-41, mostly with the Cleveland Indians, not exactly a glamour team back then. He was a really good player, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975 by the Veterans Committee. He was kind of the Bernie Williams of his day, a well-rounded, smart, graceful centerfielder. His career didn't last as long as Bernie's and he didn't have the fortune of playing on great teams like Williams, otherwise they're pretty similar - productive and versatile. Averill was the best centerfielder in the American League, maybe in all of baseball, from 1930-36, when along came Joe DiMaggio. He hit for average (.318 lifetime) and had power (238 home runs, 401 doubles and a .533 slugging average). He didn't strike out much (players whiffed less back then) and walked enough that his on-base-percentage was .395, which meant he scored well over 100 runs most seasons, with a high of 140 in 1931. He was small more [...]

Bitchin’ Pitchin’ Not Always Bewitchin’

In the years since I wrote this piece about the underachievement of great pitching staffs, the starting pitching of the Philadelphia Phillies from 2010-11 became another case in point.  They assembled a starting rotation that many saw as invincible and was described in some circles as maybe the best ever, consisting of four aces - Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels - plus some other decent starters in Vance Worley and Joe Blanton.  They didn't manage to beat the Giants in the 2010 NLCS though and in 2011 were undone even earlier in the NLDS when Halladay lost a great pitching duel 1-0, to Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals in the deciding fifth game.  This year's Blue Jays were thought to have put together a pretty vaunted starting staff themselves, but so far their pitchers have underperformed to such an extent that they can't even be considered yet as an example of this odd syndrome of failure.                                                  ******** "In baseball, you don't know nothin'. " - Yogi Berra "Good pitching always stops good hitting, and vice versa." - Casey Stengel The above famous quotes serve to underscore something odd I've noticed over the years, namely that great and deep pitching staffs have quite an awful record in post-season play. I first noticed this with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1970s, who were pitching-rich, to say the least. Their 1971 staff had four 20-game winners : Dave more [...]

Zoot, Al & The Mick

This is one of the very first baseball stories I ever wrote and it has jazz content too.  I've been wanting to post it for a while and thanks to the miracles of modern digital technology, I was able to retrieve it from a dusty old email archive it had been sitting in for about four years.  I'll admit I've taken some liberties here in filling in the details as best I can; drinking was most definitely involved in the recounting and hearing of the versions of the story told and my memory of them is a little dim as all this happened at least thirty years ago. Zoot Sims first told me this story about Mickey Mantle around 1981 and it was later comfirmed to me by Jake Hanna, who was at the Half Note as a listener on the night described below.  I didn't get to know Al Cohn well until after Zoot died in 1984, but Al told me this one too, along with many more about Zoot and others.  I can't begin to tell you what an honour and pleasure it was to play with these three great musicians and how entertaining it was to hang with them off the bandstand.  They provided me with some of my best laughs and fondest memories and I miss them each and every day.                                                *************** I first read about this celebrated ballgame in a collection of Baseball Digest stories - you know, those "Gee-whiz, my greatest thrill as a Yankee" jobs.  In the Digest version, an "ailing and feverish" Mickey Mantle came more [...]

What’s In A Name?

The following is kind of a funny story about the production of "Test of Time", the CD by Mike Murley's erstwhile trio (a.k.a. Murley-Bickert-Wallace) which just won the Juno Award in the "Best Traditional Jazz" category, whatever that means.  (It used to sort of mean jazz involving straw hats, banjos and/or clarinets, street names from New Orleans and old drunk guys, but I think these days it mostly means jazz with songs you might actually know and maybe even recognize.  Or maybe now, 'traditional' means jazz recorded more than ten years ago by a band that doesn't quite exist anymore, as on this disc.  Your guess is as good as mine.) Before getting to the story though, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all and sundry for their good wishes and in turn to congratulate my fellow-winners Mike Murley, Ed Bickert and especially our good friend Barry Elmes, who as engineer, producer and " jazz archaeologist" had an awful lot to do with the release of this record.  Winning a Juno for music recorded fourteen years ago is one of the more unexpected but pleasant developments in my (admittedly) checkered career and is proof that if you manage to stay in the jazz game long enough, you a), end up playing almost everywhere with just about anybody you could imagine and b), are bound to see, hear (and sometimes even smell) some mighty surprising things along the way. Anyway, on to the story: In late September of last year, Mike Murley and I were in Antogonish, N.S. with more [...]

My Friend Flicker

I just had my first "Annual April Flicker Sighting" while at my smoking haunt on the grounds of Osgoode Hall.  For about two weeks every April the past five or six years, a flicker shows up here and hangs out on the far side of the lawn near the gardener's ramp eating ants out of the ground - poke, poke, poke with his beak - then scurries back into the cover of the shrubs lest he be seen.  It's a yearly rite of passage, a sure sign that spring is here and all is (mostly) right with the world. Flickers are my favourite bird for a number of reasons, having to do with their muted but splendid appearance, their unusual, shy behaviour and the memory they bring of my father, who was a big birder.  I even like the name - flicker - as in, "You brought her, you flick her." It's funny that they're so timid, because they're a good size (bigger than a robin) and are so well turned out.  I always think of them as being designed by an English tailor, maybe Saville Row.  Their back looks like a tweed jacket - sandy brown with dark cross-bars - sort of a herringbone. The breast is an off-white polka-dot shirt with black speckles and they have that black crescent around the neck that looks for all the world like an ascot. (As my father used to say whenever he saw anyone wearing one, "That poor fella has his ass caught around his neck." His favourite line from The Bible was when somebody-or-other "tied his ass to a tree and walked into Bethlehem."  Man, what a card he was, I never even more [...]

Wherefore Art Thou, Global Warming?

So, what have we done to deserve this miserable dreck outside?  I mean, could God just FOAD with the snow and ice already?  Last night I watched the compressed replay of the Jays' afternoon game in Detroit and you could see the player's breath, the umpires and coaches were wearing mittens and toques for Chrissakes. Are we trapped in some kind of Ingmar Bergman movie here?  Like maybe "The Seventh Snow", "Frozen Wild Strawberries" or "The Virgin Ice-Spring"?  I feel like getting up a game of chess out on the street with a homeless guy wearing a cowl and holding a shovel, just for the comic relief. It's enough to make you write bad poetry, as in: Ice, falling from the sky onto my head Nice, but only if we were dead Lice, would be better than this dread, of Rice, tossed at a wedding held instead Of in a church, in an Arctic snow-bed.                                                **** Or maybe I could listen to some Jan Garbarek records just to cheer myself up, but fortunately I don't have any. (For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with Garbarek, he's a tenor and soprano saxophonist from that fun-filled place called Norway.  He's known for his extremely stark, razor's-edge, plaintive tone and relentlessly bleak and suicidal musical outlook.  He's kind of the Bergman of the saxophone and he would probably love this weather, the arsehole.  His music has been described as "fiordic jazz" and is about more [...]

Full Moon, Empty Arms, Blown Mind

It was pretty common practice in the 1930s and '40s to simply borrow a famous (or even obscure) theme from a classical composition and turn it into a popular song, its composer being conveniently dead and thus incapable of suing or collecting royalties.  The music business powers of the day weren't too shy about this kind of thing (they're even worse now) and it's surprising how many of these hybrids have entered the jazz repertoire and are trotted out now and then, often thanks to some good records of them made over the years.  Most of these versions have been instrumental, a good thing because, trust me, you don't want to hear the words that were dreamed up for most of these, they're pretty drecky.  It's not like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter were writing the lyrics, they both had bigger fish to fry, but the musical content is usually strong enough. For example, the old spiritual "Goin' Home" is based on one of the movements (I'd tell you which one if I knew or cared) of Anton Dvorak's famous "New World Symphony" - Czech it out.  Actually it's funny, because the main minor theme (notice how I didn't say "major minor theme") that opens this opus always reminds me of the first few notes of "My Funny Valentine", if played by a German marching band with a pole stuck way up its ass.  (Come to think of it, all German marching bands sound like they have a pole shoved pretty far up there.)  There are plenty of good jazz recordings of "Goin' Home" - by Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, more [...]

Aural Hygiene

I have this odd habit of combining dental appointments with CD shopping.  I know it sounds weird, but there's actually a method to my madness.  My favourite record store - Atelier Grigorian - is on Yorkville Ave. just around the corner from my dentist.  So after blowing good money on having my teeth cleaned every three months, I wash away the fluoride taste by spending some dough on something I actually enjoy, like jazz records.  It's kind of a pain-pleasure principle and I only wish my benefit package covered the CD sprees. Atelier Grigorian is deceptive, it seems small when you first enter, but it goes back a fair way then branches out into a wider section with another room.  It's chock full of CDs and has a helpful, friendly staff who really know their music and their records, several of them are musicians themselves.  Grigorian is perfect for me because it makes absolutely no concessions to popular taste or current trends - if you're looking for the latest Justin Timberlake or Beyonce, look elsewhere.  Their inventory is about two-thirds classical, with the other third mostly jazz with some interesting folk/world music thrown in.  The jazz section is well stocked, longer on quality than quantity and I like the way they have jazz singers in a separate area; it makes sense and for easier rummaging. In the last year or two, CD shopping for me has become like the law of diminishing returns for a couple of reasons.  One, as my jazz collection has grown to psychotic more [...]

Lightning In A Bottle (Part Four)

9.  Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane - Nov. 29, 1957 - Carnegie Hall The 2005 issue of these two stupendous sets from Carnegie Hall allowed listeners to at long last properly hear Monk's legendary "Five Spot" band at its peak, making this Smithsonian discovery one of the most significant in the history of jazz.  Before getting to the music itself though, a discussion of why the Five Spot gig was so important to the careers of Monk and Coltrane and the mystery of why so little of this great band's music was available (and in such desultory form and patchy quality) before this. Thelonious Monk's career belatedly took wing in the second half of the 1950s, aided by his productive contract with Riverside Records and the restoration of his cabaret card, which enabled him to work again in New York clubs.  In July of 1957 Monk took a quartet into the Five Spot Cafe - a bohemian hangout for artists and writers located in the Bowery at 5 Cooper Square - for a now-famous six-month residency.  The band consisted of Monk on piano, John Coltrane on tenor, Wilbur Ware on bass (replaced by Abdul Ahmed-Malik in August)  and Shadow Wilson on drums. The gig was hugely important in Monk's career, putting his music on regular display in New York for the first time in ages.  It also had a huge impact on the development of Coltrane as a musician. Coltrane was available because Miles Davis had disbanded his first quintet, tiring of the junkie antics of Coltrane and the other more [...]

Lightning In A Bottle (Part Three)

6.  Billie Holiday - May 24, 1947 - Carnegie Hall This wonderful, short set comes from an early Norman Granz Jazz At the Philharmonic concert.  Apart from her immortal Columbia recordings with Teddy Wilson, Lester Young et al in the late 1930s, these are the Holiday sides I find myself turning to most often.  She does just four songs here - "You'd Better Go Now", "You're Driving Me Crazy", "There Is No Greater Love" and "I Cover the Waterfront".  Each is beautiful, but my favourite here is the first and least-known "You'd Better...".  Jeri Southern made a celebrated recording of this torch song some years later, but this is the one for me. The timeless and graceful quality of these performances is remarkable given all the trying circumstances surrounding them.  For one, they came during the most difficult period of Holiday's life, right between her arrest for drug possession in Philadelphia and her sentencing to 366 days in the Federal Prison for Women in Alderson, West Virginia.  Furthermore, she was appearing at the Club 18 on 52nd St. and between sets rushed over to Carnegie Hall with her pianist Bobby Tucker to make this unadvertised guest appearance.  Luckily it was recorded and these tracks appear on the 10-CD Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-59. Billie could be unpredictable and considering the conditions one might expect a more distracted or erratic performance, but all is poise and tranquil lyricism here, she rarely sounded better.  Her voice and more [...]

Lightning In A Bottle (Part Two)

3.  Don Byas and Slam Stewart - June 9, 1945 - Town Hall This one is truly incredible, a once-only, bravura performance of two up-tempo numbers by the unusual duet of tenor saxophone and bass.  Both these jazz masters were in towering form and thank goodness it was recorded. The occasion was a concert put on by one Baron Timmie Rosencrantz, an eccentric and somewhat wealthy Danish emigre who was a writer and sometime salesman for the Commodore Music Shop.  He loved the music of 52nd Street and Harlem and decided to produce a concert at Town Hall featuring some of his favourite musicians - Red Norvo and his Orchestra, Teddy Wilson's Quintet with Flip Phillips, the Gene Krupa-Charlie Vantura Trio, the Stuff Smith Trio, the Bill Coleman Quartet.  He booked the Byas-Stewart duo (not a working unit) mainly to provide relief when the various bands were tearing down or setting up.  Against all odds it turned out that this bare-bones pair would provide the best and most memorable music of the evening. It's one thing to put the string bass in a duo with piano or guitar, these instruments can play lines and chords, offering the music more fullness, a harmonic context and self-accompaniment.  But pairing the bass with another instrument capable of only single notes like the saxophone creates challenges and limitations for the musicians that are hard to overcome, the music will succeed or fail based solely on how well the two play, with no safety net or margin for error.  more [...]

Lightning In A Bottle (Part One)

Jazz history is full of celebrated examples of brilliant improvisation - the 1928 Louis Armstrong-Earl Hines duet "Weather Bird", Charlie Parker's solo on "Ko-Ko", the 1939 reading of "Body and Soul" by Coleman Hawkins are obvious cases, where an artist or band sets a new standard or at least reaches rare heights.  Such evaluations are only possible though because the performances themselves have been preserved and codified by virtue of having been recorded, otherwise they would be long gone and forgotten.  We take records for granted now, but just think how different the development of jazz would have been without them, if everything had to be heard in person or spread by word of mouth and great performances were lost forever the instant they ended.  Because so much of it is fleeting and not written, records are to jazz what the score is to classical music, or the printing press is to literature. Most jazz records were (and are) made in studios and given the drawbacks of that environment - an often sterile atmosphere, generally poor ambient sound, physical separation of the musicians, the 'under the microscope' pressure of microphones - it's amazing how many good jazz records have been produced under these conditions.  This is especially true considering how much of jazz is improvisation, which can draw upon sources of inspiration often missing from the studio, most importantly a live audience. The recording studio does have its advantages though, more [...]

Steve’s Tomato-Meat Sauce

Yes friends, I'm stooping to the vanity-project gesture of including a recipe here, but, what the hell, maybe something with a practical application for a change on this site is not such a bad thing. This is basically a variation on a Bolognese sauce that I've been fooling around with for years and it turned out so well last night I decided to post it here.  It's quick, easy and relatively cheap to make; the main difference from a traditional Bolognese is that I add capers and green olives for a little tang and texture and I use ground pork instead of ground beef.  Except for burgers, I've been using either ground pork or turkey in place of beef in many recipes because I find they are lighter, less greasy, have better taste and texture and take on the flavours around them more. Ingredients 1 tbsp. olive oil 1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced I lb. lean ground pork and 1 package mild Italian sausage meat 2 28-oz. tins of crushed tomatoes (I use canned Utopia Organic crushed tomatoes, from Leamington, Ontario.  They're more expensive than any other brand, but well worth it - they have great taste, colour and texture.  If you want to be a real Gustavo Gourmet, you can go to all the trouble of buying fresh Roma tomatoes - that is, if you can find any decent ones - then blanching them, letting them cool, peeling them and making a sauce from scratch with them.  But honestly, I work everyday and many nights, so more [...]

Viva Edmonton, Part Two – Bravo BiBO

As discussed in part one, Edmonton has a rich arts and culture scene, maybe surprising to some for a city of its middling size and northern isolation.  This is amply demonstrated by the versatile and classy Citadel Theatre and in Edmonton's long-standing main jazz club, the "Yardbird Suite." As its Charlie Parker-inspired name signifies, the club is operated by people who know and love their jazz, namely the Edmonton Jazz Society.  Imagine that, a jazz club run collectively by people who actually like and understand jazz, with some public funding help; we should be so lucky in Toronto.  I've played there many times over the years and it's unique - it combines a concert space with a club feeling and has everything needed for the presentation of the music without being overly deluxe.  A good-sized stage properly located, not one but two grand pianos, a good sound system, a house bass, drum kit and amplifiers.  Why haven't we thought of stuff like this in Hogtown? Last summer I played at Yardbird during the jazz festival and noticed the place had been given a smart facelift, courtesy of an infusion of cash from, I believe, the Alberta Heritage Fund.  A swank new entrance and foyer, with a photo gallery and nice new washrooms.  Fortunately, they left the funky old, graffiti-covered band room intact; some things shouldn't be changed and hey, at least there is a band room.  It's fun to sit back there and look at all the scrawled musings and images on the walls from more [...]

Viva Edmonton, Part One – It Could Be Verse

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Alberta and have come to understand this ambivalence recently – I don’t care much for Calgary, but I do like Edmonton.  Calgary is very head-office, a button-down, corporate oil town with all the character of drywall.  Edmonton though is funkier and more interesting, with a much stronger arts and culture presence, which was hammered home for me this past weekend.  "The Flying Beavers", as I've dubbed the trio of John Alcorn, Reg Schwager and moi, played two all-Cole Porter concerts in a new cabaret room there called "The Club".  It's in the Citadel Theatre, long one of Canada's best.  Also known as the Rice Theatre, the smaller space has all you could ever ask for as a performer - a grand piano, great lighting, sound, stage, tech-crew, atmosphere, everything.  It’s one of the best rooms I've ever played and we would be proud to have such a venue in T.O.  It was sold out too, which was great, except the audiences seemed really subdued to us, especially on Saturday.  They were like an oil painting, but apparently this is normal for winter crowds in Edmonton, they're still frozen or something.  This was odd too, because actually it was surprisingly mild out, much to our relief.   Anyway, what I wanted to write about are the lyrics to the verses of a couple of Porter songs we did, which I think you might get a kick out of (as Porter also once said in a song.)  Alcorn forgot to bring the music for "Just One Of Those more [...]

The Martinet of Maryland

Earl Weaver's death over the weekend was a jarring and unpleasant surprise, but coming as it did on a baseball-themed cruise, it was maybe an appropriate exit.  Earl loved to hang out and talk baseball with anybody who would listen - old players, young players, reporters, coaches, fans - I can just see him on the cruise ship, bending an elbow and yakking it up in his scratchy, hoarse voice.  There are worse ways to go and given his fondness for hoisting a few, his overall hard-ass attitude and chain-smoking, he didn't get cheated in making it to 82.  He didn't often get cheated on a ball field either, though he often thought the umpires were trying to do just that. I came to think of Weaver as being a direct descendant of John McGraw, who was known (among nastier things I'm sure) as "The Little Napoleon" for his shortness and totalitarian ways.  Both men were great baseball tacticians and strategists, both were irascible, feisty, ill-tempered, combative and mouthy little bastards who hated losing and anyone who stood in the way of their team winning.  Of course, McGraw came first and had much more success as a player, was a more patrician, authoritarian and imposing figure as a manager, though his sleeves were often rolled up and his knuckles bloody and bared.  As a player, Weaver never went beyond the low minors and his road to the majors as a manager was more modest and hard-scrabble, but this only served to make him more human, more like one of us and thus more lovable. Maybe more [...]

Our Man’s Gone Now

This past weekend brought momentous baseball news - the deaths of all-time Cardinal great Stan Musial at 92 and celebrated Orioles' manager Earl Weaver, suddenly on a baseball-related cruise at 82.  Because Musial was older and his career more distant, I read less commentary on him, so will deal with him first and Weaver later, in a separate entry. "Stan the Man", baseball's "perfect, gentle knight", suddenly gone at 92.  It's perhaps not appropriate to mourn the passing of someone who lived that long, he wasn't cheated, certainly beat the odds.  When someone of his stature goes though, it's fitting and natural to pause for a moment, to take stock and remember why we were lucky to have him with us for so long.  It's apt that Musial lived to be such an age, he didn't have any bad habits, looked after himself and his baseball career was defined by consistency and longevity. Musial was born November 20, 1920 in Donora, Pennsylvania, a small town in the state's coal mining region, which also produced both Ken Griffeys, senior and junior.  I guess there was something in the water.  He broke into the major leagues in 1941 as a 20-year-old, playing 12 games with the Cardinals, hitting a very loud .426.  This was enough to make him a regular in 1942, even though the Cards at the time were a powerhouse and a very tough team to catch on with, owing to Branch Rickey's obsessive stockpiling of young talent in the St. Louis farm system during the late 1930s. Musial was more [...]

Cavett Emptor

                                                           Last Friday, my wife and I were flicking around on the tube and came across a Dick Cavett - Mel Brooks "sit-down" show where they just talked and told stories, bouncing things off each other.  It had us on the floor and Cavett told a couple of really funny stories that surprised us with their risque-ness and ripe language, he was always so dry and suave on his old talk show, a gentleman. One of them was about Talullah Bankhead and Chico Marx.  Talullah Bankhead had taken New York by storm overnight in the 1920s with her sensational Broadway performances.  She was an outrageous personality, her favourite things were sex (with both men and women), cocaine (of which she said "Cocaine is not habit-forming - I should know, I've been taking it for years") and swearing.  This was in stark contrast to her background and early public image as a grand, aristocratic Southern belle, she was from a rich and powerful old Alabama family, a real lady. The Marx Brothers were famous for their sexual promiscuity and oddly, Chico was the most prolific (I would have thought Groucho, but never mind.)  Chico was a real wolf, a quick and crude worker in his approach to propositioning the ladies, he didn't believe in "beating around the bush."  The brothers were at a cocktail party for Talullah and Chico was warned to be on his best behaviour around such an elegant, grand more [...]

Flyin’ Blind With Mr. Ed At the OK Corral

A nicely edited version of this piece can be seen at: http://music.cbc.ca/#/blogs/2012/11/Ed-Bickert-the-Gary-Cooper-of-Canadian-jazz This story concerns the guitarist Ed Bickert, who's had a huge impact on jazz in Canada and certainly on me and other musicians of my generation who came up listening to and playing with him as an elder statesman.  A lot of this will be written in the past tense, which doesn't feel quite right because Ed is thankfully still very much well and among us.  On the other hand, a lot of what I'll describe happened years ago and, because Ed decided to retire from music a while back for his own reasons, his playing is literally a thing of the past, sorry to say.  It lives on though, through his many fine recordings and the values he instilled in a lot of musicians.  Like many, I really miss hearing him, miss playing with him, miss his presence on the scene, what's left of it. Apart from his wonderful playing, and despite being a quiet and modest guy, Ed functioned as a powerful aesthetic compass and edit-button in the jazz played around these parts, a kind of jazz-bullshit antidote.  Whether he was on the bandstand with you, or just in the audience with those radar ears and forbidding eyebrows, you felt Ed's presence, sharpened up and were a lot less inclined to indulge in any musical wanking.  He's from the West and has an aspect of "The Marlboro Man" about him - in fact, that was one of his nicknames, reinforced by decades of "professional" more [...]

What’s New? This Is

The brilliant musician Mel Powell had a jazz career unlike any other I can think of.  It had a stop and start, double-life quality with very long gaps, none of which were caused by the usual problems of drug addiction, imprisonment, alcoholism or nervous breakdowns.  He was so prodigiously gifted that he was torn between jazz - where he was a top-flight pianist/arranger - and the world of "straight" music, where he was a respected composer of modern classical music (eventually winning the  Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1990) and an elite music educator and academic.  For these reasons, Powell remains an obscure and shadowy jazz figure even to those who have heard of him, many likely haven't.  I mention all this because, although I've heard some of his records before, I recently heard a track for the first time, a 1954 recording of the standard "What's New", which astonished me.  I'll return to this later, but first some background and context on Powell from his interesting life. Powell was born Melvin Epstein on February 12th, 1923 in New York City to Russian-Jewish parents, certainly a fertile lineage for both pianists and composers.  He grew up in the Bronx within view of Yankee Stadium and was a rabid baseball fan, entertaining ambitions for a career as both a ballplayer and concert pianist - he was a child prodigy, graduating from high school at fourteen.  He began piano studies at six and was well on his way to a concert career when his older brother Lloyd took more [...]

Men With Brooms – World Series Wrap

World Series sweeps are hardly ever expected from the outset, and the one just completed by the Giants was no exception.  After all, in theory a least, the World Series pits the two best teams left in baseball against each other in a best-of-seven format.  Each team is likely a strong one and given what they must go through to even reach the Series, it would seem likely and reasonable to expect one of the teams to win at least one game before the other wins four, that the level of competition would mitigate against a sweep.  With the often volatile nature of a short series and the game itself, predicting which team will win a Series is hard enough, never mind going out on a limb and predicting a sweep. And yet, sweeps in the World Series happen far more often than we might think.  Of the 108 World Series played to date (with none held in 1904 or 1994), this year's was the 21st sweep.  That's roughly just under 20% of the time that a Series is swept, almost one in five, which seems surprisingly high to me.  I would have thought this figure might be more like one in seven, or even one in eight.  Yes, the dominant Yankees of the past have a lot to do with this, winning eight of these and losing three, but sweeps have occurred in every era and seem to be on the rise, with four occurring in the last nine Series played. Sometimes baseball can shock us with the truly unexpected from a player, such as Pedro Sandoval hitting three homers in this first three at-bats more [...]

The Ghost of John McGraw

Had the ghost of John McGraw been magically transported to Game Two of this World Series last night in San Francisco, he would have at first seen much that would have bewildered, outraged, maybe even frightened him, though he sure didn't scare easily in life.  A thousand questions and confounded thoughts would have flashed through the hard-headed old manager's mind in an instant. Jaysus, where am I?  My Jints are in white, playing at home, but what have they done with the Polo Grounds and Coogan's Bluff?  What in God's name is that huge ball glove doing there in the stands, and that giant Coke bottle? Why are the players allowed to have such long hair and wear beards? Christ almighty, what is this, the goddamn House of David against some gobshite Doukhobor outfit?  Are these impostors? Why, even the Giants' manager needs a shave, he looks like a dim-witted bum....  I can't believe they have that lunatic with the ridiculous fake beard as their mascot, we used to have a crippled midget. Sweet Mother of Jesus, what are those dark fellas and Caribbeans doin' on the field in uniform?  Don't tell me they allow them to play now....  both the third basemen and Detroit's first sacker are just as fat as Cupid Childs or Larry McLean were, some things never change. And the field, it's so level and bright, so tidy and manicured! There's no mud puddles or patches of weeds, I wish we could have played on one like it, we might have caught the ball better, won some more..... Would more [...]

Baseball and Preparation H

This site is devoted equally to both jazz and baseball, and though I have a number of music pieces on the go, baseball will take a front seat for the next little while as, a), it's World Series time and b), I'm really busy with gigs for the next week or two. Being busy is a nice problem to have and I'm not complaning, but it always seems to be the case that it never rains but it pours at this time of year for me, I always seem to be really busy at Series time and rarely get to see many of the games except in snippets or by way of highlights.   I keep telling myself that one of these years I'll plan ahead and book a bunch ot time off around the schedule of the baseball post-season and treat myself to a feast of watching and writing about the games.  As you've probably guessed already though, planning ahead is not exactly the strong suit of a jazz musician like me.  The only Series games I'll be able to watch entirely will be Sunday's Game Four and Monday's Game Five, assuming there is one, which seems pretty likely.  As a result, my blog comments will be short (yeah, right) and not too in-depth. I wasn't able to see much of Game One, by the time my gig was over the score was 5-0 Giants in the fifth, something of a shock.  When I commented in my last post that Verlander might struggle against the NL and that his teammates might have a tough time scoring against the Giants' pitching, it was just a vague hunch, I certainly didn't expect him to lay such a big egg, more [...]

WORLD SERIES SET AS CARDINALS GET A TASTE OF THEIR OWN MEDICINE – YUCK!

To many, the St. Louis Cardinals in this year's post-season looked to be repeating their celebrated, longshot run of last year.  This time around they snuck into the playoffs by an even thinner margin, winning the brand new second wild-card, then beating the favoured Braves in Atlanta in the one-game, loser-goes-home playoff.  When they shockingly beat the young and talented Nationals by scoring eight runs in the final three innings of Game Five, erasing a 6-0 deficit, it seemed like the "team of destiny, never say die" Cards were roaring back from where they left off last year. A funny thing happened on the way to that destiny though, the Cards met a team even less interested in saying "die" than them, namely the San Francisco Giants.  When the Giants gambled and lost in sending a struggling Tim Lincecum to the hill in Game Four of the NLCS, getting pasted to go down three games to one, I thought they were done, as did many.  It again put them in a position of having to win three straight games to take the series, which they had just done against Cincinnati in the NLDS, winning the three very impressively on the road.  But, it seemed too much to ask that they could pull this off again against the brimming Cardinals, who looked to be firing on all cylinders - pitching, hitting, defense, confidence.   The key was Game Five in St. Louis, if the Giants could manage to win it, they might have a chance, playing the final games back at home. They sent the veteran left-hander more [...]

YANKS TO CONSIDER CLAUDE RAINS AT THIRD BASE NEXT YEAR AS TIGERS SWEEP ‘EM

The above tongue-in-cheek headline refers to one of the veteran character actor's most famous movie roles, "The Invisible Man"; Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, though the conspicuous centre of a benching controversy, was pretty much invisible in the ALCS (1 for 9) and his replacement Eric Chavez was, believe it or not, even worse (0 for 20.)  Yes, I realize Claude Rains has been dead for a long time now, but given the cold wind blowing around the Yanks' hot corner these days, I don't see that this would be a problem, do you?  Good old Claude would certainly come a lot cheaper than these other stiffs, not that the free spending Yankees care about such things. As their manager Joe Girardi pointed out after it was suddenly all over though, the Yanks' abysmal flop wasn't all about A-Rod, it's just that as prominent, overpaid and easy to dislike as he is, he became the focus.  But nobody on the Yankees was hitting, except (sort of) Raul Ibanez, Ichiro and Derek Jeter's replacement, Eduardo Nunez.  Robinson Cano, likely the best second baseman in the game, broke an 0 for 29 slide with a single in the ninth inning of Game Three but was back at the futility last night, going 0 for 4 and looking utterly lost up there. Curtis Granderson was a big, fat zero in this series (0 for 11) and was 3 for 30 with one home run and nine strikeouts in the post-season overall; this from the man who's hit more home runs combined the last two years than anyone else in the major leagues.  more [...]

Scat-ology

  Certainly not all bad music is funny, yet few things are funnier to me than really bad (as opposed to merely mundane) music, providing it was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place.  You know, musical bloopers, clams, kacks, orchestral train wrecks, blown lyrics and so on.  I've had a ringside seat on various bandstands for many of these over the years, which has no doubt warped my taste and judgement, among other things.  I guess the key to whether really bad music is funny or not mainly has to do with how long it lasts and if you can easily make it go away, escape it at will. In the spirit of this, if any of you are trawling on YouTube sometime and feel like some killer laughs, punch in Shooby Taylor and prepare to die, to enter a musical world of improbable and surreal awfulness.  Only your sides will hurt, he's just howlingly bad, but mind-bendingly hilarious. Shooby Taylor was an obscure (to say the least) American scat singer who billed himself, God knows where, as "The Human Horn."  He was so hysterically terrible that he didn't really have a career, but he's achieved a sliver of posthumous immortality because his singing, though ghastly, is also undeniably unique; there's a kind of genius at work in its utter lack of talent.  Presumably, this is mostly because nobody else would ever have conceived of trying to sound anything remotely like this, and if they had, would have offed themselves.  Or, their friends and neighbours would have more [...]

By the Time I Get To Phonics, I’ll Be Reading

You readers out there being compos mentis and all, sane and normal types (no offense intended), you're likely not saddled with my baseball name obsession and so are probably not aware that the Detroit Tigers lead all of baseball in weird and funny pitcher's names.  It's really quite something and I only just began to notice, I must be slipping. Their two best pitchers are Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.  Verlander isn't really a funny name, but Scherzer brings a smile, reinforced by his general gawkiness, baggy uniform and goofy facial expression - he reminds me of Huntz Hall from the old Bowery Boys movies.  Not to mention that his last name sounds like "shiser", which is the German word for shit.  This is just for openers though. Two of their other starting pitchers are the unfortunately named Doug Fister (making him a founding member of my gay All-Star team) and Rick Porcello.  Porcello isn't really a funny name in itself, but I call him "Shrooms" because his name is like a combo of two mushrooms - the porcini and the portobello. For good measure they also have a starting pitcher named Sanchez, which isn't odd in itself, but his first name is Anibal, and the announcers to a man pronounce it like Anna-Belle.  I can't help it, this breaks me up. The next thing you know Annette Funicello will be their pitching coach, with Frankie Avalon as their back-up catcher.  Hey, maybe they could get Cubby O'Brien as their bullpen coach... The bullpen is loaded, more [...]

B.P. – The Price Was Right

Tax season is never a fun time for musicians, or anyone else for that matter. But for me, this annual April bother is always tempered by the memories it brings of Bob Price, who was a very fine jazz bassist, a wonderful guy and an accountant to boot. He's been gone a while now and I always feel the pang of missing him in early spring, but it's also pleasant to remember him and how lucky we were to have a stalwart like him on the local scene. Bob did the lion's share of tax returns for Toronto's jazz players for decades; discovering and using his services was a kind of rite of passage for a local musician. If and when you began making a little money in music, you soon found out that self-employed tax issues were beyond your ken, so you'd ask around and invariably the answer was, "Go and see Bob Price, he's the guy, the best." Being a veteran player himself, Bob knew the ins and outs of a musician's life and the tax angles, so nothing surprised or ruffled him, he'd seen it all. God only knows what he had to deal with over the years and the various musician's tax messes he cleaned up, certainly a couple of mine for sure. No matter what the problem, how disorderly your record-keeping or how delinquent you'd been, Bob would sort it out with patience, humour, discretion and a slug or two from his trusty bottle of J & B, never too far from hand. Bob of course played for years in pianist Norm Amadio's trio, which worked all the time and was a kind of shambolic, floating, Marx more [...]

Buffalo, Homogate

So there's bad news and good news swirling about the Blue Jays as their toilet-bowl circling season enters its final, "let's play the spoilers" phase. Word broke yesterday that the Jays will be relocating their AAA farm team from Las Vegas to Buffalo, essentially trading places with the Mets.   Some baseball friends and I heard rumours to this effect from Buffalo fans during a Bisons game at Coca-Cola Field this summer.  It's something we had all wished for - having your AAA farm team as far away as Lost Wages just made no sense, especially with the frequency of call-ups this season - the travel was murder for some of these guys on the yo-yo back and forth.  The Jays may be announcing the move today, with the last roadblock having been lifted yesterday, namely the Mets agreeing to move their AAA team to Vegas (they had little choice, Buffalo is set on the Jays and were fed up with the Mets as a partner/sponsor, or whatever.)  I know what some of you are thinking, this way we have a choice of catching two minor league squads live - the one on the field here in T.O. or the one just down the road in wingland. Seriously though, this really is good news for the organization and us fans, probably the best thing to happen in Jayland this season other than EE's breakout season.  It may help to allay the bad news, the coming shit-storm of "Homogate", the controversy over shortstop Yunel Escobar's dim-witted decision to wear eye-black patches with a Spanish homophobic message more [...]

Flying High At the Beaver

The stylish singer John Alcorn launched a series of Wednesday night musical offerings this week at the Flying Beaver Pubaret (488 Parliament St.), accompanied by Reg Schwager on guitar and yours truly on bass.  John is calling this the Songbook Series; each week he will be presenting two sets of songs by a different major contributor to the GAS (Great American Songbook), kicking things off with fifteen of Cole Porter’s best.  I promise this will be the last of such puerile jokes, but I ask you, when was the last time you heard Cole Porter and “beaver” mentioned in the same paragraph?  Anyway, if the first of these nights was any indication, this could turn into something very special and lasting, my fingers are crossed.  Lord knows the city needs more outlets for quality music, and the combination of this setting and Alcorn’s musical vision mesh very nicely indeed. As to the venue, I hadn’t been to the Flying Beaver before, it had been described to me as a “lesbian bar on Parliament.”  Though true as far as it goes, this is also misleading.  Yes, the place is owned and operated by Maggie Cassella and Heather MacKenzie who both happen to be lesbians and certainly both gay women and men frequent it.  But, it’s not a “gay bar” in the stereotypical sense of that term, people of all persuasions (except anti-gay morons and other assorted boors) are welcome and comfortable here.  I found it to be a smart, fun, friendly place, unpretentious yet brainy, more [...]

My Best Birthday Gift Ever – Music

Some highlights and stories from this year's very enjoyable Prince Edward County Jazz Festival. I've had my nose to the grindstone pretty good for a while now and this has had me feeling every inch of my age and then some. My birthday came and went on August 16 in Picton and joining the 56-year-old club would normally have lead to some angst and hand-wringing over what a drag it is getting old, as The Rolling Stones once put it. Funnily enough though, one of the many nice things about this Jazz Festival was that it gave me a whole new perspective on age and aging, I'm not quite as worried or bugged about it anymore.  At least not all the time, only when I'm schlepping the damn bass around. For years I was often by far the youngest guy in most bands, but this is no longer usually the case for obvious reasons. The house rhythm section for a lot of this festival was me, with Bernie Senensky on piano, age 67, and Brian Barlow on drums, 60 and also the Creative Director of the whole works. This requires of him an awesome level of organization, versatility and energy which he has in spades; the man runs on fumes, makes espresso seem slow. So here I was, much older but again the youngest guy in the band, a small, selfish comfort made irrelevant because these two came at me with so much musical energy, moxie and spirit at all times that I never even considered their age.  Have you ever noticed that when you see someone at the top of their game and really having fun, you don't more [...]

The Death of Fun – Where Have You Gone, Puddin’ Head Jones?

Have you noticed how nicknames have pretty much disappeared from jazz and baseball?  What happened, where did they all go?  There's still the odd half-decent one around, like say Joey Bats or Trombone Shorty.  But these days it seems the only celebrities with colourful nicknames in any number are rap or hip-hop "artists", and I'd happily say goodbye to them if it also meant the musical genre would just disappear, forever and without a trace.  Forgive my white-ass, hidebound and middle-aged attitude, but I need a little more wit and romance in my music than sampled rhythm tracks and the rhyming of "bitch" with "snitch" can provide.  Otherwise it's pretty Slim Pickens, sorry, slim pickings these days, a far cry from the past when the two fields were knee-deep in nicknames. Consider jazz figures for a second : Jelly Roll, Satchmo, King, Duke, Count, Fatha.  Bunk, Bix, Bunny, Cootie, Wingy, Jabbo. Bubber, Baby, Muggsy, Bumps.  (Rubber baby buggy bumpers.)  Yank, Nappy, Chippie, Matty, Miff, Stuff, Big Tea and Toots.  Tricky Sam, Rabbit, Bean and Prez.   Big Sid, Little Jazz,  Jaws and Sweets.  Big-Eye, Cat's-Eye, Lady Day, The Rockin' Chair Lady.  The Brute, Bud, Dodo, Bird, Dizzy, Buzzy, Floorshow, Flip.  Zoot and Zutty.  The Lion, The Beetle, Pinetop, Fats, Slim and Slam, not to mention Bam.  Klook, Newk, Bags, Babs, Jug, Keg, Philly Joe, 'Trane and Cannonball.  Lots of Reds, Shortys, Pee Wees, Luckys.  Busters and Bucks, Papas and Kids.  Oh baby. Nowadays, more [...]

Boston Blow-Up (With Apologies to Serge Chaloff**)

I’ve done a lot of general reading about my two main interests, jazz and baseball. Histories, biographies, fiction, collections of reviews, stories and reportage, you name it. It's funny, but every once in a while in a lifetime of random reading, two unrelated subjects can intersect and lead you to the very same little dot in time, like two different GPS locators of history. Over the course of thirty-five years of this indiscriminate rambling around in the past, I chanced to run across two passing references to a major event which I'd never heard of before. It had nothing to do with jazz or baseball, but came up anyway - the 1938 New England Hurricane. The first of these was in a baseball book roughly covering 1925-45 and didn't mention the storm by name or date. The other was in a book on jazz by Richard M. Sudhalter called "Lost Chords", from a chapter dealing with the great trumpeter Bunny Berigan. Because I'm woolly-headed at the best of times, not a weather buff and I read these two books about twenty-eight years apart, I didn't realize until recently that each story referred to the same storm, or how bad it really was. I've mentioned it before, but one of the first and best books I read about the game's past was "Baseball When the Grass Was Real" by Donald Honig. It's an oral history in which Honig looked up ballplayers who were active between 1925-45 and had them tell the stories of their careers informally. The result is a vivid portrait of baseball in that time, more [...]

Herb Ellis: A Blue, Smooth Road

I've been playing a steady gig at a hotel bar for a while now with a trio that consists of pianist Bernie Senensky, drummer/leader Dan Bodanis and me on bass. Bernie took most of March off to do a tour of the U.S. with another group and as this approached he was scrambling around trying to line up subs and confessed to me he wasn't really looking forward to the road, that he'd miss our gig and was worried something would go wrong in his absence. The night before Bernie was to leave, Dan called a ballad he really likes, "Detour Ahead" and Bernie replied with an impish grin, peering over his glasses with perfect, ironic timing - "De tour ahead is what's worrying me." (Rim-shot.) It's a special, unique song, one that I've heard and played many, many times over the years, yet never tire of. Apart from its beauty, I think this is because it has no echoes of other songs or cliches in it, so every time I play it feels like the first time. We played it again recently and it occurred to me that while I've heard it sung many times I didn't really know the lyrics very well, just snippets of them have stayed in my head - "Smooth road", "gullible clown", "danger sign." I remedied this by looking up the words on Google, here they are: Smooth road, clear day. But why am I the only one Trav'lin this way? How strange the road to love Should be so easy. Can there be a detour ahead? Wake up, slow down. Before you crash and break your heart, Gullible clown. You fool, you're headed more [...]

Ray Redux

There were some Ray Bryant stories I wanted to get to in the earlier piece about him, but it was too bloody long, as usual. I'm considering a reverse Tom Waits: having had a bottle in front of me for many years, I may opt for a frontal lobotomy in the hope it might shorten my writing. It's not as if it I'm a mental giant or anything, there would be no great loss involved. Anyway, here goes. Though he was fairly serious about music, Ray Bryant had a great sense of humour and a real belly laugh. He also had a mega-watt smile which involved his whole face, even his hair seemed to smile. Some of his humour was of the gallows, ironic kind and when he was delivering this, he had a habit of making his face go all deadpan and serious. His eyes would get wide and grave, he would sigh and could fool you into thinking he was mad. This all came into play one night during one of the earlier gigs I played with him at Bourbon St. around 1980 or so. Ray, Jerry Fuller and I were playing a set when Ted O'Reilly and Rob McConnell, both long-time fans, came in one night. Ray played his arrangement of Neal Hefti's "Girl Talk", one of his best and a real favourite of mine. It was a medium-tempo shuffle in F, and his approach was along the lines of theme-and-variations. Each chorus was kind of a shout chorus built around the melody and each one was different, building and becoming more layered and involved, until the whole thing was grooving like the Basie band, just raging, swinging its ass off. After more [...]

Ray, Barrelhouse and Elegant

The pianist Ray Bryant died in June of 2011 and recently he's been on my mind a lot, mostly because I chanced to hear some of his records again lately. Though he made a lot of good ones, most of them don't quite do him justice, you really had to hear him live to get the full impact and joy of his playing. Luckily for me, I both heard and played with Ray live quite a bit - a couple of occasions at Bourbon St. when I was quite young and, later on, quite a few times at The Montreal Bistro. I learned a lot from him, some specific things which later had larger, more general implications and he also reinforced some stuff I wasn't sure about yet. We didn't see each other often enough to be friends exactly, but there was certainly a very friendly history between us musically and personally; his death came as a real blow to me even though I knew he'd been ill. Both my mother and sister came to hear Ray the first time I played with him and they became instant fans, just loved him, especially my mother, who was a big piano fan in general. His delicate version of the ballad "My One and Only Love" made that song my sister's favourite standard, she chose it for her wedding dance. I introduced Ray to them and after that, he never failed to ask after them, always remembered their names, which floored me. He was that kind of guy though, a warm, unpretentious gent who enjoyed just plain folks. He often played in Toronto during the old days of solo piano at Cafe des Copains too, so he was certainly more [...]

Spring Is Here – Birds, Words, Melody and Song

I heard a cardinal in high-fidelity just as I left my house the other morning - "bwordy, bwordy, bwordy" echoing down the street. The trees being still bare, it was easy to spot him by following the song - he was up in the top of a maple about forty yards away. He shifted briefly from one branch to another and the light caught him at just the right angle, a brilliant rush of crimson, even at that distance. A morning thrill, a rarity these days, trust me. I stood listening and admiring him for a few seconds and then noticed some rustling in the big tree just overhead. Two robins were flitting about, not singing much. Just as I spotted them they flew off and again the sunlight hit them and I was treated to a flash of their rusty-orange breasts. A sure sign, I thought with a smile - spring is here. There's a song for every occasion and this took me straight to Rodgers and Hart's great "Spring Is Here" - its melody began running through my head as I walked to the subway. It struck me that this song is a kind of analogy for my aging as a musician (and hopefully my growth as one) - when I was younger, I didn't have much use for it, but it's become a favourite tune in recent years. I think the difference is that I appreciate melody a lot more than I used to, understand it better. Bassists like myself are often slow in developing a melodic sense, because the instrument doesn't often get to play melodies - being low-pitched, it's usually much more involved with rhythmic and harmonic more [...]

Eephus – The Arc of Triumph

The pitcher Rip Sewell isn't known much these days, but if he's remembered at all, it's for two things - a noted 1934 fistfight with Hank Greenberg, and the 1940s invention of the bloop pitch, which has appeared since from time to time in various guises, under various names. Sewell was a Southern country boy from Decatur, Alabama, born May 11, 1907. He was a right-handed pitcher in the majors (almost entirely in the N.L.) from 1932 to 1949. His career had an unusual pattern and contour to it, as befits the founder of the bloop. He didn't reach the majors until 1932 with the Tigers; he was already 25, kind of a late start. He only pitched around 10 innings in relief that year. If his 12.66 ERA wasn't enough to earn him a ticket back to the minors, then Jimmie "The Beast" Foxx sealed the deal by belting one off Sewell that nearly left the actual ballpark. Sewell was sent down to the  AAA Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. He bounced around this league for years, and didn't get back to the majors till 1938, with the Pirates - he was 31. Again he didn't pitch much that year - 38 innings of relief, with only slightly better results (0-1, 4.23 ERA). For a guy trying to establish a toehold in the majors, Pittsburgh was a good place to be - they were pretty awful then and just desperate for pitching. From 1939 on, Sewell got it together, became a starter, and began to win some games - he was 10-9 in 1939, then 16-5 in 1940. By 1943, he was one of the best pitchers more [...]

Roger Connor, the Pete Best of Baseball

I was fooling around doing some baseball research on-line the other day and ended up on a site called baseball.com (how do they come up with these names?) It was a decent enough site, and I noticed it had a top 100 players of all-time list, so I checked it out. It included major stars from the Negro Leagues, which is nice - a lot of these lists don't. Otherwise, it had mostly the names you'd expect – Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and so on. So, I'm going down the list, thinking to myself, like Goldilocks: "Too high, too low, that's about right, Eddie Matthews 30th?” - interesting, etc. - until I came to number 65, and it listed Roger Connor. "Roger Connor? Who the hell is Roger Connor? There must be some mistake." I looked him up in the McMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, and, sure enough, there he was. He played first base in the National League from 1880 - 1897, which is a bit far back even for a retro-maniac like me. My knowledge of baseball and players from that long ago is a bit sketchy at best, so no wonder I hadn't heard of him. If you've never seen the Encyclopedia, it's the Rosetta Stone, the Holy Grail of baseball books. You can take mine anytime - from out of my cold, dead hands, as one baseball sage has said. Every player who was ever in the big leagues has an entry, with a few biographical details like birth place, date of birth/death, nicknames, height and weight, left or right-handed. There's a statistical record for everybody, with the categories more [...]