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 in person, drummer Osie Johnson was 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, 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 [...]