A Portrait of Bill Kirchner, Part One

Introduction Bill Kirchner has been mentioned fairly regularly in my jazz pieces ever since he and I first became friends in August of 2014. This began and has continued mostly in cyberspace as Bill left a couple of comments on my site then followed these up by emailing me personally. He introduced himself, saying he knew of my work with the Boss Brass and commenting that he enjoyed my blogs and admired my writing, which, coming from such an accomplished writer, took me aback somewhat. In typical mensch-like fashion he offered to do anything he could to help with my writing, including spreading the word about it, which he has certainly made good on. As our correspondence continued and we exchanged a lot of information, observations and stories, Bill crept into my head more than a little. He has an immense knowledge of jazz and a phenomenal memory, so I began learning a lot from him straight away, hence the frequent mentions in posts. Indeed, I could have a separate blog just devoted to our many exchanges, perhaps called "Conversations with Bill Kirchner" or something. We've gotten into all kinds of music stuff small and large and he has certainly given me many ideas about jazz subjects to write about, more than I can keep up with in fact. I've got to learn to type faster. I've been intending to write a piece on him for a long while now, in fact I must confess I have begun to do so many times and either stalled or aborted altogether, chucking out a few thousand words in the more [...]

HOF Huff – Danger, May Contain Larry Walker Rant

I gather most of the baseball fans out there have heard about the four Hall of Fame inductees elected yesterday, all of them no-brainers – Chipper Jones, Jim Thome (both on their first ballot), Vlad Guerrero (his second) and Trevor (yawn) Hoffman (third ballot.) I’m a little surprised that Chipper did so well (about 95% of the vote) and that he did better than Thome (about 89%.) I knew Jones was good, I didn’t think he was THAT good. But he had a lot of extra kickers, like being a switch-hitter with power and speed, playing for that great Braves dynasty and being such a good defender, whereas Thome was slow and not much with the glove. Then again, Jimbo hit 612 home runs with no trace of juice. And he’s one of five players ever to hit at least 500 homers with over 1,500 runs, 1,600 RBI and 1,700 walks. The others in this exclusive club are Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds. 'Nuff said I was delighted about Vlad Guerrero, who in his prime was just lethal - with the bat, the legs, the arm, you name it. And with a strike zone from his eyes to his shoelaces, he was awfully fun to watch. Mike Murley and I saw him play a game with the Orioles against the Jays in 2011, his last season. He could still hit but his knees were shot, it was painful just watching him try to walk. We had great seats right next to the Oriole dugout and Guerrero was on second when somebody hit a long single to right. He huffed and puffed around third and scored just ahead of the throw, more [...]

A Little Winter Music

I'd hoped to write some sort of Christmas post - a Yule blog, if you will - as in the past few years but a lot of time was taken up with, well........ Christmas, so I didn't get to it. At any rate, I hope everyone had a nice one, as I did. Most of northern North America is caught in a deep cold snap and there's been plenty of snow to boot - actually, to shovel* - so perhaps a look at some music suggested by this weather is in order. In some cases the winter theme is captured by the titles only, but some of these songs also invoke the forbidding cold in their musical content too. I've lost track of how many mornings the past ten days or so I've watched snow falling from indoors - sometimes straight down and peacefully, other times swirling or furiously blowing sideways; big flakes, little flakes. It's happening even now as I write. Without fail this calls to mind James P. Johnson's classic "Snowy Morning Blues", which he revisited a number of times in the recording studio throughout his career. Like many efforts from that time it's not a blues at all despite its title, nor is it particularly sad but rather quite jaunty and cheerful. Just as falling snow can be, provided you don't have to go anywhere in it. It's probably my favourite of Johnson's piano pieces and certainly one of my favourite stride pieces ever, it has a lilting kind of strut I never tire of. And as a card-carrying Canadian, the implicit poetry of the title moves me, though I would adore this just as much more [...]

Autumn Nocturne

To paraphrase a song about another season, it seemed for a while that fall would be a little late this year. But it's now here in earnest, and then some, and seeing the leaves turn colour and drop off the trees always takes me to autumn songs. There are many of these, but I want to touch on one in particular that has long enchanted me: the lovely old ballad "Autumn Nocturne". It's utterly distinctive even though it shares some traits in common with many other songs. For example, it has the typical 32-bar, A-A-B-A form of many ballads, but with unusual variations in the cadences of its A sections. And the modulation of its bridge, moving to the key a major third above the tonic and then up to the fifth, is the same as "Lover", "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and probably some others. But these are considerations of form and harmony only. As with every good song, what makes "Autumn Nocturne" stand out is its unique melody - rhapsodic and stirring, operatic in range, rococo in detail and kinetically linear. The opening four bars of melody in each A section have a European, "classical" quality reminiscent of an aria, or of German lieder. Elsewhere however, in the latter half of each A section and in the bridge, the relationship between the melody and underlying chords also implies - and indeed, presages - bebop harmonic thought. So there's a duality at work here on two fronts - European/American and classical/jazz. In short, it's a rich, dramatic song with a lot going more [...]

The Doerr Closes

Hard on the heels of Roy Halladay's death last week, baseball endured another significant loss when Hall of Fame second baseman Bobby Doerr died Monday in Junction City, Oregon. The news broke today, but unlike Halladay's case there was absolutely nothing tragic about Doerr's passing: he was 99 and had been the oldest living ex-major league player. He also had a Blue Jays connection in common with Halladay, though a much smaller one: Doerr was the team's first hitting coach, from 1977 to 1981. It's odd how the passage of time makes age and other matters seem relative. I became a baseball nut just before the Blue Jays arrived and thought of Doerr back then as one of those ancient grizzled veterans who become coaches, "Pop Fly" being my generic nickname for the stereotype. But Doerr was only 49 when he started coaching in Toronto and would live another 50 years, and I'm 61 now. Damn. A quiet, graceful player, Doerr was born in Los Angeles on April 7, 1918 and became a pro in the heavy-hitting Pacific Coast League at just 16. The Boston Red Sox held an option on him and in 1936, when the kid was hitting .342 in the PCL, they sent Eddie Collins - another Hall of Fame second baseman - to scout him. He liked what he saw of Doerr and on the same trip noticed a 17-year-old string-bean outfielder by the name of Theodore Samuel Williams playing for San Diego who seemed to hit a little. Collins signed them both and forever after Doerr and Williams were linked, first as Red Sox teammates more [...]

Death Takes A Halladay

I was on Reference Desk duty yesterday afternoon when the tragic news came with an eerie, stealthy quietness, but a sledgehammer's impact. Two emails, one from a library colleague, the other from a baseball/jazz friend, arrived in my inbox 15 seconds apart, each bearing an identical, blunt message: "Roy Halladay died in a plane crash today." <end> "What?" Whaaatt?..... oh, no" came out of my mouth. And then I just sat there in stunned silence for a few seconds, trying to take it in, trying to fathom it. Impossible. He was only 40, only out of the game for a few years. And then, "Ah, Jaysus" followed by a long puff of air out of my cheeks. The librarian sitting behind me must have noticed and asked, "Everything okay, Steve? What's up?" I said, "Yeah, just give me a minute, Roy Halladay died." This librarian is a friend but the main bond between us is music; not being from Toronto and decidedly not a fan of baseball or sports in general, he had no idea who Roy Halladay was. And I thought, Right, if you're not from here or never saw him pitch, this is no big deal, people die suddenly every day..... I tried to explain - "He was this great pitcher for the Blue Jays, one of the best, and an even better person......everybody here loved and admired him......" and then I just trailed off, realizing where I was and how soppy I must have sounded. Rarely has the death of someone I didn't know at all hit me with so much shock and dismay. And disbelief. This is understandable though, more [...]

Maybe I’m Not So Jaded After All

Turning 61 recently, I seem to have entered the early phase of my dotage. Some, such as Mrs. W., would argue it's not that early, but quite advanced. This comes equipped with a certain amount of woolly forgetfulness and nostalgia, but even when not feeling the effects of these I'm noticing lately that treasured tracks from my long-lost youth have been coming back to me randomly. And at a furious pace, often abetted by free-associating YouTube clips exchanged in emails with friends of a similar age. I had two of these going simultaneously earlier this week: one with an old friend who now lives in France and celebrated her 59th birthday on October 17, and the other with a musician friend on the subject of how many great songs there are with "blues" in their titles, but which aren't blues at all. Such as "Blues In the Night", "Blues In My Heart", "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues", "Basin St. Blues", "San Francisco Bay Blues" and many more. The birthday girl revealed that she would be visiting San Francisco next October to celebrate her 60th in style, accompanied by her stepsister and a friend named Alison. I'm toying with the idea of joining them, as 'Frisco is one of my favourite cities and I haven't been there in ages. Just for fun - and recognizing for the umpteenth time that there's a song for every occasion and subject - I sent her three YouTube clips: Scott McKenzie's Haight-Ashbury anthem '"If You're Going To San Francisco", Linda Ronstadt's cover of Elvis Costello's more [...]

Trumpet Tales

A while back my good friend Bill Kirchner emailed me an article called "Lead Player", written by William Whitworth and published in the December 10, 1969 issue of The New Yorker. It was both highly entertaining and very informative in considering trumpet playing generally while also serving as an in-depth profile of one of the greatest lead-trumpeters ever, Bernie Glow. Whitworth begins by pointing out the physical toll that playing the trumpet can exact, citing instances of lead players blacking out from holding long notes at slow tempos, or suffering other occupational hazards such as bulging neck disks, hiatus hernias, sore backs and aching legs, all brought on by the duress of forcing air through a tight metal tube with maximum exertion. He also points out that trumpeters tend to amaze one another, forming a tight brotherhood of mutual admiration based on shared knowledge and empathy about just how hard playing the trumpet is. And that within the pecking order of this fraternity lead trumpet players are held in the highest regard for their rare combination of - among other things - power, control, technique, range, and stamina. In a straightforward style featuring a refreshingly dry sense of humour, Whitworth moves on to a look at the demands of playing lead trumpet, using Bernie Glow as a lens. Glow was a first-call lead player on countless jazz and commercial records made by studio-assembled big bands in New York from about 1953 through the '70s - the peak of all recording more [...]

Joey Gallo, Master of the Accidental Single

Every once in a long while a ballplayer will come along and have a season that mixes batting highs and lows of such extremes that statistical norms are warped and long-held baseball principles go out the window. Joey Gallo, the hulking third baseman/first baseman of the Texas Rangers, is having just such a season and in a very real sense has become the poster boy for this season in which both home runs and strikeouts are way up. If ballplayers had theme songs, Gallo's might be "All Or Nothing At All". A recent hot streak has raised his batting average all the way up to .211, which is still abysmally low, sitting just above the dreaded "Mendoza Line" of .200. If a player spends too much time at or below that line, he no longer has a major-league job, but finds himself plying his trade in places like Altoona or Shreveport. The reason that Gallo is still in the major leagues is that he's hit 37 home runs, tied with Justin Smoak for second-most in the American League, two behind the 39 hit by Khris Davis of Oakland and hotshot Yankee rookie Aaron Judge. (Judge should have hit 50 by now, but has been mired in a second-half slump since winning the All-Star Home Run Derby. Surprise, surprise - when will they ever learn?) As you've probably guessed by now from his low batting average, Gallo strikes out a bunch - 162 times so far, which is a lot for a whole season, never mind by September. Really dedicated free-swingers will strike out over 200 times a year, and if our boy really more [...]

The Ghost of Harvey Haddix Checks In

Baseball is forever offering up reminders of what a hard, unforgiving game it can be, with countless instances where a player does everything absolutely right and still comes up on the short end of the stick. However, not all of these tough lessons are created equal, some are passing while others are painful on an epic, historic scale and come equipped with exclamation marks, asterisks, or bold underlines in red. It was that way yesterday when Dodger lefthander Rich Hill took the mound in Pittsburgh against the Pirates and threw a perfect game into the ninth inning - broken up only by an error - and a no-hitter into the tenth, only to lose 1-0. In so doing, he became the first pitcher since Lefty Leifeld of the 1906 Pirates to lose a game while pitching at least nine innings and allowing one or fewer hits and no walks. I'd never heard of Leifeld until today, but he was a good pitcher on the powerful Honus Wagner-led Pirate teams of that time, winning 21 games in 1907 and finishing his career at 123-96, with an ERA of 2.47. If he's lucky, on any given day a pitcher can control what he throws, but he can't control how his teammates fare at bat against the opposing pitcher, which was the rub for Hill yesterday. Despite managing seven hits and four walks against Pirates' starter Trevor Williams in eight innings, the Dodger hitters - a wrecking crew for months now - couldn't produce a single run in support of Hill. They went 0-9 with runners on base and stranded 11, picking exactly more [...]

Blue and Sedimental

An account of surely the strangest, funniest and shortest jam session I've ever taken part in........ Anyone who has attended a symphony concert knows the riotous and bewildering cacophony of a full orchestra warming up on stage. It's noise rather than music because there's no design or cooperation and nobody is listening to anybody else. While each musician onstage is an expert on their chosen instrument and fully capable of producing a beautiful tone, it's everyone for themselves during these frenzied warm-ups. So chaos rules, and a fire at a zoo would be more orderly. The horsehair is fairly flying as the various strings are sawing away furiously in any number of keys on passages from Offenbach to Bloch to Bach and back. Meanwhile, the low brass are blasting farty pedal tones while the trumpets are blowing arpeggios up and down, and God only knows what the French horns are doing. The woodwinds are madly trilling and tooting, producing high chirps and low burps with a few reedy wheezes in between. The lonely harpist is playing "The Kerry Dances" but nobody can hear her (never a he) because the nearby members of the percussion section are pounding on various surfaces and tuning up their wrists with a few rolls, secure in the knowledge that for once they can make as much noise as they want without anybody objecting. What each musician is playing separately would sound fine on its own, but taken all together it sounds like one of Charles Ives' compositions for two bands playing more [...]

Geri Allen

Some light went out of the jazz world on June 27 with the sad and stunning news that pianist and educator Geri Allen died at 60, from cancer. Seemingly she wanted to keep her illness quiet, making the loss all the more shocking to her many fans and musical colleagues. That she was so young makes her passing hard to believe, and even harder to accept. How in the world can such a vibrant jazz voice be suddenly and arbitrarily silenced, just......gone, in the blink of an eye? Like a number of people I've talked to, I'm taking her death very hard, almost personally. This despite not knowing her or even having seen her perform in person. I suppose it's partly that I love her playing so and that she was just slightly younger than me that make the loss so hard to take. But her untimely death also forces one to ask an uncomfortable question. Namely, if someone as strong and extravagantly gifted, as lovely and full of life as Geri Allen can go like this, then what's to become of the rest of us? What, indeed? (In the interests of grammatical correctness, I will try to write about Ms. Allen in the past tense, but I confess this seems unnatural and will be difficult.) She was one of the most deeply satisfying pianists to emerge in jazz during the past 35 or 40 years and there was never any talk of her being a great "female" pianist; she was simply a great pianist, full stop. At the end of the day what I find so compelling about her playing was not only that it brimmed with core jazz more [...]


The 2017 baseball season is barely underway and already it feels different than any in recent memory. For one thing, the Chicago Cubs begin the season as World Series champs, something that couldn't be said for the past 108 years. Even if you're not a Cubs fan, or a baseball fan for that matter, when an albatross this heavy is finally lifted it puts a spring in your step and brightens the world, if only a little. And for the first time in 20 years, baseball will be without David Ortiz. Big Papi went out in style with the greatest final season by a ballplayer ever and his retirement leaves a big hole in both the Red Sox and the game itself. But mostly, this baseball season will be different because for the first time in nearly seven decades, Vin Scully will not be broadcasting Dodger games. It's almost impossible to offer any perspective on this, but consider that most people retire at age 65, whereas Scully spent 67 years on the job. The unprecedented length of his career coupled with his sudden absence creates a paradox which seems inconceivable: how could he do something so well for so long, and yet, having defied all odds in doing so, how could he not last forever? How can he be just.... gone? Of course this is absurd, one can't begrudge Scully leaving with his head held high, still with a lot of game left. That would be churlish, as in: "He's retiring, already!? At 89? What, does he want to enjoy some leisure time or something? The selfish bastard!!" He'll be greatly more [...]

Patti Bown – Overcoming In Triplicate

International Women's Day was March 8 and three days later I played an evening of songs with lyrics by the great Dorothy Fields, the first woman to break into the all-male world of big-time songwriting. Both got me to thinking about the subject of women in jazz and the struggles they've faced over the years establishing careers in the music, other than as singers.  Being a jazz musician is tough: this is not a complaint, but a statement of fact. The music itself presents challenges which never seem to end, and then there's the attendant "lifestyle": not much money or security, erratic work, and the constant uphill battle of playing music that is often misunderstood and/or ignored. I've experienced all of this and more firsthand, but I've had it relatively easy because I'm a white male. Black American musicians have had to face the above challenges of a jazz career while also waging daily battle with the institutionalized racism that has been a fact of life in American society, and continues to be to some extent. Considerable progress has been made on this front and jazz likely has had a good deal to do with that, but there's still work to be done. But imagine, if you will, facing the difficulties of being a jazz musician as a black woman: dealing not just with the challenges of the music and racism, but sexism too. It's a case of 'we shall overcome, someday', but in triplicate.  At any rate, this is not intended as a sociopolitical lecture.....but rather to say that all more [...]

Great Irish Pianists, Redux

I’ve expanded on yesterday’s St. Patrick’s Day post with a few small improvements and the addition of two more modern Irish jazz pianists I’d overlooked, McCoy Tyner, and Joanne Brackeen, suggested by one of the many enjoyable comments left. I’ve also included a joke which demonstrates the difference between “lace-curtain” and “thatched-roof” Irish, so readers may want to revisit yesterday’s post. Or not.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Great Irish Pianists

OH MY GOD!! Here it is St. Paddy's already and I've completely forgotten to prepare a post for the green day, as I've done for the last two years. And me of Irish descent.....I should be ashamed of myself (and trust me, I am, I am......). I blame Trumpomania, the Adventures of Dolt 45 for my forgetfulness. It's so distracting and lazy-making - why bother to dream up something imaginative when you can just turn on the TV? Anyway, enough of that............. having left myself short on time, I thought it would be nice to celebrate the day with a wee look at some of the great Irish jazz pianists, starting with a big favourite of mine, Tommy Flanagan. Flanagan hailed from the County Monaghan city Moughtown, which proved to be a fertile jazz breeding ground. He was very "lace-curtain", there never was an Irish pianist who played with more grace and lilt. Here he is on his first album with mates Wilbur Little on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, playing "Relaxin' at Camarillo", written by Charles Byrd for the famous botanical gardens of Clare. Note the green cover: And here with a later trio, which for ages accompanied the great Irish can belto singer, Ella Fitzgerald. Miss Fitzgerald is not present on this track, but we'll come to her later. Here, Flanagan abandons his Fenian roots by playing a medley of two songs associated with that noted English villain, the Duke of Wellington: the first written by his associate William Strahorne, and the second by the Duke himself. Ah more [...]

The Shorter Porter

Since the beginning of January, singer John Alcorn has been presenting a weekly songbook series on Saturday nights at the 120 Diner. The relatively new venue is so-named because it's located at 120 Church Street, just below Richmond and immediately south of McVeigh's Irish Pub, a fixture on that corner for as long as I'd care to remember, and maybe even longer than that. As the name and outward appearance would suggest, 120 Diner is a casual venue, but nevertheless a successful one from the standpoint of presenting music, particularly cabaret. Alcorn's approach is somewhere between cabaret and jazz: there's a lot of respect for the songs as originally written, but also a high dosage of improvisation, both in solos and accompaniment.  The diner is intimate, seating only about 60 people, with a small raised stage ideal for a trio, and good natural sound. Alcorn booked Reg Schwager and me - his regular band - for the residency, which was to run through the end of February. Reg and I have had to miss a few nights owing to prior commitments, but the three of us have thoroughly enjoyed playing the room and Alcorn has typically done a nice job of music programming. He began with an evening of Cole Porter on January 7, and continued with the other five major Broadway songwriters - Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, rounding out the eight weeks with evenings devoted to songs associated with Chet Baker and Billie Holiday. Toward the end of more [...]

Horace Parlan, R.I.P.

"Whatever you think can't be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself." - Thelonious Monk The unique and wonderful jazz pianist Horace Parlan died in his sleep on February 23 in the Danish nursing home he had been living in for several years; he was 86 and had been in poor health for some time. Perhaps it's just as well he went this way, as much that he loved had been taken from him in recent years: his devoted wife Norma, his eyesight, his ability to go out and play; seemingly he didn't have much left to live for. He might have disagreed though: as we shall see, he was no stranger to adversity. Whether a blessing or not, when someone as special as Horace Parlan passes, it's a blow, one felt by many. Certainly veteran and hard-core jazz fans treasured him, but more recent or casual converts to the music may barely know of him; he'd been tucked away in Denmark since the mid-70s and hadn't been very active of late. Parlan was born on January 19, 1931 in Pittsburgh, and was adopted as an infant. Pittsburgh produced not only steel, but important jazz pianists. The city's rich piano legacy spanned several generations and styles, and included (in more or less chronological order) Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, Sonny Clark, Ahmad Jamal, and Parlan. All of them are gone now but Jamal, who was born about six months before Parlan and still seems to be going fairly strong. Along with Django more [...]

Take Me Out, Coach

With almost incredible suddenness, spring training is upon us once more, and not a moment too soon - hallelujah! This is comfort enough even for those who don't follow baseball much, a sure sign that spring is coming despite the fact that many of us are still a mite chilly. There's a palpable sense that the players enjoy it almost as much as the fans; many of them seem genuinely glad to renew old friendships and shake off the cobwebs of the off-season. Or winter, as the rest of us call it. But amid all this joy there is always grumbling from some quarters that spring training is, if not unnecessary, then at least overrated and certainly overlong. This has been especially true in recent times, when sky-rocketing salaries have provided the motivation for ballplayers to work out regularly during the winter and report in tip-top shape. It's argued that many of them could play real games right now, a far cry from the days before free agency when most players were working stiffs like the rest of us and had to hold down winter jobs to make ends meet. Many of them sold cars or insurance or worked in factories; Richie Hebner famously worked as a gravedigger in his off-seasons. Whatever the job, the work tended to discourage much winter training, so many players would show up to camp ten or fifteen pounds overweight and use the sunshine games to work themselves back into playing shape. Ex-Blue Jay slugger Edwin Encarnacion provided a fairly eloquent argument against the value of more [...]

Dressing Down for Winter

I recently became the proud owner of a deluxe, almost-new down parka, replete with all the snazzy requisite features: a luxurious hood trimmed in genuine fake-fur, numerous handy inside and outside pockets (including the all-important diagonal slits on the sides which allow you to bury your hands snugly while walking elbows akimbo), and storm cuffs to keep out blizzards and other animals. And it's in a manly shade of black with a quilted grey interior; nothing too Champs Élyseés here, no sir. Doing up the zipper's a bit hit-and-miss - what else is new? - but otherwise it's all you could ask for in a winter coat. The way I came by it makes for a funny story, at least I think so. I have a much younger friend who I'll call S - his first initial - to save him the embarrassment of having it publicly revealed that he's friends with somebody so much older. He came by several of these parkas while working on The Hometown Hockey show for several years, which involved visiting a different, usually very cold, Canadian city every winter weekend. Knowing that I was turning 60 this past August and thinking a couple of seasons ahead, S walked through our back gate one sweltering morning this past summer carrying three of these bulky coats. Quite large and Chilean, he looked like a very lost Nanook of the North, by way of South America. He said, "Here, man, try these on. If one of them fits, it's yours." So there I was on my back deck trying on these toasty, mammoth parkas on one of more [...]

Snow Business

"They call my home the land of snow" - Robbie Robertson, "Acadian Driftwood". Without a doubt, snow can be a pain: shoveling it, driving in it, schlepping and trudging through it. But it can also be so pretty, not just pretty awful. Snow is the decorative element of winter: without it, the season would be long, cold, dismal and grey; snow makes it long, cold, dismal and white. It's important to stay positive. The beauty of snow is most comfortably appreciated from the snug warmth of the great indoors, as I did on the Sunday before Christmas. While waiting for the coffee to brew, I looked out the kitchen window to behold eight or ten inches of it covering everything in sight. It was folded in dunes all over the back deck, looking like a miniature Alps. It covered the roofs of garages and sheds, making these otherwise pedestrian structures look jaunty and picturesque. There were tiny pyramids of it on top of fence posts, and it lay on shrubs and in the crevices of tree branches like stray meringue. And the perfectly even, fluffy layer of it covering the round deck-table resembled the bottom storey of a wedding cake, which made me shudder a little. It was a bright day, and the shifting sunlight kept playing against all this, making the scene shimmer and glisten. Like many beautiful things, it was fleeting and absolutely free. Along with clouds, water, and eyes, snow must be exceedingly difficult to paint. For starters, it's white, and so is the canvas. And technically, white more [...]

Music Is the Reason ‘Tis the Season

This is a slightly expanded version of an article I wrote for the Dec./Jan. issue of WholeNote last year. Where possible, I've included samples of some of the harder-to-find and lesser-known music. Music is an essential part of Christmas and with that time of year upon us, I thought I'd offer a look at some records that might enhance our enjoyment of the season. These are all personal favourites and most, but not all, are jazz-oriented. Hopefully there's something here for all tastes, from the religious to the secular, for those who like their Christmas music straight and those who like it, well....not so straight. To organize things a bit, I've arranged the selections into four loose categories: JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL Three Suites – Duke Ellington. One of the three suites is Duke's adaption of a holiday staple - The Nutcracker - to his unique musical soundscape. While he and Billy Strayhorn remain quite true to the original, the highly individual voices of such Ellington veterans as Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown et al cast Tchaikovsky's score in an entirely new light, to say the least. The majestic swing of the Overture is especially thrilling, as far as I'm concerned the Christmas season hasn't begun till I've heard it. As an added bonus the other suites are Grieg's Peer Gynt and Suite Thursday by Ellington and Strayhorn, after John Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday. A Charlie Brown Christmas - Vince Guaraldi. A delightful more [...]

So Long, Mose

"Ever since the world ended, I don't go out as much." - Mose Allison. Mose Allison won't be going out as much as his world ended on Nov.15 at his Hilton Head, S.C. home, just four days past his 89th birthday. I don't mean to strike a facetious tone or make light of his death with the above quote. While not unexpected - he'd slowed down considerably in the past few years - his passing came as a personal blow because I'd worked with him quite a lot; I liked and respected him a great deal. There's some comfort in that he left behind a legacy of some 40 records and of course his many songs, both of which guarantee his art will live on. All in all, he had a very good run, touring extensively for 50 years without a regular working band. As he often said in interviews, "I'm in my --th year of on-the-job training." He was able to do this for so long because, although his on-stage persona and songs could seem fanciful, he was not: he was very disciplined and practical, he took care of himself. He didn't smoke or drink - maybe the odd beer at the end of a night - and never gained a pound, eating sparingly and wisely. Mostly he drank herbal tea with honey for his voice and his only vice, if you can call it that, was a moderate fondness for marijuana. But never much of that either - as he said once, "I only need a little poke, 'cause I'm workin' on a 50-year 'contact-high'". His decision to tour as a single was partly financial - keeping a working band on the road is expensive - more [...]

Remembering Bob Cranshaw

This year in which so many notable musicians have died continued with a rough patch lately. Leon Russell and Leonard Cohen, and in the jazz world, bassist Bob Cranshaw and more recently, Mose Allison. As pop stars, a lot has already been written about Russell and Cohen, to which I can't add much except to say that the band Leon Russell assembled on short notice for Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour is still a model of what rock 'n' roll is supposed to sound like. And that through his words and music and oddly light-handed gravitas, Leonard Cohen established a very personal definition of what it means to be existentially cool. Though not unexpected, Mose Allison's death hit me hard in a personal way because I worked a lot with him and came to know him well. I'll deal with him in a separate post, but for now I want to focus on Bob Cranshaw, who was the least famous of these men, but a giant all the same. Cranshaw was, no pun intended, the walking definition of a bassist who didn't draw attention to himself, yet even so it came as a surprise to me that several jazz insiders hadn't heard of his death until several weeks after it occurred. (He died November 2 in Manhattan from cancer, a month shy of his 84th birthday.) More than once Bill Kirchner has said that Bob Cranshaw was one of the most beloved and respected musicians in New York, and had been for years. He'd worked with virtually everybody and for decades had been tireless in his efforts with the musician's more [...]

Dimentia Internetus

Multinational Jazz Corporations For whatever reason, my friend Ted O'Reilly sent out a number of YouTube clips to the Old Farts this morning. They were a series of warm-and-fuzzy Christmas ads for a chain of UK department stores known as "John Lewis". I've included the first one here, which is quite amusing, as English ads often tend to be. The other clips were variations of it along political/satirical lines which I haven't included because I'm not sure I approve - suddenly, politics don't seem very funny to me these days. Although I've traveled in Britain extensively a number of times and like to think I'm up on its culture as much as most, I'd never heard of the John Lewis chain. Harrod's, yes. Marks & Sparks - as they call it - you betcha. Tesco's, absolutely. But as soon as I saw "John Lewis" in Ted's message, I expected someone had created some ads for a UK department store chain with soundtracks using music by the composer/pianist and musical director of the MJQ, who is a great favourite of mine. I just assumed they would have used his arrangement of "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen", also known as "England's Carol", it would be a natural. (Obviously, there's a reason Madison Avenue has not been beating a path to my door all these years.) Here's a favourite version of it by the MJQ. John Lewis is the one wearing Bermuda shorts, seemingly jotting down a grocery list: "The Queen's Fancy", "Little David's Fugue", and "The Golden Striker" are some other Lewis more [...]

Barney Kessel, Redux

After issuing my last post about the Jim Hall-Barney Kessel duo and Barney's amazing "I Took A Trip On A Train" solo offering, I got to remembering some other good stories about him I wish I had included. I've added them to the first post so that it's all of a piece, but for those who already read that one, I'm issuing them separately here. When Barney was giving his little train-salon solo concert, I had no way of knowing that I'd have the good fortune of playing with him in the near future for two fairly long stretches and would come to know him pretty well as a result. The first occasion came in the fall of 1989, when Barney joined the Oliver Jones trio for the Spanish leg of a tour that had begun in Ireland at the Cork Guinness Jazz Festival. We played both clubs and concerts and had some adventures while attuning ourselves to the "always-later" Spanish schedule - the gigs wouldn't start till about 10:30 or 11:00 and might not finish till 2:30 in the morning. On the strength of this, Barney hired me a couple of years later to do a short duo tour in Ontario, with concerts in Toronto, Sudbury, Kingston and Ottawa, followed by a week back in Toronto at The Bermuda Onion, where we were joined by Mark Eisenman on piano and John Sumner on drums. I discovered that, both as a man and a guitarist, Barney Kessel could fool you - there was often more to him than met the eye, or the ear. The paradox of Barney revolved around the contrast between the outward manifestations of more [...]

Barney Kessel: I Took A Trip On A Train

The other day, a friend sent me a remarkable YouTube clip of Jim Hall and Barney Kessel in duo, taking “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” apart. I hadn’t heard it before, or even about it. And it’s not something I would have ever searched for or even imagined, because, while their paths certainly must have crossed often enough in Los Angeles after Hall's arrival there in 1955, they’re not two guitarists one would naturally throw together. Nonetheless, it’s quite amazing how easily they dovetail and how each effects the other here. They're both in adventurous, exploratory form and right off the bat there are delicious little sparks of dissonance and clusters of bitonality. Jim sounds more outwardly virtuosic and extroverted here than usual and even throws in a sly-funny quote from “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” at one point. And along with some of the angular, dipsy-doodle shapes that only he could play, Barney’s comping is quite Jim Hall-like in places. The video quality is a bit wobbly in a "Plan 9 From Outer Space" way, and I wish there was more information given, like when and where. By the looks of Jim, I’d say late-fifties, early-sixties. (Ed. note: Since posting this, jazz history-guitar-whiz Ben Bishop has informed me that this was done at the Berlin Guitar Workshop on Nov. 5, 1967.) Here they are, fasten your seat-belts: In terms of sheer technique and versatility, Kessel was one of the most complete jazz guitarists ever. By this, I don't mean more [...]

A Halloween Story

My apologies for posting this story a few days late, but Halloween and the days leading up to it were very busy, plus there was an 'exceeded bandwidth' issue on this site which made access to it impossible, even for me. This was not as serious as it looked, and my site administrator Citizen X had it fixed within five minutes of being notified. X told me that congratulations were in order because I'd gone from "Basic" to "Gold" in the bandwidth-use department owing to a greater amount of traffic than the other sites he hosts. Fixing the problem was simply a matter of allotting my site more "juice". So thanks to all of my readers, I thought I'd forgotten to pay a bill or something. I'm old, yes, but gold? I've never earned gold in anything before, though I seem to remember winning a bronze for "Improved Posture" in Grade Three - I had nowhere to go but up. Anyway, on to the story. In October of 1987 I did a Concord-Fujitsu tour of Japan with that year's version of the Concord All-Stars, consisting of Warren Vaché on cornet, Dan Barrett on trombone, Scott Hamilton and Red Holloway on tenor saxophone (Red also played some alto), Dave McKenna on piano, Ed Bickert on guitar, Jimmie Smith on drums, and me on bass. The other bands were the Phil Woods Quintet (Woods,Tom Harrell on trumpet, Hal Galper on piano, Steve Gilmore on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums) and George Shearing in duo with Toronto bassist Neil Swainson. Ernestine Anderson - still in her prime and a delight to be more [...]

Back When Tattoos Cost A Nickel and Steam Was King

The historic, drought-busting nature of this year’s World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians has even my old friend Mike Maehle - not generally a sports fan - uncharacteristically interested. The last time I heard him talk about baseball was.... well, never. But, as a knowledgeable student of history he was talking about it today and we got to kidding around about how unimaginably long ago 1908 was, and how vastly different the world was when the Cubs last won a championship that very year. As a friend of Mike's once put it about the distant past, "Tattoos were only a nickel and steam was still king!." Teddy Roosevelt was President, though in the last year of his second term. Keeping a promise not to seek a third term that November, Roosevelt persuaded the Republicans to nominate William Howard Taft, while William Jennings Bryan was the Democratic candidate for the third straight time that autumn. Yes, that’s right - it was so long ago, the Bible-thumpers were Democrats instead of Republicans, and Presidential candidates had desirable qualities like integrity, dignity and a grasp of the English language. Not to mention statesmanship, considerable oratorical skill, manners, and other refinements. It was clearly another planet, though some things remained the same - as recently, there was trouble in Serbia, Herzegovina and Macedonia. But World War One was still six years away and nobody had a clue who the hell Archduke Franz Ferdinand was yet, more [...]

Stop the Insanity!

I promise to return to jazz matters soon, but first a few thoughts on the currently nutso baseball schedule.......... For years now, the major-league baseball season has been a 162-game marathon, almost twice as many games as hockey or basketball teams play. Part of the reasoning behind this is that, as baseball is (mostly) a non-contact sport, the players can weather playing so much. And fans love the almost non-stop daily flow of action throughout the spring, summer and early autumn, with apologies to Ralph Burns and Stan Getz. Also, as pitching is such a variable and huge determining factor in the outcome of any given game, it's thought that a season this long is needed to separate the good teams from the bad. The problem with this "separate the wheat from the chaff" rationale is that there's an illusion built into the baseball season that's hard to see until you look closely: by design, each team plays an unbalanced schedule. By this I mean that as things stand now, each team plays its four divisional rivals 19 times, accounting for 76 games (4 x 19 = 76.) Each team plays 20 inter-league games, bringing the total to 96. That leaves 66 games, which each team plays against the 10 teams from the other divisions of their respective leagues. Even to the math-challenged, this doesn't add up, as 10 into 66 works out to 6.6 games. Call me crazy, but there's no such thing as .6 of a baseball game. What this means is that an American League team such as the Toronto Blue Jays more [...]

The Hank Aaron of Third Base

Third baseman Adrian Beltre turned 37 this past April and is playing his nineteenth season in the big leagues. This puts him in the home stretch of his career, but he has shown no signs of slowing down whatsoever. He's hitting .292, a few points higher than his career average, and clubbed his 25th home run the other day (his ninth season with at least that many.) He also knocked in his 89th run, so it seems likely he will drive in 100 runs for the first time in four years, and for the fifth time overall in his career. He's still getting it done with the glove and arm in the field and remains the leader on a very good Texas Rangers team that is poised to capture its second straight AL West title. Even at 37, Beltre would be an upgrade at third base for most teams, the exceptions being Toronto (Josh Donaldson), Baltimore (Manny Machado), Colorado (Nolan Arenado), Tampa Bay (Evan Longoria) and the Cubs (Kris Bryant). In a very real sense, he's been the Hank Aaron of third base. This is not to say Beltre is the equal of Aaron as a player - he isn't, not even close. But very few are, a player like Aaron comes along once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime. What I mean is that their career trajectories - the longevity, the quiet steadiness, the amassing of career totals which have snuck up on baseball observers gradually - are very similar. Hank Aaron hit 35 to 45 home runs a year like clockwork and nobody noticed because he was so consistent and there was always somebody more [...]

Wrap Your Troubles in Bombs

A Notice/Warning. When I first caught the writing bug about eight years ago, long before this blog site existed, I wrote a lot of pieces about baseball and circulated them by e-mail to a growing list of baseball-fan friends, many of them fellow musicians. All in all, I wrote over 100 of these and kept them archived in a file on a computer at home. I've decided to revisit some of the better ones, make some changes and edits and post some of them here occasionally, mostly to have them somewhere public. This will also allow me to post things to keep the site going, while I toil away on some longer music pieces. A much busier work schedule and other distractions have slowed down my writing considerably, as some may have noticed. Those way-back readers who have already seen these baseball essays may want to re-read them as there will be substantive changes and, hopefully, improvements made. For those who don't like or care about baseball, my apologies, simply delete them when they're posted. There's no law that says you have to read them. However, as baseball reflects many things beyond itself, some of you may find them interesting and get something out of reading these pieces. I hope so, anyway. Here's the first in a semi-regular series: - - - At the very core of baseball's evolution is the age-old confrontation between pitcher and hitter. This can be seen in the micro-view of one at-bat or a series of at-bats in a single game, or in the macro-view of broad hitting and pitching more [...]

Ichiro: A Baseball Artist Reaches 3,000

At 42, Ichiro Suzuki is just a few hits shy of becoming the 30th player to reach the 3,000-hit milestone. He could get there as early as this weekend and, in his sixteenth big-league season he will become the second fastest to achieve this, behind only career hits leader Pete Rose. When he does crank out hit number 3,000, he will join Hall-of-Famers Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and Paul Molitor as the only players with at least 3,000 hits, 500 or more stolen bases and a career batting average over .300. That, ladies and gentleman, is what is known as select company. Reaching 3,000 hits speaks to both talent and endurance and is an achievement rivaled only by 300 wins for a pitcher, or 500 home runs for a slugger. It's always marked and celebrated, but Ichiro's case is special, more of an historic landmark that goes beyond the boundaries of baseball norms. He will become the first non-American player to reach this rarefied plateau. And, more importantly, he will become the first - and likely the only - player to do so after beginning his major-league career at the fairly late age of 27. He came to the majors with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 after a sensational nine-year career in Japan with the Orix Blue Wave, which made him that country's most famous athlete, known simply as "Ichiro". He began his pro career in 1992 at 18 and might have become a star sooner, except that his hidebound manager Shõzõ Doi refused to accept his unorthodox batting stance and "pendulum" more [...]

Taken, Given

Two important musicians - pianist Don Friedman and trumpeter Erich Traugott - died in late June. I was late in hearing about both because I was unconnected for a few days, off playing at the Rochester Jazz Festival. It's often said that bad news comes in threes, but in this case these two losses were counteracted about a week later by some good news: major donations of jazz material to the Sound and Moving Images Library and the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University, celebrated by a very nice reception. And so it goes in jazz: an ebb and flow of loss and gain, give and take. Don Friedman. Pianist-composer Don Friedman died at 81 on June 30 in New York, of pancreatic cancer; by all reports it was quick. He was an intelligent, challenging musician with a style by turns rigorous and gentle, but always thoroughly original. He was perhaps better known and regarded by fellow musicians than the jazz public at large: it always seemed to me he was less recognized and appreciated than he deserved except in Japan, where he had a considerable following. He was born in San Francisco and took up the piano at four, studying for ten years with the same teacher and showing a natural aptitude for classical piano. This was later reflected in his jazz work, which showed technical brilliance, but with a disciplined sense of structure and form even when he was playing "free". When he was fifteen, his family moved to Los Angeles just as the West Coast jazz movement more [...]

Jazz String Theory

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" - William Shakespeare, from Hamlet. Yesterday a friend sent me a YouTube clip of Paul Gonsalves and Chick Corea playing Corea's signature "Windows" in 1966, with Aaron Bell on bass and Louie Bellson on drums. No, that's not a typo.......... even before listening to it, I was astonished by its mere existence. I mean, Paul Gonsalves and Chick Corea?!? They're not a pair you'd put together in a million years; they're at least a generation apart and would seem to be oil and water, musically speaking. When you think Gonsalves, you think Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Newport '56, Billy Strayhorn, Clark Terry, Sam Woodyard, innumerable scenes of wanton inebriation and one of the most relentlessly original tenor saxophone voices of all time.Think Corea and you think Blue Mitchell Quintet, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, NOW HE SINGS, NOW HE SOBS, Return to Forever, "Spain", the Elektric Band and many other things, none of them remotely Ellingtonian. And yet, here they are, from a four-tune Mercer Ellington session (Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney are on the other three numbers.) Here's "Windows" - the only thing wrong with it is that, like most good things, it's too short: This is the first recording of "Windows", a full year before Corea and Stan Getz tackled it on Getz's SWEET RAIN album. There's a Microsoft joke in there somewhere, think of this as Windows 1.0. The song was more [...]

Big Papi, Not Going Gently

David Ortiz, the Buddha-like designated-hitter of the Boston Red Sox known as "Big Papi", turned 40 last November. Shortly thereafter he announced that this season, his twentieth in the big leagues, would be his last. Ordinarily, when a star ballplayer reaches this stage their decision to retire is greeted by fans with a mixture of relief, admiration and a desire to look back misty-eyed over the satisfying achievements of a long and storied career. We think, "Whew, I'm glad he knows it's time and is going out on his own terms with some dignity while he can still get it done, instead of looking bad trying to milk one last pathetic season out of his decrepit body." Or something like that. Well, think again folks: Ortiz has turned all this on its head by having, even by his own lofty standards and at such an advanced baseball age, an astonishing season. He is not giving us a swan song, but more of a swan opera. He's currently leading all of baseball in four important hitting categories: doubles, with 26; RBI, with 55; slugging percentage, an amazing .728; and an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) of 1.153. For good measure, he is also among the leaders in home runs (16, tied for sixth), batting average (.340, fourth) and on-base-percentage (.425, third.) Surprisingly, in spite of reaching base so often and playing on such a prodigious hitting team, he's scored just 28 runs, but the reasons for this are fairly obvious. He was never fast and is even slower now, so quite regularly after more [...]

How Are These with Guacamole?

We've just experienced our first heatwave, that sudden annual transition from "it could be warmer" to "man, can you believe how friggin' hot it is already!?" The last thing anyone wants to do in this heat is cook, yet we still have to eat, even if a little lighter. What's needed is some refreshing, satisfying food that doesn't require an oven. Salads and chilled soups like gazpacho are good, but one of the best summer snacks is guacamole, it's very fresh-tasting and quite filling. And, not to spoil it or anything, but it's actually good for you, provided you don't eat the whole bag of tortilla chips once the velvety green dip is gone. Obviously, the key to making good guacamole is having avocados at a perfect stage of soft ripeness, but the timing of this can be tricky. I usually buy the mesh bags with five or six rather than the individual ones, it's cheaper that way. They're often hard as rocks in the store, so you leave them on the counter for a few days to ripen. If you squeeze them and they give and a small dimple is left, they're ready. The trouble is, sometimes they're ready when you don't have time to make the guac and you end up leaving them too long and they get all black and mushy inside. My sister-in-law recently showed me a simple way around this: once the avocados are ripe, put them in the fridge. This stops the ripening process and has the added advantage of chilling the avocados, making the finished product even more refreshing. I've been tinkering with more [...]

Leicester Leaps In

I never write about soccer, or as the English call it, football. In fact, I don't even follow it, not really. If I write about sports at all in these pages it will likely be about baseball, which isn't really a sport, but life itself played out on a perfect diamond-shaped patch of green. However, a piece on soccer is in order, because yesterday the Leicester City Foxes of the English Premier League achieved the most improbable and astounding victory in the history of sports since David slew Goliath with a stone propelled from his slingshot. The Foxes won the championship of perhaps the best league in all of soccer, defying both belief and description. Impossible. Shocking. The long-shot of long-shots. Incredible. Gob-smacking. A paper clip propelled by an elastic band, landing on the moon. That the Foxes did so without even taking the field only adds to the jaw-dropping improbability of the story. Second-place Tottenham Hotspur, whose symbol is some sort of fowl (get it? - foxes against hens!) needed a victory yesterday against Chelsea to keep alive their hopes of overtaking Leicester for the championship. Many consider the Spurs the better team, as they've scored more goals and allowed fewer than the Foxes. And Chelsea, a perennial power and last year's champion, have slid to tenth in the league, so the task seemed an easy one for the Spurs. Tottenham went up 2-0 in the early going, but Chelsea scored a goal in close off a free kick. Then late in the game, Chelsea's striker more [...]


The post just issued (“Ernie Watts, Brad Goode & Stylistic Diversity”) may have seemed more rambling than usual, and much shorter, not to mention incomplete, all for good reason. I was working on the article, got distracted and clicked on the ‘publish’ button, located just below the ‘save’ button, sending it out to the airwaves accidentally, long before it was finished. It’s a good thing I don’t work in the field of geopolitics or securities trading.

For those of you wondering what any of this abortive ‘post’ has to do with Ernie Watts or Brad Goode, well, you’ll have to wait until the rest of the article comes out. Not on this site, mind you, but in the next issue of WholeNote magazine. Yes, I’m afraid this is what may be called an “unintentional preview”, a pitfall of a butterfingers like me working in a digital, Internet medium such as this. I’m surprised I haven’t done something like this before and I’ll try to be more careful not to repeat it in the future…….but don’t hold your breath.

Mea Culpa and Cheers.



Evans Above, Happy St. Patrick’s Day

In honour of St. Patrick's Day, embedded below is my favourite version of “Danny Boy” ever, a 1962 solo piano reading by Bill Evans. Evans was from Welsh stock on his father’s side and Russian on his mother’s, an interesting combination reflected in his playing, which was both romantic and intellectual. I thought I knew how great a pianist Evans was until I heard this track about fifteen or twenty years after first encountering him. It made me realize he was even better than I'd thought, which I wouldn't have considered possible. There are a lot of ways to go about it, but jazz piano just can't be played any better than this. The crystalline sound and pearly touch, the gorgeous, crunchy chord voicings, the long, spring-loaded lines and tensile rhythm, the lyricism, the way he makes the piano sing, the poetry of it all - it's just breathtaking. And to think he wasn't even Irish - smile. In the end though, after all the analysis and attempts to describe Bill's playing, perhaps his agent-to-be Helen Keane said it best when she first heard him: "Oh no, this one's going to break my heart." Even more impressively, this "Danny Boy" was a throw-away done on a solo session that was never meant for release, but rather intended to pull Bill out of the deep, paralyzing depression he fell into after Scott La Faro was killed in a car crash at 25. It reminds me of something I experienced at a Modigliani exhibition a few years ago at the AGO. Along with his many famous portraits more [...]

A Kinder, Gentler Roy

My last post about Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie's electrifying version of "Blue Moon" got me to thinking about another surprising encounter with "Little Jazz" on a record, some 25 or 30 years down the road. If there's one sure thing to be learned about Roy from various sources - reading about him in books, listening to his records or hearing other musicians tell stories about him - it's that he was probably the most competitive trumpeter who ever lived, especially around other trumpet players. Even on his own, Roy was generally an intense and aggressive player, but often leavened the fireworks with some control, showing a lyrical and melodic side. Put another trumpeter next to him though, and look out. He saw red, his hackles rose and he went for the jugular, hitting the other guy with all the speed, power and range he had, trying to win a contest even if there wasn't one. As Gillespie put it, "Roy just didn't know how to behave around other trumpet players." Part of it may just have been his personality, and the fact that he was a little guy probably contributed a bit to the chip on his shoulder as well. He also came up when Louis Armstrong was paramount and cutting contests were the norm; there were guys around every corner in Harlem trying to cut you down to size or steal your gig. His bitter first-hand experiences with racism as the sole black player - and a star soloist at that - travelling with the bands of Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa wouldn't have done much to soften more [...]

A Trip To the Moon with Roy & Diz

Whether you're a young musician in training or a fan in the making, the early days of jazz discovery are heady ones, not unlike Christopher Columbus landing on the shores of the New World. There's so much to hear for the first time, so the musical slate is blank and your ears are fresh and unspoiled, just waiting to be thrilled on a daily basis. Reading about jazz in books and magazines fuels the curiosity and helps along the knowledge, but hearing great music in person or on records is what really makes a visceral impact in those fledgling days. My first such "light-bulb" experiences came while listening to jazz records alone. But later, quite a few of these wow moments came in the company of trumpeter John MacLeod, my oldest jazz friend. This is intended as an account of maybe the most memorable of these. I've mentioned John a number of times in other posts; we met in high school and he inducted me into his Dixieland band on bass with the general instruction to "don't stop playing till the tune's over." Relative to that time - 1973 or so - we were both 'retro-ists' in terms of our jazz tastes and listening habits, John perhaps more so. He was mostly into trad and Swing: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook records and a bunch of older big-band stuff. I was more of a bebopper, heavily into Bird and Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, some MJQ and above all Miles Davis with John Coltrane. more [...]

Nothin’ Up Our Sleeves…..

The Mike Murley Trio - Murley on soprano and tenor saxophones, Reg Schwager on guitar and yours truly on bass - played a concert on the evening of February 5 at The Fourth Stage, a newish performance space at The National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It was part of the city's newly-founded Winter Jazz Festival, which in turn is part of its annual celebration of ice and snow, "Winterlude". Although this year, "Interlude" might be more like it, as our normally frigid capital is having almost as mild a winter as Toronto, with temperatures barely cold enough to keep the ice sculptures solid and the Rideau Canal, normally an outdoor skating rink, partially unfrozen. Oh yeah? Check this..... The major sticking point in the logistical arrangements for this gig was the presenter's - or maybe the stage-crew's - insistence that we do a 1 p.m. sound-check for a 7 p.m. concert. Apart from being obscenely early just on the face of it, this didn't take into account that the band was driving all the way from Toronto that day, which, in winter conditions and including finding our way through a (mostly) unfamiliar city, would mean having to leave at about eight in the morning. Simply put, this just wasn't going to happen. It was even more of a long-shot once it was decided that Mike and Reg would be riding in Mike's Mini and my wife Anna would be driving me and the bass in our Chevy, because she's even less of a morning person than the guys in the band - much, much less. In fact, Mike half-jokingly more [...]

Warren Vache Is Coming To Town

Jazz cornet master Warren Vaché will be appearing for three nights at The Jazz Bistro Feb.25-27, accompanied by a fine local rhythm section consisting of Mark Eisenman on piano, Terry Clarke on drums and some guy named Steve Wallace on bass. This is a musical event not to be missed as Warren, though no stranger to local fans in recent years with regular appearances at The Toronto Jazz Festival and various Ken Page Memorial Trust events, has not played a multiple-night engagement at a Toronto jazz club since the early 1980s heyday of Bourbon Street, where he often appeared with his old running buddy, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. Together, Warren and Scott formed the spearhead of what came to be known in the late-70s as 'the young mainstream movement' in which the styles and repertoire of past masters such as Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster, Bobby Hackett and others were not only revived, but refreshed through club appearances, concert and festival tours and a series of Concord recordings. In the years since, Warren, already a redoubtable player in his younger days, has only continued to grow and mature as an artist, refining his style to the point where his solos can now be considered object lessons in the history of jazz trumpet playing, filtered through his own highly unique personal sensibilities. His sound has deepened and taken on a burnished lustre and his dynamic control is breathtaking, he can play at a whisper with great emotional impact. more [...]

Embraceable & Irreplaceable

As Christmas Day arrived, Bill Kirchner sent me a YouTube clip of a classic version of “Embraceable You”, recorded for Commodore on April 30, 1938 by Eddie Condon & His Windy City Seven. It was very thoughtful of him and as nice a Christmas present as any I received. Bill stumbled across it after not hearing it for years and knew I'd love it, which I did – repeated listening to its delightful four minutes made the immediate, concrete world melt away temporarily. A performance like this takes us back to a time when individuality in jazz was not only crucially important, but also more possible, if only because the field was less crowded. Furthermore, it summons up a brief interval when the darkness of the thirties in America lifted: Prohibition and the worst of the Depression were over and, while the storm clouds of war were gathering, they had not yet engulfed the world. Like Bill, I was familiar with this track and had heard it before, but not for some time and it took a while to figure out just where I knew it from. Eventually it came to me, it’s on a very aptly named CD – PEE WEE RUSSELL, JAZZ ORIGINAL, a compilation of various sessions Russell did for Commodore as a leader and sideman. It was the singular personnel on this track - Bobby Hackett on cornet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Russell on clarinet, Bud Freeman on tenor, Jess Stacy on piano, Condon on guitar, Artie Shapiro on bass, and George Wettling on drums – that made it come back to me. One doesn’t more [...]


Lee Konitz will (hopefully) turn 89 this year and, as his career enters its seventh decade, all of it spent in the vanguard of the music, he has long moved past the point were there can be any doubts about his bona fides as a jazz master. One either likes his playing or one doesn't, take it or leave it. That being said, his highly personal and uncompromising approach to improvising has left Konitz open to criticism through the years on either side of the jazz median-line, from traditionalists and non-traditionalists alike. The former, those who like their jazz a little more straight-ahead and red-blooded, have called into question his intonation (a tendency to be sharp), his time (he sometimes lags behind the beat and doesn't swing aggressively enough for some) and his choice to often eschew playing the melody of the songs he uses as a basis for improvisation. A few on the other side of the fence have occasionally bemoaned Lee's decision to generally stop short of the total abstraction of free improvisation, his preference to strive for freedom of expression within the song form, with a tempo and tonality in play. Some see his retention of the song form as clinging to a musical security blanket, but I would argue the very opposite is true: by improvising so freely within a defined structure, Konitz invites the possibility of failure within finite borders and real time, in effect eliminating any safety net. Like Stravinsky, Konitz believes that improvisation needs a context more [...]

Lucky Tuesday – Appendix

I added these paragraphs about Lucky Thompson and his aptly-named "Beautiful Tuesday" to yesterday's post so it would be all of one piece. I'm offering it separately here for those who have already read the older one, to save the bother of going back to it. Shortly after this post was published, another of “The Old Farts”, Ron Gaskin, left a comment with another Tuesday track – Lucky Thompson’s “Beautiful Tuesday”, so I’ve added this commentary and clip after the fact. Thank you Ron, this really caused the other shoe to drop, this was the track that had been vaguely rolling around in the cobwebs of my memory, just out of reach. I definitely should have thought of it for several reasons: I’m a huge Lucky Thompson fan and the album that it’s from – LORD, LORD, AM I EVER GONNA KNOW? is one of my very favourites by him, it stands as a testament to his art as much as any other record he made. It was done in Paris during the spring of 1961 and eventually issued on Candid. By that point, Thompson had been living in France since 1956 and would return stateside shortly after recording this. He had used his time in Paris to great effect: mastering the soprano saxophone to add to his already formidable tenor and writing dozens of highly original compositions, it was an extremely productive period for him. Given this, I’ve never quite understood his decision to return to America, particularly the timing of it, which would eventually prove disastrous for him. Thompson more [...]

Tuesday – YouTube’s Way Smarter than Google, Eh?

In my last post (so to speak) about days-of-the-week songs, I mentioned how much trouble I had thinking of a tune for Tuesday and that Bill Kirchner came to the rescue. I also predicted that if I'd gone ahead using "Ruby Tuesday" as originally planned, various record-collector savant types would have come out of the woodwork and pointed out all sorts of jazz Tuesday tracks I should have thought of. I would have needed a big spatula to scrape the egg off my face, but oddly enough, I always have one handy. Even though I used Bill's suggestion of Chico Hamilton's "Tuesday at Two", this happened ayway, and it didn't take long. A few minutes after I hit "publish", my friend Don Brown offered two Tuesday tracks I might have used, both from 1941 - Count Basie's "Tuesday at Ten" and Teddy Wilson's "Tuesday Blues". The Basie track rang a bell because I eventually realized I have it on a CD and have heard it before. The Wilson track was news to me, because it was recorded as a Keynote Transcription. But it turns out I have that one too, on a cleverly disguised CD that doesn't even mention Keynote. Don also mentioned that Benny Goodman did a cover of "Tuesday at Ten" after Base's Columbia record became popular. Don is exactly the kind of guy I had in mind when I made my prediction about experts coming out of the woodwork. He has a huge record collection and has been going to hear live jazz since the late '40s when he was in his late teens. He kept a log book of everyone he went to more [...]

These Are….. the Days of the Week

After the extended psychodrama of the Christmas season, the calendar has clicked over to a whole new year and we're still getting used to writing 2016 instead of 2015. And many of us are back to the grind after having been off work or school for a few weeks, so we're lucky if we even know what day it is......Actually, this is a problem for me at the best of times. With all this temporal disorientation in mind, I thought it might be fun to look at jazz songs or standards with days of the weeks in their titles, just to straighten ourselves out a little. On the face of it, this seemed pretty easy. Without too much trouble or digging around I could think of tunes for every day of the week......except Tuesday, I had the devil of a time with that. Now, I know what you're thinking - what about "Ruby Tuesday", by The Rolling Stones? As an old Stones' fan, I thought of that one right away, but it doesn't exactly fit in with the rest of the song list, comprising entries by jazz titans like Earl Hines, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, among others. Stymied, I consulted the Google oracle about "songs with Tuesday in their title" and found several articles - more lists, really - devoted to this subject, which inspired some hope. Unfounded hope as it turned out - there have been all sorts of songs written about Tuesday, all of them having even less to do with jazz than "Ruby Tuesday". Tuesday was seemingly a hot topic in the pop/rock world, with various entries by more [...]

Auld Clang Syne – Redux

I’ve added a couple of stories to my last post, both of which came to me later amid all the NYE gig memories. One of them is about Rob McConnell and has nothing to do with NYE except that it was prompted by the joke about the pianist who knows only three tunes. The other is a cherished NYE memory of Alice Allair, one of many I have about that dear and now much-missed lady. Sorry for the late inclusions, but I feel both stories are worth the rereading and as usual. there’s no admission fee.

Again, Flappy Glue Near.


Auld Clang Syne

Back in the good old days when there was still an actual music business, all musicians worked New Year’s Eve. I mean everybody, except for the elite guys who didn't want to, or have to. It didn't even matter if you were any good or not; demand was high enough that you had some kind of a gig that night even if you weren't ready, if only to provide a semi-warm body on a bandstand somewhere. These 'general business' gigs paid at least double-scale for that night, so in the ‘70s you could walk away with $250 as a sideman - later $400 or $500 – which was pretty good money in those days. It usually meant a considerable amount of abject bandstand suffering and put you right in touch with your inner musical prostitute. But the payoff kept the wolf from the door during the always lean month of January, when musicians’ date-books resembled blizzards. You know, all white pages, no gigs written down. It was not unusual back then to have a NYE gig booked as early as the summer, and once you were booked, it was locked in, iron-clad. You had to give the leader a virtual guarantee signed in blood that you would be there come hell or high water, failing death – and maybe not even then. The last thing you wanted was to be double-booked on NYE, you would never find a sub. It was a kind of gig Russian roulette – did you take the sure thing that came along early, or hold out for a better offer that might come along later? These were the questions that kept working musicians awake nights more [...]

Birth of the Yule

Years ago around Christmas time, I was hanging out with John Sumner and some other musicians after a gig, listening to some records and having a few tastes. We got to kidding around, combining Christmas carols with jazz tunes to form song-title puns. As I recall, "Joy Spring To the World", "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Sing, Sing", "Silent Night In Tunisia", "Sippin' At Jingle Bells", "What Child Is This Thing Called Love?" and "O Little Rootie Tootie Town of Bethlehem" were among the ones we came up with. Many years later I started writing as a hobby, well before I had a blog site. My first 100 pieces or so were about baseball, sent by email to a slowly growing circle of fellow baseball fans on a group list. It was a way of keeping us entertained over the long winter months and when I started branching out and writing a few things about music I created a second email-list of jazz people. As Christmas approached in 2010, something made me remember the old Christmas-jazz song-puns and I sent out a few of them along with some new ones, explaining the origin and how they were put together. I proposed a sort of seasonal game, encouraging friends to write in with their ideas and takes on this to see how many jazz-Christmas hybrids we could come up with and how cringe-worthy or clever these might be. I wondered about the response, but needn't have. It didn't take long. My friend Bill McDonald was the first to jump all over this. Though not a musician by trade, he plays pretty more [...]

Paris; Vernon Duke & The Armour of Music

Other than people living in extremely remote areas untouched by media or technology - if they even exist anymore - I may have been one of the last to hear of the recent appalling attacks in Paris. As my wife Anna would say, this is "not a good story for me", although she learned of the tragedy even later than me, and only after I told her of it. But there was at least an understandable reason for our obliviousness: our three-year-old grandson Charlie came for an overnight visit starting at dinnertime on Friday. Like most kids his age, he has so much curiosity, energy and imagination that being around him is an all-consuming experience and great fun, but exhausting. What with playing and talking and eating with him, there was no time or reason to have a TV or a computer on. And when we did turn to the TV, it was to watch a kids' movie with him, with no ad or news breaks. Afterward, I put Charlie to sleep with the sounds of a Paul Desmond record wafting upstairs from the living room, his last waking words were, "Gwandpa, that saxophone sounds weally good......zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz". I drifted off myself for a few minutes and then woke up and watched a movie with Anna, after which we retired for good, still blissfully ignorant. The next morning started all too early and with immediate relentlessness. It was more of the same, wall-to-wall hanging out and playing with Charlie and I noted to myself for the hundredth time that there's a reason people have children when they're young more [...]

So Long, Archie

A shorter and slightly different (i.e. cleaner) version of this piece on Archie Alleyne appeared in the September issue of WholeNote magazine, v. 121 #1.                                                                       *** June of this year brought a rash of deaths which rocked the jazz community – locally, bassist Lenny Boyd and drummer Archie Alleyne – and internationally, jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and third-stream-composer Gunther Schuller. I wrote memorial blogs about Coleman, Schuller and Boyd, who was my bass teacher. I held back in Archie Alleyne’s case because I just didn’t have another obituary piece about a good friend in me so soon and also because David Perlman, the editor/publisher of WholeNote magazine, asked me to write a piece about Archie in a future issue. Oddly, it was while attending the early spring memorial celebration of Jim Galloway – another local jazz stalwart who passed away recently – that I first learned that Archie was seriously ill. I hadn’t seen Archie in some time and while looking for him at the gathering for Jim I was told that he wasn’t expected to live through the summer, a body blow. He didn't even make it that far, dying on June 8th of prostate cancer. Perhaps it's as well he went so quickly as he was suffering, but the speed of it was still shocking. Archie was such a zestful man, so integral a part of Toronto's musical scene in so many ways and for so long that it's hard more [...]

Guitar Hero

Guitarist Jim Hall died well over a year ago, but I'm still in a state of mourning and semi-denial about it. For ages now, Hall has been an essential part of my jazz listening on reams of classic records with other great musicians. In countless settings, he delivered so many indelible, perfect little musical moments that I can scarcely believe he's gone. Thankfully his prolific recorded legacy lives on, meaning I can bring him into my living room whenever I want, which is often. Some musicians play instruments, while others transcend them to create real beauty; Jim was one of the latter. He wasn't so much a guitarist as he was a music maker, a special designation of Jake Hanna's which he reserved only for the musicians he admired most. The words "empathetic" and "subtle" always came up in descriptions of Hall's work and fittingly so, he was often those. But the words that come to mind when I consider his musicality mostly start with the letter "i". His playing had marvelous insight and integrity, a unique dimension of intuitive interplay, quiet intensity and above all, intelligence. He was surely one of the most musically intelligent figures in the history of jazz, which allowed him to do things on the guitar that seemed improbable, sometimes even impossible. Not because they were technically difficult necessarily, but because they seemed to come from out of nowhere, sprung from his highly-attuned musical imagination. Like the pianist Tommy Flanagan, Hall was more [...]

A Goose by Any Other Name

So, I'm still making like Herman Punster, playing around with baseball names and song titles. Fortunately for all though, it's winding down. One of the challenges of doing this is negotiating the difference between how a name looks and the way it sounds. For example, a reader left one I really enjoyed - "Tiant Steps" - after John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and the ageless Cuban pitcher, Luis Tiant. It works beautifully on paper, a good visual pun, but Tiant's name is pronounced like "tea-aunt", making "Tiant for Two" a better ear-pun. The best song puns work both ways, but they're hard to come up with. I tripped up on pronunciations a few times in my first long pun-post and had to change a couple. My friend Bill Kirchner has huge ears and eagle eyes. He pointed out to me that even as a self-confessed "non-baseball fanatic", he was pretty sure Bobby Knoop's last name was pronounced like "Knopp", meaning it didn't really work for "What's Knoop?" ("What's New?"). So, "But Knoop For Me" would be better. It was the same with Clem Labine - I somehow got it into my head that his name was pronounced "Labeen" and used that for "It's Labine A Long, Long Time". But his last name rhymes with "fine", so I changed the song to "Labine & Dandy". Given that the general populace of North America numbers in the hundreds of millions and there have only been ten or twelve thousand major-league ballplayers, it's amazing that there have been such a disproportionately high number of funny, tongue-twisting more [...]

This Swobodes Well…..

Toward the end of yesterday's "Diamonds Are A Churl's Best Friend" post, I confessed to not being able to dream up any song-puns using the names Ron Swoboda or Sandy Koufax, and expressed a wish that readers would help out in this regard. Well, it didn't take long.....A first-time commenter sent this brilliant one using Swoboda: "You Swoboda My Head" - "You Go To My Head" A gem, a pearl, it made me swoon. It also made me think of another one almost as good: "(I'd Like To Get You On A) Swoboda China" Think Elmer Fudd singing it.... No good news on the Sandy Koufax front though - he retired with a sore arm and has left me with a sore head. However, I think I've met the Bill Wambsganss ("woms-gants") challenge: "I Wambs Ganss" As in "I wambs ganss, don't ask me. I wambs ganss, why should I? I wambs ganss, merci beaucoup..." Well, you get the picture... I also thought of one that amused me because it's bilingual and uses the name of a favourite old player - Earl Averill, who was a great centerfielder with the Cleveland Indians before World War Two. His life and career are so interesting I wrote a whole piece about him called "Show Me the Money" which is posted elsewhere on this site. 'Averill in Paris" (His name works pretty good for "April" in English, but even better in French - Avril.)                                                               *** Returning to Ron Swoboda, some may more [...]

The Heart Is A Lonely Bunter

Recently, a good friend who knows I like song puns sent me a list of unlikely ones involving soccer players' names and old songs, the work of her son and a pal of his. Their puns were very witty and amusing, combining an amazing knowledge of standard tunes with multinational football names - how many people know that much about either? I follow soccer a little, but mostly during the World Cup and Euro Cup, so I was only able to get some of the puns because I knew all the song titles and was able to extrapolate the footie names I didn't know. Three of the best were "Ribery Thought of You", using French star Frank Ribery; "Iniestadays", after his Spanish counterpart Andres Ianesta; and "My Favourite Frings", using my favourite soccer name, Torsten Frings, of Germany. Loving a challenge as I do - although my poor, innocent friend certainly wasn't throwing down the gauntlet - I thought, hmmm......I don't know many soccer names, but I do know baseball names. So I set about altering song titles with ballplayers' names to form a list of cringe-worthy song puns, what me might call "The Days of Wine and Rojas". I can't take credit for that one, I'm afraid. Let me explain......For a while back in the early '60s, the Philadelphia Phillies had a keystone combination of Bobby Wine at shortstop and Cookie Rojas at second base and they led the league a few times in double-plays turned. A Philly press-box wag dubbed the era "The Days of Wine and Rojas" after the famous movie, which came more [...]

A Tempest in a Turbot

You could say my last post on Jazz at the Aquarium went splat! - or maybe sprat! - and ruffled a few scales, as it were. This is because it was spread so far and wide on Facebook, which was neither my doing or my idea, but I'm okay with it. I thought I'd wait for things to settle down and for everyone - including me - to unknot their knickers before writing a follow-up on the responses to it, which went way beyond anything I expected. I guess I'm a little naïve, maybe a "cock-eyed octopus", but I never expected such a fish-storm, you could have knocked me down with an anchovy. Look, I run a nice, clean, quiet blog mostly about obscure corners of music and other stuff that maybe 37 other people are interested in, and everything's hunky-dory.....Then I write a satirical rant (advertising it as such in bold) and suddenly I'm Bluebeard, Genghis Khan and Oliver Cromwell all rolled into one, with a slice of Captain Bligh on top. It's not saying much and I'm not doing any cart-wheels, but the post set a record on my site for views, comments left and Facebook "likes", whatever they are. Facebook "not-likes" or "hates" were not displayed, but I gather there were quite a few of those too, if they exist. See, I'm not on Facebook or Twitter, in fact I still don't even have a cellphone, I'm nouveau-Luddite-chic. I'm not bragging about this or anything, the reason I don't use Facebook is I don't have time for it. I mean that literally, as in hours in the day. I don't want people more [...]

“Jazz” Sleeps With the Fishes – Would You Like Fries With That?

  WARNING - READER DISCRETION ADVISED - MAY CONTAIN RANT, COARSE LANGUAGE and ILL-CONSIDERED HUMOUR  So, the other day a friend sent me a link to the latest Toronto brainwave in generic jazz promotion, or Jazz-McMarketing, which could be summed up as, "Let's bring so-called jazz to people who never listen to it, while making sure to present it at unimaginably stupid venues". In this case, believe it or not, "Jazz at the Ripley's Aquarium" on the second Friday of every month. Sorry, I couldn't resist the "believe it or not" gag because the joint is run by Ripley's, but just in case you don't believe me, go to the Ripley's Aquarium website. I'd link it here, but I might get into trouble and besides I don't actually want to have even the slightest hand in promoting this howlingly vulgar idea. For those of you not from Toronto, the Ripley's Aquarium is a huge, relatively new tourist attraction that's been promoted to the point of saturation - massive, retina-burning digital billboards depicting sharks, eels, rays and other exotic fish, posters in the subway with clever slogans like "Come to the Aquarium, where staring isn't creepy". I'm sure it's doing quite well and it's the kind of place I would like to take my grandsons, who are both crazy about fish and other wildlife. Of course, it's nestled in among a bunch of similar high-traffic venues in the busiest part of the city - the CN Tower, the Rogers Centre, the Metro Convention Centre, etc. - none of which are more [...]

Gunther Schuller

This week brought the momentous news that Gunther Schuller died of leukemia at age 89. He was most certainly one of the giants of twentieth-century American music and just as surely one of the most versatile and wide-ranging of musicians. His work from the late 1940s on as a composer of contemporary classical music alone guarantees his eminence, he's in all the history texts on the subject and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1994 orchestral work "Of Reminiscences and Recollections". But of course there was much more to him than that. He was a French hornist whose career on the instrument took him from the Cincinnati Symphony to the pit of the Met Orchestra and many recordings, indeed I first became aware of this aspect of Schuller from his participation in one of the three studio sessions of the Miles Davis Nonet which had such impact as "The Birth of the Cool". He was also a first-rate conductor, an academic and educator (as President of the New England Conservatory in Boston), a programmer of music (as the long-time Artistic Director of The Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood) and an author/jazz historian. He wasn't a jazz musician per se, but had a lifelong fascination with jazz and of course is best known for his pioneering work as a composer in fusing classical and jazz techniques/concepts beginning in the mid '50s, coining the term "Third Stream" for this rapprochement. In this process of synthesis, he found a kindred spirit in pianist and composer John Lewis, often more [...]


A baseball season is like a vast ocean of plays, numbers and events taking place in games that come at us daily, with the relentlessness of waves breaking on a shoreline. It's impossible to keep track of everything or take it all in, but if you pay attention randomly, you're bound to see things that haven't happened in a long time or perhaps ever, left like nuggets washed up on a beach. For example, on Thursday night I tuned in late to a game between the Texas Rangers and the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium. It was an extreme pitchers' duel, tied 0-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Texas reliever Keone Kela walked the first two Dodger hitters, not a great idea under the circs. But then he induced the next Dodger to tap into the pitcher's best friend, a double-play, the lead runner advancing to third base with two out. Perched there, the base-runner began feinting toward home, just enough to distract Kela, whose pitching arm made a tiny reflexive flinch, practically invisible, but not to the umpires. That's all it took, the ump called Kela for a balk and the winning run came home, it was a balk-off walk-off, a horrible way to lose such a game. I'm sure games have ended this way before, but not very often with such a minimal 1-0 score. It was similar on Sunday in a game between the Rays and Indians in Cleveland. The Rays sent one of their seemingly endless supply of good starting pitchers to the mound in Alex Colome and the Indians countered with a minor-league call-up more [...]

R.I.P. Lenny Boyd

Sometimes bad news comes in waves, as was the case recently when the Toronto jazz scene lost two of its stalwarts - bassist Lenny Boyd, who died on June 6, and drummer Archie Alleyne, who passed on June 8. Both had long careers and there will undoubtedly be forthcoming obituaries detailing their lives and many achievements. I have no intention of doing that here, even if I could, but I would like to share some memories, as each man had a large impact on my musical life in very different ways. Because this may run to some length, I'll follow this piece about Lenny with a separate one on Archie to come. At this point, Lenny may be less known than Archie to local jazz fans, except for older ones. He was more active as a player in the Toronto jazz spotlight during the 1950s and '60s, because for thirty years or so beginning in 1974 he was mostly devoted to teaching full-time in the jazz program at Humber College. This commitment took him away from playing publicly to a large extent - a shame, as he was a very good and quite original bassist, as we shall see. He was my first bass teacher and, with the exception of a few lessons here and there with other people, he was my only bass teacher; I could hardly have had a better one. When I made the transition from guitar to bass in 1973, I'd been taking guitar lessons from Gary Benson at a music store near Coxwell & Danforth. I told Gary of the switch and that I needed some bass lessons and he said there was a guy right down more [...]

Ornette, Redux

I don't usually do this sort of thing, but I wanted to revisit Ornette Coleman and yesterday's article about him, for several reasons. Firstly, the response from people was very quick, positive and voluminous, so thanks to everybody for their comments and support, this was both gratifying and a little surprising. I say surprising because I wrote the piece pretty quickly, wanting to get it out in one day in the interests of timeliness in this case, and for this reason I felt it was far from my best work. There were also distractions and interruptions while I wrote it here at work, which caused me to leave some things out, maybe a good thing. I didn't have time, nor was I up for writing a lot of detailed critical analysis on Ornette's music, maybe just as well - I mean, the man just died here and I wasn't writing a thesis. Partly I wrote the piece as a cathartic aid to help myself get over the surprisingly palpable shock of Ornette's death and also assumed that a lot of readers would already know what he did and what his music accomplished and so on. There were lots of more detailed obituaries yesterday and today which covered this and, moreover, there has been reams of stuff written about Coleman's music over the years, some of it worthwhile, some of it quite misleading. Mostly I wanted the piece to be personal and brief and also to say that while Coleman was an innovative, avant-garde figure, his music was not "weird" or as inaccessible as it's often made out to be. I more [...]


This morning brought the news that jazz legend Ornette Coleman died at age 85, from cardiac arrest. Somewhat surprisingly even to me, I'm having real trouble processing this information, my reaction is mostly one of profound shock and disbelief. This flies in the face of logic and reason, which is often the case with our feelings. I mean, I know we all have to go eventually, even Ted Williams, and at 85, Ornette was well within the age range where people can be expected to die of various natural causes. It may have something to do with the fact it has come so quickly on the heels of the deaths of two fine Toronto musicians - Lenny Boyd and Archie Alleyne - both of whom I knew well, in fact I'm in the middle of writing memorial pieces on each of them. And then this - oh God no, not another one gone - but as a friend said the other day, bad news often comes in threes. It's not just that though, it's something else.......it's that Ornette Coleman was so original and ground-breaking a musician, so unique a thinker on matters even beyond music, that he didn't seem to have an age or even to be quite of this earth, so it seems impossible that he's dead, inconceivable. I suppose I fell into the habit of thinking of him not as a man, but as a force, a legend, as a manifesto of revolutionary, yet influential, ideas and principles, in more or less human form. This is odd too, because It's not as though I idolized him outright, he wasn't my absolute favourite musician or anything. more [...]

Used To Be, Still Is

In 1971, Jimmy Rushing turned seventy and became terminally ill with leukemia. He'd been singing jazz professionally for almost fifty years, first leaving his native Oklahoma as an itinerant blues singer in the early twenties, eventually joining Jelly Roll Morton for a short spell in Los Angeles. He worked his way as far back east as Kansas City, getting in on the ground floor of the seminal, blues-based music teeming from that wide-open town. He sang with Walter Page's Blue Devils in 1927, then with Bennie Moten's band in 1929 and finally with Count Basie's band, which grew out of Moten's after his death in 1935. He remained with Basie until 1948, retiring briefly after years on the road. Pausing briefly for air, he then lit out on his own as a freelancer in the early fifties, making a series of wonderful small-group records from 1955 on into the early sixties - two for Vanguard (Jimmy Rushing Sings the Blues and Listen To the Blues) and a string of others, mostly on Columbia. Cat Meets Chick, The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing, Esq., Rushing Lullabies, Brubeck and Rushing (yes, that Brubeck, and they sound good together), Jimmy Rushing and the Smith Girls, and Five Feet of Soul, made in 1963 with an all-star studio big band. During this time, "Mr. Five by Five" (he was "five feet tall and five feet wide") garnered acclaim as an immediately identifiable, quintessential singer for all jazz seasons and settings - big-band, small-group, blues and ballads - he could sing anything more [...]

More Gremlims

In very timely fashion, a couple of readers informed me of a problem with the link to today's post "Tricotism", which didn't seem to be taking people to the bulk of the piece after the initial teaser. I wasn't sure at first what they meant, the problem being that I don't receive the posts, so I don't know what the whole process looks like. At any rate, I think I figured it out and fixed it. I somehow "mis-published" - after clicking on "publish", which sends out the notice, I inadvertently closed something I shouldn't have, which somehow disabled the link. People tell me it seems to be working now and I've checked, it is. You would think after posting well over a hundred of these pieces, I would have the whole thing down by now, but no........there are still probably dozens of cyber-goofs I haven't stumbled upon to date, including some that haven't even been dreamed up yet. I'd like to say it won't happen again, but leave it to me.... Anyway, sorry for the inconvenience and thanks for your continued readership and support. P.S. In today's comments, the wonderful drummer Morgan Freeman asked, "The name though! What or who or where is a Tricotism?" I wondered the same thing when writing about it, and tried looking up the word in several authoritative dictionaries, but apparently it doesn't exist, it was a product of Oscar Pettiford's imagination, a made-up big word. Unlike Thelonious Monk's piece "Epistrophy", which is actually named after a word with two meanings. A more [...]


  It was once said of ex-President Gerald Ford - perhaps unfairly - that he was "too dumb to chew gum and fart at the same time." And as Yogi Berra, that undisputed king of syntax-mangling one-liners once said, "Think!? How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?" Well....Odd as it may sound - or maybe not - I'm finding I can't think and write at the same time, it's a case of think first, write later. Admittedly, I've been known to reverse that order from time to time. My recent visit with Bill Kirchner in New York provided me with so much food for thought - both from him and the city itself - that I can barely digest it, can't seem to stop thinking long enough to write. Mind you, no deep thoughts or anything - but a feverish, disorganized tangle of cranial activity nonetheless. It's a kind of writer's block in reverse - not a shortage of ideas or subjects to write about, but rather too many, coming too fast to get them down. Maybe I should invest in one of those digital voice-recorder thingies, then I could fit right in with all the "phone-zombies" I see downtown, droning on and on into their hand-held devices while bumping into unsuspecting fellow-pedestrians, buildings, hot-dog stands, and whatever else happens to be in their sleepwalking, idiocy-strewn paths. Anyway, to kick-start my languishing "writing career", I thought I'd initiate a series of semi-regular, brief posts about randomly selected, single pieces of music. Almost more [...]

Sorry About That, Folks!

Recently a couple of readers pointed out to me by email that they have been unable to leave comments on this site as per usual, apparently it has been mysteriously asking for some sort of password and/or log-in, which seems both heavy-handed and sinister. I'm grateful to them for letting me know, I had no idea this was going on - as you may have gathered, I'm at a sub-Luddite level of techno-peasantry. Or to put it more bluntly, I just write this shit, I haven't the faintest idea about how to actually administer or maintain the nuts and bolts of the site itself. Not that I would ever compare myself to Willie Mays in any way, shape or form - even I'm not that crazy - but, as the Say Hey Kid once said when asked to compare several of his more mammoth home runs, "I don't compares 'em, I just hits 'em". Well said, Willie. I have no idea how or why this happened, or when for that matter; probably sometime in April. It certainly wasn't anything I did, or would want to, even if I knew how. It could have just been one of those cryptic "gremlins" that randomly play havoc with our techno-lives, or maybe it was the result of the automatic Word Press upgrades that happen periodically. I sincerely hope no one was offended or jumped to the conclusion I'd suddenly developed an exclusive, snooty attitude, or had simply tired of the comments, nothing could be further from the truth. I love getting comments, they're really the best perk of writing a blog - along with the stratospheric more [...]

In A Mellow Zone; Lax Reality

At the end of February my wife Anna went to visit her sister Fran, who lives in the little town of Courtenay, nestled in the Comox Valley on the east coast of Vancouver Island. It was part holiday, part nursing mission - Fran had to have some surgery done in Victoria and Anna is an excellent care-giver. I went out on March 24th to join them and give Anna a break, staying about sixteen days, which explains why I haven't written a blessed thing in some time. Let's just say that when you're in a setting this beautiful and relaxed, you get a little mellow, even if you don't partake of the local cannabis crop, which I didn't. Well...OK, a small toke once, a kind of "when-in-Rome" concession to the local economy. Apart from being chief cook, bottle-washer and dog-walker, I had nothing but time on my hands, which you would think might translate into a lot of writing. But there's something about being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, mountains, rivers, fresh air, bald eagles, seals and approximately sixty billion trees that keeps you away from the computer and pretty much anything else that might be considered "connected" or "productive" in any East Coast sense. You decompress a whole lot, find yourself slowing right down and marveling at the fact there are about fifty varieties of flowering trees here - magnolias, azalias and such - in full bloom, whereas it was twenty degrees below zero when I left Toronto. Or that the local mall looks pretty much like any other mall, until you more [...]

Mo Woe

At age 58, it's probably too late for me to outgrow my infantile fascination with funny baseball names and numbers. As all of us who care know, baseball stats only mean anything when taken in context and measured against norms, and they have a way of averaging out over the course of a whole year, or a career. But in the early going of a season, like now, they can be wonderfully skewed, either freakishly high or low, because the sample size of games is still so small. For example, take Brock Holt, the super-sub of the Boston Red Sox. He plays second, third, short, centerfield, does impressions and doubles as bat-boy, and entered yesterday's action with a batting average over .600. Or on the other end of the spectrum, our brand new All-Star catcher Russell Coltrane ("A Glove Supreme") Martin, who's currently batting .043 and is still in search of his second hit as a Blue Jay. You just know that by season's end both these guys will we hitting somewhere between .250 and .280, unless something goes wonderfully right or horribly wrong for them. In April, players can go from spaghetti-bat to feared slugger in a day, like Boston's Dustin Pedroia. He entered Tuesday's action hitting .212 - "Pedroia, you suck!!" - then promptly raised his batting average to about .280 with three hits and a walk in one game - "Just kidding Pedey, we love you, you're still the best!!" It's even wilder with pitchers and their key stat of earned-run-average, or ERA. (Any of you dangerous intellectuals more [...]

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Like many musicians, I've had some odd moments in my career, perhaps none odder than hearing the great Irish tenor John McCormack for the first time in a Moscow hotel room about two in the morning. I was with guitarist Oliver Gannon and drummer John Sumner, the three of us well on the way to being in our cups. The occasion was a concert tour of the Soviet Union in September of 1986 with Vancouver saxophonist Fraser McPherson, or "Fraz" as we called him. Fraz was really too jazzy a nickname for him, he looked less like a jazz musician than anyone I've ever met. Tall, balding, distinguished-looking, with thick horned-rim glasses, bushy Lionel Barrymore eyebrows and a stentorian rumble of a voice; a nervous, serious headmaster's demeanour and the omnipresent three-piece suit, he looked more like a diplomat or a banker. Musically he was conservative too, but a wonderful player, knew hundreds of tunes and liked "four beats to the bar, no cheating". He played sort of like Zoot Sims, but not as freewheeling or loose-limbed, more buttoned-down. I came to love Fraz for his fairness and for the wry humour behind his sternness, as well as for all the tunes and musical discipline he taught me. For me it was the last of three such trips to the "big fridge" with Fraz and the most grueling, partly because of the schedule - thirty concerts in thirty days. And the "arrangements" for looking after us were much more disorganized and paranoia-inducing than on the earlier trips; maybe a sign that more [...]

Claude Thornhill & Gently Falling Snow

When it comes to being put in the mood for listening to certain music, I'm ridiculously suggestible. A kettle whistling in the kitchen will make me think of "Five O'Clock Whistle" and the next thing I know, I'm happily listening to Ivie Anderson with the 1940 Duke Ellington band while the kettle boils over, splashing hot water all over the stove. Believe me, it could be worse..... much, much worse. Sometimes the trigger can be more abstract and subliminal, as was the case this past Sunday evening. I'm a bachelor for the next few weeks, as my wife Anna has gone to Vancouver Island to visit her sister and help her recover from upcoming surgery. My old friends Susan and Bob Allair took pity on my sudden lowly status as a "wretched outcast" and invited me to their house on Sunday night for dinner. As always, the food and drink were excellent, as was the company, conversation and music. We started out by listening to jazz on satellite radio, later switching to an R & B trip down memory lane. It was a mild and still night, so I decided to walk home, figuring the forty-minute trudge would help me work off the meal. It began to snow ever so slightly as I neared home and, as I'd also been listening to some Lee Konitz records that afternoon, I immediately thought of Claude Thornhill and his wonderful, unique band of the 1940s. At ninrteen, Konitz first made his mark playing alto in Thornhill's 1947 band and he's never been out of the jazz vanguard since. That I'd been more [...]

Contra Contrafact

  The term contrafact has gradually made its way into the jazz lexicon, establishing an increasingly firm toe-hold for itself in recent years. For those lucky enough not to be familiar with it, a "contrafact" is defined in jazz terms as "a composition created by overlaying a new melody line on the harmonic structure of a pre-existing song" - or put more simply, the borrowing of another song's chord changes to create a new one. I describe those not familiar with the term contrafact as "lucky", because, frankly, I don't have much use for it as a word, though I like the musical practice it describes. I'll go into more detail about my objections later on, but for now, suffice it to say that to me, it has a whiff of the ivory tower about it and is yet another $300 word, which jazz has enough of already, thanks. It's also nowhere near as expedient as the practice it describes. None of this is meant as a rebuke to any people who've used contrafact or continue to. For one thing, some of them are my friends; I've used it myself and will throughout this essay because it's already established and convenient. Early Bebop Contrafacts The practice which "contrafact" describes was a common and important one in the early days of bebop, beginning in the early-1940s. There were earlier examples, such as Duke Ellington's "In A Mellotone", based on "Rose Room", but it was the younger turks of bebop who really ran with the idea. First-generation beboppers put new melody more [...]

Happy 90th to The Jazz Angel

  Surely, Toronto has had no better jazz fan and supporter than Terry Sheard, pictured above at the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival last August. As he will turn 90 this February 25th, he's also been one of the most enduring. I think Terry might agree that his enjoyment of music has helped keep him young despite his advancing years; something certainly has, because he has more jump than many people a third of his age. He's very well-known and well-liked in local music circles, but for those who don't know him, well, let's just say that over the years he has made a huge contribution to the growth of jazz in Canada, one which has perhaps been equalled only by our most important musicians - people like Oscar Peterson, Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Ed Bickert, Guido Basso and a few others. That is a bold statement and I'm sure Terry would protest it, both because he idolizes musicians and is self-effacing to a fault. But it's true, so I don't see how I could avoid making such a claim on his behalf, even if he'd rather I didn't. Simply by showing up to thousands of jazz performances over the years he has been supportive enough, but that's just been the tip of the iceberg with Terry. He has also been tireless in promoting awareness of the music and helping to organize this, both through his own enthusiasm and considerable verbal powers, and in his seventeen-year role on the board of CJRT, Ryerson University's non-profit radio station, which began in the early 1970s. more [...]

Who Was It Wrote That Song?

The vast repertoire of jazz is mostly made up of two main streams: The Great American Songbook, which came from musical theatre or Tin Pan Alley, and songs or compositions that have come from within the ranks of jazz itself. While rumbling around among all these, it's common to come across the same prolific contributors over and over again. The show-tune "big boys", including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and many others far too numerous to mention, and their jazz counterparts - Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billy Strayhorn, Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk, John Lewis, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, etc. The chances of hearing one of their tunes or compositions in any given jazz context are quite high. And this doesn't even include musicians like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and many others who were primarily instrumentalists rather than composer/arrangers, but who still wrote a lot of tunes for their own use. It's also quite common to come across good songs that are played often enough to be familiar, yet the names of their composers don't ring any bells. Usually this is because the person or song-writing team in question wrote only one or two songs that became notable and lasted. I've lost track of how many times I've played a really terrific tune for the umpteenth time and wondered about who wrote it, only to investigate and see  names I've never heard of - as they used to more [...]

Aural Hygiene, Part Two

As I revealed in a much earlier post entitled "Aural Hygiene", I often combine dental-hygiene appointments with CD-shopping because my favourite record store Atelier Grigorian is right around the corner from my tooth-scraper. I repeated this "jazz S&M double-play" this week with some serendipitous results, which in turn led me to remember some stories. As they preserve so much precious music which would otherwise be lost, jazz records provide an indispensable current linking memory, songs, emotion, important musical developments and musicians' stories to form the backbone of jazz, its very mythology. On the way to the store, gums all a-tingle, I was thinking of a Gene Ammons listening kick I've been on lately, which has served as a kind of astringent antidote to hearing too much treacly Christmas music over the holidays. I think of it as a "Jug jag", because Ammons was nicknamed "Jug" for his massive, square head. I've been considering writing a piece on Ammons and mentioned this in an email to my good friend Bill Kirchner, who sent me what I thought was an article he wrote about Ammons and his frequent partner in crime, Sonny Stitt. It was terrific, containing among other things a detailed overview of the evolution of the two-tenor battle from its earliest days. I thanked him for this, saying that the article read like the liner notes to a record, which he kindly let go without comment. At home that night, I dug out a 1962 Stitt/Ammons record called Boss Tenors In more [...]

When A Man Loves A Movie

Along with more gender-appropriate gifts, I bought my wife Anna a copy of the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals for Christmas. I felt slightly guilty about this because I knew I wanted to see it too. On the other hand, Anna's a big fan of the soul/R&B music which this movie would definitely touch on, and then some. She also really enjoyed the similar music docs Standing In the Shadows of Motown and Twenty Feet From Stardom - how's that for rationalization? Anyway, we watched the film last night and it was fascinating. It inspired and moved us beyond words, but I'll attempt to write a few about it anyway. Using a collage technique like the other two docs - weaving together music tracks, old and new footage, live interviews with the famous and not-so-famous into a narrative - this movie tells the story of the birth and evolution of what came to be known as "the Muscle Shoals sound", forged in the tiny Fame Studios in the small, rural-Alabama town of the same name. Relative to its size, this backwoods hole-in-the-wall yielded as many famous records as any other place in the world. Almost as much attention is paid to the unique environment of Muscle Shoals as the music made there. The stark beauty of the place is captured by some of the most clear and vivid cinematography I've ever seen, it almost makes your eyes hurt. Many comment that the area, which is surrounded by a lot of water - swamps, lakes and the Tennessee River - has magical and mysterious musical more [...]

The Truthful Edge of Big Joe Turner

Last Friday around midnight, my wife Anna picked me up from the subway after a gig. As I opened the car door to load in my bass, I was hit by a blast furnace of music, not loud, but intense, like a freight-train. A fat, romping beat and a thundering, edgy voice that could only be one guy. As always when I unexpectedly hear great music coming from a radio, I was stunned and just stood there for a second, transfixed and shaking my butt in the cold like some spazzed-out lunatic. "Jeezus, it's Joe Turner" - wow, does that ever sound good." Anna gave me a look which, despite the smile in her eyes, said, "Bozo, could you put the bass in the car already, so we can get home?" Righto. The voltage of it held me as I got in the car, this was "Hide and Seek", one of Big Joe's biggest jukebox hits from his peak of popularity sometime in the mid- '50s. It's far from his best work, but it still gets to me. The band was underpinned by a pianist - likely Pete Johnson - laying down some killer boogie-woogie, accompanied by a relentless, loping shuffle from the string bass and drums and some Charleston riffs from the horns. A beefy-toned tenor player took a honking chorus, sounding like a cross between Al Sears and Buddy Tate - man, this was good. But most of all there was Big Joe, with that mountain-jack delivery and hurricane voice. It's the voice of God, if God liked to party, which somehow I doubt. There's just so much weight and raw authority in it, there's never any doubt more [...]

A Gentle Whirlpool of Music

I've been playing the bass for about forty years now and I thank my lucky stars that all of the knowledge I've acquired through experience and study has not blunted my ability to partake of music on a purely emotional level. Whether playing or listening, it's the way music feels - and makes you feel - that counts, and this goes beyond any knowledge, important though that is. No matter what kind, music at its best should move you, take you to a place of joy and rapture, make your mind giddy and your body move, should lift you up. It's this way with a magical clip of Elis Regina singing Antonio Carlos Jobim's beautiful "Aguas de Marco" ("The Waters of March"), which I've included here as a kind of Happy New Year wish to everyone. This is appropriate not only because of the inspirational performance, but because I discovered it for the first time just this past New Year's Eve, thanks to some friends. Along with saxophonist Mike Murley and his partner Leslie Adcock, my wife Anna and I were invited over to Ruth and Jim Vivian's house to ring in the new year. We're all old friends and this same group had a similar New Year's evening five or six years ago chez Vivian. Jim of course is a marvelous bassist and a very intelligent and hilarious guy, but he's also a great cook and wine connoisseur, so the evening promised much eating, drinking and social pleasure. It's a wonder all of the deluxe food and wine didn't kill us, but more important was the social feast, a great unfolding more [...]

Before It Disappears Altogether, “Merry Christmas”

  The other day, a friend told me of a cartoon she saw recently which showed a man standing in front of his house with another guy, pointing at all the Christmas lights and other decorations he'd put up. In the middle of these was the lit-up message "Have A Nice Day". The caption read, "I didn't want to offend anybody". And this from another friend, in an email response to an impromptu Christmas gathering of musicians last week: "It was wonderful to see you all. Thanks Mike. I guess you didn't know you were throwing a party but don't all of the best parties happen that way, when you least expect them. Merry Christmas everyone, and as Tiny Tim would say, 'God bless us, everyone!' Or, if you prefer not to keep Christmas, or celebrate anything for that matter, because you wouldn't want to exclude anyone, or if Christmas is just too fucking cheerful for you .... Then ... um ... well, just be." These are both examples of a push-back I've noticed this year against the banishment of the phrase "Merry Christmas" in favour of the safer "Season's Greetings", "Happy Holidays" or whatever. And other signs of the general whitewashing (no pun intended) of Christmas in the interests of being politically correct. I must confess it's been driving me crazy this year, because the mealy-mouthed phrases have been spinning off into other mind-numbing ones. To wit, companies now have "Festive Winter Socials" instead of Christmas parties. People now gather to sing "seasonal favourites", more [...]

Blogus Disappearus & The Cyber Attack Jim-Jams

More than once I've observed that in our post-9/11 digital age, paranoia is no longer a mental disorder so much as a normal condition of everyday life. A lot of this has to do with a loss of privacy, both voluntary (with our computers) and involuntary (with sweeping new laws.) The tragic events of 9/11 themselves induced an understandably palpable fear and paranoia, worsened by increased surveillance in the interests of heightened security. Some welcome the resulting loss of privacy as the price of safety, others do not, but, either way, this loss is real and here to stay for the foreseeable future. The increasing interconnectivity of the internet and social media has also contributed to this; the more connected everything is, the easier it becomes for someone to watch us, to "get us". We've all likely seen people take a big fall because something they did or said with the presumption of privacy was captured by some form of digital technology and blown up, spreading like wildfire along "the grid". The old gag that "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" has taken on a new and less funny edge. I mention all this because just the other day my paranoia du jour rocketed from the glancing-over-the-shoulder, garden variety level to a full-frontal, conspiracy-theory red- alert, precipitated by the following: On December 23rd, I posted a blog titled Before It Disappears Altogether, "Merry Christmas" and those who subscribe received it. It dealt more [...]

Blogus Interruptus

Hello all - some of you may be wondering why there have been no posts from me for such a long while - has Wallace lost it, gotten lazy, is he suffering from writer's block? It was actually none of these. Just before the World Series finished I came down with a nasty cough and chest infection which I walked around functioning with like an idiot before it got really bad and turned into what my newly-appointed respirologist called a "rip-roaring case of double pneumonia". If you've never had pneumonia before, well, take it from me, it's like having a sandbag dropped on you from a height. The congestion and resulting cough don't really hurt or anything, they just leave you really short of breath, so fatigued and weakened that little things you always took for granted, like moving around, talking, eating or walking up a flight of stairs become monumental, dizzying challenges. Things get fuzzy and pretty much all you want to do is sleep; more ambitious activities like playing the bass or writing a blog go straight to the back burner. When all this started, I had several pieces half-written which will probably remain unfinished because they were time-sensitive and the iron is no longer hot, so to speak. Breathing & the Bass. The bass is not a wind instrument, so the importance of breathing in playing it tends to be overlooked. I realized this early on when I heard the following: A classic Swing-to-Bop session by the Coleman Hawkins quartet, recorded in New York more [...]

Why We Live Indoors

The other day I got into a spontaneous conversation with two ladies I work with here at the library, about the dubious joys of camping and enjoying the great outdoors. It proved to be amusing and thought-provoking enough that I thought I'd write about it. My brother and I get along great and have lots in common, including a whacked-out sense of humour and a generally easygoing attitude about most things. But sometimes it’s hard to believe we share the same DNA and parents. Unlike me, he isn't overtly musical and isn’t much of a reader, but on the other hand, he’s really practical and handy. So even though he’s two years younger than me, I want to be just like him when I grow up. He’s always been a good saver and an early-to-bed type, can build or fix anything – he even has tools for God’s sake – and he’s loved camping for as long as I can remember. Everything about it - the freeze-dried food, the Coleman stoves and lamps, the bug-spray, tents, sleeping bags, canoeing, portaging, the whole schmeer. I like canoeing and maybe taking a hike to watch some birds, but otherwise, my idea of a wilderness experience is being in a bar where they don’t know how to make a martini. Anyway, without further ado, the TOP TEN REASONS WHY I HATE CAMPING:  Packing the gear. Once you’ve made the ill-advised decision to leave civilization, you have to assemble all the gear you’ll need and pack it in, or attach it to, your car. This means finding the junk wherever more [...]

Someone Has To Blink First

The second round of the baseball playoffs continued where the first one left off, with tense, exciting, rollercoaster individual games in two series that didn't come close to going the full distance. The Royals swept the ALCS against the Orioles, yet the first game was decided in extra innings, they won the second one by breaking a tie with a two-run ninth-inning rally and the final two games were decided by the same bare 2-1 score - not that close, yet very close. It was similar in the National League, where the Giants needed one over the bare minimum to dispatch the Cardinals in five, yet the games themselves were hotly contested and extremely competitive. The opener, won 3-0 by the Giants, was a relatively tame affair predictably dominated by the stingy pitching of Madison Bumgarner, but the other games were all hairy, see-saw battles decided late, either by walk-off home runs (by the Cards in Game Two and the Giants in Game Five), or by unlikely, opportunistic rallies by the Giants off various Cardinal sins, if you will (passed balls, wild pitches, errant throws to home, first base, etc.). I'm getting older and my memory may be at fault, but I can't recall a baseball postseason with so many tight, dramatic games and surprising turns, and with so few one-sided stinkers. The only laughers were the Giants' 8-0 win over the Pirates in the NL wild-card game, and the Royals' ALDS-clinching 8-3 win over the Angels, which was still thrilling because it involved a team winning more [...]

L.D.S. = Lively, Dramatic, Surprising

The first round of the baseball playoffs - known as the League Divisional Series (LDS) - have just finished and already, the games have provided a nail-biting cornucopia, enough surprises and thrills to last an entire postseason. There have been lots of extra-inning games, one-run games, lead reversals, nervous ninths, late-inning heroics, close plays, strategic brilliance and managerial blunders, clutch-hitting and clutch-whiffing, great pitching and fielding and not-so-great pitching and fielding. Even some of the bad plays have at least been startling and dramatic, not to mention occasionally bizarre and even ironic, such as catcher Buster Posey being involved as a runner in two key outs at the plate, both of which were so close they needed slo-mo reviews. It was the horrific injury to Posey several years ago while blocking the plate that led to the new rule requiring catchers to leave a sliding lane for an oncoming runner - how odd that he would be on the other end of this twice in one series. None of the games have been boring, so where to start? The first Orioles-Tigers game last Thursday ended up with the laugher score of 12-3, but was a one-run game - 4-3, Orioles entering the bottom of the eighth, when all hell broke loose. There was a double and a Tigers' error, they yanked Max Scherzer and Baltimore immediately got to Detroit's fire-brigade of a bullpen, starting with chief arsonist Joba "The Hutt" Chamberlain, who's looking more and more like an extra from more [...]

October Salamis

  First of all, I want to apologize for the many typos in yesterday's post. I wrote it in some haste and to a tight deadline, owing to an early-evening recording session. Also, my editor - namely me - edits like Emilio Bonifacio plays second base, i.e. clumsily. I also want to apologize in advance to those of you who are jazz fans rather than ball fans, because I'll probably be writing mostly about baseball the next little while, for a number of reasons. First of all, 'tis the season - it's October, when the most meaningful games are played, after a 162-game marathon just to determine the dance-partners. And I've neglected baseball for quite a while, and have heard about this from readers who are baseball fans. You can't please everybody, not even if you try. Also, a string of recently published idiotic articles and other items about jazz have set my head to spinning and left me wanting to take a rest from it for a while, rather than use what's left of my energy to respond, which is a waste of time. (These items include the New Yorker Sonny Rollins "spoof" which backfired badly, Justin Moyer's moronic "jazz hit-piece" in The Washington Post, which basically stated that jazz isn't any good because he doesn't like or understand it, and John Halle's piece in a leftist rag called Jacobin, which more or less said that jazz isn't important anymore because it has lost its counter-culture appeal and political relevancy, whatever that means. Gee, and I thought it was more [...]

Season Wrap

  My last baseball piece was a naïve, premature and overly optimistic one about the then-brimming fortunes of the Blue Jays, written as they stood in the sunshine of first place, about fourteen games above .500. They promptly stumbled, then really fell apart in August and, scraping egg off my face, I resolved never to write about baseball again. I felt like a know-nothing hack and a jinx to boot (not that I'm superstitious about baseball or anything, no...).You knew that this self-imposed embargo wasn't going to last forever though and, seeing as the baseball season just ended and that I'm far too confused about jazz at the moment to write anything intelligible about it, I thought I'd chime in with a few thoughts on the grand old game and the season just past. Adieu, Konerko. Almost without mention and utterly lost amid the season-long, overblown spectacle that was Derek Jeter's farewell tour - the tribute gifts from all MLB teams, the epic, almost cinematic "RE2PECT" commercials from the likes of Nike and Gatorade, the endless fan signs and feel-good moments and so on, ad nauseam - was the fact that another important and worthy ballplayer played his last game on Sunday - Paul Konerko. Even given that the countdown to Jeter's last game reached a fever pitch and hogged all of the spotlight, the media coverage of Konerko's retirement still was shamefully minimal - I only happened to catch a small clip of his final moment by accident while watching the Jays' final more [...]

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 wake up with a particular record deeply embedded 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: 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 two 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, if 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 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 [...]

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 finally sits down with his TV dinner to watch some boob-tube after a long, hard day at the office, followed by 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 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 pioneer 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 together 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 [...]


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 complex 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 more [...]

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

Like many of us, I'm growing 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 1959 record called Sing Along With Basie, which features Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (and on this track, Joe Williams) singing with the band. This record is not to be confused with L, H & R's Sing A Song of Basie from 1957, on which the vocal trio recreated (and replaced) 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 Basie 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, Dickie Wells, Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison (on tunes like "Jumpin' At the Woodside", "Let Me See", "Every Tub", Tickle Toe") provide wonderful raw material for Hendricks to spin his hip jazz poetry. This version of "Goin' To Chicago" starts with a soulful two-chorus, slow blues 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 on-line 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 lads, 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 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 - is it 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 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 [...]

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 comedy 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 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. 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. We'd gathered earlier at the Loaches' house to mix 23 tracks 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' music room. So we drank a little 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 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. For 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. This is wryly 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, goatee and didn't 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 catch some 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 more [...]

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Laughers

On Wednesday night, the Boston Red Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 20-4 in Fenway Park. This is what's known in baseball as a 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. This 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? Somebody must have hit a grand slam. and as I found it later 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 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 very 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 misfortune to be established and very good at what they do, only to be suddenly eclipsed by a wunderkind and 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 phenom 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 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 with 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 like base-running, fielding, strategy and so on, but these all stem from this central confrontation - 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 blossoming crab-apple 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 have a sweet tooth and they're likely getting some nectar here, so 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 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, right-fielder 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. 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, equaled by the 2001 Seattle Mariners, albeit playing a longer, 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 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". 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 they were widely available and cheap. 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 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 that they 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. But first, the other three. Eddie Basinski was a back-up middle infielder who played with Brooklyn from 1944-45 and Pittsburgh in 1947. Altogether he played 203 games, with a batting average of 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, and that the roots of what we consider new issues or developments actually go far back in time. This is certainly true in baseball 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 on a salary issue which led to a proposed change in baseball's policy regarding player sales. This change was never adopted, otherwise baseball's subsequent labour strife might have been less costly. Serious baseball fans will know about Averill, or at least have heard of him, but others maybe not. He played a long time ago - from 1929-41, mostly with the Cleveland Indians, not exactly a glamorous team back then. He was very good, and was 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 center fielder who could also really hit. His career didn't last as long as Bernie's and he didn't have the fortune of playing on great teams like Williams did, but otherwise they were similarly versatile and productive players. Averill was the best center fielder in the American League, and maybe in all of baseball from 1930-35, 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 and walked enough that his career on-base-percentage was .395 which meant he scored well 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 of the versions of this story told to me and my memory of them is a little dim as this all happened at least thirty years ago. Zoot Sims first told me this story about Mickey Mantle around 1981 and it was later confirmed 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 out 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 unexpected things along the way. Anyway, on to the story: In late September of last year, Mike Murley and I were in Antigonish, 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 them, 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 their 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, 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 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, in fact 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, go 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; which is sensible and makes 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 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 many years.  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 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 of the tunes "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 that night 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 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 emigré 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 regular 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 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.  But such evaluations are only possible 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 - as 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; at this point, 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. He was a child prodigy who graduated from high school at fourteen and for a time he entertained ambitions for a career as both a ballplayer and concert pianist.  He began piano studies at six and was well on his way to a concert career when his older 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 [...]


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 [...]


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 [...]


Although not all bad music is funny, few things are funnier than really awful  - as opposed to merely mundane - music. Provided, of course, that 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.  I suppose 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 or 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 horror.  Only your sides will hurt, he's ghastly, 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 awful that he didn't really have a career, yet he's achieved a sliver of posthumous immortality because his singing, though rank, 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. If they had, their friends and neighbours would have assassinated them. What there was of Shooby's "career" was almost entirely more [...]

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

As you readers out there are compos mentis and all - sane and normal types, no offense intended, you're likely not saddled with my baseball name obsession. So you're 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 to a man, the announcers 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 in any number with colourful nicknames are rap or hip-hop "artists", and I'd happily say goodbye to their soubriquets 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 minute : 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 Pres. 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, collections of reviews, stories and reportage, you name it. It's odd, but every once in a while in a lifetime of random reading, two unrelated subjects can intersect and lead 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 came in a baseball book, but 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. I'm woolly-headed at the best of times and not a weather buff, and because 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. The baseball book mentioned earlier is "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, a wonderful, lively and informative read packed with stories of legendary characters and 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 clichés 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 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 variety 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 slightly different, building and becoming more layered and involved, until the whole thing was grooving like the Basie band, just raging. After the more [...]

Ray, Barrelhouse and Elegant

The pianist Ray Bryant died in June of 2011 and has recently 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. In the early going, he also reinforced some things 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. They both 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 and 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 more [...]

Why the Melody?

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. As he shifted briefly from one branch to another, the light caught him at just the right angle, bringing 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 my inner juke-box 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 both my aging and growth as a musician - 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, and 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 more [...]

Eephus – The Arc of Triumph

If the pitcher Rip Sewell is remembered at all these days, 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 right-handed pitcher whose career took place almost entirely in the National League from 1932 to 1949.  He was a Southern country boy born May 11, 1907 in Decatur, Alabama and like the bloop pitch he invented, his career had an unusual and slow trajectory. His major-league debut came with the Detroit Tigers in 1932 when he was already 25, fairly late. He only pitched about 10 innings in relief that year and, if his bloated 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 and bounced around that league for years, making it back to the majors with the Pirates in 1938, when 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 ballplayer trying to establish a toehold in the majors, Pittsburgh was a good place to be back in those days: the Pirates were pretty awful then and just desperate for pitching. From 1939 on, Sewell got himself together, became a starting pitcher and began to win some games - he was 10-9 in 1939, then 16-5 in 1940. 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 imaginative 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 bother. 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? I thought, Who the hell is Roger Connor? There must be some mistake. I looked him up in my trusty 1976 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 baseball sage Bill James once said. Every single player who was ever in the big leagues has an entry, with a few biographical details like place and date of birth/death, nicknames, height and weight, left or right-handed. There's a statistical more [...]