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 Hawkins) and future (John Coltrane) of that horn at the time. Coleman Hawkins was the first great tenor player ever, the guy who elevated the tenor from a novelty instrument in the 1920s to one of the most important instruments in 20th-century music. He was of the older, 1930s swing school, but was such an educated musician he could keep up with the young bebop guys in the ’40s and ’50s, one of whom was Monk. Hawk was one of the few established elders who would hire Monk, most everyone else thought him too weird, too difficult. Monk idolized him.

Coltrane was just coming into his own when this record was made; later that summer he would join Monk’s regular quartet for a long run at a NY club called The Five Spot Cafe that became legendary. The challenge of playing Monk’s intricate music every night transformed Coltrane that summer – he kicked heroin, stopped drinking, started practicing and studying hard – it made him into the monster musician he became, like him or not.

I picked this record because it has that wonderful tune I told you about – “Crepescule With Nellie” – and another favourite one with a way-out title, “Epistrophy.” I looked up “epistrophy” in the OED and it means “a turning” but also means “a repetition of the same word or sound at the end of each sentence or phrase.” This last meaning is probably what Monk had in mind; I guess he had a dictionary close by at all times. The record starts out with a stirring arrangement for the four horns of the beautiful Protestant hymn “Abide With Me” which is confusing at first, as in why? Well, the record’s called Monk’s Music and this hymn was written by William H. Monk. A lot of people thought Monk was crazy and he eventually went that way when he got old, but mostly he knew a lot and made a whole bunch of sense.

Cat House Piano is aptly named, some very rompin’ boogie-woogie and blues piano from one of the best in that style – Meade Lux Lewis – I just love that name.

The Teddy Wilson disc is some solo piano from fairly early in his career when he was becoming a swing star. His playing is just beautiful, much more elegant and urbane than either Monk or Meade Lux Lewis, who were more percussive and heavy-handed. He has a feathery touch, gets a pearly sound by using the soft pedal a lot, but can make the piano crackle when he wants to. His playing is very balanced; between the left hand and the right, he gets a kind of tenor voice going with his thumbs in the middle, it almost sounds like two guys playing at times. I got to play with Teddy once on a CBC-TV jazz special. He was quite old at the time and wanted to play just with bass. We did two tunes, “Tea For Two” and “These Foolish Things” and I’ll never forget playing with such a gentleman, a hero of mine for life.

Ben and Sweets has been a special record to me for a long time as it features two old favourites, Ben Webster on tenor and Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet, playing with a wonderful rhythm section featuring the great Hank Jones on piano, who has quite a bit of Teddy Wilson in him. This is the kind of simple, straight-ahead, “blowing date” that used to happen in New York all the time – just some basic tunes, no rehearsal, no fuss, no muss – but is practically extinct now, because not many people know how to swing like this anymore, or play with this much relaxation and space. These guys represent two of the great streams in jazz – Duke Ellington (Ben) and Count Basie (Sweets) – and they fit together hand in glove.

I didn’t get to know or play with Ben, who died in 1973, just as I was getting started on the bass. There are legions of stories about him, he was one of the great characters in all of jazz. He was kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on and off the bandstand. He had this gentle, tender side which showed in the way he treated his mother and grandmother, who he supported and lived with for many years. He loved to cook for them and reportedly would brush their hair, 100 strokes each before they went to bed. When he went out to play and got a few drinks in him though……look out, he earned his nickname “The Brute.” He would get snarly and drop the gloves with sailors, tough guys, rounders or whoever he imagined had slighted him. Usually mayhem ensued, with Ben coming out on top, he was a huge, tough guy. It was the same with his playing – on up-tempo numbers he would roar like an enraged tiger – on ballads he had a soft, breathy vibrato like the purr of a contented lion. He was very sentimental, often on the bandstand he’d have tears streaming down his face when playing one of his favourite old ballads. You can hear both sides of him on this record.

Sweets though, I got to play with him a lot; both in Toronto and on the road, I’m happy to say I knew him very well. His playing on this record is the way he always sounded right from the beginning of his career to the end, he never changed. Some people put him down for this, saying he kept playing the same old stuff and didn’t keep up with the times, but they completely missed the boat on him. Everything Sweets played was original and came directly from his personality, which was unique and it was all him, nothing more, nothing less. The slightly piquant sound, the impish humour, the simplicity, the blues phrasing, the bent notes, micro-tones, the relentless beat; when you hear Sweets, you can tell it’s him in two seconds flat. He had the best time of any trumpet player I ever played with, could swing you into bad health and was also renowned for playing witty little fill-ins behind singers. Obbligatos, or “obble-gobbles” as he called them; most of Frank Sinatra’s records from the ’50s feature Sweets doing this, he and Sinatra were very tight.

He was also famed for his “sartorial splendor”, as he put it. Cashmere coats, silk suits, bling, Italian ties and especially fancy shoes and hats. Some of you women may think you have a shoe habit, but I’ve never met a lady that had anything on Sweets in the footwear department. There used to be a backpacking guide called “Europe on Five Dollars A Day” and on one tour I described it as “Sweets – Europe on Five Pairs of Shoes A Day.” Unbelievable, he was the Imelda Marcos of the trumpet.

And he was known for his earthy humour, he was kind of the Redd Foxx of jazz. He loved to kid and insult people and the more he liked you, the more he’d do it. Sweets and the great drummer Shelly Manne had a friendship going back through forty years of playing together, filled with slights, barbs and slurs, sometimes of a mock-racial nature. He had tons of homespun ‘simile’ sayings, which sometimes crossed over into x-rated territory. Here are a few of his best clean ones:

He once described a real loud, busy drummer as being “like a cat trying to bury his shit in a marble floor.”

He said promoter Norman Granz was “rich enough to air condition a cotton field” but was so cheap, he “could rub the buffalo off a nickel.”

He loved to golf with the great bassist Ray Brown and would insult him after a bad shot with, “Man, you couldn’t hit a donkey in the ass with a bag of rice.”

If he wanted you to play quiet he’d say, “Soft as a rat, pissing on cotton.” I never figured that one out, but it always killed me and it’s easy to play soft when you’re shaking with laughter, it’s about all you can do.

I’m proud to say he had two nicknames for me – “Beer Barrel” and “The Technicolor Ray Brown”. Once, at the beginning of a tour with Woody Herman, the band met in New York for some rehearsals and preliminary gigs. We were staying at the Edison Hotel at 47th and Broadway, which had been a band hotel back in the day. Sweets was delighted with this, making a joke on his name – “Fellas, we have suites at the Edison.”

He was born around 1915 and was also known to shave a few years off his actual age now and then, so that he was always “about 68” for at least fifteen years, well into his ’80s. He felt this gave him an edge with the ladies, who he never, ever stopped chasing. He “could charm the skin off a rattlesnake” as he might have put it. This age-shaving came into play once on a memorable gig the Boss Brass played at Donte’s, the North Hollywood jazz club. Rob McConnell’s big band had quite a big following in L.A. and the cream of the city’s jazz celebrities came to hear us.

One night Henry Mancini, Clint Eastwood, Shelly Manne and many more were there, including Sweets of course, seated at a corner of the bar. Wearing a camel-hair Beatles cap, silk patterned shirt, gold chains and leather pants, he was “as slick as a greased jaybird with a hard-on”, like a pimp from Versailles. Rob had written a great arrangement of one of Sweets’ tunes “Jive At Five” and naturally he wanted to play it for Sweets. As Rob was introducing it though, Sweets’ penetrating rasp pierced the quiet as he drawled with an edge from the bar, “You Canadian motherfuckers can’t play no Jive at Five!”

The whole room burst into laughter, Rob doubling over, it was at least a minute before things settled down. Rob went back into his intro, saying this was “a tune Sweets wrote for the Basie band in 1937″……..  “when he was twelve” interjected Shelly, who was sitting near the front. Man, that did it, everybody broke up, Sweets was laughing so hard his head disappeared right under the bar, it took about three minutes for it to die down.

Ben Webster spent the last few years of his life living in Copenhagen and is buried there. When I was there last fall I went on a long walk and visited his grave, putting a tin of Carlsberg Elephant beer against the stone as a small tribute, lest “anyone forget.” Buying the beer reminded me of a story about him from his Copenhagen days. He lived in a house owned by a Danish lady who kind of looked after him, brought him meals and so on. He drank quite a bit and would go to the local liquor store every day to buy his supply of whiskey and beer. The store was closed on Sundays though, so every Sunday a couple of guys who were fans would pick him up and drive him to the next town, where he could buy some booze. This went on for years and one of them got curious one day and asked from the back seat, “You know Ben, we don’t mind driving you every Sunday, but why don’t you just buy enough booze at the local store on Saturday to last you through Sunday?”

Ben turned around in a huff, his heavy-lidded frog-eyes bulging in mock outrage, “You tryin’ to tell me how to drink, motherfucker?!?”

The record Ben and Sweets nearly got me killed once when I was on tour with Oscar Peterson around 1989. We were in Spain and a hired driver was taking drummer Bobby Durham and me through the Pyrenees to wherever our next concert was. There were a lot of steep narrow roads with curves and hairpin turns, we were climbing way up. I had a cassette tape of this record with me and I knew Bobby loved it, so I gave it to the driver and asked him to play it. Unfortunately, he loved it even more than we did. Every time Sweets played something juicy on the horn, he’d turn right around to us, taking his eyes off the road and bellowing “Trumpetto… fantastico!! Viva jazz, viva!!” and so on,  as we nearly hit oncoming cars or went off the road. This happened a few times till Bobby tapped him on the shoulder and demanded the tape back before we were killed.

The white-knuckle drive over, I gave the driver the tape as a kind of tip, saying “A la casa, a la casa” – “only play this at home.” He nodded yes delightedly, but as he drove off I heard Sweets and Ben roaring away in the car. Ever since, I’ve often wondered if he’s still alive or whether he died driving while listening to this music, hopefully alone. There are worse ways to go.

© 2013 – 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Melodious Thunk, and Other Funk

  1. Thanks Steve. Laughing very hard and changing.
    I remember the night we hung with Sweets at East 85th. Great stories.

  2. Ben & Sweets… One of my jazz absolute favourite recordings since I first had it more than 20 years ago. I have the MP3 now, of course, but I still treasure that cassette. Your post has been a delight to read. Greetings from Spain (I’m really glad you survived your Pyrenees trip).

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