Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Graas is greener

The notoriously difficult French horn was an unlikely vehicle for jazz performance. But Julius Watkins and the lesser-known John Graas, above, used the modified brass hunting instrument very effectively in the swinging genre. Photographer unknown

This offering comes from an eBay two-fer sale that had a pair obscure John Graas recordings for one low price. A sucker for a bargain, I bid on and won the two discs, one of which is featured here. What did I know about Mr. Graas before I won the auction? Aside from his name, very little.

Turns out Graas studied with Lennie Tristano, that most pedagogic of pedagogues, did concert tours with Stan Kenton and got his start with the pioneering big band of Claude Thornhill. He also gigged with the Indianapolis Symphony and played under Serge Koussevitsky at Tanglewood in the Berkshire Mountains. As you might suspect, he was classically trained and incorporated classical influences into many of his jazz compositions. A Third Streamer he wasn't, but he occasionally crossed that line. He was also Metronome magazine's poll-winner in 1955 in their Miscellaneous Instruments category. The French horn was indeed a miscellaneous ax in those days. Maybe today, too.

So here's John Graas' first Decca release, the initial album in their "Jazz Lab" series, a project they hoped would "act as an incentive for young writers and jazz men to create more individually and freely than ever" (can you imagine a mainstream label embarking on such an endeavor today?). The company claimed that music students could write to Decca for the sheet music to many of the tunes heard here. For the price of a couple of stamps, fans could get copies of John Graas' lead sheets, which seems like a very thoughtful service. Wonder if they actually ever did it?

Included in the ensembles here are the cream of the West Coast's jazz crop – Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Enevoldsen, Dave Pell, Curtis Counce, Don Fagerquist, Howard Roberts, and many others. The music, I confess, is a bit academic in places, a bit too classically conceived for my taste. But some of the other compositions are delightful swingers, and the soloing is top-notch throughout. Mr. Graas himself is especially effective. 

These files, as always, were created right from the original 61-year-old vinyl. A word of warning – there's a bit surface noise throughout Nothing too distracting, but it's there occasionally. I think the music will overwhelm whatever minor aural deficiencies are there. Enjoy!

John Graas

John Graas, fr hn, arr; various groups including Herb Geller ("Bert Herbert"), as; Bob Enevolden, tbn; Dave Pell, ts; Jimmy Giuffre, Ronny Lang, bar; Marty Paitch, Claude Williamson, p; Red Norvo, vbs; Howard Roberts, g; Curtis Counce, b; Larry Bunker, d.
November 28, December 12, 1955; January 9, 1956; Los Angeles, CA; Decca DL 8343

1. Minor Call (Graas)
2. Mozartesque (Graas)
3. Le Chasse
4. Friar Tuck (Graas)
5. Canon Ball (Graas)
6. Pick Yourself Up
7. Andate (Graas)
8. Allegretto (Graas)
9. Softly the Horn Blows
10. Lighthouse 6/4 (Graas)

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Deutschland Dateline

Good vibes: Gunter Hampel in recent years, still fighting the good fight for free jazz and creative music. Wonder what's on the iPod? Unknown photographer

Here's one that's been in the collection for decades. Back when I was listening almost exclusively to the so-called avant garde, I was delighted to find this gem in the dollar bins at my local record emporium – Rose Records in the Loop, as I recall. It was one of the first albums I ever purchased by a European artist, and I was very pleased that I did, even though three of its players are stars from the States. Though they weren't really stars at the time.

Hampel and his wife, vocalist Jeanne Lee.
In the '80s, I used to occasionally catch Gunter Hampel in New York, playing with his longtime associates, Perry Robinson and Mark Whitecage, among others. I think, by that time, Hampel's marriage to the stellar Jeanne Lee had ended (I never saw them perform together, much to my regret), and he was mostly leading a motley big band of dubious quality. At the time, at least, I thought his group wasn't very good. What impressed me about him, though, was his absolute dedication to the music. It didn't matter if there were more people on the bandstand than in the audience, he gave it his all. And doubtless still does.

So here's the first release on Hampel's own label, Birth, reissued by Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman label here in America. Why Thiele put it out is a mystery, but then I guess a guy who releases Coltrane's "Ascension" would have been game for anything. Anthony Braxton is the star soloist while Steve McCall drives everything along nicely with a solid AACM pulse. Willem Breuker gets in a few licks while, surprisingly, Gunter is mostly in the background. What holds all the free improv together is Sister Lee's husky vocalizing – absolutely beautiful! The record is a prime example of the best of the free jazz movement, offering frenetic blowing with subtle, quiet passages and islands of melody engulfed in swirls of poly-rhythms.

So here's one for you progressive jazz fans, even though it's half-a-century old. As always, these files were created from the original vinyl with, in this case, no cleaning whatsoever. Creative music – power stronger than itself!

The 8th of July 1969
Gunter Hampel

Hampel, vbs, p, b cl; Anthony Braxton, as, ss, contrabass cl; Willem Breuker, as, ss, b cl, ts; Arjen Gorter, b; Steve McCall, d; Jeanne Lee, v.
Nederhorst, Holland; July 8, 1969; Flying Dutchman FDS 126
Note: Complete liner notes included in download

1. We Move
2. Morning Song
3. Crepuscule
4. The 8th of July 1969

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Dialing up Roy

Little Jazz blows big horn with the 1953 Metronome All Stars. With Eldridge are, from left, John LaPorta, Teddy Wilson, Max Roach and Kai Winding. The recording date was at Fulton Studios on June 9, 1953, in New York City, not long after the offering in this posting was recorded.

Here's another good'un. I nearly busted a gut when I found this Gem at a local church rummage sale. Original Dial 10-inchers are ultra rare, and what this one was doing in a box of of the usual Al Hirt and Mitch Miller favorites was, and shall remain, a mystery. But there it was, in near pristine condition. I snatched it up and forked over the selling price of four bits without a moment's hesitation. Last of the big spenders!

It wasn't Dial LP1, the first independently-produced long-playing record by Charlie Parker, but it was a genuine Dial, the fourth LP released by Ross Russell, owner of Dial Records. It came out in 1953 and featured trumpet great Roy Eldridge, a compilation of several dates he did while on a junket to Paris in 1950 with the Benny Goodman Sextet. BG and the band did several gigs during the month of June before heading back to the States. Roy, having found Paris to his liking, stayed behind, learned a little French and found a few places to play. He remained for nearly 18 months. Viva la France!

While there, he went into the studio for the Vogue label and cut numerous sessions with both French and American musicians. These sides were selected from dates that featured the Raymond Fol Orchestra, a duet with Claude Bolling and a quartet with Gerry Wiggins and ex-patriot Kenny Clarke. Little Jazz is in top form, sounding like he did fifteen years earlier but with a slightly modern tinge. He also sings a little – listen to his subtlety modified lyrics on "Black and Blue." 

These sides were mostly reissued Stateside back in the '80s on two Inner City compilations, but I just know Gems fans will appreciate hearing them in their (semi) original form. The sound is excellent and required only a few touch-ups. From the original – and I mean original – vinyl, as always.

Roy Eldridge & His Orchestra
Dial 304 (originally on French Vogue)

Roy Eldridge, tp; Gerry Wiggins, p; Pierre Michelot, b; Kenny Clarke, d.
Paris, France; June 14, 1950.
*Eldridge, tp; Claude Bolling, p.
Paris, France; March 29, 1951 

1. Wild Man Blues*
2. Poco Mania (Nuts)
3. If I Had You
4. Fireworks*

Eldridge, tp, v; Benny Vasseur, tbn; Alberty Ferrari, ts; William Boucaya, bar; Raymond Fol, p; Barney Spieler, b; Robert Barnet, d.
Paris, France; October 28, 1950

5. Black and Blue
6. I Remember Harlem
7. L’isle Adam
8. Trumpet Lament (Tu Disais Que Tu M’aimais)

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Coming in Handy

What did the guy to the left of the photographer just say? We'll never know, but showing utter consternation are, from left, Dave Lambert, bassist John Simmons, Daz McVoutorooney, George Handy (the subject of this offering) and a zonked Chubby Jackson. Bill Gottlieb photo

How often do you get to live near greatness? And not know it? Not too often, I suspect. In my case, out here in the far-flung Catskills, it happens more often than you might think. Pianist Hal Galper lives in the county. Kenny Werner, too. Guitarist and composer James Emery also lives nearby. Bill Mays plays his piano just across the Delaware in Pennsylvania. Hugh Brodie used to call me regularly from his home in the county seat, Monticello. My good friend, drummer Thurman Barker, lives in the town right next door to mine. There are many other refugees from the New York jazz scene in these rural hills, and at one time or another I've had the privilege to get to know most them.

But one I missed. His name was George Handy, and he was a noted composer and arranger in the 1940s and '50s. He's probably best known for his work with the progressive Boyd Raeburn Orchestra and then for his singular contribution to producer Norman Granz's landmark recording, "The Jazz Scene" (also offered here on Gems). He had a tempestuous relationship with the music biz and made only a few recordings while he was still active in New York and Los Angeles. One of those is featured with this posting.

George bailed on the industry for good in the late 1950s, settling eventually in upstate New York. He chose the Catskills because there was, at the time, a vibrant hotel scene with thousands of tourists and plenty of work for musicians who had tired of the New York City rat race. Handy worked in near anonymity in world class resorts like Grossinger's, Brown's and Kutsher's. He played piano in pit bands, doing arrangements as needed for whatever acts were appearing. 

I was told about George Handy by other musicians I met not long after moving here myself. "You should talk to George," they all urged. But somehow, even after I started doing my jazz radio show, I never got around to it. And then, in 1997, I heard George had died. An opportunity missed, for sure.

But why did Handy opt out of the big music world just 120 miles to the south? I asked a friend, a reed player who worked in the hotel bands with George, and he said it was the usual story, one often told about musicians from Handy's era. Apparently George had picked up a habit, as so many did, and it made him unreliable. He likely moved to the sticks to regain his health.

Dave Schildkraut, looking quite natty.
But in the summer of 1954, when this record was made, Handy was in top form. The dozen tunes on this album, all originals, were all recorded in one long night, as you'll read in the liner notes, and all they were entirely new to the players. The band just played the charts cold and soloed like the hardened pros they were. Handy is on piano, and he gets in a few good licks. The players were some of the best in the city at the time, and the obscure Dave Schildkraut makes a rare appearance. Allen Eager, about to become a ski instructor, is also onboard.

This record was a thrift shop find and looked funky. But, as you'll hear, the sound is quite good – very little cleaning was required. Recorded, as always, from the original "X" label vinyl, crew. Enjoy!

Handyland USA
George Handy
RCA "X" LXA-1004

Handy, p, comp, arr; Ernie Royal, tp; Kai Winding, tbn; Dave Schildkraut, as; Allen Eager, ts; Danny banks, bar; Vinnie Burke, b; Art Mardigan, d.
Webster Hall, New York, NY; August 16, 1954

1. Recoil
2. A Tight Hat
3. Noshin'
4. Sprong
5. Rainbow
6. Pegasus
7. Lean To
8. Blinuet
9. Case-Ace
10. Crazy Lady
11. Zonkin'
12. Footnotes

Find it here:

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Cool Yule to Ya'll

Ditto from Gems of Jazz! Happy holidays and swinging New Year to all our friends from all of us (namely me, your humble jazz interlocutor). Thanks for all your comments over the past year – I'm gratified to know that what's offered here is of interest to fans of good music the world over. There's plenty more to come in 2016, so visit often. As an added treat, here's the tune Pops recorded back in 1952 that's mentioned in the Down Beat squibb above, the reason for Decca getting him up in holiday drag.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Missing links no more

Well, gang, I finally went through all the old postings here on Gems and repaired all (or nearly all) of the busted links. I apologize to those of you who have been frustrated by all those Rapidshare dead ends. You should now be able to download to your heart's content, unhindered by the vicissitudes of free file sharing. Long live Mediafire! 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Estelle toots!

A mysterious collection of home recordings, no information on the labels, all in very poor condition. But the music contained on them proved to be a trove of interesting and historic performances.

Long-time readers of this blog know that the radio station where I do a jazz program holds an annual music sale to raise funds to keep itself on the air. I look forward to the sale each November because I invariably find more than a few gems amid all the Al Hirt and Boots Randolph castoffs. This year was no exception. 

In fact, the sale this year may have turned up a find of historic importance.

Every year, we get many boxes of 78-rpm records donated along with all the CDs, long-playing albums, sheet music, instruments and stereo equipment. Very few buyers pay any attention to these, and the shellac discs languish over in a corner at the sale, piled in boxes on the floor. Occasionally someone picks through them, but no one is really interested. I myself will peruse them, usually toward the end of the sale when I'm bored and there's nothing else to do.

A Recordio disc cutter with a built-in radio, circa
1935. The operator could record music directly
off the air. The creator of the discs from the
record sale probably used a unit like this
That was the case this year. I work at the sale, so I am there most of the day, and toward the end I decided to take a look at the 78s to see if there was anything there of interest. A Lester Young on Keynote caught my eye right away, and I began to look in earnest through the pile. Nothing much turned up until I found, in the pocket of a generic 78 album, three or four home-recorded discs. I checked the other sleeves and came up with another half-dozen records, all recorded with a disc cutter, and all lacquer-coated aluminum discs. If you've never seen these sorts of records, they were popular in the 1930s and '40s as a way to make home recordings, long before there was anything like tape. Using a disk-cutting machine and a microphone, one could make three- or four-minute records of whatever one chose to record. More often than not, music was what people recorded.

These records were in terrible, neglected shape, but I tried one out on one of the record players we had for sale, and it played very well. What it played really caught my ear. I could hear a solo trumpet playing what sounded like "Honeysuckle Rose." I purchased them, took them home and was amazed by what I heard.

One of the Melodears' trumpet players in the late
1930s, perhaps Estelle Slavin?
These records seem to have been made by a young woman named Estelle. That much I knew, because one of the records was faintly labeled, "Estelle Toots." That was the record with "Honeysuckle Rose." That Estelle was the trumpet player was confirmed at the end of the tune when the female horn player says, "I think that was pretty good, don't you, Mary Ann?" and a young voice answers, "Yes, Aunt Estelle, I think that was very good."

There were other solo trumpet performances on the discs, most notably a version of "Georgia On My Mind" offering a free interpretation of the melody and displaying a real range on the horn as well as a highly-developed sense of rhythm. The more I listened, the more I realized that the player was not some talented amateur but an accomplished professional, playing jazz horn in the style of Harry James or Frankie Newton. But who was she?

An Internet search produced only one "Estelle" who played trumpet in the 1930s. Her name was Estelle Slavin, and she was in Ina Ray Hutton's all-woman (all-girl) band called the Melodears. She was with the band from the mid-'30s until 1939, when Hutton broke it up, and she would have been 25 or 26 at the time of the recordings. That seemed to fit.

I speculate that Estelle Slavin might have been at home in New Jersey, between gigs, when she made these recordings. Later she put together her own all-female band, calling it Estelle and Her Brunettes, and played in Philadelphia, Boston, New York and on the Jersey shore through much of the 1940s. Down Beat lists the band, and Billboard did a write-up on them which seems to confirm that Estelle was a real jazz player and not just a novelty act. 

I managed to find the daughter of Estelle's piano player, Muriel Ritchie, and she remembered going to Ms. Slavin's house as a child for parties and dinners. She couldn't remember much more than that, but her mother was an excellent pianist who returned to playing jazz toward the end of her life, performing under her married named, Muriel Havenstein. 

So, was the Estelle on the discs actually the jazz trumpet player named Estelle Slavin? I can't say for sure, but all the circumstantial evidence seems to fit. A fascinating mystery, regardless – at least, I think so.

But wait, there's more.

Among the discs were a number of airchecks, recorded off the radio that was probably part of the disc-cutting machine. Several of them were of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Andrews Sisters, and others were excerpts from longer classical pieces. But there was one record – one of the 10-inch ones – that was a true gem. It contained eight minutes of a previously unknown performance by Andy Kirk and his 12 Clouds of Joy. The very same band that featured the composing, arranging and piano playing of one Mary Lou Williams. 

Mary Lou Williams and Andy Kirk,
around the time of these recordings.
It was a broadcast from December 15 or 16, 1939. How do I know? Because at the end of one of the sides, an announcer cuts in with a bulletin about the German battleship, the Graf Spee. It was the very beginning of World War II, and war updates were hot news. So from that report I was able to date the Kirk radio show with real precision. The band was in New York recording for Decca around that time, and The New York Times lists them as doing broadcasts over WJZ.

What we hear is a complete version of "Cherokee," most likely arranged by Mary Lou, a portion of "South of the Border," "Dunkin' a Doughnut," a Williams arrangement and composition, and a bit of "It's Funny to Everyone But Me." We also get great solos from trumpeter Clarence Trice, trombonist Ted Donnelly, tenor star Dick Wilson and Mary Lou herself. Also featured is Floyd Smith's marvelous lap steel guitar on "Cherokee."

So here is the only extant example of the Andy Kirk band in live performance from that period. There are two others that I know of, one earlier and the other much later. But this one catches the band at the height of its considerable powers. 

Our trumpet-playing Estelle, whoever she was, clearly had excellent taste in music. But I wonder why she documented the Kirk band? Perhaps she knew one of its players? That opens up many more possibilities for speculation ...

These sides were dubbed from the original discs, with some cleaning of the sound. Considering their condition, however, they sound quite good. There's only about 15 minutes of music in this download, so you may want to add some other tunes if you burn it on a disc. Thanks, Estelle!

Estelle Toots & Andy Kirk Swings
Andy Kirk and His 12 Clouds of Joy | Estelle Slavin
Andy Kirk, leader; probably Harry Lawson, Clarence Trice, Earl Thompson, tp; Ted Donnelly, Henry Wells, tbn; Earl Miller, as; Don Byas, Dick Wilson, ts; Marry Lou Williams, p, arr; Floyd Smith elec g; Booker Collins, b; Ed Thigpen, d; June Richmond, v.
Aircheck (WJZ?), New York, NY, December 15 or 16, 1939

1. Cherokee (MLW arr), into South of the Border (inc.) 
2. Dunkin’ a Doughnut (MLW comp, arr), into It’s Funny to Everyone But Me (JR) (inc.)

Estelle (Estelle Slavin?), tp.
Probably New York or New Jersey, private recording, 1939 or ‘40

3. Honeysuckle Rose
4. What’s New
5. Georgia on My Mind

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