Monday, August 27, 2012

Jazz Royalty

I can't remember why I made this sketch – possibly it was for a display for the record store I worked in back in college. Whatever the reason, happy birthday, Yard!

August 27th and 29th are cardinal days in jazz culture, being the respective birthdays of Lester Young and Charlie Parker. I always do a special on my radio show for them, and I thought I'd mark the dates by posting an offering here at Gems as well.

Nothing need be said here about these two seminal figures – if you're into jazz, you already know the backstory. The President was the progenitor of a entirely divergent school of thought about the tenor saxophone and the Bird took flight on those ideas and made improvisation into an art music. 'Nuff said.

Lester as one of Walter Page's Blue Devils
in 1932. With him are Doc Ross, left, and
Buster Smith, right, the band's other reed
players. Pres does indeed look devilish with
whatever that is behind him.
These two LPs came into my possession when I was working in Boston at that Discount Records warehouse I mentioned many posts ago. The assistant manager of the company's Northeast region had offices there and I would see him occasionally on the phone behind his desk as I humped record cartons from the freight elevator to the delivery truck. He was about my age and was something of a party animal with high-waist bell bottoms, platform shoes, fitted nylon shirts and a severely teased mullet. He had a penchant for all-night revels, usually with a few of the hipper store managers in tow, and after one particularly wild weekend he never returned. The story went around that he'd burned too many bridges and had been asked to seek his fortune elsewhere. We heard he'd gone to L.A.

A few days after his departure, several skids of boxes were delivered to the warehouse. These turned out to be the former assistant manager's personal effects. The cartons contained clothes, shoes, toiletries, papers, nick-knacks and the like, and we were supposed repack them and ship them out to him when the word came down. I noted that along with all the personal stuff were a half dozen boxes of records. These intrigued me, because they were almost all rare and unusual imported jazz LPs. The manager, I knew, cared nothing for jazz and wouldn't have known John Coltrane from Chi Coltrane. How had these come into his possession?

Word never did come down on where to ship the boxes. The assistant manager's effects sat a the corner of the warehouse for months. My boss eventually tired of moving the cartons and got rid of them. But before he did, we were allowed to pick through the lot. I, of course, went for the records, and these two Queen Discs were among those I took.

The music contained in these records is probably available today on CD in one form or another, but back in the '70s these performances were ultra-rare. And they are, almost without exception, truly inspired.

The accepted take on Lester's playing following his devastating US Army stint is that it is inferior. His performances here disprove that canard. "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid" stands with the best of Pres, and "Lester Leaps In" is outstanding. Plus, you get to hear Lester introduce the tunes. 

The Bird LP captures Charlie in several unusual settings – including a version of "Groovin' High" with Lionel Hampton's keyboardist, Milt Buckner, playing organ. "Dance of the Infidels" finds Bird playing with the Massey Hall line-up minus Diz, probably right around the same time as the famed Toronto concert. It's astonishing for its intensity. And on the Bandbox aircheck, Bird corrects a confused Leonard Feather on tune titles.

So, happy birthday to Bird and Pres! Celebrate by enjoying these fine examples of their magnificent artistry. The files were, as always, ripped from the original vinyl with only a slight cleaning of sound.

By the way – how did the assistant manager come by these and the other remarkable jazz sides in his pile? I found out many years later that his father was one of the West Coast's leading rare jazz LP dealers. If you've been in the collecting game for a while, you've probably been a recipient of one of his record auction lists in the not-too-distant past ...

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker

Parker, as; various groups, locations, dates (see cover for listings). 
Queen Disc 002

1. Anthropology
2. Cool Blues
3. Your Father's Moustache
4. Groovin' High
5. Star Eyes
6. Ornithology/How High the Moon
7. Diggin' Diz
8. Embracable You
9. Moose the Mooche
10. Cheryl
11. Dance of the Infidels

 Lester Young
Lester Young

Lester Young, ts: various groups, locations, dates (see cover for listings). 
Queen Disc 001

1. Pennies from Heaven
2. Polka Dots and Moonbeams
3. Jumpin' with Symphony Sid
4. These Foolish Things
5. Three Little Words
6. Lester Leaps In
7. A Ghost of a Chance
8. Just You, Just Me
9. Sweet Georgia Brown

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Penck's Pals

Looking not a little like a modern-day Walt Whitman, German artist Ar. Penck is also a man of many interests, not the least of them creative music. If nothing else, he has excellent taste in sidemen. Wikipedia photo

I was rooting around in a now-defunct East Village record store (not far from the then-mighty Tower Records) back in the '80s on what had to be the hottest day of the year. I mostly went in to take advantage of their delightful air-conditioning, not expecting to find anything of interest amid their big U-2 and Prince displays. But then, in the 99-cent bin, I came across a half-dozen LPs with hand-decorated covers that caught my eye. Several of them featured the legendary cornetist Butch Morris. All of them included a drummer named Ar. Penck. Who?

"Wechsein-Verwechsein," a
woodcut by Ar. Penck
The music on these records was a mix of Downtown and free jazz styles – self-consciously minimalist, sly, utterly hip. I loved it. But a painter friend who was into the new music scene rolled her eyes when she saw the covers. "Ugh," she said. "Penck!"

"Who is this Penck?" I asked. "These are great."

"He's some German – an artist, or so he thinks. A doodler. Those are his scribbles on the covers." I had to admit I didn't think much of the LPs' cover designs. "And those records?" she added. "They're nothing but vanity projects. He just bought himself some sidemen and got a grant to put them out." She turned up her nose.

"But they've got Butch on them. And they sound good to me," I protested. I was feeling a little defensive, but my friend wasn't buying it. We agreed to disagree.

Butch Morris conducting, using
his "from the heart" gesture.
The records were good, I knew that. I mostly wanted them because of Butch Morris. 

Butch was the first jazz player I saw when I moved to New York City in the early '80s, and by then I knew him pretty well. His cornet playing was absolutely magnificent, unlike anyone else's then or since. And he was just starting his large-scale "conductions," whereby he would improvise a composition using prearranged combinations of instruments and sound patterns cued by a series of gestures. He used his musicians the way Ellington did, but he did it in live performance, shaping the piece even as he heard it evolve. Tres cool! 

An original concept – a new music
music box!
My musician wife occasionally played in Butch's large ensemble, and I got to know him through her. When he learned that I was an artist and modelmaker, he asked me if I'd help him with a project he had in mind. He was working on a new suite of pieces for an upcoming recording for the Sound Aspects label, and he'd had an outfit in Switzerland create a number of music box mechanisms that played the suite's signature motif, a melody called "Nowhere Ever After." Would I be interested in helping him create a production music box to hold the device? Oh, yes, I would!

I worked with a neighborhood furniture shop to create a simple wooden box that when picked up would play the melody. One side held the mechanism and the other provided access to the winding key and left space for Butch's "dancing notes" logo. I priced it out at a very reasonable buck-and-a-half per box, and presented a prototype version to Butch at a conduction performance at Cooper Union. He seemed delighted.

After that, I saw Butch use the box several times in performances of the new suite and I heard that he'd been showing it around. But nothing much happened with the planned production of the music boxes. So I decided to create a one-off music box to really show him what I could do.

Tiny Butch-in-a-box, a device with more
meaning than I had initially realized
I was working primarily as a sculptor of detailed miniatures in those days, so I created a three-inch-tall figure of Butch from a photo I had of him conducting. I built a red oak box to hold it and the music mechanism, and gave the little model a movable arm. When the music played, the miniature Butch conducted. It was like a hip version of the little girl jewelry box with the dancing ballerina!

At another conduction performance a few months later, I showed Butch my creation. I was excited, hoping he'd be pleased with my elaborate treatment. But it was not to be. I could tell that Butch, though he was politely complimentary, was a bit put off. That confused me. 

It was my friend, the woman who had dissed Ar. Penck, who later cleared up the mystery. Butch, she said, saw my music box with the little figure of himself inside it as a coffin. The thing struck him in that moment as an ominous sign of impending mortality – his. Not a good thing.  

I have no idea if that was how Butch really felt, but the music box production plan was never mentioned again, and not long afterwards I left New York City for the Catskills. I still have the "coffin" music box, and Butch Morris is still very much alive and kicking, so I guess he was right to abandon the project – with me, at least. He did have a music box created by someone else, and you can see it here.

Back to Penck and his musical pals. Here is one of those "vanity" records with Butch. Filling out the ensemble are free jazz veteran Frank Wright and the Wollny brothers. The music is a marvelous amalgam of creative, free and downtown styles. The record was probably the result of an afternoon in the studio, a spontaneous creation that is a testament to the skill of the musicians involved. And Butch's skittering cornet is still one of my favorite sounds in new music. 

And, in case you're wondering what the music box sounds like, click this player.

As always, these files were ripped from the original vinyl with, in this case, no cleaning of the sound.

Our Sound Unity
Ar. Penck

Lawrence "Butch" Morris, cnt; Frank Wright, ts; Frank Wollny, g; Heinz Wollny, b; Ar. Penck, d.
Dimensional Sound Studio, New York, NY; May 27, 1984; No label, number

1. We Met Frank and Butch in Town
2. Our Sound Unity

Find it here:

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Devil's Music

Herbie Harper, from Salina, Kansas, made a name for himself playing in the sections of Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa before settling in Los Angeles in 1947. He recorded several very nice records for small labels like Tampa before getting swallowed up by the movie studios. Photo by William Claxton

Ever have a very bad day that suddenly turns into a very good day? It almost never happens that way, but I well remember one that I had just like that.

This was back in my scuffling days, when I was freelancing as an illustrator and paste-up artist. Had I been living in New York City, this might have been a lucrative way to spend the day. But I was light years from the graphic epicenter of the world, living instead in suburban Connecticut. I'd just gotten married, needed money and had no work. There wasn't any work, of course. Not in the Nutmeg State anyway.

But eventually I did find something. There is a very well regarded, high-end magazine publisher located in Newtown, and in the early '80s they were just getting started. They'd acquired an old farmhouse and had retro-fitted it as offices and a graphic studio. They needed occasional help finishing up mechanicals for their woodworking title. I got the gig.

My first day there they parked me at a drafting table and handed me a massive stack of boards in various states of incompleteness. The art director, who was nice enough, gave me some notes she'd made on fixes and changes, and then disappeared. I never saw her again the entire time I was there.

The site of my first Connecticut
freelance job – boonieville!
Meanwhile, a parade of editors and writers drifted in and out of the studio, yucking it up while grabbing endless refills at the coffee maker. No one spoke to me or even seemed to know I was there.

At 1 p.m. a huge buffet lunch was brought in and the editors and writers crowded around it for the better part of an hour before wandering off again, leaving only empty cartons, greasy paper plates and crumpled napkins. I began to wonder if I was the only one doing any work in the place.

The comings-and-goings continued throughout the afternoon, but they were now focused around the water cooler. By 6 p.m. I'd finished all the boards and was feeling a little light-headed from hunger. At that moment the managing editor – the guy who had hired me – walked in and looked surprise when he saw me.

"You still here? I thought you'd left hours ago. Didn't anybody give you anything useful to do?"

When you're just starting out in the world, your professional ego is a delicate thing. Mine was particularly so, and that comment just about wiped me out. I felt useless, unseen, a failure. I sulked my way out of the building and to my car. I anticipated a 45-minute ride home filled with comforting self-pity.

To ease my misery, I decided I'd stop in to a used bookstore I'd passed on the way to the job. It was near the intersection of I-84 and what was then Route 66, close to Southington. The place was set well back from the road in an funky old warehouse building. It was called the Printer's Devil Bookstore.

I went in, hoping for nothing more than a Rex Stout mystery I didn't already have. To my surprise, I saw they had an entire wall of records. A very big wall. Thousands of them!

I started looking, expecting the usual Herb Alpert/Ferrante & Teicher/Mitch Miller mix. But no – here was a Sweets Edison record on Roulette. And here a Sonny Stitt on Roost! A Clef Basie! A Harold Land on Imperial! I began to thumb through the discs feverishly.

By the time I'd done the lot, I had some 70 sides. They all seemed to be in mint condition, and all were choice stuff. A sign on the wall said the were a buck a piece, and that was fine with me. The hitch was that I only had a sawbuck in my pocket. Would they hold the records until I could go home, get my check book and return?

"Hi," said I hopefully to the attractive young woman behind the counter. "I, uh, wonder, could you hold these for me while I go get my check book? I'll be right back ..." I plopped the huge stack down on the counter.

"Oh, sure," she smiled pleasantly. "No problem. But I have to tell you something – we've just taken over the store." She pointed to a big banner hanging behind the counter. It read "Under New Management."


"All those records," she continued, "Sorry, but they're not the right price."

"Not the right price," said I slowly. "What, uh, is the price?" I knew it was too good to be true. Ten bucks a piece would be my guess.

Integrity – one of the world's best jazz
record stores – and one of the last.
"No, they're not the right price. Because we've just taken over the store, everything is on sale this week at 50 percent off."

That was indeed a bad day gone good. I rushed home, returned with a check and walk out of the Printer's Devil with a primo haul. Some of the LPs I already had, and those I sold to Integrity 'n' Music in Wethersfield where I more than made back the money I'd spent at the bookstore. By the way, if you're ever in central Connecticut and find yourself with an urge to look at records, you won't find a better place. You can check it out here.

In the score was an old Tampa Records release called "Modern Jazz Performances." Musicians on it included Herbie Harper, Bob Gordon, Oscar Moore and quite a few others. I was intrigued by it because the label also listed pianist Carl Perkins, and I knew that recordings by the short-lived Perkins were very hard to find (at that time anyway). The record was unfortunately missing its jacket (it was in plain cardboard sleeve), so there was no information on it aside from what was on the label. But the music was quite good, and though the pianist didn't sound like Perkins on all of the cuts, he was clearly present on some.

Many years later, I made an effort to determine who actually played on "Modern Jazz Performances." With the help of several discographies and a few web sources, I was able to piece together personnel and dates for the LP. It turns out the record is a compendium of material from other Tampa releases – nothing special if you happen to have those other records. If you don't, I think you'll find disc intriguing.

So here's one of those sides from my good bad day. The cover has been cribbed from an auction site and is somewhat funkier than my usual offering. And, this being a recording by a company with somewhat indifferent quality standards, the sound had to be clean up quite a bit. A caveat: There is one serious dropout toward the end of "Lover" where it appears a hapless gnat got pressed into the vinyl. I kid you not.

Nice to know that when things go wrong, they sometimes right themselves in rewarding ways ...

Modern Jazz Performances • Composer’s Series
Various Artists, Tampa TP 15

Paul Smith, p; Tony Rizzi, g; Sam Chiefetz, b; Irv Cottler, d.
Los Angeles, CA; November 13, 1953; originally Skylark LP 13
1. C’set La Vie (Shorty Rogers)

Oscar Moore, g; Carl Perkins, p; Joe Comfort, b; George Jenkins, d.
Los Angeles, CA; 1954; originally Tampa TP 16
2. Nearness of You (Carmichael-Washington)

Bob Gordon, bar; Herbie Harper, tbn; Don Pruell, p; Maury Dell, b; George Redman, d.
Los Angeles, CA; 1957; originally Tampa LP 26
3. Babette (Maury Dell)

Dick Taylor, tbn: J.D. King, ts; Joe Felix, p; unknown, b; Paul Vallerina, d.
Los Angeles, CA; 1954; originally Skylark LP 18
4. Blue Moon (Rogers-Hart)

Same personnel, date as #3.
5. Slow Mood (Eddie Miller)

Same personnel, date as #2.
6. Love for Sale (Cole Porter)

Same personnel, date as #1.
7. F.S.T. (Nat Cole)

Same personnel (omit Taylor), date as #4.
8. Lover Come Back to Me (Romberg)