February 17, 2009

Skin Deep

Sadly another tribute entry is called for. Drumming great Louie Bellson passed away on February 14, 2009. He’s always credited as the only legitimate rival to Buddy Rich for the throne of Best Big Band Drummer.

Born Louis Paul Balassoni, it’s safe to say that a couple of experiences in Louie’s early childhood facilitated his legendary career. He spent a bit of time as a child tap dancer, which I’m sure translated into his prowess with his double bass drum set. Also at a young age he was fortunate to study winds and string instruments along with his drumming, which may have contributed to his ability to become a composer and arranger, as well as a drummer and band leader. When Louie won a nationwide Gene Krupa-sponsored drum contest, I think his career path was set.

Louie was a person who was devoted to music as a positive force. One example is the story of his experience in the early 1950’s as the drummer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. When the Ellington band was scheduled to do a tour of the south, Duke asked Louie, who was the sole white musician in the band, if he would mind masquerading as a Haitian.

From our interview conducted in Florida in 1996, the following is a memorable section about touring with Duke:

In 1951 they had the Big Show of 1951, which consisted of Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington’s band. They were the three big stars. Now besides that they had Peg Leg Bates, Timmy Rodgers, Stump and Stumpy, Patterson and Jackson, all these wonderful acts — tap dancing acts, you know. It took us a week to rehearse that whole show, playing with Nat King Cole and Sarah, Duke, and all these acts. So after we finished rehearsing for a week, Duke finally discovered that hey, we’re getting ready to go down to the deep south you know? And in those days, you had segregated audiences. And the whites couldn’t play with the blacks at that time you see. And in those days it was “colored,” you didn’t use the word “blacks.” So now the big problem is, Duke called me in the dressing room and says “what are we going to do? I can’t find a drummer to take your place, because it would be a week’s rehearsal and the guys that can do it, they’re all busy.” So Duke says “you mind being a Haitian?” I said “no, okay, that’s all right.” So we got through it okay. It was a little tense, because the situation was still down there, and the audience, because they told Jack Costanzo with Nat King Cole he couldn’t appear because of the racial thing you know. But some spots it was a little rough you know. But we got through it. I think through Ellington’s peaceful ways and the wonderful attitude that the band had you know, kind of rubbed off on everybody. But still it existed.

Well it’s nice that the music had a part in helping that situation to move along a little faster I guess.

We played a gig in Mississippi and there the townspeople were wonderful, they came to the rescue, where we couldn’t stay in certain hotels in so forth. I mean these people came from wealthy families too. They had Strayhorn and Duke and Clark Terry stay in one house, and Carney and Russell Procope and myself in another house, and all on down the line. Beautiful homes and they fed us. So you know, along with the bad there’s some good too. And these were situations that we got over, we dealt with it. Sometimes it’s almost like a slap in the face but you realize what the situation is and you go straight ahead because you’ve got something to do that’s valued and I think when you do that you realize that none of those things should bother the musicality of something. It’s the fact that whoever’s playing that music doesn’t make a difference, let’s play it and show where the peace and love is.

Louie had early opportunities to hear his own compositions, including the memorable “Skin Deep,” with the Ellington band — not a bad place to premier them.

In the post-big band era, significant numbers of musicians benefited from the fact that Louie was able to do tours and concerts with his own big band. He found it expedient to have a west coast and an east coast contingent, and the recordings of Louie’s band always included top soloists and stellar compositions from Louie himself, and of course enough drum solos to satisfy the most avid percussionists.

In the 50’s, Louie became Pearl Bailey’s music director, then Pearl Bailey’s husband. They enjoyed a significant number of years together, and some time after Pearl’s passing Louie found a second soulmate, Francine. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her and the entire Bellson family at this sad time.

Click on the title, “Skin Deep” and you will be transported to the official Louie Bellson website.

February 15, 2009

Thoughts on Gerry Niewood

Most of us have recollections from our youth, those moments of watching or hearing someone and thinking that’s what I want to do. One of my earliest memories was seeing the Glenn Miller Orchestra, a ghost band by that time. In the sixties it was led by Ray McKinley, and when I was in junior high in Rochester, NY, I recall looking at the saxophone section and thinking that’s what I want to do, even though it was long past the era of big bands.

In high school later on, I was able to get to know Chuck Mangione in Rochester, and often went downtown to see his quartet at the Shakespeare Room. The most memorable part of the Chuck Mangione Quartet for me at that time was Gerry Niewood, saxophonist and flautist extraordinaire, and I used to look at him and think that’s what I want to do, though Gerry was only six years older than I. When you are a teenager, six years seems like forever; not so when you’re in your fifties.

Music lovers are fortunate that when Gerry was a young man he stopped in at the Xerox Corporation in Rochester inquiring about a job that would take advantage of his creative mind. When they replied they didn’t have anything like that, he walked down the street to the Eastman School of Music where his career in the jazz world started.

As I recall, Gerry was the perfect sideman for Chuck Mangione in the seventies and for many years after. He was a player who brought a vitality to Chuck’s writing, a consummate artist who raised the level of musicianship in whatever group he graced. Jazz fans, especially in here in Upstate New York, were shocked and saddened to hear of his untimely passing in the February 12 plane crash near Buffalo at age 64.

Gerry had too few recordings as a leader, one in my LP collection is entitled “Gerry Niewood and Timepiece” on Horizon, released in 1976. On this LP is a tune called “Joy,” written by Gerry, featuring his soprano saxophone. It is in one word: joyous. It’s an upbeat, sparkling melody and his transcribed solo is included in the LP jacket. Saxophone players will appreciate Gerry’s fluency and range; high E’s and F#’s on the soprano are far from easy. His solo, while filled with many notes, is a constant stream of invention. Nothing is wasted or extraneous, it’s a perfect example of an improviser’s mind working at full throttle.

Equally impressive is his soprano sax solo on Chuck’s signature song “The Land of Make Believe,” from the Chuck Mangione Quartet in 1972, the LP on Mercury Records. Again Gerry demonstrates the rare ability to improvise beautiful melodies in perfect pitch with a beautiful tone. If J.S. Bach had played jazz saxophone, I think he would have improvised like Gerry Niewood.

February 6, 2009

A Social Hero

One can’t turn on the television these days without hearing about the societal leap America made in electing its first black president. And it’s true, January 20, 2009 will forever be known as the date where a giant step was made in race relations. Tracing the history of the integration of black and white into a merged society, one repeatedly comes across the name of Benny Goodman as being one catalyst for the integration of black and white musicians sharing the stage.
Though Benny was known for his quirky business relations and often miserly ways, he refused to understand why he couldn’t have the best people he could find playing with him at all times. The music quality came before any other considerations for him. He wanted the best available. I have chosen two quotes to demonstrate how Benny’s interesting personality forced racial integration, because he insisted it would be so. First, racial mores or racial prejudice weren’t part of Benny’s lexicon; Benny just wanted the best of the best as his sidemen. Second, Steve Allen relates his personal experiences with the “King of Swing.”
The following two quotations were taken from early interviews, Lionel Hampton in 1995 and Steve Allen in 1999. We are fortunate to have such first-hand recollections documented in our Archive, as both interviewees were icons who unreservedly told first-hand stories about their experiences working in the thriving entertainment world of the thirties through sixties:

The first clip, from Lionel, talks about doing his musical homework as a child and his early development on the vibes, which would later catch Benny’s ear:

Lionel Hampton & Monk Rowe, in 1995
LH: [W]e got through rehearsals and, which we did, and if you became a newspaper boy, you had to practice, I think it was three times a week. And so in between, after, we’d go to music school, where the Chicago newspaper boys rehearsed at, and they had some xylophones there, and I would play the solos that I had taken off the records that was played by Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman. And it ended up that I liked it a lot. I would practice and play note for note what these stars played.
MR: So you’re really developing your ears for music.
LH: So I got a little head start on jazz, see? So I played something for a song that Louis had made a record on, called “Chinese Chop Suey.” And Louis liked it so well, he said “I’ll tell you, you keep the vibraphone out there, and we’re going to have you record with us.” So Eubie Blake, the big solo player and piano player at that time sent Louis arrangements to record for him. And the name of the tune was “Memories of You.”
MR: A beautiful song.
LH: Yeah, a beautiful song, yes. And so I played on the record, and people was wondering what instrument it was that they heard. And the vibes got very popular on the gig. And I found a new career.
MR: Because you got — your quartet started playing around California? And eventually that led to meeting Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman?
LH: Yes.
MR: So it’s funny how things in your childhood will work. The fact that you got a little experience on that xylophone really paid off later on.
LH: Yeah. Real big. And about the big band, you know I joined Benny Goodman .... And we were the first integrated group, the first black and white group.
MR: Was that ever a problem playing in certain parts of the country?
LH: No, no, because we all played good music. And Benny presented us in a professional way. We were a four in his organization, and it would be noticeable that we were soft. And the people liked that. Some of the ovations that he used to get, it was the sound.
MR: I thought it was interesting that that quartet didn’t use a bass player a lot.
LH: No. Because Teddy Wilson played it in the left hand.

Later Lionel speaks about his actual integration into the Benny Goodman Quartet:

LH: I was the first black musician to play in a white band. See and Teddy Wilson was playing with Benny, but he used to play when Benny used to take intermission, and no white musicians was on stage, then Teddy would play, by himself see? So I was the first one, legally to break that tradition down. But you know the funny thing about it, there wasn’t no black and white playing together no place. Not in pictures, moving pictures, not in baseball, or football, no kind of sports. The Benny Goodman Quartet was the first mixed group and it was, you know.

Steve Allen spoke about working with Benny Goodman, and his often bizarre show business ways. Steve played the title role in the movie “The Benny Goodman Story,” and for that role he learned to play the clarinet. Steve related some insightful stories about his preparation for that part, and a subsequent duet playing with Benny on “The Steve Allen Show”:

SA: As soon as I agreed to do the movie then of course the question was even though I was a musician I knew nothing about the clarinet, so we had to hire somebody to teach me, and somebody knew about Sol, our mutual friend Bobby Rosengarden once said something hysterically funny, he described Sol Yaged as quote the Jewish Benny Goodman. For you young people, Benny himself is Jewish. But anyway Sol was the perfect choice, and a very easy guy to work with, so he gave me several weeks of just basic lessons, you know how to hold it, how to blow and all that stuff. And the reason I did have to go through all that, some people have said well why did you bother? Why didn’t you just go like that and pretend to play? The answer is my fingers had to be on the right holes. Now if you’re taking a shot from the back of a ballroom, it doesn’t matter, you can hardly see my hands. But on a close up I can’t be playing this if the real notes are over here. So I did have to have my fingers, and I did have to learn the instrument, and I learned it well enough to do a little playing in public. I once played a duet with Benny himself on a little tune I’d written. Benny himself that night was in a fog as usual. Benny Goodman lived in a fog. He was Mr. Absent Minded and often didn’t know what he was doing. He’d walk on stage with his fly open and stuff. And through accident, he was just a careless man and didn’t think much about the world. He was just the greatest clarinet player of them all. So just after the movie, NBC and Universal Studios got together to do a little promotion going in both directions, so that meant booking Benny on our show, which was on the air Sunday nights at NBC at the time. So Benny himself played for a few minutes, and naturally was thrilling as always, and then our production group decided that Benny and I would do my little song with the two of us playing clarinets. It was sort of a riff thing [scats], an easy thing to play. So in the script I walked in after Benny had played his marvelous numbers, and I said “Benny that was terrific.” And his line was “well thank you, Steve, say, I see you brought your clarinet, why don’t you and I do something together?” A pretty simple line, and he’d had a whole week to work on it, he had one line with a week to work on it, and he forgot my name. Now it was my show, I was playing him in the movie, you might figure if there was any name he wouldn’t forget it’s mine. He might have forgotten his own. But anyway he did, on the air, and he did what he always did, because he was always forgetting people’s names. He had the world’s worst memory for names. One night parenthetically I’ll tell you about his memory. He was doing a performance somewhere and his usual pianist, who was Teddy Wilson, the great black pianist, was not available that week and so he wasn’t at the instrument. I don’t know who the other guys was … it was some white player.
MR: Johnny Guarnieri?
SA: Thank you. So Benny is saying “thank you ladies and gentlemen, and I’d like to also share the thanks with our great drummer, Mr. Gene Krupa, and the King of the Vibes, Mr. Lionel Hampton,” now he turns to the white piano player and says “and at the keyboard, uhhh, Teddy Wilson, ladies and gentlemen.” That was the only name he could come up with. So that’s how Benny was about names. Anyway, back on my show, thirty million people watching. In those days you did have an audience that large. So I said “Benny that was fantastic, beautiful.” There’s about a two second silence and then he says “oh thank you, uh, Pops, say why don’t we do something together?” So that was the name he used. He called his grandmother Pops, and anybody. If he couldn’t think of a name he called them Pops.

There have been many milestones in race relations in this country, and, in jazz, we recognize the contribution of clarinetist Benny Goodman, one of our social heroes.

February 1, 2009

Tempus Fugit

Two news items and a recent personal experience made me think about how time is fleeting but great art stands its ground. The first item I noted was that Motown Records is 50 years old. Indeed, Motown was formed as a record company in 1959. It’s hard to imagine that some of those classic pop songs are 50 years old. I think they’ve aged remarkably well.

Also 50 years old is one of the largest selling jazz albums of all-time, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” It’s now being celebrated with a 50th Anniversary remastered CD release and a book devoted to the recording, describing it in great detail. I defy anybody to suggest that this music has not aged well, in fact it only seems to be more celebrated with every successive generation. With a cast of characters that included Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans, it’s perfectly understandable.

Lastly, this weekend at Hamilton College we hosted bassist/violinist Henry Grimes and percussionist Rashied Ali, two forward thinking and adventurous musicians whose duo concert consisted of music conceived and executed spontaneously. These men played with a depth of experience based on two long careers that included paying dues in both Rhythm & Blues and Hard Bop; it was an ear-opening event. Both were young men in the 1960’s when Free Jazz, the avante garde, was percolating in New York City and they played an important role in its development. I had to stop and check my sources to confirm that, like Motown and “Kind of Blue,” Free Jazz is some 50 years old. Ornette Coleman recorded the LP “The Shape of Jazz to Come” in May 1959, soon to be followed by the groundbreaking “Free Jazz.” It’s hard to believe that the music I heard these artists play last night was based on a movement that started a half century ago. It’s also worth noting that both musicians seem to still be on a never-ending quest, even into their seventh decade, for musical freedom as they perceive it. I’m not sure it was everybody’s cup of tea, but clearly some people in the audience were moved by their musicianship and their musical quest.

If Mozart’s music can last some 200 years, it’s uplifting to think that Motown tunes, “Kind of Blue” and many other musical forms will be with us for a long time. It’s hard to imagine how music will be delivered to us in another 50 years, perhaps we’ll be able to hard-wire it into our brains and call it up on demand. If so, I’m fairly sure that selections from “Kind of Blue” and choice number one Motown hits will be included in our personal catalogues.