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Dot Time Legends Series: Is Every Night New Year's Eve Around Here?

Richard  J Salvucci By

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Soon after The Embers opened in New York City in late 1951, Joe Bushkin and His Quartet spent 16 memorable weeks there. With Milt Hinton and Jo Jones, Bushkin was joined by Buck Clayton on trumpet. Astoundingly, Art Tatum had a solo piano gig there at the same time. Bushkin and Tatum listened to each other every night. The crowd was as distinguished as the players. Louis Armstrong sat in with Bushkin, and Vladimir Horowitz was in the house one night. You get an overall feel for the atmosphere and the proceedings from listening to Bushkin's recording here, one of a series of exceptional and hitherto unheard and unknown performances that span the quarter century from 1950 through 1977. There's something for every taste: swing, bop, tried and true standards, originals, and probably something (or, perhaps, someone) that even the most dedicated listener has never heard. Certainly, a new generation of listeners, for whom the series is in part intended, will get an education. As my friend and part-time muse Michael Steinman has reminded me, it's not as if swing players simply folded their tents and went home to drive cabs in 1950. Or if they kept playing, simply stopped evolving. And there were new players, some of whom are represented as well. You can hear their musicianship and instrumental technique exploding along the way. Horowtiz, it seems, dug the scene. It was he who asked Tatum and Bushkin "Is every night New Year's Eve around here?" Load your player with these, get some refreshment, and you very well might think so.

Live at the Embers 1952 was recorded reel-to-reel by NBC staff violinist David Sarser. Joe Bushkin, as much raconteur as player, was all the more original for having admitted to little formal training. His formidable ears got him through everything. He was enough of a trumpet player to sub with Tommy Dorsey and play duets with Bunny Berigan at the Famous Door in New York City. Some underrate Bushkin's playing, as if his willingness to be an entertainer made him less of a player, a fate that befell Armstrong as well. Other musicians, like Tatum, and Marian McPartland, who followed his engagement at The Embers, got him in a way some younger listeners didn't. Bushkin, who married well and went on to raise horses in California, probably cared less. He played sweeping, seemingly endless lines that reflected his background as an accomplished trumpet player. Listen carefully to "St. Louis Blues" and you'll realize that his right hand is playing horn lines. They might as well have been Buck Clayton's, with whom he at times seamlessly merges. Clayton, too, was not your Grandfather's (or Great Grandfather's) Clayton. On "But Not for Me," he has completely assimilated both Pops and Roy Eldridge, with an edgy vibrato, near growl, and yes, some of Roy's licks. Milt Hinton and Jo Jones rhythmically frame Bushkin and Clayton in an effortless, airy way.

Ben Webster's Valentine's Day 1963 session (the liner notes date differs from the cover art) is another sort of recording altogether, but just as enjoyable. The band is Dave Frishberg, Richard Davis, and Grady Tate: the age disparity between Webster and the sidemen adds some interest to the mix. If you're looking for a tight, together band with immaculate elegance, you're looking in the wrong place: this is live music (and as Michael Cuscuna's liner notes indicate, surely unrehearsed) with thrills and chills and spills. There are two versions of "Caravan," and on the up-tempo version, Webster groans, wails, shouts, moans, and stomps off the occasional quarter note. "How Long Has This Been Going On" is Webster's breathy conversation with Richard Davis that ends in the bassist's sweeping arco. "Back Home in Indiana," of all things, is a little shaky. I don't know if it's simply the miking of Davis' style, but I've rarely heard such Hell-for-leather bass playing. He's everywhere, the polar opposite of unobtrusive and polite. He puts down a solid wall of time, if there is a such a thing, such that Grady Tate, who's also in slash and burn mode, Frishberg and Webster can pretty much do what they want. I like bass players with chops, but honestly, it's almost as if once you start listening to Davis, you can't hear anything else. That's not necessarily bad: I wonder if the youngsters were trying to see how hard they could push Webster, who was nearly twice their age. Great recording, yes, but listening to it immediately in the wake of, say, Bushkin, may not be to hear either to their best advantage.

If I were forced to choose a favorite of all the Dot Time Legends music, I guess it would be National Jazz Ensemble Directed By Chuck Israels. It's purely a matter of taste: the recording dates to 1975 and the repertoire and styles are just congenial to a sort-of bopper at heart. My initial reaction after first listening was, is this a New York band or what? The playing is heart-stopping, and Gerry Mulligan, who has usually been a bit of a controversial figure, plays about as well as I've ever heard him play. On his own composition, "Idol Gossip," Mulligan seems to get into top gear, and puts on a real display of the sheer sonic power of the bari. No complaints from this quarter. The other player who absolutely knocked me out was a complete unknown, a trumpet player named Mike Lawrence. I don't think I'm alone in saying, 40 some years later, who on Earth is that? Someone, to my ears, is out of the Freddie Hubbard school, playing incandescent solos on "Evidence" and "Bird Tapestry" while surrounded by the then cream of New York players. Some searching disclosed a distressing story of a guy who had attended UNT and died of cancer around his 37th birthday. It turns out he had previously recorded with Joe Henderson. This is another one of those what-might-have-been trumpet player stories that simply breaks your heart, because Lawrence had just started to make a mark both writing and playing.

No such air of melancholy attends not one but two previously unissued (and, for all intents, I guess, unheard Louis Armstrong recording, The Standard Oil Sessions and The Nightclubs. Dot Time Records describes The Standard Oil Sessions thus: "This 50+ minute recording was recorded in San Francisco on January 20, 1950 by the Standard Oil Company for their radio show, "Musical Map of America." The recording was episode 19, "Musical Story of New Orleans," and featured Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines. For reasons unknown, the broadcast was never made and Armstrong was personally given the acetate discs of the sessions." Of the other recording, more soon.

For anyone to review anything that Pops and the galaxy of luminaries customarily surrounding him who has anything other than "serious reviewer's cred" would seem to require more than a little chutzpah. And with Pops, of course, you have a very different issue than the one that affects Mike Lawrence. Amstrong was Armstrong. As almost any idiot can tell you, he practically invented the jazz (trumpet) solo, and while only in his late 20s, transformed the music with his Hot Five and Hot Seven Bands. You'd be hard pressed to think of a serious jazz player, at least a brass player, who hadn't studied "Weather Bird," "West End Blues," ""Potato Head" of any of his other sensational solos.

I remember how much I loved (and still love) listening to Harry James' original (1939) recording of I'm in the Market for You,, only to realize decades after I first heard it in the early 1960s that James had consciously lifted some of his phrasing from Armstrong's original as a tribute. James called Armstrong the greatest trumpet player in the world (I guess Pops and Bunny Berigan) shared that distinction in James' book), and who is about to disagree? Then there was Pops the Showman; Pops the Diplomat and Musical Ambassador; Pops the Civil Rights figure; Pops the Beloved Popular Icon; the Hello Dolly Pops, and in my early adolescence, the Pops of Schaefer Beer. His playing career spanned half a century. If anything, his longevity worked against the true appreciation of his originality and genius. Should I begin to list the tunes on these two CDs, both drawn from the Research Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, directed by Ricky Riccardi, who fittingly supplied the liner notes, some folks are bound to say, in effect, yes, Louie was playing beautifully in the early 1950s, but there wasn't much going on musically.

I think that would be a terrible shame.

Aside from the fact that these are, basically, recordings heard by few, if any people, they are, in many ways, a summary of the essence of Pops' oeuvre, a compound of brilliant musicianship, storytelling, wonderful creativity, ebullient, and raucous (sometimes a little risque) humor that so much contemporary, serious, dry-as-dust, dismal "serious" jazz lacks. There's a lot of tongue in cheek in these recording—and chops—particularly evident on "New Orleans Funeral" with an out chorus that just flies, as if to assure doubters that Armstrong could still turn it up a notch. I'm certain that Armstrong aficionados (and they are legion) will hear things they never heard before. I know you've never heard Pops crack up trying to teach the bridge to "Do You Know What it Means To Miss New Orleans" to a decent, but, of course, well out of his league clarinetist in San Francisco, just seven minutes of encouragement, banter, wincing and, of course, laughter. Priceless. Or Pops singing "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" directly to Billie Holiday at the Club Hangover in San Francisco, with the improvised lyrics "give me your chops for just a moment" to the delighted Holiday. I now understand why Joe Glaser, Armstrong''s manager, once said to Benny Goodman, "When {Armstrong] lands in Europe there are 35,000 people waiting for him. Can you do that?"

There's also the small matter of the musicians who surrounded Armstrong. Jack Teagarden, of course, Edmond Hall, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Cozy Cole, Barrett "The World's Fastest Drummer" Deems (until Buddy Rich objected), and so many more. You can love modern trombone and I'd willingly listen to Frank Rosolino forever, but Trummy Young on "Muskrat Ramble" is just my idea of what New Orleans trombone ought to sound like. Listening to all these players is, for me, a rare treat.

My real introduction to Ella Fitzgerald came just around the time these recordings (I have heard only Volume 2, since Volume 1 is being remastered with new software and re-released in the fall) were made at Chautauqua, NY, in mid-1968. There was a dive bar in Philadelphia with a juke box and it featured Ella scatting "Stomping at the Savoy." I and another patron fed many quarters into the beast as we "lunched" and I recall being slack-jawed from the music, not the drinking, at what Ella was doing. There's some of that in this recording as well. It features virtually all of Ella's standard repertoire (sorry, no Savoy) including "Mr. Paganini," "Satin Doll," and a timely remember of what we lived through 50 years ago, "He Had a Dream." There may not be anything really new here other than the recording itself, but fans of Ella and newbies will enjoy hearing her live and interacting with an appreciative audience.

There's more to come in the Legends series apart from the rest of Ella's concert, and that includes Gene Krupa in 1966 which includes Carmen Leggio and Dylan Jones when Krupa played at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City in Summer of 1965, a band I saw live. Some smart aleck asked Krupa to play "Wipe Out." His reply was a polite, "I wouldn't know how." That gem probably won't be included, but I'm looking forward to hearing exactly what is in this excellently produced and sonically pleasing series.

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