THE JAZZ BUFF
FROM THE CHAIR – Stuart Brewster
Jazz musicians are often faced with an identity challenge. How do you get an audience to come and hear our group when they have never heard of us? “I’m not going to waste my time (or money) on an unknown. Too risky, might be awful, not my kind of jazz, etc. . . . etc.” So how do we encourage fans to do risk-taking and step out to meet the new?
Isn’t it ironic? Jazz by its very nature is built around improvisation, i.e. risk-taking of the highest order, risk-taking that we love. Consequently those of us in the potential audience should be willing to accept such challenges ourselves by going into the unknown as well.
I recently had the opportunity to deal with this conundrum on The Jazz Cruise (January 19-26, 2019), sailing from Fort Lauderdale. Late one evening, I stumbled upon the last part of a performance featuring a group headed by someone named James Pearson. Pearson, it turned out, in addition to being a great pianist is also the artistic director at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. It was late, well after midnight, and only 15 or so were sitting around nursing a nightcap. Nothing to bother about was my first thought. But instead, something told me to risk it, to sit down and listen.
And WOW, what did I hear? Pearson on piano, accompanied by Sam Burgess (b) and Chris Higginbotham (d), showed a vast breadth of improvisational skills. One selection was the chestnut “Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” but played like you’ve never heard it played. The speed and power was thrilling. It reminded me of an old New England expression symbolic of speed, i.e., “tail over the dasher.” The next piece was quite the opposite—quiet and thoughtful, with a totally different feel. I didn’t get the name of the piece, but never mind—each number was a broad demonstration of their talent and a joy to my ears.
I was hooked. I went to all of their performances—always late at night, with a small, shall we say, boutique audience—all of whom were as enthralled as I was. I did say this was all a risk, but not really, as after all Ronnie Scott’s is one of the great jazz clubs of the world (now celebrating their 50th year). For me the James Pearson group provided me with experiences long to be savored and I am now encouraged always to take a chance on the unknown. In jazz, that is.
Let me introduce you briefly to David Miller who has joined the PAJA Board. Many of you have seen and heard Dave’s group (at PAJA affairs, at Angelica’s, and elsewhere), with the fine vocalist Rebecca DuMaine, Dave’s daughter. His day job has been in legal profession but his passion is for jazz. We are delighted to have Dave join us; he is already making sound contributions (unintentional pun).
Kudos to Alisa Clancy for her remarks about jazz at the recent Peninsula Symphony concerts featuring David Benoit, Taylor Eigsti, and the Brubeck Brothers. PAJA was very pleased to co-sponsor her appearance in support of expanding the audience for jazz. I was away and couldn’t attend the concerts, but from all reports these were two fantastic evenings for music fans.
In continued appreciation of your support,
Chair, Palo Alto Jazz Alliance
Thoughts on jazz By Michael Burman
IRVING MILLS: JAZZ SVENGALI
Like so many in and around jazz and American popular music in their early days, Irving Mills was Jewish (born Isadore Minsky), and the son of immigrant parents. He worked his way up from poverty to being head of the world’s largest independent music publishing company, and influenced—or even started—the careers of so many.
Irving began his show business career as a page in NYC’s theater district. Through a combination of luck and innate talent, he progressed via the Friars Club to being an usher at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue (where, twice a day, he’d see the professionals sing), to being a song plugger (he had learned by watching the best), to working for a music publisher.
In 1919, Irving and his brother Jack formed their own publishing company, later named Mills Music, Inc. They needed new talent for that Jazz Age, and among those who signed with them were new songwriters Jimmy McHugh, Hoagy Carmichael and Sammy Fain.
The most significant relationship Irving Mills had (not considering his wife Bessie to whom he was married for 65 years) was with Duke Ellington. After an initial unsuccessful stint in New York, Duke had tried again, and by 1925 his orchestra was ensconced at the Club Kentucky. It was there that Irving first saw them one evening. The next day he hired them. In an interview published in Down Beat in 1952, Irving is quoted as saying, “What was important about that meeting was that Duke felt that in me he had found not only someone capable of managing his professional career, but someone who understood and thoroughly appreciated the significance of his creative efforts in music.”
This was the start of a professional relationship that lasted more than a dozen years. Duke and Irving each owned 45% of a corporation (the remaining 10% going to Irving’s lawyer!). The relationship was valuable to both men, and was essential to giving the world the Duke Ellington we know. It was Irving who got Duke into the Cotton Club in 1927, and Irving who took the band to Hollywood in 1930 to appear in the Amos and Andy film “Check and Double-Check.”
The contract enabled Irving to gain co-credit for Ellington tunes where the lyrics were written predominantly, or perhaps totally, by others, such as “Sophisticated Lady” (Mitchell Parish, 1933) and “In a Sentimental Mood” (Manny Kurtz, 1935). On the other hand, Irving did make a few genuine contributions as lyricist. Of over two dozen tunes credited simply to Duke and Irving, only a few are both well known and have lyrics, notably “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (1932), “Ring Dem Bells” (1930), and “The Mooche” (1928), which has only a wordless vocal. And let’s not forget “Mood Indigo” (1930) and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” (1936), for both of which Irving did write the lyrics, and this time it was Duke who got co-credit.
Their relationship ended in 1939. In that same Down Beat article Irving is quoted as saying, “When I withdrew from my managerial relationship with Duke, it was because I sensed that Duke had fallen into a different attitude toward his music, and was taking off in what I thought was the wrong direction. . . Duke. . . lost touch with the huge, loyal following that loved genuine Ellington music. . . his mistake was turning. . . to the concert works to which he has practically confined his writing in recent years.” Duke’s take on the split might have been different. A quotation from a different source in that same article says, “the immediate cause of the separation. . . was lack of attention. That was Duke’s complaint and that of his associates. . .Then there was the afternoon Duke walked into Mills’s office. ‘May I see my books?’ he asked one of the secretaries. After better than an hour of poring over the books of Duke Ellington, Inc., he got up slowly, adjusted his jacket and tie, put on his hat and overcoat and walked out. He never returned.”
While he was managing Duke, Irving had other irons in the fire. He developed songwriters, such as Mack Gordon who, with Harry Warren, had hits like “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I Had The Craziest Dream,” “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” and the Oscar-winning “You’ll Never Know.” And Irving also ran his own first-class bands, such as his Hotsy Totsy Gang (which included such as the Dorsey brothers, Joe Venuti and, on occasion, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller) and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band which employed Henry “Red” Allen, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Charley Shavers and Tab Smith.
Among the bands which Irving developed, there was occasional serendipity. For example, in order to persuade singer Blanche Calloway to move from Chicago to New York, he had to hire her brother Cab. Irving put him in front of a band and recorded “Minnie the Moocher” (lyricist co-credit going to Irving, of course). Dizzy Gillespie, Chu Berry, Cozy Cole, Ben Webster, Milt Hinton were some who played in the Cab Calloway Orchestra. (It’s no coincidence that for one of Cab’s early hits—“St James Infirmary”—composer credit went to Joe Primrose. Who was he? Irving Mills!)
The conventional wisdom about Irving Mills is that he exploited Duke, and there’s no denying there is some truth there. On the other hand, without someone like Irving, would it have been possible for a black artist, even a musical genius, to have achieved the success Duke had in the 1930s? Regardless, there is no escaping the fact that Irving was a talented and industrious man. He was not averse to promoting Duke by using his own people, such as at the Cotton Club where much of the earlier material was provided by old Millsian Jimmy McHugh and new Millsian Dorothy Fields, with tunes like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”—published of course by Mills, Inc. Who could blame Irving if he was making money twice?
OUR CRUISE CRITIC REMINISCES ON THE LATEST SAILING OF THE JAZZ BOAT
By D. Michael Griffin
“By the sea, by the sea, by the beau-tiful sea. . .” Picture it, if you will, 2000 jazz heads, all existentially humming that tune as the Jazz Boat (The Jazz Cruise) heads out of Fort Lauderdale on a balmy afternoon for a week of fun on the Big Briney (Jan. 19-26, 2019). Here’s my take on some of what I saw and heard.
The Tommy Igoe West Sextet. This near-frenetic percussionist never fails to impress with his high-energy shenanigans, both verbally and on the traps. Some of the SF Jazz Collective rhythm section played with Tommy, combining with the Igoe front line on a set of terrific Latin-tinged numbers. Catch Tommy at Yoshi’s at Jack London Square in Oakland where he has a monthly gig. Guaranteed, nobody sleeps in front of these quality hard chargers.
SF Jazz Collective. This year’s version of the Collective features, as usual, a good group of players, with vibraphonist Warren Wolf of particular appeal. A very enjoyable band that deserves your support, when you can catch them between road trips.
Steve Tyrell. OK, the guy has stage presence, I get that. But a jazz singer? Please. He doesn’t sing; he speaks his way through lyrics, depending on the band to provide the music. He might do fine at a Reno cowboy bar, doing a country-western schtick. Stop the madness!
John Pizzarelli. And then we have John, who sings a la Sinatra, plays guitar like his dad Bucky, and is a jazz raconteur par excellence. He cracks up audiences, especially when paired with reed man, Ken Peplowski. Together they make a side-splitting act. John is particularly effective with mature audiences who connect with his repertoire of standards and jazz history tales. On The Jazz Cruise, John can do no wrong. Pizzarelli is, hands down, THE entertainer.
Randy Brecker and Eric Marienthal. These two paired for a set dedicated to the Adderley book. Randy did Nat’s trumpet and Eric did Cannonball on alto. What a match-up, with the two trading off each other in a wonderful harmonic duet. I thought Marienthal provoked Randy into a more energetic performance than I’ve ever heard from the big guy. An exciting duo.
Veronica Swift. What a voice for a 24-year-old: confident, mature, no vibrato, great diction, great pipes. Looks good, too. She gets boosts, too, from the great pianists she’s recruited to accompany her: Emmet Cohen, Benny Green, Shelley Berg. The only downside to her performance, for me, is the chatter between tunes. That’s when the mature side of her falls away, as she starts thanking her parents, her teachers, mentors and fellow students. The effect is to reinforce her youth, instead of playing up the woman-of-the-world aspect that enhances some of the torch songs she does so well. Ah, kids! Whadda ya gonna do?
Chucho Valdez and Joey DeFrancesco. This should have been terrific: master Latin pianist (look at those hands!) facing off with cruise fave Joey D on B3 organ. But, for this gig at least, it didn’t work. They seemed to be afraid of stepping on each other’s toes (fingers?) and were reluctant to dive into their respective keyboards. So, the fireworks didn’t happen. Next time?
Joey Alexander Trio. This 15-year-old prodigy from Bali skipped a few days of school to join the cruise in St. Croix. He’s a cute kid who plays with the maturity of someone triple his age. I’ve seen him before at Monterey, so I wasn’t surprised at what I heard. Still, it’s impressive to see his small hands flying over the ivories. He’s already got two Grammies under his belt, so he’s no fluke, this kid. Wow!
Emmet Cohen Trio. Saving the best for last. I’ve been a fan of Emmet’s since hearing him on the cruise about eight years ago, when he was fresh out of college. He’s a formidable talent who plays with verve, panache, command of an extensive repertoire, and a lot of other adjectives and nouns. I especially enjoy his classical touches when he starts flying on a jazz standard or does a Fats Waller series. Go hear him for yourself, live. You can do that when he plays four gigs on April 12 and 13 at the Bing Concert Hall basement club. I’ll be there.
There were a ton of other marvelous jazz artists on the cruise, like the wonderful singer Cyrille Aimee (though she’s no longer playing with her two gypsy guitarists—and I missed that), the Sean Jones Quartet (with Gerald Clayton), the versatile James Morrison, and many more. No way to give them all the ink they deserve. The ball is in your court to get out and see live jazz, here in the Bay Area. Not only Emmet Cohen at Bing, but also PAJA’s Tenor Titans concert on March 10 at CSMA in Mountain View. See you there?
JAZZ IN LOS ALTOS—SATURDAY NIGHTS
Saxophonist Michael O’Neill tells us that Cetrella Restaurant in Los Altos (cor. Main and First) is showcasing jazz vocalists on Saturday evenings, 6:30-9:30. Some of the vocalists scheduled are Ren Geisick, Denise Perrier, Tony Lindsay, Margie Baker and Rhonda Benin. O’Neill will accompany the singers, as usually will pianist Peter Horvath. Good to have jazz back so close to home base.
Here’s PAJA Board member Shirley Douglas with the Four Freshmen at their August 7 performance at the Nikko Hotel in San Francisco. Personal note from your editor: I first saw the Freshmen at Flint Center, I think, years ago—one of the early groups, with Bob Flanigan and the Barbours. The next time I saw them was in 2009, I think, on The Jazz Cruise. Someone in the audience asked “Are you really the Four Freshmen? Where’s Flanigan?” The drummer Bob Ferreira replied, “Hey, if you went to Fenway Park today you wouldn’t expect to see Ted Williams in left field, would you?” Three of the four Freshmen have been replaced since I first saw them. Drummer Bob (the hairless one) remains as the quartet linchpin. Above is Group #25!/Ed Fox
TRIBUTES TO HERB
Dr. Herb Wong was a friend to many top jazz artists during his career in radio, writing liner notes and reviews, concert and record promotion, and other jazz-related activities. From Marilyn Wong, here’s a list of songs dedicated to Herb written and recorded by major jazz musicians:
- Dr. Wong’s Bag. Woody Herman, “The Swingin’ Herman Herd” on Phillips Records 1964
- Daddy Wong Legs. Cal Tjader, “Soul Bird” on Verve Records 1965
- A Wong Came Herb. Roy Eldridge, “The Nifty Cat Strikes West” on Master Jazz 1966
- Dr. Herb’s Herbs. Larry Vuckovich, “City Sounds, Village Voices” on Palo Alto Jazz 1981
- Herbal Syndrome. Mal Waldron, “One Entrance, Many Exits” on Palo Alto Jazz 1982
- Wong’s Way. Greg Abate, “Birds of a Feather” on Woodville Records 2008
- Dr. Wong’s Bird Song. Dayna Stephens.