Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Buddy DeFranco & Count Basie

It can be very difficult to find any of the music Buddy DeFranco made while a member of the Count Basie Sextet in the early 1950s. Fortunately, some great footage of this group has been posted here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Autobiography of Benny Goodman * The Kingdom of Swing * 1939

It's a generally annoying habit of celebrities to publish an autobiography just after their first flush of major success, resulting in little more than commercial fluff. The genre is cliché-ridden: glossies in a middle section, often of more interest than the text, optimism writ large, and celebrity itself celebrated. America likes these stories, and rarely wants volume two, the sordid discontents, which generally follow.

There are a couple of major exceptions to this rule in the history of jazz clarinet autobiography, most notably Sidney Bechet's Treat it Gentle, which was compiled from interview tapes and published posthumously, and Artie Shaw's The Trouble With Cinderella--a challenging book questioning the premises of fame, fortune, and their relation to music.

Goodman's The Kingdom of Swing was co-written with Irving Kolodin, and published in 1939, at the zenith of Goodman's popularity. Benny himself was still in his late 20s as it was being written, and so this book bears all the hallmarks of commercial fluff. It therefore comes as a great surprise that it isn't.

From the dedication page reading "To the Memory of My Father, David Goodman" forward, Benny talks quite a bit about his family. His father is depicted as the reason he got into music in the first place, due to his love of it and their poverty--a type of poverty that made free concerts at Douglas Park, and affordable lessons at the synagogue, particularly attractive. If America likes rags to riches stories, this is certainly a good one. As Benny wrote:

My memory of those early days is hazier than that of most kids, because we moved around a lot. But I can remember a time when we lived in a basement without heat during the winter, and a couple of times when there wasn't anything to eat. I don't mean much to eat. I mean anything. That isn't an experience you forget in a hurry. I haven't ever forgotten it.

The thumbnail sketches of Benny's childhood are deftly chosen and portrayed, rendered in admirably true voice by Kolodin. He describes the now famous time the young Goodman went down to Kelelah Jacob Synagogue with his brothers to pick out instruments. Benny, being the youngest among them, ended up with the clarinet.

I remember going down to the place for the first time with Harry, who was about twelve, and Freddy who was a year older than me. This was in 1919, when I was ten. Harry was the biggest, and he got a tuba. Since Freddy was bigger than me, he was given a trumpet. The only thing left for me, the smallest, was the clarinet. There have been stories that I went for the clarinet in a big way because it had shiny keys and looked pretty. There might be something in that, but I know that if I had been twenty pounds heavier and two inches taller, I would probably be blowing a horn now instead of a clarinet.

Goodman's description of Franz Schoepp, and his influence, are more forthcoming and gracious than many jazz musicians tend to be, regarding a teacher's influence.

About this time, I started to take clarinet lessons from a man who probably did more for me musically than anybody I ever knew. He was a German named Franz Schoepp, who once taught at the Chicago Musical College. He was quite an old man when I studied with him, and he died only a few years ago at the age of 77.

[...] Buster Bailey, the fine Negro clarinet player [studied] with Schoepp about the time I did. Schoepp was a small man quite white-haired when I studied with him., and he used to look over the top of his glasses at me. He was very strict about details, and never allowed a mistake to pass without being corrected. For a while Buster came for lessons on the same day I did, and we'd play duets, while Schoepp stood over us, counting time and watching that we played correctly. Another very good Negro musician who studied with Schoepp was Jimmy Noone, who still plays a lot of clarinet. As a matter of fact, one of the first things I heard about Schoepp was that he gave lessons to anybody, regardless of color, and I guess that sort of impressed me, because there was plenty of prejudice about such things, even in Chicago. If you remember, they had those terrible race riots there only a little while before, in 1919.

The two years I spent with Schoepp was the only real teaching I ever had, but I went through the regular books like Baerman [sic], Klose, and Cavallini with him, and got the foundation for a legitimate clarinet technic. After all, the most any teacher can give you is a foundation--after that, you're on your own.

This is one of the things that makes this book so interesting: Benny didn't use it as an opportunity to build a mythos--he discusses the hard work without exaggerating it; gives credit where credit is due, and shares more than a little wisdom along the way for aspiring musicians.

His mention of other clarinetists is almost always positive--including a gratuitous nod to rival Artie Shaw at one point. But the most important thoughts concerning jazz clarinetists occur early on, when discussing his formation. The influence of Leon Roppolo on Goodman is of historical interest, and best expressed here:

My idea of a great player...was Leon Rapollo [sic], who was playing at the Friars' Inn then with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and I did my best to sound like him. I never heard him play in person more than once, but there were plenty of good records to study up on.

Benny's preference for Roppolo's approach to playing had a direct influence upon his career and the future of jazz clarinet. In terms of his career, it helped land the breakthrough gig of his early career--playing with Ben Pollack. Pollack was somewhat of an enigma, and even a tragic figure in the history of jazz. He had an eye for talent, and even an ability to develop that talent as a bandleader, but inevitably those players he recruited would find far greater musical success only after leaving his ensembles. It was his love of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings's sound and approach that made him hire a young Benny Goodman.

Benny's youthful hero worship of Roppolo lead to him playing slouched in his chair--almost on his back--as 'Rap' had done. This, and Benny's ability to play like Roppolo, impressed Pollack enough to offer him the gig, which eventually took Goodman to both coasts.

For the history of jazz clarinet, the connection is equally important, as it links the first great recorded soloist--Leon Roppolo of New Orleans--to the next generation's most important jazz musician, Benny Goodman of Chicago. There is a natural rivalry, especially in the world of jazz clarinet, between New Orleans and Chicago, stoked by the fact that many of the most famous sons of NOLA did their gigging and living in Chicago. The artistic link between Goodman and Roppolo, however, demonstrates a kinship between styles, and the natural growth of an artform. Sidney Bechet once commented that there was no real difference between New Orleans and Chicago style, and Goodman's story helps corroborate this understanding: Chicago style was a development of New Orleans style, not an opposing force.

This also highlights the importance of Leon Roppolo to multiple branches of jazz history. His influence extended through Goodman to most mainstream jazz clarinet that has followed, but also back to his native New Orleans--both Irving Fazola and Pete Fountain's playing bore a strong family resemblance to Rap.

This digression aside, Benny's autobiography has a good amount of quotable material on other topics.
Here he is on conductors:

With some conductors I got along well, but I had trouble with some of the others, especially when it came to doing jazz, and they would tell me how to handle something on sax or clarinet. That rubbed me the wrong way for two reasons: I hadn't grown up in the habit of following somebody else's idea of what the music meant--I had knocked around the business, at that time, for almost ten years and figured I had a way of playing the instrument that was my own, and I wanted to stick to that way. Then, too, some of these conductors didn't know their stuff.

On other peoples' opinions:

Well, lots of musicians and leaders have had their say about me, just as I've expressed my opinion about a lot of fellows I've worked with.

On growing up poor:

One game we played pretty much all the time , though, was cops and robbers. A funny thing about this was that the cops always got the worst of it, because in that kind of a neighborhood, the cops represented something that never did much for the poor people.

I grew up with pretty much of a resentment against the way folks like my father and mother had to work, trying to take care of a big family, making a go of things with most of the breaks against them. Even in the hottest part of the summer they never could get anything like a rest or a vacation.

I was no great shakes in school. I gave more time to music than I did to books, and, like all kids, did the most in what I was interested. Only in my case it didn't happen to be sports, but music. What I might have become if I didn't play an instrument--I never stopped to think about that. From the time I was old enough to think about working, music was in my hand, and I guess I grew up with it. As a matter of fact, judging from the neighborhood where I lived, if it hadn't been for the clarinet I might just as easily have been a gangster.

On the first clarinet he ever owned:

...[was] a swell Martin that my sister Ethel helped me to get. She was also responsible for my first "tux," which I needed for work. At that time she was working for a clothing firm (Kuhn, Nathan and Fisher) as a bookkeeper, and I went down there to see about a suit. But I was so small (what she called a "peanut") that none of the ready-made suits fitted me. So they made one to order for me, for which she paid back by working extra. That was the first tuxedo in the Goodman family, a very big thrill.

On growing up in a big family:

Growing up in a big family naturally put us kids on our own a lot more than if there had been fewer of us. Ida was already married; Harry, Ethel, and the rest were out working, so we didn't see so much of each other except on Sundays. But occasionally things happened that brought us together. For example the time during the summer when Mom discovered there was another baby coming. The youngest one, Gene, was then about six, and Mom didn't have any equipment in the house for the next one. So one night after I had got my week's pay for the job (about fifty dollars) she took the money and got the things she needed. It made me pretty proud to help out that way in preparing for the arrival of the baby of the family--Jerome.

At fourteen I was able to bring home some money regularly, and help out with things which was even better.

The book is filled with interesting notes on a bygone era, as seen from one its most important musicians. The centrality of Benny's family to the motivation for his career, and his background of extreme poverty (but also extreme talent) give a different perspective on his life story, not always sympathetically rendered in more common histories of jazz.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Gear Review: Vito V40

You get an emergency call to play the national anthem at Lambeau Field in January. They need you to warm up the crowd, like the clarinet soul singer you are. So you go to your equipment room and panic--all you've got are vintage large bore beauties, ready to crack as you vainly attempt to float your sonic power over the unforgiving tundra. But you need to take this gig: you'll be nationally televised, and Aaron Rodgers has promised you a spot on a State Farm commercial if you do it.

That's when you need a Combat Clarinet. A plastic or hard rubber beast that can withstand the most extreme environments: hot, cold, and smoke machines.

My recommendation is to get an old Vito V40 and put it into adjustment.

Vito V40
According to some internet the sources, the Vito V40 was based off of the Pete Fountain model, making it an ideal horn for a large bore jazz clarinetist. Invariably the keywork will need some adjustment for each player--it's nowhere near the quality of a vintage Selmer or pro level Leblanc, but the sound of these horns with a good mouthpiece is quite beyond your average student model.
The sound is consistent from the top to the bottom. The clarion is centered, with a compact Leblanc tone, and a very responsive, neat altissimo. Most importantly, the intonation on these horns is very good. Projectionwise, these aren't as powerful as a good Selmer, but they do have considerable 'jump' to them.
Don't be caught when that call comes in from Green Bay next winter. Line up your Combat Clarinet.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Edmond Hall Sextet * Rompin in '44 * The Complete Session * Circle Records

Few windplayers had as immediately identifiable a sound as Edmond Hall. Gritty, warm, earthy, by turns biting and tender, he was a stellar sideman--perhaps best remembered today for his tenure with Louis Armstrong's All-Stars. He'd be even better remembered today had he taken Duke Ellington's offer to replace Barney Bigard in the early '40s. Instead, he stayed with Teddy Wilson's group at New York's Café Society. This was, for Hall, an artistic decision, and ultimately one we can all be glad he made. According to Frank Driggs, who wrote the liner notes to the album reviewed here, Hall considered playing with Wilson the zenith of his career. He wasn't the only jazz clarinetist to feel strongly about Wilson's playing, though, and when Benny Goodman managed to convince Teddy to return to his band for another stint, Hall was left to lead his own group.

A New Orleans native, Hall maintained the traditional front line of trumpet, trombone, and clarinet, but with a twist: instead of playing NOLA style polyphony, with the trumpet taking the vocal lead, he tended to mute the trumpet for color, as Artie Shaw had done with his Gramercy 5, and work from the type of head arrangements that both the Gramercy 5 and the Benny Goodman Sextet favored. The end result is something rare and exceptional: Hall's New Orleans "talking" quality fused with streamlined swing.  The group played the Café Society and, brilliant as they were, struggled to record. Ultimately, they landed only one date: December 4, 1944. Hall didn't waste his opportunity: during that session he laid down no less than three classics of the jazz clarinet canon--"Caravan," "Besame Mucho," and "The Man I Love." While many other clarinetists have successfully recorded these numbers, none have surpassed Hall's depth of soul and originality.

The session took place in New York City, under the supervision of Milt Gabler of World Broadcasting Systems. Hall's band at the time was comprised of Irving Randolph on trumpet, Henderson Chambers on Trombone, Ellis Larkins on piano, Johnny Williams on bass, and Art Trappier on drums. They had from 3 to 6 p.m. During that time, they recorded the following numbers:

Opus 15
The Sheik of Araby (four takes)
Night and Day (two takes)
I Want To Be Happy
The Man I Love (a false start and two takes)
Rompin' in '44 (a false start and three takes)
Caravan (three takes)
Besame Mucho (a false start and one brilliant take)

For some unknown, blessed reason, in 1983 Circle Records released the entire recording session on LP [CLP-52], though it has not, to my knowledge, been rereleased.  This was perhaps the most important session of Hall's career as a leader. He was surrounded by sympathetic musicians of a high caliber, especially the brilliant Ellis Larkins on piano. The Circle disc contains all incomplete takes, false starts, and unissued takes--giving us a window into Hall's creative approach (his opening improvisation on "The Sheik of Araby" for instance, was carefully worked out before the session. As Duke Ellington once pointed out, the emphasis on coming up with solos on the spot is perhaps exaggerated--whether one comes up with a solo a day before or a second before, the important thing is to have come up with it).

This recording has been long out of print, and is very difficult to obtain.

For historic value and brilliance of material, this gets a top rating of Five Good Reeds.

File:Cafe Society'.jpg
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Friday, January 3, 2014

Buddy DeFranco & Tommy Gumina* (pol*y*tones) * Mercury (MG 20833) * 1963

  • Side A

  • The Monkey
  • My Ship
  • Gravy Waltz
  • My Man's Gone Now
  • I Remember Bird

Side B

Bus Driver in the Sky
Spring Will Be Late This Year
Nica's Dream
When I Fall In Love

  • Buddy DeFranco, clarinet
  • Tommy Gumina, accordion
  • John Doling, bass
  • John Guerin, drums/perussion

For sheer jaw dropping virtuosity, chances are the Buddy DeFranco/Tommy Gumina quartet of the early 1960s is the greatest jazz group you've never heard. Other than a set of standards, Pacific Standard (Swingin') Time, their collected work has been left to languish, out of print. To my knowledge, the only way to hear the other four albums is to get a hold of the old vinyl--which I heartily recommend. 

The group was formed when DeFranco was on a west coast trip in 1959 and found himself without a pianist. When Tommy Gumina, an accordion player, was suggested, DeFranco was inclined to dismiss the idea out of hand--until he heard the virtuosic polychordal approach Gumina was developing. Marc Myers, over at JazzWax, interviewed Buddy back in 2011 about the founding of the quartet. In it, Myers delves into the attraction of polytonal and polychordal music to DeFranco, documenting the group's under-reported and under-appreciated contribution to jazz development in a tonal and harmonic sense.

Rarely mentioned and long out of print, 1963's (pol*y*tones) represents, according to DeFranco himself in the interview, the zenith of the Buddy DeFranco/Tommy Gumina Quartet. On the album, Gumina uses an accordio-organ, a sort of hybrid between a Hammond organ sound and accordion. He described it in the liner notes to the album:

The instrument is appropriately named, says Tommy, because you can play organ on it, accordion, or both. It reproduces the same 16 ft., 8 ft., and 4 ft. sounds that you get on a regular organ. The organ effects were developed with 200 transistors; the accordion sounds are produced with three sets of reeds for the right hand and six for the left.

"There's a foot pedal for volume, several degrees of vibrato and three different degrees of sustaining. But it looks just like a regular accordion."

The feats Gumina accomplished on the instrument were so extraordinary that Leonard Feather felt it necessary to mention the album was made without overdubs.

There nine tunes on the album are a mix of standards, originals, and then-contemporary tunes.

The Monkey (DeFranco/Gumina)
My Ship (Weill and Gershwin)
Gravy Waltz (Brown and Allen)
My Man's Gone Now (Gershwin and Heyward)
I Remember Bird (Feather)
Bus Driver in the Sky (DeFranco)
Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year (Loesser)
Nica's Dream (Silver)
When I Fall In Love (Heyman and Young)

Highlights for me are the Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" and, for sheer intensity and flash, DeFranco's own "Bus Driver in the Sky." These tunes are remarkably compact, many under three minutes, and none longer than four and a half, yet almost like an aural illusion, they seem rather vast is scope.

These albums, if neglected since, undoubtedly made a significant impact upon contemporaneous jazz musicians. It's hard not to hear, in Gumina's angular brilliance, a significant keyboard forerunner to the synthesizer virtuosi of the next thirty years. Buddy doesn't seem to have worried about taking a more mellow role on the album--for a man who celebrated his role as a developer of technique, he often fills out the sound broadly, allowing his co-leader to take the spotlight. There are a tremendous number of brilliant time changes, and the rhythm section filled out by John Doling on bass and John Guerin on drums, are more than solid: they are often almost imperceptibly remarkable.

As with so many masterpieces of jazz clarinet history, this album really ought to be reissued. As DeFranco's favorite of the era, and as revolutionary as the group was, it is important to the history of jazz as a whole, rather than just as a curiosity for those who place clarinet or accordion. These gentlemen, up against a wall of zeitgeist that saw little place for their music at the time, created something permanent and timeless.

I had hoped to get this review written long ago, before the passing of Mr. Gumina in October of 2013--may he rest in peace, and perhaps even get to ride that bus in the sky.

Mr. DeFranco, if you are reading this post, thank you for the tremendous music you have made.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Mouthpiece Review: Selmer HS * Oval (c.1955, refaced by Bradford Behn 2013)

Widely considered among the finest Selmer made, "HS*Oval" mouthpieces from the 1950s are getting more difficult to acquire. For anyone playing a Selmer Centered Tone clarinet, though, it's a good idea to have at least one of these, if only to get an idea of what the horn sounds like with its intended mouthpiece.

Selmer HS* Oval c.1955
I'm not one to insist upon matching vintage 'pieces to vintage horns--my philosophy has always been to use whatever works, even if it strikes others as unorthodox. There are those, for example, who would suggest that a C85 mouthpiece "shouldn't" be used on a large bore horn, as it was designed for the narrow bored 10S clarinet. I don't share this opinion, and have mixed and matched many different eras' equipment successfully over the course of my playing career. Having said this, I think it's a very good idea to get a baseline reading of an instrument by matching equipment, keeping in mind that doing so doesn't produce a magic wand (ultimately it's more important for a jazz musician to find a personal sound--whatever the names and dates on the equipment.)

Hoping to get exactly that sort of baseline, I acquired several vintage Selmer mouthpieces last year, this HS*Oval among them. It was in pretty rough shape when I got it, though not damaged significantly. I sent it off to Bradford Behn for refacing and was deeply impressed with the results.

Brad did a fantastic job, on this and a Benny Goodman model, both of which match well with my 1955 Selmer Centered Tone. Before this, I'd been very happy to play a C85, but after the refacing, everything got easier--volume, depth of sound, richness of tone, and even facility over the break. Everything is just much smoother, with plenty of timbral range, mellowness or bite, and on the HS*Oval in particular, an even stronger chalumeau.

These mouthpieces are getting more difficult to find, and prices are going up. Unfortunately, too, there seem to be some mouthpiece refacers who think they can be marketed as "jazz" models by opening them up to excruciating degrees-which for many of us is tantamount to mangling them. As a jazz clarinetist who uses a relatively close facing (as many jazz clarinetists do) I'm very much against this, and hope that any mouthpiece craftsmen reading will reconsider the practice. Considering the scarcity of these vintage pieces, please do not open them up before finding a player who wants it done! For those looking for a great mouthpiece to match a vintage large bore, I highly recommend this piece.