January 27, 2010

More Music Writing

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The Cramps on NY Rocker [Photo: Curtis Knapp]On the official blog of the Society of Publication Designers, graphic designer Robert Newman has created a gallery of front cover images from various issues of New York Rocker. These covers, most designed and art directed by the gifted Elizabeth Van Itallie, feature outstanding photographs by Teri Bloom, Deborah Feingold, Laura Levine, Ebet Roberts, and Ann Summa, among others. For the uninitiated among you, a seriously abbreviated version of the New York Rocker story goes something like this:

After publishing the fanzines Jamz and The Rock Marketplace, the late Alan Betrock published the first issue of New York Rocker in the spring of 1976. Through Fall 1977, Alan published ten more issues and ran the magazine pretty much as a one-man show with some business/advertising help from his friend Ken Kristol. After living in Minneapolis for five years, I moved back to NYC in Fall ‘77 and later bought NYR from Alan Betrock, a dear friend of mine until his untimely death in 2000. 

I served as publisher and editor of NYR until the end of 1982: putting the magazine on a monthly schedule, obtaining national distribution, recruiting and directing a small but intensely dedicated NYC staff and a much larger group of freelance contributors in the US and the UK. We worked in a half-floor loft at 166 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan where the floor was never mopped and you never knew who’d be asleep on the sad salvaged office sofa when you came to work in the morning. We saw a million gigs, listened to a million records, and published at least a million words about all of it without the use of a single computer.

A.S. Atop Unsold NY Rocker Issues, 1982 | Photo by Laura Levine

A.S. Atop Unsold NY Rocker Issues, 1982 | Photo by Laura Levine

Among those who made crucial contributions to this chronically under-financed but heroically creative effort were Byron Coley, Michael Hill, Ira Kaplan, Annene Kaye, David Keeps, Laura Levine, Glenn Morrow, Chris Nelson, Suzette Rodriguez, Roy Trakin, Elizabeth Van Itallie, Janet Waegel, and Drew Wheeler. It is one of the blessings of my life to have remained friends with nearly all of these individuals.

A total of 55 issues were produced until New York Rocker expired in late 1982. About a year later, the magazine was sold to a new publisher and briefly revived for a few more poorly distributed issues before going out of business for the second and last time. Through a series of contractual twists and turns, all rights to NYR then reverted back to me. I own the domain names nyrocker.com and newyorkrocker.com — I hope this SPD cover gallery will spur me to add more actual content to the site, which has for too long remained simply “under construction.”

January 22, 2010

Gigs, More Music Writing

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"Pops" blows with neighborhood kids on the steps of his home in Queens.

Pops and neighborhood kids jam on the steps of his home, now the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens has been open to the public since 1994. But I’d never been there until Saturday (1.9.2010), when Leslie and I drove over in early afternoon for a free event featuring Terry Teachout, the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, published December 2009). The book is excellent: carefully researched, well paced, written with open ears in a clear and candid style. I’d recommend it to anyone with any interest in Louis Armstrong, jazz, and/or American pop culture.

In taking on this Promethean subject, Teachout had an edge over his several precedecessors in at least two respects. Although presently the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, he was once a professional bass player and thus the first trained musician to essay an Armstrong biography. Perhaps more importantly, Teachout was the first biographer to have had access to over 650 hours of reel-to-reel tapes recorded by Pops himself. These tapes capture Armstrong in uncensored casual conversations with friends and fellow musicians, playing trumpet along with records (both his own and those of other artists), even trying to coax his wife Lucille into the marital bed for a little pre-dawn action.

We may presume that the Armstrong archives were better organized and more easily accessible to Teachout than to previous researchers, and Louis’ own writings are excerpted often and effectively in Pops. “In between playing three hundred shows a year,” Teachout notes, “he turned out two memoirs, several autobiographical manuscripts, dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, and thousands of personal letters to friends and fans, as well as a number of strikingly frank autobiographical manuscripts that did not see print until long after his death.” The author sheds new light on some long-clouded episodes in the trumpeter’s life including his 1930 marijuana arrest — Armstrong was a lifelong pot smoker — and his entanglements with Chicago mobsters.

All that said, I’m not sure Teachout’s book is so vastly superior to its immediate predecessor, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen (Broadway Books, 1997). This was the first Armstrong bio I ever read, not counting the great man’s own Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, and it greatly enhanced my knowledge and perception of its subject. Until the arrival of Pops, Bergreen’s was the most comprehensive book on its subject but it seems to have gotten rather short shrift from both jazz and book critics, perhaps because Bergreen had never written about jazz or jazz musicians before. In his New York Times review of Teachout’s book, David Margolick referenced earlier biographies by Gary Giddins and James Lincoln Collier but not Extravagant Life; nor is it among the half-dozen books sold in the gift shop of the Armstrong House Museum. Witty, elegant, and warmly appreciative of its subject, An Extravagant Life moved me to pick up two more of Bergreen’s non-fiction works, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (also excellent) and Capone: The Man and the Era (bought but not read yet).

Armstrong on the cover of TIME in 1949, the year he was crowned king of the Zulu Krewe at Mardi Gras in his home town of New Orleans.

Armstrong on the cover of TIME in 1949, the year he was crowned king of the Zulu Krewe at Mardi Gras in his home town of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, back at the shack… After perusing the gift shop and helping ourselves to a bowl of complimentary gumbo, we joined the crowd seated on folding chairs in the low-ceilinged basement of the house. Following some opening remarks, Terry Teachout read excerpts from the first and last portions of his book, then screened a high-quality B&W clip taken from a 1958 TV appearance by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. Pops sounded both vigorous and completely at ease singing “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” but the sweat dripping from his brow reminded me of the physical effort he put into his live performances. His trumpet solo, although described by Teachout as a “set piece” that varied only slightly from show to show, was  a soaring work of sonic architecture — the musical equivalent of watching a ten-story building erected in elapsed-time motion before your eyes. Teachout then took questions and comments from the audience. Among the speakers were trumpeter Jon Faddis, who recalled being transfixed by Armstrong’s mid-Sixties appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; and vocalist Melba Joyce, who recounted her guest appearance with Louis and the All Stars on a show in Dallas in 1961.

We then joined a small group for an abbreviated version of the standard house tour. Louis and his wife Lucille purchased the modest two-story dwelling at 34-56 107th Street in 1943. It was the first and only home Armstrong ever owned, and to him a treasured symbol of his rise from the dire poverty of his New Orleans boyhood. After her husband’s death in 1971, Lucille Armstrong lived on in the house until her own passing twelve years later. By that time, the property had been deeded first to the City of New York, then entrusted to Queens College which today administers the Museum and the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.

Among the many intact period features of the house are Lucille’s custom-built kitchen cabinets, with their nifty jet-age design and turquoise enamel finish; Pops’ upstairs den, with LPs from his personal collection and his reel-to-reel tape decks; original Sixties oil paintings of both Armstrongs, and the bed in which Louis died on 7/6/1971. As we stood in the den, our guide clicked on a wall switch and the room filled with the sound of Armstrong’s inimitable voice on segments from his private tape stash. Pops was right there with us, in the home he loved.

Louis Armstrong – “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (1943, with the Luis Russell Orchestra).  “Even on the simplest of the big-band sides, his playing is charged with an expressive depth that seizes the ear…There is an underlying seriousness in his light-hearted art that recalls a remark made by the film director Howard Hawks, who claimed that ‘the only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view.’” (Teachout, page 146)

One bright morning in July 2008, on a stroll through my East Village neighborhood, I stopped at the corner of Second Avenue and East Sixth Street. Lying on on the sidewalk next to a municipal trash can, I found a collection of hand-painted metal signs advertising various jazz soloists and groups. The signs were (are) of uniform size (30″ x 6″) with a small hole punch in each end so they can be hung for display. There are eighteen different signs, including ones for groups led by alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, bassist Mickey Bass, and trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater.  I took the signs home, added them to our ever-growing collection of musical detritus, and have tried sporadically to determine their age (probably late Seventies) and provenance. Here are my photos of some of the signs along with explanatory notes:

Grey+Forrest (1) Al Grey & Jimmy Forrest Quintet – AllMusic.com states that trombonist Al Grey (b. 6/6/1925) spent his first professional decade in big bands including those of Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, Benny Carter and Lionel Hampton. Grey and another big band veteran, saxophonist Billy Mitchell, formed a co-op band in 1962. I have a copy of their Argo LP Night Song (recorded November ‘62 and issued under Grey’s name), on which the group is joined by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Al Grey served three separate stints in the Count Basie band; when the last one ended in 1977, the trombonist formed a group with saxophonist Jimmy Forrest (b. 1/24/1920). This was 25 years after Forrest had a Number One R&B hit with his immortal “Night Train,” but I’ll bet he still played it a lot. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Al Grey and Jimmy Forrest were still playing together when the latter died 8/26/1980; Grey lived another 20 years and died of diabetes-related illness on 5/24/2000.

Auer(2) Vera Auer – The Austrian-born vocalist (b. 4/20/1919), who also played vibes and accordion, was the grand-niece of the noted Hungarian classical musician Leopold Auer. In Vienna circa 1949, she formed the Vera Auer Combo, a trio with guitarist Attila Zoller that for a short time included pianist Joe Zawinul, later a founding member of Weather Report. In 1954, Vera moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where she worked with trumpeter Donald Byrd and drummer Art Taylor. In 1959, Auer married an obscure American musician named Brian Boucher, and the couple moved to the US the following year. In her Stateside career, she “was associated not only with boppers such as trombonist J.J. Johnson and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, but with a modern breed of blower including trumpeters Cal Massey and Ted Curson,” wrote Eugene Chadbourne for AllMusic.com. “In the late Seventies she co-led a group with yet another trumpet player, Richard Williams, resulting in in an album release with the cheerful title of Positive Vibes.” Vera Auer died 8/2/1996.

ChuckWayne-JoePuma(3) Chuck Wayne/Joe Puma – I would’ve enjoyed hearing these two fine though little-remembered guitarists as a duo. Chuck Wayne (born Charles Jagelka, 2/27/1923) started out as a teenage mandolin player and switched to guitar in the Forties when he began to make the 52nd Street scene. An early exponent of bop, he recorded seminal sides with Dizzy Gillespie and Little Benny Harris; worked with the Woody Herman band in 1946-47, and joined pianist George Shearing’s quintet for three years, 1949-1952. Wayne toured with Tony Bennett from 1954-57, then came off the road to concentrate on Broadway, studio, and TV gigs. He released a half-dozen albums as a leader, and later taught at Westchester Conservatory in White Plains, NY. Chuck Wayne died 7/29/1997; his recording of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was including on the 2005 Sony Legacy box set Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar.

Born into a family of guitarists, Joe Puma (born 8/13/1927) was a professional musician by 1949. He played with more “name” musicians than I can list here, ranging from Artie Shaw to Gary Burton, and also recorded as a leader for the Bethlehem, Dawn, Jubilee, and Columbia labels. The New Grove Dictionary states: “Puma formed a duo with Chuck Wayne in 1972, which appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York in 1973; when the duo broke up after five years, Puma led his own trio.” Joe Puma died 5/31/2000; sadly, he was left off that Sony Legacy box set.

YouTube: “Bernie’s Tune” – Mike Morreale Quartet featuring Chuck Wayne (date/location n/a)

KennyBarron+2

(4) Bob Cunningham/Kenny Barron/Scoby Stroman – Considering the hazards and rigors of the jazz life, I’m pleased to report that two out of three members of this group are alive and still gigging regularly.

Born 12/23/1934 in Cleveland, bassist/composer Bob Cunningham moved to NYC in 1960. On his Web site, Bob says he played with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Abbey Lincoln, and Sun Ra; with Yusef Lateef, he traveled the world and appeared on Seventies Lateef LPs like Gentle Giant. Among other Bob Cunningham credits, AllMusic.com lists Ken McIntyre’s Way Way Out (‘63), Walt Dickerson’s Impressions of ‘A Patch of Blue’ (‘64, with Sun Ra on piano), Freddie Hubbard’s Backlash (‘66), and Sam RiversCrystals (‘74). The bassist may still be leading Monday night jam sessions at the headquarters of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) on West 48th Street in Manhattan.

Bob Cunningham, still swinging

Bob Cunningham, still swinging

Pianist Kenny Barron played Jazz Standard just last week (January 7-10, 2010) but unfortunately I missed the gig. Born 6/9/1943 in Philadelphia and a professional musician since his teens, the nine–time Grammy Award nominee — it seems he’s never actually won the damn thing — has a six-page list of album credits posted at AllMusic.com. The discography includes sessions with Dizzy Gillespie (1962-1966), Freddie Hubbard (1966-1970), Yusef Lateef (1970-1975), and Stan Getz (late Eighties) as well as five discs under the leadership of his much older brother, saxophonist Bill Barron (1927-1989). Kenny Barron served on the music faculty of Rutgers University from 1973 to 2000; was an original member of the Thelonious Monk tribute group Sphere, founded in 1982; and more recently co-founded (with Joanne Klein) an independent label called Joken Records.

YouTube: “People Time” by Kenny Barron and Stan Getz (live in Munich, 1990 – Getz’s final concert performance)

Drummer C. Scoby Stroman’s NY Times obit noted that he was tap dancing at age five: “As an adult he became known as a master sand dancer and an innovative leading performer of scat dancing, a softshoe rhythm-dance that involves the upper body as well as the feet and legs and draws on American popular dancing and African and Brazilian ethnic styles.”

So far, pretty mainstream…but if AllMusic.com has it right, Scoby also played drums on at least two Sun Ra LPs (Secrets of the Sun and Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy) and also on College Tour, the second ESP-Disk album by the pre-Diamanda Galas gonzo vocalist Patty Waters. (“Contorted shrieks and wails that could be downright blood-curdling…Waters has to be acknowledged as a vocalist who has tested the limits of what the human voice is capable of…” Thus sayeth Richie Unterberger of AllMusic.com) Scoby Stroman must have been quite a showman and character, one of the many artists I caught up with too late. He died 3/28/1996 from complications of a stroke.

YouTube: “Scoby” by the Rick Stone Trio (live at Bar Next Door, NYC, 1/15/2009)