Book Review: ‘Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond,’ Doug Ramsey

Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond
By Doug Ramsey with foreword by Dave and Iola Brubeck
Parkside Publications, Inc. Seattle

There was a sign in our hospital medical library which read: “Any book is new until you’ve read it.”

Certainly this can also apply to Doug Ramsey’s elegant biography of saxophonist Paul Desmond (11-25-1924 to May 30, 1977). The book has been out of print for several years and I obtained my copy through interlibrary loan. It is an oversized book, clothbound at 10” x 11”. The paper is high-quality and the photographic illustrations, some two pages, are equally elegant.

Ramsey and Desmond were friends for a long period. After Desmond died, the editor of Parkside Publications sought out Ramsey and persuaded him to write the book. Ramsey has a musical background and was a writer, so it was a fortuitous fit.

The book details how Desmond was only child whose father was a musician-composer in the San Francisco area. His mother had some psychological issues such that Paul was sent off to live with relatives from elementary school age until his late teens. His father suggested that he switch from violin to clarinet. Then it was a logical move to alto saxophone.

Of course, the author goes into detail about Desmond’s long association with Dave Brubeck and family. Most readers likely are familiar with that musical combination and recordings.

Lesser known, however, are the personal traits of Desmond. Whereas, Brubeck was a dedicated family man, Desmond was a very private person. There was an early marriage for Desmond but for various reasons, it didn’t work out. There were no children by that marriage and long thereafter Desmond was the man-about-town with multiple romances, some serious and some extremely casual. In this area, Desmond was a private person. For example, many of his acquaintances never knew that he’d been previously married.

Desmond made the move from the San Francisco area to New York where he spent his remaining years. He enjoyed his friendships with both musicians and writers, sometimes telling casual acquaintances that he was a writer. And, in fact, he was a prolific correspondent, carrying his Olivetti portable typewriter with him even on his foreign trips. There are several photos of Desmond in Europe carrying the portable typewriter case.

There was a period of time when Desmond left Brubeck and performed with small groups. Interestingly, usually these were with guitarists—notably Jim Hall and Canadian Ed Bickert.

Desmond was a heavy smoker, several packs a day, as well as a drinker who could play well while “in his cups.” Lung cancer accounted for his decline and death at age 52.

Although this book is out of print, there are occasionally copies available in the used book ads, some priced at $100 or more. I read that the electronic version is available for around $15.

Thanks to Parkside Publications and author Dave Ramsey for this “labor of love.”

Dave Bartholomew, New Orleans Trumpeter-Composer-Arranger, dies at 100

Likely Dave Bartholomew will be remembered by most as the composer of the song Blueberry Hill (1956), which Fats Domino made famous.

He was born in Edgard, Louisiana, and his parents later moved to New Orleans where he took music lessons from Peter Davis who had also tutored Louis Armstrong. As a teenager Dave was performing with various bands in New Orleans.

In 1949, he co-wrote The Fat Man with Fats Domino in 1949. His first hit was Country Boy in 1950. He was associated with various record companies — Trumpet, Mercury, Liberty — and his own record company, Broadmoor in 1967.

In addition to Domino, his compositions have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and others.

Bartholomew died of heart failure at age 100 at East Jefferson Hospital in Metairie, La., on June 23, 2019.

From left, trumpeters Nicholas Payton, Doc Cheatham and Dave Bartholomew at the Louis Armstrong memorial stamp release party, New Orleans, 1995. Photos by Norman Vickers

My only encounter with Bartholomew was in 1995 for the memorial stamp release of the Louis Armstrong stamp. After the ceremony, there was a celebration at the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown New Orleans. Three trumpeters performed that night — Bartholomew, Doc Cheatham and a much younger Nicholas Payton.

Great posts from two favorite jazz blogs

It was a red-letter day recently for Vickers, and, I believe for Jazz Pensacola. On May 28, 2019, two of my favorite blogs had artists who had performed for Jazz Pensacola previously.

Michael Steinman’s blog, jazzlives.wordpress.com, featured a group from the West Coast that included jazz pianist Carl Sonny Leyland, clarinetist Jacob Zimmerman, bassist Marty Eggers and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The post included several videos from the March 3, 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival.

So why was this especially important to me? Jazz Pensacola has been blessed to have pianist Sonny Leyland and bassist Marty Eggers to appear at our JazzFest in the early 2000s. And having seen them at jazz festivals elsewhere, it was like a visit from old, dear friends. Also, Michael Steinman is a good friend to us as well. When drummer Hal Smith brought his Kid Ory tribute group for our November 2017 jazz event co-sponsored by ACE (Arts, Culture, and Entertainment), the event was videotaped and Steinman featured it on his blog.

Stephanie Nakasian

Jazz writer Marc Myers’ jazzwax.com blog recently featured vocalist Stephanie Nakasian. There are several clips of her performance from outstanding recordings, including one video of her performing with a band led by Pete Rugolo who was Stan Kenton’s composer/arranger.

The significance is that The Jazz Society of Pensacola had Stephanie and her pianist husband Hod O’Brien in Pensacola for a performance in the 1980s. Then, in the early 2000s, Stephanie and Hod performed again for Pensacola JazzFest. At that time, their 13-year-old daughter Veronica sang a number with her mother. Subsequently, Veronica, now performing as Veronica Swift, has graduated from Frost School of Music in Miami and has embarked on her own singing and recording career.

In the interview, Myers leads Stephanie through various stages of her career including Hod’s death in 2016.

I have had opportunity to review both of Marc’s books, “Anatomy of a Song” and “Why Jazz Happened.”
In addition to writing a daily jazz blog, Myers also is a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal — one column is weekly and the other is monthly. His interviews with interesting persons are not all related to jazz; they can be authors, actors or other persons of interest.

To the credit of both Michael Steinman and Marc Myers, there is a long index of their previous work so this information is readily available for those who are interested. Thanks, Michael and Mark for making my day!

See jazzwax.com and jazzlives.wordpress.com for the columns and sign up, if desired.

Book Review: ‘Superstride: A Biography and Discography of Johnny Guarnieri’

SUPERSTRIDE
A Biography and Discography of
Johnny Guarnieri
by Derek Coller
pp. 253, Jazzology Press $24.95

This 6”x9” book, like the subject, is small in size but packed with good things. British author Derek Coller has done an excellent job of summarizing the life of pianist/composer Johnny Guarnieri (1917-1985.) Baseball was Johnny’s sport of choice and each of the nine chapters in the book is entitled with a baseball theme.

Please allow a personal reference: Little did I imagine when I was a teenager just at conclusion of WWII and dancing to Summit Ridge Drive–small group recording at Artie Shaw’s address of same name as the tune with JG playing harpsichord–that I’d get to see/hear him perform in person in Mobile, Alabama, in 1983, two years prior to his death.

JG was born to an Italian immigrant family in Manhattan. His father was a classical violinist and musical repairman and was descendant of the famous Guarnieri family of violin makers. His father hoped he would continue in the family tradition as a violinist, but, instead, JG took to the piano with his father’s blessing. JG had small hands, which make for a disadvantage in playing stride piano in the style of James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller. But Johnny overcame the small-hands disadvantage. In the ’30s and ’40s, he had opportunity to perform with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey.

Johnny had poor eyesight, which got him a deferment from draft during WWII, during which time he made many recordings for Armed Forces Radio. During the ’40s and ’50s there were recording engagements, radio work as well as performances. Johnny’s personal habits were of clean-living, so he was spared some of the difficulties of drugs and alcohol that plagued many of his colleagues. He was an inveterate pipe-smoker, however. And, during those times, he could smoke on the job. One of the “tricks” mentioned in the book — and I observed it myself during his Mobile, Alabama, stay — he’d re-light his pipe with a match while his left hand played arpeggios. Unless one were looking, it would be unlikely that the ear would detect that only the left hand was playing.

There was a second marriage during JG’s New York and subsequent New Jersey residence. Then he moved to the Los Angeles area in the ’60s. It was hoped that he’d get more studio work, but it didn’t meet his expectations. However, performing and recording opportunities came his way and there was opportunity to tour both the U.S. and Europe. One long-time engagement was a restaurant-lounge on LA’s Ventura Blvd. called Tail of the Cock. The book details some of JGs regular attendees — musicians, movie-stars and others. Pianist Johnny Varro, now living in the Tampa area, was one of his substitutes when he toured. In my recent conversation with Varro, JV reported, “Yes, and Johnny G. would substitute sometimes for ME when I needed to be away from my gig for a while.”

During the Los Angeles years, JG was a frequent visitor to the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (and its subsequent slight name-change). There was a special event called the Pianorama where the jazz pianists with the varying bands at the festival got to play solo piano for short periods. Sometimes JG might be the master of ceremonies or share with pianist/bandleader Bob Ringwald. As an occasional visitor there, myself, the Pianorama was a special treat for me.

The biographical portion of this book is only 125 pages, but it is packed with interesting facts and has multiple photos of musicians and bands with whom JG performed. The remainder of the book contains discography, tributes from fans and protégés including Herb Mickman, “Vinny” Armstrong and Jim Turner.

For the musical scholar, pianist virtuoso Dick Hyman has a short piece about his interactions with JG and has included some musical transcriptions as examples of JG’s expertise.

Author Derek Coller, now in his ninth decade, has produced a valuable and interesting addition to our jazz history. Somewhere up there, JG must be smiling and playing great jazz piano.

A chance encounter with Blind Willie McTell

While in medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, I discovered a blind guitarist named Blind Willie McTell, who played at a drive-in near my rental apartment.

He was an interesting singer who played a 12-string guitar, the first I’d ever seen and heard. I was intrigued by this man because of many reasons. For example, how does a blind man navigate to the various cars at the drive-in to find willing customers for his vocal and guitar performance? The answer: His walking stick was metal-tipped. His tap-tap with the cane both helped him locate the parked autos and advertised his availability for hire. He would sing and play your requests for tips, a drink, or both.

So, my pattern would be to study until about 10 p.m. and then drive to the nearby Blue Lantern Tavern on Piedmont Avenue. I’d then hear Willie’s tap-tap and invite him to play and sing for me. Normally, he would stand by the car window and sing for tips. As I got to know him better and request a longer session, I’d open the rear car door so that he could sit with his feet on the pavement; this being satisfactory to accommodate him and his large 12-string guitar. For a session such as this, I’d buy him a beer in addition to the usual tip. He had an unusually large repertoire of songs. He’d composed Statesboro Blues, a lament about Statesboro, Ga., where he spent time while growing up. A favorite song of mine was Talkin’ Blues. This had been recorded by many but, as far as I can determine, not by Willie. I’d take notes when he performed this because he’d added verses I’d never heard.

I related my discovery of the blind 12-string guitarist to my uncle, Dr. Frank Norman Gibson of Thomson, Ga. He had also attended Emory Medical School in the 1930s and he had heard him in that era when he was performing at the Pig ‘n Whistle drive-in (opened in 1927 and operated continuously until the 1960s). At that time in the ‘30s, he was performing as Pig ‘n Whistle Red.

Over the two year period (’54-’56) in which I’d listen to him perform for 15 to 30 minute intervals about twice weekly, there was not much time to take a detailed “medical history” but we did talk about his travels. He had performed along the eastern seaboard and had spent a short time in New York. There was never mention that he had recorded on various occasions. In the early days of recording, equipment wasn’t so elaborate that it required a studio. Many field recordings were made by putting the equipment on a truck and going to the folk-artist instead of vice-versa.

My next revelation about Blind Willie came when I was visiting a jazz museum in New Orleans. Part of my medical training was on Tulane service at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital (’59-’61). In going through a stack of LPs, I found an album with Willie’s photo on the cover. It was astounding, because in our meetings over a two year period, no mention was ever made of his having recorded anything. Then some further research uncovered a number of recordings from the late ‘20s until 1956. So I saw him in the last good year he had. He died in 1959 of diabetes and dementia.

The last phase of research on Blind Willie came when I discovered a biography by Michael Gray entitled “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes; In Search of Blind Willie McTell.” This was published by Chicago Review Press © 2007. In that book, Gray covered areas from his birth in Happy Valley, Georgia, to his time in Statesboro, his attending blind school, two locations, including the same school attended by vocalist-pianist Ray Charles. Willie was recorded in Atlanta in the 1940s by folklorist Alan Lomax.

It turns out that Willie and my mother were born just before the turn of the century—1898, she in Thomson, Georgia, and Willie in Happy Valley, a rural area near Thomson. It is unlikely that they ever met as Willie moved with his mother to Statesboro during his youth.

I wrote Gray and briefly outlined my encounters with Willie and offered to speak with him should he desire. The author called me from a vacation spot in France. He was able to fill in some of my areas of interest and, he was interested in hearing from someone who had seen and heard Willie. Gray asked about Willie’s appearance, dress and speech. His speech was articulate and more refined than the average man of his age and background. We both agreed that it was likely that this influence was from his attendance at blind schools, giving him a better education than average.

For the person who is interested further, there are a number of YouTube offerings that will give an appreciation of his vocal and guitar skills. A number of rock artists who have recorded his songs, notably the Allman Brothers Band which recorded Statesboro Blues and Bob Dylan recorded a 1983 song Blind Willie McTell. Also, one may get an overview from the Wikipedia section on Blind Willie.

Thomson, Georgia, has an annual music festival related to McTell.

The Joys of Jazz Parties

Perhaps the super-bowl of jazz parties was originated by Dick Gibson, a Mobile native. Dick was a football star at the University of Alabama and a jazz enthusiast. He went to New York as a writer and got involved in the world of finance. During that time, he joined the jazz scene and sponsored a group he called “World’s Greatest Jazz Band.” Some years later business ventures caused his move to Colorado. In 1963, he and his wife Maddie missed the New York jazz scene, so they invited some musician friends to perform for a weekend house party and invited some of their Colorado friends to help them enjoy the music and share the expenses.

Urbie Green (photo by Norman Vickers

Perhaps a word or two is needed to distinguish a jazz party from a jazz festival. A jazz festival usually is a multi-stage event, frequently held outdoors and of generally lower admission costs. A festival usually has patrons who come and go as their schedules and desires dictate.

A jazz party, on the other hand, usually is a one-stage event in comfortable circumstances such as a ballroom with tables for food and bar service. Jazz party patrons are committed to the entire event and, of course, the number of attendees is smaller and the charge for the event proportionately larger.

Norman Vickers Jr., Al Laser, J.C. McAleer, Dick Gibson (photo by Norman Vickers)

By the time I was privileged to be a part of that Dick Gibson Jazz Party in 1985, the Labor Day weekend event was held in a downtown Denver hotel with 60 world-class musicians performing for 600 paying guests. After reading about the Gibson jazz parties, I contacted some Mobile jazz friends and inquired about the details of getting an invitation. Gibson graciously extended me an invitation and at my first party took about half an hour to give me the details about how he managed inviting the musicians and how the guest list worked. Many members of the “Tonight Show” band were regularly invited as were Benny Carter, Milt Hinton, vocalist Joe Williams, Bob Haggart, Phil Woods and Peanuts Hucko. Some European artists were invited as well as some Americans residing in Europe.

Joe Williams (photo by Norman Vickers)

The guest list also was impressive. Jazz writers Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler always were in attendance. Jean Bach, the woman who directed and narrated the “Great Day In Harlem” video, also was a regular attendee. Jean’s late husband had collaborated with the widow of Johnny Mercer to do a book on Johnny and his compositions. When our Jazz Society was doing a program on Johnny Mercer, I needed a copy of that book, which was difficult to find. I wrote Jean and she kindly donated one to us. It, too, may be found in our jazz collection and the downtown West Florida Public Library.

Jay McShann, Plas Johnson (photo by Norman Vickers)

I attended the Gibson Labor Day weekend jazz parties annually from ’85 until it closed after 30 years in 1992. There were many happy musical memories and new acquaintances made.

This leads to our Jazz Society’s venture into sponsorship of three January Pensacola Jazz Parties, from 1989 to 1991. Things were going well with our new Jazz Society with a 1983 birthday coinciding with the beginning of Pensacola JazzFest — a cooperative effort of WUWF-FM, Pensacola Arts Council and our newly formed Jazz Society.

Dick Gibson (photo by Norman Vickers)

Record producer Gus Statiras was a good friend. Gus, a native New Yorker, had married a lovely woman from Tifton, Ga., during WWII. He would organize jazz recording sessions in New York, Chicago, New Orleans or elsewhere and produce under his own label. His home base was Tifton but he’d travel wherever there was jazz. He had an extensive LP collection and as LPs were transitioning to CDs, he’d record in both formats. The Jazz Society board felt that it would be feasible for us to partner with Gus to produce our own Pensacola Jazz Party. It was held at the (then) Hilton Grand Hotel in downtown Pensacola.

Things went well with the jazz party. We had bassist/composer Bob Haggart, clarinetist Kenny Davern, pianists Dave McKenna and Ralph Sutton and drummer Gus Johnson, among many others.

Bill Watrous, Dan Barrett (photo by Norman Vickers)

Our parties were well attended by jazz fans from Maine to California; they recognized the talent and were pleased to pay the price of approximately $200 for the 2 ½-day weekend event. This was during the time of winter migration to Florida, so many of our patrons would make the stop in Pensacola to attend our event. Participation from our Pensacola friends, however, was slight. In fact, I’d have people who were not jazz fans or members of the Jazz Society stop me on the street and ask, “Norman, how can the Society charge $200 for that jazz party?” My response normally was, “That’s what it costs to produce a quality jazz party. If you can produce it for less, we’d be pleased for you to take it over!”

Our guests were interesting, too. We had Chester McClarty, M.D., who was William Faulkner’s physician among a group who came from Oxford, Miss. Having a common interest in Faulkner, we struck up a friendship and I got some interesting background information on the famous author.

Bulee “Slim” Gaillard was a drop-in guest at our third Jazz Party. I had known that Slim grew up in Pensacola (most writers succumbed to the Gaillard BS about “I was born in Cuba and my father was a ship’s captain”) but we had never crossed paths before. The family brought him and introduced him at the door. We invited him to have a seat. He looked tired, somewhat subdued; although he was well dressed, it appeared that his suit was too large for him. He told me that he was on the way to visit his son in London. A few weeks later, we read that Slim had died in London. Research by UWF public history graduate students about Slim and other famous Pensacola jazz musicians, including Gygi Gryce and Junior Cook, is available in the jazz room at our downtown West Florida Public Library.

Our third Pensacola Jazz Party coincided with the beginning of the first Gulf War and the final collapse of Eastern Air Lines. Gus had worked for Milt Gabler at the Commodore Record shop and invited him down for a press conference. Gabler was famous for making his own jazz recordings and befriending many of the jazz musicians. However, because of the beginning of the Gulf War, no reporters attended as they were all assigned to covering the changes in security at our several area military bases, Eglin AFB, Tyndall AFB and Pensacola Naval Air Station. But for the jazz party audience, Gus’ interview with Milt Gabler was most informative and entertaining. And I had opportunity to interview Milt privately for a Pensacola weekly published by Pfeiffer Printing Co.

The Jazz Society board decided, after our third Jazz Party, that we needed to focus our efforts in building our own membership. And the Atlanta Jazz Party began a 20 year annual event that following year. So, the Jazz Society began an increased effort to recruit new jazz members. And this was beneficial as we “inherited” the sole responsibility for Pensacola JazzFest in 1998 and have produced the Pensacola JazzFest annually since 1999.