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.

Book Review: ‘Sophisticated Giant, The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon,’ Maxine Gordon

SOPHISTICATED GIANT: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon
By Maxine Gordon
University of California Press © 2018
pp. 279

This biography of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923-1990) by his wife Maxine was written after his death and was a fulfillment of a promise she made to complete his life story.

Most people will remember that Dexter was the star of a 1986 movie “Round Midnight.” This movie was about a U.S. expatriate in France a decade or so after the end of World War II. In some ways, it was also a reflection of Dexter’s life in that he lived in Copenhagen, married a Danish woman and had a son with her. In actuality, the inspiration for the movie was a pianist with mental health issues, Bud Powell, who had spent time in France and had a Frenchman as his friend and protector. There are interesting details about making of the movie. American movie director Martin Scorsese had a bit part in the movie and predicted, accurately, that Dexter would be nominated for an Academy Award. And that prediction came true. Dexter didn’t win that year, not being a Hollywood insider. But, just to be nominated, especially since he wasn’t a trained actor, was a great accomplishment.

Dexter was the son of one of the first African-American physicians in Los Angeles. His childhood was comfortable and he had musical friends and went on the road in his late teens. There was a brief prison term and when the opportunity came for him to go to Europe, he seized it.

As stated, there was a period of marital stability with a Danish wife and a son born to that couple. But, when they moved back to the U.S. and his life became that of traveling bandleader, the marriage failed and his wife and child moved back to Denmark.

In the course of time, he needed an assistant who could help with the accounting and other details of travel and band personnel. That’s when he acquired the services of Maxine who became his manager/partner and, subsequently, wife. She had a common-law marriage to Woody Shaw and their young son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, came to live with Dexter and Maxine when they married.

Dexter had wanted to write the story of his life and had made some notes but never got that far along. Maxine promised that she’d make an effort to complete the work. This required additional study and effort — quite a remarkable story in itself. For more details on Maxine’s life and work see: www.maxinegordon.com.

Prediction: If you read this interesting book, likely you will have the urge, like me, to watch the movie, “Round Midnight,” again.

CD Review: ‘Tenormore,’ Scott Robinson

SCOTT ROBINSON; TENORMORE
Arbors Records

Some reviews almost write themselves; this is a prime example. Scott Robinson has produced a CD about his longtime love affair with his 1924 Conn tenor saxophone. Excellent liner notes by longtime jazz author and critic, Doug Ramsey, also make this CD special for me.

Robinson assembled an excellent small group which included Helen Sung on piano and Hammond B3; Dennis Mackrel on drums; and Martin Wind on string bass. Scott’s wife, Sharon, appears as special guest for one number on flute. About half the numbers are originals by Robinson with a lovely original, Rainy River, by bassist Martin Wind.

Sanford Josephson, in his excellent book about Gerry Mulligan, tells the story about Mulligan’s papers and his baritone saxophone being deposited posthumously at the Library of Congress. Robinson was selected to play one number on Mulligan’s baritone saxophone at that ceremony. Scott brought his own mouthpiece and reed to use when he played Mulligan’s horn. In the transfer from rehearsal space to stage, an L of C assistant helped to transport the horn and set up on stage. Much to Scott’s anxiety and disappointment, Mulligan’s mouthpiece and 25-year-old cracked reed was on the horn; and, there was no time for Scott to rescue his own mouthpiece set-up. But, trooper that he is, Scott got through the piece satisfactorily!

Tunes that most readers will recognize are Lennon and McCartney’s And I Love Her; The Good Life; and Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You. Bassist Martin Wind’s Rainy River has a lovely melody and the tenor sax and Wind’s bass blend marvelously. Scott’s original The Weaver is an excellent showpiece for a duet with wife Sharon’s flute.

This CD should be especially appealing to reed players but also to the casual fan who likes good music.

Thanks to all who helped make this CD possible, including Rachel Domber of Arbors Records. Scott gives special acknowledgment in the liner notes about her encouragement of the project.

This CD will be available for check-out by patrons in the Jazz Room of West Florida Public Library, downtown Pensacola.

Note: The hat worn by Robinson on the cover of “Tenormore” was created by him from some of the many reeds with which he’s performed over the years.

Movie Review: ‘King of Jazz’

KING OF JAZZ
A Film of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra—1930

The movie, KING OF JAZZ, featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, was recently shown on Turner Movie Channel. This 1930 movie was groundbreaking in a number of ways. It was one of the first movies to be shown in the newly developing Technicolor. In fact, it hadn’t been fully developed and some of the scenes have a greenish tint to them. Also, this was the first movie in which animated and live characters interact; Whiteman and an animated character do a — mercifully — brief dance together.

The sets are gorgeous. One of the most impressive begins with a giant grand piano with extended keyboard at which four pianists pretend to perform. Then one hears the sound of the Whiteman orchestra. The giant piano lid opens and one sees the entire Whiteman orchestra within the confines of the piano. There is no plot. It’s more like a vaudeville show; that is, one act follows another—lots of good-looking women dancers in skimpy outfits. All are impressive for the time period.

The backstory also is fascinating. For that time-period, Whiteman’s orchestra was the most successful both musically and economically. Also, most jazz scholars wouldn’t classify Whiteman’s music as strictly jazz; the orchestra hired outstanding jazz performers. Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke had been an off-and-on performer for Whiteman. Alcoholism was a problem with Bix and by the time the movie was finally made, Bix would die of pneumonia and alcoholism in less than a year. Bing Crosby got his start with Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys and he has several appearances in this movie. However, he was absent for part of it, having been arrested and jailed for drunk driving on a downtown Los Angeles street.

Another backstory tale, it took two trips to Los Angeles to make the movie. The band arrived by train and was scheduled for one month in LA to complete the movie. Whiteman had arranged with the Ford Motor Company to supply Model A Fords at discounted prices for the band members to purchase. Each car had Whiteman’s image and logo on the spare-tire cover in back. When the band arrived, there was nothing for them to do for a month except one studio broadcast a week for radio transmission. The rest of the time was devoted to partying with the movie people. And party they did!

On the second trip, of course, the movie was made and distributed. Unfortunately, this expensive movie didn’t make any money because it was released in the early years of the depression.

If you missed the TBS movie recently, you’re still in luck. The Jazz Room at downtown West Florida Public Library has the DVD. Also, there is a large book made to accompany the improved DVD with many superior photographs and details about how the movie was made. Plus, there are two large encyclopedic volumes about Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, which were compiled from many years of research by Don Rayno. Those volumes, of course, do not circulate but are available for reference. Rayno tracked down those musicians still living for interviews in person, by telephone or letter.

Original “King of Jazz” window card featuring Paul Whiteman, 1930.

CD Review: ‘The Definition of Insanity,’ Tony Monaco

The Definition of Insanity
Tony Monaco- Hammond B3, piano, accordion and voice
Chicken Coop Records—Release date January 18, 2019

Monaco, a Hammond B3 artist, has done it again. With his usual small-group format, which includes guitarist Derek Decenzo, and drummer Tony McClung, he also uses his wife Asake Monaco on piano on a single number, Never Let Me Go.

Monaco is a personal favorite and he earned more converts when he was a featured soloist with his trio at a Pensacola JazzFest in the early 2000s.

The selection of 11 tunes is eclectic. Cars, Trucks and Buses, by keyboardist Page McConnell, is the opener on the CD. Jimmy Smith’s “Root Down” is executed more or less faithfully to the Smith version except that Smith used a bass player whereas Monaco plays the bass part with left hand. Never Let Me Go is a lovely ballad by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and features Monaco also on vocals and his wife Asake on piano.

Monaco’s only original tune, Awar Athar has a Middle Eastern flavor and uses the Turkish scale, which he learned from one of his Turkish students. He sings in Italian and also plays accordion on Non Ti Scordare Di Me a traditional Neapolitan song. Monaco’s rendition of Floyd Cramer’s big hit, Last Date is also memorable. His finale, A Song for You, Leon Russell’s composition, which has been frequently recorded by many artists, is rendered as a vocal as well as keyboard piece.

This CD was a joy to hear and to review. It will be placed in the Jazz Room of the West Florida Public Library for patrons to check out and enjoy as well.

CD Review: ‘Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet’

There’s a saying some circles: There are two kinds of music, TRAD and STAD. (S—t, that ain’t Dixieland.) If you’re a strict adherent to the former, then this review won’t appeal to you.

However, for the rest of you musically adventurous souls, this may or may not appeal to you. I was aware of Eric Dolphy’s multi-instrumentalism and his important place as a jazz icon, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. The full title of this three-CD set is “Eric Dolphy Musical Prophet; The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions.” It is released by Renaissance Records and produced by Zev Feldman and flautist James Newton. The set is accompanied by a 100-page CD size booklet complete with commentary by various artists. Two of the three recordings are reproduced on CD with supplemental recordings to make an approximate one hour each. The third CD features alternate takes from the previous two recordings, previously unreleased. All are mono-track recordings.

The two recordings previously released are entitled Conversations and Iron Man. The accompanying 100-page booklet includes photographs, description of how the recordings came to be made as well as commentary from various artists about Dolphy’s life and musical artistry. Besides Dolphy, who performs on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet, are the following: William “Prince” Lasha, flute; Huey “Sonny” Simmons, alto sax; Clifford Jordan, soprano sax; Woody Shaw, trumpet; Garvin Bushell, bassoon; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; bassists Richard Davis and Eddie Kahn; and drummers J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett.

Several personal take-aways: the previously unreleased “Muses for Richard Davis” was intriguing duet for Davis’ bass and Dolphy’s bass clarinet. Also, a discussion about how Dolphy would practice flute and birds would respond, so Dolphy’s practice might be interrupted by a flute-bird conversation. This reminded me of my own flute and chromatic harmonica bird conversations. Dolphy was a straight-arrow who avoided the drug/alcohol problems of so many musicians of that era. He was engaged to a Parisian dancer but died in 1964 at age 36 of undiagnosed, untreated diabetic coma in a Berlin hospital.

This is not a recording that is likely to leave the casual listener humming a familiar tune. But it will leave the perceptive listener was a greater appreciation of the talent and skill of multi-instrumentalist Dolphy and his talented performers.

Pensacola library patrons may check out this valuable recording from the Jazz Room of West Florida Public Library.