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.

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 couple of children by her. Actually 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, 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 two children. But, when they moved back to the U.S. and his life became that of traveling bandleader, the marriage failed and his wife and children 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. She had been married to Woody Shaw and their young son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, came to live with the couple 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.