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Remembering Lester

Since the end of last week, when I wrote my piece on Lester Young, the extent of his enduring appeal has become apparent as various jazz musicians – players of all instruments – have shared their thoughts about this unique character and his enormously influential sound.

Over the next few days, I’ll be adding the memories and impressions of those who met him, who admired him and who were inspired by him, as well as their suggestions for required listening.

DICK HYMAN (piano, US): “When I was playing for Lester Young in Birdland in the 1950s, he amazed me one night by calling Lavender Blue – it was then on the hit parade. It was a really silly sort of song. Its full title was Lavender Blue Dilly-Dilly. It was the most foolish and un-hip thing and to hear Lester Young calling for it, I thought he was joking. But we played it and it worked fine – he knew better than I that the tune had that kind of potential. I would never have guessed it!

“We had a good working relationship, but I can’t say I knew him. Probably few people did. I recently introduced his recordings to a young musician who had never heard them, whom I thought was a little glib and unconcerned with where he was going in his lines. Lester always told a story when he played.

“My own favourite tracks would be any of the very earliest recordings he did with Basie – such as Shoe Shine Boy, Lady Be Good and Lester Leaps In.”

JIM GALLOWAY (saxes, Canada):  “Lester is, of course, one of my all-time favourites and proof that less is more. It’s really difficult to home in on a favourite recording. Favourites in music and art aren’t fixed in stone and vary with one’s frame of mind, but the one that springs to mind today is the 1957 Newport Festival when he guested with the Basie band. On One O’Clock Jump he plays five wonderful choruses with the band swinging like no other band could. He could say so much with only a handful of notes – just as a Matisse drawing could with a few seemingly simple lines.

“I never did meet Lester, but travelled and played a lot with Buddy Tate who knew him well. He often said that Lester really didn’t want to go on living, but thought he would make it to 50. He almost did.”

JON-ERIK KELLSO (cornet, US):  “I love Lester in all his periods, and consider him one of my biggest musical influences, so it’s not easy for me to pick my favorite tracks. It changes day to day, week to week.

“That said, his Lester Young Trio sides with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich are right up there for me. The chemistry between them is lovely, and Prez really sounds strong and comfy. This setting affords the opportunity for him to ‘stretch out’ and ‘tell his story’, as they say.

“I love his creative musical phrases, his pretty tone, his laid-back feel, his swinging beat, and his unorthodox approach (paving a new direction aside from the Hawk disciples, his way of finding the road less traveled, unusual phrase endings and song endings). Plus, he was simply one of the coolest people ever (hell, I think he actually invented “cool” as an expression as we know it!).”

ALAN BARNES (saxes, UK): “I love Lester Young. In fact, I named my record label, Woodville, after his birthplace. Why? Because he wasn’t just a great musician: he seemed to have an ‘other-wordly’ quality – which has a magic beyond definition and can’t be analysed- and because he changed the music forever. It wouldn’t be how it is without him.”

SCOTT HAMILTON (tenor sax, US): “Pres was the first tenor sax player I really loved and it’s hard to narrow my favorites down to a few but these ones are my perennial favorites since childhood: Back To The Land (with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946), Up ‘N Adam (with Hank Jones, Ray Brown & Buddy Rich, 1950), I Can’t Get Started (from Jazz At the Philharmonic, 1946), You Can Depend On Me (with Basie small group, 1939), and Sometimes I’m Happy ( with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett, 1943) is a little masterpiece. ”

ALAN BARNES: “My very favourite Lester Young track would be Somebody Loves Me with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946. The pianist fits with him superbly and it’s Lester at his relaxed and inventive best. He was a total original and worked at right angles to the more obviously ‘virtuosic’ sax players. “
BOBBY WELLINS (tenor sax, UK): ” I went to New York with Vic Lewis in 1950. I was 21, and was just too excited to take everything in. I used to eat just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish that I loved – for $2. It was a hotel where a lot of showbiz people – musicians and people on the road – stayed. I suddenly saw this person standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young!’. I couldn’t help myself – being young and foolish, I shot out across the road and shouted: ‘Lester!’.

“I told him that I was over with a British band. He had a high-pitched voice, and he said: ‘Oh yes, I heard you were over with Vic Lewis.’ It was so sad. He had this old dirty raincoat, and there were rumours that he was drinking a lot. I asked if I could buy him a drink, and he said [Wellins sounds like a female impersonator as he mimics Young’s voice]: ‘That’s very nice of you.’

” So we went in and sat down and, of course, as the guys were coming and going up and down in the elevator, they were having a quick look in the lounge and they’d see me, and I’d see this look of disbelief on their faces, and they’d come over and I’d introduce them.

“We sat there for so long. We talked about everything -current affairs, New York. I told him I was too excited to take it all in. ‘Well, you’re only a baby, man,’ he said. He had on his pork-pie hat – he never took it off. That’s what I saw first. I saw the hat, then the tall figure. He didn’t have his saxophone. The next week he was doing a recording, and he invited me along but we were flying back to Britain.

“Most of the people I idolised were the offspring of Lester’s influence, like Stan Getz. I never even asked him [Wellins sounds rueful as he says this] what mouthpiece he used. In retrospect, he was a bit bedraggled.

“People forget about how Lester played earlier in his career. They don’t listen to his solos in the Basie band when he was absolutely tearing around but in that lovely way he had of doing things.”

ALAN BARNES: “I know Bobby Wellins and Duncan Lamont met him in the early 1950’s on an American tour. Lester got quite a crowd of British musicians around him in the hotel foyer, happily accepting drinks, and made a comment about going upstairs to get ‘he loaves and fishes’ – whatever that means.

“There are plenty of stories about Lester in Dave Gelly’s book – as well as some great insights. He suggests that Lester’s erratic later work – sometimes struggling to get the sound, sometimes brilliant – may have had something to do with the state of his horn. Also, in a book called A Lester Young Reader there’s a lovely essay by Bobby Scott who, as a very young man, spent time with Prez on a Jazz At The Phil tour. They were drawn to each other because they were both outsiders: one for reasons of youth; the other because of not fitting in.

“Lester was quite a character. He hated anyone crippled being on the same flight as him – he felt that the chances of crashing were greater if they were on board – and referred to them as “Johnny Deathbeds”! However, he could be re-assured if a baby was amongst the passengers as he thought the almighty wouldn’t be mean enough …

“He also referred to Pee Wee Marquette, the midget MC of Birdland, who required bribing to pronounce a name correctly, as “Half a Motherf***er” which is pretty good.”

SIR MICHAEL PARKINSON (broadcaster & writer, UK): “Anyone who loves Lester Young and Ben Webster understands the full joy, range and possibility of the tenor sax. They are the gods who define the instrument.”

WARREN VACHE (cornet, US): “Lester Young was one of the most influential musicians to have ever walked the planet. His approach to music was unique, deeply felt and profoundly important. He paid the price for this dedication and talent while he lived, working for small fees, constantly traveling, and suffering many personal disappointments and indignities. In short, he had a miserable time while he was with us and in return for our mistreatment of him and his kind left us some of the most uplifting recordings ever made to sustain us in our daily lives and inspire us to greater heights.

“To reduce his life’s work to ‘your favorite track’, is, in my thinking, to continue the indignity and mistreatment he suffered throughout his life. Lester Young’s music was a gift, the magnitude of which it is clear we don’t fully appreciate or understand even today 100 years after his birth.

“To really appreciate his genius, I suggest you play all of his music, all day long, and do yourself the favor of shutting up, not imposing your own opinions and values, and actually listening. Let the profundity impress upon you what it will. If you learn nothing more than: although Lester Young is dead, his music is certainly alive and well.”

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Five Star Reviews From Edinburgh & Nairn


NAIRN INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL’S PIANO SUMMIT, COMMUNITY CENTRE, NAIRN (published in The Scotsman, August 8th)
It may have been a musician down (pianist John Bunch called off due to illness) and have a tenor sax star lost in transition (Scott Hamilton, whose first flight of the day from northern Norway to Oslo was cancelled), but the Nairn Jazz Festival still managed to pull a magic evening out of its hat on Thursday night. Everything went according to plan; in fact, it went better than could have been planned, because an extra piano materialised towards the end of the hitherto two-piano concert.
This summit meeting involved veteran American wizard Dick Hyman plus younger, German pianists Chris Hopkins and Bernd Lhotzky – in other words, the three pianists who had wowed Edinburgh audiences earlier in the week with their games of musical pianos. For their Nairn reunion, they were joined by the similarly nimble-fingered Rossano Sportiello – and the results were sensational.
Of course, the numbers which involved all four pianists were the most exciting – and the most fun to watch, as a certain amount of contorting and Marx Brothers-like horseplay took place as the musicians arranged sheet music so that two pianists could read it at a time, and arranged arms and torsos so that complex duets were feasible.
Among the highlights of the many different line-ups within this quartet was a beautifully delicate duet by Lhotzky and Sportiello on George Shearing’s Children’s Waltz, Hyman and Hopkins’s hard-swinging Opus 1/2, and Sportiello’s sublime solo version of Wonder Why, which was so romantic that the old couple next to me were moved to hold hands..
*******
NAIRN INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL, COMMUNITY CENTRE, NAIRN (published August 10th)
There’s no doubt about it: this year’s somewhat reduced Nairn International Jazz Festival would have been an altogether lesser affair had it not been for the contribution of American jazz star Dick Hyman. The veteran pianist is so versatile that he played an important part in preventing this year’s event from feeling like a diet version of the usual programme.
On Friday afternoon, Nairn audiences were treated to a history lesson from Hyman, whose acclaimed and epic CD Rom A Century of Jazz Piano is about to be released as a CD box set. His two-hour guided tour of the jazz hall of fame was an exercise in musical time travel: among the many greats he managed to squeeze into concert (which really demands a sequel) were Erroll Garner, George Shearing and Bill Evans.
Just as an impersonator can drop different voices into a conversation so Hyman elegantly conjures up the spirits of his piano heroes, most thrillingly such early pioneers as the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, with whose eternally exciting Maple Leaf Rag he kicked off the afternoon, and stride giant James P Johnson whose Keep Off the Grass Hyman played at such speed that his hands were a cartoon-like blur.
On Saturday night, he was back for a staggeringly energetic festival finale with fellow octogenarian Bob Wilber (clarinet, saxes) – the highlights of which were the oldest numbers, Running Wild, Royal Garden Blues and CC Rider.
Wilber had arrived on Friday to play what turned out to be a superb concert with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton – who had finally arrived from northern Norway, more than 24 hours after he had set out. Red Bull energy drinks perhaps deserve some credit for his performance (what Wilber’s secret is remains to be seen – he’d been playing till 4am in France earlier that day), but the wildly enthusiastic response of the audience to the Nairn debut of this particular line-up (with the wonderful Rossano Sportiello on piano duties, joining resident bassist Andy Cleyndert and drummer Joe Ascione) no doubt helped power both stars.
******

DICK HYMAN PIANO LEGENDS, THE HUB, EDINBURGH (published in The Herald, August 4th)

If Sunday night’s concert at The Hub is anything to go by, the secret to being a spry octogenarian is to play regular games of musical piano stools. American pianist extraordinaire Dick Hyman may be 82 but that didn’t stop him from joining fellow ivory-ticklers Bernd Lhotzky and Chris Hopkins in a couple of rounds of stool-hopping as the three men worked their way round two grand pianos, while serving up rafters-raising versions of The Sheik of Araby and I Found A New Baby.
Those two thrilling numbers – played with great style as well as humour (the younger players’ mock territorialism over the keys, a bit of business involving who had the longest sheet music etc) were highlights of an exhilarating evening. But they weren’t the only highlights. On faster, stride numbers, a solo Hyman can sound like he’s playing with multiple hands, and his dynamic take on James P Johnson’s classic Carolina Shout was a terrific example of this.
Less flamboyant but equally impressive was his original piece, Thinking About Bix, which captured the beguiling peculiarities of the compositional style of the legendary Bix Beiderbecke as well as evoking his unique cornet playing.

Although Hyman was very much in charge of proceedings, his young cohorts – both first-timers at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – had plenty of opportunities to shine, notably their electrifying duet on Somebody Stole My Gal, and Lhotzky’s duet with Hyman on Harlem Strut.

*****

DICK HYMAN EUROPEAN ALL-STARS/KEN MATHIESON CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA, THE HUB, EDINBURGH (published in The Herald, August 6th)

Following his piano extravaganza of Sunday night, Dick Hyman returned to The Hub on Tuesday evening for a concert which showcased his equally prodigious talents as an arranger and a bandleader who can whip even the most ragtag bunch of star soloists into a tight, working unit. Some of the musicians on Tuesday night’s bill had quite possibly never met before, let alone played together before, which undoubtedly added to the excitement of the music – as well as underlining bandleading Hyman’s skills.
Mind you, with the likes of Alan Barnes (saxes and clarinet), Dave Green (bass) and John Allred (trombone) in his septet, Hyman had at his disposal some superb players, several of whom looked as if they were getting a real kick out of playing such rarely performed numbers as a thrilling Dooji Wooji (Hyman revealed that he’d once asked the bass player Milt Hinton was this meant, only to be told “Better you not know..”).
Alan Barnes must sometimes rue the fact that he’s so versatile because it often means that he does back-to-back shifts on the bandstand. Tuesday night was no exception, as his turn as a European All-Star followed fast on the heels of his first guest appearance with the Classic Jazz Orchestra. Their programme of Benny Carter music might have benefitted from an interval but it was a treat nevertheless to hear this top-class band dish up such cracking Carter numbers as Symphony in Riffs from the 1930s and Katy-Do from his Kansas City Suite. Barnes’s superb work on alto (on the latter tune especially) was the icing on the cake.

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The News From Nairn

Quality, not quantity, is clearly the ethos of the Nairn International Jazz Festival, if this year’s line-up is anything to go by. The festival may not be quite as long as usual, and there may be fewer concerts, but organiser Ken Ramage has nevertheless put together a programme which will make many jazz-lovers salivate – and which could well lure festival-goers up north rather than to the Edinburgh event which, this year, runs concurrently with Nairn’s.
Although the festival is shorter than usual and there is only ever one concert on at any given time, there is still a packed, focused, programme, and it’s one which offers something for everyone. Ramage is undoubtedly proudest of securing the Scottish debut of the glamorous thirtysomething Italian singer Roberta Gambarini, who has been making a name for herself in the last few years thanks to her amazing scatting. She is giving two concerts – on Monday 3rd and Wednesday 5th.
Another coup for the festival is finally managing to welcome American piano wizard Dick Hyman to Nairn. Like guitar ace Martin Taylor, who makes his festival debut on Tuesday 4th, he has been invited many times but until relatively recently, the Nairn Jazz Festival clashed with a festival of American music of which Hyman was the musical director. He relinquished that job a couple of years ago, and so was able to take up the invitation to Nairn, a festival which, he says, he has heard all his friends enthusiastically talking about.

The digitally dextrous Hyman – who was Woody Allen’s musical director on numerous films including Radio Days, Everyone Says I Love You and Zelig – is a chameleon of the keyboard, able to play in the style of all the jazz greats and one of his Nairn concerts (on Friday 7th) will offer a unique chance to hear his own take on jazz history. He will also be sharing the stage – and the Steinway – with three other virtuoso pianists (Bernd Lhotsky, Rossano Sportiello and Chris Hopkins) at the International Piano Summit on Thursday evening, and with his old Soprano Summit band-mate Bob Wilber, on Saturday 8th.

Wilber, the veteran soprano saxophonist and clarinettist who was mentored by none other than jazz legend Sidney Bechet, is, along with Brian Kellock and Cyrus Chestnut (piano), John Allred (trombone) and Joe Ascione (drums), one of many return visitors to this year’s festival. In addition to his closing concert with Dick Hyman, he guest-stars with festival favourite Scott Hamilton, the great tenor saxophonist, for a reunion on Friday 7th. Hamilton’s two festival gigs – the other is on Thursday 6th – feature him in the supremely classy company of his one-time regular pianist John Bunch.

It’s 20 years since Hamilton’s quintet (with Bunch) released the album, Scott Hamilton Plays Ballads, which cemented the tenor man’s reputation as a great romantic player, and there will be many aficionados keeping their fingers crossed for a reprise of such sublime numbers as Dream Dancing and In a Sentimental Mood..

With cornettist Warren Vache unable to come to Nairn this summer, the festival turned to Wendell Brunious, a trumpeter who made an impression – and not just because he was by far the most nattily attired musician in attendance – when he made his debut here, as part of the Frank Wess band, in 2007. New Orleans-born Brunious is in residence for most of the week, playing with Rossano Sportiello and Andy Cleyndert (bass) on Friday 7th and John Bunch, Andy Cleyndert and Joe Ascione (drums) on Saturday 8th. His duties during the festival also extend to introducing a film: even the youngest jazz fans – or potential jazz fans – are catered for with a special screening of The Aristocats, the 1970s Disney movie which is most memorable for its terrific Everybody Wants to Be a Cat number.

Brunious starts his week with a couple of concerts with a trio led by the Russian pianist David Gazarov, who makes his Nairn debut with a solo set on Tuesday 4th – one of a series of intimate morning gigs in The Classroom bistro. Expect a mix of classical music and jazz, as Gazarov – like Dick Hyman – is expert at both.

* The Nairn International Jazz Festival runs from August 3rd-8th. For tickets, call 01309 674221 or buy in person at Nairn Community Centre, Kings Street, Nairn. For full details, visit http://www.nairnjazz.com or email info@nairnjazz.com

 

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The Mouse That Roared: An Introduction to Nairn Jazz

It’s a balmy Sunday evening and over 300 jazz fans are taking their seats in the conference room of an elegant seaside hotel. The place is buzzing. Many of the audience members haven’t seen each other since the last jazz concert, a few months ago, and there’s a great deal of anticipation about the return visit of the favourite American jazz musician about to appear onstage.
You might think that I’m about to tell you all about some Mediterranean jazz festival or an American jazz party, but this is actually the build-up to a concert at the Newton Hotel in Nairn, the picturesque Scottish seaside town which, over the last decade, has put itself firmly on the jazz map. Like something out of an Ealing comedy, the highly personal and often eccentric Nairn International Jazz Festival is now a player on the world-stage of jazz.
The festival was founded by Ken Ramage, a local greengrocer with a passion for the music. In the early 1990s, he decided to stage a series of jazz concerts featuring such big names as the American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and the Scottish singer Carol Kidd. These proved so popular that Ramage, inspired by the classic documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which was filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, boldly went on to develop the Nairn International Jazz Festival.
Like Newport – which was also, famously, the setting for the well-loved Hollywood musical High Society – Nairn, with its big old houses, stunning views across the Moray Firth and beautiful surrounding countryside – is a splendid location for a festival. It only took a few years for it to emerge as a mecca for the creme de la creme of the jazz world who routinely descend on the wee town every August for the annual festival, and at various times in between, for one-off concerts and weekend events.

As Ken Peplowski, the clarinet and saxophone star, tells an audience which has just been blown away by his dynamic, exciting performance: “We love coming here. There’s such an amazing scene here. Sometimes I tell people, and they don’t believe me. Then they come, and they realise it too.”

The day after his sell-out concert at the Newton, Peplowski is waiting at reception for a lift to his next gig: a late morning concert at a restaurant where, in true Nairn style, the audience’s tickets include their elevenses. There’s just one problem: his bass player, London-based Andrew Cleyndert, isn’t around. A couple of inquiries later and Peplowski learns that Cleyndert was whisked off earlier to do an extra gig: at, of all places, the local nursery.

Only in Nairn would this very typical sort of last-minute addition to the itinerary be cooked up. Many a time, during the festival, word has spread through audiences that there’s to be an extra concert or that somebody has started a little jam session somewhere. It’s all part of the event’s charm.

As is the fact that Nairn is very much the jazz festival with the personal touch. You only need to watch the crowds filing out of the concerts to see this: people line up to thank Ken Ramage and to request that certain bands or musicians be invited back. As often as not, the musicians are the first to request a return visit – and Peplowski’s requests start on Sunday evening and continue through to the workshop he gives pupils at the local secondary school on the Monday afternoon.

The late cornet star Ruby Braff came to Nairn several times – and, in fact, played his last-ever gig there. Like many of his fellow musicians, he was treated to trips to Loch Ness and Cawdor Castle during his stay, but it was the dolphins in the Moray Firth which particularly appealed to him. Legendary bass player Ray Brown found the golfing opportunities (the Newton Hotel looks out on to the splendid West Golf Course) as much of an incentive as the musical ones. Other jazz musicians have managed to cram in visits to nearby Brodie Castle – which has been a venue in past festivals – to their schedule, as well as visits to distilleries.

Ruby Braff was also one of a number of musicians who head for Nairn before anywhere else in Scotland, and who have effectively been adopted by festival-goers as one of their own. Since the festival has always been a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, there has long been a degree of favouritism towards pianists – the late Ralph Sutton and Gene Harris loved coming to Nairn – and singers who, as often as not, Ramage first heard on Michael Parkinson’s radio show.

The characteristic which, more than any other, puts Nairn jazz in a class of it own is its laid-back, friendly atmosphere. Musicians and audience members mingle before concerts, after concerts and during the intervals: there’s no attempt at the segregation which is now the norm at jazz events. John Bunch, the veteran American pianist, loves the fact that “the musicians get to hobnob with the fans”. Indeed, the musicians usually stay at the same hotels as the punters, and it’s really quite surreal to see great American jazz men emerging from the newsagents on the High Street, or to hear them extolling the virtues of the local chippie’s curry sauce.

For cornettist Warren Vache, “the most rewarding feature of the Nairn Jazz Festival is its intimacy”. Vache, who has been a regular visitor since the early days, says: “The concert venues are generally smaller, allowing more contact with the audience and this sometimes makes for very special music. I remember doing a duo concert with Ralph Sutton several times in Nairn, and it always seemed as though we were performing for friends in a sitting room.”

And in case you think you need jazz aficionado credentials to get a kick out of Nairn, bear in mind that large chunks of the audience are local folk who have discovered jazz as a result of the festival. Prepare to be converted ….

* A preview of this year’s Nairn International Jazz Festival (Aug 3rd-8th) will be posted next week, but if you can’t wait, visit www.nairnjazz.com for information.

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Celebrating Satchmo

It’s entirely my dad’s fault that I turned out the way I am: a jazz fan. The seeds had been carefully sown during my early childhood – and one of the more cynical and calculating (but fun) methods my father used to brainwash me was to organise annual midnight feasts to celebrate the birthday of the great Louis Armstrong.
My brothers and I were aware of Louis from an early age. We couldn’t not be: his photograph (signed, because Dad won a competition to meet him during his 1962 visit to Glasgow) hung in our bathroom for years. Which, given his famous fondness for Swiss-Kriss laxatives, seems entirely appropriate.
Anyway, the midnight feasts (which, it has since transpired, actually took place well before the witching hour) were a family tradition and were always held on July 4, the date Louis claimed to be his birthday. Now, of course, that date is generally believed to be a month out, but it’s the date we remember and so it’s the date for my offspring’s inaugural “midnight feast for Louis”, on July 4.
To mark Louis’s chosen birthday, and to commemorate the anniversary of his death (on July 6, 1971), here’s a piece I wrote for The Herald in 2001, at the time of his centenary.
JAZZ anniversaries come and go, but there is none as significant or as worthy of celebration as that of Louis Armstrong. He was jazz. No other jazz musician has had the impact or the profile that Armstrong had. While the general public remembers him primarily as a much-loved entertainer who came from a jazz background, the jazz world regards him as the singlemost important figure in 20th century American music. Armstrong invented jazz as an art form, and he revolutionised popular singing. His influence was universal and enduring.
Genius springs from unlikely sources – and Louis Armstrong was no exception. He was born on August 4, 1901 in the seedy Storyville section of New Orleans. Just 21 years later, the waif who learned to play trumpet while in a home for wayward boys had musicians queuing up to hear him, and all of Chicago buzzing with talk of his brilliance on the bandstand with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
His impact on jazz was immediate. His dynamic, driving playing revitalised the Fletcher Henderson band in New York in the mid-1920s. What he played one night would be copied by musicians all over town the next day. And when he first got into a studio with his own bands, specially created for recording sessions, the results turned the jazz community upside down.

The 64 “sides” Armstrong recorded between 1925 and 1929, with his Hot Five, Hot Seven and Savoy Ballroom Five line-ups shaped the course of jazz and are now regarded as the singlemost important body of work in jazz history. These were the records on which his genius burst out in all its glory for the first time: his fantastic playing – dazzling lyricism and originality, innate swing and daring stop-time solos – threw down the gauntlet to musicians everywhere, and inspired everyone who heard it. The Hot Five records are the DNA of jazz.

The late guitarist Danny Barker once said: “The Okeh record company released a record by Louis about every six weeks, and everybody waited for the records because each one of them was a lesson in something new; in things to come.” Armstrong had already inspired other musicians who came to hear him, but the Hot Five records had an even greater impact. These recordings taught the world how to swing.

Trumpeter Max Kaminsky later wrote: “Above the electrifying tone, the magnificence of his ideas and the rightness of his harmonic sense, his superb technique, his power and ease, his hotness and intensity, his complete mastery of his horn – above all this he had swing. No-one knew what swing was until Louis came along. It’s more than just the beat; it’s conceiving the phrases in the very feeling of the beat, moulding and building them so that they’re an integral, indivisible part of the tempo. The others had an idea of it, but Louis could do it; he was the heir of all that had gone before, and the father of all that was to come.”

Even if Armstrong had never made another record after 1929, he would still be the most important figure in jazz. Gary Giddens, one of the most eloquent voices in the Ken Burns documentary, Jazz, says: “In those [Hot Five] recordings, Armstrong proves for the first time that an improvisation can be just as coherent, imaginative, emotionally satisfying and durable as a written piece of music.”

As he played, Armstrong unselfconsciously wrote the language of jazz, transforming an ensemble music into a soloist’s art. One of his contemporaries, the trumpeter Mutt Carey, later remembered: “He tried to make a picture out of every number he was playing to show just what it meant. He had ideas, enough technique to bring out what he wanted to say. He made you feel the number and that’s what counts.” Miles Davis, the trumpeter who himself broke plenty of new ground, said: “You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played – I mean, even modern.”

Not only did Armstrong influence his contemporaries, he has continued to influence generations of jazz musicians. Cornettist Warren Vache, says: “He was the 20th century Beethoven as far as I’m concerned. Nobody ever swung before Louis. He taught us all how to play in 4/4 time and swing like mad. He also invented the language of the trumpet and pretty much the language of improvisation too. It just doesn’t get any better than him.”

Marty Grosz, the guitarist and singer, echoes the sentiment. “Let’s put it this way, Louis Armstrong was to jazz, or is still to jazz, what Shakespeare was to English literature. He somehow, innately, just knew what to do and when to do it. He was the bellwether of everything that followed. He pointed the way. That’s not to say that there weren’t many other talented people but somehow Louis rhythmically freed up the whole thing.”

Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton says: “There is no other single person who has had the kind of impact on how we play music than Louis Armstrong had, and his Hot Five records were pioneer examples. He continued the rest of his life to influence people, and he continued to make influential recordings, but those ones from the 1920s were the ones which first showed the way.”

It’s also important to note that Armstrong showed the way not only to trumpeters, but to players of every instrument – a rare legacy, as clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski points out. “There are a few people who have come through the jazz pantheon who do that: Charlie Parker’s one, but Armstrong was the first.”

Armstrong’s phenomenal achievements as a pioneer don’t end with his trumpet playing. He was also, as Gary Giddens said in Jazz, “the singlemost important singer that American music has produced”. His first big hit, Heebie Jeebies, introduced the world to his gravelly, mumbling style of “scat” singing, and his way of improvising with his voice as freely as if it were an instrument was enormously influential. Danny Barker said: “That’s when the song stylist came in.

“People began to buy records because they liked a certain personality – Louis Armstrong was responsible for that.” Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra are among those who were directly inspired by his looser style of singing, his way of personalising songs.

Ken Peplowski is one of a huge number of musicians – including clarinettist Artie Shaw and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins – who has credited Armstrong with inspiring him to create his own music. Shaw said that Armstrong taught him “that you should do something that is your own”; something that expresses who you are. Peplowski says: “He was a great entertainer and a great artist. He didn’t compromise either of those aspects – and almost refused to. He was one of the first people that presented himself in a very natural state – take it or leave it; this is what I do.”

But the last word goes to the late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who memorably summed up the feelings of thousands of jazz musicians the world over, when he said of Louis Armstrong: “Without him – no me.”

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Merry Month of May and the Notes are Blue

May has turned out to be a surprisingly memorable month, jazz-wise. Usually it’s a period of anticipation, as we jazz fans (in Scotland anyway) start to limber up for the festival season – or start getting hopeful that there will be some chances to hear our favourite musicians.

But sometimes you just can’t leave hearing favourite musicians to chance. From roughly 19 years’ experience, I know that I can’t rely on my local jazz festival – Glasgow – to cater to my tastes. Not since the heady days when they had Gerry Mulligan, Cab Calloway and Stan Getz on the bill have I managed to get terribly excited about their line-ups.  So, knowing that my two big hopes are the Edinburgh and Nairn events, which don’t start until the very end of July, it became necessary to find my fix elsewhere..

So it was to the Norwich Jazz Party that I headed during the first bank holiday weekend of the month. I’ve already reported on the Sandy Brown extravaganza but it was the icing on the cake: there were plenty of other treats. My highlights included a sizzling set of Eddie Condon-associated music (Ken Peplowski’s thrilling clarinet playing on That’s a Plenty a stand-out), an all-too-brief Bix set, which had an A-list front-line including Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet) and Howard Alden (guitar) letting rip on such delights as Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and Louisiana, and Dan Block (tenor sax) and Jon-Erik Kellso’s lovely, laidback evocation of recordings made by Coleman Hawkins and Red Allen in 1933.

To my disappointment, I arrived in Norwich too late to hear cornet ace Warren Vache’s reunion with tenor king Scott Hamilton but I had several chances to hear them playing in other groups. Hamilton teamed up with piano whiz Rossano Sportiello (they’re hoping to do a duet CD together soon) and drummer Chuck Riggs for a set of tunes the saxophonist played with the late Dave McKenna.

The results were sublime: Hamilton was on top form, especially on the ballads April in Paris and She’s Funny That Way: romantic, forthright, bluesy. These were tour-de-force performances – and the first on his feet for a standing ovation after each number was none other than Sir John Dankworth.

Vache also beguiled audiences with his seductive way with a ballad. His rendition of Darn That Dream in a quintet set with his regular pianist Tardo Hammer was the very epitome of his appeal: unexpectedly tender, unforgettably spellbinding.

How to follow all that? Well, with a trip at the end of that week to the Lake District – the Keswick Jazz Festival, to be precise – to hear the very first classic jazz band I ever encountered: the Hot Antic Jazz Band. A combination of guilt (at being away from home over the holiday weekend) and the desire to see history repeat itself inspired me to take my five-year-old twins to hear the Antics. Frankly, this French band should be every five-year-old’s introduction to live jazz.

My pair sat through three sets – two and a half hours – and were totally won over by the onstage Antics. These guys are not only accomplished musicians, dedicated to the hot jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, but they are also great fun and don’t take the whole thing too seriously.. Which is precisely why their appeal goes well beyond the jazz anorak brigade.  And what were the five-year-olds’ favourite songs? I Can’t Dance (I’ve Got Ants in My Pants), Papa De-Da-Da and Won’t  You Come Over and Say Hello. But they did rather take offence at the fact that everyone in the audience got to hear the tune which was dedicated to them…

My jazz month ended on Sunday with a concert a bit nearer to home: the Australian singer-pianist Janet Seidel at the Recital Room in Glasgow’s City Halls.

Seidel, who was accompanied by her regular guitarist Chuck Morgan and her bassist brother David Seidel, immediately won over the crowd with her sunny disposish and exquisite, crystal clear vocals. The influences may be Blossom Dearie and Peggy Lee, but it was Julie London – albeit with a wider range and more power – whom Seidel’s soft and gentle voice instantly brought to mind.
The theme of the evening was the late American singer-pianist Blossom Dearie, and Seidel lived up to her promise of performing Dearie’s material – both her original songs and the standards she favoured – without imitating her. Only on the her own tribute song Dear Blossom did she have a go at what she cleverly described as Dearie’s “fairy voice” (thankfully, because a little of it goes a long way).
That said, Seidel clearly shares an impish sense of humour with her idol: this was a gig with lots of laughs, thanks to such witty songs as I’m Hip, Peel Me a Grape and, especially, the hilarious Pro Musica Antiqua. Other highlights included lovely versions of It Might As Well Be Spring (partly sung in French), a Mancini medley and Tea for Two.
It’s been a rich month musically, and my appetite should be sated – for a while anyway. Roll on July!

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