Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 19, 2019

A jazz fan’s memories

Filed under: Jazz — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

CounterPunch music critic David Yearsley is equally adept writing about Miles Davis as he is about Johann Sebastian Bach, two musical figures that arguably will have a mass audience a million years from now, if we last that long as a species. In Friday’s CounterPunch Yearsley writes about “Kind of Blue”, a Miles Davis album that was released on August 17th, 1959. I consider it perhaps the greatest jazz recording of all time and appreciated Yearsley’s grasp of what made it special from the standpoint of harmony:

The last chord sidesteps the home key of B-flat and holds out a tone lower before finally being pulled up to its proper harmony when the twelve bars start anew. With this single, minimal touch, Davis (if it was indeed his idea) embodies the essence of his cool through harmonic means: not only can he lag behind the beat with graceful reluctance, but he can also hold the posture of resistance and disdain across larger expanses of elapsing time.

But what prompts this post is Yearsley’s insight into Miles Davis’s marketing genius:

Another Townsend memo [Irving Townsend, the producer of “Kind of Blue”] from April of 1960 relates that “Miles Davis is primarily concerned with the amount of jazz now on jukeboxes in many areas of the country while he is not represented.” Columbia promptly turned out promotional 45s with a tune from Davis’ Porgy & Bess paired with one from Kind of Blue on the flip side. Many first heard this music in diners and bars over the jukebox.

I was one of those people.

In the summer of 1961, just before I headed off to Bard College for my freshman year, I was with a friend sharing a pizza at the Village Inn in South Fallsburgh, New York, a nearby village in the Borscht Belt when a guy sitting at the bar nicknamed Frankie Machine walked over to the juke box and played “Summertime”, which was the tune from Porgy & Bess alluded to above. Sitting there, I couldn’t believe my ears. I never heard anything that beautiful. For me, jazz was what Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman played on the Ed Sullivan show. I am a huge fan of both of them but by 1961, their performances had become stale and dated.

Planning to write something about all this, I posted a query on the Woodridge [my home town] group on Facebook to see if anybody knew Frankie Machine’s real name. He got the nickname because his friends thought he looked like the main character Frank Sinatra played in the 1955 film adaptation of Nelson Algren’s “Man with the Golden Arm”, a novel about a junkie.

My cousin Steven identified him as Martin Patrusky, a Korean war veteran who was probably in his late 20s when he put in a quarter (maybe even a dime) to play some Miles. Patrusky left the Borscht Belt at some point and ended up in Los Angeles working as a waiter in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, maybe the same kind of work he had done in Catskill hotels. He was there the night that Sirhan Sirhan assassinated RFK and testified at the inquiry into his death. This drawing from an archive of subjects who appeared as witnesses in the inquiry does show a certain similarity to Sinatra’s Frankie Machine:

Martin Patrusky

poker-scene-frank-sinatra-frankie-machine-regie-otto-preminger-aka-ghjex7Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine

Some conspiracy theorists regard Patrusky’s testimony as supporting the idea that there was a second gunman. I honestly never gave much thought to this even though there are troubling questions raised in this article.

I couldn’t find anything more about Patrusky than this. Odd to think that my introduction to Miles Davis was made possible by an obscure figure who just happened to be a key witness to one of the assassinations that many reasonable people regarded as proof that the USA was becoming unhinged in the 1960s.

In my freshman year, I tried to get up to speed on jazz. In the music library, there was a very good collection of jazz recordings that I borrowed and played on the component hi-fi system that I brought with me from home to enjoy in my dorm room. A Garrard record changer, a Bogen amplifer I made from a kit, and an AR3-A speaker.

I would also hang out with students who brought their jazz records with them to Bard. Unlike a country boy like me, a Bardian from New York City was able to listen to a station like WRVR at the time. Affiliated with Riverside Church, the station was passionately devoted to jazz and made no concessions to commercial products like Dixieland.

Every so often I’d make a trip to the city to pick up some records that cost $1.99 at the time, either at Sam Goody’s or at a store that sold nothing but jazz. I can’t remember the name but it was a one-man operation up a flight of stairs somewhere in the West 50s. The owner was a deeply opinionated character but a storehouse of knowledge about jazz history.

In 1961, Charlie Parker was still a dominant figure even though he died 6 years earlier. A gun named Harold Donohue was the school’s resident expert on modern jazz and a Charlie Parker fanatic. When I told him that I loved Miles Davis, he scowled and said that he couldn’t hold a candle to Diz. You have to remember that at the time bebop was still king. Miles had recorded “Birth of the Cool” just two years after Bird had died and the music was moving in new directions, from the West Coast sound of Gerry Mulligan to the “third stream” sound of the MJQ.

Although I was only 16-years old when I became a freshman, I was already a serious pothead—something I kept secret from other students. I used it for special occasions, especially concerts. I turned on, as they put it, just before a performance by Paul Bley who was up at Bard with his lead horn player at the time Pharaoh Sanders. My guess is that David Izenzon was on bass, his wife Carla Bley on piano and Paul Motian on drums. Sanders’s solos had the same impact on me as Miles’s “Summertime”. He was pioneering “the New Thing” in jazz, which meant dispensing with regular tempos, tones, and chord changes. Sanders sounded like a wounded beast but musically so. This was the same year that I heard LeRoi Jones do a reading up at Bard from “The System of Dante’s Hell”, a novel that foreshadowed the Black nationalist cultural movement as did Sanders’s solo. I really liked what I heard from the two Black men.

Over the next 3 years my love of jazz deepened, just as did my knowledge of its traditions. I developed a great love of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans who were part of Miles’s “Kind of Blue” band. In 1965, my senior year, I joined the entertainment committee that allowed me to line up funding for jazz concerts. We brought up Bill Evans for $500 or so, which the Dean thought was an exorbitant amount. I have vivid memories of the concert that took place in a small chapel that was ideally suited to Bill Evans’s lyrical musicianship. He was gracious enough to provide accompaniment for a Blythe Danner song performance. I was poised at the door to make sure that everything went smoothly. In that capacity, I tried to shoosh a young woman who was moving leaves around on the ground for no apparent reasons. Robert Kelly, the poet who invited LeRoi Jones up for his reading, told me to let her be since she was using the leaves to construct a likeness of a lion on the ground. I can’t remember the names of famous actors or musicians so well nowadays but I remember the Bill Evans concert like it was yesterday.

That year I was approached by Ed Summerlin, a sax player who was living not far from Bard. He broached the subject of organizing a jazz festival at Bard with musicians he knew. This time funds became more easily obtainable because Ed had become a serious Christian after years of drug abuse. As such, he must have had the ear of the school’s Episcopalian hierarchy. He proposed the following program: Art Farmer quartet, the rhythm section of Miles Davis’s band at the time (Tony Williams-drums, Herbie Hancock-piano, Ron Carter-bass), the Freddy Hubbard quintet, and a band co-led by Ed Summerlin and Don Heckman, another sax player and important jazz journalist. I brought the proposal to the entertainment committee and they said they were okay with it but to drop Summerlin and Heckman.

When I met with Ed and informed him of the committee’s decision, he called me a “shithook” for cancelling his appearance after he had gone through the trouble of making the festival possible. I apologized on the spot and learned a good lesson from the experience, never taking people for granted. Eventually, that lesson butted up against how things were done in the SWP—including to me—and led to my resignation.

The festival itself was a great success. I remember Tony Williams pulling up in his AC Cobra, a very fast and expensive sports car with his drums sticking up out of the trunk. I also remember how Freddy Hubbard got lost on the Taconic coming up to Bard and showed up two hours late. Bardians had sat in their seat the entire time waiting patiently. Those were the days when GPS and cell phones did not exist so things like that happened. During the intermission, I shared a joint with Freddy out on the fire escape of the gym, where the concert was being held. He apologized for showing up late and I told him don’t sweat it. His music was worth waiting for.

Two years later, when I was working for the welfare department in Harlem, I got a new “client” (the term for people receiving payments). It was a guy named Jonathan Jones Jr., who had just gotten out of a drug rehab program. It turned out that this was Jo Jones Jr., the son of legendary Count Basie drummer Jo Jones and a drummer himself. When I found out that he needed to get his drums out of hock, something that was not covered in the Department of Welfare Home Relief category geared to single people, I came up with the funds he needed by filing a request for bed springs and other household goods that he already had. That, plus my knowledge and love of jazz, led to a friendship that lasted until I moved up to Boston in 1970.

Jo-Jo, the name he generally went by, had been a junkie on and off for many years. He told me that he and a pal became known as the typewriter gang in the 1950s because that’s what they stole. He told me that one time after he was arrested, a cop beat him with a phone book—a standard practice in the precinct houses. When he was more or less clean, he’d focus on his drumming and began to make a name for himself. At one point, he was told by Richie Powell, Bud Powell’s brother and a pianist himself, that he was going to become his drummer for a new group he was forming. Before that could happen, Richie Powell died in an automobile accident alongside Clifford Brown and his wife who lost control of the car.

Once he got his drums out of hock, he started looking for gigs. He often performed with Les Spann, a well-known guitarist and an alcoholic. I made a habit of attending all of Jo-Jo’s performances, including a memorable gig at a mafia-owned bar in Newark. All the men looked like cast members in “The Sopranos”. Playing with Jo-Jo at this club was Duke Jordan, who used to be Charlie Parker’s pianist and who wrote “Jordu”, a tune that was part of Clifford Brown’s repertory and included as well on Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” album. For all of his fame, Duke Jordan was reduced to driving a school bus in Brooklyn at the time. When the band took a break, Jo-Jo brought Duke over to introduce me as I was sitting at the bar. He laughed and said that he and Duke were going to talk in bebop language. I had no idea what they were saying but I was tickled pink to hear it.

After a couple of years in Boston, I moved to Houston for another couple of years doing SWP work and then back to NYC for another two year stint. Finally, in 1978 I went out to Kansas City for my Trotskyist swan song. The only connection I had to jazz in Kansas City was going out for lunch with my workmates at United Missouri Bank to a lunch wagon called Agnos’s. As kind of an initiation into local food practices, they insisted that I get the pig snout sandwich. Eventually, I discovered that Agnos lunch wagons were once very popular in Kansas City, especially with Charlie Parker as his biographer Ross Russell recounts in “Bird Lives”:

The same area was also a permanent location for one of the lunch wagons owned by John Agnos, who, under Pendergast, enjoyed a monopoly of after-hours on-the-street sales of food and light beverages. The menu listed food items and unusual sandwiches served only in Kansas City in those days—crawdads, “short thighs” (of chicken), and a choice of sandwiches made from chicken wings, brains, pigs’ feet, and pigs’ snouts. Everything was priced at a dime. Jars of homemade hot sauces were provided for garnishment according to the customer’s taste. Charlie Parker picked up his nickname Yardbird when the Basie band was working at the Reno Club. Parker used to hang out in the rear lot, mostly to listen to Lester Young, and his favorite food was the “short thigh” served by the lunch wagon. Chicken was known colloquially as yardbird. Later the nickname was shorted to Bird. It stuck with Parker throughout his life.

UPDATE:

A very resourceful comrade and friend checked with his brother-in-law who obviously knows New York City like the back of his hand. He got this response from him on the record shop whose name I couldn’t remember:

It was the Jazz Record Center on West 47th   (between 6th and 7th) and their slogan was “everything from Bunk to Monk.” It was a second floor deal with stairs leading up from the sidewalk; on each riser was a metal plate identifying a different variety of jazz (Bebop; Dixieland; Third-Stream, etc.). By the time I got there in the mid-60s, the owner (whose name I think was Joe) would sit in an armchair at one end of the store but didn’t seem to be either interested or capable of engaging in conversation, but customers would frequently carry on arguments with each other or Jay Vaughn, who ran the place during Joe’s (I assume) incapacity.

That building as well as that block was bulldozed out of existence in the late ‘60s to build the commercial towers that now line the west side of Sixth Avenue in the 40s and 50s. There was an article in Downbeat around that time noting the store’s demise and that they were looking for another place to reopen. They never did reopen, and a lot of their stock, along with Jay, eventually wound up at another record store (not Colony) somewhere in midtown, with much-increased prices. I don’t recollect which store that was.

I think that Jazz  Record Center might have been the only store in town that sold exclusively jazz records. Even the Commodore Record Shop, which as you know produced its own line of very fine jazz records in the 30s and 40s under Milt Gabler,  probably wasn’t exclusively jazz. I say that (I don’t actually know) because they were located in the old Commodore Hotel at Grand Central (now the Grand Hyatt) so they probably had to stock a wider variety of offerings.

UPDATE 2:

To expand on the Jazz Record Center, this is from an interview Joel Slotnikoff did with Pete Whelan who created the Original Jazz Library label. In a question about early jazz, Whelan mentions the kind of thing that went on in this unique record shop:

I went into this record store called The Jazz Record Center run by an American Indian from Arizona named Big Joe Klauberg, off of Sixth Ave. and there was Jelly Roll Morton’s former manager, Harrison Smith, holding forth and I was asking him questions about the legendary Freddy Keppard. Along with Perry Bradford who was also there. They both thought Keppard was the greatest trumpet player they ever heard, but by the time he recorded, they said, he had declined. But they said, Perry Bradford said, he was so loud you could hear him playing from 125th St. and Lennox Ave. all the way down here to 47th St.

UPDATE 3:

It appears that the last name of the proprietor of the Jazz Record Center was also spelled Clauberg. This is a great article on this store that gave New York its singular character once upon a time and that is now being destroyed by the real estate Moloch.

On His Way Down: Williamsburg and the Birth of Record Collecting

By Amanda Petrusich

Joe Clauberg at the Jazz Record Center

There’s a pervasive, romantic notion of the Outsider as Omniscient Loner: preoccupied, brooding, mumbly. He is human—for example, he might read a paperback book that he tugged from the back pocket of his jeans, or gaze intently into a woman’s eyes for a beat too long—but he doesn’t celebrate holidays or use the toilet. He is usually leaning against a wall. This is one way of thinking about it.

Then there are the men—outsiders, also—who routinely congregated at the Jazz Record Center, a long-defunct music shop that once existed on the north side of West 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan, a now touristy stretch better known for its approximations of pizza and dubious (if well-lighted) electronics shops. In the 1940s, the Jazz Record Center became the default clubhouse for a cabal of distinctive gentlemen: exiles, recluses, characters so outsize in their eccentricities that they felt invented, except better. Here there was not a sense—as with the archetypal Outsider—that a choice had been made. Here, the earliest collectors of 78 rpm records found each other.

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Photograph by Nathan Salsburg

The Jazz Record Center was operated by Big Joe Clauberg, a chunk of a man with a deeply creased face (his skin appears to fold back on itself, like the underside of a poorly reupholstered chair) and black eyes that expressed a deep aversion to certain kinds of nonsense. He came to New York from the Southwest, had worked as a circus strongman, and stumbled into the used-record business after being offered a few truckloads of cheap records from a wholesale jukebox operator.

“He was a giant,” the collector Pete Whelan told me. “He was very overweight. He would just listen to everybody, hardly saying anything. And he was very generous in his prices. Records that were really worth $10 or $15 then and that would be worth hundreds or maybe thousands now, he would sell for $1.”

Clauberg settled at the 47th Street location in 1941, bolstering his jukebox supply by selling new stock from smaller jazz labels. The store was originally called Joe’s Juke Box, then the Jazz Record Corner, then the Jazz Record Center. Its inventory was jazz heavy but eclectic, including “Everything from Bunk to Monk,” as a 1949 ad in the Record Changer, an early jazz collecting magazine, read. (The “Bunk” in question was almost certainly Bunk Johnson, the beloved New Orleans jazzman who lost both his trumpet and his two front teeth in a bar fight in Louisiana in 1931, but it’s tempting to consider its more colloquial use—one collector’s bunk being another’s prize, after all.)

Clauberg courted (and indulged) a perfect outcast harem. Many of the shop’s most beloved denizens weren’t even patrons, or at least not in the traditional sense. A Greek dishwasher and janitor named Popeye helped keep the place clean, rubbing oil into the floorboards as necessary. According to the collector (and former employee) Henry Rinard, who chronicled his experience working with Big Joe for 78 Quarterly, Popeye was a short, well-muscled man with no teeth, hair, or eyebrows, prone to mumbling to himself for hours “in gibberish not even another Greek could understand.” Clauberg let Popeye crash on the floor at night, and in exchange, Popeye performed additional odd jobs, like bringing Clauberg food from the joint where he washed dishes, cutting his hair, and helping him yank a rotten tooth from his gums using a pair of pliers (that’s what friends are for). Another regular, Abbie the Agent, wore “thick-lensed eyeglasses, smoked continuously, and was seldom sober.” An outcast from a wealthy Connecticut family, Abbie fetched cigarettes and wine for Clauberg, and periodically became so inebriated himself that he passed out on the Popeye-oiled floor. (His other nickname—and I think it’s the better of the two—was Horizontal Abe.) Rinard also wrote about one of Clauberg’s old hobo friends, a guy known mostly as the Sea Captain, who wore a wool hat, raincoat, and heavy, too-big, laceless boots, even in June. The Captain was something of an enigma, even to Rinard: “He was either Swedish or Norwegian; he understood English, but never spoke,” he wrote.

The clientele was no less unique. “It was very interesting,” Whelan recalled. “It was a stop on the way. There would be these characters that would be there. Specialists. One guy who just collected European jazz, named Hal Flaxer. He’s probably still around. I think he went through three or four wives and they all looked identical. I couldn’t tell the difference. They looked like twins of each other.” In her book In Search of the Blues, the scholar Marybeth Hamilton includes what might be the single greatest description of early record collectors flourishing in their natural habitat: “Saturday afternoons they met at Indian Joe’s, where they thumbed through the bins in between swigs from the bottles of muscatel that Pete Kaufman brought along from his store, suspending their searches briefly at three, when a man called Bob turned up with a suitcase of pornographic books.”

There’s only one published photo of the shop, which first appeared in Jazzways and was later reprinted in 78 Quarterly; it’s not even of the interior, but of the rickety wooden stairs leading to the door. The face of each step is painted with an incitement (records, hot jazz records, records 4 sale, step up save a buck, popular bands, hot jazz records), and I can only imagine the half-furious, half-wheezy sounds eager collectors made clomping up them, balls of cash wadded up in their pockets. Regardless of what the inside of the shop actually looked like—and chances are, it was fairly mundane—I like to imagine it crammed with weirdoes bickering in high-pitched voices, nostrils expanding, slowly swarming Bob and his suitcase. I like to imagine myself there, with a record or two tucked under my arm.

James McKune showed up at Big Joe’s nearly every Saturday night at six, and stayed until the store closed at nine, wandering off, on occasion, to eat supper at the Automat around the corner on Sixth Avenue. McKune was likely born somewhere on the East Coast in or near 1910, although no one knows precisely when or where (depending on whom you ask, he was from Baltimore, or North Carolina, or upstate New York). That McKune has no clear origin story—and that his end was equally inscrutable—only amplifies the mythic place he occupies in collecting lore. Maybe more than any other collector, James McKune was defined by his records.

McKune wasn’t the first 78 collector, but he was one of the earliest to single out rural blues records as worthy of preservation, and is arguably the field’s most archetypal figure. At the very least, he established the physical standard. He was flagpole skinny and otherwise nondescript (medium height, tapering hair), prone to wearing the same outfit nearly every day (a white shirt with rolled sleeves, black pants, white socks, black shoes). He had a tough time holding a steady job, and during his time in New York, he worked briefly as a subeditor for the New York Times, a desk clerk at the YMCA, a checker at a South Brooklyn beer distributor, and a mail sorter in a Brooklyn post office. He seemed generally irritated by the necessity of employment, and in a June 1944 letter to the collector Jack Whistance, wrote: “During the day (when it doesn’t rain) I continue my quest for a suitable job in [an] essential industry. In N.Y.C., be it said—not in Newark. I am a particular guy, perhaps alas. The jobs I can have I don’t want. And those I want I can’t get.” (Ironically, US unemployment was at an all-time low in 1944, at just 1.2 percent—about as close to “full employment” as economists believe is possible). According to all reports, he drank like a pro. In his letters to other collectors, he was exacting but not unlikable; his missives are impeccably punctuated and endlessly readable, packed with peculiar asides and unexpected jokes. Although he was constitutionally private—a loner in the most nonromantic sense—and wrote almost exclusively about which records he wanted or had recently acquired, McKune did seem to savor his correspondence. In a 1951 letter to Henry Rinard, he even mentioned his glee about receiving an Easter card from a pal for Christmas. “A delightful variation, which I would have copied but for the lateness of this melancholy December,” he wrote in neat, minuscule script. (He was also prone to hastily changing tone by writing NEW SUBJECT midletter, an underused literary device I aspire to someday employ.)

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Photograph by Nathan Salsburg

“Not that it means anything particularly, but he was gay, and I didn’t know that at the time,” Whelan explained to me one night. He and McKune first met at Big Joe’s. “I was at the time interested in getting blues on this particular label called Gennett. There was this guy Sam Collins on Electrobeam Gennett that I liked very much—he was an impassioned tenor. So I met this guy McKune,” he continued. “I was like 23 or 24 and he was 50. He had been collecting since probably the late 30s. Blues. One of the very few. He looked like a scarecrow. He would gesticulate when he talked, very excitedly. You’d find these elbows coming at you, and you kept backing up. I think in the late 1930s he was a reporter for the Long Island Star, and then became, I think, city editor. And then he gave it up and worked for the post office. And then he became an alcoholic.”

Unsurprisingly, McKune was also a bit of a crank. He was wildly discerning, even by collector standards, and owned just 300 records, all tucked into cardboard boxes and stored underneath his single bed at the YMCA on Marcy Street in Williamsburg. He often referred to his listening sessions as “séances” and was required to play records at a low volume so as not to enrage unsympathetic neighbors (thin walls). He fretted endlessly about his own taste. McKune’s desires were expansive, and he didn’t just want to collect the music he loved the most—he wanted to collect the best possible permutations of sound, and for those decrees to be definitive.

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McKune supposedly never gave up more than 10 bucks for a 78 (and often offered less than $3), and was deeply offended—outraged, even—by collectors willing to pay out large sums of money, a practice he found garish, irresponsible, and in basic opposition to what he understood as the moral foundation of the trade. He didn’t like the notion that records could generate profit for their handlers: in the fall of 1963, in another letter to Rinard, he referenced his skepticism of a fellow collector, writing, “Somehow, I distrust him. He bought some records from the Negroes in Charleston, S.C. He spent $19 or $20 and sold the records for more than $500.” For McKune, collecting was a sacred pursuit—a way of salvaging and anointing songs and artists that had been unjustly marginalized. It was about training yourself to act as a gatekeeper, a savior; in that sense, it was also very much about being better (knowing better, listening better) than everyone else. Even in the 1940s and 50s, 78 collectors were positioning themselves as opponents of mass culture, and McKune cultivated a fantastic disdain for pop stars as well as the so-called protest singers of the era. He thought, for example, that Woody Guthrie was bullshit, although by 1950 he’d come back around on folk music as a genre, a shift he attributed to getting older. (The career of Glenn Miller, though, was a constant source of jokes.)

I’m not sure what McKune was looking for, exactly. Maybe the same thing we all look for in music: some flawlessly articulated truth. But I know for sure when he found it.

In the 1940s, 78 collecting meant jazz collecting, and specifically Dixieland or hot jazz, which developed in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century and was defined by its warm, deeply playful polyphony (typically, the front line—a trumpet, trombone, or clarinet—took the melody, while the rhythm section—banjo, guitar, drums, upright bass, piano, and maybe a tuba—supported or improvised around it). Because of its origins, collecting rare Dixieland records in 1942 was not entirely unlike collecting Robert Johnson records in 1968, or, incidentally, now: deifying indigent, local music was a political act, a passive protest against its sudden co-optation by popular white artists. As Hamilton wrote, “it meant training the spotlight on a distinctly black, definitely proletarian art form in an era when, as they saw it, jazz had been tamed, sweetened, and commodified, with white performers like Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman praised as its consummate practitioners.” But for whatever reason, blues records weren’t of any particular interest to early collectors. “The original 78 collectors despised country blues. They just liked jazz, and there were few exceptions,” Whelan explained. “It was a sharp divide. They thought it was less artistic. They were intellectuals.”

According to Hamilton, in January 1944 McKune took a routine trip to Big Joe’s and began pawing through a crate labeled “Miscellany,” where he found a record with “a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.” It was a battered, nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.” Patton had recorded the track in Grafton, Wisconsin, 15 years earlier, and he’d been dead for less than 10 when McKune first picked it up. Patton was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As Hamilton wrote, “… even before he replaced the tonearm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.”

“Some These Days I’ll Be Gone” is one of Charley Patton’s more staid tracks, in both rhythm and narrative. According to Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt’s King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charley Patton, “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone” was “likely conceived for white presentation: it used diatonic intervals and featured the keynote as its lowest vocal tone, a technique Patton usually avoided in singing blues and gospel material.” Wardlow and Calt suspect the tune was conceived for “white square dances and sociables,” where Patton was likely accompanied by a fiddler who’d been tasked with playing lead over his strums. Lyrically, it’s a sweet imploration: don’t take me for granted, Patton warns. “Some these days, I’m going to be leaving / Some these days, I’ll be going away,” he slurs, strumming a faint, bouncing guitar line. For once, he sounds more amused than angry. You’ll see, he seems to grin. Just wait.

Charley Patton changed everything for McKune. I can run an assortment of scenarios—recounting all the fireworks-type stuff I imagine happened when he first dropped a needle to “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone”—but those particular moments of catharsis are too weird and too personal ever really to translate. What’s important is that McKune’s discovery of Patton set off an avalanche of cultural events, a revolution that’s still in progress: blues records became coveted by collectors, who then fought to preserve and disseminate them. In the liner notes to The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, a collection of 78 rarities released by Yazoo in 2012, Richard Nevins called McKune “‘the man’ who set it all in motion, who led blues collectors away from the errors of their wayward tastes… a fantastic, brilliant young man… [his] perspectives had profound influence and resound even today.” In the same notes, Dick Spottswood—in conversation with Nevins and Whelan—spoke about how McKune raised the stakes for everyone, about how things changed: “All I’m saying is that the records themselves as collectible artifacts were not buy or die [before]. They were desirable records but they weren’t life or death. You know, the way they have since turned into.” After McKune, collectors became invested in rural blues. They sought those records with fury, the music was preserved and reissued, and the entire trajectory of popular music shifted to reflect the genre’s influence. A guy from no place, saving music from the same.

James McKune’s naked, strangled body was found, bound and gagged, in a grimy welfare hotel—the Broadway Central—on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in September 1971. Detectives concluded that he had likely been murdered by a man he had solicited for sex; Whelan later called the perpetrator a “homosexual serial killer” with, he thought, five or six other homicides on his record. By then McKune had moved out of the YMCA and was living primarily on the streets of the Bowery among prostitutes and thieves. For those on the lookout for such parallels, McKune’s death did ultimately mirror Robert Johnson’s—who, as Hamilton pointed out, also died under “violent, mysterious, and sexually charged” circumstances. (The itinerant Johnson supposedly keeled over after taking a slug of poisoned whiskey, provided by a man whose wife he’d been eyeing or maybe worse.) Nobody knows for sure what happened to McKune’s record collection, although rumors still flutter up from time to time. It was likely sold, or stolen, or maybe given away bit by bit.

Excerpted from Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich. Copyright 2014 © Amanda Petrusich. Reprinted with Permission from Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

June 13, 2019

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 7:25 pm

“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes”, a documentary directed by Sophie Huber, opens tomorrow at the Metrograph in New York. If you are not a jazz fan, the name Blue Note might not mean very much to you but as analogy, it is to jazz as Sun Records is to early rock and roll or Chess Records was to the blues. Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion, a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany and Max Margulis, another Jew who put up much of the seed money for the label, it was unlike the commercial labels like Columbia that were always looking for a way to get over on Black musicians. While it will be obvious that I found the film to be an essential contribution to the jazz documentary genre, it is unfortunate that it did not even mention Max Margulis, who reviewed music and wrote for left-wing periodicals, including the Daily Worker in the 1930s and 1940s, under the pen name Martin McCall.

The film gives the impression that Francis Wolff, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany, just like Lion, was a co-founder of Blue Note when in fact he was not. However, he soon assumed responsibility for co-managing the company and serving as its photographer. As Wolff was a commercial photographer in Germany, all of the cover photos that were done by him remain as iconic as the music on the vinyl, with this being an exemplar of the combined art forms.

For his complete portfolio, go here.

Lion and Wolff were jazz fans primarily and little interested in getting rich. They started off recording stride piano players like Meade Lux Lewis but on the advice of big band tenor player Ike Quebec turned to bebop in the early 50s. Among the musicians that Lion introduced to the jazz aficionado was Thelonious Monk. As happens through much of the film—and gloriously—we see footage of recording sessions with Monk who was not a commercial success at the outset. Eventually, he moved to Prestige Records but perhaps he would have remained in obscurity if Lion had not taken a chance on him.

The film is graced by interviews with two elderly figures who were key to the Blue Note story. First is long-time recording engineer Rudy van Gelder, who died 3 years ago at the age of 91. Van Gelder lived with his parents in a typical suburban home in New Jersey. A jazz fan like Lion, van Gelder persuaded his parents to allow their living room to be used as a recording studio for Blue Note in 1959, not even objecting to an adjoining room being turned into a control room. As Blue Note grew commercially, it eventually funded a professional studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey where 400 Blue Note records were made.

We also hear from Lou Donaldson, a 92-year old alto saxophonist who was one of Blue Note’s best known musicians. Donaldson has a great command of the Blue Note story and relates it with relish and great humor. Listening to him is a treasure for jazz fans and one of the film’s biggest selling points.

The heart of the documentary is devoted to reviewing the body of work that most people associate with the label, namely hard bop. In the late 1950s, many jazz musicians began to dig deeper into the blues and soul heritage of Black America and synthesize it with bebop that was focused more on harmonic innovation. Musicians like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley all expressed this latent Black nationalist tendency. Within a few years, as the civil rights movement failed to fulfill the Freedom Now aspirations of the early 60s, jazz became much more consciously political and musicians like Archie Shepp set the tone for the New Thing with songs like “New Africa” on the 1969 album “Kwanza”.

The final fifteen minutes of the film is an attempt to connect the hard bop style with hip-hop that seems like a stretch to me, despite the fact that some hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest sampled Blue Note musicians from the 50s and 60s. Historically, hard bop ran its course over forty years ago and jazz as an art form struggles to keep an audience. I have been attending “Highlights in Jazz” concerts organized by Jack Kleinsinger at the Borough of Manhattan Community College this spring that reflect Kleinsinger’s love of classic jazz. The audience consists mostly of elderly white people like me and probably reflects the market for straight-ahead jazz nowadays.

Blue Note no longer exists. It has mutated into something called Blue Note/ArtistShare that is based on crowdsourcing, something the documentary does not even mention. Most of the artists have little to do with jazz.

Probably the best outlet for the kind of music Blue Note made popular is WBGO, a jazz station in Newark that is the best in the country. It mixes hard bop with both older and newer sounds, all selected with impeccable taste. For my readers who are not familiar with jazz, I invite you to listen to the station here. Couple that with a trip down to the Metrograph, a movie theater devoted to great film art in the same way that WBGO is devoted to great music, and you can’t go wrong.

 

July 12, 2018

Milford Graves: Full Mantis

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

At the Left Forum in June, I had the great fortune to attend a panel discussion on the the Free Jazz movement of the 60s and 70s that included people like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe McPhee, one of the panelists. For me, this was the high point of the weekend since the “new thing” jazz of the 60s and 70s was close to my heart. As I told the speakers, when I entered Bard as a 16-year old in 1961, I was disaffected from the materialism and conformity of American society but could not figure out how to challenge it. In my freshman year, I heard Pharaoh Sanders in performance with other members of the Paul Bley band that blew my mind as they put it.

I have had the even greater fortune to have just seen “Milford Graves: Full Mantis” that opens tomorrow at the Metrograph in New York. In March 2017, I reviewed a documentary titled “I Called Him Morgan” that I described as the best film ever made about a jazz musician, in that instance trumpeter Lee Morgan who died tragically much too young after his girlfriend gunned him down in Slug’s in a fit of jealousy. He had rebounded from years of addiction, largely through her support, and was enjoying a revival. His loss was a crushing blow to the art of jazz.

I can now say that “Milford Graves: Full Mantis” is just as great a film but one that is filled with joy. Although they were contemporaries, Lee Morgan belonged to the hard bop school that preceded the Free Jazz movement percussionist Milford Graves pioneered. If heroin addiction was an epidemic during the bebop era that lasted roughly between WWII and the mid-60s, the Free Jazz movement was much more about finding transcendence through Black nationalism and spirituality, with Milford Graves a prime example.

You realize that you are about to meet an extraordinary figure as the film begins with the camera panning over Graves’s bookcase in his house in Queens. Coming into the foreground are Friedrich Engel’s “Dialectics of Nature” and Hermann von Helmholtz’s “On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music”. Most of my readers will undoubtedly know who Engels was but Helmholtz loomed large in Graves’s evolution as a musician and a medical researcher. Wikipedia describes him as a researcher who sought to provide a theoretical basis for human physiology:

In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism in the physiology of perception.

In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics.

In terms of the “mechanical foundation of thermodynamics”, you can obviously understand why Graves would keep a copy of “The Dialectics of Nature” alongside Helmholtz. Key to Graves’s approach to our world is the interconnectedness of all living things. In his backyard garden, he makes the case that plants are not passive organisms. Photosynthesis is a process that has much in common with our own biological cycle. Drawing close to a plant, he states that its leaves waving in the wind create low-frequency sounds that can be heard with the right equipment.

For Graves, equipment is not just the drum kit that he performs on throughout the film. In his exploration of the sonic aspects of the human body, he has built up an elaborate array of electronic measuring devices including an electronic stethoscope. Browsing in the medical shelves at Barnes and Noble many years ago, he stumbled across an LP titled “Normal and Abnormal Heart Beats” that led him on a journey to discover the affinity between heartbeats and drum rhythms. Even more remarkable, he discovered a kind of harmony in heartbeats based on their oscilloscope variations. These explorations led to a Guggenheim grant in 2000.

The best way to describe Milford Graves is as a Leonardo Da Vinci of our time. In all of my encounters with larger than life figures over a sixty year period, I have not seen anybody with as restless a mind and as gifted artistically as Graves. A case can be made that he is the most influential musician of the Free Jazz movement with his full-time professorship at Bennington College from 1973 until becoming Emeritus in 2011 as a sign of his stature.

“Milford Graves: Full Mantis” consists almost entirely of filmed performances of Graves and interviews at his home in Queens. At the age of 76, his intellect and his philosophical acumen strike me as the benefits of living a life in which your talents are matched to your ambitions. If we didn’t live in such a warped society, most people would be able to enjoy the kind of life that Graves has led if only on a more modest scale. The other reaction one might have to this film is a deepening sense of the injustice in this world where a Black skin precludes developing the kind of career that he has enjoyed. Probably the worst thing about capitalism is that it robs us from benefiting from the other Leonardo Da Vinci’s that the Black, Latino and working class world might have produced.

Finally, tribute has to be paid to director Jake Meginsky who has made a film that rises to the Olympian stature of its subject. For aspiring documentary film makers, this film bears repeated viewings since it shows how sensitive camera work and fully engaged interviewing techniques can produce great art. Meginsky is a drummer himself who was an aficionado of Milford Graves and later became a technician assistant to Graves at Bennington. This is the first film he has ever made and has the inside track for my NYFCO ballot as best debut as director of 2018.

 

 

March 8, 2017

I Called Him Morgan

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Opening in NYC on March 24th and in Los Angeles a week later, “I Called Him Morgan” is the greatest film about a jazz musician I have seen. Although it is a documentary, it puts to shame narrative films that have fallen flat such as Don Cheadle’s on Miles Davis. Even if you are not a jazz fan, this is a compelling and informative work that might even motivate you to buy Lee Morgan CD’s. The film benefits from an almost nonstop score made up of his performances that are a reminder of how much of a loss his death at 33 years was. Combined with some amazing still photos of Lee Morgan and his contemporaries, this is a feast for both the ears and the eyes.

Not only is this a chronicle of one of the great trumpet players of the 50s to the early 70s, it is also a love story about Morgan and Helen, the woman who loved him. On February 19, 1972, when Morgan was playing at Slug’s on the lower east side, a club I used to haunt in the mid-60s when I was living in NYC, Helen Morgan came there to confront her husband. He had been spending far too much time with a younger woman who was in the club that night. In an altercation involving the three, Helen was evicted from the premises into the snowy night. She stormed back into the club and fired two bullets into her husband’s chest. The blizzard, which had left more than a foot of snow at that point, kept an ambulance from arriving for more than a hour. He died in the hospital. I could not help but think of the pop tune written in 1912:

Johnny saw Frankie a-comin’, Out the back door he did scoot
But Frankie took aim with her pistol, And the gun went roota-toot-toot
He was her man but he done her wrong

In an introduction to his new class in an adult education program in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1996, Larry Reni Thomas began by referring to his past gig as a jazz DJ. Later on one of the students, an elderly woman who he considered very street-smart but without a formal education, mentioned to him that her husband had been a jazz musician. When Thomas found out that it was Lee Morgan, he invited her to sit down for an interview. The audio tape of that interview forms an important strand in the narrative of “I Called Him Morgan”, including the film’s title. Helen Morgan didn’t care for the name Lee, preferring to call him Morgan.

Lee Morgan was a leading member of what has been referred to as “hard bop” movement that emerged in the mid-50s. Trumpet players like Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard were strongly influenced by Clifford Brown who died tragically in an auto accident on his way to a gig on June 25, 1956 at the age of 25. Born in 1938, Morgan was Clifford Brown’s student in Philadelphia and an acknowledged prodigy who joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at the age of 18.

After Dizzy’s band folded, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958, a group that was considered the foremost exponent of the hard bop style. That year they recorded “Moanin’”, a tune that is considered one of the great jazz anthems of all time. It epitomized the synthesis of bebop chord changes and traditional “soul” music in the Black community found in the blues, gospel music and r&b. Listen to it here to get an idea of what jazz sounded like in its glory days:

You can see the band performing this number in “I Called Him Morgan” as well as many other classic performances on the Steve Allen Show and other vintage television shows before TV became corrupted with formulaic pop music.

Side by side, as we learn about Morgan’s musical evolution, we get Helen Morgan’s story, an all too familiar tale of racial and gender oppression in the Deep South. She had her first child at the age of 13 and another a year later. In her late teens, she married a man who would die a couple of years into their marriage. Soon afterwards she moved to NYC where she was welcomed by her late husband’s relatives and into a hip, urban environment. As she tells Larry Reni Thomas early on, she hated the country and doing chores on her father’s farm.

In no time at all, she became celebrated by jazz musicians for her quick wit, feistiness, sex appeal and opening her apartment up to the community as a kind of salon where they could always count on a fabulous meal and each other’s company. To pay the rent and other expenses, Helen Morgan worked for an answering service by day, a job more easily available to Black women.

One day, she ran into Lee Morgan at one of her get-togethers and figured out immediately that he was strung out on heroin. Since it was a cold winter’s day, she asked him where his coat was. His answer: the pawn shop. She took his arm in hers and went to the pawn shop to get his coat out of hock. This was the beginning of a May-November romance (she was 13 years older) that gave her great happiness and him a second chance on a career after she nursed him back to health and kept him on the straight and narrow. The tragic ending to this marriage was not inevitable but as is so often the case, murders are the result of domestic quarrels that get out of hand. With the easy availability of handguns (Lee had bought one for her Helen for her own protection), it is no wonder that such killings take place routinely—but usually it is the woman who dies.

Among the breakthroughs in this film made by Swedish director Kasper Collin, whose last documentary was on Albert Ayler, is the assembling of interviewees who had played alongside Lee Morgan, including Wayne Shorter, “Tootie” Heath, Larry Ridley, Charlie Persip and others. Now mostly in their 70s, they are knowledgeable about Lee Morgan as a person and a musician. Shorter comes across as true savant of this world and a musician whose biography (much more of an “as-told-to” memoir) is going on my must-read list for 2017.

I urge you to put this film on your must-see list for 2017. “I Called Him Morgan” opens on Friday, March 24 at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center andt will be followed on Friday, March 31 at NYC’s Metrograph Theater and the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles with a national expansion to follow.

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