The curious way we find out about things.
Some time back I broke out my old turntable – you know that thing that you play long playing records on. If you don’t know what LPs are ask your parents. Years back I sold most of my LPs, since I had far too many, but I did keep some selected jazz and rock records, thankfully. I started looking at records in thrift stores and had some good finds. Now of course, LPs are hip again, and the record stores are actually selling records again.
Its funny to look in the stacks at a store and see things I bought 30 years ago, most of which I wouldn’t buy again. But there are many treasures unknown lurking in the record bins: in one store I saw a Jack Teagarden record from the 50’s, and remembered that Big T as he was known was one of my Dad’s favorites. I wasn’t going to buy the record until I looked at who was playing on the disk. Teagarden had a sister named Norma who was a fine jazz pianist that led her own bands and off and on worked with her brother Jack. Now I was really interested, because Norma played stride piano, as did my own Mother. Back in the 80’s when I lived in San Francisco, I read in the paper that Norma played weekly at the venerable Washington Square Bar and Grill and I thought what the heck I will go down and see her play.
The washbag, as it was known, was a high class restaurant, and out of my price range for dinner but I could at least afford a drink and hear the lady play, which is what I did, sitting at the bar and looking over the room where the piano was set up. She was a fantastic pianist, really outstanding, but here is the thing: not a single person in the crowded restaurant was paying any attention to her at all, not a bit, no applause, nothing. She might as well have just been a recording playing on the stereo.
I was young and didn’t realize that this is the way of the world, sometimes: music is just in the background for most people, and who pays attention to the background noise? When she took a break I did have the courage to walk over and compliment her playing, but I don’t remember a thing she said to me. I just felt a little sad, and a lot lucky that I actually got to see her perform.
This all went through my mind and I decided to buy the record. Classy store, they gave me a plastic sleeve to protect the album cover. I had forgotten about the plastic sleeves too, it had been so long since I purchased an actual record, not a CD, in a record store.
I get home and put on the disk. Nice stuff, but at first glance a bit too Dixieland for me, that is, until I flip the platter over and listen to side two. The first cut stops me in my tracks: a blues called Mis’ry and the blues. This is one of those totally perfect songs/performances that get my blood flowing: a completely hooky song, with great lyrics and the kind of assured, swinging playing that only real master musicians can pull off. I’m hooked, and I tell Barbara, we have to do this song in the band. How crazy is it that I would fall in love with a song written in 1912??????
It turns out that everyone in the band likes the song too – in fact Joe our guitar player loves Big T (as did his father, just like mine).
I have listened to this record a lot now, and like it more with each hearing, and I especially like Teagardens amazing, graceful playing and singing. I know its not true, but he seems to play and sing with no effort whatsoever.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I am taking my lunch hour to browse a local record store, which has a HUGE amount of LPs. I look all thru the jazz section, don’t see a thing. I also look thru the foreign music section, you can never tell when a gem might show up, like an old Edith Piaf record. I am about to leave the store when I notice they have a recently arrived area, just for jazz. I see where there are these giant boxed jazz sets, from what I later find out is the Time-Life subscription only music series, Giants of Jazz. As I look, I notice the big prize here, a Jack Teagarden set. I take it over to the record player, and drop on a track. Wow, the playing is just superb, and even better, the records – all three of them – look like they have never even been played. Plus there is a very large booklet, maybe 50 pages, with the story of Teagardens life.
And it costs a whopping eight bucks. Of course it goes home with me.
One of the great things about LPs are the liner notes, which have just pretty much disappeared with CDs. In the case of this set, not only is there a very detailed life of Teagarden, there are also extensive notes on each track, with listings not only of the players on the track, but things to listen for. To me, this is a gold mine, since I want to know everything about every track.
Thru reading the booklet, and careful listening, I find out about a clarinet player named Pee Wee Russell. Russell started playing back in the early days of jazz, and was tight with Bix Biederbeck. As I listened to the tracks, I became more and more intrigued with the crazy sounds this man brought forth, certainly not conventional, not for the times these disks were waxed.
Fast forward a couple of more weeks. I am in the downtown library, which has a truly heroic amount of sheet music in it, really valuable to me since much of it isn’t in print any longer. I am always on the hunt for new songs for the band to play.
I am walking out with my sheet music, and when passing by the music biography books, sitting there face out is a biography of – who else? – Pee Wee Russell. That has to go home with me too.
Now I am almost finished with the book, and am more impressed than ever with what this man did with his horn. He was very controversial in his life, since he did not play very conventionally at all, until way late in his career, so people either loved him or hated him. Also, he wasn’t classically schooled, and valued the feeling, the guts, of playing more than perfect technique, although to my ear he had plenty, more than plenty, of chops for what he was doing.
So now I am hooked on Pee Wee also, just bought a Time-Life boxed set of this work, and have been listening to a 1962 record called New Groove, where he proved once again he was more than just a Dixieland has been. Its superb, his playing is lyric especially in the lower register. Someone else to learn from !
I suppose that I have always been attracted to the kind of musician that flaunts the rules, that isn’t conventional like Naftule Brandwein or Django Reinhardt, that let their imaginations run where they will, since playing music should always be about freeing up your mind and your heart.
The curious way we find out about things.