Tag Archives: Bob Wilber

Songs For Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn 1This year marks the centenary of one of the great unsung heroes of jazz history, a man who was also half (and sometimes, arguably, more than that) of one of the greatest musical partnerships of the 20th Century – and the composer of such classics of the jazz repertoire as Take the A Train and Lush Life. His name was Billy Strayhorn.

In late 1938, this quiet young musician in his rather past-its-best Sunday suit was taken backstage in a Pittsburgh theatre to be introduced to the great jazz bandleader and composer of the day, Duke Ellington. As Ellington rested between performances, relaxing on a reclining chair while his valet tended to his hair, the 23-year-old Strayhorn was ushered in.

Strayhorn, Ellington & Preminger

Strayhorn & Ellington on the set of Anatomy of a Murder for which they wrote the score. Director Otto Preminger looks on.

Ellington may not have bothered to open his eyes to take a look at his guest, but by the end of the short visit, Strayhorn – who dazzled Duke with a series of piano performances of Ellington tunes first as the composer himself would play them, and then in his own arrangements – had been wholeheartedly accepted into the organisation.

So began a three-decade relationship that was one of the most fruitful and – according to those who witnessed it – loving in jazz history. From the outset, the refined and cultured Strayhorn, a dedicated Francophile and follower of fashion – who had never really belonged in the Pittsburgh shack in which he was raised – was not so much Ellington’s right-hand man as his alter ego.

Constantly on the road with his band, Ellington entrusted composing and arranging assignments to Strayhorn, who had absorbed the Ellington orchestra sound and was more than happy to devote himself to keeping it up to date with new music, and keeping the royalties pouring in to the organisation which had many mouths to feed.

Bob Wilber, the 86-year-old American clarinettist and saxophonist (pictured below) who was a member of a celebrated small group put together by Strayhorn in the 1960s, says: “He so completely assimilated Duke’s music that often you couldn’t tell in an arrangement which part was Duke and which part was Billy. He was absolutely indispensable to Duke.”

Strayhorn, who had been a frustrated would-be cosmopolite in Pittsburgh – where his sexuality was never discussed but always assumed as gay – blossomed in Manhattan, living initially with members of Ellington’s entourage in the boss’s Harlem penthouse, and spending his days soaking up all the art and cocktails that he could during his non-writing time. “A miniature, black Noel Coward” was how one friend later described him.

As his biographer David Hajdu writes: “In Pittsburgh, who he was had inhibited Billy Strayhorn from doing what he could do; in New York, what he could do enabled him to be who he was.” And what he was was a young gay man who loved the finer things in life, and was able to set up home with his boyfriend secure in the knowledge that – unlike many employers back then – his sexuality, and his openness about it, would not be an issue with Ellington who treated him as one of the family, possibly even better than he treated his own son, Mercer, who also wrote for the band.

Not only did his association with Ellington provide him with the bon vivant lifestyle he had dreamt of, it also gave him an outlet for his artistry and allowed him to flourish as a composer. He may have been composing and arranging for the Ellington outfit from 1939 – and Bob Wilberhave been the author of Take the A Train, a massive hit which Ellington quickly promoted to the band’s signature tune – but Strayhorn wasn’t credited as composer or arranger for his contribution until the 1950s, after a brief period when he had split from the organisation.

Everyone in the band, however, knew that he was a prolific writer of their music – and he was terrifically well liked and respected. Tommy Smith, the  director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra which is performing three concerts this month to celebrate the “Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn” – from such “big”, familiar pieces as Isfahan, Chelsea Bridge and Satin Doll to rare, recent rediscoveries – recounts a story told to him by one-time Ellington trombonist Buster Cooper.

“He told me he was once sitting next to Strayhorn on a plane, and Strayhorn had his briefcase out. He opened it and there was some manuscript there, and Buster was really excited because he thought he was going to get to see what Strayhorn was going to write – they were all in awe of him and never sure who had written what. But Billy Strayhorn lifted up the manuscript – and there was a bottle of whisky there. He offered Buster a drink, and put the manuscript away. Buster never got to see what the music was.”

One song which everyone knew was 100% Strayhorn was the evocative ballad Lush Life, the poetic words and haunting music of which he had mostly penned even before he met Ellington. It’s long been a favourite of jazz singers – and its recent performance by Lady Gaga boosted her credibility with the jazz community because it is, as Bob Wilber points out, “a very tricky song”. Indeed, Strayhorn was incensed by both the arrangement and the fluffed lyrics in Nat King Cole’s famous recording of it.

Annie Ross, the British-born jazz singer, met Strayhorn in the early 1950s when they were both living in Paris – the city he had written about in Lush Life. She says: “We hit it off immediately. He liked the way I sang and he taught me Lush Life. He was a gentle soul. They called him the Swee’ Pea precisely because he was so gentle.”

It might also have been something to do with the love of flowers and nature that he inherited from his devoted mother– a love that is obvious from such song titles as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom and Violet Blue, which were written as features for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges whose gloriously plaintive sound was the perfect match for Strayhorn’s beautiful but dark-tinged melodies, and sumptuous arrangements.

When, in March 1965, Strayhorn – whose piano playing was usually done in the recording studio or just to entertain friends – was asked to put together a band for a concert featuring his first solo piano performance, Bob Wilber got the call that one might have expected Hodges to get. “I don’t know how he had heard me – whether it was only on record – but he realized that I would be the ideal interpreter for the compositions that he wrote for Johnny Hodges. It was an absolute thrill being called to be in that band – which he named the Riverside Drive Five. I was thrilled to do it.”

One of the tunes performed at the concert and then long forgotten about was Orson – Strayhorn’s portrait of Orson Welles. The music for it was discovered in box stuffed with manuscripts in Strayhorn’s basement long after his death from cancer in 1967. The handwriting on the music helped shed light on Strayhorn’s enormous contribution to the Ellington repertoire and sound, while stacks of his own pieces underlined the fact – long known amongst musicians and Ellington experts – that he had been a brilliant composer in his own right;Billy Strayhorn solo that he alone had composed many of the numbers that had been thought to be collaborations.

Now, in Strayhorn’s centenary year, he will perhaps receive more of the widespread recognition he deserves – and his rarely heard compositions, among them the afore-mentioned Orson, will reach a broader listening public, not least audiences who attend the SNJO’s concerts this month.

* The SNJO (with Brian Kellock on piano) – The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on February 20, Buccleuch Centre, Langholm on February 21, and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on February 22.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on February 15

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Assorted Highlights

The Norwich Jazz Party strikes just the right balance between the completely informal, thrown-together, “jam” sets and arranged sets which have a rehearsal and charts and more esoteric material. I love both – and both formats produced some magic last weekend. Such as? Well,  that first track came from the opening night’s jam session. Or try this Drop Me Off in Harlem, which combusted into action so spontaneously that I didn’t even have the camera ready. And, no, that’s not Robert Redford on the soprano sax: it’s Bob Wilber, who, having hit 84, now seems to be rewinding towards his sprightly seventies…Another number which I was delighted to have captured on camera was this funky take on No Moon At All by singer Rebecca Kilgore with Craig Milverton (piano), Harry Allen (tenor sax) and Eddie Erickson (guitar) all featured. Of the sets featuring arrangements, my favourites were undoubtedly the Benny Carter set, led by Ken Peplowski, and Alan Barnes’s Ellington set – of which this sublime Sultry Sunset, featuring the national treasure that is Mr Barnes, was a stand-out.

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Kenny Davern

It’s five years to the day since the great Kenny Davern died – so it seems appropriate to re-run the obit I wrote about him .. 

There can be few sounds as thrilling as clarinettist Kenny Davern cutting loose with one of his characteristically passionate and exhilarating solos – as anyone who heard the American jazz star during one of his countless visits to Scotland over the last 20 years will testify. Davern, who has died suddenly at the age of 71, was widely regarded as the foremost exponent of his instrument in the world; a musician whose sound was immediately identifiable and who brought a touch of class to everything he did.

Amongst regulars at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals, and at the former Glasgow Society of Musicians, Davern was also known as an intimidating character who did not suffer fools gladly, and who reserved his greatest contempt for anyone who tried to make him play in front of a microphone. Woe betide any sound engineer who hadn’t been alerted to Davern’s strongly held views on acoustics. Similarly, festival organisers were known to vanish mysteriously when Davern went on the attack – and he never let anything like an audience get in the way of a rant. Indeed, he often treated his listeners with derision too: one trick was to ask for requests and then shoot them down with an acerbic comment.

However, the cantankerous clarinettist was a part he enjoyed playing. It wasn’t the whole story. The intimidating Davern was my first-ever interviewee. Forty-five minutes into the nerve-wracking session, the significance of the fact that the wheels on my borrowed tape recorder weren’t turning dawned on both of us: I had forgotten to lift the pause button. After a terrifying five minutes, during which I was ready to jack in journalism, the unthinkable happened: he softened. At 11.30pm, as I tried to make a break for the door, he insisted on starting the interview again. Not only did the second version turn out better than the original, but, years later, I learned that Davern was dining out, among mutual musician friends, on the story – telling them that he had launched me on my career in journalism.

The soft centre shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Davern was a player of great warmth and passion. He routinely sent shivers down the spine and made hair stand on end when he broke out of his hitherto controlled solos and let rip. There was absolutely nothing like it when he soloed, exploding unexpectedly into the upper register and then swooping back down again. Playing ballads or blues tunes, he had a seductive style, coaxing the sound from the horn the way a snake charmer would draw the reptile from a basket. His playing embraced extreme musical characteristics in the same manner as his personality was, by turn, intimidating and charming. His sound was sweet, fluid and polished one minute; thrillingly spiky, raw and plaintive the next. It is impossible to think of his signature songs – especially Sweet Lorraine – without hearing him playing them.

Born in Huntington, New York, the self-taught Davern began his jazz career at the age of 16. He played with many older greats, including Jack Teagarden, and despite flirting with avant-garde jazz during the 1950s, his primary influence was always Louis Armstrong. In the 1970s, he and fellow clarinettist/saxophonist Bob Wilber formed the super-group Soprano Summit. Davern then formed The Blue Three with pianist Dick Wellstood, before operating as a touring soloist after Wellstood’s death. He leaves an impressive, though not vast, legacy of recordings, and told me in that initial interview: “Just to record for the sake of being in a studio is masturbatory.” He is survived by his wife, Elsa, his two step-children and four step-grandchildren.

* Kenny Davern, jazz clarinettist and saxophonist, born January 7, 1935; died December 12, 2006.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2004

I was too busy throwing up round the clock (I was pregnant with twins) to make the 2003 Nairn Jazz Festival but I managed to get to the 2004 event – for one day only.. As it turned out, however, heavy rain caused a landslip on the train line between Inverness and Glasgow and I ended up having to spend an extra night away from the babies…

This write-up was first published in the September 2004 issue of Jazz Review 

It takes some jazz festivals a week to notch up the quantity of quality music on offer in a 24-hour period at the Nairn event. In the space of just one day, slap bang in the middle of this most laid-back of festivals, it was possible to hear clarinettist Bobby Gordon three times, and many of the other stars – including Bob Wilber, James Chirillo, Rossano Sportiello and John Sheridan – twice apiece. Old band-mates were reunited, and new alliances were formed. And this year, the programme featured a significant injection of new names (drummer Herlin Riley’s Swing Quartet went down a storm with aficionados of a more contemporary persuasion) alongside long-established favourites.

One Nairn newcomer whom it was impossible to avoid was the veteran American violinist Johnny Frigo. It may not have been his fault, but by the time he had gatecrashed his second concert (delaying the start, much to the inevitably vocal chagrin of Kenny Davern who was expecting to kick-off at the advertised time), Frigo was beginning to outstay his welcome. His impressive age (he’s 87) and impish sense of fun may allow him to get away with a great deal (a degree of arrogance and a penchant for reading his own poetry onstage to name but two examples), but his invitation for requests was dangerous, since what most of the audience wanted to hear was the band they had bought tickets for – Summit Reunion.

This musical meeting of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber – the twin titans of the clarinet (plus, in Wilber’s case, the soprano sax) – turned out to be well worth the wait. It’s two years since their last Nairn summit, and clearly the time apart has had only a positive effect on their collaborations. Their concert in the excellent, Davern-pleasing,acoustics of the Newton Hotel’s conference room was – by their own reckoning – their best ever. What shone through was the fact that they were revelling not only in each other’s company, but also in the company of a terrific band – the Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello (whose exquisitely tasteful playing won him many fans), guitarist James Chirillo, bass player Andrew Cleyndert and drummer Tony De Nicola.

This was classic Soprano Summit: Davern and Wilber jostle and joust with the melody, bouncing it to and fro before one of them throws down the gauntlet with his solo; then, all solos taken, the pair reunite for an invariably exhilarating  climax, packed with the kind of harmonies that cause spines to tingle. This time out, the tunes ranged from such old SS favourites as Some of These Days to numbers – Comes Love, for one – which aren’t associated with this band. As ever, the leaders seemed energised by each other’s playing, and the results were utterly thrilling.

Less thrilling, but extremely satisfying nevertheless, was the reunion of most of the group featured on the recent Arbors CD Yearnings. Clarinettist Bobby Gordon, making his Nairn debut this year, initially appeared ill at ease next to the majestic-sounding Bob Wilber on the bandstand and, until the volume of his microphone was bumped up, he didn’t make much of a musical impression. By half-time, however, he had hit his stride, playing with ever greater assurance, and revealing – even more than he had in a far from relaxed duo concert with James Chirillo the previous day – a breathy, Pee Wee Russell-informed style which was a joy on his featured number If You Were Mine. Towards the end of the set, he felt sufficiently comfortable to sing –  a charmingly unaffected, characterful rendition of Sweet Lorraine which was reminiscent of Doc Cheatham’s similarly gentle vocal version.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Overview

Published in the Nairn Telegraph, August 14, 2002

Thank God for the Nairn International Jazz Festival. Thanks to it, I will have enough musical memories to sustain me through the next 12 months until my next trip north to jazz heaven. The festival, which ended on Sunday, provided more moments of sheer pleasure in one week than Scottish fans of swinging chamber jazz can expect to enjoy in a whole year’s worth of concerts elsewhere in the country.

This year’s event summed up everything that makes Nairn special. There was the enthusiasm of the musicians who appreciated the excellent acoustics (if not the unbearable temperature earlier in the week) of the Universal Hall in Findhorn, the laidback feel of the Newton Hotel’s Conference Centre, and, especially, the warmth and attentiveness of the audiences. Among the musicians who were enjoying themselves so much that they played well beyond their bedtimes were veteran clarinettist and saxophonist Bob Wilber, pianist Ray Bryant and cornet legend Ruby Braff.

Then there were the last-minute concerts staged by festival organiser Ken Ramage: two guitar recitals by top American players in a Forres coffee shop and the Saturday night finale, pulled together in a day (following the cancellation by headline act Steve Tyrell), and still managing to attract a more than respectably sized audience.

Of course what matters most is the music, and Nairn served up more treats than even the most optimistic festival-goer could expect, and all in a refreshingly laid-back manner which contrasts with the concert hall formality favoured by so many other jazz festivals these days. Ken Ramage is a talented programmer with a healthy intuition about which musicians will work well together, and he knows that the happier the musicians are, the better the music is likely to be. Which is why, unlike other festival organisers, he often brings over whole bands or arranges for the preferred rhythm sections of certain top soloists to come up north, rather than taking the easy option of simply putting the star turn on with a Scottish trio.

The festival is very much a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, but it’s also proof that focusing on one area of jazz – the so-called “mainstream” side of things – doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t have diversity and broad appeal. Nairn’s very strength is that it doesn’t try to be all things to all jazz fans. Because of this, it has a strong identity and has established a reputation among musicians all over the world as one of the most desirable festivals to visit. Add to that the warm hospitality, the scenery and, of course, the tropical temperatures (well, Monday and Tuesday’s anyway), and, well, roll on next year…

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Part 1

Published in The Herald, Thursday August 8, 2002

This year’s Nairn International Jazz Festival must have some sort of jinx on it, if its catalogue of problems to date is anything to go by. First, there was the Nairn accommodation crisis – caused by double bookings and the fact that since so many jazz fans had booked rooms, there were few left for the performers – which was resolved by putting most of the musicians in Elgin.

Then there was the nightmare journeys faced by anyone travelling on public transport at the weekend. (One musician endured a ten-hour train and bus trip from Edinburgh.) And yesterday came the announcement that festival organiser Ken Ramage’s personal piece de resistance – the debut of American crooner Steve Tyrell on Saturday night – had been cancelled by Tyrell himself. As if that wasn’t enough, Ramage’s mobile phone has gone AWOL …

Despite all this, the festival swung into action as if nothing was wrong. There is a ramshackle, everybody-pitches-in, quality about this festival, but the bottom line is that everything always works out in the end – and that the music always comes first. Which is presumably why musicians love to come here.

One musician who left, yesterday morning, looking as if he had had the time of his life was Bob Wilber, the American clarinettist and saxophonist who was lured out of semi-retirement by two tempting reunions – with the clarinettist Kenny Davern on Monday night, and with the Hot Club de France-style band fronted by Belgian guitar maestro Fapy Lafertin on Tuesday evening.

Wilber and Davern gave a sensational concert at the stiflingly hot Universal Hall in Findhorn. These virtuoso musicians have known each other for decades and they clearly thrive on opportunities to play together. Their duetting style, formed during the heyday of their group, Soprano Summit, is thrilling whether they’re both playing clarinet or whether Wilber has switched to soprano sax. These guys know each other’s styles so well, and are so experienced, that they produce spine-tingling harmonies as a matter of course.

For the most part they steered clear of standard fare on Monday night, and instead offered such lesser-played numbers a Smiles, Jazz Me Blues and The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.

However, it was during an old Fats Waller warhorse, Honeysuckle Rose, that the camaraderie onstage reached its high point, with Wilber (on soprano sax) and Davern jabbing and jousting to exhilarating effect as they traded breaks. And they were buoyed by the accompaniment of a peerless band featuring the lyrical guitarist James Chirillo, Britain’s top bass player Dave Green, the impressive young drummer Steve Brown and the super elegant American pianist John Bunch who, at 80, is as nimble and stylish a player as ever.

Wilber’s next appearance was in civvies – as a member of the audience at Davern’s lunchtime gig at the The Newton Hotel, Nairn, on Tuesday. This was a wonderfully relaxed session featuring the clarinettist in charge – and at his best. And it was a treat to hear him playing such rarities as Then You’ve Never Been Blue (which he learned from an old George Raft movie) and My Gal Sal, the first few bars of which featured unsolicited audience participation.

What really put the smile on Wilber’s face was his second and last concert as a player – on Tuesday night at Findhorn, with Fapy Lafertin’s Quartet. Before he went onstage, Wilber was enthusing about Lafertin being the world’s leading exponent of the “gypsy” jazz style of guitar playing made famous by Django Reinhardt, and reminiscing about his own face-to-face meeting with Reinhardt in Nice in the late 1940s. He obviously loves the Hot Club’s music and to play it with such a class act was clearly a great treat.

And the Lafertin outfit – two guitars, bass and violin (played by the fiendishly talented Dutchman Tim Kliphuis) – was just as delighted to have the chance to renew its acquaintance with Wilber, with whom they last worked in 1996. The results were a knockout, with Wilber absolutely in his element – hunched over his horn and dancing about as if he was in a New Orleans parade – and egged on by the dazzling, though far from flamboyant, virtuosity of Lafertin.

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Nairn Jazz: Bob Wilber (1995)

Review published in The Herald, June 1, 1995.

Bob Wilber, Parkdean Holiday Park, Nairn

Nairn did it again on Tuesday night: showed up the rest of the country in its commitment to one-off inter-festival jazz concerts. The name to be added to the town’s already impressive list of successes is that of British-based American clarinetist/saxophonist Bob Wilber.

Wilber is a paradoxical figure. His precise, professional appearance, while reflected in the polished nature of his arrangements, is really a foil for the passion and energy of his playing style. The academic (visual) image is underlined by one of his instrumental choices – his celebrated curved soprano sax which, at about half the length of the straight soprano sax, looks like an extra-large pipe.

The curved model was used to best effect on Wilber’s breathtaking marathon through Hindustan, but the straight soprano was favoured with more numbers. As promised, it made an altogether different sound from its wee brother: bolder, more commanding, and more elegantly fluid. That sound was showcased on two ballads – the stunning Indian Summer and Wilber’s own exquisite Reverie.

Although Wilber’s clarinet was the most exercised instrument of the evening, it was the least inspiring – but only because of the competition. Its lilting performance on What a Difference A Day Makes, however was a contender in the knock-out stakes.

Impressive, too, was the rest of the band, with Dave Cliff’s guitar input in particular, perfectly complementing Wilber’s playing. The quartet appears to be jinxed. Before the gig, it was announced that Wilber’s regular pianist, Mick Pyne, died last week – Brian Dee proved a worthy substitute – and midway through the evening the band’s superb bass player, Dave Green, had to be ambulanced off to hospital, but the band played on.

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