Tag Archives: Marty Grosz

Edinburgh Jazz Fest Memories: Alison Kerr

Edinburgh Jazz Festival - Hot Antic Jazz Band, (and Alison), Drones, 1987.jpg smaller

Alison Kerr (in black, at piano), listening to the Hot Antic Jazz Band, Drones, 1987

If it hadn’t been for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, I wouldn’t be writing about jazz now…

It was August 21, 1986, and I was 14 years old when I first accompanied my dad on one of his annual week’s worth of jaunts to Edinburgh during the jazz festival. By this time, he had evolved a jazz festival routine – he booked a week off work, bought a festival rail pass (this was back when the jazz festival coincided with the other Ediburgh festivals), resumed a smoking habit that hadn’t been indulged since the previous festival, and met up with different pals (with varying degrees of interest in jazz but an equally strong interest in beer), at the many licensed premises that doubled as venues.

This was the now long-gone era of the famous jazz festival Pub Trail, when brewers sponsored the jazz festival, the packed programme resembled a paperback novel, and you could hear local and international bands – some semi-professional, some wholly; all enthusiastic purveyors of classic and trad jazz – in pubs all over the city. On my first day at the jazz festival I heard the French band who quickly became lifelong favourites – the Hot Antic Jazz Band. And my fate was sealed ..

That was one strand of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. The other was the one with ticketed gigs, usually an afternoon or evening long session with two or three sets featuring different line-ups. When the festival introduced their now-fabled Gold Star Badges (in 1986), you could dip in and out of three or more gigs in a night, and follow your favourite bands or soloists around town.

In our case, this invariably meant legging it from somewhere like the Festival Club on Chambers Street over to the Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square and then to the Royal Overseas League on Princes Street – where, that first year, I saw the pianist whose Edinburgh Jazz Festival - Dick Hyman, Royal Overseas League, 1986.jpgappearance in Edinburgh was the reason for mine, the nimble-fingered Dick Hyman – before the inevitable mad dash for the last train back to Glasgow.

Of course, there was no guarantee that you would get into a gig which you hadn’t been at from its kick-off, which is why – in 1991 – there were nearly tears when we ended up standing OUTSIDE the Tartan Club at Fountainbridge (that year’s incarnation of Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club) listening as best we could to an eight-piece all-star band featuring Yank Lawson, Scott Hamilton, Marty Grosz and Kenny Davern (I vividly recall being blown away as Scott Hamilton brilliantly evoked Lester Young’s iconic solo on Back in Your Own Backyward), when we had left perfectly good seats at the Spiegeltent and would have heard Leon Redbone if we had stayed on after the Dry Throat Fellows, another favourite quirky European group. Needless to say, the atmosphere on the train home that night was not the best …

Those early years at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – me in my mid-teens; my dad in his early 40s – undoubtedly ruined me for everything that came later. I revelled in the camaraderie, rejoiced in observing the characters onstage and off (there was a motley crew of eccentrics – the “Coke Can Kid” and “Monsieur Hulot” were two of our favourites – who would turn up every year and usually be in competition for the front row seats), and delighted in the lack of segregation between audience and musicians which meant that when I emerged from my front-row seat at the end of a gig, my father would tell me he had just had a pint with one of the musicians we’d admired earlier in the day.

Probably the greatest gift the jazz festival gave me – apart from these unique opportunities to spend time with my dad – was the chance to hear some of the greats from the heyday of jazz. The veteran jazz musicians I was privileged to hear during my teens reads like the personnel listings of favourite records from the golden age of jazz – Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison, Buddy Tate, Al Casey, Al Grey, Milt Hinton etc.

Thanks to the jazz festival, I held the door open for Milt Hinton. I heard Art Hodes, who had played piano for Al Capone. I heard Al Casey, who had been in Fats Waller’s bands. And later, as a young journalist, I received annual invitations to his New York jazz festival from Dick Hyman.

Then there are musicians we got to hear for the first time in Edinburgh – and went on to enjoy at successive festivals. If it hadn’t been for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I would not have come across the wonderful guitarist, singer and raconteur Marty Grosz as early as IEJF 1991 (5) - Marty Grosz did, and for bringing him into our lives, I’ll be forever grateful to the festival. Few other musicians lift the spirits as he can, and his duo gigs with clarinettist/saxophonist and fellow wise-cracker Ken Peplowski at Edinburgh in the late 1990s, early 2000s were the main highlights of those festivals for many of us.

By the late 1990s, the pub trail was gone, and the informality that we had loved was a thing of the past as the musicians we wanted to hear were usually scheduled to play in the sobering (and non-smoking) Hub venue and being kept well away from the audience.  Our favourite musicians might still be coming to the festival, but if they did it was usually just for one or two concerts. My father no longer needed to book a week off work.

The festival had rolled on to a new era. But what luck to have lived through those early days and to have had just about enough nous to appreciate that what I was witnessing was special.

In the run-up to this year’s jazz festival, I’m publishing a series sharing memories of the jazz festival from across its 40-year history, and from the perspectives of punters and performers alike. If you would like to share your stories and photos, please email me on girlfriday71@yahoo.com

Next: Roy Percy

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Happy 90th, Bob Wilber!

Bob Wilber, Ed Jazz Fest 1992It’s soprano saxophonist extraordinaire Bob Wilber’s 90th birthday today. I’ve been lucky enough to hear him playing on quite a few occasions over the years – the first time was in August 1992 (when the above photo was taken), when I interrupted my year in Paris to come back for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, largely because I couldn’t bear to miss hearing him and clarinettist Kenny Davern together – the first chance I had ever had to hear these two titans of classic jazz playing together live.

Three years later, as a fledgling freelance journalist writing for The Herald, I sent myself up north to review concerts by Davern and Wilber, on consecutive nights in neighbouring towns. The night after Davern played his gig at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, Wilber performed at – of all places – the Parkdean Holiday Park in Nairn. (This turned out to be a suitably surreal introduction for me to Nairn Jazz and the wonderful world of the much-missed jazz promoter Ken Ramage.)

Never without my clunky Sony Professional tape recorder in those days, I interviewed both Davern and Wilber about the event that would become the most eagerly anticipated gig in my calendar for that summer – a reunion of the full Soprano Summit line-up (living members anyway!), to take place at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

Soprano Summit was a hugely successful band in the 1970s which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (six years), became legendary. Its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a “jazz party” – organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that clarinettist Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Wilber, enjoyed telling. Here’s how it was told to me, in the summer of 1995 …

By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said, in his Alabama drawl, “Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet.”

The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

“We got a rhythm section together,” explained Wilber, “by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number.” Davern continued: “We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972, the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album; the only difference in personnel being that the busy bassist Milt Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier.

Then, after a second LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born. The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go.

Rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work. Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love of tunes which were off the beaten standard track. Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic ground plan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz, they also had “a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning.”

Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”

The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music, but both have their own views on how it should be played.

“Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played.

As Wilber said: “A lot of it is intuitive. We find out what works by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.”

Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: “Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”

That Edinburgh Jazz Festival reunion turned out to be the only time I ever heard Soprano Summit live, but thankfully there were many more opportunities to hear both Wilber and Davern over the next couple of decades. Davern died in 2006, but Wilber remains active – I last heard him at the Norwich Jazz Party in 2014 when he was on terrific form, serving up deliciously unexpected harmonies and swinging with as much joie-de-vivre as those first times I heard him, more than 20 years earlier.BW 2

 

 

 

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Review: Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons, Glasgow

Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons,Recital Room, Glasgow, Saturday June 28th ****

It was impossible not to be charmed by the Twisted Toons concert at the Recital Room on Saturday evening. Not only is drummer Stu Brown an extremely engaging and amiable host, but his passion for Raymond Scott’s cultish compositions – which were used in dozens of classic Warner Bros cartoons as well as the more recent Ren and Stimpy animations – and the performances of them by a septet comprising A-list Scottish jazz musicians make an irresistible combination. That said, however, a little of the Scott repertoire goes a long way…

The opening numbers were highly enjoyable. Jungle Medley was a collection of pieces from Looney Tunes cartoons by Carl Stalling which segued into Scott’s swinging, vaguely early-Ellingtonian composition Dinner Time For a Pack of Hungry Cannibals and featured a superb hot clarinet solo by Martin Kershaw. Scott’s spooky Goblins in the Steeple was another gem, thanks to the terrific ensemble work and a stylish solo by trumpeter Tom MacNiven. The septet sound – of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, violin, piano, bass and drums – on this number, the playful arrangement and the classy playing brought to mind some of the brilliant work of some of Marty Grosz’s modern-day small, 1920s-style, groups which blend zingy, witty arrangements with top drawer soloing.

Less appealing, however, were full-length cartoon scores – perhaps they would work better if accompanying a screening of the cartoons. The complete scores are too disjointed, and their jazz and tuneful elements too scattered to be satisfying listening on their own for the lay person.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 30th

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Happy Swinging Hallowe’en

Louis Armstrong’s first appearance in a feature film – 1936’s Pennies From Heaven –  found him cast as a trumpet-playing chicken thief who performs at the opening of a haunted house style nightclub .. The great Marty Grosz, who also recorded a terrific version of this song, used to offer audiences a brilliantly funny potted version of the ridiculous plot of this particularly silly film – and it was much more entertaining than the movie itself. But this clip – the perfect Hallowe’en clip for jazz fans – is essential viewing. Louis vanquishes the skeleton with his high notes, while Lionel Hampton is featured on drums!

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What Bix Means to Me: Marty Grosz

The inimitable guitarist and singer has trumpeted the music of Bix Beiderbecke since early in his career: one of his early LPs was entitled Hooray for Bix, and celebrated the spirit of Bix’s small groups while avoiding replicating their recordings. He is currently working on arrangements of five Bix tunes – “nothing to do with the records; no recreation of solos” – for a set at the Chautauqua Jazz Weekend in September. He says:

“I first heard Bix when I was about 14, and Columbia reissued some of his recordings. This was about 1944. The rest of the kids were were into Glenn Miller and the hits of the day – and the big record that everyone in that generation had was Bunny Berigan’s I Can’t Get Started which was a sort of anthem.

“Bix’s band had a bass sax. It sounded strange; quite odd actually – that’s what I liked. I felt – and still feel – that there’s something very affecting about Bix, something touching about his sound. People still haven’t put their finger on it, and I wonder if my impression of it isn’t tinged by his story, like Berigan’s is. You know: the alcoholic whose parents didn’t want him to be a musician – the romance of that story. There’s been more bullshit written about him than about Marilyn Monroe … His life filled the role of unappreciated genius and the public loves that. The best thing you can do for your career is die early.

“This cult sprang up about Bix in the 1930s – the Young Man With a Horn and he became a sort of romantic figure. But when you talked to Bud Freeman and Eddie Condon – guys who knew him – they said simply that he was a great guy, a great player, but he drank too much. They didn’t get it – why people wanted that kind of romantic story.

“Listen to how Bix plays In a Mist – it’s like a stomp. I wish he hadn’t called it In a Mist – it encouraged people to talk about Bix ‘the dreamer’. It’s extrapolation after the fact – but the myth will go on. People need it.

“Nevertheless, I’ve always been touched by the melancholy aspect in his cornet playing – Louis Armstrong had that tinge of melancholy too, and profundity. Listen to Tight Like This. When he plays in the minor, it’s Wagnerian.

“I discovered Louis and Bix at the same point in my life since Bix’s recordings and Louis’s Hot 5 recordings were reissued at pretty much the same time. Whereas the Hot 5 tunes weren’t pop tunes – Louis didn’t really start playing pop tunes till the 1930s – Bix’s tunes were ones that people were still singing and playing when I was a kid: Margie, Somebody Stole My Gal etc. It helped us to assimilate them – it was the pop tunes  that got us first, though I’m Coming Virginia was probably the recording that really hooked me.

“I grew up listening to a couple of New York DJs who played a total mixture of jazz – you’d have Duke Ellington’s Ko-Ko, recorded in 1940, followed by something by Bessie Smith – and I didn’t realise for a long time that her stuff was much older. It was all mixed in together. I was drawn to improvised ensembles, like Bix’s and the Eddie Condon records – things that played with a kind of wild abandon that you really couldn’t hear anywhere else because the fashion at the time was for mostly smooth, suave, arranged stuff. And of course Louis got to me – there was a raucous aspect to him which was missing to the arranged things of the day.

“I love the bittersweet quality to Bix’s sound – Berigan had that too. I love Bix’s solos on Sweet Sue – Just You and China Boy, both with Paul Whiteman. Whatever he did, within two bars, you know who it was. That’s the stamp of a very strong musical personality. The most important thing about a jazz musician is that you can tell who it is instantly.

“Years ago, I was writing about Frank Teschemacher for Time Life and I was sent some clippings of interviews with jazz musicians that had been done by a guy in Chicago during the WPA (Works Progress Administration, which ran relief projects).  This guy had interviewed Muggsy Spanier who told him that he and Bix played duets together. He also interviewed George Barnes,  just 18 at the time, who told him that the first time he understood what swing was was when Jimmy McPartland lent him the record of Bix playing Singin’ the Blues.

“If I had to choose one track, it would be I’m Coming Virginia. Why? The sound! The sound and the note choices he makes. It’s a fully realised performance. It’s just beautiful, that’s all.

“I’d be hard-pressed to choose a second – I love bits in all his recordings but I’ve been enjoying Clementine recently …”

As a tantalising postscript, Marty added that Bud Freeman told him that in 1930, there were plans afoot for a tour of Europe by a group comprising himself, Bix, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Joe Sullivan, Gene Krupa, Dick McDonough and a bass player whose name Freeman couldn’t recall .. It never happened.

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Speaking of Ken Peplowski ….

We interrupt the Edinburgh Jazz Festival coverage to bring you a video I’ve just secured Ken Peplowski’s permission to share… Recorded at the Norwich Jazz Party in May, this is Ken’s serenade to a completely unsuspecting Marty … I’ll be posting more clips soon.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Caption Competition

I set a challenge to the musicians at Norwich: who could come up with the best caption for this classic photo of the inimitable Marty Grosz, here having trouble fixing his bow tie… And the winner was: Ken Peplowski. Of course!

Due to budget cuts, the Texas prison system is now forcing condemned prisoners to hang themselves.

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