A strange pairing for a recital: dapper, precise New York stride pianist followed by the guy whose first album was called Blues from the Gutter. Certain purists will skip the gutter part. Another kind of purist will always skip the stride part.
Lately I’ve been skipping purists.
— Joe Turner (00:51) and Champion Jack Dupree (13:44) Le service de la musique: Jazz Session 1960s
I like how they scat while they play. Is it for themselves or for each other? Maybe they don’t even know they’re doing it — an unconscious byproduct of hitting (or anticipating or feeling) the notes they play…
You would not want to hear me scat while I write. It would be ^nothing but curse-laden mumbling with absolutely no rhythm and constant ^filled with annoying edits and rewrites and digressions and self-doubt I hate this sentence I just want to hit ^hold down the delete key and watch the cursor fly by scroll left ^leftby and erase every single fucking letter one by one.
— Oscar Peterson Trio, “A Gal in Calico” (1958) With Herb Ellis and Ray Brown
In my younger days we would listen to an old blues and pick out reference points — “This turnaround reminds me of Yancey,” or “That’s the ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ break…” — as a way of figuring out the song.
When I listen to the same music now, I still come across reference points, but they’re processed differently. I’m less interested in dissecting the phrases and more interested in digging through the collage of memory that sits underneath.
Under “Little Joe from Chicago” is a trunk-full that I didn’t know was there. It starts with a future professor rattling off factoids about James P. Johnson, and then the voice switches to a community radio activist (and trumpet player) telling me about Andy Kirk & His Clouds of Joy. The album cover for Art Tatum’s Piano Starts Here peeks out from the bottom. I can also see the eyebrows of Fats Waller and the hands of Mrs. Mawson, the pianist at the church I went to as a kid.
And at the very bottom, tucked into the corner by the living room window, is an old console piano that I gave up on when I was in the third grade.
— Mary Lou Williams, “Little Joe from Chicago” Late 1970s
We sit around in Chinatown talking about people who have drifted in and out of the circle. Some slip away after breakups (as part of a reboot protocol); others vanish when they start dating someone from the outside, or they just get antsy and want out.
The circle reacts by saying things like “It is what it is” or “We’re still cool with each other, you know?” But they do not forget the uneasiness of knowing they’ve been left behind by someone in search of a more comfy comfort zone…
After dinner I make my way to Fourteenth Street to catch the L. There’s a guitarist on the platform with a white Telecaster on his knee and a harmonica rack around his neck. I hear him noodling as I walk toward the end of the platform.
A drum track suddenly kicks in, and the guitarist reels off his first twelve bars. Most of the blues you hear on the street — or under it — are in the keys of E or A or B flat. (This guy is in B flat.) It’s a comfort zone thing.
Listening to him reminds me of past friends who are now strangers in a different key. At a certain point, something with the arrangement threw them (or me) off and the conversations began to sound dissonant — to the point where somebody had to bail.
Somewhere in Massachusetts is a guy who ran off with my copy of Tuff Enuff: The Ace Blues Masters, Vol. 3.
He was a harmonica guy, maybe ten or fifteen years older than I was, and in his car he kept an old mix tape that a guitarist had made for him. He had since fallen out of touch with the guitarist — and lost the cassette case — which meant that over several years he’d been trying to figure out the names of all the songs on this one tape. (Back then, “Shazam” wasn’t yet a verb; it was still just a comic book…or a Duane Eddy record.)
By the time I met him, he was down to just a few stragglers that he was still trying to ID. He played one of them for me; he was sure it was Walter Horton, but he hadn’t been able to pin down the song.
“That’s ‘Steady,’” I said.
“Steady…the rhythm, you mean.”
“No, the song. It’s not Big Walter. It’s ‘Steady’ by Jerry McCain.”
“No shit!” he said. “‘Steady.’ How come nobody else could tell me that?”
“They get out a lot more than I do.”
The next time I saw him I passed along the CD. I ran into him a couple times after that — “I’ll bring it next time I see you,” he said. He was a good guy, and I didn’t doubt that he would.
Then few months later, I heard he got engaged, and I never saw the poor fellow again.
— Jerry McCain, “Steady” (1961) Rex 1014 Recorded in Birmingham