Posts Tagged ‘swing’


Monday, July 16th, 2012

With the exception of the moonlight-serenading Glenn Miller ghosters, there are no longer any big bands on the road these days. The young crew led by Maynard Ferguson was the last of its kind. MF’s death in 2006 represented, once and for all, the end of the traveling bands.

But the big band genre’ is hardly extinct. Certainly, there are the superb college and high school jazz bands, but in the professional sector, big bands abound for recording purposes, rehearsals and local gigs. An exception of sorts to the traveling rule is the case of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, which does tour from time to time on a limited basis.

In the “local sector”—and “local” is not to be taken as a negative term—there is the Zeropoint Big Band based in central Pennsylvania. This talented crew has just recorded a CD, “James Witherite + 17,” featuring the arrangements, six of the nine compositions recorded, and the flugelhorn solos of Mr. Witherite himself.

You’ve got to love this guy. He’s a superb improviser—who swings like the dickens–an inventive composer and arranger, and, get this, a horse racing announcer who has breathlessly described thoroughbred and harness races at more than 50 tracks throughout north America. A renaissance man, indeed.

He’s been at the jazz game since childhood, studied formally at Duquesne, released his first CD as a leader, “West by Northwest,” in 2006; followed by “Live in Pittsburgh,” recorded a year later with the Duquesne University Jazz Ensemble.

The new CD is just marvelous in terms of ensemble tightness, intonation and sense of swing. There are, maybe, one or two ragged edges in the brass section on a selection or two, but that only adds to the excitement and makes these guys seem human! The rhythm section, booted by drummer Kevin Lowe, is loose enough to cook but precise enough to drive the rather complex shout choruses.

The short title cut, “0.67;” “Father John;” the standard “My One and Only Love” (featuring the Arthur Prysock-inspired vocals of Michael Andrews); and Duke’s “Love You Madly” (with a fine, fine vocal by Carolyn Perteete) are personal favorites. All the titles, however, are worth listening to again and again, as there’s something new to be heard on each go-round.

On a personal basis, I’ve heard James Witherite several times—on piano as well as flugelhorn—and I’ll only repeat what I told him. “Whenever I get a band together,” I said to him: YOU’RE HIRED.

And about the band? Take the plunge. Go on the road.

For more information on James Witherite, the Zeropoint Big Band, and the CDs availability, log on to and/or

Rare Artie Shaw Documentary on its Way

Friday, September 18th, 2009

By all accounts, clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw was quite the difficult guy, before, during and after his days as a working musician.

Still, Shaw, born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in 1910—who passed in December of 2004 at the age of 94—is still regarded in many quarters as the greatest jazz clarinetist who ever lived.

For those of a certain age, his story is a familiar one, which included eight marriages to the likes of Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Evelyn Keyes; the wild success of his various bands; Shaw’s inability or unwillingness to deal with much of this success and various other emotional factors which resulted in his giving up the horn for good in 1954.

It’s one of the great stories in jazz, if only because Artie Shaw was among the few players in history who actually evolved as a player. It’s not that he suddenly became a Charlie Parker-like be-bopper. It just seemed that, as time went on, his style just became more modern and more timeless within the parameters that he had already set. And those were very, very high-level parameters. Technically, harmonically and emotionally? He couldn’t be touched. Though there who continue to argue about such matters, Benny Goodman had very, very little of what Artie Shaw had. “You play clarinet, I play music,” Shaw once said to Goodman.

I’d bet BG had no idea what Artie Shaw was talking about.

After leaving the music business, Shaw involved himself in various activities, which included work as a film distributor, gentleman farmer, and mainly, as a writer. For years, he was said to be working on a gargantuan, fictionalized version of his own life, titled “The Education of Albie Show,” said to be around 1,900 pages—double-spaced—in length. According to those few who have read all or part of it, it is not an easy read.

Jazz writer Gene Lees, in fact, described Shaw as “a second-rate writer.” The presumption of course, is that Lees is a first-rate writer.

There have been various attempts to get Shaw involved in telling his own life story through the years, and there was actually a documentary film produced and released around 1987. Titled “Time is All You’ve Got,” it was produced by Brigitte Berman, critically acclaimed for her work on a Bix Beiderbecke documentary several years before this.

“Time is All You’ve Got” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature film in 1987. Shaw participated in it enthusiastically, and is also boasted the participation of Shaw cohorts like Buddy Rich, Helen Forrest, Lee Castle, ex-wife Evelyn Keyes and many, many others via vintage footage and interviews.

For reasons still not widely known, outside of a few showings around 1987, the film was pulled from distribution and has not been seen since. In terms of film rarities, “Time is All You’ve Got” is one of the rarest.

Who knows what happened? Shaw was well known for putting roadblocks in the path of various projects over the years.

Seasons back, after the release of the “Buddy Rich: Jazz Legend” video, Artie Shaw called my office. He was not happy.

“By whose authority are you using this clip of my band with Buddy Rich from 1937?” he asked me.

“Well, Mr., Shaw,” I began to explain, “the clip is over 60 years old and has been used in over a dozen documentaries over the years.”

He then tried to argue that he owned the film clip, ignoring the fact that Vitaphone, an operation that had been out of business for decades, was actually the producer/distributor of the film short, “Artie Shaw’s Class in Swing.”

I cleared a payment of $500 to Shaw with the DCI Music Video offices—distributors of the Buddy Rich video—as a courtesy to Mr. Shaw. That seemed to do the trick.

Then again, perhaps Evelyn Keyes’ successful lawsuit a few years ago, in pursuit of half of her ex’s estate, was a factor in getting “Time is All You’ve Got” pulled. Who knows?

The important thing is, this deserves to be seen. will be getting a copy shortly, and the moment we do, we’ll try to make it available as soon as we can, and as long as we can.

But knowing Artie Shaw, you never know how long that will be.

Benny Goodman’s 100th: Long Live the King

Monday, June 1st, 2009

On May 30, 2009, Benny Goodman, a.k.a. “The King of Swing,” would have been 100 years old. There were and are several Goodman tributes, including a BBC Radio “Centenary” episode, concerts by Paquito D’Rivera, the Boston Symphony and a Lincoln Center “Jazz for Young People” show entitled “Who is Benny Goodman?”

There are several players and leaders out there who do ensure that the Goodman legacy continues. Ken Peplowski (who will do a Goodman tribute concert at The Rochester Jazz Festival on June 13), Brooks Tegler, and especially Loren Schoenberg — who could and should write the definitive Benny Goodman story—are three who immediately come to mind. And Schoenberg, by the way, paid tribute to BG, and Lester Young, via several, recent WGBO radio programs. While all this is great stuff, it seems to me that there should be more, given the scope of Benny Goodman’s fame and more than substantial contributions. But memories fade as time goes on, so maybe we should be thankful for any tributes at all.

As much a part of the Goodman legend, if there is such a thing, is the not-so-fondly-remembered issue of his personality. Though I don’t like getting involved in the personal lives of any celebrity, the Goodman “personality,” or lack of it, is just so darn amusing and very, very public, that it just cannot be ignored. Especially on BG’s 100th.

One of Goodman’s biographers, perhaps James Lincoln Collier (and whatever happened to him?) once pointed out that, in all probability, not a day goes by without a story being told about the enigmatic behavior of BG. (Buddy Rich stories are another issue.) Gene Lees’ essential “Jazzletter” devoted a bunch of past issues to what went down on the famed tour of Russia in 1962, and Bill Crow’s “Jazz Anecdotes” retold some of the more infamous stories.

The one I particularly like is the one told in the late, Peter Levinson’s great biography of Tommy Dorsey, published in 2005, entitled “Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way.”

As the story goes, BG was doing a gig somewhere on November 27, 1956, the day after Dorsey died. One of Goodman’s sidemen told Benny the news about TD’s tragic and unexpected death. “Benny, I hate to tell you this bad news, “ the sideman related, “but Tommy Dorsey just died.” The King’s reply? “Is that so?” he said. You’ve got to love it.

Another frequently-told story through the years that has again been making the rounds of the internet, is pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg’s hilarious tale of the evening Goodman sat in with Gene Krupa’s Quartet at The Metropole Cafe’ in New York city. Track that one down. It’s a riot.

I haven’t related my personal Benny Goodman story in years. In line with the 100th birthday business, this seems like an appropriate time to retell it.

In the mid-1980s, I had the bright idea of writing a biography of Gene Krupa, which later became “World of Gene Krupa: That Legendary Drummin’ Man,” published in 1990 and still in print via Pathfinder Publishing of California. For an unpublished author writing about someone relatively forgotten back then, the project was an uphill battle from the start. Still, I forged ahead, and though a good deal of the book was a compilation of edited, previously published materials, I obviously had to get some first-person interviews to give the project some credibility. When I started, I had no publisher and not much of anything else, other than my credentials as a drummer and newspaper editor, but players like Teddy Wilson, Eddie Wasserman, Carmen Leggio, John Bunch, Charlie Ventura, and later, Mel Torme’ (who wrote a wonderful introduction to the book, where he revealed that Gene was, in fact, Goodman’s absolute, favorite drummer of all time) were just marvelous to me.

But it was always in the back of my mind that any book about Krupa just had to have an interview with one, Benjamin David Goodman.

My plan was this: Find the New York phone number and ask BG’s’ long-time secretary, who I believe was still Muriel Zuckerman, if there was a chance at setting up a future phone interview. Goodman’s office number was listed, and having heard all the stories about this strange guy through the years, and the fact that he remained one of my musical idols, I really had to get some serious courage going before I dialed the phone.

Zuckerman answered the telephone, and I did not misrepresent my credentials or the project’s status. “I’m writing a book about Gene Krupa,” I told her, “and I was just wondering…next to setting up an interview with God, how difficult would it be to set a time to do a five-minute phone interview with Mr. Goodman?”

Always the merry prankster, I thought injecting a bit of humor into the proceedings might help pave the way.

“You’d have a better chance with God,” Zuckerman replied, and then asked if she could put me on hold for a moment.

Several moments later, someone picked up a telephone extension and said, “Hello?”

The voice was instantly recognizable. It was “Him.” I was not prepared for this at all.

“Mr. Goodman, I’m writing a book about one of your friends and colleagues, Gene Krupa, and I was wondering if I could set up a time to talk to you over phone about him for a few minutes,” I related.

“Well…what kind of questions do you want to ask?” was BG’s reply.

Man, was I on the spot, as I had absolutely nothing prepared, but I thought I came up with something reasonably intelligent.

“I’ve always wanted to know something, Mr. Goodman,” I answered while stalling for time. “You played with Gene at the very beginning of his career, and you played with him at the very end. Maybe you could explain the difference in how he accompanied you through the years.”

I thought that was a great question, and I still do. I’ll remember Goodman’s comments until the day I die.

“He played pretty much the same,” he explained. “He was rather consistent. As you know, he started with me and then formed his own band, which was rather successful. When did you say he died?”

“He died in 1973,” I told him.

“How old was he when he died,” asked BG.

“He was 64 years old, Mr. Goodman.”

“My, that was rather young, wasn’t it? Goodbye.”


That’s my Benny Goodman story and it was printed, verbatim, in my Krupa book. Several Goodman fans were not happy about it.

When players like Teddy Wilson gave a sensitive and intelligent analysis about how Krupa functioned—and evolved—as an accompanist and a soloist through the years, Benjamin David Goodman could only relate that Krupa’s playing “was pretty much the same” over a 40-plus year span.

But as one wag –who heard all the stories and more through the years—once put it: “Yeah, but he sure could play that clarinet.”

Happy 100th and long live The King.