Louis Forever

Twenty years ago I celebrated Louis Armstrong’s influence with some of my favourite musicians for The Herald Magazine, in advance of a centenary concert at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. It all still holds true – on the … Continue reading

Twenty years ago I celebrated Louis Armstrong’s influence with some of my favourite musicians for The Herald Magazine, in advance of a centenary concert at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. It all still holds true – on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the great man’s birth.

Jazz anniversaries come and go, but there is none as significant or as worthy of celebration as that of Louis Armstrong. He was jazz. No other jazz musician has had the impact or the profile that Armstrong had. While the general public remembers him primarily as a much-loved entertainer who came from a jazz background, the jazz world regards him as the single most important figure in 20th Century American music. Armstrong invented jazz as an art form, and he revolutionised popular singing. His influence was universal and enduring.

Genius springs from unlikely sources – and Louis Armstrong was no exception. He was born on August 4, 1901, in the seedy Storyville section of New Orleans. Just 21 years later, the waif who learned to play trumpet while in a home for wayward boys had musicians queuing up to hear him, and all of Chicago buzzing with talk of his brilliant on the bandstand with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. His impact on jazz was immediate. His dynamic, driving playing revitalised the Fletcher Henderson band in New York in the mid-1920s. What he played one night would be copied all over town the next day. And when he first got into a studio with his own bands, specially created for recording sessions, the results turned the jazz community upside down.

The 64 sides Armstrong recorded between 1925 and 1929 with his Hot Five, Hot Seven and Savoy Ballroom Five line-ups shaped the course of jazz and are now regarded as the single most important body of work in jazz history. These were the records on which his genius burst out in all its glory for the first time. His fantastic playing – dazzling lyricism and originality, innate swing and daring stop-time solos – threw down the gauntlet to musicians everywhere. The late guitarist Danny Barker once said: “The Okeh record company released a record by Louis about every six weeks, and everybody waited for the records because each one of them was a lesson in something new; in things to come.”

Armstrong had already inspired other musicians who came to hear him, but the Hot Five records had an even greater impact. They are the DNA of jazz.

Trumpeter Max Kaminsky wrote: “Above the electrifying tone, the magnificence of his ideas and the rightness of his harmonic sense, his superb technique, his power and ease, his hotness and intensity, his complete mastery of the horn – above all this he had swing. No-one knew what swing was until Louis came along. It’s more than just the beat, it’s conceiving the phrases in the very feeling of the beat, moulding and building them so that they’re an integral, indivisible part of the tempo. The others had the idea of it, but Louis could do it; he was the heir of all that had gone before and the father of all that was to come.”

Had Armstrong never made a record after 1929, he would still be the most important figure in jazz. Critic Gary Giddens has said: “In those [Hot Five] recordings, Armstrong proves for the first time that an improvisation cane be just as coherent, imaginative, emotionally satisfying, and durable as a writer piece of music.”

As he played, Armstrong wrote the language of jazz, transforming an ensemble music into a soloist’s art. One of his contemporaries, trumpeter Mutt Carey, later remembered: “He tried to make a picture out of every number he was playing to show just what it meant. He had ideas, enough technique to bring out what he wanted to say. He made you feel the number and that’s what counts.”

Miles Davis, the trumpeter who himself broke plenty of new ground, said: “You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played – I mean, even modern.”

Not only did Armstrong influence his contemporaries; he has continued to influence generations of jazz musicians. Cornettist Warren Vaché says: “He was the 20th Century Beethoven as far as I’m concerned. Nobody every swung before Louis. He taught us all how to play in 4/4 time and swing like mad. He also invented the language of the trumpet and pretty much the language of improvisation, too. It just doesn’t get any better than him.”

Marty Grosz, the guitarist and singer, echoes the sentiment. “Let’s put it this way, Louis Armstrong was to jazz, or is still to jazz, what Shakespeare was to English literature. He somehow, innately, just knew what to do and when to do it. He was the bell-wether of everything that followed. He pointed the way. That’s not to say that there weren’t many other talented people, but somehow Louis rhythmically freed up the whole thing.”

Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton says: “There is no other single person who has had the kind of impact on how we play the music than Louis Armstrong had, and his Hot Five recordings were pioneer examples. He continued the rest of his life to influence people, and he continued to make influential recordings, but those ones from the 1920s were the ones which first showed the way.”

It’s also important to note that Armstrong showed the way, not only to trumpeters, but to players of every instrument – a rare legacy, as clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski points out. “There are a few people who have come through the jazz pantheon who do that: Charlie Parker’s one, but Armstrong was certainly the first.”

Armstrong’s phenomenal achievements as a pioneer don’t end with his trumpet playing. He was also, as Gary Giddens said in Ken Burns’ series Jazz, “the single most important singer that American music has produced.” His first big hit, Heebie Jeebies, introduced the world to his gravelly style of scat singing, and his way of improvising with his voice as freely as if it were an instrument was enormously influential.

Danny Barker said: “That’s when the song stylist came in. People began to buy records because they liked a certain personality – Louis Armstrong was responsible for that.” Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra are among those who were inspired by his looser style of singing, his way of personalising songs.

Ken Peplowski is one of a huge number of musicians – including clarinettist Artie Shaw and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins – who have credited Armstrong with inspiring him to create his own music. Shaw said that Armstrong taught him “that you should do something that was your own,” something that expresses who you are. Peplowski says: “He was a great entertainer and a great artist. He didn’t compromise either of these aspects – and almost refused to. He was one of the first people who presented himself in a very natural state – take it or leave it; this is what I do.”

But the last word goes to the late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who memorably summed up the feelings of thousands of jazz musicians the world over when he said of Louis Armstrong: “Without him – no me.”

Bob Wilber Obituary

Bob Wilber, who has died at the age of 91, was a champion of classic and traditional jazz and one of the world’s leading jazz soprano saxophonists and clarinettists. During a career which spanned more than six decades, the quiet-spoken … Continue reading

Bob Wilber, Ed Jazz Fest 1992Bob Wilber, who has died at the age of 91, was a champion of classic and traditional jazz and one of the world’s leading jazz soprano saxophonists and clarinettists. During a career which spanned more than six decades, the quiet-spoken New Yorker was a living link to the great jazz originals who had inspired him – in particular the legendary Sidney Bechet, whose protégé he was in the late 1940s – and a musical chameleon, able to emulate both Bechet’s sound and that of the clarinet king Benny Goodman.

In later life, he became a generous mentor to the younger players who followed him, not least the mighty tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton with whose young band Wilber recorded in 1977, thereby attracting the attention of the record company which ultimately signed him.

In Scotland, he is remembered for his involvement in gala or one-off concerts at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals – in particular the handful of reunions of the 1970s jazz “supergroup”, Soprano Summit, which took place twice in Edinburgh in the 1990s, and twice in Nairn in the 2000s, and he appeared with Scott Hamilton the final edition of the much-missed Nairn Jazz Festival, in 2009.

Robert Sage Wilber was born in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1928. His father was a partner in a small publishing firm which specialised in college textbooks. His mother died when Wilber was just over a year old, and Wilber and his sister were raised by their father and the second wife he married soon afterwards. When Wilber was six years old, the family moved to Scarsdale, an affluent commuter suburb to the north of the city.

Wilber was just an infant when he first heard jazz – his father, who played some jazz piano, played him the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s recording of Mood Indigo when it had just come out. Wilber would hear the band live, in 1943, when the whole family went to Carnegie Hall for the historic Black, Brown and Beige concert. Not that this was the young boy’s first experience of live jazz; his father had already taken him to Manhattan’s Café Society nightclub to listen to the elegant and swinging pianist Teddy Wilson.

Like many of his peers, Wilber, who took up clarinet in his early teens, became hooked on traditional jazz which was enjoying a popular revival in the 1940s. He wrote in his 1987 memoir Music Was Not Enough: “I had discovered jazz. It seemed to me to celebrate the very joy of being alive. How very different from the rest of my life!” At school, he helped establish a record club and formed a band which held lunchtime sessions.

Aged 15 years old, Wilber and his jazz-mad classmates would go into the city every Sunday afternoon to hear some of their favourite musicians playing in a jam session. They even persuaded them to come to play in an end-of-term concert at their school. And so it was that such well-known names from the jazz world as pianist Art Hodes, bass player Pops Foster, trombonist Wilber De Paris and clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow played at Scarsdale High.

Instead of pursuing an Ivy League education, as might have been expected, Wilber finished school and moved to New York to continue his studies in the jazz clubs of 52ndStreet and in Brooklyn, where he studied with the great New Orleans clarinettist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet.

“He had a ramshackle house with a sign, ‘Sidney Bechet’s School of Music’,” Wilber told the New York Times in 1980. “I was virtually the first student and the only serious student. After a month Sidney suggested I move in with him.” By 1948, Wilber was so immersed in Bechet’s style of playing and sounded so like him that when the older man was unable to accept an invitation to play at the Nice Jazz Festival, his student went in his place.

Wilber had formed his first band, the Wildcats, in 1945. It comprised contemporaries including the dazzling pianist Dick Wellstood. But, says Dan Morgenstern, the Director Emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, it was the second incarnation of the Wildcats which was Wilber’s most important band.

Morgenstern says: “Apart from Bob and Dick, the other members were veteran blacks, old enough to be their fathers or even grandfathers. Between them, these elders had worked with a veritable who’s who of early jazz including King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Louis Armstrong. The interracial aspect was almost as unusual, for that time, as the age one.”

When he was drafted into the army in 1952, Wilber – seeking to emerge from Bechet’s shadow – swapped his soprano sax for a tenor. He didn’t restrict his interest to classic and traditional jazz – he explored modern jazz by studying pianist Lennie Tristano, and he formed a band named The Six which combined elements of traditional and modern jazz.  He also studied classical clarinet, and toured with the most celebrated swing clarinettist, Benny Goodman. It wasn’t until the 1960s that he was first introduced to the instrument for which he will be best remembered – the curved soprano sax.

He later wrote: “I played one note of curved soprano sax and I remember saying this is different from the straight. I can do something on this which is different than Sidney Bechet. And that started my second career on soprano.”  Indeed, it was on soprano that Wilber was featured when he became one of the charter members of Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart’s modestly monikered World’s Greatest Jazz Band in 1968.

In 1969, Wilber earned a Grammy nomination for his album The Music of Hoagy Carmichael, which featured his arrangements and his serene soprano sax playing. (He won the Grammy in 1985 for his recreations of Duke Ellington’s 1920s music for the movie The Cotton Club.) It also marked a comeback for the wonderful swing era singer Maxine Sullivan, with whom he recorded another album that year, Close As Pages in a Book.

Wilber may have had to talk Sullivan into her comeback, but when he called Marty Grosz to ask if he would like to join Soprano Summit, the response was: “My bags are packed.” The much-loved guitarist, vocalist and purveyor of side-splittingly funny anecdotes had been working for the US Postal Service but he gave it up and headed out on the road with Soprano Summit; a move which launched Grosz’s career as a solo star who was a favourite of Edinburgh and Nairn audiences through the 1990s and 2000s.

Soprano Summit was created on impulse by a promoter desperate to revive an audience jazzed-out after a full weekend of wall-to-wall jazz. He suggested that Wilber and Kenny Davern “do a duet with soprano saxophones and wake everyone up”.  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 during an interview in Nairn, in 1995. “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. 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. 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. Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”

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. Wilber and Davern’s intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing.

As British clarinettist and saxophonist Alan Barnes says: “Soprano Summit brought together two highly individual and virtuosic reed players who, great as they were individually, found an interaction together that was very special. Taking the pre-swing era as their inspiration, they gave the material a contemporary edge and struck real sparks off each other in series of exciting exchanges that stood comparison with any of the other two reed combinations in jazz.”

Even years after Soprano Summit broke up, when Wilber and Davern got together, they still produced spine-tingling music – as anyone who attended one of their reunion concerts will testify.

After settling in the Cotswolds in the late 1980s with his second wife, the Sheffield-born singer Joanne “Pug” Horton, Wilber performed in Scotland every few years until around 2010, when he made his last appearance at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in a concert entitled Festival of Swing which also featured fellow octogenarian Joe Temperley and tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton.

By this time, he was in the habit of taking control of the line-up with which he was working, and, rather than following the programme and leading the all-star group in its entirety for a finale, he assumed leadership from the off, putting together a first set which overran by 45 minutes. Nobody in the band said anything, despite being 45 minutes’ overdue their pints, but Wilber – as one musician remembered it – “got a massive bollocking from the wee lady who sold the ice-creams – which had melted in the meantime.”

Bob Wilber, born March 15, 1928; died August 4, 2019.

A shorter version of this was published in The Herald on August 30.

Text (c) Alison Kerr; Photo (c) Donnie Kerr

Leon Redbone Obituary

Leon Redbone, who has died at the age of 69, was an enigmatic and eccentric figure on the music scene best remembered in this country for providing the wistful songs which played a key part in the success of a … Continue reading

Leon Redbone, who has died at the age of 69, was an enigmatic and eccentric figure on the music scene best remembered in this country for providing the wistful songs which played a key part in the success of a series of much-loved British Rail InterCity adverts which ran from 1988 into the early 1990s.

In the United States, he was regarded as a national treasure, having made regular appearances on TV since the first series of Saturday Night Live in 1976 when his debut album, On the Track, was attracting attention. He became such an icon that he was immortalised in both the 2003 Will Ferrell movie Elf (he voiced Leon the Snowman) and one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. He was also a regular on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion live radio show.

Usually dressed in a suit and tie, and panama hat and always wearing shades, Redbone cut a distinctive dash. His throwback look and the air of mystery around him were almost as intriguing and appealing as his unique musical sound – a simple, folksy melange of jazz and Delta blues with a hint of western swing. He sang in a laconic Louisiana accent, and played acoustic guitar. Sometimes he broke into a bit of yodelling, and he often whistled melodies or played harmonica along with his guitar.

The songs he chose were invariably little-remembered Tin Pan Alley gems from the 1910s and 1920s, though he also wrote some numbers – including So Relax, the song featured in the InterCity adverts. Many of his 16 albums featured top jazz musicians who were no strangers to jazz audiences in Scotland – Ken Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dan Barrett.

His rise to fame in the mid-1970s coincided with the sudden popular interest in ragtime – thanks to the use of Scott Joplin’s rags on the soundtrack of The Sting – and he enjoyed early endorsement from Bob Dylan, who was impressed and intrigued by this Groucho Marx lookalike whose age, he said, could be “anywhere from 25 to 60”.

Throughout his career – which came to an end in 2015, when he retired for health reasons – Redbone’s disinclination to talk seriously about himself or engage in routine publicity simply added to his mystique.

During his four-night run at the 1991 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Radio Tay broadcaster (and festival compere) Alan Steadman’s delight at managing to persuade Redbone to be interviewed turned to slightly frustrated bemusement when every question was answered with just “yes” or “no”. (Steadman also recalls that one of Redbone’s quirks was to take a photo of the audience before every show.) All he did reveal, beyond his gentle and whimsical style of music, was a wry sense of humour. Quick wit quietly delivered in a slow southern drawl was in evidence both onstage and off.

That same festival, American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton was appearing on a BBC radio show featuring an all-star line-up. He remembers: “I was desperate for a drink and there were only minutes to go before the start, so I ran downstairs and bumped into Leon, whom I’d never met before. ‘Is there a bar or a restaurant down here anywhere?’ I asked, out of breath. He looked at me funny and said: ‘A bar or a restroom? Buddy, you better make up your mind ..’ !”

At the 2002 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was difficult to tell whether the stage persona was his natural personality or a cultivated one (indeed, there had been speculation that Redbone was an alter ego for another performer). Redbone – wearing his signature sunglasses – complained about the lights being too strong but was admirably unruffled, and characteristically droll, when dealing with the other issues of what turned out to be a pretty tense evening for those of us who wanted to listen to him.

First there were the problems with the microphone – “Was I singing the same song I was playing?” asked the deadpan musician – then there was the one-man campaign for audience participation which went on for most of the concert.

Redbone ended up playing referee as his attentive audience turned on the heckler, and demanded his removal (after he had sung along through a staggering seven numbers and even been given a personal warning from the jazz festival director himself). “Some enchanted evening …” sang Redbone, by way of commenting on the incident.

Asked, late in his career, about his reluctance to chat or to talk about himself, Redbone said: “I don’t do anything mysterious on purpose. I’m less than forthcoming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m mysterious. It just means I’m not inclined to go there.” He claimed that he preferred the emphasis to be on his songs, and that he was simply a vehicle for the music. Even the announcement of his death last week – in a notice posted on his official website – referred to his age as 127.

What is known is that Redbone – who is believed to have been born Dickran Gobalian in Cyrpus to Armenian parents – moved to Toronto in the 1960s where he developed a cult following thanks to his performances in coffee houses and folk clubs. But it was in the mid-1970s that he came to the attention of a larger audience when he was name-checked in a Rolling Stone article by Bob Dylan, who had heard him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and talked about producing his first album. Other notable admirers have included Loudon Wainwright III, Jack White and Bonnie Raitt.

He is survived by his wife (and manager) Beryl Handler, his two daughters and three grandchildren.

*Leon Redbone, singer and guitarist, born August 26, 1949; died May 30, 2019.

First published in The Herald, June 6, 2019