December 12, 2008

Old Meets New

Click on the above title, Old Meets New, to see pictures of Oriskany native Sam Kininger returning home and visiting the Hamilton jazz archive for the first time with his old high school jazz mentor, Monk. The pictures show a clinic Sam conducted on December 7 with Monk's new crop of Hamilton students, and the subsequent jam session.

December 6, 2008

It's Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup

This month marks the second anniversary of the abrupt passing of Kenny Davern, at age 72 at home of a heart attack. Kenny had only returned to his home in New Mexico two months prior, after attending his annual trek to Hamilton for our Fallcoming concert.

From before the jazz archive even existed, archive benefactor Milt Fillius hand-picked musicians to come to Hamilton for a special concert for the Hamilton community. Kenny always came, usually as leader, but in addition, Milt chose the best of the best. We were treated to the finest free jazz concerts, and Milt brought them to us! They always were, and still are, remarkable annual events. Kenny played the clarinet, and he maintained his amazing chops right until the end. Once Monk made an offhand comment to Kenny saying “I’ve read you’re considered one of best clarinetists alive,” to which Kenny directly replied, “Who’s the best?” I loved Kenny. It wasn’t just about his “sweet” jazz playing, though there was that. He was a realist and never sugar coated things, at least not with us. He also had the most caustic wit, on the bandstand and off, and said exactly what was on his mind. One time a Hamilton trustee rose to leave the event mid-set. Kenny addressed him by saying “got to go to bed? Got to go watch ‘The Tonight Show’?” The trustee returned to his seat. Kenny had no idea that the elderly person was a Hamilton VIP. Of course Kenny knew Milt and Monk and I, but for him, his yearly treks to Clinton, (via a minimum getting on three planes to make the connections) were simply a great gig.

I once told Kenny that the musicians Milt picked were Milt’s absolute favorites and Milt got such a kick out of choosing all the musicians he wanted to hear play together, never-minding the dynamics of what such combinations meant to the musicians. It was amazing to see Milt, year after year, sitting plumb in the front row of in the building known as the Fillius Events Barn and grinning ear to ear, watching his friends perform. He used the college as the venue, and he would have probably done it from his home in San Diego if he could have, but Milt liked to share his passion with others. When I told this to Kenny, that Milt was hand-selecting his own band and footing the entire bill for the weekend, it seemed to make more sense to Kenny. Of course Milt never consulted the musicians about who they would like to play with. Milt assumed that the musicians would happily come together as professionals do.

There are two videos of Kenny at Hamilton. Part 2 is a sit down he did at the college with Monk in 2001. We have found that many times interviewees either don’t watch the videos, or squirrel them away somewhere and never share them with their families. Bereaved families, however, are usually thrilled to discover them after the musician passes.

During interviews, very few musicians spoke their mind on tape as clearly as Kenny did. Usually once the camera went on there was a huge reluctance to say anything negative about anybody, especially fellow musicians. It’s after the lights are turned off and the camera is shut down that the musician’s true feelings are revealed. The musicians are usually uptight on camera for about the first 15 minutes of any interview. They are nervous, being that this is being conducted by a college, that they will be intimidated by professorial questions. Monk speaks as a bachelor’s-level-educated musician first, and as an improviser and composer. It only takes a short time before the interviewee warms up. The interviews themselves are directed by the conversation, not by a list of prepared questions Monk researches beforehand. In preparation for interviews, Monk buys recent CD’s of interviewees’ recent work and often consults
The New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz tomes before the session, so he sits down fully prepared about personal style and past relationships.

From the first moment Kenny sat down with his friend Monk, the wit was revealed and the stories are all there. We are sad that Part 2 was only an hour in length.

I will never forget the first conversation I had with Kenny, it was a personal coup. Kenny was on a break at the Hamilton concert, and went outside to smoke. This was around 1997. I asked Kenny about set list decisions, the implication being because all six musicians didn’t ordinarily play together, and finding common ground seemed so effortless. He said there was usually some kind of sit down where they’d decide before the set. I said to him “Oh so on stage, you don’t just get up there and call ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in E, right?” He stared at me for a minute, then turned to Monk and said “I like this girl.” Once I had heard Monk mention that he was afraid because he was backing up Joe Williams for a few tunes on piano when he was at the college, and he was apprehensive because Joe was nonchalant about telling Monk in advance what tunes he wanted to sing and in which keys. Monk said to me “I’m afraid he’s going to say ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in E.” Thus I filed away Monk’s comment, then later used the same comment with Kenny, and from that moment on Kenny and I had a warm relationship.

Kenny always invited Monk to come to the stage for one song at every Fallcoming, and Monk got to choose the tune. Once Monk said “how about ‘Summertime’” and Kenny said “no way, I own that tune.” That was Kenny’s signature song and he didn’t want to share it. So Monk decided instead on “Wabash Blues,” from a recent album Kenny had released. Nearing the end of the first set Kenny would point to Monk in the audience with his clarinet and say “get your horn out, boy,” and Monk would pull out his old Conn silver soprano sax and saunter to the stage. Monk never had to fumble with opening his case, putting his horn together or preparing his reed. To me, it looked like he belonged with the group. I always took pictures, as did the college.

Monk, Kenny, and James Chirillo on guitar, Fallcoming 2005

Chuck Riggs, the drummer on Kenny’s last gig at Hamilton, called after he passed and wanted Monk to know that he thought we had videotaped the last concert Kenny ever played. We aren’t sure if this is true or not, but when he returned home to New Mexico, Kenny did call and I could hear Monk on the phone talking to him about the final performance. Kenny seemed unhappy about his own performance, after receiving the videotape in the mail, and I heard Monk saying that the micing process wasn’t all that great as it was done from a camera in the balcony of the Fillius Events Barn. Kenny and Monk reviewed the concert song by song. I think Kenny was his own worst critic. He never failed to amaze me with his facility and how strongly he was able to maintain it and not compromise his playing due to his age as so many musicians do who develop physical problems. Kenny told Monk that he was unhappy with the final note Monk played on, “Wabash Blues,” and how he kept wanting Monk to get off that note. Monk told me after he hung up the phone that he knew at the time that the note he should have been on was a physical impossibility on the soprano sax, and that Monk knew at the time it was wrong, but Kenny called it to his attention later on. Jeez, these musicians sure can be picayune about things, can’t they? It’s doubtful anyone in the audience noticed it, but Kenny and Monk both did, enough so that it was a topic for later conversational dissection.

When Kenny did a clinic at the college at that same last visit in October, 2006, Monk went to the small class with him so that he could accompany Kenny on piano. Monk considers himself an adequate pianist, not a top-flight soloist. When he came home he beamed as he told me that Kenny had given him the supreme compliment after the clinic, that he really knew what he was doing in the art of accompaniment (presumably not playing too much or too little but just right). Since piano isn’t Monk’s first instrument, it really meant a lot, coming from Kenny.

We went out to a restaurant for lunch before the concert that day of Fallcoming, just the three of us. I was unable to attend that final concert, as one of my daughters needed me to be in Rochester for that weekend. Anyway, I was looking at the menu and Monk and I brought up something we have often discussed between us. Pasta is usually described as “al dente,” but what’s the opposite of that? It isn’t like when you order your steak rare or well done. So we posed the question to Kenny, what is the opposite of al dente? Without missing a beat, Kenny said “it’s Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.” We both cracked up at the instantaneousness of his response, thus forever putting this question to bed for both Monk and myself.

I’m not sure if Kenny ever knew what an unlikely place Hamilton is for the jazz archive to be located. Hamilton is a northeastern liberal arts college with a small music department. Milt Fillius, ’44, being the huge swing era supporter that he was, provided the initiative for the creation of the jazz archive starting around 1992. This project went around and around for three years, much to Milt’s dismay, before Mary Kopcza from the Communications & Development department at college finally called Monk in 1995 and asked if he’d be interested in coordinating the project. At that time Monk was reluctant to get involved because although he was an adjunct instructor on saxophone, he was Artistic Director for the Arts in Education Institute at the Stanley Center for the Arts. Monk agreed to stick his big toe in the water in 1995 to see what this would all be about. Monk was not interested in “coordinating” the project (providing all the research, questions and contacts for someone else to use to conduct the actual interviews). In March of 1995, Milt Fillius attended the first interview trip to Scottsdale, AZ, and he said he wanted Monk to become the Director of the Jazz Archive. So since nearly the beginning, it’s been Monk who conducted the interviews.

And through this position, Monk travels to do presentations on jazz history — at SU, and Rutgers — and makes presentations before groups, such as the Society of American Archivists in New Orleans, and, before the International Association of Jazz Educators went down last year, Monk made biannual presentations or we wrote papers for IAJE conferences. He’s often invited to give presentations which include interview clips with commentary.

When Kenny passed Monk dedicated his next radio show to Kenny. He usually transfers these to CD, and he sent the CD to Kenny’s lovely widow, Elsa.
Monk did the same thing when Bob Rosengarden passed recently, and sent it to Bob’s widow, Sharon, a longtime friend of ours. Bob, or “Rosie” as he was nicknamed, was a longtime friend of Milt and was his Fallcoming drummer of choice. Bob let us know in no uncertain terms when we first met him that he preferred being referred to as Bob, not Bobby, as he was often identified on album covers. He came to the college many times. Bob used to be the music director of the “Dick Cavett Show,” and provided all the ta-ta-booms after the jokes Dick Cavett delivered. Bob was incapacitated by Alzheimer’s for the last several years of his life, and Sharon often called either myself or Monk to share stories about Bob and his use of the minimal drumset. Sharon attended Fallcoming with Bob when he attended his final public performance also, and at that time Sharon told Monk and I “this will be the last concert Bob ever plays in public,” as she saw Bob’s early Alzheimer symptoms. When Monk sent Sharon the CD of his radio show after Bob passed, she called us and said “it was lovely to hear Bob’s voice again, it had been so long since I heard his voice.” The “voice” of course, were the clips Monk had selected to augment the radio show.

It was fortunate that Milt Fillius and Monk had seven years of active interviewing gathering, enough time to get this archive to where it is, for which we are very proud. And in the process, the education that has come as a fortunate byproduct of doing the interviews, for Monk, has been an invaluable resource for Monk’s personal development.

Here’s one final funny story about Kenny which to mind as I recall his trips here. In 2005, Kenny had a new cell phone. He was never one for gadgets or computers or email. That year, one of Kenny’s flights was delayed. He called our home phone and got our answering machine and started ranting and raving about how he couldn’t figure out how to “work the phone” and swearing about the flight being delayed, and then finally leaving the message about when his flight would arrive in Syracuse. We got the message and Monk adjusted his schedule for the later pick-up. Monk too tends to be quite challenged when it comes to all things cellular, and when Kenny finally arrived at the Syracuse airport at 11 PM, the airport was dark and effectively “closed.” The two of them wandered around the airport apparently just missing each other, for about 45 minutes before they finally connected. Monk knew the flight had landed. Anyway, they couldn’t find each other. Apparently it never occurred to the two of them until the next day, well after the crisis was resolved, that they simply could have called each other on their cell phones to connect with each other. My daughters were laughing hysterically when they were told about the scenario, as us old fogies never seem to think of using technology first, to solve problems. Later Kenny profusely apologized to me for having heard his rant on our machine. He was sincere in his apology, but I thought it was the funniest message I ever heard on our telephone.
We miss Kenny and we mourn his passing at such a young age. We take solace in the fact that he maintained his finest form right up until the end. And he left such a remarkable body of work, including his album “My Inspiration,” Kenny’s personal favorite. Click on the link of the title of this article, “It’s Campbell’s Chicken Soup Noodles” and you will be transported to the Hamilton website where there is a clip of Kenny and Monk’s interview from 2001. Coincidentally on that site, just below Kenny’s clip is also one of Bob Rosengarden, so you will get double the fun.


November 23, 2008

Why the Name Monk?

First of all, if you’re expecting to get my given birth name, you’re not going to find it here so read no further.

I’m embarrassed because it’s such a non-story story. Everybody assumes it’s because it’s after Thelonious Monk, the piano player, because they see me playing piano.

But the real backstory is that when I entered Fredonia State in 1968, I was a saxophone major. Unbelievably enough, we music majors at Fredonia didn’t have time to watch stuff on TV, we were too busy in the practice rooms sweating our comps and rehearsing our senior recitals. My hero at that time was Cannonball Adderley. I even saw Cannonball in person at Fredonia. What a great experience that was. One of my housemates there was Onaje Alan Gumbs, who I had the most pleasure interviewing for the jazz archive. He lived in the same house with me, in a musician-filled place off campus.

Fredonia has the most cold and blistering winds in the winter, and I used to wear a long blue coat with the hood pulled up, and as I walked around, one of my fellow classmates, Bill Verity, said "you look like a Monk walking around like that." The moniker stuck. It seemed like a good name for a jazz musician after all.

Parenthetically, during those days of studying saxophone, the music that really got us music majors, and especially those of us interested in jazz, excited came from Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. The horn sections were fabulous. To this day if an old Rock & Roll song has a little solo by Phil Woods or David Sanborn, I just love it. And to this day I think “Green Onions” is the greatest song ever recorded. I use it as my ringtone on my cell phone. My daughters gave it to me as a Christmas present a few years ago. They downloaded it to my cell phone then dialed the number and made it ring. What a gag!

For a few years after graduation, all my musician friends called me Monk. I taught at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill School system here in Central New York for six years as a music teacher. I was responsible for music in grades K through 12. Those teachers and students knew me by my birth name of course.

Following those six years, I quit teaching and we formed a Rock & Roll band called Mr. Edd (note the two D’s) which had a huge cult following. We traveled the east coast from Florida to Canada, and Buffalo to Boston, and it was truly a great band. This were the good old eighties, when there were frat houses and gigs to be had everywhere and clubs were packed everywhere we went. Anyone who saw Mr. Edd in those days knows who “Monk Rowe” is, but of course, NOT my given name was, because none of my bandmates ever referred to me by my given name, which is a common name for boys. Also that was the time before DWI’s became a serious crime, and smoking was permitted in bars. I used to get a kick out of saying to a huge crowd “show me your beers!” and they would all hold up their beers and cheer. I used to always make a joke about Rich Light our sound man. He is totally bald and a hairdresser. Rich is a fantastic drummer, and mentored my daughter on drums when she was in the marching band in high school. I used to say “you know our light man, Rich, right? He’s a bald hairdresser! Would you go to a bald hairdresser?”

The picture above is a guy in that band I haven’t heard from in years named Garry Hall, note the two R’s. I haven’t heard from Garry but last I heard he was in Florida. He was superb. He used to sing Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall” and in that perfect British accent deliver the line “how can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” and it was a gas.

And who can forget Jeff Abbe, pictured above? Everybody all loved and respected Jeff and the girls were wild about him with that page boy blond hair. There’s about a million Abbes who live in Rome, New York, but as a tip of the hat to Jeff, we named our current dog “Abbe,” spelled the same way. Jeff was the acoustic and electric guitar player who played a white violin on occasion. All the girls wanted to marry Jeff, but he remained single and shy off stage.

And this was our drummer, Jim Lucas. Wow, what a fabulous Rock & Roll drummer.

And last, but certainly not least, Greeley Ford was our businessman and gig coordinator through our booking agent in Syracuse, DMR. Greeley and his wife Lynda, now deceased, had the difficult job of handling the bookings and trying to pay everybody at least something every week. Greeley is currently on the board at the Stanley Center for the Arts, and now leads the band “Classified,” a nine piece horn band here in Upstate New York.

Also I might mention Joe Bolanowski, our first lead singer and trumpet player. He died in his twenties in an accident, but he was our first lead singer. My role in that band was “creativity” because I did the schtick, which never failed to amuse the audience and band members alike, especially with those intros on the Mr. Edd the talking horse theme song. "A horse is a horse ..."

Unfortunately, that band never was able to get a record deal and so after traveling the Thruway for six years making peanuts we broke up and went our separate ways. We had a four-man road crew who had to be paid first, plus the cost of hauling around all our equipment. If our Mercedes truck needed new tires we didn’t get paid that week.

Mr. Edd was formed in 1980. My oldest daughter was born in 1982, my younger in 1984, and the band broke up in 1986. We could no longer financially afford the experience of Mr. Edd. We needed health insurance and we were really struggling financially.

During the first year of archive interviewing, in 1995, I went on a Caribbean jazz cruise entitled "A Tribute to Oscar Peterson," where we did about 15 interviews in three days. I was there with my wife, and all the ten Anvil cases of recording gear and it was pretty tough but really inspiring. Not only was I going to be able to meet Nat Adderley, Cannonball’s brother and writing partner, but I was going to be given a chance to interview him one-on-one. The promoters, HOSS, Hank and Sherry, graciously provided me with a list of every cabin and ship phone number of all the musicians, so they could contact each other. But me? I was listed under my given name, which wouldn’t have meant anything to the musicians if they had the need to contact me aboard the ship.

That’s when I decided that I really needed to drop the old name. It was not only for that reason, but also because it became very difficult when people would write me checks for gigs because I couldn’t cash them because I didn’t have a checking account at that time under the name of Monk Rowe. In addition, as a composer, I didn’t want my birth name listed in programs under my birth name, I wanted it listed as my musical moniker. So there were many reasons to legally change the name.

So in 1995 I decided to legally change my first name to Monk. Since this occurred in 1995, there is no record on the web of my name ever having been what my given name was. There’s probably hundreds of people if you do a search under that birth name, because, like I said before, it is a very common name.

After the legal name change in 1995, I immediately changed all my permanent records (driver’s license, passport, deed to my house) to be under the new legal name. So there would be no record of the old name.

I was really moved around the year 1998 when the old VVS high school named a scholarship after me, to be given in the name of Monk Rowe, to a promising upcoming musician. I don’t have any say in who gets the scholarship, and it’s not too much money, but still it is a high honor. Sometimes I have people all grown up who tell me they got the scholarship as a kid. I don’t know what their criteria is, but last year coincidentally the kid who got it happened to be a student of mine who takes lessons at Hamilton. That was so cool. The whole process is done through the PTA at VVS, I have nothing to do with the selection process.

But those people out at Joel’s Front Yard Steakhouse in Verona have a stolen street sign way up on their wall which contains my given name, and it’s too funny. And on my gig calendar, which you can see through the portal at under gig list, you will see that is where The Roots of Rock & Roll will be playing this New Year’s Eve. Those people out in Verona can truly say they “knew him when.” Out in Verona, they’re really proud of what I did there in setting up one of the first jazz programs for the kids there. And I am humbled that they have bestowed on me such an honor.

So no, it’s not a moniker I actually chose, but it suits me well. My brother-in-law once said to my wife, when my older daughter was born, “don’t worry about what you name your kid. If you make a mistake, the world will make it right.” My wife said to him “I know, because it’s true for Monk and it worked for me too.”

So now when you Google on the name Monk Rowe in quotes you will get the stuff really about me. That was true until just a few years ago when Elvis Costello annoyingly named some stupid song “Jackson, Monk & Rowe” as a fictional legal firm name, which seems to show up every time there’s a search. It even shows up as the number one hit on Amazon under “Monk Rowe” though that’s not even the title of Elvis’ album, it’s only part of the name of a song contained on that CD on Amazon for sale. How is it that this could be a coincidence? He didn’t title the album “Jackson, Monk & Rowe,” with the exact same spellings as my name. The hits to that stupid song just pollute Google searches, because Google ignores the ampersand. And there’s lots of ways to spell Monk, like Munk or Monke, and, perhaps you didn’t know it, but Roe v. Wade is also spells it Roe, not Rowe.

I’m not too worried though, because I have the dot com name which of course would be the first hit under on any Google search. And though I don’t get paid for them, ringtones are even available from my album “Jazz Life,” though of course there’s nothing available from my first album “Out Standing in his Field.” That album was recorded at UCA Recording Studio in the dark ages of 1989. The CD doesn’t contain a UPC symbol, and, we have never been able to afford a re-release of it. But that’s okay. I do think it’s way cool that some downloads are available of my "Jazz Life" compositions as a ringtone.

November 16, 2008

Standing Ovation Inflation

Does anyone remember the standing ovation Johnny Carson got on his last "Tonight Show" performance? Now there’s a reason for a standing ovation. When he walked out the audience rose and sustained applause. The camera showed shots of audience members with tears streaming down their faces, and Johnny himself became unusually emotional, you could see his globus, and his eyes welled up.

On the other hand, today, members of “The View” and “Ellen” get standing ovations just by walking out on stage every day. You show up and you get a standing ovation.

When I read in the New York Times that somebody got a standing ovation for something, my automatic response to that is, So? Standing ovations have taken the place of applause, and I believe this is unfortunate.

Now don’t get me wrong, every performer likes to get standing ovations. But nowadays, it’s as if when you DON’T get one, boy you’ve really messed up.

I began to notice this in the eighties when my daughters were young and the parents in the audience immediately jumped to their feet and applauded after their dance recital. Are you kidding me? Then when they went to their all-county musical performances, boy those were REALLY good — of course THEY got a standing ovation. I’d like to ask these audiences who immediately spring to their feet, what incentive are you giving these kids to improve? It’s like science fairs. You show up, and EVERYBODY gets a ribbon. It’s grade inflation. It’s applause inflation.

My wife and I attend a local Broadway Theater League and for twenty years we’ve had season tickets in the second row aisle, and we usually enjoy these touring performances. After every single performance, the audience springs to its feet practically before the applause even begins. Being that we are so close, and that I am known by many people in my community, it’s kind of an awkward situation. In the first place, sitting there while everyone else is standing is awkward because of the direct eye contact from the performers, being that we’re so close to the stage. Second, it’s as if we didn’t like the performance, and we are glued to our seats because we didn’t like it, which may not be the case at all.

Applause is such an interesting thing. Clap between movements in classical performances and it’s gauche. DON’T clap after a jazz solo and that is gauche. Applause has different purposes. In the classical scenario it shows that the listener is astute to know that isn’t the end of the piece, even if the ensemble has stopped playing. In jazz, however, spontaneous enthusiastic clapping is far more preferable than polite clapping for recognition that the solo has ended. Different types of applause mean clearly different things to your fellow audience attendees as well.

In years passed, audiences had many ways of showing they didn’t like performances: golf clapping or booing for performances. They also had other ways for showing they loved performances, such as rhythmic clapping, finger snapping, sustained clapping, feet stomping, shouts of “Bravo!,”whistling, cheering, yelling, hooting, and in the olden days of the sixties, lighting bic lighters and holding them up (meaning they’re not clapping at all). One time in the late seventies I remember giving George Harrison a standing ovation with bic lighters and yelling. That one was deserved, and quite emotionally moving.

So if you see me sitting there NOT standing up, it’s not because I didn’t like the performance, but it’s because I’m wondering how the audience would be able to show appreciation after seeing Dave Brubeck in concert, or how they would have expressed gratitude to Johnny Carson on his last Tonight Show. Maybe they would have just stood there and clapped for the whole show?

As I said when I started, it’s a personal thing. But to my readers I say do not be afraid NOT to stand even if you think a performance was great. Because after the standing ovation, there’s no where up to go to express appreciation for a lifetime achievement. Performers do their profession, which is what they’re paid to do and we should EXPECT them to do it well.

October 5, 2008

He Played with the "King of Jazz"

A storied career came to an end yesterday with word that woodwind phenom Al Gallodoro passed on October 4, 2008, at the age of 95.

What I first remember about Al from our two interviews was his attention to detail. When we first met and I had to write his name down, he emphatically articulated that it was Gall-O-Do-Ro — only one A up front, then three O’s. He wanted to make sure that his name wasn’t misspelled. I think he gave that attention to detail to everything in his life, and especially his musicianship.

Al was born on June 20, 1913, and started playing in Vaudeville venues in New Orleans at the age of 13. He moved swiftly into the world of popular music, big band swing, and ultimately found a place with the “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman. We may argue about whether Paul Whiteman deserved that moniker, but he certainly was an important figure in the early twentieth century music, in both the popular and classical genres. In fact it was his group that premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Al was fond of saying that he played the clarinet lead, the signature ascending slide at the beginning of “Rhapsody in Blue,” some ten thousand times.

It was my pleasure to interview Al twice, in 1995 and 2005. During our 2005 interview, Al recalled seeing Paul Whiteman for the first time:
Al: I have to tell you this story. It must have been early 1928. See I moved to New Orleans from Pensacola, Florida in October of ’27. It could have been late ’27 or early ’28 the St. Charles Theater on St. Charles Street — there’s an Avenue and a Street — The Paul Whiteman Band was coming through. And God I’m only about 15 years old, or 15-1/2 years old. And I waited outside. And who gets out of a cab? The Dapper Dan Paul Whiteman, dressed with the afternoon clothes and striped pants and all. I’m looking — I was too bashful to say anything. I finally went in the theater and Frankie Trumbauer was with the band, Bix Beiderbecke was with the band, Chester Hazlett was lead alto, Charlie Margulis. And anyway I just marveled at it. But what I want to say is back then, let’s say 1928, who ever thought that in 1936 I would become the lead alto man in New York with Paul Whiteman? This was something. It was unbelievable.

Al proceeded to give me a first-hand account of the early years of jazz from his authoritative perspective. One couldn’t help but be enthralled by his wealth of musical experiences and stories, and his obvious pride in his technical mastery of multiple instruments. Al was called a “triple threat” because he could play bass clarinet, alto saxophone and clarinet, all with an incredible amount of virtuosity. Most people aren’t aware that in the early part of the century the saxophone enjoyed attention from a number of composers who wrote what I would call semi-classical music. The thing that held it all together as a genre was the extreme technique required to play this music — double and triple tonguing and extremely fast sections balanced with lyrical passages. It all required virtuosic technique and high musicianship. Al was the master of this music.

I was pleased to have the opportunity a year ago to book Al for two concerts in a series I was promoting in public libraries near Utica, New York. Al was fortunate to have an accompanist and manager named JoAnn Chmielowski, who made it her business to assure that Al was not forgotten: indeed, that Al’s name and legacy would be exposed in as many venues as possible during his ninth decade. I couldn’t think of a better person than Al to kick off a long series of library concerts, and he lived up to my expectations. Even though he was stooped and slow at the age of 94, he brought a certain aura and charisma with him. His desire to keep playing helped him find ways to continue. His hands had developed debilitating arthritis, so much so that he had to have his clarinet keys covered with pads because his fingers no longer had the strength to cover the holes on their own. Still he managed to enthrall an audience who could scarcely believe that a man in his nineties was playing with the vigor and technical mastery he displayed at those two concerts back in April of 2007.

Only the people in the first row could actually see Al perform, as he sat in a chair hunched over behind his music stand in his captain’s cap, lifting his head in between songs to deliver a wry comment about his age, but still giving us the impression that he was a man with whom you did not mess. If you look at the pictures of Al from the late 1920’s, and then a picture of him in the year 2005, you can get a sense of a career like few others. Al was able to bring spontaneity of jazz to his classical playing and the preciseness and dedication to the composers’ wishes to his jazz music. He could exist in both worlds and was a man who paid such attention to detail that he often times would write out the passages he had improvised, only the ones that worked best. In effect they became his own compositions originated on the fly but which satisfied all his musical requirements, so they were worthy of repeatedly being played.

I recall reading Gene Lees’ book Cats of Any Color which included a surprising but now understandable quote from noted composer and saxophonist Benny Golson who said “Al Gallodoro was probably the best I ever heard. The guy was unreal. He must have been from Mars.” If so, it must be that people from Mars live long and productive lives.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Al was involved in music. His last gig was on September 20, 2008 in Corning, New York, and he had dates on the calendar for this month and next. As is the case with many jazz musicians, retirement was not in his vocabulary. Deepest sympathies are extended to Al’s grandson Kevin Wood, to JoAnn Chmielowski, and to the other members of Al’s family.

Click on the title of this post, — He Played with the "King of Jazz" — to go to Al's web site.

August 31, 2008

Keep Your Fingers Crossed

With all the talk about hurricane Gustav, I am reminded of our experience with New Orleans and Katrina, a rather bittersweet memory.

In mid-August of 1995, my wife Romy and I traveled to New Orleans for our first trip there. I was invited to be part of a panel at a conference of the Society of American Archivists, and we gave a presentation on the preservation of jazz in America. Three others on the panel represented different American archives, one at Tulane in New Orleans, one from the University of New Hampshire, and one from the University of Idaho. Ours was the youngest archive, and the only one using video at that time.

We flew into the Louis Armstrong Airport. Like typical tourists, the week we were there we were photographing everything and buying jazz paintings and other memorabilia just because we had never seen anything like it before. We rode the bus in the ninth ward and saw the neatly landscaped houses there, and took a Mississippi steamboat excursion. We met with the other jazz archivists at the Cafe Dumond on August 14 for coffee. In short, in the August heat, we experienced a week of New Orleans immediately pre-Katrina. I had always thought that New Orleans was mostly about Dixieland jazz with the tuba bass and the straw hats, but that is not entirely true. Every type of music is represented there. Walk down Bourbon Street at any time of day and you are rewarded with streams of sound out into the hot air, spanning the genres from Dixieland to Blues to Motown to HipHop. It was difficult to walk more than a few blocks without stopping for refreshments, as August brought oppressive humid heat. It was a chance to experience the best Bloody Marys ever.

When we returned home, the weekend before Katrina hit, I was glued to the television watching the storm approach the city we had just left, the city we had fallen in love with like so many before us. I felt the heat, hunger and discomfort of those in the Superdome. I saw those stranded on roofs in the ninth ward. I was sick at Katrina’s destructive path, and we watched as she decimated the place.

To even think that those poor people stranded were at fault for not getting themselves out is so ludicrous as to be embarrassment for anyone who espouses that. The city was submerged. Some houses and streets filled up with water in only half an hour. Those who remained were going to drown. Everyone predicted it could happen, but the dice were rolled that it would not directly hit New Orleans. It’s as if a higher power demanded focus on jazz, poverty and environmental issues all at once. Some of us felt this in a very personal way, but everybody saw it on the television.

Maybe Gustav won’t be a direct hit, and New Orleans can soon resume the post-Katrina reconstruction process. Maybe the levees will hold this time — one can only think positive thoughts and send our love to those fleeing New Orleans today, as it is under a mandatory evacuation.