Monday, December 6, 2010

Exponential Change

A lady I know has cats under her house. She makes no attempt to neuter or spay them. They constantly produce new litters of cats.

For the moment, they are just under the house, not bothering anyone. The lady gives them some food every day.

If things continue this way the multiplying cats will, in about five years, increase from two cats to about 5,000 cats. This is a pretty good example of exponential growth. Eventually, the smell will take over and the house may begin to rock on its foundation.

Here in the U.S. we depend on serious growth. We just gotta have it. Without it all the wheels really start coming off, as in the current recession. For most of our history, we have been able to grow and grow.

Generally, the vast majority of our citizens have wanted as much growth as we could wring out. Damn the torpedos!

And with exponential growth comes exponential change. Here is a tiny example you might enjoy:


The other day, I took my granddaughter Eloise for an ice cream cone. Eloise is three years old. These days, as you know, getting her in the car requires strapping her in a plastic chair which must first be strapped in the back seat. So I drive to my daughter's home, where I must remove a car seat from the back seat of one car, take it back home and install it in still a third car.

I am gadget-challenged. There is a learning curve that sets in. So, I have a hard time getting the child seat properly anchored in the back seat of the car. Most people have no trouble at all.

The next step is to get Eloise into the thing and she has grown a little large for the chair I am using. To make it all go I must get in with her and squeeze with everything just short of putting my knee on her.

I am thinking the typical things such as, "The guy who invented that chair should be condemned to a lifetime of struggling with them." (This as his punishment).

Ah, these gadgets. You will remember when the Wizard of Oz is finally revealed to be a funny old snake oil salesman, and he accidentally pre-launches in the helium balloon -- "Come back! Come back" Dorothy yells, and the Wizard leans out over the basket: "I can't, I can't," he says. "I don't know how it works!"

Finally we do make it to the ice cream store, get Eloise out, get the ice cream, make a mess of it, get her back in--sticky this time--get her home, undo the seat, get Eloise and the seat in the house, get wet cloths, wipe Eloise off--the car seat, too, and the whole ice cream ordeal is finally over.

In early 1948, at age six, I moved with my family to Caracas, Venezuela. We lived there for two years.

If I pleaded, my mother might drive me to downtown Caracas to have an ice cream cone.

She would say, "Okay, get in the car and I'll be along," and pretty soon we would take off. I would stand on the front seat next to her.

The car was a one year old 1947 Ford four-door sedan. As we cruised through the Caracas streets she, with complete ease, would, in her high heeled shoes, work the clutch, brake and gas pedals, steer the car, and make hand signals out the window with her left arm. The car was not equipped with turn signals. She would shift gears with her right arm and hand. When she came to a stop sign or a red light, she would extend her right arm out to the right to keep me (standing on the seat) from falling into the dashboard! Through all this she would casually smoke a cigarette!

This must seem absurdly dangerous, particularly to anyone under 50. But, we all rode around this way all the time. Everyone's mother held her right arm out to keep the children from sprawling into the dash. And cars had no seat belts.

Caracas in the 40's

However, there were no freeways. That was one of the huge changes started by the war. The country was transformed in many ways. Before the war, two-thirds of Americans lived on farms or in small towns. The cities were smaller. There was one car per family, not one car per person, and generally, cars were driven more slowly. Much of the time, people walked. (As a result, obesity was minimized). Our mothers were quick on the draw.

But now, get ready in the change department! You are going to see so many changes going faster and faster. The change rocket ship is just starting its blast off.

One theory, outlined in a recent book, The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil, attempts to measure the rate of this exploding change and more or less predicts that soon we'll arrive at a singular point when we will be largely able to fix all of our problems. This assumes we won't blow up the planet in the meantime. Ray is saying that we are closer to a new technical "big bang" than most of us realize. a lot of this is about computers and chips and how powerful they are becoming and this very rapidly. I recommend Ray's book.

Isn't it nice, however, to have some things, like the jazz band, around where almost nothing changes? We are still using some of our original 1963 arrangements. The band is still mostly a seven-piece ensemble. The only change that has occurred during the last 48 years is that the band is better! The most recent additions, Hal Smith, drums, and Steve Pikal, bass, have added more swing and power to the Rhythm Section.

Unlike the rest of the world, we in the band have stubbornly avoided electronics. You hear the real sound -- not one that has been filtered through microphones and speakers.

There is no reverberation system -- no amp on the bass, etc.

When your head is spinning with data overload, and you are cursing your computer, close the laptop and come to the Landing We will fix you up!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More about Teagarden

In 1945, my father joined Jack Teagarden’s big band, where he played tenor in the reed section and clarinet in the “Dixieland Band.” On clarinet, he stayed in the low register – this almost all the time. The sound was rich and resonant. He favored long blue notes, punctuated by arpeggios.

I think the sound was more important in those days.

Jack particularly liked that low-register clarinet. It reminded him of clarinetist Gilbert O’Shaughnessy. Jack had played with Gilbert in San Antonio when they were very young.“Gilbert was the best in the world,” Jack would say, thus informing his bold-exaggerating-to-make-a-point statement about Bix being the best artist in history.

“I named my son Gilbert Teagarden for Gilbert O’Shaughnessy,” Jack said. In later years, Gilbert O’Shaughnessy came in a few times to sit in at the Landing. He was an interesting clarinet player, and he did stay in the low register most of the time. Clearly, however, he was not the best in the world.

Being with Teagarden was heady stuff for my father. He and Jack became running mates.They went at the whiskey. Going around after hours and sitting in was a big part of this. For Jack, the music never stopped. My father said that a couple of times at a “black and tan,” they ran into and sat in with Louis Armstrong.

Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong

Jack, who sometimes didn’t go to bed at all, often took Benzedrine and kept going. Life was too much fun to waste it on sleeping. My father tried to keep up – said that Jack had an extra gland. Toward night’s end, when all the music was finally slowing down, Jack would wash out his trombone in the bathtub and have fun even with this, fooling around, showing off, with things like how he could pump water with the slide. Then he would oil the slide with Jerris Hair Oil. “World’s best slide oil,” he would say.

Not everyone used Benzedrine, but many did. In those days, my father said, you could go to the drug store and buy Benzedrine inhalers. Then, if you could not get Benzedrine, you could break open the plastic inhaler, drop the Benzedrine filament in a Coca Cola and drink the Coke.

Benzedrine inhaler

At daylight, Jack, up on Benzedrine, would go out to the band bus and begin to take the engine apart. Nothing would be wrong with the engine, but Jack loved mechanical things. Then at about noon, he would begin to practice for a couple of hours. The trombone was always out of its case and ready.

Jim Cullum, Sr. on saxophone

On tour with a different band, and traveling in a 1938 Ford, my father ground away at the one-nighters. The distances could be vast. Fighting it out, they often drove against the night, pushing hard to make it.

On one night in Oklahoma, the two-lane blacktop road stretched straight and long. The driver struggled to stay awake. “Gimme one of those ‘bennies,’” he said. Soon he was wide awake.They rolled on. My father dozed in the back seat.

Sometimes they called the Benzedrine pills “California Turn-Arounds,” meaning you could take one, drive to California and turn around and drive back!

Suddenly, the car lurched, almost turned over, skidded, rotated and plowed sideways into the black dirt of a muddy field.

1938 Ford

“Holy crap, man! What happened?” They all turned to the driver.

“It was that train!” he said. “We just barely missed it! Came out of nowhere. We just almost hit it!”

The driver kept on. “Thank God! Just barely missed it!” he said over and over.

They struggled out to the road. The car was completely mired down. Dawn slowly came on. An occasional car came by, but no one wanted to stop for five musicians in muddy tuxedos.

Still shaken, a couple of them began to walk up and down. There were no railroad tracks anywhere!

The Teagarden Band toured on the bus. The driver took no Benzedrine. Jack carried a lathe and rode in the very back where he turned his own mouthpieces. “Let me fix your mouthpiece,” he would say to unsuspecting trumpet players, and out would come the lathe. Mostly, he ruined the mouthpieces.

Jack was always inventing things. He built a huge electric fan to go at one side of the band and keep things cooler in the un-air conditioned summer heat. When the fan was first turned on, it blew all the music off 18 music stands – blew it all the way to the other side of the ballroom and jumbled up the parts.

One of Jack’s inventions was a big trunk – like a steamer trunk – that doubled as a music stand. The trunk stood on end – opened with its hard sides toward the audience. There was a music rack on the top of the thing. The inside of the trunk, which faced the band, contained Jack’s dinner jackets, a bit of music, his mutes, and all kinds of other stuff.

After dances the band often hit the road. Jack wore a carbide miner’s hat to light up his tinkering. He always said that carbide was the most perfect method of illumination ever devised.

Jack was a nut about steam engines. Many musicians are fascinated by trains, especially steam trains, but for Jack it was steam cars. He said to me, “Some fellows I know took an old Stanley all the way down the Pan American highway, from Alaska to the bottom of South America, and the cost of the oil to fire the boiler was only $17.00 – for the whole trip! For years, I’ve been storing my steam car in a garage in Fort Worth. There’s a guy there that loves it just as much as I do. He dusts it off every day – fires the boiler every week – keeps it in perfect condition. It’s been there for years. I owed him for some past storage. Last month I phoned him and gave the car to him. ‘It’s yours,’ I said. He got so excited I thought he was going to faint. I’m busy with the band. I don’t have time for steam touring.”

By the time I came along, in his last days, it seemed that Jack was depressed. Among a handful of the greatest jazz players of all time, stardom had slipped through his fingers. When Bob Crosby’s band was being organized, the members wanted Jack as front man. This would have made Jack a huge Swing Era star, for in the late 1930s the Crosby band was the second most popular, right behind Benny Goodman.

But in 1935, Jack had signed a contract with Paul Whiteman who refused to release him. So, the Crosby band musicians sought out Bing’s younger brother, Bob.

Many years later when I was following Jack’s band, I stood out of sight and off to the side, and quietly watched Jack Teagarden leave one of the concerts. He slowly dragged his square case by its end handle. Now portly and tired with his head down, he looked like a very sad man.

But the music will buoy you up. When he was up there, with that trombone in his hand, the swing of the thing, and that sound coming from his trombone, made Jack Teagarden higher in the 1960s than the Benzedrine had in the 1940s.


Teagarden and Armstrong photo courtesy

Jim Cullum, Sr. photo courtesy Jim Cullum, Jr. private collection

1938 Ford photo courtesy

Benzedrine inhaler photo courtesy

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Kid Stuff

by Hal Smith

The first recordings of Jazz giants Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Bix Beiderbecke never cease to amaze me, no matter how many times I listen to those historic sides.

Though subsequent recordings would showcase his virtuosity on cornet, trumpet and vocals, Armstrong's first record ("Chimes Blues," with King Oliver from 4/15/23) shows that his playing style was almost fully formed at the age of 21.

Similarly, Teagarden's solo chorus on "She's a Great, Great Girl" with Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra (3/14/28) showcases Big T's beautiful tone, effortless technique and his gift for melodic improvisation. The record was made when Teagarden was 22.

Beiderbecke's first recording, "Fidgety Feet" with the Wolverines Orchestra (2/18/24), is more of a preview of things to come. Bix was 20 when the record was made. The listener will hear flashes of his ethereal tone and the rhythmic concept that spawned a new way of playing jazz. Still, Bix's style in 1924 was still "under construction."

Many other great musicians made their first records at early ages, but one of those recordings continues to be a real mindblower, "Deed I Do" by Ben Pollack and his Californians (recorded 12/17/26) with Benny Goodman on clarinet.

From the mid-to-late 1920s, Ben Pollack's orchestra was considered to be one of the best hot bands anywhere. Pollack, an outstanding Chicago drummer, cut his musical teeth with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. His own '20s-era ensembles included top jazzmen such as Goodman, the aforementioned Teagarden, and Glenn Miller, Fud Livingston, Frank Teschemacher and Bud Freeman.

Unfortunately, not all of the Pollack recordings allow the listener to hear the hot music that the band was capable of playing. But "Deed I Do," recorded in Chicago on 12/17/26, is plenty hot and includes an absolutely spectacular half-chorus by Goodman.

Composed by Walter Hirsch and Fred Rose, "Deed I Do" was a current popular song when the Pollack band recorded it (Pollack's photo adorns the sheet music). The recording begins with a "symphonic jazz" introduction and leads into an ensemble chorus in the key of F, with reeds playing melody, violins accompanying and brass "pecking." A brief interlude leads into the rarely-heard verse, with eight bars of Bix-influenced cornet played by Earl Baker. The reeds take the second half, and the orchestra makes a quick modulation to Eb for bandleader/drummer Pollack's vocal (Critics tend to be harsh concerning Pollack's vocals, but this writer believes that drummers make excellent vocalists!).

After the vocal, there is another "symphonic jazz" interlude with Goodman playing peek-a-boo between ensemble passages, then another modulation to Bb. Fud Livingston, a fine Chicago style reedman, takes the first half of the chorus on tenor sax and manages to quote his own composition "Imagination" on bars 7 and 8. He is followed by Glenn Miller, paying homage to Miff Mole. Both men's solos, and Goodman's later on, are punctuated by the leader's swinging cymbal work - choked, in this particular case.

Next is yet another "modernistic" modulation with breaks by Goodman. The fluid technique and rich tone on the first break suggest Jimmie Noone. The second break has a lemony tartness that recalls Johnny Dodds. After hearing only a few bars of Goodman's solo, it quickly becomes apparent that Bix's influence was not limited to cornetists! The "sock-time" phrasing is much like Bix's on Jean Goldkette's recording of "Proud of a Baby like You." And, like fellow Chicago clarinetist Frank Teschemacher, Goodman sometimes employed an almost brassy tone, more like a cornet. There is definitely some Tesch in Goodman's solo too (particularly bars 10 and 11). Before that, there is even a nod to Pee Wee Russell (bars 8 and 9). The final break, on bars 15 and 16, combines the graceful melodic lines of Jimmie Noone and Leon Roppolo with Beiderbecke-like phrasing.

Benny Goodman's first recording is a genuine tour-de-force. His flawless technique makes the solo sound as though it was casually tossed off, but the intensity is still white-hot. The half-chorus is a textbook demonstration of how to play "Chicago Style" clarinet, recorded almost a full year before the classic McKenzie-Condon sides with Teschemacher. Still, Goodman's musical identity is not lost in the process. What you hear on this 1926 record is not far removed from the Goodman clarinet sound of the '30s, '40s and beyond. "Deed I Do" and subsequent sides with Pollack such as "He's the Last Word," "Waitin' for Katie" and "Singapore Sorrows" continue to astound and delight musicians over eight decades after they were recorded (I hear that our own Ron Hockett was speechless after hearing them the first time!).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Meet Hal

I want to take a minute to introduce Hal Smith, regarded by many as the county's finest jazz drummer. To those of you who don't already know him, I'm pleased to tell you that Hal recently joined the Jim Cullum Jazz Band. He is also a respected jazz historian who has written for publications all over the world. Hal is a band leader in his own right and has played on hundreds of recording sessions and broadcasts including Riverwalk - Live from the Landing, A Prairie Home Companion, and Ken Burns' "Jazz."

Now here's the good part - Hal is joining me here at Le Blog Hot. He'll be blogging every other Wednesday, talking about every sort of jazz-related subject you can think of - deconstructing what you hear on the radio, stories of jazz greats and jazz history, and on and on. Hal and I even disagree on a couple of things and we might get a debate started once in a while. Keep your eyes peeled for it.

See you at the Landing!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thoughts about Your Technique and Stories about Spud and Big "T"

Jack Teagarden

In the photo above, that's Spud Goodall, Gene McKinney,
Jim Cullum, Jr., and Jim Cullum, Sr., about 1972

The young trumpet player plays for the older trumpet player and then he asks, “What do you think?”

“Well, kid,” the old guy says, “There is the good news and the bad news. The good news is you have a great technique. The bad news is you have a great technique!”

On the other hand, I have recently met and spent some time with Arturo Sandoval, generally considered the world’s greatest trumpet virtuoso. Arturo, a sensation because of his technique, can also play with passion and swing too. There have not been many like him.

Guitarist Spud Goodall was quite a virtuoso. We all talked about him. The older guys who had been around San Antonio for years loved to tell stories of how this or that hot-shot guitar player had come from Los Angeles or some place and how the guy would get up and play a lot and how they would let him go on just long enough to hang himself. Then they’d throw Spud out there.

Their eyes would sparkle when they told it. You know how it comes out and why they have to tell it. “Spud carved the guy up and sent him packing,” they would say. It vindicated the old guys.

There is something all of us love in a story like this. We relish the occasional long-shot victory. It is about the unknown underdog, David, going up against Goliath. Our country was born on this. Completely outnumbered and out-gunned for most of the Revolution, Washington’s ragtag Continental Army struggled against all odds and finally defeated the highly-trained and disciplined British army, by far the most powerful in the world. Relishing underdog victories is in our national DNA.

In jazz, a young Louis Armstrong, his fame off in the future, came face to face with the veteran cornetist Freddy Keppard. Louis was self-taught, and only a few years before had been living as a New Orleans street urchin. Keppard came on strong. “Boy,” he is reported to have said to Louis, “Give me your horn.” And Freddy played and played. He handed the horn back to Louis who then seriously took him apart.

I think the appeal of these upsets is highlighted when they happen in the provinces. Mighty Wild Bill Davison traveled from New York to San Francisco for a concert. Afterwards he went out to El Cerrito to be wiped out by local boy Lu Watters. Anyway, that is the way Watters fans love to tell it.

Benny Carter, the legendary saxophonist, was from time to time, part of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra of New York City. In the mid 1920s, Henderson led what was generally considered the finest hot dance orchestra in the country.

In 1926, Fletcher Henderson went first in a Battle of the Bands against a new band, the Jean Goldkette Orchestra.

Benny Carter told me about it. “They were from the sticks,” he said, “and when they got on the stand they looked to us like a bunch of fraternity boys.”

Jazz fans know the result: Goldkette’s band was like nothing that had come before. Brilliant Frank Trumbauer led the band and played C-melody saxophone. Bix Beiderbecke starred on cornet, Steve Brown on bass, and arrangements were by Bill Challis. The whole band was on fire.

“What a band,” Benny Carter said. “We had never heard anything like it. They became a huge influence on us.”

These scenarios tend to drive us forward, and usually it is not just virtuosity. Often there is something else in the music that reaches into us and touches us deeply and makes crusaders of us. For David’s sling arm was driven by something other than his technique.

Jack Teagarden is an example. No jazz musician performed with more pathos. At first one might be drawn to his arresting technique, but when you dig a little deeper, the “soul” in his playing is right there. It is the beautiful part.

He would tell me, “It’s about the story. The only reason you need technique at all is so you can tell the story.” He would go on: “When you hear jazz by a master like Bix and you listen, the technique is there but it soon becomes invisible. You become directly connected with his mind and sound. And then all you get is the story. Listen to Bix,” Teagarden said. “He was the greatest artist in history — not just the greatest musician, the greatest artist.”

“Really?” I ask.

“Show me a greater one,” Jack Teagarden said.

Of course, no one can make such a statement accurately, because no one can know all the artists. For one thing artists of the world go back thousands of years. Some, even most, are completely hidden from us.

It has been 50 years now since Jack said these things about Bix. I was only a boy then, Jack sat across the table. He exaggerated to make his point.

But there was no light of humor in his dark eyes. He looked square at me, his patent leather hair reflecting the ambient lighting of the restaurant where we cut pieces of the New York strip steaks we were having for dinner.

It is funny, the things you remember. I was only a teenager seated with a towering figure of the music that was already tugging irresistibly at my life. I was a little self conscious. I thought of my table manners. My mother’s voice was interrupting us, saying silently to me, “Change hands,” and things like that.

The years blur a little. But this was 1959 I think, and that would have made me 18. I had followed Jack’s band on a circuit of Texas concerts. At that point, Jack had heavyweights in the band: Barrett Deems on drums, Don Ewell, piano, Little Maxie (Kaminsky) had been in there on trumpet. They had come back from a Far East State Department tour and the stories of it are still repeated by musicians. In one of those countries, Thailand, I think, the Teagarden band went out to set up before the concert.

“How is the piano?” they asked Don Ewell.

“Oh, it’s okay,” he said, “But it’s a little low.”

The band went to dinner. When they returned for the concert the piano had been set up on blocks!

When they got to Japan the band toured, performing at several cities. At one point they were in Hiroshima, where several band members went on a tour and were shown the atomic bomb devastation.

A lady guide was explaining how it happened, how destructive it was, etc.

Little Maxie spoke up and said, “Well, next time, don’t mess around!” The other band members shuddered, they said, and the Japanese lady blanched.

One of the guys called her aside and said, “Don’t mind him. He was in the Navy during the war.”

“Yes, I understand,” she said, and they walked on.

But Jack liked the way Maxie played in the band. After the tour, Maxie dropped out and was replaced by Don Goldie.

The band went on, playing constantly. If there was a way to describe Don Goldie’s trumpet playing, one might say that it was the direct opposite of Beiderbecke’s—lots of up front technique and very little story. I know that Don Goldie frustrated Jack.

But, Jack never said any negative thing about anyone.

Somebody told Jack that I was a great young cornet player and this led to our dinner. “Come sit in with the band tonight,” Jack said.

“Oh, Mr. Teagarden, I couldn’t do that.”

“Sure, I’d love it,” he said. “You should play a couple of tunes. Do you like Bobby Hackett’s playing?” he asked.

“He’s one of my idols,” I said. Jack was always looking for another Hackett, another Bix.

This was in Houston. That night, I went to the Tideland’s Club where the band was playing and I sat in for two pieces. The night before, Peck Kelly had been there and Jack and Peck had played duets for a whole set while the crowd sat spellbound. Almost none of the people had ever heard of Peck Kelley, but there was an electricity in the air that pulled their heads around. “You should have heard it,” Don Ewell said. Jack would say the same kinds of things about Peck that he said about Bix.

I had missed a big moment in jazz history – missed it by one night. Twenty-four hours later, I got up there and played my best on “Sweet Sue” and “Muskrat Ramble.” In my teenage years, I was not much of a cornet player. Nobody said much. Don Goldie was extra nice to me.

In a few more years Jack collapsed and died in a New Orleans hotel room. At that point, he had broken several years of sobriety

“I could have helped him,” my father said. He grieved for Jack. “I knew he was drinking again,” he said. “I should have gone down there. I could have saved him…”

In 1945, my father had joined the Teagarden band in St. Louis, and on his first night in the band, Frank Trumbauer showed up to sit in. “I couldn’t believe it, “he said. “Trumbauer was sort of a god figure to me. Jack and Tram played with the rhythm section for a whole hour while the rest of us sat on the stand and soaked it up.”

“Jack called ‘Body and Soul,’” my father remembered. “It was in five flats and on Trumbauer’s C-melody saxophone, it was really five flats. Tram slightly messed it up. A week later, he was back. ‘What do you want to play?’ Jack asked. ‘Body and Soul.’ And there it was again – perfection this time. Trumbauer having run over it, really had it under his fingers.”

Most agree, Jack Teagarden was Texas’ greatest jazz player. He always had it, even from the time he was a child. When Jack started on trombone he was a little kid, unable to reach 6th and 7th positions. They say that is how and why Jack developed his unique technique.

The jazz world all knew about this. His hand rarely went past the bell!

Spud Goodall was from Texas too. Like Jack, he swung like crazy and was a natural musician. Teagarden became a world figure. Spud Goodall was hardly known.

When I came up, it seemed that almost everybody was swinging. At least, there were many more swingers among rank and file musicians. In those days, most players were completely influenced by the swing bands that dominated the bandstands and the radios. Louis had started the whole thing. Most knew about Louis and listened a lot to his records. But some of the musicians did not know where it had come from or how it had happened. They just did it.

Tommy Dorsey became famous in the trade for saying to his band members: “Swing or I’ll kill you!” Almost everybody could swing reasonably well, except for the guys in the symphonies. They did not swing at all and tended to hold us in awe and in disdain at the same time.

Spud Goodall’s real name was Alan Goodale. For some reason he had changed it. Musicians have standard phrases about someone like Spud. He can really play, they say. When you are in a band with a musician like Spud, he will swing the band and make the others in the band play better than they can play.

Spud was typical of many artists who reach great heights in jazz in that he was an eccentric in the extreme . When you heard him play you knew he was obsessed with music and obsessed with the guitar. Like Teagarden, Spud could not help him self. He had to do it. You could tell that Spud had spent long years — a lifetime — with the guitar. I don’t know if he actually slept with his guitar like they say Django did, but it sounded like it!

By the time I worked with Spud he was in his mid-50s. He always dressed in expensive Italian suits and alligator shoes.

At that point Spud was ready to pour it on in many ways. He had become an entertainer. He wore a gold ring with the initials TKH displayed across its crest. “That’s my name,” he would say. “Tyler Kilgore Henderson, at your service!” And he would take off with stories of East Texas around the towns of Tyler, Kilgore and Henderson, Texas. Spud was raised in the country around those towns.

Having dazzled the crowd he would grab the mike, double his Texas accent and pretend he was a hick. “Well,” he would sometimes begin, “The first time I come to San Antone, I was downtown on the sidewalk there by the Gunter Ho-tel and I met this feller with a guitar. He says his name is Curly Williams, and I says, ‘Well, I heared of you. Why, you’re that famous gee-tar player. Why I heared you played with the Texas Top Hands and even that Jim Cullum feller!’

"And we’re standin’ there just gettin’ real friendly and talkin’ about Gibson this and that, an’ I says, ‘Why lookie here, Curly, here comes a young feller with a goat on a rope, walkin’ right downtown here.’ An’ Curly, well he says to me, ‘Why Spud, that’s Jim Cullum himself.’ And I starts wonderin’ what he’s a doin’ downtown with that goat on a rope. So Curly, well he calls this Jim Cullum over an’ I says, ‘I’m Spud,’ ‘n’ all that, an’ then I says, ‘Say, where you goin’ with that goat on a rope?’ An’ he says, ‘Well, I’m a takin’ him home with me.’

"And then we stands there for a minute and I’m tellin’ you again it was all out there on Houston Street right in front of the Gunter Ho-tel. And then I asks him, ‘Well, where you gonna keep him? You gotta place with a big lotta grass and all?’ And he says, ‘Nope, I’m gonna keep him right in the house with me!’ ‘Is that so?’ I says. An’ he answers, ‘Yep, that’s so!’ And I looks again at the goat on a rope an’ I asks, ‘What are you gonna do about that smell?’ An’ he says, ‘Well, he’s just gonna have to get used to it!’”

Having worked this story up from a whisper, Spud would struggle to control his laughter as he got toward the punch line and he’d always bring if off perfectly and laugh like crazy at his own joke and the crowd would always explode with laughter.

Immediately he would stomp four beats and take off on “Limehouse Blues,” and just burn it up for three to four choruses, each one getting hotter and swinging harder.

Spud played with us three nights a week for about two years and was featured on my father’s solo clarinet album, Eloquent Clarinet. This was one of my father’s highlights, for Eloquent Clarinet received 5 stars in Down Beat.

We all said it: Eloquent Clarinet is really good. Still we knew that as good as it was, my father and Spud had cooked it up in a hurry and we knew that both played even better outside the studio. That is what the old guys used to say about the Bix records, “Good as they are, you should have heard Bix live.”

My father died in 1973. Soon after, Spud left San Antonio to sort of retire in Tyler. There Spud played a bit with local hillbillies. I heard that he then made a number of guest appearances with Willie Nelson.

I never saw Spud after he left for Tyler. He died up there about seven years ago.

Jim Cullum,
your reporter (and historian)

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Toastmasters Club

My mother, Conoly Prendergast, met Jim Cullum, my father, when she was 17 and he was 18. Jim went off for one year at Sewanee, while Conoly headed for S.M.U. The US Mail service worked hot and heavy delivering the love letters which rolled out daily in each direction.

Conoly was in love with Jim and in love with love. Her eyes were dreamy and even a little misty as she copied the love poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She would fill the margins of her college textbooks, writing vertically Jim Cullum

Jim Cullum

Jim Cullum

Jim Cullum

Jim Cullum

on down the pages

After a year, they were married in Conoly’s family’s parlor, and all the details are typical of their lives and personalities. They were both jazzy from the start – but that’s a story for other blogs.

There was a failed elopement and other drama around the wedding. But the smoke finally subsided, and Conoly and Jim were able to relax. They were both amazed as wedding gifts poured in. Silver and china, which I still have, and prizes were stacked along with all kinds of household goodies.

The year was 1934. One of the gifts was a new gadget called a toaster. This thing had two wings and the idea was to load a slice of bread on each wing and raise each wing up to the center, or toasting, part. After a couple of minutes, you would fold the wings back down, turn the toast over and do the other side.

It was common to burn the toast in these gadgets and so you would often hold it – the toast – over the sink and scrape off the worst of the burned surface.

The great love affair that went roaring along Conoly and Jim’s lines ran the full gamut of romance: “sighing like furnace.”

Conoly was truly happy. If Jim’s shoelace “busted,” it was fun. If the toast burned, it was scraped with delight.

And since the toast is central to this story, my report about it is that it kept going strong for twelve years or so, all the way up to the most significant results of all their love ­the arrivals of two children – and I am talking about my sister, who showed up quite early in the marriage. Then I arrived in 1941 .

In 1945, technology had brought on amazing new pop-up model toasters and the 1934 folding wing job was headed for the trash, and at this point my sister, a natural leader, intervened, argued, won out and headed off to the attic with the old fold-down model.

It was a natural. Sister Conoly pronounced the commencement of the “Toastmasters Club.”

At this stage, my father’s siblings and their spouses had built modest homes on land that originally had been my grandparents’ farm.

This worked out to be deluxe, seriously so, for small kids. The place was awash with playmates who were mostly all cousins. Everyone called the place Cullumville.

Toastmasters meetings were scheduled every week or so and always in the attic of our house.

Elaborate minutes were kept by my sister Conoly who was, of course, “Miss President.” Somehow, Miss President , at the age of eleven, had already learned to type!

I have still never been able to type. And it seems so easy and automatic for almost everyone I know.

Here for your pleasure are the typewritten minutes of the Toastmasters Club, circa 1947. I was six years old and Conoly was twelve.

The next year was 1948. That year, my immediate family would leave Cullumville for a couple of exciting years in Venezuela.

But this was 1947. My father was off on the road with Teagarden and then an East Coast territory band, Bubbles Becker. The rest of us were deep in the bosom of our Dallas family. The war had ended and things were becoming more prosperous.

My mother, always with her happy face, missed her husband. She lived her days as though the depression were still in high gear. We ate corn dodgers and canned salmon and beans. The milkman came every day and brought bread in addition to milk – bread for the new toaster.

We were in the attic for Toastmasters Club meetings. Does it charm you?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What is Funny, Anyway?

In 1956, I was 17. I made my first trip to New York that year. Jazz was seriously on the place. Teagarden at the Round Table, Gene Krupa at the Metropole, Red Allen was there too in another band. I went to Jimmy Ryan’s every night for there the great Wilbur de Paris band was at its zenith. And what a band it was.

All these things will be chased around in future blogs. But wait!

While I was in New York in 1956, one of the movie houses was running W.C. Fields movies- a week-long festival. I went there and saw a different Fields film every day. The classics I saw included “It’s a Gift,” which is often spoken of as Fields’ masterpiece.

I left New York with a better understanding of what a jazz band should be and with my concept changed forever about what was and what was not funny.

The more modern comics I mostly prefer to skip, enjoying so much more the works of Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Ben Turpin, Fields and a few others. I have suggested to my wife Tina that if I am ever confined to a bed, she will almost certainly cause me to become well by setting me up to watch the old comedy movies. “It’s a Gift,” is my favorite movie of all time.

But there is another more modern movie that I would like to have included: “Young Frankenstein” by Mel Brooks. This movie is for me! If you haven’t seen it, I recommend a quick trip to Blockbuster video or Netflix.

Recently, my wife, Tina, and I went to see “Young Frankenstein – the Musical,” a road show touring from what I assume was a hugely successful run on Broadway.

Here in San Antonio, these things almost always play at the Majestic Theatre and the Majestic Theatre is one of a cluster of classic movie palaces across the USA. Just to walk into the place and see it without a play is worth a lot. But, of course, we were there for all the bells and whistles.

Okay, here is my verdict: This “Young Frankenstein” was about the most fun I ever had at a play. I thought it was, as Louis would quip, “a gasser!”

If you have, as we used to say, “even a Chinaman’s chance” you should grab it and pay the bread and see this thing fast.

Of course, the famous climax of “Young Frankenstein” is the monster in top hat, white tie, tails and walking stick dancing and singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” all out of meter.

At intermission I peered into the orchestra pit and saw several of our San Antonio aces resting their chops having wailed out the first half of the tricky New York score. One was John Carroll, who also is the principal trumpet player in the San Antonio Symphony. Also looking up from the floor of the pit, was Ron Wilkins, trombonist and jazz virtuoso the likes of which cannot be found anywhere, even New York (no kidding). Ron used to play a lot at the Landing and he still blows a set at the Landing on rare occasions, but usually he is a big shot over at the University of Texas.

Back to what is funny. Check out the amazing tickling scene from Laurel and Hardy’s “Way Out West.”

“Give me that deed to the gold mine,” a woman says to Stan Laurel.

Stan shakes his head and puts the deed in his shirt.

“Give me that deed or else,” she says, approaching slowly with clenched fists.

Stan is resolute.

The woman makes a dive for the deed and an insane tickling scene ensues – a perfectly choreographed wrestling match full of Stan's insane, high-pitched laughter and convulsing.

The scene is crazy, random and hilarious.

Here’s what Stan Laurel thought about comedy: “A friend once asked me what comedy was. That floored me. What is comedy? I don't know. Does anybody? Can you define it? All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, and that's all I know about it. You have to learn what people will laugh at, then proceed accordingly,” he said.

Okay, this is the end of Le Blog Hot for today, but listen, and seriously, try to see that road show. I posted videos of Stan Laurel being tickled and "Puttin' on the Ritz" following this blog for your enjoyment.