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Friday, December 28, 2007

Back to Music: Another Living Musician I Love - Otis Clay

Frank Zappa once said "Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid." I agree with his sentiment. So enough with the desperate state of the world and back to the music!

And let's talk about Otis Clay!

Most consumers of pop music think that "Trying to Live My Life Without You" was a Bob Segar tune. Yes, Segar had a hit record with that tune, but it was the great soul singer, Otis Clay, that first unleashed that terrific song back in 1972. Otis has a back story that sounds familiar - he grew up in Waxhaw, Mississippi and first started singing in church at the age of four. He came north to Chicago in 1957 and started singing with the "hard gospel" groups that were common in town at that time. He sang with the the Gospel Songbirds and the Sensational Nightingales. In 1964, Otis "crossed over" to secular music.

Otis had a number of successes early in his soul music career. You might remember some of his tunes - "That's How It Is," "I'm Satisfied" and "Got to Find A Way." Otis Clay's biggest successes happened in the early 1970's - that is when "Trying to Live My Life Without You" climbed the charts. But then, disco hit in the mid-70's, and Otis wanted nothing to do with that shit. Many soul singers rolled into the disco scene (the O'Jays, et al), but Mr. Clay stuck with the powerful emotion-packed soul music that he loved. His music disappeared from the radio and his records stopped selling in the U.S. So Otis did a very smart thing - he toured overseas, starting in 1978, where soul music was still hot. He is a bona fide hero in Japan and he also found audiences in Europe. Check out this video from one of his mid-90's tours of Germany.

Otis never really broke with his gospel roots. He continues to perform as a gospel singer - he headlined the Gospel Fest in Chicago last summer. So Otis is a double threat guy - a gospel star as well as a successful soul/blues man.

His vocal chops and physical presentation is classic old-school soul at its finest. I feel fortunate that I have seen him perform here in Chicago. Otis Clay always lays his heart on the stage.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Hawh hawh hawh!!!!!

The Lull Between the Holidays

Yes, some of that money you spent during the Christmas shopping season was wasted - cash down the drain. And yes, you did have a few too many and played the drunken fool at the family Christmas party. But now the ripped wrapping paper and leftovers have been cleared away and things are relatively calm, until New Years Eve. So how should you spend the lull?


  1. RECESSION: According to the Economic Cycle Research Institute, 7 out of 10 Americans now believe that we are or soon will be in a recession (and economists will tell you, expectations tend to lead the economic cycle). The leading home price indicator is at a 6-year low, consumer confidence is dropping and oil prices are hanging in there in the $90+/barrel range (at $97/barrel this morning). We have just completed the 6th year of economic expansion; this is longer than the average growth cycle since the end of World War II. I think 2008 will be a down year. Mr. G sez, "Buckle up, people, it is going to be a bumpy ride."
  2. PAKISTAN: Some nutjob just killed Benazir Bhutto. This nation is absolutely chaotic. David Andelman wrote an interesting piece for on the mess in Pakistan. It is a long-standing quagmire and the U.S. continues to sink deeper. Money quote from Mr. Anderson: "America's experience in Pakistan, and in scores of other countries around the world, has demonstrated one critical reality. At one point in the trajectory of any dictator, you own him. At another point, he owns you. We've reached that point now with Gen. Musharraf. There's a good chance that Benazir Bhutto might have been able to break this cycle. Now, however, Gen. Musharraf has an excellent excuse to postpone or cancel elections he was no doubt little interested in holding in the first place." So we have nuclear-armed nation on the brink of civil war/state collapse. Wooo! This is a real-world horror show. Many terrible things could happen. So are ya worried yet?
  3. Global Warming Confuddlement: Al Gore has declared that catastrophic climate change is "imminent," that it is "an emergency," folks claim that the Artic summer icepack could be gone in a generation or so. This is my favorite free-floating worry. When I hear people speaking of "global warming" in passionate tones, I get the same feeling I get when the Jehovah's Witnesses come to my door - THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUE BELIEF!! But Wait!!! The New Statesman, a Brit Socialist magazine, just printed an article by the BBC's science correspondent stating that the temperatures from 2001 through 2007 have been statistically the same - no warming for the past six years! Eh? A statistical blip? CO2 levels have been marching up every year but not the temps? Now I am completely confuddled.

I could go on, but I won't. Three enormous problems that I can't control is enough to carry me through the New Year holiday.......

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Good Bye, Mr. Peterson

Oscar Peterson left us last Sunday - very bad news for piano jazz fans like me. He leaves a magnificent body of work, as bandleader and accompanist. I liked Nat Hentoff's reflection on Oscar, which appeared in today's Wall Street Journal. Here is what Nat wrote...

Oscar Peterson:
A Jazz 'Behemoth' Moves On
December 27, 2007

Only when it was absolutely necessary, Oscar Peterson wrote, would he go on stage before a concert to check out the piano, because doing so "might lead to preconditioned ideas, and they can in turn interfere with the creative process so essential to a creative jazz concert."

For Peterson, who died on Sunday at age 82, his full mastery of the instrument enabled him to keep striving for what to him was his ultimate reason for being. In his equally masterful autobiography, "A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson" (Continuum, 2002), he said of the "dare-devil enterprise [the jazz experience]" in which he engaged for so many years that it "requires you to collect all your senses, emotions, physical strength and mental power, and focus them totally on the performance. . . every time you play. . . . Uniquely exciting, once it's bitten you, you never get rid of it. Nor do you want to; for you come to believe that if you get it all right, you will be capable of virtually anything. That is what drives me, and I know it always will do so."

He wrote that after a stroke in 1993 that, at first, limited the use of his left hand. But "the will to perfection," as he called it, kept driving him, and as a result he regained much of his customary skill, and with it the satisfaction of continuing to surprise himself.

Born in 1925, Peterson was mandated by his father to practice piano at a very early age; but it was hearing Nat "King" Cole that fired his enthusiasm, and he won a talent contest at the age 14. By the 1940s, Peterson was already a presence on the radio in his native Canada and in Montreal clubs. But his audience began to greatly expand when jazz impresario Norman Granz heard him and brought him to New York's Carnegie Hall in 1949 for one of Granz's "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concerts, where the competition was so intense that many careers of the participants were enhanced.

Granz became Peterson's manager and close friend as they toured Europe and other continents. Also a producer of records on his Verve and Pablo labels, Granz extensively featured Peterson, not only as leader of his own trios but also as an accompanist for a wide range of other jazz masters whom Granz recorded. Among them were Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Roy Eldridge.

As classic jazz players used to say of extraordinary peers, Peterson had "big ears." In all the varying contexts of these Granz recordings, he remained himself while also being completely consonant with the diverse stylists on those sessions.

A fascinating section in his autobiography describes what each soloist required of Peterson as an accompanist. For instance, Eldridge "would slide over to me and quietly ask, 'Can I get my strollers, please?' By this he meant that he intended to start simply with a mute aided by Roy Brown's bass in the lower register.

"He trusted the remaining members of the rhythm section not only to sit out and allow the excitement to build between him and Ray, but more importantly, to anticipate exactly where to re-enter and move him up a few notches emotionally."

Moreover, as a writer from the inside of the music, Peterson's profiles of other longtime associates prove him to be a master practitioner of jazz history and criticism. As he wrote: "To have played for these and other behemoths of the music world certainly served to educate me in areas in which that type of education just isn't available [and] served to deepen my true realization of the immensity of the music we know as jazz."

Because of the scores of albums Peterson recorded, it's difficult for me to select any as the best. So, subjectively, two that make me rise and shout are, "The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival" (1956) and "Night Train" (1962). (Both are on the Verve label).

Another autobiography that matches Peterson's in moving the reader into the life force of jazz is Sidney Bechet's "Treat It Gentle" (Da Capo Press, 2002). He writes of growing up in New Orleans: "That music, it was like waking up in the morning and eating. . . it was natural to the way you lived and the way you died."

And for Peterson, the pleasures of being inside that music recalled, he wrote, "the joyful exclamation [guiarist] Barney Kessel produced after [the] first evening in my trio. He came over to me after the last set, shook his head, and said with that Oklahoma accent, 'Oscar, that was better than sex!'"

Wherever he went around the world, Peterson's effect on audiences demonstrated the truth of Art Blakey's invitation to extreme pleasure: "You don't have to be a musician to understand jazz. All you have to do is be able to feel."

Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Journal.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Main & Chicago Ave in Evanston IL - A Historic Piece of Real Estate; GONE

I am not sentimental about buildings. There are architechtural masterpieces that qualify as works of art, and then there are old buildings that are not especially beautiful. The two-story commercial building at the corner on Main Street and Chicago Avenue in Evanston was not a stunning architechtural gem. But the old structure had some serious history. It is now gone, torn down, a hole in the ground waiting to be filled by another nine-story, 71 unit generic condo building. The new building will be uglier and taller than the old building. Condo prices in the new "Main Street Station" development range from $299,000 to $540,000. With the decline in the real estate market, I am not sure these units will be absorbed quickly. Maybe the folks that really want to be close to the CTA elevated and METRA trains will shell out for these condos, but I doubt it.

So lets talk about The Main, as the old building was once known in my neighborhood.

Yes, it was a squat, unattractive structure, but it was old. I guess that it was built prior to 1900. It had a few decorative touches, but it was a pretty basic building that covered an entire block. In the early 1970's, a local real estate developer, Ed Noonan, decided to renovate the old girl and turn it into a shopping complex. This did not turn out to be a mall, however - the original structure was retained, the mechanical systems were updated, and the floor plan was altered to provide space for a variety of retail establishments on the first floor. Office space for various professionals (doctors, dentists, lawyers, massueses, etc.) was available on the second floor. Ed pulled off a rare real estate project, improved an old building and the neighborhood was better for it. He named the new shopping center "The Main." It was cool.

Shortly after the re-opening of The Main, a locally-famous and controversial tenant moved in. Amazingrace was a coffeehouse/collective that was born in 1970 on the Northwestern campus. It was awash in the hippie ethos of the time (leftist philosophy, organic food, folk music, communal living, etc.). Amazingrace and the university had a falling out, and the performance activities of the collective moved to The Main in 1974. Amazingrace became one of the best music venues in the Chicago area - and maybe the world - for three years. The collective expanded from folk into jazz, blues, soul and rock. In addition to Bonnie Koloc and Jim Post, Amazingrace hosted Luther Allison, The Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gary Burton, Jean Luc Ponty and the Grateful Dead. I saw Charlie Mingus there in late 1976, shortly after I arrived in Evanston from Berkeley CA. The Amazingrace space in The Main was unique - there were no food and drinks served (it didn't have a kitchen), and if I remember right, there were no seats. Patrons sat on a series of carpet-covered risers/steps that surrounded the stage. It was an awesome club, but it was run by anti-business/anti-profit hippies who were always bickering with each other. They fell behind on their rent, and the new owner of the building booted them out. A convenience store took over the Amazingrace space.....

Another wonderful business in The Main was the Main Cafe - a classic "breakfast all day" diner that is the mark of a quality neighborhood. The Main Cafe lasted quite a while - I think it was still operating in the early 1990's. The owners had the good fortune to receive the first license to operate a liquor store in Evanston (which is thriving on Davis Street); the diner business looked less exciting than selling hootch to thirsty college kids. I think there was a fire at the Main Cafe that precipitated its closing, but it has been gone for fifteen years now.

Travel agencies, carpet emporiums, optometrists, pizza joints, health clubs, and miscellaneous clothing retailers have all called The Main home through the years. And yes, the condo building will have first floor retail space, but it will probably charge higher rents, which means larger, higher volume venues (I am thinking that a Cosi's is coming to my neighborhood soon).

At one time, the intersection of Main and Chicago Avenue in Evanston was anchored by The Main, a nice old bank building, a convenient parking lot and the old Main Newstand. Now we have two butt-ugly condominium buildings and a construction site. Well, at least we still have the old newstand.

It is not an improvement to the area, that's for sure.

I understand that it makes sense to concentrate housing units around the mass transit spokes. I understand that folks like that "condo lifestyle" and they want to live in Evanston - close to Chicago but with suburban amenities. But the Chicago Avenue corridor from Dempster to South Boulevard is now choked with monstrous condo builidings that look like they were designed by the 1960's Soviet Union School of architecture. Why has this "progress" been so damned ugly?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Frank Morgan - Heir to Charlie Parker - RIP

Be careful who you idolize, and how you idolize them. That is the message of Frank Morgan's life. He had an all-consuming admiration for Charlie Parker, and learned how to blow be-bop alto like the Bird. He also took up the Bird's bad habits, and ended up in and out of prison due to his use of heroin. From the late '50's through the mid'80's, Frank was off the scene due to incarceration - robbery, drug posssession, etc. He would get out, do another crime, and go right back in. He finally played his first New York club engagement in 1986; he got clean and stayed clean.

Frank gave us 20 years of great jazz; he found out he had cancer just last month and he went down quick. here is the Washington Post obit.....

Frank Morgan: 1933 - 2007
Noted jazzman who made a comeback

Heir to the hard-bop style of Charlie Parker had 30-year hiatus caused by addiction
By Adam Bernstein

The Washington Post

December 19, 2007

Frank Morgan, 73, a jazz saxophonist of impeccable ability, whose claim to the mantle of the celebrated Charlie Parker was clouded by his heroin addiction, died Dec. 14 at his home in Minneapolis. He had colon cancer and kidney failure.

Mr. Morgan, whose father was a guitarist with the vocal group the Ink Spots, was considered in his teens a promising interpreter of hard bop, a swing style of lightning pace.

Despite a 30-year absence from performing caused by addiction, he was remembered as someone who could bring emotion to the frantic sound in a way few had mastered since Parker. Parker, one of the great geniuses of saxophone, died from drug abuse at 34 in 1955.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said of Mr. Morgan's playing: "What comes out of his horn is soulful, full of fire and timeless."

In 1955, Mr. Morgan debuted as a solo artist with a beautifully made hard bop collection, but for the next three decades he was sidelined by heroin addiction and arrests. He served prison terms in California penitentiaries and formed a small ensemble at San Quentin prison in the 1960s with another addict and sax player, Art Pepper.

He credited a conversion to Islam during the end of what he called his "prison career" as a turning point for the better as well as an acclaimed series of performances at New York's Village Vanguard jazz club in 1986. A year earlier, he cut his second album, "Easy Living," which won praise.

With a bebop revival under way in jazz, Mr. Morgan made the most of his second chance. He said he was able to wean himself off drugs through methadone.

He was leader on more than a dozen albums. Among those he played with were Marsalis, pianists McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones, guitarist Kenny Burrell and singer Abbey Lincoln.

As a youth, he played the guitar but switched to alto saxophone after his father took him to hear Charlie Parker in Detroit. The younger Mr. Morgan said he began copying Parker's drug habit in hopes of channeling his talent. He was a full-blown addict when they met again a few years later.

In 1987, New Yorker writer George Trow collaborated with Mr. Morgan on a musical about his life, "Prison-Made Tuxedos," that ran off-Broadway in 1987. But Mr. Morgan, who performed in the show, expressed ambivalence about having to relive those years every night.

"I mean, I want to remember it, but I didn't want to dwell on it and deal with it again every night," he said. "I saw a lot of people killed. I'm out of that now."

Once asked why so many jazz musicians became addicts, he replied: "It's about being hip. Jazz musicians would rather be dead than not be hip."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Jam Experiences - Bill's Blues Bar, Evanston IL

Tuesday night is Blues Jam Night at Bill's in Evanston. Tom Crivellone is the host - he is a talented but down-to-earth guitarist and vocalist who fronts a band ("Two for the Blues"). Bill's Blues is my local club, so I wandered down last Tuesday to hang out and play a little. Tom C. is an old friend, so he brought me up to play with his band. As a guitarist , Tom is technically adept and an excellent listener - he pays attention to what his band mates are doing and he reacts to it, complements it and enhances it. I enjoyed playing with him.

The jammers included a very interesting group of suburban blues-rockers. The band was anchored by Julia Plaunik on drums, a blonde with a wicked backbeat. She was a pocket master. Joining Julia in the group was Mary Dittrich on tenor sax. Mary has a huge sound and her lines are clean and creative - not too many notes, she stays within the idiom. The rest of the band was quite competent, but they faded into the background due to the star power of the two females.

Also in at the jam attendance was Scott "Hambone" Hammer, the host of the "Hambone's Blues Party" broadcast on WDCB (College of DuPage public radio. Hambone often has local musicians on the air to chat and play; he asked if the Mystery Band would stop by the studio early next year. Hell, yeah we will!

I don't hit the jam very often since I am up early in the AM on Wednesdays. I would like to be there every week -- the vibe is very friendly in the club on blues jam night. These people have been hanging out together for a while now; it is their Tuesday night ritual. It is good to have a happy ritual.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Jam Experiences - Legends, Chicago

So I hit the Monday night blues jam at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. This might be the best-attended jam in the Chicago area (and there are multiple blues jams every Sunday through Thursday in and around the city). At Legends, the jam is split between two hosts - Jimmy Burns and Brother John. Each leader runs two jams each month, so participants can choose to attend the Jimmy jam or wait a week and attend the John jam. Of course, many folks attend every week. It is usually packed with muscians and fans.

Jimmy Burns was running the jam the night I stopped by. Mr. Burns is one of the "real deal" bluesmen that have not received the recognition he deserves. He has a rich, gospel-tinged voice and an immediately-identifiable guitar style and sound. Jimmy is also an outstanding entertainer. His patter between songs is smooth and amusing; he makes people feel good. I often steal Jimmy's sidemen for my Mystery Band gigs. Anthony Palmer (guitar), E.G. McDaniel (bass) and James Carter (drums) are a very tight unit, and their musical skills are formidable.

The first musician that Jimmy invited up to the bandstand was a your fellow, 15 years old, named Blair Tuller. Blair picked up the guitar a couple years back and he has been working hard - playing along with blues records, I suspect. This was his first time at a jam - his father drove him to Chicago from Michigan, where they live. Blair hung in there with the pros, and laid down some nice licks. This fellow is going to be a major player if he keeps working.

I did a couple of my original songs with Jimmy's band, then high-tailed it off the stage. The Legends house manager, Harvey, button-holed me and said, "Hey man - Buddy wants to talk to you." Ulp.

I spent a little time talking to Mr. Guy; I felt unworthy of his attention. He apparently likes one of my originals; I sent the lyrics to his manager. This is pretty weird, and interesting.

I am waiting to hear back; probably will need to chase Buddy's manager to get a status report. Buddy said he was heading into the studio to cut a new album soon and he is looking for material. Ulp.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ike Turner - Gone

Ike was a genius and a slimeball. His relationship with Tina has been examined to death - in the press, Tina' autobiography, the bio-pic based on that book, etc. But Ike also was one of the main creators of modern music - right up there with James Brown and Chuck Berry. He also launched the careers of cats like B.B King and Little Milton. But he had a total blues lifestyle - he missed his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony because he was in jail on drug charges.

Here is the NYT obit....

December 13, 2007
Rock Pioneer Ike Turner Dies at Age 76

Filed at 4:51 a.m. ET

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Ike Turner managed to rehabilitate his image somewhat in the past few years, touring around the globe and drawing acclaim that included his first solo Grammy earlier this year.

But the 76-year-old's prodigious musical legacy was forever tarnished by his image as the drug-addicted, brutally abusive former husband of Tina Turner.

Turner, known with his ex-wife for such songs as ''River Deep, Mountain High'' and ''Proud Mary,'' died Wednesday at his suburban home. No cause of death was immediately given.

In interviews toward the end of his life, Turner acknowledged many mistakes, but said he still carried himself with pride.

''I know what I am in my heart. And I know regardless of what I've done, good and bad, it took it all to make me what I am today,'' he once told The Associated Press.

In her 1987 autobiography, ''I, Tina,'' Tina Turner narrated a harrowing tale of abuse, including suffering a broken nose.

Ike Turner was hauntingly portrayed by Laurence Fishburne in the movie ''What's Love Got To Do With It,'' based on Tina Turner's autobiography.

In a 2001 AP interview, he denied his ex-wife's claims of abuse and expressed frustration that he had been demonized in the media while his historic role in rock's beginnings had been ignored.

''You can go ask Snoop Dogg or Eminem, you can ask the Rolling Stones or (Eric) Clapton, or you can ask anybody -- anybody, they all know my contribution to music, but it hasn't been in print about what I've done or what I've contributed until now,'' he said.

Turner, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is credited by many rock historians with making the first rock 'n' roll record, ''Rocket 88,'' in 1951. Produced by the legendary Sam Phillips, it was groundbreaking for its use of distorted electric guitar.

''I see Ike Turner in the company of James Brown and Count Basie as being supremely gifted band leaders, and I say that with no sense of exaggeration,'' said Tom ''Papa'' Ray, who co-owns an independent music store in St. Louis and for 20 years has hosted a local blues and soul radio show.

Turner's profile grew after he met 18-year-old Anna Mae Bullock in 1959. He quickly made the husky-voiced woman the lead singer of his group, refashioning her into the sexy Tina Turner.

Tina Turner declined to comment on her ex-husband's death.

''Tina is aware that Ike passed away earlier today. She has not had any contact with him in 35 years. No further comment will be made,'' her spokeswoman, Michele Schweitzer, said Wednesday.

The pair, who had two sons, produced a string of hits with Ike Turner on guitar or piano. The first, ''A Fool In Love,'' was a top R&B song in 1959. Others included ''I Idolize You'' and ''It's Gonna Work Out Fine.''

Rolling Stone executive editor Joe Levy said such songs acted as musical representations of their personal relationship. ''He's the big, ominous voice. She's the passionate, emotional voice.''

Their densely layered hit ''River Deep, Mountain High'' was one of producer Phil Spector's proudest creations. A rousing version of ''Proud Mary,'' a cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit, became their signature song and won them a Grammy for best R&B vocal performance by a group.

Though they were known publicly as a powerful, dynamic duo, Tina Turner later said her husband was secretly an overbearing wife abuser and cocaine addict.

She said the cycle ended after a vicious fight between the pair in the back seat of a car in Las Vegas, where they were scheduled to perform. It was the only time she ever fought back against her husband, she said.

Ike Turner denied his ex-wife's claims of abuse, despite acknowledging in his 1999 autobiography, ''Takin' Back My Name,'' that he hit Tina. He denied in the book that the hitting amounted to beating.

After Tina and Ike Turner broke up, both fell into obscurity and endured money woes for years before Tina Turner made a dramatic comeback in 1984 with the release of the album ''Private Dancer,'' a multiplatinum success with hits such as ''Let's Stay Together'' and ''What's Love Got To Do With It.''

Ike Turner never again had the success he enjoyed with his former wife. After years of drug abuse, he was jailed in 1989 and served 17 months.

His career finally began to revive in 2001 when he released the album ''Here and Now.'' The recording won rave reviews and a Grammy nomination and finally helped shift some of the public's attention away from his troubled past and onto his musical legacy.

''His last chapter in life shouldn't be drug abuse and the problems he had with Tina,'' said Rob Johnson, the producer of ''Here and Now.''

Turner spent his later years making more music and touring, even while he battled emphysema. His songs were sampled by a variety of rap acts and he won a Grammy for ''Risin' With the Blues.''

Robbie Montgomery -- one of the ''Ikettes,'' backup singers who worked with Ike and Tina Turner -- said Turner's death was ''devastating'' to her. ''He gave me my start. He gave a million people their start,'' Montgomery said.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Another Living Musician I Love - Frank Catalano

Frank Catalano is a torch-carrier, bringing the hot jazz tenor sax into his generation. He has been playing seriously for two thirds of his life - started around the age of 10, and he is about 30 now. Frank was one of those jazz band geeks in high school, but a hugely talented geek. He was playing in jazz clubs at the age of 17, and he has led his own group for years. He has also played with a long list of stars, ranging from Tony Bennett and Betty Carter to Santana and Destiny's Child.

One word describes Frank's playing - INTENSE! Take Michael Brecker, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Dexter Gordon, mix well, then filter through a young man's high-energy persona, and you get Catalano's tenor sax sound. What is the source of this fire and fountain of ideas? He is a young cat from the 'burbs ferchristsake - his old homies are probably zoned out on video games all day. Frank is not the standard 20-something suburban slacker - he is a piece of work, people.

Oh, and here is the the cool Catalano story - he cut off the middle finger of his right hand while working on an old car when he was 16. After reconstructive surgery, he went back to the sax and mastered it - I am sure there was pain and frustration along the path. So Frank isn't some golden child of privilege - he is a determined S.O.B.

I was delighted to play with Frank on a couple of Mystery Band gigs last year. He is a good-natured guy, not arrogant at all (I might be arrogant if I could play like him).

So buy his record - it is good stuff.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A True Story of a Working Musician's Dilemma

One of my good friends and a partner in The Mystery Band is facing a problem. He is an awesome guitarist, and he has reached middle age with an average amount of wear and tear. One of the items that is wearing and tearing is his rotator cuff - that group of muscles and their associated tendons that act to stablize the shoulder. His right rotator cuff is torn. This is an injury usually sutained by baseball pitchers or football quarterbacks due to repeated, forceful overhand throwing motions. Who knew that you can tear your rotator cuff through the repeated forceful pulling motions associated with the lifting of heavy guitar amplifiers? That is what has occurred with my partner.

Unlike many self-employed musicians, my partner does have health insurance. The tear can be repaired, and his insurance would cover it. But here is the dilemma - the surgery would force him to put down the guitar for at least three months. He told me. "Mr. G, if I go without working for three months, I might end up homeless." Health insurance is great, but my partner needs disability insurance, too. But disability insurance is wicked expensive, and tough for self-employed musicians to find.

My partner has a stop-gap solution - he is now lifting his amp with his left hand. Crikey.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ben Stein's Rant on Work

I enjoy Ben Stein's writings, although I don't always agree with all of his positions. I have heard him speak a couple of times in the past two years (at industry events relating to my day job) and he is articulate, funny and energetic. here is his latest rant on work - it is called "All Play and No Work Makes for a Poor Life."
Posted on Wednesday, November 21, 2007, 12:00AM

As I near my 63rd birthday, I'm stunned at a phenomenon I observe among a number of my friends: They don't know how to work.

That is, they literally don't know how to get up in the morning, eat breakfast, get dressed, and then do a day's work for a day's pay.

With Friends Like These...

One of them, who used to be dabble as a consultant at an advertising agency, quit a few years ago with a modest inheritance, and now has simply no idea of what to do to feed his family. Did I mention that he ran through his money in about 18 months?

Another friend, who was my college roommate and is one of the smartest, most well-read and witty writers I've ever met, hasn't held a regular job in his entire life -- and he's the same age I am. He has a well-to-do wife, luckily for him, and he teaches when he feels like it in local community colleges on a volunteer basis. What he would do if he had to earn a living I have no clue.

Yet another one is a former salesman of Internet ads. He's terribly smart, good-natured, and pleasant, but he simply has no clue of how to make a living aside from sales of somewhat dicey goods online, so now he just hangs out. How he pays the rent is beyond me.

Down, Almost Out

Then there's the makeup artist who would rather die than work at a department store, or at any 9 to 5 job. And since there are a heck of a lot of makeup artists in L.A. and not many stars who are without makeup, she's always one check (courtesy of her boyfriend) away from homelessness. She has fantasies of being a self-help guru, and she's a wonderful woman, but she has no idea of how the world works.

Finally, there's the former ad saleswoman who never really had a grasp on how to do a day's work. Instead, she's spent her whole life cadging jobs from wealthy boyfriends, and fills her days at work gossiping on the phone. Now she's facing disaster on many different fronts as her beauty fades and her intellect, never very formidable, is devastated by alcohol.

This is just scratching the surface.

Notes on Camp

What occurs to me is that while almost everyone I know went to college, very few learned how to actually work -- i.e., how to give an honest day's labor for a paycheck. So here's an idea for a remedy to this lapse: summer work camps.

At these camps, young people would be taught how to get up and get dressed in the morning when the alarm goes off, instead of going back to sleep. After being made to eat breakfast, they'd go shovel cow manure or dig ditches or sort laundry or mail -- actually work every day for eight weeks in the summer.

They would learn that they can't talk on the phone to their pals, text-message (in fact, they wouldn't have cell phones at the camp at all), send email, or play computer games while at work. They wouldn't be allowed to leave early for a phony medical appointment or to look for another job instead of doing the job they're being paid for, and they would have to actually complete a certain quota of work to get their dinner.

This dinner would be followed by a very short lecture or movie about the merits of work, preferably by someone who actually works and has done well in life by working. Once at camp, the campers couldn't leave except for a verifiable death in the family, and then only for three days, which would be tacked onto their stay.

Life Redeemed

You may think this is harsh, but it's not. Hard work is the single most important thing you can learn in life besides devotion to spouse and parents. One reason people become failures and/or criminals is because they never learned to work.

People who develop the habit of hard work don't become bums or drug addicts, and don't wind up in middle age with suicidal self-loathing. "Work, generally speaking, is the single best cure for any malady of soul or mind," said the greatest thinker in English history, Samuel Johnson. (I'm paraphrasing here. The exact quote is slightly different.) Work elevates the spirit, disciplines the mind, conveys self worth -- redeems life itself.

Since so many of us simply never learn to do it, why not have camps to teach it? The kids who went to such a camp would feel a lot better when they did their course than the kids who learn horseback riding or tennis. They would learn pride.

Of course, since they can't go into a summer work camp, there's always the United States Marines.

Make Your Money Work, Too

By the way, let me say it again: I don't pick stocks for the short term, ever. For the very long term, I think the financials are cheap. If you can devote 10 years to waiting patiently, you may well be happy if you dip your toe into the financial services index, the XLF, right now.

The mortgage crunch won't last forever. The commercial paper problems will end. And we'll always need banks. The best time to buy stocks is when everyone hates them, and that's where the financials are right now. So maybe buy a few dollars' worth of the XLF, don't look at it for 10 years, and then check in with me in 2017.

Still, it's no substitute for hard work.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Mr. G and his fam fled Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday - we went off to Portland OR to visit the eldest brother. Hey, I love Chicago and its muscular vastness, but Portland has to be one of the top urban locations in the U.S. Yes, it is small and still a little provincial, but what beauty! Trees! Hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the city limits! Powell's Books! Insane variety of tasty beers! Oh yez.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast joint, the Terwilliger Vista House. This is a terrific place, built in the 1940's situated in the hills above the city. The two innkeepers were a pair of 20-something youngsters that did a great job of hosting a broad variety of guests - families, old codgers, college kids, etc. We even had a fireplace in our room - a nice item to warm up the cold Oregon evenings.

We bought a smoker at Home Depot and prepared a 22 pound turkey outdoors. The hickory smoke eliminated the blandness of the bird; the overnight soak in brine kept the damn thing from drying out. I haven't shared a Thanksgiving meal with my brother and his family in over 20 years, so this was a wonderful event for ol' Mr. G.

We returned to Chicago on Saturday night - it was cold, but not much colder than Portland. The city is still fabulous, but everything looks flat and treeless here after five days in Portland. But Chicago has a larger, richer music scene (although Portland is pretty hip, with a decent blues community). There is a connection between the blues communities in Chicago and Portland - several ex-Chicagoans are playing the blues in Oregon now. In addition, Powell's Books traces its roots to Chicago - Michael Powell opened his first bookstore in 1970, in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood (his dad opened a Powell's in Portland in 1971, and they joined forces in Oregon in 1979).

I can imagine living in Portland, but I don't want to leave Chi-town.....yet.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Living Musician I Love - Susana Baca

Susana Baca is an Afro-Peruvian vocalist, probably one of Peru's best-known musicians. Like Bonnie Raitt, she has the ability to convey a wide range of emotions with her voice - it is a plaintive, keening instrument. She has recorded four CD's in the past ten years. To my ear, Susana is singing the Peruvian version of the blues - the landos, sambas and alcatraz song forms have that lamenting sound that I have always associated with the blues. This is great stuff, and Susana presents it with wonderful precision - almost like chamber music in a way.

Here is Susana's own description of her life, snipped from the her record label's web site:

“I was born in Lima and grew up in a small town in Peru called Chorrillos. My father was a chauffeur for a wealthy family and my mother worked as a cook and sometimes washed clothes. In Lima we lived in an alleyway, the kind where the servants lived, off the main streets past the fancy neighborhoods. My father played the guitar. He was the official musician of the alley. Whenever there was a party they called him. He played serranitas which are tales of the Golondrinos, people who came from Los Andes near the coast in the time of cotton-picking. My father learned the serranitas from them in his childhood. They are sung at Christmas: (singing) Ay, my dove is flying away, she’s gone. Let her go, she’ll soon return.

“I have an older sister and brother, and the three of us would sing together. My mother taught us how to dance. She’d say, "How can my children not know how to dance?" And so we sang and danced every afternoon. Later, my mother bought a record player, which was a big event. I imitated everything. My sister enrolled in a singing contest on the radio, and we went to watch the broadcast. It left a very strong mark on me. I saw her there and felt as though that was where I wanted to be. My brother made me a stick with a can on the end, which was the microphone. People came and we put on a show. I would drop anything for music.

“I tried not to become a professional singer, mainly for my mother’s sake. She thought I wouldn’t be able to earn a living. That’s my mother’s image of musicians. My mother told me many stories about musicians who were not famous like Felipe Pingo, a renowned musician and composer who died of tuberculosis. She said, "This is the destiny of my daughter," and she pushed me to become a teacher. I liked studying to be a teacher; I dedicated myself to being a singer later. When I first met my husband, Ricardo, I was active as a musician, but everything moved so slowly. I dedicated myself to music, and couldn’t devote myself to looking for work or figuring out how to record an album. I thought that if I worked hard enough, I’d find someone who was interested in working with me. I realized, after many years, that no one was interested in what I was singing, which was poetry. I was black, singing black music. It was a big problem. In Peru the black population is very small—you find mixed people, like me, or even lighter. But as a culture it is present everywhere. And another thing: blacks also segregate themselves. By class or by skin tone. I’ve heard my aunts say, "Marry someone lighter, even an Indian, so that your children will have hair they can comb."

“I would like to be remembered for my voice, of course. But also for helping to spread the music of my ancestors—all those people who were never recognized for their work or for their beautiful culture.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Blogging into the Void

So Derek Gordon, Vice President-Marketing for Technorati (the blog search engine), claims that his firm tracks 109.2 million blogs. He says that more than 99% of the blogs tracked by Technorati get no hits over the course of a year.

This confirms that blogging is not really about communication. For the vast majority of bloggers, it is like masturbation, but with no pay-off.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Five Living Musicians I Love

I am into the music of many people who have shuffled off this mortal coil. But there are lots of folks that I love who are still with us. I admire dozens of musicians - maybe hundreds. Here are five, not listed in order of preference (because I love them all):

Bonnie Raitt: I am Bonnie's loyal dog. Her voice is an unique, exquisite instrument, capable of expressing love, lust, anger, longing, joy, sorrow - and every other emotion that a human being can experience. I was a fan boy long before she broke through with the "Nick of Time" album in 1990 - I bought her first album in 1971 when I was a junior in high school. She was and is a frequent visitor to Chicago, and supported the blues people from whom she drew her inspiration - Robert Johnson, Son House, Sippie Wallace, Muddy Waters, A.C. Reed, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and all the rest. While her voice is what captures me and reduces me to a puddle of emotions, her slide guitar work is also outstanding - unhurried, tasty and instantly recognizable. Stevie Wonder is among the fans of her slide guitar prowess, adding her as a guest musician on his most recent album. She is also an individual with strongly-held convictions, and she devotes considerable time and energy to pursuing those convictions. Hard to come up with a more admirable person among the upper echelons of popular music....

Sonny Rollins: Miles, Dizzy, Bird, 'Trane, Monk, Duke, Dexter.....and Sonny. Sonny is surviving member of this exclusive club of jazz heroes. He is the Saxophone Colossus. Here is a link to an interview of Sonny, conducted by Clint Eastwood on the eve of the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (it is well-known that Clint is a dewey-eyed jazz fan, bless his heart). At the age of 77, Sonny is still blowing up a storm - in his sixth decade as a jazz giant. His exuberent and joyful music is a blessing for all humans. It was my great honor to play trombone in the UC Berkeley Jazz Ensemble that supported Mr. Rollins back in 1975 when he was the featured artist at the Pacific Coast Collegiate Jazz Festival in Berkeley. Listening to him play, working through the arrangements that he wrote, being in his was one of the peak experiences of my musical life. Sonny is a constantly striving musician - his practicing regimen is legendary. He is famous for dropping out at the peak of his bebop fame in 1959 to play alone for two years under the Williamsburg Bridge in Lower Manahattan. There are many things I love about this musician, but one of my favorite things about him is his affinity for unusual material - "I'm an Old Cow Hand, "Tennessee Waltz," "Someday I'll Find You" (which is the theme song from an old radio show called "Mr Keene - Tracer of Lost Persons"). Sonny gets my vote as the coolest man alive. His look, his way of speaking, his devotion to his craft, his focus and refusal to wallow in the fruits of his success are all very cool. The intensity, humanity, humor, and tenderness of his playing are absolutely unmatched by any other musician, living or dead.

Tom Waits: I discovered Tom Waits in 1974 when I bought his "Closing Time" CD at a used record store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley CA. I spent $1.50 for the record, and I got $150 worth of juice out of one cut - " Ol' '55" - a great song. And that is one aspect of Tom Waits - he writes great songs. Sentimental, heart-breaking, weird emotional songs. Bruce Springsteen covers Tom - "Jersey Girl" is the tune, if I remember right. This is my favorite "nice" Tom Waits song. And then he does some stuff that is WAY....OUT...THERE. Man - he can squeeze so much emotion and intensity out of a limited vocal range - but it isn't his range that is important. He can evoke a wide spectrum of tonal colors and craziness with his voice and his shenanigans.

Tom is also a terrific actor - his current movie role is in "Wristcutters - A Love Story" Can't wait to see that flick - it hasn't been released in Chicago yet.

Curtis Fuller: Back when I was a mediocre high school trombonist, I discovered Curtis Fuller. He is now 73 years old and still making the trombone do things that are hard to believe. He played 'bone with John Coltrane on the "Blue Trane" LP; he played with Art Blakey. Mr. Fuller was one of those cats that had talent that refused to be denied - his Jamaican parents died when he was a child, so he was raised in an orphange in Detroit during the WWII years. He joined the U.S, Army in 1953 - one of the few places where black men were treated like human beings. He was a J.J. Johnson protege, but he developed his own style - edgier, faster, crazier. When I used to play trombone, I would listen to his records and weep. He is the reason that I changed my major from music to economics at Cal Berkeley.

Kim Wilson: Kim is my blues harmonica idol. He is devoted to the post-war Chicago blues tradition. He is also an official rock star; has written major hits and fronted the Fabulous Thunderbirds for almost three decades. The royalties from "Tuff Enuff" and all of the T-Birds hits allow Kim the freedom to play straight-up blues with true believers like Rusty Zinn, Billy Flynn, and a long list of other blues fanatics. I feel deeply connected to this man due our similar histories - Kim is three years older than I am, he played trombone as a kid, he found the harmonica and the blues when he was a senior in high school (I bought my first harmonica when I was a junior in high school). I have had the honor to meet him a couple years ago at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. He is the best Chicago blues harp player alive today, in my opinion. He also is a very solid, skilled vocalist with a very flexible and powerful baritone voice.

So that is five that I love...the list of living musicians that slay me is much longer than this. Watch for more profiles in future posts....

Monday, November 05, 2007

Mystery Band Hits Buddy Guy's Legends - 11/4/07

So E.G. McDaniel called me at 9:15 PM on Sunday night. I was winding down from a pleasant day with the fam, thinking about hitting the sack. E.G. is one of the "go-to" bass players in the Chicago blues community, an absolutely awesome musican, and he anchors the Mystery Band for most of its gigs. So E.G. opens with, "Mr. G - we can play Buddy Guy's tonight - the band that was booked didn't show up." Whaaaa!? Now why on earth would a blues band blow off a gig at Buddy Guy's Legends? This is the top blues joint in Chicago, probably one of the best in the world - you don't want to mess with these guys. Getting black-balled at Legends is not a positive career event for a blues musician.

Well, it turns out the the booking agent for Studebaker John & the Hawks made a little boo-boo. He booked the band at Legends at the same time as their European tour. Studebaker John was in Belgium Sunday night - a bit too far away to allow him to make the gig at Buddy Guy's place. I hope Studebaker John can make things right with the Legends folks...he is a great performer.

This snafu provided an opening for the Mystery Band. All the cats were available; E.G. whipped them together. E.G. on bass, Cool James on drums, DC on keyboards and vocals, the Fretburner on guitar, yours truly on harmonica and vocals. We hit the first tune at around 10:15 last night - the debut of the Mystery Band at Buddy Guy's Legends!! I was stoked!! Thank God I have an understanding family that didn't freak when I went dashing out the door on a Sunday night.

Legends is Mecca for blues fans and blues musicians from around the world. Even on a Sunday night in the face of a busted booking, there was a decent crowd in the club. And the folks that come to Legends on a Sunday are generally knowlegeable, not casual, blues fans. We did our best to give the folks their money's worth. The sound mix and size of the club caused some problems for the band - our volume crept up and my harp was getting squashed by the rest of the band. The amp I brought along was too small for the task at hand - the cherry old Princeton wasn't cutting through, even when miked to get into the PA system. I shifted to a larger house amp. That allowed the harp to be heard, but served to bring the volume up even more. But the first set was pretty successful; the crowd seemed happy.

E.G. had also called a guest star for the last-minute gig - Wayne Baker Brooks, the son of the great Lonnie Brooks. He came up for the second, late set. WBB is an awesome guitarist, can hold his own with my man, Anthony "the Fretburner" Palmer (most guitarists pale when compared to the Fretburner). But WBB comes from the School Of Maximum Volume. Yikes! It is now 34 hours after the WBB set and my ears are still ringing. I am a fan of restrained volume and dynamic variety. But, hey, I am a grumpy old man, what do I know?

So I heard from E.G. McDaniel again today - Buddy Guy hisself heard our set on Sunday night!
Glad I didn't know he was in the audience - I would have shit my pants in fright. He wants us to come back and play again. Huh! So I have the mobile number of Harvey (aka "H-Bomb") the house manager at Legends. I am going to call him today.

Maybe I need to get a little more serious about this blues hobby of mine.....

Monday, October 15, 2007

L'il Ed and the Blues Imperials at Bill's Blues Bar (Evanston IL) , 10/13/07

L'il Ed Williams and his terrific band, the Blues Imperials, hit Evanston Illinois on Friday night, October 13. This past weekend was the fourth anniversary celebration of Bill's Blues, and what a tough road it has been for this wonderful club. In this era of DJ's, iPods and free downloads, it is not easy to keep a live music venue open. Bill Gilmore, the operator of this club, has persisted in the face of great difficulties. I didn't think this place would see its fourth birthday.

In celebration of this milestone, Bill's Blues booked two superstars - L'il Ed on Friday night and Eddy (the Chief) Clearwater on Saturday night. I have seen Eddy Clearwater perform many times and I love him. I haven't seen L'il Ed very often, so I was eager to catch up with him. He is a bona fide blues star these days, still riding the bump in name recognition created by his appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" several months ago.

L'il Ed is a practioner of the "house-rocking" form of blues music, which was established by artists such as Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor and L'il Ed Williams' uncle, the great J.B. Hutto. The house-rocking band specializes in high-energy music and flashy, crowd-pleasing showmanship. A house-rocking blues band often includes a slide guitarist in a predominant role, usually as front man. Ed is an awesome front man. He has a perpetual smile on his face and enough energy to light up a medium-sized metropolitan region. His slide guitar work is appropriately raucous, his voice ranges from rough to sweet, he executes duckwalks and backbends, walks through the house and dances with fans while playing his guitar - you name it, this guy can do it. He may be small in stature, but his heart and his talent are huge.

The Blues Imperials consists of three skilled players who have been with L'il Ed for a long time. Mike Garrett, the band's second guitarist, is long, lean and unflappable. His guitar solos consisted of strong, "meat and potatoes" blues; he also stepped up to the mic and laid down some convincing vocals on a couple of old Little Walter tunes. James "Pookie" Young is Ed's half-brother and he is a tall, big guy - quite a contrast to L'il Ed! Pookie just LOOKS the way a bass player is supposed to look. He is a "pocket master" as well. Kelly Littleton's work on the drums is just right - not too loud, not too busy, he never loses the pulse. This band is very skilled and well-rehersed, but not slick - they retain that pure, animal spirit that is a must for all great blues and funk bands.

It is always great to see a top act in a small venue like Bill's Blues Bar. The house was full. It should be full every night. To anyone reading this, don't forget to get out and support your local blues club!!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

George Carlin Talks About White people and the Blues

Man! George is still a edgy dude after all these years. And he's talkin' about me, yo! And people like me. It's cool, I can take it. I probably deserve it.

Here is George's Rant .

Friday, September 28, 2007

Billy Paul and Barack Obama

This classic soul/funk tune should become Barack Obama's campaign theme song. It is called "Am I Black Enough for You?"

Billy Paul is still delivering awesome soul vocals at the age of 73. He caught the world's attention in 1972 with the tune, "Me and Mrs. Jones," but his musical legacy extends far beyond one hit record. He has those wonderful Philly soul pipes and he writes terrific songs. The cat is killer!! Check him out and buy his records.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Gary Primich Gone

What just happened? Gary Primich wasn't even 50 years old; he was a top-shelf harmonica player. The news is skimpy thus far - an announcement on Gary's website that he died yesterday. Here is the text of the statement.

Gary Primich, considered by many to be one of the
greatest harmonica players in the world, passed away
suddenly on September 23rd. Not only is this the loss
of a world-class talent, but also of a true
world-class person. Offstage, Gary was a caring and
gentle soul — a real Regular Joe of the best kind.
Onstage he played with a ferocity and indescribable
sound that was often mind-blowing. He’d say Thank You
to his fans then quickly change the subject because he
didn’t want it to be all about him. He loved animals,
he loved people, he loved music and he loved life.
Gary’s career sent him around the world, traveling
thousands and thousands of miles for his love of
music, but he’ll always be right here, in our hearts.

Details regarding a memorial service for Gary will be
posted as soon as more information is available.

Gary was a Chicago guy, a baby boomer born in 1958, weaned on Muddy and Walter and Sonny Boy and Wolf. He played in the 1970's with Johnny Littlejohn, Big Walter Horton and Sunnyland Slim. He left Chicago in the early 1980's to settle in Austin, Texas. From that base, he traveled the world playing 200-300 gigs a year. His harmonica work was stellar; he was a sincere and convincing vocalist, too.

I didn't know Gary personally - we were "one degree of separation" people; that connective layer was Joe Filisko, who made custom harmonicas for Gary and introduced him to many of the Old Town School of Folk Music harmonica students. Gary had a very positive rep, no one had a bad thing to say about the guy. I don't know many people that can hit that standard. I certainly can't.

I have been writing about the passing of blues and jazz people regularly. My first entry on this blog was about the death of an elderly amateur harmonica player. I guess I am focused on mortality due to my own advancing age. Maybe I am just a morbid old coot.

Gary Primich's passing is one of the saddest events ever for the harmonica community; right up there with the death of Paul deLay. God, this guy will be missed.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Good bye, Eddie Berner

Eddie was the type of guy that usually falls through the cracks in today's world. He was afflicted with a high fever as a small child, his brain was damaged, he was institutionalized, he was released into a halfway house and his cognitive skills were child-like. Not the type of person that one would expect to have an impact on a large city like Chicago. But he did.

Eddie was the Chicago blues "superfan." And to the credit of the Chicago blues community, he was embraced and shown loving respect by the musicians and the club owners. Yes, he was not a regular guy, but he had a deep devotion to the music and the musicians; he was in the clubs almost every night until his health gave out, he drank his soda pop and danced and sang. So he became a beloved person, and an inspiration.

Eddie died last week; I missed the news because I was on a business trip. I hung with him a few times at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and at Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston. Eddie made people happy. That places him in a pretty small group.

There is a memorial service this evening at B.L.U.E.S. Eddie would be very pleased by this.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Jazz/Blues and Literature - James Baldwin

I re-read one of my favorite short stories last night. It was buried in an anthology on the top shelf of my library - James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues." I last read this story when I was in college, I think. It is a terrific story that evokes the pain and difficulty of being a black American in the late 1950's. Baldwin was living in France by the time he wrote "Sonny's Blues;" he found the atmosphere in the United States too poisonous. Baldwin was also gay, so he had an additional set of biases to battle against.

In "Sonny's Blues," there are the best passages I have ever read about jazz and blues. Here they are:

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours………….

………..Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.

Sonny's Blues, 1957

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hanging with Barrelhouse Chuck and Betsy

In late August, I received an e-mail from Mr. H. Charles Goering (aka Barrelhouse Chuck) which contained a gracious invitation to a Labor Day barbecue at the Goering estate in Libertyville IL. Any fan of blues piano will know that Barrelhouse Chuck is the "keeper of the flame," the true believer and the immensely talented practioner of the Sunnyland Slim/Otis Spann/Little Brother Montgomery school of Chicago blues piano thumpin'. I have been a fan of BH Chuck for a long time, and I wrote a little about his exploits back in January (here is the link.) I have seen him play live a couple of times also - always a treat - and I have tried to convince him to be a guest star with the Mystery Band (his schedule and mine haven't quite jived yet). I was honored to get that invite to the barbecue.

I pulled up to the Goering residence and met Chuck's wife, Betsy - a kind, generous woman of great good humor (and a formidable bass player, according to my blues buddies). I also met the four Goering canines - a quartet of Boston terriers full of friendly energy. The rest of the guests were all new acquaintances - a combination of musicians, blues fans and Goering friends and family. Since I am now in my fifties, my ability to recall names has eroded somewhat (ah, Hell - I have always been forgetful about names, even when I was a kid). But I remember the musicians, because I jammed with them after we were done eating - Justin on bass and Gerry Hundt on mandolin. Justin is a guy who played with BH Chuck back in the day; he has been off the scene for a while now but plays with Little Arthur on occassion. Gerry Hundt is a scary multi-instrumentalist/vocalist who is a major reason why Nick Moss and the Flip Tops is such a terrific band. Gerry plays guitar, bass, mandolin and harmonica and he kicks ass on every instrument. He also has a very strong and tuneful voice, and he knows how to use it. During our jam, Chuck rocked on his old Steinway upright. Ol' Mr. G had fun blowing harp and trying to hang with these talented professionals.

Now here is the word on Barrelhouse Chuck. Yes, he can play that awesome blues piano, he has a super-strong left hand that most keyboard players can't come close to matching and he is a soulful blues singer. But he is also a huge blues fan, and he backs this with a museum's-worth of out-of print blues LP's (all stored in a loving archival fashion, with heavy plastic sleeves and careful labeling), an astonishing collection of posters, photographs and autographs and an extremely intense collection of personal effects from deceased Chicago blues heroes (well-known and unknown). Chuck has put in tons of effort, love and money to assemble this collection. He also has a few non-blues heroes, such as Stevie Winwood and Question Mark and the Mysterians. I was speechless after he gave me a tour. BH Chuck is a man passionately committed to good music; he has a huge heart and strong opinions. Whatta guy!

Thank God for the true believers! May their efforts succeed.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Clyde "Lightning" George - Steel Pan Monster

Jam sessions can always be a surprise. I went to Mike Finnerty's jazz jam at Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston IL last night. A very fit fellow showed up and started to unpack his instrument - he wheeled in a bass drum case. I was puzzled for a while as he assembled his kit, then realized that he was setting up a set of two steel pans - the tenor set, to be precise. In no time, this fine musician (Clyde "Lightning" George) was tapping out bebop and blues on steel drums! The sounds of the steel pans are associated with the islands of the Caribbean and calypso music. Lightning jumps genres like a rabbit - yes, he can play the lilting themes of the islands, but he can also bang out "A Night in Tunisia" at breakneck speed. Lightning was born and raised in Trinidad (the birthplace of the steel drum and steel bands), but now spends quite a bit of time in Chicago's western suburb, Oak Park (the famous birthplace of Ernest Hemingway). Clyde George and Mike Finnerty (the locally-famous tenor sax man) have great musical rapport. It was a special night at Finnerty's jam.

I went to a college with a fellow named Andy Narell - Andy was a New York kid that took up the steel drums and moved to California to attend UC Berkeley. You can hear Andy from time to time on the "smooth jazz" radio stations that Clear Channel has established in most major metropolitan areas of the U.S.; he is probably the best-known steel pan player in the world. Clyde George can definitely hang in there with Andy. The sound of this instrument is part of America's musical stew now, and that is a good thing.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Society for the Advancement and Preservation of the Harmonica

Yes, there is actually a national organization dedicated to harmonicas, once again proving that the United States is home to an infinite number of odd sub-cultures that lurk below the radar. And I attended the national convention of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (aka "SPAH") from Tuesday through Saturday. A couple hundred harmonica nuts assembled in a Sheraton in suburban Milwaukee to ponder the mysteries of the instrument - rapid tongue switching, over-blows, pros/cons of alternative tunings and dozens of other obscure topics. It was a true geek-fest, and I fit right in.

There were very many awesome harmonica players at the conference, ranging from the great jazz musician Howard Levy (he just stopped in to play at the jazz jam) to Charlie Musslewhite, the legendary bluesman (headliner for the Friday night concert). In the crowd were fantastic players like my teacher, Joe Filisko, Irish harmonica God James Conway, New York Bluesman/college professor Adam Gussow, jam band rock star Jason Ricci, elderly ass-kicking classical chromatic players like Stan Harper, the legendary Milwaukee blues harp stars Steve Cohen and Jim Liban, 13-year old harmonica phenom L.D. Miller and the larger-than-life Superman of the Blues, Buzz Krantz. I connected with one terrific player that I have heard about for years, Rosco Selley, who plays harmonica for a fabulous alternative rock band called Maybe August. Here is a picture of Rosco, rocking out:

Rosco combines blazing technique with a high level of musicianship - a combination rarely seen in a harmonica player. He lives in Bay City MI and he operates a small business to pay the bills (harmonica honking is generally not a high-paying profession). Pick up a copy of the Maybe August CD - it is great stuff.

The one really strange aspect of the SPAH convention was the lack of African American harmonica players. Some of the best players around are black, particularly blues players like James Cotton, Billy Branch, Sugar Blue and the rest of the "real deal" guys. It would be great if they would join the geeky world of SPAH - we need them.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Mystery Band Pictures from the Harlem Avenue Lounge Gig

One of the finest blues photographers in the Chicago area, Lordy, was in attendance at the Mystery Band show at the Harlem Avenue Lounge on August 11 - he took some wonderful shots, which he has posted on his website. Here is the link. Thanks. Lordy, for your talent and genrosity.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Harlem Avenue Lounge

The Mystery Band played its first gig at the Harlem Avenue Lounge in Berwyn IL on Saturday, August 11. This is a great club owned and operated by a true blues afficianado, Mr. Ken Zimmerman. Ken is the captain of the HAL and he runs a tight ship - he knows what works in his club, and he helps the bands to understand the formula. He is a solid businessman and also manages a small number of Chicago area blues artists.

For this gig, the Mystery Band was a collection of great musicians that knew each other, but had never played together in this configuration before. The great Sammy Fender joined the Mystery Band for the night and added his unique and highly entertaining brand of blues to the proceedings. OSee Anderson, who played in Sammy Fender's band many years ago, held down the other guitar slot. Harland Terson, who has also played with Sammy before, was belting out the bass. And Twist Turner, who has played with Sammy occassionally for many years, was banging out the beat.

Karen Hanson, author of the recently published guide book, "Today's Chicago Blues," was in the house. I have corresponded with Karen for the past year or so, but had not met her until she showed up at the Harlem Avenue Lounge to hear the Mystery Band. Karen was kind enough to write about the show on her blog. If you are interested in the current state of the blues in the Chicago area, buy Karen's book - it is complete and full of insider tidbits on the scene.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Hash Brown's Blues Jam at the Mardi Gras - Dallas TX

Hash Brown is one of the busiest blues players in Dallas. He slings a mean guitar; he is also an outstanding harmonica player and a convincing vocalist. He served as best friend/driver/helpmate for Sam Myers, the legendary Texas bluesman, during his final years with us (Sam passed a year ago). Hash Brown is a big-hearted man who loves the blues, and whenever I am in Dallas, I try to find one of Hash Brown's jams. He runs at least two jams each week. The jam that he used to run at The Bone on Tuesday nights was unbelievable - full of great players, serious dancers and hard drinkers. The picture of Hash at the top of this entry was taken at The Bone at a jam back in 1998. The Bone was a great club - in the heart of the Deep Elum district of Dallas; a funky honky-tonk full of music-loving Texans.

Well, the Bone decided to kill its jam last year, and the other venue that hosted Hash Brown's Wednesday night jam (The Hole in the Wall) also decided that they couldn't afford to pay the band anymore. But Hash Brown never gives up - he found new venues. I attended the new Wednesday night jam venue during my last trip to Dallas in mid - July. The joint is called the "Mardi Gras," obviously a New Orleans - themed place. I have to say that this was one of the weirdest locations for a music venue I have ever seen - it is on the ground floor of a high-rise office tower located next to the I35E highway. The good news - there is lots of free parking. The bad news - it is in a nightlife desert; nothing else is open in the area because it is all office towers.

Hash kicked off the jam with a set of instrumentals, including a rousing version of "Honky Tonk" and a passable version of "Blue Bossa." Hash also threw in a number of Dick Dale-style tunes, with lots of glissandi from his guitar and jungle beats from the drummer. The drummer in Hash's band was just right - a Texas blues beat guy, well-versed in West Texas and East Texas shuffles, swing, blues rock, latin and jump blues beats. I sat in with the group and blew out a reed on my "A" harp on the first tune. I had hit the road with just two harmonicas in my bag, (A and A flat), so my ability make music was pretty limited.

The jam was sparsely attended. The bartender sat in the back at a table with some regulars since business was slow behind the bar. Two heavyset women got up and danced together, shaking their ample asses a little too hard. A couple sitting at the bar were alternating between drinking martinis and necking. They were really going at it, lots of spit-swapping and groping. They would break for a little air and more alcohol, then go right back into their clinch. I wanted to yell, "Get a room!"

I guess the lunch trade sustains the Mardi Gras; the evening business seems pretty pathetic.

I stayed to listen to one of the jammers, a young guy (teenager?) with a guitar. He was an intermediate player, not quite there yet, but his instincts were good. He sang, too. His singing was a little less successful than his guitar work. He could turn into an excellent player if he keeps working.

I rolled out and headed back to the hotel. It was great to see Hash Brown and I enjoyed sitting in with the band, but the Mardi Gras jam couldn't hold a candle to the Hash's old sessions at the Bone.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bill Perry, Blues Guitarist, Passes Suddenly

Very sad news. I just received this in an e-mail from Blind Pig Records:


With great sadness, Blind Pig Records announces that New York guitarist Bill Perry died on Tuesday, July 17th. According to Greg Schwark, Perry's road manager for seven years, the musician was found at his apartment in Sugar Loaf, NY. Emergency medical personnel tried to revive Perry, but he died on the way to the hospital, an apparent heart attack victim, although no official cause of death has been determined.

Perry was known as an outstanding guitarist whose go-for-broke technique combined effortless fluidity and incredible attack. Guitar One magazine called him a "six-string superman more powerful than a locomotive." He was also gifted with a distinctive, raspy voice full of grit and gravel that particularly suited the drama and emotion so essential to blues music.

Perry first made his mark in the clubs of New York City in the 1980's, where he was spotted by folk-rock singer Richie Havens. Perry spent four years on the road as the featured guitarist in Havens' band. During the same period, he also did some touring with The Band's Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. In 1995 he signed a deal with Pointblank/Virgin and released two albums for them. In 1999 he released a live album recorded at New York's blues hotspot, Manny's Car Wash. In 2001 Perry released the first of four titles for Blind Pig Records, with Jimmy Vivino, music director of "The Conan O'Brien Show" serving as producer on the first two CDs.

Good friend and labelmate Popa Chubby produced Perry's next two releases for Blind Pig, the most recent being 2006's Don't Know Nothin' About Love. Upon hearing the news while on tour in Germany, Popa said, "The best thing about Bill was that his talent was effortless. He was a natural. He could sing the phone book and draw you in. He didn't have a mean or a bad bone in him. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He was a brother and I'll miss him dearly."

Richie Havens issued a statement, saying, "I'm shocked and saddened to hear the news. Billy was a great friend, a truly gifted guitar player, and one of the funniest people I've ever known. Our times on the road together were some of best times I've ever had." Havens recorded a haunting acoustic duet version of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations" with Perry that appeared on Bill's 2002 album Crazy Kind Of Life.

Buddy Fox, Perry's manager for four years and the long time booking agent for Manny's Car Wash, said, "Bill was a very singular and unique talent. He had a natural blues voice, and an uncanny ability to sing at the same time that he was playing a virtuoso guitar solo."

Blind Pig President Edward Chmelewski said, "We are indeed saddened by the loss of Bill and his incredible talent. His intensity on the guitar was frightening. He was a mesmerizing performer who played with passion and excitement, and he had that wonderful sandpapery voice that you could listen to forever. Truly a unique artist that will be missed."

Perry, age 49 at the time of his death, is survived by his only son, Aaron, 25, three brothers, and a sister. Details of a memorial and funeral have not been announced.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

May this Texas Character Rest in Peace

I am in Dallas for a few days and saw this obituary in the local paper. I think I would have liked this guy...

Edgar "Heavy" Clayton Jr.: Junkman became a legend

08:03 AM CDT on Saturday, July 14, 2007
By JOE SIMNACHER / The Dallas Morning News

Edgar "Heavy" Clayton Jr. refused to conform during his 75 years of freestyle living. The Cedar Hill junkman became a small-town legend in the process.

Seemingly oblivious to convention, Mr. Clayton lived his life without a public school education, a driver's license or insurance, among other things.

Mr. Clayton died Sunday of complications from lung cancer at a Cedar Hill nursing home. Friends plan to organize a memorial. His body was donated to MedCure Inc. for medical research.

"He was a fixture to the city," said Cedar Hill Mayor Rob Franke. "He had been here forever, and people knew him and liked him in so many ways."

Mr. Clayton picked up the nickname Heavy as he grew into his powerful 300-pound, 6-foot-3-inch frame as a teenager.

In 1989, Mr. Clayton cemented his legendary status by physically breaking up an armed robbery of P&S Foods in Cedar Hill.

Mr. Clayton was taking part in a backroom game of dominoes when two men tried to rob the convenience store.

"I told them I didn't think it was a real gun and started to fuss with them," Mr. Clayton told The Dallas Morning News at the time.

Mr. Clayton was shot while trying to wrest the gun from one of the robbers.

"The bullet went in my neck and came out in my mouth," he said. "I chewed on the bullet a bit, then spit it out. ... It didn't knock me out."

The robbers were apprehended, and life went on for Heavy after a stay in the hospital.

Mr. Clayton was the youngest of the eight children in his family.

"He was the baby; he did what he wanted to do," said his sister-in-law Dorothy Clayton of Cedar Hill.

Born in the former Florence Hill community south of Grand Prairie, Mr. Clayton moved with his family to Cedar Hill when he was 11 or 12 years old, his sister-in-law said.

He never learned to read, but he knew math for calculating scrap transactions, friends said.

Mr. Clayton held a number of jobs before settling into his role as the beloved but regulation-ignoring junkman.

Mr. Franke said conflicts with Heavy grew along with Cedar Hill.

"The sad part about it was that as the town was growing around him, having a junk business just didn't work quite the same way," he said. "The city had to become involved from time to time."

Mr. Clayton inherited a home on Hickerson Street from his mother. His property became home to his junk business, which was a problem for the city and neighbors.

The house fell into disrepair and was set afire by what friends say was an adolescent who liked to torment Mr. Clayton. He rebounded by living in a camper on the property until 2005, when he moved into a nursing home.

G.W. Gorman, a friend of more than 60 years, said Mr. Clayton was an independent person of great physical strength.

"He was always trying to help people; he was good at that," he said. "He was a great fellow."

Mr. Gorman said he once saw Mr. Clayton pick up a flathead V-8 truck engine with the transmission attached and place it in the bed of a truck. But Mr. Clayton used passive cooperation rather than brute force to deal with confrontations with civil authority.

"He was the only guy I know who pretty much had the system his way," said Jan Sorok, a longtime friend.

While many others might not want to be jailed, Mr. Clayton was always willing to do his time, Mr. Sorok said.

"'OK, when do you want me to show up?' " Mr. Clayton would say, Mr. Sorok said.

Mr. Clayton is survived by two brothers, Thomas Clayton of Cedar Creek and Alton R. "Pete" Clayton of Cedar Hill; and two sisters, Willie Mae Justin and Janie Pogue, both of Mesquite.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Nick's Beer Garden - Saturday July 14, 2007

I found out the regular guitarist for the Mystery Band, Anthony Plamer, was going to miss the July 28th gig at the Morseland. OSee Anderson was confirmed, so I had one hot guitarist - I wanted another player. I have been thinking about adding a keyboard player for some gigs, so I called my bass player, E. G. McDaniel, last Saturday for a recommendation. He mentioned Daryl Coutts, a young long-haired fellow who has played with Ronnie Baker Brooks for several years. And Daryl was appearing with vocalist Katherine Davis at Nick's that very evening. I resolved to go and check this fellow out.

Nick's Beer Garden is in Wicker Park, on Milwaukee near North Avenue. Wicker Park is one of Chicago's biggest party neighborhoods on a Saturday night. Traffic is miserable and the sidewalks are crowded. The three - way intersection of North Avenue , Milwaukee Avenue and Damen is the congested heart of the neighborhood, and Nick's is near that intersection. This is not a neighborhood that is generally associated with blues bands, and Nick's is a bar first and a music venue second. There is no stage at Nick's, and bands must bring their own P.A. systems.

But the crowd at Nick's comes to party.

Katherine Davis is a seasoned performer, in her early '50's I would say. Most of the folks in the audience were half her age, but she had them in the palm of her hand throughout the evening. As the evening progressed, some of the audience members became seriously impaired. The musicians were at risk of collision as drunken dancers lurched perilously close to the band. But no accidents occurred while I was there.

Katherine used the Jimmy Burns Band plus Dary Coutts. Daryl had two sets of keys - a piano/synthesizer and an organ keyboard. He brought out a B3 set up, with the spinning horn. Daryl is a killer player, and he did take the Mystery Band gig at the Morseland. I am very excited about adding this fine musician to the Mystery Band mix.

I sat in with Katherine and the band, using my little Fender Princeton amp. The Princeton was overwhelmed by the heavy firepower that the other players brought to the gig. It was LOUD! The crowd was even louder than the band. Whew!

I hope to get the Mystery Band booked into Nick's Beer Garden. I know we would do well.