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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Passing of an Obscure Harmonica Player

I was emailed a link to the obituary of a gent who made it to the ripe old age of 98. He sounds like a terrific person, and he understood the comic power of the harmonica. Here is his story:

ATLANTA: Henry Leff, 98, played harmonica
By Holly Crenshaw The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wherever Henry Leff went, his harmonica went with him -- tucked into a pocket, ready to amuse. His repertoire consisted mostly of tunes from the 1930s and '40s. But one of his favorite songs to play was "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," a nod to his days as a batboy for the Atlanta Crackers.

Mr. Leff, 98, of Atlanta died Jan. 14 at Hospice Atlanta. A graveside service was held at Greenwood Cemetery. Dressler's Jewish Funeral Care was in charge of arrangements. The Atlanta native lived independently and was still working until two weeks before his death. For years, he cared for his wife, Ida Leff, until she died of complications from Alzheimer's disease in 1996. He would take her to the Weinstein Center to join in activities, then stick around to entertain folks with a few harmonica tunes.

Mr. Leff sold advertising promotional items -- calendars, notebooks, pens, letter openers and the like -- to businesses. Some customers stayed with him for 40 years. He was an optimistic soul and a creature of habit, said his grandson Scott Butler of Marietta. Mr. Leff lived in the same house for 55 years and drove nothing but Chevrolets. He was a regular at the Colonnade restaurant and a loyal member of Congregation Shearith Israel. On Sundays, he'd go to his local pancake house and order exactly the same breakfast -- half an omelet and a cup of coffee -- week after week.

On every anniversary and every holiday, he sent greeting cards to his loved ones. And every year on their birthday, they'd pick up the phone and "all you would hear is the harmonica playing 'Happy Birthday,' " his grandson said.

Additional survivors include two daughters, Eleanor Schwartz of Louisville, Ky., and Nancy Minkoff of Atlanta; a son, Frank Leff of Atlanta; five other grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Henry, you sound like you were a true mentsh. Sorry we never met.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Winter in Chicago

It is "survival of the fittest" weather. It is popsicle toes weather. It is weather suited for stoics and masochists. The temperature dropped to way below zero; now a high of 19 degrees sounds toasty. I spent a few moments staring out my kitchen window this morning, contemplating bare branches, mounds of snow and hyperactive squirrels in my back yard. It is nine degrees on MLK Day and all eyes are on Washington D.C with the run-up to the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama. Dr. King would have been 80 years old today.

I stay away from political commentary and social observations on this blog - it is mostly about blues music and such. But I have to say that this is an amazing, unsettling time. Mr. Obama is a breakthrough figure, taking on the top job in a country facing incredible stress. He gives us hope, but as the old saying goes, "Hope is not a strategy." Buena suerte, Senor Obama.

My wife tells me that I have a negative attitude and she is absolutely right. It is winter in Chicago, the financial system continues to melt down, the Mideast is in flames and the Bears missed the playoffs.

Here is my best shot at thinking positive - things are definitely going to get better someday. And I think Barack Obama has a good shot at leading us to that better day.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Popping into the Jams

I have behaved like a butterfly the past few days. On Saturday, I chased down my buddy, keyboardist Daryl Coutts, at Joey's Brickhouse (on Belmont). DC and his trio sounded good, and I sat around long enough to get an invitation to play. I played one tune and split. On Monday (Jan 5), I stopped by Bill's Blues Bar to check out Paul Doppelt's jam. It was cool, and Daryl Coutts was there, too! Dave Herrero was playing tunes off his new CD, and he sounded great! I played one tune, then split. Tonight, I headed back to Bill's Blues for Tom Crivelone's blues jam. It was rockin'! I played one tune with Tom & split. I can't stay up to late now that I am old and have a day job.

Hitting these scenes and playing one tune is like hitting a bar for a quick shot of whiskey. It is a good thing, but not enough. I feel so lucky to have friends that will let me sit in on short notice.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Four days in...and Belated Farewell to Freddie

It is four days into the New Year, and I am one week late in bidding farewell to the great Freddie Hubbard. Freddie is one of the few jazz superstars I had an opportunity to know, slightly. He was the featured artist at the University of California - Berkeley's Collegiate Jazz Festival back in the mid-1970's, and I was in the trombone section of the UC-Berkeley Jazz Ensemble at that time. The picture above (swiped from my old UC-Jazz Ensemble colleague, Les Golden) shows Freddie with UCJE director Dr. David Tucker. Dr. Tucker passed in 2003 (RIP).

I remember Freddie as a gracious genius. He was kind to the white college punks that were struggling to learn the arrangements for the concert in a compressed time frame. The performance was a success, and we filled the large auditorium on campus that night. It was very exciting for a wanabee jazz guy, which is what I was back then.

Freddie played with passion and power. When he was at the peak of his talent, he was the top trumpet player in the world. I thought he beat the hell out of Miles in the 1970's, and he was more contemporary that Dizzy. It seemed the Freddie was playing with every major luminary in jazz - Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Oliver Nelson, etc. etc. Shortly after he played at the UC Jazz Festival, he formed the great VSOP quintet with Hancock, Shorter, Tony williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass (the same group that was on the great Miles Davis records of the 1960's). The VSOP records are truly awesome.

Unfortunately, Freddie damaged his chops in 1992 and was never the same player after that. But his compositions have entered the list of jazz standards - "Red Clay" and "Little Sunflower" are two that jump to mind immediately.

So I have been feeling kind of bummed the past few days as I have reflected on the Freddie Hubbard's death. He was 70 years old, which doesn't sound that aged to me now that I am trudging through middle age. Freddie had some high points, but his star faded at the end. He was a giant, and a gentleman. Farewell, Freddie.