Al McKibbon’s Funeral

We attended Al’s funeral yesterday at Forest Lawn’s Church of the Hills, followed by a gathering at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Bass players in attendance included Richard Davis (he flew in from Wisconsin) Jimmy Bond, Jennifer Leitham, Richard Simon (who along with pianist Phil Wright, accompanied Ernie Andrews in his rendition of “My Way” with lyrics by Howlett Smith) and Howard Rumsey. Of course there were many other musicians on the scene — Kenny Burrell, Herman Riley, Charles Owens, Clora Bryant, Donald Vega, Michael Melvoin, and Jake Hanna, to name a few — but what touched me most were the tributes and reminiscences shared by other people whose lives he touched: his next door neighbor, his dentist, a fan, and his hanging and dining buddy Gary Chen-Stein.

Neither John nor I spoke at the service, but here’s what I would have said:

Big Al looked tough and mean – that is, until he smiled. He was also an exceptional listener and a loyal friend who refrained from judging people…unless they did him wrong. He mastered the art of overt generosity while still wringing blood from a nickel. He could grumble a lot, but he never gave up. He was 80 years old when his first recording as a leader was released. Tumbao Para Los Congueros Di Mi Vida was followed five years later by Black Orchid, and both albums are deeply steeped in Afro-Cuban flavors. If anything could surpass the joy he felt in creating those recordings, it was his trip to Cuba last November. There he found a beautiful country with smiling faces, warm sun and great music – everything the world should be. Despite its poverty, Cuba was his heaven.

Al was a proud man who maintained the best of “old-fashioned” values: he was a man of his word (and you’d best stick to yours, too), he liked to shop for clothes and dress well, he preferred for everything and everyone to run on time, (including his wives and daughters), and he was fiercely independent. Al always spoke his mind, regardless of the consequences, and yes, it got him fired plenty of times. But when it came to darker feelings, he was very private and hid any despair. He was extremely intelligent and well-read, but when asked what college he attended, he’d say “the one behind the Bass looking out at the world.” He loved to travel and meet people from all over the world. Whenever language was a barrier, music was always the solution.

Al was a big man with big heart and we will miss him.

Al McKibbon: May He Rest In Peace

Alfred McKibbon, born January 1st, 1919 at 12:00am in Chicago, Illinois, died this morning at Good Samaratin Hospital in Los Angeles. It seems like just weeks ago that Al and his daughter, Alison, were here at the house — we ended up going out for seafood dinner, Al loved seafood — but that was five months ago. My husband, John, and Al were friends for more than fifty years. When John put down his bass to become a fulltime manager, it was Al that he hired to play bass with the George Shearing Quintet. We will miss him.

Al’s first-person bio, which includes photographs from his personal collection, can be read online here. Also included are liner notes and audio clips from Tumbao Para Los Congueros Di Mi Vida, his first recording as a leader.

And here’s a Wikipedia entry that has links to info about many of the great artist with whom Al worked.

Also check out “Al McKibbon: a living history of Jazz/Al McKibbon and the Roots of Latin Jazz” a recent (April 2005) article by Nelson Rodriguez in Latin Beat Magazine.

Life & Death: Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, and Luther Henderson

On Sunday, July 31st, pianist Hank Jones will celebrate his 87th birthday, just shy of one year for each key on the piano. Hank was born in Vicksburg, MS on July, 31, 1918, and NPR’s Jazz Profiles, hosted by Nancy Wilson, is celebrating. Check the NPR web site to see when the program airs near you and check out the audio clips of pianists Sir Roland Hanna and Billy Taylor talking about Jones’ personal approach to the piano, and Hank’s own reminiscences of listening to Fats Waller on the radio, watching Art Tatum practice, working on The Ed Sullivan Show, and constantly striving for excellence.

Last month Bookish Gardener heard Hank Jones on a different NPR program (Terry Gross’ Fresh Air – archived here) and wrote:

Disciplined and devout in how he lives, thoughtful and inventive in how he plays—Hank Jones is simply inspiring.

July 31st is also guitarist Kenny Burrell’s birthday — born in Detroit, MI in 1931, he will be 74. A prolific recording artist and composer, Kenny is also the Director of the Jazz Studies Program at UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology His UCLA faculty bio is here and the bio on the Verve Music Group web site is here.

Coincidently, both Hank and Kenny are on my Luther Henderson interview list. Kenny and Luther shared a love of all things Ellington. Hank and Luther both loved Fats Waller, and it was Hank who replaced Luther as the on-stage pianist for Ain’t Misbehavin’ on Broadway. Tomorrow, July 29th, is the second anniversary of Luther’s death.

Bea Arthur & Billy Goldenberg

I was working today on the list of people that I hope to interview for the Luther Henderson biography. It’s a diverse group of folks that includes singers and musicians, actors and actresses, choreographers and conductors, composers and arrangers, producers and directors, not to mention family, friends, and business associates. The variety among the females singers, alone — Barbra Streisand, Ruth Brown, Bea Arthur, Polly Bergan, Lena Horne, and Jessye Norman, to name just a few — attests to the ecclecticism and wide range of Luther’s talents.
Of the six ladies mentioned, I’ve met three: Ruth Brown is a friend, Lena Horne I encountered years ago during my days as a talent coordinator, and Bea Arthur attended the West Coast memorial for Luther in June of 2004. Last month I posted a description of the Canadian Brass’ appearance at the memorial. Here, then, is the excerpt about Bea Arthur and composer Billy Goldenberg:

Bea Arthur, accompanied by Billy Goldenberg, was on hand that Sunday to share some memories. As Billy got settled at the piano, Bea told us a story about her invitation to sing a song called It Amazes Me at an affair honoring Cy Coleman twenty-five years ago.

“I thought, ‘I know there’s going to be a lot of terrific talent honoring Cy,’ and I decided that rather than just slide in and go to rehearsal next day, I thought, ‘No. I’m going to go a day earlier and work with Luther and really kill the people.”

We had no idea how the story would end, but already we were laughing.

“So I did, and we worked; we worked all that day. Quite wonderful. And then the night of the event, which was, I remember, at Peacock Alley at the Waldorf – black tie, oh, I mean it was fabulous – a number of people got up and performed Cy’s stuff. And then Tony Bennett came and started singing and, of course, he leveled the place, just tore the place up to such a degree that – I don’t know if you remember this, Billy – that he had to do an encore. So Cy sat down at the piano and Tony sang…It Amazes Me. I never in my life … I was so devastated! So after that, we just went to the bar and got loaded.”

We, too, were ready to go to the bar and get loaded, but we quieted down as Bea, casually dressed in white pants, tunic top, and sandals, regal as ever, began to sing. Even without a microphone, her voice was strong and sure, her delivery, striking. She gave us two songs, It Amazes Me, and Don’t Miss the Chance to Sing, composed by Billy with lyrics by Tom Jones. I didn’t learn until later that while I’ve been at home watching twenty-year-old reruns of The Golden Girls, Bea has been on the road with her one-woman musical show And Then There’s Bea, later renamed Bea Arthur On Broadway.

Billy Goldenberg had a story too. It was 1964, Billy was in his twenties, and had been hired to do the rehearsal piano and dance music for a show called High Spirits with Tammy Grimes and Beatrice Lillie, directed by Noel Coward. Hugh Martin, the show’s composer, asked Billy if he’d like to write the overture. Billy was ecstatic, and petrified. It was Luther, a man had had never met before, who came to his rescue by helping him to orchestrate the overture.

“Luther came in and he looked at this sketch and he said, ‘This is really interesting.’ ‘Is it really, Luther? You’re the best. If you can do it, make it sound good.’ I said, ‘You know, I’ve done my best here, but I can’t really orchestrate.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, you can’t orchestrate?’ He said, ‘You’ve already done it here.’ He said, ‘I’ll add a few things and see if you like it.’ I said, ‘See if I like it!’ I said, ‘What does that matter?’ I said, ‘You do your genius thing,’ you know. Anyway, he did it, and well, everybody, the whole cast, they all stood up and clapped after the first orchestra rehearsal. And Luther came over to me and he said, ‘Next time you’re going to do it.’ And I did. And from then on, I did all my own things: stage, and then television and movies, and all of it. But it was Luther who said to me, ‘You can do it.’ That’s all he had to say. For someone who was so important to me, really to say that, changed my life. It really did. I’ll always remember him for that. Thank you, Luther.”

Luther who?

Luther Henderson is not a household name, not even a B-list celebrity in the eyes of the general public. Finding a publisher for his biography has been a lengthy and difficult process, but I am pleased to say that I am in negotiations right now and hope to announce a signing very soon. Meanwhile, people are asking me “Luther who?”

Luther Henderson was a composer, arranger, conductor, musical director, orchestrator, and pianist. He was a proud black man who graduated from the Julliard School of Music in 1942, and in 1956, married a white woman, his second wife. He was Duke Ellington’s “classical arm,” orchestrating music for Beggar’s Holiday, Three Black Kings, and other symphonic works. Duke spoke highly of Luther, but seldom gave him the credit he was due. Luther was Lena Horne’s pianist and musical director. During his sixty-year career in music, he worked his magic on some of Broadway’s greatest musical hits, including Flower Drum Song, Funny Girl, No No Nanette, Purlie, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Jelly’s Last Jam, starring such performers as Barbra Streisand, Laine Kazan, Robert Guillaume, Savion Glover, Andre Deshields, Tonya Pinkins, and Gregory Hines. His music was heard on television programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Bell Telephone Hour, and specials for the pop stars of the day including Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, Andy Williams, Victor Borge, and Polly Bergen.

Despite the success of these shows, on both stage and television, his contributions were never properly valued. What reason, or combination of reasons, led to this oversight? Certainly there were those who usurped credit, whether due to ego, carelessness, or resentment of Luther’s training and talent. Was he caught between two worlds – the elite classical world embodied in his Julliard training, and the world of jazz, his own heritage? Both worlds viewed him with suspicion; neither took him seriously. Was it due to the racial biases of the times? Or was it just the inevitable fate of a background man?

Those in the business understood his talent, but it is hard to communicate to an audience just what Luther really did. We value a composer above an arranger or orchestrator, thinking that one is more original and creative than the other. When music is described as ‘incidental,’ the word used for background music as opposed to featured songs in a show, we assume it is, well, incidental, not very important. Even ‘background’ conveys lack of importance. Most of Luther’s major projects were based on songs written by others, but the difference between a song in its original form and Luther’s orchestration based on that song is vast. Luther’s interpretation is every bit as creative as the original song. He tried to explain it in an interview for American Theatre magazine in 1997:

Sometimes I call it ‘translating’ the music, but it’s more like transporting the music. It’s going through me, and I’m enjoying it going through me, and I’m adding to it what happens when it passes through me. I don’t try to imitate Duke Ellington. I can’t copy Jelly Roll Morton. I can’t be Fats Waller. But I can express what Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington mean to me. I can be the conduit.

Luther lived his life largely in the shadows, yet he never saw it that way. He was an affable man who appeared to view his experiences through proverbial rose-colored glasses, and for the most part, that is truly how he saw things. He lived as though he had plenty of money, but he was poorly compensated and he never liked to ask for proper recompense. He believed his work was important, but he said he enjoyed it so much, that it didn’t seem right to be paid. He thought everyone loved him – and most people did, but some didn’t. Growing up black in America, embracing both jazz and classical music – one, an American art form that has yet to be fully appreciated, and the other, a field not truly open to blacks at that time – was not a path to fame and fortune. But with a love of music, a prodigious talent, and an optimistic outlook, that is the life he chose. It was a life that required extreme dedication and concentration, sometimes to the detriment of family relations and his role as husband and father.

Word Trips

Just about two and a half months ago, my second day on the blog, I mentioned the Internet Anagram Server and shared three of the anagrams derived from DevraDoWrite. (Click here for a reprise.) Today, as I prepare for a two-week trip to the other coast for a mixture of business and pleasure, two more phrases seem particularly apropos. I am truly a Road Wired Vet, ready for virtual action anywhere I go, lugging laptop, palmpilot, digital recorder, digital camera, wireless connector, and myriad cables power sources, and of course, a cell phone. A quick google has provided me with a list of locations with free wi-fi access, so I should have no technological excuse for not blogging. The next blog posting will come from an undisclosed location in big metropolis.

The first few days will be devoted to research for my next book, a biography of Luther Henderson. I will be blogging about Luther as the project progresses, but meanwhile, if you don’t know anything about him, read this brief bio on The African American Registry® website, and then check out this amazing CD (you can listen to some clips online). Don’t, however, pay any attention to the Editorial Review posted by because it lacks both understanding and accuracy. Clearly this guy was not aware that Ellington himself referred to Luther as his classical right arm, that their professional/musical relationship began in the 1940s, and their personal relationship even earlier than that when Luther, just a child, became neighborhood buddies with Duke’s son, Mercer.

It is with increasing frequency, and not a little dismay, that I notice and/or hear about factual inaccuracies created or perpetuated by the media. Just today, my husband sent off a Letter to the Editor at Jazz Times magazine to correct some misstatements in the Wes Montgomery feature. (If they don’t print his letter, I will post it on this blog.) But that is a rant for another day.

After a few days of intensive research in Luther’s personal archives, I will relax and visit with family and friends. On Thursday, July 21, 2005 at 8 PM, I will be at the 92nd Street Y (1395 Lexington Avenue) to hear a concert: Jazz Legacy – Portrait of Jim Hall, featuring Peter Bernstein, Bill Charlap, Terry Clarke, Tom Harrell, Steve LaSpina, Joe Lovano, and Strings. (The Box Office telephone number is 212-415-5500 — I heard tickets are going fast.)

By the time I cross back to the left coast and get home on Sunday, I am likely to wish that I had Arrived Towed.

F Sharp

Where is Django’s guitar? The Epiphone that Django Reinhart played when touring the US with Duke Ellington was given to Cleveland-born guitarist Fred Sharp by Django’s son, Babik, in 1985. (The story of Django’s Epiphone, a 1946 Zephyr #3442, can be read here.)

The two guitarsts, Fred and Babik, were brought together in 1967 by Charles Delaunay, noted French critic, Django biographer, and founder of Jazz Hot magazine. (Jazz Hot, started in 1935, may be the oldest jazz magazine in the world.) Fred has written about Babik here and about Delauney here.

I met Charles Delauney when I was 16 years old. I was in France with a teen travel group called The Experiment in International Living, and after spending a few weeks living with a farming family in the Jura Mountains where I learned how to milk cows and bale hay, the Americans and one similarly aged family member from each of the host families took a bus trip all the way down to Nice. Riding down the Promenade des Anglais in the bus I saw huge posters everywhere heralding Le Grande Parade du Jazz, the festival produce by George Wein. To make a long story a little shorter (you’ll have to wait for my memoir for all the details), I ran into Ed Thigpen who arranged for me to see that night’s show, and it was there, listening to Ella Fitzgerald, that I met Delauney. When he learned that I would be in Paris about a week later, he said to call, which I did, and that led to a delightful afternoon at Versailles followed by une crème glacée at a lovely little cafe.

Google led me to an article about Delauney titled Magnificent Obsession: The Discographers, by Jerry Atkins. It seems that the first discographies almost simultaneously sprang into being in 1936 — in Melody Maker (a British weekly), Dalauney’s Hot Discographie (in Paris), and Hugues Pannassié’s Hot Jazz (in the US) — but Atkins writes, “Charles Delaunay is probably the father of discographical format as we know it today. ”

But geting back to Fred, who has played and recorded with Pee Wee Russell, Mugsy Spanier, Miff Mole, Red Norvo, and Jack Teagarden, among others. It was Fred who, in 1946, sent a young songwriter named Joe Bari to pitch his song to Frankie Laine. Bari sang the song for Laine, who said, “What do you need me for? You sing great!” There’s more to this story written up by Joe Mosbrook, but Bari later became famous as Tony Bennett.

Fred also happened to be Jim Hall’s first guitar teacher. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Fred in person (he lives in Florida now), but we do exchange occassional emails. About a month ago he wrote:

When I first moved to Sarasota in 1990, I started teaching guitar ( a big mistake) at Gottuso’s Music Shop. I had a young man, about 15 or 16 come to me and asked if he could study with me. I told him, “I only teach Jazz”, to which he replied, “Oh…I already took that!”

Canadian Brass

Have you ever heard the Canadian Brass play? Not only do they play wonderful classical chamber music, they also play great jazz, and Luther Henderson is the man reponsible for hundreds of their “jazz” arrangements. I am working on a biography of Luther’s life, and I didn’t know much about his relationship with the Canadian Brass unil after the fact. Here’s a brief excerpt from my introduction — I was describing a memorial concert/gathering that took place in Los Angeles almost a year after his death:

The most amazing performance of the afternoon came from the Canadian Brass, a primarily classical ensemble of five musicians. They began their tribute to Luther with an appropriately jazz-tinged rendition of Amazing Grace, after which Billie playfully called out, “Who’s arrangement was that?” knowing full well that it was Luther’s. And Anne Edwards called out, “I bet he’s listening to you out there.”

Chuck, one of the trumpet players, spoke about how Luther was their “link between the [jazz] tradition and five guys who went to classical music school and studied Bach.” He explained how Luther’s belief in what was jazz differed from that of Wynton Marsalis. “Wynton made a statement that I think he subsequently softened – ‘if it ain’t improvised, it ain’t jazz’ – and Luther felt like the improvisations he could do for us would be an organized cogent improvisation that would then be codified. It would become the classical music that could be handed down.”

But Luther also loved what is commonly referred to as classical music, music in the European tradition by the old masters. Introducing their second piece, Chuck said, “Bach being very important to Luther, he requested somewhere along the line that it was our duty to perform the Toccata and Fugue in D minor in his honor, which we will fulfill this afternoon.”

The piece in question is a keyboard work, one with which Luther was totally familiar, and Chuck added, “I think he was amazed that we would play this at all on brass instruments.” Hearing a Bach piano piece rendered by two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba was certainly different, and Luther’s arrangement was both clever and delightful.

“We play Luther Henderson’s music every night,” Gene, the trombone player, told us. “He hasn’t missed a concert for at least twenty years. So we feel an attachment to him, and you can imagine it’s sort of emotional. Without Luther, there would have been no Canadian Brass. We feel that strongly.”

And with that, they launched into their final selection, an arrangement Luther had written for them early on, called Saints Hallelujah. Despite the fact that it was a memorial service of sorts, the atmosphere was festive, and I heard Billie say, “My favorite.” In this arrangement, the trombone leads off solo, and is then joined by the tuba. Meanwhile, the other three horns execute a few choreographed steps across stage, followed by an elaborately gesticulated preparation for what we anticipate to be their next musical entrance. They moved their horns toward their lips, but it’s a fake out, and instead of brass notes we heard them shout, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” The audience roared. Smiles were wide, even through an occasional tear, and that was how Luther would have liked it.

Creating a medley with When the Saints Go Marching In, a traditional New Orleans funeral parade song, with the classic Hallelujah Chorus, not only illustrates Luther’s humor and mischievous pleasure in tickling an audience, but it also epitomizes his desire to bridge the jazz and classical worlds. Luther agreed with his dear friend and collaborator, Duke Ellington, when Duke said that there are only two kinds of music: good, and the other kind. I thought about the work that Luther had done for Duke in the 1940s, and the monumental symphonic Ellington project he had completed for Sir Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Symphony in Great Britain just a few years ago. On the surface you might say that it began and ended with Duke, and while to limit it thus would be a disservice to the outpouring of Luther’s talent that filled the decades in between, it is true that Duke did play an elemental role in Luther’s career.

When I’m working on a piece about a musical artist I like to listen to their work while I’m writing. One CD that is now often playing in my office is the Canadian Brass’ Take the A Train: The Best of Duke Ellington You might also enjoy reading the tribute to Luther on the Canadian Brass web site.

Two Ladies in Jazz

Have you ever heard of Nedra Wheeler? I can’t believe that I have not been aware of her until now, especially when I read her credits that include live and recorded performances with Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Higgins, Harper Brothers, Cedar Walton, Branford Marsalis, Billy Childs, and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few.

I saw her Friday night at the birthday concert for Gerald Wiggins, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She not only has the most amazing smile, but you can see the music bouncing around inside of her and coming out not only through her fingers on the strings, but through her hips, and her feet, and her shoulders as she dances with her bass. The expressions that cross her face range from intense concentration, to rapture, to a sheer and exhuberant joy of the music, the moment, and her fellow musicians. She’s having the time of her life onstage and it’s infectious. Add in her musical prowess — good tone, great sense of time, and big ears that hear all the possibilities — and you have a true force of musical nature.

I’ve heard that she recorded a CD titled “Gifts: Live at Birdland West,” and as soon as I find out where to get it, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, for those of you in the greater Los Angeles area, you can see Nedra Wheeler on July 2nd at the Ford Amphitheatre with an outstanding group who call themselves the Lady Jazz Orchestra.

Swedish jazz singer, Monica Zetterlund, died last week in a fire. She was 67. Wire reports say that the fire was caused by a cigarette, and that Ms. Zetterlund, disabled by scoliosis, was unable to escape from her Stockholm apartment. I was sad to hear of such an unpleasant ending, but I was pleasantly surprised that the Los Angeles Times ran her obit and photo, albeit a small one.

Los Angeles is not the world’s most hospitable place when it comes to jazz or jazz artists of a certain age. Truth be told, if Ms. Zetterlund had been coming to Los Angeles to appear at a club, the likelihood of a Times feature story promoting her appearance would be slim to none. A review? Maybe, just maybe.

Perhaps it is partly a sign of the times — jazz being yesterday’s popular music — but locale is a definite factor. New York is far more supportive of jazz. Ms. Zetterlund was well-received there back in the 1960s when, at the suggestion of Leonard Feather, my husband arranged for her first performances in America. Her engagements included clubs in New York and Chicago, and an appearance on the Steve Allen Show. She became a big star in Sweden, not only as a jazz singer but as an actress. In America, in the jazz communty, she will be remembered best for her 1964 recording of “Waltz For Debby,” with Bill Evans.

Happy Birthday “Wig”

Gerald “The Wig” Wiggins
Jazz Pianist
(b) May 12, 1922 –

Whether playing solo, leading a small group, accompanying a singer, or driving a big band, for more than sixty years Gerald Wiggins has been an ongoing contributor to the innovative art form called jazz. Those whose ears are well steeped in jazz might hear hints of the influences of Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, but such traces are fleeting and quickly give way to a style that is unique and recognizable. “The Wig,” as he is known to fans, friends, and family, has remained a true original. He is a quiet and unassuming man, not quite shy, but definitely modest; Wig is one who lets his music speak for itself.

Wig plays with an intriguing blend of lyrical simplicity and intricate harmonies that when combined yield subtle surprises that swing regardless of tempo. Writers, in an attempt to preserve the fleeting moments in which jazz lives, use words as diverse as witty, wry, mischievous, sensitive, subtle, soulful, spirited, elegant, funky, saucy, frivolous, whimsical, and masterful to describe Wig’s playing. But how can one describe something that evolves within each moment? As renowned jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather put it, “Wig has a style that transcends eras and idioms.”

Read More…

NOTE: Friday night the Music Department Jazz Series at Santa Monica College will “Celebrate Wig” with special guest artists: Ernie Andrews, John Beasley, Oscar Brashear, Cora Colman, Leslie Drayton, Keith Fiddmont, Tootie Heath, Paul Humphrey, Jon Mayer, Herman Riley, Patrice Rushen, Lesa Terry, Nedra Wheeler, John B. Williams, and Ricky Woodard. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, celebration starts at 8 PM. The address is 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA. Free admisssion and parking.