Johnny Smith — Gentleman of Jazz Guitar

March 18, 2012 by · Comments Off on Johnny Smith — Gentleman of Jazz Guitar 

Johnny Smith, Tucson, AZ 1977

Johnny Smith came on the scene in New York in the late 1940s, after a stint in the Army, where he learned to play a number of instruments. While “paying his dues” and struggling to make a living, Smith roomed with a number of guitarists who went on to be famous in their own right, including Sal Salvador and Jimmy Raney. Thanks to his musical abilities, including the ever-important skill of sight-reading, he wound up on the staff of NBC as a studio player, playing a wide variety of musical styles from country and western to classical, and everything in between, and lots and lots of commercials. By night, he sat in with all the jazz greats on New York’s famous “Swing Street”, 52nd Street. Read more

Joe Pass — Reluctant Guitar Hero

March 17, 2012 by · Comments Off on Joe Pass — Reluctant Guitar Hero 

Joseph Anthony Passalaqua was born in 1929 at New Brunswick, NJ to an Italian-American working class family. He showed musical promise at an early age, so his father pushed him very hard to practice for as much as 6 hours a day and all day on weekends and holidays, as he saw his son’s talents as an opportunity to escape the poverty of this industrial New Jersey city. Joe’s skills grew and grew, so by his early teens, he was performing regularly at Sons of Italy and Knights of Columbus gatherings, as well as weddings and other social events in his community. In his mid-teens, he quit school and got jobs as guitarist with a number of bands including Tony Pastor’s big band. As he got older and began working on the road, he unfortunately acquired a number of bad habits, as did many traveling professional musicians of the time, the worst of which was an addiction to heroin. Read more

Al Viola (1919-2007)

March 17, 2012 by · Comments Off on Al Viola (1919-2007) 

Another of the many unsung heroes in rhythm guitar passed away last week.

Al Viola (1919-2007) learned his craft in the mid-late 1930s, and when World War II hit, he was fortunate to be assigned to an Army band. He was deeply influenced by the music of Charlie Christian and Nat King Cole’s guitarist Oscar Moore, but was also well-rooted in the traditional acoustic rhythm guitar style, which served him well later in his career.

After the war, he teamed up with fellow soldier Page Cavanaugh who formed a popular Los Angeles-based trio. As early as 1946, the trio backed up Frank Sinatra on several popular recordings, and had successful engagements in New York. Al returned to Los Angeles soon after and began working clubs with Cavanaugh, as well as beginning a lucrative career in the studios, where he worked with many popular musicians, including Julie London, Ray Anthony, Steve Allen, and others. He also resumed what became a long association with Frank Sinatra, where he mainly played rhythm guitar.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he maintained a very busy schedule with studio dates, solo recording dates under his own name, and touring–mainly with Frank Sinatra. In the 1950s he began studying classical guitar, and often used a classical guitar on studio dates. His recording with Julie London, Lonely Girl, was one of the first times a classical guitar was used to accompany a pop singer.

The video below was shot about a year before he died, at age 87, with Sam Most, Chuck Berghofer, and Julie Morgan. It shows Al still at the top of his game, as modern as today, but with the benefit of over 60 years of making music. He knew his roots, but wasn’t anchored by them.



My own recollection of Al Viola goes back to the big annual Frank Sinatra specials on TV back in the late 1960s. Al, playing an acoustic Gibson L-5 guitar, was usually seated in a prominent position with the band, probably because Frank liked Al’s rhythm chords and sense of swing. As the band wailed away, Al’s head bobbed wildly from side to side in time with the music–you couldn’t miss it. Sinatra was visibly amused at Al’s enthusiasm during one televised special–he just stopped and looked at him for a few seconds with a big grin on his face.

From the 1970s on, Viola continued working with Sinatra and Cavanaugh, and as the studio work began drying up, he taught advanced students. His last recordings showed him to be comfortable in virtually any style, from traditional ballads to the hottest bebop to classical music. One of his best (and still available) recordings, Mellow as a Cello, was released in 1995.

After he died, his family put his prized Gibson L-5 on the market. The video below shows fellow studio musician Tim May demonstrating this outstanding instrument, which was said to be a favorite of Frank Sinatra.



Jazz Guitarists of the World

March 17, 2012 by · Comments Off on Jazz Guitarists of the World 

Jimmy Gourley

I have been collecting jazz recordings, especially guitar, since the early 1970s, and have been extremely fortunate to be able to travel around the world, thanks to the US Air Force, and later thanks to my employer.

One of the first things I do when I go to a new city/country is seek out record/CD stores. I have probably visited the late, lamented Tower Records stores in London, Singapore, Dublin, and at least a dozen cities in the US. I spent the Christmas holidays in London in 2005/2006 and much of my time was spent hunting down obscure jazz recordings at HMV and Virgin Megastore locations on Oxford Street. I have somewhere in the area of 1300 CDs and 500 LPs. Read more

Gene Puerling (1929-2008)

March 17, 2012 by · Comments Off on Gene Puerling (1929-2008) 

For the most part, the newspapers were silent about the passing of one of America’s finest vocal arrangers. I’m here to tell you a little bit about him.

Gene Puerling died a few weeks ago at age 78, and sadly, most obituary editors of newspapers around the nation chose to ignore this event. It’s unfortunate, because Gene’s work in vocal arrangements and performing was admired and outright copied by many. Read more

What I’m Listening to That (Mostly) Isn’t Jazz Guitar

March 17, 2012 by · Comments Off on What I’m Listening to That (Mostly) Isn’t Jazz Guitar 

ParkerPotterDavisJordanandRoachviaWikimediaCommonsWhile my main love in music is jazz guitar, there are other players and other instruments. Admittedly, I found most of them from their guitar player sidemen, but not always. Here are a few of my favorite non-guitarist jazz artists.

Art Tatum

There is a famous story about pianist extraordinaire Art Tatum that has made the rounds for years. Fats Waller was playing a gig at some club in New York. He stopped upon seeing someone enter the club. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Waller said. “I can play piano, but God has just entered the room.” The one Waller called “God” was Art Tatum.

Tatum was born in 1909 at Toledo, Ohio. He began losing his sight at a very young age, though he did retain enough to get around with minimal assistance. He learned to play piano by ear when he was three years old, and as he grew older, acquired an incredible facility for playing complicated musical pieces, even playing both parts of duets. His chief influences were the famous stride players of the day, including James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Thomas “Fats” Waller.

He moved to New York in the early 1930s, and immediately began achieving fame among the top piano players of the day, mostly based in Harlem. One of the main ways players got this fame was from their participation in “cutting” contests, where players did their level best to “top” the previous player.

Tatum’s arrangements grew increasingly sophisticated, playing the popular show tunes of the day. In a typical arrangement, he might move back and forth among a number of playing styles, including swing, stride, and such. These were accented with wild chromatic runs on the keyboard and explosive improvisation. He would change keys in mid-bar, and then bring it back, and likewise would make major shifts in tempo mid-bar, yet it all came together and worked.

He influenced many pianists, though few could come even close to his skills. One of the very few who approached his talents was the late Oscar Peterson.

Like many jazz musicians of the time, he picked up a few bad habits along the way, mainly alcoholism. He could easily put away a quart or more of booze every day, which, along with overeating contributed to his enormous size, over 300 pounds. This led to eventual kidney failure and death in his mid-40s.

Fortunately, he recorded extensively, and most of these recordings from the early 1930s to his death in 1956 are readily available from many music sources. Among his arguably best recordings were his Solo recordings, done by his then manager, Norman Granz. From about 1952 to 1955, he would invite Tatum to the studio and basically just turn on the tape recorder and walk away. Tatum proceeded to play what he wanted to, often recording dozens of tunes, only stopping for another swig of the bottle and tape changes. These were released originally on the Verve label, but Granz was later able to take control of the masters and had them cleaned up and re-released on his Pablo label, most active in the 1970s and 1980s. These recordings, “The Complete Solo Masterpieces”, show that he had lost none of his skills in his twilight years.

In the late 1940s, he cut 16 solo pieces and eight group pieces on the Capitol label. The group pieces with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist (you knew I couldn’t do a jazz story without a guitarist!) Everett Barksdale demonstrated playing with such an attitude as I had never heard before. They all knew they were at the top of their game, and were not afraid to show it.

I can remember driving with my mother in her later years with one of Tatum’s CDs playing. She had taken piano lessons as a young girl, and remarked, “I don’t like him…he’s showing off.” “Of course he is!,” I told her. “If I had a talent like that, I’d be showing it off every minute of every day!”

The Solo Masterpieces and Group Masterpieces recordings on Pablo are all available on emusic.com. The iTunes Store has several tracks from the Solo Masterpieces sessions, as well as the complete Capitol Sessions. The Amazon MP3 Downloads store has almost 1,200 tracks available, all without DRM (like the emusic.com recordings).

Here are a few sample pieces that I highly recommend:

Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces

  • Tiger Rag
  • Elegie
  • Indiana
  • After You’ve Gone

The Complete Capitol Recordings of Art Tatum

  • Willow Weep for Me
  • Don’t Blame Me
  • Melody in F (with Stewart, Barksdale)
  • Just One of Those Things (with Stewart, Barksdale)

Billie Holiday

The fans of Billie Holiday come from two camps: pre-WWII and post-WWII. I like her post-WWII work better. The tragedies of her life and the abuse she brought upon herself with drugs, alcohol, tobacco, etc., added a patina to her voice that, while never great like an Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, conveyed emotion and drama far beyond almost any other singer. Yes, she led a tragic life, but she also had great joy and great accomplishments along the way. She was adored by her fans who overlooked her personal faults and simply drank in her own take on the popular tunes of the day.

At the same time, her last works from 1957 or so until her death in 1959 can be very difficult to listen to without the context of her earlier works. This was my problem when I first listened to her as a teenager. Someone gave me her last recording, and I just couldn’t see past the cracking voice, the limited range, the rasping tones, and because of that, it took me another thirty years before I could seriously listen to her and absorb the stories she told through her music. I guess it’s like your first cigarette, your first sip of black coffee, or the first sip of an exquisite single malt scotch. All acquired tastes, and all ones I still enjoy (though I stopped smoking 17 years ago, I still miss it every day).

With that said, here are some of my favorite recordings of the great Lady Day…

The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959

Aside from some bootleg concert and broadcast performances, as well as the famous Lady in Satin recording on Columbia, this is truly the legacy of Billie Holiday. This 10 CD collection contains every master cut she put to record during her time with Norman Granz, as well as some private rehearsal recordings. Not cheap, but this is the one to get if you are really a fan of Lady Day. All 256 tracks can be downloaded at the Amazon.com MP3 downloads store at 99 cents each or $90.30 for all ten albums. The 10 CD set can be purchased for under $170.00 (used versions for under $80 at Amazon) and I personally recommend it if only for the excellent booklet that comes with it. The iTunes store only shows two cuts from the entire 10 CD collection, and they are DRM’ed to boot. If you’re buying from Amazon, here are some personal recommendations (some may even make you cry your eyes out):

  • You Turned the Tables on Me
  • He’s Funny That Way
  • Remember
  • My Man
  • Too Marvelous for Words
  • I Thought About You (the definitive recording)
  • P.S. I Love You
  • I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
  • Isn’t This A Lovely Day?
  • Autumn in New York
  • When It’s Sleepy Time Down South
  • Just One More Chance

Lady in Satin

Billie always liked recording with strings. She had her first opportunity since the mid 1940s after the Verve label dumped her in 1958, and teamed up with arranger Ray Ellis to record this masterpiece on Columbia. She was clearly on her way out when this was recorded. There are photos of her in the recording session, drink in hand, in tears, listening to yet another take. Ellis was able to get her to keep it relatively together and got 12 sides done, and in so doing, created one of her finest recordings. All cuts available on Amazon MP3 Download store. Nothing at the iTunes Store, or emusic.com. Some picks:

  • I’m a Fool to Want You
  • I’ll Be Around
  • The End of a Love Affair
  • For All We Know

Irene Kral

Irene Kral (not Diana Krall, a fine piano picker and singer in her own right) was Roy Kral‘s (of the famous Jackie and Roy duo) kid sister. She turned out to be an incredible, but virtually unknown jazz and ballad singer. She recorded a few albums in the late 50s and early 60s, then toured for a while before settling down in southern California, where she worked until her death at age 46 from cancer. She was influenced by Carmen McRae. She achieved much of her fame after her death when her music was featured in the movie The Bridges of Madison County. She was a very articulate and emotive singer, who truly understood the lyrics of a tune and used that understanding to convey the feelings that the composer likely had when creating the tune.

The iTunes Store has many Irene Kral recordings, as does the Amazon MP3 Downloads Store. emusic.com also has several of her albums available.

Here are some of my favorites:

Where is Love

  • A Time For Love/Small World
  • Lucky to be Me/Some Other Time
  • Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

You Are There (only available as CD)

  • Mad About the Boy
  • You Were There
  • You Are There
  • Noel Coward Medley
  • Summer Me, Winter Me

I’ve gotta save more of these for another day. I can’t believe how long this one wound up!

What Larry’s Listening to This Month (April 2008)

March 17, 2012 by · Comments Off on What Larry’s Listening to This Month (April 2008) 

Tired of all the strife going on at his local Macintosh user group (It’s just a club, darn it to heck!), Larry decided to cool off by going through some of the things he’s been listening to, lately. Read more

George Van Eps – The Quiet Master

March 9, 2012 by · Comments Off on George Van Eps – The Quiet Master 

One of my all-time favorite guitarists is the late George Van Eps (1913-1998).

Van Eps, born in Plainfield, NJ, and son of popular banjoist Fred Van Eps, grew up around music. Not only was his father a noted musician, but his brothers were also professional musicians. His mother was an accomplished pianist.

As a child growing up during the era of Prohibition (1920-1933), his father became well-known among fellow musicians for his high-quality “hootch,” and his house was often filled with members of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra among others. George remembered being bounced on frequent visitor George Gershwin‘s knee. Read more

Barney Kessel – He Played With Everybody

March 9, 2012 by · Comments Off on Barney Kessel – He Played With Everybody 

A dominant force in the 1950s-1960s L.A. studio scene, Barney Kessel played with nearly every important and a bunch of less-than-important performers, while maintaining an extremely busy schedule as a jazz performer.

If you listen to almost any jazz or pop record from the 1950s and many from the 1960s, you will in all likelihood hear the distinctive guitar of Barney Kessel. From Julie London to Billie Holiday, from Frank Sinatra to Ricky Nelson to the Beach Boys, Barney was there. One of L.A.’s “first-call” studio guitarists (who also included stellar players like Howard Roberts, Jimmy Wyble, Dennis Budimir, Tommy Tedesco, and others), Barney’s distinctive sound and overall musicality and professionalism elevated him to the pinnacle of players, who had the respect and awe of any number of players on the music scene, and is still remembered today as one of the giants in jazz. Read more

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