Harry James and a 6th Grader in Novi, MI

I played the trumpet when I was in grade school.  I stopped playing when I dropped out of the music school in college.  It’s been great to read and listen to Bix Beiderbecke because it’s brought me back to the trumpet.  I’ve been playing it a lot lately, and it’s really been years since I’ve played with any consistency.

When I was a kid, I had a tape called Best of the Big Bands.  I love it.  My favorite song was Ciribiribin by Harry James.  I used to listen to it over and over and over, and I remember being in my room playing “air trumpet” and dancing around.

I hadn’t listened to Ciribiribin in years, but my study of Bix brought me back to it.  Harry James played a character based on Bix in the movie The Young Man with a Horn.  I had actually kind of forgotten how much I loved this song.

Connecting my early years of music, playing trumpet, with my musical life now, which is so different than where I came from, feels like completing some kind of a circle.

Here’s Ciribiribin.

Bix Beiderbecke – This Month’s Featured Musician

From Bix: Man & Legend by Richard M. Sudhalter & Philip R. Evans

It seemed a good, lasting existence, one of hammocks under shady trees and long summer evenings on the veranda, the clip-clop of the family buggy giving slowly way to the cough and sputter of the gasoline engine.  Change, certainly, was in the air; Bix and Aggie [Bix’s father and mother] were aware of it, accepted its inevitability secure and confident they could watch it come, live with it and adpt to it, all the while able to retain what they found good and warm in the ast.  What they could never have suspected was that one of their own children would become the embodiment of another sort of change – one so dramatic and abrupt as to shatter the very coherence of so well-ordered a universe.


Dave Douglas: Soul on Soul

One of my favorite finds during the month I’ve been studying Mary Lou Williams has been this album, Soul on Soul: A Celebration of Mary Lou Williams.


Dave Douglas is another one of my favorite artists.  I really love the sound collages he creates with his compositions.  The sum is so much greater than it’s parts.  His music, to me, is so much more than “good jazz”.  His music leaves me with a feeling, much more than a tune I can hum.

He says in the liner notes, “Mary Lou’s being so consistently modern was what first attracted me to her music.  There were so many obstacles in her path, yet here was a person who was continually renovating and doing new things.  To me this seems absolutely courageous.”

In relation to the Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country Staircase Blog, it’s fitting that Douglas, a trumpet player, created this tribute album.  The next artist on the staircase is Bix Beiderbecke, who is one of history’s most innovative jazz trumpet players.

Not only at the Old Town School of Folk Music, but in real life, too.

One of the many great things about the Old Town School is that the classes are so diverse.  Every day of the week you can take classes in guitar styles of the Rolling Stones, taiko drumming from Japan, ancient hula, cajun fiddle, breakdancing, or join the mandolin orchestra.

So many times I have experiences with cultures coming together and I think, “Well, that can only happen at the Old Town School.”

I used to think of that a lot as I led the Thursday Night Jam in the lobby of the East Building, right underneath the staircase. As you can see in this picture, the Mary Lou Williams portrait is on the left and a screen printed Woody Guthrie poster is on the right.  Two of my biggest musical influences sharing the space at the Old Town School.

Lobby and Jam Space at the Old Town School of Folk Music's East Building

Lobby and Jam Space at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s East Building.  Mary Lou is on the left.  Woody is on the right.

And again, I would think to myself, “Only at the Old Town School are these two musicians, one a hero of the jazz age, and the other a hero of the dust bowl refugees, able to be celebrated in the same room.”

Then, my good friend, Chris Walz, Program Manager: Bluegrass, Old Time & Americana at the Old Town School of Folk Music, told me about this picture.

Mary Lou Williams second from the left in the back row, and Woody is on the right with his guitar.

This is taken from the FDR Bandwagon, a group of musicians and dancers in support Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.  The group, which was organized by Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records, never really took off.  But, there they are.  Mary Lou Williams on the left and Woody Guthrie in the right with the guitar.

Not only at the Old Town School of Folk Music, but in real life, too.

Mess-a-Stomp – Arranging for Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy

A quote from Mary Lou Williams from the book Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya:  The Story of Jazz as Told by he Men Who Made It, by Nat Shaprio and Nat Hentoff

She sat cross-legged at the piano, a cigarette in her mouth, writing music with her right hand while accompanying the show with her left!  Impressed, I told myself, “Mary, you’ll do that one day.” (And I did, traveling with Andy Kirk’s band in the ‘thirties on one-nighters.)


The lady turned out to be Lovie Austin, who was working with the pit band and making orchestrations.  It so happened that she was behind time, and hurriedly arranging a number for one of the acts further down the bill.

In the music that I play, which is mostly folk or rock music, the performer is usually the arranger.

As I’ve been reading and listening to more Mary Lou Williams, and to more jazz in general, it’s been a pleasure to consider the arrangement of a piece, rather than just the tune.

Here’s a recording of the first song that Mary arranged for Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy.  It’s called Mess-a-Stomp.

Tammy L Kernwood, author of Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, writes of the recording,

Mary enters with an unaccompanied piano solo that is a synthesis of the boogie-woogie and stride piano styles.  Mary’s mastery of the stride style is prominent and she often punctuates the syncopated melodies played by the right hand with the heavy left-hand motives.  This interaction between a strong swinging left hand and a melodically syncopated right hand is characteristic of Mary’s style.

Willow Weep for Me

Art Tatum was the first jazz piano player that really knocked me out.  It was while looking for recordings of his that I first stumbled onto Mary Lou Williams.

In the book Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz as told by the Men Who Made It (by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Mary Lou Williams says,

“Whenever I wasn’t listening to Tatum, I was playing – Art inspired me so much.”

“Who is the real Mary Lou Williams?”

One reason that I wanted to put this blog together, was to return to a state of mind that I had when I was in my earlier stages of development as a musician and as a music fan.Soul on Soul

I used to spend a lot more time at the library, digging into biographies and histories, rather than getting a quick overview at Allmusic.com or wikipedia.org.

I’ve spent the month reading this biography, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, by Tammy L. Kernodle.  It’s been inspiring to read about all the times she had to, or chose to, reinvent herself as a musician and as a person in a larger community.

The introduction of the book starts off with a great series of questions.

“Who was the real Mary Lou Williams?  Was she the elegant woman who graced the pages of magazines and newspapers for over sixty years?  Was she the demanding artist who often drove managers crazy and made unreasonable requests?  Was she the embodiment of the jazzwomans’ desire to move from a place of marginality to a place of equality?  Or was she simply the young girl who had escaped the poverity and monotony of domestic life and lived out a modern-day fairy tale?”