BluePort Jazz Inteview
by Jim Merod
During his years of writing on jazz for numerous publications, Jim Merod has interviewed and -- and, as a recording engineer, recorded -- many of the most interesting musicians on the planet : Wynton Marsalis, Sweets Edison, Tito Puente, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy
Rowles, Marshall Royal, Pee Wee Claybrook, Kenny Barron, Art Farmer, Cleanhead Vinson, Clifford Jordan, Nick
Brignola, Kenny Burrell, Red Rodney, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Benny
Golson, John Hicks, Gary Bartz, and many others.
BOBBY GORDON: Clarinet Madness
The improbable loveliness of Bobby Gordon's playing comes from a long habit of seeking out the smoky bars and basement corners where jazz is played day and night. As a young man Gordon listened to all the music he could and he began, early on, to listen to Joe Marsala and Pee Wee Russell. He recollects a conversation with jazz critic George Frazier, in the late '60s, when Gordon was playing with Max Kaminsky at Jimmy Ryan's in New York.
"He said to me that, in the future, Pee Wee Russell will be more well known than Benny Goodman." Gordon remembers that Russell won a Down Beat jazz poll somewhere around 1968 only to pass away soon after "never knowing what he would have done from then on." The mistiming of fame's fickle appearance for Pee Wee Russell nags just a bit on Gordon since, he feels, "Pee Wee was ahead of his time." Russell was, as Gordon sees it, "the Thelonious Monk of the clarinet."
Several listeners, including jazz historian Bob Hilbert, have found Bobby Gordon to be the closest contemporary clarinetist in spirit and sound to Russell. Hilbert inspired the production of a recent album, on Arbors Records (ARCD 19130), PEE WEE'S SONG: The Music of Pee Wee Russell." Bobby Gordon is placed in the central position, executing fourteen Russell composi-tions. He is accompanied on this tribute session by Dan Barrett on trombone, Johnny Varo on piano, the late Gene Estes on drums, Marty Grosz on guitar, and others.
From the beginning ("Oh No!") to the arresting final song ("I'd Climb the Highest Mountain"), PEE WEE'S SONG shows Gordon to be characteristically gentle, teasing, sensitive, at moments reserved but, for the most, rousing. Well recorded by Bryan Shaw, the album invokes another era - ageless, unforgettable, truly suffused with nuances of personal feeling that prevail beyond all technologies of make-believe joy or power. The album swaggers a little. It rocks deliberately at an easy pace, as if the old rocking chair that Jack Teagarden once praised, his gravel voice (like Johnny Mercer's) buffed out with scotch and soda, were ready for anyone with good ears.
One senses a genuine uplift in the approach that Gordon and his colleagues take to Russell's songbook. It is a kind of reverence for the musician and for the era that his music memorializes. One might say, given Russell's unabashed compositional sentimentality (beautiful, delicate and appropriate with fellow feeling), that such reverence for an era in which those qualities once seemed strong and whole could easily appear to be distant - detached in the haze of nostalgic recollection. Not so. The invocation of a moment of musical celebration, in which sensitivity of interpersonal expression prevailed over the slam of immediate gratification, to some extent recaptures the possibility (here and today) that, once again, sweet touches of human appreciation may join our festive moments.
The broad, big-hearted celebration of human warmth demonstrated on PEE WEE'S SONG is revived with a more jaunty inflection in a second Arbors release (ARCD 19112) by Gordon, again in the company of drummer Gene Estes who was a deeply laid back time keeper full of good humor. THE BOBBY GORDON QUARTET (Featuring Adele Girard Marsala) happily explores fifteen standards, such as Indiana, As Long As I Live, Basin Street Blues, Love Nest, and so on.
The unique featuring of harpist Adele Marsala adds an exquisite difference. The quartet expands to a quintet with the harp - Ray Sherman on piano alongside Morty Corb on bass - and creates an innocent accent that holds you alert with delighted anticipation. Corb's bass work is a Big Ben of metronomic pulsation. Marsala's harp calls to you the way a carillon bell tower beckons you to forget its report of the hour and only attend to its music. Rarely will you hear a harp imported into the midst of a jazz quartet. Rarer yet will you find one that truly swings. Marsala's childlike sound is fetching, lovely, and angelic.
"Limehouse Blues" is a vehicle for the harp to show off. Gordon is at his wistful best on "As Long As I Live." And "Muskrat Ramble" owns a star all its own in this joyful rendition. Joe Marsala's composition, that culminates this welcome disc, summarizes the mood of the entire performance, "Don't Let It End."
Bobby Gordon left steady work at Condon's in midtown New York to come to San Diego, around 1970. He had frequent work at the old Elario's in La Jolla, but when that dried up for him, he headed back to Condon's - always a ferment of musical energy with people like Bobby Hackett dropping by and Wild Bill Davison holding forth regularly (on the bandstand and at the bar). Condon's was one of those classic smoky jazz joints where you could tap your foot from early evening until deep into the wee hours. Unlike Jimmy Ryan's, only a few blocks distant, Condon's was not essentially a tourist hang out. It collected a constant fan-base and always welcomed world class players to sit in, especially late at night.
"My first big name gig," Gordon recounts, "was with Wild Bill. He was a character and a very funny man. I worked with him for awhile in Chicago after I got a call to join him to take Buster Bailey's place for a week down in St. Louis. I was nineteen at the time. I've got to say it was a big honor taking Buster's place, you know."
Now Bobby Gordon is the man who has a steady gig that allows him to add those who suit his aesthetic inclination and bring their chops to the musical madness concocted every weekend at Milligan's Steak House, in the Bird Rock section of La Jolla. That sense of quiet madness - the special low-keyed burn of Gordon's clarinet - is an infectious ingredient. It is something that Gordon does not easily theorize or seek to define. Such an infectious, engaging tug on a listener's affection keeps the many who love his way of handling the great American songbook coming back. It is a "madness" that displays the free spirit of deeply self-confident musicianship.
Gordon names some of those he enjoys as partners: trombonist Dan Barrett; cornetist Peter Ecklund; vocalist Rebecca Kilgore; drummer Ed Slauson; and clarinetest Charlie Romero, "who was the first clarinetest at Mickey Finn's, the original," Gordon adds. "Charlie is a dental surgeon who lived in Denver for a long time. The two of us talk about the clarinet together, compare notes, and swap ideas about our favorite players." Both Gordon and Romero like clarinetest Buddy deFranco a great deal, who (Gordon notes) "comes out of bebop but I really enjoy the way he plays all that even though I am much more of a traditional player, out of Dixieland, you know ... [still] there's something very special about Buddy. Then, of course, there's Pete Fountain.
Charlie calls him 'Mr. Lucky' (Gordon laughs good naturedly here) and he sure does great stuff, not with the kind of technique that Buddy deFranco does, but real good playing. And there's Bob Wilber, Peanuts Hucko, Kenny Davern. Do you know that Wilber studied with Sidney Bechet just like I studied with Joe Marsala?" he asks. "Although I don't play the soprano sax very often, I guess some of [Bechet's] tone sometimes gets into my clarinet playing."
Godon remembers how he got into studying the very difficult instrument that has dictated the course of his musical life. "When I was just three or four years old, in Hartford, Connecticut, my father was a very good friend of Joe Marsala. He used to come over to our house all the time with his wife and daughters. We'd talk and I grew up with all of his records. His family and mine were a close knit bunch of friends. So, when I was about nine, in junior high school, they were trying out kids for instruments and the first one I grabbed was the clarinet. That's what I wanted to play and I brought it home. I told my parents that 'this is what I'm going to do, I'm going to play the clarinet!,' I told my mother and father. And so, later when I was about twelve years old, Joe Marsala took me under his wing and I stayed with him until I was in my twenties. For awhile I stayed at his house in Aspen, Colorado. He showed me chord progressions, fingerings, and the rest. Talking with him, having a drink, smoking a cigarette and just kicking things around there with him was better than any college."
Gordon warms to his subject with a big smile on his friendly face. "Joe Marsala showed me a lot about making sound, how to create 'passing tones,' how to change keys, and the like. I asked Bobby Hackett once about changing keys and he showed me things, too.
I also learned from Mugsy Spanier, George Brunus, George Wettling . . . the best in their field."
Recollecting the controversial Spanier, Gordon continues. "He was very nice to me, but he was a tough little guy from Chicago. He had a clarinet player with him named Jack Mayhew at Basin Street in Chicago on State Street. I had the off-night band there on Tuesday and Thursdays, a quartet. They had great bands rolling in - Earl Hines and Jimmy McPartland and all those guys, in the '60s . . . so Mugsy came in one night to hear me and invited me to sit in sometime. And I did. He asked me soon after if I'd go out on the road with him; I said right away 'Sure!'
"So we went to Toronto for about eight weeks. I was around twenty years old, making $160 a week, with Wettling on drums and Mugsy and the whole thing. I'm even in his book, you know . . . he knew it all 'cause he'd dealt with the Chicago crowd, if you get that [the Mob], and he really knew what everything meant there. Mugsy played lead and so he always played the melody, which I like a lot. He had an edge to his playing.
"You know, playing with Wettling was a little like coming out to this coast and playing with Eddie Miller, a legendary player who was around a long time before I met him. He's on those great Commodore recordings. I was invited to his room to drink and talk. There was really a lot going on for me in those days since I guess I played with just about all those great players out of that era back then (in the '60s). But Wettling was terrific in that he'd really encourage you to keep goin'... if he said you sounded good, that was about the greatest thing you could hear. Sometimes he'd play press rolls behind me when I was up on the stand with Mugsy. I really liked that!"
Prodded to recollect further, Gordon recalls that he "was on Zutty Singleton's last recording, in 1969 for the Voice of America, with Danny Barker on guitar. We did it in Washington D.C. and sold 250,000 copies in Europe and behind the Iron Curtain. It was a little plastic record. Finally somebody brought it out on vinyl LP and Louis Armstrong is on that, too. Of course, Zutty and I played at Jimmy Ryan's together. But," he veers a tad, "I remember when we were all in high school, we'd go in to Condon's and the waiter would give us the very best table in the whole place, right next to the bandstand, and let us stay all night sipping on a coke. Eddie Condon would be there. Sometimes Pee Wee Russell or Cutty Cutshall and Peanuts Hucko, Bob Wilber, all those guys... but on my twenty-third birthday, I went there with my Dad and he asked Peanuts if I could sit in. So that was my first time playing at Condon's. Twenty years later I wound up being the house clarinet player!"
Condon's was always far more comfortable to visit than Jimmy Ryan's, a reflection that Gordon agrees with, "but you think of those places now and you wish there was something out here or anywhere like what they had," he suggests. "Think, for instance, about going in to hear Earl Hines with Pops Foster on bass," Gordon notes.
"Back in Chicago, at the old London House, which is gone now, I had a
six-piece band that did live broadcasts on Tuesday nights on WBBM [the CBS network] and I have some of the tapes of those sessions." The conversation -- turning to players of a distinct kind, who have that indefinable swing or gait that makes it all take off on a gig (drummers John Markham and the late Gene Estes are prime examples) - Gordon notes how remarkable is the playing of eighty-year old trumpeter Johnny Best. "His ability has always been way out there, way up high. He can read anything...
flypaper, for cryin' out loud. I mean he played with Artie Shaw, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, ALL the best bands. He was in the Navy Band and he knew all the same guys I knew. One of my first priorities when I moved out here was to look up Johnny. And, man, he got me a lot of nice gigs. I've always appreciated that. For instance, he got me work with Bob Crosby and the Bobcats. And, you know, Johnny is still playing even though he's sitting now in a wheelchair. He's
Asked what highlights of his own career stand out, Gordon replies with enthusiasm. "You might not believe this, but it's a true story... and I don't get a chance often to talk with musicians about this stuff. Some people might think I'm crazy. What has tickled me the most in my career was something that happened right after Buster Bailey died. Joe Glazer, who was the big booking man back then, came to me and asked me to play with Louie Armstrong. They had me come to New York to play with Pops. That was the biggest thing that ever happened to me. I joined his band and then he soon after had a heart attack. Glazer, of course, was part of the mob, but he made Louie Armstrong a million dollars.
"And, you know," he adds, "pretty soon now I'm going to make an album with Dave McKenna for Arbors Records. That's a highlight on the horizon. And any time I ever played with Max Kaminsky was a high point, too." Dave McKenna, it might be noted, is a pianist with one of the largest repertoires ever. The collaboration between Dave McKenna and Bobby Gordon will surely be a match created in an elevated space. Like his clarinet playing which, provocatively, sublimely, suffers the truth of its melodic carriage, Gordon's self-estimation is perfect with modest understatement. Listen to his own assessment. "The secret that I learned from Joe Marsala," he says, "is to play with [Marsala's] tone and play musical ideas like Bobby Hackett. If you play with a tone that combines Pee Wee Russell and Joe Marsala all mixed together and then play like Bobby Hackett... if you can capture that feeling right there, then you can do anything. You'll be happy for the rest of your life.
"That's what I try to do on all my recordings," he continues. "And its gratifying to get the press I'm getting now, which I did not get years ago. For instance, to find out that I came in second place on clarinet to Kenny Davern in the recent Jazzology jazz poll, with this long list of twenty-five other players behind... well, it's very gratifying to see that. Of course, no one makes any real money unless he has a hit record. But, critically, from a personal standpoint, this is all wonderful because me and my best musical buddies - like Dan Barrett and Hal Smith, Peter Ecklund, Scott Robinson, Greg Cohn - they all won or were right up there on top of the jazz polls this year. Someone called us 'destiny's tots' and it's true. We are all at the peak of our careers right now. Maybe, who knows, when we're gone we'll leave as much of an impression for the future as Cond-on and Bix and those guys did long ago."
The future is for others. For us here listening now, Gordon and his colleagues make an ornery breed of mad men. They are players with revelry, festivity, and love in their hearts and fingers. An objective observer will hear the deep beauty in Bobby Gordon's playing. One does not, of course, remain objective very long. Gordon seduces his listeners. His feel for the great songs owns its own privilege and welcomes itself, uninvited, to his hearer's heart. How could anyone resist the hidden lyrical tug of Pee Wee, Hackett and Marsala who, safe in the embrace of Bobby Gordon's music, roust about the soul's forgotten places.
(this interview first appeared in Jazz News