Saturday, February 26, 2011

Registering for World War I

At the rather ripe age of 41, at least in military terms, my great grandfather, John Bowie, registered for the World War I draft. By 1918, the US government required men between the ages of 18 to 45 to register, so he wasn’t quite at the top of the age pool.

In browsing these records, I also came across the records for Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Only Armstrong described himself as a musician at the time. Ellington was a government messenger in Washington, DC, while Ferdinand Joseph Morton gave his occupation as actor. According to Morton biographies, in his early years he travelled the country as part of a vaudeville troop.

On this form, he gave his date of birth as September 13, 1884. As far as I can tell, this date hasn’t been reported anywhere else. I’ve seen dates of September 20, 1885 and October 20, 1890. His tombstone has 1890 for the year of his birth. (He died here in Los Angeles in 1941.) Morton was also known to stretch the truth quite a bit. Some of these dates may have been due to vanity or in support of his claim of inventing jazz in 1902. Or course, it may have been simpler than that – in the days of home births and non-recorded births, he might not have known when he was born!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A few minutes of Soprano Saxophone

The soprano sax is a very difficult instrument to control. In the wrong hands, it can make for a painful listening experience. Fortunately, there are some great masters.

National Public Radio recently did a feature entitled on the instrument entitled Soprano Sax: The Story of a Skinny Horn. They mentioned the main practitioners of the instrument, Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane. But the soprano sax was not unrepresented in the swing era, the time between the heydays of Bechet and Coltrane. I’d like to add Johnny Hodges and Charlie Barnet.

Johnny Hodges was a Bechet protege . He can be seen playing soprano sax in this clip from “Check and Double Check”, a truly horrible Amos and Andy movie. In 1940, Hodges decided he should be paid extra to double on soprano. Ellington refused and Hodges abandoned the instrument.

Charlie Barnet was a big band leader who had a few big hits in the Swing Era, but is unfairly neglected these days.

A man walks down the beach and finds a bottle on the shore. He picks it up and rubs it. A Genie appears and grants him one wish. Since the man is a humanitarian, he asks the Genie to solve the conflicts in the Middle East. The Genie asks for a map and studies it for a while. The Genie apologizes and says that he can’t grant the wish because the problems are too complicated and started even before he was put in the bottle….

So, the man is granted another wish. Well, since the man is a musician as well as a humanitarian, he asks for a soprano sax that plays in tune. The Genie pauses for a minute and asks….”Uh, can I see that map again???”

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Jazz Stamp

A few months ago, I suggested it was time for some more postage stamps honoring jazz artists. That hasn’t come to pass yet, but next month will see a stamp that honors the art form itself. Please go out and buy them & use them. The powers that be love to use sales figures as a reason to do (or not do) projects. Since this is a ‘forever’ stamp, you can hoard them and still use one for first class postage ten, twenty, a hundred years from now!

Appropriately, it will be launched in New Orleans in March. This great looking piece of art was designed by Paul Rogers; you can get the story behind the stamp at his website.