Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp

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Jazz Travels with Bill Hoffman

Since this is a newspaper of national, indeed worldwide, circulation, I normally do not report on single-day events that readers who live beyond a several-hour drive are unlikely to attend unless they are already in the area for other reasons (which could include jazz gigs). I violated that rule in March with my account of the Chicken Fat Ball, and I’m doing so again now to review the Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp. Perhaps not coincidentally, both events are run by the New Jersey Jazz Society. This was the 48th annual Stomp, which began in 1970, the year after clarinetist Charles “Pee Wee” Russell died. In fact, the Stomp predates NJJS by two years. Previous Stomps had usually occurred on the first Sunday in March, and on a couple occasions were beset by snowstorms. Having been forced to skip one such year, I was glad to see the event moved to the end of the month, and I hope this date will be retained.

Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp
Ray Cerino, 97, takes a spin on the dance floor with Aurora Economic at the Pee Wee Russell Stomp on March 26, 2017, (John Herr photo)

I have attended nearly all of the past ten or so Stomps, and this one was probably the best. Each of the four bands on the card was led by a clarinetist (or two), all of whom are world-class performers in my estimation. The Midiri Brothers Quintet opened the afternoon’s one-hour sets. Leader Joe Midiri was joined by his twin brother Paul on drums, the very capable Danny Tobias on standard and E-flat cornet (and an enjoyable vocal on “Love Is Just Around the Corner”), Pat Mercuri on guitar, and Jack Hegyi on bass. Joe was at the top of his game, contributing some great extended solos. However, I found his Louis Armstrong-like vocal on the last number of the set, “Brothers Blues,” grating. It’s not that Joe doesn’t do a good Armstrong imitation, but there was only one Louis, and people who try to duplicate his unique voice shouldn’t. I should also mention that Joe and Paul are almost as entertaining with their sibling put-downs as they are with their instruments. They would do well in stand-up comedy.

Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp
The oldest and the youngest at the Stomp: Ray Cerino, 97, Aurora Economic, Dan Levinson, and Aven Levinson, 9 mo. (John Herr photo)

As if one set of twins wasn’t enough, the second band, also a quintet, was led by twins Peter and Will Anderson. I have admired these two young virtuosos since I first heard them when they were not long out of Juilliard. While their stage presence is not as, shall I say, dominating, as that of the Midiris, they complement each other well. Their troupe was rounded out by Adam Moezinia on guitar, Neal Miner on bass, and Phil Stewart on drums. I do not recall having seen Phil before, but he pulled his weight admirably. The Andersons’ bands—I’ve seen them as trios and quartets as well—tend to emphasize relaxed tempos with extended, sometimes haunting, solos. They usually feature ballads over barnburners, and this set was no exception. It provided a nice counterpoint to the hotter tunes the Midiris featured (and for which they were more appropriately staffed).

During the mid-afternoon intermission, the NJJS Distinguished Musician Award was presented in absentia to trumpeter and educator Jon Faddis, and the Jazz Advocate award went to John Schreiber. The latter was president of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and has produced jazz productions at top venues.

Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp
Always a delight: Molly Ryan sings and swings with Dan Levinson’s Russell of Spring Band at the Pee Wee Stomp. (photo by John Herr)

Following the break, Dan Levinson’s “Russell of Spring” Band took the stage. Leave it to Dan to come up with creative or pun-like names for his bands. Joining him were Randy Reinhart on cornet, Harvey Tibbs on trombone, Mark Shane on piano, Brian Nalepka on bass, Kevin Dorn on drums, and Molly Ryan on guitar and vocals. To these ears, Molly has no equal as a songstress. She sang on five of the set’s eleven tunes, with Dan joining her on two: “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “For My Baby” (a 50s revival originally written as “Listen to the Mockingbird”). Brian, one-third of the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, is no slouch on vocals, either, and he did “California, Here I Come.” This band was tight throughout the set—no surprise, since they’ve all been playing this repertoire for years, often together under Dan’s leadership.

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The clarinet-enhanced Stomp came to an end, quite dramatically, with Professor (Adrian) Cunningham and His Old School. The good professor enlightened the audience with clarinetist jokes between most numbers. I won’t repeat them, though none were unfit for a family publication; perhaps he’ll publish them in a book after he’s accumulated (or created) enough. But there was no joking about the music—this band rocked. There was Jon Challoner on trumpet; Randy Reinhart on his second set of the day, but on trombone this time; John Merrill on guitar (John is the emcee at Mezzrow, the Greenwich Village jazz club); Oscar Perez on piano; Daniel Foose on bass; and Paul Wells on drums. Solos by Adrian and Jon were highlights of the set. A shout-out to Rachel Domber of Arbors Records for sponsoring the band.

The New Jersey Jazz Society sometimes leans toward more modern jazz at its monthly socials at Shanghai Jazz in Madison and at other events to which it lends its name. But the Pee Wee Stomp and the Chicken Fat Ball are strictly trad and always feature high-caliber talent, and not just from nearby New York City.

The Stomp is held at Birchwood Manor, an upscale event venue and catering hall in Whippany, near Morristown and convenient to I-80 and I-287. The 11,000-square-foot chandeliered Grand Ballroom has ample space for 10-person round tables surrounding the dance floor, along with tables in the back where CDs and other music-related items are sold. The adjacent lobby was set up to serve food prepared on the premises. This kept the usual commotion at the buffet from interfering with the music. The dance floor was heavily populated all afternoon by patrons and by swing dance aficionados who probably came more for the dancing than for the music. This location is perfect for the Stomp. Put it on your calendar for next year.

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Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.


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