Let me confess: I am mentally unequipped to adjust to the real possibility of joy. Before taking on my new life as publisher of this journal of hot jazz and levity, every dread that I cherished promised fulfillment in its due course. The other shoe (a muddy hobnail boot) must drop directly on my head. I developed a characteristic stance of bracing myself for the shock—which, when it occurred, was no shock at all. It was practically a relief.
My expectation was always to be disappointed, to be embarrassed, and to fail in whatever I attempted. In that expectation, I was seldom disappointed. I am so accustomed to being embarrassed that it doesn’t even register on the Chagrin Scale anymore. I eat mortification for breakfast! (The fiber content is incredibly high.) My philosophical embrace of the inevitability of the Worst Case Scenario began to pass for happiness in a dim light. You can’t spell “chagrin” without “grin!”
This reality held sway before The Syncopated Times was a gleam in my astigmatic eye. Would it be hubris if I now permit myself a broad smile? I suspect the banana peel is still there, and that my foot will find it before I plummet headlong into the abyss. I am so unused to the emotions that I experience today that I feel certain pain must ensue. But the other shoe is—gone.
I am well aware that there is a world of hurt and anger layered in the strata far below the surface. I’m not mining for it. There is no longer time in my life for such a geological survey (that some would call “nostalgia”). I know exactly what Memory Lane is paved with, and I’ll take an alternate route if you please.
“Happy” is such a simple (if not simple-minded) word—but I don’t believe I have ever been this happy before in my life. (Am I tempting Fate by saying this?) As I write this column, I’m basking in the remembered delight of an evening in early March when my wife Sue and I attended a concert at the Bickford Theatre in Morristown, New Jersey. The occasion was the celebration of Bix Beiderbecke’s birthday anniversary, and the leader for the date was our friend, the incomparable reedman Dan Levinson.
What made this concert so remarkable was that in addition to such excellent musicians as pianist Dalton Ridenhour, bassist Rob Adkins, and drummer Jay Lepley (filling in at the last minute for Chicago percussionist Steve “Spoons” Torrico), we were privileged to hear the two premier young interpreters of Bix’s music, Mike Davis (of his own New Wonders) and Andy Schumm (of the remarkable Fat Babies), playing together on the same stage, cornets blazing.
Dan seized the opportunity of having duplicate Beiderbeckes to arrange historical Bix solos in three-part harmony—for the two cornets played by Mike and Andy and the C melody sax, played by himself. From the first note of “At the Jazz Band Ball” to the last note of “San,” the result was thrilling. Bix would have been beside himself with joy at such a tribute—as it seemed he was indeed on the stage.
Of course, the music was not just a glorious retracing of the golden ruts Bix carved in wax. Andy Schumm is supremely adept at improvising in Bixian style, and he does so with serene authority. Mike Davis likewise contributed his superb Bix variations. But further awe was in store as Andy crouched over his antique bass saxophone and played with virtuosic fluency in the style of Adrian Rollini. He handily surpassed Min Leibrook, the bass saxophonist on the later “Gang” sides. If he had left his cornet home, you’d think it was his main instrument.
Mike Davis also delighted on his trombone and charmed with his melodious singing. Mike vocalizes with such clear sincerity (and flawless intonation) on “Lila” and “I’d Rather Cry Over You” that you almost wish he’d been available to record an alternate take or two in 1928. (I say “almost” because you’d miss the pleasure of hearing him now.)
The other musicians on the gig added their share of gladness to the proceedings. Dalton Ridenhour provided a moving interpretation of Bix’s piano piece, “Flashes.” Rob Adkins, playing arco style on his bass, and traps expert Jay Lepley kept the rhythm hot. Dan Levinson, as always, reigned on his sax and clarinet. A final surprise was when Andy Schumm was inveigled (by Dan) to pick up his clarinet for a chorus on “San.” Bix and Rollini had to step aside as Andy deftly channeled Jimmie Noone.
I will risk being happy. Publishing The Syncopated Times fills me with a particular (if unfamiliar) joy because, in addition to keeping me too busy to quarry my ancient grievances and disappointments, it provides me the unparalleled chance to spread the wonderful news about the magnificence of the young musicians I hear playing the music I love, far into the future.