Monthly Archives: March 2008

JS33 Six string singer Jim Skinger

In the bio notes on his web page, guitarist Jim Skinger says, “It seems there was never a time when I wasn’t strumming a guitar, playing the piano or practicing the accordion, but it was the guitar that held the most fascination for me.”

Sixty years later, the guitar continues to captivate him and the music that he has both composed and performed on the instrument is heard around the world. Born in the Middlesex area on April 20, 1940, Skinger was adopted by a Worcester family and brought to town as a child of two years-old. He went to Ward Street Elementary School and Commerce High School before enrolling in Clark University. Skinger grew up around Millbury Street and, as mentioned, music was there from the beginning.

“When I was very young I used to spend a lot of my weekends up at my aunt Helen’s house,” he recalls. “She had a piano in her living room and I would sit there for hours and learned to play – right by ear, little tunes. Then I began accordion studies. I took lessons with Guido Forticcelli for a while. There was a fellow before him.”

Skinger gravitated to the guitar at the age of 9. He says practicing was never a problem. In fact, his parents would actually ask him to stop once in a while to do other things. “I taught myself how to play. I think I sent off for one of those home study courses. I could read and play. It was just a very natural thing. I began studies at Arthur Pruneau’s studios. They were in Worcester at the time.”

Speaking of his fascination he says, “It was an instrument that you could create all kinds of sounds on the strings. It didn’t have the visual thing like the piano or accordion where you could see all the keys. There was a mystery about it – how you put all those notes together on the strings.”

Being a teenager in the ’50s and a guitar player, rock n’ roll of course grabbed his ear. At the same time, Skinger says he listened to everything. “I was into old time music because I used to listen to a radio show out in Wheeling West Virginia, WWVA. There was an extraordinary deejay out there, Lee Moore, whom I got to know years later. He’s passed on now. He brought out all kinds of bluegrass and old time music. I loved all that music as well as early rock ‘n’ roll. We had a band and singing group growing up. We had a good time.”

His band was called the Melotones. “It sounds corny these days,” he says, “but we were a well known group in our high school years. We used to play for all the high schools and college fraternities and dances. There was a place in Westboro called the Red Barn on Rte. 9. We did a variety of things, Presley and a lot jazz. That was an era when there was still a lot of the American Standards in play. People would ask us to play ‘Misty’ or ‘Moonlight in Vermont‘ and jazz tunes.”

Skinger says he learned to play jazz by listening. One of his early favorite guitarists was Johnny Smith. “He was a huge influence on me. I was in 7th or 8th grade and I would run home from school and listen to his albums for hours. He was just extraordinary. I remember saying to myself, ‘Gee, if I go out and buy the sheet music maybe I can play just like that, only to realize there was something more going on. I began to realize there was another whole element to playing jazz. In those days it was really bebop.”

Skinger also mentions local guitarist Johnny Rines. “I knew his son who played drums with us. Johnny was a really nice guy and there was a piano player Bill Clemmer. I did some jobs with him. This is the way it worked in those days. There weren’t instruction books. He would say, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to do.’ And he would do all these wonderful things. He was very advanced for the time. These guys were way ahead of the curve. He would modulate and do different things with the chords and you’d say, ‘My god where is he going?’ There was no sheet music.

“Bill Clemmer was a tremendous player. His wife was Pat Goodwin, the jazz singer. They would play at this little coffeehouse that was downtown behind Front Street. It was started up by some very artsy people. It didn’t stay around long. They weren’t business people. Patty and Bill would go there and perform. I remember that very well. She was a great artist. I would say Johnny Rines and Bill Clemmer were tremendous influences.”

Back in the 1950s and into the ’60s, Worcester offered Skinger a showroom full of commercial work and mentoring was still a big part of the scene.

“There were people like Perry Conte,” he says. “I was still a kid. He would call me up and say would I come and play with this and that group. I have to tell you, that hardly exists anymore. That’s where you got your training. He would send you out with these guys with big reputations and you’d be scared as hell going to the job, wondering were you going to be able to handle it. They were all older and more experienced. That’s how you learned.

“It’s not like that today. A lot of the students I’m working with have to do a tremendous amount of preparation. They may not have the experience that we received but they have to really pass auditions. We started making money, right way, while we were kids still in high school. We were working constantly. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”

Some time after high school, Skinger headed to Berklee College of Music to further his jazz studies.

“I’ll never forget that interview,” he says, “I told the registrar the kinds of things that I was picking up out on the street. I just thought everybody thought this way and understood things like this. They really didn’t come to find out until later.”

Evidently, the promising young guitarist was much further along in his playing than the average incoming freshman at the time. Right then and there the school was willing to take him on as a student. They also offered him a position as an instructor.

“This pre-dates Bill Leavitt,” Skinger says. “This is when it was a single little brownstone. All the big names were there, Herb Pomeroy and people like that. They were just in the infancy.”

Though the offer was tempting, Skinger went to Clark University instead. It was a chance, he says, to study in a formal way. “By this time I was becoming more involved with classical guitar. The influence was pretty strong. At the time we were newly married. I was an older student. It was difficult to think of traveling around too far. I made the decision to stay in Worcester,” he says.

While at Clark, Skinger initiated a guitar program, which he directed for four years. At the same time, he continued classical guitar studies with such notable teachers as Walter Kaye-Bauer in Hartford, Sophocles Papas in Washington, DC and with Alexander Bellows in Manhattan.

Skinger was in the department with Relly Raffman. “He was another huge influence. We had to stay pretty much down the middle of the road as far as sticking strictly to a classical curriculum. Although, on the side we would often go and play jazz gigs together.”

Skinger also was one of those who got involved in the creation of the Worcester School for the Performing Arts, later known as Performing Arts School of Worcester (PASOW). He also taught privately. Carl Kamp was one of his students.

“He was my first classical guitar teacher. I couldn’t use a pick anymore. I had to grow my nails. It was a life changing experience,” Kamp says laughing. “I studied at his house. He had a lot of students. He lived on Germain Street. I’m still playing classical guitar. This was around 1968. I switched to classical when I got out of college. I knew him from the store. He was a customer too.
He’s a good man.”

Skinger left Worcester in the early ’70s. By this time he became heavily involved with things going on in Europe. His studies took him to Santiago de Compostella, Spain and to London where he studied with English composer John Duarte and the lutenist Diana Poulton.

“It just felt right for us to spend time there,” Skinger says of his family’s move to England. “It was a fascinating area that I wanted to pursue. I got the opportunity to study manuscripts at the British museum. So I spent a year there working with musicians in England.”

In the mid-’80s, Skinger turned to composing and arranging in both classical and jazz idioms. Several of his compositions have been published in the U.S. and the U.K. In 1990 he formed a jazz trio, which led to many successful performances throughout the New York area.

When asked about how jazz and classical music coexists in his world, Skinger says, “Here’s my spin on it. Today everything is on the table. Those kinds of restrictive stylistic pedagogical techniques are almost becoming a thing of the past. In certain conservatories I see a more conservative approach and in some of the more Eastern European programs, but having said that, if you see what has happened with the guitar in the last 20 years, you will find that there has been tremendous … the Latin American composers have done a phenomenal job of taking folk music from their country and indigenous music and incorporating jazz and European music and coming up with phenomenal music that has been extremely popular.

“Certainly the English have done this with composers like John Duarte and others who have used English folk songs as a basis for composing contemporary works for the guitar. He was one of the most prolific composers for guitar. (He was also a jazz guy. That’s why we got along so well.) It seems to me that the one area that was lacking was our own country, where there was a division between classical and jazz. People did breach it like Charlie Byrd. He was an artist who did both.

“Jazz has a language and a tradition that is approached differently from the classical position, but I always felt that if you could combine both in a way that wasn’t a pastiche of styles – which is where the corruption thing got in there – but actually if you can create a unifying wholeness to the composition, you have something. That’s pretty much where I am with my composing right now.”

1997 was a banner year for Skinger. He made his debut with the Chappaqua Chamber orchestra, performing Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. He also appeared in a solo concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London for the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Society of London.

In May 1999, Skinger was invited to perform in the Central Library of Moscow. The solo concert was sponsored by the Music Lover’s Club of Moscow. He also performed for the guitar classes at the A. Schnitke Music Institute and for the Primary School music classes for young musicians in Moscow.

In July 2000, Skinger performed in a series of performances throughout Italy celebrating Italian/Anglo Culture. The new millennium continues to offer Skinger new challenges and opportunities.

“It’s amazing how life can take different turns when you least expect it,” he says. “I met a fellow in Mexico who is a publisher. He is German, Norbert Dahms. He asked me to send him some compositions and I just got busy and never did. We met again the following year in Montreal. He said, ‘You were supposed to send me some music. So then I realized he was serious about taking on some of my music. So I sent him some scores and things. He’s published seven or eight compositions of mine.

“Then I was invited over to do some concerts in Germany. From there it led to some invitation to Austria where I’ve been going for the last three years to jury a competition and festival. Last year they premiered one of my compositions, which was written for, of all things, jazz quartet and classical guitar. That came out of the blue. I had spoken to the director who said, ‘I want you to write some music.’ He’s a great Venezuelan guitarist and I had assumed that he wanted something along the lines of solo or chamber music for classical guitar. He said no I want a jazz piece. So they brought in a jazz group from Vienna to perform. It was written for piano, percussion, bass, saxophone and classical guitar.”

Skinger has a new CD coming out in the coming months, his third. “There are two bonus tracks. One is a chamber piece for oboe, bass, flute and guitar. The other is the jazz piece that was premiered in Austria. This is the first that is all my one music. I thought well it’s time to fly,” he says.

Now residing in New York State, when not recording, arranging, composing, performing or traveling, Skinger still finds time to teach. He says he plays both nylon and steel string guitars.

“For some of my teaching I do the steel, but for myself, I prefer the nylon string, but I play all the guitars. I got them all. I’m still working locally. I do all kinds of things. When I have a jazz gig with my bass player, I play electric guitar on that.”

When asked if Worcester was a good place to grow and develop, Skinger says without hesitation, “Very definitely. There were players that took you under their wing.”

J32: Monk in our sphere

It’s been rumored for years among local jazz fans that the late-great jazz pianist flipped one of his many hats here in town. It was actually in Grafton. In 1964 TIME magazine under the headline: Thelonious Monk: “Pretty Butterfly,” reported that, “In Boston Thelonious Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation. He was quickly released without strings, and the experience persuaded him never to go out on the road alone again.”

Martin Williams further chronicled the incident in Esquire magazine. “In the spring of 1959, he was booked for a week at Boston’s Storyville. He had been up for some three days and nights without sleep. When he arrived, he came to the desk of the Copley Square Hotel, where Storyville is located, with a glass of liquor in his hand after flitting around the lobby rather disconcertingly, examining the walls.”

Storyville was a club inside of the Copley. It was first opened in 1950 by the famed impresario and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein. The hotel is still there on the corner of Exeter Street and Huntington Ave. Wein was forced to move the club out of the hotel for a time, only to return in 1953 with Charlie Parker featuring young trumpeter Herb Pomeroy playing its grand opening.

“The room sat just under 200 people, banquet style,” Wein recalled in his memoir, Myself Among Others. Adding, “There wasn’t a bad seat in the house.”

For 10 years – the club closed in 1960 — everybody who was anybody in jazz at the time, played Storyville, including the great Monk. Here’s how Wein describes him: “Webster’s Dictionary gives eight different definitions of the word ‘genius.’ The one that applies to Thelonious Monk reads, “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc., e.g. the genius of Mozart.’

“There’s no question that Thelonious fits this definition. I believe his schizophrenia kept him from realizing the full potential of his enormous creativity.”

A long feature on Monk appeared in the February 28, 1964 issue of TIME magazine. The piece was written by Barry Farrell and called “The Loneliest Monk.” In a section titled, “Pretty Butterfly,” he writes, “At the piano, Monk is clearly tending to business, but once he steps away from it, people begin to wonder. Aside from his hat and the incessant shuffle of his feet, he looks like a perfectly normal neurotic. “Solid!” and “All reet!” are about all he will say in the gravelly sigh that serves as his voice, but his friends attribute great spiritual strength to him. Aware of his power over people, Monk is enormously selfish in the use of it. Passive, poutish moods sweep over him as he shuffles about, looking away, a member of the race of strangers.

“Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations. Predictably, Monk is highly unpredictable. When gay, he is gentle and blithe to such a degree that he takes to dancing on the sidewalks, buying extravagant gifts for anyone who comes to mind, playing his heart out. One day last fall he swept into his brother’s apartment to dance before a full-length mirror so he could admire his collard-leaf boutonniere; he left without a word. “Hey!” he will call out. “Butterflies faster than birds? Must be, ’cause with all the birds on the scene up in my neighborhood, there’s this butterfly, and he flies any way he wanna. Yeah. Black and yellow butterfly. Pretty butterfly.” At such times, he seems a very happy man. “

The article was originally scheduled to appear in the November 1963 issue, but was bumped. It was the time of JFK’s assassination.

Farrell writes candidly about Monk’s demons. He continues: “At other times he appears merely mad. He has periods of acute disconnection in which he falls totally mute. He stays up for days on end, prowling around desperately in his rooms, troubling his friends, playing the piano as if jazz were a wearying curse. In Boston Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation …

“Much of the confusion about the state of Monk’s mind is simply the effect of Monkish humor. He has a great reputation in the jazz world as a master of the “put-on,” a mildly cruel art invented by hipsters as a means of toying with squares. Monk is proud of his skill. “When anybody says something that’s a drag,” he says, “I just say something that’s a bigger drag. Ain’t nobody can beat me at it either. I’ve had plenty of practice.” Lately, though, Monk has been more mannerly and conventional.

“He says he hates the ‘mad genius’ legend he has lived with for 20 years— though he’s beginning to wonder politely about the ‘genius’ part. “

By his own admission, Wein had little recollection of the musical comings and goings at Storyville in the late 1950s. Between his trips to Europe and increasing festival responsibilities, he was just too busy.

“But I remember well the Storyville debut of the Thelonious Monk quartet in the spring of 1959,” he says. “I had worked with Monk at Newport in 1955 and 1958, but had no personal relationship at this time. So I didn’t know what to make of it when Thelonious came to Boston in an agitated state.”

Though he doesn’t name the personnel, the quartet in ’59 was most likely saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore or drummer Frankie Dunlop. By the way, check out footage of Monk’s performance in the film, Jazz on a Summer’s Day.

Picking up the story at Storyville, Wein says, “I wasn’t there when he arrived at the Copley Square Hotel and was refused a room; he had alarmed the hotel staff by scrutinizing the lobby walls, with a glass of liquor in one hand.

“The first set that night was scheduled for 8 o’clock. Thelonious didn’t show up until 10. The fact that the audience stayed put for two solid hours without complaint amazed me. They had such love for the music of Monk that they were willing to sit patiently, even though it was entirely possible that their man might not even make the gig.”

Williams reports that after Monk was refused a room, he declined to take another at the Hotel Bostonian where his sidemen were staying. In his account of the 10 o’clock arrival, Williams states, “The room was nearly full of expectant but patient people. He played two numbers, and came off. At 11:30 p.m., he played the same two numbers, sat motionless at the piano for what seemed like half an hour. His bewildered sidemen had left the stand after about eight minutes.”

Here’s Wein’s account: “When Thelonious did arrive, he went straight to the bandstand, where his sidemen were waiting. He played two songs, then walked off – and wandered aimlessly around the room, picking imaginary flies off the walls. The audience watched him in silent bewilderment. I got him to return to the stage at 11:30, and he played the same two songs again. Then he sat at the piano without moving for some time. His bandmates eventually left the stand. I had no idea what to do. I had tried talking to Monk, with no response. After what seemed to be an eternity, Thelonious stood up from the piano, shuffled around for a few minutes, and left the club.”

Williams says Monk was obviously disturbed about the hotel situation. He finally registered at the Bostonian, but didn’t like the room and left. He then tried the Statler but was refused a room so he took a cab to the airport. “Planes, however, were no longer running, and he was picked up by a state trooper to whom he would not or could not communicate,” Williams says.

Monk finally revealed who he was, but it was too late. The trooper took him to Grafton State Hospital for observation.

Grafton State Hospital was first opened in 1901 as a farm colony of the Insane Hospital in Worcester. In 1912 it separated from Worcester to become its own entity. The patient population hit its peak in 1952 with 23,000 people. It closed in 1973. The Mental Health Commissioner Milton Greenblatt at the time said the decision to close the Grafton facility, which had more than 1,000 acres of land and 50 buildings, was due to the deteriorating condition of the physical plant. He also said that “our hospitals still have too many in-patients who could be out-patients if supporting services were available to them. Massachusetts cannot afford the human or financial costs of institutionalizing people who would be better off at home.”

These days the state-own land is the home of the Tufts University Veterinary School and a variety of social agencies. There are also more than 1,000 nameless graves sites on the property.

Wein says when Monk was picked up by police and taken to the hospital, he knew nothing of it, “however, when I called both his manager, Harry Colomby, and Nellie Monk [wife] the following morning to ask whether Monk had gone back to New York, they realized that his whereabouts where unknown and they grew frantic. Harry hired a private detective, who questioned Boston’s Finest (but not the state police).”

“He was lost there for a week,” Williams says. “No one knew what had happened to him. The local Boston police were checked, but no one thought of trying the state police. A letter the hospital claims it sent to Nellie Monk never arrived. By accident, an acquaintance in Boston heard mention of Monk’s whereabouts on a local TV show. Nellie rushed to Massachusetts and secured his released. There had been no grounds on which he could be held. ‘It was the combination,’ a friend later speculated, ‘of exhaustion after several days without sleep and the fact that he disconnected at first, and that he was away from New York and Nellie.”

In typical Monkian eccentricity, the composer turned the episode around and used it as a certification of his sanity. “I can’t be crazy,” he said with conviction, “’cause they had me in one of those places and they let me go.”

* Sections of this article first appeared in Worcester Magazine.

J31: Lament for Otis Ferguson

In his book, Changing the World: Clark University’s Pioneering People, 1887-2000, President Emeritus Richard P. Traina chose a remarkable list of important figures who had been affiliated with the school during that time. Among those to make the cut include such recognizable heroes as “Rocket Man” Robert Goddard and lesser knowns like the great writer of jazz and film criticism, Otis Ferguson.

In his biographical essay on Ferguson, Traina opens with an unattributed quote that reads: “Those who seriously appreciate film or jazz might sometimes wonder when those endeavors were first earnestly and critically treated as art forms.” Traina answers the supposition with: “Otis Cowan Ferguson was a pioneer with respect to those fields of popular culture, bringing to them uncommon and often ground-breaking insight and respect. Ferguson, during what was generally a transforming period of American history, put the world of criticism on a new level of artistic appreciation and intellectual engagement – and he did it, as he did most everything, on his own terms.”

His piece on Bix Beiderbecke alone warrants Ferguson such distinction. Though he didn’t have a chance to complete books in his lifetime, two have been published posthumously, In the Spirit of Jazz: The Otis Ferguson Reader (December Press) and The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson (Temple University). The bulk of the writings were collected from essays originally published in The New Republic. Like Bix, Ferguson lived hard and died young. Unlike his hero however, Ferguson was a victim of World War II and not the bottle (although he was known to have a taste for Four Roses).

Ferguson, who was born in Worcester to Mary (Cowan) Ferguson and M. Howard Ferguson on August 14, 1907, was a graduate of Clark University, class of 1933. He arrived at the school at the age of 22, after already collecting a lifetime of experience. He spent his childhood bouncing around with the family in their unsuccessful attempts at farming in Ware and West Boylston. Returning to the city as a teenager, young Otis started making his own way. At 15 he worked a score of odd jobs including a position as a pin boy in a local bowling alley.

At 17, Ferguson left South High School before graduation to enlist in the Navy, rising to the rank of first class seaman. Of the experience, he once wrote: “I saw some rather comic-opera action in China, was paid off in Newport at the age of 21 with a thousand dollars in the bank, and went back to high school.” As Traina reports, Ferguson arrived at Clark’s Main South campus with “working-class identification and an autonomous spirit that would mark the rest of his brief, but productive, life.”

In describing his years as a Jonas G. Clark Scholar, Traina called them “omens” of what was to transpire in his career. “Majoring in history and English and graduating from the University in three years, Ferguson devoted himself to writing – displaying talent in fiction, criticism, commentary, poetry and even as it unhappily turned out, someone else’s master thesis in history. He achieved some notoriety by reviewing for a Clark student publication James Joyce’s Ulysses – at a time when the book was still banned in the United States.”

While at Clark student, Ferguson also won a college essay writing contest that was sponsored by The New Republic. The piece was called, “Gaush!” He would later find his first bylines in the magazine (through the approval of Editor Malcolm Cowley) and soon hired by the publication where he eventually became its assistant editor.

Before leaving school, Ferguson was elected senior-class poet and won the Prentiss Hoyt Poetry Award. Cowley reports that the young writer’s name first appeared in The New Republic in 1930. It was a review of a George Gershwin concert in New York. While still at Clark, Ferguson wrote articles, play reviews, poetry and fiction for the Clark Quarterly, for which he wrote articles, play reviews, poetry and fiction. In 1933, Ferguson was the editor of Pasticcio, the college yearbook, where he indicated that his future plans were: “None.”

“Following graduation, in the depths of the Great Depression, the young working-class writer from what was essentially a working-class university, set out for New York,” Traina stated. “As a failing Fuller Brush salesman and very freelance writer, he began to see some of his book reviews published. Then came a defining moment, a first piece of film criticism published in The New Republic in January 1934. Ferguson could not have been more fortunate, for the editor of that highly regarded, style-setting periodical was Malcolm Cowley. Cowley, who was probably an acquaintance of every significant figure on the American cultural scene, was attracted to this off-center talent. The editor described Ferguson at the time as “a hungry young man with a lot of wavy black hair, dark eyes that slanted down and a straight uncompromising mouth that might have been telling the world to go to hell.”

The Otis Ferguson Reader, first published in 1997 was edited by Robert Wilson and Ferguson’s widow, Dorothy Chamberlain. In the biographical notes in the back of book, the editors also note that Ferguson joined the editorial staff of The New Republic in the summer of 1935 and in addition to reviewing books, theater and movies, wrote about jazz and contributed to more than a dozen other periodicals.

They also talk about how he died: “When this country entered World War II, Ferguson became a member of the National Maritime Union and registered as an able-bodied seaman. In February, 1942, he was assigned to the Exford, a merchant ship destined for the perilous run to North Russia. The Exford did not reach Archangel until September, and it was February, 1943, before it docked in its home port and the crew was paid off.

“Ferguson next signed on the S.S. Bushrod Washington, which was bound for North Africa, Sicily and Italy. On September 14, 1943, while the ship was anchored in the Gulf of Solerno waiting to unload its cargo, it was hit by a radio-guided bomb released from a German plane, and Ferguson was killed in the explosion.”

Crowley says, “The other seamen escaped before the vessel burned to the waterline, but the bomb had exploded in the messroom, to which Otis, as was his custom, had gone down alone for a cup of coffee.”

In the forward Crowley writes: “I find with regret that the work and even the name of Otis Ferguson are generally unknown to readers under 60. Older persons are likely to remember the work with pleasure. Much of it dealt with swing bands or unpretentious, well-crafted films and, by extension, with the revival of popular culture during the 1930s, an aspect of the period that is often neglected. [He] approached those subjects freshly, accurately, with lyrical enthusiasm and with contempt for anything faked. Everything he wrote was attentively read in its time, besides leaving echoes in the work of later critics.”

The book includes all of Ferguson’s writing on jazz including some unprinted material and unpublished pieces that were excerpted from two unfinished book manuscripts: Benny Goodman: Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing, which Crowley says was to be a critical evaluation of his work and a description of the band and how it functioned. The other book is To the Saint James Infirmary, a look at instrumentalists, bands and blues singers. Cowley reports that one-third was to be a long essay on Bix as well.

In a previously unpublished piece simply called “Teddy Wilson,” Ferguson writes: “A pianist. Black. He has played with all remnants of the old-timers, usually without a credit line. He is known to the public for his music, not his name. I hear a lot of music, high hat and low brow, but I can’t say that any of it will stand up, for the initial delight and subsequent lasting power, with the improvisations of Teddy Wilson. He has developed, quietly and probably without any realization of how it would look in words, a style. This gives him an individuality that makes him identifiable anywhere; but within the narrow limits of jazz playing, it pushes him into repetition of himself. (Just, you might say if you still have a fresh approach to the subject, as Bach developed, with all his architectural grasp of the medium, a style and as Bach could be identified anywhere.)”

Traina says, Ferguson’s predilection for jazz inspired him to write critical reviews of jazz performances with the same consuming interest – always aiming at both the audience and the musicians. Dorothy Dodds Baker, author of Young Man with a Horn, a novel and moving picture based on Bix Beiderbecke, wrote that Ferguson ‘built himself a medium there and developed it in those short pieces, so that he had a thing that was all his own, right length, the right beat to the phrase, everything perfect.’

“Whitney Balliet, writing in The New Yorker 40 years after Ferguson’s death did not exactly agree, saying that Ferguson ‘disguised literary pretensions behind slang and pseudo toughness, sometimes silly, sometimes mystical, sometimes melodramatic gargle.’ Yet according to Cowley, jazz musicians themselves, ‘unlettered men who had never before opened a journal of opinion and would never open one again after Otis died,’ were reading Ferguson’s pieces ‘with admiration.’ And as Ferguson himself wrote, ‘the best people in the world to learn about music from are actual musicians, who would not be caught dead in the type of talk [so often] used to describe the work.’ Cowley himself later resorted to the lyrical when writing about his then deceased assistant editor: ‘Sometimes I think that his ideal was to write as Bix Beiderbecke played the jazz cornet, with “always this miracle of constant on-the-spot invention, never faltering or repeating, every phrase as fresh and glistening as creation itself.’”

Cowley wrote: “In 1936 he began writing about the big swing bands that flourished at the time as they would never flourish again. ‘Breakfast Dance, in Harlem,’ describing a night at the Savoy Ballroom, was his first excursion into the field. It was followed in the same year by the famous ‘Young Man with a Horn,’ a lament for Bix Beiderbecke, and by ‘The Spirit of Jazz,’ about Benny Goodman’s band. All these were memorable ventures, and the novelist Dorothy Baker was right to say of them, while echoing his style, that Otis ‘built himself a medium there and developed it in those short pieces, so that he had a thing that was all his own, right length, the right beat to the phrase, everything perfect.’ Baker had written a widely praised novel, Young Man with a Horn, after borrowing both her subject and her title from Otis, with his permission.

In his review of the book, Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker, which was based on his writings on Bix, Ferguson writes: “Just behind the pages of this book there is the picture of that odd and endearing and forever cocky little figure, who followed the copy of all great artists working from the heart of their environment, in being as tall as heaven and as simple and good as pie. He is there for me, that is, and the music he represents behind him. So while I know this to be a good book for any man’s money, I cannot report on just how good it will be to those who, not having seen the beauty it talks of as it was passing, will merely read, digest, and file away some bit of its wide range of knowledge. I would sincerely like to have written such a book, if that’s anything.”

In the section of “Origins of Jazz: I,” Ferguson sets the table by riffing about some of the architects of jazz, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. He writes: “The boys didn’t have to ask what jazz was, any more than you’d have to ask about the wind in the trees – it’s just there. Being a natural folk art, as natural as singing, jazz made its own tradition without the need of conservatories, and though it suddenly swept the country in general during the war, just as jazz with real swing to it became a national craze as this-here-new-swing a couple of years back, it had been going on in certain places for quite a while, and before that had been partly present in other forms of music for generations.”

Ferguson opens “Origins of Jazz: II” with, “New Orleans had been crammed with musical talent all along, and now talent was getting even thicker. Among trumpet players alone,” he says, “you find such names as Oliver, Armstrong, [Freddie] Keppard, [Leon] Renee, [Wingy] Mannone, [Henry “Red”] Allen and [Buddy] Bolden. Then before you can say, clarinet marmalade, Ferguson takes up the matter of race, saying, “There may be a New Orleans supremacy in jazz playing. (You’ll find many to say so, but you’ll have a lot of uncomfortable explaining to do about the original and lasting influences of [Fletcher] Henderson and [Duke] Ellington if you try to argue the point.) And there may be a ‘definitely negroid’ pattern on everything that swings. (But when you try to prove it, not just say it, you run up against such top ratings in the field as a Jack Teagarden, Bix and Benny. And incidentally, Bix came from Davenport, not Chicago; Teagarden started in Texas, Louisiana.

In the piece titled, “The Man with the Blues in His Heart,” Ferguson states, “Jack Teagarden (otherwise, Jackson, Mister Jack, Mister T., Big Gate, etc.) is one of the really high men in the jazz collection. I’ll tell you more about it. At the outset it should be said that he has been playing around half of his lifetime in a business that sets the most grueling pace of any. On the stand, off the stand, on the train, and up on another stand night after night after night, rehearsals and recording dates, a different hotel and different babes but the same arrangements and iron routine. And the same bottle. Yet a man is supposed to bring it out clean and inspired every time his number is called, and it is a mortal truth that playing it that way in jazz means playing as though you had a fire under you. Teagarden has been on this griddle a long time. Though still a fine musician, he seems tired and cynical, his creation a bit shopworn – which knowing gentlemen have not hesitated to remark or less knowing gentlemen to echo, which in itself is enough to embitter a fellow and make him listless.”

Putting Ferguson’s legacy into perspective under the heading of “Music and Musicians,” in the Reader, Cowley aptly noted that the late Worcester author is legendary in the field of jazz. “He has been called ‘the best writer on jazz who ever lived’ and ‘the most brilliant of them all.’ One of the first critics to write seriously about this native American music, he brought an understanding and appreciation of jazz to an audience far wider than the original small group of aficionados. Professional jazz musicians (see Jess Stacy’s “Blues for Otis Ferguson“) have been among his most ardent admirers.”

J30: Local songwriters, part IV, Henry A. Sullivan

Last week I received an email from Frank Callahan, director of planning and giving at Worcester Academy. He informed me that he had run across a “write up” on Henry A. Sullivan, the author of “I May Be Wrong, But I Think You Are Wonderful,” a jazz standard recorded by Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Peggy Leeand Charlie Parker, among others.

“It is a jazz standard recorded by several big bands and is the theme song of the Apollo Theater,” Callahan says. He also noted that Sullivan was from Worcester and went on to Dartmouth, studied in England and later wrote shows in London and New York.

Sullivan was indeed born in Worcester on December 7, 1895. He grew up on the west side, but is also listed as residing at 150 Lincoln Street. According to Worcester Academy records, Sullivan attended the school as a senior from January 17 to June 17, 1917. He lived in Cedar Hall at 96 Vernon, but his home address was 728 Pleasant Street.

Ellie Smith, who works in the office of the vice president of alumni relations at Dartmouth College says their records show that “Henry Anthony Sullivan is considered to be a member of the Class of 1923 (although it appears that his degree was granted in 1924.)” A brief description on file at the school says he was a “composer of operas and songs” and that he died December 1, 1975.

Other notes on file at Worcester Academy indicate that Sullivan has written scores for several musical shows, many produced in London. One dispatch states: “January 1, 1935 premiere of Thumbs Up! (with Eddie Dowlin as star) in New York City, for which Sullivan wrote many tunes. Contributed song to John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, Hush, and one of the “Little Shows.”

“I May Be Wrong” came from the show Almanac. The music was written by Sullivan and its lyrics were penned by Harry Ruskin. The copyright is 1929 and was first published by the Almanac Theatrical Corporation. The original key is Eb Major and set a moderato tempo. After a two bar introduction the lyrics open with “When I play roulette, when I place a bet, I have been a loser all my life.”

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) reports that more than 50 artists have recorded the song over the years. In addition to the aforementioned, those on the roster include Howard Alden, Count Basie with the Mills Brothers, Dave Brubeck, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Doris Day, Harry “Sweet” Edison, Etta Jones, Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, Lee Konitz, Claude Thornhill and George Van Eps.

Almanac reopened at the Imperial Theater in New York in December of 1953 with a tremendous cast of Orson Bean, Harry Belafonte, Polly Bergen, Hermione Gingold and Tina Louise. The new book consisted of songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. After 229 performances the show closed in June 1954.

Although not known as a tunesmith, ASCAP lists Sullivan as the author of 25 other songs such as “Caught in the Rain,” written with Howard Dietz and “My Temptation,” which was recorded by Fred Astaire.

On May 15, 1939, under the heading of “Musical Son of WA,” an item ran in the Worcester Academy Bulletin stating: “Recent Dartmouth Alumni Magazine had a fine write-up on Henry A. Sullivan, W.A., ’17, which said in part: “After advanced study in Vienna, following graduation from Dartmouth, Henry landed back in New York and did odd bits from many musical shows.

“Mr. Joseph Kennedy [father of John, Robert and Teddy], present U.S. Ambassador to England, was at that time, head of Pathe; he signed Sulllivan to a Hollywood contract. Out there two years, then in ’29 did his first complete show, Almanac, produced in New York.

“In this show he scored his first real hit with ‘I May be Wrong, But I Think You’re Wonderful;’ bestseller for many years, and recently revived by leading orchestras. After several more hits, [he] was asked to write music for a show to be produced in London — such an immediate success that since then he has done nearly all his work on the other side.

“Of his numerous recent successes, [we] might mention ‘Home and Beauty,’ the Coronation Show of 1937. A ‘Nice Cup of Tea from that show was pronounced biggest musical hit in England since the era of war songs. [He] is now scheduled to do an operetta in Paris, and another review is waiting for him in London. Sullivan holds a high place in the English there and justly deserves all the fine tributes which have been paid him.”

In February of 1948, a small item on Sullivan ran in the Feature Parade section of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. The composer had recently returned to town and was visited by Telegram photographer Edward A. Cournoyer and reporter Donald F. Williams, who writes: “His score for ‘Auld Lang Syne,” a stage biography of Robert Burns, is tabbed by the experts as ‘sure hit material,’ although it isn’t scheduled for production until next fall or winter. At the moment, Mr. Sullivan is in Florida writing music for the 1948 Ringling Brothers circus.

“The Worcester composer seldom writes popular songs, devoting most of his attention to musical comedies, operettas and revues. He prefers to do his composing in the day, but if the mood is right, he will work far into the evening. During that time he will have smoked innumerable cigarettes, for the cigarette, at least while he is composing, is his constant companion.”

Another note in the Sullivan file at Worcester Academy reads: “(June 1951) Sailing for Paris to prepare music for an operetta to be staged in the fall, Never Apart, written by Princess Rospigliosi, music and lyrics by Sullivan.” (Also known as the “beautiful princess,” Rospigliosi was the former Mary Jennings Reid) The WA file also notes that in 1951 it was the fourth year that Sullivan had written music for the Ringling Brothers Circus. One notable tune from that collection is “Circus Ball.”

If you are keeping score this makes Worcester the birth place of an impressive list of American standards, including “Good Morning Heartache,” by Irene Higginbottom; “When Your Lover Has Gone,” by Einar Swan; “When You’re Smiling,” by Joe Goodwin; “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” by John Redmond; “Comes Love,” “Sweet and Lovely,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Miss You,” “It’s a Lonesome Old Town” (collectively) by the Tobias Brothers and “I May be Wrong,” by Sullivan.