Review by Jim Merod
Jazz musicians sometimes refuse the limelight, preferring instead the shared energy of unheralded jam sessions on steady gigs. One of those is all-star clarinetist Bobby Gordon. The improbable loveliness of Bobby Gordon’s playing evolved from years of seeking out smokey bars and basement corners where jazz is played day and night. As a young man Gordon listened to clarinet veterans, Joe Marsala and Pee Wee Russell. Now Gordon is the veteran others look to.
In the late ’60s, while he was employed with Max Kaminsky at Jimmy Ryan’s club in New York, Gordon had a memorable conversation with jazz critic George Frazier. “He said to me that, in the future, Pee Wee Russell would be more well known than Benny Goodman.” Russell won a Down Beat jazz poll somewhere around 1968 and passed 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 at 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 an album, on Arbors Records, Pee Wee’s Song: The Music of Pee Wee Russell (ARCD 19130), on which Gordon explores fourteen Russell compositions. Dan Barrett on trombone, Johnny Varo on piano, the late Gene Estes on drums, and Marty Grosz on guitar accompany him. From the beginning (“Oh No!”) to the arresting final song (“I’d Climb the Highest Mountain”), Pee Wee’s Song reveals Gordon’s mature musical temper: gentle, teasing, sensitive, at moments reserved but, for the most, rousing. The album invokes an era in which personal feeling prevails over technologies of make-believe energy. The album swaggers a little, surging from song to song at an easy pace.
There is a genuine uplift in Gordon’s approach to Russell’s songbook and reverence for the musician and for the era his music memorializes. Given Russell’s unabashed compositional sentimentality, such reverence might plunge into a haze of nostalgia. Not here. The album celebrates the permanent value of musical festivity. The broad, big-hearted warmth of Pee Wee’s Song appears, more jaunty yet, in a second Arbors release by Gordon, again in the company of Gene Estes, a laid back time keeper full of good humor. The Bobby Gordon Quartet (ARCD 19112), featuring Adele Girard Marsala, happily explores fifteen standards, such as Indiana, As Long As I Live, and Basin Street Blues. The unique presence of harpist Adele Marsala adds an exquisite touch. Marsala’s harp lends an innocent accent that keeps you alert with delight and anticipation. Rarely will you hear a harp in a small jazz band. This one truly swings.
Such appealing albums provide a perfect measure of Gordon’s musical achievement. In 1970, he left steady work at Condon’s in midtown New York and moved to San Diego, where he still resides. For years, back and forth, he has played on both coasts. When steady work temporarily dried up out west, Gordon headed back to Condon’s, a ferment of musical energy with people like Bobby Hackett dropping by and Wild Bill Davison holding forth. Condon’s was one of those classic smoky jazz joints where you could tap your foot from early evening until wee hours. Unlike Jimmy Ryan’s, a few blocks away, Condon’s was not a tourist hang out. It collected a loyal fan base and, late at night, welcomed stellar visiting musicians to sit in.
“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, taking 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.”
Bobby Gordon’s steady gigs now allow him to hire those who suit his aesthetic inclination, adding energy to his low-keyed lyrical madness. An elusive quiet burn, the special tonal signature of Gordon’s clarinet, is attractive to musicians and listeners alike. It is infectious, an engaging tug that keeps those who love his way of handling the great American songbook coming back for more — for the “madness” of self-confident musicianship. Gordon names some of those he most enjoys as partners: trombonist Dan Barrett; cornetist Peter Ecklund; vocalist Rebecca Kilgore; drummer Ed Slauson; and clarinetist Charlie Romero, “who was the first clarinetist at Mickey Finn’s place, 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, compare notes, and swap ideas about our favorite players.”
One of them is clarinetist Buddy deFranco who, Gordon notes, “comes out of bebop but I really enjoy the way he plays even though I am much more of a traditional player, out of Dixieland. There’s something very special about Buddy. And, of course, there’s Pete Fountain, too. Charlie calls him ‘Mr. Lucky.’ He sure does great stuff, not with the kind of technique Buddy deFranco has, but real good playing. And there’s Bob Wilber, Peanuts Hucko, and Kenny Davern. Wilber studied with Sidney Bechet just like I studied with Joe Marsala.” Gordon adds a significant personal detail to that list. “Although I don’t play soprano sax very often, I guess some of [Bechet’s] tone sometimes gets into my clarinet playing.” That tonal similarity may account, in part, for Bobby Gordon’s gorgeous, special sound.
Godon remembers how he began to study the very difficult instrument that dictated the course of his musical life. “When I was 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. 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 ‘this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to play the clarinet!,’ I told my mother and father. “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 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 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 fields.”
Recalling 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, over 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. I did and he asked me soon after if I’d go out on the road with him. “We went to Toronto for about eight weeks. I was around twenty years old, making $160 a week, with Wettling on drums and Mugsy, the whole thing. I’m even in his book, you know. [Mugsy] knew it all ’cause he’d dealt with the Chicago crowd, if you get that [aka, the Mob], so 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.”
Listening to Gordon’s recollections, it is clear that he feels he learned from the best. “You know, playing with Wettling was a little like coming out to this coast (referring to California) 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 [then] since I guess I played with just about all those great players out of that era (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 on the stand with Mugsy. I really liked that!”
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. Louis Armstrong is on there, too. Of course, Zutty and I played at Jimmy Ryan’s together.”
Reaching further back, Gordon remembers that, “when we were all in high school, we’d go 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. That was my first time playing at Condon’s. Twenty years later I wound up being the house clarinet player.”
Condon’s was more comfortable than Jimmy Ryan’s, “but you think of those places now and you wish there was something anywhere like what they had,” he laments. “Think, for instance, about going to hear Earl Hines with Pops Foster on bass.” Music didn’t get much better than that and those rollicking old clubs were filled nightly with good cheer. Some players carry an indefinable swing or gait that makes music relax and take off simultaneously Drummers such as Cozy Cole, John Markham, Omar Clay, LeRoy Williams and others create a churning low boil on a bandstand that provokes the best from their partners. Gordon notes, for example, how remarkable he finds the playing of eighty-plus 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. He played with Artie Shaw, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, all the best bands. He was in the Navy Band and he knew the same guys I knew. One of my first priorities when I moved [west] was to look up Johnny. 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 amazing.” Highlights of Gordon’s career elicit his enthusiasm. “You might not believe this, but it’s a true story. I don’t get a chance often to talk with musicians about this stuff, so 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, 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 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 continues, “I’m going to make an album with Dave McKenna for Arbors Records. That’s a highlight on the horizon. Any time I ever played with Max Kaminsky was a high point, too.” Much like his low-keyed approach to his art, Gordon’s self-estimation is modest and understated. “The secret that I learned from Joe Marsala,” he says, “is to play with [a beautiful] tone and with musical ideas like Bobby Hackett’s. If you play with a tone that combines Pee Wee Russell and Joe Marsala mixed together and then play [melodically] like Bobby Hackett — if you can capture that feeling — then you can do anything. You’ll be happy for the rest of your life.”
Bobby Gordon seems fulfilled. “Its gratifying to get the press I’m getting now, which I did not get years ago. For instance, I came in second place on clarinet to Kenny Davern in a recent Jazzology 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 – we’ve all won or are right up there on top of the jazz polls. Someone called us ‘destiny’s tots’ and it’s true. We’re 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 Condon and Bix [Beiderbecke] and those guys did long ago.”
With thanks to Marge Hofacre’s Jazz News