BOB PORTER on BOOKS JOHNNY OTIS, CLARK TERRY and TIMME ROSENKRANTZ

Johnny Otis died earlier this year at the age of 90. He had been a part of the black music scene in Los Angeles from the mid-1940s until his retirement, about fifteen years ago. His earliest records were with an exceptional, Basie-style big band which featured Teddy Buckner, Henry Coker, Paul Quinichette and Jimmy Rushing. The band didn’t last that long but the recordings (which were all available on the French Classics label) are well worth seeking out. He played drums, piano, vibes and sang a little but he was better known as an exceptional organizer and bandleader.

Otis came to the fore in the early days of Rhythm & Blues and his biggest years were 1949-1951 when he was one of the top artists in the field. His touring Rhythm & Blues Caravan was a model for the R&B package shows of the 1950s. His Savoy singles produced eleven hits-some double-sided-including three number one R&B chart hits! He had another huge hit with “Willie And The Hand Jive” for Capitol in 1958.

Otis was also a song-writer, producer, DJ and label owner in a lengthy career that was nothing if not diverse. In addition, he worked for Congressman Mervyn Dymally and was an ordained preacher. With all this activity going on one might expect an encyclopedia-sized biography but Midnight At The Barrelhouse by George Lipsitz (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) weighs in at only two hundred thirty pages including index. There are nineteen photos which seems a bit skimpy considering the career of the subject.

Lipsitz is a professor of black studies and sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara and there will be too much of his theorizing for many readers. There is no discography and some key members of the Otis group are barely mentioned. At least two of his producers, including Ralph Bass, are not mentioned at all. As one view of black society in LA, 1940s-70s, this is pretty good but in terms of musical emphasis and what the book could have been, the professor gets a B-.

Biography is different than autobiography and while it is nice to get the word from the horse’s mouth, there are inherent problems in dealing with a man in his late eighties. I’m sad to report that Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry with Gwen Terry (University of California Press, 2011) comes up short in several regards. When recounting the personnel for a particular edition of the Basie band, Terry could remember only two of the five saxophonists. That information is a matter of public record. Why did someone not supply the details? Terry’s memory plays tricks with him on several occasions and results in some stories being run together. About a third of the book deals with his personal side, military experience and family relationships prior to his professional career. There is much to admire here. Terry’s memories of Duke Ellington are vivid and compelling. His baptism of fire came on November 11, 1951 when he joined the band, in St. Louis, for a concert at Kiel auditorium. There are four pages devoted to this single occasion and they are fascinating. Chapters tend to be short but focused.

The racist policies of television network big wheels come in for discussion and the role of the Urban League in helping him become the first black staff musician at NBC is well detailed. Clearly incidents such as this linger in his memory and the stories are told in detail. His memories of the Tonight Show years are lots of fun although some details get mangled in the telling. His complicated relationship with Quincy Jones seems a bit truncated and one wishes for more details of the European episode.

There are plenty of photos but there seems to be a casual attitude toward who gets identified and there are some bad gaffes such as Harry James being identified as an actor and Charlie Rouse miss-identified as Wardell Gray. There is what is listed as a discography but it is merely a list of sessions, in chronological order, with album titles and one issue number, not always the original. No personnel details or tune titles are provided and there are sessions missing. When this is good, it is very good indeed but Clark Terry is a Hall of Fame jazzman and one wishes he could have had the Hall of Fame autobiography he deserves. With a little extra effort, he would have.

Timme Rosenkrantz was a jazz fan of epic enthusiasm and someone who seemed to be a part of the New York scene for most of the era covered by Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron’s Memoir 1934-1969, adapted and edited by Fradley Hamilton Garner (Scarecrow Press, 2012). What Garner has done is to translate and edit the Rosenkrantz memoir originally published in his native Denmark in 1964. What brings the book up to 1969 was Timme’s remembrance of Coleman Hawkins which was originally published elsewhere.

A couple of very good things about this work: 32 photos, most coming from publicity sources but a few taken by Timme himself and the contribution of Donald Clarke, who in notes concluding most chapters corrects the memory and rights the facts. This is a very good idea and should be adopted by others in similar works. Timme liked his sauce and clearly wasn’t taking notes during these fabled evenings.

Outstanding is the inside view of the Savoy Ballroom and its people. There are other descriptions of legendary Harlem locations such as Pod’s and Jerry’s and the Renaissance Ballroom and 52d Street rooms such as the Onyx Club and Kelly’s Stable. You’ll meet some of the legendary “ticklers” of the stride piano scene. You’ll have a better understanding of characters such as Leo Watson, Slim Gaillard, Adrian Rollini and Mezz Mezzrow.

Timme was a colossal failure as a businessman. He tried opening a record shop in Harlem but it operated below street level and served more as a hangout for musicians. He promoted the legendary Town Hall Concert in 1945, well known through the Commodore Records issues, and details how the event was sabotaged by Symphony Sid.

There is a complete listing of the dozens of informal sessions recorded in Timme’s apartment from 1944-46, some of which appeared on 78s back in the day. There are also discussions of the official record dates that he was involved with such as the Barrelhouse Barons (Victor, 1938), which provided the debut of Don Byas, and the Bernard Addison All-Stars (77 Records, 1961) which gave us the last work of Pete Brown.

Major figures such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum are in and out of this work but Timme valued Ellington over all others. Bebop was not his cup of tea but he admired Bud Powell. Alas, the chapter on Powell is inexplicably taken up with thoughts of a Down Beat writer offered many years after both Bud and Timme were dead.

By all accounts, Timme Rosenkrantz loved jazz and treasured the friendships he made with its practitioners both well-known and unknown. That it comes through so well in this delightful read is a tribute to all involved. BTW, Scarecrow Press now has sixty-five entries in its catalog. Bravo!

Bob Porter