By Claire Walla
One night in the 1980s, Lorraine Gordon asked her friend Bob Greene to play piano as a warm-up act at her club in Greenwich Village: the Village Vanguard. Greene had made a name for himself in the jazz world decades earlier as the preeminent authority on the great New Orleans keys player Jelly Roll Morton.
But Green’s job at the club lasted only one night.
“I was at the piano, playing Jelly just as well as I could,” Greene recalled, “And a guy comes in, puts his horn case on top of the piano, takes off his coat and throws it over the piano — while I’m playing — and says, ‘Are you the piano tuner?’”
Greene laughed. Today he says he doesn’t remember who the main act was that night because he left before the set even began.
“That was my revenge!” he quipped. “I’m just amused. For him, that music was so primitive.”
But for Greene, it’s a passion, and this weekend, he performs the music of Jelly Roll Morton and other greats in “A Trip Back in Time,” a jazz concert at the Unitarian Universalist meetinghouse in Bridgehampton. Greene will also play classic tunes from Chicago and other jazz scenes of the ‘20s and ‘30s, peppered with a bit of history. Joining him to make a trio will be John Bucher on coronet and banjoist Bob Barta.
Though he loves the sounds of New Orleans, Greene grew up in New York where, as a teenager in the 1930s, he first heard jazz on the radio by way of Benny Goodman and his big band sound.
Greene taught himself to play his favorite tunes by slowly sounding out each melody on the piano. It wasn’t until the ‘40s when, on the advice of clarinetist Bob Wilber, Greene started listening to the music of a largely forgotten pianist named Jelly Roll Morton.
“I had no idea what Jelly was doing, but it was an orchestral style,” Greene said. “In his right hand he’d have the trumpet and the clarinet, and in his left hand the octave would be passing notes to the trombone. It was a full, rich sound.”
It was a sound that Greene perfected and the ‘70s and the early ‘80s, Greene traveled the globe with “The World of Jelly Roll Morton,” his band devoted to the music and history of the musician and the New Orleans sound.
Greene never planned to be a professional musician, but it was his love for jazz that brought him success. He was working as a writer for Edward R. Murrow at the Voice of America in 1969 when he went to the New Orleans Jazz Festival and convinced its organizer to let him play a few Morton songs while the crew was changing sets. Morton had died in 1941, and even though he had lived just a few blocks from the venue, Greene said he was largely unknown at that point.
“People knew his songs, but the man had vanished,” he explained.
So, Greene told the audience a bit about Jelly Roll Morton and played a few songs before launching into “Tiger Rag,” a song named for the way Jelly used his elbow to play the keys, making a sound like a roar.
“You know, New Orleans people, when they hear music with a swing, they second-line. On the street they march behind the band; in this auditorium, the whole place was clapping,” Greene grinned. “Jelly was back in New Orleans.”
On Sunday, January 16, Greene will offer songs by Morton and other New Orleans greats like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Bunk Johnson with stories of their lives. He’ll also touch on the Chicago sound and musicians like Eddie Condon, Jess Stacy, George Wettling and (his favorite) Bix Beiderbeck. “A Trip Back in Time” begins at 2:30 p.m. at the Unitarian meetinghouse, 977 Bridgehampton Turnpike, Bridgehampton. Tickets are $20 ($10 for children). For details, call 537-0132.
Picking up where Greene leaves off, South African sax player and clarinetist Morris Goldberg joins the winter Jam Session at the Bay Street Theatre on Thursday, January 20.
Like Greene, Goldberg’s love for jazz developed early when he first heard Benny Goodman and jazz greats like Count Basie and Dave Brubeck. But it wasn’t until Goldberg, a native of Cape Town, South Africa, heard the free-form style of Charlie Parker that he really found his niche.
“I liked the way [Parker] was treating the harmonies. He was extending the chords so there were more notes to play on,” Goldberg said. “He was changing the whole concept from swing to bebop.”
“I liked the freedom of it.”
So in 1960, with his Parker albums in tow, Goldberg headed to Europe and then New York where he enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) and found himself taking notes alongside fellow South Africans, jazz giant Hugh Masekala, and Herbie Hancock. Once in New York, Goldberg’s style strayed even further from the jazz stylings of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
“The first musician I heard live was John Coltrane at the Half-Note on Spring Street in the Village,” he said. “I sat there in shock for six hours — then I went the next night for another six hours.”
“It was a whole different experience.”
Looking to expand the scope of what he was doing, Goldberg started incorporating South African jazz, or kwela, into his music.
“The walking rhythm is the mainstay of American jazz,” Goldberg explained. “But in South Africa, it’s a different rhythm, it’s what they call mbqanga. I like to call it ‘safrojazz.’”
“You’re feeling the music like your heartbeat,” explains Golberg who says these rhythms found an audience here with the success of Masekala on the West Coast and Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album (he’s performed with both artists and that’s him playing the penny whistle on “You Can Call Me Al.”)
A part-time East Hampton resident, Goldberg has played with the Jam Session before, and he’s “quite surprised and impressed” with the abundance of jazz in this little village. Just last week, for instance, he noted live shows at Bay Street Theatre, LT Burger, Blue Sky and The American Hotel.
“Sag Harbor is like the 52nd Street of the East End,” he joked, making reference to swing’s heyday, when jazz clubs abounded Manhattan.
Catch the free Jam Session Thursdays at the Bay Street Theatre from 7 to 9 p.m. through the winter months. Tonight, January 13, 2011 the group will be joined by trumpeter Randy Brecker, who played with the Earth, Wind and Fire, and later the Brecker Brothers.
Top: Bob Greene at the piano.