There are lots of events at Cincinnati’s downtown library these days that you wouldn’t expect to take place a library—and one of them is a listening party. (The series is called “Listen to This!”)
When I think of the phrase “listening party,” I think of all those great album covers from the 1950s and 1960s that show mom and dad sitting on the floor listening to records with their children (that or a cluster of of parent-free kids or teeny boppers enjoying the pleasure of spinning vinyl). Ah, the old days…and Listen to This! is helping to bring back that time-honored tradition. Every other Wednesday, from 7pm to 8:15pm, folks sit around and listen to music. They discuss the music a little but not too much.
For decades Jimmy McGary was the premier tenor saxophonist in Cincinnati. He passed away twenty years ago, but his music is still very much alive, and I’m happy to report that a new CD has been released that consists of a performance he recorded at the Hyatt back in the 1980s. (To purchase it, call Jimi’s son Sean McGary at 513. 708.2497.)
Recorded on August 29, 1986, Jimmy McGary: Live at the Sungarden Vol 1 consists of music McGary performed as part of the popular Jazz at the Hyatt series in the late 1980s. Any new release by the great tenor player would be welcome, but what adds something even more special to this release is the fact that Jimmy reunited with a drummer who, almost twenty years before the Sungarden gig, often played with Jimmy six nights a week, as a member of the Sound Museum.
And we’re not talking just any old drummer here. When the situations called for it, Grover Mooney was a highly colorful and melodic drummer, but when it came time to kick things up a notch, watch out. Grover was a member of the Sound Museum, which was the Jimmy McGary-led band that James Brown came to visit at New Dilly’s, after which many interesting things happened (you can read about that in the Cincinnati Magazine article I published this month). What all this means is that when they got together in 1986 the saxophonist and the drummer shared some common and very interesting history.
Grover was living in Boston at the time this CD was recorded, and he drove here with the pianist for the session, Pat Battstone, who also lived in Cinci before heading east. The bassist for the session was Ed Felson, currently one of the owners of the Blue Wisp, and someone whose discography includes his work on the Ran Blake Quartet masterpiece Short Life of Barbara Monk.
Technically bebop is about the most difficult music there is to play, but technique is only part of what makes a player memorable. Many of the best bop players had grittiness and a gutsiness to their playing, and those were qualities Jimmy McGary had in spades. Even people who weren’t typically drawn to jazz picked up on that, which helps explain why, during his long stint at Cory’s in the late 1980s, McGary played every weekend to a packed house full of fans who whooped it up so much you would have thought it was a blues concert. It wasn’t, but emotionally it had that same ability to hit you where you live even though by the end of his solos McGary could become very adventurous, including octave leaps with lots of honks and squeals, prompting my friend Greg Turner to elbow me and say, “There’s your boy David Murray.”
That same soulfulness that we heard at Cory’s also comes through on Live on the Sungarden. Sure, the Hyatt’s a fancy hotel, and there were probably some folks there that evening wearing fancy threads and drinking expensive cognac. It didn’t matter. When you listen to Jimmy play, you hear smoky nightclubs and you hear the street. The CD, which consists of standards by folks like Miles, Duke and Prez, strikes a nice balance between uptempo bop and ballads. The accompanying musicians are all top-notch, and that includes guest artists trumpeter Al Nori and pianist Ed Moss. Locally Jimmy was very, very popular when he was alive—unusually so for a jazz musician—and I encourage people to pass the word along on this one, as I’m sure the list of people who would love to have a copy is long. (Again, to purchase a copy, call Sean McGary at 513. 708.2497.)
Recently I’ve been emailing and chatting on the phone with the pianist for these sessions, Pat Battstone, who continues to play jazz in Boston. In part, I wanted to learn a little more about Grover Mooney, and I am going to be sharing some of Pat’s memories of Grover in future blog entries. Pat wrote some words on the Sungarden gig, and rather than encapsulate what he wrote, I’ll just turn the blog over to this very entertaining writer:
Spring 86- i’m sharing a 2nd floor of a duplex with Grover and his family. ( this is about the 5th time we are living in either the same or close quarters ). Im starting to play jazz after not playing for 8 yrs ( went to college, did the casting gig, studied classical pno ) .. I’ve started studying with Joanne Brackeen in NYC once every 3-4 weeks. The house situation allows us to play pretty much anytime either in his side or mine.( ive got 2 baby grands – a steinway on my side and a vose on his ) there is a family of junkies below me so they are laid back. upstairs, from me there is a low life, beer drinkin taxi driver who is dragging the scene.. I finally spook him out of the place ( an old wm s burroughs trick of putting on music that is very dissonant but can barely be heard. I think i used a Scriabin “mystic”chord and left it on a synth all day for weeks ) He leaves within a month. so there’s nooe upstairs. its like the old daze.. we have a session house!! and im getting my jazz chops back together. ( more on the sessions later )
Grover and I do some recording and it wasnt bad. I start hustlin gigs and send out tapes to cincy. I think Steve Schmidt and Phil DeGreg helped get me the contacts. The mgr at the Hyatt calls back and would like us in his lounge .. Grover and i are thinking of going to visit our mothers. So, we get dates at Hyatt and at CoCos.. Ed Felson has just moved from Boston to Cincy so he’ll be playing bass.
word is out and there is a buzz in cincy.. the Moon man Returns!! Nemo calls up and asks if there is anything he can do.. Sandy Suskind is also helping get a crowd going.. Moss is in the shadows but we all know he’ll appear and take over the piano ( we’re just not sure how ) .. McGary gets wind or this and goes to the Hyatt..
“Do you have any idea who is playing here next week?”
“Some piano player from boston and a drummer that came from here (duhh)”
“are you kidding me?? You dont have a fricken clue?? This man is a music school all in one person !! “
“Yea, no shit, and you are hiring me for that gig !!” — that was mcGarys way.. This gig’s for me ! that was it
McGary comes in when we are getting set up and tells us that he’ll be playing. “hope that is ok”.. shit !! im not the level of musician for this gig.. But mcGary had such a good nature, he made you do what you could.. and he never asked if you could play at a tempo, he just counted it off and you played it.
Moss makes his appearance near the end of the night and I give him the seat.. He, Grover and Jimmy had a long history of playing together so this was reunion time.
I brought a Teac reel2reel and a number of good ampex tapes. Night one the sound guy was very good and we got a lot of things recorded ( unfortunately, the tape ran out during moss’s solo ). Night 2 we played more adventurous but the sound guy was incompetant and didnt think much of turning the recorder on. so most of the tunes are missing beginnings and endings..
There is a lot of funny shit going on between songs. Jimmy used to tell stories or crack jokes between the tracks. I remember him doing a gig up here a few years later – at the end of the gig, the bass player says – when i get to be your age, I want to be like you !!
So Grover passes 5 years back and Shawn Marsh wonders if i have any tapes ( do you know Shawn?? Hes close friends with Cassandre Steep. He’s also grover’s 1/2 1/2 brother ) . He knows someone who can bake them.. ( whatever that means. ) Well that takes a while and i end up getting the tapes back without them being baked. Old Ampex tapes need to be put in a well regulated oven – so they are literally baked to get the glue and the particles set correctly, else you get a pile of brown dust at the bottom of your tape deck and that is the end of whatever was on it.
Theyve been sitting next to me for 4 yrs waiting to get baked. Last Aug.. Arthur Quitman bugged me about them. Felson didnt even remember doing the gig, but he said he’d kick in a few $$ if i were to try to do something. So, I found a baker, and he did good!! there’s no hiss between cuts.. I used audacity to get the edit points and went to my friend who did the mastering for the other CDs . that took 4 hrs and we had a CD’able copy. Artwork was next and got a good price, then it was off to diskmakers and the result is what’s in your hand.
Prolly the best we could have done wrt the sound and more than adequate grapics. ( Turns out graphics are what costs on a cd – it aint the music – its the printign costs . )
So.. there’s a long winded account of the odessey.. some good ole Jimmy mcGary stories. and a little production history.
My article in Cincinnati Magazine’s April issue covered lots of ground—decades, actually, but the connecting thread was a band that in 1968 started performing at a club in Mt Adams six nights a week and remained at that location for about a year. The name of that band was the Sound Museum, and it was led by saxophonist Jimmy McGary. After the Sound Museum crossed paths with James Brown, a spinoff of that group became Grodeck Whipperjenny, and that same band recorded an album that is credited to James Brown even though his contribution was minimal.
In the article I discuss three albums that were recorded by Cincinnati Musicians during that period. Although it wasn’t released until 1980, the Sound Museum’s jazz recording Two Tone Poems was recorded at Jewel Recording Studio in 1968. More rock-oriented, the eponymous Grodeck Whipperjenny is a 1970 release, and the funkier James Brown release Sho is Funky Down Herecame out in 1971. There’s a lot of overlap in personnel on these records, which is intriguing because the scope of the music is so broad. As David Matthews explains in the Cincinnati Magazine article, with Grodeck Whipperjenny he was (due to James Brown’s prompting) exploring what was for him a different style of music. So there was an element of naiveté—but when you combine that with brilliance, interesting things can happen.
I’ve spent a lot of time listening to those three records, and one of the things I came away with—and couldn’t fully explore in what was already a lengthy article—was the depth of talent in the city during that period. In the article I said a lot about the talents of Jimmy McGary and David Matthews, but I should say more about the other musicians. Other than David Matthews, there’s one musician who appears on all three albums. Guitarist Kenny Poole is the epitome of lyricism on Two Tone Poems, where he has a dry tone you’d associate with the jazz tradition that was his foundation. He sounds much dirtier on Grodeck Whipperjenny and Sho is Funky Down Here; here his playing ranges from straight-up in your face rock and funk to wide-open improv (as on “Evidence for Existence of Unconscious”). Many people in Cincinnati love Kenny’s playing but who aren’t aware of these recordings, and I hope that some of them will be able to enjoy the same sense of discovery that I experienced when I first listened to these albums. (I should mention here that Grodeck Whipperjenny and Sho Is Funky Down Here are both widely available. You can also hear them on youtube, and representative tracks from all three records appear at the bottom of Cincinnati Magazine’s link to my article.)
I first saw Kenny Poole one of the first times I went to the Blue Wisp (the old one in O’Bryonville), where he sat in the whole evening with Tal Farlow, one of the most important guitarists in the history of jazz. I caught Kenny a few times after that, but then there came a long period where he wasn’t playing the clubs as much (turns out private parties and corporate affairs were more lucrative and probably less of a hassle). Then one night Jim Hall performed at Xavier’s jazz guitar series, and Kenny was in attendance. At intermission I asked what he thought of the music. That question launched what turned out to be an amazing soliloquy. Kenny raved about Jim Hall in the most unbridled fashion. He listed Bartok and Stravinsky as influences, and he also threw in a bunch of other names that I can’t remember anymore. “He sounds like so many people,” Kenny said, “and none of them are guitarists!” I loved the Jim Hall concert, but on that evening I got as much pleasure from listening to a fellow guitarist gush about one of his heroes.
I got to see Kenny Poole one more time, this time by chance. Occasionally I would drop by Awakening Coffee House in Hyde Park to hear jazz, and one night Kenny Poole happened to be filling in for the regular guitarist. Kenny was a great bebop player—in fact, I remember a rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” that burned—but this evening he was more in more a bossa nova mode. Among the highlights that evening was a beautiful rendition of Bacharach’s “The Look of Love.” Kenny passed away not too longer after that, and I feel lucky to have a chance to at least have a glimpse of how his art was still evolving near the end of his career.
Kenny Poole was, like Jimmy McGary, a Cincinnati jazz musician who stayed here. He recorded at different points of his career, however, and word got out. In fact, the video that I posted here has almost 90,000 hits and long string of very positive comments. Way back in the day Kenny was performing with the likes of David Matthews, James Brown, Michael Moore, Grover Mooney and Jimmy Madison. For this solo performance decades later he was playing music that’s similar to what he performed at Awakenings the last time I saw him. As with Jim Hall at Xavier, this solo guitar music is characterized by warmth, subtlety and richness. The song, by the way, is “Brazil;” if you want to hear it sung, look up Antonio Carlos Jobim’s version on youtube.
A few days ago an article I wrote appeared in Cincinnati Magazine. The piece focused on a slice of Cincinnati musical history that wove together so many styles it would be impossible to say which genre was at the root of it all. It’s a story of a jazz group that ended up morphing into a psychedelic band for one album and a funk band for another; the jazz group also released, posthumously, a very experimental jazz album. All of these things took place in Cincinnati while James Brown was recording at King Records here, and the plot thickened as soon as he entered the picture.
As you might imagine, there’s a lot to the story. When I pitched it to Cincinnati Magazine I created what was quite possibly the longest query letter ever. I had never written for them before, and this was an out-of-the-blue pitch. There was some interest on their part, but there was no guarantee that it would be a good match.
I went ahead and wrote the article, all 5,500 words of it (the first draft, that is; eventually we trimmed it down to about 4,000). Shortly after I sent it an interesting twist of fate occurred for an article that very much hinges on the activities of James Brown: RJ Smith, author of the recently published JB bio The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, joined Cincinnati Magazine’s staff. Prior to that time RJ had never lived in Cincinnati, so that was a huge and quite welcome coincidence; he ended up providing invaluable assistance during the editing. Also, the magazine did a great job of designing and laying out the piece both in print and online.
As I stated near the end of the article, ultimately this is a story about friendship, and I made several as I delved into this slice of Cincinnati musical history. The people I talked to the most were David Matthews, Carmon DeLeone and RJ Smith. It’s also because of this article that I was able to meet Lou Lausche, Carol McGary, Sean McGary, Phyllis Boyce and many others. I also benefitted from chatting with someone I already knew, Shawn Marsh, who I nicknamed “Shawn Marsh of Sound Museum fame” (sometimes shortened to “Sound Museum fame” or “Sound Museum”) for reasons that—well, I’ll let him explain it to you.
I’m going to write a couple entries on the musical side of this subject, but that will make a lot more sense after you’ve read the article. Here’s a link to the Cincinnati Magazine article: