Over the Transom

Jazz Some Friends Asked Me to Tell You About

The first time I met John Hammond he regaled me by playing reel-to-reel tapes of unissued Artie Shaw and Joe Turner. This was back in 1969, and much of his desk, the top of the radiator, and just about every other flat surface in his office were stacked with white reel-to-reel boxes. Did they all contain such gems? Oh, God, no, he explained with a shudder; they were mostly over-the-transom or under-the-table offerings from unknown musicians and managers hoping to grab the attention of American music's most fabled talent scout. He claimed he listened to them all and he probably did (Springsteen and Stevie Ray were in his future), but he seemed perfectly content if not transported as Joe Turner rumbled through "Roll Em, Pete" for the millionth rip-roaring time.

I am reminded of those stacks whenever someone slips me, as though it were contraband, a homegrown cassette or CD. A certain amount of mutual embarrassment invariably colors the transaction, which is instigated with a remark like "I'm sure you get these all the time, but . . . " or "Do you mind if . . . " or the increasingly popular "A friend asked me to . . . " Critics are not talent scouts, nor do they wish to be; we come later in the process, evaluating professionals, not amateurs looking for help or a kind word. I never know what to do with these gifts, though my silent response is usually, "Damn, now I've got to carry this around all night," because I am too cowardly to throw it out. An angel sits on my right shoulder, warning, "It could be the next Bird," while the devil on my left mocks, "Don't be a chump." The devil's been around.

The hypocrisy is palpable. After all, one is delighted to discover talent attending a concert or auditioning a record on the smallest of vanity labels or even encountering an artist on a street corner. Maybe it's the difference between asking someone out and being asked out: an outmoded male thing. Yet the material inconvenience is also real. One will blithely attend 20 concerts in search of the next Bird; but a stack of 20 cassettes and discs by guys with day jobs is onerous. Cassettes, of course, can be erased—waste not, want not. CDs are hairier. Someone actually went through the trouble not only to set up a microphone, but to hire a liner note writer—and an art director to make the liner notes unreadable, just like the pros. So I do give them a once-over; occasionally, I am rewarded, never more than on a recent book tour that focused on the Northwest.

Arnie Carruthers, after 40 Years in Spokane
Photo Courtesy of Arnie Carruthers
Arnie Carruthers, after 40 Years in Spokane

In Spokane, someone handed me, on behalf of "a friend," I'm Still Swingin' by Arnie Carruthers, a 1999 disc on MNOP—a label, I subsequently learned, that no longer exists. I looked at the picture of the older fellow on the jacket, noted the tunes ("Satin Doll," "Body and Soul"), and gloomily said, "Thank you." By now, I was toting several discs from city to city, but the hotel clock radios played CDs and I began spinning them, thinking I could leave a few to keep company with the Gideons. Carruthers, a pianist, begins his disc with "Dearly Beloved." Right off I was struck by his trio's zest, a sparkling arpeggio leading into the second part of the tune, passing chords, and a rhythmic acuity that had him lean one way and then another without faltering. His technique is full-bodied, alternating block chords and steely 16th-note passages; he renovates a familiar theme like "Lush Life" with a thumbed bassline and romps with Peterson-Newborn dispatch. I listened to the album half a dozen times.

Then I looked at the liner notes and discovered the guy has one arm. His left side has been paralyzed since a stroke in 1974. I didn't want to make too much of this, because the music is not gimmicky, and besides, I figured he overdubbed some of the basslines and chords, though I needed to make sure. Unable to find listings for the label, producer, or his usual jazz club venue (also defunct as of last year), I located him through a booker for Montana's Glacier Jazz Stampede and got an emphatic "no" to the dubbing question. That might incline anyone toward a close listening for the wrong reason: not what he does, but how he does it.

As best I can tell, he's developed a variety of voicings and tremendous speed in his right hand, allowing him a mobility that gives the illusion of a broad-range attack and makes possible his engaging interaction between single notes and chords, which would be no less engaging if accomplished with two hands. Consider the lovely substitute chords on "S'Wonderful." He uses the pedals to keep tones in one register ringing while his hand shoots off to another octave. How he pilots the concurrent basslines or the rolling entrance into his solo on "Satin Doll" is something I would like to see, but probably won't.

During our brief phone conversation, Carruthers said, "I feel like after 40 years in Spokane I finally have a connection with the outside world." Actually, he is well known to musicians in the Northwest, and those from the outside world who have used him when passing through include Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Venuti, and Barney Kessel. Spokane did produce Jimmy Rowles, Don Sickler, and a couple of singers. But Carruthers is nearing 70, and I don't see any impresario bringing him east in the near future. He is, however, sitting on the last hundred copies of the 1000 CDs pressed in 1999, and you can buy one by writing him at 10321 East Maine, #105, Spokane, WA 99206.

Next Page »