Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Jazz Humor - The Zoot Finster Series by George Crater

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Jazz musicians love to laugh.

As bassist Bill Crow explains in the following excerpts from the Preface to his superb book Jazz Anecdotes:

“Jazz musicians are bound together by a rich and colorful history that lives in the music itself, remembered, recorded, created and re-created. In addition, we have stories about ourselves, stretching back to the beginnings of the music, that are told and retold; legends and laughter that remind us of who we are and where we are from.

Most jazz musicians are good laughers. If you want to play jazz for a living you either learn to laugh or you cry a lot. We don't laugh all the time; we have our low moments just like the rest of the world. But the pleasure of getting together to play the music we love seems to bring out our good humor….

The anecdotes we tell about each other seem to be the ones we like the best. They remind us of our individuality and our human nature. There is a wonderful variety of subjects: bandstand stories, road stories, jam-session stories, bandleader stories, tales about innocence and venality, serendipity and catastrophe.”

Jazz humor was such an important aspect of the music that for many years, Down Beat published George Crater’s humorous Out of My Head essays as a regular feature of the magazine.

Two of the most popular columns that George developed had to do with the legendary  -hep cat Zoot Finster.

I thought I’d share them with you in this feature.

George Crater Reviews Finster Jazz Landmark

Zoot Finster ••••••••••••••••••••••••
AT    SUN    VALLEY—Hipsville    3128:    Slolem
Soul; Ski for Two; Snow Use; Rudy's Sun Valley;
Frostbite   Bossa   Nova;   Frigid   Midget;    Original
No  Slope  Blues;   That   Cold  Gang  of Mine;   I'm
in the Mood for Gloves.

Personnel:    Finster,     tenor    saxophone;     Miles
Cosnat,    trumpet;     Gimp    Lymphly,    gorkaphone;
Humphrey    Nurturewurst,    trombone;    Milt    Orp,
marimba;    Strimp    Grech,    cello;    Rudell    Benge,
guitar;    Sticks   Berklee,   drums.
Rating: *   *   *   * 2/3

At Sun Valley unveils the new Zoot Finster Octet. If this album is any indication, this is a group that will go down in jazz history as the most significant jazz advance since Gunther Schuller gave Ornette Coleman a white plastic tuxedo. It is an unmitigated gas!

The entire group was in solid form, but there were several surprises. Orp, for example, lost his monogramed mallets (presented to him personally by J. Arthur Rank) en route to the set and was forced to borrow a pair of Berklee's brushes. Orp's comping on Midget (Benge's Gospel-ish melody) and Use (an up-tempo blues by Grech) was so frenetic that immediately after the set, he received an offer to pose in three Avedis Zildjian ads.

Nurturewurst, though only 19, plays his instrument cleanly and reminds one forcibly of the late Fletcher Mosby. His performances on tracks 2, 4, and 7 are highlighted by muted solos featuring his specially designed mute made from a Renault hubcap. His best outing, however, is to be found on Gang, on which he demonstrates his feeling for the material by deftly voicing the ensemble parts in 6/8 time, an interesting effect, since the rest of the group is playing in 5/4 at the time. Still, this minor mishap aside, these could have been some of the all-time ensemble passages.

Lymphly is bound to become a household name after the release of this album, which is another in the superlative series produced by Bob Piele, who is one of the few a&r men who understands artists of this rank.

A recent arrival on the jazz scene, Lymphly was discovered by miscellaneous-instrumentalist Cameron Lindsay Jr. while he was working in a razor-blade factory near Duluth. He masters the somewhat difficult gorkaphone (a cross between bassonium and ear flute) as a French chef masters a recipe. His tone on the unwieldy horn has a Far East tang, which is probably why he chooses to sprinkle his lines with bits of Buddhist music. His only fault, in this reviewer's eyes, is a tendency to forget the melody line, a lapse that explains his playing I'll Remember April on every track.

Finster's return to the jazz scene is significant in two respects, of course. First, it puts an end to the rumor that he had forsaken the music to become a freelance male cheerleader; and, second, it makes him the first big jazz name to do an outdoor concert in subzero weather. In fact, by the time the group had started to record the last track, it had become the first jazz act ever to play the blues while assuming that hue.

From the outset of the first track, it is obvious that Finster has something to say. Unlike his last LP, Jazz in a Rumble Seat, he allows himself more blowing space. On this set he blows with more fire and tenacity than at any other time in his professional career (which dates back to the early '40s when he co-led a revolutionary quintet with the immortal pitch-pipe virtuoso Slide Yarbow).

On Ski, Use, and Midget in particular, he is no less than brilliant, building chorus after chorus of incandescent, flaming spirals of notes, giving a slightly pink hue to his work. In the liner notes, surreptitiously written by a Down Beat editor, he is credited as saying that his new heavy tone is not derived from listening to Coleman Hawkins but, rather, from swabbing his horn with cholesterol before the set.

Among other things, this astonishing disc acquaints the listener with one important fact — Maxwell Thornton Finster has at last arrived.

Marking his return to the group after a year of writing jazz backgrounds for newsreels in Hollywood, trumpeter Cosnat puts to rest the belief that a long layoff produces rustiness. His horn is prominent throughout the entire album, and he gives evidence of his wry, pungent wit when he lets go with loud, shrill blasts during everyone else's solos.

His dazzling upper-register interplay with the static from the speakers is sure to make jazz history. Mark Step 1 of the comeback trail for Miles Cosnat a successful one.

Guitarist Benge, formerly with the Jazz Invaders, is making his initial appearance in public with the Finster group. In this setting he is fairly inconsistent. On Valley, for example, he constructs a moving solo for 16 bars and then stops to crack his knuckles for 32 more, while on Gang he cracks his knuckles throughout, providing a dramatic foil to his stomach rumblings. It's not unlike lumpy chocolate syrup flowing over sponge rubber.

Grech, brought out of retirement by Finster at the urging of jazz historian Arnold Horde, displays the amazing skill, technique, and virtuosity that made him a star with the East Bayonne Philharmonic Orchestra in 1917. Because of encroaching senility and the cold weather, he has a bit of trouble keeping time on the up-tempo numbers, but otherwise his solos are fresh, daring (dig the four-minute pause on Frost), and gratifying.

The unusual rhythm section of marimba, guitar, cello, and drums is topped by percussionist Berklee, who has since left the group to become music director for the Smothered Brothers. Berklee's presence in the group is vividly picturesque, since he is the only drummer in jazz whose sock cymbals are argyle. He cooks relentlessly on the first three tracks, after which Finster made him stop and start drumming (tracks 4 through 9 — see liner notes).

The arrangements were done by Irving Nolson and are the best things he's done to date. From the looks of it, he is going to be with the octet for a long time to come. And, though somewhat hampered with frozen hands and impregnable earmuffs, audience reaction, as heard in these grooves, was generally excellent and well recorded.

Unfortunately — for the group as well as the public — this album won't be released until much later this year. However, when it is issued, don't miss it. This is one of the great ones and should be in every true jazz lover's library.

April 11, 1963
Down Beat Magazine

George Crater, In Response To Numerous Reader Requests, Provides Biographies Of The Zoot Finster Octet Members

Since my review of Zoot Finster's At Sun Valley appeared recently in Down Beat, I've been getting mail asking for photographs, life histories, blood types, addresses, and so on, of the members of the group.

But because the group is camera-shy and I'm militantly protesting the increase in postal rates, readers will have to settle for digging the bits of information about them I have gathered here. Ordinarily I'd try to cop out of something like this ("you know how it is, man—the cat doesn't want his business in the street") but since you ask. . . .

RUDELL BENGE: Started blowing baritone saxophone when he was 2 and had to stand on cigar boxes to reach saxophone reed; switched to mandolin after a cigar box caved in and upper lip was caught on neck-strap key; switched to zither at 10 to get roots; at 17 switched to switchblade and was heard on recording of Blues Wail from the County Jail; switched to guitar at 24 and joined Jazz Invaders but left group when they decided to gig at Bay of Pigs; freelanced for year and a half as an overworked piston ring before joining Finster. LPs as leader: On a Benge, Hipsville 1102.

HUMPHREY NURTUREWURST: First gained nationwide recognition at age 10 when his music instructor convinced him to pose in a "help send this boy to camp" poster. At 13 he was a protege of Barry Miles. At 18 he joined Woody Herman's legendary Herd that featured Stan Getz, Max Roach, Thornel Schwartz, Ann Landers, Izzy Goldberg, Andre Previn, Conte Candoli, Daddy-O Daylie, Richie Kamuca, Yma Sumac, Art Davis, Bob Brookmeyer, Chuck Walton, Richard Burton, Lament Cranston, Frank Strozier, Cy Touff, Abe Most, Tutti Camaratta, and Sammy Davis Sr. After three months, he left Herman (lack of solo space) and met Finster at a Greenwich Village taffy pull. The two of them hit it off immediately and have stuck together ever since.

MILT ORP: Born in Romania, studied vibraharp until 20, and then changed to marimba. Later moved to Transylvania, where he met famed composer Bela Clot. Helped co-author with Clot such Hungarian jazz standards as Artery in Rhythm, A Bite in Tunisia, and Take the A Vein. Moved to United States in 1960 and studied marimba at the Hobart Crump School for Wayward Staffs and Stiffs. Joined Finster last summer in time for Fire Island Jazz Festival.

STICKS BERKLEE: Graduated magna cum laude from Benedict Arnold University with a B.A. in journalism. Started writing liner notes on cough-drop boxes after graduation. Began on drums after he wrote "how are ya fixed for blades?" on a Smith Bros, box, and company was sued by Gillette. First big-time gig with Morris Grain's society orchestra. Left Grain early last year after an argument over mixing with the patrons between sets. Later married the Duchess of Velstobourg, an avid jazz buff, who, by surrendering half the royalties to her newly invented homogenized, no cholesterol moustache wax, was able to land him a job with Finster.

STRIMP GRECH: Began playing cello in 1914. A smooth technique featuring a fleeting pizzacato helped him land a gig in New York with the Salvation Army. On the advice of Jean Simmons he left the group and joined the East Bayonne Philharmonic Orchestra, for which he became the first cellist to receive the award usually reserved for banjoists and guitarists, the Strummy. Retired in 1923 to live on the royalties of his never-to-be-forgotten hit One-Note Charleston. Brought out of retirement last summer by Finster at the urging of noted jazz historian Arnold Horde.

MILES COSNAT: Direct descendent of the fabled Connecticut vagrant Mooch Cosnat. After learning trumpet in the spring of 1950, he began working days in a Madison Ave. advertising agency and nights in the house band at Birdland. He soon became known around town as "the man with the gray flannel mute." Cosnat first met Finster in 1955 while the latter was picketing a razed pawnshop. After teaming with Finster, he became famous for his upper-register lyricism and his forearm tattoo of Big Maybelle. Put down his horn in 1959 to write jazz backgrounds for Hollywood newsreels and television test patterns before rejoining Finster last year.

GIMP LYMPHLY: Born Garnett Mash Lymphly in Kentucky, the most memorable event of his childhood was that of watching revenue agents smash his father's still. It was then he coined the phrase "flatted fifths." At the age of 24 he bought a secondhand gorkaphone at an Edsel parts rummage sale. Upon mastering the complicated fingering of the unwieldy horn, he was committed to a Stan Kenton Clinic as the result of chronic complaints by unhip friends and neighbors. After numerous treatments there, he decided to go on to bigger and better things and obtained a master's degree in music from a box of Cracker Jack. Unable to land a musical job, he went to work in a razor-blade factory near Duluth, Minn., where he was discovered by miscellaneous instrumentalist Cameron Lindsay Jr. Lindsay ultimately recommended him to Finster, and the rest is history.

ZOOT FINSTER: Leader or co-leader of some of the most dynamic jazz groups of the last 20 years. Because of his on-the-scene-off-the-scene shenanigans, his early life is a mystery. However, this much is known: in 1944 he became the first jazz musician to do a solo performance at the Hollywood Bowl, a bowling alley in Hollywood, Fla.; in 1951 he was the innovator of Gulf Coast Jazz while gigging part time as an itinerant Texas beachcomber; in 1954 he traded his tenor saxophone to Sid Caesar for a wallet-size photo of Imogene Coca; in 1959 he appeared on the back cover of Down Beat; in 1961, accompanied by 100 flaxen-haired tots with yo-yos, he recorded his first album for Hipsville, Zoot Finster and Strings.                

June 20,  1963
Down Beat Magazine

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