Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fonts of Rome (2014)

All images, copyright 2014 by Nick Rossi

There is simply so much to love about the city of Rome. And while many are intoxicated by the smells, the sounds, or the taste of the food, what struck me most on my recent visit was the abundance of wonderful design in everyday things - beauty in a great sense of the word. Certainly, other cities have a more unified design (Berlin?) and still others may appeal to me more from a modernist aesthetic (New York?), but the even more eternal than before city of Rome continues to blatantly disregard style guidelines with such careless aplomb that should be appreciated and applauded.

Traveler's note: I HIGHLY recommend the travel guide Rome: Moods and Places published by Herb Lester Associates. Not only was it a daily part of my finding beauty in everyday objects thanks to designer Nate Luetkenhans, but it was authored by author, blogger, and friend JP Gaul who has a very unique insight to the city of Rome. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bill Crow (1958)

Bill Crow, double bass, Lambretta motor-scooter, West 4th Street, Greenwich Village, New York City, 1958

Jazz legend Bill Crow is a generous man. Not only was he kind enough to grant me permission to reproduce the above photo on today's post, but he spent some time answering a few questions that I thought would be of interest. Rarely on this blog do I explore the Italian motor-scooter aspect of the 20th Century modernist dispora, but this wonderful photo deserves some extra attention.

Bill starts off the story of his 1953 Lambretta 125 LD series 1 in 1954:

"I was living at 22 Cornelia Street in Manhattan in those days on the second floor. Cornelia Street only had parking on the east side and when the city went to alternate side parking, that street was only park-able on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was driving an old Ford and was having so much trouble parking it that I sold it. I knew the writer Arnold Perl, who had a Lambretta over in the East Village. It may have been the first one in Manhattan. I realized that I could wheel it through my building and park it in the back yard so I bought one, their smallest model, from an agency in the west 50s that was selling them and figured out a way to carry the bass on it. I carried a small board with me that I could use to help me wheel the scooter up the three steps on my stoop at 22 Cornelia and I would chain it to a tree in the back yard."

The one-time blacklisted writer Perl has a fascinating tale of his own that certainly should be told in full some day. But back to our story. Crow was fortunate at the time to have a steady gig 3 miles uptown as part of pianist Marian McPartland's trio. He continues:

"At that time I was working six nights a week at the Hickory House on West 52nd Street and I left my bass there every night unless I had a record date or something. It was nice to ride the scooter midtown from my Village apartment and I could park it easily at the curb. I only carried the bass on it when I had a different job. While I was still living on Cornelia Street, the movie photographer Aram Avakian (George Avakian’s brother) shot a lot of footage of me carrying the bass on the scooter, which he intended to use in a documentary that he was planning about New York jazz clubs, but the film was sent to some funding organization in an appeal for a grant and I never heard any more about it."

Bill and I have discussed Avakian and film-making on these pages before (see link above), as that latter had an important role in the making of Jazz on a Summer's Day. Bill eventually found out that there was more to scootering than commuting for work:

"I took it camping one autumn, when Marian McPartland took 3 weeks off from the Hickory House to go home to England for a visit. I packed a pup tent and a sleeping bag on the luggage rack and drove up through the Adirondacks, up into Montreal, down along Lake Champlain, up to Baxter State Park in Maine, down to Acadia National Park, and on down the coast to Boston, where I met Marian who came back from England via Boston to visit some friends. We had lunch together and then I headed back to NYC. I stayed on the smallest roads I could find which still had a hard surface and really enjoyed seeing the northeast that way."

In 1956, Crow began a musical association with baritone saxophonist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Gerry Mulligan that would continue intermittently for several years. Mulligan was a bona fide international jazz star at the time which afforded Bill some unique opportunities:

"When I went to Italy around 1959 with Gerry Mulligan, I went to the Lambretta factory in Milano and bought a new scooter and had it shipped to New York. I sold the old one and I kept the new one in a garage on 7th Avenue next to Nick's. In the early 1960s I moved to West 20th Street in Chelsea and found another garage nearby where I kept the scooter chained to a water pipe."  

I asked Bill what finally signaled the end of this relationship with Lambrettas:

"When I returned from a later trip to Europe with Mulligan, I went to pick up the scooter and found that it had been smashed against the wall of the garage by a car or truck. The garage men claimed to not have noticed the damage. Their insurance company finally paid for the repairs, but I had already decided to buy a Volkswagen and I sold the scooter."

Thanks once again to Bill Crow for his time and consideration. It is truly an honor to have made his acquaintance via the internet.

**A footnote: according to Lambretta's official history; founded in 1947, the Milan, Italy motor-scooter manufacturing company did not start its USA division until 1955. Lambrettas were only available in a few American cities and in very limited quantities before that time.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bird Lives! (1958)

Bird Lives! oil on canvas board painting by Ted Joans, 1958, courtesy of the de Young Museum, currently on exhibit through January 2015

The death of Charlie Parker on March 12, 1955 had both an immediate and lasting impact on the New York art community. It wasn't just the musicians who grieved and grappled with the truth that Bird was dead, the painters and poets too strongly felt the loss of one of their idols. He was a hero made flesh: many of them knew Parker as much from seeing him around their Greenwich Village and Lower East Side (there wasn't an East Village yet) neighborhoods as much as they did from his stage appearances. Of course, they knew his records and would check him out at The Open Door on West 3rd Street when they could afford to do so, but the notion of the starving artist wasn't a punchline once upon a time.

Poster, The Open Door, Greenwich Village, New York City, 1955

According to the somewhat controversial record producer and writer Ross Russell, who owned Dial Records and who recorded some of Parker's most critically acclaimed music, within "a few days of the alto player's death there appeared among the graffiti on the walls in the Village and in subways, scrawled in black crayon or squirted out of pressurized paint canisters, the legend 'Bird Lives!" (Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker by Ross Russell, New York; Charterhouse, 1973). Years later it was poet Ted Joans who was credited as the instigator of the graffiti. 

1955 newspaper obituary, source unknown

Ted Joans knew Charlie Parker and knew him somewhat well. Not too long after Joans arrival on the scene, he become known for his elaborate parties often costumed affairs. Author and promoter of the 1950s jazz sessions Robert Reisner claims that Bird turned up for one of these parties dressed as a Mau Mau and supposedly the January 1955 issue of John Preston Davis' groundbreaking African-American journal Our World featured one such party with Parker visible in the background. After returning from an extended engagement in Chicago in that same month, Bird was more or less a transient who relied upon the goodwill and couch space of others for shelter. At the time Joans shared a small apartment at 4 Barrow Street in the Village (don't go looking for it, it has been razed) just off of Sheridan Square and across the street from the Cafe Bohemia (that building is still there, occupied by the Barrow Street Ale House) and his roommate Ahmed Basheer brought a sick Parker home one night after finding Bird sprawled out on the sidewalk near their front door. As a result, Parker and Joans were de facto roommates off and on during last 2 months of the saxophonist's life.

Ted Joans at the Cafe Bizarre, Greenwich Village, New York, 1958

But just calling Ted Joans a poet is doing his legacy a disservice. Yes he was indeed a poet. In fact, he is now often referred to as one of of the original beat poets. Joans moved to Greenwich Village in 1951 around the age of 23 having moved to the big city from Illinois by way of Indiana University. Sadly, the history of the Beat Generation seems to have suffered from some degree of whitewashing as Joans seldom appears as more than a mere footnote. But he was clearly one of the first on the scene, connecting Gregory Corso not long after his arrival. He would later cite his biggest influences as Langston Hughes and AndrĂ© Breton. For his part, he thought himself as much as surrealist as he did a beatnik, although he certainly took advantage of the public interest in the latter as a way to have a forum for his art. By the time of his death in 2003, Joans had authored well over 30 books a remarkable body of work for any poet by anyone's standards.

The Hipsters by Ted Joans, Corinth Books, 1959

Joans creativity did not end with the printed word. At one point of time he was a trumpeter, although he reportedly threw his horn off a bridge as he felt the need to focus on other aspects of his life (this again according to Russell). He was a visual artist as well. Although largely known as a recluse, Joans befriended the Jackson Pollock and got to know the painter before Pollock died in the Summer of 1956. Joans most certainly was a painter, although examples of his work are relatively scarce both online and in the real world. However, one of his surviving works is from 1958 and is fittingly (for our story at least) titled Bird Lives!

The is only the tip of the iceberg that is the fascinating story of Ted Joans. I highly recommend digging deeper. 

Bird Lives! the painting is featured in San Francisco's de Young Museum Shaping Abstraction exhibit now through January 4, 2015.

As a teaser, here are a couple of short films that feature Joans a few years after the death of Charlie Parker. Bird Lives indeed!

Village Sunday by Stewart Wilensky, USA, 1960
(click on image above for fullscreen view)

Jazz and Poetry by Louis van Gasteren, Holland, 1964
(click through for a better screen view)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Coming Attractions (2014)

Word on the street confirms that the new documentary in the works about legendary English haberdasher and style-setter John Simons will be out in the Spring. Here's the trailer:
If you simply cannot wait, pop over to the shop (virtually). Not only is their Winter sale still on, but there are a lot of new items available, including some very nice chinos cut in Brooklyn by Hertling for John & Co. as profiled by Fitzgerald's Closet last week.

Print ad, Bass Weejuns, 1951

Why John? Did you watch the trailer? Still not convinced? Well. The world has not always been as small as it is. There was a time, not very long ago, when the look was still a secret society of sorts - but one in which a pair of Bass Weejuns performed the function of a signet ring. John's string of shops were not only the source of so much of the good stuff but they were also a meeting place for the likeminded. Plus they served as an inspiration for Statesiders like yours truly to dig deeper into what is now termed heritage clothing. I still remember the first time I walked into his shop in Covent Garden. I experienced an epiphany of sorts and I very much credit John Simons bringing a lot of what I was thinking around classic, American style into focus.

Keep your eye on Garmsville for updates about the documentary.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Forcillo Archtop Guitar (1953)

Forcillo archtop guitar, New Jersey, circa 1953

This week, I am going to indulge myself even more than usual. The guitar featured in this entry was recently sold on a well-known auction site with very little pomp and even less circumstance. It is a Forcillo Guitar. If that means nothing to you, even if you are a guitar geek like this writer, don't worry. The name Forcillo, as in Frank Forcillo, is one that lingers in a netherworld of footnotes and asides. That said, the few facts that we do know about Forcillo are interesting enough to make it worth documenting here, at least until what is left of the story is rescued from obscurity.

Here is what we do know. In 1932, first generation Italian-American guitar, violin, and mandolin maker John D'Angelico started his own shop in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City. He had apprenticed under his Uncle, Raphael Ciani, for over a dozen years before Ciani's death. When he opened his own shop among his employees were Jimmy DeSerio, who stayed with D'Angelico until 1959, and Frank Forcillo whose tenure with the legend was a brief few years.

Frank Forcillo's name next turns up in the Blue Book of Guitars as the head of United Guitars out of Elizabeth, New Jersey, started presumably some time in the 1940s. The next concrete piece of info around Forcillo is courtesy of the United States Patent Office. On April 29, 1948, Forcillo filed a patent listed as an Attachment for Fretted, Stringed Instruments. This design is topped of by a finial that is remarkably similar to the same detail that D'Angelico used almost exclusively during the same time period. Could it be that this was, in truth, a Forcillo design that dated back to the Frank's time in John's shop?
Update: luthier Todd Cambio of Fraulini Guitars has confirmed that the finial on the headstock is a very old Neapolitan design used not only by instrument makers in Italy long before mid-century, but also used by John D'Angelico's uncle, Sr. Ciani, on several mandolins and guitars. 

United States Patent 2,510,775 filed by Frank Forcillo, 1948

1948 was also the year that Gibson, who had recently emerged from the industrial chaos of World War II as the guitar industry leader, introduced a 2-pickup version of their ES-350 guitar. This guitar was the first mass-produced 2-pickup cutaway guitar created solely for use as an electric instrument and re-set the standard for what an electric guitar was. Gibson's one-time biggest rival, the Manhattan-based Epiphone, introduced a competing but ultimately unsuccessful model within a year. B League champs Gretsch over in Brooklyn introduced their similarly-styled Electro II by 1951 and by decade's end parlayed the configuration into several fairly successful models.

At this point of time (or very close to it at least) the Forcillo Guitar enters into the picture. An educated guess would put this particular guitar in right around this time period. Some of the details in addition to the aforementioned finial include Waverly open-back tuners and matching tailpiece, as well as a headstock shape and neck design that is very similar to contemporaneous D'Angelicos. The pickups are something of a mystery. Perhaps they are manufactured by Franz/Fransch/Fransche, another small New York are shop that provided pickups most notably for Guild guitars while that guitar-maker was in New York and later New Jersey.

Beyond the above, very little is currently known about Forcillo and United and even less than the instrument. The seller shared that it was purchased by his father in New York some time around 1953 and continued to use it for years in jazz and society bands. There was some vague memory of it being a fairly expensive purchase at the time, but the other details are long lost. Of course I would love to hear from anyone who knows more about any of these topics. Please use the comments section below or email me direct. I will update this post as I discover and verify more information.

Footnote: both D'Angelico and Guild continued to have connections to Forcillo's United Guitars throughout the 1950s. When John D'Angelico finally caved into pressure to make "electric" guitars he chose not to make the bodies, but rather purchased laminate-top bodies from Forcillo's United company. John would then make the neck and complete the guitars - again using Franz pickups for the most part. Obviously they remained on good terms. According to Hans Moust's excellent and highly recommended The Guild Guitar Book, in the early years Guild used craftsmen from Code Guitars in New Jersey to finish their instruments. Many references to United Guitars make reference to Code in the same breath. The connection has yet to be fully explained but it is worth mentioning here. It should also be noted that the finish on this Forcillo guitar looks very similar to the finishes Guild used during it's first year or so (1953-1954).

Forcillo archtop guitar, New Jersey, circa 1953

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nicholas Ray (1932)

A full two decades before film director Nicholas Ray was in his celluloid ascent - reaching a peak with 1955's Rebel Without a Cause - and long before Jean-Luc Godard declared that Ray indeed was cinema, the latter-day legend was just embarking on an artistic journey that eventually would lead him to the modern medium of film. This journey had some unlikely twists and turns, not the least of which was a year spent as an apprentice to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

James Dean and Nicholas Ray, Los Angeles, California, 1955

Ray, later known as Nick to most of his West Coast friends and acquaintances, was born on August 7, 1911 in Galesville, Wisconsin with the given name of Raymond Nicholas Kienzle. 3 months earlier in Spring Green, 100 miles southwest of Ray's birthplace, the maestro Frank Lloyd Wright began work on his own personal residence and workplace. This came to be known as Taliesin, a Welsh word which in rough translation means shining brow and refers to Wright placing the structure on the top or brow of a hill. Wright was in transition, having recently returned from nearly a year in Europe which had marked the end of what was later called his Prairie Period.

Frank Lloyd Wright, 1930, around the time he first met Ray, photo by Price Studios

As a youth, Ray was an uneven student seemingly distracted by the big city delights of Chicago, where he spent much of his formative years. He returned to Wisconsin for his senior year in high school and showed a strong affinity for and ability in public speaking, English, and drama. Two years in a state college was followed by a tumultuous semester at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1931, after which he left for New York City to study theater. However the connections made in Chicago precipitated Ray joining the inaugural fellowship of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in 1932, some time after the two crossed paths again during an event at Columbia University.

Design Sketch, Capital Journal Building, Salem, Oregon by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1931-1932

Contrary to many claims and by his own account, Ray spent a year under Wright's tutelage. The concept of the Fellowship was that Wright felt only by living and working with apprentices around the clock could the understand his concepts and ideas. As a social experiment, it was quite interesting. Members of the Fellowship not only actively executed ideas on Taliesin itself (the buildings there in a state of constant change), but worked as draughtsmen, farmhands, and domestics on the property. Living was for the most part communal. One suspects that the strict rigors of life at Taliesin did not sit well with the restless Ray, but many have commented that a political rift between Wright, a strong believer in the power of democracy, and his more radical-leaning protege was the cause of the latter's return to New York, which would eventually lead him to Hollywood and the world of film-making.

Nicholas Ray, Hollywood, c.1945

However, the year spent with Frank Lloyd Wright would prove to have a tremendous impact on the artistic eye of Nicholas Ray. 34 years after his death, Ray's widow Susan stressed the importance of the period in an interview, citing the nature of the Fellowship as shaping Ray's ideal work methods, as well as the very idea that architecture (and film in Ray's) provided a framework for the arts. Ray himself professed that his love of what he called the vertical line was due to his time with Wright and attributed his fondness for Cinescope to an extension of that love.

Storyboard, Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, 1955

An interesting footnote: the 2003 DVD release of Ray's masterful In a Lonely Place, made for Humphrey Bogart's Santana Productions, features a short film extra in which director Curtis Hanson sings Ray's praises and calls out some of the architectural elements in the film - citing the Frank Lloyd Wright period. Hanson, of course, directed 1997's L.A. Confidential a neo-noir film based on James Ellroy's novel. One of the buildings prominently featured in the film is the Lovell House designed around 1927 by Richard Neutra. Neutra had only recently moved the United States and one of his first employers before moving to California was Frank Lloyd Wright. The Lovell House is just 2 miles down the hill from the Griffith Park Observatory which is perhaps the most well-know location used in Ray's Rebel Without a Cause.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chico Hamilton (1921-2013)

Blue Sands by The Chico Hamilton Quintet from Bert Stern's Jazz on a Summer's Day, 1958

Social media delivered the news that Forestorn "Chico" Hamilton passed away at the age of 92. The words legend and great are far too often abused these days, but Hamilton was both. As an innovative percussionist and bandleader, he was a somewhat singular modern American musician. I know people that have both studied and worked with him, so I can comfortably claim that he was also a true personality. For those interested in digging deep, I highly recommend listening to and reading his contribution to the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project here.

Print ad, Down Beat magazine, 1962

Regular readers will no doubt be well aware of my love of (and possible obsession with) Bert Stern's 1958 film Jazz on a Summer's Day. It has managed to work it's way onto these pages several times, but most notably here and here. Bassist Bill Crow also was kind enough to answer some of my related questions here.

Down Beat magazine, August 8, 1957

I have never really tackled the Quintet's performance of Buddy Collette's Blue Sands in print, mainly because - to me - it comes close to what many people call sacred music. More so than Mahalia Jackson's unquestionably moving spiritual in the film, Chico's appearance possesses a quality that transcends both genre and time. Deeply influential upon me too was the visual impact to the impeccably dressed quintet -which also featured at the time Collette's protege Eric Dolphy on flute and Italian-American guitarist John(ny) Pisano. To find out years later that the performance was filmed in front of an empty venue after the festival had completed for the evening due to a technical issue with the shoot made the power of the music all that more miraculous. Add to this his contributions to one of my other favorite films of all time (and something that I need to devote some more virtual ink to very soon), 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, and…well…almost needless to say, I am more than a little saddened to read of his passing in spite of his living a long, rich life.

Rest in Peace, Chico.