Selections From the Gutter (Art Hodes)

Art Hodes was born in Ukraine in 1904 but moved to Chicago when he was four months old. He spent his life at the piano, playing blues and traditional jazz. In the late ’20s and early ’30s he was part of the important white Chicago scene including Eddie Condon and Bud Freeman. After moving to New York in 1938, Hodes became a central figure to the mixed-race group of traditionalists offering “hot” small group jazz in opposition to the dominant genre of big band.

In addition to his wonderful music, Hodes left an unusually long and detailed written record, including two important books. Selections from the Gutter: Jazz Portraits from The Jazz Record is an anthology of articles and interviews from a magazine Hodes edited in the 1940s. Hot Man is billed as his autobiography, although to be fair it is really another anthology, this time of Hodes’s many scattered shorter memoirs, albeit with some new material and editorial interpolation. (Chadwick Hansen is the co-author of both volumes.)

We all know race is a big puzzle piece for jazz, but not too many practitioners have really weighed in on this topic, at least in print. Hodes’s contribution is unusually frank and educational.

Part of the mission statement of his magazine The Jazz Record seemed to be the celebration of black musicians. (At that time DownBeat rarely had a black person on the cover, but The Jazz Record usually did.)

[Photo of The Jazz Record with Lester Young on the cover from Jacob Zimmerman.)

There’s also quite a lot about race in the Hodes memoirs. Early on, Louis Armstrong gave Hodes (and Hodes’s roommate and running buddy, trumpeter Wingy Malone) entree to a black joint on the South Side.

Louis, knowing I loved blues, took me and Wingy to a barbecue place on State Street near 48th where the primitives, the pianists that came up from the South, hung out.

Hodes spent so much time in that joint listening to other pianists like Little Brother Montgomery and someone called Jackson (who is sadly lost to history) that he was accepted by the room as a “piece of furniture.” But:

They asked me to “Play the blues, Art,” and when I played they would laugh. Not mean, but they would laugh. That hurt, but I couldn’t blame them. I hadn’t as yet learned the idiom. I was entranced by their language but I hadn’t learned to speak it.

A few years later in New York, Hodes made records that were played on the radio all over the country. Hodes writes in the liner notes to South Side Memories:

I recall Zutty Singleton having me play for Art Tatum. The great one said, “The cats back home were hipping me to listen to that black cat play the blues but I knew you was white.” And after I played, Tatum sat down and played my blues the way I wished I could have played them. I was getting another lesson. I was paying some dues. Don’t tell me you feel good when that happens to you. You learn but feelin’ good ain’t part of it, no way…

Tatum might have heard Hodes’s very first 78, a minor hit, tracked in 1938, consisting of two blues pieces, “Ross Tavern Boogie” and “South Side Shuffle.” The way Hot Man quotes the Ralph Gleason review from 1939 shows that Hodes was clearly proud to get this assessment:

Hodes is the only white man to play real boogie woogie. In the blues tradition his sincerity and purity of style tops any white pianist of today.

Decades later, Whitney Balliett called Hodes the greatest living blues pianist in the pages of The New Yorker. In the liner notes of Someone to Watch Over Me: Live at Hanratty’s, Hodes dismisses Balliett’s comment:

If the story had said that I was the greatest white player of blues, it would have been okay.

Hodes’s most important work on record is from his first decade of activity. In addition to marvelous solos — his cover of James P. Johnson’s “Snowy Morning Blues” is a knockout — he recorded in various “hot” ensembles, including many of Blue Note’s earliest sessions produced by Alfred Lion. While this would be the peak of his career, Hodes considered himself a band pianist, and usually didn’t take extensive piano solos when goosing immortal features out of his collaborators. All the clarinetists still know of Hodes, for his Blue Note records feature Edmund Hall, Albert Nicholas, and Omer Simeon, three names that conjure a vanished land.

“K. M. H. Drag” with Max Kaminsky and Fred Moore showcases Hodes’s remarkably fast and even tremolos.

Those delicate shakes are Hodes’s one technical “trick.” Otherwise, Hodes is a moderate pianist, just loafing along at dance tempos. Even that peerless poet Jimmy Yancey (a big influence on Hodes) probably plays more notes per square inch than Art Hodes.

There’s no reason to pass some absolute judgement about race and the way Hodes plays the blues. However, there is a kind of straight thing to Hodes’s feel, even a Tin Pan Alley vibe — something of sheet music circa 1930 — that one might call “white” as much as anything else. It is this “white” aspect of his harmonic sensibility (although I’m not sure that “white” is a perfect descriptor) that helps him stake out a style that is uniquely Hodes.

I once played the 1938 record of “Ross Tavern Boogie” for Jorge Rossy who joked, “Lennon and McCartney.” Yeah. I can hear that. I hear it and I like it!

Indeed, I’ve always liked “Ross Tavern Boogie” ever since dropping the needle on one of my first boogie woogie anthologies as a kid. My casual transcription may not be outstandingly accurate, but the most “Lennon and McCartney” moment is marked in the score.

As the swing era ended, Hodes came under attack from up and coming critics Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov in the pages of Metronome. This was part of a now forgotten jazz war, the beboppers versus the “moldy figs.” Over the course a couple of issues, Feather and Ulanov wrote of Hodes, “A minor talent…pathetic…plays clodhopper piano…an inferior musician…the worst musician who has attained such stature.” Hodes sued and won damages.

After his brand of jazz ceased to be popular, Hodes returned to Chicago. He managed to stay in the game mainly through marketing himself as a nostalgia act. All of Hodes’s albums from the LP era are stocked with tributes to the melodies and harmonies he loved as a young man. Hodes could play standards and a bit of faster stride, but the best things in his repertoire were always the blues, perhaps especially the blues composed by songwriters trying to write songs for hit records in the ’20s and the ’30s, like his signature rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues.”

One of those Hodes’s performances of “Washboard Blues” is on a 1970 European recording of solos and duos with bassist Jens Sølund, Selections From the Gutter. Somehow this Storyville cassette found its way to my Wisconsin childhood home in about 1985.

All musicians have “touchstone” albums, records heard early that shape their lifelong worldview. For me, Selections From the Gutter is a touchstone. The music was most important, but Hodes’s charming liner notes also made an impact. Hodes’s voice as writer is at one with his pianism: wry, understated, humble, yet also possessing an inner strength.

In 1990 I heard Keith Jarrett’s Paris Concert right when it was first released. The bulk of the CD is mostly a long fantastical improvisation, but there’s also a pair of encores, including a slow “Blues.” I was (and remain) a big Jarrett fan. But — to my surprise — as a blues player, Jarrett came off as a bit of a tourist, especially when compared to Art Hodes. This instantaneous assessment (which I still stand by today) may have been important moment in my aesthetic development.

In the liners to Selections from the Gutter, Hodes writes of “Washboard Blues”:

When you like a song you live with it. Finally something comes out that’s a bit your own. I lose myself in this music. It tears me every way but loose. I hear this and I know I paid my dues.

(If you want the PDF of “Ross Tavern Boogie,” sign up for Transitional Technology and email me.)