Not long after my father died in 1997, I started collecting Frankie Newton's recordings myself. There's the core group of twenty some songs that were recorded under Frankie's name, with bands that he led. But then there's another fifty or so recordings with other bandleaders and in loose, pickup bands. As with any musical obsession of mine, I devoured liner notes and quickly formed interests in the other musicians on the recordings and what else they recorded and with whom, outside of the original Newton sides.
Through Newton, I came to know a fantastic constellation of jazz stylists who all came through the swing era, the era of big bands, and produced an exciting range of small group recordings that at various times:
• take popular forms to great heights of refinement and virtuosity -- e.g., Benny Goodman (cl.), Charlie Christian (g.) and Lionel Hampton's (vibe) 1939 "Stardust"; Edmund Hall (cl.) and Sidney (trp.) and Wilbur (trmb.) De Paris' 1944 turbo charged "I've Found A New Baby"
• explore directions outside conventional swing formats -- e.g., Rex Stewart (crn.), Django Reinhart (g.), Barney Brigard (cl.) and Billy Taylor's (b.) breathtaking and inspired 1939 performance of "I Know That You Know"; Pee Wee Russell (cl.), Zutty Singleton (d.) and Joe Sullivan's (p.) wild, dare I say primal, 1941 trio version of "Sing, Sing, Sing," known as "Deuces Wild"
• give direct and powerful expression to a blues or standard -- e.g., Sidney Bechet's bowl you over 1939 soprano sax rendition of "Summertime," with Teddy Bunn (g.), Meade Luxe Lewis (p.), Johnny Williams (b.), Sid Catlett (d.); Jelly Roll Morton's 1939 vocal performance on "Buddy Boldon's Blues" (doesn't really count as small group, since the band is just Morton accompanying himself on piano)
With each new find, and with each jazz reference book, I came back to the same frustration that there is terribly little biographical information about Frankie Newton. It was frequently the case that I knew more about him from my conversations with my father than I could find in published materials. I desperately wanted to know more.
At some point in 1999 I remembered how in 1991 my father had relished reading to me from a set of liner notes by an expert who did, in fact, appreciate Frankie's greatness. The record was God Is In The House, a collection of live after hours performances by Art Tatum. In the early 1940s, a Columbia University student named Jerry Newman, had portable disc recording equipment that he took around to private jam sessions. He captured priceless moments of jazz improvisation from a period when records were only three to four minute studio recordings, generally limited in their structure and scope. The recordings Newman collected are rare, often arresting documents of how the music was played in front of live audiences. God Is In The House captures Tatum at five venues in 1940 and 1941. Some of the performances are just him on solo piano, some include other musicians. The last two tracks, "Lady Be Good" and "Sweet Georgia Brown," are with Frankie Newton and Ebenezer Paul (bass) at Clark Monroe's Uptown House. The writer of the notes is Dan Morgenstern:
The two final performances . . . are sensational. Newton is up to playing with Tatum—his ear is sure enough not to be thrown by the unorthodox backing, especially on "Sweet Georgia Brown." On "Lady Be Good," Newton shows us where Sweets Edison comes from. A master of mutes (including the almost whispery one he plays here), he was one of the three great post-Armstrong trumpeters, along with Roy Eldridge and Lips Page. It's good to have these indications of his worth; he was under-recorded throughout his career.When we did our Frankie Newton session in 1991, Dad read out the whole two paragraphs, giving that last sentence particular emphasis, as if it were vindication of all that he believed in. He explained that Morgenstern is a famous jazz critic, a professor at a university, maybe Princeton.
The complexities of Tatum's accompaniments and solos are such that it is impossible to take these two performances in at even several hearings. You'll find yourself listening first to Art, then to Frank, then to both, again and again. "Sweet Georgia Brown," I humbly submit, is one of the most remarkable pieces of spontaneously improvised jazz music ever captured by a recording device.
I wondered if Dan Morgenstern could help me find out more about Frankie Newton. A little googling revealed that Morgenstern is the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies, housed not at Princeton but at Rutgers. I sent him a letter on September 7, 1999. More than a month went by. I'd just about given up all hope of receiving a reply when in mid-October an envelope arrived in the mail with "Institute of Jazz Studies" in the return address. A letter from Morgenstern! It began:
Dear Benjamin Greenberg,I was beginning to feel I somehow knew him, too. And getting closer to Frankie Newton was also getting closer to my father.
I was both delighted and saddened to receive your letter. Delighted because for more years than i can remember I'd hoped in some way to find a man I could recall only as "Paul." We met somewhere in Greenwich Village--in a jazz joint, a bar, at someone's house party--and had an intense, wonderful conversation about Frankie Newton during which I learned some of the things your letter conveys about your father. (Our brief encounter took place so long ago that I had not yet begun to write professionally about jazz--I was just "hanging out" and absorbing all kinds of stuff--so your father would not have remembered when he later read my liner notes, but I'm so very pleased that he did so, and seems to have approved.)
. . . let me just note that I never knew Frankie--by the time I came to the U.S., in late April of 1947, he was already elusive, and it wasn't until about a year later that I really became aware of his true stature in the jazz trumpet pantheon--I knew only a few records. But one of those, "The Blues My Baby Gave To Me," had made its mark, so when I met and became friends with Nat Lorber, whom everyone called "Face," who played the trumpet and whose three heroes (after Louis, of course) were Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge and Frankie, I was ready to learn. I saw Frankie just once--not playing, but having a bite to eat in a little village restaurant and bar called Calypso-plus-something I can't recall--but was too timid (not quite 20 yet) to approach him. That was around 1950 . . . and then, in 1954, Frankie died, just on the verge of trying a comeback. But Nat spoke vividly of him, and then that moment with your father, and other recollections by musicians, almost make me feel as if I somehow knew him.