Date Posted: 2004-08-03
BY PAIGE VAN VORST (with a big assist from Gus Statiras)
Gus Statiras, who devoted his life to jazz, doing almost everything short of actually playing the music, died April 2, 2004 at the VA Hospital in Milledgeville GA.Gus was felled by a stroke in 1998 and had spent the last six years in a semi-conscious state. For traditional jazz fans he is best known as the man who recorded the Bunk Johnson OWI sides in February 1945, for modern jazz fans he is known as the founder of the Progressive label. Around here, he is known as the first editor of JazzBeat, guiding it as it evolved from an advertising flyer into a full-fledged magazine. He set down his jazz memories in a series of articles that graced several of our early issues, and we’ll revisit some of his stories here.
Statiras was born in New Jersey of Greek immigrant parents. He discovered the joys of New York City at an early age and became a habitue of the Sunday-afternoon jam sessions that were then popular, and made the acquaintance of Milt Gabler, who was involved in organizing sessions in addition to producing sessions for Commodore and Decca.
I spent a year working at the Commodore Music Shop until I was called into active service.It was one of the most wonderful times of my life working with Jack Crystal and Baron Timme Rosenkranz behind the counter of the Commodore Music Shop. The store was located a few doors east of Lexington Avenue on the south side of 42nd Street. Catty-corner was the Commodore Hotel, now the Hyatt, where many of the great swing bands played. The shop got its name from the hotel.
If you crossed the street and went north on Lexington you were at a building where the Blue Note Record Company was located. Just one flight up. Francis Wolff, with one helper, packed and shipped records worldwide. (Alfred Lion, his partner, was in the military at the time.) Francis and I were friends for several years previous to my working at the Commodore. We were avid record collectors who met at various record haunts in our search for hard-to-find jazz records of years gone by. We often ran into each other at jam sessions and jazz clubs. (Francis was also an avid photographer. He took many photos of the great players of the time.) I was often sent to the Blue Note offices to pick up a supply of their releases for the shop. As you may know the Blue Notes were mostly 12” shellac records and weighed a ton. Just walking back to the shop, one street, with a Blue Note load had me huffing and puffing. Many times Francis helped me carry some of the load. He kept me posted on the forthcoming releases and would relate some of the great music he had heard. Francis was another great guy in jazz. Each day at the Commodore Music Shop was a joy. It wasn’t work because of the fun of selling jazz records to great jazz fans and meeting all the great jazz musicians that visited the shop. I looked forward to each working day. The shop was open every day but Sunday. the door opened at 10AM and closed at 6:30. Jack Crystal and I were there before time each day. Timme was always an half hour to an hour late each day. He had a routine of staying out to the wee hours of the morning listening to the greats who played in Harlem. He was a very generous fellow. He treated one and all to many drinks each night...and morning. His first day with me in the shop was one I never forgot He was about an hour late and his breath reeked of booze. His breath could kill a goat. The first words from his mouth backed me up about three feet. In his charming Danish accent, he asked me for a loan of $5. He paid it back the following Saturday, payday, but he borrowed $5 every Monday morning and paid it back every Saturday. this went on until my last working day at the shop. Timme was a big fellow with a big heart. He was large and liked wearing tweed suits. He sported a full mustache. Timme always had great stories about the great jazz stars he hung out with. He lived in Harlem with a jazz singer, Inez Cavanaugh. (I heard stories that the Royal Family of Denmark was embarrassed by his exploits and often gave him money to stay in the US.) Timme was the Danish jazz authority, and he published a folio of jazz photos he had taken. He did jazz radio programs and he supervised and led recording sessions. Timme knew jazz, and he was a grand fellow to work with.
Jack Crystal was one of the funniest, wittiest fellows I ever met. He was always cheerful and I don’t ever recall him complaining about a thing. Jack was slender, bald-headed, and always in dapper attire. He was just one of the hippest guys I ever knew. Jack knew his records and his customers and he could spot a square (a customer who was going to buy a non-jazz record) as soon as he entered the door. He knew record numbers and tested me many times. It was sort of a competition as to who knew more record numbers. Jack knew more because he kept track of commercial hits more so than I. Sometimes I topped Jack with my expertise...but not very often! I believe Jack truly liked me because of my knowledge of record numbers.
Jack was married to Milt Gabler’s sister. His son, Billy, the comedian, wasn’t even born when we worked together. I sure can see where Billy gets his fast wit and humor. It surely came from Jack. In later years Jack Crystal ran the sessions at the Central Plaza. He never let me pay to see and hear all the greats he had at the Plaza. We always had a lot of fun hanging out together. I was truly crushed when I read in the trades of his death in the early 60’s. Jack was a super guy in jazz..a super guy with me.
RECORDING BUNK JOHNSON
Gus was drafted into the Army in 1943 and two years later crossed paths with Bunk Johnson. As he remembered later, in a Footnote interview: “I first met Bunk in New Orleans around the last week of January 1945. I was in the Army, en route to Texas. I had recently married and we stopped off in New Orleans to see Orin Blackstone. He and I used to trade records before the war and he was then City Editor of the Times-Picayune. Orin later owned a jazz record shop and also ran a jazz publication. Although Mardi Gras week was coming up, there was no Mardi Gras in New Orleans during the war. He told me to go to a restaurant at the end of Canal Street where Leon Prima and Irving Fazola were playing. He also told me to go to where George Lewis lived and George could tell me what musicians were playing around town. He also told me to go to this office building where they were forming the New Orleans Jazz Society. There was an empty office with just a desk and a lady sitting behind it, Helen Arlt. I introduced myself and told them I was a big jazz fan. They said “we’re going to make you the first honorary member of the New Orleans Jazz Society.” They were forming it that day. Doctor Souchon was there and there were a few other people. A lady standing way in the background shouted across the room, “that fellow there knows how to make records, that’s Gus Grant.” Gus Grant was my radio name. Now this lady was about 34 years old and me and my wife were about 20-21. My wife says, “how do you know that old woman and how does she know your fake name?” The lady said, “you remember me, I was John Hammond’s secretary and when you came to see John in the winter of ‘39, I remember taking you into the office to see John and I know you know how to make records.” I said “Yes, I do.” My knowledge of making records was just what I had read in magazines and from musicians. Although I’d never been in a recording studio, I’d been in many radio stations where they’d cut commercials, so I had some idea about recording. The lady then introduced me to Willard VanDyke, who was then a documentary film director. He later became a curator in the Museum of Modern Art and was to become very famous in the preservation of noted films. They were making a film and they wanted someone to record Bunk Johnson for this film. As this would have meant my staying on in New Orleans a few extra days, I said I didn’t want to get in trouble with the Army. She said, “I’ll take care of that,” as she was in the Office of War Information (OWI), a propaganda outfit. The story in this film was to be a tribute to eight French underground resistance fighters, who had been bombing munition dumps and railroads and highways, to prevent the Nazis from getting all over Europe. These people were to be given a commendation for doing such a good job as espionage agents, that they were being brought over here and shown New Orleans French culture and to see where French heritage had come to the US. As part of their New Orleans visit they would see and hear a great New Orleans jazz band. The film people told me they only wanted one tune for the film, Tiger Rag. So I said I would record the band for them if I could keep the masters after they had used this one number for the film. They agreed and said they would send them to my home when they had finished with them.
George, Jim Robinson and I went to meet Bunk Johnson at Union Station. He had a wide beaming smile when he saw us at the station. George made the introduction and immediately Bunk and I hit it off. As we walked down North Rampart Street, we decided to stop to get a couple of oyster sandwiches. It was at an empty lot where an old bus body, rusting, sat on the ground. On the side of this rust-colored bus was crudely painted the words “Oyster Sandwiches- 35 cents.” Bunk told me that this was a great place to get a tasty sandwich. I could not believe the size of the sandwich. A long loaf of French bread was sliced open and a batch of oysters in a mouth-watering sauce were spread across the split loaf. The loaf was then halved and wrapped in some sort of waxed paper and we were given a good supply of small paper napkins. Bunk and I ordered two Coca-Colas and armed with the large sandwiches we marched off toward St Phillip Street. Bunk had his horn case under his left arm and his top coat draped around the arm. the hand held the drink bottle. In his right hand the wax paper and napkins were bunched to the back of the oyster sandwich. Bunk was making short work of this delicious repast. I was juggling the sandwich and drink so as not to get my uniform soiled. the weather did not add any comfort to the contortions I was going through to eat my sandwich. There was a third of my sandwich that I could not finish. “Look here,” Bunk said, “I’ll finish that for you.” Those oysters and French bread and Coke had me. I was full. And almost before we crossed the street, the portion I couldn’t finish was devoured by Bunk. “Bunk,” I said, “your mouth’s just like a vacuum cleaner.” He smiled and laughed. Statiras wound up recording four sides featuring the Bunk band, which included drummer Abby Williams in addition to the usual personnel; Williams was a last choice after a number of other drummers turned out to be unavailable. The music was recorded at the WWL studios in the Hotel Roosevelt. They then went to the Hotel St Charles for the reception and filming. The filming involved the band playing Tiger Rag over and over while the cameraman filmed each of the players separately, which must have been confusing to the visiting freedom fighters, who included famed existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.
Gus and Bunk stayed at George Lewis’ house the night after the recording. It was bitterly cold and they shared a bed in Lewis’ spare bedroom. They slept in their overcoats due to the cold and the bed collapsed from the weight in the middle of the night, so they spent the rest of the night on the floor.
The film was finished and shown in New York, but it reportedly was amateurishly assembled, with the sound of a clarinet coming when Bunk was playing, and so forth. The four masters were ultimately sold to Riverside, where they were issued on LP coupled with some Kid Ory and Kid Rena sides.
In 1954, my Progressive Record Company and Mail Order Jazz were in full swing when I was requested by Mr. Bernard Braddon of the Liberty Music Shop to be their special jazz record sales clerk. At the corner of 50th Street, on Madison Avenue in New York city, the Liberty was located one street from Park Avenue and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel; around the corner from Saks Fifth Avenue and one street east of Rockefeller Plaza; the elite area of the city. The Liberty Music Shop became well known to 78 rpm collectors for their production of the famous Lee Wiley recordings. These sides are now available on CD on Audiophile ACD-1. As was my wont, I was a half hour early to work on my first day on the job. the first one to greet me, after the doorman opened the portals, was Edward Konrad. (Yes, the Liberty had a doorman and a matron who assisted people to listening booths where coffee and other beverages were sometimes served.) He was a former actor now reduced to working as a stock clerk. He knew many stars in the theatre and motion pictures that he introduced to me.
On this first morning, I was enjoying a cup of coffee and the morning papers when Edward announced to me, “Your first customer is going to be Miss Marlene Dietrich. Miss Dietrich will be calling for jazz recordings and since you know all about them, I’ll introduce you to her.” At 8:59 AM, the telephone behind the record counter was ringing. Edward looked at me and said, “Mr. Statiras, it’s your first customer.” He picked up the phone saying “Good morning, record department, Edward Konrad speaking.” There was a short pause and then he replied “Yes, Miss Dietrich, Mr. Gus Statiras will assist you.” He handed the phone to me and that was the beginning of a two-year acquaintance and friendship. I sold Miss Dietrich dozens of jazz LPs over the years. She lived just one street up on Park Avenue and often came in to pick up her LPs herself. Other times, she would send her maid or chauffeur. It was a short time later that I recommended a batch of tunes for her to sing in a Las Vegas act in addition to her regular fare. Miss Dietrich told me she was going to wear a tuxedo and a top hat in this production, so I suggested she do the tunes from the Astaire movie classic “Top Hat.” Miss Dietrich requested me to write out the tunes so she could give them to her conductor, pianist Burt Bachrach. I didn’t think anything more about the recommendation until one day I returned home from a ball game and was greeted by my wife with the growling words “Why is she calling you?” I asked “Who called?” She replied “You know who called!” Well, my friends, I was queried all night long, up to three in the morning with the same “WHY IS SHE CALLING YOU?” I didn’t know any female who would be calling me long distance, but my wife would not tell me who had called. Upon getting to the shop the next morning, Edward Konrad greeted me with “Miss Dietrich called you here from Las Vegas yesterday. Did she reach you? I gave her your home phone number. Miss Dietrich said that your selection of tunes made her a big hit in Las Vegas!” When I got home that night I reminded my wife that Miss Dietrich was 20 years older than me. (I sometimes think that excuse went over like a lead balloon. In 1954 I was 32 years old and Miss Dietrich was 52.) That week, Time Magazine gave Marlene Dietrich a rave review and printed a photo of Miss Dietrich in a top hat and tuxedo and a revealing see-through blouse. Upon her return to the City, Miss Dietrich came to the Liberty Music Shop to personally thank me for the recommended tunes. Miss Dietrich personally autographed a newly-released Columbia LP to me. Miss Dietrich continued thanking me many times. (I always thought it was the see-through blouse that made her a big hit.) But life not being a bed of roses, jealousy on Miss Dietrich’s part came to me.
One rainy day, Miss Dietrich, attired in a yellow rain hat, coat and boots, stormed into the Liberty Music Shop demanding to see me. I was talking to and waiting on Mrs. Brian Aherne (Mary Aherne) and Miss Greta Garbo, who were seated on the sofa off at the far end of the record counter. At the other end of the counter, near the front entrance, at the top of her voice, Miss Dietrich shouted “I wanted to see Mr. Statiras!” Miss Dietrich wanted me to introduce her to Miss Garbo! (How she learned that Miss Garbo was in the store was a mystery. I always thought that Edward Konrad had phoned her.) I dashed to Miss Dietrich and told her that would be most difficult, knowing of Miss Garbo’s regard for privacy. She then went into an almost tearful speech of how she copied Miss Garbo’s eye makeup style and that Miss Garbo was her inspiration, etc.; that I must take her to meet Miss Garbo. I returned to the other end of the counter where I found the sofa had been abandoned. Miss Garbo and Mrs. Aherne slipped out into the rain through a side door at the far side of the shop. Telling Miss Dietrich that Miss Garbo had left through the side door, she dashed out of the shop into the rain looking up and down Madison Avenue for a glimpse of Miss Garbo.
Gus Statiras remained active in the jazz business for the rest of his working life- he started Progressive Records in the 1950s and ran the company on the side while pursuing other activities for many years. At one time he sold the label but bought it back when he found his precious sessions weren’t being kept in print. Gus hit a financial rough spot in the 80’s and sold Progressive to George Buck, but remained active, helping reissue his old sessions on CD while producing new sides as well, following jam session principles he’s first observed in the fabled Sunday afternoon sessions of the early 1940’s.
He moved to Tifton GA, his wife’s hometown, in the early 70’s. He remained active, running Mail Order Jazz as well as the Statiras label. He became active in jazz festival promotion, presenting annual festivals in California and Wisconsin, and he was the record concessionaire at several other gatherings. He was an easy man to meet and always had interesting stories about his days in the music business- he’d been on the scene since men like Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller were active. Not many people get to spend their entire working career doing just what they want. Gus never got rich in the jazz business, but he never lacked for friends, both among jazz musicians and record collectors. He was one of the few people who could say he’d slept with Bunk Johnson, and that was just one of his many stories.