In 1955, clarinetist Sol Yaged was playing at New York's Metropole Cafe at Seventh Avenue and 48th Street. In 1960 he was at Nick's on Seventh Avenue South and 10th Street. In the early 1970s, Yaged led a quartet in New York with pianist Marty Napoleon at Jimmy Weston's on 54th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. And in the 1980s, he was routinely at the Red Blazer Too on West 46th Street and at Dino Casini's on West 32nd Street. [Photo above, from left, of Sol Yaged, Joe Thomas and Rex Stewart at New York's Pied Piper in 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]
In other words, Yaged came to define what it meant to be a New York fixture playing swing and Dixieland for those who found modern jazz a bit far out. Yaged is still around today and playing at 95, so it's exciting to see that Pine Hill Records has just reissued Yaged's 1956 debut leadership album, It Might as Well Be Swing, which appeared originally on the Herald label. It's the first time the album has been available in over 60 years and the first time it’s ever been available digitally.
On this relentlessly swinging album, Yaged was joined by Ken Kersey (p), Mort Herbert (b), Harry Sheppard (vibes) and Mickey Sheen (d). The tracks are Yacht Club Swing, Easy Living, Love Me or Leave Me, I'll Never Be the Same, It Might As Well Be Swing, Auf Wiedersehen My Dear, Lulu's Back in Town and After You've Gone.
Yaged's sound on the clarinet was a ringer for Benny Goodman's. He played big and confident and could swing everything he played. Yaged began to study the instrument in 1935, the year Goodman rocked the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles and the swing style crossed over from African-American ballrooms to white dance halls. Yaged began playing New York clubs in the early 1940s at Jimmy Ryan's, followed by the Onyx Club, the Three Deuces, Kelly's Stables and Eddie Condon's among others.
During World War II, Yaged played in an Army band. After his discharge three years later, he returned to New York. In 1955, Steve Allen asked Yaged to teach him to hold and play the clarinet so he'd be convincing in The Benny Goodman Story. Yaged agreed and became a consultant on the film, keeping an eye out for errors on the set. He even earned a screen credit.
From then on, Yaged has made his living gigging tirelessly in New York. If you asked him, though, Yaged would probably tell you that he was never tireless and never felt more alive than in a club swinging away.
It Might as Well Be Swing transports us back to an age when New York was a night-time town, dotted by corner hot dog stands and roasted nuts stores, illuminated by richly hued neon signs, and chock-filled with pedestrians in herringbone coats, stockings and hats. To this day, I can't understand how so many people back then stayed up so late enjoying the New York nightlife and still managed to get to work the next day. But they did. Maybe they were happier for it.
Yaged's clarinet is the sound of that happy, nocturnal era.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Sol Yaged's It Might as Well Be Swing here.
The album also is available at Spotify.
JazzWax clips: You can hear the entire album here.