Beers With...

Jazz: The American Music


It's been said that the only indigineous American art form, besides necrophilia, is jazz. Born from the polyrhythms of slave-sung music on the plantations of the Deep South, and molded by European influences, jazz is a unique artistic achievement that is singular in its uniquity. Today, of course, jazz is a truly international phenomenon, practiced all over the globe. (Recently, scientists at the McMurdoo Research Station in Antarctica reported the discovery of tiny blue-green algae, deep within the ice shelf, that can play "Willow Weep for Me" on their cilia.)

The mention of jazz conjures up images of Charlie Parker and Count Basie, of Billie Holliday and John Coltrane, of smoky, dark clubs where zoot-suited beboppers wailed into the wee hours. But there's another side to jazz that isn't mentioned so often, sometimes referred to as "jazz's retarded little brother": Polka Jazz, an improbable intersection where the "Beer Barrell Polka" meets "Take Five." Never acknowledged by mainstream jazz artists (asked about Polka Jazz in a 1970 interview, trumpeteer Miles Davis replied, "What?"), Polka Jazz survives somewhere in a niche between the Apollo Theatre and the Lansing, Michigan chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Its music -- said to irritate Dizzy Gillespie and Lawrence Welk equally -- is an odd amalgam of discarded elements from both genres, mixed together in a way that sounds not unlike a man spitting his fillings into a clarinet.

Recently Beers With ... caught up with the man widely considered to be the King of Polka Jazz, Mr. Moishe Feinbaum. Getting Feinbaum to agree to an interview proved arduous, between his constant touring and his pronounced bladder difficulties. Nonetheless, he did talk to us -- only the second interview he's granted since 1980, when he was interviewed by the Muncie, Indiana police about some stolen seat cushions.

For this assignment, Beers With ... asked veteran music critic Marsh Mason to interview Feinbaum. Mason is the author of a classic tome about jazz artists Bix Bierderbeck, Mezz Mesirow, Bunny Berrigan, and Zoot Sims, entitled Conversations with Jazz Musicans with Particularly Bizarre Nicknames. Mason recently finished writing a new book, Dance a Bit, Then Sit Down: An Oral History of Polka (University of Rogue River College Press). Mason's report:

"It was quite an honor to interview Moishe Feinbaum. I was expecting him to be irascible, and he was. But if you held his arms down and twisted his head just so, he opened up to you quite a bit. I really felt that we were getting to talk about some important things. He certainly had a lot of stories to tell!

"Unfortunately, just a few minutes into the interview, Moishe suffered a fatal heart attack brought on by his cologne. Attempts to revive him proved unsuccessful, so this interview must stand as his final statement. I'm glad I was there to catch him while I could.

"As it turns out, everything that Feinbaum told me was made up. As a matter of fact, Moishe Feinbaum was born on a dairy farm in 1917 in Decataur, Illinois, and didn't come into contact with either music or musical instruments until 1977.

"Frankly, I hate being lied to. I guess I'm kind of glad that he's dead."

Beers With...: You were classically trained.

Moishe Feinbaum: Yes, when I was young I learned the piano. I was particularly fond of Chopin. But I guess I had the accordion in my blood, because I kept trying to pick up our piano and squeeze it. Ach, such a hernia!

I first heard polka music in a men's room in Milwaukee. I was about twelve or thirteen, I guess. I was hooked.

BW: The music really caught your attention?

MF: No, actually, I was hooked on one of the urinals. I was wearing a jacket, and it got stuck on the handle. Meantime, I had to listen to "Lady of Spain" over and over on a loudspeaker. I said to myself, "I can do that."

BW: You toured for many years with Freddy LaSalle and His Kings of Moderation.

MF: Yes, this was during the War years, when there was music rationing. Most of the good music was being sent overseas, so those of us who stayed behind would learn to play a version of "Flatfish Polka" that would last an hour, hour and a half.

Freddy was a good man. A fair man. I never saw him hit a crippled person whom I wouldn't have hit myself. But, you know, touring gets to you. The endless traveling, the motels, the women throwing themselves on you to get favors. You know how some women throw flowers on stage? One time some dingbat threw an entire acacia tree! With shrubbery.

BW: Let's talk about drugs. You had a habit.

MF: Well, you know. Things on the road would get out of hand. Yes, I did.

BW: Talk about it.

MF: No.

BW: C'mon.

MF: Go to hell.

BW: Talk about it or I call the nurse.

MF: Oh, all right. When I was starting out as a musician, a lot of people were sniffing glue. We would try to sniff it right off of postage stamps, but, again, this was during the War, and stamps didn't have adhesive. So you'd just whoosh the whole thing up into your sinus cavity. A lot of people said old five-cent Air Mail stamps made you play better, but I never saw that.

Actually, that's a lot of crap.

BW: How drugs make you play better.

MF: No, that whole story about stamps and glue and all that.

BW: But you did have a habit.

MF: Yes, yes. I wasn't the only one. It was . . . how should I put it? Peer pressure. We . . . [lapses into deep thought, begins snoring] . . . we used to do . . . baking soda. You'd put it in a glass and drink it. Some guys would cut it with flour. It was stupid. What can I say? We were young.

BW: Let's talk about the music. You have a reputation for being one of the most innovative polka players around.

MF: I was one of the first to use Schoenberg's "twelve-tone" system in polka music. Where you pick a tone and use it in twelve different songs. And I've always tried to put new things into the music. I like to introduce scales, change the meter . . .

BW: Like that stuff with the diminished seventh in "Lederhosen Love"....

MF: Yeah, exactly.

I tried to introduce a lot of outside influences into the music. African stuff, John Cage, Jim Nabors. I think you can hear that.


[At this point Mr. Feinbaum perished.]

The 10 Worst Jazz Albums of All Time

Because Mr. Marsh was under contract to us to deliver another 200 words, we asked him to provide a list, his picks for the Ten Worst Jazz Albums of all time.

"I was happy to oblige," Mr. Marsh said. "Compiling the list was both fun and easy, and my rent is due on the first. The only question was what to leave out. I didn't mention Kenny G. at all, because I plan to have him neutered and rinsed out with Ebola virus, so mentioning his records seemed kind of pointless."

  1. Al Hirt and Pete Fountain Play Rod McKuen

    These two giants of Dixieland, whose talent is outweighed mostly by their fatuousness, do the "definitive" Rod, at least, if someone has driven a stake through Glenn Yarborough's heart. Pete is especially evocative on Rod's "God Doesn't Tinkle (Like You and Me)."

  2. You Hold Him Down For Me, Man

    A live, "bootleg" recording on the defunct Vandalism label, featuring Miles Davis and Elvin Jones beating a heckler to death between sets at the Mocambo in 1961.

  3. Jazz Live! At the Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround

    One guy, named "Shoes," and another guy, who wouldn't give his name to the police, entertain tourists with banjo-and-congas versions of such classics as Ellington's "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," Porter's "S'Wonderful," and a song of indeterminate name written by someone who refused to leave the nearby BART escalator.

  4. William Shatner Plays Jazz Tuba

    Shatner was one of many Hollywood artists who cashed in on their fame by making records. Captain Kirk's alter ego doesn't so much play the tuba here, though, as declaim into it -- producing a noise indistinguishable from his television work.

  5. Charlie Parker: The Vile Recordings (Volume 1)

    This is the only record ever produced of a planned series of six. It comes from some sessions that Parker allegedly made on the tiny Vile label in 1968; Vile Records President Leon Flebbons claimed that Parker did not die in 1954, but faked his death in order to lead the life of a pet-foods company executive. However, there are some suspicions about these recordings. First, the man shown to be Parker is white. Secondly, he consistently attempts to play into the wrong end of the saxophone. Lastly, the putative duet with Abraham Lincoln is of questionable historical veracity.

  6. Feelin's and Buzzwords

    One of the first Windham Hill "New Age" jazz albums. An international cast of artists, led by the Marin County couple Sunshine Ozone-Layer and Phil Redwood Veins, perform a variety of painfully soothing jazz songs on instruments made entirely from insects.

  7. The Bergen County High School Jazz Ensemble Live

    Fortunately, a good deal of the music is drowned out by a nearby air show.

  8. Dickie Wells Songbook

    Dickie Wells was a great Classic Era jazz trombonist who played with many of the legends. But he should never have been talked into this mistaken idea, which was to have people at home learn to play by listening to Wells singing, without accompaniment, his favorite trombone solos. He sounds like a moose farting underwater.

  9. Joe Venutti Plays "Tutti Frutti"

    Sure, it rhymes, and it takes into account Venutti's Italian background. But a 47-minute version of this old Sicilian ice cream vendor's song is still a bit much. Fletcher Henderson sits in on triangle.

  10. Billie, Dizzy, Ella and the Count

    Not technically a jazz album. In fact, it's a spoken-word album and a severe case of fraudulent marketing. The four people who appear on the album are not the famous jazz masters you'd expect, but in fact four people who are very excited about toast. Why this album was made remains a mystery.