[Dixielandjazz] Sol Yaged

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon Mar 15 08:49:03 PST 2004

Who say the NY Times has no OKOM soul?  For those of us who saw Yaged at
Ryan's, Onyx, Three Deuces or Metropole in NYC a half century ago, this
is a trip down memory lane. I hope this article helps bring some people
into the joint where he plays.

Steve Barbone

March 15, 2004 - N Y TIMES

Has Clarinet, Will Swing Till Wee Hours


      The swing era is not over. It is stashed away in Sol Yaged's
clarinet case, which he still opens nightly in a dark corner of a quiet
Upper East Side restaurant.

"I bought this baby in 1938 for $125" at a store on West 48th Street,
Mr. Yaged, 82, said recently as he flipped open his worn case and took
out his Conn clarinet at the restaurant, Il Valentino, on East 56th

The purchase turned out to be a long-term investment. He began playing
professionally while still a teenager and has had few nights off since.
Back then he had plenty of work on 52nd Street at clubs like the Onyx,
the Three Deuces and Jimmy Ryan's.

Those days are long gone, but Mr. Yaged is as busy as ever. Since 2001
he has been playing at Il Valentino, which is in the Hotel Sutton and
was once a club run by the bandleader Eddie Condon. For a handful of
diners each night Mr. Yaged turns back time, playing the same songs the
same way he did a half-century ago.

This is the Sol Yaged who hired the saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and the
drummer Cozy Cole as sidemen and who wrote music for the film "The Benny
Goodman Story," teaching Steve Allen to play the clarinet for the title
role. Even now Mr. Yaged routinely plays into the wee hours; his
business card includes his home phone number and the directive "Call
after 1 p.m."

Born in Coney Island, Mr. Yaged became a Goodman disciple in 1935 when
he was 12. Early in his career he imitated Goodman's runs and phrasing
and even mimicked his mannerisms and speaking style. He showed up so
faithfully at Goodman's engagements and recording dates that Goodman
called him "my shadow" and would jokingly reprimand him if he showed up

"If it hadn't been for Benny Goodman I'd have been a juvenile
delinquent," Mr. Yaged said.

The jazz historian and radio-show host Phil Schaap said, "Sol Yaged has
always been a solid musician," and noted that Mr. Yaged had played in
Max Kaminsky's band on the opening night of the original Birdland. "That
his fame has evaporated says more about the state of jazz than it does
about him. He's still an employed musician in New York, a city with 600
hard-bop bands without work."

The owner of Il Valentino, Mirso Lekic, said, "The man's a living legend
and nobody knows he's still around."

Mr. Lekic hired him to play quiet, classy music to dine by, and during
the dinner hour he does just that, taking a back seat to chatting diners
and to waiters reciting nightly specials. But as the evening progresses
he seems to grow younger, swinging his group harder, until patrons put
down their dessert forks and the dignified northern Italian restaurant
turns into a festive jazz club.

The musicians in his group sit in a corner in chairs backed against the
wall, Dixieland style. They play their share of stompers, but their sets
generally begin by invoking Goodman's spirit. Like Goodman's small-group
ensembles, Mr. Yaged's band plays straight-ahead standards with simple
melodies and a series of riffing choruses.

Mr. Yaged plays with a steady, unsyncopated 4/4 beat with a guitar and
bass backing. His usual group is Rick Stone on the guitar and Bob Arkin
(the younger brother of the actor Alan Arkin) on bass, but he often
invites friends to sit in.

On a recent Saturday night there was a trumpet player and trombonist
waiting for him when he arrived at the restaurant, sweating and puffing
from the walk across town from his apartment in west Midtown.

Mr. Yaged is built like a linebacker, and with his shaved head he looks
like a cross between Yul Brynner and Knute Rockne. He wore a wide tie
with a fat knot and had a threadbare fake rose in his lapel. The gold
ring on his beefy pinkie shimmered as his fingers fluttered over the
clarinet keys while the group began to play "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

He plays with a creamy, elegant tone that evokes Goodman's lyricism. On
"Embraceable You" he treated the melody like a fat balloon that he
nonchalantly thwacked into the air.

"I first heard him play this song 50 years ago," said a man gripping a
glass of Scotch.

Neither Mr. Yaged nor the group does much creative improvising. On
"Lover Man" they played several choruses with no soloist deviating much
from the melody, except Mr. Stone. But their tight, swinging ensemble
playing is infectious. They did tidy, catchy arrangements of songs like
"I Can't Give You Anything but Love" and "Love Is Here to Stay" with
tailgating trombone obbligato and brassy offbeat trumpet punches.

Mr. Yaged's best improvising is as a showman. He is an unabashed ham,
whether delivering borscht belt one-liners while fixing his reed or
fake-clobbering a diner with his clarinet. He often plays with one hand
and pours wine for patrons with the other. At one point he joined a
discussion at a side table, but leapt up in time to play an ornamental
run on the final chorus of "How Deep Is the Ocean?" He finished the song
leaning against a dessert cart.

"So easy when you know how," he chuckled as the diners applauded.

At around midnight the place seems like a speak-easy and Mr. Yaged
swings the band like a lariat, spurring the musicians on with shouts and
comments. When backing up soloists he comes up with simple, floating
riffs. He applauds his sidemen's solos, clarinet tucked like an umbrella
under his arm. Sometimes, when he particularly likes the way his
bandmates end a tune, he will start them up again and have them play it
several more times, guffawing gleefully each time.

Late on that recent Saturday night a man from the bar wobbled over and
stuffed a $5 bill into the tip jar. Mr. Yaged started the band off on a
stomping "St. Louis Blues" and then "Flying Home" and "King Porter

During "Alexander's Ragtime Band" a man leaned over and said, "When you
write your article, say the food's terrible and the waiters are nasty so
us old-timers can come and not be swamped with people."

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