I recently came upon a stash of old jazz magazines, including some copies of ‘The Jazz Record’, edited by pianist-bandleader Art Hodes and his sidekick Dale Curran between 1943 and 1947. It’s fascinating stuff, full of contemporary reports of what was going on at Nick’s in Greenwich Village and what the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon and James P. Johnson were up to. The piece reproduced below is from the January 1945 edition of the magazine, and I found it particularly moving. Clarinettist Rod Cless is now all but forgotten, but in the early 1940′s was a well-known and popular figure on the New York jazz scene. He died in December 1944 as a result of a fall over a balcony after heavy drinking, and then drinking some more from a bottle or flask smuggled in to him in hospital. This obituary – by someone who is obviously a close friend – strikes me as worth republishing as an example of how jazz people mourn:
By James McGraw
The rain fell from our hats in rivulets and formed little puddles on the warm mahogany. The old bartender looked annoyed as he served the two drinks we had ordered. We drank the raw whiskey in silence and pushed the shot glasses in front of us to indicate another round. Ray Cless fidgeted with his change. My finger traced designs with the water on the bar. Ray lit another cigarette while the other one in the ash tray still burned. He had brought cartons of them all the way from Greenland for his first leave from army duty in sixteen months. He had come to New York to celebrate the leave with his brother Rod.
We had been like this all the way in the cab. The wind slapped the rain against the misted windows with a force that made it sound like hail. The tires hummed a dirge on the wet pavement. We were wet and cold and gloomy. We tried to make conversation. Whatever subject we chose ended up the same way. No matter what we tried to talk about, Rod’s name was soon brought in and then we became silent again. That’s the way it was when we left St. Vincent’s Hospital and started up to the Medical Examiner’s Office at Bellevue and stopped off at this bar for a drink we both needed badly.
The doctor in the white apron at St. Vincent’s had been polite. Polite and nice in an officious way. He had asked Ray the usual perfunctory questions about relatives, names, dates of birth and so forth. He had escorted us down to an oven-hot basement to identify the body. He had said, “There are the remains of Rod Cless.” No reflection on him. he was hardened by the sight of corpses every day — every hour. He could not be held accountable for saying , “There are the remains of Rod Cless.”
How was he to have known that the real remains of Rod Cless were not on that cold slab before him? How could the poor fellow be expected to know that the best remains of Rod Cless were at that very moment and always would be rooted deeply, indelibly in the hearts and minds and souls of myriad jazz lovers in all corners of this war-torn world? How could he ever understand the lasting enjoyment that Rod’s clarinet had brought to all those who had been fortunate enough to hear his music? Did he ever experience the great thrill of hearing Rod play Eccentric and notice the technical mastery with which he handled his instrument? Did he hear him on records with Muggsy’s Ragtime Band or did he happen to catch him any night this past summer at the Pied Piper with Max Kaminsky when it was 90 outside and 120 in?
No, Doctor, those are not the remains of Rod Cless. His remains are scattered widely — in churches and in saloons, in brothels and in sewing circles, in fox-holes, submarines and bombers, in drug dens and in missionaries’ huts, in schools, in offices, in factories, in spaghetti joints on the south side and in Harlem rib emporiums, in tawdry dance halls and in glittering night clubs — everywhere you look — north, South, East, West, up or down — he’s there and he’s playing the clarinet; blowing his top and loving it, putting his heart, his soul, his guts, yes, his very life into that slender piece of black wood.
Why did he do it? Because he loved it and because tens of thousands of others love it. He was born to be a jazzman and he died just that. No more, no less, Doctor. Here is how it happened:
He was born George Roderick Cless in the year 1907 in Lenox, Iowa. At the age of 16 he played saxophone in the school band. Later, his family moved to Des Moines and at the age of 20, Rod went to Chicago. That was in the days when Chicago was the “toddling town.” Rod hung around the speaks where the finest jazz was being made. He listened for a while and he practiced constantly and then he took a job with a small band. Before long the quality of his playing (he doubled on alto and clarinet) was found out by such noted Chicago jazzmen as Teschmaker, Freeman, Condon and McPartland. Soon he played many dates with these men in top-notch bands and came to be known as one of the outstanding musicians in those parts. One night he went to the Sunset Café to hear Louis’ outfit. Johnny Dodds was sitting in. Rod listened to the clear, beautiful notes that came from Dodds’ clarinet. He was playing Melancholy Blues. The purity of tone and the amazing flash and brilliance with which Dodds used his instrument, decided Rod that this was it. Here is what he was after and he would settle for nothing less. At every opportunity he listened to the wondrous melodies, the variations which Dodds could produce from a well-worn clarinet. He took some lessons from Johnny. He knew now he was on the right path. He never played the sax again. From there he went to Spanier’s Ragtime Band. Read the rest of this entry »
My One and Only Love’s favourite song (this version by the wonderful Ella):
… there’s also a nice instrumental version of this lovely ballad (written by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin in 1952), by the unlikely jazz violin team of Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli …
… and an instrumental/vocal rendition by tenorist John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman…
… and, of course, there’s Frank …
… but My One and Only’s favourite version is this:
Extreme weather and flooding having become a highly-charged political issue in the UK. So I thought Bessie Smith’s blues (superbly accompanied by pianist James P. Johnson) about the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 might be appropriate:
This is dedicated to all the people of the ‘Somerset Levels’ who’ve had to suffer so much over the past weeks. I’d also like to dedicate it to Lord Chris Smith of the Environmental Agency, a decent man whose monumentally inept handling of the situation and lack of PR skills are making it increasingly likely that he’s going to be made the scapegoat for this fiasco.
But, for now, let’s just enjoy Bessie’s incredible voice…
2014 came in badly as far I was concerned: checking old friend Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives blog, I saw that Bobby Gordon died on 31st December.
Most of you will never have heard of Bobby, who was an American jazz clarinettist who came on the scene playing Condon-style jazz and swing, just as that style was going out of fashion. Nevertheless, he played some great music and, thinking about him, I realised he’d been on many of my favourite jazz CD’s of the 1980s and ’90′s, with Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham, Rebecca Kilgore and Hal Smith. His clarinet playing reflected his personality: modest, shy, understated, but intense and very, very beautiful. Back in the early 1960′s American Decca hired him to make an album with strings, in an attempt to emulate Acker Bilk’s UK hit ’Stranger On The Shore’ : sadly, it didn’t achieve the same kind of sales. The nearest Bobby ever came to fame and fortune was his time in the 1980′s, accompanying singer Leon Redbone – and even that brief moment of relative success involved an horrific air crash, from which both of them were lucky to survive.
Bobby was one of the many unsung greats of jazz: not many people remember him, but those who do will always appreciate his great soul and blue-tinged sad-happy improvisations. Bobby’s main inspiration and mentor was the 1930′s Chicago/New York clarinettist Joe Marsala, to whom he paid musical tribute on several occasions, including two ‘Arbors’ CD’s (Don’t Let It End and Lower Register). Another influence was Pee Wee Russell and here’s Bobby, in 2010, remembering him on Pee Wee’s Blues:
Today is Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.
Here she is, playing and singing ‘This Train’: the sound’s a bit low, so you’ll need to listen carefully. But I’ve chosen this clip because it gives some wonderful glimpses of the Sister’s facial expressions and her great comedic sense – as, for instance, when she gestures towards the piano player at the part of the lyric about “whisky drinkers”:
She could almost make me a believer.
Christmas can be a time when you find out who your best friends are. I mentioned in passing to an acquaintance, a while back, that I’d been looking for a long-deleted 1985 album, The Lady’s In Love With You / Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Burton Lane. To my astonishment it arrived at my address, in CD format, just in time for Christmas
I could only find one track (‘On A Clear Day You Can See Forever’) from the album on Youtube, but it gives a pretty good flavour.
Part of the joy of this CD reissue (apart from Maxine’s singing, of course) is the extensive liner-notation by experts Will Friedwald (on Maxine) and Edward Jablonski (on Lane). There’s even a word from Burton Lane himself:
Dear Maxine, To quote a Yip Harburg lyric from this album: ‘Poor You / I’m sorry you’re not me / For you will never know’ … what it is like to be the composer of these songs and have a singer as wonderful as you to sing them.
You’re really something special.
THE SINGER by Will Friedwald
“I had no choice, I had to swing it.”
Maxine Sullivan was telling The New York Time’s John S. Wilson about her first important gig, in 1934, singing to piano accompaniment at a Pittsburgh after-hours hangout called the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club – an establishment given its name, to be sure, during Prohibition.
Apparently the club’s idea of literature was Joyce Kilmer, and Maxine got handed “Trees.” She responded by putting the ode into jazz time. As she explained to Wilson, “I just couldn’t sing it straight.”
The statement serves as a characteristically pithy summation of Maxine Sullivan’s career, which over 50 years took anything but predictable turns. In the late 1930s, she became a worldwide star transporting airs of earlier centuries (“Loch Lomond,” “Annie Laurie,” “Molly Malone”) to the swing era. In the mid-1950s, upstaged by flashier singers and determined to raise a daughter away from the pressures of show business, she took early retirement.
But 10 years later, in 1967, at the age of 56, she came back and her career unexpectedly boomed. At the time of her death on April 7, 1987, she was recording and performing more prolifically than ever before.
Of course, Maxine’s whole approach to jazz was unconventional. Most singers of her idiom, like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, alternated between small back-up groups with no arrangements and big bands with tight charts that were often embellished with strings. Maxine preferred more offbeat ensembles. Her best recordings combined the flexible economy of a septet or octet with a sensitive arranger — one who understood the sound of an artist whom Leonard Feather once praised as “a wonder of simplicity and understatement.” With the proper accompaniment, Maxine’s singing — already graced by a warm tone — projected a certain swing that was awesome in its gentleness,. But after her early success with Claude Thornhill and John Kirby, her career suffered because attempts to wean her away from the folk songs that had thrust her into stardom threw the baby out with the bath water. Too many producers and arrangers missed the point: that she could handle any good material if the setting complemented her distinctive style. Between the jam session and the symphony lay a middle ground.
Much of Maxine’s comeback career, as well, was similarly sabotaged by well-meaning producers who failed to recognize her idiosyncrasies and inserted her instead into traditional jazz backings that did nothing for her. Thankfully, Maxine spent both the beginning and the end of this last phase in the company of musical auteurs who knew what she was about. Bob Wilber, Dick Hyman and especially Keith Ingham had absorbed Maxine’s trailblazing work of two generations earlier, and thus could serve her particularly well during a period when she was ready and willing to stretch out.
That willingness, too, was unexpected. Maxine’s early singing had been marked by a somewhat withdrawn stance (underscoring her empathy with Thornhill), but by the time she reached her 60s, she had adopted a looser, freer sound. In the three albums they created for her, producers Ken Bloom, Bill Rudman and Keith Ingham (who doubled as arranger) carefully considered her new aura, capturing a fine singer at her all-time peak.
They also reached a high-water mark in the vastly misunderstood craft of selecting repertoire. A miraculous flow unites each of these songbook cycles: The Great Songs From the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (1984); this album, which honours the composer Burton Lane; and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Julie Styne (1987), the final studio session before her death. The mix of classic and little-known tunes is not only fascinating but perfectly tailored for Maxine, and within the small-group format Ingham offers an endless variety of background textures.
Still. the disc’s most enduring contributions appropriately come from the singer. Maxine is a terror on the up-tempos and Swing Era rhythm tunes (which, ironically, she rarely had the chance to sing in the 1930s and 40s). But oh, the ballads! “Everything I have Is Yours” is so touching, so vulnerable, especially as backed by the lyrical tenor saxophone of the late Al Klink. And Maxine’s reading of “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” responds to the universality in E.Y. Harburg’s words. It’s not just a song about Ireland; she makes it about longing, aching, missing — the sorrow for that which has passed.
The song now describes the singer as well. But though Maxine is gone, the treasure that is her recoded legacy assures us that there will always be fine days in Glocca Morra. These performances are an essential — and altogether beautiful –part of that legacy — Will Friedwald
Below: not from the ‘Burton Lane’ album, but a beautiful example of Maxine singing right at the end of her career and life:
In general, I’m one of those listeners who objects to music on Radio 4 – especially the infuriating Mastertapes with the annoying rock fan John Wilson, who – frankly – should just fuck off to Radio 2, where he belongs. However, I’m happy to make an exception for Soul Music, which this week featured the strangely melancholic Christmas song, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’
It was written in 1944 by one Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me In St. Louis, in which it was sung by the film’s star, Judy Garland. It comes at a particularly sad moment in the film, and Garland felt its original lyrics (read out for us in the Radio 4 programme) were altogether too depressing, and eventually Martin was persuaded to replace them with slightly more upbeat (but still hardly jolly) words. Later on Frank Sinatra got Martin to change them again, this time replacing “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
As always with Soul Music, the programme discusses not just the song’s lyrics, but also its (surprisingly sophisticated) harmonic structure and chord changes, interspersed with the thoughts and reminiscences of people for whom it carries a special meaning and/or memories. James Taylor’s pensive version, recorded shortly after 9/11, quite rightly receives a special mention:
My favourite version, by Ella Fitzgerald, doesn’t feature in the programme, perhaps because Ella’s voice is almost too good and (combined with the relatively up-tempo swing arrangement) doesn’t quite convey the pathos that the lyrics seem to demand. Never mind: it’s Ella and it’s beautiful. So here’s wishing A Merry Little Christmas to all of you!
About a week ago, at a gig, someone told me Horace Silver had just died. I must admit that my immediate reaction was surprise: I’d assumed he’d died years ago. It turns out we were both wrong: Horace lives.
For some reason that has yet to be explained, a number of jazz sites and discussion boards last week carried the exaggerated news of the pianist’s death, and many have since published grovelling apologies. So Mr Silver, the founding-father of hard-bop and jazz-funk, joins the surprisingly long list (headed, of course by Mark Twain) of people who lived to read their own obituaries.
Strangely, that list includes another jazz pianist, Michael ‘Dodo’ Marmarosa (who’d worked with many of the great swing bands before joining Charlie Parker): his obituary appeared in a number of newspapers in 1992, ten years before his actual death. The explanation was that a persistent fan of his records – a Briton who lived in the Pittsburgh area where Dodo was leading a reclusive life – kept telephoning him to ask about the details of old recordings and demanding an interview. In order to put an end to this intrusion, Marmarosa answered the telephone with an assumed voice and announced that “Mr Marmarosa passed away yesterday”.
Anyway, back to Horace: here’s his big hit from 1964/5, Song For My Father, and if it sounds vaguely familiar to non-fans of jazz, that may be because the opening bass piano notes were borrowed by Steely Dan for their song Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, while the opening horn riff was borrowed by Stevie Wonder for his song Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing:
Jim Hall, one of the all-time greats of the jazz guitar and by all accounts a delightful human being, died aged 83 on 10 December.
Scott Yanow, in his 2013 book The Great Jazz Guitarists, wrote of him:
“A member of some of the top groups of the 1955-64 period (including the Chico Hamilton Quintet, the Jimmy Giuffre 3, the quartets led by Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer) where his harmonically advanced lines were a major asset, Hall has continued to be a modern guitarist despite the passage of nearly a half-century since then. Cited as an influence by Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell (all of whom he has recorded with), Hall continues to follow his own singular path with great creativity and subtle but always unpredictable playing that rarely fails to surprise.”
Here he is in 1992 on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, playing Subsequently and then a sublime rendition of Hoagy’s Skylark:
Stan (30 December 1926 – 6 December 2013) was one of the best.
Here he is with his then-trio (Rick Laird, bass and Jackie Dougan, drums) in London in December 1964, accompanying the great tenorist Ben Webster:
Telegraph obit here
Part of his famous interpretation of Under Milk Wood is here