Following on from similar focuses devoted to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Webern, March 7 will celebrate the great impressionist’s music through recordings dating from the 1930s to the present day.
Performers involved include pianists Pascal and Ami Rogé in a recital from Wigmore Hall (including a two-hand arrangement of Boléro), the Nash Ensemble, and New Generation Artist mezzo Clara Mouriz. There will also be a series of downloads called Ravel Revealed exploring aspects of his life.
Now, of course, there’s a lot more to Ravel than Boléro (my personal favourite is Daphnis et Chloé) but I couldn’t resist bringing you this 1934 film (below) as a foretaste:
Better than Torville and Dean, eh? George Rafters all round!
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 »
… here ’tis:
A A Gill on Autobiography by Morrissey
THE SUNDAY TIMES
AS NOËL Coward might have said, nothing incites intemperate cultural hyperbole like cheap music. Who can forget that the Beatles were once authoritatively lauded as the equal of Mozart, or that Bob Dylan was dubbed a contemporary Keats? The Beatles continued to ignore Covent Garden, and Mozart is rarely heard at Glastonbury; Dylan has been silently culled from the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English.
The publication of Autobiography was the second item on Channel 4’s news on the day it was released. Krishnan Guru-Murthy excitably told the nation that Morrissey really could write — presumably he was reading from an Autocue — and a pop journalist thrilled that he was one of the nation’s greatest cultural icons. He isn’t even one of Manchester’s greatest cultural icons.
This belief in high-low cultural relativity leads to a certain sort of chippy pop star feeling undervalued and then hoitily producing a rock opera or duet with concert harpsichord. Morrissey, though, didn’t have to attain the chip of being needily undervalued; he was born with it. He tells us he ditched “Steve”, his given name, to be known by his portentous unimoniker because — deep reverential breath here — great classical composers only have one name. Mussorgsky, Mozart, Morrissey.
His most pooterishly embarrassing piece of intellectual social climbing is having this autobiography published by Penguin Classics. Not Modern Classics, you understand, where the authors can still do book signings, but the classic Classics, where they’re dead and some of them only have one name. Molière, Machiavelli, Morrissey.
He has made up for being alive by having a photograph of himself pretending to be dead on the cover. The book’s publication was late and trade gossip has it that Steve insisted on each and every bookshop taking a minimum order of two dozen, misunderstanding how modern publishing works. But this is not unsurprising when you read the book. He is constantly moaning about record producers not pressing enough discs to get him to No 1. What is surprising is that any publisher would want to publish the book, not because it is any worse than a lot of other pop memoirs, but because Morrissey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whingeing, self-martyred human being who ever drew breath. And those are just his good qualities.
The book falls into two distinct passages. The first quarter is devoted to growing up in Manchester (where he was born in 1959) and his schooling. This is laughably overwrought and overwritten, a litany of retrospective hurt and score-settling that reads like a cross between Madonna and Catherine Cookson. No teacher is too insignificant not to be humiliated from the heights of success, no slight is too small not to be rehashed with a final, killing esprit d’escalier. There are pages of lists of television programmes he watched (with plot analysis and character criticism). He could go on Mastermind with the specialist subject of Coronation Street or the works of Peter Wyngarde. There is the food he ate, the groups that appeared on Top of the Pops (with critical comments) and the poetry he liked (with quotes).
All of this takes quite a lot of time due to the amount of curlicues, falderals and bibelots he insists on dragging along as authorial decoration. Instead of adding colour or depth, they simply result in a cacophony of jangling, misheard and misused words. After 100 pages, he’s still at the school gate kicking dead teachers.
But then he sets off on the grown-up musical bit and the writing calms down and becomes more diary-like, bloggish, though with an incontinent use of italics that are a sort of stage direction or aside to the audience. He changes tenses in ways that are supposed to be elegant but just sound camp. There is one passage that stands out — this is the first time he sings. “Against the command of everyone I had ever known, I sing. My mouth meets the microphone and the tremolo quaver eats the room with acceptable pitch and I am removed from the lifelong definition of others and their opinions matter no more. I am singing the truth by myself which will also be the truth of others and give me a whole life. Let the voice speak up for once and for all.” That has the sense of being both revelatory and touching, but it stands out like the reflection of the moon in a sea of Stygian self-justification and stilted self-conscious prose.
The hurt recrimination is sometimes risible but mostly dull, like listening to neighbours bicker through a partition wall, and occasionally startlingly unpleasant, such as the reference to the Moors murderers and the unfound grave of their victim Keith Bennett. “Of course, had Keith been a child of privilege or moneyed background, the search would never have been called off. But he was a poor, gawky boy from Manchester’s forgotten side streets and minus the blond fantasy fetish of a cutesy Madeleine McCann.”
It’s what’s left out of this book rather than what’s put in that is strangest. There is an absence of music, not just in its tone, but the content. There are emetic pools of limpid prose about the music business, the ingratitude of fellow musicians and band members and the lack of talent in other performers, but there is nothing about the making of music itself, the composing of lyrics, the process of singing or the emotion of creation. He seems to assume we will already know his back catalogue and can hum along to his recorded life. This is 450 pages of what makes Morrissey, but nothing of what Morrissey makes.
There is the peevishness at managers, record labels and bouncers, a list of opaque court cases, all of which he manages to lose unfairly, due to the inherited stupidity of judges. Even his relation with the audience is equivocal. Morrissey likes them when they’re worshipping from a distance, but he is not so keen when they’re up close. As an adolescent he approaches Marc Bolan for an autograph. Bolan refuses and Morrissey, still awkwardly humiliated after all these years, has the last word. But then later in the book and life, he does exactly the same thing to his own fans without apparent irony.
There is little about his private life. A boyfriend slips in and out with barely a namecheck. This is him on his early sexual awakening: “Unfathomably I had several cupcake grapples in this year of 1973… Plunge or no plunge, girls remain mysteriously attracted to me.” There is precious little plunging after that.
There are many pop autobiographies that shouldn’t be written. Some to protect the unwary reader, and some to protect the author. In Morrissey’s case, he has managed both. This is a book that cries out like one of his maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping. It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness. Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn’t diminish Aristotle or Homer or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim.
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…
The death, reported today, of Pete Seeger, reminded me that he publicly broke with Stalinism back in 2007 (some say he’d privately broken with it some years previously).
I wrote the following at the time, in a deliberately provocative style intended to infuriate folkies. Nevertheless, I hope it’s suitably respectful towards a brave and principled man:
Pete Seeger changes his tune: finger removed from ear
I’ve never particularly liked folk music, with its whining three-chord “tunes”, its anachronistic and lachrymose lyrics and the sheer musical incompetence of most of its performers – including the famous ones like Bob Dylan.
Having said that, I have to admit that most of the folkies I’ve met over the years have been thoroughly decent people, often stalwarts of left-wing campaigns, strike-support activity and international solidarity. But for some unexplained reason, these admirable people almost invariably turn out to be Stalinists of one variety or another: what is it about the music or the “scene” that brings this about? Delightful, sandle-wearing, hirsute do-gooders turn out to be apologists for some of the most monstrous regimes and genocidal crimes in human history!
Pete “If I Had a Hammer” Seeger always struck me as the spritual progenitor of the finger-in-the-ear school of folkie Stalinism (the finger being in the ear to prevent the truth about Uncle Joe’s crimes ever being heard): he was (and is) a very good and brave human being, so far as I can judge. Certainly, he had the courage to defy the House Committee on Un-American Activities, rather than betray his friends and comrades, and spent a year in jail as a result. On a less serious note, I’ve also always harboured a sneaking admiration for his legendary attempt to take an axe to Bob Dylan’s microphone cable at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But still, this admirable figure remained an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist [*]…
…Until now. According to Nicholoas Wapshott in the New Statesman, the 88 year-old Seeger says he has “‘been thinking what Woody (Guthrie - JD) might have written had he been around” to see the end of the Soviet Union. In a letter responding to (a) complaint that he had repeatedly sung about the Nazi Holocaust but failed to acknowledge the millions killed in Stalin’s death camps, he (Seeger) wrote: “I think you’re right – I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in (the) USSR”.
So now Pete has written a new song, ‘The Big Joe Blues’, which goes: “I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe./He ruled with an iron hand./He put an end to the dreams/Of so manyin every land./He had a chance to make/A brand new start for the human race./Instead he set it back/Right in the same nasty place./I got the Big Joe Blues./(Keepyour mouth shut or you will die fast.)/I got the Big Joe Blues./(Do this job, no questions asked.)/I got the Big Joe Blues”.
According to Wapshott, Pete now acknowledges that, “if by some freak of history communism (I think he really means Stalinism – JD) had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail”. So the finger’s well and truly out of the ear. At long last.
Above: despite my prejudice against folk music, I think this is great! Pete with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in the mid-60s
* Addendum: BTL comments (below) would seem to confirm that my statement that PS remained “an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist” (until 2007) was incorrect. It would also seem to be the case (sadly) that the story of the axing of Dylan’s electric cable at Newport in 1965 is apocryphal.
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:
Musicians, actors and artists have just the same right as the rest of us to express political opinions. Their fame as artists neither enhances nor diminishes the validity of their views; it can, of course, mean that their views receive a somewhat wider airing than yours or mine would. So it is with Robert Wyatt, former drummer with Soft Machine, who’s been paralysed since an accident in 1973, and since then has continued his career as a much-respected singer-songwriter and political pundit. It’s the punditry that’s worrying.
Like so many politically ill-educated people who adopt radical stances in middle-age, Mr Wyatt goes in for conspiracy theories - and conspiracy theories about Jews – sorry “Zionists” – in particular. He may or may not be personally anti-Semitic, but he certainly associates with people who are. He’s a friend of the holocaust-denier Gilad Atzmon, and a defender of the geriatric Jew-hater Roger Waters (who displays an inflatable pig adorned with a Star of David at his concerts).
In a bizarre article in Saturday’s Morning Star, Wyatt reveals himself as proponent of the “my enemy’s enemy” school of political analysis, with implied support for the present leadership of Iran and praise for the “refreshingly different takes on the news” of Putin’s Russia Today (and, less outrageously, Al Jazeera). But when it comes to Jew-hatred, Wyatt really goes off the rails, praising Pink Floyd’s anti-Semitic Roger Waters for “his brave stand against the zionazis ethnic cleansing of Palestine.” I won’t even dignify the filthy word “zionazi” with a response. But I note that Wyatt goes on to suggest that “anti-Semitism” doesn’t exist (at least not as anti-Jewish racism) because “Semitic language speakers include 300 million Arabs” – a banal exercise in word-play habitually used by people who think it’s clever to deny the existence of anti-Jewish racism.
Regular readers will know that this blog is clear-cut in its opposition to settlements on Palestinian land, and outspoken in our support for a mutually just two states solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. But we are also opposed to anti-Semitism masquerading as “anti-Zionism”. Wyatt may be an idiot, rather than simply a racist piece of shit. I don’t know which for sure, but I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt given his friendship with the deranged anti-Semite Atzmon, who is (presumably) the person Wyatt’s referring to when he writes about a “Hebrew-speaking Palestinian” . Wyatt is either a very ignorant man (a “prick off the wall”) or a very sick one: either way, why the hell is the trade union-funded Morning Star promoting his filth?
Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers has died at the age of 74. . .
Everly’s high, close-harmony singing with his older brother, Don, made the Everly Brothers one of the biggest rock and country acts of the 1950s and early 1960s.
. . .
The Everly Brothers profoundly influenced 1960s-era artists ranging from Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who early in their careers called themselves the Foreverly Brothers, to Simon and Garfunkel, the Byrds, the Hollies and the Beach Boys.
“Perhaps even more powerfully than Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers melded country with the emerging sound of 50s rock & roll,” Rolling Stone magazine said in placing the duo at No 33 on its list of the 100 greatest artists.”
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: