Have yourself a dreary little Christmas

December 25, 2015 at 7:39 am (Christianity, Christmas, literature, Rosie B)

Christmas is the season for potted histories of the festival. Bolted on to the pagan solistice, celebrated for twelve feasting days in the middle ages, half stamped out by the Puritans under Cromwell, which caused pro Christmas riots.  Christmas was fading from the scene under the Georges and then revived by the Victorians.  Prince Albert brought the Germanic Christmas with him, the emphasis being on a family celebration.  Charles Dickens turned it into the season of “hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness” via A Christmas Carol and the country Christmas among snow in The Pickwick Papers.  The commercialising civilisation of the Victorians invented crackers and Christmas cards and left us with the mish-mash of goodwill and purchasing, feasting and family we enjoy today.

The 12 days of Christmas have been extended to 30 or so of less concentrated celebrations with pantomimes, Nativity plays, concerts, work dos and Christmas jerseys. I took part in all of these this December and thoroughly enjoyed them.

The awful family Christmas, bleakly comical or merely bleak – the antithesis of Slade’s cheeriness in Merry Christmas Everybody – has become a tradition in its own right (a very recent example of the genre is Tom Wrigglesworth’s A Christmas Not Special).

It turns up in literature a good deal, Christmas being a time when characters get together and do their worst.

1861 Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

As well as exalting the ideal Christmas, Dickens could show an unhappy one at the Gargeries with the bully Mrs Gargery, and her victims, her husband Joe and her orphaned brother Pip.

We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning … and the pudding was already on the boil.

It is a ceremonious occasion. Guests come through the front door – locked for the rest of the year– and sit in the parlour – in wraps for the rest of the year.

Pip is kept very much in his place as an orphaned dependent, nagged and lectured by the rest. He is also sick with anxiety because he has stolen food for Magwitch the convict:-

Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain…..

Joe, his ally, does his best:-

he always aided and comforted me when he could, in some way of his own, and he always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy, if there were any. There being plenty of gravy to-day, Joe spooned into my plate, at this point, about half a pint.

Greatexpectations

Pip’s misery is interrupted by soldiers who visit the house when searching for Magwitch, and this chance of a hunt enlivens the company:-

As I watched them while they all stood clustering about the forge, enjoying themselves so much, I thought what terrible good sauce for a dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had not enjoyed themselves a quarter so much, before the entertainment was brightened with the excitement he furnished.

1916  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It is one of the most powerful scenes in the English novel, that Christmas dinner at the Dedaluses. Present:- Mr and Mrs Dedalus, Dante the aunt, young Stephen Dedalus, Uncle Charles and Mr Casey. Mr Dedalus carves, of course (always the man’s job).

the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top.

The green flag is for Irish nationalism. Tension starts rising between the devoted followers of Parnell and the devout Catholic Dante:-

Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork, saying:

—For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year.

(As the host carves, the hostess tries to keep the peace).

He heaped up the food on Stephen’s plate and served uncle Charles and Mr Casey to large pieces of turkey and splashes of sauce. Mrs Dedalus was eating little and Dante sat with her hands in her lap. She was red in the face. Mr Dedalus rooted with the carvers at the end of the dish and said:

—There’s a tasty bit here we call the pope’s nose. If any lady or gentleman…

He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork. Nobody spoke.

It ends with Dante angrily leaving the table and the two Parnellites, Mr Casey and Mr Dedalus, weeping over the disgraced Parnell.

1964 The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

An atheist, Elizabeth Taylor had no time for Christmas at all, regarding it as something Christianity forced on the rest of society.

Richard, the young businessman, trapped with his wife and mother-in-law wishes despondently Christmas might be over. On Christmas Day he walks through the dull village “Lighted trees in the little houses, holly wreaths on front doors already looked old stuff. Christmas was petering out.”

He has a glum time while his wife has a childish enjoyment for Christmas including a stocking by her bed. Meanwhile their friends are depressed in London. Patrick waits in for his capricious boyfriend, “it should be possible.. to ignore the dismal Christmas scene outside, groups of people homing fast, back to Mother and Father, until they were all cooped up in their families, leaving the streets deserted. . . the deadly silence of the day.”

The boyfriend turns up, with a present of a tie that his uncle had given him, and he has his own memory of deadly family Christmases .. “It was a true sacrifice to this spirit his mother tried to foster when he, year after year, offered his cracker to his cousin. Taking one end, she would turn her head away and screw up her eyes, ready to give a little cry of alarm at the bang. Playing her part too he guessed. Wearily, but wearing his fixed, Christmas grin, he would read out the motto, put the paper hat on his head.”

1976 Ending Up by Kingsley Amis

It was adapted for television in 1989 and the Christmas scene starts at 31:00. (H/t JD)

The five main characters would in an allegory be called Malevolent; Boring; Affected; Put-upon; and Drunk. They live together in a cold cottage. Their accumulated years are strangling their bowels and hearts and brains. The grand-children and great-grand-children of Affected have turned up for a much begrudged duty visit. They sing carols and then:-

.. they had the presents. Those from the guests to the hosts were chiefly a disguised dole: tins or pots of more or less luxurious food, bottles of hard liquor, wide-spectrum gift tokens. Hosts showered guests with diversely unwearable articles of clothing: to Keith from Adela, a striped necktie useful for garrotting underbred rivals in his trade; to Tracey from George, a liberation-front lesbian’s plastic apron…

Christmas dinner was something of a success; it passed off, at any rate, without bloodshed.

Then there are parlour games which bring out the vicious hostility or bewildered stupidity of Malevolent and the rest. This grinding celebration is seen mostly from the point of view of the young relations who experience it as “boredom – a poor word, for the consuming, majestic sensation that engulfed him, comparable in intensity to a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience”. The young are full of repulsion and fear of the sight of “age, and then the only end of age.”

2001 Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is structured around whether the mother Enid will manage to gather her grown up children to enact the rituals of Christmas. I haven’t got the book to hand, but here’s a summing up:-

The fetish she makes of Christmas has uncomfortably recognisable comedy and pathos. (Her seasonal round-robins – laboriously written out on hundreds of cards, doing their best to spin the family’s numerous disasters into sunny good news and looking forward to a “heavenly” family celebration – are a classic example of the transparent denial so common in these missives.) When she finally wheedles her reluctant brood into attending, the event is hobbled by the accelerating decline of her husband and the cross-currents of resentment and misunderstanding between the family members. Mistletoe and wine this is not.

Any other examples of the bleak Christmas in literature?

Is that you all organised then? Have a nice Christmas!

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Saturated Fats for Christmas

December 24, 2015 at 6:19 pm (Christmas, jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy, whisky, wild man)

My favourite Christmas record:

Fats and the boys recorded this in Chicago on November 29 1936: they’d obviously begun celebrating a wee bit early.

Best wishes to all readers.

Normal service here at Shiraz will be resumed shortly.

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Kid Ory: Maryland, My Maryland

December 26, 2014 at 6:24 pm (Christmas, history, jazz, Jim D, New Orleans)

A child was born in La Place, Louisiana on 25 December 1886: Edward “Kid” Ory, the Grand Daddy of all jazz trombonists.

Here he is in 1945 with his Creole Jazz Band, playing ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ (aka Christmas Tree, O Tannenbaum, The Red Flag, etc):
Mutt Carey (trumpet); Darnell Howard (clarinet); Buster Wilson (piano); Bud Scott (guitar); Ed Garland (bass); Minor Hall (drums).

H/t: Hal Smith

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Kingsley Amis’s seasonable booze recommendations

December 24, 2014 at 7:50 pm (booze, Christmas, posted by JD, whiskey, whisky)

British novelist and comic writer Kingsley Amis prepares for another sip of wine

Some in general,  excellent advice from a man who – like me – seriously objected to the intrusion of religion into the true, alcoholic, spirit of Christmas. His judgement broadly coincides with my own, and is therefore sound, except upon the question of beer: bloody Carlsberg!?! What was the man thinking of? I recommend Guinness’s revived West Indian Porter, anything from the Hobgoblin people , or – if you really must have larger, Veltin’s. Anyway, here’s Amis:

From Every Day Drinking (1981 – to be bourn in mind re: prices quoted ), by Kingsley Amis

Here is a mixed bag of seasonable concoctions.  First and foremost and indispensable, Irish Coffee. It’s a bit of a pest to make, but never was such labour more richly rewarded. To make each drink, stir thoroughly in a large pre-heated wine-glass 1 teaspoon of sugar or a bit more, about a quarter of a pint of your best and freshest black coffee, and 1-2 oz Irish whiskey — no other sort will do. When the mixture is completely still, pout onto its surface over the back of a spoon about 2 oz chilled double cream. The cream must float on the other stuff, not mingle with it. If this goes wrong, take Michael Jackson’s excellent advice: “Don’t serve the drink to your guests — knock it back quickly yourself, and try again.”

Other drinks have sprung up in imitation with the same coffee and cream content but with other spirits as a basis, like Benedictine, which gives Monks’ coffee, and Drambuie, which gives Prince Charles’s Coffee — yes that’s what the UK Bartenders Guild call it. Of those I’ve tried, none compared with the original.

Except for being warm, the next drink could hardly be more different. This is the Raging Bull, an Amis original, though no great powers of invention were called for. Make Bovril in a mug in the ordinary way and stir with a shot of vodka , a couple of shakes of Worcester sauce and a squeeze of lemon juice (optional). That’s it. Very heartening in cold and/or hung-over conditions.

Now, an unusual evening warmer, the Broken Leg. having had a real broken leg myself earlier this year I puzzle over the significance of the name, but the drink’s straightforward enough. Slowly heat about a quarter of a pint of apple juice in a saucepan with a few raisins, a cinnamon stick and a lemon slice. When it starts to bubble, strain into a preheated glass or mug. Pour a couple of ounces of bourbon whiskey into the pan, warm for a few seconds and pour into the remainder. Formula from John Doxat.

Lastly, American Milk Punch. You drink this cold, but it’ll soon light a fire in you. The previous evening — this is the hard part put milk instead of water into your refrigerator ice trays. On the day, mix thoroughly in a jug one part bourbon whiskey, one part French cooking brandy and four parts fresh milk. Pour into biggish glasses, drop in milk cubes, stir gently, dust with grated nutmeg and serve. This punch is the very thing for halfway through the morning of Boxing Day, when you may be feeling a little jaded and need a spot of encouragement before some marvellous treat like the sons-in-laws coming over for lunch. In fact, it can be treated as Snowy Mary, sustaining as well as uplifting, and much kinder to the digestion than the old Bloody Mary, a delicious drink, I agree, but full of acid fruit juices.

Remember the Milk Punch for the New Year as a heartener before air trips, interviews, etc.

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Christmas is traditionally a time when we behave kindly to our fellow human beings and push goodwill about all over the place. Well, to get myself into any kind of shape for being nice to others, I’ll have to take a lot of care of myself — and no more devotedly than in the sphere of drink. I intend to see that I have ample supplies of the few key items without which my Christmas would be a mockery, leaving me with no good will to spare for anyone.

My list leads with the Macallan Highland malt whiskey, my Drink of the Year (also of last year) and widely regarded in the trade as the king of malts. The flavour’s rich, even powerful, but completely smooth, as smooth as that of a fine cognac, and immediately enjoyable. Over Christmas I’ll be staying off it until comparatively late in the day, because the only drink you want after it is more of it. Macallen comes in various strengths and ages. I’ll be going for the standard 40 per cent alcohol at ten years old rather than the Macallen Royal Marriage, a unique blend of whiskies from 1948 and 1961, the couple’s respective birth years — wonderful stuff but a bit steep at £26.

I’ll also need a malt of a different type for when I’m not drinking the Macallen, selected from Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Tormore, Bowmore. And a good blend, preferably Famous Grouse, both for itself and for the interesting results if you move to a malt after it.

Must check that the Dry Martini makings arte in place — Gordon’s gin, Martini Rossi dry vermouth, and a jar of the largest possible hard, white, acid cocktail onions, much more of a sweat to find than the gin and vermouth. Check too on basic Bloody Mary makings — vodka, Worcester sauce and expensive tomato juice.

Table wines are not my forte, but on special occasions like the appearance of the Christmas turkey and trimmings I enjoy throwing down a good strong red. The one I’d go for is a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, not too recent, say ’76 or ’77. Any left over will go well with the Stilton. (perhaps a spot of port too with that, nothing fancy — somebody’s Special Reserve at about £5.)

I won’t be able to resist spoiling myself with some Musca de Beaumes de Venise, a sweet white wine from the Rhône that’s been tremendously successful here in the last couple of years. Made with the muscatel grape, fruity, flowery, and all that, an ideal desert wine, good with melon too.

We’re now beginning to deal with luxuries and treats, rather than the sheer necessity of Scotch or gin. Among liqueurs I’d certainly favour Kümmel, which with its caraway flavour does seem to take the fullness off after the plum pudding. Or a gross concession to guzzling like Bols apricot brandy or cherry brandy. But I’ll probably end up with Drambuie, drinking some of it cut 50-50 with my malt whisky, if I can spare any.

Back to the realm of stark need with the question of beer. I’ll be filling the refrigerator as full as I’m allowed to with large can of Carlsberg Special Brew and about half as many of the ordinary Carlsberg Pilsner Lager. Special Brew is a wonderful drink, but after a certain amount of it you do tend to fall over. Diluted with a weaker version of itself it gives you a longer run. To quaff the two of them half and half, really cold, out of a silver tankard produces as much goodwill as anything I know.

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Worlds Greatest Jazz Band: Silent Night

December 24, 2014 at 1:33 am (Christmas, jazz, Jim D)

Most jazz attempts at Christmas tunes are dire – especially traddie versions.

But this version of Silent Night  – by Yank Lawson, Bob Haggart and the so-called World’s Greatest Jazz Band (in 1971 or ’72) – is excellent. I presume the arrangement is by Bob Haggart:

Trumpets: Yank Lawson , Billy Butterfield
Clarinet & sop sax: Bob Wilber
Trombones: Vic Dickenson, Eddie Hubble
Tenor sax: Bud Freeman
Piano: Ralph Sutton
Bass: Bob Haggart
Drums: Gus Johnson Jnr

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Christmas, Christianity and the rise in antisemitism

December 22, 2014 at 5:16 pm (anti-semitism, AWL, Christianity, Christmas, Islam, israel, Judaism, Middle East, New Statesman, palestine, posted by JD, religion, stalinism, zionism)

A Palestinian man wearing a Santa Claus costume is confronted by an Israeli soldier during a demonstration in village near Bethlehem, 19 December. Photo: Getty

A Palestinian wearing a Santa Claus costume is confronted by an Israeli soldier at a demo near Bethlehem

Christmas is, at its best, a time of good will to all peoples regardless of creed. But it is also, unfortunately, an excuse for antisemitism – a form of bigotry that Christianity has fostered for over 2000 years and successfully passed on to Islam.

Mehdi Hasan (who I do not believe is consciously antisemitic), for instance, uses Christmas as an opportunity to launch into one-sided and in some respects, factually inaccurate attack on Israel (tracing its original sin back to its creation in 1948),  in an article for the Huffington Post (where he is political editor), also carried in the current New Statesman.

Sean Matgamna wrote about this sort of Christian-inspired antisemitism fifteen years ago, in a piece introducing an excerpt from Karl Kautsky’s The Foundations of Christianity. I reproduce Sean’s 1999 piece below:

2000 years of anti-Jewish lies

In the last few years, undisguised anti-semitism has again become a force in Europe, especially in Russia and the east. It has re-emerged both in its racist, zoological, 19th century form, and in its earlier Christian, “native Russian”, form.

Why does this happen? Why, again and again, in one form or another, time after time, does Jew-baiting become a force in history? There are always “immediate” historical reasons, but one central, continuous, underlying “cultural” reason is this: anti-semitism is threaded into the very fabric of Europe’s 2000-year-old Christian civilisation.

Christianity is saturated with anti-semitism. The Christian New Testament is one of the main documents of historical anti-semitism.

As the classic Marxist writer Karl Kautsky shows in the excerpt from his book The Foundations of Christianity […] the New Testament writers set out, deliberately and systematically, to demonise the Jews and foment hatred against them as the murderers of Christ. They did it by inventing fantastic and self-contradictory tales about the death of Christ.

The events he analyses are set 2000 years ago in Roman-occupied Judea. The vast Roman Empire united Europe, much of North Africa, and parts of Asia. The Judeans resisted Roman rule fiercely. While the upper classes tended to make peace, the people refused. The Jews were divided into parties and factions – Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots. Eventually, in 70 AD, the Romans razed the city of Jerusalem to the ground, completing the dispersal of the Jews, who already had settlements all over the empire.

The early Christians were one sect of Jews, feeling sectarian hatred towards the others. As time wore on, the dominant Christian faction, led by Paul of Tarsus, ceased to be Jews, no longer, for example, requiring converts to be circumcised. By the time the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written, decades after the events they purport to depict, the antagonism between Christian and Jew was very bitter.

Christianity grew stronger in the next 300 years, until it became a mighty power in the ossifying Roman Empire. At the beginning of the fourth century Christianity became the official religion of the empire, and its priesthood merged with the immensely powerful bureaucracy of the Roman state. Over time it got to the position of not having to tolerate other religions, or Christian factions other than the dominant one.

Thereafter, the New Testament and its stories, ideas and motifs became, for well over a thousand years, the main subject of art and literature.

Many dozens of generations of children were drilled in the New Testament’s malignant tales, presented as the word of God. “Who condemned Jesus Christ to death?” went the question in the Catholic catechism which, until recently, children from the age of five or six learned by heart. The answer? “Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, did it at the desire of the Jews.” Recently the Catholic Church has “exonerated” the Jews of guilt for Jesus Christ’s death – 2000 years and many millions of victims too late. An imaginary parallel will make the point clearer. Suppose that our own civilisation has broken down, as that of Rome did in the fifth and sixth centuries in Western Europe. Most of the survivors regress to subsistence farming. Literacy is almost lost, becoming the special expertise of ideologising monks and priests.

Most of our great books of learning and science are lost. Those we have saved acquire great authority in a world where scientific observation and experimentation have gone out of fashion, and where venerable authority is again, as in the Middle Ages, considered sufficient. One of the books which survives, preserved by its devotees, is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This book purports to be a Jewish account of Jewish plans to take over the world. It was forged early this century by the Okhrana, the political police of ultra-Christian Tsarist Russia.

It recast the traditional Christian Jew-hatred, with which Tsarist Russia was saturated, into a venomous modern political fantasy. It has had immense influence in this century. It has rightly been called a “warrant for genocide”.

Suppose then that in our imaginary world, thrown back to the level of barbarism, a new religion takes shape, a sort of primitive evangelical neo-Christianity, organised by a powerful caste of priests. It worships, as one of its central “holy books”, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

And then, as society evolves and develops over many hundreds of years, slowly redeveloping a civilisation, generation after generation would learn the divine truth concocted by the Okhrana policemen. It would form the subject of paintings and literature and drama. When a new Enlightenment arose, and drove this nonsense off the highways of intellectual life, it would survive as prejudice and folk-wisdom. Living Jews and their behaviour would be judged not according to everybody else’s standards, but according to the patterns of malevolence outlined in the Protocols.

This fiction is horribly close to the true story of our civilisation and its development. The New Testament – with whose vicious anti-Jewish libels we are so familiar that they can and do go unnoticed – has down the centuries been the warrant for generations and ages of anti-semitism in Eastern Europe and Russia.

The Stalinist rulers did not fight anti-semitism but fomented it. They took Christian anti-semitism and wove it into their “Protocols”, according to which the great evil conspiracy is not Jewish exactly, but “Zionist”, and centred on Israel. Many on the left, misled by their justified and proper sympathy with the Palestinian Arabs who are in conflict with the Jewish state of Israel, uncritically accept this Stalinist reworking of the old anti-Semitism.

Karl Kautsky’s detailed analysis of the anti-semitism threaded into the New Testament, and therefore at the heart of 2000 years of European civilisation, is part of the necessary antidote to this poison, which, in its “anti-Zionist” mask, still infects much of the left today.

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Goodwill and love: Louis and Jackson play and sing ‘Rockin’ Chair’

December 20, 2014 at 4:27 pm (Christmas, humanism, jazz, Jim D, love, music)

At this time of year, those of us without Christian religious convictions attempt to make the best of things by celebrating goodwill and love towards all humanity. For those of us in the jazz community, nothing can express this better than Mr Jackson Tea and his old friend Louis singing and playing ‘Rockin’ Chair’: the affection – indeed, love in the truest, platonic, sense – is obvious. It transcends all racial, cultural and other artificial divisions of humanity.

This 1957 TV performance is as near as we’ll ever get to a film of the legendary New York Town Hall performance of ten years earlier: Bobby Hackett (cornet) and Peanuts Hucko (clarinet) are once again present, which is just great; but Jackson and Louis are the timeless stars – wondrous then, now and forever:

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Behead Those Who Insult Santa!

December 14, 2014 at 12:29 am (Christmas, posted by JD, secularism, spoofs)

“I was one of you. I was a typical Canadian. I grew up on the hockey rink and spent my teenage years on stage playing guitar. I had no criminal record. I was a bright student and maintained a strong GPA in university. So how could one of your people end up in my place? And why is it that your own people are the ones turning against you at home? The answer is that we have accepted the true call of Santa Claus and his reindeer.”

#Santa
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H/t: Terry Glavin

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Maxine Sullivan sings Burton Lane: a wish granted

December 28, 2013 at 9:02 pm (Christmas, good people, jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy, song)

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 The Lady's In Love With You: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Burton Lane, Maxine Sullivan

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.

Burt

September 1985

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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

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Below: not from the ‘Burton Lane’ album, but a beautiful example of Maxine singing right at the end of her career and life:

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Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas … the saddest Christmas song?

December 25, 2013 at 12:16 am (BBC, Christmas, cinema, film, jazz, Jim D, music, song, Soul, wireless)

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!

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