The woman who was simply the greatest singer in the entire history of jazz was born 100 years ago. Apart from her extraordinary voice (limited but highly expressive), she tends to be remembered for her “tragic” life, bad choices in lovers and her clashes with the authorities (she was even arrested on narcotics charges as she lay dying in hospital).
She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, or even just heard her records. The British jazz critic Max Jones who met her and got to know her when she visited Britain in 1954 and then just before her death in 1959, is typical:
“Soon reports were coming in regularly of her deteriorating condition. At the end of May she collapsed and was taken to hospital, suffering from liver and heart complaints.
“Still harried by the authorities, she died in degrading circumstances at 3 a.m. on 17 July 1959, with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars in large notes strapped to her leg. She was, by her reckoning, only 44 years old. And I was halfway through a letter to her when friends telephoned to say she was dead. Though half expecting it, I was devastated by the news.
“But still, we have those many lovely or disturbing recorded performances. They will be a pleasure to my ears for the rest of my life and those of future generations for all time, I guess.”
The actor, Billy Crystal (who, it turns out, is the nephew of Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler, who recorded Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939), still remembers her.
Billie is well represented on Youtube, including her incredibly moving 1957 TV recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’ , a reunion with her old (platonic) friend and confidant Lester Young, after some years of estrangement. Then there’s the cry of pain and protest that is ‘Strange Fruit.’
But I prefer to remember the young, joyous and careless Billie of the mid-to-late 1930’s, as can be heard on this little gem from 1936 (below):
Billie even (playfully) puts drummer Cozy Cole in his place in the opening banter. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Artie Shaw on clarinet.
I asked my friend, the clarinettist and incredibly erudite jazz and dance music expert (in fact an expert on lots of things), Norman Field, about whether or not Benny Goodman is using the so-called “French embouchure” in the clip below. His reply follows:
Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
I’d read about it before, but never knew any likely chronology, except that Goodman was said to have changed to the French embouchure (otherwise known as the ‘Old embouchure’) against the advice of the distinguished British classical clarinettist Reginald Kell. Goodman evidently studied under Kell for some time. This was most likely between 1948 and 1958, as Kell spent those years in the U.S.A., but then returned briefly to the U.K. before returning to the U.S.A., where he retired in 1966 and died in 1981. (Wikipedia).
If the video dates from 1953, this would be an ideal period for Goodman, the perfectionist, to have been studying under Kell.
However, the concern about the French vs. the Modern embouchure is indeed important from a Jazz point of view. All the early New Orleans pioneer clarinettists would have been taught the French style. That is, the mouthpiece and reed are supported entirely by the upper and lower lips. The characteristics of this are a light, sweet, flute-like tone (cf. Alphonse Picou & Big Eye Louis Nelson on the Kid Rena ‘Delta’ sides of 1940). Many of the N.O. guys who went on to fame preserved this characteristic – Noone, Bigard, Nicholas, Fazola come to mind. Whether they actually all kept the French embouchure, or just its inherent beauty, is a different question.
Another advantage of the French embouchure was that it facilitated great mobility: one could execute complex rapid runs & arpeggios with less effort. It may well have been this that appealed to Goodman about using it?
The démise of the French embouchure came about, as far as I understand, for three reasons
1: The introduction of vibrato. Ironically, Kell was one of the first players who began to play with vibrato, which was hitherto absent in classical music. I have no idea what embouchure Kell used, but Goodman wanted to adopt the French ‘Old’ style, and Kell advised him against it. It has been said the Kell did not wish to be known as ‘the man who ruined Benny Goodman’! But Goodman persisted. A slow and subltly controlled vibrato is quite difficult with the French embouchure. Indeed, lip-muscle control becomes more difficult still when a player is elderly, and they may then lapse into an excessively wide vibrato. (This will naturally attract condemnation by critics who have no idea of the processes involved.)
2. The introduction of the saxophone, on which most clarinettists were, sooner or later, required to double, at least in jazz. The saxophone was initially played with the French embouchure, and so had a plain, straightforward and rather dull sound. Indeed, Debussy described it as ‘That underwater instrument’. The saxophone in jazz benefitted considerably from vibrato, so this was naturally transferred back into the clarinet playing, and the New embouchure (as described below) was rapidly adopted as being more convenient for vibrato.
3. Volume. As the 1920 went into the 1930s, bands got louder. By the late 1930 they were very loud indeed, but mostly there was still only one microphone, for the bandleader out front and the vocalists. The idea of some guy getting up and playing piercing high notes on clarinet over six brass & fives saxes using the old embouchure is, to me, simply inconceivable! The clarinet was a delicate, ‘indoor’ instrument; trumpets, trombones and saxophones were ‘outdoor’ instruments. There was no contest. Only the most powerful & rugged clarinet players, using the new embouchure which was capable of being louder, might make themselves heard, faintly. Of course, Goodman would have been out the front, with a microphone to hand. You will understand that this is no criticism of Goodman. Bigard recalled that when Teagarden left the Louis Armstrong All-stars and Trummy Young came in, ‘I really had to crowd the microphone’. Q.E.D.
It’s a fascinating subject, and obviously, one very dear to my heart.
Apologies to all (and especially Irish comrades) for failing to mark St Pat’s Day.
To make up for this, here’s Ben Webster (and his performance is beautiful):
Ben Webster (tenor sax), Kenny Drew (piano), Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass), Alex Riel (drums). Denmark, 1965.
Marty Grosz is 85 on Saturday February 28.
As well as being a superb rhythm and chordal guitarist is the tradition of Karl Kress and Dick McDonough, Marty is also an engaging vocalist, a raconteur of Olympian stature, a writer, graphic artist (he is son of George after all) and social commentator … in fact a true renaissance man.
Here he is, a few years ago, playing his ‘Horace Gerlach medley’ with characteristic opening remarks:
And here, from the sleeve notes to his 2000 Jazzology album Left To His Own Devices, is his philosophy of jazz:
“PUT JAZZ BACK INTO THE SALOONS”
Forty years ago I had [a] card printed that bore the legend “Put Jazz Back into the Saloons.” If I were left to my own devices, that is exactly what I would do.
When I got into jazz, during the late Pleistocene era, besides embracing the music, I embraced its anti-establishment climate. I was fond of small improvising groups who played hot music unencumbered by the reams of music manuscript that suffocated individuality in large orchestras. Jamming in some low joint far from the pompous, santitized, pious atmosphere of the concert hall enthralled me.
Nowadays when I tread the boards, I often tread upon the planks of exactly those pristine concert stages – stages intended for the performance of a Schubert Lied or a Stravinsky wind octet. But I’ve never quite acclimatised myself to performing for concert-goers stacked neatly like eggs in their cartons. We hot musicians strut and sweat, toot and bang, scrape and strum; and now and then a fan will register involvement by tapping his or her toe ever so discreetly. Most jazz audiences could be whisked away and plunked down in the midst of a Sunday service at the first Episcopal Church of Greenwich, Connecticut without incurring so much as a raised eyebrow.
Nay, Nay, give me the gin mill of yesteryear, that murky shoe box from whose floors and walls oozed a miasma of tobacco fumes, whiskey breath, stale-beer vapors, the aroma of Tangee Lipstick and Sen-Sen breath pastilles, the scent of Lucky Tiger hair pomade, the odors of show polish, roach paste and toilet disinfectant.
A mahogany bar near the front door was manned by a whey-faced “mixologist” with the sour countenance of one who has heard every joke and clever saying and knows that he is going to hear them again and again until the day the D.T.’s get him and he is carted off.
Flanking the bar like bookends sat two female soldiers of fortune, no longer in the first bloom of youth, perhaps, but not yet inclined towards domestication. Perched insouciantly on leatherette bar stools in ways designed to call attention to their skimpy skirts, mesh stockings and stiletto heels, they cradled long-stemmed glasses filled with a green liqueur and ice cubes that tinkled like little bells. Each wore her version of what columnists used to call a “come-hither look”, cool, sloe-eyed glances that assumed an inner glow at the sight of a big butter-and-egg man unfolding a ten dollar bill or something larger.
At the opposite end of this long dark space stood a bandstand the size of a ouija board. Six or seven or eight musicians plus a drums set, a string bass, and an upright piano fit on the stand like interlocking pieces of a Rubik’s Cube. If a saxophonist on the far left reached into his pocket for a match and inadvertently bumped the drummer, he could cause a chain reaction. The drummer would lean into the bass player, whose bow then prods the piano player’s back just as the latter is raising a tumbler to his lips, causing him to dribble whiskey onto the keyboard. The pianist unleashed a string of oaths and foul imprecations, which are perceived as offensive by a female customer in a tiny pill-box hat, causing her escort to rise off his chair and to castigate the pianist for his improper language, whereupon the pianist challenges the gentleman to “try and do something about it.” This prompts the gentleman to remove his jacket as a foretoken of fisticuffs. Raised voices result in the arrival on the scene of a waiter who doubles as a bouncer and who deftly defuses the conflict by pushing the irate gentleman into his seat while cooing the calming words, “Shut up and sit down.” The orchestra, as is its wont in times of audience unrest, combs its repertoire for a properly soothing selection and settles on ‘Tiger Rag’ or ‘Crazy Rhythm’.
When the rhythm moved them, which was just about anytime the band started up, twenty to thirty dancers jostled, elbowed, and kickedone another, alternately glued together like limpets, or tossing each other about like boomerangs, all on a dance floor intended for ten persons. Laughing, hugging, groping, banging into tables, sending glasses to the floor, they tried to dodge the trombonist’s slide which projected over the edge of the bandstand.
How this frenzied stew of foul air, roistering patrons, long hours and low wages combined to produce beautiful music is not as difficult to explain as one may think. Musicians had a full evening till two or three in the morning, six nights a week, to lock into a groove – something that’s almost impossible to accomplish in the two brief halves of a concert format. Players knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses and could compliment each one another’s styles. Dancers were crucial in that they had a way of encouraging a musician to concentrate on the pulse of the music, causing him to think more of “swinging” and less of showing off with empty technical gestures and cheesy visual tricks. “Swing” was the catchword. Trash all those glib announcements: “Swing Fast”, “Swing Slow”: just Swing.
So how, you may ask, in view of the fact that hot music dives have died and gone to their reward, do I cope? I just pop a time-warp pill, and then, in my mind I’m back in The Peek-A-Boo Lounge, The Tropics, The Bar-O-Music, The Gaslight Club, The Blackstone Hotel, The Old Town Gate, imagining the guys on this CD are with me.
Tuesday February 17 is Mardi Gras and here’s some appropriate music to honour New Orleans (which deserves honouring as it heroically recovers from Katrina):
Louis Armstrong plays Hoagy Carmichael’s tune ‘Jubilee’, first of all at the head of a parade (admittedly, not a New Orleans parade) in the 1937 Mae West film Every Day’s A Holiday:
… and then on the famous January 1938 recording:
This also gives me an excuse to bring you the late Richard M. Sudhalter’s marvellous, descriptive, jazz writing (from his 2003 book Stardust Melody: The Life of Hoagy Carmichael):
Armstrong recorded “Jubilee” for Decca on January 12, 1938, backed by Luis Russell’s orchestra, and his performance stands out for a great jazzman’s ability to ennoble an otherwise pedestrian song through majesty of conception and execution. After making short (if enjoyable) work of Adams’s generic “let’s all have a good time” lyric, Louis points his Selmer trumpet to the heavens and, lofted atop Paul Barbarin’s drumming, rides “Jubilee” into high orbit.
He spends one chorus paraphrasing the melody over band riffs, then intones complementary replies as Russell’s horns punch out the melody in the second. Taking over at the bridge, he works into a final soaring, transcendent high concert F. The balance and wisdom of these seventy-four bars defy explanation or analysis: what divine intuition dictated that he hold the concert G in bar 26 of the final chorus (corresponding to the word “of” in the phrase “carnival of joy”) for three and one half beats, rather than the gone-in-a-blink eighth note assigned to it by the lyric, before landing emphatically on the F for “joy”? Only a peerless aesthetic sense could have understood the effect of that move, one among many, on the emotional density of its phrase. The word “genius”, so devalued in this age of inflated superlatives, surely finds its rightful application in such details.”
Brian Parsons died on Saturday morning, after a long illness (a brain tumour).
Brian had been very politically active in the 1970s and was, briefly, associated with the libertarian-left group Big Flame. He was also a great champion of a wide range of music and pioneered appreciation of what became known as “world music” by means of his Bongo-Go disco (with occasional live sessions), which for many years were a hugely popular feature of Birmingham night-life, at the Moseley Dance Centre. He also supported live jazz and blues: I last saw him about a year ago at a gig featuring the Kinda Dukish Big Band – apparently he’d long been a passionate enthusiast of the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn – something I’d never realised.
Meanwhile, he never lost his political commitment and remained a friend of equality and justice all his life.
So long, old friend and comrade!
H/t Terry Lilly
The great clarinettist Buddy DeFranco died on December 24, and I’ve been meaning to write something about him ever since, but always seem to have been preoccupied by other matters.
Well, now Buddy himself has saved me the trouble. Here’s a fascinating piece he wrote for Down Beat magazine, published in their March 11 1953 edition:
My Favorite Clarinetists by Buddy DeFranco
(Ed. note: Buddy DeFranco started winning in the clarinet division of the Down Beat poll in 1945 and hasn’t stopped grabbing plaques since. He’s taken eight in a row, and we thought that it would be of much interest to Down Beat readers to see who the men were that most influenced Buddy’s style.)
There are, naturally, many clarinetists whose playing influenced mine and to whom I listened as often as I could. But I have been asked to name those whom I consider tops in the field and who did most to shape my clarinet style. they are, in order:
* Benny Goodman. I pick benny first just for his sheer proficiency as a clarinetist. He has a good tone, clean, sure technique, and a basic pulse which he introduced as “swing” many years ago. He’s just an automatic first and my idol for years.
* Artie Shaw. I’d name Artie second because of his fluent style and originality. He could handle a melody as easily as a swing piece. And he also has a fine harmonic sense. I had figured that Artie would move more and more into the progressive field, but unfortunately I was disappointed.
* Stan Hasselgard. My deepest regret is that Stan is not with us today. I have the feeling that he would eventually have surpassed everyone in the field of clarinet jazz.
I have often been asked if I ever felt jealous of or vindictive toward Stan. I can say only that during the short time I knew him, he was a warm, honest human being. His kind of competition would have been healthy. Perhaps we could have created (commercially, that is) the same fervour and interest in the clarinet that Benny and Artie did a few years back.
* Jimmy Hamilton. A guy with a good tone, excellent technique, and an original style. I expect great things from Jimmy in the coming years.
* Peanuts Hucko. Although I feel that perhaps Peanuts sounds too close to Benny and not original enough, he nevertheless has excellent facility and an exceptional tone.
* Abe Most. Again I get the feeling that Abe sounds a little too much like someone else, in this case Artie Shaw. But he sure can handle a clarinet.
* Johnny Mince. Johnny has been a favourite of mine ever since I heard him years ago with Tommy Dorsey, when he was playing some brilliantly fast and creative things. I honestly feel that if Johnny weren’t hindered in his present surroundings (studio work) he would definitely make his mark in the modern jazz field.
* Tony Scott. Tony is another clarinetist who is developing a personal style and just at the beginning of what will be a big career. He is acquiring great proficiency and a keen harmonic sense.
There are other clarinetists, too, whom I admire a great deal. Lester Young, for one. I consider his jazz ideas the greatest of anyone’s, but the infrequency with which he plays clarinet keeps him from the list.
Another man, too, who is a great all-round musician and is skilled on clarinet but seldom plays it is Benny Carter. Sol Yaged, too, should be mentioned.
That’s it. That’s my list. I’ve probably forgotten half a dozen guys who should be on it, but the ones I’ve mentioned I think would qualify in anyone’s book.
I can think of no more bracing, positive and life-affirming start to 2015 than this magnificent performance by Henry ‘Red’ Allen, recorded live in 1965 with a quartet that included pianist Sammy Price:
Almost unbelievably, Red had just two years to live when he recorded this, the high point of a late-period revival in his musical and personal fortunes.
Philip Larkin wrote: “There was always something unusual about Allen’s playing: even at the start he tended to sound like Armstrong in a distorting mirror, and by the end of his life an Allen solo was a brooding, gobbling, stretched, telegraphic thing of half-notes and quarter-tones, while an Allen vocal sounded like a man with a bad conscience talking in his sleep.” I trust it’s obvious that Mr Larkin meant all that approvingly.
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:
This interview first appeared in the ‘Jazz At Ronnie Scott’s’ magazine of November-December 1996. It doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on the web, so I’ve republished it here. I think it’s a classic, especially as the interviewer, the late Jim Godbolt, was known as something of a curmudgeon, but met his match in the legendarily irascible Mr Braff; we start with Godbolt’s introduction:
That very perceptive and admirably descriptive critic Whitney Balliett, commenting on jazz trumpeters/cornettists, pointed to the diminutive stature of Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Bix Bederbecke, Charlie Shavers, Ray Nance, Bobby Hackett and Miles Davis.’The larger the lyric soul, it woud seem,the smaller its house’, wrote Balliet. This was his introduction to a monograph on Ruby Braff; five feet four inches and notorious for an equally short fuse.
I knew the stories about Reuben: his favourite tune is Just Me, Just Me, and that his favourite book is ‘Mr Hyde and Mr Hyde’.Indeed, one of is albums s entitled Me, Myself and I, described in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CDs, LPs and cassettes as ‘Mainstream Jazz at its very best’, a tome Ruby obviously has not read, for him to be advised in what category he is generally placed in jazz literature.
Another tale concerning the forthright Mr. Braff was when he was appearing in a package led by festival organiser George Wein at Ronnie Scott’s Club. Wein was the pianist, Ruby the cornettist and when Wein commenced a solo Braff, heard all over the room on the microphone, said to Wein, ‘Keep it simple, George, don’t try and express yourself.’ Yet another story was record producer Dave Bennett enquiring of Ruby, ‘Didn’t you once share a flat with Kenny Davern? ‘ And Braff’s curt response was, ‘No, he lived below me, where he belonged.’
My interview with him (and our very first meeting) at the Dean Street, Soho, flat where he was staying, didn’t get off to a flying start. We shook hands, he howled in pain. He then introduced me to guitarist Howard Alden, grunting, ‘If you’re going to shake hands with him, please don’t break his fingers, he needs them to play with me tonight.’ And things got worse. Ruby doesn’t look at you; he grimaces and glowers. He doesn’t talk. He rasps, growls, grunts and grates. Emphatically so when he took exception to my opening comments, the thrust of which was that he was born in 1927, very much younger than those who seemingly, inspired him — Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett and others of that ilk. Unwisely, I referred to him belonging to an older tradition.
RB: What the fuck do you mean by an older tradition! I don’t want to know about any older tradition! I’ve never played like anybody and nobody plays like me.
JG: Ruby, I am stating what people like Whitney Balliett and Max Jones and many others, have said about you.
RB: I don’t give a shit what’s been said about me. Most of it’s inaccurate anyway. I don’t care about most people. I have nothing to do with most people. The best thing to do in an interview is to take it from the source.
JG: May I ask you then, why, as a contemporary of, say, Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown, you don’t elect to play in the so-called bebop idiom?
RB: That’s a fucking dumb question! Do they play like me? I don’t play any style but my own. Do you go up to Johnny Hodges and ask him why he doesn’t play like this or that guy? Would you go up to Teddy Wilson and ask him why he doesn’t play like Lil Hardin or Bud Powell? Do you really wanna go on with this?
I had heard of interviews with Ruby that terminated suddenly, and this came very near to being one of them. I thought I would have to pack up my Walkman and walk. Desperately, I looked at my notes and my eye fell on the name of John Hammond.
JG: Can I ask you about John Hammond? Read the rest of this entry »