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.”
A wonderful, short (less than ten minutes) documentary about women in jazz, starting with the fabulous ‘International Sweethearts Of Rhythm’, who in 1940’s America, were not only an all-female big band, but also racially integrated. The interviews with (then) surviving members (the film’s about 20 years old) are tremendously uplifting and moving. The late Marian McPartland also features:
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.
Above: Hancock (left); McNally (right)
Above: the TV version
Radio 4’s The Missing Hancocks which commemorates the sixtieth anniversary of Hancock’s Half Hour, is a treat for listeners of my generation, who can just about remember the originals. For those who don’t know, the radio show ran for 103 episodes between 1954 and 1959 on the Light Programme and at its height was a national institution. The TV version ran from 1956 to 1961. Twenty of the radio shows have been “lost” (actually, wiped by the BBC in order to re-use the tapes) but the original scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were rediscovered by the actor Neil Pearson and five (chosen by Galton and Simpson themselves) have now been re-recorded in front of a live audience at the BBC Radio Theatre.
It’s become something of a cliché to describe Hancock’s Half Hour as the first modern sitcom, but that description is probably deserved: it was certainly the first British comedy show to revolve around the characters and to dispense with catch-phrases, set-piece sketches and variety acts. And, on the whole, the shows still work today, largely thanks to Galton and Simpson’s brilliant scripts in which Charles Dickens meets Harold Pinter.
The recreations are superb and Kevin McNally does more than simply impersonate Hancock’s intonation and phrasing – he manages to convey all the pent-up frustration, self-righteousness and delusions of grandeur that constituted the Hancock persona. The rest of the cast are nearly as good, though the chap who plays Sid James doesn’t have quite the right voice.
In my humble opinion, this stuff stands up far better than most supposedly “classic” comedy, including shows of twenty or thirty years later, like the grossly over-rated Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the abysmal Only Fools And Horses, the enduring popularity of which remains the source of complete bewilderment to me.
Of course, it’s difficult to listen to these recreations without remembering the real-life Hancock’s sad decline and tragic end. And the scripts make a fascinating comparison with the show Galton and Simpson went on to write after Hancock effectively sacked them – Steptoe And Son.
This isn’t just nostalgia or show-biz archaeology – it’s genuinely “classic” comedy that still works.
I’d intended to post something at the end of last month, on the occasion of what would have been his 104th birthday, about the great jazz bassist Milt ‘The Judge’ Hinton (June 23 1910 – Dec 19 2000); but for one reason and another I didn’t get round to it.
Anyway in the Youtube video below Milt gives a lesson in jazz bass playing. And below that is a heart-warming story from fellow-bassist Bob Cranshaw, via my pal Michael Steinman at Jazz Lives.
Michael Steinman writes: The extraordinary pianist Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus) has a superb blog called DO THE MATH, and most recently he has offered a lengthy, lively conversation with string bassist Bob Cranshaw here. This story seized me.
BC: Milt Hinton was one of the first bass players that I heard. This was before TV. I heard him on the radio. I think he was my biggest influence. When I heard him play, the shit was swinging so hard that the radio was about to jump off the table. I went to my father, and I said, “I want to play that.”
I have a story about Milt when I came to New York. I had been in New York maybe a few months, and I was on 48th and Broadway. I was on my way to rehearsal with somebody and I had a bag on my bass that was raggedy and about to fall off, but I couldn’t afford anything else. I was walking down to the rehearsal and this gentleman dressed with a tie stopped me on the street. He said, “Hi. What’s your name?” I said, “Bob Cranshaw.” He said, “Are you a professional bassist?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “I’m Milt Hinton.” I said, “Oh, shit.” It was like meeting God. Here’s my mentor.
He took me into Manny’s and he bought me a bass case on the spot.
EI: Really? Hadn’t even heard you play a note?
BC: Took me and bought me a bass case right there. He said as a professional, I couldn’t be walking around with a bag like that. What I teach in my method and my thought of music is, I say, “The Milt Hinton Method,” because when I came, I followed Milt around. I used to just go. They were doing a lot of recording. They were recording all day. I would just go to the date and I would sit on the side. I didn’t want to disturb anybody, but just to watch him. What I got from watching him was when – it could be 50 musicians – when The Judge walked into the room, you could feel the energy. Everybody was talking. That was the kind of guy he was. That was the life. He was my biggest, my most wonderful influence, was watching The Judge. When I started to play, when I started to work with Joe Williams and so forth, Milt did all the record dates. He was part of the rhythm section with Osie Johnson and a couple other guys. I would go to the dates and just watch him because I was working with Joe and I was going to have to play the same music the next week. I said, “I might as well get it from the horse’s mouth. Let me get the first thing and then I have a better understanding of what I need to play when we go out on the road with Joe Williams.”
I followed Milt’s career all the way to the point where I used to call him every Sunday. I’d say, “Judge, I just want me blessing,” just to talk to him and so forth. One Sunday I called, and his wife said, “The Judge is at a club meeting.” I’m saying, “He’s almost 90 years old. What kind of club meeting? What could he be into now?” There was a club called the Friendly Fifties that are in New York and I’m a member now. I joined following his thing. It was what guys like Jonah Jones and a bunch of the older guys put together, this club, so that the wives could be more together when they were traveling. These were the early days. I became part of the Friendly Fifties, and I wrote an article for Allegro at the union about all of these famous guys that were part of this club that nobody had any idea it existed.
I love the rest of the stories — because Milt in person was the embodiment of Wise Joy — but it is the little anecdote of the bass case that catches me and will not subside into a Nice Anecdote about One of My Heroes. You will notice that Milt didn’t lecture the young man about how wrong he was; he didn’t sell him a case and ask for money to be paid back; he was serious but gently fixed what was wrong with loving alacrity.
We all praise Kindness as a virtue. We try to be Kind. But how many of us would have made it so vibrantly alive as Milt did? Kindness in Action.
Several years ago, I wrote a post I am still proud of: I called it What Would Louis Do?.
Meaning Louis no disrespect, I would like to propose the quiet religion of Hintonism. Nothing new except the name. Doing good without asking for recompense. Taking good care of a stranger.
When we lie down in bed at night, we could ask ourselves, “Did I do my Milt today?” If we did, fine. We could try to do several Milts the next day, and ever onwards. We might have less money, but we’d be surrounded by love and that love would surely be immortal. Just a thought.
May your happiness increase!
Over at Facebook, my friend Stroppy Bird keeps asking me (for reasons I have yet to fathom) whether I have any pictures of cats.
Well, I can do better than that. Here’s a short film:
Not just ‘cats’, but the Benny Goodman Orchestra and lindy-hopping as well!
The recording date was June 12, 1944. The trumpet section consisted of Billy Butterfield, Mickey McMickle and Charlie Shavers, with Cozy Cole on drums.
I was up late last night (well, this morning, to be precise), drinking single malt and surfing the net. I came upon this Youtube clip, featuring the great Harlem stride pianist Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and a singer I’d been only very vaguely aware of, Thelma Carpenter. It’s from a 1964 TV salute to bandleader/promoter/man-about-jazz Eddie Condon, and is not typical of the hot music (sometimes called “Dixieland”, though Eddie hated the term) that predominates in the rest of the show: it’s the sophisticated Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen ballad ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, a song whose difficult chord sequence and structure momentarily wrong-foots even the usually impeccable trombonist Cutty Cutshall.
In truth, Thelma Carpenter isn’t a singer in the same league as, say, Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald (or, indeed, Eddie’s favourite, Lee Wiley), but she does a good enough job here, and seems to have been an engaging personality. The Lion’s opening banter with her reminds us that he was – believe it or not – Jewish, and on his business cards described himself as “The Hebrew Cantor.”
Al Hall is on bass and the great George Wettling is at the drums. Melting-pot music…
My old friend Michael Steinman (at Jazz Lives) reminds us of a nearly-forgotten giant of the tenor sax, Leon ‘Chu’ Berry:
Above: ‘Sittin’ In’, 1937, with spoken intro from Chu and his friend, trumpeter Roy Eldridge. The chord sequence is, of course, that of ‘Tiger Rag.’
Chu arrived in New York in 1930, and acquired his nick-name (it’s said) because his goatee beard made him look like Chu Chin Chow. His tenor playing was clearly based upon that of Coleman Hawkins, but he had his own variation on the style. Digby Fairweather (in Jazz: The Rough Guide) gives a good description of the Berry variation:
“Berry’s sound was in some ways different from his rival’s [ie Hawk’s -JD]: blowsier, fuller, with a more emotive vibrato and a strange crying sound in his frequently used upper register.”
It has been suggested that Chu isn’t remembered today because he didn’t work regularly with top-class bands (he turned down an offer to join Duke Ellington). I’m not so sure: after all, he worked for a couple of years with Fletcher Henderson’s great band, and made some fantastic records with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday and Count Basie. When he joined Cab Calloway in 1937, he immediately set about transforming the band into a top-flight jazz outfit and was responsible for the recruitment of young Dizzy Gillespie. As a member of the Calloway band, Chu recorded a classic ballad version of ‘Ghost Of A Chance’ (1940):
Chu died, aged 33, on 30 October 1941, having suffered severe head injuries in a car smash on his way to a Calloway gig four days earlier. Calloway described it as “like losing a brother, someone I had joked with and hollered at. There was quiet around the band for weeks and we left his chair empty”
As well as being a human tragedy, Berry’s death was a musical one too. His (never to be heard) best work was undoubtedly ahead of him: with his advanced harmonic sensibility and prodigious technique, he would almost certainly have adapted to bop and, like Hawkins and Webster, have become a modern-mainstream elder statesman of the 1950s and ’60s.
Happily, he was extensively recorded in the course of his short career, and his playing still amazes, as in this 1939 recording of ‘Limehouse Blues’ with Wingy Manone’s band:
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: