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.
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.
I saw you last night…
I saw you last night and got that old feeling
When you came in sight, I got that old feeling
The moment that you danced by I felt a thrill
And when you caught my eye my heart stood still
Once again I seemed to feel that old yearning
Then I knew the spark of love was still burning
There’ll be no new romance for me, it’s foolish to start
‘Cause that old feeling is still in my heart
A lovely, and seasonally appropriate ballad, performed by a singer I know nothing about (other than what I’ve gleaned from her Wikipedia entry), Eydie Gormé:
The song was written by Henry Nemo, an interesting character
Other nice versions:
I learned from Radio 4’s Poetry Please that last Thursday, October 2nd, was National Poetry Day, on the theme of “Remember.”
Ever since I first heard it sung (on a 1938 record by Connee Boswell), I’ve thought that Irving Berlin’s 1925 song ‘(You Forgot To) Remember’ was sheer poetry. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Connee’s version on Youtube, but I did stumble across a remarkably moving version by Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards, an extraordinary entertainer from the 1920’s and ’30’s, who is now only (if at all) remembered as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio:
Remember the night, the night you said, “I love you”
Remember you vowed by all the stars above you
Remember we found a lonely spot
And after I learned to care a lot
You promised that you’d forget me not
But you forgot to remember
Into my dreams you wandered it seems, and then there came a day
You loved me too, my dreams had come true, and all the world was May
But soon the Maytime turned to December
You had forgotten, do you remember?
PS: here’s Connee Boswell singing another lovely old tear-jerker, ‘In The Middle Of A Kiss’.
Here’s a slightly amended and extended version of a review I’ve written for Just Jazz magazine. I have no commercial interest on this CD:
Hoagy, by the Chris Ingham Quartet
Downhome Records DOH0001
Riverboat Shuffle; Washboard Blues; Old Music Master; Memphis In June; My Resistance Is Low; Lazy Bones; Hong Kong Blues; Dear Bix; How Little We Know; Old Man Harlem; Baltimore Oriole; Old Buttermilk Sky; Skylark; Huggin’ And Chalkin’; Georgia On My Mind; Stardust
Chris Ingham (piano, vocals), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Rev. Andrew Brown (bass), Russell Morgan (drums)
Recorded at Toucan Tango Studios, UK, 13 December, 2013
Hoagland Howard ‘Hoagy’ Carmichael always considered himself to be, first and foremost, a “jazz guy” (his son’s description) and over the years his tunes have brought forth monumental performances from jazz musicians as disparate as Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane, both of whom recorded unforgettable versions of Hoagy’s masterpiece Stardust (Louis with his big band in 1931 and ‘Trane on his Standards album of 1958).
But it was Bix Beiderbecke, of course, who was Hoagy’s first and most enduring musical inspiration, and for whom he wrote his first composition, Riverboat Shuffle. So it’s only right and proper that this delightful album opens with that seminal number, and that trumpeter Paul Higgs paraphrases Bix’s 1927 solo, before launching into his own cool-school interpretation. It is also appropriate that one of the two non-Hoagy compositions on the album should be Dave Frishberg’s heartbreaking Dear Bix.
Leader Chris Ingham, as well as being a fine pianist (considerably better than Hoagy himself, if truth is told), also handles the vocals and stays pretty close to Carmichael’s 1940s Decca recordings. As Mr Ingham writes in his brief but erudite sleeve-notes, “We’ve resisted the temptation to reinvent the wheel here. Get too clever with stuff that’s already clever, you could end up with something stupid.”
Much of Hoagy’s material is, indeed, “clever” – and “whimsical” and “wry” and all those other words that might lead you to write him off as a lightweight. But listen to Stardust (or should it be Star Dust?) and Skylark and you will hear (as the late Richard Sudhalter noted) the melodic shapes, harmonies and sheer beauty of a Bix cornet solo. And when it comes to Washboard Blues, listen to the lyric: Hoagy didn’t write it (he only wrote the tune in this case), but he must have approved of it, and he sang it on several recordings. The lyric (clearly intended to be the thoughts of an impoverished black woman) concludes as follows:
I’m going to that river, going down to that river some day.
Hurry, day. Hurry.
I’s going down to that river, going down to that river some day.
And throw myself, self away.
I’m going to that river, going down to that river some day.
Hurry, day. Hurry, day. Hurry, day. Hurry…
If you’re already familiar with ‘Hoagland’ – small-town Americana, home-spun wisdom and a bittersweet yearning for something better that you somehow know will never come – then this CD will meet all your expectations. If Carmichael’s world is as yet unfamiliar to you, then this is as good a place to start as any.
By a melancholy coincidence, just as this album arrived, the news came through that sultry Lauren Bacall had died. A visit to Youtube’s clips from the 1944 film To Have And Have Not found Bacall singing How Little We Know (yes, it really was her voice, not Andy Williams’), accompanied by Hoagy at the piano. And watching that old classic confirmed the perceptive truth of Mr Ingham’s sleeve-note observation: “Hoagy was always the hippest guy in the room. Coolly apart from the central action, but all-seeing, all-understanding and always on hand to offer pithy philosophies to the hapless protagonists. And when he played his mysterious, dreamy, amusing songs, people stopped for a moment and listened, felt something and changed a little.”
That about sums up Hoagy and his world: to experience just some of it for yourself, buy this CD and be transported to Hoagland.
The wonderful Maxine Sullivan sings Loch Lomond. Somehow, this seems appropriate right now:
The death of Lauren Bacall (pictured above with husband Humphrey Bogart leading a 1947 march against McCarthy’s witch hunt of leftists and liberals) robs us of the last great star from Hollwood’s ‘golden age’ and a brave liberal – in the best sense of the word. She described herself to TV host Larry King, in 2005, as “anti-Republican and a liberal. The L-word. Being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”
I can’t resist the opportunity to show you a clip of Bacall in her first film, Howard Hawks’ 1944 ‘To Have And Have Not’, in which she sings the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer number ‘How Little We Know’, accompanied by Hoagy himself at the piano. For many years it was thought that Bacall’s singing was dubbed by the young Andy Williams, but Hawks confirmed (in Joseph McBride’s book ‘Hawks on Hawks’) that although Williams’ voice was recorded, it was not used because he (Hawks) decided Bacall’s voice was good enough.
Singer Jimmy Scott died Thursday morning at his home in Las Vegas at age 88, according to his booking agent, Jean-Pierre Leduc. Scott’s death was a result of complications from Kallmann’s syndrome, a lifelong affliction that prevented his body from maturing through puberty.
Scott was labeled Little Jimmy Scott by bandleader Lionel Hampton in the late 1940s. Hampton also delivered the first of many professional slights in 1949 when he left Scott’s name off on an early hit, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”
Scott’s career seemed promising after he left Hampton’s orchestra. He recorded for various independent labels and toured with a revue run by dancer Estelle “Caledonia” Young that included R&B singer Big Maybelle and comedian Redd Foxx.
Throughout the early ’50s and ’60s, Scott recorded for various indie labels including Savoy, where he was under the tight control of owner Herman Lubinsky.
According to Scott’s 2002 autobiography, The Life of Jimmy Scott (written with David Ritz), Lubinsky halted production of a 1963 album that was personally supervised by Scott fan Ray Charles for his own Tangerine label. Lubinsky used legal proceedings to halt distribution, claiming Scott was under contract to Savoy. The album was eventually rescued and released in 2003 and has been widely hailed as one of the great jazz vocal albums.
The experience of having his album shelved — not to mention the hardships he experienced being misidentified as a woman, accused of drug addiction and harassed about his sexual identity because of his voice — took a toll and Scott left the music business, moving back to his native Cleveland and becoming a hotel clerk.
Despite his absence, Scott maintained friends and fans in the music business, including legendary R&B producer Doc Pomus, who requested that Scott sing at his 1991 funeral. A record executive in attendance heard the performance and signed him to a record contract on the spot, kick-starting Scott’s second act. This time adulation came rushing in, resulting in a string of albums that received both popular and critical acclaim. He even appeared in the final episode of the singular TV hit Twin Peaks.
For most of his nearly nine decades Scott’s life and art were affected by loss: first his mother’s death when he was 13, then the personal slights and missed opportunities in his fractured career and decades of anonymity away from the record business. In 2000, The New York Times called him “perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century.”
And yet in a late-career interview Scott was philosophical about the bad breaks he had caught along the way. “I’ve learned that music is such a healer,” he said. “As long as I could sing my songs, I wasn’t as angry about what had happened, about being shoved back for this or shoved back for the other. I’m a singer, and I never lost sight of that.”
From And Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou ,1978.
Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House Inc., 1994)