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.
Above: the only known film of Snoozer, with his ‘Snoozer’s Telephone Blues’ dubbed
I’ve been vaguely aware for some years, of a legendary jazz guitarist called Snoozer Quinn. I knew from something I’d read, that he was highly regarded by fellow musicians in the 1920’s and 30’s, but didn’t record much until he was – literally – on his death bed in a TB sanitorium in the late 1940’s, when someone brought in a portable recording machine and asked him to play into it.
Some of these recordings have been available on the internet for a while, but not the complete set and not on CD. Now, Mike Dine’s 504 Records has put out all 12 of these death-bed recordings known to exist, on a CD called ‘The Magic Of Snoozer Quinn’.
Here are the very detailed and knowledgeable CD booklet-notes by Charlie Crump:
Snoozer Quinn was a classic example of a musician’s musician.
Born Elvin McIntosh Quinn in McComb, Mississippi on October 18th 1906, he was a child prodigy, learning to play mandolin and violin by the age of seven, before taking up the guitar which was to become his instrument of choice.
After the family moved to Bogalusa, La, he became a professional musician, playing with the family band before going on the road at the age of seventeen with bands led by Jack Wilrich and later Mart Britt. He first met Johnny Wiggs in 1924 when he joined Peck Kelly’s Texas based band, then playing in Shreveport, La. Returnin to Bogalusa, Snoozer was picked up by Wingy Mannone who was putting together a New Orleans style band for a gig at Bob White and Eddie Connors Somerset Club in San Antonio, Texas. Joe Mannone’s New Orleans Rhythm Band consisted of Wingy Mannone (tpt), Don Ellis (sax), Charles ‘Pee Wee’ Russell (clt), Joe Lamar (pno), Snoozer Quinn (gtr), Joe ‘Hooknose’ Loycano (bs), Clause Humphries (ds), the job lasted three months.
From late 1925 to 1928 he played in the New Orleans area where he was heard at an after hours jam session by members of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, including Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, then playing at the St. Charles Theatre in October 1928. Trumbauer was so impressed with Snoozer’s playing that he took him to Paul Whiteman’s room so that he could hear him play. Johnny Wiggs recalled that one of Snoozer’s tricks was to play pizzicato and hold the chord with one hand and shoot out the other to shake your hand. He did this to Whiteman while playing ‘Tiger Rag’. Whiteman was so knocked out by this that he immediately offered Snoozer a job, and he played with the Whiteman organisation until around mid-April 1929.
As far as recordings were concerned this move did not do much to enhance Snoozer’s career, as he only appeared on two, or possibly three, over the Whiteman period. At the end of his stay with Whiteman he appeared on Bing Crosby’s first session to be issued under his own name and on a session, rejected at the time, by (singer) Bee Palmer which included Frank Trumbauer and an inaudible Bix Beiderbecke and has only recently seen the light of day as a CD issue (and on youtube). Discographies also list him as appearing on the Columbia issue of the Mason-Dixie Orchestra, a Frank Trumbauer group, shortly after leaving Whiteman. His only other recordings were a rejected session for Victor in San Antonio in May 1928 and ten titles with another guitarist as accompanist to Jimmie Davis on ten country styled tracks in May 1931.
After the Jimmie Davis period he played with Earl Crumb’s Band in New Orleans over a long period in the early 1930’s and continued to work in the South until the end of his playing career was brought about by failing health at the end of that decade.
However, he started playing regularly again by the mid-1940’s, including a long spell with Earl Crumb’s Band at the Beverly Gardens Restaurant on Jefferson Highway in New Orleans. One of Snoozer’s last appearances was at the New Orleans Jazz Foundation Concert in April 1948.
Advanced tuberculosis caused him to be confined to a sanatorium for the last few years of his life. Effectively that would have meant the end of Snoozer’s music had it not been for Johnny Wiggs, who had maintained contact with him over the years and considered his music of sufficient importance to justify a further attempt to preserve Snoozer’s guitar work. Although he had spent over 20 years as a teacher of mechanical drawing and had only recently started playing again, Wiggs took his cornet, a portable recording machine and blanks to the sanatorium where Snoozer was a patient. The twelve tracks presented here, some of which have Wiggs added on cornet, are those recorded at the time. Four of the titles were issued privately by Johnny Wiggs on two 78rpm records on his Wiggs Inc. label and are included in this set which represents all those that were recorded at that time.
Given the circumstances of the recording the results are remarkably good, with only one track showing any sign of groove damage.
The exact dates of the recordings are unknown but they fall between the dates of Snoozer’s entry to the Sanatorium in 1948 and his death in 1949.
* H/t: Jason Hill (for bringing my attention to the youtube film)
* ‘The Magic Of Snoozer Quinn’ is available from 504 Records, 20 Clifton Road, Welling, Kent, DA16 1QA, England. Tel: 020 8303 9719
* Lots more on Snoozer, here
* Finally, I hope it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I have no commercial interest in this CD.
Congratulations to Dave ‘Blind Lemon’ Osler for initiaing this. At one point Dave was looking for a drummer and I considered offering my services, but the thought of getting a drum kit to a gig in central London was just too terrifying – JD
Some causes transcend political barriers. The plight of those trapped between the murderers of the Islamic State and the slaughter at the hands of Assad’s forces is one of those issues.
The Facebook Event page is here:
On Saturday, 6 December, a band composed of bloggers, journalists and political activists from across the political spectrum will be playing a gig to support Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) and their vital work in the region.
Dubbed “The Half Decents”, our ad-hoc band will perform a familiar blend of rock classics and blues standards, with a sprinkling of indie pop. The evening will be hosted by 89Up, the public affairs agency (http://www.89up.org/), and will include guest speakers and a support act.
We’re asking anybody who wants to attend to donate at least £10 to Medecins Sans Frontiers, via this special JustGiving Fundraising Page.
Leave your name and we will email before the gig with all the details you will need.
The Half Decents is made up of Davis Lewin (Henry Jackson Society), Paul Evans (Slugger O’Toole), David Osler (ex Tribune), David Toube (Harry’s Place), Brett Lock (ex OutRage!) and Adam Barnett (East London Advertiser).
Thanks to ex-blogger Yvonne, aka “Stroppy Bird”, for a fabulous party on her 50th:
I had a great time and was hugely entertained by Rosie Kane’s stand-up act. I also met Comrade Coatesy, in person, for the first time (and it’s not true that we had a ‘punch-up': in fact, we got on very well).
Madame Stroppy’s partner, the ex-blogger Dave Osler, and I, performed (and I sang and played comb-and-paper on) a 12-bar blues:
Rosie, and others, asked me about the comb-and-paper, and I freely admitted that my inspiration on this ‘instrument’ comes from the 1920’s comb-and-paper master, Red McKenzie:
So I hope, Madame Stroppy, that the spirit of Red McKenzie contributed to a great evening in your honour!
Extreme weather and flooding having become a highly-charged political issue in the UK. So I thought Bessie Smith’s blues (superbly accompanied by pianist James P. Johnson) about the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 might be appropriate:
This is dedicated to all the people of the ‘Somerset Levels’ who’ve had to suffer so much over the past weeks. I’d also like to dedicate it to Lord Chris Smith of the Environmental Agency, a decent man whose monumentally inept handling of the situation and lack of PR skills are making it increasingly likely that he’s going to be made the scapegoat for this fiasco.
But, for now, let’s just enjoy Bessie’s incredible voice…
2014 came in badly as far I was concerned: checking old friend Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives blog, I saw that Bobby Gordon died on 31st December.
Most of you will never have heard of Bobby, who was an American jazz clarinettist who came on the scene playing Condon-style jazz and swing, just as that style was going out of fashion. Nevertheless, he played some great music and, thinking about him, I realised he’d been on many of my favourite jazz CD’s of the 1980s and ’90’s, with Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham, Rebecca Kilgore and Hal Smith. His clarinet playing reflected his personality: modest, shy, understated, but intense and very, very beautiful. Back in the early 1960’s American Decca hired him to make an album with strings, in an attempt to emulate Acker Bilk’s UK hit ‘Stranger On The Shore’ : sadly, it didn’t achieve the same kind of sales. The nearest Bobby ever came to fame and fortune was his time in the 1980’s, accompanying singer Leon Redbone – and even that brief moment of relative success involved an horrific air crash, from which both of them were lucky to survive.
Bobby was one of the many unsung greats of jazz: not many people remember him, but those who do will always appreciate his great soul and blue-tinged sad-happy improvisations. Bobby’s main inspiration and mentor was the 1930’s Chicago/New York clarinettist Joe Marsala, to whom he paid musical tribute on several occasions, including two ‘Arbors’ CD’s (Don’t Let It End and Lower Register). Another influence was Pee Wee Russell and here’s Bobby, in 2010, remembering him on Pee Wee’s Blues:
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.
Some readers may have been mystified as to why on Saturday, apparently for no particular reason, I posted a short piece on Billy Taylor’s composition ‘I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free).’
The reason was that today (Nov 12) is the 50th anniversary of the original recording of the tune by Billy Taylor’s Trio. My little post, complete with YouTube clips by Taylor and Nina Simone, was prepared in advance, all ready to go up today. Then I pressed the wrong button and posted it early.
So here, on the anniversary itself, is the original version from Taylor’s album Right Here, Right Now, released early in 1964, but recorded exactly 50 years ago today:
…about jazz and much else…
Above: Murray (left) and friend Ralph Ellison
By Eugene Holley (at npr’s a blog supreme)
An essayist, cultural theorist, novelist, educator and biographer who died on August 18 at 97, Albert Murray spent more than five decades developing his thesis that America is a culturally miscegenated nation. His contention was that blacks are part white, and vice versa: that both races, in spite of slavery and racism, have borrowed from and created each other. In all of his writing, jazz music — derived from the blues idiom of African-Americans — was the soundtrack at the center of his aesthetic conception.
For the Alabama-bred, Tuskegee Institute-educated, New York-based Murray — and his Tuskegee classmate and aesthetic fellow traveler Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man — jazz was “the embodiment of the American experience, the American spirit, the American ideal,” he is quoted as saying in Jazz: A History of America’s Music, the companion book to the PBS documentary series for which he served as commentator and artistic consultant. It was the creation of a sepia panorama of black, brown and beige people, partially descended from Africa but fully Euro-American in outlook, character and aspiration.
“The omni-Americans are the Americans. My conception makes Americans identify with all their ancestors.” —interview in American Heritage, September 1996
To fully understand Albert Murray’s jazz aesthetic, a vital part of the worldview he called “Cosmos Murray,” you have to read his first book, The Omni-Americans (1970). The collection of essays counter-states “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology” as social-science fictions that dehumanize black people as inferior. “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite,” he writes.
In The Omni-Americans, Murray critiques black authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin for creating clichéd views of black life; Afrocentric romanticism and the separatist tendencies of Black Nationalism; and well-meaning but paternalizing U.S. inner city social programs. Murray’s answer to such folly is the blues: home-grown black music that acknowledges the “essentially tenuous nature of all human existence … through the full, sharp and inescapable awareness of them.” In the subsequent essay collection The Hero and the Blues (1973), Murray celebrates the bluesman as an epic hero who, in his tragicomic lyricism, confronts the difficulties of life through the creation of a resilient art.
“We invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need.” —interview in American Heritage, September 1996
Musically speaking, all this leads up to Stomping the Blues (1976). Beautifully illustrated with vivid period photos, LP covers and broadsides of black jazz icons, Stomping represents the zenith of his writing on the subject. Eschewing a bleak sociological approach for affirmative, literary prose, Murray celebrates jazz as the most advanced and comprehensive blues-derived art form, one which ritualistically provides people with “equipment for living.” The music serves as a “stylistic code for representing the most difficult conditions, but also provides a strategy for living with and triumphing over those conditions with dignity, grace, and elegance.” In other words, one does not kill the blues, but one can, by what he called “the velocity of celebration,” stomp the blues to keep them at bay.
In Stomping, Murray portrays African-American musicians like bandleader Duke Ellington, singers Jimmy Rushing and Ella Fitzgerald, and saxophonists Lester Young and Johnny Hodges as courageous blues stompers. Their artistry is “a synthesis of African and European elements, the product of an African sensibility in an American mainland situation.” Musicologically, Murray also examines jazz in its myriad locales, inventions and dimensions, from New Orleans and Chicago to Kansas City and Harlem, and how it grew from a folk art to a fine art, “stylized into aesthetic statement.”
Murray also co-wrote Good Morning Blues (1985), the intimate autobiography of the pianist and bandleader Count Basie. It covers the halcyon days of Kansas City in the ’30s, where Negro territory bands reigned supreme and where Basie — who hailed from the East Coast — transformed his stride-style piano into the rugged, 4/4 swing that characterized the driving Kansas City sound. The Blue Devils of Nada (1996) features more impassioned essays on Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and his friend, collage artist Romare Bearden. Jazz and the blues also color his quartet of semi-autobiographical novels, starting with Train Whistle Guitar (1974), a coming-of-age chronicle of a boy named Scooter who hails from Alabama, grows up to be a college-educated bassist and leaves home to find fame in Harlem-like Philamayork.
“Jazz is only possible in a culture of freedom.” —from Jazz: A History of America’s Music
Though Murray was not as well-known as his contemporaries Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, his work not only lives on in his books, but also in well-known Murray-ites. Writer and cultural critic Stanley Crouch, whose long-awaited biography of Charlie Parker will be published in September, is a prominent one. Another is Wynton Marsalis, the celebrated musician and artistic and managing director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; the well-known jazz performance venue was largely built on Murray’s philosophical and musicological ethos. “He’s my mentor, but it’s more than that,” Marsalis told Newsweek. “Stomping the Blues had a profound impact on me in terms of understanding the context of the art form and the society.”
In the 21st century, Murray’s omni-American idea — that the U.S. is a composite nation of culturally multiracial people — still deeply resonates in today’s browning, globally connected world. He used jazz to shine a light upon these lesser-seen pockets of American culture — the ones that he believed unite us all.
Guardian obit, here
Fascinating interview with Murray at The Ralph Ellison Project, here
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and that “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, it seems right to bring you some of the music that sustained the civil rights movement in the sixties – and beyond.
This selection is by Nick Morrison of NPR, as are the brief comments:
I Wish I knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) – Nina Simone
Of the many musicians who used their music to advance the cause of civil rights, Nina Simone was one of the most passionate, most outspoken and most gifted. Although many of her civil rights era songs had their origins earlier in the 20th century, this song was written in 1967 by noted jazz pianist and educator Dr Billy Taylor (along with Dick Dallas), and was recorded by Simone that same year. It quickly became one of the musical mainstays of the movement.
Selma March – Grant Green
The march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., took place in March 1965. Today, some people tend to forget that there were two failed attempts to make the journey earlier that month. The first march ended in bloodshed, while the second was met with a restraining order. That ruling was quickly overturned and, on March 21, Dr King began the historic four-day march. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This jubilant instrumental by jazz guitarist Grant Green seems to reflect the jubilation surrounding the Selma march’s completion. A 1965 recording, it also features Harold Vick (sax), Larry Young (organ), Ben Dixon (drums) and Candido Camero (congas).
We Shall Overcome – Larry Goldings
Many people, when asked to name a song that encapsulates the civil rights movement, will pick “We Shall Overcome.” It was, indeed, the movement’s theme song, sung by countless people all over the world. That’s how we often think of the song: large groups of people gathered together, singing it as they struggle against mighty odds. Pianist Larry Goldings, however, gives us a different view of this classic. Accompanied only by trumpeter (actually, he’s on cornet – JD) John Sneider, Goldings turns “We Shall Overcome” into a wistful, intimate and moving meditation.
This Little Light of Mine – Sam Cooke
Folklorist and activist Zilphia Horton did a wonderful thing when she introduced this children’s gospel song to the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Vocalist Sam Cooke did something equally wonderful, and much more amazing. He took this song that people were singing at sit-ins and marches and brought it into America’s toniest nightclubs, putting the music of The Movement in front of an audience that probably didn’t spend much time at sit-ins and marches. Cooke performed this joyful and uplifting version of “the Little Light Of Mine” in 1964 in New York’s Copacabana.
Lift Every Voice And Sing – Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff
[No Youtube clip available, so click here]
In 1919, this song (by James and John Johnson) was adopted by the NAACP as “The Negro National Anthem.” Its resonance in the civil rights movement is indisputable and, like all of the songs in this brief overview, it remains an incredibly moving piece of music today. This soulful instrumental version by alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, with his long-time musical partner and organist Jimmy McGriff, is one of the best. Prepare to be taken to the river.