Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Messieurs Legrand, Bechet, et Ansermet

I'm glad I still have this issue of Down Beat from April 2, 1959. There's something quintessentially 1950s about the cover. It's not just the subject matter that dates it; it's the fatuous headlines, which range from the delusional to the incendiary. One look at this cover and memories of being a college-age jazz fan in the late '50s come rushing back.

In many ways it was the best of jazz times, a time when the Cornell Rhythm Club could fill a college field house (as we did) for a concert by the Dizzy Gillespie band, or pack a large hall (as we did) for the concert advertised on the poster shown below. (Check the ticket price!)

The use of the word "Dixie" on the Down Beat cover brings back memories, bad ones. Used by the modernists, the words "Dixie" and "Dixieland" were usually meant condescendingly, if not pejoratively. In the Cornell Rhythm Club, when we weren't busy producing our annual concert, we spent most of our time in heated factional arguments: modern versus trad, bop versus Dixieland, East Coast versus West Coast, hot versus cool, my jazz is better than your jazz, etc. The main benefit of being a Rhythm Clubber was the opportunity to be a once-a-week disc jockey on WVBR (the Voice of the Big Red), playing and commenting on one's own records. The fact that WVBR's signal was barely strong enough to reach the girls' dorms didn't diminish the fun of being a real, live, on-the-air DJ.

But I digress; let's get back to this 1959 Down Beat. So Lionel Hampton and Red Skelton are planning a TV show? Upon further investigation, we learn that they were both working at the Riviera Hotel and (according to the press agent who dreamed up the story) "before one realized it, these two were mulling over an hour-long jazz show for television... When Hamp and Red got together, ideas flowed... They planned the show right there in a hotel room, and are now working to smooth it out. Hampton and his band will provide the jazz music to fit into a pattern narrated by Red Skelton showing the origination of jazz and its growth... 'How can it fail?' asked Red." (By not happening, that's how.)

Another headline from never-never-land concerns Jimmy McPartland's laudable desire "to lobby for good music" and provide more opportunities for young jazz musicians. Unfortunately, all it amounted to was Jimmy's frustration with a 20% tax on club operators. "I can't blame the operators for feeling they can't afford a five or six piece jazz band," says McPartland. "Why doesn't the union do something about it? Why can't they send a lobbying delegation down to Congress, as do other interests, and let the lawmakers know about how that tax cuts down the jobs for musicians. I'd be glad to go to Washington and make a speech, if the union would pay the expenses." I can find no evidence that the musicians' union ever picked up the tab for "Mr. McPartland Goes To Washington."

But the headline that really jumps out at you, like an upraised middle finger, is the brutal "'Bechet Plays Like A Pig,' Says Michel Legrand." Qu'est-ce que c'est? Let's look inside the magazine and find out.

As you can see, Legrand, then 26 years old, was the very picture of l'homme serieux. In the course of the interview he opines favorably on Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Edith Piaf, Miles Davis ("for me, the most important musician") and not-so-favorably on Stan Kenton (who "has been too many years the same"). The last question of the interview is about Sidney Bechet, and Legrand unaccountably goes ballistic: "He makes me sick. He played so many years ago very good. Now he plays like a pig."

Zut alors! -- what could account for such vituperation? I've checked out YouTube clips of Bechet playing in 1958-59, and while he's not the Bechet he used to be, I could detect no porcine sounds emanating from his instrument. Yet we must give M. Legrand every benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was tired of being interviewed and had le mal de tĂȘte. Perhaps he'd had a personal run-in with Bechet, whose amour-propre was as outsized as his genius. Perhaps Legrand instantly regretted his intemperate words and has spent the last 52 years in remorse. Or perhaps the interviewer goaded him into his bilious comment. The big question is, why did the editors at Down Beat select this quote to be a front-page headline? -- but I already know the answer: because they wanted to be provocateurs and outrage the "mouldy figs." Alas, this too was typical of the times.

For Gallic commentary on Sidney Bechet, and to end this post on a positive note, I prefer to turn to Ernest Ansermet, who founded l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918 and conducted it until his death in 1969.

In 1919, the 22-year-old Bechet toured Europe with Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Ansermet heard the orchestra and was deeply impressed. Writing in the Swiss publication Revue Romande, Ansermet first lavishes praises on the leader Cook ("a master in every respect") and the orchestra ("its astonishing perfection, the superb taste and the fervor of its playing"), then turns his attention to its obscure young clarinetist:

There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet. I've heard two of them which he elaborated at great length. They are admirable equally for their richness of invention, their force of accent, and their daring novelty and unexpected turns. These solos already show the germ of a new style. Their form is gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself I shall never forget it -- it is Sidney Bechet.

Remember, folks, this was 1919, a time when no one -- and I mean no one, anywhere -- regarded jazz as a subject for serious commentary.

Ansermet closes his review with what must surely be one of the most prescient comments in musical history:

[Bechet] can say nothing of his art except that he follows his "own way" -- and then one considers that perhaps his "own way" is the highway along which the whole world will swing tomorrow.

Along with a hearty, retroactive Bravo! to the perceptive Maestro Ansermet, the only way to end this post properly is with un morceau of Bechet: his haunting Blues in the Air from 1941, with Bechet on soprano saxophone; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Don Donaldson, piano; Ernest Williamson, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.


  1. This is a wonderful post -- thank you for taking us with such amused seriousness into that world! "Dixie" and "Dixieland" are still cuss words in 2011: at Chautauqua, when James Dapogny used the latter D-word onstage to describe something, Marty Grosz protested loudly, as is his wont. (WONT IS THIS THING CALLED, LOVE? But I,too, digress.) What "Dixie" band was being captured for semi-posterity in the photo shoot? And kudos to you, Kid, for saving that magazine. By definition, magazines are meant to be thrown away so we can buy the next new issue. Keep scanning, posting, and of course digressing!

  2. Michael: Thank you for the comment. That "Dixie recording date" took place in Chicago for Mercury Records. The personnel: Franz Jackson, leader-clarinet; Bob Shoffner, trumpet; Al Wynn, trombone; Little Brother Montgomery or Rozelle Claxton, piano; Lawrence Dixon, banjo; Bill Oldham, tuba; Richard Curry, drums. The photographs are so ordinary they're not even worth scanning.

  3. I bet that the music wasn't ordinary, though -- that band was entirely composed of veterans of "the days that used to be," which weren't so far back in the unknowable past then . . .

  4. You're right, Michael. Franz Jackson worked with Roy Eldridge, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, and Frankie Newton, among others. I wonder what he thought of the use of the word "Dixie" to describe the music on his recording session.