Monday 11 May 2015

"Pound plenty"

[This is a re-write of an earlier entry, posted here because it demands an answer to an important question, one that can only be provided by the learned scholar Legrand Sidney Doggett. Yes, I’m talking to you, Mr. Doggett: What is the order of trumpet soloists on Sugar Foot Stomp on the 1957 album “The Great Reunion”? Only you have the know-how and resources to provide the definitive answer.. Update: LSG has replied with his usual alacrity and expertise, and I can rest at ease. Thank you sir!]

A list of great musicians who played with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra reads like a who's who of jazz. Henderson first recorded Don Redman's famous arrangement of Sugar Foot Stomp (derived from King Oliver's Dippermouth Blues) in 1923 with an orchestra including Louis Armstrong and Joe Smith in the trumpet section, and Redman, Coleman Hawkins, and Buster Bailey in the reed section. The young Armstrong had only recently joined the band.
Fletcher Henderson
As Henderson tells it in the oral history Hear Me Talkin' To Ya:

The band at first was inclined to be a bit reserved toward the new arrival and there seemed to be a little tension in the air. At rehearsal he was perplexed by the trumpet part... Now, those parts were well marked with all the dynamics of the music, and at one point the orchestration was indicated as fff with a diminuendo down to pp.

The band followed these notations and was playing very softly, while Louis still played his part at full volume. I stopped the band and said, "Louis, you are not following the arrangement."

Louis objected, saying, "I'm reading everything on this sheet." I said, "But Louis, how about that pp?" and Louis broke us all up by replying, "Oh, I thought that meant pound plenty." There was no tension after that.

In 1957 producer George T. Simon recorded a big band under Rex Stewart's direction, consisting of a bunch of nobodies: Stewart, Taft Jordan, Emmett Berry, and Joe Thomas, trumpets; J.C. Higginbotham, Benny Morton, and Dickie Wells, trombones; Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Buster Bailey, Hilton Jefferson, Garvin Bushell, and Haywood Henry, reeds; Red Richards, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Bill Pemberton, bass; Jimmy Crawford, drums. It was billed as "the big reunion," as all the musicians except Jordan, Casey, and Richards had at one time or another played in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. Now in 1957, these alumni of the Henderson College of Musical Knowledge gathered to show off their postgraduate chops. The score of this '57 version of Sugar Foot Stomp is most certainly marked pp for "pound plenty" -- it's as loose and swinging as it gets:

For those of you keeping score at home, here's the batting order. Following the opening ensemble, the trumpets introduce themselves with one chorus each, from 0:18 to 0:56: Jordan, Thomas, and Berry. Another reed ensemble, then the trombones for one chorus each: Morton, Wells, and Higginbotham. Clarinetist Bailey presides for two choruses, then Rex takes the traditional King Oliver cornet part for three, heading skyward and leaving the earth's atmosphere somewhere around 2:53. That's when the two tenor titans take over. Webster and Hawkins trade choruses as the riffs build and the number rocks its way to its exultant conclusion.

Advanced students should re-listen to Berry's remarkable solo, which knocks me out every time. Emmett makes his statement on the blues from 0:44 to 0:56. It's a skittering, staccato melody line, utterly original, perfectly conceived and executed, with nary a high note. Just twelve seconds long, but to me a timeless gem.

I can't end without a word about the under-regarded Joe Thomas. In his career Thomas eschewed flash in favor of cogency, composure, and taste. Even though they're improvisations, his solos have a balanced, "thought-out" quality to them, which makes them all the more astonishing, at least to me. (For years at Chautauqua, we were privileged to hear solos by the late Joe Wilder with that same quality.) For extra credit, you can read more about Joe Thomas here.
Taft Jordan, Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, Rex Stewart

Sunday 26 April 2015

Movies Now and Then - or, The Great, Unanswerable Movie Paradox

It’s official. After viewing each film at least twice, the Little One, now six years three months old (and a more lovable film critic you’ll never meet) has announced her Top Ten movie list.

She granted me this exclusive interview with a caveat and a proviso. The implicit caveat: these rankings are in a constant state of flux, subject to change either upon further reflection or with the arrival of a new film next week. The proviso, explicitly stated: she would have to keep her comments brief because interviews are tiring and ranking is hard. (“It’s so confusing,” she said.) Also because her parents were coming to pick her up at six o’clock.

Industry insiders will note that the Little One’s list represents a clean sweep for Disney, but it interests me for other reasons, posing a curious paradox and raising questions I’m not able to answer. But that’s for later - first, the Little One’s Top Ten, in this order (as of today):

1. Alladin, because it has a really funny genie, a cute little monkey, a flying carpet which, in the L.O.’s words, “is almost like a person” and above all, Jasmine, her favorite princess. “The giant lion scared me the first time when the monkey touched the jewel, but the second time I saw it I wasn’t scared, I just kept watching.”

2. The Little Mermaid features her second-favorite princess, named Ariel (one of the Little One's favorite names) plus a sea-witch who is evil but not scary (well, maybe the first time but not any more). There’s also a funny cook trying to boil a lobster, Fortunately the lobster gets away (as I wish they would in real life). Most memorably, it has the clever, calypso-flavored Ashman-Menken song “Under the Sea,” a family favorite viewed innumerable times on YouTube:

3. Tangled has her third-favorite princess who is special because “she has really long hair and a cute chameleon.” The L.O. vividly describes the spectacular lanterns launched to commemorate the princess’ birthday. (Must remember that on her next birthday.) It also has a funny horse. “I really like the funny ones,” she says, giggling, remembering it.

4. Frozen. For a long time this movie held a solid number one ranking. It has fallen lately, but the L.O. retains a fondness for its two princesses, a funny snowman named Olaf, and a reindeer.

5. Brave is the only film on the list the Little One has seen without us. It seems three brothers eat treats, described by the L.O. as “tiny little mini-pies,” and turn into bears. Then, if I’ve got the story straight, Brave gives her mother a mini-pie and she turns into a bear. “It’s a little scary when they’re hunting the bear” [i.e. her mother] but not so scary that she couldn’t watch. When Brave says “I love you” the bear turns back into her mother. I ask, “Does it end happily?” She says, “Yup.”

6. Cinderella. The L.O. and I agree that the song “Bibbidy-Bobbidy-Boo” is not up to the standard of the best songs on this list. “I like it a little bit,” she says. She mainly remembers the gala ball and when they’re trying to find the foot that fits fits the slipper. The L.O. has heard that a semi-remake of Disney’s Cinderella has been made. “I do not like it when they remake movies,” she says, “especially the movies I like.” “What if they remade The Little Mermaid?” I ask. (They are remaking it, it seems.) “It would be way not good,” she replies.

7. The Jungle Book has, in the L.O.’s words, “tons of good songs.”  Time and space limitations permit just a portion of the tonnage. First, “The Bare Necessities”:
Next, and currently our number one family favorite, “I Wanna Be Like You,” sung and scatted delightfully by Louis Prima and Phil Harris. (The song closely resembles the last strain of the trad jazz standard “That’s a-Plenty” - not surprising since its composer was George Bruns, who had been a trombonist with Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band).

The Little One also wishes to record her fondness for the comical elephant march.

She first saw The Jungle Book when she was young, about three. She got quite frightened when the monkey building starts falling down; I remember her tremulous “Uh-oh,” lips aquiver, eyes averted. No longer. The L.O. has noticed a recurring pattern here: scary on first viewing, not so scary thereafter.

She has one final comment on The Jungle Book, said with the firmest conviction: “I do not want them to remake this movie.”

8. Mulan has been moving up in the rankings. That’s because Mulan goes to war disguised as a man and “I think she was really brave to do that.” Besides, “I like Asian movies and pagodas.”

9. Beauty and the Beast. “I like the beast, he’s a really good character. He should have stayed a beast - I like him better when he’s a beast.”

10. Sleeping Beauty. “I like it because she falls asleep and nobody else falls asleep in Disney movies.”

The Little One has ruled that only feature-length films are eligible for her Top Ten list, but honorable mention must go to The Nutcracker ballet broadcast from Lincoln Center, and to YouTube episodes of the 1967 TV cartoon series Spiderman (whose theme song we’ve memorized and sung, con brio, around many a dinner table) and its spin-off Spiderman and His Amazing Friends.
"Is he strong? Listen, bud - he's got radioactive blood!"

Our interview concluded, I thanked her for her time and she graciously pronounced it “the best interview ever."

The Little One and I were both January babies, born seventy years apart. As I write this in April 2015, I note with some astonishment that she’s now virtually the same age - almost to the day - that I was the day I was sitting on the living room floor listening to our big console radio when I heard an announcer say: “President Roosevelt is dead.” Such ruminations have led me to reflect on the movies I saw when I was six or younger.

Flashback to World War Two years. Ours was a household ruled by rituals and routines, mostly pleasant ones. For example, every Friday evening we’d go out to dinner - usually at the Ridge Diner where I rigorously adhered to my strict diet of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich - then to a double feature at one of the seven or eight theatres in our neighborhood, usually Loews (kid-pronounced “Lowey’s”) Bay Ridge or Alpine.

I must have been about five when Mom and Dad stopped paying a babysitter and started including me in their Friday night movie-going; the earliest films I can remember are from 1944. I know I was not yet able to read. During the interval between features - somewhere between the coming attractions and the News of the Day - a “No Smoking” notice would appear on the screen. I couldn’t read it, but could recognize the configuration of type and the background music. Our running family joke was that whenever this notice appeared, I’d lean forward in my seat and warn Mom, Dad, and my brother (and everyone else in our row) with a stern, scolding whisper: “No smoking!”

Recalling movies I saw in 1946 and later is easy; the titles, plots, and characters come back in abundance. By that time my weekly movie-going had expanded beyond Friday night double features with the family to include Saturday morning “Laff Shows” (that’s how they were billed on the marquee) with my brother and friends - say, fifteen cartoons, a chapter of an action serial, plus a surefire kid-pleaser, on the order of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or maybe a Charlie Chan.

I’ve searched the vast, dusty, cluttered attic of my memory for my earliest movie experiences, from 1944-45, when I was the same age the Little One is today. Not movies we must have seen or probably saw, but movies I can distinctly remember experiencing for the first time. I've seen most of them multiple times over the years, on TV, DVD, etc. and some of them remain on my list of all-time favorites; but for the purposes of this essay, I've tried my best to bring back the experience of seeing them through six-year-old eyes.

One must remember that In those pre-television days the movie experience wasn’t repeatable. Movies weren’t tangible, enduring cultural artifacts like Captain Marvel or Joe Palooka comic books, to be collected, re-viewed, analyzed, and ranked. Movies were ephemera, like our radio shows which instantly vanished into the ether. A movie came around to your neighborhood for a few days and went away, to be viewed once and presumably never again. I suppose one could go back the next day and see a movie again - or see it first-run on Broadway and again months later in your neighborhood - but we never did that. Mom and Dad would have considered it a needless extravagance. In those days the very phrase “old movies” was one of derision. Even a movie just a year or two or three years old was considered an old movie. In the early days of television, 1949-50, I remember hearing Mom and others speak with disdain of the “old movies” recycled to fill sparse broadcast schedules. (Among the scorned “old movies” I discovered in TV’s early days were Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life long, long before it became a cult favorite, Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers with Ralph Richardson, and lots of Laurel and Hardy.)

In 1944-45 there were some theatres in New York (“New York” being Brooklynese for Manhattan) showing classic films - revival houses. I must have been the Little One’s age when we saw Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush somewhere near Times Square. I called it “Goldbrush” and for years - a few, anyway - thought that was the actor’s name. (It was on this same outing that we visited Hubert’s Flea Circus on 42nd Street and heard a talk by legendary heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.)

The closest thing to a revival house we had in Bay Ridge was the Electra, which was a junk house showing Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s, the East Side Kids, the Three Stooges, old grade-Z westerns and such. At the grimy old Electra one Saturday morning when I was about nine, the place was so jammed that two friends and I had to squeeze into one seat. Imagine, three-in-a-seat for the privilege of seeing a Mickey Rooney picture about racing car drivers. (We rotated positions in the seat at regular intervals, in the interest of fairness.)

It’s mainly the moments, movie moments, that I remember from 1944-45, especially the ones that scared me witless, or something that rhymes with witless. In Edward Dmytryk's Murder My Sweet (1944) private eye Dick Powell returns to his office at night and suddenly sees the reflection of Mike Mazurki in the window. Mazurki (whom I saw a few years later as a pro wrestler on early TV) may have been a nice fellow in real life, but he was one scary-looking guy.

Then there was the recurring closeup of the eye of the psychopathic killer in The Spiral Staircase (1945). I wasn’t the only kid who had nightmares about this one; I remember much morbid, bug-eyed discussion about “the eye” among my 71st Street friends. This film had a Psycho-like creepiness I found repulsive, and I have no desire to see it, or Psycho, ever again.

Pride of the Marines (1945) with John Garfield was more of a human-interest story than an action picture, about a marine who is injured in jungle fighting and loses his sight, comes home and slowly regains his sight at the end. One scene early on stayed with me forever. He’s in a foxhole behind a machine gun, in the jungle, at night, waiting for the enemy to attack. It’s agonizing: the marines can hear enemy voices and eerie jungle noises, but can’t see anything. Shivers.

In a film I didn’t enjoy or understand, there’s a shot looking up at an overhead lighting fixture where a liquor bottle has been hidden by a fellow who seems unhinged. This of course was the Academy Award-winning The Lost Weekend (1945) with Ray Milland as the alcoholic. During the film Dad provided me with a whispered explanation: “It’s about people who drink too much.”

A married woman and some guy plot to murder her husband. Indelible memory: while the murder is taking place, all you see is the expression on the wife’s face, which tells you exactly what’s happening. This was Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).
A little girl seems to burst into tears at the slightest provocation and really gets on my nerves, in Technicolor. This was Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
A German-born Nazi-indoctrinated boy comes to the U.S. to live with his uncle and says mean things about Jews, which I take personally. This was Tomorrow the World! (1944), based on a Broadway play.
Nazi spies are operating undercover from a house in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. I remember feeling outrage because dammit, this was my city. The film, done in semi-documentary style which made it very real to me, was The House on 92nd Street (1945).

The prologue of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) made my young heart burst with pride. It sets the scene in wacky old Brooklyn - the place where, in Red Barber’s words, anything can happen and usually does - and includes the Dodgers, my Dodgers, who were America’s favorite underdogs in those days.

Arsenic and Old Lace was, for a kid of six, a little scary and a lot funny, featuring abundant corpses, Cary Grant, Peter Lorre, and a guy who looked like Frankenstein’s monster. I'm sure I didn't get all the jokes, but when you're six years old and your parents are laughing, along with everybody else in the theatre, you tend to laugh, too. I remember Dad trying, unsuccessfully, to explain to me the running gag about Uncle Teddy and the Panama Canal.

I think we “went into New York” to see Danny Kaye in the funny, fanciful Wonder Man (1945) in Technicolor at some Broadway movie palace. I remember laughing at Danny Kaye yelling “Buster!” and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the bewildered man in a delicatessen exclaiming “Potato salad!”
"Potato salad!"

Disney’s The Three Caballeros (1945) was another special-occasion movie we saw on Broadway. Pretty good but a bit of a letdown: I liked Donald Duck a lot in comic books (I subscribed to Walt Disney Comics: $1.00 per year, a savings of $0.20 off the price of twelve individual issues) but on the screen I couldn’t understand a word he said.

One movie from 1944, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, was more than moments. It made such a deep impression on me that I remembered it whole, in detail. Edward G. Robinson is a kind, gentle, innocent middle-aged man who, through no fault of his own, gets entangled in a nightmarish web of blackmail and murder with Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. I’ve finally come to realize why this movie had such an impact on me: I identified the Edward G. Robinson character with my father. The film has been criticized for its “cop-out” ending (no spoilers here). For me, after seeing it many times over the years, the ending is psychologically believable and works perfectly.

Going My Way (1944). This box-office smash stirred no strong emotions in me, though I did like the hit song “Swingin’ on a Star.” Still do.
The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) with Jack Benny. Stories with angels and heavenly messengers were big then. I was eager to see it because I loved Benny’s radio show (still do, actually) but this movie, though it had its moments, wasn’t so hot.
Wilson (1944), a deadly-dull biopic of President Woodrow Wilson.
30 Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Jimmy Doolittle’s daring raid  - nearly forgotten now but everyone, I mean everyone, knew about it then. I can still see the B-25 bombers taking off from aircraft carriers.

Back to Bataan (1945). Not my parents’ kind of thing - this war pic must have been a Saturday-morning special with my brother and friends. Movies like this had a strong afterlife with us kids. If we’d just seen a gangster picture, we’d go home and play cops-and-crooks. After seeing Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo we’d sit on the front stoop and be pilots and bombardiers. After seeing Back to Bataan I’m sure we headed straight for “the jungle” to play war. “The jungle” really was one: a whole square block of empty lot at 71st Street and Shore Road, complete with foxholes, fallen trees, endless tangled underbrush - everything you needed for hours of realistic war-play. (It’s the site where Xaverian High School has stood for the last fifty-plus years.) Little kids playing war? How barbaric that must seem today. All I can say is: different times, a different world. When the Little One is seventy-six (I’ll be really old by then) will her world have changed as much as mine has over the last seventy years? Stay tuned.

So those are the movies I remember seeing when I was more or less the Little One’s age.

Beyond the stark, obvious differences between the L.O.’s Top Ten and the movies I saw, there’s a hidden difference, and a big one. When I was six there was no rating system telling you who could and couldn’t see a movie. Who needed a rating system when you had the Motion Picture Production Code? The Code dictated the rules of Hollywood films from the early 1930s until the 1960s. There was no sex, pre-marital or post-. Married couples always slept in twin beds. There was very little flesh on display - no waistline, even on harem pants, could be below the navel. Justice always prevailed and no crime went unpunished. There was no cursing or anything close to it - not a “hell” or a “damn” or even a “Jesus Christ!” GI’s under stress in warfare didn’t curse. Extreme violence was taboo - even a knockout blow to the head was usually delivered offscreen. When a guy was shot and killed, there were no hideous wounds or gushing blood - he simply grasped his wound, said “Aargh!” or something similar, and fell down. Even Laurel and Hardy films were bound by Code restrictions "No picture should ever lower the moral standards of those who see it," the Code said. "The sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." Hollywood thus presented me with a highly sanitized, artificial version of real life. In effect every movie was G-rated and my parents were free to take their six-year-old boy to any double feature anywhere.

Do you sense the massive paradox lurking here?

The stifling, puritanical Production Code was designed to protect us from life’s harsher realities, but it had precisely the opposite effect. As a six-year-old I was seeing stories - most of them populated by real people, not animated characters - stories that could be silly, but could also involve marital infidelity, blackmail, murder, alcoholism, lust, corruption, psychosis, sadism, fascism, anti-semitism, and above all, world war. Through war movies (however unrealistic) and movies related to the war, I was made acutely and constantly aware that there were diabolical people in the world who, given half a chance, would kill us all, me and my family included. Today, with the post-Code artistic freedom enjoyed by film-makers, it would be unthinkable to expose the Little One to any of those subjects.

So what are we to make of all this? My movie-childhood and the Little One’s seem worlds apart in so many ways; surely some conclusions must follow, but I don’t know what they are. All I have are questions I can’t answer. Who was better served by the movies, me or the Little One? Who was better off? Was I over-protected by the Code, or under-protected? Are today’s kids over-protected until a certain point when they’re thrown unprotected into the world of “mature” movies, social media and the internet? I don't get it. How can it be that the highly sanitized and censored movies of the 1940s was better preparation for the harsh realities of life than kids' entertainment today? I have no answers, which for a person my age is embarrassing. I can only echo the Little One’s sentiment: It’s so confusing.

Don't forget that in the 1940s with every double feature came a newsreel. Thus, by the time I was six, I had seen graphic footage of the liberation of the concentration camps and the aftermath of Hiroshima. Everybody saw it. Of course our young souls were shaken by what we saw, but we were not irreparably traumatized by it. Nowadays a kid can reach voting age without knowing what real-life (as opposed to science fiction) dictatorship looks like, what real-life genocide looks like, what real-life (as opposed to computer-generated) nuclear devastation looks like.

Mine was basically a happy and emotionally healthy childhood, just as the Little One’s is today. My war movies and crime movies - and playing games about them - didn’t turn me into a war-lover or gun-carrier; I’m as averse to violence as I always was. I’m sure I felt the same mix of emotions - amusement, sadness, joy, fear, hope, terror, hilarity, boredom - watching my movies as the Little One feels watching hers. So maybe the difference between my childhood movie-world and the Little One’s is just a distinction without a real difference, or a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Or is that too easy an answer? Your thoughts, please.