Wednesday 30 March 2011

On jazz, fusion, Body and Soul, and Johnny Green

The other day I was listening, and re-listening, to the 1938 Chu Berry-Roy Eldridge recording of the 1930 song Body and Soul. This irreplaceable side isn't a case of jazz musicians making something out of nothing, as Louis Armstrong did with a weak song like Sweethearts on Parade. With Body and Soul there's much to inspire the improviser. The tune, in Ruby Braff's words, has a lot of meat on it.

That's because of composer Johnny Green.

From his family and European tutors Johnny Green inherited the musical language of the classics. The music in the air in New York when he was young was a medley of ragtime syncopation, Victor Herbert, George M. Cohan, Sigmund Romberg, Americanized versions of Strauss and Lehár, tunes influenced by Victorian salon songs, English music hall, and minstrel shows, John Philip Sousa, Enrico Caruso and John McCormack records. This and more helped shape the idiom of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters.

When I listen to Body and Soul, I hear a melody line and harmonies in the opening eight bars that could -- in different context, rhythm, and instrumentation -- be redolent of operetta. The same can be said of Green's Out of Nowhere and so many other early pop hits. As the musicologist Legrand Sidney Doggett has rightly pointed out, "Irving Berlin's What'll I Do? is pure Vienna." The modulations in the Body and Soul bridge, so ripe with challenge for a good improviser, reveal the composer's technical training in the European classical tradition. Like Bix Beiderbecke and other intellectually curious musicians of the time, young Johnny Green would also have been eagerly soaking up the new French impressionism of Ravel and Debussy. Echoes can be heard in the chromaticism at the end of the bridge, bringing us back to the home key. Add to all this the skills snd sensibilities of musicians like Berry and Eldridge, and you have a heady musical mixture.

Critics and musicians these days seem ever-eager to "fuse" jazz with other musics. Jazz should always be open to new influences, but I laugh when people talk about fusion as if it's something new. Fusion has already happened, in a huge way. It happened organically and spontaneously. It's called the Great American Songbook. It's called jazz.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

2,856 ways, tricks, steps, tips, rules, must-haves, and secrets

Navigating one's way through modern life is dauntingly complex. I'd never fully appreciated the magnitude of the challenge until I saw the March issue of Cosmo. The sheer quantity of information to be absorbed is staggering. The numbers tell the story. Add 'em up:

10 (ways to let a guy know you’re interested)
4 (ways to get the curls-gone-wild look)
101 (things about men)
3 (ways to rock your flared bottoms; meaning the bottoms of jeans, I think)
4 (ways to get a guy to listen)
25 (fun ways to go nude without freezing your butt off)
2 (rules for layering like a pro)
5 (secrets to superlush lashes)
5 (flirty finds that set the mood)
8 (easy steps to tighten up your triceps)
7 (sexy must-haves)
6 (ways to tell sexy from skanky)
5 (shameless money-saving tricks)
4 (steps to a half-moon manicure)
23 (great places to meet men)
12 (ways to crank up the cuddle hormone -- their wording, folks)
5 (secrets his top TV show reveals)
9 (ways to squeeze more time out of your day; one of which might be to stop reading this magazine)

By my calculations, this adds up to 238. We could easily exceed 250, but the hygienic ways, tricks, and steps near the back of the magazine are a little too personal for comfort, so I'll settle for 238. This is just one month of the year. Multiply by 12 and you get a total of 2,856 things to learn yearly. It's like going to law school.

I’m keeping my copy of Cosmo. Several of the articles cry out for further analysis, especially the one about fun ways to go nude without freezing your butt off. I live in a climate where that's important. You’ll be able to do your research with your own copy, coming soon to a waiting-room near you.

Monday 21 March 2011

Rest easy: the foul-mouthed gross-out is alive and well

First thing every morning I check the New York Times, our "newspaper of record."

This morning I awoke to the news that rocker/activist Bob Geldof is unhappy. According to music critic Jon Pareles, in a "grumpy" keynote speech at the 25th annual South by Southwest Music Festival, Geldof "bemoaned music’s loss of relevance. Although there was no shortage of 'cool bands,' he said, music didn’t have the kind of broader social impact that it did with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, punk and grunge. He argued that music was no longer channeling rebelliousness and discontent."

Not to worry. Pareles has glad tidings:

"[Geldof] might have changed his mind had he seen Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the teenage Los Angeles hip-hop collective..... Rapping about drugs, rape, murder, getting pulled over by the police and wanting a father’s respect, over blotchy low-fi tracks, members of Odd Future climbed stage scaffolding and dove into eager crowds. Audiences responded with mosh-pit surges and hearty chants of 'Wolf Gang!'"

What a relief! Thanks to what Pareles calls Odd Future’s "foul-mouthed gross-outs," Geldof's vision of Satori -- a permanent state of adolescent angst, rebellion, and self-destructiveness -- is intact.

As usual, Pareles, the music critic, goes on at great length without ever telling us whether he actually liked the music. You can always rely on the New York Times.

Sunday 20 March 2011

A cautionary clip

This clip illustrates two lessons that should have been learned but weren't:

(1) never get into a scat-singing contest with Roy Eldridge;

(2) never raise your horn before Coleman Hawkins is ready to let you in.

Saturday 19 March 2011

The difference between Dodger fans and Giant fans

I'm talking about Brooklyn Dodger fans and New York Giant fans.

On January 22, 2011, under the headline “S.F. Giants Return for Fans They Left Behind,” the New York Times reported that a group of San Francisco Giants players and executives returned with their World Series trophy to New York, where they were greeted warmly by many old-time Giant fans. So warmly that Bill Neukom, Giants’ managing general partner and chief executive, was moved to say, “It’s really heartwarming. There’s a sense of a community of Giants fans. You have to be impressed by the devotion.”

Brooklyn fans are different. We don’t forget so easily. I still haven’t forgiven Leo Durocher and Sal Maglie for throwing at Carl Furillo. Nor have I forgiven Charlie Dressen for bringing in Ralph Branca to face Bobby Thomson that day in '51, when Thomson had been lighting up Branca all season. Don't get me started on Charlie Dressen.

With Brooklyn fans the intensity of feeling never seems to go away. A recent Associated Press article quoted two old-time Dodger fans. One says, “Dodger fans hated the Giants. To the core we hated them. The rivalry was unbelievable." Another says, "We hated their uniforms, we hated their ballpark, we hated their announcer and we hated Channel 11 for televising their games." You can tell these guys are still fuming.

Recently a friend reported to me that the Los Angeles Dodgers will be holding some kind of “retro day” this season when they’ll wear the old Brooklyn uniforms with the Brooklyn “B” on their caps. My (cleaned-up) response: “Screw ‘em.”

Thursday 17 March 2011

Wild Bill meets Rag Mop

In late 1949 or early '50 when I was 10, the Ames Brothers' record of Rag Mop exploded; came out of nowhere to the number-one spot on Martin Block's WNEW Saturday morning countdown of the top records. I read somewhere that Rag Mop was intended as the B side; the flip side, Sentimental Me, was supposed to be the hit.

I remember watching Eddie Condon's Floor Show on TV. Rag Mop had just begun its ascent, and was already in my record collection. I wasn't yet a jazz fan but I enjoyed Condon's TV show. I liked the gruff, wisecracking trumpet player who seemed to play out of the side of his mouth.

In one segment Condon would ask the studio audience for requests. Usually it was a standard like It Had to Be You. In the early days of live television, the studio audience for a show like this was anyone they could drag in off the street. So Condon went into the audience to ask for requests and some teenager yelled out, "Rag Mop!" It was obvious Condon had never heard of it. The guys in the band thought the title was hilarious, and the trumpet player said something like, "Naah, there's no song like that." That sealed it; Condon went on to another request.

For a while Rag Mop was everywhere, then it flamed out. I saw the Treniers do it on TV a couple of years later. I think it's the Colgate Comedy Hour with Martin and Lewis, 1951 or '52. Be warned: jive ahead.

It was prophetic that Rag Mop, and not Sentimental Me, became the Ames Brothers' super-hit. (Sentimental Me eventually rose pretty high on the charts, too.) In late '49-early '50, the hits I remember Martin Block playing were Mule Train by Frankie Laine, Ghost Riders in the Sky by Vaughn Monroe, I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts by Freddy Martin (and Merv Griffin), Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think) by Guy Lombardo, A Dreamer's Holiday by Buddy Clark, who had just been killed in a plane crash (I still like both the song and the singer), It Isn't Fair by Don Cornell, With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming by Patti Paige, the Third Man Theme played on the zither by Anton Karas, I Can Dream, Can't I by Patty Andrews. You get the drift. By the end of the 1940s the Top Twenty had become a swing-free zone. Heat-seeking youngsters were craving more excitement from their pop music. The Treniers' Rag Mop on Martin and Lewis in '51-'52 was a glimpse of things to come.

In 1953 I'd be listening to a disc jockey on a Cleveland station I could pick up on my bedside radio, unless there were thunderstorms anywhere between Brooklyn and Cleveland. He called himself the Moondog, and he was playing rhythm and blues. I heard Joe Turner and Ray Charles for the first time on his show from Cleveland. In a year or so, Alan Freed moved to WINS in New York and soon all my friends were listening to him. Big changes were coming.

I still think it's too bad Wild Bill and the Condonites didn't know Rag Mop was just a blues. They could have played the hell out of it.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Kurt Atterberg

A few months ago I acquired a Naxos CD, “Swedish Orchestral Favourites, Vol. 2.” It's full of delights by one composer I already knew and liked, Lars-Erik Larsson, and several I didn't know. (Naxos' Vol. 1 is equally good.) On first listening, my favorite piece on the CD was the  three-movement Suite No. 3 for violin, viola, and string orchestra by Kurt Atterberg. Here it is, performed by Camerata Lysy at the Enesco Festival in Bucharest in 2007.

For days I kept going back to the Atterberg piece to see if my memory was exaggerating, and there it was, beautiful as ever. This prompted me to grow pensive and ask myself: Who the hell is Kurt Atterberg?

It seems Atterberg (1887-1974) had a long, prolific composing and conducting career, supported by a lifelong job in the Swedish Patent Office. He composed nine symphonies (No. 6 was recorded by Beecham and Toscanini) and enjoyed some international fame in the 1920s and '30s.

So I look on the internet and I see the boxed set of Atterberg's nine symphonies. Thirty-three bucks. Then I start reading the customer reviews: “the best CD purchase I have ever made”... “not even Sibelius had this talent for orchestration”... “astonishing beauty and power”... “truly memorable and moving masterpieces”... “the most ignored 20th century composer”...  "the best box set of classical music I have purchased in the past 5 years..." As I'm reading, I can feel the thirty-three dollars oozing out of my bank account.

I haven't lived with the Atterberg symphonies very long, but I've played them enough to know that each is a rewarding musical journey, dense and eventful, colorfully orchestrated, often richly melodic. For a twentieth-century composer, Atterberg's idiom is what some call conservative; I call it accessible. I already like most of his symphonies more than many late-romantic and modern works commonly programmed in North America.

I've been listening to music all my life – how did I miss him? How many more Kurt Atterbergs are out there?

I see the boxed set of symphonies by Ture Rangström is just $22.18 and the customer reviews are saying, "compelling music-making"... "unjustly overlooked as a major 20th century symphonist"... "truly interesting, inventive and intense music"... "anyone who likes Sibelius or Alfven should really give them a try..."

Sunday 13 March 2011

"Gin for Christmas"

I love Ziggy Elman. Well-known for his frailich trumpet specialties and his And the Angels Sing, Ziggy could play both sweet and hot. Very hot. Gin for Christmas (Bugle Call Rag in another guise) is a record he made with Lionel Hampton in 1939. Hampton is the drummer. With due respect to the other eminent players, the first half is pretty ordinary; then Hampton and Elman set it ablaze. Ziggy's wild entrance at 1:53 never fails to astonish. Outside of Roy Eldridge, I don't know another like it. From there Ziggy takes it home in grand style, accompanied by audible cries of exultation from Hampton.

"Good Shuzzit"

Somebody told me that Shuzzit is one of the minor holidays, one that can be celebrated any day year-round; and that when you wish people “Good Shuzzit,” you're wishing them a great boon or blessing. Can anyone out there tell me if this is true?

Saturday 12 March 2011

Bay Ridge backyards, 1916

This photo has special meaning for me. It was taken from the second-floor back room of Mom's house on 71st Street. Twenty-three years later this room would become my bedroom. Substitute some newer fences, add some houses and a couple of small apartment houses in the distance, and this was the view from the only bedroom I ever had until I moved away from home. For atmosphere, add the sound of foghorns coming from the Narrows.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Lay that sackbut down, babe, lay that sackbut down!

I confess: I generally prefer my Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven played on modern instruments, not period instruments. This is heresy, I know. My friends, the ones interested in such things, disagree with me, but they're nice about it. I've known other, more fundamentalist members of the original-instruments faction who aren't so tolerant. Believe me, if they read this, they'll be coming after me brandishing sackbuts, flageolets, and crumhorns.

I can only go by what my ears tell me. For sheer poetry, my favorite among the innumerable versions of Vivaldi's Four Seasons is Neville Marriner's magical 1960 recording using the Thurston Dart edition. For sheer excitement, I turn to Charles Mackerras' 1960s recording of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks using modern brass and woodwinds. No period keyboard has ever transported me the way Alfred Brendel does on a modern piano in his 1976 recording of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and Prelude (Fantasy). And I'm not ashamed to say I still enjoy Leopold Stokowski's orchestral transcriptions of Bach.

Granted, hearing great works as they were originally heard is historically interesting, and the trend toward “historically informed” performance has had beneficial effects. Conductors today seem to pay more attention to clarity and transparency, and to crisp, sprung rhythms, than they used to. I also admit the period-instruments crowd have won the argument in the public marketplace. So completely have they won that when I was looking for a recording of Sir Hamilton Harty's suite from Handel's Water Music, once a concert staple, I was hard-pressed to find one.

My favorite recording of Messiah remains Sir Thomas Beecham's controversial 1950s version, in still-good stereo sound, from the edition prepared by Sir Eugene Goossens. Just for the record, Mozart also re-orchestrated Messiah, so “inauthentic” performances go back a long way. I had the Mackerras recording of the Handel-Mozart Messiah on LP, and it's as historically “uninformed” as Handel-Goossens-Beecham.

I've been lured by many Messiahs in my time (haven't we all?) but I keep going back to Beecham. His sublime way with the “pastoral symphony.” The shattering “Thou shalt dash them,” sung for all it's worth by opera tenor Jon Vickers. The “Hallelujah” chorus, complete with an almost-over-the-top accelerando near the end.

A few years ago when I played the Beecham Messiah for George Rose, an old college friend and original-instruments guy, his reaction was one of bemused tolerance. George is knowledgeable in both music and Shakespeare. He's an authenticist when it comes to Baroque music, yet in Shakespeare he's open to modern acting style and directors' re-imaginings of the plays.

Isn't Shakespeare performed in modern style similar to Handel performed on modern instruments? This question raises other questions, addressed here to a more scholarly reader (you know who you are): Is there any way to know what Elizabethan acting style looked and sounded like? How would “historically informed” performances of Shakespeare plays be perceived by a modern audience?

Bach, Handel, and Mozart wrote for the instruments available to them at the time. What they would have thought about hearing their music played on modern instruments is unknowable. It's fun guessing, though.

Here's Handel on the act of composition:

Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”

Here's Mozart on Handel:

"Handel understands effect better than any of us—when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."

Out-of-body experiences. Thunderbolts. To me these are the words of composers who would have welcomed, and revelled in, the sonorities and dynamics made possible by modern instruments. My guess is that Handel would have loved Beecham.

Academies of ancient music” are not for me. Great music is a living thing, not something from the past to be replicated. When you're listening, it's an experience in the present tense. Imagine young jazz musicians playing early New Orleans style on old, second-hand, Civil War-era instruments. Yes, it would be interesting to hear what Buddy Bolden and his confreres might have sounded like, but personally I'd rather give these musicians the best instruments and let 'er rip.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Bay Ridge, 1915

71st Street and Shore Road, now the site of Xaverian High School.

Mom (in the center) and friends on 71st Street. That's Mom's little friend Lotte on the right. Lotte's family had the bad luck to return to Germany at the wrong time, in the late 1920s. Mom never heard from Lotte again.

Mom and a friend on Narrows Avenue.

The dog is Lotte's, the girl is my Mom.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Tough guys of film noir

I was talking to a young film buff about film noir, the genre spawned by The Maltese Falcon. I told him that Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, The Dark Corner and such were the movies I grew up with in the 1940s. “How wonderful,” he gushed, “to have lived through such an exciting period in cinema history!”

My friend will be disappointed to learn that in the 1940s no one ever said, “Hey, let's go to the Alpine and see a film noir!” We kids might buy the noir part, if you told us what it meant; but we didn't go to see films, we went to the movies. And movies were ephemera, part of the everyday parade of popular culture. Nobody, not even the grown-ups, knew from film festivals and retrospectives and auteurs. Once a movie had come and gone, you assumed, in those pre-television days, that you'd never see it again.

We couldn't always follow the plots, but it didn't matter. We liked these movies because they were dark and a little menacing. It was always night; nothing much seemed to happen during the day. Usually a gritty voice-over narration by the private eye, or the insurance investigator, or the ex-G.I. Lots of angles and shadows. Sultry dames. And cigarette smoke everywhere.

Radio picked up on the genre, big-time: Sam Spade, Richard DiamondThe Fat Man, Rogue's Gallery, Boston Blackie, Philip Marlowe, Michael Shayne, Nick Carter. On radio you couldn't get the cigarette smoke, but the shows retained all the other key features: the voice-over narration, the dame, the crackle of gunshots in the night. On many shows you knew at some point the hero would get sucker-punched into unconsciousness, punctually once a week.
Typical of the times was this hard-boiled character: Dude Hamilton, private eye. Missing is the cigarette that usually dangled from his slit of a mouth. Dude was the protagonist of a short-lived, limited-circulation comic book of the 1940s. One can easily imagine Zachary Scott playing the role in the movie version. Dude Hamilton was tough. Dude never smiled. Dude never got sucker-punched. Dude blasted his way through murder cases. Dude filled the screen with cigarette smoke. Dude was only seen in profile. (Some have speculated that this may have been due to the artist's technical limitations, but that's a matter for experts to decide.) Dude was noir personified.

What were the effects of over-exposure to film and radio noir? The specimen shown above, otherwise a peace-loving, non-combative sort, displays unmistakeable early symptoms of a rare disorder in which the victim believes he's a private investigator.

Here's the same condition in a more advanced form. By this time the tough-guy pose has become chronic. Note the studied drape of the hand, and the stance: cool and casual, but ready to spring into action should the need arise. Note the suspicious eye, the contemptuous curl of the lip. It's clear our subject has just seen Murder, My Sweet at the Alpine and is still feeling the after-effects.

Once, a few years ago, Brooklyn Girl was waiting for an elevator with a group of young men in their 20s, all dressed in black leather, with spiked hairdo's, and festooned to the gills with piercings and tattoos. They looked dangerous. When the elevator came, to BG's surprise, they politely stepped aside for her. She discovered they were pleasant, and quite ordinary, middle-class kids from the suburbs. In other words, it was a costume, an act, a pose.

As we used to say in the schoolyard: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Friday 4 March 2011

Question of the day

Have you ever heard anyone use the word “dentifrice,” except in a commercial?

"Going into New York"

In the 1940s, this is how we in Bay Ridge, kids and adults alike, would phrase it if we were going to a show or movie or sports event in Manhattan: “I'm going into New York today.” Mom used to “go into New York” to shop at B. Altman. It gives you a sense of the separateness we Brooklynites felt. Separateness, but a kind of defiant pride, too: we had our own identity. I wonder if that spirit exists in Brooklyn today.