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.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, 1938

[This post is dedicated to Brooklyn Baby, who loves boogie-woogie. So do I.]

In the mid-1950s, rock 'n' roll was the new thing and we'd spend summer evenings hanging out on the stoop listening to Alan Freed on WINS. Some early r&r hits had "camp" appeal, meaning they were so silly (make that stupid) that we enjoyed them. Ling Ting Tong by the Five Keys springs to mind; it begins, "I went to Chinatown / Way back in old Hong Kong / To get some egg foo young / And then I heard a gong..." -- and goes downhill from there.

Some of the records Freed played stirred me: Ray Charles' I Got A Woman, Joe Turner's Chains of LoveHoney Hush, Flip Flop 'n' Fly, Corinne Corinna, Shake Rattle 'n' Roll. (To me the Bill Haley megahit cover record of SR&R was, and is, unlistenable.) I've said in a prior post that in 1954 we teenagers thought Joe Turner was a new singer. How little we knew. In the Shapiro-Hentoff oral history Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams recalls the heyday of Kansas City jazz during the early to mid-'30s:

A wild Twelfth Street spot we fell in regularly was the Sunset, owned by Piney Brown who loved jazz... Pianist Pete Johnson worked there... Now the Sunset had a bartender named Joe Turner and while Joe was serving drinks he would suddenly pick up a cue for a blues and sing it right where he stood, with Pete playing piano for him. I don't think I'll ever forget the thrill of listening to big Joe Turner shouting and sending everybody, night after night, while mixing drinks. Pete Johnson was great on boogie, but he was by no means solely a boogie player. It was only when someone like Ben Webster, the Kaycee-born tenor man, yelled "Roll for me -- come on, roll 'em, Pete, make 'em jump," that he would play boogie for us.
In 1938 impresario John Hammond brought boogie-woogie east for his "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, thus igniting a national boogie-woogie craze. This live recording from that concert is the closest we'll get to hearing what the singing bartender and Pete Johnson sounded like at the Sunset Club. Turner's magnificent voice fills the hall as amply as any heldentenor. As for Johnson, nobody did it better.

Roll 'em, Pete.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Caption contest

This photo of a young Mitt Romney (center) and his friends needs a caption. Or maybe it doesn't.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Best song parody ever

Parodies of pop song hits were a rich source of hilarity when I was a kid. It's embarrassing to reveal what we considered falling-down-funny in the 1940s and '50s, but in the name of candor and honest chronicling, I'm compelled to do it. Here's just one example, unusual because it's clean enough for a family blog. In 1951 Nat "King" Cole's record of Too Young was a #1 hit. Its opening line, "They tried to tell us we're too young," was on everyone's lips, only in our 71st Street version it went, "They tried to sell us egg foo young." It wasn't a fully worked-out parody, consisting of just this one line, which was as far as it needed to go. We were all so convulsed with laughter, doubled over holding our bellies or rolling around on the sidewalk gasping for breath, that additional lyrics were both unnecessary and impossible.

It wasn't until many years later that I learned that our song parodies were thin comedic gruel when compared to the best.

One of the big pop hits of early 1932 was Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long, a melodramatic lament with music by Victor Young, lyrics by Sam Lewis. Here's the Bing Crosby portion of the April, 1932 record made with the Boswell Sisters and the Don Redman band:

Soon thereafter, a young nightclub comedian named Milton Berle wrote and performed a parody of Lawd which, for me, takes the prize as the best song parody ever written. Try singing it while Der Bingle warbles the original. A Lower East Side accent out of the early twentieth century (if you can manage it) will help immeasurably in producing the desired effect.

You made the coat and vest fit the best,
You made the lining nice and strong,
But Sam, you made the pants too long!

You made the peak lapel look so swell,
So who am I to say you're wrong?
But Sam, you made the pants too long!

They got a belt and they got suspenders,
So what can I lose?
But what good are belts and what good suspenders
When my cuffs hang over my shoes?

I feel a winter breeze up and down my knees,
My fly is where my tie belongs,
'Cause Sam, you made the pants too long!

In addition to being a consummate wisecracking, knockabout comedian, as well as television's first superstar, Berle was a composer-lyricist of some talent. He wrote such hits as I'd Give a Million Tomorrows and Lucky, Lucky, Lucky Me. He also penned the lyrics for the curtain-raising patter-song delivered weekly by the "merry Texaco-men" on his Texaco Star Theatre TV show. But with Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long Berle surpassed himself. In fact Sam surpassed Lawd, becoming well-known not as a parody but as a comic song in its own right, recorded famously by Barbra Streisand (with cleaned-up lyrics replacing the "fly-tie" line) in the 1970s.

Sam is probably the only instance of a song parody living on long after the original has been largely forgotten.