Monday, 26 December 2011

Alley Cats in the broom closet

Like fantasy baseball fans, jazz fans like to speculate about dream lineups: If only A [insert jazz immortal's name here] had recorded with B, C, and D, wouldn't that have been something? Here's a fantasy for you. Start with Mildred Bailey, my favorite singer of the 1930s. Add, say, Teddy Wilson on piano, and for horns -- oh, what the hell, let's go for it -- Bunny Berigan on trumpet and Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone. Now there's a too-good-to-be-true lineup.

Oh, wait -- it actually happened.

On December 6, 1935, in a recording studio so small it was called "the broom closet," four sides were cut and released as "Mildred Bailey and her Alley Cats." Here for your delectation are two of them, the beautiful Fats Waller-Andy Razaf Willow Tree, and Down-Hearted Blues.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Dumbo, Superman, Robin Hood, and a gigolo

The Joe Mooney Quartet
By the time I was seven, my collection of 78s included songs from Dumbo and Pinocchio, eight marches by John Philip Sousa, Burl Ives singing Jimmy Crack Corn, radio's Uncle Don singing The Green Grass Grew All 'Round, someone named Crane Calder singing I am the very model of a modern major-general, and three story albums: Superman's Christmas Adventure starring Bud Collyer who played the man of steel on the radio, a dramatic re-enactment of the sinking of the battleship Maine and Admiral Dewey's victory at Manila Harbor ("You may fire when ready, Gridley"), and a mini-operetta version of the Robin Hood story with songs such as this:

Two by two and three by three,
What a merry band are we;
We are outlaws only in name, hi-ho,
Helping others is our aim, hi-ho!

Not satisfied with my collection, I craved and sought more records (thus establishing a pattern of behavior to which I've faithfully adhered). So occasionally I'd rummage through the records accumulated by my parents and grandparents, an eclectic mix going back to the days of one-sided 78s. Bypassing the classical music (that passion would come later) and relics like Alice Blue Gown and comic monologues by Julius Tannen, I culled and appropriated a few favorites from their shelves, including Paul Robeson singing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and By and By, Larry Clinton and his orchestra doing Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the 1946 recording of Just a Gigolo by the Joe Mooney Quartet. (The quartet had its brief moment of fame as the result of a rave review in The New Yorker. Mom was a subscriber, so this must be how Mooney came to my parents' attention.)

The quartet's Just a Gigolo fascinated me. It was a Decca record, badly cracked but still playable. I didn't know anything about Joe Mooney, the blind accordionist-singer-songwriter whose story is well told hereI didn't know or care what a gigolo was. I had no idea that this was a radical revision of an old song, a hipster's reinvention whose lyrics were as much Mooney's as Irving Caesar's. (It would be another twenty-plus years before I'd hear Bing Crosby's definitive 1931 recording.) And who knew what hipness was?

The flip side of the record was September Song, but Gigolo got the major play-time on my Victrola. (September Song's subtle beauties, including its allusions to Debussy's Clair de lune, would reveal themselves to me to me years later.) I learned every note of Gigolo, accepting and parroting, without questioning or understanding, lines like:

Every day a different chick
Makes him sick,
But he can't kick
Because they're puttin' down dough.

Who cared what the words meant -- I loved the playfulness and the crisp precision of it all. Listening now, I realize I was responding to the extraordinary musicianship and inventiveness of Mooney and his colleagues: Andy Fitzgerald, clarinet; Jack Hotop, guitar; Gaetan "Gate" Friga, bass.

So here -- partly for old times' sake, partly to introduce some readers to the unjustly neglected Joe Mooney -- is today's musical selection (mercifully sans crack). As a bonus, I've appended the quartet's sensational From Monday On.

It sure beats Uncle Don.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Pearl Bailey: "St. Louis Blues" and "Tired"

Yet another Bailey: not the magnificent Mildred, not Buster and his clarinet, not Bill who is constantly being implored by jazz bands to please come home. This time it's the inimitable Pearl: St. Louis Blues and Tired, recorded in 1945 with Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Bill Stegmeyer, clarinet; Hank Ross, tenor sax; Ludwig Flato, piano; Carl Kress, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums. Enjoy.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Because I like it: "Says My Heart"

Frank Loesser
You'll find nothing mind-blowing or earth-shaking or ground-breaking here; just a perfect little song and a perfect record: Says My Heart, music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Frank Loesser, recorded in 1938 by Mildred Bailey and the Red Norvo band. Frank Loesser is one of my songwriting heroes, as lyricist and composer. His lyrics are often so natural-sounding they're easy to take for granted. In this one, there are no lofty, hyperbolic declarations, no word-inversions, no imagery; just the age-old heart vs. head story told with total believability from the female point of view.

"Fall in love, fall in love," says my heart;
"It's romance, take a chance," says my heart.
But each time
That I'm
Almost in your arms,
This old schoolteacher-brain of mine keeps ringing false alarms.
Then my head rules instead and I'm wise
To the scheme of that gleam in your eyes;
So I kiss and run, but the moment we're apart,
"Oh, you fool, that was love!" says my heart.

With a good, professionally crafted lyric, there's always a telling detail or unusual turn of phrase that makes it memorable, which is all you need in the short span of thirty-two bars. In this song it's "this old schoolteacher-brain of mine" -- just right for the character and situation. I wish all songwriters who overload their lyrics with Poetry would heed Frank Loesser's advice:

Try to make everything refer back to the title... Keep focused in on what the title is saying... Avoid colorful language unless you put a rest nearby so that the audience can have time to digest it. Otherwise, they'd be admiring, or wondering, or puzzled about it and lose the next lyric or two, because the purpose of writing is to get their attention and keep it.

You've got it and you've kept it, Mr. Loesser.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Infinite Loop Disorder

I wonder how many of you have suffered from this malady. With Infinite Loop Disorder, the same melody plays over and over without end in an infinite loop on your internal tape player. I.L.D. can strike during the day or at night, but when it hits you at night, it's a surefire sleep-destroyer.

The I.L.D. sufferer has absolutely no control over the choice of music. The melody can be good, it can be bad; doesn't matter. It happened to me once with the scintillating Mildred Bailey-Red Norvo version of the clever Johnny Mercer-Victor Schertzinger song Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry. Even as sublime a melody as the Air from Handel's Water Music can begin to lose its charm when heard for the thousandth time in one night. But the torture is truly unendurable when the melody is bad.

In my particular case, melodies by Burt Bacharach and Marvin Hamlisch can bring on I.L.D. in its most virulent form quite easily, and so are to be avoided at all cost. The worst case of I.L.D. I've ever endured was with Barry Manilow's Copacabana. All I have to think of is the line "Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl" and my nerves are all a-jangle.

I.L.D. hit me again the other night, this time with a good tune, in fact one of my favorite jazz themes: That's the Curfew written by Pete Brown, the great "jump"-style alto saxophonist and recorded in 1945 by his Sextette [sic]: Brown on alto; Ed Lewis, trumpet; Ray Parker, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Al Matthews, bass; Ray Nathan, drums.

I've searched through the pharmacopeia and can find no remedy for I.L.D. except for heavy sedation, so I'm going to try some experimental therapy. Mind you, I have no desire to expunge That's the Curfew permanently from my mind; I like its nifty shifting from minor to major too much for such radical surgery. I merely seek temporary relief, and hope that by posting it here I can find some measure of I.L.D. surcease.

Here goes:

You know something? That feels a lot better.

At the Copa, Copacabana,
The hottest spot north of Havana,
Music and passion were always in fashion,
At the Copa... they fell in love.

Aargh, it's back. Help!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

"And that, my friend, is why they call it a flange."

A few years ago the cable TV company to which we subscribed -- we'll call it Splodgers Cable -- ran a commercial that I can't get out of my mind. The mark of a good commercial, you might say. You'd be wrong. What haunts me is the question: What was the copywriter thinking?

(By the way, the cable service was lousy. We've since switched to a much better non-cable service delivered to our home via a fibre optic network, whatever that means, with no dish required.)

The Splodgers Cable commercial consisted of a mini-drama with an all-male cast, a bunch of beer-drinking buddies who love fixing cars and watching football games. The leading character is a nameless fellow we'll call Mr. Know-It-All, who speaks authoritatively on all things mechanical and high-tech.

The scene is his plushly furnished den, prominently featuring a big-screen TV and Splodgers cable box. As our playlet begins, Mr. K-I-A and a few buddies are entering the den, stage right, in mid-conversation about something or other, and Mr. K-I-A says to one of them, rather condescendingly, "And that, my friend, is why they call it a flange." Mr. K-I-A is not shy about flaunting his expertise.

The topic soon turns to state-of-the-art cable TV, about which Mr. K-I-A naturally knows everything. He proceeds to educate his grateful, knowledge-thirsty friends on the subject, with special emphasis on the boons offered by Splodgers Cable; then they all settle in for a blissful, testosterone-rich afternoon of NFL head-banging. Fade to black.

"And that, my friend, is why they call it a flange."

Though the commercial is long gone, this line has been a constant source of bafflement to me. I like to think I'm pretty good at dialogue but my problem is, I can't imagine any believable guy-to-guy dialogue that could possibly have led up to it. Can you?

The best I can come up with, after years of effort, is this. Before entering the den, the boys were in the garage where Mr. K-I-A was showing off his latest automotive gimcrackery. The conversation must have gone something like:

KNOW-IT-ALL: Look-a this, guys. I just retrofitted my 1986 GT-120 with a new state-of-the-art Type-2 dynanometer on the hydraulic flywheel.

FRIEND #1: Wow!

FRIEND #2: Awesome!

FRIEND #3: The bee's knees!

FRIEND #1: Looks like you put in a new flange, too.

KNOW-IT-ALL: I had to, dummy, to allow for the additional torque-tolerance.

FRIEND #1 (ashamed of himself): Of course.

FRIEND #2: Funny, that flange sorta looks like the flank steak I barbecued last week.

[In the name of artistic license, we must suspend our disbelief for a moment and assume that said friend likes to prepare his flank steak in the shape of a donut.]

KNOW-IT-ALL (who, I forgot to mention, is also an expert etymologist): That's no coincidence. The word "flange," dating back to the 1680s, is of unknown origin but it's probably related to the old French word "flanche," meaning flank or side.

FRIEND #1 (tired of etymology): Say, let's go watch some football.

ALL: Yeah!

(They head for the den.)

KNOW-IT-ALL (to Friend #2 as he enters the den): And that, my friend, is why they call it a flange.

Can any of my readers do any better?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

A question about electricity

Electricity in 1897

Electricity now

To my non-scientific eye, there doesn't seem to be much difference between these two pictures.

We live in a wondrous age of digital, wireless everything, and believe me, I don't take it for granted. As a kid I played 78 rpm records on a wind-up Victrola; now I can hold 130 gigabytes' worth of jazz, pop, and classical music in the palm of my hand. I can read any newspaper in the world with my morning coffee. I can post my reminiscences and favorite pieces of music and share them with the world. I can play Texas Hold 'Em poker against opponents from Poland, Brazil, Thailand, and New Zealand.

And yet, if a tree branch snaps off somewhere, anywhere, and brings down a wire, we're cold, in the dark, and all my Steve Jobs wonders are worthless, their batteries unrechargeable.

Brooklyn Girl and I live in a modern, prosperous city that likes to think of itself as world-class, yet our supply of power is, at best, unreliable. (When the electricity is off, my adjective changes to "third-world.") The weather doesn't have to be bad. It can be a perfectly lovely day, as was yesterday, and zap! the electricity goes off for two hours.

I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where the electrical infrastructure was as old as Edison. I remember our house being dark during the hurricane of 1944, but in all the years I lived on 71st Street I don't recall such an on-again-off-again relationship with our power supply.

Exposed wires and wooden poles? That's pathetic. With universal solar power still a pipe-dream and the cost of burying all those wires too high, our high-tech superstructure rests on a foundation right out of the horse-and-buggy era. Why has there been no breakthrough in this area since 1897?

Right now it's raining and windy outside. I just hope the electri