Daily Archives: April 19, 2009

JEEPERS CREEPERS (1938)

jeepers-creepersHere’s two minutes of Louis Armstrong in shining form, in the 1938 film “Going Places.”  I will brush aside the obvious objections, that Louis, dressed as a groom, sings and plays to a horse; his music is interrupted and nearly obscured by foolish dialogue and shots of that same horse whinnying; the synchronization of music and image is faulty at times.

Louis loved JEEPERS CREEPERS and performed it until the end of his life, always buoyantly, and this version allows him a full instrumental chorus with no accompaniment, then, when he starts to sing, the studio orchestra’s backing is both simple and sympathetic — piano, bass, and guitar, reminiscent of Joe Sullivan and Bobby Sherwood on Bing Crosby’s MOONBURN.  Catch the wonderful rubato turn as Louis slows down the end of the verse, eyes aglow, before joyously entering the chorus.  Lucky horse, lucky us.

(A postscript: when I had finished writing this post, I did as many bloggers do — went to Google Images to find some visual representation of the Harry Warren – Johnny Mercer song whose goofy lyrics Louis renders so cheerfully.  The first seventeen pages of Google Images for “Jeepers Creepers,” top left, are devoted to stills from a horror movie of the same name.  We live in interesting times to be sure.)

WILLIE THE LION-HEARTED

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When I first discovered Stride piano, now about forty years ago, Willie “The Lion” Smith was a paradox – at once ubiquitous and inaccessible.  I bought a copy of his two-disc “Memoirs” in a now vanished Greenwich Village record store, and his autobiography was on the shelves of my local library.  Even better, he appeared twice on network television.  Once, he was Dick Cavett’s guest, turning Cavett speechless in response to the Lion’s inquiry if he spoke Yiddish.  That avenue having proven a dead end, the Lion then launched into a nearly violent rendition of what may have been “Here Comes the Band.”

The other occasion was one of those Sunday morning or afternoon documentaries purporting to explain jazz to the masses.  Whether the masses were attentive to this I don’t know, but they were offered one of the most unusual collections of idiosyncratic New York veterans imaginable: Wild Bill Davison, Tyree Glenn, Tony Parenti, Milt Hinton, Buzzy Drootin, and the Lion.

In retrospect, it does seem that Giants Walked the Earth in 1971.  But I arrived on the scene too late to see the Lion in person: his death in 1973 left Eubie Blake as official representative of the Good Old Days (able to sit down at the piano) .

Listeners only superficially acquainted with jazz of the great period might think it characterized primarily by rhythm, its unflagging beat taking precedence, its dynamic range Loud, its characteristic tempo Fast.  But the Lion’s music is a charming antidote, suggesting a pastoral world.  His rhythmic engines are never still, but both his melodies and his decorative embellishments are unusually elegant: no one sounds like him!  Consider the pensive delicacy of the opening strain of “Fading Star.”  Played at a slower tempo by a small string ensemble, it would fit neatly into a chamber-music concert.  The strains that begin “Rippling Waters,” although taken briskly, are ornate and lovely.  The compositions are marked by echoes of ragtime and turn-of-the-century parlor piano: multiple strains, tempo and volume changes, varied bass lines, dense interplay between both hands.  But this is not to suggest that he was Debussy with a cigar – “Rippling Waters” becomes a stomping test piece to send other pianists back to their keyboards in gloom. And for those who rate the Lion the least of the great Stride triumvirate of Johnson and Waller, I direct them to “Sneakaway,” which combines power, delicacy, and inventiveness.

The Lion recorded many times over a long career, and new performances are emerging on compact disc. He deserves our reverent attention.  I am delighted to find television performances by the Lion on YouTube: in particular, his performance on the BBC’s “Jazz 625” program from 1966, hosted by the late Humphrey Lyttelton.  Here’s the final portion, where the Lion faces a wildly enthusiastic audience and concludes with a gently rocking version of his own “Relaxin’,” memorably.