Daily Archives: May 27, 2009

PLAYING THE FOOL OUT OF “UKULELE LADY”

I read Whitney Balliet’s New Yorker Profile of King Oliver, “For the Comfort of the People,” perhaps twenty-five years ago, and this passage stuck in my head: Jess Stacy describing the first time he heard Oliver play, around 1926, in Chicago:

The first time I ever went to hear Oliver he was playing “Ukulele Lady,” and he was playing the fool out of it, and he took five or six choruses in a row.  He played sitting down, and he didn’t play loud.  He knew his instrument.  He wasn’t spearing for high notes; he stayed right in the middle register.  His chord changes were pretty and his vibrato just right — none of the Italian belly vibrato.

When, last year, I became interested in the ukulele,  I wondered what that pop tune — supposedly inspired by May Singhi Breen — sounded like, but that question faded into the disorganized repository of unanswered questions I carry around with me.  Last summer, though, when the Beloved and I visited Maine, I found stacks and piles of sheet music*.  And one of the songs I found was UKULELE LADY.  So the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.  It was a simple, bouncy song — and if I tried quite hard, I could imagine a Joe Oliver solo on its melody.  But how to convey this to my readers?

Nothing simpler.  Sheet music cover and lyrics, presto change-o!

Ukulele Lady cover

UKULELE LADY© 1925

Lyrics & Music: Lyrics: Gus Kahn, Music: Richard A. Whiting

Verse: I saw the splendor of the moonlight

On Honolulu bay

There’s something tender in the moonlight

On Honolulu

And all the beaches

Are full of peaches

Who bring their ukes along

And in the glimmer of the moonlight

They like to sing this song

Chorus: If you like ukulele lady

Ukulele lady like-a you

If you like to linger where it’s shady

Ukulele lady linger too

If you kiss ukulele lady

And you promise ever to be true

And she finds another ukulele

Lady fooling ’round with you

Maybe she’ll sigh (and maybe not)

Maybe she’ll cry

Maybe she’ll find somebody else

By and by

To sing to where it’s cool and shady

Where the tricky wicki wacki woo

If you like ukulele lady

Ukulele lady like-a you

She used to sing to me by moonlight

On Honolulu Bay

Fond memories cling to me by moonlight

Although I’m far away

Someday I’m going

Where eyes are glowing

And lips are made to kiss

To meet somebody in the moonlight

To hear that song I miss

But how to provide the music — short of bringing Bent Persson into a studio to become Papa Joe Oliver?  This isn’t an adequate substitute, but it made me laugh hysterically this morning, so I hope it will do the same for you — a musical extravaganza by the Fred and Ginger of hand puppets . . . . Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.*  Now everyone can hear what the song sounds like, including the verse:

*Go ahead.  Find another blog that has Jess Stacy and the Muppets in the same posting.  I dare you.  I am also so fond of the phrase “playing the fool out of ______,” perhaps a polite Midwestern euphemism, that I keep trying to find a context in which it fits, which isn’t easy.

**Subject for another blog: the near ubiquity of music for painfully forgettable songs in certain regions — CHONG, HE CAME FROM HONG KONG must have been a huge hit in Maine in 1930.

Advertisements

BENNY VISITS “AVALON”

In the last few days I’ve been listening to the Benny Goodman Festival being broadcast on WKCR-FM (if you’re out of range of this New York City FM station, you can hear it online at www.wkcr.org).  Whenever I turn on the radio a Goodman small group is eagerly exploring AVALON at a jaunty tempo, a coincidence that both amuses and puzzles me.

BGNow, I don’t plan to accuse Goodman of being an aging artist caught in his own boredom, but the frequency with which jazz musicians return to their own narrowing repertoire of familiar songs to improvise on is worth comment.

I know that Hot Lips Page famously said (to whom?) “The material is immaterial,” and Bob Rusch has gently reminded me that jazz is about what one does with the material rather than the material itself.  “‘T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it,” sang Trummy Young.

And anyone brave enough to improvise in public at the tempos Goodman favored should, by law, have the right to choose his or her own favorite set of chord changes — no matter whether the improviser in question is Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, or John Coltrane.  But I’ve also heard some of the finest jazz artists turn in established solos on familiar pieces for their features, occasionally playing something quite moving, but more often falling back on set routine.  I think of Jo Jones’s CARAVAN, of Buddy Tate’s BODY AND SOUL, of Vic Dickenson’s IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD, and so on.

One could, of course, make the case that jazzmen have “master solos” and “polished performances” to fall back on, because improvisation is such a demanding art.  And Ricky Riccardi has made the point that Louis Armstrong’s versions of INDIANA that often began his later performances were anything but rote repetition.

But Benny himself (according to Ross Firestone’s sweet-natured biography) seems to have been dissatisfied with the music he played in his last decade, saying to someone, “You can’t play LADY BE GOOD forever.”  But he did play AVALON for fifty years.

Did he play it so regularly because it was a song he loved from his childhood (it first appeared in 1920)?  Did he return to it because it was one of his proven hits, a selection that his audience — sometimes made up of people who had cheered him on in 1937 — wanted, expected, and waited for?  Did he feel a responsibility to please the people who had paid to hear him with a medley of his Greatest Hits?  Or was playing AVALON something that gave him pleasure in itself — both as a stunning ride over the chord changes and as a way of making an exciting performance?  I can’t begin to say.

And some of the performances of AVALON I’ve heard on WKCR-FM are justly thrilling — not just in terms of technique and facility, but as musical expressions — evidence of an older artist still finding “something new to say” on a familiar text.  Some of them sound like Goodman playing at being Benny Goodman — with playing that is technically exciting but not especially creative improvised music.

The only time I was fortunate enough to see Goodman in person — at a great distance — was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 or 1975, with a truly all-star group including Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge (!).  Of course, the King offered us AVALON, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and DON’T BE THAT WAY to enthusiastic applause, but I was much more moved by Hackett’s choice of a feature number — an uptempo SECRET LOVE, which I can still dimly hear in my head as I write this.

Does this make me a snob for asking my beloved jazz heroes to “be original”?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if I had been able to ask Benny why he explored and re-explored AVALON, he would have said, “I like it.”  And that would have been enough, even for me.  Any artist who’s given us so much for such a long time is entitled to his idiosyncracies.

ANOTHER WONDROUS PIANIST SIGNS IN

Jimmy Rowles was a wizard of light and shade, of wit and deep feeling at the piano.  I momentarily fell into one of my eBay reveries and considered bidding on this artifact (which seems to be less mutable than the recent “Arthur Tatum” sighting) but then thought, “What would I do with it?”  Perhaps the wiser act is merely to post it here so that everyone can admire it — without succumbing to the costly need to HAVE it.

Rowles autograph

And if you haven’t listened to Rowles recently, I urge you to do so — joking around with Billie and Artie Shapiro at a Clef rehearsal, with Ben, Lester, BG, Zoot, or Peggy Lee — inimitable and wholly himself.