One of the highlights of the 2009 Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival (July 12, 2009) was the two-hour concert given by Swedish trumpeter / cornetist / Louis Armstrong scholar Bent Persson — leading an all-star big band in tribute to the music Louis made in the Thirties. The band was genuinely “all-star,” including Nick Ward (drums), John Carstairs Hallam (bass), Martin Litton (piano), Jacob Ullberger (banjo / guitar), Jean-Francois Bonnel, Matthias Seuffert (reeds), Paul Munnery (trombone), Beat Clerc (trumpet), Michael McQuaid (trumpet / reeds), Ludvig Carlson, Spats Langham, Elena P. Paynes, and Bent himself (vocal), and one of two musicians whose names I didn’t catch or write down — being busy clutching my video camera like a man on a mission. Which I was!
If you’ve never heard Bent, something wonderful awaits. And seeing him play Louis’s solos (and variations on them) you realize once again how majestic Louis’s accomplishments were — and are. And the band got the spirit, swinging out in the best Thirties way, with no “repertory” stiffness.
The flexibility of this big band was due to several factors — first, the musicians’ deep familiarity with the repertoire and their professionalism, but also the two extended rehearsals Bent called, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, to run through the arrangements. He didn’t spare himself, playing the difficult solos without avoiding the high notes. Non-musicians aren’t usually invited to watch the band rehearse, but Bent generously invited me in advance. I brought my video camera (telling him that it would be good material for the documentary someone was bound to do on him) as well as my notebook.
Here are some things I saw and heard:
Before the full band arrived, the trumpets and saxophones were ready, and Bent said, “Maybe we should start with something that is going to be difficult for the saxes, like – – – – ?” and he named a song. One of the saxes said quietly, “I’d be just as glad to wait.”
When rehearsals started, Bent showed himself to be the very oppposite of the stereotypical bandleader. Nothing ruffled him; he was cheerful and generous with praise. One of the musicians was late, and Bent asked, “Did they get X?” to which the answer You may play louder on that. Don’t be too careful!”
When Bent announced that the next song would be BODY AND SOUL, I heard one musician say, deadpan. “Great tune. I think I know this.”
At the second rehearsal, Bent walked in, saw me setting up my camera, grinned, and made the musicians’ joke that was new to me: “Shoot! The enemy will appear at any moment!”
Later, when the band was working through THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET (which is really a full-scale dramatic piece), Bent pointed out that the introduction had to be properly spooky: “It says very loud and horrible in the music.” And, when the band — hard workers all — had concluded the beautiful WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH, Bent said, happily, “Very nice! Lovely! First take!”
Here are the first selections from this Sunday afternoon concert:
I GOT RHYTHM served to introduce the band; it’s modeled on Louis’ Chicago OKeh recording, with that comic ending (Bent says it was based on a radio theme: does anyone know the name of the closing motif?):
I’M IN THE MARKET FOR YOU was a very appealing song (I saw Ray Nance do it once, and it was marvelously touching. Spats Langham has the right spirit here.). But what puzzles me is that it was a film song (from “High Society Blues”) presumably stressing how love was more important than the stock market, a sentiment worth remembering today. But how any songwriters could have thought to make the stock market a subject for pop song in the post-Crash world amazes me. Would we know this song if Louis hadn’t taken it up?
I’M A DING DONG DADDY (From Dumas) is another 1931 oddity, written by Phil Baxter, if I remember correctly. Once you hear the written lyrics, complete with treacherous “p”‘s for a singer to pop, you’ll understand why Louis chose to scat his way through the verbal thickets:
INDIAN CRADLE SONG never emerged from its obscurity, although it’s quite a tender melody — one of the early Thirties ventures into native Americana, going back LAND OF THE SKY BLUE WATER and, earlier, to RED WING. Bent sings it sweetly:
BODY AND SOUL, complete with awkward lyrics — which the Beloved always remarks on as syntactically part-Yiddish — “My life a hell (wreck) you’re making” could have been a conversational lament straight from Second Avenue:
YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, complete with rocking verse to start and the closing modulation, as well as a loose, swinging vocal by Ludvig Carlson:
Finally (for this post), JUST A GIGOLO, which Louis must have heard and loved from Bing’s recording:
More to come!