Daily Archives: October 25, 2009

THE SPIRITS OF RHYTHM

Spirits Alabamy

Spirits

Up until a few weeks ago, I would have sworn that the entire output of the Spirits of Rhythm — that gloriously hot (and sometimes silly) group — could have been contained on one CD of their 1933-41 recordings, including sessions with Ella Logan and Red McKenzie.

spirits 1Of course, there were other extras — Leo Watson’s one session for Decca, a later one for Signature (with Vic Dickenson), and a mid-Forties reunion of the group on the West Coast which resulted in four sides for the Black and White label.  Tangentially, Leo Watson appeared on a few Jubilee shows and once on a Rudy Vallee radio program, as well as recording with Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw, but I thought the musical material was unbearably finite.

Spirits SWEETHEART

That was until I found “TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY” on YouTube and got to see the Spirits in action (the clip came from the otherwise-forgotten 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS).

And some more online research has just turned up that they appeared in two other films that year: ALABAMY BOUND and YES, INDEED!  Both musicals were directed by Dudley Murphy, the second with Josef Byrne (it seems to be a short subject with Dorothy Dandridge).  Something tells me that these weren’t big-budget mass-market productions, but perhaps productions aimed at the Black market, done in a hurry and on a minimal budget.  In fact, I have no assurance that the three films have different musical numbers.  And in 1942, the Spirits appeared in PANAMA HATTIE.

Spirits DeccaBut did you know that the 6 Spirits of Rhythm (including Teddy Bunn, Wilbur and Douglas Daniels, Leo Watson, Virgil Scoggins, and Ernest “Serious” Myers) appeared on Broadway from September 1935 to March 1936 — alongside Bea Lillie, Eleanor Powell, Ethel Waters, and Eddie Foy, Jr. in the Dietz-Schwartz musical AT HOME ABROAD?  Do I have any Broadway archivists among my readers?

At the top of the page is a still of Leo Watson from ALABAMY BOUND.  The world needs more film footage of Leo and Teddy Bunn.  Or, if you think that statement’s too sweeping, I do.

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SITTIN’ IN . . .

About ten days ago, I was at a jazz club and found myself at the bar listening to two esteemed jazz players, whom I’ll call LOUIS and EARL, for purposes of discretion. 

Earl was telling us a story.  He had had a gig with three of the finest musicians he knows; things were going beautifully.  As the end of the night approached, a musician he knew only slightly came up to the stand, and said, “Hey, you guys sound great.  Can I sit in?”  Earl, somewhat unprepared for this, said warily, “OK.  What do you want to play?”  And the musician said, “You know, the only tune that I have in my head is _ _ _ _ _ _ (a simple-sounding but quite treacherous Monk composition).”  Earl was sure that the original musicians on the stand, experts all, could extemporize on it, so with some trepidation, he counted off the tempo and they began.  However, the guest star — and that appellation is ironic — couldn’t successfully negotiate the chord changes of the song he had chosen to play.  I’m not sure how much chaos ensued, but I assume that the musicians couldn’t wait for the particular song to be over.

The moral that came out of this incident, aside from a good deal of rueful head-shaking, grew into a small informal disquisition on the unstated rules of sittin’ in. 

One: If you have to ask, “Can I sit in?” or even “May I sit in?” you shouldn’t be there.  I don’t know if it resembles what they call “seeding” in tennis, but musicians of equal stature or good standing are invited to join the fun.   

Two: If you do make it up to the bandstand, through whatever means, it is bad form to call a weird tune in hopes of showing off your large and esoteric repertoire or your ethereal hipness.  Match your suggestion to the collective style of the musicians whose world you are temporarily joining.  Some groups move seamlessly from HIGH SOCIETY to ORNITHOLOGY, but they are few. 

Three: If you forget Two in the heat of the moment and the joy of sittin’ in, make sure that you know how to play the weird tune you yourself have suggested.  It is better to be the King of ALL OF ME than to mess up something more exotic.

Louis proposed his idea: he had always wanted to have a small card printed, a musical quiz.  “Want to sit in?  Then you won’t mind taking this little test, first.”  I proposed the first question: “What key is C JAM BLUES in?”  (I didn’t ask how he would prevent plagiarism, because I was so entranced by the image of a player taking the card back to a table in the club and perhaps filling in the circles with a #2 pencil.)

But then a thought occurred to me, and I asked these two veterans of many bandstands.  “How do you say to people, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t want you to sit in with this band”?  And they looked somber, which made me think that many people get allowed up on bandstands who weren’t welcome there just because musicians hadn’t developed their polite refusals.

I proposed several that I thought were tactful — social falsehoods that wouldn’t be obviously rude: “You know, the owner doesn’t like having people sit in.”  And Louis chimed in, “Yes, I could always say the band was about to do something special this set, and sitting in wouldn’t work.”

But my creativity had been stirred, and I proceeded to suggest a few — possibly more dangerous — rejoinders for this delicate moment:

“I’d love to have you sit in, but I’ve just washed my hair / I have my period / I have a headache.”

“Boy!  What a great idea!  But, you know, it’s Shabbos / Ramadan / Lent, so tonight’s out.  Could you come back after sundown tomorrow / in a month / in ten days?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m lactose-intolerant, and my holistic healer says that letting people sit in is bad for my stomach acid.”  Or, “I’m so sorry, but my cardiologist says I can’t.”

“Sounds fine!  Let me just check with my psychic / financial advisor / interior decorator and see what (s)he thinks!”

If readers would like to suggest tactful versions of what musicians really want to say, which is “No.” “I don’t feel like it.” “No, you’d just screw it all up.”  “You know what?  I really dislike the way you play,” please let me know.  You will have done the jazz community a great favor.

SERIOUS PLAY (IN THE DARK)

I showed up at Roth’s (Columbus Avenue at 93rd Street) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan late last Friday night — October 23, 2009 — to capture a few numbers by that most telepathic duo of Jon-Erik Kellso and Ehud Asherie. 

Although the restaurant is moderately well-lit (as restaurants go), and you can see HIBISCUS COLLINS advertised on the blackboard, these videos take some getting used to, and my more discerning viewers might wish to pretend that their computer monitors have become floor-model console radios for the duration.  Or perhaps they could simply close their eyes and dream . . .    

The first number, I’M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER, often gets played too fast.  It’s really a love ballad — not exactly expressing grief, but some level of deprivation: “I’m going to write a letter to myself (pretending that it came from you) because you don’t write to me . . .” is a sad conceit.  When Fats Waller sang and played it, the mournfulness was undercut by his natural ebullience.  Ehud and Jon-Erik take it at a properly pensive tempo, musing along, floating through time, space, and the barlines in a manner that recalls Ruby Braff and Dick Hyman when those two monumental players got into a tender groove: 

Then, they finished the evening with the Arlen-Koehler BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA.  Jon and Ehud were particularly inspired, recalling early Roy Eldridge, venturing here and there, playing delightedly, tossing musical ideas at each other with great friendly style:

Music like this makes every kind of darkness disappear.

MORE FROM KECSKEMET

That Hungarian city is the site of the International Bohem Ragtime and Jazz Festival, and it must be a jumping metropolis, if these two new YouTube clips are evidence.  The first is a sweet, almost rueful take on SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART, with the festival organizer Tamas Itzes (now Doctor Itzes!) taking the violin solo and the vocal.  He’s surrounded by the best international jazz musicians here on March 29, 2009. Herbert Christ, trumpet; Matthias Seuffert, clarinet; Tamás Ittzés; Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Ad van Beerendonk, bass; Nick Ward, drums. Even though the sound is slightly unbalanced in favor of the piano, the ambiance is late-night Chicago circa 1933.  Not to be missed!

And this is a first for JAZZ LIVES — a rocking performance of a Hungarian Jazz Age pop song, “EGY KICSIT ANGYAL LEGYEN, EGY KICSIT DEMON.” 

I found out that the title translates to “A LITTLE ANGEL,” and the lyrics, roughly speaking, go like this: A little angel, a little demon, be a little deceptive, a little true, be a little nice, a little thin, be a little clever, and beautiful!  Be a fairy house during the day, and exciting evening! Fortunately, such a woman could not be found!

Some of the idioms must get lost via Google: I can’t see myself whispering to the Beloved, “You are a fairy house during the day.”  But the ambiance needs no translation!  Nor do the solos and ensemble work by Tamás Bényei, trumpet, guitar, vocal; Bria Skonberg, trumpet; Craig Flory, clarinet; Matthias Seuffert, tenor; Russ Phillips, trombone; Paolo Alderighi, piano; Stuart Zank, banjo; Ad van Beerendonk, bass; Nick Ward, drums.

And, as I’ve written before, the Bohém Festival was the first jazz festival ever being broadcast live on Internet. The broadcast had 30,000 online visitors throughout the weekend. For more information visit: www.bohemragtime.com.