Daily Archives: March 10, 2013

THE ASTONISHING WORLDS OF TEDDY WILSON

For some, my title may sound hyperbolic — a sideways glance at a Fifties science-fiction anthology.  But it represents accurately the way I feel about Wilson’s best playing.

In a jazz landscape that occasionally seems dominated by the Coarse (showy playing and singing for effect), Wilson’s solo recordings seem the lyrical embodiment of delicacy.  By that I don’t mean effete playing, a series of tiny gestures, the aural equivalent of someone hunched over the harpsichord keyboard, making almost no sound.

Wilson was clearly a definite player: his rhythms move; his single-note lines gleam; he swings from start to finish at any tempo.  But he doesn’t come out in clown costume and wave his arms wildly for our attention.  His lovely multi-layered playing is there for us, should we choose to give it our ears and hearts and minds.

Teddy Wilson was a man of astonishing gifts, although he offered them in the middle register; he was soft-spoken in person and in his playing.  A YouTube benefactor named sepiapanorama has quietly been very generous — creating two videos that offer eighteen pearly Wilson solos from his great period.  Here are the first ten “issued” performances:

and eight alternate takes:

For those readers who think, “Where did this music come from?” here is an answer.

In the Twenties and beyond, music publishers saw that there was a market for music books that would help you play more like Red Nichols, Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Miller, Art Tatum, Louis, and so on.  You can find them on eBay.  (I wish you good luck — both in the quest to find these books and then to absorb their knowledge.)  Wilson had published one such collection in 1937 — a series of transcribed solos — but he then had the bright entrepreneurial idea of creating the “Teddy Wilson School for Pianists”: a business located in midtown Manhattan — probably simply an office where someone received checks and sent out packages.

What seems to have happened was that Wilson went into the Brunswick studios — the company for whom he was already recording — or stayed there after a Billie Holiday date was over — and recorded several solo improvisation on classic pop songs.  They were not issued by the company for general purchase, but given a special yellow label.  These 78s are now exceedingly rare.

One could become a student at the School (details unknown) and receive a record of, say MY BLUE HEAVEN and one other song — along with printed commentary on what to listen for in the performance.  I once thought that complete transcriptions of the solos were offered, but have been told that I was misinformed.  The School didn’t last long, but those chroniclers who champion the efforts of musicians, twenty years later, to form their own record labels and publishing companies, to take charge of their own economic destinies, should look to Teddy Wilson as an early prescient pioneer in this.

In the Seventies, I found a copy of a bootleg 10″ lp on the Jolly Roger label which contained Teddy Wilson performances I had never heard of before — WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE stands out in my memory — and I bought it.  I then learned that the eight sides were from the School.  Later, Jerry Valburn issued a Merrit Record Society of all eighteen sides, and even later they came out on three European CDs (Classics and Neatwork).

Some friends have suggested that Wilson “simplified” his style for the prospective students.  I don’t know — these seem like incredibly complex recordings, and I think they would be difficult to imitate.  For myself (a very amateurish pianist) I listen to and marvel at the apparent simplicities of Wilson’s melody statements — say, the first eight bars of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS — and think that these performances are marvels: intricate, delicate, beautifully crafted.

These sides make me very happy and I hope they do the same for you.  And each one is the result of a long period of study, so try to listen to them one at a a time — otherwise they might become glittering Swing background music.

May your happiness increase.

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“SAN” (Oriental Fox Trot) EXPLAINED

I asked in a post some months back whether anyone knew the lyrics or the story to SAN, that 1920 hit by Lindsay McPhail and Walter Michels.

Most of us, I think, know the song from Paul Whiteman’s 1927 recording featuring Bix Beiderbecke and Jimmy Dorsey, among others, or the Jimmie Noone recording . . . or versions by groups into this century.

John Cooper, pop culture sleuth, came up with the answers — to be found in the lyrics:

First Verse

King San of Senegal

Sat on the shore

At Bulamay,

Singing a sad refrain.

To his dear queen who’d gone away,

This was his lay.

Second Verse

One day the queen came home

Saw San in sadness on the shore,

Told him she’d no more roam.

Only her San would she adore,

Then came this lore.

Chorus

Oh, sweet heart Lona, my darling Lona,

Why have you gone away?

You said you loved me,

But if you loved me,

Why did you act this way?

If I had ever been untrue to you,

What you have done would be the thing to do;

But my heart aches, dear,

And it will break, dear,

If you don’t come back home again to San!

Chorus 2

Oh, sweet heart Lona, my darling Lona,

Have you come back to stay?

You said you loved me,

I knew you loved me,

I knew you’d come some day.

If I had ever been untrue to you,

What you have done would be the thing to do;

But now you’re mine, dear,

For all the time, dear,

And you’re forgiven by your loving San!

Now we know.  And even though “San” and “Lona” sound to me like a post-retirement couple — the kind who would run a small ice-cream stand or candy store at the beach — they are presumably Senegalese (West African) which, I guess, explains the camels on the cover.

And a postscript from a banjo-playing friend, Bob Sann: “There is a river in southeastern Poland called the San.  Perhaps Walter Michels, who wrote the music, had relatives there?  I did.”

May your happiness increase.

GOIN’ TO KANSAS CITY WITH THE IAJRC (Sept. 5-7, 2013)

I’ve been a member of the IAJRC for many years — that’s the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors — and it continues to make many good things possible.  In its quarterly journal, I have read fascinating stories, found out about CDs that would become life-enriching experiences, learned a great deal, and met wonderful people.  (Two Bills, as a matter of fact: Coverdale and Gallagher.)  So I think it’s a marvelous association, in the nicest senses of that overused word.  And their focus isn’t purely on ancient shellac, but on keeping jazz thriving.

Every year, the IAJRC creates a “convention”: but this isn’t simply an excuse to hear other people talk at length.  No, there one can meet friends with similar musical interests; hear rare music on disc; see film presentations; listen to live exciting jazz.  And this year it’s being held in Kansas City, Missouri — where visitors can enjoy the Marr Sound Archives, the American Jazz Museum, half-price on the breakfast buffet, a free drink in the lobby lounge every day (such blandishments are not small things).  Here’s the link to the detailed two-page flyer for the convention.  Go ahead, take a look.  I dare you.  And when you come back, your ears full of swinging four-four, you can then (if the neighbors don’t mind), attempt to sound like Big Joe Turner, “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeelllll, I’ve been to Kansas City . . . ”

May your happiness increase.