Few people would recognize the portrait on its own.
But Walter Donaldson (1893-1947) wrote songs that everyone knows (or perhaps, in our collective amnesia, once knew): MY BLUE HEAVEN; LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME; AT SUNDOWN; YES SIR, THAT’S MY BABY; HOW YA GONNA KEEP THEM DOWN ON THE FARM?; MAKIN’ WHOOPEE; CAROLINA IN THE MORNING; LITTLE WHITE LIES; MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME; WHAT CAN I SAY AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY; YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, and many more — six hundred songs and counting. Ironically, the man who created so much of the American vernacular in song is little-chronicled, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, he is buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn. So much for Gloria Mundi.
On May 12, 2019, Jonathan Doyle (here playing bass saxophone) and Jacob Zimmerman (clarinet and alto saxophone) created a wonderful exploration of Donaldson’s less-known and often completely unknown compositions for the Redwood Coast Music Festival. Joining them were Kris Tokarski (piano); Katie Cavera (guitar); Charlie Halloran (trombone); Hal Smith (drums). Charlie had to rush off to another set, so Brandon Au takes his place for the final number, JUST THE SAME. There are some small interferences in these videos: lighting that keeps changing, dancers mysteriously magnetized by my camera, yet oblivious to it (a neat trick) but the music comes through bigger-than-life.
Ordinarily, I parcel out long sets in two segments, but I was having such fun reviewing these performances that I thought it would be cruel to make you all wait for Part Two. So here are ten, count them, Donaldson beauties — and please listen closely to the sweetness and propulsion this ad hoc ensemble gets, as well as the distinctive tonalities of each of the players — subtle alchemists all. At points, I thought of a Twenties tea-dance ensemble, sweetly wooing the listeners and dancers; at other times, a stellar hot group circa 1929, recording for OKeh. The unusual instrumentation is a delight, and the combination of Donaldson’s unerring ear for melodies and what these soloists do with “new” “old” material is, for me, a rare joy. In an ideal world, this group, playing rare music, would be “Live from Lincoln Center” or at least issuing a two-CD set. We can hope.
LITTLE WHITE LIES, still a classic mixing swing and romantic betrayal:
DID I REMEMBER? — possibly best-remembered for Billie’s 1936 recording:
SWEET JENNIE LEE! which, for me, summons up a Hit of the Week paper disc and a Frank Chace home jam session:
MAYBE IT’S THE MOON — so pretty and surprisingly unrecorded:
YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO TELL ME (I KNEW IT ALL THE TIME) — in my mind’s ear, I hear Jackson T. singing this:
SOMEBODY LIKE YOU, again, surprisingly unacknowledged:
CLOUDS, recorded by the Quintette of the Hot Club of France:
TIRED OF ME, a very touching waltz:
REACHING FOR SOMEONE (AND NOT FINDING ANYONE THERE), which enjoyed some fame because of Bix, Tram, and Bing:
JUST THE SAME, which I went away humming:
Thoroughly satisfying and intriguing as well.
I dream of the musical surprises that will happen at the 2020 Redwood Coast Music Festival (May 7-10, 2020). With over a hundred sets of music spread out over four days and on eight stages, I feel comfortable saying there will be delightful surprises. Their Facebook page is here, too.
May your happiness increase!