BEAUTIFUL AND RARE: FRAN KELLEY’S “THE DOUBLE QUINTET,” 1945

I haven’t watched ANTIQUE ROADSHOW for years, but to me the record below is like finding that the old painting in my basement is really a Caravaggio.  In 2019, I bought it on eBay for fourteen dollars, thinking, “I’ve never seen this label before nor heard of this session; it has wonderful people on it, and how disappointed could I be?”

I am elated, not disappointed.  Here are reverent still portraits:

And the other side:

The Double Quintet is Emmett Berry, trumpet; Eddie Rosa, Willie Smith, alto saxophone; Eddie Lucas, oboe; Clint Davis, reeds; Arnold Ross, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Billy Hadnott, string bass; Keg Purnell, drums.  Joe Macanarny or Herb Jeffries, vocal; Johnny Thompson or Herschel Gilbert, arranger.  Los Angeles, October, 1945 The four sides issued were LOUISE (instrumental) / PRELUDE TO A KISS (Jeffries, vocal; Thompson, arrangement) / LOVE FOR SALE (Joe Macanarny, vocal?) / YOU’RE BLASE (Jeffries, vocal).  I have not heard the latter sides, and my collector-friends’ network has not found a copy.  I would be interested in obtaining the disc, to put it mildly.

The Fran-Tone label — whose complete output was two discs, four sides — was the creation of Fran Kelley, about whom I would like to know much more.  These two sides received good press in Billboard, January 12, 1946 (thanks to Ellington scholar Steven Lasker for sending this to me):

Fran Kelley wrote articles or reviews of Chet Baker, Jimmy Giuffre, Leith Stevens, Bud Shank, Howard Rumsey and the Lighthouse All-Stars, and  others in Metronome in 1955 and 1956.  And (thanks to Brian Kane, Yale University) we know this:

Erroll Garner’s “Frantonality” is named after Frances Kelley, who briefly ran
a label in Los Angeles called Fran-Tone records. Garner’s recording of
“Frantonality” (recorded in Hollywood, April 9, 1946) was for that
label [but was issued on Mercury] and the title is also an advertisement for the
label.  She appears in Duke Ellington’s Music is My Mistress,
the chapter on San Francisco. “And there is one more person–Fran
Kelley, musician, poet, songwriter, singer, orchestrator, manager,
executive. This great woman with all these talents gave up running a
radio station and record company in Los Angeles to pursue her
spiritual quests in San Francisco.”

If you would like to disappear from public scrutiny, meaning no disrespect, pursuing spiritual quests is one surefire way.  As they say in detective films, the trail goes cold after 1956.  But we have this extraordinary record.

I’d start with the arrangers first: both Thompson and Gilbert wrote arrangements for Harry James c. 1943-45 — Gilbert also played viola, and went on to be a prolific orchestrator for television: I looked at the listing of shows for which he provided music over several decades, and concluded that everyone over 50 has heard his work.  But it’s Thompson’s arrangement of PRELUDE that is so beautifully arresting.  As well as James, he did arrangements for Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey (many for her 1944-45 radio show), and Tommy Dorsey.  They were big band charts almost exclusively, but one example of Thompson’s intriguing writing for a small group can be heard on the Norvo Keynote Records 1944 date.  If you need to know more about Thompson’s subtle mastery — more than PRELUDE will tell you — know that Norvo, interviewed for the liner notes of a CD containing live material from an otherwise unrecorded 1942 band (“Live at the Blue Gardens”) speaks of him in the same breath with Eddie Sauter.

Incidentally, only the most superficial listener will say, “Oh, it’s just like the Alec Wilder Octet, those Third Stream experiments.”  Much more, technically and emotionally, is going on here.

When I took the record out of its cardboard box, I first played LOUISE — a song I love — also because I had not seen the curious “vocal phrases” notation on the label of PRELUDE, and thought, “This is going to be a Jeffries vocal feature, and I know both him and the song very well already.”  It’s lovely to be proven wrong, but I will start with LOUISE.  I thought it began with a harpsichord, but the introduction seems to be played by Lucas and Reuss, oboe and guitar — a very unusual sound.  What follows is a little less surprising, a chorus scored for a compressed big band, although with space for Willie Smith and Emmett Berry, their voices so singular, then outings for clarinet (is it Davis?) before everything shifts gears into 3 / 4 for the kind of interlude one hears in films — the hero and heroine are suddenly wearing eighteenth-century clothing and powdered wigs — moving to a swing-to-bop passage for Arnold Ross.  (Yes, that was a car going by beneath my window — think of MISS BROWN TO YOU in July.)  For the last minute of the recording, Gilbert seems to have run out of ideas: yes, Berry noodles beautifully on top of the ensemble, and solo voices have brief moments, and it’s swinging dance music — but it almost feels as if he’d brought an incomplete arrangement to the date and needed to fill space before Billy Hadnott so eloquently closes the performance.  Perhaps I am being unkind to Gilbert, but the opening and closing of this arrangement are so rich in detail that the late interlude seems bare.  I was still glad I’d bought the record.

Consider for yourselves:

When I turned the disc over, I expected a formulaic vocal showcase: an introduction, then Jeffries would deliver a chorus of the song, the band providing background.  Perhaps a piano half-chorus, then a horn solo to finish out, and Jeffries might take the last eight or sixteen.  But what I heard was a delightful rebuke to formulaic expectations.  I won’t delineate all the pleasures of this performance, but I had never heard a recording where a song’s lyrics rose and fell as part of the instrumental background.  Whether Jeffries sings in half-voice or was consciously asked to turn away from the microphone for the first phrase, I can’t know — but the effect is unlike anything I’d ever heard on record.  The first twenty seconds are dreamlike, a mist-enhanced forest landscape, instruments and voices heard from afar, brief but telling personal utterances from Reuss, Ross, Berry — so delicate and earnest, before Willie Smith enters to rhapsodize in the Hodges manner.  Jeffries returns to sing the title, and the record — a marvel — ends.  I couldn’t believe it, and on return listenings, shook my head at the way Thompson treated every instrument in his small orchestra with equal respect: the reed section, Reuss, Hadnott, as well as “the singer” and “the jazz soloists.”

See if you don’t share my pleased amazement:

Marvels appear to us in the most subdued ways.

And I repeat: does anyone have a copy of Fran-Tone 2005?

May your happiness increase!

8 responses to “BEAUTIFUL AND RARE: FRAN KELLEY’S “THE DOUBLE QUINTET,” 1945

  1. This made my day. Thank you.

  2. You weren’t alive in 1945, but the session sounds like something you would have easily been a part of.

  3. Pingback: IMAGINATIVE THEN, INVISIBLE NOW: THE ABSENCE OF FRAN KELLEY | JAZZ LIVES

  4. Otto Ludwig Piffl

    Hello Michael
    I found fran-tone 2004 some 30+ years ago – and have since come across several other copies. But I am still looking for the other one: By now I am sure it was ever issued – hopefully I’m wrong !
    I can only say “thanks a zillion” for your wonderful description of the two known sides. What I (also) regret is that the last minute of “Louise” is a waste on a riff that’s not that original. However, I know this version of “Prelude” almost by heart – what a terrific arrangement and what a vocal by HJ.
    Jaffa

  5. Otto Ludwig Piffl

    … and, incidentally, my copies also have an almost identical bubble under the label of “Prelude”: A bump on the master?
    Jaffa

  6. You restore my faith! Let’s keep looking! With every good wish, Michael

  7. Wartime pressings? Even though done by Bishop, I would bet they were also noisy when brand new. But where is our dear Fran? (i have a few more clippings to share . . . ) How did you come by your copies, if that is not too rude a question?

  8. Pingback: “STRICTLY FROM PISCES AND NEW YORK”: The FRAN KELLEY MYSTERIES (Part Three) | JAZZ LIVES

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