Category Archives: It’s A Mystery

DON’T GO WEST, YOUNG WOMAN

The bespectacled fellow was only a name in a discography to me until today.

Thanks to Tim Gracyk and his YouTube channel, I now have one more new-old-favorite-record, HOLLYWOOD, by Art Gillham, “The Whispering Pianist.”

According to the Discography of American Recordings entry here, this performance was recorded on November 25, 1929, in New York City.  The composers of this thin but irresistible song (with a rising chromatic motif and unadventurous lyrics) are Arnold Johnson (music) — who may have been the bandleader known to some for his associations with Jack Purvis and Harold Arlen — and Charles Newman (lyrics).  Newman is better known for the lyrics of SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, I’LL NEVER HAVE TO DREAM AGAIN, WHAT’S THE USE, I WOULDN’T CHANGE YOU FOR THE WORLD, YOU’VE GOT ME CRYING AGAIN, I’M PAINTING THE TOWN RED, TAKE ANOTHER GUESS, WHY DON’T WE DO THIS MORE OFTEN? (a song I learned through the recording Melissa Collard and Eddie Erickson made of it) and the imperishable A HOT DOG, A BLANKET, AND YOU.  Apparently Newman took current conversational phrases and bent them into songs — songs more memorable for their performers.

Here’s the recording — moral message, free of charge:

The message first: another cautionary tale (think of GLAD RAG DOLL, NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, and a dozen others) about young women who go to the big city, get their hearts broken, their virtue damaged beyond repair.  “Mothers, tie your daughters to the sink so that nothing bad can happen to them!”  (Theodore Dreiser’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, five years earlier, is a variation on this theme.)

A month and a day before this recording, the stock market had crashed: was that one of many reasons for this song?  The record of copyright notes that HOLLYWOOD is dated November 9 — slightly over two weeks after the crash, which may be even more significant.

Gillham is a pleasant singer, even with wobbly vibrato.  Radio audiences and song publishers must have loved him, because every word came through. But I am particularly interested in the little band: muted trumpet or cornet, bright and agile clarinet, sweet violin, Gillham’s own piano, perhaps someone at a drum set, although aside from one resonant thump at 1:25, it’s hard to tell. (Was it multi-tasking Eddie King or Justin Ring?)  I believe that “novelty” came from the presence of horns, rather than a more “legitimate” polite accompaniment by piano or piano and violin.

But this record has not been annotated or noticed by the official jazz scholars.  A selection from Gillham’s recordings makes its way into the discographies I have (Rust and Lord) — because those sessions feature Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Rube Bloom, Louis Hooper, Murray Kellner, Andy Sanella.  The three or four sides concluding either discography [thus defined as jazz recordings] have him accompanied by Alex Hill on piano, and Gillham performs Hill’s YOU WERE ONLY PASSING  TIME WITH ME.  The lack of documentation of HOLLYWOOD — which sounds like a certifiable “jazz record” — says much more about the “star system” in jazz than it does about the lightly swinging instrumental music heard here.  The players do not sound like those stars most featured and idolized: not Mannie Klein or Jack Purvis or Nichols, not Jimmy Dorsey or Tesch, Joe Venuti, or Stan King.  But the music is memorable, inventive and rhythmic, and I would rather have this record, offered as an anonymous effort, than a dozen others with more famous names that might have satisfied less.  Once again we encounter rewarding art that no one has designated as such.

May your happiness increase!

A RARE LADY DAY SIGHTING

It’s a truly gorgeous photograph, new to me, and the signature looks completely authentic.  I cannot date it, but Billie looks plump rather than emaciated, and the feathery ornament is an intriguing change from the familiar gardenia.

Here‘s the link for the eager eBay buyer.  The price is $7,500.

May your happiness increase!

DILIGENT, ENTHUSIASTIC AUDREY BAXTER OF CINCINNATI, OHIO: 1939, 1941, 1946

Audrey Baxter and I never met, although we would have had some enthusiasms in common.  She had good taste in music and encountered artists I admire, leaving behind a few precious relics.  Taking a chance on Google, I found these possibly incorrect shards of evidence from the 1940 United States Census.  I say incorrect because hers is a common name, but on April 1, an Audrey Baxter was about 27 years old and was living with her brother Don Haney and his wife Edna on Monteith Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The census-taker noted she was “Female,” “White,” and had been born in Ohio.

The reason for my new fascination with Audrey Baxter is that she collected autographs from bands and musicians from the Thirties to the Fifties, and a few delights have turned up for sale on eBay.  The signatures look genuine to me, and Audrey dated the back of the photographs, presumably noting when she got the autograph and inscription.

Here are a few delicacies:

Gene Krupa, October 1, 1939:

I think she thumbtacked Gene to the wall — anathema to collectors, but to me those loving damages are an indication of how eager and enthusiastic she was about the subjects, their music, and her brief connection with them.

Ray Noble, with terriers and calligraphy sublime, March 18, 1941:

and what is to me the absolute prize, Eddie Condon, Oct. 21, 1946.  The photograph is beyond my budget but I love it seriously:

When we die, the fate of our physical selves is fairly clear, no matter what plans we may have made.  Will our precious possessions end up on eBay?  That is another question entirely.

Thank you, Audrey, for being such an enthusiastic Swing fan.

May your happiness increase!

“PLASTIC, OR PAPER?”

Late last year, I did one of my periodic eBay browsings, which have provided many images for this blog.  The items below are no longer for sale, but the images are available for us to linger over.

In HERE AT THE NEW YORKER, Brendan Gill told a story of showing his friend, the writer William Maxwell, a Roman coin he had bought, and Maxwell thoughtfully saying, “The odds are on objects.”  A cryptic utterance, but my time spent on eBay suggests that Maxwell was right.  For one thing, objects are longer-lived than their owners, and they are put up for sale.

These thoughts are motivated by yet another visit to that site — in this case, to a “store” which has folded its tents as far as jazz and big band collectors are concerned.  But they offered these four artifacts for sale.  The seller knew their value: the prices ranged from $279.20 to $2,399.20.  But looking is free.

Here is a postwar V-Disc, its talk and music taken from the April 26, 1947 WNEW Saturday Night Swing Session, hosted by Art Ford, featuring Louis, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Catlett, Roy Ross, accordion; Nicky Tagg, piano; an unidentified string bassist.  Louis and Jack used the same pen:

louis-v-disc-front

That’s an authentic signature (to me) even if Louis didn’t have his pen, filled with green ink, on hand.

louis-v-disc-rear-signed-by-jackI coveted that disc intensely for a few minutes, then calmed myself down by thinking of the impossibility of displaying it properly — honoring Louis yet turning Jack’s “face” to the wall.  And the price, of course.  Here’s another piece of holy paper, even though this slip has been reproduced in a book on Bird (however, the seller has offered a note from the Parker collector Norman Saks, verifying the authenticity):

bird-cash-advanceWhat I would like to know, of course, is the name of the person who advanced Bird the money — not a small sum in 1950.  Whether Bird actually went to the doctor, and for what reasons, I leave to you.

From Bird to Miles — in 1957:

miles-1957and a close-up of that somewhat faded ink signature:

miles-signatureFinally, a contract for Billie to perform at the Tiffany Club in 1952:

billie-1952-contract

and a close-up of her signature and pianist / bandleader Buster Harding:

billie-1952-signature

Since none of these objects is as durable as a coin, it’s marvelous that they have survived.  Did their owners keep them safe for love of Louis, Jack, Miles, and Billie, or because of an awareness of their monetary value?  Or both?  I can’t surmise, but I am glad that these things exist for us to look at, and perhaps own.

May your happiness increase!

“BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY: BIG BAND JAZZ ARRANGING IN THE SWING ERA,” by JOHN WRIGGLE (University of Illinois Press)

john-wriggle-cover

One way to answer the questions “Who was Chappie Willet, why haven’t I heard of him, and why does he deserve a book?” can be found here:

That was recorded in 1937 and is notable — to some — for solos by a young Dizzy Gillespie and others as members of Teddy Hill’s NBC Orchestra.  But if there were no solos to concentrate on, keen listeners would notice the depth and complexity of Willet’s composition and arrangement, full of surprises.

An extended BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY, performed by Gene Krupa:

We are trained by the “star system” in jazz to listen for soloists, to disregard the orchestral textures of a performance for the brief passages where Our Person improvises.  More erudite listeners will recognize the “charts” created by Mary Lou Williams, Bill Challis, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Ellington and/or Strayhorn — distinctive expressions of the writer, as recognizable as an individual soloist. John Wriggle’s superb book — a rewarding study of one brilliant arranger, his music, the world in which he operated, and the implications of Wriggle’s research — does a good deal to begin resetting the balance.

Francis “Chappie” Willet (1907-76) was a great arrangers and composer: we have heard his work for Hill, Krupa, Goodman, Armstrong, Lunceford, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Norvo.  Yet he is almost unknown and the wonderful settings he created are taken for granted.  Consider his arrangement of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE for Louis Armstrong, heard here in a 1938 performance.  But here I ask the reader / listener to consider only the first fifteen seconds of this performance.  I know it’s nearly impossible to consider anything but Louis, but try:

In two pages (123-24), Wriggle provides a transcription of what is happening in that opening, and then analyzes it.  The reader need not be a musicologist to follow and enjoy this book because Wriggle writes so clearly.

The experience of reading this book — well-organized and exquisitely documented but with beautiful control (some writers, unlike Wriggle, think every dust mote is equally important and thus overwhelm a reader) — is concentric.

Were it simply a biography of Willet, it would be a thin, perhaps limited study. But Wriggle is fascinated by context — “the economic, political, and professional landscape of popular music arrangers working during the Swing Era,” so we learn about the intersection of race and visibility; how arrangers learned their trade and the various rates of pay; Willet’s “Broadway Music Clinic,” music for nightclubs, Broadway shows and theatrical revues; the various clubs and venues themselves. Wriggle examines — I oversimplify here — how Swing Era arranging worked, with close analysis of excerpts from various scores and recordings, and how each arranger had a particularly recognizable identity.  He looks closely at the fluid relationships between jazz and the Western classical canon.

The book’s scope is refreshingly broad; at one point, Wriggle analyzes Willet’s elaborately dramatic score for the Lunceford version of YESTERDAYS; a few pages later, we learning all there is to know about a new dance, THE HICKY RICKY — novelty numbers, ballads, and jazz exotica are all considered with particular enthusiasm and research.

Rare photographs add a great deal to the experience, and the collaboration of Wriggle and the University of Illinois Press is a happy one: the book is carefully presented and well-edited.  I found no misprints or errors, rare in this century. The paper edition (a manageable 320 pages) is $30.

Reading this book over the past few months, whether I proceeded chronologically or opened it at random, I was always enlightened, ever bored: a great tribute to Wriggle from an impatient and often irritable reader.  His background explains a good deal: he is a trombonist, composer, arranger, and scholar, who has transcribed period jazz repertoire for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and served as music editor for Oscar-winning Hollywood film scores.

As a writer and scholar, he is thoughtful without being pedantic or theoretical, without a confining ideological bias.  To get a sense of his and the book’s virtues, I offer excerpts from his interview (from the publisher’s blog) about this work.

As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.

The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.

Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.

This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.

BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY is a wonderfully enlightening experience.  It is readable but dense with information — an old-fashioned book not especially suited for reading on one’s phone — a splendidly-documented exploration of an artist and his musical world that will both answer and raise many questions.  I hope John Wriggle will write many more books equally wise and appealing.

May your happiness increase!

THE UNFAILING LIGHT OF LOUIS

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Thanks to scholar and co-producer Ricky Riccardi, another wonderful set of Louis Armstrong recordings has emerged, complete: the Mercury recordings Louis and the All-Stars made between 1964 and 1966, with the pop hit MAME and the lesser hit SO LONG, DEARIE as the most famous among them.

louis-mame-cover

Ricky has done his usual wonderfully exhaustive job of annotating these digital releases.  Here (from his Louis blog) are the notes as they can be read online. And here is the link to read his notes as a PDF.

The music is available only as a digital download through Apple / iTunes: the complete package is $24.99, each song available at $1.29.  Details here.   And, as I wrote in my post on the the new issue of Louis’ complete Decca singles, if you hate “downloads” for their insubstantiality, I understand.  I too like music in physical packages (my apartment is furnished in Early Music) but we listen to live music and go home without being furious that we can’t take the players with us; in olden days, we listened to the radio, etc.  So if you reject this music because you “hate Apple,” to quote Billie, you’re just foolin’ yourself.

Now, if you are someone who deeply feels Louis, you probably already know about these issues and might already be listening, rapt.  If you are someone new to Louis or one of the people who believes the “beginning of his long decline” happened ninety years ago, I urge you to read on.  First, some facts.

The fifty-three performances are, first, the original contents of the “vinyl” issue: MAME / THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS / SO LONG DEARIE / TIN ROOF BLUES / I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY / WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN / CHEESE CAKE / TYREE’S BLUES / PRETTY LITTLE MISSY / FAITH / SHORT BUT SWEET / BYE ‘N BYE / then followed by alternate takes, rehearsal takes, monaural takes of BYE ‘N BYE / FAITH / DEARIE (7) / MISSY (5) / FAITH (8) / SHORT BUT SWEET (6) / CIRCLE (6) / PARTY (5) / THE THREE OF US (3).  The performances are almost all three minutes long — not harking back to OKeh 78s but to the currency of the times, the 45 rpm single that would be played on AM radio.  The other musicians include Buster Bailey, who had worked with Louis in 1924-5; Eddie Shu; Tyree Glenn; Big Chief Russell Moore; Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Everett Barksdale, and more.

Louis, like other innovators, had a long history of taking “popular” material and creating immortal improvisations, so jazz fans dismayed at seeing unfamiliar titles should not be.  Not all of the songs are deathless — a few are paper-thin — but it almost seems as if the worse the material, the more room Louis has to work magic on it.  For me, the finest performances are of songs I doubt others could have done much with: SHORT BUT SWEET, THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS, FAITH, I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY, THE THREE OF US (never before issued), SO LONG DEARIE, and others to lesser effect.

Here is the issued take of SHORT BUT SWEET:

A quietly warm melodic statement (helped by Tyree Glenn’s vibes and, for once, a rhythm guitar) leads into an equally warm vocal — on a song that resembles eight other classics — calling it “derivative” would be excessive praise.  Although the lyrics consistently disappoint, as if the writers had made a bet how many cliches they could jam into thirty-two bars, Louis is even warmer, with freer phrasing, on the vocal bridge to the end of the chorus.  And then that trumpet bridge!  “Tonation and phrasing,” passion, vibrato, and courage.  It might not leap out at a listener the way the beginning of WEST END BLUES does, but I know I couldn’t get those eight bars out of my head after just one hearing.

If you do not warm to that, may I suggest an immersion?  If it doesn’t get to you after three more playings, we may have little to say to one another.  But you might want to read to the end to discover the depths of my apparently foolish devotion.  And you might keep in your head what Bobby Hackett said to Nat Hentoff (I am paraphrasing here): “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come alive like that?”

I have a serious sentimental attachment to this music, because when this record came out, I was nearly fourteen.  This was my Louis Armstrong.  This was the heartfelt, occasionally comic entertainer I saw regularly on television — performing two songs with the All-Stars, conversing briefly and jocularly with the host, and then the show would move on to the acrobats, the writer plugging a new book, the actress doing the same for her new film.  I thrilled to these moments: Louis emerging from behind the curtain to sing and play MAME, DEARIE, later CABARET and WONDERFUL WORLD.  I lived in suburbia, a mile’s walk from several stores with record departments, and I recall going to Times Square Stores [known to some of us by our adolescent translation of its initials into Tough Shit, Sonny] or Mays or Pergaments, thumbing through the Louis records I knew by heart, and buying this new one in an excited flurry.  (My mother would have looked patient but puzzled; my father would have said, “Don’t you have enough records?” but not argued the point.) I would have disappeared into my bedroom and played it over and over.  I no longer have my mid-Sixties copy, but this recent release has brought all that experience back.

And what was there on this Mercury record?  Joy is the simple answer, with a substantial emotional range: the mocking dismissal of DEARIE, the celebration of the imaginary hedonist Auntie Mame on the title song, the blues — familiar and impromptu — the cheerful satire of FAITH, and the love songs that were CIRCLE and SHORT BUT SWEET, the alcohol-free gathering of PARTY, and more.  Each song was its own brief dramatic playlet, with a good deal of Louis’ singing and short but very affecting trumpet interludes.

He was no longer the star of the Vendome Theatre show; he was no longer playing 250 high C’s at the end of CHINATOWN.  But those age-related limitations were, to me, a great good thing.  These trumpet interludes are incredibly subtle and moving because his wisdom. Young, he could dramatically create expansive masterpieces, sometimes on record, sometimes legendary and unrecorded.  And those creations are awe-inspiring displays of virtuosity.

But we hear that this older man, with fifty years’ musical experience behind him, knows so much more about what to play and what not to — so an eight-bar passage on any song is intense, full of emotion.  Every note counts, because it has to.  And if you think this is special pleading on behalf of the elderly, ask any improvising musician to listen deeply to one of these solos.

I am not yet a senior citizen.  But I think a good deal about aging and what the proper responses might be to the calendar, the passage of days measured in the speed I climb stairs or the ease with which I carry groceries.  For decades, I’ve looked to Louis as a spiritual model.  I don’t take Swiss Kriss; I don’t tell prospective life-partners “The horn comes first”; I’m not a Mets fan.  But I think the aging Louis — as icon, as artist — has so much to tell us, no matter how old we are now.

The question we must ask ourselves is large: “Since our time on the planet is finite, what should we do with it, even if we have a long time before the final years approach?”  I think his answer, audible on the Mercury sides, is plain: “Do what you and you alone do well.  Do it will your heart.  And strive to do it better and with greater purity of intent for as long as you can.  That action is you, and it will stop only when you do.”

Whether you subscribe to this philosophical notion or not, this music is seriously uplifting.  Thank you, Louis.

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC FOR THESE TIMES (January 2017)

In moments of stress and turmoil, I turn to Louis.  He reminds me that after grief, there is joy.  After death, there is rebirth.  Brother Gate is no longer with us, but we can ramble.

NEW ORLEANS FUNCTION: Louis, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw, Cozy Cole.

May your happiness increase!