Tag Archives: Al Jolson

WHAT DOES THE CAMERA SEE? LEE WILEY’S LOVE LIFE IN PHOTOGRAPHS

The endearing singer Lee Wiley was said to have legendary erotic energies, but they are not my subject.

Rather, I present to you two public photographs just encountered on eBay — each one oddly evocative, both presenting and concealing.

The first finds Miss Wiley with the composer Victor Young — a publicity shot from the early Thirties (circa 1934-6) for Al Jolson’s radio program SHELL CHATEAU:

LEE WILEY VICTOR YOUNG large

and the slip glued to the photograph’s back:

LEE WILEY VICTOR YOUNG large backThat photograph has an understandable stiffness: two musicians caught in the act of pretending to rehearse.  Everything is too neat: the “informal” clothing; the way that they are both looking at the camera while trying not to — not at each other.  I can hear the photographer: “Look like you’re singing, Lee.  Victor, don’t look down at the piano.  Look as if you’re accompanying her but don’t look at her.”

From this photograph, one wouldn’t know that Lee and Victor were “an item,” lovers for a long time.  There was a Mrs. Young, but the Wiley-Young affair was known among musicians.  The photograph of “Lee Wiley . . . and her old maestro” doesn’t even look as if they knew each other before this session. The truth of Lee and Victor — one of the possible truths — would not have been captured for the public eye.  Is it fitting that Lee and Victor made music together most frequently for records and radio broadcasts, where they would have been heard but never seen?

Slightly less than a decade later, another uncomfortable photograph freezes a present moment and accurately forecasts a less happy future:

LEE AND JESS 1943 largeGranted, wedding pictures do not always catch the moment in authentic ways, but the body language of this couple is less than ardent: their hands barely touch, their gazes are remote.  Even the text of the press release is more concerned with Lieut. Boettcher than with Jess Stacy, a great artist and a gentle man but hardly a “member of a wealthy Denver family.”  (Was this Charles Boettcher II, who had been kidnapped in 1933 and a $60,000 ransom paid?)

LEE AND JESS large back

The back of the picture tells its own story.  The marriage did not last five years.

These photographs come from the files of J. Walter Thompson.  Years later, an administrative assistant went through the files with a rubber stamp, noting the DECEASED — a job with certain melancholy overtones.  (I think of Bartelby in the Dead-Letter Office.)  Someone on eBay will buy these as cheerful nostalgic artifacts.

Music, Maestro, please?

CARELESS LOVE is from 1934 — Lee, with Victor directing.

SUGAR is from a 1944 Eddie Condon Town Hall concert / radio broadcast (Ernie Caceres, clarinet).

And — since I can’t see it too often — here is Joe Rushton’s home movie of Lee and Jess, newly married, walking down the street.  Is it the same day as the press photograph? Lee has on a different outfit; Jess wears what seems to be the same double-breasted suit.  Consider what this shows of their marriage.

Does the camera capture only a moment of staged reality or does it show more than we know at the time?

May your happiness increase!

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KILGORE SWINGS EMERSON

In SELF-RELIANCE, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home.” BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, written by Dave Dreyer, Billy Rose, and Al Jolson in 1928 (I would give almost all of the credit to Mr. Dreyer) makes the same claim in a different way. It proposes that home is so lovely that it makes travel unnecessary, and that those who roam find their greatest happiness when they return — nostalgia more than transcendentalism, perhaps, but the effect is the same.

Rebecca Kilgore doesn’t present herself as a philosopher, although she does hail from Massachusetts, home of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, but she makes this philosophical statement exultant in its hopefulness and its swing.

This performance was recorded at the 26th San Diego Jazz Party, on February 22, 2014.  The other philosophers on the stand are Chuck Redd, drums; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Eddie Erickson, guitar; Johnny Varro, piano; Bria Skonberg, trumpet; Antti Sarpila, clarinet.

Home is where such music is.

May your happiness increase!

JOHN GILL’S AMERICAN SONGS (Part Two: May 30, 2012)

It’s easy to tell the truth . . . so I will write it again.  (If you didn’t see Part One of this happy musical evening, here it is.)

Although John Gill is soft-spoken and wryly modest, he’s an extraordinary figure. It’s not just that he is a swinging banjoist, guitarist, drummer, and trombonist. It’s not merely that he is an intuitively fine bandleader: his bands have a certain serious lope, and the musicians look happy (no small thing). It’s not simply that he is a splendidly moving singer.

What makes John unique to me is the range and depth of his musical imagination. Many musicians have found a repertoire they prefer and it becomes their identity: when you go to hear X, you know that (s)he will play RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE. Y will break out one of the OLOGY tunes — ANTHROP or ORNITH. Z likes SATIN DOLL.

But John Gill’s world isn’t narrowly defined by one group of songs, one “genre,” one “style.” His knowledge of American music and performance styles is long, deep, and wide. In his spacious imagination, Bix and Louis visit Bing and Pat Boone; Elvis has coffee with Jolson; they hang out with Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, while Johnny Dodds, Billy Murray, Turk Murphy, and Lu Watters gossip about Tommy Rockwell and what’s new at the OKeh studios. Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker talk fashion; Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, and W. C. Handy compare royalty statements. King Oliver lifts the sugar bowl from Scott Joplin’s table, and Jimmie Rodgers does the Shim-me-Sha-Wabble.

When John is in charge, none of this seems synthetic or forced; you never hear the sound of gears changing. All of these musics live comfortably within him, and he generously shares them with us in his heartfelt, swinging ways. I had another opportunity to watch him in action at the National Underground on May 30 with his National Saloon Band — Will Reardon Anderson on clarinet and alto; Simon Wettenhall on trumpet; Kevin Dorn on drums; Steve Alcott on string bass.

Here’s the second part of that wide-ranging musical offering.

The NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES, which I associate with Bessie Smith and a 1940 Johnny Dodds recording:

Leadbelly’s THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL:

For Sophie Tucker, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and a thousand others — that hot jazz admonition, SOME OF THESE DAYS:

Another Jimmie Rodgers evergreen, THE DESERT BLUES:

I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned Cole Porter above; here’s I LOVE PARIS:

A song by Ewan MacColl from 1949, made famous by The Dubliners, DIRTY OLD TOWN:

Lots of fun with THE SECOND LINE IN NEW ORLEANS, a rocking good time:

John evokes Bing Crosby splendidly — without imitating him note-for-note — and he performed one of my favorite early Bing romantic songs, PLEASE (it’s part of the Polite Bing Trilogy: MAY I? / PLEASE / THANKS:

And to close off the performance (they kept on, but bourgeois responsibilities called me home), they performed John’s own salute to New Orleans, THE BORDER OF THE QUARTER:

In my ideal world, Professor Gill would be both Artist-in-Residence at any number of prestigious universities with American Studies programs . . . but he would have time to lead bands regularly.  Any takers?

May your happiness increase.

JOHN GILL’S AMERICAN SONGS: PART ONE (May 30, 2012)

Although John Gill is soft-spoken and wryly modest, he’s an extraordinary figure.  It’s not just that he is a swinging banjoist, guitarist, drummer, and trombonist.  It’s not merely that he is an intuitively fine bandleader: his bands have a certain serious lope, and the musicians look happy (no small thing).  It’s not simply that he is a splendidly moving singer.

What makes John unique to me is the range and depth of his musical imagination.  Many musicians have found a repertoire they prefer and it becomes their identity: when you go to hear X, you know that (s)he will play RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE.  Y will break out one of the OLOGY tunes — ANTHROP or ORNITH.  Z likes SATIN DOLL.

But John Gill’s world isn’t narrowly defined by one group of songs, one “genre,” one “style.”  His knowledge of American music and performance styles is long, deep, and wide.  In his spacious imagination, Bix and Louis visit Bing and Pat Boone; Elvis has coffee with Jolson; they hang out with Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, while Johnny Dodds, Billy Murray, Turk Murphy, and Lu Watters gossip about Tommy Rockwell and what’s new at the OKeh studios.  Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker talk fashion; Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, and W. C. Handy compare royalty statements.  King Oliver lifts the sugar bowl from Scott Joplin’s table, and Jimmie Rodgers does the Shim-me-Sha-Wabble.

When John is in charge, none of this seems synthetic or forced; you never hear the sound of gears changing.  All of these musics live comfortably within him, and he generously shares them with us in his heartfelt, swinging ways.  I had another opportunity to watch him in action at the National Underground on May 30 with his National Saloon Band — Will Reardon Anderson on clarinet and alto; Simon Wettenhall on trumpet; Kevin Dorn on drums; Steve Alcott on string bass.  They began the evening with a MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR, which W. C. Handy then “adapted” as the ATLANTA BLUES:

One of those good old good ones that all the musicians love to play (and that includes Bix, Louis, Benny, and Basie), the ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

Here’s where John differs from the “traditional jazz” formula: how about the Jimmie Rodgers song T FOR TEXAS:

For the dancers (and they were at the National Underground that night), SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

If you enjoy odd intersections, I think MUDDY WATER counts as one, a song both Bing Crosby and Bessie Smith recorded in 1927:

Here’s a pretty 1931 pop tune that came back to life a quarter-century later (Vic Dickenson liked to play it, too), LOVE LETTERS IN THE SAND:

And — to close off this segment — a song I’d only heard on recordings (Johnny Dodds); next time, I’ll ask John to sing WHEN ERASTUS PLAYS HIS OLD KAZOO:

In my ideal New York City, John Gill is leading small hot bands like this on a regular basis.  It would take months before he and his colleagues had to repeat a song . . .  More to come!

May your happiness increase.

A TRIP TO AVALON with TAMAR KORN and GAUCHO

Suitcases not required.  And you won’t have to show your driver’s license to the pleasant TSA man or woman . . . simply let these superb musicians take you to an ideal place (care of Puccini, Al Jolson, and Benny Goodman).

The travel agent-magicians in charge here are Gaucho, the wondrous swing / gypsy ensemble that has been certified one hundred percent cliche-free by the FDA.  Seen here are guitarists Dave Ricketts and Michael Groh; accordionist Rob Reich; reedman Ralph Carney; cornetist Leon Oakley; string bassist Ari Munkres; percussionist Pete Devine; vocalist Tamar Korn.  This video (beautifully done, thanks to Porto Franco Records) was recorded in 2010 as part of Gaucho’s album PEARL, featuring Tamar. The band is now raising money for their fifth CD, which will feature another great young vocalist – Georgia English, who has studied music with Gaucho’s bandleader since she was 8 years old, and is now a student at Berklee School of Music.  The CD is on its way: I believe it will be out in the first part of July.

See you in Avalon . . .

May your happiness increase.

GRATITUDE IN 4/4 (Part Five): THE KATIE CAVERA TRIO at the 2011 SAN DIEGO THANKSGIVING DIXIELAND JAZ FESTIVAL (thanks to Rae Ann Berry)

This is music both propulsive and soothing — and the experience was communal, as the audience joined in very sweetly.  The Katie Cavera Trio — Katie and John Gill on banjo and vocal, with the steadfastly swinging Marty Eggers on acoustic bass — were the opening act of the 2011 San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival, and they set the right mood.  Affectionate, approachable, and fun — without being ashamed of any of those qualities.  Add a little vaudeville and some old-fashioned patriotism of a non-sectarian kind, and you have a very unassuming but rewarding interlude.

All of this was made possible by Paul Daspit, who brought these musicians together and made sure everyone on and off the stand was beaming. Thanks also to “SFRaeAnn,” Rae Ann Berry, who shares the music in her up-to-date list of hot jazz gigs in the area on www.sfraeann.com and her YouTube channel here.

Here’s a quartet of pastoral Americana with a distinct jazz flavor.  First, CAROLINA IN THE MORNING:

Then, two parts of a George M. Cohan medley — you’ll want to watch it all the way through to hear John become Jimmy Cagney, perfectly:

And YOU’RE A GRAND OLD FLAG — one or two of the little sisters here had learned the song in school and she belted it out:

A perennial (I might even have requested it?) by James P. Johnson — ONE HOUR, or, if you’re exacting, IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT where John suggests Louis, Jolson, and Bing in the nicest ways:

Thanks to Katie, John, Marty, Rae Ann, Paul, and the little girls!

AT THE HOP: CLINT BAKER’S NEW ORLEANS JAZZ BAND (Part One): AUG. 20, 2011

Getting the kitten down from the tree is heroic, as is untying the maiden from the railroad tracks as the train bears down on her.  But so is what Clint Baker and his New Orleans Jazz Band did at Mountain View, California, on August 20, 2011 — making the room and the dancers vibrate with a sweet intensity.

Here’s the evidence.  Clint led the band on trumpet, with Jim Klippert (trombone), Robert Barics (clarinet), Carl Sonny Leyland (piano), Jason Vanderford (banjo), Sam Rocha (bass and tuba), Jason (or J.) Hansen (drums).  I had watched and heard versions of this band at Cafe Borrone (through the generosity of Rae Ann Berry and her Magic Tripod) and they are superb, but I was unprepared for the hot energy that emanated from this group — no microphones except for Clint’s announcements — and took over the room.

They began their set with AVALON, effectively wiping out any associations with Benny Goodman or Al Jolson:

Then, Clint sang James P. Johnson’s ONE HOUR and the band followed his entreaty in the best spirit:

Drummer Paul Barbarin is a beloved figure to me because of the way he drove both the Luis Russell band and the Louis Armstrong Orchestra (1935-39).  But he also composed BOURBON STREET PARADE and the jolly THE SECOND LINE:

SWEET LOTUS BLOSSOM, a paean to some herb or other, was a feature for singer-banjoist Jason Vanderford.  Knocked me right out!

MILENBERG JOYS (or GOLDEN LEAF STRUT, a cousin of the BLOSSOM above) just romped:

TEXAS MOANER BLUES points backwards in time to Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, but it seems vigorous in its moaning splendor today:

And the set closed with Clint’s swinging exercise in New Orleans group therapy (with help from Dr. Klippert from Vienna), YOU TELL ME YOUR DREAM:

The dancers loved it, as I did.  And there’s another, equally hot set to come.  And this event was sponsored by WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOP — check out their site for information on future events:

http://wednesdaynighthop.com/events/CaliforniaWorkshop2011.php