Tag Archives: Andy Iona

THE SIL’VRY WATERS KISSED THE SHORE

It was not a complicated or “innovative” song for its time, and it’s nostalgic rather than ground-breaking now.  But it’s lovely, when performed soulfully. I present four sweet variations on the theme.  I’ll wait, if you’d like to have some pineapple while you listen.

ON A LITTLE BAMBOO BRIDGE

Bjarne “Liller” Pedersen sings with Papa Bue’s Viking Jazz Band, 1960:

Midge Williams with Miff Mole and his Orchestra:

Edythe Wright with Tommy Dorsey (glorious percussive commentaries from Dave Tough, a modernist interlude from Bud Freeman, and a three-trumpet passage that looks back to Bix and forwards to Bunny, who leads the trumpets, on January 19, 1937):

And the absolute master in March 1937 (this video provided by my friend Austin Casey) — Louis Armstrong accompanied by Andy Iona And His Islanders : Louis Armstrong; Sam Koki (steel guitar); George Archer, Harry Baty (guitar); Andy Iona (ukelele); Joe Nawahi (bass):

This post is for my friend Nick Rossi, who is enjoying the delights of mid-period Louis Armstrong.

ON A LITTLE BAMBOO BRIDGE two label

May your happiness increase!

JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience.  Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there.  Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.

Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper.  It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.

Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company.  What magical music would we have now?”  They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.

Third story.  Time: 2014.

I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive.  And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing.  When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water.  Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.

The disc lasted about an hour.  It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs.  I know, I know.  Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?

I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful.  Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?  Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings.  A Johnny Hodges slow blues.  Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD.  Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.

I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.

Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.

And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.

I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go.  They are all around us.

May your happiness increase! 

“WE CALLED HIM SATCHMO”

Last week, on a weekday afternoon, I gave a presentation on Louis Armstrong and his influence on American popular music at a center for ailing senior citizens attached to a local hospital.  I played WEATHER BIRD and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, and the Bing Crosby-Lennie Hayton SWEET SUE Connee Boswell’s ME MINUS YOU (with an incendiary Bunny Berigan interlude), and some Rodgers and Hart by Tony Bennett and the Braff-Barnes Quartet.  Returning to Louis, I decided to humor myself and played ON A COCOANUT ISLAND and then segued into I COVER THE WATERFRONT and DINAH from the 1933 Copenhagen film.

Not everything was cheering.  The technology I was dealing with (someone else’s laptop and DVD projector) worked well enough but was balky, so there were periods  that felt interminable while I was waiting for it to catch up.  And many audience members seemed seriously oppressed by illnesses and were silent, although I kept reminding myself that it was a great good thing to play Louis’s music for them. 

I got thrown several times by audience questions — “What is his first name?  Is it Lois?” and someone kept insisting at length that Louis was playing a cornet rather than a trumpet.

But there were substantial rewards.  At one point, after I had played ON A COCOANUT ISLAND, with the Polynesians and Lionel Hampton’s rocking drums, a few people timidly applauded.  This was the first sign of enthusiasm, so I paused and told them: “I’m a sentimentalist.  I believe that the dead know.  So it would be a really nice thing if you wanted to applaud Louis and his music right now,” and they all took it up.    

And good things happened right from the start in the front row, where there were two cheerful African-American women, dressed in bright colors, in wheelchairs.  Before I began, one of them said, “I knew Louis and Lucille because I lived in Corona,” and I said, “OK!  I’m going to want to talk to you later!” and she beamed.  Her name was Thelma.

After I’d been introduced by the pert supervior, Cathy Mercadante, I was about a minute into my talk when I said that everyone called him “Lou-ee” but that he pronounced his name “Lew-is.” 

Oh, no,” said Thelma vigorously.  “We didn’t call him that.”

“What did you call him?” I asked, not knowing where it would lead but enjoying having the presentation, for a moment, completely removed from my hands.

“We called him Satchmo,” she said triumphantly, and I acquiesced. 

As I was playing one record after another and improvising commentary, fielding questions, I kept my eyes on another woman in the front row.  Immobile in her wheelchair, she was tapping both one slippered foot and then the other.  Keeping quite good time.  Thank you, ma’am.

When I was through, another woman in the audience came up to me (with her fiftyish daughter cheerfully in attendance) and thanked me for playing Louis’s music.  “I remember when she and her sister were young, we would play his records, and they would be hopping around the house!”  Just the right response, I told her.

Then I chatted with Thelma, who told me about seeing Louis in the local bar / restaurant, Big George’s, and how Louis and Lucille would close the block off and have parties for everyone, how he loved the neighborhood kids.  “Do you know about his son?” she asked.  And I, thinking she meant his adopted son, said, “Oh, yes, Clarence?”  “Not that one,” she said,  “He wasn’t all right, so he had a lady to take care of him.  But Louis had a real son — very few people know about him.  It was kept a secret.”  Then she told me of all the photographs she had had of Louis and friends, and Louis and her husband (a drummer) but that they were all stolen when she moved.  I told her I would write her stories down, then gave her my card and my thanks.  Maybe someone will show Thelma this posting, and she will know that I kept my word.  Thank you, Thelma, for opening the door into Louis’s world!.