Tag Archives: Anna Robinson

JAMES P. JOHNSON MEETS LES BROWN (January 9, 1939)

On one of my record-hunting trips of 2014 I found a Les Brown 78 that would otherwise not have caught my eye.  That is not meant to demean the Brown band, just to say that I was never drawn to them.  But when I saw a Bluebird 78 of two lesser-known James P. Johnson songs (from the musical POLICY KINGS) I had to buy it to see what they sounded like.  The compositions were a love song called YOU, YOU, YOU — which I knew only through a much later recording by Dick Wellstood and Bob Wilber (instrumental) and one of the many songs celebrating a dance which possibly had a very short vogue if it had one at all, HARLEM WOOGIE.  (About a more famous recording of that song, more below).

The Brown band that recorded these two sides was John Martel, Melvin Hurwitz, Les Kritz (tp) Bob Fishel (tb) Les Brown (cl,as,arr) Steve Madrick (cl,as) Herb Muse (as,vcl) Wolfe Tayne, Carl Rand (ts) Billy Rowland (p) Allan Reuss (g) Bassie Deters (b) Eddie Julian (d):

YOU, YOU, YOU:

HARLEM WOOGIE:

Now, these are quite successful dance-band records, to my ears — although my ears are more accustomed to 1938 Basie, 1940 Ellington, 1939 Goodman, and so on.  And Herb Muse sings the two selections in a style, quite pleasant, that I associate with Pha Terrell and others.  But the records, judged as jazz opuses, are somewhat undramatic.

Here’s the HARLEM WOOGIE I remember, having first heard it around 1967 — featuring James P., Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Sidney Catlett, and Anna Robinson: searing!

Even though Herb Muse sang the lyrics more clearly, Anna Robinson clearly had great force and presence; Red Allen’s echoing the rhythm of her closing vocal phrase is priceless, as are Sidney’s accents behind James P.  And behind Sedric. But listeners can absorb this on their own.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is not a post setting up Bland White Swing Era music against Hot Black Authentic Jazz.  If you want to draw such conclusions, you are on your own, but I don’t encourage them, because the Brown and Johnson records have different purposes and intentions.

What does fascinate me is the brief moment-in-the-sun of two of James P. Johnson’s less intoxicating compositions.  Did he, or his publisher, offer them to as many “middle-of-the-road” Swing orchestras as possible, hoping for a hit, hoping for radio play?  Or was it the reverse (which I suspect): James P. was out of fashion in the late Thirties, attempting to be taken seriously as a classical composer — but — anyone who had been paying attention during the preceding decades knew that he wrote hits.  One of them was a love song, IF I COULD BE WITH YOU; another was a dance, CHARLESTON.  So it would be an odd bandleader who would ignore the songs from a James P. Johnson show.  It’s a pity the songs weren’t more memorable . . . or the recordings.  But it is, to me, a small but fascinating example of “crossover” before the term ceased to have any meaning.

May your happiness increase!

MY KIND OF VIC

In my Ideal Jazz World — which exists only in my mind and those of a few people who share my leanings (Dan and Mal and Clint among them)  — Vic Dickenson is one of the greatest creators.

But Vic’s art was very subtle.  People found it easy to see only its broad outlines and thus minimized it as a matter of low-toned naughty growls filling in the gaps in a Dixieland ensemble.  Vic often worked with bands where he was alone on the mountaintop, making his way through BASIN STREET BLUES or IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD for the ninth time that week.

In addition, trombones tend to get less attention than they and their players deserve, especially if the men and women behind the mouthpiece and slide are reliable.  Reliable players — think of Bennie Morton, Al Hall, Buck Clayton, Ray Nance, Milt Hinton among fifty others — get less attention than dramatic ones.

Vic seems to have come from nowhere — blossoming fully on the 1943-44 Blue Notes, or (for those whose historical perspective starts later) on the Vanguards and Columbias of the Fifties.  But he had been working his magic for a long time.  There’s his marvelous solo on Benny Carter’s MY FAVORITE BLUES, his work on a few 1940 Basie Columbias . . . and earlier — I’ve posted Blanche Calloway’s I NEED LOVIN’, which I think would amaze and terrify any contemporary trombonist — marvelous tumbling epigrams no matter what the context or the tempo.

That garden of delights, YouTube, offers us another aural glimpse of the Vic the musicians knew and admired.  His solo on this little-known record is only sixteen bars, and it comes late in the performance, but it is a marvel.

The original recording was made for Decca in 1937 by the Claude Hopkins band.  MY KINDA LOVE was perhaps best known through Ben Pollack’s recording of it with Jack Teagarden a half-decade earlier.  The Hopkins record is taken up with Hopkins’ pleasant piano and Beverly White’s singing.  Nothing is less than expert — the rhythm section rocks along nicely under Hopkins — but it is music for dancers.  Beverly White sounds close to Midge Williams and even Ella Logan: all the notes are in the right places, her enunciation is precise; she sings clearly and rhythmically, but the overall affect is well-behaved rather than memorable.  This band could play a senior prom in 1937 and not upset the chaperones overmuch.

Beverly was known as “Baby,” and she has her own place in the Jazz Pantheon because Teddy Wilson said he preferred her singing to Billie Holiday’s.  What that statement really means is hard to say: there is so much mythology around the luminous 1935-41 recordings Billie and Teddy made that his words seem heretical.  Perhaps Baby White was easier to work with; she didn’t smoke pot in the hall; she was more professional?  It could be that Teddy simply liked the sound of her voice more.  I wonder if in the years after those recordings were made, there was a slight tinge of rancor that Billie had become BILLIE HOLIDAY and other singers hadn’t.  (Michael Brooks wrote that Henry “Red” Allen told him vehemently that Anna Robinson was also much better than Billie.)

For me, the first two-thirds of MY KINDA LOVE are amiably dull — politely swinging without calling attention to itself — an almost faceless “dance record,” perhaps insisted upon by Jack Kapp.

But when Vic leaps in, for about thirty seconds, my musical world changes.

He begins with a break that owes something to Louis, something that might have come from a Hot Seven record, reinvented through Vic’s own prism of sound.  It’s a witty solo, glancing at Swing phrases that were already conventions in 1937 . . . but Vic’s staccato phrasing and sound are his own.  He doesn’t dramatize; his solo is in the middle register and he doesn’t demand that we admire his pyrotechnics, but the solo amazes as evidence of what he could do in sixteen bars.  A writer of musical epigrams, a painter of miniatures, eight bars here or sixteen bars there with their own logical, funny, shapes.

The thought that I can no longer see Vic on the stand at the last Eddie Condon’s or Your Father’s Mustache or an outdoor concert in Suffolk County makes me sad.  Had I been able to tell him how many people had their lives uplifted by his music, I think it would probably have embarrassed him.  But as I get older and I hear more jazz; as I understand more how difficult it is to create something when the rhythm is moving along inexorably underneath you, the more I prize Vic Dickenson.  It was a miracle that he was with us.  And he still is.

May your happiness increase.