Tag Archives: Big Nick Nicholas

IT’S SAD BUT TRUE: UNA MAE CARLISLE (1915-56)

If Una Mae Carlisle is known at all today, it is as a jazz footnote and “friend-of”: protege (perhaps mistress) of Fats Waller; singer on the lone and lovely record date that Lester Young’s band did in 1941; composer of WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER, someone recording with Danny Polo, John Kirby, Big Nick Nicholas, Buster Bailey, Ray Nance, Budd Johnson, Walter Thomas.  Sadly, her life was very short, made even shorter by illness.  I propose that she deserves admiration for her own art, not just for her associations with greater stars.

Una Mae had all the qualities that would have made her a success, and she did get some of the attention she deserved.  She had a big embracing voice; she could croon and swing; she was a splendid pianist — more than a Waller clone.

Here are two samples of her genial, casual art, in 1940 and 1941.  First, the song she composed (its title suggested by John Steinbeck).  The wonderful small group is Benny Carter, trumpet; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.  Una Mae plays piano. Were Ed Berger here with us, he could tell us how Benny came to be in that studio — perhaps a rehearsal for his own Bluebird big-band date a few days later:

Here is one side from the famous session with Lester Young, Shad Collins, Clyde Hart, John Collins, Nick Fenton, Harold “Doc” West in 1941:

I come from that generation of listeners who discovered the sides with Lester through a lp compendium called SWING! — on Victor, with notes by Dan Morgenstern.  I think I was not alone in listening around Una Mae, regarded at best as someone interfering with our ability to hear Lester, purring behind her.  But if we could have shaken ourselves out of our Prez-worship for three minutes, we would have found much pleasure in Una Mae’s singing for its own sake, not in comparison to Billie.  As I do now.

This small reconsideration of Carlisle’s talents springs from a nocturnal prowl through eBay, then on to YouTube, then Google, then here — a familiar path, although the stops are not always in that order.

First, an autographed postcard, 1940-2, when she was recording for Bluebird:

I then visited  YouTube to find — to my delight — two brief but very entertaining film clips (from the 1948 BOARDING HOUSE BLUES) where her magnetism comes through:

I savor her ebullience — while trying to ignore the thinness of the song (which, in fairness, might be more sophisticated than GOT A PENNY, BENNY, which Nat Cole was singing a few years earlier) — and her expert piano work, with its small homages to Fats and Tatum.

I write the next sentence with mixed emotions: it cannot have hurt her fame in this period that she was slender and light-skinned.  Had she lived, she might have achieved some of the acclaim given other singer-entertainers, although I wonder if her easy accessibility would have hampered her with the jazz purists of the Fifties, while making her a pop star of sorts.  Certainly her last recordings (1950) show her being targeted for a large popular audience, which is to say the songs are awful and beyond.

The other song from BOARDING HOUSE BLUES is equally thin, built on RHYTHM changes — but it is not the THROW IT OUT YOUR MIND that Louis and the All-Stars performed in WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (1965):

Looking for more information on Una Mae, I found that others had — admiringly and sadly — done deep research here and elsewhere.  Because the internet encourages such digressions, I now know more about mastoiditis than I would have otherwise.  It shortened her life.  The disease is now rare.

I present all this as a collage in tribute to someone who should not be forgotten.  And I think of Una Mae as one of the talented people who died just short of great fame.  I can imagine her, as I can imagine Hot Lips Page, on the television variety shows of my childhood, appearing in the nightclubs I was too young to go to.

Although the lyrics are those of a formulaic love song, the mood is apt for her epitaph.  May she live on in our hearts:

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

WHEN LOVE GETS HOT, SPECIAL INSTRUMENTS ARE REQUIRED

ROSES OF PICARDY was a famous ballad of the First World War, composed by Frederic Weatherly (lyrics) and Haydn Wood (music), gracefully describing the lasting love of an Englishman and a Frenchwoman . . .

Verse: She is watching by the poplars, / Colinette with the sea-blue eyes, / She is watching and longing, and waiting / Where the long white roadway lies, / And a song stirs in the silence, / As the wind in the boughs above, / She listens and starts and trembles, / ‘Tis the first little song of love.

Chorus: Roses are shining in Picardy, / In the hush of the silver dew, / Roses are flow’ring in Picardy, / But there’s never a rose like you! / And the roses will die with the summertime, / And our roads may be far apart, / But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy, / ‘Tis the rose that I keep in my heart.

Verse: And the years fly on forever, / Till the shadows veil their skies, / But he loves to hold her little hands, / And look into her sea-blue eyes, / And she sees the road by the poplars, / Where they met in the bygone years, / For the first little song of the roses, / Is the last little song she hears:

Chorus: Roses are shining in Picardy, / In the hush of the silver dew, / Roses are flow’ring in Picardy, / But there’s never a rose like you! / And the roses will die with the summertime, / And our roads may be far apart, / But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy, / ‘Tis the rose that I keep in my heart.

For the full effect, here is a glorious reading of the song by Ben Heppner:

But my subject is a recording of PICARDY by Red Nichols — full of surprises.  I first encountered the Nichols records of this period when I was young; I was especially intrigued by them because of my childhood affection for the film THE FIVE PENNIES.  My local suburban librarian was hip: the library’s holdings included Vic Dickenson, Jimmy Rushing, THE SOUND OF JAZZ, Ellington, and a Brunswick reissue of Nichols circa 1927-30, where I first heard IDA, AVALON, CHINA BOY, THE SHEIK, and others.

I hadn’t heard ROSES OF PICARDY until my recent purchase of the very gratifying sets of the Nichols Brunswicks (1926-32) on the Jazz Oracle label.  It became one of those essential recordings for me — one that I could play ten times in a row on the way to work.

I haven’t found a good explanation for Nichols’ fondness for what might be called “chestnuts” or “good old good ones” — solidly established classic pop hits of ten or more years earlier: IDA, MY GAL SAL, JAPANESE SANDMAN, WHISPERING, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, MARGIE, ALICE BLUE GOWN, INDIANA, SMILES, DINAH, WHO.  In this, he wasn’t so different from other jazz players, then and now, who knew that familiar favorites would both attract an audience and be part of the common knowledge.  (if the leader suggests SWEET SUE — in 1929 or 2013 — few musicians look puzzled or uncomfortable.)

But ROSES OF PICARDY had a sentimental identification, and I wonder if Nichols’ “jazzing” it struck some older listeners as heretical: “That’s not the way to play that pretty song!”  It might serve as a reminder that improvisation, no matter how established and safe it seems to our ears now, always sounds radical to some listeners.

This version was recorded on February 16, 1929, as the fifth performance of a date where the musicians had already completed two takes apiece of ALICE BLUE GOWN and ALLAH’S HOLIDAY.  I wonder if they had some time left at the conclusion and decided to create a head arrangement — somewhat less complex than the Glenn Miller charts for the preceding songs.  The personnel for the first four songs was Nichols, Mannie Klein, Miller, Dudley Fosdick, Jimmy Dorsey, Fud Livingston, Adrian Rollini, Arthur Schutt, Carl Kress, and an unidentified drummer.  I hear a smaller group on PICARDY and we know for sure that Miller was not present, but whether there was a second trumpet is not certain.

The band charges into the song, Nichols presenting the melody in a clear, assertive way — more like a wonderfully adept cornetist at a band concert than a hot jazz player leaving the melody behind.  One hears the dry slap of the drummer’s wire brushes, the sound of the bass saxophone (could it be anyone except Rollini?).  Apparently there is a high-pitched trombone playing staccato phrases and a thin but graceful clarinet line.  I take it on faith that there is a pianist (I do not hear a guitar) but the former is simply laying down the plain harmonies in support.

I also notice that the band — in subtle opposition to Nichols’ chosen tempo or perhaps simply finding a better groove — gently slows down as it proceeds through the two minutes and thirty-one seconds.  (The piano-drum duet in the first half of the final chorus is especially leisurely.)  I would not have noticed this so much had I not played the recording over and over and heard that the opening chorus was taken at a much brighter tempo than the closing.  The first chorus is very satisfying: one could use it is a compact example of simple melodic embellishment (in terms of ornamented melody) and neat ensemble playing.

Just as a listener might be settling into complacency, Rollini leaps in with a break, a marvel in itself.  One could point to its simplicity — arpeggios and repeated notes — but the combination of grace and ferocity is delightful.  It also suggests the small devices that Nichols and his contemporaries set up for variety, so that a recording was more than four or five choruses of ensemble – solo – ensemble.

The first half of the second chorus is given over to another embellished improvisation on the theme — by a brass player over a slightly ornate piano, bass saxophone, and drums.  On first hearing, one automatically assumes “trombone in the Miff Mole style, staccato yet elegant,” but the range is somewhat higher, the tone lighter.  The player’s approach is close to Nichols’ opening exposition, yet the second solo is slightly more fluid, punctuated by the pianist’s upward arpeggios.

In the second half of this chorus, we hear Jimmy Dorsey on alto saxophone over an even lighter background.  For some reason, there is no bass saxophone, so the texture is much lighter — and, listening closely, one has the delightful sensation of expectations being reversed.  Instead of textures becoming more rich, volume and density increasing, we are hearing the instruments of the orchestra — Papa Haydn in Hot — taking a break, leaving the stand.  The Incredible Shrinking Orchestra!

And then someone takes another break — with key change — to lead us into a world of even more playful marvels.  We’ve just heard the sonorities of Dorsey’s alto (the rich yet light sound that other players delighted in) — what is this squeaky thing that follows?

It might be a clarinet — Nichols often employed Pee Wee Russell and Fud Livingston, both of whom departed from orthodox clarinet sound in favor of explorations — but it sounds stranger than strange, even a bit elementary.  Did someone’s kid brother or sister bring a student model clarinet into the session to sit in for a chorus?

The ear is first mystified, then delighted.

And for a moment it seems as if all the other musicians have fled, leaving only the unusual reed player and the pianist, chiming behind perfectly, the drummer, hitting a cymbal (this has been worked out, one senses in retrospect) in front of the microphones.  Bass saxophone, alto, possibly other reeds, cornet and other brass — everyone’s in the alley next to the Brunswick studios taking a break, trading gossip or lighting up.

But no.  The third chorus is given over to a duet for two instruments that sound almost familiar — trombone and clarinet, we assume — for sixteen bars. For forty seconds — a short interlude in anyone’s lifespan but a substantial part of this 78 RPM recording — these two instruments cavort deliciously.  The “trombone” continues an ornamented exploration of PICARDY — in case listeners might have been led so far astray by the uncontrollable impulses of Reckless Jazz to forget where land is — as the “clarinet” dances overhead.  That “clarinet” has an oddly choked sound and a small range, so the player contents himself with deeply swinging emphases, rather like a speaker who has a small vocabulary but is vigorously concerned that the audience miss the point: here it is, and here it is again — getting somewhat more adventurous as the chorus continues, even venturing a series of upward plaintive phrases, the “trombone” sounded muffled but still agile beneath.

On my first hearing, driving to work as I was, I couldn’t check the personnel listings, but I played this exuberantly odd interlude over and over, thinking, “Is that Fud on clarinet and Miff on trombone?”  But I felt as if something otherworldly was taking place: had I been transported to an alternative realm, or was this soundtrack music for a pre-FANTASIA fantasia, where an animated lemur hopped around with a giraffe?

What has happened — bewitching and mystifying the ear for forty seconds — is so weirdly distant from what we might expect to hear (rather like the first appearance of Herschel Evans on clarinet on a Basie recording) that the piano half-chorus that follows seems theatrical, even stagy by comparison — with the drummer’s flourishes matching the pianist.  Again, we might wonder, “Where did everyone go?  Did these musicians have some urgent need to leave the studio at intervals?  Was there food poisoning from the previous night’s chili at Plunkett’s?”)

Before we have sufficient time to consider all these mysteries, the opening ensemble reasserts itself for a closing sixteen bars.  No tags, no flourishes, everything is as it was.  We awake from young Robin Molyneux’s dream — did those forty seconds happen?  Are we back in a Red Nichols session at the Brunswick studios?

Happily, the mystery I have encouraged here has tangible answers, and they take the shape of the ever-inventive Adrian Rollini and his “hot fountain pen,” the forgotten Dudley Fosdick and his mellophone.  Thanks to Albert Haim for the Melody Maker pages below — now it can be told!

HotFountainPen

and here is more gossip about the hot fountain pen:

MMHfpnewsitem1

And even more here about the hot fountain pen from Sandy Brown’s website.

A fine explanation of the mellophone can be found here.  But the most engrossing reading on the subject can be found in the Nichols Jazz Oracle notes — a three-page essay by Phil Melick, witty and informed, on Dudley Fosdick (whose first recorded solo on the instrument is on the 1924 Ted Weems record of BIG BOY) and the mellophone itself.

Incidentally, the Incredible Shrinking Orchestra and the piano-drum duet make sense in retrospect as brief interludes enabling Rollini to leave his bass saxophone and approach the microphone alongside Fosdick.  And unlike the 1928 recording of BASIN STREET BLUES featuring Louis, Earl, and Zutty, no one stumbles audibly on the way.

This record of ROSES OF PICARDY is a joy.  Perhaps the musicians thought of it as an end-of-session romp: “We have a little time.  Let’s jam PICARDY, and do a whole chorus on your pen and your ‘phone.  OK?”  But that forty-second conversation between two unexpected jazz horns, played by two masters, resonates long after the performance is over.  Woe and alas that there wasn’t a Rollini-Fosdick Quintet under contract to Brunswick.  But I could live comfortably in the universe of those forty seconds.  ‘Tis the chorus that I keep in my heart.

(A digression: Fosdick recorded actively with Weems, Nichols, “the All Star Orchestra,” and Roger Wolfe Kahn for a ten-year period ending in December 1933, according to Tom Lord’s discography.  Then, he worked in Henry King’s orchestra and Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, eventually migrating into studio work and teaching before his death in 1957.  It would be lovely if someone had interviewed him.)

And for my friend and mentor Reb Malcolm, a small offering — Frankie Laine with Buck Clayton, Ray Copeland, Lawrence Brown, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Hilton Jefferson, Budd Johnson, “Big Nick” Nicholas, Dave McRae, Al Lerner, Skeeter Best, Milt Hinton, Bobby Donaldson.  I see the inspired hand of George Avakian in this, although Laine had been working with jazz players for years, as Jess Stacy remembered:

Thanks also to Messrs. Riccardi and Sammut, whose posts provide the inspiration for this one.

May your happiness increase!