Tag Archives: Billy May

“YOU’LL GET THE EASY TERMS YOU WANT”: A QUARTER-HOUR WITH LOUIS, 1950

Sometimes the treasure box opens to reveal riches both unimagined and breathtaking.

For the full story behind this 1956 photograph, read here.

Everything in this blogpost is thanks to the kind, diligent archivist Maristella Feustle, the unchallenged expert on broadcaster and innovator Willis Conover.  She’s uncovered rare and previously unknown music and words: “The University of North Texas Music Library is now digitizing the 16-inch radio transcription discs in its Willis Conover Collection. These are in addition to the reel-to-reel tape recordings we digitized under a Grammy Foundation grant in 2015-2016. There are more of these in the pipeline, but the initial set alone has been a highly satisfactory set of unique and unreleased material.”

“Highly satisfactory” indeed.  What follows is a fifteen-minute recording, circa 1950, of Louis Armstrong taking over Willis Conover’s radio microphone before going off to perform with his band at a club called the Blue Mirror, which seems to have been in Washington, D.C..

I know there is a proliferation of Louis to be heard, but this quarter-hour is remarkable and beyond . . . as he reads advertising copy for Philco Balanced Beam television sets and has fun talking about custom reupholstery.  We hear once again, what a fine impovising actor he was.

And!

Louis sings three songs, I MAY BE WRONG, I SURRENDER, DEAR, and BODY AND SOUL to the recorded accompaniment of Billy May (beautiful in itself).  Something to cherish: he never recorded I MAY BE WRONG and improvises some of his own words for the bridge, then scats the second time.  His verbal improvisations are just as much fun.  I won’t explicate more: listen for yourselves.  Here’s the link.

I don’t have a wide-screen television set, but Louis is making me rethink my decision.  Blessings on him, as always, on Willis, and on Maristella.

Postscript: to learn more about the inspiring and influential Willis Conover from someone who knew and admired him, here is my interview of Dan Morgenstern in June 2018.

May your happiness increase!

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CATS, MEET MOUSE

TEN CATS

I don’t know which of the whimsical geniuses at Capitol Records thought of the TEN CATS AND A MOUSE record date, but it’s not only a brilliant comic idea but a fine musical one.  Musicians have always taken a certain pleasure in picking up an instrument that wasn’t the one they were known for — whether at home, on the gig, or after it — and seeing how far their native expertise took them.  (I’m leaving aside those wonder-players who dazzle us on any instrument they touch: the blessed Benny Carter, and modern masters Scott Robinson and Clint Baker.)

But I imagine that someone at Capitol suggested that all the musicians on a session show up for a record date where they would play instruments that weren’t their first ones.  The results were recorded in Los Angeles on October 13, 1947.  Guitarist Dave Barbour played trumpet; trumpeters Billy May and Bobby Sherwood made up the trombone section; pianist / arranger Paul Weston played clarinet; Eddie Miller shifted from tenor sax to alto; Benny Carter, who had recorded on tenor, did the reverse; Dave Cavanaugh, usually playing tenor, turned to the baritone sax.  Red Norvo, who had recorded on piano as “Ken Kenny,” did it again here; singer and occasional guitarist (to quote an online source) Hal Derwin stayed right there; arranger / composer Frank DeVol — who’d played violin early on with Horace Heidt — took over the string bass.  And the Mouse?  Miss Peggy Lee, alternating between brushes on the snare and four-to-the bar bass drum; she’d been in the Goodman band at the same time as Sid Catlett, but she eschewed the Master’s rimshots.

JA-DA:

And a Basie blues, THREE O’CLOCK JUMP:

Very convincing — these players had a Db medium blues so completely absorbed that they could play it while sleeping — and now, when someone asks me who I emulate on cornet, I can say, “Why, Dave Barbour on THREE O’CLOCK JUMP, of course!”

It’s one thing to have all that fun in the recording studio, another to boldly go into the land of instrument-swapping in front of an audience (even if some of the audience members are slowly navigating from right to left during the performance).  June 6, 2015, taking place in real time at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, with a totally engaging bilingual vocal performance by Yuko Eguchi Wright!

Yuko is accompanied by the Junkyard Band: Dave Majchrzak and Brian Holland, piano; David Reffkin, violin; Jeff Barnhart, trombone, traffic control; Paul Asaro, trumpet; Steve Standiford, tuba; Bill Edwards, string bass; Frank LiVolsi, clarinet; Jim Radloff, saxophone; Danny Coots, drums.

And Yuko’s no Mouse.  She’s one of the Cats.

As a great philosopher once said, “If it isn’t fun, why do it?”

May your happiness increase!

THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND (December 2012 Edition)

If you’re going to hear jazz that was recorded before 1990, you might need to be friendly with those archaic objects — phonograph records.  It isn’t essential.  Modern friends (M. Figg and others) get their daily ration of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra through the invisible magic of digital download.  (How Sidney deParis, Ben Whitted, and Jabbo Smith feel about being mashed into an mp3 is something for the metaphysicians to explore).

But when the Beloved and I go a-thrifting, as we do regularly, she is a fine and generous spotter of records.  Often they are the most popular examples of the genre: supermarket classical, Andy Williams, easy listening, disco 12″.  But the person who passes by these stacks and heaps in a spirit of snobbery misses out on great things.  Of course, one needs reasonably flexible knees, a willingness to get mildly grubby, and perseverance . . . but sometimes the quest ends with something hotter than Mantovani.

Six dollars and tax — in two stores in Novato, California, on December 24 — was a small price to pay for these six discs.

Hank Jones Porgy

SWINGIN’ INTERPRETATIONS OF PORGY AND BESS (Capitol stereo): Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, “Alvin” Jones, with arrangements by Al Cohn.

SORTA-DIXIE (Capitol): Billy May (glowering under a straw boater) with soloists are Dick Cathcart, Moe Schneider, Eddie Miller, Matty Matlock.  The big band is also full of luminaries: Uan Rasey, Conrad Gozzo, Manny Klein, John Best, Skeets Herfurt, Murray McEachern.

SWEET GEORGIA BROWN (Tops): Billy Tipton Trio.  Wow, as we say.

TEDDY WILSON AND HIS TRIO PLAY GYPSY IN JAZZ (Columbia): liner notes by Jule Styne.

MUNDELL LOWE AND HIS ALL STARS: PORGY AND BESS (Camden stereo): Art Farmer, George Duvivier, Osie Johnson, Ed Shaughnessy, Tony Scott . . . and Ben Webster.

THE DIXIELAND BALL: THE L ANCERS with GEORGE CATES’ ALL STARS (Coral).  This one is a mystery.  I know that the Lancers recorded with Charlie Barnet and Les Brown; Cates arranged for some jazz-flavored sessions.  There is no personnel listed, which means that the music might be tepid, the All Stars undistinguished.  But I dream of an unacknowledged Abe Lincoln in there.  I couldn’t pass this one up — not only for its mysterious potential, but for the liner notes by Jane Bundy, which begin:

Born in sin and raised in controversy, Dixieland was the musical problem child of World War One–the rock and roll of its day.

Jane, you had me with “Born in sin.”  But enough of that.  So if you see a brightly-dressed man on his knees, reverently going through a stack of records in Northern California or elsewhere, you might be looking at me.

May your happiness increase.

DEAN MARTIN IN THE LAND OF JAZZ?

In May 2012, I visited the National Underground on East Houston Street in New York City to hear John Gill’s National Saloon Band play a few glorious sets, with music ranging from Chicago jazz of the Twenties to Bing Crosby in the Thirties to Jimmie Rodgers . . . see the expansive range of John and the band here and here.

The management of the National Underground might not have had the most solid understanding of what John’s audience would have understood as appropriate background music — but they did the best they could for “older Americana”: a Dean Martin compilation CD.

I always thought Martin was vastly underrated as a swinging singer, and recall with pleasure the words of the late John S. Wilson, jazz critic for the New York Times (he had a seminal radio program on WQXR-FM, which began with Ellington’s ACROSS THE TRACK BLUES — evidence of Wilson’s deep good taste):  he wrote that Martin deserved to record with the best jazz background then possible — a small band featuring Joe Thomas, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Ben Webster, tenor.  (I think that band could have made Raymond Massey swing, but no matter.)  It never happened, and I didn’t have any sense that Dean Martin had actually recorded with a swinging background.

The compilation CD went through the familiar Martin recordings and then arrived at one new to me, a song that borrows elements from a half-dozen songs, not the least of them being I’M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER.  This lyrical conceit is more vindictive than lonesome, addressed to a presumably unfaithful or duplicitous lover, I’M GOING TO PAPER MY WALLS WITH YOUR LOVE LETTERS.  But listen closely to the band:

The opening ensemble reminds me of the Rampart Street Paraders — neatly “arranged Dixie,” in the manner of Matty Matlock or Billy May, with the string bass playing in two, a descending “Dixieland” figure scored for the horns, then a clarinet obbligto making its way in as the chorus continues — it could be Matlock or two dozen other players to my ears.  After Martin finishes his first chorus, things get looser and more heated.  Is that Dick Cathcart on trumpet?  Clyde Hurley?  And the trombonist, expertly maneuvering around in the middle and low section of the ensemble, could be Moe Schneider — lacking the violent swashbuckling of Abe Lincoln.

But wait!  There’s more!

At 1:27,more or less, the veil of polite behavior lifted, the businessman’s-Dixie got put aside, and the Masters came out to play.  To my ears, the drummer is Nick Fatool, the trombonist Lou McGarity (based on the shouting entrance into the solo).  This deliverance lasts less than thirty seconds, but it’s a wonderful surprise.  (And — so reminiscent of the 1928-31 “hot dance”records that had a peppy orchestral rendition of a danceable melody, then a winning but restrained vocal chorus — with a fiery eight or sixteen bars of jazz improvisation in the last chorus . . . if the prospective buyer had gotten that far, the sale was complete and Mother or Father were not going to scared off by some unbridled devil’s music.)

The closing chorus is slightly more emphatic than the first, but it’s fairly clear that the players have gone back to the manuscript paper: the whole recording, presumably from the middle Fifties, has a sweetly nostalgic air, harking back to Bing Crosby and the John Scott Trotter small groups.

I confess that what has appeared above has very little solid evidence to support it.  I could find no hard evidence of personnel, recording date, and location: the only evidence I have is that the song was recorded by The Ravens and the Andrews Sisters . . . my guess is that this order is right.  If anyone knows more than I have offered here, please chime in.  Until then, I invite you to savor Martin, the band, and that brief hot interlude in the middle.  Eckhart Tolle tells us that it is not our true work to name the beautiful bird or plant that we encounter in our travels, but to enjoy it . . . so if it turns out to be  someone entirely unknown to me on drums, on trombone, I will be surprised but I will live through it.

And this post is for the fine trumpeter and subtle singer Andrew Storar, who told me two days ago that Dean Martin was his favorite.

May your happiness increase.

“HOT” on SPRING STREET (Nov. 22, 2009)

Last Sunday at The Ear Inn, November 22, 2009, the compact, eloquent quartet — The Ear Regulars or the Earregulars, depending on what region you come from — performed two lovely Ralph Rainger ballads, PLEASE and WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE.   (In case you are new to this scene, The Ear Inn is at 326 Spring Street in Manhattan and the Sunday music goes from 8-11 PM.)

That quartet?  Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Matt Munisteri, and Pat O’Leary.

But there was a good deal of exciting Hot being played that night as well.  “Hot,” as I don’t have to tell this audience, was the name of a certain kind of exciting improvisation when jazz was young.  It didn’t have to be fast or loud, but it did have to be focused, intense, rhythmic.  The Earregulars know how to GET HOT without raising their voices.   

After a brief discussion, Jon-Erik called “a good old New Orleans tune,” I’M SORRY I MADE YOU CRY — which I always remember in the version by the Capitol Jazzmen (1943) with Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Noone, Joe Sullivan, and even Billy May capably playing the jazz. 

This version was neither lachrymose nor apologetic: it was the musical equivalent of, “I’m really sorry.  I won’t do it again.   Have a Boddington?” 

Then, a wonderful pop / jazz tune (from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer), TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS, which doesn’t get played enough, although both Lips Page and the elder Teagarden recorded it splendidly:

And, finally, a lengthy, driving SUNDAY — long enough to require two parts for YouTube, but attentive viewers will hear that Jon-Erik begins the second segment with a quotation from another song from the same era, MY MONDAY DATE.  Fun with calendars!

And the conclusion:

I’ve heard versions of this quartet before at The Ear, and have always come away deeply impressed.  The horns beautifully complement each other: Scott takes surprising, winding solos that balance Earl Bostic, Lester, and outer space, while Jon-Erik digs deep and always finds quietly impassioned things to say.  Matt shines in the darkness, whether he’s finding ringing single-note lines or rocking the band chordally, and Pat O’Leary keeps time so beautifully (no small feat) and plays eloquent, stirring lines.  At once, they sound like the entire history of swinging jazz AND like themselves — two simultaneous noble accomplishments.

JAZZ IN “THE NEW YORKER,” CONTINUED

I’m always happy to see any coverage of jazz in The New Yorker, which has been my essential reading for forty years, ever since I discovered their fine short fiction, the drawings of William Steig and Saul Steinberg, and the irreplaceable writing of Whitney Balliett.  But their latest coverage is profoundly disappointing, both in itself and its implications.

Here’s Colin Fleming’s piece in “Talk of the Town,” March 30, 2009, called MORE SATCHMO:

After virtually inventing the lexicon for jazz soloists with his epochal Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Louis Armstrong set up shop at Decca Records in the mid-thirties. The Armstrong Deccas have not fared as well as their forebears, having been knocked about on compilations of dubious legality and dogged by various aspersions-mainly, that Armstrong had become a puppet for his manager Joe Glaser, who had turned Armstrong into a happy-go-lucky song-and-dance man ready to ham it up on cue.

But as “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions, 1935-1946” (Mosaic Records) attests, Armstrong wasn’t one to be intimidated by his past. The corking take on “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” makes the Okeh version seem positively weak-kneed, with Armstrong’s big band ripping through the breaks. Armstrong the vocalist is arguably at his apex here, and it was through his vocalizations that Armstrong’s chamber jazz took on a second life as pure pop manna. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” is a glorious hybrid: a mix of Stephen Foster-esque Americana and unprecedented vocal inflections that must have pricked up the ears of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Decca sessions even venture into hardcore R. & B. terrain, once the drummer “Big” Sid Catlett turns up. A fleeting discographical presence over his career, Catlett was at his best with Armstrong, his offbeat accents on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” presaging soul’s infatuation with syncopation.

As a trumpet player, there was no one to touch Armstrong, but Bing Crosby was an apt vocal foil. The two had their summit meeting in 1960, resulting in “Bing and Satchmo” (DRG Records), previously unavailable on compact disk. “Dardanella” suggests how keenly these men must have listened to each other: Crosby’s sly syllabic upticks at the end of each line show how readily he had absorbed Armstrong’s methodology, while Armstrong’s vocal is a blend of full-on melody and smart, conversational tones, a Crosby staple. Throughout, Billy May’s arrangements have plenty of starch to them, but “Lazy River” borders on a kind of laconic grace, two voices whiling the day away before drifting home. ♦

First, there’s Fleming’s remarkable prose style: exuberantly glib, cliched, and apparently unedited: he comes across as a writer in love with his own special effects.  Then come the errors of fact (how casually Fleming, like Mosaic Records, dismisses the work of Gosta Hagglof).   In addition, there’s his adolescent critical point of view, granting Armstrong’s singing special validity (“pop manna,” no less) because it must have caught the attention of Presley and Dylan, how Catlett’s playing prefigures rhythm and blues and soul’s “infatuation with syncopation.”  The “old,” it seems, is meaningful only when it acts as a springboard for the “new.”

Perhaps I should be grateful that Louis Armstrong receives notice of any sort in The New Yorker, even if the praise is appallingly written and full of misinterpretations.

But in the same issue, Anthony Lane writes thoughtfully about a new book of Samuel Beckett’s early letters; Paul Goldberger has a beautifully provocative essay on the architect Palladio.  So The New Yorker can and indeed does think some art that occured before the twenty-first century is worth serious consideration in serious prose.  It’s a pity the magazine’s editors haven’t recognized that jazz might be owed equal respect.