Tag Archives: Bojangles

“THEY ADVISE BUCK-AND-WINGIN'”: FAYARD, HAROLD, and BOBBY MAKE MUSIC at DECCA (1937)

There’s something weirdly irresistible about jazz records with tap-dance passages, especially in this multi-media age when we expect to see as well as hear.  The tradition goes back to Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, and forward to Jack Ackerman and Baby Laurence, among others.

A charming example of the phenomenon is the two sides the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold) recorded for American Decca, with a small, well-disciplined yet hot band — Decca studio players (who were also recording with Dick Robertson, the Andrews Sisters, Frank Froeba, and Teddy Grace) including Bobby Hackett, cornet; Ralph Muzzillo, trumpet; Al Philburn, trombone; Sid Stoneburn, clarinet; Frank Signorelli, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Haig Stephens, string bass; Stan King, drums.

I single out Bobby because he has a pearly eight-bar bridge on the first side, and to me, eight bars of Hackett is like a previously unknown Yeats fragment.  On the second side, Philburn and Stoneburn take the solos.  But listen closely to the underrated but distinctive Stan King throughout.  I don’t think the sides sold very well, because Decca did not repeat the experiment.

and the flip side:

Perfectly charming.

May your happiness increase!

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THAT DANCING FEELING: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, JOHN OTTO PLAY FIELDS and MCHUGH at SAN DIEGO (Nov. 25, 2016)

I could have called this post WHY I WENT TO SAN DIEGO, but the music — not my travel itinerary — is the real subject.  For me, “San Diego” is not the city, but the Jazz Fest there, which unrolled happily during Thanksgiving weekend of this year, a true cornucopia of delights.

doin-the-new-lowdown

One such delight was a trio performance by Ray Skjelbred, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; John Otto, reeds — and this little gem, their cheerfully swinging exploration of the Fields and McHugh delight made famous by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, DOIN’ THE NEW LOW-DOWN:

“That dancing feeling / Has my feet in a trance,” state the lyrics by Dorothy Fields.  How true, when this trio is around — a sweet compact lesson in ensemble intelligence, generosity, and swing.  Happily, there’s more from this session to share with you.

May your happiness increase!

AS CINEMA, IT HAS ITS LIMITS: AS A TIME MACHINE, IT’S FLAWLESS: “HARLEM IS HEAVEN” (1932)

The great connoisseur of popular culture, especially women singers, Alan Eichler, just shared with us his VHS copy of the 1932 film HARLEM IS HEAVEN.  It’s a great gift, as it may be the first “all-colored” feature sound film, with starring roles for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Putney Dandridge, James Baskett, and with incidental music provided by Eubie Blake and his Orchestra, also with an appearance by Noble Sissle.

HARLEM HEAVEN poster

Now, I have reservations about the film itself.  Henri Wessell as “Chummy” and Anise Boyer as “Jean” are both beautiful young people, although their naturalistic acting is, to my taste, none too subtle.  And the plot (the film was written and directed by Irwin R. Franklyn) is thin to the point of transparency.

But what other film shows us so much of Bill Robinson as an actor, singer, and dancer — the stair dance sequence has been shown often but without credit, but the rest was new to me.  The dancers are presented to us as the world-famous Cotton Club entertainters, which is a look behind the scenes that we would otherwise not have had.

And this is serious business: is there any other film in the history of cinema that has Putney Dandridge as a deadly moral avenger who is never arrested or tried? I rest my case.

Even though I could not view the whole film in one sitting, I was captivated from the start by the little touches of 1932 Harlem reality: the marquee reading MILLS BROS. and the glimpse of the exterior of Connie’s Inn. Then, later on, there is a whole history of early-Thirties theatre and music and dance.  For fans of pre-Code splendor, “Jean” takes off her dress, revealing beautiful silk lingerie, while “Chummy” looks elsewhere, and later on there is a brief catfight between “Jean” and “Greta Rae.”  Worth viewing?  That’s up to you.

Here’s the film.

On its own terms, it is indeed Heavenly.  Thank you, Alan.  And here — reaching back even more — is Bill, in Technicolor (!) in the 1930 DIXIANA:

May your happiness increase.

MARK CANTOR’S CELLULOID IMPROVISATIONS (JAZZ ON FILM)

celluloidimprovisations

The renowned (diligent but never stuffy) scholar of jazz on film, Mark Cantor, is also a generous fellow, and he has launched a new website.

There, you can see and hear Fats Waller, Joe Marsala and Adele Girard, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, the Washboard Serenaders, Andy Secrest, Benny Carter, Connee Boswell, Red Nichols, Lionel Hampton, Harry James, Dave Brubeck, Punch Miller, Lady Will Carr, Ethel Merman and Johnny Green, the Max Fleischer team of surrealists, Leo Watson, Teddy Bunn, Ray Eberle, Sidney Bechet, Thelma White, Buck and Bubbles, Maude Mills, Gerry Mullingan, the MJQ, Jack Teagarden, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Bill Robinson, Louis Jordan, Joe Williams, as well as groups and musicians we might never have heard about — the daring Sandra among them — and a few mysteries: unidentified players just waiting for you to recognize them. (If you are interested in footage of “the girls in the band,” you will find some here as well.)

Some of these films and excerpts are familiar, but many are rare: offered here for your viewing in the best available prints with good sound and clear images.

May your happiness increase! 

CATLETT, COTTON, ELLINGTON, BIGARD . . . ALSO FEATURING JACK OAKIE.

I’ve been eBaying — looking at the surprises offered for sale.

First, a piece of sheet music tied in to a 1946 record date for the Manor label — with Pete Johnson, Sidney Catlett, Jimmy Shirley, and Gene Ramey.  I had never heard of the Duchess Music Publishers, perhaps an attempt to connect with a hoped-for hit record.  The arranger’s name caught my eye:

ARRANGED BY SID CATLETT

Notice that someone energetically claimed ownership of this sheet.

Then, some paper ephemera connected to the downtown Cotton Club.  I know the name is demeaning, and the club wouldn’t admit patrons of color, but with such music and those prices, one could ignore those facts:

COTTON CLUB front

Don’t forget to give the card to the headwaiter (decades before email):

COTTON CLUB rear

The Perfect Evening, no argument:

COTTON CLUB 2

And Bill Robinson:

COTTON CLUB 4

Did you know Jack Oakie was so talented? This is a publicity still for the 1934 film MURDER AT THE VANITIES, with two very recognizable musicians:

DUKE 1934 front

Ah, show business!

May your happiness increase!

MORE INGREDIENTS: JOHN, RALF, MARC, KATIE, and CLINT (Sacramento Music Festival, May 26, 2012)

Household names, or at least they should be — the Reynolds Brothers and Clint Baker at the 2012 Sacramento Music Festival, recorded on May 26, 2012.  That’s Katie Cavera, string bass, vocal; Marc Caparone, cornet, vocal; Ralf Reynolds, washboard, vocal; John Reynolds, guitar, whistling, vocal; Clint Baker, trombone, clarinet, vocal.

My title comes from a Louis anecdote: someone pressed him very hard about which trumpet player he favored, Bobby Hackett or someone whose name I don’t remember.  Louis didn’t like to make such judgments — the other fellow was good and MUSIC itself was the goal, but finally he said, “Bobby.  He  got more ingredients.”

Here’s some more evidence of why the Reynolds Brothers should be in every home.

For Bill Robinson, who had no problem taking the stairs, DOIN’ THE NEW LOWDOWN:

Fine riffin’ this evening on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE:

“Diamond bracelets Woolworth’s doesn’t sell, baby.”  How true!  I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE:

Don’t let us catch you “winking your eye at morals,” Brothers and Sisters.  THERE’S GONNA BE THE DEVIL TO PAY:

Katie brings out her Yiddishkeit!  BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN:

Insomniac?  TUCK ME TO SLEEP IN MY OLD ‘TUCKY HOME:

They sparkle, they bubble: THEM THERE EYES:

For Higgy and Louis, I’M CONFESSIN’:

For the young fellow from Davenport, Iowa, I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA:

Romping!  CHINA BOY:

Ingredients?  How about a whole jazz pantry of subtlety and swing?

May your happiness increase.

FROM THE HEART, FOR THE HEART: RAY SKJELBRED’S “FIRST THURSDAY BAND” (Dec. 1, 2011)

Feeling low?  Got a parking ticket?  Can’t shake that nasty cold?  Worried about the bills?  Did you burn the toast?

It’s going to be all right.  In fact, it’s already all right. 

Make yourself to home and listen to this music.  Or — if you’re swiffing around, turn up the volume and feel the deep swinging joy this band creates.

They’re Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band, caught live at the New Orleans Restaurant in Seattle, Washington, on December 1, 2011.  They are Ray Skjelbred, piano / leader; Steve Wright, cornet, clarinet, alto and soprano saxes; Dave Brown, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums.

And — in the spirit of the season — do you hear what I hear?  I hear a real jazz band.  “What’s that?” I hear someone in the back saying.  Well, that’s an improvising group where all the members love the music and work together towards the same purpose, supporting one another in a gritty joyousness appropriate to the song, picking up each others’ cues, playing witty follow-the-leader so that one hears simultaneously a quartet and four strong-minded individualists taking their own path to get to their own versions of Jazz Paradise.

I also hear echoes of Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Fud Livingston, Guy Kelly, Doc Poston, Earl Hines, Frank Melrose, Wellman Braud, Milton J. Hinton, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty (a relation, perhaps?), George Wettling — all embodied on December 1, 2011, by living creators who have absorbed the tradition and made it their own.  Who cares if people fight cyber-skirnishes in the blogosphere about whether “J**z” is alive or dead?  Call this by whatever polite name you like: it is most certainly alive.

The first song and performance that caught my attention was LOVE ME TONIGHT, which is associated in my mind with Earl Hines and Bing Crosby — one hell of a pair!  It is a lovely song: with lyrics, one of the most insinuating seduction lyrics I know (perhaps more wooing than A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY): a carpe diem pointed towards the bedroom.  But here it’s a bit more lowwdown, suggesting that Chicago jazz was a powerful aphrodisiac as well:

And here’s a lowdown Commodore JADA:

Something unusual from Mister Piano Man — a little solo tribute to someone quite forgotten, Cassino Simpson.  All most of us know of him is that he worked with Tiny Parham and did his own Chicago gigs, before succumbing to mental instability.  After he unsuccessfully tried to kill Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, he was institutionalized and I believe he spent the rest of his life there.  The noble John Steiner took recording equipment to Simpson and recorded him playing piano in 1942: the results, very hard to find even fifty years ago, appeared on a Paramont 10″ lp, which I’ve heard but never seen.  Mister Skjelbred gives us a window into the blues — the Cassino Simpson way:

And something pretty, soulful, as well as funky: Ellington’s BLACK BEAUTY:

Here’s a truly mournful TRAV’LIN ALL ALONE (Ethel Waters – Jimmie Noone – Kenny Davern tempo, not Billie’s ironic bounce):

And a rather obscure tune from 1936 — I associate it only with Henry “Red” Allen, but that’s sufficient pedigree for anyone — NOTHING’S BLUE BUY THE SKY:

Something else from Red (circa 1933), his affirmation that everything is really OK — THE RIVER’S TAKIN’ CARE OF ME:

And the song that could stand as the band’s secondary title, summing up their attitude towards their work and their art, LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (think of Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, and Jeni LeGon in STORMY WEATHER).  Ray sings the delectable lyrics softly, but you might consider memorizing them — you could do far worse for a mantra to get you through every day:

What exquisite music — delicate and raunchy at the same time!

P.S.  I don’t want to be especially preachy, but I would like all the youthful musicians in the house to watch and listen closely to these clips — for the deep unspoken unity of the quartet, the shifting sound-textures, and numberless virtues.  Mister Skjelbred doesn’t cover the keyboard with runs and arpeggios (unless he wants to); his left hand is integral to his playing; he could be a whole orchestra but doesn’t trample on anyone.  Mister Wright knows everything there is to know about “tonation and phrasing”: not a note is out of place and each one has its own purpose, its own sound.  And, children, there were ways of playing the alto saxophone that Charles Parker did not render obsolete.  Mister Daugherty does so much with so few cymbals — bless him! — he knows what his snare drum and bass drum are for; he swings those wire brushes, and he is always listening.  And Mister Brown, whether plucking or bowing, gets a deep resonant yet flexible sound out of his bass.  Want to know what kind of amplifier he uses?  It’s called LOVE.  And although he can play the guitar beautifully, he doesn’t turn his string bass into one.  There!  I have spoken.  Learn it to the younguns!