Tag Archives: Carline Ray

IN A RIGHTEOUS GROOVE: “THE GIRLS IN THE BAND”

I did not get to see the film THE GIRLS IN THE BAND when it had a New York screening in April 2013, but thanks to the Beloved, we saw it last night on the other coast.  It is a superb film, with much to say to everyone: you don’t have to be a jazz scholar or a student of women’s history to be pleased by the music, enlightened and heartened by the courageous and insightful women portrayed in the film, and appalled by the world in which they struggled for equality and visibility.

The music known as jazz — however you choose to define it — has cherished its reputation as free-wheeling, radical in its approach to established texts.  It  has presented itself as music played by courageous innovators for people who were willing to go beyond what was immediately accessible, aimed at the widest audience.  Much of that remains true. So it is an unpleasant irony that some people associated with jazz — including the musicians themselves — have excluded and derided artists who didn’t fit their narrow criteria for acceptance. The wrong color? Ethnicity? Sexual preference? Gender? We have made some progress in believing that you need not be an African-American from New Orleans to be “authentic,” but jazz has long been the self-declared playground of men.

Women have been accepted on the bandstand for more than the last century — as singers whose job was to sound pretty and look prettier.

But women instrumentalists and improvisers have only recently begun to gain anything but a grudging acceptance from their male peers. Lovie Austin, Dolly Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Mary Osborne, Marjorie Hyams, Melba Liston, and Vi Redd come to mind as twentieth-century pioneers, facing discrimination and rejection. “Can she play?” should have been the only question, but it often was never asked. And “all-women” bands, no matter how compelling their music, were often seen as freakish, the improvising equivalent of Dr. Johnson’s lady preacher. Sherrie Maricle and others might tell us that the situation is improving . . . but some barriers still remain.

THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, directed by Judy Chaikin and produced by Nancy Kissock, is a concise yet powerful documentary — eighty minutes of music, reportage, and vivid film memoir taken from over three hundred hours of material. It isn’t a history as such, tied to chronology, nor is it pure polemic. It is human and humane: we hear the stories of women who, early on, were intoxicated by the music and the desire to create it, then made their way into public performance — overcoming the obstacles put in their way by everyone who had a stake in keeping things the way they were: male musicians, critics, record producers, clubowners, concert promoters, and more.

Here’s the trailer, which can convey the film’s exuberance better than I can hope to:

and a second one, also worth watching:

I have to say that I am a very reluctant movie-goer. I get restless quickly; I am impatient with films that are too simple or too elusive; when a film is concerned with a subject I know well, the slightest error turns me chilly.  I thoroughly admired and enjoyed THE GIRLS IN THE BAND and encourage JAZZ LIVES readers to seek it out. The pioneering women, candid and self-aware yet unassuming, telling their stories, will stick with you long after the final credits have rolled.

The Beloved was appalled at the women’s history she had not known and entranced by the sound of Melba Liston’s trombone on a ballad. I made a commitment of my own: I bought a THE GIRLS IN THE BAND t-shirt and will add it to my fashion repertoire. Here is the film’s Facebook page.

And in the discussion that ensued, this point was made — I offer it in my own way. When we read in the popular press that a restaurant chain does not serve or employ people of a certain ethnicity or sexual orientation or religious belief, we are outraged and we do not eat there anymore.  “There are laws against such things,” we say proudly.

But when there is evidence of gender bigotry in jazz, many of us do not even see it, nor do we protest. I would not insist that a band in a club be comprised as if by census, but we should notice when the faculty at jazz studies programs is uniformly male. When a jazz camp has no women as instructors, is it because there are no competent women players? Where are the women in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?  The list is longer than I could write here.

The late Carline Ray, a shining light of the film, reminds us that if we heard a man or a woman playing from behind a curtain, we could not correctly identify the player’s gender.  Where are the “blind auditions” now common practice in symphony orchestras?

One of the ways to learn more about this chapter of history — not just women’s history — is to see THE GIRLS IN THE BAND and to encourage others to do so.  And, just incidentally, you will have witnessed a real accomplishment in film-making.

May your happiness increase!

CATHERINE RUSSELL BRINGS IT BACK, INDEED

We’re glad that there is a Catherine Russell, and she’s generously offered us another delicious helping of the heartfelt swing she and her colleagues create — in a new CD, called BRING IT BACK:

CATHERINE RUSSELL: BRING IT BACK (Jazz Village JVS 97001) Bring it Back; I’m Shooting High; I Let A Song Go out of My Heart; You Got To Swing and Sway; Aged and Mellow; the Darktown Strutters’ Ball; Lucille; You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb; After the Lights Go Down Low; I’m Sticking With You Baby; Strange As It Seems; Public Melody Number One; I Cover The Waterfront.

Catherine Russell is a marvel: a great star and entertainer who gives herself utterly to the music, the rhythm, the words, and the emotions. She could have been a true rival for any of the great singers of the past, but she sounds utterly like herself.

She doesn’t have a gravelly voice or carry a handkerchief, but she embodies the warm, vibrant spirit of Louis Armstrong. That isn’t surprising, because her parents were Armstrong’s long-time pianist and musical director Luis Russell and singer / bassist Carline Ray.

BRING IT BACK continues her series of energized yet subtle CDs that draw on little-known tunes from an earlier era (composers from her father to Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Jimmy McHugh, and Ida Cox) and blues-based material associated with Esther Phillips, Al Hibbler, Wynonie Harris and Little Willie John. The disc is emotionally satisfying, because Russell proves herself an adult who brings a consistent understanding to the emotions of each song. When the CD is over, it seems as if it’s just begun — and that’s not a matter of timing but of our pleasure: we want to hear more!

Russell’s voice is a pleasure in itself, with a high clear cornet-like attack when she chooses to croon an optimistic love song or romp through a swing fiesta such as SWING AND SWAY or PUBLIC MELODY. (At times she sounds like Ray Nance. Is there a higher compliment?) She takes on the dark rasp of a tenor saxophone when she sings the blues: Ben Webster, feeling low-down and grouchy, awakened too early.

Whatever the material or tempo, her intonation and time are splendid; no faux-Holiday lingering behind the beat for her. Russell’s energy comes through whole on BRING IT BACK, just as audiences worldwide have seen her dancing around the stage, a woman giving herself to rhythm.

On this disc, she is surrounded by a limber medium-sized band of New York swing stars: Mark Shane, piano; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; John Allred, trombone; Andy Farber, Dan Block, Mark Lopeman, reeds; Lee Hudson, string bass; Mark McLean, drums; Brian Pareschi, trumpet; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Glenn Patscha, Hammond B-3 organ. The band evokes but doesn’t copy swing and rhythm and blues from the last century, encouraging Russell to be inspired, never derivative. The CD moves from jitterbug extravaganzas to dark midnight blues without a letup. I found myself playing my favorite tracks over and over.

Louis would be proud.

May your happiness increase!

CATHERINE RUSSELL WELCOMES US IN!

Photograph by Richard Conde

The Beloved and I were in the presence of magic at the Allen Room (Jazz at Lincoln Center) last night when singer Catherine Russell welcomed us in.

I don’t mean that she just began her show by saying, “I’m glad you are all here,” as artists usually tell an audience.

But from the first phrase of her opening song, I’M SHOOTING HIGH, she turned the Allen Room into something warm, making us feel both as if we were in her own magically cozy space.  Although she was stylishly dressed, in front of a ten-piece band, with the great New York street scene viewed from above, none of this distracted her from her great purpose: to lift us up through sweet swinging music.

She is such an expert performer that she made her art — clearly the result of great attention to detail — seem natural and intuitive, as if she and the band had just gotten together to have a good time.

Her delight in being with us was genuine.  When a couple, arriving late, made their way to their seats down front, Catherine beamed at them and said the most encouraging thing, “Welcome, welcome!” — and we relaxed even more, knowing that she meant it.

What she was welcoming us to was a musical evening of the most gratifying kind.  It was inspired by Louis Armstrong, for one, always a good start.  Most of the songs she and the band offered were connected to Louis, but she remained herself: no growl, no handkerchief, no mugging.  Rather she understood and demonstrated what Louis was all about — deep romance, great fun, rocking rhythm, daring improvisations.  Love, whether eager celebration or brokenhearted lament — was her theme.  And there was another man inspiring her performance: Louis’ friend, pianist, and musical director for many years: Luis Russell, who (by the way) happened to be Catherine’s father.  Pops and Daddy, if you will.

She drew most of her material from the great period of the Louis / Luis collaboration — 1935-42, the songs now collected on the great Louis Mosaic box set, so we got to exult with her for I’M SHOOTING HIGH (“Got my eye / On a star / In the sky”), dream along with I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, swing out on I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, mourn to I COVER THE WATERFRONT, laugh out loud to PUBLIC MELODY NUMBER ONE.  Catherine’s vision of Louis reached back to the Twenties for STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, SUGAR FOOT STRUT (now, finally, I know what the lyrics are talking about!), and a romping EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY.

And it expanded to include BACK O’TOWN BLUES and LUCILLE, songs with which she had a very personal connection.  The first of those two — written by Louis and Luis — was the flip side of Louis’ 1956 hit, MACK THE KNIFE.  For some, that fact would be only a jazz-fiend’s winning Trivial Pursuit answer.  But for Catherine it was so much more.  The royalties from BACK O’TOWN BLUES enabled her parents, Luis and Carline Ray (Catherine’s mother had been in the audience for the first show) to purchase their first new car — a two-tone blue 1956 Mercury.  Even from row N, the Beloved and I could see how much that car had meant to the Russells from Catherine’s very warm retelling of the story.  And the very touching LUCILLE had been written by Luis in 1961 for Louis to try — a loving tribute to Lucille Wilson Armstrong . . . and, not incidentally, a beautiful song, now fully realized by Catherine.

She also showed her great emotional range in a dark reading of NO MORE, a sultry evocation of ROMANCE IN THE DARK, a hilarious I’M CHECKIN’ OUT, GOOM-BYE (evoking Abbey Lincoln, Lil Green, and Ivie Anderson, respectively).

Catherine is also an astonishing singer, if you haven’t guessed by now.  She has a perfectly placed voice, with power and depth but a kind of reedy intensity (she can sound like an alto saxophone but more often she reminded me of a whole reed section coming out of her long lithe frame).  Her sound is sweet yet pungent.  She has great dramatic intensity but she never seems as if she’s “acting.”  From somewhere inside the song, she lights the way, matching her readings of lyrics and melody exactly to the emotions . . . making familiar songs feel roomy and new.  And rhythm bubbles up through her — she was always in motion, rollicking around the stage, expertly dancing, embodying joy in person.

And the band was just as delightful: let me write their names here again to celebrate them: Matt Munisteri, Mark Shane, Lee Hudson, Mark McLean, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dave Brown, John Allred, Scott Robinson, Andy Farber, Dan Block.  New York’s finest!  Each one of them had something deliciously incisive to bring, from McLean’s saucepan-percussion reminding us of Zutty Singleton on SUGAR FOOT STRUT, Allred’s plunger-dialogue on GOOM-BYE, Scott Robinson’s soprano taragota on NEW CALL OF THE FREAKS (a whole surrealistic play in itself, with the horn section picking up their paper parts to read the unforgettable Dada poetry: “Stick out your can / here comes the garbage man. . . . “).  Kellso, once again, became the Upper West Side Louis, and Matt swung us into bliss — to say nothing of the eloquent gents of the sax section, Mister Brown to You, the reliable Hudson keeping it all together, Mark Shane pointing the way — Jess Stacy to Catherine’s Helen Ward.  The brilliant arrangements by Matt, Jon-Erik, and Andy gave us a rocking big band distilled to its essence.

The Beloved and I enjoyed every note.  We would be there tonight if we could.  If you can, stop reading this post right now and get a pair (or more) of tickets for the Saturday night shows — 7:30 or 9:30.  Or if that’s not possible, do what I did and buy Catherine’s latest CD, STRICTLY ROMANCIN’ — it has some of the same songs and almost the same band.

Miss Russell will welcome you in, too!

May your happiness increase.

COMES IN LIKE A LION, SWINGS OUT LIKE A CAT

We have delightful plans for this Friday night — March 30, 2012: we’ll be at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center to hear the remarkable singer Catherine Russell and her all-star band:

Our Catherine’s pedigree is impeccable — daughter of pianist-composer-bandleader Luis Russell and string bassist-bandleader Carline Ray, she grew up with the music (how about childhood acquaintance with one Mister Armstrong?) and she keeps swinging with a big heart.   And her new program will not only connect with her CD, STRICTLY ROMANCIN’ but will focus on Louis and Luis — lifelong friends.  The concerts will take place on Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, 2012, with two shows nightly (7:30 and 9:30), located on Broadway at 60th Street in New York City.

And Grammy-winner Miss Russell is wise enough to know that a great singer deserves a great band — with new arrangements.  The sterling fellows onstage will be  Matt Munisteri, guitar, arranger, musical director;  Mark Shane, piano;  Jon Erik-Kellso, trumpet, arranger;  John Allred, trombone;  Dan Block, saxophones, clarinet;  Andy Farber, saxophones, arranger; Lee Hudson, string bass;  Mark McLean, drums; Dave Brown, trumpet; Scott Robinson, whatever he likes.   For tickets visit the JALC Box Office at Broadway at 60th, or www.jalc.org — or call Center Charge at 212-721-6500.  The Beloved and I will be there — I’ll be making notes on a pad to tell you what happened . . . be sure to get there on your own!