Tag Archives: Doris Day

BEAUTY NEEDS NO WORDS: JOE WILDER AND HOWARD ALDEN (Jazz at Chautauqua, September 19, 2009)

O rare and floating sounds!

Even at 10:30 in the morning, the great artists create lovely subtle art — as did Howard Alden, guitar, and Joe Wilder, trumpet and flugelhorn.  This telepathic pair made beauty tangible at the Jazz at Chautauqua weekend in mid-September 2009, and I am delighted to be able to present two duets.

People who knew Joe well will also notice his uncharacteristically informal attire — one of the few times he was ever seen without a suit and tie — and I delight, on SAMBA, that he is using his green plastic cup (‘from the five and ten,” he told me) as a mute.

My videos are characteristically imperfect, even more so because I was not supposed to be shooting them: people pass by and pause, and I think my camera rises and falls with my breathing.  But I’d rather have these moments, preserved.

SECRET LOVE, made famous by Doris Day in 1953:

Luiz Bonfa’s SAMBA DE ORFEU, from the film BLACK ORPHEUS:

Howard has been incredibly gracious about allowing me to video-record him and then to post selected performances: if you search JAZZ LIVES posts, he is part of more than one hundred.  Joe appeared most recently in a 2009 session with Rossano Sportiello, Harry Allen, and Jon Burr, and the first part is here.  Bless them both.

May your happiness increase!

TRAVELS WITH MOLLY: “LET’S FLY AWAY”

Molly Ryan by Don Spiro

Molly Ryan by Don Spiro

I’ve been admiring Molly Ryan’s singing — and her instrumental bandmates — for almost a decade now.  Her latest CD, her third, LET’S FLY AWAY, is a beautifully elaborate production, consistently aloft.

Molly Ryan CD cover

Here are the details.  The CD features a theme (hooray!) — the delights of travel, with some ingenious choices of repertoire:  WANDERER / BEYOND THE BLUE HORIZON / FAR AWAY PLACES / LET’S FLY AWAY / FLYING DOWN TO RIO / A RAINY NIGHT IN RIO / SOUTH SEA ISLAND MAGIC / THE GYPSY IN MY SOUL / THE ROAD TO MOROCCO / UNDER PARIS SKIES / TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE / IT’S NICE TO GO TRAV’LIN’ / ANYWHERE I WANDER . . .

and alongside Molly (vocal and guitar) some of the finest jazz players on the planet:  Bria Skonberg, Randy Reinhart, Dan Barrett, Dan Levinson, Adrien Chevalier, John Reynolds, Joel Forbes, Mike Weatherly, Mark Shane, Dick Hyman, Kevin Dorn, Scott Kettner, Raphael McGregor, with arrangements by the two Dans, Levinson and Barrett.

When I first heard Molly — we were all much younger — I was immediately charmed by her voice, which in its youthful warmth and tenderness summoned up the beautiful Helen Ward.  But Molly, then and now, does more than imitate. She has a gorgeous sound but she also knows a good deal about unaffected swing, and in the years she’s been singing, her lyrical deftness has increased, and without dramatizing, she has become a fine singing actress, giving each song its proper emotional context.  She can be a blazing trumpet (evidence below) or a wistful yearner, on the edge of tears, or someone tart and wry.

The band, as you’d expect, is full of great soloists — everyone gets a taste, as they deserve, and I won’t spoil the surprises.  But what’s most notable is the care given to the arrangements.  Many CDs sound as if the fellows and gals are on a live club date — “Whaddaya want to play next, Marty?” “I don’t know.  How about X?” and those informal sessions often produce unbuttoned memorable sounds.  But a production like LET’S FLY AWAY is a happy throwback to the glory days of long-playing records of the Fifties and Sixties, where a singer — Teddi King, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Carmen McRae — was taken very good care of by Neal Hefti or Frank DeVol or Ralph Burns, creating a musical tapestry of rich sensations.

Now, below on this very same page, you can visit the page where LET’S FLY AWAY is for sale, and hear samples.  But Molly and friends have cooked up something far more hilariously gratifying — a short film with an oddly off-center plot, dancers, visual effects, hard to describe but a pleasure to experience:

Yes, it does make me think of Mildred Bailey’s WEEK-END OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY, but perhaps that association is my own personal problem.

And tomorrow — yes, tomorrow, Thursday, September 3, at 9:30 PM — Molly and friends are having a CD release show at Joe’s Pub, with Dan Levinson, Mike Davis, Vincent Gardner, Dalton Ridenhour, Brandi Disterheft, Kevin Dorn.  You may purchase tickets (they’re quite inexpensive) here.  Details about the show here, and Molly’s Facebook page.

Purchase a digital download of the CD (with two hidden tracks) OR the physical disc itself (with twenty pages of liner notes and wonderful art / photographs) OR hear sound samples here.

Airborne, delightful swing.  Why not FLY AWAY?  Let’s.

May your happiness increase!

A DIME A THROW: HILARY GARDNER and EHUD ASHERIE HONOR RODGERS AND HART at MEZZROW (March 17, 2015)

In my recollection, organized oppression is rarely the subject of American popular song.  Of course, it is a deep subject in folk song, but in popular music I can think of only OL’  MAN RIVER, BLACK AND BLUE, and BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?  (STRANGE FRUIT is in its own class.)

Most of the songs beloved in the canon are personal and smaller in scale, depicting the joy of new love, the sorrows of love disintegrating, the emptiness when it has gone.

A deeply moving exception is the 1930 TEN CENTS A DANCE, by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers (I am reversing the order intentionally) — to me, is a poem about the debilitating and demeaning labor of lower-class women who cannot escape their fate in any dreamy romantic way.  Much of its intensity comes from the first-person narrative, unlike the later SHOE SHINE BOY, where the victim of economic circumstances is both optimistic and viewed tenderly by someone else.

Ten Cents A Dance

Hart’s gritty painful lyrics equal any poem about working in the sweatshops (think of “The Song of the Shirt”) or any anthropological study of human trafficking. And although the drama is intentionally narrow, with one exhausted woman telling us her story of grueling labor, dashed hopes, and no exit, it presents an excruciating to experience, Hart’s casual diction notwithstanding.

Heaven no longer cared to protect the working girl.

Here are the lyrics, taken from www.lorenzhart.com:

 

VERSE

I work at the Palace Ballroom,
but, gee that Palace is cheap;
when I get back to my chilly hall room
I’m much too tired to sleep.
I’m one of those lady teachers,
a beautiful hostess, you know,
the kind the Palace features
for only a dime a throw.

REFRAIN

Ten cents a dance
that’s what they pay me,
gosh, how they weigh me down!
Ten cents a dance
pansies and rough guys
tough guys who tear my gown!
Seven to midnight I hear drums.
Loudly the saxophone blows.
Trumpets are tearing my eardrums.
Customers crush my toes.
Sometime I think
I’ve found my hero,
but it’s a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.

PATTER

Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors
can pay for their ticket and rent me!
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbors
are sweethearts my good luck has send me.
Though I’ve a chorus of elderly beaux,
stockings are porous with holes at the toes.
I’m here till closing time.
Dance and be merry, it’s only a dime.

TAG

Sometime I think
I’ve found my hero,
but it’s a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.

That’s a fully articulated dramatic statement — a novella in three minutes, worthy of Stephen Crane. And Hart’s word choice is so telling — the “gee” and “gosh” suggest a certain sweet naivete that has not yet been crushed utterly. Was our imagined “lady teacher” a young woman who came from the Midwest to the big city in search of love?  Or fame?  The patter, as well — part of a theatrical presentation — contrasts the woes of the woman drained of energy with the mad rush of the city, the headlong press of men eager to get their dime’s worth of sensation from her.

(As an aside, I worry about those later cultural analysts who crow over “queer” as evidence of homosexual code-speak.  Perhaps it was, but the beautiful meshing of sounds in “hero” and “queer ro” would have delighted Hart as well as the half-hidden surprise, I would wager.)

I’m not the only person to be captivated by this song: it became the basis for a film in 1931, and Reginald Marsh painted his version of it in 1933 — although his imagining is much more lurid than the song, whose narrator sounds like someone who remembers what it was to be innocent and hopeful. Marsh’s hostesses suggest by their dress and posture that dancing is merely the surface of their real intent and profession:

Reginald Marsh 1933

The song itself has been memorably sung and recorded by Ruth Etting, later Doris Day, Ella, and many others.

But I think the performance I witnessed just a week ago at Mezzrow — by Hilary Gardner and Ehud Asherie — is the equal of any more famous rendition. Ehud suggests the bounce of a dance-band (with greater harmonic ingenuity and rhythmic variety than any 1930 outfit) and Hilary shows herself a great understated dramatic actress.  Hear her reading of the lines — so rich, so quiet, so varied and convincing.

I invite you to listen to this afresh.  To me this performance is a triumph of despair, quiet resignation, and deep lyricism. Great art can make pain beautiful but it never attempts to pretend the pain is not there.

For a more cheerful evocation of Rodgers and Hart by Hilary and Ehud, listen to this.

There will be more of Hilary and Ehud doing honor to Dick and Larry — something I delight in.

May your happiness increase!

WARM MUSIC FOR COLD TIMES: SVETLANA SHMULYIAN AND THE DELANCEY FIVE

Svetlana cover

I first heard the charming singer Svetlana Shmulyian in a secret East Village nightspot.  I liked her easy way with melodies and her comfortable interaction with the band.

But this new mini-CD (three songs, ten minutes) is an even more pleasurable experience — simply because the color and texture of her voice come through beautifully, as does the delightful music surrounding her.

Svetlana seems right at home with swing.  She rides the rhythm easily; she invents new little melodic twists and turns without trying too hard.  She sounds like a grown woman rather than a grown woman trying to be a little girl, and (no small thing) she has a pleasing voice, not thin or wandering around the pitch.

On this winter-themed CD — perfectly appropriate for a day like today when the temperature stayed at twenty-one degrees — she is accompanied by Jim Fryer, trumpet, trombone, euphonium; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Adrian Cunningham, vocal, clarinet, saxophone; Brandi Disterheft. string bass; Ted Gottsegen, guitar; Steve Little, drums.

At times I thought of a modern Fats Waller and his Rhythm (thanks to Dalton and Ted throughout), then of a hip Doris Day – Buddy Clark (BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE), then a streamlined Ellington-based dance number (IT DON’T MEAN A THING), or a nifty Forties approach on LET IT SNOW.  Some perfectly understated overdubbing — you wouldn’t notice it unless you looked at the personnel listings — is a special pleasure, because on one song we can hear Jim Fryer, trumpet, lead the way, while his benign twin Jim Fryer plays a splendid trombone part.

When the third track ended, I was sorry that the CD was only ten minutes long. That’s high praise in JAZZ LIVES’ country.

Here’s Svetlana’s Facebook page, and the band’s Facebook page, and here you can hear the EP (how old do you have to be to know what that acronym means?) and digitally download it for the swift painless price of $3 — or, for the budget-minded, a dollar a song.

My title is probably wrong: this is music for any of the twelve months, no matter what the temperature.

May your happiness increase.

FRANCESCA BIAGI: “FRANCES’ FOLLIES”

Signorina Biagi is a youthful Italian singer with a deep love for the film songs of the middle of the twentieth century — and her newest CD, FFANCES’ FOLLIES, pays tribute to that ebullient music.  Actress, student of theatre history, tap-dancer and fluegelhornist, Francesca has a deep involvement with the music of the Boswell Sisters (from 2003-7, she formed and led the Boop Sisters, a female vocal trio devoted to the music of Connee, Vet, and Martha (with an Italian accent, of course); she has also sung and played with the Bixilander Orchestra, a group whose musical world embraces both Bix and Basie.

Before we proceed, Francesca — a generous person! — would like to sing for you, and here are several songs related to FRANCES’ FOLLIES.

Each performance, in its own way, shows that she has made a careful study both of the songs and their iconic performances, and that she is a sweetly precise singer — mixing careful attention to the lyrics with a beautifully knowing awareness of the idiom from which they come.

FRANCES’ FOLLIES offers eleven songs — THREE LITTLE WORDS / TOP HAT, WHITE TIE, AND TAILS / SOME LIKE IT HOT / I’D RATHER BE BLUE OVER YOU / LET’S MAKE LOVE / GET HAPPY / NEVERTHELESS / MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY / BY MYSELF / SHAKIN’ THE BLUES AWAY — associated with Fred Astaire, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, Fanny Brice / Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and others.  Francesca generously does not take center stage, though: she gives a great deal of room to her very impressive jazz accompanists, Attilio Marzoli, tenor sax; Adriano Urso, piano; Guido Giacomini, bass; Ricardo Colasante, drums — with guest Lino Patruno playing guitar on two tracks.  Pianist Urso summons up Teddy Wilson at every turn; Marzoli evokes Harold Ashby and Bud Freeman, and the other gentlemen of the rhythm section swing in ensemble and solo.

Francesca’s Facebook page offers interviews and information about the CD and her engagements, and the FRANCES’ FOLLIES site (noted above) is just as much fun.

There’s nothing foolish about these FOLLIES: the CD is a sweet-natured, gently swinging tribute to great music that should never be forgotten.

May your happiness increase.

“THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL”: DAN BARRETT, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JOE COHN, JOEL FORBES at THE EAR INN (Sunday, September 30, 2012)

Wonderful!

This beautiful Irving Berlin love-ballad was first sung by Ethel Merman (and her male partner, Ray Middleton) in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1946) — and it has been treated lovingly by all manner of singers and instrumentalists — Sinatra and Ruby Braff, Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, Doris Day, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Scott . . .


But this song got a lovely, sweetly swinging performance last Sunday, September 30, at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York) because of those Masters of Wonder, Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Joe Cohn, guitar; Joel Forbes, string bass.

I think that “wonderful” used to mean worthy of our amazed admiration, full of wondrous things.  It seems an appropriate description for the music at The Ear Inn every Sunday night from 8 – 11 PM.

May your happiness increase.

SWINGING FOR JOHN PENDLETON: HAL SMITH’S INTERNATIONAL SEXTET at SACRAMENTO (May 27, 2011)

What better way to honor a beloved jazz friend, now gone, than with the music he loved so much?  And played so eloquently by the people he admired so deeply. 

The man: John Pendleton, whom you’ll hear spoken of in the videos that follow.

The musicians: Hal Smith’s International Sextet, recorded on May 27 at the 2011 Sacramento Jazz Jubilee.  That’s Hal (drums), Katie Cavera (guitar / vocals), Clint Baker (string bass / vocals), Anita Thomas (clarinet, alto, vocals), Kim Cusack (clarinet, tenor, vocals), Carl Sonny Leyland (piano, vocals).

“Music speaks louder than words,” Charlie Parker told condescending Earl Wilson in that famous film clip, and Bird was right, so I won’t elaborate the virtues of this rocking group at length: viewers can find their own pleasures for themselves. 

But I would point out that Hal, Katie, Sonny, and Clint make a peerless rhythm section, with their four sonorities weaving together, their pulses aligned without their individualities being flattened for some specious idea of the common good.  Hear the ripe-fruit sound of Katie’s guitar; the swish and flow of Hal’s cymbals, the deep commentaries of Clint’s bass, the down-home rock of Carl’s piano.  And the horns intertwine with each other and float over this sweet propulsion: Kim, bringing his own perspective to Bud Freeman, Eddie Miller, Joe Marsala, Pee Wee Russell, and Frank Chace; Anita, completely in control but entirely fearless, following her impulses in the best self-reliant way.  And the vocalizing is wonderful (jazz instrumentalists make the best singers!) neither slick nor amateurish.

Watch everyone on the stand smiling — always a guarantee of heartfelt music and deep gratifications being spread all around. 

Katie and Anita tell us all about the new dance craze that everyone’s doing — or should be doing — that’s TRUCKIN’:

RIDIN’ ON THE L&N celebrates a train that ran between Louisville and Nashville, according to Brother Hal, who knows these things:

John loved baseball and swing.  Hence this funny, surprising TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME:

A hot one!  RUNNIN’ WILD (hear Clint’s bass behind Kim):

SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY is such a simple song, but it works so well on our deepest impulses to go home, or some imagined version of it.  Katie and Anita remind us that Doris Day had a great hit with this song; the rest of the band says (implicitly), “Hey, remember the great Buck Clayton Jam Session?”  Works perfectly:

Here’s Carl’s version of the 1949 hit by Sticks McGhee (younger brother of Brownie), DRINKIN’ WINE (SPO-DEE-O-DEE).  Original lyrics — according to Nick Tosches and Wikipedia — reprinted below, definitely unvarnished and unsanitized.*

Katie is not salacious in person, but she loves songs about Twenties flirtation — perhaps she was a naughty flapper in a past life?  Here’s MA! (HE’S MAKING EYES AT ME):

I couldn’t abide THIS OLD HOUSE even when I owned one (no real-life workmen were ever such models of decorum and skill) but I love LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE, and it’s clear that Anita does too.  Music by J. Fred Coots, Danny’s uncle:

And a little Basie is always good for the soul, as Hal reminds us with JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE:

I never met John Pendleton, but he must have been what the Irish call a grand fellow to have these candid people so deeply devoted to him.  And to have such wonderful music played in his memory!

======================================================

*”Drinkin’ that mess is our delight, And when we get drunk, start fightin’ all night. Knockin’ out windows and learnin’ down doors, Drinkin’ half-gallons and callin’ for more. Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Pass that bottle to me!”

PAGES WORTH READING: JESS STACY’S STORIES

Jess Stacy

Because I’ve been reading about jazz for decades, I prefer books that offer first-hand information rather than pastiches of familiar quotations.  Reading a revered musician’s own words is a special pleasure.

A new book presenting the reminiscences of pianist Jess Stacy is a delight.

It’s called CHICAGO JAZZ AND THEN SOME: AS TOLD BE ONE OF THE ORIGINAL CHICAGOANS, JESS STACY.  The author is Jean Porter Dmytryk — who, with her husband Edward (the film director), had the good fortune to live next door to Jess and his wife Patricia from 1951.  The book was published in 2010 by Bear Manor Media, and you can find it through their site — http://www.bearmanormedia.com., or through Amazon.

It’s only 138 pages, but it contains more new information — and wonderful rare photographs — than many jazz books weighing three times as much.  Those who love cats will find especially endearing the photograph of the Stacys’ cat, Dollface, peering over the top of the music as Jess plays the piano at home.  Worth the price of admission.  And what comes through on every page is the affection Jess had for his neighbors and his pleasure in telling his stories.

The book takes Jess from his childhood in Cape Giardeau, Missouri, up to his 1974 triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival (I was there, and can testify that he played beautifully — solo and with Bud Freeman), and the back cover mentions that he celebrated his ninetieth birthday with the Dmytryks.

In between there are some stories we know well — Jess’s first meeting with Bix Beiderbecke and his sorrow at Bix’s death, his urging Benny Goodman to keep on going to California and the band’s triumph at the Palomar Ballroom, his eventual retirement from the music business and later return to New York.

But for every familiar story there are five brand-new ones.  Stacy was a keen observer of Chicago nightlife and of the gangsters he worked for: so there are sharply-realized, often surprising sketches of Al Capone, Machine Gun Jack McGurk, even of John Dillinger’s body in the morgue.  Decades after he had left Chicago, Jess would still call the intersection of Thirty-Fifth and Calumet “the center of the universe” and speak fondly of King Oliver, a young Louis Armstrong, of how George Wettling was punished by the gangsters for bad behavior.  And the stories aren’t all about jazz musicians: Sally Rand and Texas Guinan make appearances, as does a forgotten singer named Muriel Leigh who tried to pull a fast one, and two singers who would become deservedly famous — Frankie Laine and Doris Day.

Other personalities — occasionally helpful, more often frustrating — are seen at close range.  I speak of Benny Goodman (Stacy’s association with the King lasted a quarter-century but was often unhappy) and Lee Wiley (their brief but nearly toxic love affair, marriage, and musical partnership).  Those who rhapsodize over Wiley might find the pages where she appears startling, but the stories have the ring of truth.  But Jess is never mean, never vindictive.

Readers will be moved by Jess’s close friendship with Frank Teschemacher (who else could have told us what Stacy does?), his affection for Wingy Manone and Jack Teagarden, for Muggsy Spanier and Wettling, for Bessie Smith, Bunny Berigan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tommy Dorsey.

The story of Jess’s long-time romance with Patricia Peck (with enough twists and turns for a perfect 1946 movie) is a highlight of this book.  Unlike the stereotypical jazz musician, he recognized true love — and even though he almost lost it, it couldn’t be stifled.

Stacy seems a cheerful, down-to-earth person, someone we would have been honored to meet, someone who would have made us feel at home in a sentence: a man who can say that he had liked gin and tried pot, but that nothing beats a Hershey bar.

Two other biographies of Stacy have already been published, but even if you own the admirable books by Derek Coller and Keith Keller, make room on your shelf for this one.

P.S.  Perfectionists will see that Jean Porter Dmytryk is not a polished writer.  Jazz scholars will notice some inaccuracies.  But the pleasure of hearing Jess Stacy tell his own stories far outweighs any flaws in the book.

DAVE TOUGH / WOODY HERMAN on eBay

As of May 2, 2010, $250 or the best offer takes the set — a 1947 JATP program, plus autographs by Doris Day, Les Brown, Ted Nash, Charlie Spivak, Woody Herman, and Dave Tough . . . !

WHO ERASED MILDRED BAILEY?

I have been listening to Mildred Bailey’s singing since the early Seventies, when I found the three-record Columbia set devoted to her recordings from 1929-47.  And she never fails to move me — with her tenderness, her technique, her wit.  But Mildred has very few champions these days.  Even the late Whitney Balliett, whose taste and judgment were unparalleled, wrote that Mildred succeeded neither as a pop singer or a jazz one.  And if you were to ask the most well-informed listener who the greatest women jazz singers are, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would head the list (if not two dozen others ranging from Diana Krall to Shirley Horn to Ella Logan to Marion Harris) . . . but Mildred is forgotten, or all but forgotten.

Why?

It can’t be because of her race.  We finally have come to accept that White folks can swing, can’t we?

Some of her invisibility has to do with her elusiveness.  Billie and Ella have established, defined “personalities,” which ironically might have little relationship to what they sang.  “Billie Holiday” as an iconic figure equals self-destructive heroin addict, short-lived victim, a tortured figure, someone for whom MY MAN or DON’T EXPLAIN was painful autobiography.  Subject of a bad melodramatic movie; a ghost-written “autobiography” and several biographies as well as documentary films.  And the most accessible visual image of Billie is from the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ — careworn, rueful, lovely.  There is the engaging rasp of her voice in te Thirties, the moody cry and croak of her later recordings.

“Ella Fitzgerald” is sunny exuberance, scat-singing, someone making a jazzy version of the American songbook accessible to anyone in the Fifties who owned a record player.  A cheerful endurance, whether alongside Chick Webb, Louis, Basie, or Ellington.  Everyman and woman’s identifiable Jazz Singer, easy to understand. 

Today marketers call this “branding,” boiling down the unique self into a few immediately recognizable qualities — as if people were products to be put in the shopping cart in a hurry.   

Then there is the issue of size. 

In Charles Peterson’s 1939 photographs of Billie that I have posted recently, we see a seriously chubby young woman.  Ella was always a large woman, but no one said anything about it.  Some astute listeners did not worry about a woman singer’s weight.  Think of Wagnerian sopranos.  Think of Kate Smith.  Did anyone care that Connee Boswell could not get off the piano bench?  And men are forgiven a great deal.   

But in pop music, listeners tend to be much more fickle, visually oriented, even shallow.  It is difficult to escape Mildred Bailey’s appearance.  She was fat, and not “fat” in a jolly way — not the way that some Twenties blues singers could use to their advantage: Helen Humes or Edith Wilson singing about their weight as a sexual asset (Miss Wilson’s lyric: “Why should men approach with caution / For this extry-special portion?”).  Aside from laughing at herself during the January 1944 Metropolitan Opera House jam session — while singing “Pick me up / On your knee” in SQUEEZE ME, she and the band are chuckling at the difficulty of such a task — Mildred did not joke about her size, nor did she make it part of “an act.” 

Many listeners want their popular icons to be erotically desirable.  Sex sells; sex appeals.  Eventually, as they age,  singers pass an invisible boundary and become Venerable.  Think of all the cover pictures of singers, male and female, posed as if on magazine covers — Lee Wiley reclining on a couch on one of the Fifties RCA Victors; Julie London smoldering, her long red-blonde hair flowing.  Misses Krall and Tierney Sutton, today.  (I receive many new CDs by young women who consider themselves singers.  They look like models.  They credit a hair stylist, a wardrobe consultant, a make-up artist.  I think, “Can you sing?”)

Consider Mildred’s contemporaries: pretty, svelte, apparently youthful forever: Peggy Lee, Edythe Wright, Helen Ward, even Doris Day.  But Mildred’s photographs make her look matronly, and she is making no effort to woo the viewer. 

Let us even give audiences of the Thirties and Forties the benefit of the doubt.  If you did not live in a big American city, how many opportunities would you have to see Mildred Bailey and to judge her on the basis of her size rather than her art?  Possibly you saw her on the cover of a piece of sheet music or stared at the label of one of her Vocalion 78s, heard her on the radio.  No film footage exists of her.   

There is the nature of Mildred’s art.  Many artists have one approach, whether they are singing EMPTY BED BLUES of SILENT NIGHT.  If she was singing DOWNHEARTED BLUES, she was lowdown and melancholy (while swinging); LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN and GIVE ME TIME brought out different kinds of tenderness.  On CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU and ARTHUR MURRAY TAUGHT ME DANCING IN A HURRY, she was hilarious.  IT’S SO PEACEFUL IN THE COUNTRY was calm and pastoral, THANKS FOR THE MEMORY rueful, knowing.  And IN LOVE IN VAIN is, althought masterfully understated, a heartbreaking performance.  Versatility is bad for branding; it confuses the consumer.   

As a band singer — the first woman to be hired in that role — with Paul Whiteman and her husband Red Norvo, she recorded a good many songs that were forgettable: THREE LITTLE FISHIES, for one.  Perhaps the girlish quality of Mildred’s upper register may have disconcerted some listeners, who would prefer their jazz singers to be plaintive and husky.  But arguing over the definitions of a jazz singer and a pop singer seems a silly business.  Do you like what you hear?  

Although we can feel both fascinated and sympathetic while considering Billie’s difficult life, Ella’s poor childhood, Mildred would have had a hard time making diabetes and obesity intriguing to us. 

I also suspect that those who ignore her Mildred do so not because her voice displeases them, but because she subliminally represents OLD.  I don’t mean OLD in the sense of the past, but in the sense of elderly, of senior citizen.  What bad luck made Mildred identify herself “The Rockin’ Chair Lady?”  Of course, her performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR was superb; she took it as her theme song.  But — when we want our stars to be aerobically bouncy — for Mildred to portray herself as immobilized, unable to get out of her chair, was not a good way to market herself.  (And artists were products even in the Thirties.)     

Alas, poor Mildred.  Were she to apply for a job and be turned down because of her appearance, she could sue, win, and collect a substantial settlement.  But dead artists can’t sue an ignorant public for discrimination. 

Listen to her sing

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.