Tag Archives: Ella Fitzgerald

WELCOME, NICOLE HEITGER!

I had the pleasure of hearing Nicole Heitger for the first time at the 2013 Jazz at Chautauqua (now the Allegheny Jazz Festival: read more here) — and I was devastated, in a good way.  What a voice!  And her unaffected stage presence.  Marvelous.  Yes, she comes from a noble lineage: her father, clarinetist Ray Heitger, founded the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band; her brother, trumpeter / singer Duke Heitger, is well known to JAZZ LIVES.

The players here are Ray, Jon-Erik Kellso, James Dapogny, Kerry Lewis, and John Von Ohlen.  And I’ve intentionally left more than two minutes of preliminary chat and setting-up because I think it’s witty and sweetly candid:

TROUBLE IN MIND:

WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO:

I asked Nicole to tell us a little about herself:

My life is simple.

I started singing at 16 with the “Cake Walkin’ Jass Band” (my father’s band) and became a full time member around six years later. I sing with the “Easy Street Jazz Band” in Ann Arbor once a month and have recorded with them recently. This band includes Paul Klinger, Jim Dapogny, Paul Keller, Pete Siers, and more. I have also recorded with a local band “New Orleans Party Asylum” (NOPA) on 2 of their CD’s.  

Growing up with the music was fabulous.

The highlight of my early years was going to “Tony Packo’s Café” with my dad every weekend. This is where the CJB played for over 30 years. I listened to Bessie, Ma Rainey, and Billie in the beginning. As I got older, Ella Fitzgerald became one of my favorites.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and have been working at the East Toledo Family Center for 16 years now. I supervised several grant funded programs. I am married to Aaron Shetterly and we have two amazing children, Elijah and Ella.

I feel honored to have been in that room to hear and record Nicole, and to share her music with you on JAZZ LIVES.  She’s got it — the real thing.

May your happiness increase!

ANOTHER MINT JULEP, PLEASE!

mjjb-dosn-cd-cover

A new CD, DURHAM ON SATURDAY NIGHT, by the Mint Julep Jazz Band, featuring the excellent singer Laura Windley, is a honey.

The MJJB is a small hot group — well-versed in playing for dancers, so they set swinging tempos and stick to them.  Their ensemble work is beautifully precise without being stiff, and they really understand the subtle mysteries of swing rhythm.  And the solos are just fine: not only can these young folks energetically pretend that 1941 isn’t really gone, but they can launch their own inventive solos time after time.

One of their main inspirations is youthful Ella Fitzgerald and the small group out of Chick Webb’s band — The Savoy Eight — and they evoke that sound perfectly without turning out pale note-for-note copies of the records.  I heard evocations of Sandy Williams and Sidney Bechet, but also Al Grey and Howard McGhee.

The repertory also looks with affection at the Ellington small groups and Victor band, the Kirby Sextet, the Ink Spots, the Basie band of the same period (I really welcome hearing JIVE AT FIVE, and the MJJB swings it the best way.)

They also find rather obscure pop tunes — which work!: GET IT SOUTHERN STYLE, ONE GIRL AND TWO BOYS, and there’s a nifty original, MIAMI BOULEVARD.

The excellent young musicians on this disc are Lucian Cobb, trombone; Laura Windley, vocals and glockenspiel; Aaron Hill, alto saxophone / clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor saxophone / clarinet; Jared Worford, guitar; Jim Ketch, trumpet; Jason Foureman, string bass; Aaron Tucker, drums.  They aren’t restricted to the world of 1937, but there are no excursions into Sonny Rollins on a Swing chart, if you know what I mean.

Those boys rock,” the folks at the Savoy would have said.

Laura Windley is a special pleasure.  Many youthful singers in the “swing dance” scene have memorized the gestures of their idols — listening to the records so many times that they can mimic those Vocalions — and they, women and men, dress beautifully.  But as singers they lack their own personalities.  All gown, no voice.

Laura’s got her own sweet style with a serious rhythmic underpinning: if she were handed a song she’d never heard before, she could do it convincingly without echoing anyone else.  Her rich voice reminded me of young Ella — that hopeful, wistful, asking-for-love quality — but she can turn corners at a fast tempo, as she proves on the CD’s closer, the band’s romping version of Lil Armstrong’s HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT.

Here’s a small sample from a band-within-a-band:

Laura Windley (vocals), Lucian Cobb (trombone), Aaron Hill (tenor sax), Keenan McKenzie (sitting in on soprano sax), Aaron Tucker (drums), J.C. Martin (guitar), Peter Kimosh (bass).

What you will hear on the CD will convince you that — like Swing itself — the Mint Julep Jazz Band is here to stay.  And that is very reassuring news.

Visit them, hear more from their CD (it’s also available on iTunes and CD Baby), and follow them here.

May your happiness increase!

EARS TO HEAR WITH, EYES TO SEE WITH

The eyes, we are told, are the windows of the soul.  They protect us from falling downstairs, from the weaving car in the next lane; they help us pick out the Beloved in a crowd at the airport.  Surely they are precious and have enough to do.  So I propose we do not turn them into ears.

Here, to the right of Count Basie, is one of the finest singers of all time, practicing Mindful Eating:

countbasiejimmyrushing

In his prime, he was a mountainous man.  “Little Jimmy Rushing” was surely a self-mocking sobriquet; “Mister Five by Five” was more to the point. There is a Chuck Stewart photograph of him, in profile, that suggests a contemporary physician might calculate his body mass index and dub him “clinically obese.”

Oh, how he could sing!

Yet in this century, though, would Jimmy Rushing get a record contract?Would he be an opening act at a jazz festival?  My guess is that he would have a hard time, because audiences are fixated on what their eyes see than what their ears hear.

Look at the cover photograph of any CD featuring a singer or instrumentalist.  The star is beautifully arrayed, coiffed, resplendent in clothing (casual or formal) — an ensemble that was the result of serious planning.  The credits for such CDs thank hair stylists as well as arrangers.

We have been accustomed to the notion that Public People, to be Worthy, must appeal to our eyes.  I can’t trace the lineage of this, but at some point our notion that film stars were the ideal took over the world: so that politicians decked themselves out carefully — and musicians in the public eye were expected to do so as well.  For men, the beautiful suit, the jewelry, the costly watch; perhaps the personal trainer.  A hairpiece. (Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE is based on this as well as other painful delusions.)

For women, it was and is even more complicated, going beyond eliminating one’s graying hair and perhaps choosing cosmetic surgery.  I am not about to go on about the patriarchy with its male gazing, but for a woman instrumentalist or singer to appeal to the larger public, it seems that she must display and festoon herself as a sexually alluring product, accessible in some fantasy realm.

I thought we wanted to listen to players and singers, rather than to imagine what they would be like in bed.  Once again, I was naive.

I don’t recall who told the story — was it Charles Linton? — of bringing a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald to audition for Chick Webb in 1934.  We need not dwell on Webb’s physical appearance, hidden somewhat behind beautiful clothes.  But legend has it that Chick looked at Ella, neither svelte nor conventionally alluring and quickly said, “No.”  The Girl Singer had to be Glamorous.  The people who had heard Ella sing had to insist that Chick listen to her voice.  And then, happily, he was convinced.  But Ella was wildly popular with her hit record of A-TISKET, A TASKET — and it took approximately three years more for her to appear in a film, and if I recall correctly, it was a Western-musical from a second or third-tier studio, and she sang about her lost basket on a bus.  She wasn’t Pretty; she didn’t Count.

Imagine a world where Ella Fitzgerald and (let us say) Mildred Bailey or “Little Louis” couldn’t get a job because someone was convinced that they didn’t fit conventional notions of what was alluring.  Or they looked too old.

Youthful singers and players can swagger for a photo shoot: women can reflect Fifties ideals of cheesecake — be slim, show this or that body part to best advantage.  What of the artist, male or female, who has a beautiful series of recordings and performances . . . but is Getting Older?  A discerning audience came to see Mabel Mercer, Rosemary Clooney, Doc Cheatham, without the least thought of sex appeal — but do those audiences still exist?  There has always been a special niche for the Venerable (think Barbara Cook, Eubie Blake), or the Joyously Freakish (Fats Waller, Sophie Tucker, Mae West) — but so many fine artists are ignored in this vast desert between Young and Dewy and Better See Him / Her Now Because He / She Won’t Be Here Forever.

I have been to many concerts, clubs, festivals; I have watched many videos. Because of JAZZ LIVES, I am asked to approve of (and publicize) shiny, trim, nearly gorgeous men and women who present themselves as musicians.  When I begin to listen, I close my eyes.  It helps me actually hear the artist rather than concentrating on her shapeliness, her cuteness; to hear rather than watching the beautifully cultivated lock of hair falling over his forehead, his expensively tailored suit.  Listening and ogling might be simultaneous but they are not the same act.

I know this habit makes me seem even more of a distant and snobbish listener, when I say to someone rapturous over X, “You know, I agree with you that X is so perky / cute / handsome / charming, but I don’t think X is a great ______.”    And as an extension of this, when I say to other people, “Have you heard Y?” there is this politely glazed look on their faces, because Y hasn’t met their idea of what a Star should look like.  Y — oh my goodness! — looks like a Grownup rather than a Ripe Love Object.  Heavens.  Close the curtains right now.

Too bad.

The cover of a CD makes no sound.  Some of the finest musicians in the world don’t have as many gigs as they should because they don’t drape themselves as enticingly as lesser talents do.

Do we really, irrevocably love surfaces so much?

Now, I’m going to go back and listen some more to Jimmy Rushing.  I want to hear him sing, not get him on a scale.

Thanks to Bruno, Amy, and the Roo for various inspirations.

May your happiness increase!

CANTOR’S CELLULOID CAVALCADE IS COMING! (March 23, 2013 in San Francisco)

Mark Cantor, jazz film scholar, is one of those rare beings animated by knowledge and generosity in equal portions.  I’ve never met him in person, but I’ve been delighted by what he knows about jazz and popular musicians of the last century in their often uncredited film appearances . . . and by his willingness to share, not only data but the films themselves.  Evidence of the latter can be found right here on his YouTube channel.

On Saturday, March 23, 2013, at 8 PM, Mark will be offering another one of his famous jazz film programs — this one so rich with material it has a double title: STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY / SWING, SWING, SWING.  Mark’s films will concentrate on the great bands and singers who either performed at Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom or who should have: Louis, Ella, Chick, the Savoy Sultans, Erskine Hawkins, Basie, Duke, BG, Bob Chester, and some rarities that can’t be seen elsewhere.  The place is the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Kanbar Hall, 3200 California St., San Francisco, CA 94118 (415-292-1233).  For ticket information, click here or here.

The Beloved and I will be there, smiling at the screen and at Mark.  Come join us!

Just in case you’ve never heard of Mark, and wonder whether his collection is worth a trip from your apartment, I present here two of his (annotated) short films that I love.  Neither will be on the March 23 bill, which is all the more reason to share them here.

SONG SHOPPING (with Ethel Merman, Johnny Green, the bouncing ball and the usual absurdist / violent Max Fleischer cartoon antics — 1936:

THE CAPITOLIANS (directed by Walt Roesner, 1928) — a must-see for anyone who likes spectacle or hot jazz / dance music or both:

And here’s a happy review of Mark’s 2012 show.

May your happiness increase.

CONNIE, VET, AND MARTHA: SOUL SISTERS!

I’ve been thinking about Connie (or Connee) Boswell for the last few days.   This was one wonderful provocation, found on eBay.

I wasn’t around in the era when a pretty girl would come up to my / our table in a night club, take a flash picture of us, and return with copies — a great momento of an evening out.  But here’s a piece of paper that evokes that experience:

LOOK PLEASANT PLEASE! is always good advice, but this charming souvenir of days gone by has an even more important flip side:

Yes, Connie Bowell in 1942.  It would be impossible to look anything but pleasant if she were on the scene.

But my thoughts wandered to the larger question.  The Boswell Sisters were the most hip singing group on the planet — with deference to the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, the Andrews Sisters, and a long line of male and female singers, as inventive as they are.  But they aren’t as well-known as they should be.  In their time, they were admired and respected by the most innovative musicians in the business, including Bing Crosby and the Dorsey Brothers.  But the Sisters didn’t stay in the limelight for decades (they would have been astonishing on television every Sunday night).  Musically, they also present a paradox.  The casual listener, only mildly attentive, can say, “Oh, that’s another vocal group with a nice beat.”  But I think that the recordings and performances the Sisters left for us are so rich with information, with textures, that listeners find themselves overwhelmed: the music is too dense to be properly ingested as a pleasant background.

Consider this:

That performance swings as hard as anything recorded up to 1932: I would put it head-to-head with the Bennie Moten band or anything else you’d like to name.  Of course, the Sisters had several other things that made them less well-regarded than they might be.  They weren’t tragic; they were Caucasian; they were popular; they were women.

Connie Boswell went on to great success in the decades after the Sisters (Helvetia, “Vet,” and Martha) decided to retire from performing in 1936.  But she, too, suffered from the curse of being apparently stable and popular.  There was a more famous singer — her name was Ella Fitzgerald — who said she owed everything to Connee.  And Ella said it over and over to anyone who would listen.

Connie was one of the most soulful singers ever.  Her opening choruses are masterpieces of deep feeling and respect for the memory; her voice a thrill.  Her second choruses show what a superb improviser she was . . . straight from New Orleans but with her own deep swinging identity.

Consider this:

I don’t want to suggest that Connie, Vet, and Martha “suffered” — but I think in a society that didn’t insist its women singers be beddable, a world that didn’t see race or gender but just heard the music, they would be heroic figures today.  They had SOUL.

May your happiness increase.

DON’T MISS THIS: “THE SAVOY KING” COMES TO NEW YORK CITY

Good news!  THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA is coming to New York City . . . .

The Savoy King is an important contribution to our knowledge and our history.  I highly recommend that those who have the opportunity see this film.” – Harry Belafonte

“Vibrant and evocative – – I loved every minute of The Savoy King.” – film critic Leonard Maltin

With the voices of: Sunpie Barnes as Barney Bigard, Bill Cosby as Chick Webb, Billy Crystal as Mezz Mezzrow, Tyne Daly as Helen Oakley Dance, Keith David as Charles Buchanan, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, Danny Glover as Count Basie, Jeff Goldblum as Artie Shaw, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Dizzy Gillespie, John Legend as Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Perlman as Gene Krupa, Voza Rivers as Sandy Williams, Eugene Robinson as Teddy McRae, and Charlie Watts as Stanley Dance

THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA  will screen at THE 50TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL:

Saturday, Sept. 29 (noon), at The Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St.

Tuesday, Oct. 2 (3:30pm), at The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St.

September 13, 10am to noon, there is a press screening and Q&A at The Walter Reade Theater, with Director / Producer Jeff Kaufman, Executive Producer Voza Rivers (Chairman of The Harlem Arts Alliance), and NEA Jazz Master Roy Haynes

September 28, 8pm, a panel with a Swing Dance to follow, with The George Gee Swing Orchestra, and special guest vocalist Lainie Cooke.  The panel will be hosted by Judy Pritchett, and will include:  Dr. Richard Gale (son of Savoy Ballroom owner Moe Gale), Swing dance master Norma Miller, and Jeff Kaufman (director / producer of The Savoy King).  Location: Dance Manhattan, 39 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011.  (212) 807-0802

October 2, at noon: a panel at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of Harlem Arts Advocacy Week.  Hosted by Voza Rivers of the Harlem Arts Alliance / New Heritage Theatre Group; the panel will include: Dr. Richard Gale (son of Savoy Ballroom owner Moe Gale), Swing dance master Norma Miller, playwright / actress Gertrude Jeannette, drummer Roy Haynes, and Jeff Kaufman (Director / Producer of The Savoy King).  Location: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York NY 10037-1801

“We fought a war with music and dance, and that’s what opened the doors.”

– Norma Miller

inclusive pr | http://www.inclusivepr.com  |  323-460-4111.  Mickey Cottrell: mickey@inclusivepr.com  |  Jonah Blechman: jonah@inclusivepr.com

Note to JAZZ LIVES readers: this is not only a splendid film about Chick Webb and the music he created and helped make the American popular language — it is about that music’s power to create acceptance and break down barriers.  THE SAVOY KING is also a wonderful film — even if you have never heard or heard of Chick Webb, it has its own power to enchant without ever seeming didactic.  

I’d make it required viewing for anyone who thinks (s)he wants to make a film, because it’s so far beyond the usual parade of talking heads . . . . 

Don’t miss it!

Here is my review and a beautiful one, SWING SPIRITS HAUNT SEATTLE, by Candace Brown —           

May your happiness increase.

BOB WILLOUGHBY’S REMARKABLE PORTRAITS

Because they give themselves to what they are creating, jazz musicians make splendid photographic subjects.

Bob Willoughby, who died in 2009, wasn’t the first to capture their intensity, lack of self-consciousness, and energy on camera.  But his beautiful volume of photographs and recollections, JAZZ: BODY AND SOUL, shows on every page that his work is superbly moving.  (Evans Mitchell, 2012, 192 pages, hardbound.)

Since musicians — in the act of creation — aren’t standing still, some photographs begin to look like versions of poses we have already seen a thousand times before: the horn player, face distended, sweating, looking like a runner just before crossing the finish line; the intimate relationship between the singer and the vertical microphone; the drummer, moving so quickly that the sticks blur.  Other photographs entrance us because they are the only visual evidence we have that an otherwise obscure musician was ever seen.

Willoughby’s work goes well beyond these formulas, although some of his images have been reproduced so widely that they are now the way that we mentally identify the subject.  But even his most famous pictures have something to offer us, a half-century after they were created.

The book is divided into two sections: one of Wlloughby’s West Coast photographs from 1950 to — Billie Holiday, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Ventura, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Peggy Lee.  Particularly absorbing is a series of dramatic photographs catching the emotional interplay between saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and a crowd in hysterical rapture.  Willoughby photographed Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Buck Clayton, Martha Tilton and friends during the recording sessions for the soundtrack of THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY.  An extended photo-essay on Frank Sinatra tells us more than any biography.

The second section of the book offers photographs Willoughby created in Germany in 1992 and 1994 — fascinating portraits of Lee Konitz, Marcus Roberts, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, John Lewis, Mulligan much transformed by the years, and many others.

Having purchased many volumes of photographs of jazz musicians, I tend to look at the book with fascination immediately after their purchase . . . but not often after.  Willoughby’s book has proven itself an exception.  In tne month that I have had a copy, I have come back to it over and over, drawn by what his eye captured — tantalizing wordless dramas that open deeper each time I stare into the pages.

And the appeal of the book is wider than the allure of the musicians portrayed there.  Without being precious or coy, Willoughby created small paintings full of feeling, emotion coming through the lovely blacks, greys, and whites.  He was a master of seeing, of shaping line and angle, shape and focus.  I look at these portraits and I can feel Louis’ happiness, imagine the words passing between Bing and Frank on the set of CAN-CAN, hear Billie’s voice.  In addition, Willoughby’s photos are idiosyncratic master classes for photographers: what to emphasize, what to leave out. . . all the more remarkable because he captured his subjects in the moment.

Marc Myers, of JAZZ WAX, knew and spoke with Willoughby, and the essays Marc has created about the man and his work are rewarding (with photographs that will astonish): read more here and here.   The book’s website — with even more beautiful pictures — can be found here.  Willoughby’s photographs reward the eye.

May your happiness increase.

A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA”

We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school.  The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons.  Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.

Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary.  It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic.  It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.

Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love.  He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist.  Crippled from childhood — he would never grow much taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.

But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man.  It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician.  It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world.  That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.  This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission.  For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.

Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing?  I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love.  How may people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET?  We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.

And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music.  The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.

Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.

I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones.  Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone.  It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.

Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties.  For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions.  And many of the subjects friends and family are also gone.  Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film.  Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.

I don’t think so.  Here is a still from that film (with Chick’s dear friend John Trueheart on banjo and my hero Bennie Morton on trombone):

But back to Kaufman’s problem.  Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic /  charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis.  Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.

So Kaufman had to be ingenious.  And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.

The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera.  The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.

And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap.  Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots.  Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages.  Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?

THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it desrves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”

It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.

That’s the beautiful part.  Now here comes four bars of gritty reality.  In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now.  But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.

Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release.  All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference.  Here is the link.

Think of a world made better by swing.

See and support this film.

May your happiness increase.

“WELCOME TO NUTVILLE”: A BUDDY RICH DOCUMENTARY

The filmmaker Brian Morgan seems to me to be someone full of energy, creativity, and humor.  And he’s set out on a course of action that seems both logical and daring: to make an expansive documentary film that will do justice to the life and music of the remarkable jazz drummer Buddy Rich.  From every bit of evidence we have — the recordings, the interviews, the television and film appearances — Rich was not only a monumental musician but someone determined to go his own way in all things — thus a first-rate subject for a large study on both counts.  And since so many jazz legends have been documented many years after they are dead, timing is everything . . . while the people who knew and worked with Buddy are still on the planet.

Brian has one great advantage in that he has the enthusiastic commitment of Cathy Rich, Buddy’s daughter — someone blessed with some of her father’s determination.

Projects like this are no longer funded by major grants or huge Hollywood studios (we know that if one of the latter got hold of this idea, it wouldn’t resemble Buddy’s life or music at all when it was through) . . . so Brian and Cathy are asking for your help, your support, and your contribution.  Even if you can’t bankroll the project in some dramatic way, I urge you to watch the video here.  This site is accepting one-dollar donations, although I am sure they wouldn’t mind more sweeping largesse — and since just about everyone who ever sat down at a drum set since 1937 has in some way been conscious of Mr. Rich, I wish that all the drummers — professional, amateur, and people who tap on the table — would take this appeal seriously.

And as a reward for your patience and generosity, here is a seventeen-minute collection of excerpts from the 1950 film Norman Granz never saw to its completion, tentatively titled IMPROVISATION, which finds Buddy among Hank Jones, Ray Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bill Harris, Harry Edison, Flip Phillips, and Ella Fitzgerald . . . not only showing off the fast company who worked with and admired Buddy, but how wonderfully he fit into this varied presentation by musicians with very different styles:

May your happiness increase.

CHICK WEBB, “THE SAVOY KING”: SWING SPIRITS HAUNT SEATTLE

The fine writer and musician Candace Brown attended the premiere of the new feature film, THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA.  (You may know Candace through her perceptive, heartfelt blog, GOOD LIFE NORTHWEST — and if she’s new to you, you will want to make her acquaintance here.)

Here’s her review (interspersed with clips from THE SAVOY KING).  I can’t wait to see the film for myself!

Spirits haunt the Harvard Exit Theatre, some Seattleites say.  I do know that the spirit of Swing era drummer and band leader William Henry “Chick” Webb visited this 1925 building recently and played to a packed house.  While there for the Seattle International Film Festival (http://siff.net), I felt surrounded by his presence, his zest for life, and his passion for the music on which he left his mark, as I watched the world premiere of a film called “The Savoy King: Chick Webb and The Music That Changed America.”

The film’s writer, director and producer, Jeff Kaufman, described that music as “incredibly hot”during an interview on KUOW radio. “The music was made to light a fire inside of people and to charge a dance floor,” Kaufman remarked.  Chick Webb, as much as anyone, struck the match that lit that fire.  No wonder drummer Louie Bellson called him “the Louis Armstrong of drums.”

The film begins with the words “Giants come in all sizes.”  Chick Webb was indeed small.  He broke his back in a fall during childhood and never grew any taller, remaining under five feet. Compounding the crippling aftermath of his accident, he developed tuberculosis of the spine, which caused him to have a hunched back, limited use of his legs, and chronic pain.  Advised to take up drumming as a form of therapy, Webb found his life’s passion.  Then the world of Swing found him. Soon Louis Armstrong heard, and hired, the sensational young drummer, and they toured together with the musical HOT CHOCOLATES.

During a life that would last not much more than three decades, Webb came to be the father of modern jazz drumming.  He mentored Ella Fitzgerald.  He led the first black band to play in a number of white hotels, the first black band to host a national radio show.  He earned the title “King of the Savoy Ballroom” with his steady gig there leading the house band.

The story of this “King” and his ballroom go hand in hand and the film weaves the two together with a firm grip.  On opposing stages, bands battled in popular “cutting contests.” Webb’s band beat, among many others, those of Count Basie and Benny Goodman, defeated only by Duke Ellington.  And it was here that drummer Gene Krupa bowed to the “King” and told him, “I was never cut by a better man.”

The Savoy Ballroom, the first integrated music venue in America, opened in Harlem in 1926.  Reputed to be the world’s best, it attracted crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 dancers.  Kaufman recreates that scene through vintage film footage, computer wizardry, and quotes.  A Jewish man, Moe Gale, owned it and a black man, Charles Buchanan, ran it. Kaufman said, “It was sort of the Rosa Parks bus of music of the 1930s, and you can’t underestimate the impact that had.”  His amazement over how the Savoy brought people together helped drive the project.

Because so little footage of Webb exists, “The Savoy King” tells its story mostly through countless photos, filmed interviews, and old clips backed with narration, sometimes in the form of voice-overs by several of today’s celebrities reading quotes from Webb’s contemporaries.  Janet Jackson speaks the words of Ella Fitzgerald, Ron Perlman reads Gene Krupa, and Bill Cosby gives voice to Webb himself.  Kaufman included filmed interviews with several people who knew Webb personally, such as Louie Bellson, Lindy Hop dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, playwright and actress Gertrude Jeanette, and others.  Fitzgerald’s son, Ray Brown Jr., shares his mother’s memories of Webb.

Kaufman devoted months, sometimes years, to finding and connecting with his interviewees and he has my gratitude. Priceless film footage of Gale’s son, Dr. Richard Gale, recalling stories and describing the intensity of his father’s grief over Webb’s death, underscores one of the major points of this film, that whatever degree of racial equality we now have in America was hard won, and music played a part.  The blunt portrayal of racial prejudice, through eyewitness accounts, could shock even those who consider themselves aware.  But that prejudice ended at the edge of the dance floor, where all that mattered was the feeling of swing.

“The Savoy King” should go down on record as one of the most important films shown at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival because of its significance to not only music history, but American history.  It goes far beyond documenting the life of one musician—no matter how influential he was.  The film offers lessons and inspiration.  It shows how America has changed, how a person can overcome incredible hurdles to reach their dreams, how one person can make a difference.

In his radio interview, Kaufman described Chick Webb as “the first drummer to drum with emotion.”  Webb died 73 years ago, on June 16, 1939, but that emotion lives on.  I heard it in the music and in the voices of those who knew him, and I felt it when the film’s audience gave a standing ovation.  I hope the presence of Chick Webb’s spirit added to the vibe at the Harvard Exit.  Maybe late at night, when the lights go out, the ghosts dance the jitterbug.  And I hope that vibrant energy will reverberate in my own soul forever.

The film’s website can be found here.

May your happiness increase.

“AND MANY OTHER RHYTHM ARTISTS”

We could go to this concert . . . even though a decade later, having been there might lose us our jobs as dangerous subversives:

The fact that the poster was red, white, and blue wouldn’t convince the House Un-American Activities Committee for a moment.

Or we could visit Lady Day, Duke, Anita, and Big Sid in California:

But perhaps we should stay closer to home, and if we’re lucky, eventually Mezz will stop playing and let someone else solo.  Imagine Pete Seeger singing with James P. Johnson accompanying him:

I can think of no better way to spend New Year’s Eve.  Can you?

May your happiness increase.

WHAT COLOR IS THE MUSIC? WHAT ETHNICITY IS JAZZ?

This open letter from the young singer Julia Keefe is, I think, a very gracious way to discuss an uncomfortable subject.  Since Miss Keefe is not in any way polemical, I might take the opportunity for a few lines.  In the history of giving honors and recognition to jazz musicians and singers, there has been a fairly clear hierarchy.  African-American men got first preference (and under that rubric were included all players whose ethnicity looked in the least similar), then followed by Caucasian men.  A long pause ensued, then African-American woman, followed by a few women of other ethnicities.  This isn’t an attack on Jazz at Lincoln Center, Mr. Marsalis, or any of the other august players and critics connected with JALC . . . but a quick perusal of the evidence will, I think, prove my general contention here correct.

When I was on the hiring committee at my college, we were instructed and encouraged — in the name of fairness, diversity, and equity — to ask ourselves “Who’s missing?” when we considered our prospective candidates.  In this context, I believe that the answer to that question can properly begin with the name MILDRED BAILEY at the head of the list.  I know that the late Richard M. Sudhalter and Hoagy Carmichael would agree with me.

Here’s Miss Keefe’s letter:

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE NESHUI ERTEGUN JAZZ HALL OF FAME

March 19, 2012

Mr. Wynton Marsalis

c/o Selection Committee

Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center

33 West 60th Street, 11th Floor

New York, N.Y. 10023

Dear Mr. Marsalis and fellow Selection Committee Members:

My name is Julia Keefe, and I am a student at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL, studying vocal jazz performance. I am also a member of the Nez Perce Indian Tribe. Shortly after I first became interested in jazz over ten years ago, I began researching the life of Bing Crosby, who also attended my high school, Gonzaga Prep, in Spokane, WA. I was surprised and happy to learn that Bing Crosby gave credit for his early success to a Native American woman from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe named Mildred Rinker Bailey who had, like me, lived her formative childhood years on her Idaho tribal reservation before moving to Spokane and discovering jazz. I am writing to urge that Mildred Bailey be considered for induction into the Neshui Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame in recognition of her groundbreaking role in jazz history.

To say that Mildred Bailey inspired me in my chosen vocation as a jazz singer would be a great understatement. But I am not alone. Bing Crosby once said, “I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life. I learned a lot from her. She made records which are still vocal classics, and she taught me much about singing and interpreting popular songs.” And a sideman from her husband Red Norvo’s band, trumpeter Lyle “Rusty” Dedrick once wrote, “She had a magic. So many people down the line, so many singers, benefited from her, owe debts to her – and they don’t even know it. Mildred Bailey probably never made a bad record; she made many that were excellent, and quite a few considerably better, even, than that.”

As the very first female big band singer in America, Mildred was a role model and inspiration for contemporaries including Billie Holiday, Helen Ward and Ella Fitzgerald. She opened the door of opportunity for every female lead singer who followed the trail she blazed. Her singing style and phrasing caught the ear of aspiring young singers of that era including Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, and still, much later, Linda Ronstadt. She was respected and admired by performers including Frank Sinatra, the Dorsey brothers, Coleman Hawkins and Artie Shaw. A 1944 Time Magazine review of her show at the Café Society in New York called Mildred, “just about the greatest songbird in the U.S.”

Recognition of Mildred Bailey in the Jazz Hall of Fame would, I believe, open a door to a largely neglected and ignored chapter in the history of this All-American art form known as jazz: the involvement of First Americans. When I was living on my own reservation in Kamiah, ID, I came across old photographs of tribal members in small ensembles and quartets, playing jazz. One group, the Lollipop Six, was made up of young Nez Perce men who had learned to play their instruments while attending Indian boarding schools in the early 20th century. I can still recall how proud Lionel Hampton was when he visited our reservation to be honored while attending the international jazz festival at the University of Idaho that still bears his name.

On too many reservations in modern America there are not enough inspirational stories of successful native women who rose above the challenges they faced and helped to change history. But Mildred Rinker Bailey, did just that. Though widely thought to have been a white singer, Mildred was, in fact, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Mildred once called traditional Indian singing, “a remarkable training and background” for a singer. “It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that make it squeak; it removes the bass boom from the contralto’s voice,” she said. “This Indian singing does this because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you’ve got to cover a lot of range.” Every Native American who has ever attended a tribal ceremony, whether a feast, a memorial, or a modern pow-wow, knows exactly what Mildred Bailey was talking about here. I believe that Mildred Bailey’s success as a jazz vocalist is grounded in her early vocal training and development from singing traditional tribal songs as a young girl on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.

I would deeply appreciate the chance to provide you and the other selection committee members, and your entire international voting panel, with a complete packet of information that I have collected while researching the remarkable career of the first female vocalist in America to sing with a big band. Recognizing Mildred Bailey’s pioneering, ground breaking accomplishment, would do honor to the Neshui Ertegun Hall of Fame, and provide Indian tribes from across this country a symbol of their own contribution to the rich cultural heritage of a uniquely American art form that I have come to love, thanks in large part to Mildred Bailey.

Respectfully,

Julia Keefe

Nez Perce Tribal member #4152

Frost School of Music, Class of 2012

www.whereismildred.com

www.juliakeefe.com

May your happiness increase.

“WHERE’S MILDRED?”

A very good question, and thanks to Julia Keefe for asking it, for making sure others hear it, and for keeping Mildred alive in her own singing!  Read all about it:

Idaho tribe touts ‘Mrs. Swing’s’ Indian heritage in bid for Lincoln Center recognition

By Associated Press, Updated: Thursday, March 15, 3:32 AM

 BOISE, Idaho — Mildred Rinker Bailey was known to fans as “Mrs. Swing,” whose slight, throaty voice won her acclaim as one of the great white jazz singers of the 1930s and 1940s.  

But the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe is now hoping to set the record straight once and for all: Bailey, who died impoverished in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1951, was an American Indian who spent her childhood on the reservation near DeSmet, Idaho.

This week, the tribe introduced a resolution honoring Bailey in the Idaho Legislature, in part to convince the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame in New York City to add her to its inductees — on grounds she helped blaze a trail for better-known singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

“Mildred was a pioneer,” said Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Chief J. Allan. “She paved the way for many other female singers to follow.”

Though Bailey’s Coeur d’Alene ties may not have been common knowledge among her fans, it clearly wasn’t a secret.

“Part Indian, she was born Mildred Rinker on a farm near Spokane,” reads her Associated Press obituary, dated Dec. 13, 1951.

Still, in jazz history books, Bailey has gone down largely as a white female jazz stylist.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz hails her as “the first white singer to absorb and master the jazz-flavored phrasing…of her black contemporaries.”

Howard Koslow, the illustrator who created Bailey’s likeness on a 29-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp based on an image by iconic jazz photographer William Gottlieb, said he had only that brief New Grove entry as a reference.

But his depiction of Bailey’s dark complexion and black hair, for the stamp issued in a series honoring jazz and blues musicians, appears to capture her complex heritage.

“She has that look about her,” Koslow recalled Tuesday in an interview from his Toms River, N.J., home.

Bailey was born Feb. 16, 1900, in the Washington farming town of Tekoa, near the Idaho border.

Her mother was a Coeur d’Alene tribal member, her father of Swiss-Irish stock.

At 13, she moved from the reservation to Spokane, where a neighbor destined to become world famous as “Bing” Crosby joined Bailey and her brother, Al Rinker, at the family’s piano. Al Rinker and Crosby formed the group “The Rhythm Boys.”

By the mid-1920s, all three were singing in California; in 1929, Crosby recommended to famous orchestra leader Paul Whiteman he add Bailey as a regular.

“I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life,” Crosby wrote in his 1953 autobiography. “I learned a lot from her.”

So has Julia Keefe, a 22-year-old jazz singer from Spokane.

Keefe, a member of Idaho’s Nez Perce Indian Tribe, discovered Bailey as a student at Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep, while researching Crosby’s own time at the Catholic high school.

“It took off like a flash flood,” remembers Keefe, now a performance major at the University of Miami with Bailey’s photograph hanging on her Florida apartment wall.

In 2009, Keefe performed a musical tribute featuring Bailey’s songs, including “Old Rockin’ Chair” and “He’s Not Worth Your Tears,” at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

A year later, Keefe was touring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame, pondering the greats on its 18-foot video wall when she asked herself, “Where’s Mildred?”

Thus began her quiet effort to elevate Bailey’s profile in the modern jazz world, a push the Idaho Legislature hopes to assist.

“It’s sad to think she died penniless, or nearly penniless, after all the things that she accomplished,” said Rep. Bob Nonini, a sponsor of resolution. “But it’s never too late to recognize somebody.”

Lincoln Center officials didn’t immediately respond to an AP request for comment.

An important question remains: How important were Bailey’s Indian roots to her art?

An undated quotation, attributed to her by the U.S. Postal Service in 1994, hints at an answer.

“I don’t know whether this (Indian) music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable training and background,” Bailey reportedly said.

Bailey’s niece, Julia Rinker-Miller, a Los Angeles-based singer whose credits include the “Three’s Company” theme, was seven in 1951 when her aunt died in a Hudson Valley hospital, from complications of diabetes and obesity; Frank Sinatra reportedly helped pay her medical bills.

“Even though she was large, she was delicate, very exotic, sensual,” Rinker-Miller recalled during an interview Tuesday.

From her father, Rinker-Miller heard stories of how they were called “breeds” after moving from the Coeur d’Alene reservation to Spokane.

Consequently, he downplayed his own American Indian background, she said.

She figures Bailey was forced to do likewise during her career — possibly why she became known as a white artist.

“Mildred’s returning to her roots,” Rinker-Miller said, of the tribe’s effort to reclaim Bailey. “She’s going home.”

COMING SOON: A NEW ANTHONY BARNETT COLLECTION

What Anthony Barnett does, he does superbly. 

For some time now, he has been the finest scholar of jazz violin improvisation — with several books devoted to Eddie South and Stuff Smith, as well as the elusive pianist Henry Crowder. 

Anthony’s also created a series of extraordinary CD releases on his own label, which are devoted to lesser-known string wizards such as Ginger Smock and rarities we’ve heard about but now have the opportunities to hear for ourselves: Ray Nance and Ben Webster (the latter on clarinet as well as tenor) jamming in Ben’s hotel room in 1941 in lengthy performances with Jimmie Blanton and others!  A CD of 1937 broadcasts of Stuff Smith’s big band (drawing on the Chick Webb and Cab Calloway orchestras) featuring Miss Ella Fitzgerald; broadcast material bringing together small groups with Stuff, Al Casey, Teddy Wilson, Helen Ward, Ben Webster, Lionel Hampton . . . Stuff exploring the cosmos with pianist Robert Crum in Timme Rosenkrantz’s apartment . . . and more. 

The books and liner notes to the CDs are written with great attention to detail (always with surprising photographs) yet with great humor and warmth.  Both the text and the music are at the very peak. 

Anthony has announced his latest offering — not a full-fledged CD production, but something that has the mildly subversive charm of an under-the-table offering, with its own rules — a limited edition, for contributors only, available in March 2012 — with approximately fifty-five copies not yet spoken for.  Don’t be left out!

AB Fable XABCD1-X025 includes recordings from 1919 to 1957 (actually from 1957 back to 1919), almost all previously unreleased or rereleased for the first time, with Leon Abbey, Audrey Call, Kemper Harreld, Jascha Heifetz as José (or we might say Joké) de Sarasate, Angelina Rivera, Atwell Rose, Stuff Smith incl. Mildred Bailey Show rehearsal Humoresque, Ginger Smock with Monette Moore, Eddie South playing Paganini with Benny Goodman Sextet, Clarence Cameron White and a couple of surprises not previously announced.

This CD-R is in principle available free to the first 111 people who request it. Instead, however, you are asked kindly to make a contribution, if you can, in any amount you can afford, however small or large, to our costs and our work in general. As we have written before, this work, its research, acquisition and releases, over the years has been substantially financially loss making, though rewarding in almost all other ways. Anything you can help us recoup will assist what we may be able to do in the future.

Contributions may be made to PayPal (using this email address as ID) in US dollars, euros or sterling, or by sterling cheque payable to Anthony Barnett. Direct transfer is also possible to our sterling or euro accounts (please ask for details).

Anthony has many more strings to his bow (as the saying goes) and other magical music he would like to share, so consider the rewards now and in the future.  If we don’t support the enterprises we love, they go away. 

You can reach him at these addresses . . .

Anthony Barnett
14 Mount Street, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1HL England
Tel/Fax: 01273 479393 / International: +44 1273 479393
Mobile: 07816 788442 / International: +44 7816 788442
ab@abar.net   |   skype: abfable

Allardyce, Barnett, Publishers / AB Fable Music
Home and music catalogue: http://www.abar.net

US music distributor: http://www.cadencebuilding.com
US ABCD catalogue direct: http://tinyurl.com/9vbwsp

SO LITTLE TIME (A Shopping Pilgrimage to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Corona, New York)

I was very excited to read all the good press surrounding yesterday’s blogpost by Elvis Costello where he urged his fans to buy the ten-CD Louis Armstrong box set, SATCHMO: AMBASSADOR OF JAZZ, instead of his own (overpriced) one.

Hooray for Mister Costello’s candor and love!

But I didn’t own a copy of SATCHMO.  And that bothered me.  I have some of the music on other sources, but I felt like a hypocrite.  How could I urge my readers to get to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, New York, if I wasn’t ready to go there myself, unsheath my trusty credit card, and walk out with a box for myself?

This afternoon I made a Jazz Pilgrimage to the LAHM, and I can report that the Universal Music box is sitting next to me (like a well-trained rectangular puppy) as I write this.  I feel richer rather than poorer.  That’s the good news.

The less-than-good news is that the LAHM is the only place you can buy the box — it was produced in the United Kingdom in limited quantities, and they bought the remaining stock from the distributor.  Today I found out that there are fewer than forty copies for sale.  And when they’re gone . . .

So don’t wait for January 2012 to lament that the boxes are no longer available (although I am sure someone is planning to buy a few to sell on eBay at inflated prices).  The LAHM opens at 10 AM!  Here’s the link to contact them:

http://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/visiting/overview.htm

Now, what’s in the nifty box seen above?  The first seven discs are a comprehensive survey of Louis’s recorded career, from the Creole Jazz Band’s 1923 JUST GONE to two tracks recorded at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival.  Then, there’s a seventy-five minute segment from Louis talking with friends Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley in 1965, with some assistance from Papa Slivovice.  And — courtesy of our very own Ricky Riccardi, there are two discs of material — unissued and alternate takes — no one’s ever heard before, including scorching material from a Hollywood Bowl concert that concludes with a version of WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN that has the All-Stars joined by the Norman Granz JATP troupe; much new material with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson . . . and on.  I have attached Ricky’s marathon blogpost about the set — complete with track listings and explanations — for your dining and dancing pleasure:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2011/07/satchmo-louis-armstrong-ambassador-of.html

And if you can’t get to Corona, can’t afford the set, but love Louis, call the LAHM anyway.  They are wonderful people down there, full of ideas on how to make the legacy of Louis continue in soaring shape.  (There’s the gala on December 6, and any monetary contribution would come in W.C. Handy.)

JAZZ WORTH READING: “NORMAN GRANZ: THE MAN WHO USED JAZZ FOR JUSTICE,” by TAD HERSHORN

Three singular personalities have been responsible for much of what we now take for granted in jazz in the last hundred years in recordings and public performance: John Hammond, George Wein, and Norman Granz.

Hammond wrote his own somewhat mythic autobiography and was the subject of a tepid posthumous biography.  Wein, the only member of the trio still with us, has an expansive autobiography.  Granz, who died in 2001, discouraged efforts to write his story until journalist and jazz scholar Tad Hershorn entered his life.  And Hershorn’s biography of Granz is a substantial accomplishment.

A book on Granz as record producer (for fifty years) would have been intriguing in itself, for even though Granz alternated between being controlling and negligent, he recorded Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Holiday, Young, Webster, Tatum, Parker, Gillespie, O’Day, Getz, Hampton, Wilson, Konitz, Hawkins, Eldridge, Rich, Peterson, Ellington, Basie . . . The sessions are uneven, but the energy animating them is undeniable, and the successes are memorable.  Imagine a jazz cosmos without JATP, Norgran, Clef, Verve, Pablo.

Another book might have chronicled Granz the concert promoter — the inventor of Jazz at the Philharmonic, the model for many concerts to come after its inception in the early Forties.  (Who else would have Louis, Ella, and Tatum on the same bill?)

And there might have been another book concerning Granz as friend-of and sometimes enemy-of: his relations with Picasso, with Sinatra, Ellington, Peterson, Fitzgerald, among others, are intriguing windows into his character and theirs, providing both inspiring and acrimonious anecdotes.

But the narrative Hershorn chose to tie these stories together is Granz’s vehement, unwavering vision of jazz as a racially integrated music played in public for integrated audiences.  Younger (or more idealistic) readers may be startled by the historical information that emerges in the first fifteen years of Granz’s years as a concert promoter: yes, there were drinking fountains for “colored” and “white,” as well as restaurants that did not serve anyone appropriately light-skinned.  Granz, who often appears to be someone indifferent to social grace, an abrasive, self-righteous and self-absorbed figure, comes through as a heroic figure who made it possible for “mixed” audiences to sit together and to hear American music (a struggle, I must point out, that he didn’t originate — although he continued it valiantly).

Hershorn’s book is the result of fifteen years of work on the subject, including a number of in-person interviews of an ailing (although still acerbic) Granz.  The book is thoroughly researched — some forty pages of footnotes, a chronology, an extensive bibliography, rare photographs.  The book has no competition, and he has spoken with people who knew Granz — from publicist Virginia Wicks to Peterson to Quincy Jones and Nat Hentoff — so this book has a freshness many other jazz biographies lack because the important sources are long dead.

But Granz — energetic, willful, moving quickly — is a difficult subject because he is always in motion.  Occasionally Hershorn’s chronological organization (with extended considerations of important musicians and friends) seems like an airport walkway, efficient but constraining.  At times the mere data seems overwhelming: during the JATP period, we learn about every concert tour — the players, itinerary, gross receipts.  A biographer should fall in love with the material, and is writing both for the contemporary audience and for future generations who may use the book as an invaluable research tool.  But some of this material might have profitably been placed in an appendix, unless it was needed for the dramatic arc of the story.

Granz’a extended career and long active life — I would not have wished it otherwise — also pose problems for a biographer properly intent on showing him an unacknowledged civil rights pioneer.  Once Granz can be sure that the local police won’t attempt to plant drugs on his musicians; once they can stay at the best hotels; once there is no restriction on who can sit where in the audience, much of the air goes out of the book.  Once the battle has been won, Granz can go on being a wealthy businessman, an art collector, friends with Picasso, playing tennis.  To be fair, this diminuendo is often the inevitable pattern of biographies: when the book is focused on its subject’s struggle towards a goal, what happens to the biography once that goal is achieved?

But overall the book is a fine one.  Hershorn has managed his relationship to his subject with great grace.  Some biographers loathe their subject and crow over errors of judgment,  meanness of spirit.  Others adore their subjects and make excuses for bad behavior.  Hershorn is careful, accurate, and fair, permitting us to applaud what Granz made possible even if we find the man unpleasant.  Hershorn is also a clear writer, although too fond of casual cliche — “the red carpet treatment,” “made no bones about it,” “wined and dined” — for me, but this will not bother others.  And in an era where large, detailed books are becoming more and more rare, to have published this one is a remarkable accomplishment.

If occasionally the reader tires of Granz, the book can be put aside for a day.  Or one might listen to a half-hour of Pres and Teddy, Ben Webster with strings, Billie Holiday with Jimmy Rowles, or one of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks.  For those masterpieces, one would forgive Granz anything.

SPREZZATURA in SWING: BECKY KILGORE and DUKE HEITGER as ELLA AND LOUIS (Jazz at Chautauqua 2011)

Sprezzatura was coined by Castiglione in THE BOOK OF THE COURTIER (a Renaissance how-to book for upwardly mobile professionals of the time).  It meant the ideal of making difficult things look easy, hiding your art behind a sweetly convincing nonchalance.  I think of Bing Crosby, pretending that he was just naturally singing, concealing just how much skill went into every note, and other masters.  Consider Eddie Condon, Sidney Catlett, Lee Wiley, Lester Young. 

Fortunately for us, the concept didn’t die out in the Renaissance, nor is it an abstraction known only to English majors.  The most gratifying musicians now playing and singing embody sprezzatura, even if they do not aspire to be successful courtiers. 

Here are Rebecca Kilgore and Raymond “Duke” Heitger, brought together last September at Jazz at Chautauqua for a playfully reverent tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. 

Becky and Duke don’t show off; they don’t “imitate” in some coarse, effortful way.  There’s no mugging, no virtuosic displays of scatting.  Rather, they subtly shine their own light through the music, lightly embodying all the virtues of Ella and Louis — their love, amusement, affection, and swing — while remaining themselves.

And John Sheridan (piano); Jon Burr (string bass); John Von Ohlen (drums) help Becky and Duke convey their swinging nonchalance to great effect.

Here’s Irving Berlin’s ISN’T IT A LOVELY DAY? — an easily answerable (rhetorical) question, when the song is performed with such gliding grace:

And one of the high points of Jazz at Chautauqua and perhaps (for me) of 2011 — the Kilgore / Heitger evocation of YOU WON’T BE SATISFIED . . . a performance that hides how thin the original song is behind their essential warmth:

I’m more than satisfied!

MEET CLAIRE DICKSON: “SCATTIN’ DOLL”

I had never heard of Claire Dickson, but she can sing.  She’s got IT, however you define that pronoun, proven throughout her new CD.

Claire has a bright, clear voice; her phrasing is simple but easy, flexible.  The improvisatory chances she takes work.  Her scatting doesn’t grate on the nerves, and although she has listened closely to Ella, she inhabits the great Fitzgerald mansion with ease, making it her own.

Claire doesn’t go for the dark depths of GLOOMY SUNDAY, so the world-weariness of BLACK COFFEE is slightly beyond her, but that only suggests a more sunny world-view.  I am suspicious of contemporary pop songs brought into a jazz context, but her PHANTOM DOLL is convincing throughout.  Her arching MY MAN’S GONE NOW, a song I would have thought too dark for her, is quite touching: rather than aiming for dark majesties, she sings with a clear, simple intensity.

Hear for yourself.  On Claire’s MySpace page, she swings through CONFIRMATION, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, IF I WERE A BELL, and MIDNIGHT SUN.

http://www.myspace.com/clairedickson

Now for the surprise: wanting to know more of Dickson, I went online and found that she had recorded these two sessions on SCATTIN’ DOLL when she was twelve and thirteen years old. There is no sense of a precocious moppet singing grownup songs here!  I think that she is a young woman with a startling talent.

Claire, performing a Ryles Jazz Club

ELLA AND LOUIS AND THE ART DIRECTOR

Let’s say you have sheet music (apparently from 1968) for a 1931 song — once recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, now brought back again (with odd chords) by Mama Cass.  But you run a small music publishing company, and a picture of Mama Cass costs too much, as does a portrait of Ella and Louis.

What to do?  Use your imagination.  Before there was computer-generated “clip art,” I think there were art directors with blunt-end scissors, clipping pictures and arranging them in ways that can only be described as “arresting.”  I know that this collage-portrait of Ella and Louis left me speechless . . . . see for yourself!

Anyone wish to analyze the semiotics of that shot, or perhaps the heuristics?

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.

“PORTRAIT OF A SONG OBSESSIVE”: REBECCA KILGORE by CHRISTOPHER LOUDON

Published in JAZZ TIMES, May 2011:

Rebecca Kilgore: Portrait of a Song Obsessive

Christopher Loudon gives an Overdue Ovation for Portland-based singer

By Christopher Loudon

Portland is renowned for a lot of things: curbside gourmet delicacies, concerted environmental concern, spectacular roses, great microbreweries. But it is only recently, since the advent of the superbly programmed Portland Jazz Festival in 2004, that the hipster mecca north of San Francisco has earned a wider reputation as a jazz hub. Actually, Portland’s jazz roots are quite deep, and among the strongest of those roots is vocalist and (occasional) guitarist Rebecca Kilgore.

 Confer with her collaborators and the compliments quickly begin flowing. “Becky is my favorite singer to play for,” says pianist Dave Frishberg, who first partnered with Kilgore on 1994’s Looking at You and has since become her most frequent musical confidant. “She is technically a marvelous singer,” he continues, “[and] always in shape. Her voice sounds great, and her delivery is flawless.” John Pizzarelli, a longtime fan and recent recording mate on several albums, including the new Lovefest at the PIZZArelli Party (Arbors), adds, “She just sings perfectly. She’s a dream of a studio singer. You just feel great when you’re in the room with her. You’re happy to be there, and you know it’s going to work.”

High praise, particularly for a performer so inherently shy she waited until age 30 before making her professional debut. Raised in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Kilgore’s first love was folk music. “When I was in high school,” she says, “I was into Joan Baez and Judy Collins and people like that. I got a guitar and strummed along. Then I discovered a disc jockey in the area who played classic jazz. I got acquainted with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day and just flipped. Those singers took me on a complete musical detour. They were my teachers, because I never had any formal training. I consider myself so fortunate to be a torchbearer for that style of singing.”

Toward the end of the 1970s, Kilgore relocated to Portland. Alone in a new town and eager to make friends, she regularly attended local music gigs. One night she caught a jazz act called Wholly Cats. “There was a gal in the group playing rhythm guitar and singing,” she recalls, “and that’s what I did in the privacy of my own home. We became fast friends, and when she decided to quit the group, she suggested I try out. I was aghast. I didn’t think I could sing professionally, but the idea got stuck in my head, and I got the job. It was a major turning point in my life. I loved being with musicians, loved learning new music all the time, and it was like a whole new family for me. There was no turning back after that.”

In 1982, Kilgore made her recording debut with Wholly Cats, then rapidly widened her horizons, working with drummer Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers and his Roadrunners, joining the Bob Wills-style Western swing outfit Ranch Dressing, performing with fiddle player Hollis Taylor and joining pianist John Sheridan’s Dream Band.

Another major turning point came in 1991, when Frishberg, having settled in Portland, began a two-night-per-week gig at the Heathman Hotel. He performed with the late cornet player Jim Goodwin for the first couple of months, and after Goodwin departed, the hotel said they’d prefer a singer in the band. Frishberg reached out to Kilgore, who at the time was holding down a secretarial day job at Reed College. When she got the call from Frishberg, she decided it was finally time to devote her full attention to music. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she laughs, “but it worked out. I think of my life as ‘before Dave’ and ‘after Dave.’ I am so grateful for everything I have learned from him. He is such a high quality musician and is very inspiring.”

During their five-year run at the Heathman, Kilgore got the chance to dig deep into the Great American Songbook. “Her repertoire is enormous,” says Frishberg. “The entire time we played the Heathman, she kept a log of all the songs we performed. After our final show, she handed me a printout of the entire log. We’d performed over 500 songs, and many of them we only did once. Every time I’d come to the gig, I knew she’d have something new. It was very stimulating.”

“I never like to do the tried and true,” says Kilgore. “My passion is discovering songs. When I uncover a song it is like falling in love, and I want to impart to the audience the fun and the beauty of finding it.” Nearly as ardent a musical archivist as Michael Feinstein, a professed Kilgore fan, she comes across vintage tunes in a variety of ways. “Some people send me CDs and say, ‘Here are some songs you might like.’ There was a gentleman from Savannah who was a Johnny Mercer expert, and he sent me an entire disc of Mercer obscurities. I’d never heard of any of them, and I know a lot of Mercer songs! And sometimes when I’m in a shopping mall, I’ll be listening to the Muzak and a song will pop up that I’d forgotten all about. The music just comes into my life. I seem to be a magnet for good songs.”

Nor is Kilgore opposed to newer material. “I don’t go out of my way to avoid contemporary songs,” she says. “I believe we’re in the middle of a resurgence of good songwriting, so I’m always on the lookout. My fishing lines aren’t always in the contemporary world, but I’m trying!”

As for her guitar work, though both Frishberg and Pizzarelli praise her playing, Kilgore considers herself “a pretty basic guitarist. I look at my guitar as a tool. That’s how I study music and learn songs. In my Western swing days, I used to play rhythm guitar, but these days I sing with such wonderful pianists that my guitar playing would be pretty gratuitous.”

In addition to Frishberg, Kilgore has forged long-term relationships with several artists, including guitarist/banjoist/vocalist Eddie Erickson, pianist Keith Ingham, saxophonist Harry Allen and the man she calls her “musical soulmate,” trombonist Dan Barrett. “Lester Young to Billie Holiday, that’s how I consider Dan and me,” she says. “He and I think alike, we hear the same lines and we love the same recordings, though what I know about old jazz is the tip of the iceberg compared to what he knows. He is a walking encyclopedia.”

It was Barrett, via Frishberg, who first introduced Kilgore to Arbors Records co-founder Mat Domber. “Dave tells the story,” says Kilgore, “that he and Dan were on tour. While traveling in the car together, Dave said, ‘I have this cassette of this singer,’ and Dan rolled his eyes and said, ‘Oh, no, not another vocalist!’”

Kilgore’s association with Arbors has continued apace since 1994, when she recorded I Saw Stars with a band featuring Frishberg and Bucky Pizzarelli. (Barrett wrote most of the arrangements.) “Rebecca is an outstanding talent,” says Domber. “And she is a very easy person to work with. She always comes prepared and knows her business. She has almost perfect pitch and a great sense of a lyric. In my opinion, she’s the best jazz singer around today.”

Also the most prolific. Since 1982, Kilgore has appeared, as leader or featured vocalist, on no fewer than 49 albums spanning 16 labels. “Sometimes I worry,” she confesses, “that the world is going to say, ‘Oh, another Kilgore CD, who cares?’” Still, in addition to Lovefest, she planned two more releases for 2011, both for Arbors. Available now is Live at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, a document of a program she performed last summer with the Harry Allen Quartet, “Lady Day and Prez: A Musical Tribute to Billie Holiday and Lester Young.” The show allowed Kilgore to further explore the Holiday-Young symbiosis, but in the company of Allen rather than Barrett. As New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden raved, “The show’s avoidance of slavish imitation made for the best kind of tribute: one that captured the streamlined ease of performances in which Holiday and Young carried on a spontaneous, private conversation.” And come fall there will be The Sound of Music, a continuation of the Broadway series that she, Allen and Erickson launched a few years ago with South Pacific and Guys and Dolls.

At 61, she has no intention to slow down. “The problem,” she gleefully insists, “is that there are so many great songs. My desk is an absolute mess because of a huge stack of sheet music. I’ll take one off the top and incorporate it into my repertoire and then add five more to the pile. My tombstone is going to read, ‘I can’t go yet—I haven’t learned all the songs!’”

Recommended Listening:

I Saw Stars (Arbors, 1995)

The Music of Jimmy Van Heusen (Jump, 2005)

Why Fight the Feeling? Songs by Frank Loesser (Arbors, 2008)

Sure Thing: Rebecca Kilgore Sings the Music of Jerome Kern (Audiophile, 2010)

Lovefest at the PIZZArelli Party (Arbors, 2011)

MARTY ELKINS SINGS! EHUD ASHERIE PLAYS! at SMALLS, March 29, 2011

The singer Marty Elkins is so good-natured that I know she won’t mind being compared to an imaginary restaurant.

That’s the way I can explain her most easily.  Wherever you live, there are hidden treasures: the little place without a sign that does wonderful authentic tamales, or the serene old-fashioned restaurant with wonderful food and loving service . . . places that aren’t “popular” or “trendy” but that you prize dearly.

Although Marty isn’t An Official Jazz Star, she is a treasure: someone who easily, lightly makes her way through a lyric without overacting — letting the meanings shine through.  She doesn’t aim to be Ella or Sarah, so her vocal style is heartfelt rather than histrionic.  Hearing her sing, you know what the lyrics mean, and you know that she knows.

And her voice is a simple pleasure in itself: she has some of Lady Day’s loving tartness, but she never descends to imitation or emotive caricature.  And she swings!

I had the pleasure of seeing (and recording) Marty and her pal, the ever-developing Ehud Asherie, on March 29 at Smalls.

(Just eight bars: let’s say a good word for Smalls!  (183 West 10th Street, Greenwich Village, New York City.)  Quiet, with the underground secret-cellar feeling of an old-time jazz club — a twenty-dollar admission fee lets you stay until the next morning; a well-stocked bar; portraits of Louis and James P. Johnson; a Maine Coon cat.  What more could we want?)

Hear how sweetly Marty glides through her lines and how tenderly, wittily Ehud adds his own thoughts.  (One of them that made me laugh was a famous Tatum riff from the 1944 Metropolitan Opera House jam session: listen and you’ll hear it, too.)  Listen to Ehud’s introductions: each is a satisfying meal in itself, and his left hand does what a pianist’s left hand should do.

They began with the nicest of commands — JUST SQUEEZE ME (BUT PLEASE DON’T TEASE ME):

And Marty knows a good deal about the subject and can sing with rueful amusement of what happens — COMES LOVE:

Another stop on the romantic Ellingtonian highway — DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME:

Then, a deep but swinging WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:

And, finally, a rocking LOVER, COME BACK TO ME:

I hope for many more opportunities to hear Ms. Elkins and Mr. Asherie — what a team!  (I wouldn’t mind a duo CD, either . . . .)