Tag Archives: Fine and Mellow

MISS IDA PROMISES SWING AND FEELING (Joe’s Pub, May 15, 2015)

Billie Holiday has been the victim of a good deal of dangerous adoration.  She was copied by other singers during her lifetime and it has only increased mightily since her death in 1959.  Emerson’s idea that “imitation is suicide” has never taken root with them.

So when a singer launches into FINE AND MELLOW, my usual reaction is to look for a hiding place, because in Billie’s case, what passes for homage is often toxic flattery.  Many of her admirers have often caught only the most superficial aspects of her style: the feline growl, the behind-the-beat phrasing that often sounds as if a battery needs charging.  Choosing the Doomed Heroin Madonna, they forget the joy she embodied.

But I am eagerly anticipating a performance of Billie’s music this coming Friday, May 15, 2015 — because I know the singer and the musicians are both respectful and true to their own essential selves.  The singer is Miss Ida Blue, someone I’ve come to admire and love for her heated work with the Yerba Buena Stompers, and a wonderful band of New Yorkers who know what swing is: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jay Rattman, Dan Block, reeds; Conal Fowkes, piano; John Gill, guitar; Brian Nalepka, string bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.  Billie and the Basie-ites, but here and now.  I can hear it now: a congenial group delivering their own thoughtful evocations of “such beautiful music.”

I suspect the theme for this evening will be less DON’T EXPLAIN and more GETTING SOME FUN OUT OF LIFE, and that suits me perfectly.

The show is at Joe’s Pub, and the doors open at 11 PM.  Details here.

And while you’re leisurely getting your way to Friday, let this ring in your ears:

May your happiness increase!

ENTERING BILLIE’S WORLD

This morning I gave a talk to a group sponsored by the Molloy (College) Institute for Lifelong Learning  at a church in Rockville Centre.

My subject? “Miss Billie Holiday,” as John Crosby respectfully calls her.

billie-1These talks let me stand up in front of a group of attentive, aware people and discuss something and someone I love.  (I came late to Billie — buying my first Holiday records in 1967 — but I fell hard.)

To be able to share Billie’s records of BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD or MISS BROWN TO YOU and see someone twenty feet away from me gently rocking with the beat is a pleasure.  And because the people who come to these talks aren’t taking required courses for a grade, the atmosphere is free from the emotions so often associated with academia — on either side of the desk.

STRANGE FRUIT casts its own spell as a unique piece of music, of political oratory, of theatre.  As does the Commodore I’LL BE SEEING YOU and (of course) the film clip of FINE AND MELLOW from “The Sound of Jazz,” which I can no longer watch without a lump in my throat.

But the chat afterwards is often even more rewarding.  And surprising.  Today, for instance, we drifted into a discussion of trained and untrained singing voices, diction, Kate Smith, honoring the song GOD BLESS AMERICA, high drape pants, the Rosenberg children, and more.

Best of all, to me, are the bits of anecdote that surface.  If you looked at this crowd, you might sniff dismissively, “Oh, senior citizens from the suburbs.  What would they bring to such an experience?”  But that assumption would be both unfair and wrong, as today’s experience proved.

A man told me about going to jazz clubs in the Village circa 1948 and sitting there forever for very little money, perhaps a quarter.

A woman off to one side picked up on something I had said about Benny Goodman and told me that her husband’s childhood friend was Jay Finegold, who had been Benny’s manager for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties.  I had spoken about Goodman’s focus on his playing — to such an extent that he seemed eccentric, oblivious, or even cruel — and she pointed out that BG came to Jay’s funeral, contradicting much of what I had thought of the King of Swing as a boss or employer.

A woman in the back of the room raised her hand politely and said, “I saw Billie Holiday in a bar on Post Avenue in Westbury.”  (An aside: Post Avenue does have two-way car traffic, but it is distinguished by a CVS, a supermarket, various ethnic eateries, donut shops, delis.  52nd Street isn’t and never was.)

I stopped cold and begged her to elaborate.  She said that this sighting took place around 1954, that Billie sang beautifully but was so stoned (drunk or high, I didn’t know) that she almost knocked the narrator over on the way to the ladies’ room.

A rather shy woman came up at the end and told me that she and her husband had met at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1941 or 1942.  They were high school students who came to dance to the jazz.  She remembered sharing a Tom Collins (they were underage but no one cared).  And she brought up sacred names: bassist Al Morgan, who gave her a brooch in the shape of a bass, and Zutty Singleton.  I beamed at her, awestruck.

On the surface, such talks seem to be one-sided.  I am The Expert; I offer information; my hearers might ask a question or two.  And sometimes that is what the interchange feels like.  But I go away from these experiences thinking that I have been well-taught by the people sitting in front of me.  And they have made me feel more than I ever expect.

My hearers have lived the experiences I am explaining in ways that are no longer possible.  So to talk with someone who saw Billie or Zutty is something extraordinary, not to be repeated as the years go on.  And I am allowed into the most affectionately cherished memories of my audience.  In me, a stranger with esoteric enthusiasms, they find someone eager to hear, someone who cares about a small piece of their past.  Perhaps they tell me something they haven’t told their children, who know so little of the music of fifty or sixty years ago.

The casual generosity of these people, offering irreplaceable stories, is a rare gift.

[The photographs at top and bottom — showing Billie looking healthy and cheerful — come from a German website, and I believe they were taken during her 1954 European tour.  Is the clarinetist a young Tony Scott?  I am sure that it is Red Norvo at the vibraharp, as he would have called it.)

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