Tag Archives: Harold “Doc” West

IT’S SAD BUT TRUE: UNA MAE CARLISLE (1915-56)

If Una Mae Carlisle is known at all today, it is as a jazz footnote and “friend-of”: protege (perhaps mistress) of Fats Waller; singer on the lone and lovely record date that Lester Young’s band did in 1941; composer of WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER, someone recording with Danny Polo, John Kirby, Big Nick Nicholas, Buster Bailey, Ray Nance, Budd Johnson, Walter Thomas.  Sadly, her life was very short, made even shorter by illness.  I propose that she deserves admiration for her own art, not just for her associations with greater stars.

Una Mae had all the qualities that would have made her a success, and she did get some of the attention she deserved.  She had a big embracing voice; she could croon and swing; she was a splendid pianist — more than a Waller clone.

Here are two samples of her genial, casual art, in 1940 and 1941.  First, the song she composed (its title suggested by John Steinbeck).  The wonderful small group is Benny Carter, trumpet; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.  Una Mae plays piano. Were Ed Berger here with us, he could tell us how Benny came to be in that studio — perhaps a rehearsal for his own Bluebird big-band date a few days later:

Here is one side from the famous session with Lester Young, Shad Collins, Clyde Hart, John Collins, Nick Fenton, Harold “Doc” West in 1941:

I come from that generation of listeners who discovered the sides with Lester through a lp compendium called SWING! — on Victor, with notes by Dan Morgenstern.  I think I was not alone in listening around Una Mae, regarded at best as someone interfering with our ability to hear Lester, purring behind her.  But if we could have shaken ourselves out of our Prez-worship for three minutes, we would have found much pleasure in Una Mae’s singing for its own sake, not in comparison to Billie.  As I do now.

This small reconsideration of Carlisle’s talents springs from a nocturnal prowl through eBay, then on to YouTube, then Google, then here — a familiar path, although the stops are not always in that order.

First, an autographed postcard, 1940-2, when she was recording for Bluebird:

I then visited  YouTube to find — to my delight — two brief but very entertaining film clips (from the 1948 BOARDING HOUSE BLUES) where her magnetism comes through:

I savor her ebullience — while trying to ignore the thinness of the song (which, in fairness, might be more sophisticated than GOT A PENNY, BENNY, which Nat Cole was singing a few years earlier) — and her expert piano work, with its small homages to Fats and Tatum.

I write the next sentence with mixed emotions: it cannot have hurt her fame in this period that she was slender and light-skinned.  Had she lived, she might have achieved some of the acclaim given other singer-entertainers, although I wonder if her easy accessibility would have hampered her with the jazz purists of the Fifties, while making her a pop star of sorts.  Certainly her last recordings (1950) show her being targeted for a large popular audience, which is to say the songs are awful and beyond.

The other song from BOARDING HOUSE BLUES is equally thin, built on RHYTHM changes — but it is not the THROW IT OUT YOUR MIND that Louis and the All-Stars performed in WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (1965):

Looking for more information on Una Mae, I found that others had — admiringly and sadly — done deep research here and elsewhere.  Because the internet encourages such digressions, I now know more about mastoiditis than I would have otherwise.  It shortened her life.  The disease is now rare.

I present all this as a collage in tribute to someone who should not be forgotten.  And I think of Una Mae as one of the talented people who died just short of great fame.  I can imagine her, as I can imagine Hot Lips Page, on the television variety shows of my childhood, appearing in the nightclubs I was too young to go to.

Although the lyrics are those of a formulaic love song, the mood is apt for her epitaph.  May she live on in our hearts:

May your happiness increase!

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WOW! DECEMBER 29, 1940: LESTER YOUNG, SHAD COLLINS, J.C. HIGGINBOTHAM, SAMMY PRICE, HAROLD “DOC” WEST

Here’s the good news.  What many of us have only read about in discographies exists: discs preserving thirty minutes of a Village Vanguard jam session, overseen by Ralph Berton, then broadcasting jazz on the air on New York City’s municipal radio station, WNYC.

And thanks to the Library of Congress, National Public Radio, and the tireless Franz Hoffmann, we can hear two minutes and thirty-six seconds of a jump blues, caught in the middle of Lester’s solo.  The sound is good; the discs were well-preserved.

The less good news is that the NPR commentator (perhaps unconsciously modeling himself on Alistair Cooke) talks over the music at the start and it is such a brief excerpt.  But it gives one hope for more glorious jazz archaeology:

Thank you, Lester, Shad (trumpet); Higgy (trombone); Sammy Price (piano); Doc West (drums); Ralph Berton; anonymous WNYC engineer / recordist; the Library of Congress; National Public Radio; Franz Hoffmann.

May your happiness increase.

LESTER YOUNG’S MESSAGE: “BLITZKRIEG BABY”

This March 10, 1941 recording is not as well-known in the Lester Young canon as it should be.  Singer / pianist Una Mae Carlisle, a Fats Waller protege, landed a Bluebird Records date, possibly with the help of Fats.  Carlisle was an engaging, low-key singer.  How she and Lester Young’s short-lived little band came together in the studio has never been established, but it was fortunate for us and for posterity.

If you were a singer looking for the best band in that year, the choice would have been simple, given the perfect accompaniment and solos Lester had been playing with Billie Holiday for the previous four years.  The rest of the band — Shad Collins, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; John Collins, guitar; Nick Fenton, bass; Harold “Doc” West, drums — was also splendid, although to my ears they sound slightly hesitant, perhaps constrained by their roles in the recording studio.

The song (one of four) we are considering is unambitious, its lyrics odd: an attempt to blend current events — the German bombings — with a cautionary love song to an undefined lover.  Is the person being addressed an actual soldier or simply someone the singer wants to threaten by violence into good behavior?  The lyrics speak of bombing, a hand grenade, a parachute, propaganda, the infantry, a raid, dynamite; the only peaceful comment is about neutrality, which seems forlorn.  A perverse romantic utterance at best.

But the music shows once again how great jazz musicians and singers make the thinnest material imperishably beautiful.  The record begins with a thump leading us into an ensemble passage — a trumpet-tenor riff that would have been well-trodden by 1941.  (Quick, on which Louis recording did it first appear?) And the rhythm section, although everyone is pointed in the right direction, is more steadfast than airborne, heavier than the Basie ideal.  Carlisle’s cheerful, earnest-though-amused reading of the lyrics lightens the collective gravity, and Shad Collins’ muted arabesques behind her vocal don’t sound like anyone else’s — although muted trumpet behind a singer was also a familiar convention.  But aside from his brief appearance in harmony with Collins to start, Lester has been silent.

But he emerges into the sunlight in the second chorus, beginning with a simple ascending three-note phrase I associate with the exposition of a twelve-bar blues chorus, then after a brief pause for breath — and space — expanding that initial statement into a line that winds and climbs, not quickly or predictably, taking its time, the notes climbing a stairway that Lester is creating at the moment he ascends and descends, dipping down in the middle of the phrase before climbing easily again.  Visually, it might be a line drawn by William Steig.

So it might seem that Lester has offered us three improvisations on a simple climbing motif — not surprising, because many solos start low and climb for pure drama.  All this has happened in the space of fifteen seconds. Were we watching the original record move on, the stylus and tone arm tracing preordained paths through the grooves, it would seem as if a great distance had been traveled, the needle moving more quickly than the notes, bringing us that much closer to the end of the performance.

But Lester thought structurally: a sixteen-bar solo had its own logic, a balance apparent to the ear and would be visible in a transcription to someone who could only observe Up and Down, Long and Short.

A more conventional player would have repeated and varied the upwards motif (a trumpet player might have embellished the initial phrase until it would end on an impressive high note) — but Lester’s imagination was more spacious, and by 1941 he had heard thousands of formulaic solos next to him on bandstands across the country.

The second half of his too-brief solo begins from a height — although not “high” — that his first exploration has barely hinted at.  And Lester, having climbed his imaginary stairway, then proceeds to play on it as if he were a child rolling down those same stairs, one downwards-moving phrase tumbling after another, without haste or urgency, ending his solo with an echo (or a playful parody?) of the first upward phrase with which he began.

Lester’s solo is at most thirty seconds long. To ears accustomed to life after Bird, Trane, Ornette, Braxton, it seems simple, unadorned, even plain (leaving aside that dark creamy tone, the rubato hesitations and anticipations too subtle to notate).  But like a great Japanese brush painting, its magnificence is in the depths under its apparent ease.  Following Lester, pianist Clyde Hart, harmonically subtle and swinging, offers his own version of Basie-and-minimalist-stride that (one says ruefully) seems heavy in comparison with Lester’s ease.

When Una Mae Carlisle returns for her second exposition of the lyrics, the horns riff around and behind her: Shad Collins plays straight man to Lester, offering a simple phrase that Lester weaves around rather like ivy twining around a post.  I recall what Lester and Roy Eldridge create in the final minutes of Billie Holiday’s LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Shad and Lester offer a quiet miniature of the Basie band in performance, the saxophones explaining the truth to the trumpets or the reverse.  Lester seems to converse with his friend Shad while the rhythm and the bar lines move along beneath them, until the gentle festivities have to come to an ending.

Hear for yourself:

As always, Lester’s playing has so much to say to us, seventy and more years after he created it.  He speaks to us.  And although he seems like the least didactic of men, he has much to tell us by his example:

Use simple materials but treat them reverently.  No matter how few measures you have to say your piece, make it beautiful.  

Go your own way but don’t be bizarre for the sake of novelty.  Surprise us but don’t shock us. 

Honor the other members of the ensemble by making sure they sound good.  Give everyone a chance to shine. 

Take your time.  Breathe deeply.  Do nothing by rote.  Float on the rhythm.

Even if the lyrics speak of death and imminent destruction, don’t let anyone mess up your cool (to quote Vic Dickenson).

And — as a final sad irony — Lester could make beauty out of the impending blitzkrieg, but the Army didn’t see fit to extend him reciprocal courtesies.  But on March 10, 1941, he was on his own sweetly winding, hopeful path.  We can follow him always.