Tag Archives: iPod

THOU HOLY ART

Food sustains us.  We can get excited by the first tomato of late summer or a slice of ripe peach. But imagine  a landscape where one could not escape it: the air scented everywhere with frying potatoes; fresh-baked bread; tomatoes, oregano, and garlic.  On every street corner, young people offering organic corn, salad greens, the best coffee and tea.  Free and magically non-caloric, no threat to the arteries or the blood sugar.

How soon would we run from the cornucopia, trying to reclaim the body’s peaceful state?

My dystopian parable is not subtle, nor are the ideas that follow new.  Substitute MUSIC for FOOD.

One hundred and more years ago, people sang or played instruments at home (parlor or porch) or in concerts and clubs.  Music was created rather than a product to be consumed.

Then, the phonograph in the late 1800s, the radio forty years later.  The transistor radio in the Fifties; the Walkman a few decades later, the iPod and smartphones.  Earbuds.  Muzak — piped-in anonymous music (in elevators, stores, restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals) is nearly ninety years old.

We love music.  But we might be in danger of choking on it. I don’t simply refer to the techno-pop that drives me out of an otherwise promising restaurant (I have been known to ask the waitperson to turn the music down and say, “The lower the music, the higher the tip”), but to the proliferation of sound.

I walk past students where I teach, waiting for a class to start or for one to end, the music audible from their earbuds.  If I am feeling kindly, paternalistic, or didactic, I may motion to the student (who reluctantly un-buds) to point to my hearing aids and say, “Loud music did this to me.  Do you want to walk around saying ‘Excuse me?’ to someone you love in ten years?”  At best, the response is a sheepish grin — an Old Stranger Telling Me What To Do — but rarely does the volume go down.

Because music is thrust on us without our consent, or it is purveyed for free, audiences rarely think to honor living performers with silence and attention. Trained by television in their living rooms, they chatter obliviously and glare at someone who asks them not to speak.

I am deeply connected to music.  It makes me feel glad to be alive; it makes me weep with joy.  But I don’t want to hear it — even the music I treasure — all the time, just as I would not want to be eating constantly.

What if we treated music as deep art, a holy phenomenon to be approached with love, awe, and reverence?  We wouldn’t put our earbuds in upon waking and fall asleep with them in at night.  We wouldn’t expect to eat in the thrum of an artificial let’s-have-a-party ruckus.

And we would take in what was offered to us with the deepest appreciation, rather than requiring that we be stuffed full of sounds at every waking moment.

Could this exalted state come to pass?  I dream of it, but I have my doubts.

May your happiness increase!

BETWEEN THE SHEETS (in Fayetteville, New York)

Some months back, my friend — jazz photographer John Herr — told me about an invaluable resource for people trying to track down sheet music. 

You remember sheet music, don’t you?

Sheet music (individual publications for specific songs, often with beautiful Art Deco cover illustrations and portraits of the artists — famous or obscure — who performed the songs) was once a predictable part of any even mildly musical household.  Before the iPod, when people relied on records and the radio for the hits of the day, they more than not played those hits on the piano, guitar, ukulele, or sang them together.  When the newest Astaire-Rogers film came out, or Bing Crosby sang something pretty on the radio, the sheet music was right there.

Those of us who love jazz and pop music are fascinated by these sheets, and readers have seen a good number of them here: James P. Johnson, Fud Livingston, Ben Pollack, Louis, and many others.  But sheet music was inexpensive and printed on fragile paper, so the years have often not treated the pages well. 

So if you have a deep need to find the sheet music (words, music for verse and chorus, ukulele chords) for NEVER SWAT A FLY or IT LOOKS LIKE RAIN IN CHERRY BLOSSOM LANE or even I’VE GOT ELGIN MOVEMENTS IN MY HIPS (WITH A TWENTY-YEAR GUARANTEE), you could go on eBay and you might find the sheet music for sale; some is even available at Amazon.  But here’s a better way — intelligent, reliable, and inexpensive. 

It’s the MOTTO COLLECTION at the FAYETTEVILLE FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY in Fayetteville, New York.  But please don’t panic at the unfamiliar name.  You don’t have to find Fayetteville on the map to get ready to make an automobile pilgrimage.  It’s easier than that. 

But first: the collection contains 35,000 sheets of popular American songs from the last 150 years.  It also includes 900 music and reference books which circulate.  The sheet music presents a chronological picture of American life and popular culture from the Civil War through the 1980s.

The Collection was donated to the library by the late Lucy Motto in memory of her husband, Vincent, who died in 1995.  Vincent was an amateur collector who pursued his interest for thirty years (he had sung with bands in Utica and Syracuse).  Rod Hampson, a long-time community volunteer, became the collection’s first curator in 1996.  It is now taken care of by Roberta Hampson (who won’t mind overmuch if you call her “Bobbi”: she is very friendly) who knows a great deal — she is a wonderful resource in herself.

To reach Mrs. Hampson, you may call the library at 315-637-6374 or leave a message for her at extension 328.  Or you may email her at mottomusic@fayettevillefreelibrary.org.

The collection is meticulously indexed with extensive cross-references; if you are searching for a particular song, for a theme, for personal entertainment or scholarship on a larger scale.  It continues to grow through donations and subscriptions.  About those donations: if you can’t sleep at night because you need the music for IF YOU’RE A VIPER, check with Bobbi Hampson to see if the collection has it.  The library requests a donation of at least $3.00 for a song, plus postage if it’s mailed to you — a pittance compared to eBay. 

And soon you can be playing and singing MAKE MY COT WHERE THE COT-COT-COTTON GROWS at home.  Amaze your friends and delight your neighbors!

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! — THE FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND (ON DISC and VIDEO)

Imagine a jam session after hours in Chicago, circa 1934 or so (the date, being imagined, is flexible).  Waiting their turn to play are Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Omer Simeon, Boyce Brown, Guy Kelly, Jess Stacy, Earl Hines, Cassino Simpson, Frank Melrose, Joe Sullivan, Wellman Braud, Truck Parham, Zutty Singleton, George Wettling, and others.

No, the late John Steiner didn’t record such a gathering of saints and heroes. 

But a modern evocation of such a gathering is to be found when one of my new-irreplaceable-favorite jazz groups, the FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND, comes to play. 

They are Ray Skjelbred, leader, piano; Steve Wright, reeds, cornet; Dave Brown, string bass, Mike Daugherty, drums.  Everyone in the quartet has been known to sing a chorus or two.  It’s a thrifty, focused, engaging quartet — listeners get more than their money’s worth!

I’ve shared some YouTube videos of the band, performing at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle, Washington — and more are at the bottom of this blogpost. 

But there’s good news tonight, as a famous radio broadcaster used to say.  The First Thursday Jazz Band has just come out with their debut CD — drop evertyhing and pay attention, please! 

It’s an old-fashioned production: recorded on the job (but with a sweetly attentive audience) in good sound, with a variety of songs and approaches — one of those CDs you can listen to the whole way through and come back to again right away. 

If you know anything about Ray Skjelbred, you know that he rocks — and he loves both classic and unusual material.  And people who admire him can argue (in the nicest of ways) if he is a greater soloist than an accompanist.  Like Stacy, Ray is so fine backing up someone else that occasionally I want to listen to the track again just to hear his bubbling down-home fills and figures. 

Ray’s partner in the rhythm section is the quietly propulsive Dave Brown.  String bassists tend to get less respect than they deserve, but rhythm is Dave’s business.  And business sure is swell.  He has a big plush sound (no amps, thank you kindly) but he doesn’t need one.  And his time is neither stodgy nor over-eager: I think of the Blessed Walter Page when I hear Dave play.

Mike Daugherty (the man with the red drum) is a jovial player with fine time and a whole galaxy of sonic effects from his kit.  He doesn’t opt for the usual tricks, but often just stays on his snare with a rich, padding brush carpet, or moves around his set in a way that feels just right.  No showboating, no look-at-me, not ever.

Steve Wright should get triple or quadruple pay, but I don’t think he’d even entertain the notion of asking for it.  A sweet alto player (a style I miss a great deal) with deep but casual lyricism, a clarinet player who can be Russell-tart or Darnell Howard-smooth, and a neat, unflurried Bixian trumpeter — sweetly to the point.

That’s the band — and these fellows are having a good time purling through the repertoire.  Their quiet pleasure comes through from the first note.

The CD is called simple RAY SKJELBRED and the FIRST THURSDAY BAND, and it’s on the Orangapoid label (number 103).  It has a wonderfully diverse repertoire — Don Redman and Chris Smith, Louis and Red McKenzie, old favorites, oddities, and deep blues.  (JAMES ALLEY BLUES, sung guttily by Bob Jackson, is priceless — immediately identifiable as authentic.) 

The songs are YELLOW DOG BLUES / YEARNING AND BLUE / CAVERNISM / SOLID ROCK / TRY GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP / DON’T BLAME ME / LOVER COME BACK TO ME / FAR AWAY BLUES / NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU / SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY / LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART / HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY / JAMES ALLEY BLUES / CHERRY / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL. 

I wish I could send you to your local record shop and be assured that it would be there — several copies! — but I think those days are gone, gone, gone.  However.  Obviously if you meet Ray at a gig (or the other FT chaps) you can buy a copy for the pittance of $15.  But for most of us, the idea of meeting Ray or the FTJB in person has a certain dreamlike quality.  So for $18, Ray himself will mail you a copy.  He promises!  The details go like this.  Ray Skjelbred can be found at 19526 40th PL. NE., Lake Forest Park, Washington 98155.  If you need more information or want to make a quantity order of a hundred copies, feel free to let me know and I will tell Ray immediately.  Here’s what the cover looks like.

Now.  I promised some new YouTube clips (I regret that they aren’t mine, but they are still lovely) recorded at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant on June 2, 2011.

Let’s begin with a ruminative PENNIES FROM HEAVEN that has all sorts of bonuses — Ray plays the verse in fine Crosby fashion, and Steve solos on clarinet and cornet:

Something in memory of Frank Melrose and George Wettling (with Tesch and Bud in the dim background), the WAILING BLUES:

Want to be some place where they huggy and kissy nice?  How about NAGASAKI?

And two highly reason-able songs, with connections to Red McKenzie, Wingy Mannone, Jack Teagarden, Fats Waller — the first being NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU (vocalizing by Mike Daugherty):

And that eternal plaint, WHAT’S THE REASON (I’M NOT PLEASIN’ YOU)?

ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON might have been just another Thirties cowboy song if Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham hadn’t been handed it in the Vocalion studios.  “Take another one, Higgy!”  I think also of the version with vocal by Al Bowlly to which Bob Hoskins emoted in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.  Vocal by Mike, doubling by Steve:

And THE SONG IS ENDED:

But that last song title (with apologies to Mr. Berlin) isn’t accurate.  There are more videos from this evening on YouTube, and — that new CD! 

Be the first one in your neighborhood to be walking around with a wide grin — and when someone says, “Why the hell are YOU so happy?” you can say, “Have you heard the new CD by The First Thursday Jazz Band?”  And — if you’re a really charitable spreader-of-the-good-word, you can share your headphones / iPod, or even invite them into your car for a few minutes of The Real Thing.

SPINNING PLENITUDES

A few weeks ago, a young couple came to my apartment to buy a piece of furniture I’d hardly used.  (Now there’s more space for dancing.)  The young woman earnestly asked me about turntables — thinking of being able to play her mother’s beloved 1970 record collection.  I showed her both a modern one (and played her a track from a Marty Grosz Stomp Off record, which absolutely floored her with its bounce and warm sound).

Then I decided to become a true eccentric, a genuine suburban antiquarian and descended even deeper into history by playing her a 78 (Keynote, J.C. Heard, ALL MY LIFE) on another turntable.

I don’t think this was a transformational experience for her (and her boyfriend was pleasantly impassive through the whole thing) but it was clear she had never seen anything like it.

“How do you know where to put that thing [the stylus]?”  “What happens when it comes to the end?”  “Is that sound [the surface noise] part of the thing, the record?”  “Does that have only one song?”  And so on.

I don’t want to rehearse the discussion of iPod and MP3 downloads / compact discs / vinyl records / 78s / live performance — too many acres to plow! — but I did revert to my childhood in two sweetly nostalgic acts this morning.

One, I played a 78 record — LOW DOWN DIRTY SHAME / SOLITUDE (Vocalion 5531, rim chip, V) by Joe Sullivan and his Cafe Society Orchestra.  Lovely.  Two, I stared at the revolving disc and the diminishing circles described by the needle as the music came out of the speaker.

And I thought, not for the first time, of the beautiful paradoxes.

When the needle is lowered into the first groove, listeners enter into that musical world — new or familiar.  All experience lies before us, all possibility!  (Jack Purvis might explode in the last chorus.)  But we are always conscious of the finite limits of that world.  Listening to a live performance, we can tell when the band is near the end — although there always might be two more choruses!  A record, a disc lying on the platter, is visually bounded — its beginning and end marked out for us to see.

So as the needle follows its path, I feel the joy of hearing what’s there, perhaps the anticipatory sensation of “I can’t wait for the good part that I know is coming,” yet there’s the sad awareness of knowing the end is near.  Another sixteen bars, another thirty seconds, perhaps another two inches of black grooves.  “Oh, no, it’s going to be over!”

Everything comes to an end, we know.

But with records we have the wonderful opportunity to pick up the needle from its mindless elliptical orbits in the run-off groove and have the experience again.  Imagine being able to eat another meal in the same restaurant without monotony, without satiety.  It’s not the first kiss repeated, of course.  But second and third kisses are seriously pleasurable, too.

For those who cannot play a record today, I offer a video simulacrum — I think of it as a natural antidepressant, with no side effects:

MORE, OR LESS?

Meditations from mid-December 2010 (but they could be anytime in the last few years):

Both Oscar Wilde and Mae West, in very different contexts, had their personae utter the sentiment that too much was just enough — barely so.  I am musing on plenitude.  Plenitude and its discontents?  Or its contents?  

When I was a young record collector, with fewer records available to me and limited funds, I would sometimes imagine that one vision of jazz paradise would be having more music than I could possibly listen to.  Standing in front of the racks of records in a Greenwich Village shop, I would think covetously of having it all.

Now that my weekly allowance is larger and it seems that everything ever recorded is available for purchase, I haven’t turned demonically acquisitive.  I am pleased to report that when I visited two of those shops on a rainy afternoon ten days ago, I found one CD I really wanted to buy, bought it, and was delighted.  And I left the stores without any wistful backwards glances.  Better to have one CD I would listen to and prize than a half-dozen ones that I would not get through ever.    

But at home I am surrounded by music, and not just because I own an iPod.  I don’t just mean the CDs and records I’ve acquired over the decades, nor the ones that come through the mail (both solicited and not).  As I write this, I am trying not to consider the boxes of cassette tapes next to my desk, or the small hoard of vinyl records.   

What caused me even to think of writing this post was a moment this evening where I found myself downloading jazz videos I had taken onto YouTube (something that doesn’t require minute-by-minute supervision) on one computer while listening to a new CD that I wanted to review on my stereo system.  In another room, I was using my laptop to transfer music from one format to another. 

I wonder what a moralist would make of this scene — a somber illustration of “Be careful what you wish for,” or the epitome of delight?  (Of course, I would only consider with any seriousness the opinions of moralists who knew who Walter Page was.)

WHAT’S THE MAGIC WORD?

Before recordings and sound film changed the world, music didn’t travel well.  Myth says that you could hear Buddy Bolden’s horn miles away, but trumpet players know that is unlikely.  You certainly couldn’t have the complete Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress recordings on a little box in your shirt pocket. 

Recordings, then sound film, made it possible for music to be portable, reproduced, and represented far away in time and space from its origins.  Preservation is an extraordinary gift, letting us visit the dead and cherish them whenever we want.  When the Ellington band played RING DEM BELLS on a Victor record or in a 1930 film, thousands who would never see that band live could experience it. 

But “representation” is never flawless, because all individual perspectives are necessarily subjective.  A recording engineer or cameraman captures one version of what listeners experience.  Most recordings and films seem, at best, to compress the exuberance of the artists.  Jazz anecdotal history is full of the names of great performers who, we are told, never “came though whole” in the recording studio.  And films  — even contemporary performance films — have their own, sometimes intrusive, conventions that must be obeyed.     

Our texts for today are two representations of Bing Crosby singing PLEASE.  The music is by the sadly short-lived Ralph Rainger, the lyrics by Leo Robin, and Bing first performed in the 1932 film THE BIG BROADCAST, one of Paramount’s efforts to get all the musical stars it could assemble into one film, to lure people away from their radios and back into the movie theatres.  The plot of this film is exceedingly foolish, but it’s only an excuse for a now irreplaceable variety show.     Bing Please 2

And here’s the performance itself — all too brief:

I love the flimsy fictions that this clip requires a viewer to accept.  I think, just before it begins, Bing says to his pal, guitarist Eddie Lang, “Well, let’s run it through again,” suggesting that they are rehearsing a new number.  He holds the sheet music, but casually.  And Lang is not paying much attention to the music on top of the piano.  (He was a wonderfully subtle player, never equalled.)  Do you hear a piano?  Who’s playing it?  The invisible but entirely sympathetic pianist is Lennie Hayton, which suggests that Bing and Eddie were adeptly (and not in close-up) miming to an already-recorded track, which was common practice.

Because it is a rehearsal in someone’s home (is it Eddie’s?), Bing has his vest, suit jacket, and hat off.  Our eyes are drawn to his natty two-tone shoes as he keeps the beat.  Then, after the first sixteen bars, a delightfully fictive moment occurs when Bing grins like a boy who has gotten away with three cookies instead of two and tells Eddie, “Well, I think I know it.”  (The record of PLEASE was released to coincide with the movie’s premiere, so Bing’s fans in the audience might have already had the Brunswick record while onscreen their hero was pretending he was learning the song.  But in the darkness of the movie theatre, such facts might be brushed aside.) 

Confident now, Bing launches into his own version of romantic scat singing, flicking his eyes to the ceiling, and begins getting dressed.  

Frank Tuttle, the director of THE BIG BROADCAST, wrote in an unpublished memoir (which I found in Gary Giddins’s wonderful Crosby biography), “Bing didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. . . . [he] was extremely cooperative and his sense of comedy was first-rate from the opening shot.  His approach was casual and he liked to move around.  We worked out interesting pieces of business so that he wouldn’t have to just stand there and deliver a number.” 

Thus, the striptease in reverse — bolstering the illusion that Bing was only a regular fellow who just happens to burst into song with such art.  We know this isn’t true, but watching Bing sing while getting dressed is rather like watching him sing while changing a flat tire — a splendid feat.  I don’t know if it was intentional, for comedy, or not, but Bing has some small difficulty getting his other arm into his vest, and he goes through a good deal of straightening and smoothing — while singing — before beginning to button it.  Once the vest is on, he is clearly loosening up the rhythm, and gently swinging PLEASE, confidently and cheerfully, wooing the imaginary girl right out of her reluctance, and perhaps out of her vest.  What man ever buttoned his vest with such swing, using each button as a visual accent?  Bing emphasizes the beat, bobbing his head.  It’s comic but understated.  It’s jazz made visual.  

Next comes the jacket — and Bing has more trouble finding the armhole while he makes the dramatic musical transition from “a gloomy Romeo” to “Oh, please . . . ” most endearing.  In fact, his fumbling with his right arm behind his back seems to go on and on, although he is whistling prettily, unfazed by the burden of getting dressed.  Then, there’s no need to pretend that this has been a “rehearsal,” as Bing and Eddie perform the closing phrase together, and Bing, hat cocked jauntily, tells Eddie, “Well, I’ll see you tonight,” and Eddie answers, “OK.”  Hardly Lubitsch, but entrancing in its pretend-casualness. 

And he sings so beautifully to Lang’s fetching accompaniment, their work mixing romanticism and swing, the effect both earnest and funny.  I found myself listening to the clip for the music — both casual and deliciously light, then watching the two men act (Lang, serious, plays the musical sidekick, never taking the spotlight away from Bing).

Bing Please

Bing’s performance of the song in the film and on the hit record spurred Paramount to make a short film (rather like the Mack Sennett shorts Bing had starred in).  I found a copy of the poster on eBay, and a wonderful piece of Art Deco foolishness it is, with a pretty blonde’s disembodied head grinning from the C in CROSBY; Bing playing the guitar (which he couldn’t) wearing something like a bathrobe, the lower half of his body swallowed up by the background.

PLEASE stars Bing, Mary Kornman (who was “Mary” in OUR GANG silents and worked with Bing in other movies), with Vernon Dent (who worked with Sennett, Harry Langdon, and in numberless two-reel films with The Three Stooges) as her huffy, pudgy suitor.  Giddins writes that it was presumed lost until the 1990s and unearthed by film preservationist Bob DeFlores.

The plot is paper-thin: my summary comes from the Mary Kornman website (www.marykornman.com) which proves that everything is indeed online:

This movie, filmed on location at Yosemite National Park, was not discovered until 1960.  In it, Mary plays a voice teacher, Beth Sawyer, on whom Bing has set his affections.  Playing himself, Bing hides his identity as to finagle lessons out of Beth in order to get close to her. Mary then enters him in a singing contest only to find out Bing’s true identity.  Humiliated by this, Mary rejects Bing but is soon won over as he croons a chorus of “Please” through her parlor window.

Fictions abound here as well.  As the sequence begins, a beautifully dressed “Beth,” with matching hat, turns on her radio — and out comes the sound of a dance orchestra playing the song for which the movie is named.  Coincidentally, Bing, wearing a pristine straw boater and neat dark suit, lurks outside her house, dramatizing his exasperation by some gesturing with a small object he discards.  The camera cuts to a momentary shot of a huge man in soiled white painter’s overalls, momentarily transfixed by the music, who takes off his hat and puts it back on again.  Director Gillstrom had trained in silent films, for you can see the idea balloon form above Bing’s head, “Hey!  That’s my song!  I could sing it to her!  Through this open window!  Wow!  What an idea!  Gee!” 

“Beth” at first doesn’t even register that a man is nearly climbing through her open window, singing along with the radio (something that would make many women call 911).  It’s as if Mary Kornman has forgotten her cue, although she does remember to sulk while Bing sings.  He sings beautifully, but without Tuttle to remind him how to understate, his gestures are at war with the song’s wooing intimacy.  Using a clenched fist to signify “I could hold you tight in my arms” is unromantic, even though it is perhaps the only gesture possible for a man still holding his hat).  And Mary Kornman may have been a delectable little girl in silent comedies, but her acting is petulantly limited.  Bing emotes and “Beth” pouts, until his repetition of “Please!” win her over.  The lovers kiss, after a fashion; her dog turns its head away, and we are left hoping that they are going to be happy forevermore, even if she has to climb out of the window to be with Bing. 

But all this overacting doesn’t obscure the beauty of Bing’s voice, his phrasing, although I prefer the sound of the more casual version with Eddie Lang.     

Back to the song itself, one I’ve loved since adolescence.  When Bing was most popular as a romantic crooner, jazzmen, inspired by his recordings, took his repertoire for their own.  Think of I SURRENDER, DEAR and WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS!  Louis, Billie, and Hawkins (who memorably recorded I’VE GOT TO SING A TORCH SONG, WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE, and JUST ONE MORE CHANCE).  Later on, Ruby Braff continued the tradition, including PLEASE and a whole album devoted to Bing.  But no one except John Gill has taken up the song, a pity.  I asked my Expert, Jon-Erik Kellso, about it, and he told me the melody line wasn’t easy for musicians who didn’t know the song to pick up on the spot.  If any musicians are reading this blog, would you please consider playing this song?  I’ll put more money in the tip jar when I hear it, I promise.

However, while researching this post, I also found a bouncy version of the song by Ambrose and his Orchestra.  This performance, however, deflates my theory about the song’s qualities.  Did it need Bing, John Gill, and Ruby to let its light shine through?  What you’ll hear is a fine 1932 dance record, but the yearning quality so essential to PLEASE is obliterated at this tempo.         

These clips remind me of truths that should be self-evident.  The young Crosby wasn’t an infallible actor; he needed a fine director to make sure that naturalness or “naturalness” prevailed.  But how he could sing!  And how splendidly Eddie Lang could play!  And they live in these filmed moments.   

So if someone asks you, reprovingly, “WHAT’S the magic word?” (if anyone uses that phrase today), you must respond, “It’s Bing Crosby singing PLEASE, of course.” (Thanks to Peter Karl for that witticism, again.)

NICK HORNBY, RECORD STORES, and “POP MUSIC”

I visit www.jazz.com. with some regularity, and I’ve even had my own blogposts featured on it.  A good deal of what is posted there is not my thing, but some of the content is fascinating. 

Today I encountered there an article published in the Guardian by the popular British novelist Nick Hornby on the death of record stores.  That isn’t a particularly original observation: everyone who’s bought even one record during the last half-century could write similar articles about the phenomenon. 

Hornby proposes that new pop-music blogs that offer MP3 downloads are the new local record stores, and that the internet has become a global music market.  I can’t say much about the first proposition, because I don’t find twenty-second musical snippets valid enticements to purchase, but the second is surely true.

But this casual pronouncement made me sit up straight:

After my local CD shop closed down, I was getting ready for a musical life that turned in on itself, before dying slowly from malnutrition.  Any piece of music becomes drained of meaning and excitement if you listen too much to it, but a three-minute pop song isn’t going to last you a lifetime.  Popular music needs to keep flowing. If the fresh supplies stop, it’s you that becomes stagnant.

I am enthralled by this terminally short attention span: “Any piece of music becomes drained of meaning and excitement if you listen too much to it.”  This hunger for new sensations clearly isn’t just Hornby’s artistic immaturity; it defines contemporary culture’s glorification of disposable ersatz-Art, novels that exhaust their ingenuity before the reader is well into chapter two; music that bores the listener on the first hearing.  (It all sounds dismayingly like a dystopian restaurant where the food is stale as soon as it leaves the kitchen.)       

I don’t know: I’ve been listening to Lester Young and the 1938 Kansas City Six, to Louis and the Mills Brothers, to Billie Holiday and Count Basie, to the Blue Note Jazzmen . . . for almost forty years now.  And if I were to hear one of their recordings now — even though I could hum along with it, knew the solos and the accents by heart — that music wouldn’t be “drained” for me.  The next time Hornby comes to the US for a book tour, I hope he’ll accept my offer of music that doesn’t grow old.  I’d be glad to share some Teddy Bunn and Bessie Smith records: they should restore him!

The full text of Hornby’s piece can be read at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/sep/06/nick-hornby-mp3-record-shops

SHUFFLE ALONG!

Egged on by the inestimable Messrs. Riccardi and Hutchinson, I present my unexpurgated and hugely idiosyncratic list of the first 25 selections on my iPod, no cheating.  Readers of similar temperaments are encouraged to respond:

Perdido, Stuff Smith

Sleigh Ride, Mark Shane’s Xmas All-Stars

Good Little, Bad Little You, Cliff Edwards (Venuti and Lang)

Blame it On the Blues, Duke Heitger’s Big Four

It’s A Sin to Tell A Lie, Humphrey Lyttelton

Walk It To Me, Hot Lips Page

Gassin’ the Wig, Roy Porter

Under A Texas Moon, Seger Ellis

They Say, Echoes of Swing

Some Rainy Day, Hal Smith’s Roadrunners

Linden Blues, Rex Stewart

There’s Something In My Mind, Ruby Braff

Down By The Old Mill Stream, Benny Goodman

Sweet Sue, Jammin’ at Rudi’s (Rudi Blesh, 1951)

Take the “A” Train, Duke Ellington

My Blue Heaven, Eddie Condon (Town Hall)

Farewell Blues, Eddie Condon (Decca)

Stay On the Right Side of the Road, Bing Crosby

Oriental Man, Simon Stribling

All That Meat and No Potatoes, The Three Keys

Stompin’ at the Savoy – Fine and Dandy, Coleman Hawkins (1967 JATP with Teddy Wilson)

Corrine Corrina, Red Nichols

Fascinatin’ Rhythm, Cliff Edwards

St. Louis Bllues, The Boswell Sisters

I’ll See You In My Dreams, Jeff Healey

 

Perhaps not a scientific cross-section or a scholarly sample, but those tracks — in that idiosyncratic assortment — offer great happiness.  Anyone care to join in?

KING JOE / KING LEAR

King OliverMy iPod isn’t always a subject for philosophical contemplation.  More often it’s merely a calming talisman in my battle against airplane claustrophobia and tedium.  But recent experiences have made me think about it as more thought-provoking than a twentieth-century version of the transistor radio and cassette player of my past. 

It began when I unintentionally erased not only the contents of my iPod but also my iTunes library.  How that happened is not a subject for this blog, but I erased eight thousand tracks.  (Or, to use “the male passive,” I could write “eight thousand tracks had been erased,” but no matter.)  Preparing to go off on vacation far from my CD collection, I began to stuff compact discs into my iTunes library.  This, as readers will know, is a nuisance, and at times I wished for a youthful niece or nephew to whom I could say, “Want a hundred dollars?  Put each of the CDs in that bookcase into iTunes for me, will you?”  The computer did its job well, but it required me to check on it every six or seven minutes.  I began with the tail end of my collection — that’s Lester Young, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Ben Webster, Lee Wiley, and so on, and worked my way back to the Allens, Harry and Henry Red, in the space of ten days. 

And a King — Joe Oliver, pictured top left.   

This combination of obsessiveness and diligence resulted in an iPod with more than fifteen thousand tracks on it — the Hot Fives and Sevens, the Basie Deccas, the Lester Verves, the Billie Vocalions, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Fats Waller from 1922 to 1935, Mel Powell on Vanguard, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins . . . all I could desire, more than a hundred full days of music.

But I kept silently asking myself, “What do you need all this music for, knowing that you couldn’t listen to it all in the space of the next twelve months?”

King LearAnother King kept insisting that I pay attention to him.  He didn’t play cornet; he would have been out of place at the Lincoln Gardens.  I had taught a course in Shakepearian tragedy this summer, and ended it with KING LEAR — adding a few scenes from the 1982 Granada television presentation with Sir Laurence Olivier.  

Early in the play, when Lear still thinks he has imperial powers (even though he has renounced the throne), he bargains with his daughters about whose house he shall stay at first, casually letting them know that he will arrive with a hundred knights.  Although Goneril and Regan are cruelly inhuman, I always feel for them at this point, as they ask their father, with some irritable reasonableness, why he, no longer King, needs a retinue.  Lear responds:    

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.

In the most commonsensical way, I take these lines to suggest that the difference between a reasonably privileged person and a Maltese terrier is that the person, when the impulse strikes, can go to the kitchen cabinet and have another cookie or pretzel.  Choice is at work here, unlike the dog who has to wait for the owner to fill his bowl.  “Need” is constricting; luxury is the freedom to transcend mere needs.  Or, in other terms, to have merely “enough” — the spiritual equivalent of eight hundred calories a day — is emotionally insufficient.

I knew that I didn’t “have to have” Ella Fitzgerald singing MY MELANCHOLY BABY (Teddy Wilson, Frank Newton, Benny Morton, 1936) in the same way I need food and drink.  I could capably replay most of that performance in my mind.  But not having it accessible provokes feelings of inadequacy, of being separated from my music.  To some, this will seem like an exercise in superfluity: I know there are people in other countries who don’t have clean water, let alone alternate takes of the Albert Ammons Commodores, and I feel for them, but the sensation of having more music than I can possibly listen to is luxuriant bliss.  It means that if, upon awaking, I really NEED to hear Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman play SWEET SUE . . . there it is.

Which leads me to the most brilliant feature of the iPod — not the ability to reproduce album cover artwork (!) but the ability to shuffle songs.  I plugged it in here and started it up . . . so that Dizzy Gillespie followed Mamie Smith who followed the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings who followed Hawkins . . . . a floating Blindfold Test, full of surprises and gratifications.  And no worrying about the hundred knights drinking up all the milk in the refrigerator. 

iPod

Olivier and Oliver, in perfect harmony.

THE JAZZ IN UTAH

Hunting for something evocative on the FM radio in the car as we made our way through this beautiful state, I said wryly to the Beloved that it was ironic that the “Utah Jazz” was a famous sports team . . . but that so far I hadn’t heard any jazz in Utah except for those moments of Jack Purvis and Bobby Hackett I had provided myself through the iPod.

Serendipity was at work, though.  Tonight, in a Hampton Inn in Provo (very nice — although with the modern perversity of a wall-mounted television set in the bathroom, for the multi-taskers among us) I went in search of a cup of Earl Grey.  As I walked towards the lobby, I heard two distinct strains of sound.  One, rather harsh, I could identify as the huge flat-screen television in the “breakfast room.”  Predictable and reasonably easy to block out.  The other, sweeter strain, was familiar — and startling in its familiarity.  Had you been able to shadow me, you would have found me standing in the middle of a deserted hall of rooms, a hall of locked doors, with my face turned towards the little white plastic speaker in the ceiling.  Reverent.  Rapt.

What was I hearing?  Nothing less than Louis Armstrong, circa 1956, from the Decca MUSICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY, singing and playing GEORGIA ON MY MIND.   I stood there, surprised by joy (to recall C.S. Lewis) until the last high note died out.  Ashley, the young woman on duty at the desk, told me that corporate headquarters makes up a new “playlist,” hours long, and sends the Inn a new version regularly.  What forces were at work to get me in the hall at the moment Louis was singing and playing I cannot tell, but I’m grateful to what or whomever they might be.  “The road leads back to you,” indeed!

Louis Huff Post

JAZZ IN THE AIR

 plane-seats1Getting from New York to Maui (with a brief stopover in Los Angeles) is not all that arduous, and we are lucky to have such travel plans.  But time spent in an airplane seat tends to drag (the recycled air, the shrinking space one is allowed, the stranger who wants ever so eagerly to talk about life in the plaster business) so the iPod is more and more a blessing.  (With noise-cancelling earbuds, of course.)

Here’s my entirely self-referential list of what I was listening to on this most recent trip, in no order of preference:

John Gill, LEARN TO CROON (from his upcoming CD of the same name for Stomp Off, honoring Bing Crosby)

Jeff Healey / Dick Sudhalter / John R.T. Davies, A CUP OF COFFEE, A SANDWICH AND YOU (from”Among Friends”)

Louis Armstrong and assorted Hawaiians including Lionel Hampton, TO YOU, SWEETHEART, ALOHA, and ON A COCONUT ISLAND (good psychic warmups for the islands)

the Norman Payne tracks from the two-CD set, “The Influence of Bix Beiderbecke” on Jass Masters

Jon-Erik Kellso / Scott Robinson / Mark Shane, ISN’T THIS A LOVELY DAY, from Jon-Erik’s “Remembering Ruby,” on Gen-Erik Records

Connee Boswell / Bunny Berigan, IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE, and ME MINUS YOU (Mosaic)

Jack Teagarden, THANK YOUR FATHER, “1930 Studio Sessions,” (Jazz Oracle)

The Blue Note Jazzmen, EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY (both takes)

Ehud Asherie, A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID, from “Swing Set,” on Posi-Tone Records

the four new CDs Anthony Barnett has released on his AB Fable label — devoted to Eddie South and a variety of improvising violinists and hot string ensembles

Melissa Collard, WHEN SOMEBODY THINKS YOU’RE WONDERFUL, from “Old Fashioned Love,” Melismatic Records

Becky Kilgore / Dave Frishberg, SAY IT, from “Why Fight the Feeling?” on Arbors Records 

There was more music, but I’m trying to save something for the return trip.  I bought a car kit for the iPod and have (by mutual consent) been playing the early Thirties recordings of the Mills Brothers.  And marveling, of course — although the back seat of the tiny rental car sometimes starts to feel crowded, even with only one guitar.

I, PODIUS

I didn’t want an iPod.

There, I’ve said it.  It must have been my perverse snobbery, my badly-concealed elitism.  I made fun of the millions of people who had little white earbud phones in their ears and (for the most part) dreamy vapid expressions.  I’d see them on the subway, where the clamor coming through those earbuds was audible over the roar of the C train.  Did I fear that if I bought an iPod my musical tastes would become like theirs?  I don’t know.

I kept doing this even when Kevin Dorn, my spiritual guide in many things, said, mildly, that he had the 1940 Bud Freeman and his Famous Chicagoans session on his iPod and could thus listen to “Prince of Wails” whenever he liked.  Even that failed to move me.  Now I am not an unregenerate Luddite: I am addicted to email, and would rather hear 1929 Ellington on CD than on a V- Victor.  But still I resisted.

However, I can’t be separated from the music I love for any length of time.  I’ve brought compact discs to Ireland, to Germany, to Mexico, to Sicily.  Take me away from my jazz library and I start fidgeting because I can’t hear Teddy Bunn sing and play “Blues Without Words.”  So when the Beloved and I went away this summer, the physical manifestation of this urge was a heavy shopping bag of discs in the back of the car.  Did I play them all?  Of course not.  It was exceedingly comforting to know that they were there, but I knew that this was not a good solution to the anticipated deprivation.  (It was the aesthetic equivalent of having five dozen cans of black beans in the kitchen cabinets so that you will never run out.)

At some point, I began, reluctantly and grudgingly, to think about an iPod.  Even when the Beloved insisted on buying it for me as a premature-birthday present, I was still worried, even suspicious.  Part of the dread was, of course, provoked by the mythology that Apple and other firms have created, making a simple purchase seem unfathomable, mystical.  I stared at the online displays, feeling overwhelmed and ignorant.  Did I want a New Generation iPod, a Classic, a Nano?  Finally, I gave in and asked the people who know these things by heart — my sweet-natured students, for whom Technology is a first language.  To their credit, even if it seemed to them that Grandpa was asking about which skateboard to buy, they didn’t snicker but entered eagerly into the game of Teaching Their Professor.  Emboldened, I bought a black Classic and plunged headfirst into the world of iTunes, and syncing.

The result?  Had you seen me on the Long Island Rail Road last night, sleepy and disarranged, with a dreamy vapid look on my face, you might have noticed the white earbuds nearly falling out of my ears (they fit poorly).  But I was twenty feet underwater in my own version of bliss: Mildred Bailey singing “Little High Chairman,” a Buck Clayton Jam Session, Louis playing “Muggles.”  Is there a moral?  I doubt it.  But pick your own cliche: 1) You can teach an old dog new tricks, or 2) Better late than never, if late isn’t too late.