Tag Archives: Jack Kapp

GOLD IN THOSE GROOVES (Los Angeles, 1938)

Truman “Pinky” Tomlin, singer, composer, bandleader, film star

Everyone reading JAZZ LIVES could, with not much effort, compile a list of a dozen well-known and rewarding jazz recordings.  Your list might be entirely different, but I feel that we would recognize the names of most, if not all, of the entries. But what continues to delight me is the wonderful music to be found on recordings that don’t get any attention, those beneath the surface of the collective attention.

One such record is a recent purchase from eBay, and it’s repaid its original price (perhaps $2.99?) a dozen times over, even though its star, Oklahoma-born “Pinky” Tomlin, would not be at the top of many people’s lists.

The record isn’t listed in Tom Lord’s or Brian Rust’s discography, although the records Pinky made with (among others) Joe Sullivan and Joe Haymes are. Make of this what you will, but two sides made at the same session — SMILES and THE OLD OAKEN BUCKET — are listed (and thus certified as Official Jazz Records) although they are less memorable: I bought that disc also from eBay.

The orchestra is directed by Harry Sosnik, and features Pinky with Mannie Klein, trumpet; Andy Secrest, cornet; Abe Lincoln, trombone; Jack Mayhew, clarinet; Claude Kennedy, piano; Perry Botkin, guitar; Slim Jim Taft, string bass; Spike Jones, drums.  It was recorded in Los Angeles, April 23, 1938.

Those are illustrious names; some readers will notice that the band is close to the group that accompanied Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer on their version of the Gallagher-and-Shean vaudeville routine in July of that year: the evidence here. I suspect that more than a few worked in radio and were known as the best “studio” musicians on the West Coast.  The one unknown in this band, pianist Kennedy, I found out through reading Pinky’s autobiography, THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION (his best-known composition) was a friend and musical colleague of Pinky’s from Oklahoma.  (Just because you might be wondering, Truman Tomlin got his nickname early on because of his complexion.)

I wonder if this session was another of Jack Kapp’s crossover ideas, joining hot jazz, swing, and Western swing, to support Pinky, already well-known on radio and films.  Had Kapp noticed the success of Maxine Sullivan’s LOCH LOMOND, a swing version of a traditional song, or Ella Logan’s efforts (in all those cases, no composers to pay)?

But enough words.  Feast your ears (and, yes, there is authentic surface noise, because the original owner of this record played it often).

RED WING:

RED RIVER VALLEY:

These sides are fun, and that comes from their ease, the sweet balance between Pinky’s sincere Oklahoma voice, not trying to “get hot” except for the one upwards Bing-meets-Louis scat phrase on RED WING.  He’s telling us stories, and he’s completely earnest but never stiff.  Sosnik wasn’t always so swinging on other Deccas that bear his name, but the arranged passages are right on target, and it’s especially pleasant that the endings on both sides aren’t histrionic, but wind down gently.  Secrest plays beautifully, but it’s the band that charms me — its unsung heroes being Perry Botkin and Spike Jones, who certainly swung.

“It’s not in the discography, so it can’t be jazz.”  But it’s rewarding music.

I find myself charmed by Pinky: he seems guileless, someone who is being rather than acting.  Two more examples: one, from a 1937 film, where he, like Bing, seems to say to a viewer, “I’m on the screen, singing, and putting clothing into a trunk.  But you could do this, too.”:

Two decades later, Pinky faces Groucho, his essential sweetness intact:

A few words about THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION.  I read in Pinky’s autobiography how the song was a spur-of-the-moment creation that grew from the casual phrase that was its title.  But it has deep jazz credentials: Ella sang it early, and later in life, when she and Pinky were together at some public function, went out of her way to express her gratitude.

Three versions, each showing the song’s durability and emotional appeal.  First, Carl Switzer:

Helvetia, Connie, and Martha:

Garnet Clark, Bill Coleman (“from brown to rosy red”), June Cole, George Johnson, Django:

May your happiness increase!

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“SINCERELY”: LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE DECCA SINGLES 1949-1958

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Slowly, slowly, our awareness of Louis Armstrong spreads and deepens.  Of course, someone out there is still saying that everything after POTATO HEAD BLUES was a colossal misstep.  And somewhere, another gently misguided soul is suggesting that “Louis Armstrong was the worst thing that ever happened to traditional jazz,” which is a direct quotation and one that tried my peaceful nature to the breaking point.

But many people understand or have come to understand — to feel — that whatever Louis touched, he made beautiful.  So I write what I believe: that the recordings newly issued by Universal, annotated by our own local hero, Ricky Riccardi, are some of Louis’ greatest.  They are masterpieces of technique, drama, and above all, emotion.  And if I hear whimpers, “But they’re commercial!  The songs are so beneath him,” I will call Security to clear the room.

Here is the official link to the Universal Records issue — 95 songs, available through Apple here for download.  No, they aren’t going to be issued on CD. Downloads, like love, are here to stay — so ask a niece or nephew to assist you. And if the idea of intangible music — sounds without a tangible disc, shellac, vinyl, or plastic, is odd and threatening, think of downloading as new-fangled radio.

However, there are characteristically wise and rewarding liner notes by Mister Riccardi, about fifty thousand words, so knock yourself out here.  I believe that the cost for the whole package is $44.95 and individual tracks are priced at $1.29, which is not prohibitive.  As we have gotten used to cheap food in the last forty or fifty years, we also expect music to be free.  Silliness and selfishness, but that’s another blogpost.  This one is to celebrate Louis.

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I listened to all ninety-five sides recently, and I am floating.

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I grew up with some of these recordings —  Louis and Gordon Jenkins, especially — so they are very tender artifacts to me.  I came to Louis slightly later than the time period of this set: I think I bought my first record in 1963, although the experience of buying individual 45 rpm discs in paper sleeves is a part of my childhood.  Department stores had record departments, as did the “five and dime” stores, Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, W.T. Grant, so hanging out there was a real part of my childhood and adolescence.  Of course, I separated myself from my peers early, but that is not something I lament.  In the Sixties and Seventies, Decca collected many of these sides on 12″ lps — SATCHMO IN STYLE, SATCHMO SERENADES, and the like.  This is to say that perhaps ten of the ninety-five sides were new to me, but the music is astonishing throughout.

Several aspects of this set are powerful to me and will be to you.  One is the trumpet playing. Louis’ unrivaled ability to make a “straight” melody come alive — “tonation and phrasing,” he called it — shines through every track.  Listeners who only see brass instruments in the hands of people who have spent the requisite ten thousand hours may not know how difficult what he does, casually, from track to track.  Ask a trumpet player how easy it would be to reproduce four bars of Louis.  I think you will be startled by the answer.  I know people rightly hold up his recordings of the Twenties and Thirties as examples of astonishing grace and power — and they are — but his trumpet playing in 1949-1958 is awe-inspiring, his huge sound captured beautifully by Decca’s engineers.

(And for those who worry about the “jazz quotient,” Louis is so strongly evident throughout that this should be enough — but one also hears from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Billy Kyle, Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Butterfield, Allan Reuss, Charles LaVere . . . )

Another pleasure is the alchemy Louis works on the material.  For those who are appalled by, let us say, YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART or SKOKIAAN, I ask them to take a deep breath and evaluate the lyric and melodic quality of, perhaps, THAT’S WHEN I’LL COME BACK TO YOU before criticizing the “pop” material. And if a record of WINTER WONDERLAND brought people to hear and warm to Louis, then the large reach into popular songs — nothing new — that Jack Kapp and Milt Gabler did is a very good thing.

The final thing that kept revealing itself, over and over, was Louis’ deep innate romanticism, his delight in singing and playing about love — hopeless love, disappointed love, fulfilled love — all the shadings from bleak to ecstatic.  Even those people who admire Louis as I do have not always given him credit as a great poet of love, vocally and instrumentally.  His dramatic sense is peerless on these records.

If you feel as I do, perhaps I am overstating the obvious.  But if you don’t, I ask you to listen to this:

and this, which to me has some of the emotional power of Billie’s Commodore ballads:

and this tender hymn, which I’ve loved for decades:

I know that 2016 has been a dazzling year for reissues and issues of material never heard before — consider several new Mosaic sets and the two volumes of material from the Savory collection — but this music is extraordinary: you can’t afford to miss these dreams.

May your happiness increase!

JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience.  Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there.  Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.

Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper.  It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.

Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company.  What magical music would we have now?”  They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.

Third story.  Time: 2014.

I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive.  And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing.  When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water.  Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.

The disc lasted about an hour.  It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs.  I know, I know.  Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?

I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful.  Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?  Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings.  A Johnny Hodges slow blues.  Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD.  Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.

I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.

Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.

And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.

I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go.  They are all around us.

May your happiness increase! 

MY KIND OF VIC

In my Ideal Jazz World — which exists only in my mind and those of a few people who share my leanings (Dan and Mal and Clint among them)  — Vic Dickenson is one of the greatest creators.

But Vic’s art was very subtle.  People found it easy to see only its broad outlines and thus minimized it as a matter of low-toned naughty growls filling in the gaps in a Dixieland ensemble.  Vic often worked with bands where he was alone on the mountaintop, making his way through BASIN STREET BLUES or IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD for the ninth time that week.

In addition, trombones tend to get less attention than they and their players deserve, especially if the men and women behind the mouthpiece and slide are reliable.  Reliable players — think of Bennie Morton, Al Hall, Buck Clayton, Ray Nance, Milt Hinton among fifty others — get less attention than dramatic ones.

Vic seems to have come from nowhere — blossoming fully on the 1943-44 Blue Notes, or (for those whose historical perspective starts later) on the Vanguards and Columbias of the Fifties.  But he had been working his magic for a long time.  There’s his marvelous solo on Benny Carter’s MY FAVORITE BLUES, his work on a few 1940 Basie Columbias . . . and earlier — I’ve posted Blanche Calloway’s I NEED LOVIN’, which I think would amaze and terrify any contemporary trombonist — marvelous tumbling epigrams no matter what the context or the tempo.

That garden of delights, YouTube, offers us another aural glimpse of the Vic the musicians knew and admired.  His solo on this little-known record is only sixteen bars, and it comes late in the performance, but it is a marvel.

The original recording was made for Decca in 1937 by the Claude Hopkins band.  MY KINDA LOVE was perhaps best known through Ben Pollack’s recording of it with Jack Teagarden a half-decade earlier.  The Hopkins record is taken up with Hopkins’ pleasant piano and Beverly White’s singing.  Nothing is less than expert — the rhythm section rocks along nicely under Hopkins — but it is music for dancers.  Beverly White sounds close to Midge Williams and even Ella Logan: all the notes are in the right places, her enunciation is precise; she sings clearly and rhythmically, but the overall affect is well-behaved rather than memorable.  This band could play a senior prom in 1937 and not upset the chaperones overmuch.

Beverly was known as “Baby,” and she has her own place in the Jazz Pantheon because Teddy Wilson said he preferred her singing to Billie Holiday’s.  What that statement really means is hard to say: there is so much mythology around the luminous 1935-41 recordings Billie and Teddy made that his words seem heretical.  Perhaps Baby White was easier to work with; she didn’t smoke pot in the hall; she was more professional?  It could be that Teddy simply liked the sound of her voice more.  I wonder if in the years after those recordings were made, there was a slight tinge of rancor that Billie had become BILLIE HOLIDAY and other singers hadn’t.  (Michael Brooks wrote that Henry “Red” Allen told him vehemently that Anna Robinson was also much better than Billie.)

For me, the first two-thirds of MY KINDA LOVE are amiably dull — politely swinging without calling attention to itself — an almost faceless “dance record,” perhaps insisted upon by Jack Kapp.

But when Vic leaps in, for about thirty seconds, my musical world changes.

He begins with a break that owes something to Louis, something that might have come from a Hot Seven record, reinvented through Vic’s own prism of sound.  It’s a witty solo, glancing at Swing phrases that were already conventions in 1937 . . . but Vic’s staccato phrasing and sound are his own.  He doesn’t dramatize; his solo is in the middle register and he doesn’t demand that we admire his pyrotechnics, but the solo amazes as evidence of what he could do in sixteen bars.  A writer of musical epigrams, a painter of miniatures, eight bars here or sixteen bars there with their own logical, funny, shapes.

The thought that I can no longer see Vic on the stand at the last Eddie Condon’s or Your Father’s Mustache or an outdoor concert in Suffolk County makes me sad.  Had I been able to tell him how many people had their lives uplifted by his music, I think it would probably have embarrassed him.  But as I get older and I hear more jazz; as I understand more how difficult it is to create something when the rhythm is moving along inexorably underneath you, the more I prize Vic Dickenson.  It was a miracle that he was with us.  And he still is.

May your happiness increase.

I ASK YOU. WAS IT?

The same deep moral question, asked twice:

Connie, Martha, and Vet Boswell, with Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Bunny Berigan, Dick McDonough, Stan King and other luminaries.  The annotation above is enticing but not correct: this is (I believe) recorded for Brunswick Records in 1932, but it was so “unconventional” — hear the dead march interlude — that recording supervisor Jack Kapp (who hung the WHERE’S THE MELODY? sign in the Decca studios) insisted that the Sisters remake this song:

The issued version is much more bouncy, its message slightly muted by the faster tempo — but the improvisations can’t mask the seriousness of the essential question, can they?  It’s not simply a song of romantic wounds and betrayal, I believe. 

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MARTY GROSZ LIKES IT HOT!

Since the mid-Seventies, when I first saw him as an integral part of Soprano Summit, Marty Grosz has been one of my heroes — although I know he would have something mildly comic to say about this.  I find his particular brand of hot jazz exquisitely moving in every meaning of that word: his ballads get at the heart of the lyrical sentiment allied to the jazz he loves, and his swinging creations have their own delightful momentum.

Thus I was once again thrilled to see him at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua — allotted a brief set (among several) on Saturday afternoon to pay tribute to one of his heroes, the singer / musician Red McKenzie.  People either adore McKenzie or his particular brand of “hot” and Irish sentimentality eludes them entirely.  But Red worked with the best musicians, got jobs and record contracts for them as well (if memory serves, he not only got Eddie Condon that pioneering 1927 date but also took Jack Kapp down to to the Apex Club to hear Jimmie Noone).  Although Marty is, in person, reasonably unsentimental, McKenzie’s brand of feeling appeals to him — balanced against the prevailing strain of mockery that has some of its roots in his own worldview and some in the music of Fats Waller.

This afternoon, Marty was surrounded by his greatly talented friends: Vince Giordano, keeping the beat and playing lovely melodies on bass sax and string bass; Andy Stein, doubling violin and baritone sax; Dan Block, alternating between clarinet and bass clarinet, and James Dapogny, calling up several dozen pianistic worlds with ease.  They performed three numbers in honor of Red McKenzie.  Each one has a certain on-the-spot quality (head arrangements getting worked out then and there) which leads to occasional tentativeness, but I didn’t care then and I don’t now.  As if to follow suit, my cinematography is much more experimental than usual — which is a polite way of saying that I found myself hemmed in between the light on top of the piano and a music stand . . . but there are some (to me) rewarding closeups, and I captured musicians smiling at each others’ solos, always reassuring.

‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS began the set . . . with some stern leadership about when to stop (when the lyrics say “Stop!”) but no one was hurt.  And Dan Block swung out on his bass clarinet:

Then, a real jewel, even with a slightly uncertain beginning — I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, a song that gets performed at a quick bounce these days but began life as a yearning ballad.  And Dan Block throws himself into it body and soul:

Finally, FROM MONDAY ON, a cheerful remembrance of McKenzie, early and later:

As a coda: I would have my readers listen closely to the interplay within this group — Andy Stein’s lyrical baritone and pizzicato violin passages; Vince’s wonderful bass playing and lyrical bass sax solos; Dapogny’s “Spanish tinge” Morton-inspired passage on the first song; Marty’s delightful stage presence, and Dan Block, who has music flowing through him as if it were his soul’s electrical current.  A priceless band, I think, with each of its members an anointed prophet of Hot.

BENT PERSSON PLAYS LOUIS: Conclusion

I hated to see this wonderfully expansive concert — Bent Persson’s marvelous evocations of big-band Louis Armstrong — come to an end.  These final seven selections explore Louis’s Decca period, here defined as 1935-41. 

A word about the Deccas — appropriate not only because of this concert, but because of the recent Mosaic box set.  As a body of work, they have provoked both defensive overpraise and criticism built on misunderstanding.  At this distance, readers who wish to see the Swing Era as a high point in creative improvised music have found it necessary to forget that the material the bands and musicians were given to record was of variable quality — popular music from films and Broadway shows, music meant for dancers.  Yes, a Porter, Berlin, Coslow, or Gershwin song could find its way in to the record session, but Ellington was playing CALL OF THE CANYON at Fargo. 

But this constant influx of new songs was not a bad thing.  Left to their own devices, many of the jazz artists we revere operate within a narrow repertoire, whether it is bounded by the blues and I GOT RHYTHM or a half-dozen other favorite songs.  We all admire what the 1936-40 Basie band did within such constraints, but this makes TAXI WAR DANCE and TICKLE-TOE all the more delightful.  So I don’t perceive Louis as shackled and victimized by Jack Kapp and Joe Glaser.  His band was ragged at times, and I can hear the terrifying sound of Bingie Madison’s clarinet even now, but Kapp made the right choices more often than not: repeating a take so that the clarinet passage would be in tune would have required Louis to play more and more, not a wise or generous use of his energies.  

Bent and the band do these majestic recordings justice and more: watching this concert is as close as I or anyone else will come to seeing Louis circa 1938, a magical experience.  And both he and the band are using the recordings as frameworks for improvisation: the band plays Bent’s versions of the arrangements, and his solos are certainly shaped by what Louis played, but they are variations on variations — alternate takes, if you will — rather than exact attempts at reproducing what Louis played in the studios.   

They began with that truly pretty tune (Louis didn’t play the verse, which is a pity — ask Jon-Erik Kellso to do it if the band knows the changes) from the film of the same name, THANKS A MILLION.  And the sweetly ethereal Elena P. Paynes of the Chicago Stompers shows us that expressing our gratitudes is always a good thing, as is Martin Litton’s pretty, ruminative solo chorus:

Bent took over the dramatic leadership of the next song — really a playlet, as acted by Louis in his first leap into film stardom, in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — a clip I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog.  “The fun was loud and hearty, when a notorious wallflower became the life of the party!”  Here’s THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET:

I assume that Louis was asked to perform ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, already a hoary standard, because of the musical film of the same name.  It’s a difficult arrangement, with Technicolor trappings (the march-band opening) and on the original Decca, even Louis has a moment’s trouble finding where he is . . . but Elena is in fine form, even given the wordy lyrics and the fast tempo:

I DOUBLE DARE YOU is a pretty swing tune, one that should have gotten more attention in its time — now, it seems the only people who play and sing it are trumpeters.  Would that there were other singers inviting us all to “get friendly” in Ludvig Carlson’s amiable way!  And there are some fine instrumental solos — Clerc, McQuaid, Munnery, and Bonnel — all backed by Nick Ward’s rocking drums:

SO LITTLE TIME isn’t musically complex, but Louis made something splendid out of it (as he did with TRUE CONFESSION and RED CAP); Elena makes this Swing version of tempus fugit truly winsome, and Bent adds his own majesty:

In the idealized Chicago period (the years some listeners think of as Louis’s only peak), Tommy Rockwell of OKeh Records wouldn’t let him record WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN on the grounds of impiety.  Lucky for us that Jack Kapp’s musical world-view was broader, thus making it possible for Louis to explore this hymn as well as IN THE GLOAMING and ON A COCOANUT ISLAND.  Reverends Persson and Paynes offer a “mellow sermon” for us all:

Finally, Bent pays homage to Louis’s moving instrumental examination of the song he played in fragments every night for forty years — WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH.  Luxuriant, I say:

Video recordings may give you a sense of what it was like to be there — not only the sound, but the musicians smiling at something perfectly apt that someone else has played or sung.  But videos are still not designed to be played in the car (unless you’re a lucky bored passenger) so I happily recommend an earlier compact disc recording of some of this material — a different band, solos, and vocals, but our Bent and Claes Brodda are there . . . so you know the heights will be scaled!  The project was issued on the late Gosta Hagglof’s Kenneth label as FOR THE LOVE OF SATCHMO, and the backing band is the very empathic and hot Royal Blue Melodians.  Ordering details can be found on the blogroll: click on “Classic Jazz Productions.”  (You’ll also find the CDs of Bent and friends playing Louis’s Hot Choruses and breaks, astonishing music.) 

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 A million thanks to everyone involved in this concert.