Tag Archives: Josephine Baker

“JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE, FROM ITS ORGINS IN NEW ORLEANS TO FASCIST ITALY AND SINATRA,” by ANNA HARWELL CELENZA

“I prefer books that tell me things I don’t know,” said Mark Twain. Or if he didn’t, he should have.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is such a book — wide-ranging, full of intriguing information, and refreshingly straightforward.

I will say that I thought I knew a great deal about the title and the subject.  After all, I know Rossano Sportiello, Marc Caparone, Paolo Alderighi, and Larry Scala. I have recordings by Frank Sinatra, Joe and Marty Marsala, Leon Roppolo, Louis Prima, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Wingy Manone, Jimmy Durante, Tony Sbarbaro, Nick La Rocca, Marty Napoleon, Phil Napoleon, Lino Patruno, and others.  Years ago, I owned a vinyl anthology on Italian Odeon called ITALIAN JAZZ OF THE 50s, which had music from the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band and Romano Mussolini, with other bands I do not recall.  In the very early Seventies, I ate authentic Italian food at the Half Note, under the loving supervision of the Canterino family.  (All of the above is true, although not meant to be taken with the utmost seriousness.)

But the glory of Celenza’s book is the information it offers — subtle illumination of areas of the subject that I was ignorant of, and I am sure my ignorance is not my sole property.  And the fruits of her investigation are the substance of this appreciation of her book.

But first: we are told, even before the book starts, that Celenza is “the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University, where she teaches courses in music history, radio journalism, and the music industry.”  To some readers, those credentials will seem either the kiss of death or the black hand: another academic book, indigestible, a forest of footnotes, theoretical and ideological beyond endurance.  Calm yourselves.  Celenza is an engagingly straightforward writer, clear, candid, and witty.  (I saw the wit when I opened my copy at random and saw she had translated “Il Quattro Buffoni,” a band name on a record label, as “The Four Idiots.”

She doesn’t talk down to the general reader, and the book down’t labor under chunks of undigested digressive facts.  And leaving aside the useful documentation and index, the book is a compact 192 pages, because Celenza has not felt an obsessive need to include every fact that wanders by, and her chosen time period is under half a century.  It isn’t a book-length study of Sinatra, fascism, or every Italian who’s ever improvised, and that adds to its charm and effect.  Rather, like effective cultural studies, it traces the interweavings of many phenomena: radio and the growth of the recording industry, political struggles and performance, and much more.

As I promised above, I salute this book for adding information to my mental hoard.  Here are a number of things I didn’t know before reading JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE.

•     “The most horrific mass lynching in US history occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Italian immigrants were shot and strung up by an angry mob after a  jury found them innocent of assassinating the local police chief, David Hennessey.”

•     In 1919, Chevalier Bruno Zuculin wrote a description of the musical scene in New Orleans — and the music itself — for Italian readers.  The article was published two months before Ernest Ansermet’s famous celebration of Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which included the young Sidney Bechet.

•     “D. Onivas,” whose orchestra is on the reverse of some 78s by Cliff Edwards, is the pseudonym of Domenico Savino, composer and conductor.

•     Jazz first came to Italy with the USAAS (United States Army Ambulance Service) and its American Jazz Band landed  — and when members of the American and Italian armies recorded for Fonotopia in December 1918.

•     I had assumed that Mussolini, like Hitler, was hostile to jazz as decadent music: not so, in fact, Il Duce “embraced” it as an expression of the Futurist art he celebrated.

•     Josephine Baker, Herb Flemming, and Al Wynn visited and worked in Italy.  Louis Armstrong gave two concerts in Turin in January 1935 and wrote a detailed happy letter to an Italian fan and record collector.

•     I had never heard or heard of the female vocal trio, “the three graces of the radio,” the Trio Lescano — Alexandra, Judith, and “Kitty,” originally from the Netherlands, who became singing stars in Italy.

•  During the Second World War, when recordings by American artists were played on the radio, new Italianized names for the musicians were invented: Luigi Braccioforte, La Colema, Del Duca, and Beniamino Buonuomo.  (Answer key on request.)

•     Sinatra’s four trips to Italy, in 1945, 1953, 1962, and 1987 — and the audience’s elation when he described his Genoan heritage, then their silence when he revealed his family was also half-Sicilian.

These excerpts are, of course, not the substance of this book.  Celenza has a wonderful understanding of the widespread forces that go into the development and growth of jazz in Italy, and one will come away from this book with a much deeper understanding of the mingling of history, race, ideology, and politics — during war and in peacetime.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is very rewarding, but never ponderous.  Here are the publisher’s resources for the book, and this is the link for the CD label offering for sale almost all the jazz described in the book.  And since a book like this cries out for a soundtrack, here is the one Celenza has generously created — 124 relevant musical examples that delight and illustrate.

May your happiness increase!

THE DEFENDANT TELLS HER STORY, THROWS HERSELF ON THE MERCY OF THE COURT (1929)

Miss Baker, guilty of Love.

Counsel for the Defendant, Messrs. Waller and Razaf:

My only hope is that Justice was Merciful.

(One of my favorite songs and a wonderful performance, new to me.)

May your happiness increase!

RIFFTIDE: FRAGMENTS FROM A DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE BY JO JONES

I’ve never before seen a YouTube video promoting a book, but if any book deserved one, it would be RIFFTIDE: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF PAPA JO JONES (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), edited and compiled by Paul Devlin from taped conversations that drummer and raconteur Jo Jones had with writer Albert Murray:

Like its subject, RIFFTIDE is simultaneously enthralling, elusive, irritating, and unsettling.  Jones (1910-85) was a great innovator and an equally great synthesizer of percussion technique, someone who understood that the drummer could liberate both himself and the band by rethinking jazz rhythm, by creating a flow rather than a series of demarcations.  Although Henderson drummer Walter Johnson was working towards similar goals, Jones’ great sound was that of the floating, whispering hi-hat cymbal, carrying any band forward and upwards — but most especially the Count Basie band in its most glorious years.  Behind the drums, at his best, he was both Loki and Dionysus — unpredictable, boyish, shape-changing, his sound always right.  Away from the drums he was someone else, a monologist who rarely let his listeners know the plot of his play.

Jo Jones would have been furious if described as “normal.”  That condescending description was for the “nine-to-fivers.”  A self-described “nut,” he was a cosmos unto himself: elliptical, often enraged in conversation, given to diatribes that served to push most listeners away, the result seeming at best irritating, at worst irrational.  (On that score, many have theorized that Jones’ behavior was the result of syphilis contracted early and not entirely cured.)

In the Seventies and early Eighties, Jones was eager to get his stories on paper, and he spoke to (rarely “with”) the African-American scholar Albert Murray, while Murray was working on another “as told to” book, the unsuccessful autobiography of Count Basie, GOOD MORNING BLUES.  (Either Basie was too modest or he didn’t entirely trust Murray; the real stories went with Basie to the grave.)  The tapes of Jones’s “autobiography” came to Devlin when Murray was too ill to edit and transcribe them, although the two men discussed what Devlin had come up with.

RIFFTIDE is made up of several short parts: an informal essay by Devlin, part reminiscence, part explanation of his editorial method, part graduate-school essay on Jones.  What closes the book is a more effective (although cliché-ridden) twenty-two page essay by Phil Schaap, who knew Jones for the last thirty years of Jones’ life.  Those two sections contain some fascinating information: Devlin’s comments on editing the tapes reveal much about Jones, although I wished Devlin had been willing to incorporate the stories Jones categorized as “private stock” to Murray.  Schaap’s section is characteristically windy, he was a first-hand observer and participant: for example, musicians as mild-mannered as Buddy Tate and Doc Cheatham refused to ride in cars with Jones; Cheatham going so far as to purchase a small car because it would make it impossible to have Jo as a passenger.  The book closes with useful footnotes and rare photographs.

The center of this paperback is, of course, Jones’ recollections, rants, enthusiasms, stories, anecdotes, score-settling . . . fervent yet digressive.  I’m not sure if Jo was at this stage unable or unwilling to narrate a conventional autobiography in chronological sequence.  I think his mind went in violently associative ways, so that everything reminded him of something or someone else he couldn’t bear to leave out.  Early on in RIFFTIDE I felt as if I had signed on for an often airless monologue by someone with great energies and purposes known only to himself.

That, however, is the beauty of RIFFTIDE: Jo spoke at me several times in this period, when I met him at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop or asked for an autograph or the like, and the book captures those experiences.  One listened while he spoke; one did not converse or attempt to direct the flow of conversation.   The book is most readable in Jones’ brief portraits of people he knew, liked, or detested as fraudulent. He praises Ralph Ellison, Duke Ellington, the Harlem Globetrotters, Louis Bellson, his colleagues in the Basie band, the jockey Isaac Murphy, Bill Robinson, violinist Claude Williams, Basie’s manager Maceo Birch; scorns James Baldwin and John Hammond (the latter is a “R.P.P.,” a “Racist Prejudiced Prick”), is ambivalent about Count Basie in the present.

Here is a brief sample of his voice, digressive, oratorical: “Take me forty-something years to earn my keep.  I’m fifty-six years in show business.  I have earned my keep.  There won’t be but two people in the United States can tell you.  Now ask the president of France.  I got my picture with the president of France.  You know what I’m saying?  But I’m into something heavy.  Like when I go down with Grace Kelly; she’s got Josephine Baker’s thirteen children!  I’m with the policeman that held the umbrella overhead when they’re dispossessing her.  See, I’m kinda odd out here.  I sleep with my door unlocked: me and my Bible.  My friend comes in, she locks the door.  I’ve never locked my door in fifty-six years.  Everybody understands how I play: I play free.  I’m not afraid of a living person. I fear God: I got four hundred religions and five hundred cults. There are two people that give me strength: Billie Holiday and Lester Young.”

These excerpts and portraits are both elusive and invaluable: as close to hearing Jo Jones as most will ever come.  If at times I thought I had wandered into a Beckett play or reborn into a Browning dramatic monologue, that was the feeling that an encounter with Jo in the flesh created.

We are lucky to have RIFFTIDE, although its fragmentary nature makes me wish that a more comprehensive oral history had been taken and made accessible while Jones was eager and able to tell his stories.

For those who wish to read about my own encounters with the great man, here is SMILING JO JONES: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/smiling-jo-jones/ — complete with the photograph I took of Papa Jo in action at the West End Cafe in New York City, circa 1981.

“BLACK AND BLUE”: LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND RACE by RICKY RICCARDI (Feb. 12, 2011)

Ricky Riccardi has been intensely focused on Louis Armstrong for half of his life, with extraordinary results. 

His book on Louis’s later life and music — a book that will destroy some wrong-headed assumptions with new evidence — will be out in June 2011.  I’ve seen one or two pages of the galleys, and only because the author was across the table was I cajoled into releasing my hold and giving it back.

To whet your appetite — and also to make it easy to find a copy in that rarest of places, the bookstore, here’s the cover picture, an inspiring one.  You can “pre-order” the book online as well.

But this post isn’t about a forthcoming book. 

It’s about a talk that Ricky gave recently at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND RACE.

(That title was so imposing that Michael Cogswell suggested, whimsically, that Ricky could have called it RED BEANS AND RACE, a play on Louis’s favorite dish.) 

Many times, lectures of this sort relate the indignities that African-Americans suffered (and still suffer) at the hands of Caucasians.  We know there’s plenty of evidence. 

And Ricky didn’t ignore it — from the policeman who hit the boy Louis over the head when for politely asking what time it was to the jazz critic who called his performance in the early Fifties “a coon carnival.”  Louis had gone to New Orleans in triumph in 1931 — an international star — only to have an announcer say, “I just can’t announce that nigger on the radio.” 

But what may have wounded Louis much more was his abandonment and rejection by the members of his own race, “my own people,” who called him “a plantation character” (the words are Dizzy Gillespie’s, although Dizzy later apologized) and an “Uncle Tom.”  These slights may have hurt him as much as seeing authorities beating African-American schoolchildren in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Charcteristically Ricky had more than enough material for an entire afternoon (he promises that it’s all in the book) but he gave us an hour filled with insight, pathos, humor, and wit.  Rather than read Louis’s words aloud, he drew on the private tapes Louis made at home and on the road — a priceless document of his expressiveness, his emotions, his consciousness: in his home, his hotel rooms, talking about his hopes and disappointments. 

Here’s Ricky’s presentation, for those who couldn’t make it to the LAHM and those who want to know what’s in store on the 26th:

First, Deslyn Dyer introduces Ricky: through him, we meet the Louis some people never knew — not only the musician, light-heartedly entertaining for fifty years and more, but the man in search of social justice, the civil rights pioneer:

Ricky then shares the story of the young sailor who greeted Louis by saying, “I don’t like Negroes, but I admire you,” a compliment that might have embittered a lesser man:

More stories: the New Orleans policeman; lynchings in the South.  Louis also explains his often misinterpreted relations with manager Joe Glaser:

Next, Louis tells his friends why an African-American artist would need “a white captain,” talks about being elected King of the Zulus in 1949, about recording SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH for Decca, and the pervasiveness of racism:

When Nat Cole, playing for a segregated audience in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1956, was beaten by four men who jumped onstage, the African-American press condemned him, rather than sympathizing with him — which outraged Louis; he also responds to the segregation in New Orleans:

Louis’s violent reaction to what he saw on television in 1957 — in Little Rock, Arkansas: “I have a right to blow my top over injustice”:

And — as a triumphant, mournful climax — Louis’s shattering BLACK AND BLUE in East Berlin (1965), from which I’ve taken the title of this piece:

Louis’s story remains the saga of someone mis-seen and under-acknowledged, a man wounded by the people — of all races — he thought would understand him. 

But Louis prevailed and continues to prevail by embodying great joy in his music.

Ricky will be delivering this lecture again at the Louis Armstrong House Museum on Saturday, February 26th, at 1 and 3 PM.  The house is a remarkable down-to-earth shrine.  And Ricky’s a treasure.

FOR THE LOVE OF LOUIS, CLICK HERE.  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS.

https://.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQASwww

 

FOR JOSEPHINE BAKER: BOHEM RAGTIME JAZZ BAND at WHITLEY BAY, July 11, 2010

She was a sensation.

When Josephine Baker toured Europe in 1928, one of the places she was most enthuastically welcomed was Hungary.  In fact, a popular hit of that year was COME, JOSEPHINE, 

I would have known nothing of this had it not been for my first face-to-face meeting, a delightful one, with the Bohem Ragtime Jazz Band at the 2010 Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival.  And here — explained so convincingly by Tamas Itzes, is COME, JOSEPHINE:

The BRJB bills itself as a versatile jazz ensemble, and they can do everything from the “traditional” repertoire to later small-band swing, ragtime, jazzing the classics, and more. 

You can see a good deal of them on their YouTube channel (“fobohem”) and on their website, where (dare I say it) there are CDs and DVDs of the band, by itself and with eminent international guests.  You’ll find them at  http://www.bohemragtime.com/

  The BRJB satisfies!

BLACK AND TAN . . . AT THE POST OFFICE

Ordinarily, I don’t feel a need to promote the Post Office.  I look forward to my mail; I have pleasant relationships with mail carriers.  But the USPS seems a ubiquitous business that doesn’t need publicity from me.  However, I am finicky about the stamps I buy, and carefully consider their appearance and their messages before buying them.

When I went to my Post Office today and asked what new 42-cent stamps they had, I was offered sunflowers, Latin jazz, baseball games, Bette Davis, Alzheimer’s research, and a few others.  Latin jazz and Bette Davis were competing for my attention until I saw this sheet:

“Vintage Black Cinema” I can support wholeheartedly: homages to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Duke Ellington and Fredi Washington, Josephine Baker, Nina Mae McKinney, and Louis Jordan, as well as African-American film production companies going back to 1921.  I bought two hundred stamps, which will get me into 2009 in fine cinematic style.  Maybe next year the USPS will consider a second series, including SEPIA CINDERELLA, BOY! WHAT A GIRL, and JAMMIN’ THE BLUES, among others?

Putting these stamps on the envelopes that hold my bills won’t make that task seem any easier, but the stamps themselves give pleasure — not only for the way they look (I grew up around films and movie theatres) but what they represent.

For more information about the stamps, the designers of the film posters, and the films themselves. visit http://www.usps.com. (The link to the stamps themselves is http://www.usps.com/communications/newsroom/2008/sr08_074.htm., but it hasn’t been particularly responsive.)