Tag Archives: Josh Billings

THE SHAPE OF A CAREER: RED McKENZIE, 1924-1947

Photograph thanks to Scott Black: a trio of solid senders, Frank Trumbauer, Red McKenzie, and their former boss Paul Whiteman

William “Red” McKenzie, born in 1899, had a career whose highs and lows might have made a good — and sad — film biography.  Let us begin with a phenomenal hit record, the 1924 ARKANSAS BLUES — a smash for the novelty group, The Mound City Blue Blowers (McKenzie on comb and newspaper, Jack Bland on banjo, Dick Slevin on kazoo):

A word about his musical abilities, unique to him.  McKenzie’s singing isn’t to everyone’s taste; he is earnest, declaratory, even tipping over into barroom sentimentality.  But he could put over a hot number with style, and his straight-from-the shoulder delivery is both charming and a product of the late Twenties.  As an instrumentalist — on the comb and newspaper, a homegrown kazoo with panache — he had no equal, and the remarkable thing about the records on which he appears is how strongly he stands his ground with Coleman Hawkins and Bunny Berigan, powerful figures in their own right.  Both singing and playing, McKenzie reminds me greatly of Wild Bill Davison, someone who had “drama,” as Ruby Braff said.

In the late Twenties McKenzie was not only a musician but an activist for the music, bringing hot jazz players — Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmie Noone, the Spirits of Rhythm — to the attention of record companies and creating early record dates where Caucasians and African-Americans to record.  Without McKenzie, Coleman Hawkins would have waited a number of years to be allowed into the recording studio to perform with mixed groups.

Here is McKenzie in 1929 — out in the open in the short film OPRY HOUSE as a delightfully unrestrained singer, with Bland, banjo; Josh Billings, whiskbrooms and suitcase:

His popularity grew — as s singer and someone whose face might sell sheet music of a new song:

McKenzie was the featured vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra — an orchestra, we should remember, that had launched the careers of Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey — with a pretty 1932 tune, THREE ON A MATCH (featured in the Warner Brothers film of the same name, starring Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis):

He continued to be someone whose presence could help sell new songs — this 1936 number, that most of us know through Billie Holiday’s recording:

and this 1936 song, more famous in Bing Crosby’s recording:

At forty, McKenzie went into a temporary retirement — moving back to his hometown, St. Louis, to work at a brewery for four years.  Apparently he was one of the great heavy drinkers of his time, and only the support of his great friend Eddie Condon kept him in the limelight in the Forties, where he appeared now and again at a Condon concert or a Blue Network broadcast.  The latter, I think, accounts for McKenzie’s 1944 appearance on a V-Disc and a session for Commodore Records — where Milt Gabler also thought the world of him.  Gabler produced record sessions simultaneously for Decca Records and the World Transcription System: here’s a 1944 version of DINAH with McKenzie, Max Kaminsky, Jack Teagarden, and Pee Wee Russell:

Here’s McKenzie as captured by William P. Gottlieb in an October 1946 photograph:

But little was heard from McKenzie for the last years of his life, except for one 1947 record date — shown in a newsprint advertisement for four sides on the National label.  His obscurity is nodded at — another “comeback story” in the sad word REINTRODUCING:

By February 1948 McKenzie was dead — cirrhosis the official cause.  I find IF I HAD MY LIFE TO LIVE OVER and HEARTACHES sad reminders of what had happened.  I would hate to think that his life could be summarized as an equal devotion to hot music and hard liquor, the latter winning out over the former.

Had he been in better health, he could have been one of those apparently ancient but still vivacious stars who appeared on the ED SULLIVAN SHOW and the HOLLYWOOD PALACE alongside Crosby, Sophie Tucker, Durante, and Ted Lewis . . . but it was not to be.

May your happiness increase. 

Advertisements

GET HAPPY?

Over breakfast, the Beloved and I were talking about worry.  Everyone knows in some logical way that worry is useless and destructive, but most people have a hard time asking our anxieties to take a nap.

You can read her moving ruminations on the subject here

As is my habit, my thoughts drifted to music . . . and I started telling her about the paradoxical phenomenon I associate with 1931-33: delightful songs where the singer cheerfully tells the audience that WE’RE OUT OF THE RED, WE’RE IN THE MONEY, HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN, and so on.  The title of this post — with no question mark — is a Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler exhortation.

“Better times are coming . . . now and then,” said philosopher Josh Billings, musing over his suitcase and whiskbrooms.

Then, there’s WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, whose lyrics still make a good deal of emotional sense (although the verse and the chorus seem to have come from two different songs):

and the more manic (or is it simply Ted Lewis’ delivery) DIP YOUR BRUSH IN THE SUNSHINE — where Benny Goodman and Muggsy Spanier embody optimism without speaking a word:

and the songs that silently say, “We have no place to go and no money, so let’s tell ourselves it’s fine and perhaps it will be,” such as LET’S SPEND AN EVENING AT HOME and the older SLEEPY TIME GAL, where the singer tells his partner that it would be so delightful to forgo “cabaretting” and staying out late in favor of domesticity.  KEEP SMILING AT TROUBLE — because, as the subtitle tells us, TROUBLE’S A BUBBLE.

Or the culinary versions of this sentiment: A CUP OF COFFEE, A SANDWICH, AND YOU, and LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES.

My question — unanswerable although enticing — is whether these songs made a difference or they were lies manufactured by people in the Brill Building who knew that writing about imaginary prosperity could make them fifty dollars.  Were these songs the musical version of cheap gin, another effort to keep the peasants from overturning their apple carts and marching on the government with pitchforks and bricks?

From my vantage point in 2012 with breakfast consumed and the promise of a lunch, I can find these songs enchanting.  I can grin at RAISIN’ THE RENT and GET YOURSELF A NEW BROOM (AND SWEEP YOUR CARES AWAY) but I wonder how people who were hungry felt when they heard these Timely Tunes.  Did hearing BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME? make anyone without coinage feel better?

May you all find that your troubles vanish when wrapped in dreams.

May your happiness increase.

THE JAZZ ADVENTURES OF TIMME ROSENKRANTZ

Imagine if Huckleberry Finn in all his naivete, enthusiasm, and observation had landed in Harlem in 1934 and sought out the best jazz and its players . . .

If an adult Huck with a Danish accent had written his memoirs — with space for everyone from Erroll Garner to Billie Holiday, from Chick Webb to Art Tatum — that book would be the late Timme Rosenkrantz’s HARLEM JAZZ ADVENTURES: A EUROPEAN BARON’S MEMOIR 1934-1969 (adapted and edited by Fradley Hamilton Garner, published this year by Scarecrow Press).

You can find out more and order the book  here, and watch a brief video-introduction by Fradley Garner.

Born in 1911, Timme (a Baron from a noble Danish family) lost his heart to hot jazz early on and came to New York City in 1934.  Disregarding those who said he would be murdered in Harlem, he took the A train uptown — years before taking that train became a Swing commonplace.

His eager good nature and enthusiasm endeared him to the jazz masters immediately, and they insisted on showing him where the best music was to be found at 5 or 6 in the morning, accompanied by large quantities of dubious liquor and fine fried chicken.  Perhaps it was also the novelty of a “white boy” so delighted and so knowledgeable about hot jazz, years before the jitterbugs swarmed, that caused Benny Carter and John Hammond, among many others, to take him as one of their own.

Timme was very good-hearted but a terrible businessman, and all of his doomed or precarious ventures had to do with jazz — jazz magazines that ran for an issue, a Harlem record shop, jam sessions in clubs and concert halls, recording sessions — were for the betterment of the art rather than for his own needs.

He may be best known for his 1945 Town Hall concert and two official recording sessions (one in 1938 for Victor, as “Timme Rosenkrantz and his Barrelhouse Barons,” with Rex Stewart, Billy Hicks, Tyree Glenn, Don Byas, Russell Procope, Rudy Williams, Billy Kyle, Brick Fleagle, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Timme’s life partner, singer Inez Cavanagh), the other in 1945 for Continental, with Red Norvo, Charlie Ventura, Johnny Bothwick, Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney, Jimmy Jones, John Levy, Specs Powell.

Some will know him for his short essays on Chick Webb (which ran as the liner notes for the Columbia vinyl collection of Webb recordings) and Coleman Hawkins, or for the recently published collection of his photographs, IS THIS TO BE MY SOUVENIR?

And there is a wonderful — still untapped — treasure chest of private recordings Timme made at his apartment.  Anthony Barnett has arranged for the Stuff Smith material to be released on his AB Fable label, and some of the Erroll Garner material has made its way to issue . . . but hours of rare 1944-5 jazz have yet to be heard by the public.

Timme’s memoirs give an accurate picture of what was endearing in the man: his enthusiasm for the music, his love of eccentrics (he was one himself), his amused comic view of the world.  This is not a book of grievances and grudges; reading it is like spending time with a jovial elder who fixes you a drink and launches into yet another hilarious tale of men and women long gone — all first-hand, told with a fan’s ardor.

Some of the stories are of the famous — Coleman Hawkins’ prowess and pride, his one Danish phrase; Timme’s attempt to defend Art Tatum from an audience of jazz-deaf gangsters; the generosities of Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, and Duke Ellington, the beauty of Billie Holiday; the power of Mezz Mezzrow’s marijuana; the appeal of the new duo of Slim and Slam.

But since Timme didn’t just meet his heroes in clubs, there are more intimate glimpses: Fats Waller in an overflowing bathtub, trombonist / arranger Harry “Father” White, in alcoholic delirium, arranging for a rehearsal of his new band — its members all dead, including Chick Webb, Jimmy Harrison, and Bix, Timme’s being measured for a shirt by Lil Armstrong, and more.

Billie Holiday invites Timme to a party; Louis explains to him that his favorite record is Berigan’s I CAN’T GET STARTED; Bud Powell tells Timme what time it is; Duke Ellington warns about “fresh-air poisoning.”

Even better than the previously unseen photographs and the careful documentation by Donald Clarke and Timme’s friend, jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern, even more enticing than the lengthy discography of issued and unissued recordings, are the stories of people we know little of.

Michigan cornetist Jake Vandermeulen, the forever-thirsty Fud Livingston, little-known guitarist Zeb Julian, the inexplicable demi-deity Leo Watson, the lovely Sally Gooding, suitcase-percussionist Josh Billings, urbane Adrian Rollini.  And they come in clusters: at Rollini’s own club, we encounter Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, and Charlie Barnet . . .

Timme gives us an insider’s view of Harlem night life and early morning revels, of the numbers racket, of running a record store uptown — the characters and details.  The book is the very opposite of analytic “jazz literature” in its warm embrace of the scene, the musicians, and the reader.

It is irresistible reading for jazz fans who wish, like Timme, to have been behind the scenes.  He was there, and his stories sparkle with life.  I know that jazz fans have been waiting a long time to read these pages, and I would have expected nothing less from the man Fats Waller dubbed “Honeysuckle Rosenkrantz.”

AMAZING PAGES FOR SALE!

Both James Comer and David J. Weiner brought this to my attention — an amazing auction of jazz and popular music memorabilia that tops anything I’ve ever seen.  Should you wish to explore for yourself, the website is http://www.profilesinhistory.com/items/hollywood-memorabilia-auction-40.  But here are a few highlights I needed to show you, as if they were my treasures:

Better than Button Gwinnett, I’d say: Little T, Frank Signorelli, and George Wettling.  I can’t identify the fourth name, if a name it is.  I also wonder if this dates from the association that these players had with Paul Whiteman circa 1938?

Inscribed to Bob Harrington, at the end of the Forties: my hero, Henry Allen Junior.

I wonder if this was inscribed at one of Dick Gibson’s parties?  It certainly seems a sacred artifact to me.  From the bottom, I note reverently Ralph Sutton and Lou Stein, Yank Lawson, Joe Venuti, Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Nick Fatool, Billy Butterfield, Bud Freeman, Zoot Sims, and Buck Clayton.  Oh my!

O fortunate Junior Payne!

VOOT! indeed: that’s Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, a fine pianist before he assumed the hipster’s mantle.

That’s only the second Baby Dodds autograph I’ve ever seen.

Delightfully odd — Count Basie, an unidentified young man, and Mezz Mezzrow.  Sarah Vaughan was at Bop City as well on this night in 1948 and her signature is top left.  Basie’s inscription of the photograph to Mezz as “my 20 year man” makes me wonder if Basie, too, took pleasure in Mezz’s arrangements?  Leaving that aside, I love the neckties.

 Famous names, no?  And in an intriguing order, although this may just have been the way the paper was passed around from one member of the quartet to another.

No explanation needed!

The Ellington band, starting with Arthur Whetsol . . . !

February 19, 1944: with Wettling, deParis, Joe Marsala, Kansas Fields, James P. Johnson, Joe Grauso, Bob Casey, Miff Mole . . .

What is there to say except “Solid!”

And my favorite:

These pictures can only hint at the riches up for auction: for just one instance, the lot that includes the Harry “the Hipster” signature also  publicity photograph of Leo Watson inscribed to “My man Mezz.”  They could make me rethink the decor of my apartment, I tell you.

MOUND CITY BLUE BLOWERS: “NINE O’CLOCK FOLKS”

This Vitaphone short (circa 1931) is ten minutes long, and viewers who suffer from even mild impatience may want to fast-forward through the hillbilly jokes that take up the first four minutes: the man sitting on a box of eggs because his hen has wandered off, the local constable directing traffic (it’s another man and his cow).  Cinematic vaudeville at its finest and broadest, as those city slickers show how dumb the rubes are.

But things start to get hot when the trio from the local cafe, “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” (who are they, really?) sing a low-down melody, an eccentric dancer capers around the stage on clown shoes.  That would be intermitently hilarious vaudeville, but the jazz content would be low.  However, you can begin to hear Red McKenzie creating wailing phrases behind the dancer, as if he couldn’t contain himself.  Then, after some more labored banter, the trio-that-became-a quartet takes the stage for a ferocious ST. LOUIS BLUES — from left to right, there’s Red (blowing his comb wrapped in newspaper into his hat), Josh Billings whacking a suitcase with whiskbrooms and kicking it for bass-drum accents, Eddie Condon and Jack Bland, playing what appear to be Vega lutes.

Josh Billings, by the way, is credited with one of the great wry aphorisms of the last century.  Someone is supposed to have been complaining about how things were in what would later be called the Great Depression.  “Will it ever get better?” lamented the nameless interlocutor.  Billings said thoughtfully, “Better times are coming . . . now and then.”

The rocking interlude is over too soon, and we descend into a drunken-dog act . . .  I find it weirdly significant that Whitey the dog gets star billing, but no matter.  How else would we have seen the Mound City Blue Blowers?  Thanks to Vitaphone, to Roy Mack, the director, to TCM, to Dailymotion, and others.

And now, ladies and gentlemen . . . !