Tag Archives: Kate Smith

“SAMMY THE DRUMMER”: SOME THOUGHTS ON SAMMY WEISS

Sammy Weiss and Frank Sinatra

Drummer Sam (or “Sammy”) Weiss played in New York with many of the most prominent jazz musicians of the ’30s and early ’40s, including Louis Armstrong, Adrian Rollini, Wingy Manone, Miff Mole, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. He also worked with Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, Louis Prima, and Erskine Hawkins, among others. After moving to California in 1945, Weiss led his own successful orchestra and worked freelance. He led bands throughout the ’60s, and also worked in television; his TV work included appearances on The Jack Benny Program in 1961 and 1964. He died in 1977.

Here are Jack, Sammy, Wayne Songer, and others doing a “hilbilly” sketch:

And going back a few decades, a Weiss appearance with Gene Kardos in 1934:

Here I pause the official biography for a moment, to say that one of the most pleasant aspects of JAZZ LIVES (which I began nine years ago this year . . . no presents, please) is that people find me.  Some months back, I got a cheerful message from Jayne Weiss, Sammy’s daughter, who had noticed that I had mentioned her father in a blogpost.  In our conversation, I mentioned that her father was remarkable in making the transition from sideman to bandleader to personality, “Sammy The Drummer.”  And she said, “That was exactly who he was.  He was a personality.”

Sammy was one of the cast of characters on the Jack Benny television show: this episode is based on New Year’s Eve, 1961:

Here are some of Jayne’s thoughts.

Since my dad’s death, people are always finding things and sending them to us, so I got a hold of my cousin Brian, who does web design, and we are going to create a website for my dad, with discographies, clippings, photographs, videos. In 1971, my mother started to write a book about my father, because he had a very interesting story.  She had written to Ralph Edwards of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, but the show was being cancelled.  But I found the letter and the story she had written about him.  I have a letter from Artie Shaw and telegrams from Jack Benny.  He was with Jack Benny for twenty-five years, radio and television.

Sammy Weiss and Mickey Katz

He was from the Lower East Side, a very poor family, because his father, who was a bootlegger, had died when he was very young and he had to help support the family. He was self-taught at thirteen; he took rungs of a chair and made drumsticks, then took parts of the chair and tin plates and made a set of drums.  And he would sit at the front of the building and entertain the neighborhood.  One day a neighbor came by and asked Sammy if he would get a few friends together and play their daughter’s wedding. He was maybe fourteen, a big, tall guy.  Having no drums, he would rent a set, and he got a band together .  They paid the band three dollars, and my father decided that this was for him.  At fifteen, he started his career.  Then he started playing in the Catskills, fall and winter, dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs.  In 1933, he was playing at the Stevensville Lake Hotel, where he met my mother.  (They were married for thirty-seven years and had five children.)  

Now, my mother, who looked like Jean Harlow, was already engaged to Henny Youngman’s brother-in-law.  But when Sammy met my mother, he walked her all around the hotel, introducing her to everyone as his future wife. When she went to break up with the brother-in-law, he locked himself up in a room with a gun and threatened to kill himself.  Unlike Sammy, my mother came from money: her father was in the pants business and one of his customers was Bugsy Siegel.  Her parents were opposed to the marriage because Sammy didn’t seem as if he could support a family. Then she was in the hospital, seriously ill with peritonitis, with her father at her bedside, praying for her to get well.  She looked at him and said, “I’ll only live if I can marry Sammy.”  And she got well.

You know, he was the first drummer for Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw.  He was with Goodman at Billy Rose’s Music Hall in June of 1934. But when they went on the road, he didn’t go, because he wanted to stay home and raise a family.  

That’s why Gene Krupa showed up, and Buddy Rich, because Sammy stayed in New York.  In fact, when I was young, I went with my dad to the musicians’ union on Hollywood and Vine, I was crossing the street and Buddy Rich was crossing the street the other way, coming towards us, and the two of them stopped in the middle of the street, hugging each other, and I was standing there, going “What the heck?”

He moved to the West Coast in 1945 because my older brother got very sick, and the doctors told him that my brother couldn’t survive another winter.  Luckily, the Jack Benny Show was moving west. When he and my mother first moved out to California, their house had a room separate from the house where the musicians would jam, also because my brothers were musical.  There were always people coming and going, and they used to say that my mother cooked in army pots because there were so many.  Maurice played trumpet, drums, and piano.  My brother Allan sang and played drums.  And Jack played clarinet, saxophone, drums, and piano. And they all had bands.

I was twelve years younger, so I remember hearing about all of this, but I was little. I played piano, violin, and guitar.  My father always used to say I had perfect pitch, because he would call across the room, “Hit A,” and I would hit it.  One day they got a notice in the mail, “Come to _____ School.  Your daughter is playing first-chair violin in the orchestra.”  They didn’t even know.  I had found a violin in the garage, took it to school, and learned how to play it.

On radio, he worked on WNEW and then went on staff with WNBC. He had his own radio show called JAMMIN’ WITH SAMMY, and worked with Paul Whiteman, Kate Smith, Walter Damrosch, “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” with Abe Lyman — also with Mark Warnow, Freddie Rich, Ray Bloch, Raymond Scott, Paul Lavalle. He could read, play piano, and all the percussion instruments.  He was on the Carnation Show, Meet Millie, Edgar Bergen, the Colgate Hour, Russ Morgan, Jack Carson, Lucky Strike, Al Jolson, Steve Allen, Burns and Allen, Victor Young, Dinah Shore.  My mother took Dinah Shore to pick out an outfit for her first audition in New York. My father accompanied Tony Martin at the Cocoanut Grove.  In 1953, he did a movie with Frank Sinatra, THE JOKER IS WILD.  He recorded with Johnny Guarneri and Slam Stewart for Savoy Records.

On the Benny Show, he was a character.  He was bald.  They actually wrote a show about me, in May 1951, “When Sammy’s Wife Has a Baby.”  The joke was that everyone went to see the baby in the hospital, and someone says, “How did you know which one was Jayne?”  “She was bald!”  Jack and Mary Benny bought me my layette when I was born.

He had his own band for private parties and conventions, dances. In November 1957 he had a month’s engagement at the Hollywood Palladium, “playing the kind of music the public has always loved.”

He was wonderful.  Definitely Mister Personality.  A wonderful father who loved his kids.  I had the best parents ever.  He was so involved.  We would have lots of people for the holidays, for Thanksgiving.  Wherever we went, if we would walk into a restaurant, “Oh, my God! Sam!”  And he was such a sport. My mother would yell at him because he would always pick up the tab. “Bring me his check.”  People knew him at the market, on the golf course.  He could golf during the day and work at night.

There’s a famous steakhouse, Monty’s in the San Fernando Valley. On my twenty-first birthday, we went there for dinner.  Over the years, I heard “Me Tarzan.  You Jane.” jokes constantly.  That night, sitting at the bar, was Johnny Weissmuller, drunk.  My father didn’t realize just how drunk Johnny was, but he said, “Look, it’s my daughter’s birthday, and her name is Jayne.  It would be such a hoot if you came over and did your shtick.”  There was an outdoor patio, and Johnny opened the doors and did the Tarzan call, then came over to the table and said, “You Jane.  Me Tarzan.”  I wanted to die, to crawl under the table.

Sammy was on every Mickey Katz album.  My mother actually sings on one. Mickey and Grace Katz were very dear friends of our family. In fact, I  have a picture of Joel Grey before his nose job, dancing with my mother at one of the bar mitzvahs!  Mickey did my father’s eulogy.  I knew Mannie Klein (his wife was nicknamed “Dopey”) and he gave me a nickname when I was about three.  They would sit me on the piano, and call me “Quackwee.”

He passed away in 1977 from pancreatic cancer.  He was only 67. My older brother also contracted that cancer and died at 75.

Many thanks to Jayne Weiss and her brother Allan for their memories and memorabilia: they’ve made their father come wholly alive once again.

May your happiness increase!

“ALOHA.”

rich-conaty-portrait

RICH CONATY 1954-2016

In the history of jazz, people who do not play instruments do as much, in different ways, to sustain the art without getting equal credit. Think of Milt Gabler, George Avakian, Henry Sklow, Norman Granz, George Wein, Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, and other catalysts. Then there are broadcasters. “Broadcasting” meant something even before radio and television: spreading something widely, effectively: a newsboy shouting the headlines or a farmer distributing seed over a field. Jazz radio broadcasters — in previous decades Martin Block, Art Ford, Fred Robbins, Sid Torin; in our time Ed Beach, John S. Wilson, Phil Schaap, Dan Morgenstern, Alisa Clancy, Linda Yohn and many others – do more than play records. They become our friends, teachers, and benefactors. We look forward to their voices, personalities, and insights. Before there was streaming radio, we arranged our schedules around them; we tape-recorded their programs, which became sweet swinging libraries, introducing us to new artists or rare records.

Rich Conaty, who died of cancer on December 30, 2016, gave his energy and ultimately his life in the reverent and delighted service of the music he loved: the pop and jazz of the teens, Twenties, and Thirties, roughly 1911-1939. For forty-four years, he shared that music on a Sunday-night broadcast on Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV-FM (90.7). Rich’s THE BIG BROADCAST, named in homage to the 1932 film with Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, the Boswell Sisters, Arthur Tracy, Cab Calloway, and others, was a consistent pleasure.

Rich was enchanted by this music when he was thirteen or fourteen, began broadcasting as a high school student on New York’s Hofstra College radio station. When he had to choose a college, he picked Fordham University because of its radio station, and beginning in January 1973, was on the air every Sunday night, live perhaps fifty weeks every year, taping shows in advance when he went away, perhaps to visit his mother in Florida.

Early on, Rich formed an alliance with Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks, and these two did more to introduce this music to a wider, younger audience than perhaps anyone. Rich said that his program was “for the old and the old at heart,” for his humor was sharply wry (occasionally painfully self-deprecating) but he was most happy to learn that some seventeen-year old was now collecting Chick Bullock 78s or had fallen in love with Lee Wiley. He had other interests – vintage Nash automobiles, cats, and other kinds of vintage pop culture – but was devoted to the music and musicians above all.

Listening to Rich for decades, I was able to trace the subtle development of a scholarly intelligence.  Years ago, his library of recordings was small (as was mine) so he played the Mills Brothers’ TIGER RAG frequently.  As he became the person and the scholar he was meant to become, his awareness, knowledge, and collection deepened.

We’ve heard earnest but ignorant radio announcers – those who call the Ellington clarinetist “Barney Biggered,” or the King of Jazz “Paul White Man,” but Rich knew his music, his musicians, and his history. Every show, he created tributes to musicians, songwriters, and other figures whose birthday he would celebrate: not just Bix, Bing, Louis, Jolson, Annette; his enthusiasm for songwriters and figures, once renowned, now obscure, was astonishing. He had interviewed Bob Effros, Edward Eliscu, Ben Selvin, and Vet Boswell on the air; he was friends with Dolly Dawn, had gotten drunk with Cab Calloway. Connee Boswell sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him over the phone; Arthur Tracy performed at his wedding to Mary Hayes (“Manhattan Mary,” who also died too young of cancer).

Rich expanded our knowledge and our joy by playing an astonishing range of music from his own collection of vintage records. Every Sunday that I heard the program, I would say several times, “What is that? I never heard that record before!” and this was true in 2015 and 2016, where it seems as if everything is accessible on CD, download, or YouTube. He spent his life surrounded by 78s – those he had acquired at auction, those he was selling at record shows. Because the idea of THE BIG BROADCAST was not just famous, documented recordings, he would often play a record about which little was known. But he could offer an educated guess about the true band behind the Crown label pseudonym, whether the singer was Irving or Jack Kaufman, when the song had been premiered – much more than statistics gleaned from books. He took requests from his devoted audience, gave away tickets to jazz concerts, and with Bryan Wright, created a series of BIG BROADCAST CDs — I have more than a few — which are wonderful cross-sections of the period.

I should say that his taste was admirable.  He didn’t play every 78 he had found — no sermons, no organ recitals of light classics, no comedy records — but within the “pop and jazz” area I could trust him to play the good stuff, the music that would otherwise be forgotten.  He left IN THE MOOD to others, but he played Henry Burr, Bill Coleman, Jane Green, Johnny Marvin, Fred Rich, Ben Selvin, Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Emmett Miller, Eddie Lang, Jack Purvis, Luis Russell, The Sunshine Boys, Kate Smith, Ted Weems, early Ellington, Jean Goldkette, and on and on.

And part of the pleasure of his expertise and of radio in general (at its best, when the programmer is subtle and wise) is not just the delighted shock of one record, but of the juxtapositions Rich created in three-sides-in-a-row.  THE BIG BROADCAST was rather like being invited to an evening at Jeff Healey’s house, where you knew the music would be embracing, uplifting, and educational in the best way.  (I should also say that Rich did talk — digressing into his own brand of stand-up comedy, with little bits of slightly off-key a cappella singing — but music made up the bulk of the program.  He wouldn’t tell you the personnel of the thirteen-piece big band, by choice, I am sure, because it would mean he could play fewer recordings.)

On a personal note: I, like many others, made cassettes of the program and played them in the car.  I fell asleep to the program on hundreds of Sunday nights.  When I was young and diligent, I graded student essays to it. Although Rich and I had much of the same focused obsession with the music, we met in person only a few times (I think always at Sofia’s when the Nighthawks were playing) and THE BIG BROADCAST was his world — and by extension the health and welfare of WFUV.  So our conversations were brief, before the band started or in between sets.  But my debt to him is immeasurable, and it would not have increased had our conversations been lengthy.

rich-conaty-at-wfuv

I do not know what will happen to Rich’s recorded legacy – more than eight thousand hours of radio. Some shows have been archived and can be heard through wfuv.org, but whether the station will share others as a tribute is not yet decided. More information can be found on the Facebook page devoted to Fans of the WFUV Big Broadcast.

I think of Wild Bill Davison’s puzzled question about Frank Teschemacher, dead in an auto accident in Bill’s car, “Where are we going to get another sax player like Tesch?” Paraphrase the question to apply to Rich Conaty, and the answer is, “We never will.” But his generosity will live on.

Aloha.  And Mahalo.

May your happiness increase!

“WOULD YOU CARE TO SIGN OUR GUEST BOOK?” (Liberty Music Shop, 1956-57)

As of July 10, 2015, this was the eBay link for those who like an incredible collection of autographs — and who have $4500.

Here’s the description.

[Autographs] [Guest Book] Hemingway, Ernest. (1899 – 1961) & Barber, Samuel. (1910 – 1981) & Givenchy, Hubert de. (b. 1927) & Graham, Martha. (1894 – 1991) & Ferber, Edna. (1885 – 1968) etc.

Incredible 1950s Guest Book for the Liberty Music Shop

Guest book for the famed Liberty Music Shop of New York, containing approximately 200 autographs and inscriptions, signed by distinguished visitors, a virtual who’s who of the cultural life of 1950s New York. Written approximately 15 to a page on the first 14 pages, some with date or place or comments, concluding with a large bold signature by Marian Anderson, written diagonally across the blank page. Oblong 8vo, leatherette. New York, [1956-57]. The signers include Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Barber, Martha Graham, Anna Magnani, Hubert de Givenchy, Anthony Perkins, Fred Astaire, Hoagy Carmichael, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Hayes (with an AMQS), Alan Jay Lerner (2x), Yul Brynner, Ogden Nash, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine, Andres Segovia, Margaret Hamilton, Tony Bennett, Myrna Loy, Edna Ferber, Zino Francescatti, Byron Janis, Farley Grainger, Rex Harrison, Broderick Crawford, Edward G. Robinson, George Szell, Jessica Tandy, Basil Rathbone, Claudette Colbert, Hazel Scott, Raymond Massey, Michel Auclair, Alexander Smallens, Kate Smith, James Mason, Ray Bolger, Benny Goodman, Noël Coward, Joan Blondell, Arnold Stang, Constance Talmadge, Garson Kanin, Mischa Elman, Erica Morini, Connee Boswell, Mario del Monaco, Robert Helptmann, Andor Foldes, Marta Eggerth, Vincent Price, Lillian Gish, Paulette Goddard, J. William Fulbright and dozens more.

The Liberty Music Shop was a fixture in the New York music scene from the 1930s through the 1950s, catering to cognoscenti and celebrities.

Why should this be on JAZZ LIVES?  One, it’s a spectacular rarity.  Some of the names above should excite people who apparently only listen to jazz, night and day.  But for the most seriously narrow readers, there’s also a genuine Benny Goodman signature and — happiness! — a Jo Jones inscription, which is how he signed two record jackets for me in 1981-2.  The seller offered photographs of sample pages — not all fifteen — which means that some of the signatures noted above aren’t visible.  But enough are to make it fascinating.

Here’s the first page, beautifully signed by Marian Anderson:

AUTOGRAPH BOOK NINE Marian Andersonand here I see Mischa Elman, Peter Lind Hayes, Alan Jay Lerner, Farley Grainger, Edward G. Robinson, and Joyce Van Patten, among others.

AUTOGRPAH BOOK TWOHere’s Jack Carter (who just left us), Bill Hayes, Garson Kanin, Herman Shumlin, and Earle Hyman . . .

AUTOGRAPH BOOK THREEAnd where else would you find Ray Bolger and Francoise Sagan in such proximity?

AUTOGRAPH BOOK FOURI love the strange combinations: Gene Tunney, Herb Shriner, Jo Jones, Margaret Hamilton, Tony Bennett, and Herb Shriner, the last asking for a discount.

AUTOGRAPH BOOK FIVE Jo Tony 1957Still more: David Rose and Chris Connor.

AUTOGRAPH BOOK SIX Chris Connor David RoseAnd Charles Boyer, an authentic Benny Goodman (unless he brought one of his staff to sign for him), Kevin McCarthy, Givenchy, and Anthony Perkins.AUTOGRAPH BOOK SEVEN BGFinally, Dorothy Gish, Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Astaire.

AUTOGRAPH BOOK EIGHT Gish Hoagy AstaireKeener eyes than mine will no doubt discern other famous names.  It’s an awful cliche to say that giants walked the earth, but I know for certain that they went to the Liberty Music Shop.

May your happiness increase!

CONSIDERING THE MYSTERY: “THE BOSWELL LEGACY,” by KYLA TITUS and CHICA BOSWELL MINNERLY

I prize books that offer new information, solidly documented, instead of conjecture and syntheses of well-known data.  Books about departed jazz musicians often have trouble presenting new information or new interpretations of already-established information, because many musicians received little press coverage in their lifetime, did not leave behind correspondence.  So the subjects take their mysteries with them, leaving us to speculate.

After much investigation, we can be reasonably certain why Lester Young quit the Count Basie band in 1940.  We know much more about the last days of Bix Beiderbecke, Billie Holiday, Jimmie Blanton; we’ve learned much about the private life of Louis and Lucille Armstrong.

The Sisters when young.

The Sisters when young.

But one mystery has only been nibbled at — why the glorious Boswell Sisters separated after national and international success. A new, invaluable book, THE BOSWELL LEGACY, written by Kyla Titus, granddaughter of Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, from research and information gathered by Chica Boswell Minnerly (mother of Kyla, daughter of Vet) is a prize.

BOSWELL LEGACY cover

The mysteries that surround the Boswells is not what we expect of other revered artistic figures.  During their very short heyday, they were more in the public eye than, let us say, almost any brilliant African-American musician.  (Who interviewed Herschel Evans, for example?)

But for all the newspaper coverage and media attention, the Sisters had been raised early to follow “the Foore Code,” “Foore” being a family name.  The Code had many positive aspects: self-reliance; kindness; decorum . . . but it also emphasized privacy and strongly-stated boundaries.  “Never expose private family business to anyone outside the family.”

Even though Connie lived until 1976 and Vet to 1988, they kept the Code in place, gently turning aside the question, “Why did the Sisters break up?” as if indiscreet.  So Boswell admirers like myself could chart the trio’s ascent from 1925 to 1936 through their recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances, and paper ephemera, but we had no insight into the transformation.  Some may have surmised that Connie’s career was so successful that she and her manager / husband intended that she be a solo attraction.  In addition, the Sisters married in the last years of their stardom.  But the separation continued to puzzle and irk us, especially because we want to know more about the lives of the people we admire.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY does the best job possible of making the mysterious accessible.  And it does so from the inside, rather than assembling rumors and constructing hypotheses. It has the depth and intelligence of a scholarly biography with no academic dryness.  Rather than start as so many biographies do, with the birth of the subjects’ ancestors, this book starts at a place few will be familiar with — Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 29, 1955 — with the Sisters assembling on stage for an impromptu reunion during Connie’s engagement (singing HEEBIE JEEBIES as if they had never stopped performing).

(I thought at this point — and I cannot have been alone — of all the stars of the Twenties and Thirties who continued to appear on television in the Sixties and Seventies, and wished for an alternate universe where we could have seen the Sisters on THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE or THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW.)

The book then shifts back to the past, exploring the family as far back as the start of the nineteenth century . . . then to their eventual move to New Orleans and their involvement in music there.  The book takes on its true strength as the pages turn, and that strength is in well-utilized first-hand evidence, particularly correspondence.  We do not get long letters, which might stall the narrative, but we get dated excerpts in proper contexts.  Thus we hear, as well as we can, the vivid voices of the participants.

I commend Kyla Titus’ honesty throughout.  One of the inescapable facts of Connie Boswell’s life was that, although able, she could not walk.  No single clear explanation of this exists, and Titus handles the two hypotheses — a childhood accident or polio — gracefully and candidly.  When we finish reading her presentation of the evidence, we may feel that the answer remains elusive, but we never feel that the author is ill-informed or keeping anything from us.

The book begins to move rapidly through the Sisters’ musical education, Martha’s deep love for the short-lived cornetist Emmett Hardy (dead at 22), and the gestation of the Sisters as a trio.  Success mounts steadily — at their first New York City record date, the musicians stand up and applaud when their first successful take is concluded.  They appear on radio, in film, and on a 1931 experimental broadcast of that new invention, television.  But even at that point, a reader can see tension as the Sisters’ manager, Harry Leedy, is also Connie’s manager, with conflicting allegiances. The Sisters cross paths (and sometimes work with) luminaries Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Russ Columbo, the then-unknown comedian Bob Hope, Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong; they tour England and Holland, triumphantly.

But by 1936, the Sisters — as if by erosion rather than by a definite blow — have become three separate married women.  And although they speak happily of this in public, it appears that Martha and Vet wait for a reunion, which becomes less likely . . . returning the book to the one song in Milwaukee in 1955.

At the end of the saga, it is not entirely clear what happened.  Was it Connie’s steely ambition, her desire to be a star on her own, that cracked close harmony into three pieces?  Was it the divided loyalty of Harry Leedy?  Once again, I admire Titus’ refusal to force the conflicting evidence into one answer, and I think her fairness admirable, her unwillingness to assign the actors in this play roles as Victims and Villains.

Although the breakup of the group is perhaps the single greatest mystery for us, the book is not obsessed throughout with the collapse of Sisters as a trio; that occupies us for the last segment.  It is ultimately a loving look at three innovative, independent women who made their own way, both as individuals and as musicians, at a time when women were not thought to influence the men in their field to any great extent.

The book is wisely titled THE BOSWELL LEGACY, and Titus balances her and our sadness at the end of the Sisters’ career with our awareness that the “three little girls from New Orleans” left us so much — not only in recordings, airshots, and film appearances, but a living tradition for swinging, inventive close harmony groups.  To some, they live on in the energetic, witty, sweet voices of new generations.  I found the book’s ending melancholy, but I am looking forward to the film documentary about the  Sisters, CLOSE HARMONY (here you can view the trailer) as an emotional corrective.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY is a large-format paperback, nearly two hundred pages, clearly written, generously illustrated with rare photographs and documents.  Anyone who has gotten a thrill from “Shout, Sister, Shout” will find this book essential. I don’t think a better or more informative book on the Boswells can be written.

Here you can read the introduction to the book by Boswell scholar David McCain, and the preface by Kyla Titus, and here you can buy a copy of the book ($21.95 USD including shipping.)

Enough words.  Here are the Sisters in their first film appearance, CLOSE FARMONY:

No one’s replaced them; no one ever will.

May your happiness increase!

A SPY FOR DIXIELAND

Ian Fleming never gave me a thought.  I never had a specially-equipped car, dangerous gadgets.  But I was a spy for Dixieland.

In a recent seminar with one of my mentors, Prof. Figg, he asked the question, “What are your secret guilty musical pleasures?”

I think the Professor expected that I was listening to Justin Bieber or to marimba orchestras.  Toy pianos.  Singing dogs.  Kate Smith.  Anthony Braxton.  Rossini overtures.  Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And although I thought hard, I couldn’t come up with any guilty musical pleasures.  Oh, I love sentiment: Connee Boswell’s LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY makes me cry.  But I am proud of my reaction to her singing, so there’s nothing guilty in it.

But then I started to remember the time when I was a jazz operative in enemy country.

When I was nine or ten, I was already seriously hooked by hot jazz.  Louis Armstrong, first and foremost.  I recall spending birthday money on a Louis record, and I was thrilled when he appeared on television.

I was in the fifth grade when the Beatles came to the United States, and I found them fascinating — but for only a short time.  They were fun, energetic, new, uninhibited.  I remember pestering my father to buy me the soundtrack album from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.  When I could, I bought those records, borrowed them from friends, tried so hard to make them my personal soundtrack.  (Everyone else did.)

I got all the way up to RUBBER SOUL before I decided that I didn’t really like this music all that much.  What I was entranced by was the possibility of being liked because you like what everyone else likes.

I had already begun to notice, although I probably did not articulate it to myself, that one’s musical preferences were ways definitions of one’s self, stated publicly or otherwise.  One’s taste was an ideological / emotional badge.

If you liked Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ THIS DIAMOND RING (why do I remember this now?) you were possibly a member of the club that could be considered worthy of being inspected for possible admission to the clubhouse.

But walking around telling my peers that I listened to Louis Armstrong — the truth — was clearly not the way to be accepted, to be cool, to be “in” or popular.  I remember telling some adults, who looked at me indulgently.  Perhaps they thought my preference more strange than the loud music their children were listening to.  My conscious anachronism must have struck them as at best, a benign eccentricity; at worst, inexplicable.

Among my peers, anything that new and rebellious was good.  Ancient and entrenched was definitely not.  When I met the pretty granddaughter of our French-Canadian neighbors, I knew I could not tell her that I preferred Fats Waller to Iron Butterfly and expect her to swoon.  “Our” music was supposed to unsettle the old folks who fed and clothed you; it wasn’t supposed to have any comforting connections to their world.  Jini Hendrix, not Jimmie Blanton.

So I kept my love to myself.  I told very few people that I listened to Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland in my room, that I read Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES (and was then violently disappointed by his playing — I was too young to appreciate those Bluebird sides).  I couldn’t really confess to anyone that I loved Bobby Hackett’s air-traceries on ballads, that “Dixieland jazz” on television — those small groupings of oddly-dressed men — thrilled me.  I even remember watching Lawrence Welk’s program for the brief “hot” interludes (not knowing at the time that I would someday see and admire Bob Havens in person).  Even my parents, who were very indulgent and loving, did not quite know what to make of my obsession: they had lived through the Depression and the Swing Era, but the depth of my ardor must have puzzled them.

In this century, a broader acceptance is the rule.  It is much easier to say, “Oh, I listen to Bulgarian hip-hop,” or “I am working on my harpsichord on the weekends,” than it was.  I know a young woman in middle school who dresses in elaborate clothing every day, plays the ukulele, analyzes 1905 Sousa records.  She seems to have gained much more flexibility to be unusual in this century than I had in mine.

My generation may have marched to Thoreau’s different drummer, but to call the metaphorical figure of independence Dave Tough did not do.   It still seems a towering irony that my nonconformist friends were obliviously conformist.

I had to go underground because I identified so strongly with the music of an earlier generation and one before that.  I didn’t dance, so I hadn’t met the swing-dance generation who would teach me the Balboa and know, instinctively, which version of SWINGIN’ THE BLUES they liked.  In 1966, had I come out of the aesthetic closet and said, “The music I like was the popular music — or at least one strain of it — in 1936,” I would be marked as even more freakish than I already was.

I could and did wear the flowered shirts and bell-bottom trousers (both of which pleased me for their own sake) but I could not admit to an admiration for Pee Wee Russell.  To do so would be to say, “I want to be just like your grandparents,” not readily accepted among my peers.

It might have been easier if I had had the ability and patience to seriously attempt a musical instrument.  Then I could have hung out in the bandroom with the other trumpet geeks and said, “Have you heard what Ray Nance does here?”  But that community was denied me.

Even when I was in an independent study program in my senior year of high school, I knew I had to practice secrecy.  It was difficult to unmask.  My friend Stu Zimny has reminded me of our being on field trips into Manhattan, and my running off during our lunch break to buy Commodore 78s.  He would ask, “What did you buy?” and I would say, “Oh, nothing really.  You wouldn’t be interested,” or some similar falsehood.

I was afraid of being laughed at if I was seen buying archaic recordings of strange music with odd-sounding players.  Red, Muggsy, Big Sid, Little T . . . these heroic affectionate sobriquets were encouraged in baseball but not elsewhere.

My affections did not transfer easily.  My seventeen-year-old self — suave, stylish, ineffably debonair, thought that Jack Teagarden’s 1954 recording of A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY was the best seduction music ever.  What woman could resist his wooing?  (All of them.)

I don’t remember when and how the mists began to lift.  It may have been when I began to encounter other young men at jazz concerts.  We glanced at each other cautiously, suspiciously.  “You like this music too?”  “Yeah.”  “Don’t tell anyone, OK?”  “I like hot jazz.”  “Shhhh!  Keep it down.  They’ll hear us!”

But I only began to “come out” in college, perhaps defensively but more proud.  “Yes, I listen to Louis Armstrong records.  Do you want to come to my house and hear what I am listening to?”

It wasn’t always easy.  “Cartoon music” was often the way my records were described.  “How can you listen to that old stuff?  What do you hear in it?” “Wow, that’s old-fashioned!”

At this point in the imagined black-and-white film, calendar pages fall off the wall.  We are now in NOW, this century, where I am entirely comfortable with my own love for hot music.

It fascinates me that when the Beloved lovingly introduces me, “Oh, this is my Sweetie — he has a great jazz video blog!” I can see people’s eyelids begin to flutter — with puzzlement or tedium, it is hard to say.  I can only imagine what people think.  “Oh, no.  Jazz, for God’s sake.  One step less interesting than toy trains.  What shall I say?  I never ‘understood jazz,’ and this fellow is obviously so interested in it that he’s vibrating as he stands there.”  So they say, generously, “Jazz!  Wow, that’s interesting.  Do you like Miles Davis?”  Or “I think John Coltrane was a very spiritual being.  I like electro-fusion.  Do you like Diana Krall?”

And they are being as gracious as human beings can be, so it pains me to redirect their enthusiasm.  But I have to say, “Well, I admire Miles and Coltrane, but my heart is with older stuff.”  “Oh, what do you mean?”  “Louis Armstrong is my hero.  Billie Holiday.  Duke Ellington,” keeping it as plain as possible.  And it is clear that with those words and those names I have marked myself as An Oddity.  The most kind people say, “Did you see ANTIQUES ROADSHOW last night?  There was a woman who had a whole collection of autographed band photographs from the Big Band Era, and one of them was signed by Louis Armstrong?”  Others smile sweetly, vaguely, and head for the white wine spritzers.

Jazz still remains a mystery to most people, and those of us who truly resonate to it are destined to remain Outsiders.  It’s a pity.  Why shouldn’t everyone be able to share the great pleasures that we know?

I am now a Spy Emeritus, now able to view these episodes with nostalgia and amusement tempering my puzzlement.  Call me 0078, retired.  But I remember the feeling of being out of step with the culture of my times, and being made to feel weird.

Yet I followed what I loved, and jazz has paid me back for my loyalty a million times over.  And it continues to do so.

This one’s for my friends AJS and KD — and, as always, for the Beloved, who knew that it don’t mean a thing . . . before I ever came along.

May your happiness increase.

LIGHTS OUT (CLOSE YOUR EYES AND DREAM OF ME)

In the name of accuracy, I must report that other copies of the sheet music for this song (circa 1935-6) have Kate Smith on the cover, so I don’t know if Louis ever performed it.  But he did record Hill’s THERE’S A CABIN IN THE PINES, and he would have known his friend Bing’s recording of THE LAST ROUNDUP.  The song seems to have been more popular with sweet bands — the lyrics below are connected in cyberspace to Eddy Duchin — but that doesn’t rule out Louis hearing or performing it, given his deep affinity for the Lombardo brothers. 

A tangential Louis-connection is that LIGHTS OUT was recorded by a jazz combo — with a vocal by Chick Bullock — under tenorist Art Karle’s nominal leadership (January 1936, Brunswick) with Mezz Mezzrow on clarinet, Joe Bushkin on piano and legendary drummer George Stafford as well as Frank Newton!

Beyond that, we have to imagine Louis tenderly asking the Beloved to close her eyes and dream of him.  I can hear the 1935 Decca band — think of THANKS A MILLION — doing this perfectly.  

The lyrics aren’t complex or striving for cleverness, but they’re very touching in their simplicity:

Lights out, sweetheart,
One more perfect day is through.
Lights out, sweetheart,
One more perfect dream come true.
We’ve reached the hour of parting,
So kiss me tenderly.
Lights out, sweetheart,
Close your eyes and dream of me.

Here’s a simple version of the melody, played sweetly by someone who may answer to “djweth”:

And a cover portrait of Billy Hill:

Let’s all sing!

And a postscript, sent to me from the invaluable Jack Rothstein, who knew “Arthur” Karle in Boston in the late Forties, about the LIGHTS OUT record date: “Arthur Karle told me they needed a piano player so he called Bushkin.  His father answered the phone and told him Joey was at the movies.  Arthur persuaded him to go get him.  He went but they wouldn”t page him so he bought a ticket and from the balcony yelled for Joey to go home.  And that’s how Bushkin got his first recording date.  It was the little Loews on 86th St. between Lexington and Third, directly across the street from the Loews Orpheum (the big Loews).”

WHO ERASED MILDRED BAILEY?

I have been listening to Mildred Bailey’s singing since the early Seventies, when I found the three-record Columbia set devoted to her recordings from 1929-47.  And she never fails to move me — with her tenderness, her technique, her wit.  But Mildred has very few champions these days.  Even the late Whitney Balliett, whose taste and judgment were unparalleled, wrote that Mildred succeeded neither as a pop singer or a jazz one.  And if you were to ask the most well-informed listener who the greatest women jazz singers are, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would head the list (if not two dozen others ranging from Diana Krall to Shirley Horn to Ella Logan to Marion Harris) . . . but Mildred is forgotten, or all but forgotten.

Why?

It can’t be because of her race.  We finally have come to accept that White folks can swing, can’t we?

Some of her invisibility has to do with her elusiveness.  Billie and Ella have established, defined “personalities,” which ironically might have little relationship to what they sang.  “Billie Holiday” as an iconic figure equals self-destructive heroin addict, short-lived victim, a tortured figure, someone for whom MY MAN or DON’T EXPLAIN was painful autobiography.  Subject of a bad melodramatic movie; a ghost-written “autobiography” and several biographies as well as documentary films.  And the most accessible visual image of Billie is from the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ — careworn, rueful, lovely.  There is the engaging rasp of her voice in te Thirties, the moody cry and croak of her later recordings.

“Ella Fitzgerald” is sunny exuberance, scat-singing, someone making a jazzy version of the American songbook accessible to anyone in the Fifties who owned a record player.  A cheerful endurance, whether alongside Chick Webb, Louis, Basie, or Ellington.  Everyman and woman’s identifiable Jazz Singer, easy to understand. 

Today marketers call this “branding,” boiling down the unique self into a few immediately recognizable qualities — as if people were products to be put in the shopping cart in a hurry.   

Then there is the issue of size. 

In Charles Peterson’s 1939 photographs of Billie that I have posted recently, we see a seriously chubby young woman.  Ella was always a large woman, but no one said anything about it.  Some astute listeners did not worry about a woman singer’s weight.  Think of Wagnerian sopranos.  Think of Kate Smith.  Did anyone care that Connee Boswell could not get off the piano bench?  And men are forgiven a great deal.   

But in pop music, listeners tend to be much more fickle, visually oriented, even shallow.  It is difficult to escape Mildred Bailey’s appearance.  She was fat, and not “fat” in a jolly way — not the way that some Twenties blues singers could use to their advantage: Helen Humes or Edith Wilson singing about their weight as a sexual asset (Miss Wilson’s lyric: “Why should men approach with caution / For this extry-special portion?”).  Aside from laughing at herself during the January 1944 Metropolitan Opera House jam session — while singing “Pick me up / On your knee” in SQUEEZE ME, she and the band are chuckling at the difficulty of such a task — Mildred did not joke about her size, nor did she make it part of “an act.” 

Many listeners want their popular icons to be erotically desirable.  Sex sells; sex appeals.  Eventually, as they age,  singers pass an invisible boundary and become Venerable.  Think of all the cover pictures of singers, male and female, posed as if on magazine covers — Lee Wiley reclining on a couch on one of the Fifties RCA Victors; Julie London smoldering, her long red-blonde hair flowing.  Misses Krall and Tierney Sutton, today.  (I receive many new CDs by young women who consider themselves singers.  They look like models.  They credit a hair stylist, a wardrobe consultant, a make-up artist.  I think, “Can you sing?”)

Consider Mildred’s contemporaries: pretty, svelte, apparently youthful forever: Peggy Lee, Edythe Wright, Helen Ward, even Doris Day.  But Mildred’s photographs make her look matronly, and she is making no effort to woo the viewer. 

Let us even give audiences of the Thirties and Forties the benefit of the doubt.  If you did not live in a big American city, how many opportunities would you have to see Mildred Bailey and to judge her on the basis of her size rather than her art?  Possibly you saw her on the cover of a piece of sheet music or stared at the label of one of her Vocalion 78s, heard her on the radio.  No film footage exists of her.   

There is the nature of Mildred’s art.  Many artists have one approach, whether they are singing EMPTY BED BLUES of SILENT NIGHT.  If she was singing DOWNHEARTED BLUES, she was lowdown and melancholy (while swinging); LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN and GIVE ME TIME brought out different kinds of tenderness.  On CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU and ARTHUR MURRAY TAUGHT ME DANCING IN A HURRY, she was hilarious.  IT’S SO PEACEFUL IN THE COUNTRY was calm and pastoral, THANKS FOR THE MEMORY rueful, knowing.  And IN LOVE IN VAIN is, althought masterfully understated, a heartbreaking performance.  Versatility is bad for branding; it confuses the consumer.   

As a band singer — the first woman to be hired in that role — with Paul Whiteman and her husband Red Norvo, she recorded a good many songs that were forgettable: THREE LITTLE FISHIES, for one.  Perhaps the girlish quality of Mildred’s upper register may have disconcerted some listeners, who would prefer their jazz singers to be plaintive and husky.  But arguing over the definitions of a jazz singer and a pop singer seems a silly business.  Do you like what you hear?  

Although we can feel both fascinated and sympathetic while considering Billie’s difficult life, Ella’s poor childhood, Mildred would have had a hard time making diabetes and obesity intriguing to us. 

I also suspect that those who ignore her Mildred do so not because her voice displeases them, but because she subliminally represents OLD.  I don’t mean OLD in the sense of the past, but in the sense of elderly, of senior citizen.  What bad luck made Mildred identify herself “The Rockin’ Chair Lady?”  Of course, her performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR was superb; she took it as her theme song.  But — when we want our stars to be aerobically bouncy — for Mildred to portray herself as immobilized, unable to get out of her chair, was not a good way to market herself.  (And artists were products even in the Thirties.)     

Alas, poor Mildred.  Were she to apply for a job and be turned down because of her appearance, she could sue, win, and collect a substantial settlement.  But dead artists can’t sue an ignorant public for discrimination. 

Listen to her sing

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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