Tag Archives: Marion Harris

DESIRE (SUPPRESSED) and PASSION (SECRET), THEN and NOW

Does popular art follow high art, or the reverse, or are the coincidences simply coincidental?  In 1915, Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook premiered a play, SUPPRESSED DESIRES; 1924, Eugene O’Neill’s DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS; 1929, Dali’s THE ACCOMODATIONS OF DESIRE.  PASSION had always been part of the cultural vocabulary, so no need to search out appearances in the Twenties.  A graduate student in early modernist popular culture would probably trace some of this to Havelock Ellis, Theodoor Hendrik Van de Velde, and others writing for a curious public.  I don’t doubt that Dr. Freud is behind all this in some way, also.

I know that the stereotypical idea of pop songwriters is cigar-smoking fellows looking to make money off the latest craze, but it is possible that some of those brilliant tunesmiths read something in the paper besides the sports pages.  Make what you will of the synchronicity or the coincidence, these two songs, HE’S MY SECRET PASSION and MY SUPPRESSED DESIRE enjoyed some fame in that year, the second creation even featured in a film where I would think little was suppressed.

I’ve known MY SUPPRESSED DESIRE for years through the Bing Crosby – Harry Barris – Al Rinker recording, a series of small hot comedic playlets unfolding one after another:

Bing’s “Tell it!” at 1:35 is a favorite moment, and I like the way the recording morphs through moods and tempos — a whole stage show in miniature, with the introduction coming around as the conclusion, and the rocking intensity of Bing’s last bridge.

Here’s a very pleasing Goldkette-styled version by Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra:

There are several excellent contemporary dance band versions of this song — by Coon-Sanders Nighthawks, Verne Buck, and Lud Gluskin — which I leave to you to find on YouTube, because for me the Rhythm Boys’ version blots all the others out.

Now (thanks to Jonathan David Holmes) I have a new recording of HE’S MY SECRET PASSION by The Four Bright Sparks, my favorite new band name, to share with you.  I find the instrumental combination of clarinet, xylophone, guitar, drums, and piano entrancing, and Queenie Leonard’s slightly emphatic singing is also charming.  Discographer Tom Lord sniffs, “The above was a studio group but they played straight dance music and nearly never featured hot solo work,” a classic example of jazz-snobbery:

And here is Marion Harris’ impossibly tender reading of PASSION:

Showing that passion has living validity in this century also, Barbara Rosene and friends (among others, Conal Fowkes, Michael Hashim, Pete Martinez, Brian Nalepka, and Craig Ventresco) in 2007:

Barbara, Conal Fowkes, and Danny Tobias will be performing at Mezzrow on West Tenth Street in New York City on June 13.  Her shows are always delightful, and, yes, attendance will be taken.

Attentive textual explicators will note that these are not the same song at all: the singer of PASSION is wistful and hopeful that an introduction can be arranged and great things will result, where the singer of SUPPRESSED notes accurately that the Object of Desire belongs to someone else, which is an entirely different situation.  But these recordings and the songs are atypically cheerful — no one is lamenting that the opportunity has passed forever.  For listeners, we hope for the best: gratified passion, reciprocated desire.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

PRETTY LIVELY: EXILED SWEETHEARTS, CAGED BIRDS, SAD DOLLS, RUINED MAIDS

GLAD RAG DOLL 1929Members of repressive societies are forbidden to write about the forbidden; censorship blossoms in the name of morality.  But ingenious writers and artists make their way around prohibitions. Even in the most conservative environment, sin can be explored in popular culture if the writer is lamenting the horrid effects of such behavior.  Lost virginity and illicit drugs could be the titillating subjects of early films — if they were deplored rather than celebrated.

We could go back to 1900 for A BIRD IN A GILDED CAGE, by Arthur J. Lamb (lyrics) and Harry Von Tilzer (music), a huge popular hit that depicted a young woman in a loveless marriage who has chosen money over affection. The story goes that Lamb approached Von Tilzer with the lyrics, which Von Tilzer liked — but he wanted Lamb’s lyrics to make it clear that the young woman was not someone’s mistress.  The famous refrain is: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage, / A beautiful sight to see, / You may think she’s happy and free from care, / She’s not, though she seems to be, / ‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life, / For youth cannot mate with age, / And her beauty was sold, / For an old man’s gold, / She’s a bird in a gilded cage.”

Girls, don’t sell your beauty and be sure not to mate with age!

Here’s a 1904 version, sung by Harry Anthony:

Forward to two late-Twenties songs, music that motivated my meditations on bad girls who wear cosmetics.

The 1928 GLAD RAG DOLL (music by Milton Ager / Dan Dougherty; lyrics by Jack Yellen) assertively states that money and flashy clothing and jewelry bring only the most shallow happiness, even asking us where and how that finery was acquired.   The verse is almost accusatory: Hester Prynne has just gotten off the train in a small town, and everyone notices the way she’s dressed: “Little painted lady with your lovely clothes / Where are you bound for may I ask? / What your diamonds cost you everybody knows / All the world can see behind your mask.”

Here is Ruth Etting’s wistful version:

“Glad rags” become “sad rags” in a day; the brightly dressed young woman will never find a proper husband “to grow old and grey with,” and her many admirers will desert her — although she can always “amend” her flashy ways.  Presumably the speaker is sedately dressed and long married — neither a boy who “plays” nor a “pretty little toy the boys like to play with” any longer.  Respectable for sure, not aimed for disgrace or disappointment, but the painted woman seems to be having more fun, even if it is transitory.

I couldn’t leave GLAD RAG DOLL without offering Earl Hines’ wordless solo — rollicking without caring for the morals expressed in the stern lyrics:

nosweet1b

Another song in the same moral mode is NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, which most of us know as a Chicago hot number.  But its initial versions had the same warning coloration: the young woman, in this case, has left all her loyal small-town admirers behind for a shady life of glamor in the big city. Music by Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, lyrics by Gus Kahn and Ernie Erdman.

Here’s the sad verse: “You were ev’rybody’s sweetheart / Not so long ago / And in our home town, each boy around / Longed to be your beau / But things are diff’rent today / I’m mighty sorry to say.” Urban fashion seems to require a loss of purity, in a dichotomy. Either small-town sweetheart or Painted Woman Wearing A Bird of Paradise.

Hat with bird of paradise feathers circa 1900

Hat with bird of paradise feathers circa 1900

“You’re nobody’s sweetheart now, / There’s no place for you somehow, / With your fancy clothes, silken gowns, / You’ll be out of place in the middle of your own hometown, / When you walk down the avenue, / All the folks just can’t believe that it’s you. / With painted lips and painted eyes, / Wearing a bird of paradise, / It all seems wrong somehow, / You’re nobody’s sweetheart now!”  

It echoes Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser: the young woman who leaves her home for the big city will be changed irrevocably — exiled, outcast.  Neither GLAD RAG DOLL nor NOBODY’S SWEETHEART suggests that the young woman has earned her clothing and jewelry through prostitution, but there seems no moral way for a single woman to earn her keep without a husband, so the worst suspicions are never contradicted.  But she is beautifully and glamorously dressed.  Vice doesn’t endure but it certainly looks good in the short run.

Nobody's Sweetheart 1924

Here is Marion Harris’ sympathetic version from 1929:

A few years earlier, Billy Murray and a tough-talking Aileen Stanley deflated the song’s moral stance from the start:

And for those who might not have seen this 1929 short film, it contains a very swinging vocal by a young man from the heartland who would later say that his singing had always been an error.  He sounds pretty good here!

(Incidentally, there were popular hits depicting small-town women, loyal and true, who would never think of wearing jewelry or painting their faces — MY GAL SAL is just one example.  And thousands of songs, it seems, that celebrate impending matrimony — “when we two are one and someday there’ll be three”.)

Thinking about all those songs that both deplore and secretly celebrate young women who have wandered from the orthodox path of marriage, prudence, and dependence, I remembered a poem (from 1901) by Thomas Hardy, called THE RUINED MAID: 

“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!

Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?

And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —

“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

 

“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,

Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;

And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”

“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

 

“At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’

And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now

Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —

“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

 

“Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak

But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,

And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —

“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

 

“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,

And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem

To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —

“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

 

“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,

And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —

“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,

Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

In theory, Hardy was writing about the hard life of the country maiden, but it seems difficult to take that as the message of THE RUINED MAID, which makes being ruined a delightful version of upward social mobility.  A Moral?  Live fast, paint your face, leave home for the city, and you’ll be the subject of popular art.

And just in case this socio-literary survey has left you melancholy, here’s a modern version of NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW by Hal Smith’s International Sextet at Sacramento in 2011.  You can sing along with Kim Cusack by now:

That’s Hal Smith, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Anita Thomas, clarinet; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal. Uncredited appearance of a Recalcitrant Microphone Stand courtesy of the local Musicians’ Union.

May your happiness increase!

EVERY DREAM GONE: WILLARD ROBISON AND JACK TEAGARDEN

DON'T SMOKE IN BED

I have been thinking about Willard Robison a good deal the past few days.  For good reason, mind you: I was asked to write some notes for a forthcoming release on the Nif Nuf label of trumpeter Bob Barnard and friends playing Robison.  Vocals of a most beautiful kind by Bob’s niece Rebecca; other musicians including Jo Stevenson and Andrew Swann.

I don’t know enough about Robison’s life to say much about it, but his beautiful intriguing music seems to divide into the Inspirational — WAKE UP CHILLUN, WAKE UP; ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO; TRUTHFUL PARSON BROWN, the Affectionate — LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN, OLD FOLKS, and the Desolate / Lonely — ‘ROUND MY OLD DESERTED FARM, LONELY ACRES IN THE WEST, A COTTAGE FOR SALE, and his last great hit, DON’T SMOKE IN BED — circa 1948, and a success for Peggy Lee (whose version strikes me as too light-hearted for the song’s depths).

Matt Munisteri, who has made a deep study of Robison’s music as well as a beautiful CD of it, could add more titles to my list, but I am not intending to be comprehensive at the moment.  Details of his strikingly fine CD here.

I know nothing of Robison’s emotional or marital life.  I know he had great success in the Twenties and early Thirties, and he lived into his early seventies, but there is a deep strain of nearly hopeless melancholy in his work.

Where other writers were incessantly writing about the possibilities of Romance (think, for instance, of PENTHOUSE SERENADE), Robison is drawn to the emptied, the vacant, the mournfulness of a house when one’s partner has left.  (Yes, there was the non-Robison 1931 song IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE, where the singer sees the belongings (s)he and spouse have so cherished up for sale in a window — but that singer is able to say, “Let’s get back together again and we’ll reconstruct that dream.”)

Robison’s songs — at least these two — sound as if the shared hopes have been shattered.  I know that Larry Conley wrote the lyrics for COTTAGE, but I think the despair is not only Conley’s.

Here, although at a jaunty tempo, is Robison himself singing COTTAGE, with verse, in 1930.  Be it ever so humble, there’s no home any more:

“Our little dream castle / With everything gone” is a definite way to begin a song — no optimistic extenuation possible.  The tempo is far from dirgelike, and in 2013 we are long familiar with the beautiful ballad medley, but the lyrics remind us that what we are witnessing in the empty cottage is a death — not the death of a person, but the death of hope and love as embodied in a marriage.

Conley knew something either about domestic agriculture or had read a good deal of English poetry to draw on the images of lawns turned to hay, roses overrun by weeds — the untended garden as sign of a broken compact, an irreparable rip in the fabric of loving order. And the brief bridge presents a terrifying reality, where the singer can see the face of the absent spouse in every window but no such welcome is possible as the singer approaches the actual, desolate dwelling.

Robison was a light-voiced, gentle singer.  I leave it to his friend Jack Teagarden to record the absolutely definitive version of this song in 1962.  (I find the beautiful arrangements by Russ Case and Bob Brookmeyer slightly busy but so intuitively perceptive — although I would have liked to hear Jack backed only by Ellis Larkins or Jimmy Rowles):

And COTTAGE is emotionally less powerful than the song that has struck me at the center of my being ever since I heard Jack’s recording of it, DON’T SMOKE IN BED:

I do not know the circumstances that led up to the writing of that song.  With thoughts of a recent posting connected to Marion Harris on my mind, whose death echoed the song’s title — I am sure that more than one spouse / partner told the other, “For God’s sake, don’t do that!  You’ll kill yourself if you do that!”  But DON’T SMOKE IN BED is about so much more than fire safety.

Whether you hear the song as the expression of the woman who leaves the note or the man who tells us of the event, it is absolutely heart-stopping as a record of a long-time marriage that has failed so irrevocably that no recourse is possible except for one partner leaving while the other is asleep.

And what hits so hard is that the woman (let us say) who is telling her husband, “I am gone.  Do not try to follow me, look for me, find me.  I am leaving behind ‘my old wedding ring,’ a severing more decisive than any divorce proceeding — can speak to her obliviously sleeping spouse with colloquial rueful tenderness: “Remember, darling, don’t smoke in bed,” as if she were simultaneously concerned about his welfare while finding it impossible to live with him, look out for him, take care of him one day more.

The singer calls the sleeper, “old sleepy head,” which could be read as deeply affectionate at best, slightly mocking at worst — but it is a sobriquet more tender than many of us have heard in arguments. But what follows is — although casually stated — final: “I’m packing you in / Like I said,” which says that this is not a single marital argument that has escalated but the end of a long series of them, where the possibility of one partner leaving has often been discussed.

Did Robison know such an incident?  Did one of his friends, male or female, walk away from a relationship with such power and such regret, perhaps leaving a note and a ring?  Did some spouse — playfully or with great seriousness — say, “One day you’re going to wake up and I’ll be gone.  And when that happens, I hope you’ll stop smoking in bed.  I can’t stand you, but I don’t want you burned to death.”  Did someone wake up to find his / her partner gone?  Was it Robison himself?

I don’t know.

But I do not think anyone writes such a song without having personal experience — heard or lived-through — to base it on.

And I know that it is bad scholarship (even though I am thirty years’ out of graduate school) to ascribe biographical details to art.  But.  By 1962 Jack Teagarden was happily married — but with the wreckage of several marriages behind him.  Is it too much to hear world-weariness, despair, and knowledge in his voice?  I think not.

The way Teagarden arches his voice to deliver “Don’t look for me,” part cry, part croon, suggests a sorrowing song underneath this performance that the notes themselves cannot notate or contain — echoed by the way, glorious and anguished, that Don Goldie’s trumpet rises at the end of his solo.

Bless Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Don Goldie, Willard Robison, and Larry Conley for giving us such dramatic experiences — passages through sorrow and loss in the form of music that make us shiver with sadness and recognition.

“With these few goodbye-words . . . . the end of our story is told on the door.”

May your happiness increase. 

ALLEN LOWE’S NEWEST [BLUES] CORNUCOPIA

Musician, composer, and scholar Allen Lowe doesn’t hold back — either in generosity, scope, or opinions.  And he has perhaps the widest range of any musician I know: from Louis, Eubie, and Doc Cheatham (as well as the shade of Jack Purvis) reaching forward to Julius Hemphill, Matthew Shipp, and Marc Ribot. 

His book and CD set, THAT DEVILIN’ TUNE, was a re-presentation of the history of recorded jazz, and it did so with audacious delight across thirty-six discs, from the eighteen-nineties to the nineteen-fifties.  Lowe’s criteria for inclusion (and exclusion) excited some listeners and irritated others, but no one could ignore the heroic sweep of music presented in those four neat boxes.  

Some music scholars operate by exclusion and create their own criteria for artistic purity: if a performance doesn’t fit in the box they’ve made, it can’t be considered valid.  (Think of the airlines’ measurements for carry-on luggage and you get the idea.)  Like Whitman, Lowe is fascinated by elasticities, by stretching rather than closing-off. 

Lowe wants us to hear as if for the first time — in much the same way that Conrad said the novelist wanted to make us see.  He arranges his music, delighting in pushing aside the limiting constructs of race, gender, or “genre.”  So the expected nestles in beside the surprising, and this collage-approach encourages or forces the listener to hear just how explosive a Bert Williams, a Jelly Roll Morton, a Ma Rainey, was — as well as the artists we’ve not yet heard. 

The other parallel motion of a Lowe set is to say to us, “Listen to this!  You have large music collections, but I’ll bet you haven’t heard this.”  And few of us will be able to say, “I know all of the music presented here.” 

The question mark says a good deal about Lowe’s inquiring approach to this or any other musical subject. 

When I initially heard that he had completed one of his astonishing cornucopias on the loosely-defined subject of the blues, I was fascinated and more that a bit worried.  How would anyone endure thirty-six compact discs (nearly a thousand tracks) trapped within the twelve-bar blues form, with the occasional detour for the eight-bar and sixteen-bar varieties.  “My man’s gone,” “My woman’s gone,” “My old daddy’s got a brand new way to love,” “It hurts so good,” “Money all gone,” “Flood washed my house away,” “Why am I poor?” and variations on those tropes . . .

I needn’t have worried.  Always relying on his own imoulses, Lowe trusts himself, so his collection isn’t restricted to “official” blues performances using three chords only.  And the juxtapositions are thrilling — consider this sequence of four recordings from 1922 and 1923: Society Blues (Kid Ory and Mutt Carey); Teasin’ the Frets (Nick Lucas); I Ain’t Got Nobody (Marion Harris); Midnight Blues (Ethel Waters).  Although perhaps it is not something most jazz / blues listeners would like to admit, they would privilege some names above others as “authentic” (Ory and Waters) and others as “popular,” “derivative,” “vaudevillian.”  For many listeners, race would enter into their assessment.  There’s no question that Waters bursts upon the ear with a great soulful immediacy, but then again so does Harris.  And Nick Lucas has just as much fervor as Ory’s Sunshne Orchestra.  The surprises come thick and fast: I saw Sophie Tucker as a huge elderly Hot Mama on television some forty-five years ago: her 1922 AGGRAVATIN’ PAPA is fresh and lively, belying its age, her race, and the musical associations Ms. Tucker is saddled with.  So does Eddie Cantor in 1924. 

And since many listeners tend to burrow deeply but narrowly into their chosen loves, I wonder how many jazz / blues fanciers will know the music of The Pebbles, The Two of Spades, the Old Pal Smoke Shop Four, and others (I am leaving aside the early gospel recordings as an area many have never ventured into.)

The juxtapositions — both theoretical and actual — are vivid and fascinating.  Consider this list of thirteen recordings — all except one from the second half of 1927:  PENN BEACH BLUES (Venuti – Lang ) / BLACK HEARSE BLUES (Sarah Martin – Sylvester Weaver) / COLD PENITENTIARY BLUES (E.F. Shelton) / SHAKIN’ THE BLUES AWAY (Ruth Etting) / THE CROWING ROOSTER (Walter Rhodes) / CREOLE LOVE CALL (Ellington) / GOD’S GOING TO SEPARATE THE WHEAT FROM THE TARES (Blind Joe Taggart) / JAZZ ME BLUES / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES (Bix and his Gang) / CHATTANOOGA BLUES (Allen Bros.) / NEW ORLEANS LOWDOWN (Ellington) / BARRELHOUSE MAN (Will Ezell) / I AM BORN TO PREACH THE GOSPEL (Washington Phillips). 

It is rather like coming to stay with the world’s most avid and generous collector of music who throws his or her shelves open to the listener, offering treasures, “common” recordings, and rarities, without a pre-set ideology or value system.  Lowe doesn’t say that everything is equal or important, but that it all means something in the larger picture of a culture, of shifting musical landscapes.  This is the first leg of a thrilling journey, and (to carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion) we couldn’t have a better guide. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of deep listening and reconsidering to do!  (So do you, if I may be so bold.) 

You can order the first volume of four at http://www.allenlowe.com

Here’s the link to the complete track list for the entire 36-CD set (in four volumes):

http://www.allenlowe.com/alpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Really-The-Blues-Song-List.pdf

WHILE YOU’RE UP, CLICK HERE: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

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

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
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.