Tag Archives: Mills Brothers

ASKING THE MUSICAL QUESTION: “BABY, ARE YOU SATISFIED?”

Some questions are too deep for simple answers. And for me, the complete absence of punctuation only adds to the plaintive nature of the inquiry.  Commas and question marks are for those easily distracted from the emotional depths.  This inquiry was recorded on June 27, 1933.

Here is another sound source to muse on.

This recording is a remarkable oddity — left out of the most current expansive online jazz discography.  It was recorded in three takes, the last one being the master, and it was the only side issued, everything else being rejected — they attempted SMOKE RINGS, ANGELINE, THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN with different vocalists including “Detroit Red,” Heywood and Eddie Jackson, unheard washboard by Sammy Page.  At a later session, December 21, 1933, a similar band attempted BABY, ARE YOU SATISFIED? (the discography by Brian Rust adds the comma and question mark) and RED, WHITE, AND BLUES.  I know that Columbia Records (or the American Record Corporation) was nearly bankrupt, which may account for the typographical errors: the first session was, I believe, credited to “DICKEY WELLS’ SHIM SHAMMERS,” and the second to “DICKIE WELLS and KENNY’S KELLOWATTS.”

Dicky Wells (or Dickie Wells) was not the extravagantly creative trombonist, but a dancer who ran the Shim Sham Club in New York’s Harlem, where this group appeared. Pianist Kenny Watts led Kenny Watts and his Kilowatts; drummer Eddie Dougherty is not well-known but is marvelous (catch his work with Bennie Morton, James P. Johnson, and Mildred Bailey).  My late dear friend Mike Burgevin asked bassist Johnny Williams about Eddie and was told that he pronounced his name “Dockerty.”

The personnel provided to us by collector-scholar Steve Abrams (his YouTube channel, a cornucopia of marvels, is SMARBA100) is this: Heywood Jackson, Eddie Johnson, Milton Lane, kazoo; Fred Voorhees, guitar; Watts; Dougherty; Carroll Waldron, string bass.  What they do with the simplest melodic and lyric material is fascinating.

To me, it is a study in timbres: the textures of the singer, who may or may not be the avian whistler, the riffing kazoos, the guitarist’s tone (contrapuntally or in solo), the plunk of the string bass, and the quiet drumming.

The three kazoo virtuosi, who create an odd melancholy haunting reverie that makes me think of 1933 Ellington — the trombones? — and looks forward to Basie.  And the record ends with an engineer’s fade-out, not usual for 1933.  Yes, it runs parallel to the Mills Brothers, the Spirits of Rhythm, the Washboard Rhythm Kings, Red McKenzie’s groups, perhaps the Tramp Band and other skiffle combinations . . . but its very elusiveness makes it memorable.  If we had twenty-four sides, perhaps the magic would grow predictable, but this one three-minute tone poem is precious.  And strange, which increases the magic.  Thanks to Steve Abrams for bringing this one back into our consciousness.

However, an online search for any information turned up this excerpt from dancer Howard “Stretch” Johnson’s unpublished memoir, in a book I immediately bought:

One of the most popular after-hours clubs was Dickey Wells’s Shim Sham Club, which also catered to white customers.  Today, in keeping with the parlance of the recording industry, the Shim-Sham would be called a crossover club.  The Shim-Sham or Shimmy was a dance invented by homosexuals from the chorus line of the 101 Ranch [which Johnson identifies as having a “bizarre transvestite and homosexual chorus line” in the preceding paragraph].  “Shim” was a contraction of the term she-him, and the “sham” was a word serving the dual purpose of denoting the female role as played by males, as well as the shambling nature of the steps, particularly the first eight bars.  The Shimmy combined a hip and shoulder wiggle that was part of the opening movements.  

Dickey Wells was a former Cotton Club dancer who later became a pimp and an entrepreneur.  He ran his club as economically as possible, employing a “jug” band called the Shim Shammers or Kenny Watts and his Kilowatts, instead of regular musicians.  Watts played the piano, Eddie Dougherty drums, Fletch Jahon, Eddie “Hawk” Johnson, Heywood Jackson, and Milton Lane played kazoos [another source mentions that the band had one or several baritone kazoos],  with Carol Walrond, the brother of Harlem Renaissance poet and author Eric Walrond, on bass.  The sound they created was somewhere between Red McKenzie’s Mound City Blue Blowers and Duke Ellington, if you can imagine that.  Fletch and Sammy Page did vocals and whistled, and the group was fronted by an extraordinary “hoofer” whose percussive rhythms afforded an unusually inspirational jazz motif.  His name was Baby Lawrence, a master of  technique, rhythmic flow, and continuous improvisation.  Later, during the bebop phase, he was recognized as the preeminent jazz hoofer.  [Source:  Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It, edited by Herb Boyd.]

That is intensely revealing; it conjures up a scene, and it suggests to me that there is much more to the apparently simple question of the title than we might have naively assumed.  Satisfaction is nothing to take lightly.

May your happiness increase!

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CELEBRATING DAN MORGENSTERN, WHO GIVES SO MUCH TO US

On October 24, 1929, Bennie Moten, Lud Gluskin, Horace Heidt, Junie C. Cobb, Jack Hylton, and a few other bands made records.  In the United States, terrible things were happening to the economy.  But in Munich, Germany, our hero Dan Morgenstern was born.  Whether his first cries were in 4/4, there is no evidence,  but I would venture that it was an early example of spontaneous scat singing.

Given the math above, even I can add up the figures to write that Dan will be 88 this week.  I’m not the only one celebrating.  There will be a musical birthday party hosted by David Ostwald, who leads the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, New York City, this Wednesday, the 25th, from 5:30 to 7 PM.  And I’ll bet Dan chirps a few with the Band. You can reserve online (and you should) here.

On Saturday, October 28th, from 1-4 PM, Loren Schoenberg (a very good friend of Dan’s and a scholar in his own right) will host a celebration / interview of Dan at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, 58 West 129th Street, New York City. Details — to reserve a seat / buy a ticket at a nominal price — here — or here.

While you’re making your reservations, a little Morgenstern-music to accompany your mouse-clicks:

I don’t have a jazz club or museum as a place to honor Dan.  But JAZZ LIVES is not without its resources, and as readers know, I have had the honor of interviewing Dan at length . . . an utterly gratifying experience for me, so I will share two as-yet-unseen segments.

One takes Dan back to Copenhagen in 1938.  I knew he had delighted in Fats Waller on Fats’ European tour, but I hadn’t known he had seen the Quintet of the Hot Club of France AND the Mills Brothers.  Dan also recalls his first jazz records.  Wonderful memories:

Remembering the Quintet also led to Dan’s enthusiastic portrait of violinist Svend Asmussen:

“A wonderfully enveloping good nature,” Dan says of Fats.  He would never say it of himself, but it is no less true.  It is our immense good fortune to know Mr. Morgenstern.

May your happiness increase!

AS CINEMA, IT HAS ITS LIMITS: AS A TIME MACHINE, IT’S FLAWLESS: “HARLEM IS HEAVEN” (1932)

The great connoisseur of popular culture, especially women singers, Alan Eichler, just shared with us his VHS copy of the 1932 film HARLEM IS HEAVEN.  It’s a great gift, as it may be the first “all-colored” feature sound film, with starring roles for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Putney Dandridge, James Baskett, and with incidental music provided by Eubie Blake and his Orchestra, also with an appearance by Noble Sissle.

HARLEM HEAVEN poster

Now, I have reservations about the film itself.  Henri Wessell as “Chummy” and Anise Boyer as “Jean” are both beautiful young people, although their naturalistic acting is, to my taste, none too subtle.  And the plot (the film was written and directed by Irwin R. Franklyn) is thin to the point of transparency.

But what other film shows us so much of Bill Robinson as an actor, singer, and dancer — the stair dance sequence has been shown often but without credit, but the rest was new to me.  The dancers are presented to us as the world-famous Cotton Club entertainters, which is a look behind the scenes that we would otherwise not have had.

And this is serious business: is there any other film in the history of cinema that has Putney Dandridge as a deadly moral avenger who is never arrested or tried? I rest my case.

Even though I could not view the whole film in one sitting, I was captivated from the start by the little touches of 1932 Harlem reality: the marquee reading MILLS BROS. and the glimpse of the exterior of Connie’s Inn. Then, later on, there is a whole history of early-Thirties theatre and music and dance.  For fans of pre-Code splendor, “Jean” takes off her dress, revealing beautiful silk lingerie, while “Chummy” looks elsewhere, and later on there is a brief catfight between “Jean” and “Greta Rae.”  Worth viewing?  That’s up to you.

Here’s the film.

On its own terms, it is indeed Heavenly.  Thank you, Alan.  And here — reaching back even more — is Bill, in Technicolor (!) in the 1930 DIXIANA:

May your happiness increase.

WHEN BLISS HAPPENS! AT THE SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, JIM BUCHMANN, KATIE CAVERA, HAL SMITH, BEAU SAMPLE (Nov. 30, 2014)

SAN DIEGO 2015 flyer 2

One of my friends recently asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving, and I said, “I’m flying to San Diego for a wonderful jazz festival,” and this is why: the San Diego Jazz Fest (all schedules subject to change, but this is a filling menu indeed).

The names you don’t see on the flyer above are Marc Caparone, Kim Cusack, Chris Dawson, Carl Sonny Leyland, Conal Fowkes, Kevin Dorn, Orange Kellin, Tom Bartlett, Duke Heitger, Leon Oakley, Clint Baker, Dawn Lambeth, and many others.  I know that some of you will say, with good reason, “That’s too far away,” and I understand that.  But if you say, “Oh, that’s just another California trad festival,” I hope you are not within swatting range, for it isn’t.  But rather than take this uncharacteristic vehemence as merely the expression of the writer’s personality, look below.

Evidence from November 30, 2014: a small-group session led by Ray Skjelbred, piano and vocal; Hal Smith, drums; Beau Sample, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jim Buchmann, clarinet and saxello, Marc Caparone, trumpet.  I’ve posted other videos from this session, but here are the two that closed it.  One lyrical, one steaming.

The first song, ANYTIME, ANY DAY, ANYWHERE, which I associate with Lee Wiley — who recorded it a half-dozen times between 1950 and 1972.  Wiley wrote the lyrics; Ned Washington and Victor Young the melody.  I suspect that Ray knew it first from the Mills Brothers recording, but perhaps from the Chick Bullock, Ellington, Hackett, or Nat Cole sides, too.

It is one of those rare love songs that isn’t I WISH I HAD YOU or YOU BROKE MY HEART, but a seriously intent paean to fidelity (rather like I’LL FOLLOW YOU, I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU, or I’D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN).  Yet unlike those two songs, it doesn’t stress super-heroic behavior as testimony of diligent indefatigable fidelity.  There are no caveats: “I have to check my calendar.  I can’t be devoted to you this Tuesday.  How about Wednesday?” There aren’t any mighty distances, rivers, or mountains.  The singer simply says, “Ask for me and I’ll be there,” which I find touching. And Ray’s spare, whispered declaration of the lyrics makes it even more so.  I don’t hear his singing as evidence of a limited vocal range; rather, he sounds like someone uttering his deepest heart-truths about devotion in the form of a vow. A Thirties pop song about love — what could be more common — that suddenly seems a sacred offering:

From a sacred offering delivered in hushed tones to another song-of-relationships, the critical / satirical NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW, which — with lyrics — details the small-town girl who has come to the big city and quickly become unrecognizable.  Perhaps she’d come to the South Side of Chicago and started hanging around the Lincoln Gardens?  If so, I’d assess her transformation as an improvement.  Note the easy hot tempo — that’s no oxymoron — and how Marc Caparone sounds a bit like a holy ancestor from Corsicana, Texas.  To quote Ring Lardner, you could look it up.  Or you could simply immerse yourself in the video:

Here’s the festival’s home page and the relevant Facebook page.  I hope you’ll heed the siren call of Good Music and join us there.  Festivals need more than enthusiastic watchers-of-videos to survive.

I hope I will be forgiven for ending on an autobiographical note.  Five years ago, I had some cardiac excitement that was repaired by the best kind of Western medicine: open the patient up and put a little machine in.  It works; I’m fine.  Ask my electrocardiologist.  But when I watch and listen to music at this level — music that I experienced then and have revisited often — I think, “Goodness, I could have died and never seen / heard this,” in a state of astonished gratitude. Not a bad place to be. Rather like the San Diego Jazz Fest.

May your happiness increase!

HIS WESTERN SWING (Marty Grosz / Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All Stars, August 15, 2014)

Marty Grosz, a citizen of the world who has spent much of his time in the eastern United States, visited California for nearly two weeks in August 2014.  I’ve documented some of his musical activities, especially a glorious afternoon at Cafe Divine with Leon Oakley and Craig Ventresco here and here, but the Grosz Tour also touched down on Friday, August 15, at the nexus of Hot, Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park, to play some with Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All Stars: Clint, string bass / vocal; J Hansen, drums; Bill Reinhart, banjo; Leon Oakley, cornet; Robert Young, soprano saxophone; Jim Klippert, trombone.

Here are three highlights of that session.

A 1936 song we associate with Louis, Red Allen, and Wingy Manone: ON TREASURE ISLAND:

A nineteenth-century favorite that I heard in childhood, both in a lewd parody and in the Louis / Mills Brothers disc, IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE:

And a classic song to send the dancers home in a romantic haze — here performed at a groovy dance tempo with a heartfelt sing-along that almost took off, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS:

Thank you, Marty, and the gentlemen of the ensemble.

May your happiness increase!

JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third story.  Time: 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your happiness increase! 

DOIN’ THE HORTICULTURAL: EMILY ASHER’S GARDEN PARTY LIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO, JANUARY 16, 2014: PART ONE

A good time was had by all.

Emily Asher’s Garden Party — captured here nearing the end of their 2014 West Coast Tour (historians take note).  Here they are at a very rewarding house concert in San Francisco, hosted by Daniel Fabricant and Vic Wong, offering good-old-good ones, Hoagy Carmichael, music associated with Louis Armstrong, and a few locally-sourced originals.

The GP in these videos is Emily, trombone, vocals, arrangements / compositions; Mike Davis, trumpet, vocal; Tom Abbott, reeds; Nick Russo, banjo, guitar; Rob Adkins, string bass; Jay Lepley, drums. (My videos are a little dark but the music blazes brightly.)

For Ella, the Mills Brothers, Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, and the elusive Hy Zaret, DEDICATED TO YOU:

Emily’s original, dedicated to a clamorous stretch of road in her home town, EAST MERIDIAN:

TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE, a sweet bit of Carmichael voiced for Asher and Davis, soft-shoe tempo provided by that nimble rhythm section:

Appropriate for a Garden Party, WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP:

Thinking again of Ella and Chick, the band shouts HALLELUJAH!:

A small Louis-Jack trilogy (catch Mr. Davis’ beautiful sound here) STARS FELL ON ALABAMA:

From ‘way out West, BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN:

At a nice tempo, MUSKRAT RAMBLE:

Emily’s original, for her flowering niece, SWEET PEA:

Music in blossom, with more to come!

May your happiness increase!