Tag Archives: Pearl Primus

“ONE BLASTED SURPRISE AFTER ANOTHER”: THE EDDIE CONDON FLOOR SHOW (Nov. 16, 1948)

The title comes from surrealist-hipster-comedian Lord Buckley, who was master of ceremonies for this half hour of startling juxtapositions.  Thanks to magician Franz Hoffmann, we have the soundtrack and some non-synchronized film footage from the November 16, 1948 Eddie Condon Floor Show.*

I offer these videos not only as tribute to the individual artists, but as a kind of swinging rebuttal.  In the last thirty or so years, conventional jazz history has relegated Eddie Condon to, at best, a condescending footnote. “Yes, he organized early interracial recording sessions, but after that his music was no longer important.”  This is what the late Richard Ellmann called the “friend-of” syndrome: that Eddie is important only in his relations to Major Jazz Players Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.  I beg to differ.  Evaluating creation by skin color has never been a good idea, and in this case it ignores a great deal of evidence.   

Eddie’s Floor Show reminds us, once again, how expansive Condon’s musical vision was.  Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Brad Gowans, Dick Cary, Jack Lesberg, and George Wettling are strongly present — but so is Johnny Mercer.  And Sidney Bechet, Henry “Red” Allen, Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Hale, Thelma Carpenter,  Pearl Primus, and Lord Buckley having a fine time satirizing both himself and the proceedings (with a quite accurate Louis Armstrong impersonation).  This is not simply a formulaic group of musicians gathered to read through MUSKRAT RAMBLE once again.  I would have Mr. Condon celebrated as a man who embodied jazz — not simply a pale shadow of its former glories.  Some faithful JAZZ LIVES readers may have noted my attempt to revise history so that everyone appreciates Eddie Condon: I won’t give up until everyone does. 

But music speaks louder than . . . .

So here, thanks to Franz, is the music from November 16, 1948.  More important than Milton Berle, boxing, or wrestling.  In his generous desire to give us a true multi-media experience, Franz has also offered still photos and video clips of the relevant artists: the matchup isn’t always perfect, but his efforts are a gift to us all. 

I AIN’T GONNA GIVE NOBODY NONE OF MY JELLY ROLL into HAPPY BIRTHDAY — vocal by Johnny Mercer, who was quite a singer:

CARAVAN — a feature for Mary Lou Williams:

JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS — featuring Sidney Bechet and the rhythm section:

CONGO DRUMS — perhaps hard to visualize Pearl Primus capering around the small screen, but she loved to dance to jazz accompaniment (there’s a picture of her at Gjon Mili’s 1943 jam session, where she is dancing, barefoot, to a little band playing HONEYSUCKLE ROSE . . . the little band is made up of Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Lou McGarity, Edmond Hall, Johnny Williams, and Sidney Catlett — a pretty fine pickup group!):

For me, what follows is the prize of the session — a new song for Henry “Red” Allen to sing, the rather tough-minded love ballad (after a fashion), I TOLD YA I LOVE YOU, NOW GET OUT (a song composed by the Soft Winds — John Frigo, Lou Carter, and Herb Ellis):

I don’t know whether having dancers on the show was Eddie’s idea or not, but someone understood that television was a visual medium — and while a band could play for an hour on radio, viewers needed other kinds of stimulation to keep their attention: hence a BLUES played as background for the brilliant tap-dancing of Teddy Hale:

A tribute to Louis by Wild Bill Davison, I’M CONFESSIN’:

And a neat combination of Johnny Mercer (whose lyrics we hear) and Thelma Carpenter on COME RAIN OR COME SHINE:

What a bonanza — thanks to Eddie, his friends, and to Franz Hoffmann.

*I believe the yearning for the kinescopes of this television show will forever be unsatisfied: the details are not appropriate here, but the primary kinescopes no longer exist.  One may, of course, imagine a jazz fan with a sound film camera aiming it at the television screen — but the combination of happy events that would have made this possible in 1948 is frankly unlikely.  Better to treasure what we have!

BILLIE HOLIDAY, SEEN

Most photographs of Billie Holiday show her as beautiful, whether thin or overweight, dressed ornately or plainly.  Often she looks mournful.  Of course it is hard to say what her unposed expressions were like.  Did the photographer ask her to strike a pose, or to think of STRANGE FRUIT?  I prefer to recall a 1935 photograph by Timme Rosenkrantz, outside, with Ben Webster and others.  Billie wears a summer dress, looks sweetly young, glad to be alive among friends.     

Jim Eigo (of Jazz Promo Services) told me that the Beinecke Library at Yale University seems to have thrown open the doors of its photography collection online.  If you enter “jazz” or “blues” as a keyword in the search engine, riches cascade onto your monitor.  But they have the power to make me deeply uncomfortable.   

Most of the photographs were taken by Carl VanVechten, who was fascinated by jazz musicians, but primarily by women — singers (Billie, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Maxine Sullivan, Chippie Hill, Lil Green, Lizzie Miles, Gladys Bentley, Thelma Carpenter as a Seminole Indian) and dancers (Pearl Primus).  They show a good deal of dramatic planning and staging, with costumes, a formal studio, elaborate props, poses from iconic to sordid. 

Yes, there are pictures of W.C. Handy, Tiny Bradshaw, Josh White, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, and even Rudi Blesh . . . but Van Vechten was nearly obsessed by Ethel Waters — photographing her as Carmen; by Bessie Smith, in 1936, in a variety of poses; and perhaps most by Billie Holiday.

I can’t reproduce the photographs, although readers are allowed to view and save them.  Anything else requires the permission of the photographer’s estate and no doubt of the subject’s as well.

The color photographs of Billie, from 1949, give me pause. 

In one set, she is wearing a lavender dress with red trim, next to a vase of showy pink flowers.  In another, Van Vechten has her wearing a black velvet gown; she looks far-away and sad.  In yet another set, she is apparently naked from the waist up: her arms crossed over her breasts, anything buy happily erotic.  In the first of the series, she looks away from the camera; we see a scar on her face; her red lipstick is garish; in the next, she attempts to look casual; in the last of the series, where she is once again looking away from the camera, her face is wounded, her expression that of a soul in pain.  These three portraits are hard to look at; did the photographer sense her distress, or did she say that those three were enough, that she was no pinup girl?  They seem to me to be intrusive, near-violations, even even if Van Vechten thought he was portraying her lovingly, ceebrating her unmistakable erotic appeal.

There are many black-and-white studies, but (as if to compensate for the painful exposure) many are many of Billie with her boxer, Mister — where both she and the dog are happy, affectionate, at their ease, sharing unconditional love and tenderness.   

The Beinecke collection can be viewed here:  

http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/

and the Billie portraits can be accessed here: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2022461&iid=1091648&srchtype=

It is a record of a photographer deeply absorbed by his subjects, often revering them, sometimes exposing them for the sake of his lens.  I believe that I am glad all these photographs exist, but I am not sure.

A SILENT PICTURE, RESOUNDING

pearl-primus

Gjon Mili.

His studio.

1943.

LIFE magazine.

Pearl Primus, Bobby Hackett, Lou McGarity, Ed Hall, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett.

That might be bow-tied Cliff Jackson, absorbing it all.

The caption of the original picture says that this band was playing HONEYSUCKLE ROSE for Pearl Primus to dance to.

I can hear Catlett’s brushes, the stomp and scrape of Primus’s feet, the organ notes of the front line, Wilson’s chords, Williams’s deep woody sound.

If you look at this picture and don’t hear the band, something isn’t working.