Tag Archives: PORGY AND BESS

“PLEASE! HAVE SOME PITY,” AND ONWARDS

The inspiration for this blogpost is the fine guitarist and thoughtful modernist Nick Rossi — and our online discussion this afternoon is yet another refutation to the general scorn that nothing good comes out of Facebook.  Nick had been exulting about the pleasure of playing rhythm guitar in a jam session on LADY BE GOOD — a jam that went on for twenty minutes, like the fabled communal joys we read about.

And I pointed him towards one of my favorite recordings of the song.  Not Lester’s (in two takes) but something perhaps less famous — a recording (either from December 1933 or January 1934) by “Buck and Bubbles.”

buck_n_bubbles

Buck was the fine Hines / stride pianist who accompanied Louis on DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND and Hawkins on other sides (so his jazz credentials are stellar); John W. “Bubbles” Sublett went on to play Sportin’ Life in PORGY AND BESS — and together they were an extraordinary team.

For me, this recording summons up a whole era of theatrical performance — where two men could swing as winsomely and effectively as any large group. You can certainly see them in your mind’s eye as the performance moves from swinging piano introduction to sweet / sad narrative over piano, then to a key change and a solo piano romp, then a hilarious dialogue (anticipating Fats or moving alongside him?) with Buck taking the lead — which seems to have cheered Bubbles up considerably.  It’s a model of how to create a duet, to hand off lead and accompaniment, to “sell” a song without ever appearing to do so:

Bubbles’s slightly hoarse, worn voice, creates a half-amused, half-despairing plea (who could resist such a plaintive entreaty?) and if one cares, on a later listening, to concentrate solely on Buck’s piano, it’s quite remarkable.

And here’s a later British version (!) with clarinet and rhythm section — new to me and delightful:

Wouldn’t it be nice if Buck and Bubbles had appeared on film in their prime?

Your wish is our command.  1937 VARIETY SHOW, much more elaborate, but with good material:

And this improvisation on RHYTHM FOR SALE from 1944, introduced by a most august personage:

For a genial overview of Bubbles — as the “father of rhythm tap” as well as a singer alongside Buck, here’s Part One of a documentary that starts slowly but then presents the team alongside Dick Powell, Ethel Waters, and Duke Ellington:

The second part is primarily about Bubbles’s protege, Chuck Green, but contains some astounding footage — and it closes with audio of Buck and Bubbles performing ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF  THE STREET:

A small speculative footnote.  For years, I have been teaching Toni Morrison’s mournful, vengeful THE BLUEST EYE, whose victimized center, Pecola, suffers completely because of her misguided desire (stimulated by members of her own community) to embody a white, blue-eyed standard of beauty.  And when I teach it, I mention the sad spectacle of African-Americans deprived of handsome and beautiful and noble models of their own race on the screen.  But watching the first video from VARIETY SHOW, I wonder if I should tell my students that there were some exceptions, a few African-Americans in the movies who weren’t comic stereotypes, who weren’t afraid of ghosts, and point them to beautifully dressed and casually commanding Buck and Bubbles.

But, for the moment, I would send readers and listeners back to the first version of OH, LADY BE GOOD — a little sweet monument of swing and theatre.  No wonder George Gershwin wrote Bubbles a substantial part in PORGY AND BESS.

Postscript: if you can hear Nick Rossi play, you will be satisfied, gratified, and highly delighted.

May your happiness increase!

“JAZZ LIVES” GOES TO BROADWAY: “PORGY AND BESS,” January 2012

I approached the new production of PORGY AND BESS with some mildly-suppressed skepticism, expecting it to be a star turn for the glorious Audra McDonald, who would shower the rafters with operatic splendor while the inhabitants of Catfish Row waited for her lovely upper register to stop reverberating.

I was entirely wrong.  I had an ecstatic theatrical experience.

I am a restless spirit at most Broadway musicals — finding them unsubtle (overamplified music played luridly) — the books seem thin, the gestures hyperbolic.  And in the case of PORGY AND BESS, I had heroic voices in my mind — Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong.  Especially Louis.  I have been listening — physically and mentally — to his and Ella’s version of the score for more than forty years.  (Another Louis — my father* — brought home a copy of the lp for me when I was in my teens.)  These performances of the arias by George and Ira made me feel as if PORGY AND BESS would be a series of musical performances with some unidentified threads in between the singing.  Since I think no one possibly sings with the emotional power of Louis, I was waiting to be disappointed.  Again, wrong.

I told a friend, “Ten minutes into the production, I lost my heart to what was going on onstage.”  My enchantment — the hallmark of great theatrical experiences — was a combination of many things.  Rather than feeling, “Oh, this is A PLAY,” I felt that the actors on Catfish Row, dragging boxes and chairs and fishnets, were utterly natural.  They were there and we were permitted to watch them being themselves.   Yes, the analytical part of my brain did think, “What lovely sets and what beautiful lighting — a mass of orange-yellows,” but I accepted it as real.  And when Clara and Jake began to sing SUMMERTIME to their baby, I felt tears welling up — not because the singing was so extraordinary or because it washed away my memories of Billie et al., but because it seemed the most wonderful melding of the familiar and the new: the beloved but over-familiar piece of music placed into an utterly right context, part of the plot, part of the dialogue moving forward inexorably.  Casually right, not calling attention to itself as a “great song.”

(I know that more experienced theatre-goers might think these perceptions naive — but my naivete, if you want to call it such, is a kind of openness, and although I kept making notes on my pad to write this for JAZZ LIVES, I was part of the experience.  I didn’t look at my watch once.)

I was continually absorbed by the way in which the staging and the music suggested larger ideas — the way little communities formed and broke apart on the stage, in duets and trios and more.  Consider, for instance, the group of young fishermen led by Jake — remember this name:  JOSHUA HENRY, a wondrous singer and actor — who form a small supportive group to sing and enact IT TAKES A LONG PULL.  It held true for the dancing as well.  And although the book has its own thinness — Bess as a woman torn between Goodness and the allure of Evil — so much was happening among the cast in terms of their relations between one another, suspicious of or accepting the outsider, that I put my English-professor mind aside and sunk into the show.

I admired the dramatic lighting — the undersea blue-green of the scene where we learn of Jake’s death in the second act; the way in which we are compelled to watch the huge dark shadows the actors create above and behind them (perhaps a homage to German Expressionism or the great films of the Thirties, to CITIZEN KANE).  I admired the shifting of moods — always carried along by the music that hinted at country-dance music of the teens, at Black vaudeville — when Mariah, NaTASHA YVETTE WILLIAMS, takes the stage, I thought, “This is what TOBA must have been like — echoes of Butterbeans and Susie, of young Moms Mabley — hilarious and taking no stuff from any man alive” — to gospel, to keening laments for the dead.

And what of the principals?  AUDRA McDONALD gave generously of herself as a member of the ensemble — being many women in one, from the hard-edged temptress in a red dress, to the woman who learns what love is, to the victim of Crown’s brutalities, to the woman who cannot help herself but follow Sportin’ Life to New York.  And her voice rang and chimed — but was in character.  I knew DAVID ALAN GRIER from television comedy, but was delighted by his strutting, his insinuating nasal singing, with strong overtones of Cab Calloway and of Louis — but in his bulky gracefulness and the way he held his hat, a very effective two-dimensionalizing of Fats Waller, who would have played the role perfectly although without the necessary evil.  My strongest praise goes to NORM LEWIS, who made Porgy so much more than a victim, so much more than a cripple — but the moral center of the play, the man who gives himself for love, the man who grows stronger in his desire to protect someone who needs it.  His affect, his singing voice — entirely convincing.

The curtain came down, but PORGY AND BESS is very much alive in my head.

Here is a video that shows a great deal about the process, and the progress, of this particular production — very revealing and a great pleasure:

It’s at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, on 46th Street — and JAZZ LIVES readers who don’t often go to Broadway will feel themselves right at home: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks play Monday and Tuesday nights at Sofia’s across the street, and Sofia’s also features fine jazz Wednesday through Saturday.

For more information, here’s the official website for the show:   http://www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com/

*My father remains alive in my head, as well: January 29, 2012, is the thirtieth anniversary of his death.  A whimsical man who loved music, he not only gave me physical life but encouraged me to be joyous — one Louis who gave me the ears to hear another Louis.  I miss him but that is the tribute we pay the dead, and he knows this.