Tag Archives: racism

“eddie condin racist”

On this blog, WordPress has kindly provided a feature “Search Engine Terms,” which lists the ways that anonymous web-searchers have landed on JAZZ LIVES.  Sometimes it’s edifying, sometimes amusing.  The title of this post is copied directly from a search I find infuriating.

I am going to assume that the question — translated into a literate full sentence — is “Was Eddie Condon a racist?”  If one were to deal in stereotypes, it might be a plausible question.  Condon, a Caucasian born in the Middle West in 1905, might have been expected to have the racial attitudes of his time.  But the assumption, like all stereotypes, is insulting and wrong.

Consider this, first:

The web-inquirer wouldn’t know that Mr. Condon was the only White man in this band of Black musicians, that he is responsible for getting the session recorded.  Without him it would not have happened.  (Eddie’s story of how this happened is hilarious, but it also highlights his friendship with Fats Waller and his devotion to the music.)

Jump forward twenty years: Eddie had a television show in 1948-50, with live jazz and “mixed bands”: here is just over a minute of music (transferred slightly fast) featuring Hot Lips Page, a Black trumpeter, singing a celebratory blues:

I could keep on offering musical examples, but now it’s time for words.  Condon was as far from being a racist as one can be.  From the start of his fifty-year career in the music to the end, he continually sought out, played with, hired, and celebrated musicians of color.  He speaks in print of youthful experiences watching and hearing King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters.  When he had a club, gave concerts, made records, appeared on radio and television — his bands were race-blind.

A list of the Black musicians Eddie worked with goes something like this: Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Hot Lips Page, Buck Clayton, Rex Stewart, Benny Morton, Herb Hall, Edmond Hall, Leonard Gaskin, Vic Dickenson, Billie Holiday, Charlie Shavers, Sarah Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Kansas Fields, Al Morgan, the 1929 Luis Russell Orchestra, Sidney Bechet, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Sidney DeParis, Sidney Catlett, Jonah Jones, Teddy Hale, Leonard Davis, Happy Caldwell, George Stafford, Pops Foster, Henry “Red” Allen, Coleman Hawkins, Zutty Singleton,  Grachan Moncur, Cozy Cole, Wilson Myers, Clyde Hart, John Kirby, Oscar Pettiford, Billy Taylor, Sr., Joe Thomas, Johnny Williams, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Sonny Greer, Cliff Jackson, Lord Buckley, Earl Hines, Albert Nicholas, Arvell Shaw, Hank Duncan, Thelma Carpenter, Ruth Brown, Horace Henderson, Jimmy Archey, Walter Page, Al Hall, Sir Charles Thompson, Maxine Sullivan, Sandy Williams, Roy Eldridge . . . and there must be others not covered by discographies.

(No, the singer above is not Lee Wiley.  But the trumpeter to the left is Roy Eldridge.)

And another story.  In 1946, after a series of very successful concerts (1943-5) that were broadcast and sent overseas to the Armed Forces, Eddie decided to give a concert in Washington, D.C., at Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who balked at his bringing a racially-mixed band because it might draw “undesirable” elements — draw your own conclusion.  Happily, Eddie moved the concert to the Willard Hotel, where it was a huge success.

None of this sounds like racism to me.  Rather, it sounds like someone who valued what human beings were, what they could create, over skin pigment. A hero to me, and to many others.

So, dear anonymous web-searcher, I hope you find this posting, that it expands your narrow vision, and that you learn to spell.

May your happiness increase!

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A GENUINE PAGE-TURNER: “SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES,” by PETER VACHER

I’m a very tough audience when it comes to jazz history books.  Many of them, understandably, are pastiches of familiar evidence with big helpings of speculation mixed in.  Nice enough for people new to the subject, but give me first-hand information rather than paraphrases of what has already been published.

In addition, most jazz literature seems star-struck, fixated on the forty or fifty BIG NAMES.  That’s splendid: books about Louis, Lester, Ben, Hawkins, Roy, Red, and others are treasures.  But since the musicians themselves didn’t always get the attention they merited, much jazz biography is brilliant posthumous research.  If someone were to turn up pages by Walter or Hot Lips (I couldn’t resist) they would be priceless.  And the people who never get to report on what they saw, felt, heard, experienced are likely to have the best stories to tell.  This brings us to Peter Vacher’s new book, SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, 331+ pages, many photographs).

It is an irresistible book, and I speak as someone who finds many books — after decades of reading — utterly resistible.

SWINGIN' ON CENTRAL AVENUE

Peter Vacher (much like the recently-departed John Chilton, although Peter is still very much alive) is one of those rare multi-talented writers: a splendid unaffected prose stylist, a very diligent researcher and “connecter,” someone with an eye for what’s true and what’s intriguing.  In this case, he offers us oral histories and historical research into the lives and music of sixteen musicians — his research done over more than two decades.  The musicians profiled are Andrew Blakeney, Gideon Honore, George Orendorff, “Monk” McFay, Floyd Turnham, Betty Hall Jones, “Red Mack” Morris, Caughey Roberts, Chester Lane, Monte Easter, Billy Hadnott, Norman Bowden, John “Streamline” Ewing, Chuck Thomas, Jesse Sailes, “Red” Minor William Robinson.

I knew of perhaps one-half of those musicians: Blakeney had played with Kid Ory; Honore with Jimmie Noone; Orendorff with Les Hite and Louis; “Red Mack” with Lee and Lester Young’s band; Caughey Roberts had been replaced in the early Basie band by Earle Warren; Billy Hadnott was on famous JATP recordings as well as with Nat Cole; Norman Bowden had recorded with Zutty Singleton; “Streamline” Ewing had played with Hines, McShann, Horace Henderson.

Because of the “star-system” in jazz, many might assume that these interviews with people who — apparently — were on the fringes of the big time would be narrow and not terribly interesting.  To assume this would be a huge error.  For one thing, these sixteen people hadn’t been interviewed much, if at all, so their reminiscences are fresh and eager, full of good stories.  Not one page in Vacher’s book has the stale, “Must we go through this again?” quality of the recitals the stars have given so often they take on an inescapable sleepiness (both in the speaker and the reader).  Although many older musicians expressed themselves through their instruments, sometimes their narratives are enthusiastic but closed: “Big Boy was a terror when he got into that whiskey, but he sure could blow.”  Not here.  And Vacher’s interludes are brief, lively, and the very antithesis of narcissism: he shines the light with great skill and affection on his subjects.

And the stories are amazing.  Andy Blakeney was in Chicago when Louis joined King Oliver; he played in a Doc Cooke band.  Streamline Ewing was asked to join the Basie band; he heard Charlie Parker before Bird had made records.  Speaking of Bird, he stayed with Billy Hadnott and his wife — and it’s a sad story — before the Hadnotts were compelled to ask him to leave.  Ewing also mentions seeing both Mutt Carey and Nat Cole at the union — consider that pairing!  Norman Bowden talks of rehearsing with Jelly Roll Morton, “the most sophisticated man I ever met in my life,” in 1940.  We hear of Benny Goodman sitting in with Mutt’s band in 1925; the book offers the first substantial sketches of drummer Cuba Austin, of bandleaders Reb Spikes, Sonny Clay, the pianist Lady Will Carr. We learn — in just a sentence — that the short-lived and extremely talented pianist Margaret “Countess” Johnson was Lester Young’s “heartbeat.”That Eddie Nicholson was Billie Holiday’s drug supplier.  There are extended stories about a young Charlie Christian, about Lester, about the Basie band at the Reno Club in 1935, about Louis, marijuana, Charles Mingus, Buck Clayton in Shanghai, Lionel Hampton in 1936 . . .  And some musicians, like Kid Ory and Christian, pop up in different contexts, so one has the advantage of seeing them as if they were characters in a Faulkner novel, from many angles.

I deplore the kind of advertising assertion that suggests, “If you don’t buy / read / eat ____________, your life will be joyless, devoid of meaning.”  But I found myself thinking, “Every jazz fancier I know would find something delightfully memorable in these pages.”

And there’s more.  Extraordinary photographs, many from the subjects’ personal hoards.  Interludes of fact taken from contemporary music magazines. And, should you think this to be simply a collection of oral histories of little-known musicians retelling their careers, the book presents so much more — as in race and racism from the Twenties onwards.  Not all the stories are grim, but they are all revealing.  I offer only one example — in Billy Hadnott’s section, Vacher includes this comment from DOWN BEAT, March 15, 1944, where Frankie Laine and a four-piece “mixed group” are praised for their music, then the reporter notes, “Despite their excellent air shots the group has found difficulty in club bookings because of the racial angle involved in the mixed group. Setup includes two colored and three ofays, and it will be interesting to find if this group can break through the Jim Crowism so strong out here.”  That quotation — both in subject and style — is worth a good deal of study, and it reminds us that there were two unions at the time in Los Angeles.

Such fascinating evidence spills out of Vacher’s book — because his subjects haven’t simply played or lived locally, and they are people one would otherwise know only as names in discographies or on record labels.

The book is entertaining, powerful, and eye-opening.  Peter Vacher has surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal.  Now I’m going back to read more.  As a postscript, I opened the book at random and found Chester Lane’s story about working with Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings in El Dorado, Arkansas, circa 1928, with Louis Jordan . . . and the band is taken over by one Wilson, who owns Wilson’s Tell-‘Em-‘Bout-Me Cafe.  I’ll stop there, but you will see why such real-life details make the book a deep pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

“HAVE YOU TRIED THE ELEPHANT BEER?”: INSPIRED STORIES: “JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS,” by MONK ROWE with ROMY BRITELL

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Monk Rowe is a jazz musician — saxophonist, pianist, composer, arranger — and he has a day gig at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, as the  Joe Williams Director of the Filius Jazz Archive there.  The Archive will be twenty-one in 2016, and it is indeed remarkably adult.

So far, Monk has conducted video interviews with more than 325 musicians, ranging from the great forbears (Doc Cheatham, Eddie Bert, Kenny Davern, Jerry Jerome, Ray Conniff, Joe Williams, Milt Hinton) to the living legends of the present and future (Nicki Parrott, Kidd Jordan, Sherrie Maricle, Bill Charlap, Holly Hofmann, Maria Schneider).  And excerpts from those interviews, thematically and intelligently arranged, now form a compact yet impressive book (with a brief foreword by jazz eminence Dan Morgenstern) whose title is above.

JazzTalesCover

A friend at Hamilton sent me a copy of the book some weeks back, and I have been slow to write about it — for two reasons.  One, the semester got in the way, unforgivably, and two, I was often making notes and laughing so hard that I couldn’t read much at a sitting.  But my instant recommendation is BUY IT.  So those of you who want to skip the evidence can zoom to the bottom of this post. Others can linger.

A brief prelude.  I am immensely in favor of oral history although it cannot replace the best analysis or aesthetic criticism.  I wouldn’t give up Whitney Balliett, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Anthony Barnett, Frank Buchmann-Moller, Manfred Selchow, or John Chilton . . . the list goes on and I know I am leaving two dozen worthy writers out.  But what wouldn’t we give for a ten-minute interview with Tony Fruscella, Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy Harrison, Herschel Evans, Eddie Lang, Jimmy Blanton, or Buster Bailey?  True, some musicians were and are shy or not always able to articulate much about the music, but others — as we know — are born raconteurs, sharp observers, comedians, anthropologists.  Their stories, no matter how brief, are precious.  Two pages by Clark Terry where he speaks of being beaten by Caucasians because he was a “Nigerian” while in Mississippi — and then being rescued by another group of Caucasians — say more about race relations in the United States than twenty hours of PBS footage could ever do.

The material is organized thematically, enabling the reader to hear, for instance, stories of life on the road from Kenny Davern, Lanny Morgan, and Phil Woods. Then there are sharp observations — one can almost hear the rimshot that follows.  Dave Pell calls Stan Getz “the greatest dressing room player that ever lived.”  Stan Kenton stops his band from swinging too much and says, “This is not Basie.  This is Stan Kenton.”  Bobby Rosengarden talks about Toscanini, Joe Wilder about punctuality, Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli about life in the recording studio.  Keter Betts, as a high-school student, is bought lunch by Milt Hinton; Jean Bach explains the Ellington habit of “seagulling”; Sherrie Maricle recalls her metal clarinet.  Dan Barrett gives advice to young musicians.  Randy Sandke talks about the perils of thinking.  Karl Berger talks about his conducting; Kidd Jordan deconstructs a song’s title.  And there’s a historical perspective covering nearly a century: we hear Doc Cheatham talk about Ma Rainey, then Jerry Jerome describe the first Glenn Miller band — all the way up to the present.

It’s an enthralling book.  And since Monk Rowe is a professional musician, his interludes and commentary are more than useful; his questions are on the mark. Other writers put themselves into the dialogue merely to say, “Well, Dizzy always used to say to me,” but Monk is a gracious interpreter rather than a narcissist.

To find out the story of the elephant beer and the priceless answer, visit Monk’s JAZZ BACKSTORY blog here  and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  Then you can read the rest of Phil Woods’ words and — by the way — find out exactly what Dizzy Gillespie said when presented with the key to the city of Syracuse, New York.

JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS is available here through Amazon.  And the proceeds from the book support the Archives.

NEWS FLASH: Monk is going to be teaching a free online course on jazz, starting February 2, 2016: details here.

May your happiness increase!

THE BAD OLD DAYS

We still recoil in horror and shame when confronted with photographs of COLORED and WHITE drinking fountains and entrances . . . or at least I hope we do.  And I know that Alistair Cooke’s announcements on the jam sessions broadcast for the BBC in the late Thirties — announcing players by race, as if radio listeners needed to be protected from Negritude entering their living rooms — still startle unpleasantly.  But what should we make of this article, possibly sold around 1939?

AN ANTHOLOGY OF COLORED JAZZ

Was Decca suggesting that this was “authentic,” as in “We have the real stuff on our records,” an attempt to woo the JAZZMEN audience, or was it a way of warning off a racially-charged audience, “This is that degenerate stuff.  Keep the women and children a safe distance away”?

I can’t tell.  But since I think few listeners have their music categorized by racial / ethnic characteristics, this record album has not lost its potential to shock.

The music inside, of course, is colorful yet without pigmentation.

May your happiness increase!

THE JAZZ BOOKSHELF: “JAZZ BEAT: NOTES ON CLASSIC JAZZ” and “MR. B”

A quarter-century ago, in actual bookstores, I could find shelves devoted to books on jazz.  That reassuring sight still exists (I saw it in the Strand in New York last week) but the great era of print publishing is, understandably, over. Thus it’s always a pleasure to encounter new books on jazz, and the two below are quite different but will both reward readers.

Jazz-Beat-review--195x300

JAZZ BEAT: NOTES ON CLASSIC JAZZ, by Lew Shaw (AZtold Publishing) is a very amiable collection of profiles written by an admiring, long-time fan and former sportswriter.

What makes these brief affectionate portraits different from the norm is that all (except one) the musicians in this book are living.  Not all of them are stars, but they have devoted followings — from the youthful Jonathan “Jazz” Russell, Pete and Will Anderson, Josh Duffee, Michael Kaeshammer, Ben Polcer, Molly Ryan, Bria Skonberg, Andy Schumm, Stephanie Trick, to the veterans Bill Allred, Jim Cullum, Bob Draga, Yve Evans, Chet Jeager, Flip Oakes, Bucky Pizzarelli, Richard Simon, Mike Vax, Pat Yankee, and Ed Polcer — the book’s inspiration, whose picture is on the cover.

Shaw also profiles other regulars on the festival circuit, Tom Rigney, the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, the Natural Gas Jazz Band, the New Black Eagles, Igor’s Jazz Cowboys.

His emphasis is on musicians exploring older jazz forms and repertoire, but the book is happily free from ideological bickering (with one exception, and the words aren’t the author’s*.  The book is comfortable and easy: I sense that the musicians are delighted to find someone sympathetic, interested, willing to get the facts right for publication.

I was pleased to find a number of my jazz friends and heroes profiled, among them Clint Baker, Kevin Dorn, Banu Gibson, Nicki Parrott, Carl Sonny Leyland, Randy Reinhart, Hal Smith, Rossano Sportiello, and the late Mat Domber.  I know I’ve left several people off this list, but readers will have fun seeing some of their favorites here.

Shaw’s method is simple: he establishes the musician’s place in the world of contemporary traditional jazz, constructs a brief biography — a story rather than a collection of dates and a listing of names and places.  Some comments from a writer or blogger offer different insights (I’m even quoted here a few times) and the musician speaks for him or herself.  The result is a fast-moving collection of short pieces (somewhere between journalistic features and extensive liner notes) that capture their subjects’ personalities in only a few pages.

Shaw is frankly admiring — from a literate fan’s perspective.  For instance (I picked this at random), the opening of his piece on Bob Draga: “Clarinetist Bob Draga is considered the consummate entertainer, having mastered the art of pleasing an audience with musical talent, classy appearance and entertaining repartee.”  That’s Bob, to the life.

One particularly moving episode in this book is the profile of drummer Joe Ascione — and his life with multiple sclerosis since 1997.  If Shaw had done nothing but allow Joe to speak for himself, JAZZ BEAT would still be well worth reading. Many fans come up to musicians at gigs, concerts, and festivals, and ask questions; it is reassuring to see that Lew Shaw has willingly shared his energies and research with us.  The 211-page book is nicely produced with many black-and-white photographs, and copies can be ordered here.

*Chet Jaeger, of the Night Blooming Jazzmen, told Shaw about playing in a Disneyland marching band when Dizzy Gillespie was also performing there, and his reaction: “I decided I would attend and try to learn something about modern jazz, but I gave up after a few numbers.  I always say that when I hit a bad note, everyone knows it’s a bad note. When Miles Davis hits a bad note, people will say, ‘Isn’t that creative.'”

MISTER B

Cary Ginell, author of a fine book on the Jazz Man Record Shop (reviewed here) and a rewarding biography of Cannonball Adderley (here) has produced another first-rate book in the same series: MR. B: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BILLY ECKSTINE (Hal Leonard, 228+ pages).  Ginell may turn out to be this generation’s model for jazz biography, for he doesn’t indulge in pathobiography (chronicling every time his subject is supposed to have left no tip for a waitperson or some other example of bad behavior) and he isn’t a secret Destroyer (appearing to write admiringly of the subject then deflating the Hero(ine) chapter after chapter).

His books are tidy, graceful, compact affairs — full of stories but never digressive, sticking to chronology but never mechanical.

Eckstine has been treated gingerly by the jazz community: yes, he was Earl Hines’ band vocalist, bringing the blues to a larger audience with JELLY, JELLY, then someone given credit for his “legendary” band featuring Dizzy, Bird, Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, and others . . . but once Eckstine comes to even greater prominence as an African-American balladeer (think of I APOLOGIZE), the jazz audience loses interest and the naughty word “commercialism” enters the dialogue.

Ginell doesn’t over-compensate, and he — unlike Mister B — doesn’t apologize, but he makes a serious case for Eckstine being one of the important figures in the slow struggle for White Americans to respect people of color.

One of Eckstine’s sons remembered, “Until the day he died, whenever he ordered a sandwich, he always separated the two pieces of bread and gently ran his fingers over the meat, because on a number of occasions while touring the South, they would send the band boy. . . to pick up food from a white restaurant. When they got the sandwiches, they would discover finely ground glass, or vermin feces mixed in with the tuna, chicken, egg, or potato salad.”  We also learn about the repercussions of a LIFE magazine photograph where Eckstine was captured amidst young White female fans — a horrifying example of racist attitudes in 1950. Stories such as that are invaluable, and make a book both readable and memorable, no matter who its subject might be.

The band business was difficult even when the enemy wasn’t trying to poison you so directly; Ed Eckstein also recalled that the critic Leonard Feather subtly attacked his father’s band because Eckstine refused to record Feather’s compositions.  Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie created a parody — sung to the tune STORMY WEATHER, with these lyrics:

I know why, we can’t get a gig on Friday night, / Leonard Feather / Keeps on makin’ it hard for me to keep this band together, / Talkin’ shit about us all the time . . .  

We learn about the relationship between June Eckstine and the promising young Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard; we learn of Eckstine’s close friendship with Dr. King, his devotion to his fans, his generosities.  And as for Eckstine’s apparent “selling-out,” he had this to say, “Some creeps said I ‘forsook’ jazz in order to be commercial. So I saw one of these creeps, a jazz critic, and I said, ‘What are you, mad at me because I want to take care of my family?  Is that what pisses you off? You want me to end up in a goddamn hotel room with a bottle of gin in my pocket and a needle in my arm, and let them discover me laying there? Then I’ll be immortal, I guess, to you . . . It ain’t going to work that way with me, man. I want to take care of my family and give them the things that I think they deserve.'”

And we learn that Eckstine’s last word was “Basie,” which should go some distance in supporting his deep feeling for jazz.

It’s an admirable book.  Although nearly everyone who worked with Eckstine is dead, Ginell has had the cooperation of the singer’s family and friends; he has done thorough research without allowing minutiae to overwhelm the narrative, and the book moves along at a fine 4 / 4 pace.  With rare photographs, as well.

Ginell’s work — and this series in general — is very fine, and these books fill needed spaces in jazz history.  Who’s next?

May your happiness increase!

A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA”

We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school.  The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons.  Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.

Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary.  It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic.  It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.

Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love.  He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist.  Crippled from childhood — he would never grow much taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.

But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man.  It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician.  It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world.  That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.  This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission.  For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.

Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing?  I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love.  How may people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET?  We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.

And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music.  The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.

Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.

I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones.  Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone.  It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.

Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties.  For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions.  And many of the subjects friends and family are also gone.  Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film.  Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.

I don’t think so.  Here is a still from that film (with Chick’s dear friend John Trueheart on banjo and my hero Bennie Morton on trombone):

But back to Kaufman’s problem.  Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic /  charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis.  Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.

So Kaufman had to be ingenious.  And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.

The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera.  The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.

And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap.  Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots.  Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages.  Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?

THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it desrves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”

It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.

That’s the beautiful part.  Now here comes four bars of gritty reality.  In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now.  But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.

Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release.  All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference.  Here is the link.

Think of a world made better by swing.

See and support this film.

May your happiness increase.

“SHINE,” RECONSIDERED

It’s always fascinating to take old assumptions and hold them up to the light.  For years, I assumed along with most that the song called “SHINE,” or sometimes “S-H-I-N-E,” had disgracefully racist lyrics, and that having someone proud of his African-American heritage — such as Louis Armstrong — sing it was a deep insult.  “Poor Louis,” we thought, “forced to endure material unworthy of him, degrading to his race and self,” although he doesn’t seem abashed in what follows.

Here’s the version from RHAPSODY IN BLACK AND BLUE (with a nice close-up of drummer Tubby Hall):

And a decade or so later, a Soundie of SHINE from 1942 (with closeups of Sidney Catlett and dancer Nick Stewart):

“Those poor Mills Brothers — other singers saddled with demeaning material.”  That there seemed to be other lyrics — in Bing Crosby’s version — was puzzling, but I think many assumed that this was part of a clean-up campaign or some racist plot against people of color.

No, not at all.

The song — as “THAT’S WHY THEY CALL ME ‘SHINE,'” dates from 1910* and was composed by Ford Dabney (music) and, more importantly, Cecil Mack (born Richard C. McPherson), both African-Americans.  That in itself wouldn’t have prevented them from creating a song that later generations would have found demeaning.  But the lyrics of “THAT’S WHY THEY CALL ME ‘SHINE'” are anything but self-deprecating.

Verse 1:

When I was born they christened me plain Samuel Johnson Brown,

I hadn’t grown so very big ‘fore some folks in the town

Had changed it ’round to Sambo, I was Rastus to a few,

Then Choc’late Drop was added by some others that I knew,

And then to cap the climax I was strolling down the line

When someone shouted, “Fellers, hey, come on and pipe the Shine.”

But I don’t care a bit,

Here’s how I figure it.

Refrain:

‘Cause my hair is curly,

‘Cause my teeth are pearly,

Just because I always wear a smile,

Like to dress up in the latest style,

‘Cause I’m glad I’m living.

Take troubles smiling, never whine;

Just because my color’s shady,

Slightly diff’rent maybe,

That’s why they call me “Shine.”

Verse 2:

A rose, they say, by any other name would smell as sweet,

So if that’s right, why should a nickname take me off my feet?

Why, ev’rything that’s precious from a gold piece to a dime

And diamonds, pearls, and rubies ain’t no good unless they shine.

So when these clever people call me “shine” or “coon” or “smoke,”

I simply smile, and smile some more, and vote them all a joke.

I’m thinking just the same,

What is there in a name?

Repeat Refrain.

I think — having read these lyrics, especially the verse! — some of us might have to reconsider our perceptions of this song.  The lyrics, by the way, come from READING LYRICS, ed. Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball (Pantheon, 2000); they date the song as 1924.  Text courtesy of the Beloved’s bookcase.