Musicians’ relations to their material — whether they choose it or someone else does — are complex.
For some, “the material is immaterial,” which means “I will have a good time playing or singing whatever song is placed in front of me, and I will make it my own.” In this category, I think of Louis, Lips Page, Fats Waller, Mildred Bailey, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, and many others. Other musicians like the comfort of the familiar: I think of Jack Teagarden, whose many versions of BASIN STREET BLUES are often full of small delightful surprises. Yet the familiar can be a trap, encouraging some musicians to “phone it in” or “go through the motions.”
The Blessed Eddie Condon exists by himself in those categories. Because so much of his musical life was spent outside of the recording studio, on bandstands and in concert halls, there might appear to be a sameness in his discography, with multiple versions of IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE — but that “song” was simply a beautiful structure within which his brilliant strolling players could express themselves to the utmost. Eddie cared very deeply for and about good songs, material that hadn’t been done to death. That is why (without looking at the discography) you will find few versions of INDIANA, SAINT JAMES INFIRMARY, and none of the SAINTS. And when he was working with the Blessed Milton Gabler — either for Commodore or Decca or World Transcriptions — the two men shared a love of melodic material. I don’t know who led the way, but I suspect that Eddie, who remembered songs, might have suggested to Milt a particular favorite of his childhood or the early Twenties: thus, DANCING FOOL; DON’T LEAVE ME, DADDY; IDA; OH, KATHARINA, and this lovely oddity:
How did this song come to be? It’s not explicitly a war song — the premise is simply that a pretty Dutch girl is waiting for the singer, and implicitly in the premise is that the singer will be kissed seriously when he shows up. Were the fellows in the Brill Building making jokes about “two lips” when someone said, “Hey, let’s write a Dutch song!” Was the “beside me / Zuider Zee” rhyme irresistible? But it has a forward-looking melody for 1915, thanks to Whiting (I can hear the Wolverines playing this, in my mind) and the lyrics are of their time but not ponderously so.
Here is a contemporary version — not the most famous one by Henry Burr, but a good recording, one I would happily play for a listener insistent that music began with electrical recording or even later:
When Eddie and Milt decided to record this song for Decca, thirty-two years later, it was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. It wasn’t LADY BE GOOD or RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, and one hears an arrangement that (I think) was done by Bobby Hackett, and done prior to the date. Who could go wrong with Jack Teagarden singing?
The personnel for this August 5, 1947 session is Bobby Hackett, cornet, probably arrangements; Max Kaminsky, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone, vocal; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Ernie Caceres, alto and baritone saxophone; Joe Bushkin, piano; Eddie Condon, guitar; Jack Lesberg, string bass; George Wettling, drums:
Although that is a very short recording, it is full of pleasures: Jack’s trombone lazily ornamenting the melody over the four-horn statement of the theme; Bushkin, immediately identifiable, modulating for Jack’s vocal, with a Wettling accent to encourage everyone; Jack’s gorgeous voice — slightly nasal, Bing meets Louis in Texas, perhaps, streamlined but deeply earnest (with a different horn background — scored obbligati for four horns with Bushkin brightly commenting — beneath him); a Hucko half-chorus, sounding sweetly as if Bud were in the studio; Jack taking the last sixteen bars, vocally, with a scored phrase to finish it all out. The only thing “wrong” with that record is that it could have had one more chorus and still been a perfectly respectable 10″ 78.
What impresses me at this distance of nearly fifty years is how musical it all is. It doesn’t need to parade its “improvisatory” credentials: “We’re hot jazzmen and singers, you know.” The Condon-Gabler world didn’t always want to read from scores, but the musicians were perfectly capable of doing so, and the scored passages are expertly played. I also imagine someone tuning in the radio — AM, of course, in 1947 — hearing this new Decca waxing, a new platter, and thinking, “That’s a great record!” Which it was and is.
Why am I suddenly delving in to such obscurities? Well, no record that has Eddie Condon on it is unworthy; the same goes for the rest of the personnel, especially Mister Teagarden . . . and I have been listening to these overlooked Decca sessions — in glowing sound, with many unissued alternates — from the new Mosaic Eddie Condon / Bud Freeman set, which I reviewed here. Ecstatically.
I know this Mosaic set might get overshadowed by the latest glorious gift, the Lester Young effusion, and the Condon / Freeman one is already OLD, having come out in mid-2015, but when it’s sold out, don’t ring my buzzer and ask me to burn you copies of discs seven and eight. You’ve been warned.
May your happiness increase!