Tag Archives: Sam Coslow

RHAPSODIES BY BING and HAWK, 1933

Yesterday, May 3, would have been Bing Crosby’s birthday.  He doesn’t need to be defended, re-assessed, or re-evaluated, but it’s always a pleasure to remember his singing: his passionate ease, his swing, his beautiful dramatic sense.  I first fell in love with his voice in my childhood and it continues to thrill me.  Here are two (really, three) examples of how wonderfully he sang in the Thirties — and the lovely songs he was given, the first by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, the second by Al Dubin and Harry Warren.

Here is a clip from the film.  Bing’s acting is broad, reminiscent of his Mack Sennett days, but it could also be the way he was directed: listen to the voice:

and the issued recording, its subtleties showing that he knew how to improvise:

Here’s I’VE GOT TO SING A TORCH SONG, where Bing’s passionate delivery might make you forget the simple scalar quality of the melody line:

The question of “influence” is always slippery, unless A has written a letter that she is listening to the newest record by B and is impressed by it.  Those two songs were in the air, on sheet music, on the radio — this was popular music — so although I feel that Bing had a powerful influence on instrumentalists, I can’t prove it.  However, I offer these two instrumental versions — each a beautiful creation — to suggest that perhaps the most famous jazz players were listening deeply to Bing.  (We know Louis did.)  It gives me an excuse to share, without ideology, glorious rhapsodies.

That’s Hawk with a small group from the Fletcher Henderson band (Red Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Hilton Jefferson, Horace  Henderson, Bernard Addison, John Kirby, Walter Johnson); here he is as star soloist with the full orchestra, with brother Horace on piano, who may have done the arrangement:

Gorgeous music.  Sweet, hot, White, Black — who cares?  Just gorgeous.

May your happiness increase!

“DO SOME STUFF”: JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, FRANK TATE (Luca’s Jazz Corner, December 22, 2016)

fine-and-dandy

Two adjectives and a conjunction never sounded so good as they did at Luca’s Jazz Corner at 1712 First Avenue in New York City on the night of December 22, 2016.  A wonderful band lit up that cozy room on the Upper East Side: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, reeds; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Frank Tate, string bass.  (And if you wonder why this video is shot from behind the band, that was the best spot to be in.  We video types learn to be adaptable or we go home sulkily without hearing any music.)

The song itself is delightful to play and improvise on, although in my childhood a few bars of it at a rapid tempo became a comic cliche.  The composers, Kay Swift (music) and “Paul James” (lyrics) are a remarkable pair — married collaborators, even though Kay had a decade-long affair with another songwriter named George Gershwin.  The song was the title number for a hit Broadway show — the first ever composed wholly by a woman.  “Paul James” was the pen name of James Paul Warburg, a high-level economist and banker whose main desire in life was to write a hit song.

I think that Ms. Swift and Mr. Warburg would find this version lives up to the song’s title and intent.

A quite irrelevant anecdote here.  For the first twenty-plus years of my college teaching career, I labored under the burden of English 101: Freshman Composition.  “Burden” because I think writing can be improved, but there has to be something there to begin with, which many of my very delightful students lacked.  Relief came in the person(s) of many students who were born elsewhere, labeled “ESL” (English As A Second Language) students.  Their idioms were occasionally wobbly, but their insights were much deeper than their American-born peers.  From them, I picked up an expression I use now, “In my country.” as in “In my country, we don’t tip the waitstaff in pennies.”

But one of the idioms they found especially hard to digest was “not only _____ but also _______.”  So, writing this post, I thought often of the renamed Swift-James song, NOT ONLY FINE BUT ALSO DANDY, but I can see why the shorter title remains.  And how true it is of this performance.

May your happiness increase! 

 

LIKE BEACONS OF ROMANCE: VARIATIONS ON “LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT”

LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT

Let’s begin with a gently ravishing performance of this song by Peter Mintun:

Peter, who is a fine scholar as well as a wooing performer, notes that the song comes from the Paramount film MURDER AT THE VANITIES, where it is sung during a huge production number with ostrich feathers forming the waves of the ocean.  The 1934 film stars Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglen, Kitty Carlisle, Jack Oakie, Gertrude Michael, Dorothy Stickney, Gail Patrick, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, and Jessie Ralph.

I find the melody irresistible, and the lyrics are especially charming, deftly avoiding certain hackneyed phrases and rhymes that a lesser writer would have seized on.  And to me, carpe diem for lovers is always an attractive idea.

Here’s a contemporaneous version of LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT, leisurely and convincing.  Don’t let the surface noise get in the way of romance:

Now, the more famous 1934 version (at least to the jazz cognoscenti), which was my introduction to the song:

How beautiful that is!  I feel wrapped up in that orchestral sound, the soaring invitation of Johnny Hodges’ soprano, the timbres of the different soloists who write their own personal variations on the melody.  (It’s a recording I could listen to a number of times in a row and each time hear something rewarding.)

Five years later, in a small cramped Chicago studio:

That recording is also a series of delights — Walter Page’s energetic bass lines behind Basie’s homage to his mentor Fats, the sound of the rhythm section, the creations of Buck Clayton and the ever-surprising Lester Young.

I have always wondered how LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT came in to that session.  One ready hypothesis is the hand of John Hammond, who had favorite songs from the Twenties and early Thirties that he urged musicians to record (something that angered Billie Holiday greatly), so I can see him bringing the sheet music to the session.  And I believe, based on the recorded evidence, that Basie and his musicians didn’t feel a great need to expand their repertoire — that Basie would have gone on playing the blues, I GOT RHYTHM, and perhaps I AIN’T GOT NOBODY happily for decades.

But I also wonder how powerfully LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT made an impression on jazz musicians, because who of them would not have seen a movie with Duke in it?  It’s a mystery, but the results are gorgeous.

Ten or twenty years ago, I would have heard these recordings (leaving Peter aside for a moment) and seen a clear line of “improvement,” of musical progress. To my younger ears, Harman’s version would have been sticky-sweet, and I would have endured the record hoping for a hot eight-bar solo on the final bridge, in the fashion of 1931 hot dance records.  I would have been in love with the Ellington recording — which in its own delicious way, is also “dance music,” but to me the apex of all things gratifying in music would have been the Basie recording.  I still find the final recording thrilling, but I no longer want to construct stairways of progress, where everything ascends to a Hero or Heroine, and all that has come before is somehow inferior.

Good music is satisfying on its own terms, or at least it should be.

And love — not just for tonight or today — will keep us alive for sure.

May your happiness increase! 

LOVE IN SWINGTIME: “THE DAY YOU CAME ALONG,” THREE WAYS

One idyllic version of early twentieth-century modernism is the intersection of great artists considering the same theme.  Here, the lost paradise of 1933 where Bing Crosby and Coleman Hawkins could each rhapsodize beautifully on the same song.  It was THE DAY YOU CAME ALONG — a sweet romantic rhapsody of love’s fulfillment by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, a Crosby hit from the film TOO MUCH HARMONY.  Here’s Bing’s version, where sensuality and delight combine:

That same year, a small band of Coleman Hawkins, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Hilton Jefferson, Horace Henderson, Bernard Addison, John Kirby, and Walter Johnson devoted themselves to the same theme:

Nearly ninety years later, the Harlem Jazz Camels pay tribute to the song, to love in swingtime:

This performance (recorded by the very gracious “jazze1947”) comes from Aneby, Sweden, on Feb. 7, 2012.  The Camels are Bent Persson, trumpet; Göran Eriksson, alto / clarinet; Stephan Lindsein, trombone; Claes Brodda, clarinet / baritone / tenor; Lasse Lindbäck. string bass; Ulf Lindberg, piano; Sigge Delert, drums; Göran Stachewsky. guitar / banjo.

“What’s the most important day in history?”

“The day you came along.”

“Of course!”

TEDDY BUNN, GUITAR

It’s that point in the semester when I end up having more informal conversations with students about their aspirations.  Today I was talking to a young man who is taking a jazz course and plays guitar.  Blues guitar, it turns out.  Immediately, I said, “I’m going to give you homework.  Listen to Teddy Bunn!” and he copied down the unfamiliar name.  Over the years, I’ve urged other guitar-playing students to devote themselves to Teddy Bunn’s recorded work.  Today, for the first time, I thought to myself, “Why Teddy Bunn rather than Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt?”

For me, the answer is in Bunn’s emotional accessibility.  To young guitarists raised on flamethrowing displays of technique (usually electrified) Bunn might sound unambitious.  But he has a country-blues depth of feeling: his simple phrases come from someplace that belies his birthplace — Freeport, Long Island, perhaps twenty-five miles from where I am now writing and certainly miles away from the Mississippi Delta.  His blues phrases are plain-spoken, logical, affecting.  But he also has a distinctly urban swing: if you had Teddy Bunn in your rhythm section, you hardly needed anyone else.

And I am always trying to consider what my students might have heard before — and how my frankly antiquarian tastes in music will strike them.  To get to Charlie Christian, they have to get past the “Swing Era” in the person of Benny Goodman, although I suppose some of them could go directly to Jerry Newman’s recordings of Christian, uptown.  And to get to Django, they have to make a detour around Grappelly and the Quintet.

Bunn’s simplicity is deceptive.  It would please me immensely to have one of my self-possessed young players say to himself, “Oh, I can do that,” and try to duplicate a Bunn solo — a simple twelve bars — and then realize that his imitation was lacking something essential — perhaps in its tonal qualities or its rhythmic subtleties.  I imagine that Teddy Bunn might teach someone more about inventiveness and humility than I had been able to in fifteen weeks in a classroom.  (Charles Peterson caught him in action at a 1939 Blue Note session with trumpeter Frank Newton, who is standing in front of Sidney Catlett . . . fast company!)

A place to find out some more about Teddy Bunn is Mike Kremer’s CLASSIC JAZZ GUITAR site, http://classicjazzguitar.com/aboutus/about_us.jsp, the source of the images here.

During his lifetime, everyone knew about Teddy Bunn.  Sammy Price called him for the Decca “race records” sessions of the late Thirties; he was a charter member of the Spirits of Rhythm, also accompanying Ella Logan and Red McKenzie; he sat in with the Ellington band in 1929; Mezzrow and Bechet made good use of his talents, as did Hot Lips Page, Clarence Profit, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, and Spencer Williams.  Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff made him part of their early Blue Note sessions and gave him a four-song solo date of his own.  Later on, he pops up (now playing electric guitar) with Lionel Hampton, Hadda Brooks, and others.  Unfortunately, he didn’t get much attention in the Fifties, and a combination of poor health, early rock ‘n’ roll, and gigs in Hawaii kept him out of the public eye as far as jazz was concerned.  I do recall a late interview (done by Peter Tanner for JAZZ JOURNAL, if memory serves me) where Bunn talked about his older recordings and was thrilled to hear them again.

Here are some samples of the man whose name comes first to my lips when the subject of blues guitar comes into the conversation:

IF YOU SEE ME COMIN’ is from 1938, and shows Teddy Bunn’s talents in three ways — first, as a singer, intense yet understated; second, with some of those same characteristics in his solo (notice how he lets his notes ring, how he doesn’t feel the need to fill up the spaces); third, as a rhythm player.  Who’s the pianist?  There isn’t any — those harmonies and rhythmic pushes you hear are Teddy’s.  The other musicians on this date are the co-leaders Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Tommy Ladnier, trumpet; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.  (The player closest in spirit to Bunn on this record is Ladnier, who has just been chronicled with eloquent thoroughness in Dan Verhettes’ book TRAVELLIN’ BLUES.)

Here’s I GOT RHYTHM, recorded in 1933 by the Spirits of Rhythm, featuring the irreplaceable singer Leo Watson, Douglas and Wilbur Daniels on tipples (which I believe are twelve-string versions of ukuleles), Teddy Bunn — whose solo and trades come after Leo’s vocal episodes — and Virgil Scoggins on “drums,” more likely whiskbrooms on a brown-paper-covered suitcase:

And two reasonably unsatisfying film clips (from the point of view of hearing Teddy Bunn play) although they offer other rare delights.  TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY, comes from the 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS, and is out of synch.  It is mainly given over to Leo Watson (which is not a problem) but it shows us Teddy Bunn on electric guitar.  I’ll even ignore that the clip shows Black musicians as having to be distracted from their onstage crap game to perform their act — on a particularly terrible song:

And a new find — the 1941 equivalent of a Soundie, obviously terribly low-budget, which brings together Jackie Greene, impersonating Eddie Cantor, and the “Five Spirits of Rhythm,” who are here cast as railroad porters in charge of shoe-shines.  Here we don’t see Bunn playing but his electric guitar is quite audible on the soundtrack.  But it’s a reminder of how badly Black performers were treated in films until years later (even with such luminaries as Sam Coslow and Dudley Murphy supervising).  There’s comedy, cheesecake, and a good deal of Greene rolling his eyes.  At least the Spirits get to hold out their hands for their tip at the end:

I don’t want to overstate Teddy Bunn’s place in the history of jazz.  He did most often find himself playing the blues, or playing thirty-two bar songs with a deep blues flavoring.  His solos tended to be variations on simple motifs, and his later playing had lost some of its spark, its inventiveness.  When he took up the electric guitar, his identifiable acoustic sound was blurred, and his solos sound rather familiar.

But in his prime he was a remarkable musician, and I look forward to the day when one of my students (or former students) says that hearing Teddy Bunn was a marvelous — even if not life-changing — experience.

BENT PERSSON PLAYS LOUIS: Conclusion

I hated to see this wonderfully expansive concert — Bent Persson’s marvelous evocations of big-band Louis Armstrong — come to an end.  These final seven selections explore Louis’s Decca period, here defined as 1935-41. 

A word about the Deccas — appropriate not only because of this concert, but because of the recent Mosaic box set.  As a body of work, they have provoked both defensive overpraise and criticism built on misunderstanding.  At this distance, readers who wish to see the Swing Era as a high point in creative improvised music have found it necessary to forget that the material the bands and musicians were given to record was of variable quality — popular music from films and Broadway shows, music meant for dancers.  Yes, a Porter, Berlin, Coslow, or Gershwin song could find its way in to the record session, but Ellington was playing CALL OF THE CANYON at Fargo. 

But this constant influx of new songs was not a bad thing.  Left to their own devices, many of the jazz artists we revere operate within a narrow repertoire, whether it is bounded by the blues and I GOT RHYTHM or a half-dozen other favorite songs.  We all admire what the 1936-40 Basie band did within such constraints, but this makes TAXI WAR DANCE and TICKLE-TOE all the more delightful.  So I don’t perceive Louis as shackled and victimized by Jack Kapp and Joe Glaser.  His band was ragged at times, and I can hear the terrifying sound of Bingie Madison’s clarinet even now, but Kapp made the right choices more often than not: repeating a take so that the clarinet passage would be in tune would have required Louis to play more and more, not a wise or generous use of his energies.  

Bent and the band do these majestic recordings justice and more: watching this concert is as close as I or anyone else will come to seeing Louis circa 1938, a magical experience.  And both he and the band are using the recordings as frameworks for improvisation: the band plays Bent’s versions of the arrangements, and his solos are certainly shaped by what Louis played, but they are variations on variations — alternate takes, if you will — rather than exact attempts at reproducing what Louis played in the studios.   

They began with that truly pretty tune (Louis didn’t play the verse, which is a pity — ask Jon-Erik Kellso to do it if the band knows the changes) from the film of the same name, THANKS A MILLION.  And the sweetly ethereal Elena P. Paynes of the Chicago Stompers shows us that expressing our gratitudes is always a good thing, as is Martin Litton’s pretty, ruminative solo chorus:

Bent took over the dramatic leadership of the next song — really a playlet, as acted by Louis in his first leap into film stardom, in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — a clip I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog.  “The fun was loud and hearty, when a notorious wallflower became the life of the party!”  Here’s THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET:

I assume that Louis was asked to perform ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, already a hoary standard, because of the musical film of the same name.  It’s a difficult arrangement, with Technicolor trappings (the march-band opening) and on the original Decca, even Louis has a moment’s trouble finding where he is . . . but Elena is in fine form, even given the wordy lyrics and the fast tempo:

I DOUBLE DARE YOU is a pretty swing tune, one that should have gotten more attention in its time — now, it seems the only people who play and sing it are trumpeters.  Would that there were other singers inviting us all to “get friendly” in Ludvig Carlson’s amiable way!  And there are some fine instrumental solos — Clerc, McQuaid, Munnery, and Bonnel — all backed by Nick Ward’s rocking drums:

SO LITTLE TIME isn’t musically complex, but Louis made something splendid out of it (as he did with TRUE CONFESSION and RED CAP); Elena makes this Swing version of tempus fugit truly winsome, and Bent adds his own majesty:

In the idealized Chicago period (the years some listeners think of as Louis’s only peak), Tommy Rockwell of OKeh Records wouldn’t let him record WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN on the grounds of impiety.  Lucky for us that Jack Kapp’s musical world-view was broader, thus making it possible for Louis to explore this hymn as well as IN THE GLOAMING and ON A COCOANUT ISLAND.  Reverends Persson and Paynes offer a “mellow sermon” for us all:

Finally, Bent pays homage to Louis’s moving instrumental examination of the song he played in fragments every night for forty years — WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH.  Luxuriant, I say:

Video recordings may give you a sense of what it was like to be there — not only the sound, but the musicians smiling at something perfectly apt that someone else has played or sung.  But videos are still not designed to be played in the car (unless you’re a lucky bored passenger) so I happily recommend an earlier compact disc recording of some of this material — a different band, solos, and vocals, but our Bent and Claes Brodda are there . . . so you know the heights will be scaled!  The project was issued on the late Gosta Hagglof’s Kenneth label as FOR THE LOVE OF SATCHMO, and the backing band is the very empathic and hot Royal Blue Melodians.  Ordering details can be found on the blogroll: click on “Classic Jazz Productions.”  (You’ll also find the CDs of Bent and friends playing Louis’s Hot Choruses and breaks, astonishing music.) 

K3416F

K3416B

 A million thanks to everyone involved in this concert.

BARBARA LEA’S 80th BIRTHDAY (AND MORE)

Etiquette books don’t line my shelves (I find the word difficult to spell), so I don’t know if sending someone birthday felicitations this late is forgivable.  But Barbara Lea, the wonderful but oddly under-recognized singer, turned eighty years old on April 10.

b-leaReaders of this blog should know her and have her imperishable recordings with Johnny Windhurst, Dick Sudhalter, Loren Schoenberg, and others.  (Barbara was a fine writer, too: her liner notes to the Sudhalter-Connie Jones CD, GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON, still stick in my memory.)  But for those of you who never heard her sing, a few words.  Although Barbara has been compared to Lee Wiley, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey, she sounds like herself.  Her voice is warm, her delivery powerful yet subtle.  She conveys emotion without strain; she swings in the great manner.  She is at home with a solo pianist, a Condon-style ensemble, a lush big band.

Her most recent CDs find her in the latter two settings. The first, DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? (Audiophile) was recorded there in March 2006, with Barbara fronting a small band featuring such wonderful players as Hal Smith and Bob Havens.  Here, she shows her fine unfettered range of feeling, from the Morton romp DR. JAZZ to the rather ephemeral wartime favorites I COULDN’T SLEEP A WINK LAST NIGHT and MY DREAMS ARE GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME — songs that have never sounded so good.  She weaves in and out of the band with great style.

The second CD, BLACK BUTTERFLY, has special meaning for me.  The only time I ever saw Barbara perform was at the benefit for Dick Sudhalter held in St. Peter’s Church in New York City.  And if memory serves me, she sang only one song — Ellington’s sorrowing BLACK BUTTERFLY — backed by the Loren Schoenberg big band.  Her performance had the intensity of a great aria and the intimate immediacy of trumpeter Joe Thomas’s magnificent 1946 Keynote version.  This CD captures Barbara and Loren’s big band doing that song and sixteen others — ranging from classic themes by Arlen, Wilder, Victor Young, Oscar Levant, Berlin, and Monk — to lesser-known gems: RESTLESS (Sam Coslow) and WHEN THEY ASK ABOUT YOU (Sam H. Stept) as well as a few songs composed in part by Barbara herself.  To accompany Barbara, there are lovely curtains of sound illuminated by beautiful solos by Mark Lopeman, Bobby Pring, James Chirillo, and Loren himself.  It’s an ambitious recording but a hugely gratifying one.

Barbara’s health hasn’t been good of late, and her medical bills arrive with the regularity of the Basie rhythm section. Why not give yourself a gift in honor of her birthday and consider purchasing one of her CDs from her?  (I know that buying CDs from a variety of third-party sellers is economically tempting, but the artists get nothing for their work.)

The list of CDs currently available is at the bottom of this posting.  Each one is $17 (including postage).  Send your check or money order to Jeanie Wilson, 212 Ramblewood Drive, Raleigh, NC 27609-6404.

2007 Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? (Audiophile)
2006 Black Butterfly (THPOPS)
2005 Deep In A Dream, Barbara Lea Sings Jimmy Van Heusen (Leacock Does Babcock) (Cape Song)
2004 Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Celebrate Vincent Youmans (Challenge)
2004 Barbara Lea and Wes McAfee Live @ RED — our love rolls on (THPOPS)
2002 The Melody Lingers On (BL)
1999 Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Are Mad About The Boy: The Songs Of Noel Coward (Challenge)
1997 The Devil Is Afraid Of Music (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1976
1996 Fine & Dandy: Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Celebrate The Women Songwriters (Challenge)
1995 Do It Again (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1983
1995 Remembering Remembering Lee Wiley (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1976
1994 Hoagy’s Children: A Celebration of Hoagy Carmichael’s Music, v. 1 & 2 (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1983
1993 Barbara Lea & The Ed Polcer All-Stars “At The Atlanta Jazz Party” (Jazzology)
1991 Barbara Lea (OJC/Fantasy) Added tracks. Original LP 1956
1991 A Woman In Love (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1955
1990 Sweet and Slow (Audiophile)
1990 Lea In Love (OJC/Fantasy) Original LP 1957
1989 Getting Some Fun Out Of Life with Mr. Tram Associates (Audiophile)
1989 You’re The Cats! (Audiophile)