Tag Archives: sexism

IMAGINATIVE THEN, INVISIBLE NOW: THE ABSENCE OF FRAN KELLEY

Even now, when it seems that everything can be known, some people appear for a moment and then vanish.  One such is Fran Kelley, whose work as an imaginative record producer came to me some months ago, as I describe here.

Before I offer more information and speculation — all of the print data excavated by the diligent, generous Professor Brian Kane of Yale University — please hear one of the two sides that Fran made possible. Ethereal music:

A gentle caution: if you come to JAZZ LIVES only for videos, I’ll see you tomorrow or the next day.  I think this is a terribly important post, though: my attempt to make sense of a brilliant life from fragments of information.  And I can’t promise any melodrama: death from automobile accident or medical crisis: no, Fran Kelley seems to have turned from “the scene” to choose another life.

Here is not only a portrait (a disembodied one, alas) but the most thorough biographical sketch we have, even though it might be based on her answers to a questionnaire, when Fran was West Coast Editor of METRONOME (1953-57):

For the moment, a few additional facts.  1246 Orange Grove Avenue would have been near Spaulding Square, in what is now considered “West Hollywood,” once a residential area of single-family houses and small apartment buildings, but Google turns up no photographs, which leads me to think Fran’s residence was torn down sometime after 1957.  Whether the “Met” was the opera or the museum, I could find nothing relevant about her father.  Clyde Reasinger, famous for his work with Kenton and for being a section trumpeter on the television performance of MILES AHEAD, was long-lived, 1927-2018.  He has a Facebook page (whose administrator did not reply to my inquiry); his spouse has none.

Based on decades of reading, but jazz writing circa 1945-1957 (the years in which we have the most evidence) was primarily if not exclusively done by men, exceptions being Helen Oakley Dance and a few others, so even given the mildly patronizing tone of the sketch, it shows the regard in which Fran was held by her colleagues.  (In my previous post, I note the stories / reviews she’d written for Metronome.)  I am sure no one asked Bill Coss what he cooked, but that merits only a sigh.  By the way, if you think it condescending of me to call her “Fran,” I am writing this post out of fond admiration: “Kelley” seems icy.  Please don’t write in to lecture.

She accomplished great things, and I say here to readers, “Fran is now invisible in a landscape of Gene Norman, Norman Granz, George Wein and more, all of whom deserve their fame.  Her name is absent from studies of Dizzy, of Bird, of Benny Carter.  Had Fran been Francis, would she be so erased?”

She feels so much, at this distance, like Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s sister.”

Let us follow the paper trail.

DOWN BEAT, 15 November 1945: “Fran Kelly [sic] of Hollywood House of Music will launch her new international label with star jazz headliners.”

More about “the Hollywood House of Music,” from      https://peggyleediscography.com/p/LeeResearchCapitolEarly.php:

The Nebraskan son of an Union Pacific Railway accountant, Glenn Everett Wallichs had been interested in electronics since his childhood — focusing on the design of radio sets and the mechanics of train railroads. A North Hollywood transplant (at 16 years of age, in his family’s company), he started his adult workdays locally, as a radio station technician (at WFWB) and then as the owner of a car-radio repair shop (at Ivar Avenue). Wallichs’ small shop evolved into a radio and electronics store, and that one store brought enough profit to allow for its multiplication into a chain (a total of five stores, all of them in the Hollywood area). In 1938, Wallichs took his business ventures even further. Accompanied by his brother Clyde, he joined forces with former WFWB co-worker Al Jarvis (the pioneering disc jockey, who also happened to be an LA record shop owner) to create Hollywood House of Music, a compound that merged Jarvis’ record shop with the fifth, youngest of Wallichs’ electronics stores. The most noteworthy aspect of the merger was that the latter was no longer just a retail store: it was converted into a small specialty recording studio, whose specialty became custom recordings. Though “normal civilian” requests for recordings of events such as weddings or parties were certainly taken, the studio primarily catered to artists’ requests of airchecks from radio broadcasts. It also chiefly became the place from which Jarvis’ legendary creation, the Make Believe Ballroom show, was broadcast during the late 1930s. Known to have been recorded there in 1938 is a novelty tune that featured Wallichs himself along with Stan Kenton, Paul Weston, Jo Stafford and others (all of them playing instruments, Stafford included, and some of them under pseudonyms). The resulting instrumental number was chucklingly titled “The World’s Worst Record.”

METRONOME Yearbook, 1956, showing the astonishing roster of musicians who performed at the concert Fran organized on April 12, 1946:

My friend Nick Rossi — guitarist, jazz scholar, painter — magically turned up the program for the concert here.  Someone’s bought it, but what can be seen here is stunning.

One exception to the contemporary erasure of Fran Kelley is Douglas Daniels’ 2002 biography of Lester Young, LESTER LEAPS IN, where he writes of this concert:

In Los Angeles, [Norman] Granz, Billy Berg, and Fran Kelly [sic] typified a new type of jazz promoter dedicated to racial equality. Kelly, with the aid of Lester Young, Ray Bauduc, Kay Starr, Lucky Thompson, Red Callender, Charlie Parker, Nat Cole, Benny Carter, and other artists, sought to foster racial tolerance by booking UCLA’s Royce Hall for a performance to benefit the scholarship fund of the George Washington Carver Club, named after the famous Tuskegee scientist. A Metronome recap reported that Young and Parker offered ‘‘the best number of the program.’’ All the musicians either donated their services or received a nominal fee, with proceeds going to the scholarship fund. This marked a first for UCLA. . . .

Granz gets top billing; Kell[e]y is unidentified.

DOWN BEAT, 6 May 1946, a very small comment on the concert, compared to the coverage of Les Brown’s “ball team”:

CLEF, June 1946, a concert review which begins with a beautiful quote:

METRONOME, August 1946.  More about the concert.  Linger, please, over the names of the musicians, and when you are through with time-travel, also note that a new Lester Young record gets a “C+”:

Because online research is part pearl diving and part trash collection, my continued inquiries into the George Washington Carver Club led me to this site, which I avoided as if made of Kryptonite: Twin Towers 911 Video Clips Video De Sexo De Paris Hilton …8.aksuchess.ru › VkjWBA.  

We move on.

BAND LEADERS AND RECORD REVIEW, August 1946, notes “Kelly,” “gal platter impresario”:

DOWN BEAT, 6 May 1949, noting that the Fran-Tone masters were sold to Capitol (which Wallichs, Johnny Mercer, and Buddy De Sylva had founded) — my guess is that they did not sell and they were never issued on that label . . . plus a famous Lester interview:

DOWN BEAT, 14 December 1955, a nameless reviewer mocks Fran’s liner notes for a Chico Hamilton record:  “Only clinker are the notes on the individual numbers by Fran Kelley, written in her inimitable prose, a cross between science fiction and theosophy.”

DOWN BEAT, 4 April 1956, an approving review of Jimmy Rowles’ first session as a leader, where Fran is called “the only pretty jazz critic”:

And here are the notes for that album, with a tiny portrait of the author:

METRONOME, February 1957, Fran’s imaginative profile of Keely Smith:

DOWN BEAT, 3 April 1958: the last mention of Fran — “poetess,” working for Ellington:


There the trail stops, except for Ellington’s coda in MUSIC IS MY MISTRESS: “And there is one more person–Fran Kelley, musician, poet, songwriter, singer, orchestrator, manager, executive. This great woman with all these talents gave up running a radio station and record company in Los Angeles to pursue her
spiritual quests in San Francisco.”

I have not been able to find out anything about Fran Kelley’s life after 1958.  And that may have been the way she wanted it, to turn away from the secular world, “the music business,” to shuck off being called “pretty,” and live another life.  If you are born Fran Kelley and you enter a religious order and take the name of Sister Angela, even Google cannot find you.  (Consider Boyce Brown, “Brother Matthew.”)  And even a rudimentary glance at actuarial tables would suggest that she is no longer living.

But I hope she wasn’t driven away by misogyny.  Yes, regarding the past through the lenses of the present can distort, but someone so sensitized might want to abandon the world where music was for sale and one’s best efforts got ignored.  A world where Lester Young got a C+.

I feel her absence.  A great loss.  Her legacy is and should be more than a dozen or so clippings from jazz trade papers.

This post is in memory of Fran Kelley, once remarkable and now unknown, with no biography and no Wikipedia page. And it is also in honor of all the women who create imaginative ideas and art and don’t get heard at the meetings or find their ideas vacuumed up and presented by men, but still keep creating.

Thanks to Katherine Vasile, Brian Kane, and Richard Salvucci: without them, this post would never have happened.

May your happiness increase!

EARS TO HEAR WITH, EYES TO SEE WITH

The eyes, we are told, are the windows of the soul.  They protect us from falling downstairs, from the weaving car in the next lane; they help us pick out the Beloved in a crowd at the airport.  Surely they are precious and have enough to do.  So I propose we do not turn them into ears.

Here, to the right of Count Basie, is one of the finest singers of all time, practicing Mindful Eating:

countbasiejimmyrushing

In his prime, he was a mountainous man.  “Little Jimmy Rushing” was surely a self-mocking sobriquet; “Mister Five by Five” was more to the point. There is a Chuck Stewart photograph of him, in profile, that suggests a contemporary physician might calculate his body mass index and dub him “clinically obese.”

Oh, how he could sing!

Yet in this century, though, would Jimmy Rushing get a record contract?Would he be an opening act at a jazz festival?  My guess is that he would have a hard time, because audiences are fixated on what their eyes see than what their ears hear.

Look at the cover photograph of any CD featuring a singer or instrumentalist.  The star is beautifully arrayed, coiffed, resplendent in clothing (casual or formal) — an ensemble that was the result of serious planning.  The credits for such CDs thank hair stylists as well as arrangers.

We have been accustomed to the notion that Public People, to be Worthy, must appeal to our eyes.  I can’t trace the lineage of this, but at some point our notion that film stars were the ideal took over the world: so that politicians decked themselves out carefully — and musicians in the public eye were expected to do so as well.  For men, the beautiful suit, the jewelry, the costly watch; perhaps the personal trainer.  A hairpiece. (Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE is based on this as well as other painful delusions.)

For women, it was and is even more complicated, going beyond eliminating one’s graying hair and perhaps choosing cosmetic surgery.  I am not about to go on about the patriarchy with its male gazing, but for a woman instrumentalist or singer to appeal to the larger public, it seems that she must display and festoon herself as a sexually alluring product, accessible in some fantasy realm.

I thought we wanted to listen to players and singers, rather than to imagine what they would be like in bed.  Once again, I was naive.

I don’t recall who told the story — was it Charles Linton? — of bringing a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald to audition for Chick Webb in 1934.  We need not dwell on Webb’s physical appearance, hidden somewhat behind beautiful clothes.  But legend has it that Chick looked at Ella, neither svelte nor conventionally alluring and quickly said, “No.”  The Girl Singer had to be Glamorous.  The people who had heard Ella sing had to insist that Chick listen to her voice.  And then, happily, he was convinced.  But Ella was wildly popular with her hit record of A-TISKET, A TASKET — and it took approximately three years more for her to appear in a film, and if I recall correctly, it was a Western-musical from a second or third-tier studio, and she sang about her lost basket on a bus.  She wasn’t Pretty; she didn’t Count.

Imagine a world where Ella Fitzgerald and (let us say) Mildred Bailey or “Little Louis” couldn’t get a job because someone was convinced that they didn’t fit conventional notions of what was alluring.  Or they looked too old.

Youthful singers and players can swagger for a photo shoot: women can reflect Fifties ideals of cheesecake — be slim, show this or that body part to best advantage.  What of the artist, male or female, who has a beautiful series of recordings and performances . . . but is Getting Older?  A discerning audience came to see Mabel Mercer, Rosemary Clooney, Doc Cheatham, without the least thought of sex appeal — but do those audiences still exist?  There has always been a special niche for the Venerable (think Barbara Cook, Eubie Blake), or the Joyously Freakish (Fats Waller, Sophie Tucker, Mae West) — but so many fine artists are ignored in this vast desert between Young and Dewy and Better See Him / Her Now Because He / She Won’t Be Here Forever.

I have been to many concerts, clubs, festivals; I have watched many videos. Because of JAZZ LIVES, I am asked to approve of (and publicize) shiny, trim, nearly gorgeous men and women who present themselves as musicians.  When I begin to listen, I close my eyes.  It helps me actually hear the artist rather than concentrating on her shapeliness, her cuteness; to hear rather than watching the beautifully cultivated lock of hair falling over his forehead, his expensively tailored suit.  Listening and ogling might be simultaneous but they are not the same act.

I know this habit makes me seem even more of a distant and snobbish listener, when I say to someone rapturous over X, “You know, I agree with you that X is so perky / cute / handsome / charming, but I don’t think X is a great ______.”    And as an extension of this, when I say to other people, “Have you heard Y?” there is this politely glazed look on their faces, because Y hasn’t met their idea of what a Star should look like.  Y — oh my goodness! — looks like a Grownup rather than a Ripe Love Object.  Heavens.  Close the curtains right now.

Too bad.

The cover of a CD makes no sound.  Some of the finest musicians in the world don’t have as many gigs as they should because they don’t drape themselves as enticingly as lesser talents do.

Do we really, irrevocably love surfaces so much?

Now, I’m going to go back and listen some more to Jimmy Rushing.  I want to hear him sing, not get him on a scale.

Thanks to Bruno, Amy, and the Roo for various inspirations.

May your happiness increase!