Tag Archives: Sophie Tucker

SOLITUDE, AND THEN SOME: JON-ERIK KELLSO, SCOTT ROBINSON, HOWARD ALDEN, FRANK TATE (ALLEGHENY JAZZ PARTY, September 19, 2014)

SOLITUDE Columbia

Four of my New York heroes — Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone, taragoto, cornet; Howard Alden, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass — onstage at the 2014 Allegheny Jazz Party, playing a most famous Ellington composition that, oddly enough, doesn’t get played that much, SOLITUDE, with great eloquence and  simplicity, in front of that rarest of things, a hushed, attentive audience:

No fancy arrangements, just beautiful solos and ensemble playing.

SOLITUDE Victor

Then, time for a Frolic on SOME OF THESE DAYS, which starts as a brass extravaganza and then builds:

SOME OF THESE DAYS

Quite amazing, I think, and I’ve been following these four musicians for more than a decade now.  This is just a small sample of what characteristically takes place at the Allegheny Jazz Party, a quiet spectacular of a weekend in Cleveland, Ohio. To have this experience for yourself, you might want to visit here to find out about the Party, taking place this September 10-13, 2015.

And . . . . Jon and Matt Munisteri and a cast of wonderful characters have just released their second CD as “The EarRegulars”: the first also features Scott Robinson and Greg Cohen; the latest one (on Jazzology Records) features Evan Christopher and Kerry Lewis.  Delightful music.

May your happiness increase!

BEAUTY IS ALWAYS HERE FOR US: REBECCA KILGORE, DUKE HEITGER, BRIA SKONBERG, DAN BLOCK, ALLAN VACHE, BOB HAVENS, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, PAUL KELLER, BUCKY PIZZARELLI, ED METZ (Atlanta Jazz Party: April 25, 2014)

May I offer a six-minute escape from the world that at times weighs so heavily upon us?  You know that world, defined by medical lab tests and inescapable bills, news of ungentle acts.  I could wear out your eyes and sink us all into gloom describing that world.

But there is another world, always alive if we can remind ourselves of it: the world of beauty and creativity, of joy and generosity.

This offering of Beauty was created on April 25, 2014, at the Atlanta Jazz Party, a musical cornucopia.  The exalted participants are Rebecca Kilgore, vocal; Duke Heitger, Bria Skonberg, trumpet; Bob Havens, trombone; Dan Block, tenor / clarinet; Allan Vache, clarinet; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Paul Keller, string bass; Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar; Ed Metz, drums.

THE ONE I LOVE

The song, ninety years old, is the Isham Jones / Gus Kahn THE ONE I LOVE (BELONGS TO SOMEBODY ELSE) — a simple melodic line built on a two-note pattern but one of those songs that takes up residence in your brain until it is chased away by external forces.  THE ONE I LOVE is also a sacred favorite of mine because it plays a part in one of the great meetings of the cosmos.  Earl Hines said that he was at the Chicago musicians’ union playing a new tune (yes, that one) and a cornet player introduced himself and started to play in duet with him.  Yes, that cornet player. How would the course of Western Civilization have been different if Hines had been practicing scales or was standing outdoors with his cigar?

Instead of a dim memory of 1924, the real thing in 2014:

I find everything about this performance endearing, from the cinema verite with which it begins (Becky offering everyone a lead sheet, facing an overexcited microphone, setting the tempo by singing the title). Maestro Sportiello enters and the rhythm section joins in: I find myself relaxing, all tension replaced by happiness, in forty-five seconds. “Safe in the arms of Joy,” I think.

Listen closely, please, whether you play an instrument, sing for your supper, or are simply a devoted fan — to the beautiful singularity of the individual voices here: Becky, Bob, Bucky, Duke / Dan, and Becky returning.  Each one is completely different but allied by a love for the melody and a respect for the rhythm.

And PHRASING — the way Ms. Kilgore fluidly offers lines of prose and individual syllables so that the meaning of the simple lyric is enhanced, not lost, but that the words aren’t rigidly tied to the beat.  Imagine the sheet music, which delineates a metronomic relationship between notes and words, and hear Becky’s intuitive elasticity, seconded by the horn soloists, elongatinf a phrase here, compressing another, emphasizing a few words and offering others with sweet conversational casualness.

And even though no one is “doing repertory,” the whole performance feels as if Basie and a few of the fellows just stopped by to play one.  That simple propulsive riff at the end — Basie, but reaching back to Louis.  Believable, natural, uplifting music.

This is high art — it takes lifetimes to know how to sing and play like this — offered without pretense.  I feel better already.

Visit here to find out more.

May your happiness increase!

“A BIT O’HARLEM” 1933

The acetates have not turned up, but, thanks to an eBay seller, we have the program that documents the 1933 appearance of the Earl Hines Orchestra at the Chicago World’s Fair.

EARL at 1933 Worlds Fair 1

The Hines band was identified by their prestigious radio broadcast affiliation — but that they were only one act of a long evening:

EARL at 1933 Worlds Fair 2

The seller describes this as “Original program from a concert titled “A Nite of Centuries” at the Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, June 12, 1933, four pages, 8.75 x 5.75 in. One clipped corner (not affecting any text), and a very faint vertical crease, otherwise clean and very good.”

EARL at 1933 Worlds Fair inset
A “Sizzling Study in Sepia” indeed.  I won’t be content with the home-recorded discs of this; I want to see the newsreel footage as well, so that I can enjoy “3 Lightning Flashes and an ensemble of singers and dancers.”

It must have been a spectacular evening: note the appearance of Sophie Tucker, Martha Raye; Vincent Lopez; The Radio Rubes, “radio’s famous hill-billies”; Baby Rose Marie, “remarkable child artist of the stage, screen, and radio”; World’s Fair Frolics, “a dazzling ballyhoo of Chicago World’s Fairest”; and others.

I doubt that anyone who saw this show still walks this earth, which is (to me) a sobering thought.

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!

THE SHAPE OF A CAREER: RED McKENZIE, 1924-1947

Photograph thanks to Scott Black: a trio of solid senders, Frank Trumbauer, Red McKenzie, and their former boss Paul Whiteman

William “Red” McKenzie, born in 1899, had a career whose highs and lows might have made a good — and sad — film biography.  Let us begin with a phenomenal hit record, the 1924 ARKANSAS BLUES — a smash for the novelty group, The Mound City Blue Blowers (McKenzie on comb and newspaper, Jack Bland on banjo, Dick Slevin on kazoo):

A word about his musical abilities, unique to him.  McKenzie’s singing isn’t to everyone’s taste; he is earnest, declaratory, even tipping over into barroom sentimentality.  But he could put over a hot number with style, and his straight-from-the shoulder delivery is both charming and a product of the late Twenties.  As an instrumentalist — on the comb and newspaper, a homegrown kazoo with panache — he had no equal, and the remarkable thing about the records on which he appears is how strongly he stands his ground with Coleman Hawkins and Bunny Berigan, powerful figures in their own right.  Both singing and playing, McKenzie reminds me greatly of Wild Bill Davison, someone who had “drama,” as Ruby Braff said.

In the late Twenties McKenzie was not only a musician but an activist for the music, bringing hot jazz players — Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmie Noone, the Spirits of Rhythm — to the attention of record companies and creating early record dates where Caucasians and African-Americans to record.  Without McKenzie, Coleman Hawkins would have waited a number of years to be allowed into the recording studio to perform with mixed groups.

Here is McKenzie in 1929 — out in the open in the short film OPRY HOUSE as a delightfully unrestrained singer, with Bland, banjo; Josh Billings, whiskbrooms and suitcase:

His popularity grew — as s singer and someone whose face might sell sheet music of a new song:

McKenzie was the featured vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra — an orchestra, we should remember, that had launched the careers of Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey — with a pretty 1932 tune, THREE ON A MATCH (featured in the Warner Brothers film of the same name, starring Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis):

He continued to be someone whose presence could help sell new songs — this 1936 number, that most of us know through Billie Holiday’s recording:

and this 1936 song, more famous in Bing Crosby’s recording:

At forty, McKenzie went into a temporary retirement — moving back to his hometown, St. Louis, to work at a brewery for four years.  Apparently he was one of the great heavy drinkers of his time, and only the support of his great friend Eddie Condon kept him in the limelight in the Forties, where he appeared now and again at a Condon concert or a Blue Network broadcast.  The latter, I think, accounts for McKenzie’s 1944 appearance on a V-Disc and a session for Commodore Records — where Milt Gabler also thought the world of him.  Gabler produced record sessions simultaneously for Decca Records and the World Transcription System: here’s a 1944 version of DINAH with McKenzie, Max Kaminsky, Jack Teagarden, and Pee Wee Russell:

Here’s McKenzie as captured by William P. Gottlieb in an October 1946 photograph:

But little was heard from McKenzie for the last years of his life, except for one 1947 record date — shown in a newsprint advertisement for four sides on the National label.  His obscurity is nodded at — another “comeback story” in the sad word REINTRODUCING:

By February 1948 McKenzie was dead — cirrhosis the official cause.  I find IF I HAD MY LIFE TO LIVE OVER and HEARTACHES sad reminders of what had happened.  I would hate to think that his life could be summarized as an equal devotion to hot music and hard liquor, the latter winning out over the former.

Had he been in better health, he could have been one of those apparently ancient but still vivacious stars who appeared on the ED SULLIVAN SHOW and the HOLLYWOOD PALACE alongside Crosby, Sophie Tucker, Durante, and Ted Lewis . . . but it was not to be.

May your happiness increase. 

JOHN GILL’S AMERICAN SONGS (Part Two: May 30, 2012)

It’s easy to tell the truth . . . so I will write it again.  (If you didn’t see Part One of this happy musical evening, here it is.)

Although John Gill is soft-spoken and wryly modest, he’s an extraordinary figure. It’s not just that he is a swinging banjoist, guitarist, drummer, and trombonist. It’s not merely that he is an intuitively fine bandleader: his bands have a certain serious lope, and the musicians look happy (no small thing). It’s not simply that he is a splendidly moving singer.

What makes John unique to me is the range and depth of his musical imagination. Many musicians have found a repertoire they prefer and it becomes their identity: when you go to hear X, you know that (s)he will play RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE. Y will break out one of the OLOGY tunes — ANTHROP or ORNITH. Z likes SATIN DOLL.

But John Gill’s world isn’t narrowly defined by one group of songs, one “genre,” one “style.” His knowledge of American music and performance styles is long, deep, and wide. In his spacious imagination, Bix and Louis visit Bing and Pat Boone; Elvis has coffee with Jolson; they hang out with Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, while Johnny Dodds, Billy Murray, Turk Murphy, and Lu Watters gossip about Tommy Rockwell and what’s new at the OKeh studios. Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker talk fashion; Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, and W. C. Handy compare royalty statements. King Oliver lifts the sugar bowl from Scott Joplin’s table, and Jimmie Rodgers does the Shim-me-Sha-Wabble.

When John is in charge, none of this seems synthetic or forced; you never hear the sound of gears changing. All of these musics live comfortably within him, and he generously shares them with us in his heartfelt, swinging ways. I had another opportunity to watch him in action at the National Underground on May 30 with his National Saloon Band — Will Reardon Anderson on clarinet and alto; Simon Wettenhall on trumpet; Kevin Dorn on drums; Steve Alcott on string bass.

Here’s the second part of that wide-ranging musical offering.

The NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES, which I associate with Bessie Smith and a 1940 Johnny Dodds recording:

Leadbelly’s THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL:

For Sophie Tucker, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and a thousand others — that hot jazz admonition, SOME OF THESE DAYS:

Another Jimmie Rodgers evergreen, THE DESERT BLUES:

I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned Cole Porter above; here’s I LOVE PARIS:

A song by Ewan MacColl from 1949, made famous by The Dubliners, DIRTY OLD TOWN:

Lots of fun with THE SECOND LINE IN NEW ORLEANS, a rocking good time:

John evokes Bing Crosby splendidly — without imitating him note-for-note — and he performed one of my favorite early Bing romantic songs, PLEASE (it’s part of the Polite Bing Trilogy: MAY I? / PLEASE / THANKS:

And to close off the performance (they kept on, but bourgeois responsibilities called me home), they performed John’s own salute to New Orleans, THE BORDER OF THE QUARTER:

In my ideal world, Professor Gill would be both Artist-in-Residence at any number of prestigious universities with American Studies programs . . . but he would have time to lead bands regularly.  Any takers?

May your happiness increase.

JOHN GILL’S AMERICAN SONGS: PART ONE (May 30, 2012)

Although John Gill is soft-spoken and wryly modest, he’s an extraordinary figure.  It’s not just that he is a swinging banjoist, guitarist, drummer, and trombonist.  It’s not merely that he is an intuitively fine bandleader: his bands have a certain serious lope, and the musicians look happy (no small thing).  It’s not simply that he is a splendidly moving singer.

What makes John unique to me is the range and depth of his musical imagination.  Many musicians have found a repertoire they prefer and it becomes their identity: when you go to hear X, you know that (s)he will play RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE.  Y will break out one of the OLOGY tunes — ANTHROP or ORNITH.  Z likes SATIN DOLL.

But John Gill’s world isn’t narrowly defined by one group of songs, one “genre,” one “style.”  His knowledge of American music and performance styles is long, deep, and wide.  In his spacious imagination, Bix and Louis visit Bing and Pat Boone; Elvis has coffee with Jolson; they hang out with Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, while Johnny Dodds, Billy Murray, Turk Murphy, and Lu Watters gossip about Tommy Rockwell and what’s new at the OKeh studios.  Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker talk fashion; Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, and W. C. Handy compare royalty statements.  King Oliver lifts the sugar bowl from Scott Joplin’s table, and Jimmie Rodgers does the Shim-me-Sha-Wabble.

When John is in charge, none of this seems synthetic or forced; you never hear the sound of gears changing.  All of these musics live comfortably within him, and he generously shares them with us in his heartfelt, swinging ways.  I had another opportunity to watch him in action at the National Underground on May 30 with his National Saloon Band — Will Reardon Anderson on clarinet and alto; Simon Wettenhall on trumpet; Kevin Dorn on drums; Steve Alcott on string bass.  They began the evening with a MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR, which W. C. Handy then “adapted” as the ATLANTA BLUES:

One of those good old good ones that all the musicians love to play (and that includes Bix, Louis, Benny, and Basie), the ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

Here’s where John differs from the “traditional jazz” formula: how about the Jimmie Rodgers song T FOR TEXAS:

For the dancers (and they were at the National Underground that night), SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

If you enjoy odd intersections, I think MUDDY WATER counts as one, a song both Bing Crosby and Bessie Smith recorded in 1927:

Here’s a pretty 1931 pop tune that came back to life a quarter-century later (Vic Dickenson liked to play it, too), LOVE LETTERS IN THE SAND:

And — to close off this segment — a song I’d only heard on recordings (Johnny Dodds); next time, I’ll ask John to sing WHEN ERASTUS PLAYS HIS OLD KAZOO:

In my ideal New York City, John Gill is leading small hot bands like this on a regular basis.  It would take months before he and his colleagues had to repeat a song . . .  More to come!

May your happiness increase.