Tag Archives: Strange Fruit

BEWARE OF THE REPEATER PENCIL

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. (Oscar Wilde, DE PROFUNDIS)

I think Wilde’s despairing indictment is far too sweeping, but it is often true in jazz, ironically a music that so vigorously presents itself as celebrating originality, singularity, individual utterance.  Improvisation, inventiveness, and the like are exceedingly difficult. But I witness three varieties of “mimicry” often in the art form I love: imitating an individual artist’s style; copying a recording; copying oneself. Obviously, they overlap.

This post has been simmering in my mind for a long time, motivated by people who try to sing exactly like Billie, play like Bix or Bird or a hundred others.  On a technical level, I occasionally admire such mastery but confess I also find it upsetting — rather like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode where the Halloween mask is so perfect yet so energetically malicious that it cannot be removed from the wearer’s face.

I revere the artists who deeply move me, and I understand that one might opt to copy Billie Holiday as closely as possible because, in the act of imitation, the singer can perhaps make it appear that Billie has never died, has never left. The singer can hope to move an audience not only by her own vocal skill but by the thrill of recognition, the doubling of emotion we have when we see the Present and the Past simultaneously appearing to occupy the same space.

But is this act of duplication truly reverence or desecration?  Would Billie have admired the copyist as someone paying homage or someone who hadn’t yet found her own voice and was seeking to hitch a ride on someone else’s style and fame?

I have also asked this question when it comes to the recreation of beloved recorded performances, and have annoyed some people, perhaps to excess, so I will leave that for now.  I know there is indeed something exciting about hearing a favorite solo or recording reproduced “live,” but for me the pleasure is limited.

Copying an artist — in moderation — has its virtues for the young or inexperienced performer, someone whose identity is still malleable. As a way of finding out who one is and who one was meant to be, it can be rewarding. For an amorphous artist to find someone from whom (s)he can “steal” is part of the long process of self-education and self-selection. Young poets and painters in centuries past were set to imitate Horace or Rodin. At the very least, practicing Bix’s SINGIN’ THE BLUES solo over and over means that you are listening to something beautiful, enduring, something beyond your own improvisations.

But creating a self seems to be a process both of accretion and divesting: of taking on models, to be reproduced to the best of one’s ability, and then gradually sloughing them off so that one’s “authentic” self, grown silently, can be revealed in all its shifting iridescent beauty. I wonder if the desire to wholly take on someone else’s essential self is destructive to the borrower.

I have read many reminiscences where The Great Man or Woman (Louis, Bird, Pres, Jo) is approached by a young follower who then plays or sings exactly a cherished chorus that the GM/W has recorded in the past . . . and the Master’s reaction is either gentle puzzlement or strong annoyance, “What are you doing all that shit for? What is the matter with you?”

Benny Goodman did not need clarinet players to be Benny Goodman onwards in to the future.  He was Benny Goodman; he is Benny Goodman. Nothing more needs to be said.

“Who are you?” is the larger question. If you play SEVEN COME ELEVEN, if you sing STRANGE FRUIT, what do you have to offer us that is yours?

My thoughts are motivated by more than one singer devotedly attempting to be Billie Holiday, slowing down the tempo during the performance so that a cheerful song becomes a despairing moan, ending phrases with a large vibrato and downward slides, choking an otherwise open voice into a constricted meow.  I believe that these singers are genuine in their admiration, but the result sounds as if they are offering a product — “Get your Billie Holiday right here!” — for sale.

I do understand such acts as outpourings of love. When I was given a cornet and I could croak through a melody statement of HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY, I felt very proud that I could play something remotely like the sounds I adore, though I was aware of the mighty distances between what I heard in my memory and the sounds emerging from the bell — and I sent it into the air as a thank-you to my dear benefactor and an offering to Louis.

But ultimately I think, should I have succeeded as a player, that I would want to be my own original synthesis of everyone I’d ever admired, mixed into a concoction that sounded, for better or worse, like Me — reflecting my love for Louis, for Joe Thomas, for Bobby Hackett, mixed together in what I would hope was a pleasing way.

It is not only musicians who aspire to be their idols; I think of those fans who are most happy when their favorite band reproduces their favorite performance, heard numberless times before. I have been seated in a festival audience when the leader announces that the Romano Bean Famous Players will now offer their version of “WIND MY SPRING AND WATCH ME GO,” and the crowd both sighs with pleasure at something they all know and love and cheers for the same reason. It’s rather like the joy (or is it relief?) one finds in going to a favorite restaurant and finding that the long-imagined dish tastes just as one remembers.

Sometimes this desire to have Everything The Way We Like It has a sharp edge. I recall Buddy Tate, heroic improviser of the Count Basie band and his own orchestras, telling the story of an angry fan who came up to him after a set, saying accusingly, “You didn’t play that the way it was on THE RECORD!” When Tate attempted to explain to the young man that such variations were jazz, he was met with uncomprehending irritation.

I think of the man who sat next to Tate for two years in the Basie reed section, Lester Young.  Ironically, when Lester became famous and his style clearly recognizable, he was imitated by people who made more money doing it than he did, playing himself.  Lester told either Chris Albertson or Francois Postif, who asked why he, Lester, didn’t play in the old style with his old friends, that he didn’t want to be a “repeater pencil.” People have puzzled over this singular phrase, and I submit that what Lester was speaking of was his own blending of “mechanical pencil” and “repeater pistol,” a device by which one could reproduce the same object — a factory assembly line for art — but with deadly effects. (It is of course possible that Lester did start to say “repeater pistol” but, always gentle, caught himself before that word emerged.)

In two words, Lester reminded us what Emerson had written a century before, that imitation is suicide. In Lester’s coinage, it’s homicide as well — not only killing off those one Reveres, but perhaps an art form as well.

I expect some disagreement with what I have written. I would not step on anyone’s pleasures. If you and your colleagues want to get together, in basement or bandstand, and reproduce note-for-note the recordings that you love, it would be impudent of me to suggest that you cease and desist. If you want to sing exactly as Billie did “on the record,” I would not try to stop you. It would puzzle me, but I would not quibble with you in person.

My question, though, would be, “Now that you can do THAT, what else could you do that would move to exploring new possibilities, giving us worlds we haven’t even dreamed of?”

May your happiness increase!

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BARNEY JOSEPHSON, CAFE SOCIETY, and MORE

It’s a long time since I got so wrapped up in a book that I didn’t want to stop reading it — but CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE (Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009) is just that book.

Who was Barney Josephson (1902-88)?  If he hadn’t worked very hard to make his dreams become reality, we would only know him as a successful businessman: his specialty, stylish shoes. 

Happily for us, Barney had thoughts beyond Cuban or French heels: a yearning to run a nightclub in New York City, a keen sensitivity to talent, a hatred of social injustice.  And CAFE SOCIETY is the book his life and accomplishments deserve.  It could have been dull, academic, or third-hand.  But it’s a lively memoir of Barney’s life, taken from the tape recordings he made — he was a born raconteur — subtly annotated and expanded by his widow Terry Trilling-Josephson.  

CAFE SOCIETY (like the Downtown and Uptown nightclubs that had that name) is energetic, memorable, full of memorable anecdote and gossip.  Josephson was someone who had good instincts about what artists — musicians, comedians, or actors — whose work had substance.  He said he viewed himself as a “saloon impresario”: “I love it when people say that because I’m not more than that.  It’s the way I view myself.  In this business if you’re an ‘impresario,’ I say that with quotation marks around the word, you have a feeling.  You hear something, and you say, ‘This is it!’  You go ahead and you do it.  You don’t analyze.  You have to follow your hunches.”

Josephson had the good fortune to have John Hammond as his guide, instigator, and occasional arm-twister.  When Barney wanted to start a New York night club with music, it was Hammond who urged him to hire the three boogie-woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, the blues singer Big Joe Turner, and Billie Holiday. 

Cafe Society is remarkable for the improvisers who played there: Teddy Wilson with a band including Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, or Bill Coleman; Benny Morton; Ed Hall or Jimmy Hamilton; Sidney Catlett.  Frank Newton with Sonny White, Kenneth Hollon, Tab Smith, Eddie Dougherty, Johnny Williams.  Ed Hall with Mouse Randolph and Henderson Chambers.  Ellis Larkins with Bill Coleman and Al Hall. 

Later on, at the Cookery, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams.  Josephson brought back Helen Humes and Alberta Hunter for successful late-life “comebacks.”  And it wasn’t simply jazz and popular songs: think of the Revuers (with Judy Holiday and Adolph Green), of Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel, of the now-forgotten Jimmy Savo, all given encouragement and room to develop by Josephson.   

But this isn’t purely a list of who-sang-what and how they were received, a collection of press clippings and schedules.  Josephson was a first-class storyteller with a remarkable memory, and the stories he remembered are priceless.  Nowhere else would I have learned that Emmett Berry, when trying to get someone to take a drink, would ask, “Will you have a drink of Doctor Berry’s rootin’ tootin’ oil?”  For me, that’s worth the price of the book.  Wonderful photographs, too. 

And the stories!

Billie Holiday, at first not knowing what to do with the lyrics of STRANGE FRUIT when they were handed to her, and showing her displeasure in the most effective non-verbal way when an audience annoyed her.

Zero Mostel, always onstage, making life difficult for the man trying to fit him for clothing.

Barney’s firing of Carol Channing and his missing a chance to hire Pearl Bailey.

Tallulah Bankhead complaining — at high volume — about what she’d encountered in the ladies’ room.

Teddy Wilson’s drinking problem, late in his career.

The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.

The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.

Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.

Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.

 And there is a deep, serious undercurrent throughout: the difficulty of having an establishment where neither the bands nor the audiences were segregated, and the looming shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  (Leon Josephson, Barney’s brother, was a particular target, which cast a shadow over Barney’s endeavors.)

Ultimately, the book is delightful for its stories (and the wonderful photographs) and the way Terry Trilling-Josephson has woven recollection and research together.  And the book is — on every page — the embodiment of Barney’s achievements and of the deep love he and Terry shared.  Not to be missed!

CHARLES PETERSON’S VISION

This is the second part of what I hope will be a long series on the jazz photography of Charles Peterson, who mystically saw the essence of jazz.  00000005

Here’s Peterson the documentary photographer — his casual, offhanded shot of a quartet led by Sidney Bechet, who is characteristically both in command and absolutely at the service of the music he is creating, the experience ecstatic and powerful.  What I find fascinating are the expressions on the faces of his sidemen: Cliff Jackson (whom I remember seeing in later photographs as white-haired) looks up at the Master to see where the currents of music are going; Eddie Dougherty, a wonderful and little-known Brooklyn-born drummer, seems anxious, although he may have only been caught in mid-comment, and Wellman Braud is quietly gleeful, rocking in rhythm.  They seem small objects drawn into Bechet’s vortex.  The photo suggests that any cohesive jazz group forms itself into a unit, but each musician retains his or her essential personality, and in this picture we see the quiet tension between the Selves and the Community.  And this photo brings up another of Peterson’s unintended gifts to us: how many people ever were fortunate enough to be at the Mimo Club in Harlem to hear this quartet, much less at this moment on February 16, 1942?  But — with a substantial record collection, some memory and imagination — we can invent the music that this band is creating. 

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This is a new split-second capture from a famous jazz session and photo shoot: the Commodore Records session of April 20, 1939, where Billie Holiday recorded STRANGE FRUIT, YESTERDAYS, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, and FINE AND MELLOW.  The musicians are bassist Johnny Williams, trumpeter Frank Newton, altoist Stanley Payne, and tenorist Kenneth Hollon.  Billie is holding a long-noted syllable; is it the “Yes” in YESTERDAYS?  And she is very young, very beautiful, also giving herself up to the music, her hands folded, her eyes almost-shut, Peterson’s lighting capturing her mouth, chin, and throat.  What distinguishes this portrait from others at this session is Billie’s lovely and obviously-treasured fur coat.  I find it ironic, seventy years after the session, that there is such a gap between Billie in her fur — which she deserved more than anyone — and the material she sings with such deep emotion.  One song, most famous, describes lynchings in the South; another describes a “fine and mellow” lover who doesn’t treat his woman well; a third and fourth describe bygone happinesses, all gone now, and the blues one sings when one’s lover has left.  And Billie sang these four songs as if her heart would break . . . wearing that fur coat.  Later in the session, of course, she got warm and took it off.  And no doubt the irony didn’t occur to her and she would have laughed it off if someone pointed it out, “Lady, you look too good to be singing those blues!”00000010

Hard at work is all I can say.  The caption states that this is the Summa Cum Laude band — led in part by Bud Freeman, arrangements by valve-trombonist Brad Gowans — performing at Nick’s in December 1938.  The band must be negotiating some serious ensemble passage, for they all look so intent.  Bassist Clyde Newcome stares out into space, as does Pee Wee Russell; Gowans and Freeman, especially Brad, are watching the band warily, or perhaps Brad is reading the music off the stand in the center.  I would guess that the drummer is Al Sidell, but I would hope that it is Stan King* — drummers shuttled in and out of this band.  The rather somber effect of this picture suggests to me that the band is playing one of its medleys of current hits (you can hear them on the airshots in 1939-40 from Chicago’s Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman . . . grown men of this artistic stature playing SIERRA SUE, but what can I say?)  Serious business indeed.  (In his later comment, Mike Burgevin points out that I left out Max Kaminsky.  How did I do this?)  *Don Peterson confirmed that the drummer is indeed Stan King — one of jazz’s entirely forgotten men. 

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This photo lets me imagine a time before I was born when James P. Johnson could wear his pin-stripe suit and play the piano, which is what he was meant to do.  It was taken in 1946, on a “Jazz on the River” cruise organized by Rudi Blesh and Art Hodes to go up and down the Hudson River.  From left, there’s the hand of an unidentified bassist, James P., Baby Dodds, Marty Marsala on trumpet (with the appropriate handkerchief) and guitarist Danny Barker — some of the same crew who turned up on the THIS IS JAZZ radio broadcasts.   But my secret pleasure in this photograph comes from the pretty woman whose head seems (although much smaller) in the same plane as James P.’s.  She is tidily dressed; her cardigan, pulled together at the collar, reveals a neat floral blouse beneath; we sense that she wears a neat wool skirt.  Her eyeglasses gleam in Peterson’s flashbulb; her hair is demure; her modest lipstick is in place.  Her hands are decorously in her lap.  Yet it’s clear — although she is prim, restrained, the last person to whoop and knock over her highball — that she is deeply pleased by what she hears.  As much as Bechet or James P., she is in the grip of the music, wanting it to go on forever. 

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Berenice Abbott told Hank O’Neal that most of photography was having the patience to wait for the right moment.  I’ll end this series with a superbly right moment — with only two musicians, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett, playing at the “Friday Club” jam sessions held at the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan — this one on February 17, 1939.  Hackett here is much as I remember him, up close, in 1972: a small, slender man, neatly dressed, dark eyebrows, thin wrists with black hair on them.  Here he is all of 24, and so small that while standing he is only inches taller than Condon, sitting.  The expression on his face might be a smile or it might be that he is working hard to bring off a particular nuanced phrase.  But our attention is drawn to Condon, also young and healthy.  Condon called Hackett “The Impostor,” because — with his peculiarly ornate wit, he said “Nobody can be that good.”  The teasing compliment almost slips away, but you get the point.  What is more important in this picture — more than Condon’s neat attire — is his grin, his head turned in delight and pleasure and admiration towards Hackett, who is clearly playing something marvelous, inimitable, lovely.  Condon is astonished by what he’s hearing, but he’s expected no less from Bobby.  This photograph captures the joy (and the labor) of this music better than any prose. 

Thank you, Charles Peterson!

P.S.  It didn’t surprise me that Peterson’s offspring were particularly talented in music, film, and writing.  His daughter, Karen Yochim, a successful country-and-western songwriter, lives in Louisiana, has written extensively about Cajun culture for newspapers and magazines — and is branching out as a crime novelist.  Peterson’s granddaughter Schascle “Twinkle” Yochim (her name is Cajun, pronounced “Suh-Shell”) is a professional singer with several CDs, concentrating on soul, rock, and to a limited extent, country-and-western. She’s also a songwriter, with songs accepted in feature films currently in production.  

After a career in the Navy, Peterson’s son, Don, worked for the Navy Department in Washington, DC, doing motion picture & television scriptwriting.  Don also wrote scripts for many film and television productions.  He retired in 1986 and now concentrates on marketing his father’s photographic legacy, most lavishly accessible in the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.

ENTERING BILLIE’S WORLD

This morning I gave a talk to a group sponsored by the Molloy (College) Institute for Lifelong Learning  at a church in Rockville Centre.

My subject? “Miss Billie Holiday,” as John Crosby respectfully calls her.

billie-1These talks let me stand up in front of a group of attentive, aware people and discuss something and someone I love.  (I came late to Billie — buying my first Holiday records in 1967 — but I fell hard.)

To be able to share Billie’s records of BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD or MISS BROWN TO YOU and see someone twenty feet away from me gently rocking with the beat is a pleasure.  And because the people who come to these talks aren’t taking required courses for a grade, the atmosphere is free from the emotions so often associated with academia — on either side of the desk.

STRANGE FRUIT casts its own spell as a unique piece of music, of political oratory, of theatre.  As does the Commodore I’LL BE SEEING YOU and (of course) the film clip of FINE AND MELLOW from “The Sound of Jazz,” which I can no longer watch without a lump in my throat.

But the chat afterwards is often even more rewarding.  And surprising.  Today, for instance, we drifted into a discussion of trained and untrained singing voices, diction, Kate Smith, honoring the song GOD BLESS AMERICA, high drape pants, the Rosenberg children, and more.

Best of all, to me, are the bits of anecdote that surface.  If you looked at this crowd, you might sniff dismissively, “Oh, senior citizens from the suburbs.  What would they bring to such an experience?”  But that assumption would be both unfair and wrong, as today’s experience proved.

A man told me about going to jazz clubs in the Village circa 1948 and sitting there forever for very little money, perhaps a quarter.

A woman off to one side picked up on something I had said about Benny Goodman and told me that her husband’s childhood friend was Jay Finegold, who had been Benny’s manager for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties.  I had spoken about Goodman’s focus on his playing — to such an extent that he seemed eccentric, oblivious, or even cruel — and she pointed out that BG came to Jay’s funeral, contradicting much of what I had thought of the King of Swing as a boss or employer.

A woman in the back of the room raised her hand politely and said, “I saw Billie Holiday in a bar on Post Avenue in Westbury.”  (An aside: Post Avenue does have two-way car traffic, but it is distinguished by a CVS, a supermarket, various ethnic eateries, donut shops, delis.  52nd Street isn’t and never was.)

I stopped cold and begged her to elaborate.  She said that this sighting took place around 1954, that Billie sang beautifully but was so stoned (drunk or high, I didn’t know) that she almost knocked the narrator over on the way to the ladies’ room.

A rather shy woman came up at the end and told me that she and her husband had met at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1941 or 1942.  They were high school students who came to dance to the jazz.  She remembered sharing a Tom Collins (they were underage but no one cared).  And she brought up sacred names: bassist Al Morgan, who gave her a brooch in the shape of a bass, and Zutty Singleton.  I beamed at her, awestruck.

On the surface, such talks seem to be one-sided.  I am The Expert; I offer information; my hearers might ask a question or two.  And sometimes that is what the interchange feels like.  But I go away from these experiences thinking that I have been well-taught by the people sitting in front of me.  And they have made me feel more than I ever expect.

My hearers have lived the experiences I am explaining in ways that are no longer possible.  So to talk with someone who saw Billie or Zutty is something extraordinary, not to be repeated as the years go on.  And I am allowed into the most affectionately cherished memories of my audience.  In me, a stranger with esoteric enthusiasms, they find someone eager to hear, someone who cares about a small piece of their past.  Perhaps they tell me something they haven’t told their children, who know so little of the music of fifty or sixty years ago.

The casual generosity of these people, offering irreplaceable stories, is a rare gift.

[The photographs at top and bottom — showing Billie looking healthy and cheerful — come from a German website, and I believe they were taken during her 1954 European tour.  Is the clarinetist a young Tony Scott?  I am sure that it is Red Norvo at the vibraharp, as he would have called it.)

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