Tag Archives: THE BLUEST EYE

BEWARE OF THE BIG BAD DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE

from Martha Stewart, of course

 

If this song is known at all in this century, it is justifiably because of this version:

That’s Shirley Temple in the 1934 film BRIGHT EYES.  The song is by Richard A. Whiting, music, and Sidney Clare, lyrics, as the UK sheet music notes.

I had had only the vaguest sense of the song as a cross between BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN and another “Please go to sleep, child!” lullaby-lament. Listening to the verse brought new insights: Shirley as aviator — perhaps modeling herself on Amelia Earhart? — which makes the scene in the film take place on an actual plane rather than a bus, very “moderne” for 1934. Wikipedia, whether accurate or not, notes that the airplane is “a taxiing American Airlines Douglas DC-2.”  That Shirley doesn’t want a dolly to be a mommy to but rather sees herself as a pilot is a very cheering example of female empowerment. Women had earned pilot’s licenses early on (Bessie Coleman, in 1921, was the first African-American woman to do so) and one Helen Richey was a commecial co-pilot in 1934, but the first American commercial pilot — “the first woman captain,” Emily Howell Warner, did not begin her routes until 1973.  And, yes, I looked this all up online.

LOLLIPOP would have remained nothing more than a candied fossil in my memory.  (I have taught Toni Morrison’s lacerating novel THE BLUEST EYE for years now, where Shirley is the looming symbol of oppressive white beauty: although some of my students say they know her, I wonder how many are aware of this song.)

But thanks to Marc Caparone, I can share with you a frolicsome version of the song, airborne in its own way, with a little Father / Little Boy dialogue enacted by Mr. Manone and Mr. Lamare.

Wingy Manone, trumpet, vocal; Matty Matlock, clarinet; Eddie Miller, tenor saxophone; Gil Bowers, piano; Nappy Lamare, guitar, talk; Harry Goodman, string bass; Ray Bauduc, drums; recorded March 8, 1935.

I don’t know whether Wingy and Shirley would have gotten along, but what a good record that is (Bauduc’s drums behind Miller, Wingy’s eccentric happiness) — but neither version gives me a bellyache.  Jazz history has done a good job of ignoring Wingy (although the people at Mosaic Records did not) but his recorded legacy is at the same level as Fats Waller’s and Henry “Red” Allen’s.

And I wonder how contemporary hot jazz bands would do with this song.

May your happiness increase!

“PLEASE! HAVE SOME PITY,” AND ONWARDS

The inspiration for this blogpost is the fine guitarist and thoughtful modernist Nick Rossi — and our online discussion this afternoon is yet another refutation to the general scorn that nothing good comes out of Facebook.  Nick had been exulting about the pleasure of playing rhythm guitar in a jam session on LADY BE GOOD — a jam that went on for twenty minutes, like the fabled communal joys we read about.

And I pointed him towards one of my favorite recordings of the song.  Not Lester’s (in two takes) but something perhaps less famous — a recording (either from December 1933 or January 1934) by “Buck and Bubbles.”

buck_n_bubbles

Buck was the fine Hines / stride pianist who accompanied Louis on DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND and Hawkins on other sides (so his jazz credentials are stellar); John W. “Bubbles” Sublett went on to play Sportin’ Life in PORGY AND BESS — and together they were an extraordinary team.

For me, this recording summons up a whole era of theatrical performance — where two men could swing as winsomely and effectively as any large group. You can certainly see them in your mind’s eye as the performance moves from swinging piano introduction to sweet / sad narrative over piano, then to a key change and a solo piano romp, then a hilarious dialogue (anticipating Fats or moving alongside him?) with Buck taking the lead — which seems to have cheered Bubbles up considerably.  It’s a model of how to create a duet, to hand off lead and accompaniment, to “sell” a song without ever appearing to do so:

Bubbles’s slightly hoarse, worn voice, creates a half-amused, half-despairing plea (who could resist such a plaintive entreaty?) and if one cares, on a later listening, to concentrate solely on Buck’s piano, it’s quite remarkable.

And here’s a later British version (!) with clarinet and rhythm section — new to me and delightful:

Wouldn’t it be nice if Buck and Bubbles had appeared on film in their prime?

Your wish is our command.  1937 VARIETY SHOW, much more elaborate, but with good material:

And this improvisation on RHYTHM FOR SALE from 1944, introduced by a most august personage:

For a genial overview of Bubbles — as the “father of rhythm tap” as well as a singer alongside Buck, here’s Part One of a documentary that starts slowly but then presents the team alongside Dick Powell, Ethel Waters, and Duke Ellington:

The second part is primarily about Bubbles’s protege, Chuck Green, but contains some astounding footage — and it closes with audio of Buck and Bubbles performing ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF  THE STREET:

A small speculative footnote.  For years, I have been teaching Toni Morrison’s mournful, vengeful THE BLUEST EYE, whose victimized center, Pecola, suffers completely because of her misguided desire (stimulated by members of her own community) to embody a white, blue-eyed standard of beauty.  And when I teach it, I mention the sad spectacle of African-Americans deprived of handsome and beautiful and noble models of their own race on the screen.  But watching the first video from VARIETY SHOW, I wonder if I should tell my students that there were some exceptions, a few African-Americans in the movies who weren’t comic stereotypes, who weren’t afraid of ghosts, and point them to beautifully dressed and casually commanding Buck and Bubbles.

But, for the moment, I would send readers and listeners back to the first version of OH, LADY BE GOOD — a little sweet monument of swing and theatre.  No wonder George Gershwin wrote Bubbles a substantial part in PORGY AND BESS.

Postscript: if you can hear Nick Rossi play, you will be satisfied, gratified, and highly delighted.

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!

KALLY PRICE IS POWERFULLY HERSELF

Kally Price is a fully realized singer, not for the timid, someone hard to ignore.  She doesn’t create background music.

Price has a controlled emotional power than is remarkable.  It’s not overacting or “dramatic.”  Rather, she has an impassioned definiteness that comes from within; it’s not something she learned how to do in acting school.  She doesn’t shout or rant, but it’s clear she is not going to let anything get in her way when she’s delivering the messages contained in a song.

I had not heard of her before our California trip, but many people told me about her.  They went out of their way to let me know she wasn’t formulaic or ordinary.

I knew IF I HAD A RIBBON BOW from Maxine Sullivan’s wistful 1937 version, and it had always struck me as poignantly girlish: if I had a ribbon bow, then Prince Charming would come and find me.  The singer of this folk song had not been able to learn much about assertiveness training, had never heard of Friedan or Steinem, so the song struck notes of wishing rather than action.  Kally Price’s rendering is powerful, and you imagine her both singing the song (she is faithful to it) and examining it at arm’s length: pity this poor girl in what I imagine is her best frock, waiting for someone to come and love her, much like one of Toni Morrison’s doomed little girls in THE BLUEST EYE.  Kally performs the song with fidelity but is also able to suggest her frustration at being confined to the constricting world of such narrow hopes and aspirations.

If my deconstructing of this text doesn’t appeal to you, sit back from your computer and witness a forceful performance by a musical actress with great skill and undeniable passion.  Her accompanists are Leon Oakley, cornet; Craig Ventresco, guitar; Rob Reich (at the piano instead of the accordion), and Ari Munkres on string bass.  This performance was recorded at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House in May 2010, just before Kally recorded her second CD as a leader:

She’s someone serious — not to be taken lightly!

The other performance from the Red Poppy is a fascinating merging of an a cappella I WANT TO LIVE and Price’s reimagining of RHYTHM — not the Gershwins’ classic but the 1933 Spirits of Rhythm perpetual-motion machine.  Again, whether she’s creating a ferocious soliloquy or she’s swinging deeply, Kally Price is someone to take notice of:

I’m making room on my shelves — between Bent Persson and Sammy Price — for Kally Price’s CD . . . coming soon to you from Porto Franco Records.