Tag Archives: Una Mae Carlisle

IT’S SAD BUT TRUE: UNA MAE CARLISLE (1915-56)

If Una Mae Carlisle is known at all today, it is as a jazz footnote and “friend-of”: protege (perhaps mistress) of Fats Waller; singer on the lone and lovely record date that Lester Young’s band did in 1941; composer of WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER, someone recording with Danny Polo, John Kirby, Big Nick Nicholas, Buster Bailey, Ray Nance, Budd Johnson, Walter Thomas.  Sadly, her life was very short, made even shorter by illness.  I propose that she deserves admiration for her own art, not just for her associations with greater stars.

Una Mae had all the qualities that would have made her a success, and she did get some of the attention she deserved.  She had a big embracing voice; she could croon and swing; she was a splendid pianist — more than a Waller clone.

Here are two samples of her genial, casual art, in 1940 and 1941.  First, the song she composed (its title suggested by John Steinbeck).  The wonderful small group is Benny Carter, trumpet; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.  Una Mae plays piano. Were Ed Berger here with us, he could tell us how Benny came to be in that studio — perhaps a rehearsal for his own Bluebird big-band date a few days later:

Here is one side from the famous session with Lester Young, Shad Collins, Clyde Hart, John Collins, Nick Fenton, Harold “Doc” West in 1941:

I come from that generation of listeners who discovered the sides with Lester through a lp compendium called SWING! — on Victor, with notes by Dan Morgenstern.  I think I was not alone in listening around Una Mae, regarded at best as someone interfering with our ability to hear Lester, purring behind her.  But if we could have shaken ourselves out of our Prez-worship for three minutes, we would have found much pleasure in Una Mae’s singing for its own sake, not in comparison to Billie.  As I do now.

This small reconsideration of Carlisle’s talents springs from a nocturnal prowl through eBay, then on to YouTube, then Google, then here — a familiar path, although the stops are not always in that order.

First, an autographed postcard, 1940-2, when she was recording for Bluebird:

I then visited  YouTube to find — to my delight — two brief but very entertaining film clips (from the 1948 BOARDING HOUSE BLUES) where her magnetism comes through:

I savor her ebullience — while trying to ignore the thinness of the song (which, in fairness, might be more sophisticated than GOT A PENNY, BENNY, which Nat Cole was singing a few years earlier) — and her expert piano work, with its small homages to Fats and Tatum.

I write the next sentence with mixed emotions: it cannot have hurt her fame in this period that she was slender and light-skinned.  Had she lived, she might have achieved some of the acclaim given other singer-entertainers, although I wonder if her easy accessibility would have hampered her with the jazz purists of the Fifties, while making her a pop star of sorts.  Certainly her last recordings (1950) show her being targeted for a large popular audience, which is to say the songs are awful and beyond.

The other song from BOARDING HOUSE BLUES is equally thin, built on RHYTHM changes — but it is not the THROW IT OUT YOUR MIND that Louis and the All-Stars performed in WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (1965):

Looking for more information on Una Mae, I found that others had — admiringly and sadly — done deep research here and elsewhere.  Because the internet encourages such digressions, I now know more about mastoiditis than I would have otherwise.  It shortened her life.  The disease is now rare.

I present all this as a collage in tribute to someone who should not be forgotten.  And I think of Una Mae as one of the talented people who died just short of great fame.  I can imagine her, as I can imagine Hot Lips Page, on the television variety shows of my childhood, appearing in the nightclubs I was too young to go to.

Although the lyrics are those of a formulaic love song, the mood is apt for her epitaph.  May she live on in our hearts:

May your happiness increase!

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SHE’S BACK, ALTHOUGH SHE’S NEVER BEEN AWAY

Marty Elkins hat

Marty Elkins is one of my favorite singers.  If you know her work, you’ll understand why.  If she’s new to you, prepare to be entranced:

For one thing, she swings without calling attention to it.  Nothing in her style is written in capital letters; she doesn’t dramatize.  But the feeling she brings to each song comes through immediately.  Her voice is pleasing in itself and she glides along next to the song, not trying to obliterate it so that we can admire her and her alone.  And that voice is not an artifice — a mask she assumes to sing — it comes from her deepest self, whether she is being cheerful or permitting that little cry to come out.  I think her approach to the songs on this CD is a beautifully mature one: not the shallow cheer of someone who’s not lived . . . nor the bleakness of the world-weary.  I hear in Marty’s voice a kind of realistic optimism, a faith in the universe that also knows melancholy is possible.  Gaze at the sky in blissful wonder but look out for that cab while crossing the street.

I know that such art is not easily mastered . . . ask any singer whether it’s simply a matter of memorizing the notes and the words and standing up in front of the microphone — but Marty quietly has something to tell us, and we feel what she feels.  Direct subtle transmission!

And she improvises.  Her third chorus on any performance is not simply a repetition of the second.  She doesn’t obliterate the composer or the lyricist; rather she makes friends with the song and — as if she were a great designer — considers the approach that would show it off most truly.

I shelve my CDs alphabetically — so to the left of ELKINS there is ELDRIDGE, to the right ELLINGTON.  Fast company, but neither Roy nor Duke has protested; in fact, were they booking gigs at the moment, Marty would be getting calls.  But my ELKINS holdings have been — although choice — small in scope.  Two CDs, to be precise: FUSE BLUES (Nagel-Heyer 062) finds her with Herb Pomeroy, Houston Person, Tardo Hammer, Greg Staff, Dennis Irwin, Mark Taylor.  (The provocative title is Marty’s own blues which has a great deal to do with the ministrations offered by her electrician.)  IN ANOTHER LIFE (Nagel-Heyer 114), a duo-recital for Marty and Dave McKenna, is just gorgeous. Here‘s what I wrote about IN ANOTHER LIFE when it was released — not just about the CD, but about Marty’s beautiful singing.

So it’s delightful news that Marty has released her third CD, WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER (Nagel-Heyer 119), and it is a treat.

marty-elkins-walkin-by-the-river-2015

Marty isn’t a Diva or someone who demands to be a Star.  When I’ve seen her in performance — sitting in or on her own gig — she is on equal, friendly terms with the instrumentalists, never demanding the spotlight.  But quietly, subversively, her voice finds a place in our hearts: it is the closest thing to having someone you’re fond of whisper something pleasing in your ear.  And it’s not just me, or my ear.  Marty has things to tell us about love, about pleasure, about sadness.  Many of the songs on this CD are familiar — but they take on new depth and feeling when she sings them.  And Marty has a real feeling for the blues, so her offerings seem authentic rather than learned . . . with bluesy turns of phrase that are warm surprises in standard 32-bar songs.

Marty has consistently good musical taste.  Her band: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Howard Alden, guitar; Steve Ash, piano; Joel Diamond, Hammond C3, Lee Hudson, string bass; Taro Okamoto, drums.  This small group is priceless in itself — intense yet relaxed, with a light-hearted Basie feel on some numbers, a gritty soulful drive on others.  But — with all respect to these musicians — I am always happy on a track when the band plays and Ms. Elkins returns for another chorus.  She’s their equal in keeping our attention.

Her songs: IF I COULD BE WITH YOU /  RUNNIN’ WILD / IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T MY BABY? / GARBAGE CAN  BLUES / WHEN MY SUGAR WALKS DOWN THE STREET / DON’T LET THE SUN CATCH YOU CRYIN’ / THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE / DOWN TO STEAMBOAT TENNESSEE / COMES LOVE / ILL WIND / I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME / BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA / WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER.  Song historians will note some nods to Lee Wiley, Una Mae Carlisle, and of course Billie.  But this is living music, not a repertory project, thank goodness.

Marty, thank you!  Now — let’s have a regular gig for this remarkable singer?

I just found out that the CD  will officially be out in September, which is nearly here.  You can check out Marty’s website, or find Marty at her regular Thursday-night gig Cenzino Restaurant in Oakland, New Jersey, where she performs with Bob Wylde, guitar, and Mike Richmond, string bass.

May your happiness increase!

 

“GEORGE WETTLING, MARCH 1953”

That’s written on the back of this snapshot — originally taken by drummer Walt Gifford, later held by jazz enthusiast Joe Boughton:

GEORGE WETTLING 3 53

I am assuming that it was taken in the Boston area, but Wettling is the main attraction.  In the great tradition, Wettling played drums for the band — caring more for that than for any extended solo, although his four-bar breaks at the end of Eddie Condon recordings (Commodore, Decca, and Columbia) are justly famous.  He wasn’t as dramatic as some of his more celebrated peers, but any group that had Wettling in the rhythm section could relax, secure that the tempo would be steady, that every accent or sound would make sense as a complementary part of the whole.

Here are two samples of George at work — atypically visible as well — along with Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Al Hall, and Eddie himself — from a 1964 television program:

and

and — nearly a quarter-century earlier, sounds only:

and

If you follow the recordings he left behind — with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Hot Lips Page, Lou McGarity, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, Muggsy Spanier, Jess Stacy, Frank Teschemacher, Frank Melrose, Boyce Brown, Paul Mares, Omer Simeon, Wingy Manone, Jimmy McPartland, Joe Marsala, Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, Pete Brown, Jack Teagarden, Joe Bushkin, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, Max Kaminsky, Danny Polo, Herman Chittison, Joe Thomas, Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Carter, Miff Mole, Brad Gowans, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, Ed Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Rod Cless, James P. Johnson, Yank Lawson, Jerry Jerome, Billy Butterfield, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Benny Morton, Jonah Jones, Errol Garner, Billie Holiday, Bujie Centobie, Red McKenzie, Chuck Wayne, Lucky Thompson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Martha Tilton, Connee Boswell, Sidney Bechet, Frank Newton, Bing Crosby, Art Hodes, Doc Evans, Bob Wilber, Tony Parenti, Charlie Parker, Ralph Sutton, Barbara Lea, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Kenny Kersey, Frank Signorelli, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Urbie Green, Marian McPartland, Stuff Smith, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Claude Hopkins, Nat Pierce, Jimmy Jones, Marty Napoleon, Buster Bailey, Shorty Baker, Tyree Glenn, Kenny Davern, and many others — you will always hear rewarding music.

May your happiness increase!

“AND MANY OTHER RHYTHM ARTISTS”

We could go to this concert . . . even though a decade later, having been there might lose us our jobs as dangerous subversives:

The fact that the poster was red, white, and blue wouldn’t convince the House Un-American Activities Committee for a moment.

Or we could visit Lady Day, Duke, Anita, and Big Sid in California:

But perhaps we should stay closer to home, and if we’re lucky, eventually Mezz will stop playing and let someone else solo.  Imagine Pete Seeger singing with James P. Johnson accompanying him:

I can think of no better way to spend New Year’s Eve.  Can you?

May your happiness increase.

LESTER YOUNG’S MESSAGE: “BLITZKRIEG BABY”

This March 10, 1941 recording is not as well-known in the Lester Young canon as it should be.  Singer / pianist Una Mae Carlisle, a Fats Waller protege, landed a Bluebird Records date, possibly with the help of Fats.  Carlisle was an engaging, low-key singer.  How she and Lester Young’s short-lived little band came together in the studio has never been established, but it was fortunate for us and for posterity.

If you were a singer looking for the best band in that year, the choice would have been simple, given the perfect accompaniment and solos Lester had been playing with Billie Holiday for the previous four years.  The rest of the band — Shad Collins, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; John Collins, guitar; Nick Fenton, bass; Harold “Doc” West, drums — was also splendid, although to my ears they sound slightly hesitant, perhaps constrained by their roles in the recording studio.

The song (one of four) we are considering is unambitious, its lyrics odd: an attempt to blend current events — the German bombings — with a cautionary love song to an undefined lover.  Is the person being addressed an actual soldier or simply someone the singer wants to threaten by violence into good behavior?  The lyrics speak of bombing, a hand grenade, a parachute, propaganda, the infantry, a raid, dynamite; the only peaceful comment is about neutrality, which seems forlorn.  A perverse romantic utterance at best.

But the music shows once again how great jazz musicians and singers make the thinnest material imperishably beautiful.  The record begins with a thump leading us into an ensemble passage — a trumpet-tenor riff that would have been well-trodden by 1941.  (Quick, on which Louis recording did it first appear?) And the rhythm section, although everyone is pointed in the right direction, is more steadfast than airborne, heavier than the Basie ideal.  Carlisle’s cheerful, earnest-though-amused reading of the lyrics lightens the collective gravity, and Shad Collins’ muted arabesques behind her vocal don’t sound like anyone else’s — although muted trumpet behind a singer was also a familiar convention.  But aside from his brief appearance in harmony with Collins to start, Lester has been silent.

But he emerges into the sunlight in the second chorus, beginning with a simple ascending three-note phrase I associate with the exposition of a twelve-bar blues chorus, then after a brief pause for breath — and space — expanding that initial statement into a line that winds and climbs, not quickly or predictably, taking its time, the notes climbing a stairway that Lester is creating at the moment he ascends and descends, dipping down in the middle of the phrase before climbing easily again.  Visually, it might be a line drawn by William Steig.

So it might seem that Lester has offered us three improvisations on a simple climbing motif — not surprising, because many solos start low and climb for pure drama.  All this has happened in the space of fifteen seconds. Were we watching the original record move on, the stylus and tone arm tracing preordained paths through the grooves, it would seem as if a great distance had been traveled, the needle moving more quickly than the notes, bringing us that much closer to the end of the performance.

But Lester thought structurally: a sixteen-bar solo had its own logic, a balance apparent to the ear and would be visible in a transcription to someone who could only observe Up and Down, Long and Short.

A more conventional player would have repeated and varied the upwards motif (a trumpet player might have embellished the initial phrase until it would end on an impressive high note) — but Lester’s imagination was more spacious, and by 1941 he had heard thousands of formulaic solos next to him on bandstands across the country.

The second half of his too-brief solo begins from a height — although not “high” — that his first exploration has barely hinted at.  And Lester, having climbed his imaginary stairway, then proceeds to play on it as if he were a child rolling down those same stairs, one downwards-moving phrase tumbling after another, without haste or urgency, ending his solo with an echo (or a playful parody?) of the first upward phrase with which he began.

Lester’s solo is at most thirty seconds long. To ears accustomed to life after Bird, Trane, Ornette, Braxton, it seems simple, unadorned, even plain (leaving aside that dark creamy tone, the rubato hesitations and anticipations too subtle to notate).  But like a great Japanese brush painting, its magnificence is in the depths under its apparent ease.  Following Lester, pianist Clyde Hart, harmonically subtle and swinging, offers his own version of Basie-and-minimalist-stride that (one says ruefully) seems heavy in comparison with Lester’s ease.

When Una Mae Carlisle returns for her second exposition of the lyrics, the horns riff around and behind her: Shad Collins plays straight man to Lester, offering a simple phrase that Lester weaves around rather like ivy twining around a post.  I recall what Lester and Roy Eldridge create in the final minutes of Billie Holiday’s LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Shad and Lester offer a quiet miniature of the Basie band in performance, the saxophones explaining the truth to the trumpets or the reverse.  Lester seems to converse with his friend Shad while the rhythm and the bar lines move along beneath them, until the gentle festivities have to come to an ending.

Hear for yourself:

As always, Lester’s playing has so much to say to us, seventy and more years after he created it.  He speaks to us.  And although he seems like the least didactic of men, he has much to tell us by his example:

Use simple materials but treat them reverently.  No matter how few measures you have to say your piece, make it beautiful.  

Go your own way but don’t be bizarre for the sake of novelty.  Surprise us but don’t shock us. 

Honor the other members of the ensemble by making sure they sound good.  Give everyone a chance to shine. 

Take your time.  Breathe deeply.  Do nothing by rote.  Float on the rhythm.

Even if the lyrics speak of death and imminent destruction, don’t let anyone mess up your cool (to quote Vic Dickenson).

And — as a final sad irony — Lester could make beauty out of the impending blitzkrieg, but the Army didn’t see fit to extend him reciprocal courtesies.  But on March 10, 1941, he was on his own sweetly winding, hopeful path.  We can follow him always.