Tag Archives: WNYC-FM

THANKS, JONATHAN SCHWARTZ (and FRANK SINATRA, too)

jonathan-schwartz-wnyc1Jonathan Schwartz has been broadcasting on WNYC-FM (New York City’s NPR station) for a long time now, offering remarkable music and deeply informed commentary.    Every Saturday and Sunday from 12-4, Jonathan plays a large variety of moving and intriguing music — Fred Astaire, Ruby Braff, Becky Kilgore, Tony Bennett and many others.   

Jonathan’s program also appears on Sirius satellite radio and his WNYC shows can be heard online, but I am listening live as I write this. 

Unlike other radio personalities who delve deeply into American popular song and jazz, Jonathan is more interested in presenting the music than a barrage of archival data.  And his program isn’t a museum, for he plays recordings by young performers who keep traditions vigorous. 

When I first heard his WNYC program, years ago, my musical range was deep but narrow.  I knew as much as I could about 1938 Billie Holiday, about the partnership of Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, about the sounds of Jo Jones and George Wettling.  I loved Bing Crosby.  But I was an impatient listener, fidgeting until Jonathan played a song or a musician of whom I approved. 

sinatraAnd I didn’t understand Jonathan’s deep fascination with Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra was everywhere in my childhood and adolescence, and he seemed one-dimensional, someone trying to be hip for the young’uns and a sad tough guy for the people who watched the Ed Sullivan Show.  Louis was always Louis, no matter what he sang or played.  Sinatra seemed so busy selling repackaged versions of himself.  When “Ol’ Blue Eyes” came back, it meant nothing to me — had he ever been away?  The performances I saw on television seemed consciously mannered: “Look how deeply I feel,” he seemed to be saying, which I did not find convincing.   

But I am writing this to say that even our most cherished artistic convictions need to be reinspected now and again, to see if they are valid.  Or if they ever were.  The Beloved listens to Jonathan’s WNYC program faithfully, so I have heard him more often and more regularly than ever before.

More than a year ago, Jonathan played a Sinatra recording I had never heard, from the Capitol sessions with the Hollywood String Quartet, which appered on vinyl and CD as CLOSE TO YOU.  The song was a collaboration of Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer, “P.S., I Love You.”  I had heard Billie Holiday’s sweet-sour Verve version — but Sinatra’s singing, tender, unaffected, wistful — brought tears to my eyes.  The next day, I bought the CD and still think of it as supremely romantic music, superbly realized.  That singer in the Capitol studio didn’t care whether he struck the best I-don’t-care pose for the photographers.  He was inside the music, selling nothing but conveying everything. 

I was suspicious.  I looked into the mirror while shaving.  Was I turning into a Sinatra-phile, one of those people who reveled in every note their hero had sung?  I already had enough musical obsessions, thank you.  So I kept close watch on myself and played CLOSE TO YOU in the car, thinking that it was one atypical occasion when Sinatra had allowed himself to merge with the music. 

But it happened again when Jonathan played another Capitol Sinatra, the arrangement by Gordon Jenkins.  Perhaps it was “Where Are You?”  And, against my more suspicious self, I was staggered by the depth of feeling in that record.  I bought it and played it.  And then there was the slightly angry “Oh, You Crazy Moon,” from THE MOONLIGHT SINATRA.  And the tragically world-weary Sinatra of “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.”

So this is to say, “Thank you!” to Jonathan Schwartz for enriching my musical and emotional experience.  I now think it is possible to play a great Sinatra recording alongside one of the Billie Holiday Verves and to hear that both singers are — in their own way — considering the mysteries of the human heart. 

Some readers might be thinking, “Isn’t this a jazz blog?  Sinatra wasn’t a jazz singer!”  Those categories don’t matter when the art moves us.  As he was in mourning for his life, drinking cognac, Lester Young  played those mournful Sinatra records over and over.  “Frankie-boy,” Pres called him.  If Sinatra moved Lester Young, who knew everything about elation and despair, that’s good enough for me.  I am sorry that it took me this long to find the inward-looking Sinatra, but I am deeply indebted to Jonathan Schwartz for making it happen.

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JULIE FOLLANSBEE, MANNY FARBER, AND KID ORY

kid-ory-78As much as I love jazz, I love the stories that attach themselves to the players, the records, the places the music inhabits.  Earlier today, on WNYC-FM, Leonard Lopate spoke with Kent Jones and Philip Lopate about the flim critic and painter Manny Farber, who celebrated subversive “termite art.” I never met Manny Farber, so my connection to him, perhaps tenuous, exemplifies two or perhaps three degrees of New York separation.

It was, however, my privilege to know the actress and entrancing personality Julie Pratt Shattuck, born Julie Follansbee.  Julie died on August 16 of this year.  She was 88.  I  was introduced to her by her dear friend Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy (widow of the great Irish writer Frank O’Connor — and my benefactor as well).

Julie wasn’t tall, but she seemed regally so — without being stuffy.  Her diction was elegant,  but she delighted in delivering tiny hilarious shocks.  I was standing next to her at a downtown art show when, for whatever reason, she turned to me and recited the limerick about the young man from Madras.  I still haven’t recovered.

Her blue eyes would flash and she would laugh uproariously.  She was one of the most vividly alive people I have ever met; she loved a party, and until her final illness, the word “Whee!” punctuated her talk.  Lucky me! — to have been invited to 242 East 68th Street for tea, the occasional tiny glass of bourbon, dinner — and wonderful stories.

Julie knew that I was immersed in jazz.  I gave a party at her brownstone where the great guitarist Craig Ventresco played and awed everyone.  I also remember a wonderful evening when a trio of Julie, myself, and her friend Roseli Olivera went to the Cajun to hear Kevin Dorn’s band play, where Julie sat, awash in the music, her eyes closed, her head swaying, her face a portrait of bliss.  Once, she mentioned that she had a small collection of 78 rpm records.  Would I like them?  Yes, I said, I would.

Sometime in 2007, then, I went to her brownstone and Julie gave me these 78 rpm records:

Jack Teagarden (Brunswick): Ol’ Pappy / Fate-thee-Well to Harlem

Duke Ellington (Victor): Jubilee Stomp / Black Beauty

Gene Krupa’s Swing Band (Victor): I’m Gonna Clap My Hands / Mutiny in the Parlor

Bessie Smith (Columbia): Empty Bed Blues, Part I and 2

Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers (Victor): Shake It and Break It / Wild Man Blues

Old Man Blues / Nobody Knows the Way I Feels Dis Morning (as printed on the label)

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven / Five (UHCA): Potato Head Blues / Put ‘Em Down Blues

Sister Ernestine Anderson acc. Bunk Johnson’s Jazz Band (Disc): Does Jesus Care / The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow

Kid Ory’s Jazz Band (Crescent): Creole Song / South

J.C. Higginbotham / Frank Newton Quintets (Blue Note): Weary Land Blues / Daybreak Blues

Boris Rose acetate disc: Body and Soul (Hawkins) / I Can’t Get Started (Berigan)

Dizzy Gillespie (Manor): I Can’t Get Started / Good Bait

Bob Wilber’s Wildcats, with Dick Wellstood at the Barrelhouse Steinway (Rampart): Chimes Blues / Old Fashioned Love

I was thrilled: Julie had always been generous to me, and she saw the joy on my face of even having these precious artifacts to leaf through.  The records had been well-played, which I found touching, and they, taken together, suggested someone’s deep love and understanding of jazz in its many manifestations.

“Did you collect jazz records?” I asked Julie.

“Oh, no, these weren’t mine,” she said.

I looked at her quizzically.

manny-farber“Do you know of Manny Farber?” she continued, and I was happy to say that I did.

“Well, when I was living in the Village, sometime in the late Forties, he came around to call.  I don’t recall how I met him.  But he brought these records with him, and he left them behind.”

Sensing that there was some bit of narrative hidden under that calm surface, I just looked at her.

Julie said cheerfully, “Oh, he wanted to sleep with me.  But I wasn’t interested in him.  And he never came back for the records.”

At that time, Manny Farber was still alive, 90 or 91years old.  Julie and I discussed, whimsically, whether I should write him a note and say, “By the way, would you like your records back?  Julie has been keeping them for you,” an idea that never took shape.  For those who savor coincidence, Manny Farber died on August 17, 2008, one day after Julie did.

I miss her.  I’m sorry I didn’t visit her more often.  And I’m sorry that when I looked for a picture of her on Google, none came up — although the many DVDs of the films in which she appears did.  I say “Whee!” in her honor, and thank her for this story and this gift, one of so many.

P.S.  And my hero Eddie Condon signed people’s autograph books with “Whee!”  Great minds think alike, exuberantly so.