Tag Archive | jazz

A blind Englishman playing cool piano jazz – George Shearing

George Shearing died a week ago, and for reasons I don’t really understand, the mainstream media just barely noticed. I listened, read, and wondered. There were a few obituaries. Just not very many for a man who’s been so central to American music.

As soon as I learned about music—as soon as I got away from home and discovered the wide, wide musical world beyond “Lucky Lager Dance Time” and “Your Hit Parade”—George Shearing was someone I heard. He was always there, a blind Englishman playing cool piano jazz, and he’s been there ever since.

Shearing was born, one of nine children, in the Battersea district of London in 1919. His father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains at night after caring for her brood during the day. He began playing music at age 3 (some biographies say 5), but it wasn’t until he went to the Linden Lodge School for the Blind in his teens that he really learned about music. Because of his family’s economic problems, he refused scholarships and went on to earn his first musician’s salary, $5 a week, at a neighborhood pub.

Shearing became one of England’s favorite piano players during World War II. He and jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli played not only in clubs, concert halls and on the radio, but in bomb shelters. Apparently, his blindness was a blessing for others: in an NPR interview he described seeing people back to their hotels during air raids.

Inspired by American jazz, he came to the United States to stay in 1947 and  by 1949 established the quintet whose sound and style made him famous. The group—by adding vibraphones and a guitar to the traditional bass and drums, and Shearing’s piano—soon made itself famous with an arrangement of “September in the Rain.” Shearing’s sound was unusual, not only because of the makeup of the group, but because he consciously looked for a soft, romantic jazz, one that was at the same time cool and sophisticated. He combined a dance band sound (he always cited Glen Miller) and a “blocked hands” style of piano playing, borrowed from the blues piano of Milt Buckner, to the mixture. The best description of his piano playing that I’ve read comes from a New York Times critic of many years ago and is quoted by Jon Thurber in a Los Angeles Times obituary: “both hands play melodies in parallel octaves with a shifting cloud of chores in between.”

Although Shearing was a composer, only one of his tunes became truly popular. It took him only ten minutes to write “Lullaby of Birdland,” an ode to the famous jazz New York City jazz club where he was appearing at the time. At an 80th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1999, he joked “I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two hundred ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.”

But it wasn’t his song-writing that made him important. His influence on jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck, and in fact his impact on the sounds we hear in all sorts of contemporary music, was central.

Through the years Shearing played for and with singers like Dakota Staton, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole and Mel Torme. His work with Torme won him Grammies in the 1980s. That was after he disbanded his quintet and began to play mostly as a soloist or with a bassist—a move that allowed him more room for improvisation. Listening to his work with Torme is a moving experience. The two men found musical soul mates in each other. Said Shearing after Torme’s death in 1999, “We literally breathed together during our countless performances.”

Photo by Piano Piano! Photo by hans thig's. Creative Commons.

Like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, Shearing almost never called attention to his blindness, but I think one of my favorite Shearing jokes is his response to question that was put to him one time too many: “When people ask me how is it I was a musician, I facetiously say that I’m a firm believer in reincarnation and in a previous life I was Johann Sebastian Bach’s guide dog.”

About age he said: I’m not sure that technique and improvisational abilities improve with age. I think what improves is your sense of judgment, of maturity. I think you become a  much better editor of your own material.”

Blue Note NY flyer. 1993. Photo by Chames Richalds (chimsrichalds007) Creative Commons license.

George Shearing performed into his late 80s when a fall incapacitated him. But even then he kept playing the piano. In 2007 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. “I don’t know why I’m getting this honor,” he said. “I’ve just been doing what I love to do.”

He was 91-years-old when he died last Monday.

Libby Holman, the first torch singer

Clifton Webb and Libby Holman. The electrifying number "Moanin'Low" - as sun by Miss Holman and danced by Mr. Webb - is the climax of the brilliant new revue The First Little Show. 1929.

I’d heard the name, but I’d never had occasion to look for Libby Holman on-line or anywhere else. But the next essay after Ned Rorem’s essay on Josephine Baker was about Libby Holman. The same Libby Holman I found in a picture with Clifton Webb in an old Vanity Fair compilation of articles and pictures from the ’20s and ’30s. Coming from a much later generation, I  knew Clifton Webb as Mr. Belvedere, the distinguished gentleman nanny in several ’40s  and ’50s movies. I knew only vaguely that he’d had a long distinguished career, starring in dozens of  Broadway shows and nearly as many movies. Anyway, this image of Clifton Webb was not one I expected, any more than the one of Libby Holman who’s usually pictured upright.

I also didn’t expect her voice. Rorem’s description of “the first torch singer” describes her

boisterous bass whine, lewd intelligence, and weird knack for elongating consonants and for wringing sense out of even articles and prepositions. She was the first among female pop singers-canaries, as they were called in the Jazz era-to exploit the husky purple depths of her vocal register rather than (like Helen Morgan or Ruth Etting) the squeakily poignant top.

When a young journalist asked Holman if she searched for meaning in her songs, she replied, “Yes, I do, and when I find it Gerald (her accompanist) plays it and then I vomit around it.”

Go to YouTube and listen, especially to her signature “Moanin’ Low.” ( Try more than one version!)

Libby Holman, 1932. Photo from New York World Telegram.

Libby Holman’s life was colored by scandal and tragedy. Her life obscured her talent, but it also made her more famous than she would otherwise have been. Today’s media would have adored her. By the age of 25, she had become a star of Broadway and of cafe society although she was already considered outrageous because of her lifestyle, which included a lesbian relationship with her friend, Louisa Carpenter, that was to last much of her life.

Nevertheless, she married Smith Reynolds, heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune. At a party six months into the wedding, Reynolds was shot to death. Holman was suspected of the murder, and only the intervention of the Reynolds family, who wanted to mute the scandal, got her acquitted and also left her with a considerable inheritance. The suspicion of murder stayed with her and for years she was greeted by boos and catcalls when she performed.

Ned Rorem says that Libby (a close friend of his) once told him that she’d been so drunk that night she wasn’t sure whether or not she’d killed her husband.

Not long after, she gave birth to a Reynolds heir nicknamed Topper, and raised him with her lesbian friend, Louisa Carpenter. She married again and again the union was a miserable one. This time her husband died of a drug overdose.

It was in the ’40s that she met actor Montgomery Clift who was quite a few years her junior. Rorem writes about Clift that he “was like Libby herself, troubled and driven and sexually ambiguous and shy and exhibitionistic and madly gifted and deeply drunk, but less of a survivor. He “became her lover, and finally perished in what some would call ‘the longest suicide in history’ leaving her to declare him ‘the one great passion in her life.’”

Montgomery Clift in the movie, I Confess.

In 1950, her son, still only 17, died in a mountain-climbing accident. Holman blamed herself for giving permission for the climb.

That she had a reputation as a black widow, someone whose presence threatened the lives of lovers and family is no wonder. But her reputation was also hurt by her choice of accompanists: Josh White, a guitarist, and later, Gerald Cook, a pianist — both of them black men. In a racist world, it was just one more thing.

Photo by bunky's pickle. Under Creative Commons license.

After Clift’s death in the early sixties, Libby Holman turned more and more to alcohol and her physical health deteriorated. Despite all, she married again, and again the marriage was an unhealthy one. In 1971 she was found dead in the front seat of her car. The death was ruled carbon monoxide poisoning.

Writes Rorem:
If one definition of a practicing artist is he who knows how to go too far and still come back, Libby Holman fills the bill. As a woman, though, she went too far and fell over the other side….

When and why Alberta Hunter lied about her age

Blues means what milk does to a baby. Blues is what the spirit is to the minister. We sing the blues because our hearts have been hurt, our souls have been disturbed.

- Alberta Hunter

Sometime in the early  1980s I went to see Alberta Hunter at The Cookery in New York’s Greenwich Village. My memory of the occasion is dim and I don’t remember who I went with except that I had friends living close by. Could have been one of them. I remember that it was a lovely evening and the club was all lit up. More importantly, I remember that Hunter was an old African-American woman with a full, gritty blues voice and a wicked sense of humor. I knew she’d sung with other blues greats in the 20s and 30s, and that this was a sort of revival for her. 80 something. Still rarin’ to go. She was amazing.

Alberta Hunter album cover

Alberta Hunter was born in Memphis but ran away at age 11 or 12 because she was told she could make $10 a week singing in Chicago. Her first job there was peeling potatoes for $6, plus room and board; she spent her off hours haunting clubs and cabarets, looking for singing jobs and, as you may imagine, lying about her age. In a few years time, she went from performing in some of the city’s worse dives to the prestigious Dreamland, where she earned $35 a week. At about the same time as one of her accompanists was killed by a stray bullet during a performance, she headed for  New York.

Over the next decades she toured Europe more than once and appeared in clubs and on stage in musicals in New York and London. In 1928 she played Queenie opposite Paul Robeson in the first London production of Show Boat.

It was always a little easier to work in Europe; she found, like other African-American performers, that she was accorded more respect as an artist there, which also made jobs easier to come by, especially during the Depression. By 1930 she had made more than 80 sides with musicians like Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Lovie Austin, and Louis Armstrong. Her song, “Downhearted Blues,” brought Bessie Smith to prominence.

Again, I’m going to send you, dear reader, to YouTube which has some great singing by early and late Hunter. The contrast between the two is fascinating. While you’re there, I hope you take special notice of a very strange, yet moving, number from British radio (1934). Called “Black Shadow,” it’s a lament about being Black in a racist time. The theme is very like that of Fats Waller’s “What Did I Do To be So Black and Blue?” (1929), but it’s eerie, and deeply, deeply ironic.

In the 1940s, she took a USO tour to Casablanca and was still entertaining the troops in Korea in the early 1950s when her mother died in 1954, precipitating a decision to retire from music and become a nurse. She was already 59 years old and so, where she had lied to make herself older when she was a kid, this time she lied to make herself younger. She “invented” a high school diploma, took off twelve years, and enrolled in nursing school.

She would have worked happily as a nurse until her death, but in 1977, the hospital, believing her to be 70 (she was well over 80), forced her into retirement. That was when, bored with nothing to do, she let friends talk her into making a comeback. For the next six years, she did just that. Her career was booming at the time of her death in 1984.

So my question is, how did Alberta Hunter happen? What was it in the 1920s and ’30s that made her, Josephine Baker, Bricktop, Mabel Mercer, and at least a dozen—maybe more—women nearly as amazing, rise above the racism of their time and achieve the extraordinary? Certainly, historians must have made some good guesses. If I find the right book, I’ll report back to you. If any of you know, I’d love to hear from you.

There has never been anyone like Josephine Baker.

Josephine Baker, Paris. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, reproduction number LC-DIG-ppmsca-07816 DLC.

Writing about Josephine Baker—the “Bronze Venus,” the “Black Pearl,” the “Creole Goddess”— is problematic: she was the first African-American to do so many things, my post could easily become a list. Among her other achievements, she was  the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-renown entertainer.

Her beginnings certainly weren’t promising. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she dropped out of school at the age of 12 to live as a street child in the slums of the city, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans.

She began her career dancing and singing on street corners, and eventually joined the vaudeville circuit, ending up in New York’s Harlem and joining the cast of Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along in 1921. Still only 15, she made a name for herself as a comic and dancer when she improvised on her role at the end of the show’s chorus line.

She didn’t stay in the U.S. though; instead she took the Harlem Renaissance with her to Paris and, in 1925, became an instant success for her oddly original and erotic dancing — and, incidentally, for appearing almost nude on stage. “I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.” She was soon the most successful American entertainer working in France.

Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She described herself  this way: “Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.”

Joséphine Baker in her "Girdle of Bananas." 1926. First seen in her debut revue at the Folies Bergère: La Folie du Jour, 1926-27.

She was especially famous for her Banana Dance, and anyone reading this really must go watch some of the old clips of her performances on YouTube. If I had a technically advanced blog (they cost money so I don’t), I would put them on this post. Please go look. See. You will find yourself in another time and place—sensational, exciting, the beginning of the modern era. Josephine Baker, more than any other single person, became a muse to Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior and dozens of other artists, authors and composers. She was a lover to both men and women, and among the women was the wonderful Colette.

Josephine Baker and her cat.

In 1937, as World War II loomed, Josephine Baker became a French citizen and married a French Jew. She was so popular with the citizens of her adopted country, that the Nazis were careful to leave her alone, which made her a perfect agent for the French resistance. From Paris and on tour in Europe, and then after the Germans invaded, in the south of France and North Africa, she smuggled messages and provided information to the French underground and the Allies. She later received France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s she supported the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., refusing to play to segregated audiences, and speaking at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. With her usual flare, and disappointed in her failure to have a child, she adopted 12 multi-ethnic orphans in the 1950s (Korean, Japanese, Colombian, Finnish, French, Israeli, Algerian, Ivorian, Venezuelan and Moroccan). Take that Angelina Jolie! For sometime she lived with all of her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Chateau de Milandes in Dordogne, France.

Even her death had magic about it. On April 8, 1975, she starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, celebrating 50 years in show business. Financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it opened to rave reviews. Four days later, after a cerebral hemorrhage, she was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded with glowing reviews of her performance. She died on April 12, 1975.

Josephine Baker in feathers, 1928.

Gustav Mahler and Bricktop

I want to start this post with a very brief tribute to Gustav Mahler whose birthday is July 7. I’m not going to try to write a post about him. I don’t know his music well enough for that, although I never hear the songs or the symphonies without being deeply moved by them.

Gustav Mahler, 1909. Photo by either Aimé Dupont's wife, Madame Etta Greer, or their son Albert Dupont.

The first time I heard one of the symphonies—I have no idea which—I was in an apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown, on the main drag itself as I recall it (Grant Street). The windows were open to the night; the volume was raised so that the music seemed to fill the whole visible and audible world. I remember that I was a very young college student, and that I knew, hearing that music, that life was as important as I’d thought it would be.

Unfortunately, I’ve only spent real-time with the Fourth Symphony. Says Thai conductor, Somtow Sucharitkul, “No. 4 is a good way to ease yourself into Mahler; it is like reading The Hobbit in preparation for The Lord of the Rings.” I hope that a few years from now I’ll be able to talk about the Rings.

The other subject of today’s post is a very different person: the proprietor of Chez Bricktop and one of the central figures of the jazz age. Born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith in 1890’s West Virginia, she moved with her family when she was still a child to Chicago where, at a very tender age, she was caught up in the saloon life of the city. It was there that she acquired the nickname Bricktop for her flaming red hair and freckles. By the time she was sixteen, she was a touring vaudevillean and in her early twenties in New York City, she’d already changed the future of American entertainment by getting the young Duke Ellington one of this first gigs.

Photograph of musicians and entertainers in Los Angeles, California, at the Cadillac Club, c. 1917 or 1918. From left to right, "Common Sence" Ross, Albertine Pickins, Ferd "Jelly Roll" Morton, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Eddie Rucker, Mabel Watts.

By 1924, she was in Paris. Having captured the enthusiastic attention of Cole Porter, who hired her as an entertainer, retaining her especially to teach his guests the latest dance craze such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom, she began operating the clubs where she performed, especially Chez Bricktop where her headliner was Mabel Mercer (see my last blog). The celebrities of the day flocked to her club, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tallulah Bankhead and, of course, Cole Porter himself. Langston Hughes, of all people, was a busboy (or a dishwasher, depending on what you read) in her club. Josephine Baker (who must be the next post), was one of her protegés, and the two women enjoyed a lesbian affair for a time.

Ada "Bricktop" Smith. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, reproduction number 5a51751.

These amazing women, bi-racial and African-American, became the cultural doyennes of their time, and that, when the world was mired in racial injustice: Bricktop, Mabel Mercer, Josephine Baker, Alberta Hunter (the post after Baker’s)….

Bricktop broadcast a radio program in Paris from 1938-39, but returned to New York when World War II broke out. She published an autobiography in 1983 crammed full of stories about the 20th century’s rich and famous. She died in 1984 at the age of 89.

There are bits and pieces of Chez Bricktop on YouTube. Try them out! And, there’s almost a Broadway show, produced by Whoopi Goldberg and others. Something to be devoutly hoped for!

The Art of Less-is-More: Marian McPartland

Photo by Lochaven. Marian McPartland at Lake Buena Vista, FL. Jly, 1978. Flickr.

A number of posts ago, my friend Joan Graul wrote and asked why I didn’t write about Marian McPartland. She sent me links to the NPR celebration of thirty years of Piano Jazz, Marian’s radio celebration of jazz music and jazz musicians. It seems McPartland had stayed at her home in northern Vermont more than two decades ago (before I got there), when the North Country Concert Association invited her to perform at the Haskell Opera House, a lovely old theater that straddles the border with Canada. She was, Joan said, “a delightful house guest.  She made herself right at home and made us feel as if we’d always known her. What a wonderful experience to know such a fine artist and to be in the moment with incredible brilliance and humanity.”

Like a lot of people, I’ve listened to Piano Jazz over the years. It’s always felt good, with an intimate conversation with one jazz great or another, a few tunes played by whoever it is, and duets with Marian. All of it deeply involving because it’s not often that you get to hear creative people talk about the day-to-day doing of their art.

There is no doubt that Marian McPartland is amazing. At almost 92 (March 20), she’s still doing Piano Jazz, making new friends in the jazz world, composing and playing. She’s been awarded honorary doctorates, and, say critics, her last CD (Twilight World) is more eclectic than ever, reaching from Irving Berlin and Alec Wilder to Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, as well as three of her own compositions.

It’s hard to imagine quite how it could have begun. She grew up middle class in middle class English towns. Her family was minimally musical, but she was something of a prodigy and started fooling around with the piano at the age of three. Not surprisingly, they never quite got who she was. Her mother decided her hands were made for the violin and made her take violin lessons instead of piano. She was sent to a school for music in her teens. She was introduced to jazz in the most casual way by her sister’s boyfriend who owned recordings they’d play together on a wind-up victrola. She was immediately caught up in the music. She shocked her family by leaving the classical study of piano and joining a four-piano vaudeville act entertaining allied troupes Europe. In Belgium, she met and married a cornet player, Jimmy McPartland, and from then on her life was taken up almost entirely by playing with jazz musicians and learning from them. Surely, jazz critic Leonard Feather, writing in Down Beat magazine, wasn’t the only person to comment that McPartland had “three strikes against her – being English, white and a woman.”

Marian McPartland became a jazz great by living the music and absorbing the rhythms and harmonies of nearly every musician she met. I haven’t found any succinct descriptions of how her playing developed and changed, but it’s clear she started out, insecure but with a love of the music that over-rode everything, and gradually grew into a confident and utterly poised performer. I did find one quotation that gives us insight:

I’ve got arthritis in my knees and hands. I can’t play all these uptempo runs like I used to, but I think I play better. Duke was the one who really laid it on me. “Oooh, Marian, you play so many notes.” He said it very charmingly, always his way. But I still thought, “Hmmm, that’s as far as he’d go as criticism.” It took me a while, but I eventually mellowed out, learned the art of less-is-more.

Photo by Tom Marcello. Marian McPartland at Rochester, NY, 1975. Flickr.

Today, she is known as a harmonically, rhythmically complex and inventive improviser, a lover of good melodies and the creator of wonderful harmonies. She’s produced albums by the score, run her own music label, Halcyon, and written some wonderful tunes. She began interviewing other musicians and educating people about jazz when, in the sixties, she was playing for some high school students who, given the opportunity to make a request, hollered out: “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.” Rock had overwhelmed the music world and jazz was in danger of disappearing. Reading interviews with her can be exhausting: she’s known and played with hundreds if not thousands of musicians. She remembers every one of them and how they play, and has been a friend to most of them.

What can her life tell us about art and artists? That they are indeed, obsessed. In the case of McPartland, joyously. That there may not be notable changes in style or substance when they are old, but there can be a more profound ease, a straight-forward, simpler approach to everything that matters and, in Marian McPartland’s case, the guts at age ninety to compose and perform a major work for improvised piano and symphony orchestra, A Portrait of Rachel Carson. You can find its debut online at NPR’s website, along with dozens of articles and interviews at other sites. Or enjoy an afternoon on You Tube.

An adventure in jazz

I think I’ve heard the name of Lee Konitz for as long as I’ve been aware that there was jazz in the world. I wish I knew more about the music and the man. I do know he’s 82 and still going strong – writing, playing, inventing. The last has always been the most important because improvisation is at the heart of his music.

Lee Konitz with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Jazz Middelheim, Park Den Brandt, 08/2007. Photo courtesy of volume 12 at Flickr

Born in Chicago of Jewish immigrant parents, he took up the clarinet at eleven but soon left it for the saxophone, and finally the baritone saxophone. In the late 1940s he played with jazz luminaries like Claude Thornhill, Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano and became one of the founders of cool jazz. At a time when most saxophone players fell under the spell of Charlie Parker, he incorporated what he wanted of Parker’s ideas, but kept his own musical identity.

In the ’50s Konitz continued to work with Tristano, who was his most important mentor, but also with people like Stan Kenton and Gerry Mulligan. In the ’60s he recorded a series of duets with different instrumentalists, ranging over many styles of jazz. Over the decades he has continued to go his own way, improvising and making music in the same thoughtful and distinctive manner, stretching jazz standards to their limits. In the early ’90s, two days after his wife of 32 years died, when his age was truly catching up with him, he became the first white winner of the Jazz Par prize of the Danish Jazz Society, a major award with enough perks to send him back into the music world.

The reason I got interested in Konitz was a recent article by Patrick Jarenwattonanon on National Public Radio’s A Blog Supreme. The musician was playing a concert at New York’s Village Vanguard. (You can hear the whole thing online at NPR’s site.) The author suggests that Konitz may be an example of “late style,” the same idea I described briefly in my post of February 15.  Edward Said’s “late style” is about risk taking by an artist who has transcended the egoistic fear of failure and who holds to “a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against.”

More and more in Lee Konitz’s late age, according to Jarenwattonanon and other reviewers, he’s starting each piece with a blank slate, without even the most minimal plan, allowing the music to just freely evolve. He takes his time, pausing at great length sometimes to think about his next notes and phrases. He continues, as he always has, to seek out new musical partners so that the context is even newer, less of a known. It doesn’t always work out; it’s always a risk.

In a stubborn old man kind of way, writes Jarenwattonanon, he insists on playing his game at most gigs he plays. And you can see why: the struggle of creating that strain, that push-and-pull, makes for a thrill that you’d never see in any session that involves prior planning.

But is this any different from what he’s always done? Konitz’s “late style” seems instead to be the way he’s always worked.  Certainly, Lee Konitz understands his life that way. This is from a 2000 interview.

I’m constantly amazed still at the miracle of improvising. That’s what’s so intriguing for a whole lifetime because in really trying to improvise I have the benefit of those surprises. Sometimes they’re great surprises, sometimes they’re less of a surprise. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to really make it work effectively, but it’s still a surprise….