Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Quartet, Lullaby of the Leaves.
Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Quartet, Soft Shoe.
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, You Go to My Head.

“Cool” jazz, or "West Coast Jazz", like most subheadings in music histories, is an overly vague and at times inaccurate term--the only things cool jazz musicians had in common is that they recorded on the West Coast in the fifties, usually for the handful of local independent labels (Fantasy, Pacific) that emerged around the same time; they were mostly white; and their music often forsook blues standards and influences and the frenetic pace of bebop, pushing instead for clarity, quiet intensity and melody.

The core cool jazz records were recorded in just a few years, the early to mid-'50s, and the style soon congealed into a cliché. Think of the hep cool jazz band in 1957’s The Sweet Smell of Success, who already seem to be a parody – wearing sunglasses indoors at night, watching only themselves not the audience, immaculately dressed in matching suits, playing moody, spare music tailor-made for someone's quiet breakdown. Cool jazz devolved into music for the LP age, for the archetypal '50s swinging bachelor, with his wet bar, hi-fi set and Playboy subscription.

Still, long before its current incarnation as incidental music for Starbucks barristas, cool jazz was at its peak the hippest thing in the United States. This was music for, if not the future, then at least the present; urban, disaffected sounds--no more renditions of corny stuff like “When It's Sleepy Time Down South," or “Rocking Chair” or warhorses like "After You’ve Gone". It was not frantic music, it was not four-to-the bar, brass-heavy stomp crafted to be heard over the din of a loud dance hall (the dance halls had all closed anyhow)–it was music to be played, as James Baldwin wrote in Another Country, after all the squares had gone home.

Ted Gioia: cool jazz had “an acute sensitivity to instrumental textures; a studied avoidance of the easy licks and empty clichés of bop and swing; in their place, fresh, uncluttered lines, cleanly played. And above all, the band overcame the jazz musician's greatest fear: the fear of silence.”

When the 1950s began, Gerry Mulligan, the baritone saxophonist who had first made his mark with the Miles Davis Nonet in the late '40s, was hitchhiking his way from New York to California. Mulligan found work in Stan Kenton's big band and, when offered a Monday night gig at the Haig, a small restaurant across from the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, Mulligan formed a quartet of trumpeter Chet Baker, Bob Whitlock and Carson Smith alternating on bass and Chico Hamilton on drums.

Baker has taken some knocks over the years by critics, who have complained his tone and his range were limited, that his singing was even worse, but listeners always flocked to him, whether it was because of his matinee idol looks (he was one of the first jazz musicians who could’ve played himself in a movie of his life) or his ability to almost flawlessly develop a melody and convey a deep sense of mood--at the latter task, no one but Miles Davis could best him.

The Mulligan/Baker quartet began recording in the summer of 1952 at the Laurel Canyon bungalow owned by engineer Phil Turetsky. A session in the bungalow on August 16 yielded “Lullaby of the Leaves” and “Bernie’s Tune”, the quartet's first masterpieces--Richard Bock launched the Pacific Jazz label with a two sided single featuring the songs. The Quartet's sound is shown in full on "Lullaby"--Mulligan makes the bari sax, typically an unwieldly honking horn meant to hold down the bottom, into a graceful dancing giant, while Baker's trumpet darts around him.

By October the quartet was in LA's Gold Star Studios: “Soft Shoe”, a whisper of a track featuring a sublime Mulligan solo that saturates the ear, comes from the first of the sessions, October 15-16. Both tracks can be found here.

Dave Brubeck, who would become the public face of West Coast jazz in 1954, when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine, studied under composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College and formed an octet, a piano trio and at last a quartet in which he first worked with his greatest collaborator, Paul Desmond. Brubeck played loud, dense and heavy chords and favored rhythmically complex works, yet at the same time had a great pop sensibility, covering everything from “The Trolley Song” to various Disney movie numbers; Desmond was far lighter, more lyrical and moody, calling himself “the world’s slowest alto player”, yet his tastes were more rarified than Brubeck's.

"You Go to My Head" is just Brubeck and Desmond, quietly conversing, years before the accolades, campus tours and "Take Five", playing in October 1952 at the Boston club Storyville. Find it here.

Top painting: Marc Chagall's The Green Night.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Mighty Lata

Lata Mangeshkar, Vande Matararam.

"Vande Mataram" (which translates roughly into "Hail, Mother" ) has existed, in some form, for about 125 years. An Indian equivalent to "La Marseillaise", a version was first composed by Bankimchandra Chatterjee in 1875 as a response to heightened British attempts to force "God Save the Queen" upon the Empire's Indian subjects as their national song. Included in Chatterjee's 1882 novel Anandmath, a recounting of an 18th Century Hindu rebellion, the song soon became entwined with the nascent Indian independence movement, sung by Rabindranath Tagore at the Indian National Congress of 1896, and soon banned by British authorities, who at times destroyed early recordings of the song.

From 1900 until 1950, the song, originally written in "Sanskritized" Bengali, roved throughout the subcontinent, its lyrics altering as it travelled in dozens of tongues, its tune radically changing as well--composers set "Vande Mataram" from everything to marches to Vedic chants and ragas. More than a hundred recordings were made.

One of the best is a full-force Bollywood rendition by Lata Mangeshkar. Mangeshkar,who may have recorded 40,000 songs in her career, made this track of "Vande Mataram" for a 1952 film version of Chatterjee's Anandmath, of which I know absolutely nothing. The song is a marvel, though, a fusion of pop and raga, in which Lata begins each of three verses with a different, spiralling melody; in the first two verses (the second verse is especially beautiful), she is cut off by a chanted mantra-like chorus, in the third, she gets to dance a bit longer.

(The chorus, which sticks in your head after a listen, actually saved my sanity once--I chanted it silently one afternoon upon being stuck on a crowded N train between stations for over an hour.) My copy is from a cassette a friend gave me years ago--I'm not sure where you can buy it on CD, but it apparently is on iTunes.

Suresh Chandvankar: "No other song in Independent India has received so much attention. This is probably because we Indians do not consider this as the national song or Anthem. We treat it as the song of our culture, a ‘Prateek’ or living symbol. In Hindu culture, the mother is considered a God, and worshipping the mother through songs is an age-old tradition...That is why the song keeps reappearing again and again in different forms. It will be no great wonder if it gets set to an assortment of new musical idioms - even jazz, rock, rap or metal - in the 21st century."

When a heavy metal version does appear, please let me know.

There is some controversy about whether "Vande Mataram" should be made an obligatory Indian national song.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Slim Whitman, Bandera Waltz.

Our very lethargic stroll through '52 continues.

Otis Dewey “Slim” Whitman hailed from Tampa, Florida (he never was fond of his nickname, bestowed upon him by his record company). Born in 1924, Whitman was considered the last of the singing cowboys, noted for hits like "Indian Love Call" and "Secret Love." A purist of sorts, Whitman recorded mainly cowboy songs and ballads, never novelties or honky-tonk numbers.

Whitman, after getting married to a preacher’s daughter at age seventeen, worked as a meat packer until he severed two of his fingers. When the war began, Whitman joined the Navy, where he learned to play the guitar (left-handed, due to his maiming). After being decommissioned in 1946, he worked in a shipyard and played minor league baseball. At last, in 1948 he began playing music professionally and soon caught the eye of the infamous Col. Tom Parker, though Whitman still worked as a mailman part-time to support his family.

Whitman, oddly enough, became much more of a success in Europe and Australia than he ever did in the U.S. While a few of his hits in the early '50s crossed over into the U.S. pop charts as well as topping the country charts, he was mainly considered a minor-league country performer in the U.S., while in the UK, by contrast, he played the London Palladium, the first country singer to ever do so, and his songs dominated European radio throughout the decade.

"Bandera Waltz", marked by a glorious vocal by Whitman matched by Hoot Rains' soaring steel guitar, was recorded in Shreveport, Louisiana, in May 1952, with Curley Herndon (lead guitar), Curley Harris (b), Sonny Harville (p). Released as Imperial 8144 and can be found here.

Chords to Bandera.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Howlin’ Wolf, Oh Red!
Howlin’ Wolf, Highway Man.

When I heard him, I said, ‘this is where the soul of man never dies ’…and I tell you the greatest show you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. His eyes would light up and you’d see the veins on his neck, and buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul.” Sam Phillips.

Chester Arthur Burnett, born in June 1910 in Clay County, Mississippi, was first called Bull Cow and Bigfoot due to his enormous frame, until his singing style earned him the name he’d keep until death – the Howlin’ Wolf. Taught on the guitar by Charley Patton and on the harmonica by his brother in law, Rice “Sonny Boy Williamson” Miller, Howlin’ Wolf began playing professionally in the late 1940s. By 1951, the Wolf had become a DJ and advertising man in addition to playing local Memphis clubs.

Sam Phillips began recording Wolf in 1951, passing on most of the sides to Chicago’s Chess records. By 1952, Wolf was signed exclusively to Chess, who leaned on him to move up to Chicago and leave Memphis behind. He did, but before going waxed some of his finest works in the small studio on Union Ave.

Here are two of the best. “Oh Red!” is pretty atypical, as it’s heavily arranged as early Wolf tracks go, and even features a wild tenor sax solo by Charles Taylor. It’s perhaps the closest Wolf ever came to Louis Jordan–inspired jump blues, and it swings. “Highway Man” is a more basic electric blues, featuring a genius raspy vocal by Wolf; the brilliant Willie Johnson provides some brutal, sharp guitar lines.

“Highway Man” was recorded on January 23, 1952 with LC Hubert on piano, Johnson (g), Willie Steel (d); “Oh Red!” was recorded on October 7, with Walter “Tang” Smith on trombone, Taylor on tenor sax, and possibly Bill Johnson on piano. Released as Chess 1528 and available here.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Reno and Smiley, I’m Using My Bible For a Roadmap.

In the days before Southern religious fundamentalism became just another political interest group, it was capable of inspiring some beautiful, pure pieces of art.

The sublime “I'm Using My Bible For a Roadmap” was written by Don Reno, from Spartansburg, South Carolina, an excellent banjo player who performed with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith on “Mocking Banjoes,” a track which inspired the infamous “Dueling Banjos” used in the film Deliverance. He also played with Bill Monroe as a brief replacement for Earl Scruggs, and then joined Red Smiley in 1949 to form a bluegrass band, the Tennessee Cut-Ups .

Smiley, who hailed from Asheville, North Carolina, was a fine complement to Reno, providing smooth continuous runs on his Martin guitar to balance Reno’s banjo picking, and harmonies for Reno’s tenor.

Recorded in Cincinnati on January 15, 1952, with Gopher Addis on fiddle, Chuck Haney on mandolin, Jay Haney on bass. Released as King 1045 and found here.