Monday, February 28, 2005


The delivery room of the cool

Miles Davis Nonet, Jeru.

Had you been in New York, hanging around 5th Avenue and 55th St. during the summer of 1947, you might have noticed an odd lot of people going in and out of a small basement apartment located behind a Chinese laundry--a further investigation would have found it was barely an apartment at all, really, just a room where the building's pipes were housed, with just enough space for a bed and a few chairs.

It was a curious group--an elegant, long-haired man who seemed to live in the place; a gangly red-haired giant carrying an enormous saxophone case; a nebbishy-looking guy who could have taught high-school science earlier in the day; a bearded, intense scholar; a bird-like girl with a snappy air; and a dapper, cool and menacing character who, if you had been in his way on the sidewalk, would have pushed you aside with a curt "Move."

The Miles Davis Nonet, a combo that exists more in influence than in evidence (only a dozen tracks recorded, two weeks of concerts played), emerged from a group of musicians hanging out in the apartment of the arranger Gil Evans. Many were in Claude Thornhill's big band, for whom Evans had done arrangments; others were already legends in bebop, like the drummer Max Roach and the trombonist J.J. Johnson.

It took Davis to turn a hobby into an enterprise. Having witnessed the often-chaotic Charlie Parker recording sessions, Davis was determined to be an innovative, efficient arranger and bandleader. As Gerry Mulligan would later say of Davis, "he called the rehearsals, hired the halls, called the players, cracked the whip." Davis also had a contract with Capitol Records, without which the Nonet would never have been recorded.

Davis was growing tired of bebop, and of his sideman's role in the Parker bands, and he found in the players gathering at Evans' place a group of like-minded souls. The veterans of Thornhill's band, like Lee Konitz and Mulligan, wanted to experiment with arrangements and expand upon the work of avant-gardists like Konitz's mentor Lennie Tristano; the boppers wanted to slow down bop's "steeplechase pace" (Gary Giddins' phrase), to incorporate soloists better into an ensemble, to bring counterpoint back into jazz.

The final group of nine's structure would be fairly radical--there was a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, and then two sections of brass: a set group of Davis on trumpet, Konitz on alto saxophone and Mulligan on baritone sax; and a rotating group of players on instruments that were either out of fashion (trombone, tuba) or that had never been associated with jazz in the first place (French horn). This set-up allowed for many innovations (the tuba's presence, for example, freed Mulligan to use the baritone sax as a lead melodic instrument) that the band's arrangers--Mulligan, Davis, Evans, John Lewis and John Carisi--exploited to the hilt.

The result was a dreamy, Debussian blend of sounds. But it was also a commercial dud. The 78-rpm singles released from the Nonet's three recording sessions were bought only by fellow musicians, it seems; the Nonet's one major concert stand, a two-week booking at the Royal Roost in 1948, failed to impress patrons, who favored the Roost's other attraction, Count Basie.

It would take until the late 1950s, when the singles were compiled on an LP that a savvy Capitol exec called Birth of the Cool, for the Nonet to become immortalized. By that point, however, the Nonet's sound had become a basic language of jazz--heard in Mulligan's classic quartet with Chet Baker; in Lewis' Modern Jazz Quartet; in the legendary Davis/Evans LPs.

Here is Mulligan's "Jeru", recorded at the first Nonet session on January 21, 1949, and featuring solos by Mulligan on bari sax, Davis on trumpet, & Konitz on alto sax. Also featuring Kai Winding (trombone), Junior Collins (French horn), John Barber (tuba), Al Haig (piano), Joe Shulman (bass) and Max Roach (drums). Available on Birth of the Cool, one of the basic Jazz 101 records that remains fresh even after decades of playing.

Friday, February 25, 2005


"The dead are happier dead--they don't miss much here, poor devils"

Anton Karas, The Third Man Theme.
Doris Day, My Dream is Yours.

Something extraordinary happened in the five years after the Second World War--the movies (which by the end of the war had become something akin to an international church of dreamers) began to die.

In 1946, 100 million people per week on average saw a film in the U.S., out of a population of 140 million, and countless more went worldwide. Four years later, attendance had plummeted--down to 60 million people per week. And the numbers would keep on dropping, bottoming out in the 1960s and early '70s.

You could blame the decline of the cities (most theaters were located in traditional downtowns, which were becoming a little shabby) and the rise of the suburbs; that a great many people now had small children to tend; the government-ordered separation of film studios and theater chains in 1948, which destroyed the classic Hollywood system; and of course, the great usurper television. But there also seems to be something intangible--that perhaps people fell out of love with movies during these years.

That might be too broad a statement. After all, movies are one of the few mass entertainments people still feel they have a stake in (newspaper movie critics often get more vitriolic mail than the political reporters do), and films were far from moribund in 1949--after all, still in the future lay Godard and Rear Window, Kurosawa, the Godfather movies and Kieslowski and Chinatown. But looking back on the '40s, what strikes me is the way movies were interwoven into the very fabric of life, in a way they never quite would be again. People would think nothing of leaving the house, walking into a movie halfway through and staying on through the start of the next picture, stepping in at the movies the way one would a local pub. (This type of viewing could prove frustrating to filmmakers: I have a poster for Vertigo that has, running along its bottom border, in large block letters: A HITCHCOCK THRILLER--YOU SHOULD SEE IT FROM THE BEGINNING.)

And there was even something of a religious element, a sort of modern paganism, to filmgoing, especially in the immediate after-war years. In his book The Whole Equation the critic David Thomson describes the palatial moviehouses of his childhood in postwar England:

"[In the morning] the cinemas were closed and resting, like creatures that were essentially nocturnal or too glamorous for the mundane activities of the day...there were thick carpets in the lobbies. The air was perfumed, literally. My mother told me that this was done to kill the germs...the walls had gold foil on them, or damask velvet. There were designs of warriors and maidens, swans and castles, emperors and witches...they were like the threshold to a story."

Compare this to the average boxy multiplex in which you find yourself enduring films today. Just a few moviehouse temples are left: In New York, only the Ziegfeld remains; in Boston, the Coolidge Corner.

They Live By Night

And throughout, the films playing in the theaters were often astonishing. For me, the run of great films in the '45-'50 period has never been equalled. It was the period of John Ford's calvalry trilogy, the great noir thrillers, the last gasp of the screwball comedies, Howard Hawks' Red River, and the burst of brilliant UK movies, from the horror anthology Dead of Night to the Archers' films to Alec Guinness' black comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets. Even mainstream A-list films seemed haunted and desperate--The Best Years of Our Lives, Call Northside 777, Sunset Blvd., In a Lonely Place, It's a Wonderful Life, while brutal, fantastic little movies abounded--Detour, Gun Crazy, Caught, The Killers, Nicholas Ray's debut They Live By Night (stills pictured above).

The Third Man, which premiered in the UK in September 1949 and in the U.S. six months later, could stand for the whole period. It's a film swamped by history, that of its players (Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, both of their careers on the wane, seem to have aged enormously from Citizen Kane, made just eight years earlier) and of its setting--blasted, grasping postwar Vienna. The hero, Cotten's Holly Martins, is a hack and a witless dupe, a degraded Henry James character wandering through a destroyed world, while Welles' charming nihilist Harry Lime, officially lying in the grave and happily profiting from the desperation of others, runs the show. At the top of the post is Anton Karas' zither theme song, later covered by both The Band and Liberace, surely the only time that ever happened).

As a counterweight, consider another '49 film, My Dream is Yours, which is set not in ghost-ridden Vienna but in deathless Hollywood, and features the 25-year old Doris Day in the midst of her march to become the sunny ambassador of American optimism. It's a cloying, stupid picture, designed to use whatever spare parts Warner Brothers had lying around (even Bugs Bunny and Tweety are drummed into service), but it shows what the mainstream 1950s would have in store. Day's performance of the title song, however, is sweet, wistful and moody, far too tasteful for the film it adorns.

You can find the "Third Man Theme" here, and the film itself is on a great Criterion DVD; Day's "My Dream" is found here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


"Anybody who wanders around the world saying, "Hell yes, I'm from Texas," deserves whatever happens to him."

Art Tatum, Blue Skies.

There is the oft-told story in which Fats Waller, spying the pianist Art Tatum in the crowd one evening, tells the audience "God is in the house tonight." Tatum could inspire idolatry--he can appear to be a sort of strange, elemental force, standing both within and outside of jazz (he never considered himself a jazz player), untouchable, like some pure embodiment of improvisation.

While Tatum recorded a number of brilliant duets and trios (in particular, his work with Ben Webster in the '50s), he often seemed most comfortable alone at the keyboard, where his only rivals were Liszt and Chopin. Here he takes on Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies"--after a moody intro, he offers the Berlin theme relatively straightforward until, about 40 seconds in, he begins to break it apart. Berlin's melody is one of the most hummable ever crafted, but Tatum begins to alter the tempo at whim, throwing in odd chord subsitutions or filigrees, as though he's trying to find further reservoirs of sound buried in the tune, and never resting (his hands don't seem to leave the keyboard throughout the performance).

By song's end, he has fractured it into something wholly new (one reviewer has heard a phrase from Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud" (recorded in '47) at the end, which, if so, would be a very rare homage by Tatum to one of his contemporaries.)

"Blue Skies" was recorded on September 29, 1949. You can find it with other '49 Capitol solo performances here.

Today is my birthday, so here's a bonus song:
Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey, Blue Skies.

From 1941, when you could still hear the dew in Sinatra's voice. Bliss.

Goodbye Raoul Duke. A lot of people cite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as their favorite Hunter S. Thompson work, but for me it's "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," a magazine article he wrote in 1970, and which made the business of writing and reporting seem to be the best job in the world. At least he outlived Nixon and Reagan, two of his favorite enemies.

Friday, February 18, 2005


"Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.."

Tampa Red, When Things Go Wrong With You.

Like Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red was another blues guitar legend who stumbled into having a major R&B hit in his later years.

He was born Hudson Whittaker (or Woodridge) in Smithfield, Georgia, in 1904 (or 1903), and earned his performing name from, in reverse, his hair and his hometown--Tampa, Fla., where his grandparents raised him. Red moved to Chicago in the 1920s and became known for his work with the pianist Georgia Tom Dorsey, such as "Tight Like That." When Georgia Tom found God around the same time the Depression hit, Red moved on, later teaming with Big Maceo Merriweather.

"Things Go Wrong," complete with dog barks and a kazoo solo, is sung with smooth joy and confidence by Red, who was content to keep playing the blues until the world had no more use for it, or for him. He died in 1981.

"Things Go Wrong" was recorded in Chicago on March 24, 1949, with Johnnie Jones (p), Ransom J. Knowling (b) and Odie Payne (d). In blues fashion, "Things Go Wrong" keeps traveling under assumed names. Tampa had taken the melody from an earlier composition, "Things 'bout Coming My Way"; Elmore James turned "Things Go Wrong" into "It Hurts Me Too," which in turn was covered by everyone from Chuck Berry to Bob Dylan (on his bizarre work of self-sabotage Self Portrait); Eric Clapton's somnolent version became a mild FM hit in the 1980s. You can find "Things Go Wrong" in this collection.

Happy Washington's Birthday (still the official name--the generic "Presidents' Day" honors Richard Nixon and Warren Harding, so no thanks)--no posts until next Tuesday.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


"des filles qui sur les pavés, sans arrêt nuit et jour, font des tours et des tours.."

Francis Lemarque, Cornet De Frites.
Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla Symphonie: Turangalîla 1.

Two Frenchmen after the war.

During WWII, both Francis Lemarque and Olivier Messiaen had spent time in Nazi prison camps--Lemarque as part of the Resistance, Messiaen after the collapse of the French Army in 1940. And in the years after 1945, each worked to create a musical world fully removed from the scarred one they inhabited. Lemarque's music summons the imaginary Paris of popular memory, that of cafes, cigarettes fuming in ashtrays, accordion players, promenades along the Champs-Elysées. Messiaen went further inward. Inspired by Hindu myth and bird songs, his Turangalîla Symphony defies description, except that it could be the soundtrack to a sunrise on Mars.

Lemarque was like a character in a Jean Renoir film. Born Nathan Korb in 1917 Paris, to a Jewish family of Lithuanian/Polish heritage, he and his brother Maurice became a singing duo that regularly performed in avant-garde troupes, and serenaded striking Parisian workers during the '30s. When the Nazis conquered France, Kolb fled to Marseilles (part of "free" Vichy France) but when his mother was deported to her death, Kolb (by now going by the Lemarque name) entered the Resistance until the war's end.

Lemarque returned to Paris in 1946 and met up again with an old friend from the '30s, the poet/songwriter Jacques Prévert. It was Prévert who put Lemarque in touch with the new top singer in Paris, Yves Montand--Montand would become a regular interpreter of Lemarque's songs, starting with "A Paris." In 1949, Lemarque recorded some 78s performing his own compositions, including the wistful, lovely "Cornet de Frites," in which the narrator is happy that his lover doesn't mind holding his frites-stained hands.

Messiaen was born in Grenoble in 1908 and had a happy, indulged childhood: "He recalled it as an ‘éducation féerique’, dominated by his poetess mother reading him fairy-tales and French poetry, and by the toy theatre on which he and his brother Alain, later a poet, produced Shakespeare, Calderon and Goethe."

By the early 1930s, Messiaen had become the organist at La Trinité, a Parisian church; it was a position he would hold for the rest of his life. He was taken with the church's main organ, the Cavaillé-Coll, which had a resounding, at-times electronic sound. When he was captured after the fall of Paris, Messiaen composed his most notable work to date, writing a quartet for the only other musicians in his prison camp--a clarinetist, a violinist and cellist. The Quartet for the End of Time was premiered to his 5,000 fellow prisoners.

Turangalîla (which is a combination of two Sanskrit words, time and love) was Messiaen's masterwork--he called it "a hymn to the superhuman joy that transcends everything." (Boulez, no great adherent to the brotherhood of man, would later call it "brothel music.") Here is the third movement. (It's difficult to show via excerpt the epic scope of Turangalîla--imagine reading a chapter from the middle of Ulysses and trying to conclude from that the value of the whole. But anyhow..) From Messiaen's commentary:

"The first theme alternates between clarinet and the Ondes Martenot. The second theme is given to trombones in the low register, superposed by a gamelan of celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone and piano. The sinuous third theme is assigned to oboe and flute. The bass drum grows, the maracas diminishes, the wood block remains motionless."

To modern ears, the most intriguing sound in the gale of Turangalîla may be that of the Ondes Martenot, one of the pioneer synthesizers, and which had already been used by Hollywood composers for horror films like The Bride of Frankenstein. Turangalîla was first premiered in Boston on December 2, 1949, by Leonard Bernstein.

Lemarque's music for the most part is available only via import CDs. "Cornet" can be found on A Paris, a 2003 compilation of his early work on a French label Soldore. I believe since these are European recordings made in the '40s, they are essentially in the public domain, but perhaps lawyers have done something about that.

The complete Turangalila was first recorded in America in 1967 by Seiji Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, whose performance remains one of the finest. You can buy it here.

Monday, February 14, 2005


the days when art was a contact sport

Bud Powell, Tempus Fugue-It.

The first jazz generation, that of Armstrong and Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, appears as sound as stone--long-lived, unflagging professionals who even in their sixties could still reel off letter-perfect performances. That is not to deny the great, awful distances some like Armstrong had traveled. Yet on the bandstand and on the records, at least, they seem impervious to life, even masters of it.

Not so the second jazz generation, that of Holiday, Parker, Monk and, perhaps most of all, the pianist Bud Powell. Here the chaos of these performers' private lives blots through into their works, adding shadow to the picture. Is it because of their times, when there was a more popularized sense of (and even taste for) neurosis? (After all, the same conflation of personal misery and art is found in many poets of the same generation--Lowell, Berryman, etc.) Was it because these musicians' struggles with drugs and demons simply made them hipper, to contemporary admirers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, or to later generations, accustomed to associating erratic lives with majestic works? (The Van Gogh syndrome.)

For Bud Powell, the fragility of his mental and physical health, the hellishness of his life outside the stage and studio, so colors his work that one cannot help but consider his records as pieces of an overall life performance; unfair, perhaps, as that may be. Gary Giddins, in Visions of Jazz, hopes that one day transcriptions of Powell solos will be programmed at piano recitals alongside compositions of Liszt and Bach, thus at last granting the work a measure of liberation from its creator. Until then, the man and the music hang together.

Powell had spent much of 1948 in Creedmoor State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Queens (not too far from Locust St., as it happens) to which he had been committed after a bar fight. Powell had never recovered fully from a brutal police beating in 1944, which had left him with slight epilepsy, among other woes. At Creedmoor, Powell endured the typical methods used at the time to thrash the 'insane' back into health--beatings, electroshock, dousings in ammoniated water.

By January 1949, Powell was desperate to get out. A brief release in late '48 had only solidified his fears that he was missing his chance; Powell had last recorded in spring 1947--many of the pianists he had inspired were now leading their own groups. His name was losing currency. He and his mother pleaded with his doctors to give him at least a day's leave to record (some doctors evidently believed this to be a delusion indulged by his mother, writing in their evaluations "patient claims to have made records.")

On February 23, Powell was granted temporary leave and went to Reeves Sound Studio to record his first session as a leader. The sense of time being desperately rationed, of having the smallest of windows in which to make his mark, translates into one of Powell's most explosive performances ever recorded. "Tempus Fugue-It" seems to be a duel with time itself, which Powell wins--his playing is ferocious, starting with a chord-crashing declaration of principles, then a solo section in which Powell runs up and down the keyboard, cracking out melody from every corner of it, riffing at frantically high speed but never once seeming to have lost control.

Powell had never been a patient man--he was known for turning up in his black suit and hat at a club and silently fuming at the bar, until, having had enough, he would stride to the bandstand and tell the hapless pianist to get out and let someone who knew his business be heard, at times pushing the man off the bench. In "Fugue-It," it seems the very limits of time and measure get the back of Powell's hand.

At last, in April 1949, Powell was released from Creedmoor, and he embarked with a fury upon a string of recording sessions and performances that would establish him as what the album later compiled from these wild sessions would call him, a jazz giant.

"Tempus Fugue-It", recorded with Max Roach on drums and Ray Brown on bass, can be found here, a collection of his Mercury and Clef recordings from 1949-50. (Some details on Powell's life from Peter Pullman's liner notes.)

Number 8, 1949. (Can be viewed at the Neuberger Museum of Art (which bought it for $800).)

On August 8, 1949, Jackson Pollock became a household name, literally, as hundreds of thousands of Life subscribers read an article showcasing a tough-looking man in bluejeans standing before a colossally large canvas upon which hundreds of apparently aimless brush-slaps and paintblobs are smeared. Pollock is at the astonishing peak of his powers, but the article itself, which essentially asks the reader "Is this guy really the best painter in the United States? The New York Critics say he is," sets the stage for the wearying debate about the worth of 'modern art' that will continue for decades to come...

Friday, February 11, 2005


rub him out of the roll call, sister

Peggy Lee, I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.

Eleven days after South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway (where it would run for five years), Peggy Lee was in the studio recording this number, sung in the original production by Mary Martin. (Due to my first exposure to this song in its sad reincarnation as a shampoo commercial jingle, I can never quite remove that association whenever I hear it.)

Peggy Lee, like many singers who had emerged from the swing bands to establish solo pop music careers, had had to record a lot of dross during the late '40s, as the popular taste for goofy novelty or "ethnic" songs was at a wretched high. (e.g., Lee's "Caramba! It's the Samba!" or the Irish Rosemary Clooney having to fake an Italian accent to sing "Come On-A My House.") So Lee's relief at getting to sing an Oscar Hammerstein lyric is palpable.

"Wash That Man" was released on June 6, 1949, and can be found here.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


"down on Rampart and Dumaine"

Dave Bartholomew, Messy Bessie.
Dave Bartholomew, Basin Street Breakdown.
Paul Gayten (with Annie Laurie), My Rough and Ready Man.
Professor Longhair, Hey Little Girl.

For Ash Wednesday, here is the polar opposite of lenten music. In terms of recordings, New Orleans, the crib of much of America's popular music, came late to rhythm and blues. Not that the city's musical talent had diluted, but the record companies had for years bypassed New Orleans, or had mined it solely for Dixieland old-timey jazz, ignoring the strange mutating music coming out of clubs like the Robin Hood, or the Dew Drop, or Club Rocket. But when New Orleans R&B hit, it left nothing standing in the same place.

In 1947, two brothers named Braun, from Linden, New Jersey, came to New Orleans to start up a record label, which became known as DeLuxe. They had the pick of the crop--signing two men who had become, in the years after the war, the city's top bandleaders and who had already fused jazz, blues and boogie woogie into something wild, a peacock music, dandy and exuberant.

Dave Bartholomew
, born in 1920 in Edgard, La., a town a day's walk west of New Orleans, was taught to play trumpet by Peter Davis, the man who had musically tutored Louis Armstrong. So it's no surprise Bartholomew viewed himself as Armstrong's successor, the man who would craft and lead the postwar New Orleans sound. Bartholomew assembled a killer band, including the young genius drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonists like Clarence Hall and Joe Harris, and in "Messy Bessie" you can hear the sound they made together. "Messy Bessie" starts with a rhumba-inspired rhythm, the rolling piano of Fred Lands matched by Palmer's second-line drum shuffle, buoys along on Bartholomew's vocal and then is overtaken by a wagging, flamboyant alto sax solo by Harris.

"Basin Street Breakdown" is the Bartholomew band going at full tilt and features, for about 55 seconds and 44 bars, an unbelievable guitar run by Ernest McLean--the same string of notes repeated, over and over and over again, sounding like a cosmic telegraph signal.

Mr. Gayten and Ms. Laurie

Bartholomew's biggest rival, also signed by the Brauns for DeLuxe and later for another label, Regal, was Paul Gayten. Like Bartholomew, Gayten was born in 1920, in a town close to New Orleans, and to a musical family. But Gayten's sound was more conventional--a pianist, he was inspired by the smoother music coming out of wartime Los Angeles, like Charles Brown and Nat King Cole. But that changed when he found Annie Laurie, a woman with a soul-soaked voice who could sing the hell out of anything she got. In "Rough and Ready Man," Laurie takes what had become an R&B staple--an off-color ode to a female singer's man--and offers a wild mix of scat and gospel-fueled singing. It's unclear who plays the excellent tenor sax solo, Gayten regular Lee Allen or former Count Basie player Buddy Tate.

"Once the band starts, everybody starts swaying from one side of the street to the other, especially those who drop in and follow the ones who have been to the funeral. These people are known as the 'second line' and they may be anyone passing along the street who wants to hear the music. The music hits them and they follow," Louis Armstrong on New Orleans funerals, via Ishmael Reed.

In the summer of 1949, two talent scouts from New York come into the Pepper Pot Club in New Orleans and immediately get hassled by the bouncers, who think that the only reason white men have shown up is to bust the patrons. After an argument, the scouts sulk into a booth. Their luck hasn't been good--the label they partially own, Atlantic, has had flop after flop--no one wants to hear their upscale jazz sound. They need something else. They become aware of a man with a messy nest of hair who is playing upright piano in the club, at times striking keys with his fists, with a microphone between his legs and a drumhead attached to the piano, which the man thumps with his right foot while playing.

One of the scouts, Ahmet Ertegun, would later recall: "It was the most incredible thing I'd ever heard...I thought, my God, we've really found an original. No white person has ever seen this man." As soon as the pianist finishes, the New Yorkers rush up to him, shaking his hand, begging him to record with them. The pianist grins, shakes his head, and says, "Oh what a shame--I just signed with Mercury."

Even at the top of their games, Gayten and Bartholomew couldn't quite match up to Professor Longhair, the most feral musical force New Orleans produced in the '40s. Born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, La., in 1918, Longhair learned to play from New Orleans' long line of 'barrelhouse' pianists--that is, musicians who played in whorehouses and clubs, and, because of the sorry untuned state of the pianos they were given, had learned to craft a heavy, dense rhythmic sound, playing the piano like drummers or, at times, like Chico Marx.

One night, Longhair sat in at the Caldonia Inn, where Bartholomew's band was playing, and his playing, uncouth and bass-heavy, got the crowd so frenzied that the Caldonia's owner fired Bartholomew's band on the spot and hired Longhair.

Despite his ties to Mercury, Longhair ultimately did record with Ertegun's Atlantic label. In November 1949, for $100, Longhair recorded nine tracks for Atlantic, including "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," "Walk Your Blues Away" and "Longhair's Blues Rhumba." Here is "Hey Little Girl", dominated by Longhair's striding piano and croaking vocal, with John Woodrow laying the shuffle down on drums.

All these tracks can be found on one fantastic cheap 4-CD set, Gettin' Funky, which you can buy from the compiler, the UK's Proper Records, here, or domestically here. Many of the details I've included come from Joop Visser's excellent liner notes.

New Orleans, 1949, as seen by air.

Monday, February 07, 2005



Little Jimmy Dickens, Take a Cold Tater (and Wait).

Poor Little Jimmy. Whenever the preachers come to his house for Sunday dinner (which is all too often, it seems), his mother kicks him out of the dining room and gives him a cold potato to eat, while the preachers tear through all the chicken on the table, leaving just gristle and bones on the family's best china. "That's why I look so bad and have these puny ways," he says years later, to get a big laugh from the Grand Ole Opry crowd--Dickens was only 4' 10".

Dickens, the 13th son of a West Virginia farmer, and songwriter Eugene Bartlett, who mainly wrote gospel tunes and knew the appetite of preachers all too well, both had a well of experience to draw from for this song. Dickens was best known for novelty tunes, like "I'm a Plain Old Country Boy" and "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose," but he was also a pretty fine singer of ballads and even dabbled in rockabilly during the '50s.

Recorded in Nashville on January 16, 1949, with Pete Kirby on steel guitar, Lonnie Wilson and Billy Byrd on guitars, and Jimmie Riddle on harmonica. You can find it on this collection.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


the strange case of Lady Day and the Carved Head

Billie Holiday, Baby Get Lost.
Billie Holiday, You're My Thrill.
Billie Holiday, Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do.

"A man can leave home one morning and come home that night whistling and singing to find there ain't nobody there but him. I left two men like that." Billie Holiday.

It is convenient, maybe too convenient, to segment the career of Billie Holiday based upon her tenure at record companies--so you have the early Columbias (1933-1944), where her voice is as bright and shiny as a new penny; the scant Commodores (1939-1944), the independent label for whom Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit"; and the Verves of the 1950s, where her voice is a ghost and the recordings are cathedrals to its faded beauty.

Often lost in this taxonomy are the records Holiday recorded for Decca from 1944 to 1950. It's hard to call any part of Holiday's career overlooked, but the Deccas don't get that much respect. They aren't really jazz, the common wisdom goes. They're transitional records, with faceless musicians. And true, the Deccas are often overproduced, with Holiday supported by masses of horns, strings, choirs, to the point where it sounds at times as though she has been dubbed over some purple movie score.

Yet, as a listen to the songs above hopefully will prove, the Deccas are still genius. It's still Billie Holiday, at the peak of her voice's power, and given some strong songwriting to contend with. (That wasn't always the case--her early Columbias are remarkable in that never has so much second-rate material been turned into gold through a singer's pure effort.) She's eager for the challenge, diving in and seizing each song for all it's worth. Take "You're My Thrill": listen to the way Holiday sings the word "thrill"--each time taking it slightly differently, sometimes with elation, sometimes just letting the word die out in a whisper.

The Decca era was also one of utter personal hell for Holiday, who, in between recording sessions and dealing with the lousy men in her life, was addicted to heroin, arrested and sentenced for a year to a women's prison in West Virginia, and barred for life from performing in New York nightclubs because she was a felon. In 1949 alone, she was arrested again for narcotics possession but acquitted by a jury. By the end of the decade, the hard living had begun to creep in--you can hear the rasp that would be a prominent part of her '50s vocal style in a few of the late Decca sessions.

Was it surprising that she decided to record "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" during this time-- a song that Bessie Smith had immortalized in 1923? The song had taken on enormous resonance to Holiday: "Every man I ever had hated this song and hated to have me sing it...This is more than a song to me, it spells the way of life I tried to live, personal freedom, to hell with the what-will-people-think-people, and all that. I never hurt anybody but myself and that's nobody's business but my own."

"Baby Get Lost" (written by jazz critic Leonard Feather under a pseudonym) and "Ain't Nobody's Business" were recorded on August 17, a session where Holiday was reunited with her old allies from the '30s, Lester Young and Buck Clayton; "Thrill" was recorded on October 19, and features Locust St. fave Bobby Hackett on trumpet. I took all of these tracks off an MCA compilation LP released in the '70s to cash in on the dreadful film Lady Sings the Blues--you can get the complete Deccas here or a good selection here. Here is an incredible Billie Holiday sessionography.

I'm traveling for a bit, (anyone know some good bars in Seattle?) so nothing new until next week. See you soon.