Wednesday, April 26, 2006


trying to write the next Peyton Place

Ella Fitzgerald, Azure.
Cecil Taylor, Azure.

Duke Ellington's "Azure," which he composed and recorded in 1937, has one of Ellington's loveliest, most yearning melodies--built around the graceful movement of semi-tones, rising and falling gently, saturated with melancholy and wistfulness.

Ten days apart in September 1956, two musicians--Ella Fitzgerald, in the midst of consolidating her reputation as the premier vocal interpreter of jazz standards, and the young Cecil Taylor, in his first-ever recording date--each recorded a version of "Azure." Both are masterpieces, though unlike in a great many ways.

Fitzgerald's version, which she recorded as part of her "Duke Ellington Songbook" sessions, is impeccably sung--it might be my favorite Fitzgerald vocal. Incredibly phrased, Ella's vocal imbues each word with longing, mystery and regret.

Throughout her "Songbook" recordings of the mid-to-late 1950s (Fitzgerald recorded Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Mercer, Rodgers/Hart, Arlen and Kern as well), there is the sense of utter mastery, and, in a way, of finality. It's the absolute transformation of jazz and Broadway pop tunes, once considered disposable trash, into art--the standardization of standards. And you might argue that Fitzgerald's feat ultimately stifled jazz--by creating a canon of impossibly-well-sung versions of the standards, there is little room for improvement, of truly new interpretations.

But as Ellington himself once said, "No music ever ends." Cecil Taylor shows one way out. For his first record, Jazz Advance, Taylor paid homage to Ellington and Thelonious Monk, two of his primary inspriations, taking some of their time-worn standards and converting them into brand-new currency.

Taylor came out of the classical music world--the son of highly-educated parents, Taylor had begun playing piano by five. Attending the Boston Conservatory in the early 1950s, Taylor studied Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but also began honing a taste for jazz. By 1956, he had assembled a group and began recording.

In his version of "Azure," Taylor manages to retain Ellington's sense of mood throughout a run of at-times wild variations on the melody. Throughout his solos, Taylor offers a compendium of playing styles: sometimes he goes at white-hot speed, drumming dense chords into being; other times, he is spartan and placid. But throughout, there's a great sense of feeling, a respect for Ellington's composition, imbued with what Nat Hentoff called Taylor's "tough, sinewy intelligence."

Recorded in Boston on September 14, 1956 by the Cecil Taylor Unit: Taylor (p), Steve Lacy (soprano sax), Buell Neidlinger (b) and Denis Charles (d). Find on Jazz Advance.

Fitzgerald's take, recorded in Hollywood on September 4, 1956, featured Duke himself on accompaniment, along with an top-flight session group, including Ben Webster on tenor sax, Oscar Peterson (p), Stuff Smith (v), Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis (guitars), Joe Mondragon (b) and Alvin Stoller (d). On Day Dreams.

And Ellington's original (which he co-wrote with Irving Mills) was recorded on May 14, 1937 (there are two more takes from April '37 as well), and can be found on Masterpieces.

Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006.

Farewell, and thanks, among so many things, for helping to save Soho and the West Village. Raise a glass to her tonight, especially those of you sitting in a Village bar that, had it not been for Jacobs, would now be buried under some stretch of a gruesome Lower-Manhattan Expressway.

"What was getting immediately under my skin was this mad spree of deceptions and vandalism and waste that was called urban renewal. And the way it had been adopted like a fad and people were so mindless about it and so dishonest about what was being done. That’s what ticked me off, because I was working for an architectural magazine and I saw all this first hand and I saw how the most awful things were being excused..."

Monday, April 24, 2006


The computer, acknowledging the applause, returned for an encore

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gesang der Jünglinge.
Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Ain't Got No Home.

Those who have read this blog for a while might remember that its original mandate was to cover all varieties of music from a given year, including "classical" (though that term scarcely applies to much of the compositions of the past half-century). Thus we've featured Prokofiev, John Cage and Richard Strauss in the past.

However, the classical wing of "Locust St" has been shuttered for some time now, so here's an attempt to revive it. Open the windows, pull the sheets off the furniture, beat out the dust.

"Gesang der Jünglinge," on first listen, seems so utterly removed from the popular forms of music produced in the same period that it sounds like an alien artifact, like a signal picked up by Sputnik. However, its influence on not only classical music but pop music was fairly colossal--variations on the electronic tones Stockhausen generated for this piece wound up in scores of science fiction films and TV shows in the '60s--the BBC's Doctor Who, in particular. And Stockhausen's influence on the Beatles, ranging from the use of tape spools in "Tomorrow Never Knows" to the creation of "Revolution No. 9", a composition almost directly mimicking "Gesang" and a later composition "Hymnen," is heavily documented. (And it was McCartney who loved Stockhausen first--Stockhausen was one of his choices of mourners for the cover of Sgt. Pepper.)

(A cruel joke to inflict on a bar you dislike--most bars have the White Album on their CD jukeboxes--just put in a dollar and select "Revolution No. 9" three times. The look on people's faces when, having gamely endured it once, the track starts again is priceless. Usually, bartenders kill the jukebox around this time.)

So, "Gesang der Jünglinge" (Song of the Youths):

Sometime in 1954, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen began writing a Catholic Mass for electronic sounds--he intended to debut the piece in the Cologne Cathedral, until the Church ruled against allowing loudspeakers to be placed there.

Stockhausen intended to fuse the human voice with computer-made sounds, something that had never been attempted on so broad a scale before. Working in West German Radio's Studio for Electronic Music, Stockhausen began by recording a 12-year old boy singing verses from an apocyrphal version of the Book of Daniel--the "song of the youths" the title refers to. These are the praises to God sung by the Hebrew youth hurled into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar, and who emerged unscathed.

Some of the verses sung are:

Preiset den Herrn, aller Regen und Tau--
Preiset den Herrn, alle Winde.
Preiset den Herrn, Feuer und Sommersglut--
preiset den Herrn, Kalte und Starrer Winter.

(Praise to God, all rain and dew
Praise to God, all wind.
Praise to God, fire and summer's heat
Praise to God, cold and frigid winter)

Stockhausen manipulated the multiple recordings he made of the boy singing, using "Preiset den Herrn" as a sort of centerpiece, the reoccuring motif the piece is built around. Then, using a frequency generator, he created sine waves to match the vowel sounds from the boy's recording, and electronic white noise to match the consonant sounds.

And at last, Stockhausen mixed everything together--so that the shards of the boy's voice are made equivalent to the dabs of electronic squalls. While very much intended to be a devout work of praise to God, the result can seem quite horrifying and dehumanizing, the sound of the human being at prayer subsumed into a din of computer generated nightmares. But there are pieces of amazing beauty as well.

A caveat: listening to this compressed MP3 to get a sense of what Stockhausen did is like squinting at a low-bit-rate JPG file of a Van Gogh painting to see VG's brush strokes. For one thing, Stockhausen recorded the piece in five channels, and created an early version of "surround sound" to play it--five speakers placed around the performance space, so that noises would appear to be bouncing around, veering from behind you and reeling off the far distance.

It was premiered on May 30, 1956, in Cologne (photo shown above). Find on Stockhausen 3: Etude. Stockhausen is still composing today, his reputation tarred by some stupid remarks he made after the 9/11 attacks.

So enjoy. If you haven't hear "Gesang" before, you might hate it intensely, you might love it. Post your reactions if so inclined.

And then we have Clarence "Frogman" Henry. Consider it a rock & roll riposte to Karlheinz--Henry says he can sing like a girl (allegedly an imitation of Shirley Goodman), and sing like a frog, all without the aid of any electronic manipulation. And so he does.

Clarence Henry was born in Algiers, Louisiana, in 1937, and played with the Bobby Mitchell band in New Orleans. Paul Gayten, one of the great New Orleans arrangers and composers, discovered Henry and convinced him to go solo, co-writing "Ain't Got No Home" with him. Mr. Henry's home was damaged during Hurricane Katrina, but thankfully he came out all right.

"Ain't Got No Home" was released in October 1956 as Argo 5259. Find here.

Apropros of nothing dept.: For some reason, I've become the number one source, according to Google Images, of a photograph of the writer Mary McCarthy (it's not even on the site--I linked to it in one of the "drinks" posts). That's fine, but what bewilders me is that I now get about three dozen or more people a day hitting this site in search of the picture. Who knew there was such a demand for Mary McCarthy photos? I mean, it's a nice picture--she's very pretty--but, still, it's all a bit odd.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Bobby Helms, Fraulein.

While "Fraulein" was written by Texas composer Lawton Williams about a girl he once knew in a German neighborhood of Houston, the song's success in the late '50s via Bobby Helms' interpretation likely was owed to a good deal of nostalgia by former GIs, dozing away in suburban marriages, remembering their time in Germany during the war and its aftermath. That said, Germany in the late '40s doesn't seem like the most romantic of places, to put it mildly.

The song became a monster hit--as of a few years ago, Helms still held the all-time record for weeks on the Billboard charts with a single song: 52 consecutive weeks, or one solid year of "Fraulein."

Helms (best known for "Jingle Bell Rock") catered to Pacific Theater GIs with his next single, "Geisha Girl," inspiring an answer record from Jimmie Skinner called "I Found My Girl in the Good Ole USA."

Recorded in Nashville on November 15, 1956, with Tommy Jackson (fiddle), Farris Coursey (drums), the awesome Hank Garland on guitar, Owen Bradley (p) and possibly Bob Foster on steel. Released in early '57 as Decca 30194. Find here.

More on GIs and Frauleins.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Nat King Cole, I Know That You Know.

The reputation of Nat Cole, over the past decade or so, has been restored a good bit, if not enough. Gradually and in some cases grudgingly, Cole's prowess as a jazz musician has been acknowledged, and he is no longer simply known as the purveyor of 'easy listening' classics like "Unforgettable" and "Mona Lisa."

Cole's roots were in swing and jazz--his great 10-minute version of "Body and Soul" with Les Paul during the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944 ought to have shut up detractors in the first place--and in 1956, Cole returned to a small group setting for the sessions of what became his finest record of the decade, After Midnight.

"I Know That You Know" demonstrates Cole's effortless phrasing, the way he remains utterly calm and suave even at a breakneck tempo. Cole takes on Vincent Youmans' melody like it's a steeplechase, and wraps up the first verse completely unwinded. Violinist Stuff Smith plays Grappelli to Cole's Reinhardt--each gets a 16-bar chorus, and then the two spar off in a marvelous series of exchanges in which one sets the bar and the other vaults it.

Recorded on September 24, 1956, with Cole, Smith, John Collins (g), Charlie Harris (b) and Lee Young, Lester's brother, on drums. Find on After Midnight.

Earlier in 1956, Cole had been attacked during a concert at the Birmingham, Ala., Municipal Auditorium. More here. In short, a group of homicidal white supremacist idiots, already raging at the evils of rock & roll and Brown v. Board of Education, decided to kidnap Cole while he performed.

Gary Sprayberry: "Two other men, Adams and E. L. Vinson...had already surged over the footlights by the time Higginbotham reached the stage. Adams hit [Nat] Cole with a "flying tackle," and the singer fell backward onto his piano bench, snapping it into two jagged pieces. Adams then snatched up one of Cole's legs and attempted to drag him off the stage. just before he reached the edge, officers swarmed in from the wings, halting both attackers with a hail of fists and nightsticks. They handcuffed all three assailants and hustled them outside. Almost as soon as the melee had broken out, it was over.

For the audience, who sat in stunned silence throughout the ordeal, the whole affair seemed like an absurd comedy, purposely staged and chaotically performed by Cole and the Birmingham police

Sadly, Cole's troubles didn't end when he flew out of Birmingham. Asked at O'Hare Airport whether he would continue to perform before segregated audiences, Cole said he would, noting that since the Supreme Court was having trouble integrating schools, how could he alone integrate audiences? The remark infuriated Cole's African-American fans, some of whom boycotted his records, and even Thurgood Marshall said, "All Cole needs to complete his role as an Uncle Tom is a banjo."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


don't mess with an Okie rock & roll goddess

Glenn Barber, Shadow My Baby.
Wanda Jackson, Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad.

Paranoia strikes: Glenn Barber is going to hire a private detective to follow his girl around. She's running wild, wearing new red shoes, spending his money on who knows what--even some of her awful family have shown up wearing new clothes. He can't even trust his friend, who seems too familiar with his house and has Barber's dog eating out of his hand. He's one step away from madness.

And Wanda Jackson's reply: go stew in it, creep!

Barber, born in 1935, started as a country musician until he began pushing up the beat and playing rougher and harder--he was one of the legion of unknown rockers who built the music's foundation. "Ice Water," from '55, was a great example of hillbilly bop, but "Shadow My Baby," released the next summer, is something else--echo-drenched, frantic, bizarre, in which the guitar and saxophone blur to become one knife of sound.

"Shadow" is a gift from the Reverend Frost, so tell him thanks next time you visit. Released in the summer of '56 as Starday 249 b/w "Feeling No Pain." As far as I can tell, the only place to get "Shadow My Baby" on CD is on a compilation called Rockabilly Shakeout, which you can find as a UK import.

Wanda Jackson, of course, was the queen of rock & roll in the 1950s. Like Barber, she started out pure country--born in Oklahoma in 1937, she was performing duets with Hank Thompson by the early 1950s. But when she toured with Elvis in 1955 and dated him, he convinced her that rock & roll was the future. "Hot Dog!", a rocking primer on how to drive your irritating boyfriend crazy with jealousy, was one of her first tracks in this vein, and one of her finest--recorded on September 20, 1956, it was released as Capitol 3575 in November, and also wound up on the great album Rockin' With Wanda--find it on Vintage Collections. Soon to come would be the almighty "Fujiyama Mama", in which Wanda likens herself to the A-bomb.

Wanda Jackson is burning up the stage today--check out her tour dates and CDs.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


the ultimate answer to immigration

Sonny Rollins, There's No Business Like Show Business.
Nappy Brown, Don't Be Angry.
Dean Martin, Memories Are Made of This.
Elmer Bernstein, Frankie Machine.
Smiley Lewis, I Hear You Knocking.
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Ride and Roll.
The Turbans, When You Dance.
The Blues Rockers, Calling All Cows.
Marty Robbins, Tennessee Toddy.
The Robins, Smokey Joe's Cafe.
Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert, Cloudburst.
Sonny Boy Williamson, From the Bottom.

A cold spring:
The violet was flawed on the lawn.
For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
the little leaves waited,
carefully indicating their characteristics.
Finally a grave green dust
settled over your big and aimless hills...

Elizabeth Bishop, A Cold Spring, 1955.

Shall we wind out 1955? Sit down, take a minute. There.

"No Business Like Show Business": After a tiny feint by Ray Bryant on piano and fanfare on drums by Max Roach, Sonny Rollins is off like a shot, bobbing through Irving Berlin's melodic spiral. In Rollins' first solo chorus, he is supported only by George Morrow's bass; in his second, he's pure swagger, bursting with energy and attitude. Bryant provides a fleet dance on the piano, and Roach gives one of the more melodic drum solos ever recorded. The whole track is a thing of joy--taped in Hackensack, NJ, on December 2, 1955. On Worktime.

In "Don't Be Angry," Nappy Brown elongates the first word of the verse, turning the humble "so" into a bit of glossolalia, fattening it into eight or more syllables and twining around it a knotty string of "ell" sounds. (The legend is that Savoy Records head Herman Lubinsky thought Brown was singing in Yiddish.) Brown's competing with Sam "The Man" Taylor's meaty tenor sax solo, and it's hard to pick who wins. Recorded on February 1, 1955 and released as Savoy 1155. On Don't Be Angry!

Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made of This" is Hollywood folk-pop, with Dean supported by the Easy Riders. For a Capitol Records A-list pop recording from 1955, this is a surprisingly spare production--just guitar providing a trellis for the singers. And Dean's vocal presages two decades of Elvis Presley ballads. Recorded on October 28, 1955 and released a month later as Capitol 3295 (it was a #1 hit by year's end). On Capitol Collectors Series.

Elmer Bernstein's "Frankie Machine" is from the soundtrack to The Man With the Golden Arm. It's the sort of brassy, frenetic piece that would become standard-issue for most police and 'social problems' dramas for the next 15 years. There's a lot to enjoy, from Shelly Manne's drumming (a hybrid of cool jazz and marching band) to Shorty Rogers' solo on the flugelhorn (!) to the way the brass section sizzles to a boil. Recorded in LA on December 15, 1955; find here.

The Brooklyn Dodgers finally won it all. And two years later, the team got moved to Los Angeles, a crime still unatoned for.

"I Hear You Knocking": What else can you say? This is rock and roll; this is the majesty of New Orleans. Dave Bartholomew, Huey "Piano" Smith, Smiley Lewis--they're all there in the groove. Recorded in March (or May), 1955, and released in July as Imperial 5356; find here.

"Gimme your ticket--lonnnnng as my right arm." "Ride and Roll," a forgotten but driving electric blues, was created by an all-star team: Sonny Terry on harmonica and vocal, Stick McGhee and Brownie McGhee on guitars, and Milt Hinton on bass. Recorded on November 7, 1955, and released as Groove 0135. On That's All Right.

The Turbans were from Philadelphia, and their fleeting taste of fortune is the early rock & roll era (heck, any pop era) in miniature. Four kids--Al Banks (lead), Matthew Platt, Chet Jones and Charles Williams--get an act together (and yes, they wore turbans sometimes); they find a manager; the manager contacts a local R&B label; they cut a hot record that gets airplay, at first locally, then nationally; the group tours with top names; the next single keeps the momentum going, but the third stiffs; the group loses steam, further singles flop, their label drops them; a stay on another label produces little of merit; the group breaks up. But they left a shard of immortality behind--"When You Dance" smokes. Recorded in summer '55 and released as Herald 458. Find here.

"Calling All Cows," a Chicago blues novelty scratched together in Nashville, was by the Blues Rockers--Earley Dranne (vox, guitar), PT Hayes (harmonica), Lazy Bill Lucas (p). Issued as Excello 2062. You can never have enough tracks with guys mooing as background vocals. Find on the now out of print Excello Story Vol. 1.

"Tennessee Toddy," in which Marty Robbins goes catting around with a nymphet and gets a crack on the head, is on Essential Marty Robbins.

The voice of America (or at least, how it used to sound): goofy, clever, a bit ridiculous, hyperactive, irreverent--it's all in Leiber and Stoller's "Smokey Joe's Cafe." It reminds me of when Nabokov emigrated to the U.S. during WWII, having barely escaped Nazi Germany and Vichy France, and the first thing that occurred when he arrived was that a pair of customs officers opened his suitcase, found some boxing gloves and began sparring with each other.

"Smokey Joe's" was one of the finest records by the fantastic Robins, who broke up soon after its release--from their embers rose the far more successful (commercially, not artistically) Coasters. First released in August 1955 as Spark 122; then almost immediately after as Atco 6059, when Atlantic bought the rights and snagged Leiber and Stoller in the process. On Doo Wop Classics.

Helen and Aphrodite, in their 1955 incarnations

Jon Hendricks, before he joined Annie Ross and Dave Lambert in 1958 as a formal trio, had been experimenting with vocalizing jazz performances, fitting lyrics over what been improvised instrumental solos. In 1955, Hendricks teamed up with Lambert for the first time to convert Benny Harris and Leroy Kirkland's "Cloudburst" (using Sam "The Man" Taylor's recording as template) into a run of vocal acrobatics, with the "shave and a haircut--two bits" motif as a hook. The track features Hendricks, Lambert and four other singers (Marian Workman, Jerry Duane, Butch Birdsall and some other guy, whose name is apparently lost to history).

Recorded on May 1 (or 12), 1955 and released as Decca 29572; it can be found on Sing a Song of Basie.

The core of Sonny Boy Williamson's "From the Bottom" is the fantastic beat, which sounds like someone is thumping a metal water can. B.B. King provides a hot guitar solo and Williamson's minimalist lyrics are a fun puzzle as well. (Sonny's girl is good-looking enough to land her a role in Hollywood, and he's going with her to see what happens. Or maybe it's just about how much Sonny likes his woman's ass.) Actually recorded on November 12, 1954, but let's let it through. Issued as Trumpet 228, the last Trumpet single ever released, and found on Cool Cool Blues.

Films of '55

Another holy monster of a year.

The Night of the Hunter. In which you experience the worst childhood nightmare imaginable--you are orphaned, a horrific step-parent appears to take you away, your preacher is an emissary of darkness.
Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night). Bergman's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The Ladykillers. Genius performances by Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, but the soul of the movie is Katie Johnson, playing Mrs. Wilberforce, the last Victorian lady. And yes, the Tom Hanks remake is a piece of crap.
The Night My Number Came Up. Someone put this out on DVD: I'm begging you. Hell, I'd take a VHS copy.
Rebel Without a Cause. While rock & roll precedes this film by years, you could make the case that "Rebel" somehow stamped rock music in its own image, despite not having a note of it on the soundtrack. The whole thing is a frenzied teenage aria; its actors seem on the brink of going into hysterics.
Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer: "You were out with some guy who thought "no" was a three-letter word. I should have thrown you off that cliff back there. I might still do it."
Pather Panchali.
The Phenix City Story.
Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog). Ten years after the camps were closed, the world had barely begun to admit what had happened there. After this film, there were no more excuses.
This Island Earth.
Muerte de un Ciclista (Death of a Cyclist).
Count Three and Pray.
Lola Montès/French Cancan. Two late spectacles by Ophuls and Renoir, in which the masters return, after a long journey, to the theatres and circuses of their youth.

Happy weekend, happy Easter, happy Passover, etc.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


The Four Deuces, WPLJ.
The Meadowlarks, Heaven and Paradise.
The Cadillacs, Speedo.

The legend is that 15,000 doo-wop groups were formed in the 1950s: here are the testaments of three.

The Four Deuces' "WPLJ" stands for "white port [and] lemon juice," a rather volatile cocktail (see below) that was a band favorite. The song may have been initially designed as a jingle for a local wine merchant--no one really knows. Formed in Salinas, California, by a quartet of army buddies, the Deuces put out three singles before splitting up in the late '50s.

A decade later, around the time Frank Zappa and Lowell George covered the song, the New York City radio station WABC changed its call letters to WPLJ (once home of Vin Scelsa, whose "Idiot's Delight" program in the '90s was one of my primary inspirations for this starting this site). Ironically, PLJ's current ossified "hot adult contemporary" format means that the station will never play its namesake. But we will, by God.

"WPLJ" was released as Music City 790 in 1955 and became a regional hit by early '56. It's rarely been put out on CD, though it appears to be on a compliation called "Doo Wop Party" found here.

More on drinking WPLJ, from the jazz musician Roy Porter's autobiography, There and Back, 1991:

"At that time we were drinking Molotov Cocktails, which is white port wine mixed with lemon juice. Man, we would get four or five quarts of white port, buy some inhalers [filled with benzedrine], break them open, put the strips in each bottle of wine, put the wine next to a heater or heat, and let it sit and dissolve for a few days. When you drink that shit, man it will blow your mind, but we would be feeling mellow being loaded for days without any ZZZ's.

"But my real name is Mr. Earl." The legendary "Speedo" was released as Josie 785 in December 1955. Find on the utterly essential Best of Doo-Wop Uptempo.

The Meadowlarks were a Los Angeles group, consisting of Don Julian on lead, Randolph Jones, Earl Jones, Ron Barrett, and Bill Pruitt. Their masterpiece, "Heaven and Paradise", was released as Dootone 359 in March 1955--it was by far their biggest hit (although mainly on the coasts). The group would persevere in some form or other for another decade. In the '70s, Don Julian wound up scoring blacksploitation films like Shorty the Pimp. Find "Heaven" on Golden Classics.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Ahmad Jamal, Love for Sale.
Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana.
Herbie Nichols, The Third World.
Herbie Nichols, Cro-Magnon Nights.

The history of jazz piano, a special love of "Locust St", can sometimes get too condensed. Usually, after we meet the founding fathers, from James P. Johnson to Bud Powell, there's then a broad-jump into the 1960s, to Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Left in the gap are a set of pianists who, while perhaps not the most revolutionary of players, still deserve far more consideration.

Here are two: the underrated Ahmad Jamal and the near-unknown Herbie Nichols.

Jamal, born in Pittsburgh in 1930, began playing in George Hudson's orchestra and built up a repuutation in Chicago. In 1952, he came to New York, playing at the Embers club (where, at one point, fed up with crowd chatter, he stomped off the stage in the middle of a set and went back to Chicago). He was championed first by John Hammond, then by Miles Davis, who was enthralled with Jamal's playing (Jamal's versions of "Autumn Leaves" and "It Never Entered My Mind" provided Davis with a roadmap for his own takes a few years later).

By 1955, Jamal had assembled an excellent trio: Jamal provided spare, clean piano (Nat Hentoff, like a number of critics, thought he was too clean, once calling Jamal a "cocktail pianist" in front of an indignant Miles Davis); Ray Crawford, on guitar, often provided the rhythms by rapping the strings (for much of "Love for Sale," his guitar sounds like a bongo); Israel Crosby, on bass, built a stage for them both to perform on.

Here are two tracks from an October 25, 1955 session for Epic Records:

Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" has been covered by seemingly every jazz musician of note; it's up there with "Body and Soul" in terms of jazz warhorses. But Jamal's interpretation, infused with a bit of Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca," is a fresh, excellent performance, during the course of which Jamal seems to take the keyboard to its utmost limits--lingering at the edges, diving across the keys. After Crawford's elegant solo, Jamal finds a note and then just massages it, repeating it close to two dozen times.

"Poinciana" would become Jamal's best-known track in a hit version he recorded in 1958. This take, however, is Jamal's first attempt, and is almost more of a solo vehicle for Crawford.

Find both on Legendary OKEH and Epic Recordings. For more on Jamal,
Nick Francis
had a nice post a while back. And Mr. Jamal himself is still going strong.

For much of his life, Herbie Nichols, a generation older than Jamal, lingered in obscurity, doing time in Dixieland revival bands to pay the bills (a galling fate for a player whose stated influences included Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Tatum and Bartok, and who once said "jazz has come a long way since 'the stomp'"). He hardly recorded, and a great number of his compositions are lost.

Nichols, born in 1919, began playing in the late 1930s and befriended a number of musicians, including Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams and J.J. Johnson. He was considered a bit of an oddity, as he would later acknowledge in an interview--"In those days I must have looked kind of like a professor, with a starched white shirt. I used to talk about poetry almost as much as I did about music."

Throughout the late '40s and early '50s, Nichols failed to get recording contracts, and had a hard time organizing groups and landing gigs. When he did get on stage, it was usually as a sideman for Dixieland bands, blues sessions and even rock & roll shows. At last, in 1955, he got a deal with Blue Note, for which he recorded his only sessions as a leader.

While his sound is indebted in part to Monk, Nichols' playing is dense, gnomic and utterly free of any blues or swing cliches. At his best, as in "Third World" or "Cro-Magnon Nights", he created a form of cool, rarefied jazz that has few antecedents. Nichols died in 1963 of tuberculosis, and is remembered best for his tune "Lady Sings the Blues," which Billie Holiday adopted as her own in her final years.

Recorded on May 6, 1955, with Art Blakey on drums and Al McKibbon (b). On Complete Studio Master Takes.

Top: Robert Rauschenberg's Bed.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Howard Hughes' Waterloo

Muddy Waters, Mannish Boy.
Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sixteen Tons.
Etta James, W-O-M-A-N.
Jeri Southern, An Occasional Man.

What makes a man? What makes a woman? How much of what we perceive of manhood, for example, is mere communal delusion? Impossible questions answered in pop songs.

"Mannish Boy" and "Sixteen Tons" define manhood in terms of getting some respect. Muddy Waters does so with swagger and confidence (and he's got some witnesses, in the form of the guys in the studio who shriek with approval every time Muddy notes that he's a man), while Tennessee Ernie Ford offers a form of cool braggadocio that seems to border on the psychotic, as witnessed in the badass lines:

If you see me coming
better step aside
A lotta men didn't
A lotta men died

But when you grow weary of male bluster, enjoy Etta James' sexy and laid-back response. She's seen and heard it all before, and has had her fill of the jive talk and boasts from men with empty pockets. When you come down off the roost, come see about me.

Jeri Southern is tired of the game as well: "An Occasional Man" is her Pacific fantasy, where she resides in tropical bliss and gets her pick of the crop in terms of the local men (who seem to get the boot as soon as she's done with them).

"Mannish Boy," recorded on May 24, 1955, with Willie Dixon on bass and possibly Little Walter on harmonica, is essentially the same tune as Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man," recorded two months earlier (the legend goes that Muddy walked in on Diddley auditioning the song to Leonard Chess and wanted to take it, figuring this Diddley guy was a nobody; when that wasn't an option, Muddy basically rewrote it). A decade later, both tracks would inspire a generation of spotty British and American youth, who took the songs' undeniable claims to manhood (in a country like the United States in 1955, a Mississippi-born African-American man saying "I'm a man" was a revolutionary statement) and transformed them into a way to dignify a teenage boy's lust--the Yardbirds' "I'm a Man" being the most notable result. In 1976, Waters performed "Mannish Boy" at the Band's "Last Waltz" concert, and Waters is the centerpiece of the Scorsese film that came out two years later--smiling, virile, demanding the camera's complete attention--making the coked-out rock stars supporting him look a bit ridiculous. On Anthology.

Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons" was recorded by Ford in Hollywood on September 20, 1955, and released as Capitol 3262. Part novelty (a song that sounded like a Depression-era union anthem that hit #1 in the waning days of McCarthyism), part rock & roll experiment on the part of Ford and Capitol, it was a colossal hit, selling a million copies in two months. On Greatest Hits (where Tennessee looks like Walt Disney on the cover).

"W-O-M-A-N" was one of Etta James' first singles, consolidating the presence she had established with "Roll with Me Henry" and "Good Rockin' Daddy"; Recorded in October 1955 and released a month or so later as Modern 972. On R&B Dynamite.

Jeri Southern, reclusive, beautiful and brilliant, is the most underrated female vocalist of the '50s. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's "An Occasional Man" was recorded on July 27, 1955, and released as Decca 9-29647. On The Very Thought of You.