Friday, October 27, 2006

Tales of Prez

Another Lester Young anecdote.....

Francis Paudras wrote Dance of the Infidels a wonderful, intimate account of his friendship with the troubled-genius bop-pianist Bud Powell. Powell lived with Paudras and his family in Paris for some time in the latter part of his life. Bernard Tavernier's film 'Round Midnight, starring tenor "saxOPHonist" Dexter Gordon as "Dale Turner", was based on Paudras' reminiscence of Powell melded together with the life of Lester Young, also a friend, who spent a great deal of time in Paris during his final years.

Paudras' has this bit about Lester in his book:

"Lester was one of those people who couldn't pronounce ten words without interjecting two or three juicy curses. People from the south of France have a reputation for swearing a lot, but even they are no match for Lester. In situations where decency compelled him to avoid such words, he would express himself by savory turns of phrase that bordered on the surreal.....
Ray Brown relates that during a bus trip with Jazz at the Philharmonic, some prankster had hidden the bottle of whiskey that Lester always kept in the overhead baggage rack. When he noticed the disappearance of his precious brew, he went through all the racks with a fine-tooth comb. Then he sat down without a word and announced in a quiet voice: 'Whoever it is who swiped my bottle, I want him to know I am an intimate friend of his mother!'"

* pictured above, Lester being serenaded by a flautist at a Paris street cafe.
* thanks to Honkytone for a soundclip of Prez playing "These Foolish Things" made after his army discharge, with Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich - doubtless on elephant tranquilizer - accompanying on drums.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Radio Day 2: Thirteen Moons

Got into work the other day and turned on NPR in the back room. They announced an interview coming up in an hour with Charles Frazier about his new book,
Thirteen Moons, on Diane Rhem's show.

I'd read Cold Mountain twice - a rare feat for me in these years exiled from idle youth; nowadays every hour an opportunity - or scramble - to get something done. Now his second book was out after 9 years. No freakin' way was I going to miss an interview with Frazier, so I concocted a "switch" in my work schedule which enabled me to work in the backroom and listen to the radio.
Weeks before this, strangely enough, I found out that an acre of land had come down to my cousins and I from my mother's side of the family - that lay very near Cold Mountain. My mother Leora, and her brother Hugh, had lived in a cabin there for a short time with their grandmother as kids in the 1920's.

I was pleased to hear that Frazier's speaking voice was easy on the ears and his responses as deliberated and detailed as his writing; unassuming, polite, and natural in the southernly-at-best manner. For a guy with an 8 million (!) advance on Thirteen Moons (following his success with Cold Mountain) he sounded like he would be a considerate conversationalist if you met him at a cafe. You might even hit him up for an extra shot...

The idea for Thirteen Moons came about while Frazier was working on Cold Mountain, which is primarily set in the Civil War years. While doing some research through old North Carolina newspapers circa 190O he came across an article about a white man that had recently died in an insane asylum speaking only Cherokee. Frazier put a bit about it on a notecard but left it aside as he realized it wouldn't have a place in the Cold Mountain story. Sometime later he was thinking on it and came across his notes on the same lone card buried among a number of blank cards.
This man turned out to be a historical figure known to quite a few Carolinians. Frazier adapted much of his life to serve for his main character, Will Cooper - with a dose of other stories, lore and history to alter our hero's path.

In Thirteen Moons, Will, a mere fledgling teen, is sent off (sold into service by his uncle) to run a trading post on the edge of Cherokee hill country. On the way there he finds himself in an all-night card game with drunken half-breeds, hillmen, and Cherokees. Will comes out of it having won the hand of a girl his own age from her father, a renegade Scots-Cherokee Chief. They meet alone for a few brief minutes - before William has to run for his life. What follows next is his gradual immersement in the Cherokee culture.

A page out of the book:

"On dark nights when I lay on my pallet listening to the sounds outside the window, I tried to match the names of creatures Bear had taught me to their various calls and signals. The peeps and creaks of insects and amphibians, a lone night roaming skunk or possum crashing through the bushes as loud as a family of bears or panthers. Night birds in the trees. Martens and minks and other dark-goers stepping crinkly in leaves. One word bothered me especially. 'Yunwi-giski'. Bear said it denoted a cannibal spirit, an eater of men. Bear's people had lived here since some dim elder time and knew this place with an intimacy and depth that could not be improved upon. Why would they bother having such a word if there were no such things as cannibals in the immediate vicinity? Example in point: they had a word for a hog bite. Not two words, one word. Satawa. My opinion was that if hogs are biting you so often that you have to stop and make up a specific word for it, maybe lack of a vocabulary is not your most pressing problem. The other thing that struck me is that this was a language with little interest in abstractions but of great particularity in regard to the things of the physical world. If they had a word like 'Yunwi-giski', how could there not be its physical correspondence out roaming the night woods hunting for the meat of people?"

"But at such times, it always calmed me to remember the girl with the silver bracelets, to think of her scent, the way she stepped inside my big wool coat and shivered against me. Two forlorn children finding comfort with each other. More than once I went and buried my face in the coat's lining, and every time the smell of lavender was fainter than before. As if the girl who had stood within its compass was fading from the world".

* above; a view towards Cold Mountain today.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Radio Days

I had to bring my car into the "tire shop" last Sunday morning before heading off to work at the library. There wouldn't be time enough for me to hang out in the waiting room, smelling the rubber treads on display, soaking up the tv football reruns, with my head in an Us Weekly while they determined how they effed-up their tire diagnosis the first time and made amends.
There being no courtesy shuttle service from the shop, and no timely bus to catch on Sunday, I stepped outside and called a yellow cab so as to get to work in 15 minutes.
Standing there on the corner, the perennial grumble-loop that runs through my head in such situations began rolling; "...goddam glorified slurpie-slurpin suburban hick-tropolis waste of my freakin life..."

The cab pulled up and an extraordinarily ordinary gent behind the wheel who looked to be a retired hardware store owner was listening to Broadway musical selections on the radio. Turned out it was a syndicated show that ran for only two hours on Sunday
and my driver was storehouse of Broadway history and a passionate admirer, in particular, of Lerner and Loewe. I was able to throw in a bit of trivia he didn't know - that in the movie of My Fair Lady, "Freddie", Eliza's boyfriend, was played by Jeremy Brett who later became the quintessential (in my opinion) Sherlock Holmes on British mystery TV. We had a quick, exclamatory gabfest about the great Broadway composers
we loved and agreed that the output of the last 40 yrs sucked.
When I alit from the cab it was a beautiful, breezy day and there was a spring in my step.
I skipped the elevator and tap-danced backward up the stairway....

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Begin the Beguine in Martinique

Jimmy and I were rehearsing for an upcoming gig with our pal Daniele who is, primarily, a gypsy-jazz style player native to Italy but more recently residing in New Orleans prior to Katrina. We were talking about rhythms in Latin and New Orleans music when he mentioned that the Caribbean island of Martinique was a place where many of these styles had remained in their "original" state.

We were playing Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" that night; high up on my long-time favorite list and a favorite of jazz musicians from Django Reinhardt to Charlie Parker. After our session I was doing a little research and I was surprised to find (serendipity, baby!) that the "beguine" was a dance/rhythm originating in Martinique. The dance is described as close to a rhumba; "It is characterized by the rocking back and forth of the hips while the girl throws her arms around her partner's neck. His arms loosely clasp her about the waist. The steps have been incorporated in both the Haitian Merengue and Calypso."

During the late 20's and early thirties the beguine music and dance became a great craze in Paris where a number of black "Martiniquais" musicians had settled (Martinique being a longtime French colony). The beguine was typically played in small combos with clarinet, trombone, violins and sometimes banjo and a "shakebox" for percussion. Improvisation was a prime ingredient and this lent the music something of a New Orleans flavor.

Cole Porter wrote Begin the Beguine in 1935. The are a few differing versions of the song's origin. Here is one of his likelier takes;
"I was living in Paris at the time and somebody suggested that I go see Black Martinquois, many of whom live in Paris, do their native dance, the Beguine, in a remote nightclub on the Left Bank of the Seine. This I did quickly, and I was very much taken by the rhythm of the dance. The rhythm was that of the already popular rhumba but much faster. The moment I saw it i thought of "Begin the Beguine" as a good title for a song, and put it away in my notebook, adding a memorandum as to its rhythm and tempo...." "About 10 years later while going around the world we stopped at an island in the Lesser Sunda Islands, to the west of New Guinea...A native dance was started for us, of which the melody of the first four bars would become my song. I looked through my old notebook and found again, after ten years, my old title 'Begin the Beguine'. For some reason the melody that I heard and the phrase that I had written down seemed to marry. I developed the whole song from that."

His co-lyricist Moss Hart recalled Porter working on the tune at the piano in his cabin while sailing for the Fiji Islands. The song is an astounding 108 bars in length (!) and Hart had thought it had come to an end halfway through. However, despite its length, Hart "was much relieved that our chief love song was not to be about koala bears or a duckbilled platypus which he [Porter] had found entertaining."

"Jubilee", the Broadway show it was featured in, was a bit of a flop but "Beguine.." caught enough ears to become a tremendous hit subsequently by Artie Shaw (swing version) and all the big bands at the time.

For many, the high point of the tune's life was its placement in the Fred Astaire/Eleanor Powell film musical "Broadway Melody of 1940" where it provided the background for a famous tap-dancing routine featuring Fred and Eleanor on a mirrored floor. Paste up this link and check it out! Great stuff...(go to the bottom).

One of the interesting versions of this song was performed by Pete Townshend, who, taking a break from a rollicking good smashing of his guitar onstage, covers it on a "Happy Birthday" album (c.1969,that also features Ronnie Laine from the Small Faces) dedicated to his guru, the mystic Meher Baba, who claimed Beguine the Beguine to be his favorte tune! Those hippie survivors of the 60's may recall a card with a worn picture of Meher Baba captioned with "Don't Worry, Be Happy!" often plastered on head-shop walls and VW vans, etc.- later to be copped by Bobby McFerrin.

My own personal number-one version is that rendered by alto saxophonist Art Pepper on his mid-50's record, "The Art of Pepper" just prior to an extended prison stay (almost a decade) for narcotics. With the rhythm section laying down the perfect surf-ride, Pepper weaves in and out of the melody, positively BURNING on this cut, and just when he seems on the verge of being consumed by his own flames he returns to the gorgeous melody like a lover to the beloved...

* pictured at the top; "By the Seashore" painted by Paul Gauguin in Martinique c. 1887

just above, song sheet from "The Broadway Melody of 1940"