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"