Friday, February 27, 2009

I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues

Billie's version * of I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues was waxed on April 20,1939 for Commodore Records.

Billie's singing here typifies all that I love about the early years of her recording career; when speaking of her voice/tone as a trumpet this is not to take away from her humanity - she conveys the lyric sentiment perfectly but she brings to it the beauty of something purely musical. You can feel the blues for her but you can enjoy the ride as you accept that certain things in life are a given.
Where most singers would have "torched it up" with Billie you've got a subtler resignation that doesn't deny the pain - as if to say, "Life is a bitch - so, what else is new? I gotta find a way to live with it."
While the rhythm section lays down the beat in Basie style, heart-beat SOLID (one can imagine the strums of guitarist Jimmy McLin springing OFF the beat, buoyant, like Freddie Greene) Billie floats over it all like a golden cloud.
To quote drummer Specs Powell;
"She was one of the first singers that did not emote, no bouncing around, sang very quietly, snapped right hand, holding it close to her side. Snapped her fingers and tapped her feet very quietly, head tilted slightly to one side. The opposite to most jazz singers [of that time], who seemed to be choreographed. Her whole attitude was very cool."

The song has a wonderful stoptime bit at the end of a verse; she sings on beats 1 and three with band answering on 2 and 4 "All I SEE...FOR...ME...IS...MIS...ER...Ree-EEE!" and when they all lock back in to the solid time it's total swinging joy.

Frankie Newton with Billie at the session

A fine addition the record is Tab Smith's wail of a solo on alto sax; I would have personally preferred someone like Lester Young or even Kermit Scott on tenor or Irving Fazola on clarinet, but I must admit that Smith's rather ornate 20's style glide upward gives a nice contrast to Billie's even swing.
To my ears, the high point of the record is Frankie Newton's muted trumpet obbligato
entwining Billies vocal. The more I hear it the more I'm amazed at the choice of notes that seemed to push Billie's phrases to the fore rather than merely ornament.
Newton was an anomaly, more of a Miles Davis for the swing era, with minimal lyric solos.
"Frank" as he preferred to be called, made an auspicious debut with Bessie Smith in the early 30's but virtually dropped out of the recording scene by the mid 40's; apparently his independent spirit was at odds with the music business. An avid reader, and painter who loved to play tennis he nevertheless continued to play the odd gig in Boston and remained a legend to those who recalled him. Jazz writer Nat Hentoff befriended Newton in his youth and relates how the older, athletic, father-figure walked protectively behind him and his girfriend through a dicey neighborhood to make sure he wasn't "jumped".

Frankie Newton with Sidney Bechet

The band for the session was the house band for the newly opened Cafe Society Uptown club on 58th Street between Park and Lexington in Manhattan. Barney Josephson, a jazz lover, was the son of Latvian immigrants, and had witnessed better treatment of black performers in Europe. He opened the club, partly to provide an integrated environment and also to showcase black performers as well as cabaret and comedy. It was Josephson who introduced Billie to her most famous song "Strange Fruit" - the thinly veiled portrayal of racist lynching in the south. The irony is that it was recorded at the very-same session as "I Gotta Right..." and would lead Billie down a very different road.
I would agree she became typecast in the following years as a "hard-luck" tragic chanteuse as much for this song as for the sordid details of her growing addiction to heroin and abusive men. Ironically (a situation much like Lester Young's), as her voice deteriorated, she was able to make more records under her own name - it always saddens me that so many listeners are ONLY familiar with the latter-day (of the 50's and late 40's) recordings and have no inkling of the golden-toned Billie.

Finally a word of praise should go out to the composer/melodist Harold Arlen and lyricist Ted Koehler who wrote "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues". The stunning array of melodies written by Arlen include Over the Rainbow, Let's Fall In Love, Stormy Weather, Get Happy, I've Got the World On a String, One For My Baby, Come Rain or Come Shine among others!
No accident that Arlen was the son of a Jewish cantor who also loved secular music; especially operatic singers like Enrico Caruso and John McCormack. Harold Arlen stepped beyond his family phonograph and enveloped himself in the sounds of ragtime, jazz and the powerful blues of Bessie Smith - Billie Holiday's prime influence along with Louis Armstrong.

Harold Arlen >

For a fascinating in-depth comparison of Billie's "I Gotta Right..." with Louis Armstrong's equally wonderful take from 1934, see Lori Burns' Feeling the Style: Vocal Gesture and Musical Expression in Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong.

* Billies "I Gotta Right .." can be found by scrolling down to the bottom of the link page - next to The Complete Commodore recordings.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Best Things In Life Are Free

"The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life they're free
Stars belong to everyone
They cling there for you and for me

Flowers in spring
The robins that sing
The sunbeams that shine
They're yours and they're mine
Love can come to everyone
The best things in life
Are free."

Times being what they are, it's only fitting to pull out an old nugget that has been given fine, if very differing, treatments by two of my favorite musicians, singer Jo Stafford and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley; The Best Things in Life are Free. Of course, the sentiment of the lyric is timeless in hard times or good times. Furthermore, one can drop the lyric - though the sentiment bleeds through - and just enjoy the music.

This tune was penned by Bud De Sylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson (who also composed the melody for Bye bye Blackbird) for the musical Good News back in 1927 when Babe Ruth was slamming 60 home runs on a moderate regimen of beer and hot-dogs and without steroids, flappers were flapping, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson opened at the movies, bootleg whiskey fueled the Jazz Age parties, and Bix Beiderbecke was in full swing with his golden toned cornet recording Singin the Blues and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.
Either side of the road was the Sunny Side of the Street.

Jo's version from 1948:
Jo always stays close to the melody and lets the band swing it behind her but each phrase is HER phrase and is, when she's got a good song, almost always THE phrase that fits the song.

From Chris Albertson's interview with Lester Young, the poet of the tenor saxophone who spent the bulk of his listening time digging singers.

ALBERTSON Jo Stafford is your favorite singer?
YOUNG Yeah, and Lady Day [Billie Holiday]. And I'm through.
ALBERTSON But Jo Stafford does not sing jazz, does she?
YOUNG No, but I hear her voice and the sound and the way she puts things on.
Enough said.

Hank's version - 1961
Hank has always taken a backseat to Coltrane, Rollins, Getz and the other great tenor players of his generation..... and yet -
When the song was right (and he was right) he does something else, a certain flow and a subtle warm tone that no one can touch. Along with This I Dig of You and Remember I think of this solo, especially the first chorus, as a prime example of what he was all about; the way he rolls off of the the intro break unfolding in a gentle bop wave to come out like Errol Flynn, sword in hand down the staircase, cutting and jabbing, eliminating all obstacles to deliver the beautiful line and win Olivia de Havilland's hand; or at least secure some bread for the Merry Men.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Alone Together, Dancing In the Dark

Arthur Schwartz, self taught on piano, was encouraged by Larry Hart and George Gershwin, to ease out of a career in law, follow his passion, and become one of the greatest "Broadway" composers - these days lesser known than Porter, Kern, Rodgers and Gershwin etal; well loved, nevertheless, by singers and jazz instrumentalist artists alike.
Schwartz created elegant song melodies in minor keys that also intimated sunlight and exuberance, and melodies in major keys that allowed more than a few rainclouds over head and reveries of loss.

William Zinsser (who wrote On Writing Well, a wonderful book extolling direct, uncluttered writing that I obviously had more fun reading than ingesting!) gets almost rhapsodic on Schwartz in his book Easy To Remember The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs:
"Nobody wrote melodies as sensuous as 'Alone Together' and 'You and the Night and the Music', with their rich minor-key coloring, or 'Dancing in the Dark' and 'I See Your Face Before Me'. They are grandly constructed songs, soaring at exactly the moment when they need to take flight and then returning to earth, all musical issues resolved."

Appropos of flight-taking, soaring, and returning (serenely) to earth - in this case to a horse drawn cab of Central Park - is this famous scene from The Bandwagon where Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse provide lyric flight to the orchestrated Dancing in the Dark"
Again, seductive shifts of major and minor move under the basic motif.

Schwartz' perfectly matched lyricist partner, Howard Dietz, sets the layered emotions of the song in the first lines:

Dancing in the dark Till the tune ends,
We're dancing in the dark and it soon ends,
We're waltzing in the wonder of why we're here,
Time hurries by, we're here and gone;

"Haunted Heart" is another gem from Schwartz. Closing my eyes to listen I climb up through mountain paths, through trees covered in mists that open out finally into a clearing looking west over the ocean where a woman gazes out, singing as the sun begins to set (whaddya mean, I'm living in a musical?); once again subtle shifts laid out by the chord changes. Here sung by the immaculate, subtle and warm Jo Stafford (that must be her singing to the setting sun) - someone said she was Lester Young's favorite singer and that says much considering how he felt about Billie Holiday. Many thanks to Elizabeth of
Relative Esoterica for introducing Jo to me via her informed and passionate litanies!

"You and the Night and the Music" has been a longtime favorite of jazz musicians. Here is a great hard-swinging jazz version of the song by Anita O'Day. I completely flip hearing Anita, in the song's final go-round, taking a complete downward dive off the melody path and climbing back up singing a walking bassline in the final verses. Utterly Anita-esque devil-may-care drop-dead swinging.

Bill Evans does another great version of this tune on "Interplay" with Freddie Hubbard, Jim Hall, and Percy Heath, capped off with the wonderful drive of Philly Joe Jones on drums.

There is one "kick" Philly Joe delivers on the head statement that I always anticipate with delight. One of those definitive moments in jazz history!

Last but not least I offer you guitarist Pat Martino's take on "Alone Together" from The Visit, re-issued as Footprints.

Martino gives a hint here of the formative influences of Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, but soon enough, hold on to your hats and hear a true original. He starts off the melody statement with a loping swing enhanced by Billy Higgins and Richard Davis and then the tsoulful, tentative descending line
in the pick-up break and he's off and running. With Martino, no matter what the speed here, every line is a pearl.

In his book Singers and the Song Gene Lees offers this reminiscence;

"One day I was descending from the ASCAP New York office in an elevator. A tall, dark-haired, and strikingly handsome man in - I later realized - his seventies struck up a conversation with me. We got on to the subject of songs, and as we left the building found we were both walking north. The conversation continued. The man was elegant, poised, vigorous, articulate, and spoke with a voice of such gorgeous baritone resonance that I can still hear it in my head.
Finally, as we waited for a stoplight to change, he asked my name and i told him. He put out his hand and said, "I'm Arthur Schwartz."