Blog, Music

The Long Fingers of Claude Debussy

In the early 1960s an album called “The First Family” appeared, comedy bits making fun of the Kennedy White House. Vaughan Meader played JFK. It was the hottest record in the country for a while. (After Kennedy’s assassination, Lenny Bruce’s first words onstage were, “Vaughan Meader is screwed.”) Anyway, one cut from it satirizes the TV tour that Jackie Kennedy gave of art works in the White House. On the album she goes from painting to painting saying, “Well, there’s this one….and this one…..and this great big one here…..and this little teeny one down here….” I’m reminded of that as I sit here about to broach the subject of Debussy’s influence on Bix Beiderbecke. The young man from Davenport, Iowa is fiercely remembered as a great jazz cornetist of the 1920s, but less so for his amazing (and stranger) piano compositions which began with things like the whole-tone scale and got more complicated from there. Others have delved into the technical aspects of this influence. All I can do is point and say, “There’s the link! You can hear it!” But what a thing it is to hear:

Voiles by Debussy (from Preludes, 1910)

“Voiles” was inspired by the famous “scarf dances” of Loie Fuller….

180px-Loie_Fuller_Folies_Bergere_02

….though probably not one as fast as this:

Loie Fuller Dancing With Big Scarves, 1896

Actually Loie Fuller is sometimes erroneously credited with performances by Papinta, The Flame Dancer:

Scarf Dance Wrongly Attributed to Fuller

But that’s neither nor there. My point is, Compare “Voiles” with this:

In a Mist by Bix Beiderbecke (1927)

Not all of his contemporaries fell back in awe. In his memoirs clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow wrote: “Bix was already reaching out beyond the frontiers of jazz into some strange musical jungle where he hoped to find Christ-knows-what….Over and over he would play the peculiar ‘modern’ music that was like a signpost to him showing him where he thought he had to go. These musical tangents, leading to a dozen different detours, were all scrambled up with the jazz in Bix’s head, and that mess led him finally to compose “In a Mist.”

For the record, Bix left behind three other such messes, less famous, in the same vein. They too are wonderful:

Candlelights (1930)

Flashes (1931)

In the Dark (1931)

Unlike “In a Mist,” these recordings are not by Bix himself because he didn’t live long enough to make them.

Jazz critic Gary Giddins mentions the Debussy-Bix connection in his afterword to Dorothy Baker’s jazz novel from the 50s, Young Man With a Horn. Pick it up and blow out of Squaresville.

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Blog, Music

Ornithology

I’m early on reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (900 pages, journey of a thousand miles), a fact I’m sharing because I came across a mention in it of a song called, “Would You Rather Be a Colonel With an Eagle on Your Shoulder or a Private With a Chicken on Your Knee?” Immediately wondered if this could be a real song, looked it up and so it is: first presented by Eddie Cantor in the 1918 edition of Ziegfeld Follies, released the following year by one “Eugene Buckley,” an alias apparently though why he would want to hide his involvement is a mystery because it’s a great record.  Here it is, one of the big hits of 1919:

Would You Rather Be a Colonel With an Eagle on Your Shoulder or a Private With a Chicken on Your Knee?

 

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The Rising of the Moon

And so it begins. My new book — Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon — appears tomorrow, and I’ll be voyaging around the country in the coming weeks giving readings. Please come if you’re in the neighborhood for any of these. The Griffith Observatory in LA is where they filmed the knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause, and there’s an unbeatable view from the plaza there. Arrive at sunset….

September 16, New York City, KGB, 7 pm

September 17, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 5 pm

September 24, Los Angeles, Book Soup, 4 pm

September 25, Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory, 7 pm

September 28, Cambridge, Mass., Porter Square Books, 7 pm

October 12, Portland, Maine, Print Bookshop, 7 pm

October 16, Atlanta, A Cappella Books, 7 pm

October 27, Chicago, Book Cellar, 7 pm

November 13, Baltimore, Pratt Library in Roland Park, 6:30 pm

November 18 or 19, Miami Book Fair

 

An excerpt appears in the September issue of Nautilus magazine, now online. I don’t know about the writing, but the illustrations are really far-out.

Most beautiful cover of “Moon River” ever:

Moon River

 

 

 

Blog, Music

South America Stole Our Name #2

Randy Newman has a new album out, Dark Matter, his first in nine years. One cut that especially struck me is called “Sonny Boy,” which tells the story of Sonny Boy Williamson I, the blues-harp pioneer, and how his name and legacy were appropriated (ripped off) by one Aleck “Rice” Miller, who came along later and billed himself as Sonny Boy Williamson II. Today even serious blues fans get them mixed up. I assume Van Morrison, who has covered both of them, knows the difference. Newman does. But they’re two of the few. So here, as far as I can untangle it, is the deal:

Sonny Boy I came out of Madison, Tennessee. Not only did he turn the blues harp into a lead instrument, he also came up with the call and response technique of playing — bursts of harp between bursts of lyrics — that virtually every practitioner’s used since. Based in Chicago, he began his recording career in 1937 with “Good Morning Schoolgirl” on Bluebird. Take the impact of that, multiply it about a hundred times and you’ve got the scope of his career. It was cut short, way short, in the summer of 1948 when he was killed by stray gunfire walking home.

By then Rice Miller was already slip-sliding around pretending to be him. Great player in his own right, no question; thief, also no question. And once SB I died, SB II could keep saying “the one and only” and be telling the truth now, if you think in terms of how many Sonny Boy Williamsons were currently breathing.

Rice Miller recorded great sides for Checker (“Don’t Start Me Talkin’,”Your Funeral and My Trial,” many more) and he cemented his legacy-sucking reputation in Europe riding the blues revival of the 1960s. Miller took well to success. He was spotted in England wearing a two-toned suit with a bowler hat and umbrella. On the other hand, he apparently set fire to his hotel room trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator, so it’s not like he went totally uptown.

Herewith samples of their work, I followed by II.

Jivin’ the Blues

Your Funeral and My Trial

SB I was the big innovator.

Actually this recalls the big Pinetop pile-up. But that’s another post.

 

 

 

Blog, Music

Nina Simone and the Inexplicable Grammy

On last night’s show I played the title cut from Nina Simone’s debut album, Little Girl Blue (1958). It’s a Rodgers and Hart song introduced in the 1935 Broadway show Jumbo in which, at the conclusion of each performance, Jimmy Durante lay on the stage and an elephant put its foot on his head. Shorn of Jumbo, the song has had a long, long life as a favorite of jazz greats, but Simone’s version is especially striking because it’s done as a quodlibet. This — as I learned two days ago — is an interweaving of melodies from different songs to create a new whole (a sophisticated mash-up, in other words). In her case, she combines Rodgers’ melody with that of the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. It is a thing of strange and surpassing beauty:

Little Girl Blue                                                       maxresdefault

I realized then that I had another quodlibet in my stock of tunes which I’ve played from time to time, far different from Simone’s. It is in fact the cheesiest quodlibet ever conceived — by Bing Crosby’s musical director, Alan Copeland — and a Grammy winner in the category of Best Contemporary Performance by a Chorus in 1969:
You have to think the judges heard it once and then couldn’t get it out of their heads. Or maybe that’s just me.

 

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The Old/New Weird America

Penny Lane’s mind-rearranging documentary NUTS! — about goat-testicles titan Dr. John Brinkley, the ur-Trump of 1930 — started the year as a prize-winner at Sundance (Best Editing, I mean the six animators alone…). It’s streaming now over Amazon and iTunes. And as the year-end lists come rolling out:

Richard Brody’s “Best Movies of 2016” at The New Yorker
Weirdest Pop Culture” at The Verge
Ten Best Documentaries of 2016” at Flavorwire
Best Documentaries of 2016” at NonFics
The Best-Reviewed Women-Directed Films of 2016” at Women and Hollywood

All this despite the fact that I turn up in it as a talking head…

The Book

 

images

 

 

Blog

On Ignorance

Night before last I dreamt about the (noxious, worm-eaten) electoral college. Specifically I was protesting that Hillary Clinton, though prevailing in the popular vote, had lost the presidency because of this awful system, leaving us with — why even try to describe him? — on his way to the White House. Since ordinarily my dreams are of the Breugel/Bosch variety and moving at medium to high speed, I was surprised my subconscious was so completely on the news. But then maybe dreams are becoming the last place reality can huddle for warmth. Today I see that the Oxford English Dictionary (in an unacknowledged lift from Stephen Colbert) has named “post-truth” its International Word of the Year, referring of course to the great cresting waves of lies and nonsense sweeping us into the future. I thought of that wonderful Oscar Wilde line from The Importance of Being Earnest — “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone” — but only because that observation now is itself nonsense, or at least long out of date. Ignorance today — if we’re sticking with plant similes — is like a combination of kudzu and Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. According to BuzzFeed, during the last three months of our presidential campaign false headlines, hoaxes and hyper-partisan blogs garnered more than 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments, compared to the 7.4 million produced by the top 20 stories in the mainstream media. How tragic is that? On the other hand, if it turns out that news of Trump’s election is itself a hoax, maybe I’ll finally leave the house.

Excellent non-political dreaming:

Roy Orbison

Dion and the Belmonts

Max Raabe and der Palast Orchester

 

dp243839

 

 

Blog

Regarding the Worst Thing That’s Happened in This Country Since, Perhaps Including, the Civil War

The thing I’ll remember most about election night is that little bar graph the NYT had been running for weeks, the daily update on the candidates’ percentage chances of victory. That morning it had showed Clinton with an 85% chance, and so it appeared at the start of the evening. Somewhere around 9 o’clock that suddenly slipped and slithered downward to 59%,   and moments later another graph appeared, like an applause meter, with the needle bouncing over on the right announcing a certain win for Trump. The next morning I changed my homepage from the New York Times to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, canceled home delivery of the paper, and as of this writing have dropped away from the news altogether. I remember reading years ago that Thoreau did the same thing when he moved to his cabin. He said each daily newspaper was just a trivial variation on those preceding, that any from last year’s was interchangeable with today’s, and that their cumulative effect was just to foster a steady, low-grade agitation while leaving dust bunnies in the mind. So he was doing without current events, loved it and recommended it. I can’t really say that last Tuesday’s occurrence is interchangeable with any other, and I suppose I can’t live in my little cabin forever. At some point one must engage the enemy. But as long as Trump, like literature, is news that stays news, I will start my day by fortifying my spirit with a few of the 435,145 artworks to be found on the Met website, as for example today

 

dt5026

this

 

dp236148

 

and this

 

dt1231

Ars longa, Trump as brevis as possible

 

 

Blog, Music

Too Hip for the Room

At the end of the last post I referred to Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, and once he’s onstage it’s hard to get him off. Here then a brief tribute to the man who invented the word “hipster” and played the piano like — well, as you see….

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Gibson was the craziest white boy working the clubs in Harlem back in the day. He was spotted there by Fats Waller, who hailed him as a kindred spirit, brought him down to Swing Street in midtown Manhattan and spent night after night stuffing his tip jar with five dollar bills. Harry blazed as bright as anybody for a while — a musical Eval Knievel, he knew no fear (part temperament, part drugs) — and wrote his own songs as well, the most famous among them  “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” It was a great recording but a bad career move. The song got him banned from the radio in the late 40s and, since history is written by the censors, he’s been reduced in jazz lore to a wisp of smoke.

To be fair, a man whose core repertoire included his revise of —

 

I Want To Go Back to My Little Grass Shack

 

— about smoking your house to get high, was never going to make the Hit Parade. But the way he played the piano, as a full-contact sport, puts him a decade ahead of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. One of the world’s dumbest debates is over who invented rock n roll, so let’s just say Harry was in the mix as much as anybody. Cleveland, are you listening?

 

4-F Ferdinand (film) 

 

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Blog, Music

Smokin’ Peggy Lee

Late in her life I saw Peggy Lee perform at a club in New York. She was chair-bound, but surrounded by 5 of the finest in jazz (drummer Grady Tate I remember was one), she radiated like the queen of the night on her throne. Somewhere during the set, for what must have been for her the crushingly umpteenth time, she sang “Why Don’t You Do Right,” the song that put her on the map in 1942 and which, next to “Fever,” became her signature song (if you can have two). She put it over like a pro, and I was glad I was there to hear it. I’ve always loved WDYDR, which is bluesy for real as opposed to “Fever,” a Little Willie John cover, with the hipster finger snaps.

Anyway, I didn’t know at the time just how knocked-out loaded WDYDR really is. Turns out it started life as a different song altogether, “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” recorded by the Harlem Hamfats in 1936. Even the drums are stoned:

Weed Smoker’s Dream

The Hamfats themselves had an interesting origin: they weren’t naturally occurring but deliberately assembled by a producer with a commercial eye, like Peter, Paul & Mary or the Monkees. They weren’t even from Harlem. Once they got together though they made some very real recordings as songs like “Root, Hog or Die,” and “Let’s Get Drunk and Truck” attest. “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” written by their guitarist, Kansas Joe McCoy, was another hit for them, conveying the sound advice that it’s hard to do well selling grass when you’re high on the stuff yourself. Unlike the Hamfats’ other material though this number broke out of its woozy netherworld because the tune was so damn good. In its original form (music and lyrics) the song appeared as soundtrack to an extremely far-out 1930s cartoon, a portion of which you can find here:

 

Skeleton Takes a Bath

                      Unknown-1                       

 

Then, retrofitted with new lyrics by McCoy himself, it floated into the white world via Peggy Lee. See and hear:

With Dave Barbour, circa 1950

Maybe it’s her delivery, but I wouldn’t call that sanitized.

Sometimes inspiration flows the other way. Harry “the Hipster” Gibson found “Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” insufficiently trippy and recast it as “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?”

Who Put the Benzedrine….?

But that’s another story.

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