January 24, 2013
One of the finest jazz drummers of the big band era and also one of the most inspirational, Chick Webb overcame huge obstacles on his way to legendary fame.
Born in Baltimore in 1909, he was crippled by spinal tuberculosis, which left him with minimal use of his legs and a hunched back. Learning to play drums at an early age, perhaps as therapy for his condition, he was still a teenager when he landed a job in Philly’s Jazzola Orchestra. In 1925, guitarist John Truehart, fellow Jazzola sideman, decided to try his luck in New York City and Chick decided to go along for the ride. It was a fortuitous decision.
In New York, the young drummer worked briefly with Edgar Dowell and played in sessions with up-coming jazz artists such as Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Tony Hardwick, and Duke Ellington before forming his own five-piece group. This was in 1926, and he secured a five-month gig at the Black Bottom Club, followed at the start of 1927 by work at the Paddock Club. There, he led an eight-piece group, the Harlem Stompers, which he took into the Savoy for a brief engagement. During the rest of the 1920s, Chick and his men played various nightspots around the New York area, including Roseland, the Cotton Club, and the Strand Roof, a spell that saw his band gradually expanding to eleven pieces. In 1931, Chick Webb and his Stompers began the first of several long, regular seasons at Harlem’s hottest dance venue, the already legendary Savoy, an arrangement that lasted until 1935. When not at the Savoy, Chick’s band toured, including an early 1930s spell with the Hot Chocolates revue.
Chick Webb’s early line-ups featured many top-flight musicians, among them John Kirby, Louis Jordan, Don Redman, Don Kirkpatrick, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Edgar Sampson, the latter two providing arrangements that were key factors in the band’s growing success.
In 1932, the band played a series of theater dates with Louis Armstrong, and in 1934 was booked into a long engagement at New York’s Casino de Paris. The band’s sound and Chick’s showmanship quickly attracted a large following, and the Stompers became known a little more sedately as the Chick Webb Orchestra. But there was nothing sedate about the music played; not then, and not during the coming few years. In that later period, the band included Mario Bauza, known as the ‘Father of Afro-Cuban Jazz’, while long-standing sidemen included Bobby Stark and his old friend John Trueheart, who was a stalwart of an outstanding rhythm section rounded out by Tommy Fulford and Beverly Peer. Unlike many bands of the swing era, the personnel was notably stable, a factor that undoubtedly went far in creating its distinctive sound.
Following the trend of swing era bands, Chick had a singer, Charlie Linton, but in 1935 he allowed himself to be pressured into hiring a younger, hipper singer. The band’s frontman was Bardu Ali, and he heard 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald perform at the Harlem Opera and brought her to Chick for an audition. Although Chick and his men were not immediately convinced, before long the inexperienced but fast-learning young woman proved to be a star attraction. While Ella’s first recordings with the band, I’ll Chase The Blues Away and Love And Kisses, were inauspicious, a session in October 1935 brought Rhythm And Romance and other popular songs of the moment that were much better. By the following year, Ella’s contributions had become a significant part of the band’s recording sessions and If You Can’t Sing It, You’ll Have To Swing It (better known as Mr. Paganini), became very popular. Even more successful was A-Tisket, A-Tasket, a nonsense song for which the singer helped contribute the lyric. Motivation for this song was to bring some cheer to Chick Webb who was undergoing one of his many periods of hospitalization. Another hit for Ella and the band was early 1939’s Undecided , a better song than its forerunners and one that is superbly performed by the singer while the drummer boosts the band into a dynamic performance. By this time, Ella’s popularity was huge and almost every record the band made was a vocal (only In The Groove At The Grove from the band’s 1939 released output is an instrumental), and no one was in any doubt about Ella Fitzgerald’s vital role in the band’s success.
Sadly, the success of the band was not matched at a personal level. From 1938, Chick Webb’s health, never good, had begun to fail badly. He often had difficulty finishing performances and was hospitalized several times, but despite his physical frailty he continued to tour and record with his orchestra. He became even more seriously ill and entered a Baltimore hospital where, after undergoing a major operation he died on 16 June 1939.
After his death, Ella Fitzgerald took over Chick Webb’s orchestra and for a while kept it going (with Bill Beason doing a commendable job of playing drums in what was, after all, a drummer’s band). It couldn’t last, though, and after two years Ella gave up and turned solo. The group then disbanded.
Although Chick Webb never learned to read music, he was a consummate musician and perfected the ability to memorize s arrangements. He made full use of his drum kit, especially the high-hat cymbal of which he was a master, and during his short career he raised the standard for all drummers with his inventiveness and expertise. Chick’s musicianship inspired many other performers, including rival swing era drummer Gene Krupa and future Jazz Messenger Art Blakey.
Unmistakable, unsurpassable, and unforgettable, Chick Webb’s name echoes through generations into the present day. Although he was small in stature, in all other respects he was a giant of jazz.
Documentary film maker, Jeff Kaufman, has traced Chick Webb’s life and career in The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America. Produced in partnership with New York’s The New Heritage Theatre Group, this film draws on historical writing, reminiscences and reflections by dancers, singers, friends and above all musicians. Jeff Kaufman’s film was very well received when it premiered at the 38th Seattle International Film Festival in the summer of 2012 and was also screened, again to considerable acclaim, at the Walter Reade Theater as part of The 50th New York Film Festival in the fall of 2012.
January 17, 2013
Chris McNulty – The Song That Sings You Here
Challenge CR 73341
A very welcome new release by this fine jazz singer, this album finds her in good voice with an especially attractive set of songs. Some years ago, Chris McNulty kindly spent time talking to Mike Pinfold for a book he and I were writing; this was Singing Jazz: The Singers And Their Styles. The passage of the years since then (the book was published in 1997) have not diminished the value of her remarks, among which were reflective comments on the importance for young singers to find their own voice, in particular the need for an intuitive approach to the manner in which a song is sung by those who would call themselves jazz singers. This last point is most certainly not an area in which Chris McNulty leaves any room for doubt. She is a jazz singer through and through and her work is always a vital demonstration of this virtually indefinable art.
As Chris explains in her liner notes, in July 2011 her young son died and although the songs were recorded before this grievous loss the listener finds an inevitable added resonance to the sometimes introspective mood of the album, thus bringing an almost spiritual air to the overall mood. Among the songs selected are How Little We Know, Lonely Woman, The Lamp Is Low, Last Night When We Were Young, One Less Bell to Answer, and Long Road Home – The Song That Sings You Here. The latter song is an original by the singer although, as can be seen, elsewhere she shows that she has retained her love for the songs of yesteryear, a love she remarked upon back in 1997: “I’ll never stop going back to those tunes. Originals can be beautiful but they haven’t got the everlasting power of those tunes.” Throughout this album, Chris sings with always melodic power, reading into the lyrics a considerable depth of understanding, the latter a quality that, as suggested, is made even more profound through the intrusion of real life tragedy. Her accompanying musicians are pianists Andrei Kondokov and Graham Wood, who share duties, guitarist Paul Bollenback, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Marcus Gilmore, with saxophonist Igor Butman guesting on some tracks, while guest vocalist Anita Wardell also appears. Altogether, this is an engaging, thoughtful and thought-provoking release.
The deep and abiding enthusiasm for jazz that has become an important part of Japanese culture is apparent in two new releases. One of these is by UoU, a cohesive quartet, very much of today. Entitled Take The 7 Train (Tippin’ TIP 112) this is mostly original music and where established themes are used they are made new through careful thought. The musicians are Takuji Yamada, who plays alto saxophone and bass clarinet, pianist Yoko Komori, guitarist Daisuke Abe, bassist Kuriko Tsugawa, and drummer Yoshifumi Nihonmatsu.
The other album presents the compositions and arrangements of Asuka Kakitani played by her Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece big band of New York-based mainly American musicians. Entitled Bloom (19/8 1025), this is very much a meeting of minds. The music is melodic, thoughtful, occasionally brooding. From John O’Gallagher, Mark Eckroth, Jacob Garchik and others are some very good saxophone, piano and trombone solos, notably the latter, but it is the ensemble playing that is special.
As always, these releases can be found in many places, including Amazon.
January 8, 2013
Back in the late 1960s, when Jimmy Rushing toured the UK, accompanied by Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, he was sometimes seen outside venues – some of them demonstrably unsuitable in their towering Victorian splendour – greeting arriving fans. To say the least, it was unusual to see a visiting artist act in this way and I for one never forgot this heart-warming gesture. Years afterwards, in 1996 to be precise, with Little Jimmy long gone to the Great Jam Session in the Sky, I remembered the way that this superb artist had behaved and it inspired me to write a short story that was never published in print, although it did see life on my previous website. Coming across the story recently, I liked the memories evoked and decided to post this story here.
BEEN HERE AND GONE
(Copyright © 1996 Bruce Crowther)
He stood on the corner of the street; a man small in stature, huge in girth. His trousers hung wrinkled below a ballooning waistline, his jacket so big that it reached almost to his knees but not big enough to stretch to where he could button it at the front. He wore a shirt that strained at the collar and a tie with a knot pulled low to let him breathe easy. On his head was a porkpie hat, scrunched flat at the crown. He wore scuffed slip-on shoes; stooping to tie laces was one of life’s unnecessary problems.
Men and women hurried past, early evening crowds on their way home. Some looked at him curiously. Not so much because of his shape or his dress but because, in 1968, in this particular European city, black men were yet uncommon.
After a while he moved, joining the crowds but remaining apart. He walked slowly, with weary dignity, finding his own tempo. He turned at some corners, walked on at others, randomly with the air of a stranger seeing the sights of a city he neither knew nor cared to know.
Eventually, close to the city’s docks, he went into a cafe. Not much of a place, dark painted, over-lit, steamy, and noisy from a jukebox playing a song popular the year the records were last changed which wasn’t recently. Half a dozen people sat at tables, eating not talking. It wasn’t the kind of place where people went to talk. A thick-set man with tattooed forearms leaned on the counter reading an evening paper.
Apologetically, almost, the black man ordered a dish from a menu chalked on a board hanging from the wall behind the counter. And coffee. The tattooed man grunted, nodding his head towards a table. The black man sat down and waited patiently. The other customers treated him the way they treated one another; they ignored him. Curiously enough, he quite liked that. In an odd sort of way it appeared to make him one of them.
When the food came it was hot and there was a lot of it. The coffee was in a large thick-sided white pot mug. He ate slowly, chewing his food carefully, occasionally sipping his coffee, his eyes moving between his plate and the empty chair at the other side of the table.
When he had eaten he sat a while longer, finishing his coffee. Then he pushed back his chair, stood the mug and his knife and fork on the empty plate and returned them to the counter. Taking money from his pocket, he looked thoughtfully at the unfamiliar currency, then offered it all to the man who picked out two notes and a handful of coins. The black man studied the notes taken and added another of the same.
Outside it was growing dark and he slowly retraced his steps. There were still many people about but these were no longer men and women hurrying home, now they were heading eagerly for a night out.
Back at the corner where he had started, he looked across the street at a small canopied entrance, a touch of grandeur that was not backed up by the peeling paintwork. Picking his way through cars and people, he went into the club.
He had left his suitcase in a small room behind the stage and opening it he took out a clean white shirt, socks and underwear, and a bow-tie. His dress suit hung behind the door, most of the overnight creases dropped out now.
He undressed slowly, washed and shaved, using the cracked basin in the corner, peering at his image in a discoloured mirror. He then put on clean clothes, carefully tied his tie, and finally stepped into his dress suit. From the suitcase he took a small bundle of sheet music and studied the lead sheets. While he was doing this he heard music from the club’s stage. He cocked his head, listening to the band. After a while he sighed and put away the lead sheets.
He sat, dozing, thinking unimportant, uncommitted, uncontentious thoughts.
A knock at the door and a shout brought him back to the moment. Standing, he brushed his hands over his jacket, smoothed his unsmoothable hair, and went out.
The club was more than half full, good for this early in the evening, and the band was playing loudly and with enthusiasm but not much else. They couldn’t swing worth a damn but how often did the bands he sang with these days have that particular ability? Not often.
The band crashed to a stop and the leader introduced him, then stamped his foot in an approximation of the required tempo. He let the band play eight bars before walking out onto the stage. He acknowledged a scattered round of applause with a wide grin, and with snapping fingers brought the tempo under control before launching into his first song.
The musicians in the band were white, young and pliable and after half an hour or so he had molded them into acceptable shape. They might never play with an easy natural swing, but they were a hundredfold better than before he’d come on stage.
At the intermission he thought about going back to the dressing room but instead accepted invitations to join the band and some of the audience for a drink at the bar along the left-hand wall of the club. This was his third European tour but he still had difficulty mingling with customers in places where everyone else was white. That was not how it was done back home. Martin Luther King and those other fellows might hassle for changes to be made but there was still a long way to go. And, anyway, look what happened to Dr King just a few months ago. Still, for all his reservations, the people here seemed to truly like his music and their friendliness appeared genuine, even if it was pretty certainly only skin deep.
They didn’t talk to him, though. At him sometimes, mostly around him. Not impolite; just unknowing and accordingly uneasy with the stranger in their midst. He didn’t expect more. After all, to this audience, like most of his audiences these days, the blues was just music.
When it was time to go back on stage, he saw that the place was now packed. As usual, most of the vociferous audience seemed to be less than half his age. The second set was much better than the first. Some of the musicians were beginning to relax. Whether it was his influence or that of the booze they’d consumed in the past few minutes he couldn’t tell. He hoped it was his. The influence of the booze would wear off. At the end the audience yelled for more and he sang a couple of encores but then the club owner gave the bandleader the high sign and they wrapped it up.
The smoky air buzzed with that combination of sound and excitement that only happens in places of entertainment, and then only when something special has gone down. He liked the feeling it gave him, knowing that for a couple of hours he had made people happy simply by letting them listen to his song. He shook hands with the band and some of the audience, autographed a couple of his albums held up by fans a little older than the average here tonight, then went backstage.
He didn’t change his clothes but even so when he came back out of the dressing room the club was empty except for the owner, a bartender cashing up, and a sour-looking man stacking chairs onto tables. The owner handed him a bundle of notes, which he didn’t count. Either the amount was right or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, there was always a convincing explanation so why bother.
He carried his suitcase out into the street and walked a few paces along to the hotel and went inside, picking up his key from an old woman with arthritic hands and a cigarette stuck to her lower lip.
Upstairs in his room, he undressed down to his shorts, turned out the light, and lay on the bed staring at the ceiling watching the changing patterns as car headlights passed by.
Of all times, these were the worst. On a high, he needed to come down gently. Some guys did it through drink, others through pills or worse, some did it through sex, many through talk. He was a talker. Except that here, thousands of miles from home, there was no one to whom he could talk. Not that being in Europe made so much difference, not these days. These days he could be just a few hundred miles from home, or a few dozen, and there would still be no one around to share the down time. That’s the way it was, touring as a single. That was why he missed touring with a band so much. With a band there was always someone to talk to. But he’d made his choice, nobody had twisted his arm. And, anyway, none of the handful of bands that still toured played his kind of music anymore. Not even Basie.
After a while he sat up and reached out to turn on the light. Opening up the suitcase he took out a lead sheet, turned it over and began writing on the back. He did this sometimes. Writing lyrics for songs he knew he would probably never sing and would certainly not record now that his kind of singing was out of fashion. He thought about the youngsters in the audience tonight. Encouraging, in a way, even if they didn’t buy records at least they came along to the clubs.
He wrote until he was tired, then turned out the light again. He tried to remember where he would be tomorrow night and couldn’t bring the name of the town to mind. It didn’t matter, it was written down on his itinerary and he had a rail ticket in his wallet and that was all that really mattered. One thing he did know was that tomorrow night’s hotel would be much like this one and so would the lonely meal in a cafe like the one tonight. Tomorrow night’s club would be no different, except for the name, and neither would the band. And the night after that it would be the same thing all over again.
That was the way it was. He didn’t complain. Why should he; he was doing what he wanted to do. Singing his song.
Once in a while, though, it would be nice to be able to talk to someone.
BEEN HERE AND GONE
(Copyright © 1996 Bruce Crowther)
If you, too, are a fan of Little Jimmy Rushing, you will not need my urging to buy his records – but just in case you have yet to hear his wonderful singing, you might think seriously about buying one or more or all of the following albums, all of them coming from the period when Jimmy Rushing recorded with some of the best blues and mainstream players around.
He is backed on the Complete Vanguard Recordings, a double album, by instrumental soloists who include Emmett Berry, Clark Terry, Doc Cheatham, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Lawrence Brown, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Pete Johnson, Sir Charles Thompson and Sam Price. Also on hand are his old Count Basie stablemates, Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones. The songs are a mixture of Basie staples and those that were to become Jimmy’s standbys in his late years, among which are Goin’ To Chicago, Every Day I Have The Blues and Exactly Like You.
A special favorite of mine is Rushing Lullabies, also a double album. Here, one CD is the original LP of the same title, while the second started life as Little Jimmy Rushing And The Big Brass. On the former, he sings ‘Deed I Do, Pink Champagne, and Russian Lullaby (of course), among 16 selections. On the latter, Mr Five by Five is escorted by a mighty big band, with charts by Buck Clayton, Jimmy Mundy and Nat Pierce, and solos are heard from Buddy Tate, Buck Clayton, Nat Pierce, Dicky Wells, Doc Cheatham, Urbie Green and Coleman Hawkins. The singer swings his way through Rosalie,June Night, Someday Sweetheart and I’m Coming Virginia, among eight sparkling performances.
Another fine album, this one offering on one CD two complete vinyls, is The Jazz Odyssey Of James Rushing Esq. Here, the singer visits in song the cities of New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago and New York. Accompanying him on the journey are Ernie Royal, Vic Dickenson, Budd Johnson and Danny Bank, with the powerful underpinning of Hank Jones, Skeeter Best, Milt Hinton and Jo Jones. Among the songs are Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ No More, Piney Brown Blues, Doctor Blues, and Lullaby Of Broadway. The second vinyl featured on this CD is Jimmy Rushing And The Smith Girls. Here, Jimmy pays tribute to blues singers Bessie, Clara, Mamie and Trixie, who shared a name but were unrelated. Jimmy sings Downhearted Blues, Trouble In Mind,and Gulf Coast Blues, among several fine tracks on which he is backed by Dickie Wells, Coleman Hawkins and Buster Bailey and other stalwarts.
Towards the end of his career, Jimmy Rushing’s repertoire leaned towards the familiar, avoiding becoming over-familiar only through the verve and enthusiasm he brought to everything he did. The song selection on Every Day I Have The Blues varies the mixture more than somewhat with songs like Berkeley Campus Blues, Keep The Faith, Baby and Evil Blues that were not regular items in his repertoire, although some established favorites are there too. The accompanying musicians again include stalwarts such as Clark Terry, Dicky Wells, and Buddy Tate, alongside rhythm section soulmates who include Hank Jones, Dave Frishberg, George Duvivier and Grady Tate.
Dave Frishberg would, of course, be the instigator of Jimmy’s final (and to my ears finest) studio recording, The You And Me That Used To Be. Yes, the voice is rusting but the integrity shines through. Again, the song choice is unusual, including as it does I Surrender Dear, When I Grow Too Old To Dream, Fine And Mellow, and Linger Awhile. Others in the band are Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Budd Johnson, Ray Nance, Milt Hinton and Mel Lewis. Wonderful music, beautifully performed – and not a hint that Little Jimmy Rushing had only about a year left of his full and generous life.
Any one of these CDs is worth having and for anyone unfamiliar with this fine singer’s work the first two will provide admirable introductions to a giant of jazz and blues singing. As for that final studio date – as far as I am aware, it is no longer available on CD. That said, keep looking (Amazon is a good place to start) and if you should see a copy, CD or vinyl, run, don’t walk – you will not be disappointed.