July 25, 2013
In New York in 1939 the World’s Fair is in full swing, a Joe Louis title fight is coming up, and there are hot times in Harlem every night.
When an industrial corporation offers small-time private detective Daniel Leland a temptingly large fee he takes the job and is soon over his head in murder and mayhem – and as war in Europe looms he tangles with the Nazi sympathizing German-American Bund.
And on top of all this, everywhere he goes Daniel has to confront racism because he is black while most of those he encounters during his investigation – the good and the bad – are white.
Although this is fiction, along the way Daniel encounters real people who lived in and around New York in 1939. Among them are Billie Holiday, Joe and Marva Louis, Fiorello LaGuardia and Max Finkelstein, all believably intertwined with Daniel’s quest.
ISBN – 13: 978-1490960821 & 10: 1490960821
Digitally, it is available as an Amazon Kindle book . . .
July 21, 2013
A prize-winning documentary film, Judy Chaikin’s The Girls In The Band is a rewarding, entertaining, and revealing exploration of what life was like in the 1930s and 1940s for people who did not fit into preconceptions of what made a jazz musician. The fact that they could play well, often brilliantly, whether as soloist or in ensemble, were reliable both on and off the bandstand, were not given to complaining, could withstand the rigors of life on the road (which included institutionalized racism), was immaterial. The reason why they were frequently overlooked, often derided, if not both, was because they were women.
Back then, treating women as inferiors was not, of course, confined to the jazz world. Far from it. As the 20th century began, a woman’s place was that of an all-purpose maid in the home. And while a woman might have control in the kitchen, a woman in the workplace was obliged to occupy a subordinate role, again often as cleaner or cook. Finding a woman as scientist or doctor or lawyer was almost impossible. The teaching profession was different; there women might enjoy useful and fulfilling careers, providing they didn’t expect to paid the same rate as men and avoided imagining that an ability to rock the cradle meant that they could try rocking the boat. As for sex! What women had to endure in that often cruel part of life is hard to comprehend. (And before anyone takes issue, yes, I know that this last point is a long, long way from being eradicated worldwide, even today, but this site is, after all, mostly about jazz.) The early 1900s were hard for women everywhere in all areas of society; even in the world of the arts, most of those same attitudes that had dogged women through earlier centuries prevailed as an attempt to list women painters or sculptors or composers or writers active before 1900 will reveal. A few writers perhaps, but the others . . .
The performing arts are another matter. There, plays needed actors of both sexes, as did the worlds of dance and song. But what of musicians who did not sing but chose to play instruments? A hangover from earlier centuries of society’s attitudes meant that while a few women from middle- and upper-class backgrounds might learn to play the piano, or perhaps the violin, almost every other musical instrument was disapproved. Thus there existed in the early 1900s active barriers that women had to overcome if they entered the world of popular entertainment. In vaudeville theaters (music halls in the UK), women would sing but rarely played an instrument; even playing the piano in public was a rarity. As jazz began to make its early appearances, although men played instruments women were again allocated a confined role; they could sing, but that was pretty much it. Then, very slowly, there began to appear in early jazz a few female instrumentalists, almost always pianists although one or two might play the guitar. It was not until the early 1930s, as a second generation of jazz musicians came onto the scene, that women ventured, however tentatively, into the wider range of instrumental jazz. Sadly, these pioneering women were not welcomed with open arms; far from it. The world of entertainment was dominated by men, not only on bandstands but also the ownership of clubs and theaters, control of recording companies and radio corporations; and newspaper and magazine critics were also men. Instead of offering a welcome, those men who controlled this world, a world they knew to be a hard one in which to make a living let alone a mark, shunned women, subjecting them to ridicule or offensive disdain or worse. Women, then, were forced to fight not only the world outside jazz, but also the inside world in which they were eager to live and work, a world that really should have known better.
Fortunately, those women, however small in number they might have been, were not only skilled musicians, they were also tough and determined; against heavy and unfair odds some of them made a lasting mark on jazz.
Yet this mark has been consistently overlooked through lack of informed historical research, or sexually-biased attitudes in the record industry, and many other areas where men have clung onto control.
Before the 1980s there were many reissues of records by female singers but those made by instrumentalists were rare. A few appeared, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams for example, the latter being generally well-served over the years, but they were exceptions from what was the norm. Then, in 1984 Rosetta Reitz issued an album by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm revealing an extraordinary, dynamic band of outstanding musicians.
Things began to change for the better and reissues of more female instrumentalists appeared, paralleling the slow but steady rise in the numbers of a new generation of women bringing instrumental skills to jazz. But progress was slow and availability of the work of their predecessors remained spotty. A valuable addition to information about these women came in 1986 with a Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss film that told the story of the Sweethearts. What was missing though was an informed overview of what life was like for those remarkable pioneering jazz instrumentalists who defied expectations and the odds to carve out invaluable careers.
Now, film maker Judy Chaikin has righted that particular wrong. It is through the lives and reminiscences of a number of these women that Judy’s film tells the story of their struggle. In one sense this story is shaming to men in jazz but in another more important sense it is a shining tribute to some extraordinary musicians who just happened to be women. The film begins with the 1958 assembly of jazz musicians on a street in Harlem for a photo-call. Just about everyone who was anyone was there and by no means irrelevant is the head count; when Art Kane’s camera clicked for A Great Day In Harlem of the fifty-seven musicians present only three were women. Perhaps at the time no one thought this was in any way unusual but hindsight tells us that it was a deplorable oversight. From this point onwards the story of women instrumentalists in jazz is told by those who should have been in that photograph, who were entitled to be there, because they were an important part of what happened in jazz – particularly in the previous quarter-century.
The first speaker is trumpeter Clora Bryant and she is succeeded by musicians such as fellow trumpeter Billie Rogers, saxophonists Peggy Gilbert, Roz Cron, and Willie Mae Wong, trombonists Helen Woods and Jessie Bailey, bassist Carline Ray, drummers Viola Smith and Jerrie Thill, and pianist Marian McPartland. (In passing, Marian McPartland was one of the three women on the 1958 photo shoot, the others being Mary Lou Williams, also a pianist, and Maxine Sullivan, a singer. The significance of Williams as a groundbreaking arranger in the success of Andy Kirk’s band is rightly stressed.) These reminiscences are filled with vivid anecdotes, some deep in philosophical understanding, and are told with wit and humor. All of those named here (and all of the many others interviewed) are blessed with an ability to communicate and make real for all of us that long-ago world in which they strove for equality and understanding and in the process made so much wonderful music.
Interspersed with the reminiscences of these women are clips of them in performances that ably demonstrate their considerable skill. There are also clips of other instrumentalists, including Hazel Scott, Valaida Snow, Vi Burnside, Mary Osborne, Vi Redd, Terry Pollard and Lil Hardin Armstrong, while Toshiko Akiyoshi and Melba Liston from a slightly later period are also heard. The bands on display include The Fayettes, Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears, and The International Sweethearts Of Rhythm.
The reminiscences are mainly upbeat, all the women having clearly loved their musical careers, but here and there some of the less than happy moments are relived. Especially notable is Roz Cron’s moving recollection of how, as a young inexperienced white women, she encountered Jim Crow at its most pernicious.
Towards the end of this fine film, some instrumentalists who are active today appear and talk about how those earlier women inspired them in their chosen careers. Among these instrumentalists are drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Anat Cohen, and bassist Esperanza Spalding. They too are seen and heard playing and there are also appearances by Maria Schneider, JoAnne Brackeen, Maiden Voyage, DIVA, Diana Krall and Hiromi Uehara.
Women instrumentalists apart, there are contributions from Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg, founders of the KC Women’s Jazz Festival, and there’s also a handful of men, some of them musicians: Herbie Hancock, Dr Billy Taylor; and academics and others: Dr Tammy Kernodle, Father Peter O’Brien, James Briggs Murray.
Judy Chaikin closes her remarkable 90-minute film with a 2008 gathering in Harlem of a group of mainly instrumentalists for another photograph. This time, fifty years on from the original, there are seventy-one participants and all but three are women. Quite right, too.
Screened at numerous locations in the USA The Girls In The Band has also been shown in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Dubai and Spain. Among several awards have been those won at film festivals held in Atlanta GA, Cleveland OH, Dubai, High Falls GA, Omaha NE, Palm Springs CA, St. George UT, Vancouver BC, Victoria BC, and Washington DC.
Judy Chaikin hopes that her film will be screened in the UK in the not-too distant future and she also has plans for Internet streaming. Everyone with an interest in jazz, particularly women in jazz, should do all that they can to help these hopes and plans come to fruition.
The Girls In The Band
Director: Judy Chaikin
Editor: Edward Osei-Gyimah
Producers: Judy Chaikin, Michael Greene, Nancy Kissock, and Erin Li
For more information, including regular updates on screenings, see the The Girls In The Band website.
July 14, 2013
Most people come to this world by stork. I came by Flamingo, and Duke Ellington delivered me. – Herb Jeffries
I met Herb Jeffries just once. He was physically, intellectually and vocally in excellent shape for a man of any age. Given that he was then 75 years old he was remarkable. Also remarkable is that our meeting took place 25 years ago, which means that he is now fast-approaching an age worthy of celebration. Hence this piece, although writing about Herb Jeffries is not a task for anyone interested in hard facts. The reason for this is the confusion, much of it created by the man himself, over matters as basic as the date of his birth. Even the spelling of his name changed over the years. Of considerably more importance is the confusion, again self-generated, over whether he was black or white. With these caveats in mind, this is an admittedly sketchy account of his life and career.
Herb Jeffries had an extraordinary career, as actor and singer, he lived a remarkable life, tackling racial discrimination head on, and he did it all with effortless charm. Consider, for example, his birth year. Various dates have been put forward for this, but it is now most probable that the year is 1913, which means that on 24 September this year Herb Jeffries will be 100. He was born in Detroit, MI, on 24 September 1913; his mother was Irish, his father, a man he never knew, was said to be Italian although there was also reputedly Sicilian and French blood as well as, significantly as it turned out, North African blood. His given names were Umberto Alejandro Ballentino, readily adapted to Herbert Alexander Valentine, and he later took the name Jeffries from a step-father. Possessing a fluid and very pleasing singing voice, he decided that this would be his career and in Chicago sang with Erskine Tate’s orchestra. He moved on to the Earl Hines band, gaining widespread exposure thanks to national radio broadcasts from the Grand Terrace Cafe and he also made his first records with Hines. This extensive recognition allowed him to take another step, this one not only important but also bold.
After a spell singing with Blanche Calloway’s band he was in Los Angeles when he made contact with film producer Jed Beull to whom he pitched an idea for an all-black musical Western. The result was Harlem On The Prairie (1937), starring Herb, who was billed as Herbert Jeffrey. Reputedly, he wore dark make-up for the role and he also wrote some of the songs. Also featured in the film was popular entertainer Mantan Moreland. Although decidedly low-budget, the film was successful with black and white audiences and another producer, Richard C. Kahn, picked up both the idea and Herb and made three more films, Two-Gun Man From Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), the title resulting in a long-lasting nickname for Herb, and Harlem Rides The Range (1939). Moreland and Spencer Williams were also in the first of this trio and Williams returned for the remaining two films.
In 1941, Herb went back to music, joining Duke Ellington’s band. At this time an important change occurred when Herb adjusted his tenor voice to the fluid baritone that was to be so successful, a change reputedly a suggestion from Ellington’s young arranger Billy Strayhorn. Even so, his singing voice was light and for many years he retained the ability to sing in the tenor range. Herb appeared in Ellington’s only (and ground-breaking) stage musical, Jump For Joy, and he also sang on records of songs from the show. Among other records made with Ellington the most notable are (In My) Solitude, I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), and a song that was to become his biggest hit, and which can be heard here, the multi-million-selling Flamingo.
Leaving Ellington in 1943, Herb continued a busy professional life, principally as a singer although he did maintain his contact with the film world. This included a few acting roles in films and on television, and he also produced and directed a low-budget soft-porn film starring his third wife, exotic dancer Tempest Storm. This was Mundo Depravados (1967), a film that had little merit although it did later acquire a cult following.
Herb’s complexion was naturally dark, doubtless reflecting his father’s Mediterranean origins, added to which he had worked for several years with black musicians, and he now actively presented himself as being black. This was not beneficial to his career. Indeed, on occasions he insisted that he was black even when doing so was decidedly unlikely to do anything other than make his life hard. Interestingly (and adding to the air of confusion surrounding Herb), Jet magazine reported that when he and Tempest Storm married in 1959 he stated on the license application that his name was Herbert Jeffrey Ball and that he was white. To a Jet reporter Herb declared that he was not black passing for white: ‘My mother was 100 per cent white. My father is Portuguese, Spanish, American Indian, and Negro. How in the hell can I identify myself as one race or another?’
Herb’s later career found him playing engagements in various cities in the USA and in Europe. Among the engagements he fulfilled in Europe was a visit to the UK for the 1988 Duke Ellington Conference, held that year at Birch Hall, a large hotel complex outside Oldham, Lancashire. On the opening day of the conference I ran into him in the bar. He was with promoter-musician Ernie Garside who introduced us. Looking down at me (he is a very tall man), Herb said, ‘I know that name. I’ve just finished reading your book about jazz singers.’ That had to be The Jazz Singers: From Ragtime To The New Wave, written with Mike Pinfold and published two years earlier. I suffered immediate conflicting emotions. No one had ever recognized my name before (and never has since then) and I was understandably thrilled. Unfortunately, I couldn’t recall what (if anything) had been said in the book about him and experienced sudden panic; he could have easily picked me up and thrown me over the bar. But Herb hadn’t finished, adding, ‘Pretty good. You got most of it right.’ The momentary panic over I decided not to risk asking what Mike and I had got wrong and a pleasurable hour passed before the bar began to fill with others eager to spend time with this most sociable man. There were many fine musical performances that weekend, among them Herb’s emceeing of a Harlem evening, the highlight of which was his polished nightclub routine built around Flamingo. This was filled with wry remarks (including how, having learned that flamingos turn pink because they eat shrimp, he spent months standing on one leg up to the knee in water eating bowl after bowl of shrimp hoping that he would change color so that he could pass).
Later still, Herb continued to record, including 1995’s The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again, an album that capitalized on a new generation’s interest in country music, and 1999’s The Duke And I, this one as its title implies revisiting the songs he sang with Ellington.
In 2007 a short film, A Colored Life, told Herb’s story and is available on DVD.
Over the years Herb has received a number of awards, among the most recent are induction into the Western Music Association Hall of Fame, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Living Legacy Award from the Women’s International Center, the Congressional Lifetime Achievement Award, and his new home town of Wichita, Kansas, declared 24 September 2012 to be Herb Jeffries Day.
As for 24 September 2013, the day on which he will reach 100, this must surely be a day for celebration by all who have an interest in of jazz, popular music, movies and the politics of race. Herb Jeffries has touched all of these and all have benefited from his presence.
The CDs mentioned here and many others can be obtained through Amazon, as can most of those films of Herb Jeffries that have been released on DVD.