April 30, 2016
A few idle thoughts – well, almost idle. I have conducted no research, and I’ve no idea if anyone has already written on this topic. So what is it? Hard to put into a simple phrase, but here goes:
It concerns song lyrics and how differences between British-English and American-English affected British singers of the past, and how changing times accommodated these differences.
Where to start? How about at the movies? Anyone who has watched British films of the 1930s and 1940s will have noticed a certain sameness in the accents used by many of the actors. Also, it often appears that they are using an assumed accent, replacing the accent they had either from birth or acquired during education. (Accents require a digression into British class divisions and education, especially in the relevant decades, but that needs – and deserves – a lot of space and is, anyway, irrelevant here.) Of course, there are always exceptions in those old films and supporting actors might appear who speak in Scottish or Welsh or Irish accents, although not too many regional English accents. I should mention here that there are also variations in accents depending upon region in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but in many instances these are difficult for a non-native to differentiate with any degree of certainty. In those early films Cockney accents are quite frequent, again usually among bit part players, and here again there is often a considerable measure of artificiality, suggesting that the accent might be assumed by actors not born in London and who are certainly not Cockneys. (For the benefit of non-British readers, a Cockney is someone born in a specific and quite small part of London; another irrelevancy.) Why would actors seek to lose their accents? Perhaps because the stage-acting tradition, which had its own accented English, was carried over into the film industry and through training, or perhaps simply in order to find work, actors found it beneficial to lose their original accents.
Aside from films, accents heard on radio broadcasts of the same years, especially the 1930s, also have a certain sameness. On radio news broadcasts and current affairs programmes were heard many examples of what might be described as middle-of-the-road accents that have no obvious regional leaning. This was accepted BBC-speak, although some changes took place during World War Two when a few identifiable accents were heard on news broadcasts, a change in policy that coincided with previously anonymous news readers giving their names. (This was a policy undertaken by the BBC to assure listeners that they were hearing the real thing and not a propaganda broadcast by the enemy.) These wartime changes apart, the accents heard in films and on radio in those years were noticeably “better” than those in which the average listener might speak. Even more striking was the often rigid adherence to received-English pronunciation of words, the absence of elisions and colloquialisms, and the almost complete avoidance of contemporary slang.
In this last sentence can be seen the problem faced by British singers of the new popular songs coming from America and which contrasted strikingly with British songs of the same period. When singing, many of the British singers of the period displayed accents similar to those of actors and other broadcasters and like them used similarly rigid pronunciation. When singing songs by British songwriters this presented few problems because the lyrics were often written by those with an ear for the same language, but when these singers sang songs written by the new wave of American songwriters it quickly became apparent that the bonds of language that surrounded the lyricist and the singer were drastically weakened. A reason for this lay in those differences between British-English and American-English.
These differences had long been apparent to audiences in Great Britain, both in spelling and in the colloquialisms and slang used on the screen, in particular the hugely popular westerns and gangster films. Despite this familiarity, generally speaking the people on the streets in Britain did not try to speak in this way, but audiences were hearing on records and on radio the new popular songs and they wanted to hear these from popular British singers of the day. That many of these songs were filled with those elisions and colloquialisms and slang terms that most avoided in everyday speech was an obstacle. This might be the moment for a small, personal (but relevant) digression. I was born into a working class family in an industrial city in the North of England, a city that has a distinctive local accent. Although educational facilities were limited, I was luckily a member of a family that read avidly and listened endlessly to the radio and records and there was a cinema just around the corner (the last time I was there it had been demolished and had become a car park. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I developed addictions to books and films and popular music. Thus, I was constantly bombarded by language, written, spoken and sung in both British- and American-English; but, of course, it was all being absorbed randomly and with no real understanding of the inherent complications. What I did recognize, even if I didn’t understand why, was that I preferred hearing American singers singing American popular songs. Reflectively, I suspect that I was somehow aware that most of the British singers I heard didn’t sound comfortable when singing this material. I wonder if this was in part because some of the singers were encountering a problem similar to one that I faced with my own family. If I used a word or expression that the family considered to be inappropriate, someone would immediately remonstrate. Thus, slang, colloquialisms, elisions, contractions, were out. To use any of these was to commit the offence of sounding “common”.
So what did all this mean? So far as slang is concerned, while some British slang of the time did not sound bad, American slang spoken in a British accent sounded just plain silly (and, of course, the opposite was true). Colloquialisms were similarly dependent on origin and did not cross the Atlantic very well (in either direction). Among the songs that many enjoyed in those years – and which they continue to enjoy to the present day – are those that have become a part of what we now call the Great American Songbook. These songs struck chords not only with countless listeners but also clearly resonated with singers. But increasingly more and yet more of these songs contained elements that did not travel well unless the original accent was retained. When American-English pronunciation was changed to British-English pronunciation it simply sounded wrong. Consider one of the masters of American song lyrics, Johnny Mercer, who, perhaps more strikingly than any other songwriter, seamlessly absorbed colloquial language into his art, turning it into contemporary poetry. It was language those of us who were soaked in American films knew well but if we used ourselves was fraught with problems. Again personalizing these thoughts, if in conversation with my family I had used “ain’t”, “gimme”, “gonna”, “haveta”, “kinda”, “wanna”, “whatcha”, “wouldja”, “ya”, for some examples, I would have been corrected instantly; in the classroom use of these words might have brought a rap on the knuckles (a frequent happening in those days). Yet Mercer, and other songwriters of his time, used words like these in a manner that often touched upon and sometimes fully embraced and accelerated the Americanization of the English language.
In our book, Singing Jazz: The Singers And The Styles, Mike Pinfold and I considered this topic, observing that “The form of English spoken by Americans has different speech patterns, pronunciations, intonations, inflections and rhythms.” When sung by an American singer in an American accent, the skill and frequent beauty of lyrics like those of Mercer is apparent. But if a British singer sang these Amercanisms in a British accent, they sounded – well, I used the word before and here again it fits – they sounded just plain silly. It wasn’t hard for a singer to decide what to do to overcome these problems, all that was necessary was that they should use an American accent. But easy though that decision might have been, getting an American accent right when the speaker’s original accent was not only British but regional British was beyond the grasp of many. Hence, those performances that somehow never rang as true as when the same songs were sung by American singers.
There were gradual changes over the years and although outside the scope of these notes I will mention them briefly.
Hollywood, like it or not, the dictator of many Anglo-American and American-Anglo beliefs and attitudes, sometimes hired British actors to play British roles in American films. While that might seem like the obvious thing to do, it was not always so and British roles in some Hollywood films might be played by American actors attempting an impersonation or by actors from Australia or New Zealand. These might have sounded British to American filmmakers and audiences but to British ears they sounded (that word again) silly. Apart from being wrong at the root, there was also the apparent assumption by many that the British all spoke like Cockneys and this accent appeared in all sorts if unlikely settings. (Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, often regarded as the notorious nadir of this trend, is far from being alone and mis-casting continues to this day.) From the 1950s onward there were changes, too, in popular music and there was soon widespread awareness among American audiences that the British accent had regional variations. This came forcibly when Beatlemania struck America. All of the Beatles were from Liverpool and spoke (but did not sing) with that city’s distinctive accent. Perhaps for the first time, a real “ordinary” British accent was widely heard by the nationwide American audience; whether or not this audience knew that the Liverpool accent is decidedly parochial is another matter.
So, are things better today? Well, they’re certainly different. In the main, this would seem to be a side-effect of the gradual accretion of Americanisms into the language used by the British. This appears in all walks of life, at all class levels, and popular music is no exception. Many British singers have developed the ability to sing songs using a believable American accent – at least when heard on record where there is only the singing. In concert, it isn’t quite so easy as Tina May pointed out when Mike Pinfold and I interviewed her for Singing Jazz. Tina observed that hers is a “purish English-sounding voice and I’m quite proud of that; after all jazz in the 1990s is such a world music. . . . My dilemma would be – how do you sound between songs? Do you have to have an accent all the way through? Then you become a completely different character.”
Today, singers of many nationalities comfortably sing pop and jazz song lyrics written in English by American writers. Some of them have discernible accents, but many do not and blindfold tests would probably catch out the majority of listeners. Jazz and pop singing, like the music itself, has indeed become international. Has anything been lost through this loss or merging of accents? I don’t think so, because this serves to meet the demands of the music and especially the lyrics. As Claire Martin stated, when interviewed for that same book: “Jazz singing is American music and you slip naturally into the accent when singing.”
Where am I with these idle thoughts? I’m not sure – certainly not at any sensible conclusion. So I’ll bring this post to an end and think of it as Part One so that I can return to the subject when (or maybe that should be “if”) I decide where I’m going.
April 5, 2016
Darren English Imagine Nation (Hot Shoe HSW 109)
Making his debut as leader here is the exciting young South African trumpet player, Darren English who is now resident in Atlanta, Georgia. Here, Darren and his collaborators perform an interesting mix of standards, including a deeply introspective Body And Soul, classics from the jazz repertoire, a sparkling version of Dizzy Gillespie’s Bebop, as well as four of Darren’s originals. Labels are misleading, but if pressed I would say that it is post-bop mainstream – most importantly it is exhilarating. Three of the originals are part of a suite dedicated to Nelson Mandela, although they are presented separately here. Darren’s trumpet lines are graceful, he states the original melodies with engaging simplicity before moving into thoughtful and often driving improvisations. He is ably supported throughout by the trio of Kenny Banks, Jr., piano, Billy Thornton, bass, and Chris Burroughs, drums. Tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy joins him on three titles; these are two parts of the Mandela suite and Bullet In The Gunn, one of Darren’s originals. Vocalist Carmen Bradford is heard with a very attractive take on Skylark and on a fast What A Little Moonlight Can Do (To You), which also has good solos from bass and drums. Fellow trumpeters Russell Gunn and Joe Grandsen are also on hand, particularly excitingly so on Ray Noble’s Cherokee, which ends the album in fine style. An exceptionally talented and commanding young musician who will undoubtedly have a great future.
Kat Parra Songbook Of The Américas (JazzMa JMR 1005)
Always adventurous yet simultaneously wholly accessible, Kat Parra is a highly talented and very gifted musician. As the album title states, here she sings a selection of songs that draws upon the music of many parts of the continent. Among the songs are jazz pieces, Eddie ‛Cleanhead’ Vinson’s Four and Charlie Parker’s Au Privave, to both of which Kat has supplied lyrics (thus becoming Ever More and Wouldn’t It Be Sweet) and Betty Carter’s Please Do Something; some familiar songs from the popular repertoire, Meredith Willson’s Till There Was You and Bob Merrill’s Mambo Italiano; and songs from Peru, María Landó, Cuba, Viente Años, Argentina, Como La Cigarro and Mexico, Bésame Mucho. In addition to writing lyrics to the music of others, Kat also arranges, along with Aaron Germaine, Murray Low, David Pinto and others. The lyric for Dame La Mano is a poem by Gabriela Mistral, for which Kat has composed the music. All of these songs, familiar and lesser known, are sung with flair and ingenuity, always presenting a personal take but remaining true to the music’s origins. Singing with clarity and subtle drive, Kat turns all of these songs into vibrant demonstrations of her artistic skill. She is joined here by several musicians from the Bay Area, where she is based, among them being pianist Murray Low, trumpeter John Worley, trombonist Wayne Wallace, and bassist Marc van Wageningen. Adding to the atmosphere are Latin percussionists as well as players of flute and bandoneón. Also heard are fellow singers Patti Cathcart (along with guitarist Tuck Andress), María Márquez and Nate Pruitt. Altogether this is a delightful journey, seeing old favorites with new eyes and finding new sights to visit again.
Ehud Asherie Shuffle Along (Blue Heron)
Very much a musician of today, pianist Ehud Asherie has taken an unusual step for his twelfth album in drawing all the music from a barely remembered Broadway musical from the early 1920s. Although the show, Shuffle Along, might be beyond the recall of many, it is in fact important, chiefly because it was the first all-black musical to play on Broadway. All-black because not only was the cast African American, so too were the songwriters. They were lyricist Noble Sissle and composer Eubie Blake. What is especially interesting about the songs is that because they were written as the 1910s rolled into the 20s they are not written in a style that is heavily influenced by jazz although the ‛new’ music is noticeably hovering in the wings. At the time, Blake was only 24 years old, and perhaps because of his youth neither was he overly influenced by those earlier forms of popular music that were being edged aside, although here and there can be heard hints of then contemporary ragtime, a piano style he had mastered. As the lyrics are not heard their true melodic value can be more fully appreciated and it is striking how fresh they sound, especially when played with great sympathy by Ehud. Most famous of all Eubie’s songs is I’m Just Wild About Harry, heard twice, the second occasion being in waltz-time, which allows Ehud to reveal its considerable melodic charm. This is a remarkably durable song, turning up in the early 1950s as the theme song for Harry S Truman’s presidential campaign. Among the other songs, much less often heard, are Everything Reminds Me Of You, Bandana Days and Gypsy Blues. A particularly attractive song is the melodic and reflective Love Will Find A Way, with which Ehud closes the set. Very well played, with technical expertise allied with understanding and warmth and a jazz improvisor’s intelligence, this should appeal to all who love piano music.
Beside the point, I know, but I can’t resist quoting Eubie Blake when interviewed in 1983 on the occasion of what was said to be his 100th birthday (actually his 96th): “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would’ve taken better care of myself.”
Please note that the cover of the copy reviewed differs slightly from that shown above.
Phyllis Blanford Edgewalker (independent)
Having lived for some years in Europe, Phyllis Blanford returned to America around 2000 and since then has established a reputation for heartfelt and soulful performances. Her chosen repertoire draws upon many aspects of popular music. Some of the songs are standards, Night And Day, You Don’t Know What Love Is, Come Rain Or Come Shine, and some from fellow singers, Carmen Lundy’s Blue Woman and Good Morning Kiss, and Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away. Phyllis singing style is relaxed, her appreciation and interpretation of the lyrics intense. On this release, the singer is accompanied by a fine selection of jazz instrumentalists, the core trio of Ted Brancato, keyboards, Kenny Davis, bass, Winard Harper, drums, and saxophonist Don Braden, trumpeter James Gibbs, guitarist Vic Juris, trombonists Vincent Gardner and Jason Jackson, percussionist Mayra Casales, and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. An interesting and enjoyable singer who will surely and deservedly be heard much more widely over the coming years.
Danny Green Altered Narratives (OA2 22128)
Although all the music heard here is composed by pianist Danny Green, everything is redolent of the rich history of jazz piano. Danny’s musical career has ranged widely, including grunge rock, ska, Cuban son and especially the music of Brazil. He has brought all of these elements into jazz with seemingly effortless ease, in the process substantially broadening his audience appeal. Danny leads his trio (Justin Grinnell, bass, Julien Cantelm, drums) on a musical journey that draws upon the blues (Chatter From All Sides, I Used To Hate The Blues), as well as classical form (Second Chance, Katabasis, Porcupine Dreams), with other elements from Danny’s eclectic musical background. On those last three named tunes the trio is joined by a string quartet, Antoine Silverman, Max Moston, violins, Chris Cardona, viola, Anja Wood, cello). This very attractive album will appeal to all lovers of jazz piano.
Cristina Braga Whisper (ENJA ENJ 9617-2)
Brazilian harpist/singer Cristina Braga has built an audience far outside her homeland for her notable performances of the music of Brazil. Here, she plays and sings a selection works by composers such as Dorival Caymmi (É Doce Morrer No Mar), João Donato (A Rã) and Baden Powell Samba Triste (with Billy Blanco) and Whisper On A Prelude (Cristina Braga and Alberto Rosenblit). Here she is accompanied by The Modern Samba Quartet (Jesse Sadoc, trumpet, Arthur Dutra, vibraphone, Ricardo Medeiros, bass, Claudio Wilner, percussion, Mauro Martins, drums) and the Brandenburger Symphoniker. There is also a guest appearance by guitarist/singer Dado Villa-Lobos, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Newton Mendonça’s (Meditation), sung here in the French and English versions (Eddy Marney and Norman Gimbel respectively). Although her vocal range is not wide, Cristina’s sound is gently soothing and suits the material well. Instrumentally, she is a gifted player displaying her talent on Mot D’Amour and especially Canto Triste. This concert was recorded live at the Great Hall of the Brandenburger Theater in Brandenburg.
For more on these artists go to their sites, highlighted above, and to Jazz Promo Services (for Phyllis Blanford, Cristina Braga), Braithwaite & Katz (for Ehud Asherie, Danny Green), and Mouthpiece Music (for Darren English, Kat Parra).
Other informative and entertaining sites to visit:-
And the place to go for albums is Amazon.