Chuck Stewart – Jazz Photographer

February 15, 2017

It is not only musicians who have made an important and valuable contribution to jazz. There have also been club owners and promoters and record producers (Milt Gabler, Norman Granz, Barney Josephson, Gene Norman, Rudy Van Gelder), writers (Whitney Balliett, Will Friedwald, Gary Giddings, Ted Gioia, Dan Morgenstern), filmmakers (Frank D. Gilroy, Gjon Mili, Thomas Reichman, Bert Stern, Bertrand Tavernier), and photographers. The work of this last group has gone far beyond publicity material, edging across the border into art and creating some of the lasting images of the music in the past hundred years. Significant names include William Claxton, William P. Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, David Redfern, and Valerie Wilmer. Apart from the last-named, none of these artists of the camera named here is still with us but their work lives on in many areas of the arts.

Chuck Stewart, another exceptional jazz photographer, died on 20 January 2017. He was born Charles Hugh Stewart in Henrietta, Texas, on 21 May 1927. Raised in Arizona, Chuck had his first brush with commercial photography when he used a Box Brownie to record a visit to his school by the legendary contralto Marian Anderson. Sales of the pictures he took that day raised $2, which was riches indeed in those Depression years. At his mother’s urging, Chuck took piano lessons, but this never developed into anything approaching a professional standard. However, his interest in photography grew and after graduation from Ohio University he moved to New York where he joined Herman Leonard with whom he worked in the city’s clubs. This was at the end of the 1940s, and the jazz scene was thriving as the tail-end of the swing era met with newly-arrived bebop. Drafted into the military in the early 1950s, Chuck would later state that he worked as a photographer at the atomic bomb testing sites in Nevada. Back in New York, he periodically ran their studio when Leonard was out of the country working on motion picture commissions.chuck

Although specializing in jazz, his first and enduring musical love, Chuck also photographed artists from other musical areas, among them the Beatles, James Brown, Bo Diddley, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Tito Puente and Frank Sinatra. For Chuck to attain and maintain his commercial success he clearly needed more than the jazz world and he also worked in many other areas, including sports, fashion, theater and films. It is, however, the images he recorded of jazz masters that stand out and they include Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, James Moody, McCoy Tyner and Dinah Washington. An indefinable element that appears in much of Chuck’s work is the fact that his subjects liked and trusted him, and this is most apparent when he photographed musicians on recording sessions. Many of these photographs appear on album sleeves, estimated at more than 2000, while his entire library of negatives exceeds three-quarters of a million.

Among the books displaying the work of jazz photographers are these by William Claxton, Jazz, William P. Gottlieb, The Golden Age of Jazz, Herman Leonard, Jazz, David Redfern, The Unclosed Eye, and Valerie Wilmer, Jazz People, all of which help us see into the hearts and souls of many of the greatest figures in the history of jazz.claxtongottliebleonardredfernwilmer



































































And there is also Lee Tanner’s book, The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography, which features the work of several camera artists.lee tanner

All of these books can be found at Amazon.

Swing that music

October 12, 2016

Fans of Swing Era music believe it to be as alive today as it was when it first burst upon the popular music scene, and there are many musicians around who are happy to prove them right. That this style is still so popular is quite remarkable when set against the thought that 21 August 2016 was the 81st anniversary of Benny Goodman’s breakthrough dance date at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. However you look at it, eight decades is a long time.Benny Goodman - Copy Benny’s band that night was cheered by an unexpected and eager audience that had been growing in the Pacific time zone for months and in the course of the next couple of years their numbers doubled and redoubled first all across the country and eventually around the world.

Although only newly in the public’s consciousness, this new development in jazz that was labeled ‘swing’ had been heard before that night in 1935 because the style had been evolving since the late years of the previous decade. Bands leading the way included those of Jelly Roll Morton, Luis Russell, Fess Williams, Erskine Tate, and Chick Webb, with arrangers Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, and Fletcher Henderson among those importantly involved. From the late 1930s onward, Goodman’s benchmark style was built upon the work of arrangers such as Henderson and Jimmy Mundy. Playing their charts were skilled sidemen, among them trombonist Red Ballard, saxophonists Hymie Schertzer and Art Rollini, pianist Jess Stacy, bassist Harry Goodman (Benny’s brother), and guitarist Allan Reuss. Soloists appeared who were important in building the band’s fan base, although Goodman himself was always firmly in the spotlight. close up detail of a woodwind clarinetAt the time of the Palomar date the band’s most exciting soloist was trumpeter Bunny Berigan, although he left the band a few weeks later. Changes brought in trumpeters Ziggy Elman and Harry James, tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, and, of significant importance to the band’s style and popular appeal, drummer Gene Krupa. His predecessors, Stan King and Sammy Weiss, were skilful dance band drummers and on earlier recordings do everything right. But on later dates Krupa adds that indefinable something that inspired the rest of the band, which in turn electrified audiences and helped make the band the popular powerhouse it was to become.

On 16 January 1938 the band appeared at Carnegie Hall, an occasion recorded (on a single overhead microphone) but not released until the early 1950s, by which time LPs had This album has never been out of circulation and as the years have passed reissues have benefited enormously from improvements to the sound quality. Not at all surprising is the fact that music from the Swing Era turns up often in films and on television, in dramas and documentaries. Of the music played on these occasions Benny Goodman’s is one of the most common; notably Sing, Sing, Sing the Louis Prima piece that became synonymous with Goodman and Krupa, thanks in large part to the climactic moments of the Carnegie Hall Unfortunately, Benny did not care to share the spotlight with anyone else and Krupa’s personal popularity, which had grown steadily since the Palomar dance date, brought about his departure from the band a little over a year after the Carnegie Hall concert.

So has this music of a bygone age been forgotten? Not at all. Indeed, in some quarters it is just as alive now as it was then. The long ago departure of jazz from the dance floor and in to the concert hall has meant that one of the key qualities of swing style has been sometimes overlooked. This is the fact that most of the music was composed, arranged and played for dancing. It should not be at all surprising therefore that Goodman’s music has had a lasting appeal among dancers, an appeal that is still going strong today. Among the gatherings for fans of dance of this kind is Lindy Focus in Asheville, North Carolina, where musicians and dancers and teachers assemble for a lively festival. The musicians who have played at this venue include local resident and bandleader Michael Gamble, who leads The Rhythmic Serenaders, and Jonathan Stout, leader of the Lindy Focus All Star Orchestra.

Michael Gamble The Rhythmic Serenaders (Organic OR 16552)

On this highly entertaining album, Michael Gamble draws upon music linked to several key names from the Swing Era. For example, he presents Billie Holiday’s composition Fine And Mellow as well as other songs with which she is associated, including What A Night, What A Moon, What A Boy and Back In Your Own Back Yard. Then there are A Mellow Bit Of Rhythm, written by Mary Lou Williams for Andy Kirk’s Clouds Of Joy, Sweets, by Harry Edison for Count Basie’s band, a couple of songs played by Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five, Scottie and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, while Goodman is represented by way of songs recorded by his sextet and big band: I Never Knew, Seven Come Eleven and Pick-a-Rib.gamble The Rhythm Serenaders assembled by bass player Michael are clarinetists and saxophonists Keenan McKenzie and Paul Consentino, trumpeters Gordon Au and Noah Hocker, trombonists Lucian Cobb and David Wilken, pianists Craig Gildner and James Posedel, guitarists Jonathan Stout and Brooks Prumo, and drummers Josh Collazo and Russ Wilson (who sings on two tracks), while vocalist Laura Windley appears on four tracks.

Throughout, there are fine solos from both Keenan and Paul and also by other members of the collective. These other soloists include James, Jonathan and Noah on Slidin’ And Glidin’, Seven Come Eleven (a theme originating with Charlie Christian) and Sweets, while Craig and Gordon are heard on I Never Knew. Gordon also solos on Fine And Mellow, providing an effective bluesy accompaniment to Laura’s introspective vocal. Everyone with a liking for the swinging music that captivated audiences way back when – and especially those who like to dance – will enjoy this album. And neatly completing the circle that embraces these eight-decades of swing, this recording session took place in Asheville’s Isis Music Hall, which first opened in 1937.

For more on Michael Gamble, contact Holly Cooper at Mouthpiece Music.

This album is available at the usual outlets, including Amazon.

Elsewhere on this site there is more on Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa – just follow the links.

Over the years there have been several books on Benny Goodman, notably D. Russell Connor’s bio-discography, BG On The Record, and his sequel, Benny Goodman: Wrappin’ It Up, as well as Benny Goodman and the Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier and Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman by Ross Firestone. There is also one in the Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz series, Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert by Catherine Tackley. My own book on Goodman is very brief – it was part of a series of monographs on key jazz figures – and it is long out of print (although still around on the Internet for pennies). I mention it only because it is especially dear to me as it is the only book of mine to be translated into Japanese. (I confess I skipped the proofreading stage.)bg-japan

What is a ‘jazz singer’ ?

June 30, 2016

Easy to forget, but not many years ago the term ‛jazz singer’ meant something very different from what it means today. Back then, such artists were admired by few, derided or dismissed by many. Many of these nay-sayers were not members of the general public (who were not the least bit interested), but people in or closely connected to the jazz world: instrumentalists, journalists, promoters, fans. Even some songwriters expressed outrage at the way jazz singers sang their songs. Yes; even the insiders didn’t like singers and what’s more, they didn’t care who knew it. A look at some of the early books on the history of jazz will quickly demonstrate that this is no exaggeration. Chapter upon chapter about instrumentalists, only a few paragraphs on singers.

As any singer will tell you there are still people in today’s jazz world who cling to those outdated (and unfair and unreasonable) ideas, but overall things are very different. Jazz singers of today can be numbered, quite literally, in thousands.Jazz singer-stretched Among the reasons for today’s picture is a matter of terminology. Quite simply, the definition of the term ‛jazz singer’ has been radically altered. In the past, the term’s definition was so narrow it is hard to stretch a list of those who fit the bill into double figures. During the past few years the term ‛jazz singer’ has been sanitized and artists so labelled have become admired, lauded even, and can sell millions of records. Among the results of this is that while artists of the past might have shied away from being labelled as a jazz singer, today many eager wannabes adopt the label regardless of their qualifications.

Looking behind the label, what is the reality? I suspect that if those few accepted jazz singers from long ago were brought back, the chances are they would not recognize many of these new singers as kindred artists and those newcomers they did recognize would be counted in similarly small numbers to those of far-off days. What they would recognize, those past mistresses of jazz song (then, as now, women greatly outnumber men), is that they themselves were seriously influential on the careers of the newcomers either directly or channeled through singers of the in-between generations.

tina mayellen j cdRene-Marie-CD2-150x150It is not at all surprising that the term ‛jazz singer’ means something different today. After all, the same can be said of jazz itself. During the second half of its 100-year history the word jazz has stretched to cover an enormous range, one so wide that surely no one can like everything. Consider that range for a moment: Early jazz with its primitive style and technique yet shot through with the flawless musical jewels heard on the first records made by Louis Armstrong that remain as vivid today as they were ninety years ago; the swing era, when jazz first became commercial; the revolution of bebop; and then there is west coast cool, hard bop, mainstream, jazz-rock and other fusions, all the way through to today’s cutting edge improvised music. And then there are those many wonderful side turnings into the realms of gospel and soul and r&b. As for the blues, well that’s more than merely a side turning, it’s a highway. And in all of these roots and branches of jazz there have been and still are singers who are as stylistically different from one another as are the instrumentalists. Significantly though, many of today’s singers have succeeded in doing something achieved by only a handful of jazz musicians (singers and instrumentalists) of the past. They are commercial. And just as commercial success during the swing era was frowned upon by purists, popularity today is viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility. It shouldn’t be this way. Popularity might not be a condition of quality but the two are not mutually exclusive. To steal a comment from Duke Ellington: “There are two kinds of music. Good and bad.”

These thoughts started with a question: What is a jazz singer? If that is what drew you in then it might irritate you if this piece ends without attempting an answer. That said, as should be clear by now, there will not be a categorical answer. Readers of the two books written many years ago by myself and Mike Pinfold are unlikely to have learned a hard and fast definition. In one of these books, The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986), we sought to recount the history of the form, while in the other, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we looked at the subject through the lives and careers and words of several singers. Definitions were not an objective, but reading them might cast a little light and maybe open a few doors. Although long out of print, second-hand copies can be found in dusty corners of cyberspace, while the most recent of these titles can now be bought as a Kindle e-book.singing jazz 1

Through the vast resource of the Internet it is possible to see and hear musicians perform and get to know them through interviews or simply read the thoughts and opinions of others. Among many on-line sources, two excellent sites that have much to offer on jazz singers are those of Marc Meyers and Anton Garcia Fernandez. Marc writes for The Wall Street Journal and his countless interviews and essays can be seen on his JazzWax. Anton teaches Spanish at the University of Tennessee in Martin and his musical interests are pursued on two sites: Vintage Bandstand and Jazz Flashes. Both of these writers deal extensively and knowledgeably with singers and it is possible to learn a lot from their work.

But will you learn what it is that makes a jazz singer? Perhaps an answer is impossible. Enough of this prevarication. For me, a jazz singer is one who can improvise upon yet remain respectful of a composer’s conception, can reach into the heart of a lyricist’s message and convey this to a listener, can perform with rhythmical assurance, sings in tune, sings a song with honesty and integrity, who brings originality to the music, and, perhaps, leaves something of themselves therein. Any singer who does all (or most) of these things might well earn a place alongside those few unquestioned jazz singers of the past.

ddr-jazzstandardclaire martinIf you want to hear singers like this, where might you start? Well, here are a few names to start you off, but these are offered with some trepidation because five minutes after this list is done and up for all to see, other names will be remembered. Also, in listing jazz singers of today who sit comfortably in my reckoning with those giants of the past I am guilty of omitting a few of earlier generations still working admirably today. So, with these caveats in mind here they are, among them some reviewed either in Jazz Journal or elsewhere on this site. Listening to their work will delight and enlighten you: Tony Adamo, Karrin Allyson, April Barrows, Theo Bleckmann, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Leanne Carroll, Dena DeRose, Madeleine Eastman, Sinne Eeg, Connie Evingson, Roberta Gambarini, Allan Harris, Ellen Johnson, Nancy Kelly, Stacey Kent, Chris McNulty, Kitty Margolis, René Marie, Claire Martin, Tina May, Catherine Russell, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Ian Shaw, Daryl Sherman, Judi Silvano, Carol Sloane, Clare Teal, Roseanne Vitro, Cassandra Wilson.

Albums by all of these artists can be found at Amazon.

In Other Words

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 findJazz singer-stretched 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”.Blue Notes-stretched-xtra

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.singer

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.”singing jazz 2

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.

Brothers in Jazz

June 30, 2015

A word of warning: a wave of nostalgia is approaching. Why? Because this post is about the Mills Brothers. In my life there was music before jazz (that came in at about age 14) and it was quite a mixture, including as it did music listened to on radio and records by parents, sister and brother (both older than me), grandparents, friends and neighbors. Thus there was grand opera alongside music hall ribaldry, musical comedy segueing into brass band music (this was in the north of England), there was operetta, dance band and chamber music, and intertwined with all of this were popular songs of the day. All of this perhaps explains why, even today, I know the words to many songs popular in British music halls many decades before I was born. My brother was a jazz fan and he and his pals crept secretly from house to house, 78s under their arms, to indulge themselves in whatever corner happened to be temporarily free of supervising and disapproving grown-ups. It was a few years before I was admitted to this secret society and began my own journey into the world of jazz. Until then, I followed most of those other musical paths and I recall some instances where an artist or perhaps a particular song would overcome the artificial boundaries we imposed and appeal to all of us. Among these artists and songs, Paul Robeson’s Old Man River comes to mind; the singer being something of a hero for factors that lay outside his musical life. Surprisingly, from time to time there were touches of jazz. Ella Fitzgerald’s A-Tisket, A-Tasket is one example; another is the vocal group, The Mills Brothers, especially with their versions of Paper Doll and The Glow-Worm. It was therefore with delight that I found among recent releases that came to me for review in Jazz Journal a double CD:

The Mills Brothers Paper Doll (Retrospective RTS 4263/4)

For those whose memories do not go back so far, the Mills Brothers formed their singing group in Piqua, Ohio, around 1925.mills1 They were real-life brothers, Herbert, Harry, Donald and John Jr., and they soon gained popularity and began making records at the start of the 1930s. Sadly, John died in 1936 and was replaced by the brothers’ father, John Sr., who stayed on until 1957 when he retired and thereafter the group was a trio. Perhaps a side effect of the need to make themselves self-sufficient, from the outset the group did not need accompaniment. In their original format, John Jr. played guitar while some of his brothers imitated musical instruments, creating vocal representations of trumpet or trombone or bass. Following John Jr.’s death, Bernard Addison played guitar for the group for about two years, and was succeeded by Norman Brown. This double album, which covers the years 1931 to 1952, includes all the Mills Brothers’ hits and they had many. In addition to Paper Doll and The Glow-Worm there are also Sleepy Head, Lazy River, Chinatown, My Chinatown and You Always Hurt The One You Love. The unmistakeable vocal sounds of the group is a beguiling melding of many vocal styles, notably early minstrelsy and barbershop singing, but all cloaked in sophisticated harmonization. The brothers sings with a relaxed swing and a strong feeling for jazz. This last quality meant that many leading jazz artists of the day were happy to join them in the recording studio or on radio shows, while their broad appeal brought in artists from the wider world of popular music. Among examples on this release are Louis Armstrong on Carry Me Back To Old Virginny, Cherry and Marie; Duke Ellington on It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing; Ella Fitzgerald, Dedicated To You; Tommy Dorsey, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone; Sy Oliver, Be My Life’s Companion; Bing Crosby Dinah and Shine; Al Jolson, Is It True What They Say About Dixie?.

As mentioned, after John Sr.’s retirement, Herbert, Harry and Donald continued as a trio, touring and recording with remarkable success through succeeding decades. Harry died in 1982 and another singer was brought in for a while, the first time that a non-family member was in the group. Even Herbert’s death, in 1989, was not the end as Donald teamed up with his son, John III, to sing on as a duo. Early hit singles by the quartet notwithstanding, in my view, the best of the Mills Brothers’ recordings come from 1967 and 1968, the years in which the surviving trio made two albums with Count Basie and his orchestra. These are outstanding recordings and richly deserve their regular reissue.

The Mills Brothers and Count Basie The Board Of Directors & Annual Report (Universal MCLD 19366)

and Complete Recordings (Gambit 69223)

To be clear, small differences in track sequencing apart, these releases are the same, the Universal appearing in 1998 and the Gambit in 2005.mills2 Any doubts anyone might hold about the jazz content of the Mills Brothers’ work must surely go out the window on hearing these swinging sets. All the qualities the group had demonstrated consistently through the preceding three-plus decades are evident in abundance. Indeed, the brothers are clearly invigorated by the Basie band as they swing through old and new favorites, injecting newly-sparked enthusiasm into familiar songs and reveling in songs rarely if ever sung before.mills3 Among the 21 tracks are Lazy River, Cherry, Sunny, The Glow-Worm, April In Paris, The Whiffenpoof Song, Cielito Lindo, Blue And Sentimental, I’ll Be Around, Release Me, April In Paris and Gentle On My Mind. Several Basie soloists can be heard while the charts, Dick Hyman on Annual Report, Chico O’Farrill on The Board Of Directors, match the best of Basie. Altogether, this a meeting of minds and the resulting music is wonderful.

The Mills Brothers Story (Storyville Films)

This 2007 film documentary is a real treat.mills dvd Mixing insightful interviews with numerous vocal performances, this film allows today’s audience to see as well as hear these remarkable singers. Indeed, it is inspiring to see excerpts from one of the last concert performances by the trio of brothers, Donald, Herbert and Harry. This was filmed in Copenhagen in 1981 and with the backing of a big band they turn in exceptional versions of You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You and Bye Bye Blackbird.

So, the Retrospective double or the Basie set? Hard to choose, but if forced into a corner I would take the later brothers in company with the Count. Then again, maybe not. I know quantity is no way to judge but the overall quality is so good that it is hard to turn away from the 56 tracks that trace the Mills Brothers through their earlier years. Maybe go for both. You won’t be disappointed. Oh, and don’t forget the unmissable film, available on DVD.

All these CDs and the DVD can be easily found, not least at Amazon.

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