Marlene VerPlanck

January 21, 2018

Marlene VerPlanck

An exceptionally gifted singer, Marlene VerPlanck died on Sunday, 14 January 2018. Comfortable in almost any setting, Marlene was a superb interpreter of the great standards and she also happily integrated with jazz musicians, performing live and on record with small groups and big bands. She was born Marlene Pampinella on 11 November 1933 in Newark, New Jersey. Starting to sing at the end of her teens, during the 1950s she worked with the big bands of Tex Beneke, Charlie Spivak and Tommy Dorsey. Also on these last two bands was trombonist-arranger J. ‘Billy’ VerPlanck (1930-2009) and they soon married. Settling in the New York area, they worked as studio musicians during the 1960s and 1970s, Marlene singing on hundreds of commercials and also as a studio back-up singer for many artists (including Frank Sinatra). She also sang in jazz clubs and began recording as a solo artist, with her husband as arranger. From the 1980s onward, Marlene toured internationally as a solo artist, gaining a wide following, and she also recorded extensively, mostly for Audiophile Records. The first of her albums I heard – and reviewed for Jazz Journal – was entitled Pure and Natural, a phrase that aptly defined Marlene’s vocal sound. Not long after that first hearing, I met and interviewed Marlene and Billy – also for JJ – and a lasting friendship was formed. Among musicians with whom she recorded are Loonis McGlohon, Harry Allen, Warren Vaché Jnr, Tedd Firth and John Pearce and she also worked with Glenn Francke’s Big Band in the USA, the French band, Saxomania, and the UK’s Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra. Most unusually, her voice never appeared to age, and on her last engagements in 2017 (which included her 27th UK tour) her sound remained as clear and as true as always. Marlene’s interpretation of lyrics was profound and while her ballad singing was her greatest achievement, she also sang mid- and up-tempo songs with rhythmic flair. In an email in December 2017, she said how much she was looking forward to her upcoming tour of the UK but she succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

Morning Glory – Mary Lou Williams

September 15, 2017

Many jazz instrumentalists continue to exert influence long after death, but sadly few of them are women. I will refrain from the strange exercise of list making and simply say that were I to do so one name thereon – however short the list – would be Mary Lou Williams. Considered only as a pianist, she would rank high; and she would be similarly ranked if considered as a composer. But as an arranger, she has to be among the very best of her generation. And all of this is, as it should be, regardless of her sex. She was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, in Atlanta, Georgia, on 8 May 1910. From early childhood she proved to be a strikingly gifted pianist, becoming a professional as a young teenager. In her mid-teens she married saxophonist-bandleader John Williams with whom she toured mainly in the Midwest. Before long, they were both in Terrence Holder’s popular Territory band and following Holder’s departure, the band became known as Andy Kirk and his Clouds Of Joy. Fans and fellow musicians alike held the band in high regard. In part this was due to the skillful playing of the sidemen, but Mary Lou’s arrangements were by far the most important factor in the band’s success. AA clouds A notable quality of her writing is the manner in which she accommodates the abilities of the band’s sidemen (a characteristic also present in the work of Duke Ellington). So skilled was she that other bandleaders took notice and soon, in addition to her playing and arranging duties with Kirk, she was writing charts for front-rank leaders, including Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Earl Hines. When her marriage to Williams ended she was briefly married to Harold ‘Shorty’ Baker with whom she co-led a band for a while. From the early-1940s into the mid-1950s she continued to perform and arrange, working comfortably with bop musicians, including Art Blakey who played in one of her bands, and Dizzy Gillespie, for whose big band she wrote In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee. She also composed a number of longer works, including The Zodiac Suite, which was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Of all her talents, it is for her arrangements that Mary Lou Williams will be best remembered, and in particular those she wrote for the Clouds of Joy, among them some of her own compositions, which include Walkin’ and Swingin’, Twinklin’, Cloudy and Little Joe from Chicago. The Clouds also recorded The Lady Who Swings the Band, a song written for her by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn. For Benny Goodman she wrote Camel Hop and he had a hit with her Roll ’Em – while Jimmie Lunceford had a hit with What’s Your Story Morning Glory, the title of which was to become synonymous with her.

In the late 1950s, Mary Lou took time away from music performance. She converted to Catholicism and, immersing herself in her faith, began composing sacred music, including Black Christ of the Andes, Anima Christi, Praise the Lord and perhaps the best known Music for Peace, usually entitled Mary Lou’s Mass.BB mlw mass Subsequently, she performed nationally and internationally, vividly demonstrating the wide range of her musical interests – from the early forms of jazz through swing and bop and into the modern era. Off stage, she could be outspoken and demanding, carrying with her through later life memories of the offhand and sometimes dishonest treatment she received in the music business, bitter recollections of racial discrimination, as well as the action of the US State Department, which ignored her at a time when it was actively spreading American culture through overseas ambassadorial tours by jazz musicians – their pretext appears to have been that she was a religious fanatic whose beliefs suggested that she was unbalanced. Active as a teacher, both informally and formally, Mary Lou’s importance to the fabric of jazz was recognized toward the end of her life when she was honored by several universities. There was also her headline appearance at the inaugural Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival in March 1978 – a performance of Mary Lou’s Mass also took place on that occasion. She performed nationally and internationally as soloist and also occasionally leading small bands.CC mlw These performances were in clubs, concert halls and festivals, the latter including Middlesbrough in July 1978 (the only occasion I was able to hear her live). There is also the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival, founded by Billy Taylor, staged annually at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC – May 2017 being the 22nd incarnation. A biography of Mary Lou Williams, Morning Glory by Linda Dahl, was published in 1999; another, Soul on Soul, by Tammy Lynn Kernodle, in 2005; and there is much of interest about her in Carolyn Glenn Brewer’s Changing the Tune, which I reviewed in Jazz Journal (July 2017). A documentary film by Carol Bash, Mary Lou Williams: the Lady Who Swings the Band, appeared in 2015.

Mary Lou Williams died at home in Durham, North Carolina, on 28 May 1981.

Jazz and the unlikely ukulele

July 21, 2017

There are hundreds of different musical instruments in existence, but how many are used in jazz? Apart from trumpet and saxophone, trombone and piano, drums and guitar, clarinet and bass, how many others are there? Not many. Well, no doubt anyone reading this will quickly compile a list, maybe a lengthy list, but mostly these will be instruments few jazz musicians play, some maybe playing them only as a second instrument. Those musicians who do play instruments from outside that small familiar group sometimes attract the (perhaps surprised) appreciation of fans. Consider, for example, the unfairly-maligned ukulele, a delightful instrument that has been in my mind recently, thanks to the reissue of almost forgotten recordings from the late 1950s. lyle ritzThis is Lyle Ritz Plays Jazz Ukulele (Fresh Sound FSR-CD 810), which is reviewed at length by Ian Lomax in the June 2017 issue of Jazz Journal. The music heard on this album vividly demonstrates that Ritz (1930-2017) was a very skillful instrumentalist and an imaginative improviser. In his review, Lomax mentions other, more recent players of the instrument: Jake Shimabukuro, Israel Kama-kawiwoole and Paul Hemmings. To this short list, I would definitely add Chuck Morgan, a gifted jazz artist and in particular his work with singer Janet Seidel. My review of their album Moon Of Manakoora (LaBrava LB0068), can be found here. I also wrote about the ukulele in a Guest Editorial in Jazz Journal in early 2006, which includes in part an explanation of the instrument’s origins.

“. . . The ukulele, which in its original form looks like an acoustic guitar, is smaller than but structurally similar to the guitar. It has only four strings, something that is not as restricting as might be thought; many early jazz and especially blues guitarists tended to use only four of the available six strings. The similarities between ukulele and guitar are not coincidental; although claims are laid for the guitar’s origins being on the Indian sub-continent, both instruments developed significantly and in a form recognizable today on the Iberian Peninsular. This was probably in Portugal where a four-string instrument, similar in size to the braguinha but tuned like a rajão, became popular and was later taken by Portuguese sailors and immigrants to the Hawaiian Islands, where it was given the onomatopoetically coined name by which we know it today. Aurally, the ukulele is very close to the guitar but given its physical dimensions has a lighter, more delicate and very attractive sound. . .”ukulelerose

Because those of you in the USA might well think better of the ukulele than those in the UK, perhaps I should expand upon my description of the instrument as being unfairly-maligned.

This is mainly because of George Formby (1904-1961), a hugely popular British music hall performer who was at the height of his fame in the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to playing to packed houses all across the country, he made many very successful records, starred in more than twenty popular films, and in the 1950s played the lead in London’s West End in the stage musical Zip Goes A Million (adapted from George Barr McCutcheon’s novel, Brewster’s Millions). At the height of his fame, Formby was one of the UK’s two highest-paid showbiz performers (the other was Gracie Fields). Many years after his death, Formby’s popularity returned in part thanks to the entertainer Alan Randall (1934-2005). Early in his career, Randall played vibraphone and piano in jazz groups (he also played drums, trumpet and trombone), working throughout the UK and also touring the USA, including appearing in Las Vegas, and a earning favorable review in The New Yorker: “One of the World’s best musical acts”. 81U3G3aunwL._SL1394_It was his impersonation of Formby, though, that boosted his popularity and this occupied most of his late career and unfortunately shaded his considerable instrumental talent. Randall also co-wrote (with Vince Powell) and starred in Turned Out Nice Again, a stage musical based on Formby’s life.

So, what has all this to do with the ukulele? When Formby sang his comic songs, among them Leaning On A Lamppost, Chinese Laundry Blues, When I’m Cleaning Windows and Auntie Maggie’s Remedy, he accompanied himself on what he referred to as his ‘little ukulele’. In fact, this instrument was not a ukulele but a Gibson UB3 banjolele, a hybrid instrument that is rather like an enlarged version of the banjo. Formby’s constant references to his ‘little ukulele’ are exemplified in the song With My Little Ukulele In My Hand, although as everyone over a certain age knows, this title should not be taken literally. The lyrics of songs sung by music hall artists are rich in double entendres, quite a lot of them making even the raunchiest of blues lyrics seem mild in comparison. When George Formby sang that particular song, both he and his audience knew that whatever he might have in his hand it was not a musical instrument. Unfortunately, in the UK mention of the ukulele brings to mind Formby and his banjolele, which is decidedly un-jazzlike, and as a consequence of this the ukulele and those who play and enjoy hearing this very musical instrument are the losers. The ukulele, which is the same shape as guitar but about the size of a violin, has a softer sound than the guitar and does not have the same resonance. Try hearing Lyle Ritz or Chuck Morgan and you will hear what I mean. You will also hear some very good jazz.


Ukulele image by Dreamstime.

Anita Ellis

April 10, 2017

April 12 this year was Anita Ellis’s 97th birthday. A remarkably gifted singer, she suffered from crippling stage fright, but although this severely restricted her career she was fortunate in finding a role out of public sight dubbing the singing voice for film actresses in Hollywood. Among these are Vera-Ellen in The Belle Of New York and Three Little Words, Marie Windsor in Dakota Lil, Jeanne Crain in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, and especially for Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai, The Loves Of Carmen and, spectacularly, in Gilda.anita rita


I recall pianist Loonis McGlohon telling me that Anita’s stage fright affected her even when she was in the company of friends. He told of a recording date at his studio, which was at his home, and how she was badly affected even though only the accompanying trio and a recording engineer were present. Listening to that album, you would never know. Unhappily, Loonis also told me how he would call on Anita whenever he was in New York although as Alzheimer’s took hold she did not know who he was. Even worse, and revealing just how heartbreakingly cruel this disease can be, she no longer knew that she had been a singer.anita e-3anita e-2anita e.1

Just how good she was can be heard on any of her albums; for example, Thinking Of You, The World In My Arms, and the poignantly titled I Wonder What Became Of Me. All of these and more of Anita Ellis’s albums can be found at walk-in or on-line stores, including Amazon.


Back in 1979 Anita made a 30-minute film talking about her childhood, working with Orson Welles, the origins of music, and singing several songs. The apparent absence of stage fright in this film is striking and surprising. At the close of this film, Anita sings an a capella version of Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child that is quite beautiful. This film can be seen on Youtube.

Singers like Anita Ellis who dubbed for film stars were almost never credited at the time or even later as sometimes publicizing their work was contractually forbidden. In recent years, an actor’s inability to sing adequately has been aided by the latest technology. However hopelessly out of tune an actor’s singing voice might be, it can be altered so that even the most inadequate will appear to be pitch perfect. Way back before these technological adjustments were possible it was the dubber who shone, however secretly. Some of these dubbers were remarkably prolific. Jo Anne Greer dubbed for May Wynn in The Caine Mutiny, Kim Novak in Five Against The House, Susan Kohner in Imitation Of Life, Esther Williams in Jupiter’s Darling, Rita Hayorth in Sadie Thompson, Pal Joey and Affair In Trinidad, and Gloria Grahame in Naked Alibi. Martha Mears was the singing voice for Lucille Ball in The Big Street and DuBarry Was A Lady, Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl and Tonight And Every Night, Michele Morgan in Higher And Higher, Marjorie Reynolds in Holiday Inn and Meet Me On Broadway, Veronica Lake in I Wanted Wings, Isn’t It Romantic?, Star Spangled Rhythm and This Gun For Hire, and Jennifer Jones in Portrait Of Jennie. Bonnie Lou Williams sang songs for Virginia Mayo in Always Leave Them Laughing, Piper Laurie in Ain’t Misbehavin’, June Haver in The Daughter Of Rosie O’Grady and Oh, You Beautiful Doll, Jayne Mansfield in Illegal and Alexis Smith in Montana. Marnie Nixon’s singing voice was heard dubbing songs for Deborah Kerr in An Affair To Remember and The King And I, Margaret O’Brien in Big City and The Secret Garden, Jeanne Crain in Cheaper By The Dozen, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. In the last-named film, Richard Beymer was dubbed by Jimmie Bryant, who observed to me that he and Marnie did not meet for the remarkable and timeless duet they sang, she being on the east coast while he was on the west. You would never know it from the warm togetherness of their sounds. A striking quality that many of these singers had was an ability to adjust their voices so that they resembled the speaking voices of the actors. This meant that audiences would readily believe that they really were hearing the actors sing. Some dubbers had singing careers outside the studios and albums by them have been reissued over the years, some in CD format (for these go to Amazon). When these old films are shown on television they do not always stand up to present-day expectations but even when the films are poor, the unseen contributions by behind-the-scenes singers shine who can now be admired for their remarkable skill.

Anyone interested in the work of singers who dubbed for actors in films should go to MOVIE DUBBERS, a site built by Ray Hagen (with Laura Wagner, Steven Tompkins et al). This is an extensive listing (some 700 films) and it is from there that I have taken some of the details shown above.

The Jones Boys

March 15, 2017

Are jazz musicians born or are they made? This topic was touched upon in a post here when writing about the Caceres family from the 1930s through to the early 2000s. There, the leaning is toward the belief that environment does the trick rather than blood. Until, that is, the names of the true giants are mentioned. Did Louis Armstrong’s genius spring from his blood or his childhood environment? It appears not to have been either (the Waif’s Home notwithstanding). Or how about Charlie Parker? Or Billie Holiday? Neither the blood nor the early childhood environment of those three artists was particularly conducive to the creation of a musical life. On contrast, the effect of blood and environment inevitably come to mind when considering the lives and careers of the Jones brothers: Hank, Thad and Elvin.

Their father, Henry Jones, worked in the construction industry (he was a lumber inspector) and was also a Baptist deacon. Their mother, Olivia, sang but not professionally and Hank (Henry Jr.) and two older sisters, were encouraged to study piano. In his case, he progressed rapidly and as he entered his teens he began performing semi-professionally close to the family home in Pontiac, Michigan (he was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on 31 July 1918). He also led his own band, in one of which a younger brother, Thad, played trumpet. Hank played piano in various territory bands and was heard by Lucky Thompson who urged him go to New York where he worked with Hot Lips Page. This was in 1944 and while in the city he not only played with musicians such as John Kirby, Coleman Hawkins, and Andy Kirk, he also began drawing into his style aspects of bop through men like Howard McGhee and the future stars of bop who worked in Billy Eckstine’s band. He also worked with Benny Goodman and Milt Jackson and toured extensively with Jazz At The Philharmonic. He then spent several years as a staff musician at CBS Records. This job, which he held into the mid-1970s, meant that he was often working in non-jazz areas but subsequently he returned to jazz.aaahankjonestrioaaahankjonesarigatou He played most often as a soloist, sometimes accompanied singers, and he also played in piano duos with artists including Tommy Flanagan and George Shearing. Hank’s performances, live and on record, were always elegant, reserved almost, his playing always hinting that beneath the urbane surface lay a massive, smoldering talent.

Relevant to the blood -vs- environment theme, Thad Jones (born Thaddeus Joseph on 28 March 1923 in Pontiac) was a self-taught trumpet player. He played a little with brother Hank but his technique and knowledge were advanced during military service. Early in the 1950s he worked in Billy Mitchell’s band in which the youngest of the Jones boys, Elvin, played drums. After a short spell with Charles Mingus, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s he became widely recognized through spending several years with Count Basie. In the mid-1960s, Thad teamed up with Mel Lewis to form and co-lead The Jazz Orchestra Mel Lewis.aaathadjonesmelaaathadmagnif In many respects this was a turning point in Thad’s career because it was here that his playing began to take second place alongside the development of his work as composer and arranger. At the end of the 1970s, Thad emigrated to Denmark, where he continued his writing, now for the Danish Radio Big Band and his own band, Eclipse. In 1985 he was briefly leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, a role that ended a few months before his death. Like his brother Hank, Thad was influenced by bop and was a gifted and harmonically advanced soloist, his sound being especially attractive when he played flügelhorn. (Late in life, a lip injury prompted him to occasionally play trombone.) This said, Thad’s legacy is the large library of big band compositions and arrangements that vividly demonstrate his skill that extended over many aspects of jazz and popular music.

Four years younger than Thad and nine younger than Hank, Elvin (born Elvin Ray in Pontiac on 9 September 1927) played drums with local bands and also in the army before joining Billy Mitchell. From the mid-1950s he was one of the foremost drummers in bop, working with musicians such as Donald Byrd, J.J. Johnson and Sonny Rollins, before joining John Coltrane’s quartet. The five years he spent with Coltrane secured his place among the most notable and influential of jazz drummers. Thereafter and for the rest of his life he was mostly leader of small groups, toured internationally, playing concerts and festival dates. Musicians who fronted the groups Elvin drove included George Coleman, Joe Farrell, and Wilbur Little, and he also recorded with Art Pepper. Elvin’s career as small group leader continued with the Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine and he worked to within a few months of his death.aaaelvinvvangaaaelvinrd The last two decades of his career showed Elvin to be a hugely accomplished drummer, his style ranging from bop to free, his technique being exceptional. This last-named quality allowing him to become far more than an accompanist or a mere setter of the beat. A powerful and dominating presence on the bandstand, Elvin Jones created cascading yet intricately formed sheets of sound far beyond the grasp of most of his fellow drummers in jazz.

So, in the case of the Jones boys was blood or environment the factor that drove them to become exceptional and significant figures in jazz? A simple answer is not easy. Clearly, the same blood ran in the veins of them all and their early childhood years were spent in the same environment. This said, and perhaps clouding rather than illuminating the picture, a strong argument can be made that sibling inspiration was one of the keys to their success. Whatever the answer, there can be no doubt that Hank, Thad and Elvin Jones were important, valuable, admired and much-missed musicians

Hank Jones: 31 July 1918 – 16 May 2010

Thad Jones: 28 March 1923 – 20 August 1986

Elvin Jones: 9 September 1927 – 18 May 2004

The album covers illustrated above are just a few of the dozens of albums made by each of the Jones brothers, all of which can be found at walk-in and on-line stores, including Amazon.

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