Imagination

February 15, 2018

An old friend, Dave Tuck, asked if I might offer a young undergraduate any useful suggestions for a thesis she was planning on aspects of rock ‘n’ roll. Now where r ‘n’ r is concerned my knowledge is only that of a casual listener; however, one of the facets being considered for the thesis was an exploration of how parents reacted to their offspring’s embracing of the new rebellious music of the 1950s. Through her own background, she knew how white adults and teenagers in the UK reacted to rock ‘n’ roll, but she was curious to know if black teenagers in the USA had similar experiences to hers. And did black adults also view this new musical fashion as controversial and sinful? I had no idea, so I raised these questions with two black American singers and their replies, while maybe not too helpful with the proposed university thesis, offered some insight into the making of a jazz singer.

One of these singers is Sandi Russell, who performs concerts and makes albums as a jazz singer (see my review in Jazz Journal in December 2007), Sandi-Russell-CD-150x150 and has also toured her one-woman show dealing with aspects of being a black woman in a white-dominated society. sr book2 In her reply to my query, Sandi commented that she was “somewhat interested in rock and roll, Bill Haley, etc.,” but “mostly listened to doo-wop and rhythm and blues, and my parents didn’t seem to mind or care. I don’t think the black community paid that much attention, and not many kids I knew liked Elvis at all!” Sandi’s father, though, did take marked exception to her playing Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls Of Fire, which he promptly broke in half, saying that “this kind of music is not allowed in the house”. Sandi added that at the time she had “no idea what the song meant, except somebody was happy and excited!”

Sandi, who was born in New York but has lived in England for many years, published her début novel, Color, in 2013.sr book

I expect there are many who encountered related confrontations with parents. In my case there were parental objections to the double entendre lyrics of some of the blues records I played and yet, confusingly (to the teenage me), the blatantly single entendre lyrics of the musical hall ribaldry my parents loved were deemed acceptable.

The other singer is Sandy Graham, born and still based in California, who has been closely involved in the jazz world most of her life and has made several albums, one of which I reviewed in Jazz Journal in April 2004.sg1 In her reply to my inquiry, Sandy remarked that she could offer little insight into rock ‘n’ roll. “I was exposed to gospel music and jazz as a child. When I did listen to music other than gospel or jazz I listened to pop or classical music.” Sandy’s father “played saxophone and loved Johnny Hodges, so I was exposed to jazz all the time. The first record I ever bought was Charlie Parker’s All The Things You Are. I was eleven or twelve years old. The pop music I heard was by Peggy Lee, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Sinatra, Como, the Four Lads, the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo’s et. al. I did like some R&B groups, such as the Clovers, the Temptations, the Impressions, but was exposed to very little of it when I was a child. I didn’t like Little Richard or James Brown and those folks. So as far as the parent/child relationship is concerned there was no rebellion in my home. My family was musical and when I lived in foster homes prior to living with my Dad, they were also listening to jazz, gospel and very little R&B.”

The years Sandy spent with her father were in Oregon and it was there, at the age of sixteen, that she won the opportunity to sing on television. “I sang Little Things Mean A Lot. It was a pop song recorded by Teresa Brewer. I was scared to death. But I did it beautifully, so they say . . . I hardly remember. Anyway, my father was very proud and used to wake me at two o’clock in the morning to sing Four Brothers for his friends who would come by the house after work. Ha ha! I loved bebop. Still do.”sg2

It was in Oregon that Sandy met Elise Bly and it was through her that when she was back in Los Angeles she met trumpeter Clora Bryant. Elise and Clora had played together in Oklahoma and these musical generation-spanning contacts of Sandy’s can be seen in Judy Chaikin’s award-winning film, The Girls In The Band. When she was in Los Angeles, Sandy was never far from music. “We lived off Central Avenue where jazz and blues played anytime of the day and night. I remember when people would come from all over Los Angeles to go to the clubs in the Central Avenue area.jc girls They would dress up in shiny dresses, pearls and furs. I always said when I get big I’m going to dress like that, smoke cigarettes out of a long cigarette holder and go to the clubs and listen to the beautiful music. Of course when I got old enough to go to Central Avenue all those jazz clubs were gone. Oh, but I’m rambling on because I still think about the places that I missed. I was born too late for those glorious, glamorous times. At least, it seemed glamorous to me. But it probably wasn’t really. My eyes were full of stars.”

Those images of Central Avenue are much more than half a world away from many. Speaking for myself, I was born and raised in a city in the North of England where there were no jazz clubs and only rarely did a jazz artist make a concert appearance at the stately and quite unsuitable City Hall. Gradually, as the years went by, jazz was heard; the trad jazz boom of the 1950s at last giving pub landlords something to do with those cavernous first-floor rooms that had lain empty and echoing for decades.Door with jazz and graffiti So different are these memories from Sandy Graham’s Central Avenue recollections and yet, somehow, I feel a surprisingly strong kinship with her and others who saw and heard those sights and sounds, be they in Los Angeles or Kansas City or on Chicago’s South Side or New York’s 52nd Street. If her eyes were full of stars, then the same might be said of my head. Hopefully, the make-believe will stay in my head among the images of reported but unrecorded moments of magic: Joe Turner singing behind the bar of the Reno Club; Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton playing a 30-minute duet on trumpet and drums in a Los Angeles nightspot; Dizzy Gillespie happily sitting in and playing fourth (!) trumpet in Bill Berry’s band at Carmelo’s in Hollywood; Chick Webb routing Benny Goodman in a battle of the bands at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. All these are real events but the aural and visual images they evoke are entirely imaginary, and yet are all so real to me.

This same imagination drew me by way of jazz to other aspects of American culture. Among the results of this is my stage play, The Colors Of Your Life, which centers upon the mistreatment of black women in the USA from slavery through to the present day.bc colors Also, three of my recent crime novels, Harlem Nocturne, Harlem Madness, and Harlem Blues, are set respectively in 1939, 1943 and 1963. Although fiction, these tales touch upon real issues of those times, including the rise of fascism, the Harlem riots, and the impact of the Civil Rights movement. I am immeasurably grateful that jazz and my (perhaps overly active) imagination led me into these other worlds.bc h blues No bad thing; because imagination is what someone in my trade needs. Just as it is needed in the much richer and more important work of the jazz giants we all admire. Perhaps, once in a while, imagination overflows a little beyond acceptable boundaries, but I certainly hope that such lapses can be forgiven, if only because in so doing I can sneakily forgive myself when I do it. And why not? After all, without imagination, the world can be a very dull place.

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The Girls In The Band

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.the_girls_in_the_band_poster_a_p

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. Blue Notes-stretched-xtraThen, 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. 

OJC/Riverside Records

OJC/Riverside Records

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. 

Jazz Classics Records

Jazz Classics Records

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.

Rosetta Records

Rosetta Records

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.

VSOP Records

VSOP Records

Concord Records

Concord Records

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. 

DRG Records

DRG Records

WEA Records

WEA Records

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.

Fresh Sound Records

Fresh Sound Records

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.the_girls_in_the_band_poster_a_p

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.

 

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