Monthly Archives: August 2010

Jazz on Film: Jazz ‘n’ Gin – The Speakeasy Scene

I’ve been reading a brilliant biography of the original Public Enemy No. 1 – gangster “Scarface” Al Capone and it has revived my fascination with the Roaring Twenties, when jazz thrived in the illegal drinking dens operated by hoodlums.

Of course, my earliest impressions of that period were formed by the movies, and particularly a couple of the jazz biopics which usually featured a scene set in a speakeasy. Here’s one of the first I remember seeing: Louis Armstrong and the All Stars with some special guests, in The Glenn Miller Story (1953)

Another family favourite was The Five Pennies (1959), the biopic of the trumpeter Loring “Red” Nichols. A little Danny Kaye goes a long way but he was on top form on the songs in this film, notably When The Saints Go Marching In, a memorable duet with Louis Armstrong. The speakeasy scene in this movie came near the beginning, when hick-from-the-sticks Nichols, whose new, cool girlfriend doubts his hot trumpet skills, reveals all as he emerges from the men’s room… Sounds dodgy on paper, but make up your own mind .. oh, and that’s Nichols ghosting Kaye’s playing.

Of course, the speakeasy scene cropped up in many movies set during the 1920s – remember the opening sequence of Billy Wilder’s masterful black comedy Some Like It Hot (1959)?  Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) – a drama about a jazz trumpeter who runs into problems with the mobsters  – featured some of the best speakeasy jazz – and no wonder: it had two top jazz singers in its cast:

and

Undoubtedly the most authentic evocations of the speakeasy come from the Prohibition era itself and that authentic touch adds immeasurably to the already considerable appeal of this last clip: the “soundie” of Bessie Smith’s majestic St Louis Blues, from 1929.

* Get Capone by Jonathan Eig (JR Books) is out now.

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Swedish Jazz Kings & Bob Barnard

Swedish Jazz Kings and Bob Barnard, Linlithgow Primary School, Linlithgow

****

The first Scottish date on the Swedish Jazz Kings’ short British tour didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts – thanks to the acoustics and a dodgy-sounding piano. Mind you, we were lucky to get to hear them at all: Europe’s premier purveyors of hot jazz had originally been booked to appear at the local town hall but due to the fact that the building work there had not been completed, the Linlithgow Jazz Club had to find an alternative venue for Saturday night’s concert.

By the third number, ears had become attuned to the acoustics and it was possible to enjoy the programme of music associated primarily with Clarence Williams, Louis Armstrong. With their line-up of trumpet, soprano sax/clarinet, piano, banjo and sousaphone, the Jazz Kings produce an often thrillingly authentic sound; the superb trumpet and reeds work of Bent Persson and Tomas Ornberg respectively is really the icing on the cake.

Persson is a master of the jaw-dropping hot “breaks” with which Louis Armstrong made his name, while Ornberg – an eccentric (he looks like an impish intellectual) who, on Saturday, had two horns hanging from his neck and two sets of glasses on his head – is a graceful sax and clarinet player. The addition of the majestic Australian trumpeter Bob Barnard, on what he says will be his last European tour, was a delightful bonus.

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Herman Leonard

The great photographer Herman Leonard died on August 14. Here’s a piece I wrote about him, when I did a phone interview with him in 2005 on the occasion of the publication of his book Jazz, Giants, and Journeys – The Photography of Herman Leonard (Scala). He was a delightful and very gracious man.

He may have lived in seven different countries, worked with the world’s most beautiful models and photographed far-flung places and people, but the constant throughout the long career of photographer Herman Leonard has been his passion for jazz. His portraits of such jazz greats as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington are regarded as the definitive images of these stars, and his archive is a veritable Who’s Who of jazz history.

Now, at the age of 83, Leonard’s work is being celebrated in a new book, Jazz, Giants, and Journeys – The Photography of Herman Leonard. It very nearly didn’t happen, though: 10,000 of his prints were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and it was only because Leonard took the precaution of storing his negatives in a vault in a New Orleans museum that this unique archive survives.

For Leonard, the music came second only to the pictures: his first love was undoubtedly photography. The chatty octogenarian chortles as he recalls how his passion was initially stirred. “My older brother was interested in photography and had taken some figure studies of his wife which I came across in the tray in his little darkroom. I was eight or nine years old and had never even imagined anything like these pictures! The only nude women I’d seen were Greek statues. But I saw his photos and I thought – this is the way I gotta go…”

When Leonard set up his first studio in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1948, he was a fully-fledged jazz fan. Luckily for him, it was at a time when the scene was thriving – though there was, as he points out, “no living to be made in jazz photography.” By day, Leonard worked for magazines and shot advertising campaigns, but at night he was to be found on 52nd Street, the birthplace of bebop. “I loved the music and became enchanted with the whole atmosphere of the nightclubs,” he says. “I wanted to make a visual diary of these musical moments, just strictly for my own self.”

Leonard would trade his photos for admission into the clubs, and soon became a fixture in front of the bandstands in the Royal Roost, the Downbeat and Birdland. “I was very fortunate. The club owners let me come in in the afternoon to set my lights up.” His unforgettable, black and white photographs of the young turks of the scene – Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon etc – are thrillingly evocative and undoubtedly helped jazz earn its “cool” status. Leonard was the same age as many of the musicians he was photographing, and he quickly became “one of the guys”.

Among his early work, one of his best-known photographs was a still life of the melancholy tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s sax case and iconic pork pie hat, surrounded by the swirls of cigarette smoke which were ubiquitous in Leonard’s club pictures. It’s one of Leonard’s favourite photos, because it sums up the character, and yet – incredibly – it was completely un-posed.

Another of Leonard’s early sessions was with the singer who was Young’s musical soulmate – Billie Holiday. He recalls it vividly. “The first time I worked with her was 1949 and she had just come out of jail. She was healthy and rested and off the drugs. She was charming, she was welcoming. I was with a reporter, and when we got to her modest Harlem apartment, she was wearing an apron and she’d been cooking a steak for her dog.

“The last time I photographed her was at a recording session for Norman Granz in ’55. When she walked in, she looked so terrible – haggard and drawn, just horrible – that I turned to Norman and said: ‘I can’t shoot this. You can’t use these pictures on your cover.’ He said: ‘You get your ass out there and shoot. You may not have another chance.’ Which turned out to be the case.

“I have a lot of pictures from that session that I’ll never show anybody because she just looks awful, and that isn’t the way I was brought up in photography. My mentor, Yousuf Karsh, told me:  ‘Herman, always tell the truth but in terms of beauty’. I loved Billie so much that I wouldn’t dare show these very sad pictures. But I did manage to get four or five images at that last session that I do show.”

One of these is of her shoes. “I particularly like that shot. You know, she had a tragic life – always being taken advantage of and abused by the men and so on. She lived her life in chains, and here she is in a pair of shoes with chains around her ankles. That to me is symbolic.”

Another favourite subject and singer was Ella Fitzgerald, whom Leonard photographed in the States and in Paris, where he lived for over a decade from 1956. Fitzgerald came to Paris with the producer and impresario Norman Granz (who owned Verve Records).

Leonard has very fond memories of Granz. “Norman did so much for jazz and so much for the musicians. He always did everything first class. He flew them first class, he put them in first class hotels – everything. There were occasions when he would come with black musicians and they wouldn’t be accepted, and Norman would say: ‘Either you keep us together – you don’t segregate us – or we won’t do the gig.’ ”

Just as Leonard was in the right place at the right time being in New York as bop blossomed, so he was perfectly placed in Paris for catching up with the superstars of jazz when they flew in for concerts. As often as not, it was with Leonard that they hung out at the Club St Germain after their show, or at the cosmopolitan Brasserie Lipp when they needed a late supper. The amenable photographer recalls snapping the majestic alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges there – “a sweet man” – and taking advantage of the kitchen’s late opening to dine on pastrami and coleslaw with him and other hungry American musicians.

One of Leonard’s favourite stars was Louis Armstrong. “Louis was fabulous. He was a show. He was always gagging around, having fun – just like the personality you see in his films. That’s why there’s one particular picture that I have of him which is out of the ordinary. He looks melancholy, but he was actually just thoughtful in that picture. He was backstage, and I was behind some curtains. I looked through and saw him sitting there like that so I poked my camera through and took a shot. He heard the click and he looked over at me and winked. I like that shot because it shows a different aspect of Louis.”

So who was the biggest thrill to meet? Leonard becomes very thoughtful, and his assistant suggests some names. Miles? “No, with Miles, I gravitated into his acquaintance gradually.” Louis? “No, because Louis was so open. I think it was Duke Ellington – wow, that was the biggest thrill: I was in the presence of the Duke, the elegant Ellington. He was a masterful guy and he was extremely sweet to me and accommodating. I was most impressed by that. He was hounded by everybody and you know when you hang around these big stars and you see what they have to go through, you can understand that they back away.

“For instance, I’m also, happily, a very close friend of Tony Bennett’s. I’m hanging out with him, we’re walking down the street, he has no entourage, nothing like that and people come up to him, and he stops and smiles and .. I say: ‘Doesn’t this all kind of bother you after a while?’ He says: ‘Look, these people are wonderful.. ‘ and he goes on like that. Ellington was like that too. A gentleman, a total, total gentleman.”

One of Leonard’s very favourite pictures is a rear view of Frank Sinatra. “I like it because it’s undeniably Sinatra – the body language, the feel of the smoke from the cigarette, and the simplicity of the picture. There’s nothing complicated about it, but to me it tells the story of Sinatra.

“In fact, I was taken out to his domain in Palm Springs by Quincy Jones one day, years ago. I had brought that particular print with me. I showed it to him and he hesitated and said: ‘Monte Carlo, 1958’. My jaw fell to the floor. At that point, somebody called him and he walked away. I turned to Quincy, and said: ‘How did he do that?’ . He said: ‘I don’t know, this guy is weird’. That’s a true story. He was wonderful. He was probably the one musician that I was in awe of. I didn’t engage him in long conversations as I would with the others. I just stood back there and watched and listened because I loved what he did. Sinatra was, to me, the greatest singer of all time.”

So, any regrets? Didn’t the camera sometimes get in the way of enjoying the music? “Absolutely,” nods Leonard. “People ask me: ‘What were they playing when you took that picture?’ I have no idea. I was thinking about the focusing and the angle and the exposure and all that kind of thing. I missed a lot of music because I was concentrating on the shot. But I don’t feel I missed out on the experience. The thrill of being there was enough for me.”

* Visit www.bbc.co.uk for a lovely tribute to Herman Leonard, with pictures and music.

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Hot (Jazz) off the Press …

Just in time for those of us suffering from jazz festival withdrawal symptoms (and missing our annual dose of Nairn jazz) comes the news that the excellent Swedish Jazz Kings (including the great Bent Persson, pictured centre, on trumpet) are playing a number of dates in Britain in late August. Not only that but they’re joined by old chum Bob Barnard, the ace Australian trumpeter. Here are the dates and contact details:

* Saturday, August 21st at 8pm: Linlithgow Primary School, Preston Road, Linlithgow. Tel: 01506-848821

* Sunday, August 22nd at 7.30pm: Fairfield House Hotel, Fairfield Road, Ayr. Tel: Katy on 01292 443309 or Stuart on 01292 590773

* Monday, August 23rd at 8pm: One Touch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness (with British trombone star Roy Williams added). Tel: 01463 234234

* Tuesday, August 24th at 8pm: Charles Cryer Studio Theatre, High Street, Carshalton (Sutton, London).  Tel: 020-8647 2114

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Carol Kidd Sings the Music of Judy Garland

Carol Kidd Sings the Music of Judy Garland, Queen’s Hall
*****
Some concerts are more personal than others. And the concert with which Carol Kidd closed the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Sunday seemed a great deal more personal than the Gershwin show she gave in Glasgow earlier in the summer. Why? Because Sunday’s concert was a celebration of the songs of her first favourite singer, Judy Garland, and many of them were numbers she had never done in public before.
They weren’t necessarily the tunes that the rest of us would immediately associate with Garland but they made for a varied, unpredictable and delightful programme. Among the many highlights were Kidd’s superb duets with guitarist Nigel Clark, on Stormy Weather especially, and first time outings of a swinging Just in Time, which boasted one of a series of knockout solos by pianist Brian Kellock (pictured above, right, with Frank Perowsky and Carol Kidd), and a bossa take on Time After Time.
Indeed, the bossa was undoubtedly the rhythm of the night – and it was a Jobim song, How Insensitive, which stole the first half; guest star Frank Perowsky’s flute playing the icing on an already scrumptious cake.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Django a la Creole

Django a la Creole, The Hub
****
The Django Reinhardt strand of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival came to an end on Saturday evening with a knockout performance by one of the most exciting Django-inspired groups. Django a la Creole has a Django-style line-up of – two guitars, bass and clarinet – but its accomplished lead guitarist, David Blenkhorn, doesn’t try to sound like the great gypsy jazz pioneer. And nor is its repertoire your typical Django one: this band, as the name suggests, dishes up its tunes with a variety of exotic flavours and rhythms. Some of the tunes were written that way; others benefit from the “Creole” treatment.
Of course, the band’s trump card is the American clarinet virtuoso Evan Christopher whose passion for the New Orleans style of Sidney Bechet and Barney Bigard fuses beautifully with the Django set-up. On Saturday, he was in great form, whether playing finger-busting duets with Blenkhorn on Riverboat Shuffle, I Know That You Know and Feerie or seducing listeners with his passionate playing on such intoxicating Caribbean-tinged tunes as Tropical Moon and Passaporte ao Paraiso.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Curtis Stigers

Curtis Stigers, The Hub
****
Friday night was ladies’ night at the jazz festival – at least it was for many of the punters who had gone to hear former pop star Curtis Stigers and his band. Stigers has something akin to the Michael Buble effect on middle-aged women – thanks to the killer combination of Chet Baker cheekbones, a great line in torch songs and some borderline saucy patter.
With a craggy voice which sounds as if he’s borrowed it from an old, Afro-American bluesman (who forgot to put his teeth in), Stigers’s singing is something of an acquired taste. However, by the time he reached his third song, even the most cynical among us had acquired it – thanks to a spellbinding interpretation of the ballad You Don’t Know What Love Is.
Stigers is a consummate storyteller who brings lyrics to life and doesn’t get in the way of their meaning or the emotion within them. That stand-out ballad – along with his equally superb encore, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning –  were further enhanced by John Snider’s pared-down trumpet solos. Like the Stigers bone structure, these were pure Chet Baker.

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