Monthly Archives: May 2011

Jazz on Film @ Glasgow Jazz Festival

Jazz and film have been my two big passions since I was an adolescent and I’m beyond thrilled to have programmed a jazz movie festival within this year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival (June 29- July 3). And the really good news? All the films are free – though tickets are limited and should be booked in advance.

This being the 25th edition of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, the films have been chosen because they have a connection to the festival’s history, which is being celebrated throughout this year’s event. So we’re kicking off, on June 29, with a matinee screening of All Night Long (1961), a British film which stars Richard Attenborough and Patrick “The Prisoner” McGoohan and is effectively a jazz version of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Attenborough stars as a playboy who hosts a jam session-cum-party to mark the one-year wedding anniversary of the golden couple of the London jazz scene.. Among the many British and American musicians who are seen onscreen (and even act a bit!) are pianist Dave Brubeck, bassist Charles Mingus (above;  in his only feature film appearance) and saxophonist and vibes player Tubby Hayes. Cleo Laine, who is performing at the jazz festival on the evening of the 29th, sings on the soundtrack while her late husband, the saxophonist John Dankworth, is onscreen.

On June 30 at 2pm, I’ll be in conversation with Pauline McLean, BBC Scotland’s arts correspondent, at the Club Room in the City Halls. We’ll be discussing how jazz and film have been linked since the advent of talkies – and I’ll be showing some of my favourite clips.

The rarely shown cult movie Mickey One (1965) is our first evening screening, on July 1. I was delighted to find that Park Circus, the Glasgow-based company which distributes old movies and from which all of our films are coming, had this particular title as it features tenor saxophonist Stan Getz – who came to the jazz festival in 1989 – extensively on Eddie Sauter’s atmospheric score.

It’s a weird yet stylish film, directed by Arthur Penn, with a New Wave feel plus the sort of surrealism associated with British TV of the period – The Prisoner and The Avengers, for example. It also anticipates the paranoia thrillers of the early 1970s, with a touch of The Fugitive and Sullivan’s Travels throw in … Oh, and it stars a very sexy young Warren Beatty as the eponymous stand-up comedian (“Onstage, I’m a Polack Noel Coward”) on the run from the Mob, or – as he puts it: “I’m a silent movie king hiding out till talkies are over.” He and the director were reunited a couple of years later for the better-known Bonnie and Clyde.

Sharing the bill with Mickey One is a classic soundie from 1929: St Louis Blues. This 16 minute film boasts the only screen appearance of the legendary blues “empress” Bessie Smith, and although it’s creaky in parts (notably at the beginning, when the participants are acting), the pay-off – Smith’s magnificent performance of the WC Handy blues – is the stuff that tingles spines. Not only that, but you’ll see James P Johnson on piano.

Our final movie (showing on July 2) features the great baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan – who was the composer in residence at the 1988 jazz festival – onscreen and on the soundtrack. I Want to Live! (1958) is another stylish crime drama, this time based on the true story of the murderess Barbara Graham (an Oscar-winning Susan Hayward). The director Robert Wise, who went on to make West Side Story and The Sound of Music, clearly had a musical sensibility and the music – by Johnny Mandel – is a key part of this very hip film.

Showing alongside I Want to Live! is Symphony in Black (1934), a stunning short film starring Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. As they play the Duke’s evocative Negro Moods suite, scenes from African-American life are depicted, with beautiful, poetic cinematography. And, to top it all, a teenage Billie Holiday (right) sings the haunting refrain The Saddest Tale.

To book free tickets for any (or all) of the films – or the talk – please visit www.jazzglasgow.com

Here are some trailers and tasters to whet the appetite:

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The Jazz Me News: May 2011

… I’m chuffed to find myself listed alongside such illustrious musicians as Alan Barnes, Dame Cleo Laine, Michel Legrand, Carol Kidd, Warren Vache and Brian Kellock in the “Artists” category of the Glasgow Jazz Festival’s website. Visit www.jazzfest.co.uk to see why. More on my contribution anon…

…. Last Tuesday (May 17), the great, Edinburgh-born, pianist Brian Kellock – who would be one of Scotland’s greatest exports if we were prepared to let him go – and the innovative Glasgow-based horn quartet Brass Jaw won prestigious Parliamentary Jazz Awards at a swanky ceremony at the House of Commons. Brian won the Jazz Musician of the Year gong, while the Brass Jaw boys won the Jazz Ensemble of the Year title.

…. On Sunday May 15, Fionna Duncan, Scotland’s natural successor to Maxine Sullivan, gave an informal Sunday evening concert for friends at Ryan’s Bar in Edinburgh. She may have been out of the game for nearly three years, but – like Maxine – Fionna came back sounding better than ever.

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Long Live The Queen!

Maxine Sullivan is one of my very favourite singers (as well as something of an honorary fellow Scot) – so I couldn’t let her centenary this month go by without taking the opportunity to write about her. Unfortunately, I was too young – but only just! – to have heard her sing live (she died in 1987, which is just when I was first listening to jazz), but I’m lucky enough to now know many of her colleagues. And none of them has anything but the highest praise for her, both as a singer and as a human being.  She is definitely a lady whose life and career are worth celebrating.

Maxine was born Marietta Williams on May 13, 1911 in Homestead, Pennsylvannia. She began singing as a child and went on to perform regularly in and around Pittsburgh. “Discovered” by Gladys Mosier, the pianist in Ina Ray Hutton’s all-girl band, she moved to New York in 1937 and was introduced to bandleader Claude Thornhill.

According to Will Friedwald, who writes about Maxine in his book Jazz Singing, “Thornhill’s ideas as to how to use her voice were to soon do as much for his career as they would for Sullivan, and he concentrated on a gimmick that Sullivan had already been using for years. Thornhill matched Sullivan’s ‘suave, sophisticated swing’ with material from way out of the Afro-Jewish jazz and Tin Pan Alley lexicon, from Anglo-European folk sources, which paid off in the Sullivan-Thornhill hit ‘Loch Lomond’.”

Loch Lomond was an international hit, and, as she later said, it put Maxine on the map. She was very clearly a class act, with her cool voice and unfussy, natural, gentle swinging style, and although she recorded a string of traditional folk songs and standards, she was forevermore known as the Loch Lomond Girl – not that everyone approved of the liberties being taken with song: one American radio station manager banned it, deeming it “sacrilegious”.

In 1938, she  sang the song in the Dick Powell movie Going Places which also starred Louis Armstrong – pictured here with Maxine and songwriter Johnny Mercer who penned the lyrics for the Harry Warren tunes featured in the film. (See clip of Mutiny in the Nursery at the end of this article.) Ella Fitzgerald later went on record saying that she had the idea of swinging the nursery rhyme A-Tisket A-Tasket from Maxine’s success with swinging the classics.

In 1939, Maxine appeared in the movie St Louis Blues, singing the title number while Dorothy Lamour got all the new songs. Maxine, however, managed to record one of Dottie’s songs – Hoagy Carmichael’s Kinda Lonesome – before the film was released.

In 1939, Maxine and Louis Armstrong were reunited – as Bottom and Titania, no less (see pic below) – for the ill-fated, but intriguing-sounding, Broadway extravaganza Swingin’ the Dream, the swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which brought together the creme de la creme of the jazz world. It wasn’t Maxine’s first foray into Shakespeare territory – she had already recorded swing versions of It Was a Lover and His Lass and Under the Greenwood Tree – and it wouldn’t be her last, as she revisited the bard’s sonnets three decades later in the delightful company of pianist, composer and arranger extraordinaire Dick Hyman.

Despite the fact that Swingin’ the Dream was a spectacular flop, Maxine’s career continued to blossom into the early 1940s when she and her husband, the bass player/small group leader John Kirby, became the first black stars to have their own radio show, Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm.

The show ended in 1942, not long after Kirby and Maxine divorced. During the 1940s, Maxine continued to be a major draw at nightclubs the length of 52nd Street. She came to Britain in 1948 – a visit which was documented by an American news magazine – and took a weekend out of her schedule to sing Loch Lomond on its “bonnie bonnie banks”. She didn’t perform – officially – in Scotland during that trip but I’ve found some lovely photos of her collecting water from the famous loch, and entertaining a crowd at the water’s edge, in the local press here in Glasgow. (She came back and toured Scotland in 1954.)

The 1950s were tougher for Maxine, partly because the jazz scene was changing and she was still regarded as a swing singer, and partly because she didn’t get the publicity for her shows from the radio stations, as she had in the past. She later said: “It was like walking uphill with the brakes on.” So, in 1958, she decided to stop performing and concentrate on her family and the community affairs in which she enjoyed an active role. By now married to pianist Cliff Jackson, she trained as a nurse, served as the president of her children’s PTA, and – in her neighbourhood of the Bronx – established The House That Jazz Built, where she rented rooms to musicians, provided space for local arts groups and organised workshops and concerts.

The retirement didn’t last long – and Maxine was back in the recording studio in the late 1960s when she embarked on what would turn out to be the arguably most productive and prolific comeback in jazz history. Working with such master arranger/players as Bob Wilber and Dick Hyman (with whom she had already collaborated on a classic album of Andy Razaf songs), she won over a new generation of fans with such superb albums as Close as Pages in a Book and The Music of Hoagy Carmichael (both with Wilber). With Hyman, she revisited the sonnets of Shakespeare for the cultish album Sullivan-Shakespeare-Hyman, a lesser-known gem in her recorded output.

By now promoted to jazz royalty and nicknamed “The Queen”, Maxine toured and recorded extensively during the 1970s and 1980s, notably with the Scott Hamilton Quintet. Her rate of recording seems to have accelerated in her final years when she produced five LPs with a Swedish group headed by trumpeter Bent Persson; worked her way through a raft of definitive songbooks of such favourites of the jazz world as Burton Lane and Jule Styne, with small bands under the direction of the pianist/arranger Keith Ingham, and produced the fabulous Uptown with the Scott Hamilton Quintet (featuring the wonderful John Bunch on piano). Lyricists loved her because she paid such great attention to their words, and usually sang the rarely-performed verses. And musicians loved her too.

Dick Hyman told me a few years ago: “I’ve always thought that she was maybe my favourite singer of all to have accompanied. Why? Because she was so musical. She responded to anything that she heard. It wasn’t just a matter of your following her; she would follow you too – so from the point of view of jazz, it was a very mutual kind of situation.

“As a person, she was laidback and easy to get along with. She was small-ish and perfectly self-possessed, and could take charge of a musical situation with her delicate way of singing – quite the opposite of someone who shouts the blues or rants and raves. She was very controlled, very delicate and feminine in what she sang. And she swung.”

Like many of the musicians Maxine worked with, Hyman stressed the fact that “she was one of the boys”. He added: “She was perfectly feminine but she fit right in with us – and really we thought of her as another musician because she was such a good time-keeper and knew how to relate to what we were doing.” I think the fact that she is the only female vocalist (and one of only three women) in Art Kane’s iconic Great Day in Harlem photograph (a snippet of which is shown above) illustrates the fact that she was regarded as a musician rather than a girl-singer.

Continuing the one-of-the-boys theme, Warren Vache recently told me that when he was 25, he was drunk under the table by Maxine, who – it seems – was very fond of her whisky. And, according to Vache, anyone else’s that was lying around …  Despite the fact that she was an old lady when he knew her, Vache still refers to her as “a great gal” – and certainly the age difference between her and such younger musicians as Scott Hamilton and Phil Flanigan, who played bass in Hamilton’s quintet, didn’t seem to matter one iota.

Flanigan told me: “What I remember about Maxine is the ease of working with her and travelling with her. It was all pleasantness. The idea of a generational divide never occurred to any of us. I loved her singing style which was as straight and true to the composer’s intention as you could imagine but yet she did her own thing. She had a complete lack of affectation – which I loved about her. Some singers float on top of the rhythm section without sustaining any time. Maxine was an absolute genius at that but she could nail the time in such a way that it was a pleasure for a rhythm section to play with her. She was a musician of the voice, and a pleasure for other musicians to work with.”

Maxine Sullivan died on April 7, 1987, just months after returning from her last visit to Japan – where she was the darling of the jazz scene – with Scott Hamilton’s Quintet. And the last song she sang onstage (and recorded – as the concert was filmed)? You’ve guessed it: Loch Lomond.

(c) Alison Kerr

* I’ll be singing Maxine Sullivan’s praises on BBC Radio Scotland’s The Jazz House on Wednesday, May 25. Sadly, we were only able to play three tracks. So here is a wee compilation of videos of Maxine culled from YouTube.

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Three Go Jazzing in Keswick

The offspring and I spent Friday lunchtime at the Keswick Jazz Festival, in the toujours charmant company of the Hot Antic Jazz Band.  These purveyors of classic 1920s jazz were the first jazz band I ever heard – at my first jazz festival, back in 1986. (I was 14.) I found this photo recently, of my second encounter with them, in 1987 – possibly the first time I ever propped up a piano in an Edinburgh pub, but most certainly not the last…

For the second time, I managed to bring my seven-year-old twin sons to hear them – the last time was at the 2009 Keswick Jazz Festival. They loved the music (much of it was recorded on their Kiddizoom cameras), reckoned that pianist Martin Seck resembled Star Wars’ Han Solo (“though he has different hair”) and went straight to the piano when they got home. Well, they have a reputation to live up to: trumpeter Michel Bastide dedicated a number to them and said that they played like Willie “the Lion” Smith, a resemblance that so far has only been visual (wth props)..

The line-up of the Hot Antic has changed since I first got to know them, but Michel Bastide (trumpet) and Jean-Pierre Dubois (banjo & clarinet) – both pictured above – plus Christian Lefevre (tuba) are still at the band’s heart. Bernard Antherieu (clarinet & banjo) joined back in the early 1990s, followed by the afore-mentioned Martin Seck. Michel Bescont (saxophone & clarinet) is a brand new addition. In Keswick on Friday,they had Matthias Seuffert (clarinet & sax) as a special guest.

Here are some more pictures from a concert which included many tunes I’ve never heard them play before – Somebody Stole My Gal, You, Horse Feathers (no connection to the Marx Brothers film), Bright Boy Blues and Hot Feet among them – and as many familiar Antic numbers, including the glorious Morocco Blues, Okay Baby and The Charleston Is the Best Dance After All.

 Apologies for the quality of the images – my new Panasonic Lumix is supposed to be great for photographing concerts but, frankly, it’s not. For motion picture recording, however, it’s superb. Looks like I’ll have to take two cameras to concerts I want to photograph and/or film.

The Germans took over for a few tunes: Matthias Seuffert and Martin Seck did some fantastic duets, notably on Wolverine Blues and I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.

As ever, the band’s arrangements were stylish and fun and showed off the three clarinets or, in the case of the next picture, the vocal trio of Michel, Martin and Bernard. This might have been taken during their delightful rendition of another new addition to their repertoire – Three Little Words.

We didn’t have to burst a gut to catch the bus which connects with the train back to Glasgow this year, so we actually took in a little bit of Keswick. The Theatre By the Lake, where the Antics were playing, is the main venue in the jazz festival and it was lovely to step out from the over-heated venue and wander down to the lake. Every jazz festival should have one …

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A Hundred Years From Today ….

… if you go back the way, was the birthday of the great Maxine Sullivan (1911-1987). I’ll be paying tribute in print very soon, and when I’m a guest on BBC Radio Scotland’s The Jazz House on May 25. We have to celebrate her in Scotland: she was the “Loch Lomond Lass”! In the meantime, here she is with the wonderful Scott Hamilton Quintet, featuring John Bunch on piano, recorded in 1986.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Caption Competition

I set a challenge to the musicians at Norwich: who could come up with the best caption for this classic photo of the inimitable Marty Grosz, here having trouble fixing his bow tie… And the winner was: Ken Peplowski. Of course!

Due to budget cuts, the Texas prison system is now forcing condemned prisoners to hang themselves.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Monday evening

The last night of the Norwich jazz jamboree started in what has become its traditional style: with Jim Galloway’s Sandy Brown set. One of the joys of this jazz event for me personally – and one which I always remind myself about during the hellish seven-hour train journey from Glasgow – is the chance to hear Galloway and assorted British and American stars execute with panache the very distinctive music written by the late, great Scottish clarinettist.

This was the third Sandy Brown set in as many years and, as usual, the quirky and catchy Brown originals were a delight to hear – Blues-A and Own Up proved to be the ideal tunes for getting the night’s party started. Galloway takes great care to avoid duplication of numbers played in previous years so I finally got to hear the evocative Harlem Fats and, for this outing of the Sandy Brown songbook, he also included some of the arrangements that Brown played from the musical Hair. Personally, I could listen to the Brown repertoire all night – and would have welcomed the chance to hear such previously played numbers as Go Ghana and Africa Blues again.

This year’s Sandy line-up bore a close resemblance to the 2009 version: the wonderful Rossano Sportiello again proving to be the perfect pianist for this witty music, and drummer Chuck Riggs and trombonist Ian Bateman both similarly reprising their parts. Stepping into what have been Bucky Pizzarelli’s shoes in previous years, guitarist Dave Cliff did a terrific job. Each year there has been a different trumpeter – we’ve had Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart and this time Duke Heitger who certainly measured up to the previous incumbents despite being unfamiliar with Brown and his music.

One trumpeter who always makes a point of listening to some of the Sandy Brown set but who hasn’t yet had a chance to get stuck into Jim Galloway’s uplifting arrangements is Warren Vache. He was partnered with tenor saxophonist Houston Person for his final appearance of the Jazz Party, and it was a heavenly match, especially when it came to the set’s two ballads, Once in a While and These Foolish Things, both of which were played as lovely, relaxed duets.

And speaking of ballads, tenor saxophonist  Scott Hamilton – another great master of the genre – produced some magical moments on Monday, most memorably a dreamy take on the rarely played Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.

It was, however, the clarinettists – Alan Barnes, Bob Wilber, Ken Peplowski, Dan Block and Scott Robinson – who dominated the closing set of the 2011 Norwich Jazz Party. And, in a superb set, one number stood out above all others: Pee Wee’s Blues, written by Pee Wee Russell, who was described by Alan Barnes as “possibly the most technically brilliant clarinet player who ever lived”.

Not only did it boast a terrific, Pee Wee-esque solo from the great Bob Wilber but it will also be remembered for Scott Robinson’s masterstroke: by way of homage to the slightly oddball Russell sound, he hummed the first part of his solo into his horn – with wonderfully lyrical results.

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