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Parky’s Kind of Music

Michael Parkinson 001Sir Michael Parkinson is a man on a mission. The broadcasting icon is currently touring the country to spread the word about the music he loves – the music written on the pages of the Great American Songbook and its sequels; the songs composed by such greats as the Gershwins, Cole Porter Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and the Beatles and performed by the stars of jazz and popular music. After decades celebrating this music on TV and radio and in print, the 83-year-old is sharing his enthusiasm through a show, Our Kind of Music, which arrives in Scotland this weekend.

Our Kind of Music, which was preceded by a compilation CD launched last autumn, finds the tables being turned very gently on the chat show king as he is the interviewee rather than the interviewer; his son, Mike Parkinson, asks the questions which guide Parky through the music that has shaped his life and career.

Clips of favourite singers and musicians – from Duke Ellington to Elton John, via his number ones Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra – pepper this production, and the dazzlingly inventive pianist and singer Joe Stilgoe provides live examples of some of Parky’s favourite tunes, as well as introducing a specially commissioned new number.

When we speak – first thing on Monday morning – Parkinson is exhilarated by the success of the show’s London debut, last weekend at the Palladium. “We got a five minute standing ovation! You forget the significance this music has for a huge swathe of the population.”

It has certainly been one of the most significant aspects of Sir Michael Parkinson’s life. Born in a Yorkshire mining community in 1935 – the year, he points out, that Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway – he was sung standards instead of lullabies by his movie-mad mum who momentarily entertained the idea of naming him Gershwin after her favourite composer, and who must have been thrilled, decades later, when the original singer of many of these songs – a certain Fred Astaire – turned up to perform them on her son’s TV show with music annotated by George himself.

Parkinson’s mother might have introduced him to the original film versions of the great standards, but he found his favourite versions by himself – when he fell in love with jazz.

“The big discovery for me was the Armed Forces Network broadcasting from Germany,” he recalls. “When I was about 13, I was fiddling with the buttons on my radio when I heard this man singing and playing the trumpet. It was Louis Armstrong playing On the Sunny Side of the Street – and it was wonderful. I’d never heard anything like it.”

This was the era when bebop was starting to blossom and before long, thanks to the AFN, Parkinson was also falling under the spell of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. “There was great competition between the trad and modern jazz fans and I stood in both camps. A bunch of us who liked the modern stuff used to meet every week at the bandstand in Barnsley.

“We had a record player in the middle of the bandstand and we would play records. A friend who was in the Merchant Navy would bring back the latest records from New York. We’d sit and listen in a trance, all of us dressed in duffel coats and silly shoes. I may have been hanging out with the modernists but I had to accept that Louis Armstrong was the greatest genius that there ever was.”

Unfortunately, Armstrong died less than a month before Parky launched his BBC talk show a couple of decades later, but it was two musicians heavily associated with him (including the trombonist from that first jazz record that Parkinson heard) who provided the young Yorkshire Evening Post reporter with his first celebrity interview – a particularly surreal one even by the standards of a man who would go on to interview John Lennon while sporting a bag over his head.

“I was walking down Doncaster High Street, going for a coffee, when Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines walked past me. I was probably the only person in Yorkshire to recognise them – Teagarden, the trombonist, had been in films I had seen. I did a double take, then introduced myself. They looked at me as if I was a martian. They hadn’t heard of Doncaster, they hadn’t heard of Yorkshire. They didn’t know where they were but their bus had broken down – it was en route to Bradford. I reckon whoever else was on the bus stayed on it for fear of being eaten by cannibals!”

Parkinson took these two giants of jazz for a coffee, and interviewed them before rushing back to share his scoop with the rest of the office – only to find that nobody was impressed. It wasn’t the first time his enthusiasm for jazz had been met with indifference – and it wouldn’t be the last. However, it helped instill in him the feeling that he is a “crusader” for the music and a voice for the people who love it as much as he does.

Years later when he was offered his radio show, he agreed to do it as long as he didn’t have to play the BBC’s playlist; he wanted to play only music he, personally, liked – which led to his becoming known as a major taste-maker in the jazz and easy listening scene through the 1990s and 2000s when he helped launch the careers of Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum and Diana Krall. “I believe it’s part of the job to keep my eyes and ears open to new talent – and to help them get a break,” he says.

The Teagarden-Hines encounter on Doncaster High Street may have been “the greatest moment of my life” for jazz-mad Parky in the 1950s, but it was just the first of many close encounters with his heroes – some of which were born out of similarly surreal circumstances.

One of his very favourite contributors to the Great American Songbook was the songwriter Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics for many of the 20th Century’s greatest hits – among them Moon River, Skylark and That Old Black Magic. (Indeed, the last public show Parkinson presented in Scotland was an all-star centenary tribute to Mercer organised by Scots crooner Todd Gordon.)

“Johnny Mercer was one of my great heroes – and we pay tribute to him in Our Kind of Music,” says Parky. “He was a great poet, but he was an awful drunk; one of the worst. He would insult everyone in the room – then the next day, he’d send them wine and roses, a bit like the lyrics of the song he wrote with Henry Mancini. Anyway, one night I had just got home at about 11pm and was getting into bed when I got a call from Laurie Holloway [Parky’s friend and the musical director on his TV show], who lived down the road.

“He asked me what I was doing, and I told him ‘I’m in my jammas – what did you think I’d be doing?’ … He invited me down to his house and told me Johnny Mercer was there, waiting to meet me. I got dressed in record time and arrived to find Mercer sitting on the piano stool with Laurie’s wife, the wonderful singer Marion Montgomery, and for two hours she sang all his hits.”

Breaking into the song I’m an Old Cow Hand (From the Rio Grande), Parkinson chortles: “That was one of the great moments in my life.” In his Our Kind of Music show, he proudly shares clips of himself with Mercer and Bing Crosby, for whom that number was originally written.

Parkinson is keen to point out that he has been “lucky to live through two great periods in popular music,” and he pinpoints the early 1960s, when the Beatles emerged, as the start of that second great period. Through his TV show, Scene at 6.30, which he presented at Granada, he got to know the Fab Four before they hit the bigtime.

“They were the house band,” he laughs. “When I first knew them, Paul McCartney asked for my autograph – for his mum! I wasn’t surprised that they made it big as they wrote lovely songs – you can trace the lineage back to the old songs I loved – but nobody expected the sort of world domination, the Beatlemania.”

Always one for whom work and pleasure are intertwined, Parkinson shows no sign of putting his feet up and just listening to his beloved music in the comfort of his sitting room. Indeed, this knight’s crusade continues – as his packed touring schedule demonstrates.

“The Great American Songbook is my great passion,” he explains. “It’s the greatest collection of pop tunes there has ever been and it will last forever – provided we look after it.”

* Sir Michael Parkinson: Our Kind of Music is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (0131 228 1155; www.assemblyroomsedinburgh.co.uk) on Saturday 21 at 7.30pm, and at the City Halls, Glasgow (0141 353 8000; www.tickets.glasgowconcerthalls.com) on Sunday 22 at 7pm.

  • First published in The Herald, Thursday April 19
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Happy 90th, Bob Wilber!

Bob Wilber, Ed Jazz Fest 1992It’s soprano saxophonist extraordinaire Bob Wilber’s 90th birthday today. I’ve been lucky enough to hear him playing on quite a few occasions over the years – the first time was in August 1992 (when the above photo was taken), when I interrupted my year in Paris to come back for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, largely because I couldn’t bear to miss hearing him and clarinettist Kenny Davern together – the first chance I had ever had to hear these two titans of classic jazz playing together live.

Three years later, as a fledgling freelance journalist writing for The Herald, I sent myself up north to review concerts by Davern and Wilber, on consecutive nights in neighbouring towns. The night after Davern played his gig at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, Wilber performed at – of all places – the Parkdean Holiday Park in Nairn. (This turned out to be a suitably surreal introduction for me to Nairn Jazz and the wonderful world of the much-missed jazz promoter Ken Ramage.)

Never without my clunky Sony Professional tape recorder in those days, I interviewed both Davern and Wilber about the event that would become the most eagerly anticipated gig in my calendar for that summer – a reunion of the full Soprano Summit line-up (living members anyway!), to take place at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

Soprano Summit was a hugely successful band in the 1970s which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (six years), became legendary. Its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a “jazz party” – organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that clarinettist Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Wilber, enjoyed telling. Here’s how it was told to me, in the summer of 1995 …

By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said, in his Alabama drawl, “Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet.”

The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

“We got a rhythm section together,” explained Wilber, “by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number.” Davern continued: “We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972, the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album; the only difference in personnel being that the busy bassist Milt Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier.

Then, after a second LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born. The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go.

Rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work. Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love of tunes which were off the beaten standard track. Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic ground plan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz, they also had “a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning.”

Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”

The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music, but both have their own views on how it should be played.

“Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played.

As Wilber said: “A lot of it is intuitive. We find out what works by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.”

Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: “Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”

That Edinburgh Jazz Festival reunion turned out to be the only time I ever heard Soprano Summit live, but thankfully there were many more opportunities to hear both Wilber and Davern over the next couple of decades. Davern died in 2006, but Wilber remains active – I last heard him at the Norwich Jazz Party in 2014 when he was on terrific form, serving up deliciously unexpected harmonies and swinging with as much joie-de-vivre as those first times I heard him, more than 20 years earlier.BW 2

 

 

 

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Stilgoe Rides Again

StilgoeThe top highlight of many music and movie lovers’ Fringe last year was singer- jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe’s joyful, classy, five-star show Songs on Film, a loving and stylish homage to the films he grew up with. In true Hollywood style, he’s back this week with a follow-up, Songs on Film – The Sequel, which runs until Sunday.

He says: “The strapline for this show is: ‘Like all good sequels, the cast is the same, most of the themes are the same – there are just more explosions and fight scenes.’ Since we’re only doing a short run this year, we will probably get some of the same audience from last year so we wanted to make it a bit different – but we have kept some of the greatest hits from the first show.”

Of course, as Stilgoe points out, songs from films is “a rich genre to mine” – so where do you start?  “The reason I thought the show worked was because I related it to my own experience of watching cinema – why I went into music, I think that made it cohesive. So this time we’ve got a section about growing up in the 1980s, and celebrating the mullets and the massive jackets, I’m thinking Ted Danson ..”

Not only that but whereas most of the standards we hear being played in jazz concerts began life in the great movie and stage musicals, many of the songs with which Stilgoe fills his show are from non-musicals. “We want to choose songs that people remember films by – whether it’s Goodnight Sweetheart from Three Men and a Baby or the waltz from Pixar’s Up. Those really give you that nostalgic burst – and people came up to us last year and said how much they enjoyed that aspect.”

What was also striking last year was the fact that we got to hear songs which most of us had probably never heard performed live before. One stand-out in that department was Arthur’s Song, from the 1981 comedy Arthur. “I love playing that one so much because I love Dudley Moore and I love that film. It’s not a song that people play over and over again but it is very evocative of that film and the era.”

At the age of 36, Stilgoe is too young to have seen Arthur in the cinema when it came out; The Jungle Book was the first film he saw on the big screen. “I loved it, specifically because of the music – I went on to be a huge fan of Louis Prima and the Sherman brothers who wrote the songs.”

Very much a chip off the old block (Stilgoe’s father is the songwriter and broadcaster Sir Richard), he jokes: “As a teenager I went through a period of hating musicals. I thought they were silly. So I guess my teenage rebellion was just not liking musicals for a few years, which must have hurt my dad. But then I came back to them and realised that this is the family business!”

It must, therefore, have been a dream come true to find himself – as recently as Saturday – onstage at The Old Vic in High Society?  “Yes, I’m still on a bit of a cloud because it was such a wonderful experience and High Society is the film that made me want to be a jazz musician.”

Playing a character (named Joey) specially created for him, but performing the same sort of function in the show as Louis Armstrong did in the film, Stilgoe “played a Nat King Cole/Mel Torme kind of figure who would have been booked for the party in the film.. Basically, I started the show by mucking around with the audience asking them to shout out songs and take part in a singalong.”

So he brought anarchy to High Society? “Yes! Some nice anarchy – because at the start you want to get the audience into a party atmosphere. I got to sing the title number and some other songs including my favourite, Well Did You Evah? .. yes, I admit it, I gatecrashed the Sinatra-Crosby duet!”

He also learned to dance for High Society. So should we be on alert for a spot of Fred Astaire-style dancing in this year’s Songs on Film? “The problem with that is, if I’m dancing, who’s playing the piano?!” Still, maybe it’s an idea for the third part of the trilogy – or further down the line when his six-month-old daughter has joined the family business?

But back to this year’s Songs on Film. Are we talking a superior sequel, a Godfather 2? “Absolutely,” laughs Stilgoe who is driving up the motorway as we speak. “We’re talking Godfather 2 and Toy Story 2; definitely not a Jaws 4 – or even 2 or 3!”

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Naomi Shelton & Her Ministry of Soul

Naomi Shelton 1In the peerless jazz documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day calm descends on the closing moments of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival when the original gospel queen Mahalia Jackson takes the stage. But when her modern-day successor Naomi Shelton performs on the opening night of the 2015 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, the St Andrews Square Spiegeltent crowd will undoubtedly be looking for more of a party spirit from the show being headlined by the gravelly-voiced Daptone Records star.

Shelton, who is 72 years old, only has two albums to her credit – since she only landed her recording contract six years ago, when she was already a senior citizen. She may have been a late starter on the recording front but her name was already near-legendary on the soul circuit, and she had been singing professionally for decades.

Born and raised on a farm on the outskirts of the small town of Midway, Alabama, the young Shelton began singing in her local, wood-frame, Baptist church at the age of six. “All the family sang,” she recalls. “I grew up with four brothers and two sisters and we all sang in church. It played a big part in my life and kept us very busy as children.”

Shelton may have grown up in the segregated south, during the period in which the Civil Rights movement blossomed, but racism wasn’t a subject that was much discussed in the family home. “My dad was an architect and he was amongst all kinds of people – he travelled all over. But in my home we didn’t talk about racism; we only talked about the goodness of the Lord and how people should love one another and treat one another. We knew it was there but we didn’t dwell on it. You’re very aware of it, you’re aware of a whole lot of stuff but it don’t mean you have to carry it in your heart.”

But wasn’t it prevalent in the local community – or was it not too bad because it was a small town? “It wasn’t too bad where we lived – everybody in that neighbourhood was family, relatives and everybody got along with each other. It was a small community – it would have been a sad thing to not get along when you ain’t got enough people to have a fight with!”

As “the Davis Sisters of Midway,” Shelton sang the gospel repertoire in public throughout her adolescence with her older siblings Hattie Mae and Annie Ruth. They performed in churches across the region, at Baptist conferences and in a regular radio slot. “My dad helped build the studio on Tuskegee Highway and we would broadcast every Sunday morning at 6 o’clock and then we would come back home and have our breakfast and get ready for church.”

Aged 17, Shelton left high school and followed one of her sisters to New York where she immediately began hitting the nightclubs in search of gigs, but she had to abandon the search on that occasion. “My mom got sick so I went back to Alabama for a while till she got better, then I went to Miami, Florida as my sister had gone there, having decided that she didn’t like New York! That’s where my daughter Joanne was born, when I was 17. I was there for a good year or two but I left there because there wasn’t enough money to be made there in my book – you had to have two or three jobs to make a decent living – so I came back. And New York is where I’ve been since 1960.”

In 1963, Shelton – who counts Sam Cooke and Otis Redding as her favourite singers (“I identify with the male singers because I was never one of those sweet singers”) – became the house singer at the celebrated Night Cap club in Brooklyn, a nightly residency that put her on the soul music map. By the time she stood in front of the microphone each evening she would often already have done two cleaning or housekeeping jobs that same day. It must have been a hard life?

“Well, I was very, very blessed: my parents raised my daughter for me in Alabama so I was a free agent to go and do what I had to do, and I wanted to work. I was fortunate and blessed that my mom and dad raised my daughter and that meant that I was free to work and send money home to take care of her. My two brothers were still at home then – so everybody in the family pitched in and helped out.

“It was hard to be separated but you do what you have to do. You get the job done, you have to take care of your obligations. I don’t complain about my life – I’ve had some ups and downs, but all those humps and bumps help to keep you on the straight path.”

Even during the hard times, she felt it would all come right. “Why? Because I always held on to my dreams. Like I said in the song, A Change is Gonna Come, I knew that one day change would come. I knew that my God He ain’t forgot about me, He’s going to push me somewhere too.”

But what was her dream? To make a record? To be famous? “No. My dream was just to sing and get out there and touch people – that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about being famous or how much money I could make. It’s about showing love and being able to reach out. It’s all about love, whether you sing gospel, R&B, but I call my music soul music because if it’s soul music you can touch any soul out there – from all walks of life, and that’s it. It’s rooted in gospel music. But if you can touch people’s souls then you say Lord I thank you. That’s what my ministry is all about. Everybody needs to know that He will give you strength and help you pursue the positive side of life.”

How did she feel when it finally happened – and she finally got to make her first album, What Have You Done, My Brother?, in 2009?  “It was great but you know the best thing was that I was still around to watch the dream come true. A lot of people don’t see the dream come true. So I was grateful to God that He allowed me to still be around.”

“I never got frustrated that it didn’t happen sooner. I’m not that much into myself, I didn’t do this by myself; it was God that allowed me to do this. I don’t want to get caught up in this ‘I’m famous, I’m a star, I’m a big-time diva’. No, that’s not me. That’s not my cup of tea at all. If it was meant for it to happen years ago it would have happened but at that time God wasn’t ready for me because I had a lot of baggage that I had to clean up, so He helped me get rid of all the baggage – all the negative stuff I had been carrying for years. We have to let go of the baggage so we can move to the next level of life. So He said: ‘You’ve got some cleaning up to do then I’ll be able to place you some place’ – and that’s what He did. And you know that’s why I’m ever so grateful each day of my life. ‘One day at a time’, that’s my theory – for everything in life.”

So, what should the Edinburgh audience expect from her show? “Just tell them to expect let’s have a good time, a hallelujah good time!”

* Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens are performing at the Spiegeltent at St Andrews Square on Friday at 7.30pm. Visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com for tickets and information.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on July 12

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Liane Carroll: A Sentimental Journey

Liane Carroll picIf there is one ticket that represents exceptional value for money at the Glasgow Jazz Festival then it is surely the one-man show by Liane Carroll on the festival’s opening night, on Wednesday.

Singer-pianist Carroll doesn’t just play and sing; she takes the audience on an emotional journey which might start, end and be punctuated with rib-tickling jokes but includes detours via various levels of gut-wrenching, heart-rending ballads, swinging standards and raucous blues.

Wherever she goes during her show, Carroll takes enraptured listeners with her; there’s no “her and us” about it – it’s very much a shared experience, and one which leaves no emotional stone un-turned. It’s no wonder everyone from Gerry Rafferty, with whom she toured and recorded, to Joe Stilgoe, who penned the title track of her forthcoming album Seaside, has wanted her to sing their songs.

For Carroll, it’s essential to have the audience on the journey with her. “Singing is communicating,” she says, “so I don’t feel I’m up there on my own. I have the audience with me, and we have a laugh together.” That community feeling undoubtedly stems from the 51-year-old’s first musical experiences, when she was encouraged to sing and play in her grandparents’ home in Hastings, where, from the age of six, she lived with her mother. “It was a daft household but very musical,” she recalls, with a giggle.

Carroll’s parents were semi professional singers. “They sang at the Country Club in Eastbourne – that’s how they met. Me mum had sung for a while in the 1950s with the Ken Mackintosh Band. Me nan played the piano, and I took to it early. I was taught by a concert pianist who lived locally. She was a bit of a dragon – she would threaten to snip my hair if I made any mistakes. I really thought she might do it, and one time I wore my hair in a beret so it was out of sight. Me mum said: ‘What are you doing?’ and I explained – and she had a word with her.”

Having heard and liked jazz being played and sung at home, Carroll got hooked on it in her early teens, and her listening tastes changed from the Osmonds (“I was in love with Donnie”) and the Bay City Rollers to big band music, with which she became obsessed. “I saw the BBC Radio Big Band doing a tribute to the bandleader Ted Heath, and then got into Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson… Me mum and nan used to take me to different gigs and then when I was about 16 I started to go by myself. I’d go up to London on the train and stay with a couple of relatives and come back down. It was lovely. It didn’t happen very regularly but it was my treat.”

By this time, Carroll had begun to teach herself how to play jazz. “Towards the end of my grade exams, I really enjoyed playing jazz but it wasn’t really encouraged in those days. It was [she assumes a snooty voice]: ‘Oh well, if you like that kind of thing…’. Which of course just made me do it even more, and practise doing it even more.”

What did her schoolmates think of this obsession – or was playing and listening to jazz a closet activity? “On the whole, I think it was pretty much accepted,” says Carroll. “A few people thought I was a bit weird not wanting to go to discos, but I didn’t have much confidence about going to discos and I did prefer jazz. I wasn’t that sociable; I wasn’t one of the alpha girls, the popular girls. As I got older, I made lots of friends and they used to enjoy me playing a bit of jazz on the piano at the school assembly – the school liked to have someone playing as people were coming into the hall, and I liked the chance to show off! I wasn’t bullied about it or anything, and I wasn’t shy – I’ve never been shy! I just wasn’t in that set of girls who were popular.”

The singing quickly followed; indeed it was her eventual second husband, bass player Roger Carey, who first got her up to sing on gigs. Asked who her favourite singer was when she was growing up, and Carroll responds immediately: “Vic Damone. He was amazing, a lovely singer. He had it all – the voice, the rhythm and the phrasing – and he did lots with the Count Basie Orchestra. Of the female jazz singers, Sarah Vaughan was my favourite though of course I enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald as well. But I’ve always had diverse tastes: growing up, I used to listen to Laura Nyro – she had a big impact on me when I was about 14 – and I’ve been doing her songs ever since. My husband introduced me to Todd Rundgren’s music, and I really love him too…”

It was only after a very short marriage, from her late teens into her early twenties – “not a pleasant time” – that Carroll really got stuck into performing. “I had been living in York during that period and came back down to Hastings with my one-year-old daughter, and got a residency playing piano at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne.”

Since then, she has worked in all sorts of bands – both in terms of musical genre and size – and notched up numerous awards, among them two prestigious BBC Jazz Awards in the same year (2005). Although she is constantly adding new strings to her bow, and gaining ever more acclaim, Carroll still has the weekly residency at her local wine bar, Porters, that she has been doing – “when I’m around” – for 26 years, and leads her trio, which features her husband on bass.

Does working with your husband only work because you both have other projects? “I think so! It really does,” laughs Carroll. “We did work together all the time at one point and that got a bit much. We’ve been together 28 and a half years, and we’re just getting there now. It’s always been a work in progress; it’s lovely now.”

In the last decade or so, Carroll has become a regular visitor to Scotland – more in her capacity as a guest teacher than as a star turn, in the popular vocal jazz workshops organised by her friend, the Pathhead-based singer-songwriter Sophie Bancroft.

But this week, it will just be the audience at Wild Cabaret that Carroll has for company. “It’s a nice change to do a solo gig, it’s more spontaneous. Sometimes I chat too much between numbers – it used to be out of nervousness but now it’s just who I am. I know I talk too much, and I know it’s bollocks – but it’s happy bollocks, and it’s true!”

* Liane Carroll performs at Wild Cabaret on Wednesday; details from www.jazzfest.co.uk. Her next Scottish workshop with Sophie Bancroft is the Cromarty Vocal Jazz Workshop, April 1-3 2016. For info, email sbancroft@btinternet.com. Her new album Seaside is out in September.

First published in Scotland on Sunday, June 21

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The Happier Holiday

Billie 1Dope addict, punchbag for her partners, target of racial prejudice – Billie Holiday, who was born 100 years ago this month, has long been universally known not just as jazz’s greatest singer but also one of its saddest casualties. The phenomenally gifted vocalist, whom Frank Sinatra credited as his “greatest single influence”, is associated in many people’s minds with tragedy, oppression, abuse and the blues. But the truth is that the iconic Lady Day was not – for much of her existence – a downtrodden, pathetic creature at all.

Just because the key events in Holiday’s life – a possible rape when she was ten years old, an enforced separation from her mother, working as a prostitute in her teens, getting hooked on heroin, spending time in jail and suffering terrifying racial abuse – could have made her a victim, it doesn’t automatically follow that she was. Holiday’s final years were undoubtedly tragic but one shouldn’t assume that everything that went before was too.

Her death has come to overshadow her life; the ebullience and life-affirming qualities inherent in many of her recordings and in her personality – as described by friends and colleagues – until her last decade are often overlooked, swept aside by society’s need to slot everyone into a category.

But Billie Holiday was far too complex a character to be pigeon-holed simply as one of life’s victims. For one thing, she was not the type of person to allow herself to be pushed around – at least by anyone other than her lovers. And if anyone tried, the chances are they would get a fat lip, or at least a mouthful. On numerous occasions, especially in her flaming youth, Holiday squared up to bigots – walking away was not an option.

There are various tales of how Holiday reacted to instances of racial prejudice – and they all involve her taking decisive, often reckless, Billie 2action. On the road with Artie Shaw’s all-white band in 1938, she knew that things would be tough below the so-called Mason-Dixon Line: rednecks in the South would tolerate black people as entertainment, but this being the land of lynchings and the Klan, they wouldn’t acknowledge them as human beings.

During one show, Holiday was going down a storm but when a voice from the audience yelled: “Have the nigger wench sing another song!”, her simmering rage exploded and, in front of a packed auditorium, she clearly mouthed an obscenity which, as Shaw later recalled, caused “all hell to break loose”.

Other stories involve barroom brawls and Lady Day – for all her fisticuffs and foul language, she was the most elegant of singers – inviting ignoramuses who slurred her to step outside for a fight. Her pianist Bobby Tucker later said: “She beat the crap out of a guy at the bar who called her ‘nigger bitch’.”

Despite having no fear about standing up to the thugs and bullies she came across when she was out in public, Holiday allowed herself to be beaten up by a string of violent male partners – and there’s never been much evidence of her defending herself against them in the way that she did with strangers. Dan Morgenstern, the leading jazz expert who knew Holiday in the 1950s, is one of a number of her acquaintances who believes that: “She had a strong masochistic streak. She wanted guys who would hurt her both physically and emotionally.”

The two sides of Holiday’s personality are clear from one of the songs that became inexorably linked with her: My Man. It’s very much a song of two halves – the first, in a minor key, is all about the singer’s troubles with her lover (“Two or three girls has he/That he likes as well as me/But I love him”); the second is in a major key, slightly faster and much more hopeful (“All my life is just despair/ But I don’t care/When he takes me in his arms/ The world is bright, alright”).

Holiday recorded it three times – once in each decade of her recording career – and by the second recording, in 1949, she had added the lines “He beats me too/What can I do?”. That this song, though written by someone else, summed up her own point of view is clear from the fact that she ended her autobiography with a quote from it: “Tired? You bet/ But all of that I’ll soon forget with my man ..”

Of course, Holiday’s wilfully self-destructive habit of choosing brutes as her romantic partners was mirrored by her self-destructive drug addiction which has become the main theme of the Billie Holiday story over the years. Aside from the physical toll that heroin took on her, it also sapped her battling spirit and her lust for life. It turned her, when she was in thrall to the drug, into a different person and it cost her many friends.

Holiday’s tragic image was partly her own creation. In 1955, desperate for money to finance her habit, and aware of the fact that there was a demand for confessional memoirs, she dictated her autobiography to journalist William Dufty. It’s a compelling read, with Holiday’s characteristically “salty” language suggesting its authenticity but the reality was that it was full of exaggerations and deliberate distortions on her part. She hoped that the sensational aspects – which, before the publishers got cold feet, were to include details of her sexual adventures with everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Orson Welles – would attract Hollywood’s attention.

Indeed, it’s from the autobiography that much of the Holiday myth originates, as she allowed herself to come across as a victim. Even the title, Lady Sings the Blues, which was imposed by the publisher, is inaccurate: Holiday was not a blues singer; she rarely sang the blues.

Holiday’s tragic image was further consolidated in the public consciousness by the 1972 biopic, also entitled Lady Sings the Blues, which featured a harrowing performance by Diana Ross but had even less to do with the facts of Holiday’s life than her memoirs. Several key figures in her career, including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, refused to allow their names to be used.

Perhaps Goodman and Shaw, who both met Holiday in her earliest years on the jazz scene, simply didn’t recognise in the Lady Sings the Blues character the insouciant, fun-loving girl they had known. Her friends from the 1930s and 1940s remember a bawdy young woman with a lust for life, and an appetite for sensation.

Even in her final decade, the 1950s, there were still glimpses of her wild ways. Singer Annie Ross, who was one of the friends who stuck by her till the very end, recalls an afternoon in Paris where they drank their way down the Champs-Elysees, cafe by cafe, supposedly on a Billie 4shopping expedition. After visiting a fancy boutique where they viewed tray after tray of jewellery, Lady Day tipped out her pockets to reveal to her young friend a stash of necklaces and other baubles.

But for proof positive that the happy-go-lucky, “don’t careish”, Billie Holiday existed before – and then alongside – the rather more troubled Lady Day, just listen to her legacy of recordings. Yes, you’ll feel pity for the later Holiday with the voice that has paid the price for her lifestyle, but you’ll also feel uplifted by the sheer joie-de-vivre she exuded throughout the 1930s and then on occasion until she died, on July 17 1959.

* First published in The Herald, July 2009

 

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Songs For Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn 1This year marks the centenary of one of the great unsung heroes of jazz history, a man who was also half (and sometimes, arguably, more than that) of one of the greatest musical partnerships of the 20th Century – and the composer of such classics of the jazz repertoire as Take the A Train and Lush Life. His name was Billy Strayhorn.

In late 1938, this quiet young musician in his rather past-its-best Sunday suit was taken backstage in a Pittsburgh theatre to be introduced to the great jazz bandleader and composer of the day, Duke Ellington. As Ellington rested between performances, relaxing on a reclining chair while his valet tended to his hair, the 23-year-old Strayhorn was ushered in.

Strayhorn, Ellington & Preminger

Strayhorn & Ellington on the set of Anatomy of a Murder for which they wrote the score. Director Otto Preminger looks on.

Ellington may not have bothered to open his eyes to take a look at his guest, but by the end of the short visit, Strayhorn – who dazzled Duke with a series of piano performances of Ellington tunes first as the composer himself would play them, and then in his own arrangements – had been wholeheartedly accepted into the organisation.

So began a three-decade relationship that was one of the most fruitful and – according to those who witnessed it – loving in jazz history. From the outset, the refined and cultured Strayhorn, a dedicated Francophile and follower of fashion – who had never really belonged in the Pittsburgh shack in which he was raised – was not so much Ellington’s right-hand man as his alter ego.

Constantly on the road with his band, Ellington entrusted composing and arranging assignments to Strayhorn, who had absorbed the Ellington orchestra sound and was more than happy to devote himself to keeping it up to date with new music, and keeping the royalties pouring in to the organisation which had many mouths to feed.

Bob Wilber, the 86-year-old American clarinettist and saxophonist (pictured below) who was a member of a celebrated small group put together by Strayhorn in the 1960s, says: “He so completely assimilated Duke’s music that often you couldn’t tell in an arrangement which part was Duke and which part was Billy. He was absolutely indispensable to Duke.”

Strayhorn, who had been a frustrated would-be cosmopolite in Pittsburgh – where his sexuality was never discussed but always assumed as gay – blossomed in Manhattan, living initially with members of Ellington’s entourage in the boss’s Harlem penthouse, and spending his days soaking up all the art and cocktails that he could during his non-writing time. “A miniature, black Noel Coward” was how one friend later described him.

As his biographer David Hajdu writes: “In Pittsburgh, who he was had inhibited Billy Strayhorn from doing what he could do; in New York, what he could do enabled him to be who he was.” And what he was was a young gay man who loved the finer things in life, and was able to set up home with his boyfriend secure in the knowledge that – unlike many employers back then – his sexuality, and his openness about it, would not be an issue with Ellington who treated him as one of the family, possibly even better than he treated his own son, Mercer, who also wrote for the band.

Not only did his association with Ellington provide him with the bon vivant lifestyle he had dreamt of, it also gave him an outlet for his artistry and allowed him to flourish as a composer. He may have been composing and arranging for the Ellington outfit from 1939 – and Bob Wilberhave been the author of Take the A Train, a massive hit which Ellington quickly promoted to the band’s signature tune – but Strayhorn wasn’t credited as composer or arranger for his contribution until the 1950s, after a brief period when he had split from the organisation.

Everyone in the band, however, knew that he was a prolific writer of their music – and he was terrifically well liked and respected. Tommy Smith, the  director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra which is performing three concerts this month to celebrate the “Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn” – from such “big”, familiar pieces as Isfahan, Chelsea Bridge and Satin Doll to rare, recent rediscoveries – recounts a story told to him by one-time Ellington trombonist Buster Cooper.

“He told me he was once sitting next to Strayhorn on a plane, and Strayhorn had his briefcase out. He opened it and there was some manuscript there, and Buster was really excited because he thought he was going to get to see what Strayhorn was going to write – they were all in awe of him and never sure who had written what. But Billy Strayhorn lifted up the manuscript – and there was a bottle of whisky there. He offered Buster a drink, and put the manuscript away. Buster never got to see what the music was.”

One song which everyone knew was 100% Strayhorn was the evocative ballad Lush Life, the poetic words and haunting music of which he had mostly penned even before he met Ellington. It’s long been a favourite of jazz singers – and its recent performance by Lady Gaga boosted her credibility with the jazz community because it is, as Bob Wilber points out, “a very tricky song”. Indeed, Strayhorn was incensed by both the arrangement and the fluffed lyrics in Nat King Cole’s famous recording of it.

Annie Ross, the British-born jazz singer, met Strayhorn in the early 1950s when they were both living in Paris – the city he had written about in Lush Life. She says: “We hit it off immediately. He liked the way I sang and he taught me Lush Life. He was a gentle soul. They called him the Swee’ Pea precisely because he was so gentle.”

It might also have been something to do with the love of flowers and nature that he inherited from his devoted mother– a love that is obvious from such song titles as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom and Violet Blue, which were written as features for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges whose gloriously plaintive sound was the perfect match for Strayhorn’s beautiful but dark-tinged melodies, and sumptuous arrangements.

When, in March 1965, Strayhorn – whose piano playing was usually done in the recording studio or just to entertain friends – was asked to put together a band for a concert featuring his first solo piano performance, Bob Wilber got the call that one might have expected Hodges to get. “I don’t know how he had heard me – whether it was only on record – but he realized that I would be the ideal interpreter for the compositions that he wrote for Johnny Hodges. It was an absolute thrill being called to be in that band – which he named the Riverside Drive Five. I was thrilled to do it.”

One of the tunes performed at the concert and then long forgotten about was Orson – Strayhorn’s portrait of Orson Welles. The music for it was discovered in box stuffed with manuscripts in Strayhorn’s basement long after his death from cancer in 1967. The handwriting on the music helped shed light on Strayhorn’s enormous contribution to the Ellington repertoire and sound, while stacks of his own pieces underlined the fact – long known amongst musicians and Ellington experts – that he had been a brilliant composer in his own right;Billy Strayhorn solo that he alone had composed many of the numbers that had been thought to be collaborations.

Now, in Strayhorn’s centenary year, he will perhaps receive more of the widespread recognition he deserves – and his rarely heard compositions, among them the afore-mentioned Orson, will reach a broader listening public, not least audiences who attend the SNJO’s concerts this month.

* The SNJO (with Brian Kellock on piano) – The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on February 20, Buccleuch Centre, Langholm on February 21, and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on February 22.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on February 15

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