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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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The Gypsy Jazz Queen

Cyrille AimeeThis time last year, you had to be on the New York jazz scene to have heard of Cyrille Aimée, the young French singer who makes her UK debut at the Dundee and London jazz festivals this week and who recently released her joyful debut album. But that was before a certain Stephen Sondheim personally selected her to sing his songs with a jazz band and Curtis Stigers invited her to duet with him on his new album – et voila, a nouvelle star was born.

It all sounds too good to be true – but even more Hollywood movie-sounding is the story of how Aimée came to be gypsy jazz’s new poster girl in the first place. This part of her CV involves tales of her climbing out of her bedroom window and defying her parents to hang out and make music with the gypsies.

Aimée grew up in Samois-sur-Seine, a small town near Fontainebleau famous as the birthplace of the original gypsy jazz star, Django Reinhardt, and now the location of an annual festival in his honour. Consequently, she was exposed to gypsy jazz from a very young age but it wasn’t, she says, the music she heard there which attracted her to the gypsies; it was the other way around.

She explains: “It was only when I got to know the gypsies that I was drawn to the music – because I only understood the music when I had got to know the gypsies. I was attracted to their way of life and their spirit and how free they are and how they live every day like it’s their last.”

Was this quite different to the way she had been brought up? “No, not at all. It’s just different to the way that most people are, because they never went to school so they haven’t been taught how to behave, to put your hand up to speak or to ask to go to the bathroom. They’re kind of primitive in a way and they actually reminded me of my mum’s side of the family – she’s from the Dominican Republic. I felt at home with them.”

From the age of 14, Aimée spent as much time as she could with the travellers who came to town every year for the festival. “I would spend time with them after school and during the summer holidays and I missed them so much when they left. I would count the days for them to come back the next year.

“My school friends didn’t really understand it. The gypsies don’t let just anyone in the campsite and in the caravans so it was really my own thing. Some of my school friends didn’t even know who Django Reinhardt was!”

So how did Aimée manage to get in with them if they don’t just welcome anybody? “Well, I was up town to get a baguette in the boulangerie, and this gypsy girl was looking at my bike a lot – she really liked it – and she asked if she could borrow it. And, to her surprise, I said yes – I think mostly they get ‘no’. (There’s a lot of prejudice.) And when I said ‘yes’, she called her four other cousins over, so there were five of them on the bike, and I hopped on too, and we all went down the main road through town,  which is very steep. We went down that hill, all six of us on the bike – and after that we were friends.”

Initially, Aimée’s parents were not happy about her spending time at the gypsy camp. “The town townspeople would tell them: ‘I saw your daughter with gypsies – be careful.’ So I would get grounded. But I would still go out my window and cross the back yard and cross the forest to go see them.” Luckily, Aimée’s parents came round. “First of all they realised there was nothing they could do and second of all they understood the kind of people they were and their music, and now they’re as much friends as we are.”

And it was thanks to her new friendships that Aimée’s talent as a singer became apparent. “At first, when I was with the gypsies, I started to play guitar and then one day one of them asked me to learn the song Sweet Sue because they knew that I spoke a little English. I sang it in front of the whole family, the gypsy family, around the camp fire and when I saw everyone smiling and how it had made everyone feel, I realised that’s the feeling I wanted to spread all over. So I kind of let go of the guitar and started singing more.”

At the age of 19, Aimée (who is now 30) applied to appear on Star Academy, France’s equivalent of The X Factor, not expecting for a minute that she would be one of 16 contestants picked out of 5000 applicants. “I sent them a video because I had just gotten a video camera and I thought it was a fun idea – then I got called back every time.”

Just before filming was about to begin, Aimée – whose picture was already on magazine covers to publicise the show – was given a contract to sign. At which point, she freaked at the lack of freedom she would have – especially over song choices. “I said: ‘No, thank you,’ and I went to the Dominican Republic! I had so much to learn, and I was just falling in love with jazz, and Star Academy was not the place for jazz!” Her story became something of a cause celebre.

From the Dominican Republic, it was a short hop to New York where she studied music and began gigging in 2009. These days she is living the touring musician’s life, seldom home in Brooklyn and almost always on the road; a 21stCentury jazz gypsy.

* Cyrille Aimée plays the Gardyne Theatre on Wednesday at 8pm. Visit www.jazzdundee.co.uk for information, and phone 01382 434940 for tickets.

First published in The Scotsman, Monday November 17th

 

 

 

 

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Carol Kidd: The Art of Survival

Carol Kidd picCarol Kidd MBE may be the finest jazz vocalist Scotland has ever produced, but in times of crisis, it has been painting which has saved her – rather than singing. The ebullient, pint-sized Glaswegian, now resident in Spain, is back in her home town this month to celebrate her 70th birthday and give a trio of concerts. Oh, and to show her paintings to the public for the first time, with an exhibition and workshops at iota in Glasgow’s west end.

So how did the singer who was hand-picked by her idol, Frank Sinatra, to open his legendary Glasgow 1990 concert for him and who was accorded superstar status in the Far East due to her chart success become an exhibiting artist. “Artist?!” splutters Kidd. “There’s no way I’d call myself that! When I think about people who’ve been to art school and university, I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an artist – but the things that I’m doing are straight from the heart. That’s the only way I can put it.”

Kidd’s first brush with, er, the brush came in 2005 – when she was at her lowest ebb in the aftermath of the sudden death of her longterm partner, and manager, John and in the midst of a court case over his estate. Shuddering, she recalls: “I was a maniac. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I was a mess. You would come into my flat in Glasgow and have to walk over bank statements and papers. I really was so black about everything.

“Then, one day, my daughter Carol came to my flat with an easel, canvases, brushes, oils – everything I needed – and she said: ‘Mum, you’re dying before my eyes. You were always good at drawing so, there, go for it.’ I’ve been drawing since I was child. I used to draw the Carol painting - Coleendogs, when we had dogs, and the kids – but always in pencil. So I was always into drawing but never took it that step beyond that and actually painted anything. I didn’t have a clue.”

Nevertheless, with nothing to lose, Kidd gave it a go. “ Just putting out a bit of paint, getting a brush, putting the canvas up, and putting that first stroke on the canvas were huge steps .. and once I got an idea in my head, I was off and running. It saved me – because what it did was it blocked out everything else, because I was so focused. It really was therapy.”

Relocating to Majorca in 2007 – “it gave me the tranquility I need” – Kidd continued and developed her painting. She works with oils, and paints mostly from memory or from her imagination – everything from horses to trees to portraits.

Almost two years ago, the singer was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a lumpectomy and a course of radiotherapy. The subsequent hormone replacement medication she was put on produced awful side effects in her – and she just recently took the decision to stop it. “I have had a year and a half of hell, truly hell. I’ve had no energy, and just wanted to crawl under the sheets and sleep. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And the depression. I just wanted to throw myself under the first bus that came along. These were side effects of this pill. I took myself off them two months ago, and I’m like a new person. I’m about to try another hormone replacement therapy but if it throws me back to the way I was a year ago, then I’ll be coming off that too.”

Thankfully, she had her art to turn to – something she could lose herself in, as and when she had the energy. “That’s twice it’s done it for me. This time, it was a case of ‘Right, okay, I can’t do anything else. I can’t go out, and I cannae go and sing. So I’ll carry on with my painting. And then I started doing things that were a wee step above what I’d done before, and having more confidence, and that’s when the gallery became interested. When they saw them, they said: ‘These are good, let’s go for an exhibition.’ And at that point I was still unwell but I kept painting and painting and painting.

“I’ve done all sorts of things. I did this beautiful woman that I met when I was having my treatment, and she was having chemo so she had no hair, but, my god, her face was outstanding. She had the most gorgeous blue eyes. And I had to come home with her picture in my Carol painting - Billy Chead.”

One face that Kidd painted from memory – even though she could have referred to photos online or in the press – was that of Billy Connolly. That painting has already sold, she says proudly. “It was bought by a friend in Glasgow who saw an early version of it and said: ‘I don’t care what it costs. I want it.’ I said: ‘You mean I’ll need to do it again?! I’ve just scrapped it!’ It took me four months – because I kept changing it, and it got to the stage where I had to scrap it and start again, because he’s got such a complicated face and you’ve got to put an expression in.

“I had to do him. Why? Because of what’s happening with him at the moment, he was in my head so much and I felt for him so, so much. I know Billy and it was horrifying to read all that stuff about him – I couldn’t believe it – and then Robin Williams died, and to imagine how he would feel about that because they were like brothers… I just felt I had to paint him.”

Kidd first met Connolly in the late 1970s, at a party at the home of another much-loved Scottish jazz singer, Fionna Duncan. “I’ll never forget,” she says cackling. “He walked in the door with a great big long fur coat on, and the first thing he did was he took off the fur coat, threw it in the corner, and said: ‘Stay Rover!’ And I thought who is this man? We got on like a house on fire. He was so funny.”

While she’s back in Glasgow, Kidd has three duo concerts with top pianist Brian Kellock, with whom she recorded a live album last summer – but her chat today is all about her love of painting. Does she feel more excited about the art stuff than singing these days?

“No. No, definitely not. I’ll tell you what, I feel very, very lucky that at the age I’m at now I have something to fall back on, if it gets to the stage where I can’t sing any more – you know, if I can’t sing the way that’s good enough for my standards – then I would have to give it up. I couldn’t do a Frank Sinatra thing and just keep going on and on and on. So I feel really lucky that I’ve got this other string to my bow, and it’s something that can go on without the stress of going and doing concerts – although I don’t want to give up singing. I’ll keep going till I know it’s time to stop.”

* Carol Kidd’s paintings will be exhibited at iota, Unlimited Studios, Hyndland Street, Glasgow on October 24th & 25th from 12-6pm; Carol Kidd & Brian Kellock perform at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh on October 30th, at Wild Cabaret, Glasgow on November 2nd and at The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock on November 9th. Their new CD, Carol Kidd Live With Brian Kellock Present Cole Porter will be released on October 23rd.

First published in Scotland on Sunday, October 19th

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