Tag Archives: Al Cohn

Something About Lee

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Lee Wiley since the time I wrote most of this article, back in 1994. Around then, I’d fallen in love with her songbook albums – notably the Rodgers & Hart one, and such later recordings as Oh! Look at Me Now and R & H’s My Romance – surely the definitive version?

Whenever I revisit her recordings, I find new delights and have come to realise that not only was she one of the best interpreters of a lyric, but she was also a singer who expressed a distinctly female point of view through her song choices and her delivery of them – just listen to such songs as Any Time, Any Day, Anywhere (which she co-wrote), If I Love Again, A Woman’s Intuition, Who Can I Turn To Now and Can’t Get Out of This Mood. I’ll bet her recordings of these songs speak more to us women than they do to men.. 

Even among jazz fans, the name Lee Wiley is rarely heard. One of the most influential singers of her time, she remains –  to many people – little more than a name. Anyone who has heard her recordings, however, is unlikely to forget them: her voice is one which raises the spirits and exudes sheer class.  She could count among her admirers the likes of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Marlene Dietrich;  the singers she influenced include Peggy Lee, and she regularly inspired critics to ecstatic, and near poetic, musings on her interpretations of the popular songs of the day.

A TV drama starring Piper Laurie and Claude Rains (and directed by Sam Peckinpah) based loosely on her life was made in 1963. It was entitled Something About Lee Wiley – a title which hints at the elusive quality of the Wiley voice.

You could describe it – as others have – as warm, sensual, fragile, husky, pure
and unpretentious. But there’s still something else; something that’s difficult to pin down. It could be the way she had of implying a note amid her breathiness, or of leaving a wisp of a note hanging in the air, lingering in the mind of her listener. Whatever it was she did, it was unique – and it enhanced every tune she caressed with her velvety vocals.

Lee Wiley was born on October 9, 1908 or 1910 (she claimed at one point that 1915 was the year of her birth) in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma – a town she described with characteristic irony as “about as small as a town can get”. Legend has it that she was of Cherokee Indian, Scottish and English ancestry, and musicians later nicknamed her Pocahontas or The Indian Princess. She certainly comes across as having been as sophisticated and elegant in appearance as her tasteful vocal style and regal nickname suggest.

Wiley was listening to the blues from an early age, and longed to be a singer. “I had a boyfriend who would skip school with me and we would go over to the local store and play records .. they called them ‘race records’ and they only sold them in a certain part of town -the coloured part,” she told one interviewer. Her favourite black singer was Ethel Waters. “I loved to hear her and I adapted her style and softened it to make it more ladylike.”

In her mid teens, Wiley left Oklahoma to sing with Leo Reisman’s band in New York. Working with him and the popular Paul Whiteman outfit on radio, she quickly graduated to her own show – The Pond’s Cold Cream Hour Starring Lee Wiley. Along the way, she suffered a couple of setbacks: suspected tuberculosis, which forced her to take a year off work, and later temporary blindness and disfigurement, the result of a fall from a horse – just as she was about to do a screen test in Hollywood.

When Wiley emerged from that catastrophe, she did so as a fledgling jazz singer. Whereas previously she had been singing with comercial bands for the mass audience of radio, it was the jazz fraternity which now took her under its wing, and provided the perfect musical settings for her intimate and swinging vocal style.

In 1939, backed by the likes of Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Fats Waller (piano and organ) and Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Wiley recorded what has become a classic: a collection of George and Ira Gershwin  numbers – many of them (though it’s hard to believe now) rescued from obscurity. Not only did Wiley set a trend by recording the first songbook album, she also scored a winner by transforming songs which were familiar only as showtunes into sensitive and dramatic jazz standards.

The album was recorded for Liberty, a high-class music shop with an elite clientele, and they (not to mention the messrs Gershwin) were so delighted with it that it was quickly succeeded by a Cole Porter equivalent. Porter was so taken with it that he was prompted to write: “I can’t tell you how much I like the way she sings these songs. The combination of voice and musical accompaniment is excellent. Please give my congratulations to Lee Wiley.”

Songbook albums of Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen followed soon afterwards, and – with her respect for the verse and the meaning of the lyrics – hers have become the definitive versions of many of the songs she recorded.  So much so that few have touched such gems as A Ship Without a Sail or Here In My Arms since.

Wiley was, as her friends have noted, a complex person. One defining characteristic, evident in her music, is her honesty and sense of conviction. She was also a free spirit, and seems to have been able to blend into any social circle.

Her friend Larry Carr said: “She loved the free-wheeling, barrel-house atmosphere of jazz clubs and musicians but there was also another, equally strong, side of her that appreciated the well-bred, genteel and chic side of society”. Just as Katharine Hepburn once said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he lent her class and she lent him sex appeal, the same applies to Wiley and jazz. She brought sophistication to the music, and it brought out her sexy side. It was the perfect relationship.

From 1943 until 1946, Wiley was married to the pianist Jess Stacy, and sang with his short-lived big band and Eddie Condon’s group. By the late 1940s, she was working on the nightclub circuit and beginning her slide into obscurity. However, her sumptuous 1950 Columbia album, A Night in Manhattan, won acclaim and led to more recordings in the mid-1950s – including another two classics, the sublime West of the Moon (with Ralph Burns arrangements) and A Touch of the Blues (with Billy Butterfield and His Orchestra, and arrangements by Bill Finegan and Al Cohn). Thereafter, she only made the occasional appearance on television and radio.

The TV film Something About Lee Wiley caused a resurgence of interest in her music but she didn’t record again until 1971. The superb Back Home Again – which teamed her with Dick Hyman –  proved to be her last album. She died in December 1975 after a long battle against cancer.

The tragedy of Lee Wiley is that her legacy of recordings is pretty slight, and there is no film footage of her singing. She was, by all accounts, too happy-go-lucky to be ambitious and too dismissive of commercial work – and this could be why, during her lifetime at least, she wasn’t as well appreciated as she should have been. Except by those who heard her: at her last public appearance, at the Carnegie Hall, as part of the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival, audiences went wild for her – an upbeat note on which to end her career.

Here are some of my favourite Lee Wiley recordings that are available on YouTube:

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Profiles

John Bunch obituary

John Bunch, photographed at Nola Studios by Alan Nahigian, in October 2009, for Arbors Records

The death of the American jazz pianist John Bunch, at the age of 88, has triggered an outpouring of warmth from fellow musicians, festival organisers, promoters and the many friends and fans he made during his 38-year freelance career.

He may have been in his late eighties, but Bunch – who had been battling melanoma, and only played his last gig a month ago – was still a vital part of the jazz scene, and remained young at heart right up to his death. Even as his health was deteriorating in the last few months, he was finding new ways to stay in touch with his younger friends – beating many of them on to such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter.

A quiet and thoughtful character who was known in the jazz world as “Gentleman John”, Bunch was renowned for his supremely tasteful and innately swinging style of playing as well as for his extremely modest and self-effacing personality. During a career which spanned over five decades, he was the first-call pianist for several generations of bandleaders, among them Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Scott Hamilton whose career he helped to launch. And in the late 1960s, he was hired by jazz-loving Tony Bennett to be his musical director and right-hand man.

Born in the small Indiana town of Tipton in 1921, Bunch didn’t show any interest in music until a man he later described as “a wonderful piano player” moved into the area and began to teach children what was known as “popular piano” – the popular songs of the day. All the children took lessons but it was  11-year-old Bunch who emerged as the town’s top piano student. His teacher, who played in jazz bands and was very influenced by the great Fats Waller, asked Bunch’s mother if he could take him along to his gigs – and soon Bunch was sitting in with professional players.

Bunch’s mother initially rented a piano for him to practise on, and when his talent began to shine through, one was bought – though this being the Depression, it involved a great deal of sacrifice. His parents split up around this time, and his mother took a job as cook in a restaurant, which was one of the first places to have a jukebox.  The man who came to service it loved jazz and, having heard about the teenage Bunch’s talent, asked Mrs Bunch if he could take John to Indianapolis to hear the Count Basie band.

Bunch later recalled: “It was a great experience. They let us sit up on the bandstand because it was so crowded. Imagine,  a kid 14 years old sitting in front of Basie’s most famous band – with Lester Young, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton and all those guys.”

After leaving school, Bunch played piano locally and worked in a factory before serving in the Second World War as a bombardier in the 91st Bomb Group, flying B-17s – “Flying Fortresses” – over Germany.  On their 17th mission, they were shot down over Germany and two of the crew were killed. Bunch was the only one to emerge without any injuries, despite having had to bail out.

He and his crew were taken prisoner and held in Stalag Luft 13, a camp for captured airmen. He later said: “I couldn’t believe it. They had a band, and I became its piano player.” It was for this band that he wrote his first arrangement.

Bunch’s propensity for survival didn’t just extend to emerging physically unscathed from a burning plane; he also survived the infamous “death march” from his camp to another, in January 1945.

“The Russians were starting their drive towards Berlin,” he recalled in 2002. “Since our camp was on the way, we felt sure they’d liberate us, but the Germans wouldn’t let them have us. Things were desperate and they wanted us as bargaining tools. They made us walk through a terrible blizzard which lasted several days. A lot of us died or were killed trying to escape. It was a desperate, terrible thing. We ended up in another camp for the last few months of the war.”

After the war, Bunch took advantage of the GI bill for veterans to get a free college education. He studied speech rather than music because his sight-reading skills weren’t up to scratch, and he chose the University of Indiana because it had a band.

He later admitted that his natural insecurity held him back from taking up opportunities in jazz that would have meant leaving Indianapolis earlier than he did. Playing with the celebrated guitarist Wes Montgomery changed his outlook. “I thought it guys like Wes liked me, then I must be okay.”

Bunch worked with the Woody Herman band in Los Angeles before settling in New York in the late 1950s. There, he played occasionally with saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and, as he put it, “lucked out” by landing a job in the last full-time band that “King of Swing” Benny Goodman led.

Indeed, Bunch helped Goodman put together the band for the historic, government-sponsored, tour of Russia in 1962. During this tour, he became good friends with his hero, fellow pianist Teddy Wilson whom he had “idolised” when he was growing up.

Bunch’s only stint in a full-time, non-freelance job was as Tony Bennett’s musical director between 1966 and 1972. While he enjoyed the challenges of the role, he missed jazz and took to organising jam sessions in his apartment to work off the frustration of having to turn down gigs. By the time he stopped working for Bennett, the jazz scene was picking up, thanks to the influx of such younger musicians as Scott Hamilton, who remembers how in-demand Bunch was.

“John’s manner of playing was unique. Nobody ever played as simply and as  clearly as he did, but he had a kind of rhythmic sophistication, a rhythmic ability which meant that he could do something that others couldn’t do – and that was to really play in tempo. No-one could compete with him on that, and there was never a pianist at any time who was more wanted by more different kinds of musicians because of that – he was popular with everyone, and he was a particular favourite of mine and of people like Ruby Braff, Roy Eldridge and Benny Goodman.”

Bunch helped launch Hamilton’s career and secured the younger man his first recording date but it was the fact that he joined Hamilton’s band – the quintet which put him on the map in the 1980s – that was the greatest source of pride to the saxophonist. “He loved being freelance, and he didn’t join a lot of groups so to have joined mine – well, he must have enjoyed it. He meant a lot in my life, and he did a lot for a lot of musicians.”

Scott Hamilton also points out that “John was probably the best accompanist in jazz. He knew exactly what to do. You know, Tony Bennett was trying to get John back to join him in the last ten years – Tony phoned him and asked him to join his group again – but although John had loved doing it before, he wanted to remain freelance.”

As a freelance musician, Bunch travelled the world making new friends and fans wherever he went. Throughout his career, younger musicians and admirers were drawn to him – which Hamilton puts down to the fact that “he didn’t act like there was any age difference, so you didn’t feel it. I’m sure that’s why young musicians were always part of his social circle. He wasn’t lost in the past at all – far from it. He took things as they came, and he was very open to new ideas. He understood music in a kind of universal way.”

Bunch is survived by his second wife, Chips Gemmell.

* John Bunch, pianist, born December 1, 1921; died March 30, 2010.

1 Comment

Filed under Obituaries