Tag Archives: Annie Ross

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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Jazz on Film: No One But Me

One of the highlights of the jazz calendar in Scotland this year (if you limited it to Glasgow, it would probably be my only personal highlight) was the pair of concerts given by the great Annie Ross at Glasgow’s Oran Mor back in February.

Ross was in town to attend the premiere of No One But Me, a Scottish-made documentary about her, at the Glasgow Film Festival. The screening was sold-out and it was a delight to watch the film in the company of its subject and so many of her friends and family – though the Q&A session afterwards was not what it would have been had the presenter known anything about jazz.

Very evocative, entertaining and insightful, with some great music and clips (not least some rarely seen footage of Ross as a child star) and featuring some very frank interviews with Ross herself, as well as with pals and colleagues, No One But Me is  must-see.

It does, however, have the air of an “authorised biography” about it, as it very much reflects Ross’s point of view and the way she wants her life and life choices to be seen. In fact, there’s probably another, unofficial, biographical documentary to be made – featuring the part(s) of her life that she didn’t want to relive, and the people who weren’t interviewed.

Anyway, if you live in Scotland you can make up your own mind as the film is screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17; at Eden Court Cinema, Inverness on October 28 and at MacRobert Cinema, Stirling on October 31 – all as part of the Luminate Festival.

Here’s a reminder of how the grande dame of the jazz scene sounded on those two magical evenings in Glasgow, in the company of Tardo Hammer (piano) and Andy Cleyndert (bass).

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Annie Ross, in action (Part 2)!

Here’s another video I filmed of Annie Ross in Glasgow last month. Forgive the  wobbly camera work .. I had to move to a better position, closer to the stage, for this one as I knew it would be a treat.. 

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Annie Ross, in action!

I don’t want to rub it in (but I will if you want me to!) but here’s a wee taste of how Annie Ross sounded in Glasgow a fortnight ago .. More will follow – temperamental camera allowing..

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Review: Annie Ross

Annie Ross, Oran Mor, Glasgow, Tuesday February 21st *****

Missing a flight due to an expired passport, getting it renewed on a public holiday, flying from New York, giving interviews, attending a film premiere … any octogenarian who had had the kind of week that Annie Ross had already had by Tuesday night might feel a bit tired. But then Annie Ross is not just any octogenarian.

Clearly energised by the terrific reception she’d just had at the film festival, the jazz star took to the stage at Oran Mor and did not leave it for 90 minutes. She didn’t even take a break to let her top-drawer duo – pianist Tardo Hammer and bass player Andy Cleyndert – carry the load for a while. And what’s more, her deep, rich voice sounded stronger and more commanding than I’d heard it before.

She held the audience spellbound with her vivid and utterly compelling renditions of a series of ballads. She may not be able to sustain notes – and filling in the gaps with colour and wit is a task stylishly pulled off by Hammer – but she paints a beautiful picture and tells a gripping story. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and One Meatball, a Depression-era number, were mini-dramas and the audience hung on every word she sang.

Indeed, it’s her commitment to the lyrics which shines through; they’re invested with emotion and intelligence – and there are few singers who care as much about the meaning of what they’re singing. Among many highlights Lush Life was a particular stand-out – not only because to hear Ross perform it is like being given a masterclass in life lessons, but also because she learned it direct from its writer, Billy Strayhorn…

ANNIE ROSS with Tardo Hammer (piano) and Andy Cleyndert (bass), Tuesday February 21st

Nobody Else But Me

The Very Thought of You

Speak Low

Trav’lin’ Light

C’mon Home

In the Gentle Rain -Here’s That Rainy Day-Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry-If You Could See Me Now

Four

Remind Me

Twisted

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

Watch What Happens

Lush Life

Bye Bye Blackbird

One Meatball

I Thought About You (scroll down for Thursday night’s programme)

Annie Ross with Tardo Hammer (piano) and Andy Cleyndert (bass), Oran Mor, Glasgow, Thursday, February 23rd

Nobody Else But Me

The Very Thought of You

Fun to Be Fooled

My Old Flame

Sing Baby Sing

I Wonder What Became of Me

Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

But Not For Me

Sure Thing

Poor You

Day In, Day Out

Nobody’s Heart-By Myself

Music Is Forever

Lush Life

One Meatball

encore:  I Got Rhythm

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CD Recommendations

Annie Ross: Four Classic Albums Plus (Avid Jazz) 

CDs of Annie Ross’s original albums have been difficult to get hold of in recent years so this two-disc set – which comprises four complete, classic 1950s LPs (Annie By  Candlelight, Gypsy, A Gasser! and Sings a Song With Mulligan!) plus an EP (Nocturne for Vocalist) and six other tracks from the same era – is an absolute gem. Her cool yet sultry vocals are particularly beautifully showcased on the intimate British recording Annie By Candlelight, but she more than holds her own alongside jazz legends Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz on the bigger band albums.

Ken Peplowski & Alan Barnes: Happy Reunion (Woodville Records)

British multi-instrumentalist Alan Barnes doesn’t seem to do bad choices –  in terms of repertoire, line-up or performance. And this new CD, a follow-up to last year’s terrific Doodle-oodle, finds him reunited with fellow clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski – this time within a larger band. The two headliners’ rapport shines through, and both play at the top of their game on a selection of tracks from the back catalogues of Ellington, Strayhorn and the great altoist Johnny Hodges whose music is a particular delight to hear.

Claire Martin & Richard Rodney Bennett: Witchcraft (Linn)

This duo’s 2005 album, When Lights Are Low, revealed Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (piano and vocals) and Claire Martin (vocals) to be the Fred and Ginger of the jazz world: while he gives her class, she gives him sex appeal. The same applies to this new collection of songs by composer Cy Coleman – though the distinctions are a bit more blurred. Coleman’s music isn’t the most memorable, but the witty, sophisticated lyrics of his collaborators – especially the Dorothy Parker-like Carolyn Leigh – are a joy to hear, and Bennett and Martin deliver them with relish and style.

Nova Scotia Jazz Band: If I Had You (C-Side Records) 

This Edinburgh quartet is only two years old but its classy, uplifting sound suggests that its members have been playing together for much longer.  This is their third album and it’s a wee gem of upmarket traditional jazz. The burnished tone of Mike Daly’s cornet complements the spikier, Pee Wee Russell-esque clarinet played by John Burgess when he’s not on sax duty. Only possible complaint is that it would have been nice to hear more lesser-played numbers and fewer trad staples.

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