Tag Archives: Billie Holiday

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

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Profiles

Tony Bennett: The Great Life

Tony Bennett PR shot 1The last time Tony Bennett performed in Glasgow, two years ago, he was already well into his eighties but, over the course of a non-stop 75 minute performance, he positively romped through a programme of no fewer than 26 songs, without pausing for anything more than the briefest chat and acknowledgement of the massive outpouring of affection for him from the packed Concert Hall. The longer he was onstage, and the more he sang, the more animated he became – and it seemed that the enthusiastic response from the audience was fuelling his staggeringly lively performance.

But it seems that there is more to it than that. Bennett, who is now 88 and set to return to the Concert Hall next week, is not so much driven by the need for applause as he is by the desire to entertain, and by his own enormous pleasure in singing. He explains: “I love doing it, and I like to try to make people feel good. It’s always very enjoyable to me leaving the theatre knowing that I made people feel good.”

And it’s not just to his audience that Bennett feels a sense of responsibility; as the oldest popular singer on the block – and the one whose career stretches back over an incredible six decades – he regards himself as a custodian of the Great American Songbook. After all, there can only be a handful of singers still around who have direct links with the original contributors to that body of work, and such original exponents of it as Bennett’s hero, Fred Astaire. Does Bennett feel a sense of responsibility to these songs?

“Yes, I do because the United States in the 1930s had a renaissance period very similar to what happened in France with Impressionism, with Monet, and musically with Ravel and Debussy. It was the beginning of talkies in films so they grabbed Fred Astaire off the stage and put him in films and they hired George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to write the songs. These songs are gorgeous, they never become dated because they’re so well-written. I travel the world and wherever I go, people start to sing them back at me – they’re known internationally.”

Bennett first heard many of them – including the one he cites as his personal favourite, Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are (“I just adore that song”) – as a youngster growing up in the Queens borough of New York. Before he discovered this homegrown American music, however, it was his father’s Caruso records which introduced him to the art of singing, and in particular to the “bel canto” style, which explains his graceful way with a song and his elegant phrasing.

“My father adored opera and had a reputation himself as a singer. I was told that he would sing on the top of a mountain in Calabria and the whole valley would hear him. This inspired my older brother and myself – and we both became singers. My brother was very successful – at age 14 he was hired by the Metropolitan Opera House. So he was called Little Caruso. Of course I became a bit envious so I just became interested in jazz and started improvising.”

Asked who his first inspiration as a singer was, Bennett instantly names Louis Armstrong who, like him, enjoyed success as both a jazz and a popular artist and who effectively invented jazz singing. That the pair became great friends is perhaps no surprise given that they seem to share the same outlook about entertaining an audience and living life to the full. Bennett says: “His whole life he just wanted to make people feel good and have fun. He loved what he was doing so much that it never became old-fashioned. Just listen to him playing on a Hot 5 record. If you listen to the musicians playing behind him, it does sound a little dated but when Louis comes in on trumpet or singing it sounds like right now.”

Speaking to Tony Bennett, it’s impossible not to be struck by his delight in discussing jazz – his first musical love – and its characters. On Duke Ellington: “He was a complete genius, unbelievable. He just performed every night. I knew him at least the last 30 years of his life and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t compose some music – even when they were on tour doing one-nighters and he was travelling 150 miles a day, he would have the orchestra try something that he might want to put into his composition.”

On John Bunch, the much-loved pianist, and former music director to Bennett, who was a regular visitor to Scotland’s jazz festivals until his death in 2010 : “Gentleman John Bunch. I loved him so much. He was the most wonderful person. In fact, I’ll tell you a cute story .. He asked me one time when we were in London: ‘Did you ever play tennis?’ I said ‘no.’ He said: ‘Would you like me to give you a lesson?’ I said ‘okay.’ So he took me out to a stadium to play at the net and he showed me how to hit the ball over the net and all that sort of thing. Later on I found out that we had been playing at Wimbledon! I’ve been working down ever since then…”

Billie Holiday (“a sweet, beautiful, sophisticated lady”) was a particular favourite – and Bennett, who first topped the charts in 1950, was lucky enough to meet her. “Duke Ellington had a show at a nightclub in New York and I went to see it. Billie Holiday was there too. It was the days when there was an awful lot of prejudice. She said: ‘C’mon Tony, let’s go uptown and have a jam session.’ The people I was with kind of indicated to me ‘don’t go up there – it’s dangerous,’ you know? I regret it to this day.”

Bennett may be embarrassed about that episode but it was exceptional, since he was an active supporter of and participant in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, responding to the call to arms from his friends Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte. His own life hadn’t been without struggle, and the other overwhelmingly striking thing about a conversation with him is how lucky he feels to have had the life he’s had, making a living doing something he loves, and how – even now, nearly 60 years after his initial success – he still counts his blessings.

“After my father died [when he was ten years old], my Italian family would come over every Sunday and my brother, sister and I would entertain them. They told me that I sang very well and that they liked my paintings of flowers. They created a passion in my life to just sing and paint, and I’ve gotten away with it – I’ve never really worked a day in my life. I just enjoy what I do.”

Asked if he escaped into his music when times were tough, Bennett explains that it wasn’t merely a form of distraction; it was a practical escape route out of poverty. “I went into showbusiness to stop my mother from working – she was making a penny a dress sewing in a sweat shop to put food on the table for her children. I was able to accomplish that with my first couple of hit records – I was able to send my mom out into the suburbs into beautiful nature.”

Tony Bennett - Concert Hall steps

Tony Bennett on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1995 (c) Herald & Times Group

The adult Bennett has had his fair share of professional frustrations and personal problems – and for a while he was, to paraphrase one of his early signature songs, “lost, his losing dice was tossed, his bridges all were crossed, nowhere to go.” A period out of the pop limelight in the 1970s produced some jazz albums – notably of duets with pianist Bill Evans and, most sublimely, his two volumes of the
Rodgers & Hart Songbook with the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet; intimate, cult recordings which are among the very best vocal works in all jazz and which highlight Bennett’s admiration and respect for the some of the most eloquent lyrics in the Great American Songbook..

Relaunching his career in the late 1980s, performing on MTV, and duetting with young pop stars – most recently Lady Gaga – has brought him to new audiences. But best of all, his later success has allowed him to be exactly the kind of singer he wants to be – singing jazz with his quartet and creating an intimate atmosphere even in the largest venue. “I like working that way,” he says. “To clarify my whole premise: I don’t want to be the biggest. I’d rather be one of the best.” Mission accomplished, I reckon.

* Tony Bennett performs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday, September 9th.

* First published in The Herald, Saturday August 30th

4 Comments

Filed under Profiles

CD Recommendations – April 2012

Billie Holiday: The Complete Masters 1933-1959 (Universal)
As somebody who already owns everything by her favourite singer – but scattered across box sets, single CDs and LPs – I am thrilled with this exquisitely presented limited edition collection of all the master takes from her vast and varied career. It’s a shame not to have some of the best alternative takes, but great to not have two versions of the same tune back to back. And to be able to hear her go from radiant, ebullient, teens-to-twentysomething Billie on her joyful 1930s small group recordings, right through to her worn-out, but utterly compelling and sumptuous final (with strings) album, is a privilege and a treat.
Derek Nash Acoustic Quartet: Joyriding (Jazzizit Records)
British saxophonist Derek Nash’s first CD with his regular trio is a fresh, funky and engaging affair which features an imaginative selection of tunes, most of them originals by Nash himself but also such stand-outs as the Ennio Morricone’s unjustly neglected Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso and a Gerry Mulligan-inspired take on Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are. Nash is a lovely, melodic player who has a terrific rapport with his trio, particularly with the ever-elegant pianist David Newton.
Ruby Braff: Three Classic Albums Plus (Avid Jazz)
Wow. This is one of the best of these Avid two-CD sets that I’ve heard. The great trumpeter Ruby Braff was in his early thirties when these four late-1950s LPs were recorded – and his playing is sensational, as is the company he keeps (Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Freddie Green, Hank Jones – on vibes! – etc). In fact, it’s difficult to get past the first album, Hi-Fi Salute to Bunny, which finds him alongside the legendary clarinettist Pee Wee Russell and is an absolute gem, featuring a string of unforgettable, downright sexy takes on such evergreens as I’m Coming Virginia.
Bucky Pizzarelli: Challis in Wonderland (Arbors Records)
The octogenarian US guitarist Pizzarelli is still playing as superbly as ever. On this new CD, he pays homage to both the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and Bill Challis, the arranger who ensured that Beiderbecke’s masterful piano compositions were transcribed and saved for posterity. All four of those feature here (played on guitar, of course), alongside some other Bixian numbers and tunes of his era – plus Pizzarelli’s own title composition. He’s joined by his son and fellow guitarist John, and a string quartet featuring the violin whiz Aaron Weinstein. Delightful stuff.
Nigel Clark: Under the Stars (Circular Records)
While some solo guitar players seem to sap the life out of their material by picking it apart, stretching it out and extemporising ad infinitum, Glasgow-based guitar star Clark brings colour, energy and lyricism to whatever he plays – as effectively as if a whole band was performing. On the 16 eclectic tracks included on this, his first, solo album, his classy taste and love of (and respect for) a beautiful melody shine through – among the highlights are numbers by Jerome Kern, Carlos Santana, Antonio Carlos Jobim and a trio of original tunes.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Masters 1935-1955 (Universal)
The Ella Fitzgerald set in this superb new series of limited edition box sets may not – as the Billie Holiday one did – cover her entire career, but it takes in some of her finest work, notably this reviewer’s favourite Fitzgerald recordings, the duos with elegant pianist Ellis Larkins in 1950 (her first Gershwin songbook) and 1954. The 14 discs span the dynamic singer’s output from her coquettish debut with Chick Webb through to the 1950s when she exuded a downright regal quality on her ballads.
Charlie Parker: The Complete Masters 1941-1954 (Universal)
As with the other box sets in this limited edition series, this 11-disc collection is a must-have for anyone interested in the subject; this time, the legendary bebop pioneer and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. It traces his evolution – and that of bop – from his Kansas City beginnings in the mid-1940s with Jay McShann’s blues ‘n’ boogie-style band through to his sporadic final recordings before his untimely 1954 death (aged 35). Highlights include his electrifying encounters with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and his masterful strings albums.
Sidney Bechet: The Complete American Masters 1931-1953 (Universal)
The legendary New Orleans-born clarinettist and soprano saxophonist is the subject of the fourth and final of the superb new limited edition box sets from Universal. This collection isn’t comprehensive –  the recordings he made after settling in France in June 1950 aren’t included (so Midnight in Paris fans won’t find Si Tu Vois Ma Mere) – but it is an impressive 14-disc set nevertheless and spans his career from 1923 (though he first recorded in 1921) to 1950, by which time he was being feted by the younger generation.

Leave a comment

Filed under CD reviews

Jazz on Film @ Glasgow Jazz Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some trailers and tasters to whet the appetite:

3 Comments

Filed under Jazz on Film

Herman Leonard

The great photographer Herman Leonard died on August 14. Here’s a piece I wrote about him, when I did a phone interview with him in 2005 on the occasion of the publication of his book Jazz, Giants, and Journeys – The Photography of Herman Leonard (Scala). He was a delightful and very gracious man.

He may have lived in seven different countries, worked with the world’s most beautiful models and photographed far-flung places and people, but the constant throughout the long career of photographer Herman Leonard has been his passion for jazz. His portraits of such jazz greats as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington are regarded as the definitive images of these stars, and his archive is a veritable Who’s Who of jazz history.

Now, at the age of 83, Leonard’s work is being celebrated in a new book, Jazz, Giants, and Journeys – The Photography of Herman Leonard. It very nearly didn’t happen, though: 10,000 of his prints were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and it was only because Leonard took the precaution of storing his negatives in a vault in a New Orleans museum that this unique archive survives.

For Leonard, the music came second only to the pictures: his first love was undoubtedly photography. The chatty octogenarian chortles as he recalls how his passion was initially stirred. “My older brother was interested in photography and had taken some figure studies of his wife which I came across in the tray in his little darkroom. I was eight or nine years old and had never even imagined anything like these pictures! The only nude women I’d seen were Greek statues. But I saw his photos and I thought – this is the way I gotta go…”

When Leonard set up his first studio in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1948, he was a fully-fledged jazz fan. Luckily for him, it was at a time when the scene was thriving – though there was, as he points out, “no living to be made in jazz photography.” By day, Leonard worked for magazines and shot advertising campaigns, but at night he was to be found on 52nd Street, the birthplace of bebop. “I loved the music and became enchanted with the whole atmosphere of the nightclubs,” he says. “I wanted to make a visual diary of these musical moments, just strictly for my own self.”

Leonard would trade his photos for admission into the clubs, and soon became a fixture in front of the bandstands in the Royal Roost, the Downbeat and Birdland. “I was very fortunate. The club owners let me come in in the afternoon to set my lights up.” His unforgettable, black and white photographs of the young turks of the scene – Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon etc – are thrillingly evocative and undoubtedly helped jazz earn its “cool” status. Leonard was the same age as many of the musicians he was photographing, and he quickly became “one of the guys”.

Among his early work, one of his best-known photographs was a still life of the melancholy tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s sax case and iconic pork pie hat, surrounded by the swirls of cigarette smoke which were ubiquitous in Leonard’s club pictures. It’s one of Leonard’s favourite photos, because it sums up the character, and yet – incredibly – it was completely un-posed.

Another of Leonard’s early sessions was with the singer who was Young’s musical soulmate – Billie Holiday. He recalls it vividly. “The first time I worked with her was 1949 and she had just come out of jail. She was healthy and rested and off the drugs. She was charming, she was welcoming. I was with a reporter, and when we got to her modest Harlem apartment, she was wearing an apron and she’d been cooking a steak for her dog.

“The last time I photographed her was at a recording session for Norman Granz in ’55. When she walked in, she looked so terrible – haggard and drawn, just horrible – that I turned to Norman and said: ‘I can’t shoot this. You can’t use these pictures on your cover.’ He said: ‘You get your ass out there and shoot. You may not have another chance.’ Which turned out to be the case.

“I have a lot of pictures from that session that I’ll never show anybody because she just looks awful, and that isn’t the way I was brought up in photography. My mentor, Yousuf Karsh, told me:  ‘Herman, always tell the truth but in terms of beauty’. I loved Billie so much that I wouldn’t dare show these very sad pictures. But I did manage to get four or five images at that last session that I do show.”

One of these is of her shoes. “I particularly like that shot. You know, she had a tragic life – always being taken advantage of and abused by the men and so on. She lived her life in chains, and here she is in a pair of shoes with chains around her ankles. That to me is symbolic.”

Another favourite subject and singer was Ella Fitzgerald, whom Leonard photographed in the States and in Paris, where he lived for over a decade from 1956. Fitzgerald came to Paris with the producer and impresario Norman Granz (who owned Verve Records).

Leonard has very fond memories of Granz. “Norman did so much for jazz and so much for the musicians. He always did everything first class. He flew them first class, he put them in first class hotels – everything. There were occasions when he would come with black musicians and they wouldn’t be accepted, and Norman would say: ‘Either you keep us together – you don’t segregate us – or we won’t do the gig.’ ”

Just as Leonard was in the right place at the right time being in New York as bop blossomed, so he was perfectly placed in Paris for catching up with the superstars of jazz when they flew in for concerts. As often as not, it was with Leonard that they hung out at the Club St Germain after their show, or at the cosmopolitan Brasserie Lipp when they needed a late supper. The amenable photographer recalls snapping the majestic alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges there – “a sweet man” – and taking advantage of the kitchen’s late opening to dine on pastrami and coleslaw with him and other hungry American musicians.

One of Leonard’s favourite stars was Louis Armstrong. “Louis was fabulous. He was a show. He was always gagging around, having fun – just like the personality you see in his films. That’s why there’s one particular picture that I have of him which is out of the ordinary. He looks melancholy, but he was actually just thoughtful in that picture. He was backstage, and I was behind some curtains. I looked through and saw him sitting there like that so I poked my camera through and took a shot. He heard the click and he looked over at me and winked. I like that shot because it shows a different aspect of Louis.”

So who was the biggest thrill to meet? Leonard becomes very thoughtful, and his assistant suggests some names. Miles? “No, with Miles, I gravitated into his acquaintance gradually.” Louis? “No, because Louis was so open. I think it was Duke Ellington – wow, that was the biggest thrill: I was in the presence of the Duke, the elegant Ellington. He was a masterful guy and he was extremely sweet to me and accommodating. I was most impressed by that. He was hounded by everybody and you know when you hang around these big stars and you see what they have to go through, you can understand that they back away.

“For instance, I’m also, happily, a very close friend of Tony Bennett’s. I’m hanging out with him, we’re walking down the street, he has no entourage, nothing like that and people come up to him, and he stops and smiles and .. I say: ‘Doesn’t this all kind of bother you after a while?’ He says: ‘Look, these people are wonderful.. ‘ and he goes on like that. Ellington was like that too. A gentleman, a total, total gentleman.”

One of Leonard’s very favourite pictures is a rear view of Frank Sinatra. “I like it because it’s undeniably Sinatra – the body language, the feel of the smoke from the cigarette, and the simplicity of the picture. There’s nothing complicated about it, but to me it tells the story of Sinatra.

“In fact, I was taken out to his domain in Palm Springs by Quincy Jones one day, years ago. I had brought that particular print with me. I showed it to him and he hesitated and said: ‘Monte Carlo, 1958’. My jaw fell to the floor. At that point, somebody called him and he walked away. I turned to Quincy, and said: ‘How did he do that?’ . He said: ‘I don’t know, this guy is weird’. That’s a true story. He was wonderful. He was probably the one musician that I was in awe of. I didn’t engage him in long conversations as I would with the others. I just stood back there and watched and listened because I loved what he did. Sinatra was, to me, the greatest singer of all time.”

So, any regrets? Didn’t the camera sometimes get in the way of enjoying the music? “Absolutely,” nods Leonard. “People ask me: ‘What were they playing when you took that picture?’ I have no idea. I was thinking about the focusing and the angle and the exposure and all that kind of thing. I missed a lot of music because I was concentrating on the shot. But I don’t feel I missed out on the experience. The thrill of being there was enough for me.”

* Visit www.bbc.co.uk for a lovely tribute to Herman Leonard, with pictures and music.

Leave a comment

Filed under Profiles

Norwich Jazz Party 2010: Annie Ross

I’m writing this en route back from the Norwich Jazz Party – in the hope that it will be of interest to anyone considering visiting Ronnie Scott’s in Soho on Wednesday or Thursday night..

One of the highlights of the Norwich event this year was a series of sets by Annie Ross, the soon-to-be octogenerian singer who is appearing at Ronnie Scott’s this week. Perhaps the word “vocalist” would be more appropriate as what the deep-voiced Ross does these days is as much about speaking the lyrics as it is about singing them.

Nobody expects a voice to sound as if it’s been unaffected by the ravages of time – not to mention a life in jazz – so there’s no point in going along expecting to hear the Annie Ross who made her name in the 1950s with the tongue-tying Twisted and her other hits with the pioneering vocalese group of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

I hadn’t heard Ross live before but had watched her on YouTube and had read reviews of her performance in Glasgow three years ago. I knew the voice wasn’t what it once was, but I expected that the appeal and pleasure of the experience would lie as much in the history that she represents (she’s a direct link to Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, etc) as in the performance she would give.

So it came as something of a surprise to find that hers were some of my favourite sets of the weekend – especially her opening session on Saturday night. After being taken aback initially by quite how ravaged her voice is – and fast tunes like Twisted aren’t perhaps the best showcase for it – I became first attuned to and ultimately blown away by her performance, especially on ballads.

Lush Life, from the Saturday night set, was simply a masterpiece of storytelling. Accompanied by her regular pianist Tardo Hammer, she seemed to inhabit every word, making the familiar Billy Strayhorn song deeply personal in the process. Fran Landesman’s All the Sad Young Men, on Sunday, had a similarly moving effect; its lyrics invested with experience and Hammer’s piano accompaniment exquisitely elegant and sensitive.

She certainly knows how to put a band together, does Ms Ross. Her other secret weapon is the magnificent cornettist Warren Vache who sat slightly to her side and beamed like the teacher’s pet when she glanced his way. On slower numbers, his beguiling obbligato playing wrapped itself round her sparse vocals like furls of smoke, and ramped up the raunchiness and pzazz of faster tunes. He and Hammer are integral to the Annie Ross show.

As is the acknowledgement of the past which, in Ross’s case, is rich with legends from the jazz world – from Prez, Coltrane, Bird and all the other jazz greats who feature on the roll call that is Music is Forever, the homage Ross wrote to all her old musician friends, to Billie Holiday, to whom Ross paid tribute with a lovely interpretation of Travellin’ Light.

I remember seeing Ross in a documentary on Billie Holiday in which she said that her favourite Holiday LP was Lady In Satin, which Lady Day recorded at the end of her life – and on which her voice sounded painful and worn-out. Ross said she loved the fact that this was a voice that had lived.

While listening to Ross isn’t the harrowing experience that listening to “late-era” Billie is, it is the voice of experience nonetheless – and its appeal to those of us who were moved by her music in Norwich echoes her own feelings about Lady in Satin.

1 Comment

Filed under Concert reviews

Happy birthday, Billie!

To mark the 95th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth – on April 7, 1915 – here she is singing Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans from the 1947 movie New Orleans, a film only worth watching for the music..

Personnel: Billie Holiday (vocals), Louis Armstrong (trumpet), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Kid Ory (trombone), Charlie Beal (piano), Bud Scott (guitar), Red Callender (bass), Zutty Singleton (drums).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized