Tag Archives: Doris Day

Houston Person, Soulful Sentimentalist

It’s the most unexpected shared interests that people tend to bond over – and that was certainly the case when I had my first proper conversation with Houston Person, the saxophonist and record producer who headlines this year’s Lockerbie Jazz Festival.

A big, imposing figure who made his name in the 1960s as a purveyor of hard bop, this 77-year-old African-American has a stately presence on stage and plays tenor in a bluesy, soulful style. He tends to keep himself to himself at jazz jamborees – and when he’s performing he doesn’t waste time with idle chit-chat between numbers. But when I found myself in his company, sharing a lift with him during the Norwich Jazz Party in May, a hunch (based on his choice of the song Why Did I Choose You, from the 1938 movie The Yearling) led me to bring up the subject of old films. Was he a fan? And which films were his favourites?

It turned out he is a serious movie buff whose favourite films are the timeless romance Casablanca and the classic Alan Ladd western, Shane. But what really ignited the conversation was the revelation that Mr Person is a major fan of Doris Day. “I love all her films,” he said, “but NOT Pillow Talk!” Suddenly, his exquisite performance of the ballad Fools Rush In made sense, and the knowledge of his secret love for Doris made his interpretation of Little Girl Blue – the Rodgers and Hart ballad she sang in Jumbo – all the more poignant.

When I called Person last week to chat over his life and career, he sounded tired – he was between gigs – and slightly disinclined to talk. He also didn’t have a clue which journalist he was being interviewed by. Then I mentioned the D word, and the man sprang to life. “That’s my gal,” he said in a voice that was undoubtedly accompanied by a wink and a smile. “How’d you know that?” The conversation in the car was relived. “Oh yeah-yeah-yeah! I remember.” It’s Doris Day’s

One of Houston's favourite Doris Day records - which features Fools Rush In

“sincerity” that Person particularly admires, and he regularly plunders her repertoire – “everybody does!” – for such gems as Sentimental Journey (the title of one of his albums) and I’ll Never Stop Loving You.

Unfortunately, Person never got the chance to work with his dream girl but he does have an impressive track record when it comes to singers, having recorded with the likes of Lena Horne (“Oh, she was very nice,” he says in his sexiest drawl) and Ernestine Anderson (“easy to work with”). His longest working relationship with a singer, however, was with Etta Jones, who made her name in the early 1960s with her hit Don’t Go To Strangers. For 30 years they worked together – until her death, in 2001. Theirs was a rewarding musical friendship which some compared to the legendary relationship betweeen musical soulmates Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Did he see it that way?

“Well, I know everybody else did – but for me, it was just my relationship,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. “I think it worked so well because nobody had an ego. Nobody in the whole band had an ego. Everybody had a job to do, and you just did it. I’d do my stint, she’d do her stint, and the band would do their stint and that was it. Everybody had equal time.

“I’ve worked with a lot of singers, and usually I’m the leader. But when I record with them they’re the leader. And I just try to make it sound good. I’ve always had the attitude that even though I was leader of my group, and Etta was part of that group, when it came her turn to sing, she became the leader and then whoever the piano player was, when his time came, he became the leader. I didn’t feel I had to be in charge of what they do.”

Person was born and brought up in Florence, a small town in South Carolina where his mother worked as a schoolteacher and his father was employed by the agriculture department. He and his brother were exposed to all sorts of music – from the church choirs (“everyone was involved in those”) to the pop tunes his mother would play on the piano. When he was 15 years old, he was given a saxophone for Christmas and within a few years was studying music at South Carolina State College.

Living in South Carolina, he didn’t have the chance to hear his favourite saxophonists – who included Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young. “I was already performing myself by the time I got to hear many musicians. But I did get to see Duke Ellington’s Orchestra when it came to Columbia, South Carolina. Our teacher took us to see them and it was an amazing, thrilling, experience.”

The Ellington band didn’t just make a musical impression on the young saxophonist; it was visual too. Back then, the Duke’s outfit was one of the best-dressed on the scene – and one only needs to look at the famously sharp-suited Person to see that he would have fitted right in. Indeed, these days one of the musicians to whom he’s often compared is the great Ellingtonian tenor man Ben Webster, another master balladeer.

For now, though, the only balladeer up for discussion is Doris…

 * Houston Person plays Ronnie Scott’s, 47 Frith St, London on Monday January 9 and Tuesday 10. His CD Moment to Moment (HighNote Records) is out now.

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Australia’s First Lady of Jazz

Had it not been for Julie Andrews and a weekly pile of ironing, Janet Seidel, who is currently touring the UK, might not have become the renowned singer and pianist that she is. The glamorous fiftysomething given the title of  First Lady of Jazz  by critics in her native Australia only discovered her singing voice thanks to the LP of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, which she listened to every time she carried out her weekly chore – of doing her family’s ironing.

“I’ve got four brothers – I was the only girl – and I used to listen to that record over and over again while I was ironing their shirts. So when my school said
they were going to stage My Fair Lady, I thought: ‘Gosh, I can sound exactly like Julie Andrews.’ So I auditioned and got the role, and I’m so grateful because that experience gave me the chance to conquer my shyness: I put the pancake make-up on and I became Eliza Doolittle, not Janet Seidel.”

Brought up on a dairy farm near Adelaide, Seidel had been playing piano from an early age and was regularly “shuffled out to play pieces for my granny”. Her natural shyness didn’t prevent her from playing piano but it took a while for her to sing as she played – after all, she had to be herself, not Eliza, in that context. “It was a leap of faith, really,” she says.

In her late teens and early twenties, while she was studying classical music at university in Adelaide, Seidel formed a band with two of her brothers. “We did everything from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to Suzi Quatro songs. I had a keyboard and we’d play country dances and all sorts of gigs.” Even now, she still works with one of her brothers: David Seidel is the bass player in her current trio.

During Seidel’s university years, piano bars became all the rage – and proved to be a lucrative way of subsidising student life, though it took a bit of getting used to. Seidel explains: “I was so used to having my brothers there on guitar and bass, and to being surrounded by friends. For this solo gig, I had to expand my repertoire and learn how to interact with strangers – the idea of the piano bar is that people come in and sit around the piano bar and want to talk to you. It really was a baptism of fire but it served me well. Back then, you could get work anywhere in the world just playing piano and singing.”

To begin with, she played poppier material – Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Carole King were her favourite songwriters – but she soon graduated on to the Great American Songbook and since then, it has interested her “almost exclusively”.

Seidel first heard jazz on the radio when she was still at school. “The ABC had a programme, Music to Midnight, which I used to listen to – and that’s how I first heard Nat ‘King’ Cole and Blossom Dearie.” Both of these great singer-pianists proved highly influential – but the girlish-sounding Dearie especially so. The jazz writer Whitney Balliett once said of her “tiny” voice that, without a microphone, “it wouldn’t reach the second floor of a doll’s house”.

During her student days, Seidel had the chance to see Dearie perform – and it proved to be a defining moment. “She came to Adelaide as the support artist for Stephane Grappelli who was on an Australian tour. She did a solo thing in the first half and it was just magical, you know – one of those spine-tingling moments.. I’d always been a bit ashamed of my voice – it wasn’t a huge operatic voice, and it wasn’t a big mama kind of belter. Then I heard Blossom’s fairy-like voice and I thought: ‘She’s so delicate and intimate, and still communicating that way without doing anything silly with her voice.’ And I loved the way she played piano.”

Peggy Lee’s recordings also helped shape Seidel’s soft and gentle style. “I read in a book that, before she became a star, Peggy was singing in a bar and there was a lot of loud noise. She decided that she would sing a bit more softly to see if it would quieten the crowd down, and it worked.”

Seidel toured Scotland a couple of years ago with a show of Blossom Dearie songs, but she’s not the only heroine to whom she has paid tribute: Doris Day is another favourite and she takes comparisons to Day as a great compliment. “She was a very tuneful and very swinging jazz singer – she really knew how to phrase and she had a lovely light lilting kind of approach to singing.”

Recently, Seidel was hired to sing a jingle for an Audi advert, to be broadcast on British television. For that, she was called upon to sing like Julie London – with whom she bears a strong vocal resemblance. “She was a big influence on me. I love that cool, unfussed style and the timbre of her voice – it’s a very caressing sound without being forced or deliberately sexy.”

A Julie London tribute may be the next obvious step, but for this tour, Seidel is celebrating Johnny Mercer’s songbook, including the ballad Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home – a song which would be apt for any jazz musician, let alone one who’s on an eight-month house-swap ….

* Janet Seidel Trio plays Recital Room, Glasgow on Thursday,  March 15, at 7.30pm. Call 0141 353 8000 or visit http://www.glasgowconcerthalls.com for tickets.

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