Janet Seidel Trio, Recital Room, Glasgow, Friday September 30 ****
The Australian-style weather may have already been a thing of the past by Friday evening but there was still a sultry, balmy quality to the music played in the Recital Room – courtesy of Janet Seidel‘s Sydney-based group. The charismatic singer-pianist set the tone with the very first tune, a gentle bossa nova version of Day In, Day Out on which her soft, unfussy vocals were offset by just guitar and bass, creating a sound very reminiscent of the gorgeous Julie London albums, Julie and Julie Is Her Name.
The theme of the concert was the Johnny Mercer songbook, and – as one of the greatest wordsmiths of his time – Mercer could not have asked for a better champion of his songs than Seidel whose attention to the lyrics and their meaning was obvious from the start. It was a rare treat to hear Lazy Bones, Mercer’s early hit with Hoagy Carmichael, but Seidel went one better and included the even more rarely-exhumed verse – accompanied by just Chuck Morgan on ukelele – and the effect was extremely evocative.
Other highlights – and there were many – included Blues in the Night, Come Rain or Come Shine and Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home, all of which revealed the bluesier side of the otherwise cool, quiet and spellbinding Seidel vocals. What was particularly striking was how Seidel, who honed her craft in piano bars, established an instant rapport with her audience – and was rewarded with a wildly enthusiastic and warm response to every number.
(First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 2)
Otis Ferguson (1907-1943) was a brilliant American writer and critic who wrote for The New Republic from 1930 until his death – he was killed by a German bomb in the Gulf of Salerno. I first came across his work when I was a film student – and quoted his film essays in my dissertation on the screwball comedy. But we also share a love of jazz, and, in particular, of Bix Beiderbecke‘s music. Ferguson wrote no fewer than four essays on Bix – and his descriptions of his playing are inspired. Here are some of my favourite extracts.
YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (The New Republic, July 1936)
“An analysis of his music as a whole would amount to a statement of the best elements in jazz …. Briefly, he played a full easy tone, no forcing, faking, or mute tricks, no glissando to cover unsure attack or vibrato to fuzz over imprecisions of pitch – it all had to be in the music. And the clear line of that music is something to wonder at…..
“Here is this fantastic chap, skipping out from behind a bank of saxophones for eight measures in the clear and back again, driving up the tension with a three-note phrase as brash and gleeful as a kid with a prank, riding down the whole length of a chorus like a herd of mustangs – everywhere you find him there is always this miracle of constant on-the-spot invention, never faltering or repeating, every phrase as fresh and glistening as creation itself.
“Just as characteristic was the driving rhythm against which he played, the subtle and incisive timing that could make even a low and lazy figure of syncopation explode like blows in the prize ring.
“Bix Beiderbecke is to be found at his highest and best in a few of the early Goldkette and Whiteman sides (Clementine, San, etc) and especially in the small all-star outfits he and Trumbauer used to get together from larger personnels …. I could mutter and whistle the general idea of of the big full solo in Riverboat Shuffle, which was on the back of Ostrich Walk, which coupling just about represents the peak of a high and wonderful career – but why waste time with words and poor copies? One hears it, and is moved and made strangely proud; or one does not, and misses one of the fine natural resources of this American country.”
BIX BEIDERBECKE’S MUSIC (unpublished essay, 1940)
“You will know him by the little ringing shout he can get into a struck note; by the way each note seems to draw the others after it like a string of cars, giving the positive effect of speed even in his artful lags and deliberation, a sort of reckless and gay roll; and by the way, starting on the ground, he will throw a phrase straight up like a rope in the air, where it seems to hang after he has passed along, shaking gently. Above all (and this comes out best in the non-Dixieland numbers, where he remained subdued but getting the feel of it right up to the release and then putting it all in eight or 16 bars), above all there is his singing quality – over the chord and melodic structure of the tune and against the steady four-four beat, he made a little song of his own, sometimes shouting and sometimes very sweet, and often both at once …
“.. And there is exactly no-one who has kept this pure lyric quality which the best men begin to bring out only in the slow, haunting jump of the blues, in the kind of ride Bix used to take it in, on numbers with the tear and rush of an express train. To hear him is to have the feeling of being present at the original spring music comes from.
“Between Bix and whoever has the ear to listen there was none of the usual blocking effect of a set score and a difficult instrument; he simply delivered music, easy and direct. It is this intense but free personal language of his that explains such mysteries as, say, the effect of fierce open attack he gets in From Monday On – that first trumpet blast – without using the volume some can work up, and he gets it out of a horn much milder than a trumpet, at that. ..
“He taught himself ways of doing it that couldn’t have come from anyone else; for example, his trick of setting off the key note of a phrase by brushing a false – or grace – note just below it, so that he could rip up to it. An economy of emphasis, and at the same time a sharp underlining of where it falls, that leads the ear the way his phrase wants it to go. It was partly this that Hoagy Carmichael meant when he said: ‘The notes weren’t blown – they were hit, like a mallet hits a chime’; it was this that Whiteman meant when he said Bix could get more music into three notes than the whole band would get all night.”
NOTES ON BIX BEIDERBECKE (unpublished essay, 1940)
“He ran best when he had no care for the general effect, on the Whiteman and Goldkette records where you can almost see him sitting back there and laying for the four-, eight- or 16-bar chance he’d have at that tune, when he would light a fire under it and burn a few notes of variation on its theme down to a scatter of hard and bouncing gems. He had time to sit there and think out the musical possibilities, and then a single shot at bringing them together to confound fools (Felix the Cat).
“You can hear him on a hundred records, and most of the way through the records, you can hear that he is being held back, even when the arrangement calls for trumpets. But at some point on all the records that carry his signature, you will hear him come out from behind with something that is more than noise or tone or new phrase or anything definable, something that amounts to a dedication to all and any music, and a joy in it, a joy. When, for example, the old Whiteman number of Felix the Cat is over, and the word is given to take it out, Bix lifts his horn over the band from the back row in the close studio and the whole heavy organization seems to trail after him like banners.
“…He could leave a break (as in Lazy Daddy) on two low notes dropping roundly, just with that insolence and skill of a pool shark dropping the last two balls of the rack into the far-corner pocket, or he could hold a note and tease it through the better part of a two-bar break, and just out of his go-to-hell exuberance squeeze it up another half tone to come out on the chord.
“… Even if there weren’t people around to tell you you could guess it from the music: Bix never had to reach for a note. They were all lying right there in the drawer before him.”
* All extracts from In the Spirit of Jazz – The Otis Ferguson Reader (Da Capo Press, 1997).
Maxine Sullivan is one of my very favourite singers (as well as something of an honorary fellow Scot) – so I couldn’t let her centenary this month go by without taking the opportunity to write about her. Unfortunately, I was too young – but only just! – to have heard her sing live (she died in 1987, which is just when I was first listening to jazz), but I’m lucky enough to now know many of her colleagues. And none of them has anything but the highest praise for her, both as a singer and as a human being. She is definitely a lady whose life and career are worth celebrating.
Maxine was born Marietta Williams on May 13, 1911 in Homestead, Pennsylvannia. She began singing as a child and went on to perform regularly in and around Pittsburgh. “Discovered” by Gladys Mosier, the pianist in Ina Ray Hutton’s all-girl band, she moved to New York in 1937 and was introduced to bandleader Claude Thornhill.
According to Will Friedwald, who writes about Maxine in his book Jazz Singing, “Thornhill’s ideas as to how to use her voice were to soon do as much for his career as they would for Sullivan, and he concentrated on a gimmick that Sullivan had already been using for years. Thornhill matched Sullivan’s ‘suave, sophisticated swing’ with material from way out of the Afro-Jewish jazz and Tin Pan Alley lexicon, from Anglo-European folk sources, which paid off in the Sullivan-Thornhill hit ‘Loch Lomond’.”
Loch Lomond was an international hit, and, as she later said, it put Maxine on the map. She was very clearly a class act, with her cool voice and unfussy, natural, gentle swinging style, and although she recorded a string of traditional folk songs and standards, she was forevermore known as the Loch Lomond Girl – not that everyone approved of the liberties being taken with song: one American radio station manager banned it, deeming it “sacrilegious”.
In 1938, she sang the song in the Dick Powell movie Going Places which also starred Louis Armstrong – pictured here with Maxine and songwriter Johnny Mercer who penned the lyrics for the Harry Warren tunes featured in the film. (See clip of Mutiny in the Nursery at the end of this article.) Ella Fitzgerald later went on record saying that she had the idea of swinging the nursery rhyme A-Tisket A-Tasket from Maxine’s success with swinging the classics.
In 1939, Maxine appeared in the movie St Louis Blues, singing the title number while Dorothy Lamour got all the new songs. Maxine, however, managed to record one of Dottie’s songs – Hoagy Carmichael’s Kinda Lonesome – before the film was released.
In 1939, Maxine and Louis Armstrong were reunited – as Bottom and Titania, no less (see pic below) – for the ill-fated, but intriguing-sounding, Broadway extravaganza Swingin’ the Dream, the swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which brought together the creme de la creme of the jazz world. It wasn’t Maxine’s first foray into Shakespeare territory – she had already recorded swing versions of It Was a Lover and His Lass and Under the Greenwood Tree – and it wouldn’t be her last, as she revisited the bard’s sonnets three decades later in the delightful company of pianist, composer and arranger extraordinaire Dick Hyman.
Despite the fact that Swingin’ the Dream was a spectacular flop, Maxine’s career continued to blossom into the early 1940s when she and her husband, the bass player/small group leader John Kirby, became the first black stars to have their own radio show, Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm.
The show ended in 1942, not long after Kirby and Maxine divorced. During the 1940s, Maxine continued to be a major draw at nightclubs the length of 52nd Street. She came to Britain in 1948 – a visit which was documented by an American news magazine – and took a weekend out of her schedule to sing Loch Lomond on its “bonnie bonnie banks”. She didn’t perform – officially – in Scotland during that trip but I’ve found some lovely photos of her collecting water from the famous loch, and entertaining a crowd at the water’s edge, in the local press here in Glasgow. (She came back and toured Scotland in 1954.)
The 1950s were tougher for Maxine, partly because the jazz scene was changing and she was still regarded as a swing singer, and partly because she didn’t get the publicity for her shows from the radio stations, as she had in the past. She later said: “It was like walking uphill with the brakes on.” So, in 1958, she decided to stop performing and concentrate on her family and the community affairs in which she enjoyed an active role. By now married to pianist Cliff Jackson, she trained as a nurse, served as the president of her children’s PTA, and – in her neighbourhood of the Bronx – established The House That Jazz Built, where she rented rooms to musicians, provided space for local arts groups and organised workshops and concerts.
The retirement didn’t last long – and Maxine was back in the recording studio in the late 1960s when she embarked on what would turn out to be the arguably most productive and prolific comeback in jazz history. Working with such master arranger/players as Bob Wilber and Dick Hyman (with whom she had already collaborated on a classic album of Andy Razaf songs), she won over a new generation of fans with such superb albums as Close as Pages in a Book and The Music of Hoagy Carmichael (both with Wilber). With Hyman, she revisited the sonnets of Shakespeare for the cultish album Sullivan-Shakespeare-Hyman, a lesser-known gem in her recorded output.
By now promoted to jazz royalty and nicknamed “The Queen”, Maxine toured and recorded extensively during the 1970s and 1980s, notably with the Scott Hamilton Quintet. Her rate of recording seems to have accelerated in her final years when she produced five LPs with a Swedish group headed by trumpeter Bent Persson; worked her way through a raft of definitive songbooks of such favourites of the jazz world as Burton Lane and Jule Styne, with small bands under the direction of the pianist/arranger Keith Ingham, and produced the fabulous Uptown with the Scott Hamilton Quintet (featuring the wonderful John Bunch on piano). Lyricists loved her because she paid such great attention to their words, and usually sang the rarely-performed verses. And musicians loved her too.
Dick Hyman told me a few years ago: “I’ve always thought that she was maybe my favourite singer of all to have accompanied. Why? Because she was so musical. She responded to anything that she heard. It wasn’t just a matter of your following her; she would follow you too – so from the point of view of jazz, it was a very mutual kind of situation.
“As a person, she was laidback and easy to get along with. She was small-ish and perfectly self-possessed, and could take charge of a musical situation with her delicate way of singing – quite the opposite of someone who shouts the blues or rants and raves. She was very controlled, very delicate and feminine in what she sang. And she swung.”
Like many of the musicians Maxine worked with, Hyman stressed the fact that “she was one of the boys”. He added: “She was perfectly feminine but she fit right in with us – and really we thought of her as another musician because she was such a good time-keeper and knew how to relate to what we were doing.” I think the fact that she is the only female vocalist (and one of only three women) in Art Kane’s iconic Great Day in Harlem photograph (a snippet of which is shown above) illustrates the fact that she was regarded as a musician rather than a girl-singer.
Continuing the one-of-the-boys theme, Warren Vache recently told me that when he was 25, he was drunk under the table by Maxine, who – it seems – was very fond of her whisky. And, according to Vache, anyone else’s that was lying around … Despite the fact that she was an old lady when he knew her, Vache still refers to her as “a great gal” – and certainly the age difference between her and such younger musicians as Scott Hamilton and Phil Flanigan, who played bass in Hamilton’s quintet, didn’t seem to matter one iota.
Flanigan told me: “What I remember about Maxine is the ease of working with her and travelling with her. It was all pleasantness. The idea of a generational divide never occurred to any of us. I loved her singing style which was as straight and true to the composer’s intention as you could imagine but yet she did her own thing. She had a complete lack of affectation – which I loved about her. Some singers float on top of the rhythm section without sustaining any time. Maxine was an absolute genius at that but she could nail the time in such a way that it was a pleasure for a rhythm section to play with her. She was a musician of the voice, and a pleasure for other musicians to work with.”
Maxine Sullivan died on April 7, 1987, just months after returning from her last visit to Japan – where she was the darling of the jazz scene – with Scott Hamilton’s Quintet. And the last song she sang onstage (and recorded – as the concert was filmed)? You’ve guessed it: Loch Lomond.