Tag Archives: Jimmy Giuffre

The Sound of Jazz at 60

Sound of Jazz 2Sixty years ago, at 5pm on Sunday December 8, 1957, a television broadcast went out on air and down in the pages of music history. The Sound of Jazz was made as a one-off show for a CBS series called The Seven Lively Arts, but it has ended up as a priceless treasure trove which has been systematically plundered by makers of jazz documentaries and which is, unfortunately, seen in its entirety all too rarely (although it can, of course, be found on YouTube).

The show was the brainchild of CBS producer Robert Herridge who had the further inspiration of leaving the selection of the musicians involved to two eminent jazz critics, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliett. Hentoff and Balliett were given complete artistic control, and the results – six numbers featuring 32 of the top musicians on the jazz scene – were stimulating, surprising, and historically invaluable.

Balliett and Hentoff created various small groups featuring musicians who seldom had the chance to work together. They teamed clarinettist Pee Wee Russell – a player who was still associated with Chicago jazz of the 1930s in the minds of many – with the young clarinettist of the moment, Jimmy Giuffre. They even convinced Count Basie that he should lead an all-star big band of their choosing rather than his own, regular, outfit.

The influence of Hentoff and Balliett extended beyond the musical. It was they who decided that the show should have the minimum amount of chat, the maximum amount of music, and the informal feel of an after-hours jam session or a recording date. The musicians were asked to turn up in casual gear – there was to be none of the artifice associated with television entertainment shows of the day. Not all of the participants were initially happy with the dress code, however. Hentoff later wrote that singer Billie Holiday’s response was: ”I just spent five hundred goddam dollars on a gown!”

The resulting look and atmosphere of The Sound of Jazz are inextricably bound together with the music in the memory of anyone who has seen this icon-packed programme. Cigarette smoke billows around the horns of the Basie band as it rip roars its way through the opening number. The cameras – there were several, covering every angle since this was a live transmission – roamed about the undecorated studio, and were able to provide excellent close-ups of the likes of the bug-eyed blues singer Jimmy Rushing.

Thanks to director Jack Smight’s eye for detail, the unusual method with which pianist Thelonious Monk kept time was captured for posterity: we see him scliff his foot along the floor as he played his most famous number, Blue Monk. We also see other musicians’ reactions to the playing of Monk, an outsider whose discordant playing revolutionised jazz piano. Fellow pianist Count Basie is shown sitting at the other side of Monk’s piano, listening intently to and clearly delighted by what he hears. Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins can also be glimpsed, snapping his fingers along with the music.

For the jazz fan there is endless pleasure to be found in the simplest of the many details which were caught on camera during The Sound of Jazz, in particular a rare chance to witness the interaction between musicians as they play.

Of the six numbers, one eight-minute long piece stands out. The show’s all-star version of Billie Holiday’s blues Fine and Mellow has taken on a life of its own. To appreciate fully the import of this song, consider these facts. The song signalled the reunion – after a period of estrangement – of Holiday and her musical soulmate, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, both of whom were dead within 18 months of the show. Shortly after the transmission, Young was given two months to live. He died in March 1959, and Holiday followed him four months later.

At the time of The Sound of Jazz, however, Holiday was in good form: Doc Cheatham later recalled that she was in jovial mood and invited all the musicians back to her place afterwards. Young, on the other hand, was so physically fragile that his parts in the Basie big band numbers had to be split between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, and he remained sitting down through most of Fine and Mellow.

Of course Fine and Mellow is one of the last great performances by Holiday, whose voice was still magnificent despite its splintered, needle-scratched grain. Dressed in twinset and slacks, with her hair pulled back into a sophisticated ponytail, she looked beautiful, laid-back, and happy. She was surrounded by some of her favourite musicians – Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Gerry Mulligan, Vic Dickenson, and, of course, Lester Young, whose solo – a beautifully understated and superbly constructed blues chorus of almost unbearable poignancy – and the reunion which it represented, reduced Nat Hentoff and some of the other observers to tears.

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Jazz on Film @ Glasgow Jazz Festival prt 2

By way of previewing the 25th Glasgow Jazz Festival, which this year includes a Jazz on Film strand, the Glasgow Film Theatre is showing a couple of movies – and I’ll be introducing them..

First up, the definitive – and original – jazz documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), which is showing on Saturday, June 25 at 1.45pm. I’ve written extensively on this wonderfully evocative film before – so please read my jazz and style posts about it.

I am delighted that we’re showing it as a taster for the Glasgow Jazz Festival because it is a favourite film of Glasgow audiences. It also ties in rather nicely with a concert I had a wee hand in: the Classic Jazz Orchestra’s concert, which pays tribute to two of the big names who appeared at the first two editions of the Glasgow Jazz Fest – Benny Carter and Gerry Mulligan. Saxophonist extraordinaire Alan Barnes is playing both the part of altoist Carter and baritone player Mulligan. And the connection with JOASD? Well, Mulligan can be seen both performing and being a jazz fan (he’s pictured in the poster above) in Bert Stern’s iconic documentary.

The other film I’m introducing (at the GFT, on Monday June 27 at 6pm) is not really a jazz film but was chosen because its  music was written by the great Michel Legrand, who is performing with his trio to the Glasgow Jazz Festival, on July 2. I thought that Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, the tongue-in-cheek 1967 homage to the classic Hollywood musical, was much more likely to appeal to a jazz audience than something like The Thomas Crown Affair as the music does have a bit of a jazz feel in parts – mostly when Legrand is playing piano. Also, I’ve heard that this is Legrand’s favourite of his own films..

I first saw Les Demoiselles a couple of years ago and have been obsessed with it ever since. It’s kitsch but stylish, cheeky but romantic, silly but – typically, given that it’s French – deadly serious about l’amour… It has frothy, camp pop tunes and lush, romantic ballads. I’m not 100% sure whether Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Jacques Perrin, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli and George Chakiris did their own singing – but hopefully I’ll find out when I interview Monsieur Legrand next week.

* For tickets, visit www.gft.org.uk .

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Jazz on Film: Jazz On a Summer’s Day

It’s fifty years since Brits first saw Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the film that launched a thousand jazz festivals.

Filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1958 by fashion photographer Bert Stern – now best known as the guy who took the last photos of Marilyn Monroe – this evocative documentary instantly became a landmark in the music’s history.

Shot in colour, with what seems to have been elementary equipment, the film takes the viewer through the festival weekend from the stage being set up in preparation for the first concert, through to the finale – Mahalia Jackson’s serene and moving rendition of The Lord’s Prayer.

Memorable both musically and visually, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is an essay in style. Stern’s camera studies the musicians, offering viewers the chance to see as as well as hear their heroes play. Since most of these legendary figures are dead, it’s the closest we have to experiencing them playing live.

We see singer Anita O’Day teetering on to the stage in a tight black cocktail dress, high heels, feathery hat and white gloves – looking like she could have been the fashion inspiration for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and performing what have become classic versions of Tea for Two and Sweet Georgia Brown.

We see Gerry Mulligan, the epitome of cool – both visually, with his crew cut and Ray Bans, and musically – shifting from foot to foot and rocking backwards and forwards as he blows his baritone sax, and watching pianist Thelonious Monk’s set with all the concentration of a regular fan.

Louis Armstrong mops his brow with his ever-handy white handkerchief, smiles his infectious grin, juts out his jaw and scats a little duet with trombonist Jack Teagarden as they perform a cheeky version of Rockin’ Chair.

A young Chuck Berry duckwalks across the stage, to the bemusement of jazz veterans and stuffier fans, as he performs his rollicking Sweet Little 16.

And the portraits of the audience are equally evocative:   couples smooch in the dark, beatniks shake their heads and smoke their joints; poppy-lipped, pony-tailed girls in pedal-pushers jive on the rooftops and window ledges of Newport mansions. There’s a real sense that the whole town has been taken over by the jazz festival.

In the rows of wooden seats in front of the outdoor stage, local society matrons in pearls sit alongside hip young out-of-towners. Gum-chewing teenagers, chain-smoking posers, babies and children – they’re all there, all enjoying the music. The whole atmosphere is of the kind of laid-back joy which good jazz inspires – and the way the film gets this across is nothing short of poetic.

It’s no wonder that everyone was so happy during that jazz festival: consider the wealth of talent that was on their doorsteps over that July weekend. The running order, as it appeared in that week’s New Yorker magazine, reads like a Who’s Who of jazz: Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Marian McPartland, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Rex Stewart, Benny Goodman, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, Lee Konitz  … and those were the ones who didn’t make it into Stern’s movie. (Stern wasn’t even a jazz fan!)

I’ve read that when the film opened in my hometown of Glasgow, in June 1960, the owner of the local “thinking person’s” cinema, the Cosmo (now the GFT), invited all the city’s jazz musicians to come along to the first screening. It soon became one of the cinema’s most popular films – and something of an annual event. These days, we have to make-do with watching it on DVD or on YouTube.. Here are  some highlights:

 

 

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