Tag Archives: Paul Whiteman

Something About Lee

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Lee Wiley since the time I wrote most of this article, back in 1994. Around then, I’d fallen in love with her songbook albums – notably the Rodgers & Hart one, and such later recordings as Oh! Look at Me Now and R & H’s My Romance – surely the definitive version?

Whenever I revisit her recordings, I find new delights and have come to realise that not only was she one of the best interpreters of a lyric, but she was also a singer who expressed a distinctly female point of view through her song choices and her delivery of them – just listen to such songs as Any Time, Any Day, Anywhere (which she co-wrote), If I Love Again, A Woman’s Intuition, Who Can I Turn To Now and Can’t Get Out of This Mood. I’ll bet her recordings of these songs speak more to us women than they do to men.. 

Even among jazz fans, the name Lee Wiley is rarely heard. One of the most influential singers of her time, she remains –  to many people – little more than a name. Anyone who has heard her recordings, however, is unlikely to forget them: her voice is one which raises the spirits and exudes sheer class.  She could count among her admirers the likes of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Marlene Dietrich;  the singers she influenced include Peggy Lee, and she regularly inspired critics to ecstatic, and near poetic, musings on her interpretations of the popular songs of the day.

A TV drama starring Piper Laurie and Claude Rains (and directed by Sam Peckinpah) based loosely on her life was made in 1963. It was entitled Something About Lee Wiley – a title which hints at the elusive quality of the Wiley voice.

You could describe it – as others have – as warm, sensual, fragile, husky, pure
and unpretentious. But there’s still something else; something that’s difficult to pin down. It could be the way she had of implying a note amid her breathiness, or of leaving a wisp of a note hanging in the air, lingering in the mind of her listener. Whatever it was she did, it was unique – and it enhanced every tune she caressed with her velvety vocals.

Lee Wiley was born on October 9, 1908 or 1910 (she claimed at one point that 1915 was the year of her birth) in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma – a town she described with characteristic irony as “about as small as a town can get”. Legend has it that she was of Cherokee Indian, Scottish and English ancestry, and musicians later nicknamed her Pocahontas or The Indian Princess. She certainly comes across as having been as sophisticated and elegant in appearance as her tasteful vocal style and regal nickname suggest.

Wiley was listening to the blues from an early age, and longed to be a singer. “I had a boyfriend who would skip school with me and we would go over to the local store and play records .. they called them ‘race records’ and they only sold them in a certain part of town -the coloured part,” she told one interviewer. Her favourite black singer was Ethel Waters. “I loved to hear her and I adapted her style and softened it to make it more ladylike.”

In her mid teens, Wiley left Oklahoma to sing with Leo Reisman’s band in New York. Working with him and the popular Paul Whiteman outfit on radio, she quickly graduated to her own show – The Pond’s Cold Cream Hour Starring Lee Wiley. Along the way, she suffered a couple of setbacks: suspected tuberculosis, which forced her to take a year off work, and later temporary blindness and disfigurement, the result of a fall from a horse – just as she was about to do a screen test in Hollywood.

When Wiley emerged from that catastrophe, she did so as a fledgling jazz singer. Whereas previously she had been singing with comercial bands for the mass audience of radio, it was the jazz fraternity which now took her under its wing, and provided the perfect musical settings for her intimate and swinging vocal style.

In 1939, backed by the likes of Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Fats Waller (piano and organ) and Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Wiley recorded what has become a classic: a collection of George and Ira Gershwin  numbers – many of them (though it’s hard to believe now) rescued from obscurity. Not only did Wiley set a trend by recording the first songbook album, she also scored a winner by transforming songs which were familiar only as showtunes into sensitive and dramatic jazz standards.

The album was recorded for Liberty, a high-class music shop with an elite clientele, and they (not to mention the messrs Gershwin) were so delighted with it that it was quickly succeeded by a Cole Porter equivalent. Porter was so taken with it that he was prompted to write: “I can’t tell you how much I like the way she sings these songs. The combination of voice and musical accompaniment is excellent. Please give my congratulations to Lee Wiley.”

Songbook albums of Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen followed soon afterwards, and – with her respect for the verse and the meaning of the lyrics – hers have become the definitive versions of many of the songs she recorded.  So much so that few have touched such gems as A Ship Without a Sail or Here In My Arms since.

Wiley was, as her friends have noted, a complex person. One defining characteristic, evident in her music, is her honesty and sense of conviction. She was also a free spirit, and seems to have been able to blend into any social circle.

Her friend Larry Carr said: “She loved the free-wheeling, barrel-house atmosphere of jazz clubs and musicians but there was also another, equally strong, side of her that appreciated the well-bred, genteel and chic side of society”. Just as Katharine Hepburn once said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he lent her class and she lent him sex appeal, the same applies to Wiley and jazz. She brought sophistication to the music, and it brought out her sexy side. It was the perfect relationship.

From 1943 until 1946, Wiley was married to the pianist Jess Stacy, and sang with his short-lived big band and Eddie Condon’s group. By the late 1940s, she was working on the nightclub circuit and beginning her slide into obscurity. However, her sumptuous 1950 Columbia album, A Night in Manhattan, won acclaim and led to more recordings in the mid-1950s – including another two classics, the sublime West of the Moon (with Ralph Burns arrangements) and A Touch of the Blues (with Billy Butterfield and His Orchestra, and arrangements by Bill Finegan and Al Cohn). Thereafter, she only made the occasional appearance on television and radio.

The TV film Something About Lee Wiley caused a resurgence of interest in her music but she didn’t record again until 1971. The superb Back Home Again – which teamed her with Dick Hyman –  proved to be her last album. She died in December 1975 after a long battle against cancer.

The tragedy of Lee Wiley is that her legacy of recordings is pretty slight, and there is no film footage of her singing. She was, by all accounts, too happy-go-lucky to be ambitious and too dismissive of commercial work – and this could be why, during her lifetime at least, she wasn’t as well appreciated as she should have been. Except by those who heard her: at her last public appearance, at the Carnegie Hall, as part of the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival, audiences went wild for her – an upbeat note on which to end her career.

Here are some of my favourite Lee Wiley recordings that are available on YouTube:

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What Bix Means to Me: Otis Ferguson

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).

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What Bix Means to Me: Philip Larkin

The great English poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a passionate jazz fan and advocate of pre-bop jazz. Indeed, in 1965, he showed just where his priorities lay when he said: “I can live  a week without poetry, but not a day without jazz.”

His book All What Jazz – A Record Library (faber & faber) revealed him to be a Bix devotee – one who, like other especially eloquent fans, came up with marvellous analogies for Bix’s playing.

He wrote:  “There is no doubt of Bix’s originality: the astonishingly flighted solo on the Wolverines’ Royal Garden Blues shows him able, even at 21, to produce triumphs owing nothing to Armstrong. And there is no doubt it was wasted: to hear him explode like Judgement Day out of the Whiteman Orchestra (as on No Sweet Man) only to retire at the end of his 16 bars into his genteel surroundings like a clock-cuckoo is an exhibition of artistic impotence painful to witness. Bix should have been dominating his own group, not decorating the Whiteman cake. …. One is left miserable at the utter waste of the most original talent jazz ever produced.”

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What Bix Means to Me: Andy Schumm

The young trumpeter doesn’t just wax lyrical about Bix Beiderbecke for Jazz Matters; he’s written us a (controversial in parts) essay…

Bix Beiderbecke is quite possibly the most influential figure in the entire history of jazz. In this distinction, Bix joins the ranks of early jazz luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman, and Bing Crosby.  Countless books and articles have been written on these musicians, dealing with both their music and their personas.  While much as been written about Bix as both man and musician, I always find myself coming back to the music much more than the personality. Bix stands alone in this list of influential musicians in that he was simply concerned with music more than much of anything else.

When we think of Louis Armstrong, one of the images that comes to mind is the showman and entertainer.  That is not to take anything away from his music. The same goes for Jelly Roll Morton, who was known to be an extremely active self-promoter.  We also hear of Benny Goodman’s colorful personality.  We envision the man who wields his 18 piece big band as effortlessly as his clarinet, yet was known to skimp on reeds.  I’ve heard stories about Benny picking up used reeds off the floor rather than buying a pack on his own.

Bing Crosby was also no slouch when it came to self-promotion.  That’s quite a toupée Bing’s wearing from the 1930s on.  When it comes to Bix, I really believe that there wasn’t much there besides the music.  Can you imagine Bix wearing a toupée?

Maybe this is the heart of why there is such as fascination for Bix as the man.  I’ll admit I wish I could have an hour with Bix, and ask him all of the burning questions I have about the records he made, the people he played with, and experiences on the road.  However, I think I’d be sorely disappointed.  Here’s how I envision it going down:

Andy: Did you intend to play that figure going into the piano solo on “Goose Pimples? Why did you blow sharp on the out chorus?

Bix: _ (shrugs)

Bix was certainly a kind person for the most part.  He was good to kids who would meet him backstage.  He would help other musicians having a bit of a hard time.  He loved his family in his own way.  However, I’m sure his first love was music.  We’ve all read the stories about Bix going to fool around on the piano on set breaks rather than going out back to smoke a joint or chase a girl.  I also think that he would sit at that piano all night regardless if the room was packed with alligators or if he was all alone.  It’s not enough to say that Bix was modest.  He just didn’t care.

Bix was also alone in his approach to music.  I believe that Bix was the first important jazz musician to be born out of records.  Today we take it for granted. If I want to go hear Red Nichols, I pull out one of my Brunswick 78s or a CD reissue, grab a beer, listen, and study.  When Louis Armstrong first got a cornet at the Waifs’ Home in New Orleans, there was no such thing as jazz in the sense we would understand.  He learned the to play the horn from a trained instructor in an appreticeship-like situation.  He played everything from marches to mazurkas.

Louis eventually found jazz playing alongside musicians such as Joe Oliver.  While Bix did receive intermittent instruction on the piano from a young age, it wasn’t until he heard those Original Dixieland Jazz Band records in the late 1910s that he went out and bought a cheap cornet and began imitating those other-worldly sounds eminating from the phonograph horn.

While someone with the innate talent of Bix’s would no doubt have ended up doing something in music, it was these first records that instantly changed his life, thereby becoming the first major jazz musician influenced mainly from records.

For evidence of this, refer to the majority of the “Bix and his Gang” records on the OKeh label.  Many of the tunes were pulled from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s library, rather than the current tunes of the day.  In 1928, he’s still using the “silent cowbell” ending found on the ODJB records of 10 years prior.  This ending had effectively gone out of fashion in the early 1920s.  Are these some of the first jazz repertory recordings?  Either way, it’s a major sea-change in the development of jazz.

Bix had such an unbelievable intensity in his music.  Contemporaries speak of it often.  Yet, when it comes to his personality, he’s passive.  Looking back 80 years since the time of his death, it’s hard to imagine such incredible music coming out of that meek-looking kid with the skinny fingers.  Admit it.  When I first saw that Fox Movietone film showing Bix standing up to play along with the Whiteman trumpet section, I couldn’t believe that this guy who cuts out early at the end of the phrase could be responsible for At the Jazz Band Ball or Sorry. Aside from the shock of seeing Bix move on film, I’m left even more puzzled as to how Bix really came to be.

Maybe that’s just how it is.  Bix was really just a guy who was obsessed with good music.  He made no airs about his stature in the jazz world, nor did he intentionally portray himself as the stereotypical struggling, socially-inept jazz musician who drinks too much.  All of us musicians get sidetracked from our music by other interests and distractions.  Bix had such a pure ideal about music.  As a musician, I can only try my best to live up to it.  When it comes down to it, Bix just was.  A rarity.  Something unattainable.

We sure could use a Bix Beiderbecke today.

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If I had to recommend two tracks the first would be Sorry – by Bix and his Gang. Listen to how effectively Bix leads the ensemble.  This is the characteristic that is most often lost today.  Bix was a better ensemble player than soloist, which is saying something!

And the other would be Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra’s recording of Gypsy. While this is not my overall favorite recording, it is one of my favorite Bix solo examples.  Listen for the economy of notes he uses in expressing the melody. It’s a rather obscure Bix cut, and I’d recommend you listen to the entire recording to get the full effect.  Don’t cheat and jump to the Bix solo…

Tomorrow: Marty Grosz.

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What Bix Means to Me: Jim Galloway

(c) Alison Kerr, 2011

The Scottish-born, Toronto-based soprano saxophonist has always loved the legendary Bix Beiderbecke‘s “beautiful tone and great melodic and harmonic sense” – and first heard his music as a youngster listening to BBC radio.

He was lucky enough to get to know older musicians, such as the clarinettist Pee Wee Russell, who were colleagues of Bix during his heyday. Indeed, Jim paid tribute to both during this year’s Norwich Jazz Party when he played I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, a beautiful ballad which Russell told Jim he liked to play “because it was a favourite of Bix’s”.

Typically, Jim has a funny Bix-related story:  “A few years ago I was in LA, and Betty O’Hara, a very good horn player and singer was also on the gig. One morning, I came out of the elevator just as Betty came out of another one just opposite. We said our hellos, and then Betty said: ‘Did I tell you that I bought a parrot?’ I said that she hadn’t mentioned it so then she said: ‘Guess what his name is?’ I had no idea, and then she hit me with it … ‘Beaks Bite or Peck!’

“Two of my favourite tracks are Singin’ the Blues (it was Eddie Higgins’s favourite too) and, for great hot ensemble playing, the first chorus of San, recorded in 1928 with Paul Whiteman. And we must not forget his remarkably modern piano compositions – In a Mist, In the Dark, Flashes, Cloudy and Candlelights.”

Tomorrow: Jon-Erik Kellso.

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