Bobby Wellins, who has died at the age of 80, was not only Scotland’s first great jazz tenor saxophonist but also an icon of British jazz whose influence would have lived on even if he had never played again after 1965, when he featured on the iconic album of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite.
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This year marks the centenary of one of the great unsung heroes of jazz history, a man who was also half (and sometimes, arguably, more than that) of one of the greatest musical partnerships of the 20th Century – and the composer of such classics of the jazz repertoire as Take the A Train and Lush Life. His name was Billy Strayhorn.
In late 1938, this quiet young musician in his rather past-its-best Sunday suit was taken backstage in a Pittsburgh theatre to be introduced to the great jazz bandleader and composer of the day, Duke Ellington. As Ellington rested between performances, relaxing on a reclining chair while his valet tended to his hair, the 23-year-old Strayhorn was ushered in.
Ellington may not have bothered to open his eyes to take a look at his guest, but by the end of the short visit, Strayhorn – who dazzled Duke with a series of piano performances of Ellington tunes first as the composer himself would play them, and then in his own arrangements – had been wholeheartedly accepted into the organisation.
So began a three-decade relationship that was one of the most fruitful and – according to those who witnessed it – loving in jazz history. From the outset, the refined and cultured Strayhorn, a dedicated Francophile and follower of fashion – who had never really belonged in the Pittsburgh shack in which he was raised – was not so much Ellington’s right-hand man as his alter ego.
Constantly on the road with his band, Ellington entrusted composing and arranging assignments to Strayhorn, who had absorbed the Ellington orchestra sound and was more than happy to devote himself to keeping it up to date with new music, and keeping the royalties pouring in to the organisation which had many mouths to feed.
Bob Wilber, the 86-year-old American clarinettist and saxophonist (pictured below) who was a member of a celebrated small group put together by Strayhorn in the 1960s, says: “He so completely assimilated Duke’s music that often you couldn’t tell in an arrangement which part was Duke and which part was Billy. He was absolutely indispensable to Duke.”
Strayhorn, who had been a frustrated would-be cosmopolite in Pittsburgh – where his sexuality was never discussed but always assumed as gay – blossomed in Manhattan, living initially with members of Ellington’s entourage in the boss’s Harlem penthouse, and spending his days soaking up all the art and cocktails that he could during his non-writing time. “A miniature, black Noel Coward” was how one friend later described him.
As his biographer David Hajdu writes: “In Pittsburgh, who he was had inhibited Billy Strayhorn from doing what he could do; in New York, what he could do enabled him to be who he was.” And what he was was a young gay man who loved the finer things in life, and was able to set up home with his boyfriend secure in the knowledge that – unlike many employers back then – his sexuality, and his openness about it, would not be an issue with Ellington who treated him as one of the family, possibly even better than he treated his own son, Mercer, who also wrote for the band.
Not only did his association with Ellington provide him with the bon vivant lifestyle he had dreamt of, it also gave him an outlet for his artistry and allowed him to flourish as a composer. He may have been composing and arranging for the Ellington outfit from 1939 – and
have been the author of Take the A Train, a massive hit which Ellington quickly promoted to the band’s signature tune – but Strayhorn wasn’t credited as composer or arranger for his contribution until the 1950s, after a brief period when he had split from the organisation.
Everyone in the band, however, knew that he was a prolific writer of their music – and he was terrifically well liked and respected. Tommy Smith, the director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra which is performing three concerts this month to celebrate the “Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn” – from such “big”, familiar pieces as Isfahan, Chelsea Bridge and Satin Doll to rare, recent rediscoveries – recounts a story told to him by one-time Ellington trombonist Buster Cooper.
“He told me he was once sitting next to Strayhorn on a plane, and Strayhorn had his briefcase out. He opened it and there was some manuscript there, and Buster was really excited because he thought he was going to get to see what Strayhorn was going to write – they were all in awe of him and never sure who had written what. But Billy Strayhorn lifted up the manuscript – and there was a bottle of whisky there. He offered Buster a drink, and put the manuscript away. Buster never got to see what the music was.”
One song which everyone knew was 100% Strayhorn was the evocative ballad Lush Life, the poetic words and haunting music of which he had mostly penned even before he met Ellington. It’s long been a favourite of jazz singers – and its recent performance by Lady Gaga boosted her credibility with the jazz community because it is, as Bob Wilber points out, “a very tricky song”. Indeed, Strayhorn was incensed by both the arrangement and the fluffed lyrics in Nat King Cole’s famous recording of it.
Annie Ross, the British-born jazz singer, met Strayhorn in the early 1950s when they were both living in Paris – the city he had written about in Lush Life. She says: “We hit it off immediately. He liked the way I sang and he taught me Lush Life. He was a gentle soul. They called him the Swee’ Pea precisely because he was so gentle.”
It might also have been something to do with the love of flowers and nature that he inherited from his devoted mother– a love that is obvious from such song titles as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom and Violet Blue, which were written as features for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges whose gloriously plaintive sound was the perfect match for Strayhorn’s beautiful but dark-tinged melodies, and sumptuous arrangements.
When, in March 1965, Strayhorn – whose piano playing was usually done in the recording studio or just to entertain friends – was asked to put together a band for a concert featuring his first solo piano performance, Bob Wilber got the call that one might have expected Hodges to get. “I don’t know how he had heard me – whether it was only on record – but he realized that I would be the ideal interpreter for the compositions that he wrote for Johnny Hodges. It was an absolute thrill being called to be in that band – which he named the Riverside Drive Five. I was thrilled to do it.”
One of the tunes performed at the concert and then long forgotten about was Orson – Strayhorn’s portrait of Orson Welles. The music for it was discovered in box stuffed with manuscripts in Strayhorn’s basement long after his death from cancer in 1967. The handwriting on the music helped shed light on Strayhorn’s enormous contribution to the Ellington repertoire and sound, while stacks of his own pieces underlined the fact – long known amongst musicians and Ellington experts – that he had been a brilliant composer in his own right; that he alone had composed many of the numbers that had been thought to be collaborations.
Now, in Strayhorn’s centenary year, he will perhaps receive more of the widespread recognition he deserves – and his rarely heard compositions, among them the afore-mentioned Orson, will reach a broader listening public, not least audiences who attend the SNJO’s concerts this month.
* The SNJO (with Brian Kellock on piano) – The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on February 20, Buccleuch Centre, Langholm on February 21, and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on February 22.
* First published in Scotland on Sunday on February 15
(c) Alison Kerr, 2015
Jacqui Dankworth is in a class of her own. Not only is she the offspring of jazz royalty (her father was saxophonist, bandleader and composer John Dankworth; her mother is the formidable vocalist Cleo Laine), but the disarmingly unaffected singer and actress has a career that must be widely envied, not least for its eclecticism and variety.
In her visits to Scotland in the last year alone, Dankworth has performed in an opera at the Edinburgh International Festival, sung songs from family movies and cartoons with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and headlined one of the most successful concerts at the British Vocal Jazz Festival, within the Fringe.
For that concert, she was reunited with her occasional singing partner, Edinburgh-based Todd Gordon, and the pair bring their hugely popular Frank & Ella show to the Glasgow Jazz Festival this week. It’s proved to be a winning combination, and, since the two stars – whose close friendship offstage accounts for the warm atmosphere on it – clearly get a kick out of performing together, it’s more double than tribute act. Indeed, as Dankworth points out: “I don’t sing like Ella but obviously I grew up listening to her. She was a one-off. It’s not a tribute show; it’s just acknowledging her and singing some songs that she sang.”
The Ella side of the operation, says Dankworth, means that pretty much anything from the Great American Songbook goes, as she sang everything during her long and prolific career – and in many instances, the record-buying public know more than one Fitzgerald recording of a song, since many live performances were been released on LPs.
“It’s strange because obviously Frank Sinatra had a lot more songs that he made the definitive versions of, and hits that he was strongly associated with – like My Way and New York, New York – but that isn’t necessarily the case with Ella Fitzgerald. Hers was a different kind of career really. With Sinatra, it was almost more about him in a way than the songs. With her, she was serving the song.”
Although Dankworth may have had free rein to choose pretty much any standards she fancied – since Fitzgerald undoubtedly recorded them all – she did have to include two which are strongly associated with the legendary singer: Every Time We Say Goodbye (“though it was only a hit here – not in the States”) and How High the Moon, which became a Fitzgerald party piece due to her downright dazzling scat solo.
When it’s put to her that the other Ella’s with whom Todd Gordon has worked might have shied away from the mind-blowing acrobatics of Fitzgerald’s How High the Moon solo, Dankworth laughs and says: “It took me a long time to learn that solo. It feels easy now but when I first started learning it I thought how am I ever going to do this?! I learned it for Todd.”
Strangely, although Dankworth never met or heard Fitzgerald live (the teenage Todd Gordon did, though, at the Usher Hall in the 1970s) she can boast of having spent an evening in the company of Gordon’s concert alter ego, Frank Sinatra. It was 1984, and Dankworth had recently graduated from Guildhall’s drama department.
She recalls: “I was on a 73 bus and as it passed the Albert Hall, I saw mum’s name because she was opening for Sinatra. I decided I should go and see her. They were all going out for a meal afterwards, and she said: ‘I’ll ask Frank if I can bring you along.’ So she rang his dressing room, and he said it was fine. I said: ‘Mum, I’d love to come but .. ..look at me!’ I was wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt.”
“Mum said: ‘Look, grab some earrings and we’ll get you jouged up a bit.’ So I sat looking slightly bedraggled on this table with the owners of all the casinos in Monte Carlo and the guy who was responsible for bringing Liza Minnelli over to Britain, plus this songwriter who’d had a big hit in the 1960s – I can’t remember his name. They were wearing their Versace and I was in a T-shirt and denims. It was a mad night.” And that was even before the songwriter made the Frank faux pas of bringing up the subject of a Mafia murder which was in the news. Dankworth remembers freezing in her seat. “I thought ‘oh God, get me out of here’. It was the longest three seconds of my life.”
A much more pleasant memory is that of Sinatra’s performance earlier that evening. “His presence onstage was astounding,” she says. “He sang every lyric as though he meant it – especially Ol’ Man River, which would normally be a bit odd, but he made it work. He made me cry..” And did she get to talk to him? “Well, not really. I just shook hands and said it was a pleasure to meet him.”
At that stage in her life, Dankworth had not yet even begun to try to make her mark as a singer; acting was her passion and for 15 years she made her living as a jobbing actress, having first discovered her flair for drama while at boarding school. Her musical gifts first revealed themselves during her schooldays too – and she played violin, flute and sang. “The music teacher thought I was talented. He wrote these incredibly difficult musicals and my mum remembers feeling gob-smacked when they came to hear me sing in these musicals because it was really difficult music, and I was nine or ten.”
It was only in her thirties that the naturally shy Dankworth began to focus on singing. “My passion was acting and it was when I met my first husband and he said ‘Let’s form a band’ that I got into doing more music, but when I started singing a lot I found it very difficult. It was easier when I was acting as I had to be someone else. In fact, I remember having this conversation with Paloma Faith once and I asked her how she was able to be so outrageous onstage. She said: ‘Jacqui, I’m so shy, if I were just me up there everyone would feel shy and embarrassed’ so in a way she has a persona that gets her through. She’s approaching her stage persona in the way an actor would approach a part – and I identify with that.”
* The Frank & Ella Show/Todd Gordon & Jacqui Dankworth is at the City Halls on Friday. Visit www.jazzfest.co.uk for details and ticket links, or call 0141 353 8000.
* First published in Scotland on Sunday on June 22nd
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Jazz Toons & Screen Classics, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, Sunday October 27th ***
Heeding the publicity’s suggestion to bring the offspring to Sunday evening’s concert by the SNJO turned out, fairly early on, to be another yet example for the ‘Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time’ chapter of the parenting memoirs. After all, a programme of music from such family favourites ranging from classic cartoons to movie blockbusters played by a young, dynamic band sounded just the ticket for music-mad youngsters. And indeed, when SNJO director Tommy Smith announced the titles featured in the opening medley, it was the nine-year-old critical support team beside me whose “yaaaaas!” turned heads at the mention of Superman.
The main problem was the arrangements: if you didn’t warm to Pino Jodice’s reworkings of the tunes then you’d pretty much had it for the evening, as he was responsible for most of them. The most enjoyable numbers were the ones in which the melody didn’t get swamped by the arrangement, and which stayed closest to the original versions – Mahna Mahna, from The Muppets (complete with hilarious Animal impersonation by drummer Alyn Cosker), The Flintstones and, especially, the Star Trek Theme.
That last-mentioned featured the dazzling vocals of guest star Jacqui Dankworth and went down so well that it was repeated as an encore later, after a glorious Somewhere Over the Rainbow, one of only a handful of songs in which Dankworth’s sublime voice was showcased rather than seeming to be in competition with the overbearing arrangement being played by the band.
First published in The Scotsman, Tuesday October 29
Billie Holiday is a singer beloved by instrumentalists, and one whose distinctive repertoire has been celebrated by such wonderful, lyrical musicians as Ruby Braff, Chet Baker and Bobby Wellins. Now tenor saxophone giant Scott Hamilton offers his take on ten Holiday classics, in the company of his new, hard-swinging American trio/quartet. As ever, his big, soulful sound is a particular joy on the ballads, notably God Bless the Child and Good Morning Heartache, and it’s also a treat to hear Holiday’s 1930s small group hits getting the Hamilton stamp.
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: In the Spirit of Duke (Spartacus)
Last autumn’s Duke Ellington-themed tour by the SNJO was undoubtedly one of the best live Ellington experiences in Scotland, in living memory. This CD is a 16-track fusion of music from the five Scottish concerts and it not only captures the thrill of hearing a young band getting a kick out of the glorious Ellington repertoire, but it also showcases its world-class ensemble playing (especially that of the saxophone section), and such terrific soloists as Ruaraidh Pattison (alto sax), Martin Kershaw (clarinet), Ryan Quigley (trumpet), Tommy Smith (tenor saxophone) and the inimitable Brian Kellock (piano).
This CD is a wonderful introduction to the gorgeous, gentle sound and lyrical style of Icelandic alto saxophonist Sigurdur Flosason, and features a line-up of sax plus Hammond B3 organ, played by Kjeld Lauritsen); guitar, played by Jacob Fischer, and drums, played by Kristian Leith. Flosason excels throughout, particularly on ballads. The overall effect is of a series of laidback musical conversations, with the dialogue between sax and guitar especially pleasing. Indeed, the organ often gets in the way.
American piano virtuoso Dick Hyman (newly turned 86) has joined forces with the alto from the popular folk singing group The Wailin’ Jennies for this unsurprisingly classy duo album. Masse has a luscious, rich voice and refreshingly unfussy style, and serves up lovely interpretations of an eclectic selection of songs including two original numbers and two sublime Kurt Weill ballads. Only the title track, which closes the CD, disappoints since Masse morphs into what sounds like Betty Boop. Hyman remains as elegant, imaginative and dynamic as ever.
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is about to undertake a five-city tour devoted to the music of the peerless Duke Ellington. I doubt there has been this much Ellington activity in Scotland since the great man was here himself for the very first time. He made five visits to my home town of Glasgow; one in each decade from the 1930s until his death in 1974, and all but the 1940s one with his legendary band.
I’ve researched all his visits to Glasgow, but the one that most thrills and intrigues me the most is that first one, which lasted six days in July 1933. Why? Well partly, of course, because of the music that was played – I can tell you that Ring Dem Bells was Scotland’s introduction to the wonders of Ellington – but also because the band was here for a residency, and I’m tickled by the idea that some of the original Ellingtonians (including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer etc) , all of them young men at the time, walked the same streets I walk, and possibly stayed in the hotel which my great-grandfather managed.
Best of all, I love the fact that – according to a series of adverts that appeared during his stay – Duke Ellington actually came to Scotland for non-musical reasons. In an advertising campaign for McKeans shops, a photograph of Ellington is printed above the legend: “I came to Scotland to taste McKean’s Haggis … I have, it was worth the trip!”
The Ellington Orchestra came to Glasgow’s Empire Theatre fresh from a sensational final night in Liverpool which was attended by none other than the Prince of Wales whose cries for an encore did not go unnoticed by the band – or the press. The Glasgow papers were not sure, beforehand, what exactly to expect – but they did recognise that this was a major event, the first appearance by a major jazz orchestra playing work by a major composer. So much so that The Glasgow Herald, a broadsheet which didn’t usually deign to review Empire shows, sent a critic along, and there was coverage in the local papers throughout the week.
At the Empire on Monday, July 3, the band went down a storm at the packed houses for their two, hour-long, shows. According to the Bulletin reviewer, “thrilling” was the only word to describe them. “Those strident, scarlet-toned trumpets and trombones, those thrumming banjos [sic], those reedy, imperative saxophones, working together in a stream of wild, insistent, rhythmic harmony, set the blood tingling.” It must have been utterly exhilarating to hear this young band, with its dynamic and charismatic leader, playing music familiar only from records..
The Daily Record review pointed out that “one of the trumpeters was taken straight to Glasgow’s large heart right from the first sight of his cheery non-stop grin. The whole place wanted to give him a cheer all to himself, and they got their wish when he blew strange noises in the approved Louis Armstrong method. His grin grew wider and wider, and the cheering rose in volume.”
Indeed, Glasgow seems to have gone suitably nuts for the show which featured Ivie Anderson – memorably described by one reviewer as “a sort of Gracie Fields of the negro metropolis” – who sang Stormy Weather and (bizarrely, since it was Cab Calloway’s hit) Minnie the Moocher, and various dancers including Bessie Dudley.
And as for Ellington himself? Well, the dashing and dapper 34-year-old made a strong impression on Glasgow audiences, and reporters with whom (at the height of a heatwave) he discussed his idea of taking some rolls of Harris tweed home as presents for his family. The journalist sent to interview him for the Evening Times wrote: “The Duke of Harlem has a grin and an effervescent personality that project themselves across the footlights – and at close quarters he is no less charming.
” ‘No, I don’t take my compositions from negro melodies,’ he said in intervals of signing the books of dozens of autograph hunters who were waiting outside the theatre. ‘The negro folk-tunes that are known the world over are negro in name only, written and altered into conventional form by conservatory trained musicians. Real negro music was never meant to be written down – it is just sound that comes from the heart to express a particular mood.’
“His own compositions, he told me, are evolved on those lines. ‘We compose – it is always we – to express a mood. There are no improvisations in the finished composition, every note being scored.’ ”
Nevertheless, as another article noted, none of the tunes from the band’s 500-number repertoire are played from printed music; they are all memorised.
The Sunday Mail’s reporter grilled him on the “distinctive Harlem slanguage” that was exchanged onstage during the shows, and in particular Ellington’s habit of shouting “Every tub!” during particularly “forceful” numbers. The ducal explanation was: “It’s another way of saying ‘Let go!’ We’ve got an expression, ‘Every tub stands on its own bottom’. In other words, ‘Every man for himself!”
I can’t find any information on whether he fulfilled his stated desire to hear bagpipes being “properly” played during that first visit to Scotland, but can report that among the other tunes performed on the opening night of the Empire residency were Mood Indigo, Black and Tan Fantasy, Whispering Tiger and Rockin’ in Rhythm.
That last tune can be heard – along with Stormy Weather, also played in Glasgow – on the short film Bundle of Blues which the band filmed in New York just before coming to Britain. This classic soundie gives us a flavour of what the Glasgow Empire audience experienced – right down to the vocals of Ivie Anderson and the loose-limbed dancing of Bessie Dudley. As for the haggis? You’ll have to imagine that for yourself….
You’d be forgiven for thinking that by night three of a four-concert tour, 75-year-old tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins might be flaggging – but that was far from the case when he and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played on Saturday night.
This was a tour-de-force performance – and not just in the actual playing; but in the composition of the music too. The focal point of the evening was Wellins’s Culloden Moor, originally written back in 1964, but only now arranged, by Florian Ross, into a suite for the full band.
It proved to be an utterly compelling piece of music: evocative, dramatic and harnessing the haunting quality that is a key characteristic of the Wellins sound. The atmospheric and eerie opening and closing movements suggested the influence of the arranger Gil Evans, but it was the section entitled The March – which kicked off with everyone in the band stomping their feet before swinging into action, and peaked with an extended, show-stealing, snare drum solo (by Alyn Cosker) – that pinned punters to the edge of their seats. The overall effect was absolutely elecrifying, reminiscent of the opening track of one of the great Duke Ellington suites of the 1950s: hell, this was Anatomy of a Massacre.
How to follow that? Well, it might have been better not to: the Caledonian Suite of the second half certainly had its moments – notably The Tartan Rainbow and The Wind That Shakes the Barley – but Culloden Moor was the talking point of the night, and the music that most of us would have liked to have had ringing in our ears as we went home.
First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 31st.