Jazz and film have been my two big passions since I was an adolescent and I’m beyond thrilled to have programmed a jazz movie festival within this year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival (June 29- July 3). And the really good news? All the films are free – though tickets are limited and should be booked in advance.
This being the 25th edition of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, the films have been chosen because they have a connection to the festival’s history, which is being celebrated throughout this year’s event. So we’re kicking off, on June 29, with a matinee screening of All Night Long (1961), a British film which stars Richard Attenborough and Patrick “The Prisoner” McGoohan and is effectively a jazz version of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Attenborough stars as a playboy who hosts a jam session-cum-party to mark the one-year wedding anniversary of the golden couple of the London jazz scene.. Among the many British and American musicians who are seen onscreen (and even act a bit!) are pianist Dave Brubeck, bassist Charles Mingus (above; in his only feature film appearance) and saxophonist and vibes player Tubby Hayes. Cleo Laine, who is performing at the jazz festival on the evening of the 29th, sings on the soundtrack while her late husband, the saxophonist John Dankworth, is onscreen.
On June 30 at 2pm, I’ll be in conversation with Pauline McLean, BBC Scotland’s arts correspondent, at the Club Room in the City Halls. We’ll be discussing how jazz and film have been linked since the advent of talkies – and I’ll be showing some of my favourite clips.
The rarely shown cult movie Mickey One (1965) is our first evening screening, on July 1. I was delighted to find that Park Circus, the Glasgow-based company which distributes old movies and from which all of our films are coming, had this particular title as it features tenor saxophonist Stan Getz – who came to the jazz festival in 1989 – extensively on Eddie Sauter’s atmospheric score.
It’s a weird yet stylish film, directed by Arthur Penn, with a New Wave feel plus the sort of surrealism associated with British TV of the period – The Prisoner and The Avengers, for example. It also anticipates the paranoia thrillers of the early 1970s, with a touch of The Fugitive and Sullivan’s Travels throw in … Oh, and it stars a very sexy young Warren Beatty as the eponymous stand-up comedian (“Onstage, I’m a Polack Noel Coward”) on the run from the Mob, or – as he puts it: “I’m a silent movie king hiding out till talkies are over.” He and the director were reunited a couple of years later for the better-known Bonnie and Clyde.
Sharing the bill with Mickey One is a classic soundie from 1929: St Louis Blues. This 16 minute film boasts the only screen appearance of the legendary blues “empress” Bessie Smith, and although it’s creaky in parts (notably at the beginning, when the participants are acting), the pay-off – Smith’s magnificent performance of the WC Handy blues – is the stuff that tingles spines. Not only that, but you’ll see James P Johnson on piano.
Our final movie (showing on July 2) features the great baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan – who was the composer in residence at the 1988 jazz festival – onscreen and on the soundtrack. I Want to Live! (1958) is another stylish crime drama, this time based on the true story of the murderess Barbara Graham (an Oscar-winning Susan Hayward). The director Robert Wise, who went on to make West Side Story and The Sound of Music, clearly had a musical sensibility and the music – by Johnny Mandel – is a key part of this very hip film.
Showing alongside I Want to Live! is Symphony in Black (1934), a stunning short film starring Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. As they play the Duke’s evocative Negro Moods suite, scenes from African-American life are depicted, with beautiful, poetic cinematography. And, to top it all, a teenage Billie Holiday (right) sings the haunting refrain The Saddest Tale.
To book free tickets for any (or all) of the films – or the talk – please visit www.jazzglasgow.com
Here are some trailers and tasters to whet the appetite:
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.
I’ve been reading a brilliant biography of the original Public Enemy No. 1 – gangster “Scarface” Al Capone and it has revived my fascination with the Roaring Twenties, when jazz thrived in the illegal drinking dens operated by hoodlums.
Of course, my earliest impressions of that period were formed by the movies, and particularly a couple of the jazz biopics which usually featured a scene set in a speakeasy. Here’s one of the first I remember seeing: Louis Armstrong and the All Stars with some special guests, in The Glenn Miller Story (1953)
Another family favourite was The Five Pennies (1959), the biopic of the trumpeter Loring “Red” Nichols. A little Danny Kaye goes a long way but he was on top form on the songs in this film, notably When The Saints Go Marching In, a memorable duet with Louis Armstrong. The speakeasy scene in this movie came near the beginning, when hick-from-the-sticks Nichols, whose new, cool girlfriend doubts his hot trumpet skills, reveals all as he emerges from the men’s room… Sounds dodgy on paper, but make up your own mind .. oh, and that’s Nichols ghosting Kaye’s playing.
Of course, the speakeasy scene cropped up in many movies set during the 1920s – remember the opening sequence of Billy Wilder’s masterful black comedy Some Like It Hot (1959)? Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) – a drama about a jazz trumpeter who runs into problems with the mobsters – featured some of the best speakeasy jazz – and no wonder: it had two top jazz singers in its cast:
Undoubtedly the most authentic evocations of the speakeasy come from the Prohibition era itself and that authentic touch adds immeasurably to the already considerable appeal of this last clip: the “soundie” of Bessie Smith’s majestic St Louis Blues, from 1929.
* Get Capone by Jonathan Eig (JR Books) is out now.