Tag Archives: Thelonious Monk

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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CD Recommendations: January 2013

Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool (Moochin About)Jazz on Film CD

The second, stylishly presented, volume of five CDs’ worth of jazz movie soundtracks is, arguably, packed with more treasures than the first – it has a glittering cast of the creme de la creme of jazz. The title may not give much away but this set includes the original soundtrack recordings – all digitally remastered, of course – of eight movies from the period 1953-1961. Some are long-established as classic examples of jazz on film (Paris Blues, I Want to Live etc) but others – such as The Wild One – have tended to be overlooked. And most have been unavailable or hard to come by for the longest time.

Rachael MacFarlane: Hayley Sings (Concord Records) 

Rachael MacFarlane CD

Rachael MacFarlane – for those who, like me, had no idea – is the voice of Hayley in American Dad, the animated sitcom created by her brother (and fellow recently recorded singer) Seth. This lovely album comprises songs that she reckons her alter ego would enjoy singing, and is an unusual mix of pop numbers and standards performed with big band, small jazz combo and – in the case of a couple of the stand-outs, just guitar. MacFarlane has a beautiful, clear, pure voice which is best showcased on the slow, gentle and intimate versions of songs by Carole King, Paul Simon and Judy Collins.

Houston Person: Naturally (HighNote Records)Houston Person - Naturally CD

Soulful, majestic and funky are the best adjectives to describe the super-laidback tenor saxophonist Houston Person, who is now, incredibly given how hip he is, approaching his 78th birthday. This latest CD finds him in top form, in the company of one of his old army buddies, the pianist Cedar Walton, plus Ray Drummond (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums). The ballads – a characteristically majestic My Foolish Heart and the Johnny Hodges/Duke Ellington rarity It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dream especially – are particular standouts.

The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection (Sony Music)

Thelonious Monk CD

Fans of the maverick pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who died 30 years ago, in 1982, will rejoice in this attractively presented box set of the six quartet albums he recorded for Columbia between 1962 and 1967. Tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse is his musical partner in crime on all these albums which include such classics as Monk’s Dream, Criss-Cross and Straight, No Chaser and mark the busiest period in his career which would go into decline in the 1970s.

Diana Krall: Glad Rag Doll (Verve) Diana Krall CD

The Grammy Award-winning Canadian singer and pianist changes direction dramatically with this new album, her first with the producer T Bone Burnett. Rooted in jazz, but blurring the boundaries between various genres, it comprises mainly forgotten pop songs from the 1920s – but with a sprinkling of later tunes, notably the raunchy rock ‘n’ roll number I’m a Little Mixed Up and the country ballad A Wide River – and showvcases her sensual vocals in an occasionally very intimate setting (the exquisite title number is just Krall and Marc Ribot on guitar). Jazz fans will love the laid-back treatment of many of the numbers in the first half of the CD – but there’s something for everyone.

Scenes in the City: The Man Who Never Sleeps (Woodville Records) The Man Who Never Sleeps CD

A sextet which specialises in the repertoire of the late, great bassist and composer Charles Mingus (rather than a tribute band), Scenes in the City was the brainchild of bass player Arnie Somogyi who assembled a top-notch, all-British line-up for this project, including Alan Barnes and Tony Kofi, who are both heard on alto and baritone saxes, and Mark Edwards on piano. A terrific introduction to the music of Mingus, the album features a lovely, atmospheric take on his Lester Young tribute, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.

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The Breath of Fresh Air

One of the great finds of last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival was a young singer named Cecile McLorin Salvant who blew into town like a breath of fresh air for many of us fans of classic and mainstream jazz. With her bright sound and pared-back style of singing, this striking 22-year-old, who is bringing her own band to the festival tonight and appears with the World Jazz Orchestra on Saturday, exudes the joie-de-vivre and youthful dynamism of Billie Holiday on her first recordings. And as if that wasn’t enough, she stands alone as a twentysomething, black champion of the songs and singers of the 1920s and 1930s – though she has been inspired by dozens of more recent vocalists too.

But Salvant never set out to be a jazz singer. Indeed, she’s more or less been hijacked by the jazz community which knows a good thing when it hears it – and is not prepared to let her go. The young American, whose parents are French and Haitian, had her heart set on another style of singing when she inadvertently fell into her jazz career.

She explains: “I’ve long had a deep wish to be a classical singer. Classical singing is my first passion. It demands so much technically. For anyone who listens to a classical voice it’s astounding to hear what the great singers can do with their voice. It’s kind of freakish. I think that’s what attracted me to it. I love the voice above all kinds of genres … and the classical western vocal technique is something that has always fascinated me.”

As a child growing up in Miami, Salvant was, however, exposed to jazz from an early age. “My mum used to listen to a lot of the great singers – Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn. I always had jazz in the back of my mind but I didn’t really pay attention to it.”

It was during a year’s sabbatical in Aix-en-Provence that the then 18-year-old Salvant was thrown off-course musically. She was going to study classical voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatoire in Aix, and – at her mother’s suggestion – tried out for the jazz programme as well. The professor who heard her sing her version of Lullaby of Birdland was Jean-Francois Bonnel, whom long-standing Edinburgh Jazz Festival-goers may remember as one of the original members of the hugely popular Hot Antic Jazz Band.

Bonnel is a renowned musicologist and expert on classic and early jazz – and he was immediately taken with Salvant. Not that he gave her that impression. Salvant recalls: “He didn’t say too much. I thought I probably wouldn’t bother going to the class, but he approached me in the steeet and asked me to come – and that was the first of the many times he told me: ‘You have to do this, you have to scat, you have to learn how to accompany yourself at the piano ….’

“He was very instrumental in putting me out there and getting me out of my comfort zone. He was a huge catalyst. I would not probably have done this had it not been for him..”

Bonnel clearly recognised the potential in Salvant, and identified something in her voice and style that harks back to the 1930s, the decade when Billie Holiday was her age. “When I met him I didn’t know that stuff at all. I knew late Sarah Vaughan records, late Billie Holiday records. He’s the one who pointed me in the direction of their earlier work. And I fell in love with the music of the 1920s and 1930s. It became something that’s central to my development. A lot of people you meet – teachers and musicians – are not hip to that stuff, they don’t know about that stuff. They tell you about Louis Armstrong but that’s as far as it goes. Miles Davis and Kind of Blue seem to be THE  reference point – and the danger is that everyone ends up getting that aesthetic and sounds like that.”

Within two years of working with Bonnel, Salvant had won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Vocals Competition 2010 in Washington, to her great shock. Indeed, she was so taken aback by winning, that she only “thinks” she was handed the prize by jazz luminary Herbie Hancock; the whole experience was so “surreal” that it’s a bit of a blur.

Since then, she has worked with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – indeed, it was their baritone saxophonist, Joe Temperley, who recommended her for this Saturday’s World Jazz Orchestra concert in Edinburgh – and has met a string of her heroes, notably, she says, Annie Ross.”Before I was even singing, I knew about Annie Ross because of Twisted – I loved that song and would play it over and over again.”

Ross is a perfect example of someone who, like the later Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan records that Salvant first knew, sounds as if she has really lived. Does she feel that there’s a pressure on her to sound as if she has been round the block a few times – even though she’s only 22.

“Yes, I think people expect a lot from a jazz singer. They expect a certain sound, and sometimes it’s hard to force yourself not to pay attention too much to those expectations and just do something that’s sincere.”

And does she feel she’s been hijacked from her classical aspirations? “Well,” she admits, “in the beginning I felt that way. I had my mind set on the classical, and all of a sudden someone was telling me ‘You need to sing jazz, you have a voice that works really well with jazz, you should do it, you’re getting all these gigs’.. And I still haven’t done a classical gig where I’m paid. I now feel that it’s not so much that I was hijacked but that all the arrows were pointing to this thing that seems to be happening easier and quicker and seems to be also a very natural path. And it’s also very vocally demanding and very vocally interesting so it’s a music that took me a little bit more time to understand and love… but now I’m obsessed with jazz and I listen to it all the time.”

* Cecile McLorin Salvant sings with the World Jazz Orchestra at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, July 28 at 8pm. For more information visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 26th 2012

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Book Review: The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild (Virago)

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a late-night BBC4 documentary about
a jazz character whose story was completely unfamiliar to me. The Jazz Baroness was an intriguing film about a vivacious, jazz-loving British aristocrat – one of the Rothschilds no less – who, upon hearing the eccentric pianist/composer Thelonious Monk on record for the first time, abandoned her children and her marriage to set up home in New York and lead the “jazz life”. She became a sort of girlfriday to the bebop pianist who was troubled by mental problems and addiction. She acted as his muse, his manager, his chauffeur, his best friend, his protector and even, when his drugs were found in her car, his fall guy. And she, alone, cared for him during the last decade of his life.

The story may have been unfamiliar, but the name of this fascinating character wasn’t: Pannonica or “Nica” Rothschild inspired more than 20 jazz compositions, several of them by Monk, whom she described as “the eighth wonder of the world”; the others by musicians whom she helped during her three decades driving them around in her famous Bentley, providing welfare and opening her door to them in times of trouble.

Indeed, it was in her suite at the swanky Stanhope Hotel that Charlie Parker died; a tragedy which propelled Nica’s name into the gossip columns – much to the chagrin of her family back home.

Now, the filmmaker Hannah Rothschild (clearly no jazz expert, judging from some of the gauche references to jazz which are scattered through the early
part of the book) has penned a compelling biography of her great-aunt, whom she only met briefly at the end of her life – and had hoped to get to know better. (That frustration – that she was just a little too late in forging a relationship with her elderly relative – is tangible.) Unlike her documentary, which mostly concentrated on the relationship between Nica and Monk, and the unexpected similarities between their two backgrounds, Hannah’s book also fully fleshes out her first three decades, before (thanks to her friend Teddy Wilson) she heard that life-changing recording of Round Midnight.

And what a three decades she had already had. Although she was born into a the oppressive world of high society where children were seen and not heard, and girls didn’t have any function other than to be decorative, marry well and produce heirs (fewer options even than the black, southern-born Monk), the slightly wild Nica had had a few attempts at breaking out before – but always ended up being caught and put back in her gilded cage.

Shackled by marriage, status and motherhood, Nica came to life during the war when she joined the French Resistance and served alongside her husband in Africa. Like women from all social strata, she was expected to slip back into her domestic role once peace had broken out but she was bored and frustrated.

Hannah Rothschild was given access to interviews conducted with Nica not long before she died. In one of the tapes, she heard Nica explain that she had a “calling” to jazz in 1949 when she heard Duke Ellington’s symphony Black, Brown and Beige. Shortly afterwards came the exposure to Monk’s music. And she knew what she had to do.

Had Hannah Rothschild not had access to Nica’s own explanation of why she never returned to her husband and children, and had merely speculated, this “calling” explanation would be laughable. But what shines through on every page is the amount of passionate research and foraging through her family’s past – often to the fury of some Rothschilds – that Hannah has done in her multi-pronged quest to understand Nica, to understand her relationship with Monk, to answer the question “is it possible to escape from one’s past or are we forever trapped in layers of inherited attitudes and ancient expectation?”.

In the film, Hannah Rothschild’s presence and personal connection to Nica get a little in the way of the story. But in the book, her unique, insider, understanding of her family – the history of which she traces back to the squalid Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt in the 1700s – arguably helps her to make better sense of Nica than an outsider might. Her obvious empathy and affection inspire her to perhaps delve deeper for an explanation for some of Nica’s more questionable decisions (those involving her children) – and perhaps to want to make her a sympathetic character.

She recognises Nica’s all-consuming passion (in her case, for jazz and Monk) as a family trait. And, having known Nica’s siblings – and, briefly, Nica herself – she understands the family dynamics and the Rothschild pragmatism, as well as the family’s familiarity with mental illness. It could well have been one of the bonds between Nica, who had watched her father go insane and eventually kill himself, and Monk, whose mentally ill father died in an asylum.

What emerges is a colourful, entertaining study of a fearless, fiercely loyal, independent, audacious and slightly bonkers adventuress who was regarded with tremendous affection – and bemusement – by those who knew her in the jazz community. There is a nod to the school of thought that she was nothing more than a rich white lady who bought her way into the jazz scene, and to the theory that perhaps the Monks saw her as a golden goose.

Hannah herself admits, late on in the book, that she couldn’t bear to think that Nica’s blind devotion to Monk might have been taken advantage of. She prefers to think that in return for friendship, which had been missing from her childhood, Nica “made her sliver of a great fortune go a little further. She made a difference”.

But whether she was a glorified groupie or not, the Baroness emerges just as Hannah describes the impression she formed of her when they first met: “a woman who seemed at home and knew where she belonged”. Their meeting place? A New York jazz club.

* The Jazz Baroness is available on DVD.

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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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