Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, December 29, 2017

Martin Torgoff on the DuPlex

I was joined on the DuPlex Mystery Jazz Hour of 12.28.17 by Martin Torgoff, author of Bop Apocalypse; Jazz, Race, The Beats and Drugs. It was an interesting, wide-ranging conversation that used music as a guideline, as per the playlist below.


Louis Armstrong, Muggles. Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Mancy Carr banjo, and Zutty Singleton on drums.

Mezz Mezzrow, Revolutionary Blues. Tommy Ladnier, Sidney de Paris, t / Mezz Mezzrow, cl / James P. Johnson, p / Teddy Bunn, g / Elmer James, b / Zutty Singleton, d.

Rosetta Howard, If You’re A Viper. With The Harlem Hamfats 

Count Basie Orchestra, Every Tub

Billie Holiday, I Must Have That Man. Buck Clayton, t / Edmond Hall, cl / Lester Young, ts / James Sherman, p / Freddy Green, g / Walter Page, sb / Joe Jones, d

Charlie Parker, Ko Ko. Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie played piano, but trumpet here instead of Miles Davis

Charlie Parker, Moose the Mooch. Miles Davis-tp, Lucky Thompson-tenor and Dodo Marmarosa-piano, Vic Macmillan-bass, Arvin Garrison-drums

Charlie Parker, Lover Man. Charlie Parker (alto sax), Howard McGhee (trumpet), Jimmy Bunn (piano), Bob Kesterson (bass), Roy Porter (drums)

Wardell Gray, The ChaseBass-Don Bagley Drums –Chico Hamilton, piano-Bobby Tucker B
  • Tenor Saxophone –Dexter Gordon, Wardell Grey 

Miles Davis, Round Midnight. Miles Davis – trumpet, Paul Chambers-bass, John Coltrane – tenor-Red Garland – piano, Philly Joe Jones – drums

John Coltrane, My Favorite Things. McCoy Tyner piano, Steve Davis bass, Elvin Jones drums 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Chet Baker Vocals: A New Emotional Space

There were a lot of transitions and innovations in pop and jazz singing during the 1950's. Some of these were triggered by technology-tape recording/editing, hi fi, stereo, new microphones and the long playing record (LP). Other transitions reflected innovations in arranging and instrumentation and the movement of "race music" into the mainstream via rock and roll. Leaving aside innovators in blues, R&B and rock and roll, there were two musicians who effected changes in vocal jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra and yes, Chet Baker.

Frank Sinatra and his arrangers Billy May and Nelson Riddle in "In the Wee Small Hours" (1955) and "Songs for Swingin' Lovers!" (1956) bridged a popular music gap and showed that songs could swing and still deliver an intimate romantic message. 

Chet Baker's style of singing on "Chet Baker Sings" (1954) finished off what Bing Crosby started. Crosby had initiated the movement from "hot" to "cool," as he taught singers how to use the microphone. But, even though Bing's style was relatively laid back, he still used "hot" techniques like vibrato, slurs and small ornamentations to "sell" the tune. This continued to be the standard, but Baker took it a step further, either eliminating or dramatically taking down the heat of these techniques. Also, in the range and timbre of his voice, he did not sound as a man singing was supposed to. Given the negative response by fellow musicians, friends and critics, it took some guts for Baker to continue to sing.
Louis Prima
Baker was one in a long line of trumpet players who sang. Louis Armstrong, Jabbo Smith, Roy Eldridge, Bunny Berigan, Louis Prima, Hot Lips Page and Dizzy Gillespie all sang well. They thought of themselves as entertainers, liked to sing and were happy to give their chops a break. Berigan's style was lighter, but even after he had a hit with "I Can't Get Started," he almost always deferred to a band singer and just played. The rest of those guys sang with a ballsier approach, sometimes ironic or sly, often bluesy. Armstrong always sang romantic tunes, but I hear an artfulness that separates the singer from the object of his affection and the song itself becomes the object. He did sing with great tenderness in the last phase of his career. Baker's singing was the first in this lineage that said out loud: "This is what it means to be vulnerable." 

Baker's trumpet playing was not unique. It was distinguishable from but similar to the playing of others active at that time, like Jack Sheldon, Don Fagerquist, Don Joseph, Tony Fruscella and John Eardley. Of these, only Jack Sheldon also sang. His voice was better than Baker's, but his singing style ranged from cooing drollness to belting. To Sheldon, romantic meant sexy, while Chet was never so indiscreet, or overt. His sexiness was hidden below layers of romanticism and self-protection. 
Jimmy Scott

Rhythmically and in note choice, Baker's singing paralleled his playing. But the fragility, tremulousness and high tenor range of his voice amplified the vulnerable quality of the music. The only voice like it belonged to (Little) Jimmy Scott, who had a hit in 1950 with Lionel Hampton's "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" and who showed up in the same year with Charlie Parker, singing "Embraceable You," but Scott sang with all of the heat that Baker eschewed.

Reading about Baker's foray into singing is like wading into a critical abattoir. Almost no one liked it-musicians, friends or critics. 

There are conflicting stories about how Baker's vocals got recorded. Some say he demanded it and that owner of the Pacific jazz label Dick Bock balked. Others say that Bock wanted it and Baker resisted. Either way, it seems to be true that Baker's inexperience(or ineptitude) made for innumerable retakes, marathon sessions and a lot of audio cutting and pasting. 

Two things were not subject to criticism. One was his phrasing, which rhythmically paralleled his playing. The second was his scatting note choice, which reflected the melodic gift he shows in his trumpet solos.

There was a lot of criticism about his singing out of tune. I'm pretty sensitive to people staying in tune and I don't hear the problem very much, except on some held notes-the hardest to sing in tune and beyond his vocal support system.

Critics blasted his lack of affect, saying his singing lacked emotional weight. Much was made about the girlish, non-masculine quality of his voice. Often this critique was accompanied by an analysis of Baker's life choices-drug use and callousness toward women. People want the artist's life to reflect directly the qualities they find in the art and positive and negative projections about Baker were off the charts. He was worshipped and reviled. Some thought he sang (and looked) like an angel. Others saw him nod out or act like a cad and heard that in the music. 

What I think made critics most uncomfortable is that Baker didn't sing like a man. I've heard people ask, when they heard Baker sing, whether that was a man or a woman. One can only imagine how many such comments were passed in the day. For most of its history, jazz has been a macho culture. Sexual ambiguity or gay-ness were subjects of derision. Chet was heterosexual, but for him to sing the way he did was almost to "come out." Of course, Baker wasn't consciously making a political-sexual point. When he responded to interviewers who challenged his masculinity, he made certain to reaffirm that he liked girls, not "fellers."

Moving from being just a trumpet player to becoming a jazz vocalist/leading man, seeing the response it got from critics and especially from fellow musicians, cannot have been easy. Baker may or may not have been using heavy drugs before "Chet Baker Sings," but there's no doubt that he became more deeply enmeshed in heroin and speed during this period. It's not a big stretch to think that drugs and the incredibly strong response by women to his singing helped Baker weather the brickbats and continue to sing. 

It's appropriate that his most famous vocal tune is "My Funny Valentine." In this Rodgers and Hart tune, we have a psychic match between performer and song. This is a song that spells out the imperfections of the lover ("is your figure less than greek, is your mouth a little weak, when you open it to speak are you smart"). Look at the title itself-my "funny" valentine; not that the lover is funny/humorous, but funny as in-how did this happen-how did I end up with someone like you. This is love as mystery, song as mystery, sung by a musician whose life was lived publicly, but who was a mystery. Yes, we know the biographical facts of Baker's life, but the inner life was shrouded in layers of romanticism and self-protection.

It's difficult to show the influence Baker had, as he didn't overtly inspire a generation of male singers. Most tenor-range jazz vocalists remained more beholden to older approaches. Jimmy Scott, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Mose Allison, Oscar Brown, Jr., Mark Murphy, Jackie Paris and Sammy Davis, Jr. were all much "hotter" singers. 

But I contend that Chet Baker changed the "field" and in so doing influenced these singers. He brought the ethos of cool to a kind of climax by moving into territory that had once belonged only to female vocalists and opened up the emotional space to show vulnerability; a space that male singers had previously shied away from and which they were now more likely to inhabit. 

Ironic that Chet Baker, who created such distance between himself from others was able to transmute this distance into a kind of intimacy that had rarely, if ever, been expressed in the pop-jazz male voice.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Alabama Musical Tribute

I dedicated this edition of the DuPlex Mystery jazz hour to the good people of Alabama who, in the election of 12.12.17 pulled us back from the brink of a moral and political catastrophe (Roy Moore). An unusually eclectic show.



The Black Birds Of Paradise-"Bugahoma Blues"-1927. Gennett

Lotte Lenya und "The three Admirals", Theo Mackeben & Jazz-Orchester-Alabama-Song. 1930-Ultraphon

Johnny Smith-"Stars Fell on Alabama"-1956. Roost

Etta James - "I'd Rather Go Blind" Muscle shoals-1967. Cadet

Alabama Jug Band - "Jazz it Blues" Its a studio band lead by Willie the Lion Smith designed to cash in on the "jug bang" craze. 1934. Decca

Blind Boys of Alabama-"People Get Ready"-2002. Real World Records

Alabama Shakes "Don't Wanna Fight" Live on KCRW 2015

W.C. Handy's Memphis Blues Band-"St Louis Blues" -1922. Victor

Sun Ra-"Days of Happiness". Sun Ra-p Richard Williams-b Luqman Ali-d Recorded 1979. El Saturn records

Ella and Louis "Stars Fell on Alabama"- 1956. Verve

John Coltrane-"Alabama"-Live at Birdland 1963. Impulse

Duke Ellington - "Concerto For Cootie"-Cootie Williams, Mobile Alabama-1940. Victor

Nat Cole -"Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me"- 1944. Capital

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review: The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums

Will Friedwald has written a nice fat, fact-laden book, closely analyzing each song on the 51 albums he's chosen. Comparing his responses to one's own is interesting, but what really makes this book valuable is the extensive context he provides for each album.

Friedwald has been operating in the world of jazz and pop vocals for a long time and gives the reader insider history. He looks at where the album fits in the career path of the artist, how the arrangers-and often the musicians-ended up working on the project, background on the composers of the tunes, the dope on the record label people who decided to back the project and comparisons with other recordings of the song; an extensive historical framework for the albums.

There's a lot of dish-you'll learn how Peggy Lee's alcoholic husband figured into the making of "Black Coffee." But more interestingly, some of the broad conclusions he draws are absolutely new and spot on-Sinatra did show that songs taken in swinging tempos could also be sexy and romantic; tragic divas are given more serious consideration; the use of verses were probably eschewed in the swing era because they tended to be rubato (not in tempo) and therefore not danceable.

If you already know the music, it's interesting to compare his responses to your own, but if you're not, his prose reads well enough that it can be enjoyed on its own. In any case, all this analysis is an excellent goad to check out the music you don't know-for personal discovery purposes and to reality check Friedwald's take. For example:

I was not familiar with Carmen McRae's album Live at the Dug and checking it out was a pleasure. On the other hand...Here's what he says about her version of "I Could Have told You": "When she sings 'making promises he'll never keep,' instead of stretching the last word the way you might expect, she cuts it off shortly, and follows it with a few minor notes for emphasis-as if to literally illustrate the sound of a promise unkept." I then listened to the tune. She repeats that line a couple of times in the song and I don't know what Friedwald means by "cutting it off," but in fact, both times she holds out the note for several beats. It seems as though he thought he had a nice metaphorical point and stretched the musical facts to fit. Although I disagreed with this and some of his other evaluations and choice of artists (Tiny Tim the most obvious example), I found the process pretty fascinating. 

And yes, I do have a laundry list of bones to pick:
p.14 Was Astaire a "high baritone"? Can it be said that the Armstrong and Astaire Verve records "couldn't have been made without him[Oscar Peterson]?" Was Peterson always up to the task? For sure, but... 
p.25 What does a "coarse groove" 78 mean?
p.78 Harry Edison's "beeping trumpet"? A phrase used several times.
p.82 In the 30's and 40's, there was really no generation gap and everyone listened to Bing?
p.85 Was it really "every man for himself" in the 1920's, without any arrangements?
p.122 I think you DO need big chops to put over "Midnight Sun."
p.134 Scatting at its best is a minor annoyance?
p.194 Loesser's "cryptic, almost indecipherable line"? Well, Sheep's Eye is a gin produced by the Lickerish Tooth company. 
p.197 L, H&R were NOT the only ones doing what they did. There was the Blue Stars of Paris and the Double Six of Paris. And, you don't talk about the great "Every Tub" in your Sing a Song of Basie coverage.
p. 201 A trumpet mute "attaches to the bell"?
p.234 Carmen McRae DOES sound like herself.
p.268 Miles never played "Bye Bye Blackbird" at a "slow crawl."
p.314  Venuti was "by far the greatest soloist" on violin? Only if you restrict it to the 20's.
p.385 Ruby Braff was a cornetist, not a trumpettist.

But really, these are minor quibbles. If you're into vocals, check this book out.