Monday, July 24, 2017

DownBeat's Hall of Fame Celebrates Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake in Berlin in 1972 playing several of his most famous compositions, 
Charleston Rag, I'm Just Wild About Harry and Memories of You.

Among the three individuals selected by the Veterans Committee for DownBeat's Hall of Fame was James Hubert Blake (February 7, 1887 - February 12, 1983), known as Eubie Blake. Blake was an American composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtimejazz, and popular music. In 1921, he and his long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans. Among the compositions he is still remembered for are  "Bandana Days", "Charleston Rag", "Love Will Find a Way", "Memories of You" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry". The musical Eubie!, which opened on Broadway in 1978, featured his works.

Blake was born in Baltimore of two former slaves, and the only one of eight children to survive infancy. He worked first in a bordello, then a Black and Tan Club and then on a medicine show circuit. Blake said he composed the melody of the "Charleston Rag" in 1899, when he would have been only 12 years old, but it was not committed to paper, however, until 1915, when he learned to write musical notation. In 1912, Blake began playing in vaudeville with James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, which accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle's ballroom dance act. 

After World War 1, Blake first joined with Noble Sissle to work as a vaudeville act, and then they worked on Shuffle Along. The Blake-Sissle partnership ended in 1925, but Blake continued to evolve. In 1930, he collaborated with Andy Razaf on Blackbirds, which introduced, among other numbers, “Memories Of You” and “You’re Lucky To Me.”

Louis Armstrong's classic recording of You're Lucky To Me.

After decline in interest in ragtime, his career went on an upswing in the 1950s when interest in ragtime revived and Blake, one of its last surviving artists, found himself launching yet another career as ragtime artist, music historian, and educator and recording with 20th Century Records and Columbia Records. Additionally another ragtime revival engendered by the 1973 film The Sting—along with the 1978 musical Eubie!—helped to elevate Blake’s profile during his final decade. 
Through the last decades of his life lectured and gave interviews at major colleges and universities all over the world, and appeared as a performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals as well as appearing on television as a guest on the Tonight Show with John Carson and Merv Griffin, and was featured with orchestral performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler.

A 1932 film of Eubie Blake and His Orchestra that includes the Nicholas Brothers

Terry Waldo, author of This is Ragtime, said of Blake "He lived long enough to convey to later generations all of his knowl- edge about the whole history of American music, and the ways in which black music was entwined within it.” Furthermore, in the DownBeat article accompanying his selection to the Hall of Fame, Ted Panken observes that "younger musicians imbued with an “all jazz is modern” aesthetic, such as vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Ehud Asherie, continue to find inspiration in his works. It is quite a legacy.

The material in this appreciation is taken from Blake's Wikipedia entry and Ted Panken's article in the August 2017 DownBeat. We close with a clip of Eubie Blake with John Denver as Eubie plays and they announce the Best New Artist award on the 1979 Grammy Awards TV show.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Looking back at John Hammond on Vanguard and Pointblank

John Hammond
Verve & Pointblank Releases
Verve / Pointblank

Jerry Wexler writes in the notes to John Hammond’s new Pointblank release Trouble No More that Hammond is the greatest roots blues practitioner of this generation and Hammond sings “the deep and natural blues like some blind man on the corner in Opelousas, Louisiana.” Despite Jerry Wexler’s renown as a producer and recording industry mogul, the latter statement will provoke disagreement among some who find Hammond often sounding as if he is trying to sound like a street singer. Regardless of Hammond’s dedication to the blues, his vocals are inconsistent, and some will find him on occasion, irritably contrived, particularly when he tries to sing tough like Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters. Admittedly he can be engaging when singing in an unforced manner. 

Vanguard has compiled a useful cross-section of his work for that label that dates from the sixties forward, You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover. After an awful vocal on the title track, this reviewer almost didn’t listen to the rest. While his choked vocal also sounds forced on Muddy Waters’ I Can’t Be Satisfied, he is convincing on Leroy Carr’s Midnight Hour Blues, which also sports solid guitar by the late Billy Butler, and the still active Jimmy Spruill (active when review was originally written and published). While some will find the presence of Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman and the Hawks (better known as The Band), of interest, there is no electric guitar playing here that tops Butler and Spruill. Those who like Hammond’s vocals will have no reservations about this, and for others, like this reviewer, this does provide a useful sampling and there are a number of engaging performances here. 

Hammond’s backing on Trouble No More. on Pointblank includes Little Charlie and the Nitecats on several songs, slide guitarist Roy Rogers on others, and Charles Brown’s piano and Danny Caron’s guitar are on renditions of Brown’s Trouble Blues and Fool’s Paradise. Hammond’s singing is more relaxed here, although occasionally coming across as mannered. He continues to exhibit an eclectic repertoire and his rendition of That Nasty Swing has a bit of Jimmy Rodgers flavor, although Hammond doesn’t attempt a blue yodel. The album’s highpoint is a nice, wistful version of Blind Willie McTell’s Love Changin’ Blues. Trouble Blues is a credible remake, of a Charles Brown classic but Hammond is overshadowed by Brown’s kinetic accompaniment. However, Hammond has produced an engaging and likable release for the Pointblank. 

I likely received review copies from the record companies. This review originally appeared in the April 1994 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 190). One may have to purchase theses used or as downloads, although their are other collections of Hammond's Vanguard recordings available. Here is Hammond doing Fool's Paradise from the Trouble No More CD.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Charlie Owen Worth the Wait

Charlie Owen
Worth the Wait

Like the prodigal son, DC native Chartlie Owen has returned to the DMV (Distict-Maryland-Virginia) after decades on the West coast where he fronted the Dynatones as well as part of the house band at various venues. Now he has this release produced by Jim Pugh, who was the keyboardist for the Dynatones, as well as others including Etta James. In addition to Pugh (and Owen's own trumpet on 4 tracks), among those heard in the backing including saxophonist Nancy Wright, drummer Paul Revelli, Jon Cleary (piano on one track) and Curtis Salgado (a duet on one track).

This is mostly an album of southern soul and blues ably played and capably sung. Owen shows clear affection for this material and his renditions of the O.V. Wright classic "I Don't Know Why," James Carr's "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man," Little Milton's deep blues "So Mean To Me" and classic urban soul "We're Gonna Make It," Johnny Adams' "It Ain't the Same Thing," and Johnny Taylor classic "Cheaper to Keep Her," show him an able singer although his renditions do not reach the level of Carr, Milton, Adams and Taylor, as capably sung and played as they are. His affection for New Orleans R&B  is reflected in the Adams cover along with a nice treatment of Allen Toussaint's "On the Way Down," along with surprising, and well-sung recreations of Tommy Ridgely's "Let's Try and Talk It Over," along with Lloyd Price's "Just Because."

A couple of ballads stand out including his rendition of Jesse Winchester's "No Pride At All," and Allison Moorer's "Soft Place To Fall," that closes this recording. These have a warmth and do not suffer from unavoidable comparisons with some soul legends. Owen is a very good singer, and fans of classic soul with a dose of blues should find "Worth the Wait" quite entertaining.

I received my review copy from a publicist. He is performing Sunday evening, July 23 at JV's in Falls Church, Virginia and I hope to enjoy his music live. Here is Charlie Owen performing "Can I Change My Mind."

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Herbie Nichols Honored In DownBeat Hall of Fame

Herbie Nichols recording of The Third World

"It's about time" was a common comment on Facebook regarding the selection of Herbie Nichols to DownBeat's Hall of Fame. Nichols was one of three selected by the Veterans Committee (the others being Eubie Blake and George Gershwin) and it is gratifying that he is receiving such recognition so long after his early death from leukemia in 1963 at the age of 44.

Perhaps at the time of his passing, he was perhaps unfairly compared to his friend Thelonious Monk. I became acquainted with his story from the chapter devoted to him in A.B. Spellman's classic book,Four Lives in the Bebop Business. Recently we are fortunate that Mark Miller wrote a full biography of Nichols, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life

Herbie Nichols recording of Lady Sings the Blues.

He was born in San Juan Hill area of Manhattan and grew up in Harlem. Wikipedia succintly observes  that "During much of his life he took work as a Dixieland musician while working on the more adventurous kind of jazz he preferred, and he is best known today for these highly original compositions, program music that combines bop, Dixieland, and music from the Caribbean with harmonies derived from Erik Satie and Béla Bartók." 

The quirkiness of his compositions perhaps leads to superficial comparisons to Monk. He became friends of Monk while working at Minton's, although he was not fond of the competitiveness of that venue. He became friends of Monk then and was also a journalist who was perhaps the first to write about Monk.

Herbie Nichols playing 2300 Skidoo.

After serving in the Military during World War II, he pursued his career as a composer and pianist. Mary Lou Williams was the first to record his compositions, and after "several years of to persuade Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records to sign him up, he finally recorded some of his compositions for the label in 1955 and 1956, some of which were not issued until the 1980s. His tune Serenade had lyrics added, and as Lady Sings the Blues became firmly identified with Billie Holiday. In 1957 he recorded his last album for Bethlehem Records." His Blue Note Records are compiled on The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Herbie Nichols, and his Bethlehem recordings available on Love, Gloom, Cash, Love.

His efforts to work as a modern musician were limited, and as noted he often had to play Dixieland, which is where he met Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, both who were champions of his music after his passing and who were involved in various recordings of his compositions, including a number that were not recorded during his life. Miller notes his music was viewed by his contemporaries as a bit out and also his straight personality contributed to him being outside the jazz scene at the time. 

Misha Mingelberg is heard leading a group playing Herbie Nichols music.

Spellman's chapter is well worth reading nearly five decades later and Miller's biography fleshes out his remarkable, if tragic, life. A sampling of his recordings and an interview with Miller discusses his life and music is on an archived radio broadcast,

In 2015, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art presented the US Army Blues to celebrate the music of Herbie Nichols. A couple days later, the US army Blues presented the same program. This second performance was broadcast on video, which is available on youtube. They have presented the Music of Herbie Nichols additional times as well. in 2019, it is likely the Take 5 series held at the Museum of American Art will have another celebration of Herbie Nichols and his music.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A.K.A. Doc Pomus

A couple decades ago I wrote a review of Johnny Adams album, "Walking On a Tightrope" for Living Blues and out of the blue I received a call from Doc Pomus telling me he enjoyed my review, especially an observation I made about the recording and its overall sound, not simply the excellent singing from Johnny Adams. It was my only contact with this giant of American music. This 2012 film documentary, conceived by his daughter Sharyn Felder and directed by Peter Miller, along with the 2007 biography by Alex Halberstadt, "Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life And Times Of Doc Pomus," provides not simply the details of his life but a sense of the man who went from being a blues singer on crutches to a songwriter who crafted (often with others) some of the most memorable songs of the past 70 years.

The documentary, through interview clips from a variety of family, friends, artists, producers and music scholars traces his growing up in Brooklyn, contracting polio, hearing Joe Turner's recording, Piney Brown Blues, and becoming a blues shouter in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, making a number of rhythm and blues recordings before chance has him starting to write songs for artists at Atlantic Records, including his hero, Big Joe Turner, including Chains of Love, which he states he sold the rights to. It would launch a career that had him spin out classics like Ray Charles' Lonely Avenue. Then there would be his Brill Building partnership with Mort Shuman where they penned so many songs like Why Do I Have To Be a Teenager In Love, This Magic Moment, Sweets For My Sweet, Suspicion, Save the Last Dance For Me, Viva Las Vegas, Little Sister, Go Jimmy Go, Can't Get Used to Losing You and so many more. 

This wonderfully crafted film interweaves his personal life along with his professional life including his marriage, the songwriting partnership with Shulman, moving to the suburbs as well as hanging in Manhattan. Some of the backstory for some of his songs is given as well. Save the Last Dance For Me has a moving story as it reflects his wedding night where he couldn't dance with his wife but insisted she dance, and later she mentioned enjoying the dancing but was saving her best for him. Ben E King, who sang lead on the Drifters classic recording, mentions how he was affected before he recorded it, knowing the story behind it. 

And we are taken to Elvis calling him at 2 in the morning with Doc thinking it was a prank at first and the fact he and Shuman produced a number of songs for Elvis movies. The movie takes us through the bad times as well such as after the partnership with Shuman broke up, and his marriage broke up, how he coped as well as how he became a center of late night hangs at his hotel lobby with all sorts of night folk. Later Doc would be mentoring young songwriters like Kenny Hirsch with whom he wrote There Is Always One More Time for Ray Charles. 

(In the clip immediately below, Doc talks about writing for Elvis in interview clip not in the film but from interviews used in the clip)

Doc was admired by many and he recounts going to a BMI dinner which he regarded as professional obligation and he was seated next to John and Yoko Ono with John Introducing himself which Doc found funny as if he did not know who Lennon was. His daughter Sharyn recalled how Doc and John would meet in the neighborhood wearing disguises and one day she saw John and Yoiko in a supermarket and introduced herself with Lennon responding "DOC POMUS" and then singing Save the Last Dance For Me. And Doc recounts how Dylan once asked him to supply lyrics for some music, which Doc found incredible.

There are so many stories about how Doc would go out of his way to help folks in different ways, his efforts to revive his friend Jimmy Scott's career (and it took Doc's f**kin g funeral to get Scott a recording contract), assist Big Joe Turner including an anecdote that he was pissed because he thought The Cookery was over-working Big Joe by having him play three shows that night, taht he left in a huff and ha his driver call in a bomb threat that emptied the club and made sure Turner did not do a third set that night

Doc was a larger than life person that it one wrote a novel about, no one would believe. This is a movie I have watched over a half dozen times and it moves me each time and I learn something new each time. Truly a remarkable film about a remarkable person.

I purchased this as a download. The trailer for the film is at the top of this somewhat inelegant blog post. Here is Mike Stoller's comments on A.K.A. Doc Pomus.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Don Cherry Honored By DownBeat Hall of Fame

Congratulations to Don Cherry for his selection in the DownBeat Critics Poll to the magazine's Hall of Fame. Cherry, with his pocket trumpet was an important part of Ornette Coleman's "Change of the Century." In addition to being a vital part of Coleman's pioneering group, he later played with Sonny Rollins, recorded with John Coltrane, as well as joined Steve Lacy for an album devoted to Thelonious Monk's Music. He was a member of the New York Contemporary Five with Archie Shepp and John Tchicai and recorded with Albert Ayler and Gato Barbieri. He also recorded for Blue Note as a leader including the albums Complete Communion and Symphony For Improvisors.

With Coleman alumni Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Eddie Blackwell, he was a member of the group Old and New Dreams who had four albums on Black Saint and ECM. He then became involved in world fusion music, including the "world jazz" group Codona, a trio that consisted of Don Cherry (trumpet, melodica, organ), Collin Walcott (tabla, sitar, percussion), and Nana Vasconcelos and recorded 3 albums for ECM. 

Cherry also recorded duets with Eddie Blackwell and several world music albums under his own name including Brown Rice, and MultiKulti. He passed away from liver cancer at the age of 58 in 1995. 

Here are several videos to celebrate his music. First the Don Cherry Trio in Paris in 1971.

Here is Don Cherry in a group performing in 1980.

And finally Don Cherry's "MultiKulti" in 1991.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Vince Giordano - There's a Future In Our Past

This is a trailer for a film I recently purchased as a download. For those not familiar with Vince Giordano, he has led a small big band, The Nighthawks for about 4 decades that focuses on the hot and sweet music of the 1920s and 1930s, often playing arrangements dating from those years and trying to replicate the sound of the bands as heard on recordings from that era. This band has been employed on a number of films including those by Woody Allen, The Aviator, as well as on the HBO TV series Broadway Empire, in which the band actually was scene performing in some episodes.

This documentary examines what is entailed for him to actually engage in such activities, how he became interested in this music and his ongoing obsessiveness, his collecting of original stock arrangements (he has tens of thousands of such arrangements), the musicians who are in his band and what is entailed in keeping the band afloat and regularly performing.

He is scene performing at (among other locations) Sofia;'s where he had a regular gig for several years, The Iguana where they currently perform two nights a week, the New port Jazz Festival (with George Wein off to the side enjoying their set) at a Lincoln Center summer performance, and Wolf Trap as part of a Prairie Home Companion broadcast from that venue. There is scenes of a recording session for Broadway Empire and him on radio promoting a Town Hall concert that celebrated the 90th Anniversary of Paul Whiteman's Aeolian Hall Concert which included the premiere of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.  Towards the documentary's end we are taken to a NYC Hot Jazz Festival where a number of younger performers discuss Vince's influence and the Nighthawks are joined by vocalist Catherine Russell for a number.

It is a fascinating look at a gentleman who triples on bass saxophone, tuba and a steel bass, in addition to leading the band, singing and so much more in filling a certain, and important musical niche. This should be available as a download or a rental as well as hard DVD.