My Pop Life #18 : Kalamazoo – Glen Miller

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Kalamazoo   –   Glenn Miller

…hi-ya Mr Jackson, everything’s OK-A-L-A-M-A-Zee-O Oh, what a gal, a real pipparoo…

I’ve never really felt confident around jazz music, always imagining that there’s something there which I’m not getting.  I’ve tried playing it on my chosen instrument – the alto saxophone – and my suspicions were confirmed.  It’s hard.  I feel more comfortable around older jazz from the 20s and 30s maybe because it’s got better tunes, or is more danceable, or just less intellectual generally, but maybe that’s partly been the point of jazz anyway – only a select few will get it.   I diligently bought jazz LPs though from the age of about 20 onwards : Mingus, Ellington, Coltrane and Getz have been with me ever since.

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Back in the day I used to make people mixtapes which actually were 90-minute tapes – C90s by Memorex or TDK or BASF.  The great thing about these was that you could fade things in and out or just pause the tape in the middle of a tune.  CD mixes are naturally inferior in this respect.  Kalamazoo was one of the first jazz tunes I’d put onto one of my mixtapes and thus represents a level of cautious bravery.

In 1981 I’d joined a socialist-feminist Theatre Company called Moving Parts, who wrote their own plays and toured them to youth clubs and unemployment drop-in centres around the UK, preaching tolerance, equality, marxism and revolution.  It was my first professional job as an actor, even though I was only getting £40 a week it would “lead to an Equity card” in the hallowed phrase of the time.  It actually did, three tours later.  The core group was Ruth Mackenzie, Rachel Feldberg, Anita Lewton and Saffron Myers.  We played music in the shows too, some covers but always with the lyrics changed in a cabaret style. After the show “there would be a discussion”.  These were almost always fantastic.  Sometimes we had polo mints thrown at us, or heckles, but it was righteous rockface work going into deprived communities with an alternative viewpoint.

One particular mixtape I made for the gang was called, with no apparent embarrassment on my behalf “The Immaculate Conception”.  I can still remember most of the running order on this tape and most of the songs will probably trickle out somehow onto My Pop Life.   I was about 23 years old when I made it, living in an attic flat in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, and becoming, before my very eyes, a professional actor, working my passage in a Ford Transit van up and down the M1.   The tape was for the endless journeys, up to Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire.  Pulling the set out of the van, setting it up, doing the show, doing the discussion, packing it all back and grabbing some food before the next show – always two shows a day, sometimes three.  The Immaculate Conception mixtape went from jazz to pop to classical to spoken word to country without apology or transition, abrupt startling juxtapositions of styles which clearly clashed, there was Robert de Niro from Taxi Driver, Hawaiian guitar, clips from Star Trek, Beethoven, Bach and Randy Crawford. I’m still pretty proud of it.

It’s funny I was going to suggest that Kalamazoo was the first jazz tune I had the confidence to include on a mixtape, but I’ve just remember that Duke Ellington’s Black & Tan Fantasy was on there too, following Randy Newman’s Sail Away (oh the daring).   No matter, Kalamazoo was still a gateway song.  Simply put – it’s a pop song with jazz elements, not really jazz at all.

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It’s funny, clever, brilliantly arranged and played, and slightly creepy.  Miller took a popular song and “jazzed it up” – not particularly by the way – but rearranged it in his own layered swing style.  The rhythm, mainly carried by the woodwinds and swishing hi-hat is lazy and yet urgent at the same time.  But I think what captured my pop heart were the vocals – not just the alphabetical tricks but the layered harmonies, Andrews Sisters style and the hook of “zoo zoo zoo” which reminded me (perhaps) of Baloo the Bear.   Jazz purists have always derided Miller for his simple pop take on swing jazz, preferring Ellington, Basie, Hampton, Kenton, Teddy Wilson and so on, and now that I’ve been exposed to all these great bandleaders I can see their point.  But there will always be room for Glenn Miller in my ear – he had the real popular touch, and there is a strange innocence in this song that makes me feel that America can’t be all bad.

Addendum : I’ve never seen this long version in the clip, but it’s a good find I think.