My Pop Life #162 : The Way You Look Tonight – Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

The Way You Look Tonight   –   Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold

I will feel a glow just thinking of you

and the way you look tonight

While I was studying law in London in the late 1970s I was also improving my musical education.   The record shops of Soho in particular were a ten-minute walk from Fitzroy Street where I lived, and bulged with unknown treasure that I saved up for, dipped into and splurged on.  Like a child in a sweet shop I wanted to sample everything.  I felt ignorant about music, like I had huge holes in my knowledge – particularly classical, anything not in English or jazz.

One of the first ever jazz records I bought was a white double LP from Columbia Records called Masters of Jazz  –  Billie Holiday Volume 1 : 1933 – 1936.   It felt like an LP that may have some answers.  I also bought a Duke Ellington LP in a similar package – one of a series.  I imagined, no doubt that the other volumes would follow.   I thought jazz might be ‘a bit difficult’ – but that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I couldn’t stop playing both records.   Totally by luck I had hit bullseye first shot – the Billie Holiday / Teddy Wilson songs are both eternal and perfect, simple and complex, they reveal more and more layers of joy with each listen – and still do some 40 years later.   Over the years of loving these songs – now collected on another “complete” Columbia series which are for me the pinnacle of 20th century pop – I’ve come to really adore the piano playing of Teddy Wilson.

Billie Holiday was 18 when she recorded her first sides, with Benny Goodman – the 2 songs from 1933 are the first on this LP.  Then she did a recording with Duke Ellington in 1935 called Symphony In Black which I wrote about in My Pop Life #34.  I don’t know what she did from 18-20, aside from live dates, I guess the pop vocal world was pretty competitive back then and Billie was already seen particularly by producer and early champion  John Hammond as a jazz stylist rather than a pop singer.  Nevertheless in 1935 she cut her first sides with swing maestro Teddy Wilson for the Brunswick label and had a hit with What A Little Moonlight Can Do.   The resulting five years produced the incredible music which I stumbled onto in Soho back when I was a callow youth.  Extraordinary music.  Each song a glittering diamond of the art.

Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Allen Reuss, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson kneeling NYC 1936

Jazz standards they’re called now, some of them have become part of The Great American Songbook, others are pop songs of the day played by an ace swing band under the twinkle of Teddy Wilson.  The players were legendary themselves : Lester Young on the tenor sax, whom Billie Holiday called Prez.  He in turn anointed her Lady Day. On this song – Ben Webster on the tenor, another top player. The mighty Gene Krupa on drums from the Benny Goodman Trio, where Teddy Wilson had been one of the first black players in a prominent integrated band back in the early 1930s.

All of the numbers follow the same architectural pattern, which nowadays would be considered musical suicide.  The vocal doesn’t come in for at least 2 minutes usually.  (Hmm perhaps resembling House Music from the 1980s).   First, a shuffle is established and the melody is played by clarinet, tenor saxophone, trumpet or piano.  A full verse is played, followed by an improvised verse, followed by more of the same.  All the lead instruments get a turn, then finally, around halfway through the song, Billie sings.  The result is simply breathtaking.  You hear the greatest players of the day riffing over the sweetest songs, reigned in by the rhythm section and the melody and producing some of the most sublime music known to man – then Billie Holiday takes it home.  Always behind the beat, sometimes thrillingly in-between the beats, singing a song of her own inside the song.  She is another jazz instrumentalist, using her voice and the words as her tune.  Very few singers can pull this off – this level of structural awareness, to stretch the song beyond it’s confines to another level of syncopation and genius.

Many listeners like the God Bless The Child side of Billie, the later material on Verve from the 40s when she probably had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and was singing weary blues and jazz with great heart-wrenching and pitiful emotion and of course – it’s better than great.  She wrote the extraordinary Strange Fruit in 1939, her initial unwillingness to sing it apparently coming from memories of her father’s death.  Her talent was huge, her life was tragic.  She poured it all into the music until she simply couldn’t be bothered, wrecked  with heroin, drink and everything else and died in destitution from liver failure in July 1959.

I prefer these early sides from the late thirties to the bluesy broken Billie.   Musical people at the height of their game, playing exquisite pop music on disc.  Carefree beautiful music, written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Sammy Cahn.

But check out the piano of Teddy Wilson.  Syncopation and a loose tightness, rolling phrases, moments of strange determination and bloody-mindedness, lyrical beauty.  It reminds me of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin (see My Pop Life #9) and there can be no higher praise from me.  I’d love to hear Teddy Wilson playing Chopin.  Purists may scoff (oh go on, please) but examples abound of the jazz/classical crossover, from Aretha Franklin singing Nessun Dorma when Pavarotti fell ill in 1988, and Benny Goodman playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in 1949.  Different disciplines, sure, but same instrument.  Anyway, Teddy does it for me as a pianist.  Something very quality going on.  He became known as the ‘Marxist Mozart’ in New York thanks to his leftist sympathies, people don’t like to distinguish between shades of red do they, if you’re vaguely left you’re a commie.  For example Teddy chaired the Artist’s Committe to Elect Benjamin J. Davis, black Communist leader who was elected to the NY City Council in 1943.

This song was written by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, originally sung by Fred Astaire in the film Swing Time, and winning the Oscar for best original song in 1936.  It’s a corker of a tune.  Similar in theme to Don’t Ever Change from the 1960s.  A wonky piano backflip takes us into the clarinet melody over a brisk shuffle, played straight just once, followed by eight bars of improvisation before the trumpet takes us through the second verse and we slide gloriously back to the piano genius of Wilson before Billie finally, reluctantly, joins them, singing her song inside theirs.   All these sides from these sessions – mainly cut in New York, but also recorded in Chicago and Los Angeles – are for me the very stuff of joy itself.

These days it is possible to listen to Billie Holiday in rehearsal, phrasing, trying stuff out, ordering drinks, flexing her vocal instrument, arguing.  Too much information?  For some people yes.  They prefer to receive the art in finished condition, these overheard bootlegs of conversations feel intrusive, reductive.  Others, including me, want everything.  When I started collecting Beatles bootlegs, I relished every overheard word, every joke and quip, every false start and breakdown.  It was like gold dust.

Billie Holiday : A female jazz artist in a male world : 1939

This song was recorded on October 21st 1936.  Astaire had already recorded it, and many others would follow – Parker, Sinatra, Art Blakey, Ferry, Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee….

No particular memory, just a lifetime’s pleasure.

Advertisements

My Pop Life #100 : Stardust – Nat King Cole

Featured image

Stardust   –   Nat King Cole

…And now the purple dusk of twilight time

…steals across the meadows of my heart…

High up in the sky the little stars climb

always reminding me that we’re apart

*

Such a melancholy yet beautiful lyric on such an unusual, strange and compelling melody.

Featured imageHoagy Carmichael wrote the melody to Stardust when he was 28 years old in Bloomington Indiana, imagining as he composed it that one day his hero – cornet player Bix Beiderbecke – would play the tune.  The way the song winds and swerves through different keys is a challenge for any singer – but originally Stardust was an instrumental.    A jazz instrumental.    The saxophone player Bud Freeman once said ‘Carmichael’s songs are the only songs on which you don’t have to improvise much, because the improvisation is already in them‘.  So Hoagy recorded the instrumental and it was played by Ellington, Calloway and others until in 1929 Irving Mills decided the tune needed lyrics and asked young Mitchell Parish to write some.

Featured image

The resulting ballad (first performed by Isham Jones in the form we know it today)  is simply the most exceptional combination of words and music that I know of, my favourite song of all time, and the song which was covered more than any other (over 1500 covers to date) up ’til McCartney dreamed up Yesterday (covered over 3000 times).

Featured image

Stardust is a song about a song about love.  Lost love – all that’s left is the song.  The star has gone, all that’s left is stardust.  The image of Star Dust (original title) is a powerful one and has been used many times – Bowie called himself Ziggy Stardust during 1972, and Joni Mitchell sang  “we are stardust we are golden” about the Woodstock generation.   The idea that music can contain in it the dust of a feeling, of a relationship, of a love is a very beautiful one, and of course it is also the idea behind this very blog.  So it seems fitting to me that as I reach the satisfying figure of 100 pieces of music written about, 100 feelings converted into stardust, that this song marks the auspicious occasion.

Featured imageI first became obsessed with Stardust around February 2008 – yes, quite specific…   And once again I am indebted to Kenneth Cranham for his musical guidance.    In a small-world twist of fate, he was now playing patriarch Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming at The Almeida Theatre – and my wife Jenny Jules had become the first black woman to ever play the role of Ruth in the same production.    Harold Pinter clearly fancied her in fact and would insist on sitting next to her at dinner and so on.   His wife Lady Antonia Fraser was terribly patient.    I walked home with Uncle Ken one day, probably after rehearsal, because he lives not far from the theatre round the back of Caledonian Road.   I had been cast in Richard Curtis‘ film The Boat That Rocked, playing late-night DJ Bob Silver, a kind of John Peel template, but with the difference that I was an old geezer in 2008 compared with Peel’s early 20s in 1966 on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.   Uncle Ken being my musical guru I asked him, if I’d been 50 in 1966 then who would I have grown up listening to?   Apart from a reference to Muddy Waters there were no clues in the script.   A week later I was at rehearsal again, or maybe first night, and Ken thrust 3 whole C90 cassettes into my grubby paw.    I know.   It was 2008 and he was still making C90s.   They were completely brilliant.   “They’re all writer-based“,  Ken explained, “the first one is Ellington, with plenty of covers too, the second is Harold Arlen who wrote Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stormy Weather, and the third is Hoagy Carmichael, and there’s even a track of Hoagy singing on that one”…

Featured image

The track of Hoagy singing was Stardust.  There were three other versions on the cassette – one I already had at home by Nat King Cole, probably purchased in the mid-eighties after a John Godber-directed show, (perhaps A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon theatre on King’s Road in 1982).  John’s parents were addicted to Nat King Cole and some of John’s writing acknowledges his greatness as an artist, mainly as a crooner.   The other two versions were by Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers.   Four of the best versions.   I could not stop listening to the damn song.   I started collecting covers of it.   There are a lot.   At the last count I had 57 cover versions of it – all different, most of them terrific.  They range from wild jazz instrumentals from the likes of Charlie Christian, Ben Webster and Oscar Aleman to staggering vocal journeys by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby.   Some odd ones – by The Shadows (it’s ace), The Mills Brothers – an instrumental version AND a sung version, but all done by their voices (amazing), and Frank Sinatra – only sings the introduction (!!).   He had a history of picking the bits he liked though, did Frank (see eg: Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park).   Then there’s Louis Armstrong‘s simply astounding cover which bounces along on the one & the three like a song possessed while the trumpet riffs above it – until Louis starts to sing and makes up the words, scats along, it is simply brilliant and probably the “best” version.  Unique, certainly.

Featured imageBut my favourite is Nat King Cole.  He had a long career as a jazz pianist playing some classic trio cuts before his vocal ability took prominence and he started to sing more – his version of The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting…”) in 1946 made him a superstar, (although the famous version still played today was the 4th time he recorded the song in 1961).  By 1956 he had his own syndicated TV show in America, the first black performer to do so.  In 1957 – the year I was born – he released his version of Stardust, his vocal melisma and jazz sophistication perfectly suiting the song’s temperament.  The string arrangement – can’t find out who it was – is beyond perfect – the opening violin swell is like someone breathing in and out it is so organic.    As Nat reaches the word at the end of the introduction “the music of the years gone by” the strings are clearly on the “wrong” note, but resolve with exquisite delay.

When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration…

What a line – and don’t we all know that feeling ?  Now sadly gone but he has the song….

My stardust melody – the memory of love’s refrain

The lyrics are full of stars – in the sky reminding him that “we’re apart” and at the end again as he sits beside a garden wall

when stars are bright and you are in my arms…”

*

Featured image

To be honest there’s only so much you can write about a piece of music like this. Without getting overly muso – the use of semitone intervals – going up and down is extremely effective.  “Sometimes I wonder…” the first four notes are a semitone climb up that line of the first verse which leads you into the reverie.  Then later “Though I dream in vain…”  the last three words are semitone falls, perfectly in sympathy musically with the lyric.    I don’t want to go overboard at the deep end so I’ll just leave this here.   I will doubtless come back to other versions and covers in future posts.  And of course Hoagy wrote other songs too – Georgia On My Mind and many others.  But Nat King Cole sings Stardust and he wears the crown for My Pop Life #100.

Nat Cole :  LIVE !