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.

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My Pop Life #155 : 3rd Symphony (Eroica) – Beethoven

3rd Symphony (Eroica)   –   Beethoven

Live and direct.  Past midnight in England, I have officially entered my 60th year which means that tomorrow in New York I will be 59.  Jenny tells me Not To Think About It Like That.   After unwrapping perhaps the finest birthday present since the war a whole day early I am happy beyond measure.

A portable ION turntable, small cute and gorgeous is ceremonially placed on the corner table, plugged in and fired up.  First LP (we only have two) : Duke Ellington‘s 1929-1935 film soundtracks “Band Shorts” including on side two the marvellous A Bundle Of Blues with “our conception of that haunting melody Stormy Weather” (sung by Ivie Anderson) coupled with the stunning Symphony In Black (A Rhapsody of Negro Life) featuring a young Billie Holiday on her first recording session (see My Pop Life #34).   I sit on the sofa and just listen to the sound of vinyl playing Duke Ellington in my brownstone.  A perfect moment.  Jenny (for it is she!) smiles at me from the other end of our space.  Her gift.  Her love.  Lucky me.  The Luckiest.  Then as boiled eggs and toast are produced with salt, pepper, tea and orange juice,  on goes Second LP The Four Tops “Live” from 1966 – the very first time I have ever heard this record in any format.  A revelation.  Of course Levi Stubbs is one of the greatest singers of my own 59 years, but what a crooner is revealed as he tackles ‘Climb Every Mountain’ (!) and Girl From Ipanema (whilst stealing It’s Not Unusual from Tom Jones) alongside classics Reach Out, Same Old Song and Can’t Help Myself.  It’s like a direct link to the 1960s through our ears – they even cover You Can’t Hurry Love and If I Had A Hammer.  All backed by the Funk Brothers.  Delighted, Jenny reminds me that we have one more record to play –

a James Brown single on the King label I bought in Richmond last year (just because) entitled I Guess I’ll Have To Cry Cry Cry.  It’s also the first time I’ve heard this one, and it is semi orchestral and soulful a bit like Man’s World.

Scanning the New Yorker for an exhibition we can see before Jenny goes to work at 6pm I see that we have missed my man Jean Dubuffet.  Then the workmen start arriving to fix our apartment – light fittings, back door, yadda yadda.  It’s a beautiful day but we decide to stay in and watch Spain beat Turkey 3-0.  Then Jen goes to work and I grab my hoodie and cycle down to Fulton, walk up Vanderbilt past Grand Army Plaza to Prospect Park.   I’d sent a faintly hopeful email out earlier to the Brooklyn crew (Lynn, Harrison & Christopher, Segun and Lucy, Johanna, Sean, Shekhar) but it was more of a shout-out really.  Once in the park I sparked up a wee spliff and inhaled deeply, walking across the grass feeling echoes of medieval pilgrimage to a designated spot, I could have been in Germany in 1196, travelling with purpose across grassland with others to a venue which would reveal itself musically first with Beethoven’s Fidelio tickling my ears.  As I walk through the gentle crowd and find a spot of grass the New York Philharmonic start playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.  This is one of four or five pieces of classical music that I know by heart almost.  Not the subject of this Pop Life, but could easily have been.  A sweeter piece of music would be hard to find. Very melodic, some might say pop in its sensibilities but all the way from 1791.  The soloist is impeccable but not as good as Glenn Miller (he tackled it in 1944) and simply too quiet.  The conductor hushes down the orchestra so that we can hear him.  He plays it really well, really well, but I want him to blow it harder !   Mate – we’re in a park !!

During the interval I find a wee path by the lake and in the gloaming light a quick spliff for two puffs then complement the taste with a Benson & Hedges – a few other dimly-lit shapes are puffing too.  No Smoking in the Park, and there are cops in abundance, but not here.  Back in the grassy meadow kids are playing with neon glowsticks and wine has been consumed.  A level of chatter I’m suddenly hyper-aware of in my newly-stoned state.  I find a spot and stand for a bit as a speech or two is delivered, mainly expressing solidarity with Orlando after this week’s mass shooting.  Gay Pride starts here on Sunday for a week.  It will be massive this year.  Meanwhile in England Jo Cox, young MP for Batley and Spen with a record of helping refugees and celebrating immigrants is murdered by a white supremacist outside her constituency surgery in broad daylight.  The shock is still reverberating through England, currently in the poisonous peak of the EU referendum which we are well out-of over here.  A platform legitimising fascist Farage and giving all the racists in Britain an entitlement to their foul imaginings has polluted the body of the nation, and bitterness and repulsion are all around.   But we are not going backwards now.  Let’s get the poison out, let’s beat it and move on.  And we will fight this fight in every generation for hate will not disappear.  But we will smother it, restrict its oxygen and put it back in the cupboard of shame and keep talking the talk and walking the walk after this utterly pointless ruling-class exercise in divide and rule.

I submitted and bought this box-set about 20 years ago

I lie down propped up by my cycle helmet.  The evil and division of the world disappears and is replaced by lines, shapes, phrases and numbers as Beethoven’s Third Symphony starts,   magnificent, swirling,  the main theme revealed almost immediately then repeated, swollen, then again with flutes, horns, cellos.  I don’t know this music intimately, but I know it.  It is incredible.  The way the themes are intimated, delivered, modulated, a change of key, of tempo, of bar length, of instrument, the underlying countermelody becomes the theme and back and forth and folding and rising and falling.  Delicate lyricism, fluid phrasing, ralles and crescendos, impassioned and evocative.  I am lying on my back on the grass with my eyes closed.  I am stoned.  I am very happy.

Beethoven in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte

The 3rd Symphony was written as an heroic musical tribute to Napoleon, whom Beethoven admired greatly, and probably idealised.  As he was about to publish the work in 1804, Bonaparte declared himself (like Caesar centuries earlier) Emporer of all of Europe.  Just another tyrant, feet of clay, no hero.   Ludwig Van was so enraged that he scratched Bonaparte’s name off of the score with such fury that he tore the paper and re-titled it Eroica (the heroic symphony).

It was, at the time, the longest symphony ever written at around an hour, and early reviews were poor.  Never trust those early reviews ! Beethoven himself said about it that if it is an hour long, then people will find it short enough.  He has been proved right over the years and it stands as one of his, and music’s great achievements.

I scan my life in 45 seconds as the music soars and sweeps around me.  It’s all good. A quick flash of me aged 16 in Clockwork Orange garb with false eyelashes worshipping Ludwig Van almost as much as Malcolm McDowell.  Travel.  Work.  Pain.  Love.  It’s been a long swim to get to this park, this moment of surrender.  Sometimes you need to just stop struggling. Just before she left for work Jenny hugged and kissed me then looked into my eyes smiling  “we’re doing all right” she said, “we’ll be fine“.   So far so good.

My Pop Life #34 : Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody Of Negro Life – Duke Ellington with Billie Holiday

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Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life  –  Duke Ellington with Billie Holiday

…saddest tale on land or sea was when my man walked out on me…

I’ve got those lost-my-man, can’t get him back again blues….

Very early jazz purchase from me – probably 19 years old in London.  I bought another Ellington record too “1929-1930” probably because it had East St Louis Toodle-oo and seemed like an early/fundamental/influential collection – but what did I know at 19 ?  Very little.  I had just moved to Fitzroy St Halls of Residence under the Post Office Tower – a short walk down Charlotte St to Soho Square, the 100 Club, the Marquee in Wardour St, the record shops of Berwick St and Hanway St.   It was autumn 1976.   I mis-spent many an hour flicking through endless vinyl and selecting which of the glorious LP covers I would release my un-earned Student Grant on.  Yes, now it can be told :  I was part of the lucky generation, there’s no question about it, brought up by a single parent on social security on a council estate, I still nevertheless got to study Law at LSE for three years because I was good at passing exams essentially.  A good short-term memory.  Crucial for actors, and probably lawyers, although I never got to test that theory out.  They are not so different though as jobs of work.

Anyway at some point, perhaps while hitch-hiking around the USA, or perhaps during those Fresher Week moments, I realised that I knew next-to-nothing about Music with a capital M.  Really.  I knew a few prog bands and a bunch of pop records from the charts, I worshipped Hendrix and John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh.  The rest was bluff and prejudice.  These record shops in W1 made me feel unenlightened and I longed for education.  My fellow students would help me out of course, but my duty to myself was clear and unequivocal :  Buy More Records.  Buy important records that made their mark.  Records that were Influential.  It was a little bit like doing a degree in Art History and catching up on the big paintings.   But I knew next to nothing.  Little scraps gleaned from the oh-so-current New Musical Express.   But musical history?  Where would you start?  I thought perhaps – with Jazz.   A scary big universe of famous names and complicated music.   But undeniably cool though, that much was clear.   So much to choose from, familiar and very unfamiliar names – I’m still finding cultural holes in the jazz road.   But Ellington was a large lamp-post, a shining beacon, a hostelry where one could sit awhile with a cocktail and tap one’s foot.    And Billie Holiday I knew the name – presumably – via Diana Ross and Lady Sings The Blues.

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I struck gold with the 1929-30 LP – it contained many of the amazing hits in the early 30s which are all carved into stone as masterpieces of the 78rpm record : The Mooche, Mood Indigo, Take The A-Train, Rockin’ In Rhythm.   But this other slab of vinyl – Duke Ellington’s Band Shorts (and it was heavy vinyl on the Biograph label I think) – appealed to me for a different reason : it seemed collectable because it had the three soundtracks (Black & Tan Fantasy and Bundle Of Blues are the other two) Duke had made in that period for short films, one of which had a 19-year old Billie Holiday singing in her film debut.  The film is called Symphony in Black and was directed by Fred Waller and was the first ‘commercially available’ film about black people in America. It won the Oscar for best short film the following year.  The piece of music is called A Rhapsody Of Negro Life, and honours WC Handy, George Gershwin and Ravel among others – but most notably the Harlem scene it represented.

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The film itself shows the young genius composer at the piano writing the score – and the score is at the crossroads of classical, blues, jazz and film music;  like so much of that era’s work we are terribly familiar with the shapes and sounds and tempos because they were the backing for so many cartoons and short silent films.   There are four parts : “The Laborers,” “A Triangle”, “A Hymn of Sorrow” and “Harlem Rhythm” and the whole piece lasts 9 minutes.

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Billie Holiday, (who had recorded her first sides in late 1933 with Benny Goodman a year previously) sings the blues lament and appears in the film as a spurned lover in an echo of the famous Bessie Smith short film “St Louis Blues” which was the other film soundtrack LP I bought on the same day.  They both seemed to me to be treasure, and for a while they were the only jazz records I owned.

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Billie, Duke, jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1935

This piece contains everything I love about music in 9 short minutes.  It changes tempo and key, it chatters and jitters, it swoons, it has a tear in its eye, it swells like a heaving chest about to burst, it is painterly and grand, emotional and beautiful.  I commend it to thy collections.