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 #134 : ‘The Emporer’ – Haydn

String Quartet #62 in C op 76 ‘The Emporer’  –   Joseph Haydn

I reckon Haydn is a bit under-rated.  You never hear much about Haydn do you?  Not like you hear about Mozart or Beethoven, his contemporaries and friends.  Or Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky.  Bach.  Elgar, Prokofiev and Ravel.  Haydn is like – well I was going to say obscure but that would be absurd.   He feels less celebrated.   Probably my hallucination.  He wrote 106 symphonies, yes that is correct, 106  symphonies between 1759 and 1795 which works out to about 3 per year : one of his nicknames is “the father of the symphony“.   He also wrote 68 string quartets over this period, giving him a 2nd nickname “the father of the string quartet“.   The mother of these things is not revealed.   His work tends towards the optimistic and positive, and the pieces develop their themes quickly : his symphonies are short (each movement between 4 and 9 minutes) and easy to listen to.   Largely written for royalty and for dancing, he was in many ways the pop lord of his day.

Pop Lord Haydn c 1770

He was tremendously popular in England and lived in London on two separate and happy occasions between 1791-95 while still working on the continent, sometimes with a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven as his pupil.   Towards the end of his prolific life he sat down and composed three longer and more serious works – all oratorios, called The Creation, The Seasons and The Seven Last Words Of Christ.  These influenced Beethoven to levels of genius.

I love Haydn.  They are works that make you feel happy.  There is a level of complexity in the music that your brain can grasp immediately.  Very pleasing.   They are also “Tunes”, as my friend Luke Cresswell once described a Bach piece.   I think the first Haydn CD I bought was on the Naxos label and had the 85th, the 92nd and the 103rd Symphonies on there.   I had no idea what I was buying, but that’s often how I buy music, as a kind of lucky dip.  It was around 1996, I’d just moved to Brighton, and perhaps I’d just finished A Respectable Trade which was set in Haydn’s era and had come across the name there.   I wrote a little about that TV show, which was about British slavery and in which I played a doctor opposite my wife who played a slave, in My Pop Life #122.  Life is long indeed.  I liked my Haydn CD very much and for a while listened to nothing but.

As I recall I quickly went out and bought another one which had the 45th, 94th and 101st Symphonies on it.  I can report that it was also most excellent.   If you are reading this and have never knowingly listened to Josef Haydn then I would advise you first not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount available.  There’s a lot of Billie Holiday out there too, and Duke Ellington.  But just dive in.  It’s refreshing and wonderful stuff.

In September 2005 I was cast in a Hollywood film adaptation of Christopher Paolini‘s book Eragon, written when he was 15 years old.   Dragon with an E.  It starred Ed Speleers as the dragon-tamer, Jeremy Irons, Djimon Hounsou, John Malkovitch, Sienna Guillory and Chris Egan and others and we were all flown out to Budapest in Hungary in early October.    I’d been there before of course, first in 1975 (see My Pop Life #70), then again in 2000 on Last Run, a film with Ornella MutiJurgen Prochnow and Armand Assante.  Once again, Budapest had changed quite a lot.  Mafia types hung around the centre after dark.  There were no more cimbalom players gracing the quaint restaurants. Now in 2005, things seemed a little harsher.  Still the beautiful Blue Danube (copyright Johann Strauss) flowed through the centre.  One of the oldest subway systems in the world.  We were fitted for our costumes and my head was shaved, then we shot for a couple of days at the studio where I met scottish actor Gary Lewis for the first time and an old friend from Benin Djimon Hounsou again.  We had worked together on Spielberg’s film Amistad in 1996 in Newport, Rhode Island, where he’d played the slave leader Cinque and I was a Lieutenant in the US Navy.

Me with Djimon Hounsou in the Budapest studio

Lots of imaginary dragons to act with, one giant one.  Shortly thereafter I am driven for a few hours down the road to a small settlement called Celldömölk in the west of the Hungarian countryside.  This will be where the rest of the film is shot, in an amazing extinct volcanic crater.

The design of the set in this green calderon is stunning.  I am playing bald twins, one of whom is evil.  It is quite good fun.  But I have made no close buddy here, and on days off I have to amuse myself.  I decide to hire a car and drive around.  They don’t let me, but give me a driver and a car instead.  One day we drive north to Sopron a beautiful town near the Austrian/Slovakian border.  Indeed it is only a few miles from both Vienna and Bratislava.

Sopron, western Hungary

My driver and I took lunch together and drove into the countryside toward the huge lake.  We spotted a sign for Esterháza and something clicked in my mind.  We went to find it.  It was a beautiful clear autumn day, blue sky, warm.

Esterháza, Hungary

There it was, a stunning golden palace set in formal gardens.  We walked around the grounds, went inside and found a little information.  Yes, this was the home of the Austro-Hungarian, (formerly Habsburg) Esterházy family, principal patrons of Josef Haydn who was their Kapellmeister from 1761 until his death.  He was permitted to travel to England for the 1790s when Prince Anton’s reign did without the service of musicians, trying to save money.  But this was where he worked and lived and produced all of his key works, almost in total isolation from the rest of Europe and the other composers.  It was a good find.

After his reportedly joyous time in London and Oxford where Haydn was feted and adored, he returned to Esterháza and composed his final works including the late String Quartets and the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser which was inspired by the British national anthem God Save The King – an anonymously composed tune which is frankly a dirge.  Nevertheless Haydn wanted Austria/Hungary (as it was then) to have its own patriotic anthem so he composed it as a birthday gift for the Emporer Francis II.   It premiered in 1797 and also appeared in String Quartet #62 – the 2nd Movement, ever since known as ‘The Emporer’.    It will be immediately apparent to listeners that the entirely memorable and beautiful tune lives on to this day as the Deutschlandlied or the German national anthem.   Haydn didn’t write the words but I’ll note in passing that “Deutchsland Deutschsland über alles“, the opening line, is often misrepresented as a nazi slogan when it actually refers to national unity.  Germany didn’t exist in 1797 and the small states and principalities the lyrics appealed to were only unified in 1871.   

I was brought up hating Germans.  My parents were evacuated during World War Two and Paul and I played on bomb debris sites in Portsmouth in the early 60s.  As a child playing bang bang war games ‘The Germans’ were always the enemy.  Six months after completing Eragon I was on my way to Germany with my wife Jenny in a Citroen draped in the St George’s Cross.  Oh the clashing ironies.  I believe St George was Macedonian.  Popular in Bulgaria too.  Haha.  Nationalism is of course the last refuge of a scoundrel, but football will do that.   I’m not a fan of National Anthems either but some of them are just great tunes, just like some flags are great designs….

The 2006 World Cup that summer was one of the best we have been to – brilliantly organised yes, but also charming, funny, gentle, relaxed, modern and fun.  Germany had left the past behind long before the rest of us.

Shortly after our drive from Hamburg to Nürnberg, Bad Kreuznach to Dortmund I received a phone call from Hollywood from the producer of Eragon.  “I’m sorry Ralph” he said, “But we’ve cut the Twins from the film, they came in too late for any more new characters and we needed to get to the fighting.  Nothing personal – you were great, and thanks, but apologies”.

“Thanks for letting me know,”  I said.  “You didn’t have to do that”.

When the film was released in December 2006 it was one of the worst-reviewed films of that year.  I wasn’t in it at all.

I still got paid, and I still get royalties.

Mozart and Beethoven both loved Josef Haydn.

So do I.

*

the performance below is by The Lindsay Quartet who tend to be the people we look for when purchasing string quartets, particularly by Haydn or Beethoven.   This is the 2nd movement only – seek out the rest.