Monday, December 11, 2017

Dear Fred: Reading ‘Good Things Happen Slowly’

Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz
Fred Hersch
Crown Archetype
2017

Dear Fred:

I was going to write this to you directly, but I thought if I published it, that it might lead more people to read your new autobiography. It certainly is good!

I have loved your music, both as a player and as a composer, for a long time. (Readers, in case you didn’t know it, Fred is an award-winning, killer jazz pianist and composer. You should listen to him. He has released solo work, and played with ensembles of varying size; he has also composed a lot of fully notated music that is -- well, you could say that’s art music or whatever, the main thing is, it’s GOOD.)

You are a little older than me, and we have some things in common. For instance, we both got to New York around the same time – although you stayed and I didn’t. It was great to read that your impressions of that nasty, smelly, rough, dangerous NYC of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s align with mine – and that we both loved it. Like you, I sat on the curbs outside the clubs I couldn’t afford to get into and listened, blown away, to the music inside.

Unlike you, I am not gay, but I lost my best friend to the first wave of AIDS, along with many other good and talented friends. Reading about your life with the diagnosis for going on 30 years now helps me immensely in understanding what he went through. It was very painful to bring all those memories back up again, but in a way good too.

Like you, and like many folks that I think will like this book, I have always felt ill at ease and different, yearning for acclaim and acceptance. Me? I performed comedy for years – now I write. Your writing here is great, too – clear and concise and straightforward, but evocative. I didn’t realize until I got to a certain point in the book that David Hajdu helped you out with it. He is one of my favorite non-fiction writers, someone I read and re-read to remind myself how to communicate on the page effectively. (Don’t worry – you do not sound like him, you sound like you. The best writing mentors help their pupils sound like themselves.)

Jazz really sustains me as a writer, the idea that you just have to swing with what you’ve got. And then you write: “In jazz, it’s individuality, not adherence to a standard conception of excellence, that matters most. . . . Difference matters – in fact, it’s an asset rather than a liability. There is no describing how exhilarating this epiphany was for me, as a person who always felt different from other people. In jazz, difference is the key element that makes artistry possible.” Amen.

It’s great to read about all these aspects of your life – how you approach creative projects, your struggles with addictions (I’m right there with you, again), and just the contours of the changes wrought by time and circumstance as they cut and shape your life and work. Thanks for being brave about putting all that down on paper – it certainly inspires me to be as rigorous. Didn’t someone once say that all the good stuff is hidden inside the pain?

I was sorry to read of your recent and intense health struggles. I am just coming out of a period of being physically and mentally ailing to the point that I was in bed for three months – nothing compared to what you went through, but nothing like anything I’ve experienced before. Reading those passages was an inspiration as well, although I’d just as soon we could all skip that shit and just have the inspiration straight. Still, reading about your perseverance came at just the right time for me. Thanks for the help.

And hey, I still have a ways to go before I get through your discography, but the one I’m most grateful for isn’t even on there. In 1999, you made, in collaboration with Beth Kephart and Art Lande (Art lives near me here in Boulder) Nourishing the Caregiver, which I found providentially at the time my mother was dying from cancer., and many nights when I couldn’t sleep after a day of taking her to her chemo I’d put it on and feel better. It’s the best medicine I possess.

Anyway, that’s basically it. As a creative person, and simply as a person, your book gets me where I live and makes me feel connected, not wrong, like I’m not so different after all. I think that if the world doesn’t grant you the feeling of fitting in, and if the impetus is strong enough, you can build an entire culture out of yourself, and it ends up being a gift that others can inhabit as well. I think that is exactly what you have done and are doing. 

I hope you are feeling OK, being productive, and having fun with Scott. Thanks for everything!

Sincerely yours,

Brad Weismann

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

NRR Project 41: 'Swanee,' Jolson, and the problem of blackface

‘Swanee’
Composer: George Gershwin
Lyricist: Irving Caesar
Performed by Al Jolson
Recorded: January 8, 1920
2:34

For decades, male entertainers in America had two things – a tuxedo and an Al Jolson impression. Anyone could get a laugh of recognition simply by going down on one knee and calling out “Mammy!” The World’s Greatest Entertainer was, for much of his career, precisely that.

Jolson was a performing marvel. At the time, vaudevillians and variety artists hid their hunger for audience approval under a veneer of stylish nonchalance. Compared to them, Jolson was a dynamo, a sweaty, energetic pulse of naked need. He had big, rubbery facial features and a resonant voice, both essential in being heard and seen in the farthest reaches of the cavernous, unamplified theaters of the day. He was one of the first to treat singing a song like he was acting out a three-minute playlet, to sing TO the audience, not just at it. His energy was an embrace that theatergoers felt obliged to return.

Jolson, the son of a rabbi, was born in Lithuania and migrated to America with his family at a young age. Motherless at age 14, he and his brother Harry began busking, singing in the streets for money. After 15 years on the road, Jolson finally opened a New York show as the lead in La Belle Paree in 1911. For then until his stage retirement in 1926, he was the number one theatrical attraction in the country.

He also worked in blackface. This was a holdover from the tradition of the American minstrel show, which had seen its heyday from the 1840s through the end of the 19th century. Although rapidly becoming an anachronism, the idea of a white man acting out the caricature of a black man was still strong in, and acceptable to, the general audience. Jolson excelled at “selling” songs, especially in wringing out all the pathos from sentimental ballads, especially those by Stephen Foster, which were written expressly for minstrelsy (“My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home”). Part of the license for acting out vulnerability and feeling onstage was, for many white performers of the era, came from adopting a concept of blackness that was inseparable from identifying it with childlike immaturity and a lack of emotional repression.


It’s painful now to see the incongruity of one ethnic minority mocking another to make itself acceptable to the mainstream -- A Jew playing a Negro for affluent white, largely Christian viewers. Jolson was not unconscious of the dilemma, and went out of his way throughout his career to befriend and stand up for black entertainers. Still, he made a fortune out of singlehandedly perpetuating a demeaning, stereotypical representation of blackness that otherwise might have died out much sooner.

At the edge of the Jazz Age, pop songs about the ‘dear old South’ were still big. The legacy of Foster and other sentimental balladeers was powerful, and the Victorian era was rife with maudlin nostalgia in vocal music. Odes to times past, the rural homestead, and the balms of motherhood filled the music racks of pianos across the land – particularly poignant in a time when the American population was moving rapidly from farms to cities.

“Swanee” is the archetype of that kind of song. Jolson had a hit two years earlier with the similar “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” and a year later would score again with “My Mammy,” but “Swanee” was his biggest hit, selling two million records and more than a million copies of the sheet music. Perhaps what distinguishes it is its composer – George Gershwin.

The 20-year-old Gershwin wrote it for a 1919 revue, after which it languished until Jolson heard Gershwin play it a party (some say at a bordello). Gershwin had already been working for five years in Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, one of many who would demonstrate and promote new pieces for performers and laymen alike. After the success of “Swanee,” his first and biggest hit, Gershwin would focus on composing for the stage and the concert hall for the rest of his short life.

The song is a perfect vehicle for Jolson’s style. Its lyrics are typically plaintive and yearning, but they are couched in a springy, energetic, propulsive melody utilizing percussive block chords. It is not played as much as it is stamped out on the keys. The opening phrases charge up the scale – “I’ve been away from you a long time/I never thought I’d miss you so”; the next are framed in melodramatic staccato –“Somehow I feel/Your love was real/Near you I long to be.”

For the chorus, the shift from minor to major key brightens the tone, the repetitive “Swanee, how I love ya, how I love ya” like a freight train chugging along. Gershwin makes a narrative out of the piece, again turning to stair-step phrasing – “I’d give the world – to – be/Among the folks – in – (and the payoff, in a falling phrase) D-I-X-I-E . . . “ It’s easy to remember, infectiously singable.

The bridge brings in quotations from earlier songs – the explicit “I love the old folks at home” phrase from Foster, but also in its use of a subtle musical paraphrase of “Listen to the Mockingbird,” an 1855 gem, which can easily be hummed along in harmony with “Swanee, Swanee/ I am coming back to Swanee.” (If remembered at all today, “Mockingbird” is as the opening theme music, in parodic form, for the Three Stooges shorts.)

By song’s end, it’s become a triumphal celebration of return, a glorious anticipation of trouble no more, almost a march. No wonder it was a hit. Despite its racist connotations, you can’t deny it’s a nifty piece of work.


Jolson gradually weaned himself away from blackface, but not before performing in it in the first sound feature film, The Jazz Singer, in 1927, and again and again in special appearances in film and on radio.

At his memorial shrine at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles, a bronze statue of Jolson shows him on one knee, hands spread, just as he posed on stage at the end of belting his crowd-pleasing songs. You can’t tell if he’s wearing blackface or not.


The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: William Jennings Bryan recreates his 1896 'Cross of Gold' speech.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

NRR Project 40: 'Crazy Blues' (1920)

‘Crazy Blues’
Composer: Perry Bradford
Performed by Mamie Smith and Her Jaz Hounds
Recorded: August 10, 1920
3:26

To begin with, the blues were never really just the blues. By the time Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, becoming the first African-American to sing the blues on record, blues concepts and forms had already infiltrated American music. However, her recording sold more than a million copies, sparking a storm of interest and a host of followers, and codifying a genre of music.

Pioneers such as Ma Rainey, while on vaudeville tours at the turn of last century, heard early blues sung by non-professionals and started to pick up the vocabulary, pulse, and feeling of the music. However, when it came to black music, the mainstream taste of the time ran to what were termed “coon” songs – racist and derogatory comedy songs that emphasized stereotyped black behaviors, sung by “coon shouters” (oddly, these were mostly white women, in and out of “blackface” makeup).

Even African-American musical giant W.C. Handy, composer, bandleader, and “father of the blues,” infused elements of ragtime and proto-jazz into his pioneering compositions such as “Memphis Blues” in 1912. That tune was first sung on record by a Caucasian, Morton Harvey, two years later. It was a staid rendition, not “hot” nor deeply felt, delivered as a kind of novelty number. Soon, these pseudo-blues became the province of white female singers such as Nora Bayes and Marion Harris.

Pianist, singer, and composer Perry Bradford convinced Okeh Records’ A&R director Fred Hager to take a chance and record Mamie Smith. She had appeared in Bradford’s 1918 revue Made in Harlem, and she had a strong, clear contralto voice that transferred onto acetate well using the acoustic recording techniques of the day. Despite reported pushback from groups that didn’t like the idea of a black singer making records, Hager went ahead.


Revenue trumped racism. Copies of the record sold by the hundreds of thousands, not just to African-Americans customers but whites as well, rich as well as poor. Here was a genre of music, a sibling of newly-born jazz, which really connected with listeners and exploded into the big time. Soon singers such as Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter were drawing audiences all across the country. Soon, despite the record industry’s attempt to ghettoize the music by classifying African-American recordings as “race records,” they were welcomed into everyone’s consciousness.

Smith’s accompanists were black, too – Ernest Elliott on clarinet, Leroy Parker on violin, Johnny Dunn on cornet, Walter “Dope” Andrews on trombone, and either Willie “The Lion” Smith or Bradford himself on piano – both men claimed the distinction in later years. “Crazy Blues” is not traditional, straight blues – Bradford artfully interpolated enough variation to make it unique. However, all the elements are there – the repeated phrases, the mournful elegance of the lyrics, and most importantly the undisguised feeling that distinguished the blues from the pallid offerings of the pop hits of the day such as “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and “Whispering.”

The raucous interplay of the instrumentalists are in keeping with the organized chaos of early jazz orchestration, none of it laid out on paper but rather made up on the spot in what were known as “head” or “hum” arrangements. The strong rhythmic sense propels the song, particularly the step-down note sequences between chord changes (that familiar “wah-wah-wah” sound). Dope Andrews’ performance on trombone is a distinctive and delightful feature, using the “tailgate” or “smear” slide technique that allowed the trombonist to flow from one note to the next with ripe abandon.

Smith sings full-out, bending the notes or sidling up to them rather than landing on them with the precision of a conventional vocalist. It’s an urgent, raw sound, one that demands attention. Even though the lyrics are despairing (“I can’t sleep at night/I can’t eat a bite”), there’s something positive and assertive in her delivery that affirms a key part of the blues – the idea that the singer is working through their emotions, purging themselves of the hopelessness that inspired the song in the first place, using the music to come out on top. No wonder people were knocked out by it.

Interestingly, the last verse of “Crazy Blues” is often altered or omitted by singers and scholars. It’s an egregious example of minority-on-minority racism. “I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop/Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop,” Smith sings.

Prejudice against Asian immigrants, and Asian-Americans, was just as rife as anti-black sentiment at the time. Anti-“Chinese” riots had been recorded since the 1870s, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was on the books. The stereotype of Chinese as pidgin-English-speaking opium addicts who constituted a “Yellow Peril” that consciously sought to destroy Western civilization was entrenched in the culture. Bradford cast his despairing singer into an imagined situation where they could end their misery by bringing on death through killing a police officer, a disturbing projection of a transgressive desire.

Later performers would change the words; on Leon Redbone’s 1977 album Double Time, he artfully slurs and mumbles the offending passage. The lyrics in question are a blemish on an otherwise transformative, landmark composition.


The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Al Jolson sings Swanee.