Welitsch Was a Spitfire, But Borkh Was a Blowtorch

Borkh - Welitsch

VOCAL RECITAL: INGE BORKH, LJUBA WELITSCH / Rusalka: O lovely moon (Dvořák); Alceste: Divinites du Styx (in German) (Gluck); Cavalleria Rusticana: Voi lo sapete, o Mamma (Mascagni); Macbeth: La luce langue (Verdi); L’Enfant Prodigue: Air de Lia (Debussy) / Inge Borkh, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra; Anatoule Fistoulari, conductor / La Forza del Destino: Madre, pietosa vergine (Verdi); Un Ballo in Maschera: Ecco l’orrido campo (Verdi); Macbeth: Ambizioso spirto…Vieni, t’affretta (Verdi); Andrea Chenier: La mamma morta (Giordano); Adriana Lecouvreur: Io son l’umile (Cilea) / Borkh, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Rudolf Moralt, conductor / Oberon: Ozean, du ungeheuer! (Weber); Ah, perfido! (Beethoven); Salome: Ah! du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund kussen (Strauss) / Borkh, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic; Josef Krips, conductor / Queen of Spades: Ich muss am Fenster lehnen; Es geht auf Mitternacht (in German) (Tchaikovsky); Un Ballo in Maschera: Ma dall’arido stelo; Morrò, ma prima in grazia (Verdi); Ziguenerleben: Song and Czardas (Lehár); Die Lustige Witwe: Vilja Lied (Lehár); Die Dubarry: Ich schenk men Herz (Millöcker); Der Zarewitsch: Einer wird kommen (Lehár) / Ljuba Welitsch, soprano; Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Rudolf Moralt, conductor / Wien, Wien Nur du Allein (Sieczynski) / Welitsch, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Herbert von Karajan, conductor / Decca 28948202836

Here is a reissue pairing two famous sopranos of the late 1940s and 1950s, the German-born-of-Swedish-parentage Borkh and Bulgarian-born Welitsch. Both were very long-lived: Welitsch made it to 83 and Borkh, bless her, is still alive as of this writing (if you accept the 1917 birth year and not 1921, she’ll be 99 years old on May 26, 2016 if she makes it that far), but for whatever reason Welitsch remains a legend while poor Borkh is largely forgotten.

To listen to this dual recital, however, you’d think it was the other way around, for Welitsch, though possessing a pretty voice, sounds relatively contrived in everything she sings. Yes, she does all the right things, and although by the time she made this recital her volume of voice had decreased considerably from the 1940s, it is still steady as a rock and attractive to the ear, but absolutely nothing is sung “from the inside.” Listen, for instance, to her performance of the ubiquitous “Vilia lied” from Lehár’s Merry Widow. Even Eleanor Steber—who, in my view, is a vastly underrated soprano because she was a nasty bitch who sabotaged her own career—sang it with more inward feeling than this. In short, Welitsch, nice as she is, is Just A Voice. In person at the Met, she was well remembered for her spitfire Musetta in La Bohème, waving her arms around in Act 2 and exiting the stage after jumping on Alcindoro’s back, but that’s not acting. It’s low comedy.

Inge Borkh recital

Original LP cover of Borkh recital

Not so Borkh. From first note to last in this amazing recital—actually made up of two recitals recorded in the 1950s—she is, as they say in the business, a “live wire” in every way. She is so deeply connected to the characters she sings that it’s almost scary. The Maria Callas Cult loves to harp on what a great actress she was, but in several of Callas’ recordings (and some of the live performances) she’s just OK. Borkh, like Martha Mödl or Anita Cerquetti, seemed incapable of giving less than 110%. She will have you on the edge of your seat from first note to last of this amazing recital, in a fairly wide range of music ranging from Gluck to Strauss, German, French and Italian repertoire. She had an unusual voice: big yet controlled, with plenty of metal (or Squillo) up top, yet with an almost contralto-like low range to which she would plummet without a moment’s notice. It has a certain prettiness about it, but when you listened to Borkh sing, you didn’t hear Inge Borkh. You heard Leonora, Alceste, Santuzza, Lady Macbeth, etc.

Borkh as Clytemnestra in Iphigenie in Aulis

Borkh as Clytemnestra in Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Aulis”

So what happened to Borkh’s career? Apparently two things, one named Renata Tebaldi and the other named Birgit Nilsson. Almost all the operas in her repertoire were the specialty of one or the other. Not represented here are the Princess Turandot, Leonore in Fidelio or Strauss’ Elektra, all Nilsson specialties along with Salome and Lady Macbeth, and the only reason she got to record Turandot complete (1955) was that Nilsson hadn’t hit the big time yet. You listen to Borkh get deep into the other characters here—Santuzza, Leonora in Forza, Amelia, Maddalena, Adriana Lecouvreur—and the first thought that pops into your mind is, “Wow! Why wasn’t she on complete recordings of these operas for Decca?” And then the answer comes back: “Tebaldi.” Yet in listening to her singing here, it’s very easy to believe that she was initially an actress before she took up singing as a profession. She is an actor first and a “singer” second. One of the more interesting performances is Santuzza’s “Voi lo sapete,” which she phrases like a Russian singer. While listening to it I was struck by her similarity of phrasing, in Italian opera, to someone like Feodor Chaliapin. If you prefer the creamy voices of Zinka Milanov and Renée Fleming you might be disappointed by Borkh’s performance of “O lovely moon” from Rusalka, but for me, this is the definitive reading, full of passion and deep feeling if not the loveliest tone on earth.

Moreover, the conducting on the Borkh performances is absolutely terrific. One of the few recordings for which she is remembered is her RCA Victor (stereo) version of Salome’s final scene with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner, but except that it’s in mono there’s nothing to dispel you from enjoying the one here with Krips. In fact, I would have to say that I’ve never heard either Krips nor Rudolf Moralt—who also conducts the Welitsch recital—dig in so deeply and give so much emotionally in their performances, and I credit this to Borkh’s electrifying presence. It’s as if the conductor and orchestra were also plugged into DC current while making these recordings, so intense is their participation.

It might be noted that the last Welitsch track is taken not from the Decca studio recording of Die Fledermaus made by Karajan, but from the live performance of December 31, 1960 in which Welitsch sang Wien, Wien Nur du Allein as part of the “gala party sequence.” Oddly enough, she sounded more relaxed there than she did in any of the studio recordings. But by and large, this is the Inge Borkh Show with the Inge Borkh Players, Cameo Appearance By Ljuba Welitsch.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Erwin Schulhoff’s Jazz-Based Piano Fantasies

Schulhoff Vol 3

Schulhoff PIANO WORKS, Vol. 3 / Suite Dansante en Jazz; 9 Kleine Reigen; Ostinato; 5 Etudes de Jazz. Confrey: Kitten on the Keys / Caroline Weichert, pianist / Grand Piano GP723

It was in 2003 that British pianist Kathryn Stott issued the first CD devoted entirely to the piano works of Erwin (sometimes Ervin) Schulhoff (1897-1942). Prior to that, there had been several discs on which a work or two by Schulhoff, mostly chamber and orchestral music, had been issued (the only all-Schulhoff CDs were the one of Symphonies Nos. 1-3 conducted by George Albrecht on CPO and two volumes of pieces played by the ever-adventurous Ebony Band on Channel Classics), very little of it suggesting the wild, jazz-influenced piano music that Stott unleashed on us. Now, here is Vol. 3 of a continuing series of Schulhoff’s piano music played by the extraordinary German pianist Caroline Weichert.


Caroline Weichert

To say that Weichert has the full measure of Schulhoff’s quirky music would be an understatement. I have the highest respect for Stott, since her performances had almost nothing to be compared to and she gave them her all, but by and large her sense of rhythm was that of ragtime. While it is true that Schulhoff’s music was indeed based on ragtime, and a white, commercial form of early jazz that arose from ragtime, I must say that Weichert gives every piece that Stott herself recorded even more of a jazz swagger. Of course, this only includes (so far) the Suite Dansante en Jazz and the 5 Etudes de Jazz. Weichert’s series has yet to tackle the Piano Sonata No. 1, the Second Suite for Piano, the 11 Variations of 1921 or Hot Music: 10 Syncopated Etudes (1928), and Weichert’s present CD includes two piano works not jazz-influenced at all, the 9 Kleine Reigen and the six-part Ostinato. Not everything Schulhoff wrote was jazz-inflected, but it did run like a silver thread through most of his piano music from 1919 to around 1931. In Vol. 1 of her series, Weichert included the quirky, early 5 Pittoresken which includes a completely silent movement titled “In futurum” (thus beating John Cage to the punch by 40 years) and an extraordinarily delightful six-part suite titled Esquisses de Jazz.

Erwin Schulhoff

Erwin Schulhoff

I discussed Schulhoff in some detail in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz (Chapter III, pp. 47-48), explaining that although he based his concept of “jazz” on “hot dance music” of the time, and in fact never visited America where he could have heard actual, real, African-American jazz direct from the source—as did Darius Milhaud and Maurice Ravel—he made some startling inroads into the codification of jazz dance rhythms and a feeling of improvisation in music that was very thorough-composed and in places extraordinarily challenging for the pianist. The fifth of his 5 Etudes de Jazz, in fact, is titled “Toccata sur le shimmy ‘Kitten on the Keys’ de Zez Confrey,” is one of the most virtuosic and difficult pieces of its day, a real showpiece which both Stott and Weichert play with tremendous zest and a feeling of real discovery, but only Weichert also gives us Zez Confrey’s original piece, which I would wager that 99% of modern-day listeners have never heard. Kitten on the Keys was a tremendous hit in its day, but moreso in terms of sheet music sales than records; one must remember that, even as late as the early 1930s, recordings were meant to sell sheet music, not the other way around. It wasn’t really until the advent of the Swing Era and the coming of jukeboxes and radio DJs like Martin Block that records as such became paramount in importance in and of themselves, particularly


Zez Confrey

jazz recordings where the improvisation was the composition. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Confrey only made one piano solo recording of his most famous composition, and that was for Edison, whose vertical-cut records could only be played on special phonographs designed for that type of record. As a result, most people either heard it played by their talented cousin or sibling on the keyboard from the sheet music or from Confrey’s orchestral recording for Victor (made May 18, 1922, and sounding like some idiotic silent comedy tune, complete with slap-tongue reeds, though Confrey does play a bit of it on the keyboard in between this nonsense). And yet—hold your breath as you read this—this was probably the recording that Schulhoff heard and which inspired his wild fantasy!

Indeed, as you look through the titles of the individual pieces within his “jazz” suites, you will find—in addition to such expected titles as “Charleston,” “Tempo di Fox,” “Jazz-Like,” “Tempo di Rag,” “Blues,” “Stomp” and “Shimmy-Jazz”—such incongruous (for jazz) titles as “Tango” (lots of tangos…apparently, Schulhoff didn’t hear much difference between jazz syncopation and tango syncopation, though they are worlds apart), “Boston” (I haven’t a clue what this refers to…there certainly wasn’t much real jazz heard from Boston until the Swing Era), “Waltz” (there wasn’t a single waltz in the entire jazz world until Fats Waller wrote his Jitterbug Waltz in the late ‘30s) and “Chansons” (apparently Schulhoff confused sultry French singers with cigarette butts dangling from their lips with the blues). Well, bless him, at least he tried, but to get an indication of just how Eurocentric his worldview was one should note the dedications of each of the five Etudes de Jazz—not one naming a real jazz musician. “Charleston” is for Zez Confrey, “Blues” for Paul Whiteman (yeah, man, there was one hip blues musician!), “Chanson” for Robert Stolz (the German operetta composer), “Tango” for Eduard Künnecke (another German operetta composer) and the “Toccata on ‘Kitten on the Keys’” for Alfred Baresel, the only name among the five involved with real jazz, although probably the least well-known today. Baresel was, in fact, one of the founders of the German jazz movement and the very first German music critic to take jazz seriously. His first book on jazz, published in 1926, was later on the Nazis’ banned book list as an example of “Degenerate Art.”

The other two works on this CD, the 9 Kleine Reigen and Ostinato, are charming, fully classical piano works in Schulhoff’s mature style, and it is interesting that Weichert plays them with a different “feel.” She is certainly a very clever and gifted musician who approaches her work with a rare combination of curiosity and seriousness. I noted that her performances of the Suite Dansante and 5 Etudes run longer than Stott’s, but in almost each case the individual movements have more of a jazz “swagger” at the slower tempos. My sole complaint of this recital was that I found her performance of Confrey’s Kitten on the Keys to be somewhat too slow, which hurts the music’s stated intention of imitating a kitten walking on the keys of a piano. (There’s a marvelous photo going viral right now that shows a cat walking across piano keys who says, “I don’t play piano…I play FORTE!”)

Breaking the music down to essentials, the jazz-based works often skitter along using a beat like this:

Schulhoff music

—which isn’t really a jazz beat per se, but a ragtime beat, and in fact a rather strict ragtime beat without much modification. Scott Joplin varied the beat far more than this in most of his classic rags, but to Schulhoff’s defense this was a typical beat played by many white, unswinging jazz bands, which were probably all Schulhoff heard. In fact—and I have no direct evidence on this but am going by my decades of knowledge and experience—I’d wager that most of the music Schulhoff heard and thought was “jazz” was probably played by German bands, many of which played exactly this rhythm in many of their 1920s recordings.

But Schulhoff’s innovations—and, in exchange, his contribution back to jazz—was never in rhythm but in harmonic movement. Looking over the first several bars of the “Charleston” from the 5 Etudes de Jazz, for instance, we clearly see a piece that begins generally in C major immediately altered via advanced chord positions and tone clusters, then shot in the fifth and sixth bars into an upper stratosphere that wasn’t even touched upon by any jazz pianist until the arrival of Art Tatum on the international scene in 1933, and then only sporadically. This type of harmonic language really didn’t come into jazz on a semi-regular basis until fairly late in the bebop era, i.e., in the late-1940s recordings of the Dave Brubeck Octet, or regularly until the late 1950s with the arrival of such avant-garde pianists as Martial Solal and Cecil Taylor—and Taylor never used this sort of harmonic language with the same sort of rigorous structural integrity that Schulhoff does here:

Charleston 1

Charleston 2

Charleston 3

Charleston 4

Schulhoff may also be viewed as a missing link (so to speak) between, say, the ragtime pianists and such jazz-classical composers as Alexander Tsfasman (1930s-1950s) and Nikolai Kapustin (1960s-present), and his music is fascinating and vital. I look forward to Weichert’s future entries in this Schulhoff series!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Luciano Berio’s Finale to “Turandot”


Composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), largely famous for his electronic music and his wild, outré vocal works composed for his first wife, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, might seem to be the least likely suspect to complete Giacomo Puccini’s incomplete opera, Turandot. Yet it was Berio who was commissioned by Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, to do so in 2001, and he responded with one of the finest, if not the finest, completions to a formerly unfinished opera ever penned.

But first, a bit of background. Puccini himself wrote the first 56 bars of music after the Timur-Calaf scene following the death of Liù, and a few brief sketches for the Turandot-Calaf duet based on the “Straniero, ascolta!” duet in Act 2, but not much more. He himself felt that he could not surpass the depth of feeling he achieved following the death of Liù, thus it was not until the last few weeks of his life that he pushed himself to write any more, spurred by his publisher Tito Ricordi. On his deathbed, Puccini said that he wanted two things: soprano Rosa Raisa to sing the role of Turandot in the premiere and, if a final scene was necessary, for composer Riccardo Zandonai, whose Francesca da Rimini and La Via Della Finestra he admired, to write it. His wish regarding Raisa was honored, but for whatever reason Ricordi detested Zandonai and instead commissioned Franco Alfano, who had already written the Eastern-setting opera The Legend of Sakuntala, to complete Puccini’s last opera.

What happened next was a series of musical disasters. Alfano, already suffering from an eye disease and in poor spirits, took up this job reluctantly. First he wrote a completely original finale, incorporating and joining the material left in Puccini’s sketches, which included 56 bars fully complete and scored. This version is now thought to be a “first draft,” but Alfano considered it his best attempt. The problem was that, by the time Puccini had gotten around to starting the finale, his style had changed and matured. Smitten by Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which he heard in person and praised, he wanted to modernize his style. He did so, but neither Ricordi nor Toscanini felt that the music fit what had come before (Toscanini called it “rubbish”), so he was ordered to try again. This time he also followed Puccini’s sketches but cut 110 bars of written but unscored music (an important error) at Ricordi’s insistence. He was unhappy with the result, and rushed into finishing it (the premiere was only four days off), but dutifully turned it in. This is the finale we most often hear nowadays, but this, too, was rejected by Toscanini, who ended the opera with the Calaf-Timur duet following the death of Liù. Toscanini stopped the performance, turned to the audience, and made his only public speech at a performance: “Here the master laid down his pen.” Needless to say, with a great deal of money invested in the project and the knowledge that no other opera company would produce an unfinished Puccini opera, the Alfano ending was incorporated into the published score and has been performed more or less ever since.

Among others who attempted to fix what Alfano had botched, American scholar Janet Maguire studied the sketches for 12 years (1976-1988) and completed a new final version. This version was not, however, taken up, much less examined. Then, in 2001, a new finale to Turandot was commissioned from Luciano Berio by the Festival de Musica de Gran Canaria. This, too, was based on sketches left by Puccini and officially recognized by Ricordi.

After performing it twice in 2001, Chailly conducted the Berio finale in his La Scala performances of May 2015 with Nina Stemme in the title role. The Italian newspaper Il Giornale called it “a calculated risk” since by and large, the Alfano version is still performed. To me that is the real calculated risk, since it so obviously degrades the work, but you know opera audiences. They are creatures of habit, even if it’s a bad habit like biting your nails or listening to a God-awful piece of music just because it’s “familiar.” British critic Andrew Clements, in The Guardian, said that Berio’s finale gave the opera “at last…the ending it deserves,” and it does. Indeed, Clements went further: “Alfano’s work, while long accepted as competent and uncontroversial, is essentially hack work, and fails to recognise the sheer variety of Puccini’s invention in his final years. Though rooted in the 19th-century Italian operatic tradition, Puccini incorporated elements from modernists such as Debussy and Stravinsky, whose progress he had monitored carefully since the 1900s. Both musically and in its subject matter Turandot is far removed the world of verismo in La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, and the fundamental problem with Alfano’s ending is that it lacks the eclecticism of the preceding two and a half acts.”

Berio’s finale, which runs four minutes longer than Alfano’s, is actually briefer in terms of sung text. Berio omitted any written text for which Puccini left no music, particularly the final choral hymn which Alfano crudely set to “Nessun dorma.” Following the initial exchange between Calaf and Turandot, the “Principessa di morta!” scene, Berio spins a two-minute orchestral fantasia of remarkable invention. Yes, the music strays a bit—but only a bit—from the harmonic world of Puccini, incorporating some elements of Debussy and Stravinsky, but Puccini was very fond of both composers and followed their careers closely. (He was also highly impressed by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire when he heard it in the early 1920s, and went up to the composer to discuss salient musical points with him.) One critic complained that Berio introduced a vibraphone, “an instrument that Puccini himself did not use,” but this writer is incorrect. It’s not a vibraphone, it’s a xylophone, and Puccini uses the xylophone throughout the work, including in the opening “Poplo di Pekino!” Yet it is the soft, quiet ending, with its suspended chords, that most convinces me that Berio did the right thing. Why on earth should an opera that essentially moves from slam-bang-crash moment to moment continue that way after the death of Liù and the reconciliation of Turandot and Calaf?

PucciniThe new finale—starting with Liù’s final aria, “Tu che di gel sei cinta”—was recorded and issued on the CD Puccini Discoveries (Decca 475320) along with such oddities as the Inno di Roma, Salva Regina, a five-minute Requiem, Vexilla Regis, Motetto per San Paolino, a string quartet scherzo, an apparently new version of the Act 2 prelude to Manon Lescaut, the cantata “Cessato il suon dell’armi” and a few other very brief pieces for chorus or orchestra. Until such a time as it is included in a complete recording of the opera, I urge every opera lover to acquire this disc if only for the Berio finale. Aside from Maria Fontosh’s somewhat edgy-sounding aria, it is very well sung, particularly the Calaf of Dario Volonté. Eva Urbanová’s Turandot is theatrically believable but vocally closer to Inge Borkh and Eva Marton than the more powerful laser-beam voices of Eva Turner or Birgit Nilsson. (Personal note: I saw Nilsson onstage only once, as Turandot, in a production at the Newark Opera in 1975. Placido Domingo was the Calaf and Licia Albanese, believe it or not, was Liù. Aside from the almost comical effect of Albanese clinging to Domingo’s cape as Calaf dragged her up and down the stage in Act 1, what I recall most was Nilsson, particularly because my seat was in the very first row, on the right, immediately next to the tympani. Between Nilsson’s air-raid-siren voice belting out “In questa reggia” and the thunderous whacks of the tymp, I had a splitting headache by the end of Act 2.) Nevertheless, the recorded performance is quite excellent, so much so that you can gauge for yourself just how effective Berio’s ending is. It is phenomenal.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to the Berio finale of Turandot here.

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The Biggest Little Band in the Land

John Kirby Sextet

In 1937, one of the hottest and most active years of the Swing Era, all of the biggest and most famous bands played hot, heavy and loud. Benny Goodman. Count Basie. Jimmie Lunceford. Bunny Berigan. Chick Webb. All of them powerhouse bands with brilliant trumpet sections, heavy saxes and pounding drums. And then, out of nowhere, came a strange little sextet that sounded nothing like them—in fact, they didn’t sound like anyone else. Their music, though swinging, was soft, cool, low-key and technically intricate. This was the John Kirby Sextet.

Previously, Kirby had played trombone and then the bass, and with the latter instrument he had played for several years with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, but he was only really known to other musicians. The sextet he formed in 1937 was his own baby, his own creation, and it was something entirely different from anything else in the world. In fact, if you ever find original 78s by the Kirby band and play them, you’ll probably be scratching your head as I did the first time I heard them, wondering how cool jazz of the early 1950s came to be in the late 1930s.

The answer was something Kirby—a handsome but introverted and somewhat surly presence—rarely discussed. He wasn’t very open about his past to start with, probably because his childhood was so hard. Born out of wedlock as John Kirk in Winchester, Virginia in 1908, his mother Dolly gave him up for adoption. John was raised by the Rev. Washington Johnson and his wife, Nancy, and went to the Winchester Colored School where he learned to play the trombone. In later years, after his success, he told a reporter that Bach’s work “fascinated me as a kid” and that he learned to play music just as it was written. He married young, in August 1925, obviously a shotgun wedding since his wife gave birth to a baby daughter, Yvonne Constance, in December.

While working in New York in 1927, Kirby met the great trombonist Jimmy Harrison who persuaded him to switch to tuba. Kirby gigged with such groups as the Bill Brown, Charlie Sheets and John C. Sheets bands before joining Fletcher Henderson as a tuba player in 1929. After Henderson disbanded in 1934, Kirby continued to find work in New York both in night clubs and on record dates (including one notable session with Billie Holiday). Kirby prudently saved as much money as he could from these jobs and thus, in 1937, was able to form his own little band at the Onyx Club in New York. Initially, the band included trumpeter Frank Newton and alto saxist Pete Brown, fine musicians but rather too individualistic and extroverted for what Kirby had in mind.

John KirbyWhat he had in mind was a group in which the lead voices—trumpet, clarinet and alto sax—would play intricate lines either in unison or in three-part harmony, and in which the rhythm section would be quieter and less obtrusive than in most contemporary jazz bands. To this end he replaced Brown with alto saxist Russell Procope (1908-1981), a veteran reed player who had been gigging around New York for years, recording with Jelly Roll Morton and playing with Billy Freeman, Benny Carter, Chick Webb and Henderson. But his trumpet replacement was even more sensational, 18-year-old Charlie Shavers (1920-1971), a phenomenal virtuoso who could play rings around most “swing” trumpeters of his time as well as improvise in a blistering, fast-paced style that was an influence on Dizzy Gillespie.

Suddenly, Kirby found himself with a band so popular on 52nd Street that people started coming from miles around to hear him. He was so popular, in fact, that the club’s owner even paid them to rehearse! Kirby was briefly married to pop-jazz singer Maxine Sullivan, and the two of them produced a surprise smash hit with their jazz rendition of Loch Lomond (arranged by pianist Claude Thornhill). They also landed a recording contract with Brunswick, then with Vocalion, and finally with Columbia Records where they produced a string of hits, including Opus Five, The Turf, Jumpin’ in the Pump Room and the first recording of Shavers’ hit composition, Undecided. They were not the first jazz band to perform in formal dress—Duke Ellington beat them to the punch on that—but their natty onstage appearance greatly enhanced their commercial success.

Kirby Sextet 2

And therein lies the crux of the matter, their style, and their treatment by posterity. Had the Kirby Sextet’s intricate arrangements, which by the way appealed greatly to other musicians—Jelly Roll Morton, when he heard them in New York in 1939, became a huge fan—stayed within that fraternity, I’m sure that they would have been fêted down through the decades and lamented as unsung heroes who pioneered a remarkable new style of jazz that was at least a decade ahead of its time. But they had the misfortune to become media darlings of the time, praised and admired under the title “The biggest little band in the land,” and in conjunction with this Columbia encouraged them to record an almost endless string of uptempo jump tunes, assuming that this was the only facet of their style that appeared to people and therefore would be the only kind that would sell. Because of this, in the view of several jazz critics, the Kirby Sextet was simply a highly proficient entertainment unit. Gunther Schuller, in his book The Swing Era, demeaned them as a band that played simply for people’s amusement that “dried up and blew away,” and the annotator for the Smithsonian’s 2-LP reissue of Kirby recordings went even further, accusing them of “race treason.” To understand the mentality behind the latter comment is to understand the underlying, inherent racism of some so-called liberals’ view of jazz artists. In their mind, music played by black musicians has to be funky, down and dirty, bluesy, hot and heavy, etc. etc. etc. If it’s refined, dignified, even slightly introverted—all of which the Kirby band’s jazz was—it has to be counter to the principles of black culture.

Since this is not a blog on sociology, I will refrain from delving into this topic too deeply, but you really should check your own priorities and prejudices before accusing a serious black musician whose goal was something different, something that was not “outright jamming,” as an expression of musical principles as being guilty of race treason. So Kirby, Shavers, Procope et. al. were denying their blackness by playing music with tremendous intricacy (and, often, very tongue-in-cheek humor) instead of blowing their brains out? The annotator for the Smithsonian LP had high praise for the alternate (rejected) take of their Columbia recording of Sweet Georgia Brown, even though the highly intricate opening chorus (which sounds like a classical musician’s improvisation on the chords of the song) was played sloppily and out of synch, because the solos were “bursting with excitement.” True, they were; and in the issued take, the solos are indeed a shade tamer; but as a complete aesthetic experience, there is no comparison between them. Equally, critics of this ilk bitterly complained of their swing arrangements of classical themes. Opus Five, one of their big hits, was taken from Chopin (though if you compare it to the original Op. 5 of Chopin, you’ll find that they did a remarkable job of transformation), and there were also Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Mr. Haydn Gets Hip, By the Waters of Minnetonka and others. Yet perhaps one of their most remarkable transformations was that of Thomas Griselle’s lovely little Nocturne, which they played with consummate artistry.

Another facet of the Kirby band’s oeuvre that is rarely discussed was their repertoire of Mediterranean-tinged tunes. Early on there was Dusk on the Desert; later, the gifted jazz composer-arranger Lou Singer wrote several others for them, including Tunisian Trail. Pieces like these brought an entirely new sound color to jazz, a timbre even more exotic than that which Juan Tizol brought to the Ellington band through his Caravan and Pyramid. And then there were their modernized revampings of old “Dixieland” tunes like Original Dixieland One-Step and Royal Garden Blues, which the band turned on their ear with extraordinary arrangements that completely rewrote these pieces. And yes, the individual solos in these and many other recordings—best of all, for me, is a 1941 performance of Rehearsin’ for a Nervous Breakdown—were not only highly inventive and original in and of themselves, but if you listen carefully you will notice that each soloist picked up where the previous one left off.

By the end of 1941, the first personnel change was made when the wonderfully virtuosic but understated drummer O’Neill Spencer died of tuberculosis, the scourge of early-‘40s jazz. His replacement, Specs Powell, was a good musician but not quite as good as Spencer. But then came World War II, and Procope was drafted for a few years (Shavers was safe because he proved that he was the sole support of his mother). That was when a series of substitutes came into the band, among them George Johnson on alto sax. Around 1944 the JK 920sextet quietly expanded to a septet with the addition of none other than Ben Webster on tenor sax, later replaced himself by Budd Johnson. Many critics have complained that the group’s “delicate balance” was thus disturbed and that they weren’t the same, but truthfully, until 1946 when the band lost no less than three of its major stars—Shavers, who joined Tommy Dorsey, Procope who joined Duke Ellington, and pianist Billy Kyle, who jumped to Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars (Powell also left, replaced by Bill Beason)—yet they still sounded pretty good. Several of the recordings issued on the two-LP Inner City album, The Biggest Little Band in the Land, were in fact made with the expanded wartime group with George Johnson on alto, Webster on tenor and Powell on drums (Shavers on trumpet), and there is very little discernible loss in musical quality.

Kirby’s error was in not updating his sound after the war. By then, not only bebop, the new sensation in jazz, but also the progressive swing style of Boyd Raeburn, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, were exerting a strong influence on both jazz and popular music, with the whole scene blown up with the arrival of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1946. The Kirby Sextet, with its light, fleet aesthetic, could easily have moved into that style just as tenor Kirby memorial plaquesaxist Coleman Hawkins did, but Kirby stubbornly stuck to his old style and was thus deemed outdated. The ensuing loss of jobs led to depression and heavy drinking, which eventually led to Kirby’s early death at the age of 43. It was a stunning loss to jazz, though by the time he died both Kirby and his band had been kicked to the curb—a real pity.

The Kirby sextet certainly deserves to have their place in jazz history restored. I still recall the time I was a guest on Oscar Treadwell’s jazz radio show and played Kirby’s recording of Royal Garden Blues. The look of utter delight on Treadwell’s face, particularly when Shavers pulled the mute off his trumpet and blasted a Dizzy Gillespie-like solo out of thin air, said it all. This was a band to be reckoned with, not ridiculed and marginalized. I urge you to explore the Kirby Sextet’s music. The more you hear, the more you’ll fall in love with them.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Two Superb Reissues by Crazy Cathy


FOLK SONGS OF THE WORLD / Ablakomba, ablakomba besütött a holdvilág; Nem messze van ide kis Margitta (arr. Béla Bartók); I Bought Me a Cat (arr. Aaron page-0Copland); Of What Use is a Girl? (arr. Isaac Taylor Headland); Kullan Ylistis (Finnish, anonymous); Lepi Juro (Croatian, anonymous); Di-li-do (Bulgarian, anonymous); Roumania, Roumania (Aaron Lebedeff); O No John (arr. I. Sharg); Dve gitary (Two Guitars) (arr. Nick Manoloff); Vo Luzern uf Weggis zue (Swiss, anonymous); El Vito (arr. Fernando J. Obradors); Ar hyd e nös (arr. Joseph Haydn); Da brava, Catina (arr. Beethoven); Die Bergblume (Chinese, anonymous); Kerinoto purvo libe (arr. Pantscho Vladigerov); Desejo (Heitor Villa-Lobos); Canção do Carreiro (Villa-Lobos); Old Jerusalem (arr. Julius Chajes); Fregt die Welt die alte Casche (arr. Maurice Ravel); Lecioły zórazie (arr. Karol Szymanowski); Im Yerki (Kurken Alemshah) / Cathy Berberian, mezzo-soprano; Harold Lester, pianist / SWR Music 19010CD

STRAVINSKY: SONGS / Fav’n i pastushka (Mary Simmons, mezzo-soprano; Igor Stravinsky songs coverStravinsky, conductor; CBC Symphony Orch.); 2 Poemes de Paul Verlaine (Donald Gramm, bass; Stravinsky, cond; Columbia Chamber Orch.); 2 Poems of Constantin Bal’mont; 3 Japanese Lyrics; 4 Russian Songs: IV. Tilim-bom (Evelyn Lear, soprano; Robert Craft, conductor; Columbia Chamber Orch.); 3 Little Songs (Recollections of my Childhood); Pribaoutki; Berceuses du chat (Cathy Berberian, mezzo-soprano; Stravinsky, conductor; Columbia Chamber Orch.); 4 Russian Songs (Adrienne Albert, mezzo-soprano; Louise di Tullio, flautist; Dorothy Remsen, harpist; Laurindo Almeida, guitarist; Craft, conductor); 3 Songs from William Shakespeare (Berberian, mezzo; Stravinsky, conductor; Columbia Chamber Orch.) / Sony Classical 886445702293

I’ve often said that such legendary artists as Enrico Caruso, Feodor Chaliapin, Leo Slezak, Arturo Toscanini, Yehudi Menuhin and Eileen Farrell could never have major careers nowadays because they didn’t learn the craft that made them world-famous at a conservatory (though Toscanini did study the cello), and neither they nor many of the legendary names who came up shortly after them, like Glenn Gould, ever entered or won a single competition.

Young Berberian

Young Cathy Berberian, doing an Armenian folk dance

To that list you could also add the name of Cathy Berberian (1925-1983), the legendary mezzo-soprano who did indeed study at New York University and Columbia, went to Milan to study singing and won a Fulbright Scholarship to continue her studies there. That was about the extent of her formal education, and she, too, never entered a single competition. Yet she arrived full-blown on the avant-garde scene in 1957 with a debut at Incontri Musicali, Naples’ contemporary music festival. Prior to that she had popped up in informal concerts and radio broadcasts in Italy, but nothing that could be called a debut. Nonetheless, she quickly became a name to reckon with in modern music, with her husband, composer Luciano Berio, writing several compositions for her. Along with Bethany Beardslee and Jan DeGaetani, Berberian became the darling of the New York avant-garde and was the only one of the three who did not previously sing early music (Beardslee was even a member, briefly, of the New York Pro Musica under its founder, Noah Greenberg).

Somewhere along the line, Berberian adopted a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek performance style that sharp observers noted was a parody of the standard operatic diva. This, along with two off-the-wall projects in 1966—her own composition Stripsody and her album of


A few “bars” of Berberian’s comic strip composition “Stripsody.”

Beatles songs arranged for mezzo-soprano, harpsichord and a small Baroque ensemble—made her a cult figure. Stripsody, which is (oddly enough) being revived and performed again nowadays, was nothing more than a string of comic-strip sound effects brought to bizarre life by her vocalizations in rhythm, while her album of “Beatles Arias,” released in America under the LP title Revolution (with cover art similar to that of the Beatles’ Revolver), took off like a rocket and became an underground classic. From this point forward, in addition to her straightforward and serious musical performances, Berberian was a darling of gay opera fans who saw in her serio-comic performances a “reverse drag queen” effect. No matter what she sang, whether one of Beatles Arias FrenchBerberian There are Fairies etcBerio’s outlandish vocal works, a piece by John Cage, arias by Monteverdi or her deadpanned but tongue-in-cheek replication of a 1902 vocal recital at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival (later released on an RCA Victor LP under the title There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden) in which she was dressed like an overstuffed sofa, her coterie of gay fans followed her loyally. Unlike Maria Callas or Montserrat Caballé, who merely tolerated them, Berberian reveled in their attention knowing that most of them understood what she was doing and got the joke. (She even performed at the funeral of one of them when he died of AIDS in the early 1980s.) In the parlance of the day, Berberian’s performances were a “happening.”

The problem was that this newfound talent of hers for self-parody and tongue-in-cheek humor led some critics to dismiss her as a “camp” act, which was far from the truth, but as even the annotator of the Folk Songs of the World album puts it, audiences sometimes didn’t know from this point on if Berberian’s strongly emotional performances of certain songs were meant to be taken seriously or as a joke.

Nonetheless, the folk song album is one of her real gems, made relatively late in her career (1977) with the superb pianist Harold Lester. Most of the performances pretty much speak for themselves and are superb in every way. Berberian was a meticulous musician—as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who used her in two of his Monteverdi opera recordings, once said, she was a composer herself and therefore “saw” music from the inside out—and her remarkable ability to sing virtually any language well is certainly on display here. Hungarian, Finnish, Croatian, Bulgarian, Russian, Hebrew, even Chinese all emerge from her with surprisingly good diction. In the wryly humorous Roumania, Roumania, familiar to most of us through Joel Grey’s famous recording, you can sit back and enjoy Berberian’s zesty rendition (in Yiddish) without worries, but I have to admit that I wondered when hearing her over-the-top British accent in Of What Use is a Girl?or the way she sings the Swiss yodeling song Vo Luzern uf Weggis zue if she was being serious or putting us on. That was Berberian’s genius, though; she could hold an audience in the palm of her hand this way. The recorded sound on this disc is a little more resonant than I normally like, but hey, it’s Cathy Berberian so you can’t really complain.

The Stravinsky song album, which she splits with four other singers (although bass Donald Gramm only gets two songs), nevertheless shows what a great and musical singer she was. I had not previously heard or been aware of mezzo-sopranos Mary Simmons and Adrienne Albert, but although they were good singers they were not Cathy Berberian. Both she and soprano Evelyn Lear (then at the peak of her vocal estate) literally steal the show here; every time they sing, you sit up and take notice. Interestingly, there are two different renditions of Tilim-bom from Stravinsky’s 4 Russian Songs, one sung as part of the cycle (with flute, harp and guitar accompaniment) by Albert, the other sung by Lear with an orchestral accompaniment conducted by the composer, and you can easily tell how much more lively Lear is. Yet as fine as the soprano is, it is Berberian who truly give you 3-D performances. Her renditions are not merely good, they are alive in every respect. The recorded sound on the Stravinsky album is much cleaner and less reverberant, typical of Columbia’s excellent classical stereo sound of the period (they saved the “360 Sound” for the pop and jazz releases).

Both are certainly worth getting, but especially the folk song album. No one was ever really in Cathy Berberian’s league. She was the owner and manager of her one-woman all-star team.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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A Love Letter to the Boswell Sisters

Boswell Sisters

The Boswell Sisters on their 1934 tour of Europe with the Dutch jazz band, The Ramblers.

Dear Boswell Sisters (but especially Vet):

I know that your only goal was to entertain people and have fun. You never thought that what you did had any serious purpose despite the fact that you took infinite pains to develop the style you had. And perhaps we, today, shouldn’t push it too far or see it for something more than it was, but nevertheless there was something in your recordings and film clips that touched people—something that very few jazz singers were ever able to do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Boswell Sisters as a trio affected people even more than Connie as a solo act did, but it was Connie’s choice to soften her image and go more into ballads.

I could wax poetic over your mastery of song, say that your voices wafted on waves of melody, but I know that you’d laugh at the corniness of that. How did you put it, Vet? “It was like everyone was doing the waltz, and along came the Twist. We were the Twist.” Yes, much more realistic. I also remember your telling me how delighted Connie was when Martha tearfully handed her a letter received at the radio station which said that she was embarrassed to find out that the Boswell Sisters were white, because they sang “just like a bunch of chanting savages.” Connee laughed and said, “You see, girls? I told you we were on the right track!”

Of course, historical revisionism would doubtlessly denounce you as white performers who co-opted black culture. But there wasn’t a single female black singing trio in sight who could compete with you in your own time. You were indeed unique. It almost boggles the mind to consider that you started out playing classical music: Martha on piano, Vet on violin and Connie on cello. It was listening to African-American jazz musicians in person and having other jazz musicians, including the great but unrecorded cornetist Emmet Hardy, sit in jam sessions in your living room that turned you towards jazz. I once asked Vet on the phone what Emmet’s style was like, and she gave me a general description. Then I asked her if he sounded anything like Bix Beiderbecke, who was supposedly influenced by Hardy. To my shock, she told me that she had never heard Beiderbecke play! So I sent her a tape of the “Bix and his Gang” sides, then called her back and asked her what she thought. “Oh, he’s wonderful!” Vet said. “He sounds just like Emmet!” This is not an unimportant similarity, since it is acknowledged that Hardy helped the sisters form their ideas on jazz harmony, syncopation and improvisation.

1925It’s even more surprising to consider that you began your show business career at a very young age—Martha was 19, Connie 17 and Vet barely 14—without a chaperone. This was even more astonishing when you consider that Connie was crippled from a childhood bout with polio. Thanks to her mother’s insistence on exercising her young legs, she was able to get around a little by leaning on her two sisters’ shoulders (Vet told me that it always made her laugh when strangers at the train station would ask Connee if she had fallen and needed a doctor…she used to joke that she was just a little hung over!) until one day, while foolishly playing hide-and-seek in their hotel room, Connie inadvertently hid herself too closely to the window sill and fell two stories. That was the end of her limited mobility.

Yours was an act, then, that absolutely relied on one thing, your musical talent. With sister Nights When I Am LonelyConnie virtually immobile in a sitting position, you couldn’t strut and dance like other vocal groups (although, watching the Andrews Sisters do their almost scary jitterbugging in their movie clips, that might not have been so bad). In the early days, as evidenced by a pair of songs recorded in early 1925, your style was only half-formed, with Connie belting out blues and jazz numbers à la her hero, Mamie Smith, but when you arrived in Los Angeles in 1930 and first went on the air, you came to the conclusion that softening your volume actually helped you swing faster and harder. By the time 1931 arrived you had a long-term record contract with Brunswick Records, which made you nationally known, along with your radio show. A year later and you were appearing in film shorts and features. Your rapid rise to the top of your profession had begun.

The first time I heard you sing was in 1971, when I bought a 2-LP compilation on Decca Records of “nostalgia” acts from the 1930s. There was only one track on the album by you, When I Take My Sugar to Tea, and it simply blew me away. It was also the first time I heard Boswells Brunswick albumthe original Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, which was your most frequent back-up band of choice—with a few ringers, like trumpeters Manny Klein and Bunny Berigan (then working with Paul Whiteman), thrown in for an extra kick. I tried to find other records by you on 45 or LP but to no avail, so I had to spend more than I wanted to in order to buy the rare 4-78 Brunswick album of your recordings. In addition to When I Take My Sugar, it also included Wha’d Ja Do to Me?; Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On; Shout, Sister, Shout; Shine On, Harvest Moon; Heebie Jeebies; River, Stay ‘Way From My Door; and It’s the Girl—all classics. But it wasn’t until jazz critic Michael Brooks persuaded Columbia Special Products to issue a 3-LP set of your recordings in the late 1970s that I finally managed to hear more of your marvelous work.

What remarkable singing! Three voices swinging and improvising as one, often switching voice-leading imperceptibly to the untrained ear. Martha very rarely sang a solo line here

Martha 9standing] Connee and Vet Boswell

Martha (standing), Connee and Vet

and there, Vet never; mostly, they were “able shadows” to sister Connie whose voice, by the early ‘30s, had mellowed into a rich mezzo. Her swinging vocal stylings were so far ahead of their time that no one could compare to her, which is why Ella Fitzgerald considered her the best jazz singer of the era. Then there were the frequent key and tempo changes, up to five within a single record, that kept the listener on the edge of his or her seat. Wild, baby, wild! Eventually I got to see two of your movies, The Big Broadcast of 1932 and Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, on TV, and then I was lucky enough to discover Vet’s home phone number. I spoke with her around ten or twelve times over the next few years and once, when I returned back to the East Coast to visit my family, almost got the chance to meet her in person. Unfortunately, the day before I was to visit you, you called my parents’ home and told me that an iron had fallen out of your closet and hit you in the forehead, and you were both in pain and had a black eye, so the visit never happened.

But I was lucky to be in touch with you during the rehearsals for an off-Broadway revue based on the sisters’ career and style, and I still recall your frustration in trying to get the singers to swing as well as you, Martha and Connie did. I also recall some of the things you told me which contradicted established opinion, for instance that it was your sister Connie who made most of the arrangements you sang, and that it was Glenn Miller playing second trombone on your recording of Alexander’s Ragtime Band. (You were quit adamant when I told you that another trombonist was listed in Brian Rust’s discography—you said, “Honey, I was there, and I tell you, it was Glenn Miller!”) And I remember discussing the recent boswells and crosbybiography of Bing Crosby, The Hollow Man, which showed that beneath his show-business chumminess was a cold, callous human being who ditched the contacts and friends he made on the way up and thought only of himself. “Well, he was always nice to us,” you said, “and he did have sister Connie on his radio show fairly often, but you know…now that I think of it…he was in town when Connie died, but he didn’t bother to come to the funeral. He just sent a very cheap basket of flowers.” And I also remember how much you and your sisters liked Russ Columbo, Crosby’s biggest rival who died tragically young in 1934. How Columbo and sister Martha would fill in air time by playing violin-piano duets. I hadn’t even known that Columbo played the violin! And what a nice, modest, stay-at-home guy he was, that he preferred having close friends (like the three of you) over for a homemade spaghetti dinner and good conversation to going out to nightclubs.

Shout Sister ShoutI especially laughed when you pointed out that, in the double-time Pig Latin chorus the sisters sang in Everybody Loves My Baby, you sneaked in the words “Don’t give a damn / Don’t give a good God-damn” that got past the censors because they went by so quickly that no one noticed them. I also laughed when you told me about the time when Jack Kapp, the musically conservative A&R director at Brunswick Records, complained about all the tempo and key changes in one of your numbers, at which point Tommy Dorsey blew a loud blat on his trombone and shoved the slide in Kapp’s face. TD was a weird guy, a great musician who was also a hard-nosed S.O.B., but he adored the sisters and especially Connie. That’s why, once he broke off from Jimmy and ran his own band, he hired another pop contralto, Edythe Wright, to sing the hot numbers with his Clambake Seven.

But surely the most tragic thing about the Boswells was that they broke up in late 1935 (though they briefly reunited to record six sides in early 1936) because Martha wanted to get postermarried, and in those days “well bred young women just didn’t perform once they got married…Carole Lombard was an exception.” This opened the door for Vet to get married as well. Connie, left adrift, married her manager and tried to establish a solo career of her own. You would have thought this would have been easy—after all, she was very well known as the lead voice of the trio and in fact had made a fair number of solo recordings for Brunswick while still singing with her sisters—but for some reason, it wasn’t. She had to do auditions to establish herself as a solo act without the sisters, and part of this transformation apparently included what I brought up earlier, a softening of her image. Jazz chick though she was, and remained in her heart until her death, Connie had to doll up in flouncy dresses, makeup and perfectly coiffed hair, switch her repertoire more in the direction of soft ballads, and thus redefine her image. She was eager to entertain the troops during World War II, but was devastated when the Army turned her down—not because they thought she was too frail to make the trip overseas, but because they felt that wounded soldiers would feel too self-conscious seeing a performer in a wheelchair.

Happily, during the 1950s Connie went back to jazz, singing uptempo tunes with Crosby on his radio program and appearing on occasional jazz-oriented TV shows. There was even an RCA Victor LP, Connee Boswell and the Original Memphis Five, but it didn’t do very well. Then, eventually, Connie retired permanently and soon afterwards died. An era was over.

But still your legacy lives on, not only in your own recordings but in the various vocal trios inspired by your style. I’ve heard them all, and the best of them in terms of actually sounding like you in timbre as well as swing is the Spanish-based group, O Sister! Unfortunately, O Sister! doesn’t work very hard on their English diction because they mostly perform in and around their native Spain, but by God they sound almost exactly like the Boswells. Thus your legacy continues; a style once ahead of its time but now locked in time, period music played and sung in a modernistic fashion. Even today no one can surpass what you did; the best they can hope for is to equal your accomplishments. And in your wake you left the world a happier place, your old recordings still bringing joy to all who listen.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Boswells autograph

Listen to the Boswells’ legacy here:
Vol. 1: 1925-April 1931
Vol. 2: April 1931-March 1932
Vol. 3: March-December 1932
Vol. 4: January 1933-May 1934
Vol. 5: June 1934-February 1936
Connee Boswell, Solo and with Bing Crosby

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The Great Klaus Tennstedt


Conductor Klaus Tennstedt (1926 – 1998) was a meteor who shot across the classical sky, inspired millions, not thousands, of listeners, and then sputtered and died. What made his story all the more inspiring is that he came along—in the West, at least—at the exact same time that Carlos Kleiber, also immensely talented, was thought of as the greatest classical conductor in the world.

There were remarkable similarities between Tennstedt and Kleiber. Both were inspired and inspiring orchestral builders. Both led emotionally white-hot performances in both the opera house and the concert hall. Both had a surprisingly small repertoire, mostly confined to the Romantic era, and both were strangely haunted personalities. In Kleiber’s case it was probably neurosis caused by the sneering disapproval his father, world-famous conductor Erich Kleiber, had towards his son taking up the same profession, but in Tennstedt’s case it was his traumatic experiences as a youth in Nazi Germany and his later confinement within East Germany. When I met and interviewed him in 1984, I found him strangely nervous, jittery, and completely lacking the feeling of his greatness that many critics—myself included—recognized in him, despite the fact that he was willing to defend his sometimes unorthodox readings of standard repertoire.

After studying the violin at the Leipzig Conservatory, he avoided military conscription during World War II by working for a Baroque orchestra—but he was sent out with others to collect the dead bodies after the bombing of Dresden. In 1948 he became concertmaster at the Halle Municipal Theatre. but a finger injury ended his career as a violinist and he turned to being an opera coach. He then slowly turned to conducting, eventually starting his career in earnest with an appointment as music director of the Dresden Opera in 1958 and then as music director of the Schwerin State Orchestra and Theatre.

His big break came, inadvertently, in 1971 when his visitors’ visa to Sweden was accidentally stamped as an exit visa, which meant he was free to live and work in the West. Arriving in Sweden, he immediately announced his decision not to return and somehow convinced the East German authorities to let his wife Inge join him. Slowly but surely his career took off, first in Europe and then via guest appearances with the Toronto Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestras. Critics were bowled over by the emotional passion and musical intelligence of his performances; in fact, he was one of the few conductors to appeal to both those who loved musically accurate performances and emotionally over-the-top ones. By the late 1970s, largely due to his many appearances with the Boston Symphony (some of which were broadcast, such as a fantastic Beethoven Ninth I heard), he had amassed a hardy group of fans who actually followed him around from city to city to hear him conduct. They called themselves the “Klausketeers” and attracted both supporters and derision, but they didn’t care. They loved what this man had to offer and weren’t shy about their support. Before long, they had an actual club set up and even issued a periodic newsletter (this in the days before computers and the Internet).

I caught up with Tennstedt when he came out to Cincinnati to conduct Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Cincinnati Symphony in the annual May Festival. I was lucky enough to interview him for a monthly classical journal, which is where I discovered that he was a somewhat nervous and edgy chain-smoker. But he was immensely charming and answered all of my questions intelligently.

At the time I met and interviewed him, I had only one of his recordings, the Schumann Third Symphony and the Konzertstück for 4 Horns because it was the only one I had heard that I felt captured the excitement of his live performances (he was gracious enough to autograph it for me). This, as in the case of many great classical performers, was his bane: he could and did give 110% in front of live audiences but seldom rose to that white-hot level in the recording studio. One of the things I specifically recall him bringing up in our interview was his view of the last measure of the Schubert “Great” C Major Symphony. It was his opinion that the final note, in the written score, had a long decrescendo over it, whereas the printed score reduced it to an accent mark, thus he considered it his mission to restore Schubert’s original view of the music. At the time, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me…why end a very long symphony, and particularly a long and dramatic movement, with a decrescendo? But I heard his recording of it (one of his better recordings) and found that I liked it. A few years later, I also heard Nikolaus Harnoncourt do the same thing in his superb set of the complete Schubert symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and I liked it even more. But nowadays, when it is done more often than nor, it seems to be forgotten that it was Tennstedt who pioneered its use.

Following my interview with him, I had the rare opportunity to watch him in rehearsal. Let me tell you, he was not gentle with orchestras when he didn’t get what he wanted. We’ve all heard stories of Toscanini, Rodzinski and Reiner being martinets with an orchestra, but I’m here to tell you that orchestral musicians learned to cower under Tennstedt’s wrath when things didn’t go right. The worst moment (for the orchestra) cane in the Tanz, or Dance, which they were playing with a smooth, refined tone. Tennstedt kept trying to get the strings to bow more roughly but wasn’t getting his way until he exploded in a Toscanini-like rage. “What is WRONG with you?” he roared. “This is a peasant dance! It’s not supposed to sound like a ballroom dance in a palace! Rougher! Dig in!” That seemed to do it, because Tennstedt got what he wanted—both in the rehearsal and in the performance.

I also got to hear him conduct the Cleveland Orchestra, not too long thereafter, in a concert that included Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. As coincidence would have it, I attended this concert with a local couple who were Klausketeers. The afternoon before the concert, the man of the house turned to the lady and asked her to look up the previous evening’s review of the concert “to see if we’re going to enjoy it”! I was amazed and a bit appalled to learn that at least these two Klausketeers didn’t even know enough about music that they had to rely on a critic to tell them if they would enjoy their favorite conductor. But his performance was superb in every way: powerful, lyrical, sweeping, you name it, he delivered. And in finally seeing him conduct, in both of these concerts, I noticed his odd, jerky motions on the podium. Tennstedt simply couldn’t stand still when he conducted, and although it seemed to be a natural part of his style and not something he did for show it still put me in mind of a marionette on acid.

I was also lucky enough to hear his Metropolitan Opera broadcast debut in Beethoven’s Fidelio (January 7, 1984) and be in touch with the Rocco of that performance, basso Paul Plishka. Plishka was very impressed with Tennstedt’s command of the music, the orchestra and the singers: “He definitely knows what he’s doing” was his understatement. Much later, I learned than Tennstedt and tenor Jon Vickers, his Florestan, got into a heated argument over the interpretation of the role, yet another example of Tennstedt’s explosive temper when he believed he was right. Yet anyone who has heard that broadcast, which can be sampled here, will know just how great it was. Met Opera Orchestra cellist James Kreger described it as one of the high watermarks of his career: “From the outset of the very first rehearsal, one could sense his total, life and death, commitment to the score. That made the orchestra even more eager to reciprocate in kind. Those incredible moments on January 7, 1984 made me feel privileged to be part of this great orchestra, and will remain with me forever as one of the high points of my career.”[1] And, so help me Beethoven, the Saturday broadcast audience went absolutely, positively nuts after his performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3, inserted, as usual, just before the final scene of the opera. In all of my years of listening to Met broadcasts, I have never, ever heard a Met audience go crazy like that after the playing of an overture.

Tennstedt Mahler 2ndAs the years passed, Tennstedt became more and more involved with the London Philharmonic, of whom he became principal guest conductor in 1977, and less and less involved with American orchestras, thus I had to follow him via recordings. By and large, I was disappointed by his studio-recorded Mahler cycle although the Eighth was pretty good. After his death, several of his live performances with both the LSO and the New York Philharmonic came out on CD and I was enthralled all over again, particularly by his Mahler Second and Third with the former orchestra and his Mahler Fifth with the latter (in a special, limited-edition set issued by the New York Philharmonic, available for listening online here and here). But by and large, poor Tennstedt left fewer footprints of his greatness for us to enjoy than even Kleiber.

Will he be remembered in the future as the great musician he was? I can only hope so. His commercial recordings of the Schumann works mentioned and his Schubert Ninth (paired on CD with a surprisingly sprightly Mendelssohn Fourth), and the Beethoven Violin Concerto (with Kyun-Wha Chung) are wonderful (the latter stemming from a live performance) while his Met Fidelio and live Mahler Second and Fifth just mentioned should also be acquired by any really hard-core music lover. Hearing these anew, you simply cannot escape the feeling that here was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, one we were lucky enough to hear, off and on, in his prime. We are fortunate that at least some of his genius was caught like lightning in a bottle, so that we can savor it over and over again.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

[1] http://slippedisc.com/2015/12/the-inimitable-klaus/

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Piano Four Hands: Paolo and Stephanie Weave Their Magic

Stephanie and Paolo

ALWAYS / Always (Irving Berlin) / Panama (William H. Tyers) / After You’ve Gone (Turner Layton, Harry Creamer); Promenade aux Champs-Élysées (Sidney Bechet); Hindustan (Oliver G. Wallace, Harold Weeks); Truckin’ (Rube Bloom, Ted Koehler); Volare [Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu] (Domenico Modugno, Franco Migliacci, Mitchell Parish); Stradivarius (C.A. Rossi); Boogie Woogie (Paolo Alderighi, Stephanie Trick); Fig Leaf Rag (Scott Joplin); Whispering (Vincent Rose, John Schoenberger, Richard Coburn); New Orleans Function: Flee as a Bird to the Mountain (Mary Dana Schindler); Oh, Didn’t He Ramble (Robert Cole, W.C. Handy); Love Me Tender (Elvis Presley, Vera Matson [Ken Darby]); With a Smile and a Song (Frank Churchill, Larry Morley) / Paolo Alderighi & Stephanie Trick, piano four hands; Roberto Piccolo, bass; Nicola Stranieri, drums. / AT RECORDS CD004

The ongoing saga and musical growth of Paolo Alderighi and Stephanie Trick continues apace with this new CD. Recorded between May and October of 2015, Always has the extra dimension of hearing this gifted piano-four-hands duo playing with a rhythm section of bass and drums. And I love hearing Steph play with bass and drums, because it almost always pushes her to hipper, more inventive playing.

More importantly, this CD shows how both pianists—originally weaned as “classical babies” but bitten by the jazz bug—have morphed even further in their musical journey. They’re still a few steps shy of the “master class” type of playing exhibited by Earl Hines, Jaki Byard or Art Tatum, but they’re now clearly on a level with Errol Garner or Jess Stacy, and that’s not bad at all. Of course, their artistic growth displays the dual influence of Italy and America, as evidenced not only in Alderighi’s flowing lyricism but also by the inclusion of such tunes as Volare and, more astonishing, the resolutely non-jazz Stradivarius, composed back in the 1950s by C.A. Rossi and recorded by Mantovani and his “house o’ strings” orchestra.

Surprises abound in this recital: not just the way they take such old chestnuts as Always, Panama, Whispering and even Scott Joplin’s Fig Leaf Rag and turn them into swingers, but also how they take turns at the treble end (or bass end) of the piano and thus cross-influence each others’ playing. This is particularly evident in the midst of Whispering, where it sounds as if Paolo temporarily steers the music in the direction of Italian film music of the ‘50s, and in Panama where Stephanie’s more aggressive American approach wrests the tune from echoes of Dixieland bands and gives it a gutsy nudge in the right direction. The Italian rhythm section of bassist Roberto Piccolo and drummer Nicola Stranieri play with stylistic versatility and a nice relaxed approach that nearly always adds something to the proceedings, although if you pushed me I’d have to admit a greater fondness for Danny Coots, Trick’s most common American drummer in her live appearances. Perhaps the most surprising track is their quasi-Latin-ballad treatment of Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender, scarcely a rich tune for jazz improvisation. The final track, With a Smile and a Song, begins in an almost foursquare ragtime beat but quickly opens up into a jazz rumba.

As in their Sentimental Journey album from 2014, Paolo and Stephanie have the rare ability to bring joy and humor to their playing. In a world of what I characterize as serious but often “faceless” players, it’s such a pleasure to hear musicians like these who so obviously love what they’re doing that it rubs off on the listener. My sole complaint is of the cover photo, in which they appear awestruck looking at Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” or some such religious icon. I much prefer the photo I used as the header to this review, where they look like they sound, as if they’re having the most fun in the world. They sure as heck sound it, and you’ll be smiling, too, once you hear this amazing CD.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Greatest Soloist in the History of Jazz

TatumIn the spring of 1970, still a sophomore in college, I discovered Art Tatum via a Columbia LP, “Piano Starts Here.” Despite the fact that Tatum had only been dead for 14 years, I had never heard of him, having been weaned on such jazz pianists as Teddy Wilson, Eddie Heywood, Errol Garner, Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor Jr., Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis. Not knowing what to expect, I put the record on. I was completely blown away. Yes, the speed and accuracy of Tatum’s playing was a large part of what blew me away, but it wasn’t just that. It was the wild creativity and open form of his improvising that impressed me: the fact that he could alternate between the regular tonality of the tune he was playing and what I came to know as “outside” jazz: pentatonic scales, chromatics that shifted him into remote keys, upper harmonics that suddenly became part of the melodic structure, and even more interesting, a way of fractioning the beat not only within a single bar but even within a two-beat segment. In fact, what Tatum did with music was so complex, and delivered at such a tremendous rate of speed, that (I learned later) a number of critics (such as Gunther Schuller) and rival jazz musicians (like Art Hodes and Keith Jarrett) considered Tatum nothing more than a stunt player. Jazz critic Ted Gioia compared Tatum’s playing to a “player piano on steroids,” while Gunther Schuller, in his book The Swing Era, heavily criticized his use of full-keyboard arpeggios and glissando runs. To them, and many others, Tatum was not a player of “substance” because he was considered to be mostly flash.

Art+Tatum+Piano+Starts+Here+534369There is another reason why some jazz pianists and critics disliked Tatum, a much more sinister reason, and that was a form of racism. In the early ‘30s, when he first emerged, most jazz pianists, particularly African-American jazz pianists, were of the “funky” school of music. They played in a “dirtier,” more bluesy way than Tatum, whose sound was so refined that he was often mistaken on records for a white man. This simply would not do. Not only was jazz not supposed to be this refined and sophisticated, but African-American jazz musicians in particular weren’t supposed to be refined. Meade Lux Lewis, one of the early proponents of boogie woogie, learned this lesson when he made recordings on the celeste and harpsichord for Blue Note records, and to a certain extent this worked against Tatum. Although he could, and did, play the blues and play them very well—Jay McShann, a pianist not known for being charitable towards his peers, said that Tatum was the greatest blues pianist he ever heard—it was not a genre he played or recorded very often. Most of his solos fit into the category of Baroque in the sense that they were ornate, almost overblown structures, filled to the brim with not only a plethora of notes but also ideas, crammed together so tightly that it took an expert musician to unravel his musical thoughts and describe literally what he was doing. This did not fit the narrative of “down and dirty” jazz, thus Tatum was brushed to the side as an anomaly.

But this attitude towards Tatum was the minority, particularly among other pianists, most of whom considered him an unparalleled genius. Duke Ellington, introduced in a club where Tatum was playing in 1938 by his manager, Irving Mills, stood up to acknowledge the applause but wouldn’t play himself: “I have a clause in my contract,” he joked, “that says I don’t play piano when Art Tatum is in the same room.” Both Teddy Wilson and Oscar Peterson flatly admitted that their styles grew out of Tatum, which makes sense since both pianists also played in a fairly flashy, note-filled manner, but due to his harmonic and rhythmic innovations he also exerted some influence on Nat “King” Cole, Bill Evans, and even (to a lesser extent) Thelonious Monk (who usually cited Ellington as a principal influence). The first time James P. Johnson, inventor of stride piano and one of the seminal pianists in jazz history, first heard Tatum play, his reaction was, “When Tatum played Tea For Two that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played.” Fats Waller, an even more polished pianist than Johnson who was said to have the “best left hand in jazz,” was even more effulgent. Spotting Tatum in a nightclub audience one night, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano, but tonight God is in the house.” Earl Hines, the pianist who Tatum himself admired the most (he bought every Hines record that came out and studied it), was so frightened of him that he wouldn’t even be in his presence. Bud Powell, the king of bop piano, told Tatum in 1950, “Man, I’m going to really show you about tempo and playing fast. Anytime you’re ready.” Tatum laughed and replied, “Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand, I’ll do with my left.” Powell never took up the challenge.

Yet there has never been a biopic on Tatum (although Toledo’s PBS station once ran a half-hour documentary on his life) and only one written biography because, aside from his playing, there wasn’t much to know. Born on October 13, 1910 to a Toledo barber, Tatum had cataracts in his eyes since birth. He had no vision in his left eye and limited vision in his Tatum sued for divorceright. A series of operations improved his sight somewhat, but an assault in 1930 reversed those gains. For the rest of his life, Tatum could only just read the values on playing cards by holding them up to the corner of his partially sighted eye. In the 1950s a surgeon offered to try a new procedure on him that could improve his sight or, if it failed, leave him totally blind. He was too frightened to go through with it. One of the few public moments of his life was when his wife Ruby filed for divorce in the 1950s; she didn’t even ask for alimony but a flat payment of $3,250 and possession of their home. The reason was desertion, but in Tatum’s case it wasn’t usually for other women. His problem was that he never stopped playing or drinking. All night, every night, he would play after hours, polishing off jugs of liquor as he played deep into the night. Tatum literally lived to play.

One of the few things that bothered Tatum was the fact that he was relegated to the jazz world because of his race and physical disability. He always felt that he could be one of the world’s great concert pianists if given the chance, a verdict verified by his friend, concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz was so impressed by Tatum that he had him over to his New York apartment several times. Once, Horowitz wanted to impress Tatum in return, so he practiced one whole chorus of a pop number in which he played some worked-out improvisations. Tatum liked what he heard, and said, “That was fine, Vlad…don’t stop there, play another chorus!” But one chorus was all that Horowitz could play because it was all he had practiced. Years later, after Tatum’s death, Horowitz said that he wouldn’t have been considered the world’s greatest pianist if Art Tatum had been white.

Shortly after I discovered Tatum, I saw in one of the New York papers that a local jazz radio show host, Ed Beach, was going to start a month-long series of shows featuring Tatum (on WRVR-FM). I listened, enthralled, to Beach night after night (his show ran five nights a week) while he played the remarkable series of recordings that producer Norman Granz made of Tatum in the last years of his life. Beach introduced each show in the series the same way: he was “the greatest soloist in the history of jazz, regardless of instrument.”

There were other reasons, besides the complexity of his improvisations, why Tatum never quite broke into a level of popularity accorded other jazz pianists: he was heavy-set, homely, dumpy, and—believe it or not—uninteresting to watch because there wasn’t anything to see. Tatum sat very erect at the keyboard, his hands appearing to float motionless above the keys while the most amazing music emerged from the keyboard. His self-taught fingering included amazing two-fingered runs and he held his hands in a flat manner just above the keys. This gave viewers the impression that his hands scarcely moved at all while his fingers flew like hummingbirds, which added to the puzzle and mystique of how on earth he did what he did. Tatum was ambidextrous, able to play anything with either hand, cross voices and sometimes give the effect of two pianists playing four hands. When pianist Hank Jones got the chance to watch him, he was astonished at how little physical motion was involved: “When I finally met him and got a chance to hear him play in person, it seemed as if he wasn’t really exerting much effort, he had an effortless way of playing. It was deceptive. You’d watch him and you couldn’t believe what was coming out, what was reaching your ears. He didn’t have that much motion at the piano. He didn’t make a big show of moving around and waving his hands and going through all sorts of physical gyrations to produce the music that he produced, so that in itself is amazing.” Compared to such ebullient pianists as Waller, Nat Cole, Peterson and Erroll Garner, Tatum was nothing much to see.

As for those full-keyboard glissando runs, some writers have opined that Tatum did this to help him negotiate the keyboard from one end to the other since he was mostly blind, but most others (including myself) think it was one of his few “flashy” techniques designed to impress musically naïve listeners. After all, this was a trick used by society and cocktail pianists ranging from Eddy Duchin to Liberace, and there is no question that he did not use this trick in his earlier recordings, in the few after-hours recordings that exist, or in his mid-1940s trio performances with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. Tatum’s first studio recordings were made accompanying singer Adelaide Hall in 1932, but in recent years some Ampico-QRS piano rolls have been discovered from 1930, when he was only 20 years old, and his mature style is already evident. These include performances of Sweet Lorraine, Get Happy and Tea for Two, each of them different in several respects even from his very first solo recordings of these songs.

Tra for Two 1In one of the few interviews he gave, with Voice of America jazz DJ Willis Conover, he was asked why he played some of his tunes in person the same way he played them on his records. Tatum’s answer was that he wanted to play them differently each time, but so many people came to the nightclubs to see him play exactly the same way he did on the records that he didn’t have the heart to disappoint them. This, too, is astonishing: how many musicians can remember the improvisations they played on a record 15 years later? Most can’t even remember their improvisations three days later unless they heard them. That being said, he certainly didn’t repeat his improvisations ad infiniium; on the contrary, the dozens of hours of live material that survive of his playing indicate that he constantly invented new renditions. Yet there were certain tunes in which he kept similar licks–for instance, he almost always played a little snippet from Ferde Grofe’s On the Trail at the end of the first chorus of Tenderly, and in at least one case, his justly famous improvisation on Yesterdays, he played virtually the same solo every time. Both his Clef recording from 1954 and a TV appearance on the Spike Jones Show are virtually the same as his 1949 Shrine Auditorium performance, the one issued on Piano Starts Here.

His ear and his technical facility remained astounding throughout his career. In his biography Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum  (Oxford University Press, 1994), James Lester interviewed an elderly Les Paul who still recalled a jam session (complete with a full cooler of beer) given in a mortuary! Upon arriving, Tatum heard one of the other pianists playing, and there were several there, including Teddy Wilson, Marlowe Morris and Billy Kyle. Art listened and then asked Paul, “Is that F# key stuck?” Paul admitted it was. A moment later he asked, “Is that E stuck?” Paul answered, “Yeah, it’s down too.” Tatum asked, “Any others down?” “No, those are the only two.” Tatum asked for another beer, then announced he was ready to play. All of the musicians were amazed. “Whenever he’d make a run down,” Paul remembered, “he’d have those two keys pulled up…with his other hand…And when he hit ’em and they were down, why, he’d pull ’em up again with his other hand. Which just stunned everybody, that this guy had it all worked out before he went up there.”

Dissecting his solos can be tough going since they were often so ornate and “busy.” Jazz critic Jed Distler made eight Tatum transcriptions that can be downloaded here: Book – Art_Tatum_-_Jazz_Piano_Solos_2. Seeing Tatum’s work in score form is possibly even more intimidating than just listening to him, since so many of the figures he played—including those in contrary motion between the two hands—look completely intimidating. Even today, in the 21st century, most pianists have not caught up to Tatum because they can’t. Recently an album of his solos was released in which his early recordings were transferred to a MIDI. The MIDI could play them, but not with the warmth and color that Tatum imparted to the recorded versions.

Tatum’s lack of popularity was reflected by his recording contracts. Initially a young sensation, he made his first records for Brunswick before being invited by Jack Kapp to jump over to his new Decca label. He recorded only a dozen solo titles for Decca in 1934 before being let go; his only activity for the next three years was a privately-recorded session in Hollywood in September 1935 and a rejected Decca master of Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle in December of that year. Then he returned to Decca in 1937 for four band numbers and four more solos; 1939 saw two whole solos issued; then in 1940, Kapp became generous and allowed him to make 15 titles (one of them, Sweet Emaline, My Gal was rejected). Four more solos in 1940, then they kicked him out until he returned with a band to back blues singer Joe Turner in 1941. In 1942, for some strange reason, RCA Victor let him make but one record (two solos) and then cut him loose. In 1943 he formed the first of his trios, with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. They were popular with musicians but not the general public—Nat Cole, with a similar trio, had already established himself as a fan favorite in that format—so he ended up making his trio records for such small labels as Comet and Stinson. Moe Asch, who later founded Folkways records, also allowed him to make some solo 78s for his company.

When Tatum started his second trio in the late 1940s (the one with Everett Barksdale on guitar), he was beckoned by Capitol Records to make some solo and trio recordings. By 1952, he was cut adrift once again. No matter how you sliced it, Tatum was simply not commercial enough to appeal to a wide audience. His playing was too fast and too dense for the average ear to pick up on. Then, in December 1953, producer Norman Granz stepped in.

This was undoubtedly the high watermark of Tatum’s career, the months between December 28, 1953 and September 11, 1956 when Granz—at that time still putting out records under his Clef and Norgran labels (Verve was still in the future)—recorded marathon sessions of Tatum playing solos (125 of them!) and small group performances (another 80 or so). These recordings were made, chronologically, as follows:

Tatum Vol 3Solo recordings: 34 titles recorded December 28, 1953 and 35 more titles recorded the next day (69 titles in two days!) and 26 more titles recorded on April 22, 1954.

Trio recordings with alto saxist Benny Carter and drummer Louis Bellson recorded June 25, 1954.

More solo recordings, 26 titles, recorded on January 19, 1955, followed by marathon ensemble sessions: Tatum-Roy Eldridge-John Simmons-Alvin Stoller in March 1955, two albums’ worth of titles with Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich on August 1, 1955, and one of his most interesting sessions, a sextet with Tatum, trumpeter Harry Edison, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Red Callender and Buddy Rich on September 7, 1955.

And 1956, Tatum’s last year of life, was equally busy: a trio session with Callender and Jo Jones on January 27; a quartet with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, Callender and drummer Bill Douglass on February 6; four more (last) solo performances recorded on August 15; and yet another quartet session, with tenor saxist Ben Webster, Callender and Douglass on September 11. Not all of these were able to be issued during Tatum’s lifetime, but happily, most of them were. When Granz sold the Verve label to MGM in 1963, he thought they would treat his legacy with care, but after seeing the entire Tatum series gutted from the catalog he started yet another label, Pablo, in 1973, bought all the Tatum masters from Verve, and reissued them himself (again on LP).

All through this period when he recorded his last, great legacy, Tatum continued to play at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. Tatum’s Wikipedia page claims that he gave his last public performance there in April 1956, but this was just his last performance in Detroit. I have a radio broadcast of him performing in a trio with guitarist Everett Barksdale and bassist Bill Pemberton at Olivia’s Patio Lounge in Washington, DC in October 1956. He must have been very ill by that time—he died shortly thereafter, on November 5, 1956, at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, from complications of uremia (as a result of kidney failure)—but you’d never know it from his playing. He was originally interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, but was moved by his last wife, Geraldine, to the Great Mausoleum of Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991 so she could ultimately be buried next to him, although his headstone was left at Rosedale to commemorate where he was first laid to rest.

It boggles the mind to consider that, unlike Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, Tatum never played in Carnegie Hall or its subsidiary, Carnegie Recital Hall—or in New York’s Town Hall or any other real concert venue. Except for his 1949 concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles—not even a solo Tatum event, but merely part of a “Just Jazz” concert staged by Granz—Tatum never played a solo concert at any venue, not even the Newport Jazz Festival. Just bars, nightclubs and cocktail lounges, like some traveling vagabond.

Tatum 2If this paean to Art Tatum reads rather more sedately than some of my other musicians’ profiles, I assure you that it is not from lack of enthusiasm or respect. I still consider Tatum the greatest jazz pianist who ever lived, with Earl Hines coming in at No. 2, but I hereby issue a warning. Careful listening to Art Tatum for longer than 20 minutes at a stretch can give you a severe headache because there’s just too much to analyze. Tatum wasn’t an easy artist to love—his music was too rigorous in structure and intellectual in approach for that—but he was certainly an artist to admire and one whose legacy will never be forgotten.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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