Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ozzie Strays

Now, a few words about a Jazz singer who has piqued my curiosity... Ozzie Bailey, later Fifties vocalist with Duke Ellington. The words will be few because very little appears to be known about Mr. Bailey, whose life in Jazz seems to have been brief and who actually recorded more tracks for a Billy Strayhorn album than he did for the Duke, who was just as chary about recording Bailey as he was most of his other chosen band vocalists (after Ivey Anderson, anyway)--and even though they were often cutting vocal hits that helped fill the Ellington coffers--from Adelaide Hall to Kay Davis and Betty Roche, from Herb Jeffries and Al Hibbler to mystery man Ozzie (but not Ray Nance, the triple-threat exception, too lively and popular to be kept away from the microphone).

Bailey was supposedly with Ellington during 1957-58, and he even toured Europe with the band, but his numbers were few and his performances on official Ellington records even fewer. The miniscule bios say he was a NY-scene singer who had studied with Luther Henderson and was then hired to participate in the TV production of Duke's not-very-memorable saga of Madame Zajj, A Drum Is a Woman... except that the TV show came out in late 1956, or so says Ellington in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress (where Bailey is mentioned in passing only), and discographies list unheralded Ozzie as part of the September 1956 sessions for the Drum Woman album. (Patricia Willard in other liner notes says the TV broadcast was actually in May of 1957.) What is clear is that Bailey's few vocals did not excite the critics, his voice light and pleasant and tenorish, sounding much more like Mel Torme than the heavier baritones that Ellington usually employed.

Bailey's big feature, recorded at least twice and repeated at some Ellington concerts, was a Strayhorn-arranged, six- or seven-minute elaboration of the ballad "Autumn Leaves," with Ozzie singing first in French and then returning, after a lengthy Ray Nance violin solo, to end the song with the well-known English-translation lyrics. The recorded takes (originally issued on versions of the album Ellington Indigos) are perhaps overlong but quite lovely in fact, and Bailey ends his vocal memorably with a strong held blue note steps down from the tune's written finish.

Otherwise, Duke hauled him along to many European cities during 1958 (perhaps concerts in '57 too?) and would trot him out for a slow-interlude tune or two, often still flogging the Drum Woman music. (Was he well-received by the audiences? Who knows?) Since Ellington's death, several of the band's '58 tour performances have been bootlegged or issued in quasi-legal sets, as well as newly expanded Columbia sessions like Live at Newport 1958, where it turns out that Bailey sang lyrics to "Duke's Place" and injected a few color images (quasi-poetry by Strays or Duke) into the lengthy Johnny Hodges feature "Multicolored Blues." So more of Bailey's few big moments are now available, but he still gets no respect, typically either sneered at or ignored completely by the Jazz commentators. (I've found no photos of him; had to snap still frames from a DVD.)

It was in fact that Jazz Icons DVD, Duke Ellington: Live in '58, combining portions of two shows filmed at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, that first roused my curiosity. Here was this slight and unobtrusive gent--slim and handsome, with a gigolo's dash of mustache and the sophisticated appearance that Duke always strove to project--brought forward to sing "You Better Know It" from Drum Woman and later, during the usual hits medley, an "exquisitely lonely" (Ms. Willard's phrase) interpretation of "Solitude." Interesting versions by a vocalist of whom I'd never heard... who also was a mystery, as I gradually learned, to other Jazz fans and Ellington specialists.

Bailey's major claim to recorded fame instead may be as vocalist for several tracks on Lush Life, a rare Billy Strayhorn compilation album on Red Baron. Issued for the first time in 1992, the CD actually collects Fifties/Sixties performances by Strays--accompanying Ozzie at the piano, leading various groups of the Duke's men, even singing, maybe definitively, the famous title song he wrote as a teenager. Upstaged by Strayhorn however incidentally, Bailey still provides creditable versions of Strayhorn's songs "Your Love Has Faded," "Passed Me By," and "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," plus superior vocalizing, increasing the drama of the lyrics, on "Love Came" and "Something to Live For." Pretty hip for song demos, if that's what they were.

But why Ozzie? Was he the only singer available to Strays at the time, or did Billy hear something in Bailey's assured vocalizing that the disparaging critics missed? I suppose he might have been a secretly gay man like Strayhorn, a kindred spirit and friend. But that's just unwarranted speculation, absent reliable historical data. Who was this guy? What became of him post-Duke?

Someone must know more about the mysterious Mr. B than the few facts I have managed to stumble on. If you have some information, please share your knowledge in a comment.

Monday, November 22, 2010

To the Moon, Alice!

Everyone's gone to the moon...

Moon, June, croon, tune... the putative foundation of all Tin Pan Alley lyrics--rhyming words mocked and painstakingly avoided, or praised and brazenly used yet again. And "moon" is the most of these... exemplified by titles varying from "Dark Moon" to "Blue Moon," "Moonglow" to "Moon River," "Moondance" to "Moon Dreams," "Moonlight on the Ganges" to "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "Fly Me to the Moon" to "Bad Moon Rising," "Blue Moon of Kentucky" to "Carolina Moon," and "Paper Moon" to "No Moon at All." Just for the sheer lunacy of it, let's talk about three of the stranger moon songs of a rather more creative bent.

The first of these is also the oldest, "Moon of Manakoora," composed by Frank Loesser and Alfred Newman and sung by saronged island maiden Dorothy Lamour in her 1937 hit movie The Hurricane. I first heard it in a haunting instrumental version conducted by Andre Kostelanetz in the mid-Fifties, on an LP of gorgeous exotica called Lure of the Tropics. Arthur Lyman soon exoticized it further, and Andy Williams crooned a memorable vocal version (maybe Bing Crosby as well?), while the Ventures restrung it as a surf guitar instrumental. Even a few intrepid and/or ironic jazzmen worked it over, from Harry James and Gene Krupa to Eddie Lockjaw Davis and ever-inventive Sonny Rollins (his abrasive edge creating some un-easy listening).

Fifty years later, it's Kostelanetz I hear in my head, but the lyrics are still worthy of a look-in:

The moon of Manakoora filled the night
With magic Polynesian charms
The moon of Manakoora came in sight
And brought you to my eager arms

The moon of Manakoora soon will rise
Again above the island shore
Then I'll behold it in your dusky eyes
And you'll be in my arms once more...

Frank knew that less was more--the Loesser said, the more might be implied.

Modern songwriter Jimmy Webb worked that way often--obliquely for his hit songs as different as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "The Highwayman," yes, but he also waxed verbose sometimes; remember the silly "cake out in the rain" thing titled "MacArthur Park"? Well, Webb's moon song draws upon science fiction, specifically Robert Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress from 1966 or so, positing a Libertarian moon colony revolting against earth's callous control. But where Heinlein's title meant something like "the moon--feminine--is a cruel task-mistress," Webb heard instead the sexual implication of "mistress"; his elided title, "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress," points to the trope of his lyrics: the cold surface of the moon expressing the anger (or maybe just indifference) of his lover.

Imagine Webb--or Linda Ronstadt, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez, the trifecta of top female vocalists all drawn to his song--keening lines like these:

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon's a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord it felt so fine...
And then the darkness fell
And the moon's a harsh mistress
It's so hard to love her well...

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart...
And the moon's a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon's a harsh mistress
She's hard to call your own...

But no version "hit," and Webb's Seventies song faded into memory... until 2005 when Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and hero-of-the-bass Charlie Haden teamed up for the glorious CD known as Beneath the Missouri Sky. And there was Webb's tune, now played mostly as single notes in a slow, sorrowing lament, Haden's earth-deep, tolling tones sounding inevitable, Metheny's resonant note placements precise, the wordless melody now as warm as love and as cold as ice. Oh yes, this moon could bedevil you.

Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's book is the ultimate if unlikely source for the third song, "Goodnight Moon," transformed by Nashville songwriter/producer Will Kimbrough (plus one G. Owen), but most recently played and sung by New Orleans boogie pianist and blues mama Eden Brent (on her debut CD, Ain't Got No Troubles), in a gentle, lullaby-ish arrangement that nearly lulls the listener into not hearing those sadder, more adult lyrics that Brent sings:

Goodnight moon
Goodnight stars
Goodnight old broke-down cars
I'm goin' away
I'm leavin' soon
Goodnight darlin'
Goodnight moon

I don't know where I'll be
I don't know if I'll see
Out the window of my room
Shinin' down goodnight moon

Thank you babe I'm gonna miss you
When the night comes 'round
That's when I long to kiss you
When the moon shinin' on the ground

(instrumental break, then repeat previous four lines followed by initial seven)

Couldn't be much simpler than that, or more tender and resignedly sad. As she sings, Brent plays rippling bluesy notes and Floyd Cramer-styled downhome chords and, towards the end, a quiet, echoing brass section adds a sort of farewell motif, going away too as she repeats the final goodnight couplet. But the piano continues, plays around the melody in a brief cadenza, then slows into silence... and the album ends...

As does my lunar tale, of moonrise and cold stone, sad hearts and moonset. Used creatively or bandied shamelessly, "moon" is just a word, claimed by lovers and madmen and poets but indifferent to all. And moon while, a morning for thanks is just coming upon us.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Perk 'n' Richie: Part 2

Once a band man always a band man. Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca played next to each other in a mid-Fifties Herman Herd as two among the later "Four Brothers" (lore says that Perk also nailed nightly the Stan Getz solo on "Early Autumn"), worked on Bill Holman projects, held down steady gigs in TV studio orchestras, and--one or the other--interpreted band charts for Lennie Niehaus, Gerry Mulligan, Terry Gibbs (the late-Fifties Dream Band) and, much later, Bill Berry, and the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut. When their side-by-side gigs of the Fifties gave way to individual careers, Kamuca had a couple of decades of ups and downs, then died too young, while Perkins just kept percolatin' along up until 2003 when the cancers he'd battled for a decade finally stopped his sax for good.

The two Brothers did actually record together a few times. It's useful, first, to consider a tune the two solo'ed on separately--"Yesterdays"--played seductively by Richie on tour with Manne in '61 (see Part 1, here), but also a special feature, some years earlier, for Perk fronting the Kenton Orchestra, that one a five-minute gem with Bill riding above the all-powerful brass, demonstrating that there could be strength too in beauty. Yet Bill Holman's chart reaches its climax well over a minute before his arrangement ends, and Perk is left mostly noodling during the long dying fall. (Though the solo helped make his rep, Perkins always pooh-poohed it as ill-prepared and inadequate.)

Still, their solos help define the two tenors' differences, Kamuca swinging robustly but staying lower, plumbing the depths of his horn's range, lagging a bit on the beat--while Perkins starts low and then goes high and light, keeping pace with the rhythm section, shifting from a whisper to a scream. And their recordings together (during the 1955-56 sudden starburst of West Coast Jazz), while varied, do often fall into that pattern.

But recognition becomes rather trickier when the two join Al Cohn for his three tenors set titled The Brothers! (recorded June 1955). The liner notes identify solos on only three or four tunes, but I think the general gist goes... Kamuca down anchoring, Cohn more mid-range and slightly breathy, Perkins solidly up, subtly there where needed--and any two or all three blending beautifully. Richie has lots of fun powering through Berlin's "Blue Skies," and Perkins responds by deftly dancing through both "Pro-Ex" and "Kim's Kapers." Yet the best moments on this merry set are the three tenors together--whether in counterpoint, call-and-response, or full-house blend--for cleverly arranged tunes like "Blixed,"
"Sioux-Zan," or "Three of a Kind."

Recorded a year-and-some later were the sessions originally issued as Tenors Head-On and Just Friends (the latter adding Art Pepper too on a few tracks), recently available combined on a single CD (minus Pepper) retaining the Tenors Head-On title. As I speculated in Part 1, the West's ever-Young tenors often kept a Swing-derived sound even when headed into Bop, and this combined CD is a perfect exemplar. Both sets are more interesting and definitely swing harder than the Cohn sessions did (those danced rather than dug in), but the selections recorded with Pete Jolly, Red Mitchell, and Stan Levey focus more on Swing Era stuff like "Don't Be That Way," "I Want a Little Girl," and "Cotton Tail," while the later date, just three months on, already is more Boppish, thanks in part to the pressuring presence of Modernists Mel Lewis and Hampton Hawes--even when the quintet is tackling old standards like "Just Friends," "All of Me," and "Limehouse Blues."

Richie does Ben Webster proud in his rugged lead and solos for "Cotton Tail," then tames the beast for "Oh! Look at Me Now" and a gorgeous (shared) "Just Friends," while Perk demonstrates his triple-threat capacity, breaking out flute and--get this--baritone clarinet as well as his airy tenor. Though I've brazenly attempted to define the guys' basic approaches to their horns, in reality they do often switch places; and several liner notes writers and Perk himself make much of the impossibility of ever really knowing who's which just from listening. So let's just point out that the bass clarinet lends a mighty low bottom to "Solid de Sylva" and "Sweet and Lovely" (some fillips of flute there as well) and, otherwise, the tracks recorded, the uncanny interweaving, the rival solos, the traded fours... they're all terrific no matter who's on first or what comes up second.

But Abbott 'n' Cos... oops, wrong duo... Neither Kamuca nor Perkins gets much play in the histories of West Coast Jazz, so one further development is seldom acknowledged. Following the 1955-56 recording sessions together, the guys wound up side by side (rather than Head-On) in Stan Kenton's orchestra of late 1956-'57, with Richie's part in the return largely unheralded, even though Kenton once observed that Kamuca could swing at the drop of a hat. (Capitol, or Kenton maybe, didn't always identify the players on those Fifties LPs. I expect they came and went too often.) But there are some recordings from live dates at San Francisco's Macumba/Macumber Club (both spellings have been used) to document that halcyon stretch when Kenton's Concepts band regularly swung the house, courtesy of the Young-turk players and a library full of Holman and Mulligan and Lennie Niehaus and Johnny Richards arrangements. Stan even had his own "Four Brothers" sax section then: Perk, Richie, Niehaus, and Pepper Adams.

Though the featured soloists on Kenton '56: The Concepts Era (Artistry LP 103) are all identified, I believe at least one guess may be in error--specifically during the six-minute live version of Mulligan's great "Swing House" chart. The Kenton experts say sax soloists in the order of "Niehaus, Perkins, Kamuca, Adams," but my untrained ears hear (or want to believe) that Perkins and Kamuca should be reversed. Recognizing Perk's disclaimer about the two hornmen's similarities, still the first tenor solo sounds more like rough-and-ready Rich than sagely swinging Bill. (Maybe they were playing in unusual registers. Maybe they swapped reeds. Maybe I'm just wrong and need my hearing checked.)

Anyway, fine as wine, Perk 'n' Richie blow next to each other on both "King Fish" and "Swing House" and also solo separately on several selections. Richie struts his stuff in Mulligan's "Young Blood" and "Walking Shoes" and lends some class to Holman's jaunty "Royal Blue," while Perkins sets the scene in "What's New?" and adds his own spice to "El Congo Valiente." (Note: At least one other Kenton LP had both tenors present, 1958's Back to Balboa, which I've never heard. Given their track record I'd expect the two to have solo'ed memorably.)

...And that put finis to their work in tandem. More tapes from this particular Kenton band may be out there, but it seems that Kamuca and Perkins went their separate ways from this point on--Richie drifting slowly into eclipse and Perkins shifting wholly into his alternative gigs as recording engineer and Tonight Show band regular (for 25 years!). But Bill came back to his sax full-time in the mid-Eighties, and I'll discuss his multi-decade, split-in-pieces career before and after Kamuca in Part 3 of this epic Tale of Two Tenors.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

All's Fair

In the summer of 1962 I returned to Seattle after two years of college at Northwestern University (outside Chicago), and I came back just in time to experience the recently opened World's Fair, called Century 21. My parents and sisters and I all did the rounds, riding the Monorail and the Sky thing that carried you across the Fair grounds, wandering through the filigreed Science Pavilion, and taking the amazing glass-booth elevator up to the top of the grand, ultra-futuristic Space Needle.

I soon affiliated with the UW chapter of the fraternity I'd joined at Northwestern, and one of the first "brothers" I met was the son of the Fair's great champion and conceiver of the Needle, hotels executive Edward "Eddie" Carlson. With some time on my hands before classes resumed, I was able to frequent the Fair several times; I remember attending a concert by jovial Jazz pianist Erroll Garner, flirting with a couple of showgirls though I was still too young to get into the Las Vegas-styled show itself, and marvelling at a performance of Beckett's great play Waiting for Godot--in '62 still a new phenomenon as part of the broader conceptual "Theater of the Absurd."

... Which leads indirectly to the fine sunny day I spent viewing some of the on-location filming for Elvis's fair-to-middlin' (or maybe Fair-to-Midway) movie It Happened at the World's Fair. I'd been living in the Deep South during Presley's Sun Records days, and I remained a serious fan. So I hung out in the crowd of onlookers watching exterior scenes being shot at the base of the Needle and entrance to the Monorail. Elvis was in fine shape, youthfully handsome, playing to the crowd occasionally and clowning around with the cute little Chinese girl who was his co-star. A few hours were needed to get every angle and shadow and action just right, but we all stuck it out--some possibly hoping to be spotted in the crowd and hired as extras. (One young woman did become his local date for a time.) It was my first experience of the mix of excitement and boredom that accompanies every film shoot, from local advertisements to Hollywood blockbusters. But when the movie was released, I could see the magic at work too, even in a minor piece like It Happened. The Fair and the Jet City both looked wonderful thanks in part to that magic.

And when the Fair closed at the end of its run, it turned out that I wasn't finished with what had begun there. I settled up on Queen Anne Hill after college, and the wonderful Seattle Center (created on the World's Fair site from surviving buildings)--its central Fountain area and Center House and the Fun Forest--became one of my kids' favorite playgrounds. Over the ensuing decades I attended literally hundreds of plays and concerts (rock, Jazz, and Classical), opera and ballet performances, Bumbershoot and Folklife festivals, sports events and collector book and record shows at the Center. I also worked for a time as writer for the architecture firm, John Graham and Company, that had designed and built and, at the time, still owned the Space Needle.

Then in the late Eighties I was out of work for several months and my wife Sandra (at the time working for the Seattle Center Foundation) persuaded me to volunteer my services during the effort to raise bond money to refurbish the Center; this led in turn to some weeks of paid employment, and then an invitation to join the Foundation board as the resident writer/editor. My main task became overseeing and doing research and fact-checking and some minor editing on the detailed recap of the Fair and Center that newspaperman Don Duncan was writing for the 30th anniversary of the Fair; the final title choice was Meet Me at the Center, playing off Judy Garland's famous song about St. Louis. (In another naming matter, I convinced the Center honchos that the proposed Jimi Hendrix Experience museum would be more compelling if named "Experience Hendrix" instead; when that proposal died, the replacement became "Experience Music Project," and I like to think I had an unseen hand in that choice.)

After that, I took over a bookstore in the busy Pike Place Market and then eventually moved to Vashon Island, so my longtime Center connections mostly ended... except... these days my son Glenn provides the manufacturing and production oversight of specialty items for sports teams and business groups and even family gatherings--from a dozen pieces to a hundred thousand, from office picnic t-shirts to complex gewgaws for the Mariners and Microsoft and George Lucas--and he recently supplied the Center with several of its upcoming 50th anniversary mementos and revived souvenirs, including lookalike replicas of the etched drinking glasses sold back during Century 21.

So when you honor the proud history of Seattle Center, or toast the half-century celebration remembering the 1962 World's Fair, there'll be a little bit of Leimbacher there too.