"Jazz in New York: The 1930s" will be the sixteenth presentation by Richard Pite's Jazz Repertory Company at Chelsea’s Cadogan Hall. It will feature music from Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Eddie Condon, Lee Wiley and Mildred Bailey.
Author and broadcaster Alyn Shipton, who will be presenting the show, talks to Jazz Repertory Company’s director Richard Pite, who will also be the featured drummer for the concert:
Richard Pite: Alyn, I’m very pleased to have bagged you for this concert. At many of my previous concerts I have used the BBC’s other walking encyclopaedia of Jazz – Russell Davies. I never cease to be astonished at the breadth of knowledge both of you share on the history of the music. You seem to have an enthusiasm for every era in its history but do you have a particularly favourite period?
Alyn Shipton: Because I grew up during the 1960s, those years still have a special place in my heart. There were elder statesmen of New Orleans to be heard, like Louis Nelson and Kid Thomas; meanwhile first generation swing musicians like Buck Clayton and Bud Freeman were touring here; and yet simultaneously British jazz was entering one of its most fertile periods. Because my school was active in all kinds of music, I was lucky enough as a teenager to meet and make music with Michael Garrick (and members of the Rendell – Carr quintet), and with John Dankworth (who wrote Tom Sawyer’s Saturday for our orchestra) while going to the local jazz club once a month to hear Humph and Ken Colyer. So it was immensely fertile in terms of the musical landscape, and I think I owe my breadth of interest to what happened during that decade.
However, my second love has always been the 1930s, the period we are celebrating in this concert, because this is the music my father was keen on and as a child I was captivated by his 78s of Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Duke Ellington.
RP: We will be celebrating the centenary of Billie Holiday with a short set from Julia Biel, who for me beautifully captures the style and essence of her early years. Billie’s still a big influence on young jazz vocalists – is she the most important singer in the music’s history?
AS: I don’t like to label people “most important” or “greatest” because there’s always an exception to confound the rule. But there’s no doubt that Billie was and remains one of the most profoundly emotional singers in jazz. She rode roughshod over melodies, actually often working in a very narrow range, but she had a unique balance of caring for the words of a lyric, even the frothy ones about sunbonnets and roses round the door, and putting those words into a meaningful context. Whereas Ella’s delivery of words was sublime, and Sarah Vaughan’s grasp of harmony quite dazzling, neither of them managed to inhabit a lyric and create a story out of it with the same consistency and emotional depth as Billie.
RP: Two names that feature in our concert that might not be so familiar to today’s audience are Mildred Bailey and Lee Wiley (American singer Joan Viskant will be paying tribute to them)
AS: Poor Mildred Bailey had such a short life, dying at only 44 owing to diabetes, but she made some great music during that time. Although she spent some years as Paul Whiteman’s female singer, (her brother Al Rinker also sang for Whiteman, with a young unknown called Bing Crosby) I think her most memorable work comes from her partnership with her sometime husband, the vibes and xylophone player Red Norvo. They were known as “Mr and Mrs Swing” and his openness to new musical ideas coupled with her sureness of touch as a singer make their records hidden treasures that are largely forgotten today. Her big hit was “Rockin’ Chair” but there are plenty of other fine examples.
There’s been a bit of a Lee Wiley revival going on among listeners to Jazz Record Requests lately, and it’s good to have had the chance to air some of her work as, like Mildred, she’s a largely forgotten figure today. Everybody thinks of Ella Fitzgerald as pioneering the “songbook” album of a particular writer’s work, but Lee was doing this with All Star bands some fifteen to twenty years earlier, starting with Gershwin in 1939. Unlike Mildred, she lived well into the post-war period and her albums from the 1950s are refreshingly different from other singers of the time. She had a directness and a slightly knowing quality about her delivery that is very beguiling.
RP: For "Jazz In The 30’s" we are featuring the German maestro Matthias Seuffert who also plays saxophone and clarinet in your Buck Clayton Legacy Band. We are both huge fans of his – have you known about him for a while now?
AS: I first met Matthias in Ascona in Switzerland in the late 1990s, and was immediately struck by his mastery of swing and early jazz styles of reed playing. He’s developed a really big tenor sound, a melée of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Herschel Evans, with overtones of Don Byas, that’s a real contrast to those players who follow a more Lester Young-influenced path, and it’s great to have him in a band doing this because he becomes a sort of rhythmic and tonal centre of gravity. Meanwhile his clarinet playing (using Albert system fingering, which allows the instrument a broader, woodier tone) is a vade mecum of classic jazz, immediately recognisable as Matthias, but encompassing nuances drawn from players as different as Johnny Dodds and Jimmy Hamilton.
RP: We are very lucky to have such an array of jazz musicians in the UK who have studied and mastered the styles of the early stars of the music. Enrico Tomasso does a marvellous Louis Armstrong, Keith Nichols has Fats Waller style stride piano off pat, and Martin Litton pretty much covers everyone up to Thelonious Monk. Do you think the playing of repertory jazz has improved as the music’s history has got longer and longer?
AS: I think repertory jazz has been rather good from the outset. Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtimers did a rather good job resuscitating Chicagoan jazz in 1939, and it goes on from there. What’s changed is that as jazz history has got longer, the smorgasbord from which we can pick and choose has grown immeasurably. Of course we’re lucky that players can emulate earlier great talents with skill and a degree of verisimilitude, but if you took 1960s France for example, you'd hear Irakli doing a more than passable turn as Louis, Claude Luter emulating Bechet and Christian Azzi sounding like James P Johnson. I think what stands out about today’s musicians at their best is that they have their own musical personalities, which they combine adroitly with the essence of earlier styles. So Rico, for instance, is very much his own man on his “Al Dente” CD, but he can equally well turn his hand to a range of material in a concert like this one, with an authentic feel to his timing, tone and choice of notes.
RP: Someone once said to me “Always remember how young these musicians were when they were playing this great music all those years ago.” A lot of these musicians in the 1930s were in their prime and playing with such power and vitality. It’s all about the excitement and if you didn’t generate that then the club owners would fire you!
AS: Age didn’t stop many of the swing masters of the 30s from continuing to play with that same degree of excitement and fire. When I heard Benny Goodman in 1981 at Carnegie Hall, he produced half a dozen choruses on Airmail Special that were as utterly dazzling as anything he did in the ‘30s. And I’ve been lucky enough with the BBC to work on broadcasts with the likes of Lionel Hampton and Harry "Sweets" Edison who were every bit as punchy in the 1990s as they had been 60 years before! So I think swing is an attitude of mind, and quite ageless.
RP: Do you have any particular recordings from the 1930s which are firm favourites?
AS: Too many to list here, but among the high points are Bill Coleman’s records with Fats Waller, things like “Night Wind” and “Believe It Beloved”; Billie Holiday’s sides with Teddy Wilson and particularly the ones with Buck Clayton and Lester Young, like “Mean To Me” or “When You’re Smiling”; Lionel Hampton’s small groups, especially the “Hot Mallets” session, Jimmy Blanton’s arrival with Ellington, say “Tootin Through The Roof” and – because I wrote a whole book about him – Cab Calloway’s records, including the “Minnie The Moocher” saga. My Royal Academy of Music students would also say that for reasons they never quite fathom, I always inflict Sharkey Bonano, Wingy Manone and Louis Prima’s 52nd Street groups on them, just to prove that there were other ways to play the trumpet…
RP: I like the Eddie Condon quote about the difference between the old style guys and the new breed. “The boppers flat their fifths. We consume ours”. To conclude, do you have any funny or remarkable stories about any of the 1930s jazz stars we’ll be paying tribute too?
AS: When Ronald Waller was asked at primary school what his father did for a living, he thought for a moment and said “He drinks gin”. So the high life was all part and parcel of the sounds of the era, and particularly in a country coming out of Prohibition. Jonah Jones told me in a BBC interview that when he worked for Stuff Smith, he and Cozy Cole were fined if they weren’t “high” by the interval — Jones eventually joined Calloway after his doctor said the diet of whisky and marijuana with Smith was killing him. And when Billie Holiday worked the Café Society for the famously racially tolerant Barney Josephson, his tolerance did not stretch to her smoking pot on the premises. So she really liked it when Doc Cheatham joined her backing band as he smoked a particularly vile and pungent variety of pipe tobacco. She used to persuade him to sit and puff his pipe outside her dressing room so that Josephson remained unaware of the more, er, subtle aroma coming from within!
RP: As the concert promoter, I’d better set the record straight on that point, and reassure anybody coming to the show that our performance will be drug and alcohol free.
LINE-UP: Keith Nichols and Martin Litton (piano), Joan Viskant and Julia Biel (vocals), Enrico Tomasso (trumpet/ vocals), Ian Bateman, (trombone), Anthony Kerr,(vibraphone), Thomas “Spats” Langham (guitar), Dave Chamberlain (double bass and guitar). The show will also feature the German reedsman Matthias Seuffert and the Australian multi-instrumentalist Michael McQuaid.
JAZZ IN NEW YORK: The 1930s is at Cadogan Hall SW1 7.30 Saturday September 19th.