Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Duke

April 29, 1899: birthday of Duke Ellington, foremost of the jazz nobility.

Ellington and his orchestra (which he kept together, with most of the key musicians, for fifty years) played Vancouver a number of times, including evenings at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre where he gave the audience lessons in finger snapping--"Behind the beat, please"--and a two-week run at The Cave, during which he spent his days at the Georgia Hotel writing the score for "The River," an Alvin Ailey ballet.

Although he played piano, people often said the orchestra was his instrument. But we find that the Ellington records we play most often are his least typical: his duets across generations with John Coltrane; the meetings with Louis Armstrong--two ageing masters; a little known album on Reprise with Frank Sinatra; a titanic collaboration with Count Basie's band; and "Money Jungle," with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Ellington had three famous performances billed as "Sacred Concerts," but it is the two versions of "Solitude" on "Money Jungle" that seem most hymn-like.

The Duke was a romantic and a romancer. Once, in Ottawa, CBC interviewer Mildred MacDonald found him improvising a dreamy melody at the piano. "What is it called?" she asked. Duke said, "It's called 'Mildred'." Mil said she believed he probably used the same tune and the same line everywhere he went.

Many tributes to Ellington over the years, beginning with the debated Pulitzer Prize recommendation. Charlie Barnet based his orchestra on Duke's, and Dave Brubeck's "The Duke" has become a jazz standard. (The full title is "From Darius to the Duke," signifying Brubeck's artistic debt to his teacher, Darius Milhaud, and the jazz roots represented by Ellington.)

But we'll leave the last word to Terry Garner, who said, "Ellington first. All others far behind."

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

It's Ella, fella.

As many have noted, and rightly paying homage, this would have been the one-hundredth birthday of Ella Fitzgerald.

Ella appeared at least three times in Vancouver. She was fine on an open-air stage at the PNE, with Joe Pass and Oscar Peterson, but she was uncomfortable in the concert hall atmosphere of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. What she liked best was the small, intimate, noisy Cave Supper Club--her kind of place.

When Ella died, Dean Peter Elliott of Christ Church Cathedral said, "We must have a service." And we did. It was called "A Candle and a Canticle for Ella." Musicians and singers from the Jazzmanian Devils and Soul Crib performed, and several people, not least the Dean, talked about what listening to Ella had meant to them and how it had affected their lives.

Many of the albums she left are classics, among them the series of "Songbooks" (Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, et al.--the best may be the Ellington); some with a single musician for accompaniment, Ellis Larkins on piano, Joe Pass on guitar; the three collections of duets with Louis Armstrong (and she could do a perfect imitation of Louis); and, perhaps not as well known, her performance of "Party Blues" with Joe Williams and Count Basie on a Metronome All-Stars date.

There have been, and still are, scores of terrific jazz singers. The three who come immediately to mind--The Three Graces--are Billie Holiday, who could get more out of a song than the composer put in it; Sarah Vaughan, the great operatic diva of jazz; and Ella Fitzgerald, whose warmth and musicianship remain incomparable.

As Stevie Wonder said, we all love Ella.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Will & George

April 23: The birthday of William Shakespeare and St. George's Day.

Write a sonnet.

Slay a dragon.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Celebrate Record Store Day. Go ahead, find one.

This has been declared "Record Store Day," which is particularly ironic in a week which found the HMV store on Robson Street locked, empty and dark.

True, there has been a mild proliferation of stores selling old, and, in some cases, new vinyl, but there's nothing to compare with the old A&B Sound on Seymour or the sainted Sam the Record Man.

So on Record Store Day, let's remember them, and other record stores where one felt at home in their listening booths, including Dojack's in Regina and Assiniboia Music in Moose Jaw.

Celebrate Record Store Day. Go ahead, find one. And be grateful there's still Sikora's.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

There's a Call for You from Joe Keithley

As British Columbia braces itself for another provincial election, and all the campaigning that attends it, from nonstop television commercials to appearances by party leaders in hard hats and grim, fixed smiles, we may also expect telephone calls from candidates.

Perhaps the most interesting calls will be received by voters in the Burnaby-Lougheed riding, where the candidates are Katrina Chen for the NDP, Steve Darling for the Liberals, and Joe Keithley for the Green Party.

Ms. Chen's calls will, we're sure, be polite and demure. But we expect more show biz from former Global TV anchor Steve Darling, who may urge us to vote for the team led by Christy Clark ("A very good friend of mine, and a favorite of NW listeners") and finish with "And now for a look at the weather, and hoping for a liberal--heh heh--dose of sunshine, here's Mark Madryga."

But the most straightforward of messages should come from Joe Keithley, longtime front man of the punk rock band DOA: "Hi, this is Joe Keithley. So are you gonna #$%+&*%@ vote for me? I #$@*&_%&^ hope so. Stay cool."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Scrabble with Chuck and Vladimir

A few days ago, the world celebrated Scrabble, the ne plus ultra of word games, and we immediately thought of Chuck Davis and Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov because he and his wife, Vera, enjoyed playing the game in four languages; Chuck because he was not only Vancouver's dedicated historian, but also the city's Scrabble guru. In an issue of NUVO, Chuck wrote an article called "Love at First Tile," subtitled "How to Score 392 Points on a Single Move."

He was introduced to the game in 1954 while serving in the Canadians Army.  In the 1970s, he came second in a British Commonwealth Scrabble Tournament, topping 400 points twice. But the record for the highest number of points in a single move, when Chuck wrote his article, was Karl Khoshnaw of Twickenham, England. He scored 392 points with "caziques." A cazique, Chuck helpfully told us, is a tropical songbird.

Chuck went on to tell readers about the creator of Scrabble: a British architect named Alfred Mosher Butts, who found himself out of work in the Depression years and decided to invent a board game.  He first called it Lexico and then Criss-Cross Words. But it didn't take off until 1948, when he met James Brunot, who rearranged the squares and simplified the rules. Then the collaborators came up with the name Scrabble. By the year 2000, more than 100 million sets had been sold.

Chuck Davis ended his NUVO piece writing "More than 45 years after I first played it, Scrabble is still a game I like a lot. Not as much, though, as Helen Cornelius Bowden of Chicago. She died in 1990 and left instructions that her headstone be cast in the form of a Scrabble board."

Talk about getting the last word.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Buy a Poet a Drink

It has come to our attention that April is National Poetry Month.
Take a poet to lunch.

We wonder what it might cost
To have a drink with Robert Frost.
Or if we could go another round
With crazy, red-haired Ezra Pound
Or should we just continue tippling
With Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling.
Time to eat, let's have spaghetti
With Dante Gabriel Rossetti
And also Lawrence Ferlinghetti;
You know there always are good eats
When you nosh down with the Beats.
Waiter, send more jugs of beer
For our buddy Edward Lear,
And another tub of Stilton
For the eminent John Milton.
And now a haunch of venison
Carved for Alfred, yes, Lord Tennyson.

But truly, if we had our say,
We'd spend the day with Miss Millay.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

No Minor Chords

Many notable birthdays this date, including Andre Previn's. We have been listening to Previn since the mid-1940s, when his recordings were often played at noon on CKCK Regina. We still have an album from that period, a photograph of the very boyish pianist on the cover; the 78s within have, sadly, disappeared.

Jurgen Gothe was a Previn fan. His favorite Previn album was "King Size." Ours is "Give My Regards to Broadway," with Red Mitchell and Frankie Capp, but a close second is "Old Friends," with Ray Brown and Mundell Lowe. Previn's most popular album was "My Fair Lady," in a trio under drummer Shelly Manne, including bassist Leroy Vinnegar. It was an enormous success, and led to a stream of jazz albums reworking Broadway musical scores. Perhaps the most surprising jazz albums Previn made were two with Itzhak Perlman ("A Different Kind of Blues").

Previn has worked with many classical artists, but some of the most memorable performances have been with singers--Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, Eileen Farrell, Sylvia McNair, et al. And he had a curious collaboration with playwright ("Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," "Shakespeare in Love") Tom Stoppard on a music theatre piece they called "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour."

And then there has been Previn's long run as a conductor, principally with the London Symphony Orchestra, where, among other achievements, he revived interest in the music of Frederick Delius and other somewhat neglected English composers.

But what initially established Andre Previn was his time as music director of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, begun when he was just out of Beverly Hills High School. He tells his Hollywood stories in a cleverly entertaining memoir called "No Minor Chords." The title came from a memo issued by the studio president. Hearing some music he found sad, he complained to an aide, who told him, "It's based on a lot of minor chords." The studio boss immediately had a memo sent to the MGM music department: "No minor chords."

And no minor chords for Andre Previn, who today turns 88--just like the keys on a piano.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Girl Singer

The girl singer, and sometimes "the canary": that's what the female vocalist--Ginny Simms, Helen Forrest, Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, Helen O'Connell--was called in the Big Band days.

You couldn't get away with that now. And this month, April, has been declared Jazz Appreciation Month, with particular appreciation for Women in Jazz.

So here comes our appreciation for: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Betty Roche, Susannah McCorkle, Ivie Anderson, Eleanor Collins, Rosemary Clooney, Helen Merrill, Janis Siegel,  Sophie Milman, Astrud Gilberto, Diana Krall, Blossom Dearie, Helen Humes, Lil Green, Anita O'Day, Annie Ross, Dinah Shore, Sylvia Sims, Sheila Jordan, Maxine Sullivan, Esther Phillips, Lee Wiley, Nina Simone, Shirley Horn, Carol Sloane, Joya Sherrill, Jackie Cain, Irene Kral, Teddi King, Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Pearl Bailey, Ernestine Anderson, Betty Carter, Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainie, Alberta Hunter, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, Melody Gardot, Norah Jones, Phoebe Snow, Karen Young, Cheryl Bentyne, Velma Middleton, Stacey Kent, Ethel Waters and Ricky Lee Jones. And, among non-singers: Mary Lou Williams, Carla Bley, Marian McPartland, Helen Keane, Marjorie Hyams, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Joanne Brackeen, Renee Rosnes, Melba Liston, and Ingrid and Christine Jensen.

And could we sneak in the Dixie Chicks?