Posted on April 25th, 2011 1 comment
Since it’s nearly the end of Jazz Appreciation Month, I thought it would be kool to spotlight one of the swingin’ kats that helped make Jazz (and Big Band music) as popular as it is today. See, when most people think of Jazz today, they think of the small combo bands of the 50s like The Modern Jazz Quintet or Dave Brubeck’s band. They think of Bop players like Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, or smooth Jazzers like Stan Getz or modern swingers like Wynton Marsallis. Many people forget that these Jazz greats built on the styles that were created by early Jazz musicians including Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong…and that Jazz, as it evolved into the sounds of the Big Bands, was really made popular by the more commercial yet still fantastic legends of the era…Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller… So, here are both of Miller’s movies, with plenty of 40s Jazz in its original Big Band form:
Orchestra wives is a funny little movie about…you guessed it…the wives of the guys in the band, and how they travel around with their musician husbands. The chicks are catty as hell, the music is hot and jokes are typical of the time, that is to say they’re good. The real actors include George Montgomery, Anne Rutherford, Harry Morgan and Cesar Romero. Songs include the original version of At Last, I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, Serenade in Blue and Bugle Call Rag, among others. The plot is actually not bad for a movie made to showcase a band, and the added entertainment of The Modernaires and The Nicholas Brothers makes it a lot of fun to watch. What’s kind of funny is watching poor old Glenn Miller (his character’s name is Gene Morrison) try to act. He’s as stiff as a double bourbon.
Sun Valley Serenade was the first of his two movies. This one features ice skater supreme Sonja Henie, John Payne and Milton Berle. The plot has something to do with the band taking on a Norwegian refugee as a publicity stunt…blah blah, watch it for the incredible music and fantastic dancing by Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers. In fact, this flick has the longest, swinginest ever performance of Chattanooga ever. In fact, it was this movie that song was written for…and became so popular it received the first Gold Record ever awarded. Additional songs include Sun Valley Jump, I Know Why and So Do You, and a very swingin’ version (better than the original in my opinion) of In the Mood.
What’s also great about these flicks is that all the music…for the first time for the Miller orchestra…was recorded on magnetic tape, not wax. So the sound is fantastic, full and vibrant, and all the songs from the movies are available on CD, sounding like they were recorded yesterday.
Miller’s band was a big, swingin’, hard-hitting Jazz band that was almost never referred to as a Jazz band. His charts were made for dancing, and even sounded a little corny at times (on purpose…songs like “I want a hat with cherries”). But the real purpose of the band was to swing, and to do it in a very tight, very professional way, with plenty of open areas for soloists to show off their true Jazz chops.
Glenn Miller’s orchestra became, and remains, the most popular and well-loved band of the entire big band era. It’s Miller’s music you hear in any movie that harkens to the 1940s. Songs like In the Mood, Moonlight Serenade, Chattanooga Choo Choo (The world’s first million-selling gold record) and I’ve Got A Gal in Kalamazoo remain some of the most recognizable songs of the last 100 years.
Riding that wave of popularity, Glenn Miller was asked to do some movies in Hollywood, as was the custom at the time. Miller was able to make two full-length features before he signed up for military duty in World War Two. Unfortunately, his disappearance prevented any more movies with the Miller band to ever be made.
Here’s the full segment of Chattanooga Choo Choo, including the entire orchestra, Tex Beneke on vocals and solos sax, the Modernaires, plus Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers. A side note: It’s a credit to the movie’s producers and Miller that they had no problem with black and white performers in the same scene in a movie made in 1941. A number of southern states refused to show the film because of this, and only showed it after editing out the dance sequence themselves. Man, we’ve come a long way.
Posted on April 12th, 2011 2 comments
There haven’t been too many jazz musicians who’ve been nominated for an Academy Award. In fact, besides Dexter Gordon who was nominated for Best Actor for his leading role in ’Round Midnight, I don’t think there really are any.
Dexter Gordon started playing for Lionel Hampton’s band around 1940, at the age of 17. His career continued to grow as he played with such greats as Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey and Billy Eckstine. He is credited as the THE first musician to translate the bop stylings and musical language of Parker and Gillespie to the tenor sax…And that’s a fact, Jack. And not so easy. You try playing a string of 1/16th notes that belong in the scale on a 1930’s tenor horn at 200 BPM, see how easy you think that jazz is. Whew.
Long Tall Dexter had a prolific recording career, churning out title after title of original tunes and standards. His 1964 album One Flight up had only four songs, but man did they swing.
Dex was the epitome of the Kool Jazz Kat: A sharp dresser with a laid-back attitude, and a smokin’ musician with a style all his own. His tenor stylings certainly did stand out from the crowd, from his unique blend of Parkeresque runs mixed with melodic passages to his deep, full, heavy sound. Anyone who knows even a little about Modern Jazz recognizes his playing by the fifth beat.
So it’s natch that they tapped the kat to play Dale Turner, the brilliant but alcoholic sax man who leads up the 1986 classic noir slice of life flick
Dale Turner’s character is based partly on pianist Bud Powell, partly on saxophonist Lester Young. Both musicians were extraordinary trend-setters (to say the least), moving flawlessly through the styles of big band swing to small combo jazz, bop, blues, and modern jazz. They both had success but never enough, and ‘the life’ eventually led to their demise…both dying from complications due to alcoholism while still young (Powell was 42, Young 40). Gordon does a fantastic job portraying a typical ’50s jazz musician…always practicing, always, partying, always looking for a new sound, always looking for a new gig.
Herbie Hancock won the 1987 Oscar for Best Music, Original Score. But Dex lost out to Paul Newman. Not too bad for a kat who never had a starring role in a movie before. To show you just how big a deal his nomination was, here’s the roll call for 1987 Best Actor nominations:
◦ Paul Newman – The Color of Money
◦ Dexter Gordon – Round Midnight
◦ William Hurt – Children of a Lesser God
◦ Bob Hoskins – Mona Lisa
◦ James Woods – Salvador
The movie itself is fantastic, if you dig jazz and want to see what things were like for jazz musicians in the ’50s, by an ’80s point of view. It features a few more real jazzers like Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, and has a few scenes with Martin Scorsese. François Cluzet plays Francis Borler, a jazz buff who meets and befriends Turner. When he realizes his jazz idol is fallen angel, he tries his best to keep him on track. You’ll have to watch the movie to see how it goes.
My Take: I started playing sax for my own enjoyment when I was around thirteen. I learned the old fashioned way…by playing along with records, mainly of big bands, Glenn Miller, Dorsey, Shaw, Goodman, Basie, plus soloists such as Coleman Hawkins, Tex Beneke and Lester Young. Later I discover Sam Butera, and by the time I was 21 I had formed my own style based on these influences.
Then one night while digging the 4-piece jazz combo at Orsatti’s Restaurant in Atlantic City (c. 1992), I struck up a convo with the band leader, a trumpeter. I told him I swung and he invited me to sit in. So the next weekend I came back with my tenor horn, along with my own cheering section which included a couple of knock-out dolls, and played on pieces like Four, All of Me and Blue Bossa. I get free drinks all night for my two cents and it was a blast. After the set, a guy in the lounge asked me how long I’d been playing, and who I learned from. We got to talking and he asked me if I ever heard of Dexter Gordon. I said no (I was still learning a LOT back then). He said, “Man, you gotta check out One Flight Up. It’s life changing.” I laughed, but he was very nicely serious. “Do it man, One Flight Up, Dexter Gordon.” He repeated that a half a dozen times. I can still hear the kat’s voice in my head, clear as day. So the next day I went down to the CD store and picked up a copy.
The kid wasn’t kiddin’. Subtly, it was life changing. Four songs, going on forever, chorus after chorus and Dex still had something new to say. I found his sound to be so very kool, so deep, so very direct. He sounded like he was really having fun playing too, which is what really turned me on to his music. I immediately started playing along with his stuff, learning some of his techniques and working a little of his style into my own to come up with something new. Such is jazz.
A week later I went back to Orsatti’s (Which, by the way, was one of the last old-time 1940s Atlantic City landmarks that had survived until the mid ’90s without changing one bit, hence the lounge with the jazz combo) and found the kid there. “Well, was it life changing?” he asked, not even asking if I listened to the album. He just assumed I did, of course. “Yeah, you were right, I’m hip,” I replied. “Told you man,” he said, smiling ear to ear.
Orsatti’s closed up when the owners retired more than 15 years ago. Not sure, but I’m guessing it’s a parking lot or a strip club now. The band broke up long ago and I never saw them or the kid that turned me on to Dexter Gordon again, but I’ll always thank him for it. Listening to One Flight Up got me hooked on Modern Jazz and got me into bop and other jazz forms of the mid century variety. It helped expand my tastes to include more of the frontiersmen like Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Dizzie Gillespie and Woody Shaw. It’s been almost 20 years since I first listened to Dex, and over 30 since I fist picked up a horn. That horn and that music have become a part of who I am, whether I play for a crowd or just for myself, I am, and always will be, a Jazz Musician.
Here’s the Trailer from 1986:
-Tiki Chris, aka Zoot, reporting from the smokey stage in the basement bar off 49th Street somewhere in 1959.
Posted on April 2nd, 2011 No comments
Here ye, Here ye, utmost Jazz-appreciating hipsters and hipsterettes; knock your lobes to the groove I’m layin’ down on you, as this is
Jazz Appreciation Month,
The 30 days on the calendar when you can truly appreciate good music.
Ok, what we’ve really got here is a month dedicated to all the swingin’ kats, past and present, who’ve taken a tune and bent it into one of America’s true original styles of music. It’s to remind us of some of the great tunes and players we may have forgotten, and to let the younger kids get hip to the swing…because as the Master himself said, It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.
To go along with your appreciation of Jazz, here’s one of the cocktails I find to be perfect to sip tunes by.
Short and to the point. Not a fancy Tiki cocktail, not a pretentious apple Martini, just..The Stinger.
1 1/2 oz good quality Brandy (I prefer Courvoisier)
1/2 oz White Creme de Menthe
This seems simple but like all true cocktails, it must be built with care. Too much Brandy and it will taste dull and lifeless. Too much Creme de Methe and you’ll have a sickeningly sweet drink that tastes like a candy cane. Don’t use Green Creme de Menthe…that’s for Grasshoppers and ice cream parfaits.
Add the booze to a shaker with ice and shake. Serve straight up in an old fashioned glass, or on the rocks (I prefer rocks). No garnish. This is the kind of drink you sip when sitting in a basement bar in the Village, listening to some kats wailing on a pipehorn or banging the keys to some smooth, east coast Jazz. Asking for a Courvoisier Stinger in a jazz club like that will get you a lot of respect from the bartender and a real shot at the brunette with the peakaboo haircut and the four inch stilettos (assuming you travel in a time machine back to 1955).
When I first started this B-Lounge I added a Jazz 101 page for kats and kittens who wanted to learn a little more about the greatest music on Earth, but didn’t know where to start. Check it out just for fun here. There’s also a suggested playlist of some of the greatest jazz and swing tunes ever recorded…not a comprehensive list by any means, but a good start for people who want to dig it.
I’ll post a few spotlights on Jazz musicians this month, so stay tuned, kids.
-Tiki “Zoot” Pinto reporting from the sound booth at Pirate’s Cove Tiki Bar, Florida
Posted on April 30th, 2010 3 comments
As Jazz Appreciation Month (suitably monikered “J.A.M”) comes down to the last few bars, I thought I throw in a few riffs of my own.
My take on Jazz Appreciation: Most people who don’t like jazz have two main complaints: There are no words, and a lot of it sounds all the same. Well kids, jazz does have words, as vocalists the likes of Ella Fitzgerald to Mel Torme to Billie Holiday to Dean Martin can attest to.
As for the sounds…Here’s the deal, in my humble opinion… you can’t really appreciate jazz until you see and hear it live, see the musicians play,watch them pour their soul into a solo, see the sweat drip off them as they strain to push that perfect blue note out of a horn. There’s a dynamic in watching jazz live that you just don’t get from an album. Remember, this music was invented when recording was a novelty. These guys played live, and that was their life. Once you see jazz kats jam in person, then you can get hip to the recordings, because instead of hearing a bunch of notes getting thrown around, you catch the real drift the players are laying down. That’s Jazz Appreciation. Can you dig it? yeahhhh.
Now, a little bit about jazz and me, for any of you kats and kittens who might be in the mood for a little story. I added this recording of me playing Take the A-Train on the Tenor Sax just for fun. I’m a little rusty but hey, after 2 drinks I sound great!
The first jazz song I ever remember hearing was a sort of modified version of All Blues (Miles Davis). It was on Sesame Street, a goofy cartoon skit with a jazzy triangle and a square. (see it here on YouTube). Even at that early age, something clicked.
My old man was into Progressive Jazz (Modern Jazz, Traditional Jazz) and turned me onto some kool players like Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt. At around the same time, my Grandfather introduced me to the music of the Big Bands – Miller, Dorsey, Goodman, Shaw. He gave me my first Big Band record, Star Dust by Artie Shaw. That tune has followed me all my life.
When I was around 11, I decided I wanted to play an instrument. I didn’t know much about jazz other than what I was hearing on the Muppet Show, when kats like Dizzy Gillespie would star. First I wanted to play the trombone. Then I heard a Harry James record (I’ve Heard That Song Before) and decided the trumpet was for me. I sold my small coin collection and bought a King Cleavland (still have it). I didn’t want to take lessons – wanted to figure it out myself. I couldn’t get much sound out of it, but tried like hell anyway. Then one day my old man came home with a clarinet. It was missing some keys in the low register, and the reed was held on with electrical tape.
Turned out to be a very old horn, a turn-of-the-century job. Bought a ligature and a new reed, and started getting some sound out of it. Not long after I picked up a cheap student clarinet in good shape, and started playing along with records, matching the sounds. Still couldn’t play a melody, but I was at least getting sound out of all the holes. Then, on a warm summer day in 1982, while walking around a flea market with my grandmother I came across a vintage licorice stick in great condition for 15 bucks. I convinced grandmom to lay out the dough for it, and that was the start of something big. I swear, that horn is magic. Magic in the real sense – for after fiddling around with it for just a few days, I sat down on my bed and made an attempt to play a song…first few notes…sounded wrong…changed the fingering…and just like that, I was playing Moonglow, in a way that would have made Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman proud.
Soon after I got an alto sax, then a tenor, and taught myself how to play them just like the old-time kats did back in the 20s. I never learned to read music too well, just enough to get by in the college big band but not enough to hurt me none. I play from the heart, I play what I feel. I can play solo or with a group of kats and the better they are, the better I am. I played professionally during the 90s, and after swinging down to the Sunshine State in 2000 decided to play only for myself. I still dig the standards, bossas, latin jazz and bop. Never really got into fusion, but can appreciate what the kats were doing at the time. In the early 90’s someone turned me on to Dexter Gordon, and that got me into post-bop Modern Jazz more than ever.
Today I continue to listen, learn and play. I’m still discovering players and songs from the 70+ years of great jazz, from Louis Armstrong to Louis Prima, from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker. I’ve been blessed to have seen a few of the greats in person; I’ve been lucky to have watched some of the legacy bands like Miller’s and Count Basie’s carry on the tradition. I saw Duke Ellington’s son, then his grandson lead the Ellington band. I sat in Atlantic City lounges and got to experience Sam Butera and the Wildest from five feet away. And once, for just a few minutes, I got to meet and talk with Wyinton Marsalis. Man, I am one lucky son of a gun.
-Zoot Jackson keeping it kool at the Tiki Bar.
Tiki Lounge Talk, the Retro Blog for Swingin’ Hipsters who dig the Tiki Culture Beat.