Awesome-ness!

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According to Wikipedia, the Ramones performed more than 2,200 times. One of us attended one of those performances, not an impressive boast but a warmly held memory nonetheless.

We count ten “Hey Ho, Let’s Go”s in the album version of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and the Ramones weren’t famous for changing things around in their live sets — so it’s entirely possible that Johnny Ramone sang that line more than 22,000 times.

Anyway, ten of those times are caught on this live album that was released last week.

Mary Lou Williams, who refused to be bound by a contract and even once founded her own independent label, is one of our favorite figures in jazz history. Her career outlasted the swing era and included collaborations with beboppers and free jazzers, and she was beyond simple ahead of her time. Her music was in many ways timeless.

She was connected to so many seminal moments in jazz history, performing with an early version of Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians (at the age of thirteen) in 1924. A year later, while playing with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Harlem, her playing so pleased Louis Armstrong that he paused in his tracks to listen before kissing her.

a kirk

Williams is best known to swing aficionados for her work with Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy in the 1930s. She was originally brought to Kirk’s orchestra by her first husband, John Williams, who was a saxophonist in the group. By the time she left, about a decade later, she was the primary reason for their success, which you can quickly tell from any compilation of their singles (the ones arranged by other members simply don’t swing the same). “Walking and Swinging” (1936) and “Mary’s Idea” (1938) are two of our favorites.

She began her freelance career while working for Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, who had taken a long engagement in Kansas City. She did work for Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, and for Benny Goodman. One track Goodman was especially pleased with was “Roll Em.”

benny goodman camel

The King of Swing was so pleased with the theme she wrote for his NBC Radio program, sponsored by Camel cigarettes, that he tried unsuccessfully to pin Williams down with an exclusive contract. She refused and continued to work for a variety of bandleaders.

Her second husband was trumpeter Shorty Baker, and when he was briefly engaged with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, she came along and arranged her version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” for the Duke (as “Trumpet no End”), as well as adding “Walking and Swinging” to his prestigious repertoire.

One distinctive talent she shared with Ellington was an ability to arrange music to bring out the best in a specific performer. While still working for Kirk she produced “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” for Floyd Smith with the intention of highlighting his Hawaiian style on the lap steel guitar. The result is one of the earliest hit records to feature an electric guitar.

Williams made a number of her own recordings during these productive years, including a couple solo sides for Brunswick in 1930 which we would sure like to find one day. She was not, however, completely rooted in the swing era and became a close associate of Dizzy Gillespie and his wife Lorraine. Bebop musicians, notably Thelonious Monk, held her in high esteem. She had a regular program on New York’s WNEW (Mary Lou’s Piano Workshop), broadcast from Barney Josephson’s influential Cafe Society club. “During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I’d finished my last show, and we’d play and swap ideas until noon or later”, she explained to Melody Maker in a 1954 interview. Williams’ remarks reflected a welcoming attitude towards bebop and other developments in jazz not always held by members of her generation.

Right from the start, musical reactionaries have said the worst about bop. But after seeing the Savoy Ballroom kids fit dances to this kind of music, I felt it was destined to become the new era of music, though not taking anything away from Dixieland or swing or any of the great stars of jazz. I see no reason why there should be a battle in music. All of us aim to make our listeners happy.

Mary Lou maintained this attitude throughout her professional career, collaborating with free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor in 1978 on one of the most unexpectedly moving jazz albums of its era. Williams seems like one of those musicians who was capable of playing just about anything, but had the dedication to take her talent where she felt inspired.

Williams wrote or arranged a few songs for Gillespie’s experimental big band, which was one of the most interesting groups in the history of jazz (we last listened to them here, in a post about percussionist Chano Pozo). One of these songs was “In the Land of Ooh Bla Dee,” featured a fun vocal by Joe Carroll and, naturally, a great solo by Diz.

It was Gillespie who convinced Williams to come out of her brief retirement with a performance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival — she is featured on his live album of the performance. Her life thereafter was focused on liturgical music and charitable work, and her compositions during this time blend jazz with choral arrangements and traditional blues. The most famous of these is her Mass for Peace, commonly called “Mary Lou’s Mass,” which was recorded in 1970.

mary lou's mass

“I am praying with my fingers when I play,” she once said, adding that she hoped to inspire people’s spirituality with her music. Williams performed her Mass on The Dick Cavett Show in August 1971. Sadly, while you’ll have no trouble finding footage of John Lennon’s jackassery on the same program, nobody has posted Williams’ performance online. Priorities, huh?

Williams’ work involved at one time operating thrift stores which supported musicians and supporting children’s music education through programs like Billy Taylor’s Jazzmobile — in fact, one of her many fans was no less than Mr. Rogers, who had her as a guest on his show in 1973. And that was a clip we were happy to find.

Murder by Death is performing tonight at the Cedar Cultural Center. They’re touring to support their eighth album, The Other Shore. We’ve been listening to it a lot over the past month, and are looking forward to the show tonight.

Six years ago they performed here at Hymie’s, and one song is still up on Youtube.

Our old friends the Southside Aces have been holding down a residency at the Eagles Club #34 here in the neighborhood for longer than we can remember. On the second Thursday of every month the present an evening of traditional jazz certain to please even the most discriminating listener or dancer. Often we discuss upcoming themes with clarinetist Tony Balluff here in the shop, whether it’s a night of early Ellingtonia or an evening with the music of Sidney Bechet.

And for a long time we have been encouraging the talented Mr. Balluff to consider a jazz theme that is ostensibly outside the box — the music featured on The Muppet Show!

You may think its silly at first, but the early Muppet performers — Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and more — loved traditional jazz. The show itself was modeled after a vaudeville program. Its magical and meteoric five year run was peppered with tunes from the turn of the century through the jazz era.

We have been posting about the music of The Muppet Show since the early days of the Hymies blog, just search in that box on your right for “muppet” and you’ll see! We are very excited for the Aces to perform many of the jazz standards which appeared on the show as well as their interpretations of some Muppet originals we suggested. All this happens this coming Thursday and the Eagles Club!

Here is one of our favorite Irving Berlin tunes as it appeared in the third season of The Muppet Show. A little background: “Blue Skies” was also the first song heard in a motion picture, when Al Jolson sang it in The Jazz Singers. It was written to fill space in a largely forgotten Rodgers & Hart musical called Betsy but went on to become a favorite of jazz music.

 

We love Duke Ellington — surely no other jazz artist is as well-represented in our collection. It’s a pleasure to pull out a stack of his records, put a favorite on and pore through the liner notes, discovering how his composing adapted to the comings and goings in his famous orchestra and learning about the unique personalities. Duke once told an interviewer that he didn’t write for a particular instrument, he wrote for a particular performer — that is, he wrote a part for Paul Gonsalves playing the tenor saxophone, not the tenor saxophone.

intimate ellingtonRecently we were listening to an album in the shop which isn’t in our collection at home, The Intimate Ellington, which Pablo released in 1977 shortly after Duke’s death. It collects spontaneous pieces from 1970-1 sessions with smaller versions of the orchestra (including two suprising Monk-ish trio performances of “Edward the First”). The liner notes by Stanley Dance describe the atmosphere of his late-period recording sessions.

intimate ellington 2It is probably not too much to say that some of the happiest hours of Duke Ellington’s life were spent in recording studios at relaxed sessions like those illustrated here. He might call them when the band was laying off as a means of getting some return from those of its members permanently on a salary, but he always liked to hear next day what he had written overnight, and sometimes the summonses to appear went out at very short notice. If the music were of an experimental character or not completely worked out, the sessions too place with a degree of secrecy, quite unlike those commissioned by major labels and attended by an enormous retinue of relatives, friends and fans. The fact that he was paying all the expenses of the date himself did not guarantee his own punctuality. He often came in late to find that musicians who had arrived on time had wandered off on a variety of errands. Johnny Hodges, say, had gone to buy grapes for his monkey, and Paul Gonsalves was across the street having “breakfast” in a bar, but so long as the bassist and drummer were present Ellington was unperturbed.

Wait, let’s back up a minute. Johnny Hodges had a monkey? A monkey?! How is this extraordinary fact passed over so quickly? How has this never been mentioned in the liner notes to the hundreds of Ellington or Hodges albums that we’ve read here in the record shop? What kind of monkey? Did it come to the sessions? Is that why he had to buy grapes for it? Was the monkey in the room when they recorded? Did it behave? Can you imagine Curious George in a recording studio?!

This can’t be a drug references. We’re familiar with forties phrases like “feed the monkey” and references to the monkey on one’s back, but Hodges — who died at sixty-four the year before the sessions collected on Intimate Ellington — didn’t have a drug problem. He was buying grapes for a pet monkey. Probably a really awesome one, probably one who did the monkey to Hodges’ 1963 b-side “Monkey Shack.”

This 1997 review of a CD reissue of Hodges’ RCA/Bluebird album Triple Play, written again by Stanley Dance, gives us a little more insight because the disc includes an out-take, “Monkey on a Limb.” The monkey’s name was Shuma. So Johnny Hodges had a monkey named Shuma. It may have attended recording sessions. It was probably the awesome-est monkey in the entire world. Maybe Shuma’s still alive, maybe Shuma will make a record someday. There can never be enough Ellington tribute albums, especially if they include a monkey playing the saxophone.

 

Two decades ago we discovered Man…Or Astroman? after seeing them perform at 7th Street Entry — for those of you unfamiliar with this mostly-instrumental band from Georgia, their catchy gimmick is embedding science fiction samples into surf rock jams. The songs are reliably good but sometimes its the timing of the samples that make them memorable.

Here’s one of my all-time favorites, from their first album Is It Man…Or Astroman? which came out in 1993. The song is called “Invasion of the Dragonmen.”

moam

actionMan…Or Astroman? was very prolific in those days, issuing more 7″ singles and oddities (10″ and even 5″ records, etc) than one could count, let alone collect. More recently, when our kids had their first Fisher Price record player, we unpacked a box of story albums, including a Spider-Man book-and-record adventure. Suddenly, we recognized the voice of DRACO, KING OF THE DRAGONMEN!

draco

(You can click on that image for a larger view of DRACO, if you dare!)

Songs of Metric Man is one of the funkiest educational records we’ve ever heard. This 1976 album tells the story of Newton Joule, a mild-mannered substitute school teacher who works for M*O*M (Measures of Metrics) teaching America how to use the metric system. If he says the magic word “Kilometer!” he becomes Metric Man!

Metric Man fights against the Big O, who is the head of the Ounce Family, but he triumphs over his adversary and soon America was singing the praises of metric measurements.

The music is by Jimmy Vann and Richard Hieronymus and the lyrics by George Greer and Jimmy Vann. It was released by Educational Film Systems but is officially on Metric Records. Its track “I Weigh With Kilos” was sampled on a Ghostface Killah and Raekwon track.

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