Some folks are embarrassed when they bring in boxes of records. Turns out that Wham! album always belongs to someone’s sister.
Truth is, there’s no judgement. Nobody should ever make fun of you for the music you enjoy, unless its your neighbors and you’ve been playing it too loud. Our own collection has all kinds of skeletons in the closet, and we don’t mean a copy of Skeletons in the Closet.
There is one record in particular which we have never played all the way to the end. We’ve never even finished a single side, and it’s a double LP. It’s Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed.
Reed’s hour-long electronic drone has no musical value whatsoever. Rolling Stone said it was as unpleasant as “a night in a bus terminal” at the time. It is commonly listed as one of the worst records of all time.
Always a contrarian, Lester Bangs praised the album, although given his tumultuous relationship with Reed its hard to tell if he is serious or not when he claims Metal Machine Music to be “the greatest album in the history of the human eardrum.”
A classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted,” wrote Bangs. “As rock ‘n’ roll it’s interesting garage electronic rock ‘n’ roll. As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.”
Why have a record you’ll never play? Well, because we are Lou Reed fans, and it has to sit on the shelf in between Sally Can’t Dance and Coney Island Baby. And also because one day maybe we’ll finally “get it.”
There’s also have a book I’ve never finished: Bill Clinton’s 2004 autobiography My Life. I received it as a gift from my wife the week it was published because she knows how much I enjoy reading about the Presidents in their own words. The year before she gave me Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which were originally published by Mark Twain in 1885 in part to provide for the Civil War hero’s family after his death.
My Life by Bill Clinton is the most oppressively boring book ever written. I read a review at the time which said it was like being stuck at the airport with a lonely old man, and that’s about the kindest way to describe this book. I refuse to skip ahead, so don’t ask about the scandals which began to follow him as early in the 80s, because I haven’t gotten that far into the book. See the bookmark in the picture? That’s where I am after eleven years.
Whenever I have a fever or I can’t sleep, I take Bubba’s book off the shelf. It always solve my problem better than Nyquil, and with only a slightly more unpleasant hangover.
Amine Claudine Myers’ third album was a tribute to blues legend Bessie Smith, with one side of Smith’s songs and one side of originals written by Myers in the same style.
Myers joined Chicago’s AACM early in her career, and has recorded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Arthur Blythe and other post-bop and avant-garde artists.
Bessie Smith recorded “Wasted Life Blues” in October, 1929 with James P. Johnson on piano. It was not one of her more successful singles.
Myers’ interpretation is characterized by the ageless sophistication and grace one associates with the Chicago jazz scene of the 60s and 70s. She is accompanied on this album by Jimmy Lovelace and bassist extraordinaire Cecil McBee, but her solo introduction to “Wasted Life Blues” is the highlight of the record.
Myers relocated to New York and later Europe. In 1985 she toured with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and in the 90s played with jazz/funk supergroup Third Rail.
Speaking of the Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden’s original 1970 album is one of our “desert island” records, a must-have in our collection. A masterful amalgam of Spanish folk and free jazz, the record features exceptional talents: Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry and Roswell Rudd all contribute notable performances, and Sam Brown (of Keith Jarrett’s “American band” at the time) provides brilliantly colorful interludes on the acoustic guitar. What is so enjoyable about Liberation Music Orchestra is the ensemble playing throughout the album, and this is the work of pianist Carla Bley.
The first side of the album is essentially a single suite, opening and closing with original melodies by Bley (“The Introduction” and “The Ending to the First Side”) and in between encompassing music of the Spanish Civil War, explosive free jazz arrangements and surreal moments of musique concrète. Bley makes clever use of Bertoit Brecht’s “United Front Song” and “Viva La Quince Brigada” (popularized with the American left by Pete Seeger in 1943), all the while holding together a large free jazz ensemble more successfully than any of her contemporaries.
Carla Bley’s credits extend far beyond this album and beyond the bounds of jazz. She was a founding member of the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, with whom she recorded her epic jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill in 1971, and also wrote and produced a solo album by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. More recently, she has led a big band, although her last release was a collection of trio performances featuring long-time collaborator, bassist Steve Swallows and British saxophonist Andy Shephard.
When she was young, Nina Simone studied at the Juilliard School of Music until she could not afford the tuition, after earlier auditioning for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her dream was to become a classical musician, but she worked as a cocktail pianist to pay for her private lessons. At Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar & Grill, she was given a raise if she would sing as well as play the piano — here she soon developed a following for her distinctive style.
So far as we have found, there are few instrumentals in Simone;s recorded catalog: these appear on the live album early in her career. Nina Simone at Town Hall includes an instrumental introduction to “Summertime” and on Nina at the Village Gate there is an extended and exceptional improvisation on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which is as good as anything the top tier trios was recording in 1961.
Simone recorded one album without any accompanying musicians — Nina Simone and Piano — but she sings on all of its ten tracks. She felt it was one of her best albums, although it was not commercially successful. Most of her later albums include large arrangements and feature her primarily as a vocalist, in spite of her original, imitable style.
Her flair for theatrics is apparent on another well-known protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn,” which appeared on the 1964 album Nina Simone In Concert. Simone opens the song humorously before singing a scathing response to the murder of Medgar Evers.
Nina Simone is probably more influential as a singer than as a pianist, but she would have been the first to remark that the two were simultaneous, and intricately related to one another. She was certainly one of the most versatile jazz pianist of her generation.
On her last album, A Single Woman, Simone only played the piano on one song, “Just Say I Love Him.” The album was recorded in 1993, and owing to her declining health, Simone did not make another record before passing away from breast cancer a decade later.
Today’s post collects some of our favorite jazz pianists who also happen to be women. We think anyone who enjoys jazz piano will enjoy the music you’ll hear today.
Any collection of the great female jazz musicians must include Mary Lou Williams, who is so integral to the history of American music that she played with an early incarnation of Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians in 1922 (at the age of twelve) and later taught and collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
Williams became the first jazz musician to perform with a major symphony orchestra when, with a rhythm section of Al Lewis and Jack “the Bear” Parker she performed her Zodiac Suite with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Williams again expanded the range of jazz with her 1968 Mass for Peace, a moving Catholic mass in the soul jazz idiom.
We have already posted a collection of her compositions (here), and instead begin this collection of songs with an extraordinary solo piano recording which was the first record Williams issued under her own name. She writes to jazz archivist Bernard Brightman (founder of Stash Records):
I didn’t know they were recording me. I was in Kansas City when Jack Kapp had Andy Kirk send for me to come to Chicago. I went and they sat me down at a piano. I composed this as I played. I thought they just wanted to hear me play. This became my first record. After that Jack Kapp insisted that I play on all of the recording dates for the Kirk band.
She was soon arranging the best of those recordings as well, and working for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy launched a legendary career. The recording was made in April 1930.
There were many female jazz pianists before Mary Lou Williams, including two great ladies named Lil.
Lil Henderson fine accompaniment has been heard by millions, and she first got her start joining a li’l band called the Wildcats Jazz Band. Thomas Dorsey, the legendary “Father of black gospel music,” explains that in The Voice of the Blues, an enlightening collection of interviews edited by Jim O’Neil and Amy van Singel:
That was my band, with Ma Rainey, Gabriel Washington, Al Wynn and David Nelson. We only had about four or five pieces … Fuller Henderson was a trumpet player, yeah, and then we used his wife with Ma Rainey. I got sick and I turned the piano over to Fuller’s wife, and she traveled with ’em a season.
For a while Lil Henderson remained part of Ma Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band, and it happens she was recorded backing “The Mother of the blues” in Chicago in June 1926, and it was for a fitting tune. Here they are performing “Trust No Man.”
The other Lil’s playing is far more documented on wax, although sometimes her role in jazz histories is limited to the moment she encouraged Louis Armstrong to leave King Oliver’s band in 1924. Yes, Lil Hardin (soon Lil Armstrong) gives some weight to the old phrase “behind every great man is a great woman,” but she was also an accomplished jazz musician in her own right.
She was a pianist, bandleader (in the 30s of an all women’s big band), and a composer. It’s for this last she’s best remembered, writing jazz gems like “Don’t Jive Me” and “Doin’ the Susie Q” and also songs which would be later be hits for Ray Charles (“Just for a Thrill” in 1959) and Ringo Starr (“Bad Boy” in 1978). Her “Oriental Boogie” was reworked by Austrian electro DJ Parov Stelar as the widely popular “Booty Swing,” becoming a dancefloor hit in 2010.
Camille Howard got her start playing in Roy Milton’s popular rhythm & blues band, but her most famous recording was made unexpectedly, much like Mary Lou Williams’ “Nightlife” we heard earlier. At the end of epic New Years Eve session — trying to cut as many numbers as possible before the advent of the second American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban on the first day of 1948 — Milton’s band had five minutes of studio time to kill before midnight. The time was given to Howard.
With Dallas Barley (of Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five) on bass and Milton on drums, Howard improvised “X-Temperaneous Boogie” just before those outside the studio heard church bells ringing in the new year.
Standing next to Mary Lou Williams in Art Kane’s famous “Great Day in Harlem” photograph is Marian McPartland. She is one of two women in today’s collection not born in the United States. She was English, and a classically trained concert pianist who fell in love with jazz.
During the Second World War Marian Turner enlisted in the UK’s Entertainment National Service Association, which entertained Allied troop in Europe. After a couple years she left to join the United Service Organization in part because it provided the opportunity to perform with American jazz musicians. She is probably also the only woman in today’s collection who went through basic training.
She met Jimmy McPartland in St Vith, Belgium in October 1944, and they were married the following February in Germany. McPartland was a well known jazz musician, a cornetist from Chicago. Marian McPartland had her first serious experiences performing jazz in the band he led in the USO, but he encouraged her to explore her own style rather than follow in his, which was based in traditional New Orleans jazz.
Back in the states she began leading jazz trios, and also played with Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Terry Gibbs. The longest lasting of her trios featured bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, and recorded several acclaimed albums for Capitol (Metronome named them best small combo of the year in 1954). Still, she never received due credit for the quality of her work. Leonard Feather once opened a review with “she’ll never make it: she’s white, she’s English and she’s a woman.”
She began writing about jazz in the July 1949 issue of Downbeat with a firsthand account of the Paris Jazz Festival. Soon she was a frequent contributor, and her writing often reflected on the role of women in jazz. Some years later she would take her advocacy further by hosting the first ever Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City.
McPartland is best remembered today for hosting a NPR program, Piano Jazz, for more than twenty-five years. The program featured her at a piano with guests, playing and discussing jazz. In addition to being one of NPR’s longest-running cultural programs, it was one of the most praised.
Hazel Scott is the other jazz musician in today’s post who emigrated to the United States to perform jazz. Her family came to New York from Trinidad in 1924, when she was four years old. Just a few years later she was a student at Juilliard. As a teenager Scott performed in her mother’s women’s jazz band, which sometimes featured Lil Armstrong. She had a regular gig at New York’s Café Society, and was also frequently heard on the radio playing a variety of piano music, including jazz.
Hazel Scott appeared in several motion pictures, and in 1950 she was the first African American woman to host her own television program, The Hazel Scott Show.
She also recorded several albums in the 1950s, notably a highly sought-after trio LP Relaxed Piano Moods, which she recorded with Charles Mingus and Max Roach on their invitation to appear on their independent label, Debut Records.
Scott was an outspoken civil rights activist. As an actress she refused to take roles she felt represented black people poorly, and as a musician she would not play in segregated clubs. In one famous incident, she was led out of Austin by the Texas Rangers because she would not perform in a club after she learned that black and whites were seated separately. “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?,” she asked when interviewed by Time magazine. She also successfully sued a Washington restaurant for refusing to serve her and a friend “because they were negroes.”
In 1950, Scott was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and read a prepared statement which denied involvement with the Communist Party. A week later her television show was cancelled. Eventually, Scott left to live and perform in Paris, and did not return to the United States until 1967. Had she not left the country at such a critical time for the Civil Rights movement, and such a pivotal period in the history of jazz, she would surely be more well known today.
Here is a close up of our print of Art Kane’s famous photograph, “A Great Day in Harlem.” Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland are standing together, as one might expect — the only other woman in the group if fifty-seven musicians is singer Maxine Sullivan, standing next to fellow vocalist Jimmy Rushing. When Marian McPartland passed away three years ago, she was one of four figures in this famous photograph remaining. Today only Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins are alive.
In Friday’s post we’ll listen to more women play the piano, moving forward into the 1960s and beyond. We’ll hear Nina Simone, of course, and also a magnificent interpretation of Bessie Smith’s “Wasted Life Blues” and a legendary avant garde album from the Impulse! catalog which was arranged by a female piano player. Here’s a hint: it’s not Alice Coltrane. Wondering what it is? Tune on Friday.
The operas of Guiseppe Verdi remain enormously popular (with people with whom opera remains popular) — our own Minnesota Opera produced his MacBeth just a couple years ago. But Verdi, who began as a church musician, composed relatively little sacred music during his extensive career. It was, however, to those roots he began to return after the enormous success of what was expected to be his swan song, Aida, which was first produced in 1871 when the composer was fifty-eight.
He was expected to settle into an early retirement, as his predecessor Rossini had done some years earlier. Already Verdi was more interested in farming and his comfortable estate in Busseto, near his birthplace, preferring it to the treadmill of opera production (which he once described as his anni de galera, or “years as a galley slave”) and the politics of Italy’s progressing unification.
Verdi’s most beloved works come from the late end of his productive years — Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Travista in particular — but his masterworks are those operas from the years he could choose his subject and compose at leisure. This allowed him to explore his lifelong love for Shakespeare with his final operas Otello and Falstaff.
Although he had a superhuman capacity for efficient invention — idly composing his lovely string quartet, his only chamber work, while watching the rehearsals for a production of Aida — Verdi showed limited interest in any form outside of the theater. Its said at the age of ten he walked kilometers to serve as the church organist in Busseto, but it was not until this these years of semi-retirement his passion for sacred music returned.
He contributed to a requiem in honor of Rossini, but his portion was withdrawn and went unperformed for nearly twenty years. In the interim, he composed his complete Requiem to be performed on the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni, a poet and Italian patriot whose work Verdi admired.
The story of Rafael Schächter offers the power of Verdi’s Requiem: He was an established musician in Czechoslovakia, but as a Jew was arrested by the Nazis and transported to the Terezín concentration camp. There he organized a choir which at its largest contained over 200 souls, and produced — with a single piano — a production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at first without permission from the camp’s freizeitgestaltung (“administration of free time activities”). The crowning achievement of Schächter’s captive choir was Verdi’s Requiem, performed sixteen times by diminishing numbers between January 1942 and its finale in the fall of 1944 before an audience which included members of the S.S. and the International Red Cross.
It is unknown when Schächter died after he and a thousand others were transported to Auschwitz a few months after the final performance of the Requiem. That we know his serial number but not his fate a testament to the barbarism of bureaucracy. A performance at Terezín was attended Adolf Eichmann, who was said to remark, “The crazy Jews are singing their own requiem.” Schächter, on the other hand, saw it as defiance, telling his choir their work was but a rehearsal for the grand performance they would give in freedom in Prague.
Verdi had used a chorus of Hebrew slaves in his historical opera Nabucco to represent the Italian people, captive to foreign powers when he composed the opera in 1842. It’s famous “Va Pensiero,” taken from Psalm 137, a nationalist anthem. At the interment of his remains at the Casa di Riposo, which you can visit still today, a choir of eight hundred led by Arturo Toscanini sang it in his honor.
His late operas were, unlike Nabucco, distinctly apolitical, and entirely removed from the Christian church. Aida centers around Egyptian polytheism, and the tragic hero of Otello is, of course, a Muslim. Scattered through this period he wrote four works which have posthumously been collected as Four Sacred Pieces. While we may be tempted to compare them to Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, they were composed without the same deliberate intention.
Unlike Strauss’ Songs, Verdi’s works were composed entirely apart from one another and at least one, “Ave Maria,” was intended as an academic exercise. This recording by Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, as with performances dating to as early as 1898, does not follow the composer’s wishes. He did not want “Ave Maria” performed with the other works, and along with “Laudi Alla Vergine Maria” it was to be performed by a capella by solo voices, not a choir.
The “Stabat Mater” is a 13th century hymn which has been interpreted by many of the great composers. It tells the story of the crucifixion through Mary, its title meaning “sorrowful mother.” In Verdi’s hands there is a little of his theatrical flair, notable in the seventh stanza when Mary recalls the flogging of Jesus by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers.
“Laudi Alla Vergine Maria” is built around Saint Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin Mary in Dante’s Paradiso on behalf of the traveller. He thanks her for the gift to humanity of the Son of God, and holds her up as the idea of human virtue:
Your kindness not only helps those who ask it, it often freely anticipates the request.
In you is tenderness: in you is pity: in you is generosity: in you whatever excellences exist in the creature, combined together.
After the passage used by Verdi for this piece, St. Bernard leads Dante on the next step of his journey, bringing him face to face with The Holy Trinity. This is the triumphant conclusion of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
“Te Deum” is the oldest of the hymns, dating to the baptism of Saint Augustine by Saint Ambrose in the year 387. It remains significant in Catholic liturgy today, particularly for significant events such as consecration or canonization.
It was significantly featured in Italian opera the year before Verdi passed away, sung by a chorus after the villainous chief of police announces his plot to possess the singer Tosca by executing her lover in Pucinni’s La Tosca. “Tosca,” they add, “you make me forget even God.” Actor Eugenio Giraldoni debuted the role of Baron Scarpia — his father Leone had appeared in many of Verdi’s opera.
In his final years Verdi invested a great deal in two philanthropic projects: a hospital in a town neighboring Busseto and a rest home for elderly musicians in Milan. The second is the Casa de Riposo per Musicisti, where the chorus of eight hundred sang “Va Pensiero” in his honor in 1901. The rest home continued in operation funded by the royalties from his operas. According to an Julian Budden’s authoritative biography, Verdi wished to be buried with the score to the last of the Four Sacred Works, “Te Deum.”
John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” was recorded in February 1966, just a few weeks after Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his family had moved into their 1550 South Hamlin Avenue apartment in Chicago, to begin working on the Open Housing campaign.
The recording was released posthumously in late January 1968 on Cosmic Music, one of the first two LPs Impulse records pulled from unissued recordings after Coltrane’s death. Eventually there would eight albums in all — plus many live recordings — found in the archives. Fans have mixed reactions to some of these recordings, but “Reverend King” is surely an excellent example of Coltrane’s last group at work. This band featured his wife, Alice, Pharaoh Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Rashid Ali, and on “Reverend King” additional percussionists Ray Appleton and Ben Reilly.
At the time the recording was released on Cosmic Music, Reverend King had recently announced the Poor People’s Campaign, with a focus on pushing Congress to pass a economic bill of rights” for working people, as outlined in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
The campaign’s broad agenda was not received well by many of The Reverend King’s dearest supporters, notably Bayard Rustin. Five years earlier Rustin had been the primary logistical organizer of the 1963 march in Washington DC at which Reverend King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
After Reverend King’s assassination on April 4th, thousands of demonstrators established a symbolic shanty town at the National Mall where he had delivered this famous address. The encampment was called “Resurrection City” and remained for nearly six weeks.
“Reverend King” was not the first piece of music in which Coltrane expressed the inspiration he found in the Civil Rights leader. He modeled one of his most moving songs, “Alabama,” on Reverend King’s eulogy for the four victims of the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
Reverend King’s eulogy for Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Denise McNair was delivered three days later, and is a deeply moving and spiritual address, which does not shy from the political situation which led to the terrible terrorist attack. A funeral for the fourth girl, Carole Robertson, was held on a different date.
(we posted an alternate version of Coltrane’s “Alabama” here)
Thank to all reading. We hope you take an interest in these recordings because the goals of racial and economic equality outlined by Reverend King in these speeches and in his last book are still within our reach. We also hope you stay warm on this extremely cold day here in Minneapolis and do not forget those around us who struggle for safety and shelter in this weather.
Oh, and your friendly neighborhood record shop will be open it’s regular hours — 11am to 7pm — on this national holiday.
French officials ordered security measures in the wake of the ISIL terrorist attack in Paris last Friday, which included the cancellation of all concerts. As just about everyone around the world has read or heard by now, the largest massacre was at a show by an American band, Eagles of Death Metal, at the Bataclan Theater. Included in the eighty-nine victims was Nick Alexander of Colchester, England, who was serving as their merch manager. This all hits close to home for anyone who loves live music, and like us spends a lot of evenings in clubs and theaters.
The restrictions have since been eased as the city seems safer, although efforts to capture the possible mastermind of the attack led to a shootout late last night in the suburb of Saint-Denis. The legendary Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers didn’t cancel a show last night at a Paris venue, Backstage at the Mill. In this BBC story, lead singer Jake Burns expressed their condolences to the victims. “For us, we’re musicians, we’ve just come to do what we do. Hopefully the people who come tonight can manage to forget about their troubles for an hour and a half,” he said. “That would be our job done as we see it.”
Burns and the band grew up in Belfast during the worst of what were called the Troubles, the long and bloody conflict in Northern Ireland which deterred touring bands from visiting the capital city for much of the seventies.
“As a youngster, it was frustrating to be deprived of such a normal part of life. For us as a band, our performances were sometimes delayed because of disturbances and road blocks, nothing serious. But we do have an appreciation of just how difficult these situations can be.
Obviously, in Northern Ireland, conflict became very much the normal state of affairs. Here, it isn’t. It’s a huge shock to the system for people here. Unfortunately, we can’t do a lot to help, we’re just here to do our job.”
After their encore, lead singer Jake Burns told the crowd, “The world has you in its heart.”
Before French officials eased the restrictions, another Irish group with roots in the Troubles, U2, was forced to cancel a concert which was to be televised on Saturday. They had been rehearsing in Paris, just three miles from the Bataclan, when the attacks began on Friday night. Bono spoke with an Irish radio station in the morning, offering his reaction. “Our first thoughts at this point are with the Eagles of Death Metal fans,” he said.
If you think about it, the majority of victims last night are music fans. This is the first direct hit on music that we’ve had in this so-called War on Terror or whatever it’s called. It’s very upsetting. These are our people. This could be me at a show. You at a show, in that venue. It’s a very recognizable situation for you and for me and the coldblooded aspect of this slaughter is deeply disturbing and that’s what I can’t get out of my head.
All four members of U2 visited the Bataclan Theater on Saturday, laying flowers on the sidewalk with others.
There is a lyric in the bridge of Stiff Little Finger’s first single, “Alternative Ulster,” which seemed like a fitting response to the Islamic terrorists like ISIL, even though the song was originally about the conflict in Ireland.
They say they’re a part of you But that’s not true you know They say they’ve got control of you And that’s a lie you know
Written by Paul Craft somewhere near the intersection of inspirational and absurd, it’s hard to believe that “Dropkick me Jesus” was a hit for Bobby Bare in 1975. What’s more, this goofy waltz was nominated for a Grammy.