Are cats awesome, or just an enormous pain in our butts? In our family, the merits of our own Momar the Cat are the subject of household debate. Dave dotes on him but the little black and white trouble maker only makes rare visits to the record store, usually ending in disaster.
Whether Mo Cat enjoys the music we play or not is hard to tell. It seems he’s much more interested in the songs of the birds — maybe he would prefer we more often listen to Oliver Messiaen.
Anyway, here are a few songs we chose for the ten pound terror…
Henry Mancini’s “Song for Cat” is a mambo masterpiece, magically melding lush swing with soulful latin strut. The song was composed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but like so many of the maestro’s best moments has a life of its own.
The highlight of the 1957 album New Jazz Lp The Cats is a trio performance led by pianist Tommy Flanagan, but the record swings solidly in its opening track “Minor Mishap.” This song features John Coltrane, Idrees Sulieman and Kenny Burrell as soloists — one of the last Coltrane performances before his epic early Atlantic recordings.
Flanagan’s ponderous “How Long Has This Been Going On?” (with the rhythm section of Doug Watkins and Louis Hayes) is the sort of evocative make-out jazz our friend Mo Cat enjoys interrupting. Flanagan is underrated among pianists of his era, heard here at his best.
Our last selection of songs for swinging cats comes from Quincy Jones’ appropriately slinky album, Quincy Plays for Pussycats. His take on “What’s New Pussycat?” is fun, but the best thing on this record is “Blues for Trumpet and Koto,” written by the reliably inventive Marvin Hamlisch (whose name is mis-spelled on the album’s credits). As with most of the great Quincy Jones Orchestra recordings on Mercury, the performers are not credited, so we don’t know who are the soloists in this big band based duet. We think its a perfect soundtrack for the afternoons when our Mo Cat wrestles with the clumsy mutt we adopted two years ago.
For Dia de los Muertes, a selection of a few songs about dead celebrities. There are, of course, many more. Some are sincere tributes, and some slightly satirical.
The celebration of a dead celebrity is one of my favorite thematic forms in pop music and today we’re going to listen to a small sampling that runs through most genres. Some of them are genuine tributes and some less sincere.
This first track is Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues” from the 2001 album Time (The Revelator). It was ranked #2 on our “Top Ten Songs About Elvis” ages ago, falling behind “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. There are a lot of tributes to Elvis Presley, but he is not the #1 subject of dead celebrity songs.
Our guess is that honor would go to Hank Williams. We have a whole section of entire albums dedicated to Hank Sr. in our shop. Some classic include the Waylon Jennings standard “I Don’t Think Hank Done it This Way” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Help Me Hank I’m Fallin’.” An obscure favorite of ours in Robert Earl Keen’s bizarre “The Great Hank.”
One of the earliest and most sincere tributes to hank was recorded soon after his death by Ernest Tubb.
“A Tribute to a King” by William Bell is an excellent follow-up to the Ernest Tubb track because each are exemplary within their respective genres. William Bell’s tribute to Otis Redding is great southern soul and our the best track on this playlist. Otis Redding is another frequent subject of tribute songs.
Not all songs about dead celebrities mourn their passing – Millions of Dead Cops spit on the grave of movie star John Wayne with this vitriolic attack. Its kind of hard to tell how much of John Wayne’s legacy is the interpretation of his admirers and how much was actually John Wayne. Was John Wayne a nazi? No. Is it difficult to reconcile some of the things he said? Yes. MDC took it too far with this track, but it remains a highlight of their first record.
Bauhaus’ first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” pioneered gothic rock, but also drew from from the dub influence common in UK pop at the time. The epic tune captures the enduring fascination with Lugosi, whose 1931 performance as Dracula seared the image of vampirism into the American psyche.
REM’s super-hit “Man on the Moon” was certainly the most successful tribute to a dead celebrity since “Candle in the Wind,” and unlike most pervasive radio hits of the mid-90s its aged pretty well. This is still a really great song. And Automatic for the People contained a second tribute to a dead celebrity, by the way – “Monty Got a Raw Deal” memorializes actor Montgomery Cliff, who really did get a pretty raw deal.
The members of Bauhaus would probably enjoy Nick Lowe’s gory tribute to silent film actress Marie Provost, who died at the age of forty in 1937. Nick Lowe takes a liberty with the sad circumstances of her death, however, as she did die along in her apartment but was not in fact eaten by her dachshund. Police concluded the dog nibbled at her leg in an effort to rouse her.
Kids in the Hall star Bruce McCollough probably summed it up in “Vigil”, from his obnoxious but surprisingly listenable debut musical performance, Shame-Based Man.
This may be an unusual place to end our collection of tributes to dead celebrities – After all, what about “Candle in the Wind”, and how can any collection be complete without “American Pie”? You’ve already heard them enough and unlike “Man on the Moon” they’ve gotten to be tired old radio standards. we usually change the station when we hear those tired 70s tropes.
This collection has also entirely omitted jazz, even though jazz artists reliably remember their predecessors. We think Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (Dedicated to Lester Young) is among his finest melodies, and Duke Ellington’s album And His Mother Called Him Bill is a heartbreaking tribute to the recently-deceased Billy Strayhorn that is beyond comparison. Mingus also wrote a piece about Charlie Parker called “If Charlie Parker Had Been a Gun-Slinger There’d be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”.
Anyway, here is Simon and Garfunkel’s “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright” which is a pretty simple farewell to the great architect.
[Yes, the image you see at the top of this post is Michael Jackson at James Brown’s funeral.]
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
Irene would like us to share her favorite Beach Boys track, the end of Pet Sounds. The album’s title is a reference to Brian Wilson and the fantastic arrangements he created on the record, largely working with session musicians without the other Beach Boys. Still, it ends with some actual pets.
Another LP ending of special interest to dogs is heard on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album widely known to have been influenced by Pet Sounds. Here the album concludes with a lock groove, also called a loop groove, meaning that the needle will track through the same two seconds over and over. This obnoxious feature is only found on the original UK Parlaphone pressings of the album, but the two seconds of sound and voice can be heard on the US compilation Rarities.
What many people didn’t know is that the loop is preceded by a 15-kilohertz tone that will get your dog’s attention.
We have encountered a number of acetates of radio station spots and themes with lock grooves at the end of each track — the technique was originally developed by record cutters to help prevent disc jockey errors. Basically the grooves do not allow the needle to continue forward either to the label as at the end of a record or to the next track if somewhere in the middles of the side’s program. In the case of radio stations and spots the loop is simply silence, which we’ll find again in the Moby Grape recording below.
The normal groove runs to a lock groove at the end of the run out space, just outside of the needle. Sgt. Peppers may be the most famous record with a lock groove but it was not the first one we encountered. When we were kids we did not understand the technology but loved the fact that Fozzie the Bear is left forever calling for help at the end of the Muppet Show 2, as heard here.
Arista Records, the label which released the Muppet Show 2 is also the label which released Monty Python’s vexing three-sided album (Matching Tie and Hankerchief) which features parallel grooves, meaning that two entirely separate programs could be heard on one side depending where the listener dropped the needle. We’ll visit that anomalous record sometime in the future.
Our research suggests the earliest use of a lock groove in ‘popular’ music was a flexi disc that came with issue #3 of the short-lived multimedia magazine Aspen in 1966. The track was produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground and was titled “Loop”. On the disc it said, “final groove purposely left open.” This was, of course, not as widely distributed a release as the Beatles album.
Some years later, Cale’s bandmate Lou Reed concluded Metal Machine Music also ends with a lock groove. The the time listed for side four of the album lists it as ∞. It’s possible that nobody has ever noticed because nobody has yet made it to the end of side four. Other loop grooves in our collection appear on Sonic Youth’s Evol album, where the track’s time is likewise listed with the symbol for infinity, and on Moby Grape’s album Wow.
Wow is already an interesting album in that it was packaged along with a second separate record (Grape Jam) but the end of its first side makes it one of the most uniquely mastered albums in rock and roll. After “Can’t It Be So” Skip Spense reminds listeners to change the record to 78 rpm for the next song. There is then a lock groove preventing the needle from moving forward. After the listener has changed the speed to 78 rpm and nudged the needle forward he or she would hear this track. We’ve left in Skip Spense’s introduction.
That’s Arthur Godfrey introducing the number and playing ukulele (oh, for the days when a Arthur Godfrey was a kick ass guest artist). The song by Spense is called “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot”. Surface noise has been added to increase the old time feeling of the track. It was likely this was not an enormous inconvenience to listeners in 1969 but when three-speed turntables were more common, but it may mean trouble for many with more modern machines.
There’s this li’l section here in your friendly neighborhood record shop we call “The movie is so bad, but the music is so good!” Its hard to find soundtrack albums which fit the bill, but sort of a fun project — the other challenge is that folks buy up the best ones right away because, after all, the music is so good.
Obvious examples would be movies like More American Graffiti: the unwanted sequel’s soundtrack was filled with sixties favorites. Other examples would be when an artist creates an original score which ages more gracefully than the album itself. Perhaps the best example of this is also an extraordinarily rare record: nobody on Earth wants to see She’s the One again, but countless Tom Petty fans would love to track down an elusive copy of the LP.
And The Big Chill, which was a completely unrewarding movie to anyone who wasn’t a baby boomer, but enjoyed the first wave of Motown’s licensing of its extensive catalog, making the soundtrack a sort of ‘essential 60s’ collection. It did so well a second volume was introduced the following year.
And Super Fly— probably the best example of a soundtrack album far superior to the film itself. In fact, it’s one of few films to make less money than its accompanying record.
Curtis Mayfield recorded more than twenty-five albums after leaving the Impressions, but his name is synonymous with the seventies soundtrack based largely on this classic record. Curtis Mayfield’s score for the 1972 movie fits better with the socially conscious albums by Curtis’ contemporaries Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder than the rest of the blaxsploitation genre. Super Fly is entirely different from albums like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and James Brown’s Black Caesar.
In songs like “Pusherman” and “No Thing on Me” Curtis criticizes the glorification of dealers and pimps in films like Super Fly. and presents a more accurate picture of drug abuse. This is exactly what critics of the movie (like the NAACP) were asking to see. Super Fly is one of the best anti-drug albums ever made.
Also, the songs are some of the best Curtis ever wrote. “Pusherman” and “Give me your Love (Love Song)” are completely original arrangements only Curtis could have created — and the title track is one of his funkiest moments on record.
And its phenomenal success provided Curtis the opportunity to score several more films in the coming years.
The overwhelmingly ironic 1971 album Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs aside, there were few explicit anti-drug messages to be found in record stores in the early 70s, especially in the soul section. This is especially unfortunate because of the enormous societal toll drug traffic took from those in the inner cities. Curtis’ portrayal of dope fiends and dealers (especially in “Freddy’s Dead”) present a cautionary tale which presaged the crack epidemic of a decade later.
After finishing an excellent follow-up album of new material (Back to the World), Curtis turned to his next film project: the soundtrack for Claudine, a family drama which fit the demands of organizations like the NAACP, who wished to see more African-American films outside the blaxsploitation genre. The songs on Curtis’ soundtrack for Claudine were performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips, hot off the success of their top-selling album Imagination, from which came “Midnight Train to Georgia” and three other hit singles.
The movie Claudine carried heavy social messages about the African-American community, but Curtis translated few of these into his songs for the score, focusing instead on the film’s love story between a single mother played by singer Diahann Carroll and a garbageman played by James Earl Jones. The songs are more in the style of his later-period music with the Impressions than the heavy funk infused soul of Super Fly, but the song “On and On” was a top 10 single in that style.
Curtis again brought guests into the studio to perform the songs for his next soundtrack album, Let’s Do It Again. This time it was the Staple Singers, who had just signed onto his Curtom label after the Stax bankruptcy. The legendary gospel-turned-sou. group proved to be a perfect fit to Curtis’ sound, and the soundtrack’s title tune was a hit single.
Let’s Do It Again is the middle film in a trilogy of Sydney Poitier/Bill Cosby comedies set around zany schemes. The first, Uptown Saturday Night, had been scored by soul saxophonist Tom Scott, and Curtis would come back with Mavis Staples to produce the music for the third, A Piece of the Action.
Let’s Do It Again finds the pair rigging boxing matches by hypnotizing an underdog fighter played by Jimmie Walker, who starred as J.J. on TV’s Good Times., and had recently released his debut comedy album (which we posted last week).
It’s a pretty good comedy, but folks aren’t really scrambling to find classic Cosby these days. Curtis’ soundtrack, however, is well worth the work to hunt down a copy.
His score for the last film in the series was released as a Mavis Staples solo album. We couldn’t find a copy for this post, but you can enjoy the theme (plus watch the one and only Sidney Poitier dance) in its closing scene:
The 1976 period piece Sparkle starred Irene Cara (pre-Fame) in a Supremes-based story about singing sisters. The film received few positive reviews and would be entirely forgotten if it weren’t for Curtis’ soundtrack, which has Aretha Franklin singing all the leads instead of Cara.
Sparkle provided Aretha with her last hit single of the seventies, but it falls short of Curtis’ collaborations with Mavis Staples or Gladys Knight.
The last movie score Curtis produced until he returned to Hollywood to provide a few songs for The Return of Super Fly in 1990) was for Short Eyes, a prison drama based on Miguel Piñero’s award winning play. Unlike Super Fly, nothing is glorified in this harsh and realistic portrayal of prison life, which Piñero penned while serving in Sing Sing for armed robbery.
The story, which culminates in the beating death of a pedophile, has been praised for its presentation of prison hierarchy and race relations. Curtis’ album is equally gritty. He’d opened his first solo album with “Don’t Worry, If there’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” and here starts off with a song which includes the line, “Ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven.” Short Eyes is our favorite Curtis Mayfield album. Highlights include some of his very best guitar work in the hopeless lament “Back Against the Wall” (where he sounds like Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel) and his brand of innovative high-production funk in “Freak Freak Freak, Free Free Free.”
The opening track, “Doo Doo Wap (is Strong in Here)” was one of Curtis’ last charting hits, and would belong on any “Best of Curtis Mayfield” collection, if such a thing exists.
Short Eyes hit shelves in the waning years of the American prisoners’ rights movement, which had previously seen some attention in popular music. Bob Dylan had a largely forgotten hit single (peaking at #33 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart) in 1972 with a song lauding prison writer and Black Panther activist George Jackson. His death — shot in the back during an escape attempt — led to prison protests around the country, notably the Attica uprising in upstate New York which began three weeks after Jackson’s death on September 9th, 1971.
The Attica uprising and its violent aftermath were the subject of many records in the coming years, including songs by John Lennon (“Attica State”), Paul Simon (“Virgil”) and 10cc (“Rubber Bullets”). Gil Scott-Heron referenced Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s culpability in “We Beg Your Pardon” and Charles Mingus implored listeners to “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” on Changes One.
Much of the prisoners’ movement came to a screeching halt with the Supreme Court’s Houchins v. KQED Inc ruling in 1978, which established there existed no “right of access” when it came to the incarcerated. This effectively shut off the movement’s ability to reach the masses via the media, and interest in the rights of the incarcerated waned just as, unfortunately, the war on drugs swelled to epic proportions. We can’t help to think of the tragic cycle described by Curtis in “Freddy’s Dead.” After asking, “Why can’t we brothers protect one another,” he describes another “Freddy on the corner now.”
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.