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It is nearly impossible to separate the poems of Langston Hughes from jazz, if only for their clever use of syncopation and repetition. He is often described as a jazz poet, and evidence of this influence can be seen as early as “When Sue Wears Red,” poem he wrote as a teenager.

As a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, he in turn influenced many jazz musicians — when last we visited Hughes here on the Hymies blog, it was to hear Nina Simone sing the song he wrote for her, “Backlash Blues” as well as a 90s collaboration between Courtney Pine and Cassandra Wilson to interpret his poem “I’ve Known Rivers.” This second song was first recorded by Gary Bartz in 1973, but we still haven’t found a replacement for our warped copy!

Hughes himself made a jazz album in 1958 for MGM Records, which was later reissued (as pictured here) by Verve Records in 1966. On it, he reads a ‘Greatest Hits’ assortment of poems over two small jazz combos, one led by jazz writer and occasional composer Leonard Feather, who produced the project, and one led by Charles Mingus.

weary-blues

You have almost certainly on the back of an LP jacket if you own more than a handful of jazz records. He was, for many years, perhaps the most prolific writer of jazz liner notes in the world. In addition, his 1960 New Encyclopedia of Jazz is an absolutely indispensable compendium of history and criticism. He was a friend to Louis Armstrong, once employed as a press agent by Duke Ellington, and one of the earliest supporters of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker with his 1949 book Inside Be Bop. He recorded albums as a pianist sporadically in the 50s and again in the 70s, but remains best known as a writer.

Leonard Feather never wrote the notes to a Charles Mingus album (in fact, the Mingus eulogy from Eric Dolphy’s Last Date we quoted just last week was replaced on reissues by notes from Feather). He often wrote about Mingus’ music, however, twice inviting him to his “Blindfold Tests” (featured in his Platterbrains radio broadcasts as well as printed in Metronome and Down Beat) in which an artist responds to several unidentified selections of jazz music.

Two years after their collaboration with Langston Hughes, Feather would be “recording director” for Mingus’ only Mercury album, Pre-Bird, which included a reworking of Weary Blues‘s “Weird Nightmare.” Still, Feather and Mingus are strange bedfellows, and it comes across in the difference between the arrangements they produced to accompany Hughes.

Weary Blues is of interest to collectors of Mingus’ extensive discography. Falling just before the watershed year (1959) in which he composed and recorded Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, his apparently extemporaneous arrangements hint at what he had in the works. Several motifs from those three great albums can be recognized, even though he’s working with a substantially smaller group and under far more auspicious conditions — for contractural reasons, the quintet’s leadership was credited to pianist Horace Parlan, even though the work is undeniably Mingusonian.

Mingus is far more fit for the role of framing Hughes’ words than Feather, although the later is himself also a writer. Consider Mingus’ second appearance in Feather’s “Blindfold Test” in April 1960, in which he completely dismisses the first record, Manny Albam album, and would rather talk about the Civil Rights movement:

Take it off … Look, I don’t want to drag you or anybody. I don’t think maybe you should give me a Blindfold Test , because I’ve changed. I didn’t let it get started — maybe that’s not fair of me? But it disturbs my ulcer. I’d rather talk about something important — all the stuff that’s happening down south.

Feather’s form — intended to slyly suggest talent is often not judged on its own merit but under pre-conceived notions of race, gender or age — undoubtedly frustrated the iconoclastic Mingus.

Although he certainly had extensive connections in New York’s jazz scene (as evident in the group he created to perform his arrangements on Side A), Feather chose Mingus to arrange music for Weary Blues likely because of the bassist’s often confrontational attitude. When, in 1979, he wrote Mingus’ obituary for the L.A. Times, Feather described him as “a brilliant man of strong convictions, he was outspoken on racial and social matters and became a storm center in many confrontations during his peak years.”

The section here is titled “Dream Montage” and contains all or portions of fourteen of Hughes’ poems (depending on how you count his superfluous commentaries). The most notable of these is “Harlem,” the 1951 poem known for asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” as it explores the American dream as experienced by African Americans. Its final line — “Or does it explode?” — almost ideally suited to Mingus’ musical and political leanings.

Another of the poems in this passage reads almost like it came from Mingus’ 1971 autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. In its entirety, “Final Curve” reads:

When you turn the corner
And You have run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left

Of course, Langston Hughes’ readers have been wondering what he might have meant here for decades. Is the “Final Curve” the conclusion of a personal journey along the lines of Mingus’ Me, Myself and Eye and other late compositions, or is the poem part of Hughes’ push for cultural nationalism. So much of his work was about how the African American journey to the American dream began at home, in taking pride and ownership of a heritage even when others do not. Or, as Mingus wrote in Beneath the Underdog:

So he must use what time he has creating now for the future and utilize the past only to help the future, not as a razor strop for guilts and fears that inhibit his very being. Or like it said at the end of a labor song I liked a lot when I was a kid: what I mean is, take it easy, but take it.

automatic for the people

This week we borrowed about a half dozen cassettes from the record shop because we knew we’d be doing a little more driving than my usual none. One of them was REM’s Automatic for the People, which certainly sold more copies on cassette than it did on vinyl when it was released. I recall having to place a special order to get the LP.

There was sort of a collective shrug when REM announced they were breaking up after thirty years and sixteen albums (if you count Dead Letter Office). People stopped paying attention by the time they released their last record, Collapse Into Now — in fact, we still have one copy in the shop from the original few we ordered in 2011. But there was a time when they were considered one of the most important bands in America, and that time was the fall of 1992.

Everyone has a little nostalgia for the albums they listened to in high school, and at the time it seemed like everyone was listening to this album. It sold more than 18 million copies, so for a lot of people it was their first introduction to the band — for us it was just the next in a series of albums I loved.

Six songs were released as singles, but it seems like they were stretching it a little when they got to “Nightswimming,” which is a very good song but not really radio material. It has just enough of the band’s strange edge to save it from its own oversaturated sweetness.

Mike Mills, who usually played the bass, is the only member of the band who accompanies singer Michael Stipe on the song. He claims he used the same piano used by Jim Gordon on Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla.” There isn’t a consensus between members of the band as to the song’s meaning: Stipe claims it was originally about a night watchman the group had hired, and Mills has said its about their after show skinny dipping in the early days of REM.

Whatever its beginnings, there’s a wistful sense of lost innocence in the undercurrent of “Nightswimming,” a song which was very present the year we’d jump off our favorite bridge on Lake of the Isles into the black water below.

jamal stepping out with a dream

We have always been fans of Ahmad Jamal, which is why he turns up on the Hymies blog fairly often (for instance here). He is certainly one of the most successful small combo pianists in the world of jazz. His catalog of seventy-five or so albums rarely steps outside of the trio format, and just as rarely does he record with electric instruments.

The only thing we like more than the opening track on this 1976 album from his years at 20th Century is the dapper suit he his wearing on the cover.

On the song “Handicapper” Jamal is joined by guitarist Calvin Keys, who is one of the few musicians to join Jamal’s trio as a fourth for more than a few recordings. Keys was a successful side-man but also released a few albums for the Black Jazz label which have recently come back into print.

Jamal’s occasional jaunts on the Fender Rhodes electric keyboard are some of our favorites of his albums. Notable is his performance at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival, which was split over two albums (Freeflight and Outertimeinnerspace), which is one of his first electric performances.

story of star wars

The Star Wars trilogy takes up a fair amount of space in our record collection at home. The reason for this is something that might alarm millennials: when we Gen Xers were growing up with Star Wars, we couldn’t watch it on any passing whim. Even if you were fortunate enough to have VHS or Betamax player, there was likely only one in the house, forcing you to share video time with people — ugh, parents — who didn’t understand how important Star Wars was. Worse still, you had to convince them to spend twenty dollars a piece for the tapes. Or rent it. Lord knows our parents spent enough money renting Star Wars at the grocery store to open their own franchise.

So the way you recreated Star Wars was through the records. Each of the original three films had an excellent soundtrack LP, with composer John Williams conducting the London Philharmonic. In addition to providing hours of background music while playing with those Kenner toys in the basement, these albums offered stills from the films to look at and, in one case, a poster.

20th Century also produced story albums for each of the Star Wars films, and licensed the images and score to Disney’s Buena Vista Records. This last move led to the storybook records with an amateur cast, and the first wave of anxiety over the Disneyfication of the trilogy around the same time J.J. Abrams was a sixteen-year-old scoring Nightbeast.

We love the actors on these 7-inch records, especially the guy who plays Han Solo.

If you think this is fun, wait ’til you hear Buena Vista’s versions of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The best part is actor Michael Dorn (of CHiPs and Star Trek fame) playing Darth Vader for the first time.

adventures of luke skywalker

The story LPs had the actual dialogue from the film, and they were awesome. The first was narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne, and was recently broadcast here in town by KFAI’s Listening Lounge. Our favorite is the storybook treatment of The Empire Strikes Back, released as The Adventures of Luke Skywalker and narrated by the improbably named Malachi Throne.

The first two soundtrack albums were frustratingly mis-sequenced, making it impossible (without moving the needle several times) to act out the films while playing the album. Ideally, these interruptions could be timed to coincide with costume and scenery changes. Those of you who grew up with these records probably understand.

star wars

The success of Star Wars and The Story of Star Wars naturally inspired imitations and knock-offs. Meco’s famous disco version of the main title theme and the Cantina band, from his album Star Wars and Other Galatic Funk, briefly became the #1 song in America. Before we come down on Meco for cashing in on the Star Wars fad, which folks certainly did, he reportedly saw the film four times in the first week. He may be one of the awesome-est Star Wars nerds of all time.

meco star wars

london orchestra

Orchestral knock-offs became ubiquitous. While recording the Star Wars theme may have lent a little class to the Boston Pops after Saturday Night Fiedler, other albums were janky at best. The deceptively-named and inferior London Philharmonic Orchestra released an album with this warning on the jacket to avoid lawsuits or, we suppose, a brick through the window of the basement where they recorded.

Star Wars record ephemera extended well beyond the story book albums and the scores. There was, for instance, a 12″ single with an extended version of “Lapti Nek,” the fucking awesome Max Rebo Band jam which was cut when the “special edition” of Return of the Jedi appeared. Lucas and crew pushed for the song to become a dancefloor hit, re-recorded it with Michelle Gruska (today a voice-over artist and vocal coach) taking Sy Snoodle’s lead. The sad state of “Lapti Nek” is a subject of controversy with Star Wars fans, as the song as it appeared in Return of the Jedi in 1983 has never been issued on a record.

But something else sparked more controversy when folks started to listen to the Star Wars scores at home. Classical fans noticed striking similarities to other albums in their collections. It started with the main theme, which bears several striking similarities to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s title them for King’s Row, a modestly successful film produced by Warner Brothers in 1943. Previously it was best remembered by film buffs for being the movie to make Ronald Reagan a star (it’s where he first said, “Where’s the rest of me?” — a line which became the title of his autobiography written while running for Governor of California). Korngold’s music was popular enough that the studio was prepared with a form letter for requests for it’s score, which studios rarely offered on albums or sheet music at the time.

It wasn’t until after Star Wars sparked interest in the score that it was finally recorded and released as an LP, although it is considered one of the finest works in Korngold’s extensive film catalog. He also wrote several string quartets, concertos for strings, and symphonic works. In his main title theme for King’s Row you’ll likely recognize the inspiration for the main title theme to Star Wars, but also Williams’ themes to Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

kings row soundtrack

Was Williams a thief? Meh, hardly more of a thief than George Lucas himself. And honestly, if it weren’t for Lucas’ appropriation of mythology, we wouldn’t have read books like The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell as teenagers and seemed smart to our peers in college. Without Williams we may have not discovered Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s magnificent score to this otherwise forgettable film. Without Star Wars we might be wandering in some desolate desert.

But questions about the Star Wars scores persist. It doesn’t help that the theme from ET is eerily close to a passage from Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony or that the best part of Jaws clearly comes from Dvorak’s From the New World symphony.

Perhaps the most damning example of Williams’ creative license is also the most memorable melody to come out of the Star Wars trilogy. The debut of “The Imperial March” in The Empire Strikes Back is nothing less than movie magic, but it’s also a familiar theme.

empire strikes back

Frederick Chopin’s B-flat funeral march was hardly as obscure as the score for a Ronald Reagan film. In fact, it was one of the pianist’s finest moments. The Marche funèbre from his Sonata no. 2 was completed in 1839, and a century later became a standard at state funerals. Fifty years ago it was performed by a military band during the funeral procession for Winston Churchill, and just two years earlier for John F. Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery (hear the latter here).

rubenstein chopin

Orchestrations of Chopin’s funeral march date to the earliest part of the twentieth century, but it was Edward Elgar’s arrangement in 1933 which became the most popular and likely inspired Williams’ “Imperial March.”

You can hear an original 78rpm recording of Sir Adrian Boult’s conducting Elgar’s arrangement performed by the BBC Orchestra in 1937 at Abbey Road here.

Pianist Arthur Rubinstein is often considered the finest interpreter of Chopin’s music, and first recorded the Sonata no. 2 in 1946. It is included in RCA’s Red Seal Chopin Collection (pictured at left), and features a moving performance of the funeral march.

Another recurring theme from The Empire Strikes Back becomes integral to the story when Han Solo is put into carbonite by Darth Vader. After Princess Leia expresses her love for the scoundrel (to which he famously replies “I know”) we hear the theme introduced when the two first kissed aboard the Millennium Falcon.

This lovely romantic melody was first introduced in Tchaikovsky’s sole violin concerto, which was completed in 1881 and remains regarded as one of the most demanding works written in the form. We chose a recording which features David Oistrakh, a virtuoso to whom concerti by Shostakovich and Kachaturian were dedicated. He’ll introduce the familiar theme just past halfway through the recording sample below, which comes from a 1962 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Tchaikovsky re-introduces the melody near the conclusion, much in the same way Williams does with his love theme in Empire when Han is frozen. Tchaikovsky initially intended to dedicate his concerto to Iosof Kotek, a violinist who historians believe was also briefly his lover. Kotek did not want to debut the piece, and their forbidden relationship wasn’t allowed to blossom, as was the one between “a princess and a guy like me,” as Solo phrased it.

tchaikovsky concerto

If Williams relied on his record collection for inspiration while composing the Star Wars score, he certainly had a favorite in Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring, which we featured here on the Hymies blog a couple years back. It’s magically surreal opening mirrors Williams’ musical landscape for Tatooine, and an exciting early passage provided the soundtrack of stormtroopers on the march in the middle of the film.

We took our samples from Stravinsky’s ballet from this exciting 1968 version by the Chicago Symphony with Seiji Ozawa conducting. Our earlier post about it uses an earlier recording with the composer conducting.

rite of spring

The suspenseful music heard as the Millennium Falcon comes out of hyperspace and approaches the Death Star comes from a likely source: Gustav Holst’s seven part suite, The Planets. Early passages of “Neptune, the Mystic” are reflected in other scenes set aboard the gigantic space station as well.

The eighth and furthest planet had only been discovered a little over thirty years before Holst’s birth, and was still shrouded in mystery when he composed this movement for his suite on the celestial bodies in 1915. It was not until Voyager 2 passed the planet in 1989 that we were able to get a good look at it.

holst the planets

While fans have had fun finding reflections of Williams’ Star Wars scores in other classical works, they are hardly more ‘stolen’ themes than re-invented, the same way the story itself borrows from films like The Hidden Fortress. It is hard to imagine any scene from the trilogy without the music.

return of the jedi

Williams also provided inventive otherworld music for the Cantina band, Jabba’s palace, and the Ewok celebration. Like “Lapti Nek,” this last song was replaced in the 1992 “Special Edition” of Return of the Jedi, to the frustration of fans. The replacement song was also written by Williams, but proved to be highly unpopular, as were most changes made in the “Special Editions.” What better place to end our survey of Star Wars records than with the end of Return of the Jedi?

ewoks

The word “Ewok” is never spoken in Return of the Jedi, nor are any of the little warriors given a name except in the end credits. Their celebration song at the end of the film — which fans know as “Yub Nub” –is in a language invented by legendary engineer Ben Burtt, who is responsible for the sounds of Star Wars.

This storybook record about the Ewoks is from the same Buena Vista series which licensed the music and images, but not the actor’s voices.

liszt rhapsodies

Franz Liszt published his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C-Sharp Minor in 1851, but it was some seventy years later it made is cartoon debut cementing the piece in American popular culture.

In an early Walt Disney cartoon, The Opry House, Mickey Mouse is forced to battle a manic piano while performing the popular encore.

Liszt’s irrepressible music reappeared just two years later in Krazy Kat’s Bars and Stars. Disney used it again in Silly Symphony, and this cartoon, along with Max Fleischer’s Car-Tune Portrait, presented the unique challenges animals face when performing classical music.

When Warner Brothers’ looney genius Fritz Freleng discovers the Rhapsody’s potential, it becomes one of the funniest pieces of music imaginable. Freleng first uses it in Rhapsody in Rivets, a wordless masterpiece produced for Merry Melodies in 1941. In the cartoon (frustratingly unavailable on Youtube!) we watch a Leopold Stokowski look-alike conduct the construction of the building, using the blueprint as a score, all choreographed to Liszt’s Rhapsody no. 2.

Of the half dozen Freleng cartoons to feature the music, none is as memorable as Rhapsody Rabbit, in which Bugs Bunny makes his concert debut performing the piece only to find an unwelcome helper. Without straying from Liszt’s score, Freleng animates their conflict with magical timing in this clip below.

Bugs answers a phone during his performance (“What’s up, Doc?”) and says, “Who? Franz Liszt? Never hear of ‘im.”

The bit is lifted almost immediately by competitors Hanna and Barbera in the Tom & Jerry cartoon A Cat Concerto.

The Rhapsody no. 2 has also been performed by Woody Woodpecker, Rowlf the Dog, and in a violent piano duel by Daffy Duck and Donald Duck in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It appeared in three Marx Brothers films, and was used in a song about all the flavors of ice cream by the Animaniacs.

Throughout all this, the Rhapsody remains a concert favorite, often used by pianists to present their virtuosity in an encore. Liszt’s score enticingly invites the performer to add a cadenza. Many great pianists have written additions, notably Sergei Rachmaninoff and Arthur Rubinstein. From the very beginning it was a concert favorite, and as records were introduced it became a recording staple.

The recording used in this post, incidentally, is by Alfred Brendel, one of our favorite pianists of all time. Although he was known for his serious, scholarly attitude towards interpretation (once saying his “responsibility is to the composer and to the piece,” not the performer), Brendel likely appreciates the Rhapsody’s comic potential. In a recent retrospective interview he talks about his appreciation of early cinema:

As a child, I had played a lead in a children’s theatre and watched movies by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The fascination of the cinema has remained, culminating in a film series that I curated a few years ago under the heading “Between Dread and Laughter”. Great acting in the theatre as well as on the screen has continued to inspire my urge to play roles as a musical performer, and to treat musical pieces as characters.

Liszt himself was said to be one of the greatest pianists of his time, if not of all time. Few reliable accounts really tell us what he was like in performance, although he was occasionally mocked in reviews for his dramatic nature. He was known to add his own cadenzas to other works, or to include fluid changes of tempo to existing scores. In one letter he admitted doing all this to gain applause from the audience. We cannot imagine what Liszt, who life was tantalizingly close to the age of recorded music, would think of all these appearances in cartoons, but we think he would approve.

She just hates taking a day off. She’d rather be in the record store greeting everyone.

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