“Walk On” by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry
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It sure is a shame when really awesome records are in a basement flood or a leaking garage, and they end up destroyed. If you’re a collector you’ve surely seen ‘em, gatefold stuck together forever, or jackets so moldy that no amount of scrubbing is going to salvage them.
That’s the story with this crate of cool records someone brought in over the weekend. Some of the records most damaged were from the short, eighteen-album run of Rosetta Records, a label which always has awesome liner notes.
Fortunately, most of them are still read-able, and the albums cleaned up pretty well. We always thought Rosetta Records was named for Sister Rosetta Tharp, the trailblazing gospel singer who we wrote about here back in May. After all, one of its releases was a collection of her songs. We have learned the label was in fact named for its founder, Rosetta Reitz, a feminist writer who had a pretty extraordinary career even before she started making awesome archival records.
Reitz (pronounced “rights”) worked as a stockbroker, ran a book store called the Four Seasons and a greeting card business before she borrowed money for all her friends to start Rosetta Records in 1979. She was already by this time a published author, both of cooking books (she had been a food critic for the Village Voice) and books about women’s issues. She was fifty-five when she started her record label.
Rosetta Records compiled jazz and blues records made by women, mostly from 78s which were in the public domain. These were the same sort of archival albums as the Stash Records collections we posted about a few weeks ago when describing Patty and the Buttons’ vintage smut album. Reitz wrote extensive liner notes with each album, and the gatefold jackets featured a variety of vintage photographs. Some collected single performers, like Ida Cox and Sister Rosetta Tharp, and several had fun themes like Women’s Railroad Blues. Instrumentalists like trumpeter Valaida Snow were also featured with entire LPs.
From the notes to Mean Mothers, the first LP Reitz released in 1979:
“Mean mother” at first sounds like a contradiction. But it isn’t, if you understand its popular meaning. “She’s a mean woman” is really a compliment, meaning this person is serious and will not put up with any nonsense. She is not someone to trifle with or to take lightly. It is a positive view of an independent woman, granting her the regard she deserves as one who will not passively accept unjust or unkind treatment.
Mean women are to be celebrated for being forthright and honest — and for insisting on their dignity. This stance has earned them many epithets however, including one used by some social scientists: matriarch. Matriarch is a dirty word in this culture and its current meaning needs turning around to more accurately convey what the word originally meant — strong woman, a woman with authority who takes responsibility and nutures those she loves and usually anyone else who comes into her orbit.
The label started as a mail order business but eventually found its way into record stores. Reitz estimated that some titles sold as many as 20,000 copies. She remained involved in both jazz music and women’s issues until she passed away in 2008 at the age of eighty-four. Duke University maintains a gigantic archive of her papers, representing the enormous contribution of her career.
And the albums still turn up here in Minneapolis from time to time, thankfully they’re usually in better shape than this one.
“Good Time Mama” by Martha Copeland
Our last post linked to a Washington Post article about the challenges of making vinyl LPs as the number of functioning presses in America doesn’t keep pace with rising demand. To the existing challenges — from finding a sound engineer familiar with the format’s range for recording and mastering, to hoping your test press sounds just right, to timing an event to celebrate the whole six to ten week ordeal — add one more potential disaster. Fed Ex might lose your records somewhere in the middle of the country.
And that’s just what happened to one of the two records we released on Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center. Having safely received the first shipment of Ben Weaver’s LP, I Would Rather Be A Buffalo, we couldn’t even figure out what happened to the 45rpm single by Brian Laidlaw and the Family Trade. One box was entirely missing — and its tracking number useless — and the others disappeared for a more than an entire day somewhere in Ohio, putting it all perilously close to arriving too late.
Laura spent two days tracking down the packages. There were a lot of phone calls that started with, “Speak to a representative. Speak to a representative. SPEAK TO A PERSON!” And it didn’t get easier after breaking through the automated phone system — most of the representatives were in India, and it seeing as we were connecting over tens of thousands of miles, it didn’t seem unreasonable to suggest we drive the 750 miles to pick the records up ourselves.
Finally reaching someone in the United States, Laura learned where one box was — on a truck traveling to the Twin Cities Friday morning. It was due at late afternoon in Mahtomedi, and would be unpacked shortly after. Finding a single package would be “like finding a needle in a haystack.” But we were welcome to wait for the truck and ask.
And that’s how Laura got to spend the afternoon before our first ever record release show in a suburb we’d never heard of waiting outside a warehouse. She wasn’t the only person waiting, so this sort of stuff must happen a lot. Eventually, someone came out in the parking lot and started asking people their names. “Nope, don’t have it,” he said to the first three. Laura told him she was waiting for the package to Hymie’s. “Oh, the records! I have those!”
Fighting Friday rush hour, she made it to the Cedar just as Brian’s band was finishing their soundcheck, shortly before the doors were to open at 7pm. In a reversal of what usually happens, everyone on the stage cheered!
Recently, after moving a large collection to the record shop, we discovered one of the boxes contained not albums but a variety of books. Many of them were jazz biographies, and one — Duke Ellington’s 1976 memoir, Music is my Mistress — has proven to be an especially enjoyable read.
One of the most remarkable things is its appendix which lists all of the songs he composed during his career in their copyright order — from “Blind Man’s Bluff” in 1923 to the four-part Togo Brava suite written in 1973 it takes nearly thirty pages to list them all!
Here is a song from early in his career (1929 according to this book) which was re-recorded many times over the years. It is on this RCA/Victor compilation of the 1927-9 band, which features several Ellington Orchestra alumni who worked for Duke for decades — one could hardly imagine the Orchestra without Johnny Hodges or Harry Carney for instance.
Our favorite era of Ellington’s enduring Orchestra is the 1940-2 incarnation known by fans as the “Blanton/Webster Band.” We posted about bassist Jimmy Blanton not long ago (here). One could spend a lifetime collecting only Duke Ellington record, and always have plenty of great jazz to listen to — his music changes so much from decade to decade based on the distinct personalities that make up the Orchestra, and it would take a post longer than this to list all the favorites of jazz listeners.
From his autobiography, Ellington describes the process of fluctuation as members come and go:
The cats who come into the band are probably unique in the aural realm. When someone falls out of the band — temporarily or permanently — it naturally becomes a matter of “Whom shall we get?” or “Whom van we get?” It is not just a matter of replacing the cat who left, because we are concerned with a highly personalized kind of music. It is written to suit the character of an instrumentalist, the man who has the responsibility of playing it, and is almost impossible to match his character identically. Also, if the new man is sufficiently interesting tonally, why insist upon his copying or matching his predecessor’s style.
In other words, if we are completely satisfied with the horse and buggy, who invent an automobile or airplane? In the first place, when a man is needed, I personally scarcely even know which way to look for a replacement. I haven’t the slightest idea whether the grass next door is greener or leaner. So someone suggests so-and-so, and we send for so-and-so, and get him. We play together a day or two, and then I inquire whether or not the new cat likes what we are doing, having already watched his reaction in the band. If he likes it, he is invited to stay.
Everybody agrees he’s a nice guy until one day, sooner than expected, one of his other selves breaks through, or one of his more eccentric sides show. Then I confess, or one of the other cats in the band hollars, loudly, “Duke, you never miss!”
Our new man has come home to the home of homies. He manifests his acceptance of the honor bestowed upon him, and settles down to the prospect of welcoming the next new so-and-so.
Jazz legend Earl “Fatha” Hines had a little to say with this oddball single, released during the California gubernatorial campaign of 1966. His parody of “Mack the Knife,” a jazz standard taken from The Threepenny Opera, responds to the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, who at the time promised to “get the welfare bums back to work, and to “clean up the mess at Berkeley” (in the Gipper’s own words).
Hines speculated on the effects of Reagan’s budget proposals, which in fact did freeze and then cut funding to both the University of California, and Medi-Cal, the state’s medical assistance program. The flip side was an instrumental (“The Medi-Cal Blues”).
Earl “Fatha” Hines was sixty-three the year he cast his vote for Governor Pat Brown, and had only recently come out of a lengthy retirement from jazz, during which he ran a tobacco shop in Oakland. Just a couple years earlier his friend and oftentimes manager, jazz writer Stanley Dance, had pushed the pianist to perform again, leading to a surge of recordings in the mid-60s which were highly praised by jazz critics all over the country (Downbeat named him the “#1 jazz pianist” in 1966 — the first of six times he would receive their venerated award). Dance is one of our favorite writers, and we last referred to his amazing contributions to the history of jazz in this post about Johnny Hodges pet monkey, Shuma. For his part “Fatha” became an essential link between early jazz and it’s modern children, performing with musicians from several generations extensively until he passed away in 1983 at the age of seventy-nine.
Highlights from Hines’ post-retirement career include a session of duets with Jaki Byard which is one of the most interesting explorations of jazz piano ever recorded, and a fun appearance on Ry Cooder’s Paradise and Lunch where the two perform Blind Blake’s “Ditty wa Ditty” [sic]. Hines’ other duets from this period include duets with Marian MacPartland, Oscar Peterson and Teddy Wilson. He also joined legendary bassists Charles Mingus and Richard Davis, drummer Elvin Jones and singers Peggy Lee and Dinah Washington on sessions in his seventies. “Fatha” was so important to the history of jazz that no less an authority than Count Basie called him “the greatest piano player in the world.”
“Ron the Knife (The Ballad of Governor MacHealth”
“The Medi-Cal Blues”
“Ron the Knife (The Ballad of Governor MacHealth”
The Spider’s Banquet is the first and the most ingenious of Albert Roussel’s three ballets. It is brief and seeped in the impressionistic style of Debussy and Ravel, although unique in its simplicity of melody. Roussel completed the ballet in a few months in 1912 for the Teatre des Arts in Paris, where it was debuted by conductor Gabriel Grovlez.
In the beginning, the Spider is interrupted by a group of ants, who attempt to carry a rose petal. In order the worms and the butterfly appear, the latter quickly caught by the spider. While the spider celebrates his catch with a lively dance, the ants battle a cadre of praying mantises over a slice of apple. The spider snares the praying mantises in his web, and the next appearance is of a waltzing may fly who is captured with ease.
Having assembled his feast, the spider chooses to eat the butterfly first, only to find a praying mantis has beat him to the tasty snack. The other insects escape and prepare a funeral for the may fly, one by one leaving the scene.
The premiere of The Spider’s Banquet preceded the famously controversial premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by only a few months. Both would achieve widespread fame for the ballets, although for very different reasons. Roussel was seen by critics as an exemplar of the French tradition, while Stravinsky became known as an iconoclast, pushing boundaries until he, like Roussel, embraced neoclassicism.
Roussel’s two additional ballets were of far greater scale, taking for their subject stories from classical mythology. The second of these, Aeneas, was one of his last works, completed in 1935. For Aeneas, Roussel augmented the orchestra with a large choir, much as Ravel had done with Daphis and Chloe. although he retained the compunctual time-keeping and functional tonality that distinguishes him in the French tradition. Roussel would never become as famous as Debussy and Ravel, and his later works are today performed and recorded far less often than The Spider’s Banquet.
The notes to a 1971 recording on France’s Erato Records report that Roussel was hesitant to take the commission to compose the ballet for the Teatre des Arts, and did so only at the urging of his wife, Blanche. Jacques Rouche, the Theatre’s director, had been inspired by the popular work of Jean Henri Fabre, today considered the father of modern entomology — which, of course, is the study of insects.
It often bothered the composer that the popularity of The Spider’s Banquet eclipsed that of his symphonies in the neoclassical style, but it did not prevent him from conducting a performance of the ballet for record, the only recording he would make, in 1928.
The Spider’s Banquet by Albert Roussel, performed by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and conducted by Ernest Ansermet.