In his own way Don Gillis brought the classical repertoire to millions of Americans. He was the producer for the NBC Symphony Orchestra during the long tenure of Arturo Toscanini, helping to broadcast hundreds of symphonic and operatic performances on radio and television (today you can buy an enormous, 85-disc box set of the complete recordings of Toscanini on RCA/Victor Records which including many with the NBC Symphony Orchestra).
After Toscanini retired in 1954 Gillis helped create the Symphony of the Air, which continued to broadcast orchestral music under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. Gillis was also an active composer when not busy with the office work of managing the Orchestra — He wrote ten symhonies (including the light-hearted Symphony No. 5 1/2 “A Symphony for Fun”), several concertos and quartets, and tone poems such as a celebration of the town where he grew up, Fort Worth, Texas (Portrait of a Frontier Town).
The Man Who Invented Music was written by Don Gillis for the U.S. Steel NBC Summer Symphony Series in 1949. It was debuted by Antal Dorati that August. Gillis conducted this recording himself, and it was narrated by Jack Kilty, a minor television star on, you guessed it, NBC.
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.
This weekend Northrop Auditorium is celebrating the restoration of its Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, after a year and a half of work. The Minnesota Orchestra will be performing there on Friday and Saturday night, and there is a free program on Saturday morning that will feature several performers led by the U’s organist Dean Billmeyer.
The Minnesota Orchestra’s performances are especially exciting for several reasons. First of all, Northrop was where they recorded for more than a decade during the great era of American classical recordings — then the Minneapolis Symphony, they were, along with the Detroit Symphony, the flagship performers on Mercury Records’ Living Presence imprint.
The second reason its exciting is that they’ll be performing Charles Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony no. 3, commonly known as “The Organ Symphony.” Also on the program is a selection from one of Bach’s Partida and a new piece by John Harbison, What Do We Make of Bach? for Orchestra and Organ.
Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony is a favorite of ours. Some listeners regard him as too conservative and neo-classical, we love his rich sense of melody. Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy and a piano virtuoso, so he wrote extensively for the keyboard. Remarkably, although for twenty years he was the organist at La Madeline cathedral in Paris, Saint-Saëns did not write much for the organ. In this symphony, one of his most popular works, he chose to feature the instrument.
The organ’s part in the Symphony no. 3 is hardly intended to display virtuosity, but rather to celebrate the instrument’s extraordinary dynamic range and power. Here we’ve divided the symphony into four tracks, but technically it consists of two movements. They do still follow something along the lines of the familiar four movement form. The organ enjoys its dramatic moment three quarters of the way through the work.
Franz Liszt was an admirer of Saint-Saëns, and in turn the composer dedicated it to his memory. In many ways it feels like a tribute to Liszt, even though Saint-Saëns could not have known his friend would pass away shortly after its premier.
Dean Billmeyer will be performing the organ this weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra. The one you’re hearing on this record is played by Franz Eibner, performing with the Vienna Philharmusica Orchestra conducted by Hans Swarowsky. There are a ton of recordings of this symphony, and honestly this is not one of the best. It just happens to be one of our favorites for is brisk pacing and the wonderful interplay between the organ and the celeste and piano which follow its exciting appearance.
Mercury released a recording the symphony by of Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony that is sure to please any audiophile, if they’re able to find a fine copy. Decca Records has recently reissued this and several other Living Presence titles on remastered 180gram LPs. Eugene Ormandy’s recording of the Symphony was a big seller and often turns up in record shops like ours (there’s one here right now). It features the legendary organist E. Power Biggs. A recording which captures the symphony’s darker, more brooding moments is the one by Charles Munch conduction the Boston Symphony on RCA’s Red Seal label. According to the liner notes, this one features another organ made by the Aeolian-Skinner company, who were based in Boston.
If you are lucky enough to hear the Organ Symphony this weekend at Northrop Auditorium, you’ll be sure to also feel it. Northrop’s 7000 pipe organ is sure to sound spectacular, especially in Saint-Saëns’s coda, where some of the bass notes are just barely in our range of hearing!
Minneapolis is one of the largest cities in America to toss out Columbus Day and no longer celebrate the life of a genocidal mass murderer. Today is Indigenous Peoples Day in the city, although when you got to the bank and thought Damn! the sign on the door probably still said “Closed for Columbus Day.”
We had proposed this change here on the Hymie’s blog every Columbus Day for years, and also produced a program about the music of the Native American protest movement for KFAI’s Wave Project in 2011. Here it is:
Murder by Death is performing tonight at the Cedar Cultural Center. They’re touring to support their eighth album, The Other Shore. We’ve been listening to it a lot over the past month, and are looking forward to the show tonight.
Six years ago they performed here at Hymie’s, and one song is still up on Youtube.
Folklore around the world attributes supernatural powers to the scion of an unbroken line of males: the seventh son of a seventh son. These are sometimes dark, demonic powers, as in Argentina, where if the seventh son of a seventh son is not baptized in seven churches he will become the lobizón, a werewolf. Other cultures bestow upon him powers of premonition, or Christ-like abilities to heal merely by touch.
In 1 Chronicles 2:15 we learn David, second sovereign of the Kingdom of Israel, was the seventh son of Jesse. Apostles Matthew and Luke later assure us the Messiah was descendent of David. The lesser prophet Gad, who in 2 Samuel 24:11-13 instructed David to return to Judah where he would ultimately rule, was the seventh son of Jacob. The Book of Gad the Seer is a lost text.
We have already written about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 masterpiece, The Invisible Man. The book comes up again in the form of Petey Wheatstraw, who Ellison’s narrator meets in Harlem, and who claims to be the seventh son of a seventh son. Wheatstraw is drawn from Peetie Wheatstraw, blues singer alternately billed on records as “The Devil’s Son in Law” and “The High Sheriff from Hell,” who may have been the source of the Robert Johnson/”Crossroads” mythology.
Willie Dixon wrote “Seventh Son” in 1955, playing bass on the original recording by Willie Mabon. He performed the song himself on a 1970 album which included other songs he’d written as a Chess sideman, including “Back Door Man” and “I Ain’t Superstitious,” both associated with Howlin’ Wolf. It has likewise been covered many times over the years — notably by Johnny Rivers on his album, Meanwhile Back at the Whiskey A Go Go, by pianist Mose Alison, the Climax Blues Band and George Thorogood. Unfortunately the song has also been recorded by Sting.
The Johnny Rivers album, his third of five ostensibly recorded the legendary Los Angeles club, sounds suspiciously to some like a studio recording with overdubbed crowd noise. Still, his “Seventh Son” peaked at, you guessed it, #7 on the singles chart.
Iron Maiden’s seventh album explored clairvoyance, madness and evil in what began as a concept album based on the seventh son of a seventh son mythology. If there is a story to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, we can’t follow it, although we’ve always considered “Can I Play with Madness?” a favorite track by the band. “Moonchild” is an entertaining entry into the hard rock obsession with occultist Aleister Crowley, and the title song places the eponymous soul at the crossroads:
Then they watch the progress he makes The Good and the evil which path will he take Both of them trying to manipulate The use of his powers before it’s too late
On the jacket the tragic Eddie retains his lobotomy scar from Piece of Mind, as well as his cybertronic parts from Somewhere in Time. In addition he is disemboweled, and proffers a fetus.
“Seventh Son” was one of the first songs Joe Zawinul contributed after joining the Cannonball Adderely band, then a sextet featuring Yusef Lateef. The Austrian pianist went on to contribute some of the bands’ best material for its Capitol Recordings in the mid-60s including the hit “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” and later led Weather Report with Wayne Shorter.
“He’s always off on one trip or another,” says the band’s leader on The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Person.