Sunday, April 6, 2014

Swing and Jazz from Germany: Hans Rehmstedt, Horst Winter, Kurt Edelhagen, Jutta Hipp & Zoot Sims

This time we are looking at recordings that spotlight German jazz and jazz-influenced artists from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s whose work is not particularly well known in the United States. We begin with a compilation of dance-band sides by the popular Tanzorchester led by Hans Rehmstedt, followed by an album showcasing the exciting singing and playing of one of its most notable graduates, vocalist/clarinetist Horst Winter. Then, we discuss a recent release of 1954 live recordings by the orchestra led by the German pianist and arranger Kurt Edelhagen, and finally we take a look at a unique collaboration between German pianist Jutta Hipp and American tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, recorded for Blue Note in 1956.

In Germany, the years right before, during, and immediately following World War II marked the golden age of the Tanzorchester, the German dance bands who played for dancers and enthusiasts alike during the dark years of the Nazi regime. Like many of their British and American counterparts, these orchestras were characterized by both sweet and swinging sounds, and many of them featured musicians who were fascinated by hot jazz. This inevitably garnered some of these bands the opposition of the Nazi authorities, who saw jazz as unerwünschte Musik (that is, "undesirable music") in every way contrary to their ideology and political agenda, and actively sought to ban its performance both on German soil and in any Nazi-occupied territories. Often defying a ban that was rather difficult to put into practice anyway, some of these Tanzorchester kept on including jazzy solos and arrangements in their live performances and occasionally on their recordings.

One of the most musically satisfying combinations of the period was led by Hans Rehmstedt, a violinist who was very active in the Berlin dance-band scene in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. His orchestras included some of the best German musicians of the time, many of whom, like Willy Berking, Michael Jary, and Benny DeWeille, would eventually graduate to leading their own successful dance bands. As we can hear on the volume devoted to Rehmstedt in the series Die Grössen Deutschen Tanzorchester (Membran Music, 2005), featuring recordings made mostly in the late '30s and early '40s, Rehmstedt had a keen ear for jazz-inflected playing, and virtually all the sides he cut were graced by very enjoyable, tightly knit arrangements. Though Rehmstedt occasionally wrote some of his material ("Zigeunerfox," for instance), many of the songs presented here are original compositions by trombonist Willy Berking ("Atlantis," "Klavierträume," "Zum Tanzen geboren"), and the orchestra even attempts a German adaptation of the onomatopoeic Charles Trenet hit "Boum," given the German title "Bum Bum." After the war, Rehmstedt's Tanzorchester disbanded, and he found work as the director of the Radio Bremen studio orchestra. He passed away in 1956, following a car accident, and leaving behind some very interesting recordings, many of which are available on this CD release from Membran.

Besides being a fine musician and bandleader, Rehmstedt seems to have had a natural ability to recognize a good vocalist, and thus his orchestra featured some of the best singers of the day. Perhaps the most exciting of them all was Prussian-born Horst Winter, who was also an accomplished clarinetist and began his career singing vocal refrains with the Rehmstedt organization before forming his own orchestra in the early 1940s. The band's exciting, swinging arrangements and Winter's undeniably appealing vocal style are spotlighted on Ich mache alles mit Musik (Universal Music, 2003), the only compilation of Winter's work currently available in the United States, which includes sides made between 1941 and 1943. This is arguably the most interesting period of his career, characterized by a series of classic recordings that, like the one that lends its title to this CD, never fail to swing. These sessions find Winter at ease in a variety of settings, mostly leading a larger dance band, but at times also fronting a trio, a quartet, and a quintet. In addition to playing clarinet and sax, Winter also provides the vocal refrains, always charming and enjoyable, as in "Komm doch in meine Arme," "Ich nenne alle Frauen Baby," "Fräulein Madeleine," and "Frauen sind keine Engel," among others. One of the most popular artists to come out of the Tanzorchester era, he would represent Austria in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest using the stage name Harry Winter and would devote his entire life to music, both classical and popular, even becoming a choir director in his later years. This 24-track collection is definitely the most appropriate starting point for anyone interested in getting acquainted with Winter's vintage swinging sound.

Here is a video of a 1960s television appearance by Horst Winter, who performs "Exactly Like You."

Though never a household name in the United States, pianist-conductor-arranger Kurt Edelhagen was one of the most popular jazz-influenced musicians in Germany, forming his first big band in the mid-1940s and performing and recording extensively through the 1970s. His orchestras usually featured talented sidemen such as Francy Boland, Wilton Gaynair, Jimmy Deuchar, Tubby Hayes, and Dusko Goykovich, and his inventive arrangements were modeled on the work of Stan Kenton. The music contained in Bigbands Live: Orchester Kurt Edelhagen (Jazzhaus, 2013) is a prime example of Edelhagen's sound in a live big band setting. Recorded at three different locations between July and December of 1954 in front of highly appreciative audiences, the eighteen tracks on this CD present Edelhagen at his most Kentonian, leaving ample space for hot solos by Hans Gottfried Wilfert on trumpet and Helmut Reinhardt on both baritone and alto sax. The set list is comprised mostly of standards ("Tuxedo Junction," "St. Louis Blues," "The Man I Love," "You Go to My Head") and pianist Mary Lou Williams joins the band on two of her excellent originals, "Blues on the Bongo Beat" and "Nancy and the Colonel." Singer Caterina Valente, a protégée of Edelhagen's, contributes two syncopated boppish vocals on "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "Pennies from Heaven," even daring to scat a little on the latter. Overall, this is an outstanding collection of live recordings that should whet the listener's appetite for Edelhagen's prolific studio work.

Here is the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra in Berlin in 1966, playing "Alice in Wonderland," with Jiggs Whigham on trombone and Bora Rokovic on piano.

And, finally, we spotlight a rather obscure yet extremely satisfying collaboration. German pianist Jutta Hipp met versatile saxophonist Zoot Sims sometime in the 1950s in Germany, precisely during a European tour of the Stan Kenton band, of which Sims was a member at the time. Upon Hipp's move to New York City in 1955, at the behest of critic Leonard Feather, she encountered harsh criticism from those who believed that her style was too close to that of Lennie Tristano and, particularly, that of Horace Silver. But by 1956, when she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and cut this impressive session with Sims at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio, she seems to have set out to prove her critics wrong. Indeed, on Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims (Blue Note, 1956) she stays away from the influence of Tristano and Silver, and her sound is full of swing on uptempo numbers ("Wee Dot," "Almost Like Being in Love," "Too Close for Comfort") and of restrained melancholy on the only ballad of the session ("Violets for Your Furs"). The group is rounded out by Jerry Lloyd on trumpet, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums, and this quintet setting is perfect to showcase Hipp's delicate playing. Lloyd provides an original composition ("Down Home") and Sims another one ("Just Blues"), and even though Sims's tenor saxophone is accorded more space than Hipp's piano, it is Hipp that creates the wistful, easy-going atmosphere that makes this album a winner. The 2008 CD reissue adds two tracks from the session that never made it onto the original LP ("These Foolish Things" and "'S Wonderful"), thus offering everything that Hipp and Sims recorded together. Hipp, who was also a talented painter, would inexplicably retire from the New York jazz scene shortly after leading this session, and this very recommendable quintet album is definitely the highlight of her meager, though very interesting, discography.

Zoot Sims and Jutta Hipp

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Rhythm-'n'-Ink 1: All or Nothing at All. A Life of Frank Sinatra, by Donald Clarke

Very often, the reading of a book on a particular jazz vocalist or musician leads me to rediscover some of that artist's work, which I had sometimes forgotten or overlooked. This happens exclusively with books that are truly enlightening, engaging, and well written, and when it does, the pleasure is twofold: not only do I get to read an interesting book that sheds light on aspects of the artist's life or work that I did not know about, but that book also spurs me on to seek out recordings of whose existence I was not aware or to dust off some old records that I had not heard in a long time. This is the purpose behind Rhythm-'n'-Ink, a new section of the blog where I will discuss some very recommendable books that I have been reading lately, and then I will spotlight the albums that, for one reason or another, those books led me to (re)discover. This first installment will concentrate on Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra (Pan Books / Macmillan), one of the most interesting books about the Chairman currently available.

Over the years, thousands of pages have been devoted, in many languages, to discussing the life of Frank Sinatra, with varying degrees of success. Too many books have been published that concentrate solely on Sinatra's private life, the scandals that seemed to follow him everywhere he went, and his alleged connections with the Mob, among other sensational topics. As a result, many volumes overlook his recordings and film work, the real reason why we should be interested in Sinatra to begin with. There are, of course, notable exceptions, such as Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art, Charles Granata's Sessions with Sinatra, and Pete Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters, to give three examples of titles that are well worth reading. Yet not many books on Sinatra seem to succeed in offering a satisfactory appraisal of the connections between the man's work and the man's life. In my opinion, Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra is one such title.

In his study, Clarke situates Sinatra in his time and in his place, discussing not only his life and work, but also the historical, social, political, and artistic context that directly or indirectly influenced his life and his work. Clarke's writing style is swift and dynamic, and he is never afraid to express his opinions about Sinatra's artistic legacy, whether it be a masterpiece such as Songs for Swingin' Lovers or a very low lowlight such as Watertown, but he always does so with elegance and wit. Ever since I bought it in the late 1990s, I have been coming back periodically to All or Nothing at All, and every time I read it, I find in it some passages that make me rethink some of my assumptions about a particular Sinatra album or even a song that I had tucked away in a corner of my mind. Clark is a compelling biographer because he is not interested in all the gossip surrounding Sinatra's life (although that is an inescapable element when writing about Sinatra), but he mostly concentrates on explaining how American history shaped Sinatra, how Sinatra shaped American history, and in turn, how Sinatra's life experiences determined his artistic legacy. And in this respect, this is a unique book on its subject, as Clarke explores the seeming paradox of the tough guy who became successful mostly through his ability to touch the hearts of audiences by means of uncovering the emotions contained in the lyrics of the songs he performed.

Author Donald Clarke
Clarke discusses the many ups and downs of Sinatra's career, painting a vivid picture of a man full of contradictions, an iconic figure who achieved that stature, as would be expected, by making both good and bad decisions regarding his professional and personal lives, but always managing to come out on top no matter how difficult the situation in which he found himself. To Clarke, Sinatra is an icon not only by virtue of his work, which is what ultimately remains and should count, but also because of the personal relationships that his listeners have with that work, because of the feelings that his audience projects onto his figure and his recordings. As Clark reminds us, in a highly lyrical fashion, at the very end of the last chapter,

Gene Lees has written that Sinatra could hire people to do everything for him except sing. He did that for us. His career is over, but what we have left of Frank Sinatra, the recordings, is the best part. The rest is the echo of our times. (298)

And one of these recordings, which the re-reading of Clarke's very recommendable book led me to rediscover, is one of Sinatra's lesser-known Reprise albums, All Alone, from 1962. With its slow, melancholy string arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, the LP may well have been titled something like Come Waltz with Me, since 3/4 is the time signature used throughout, and in fact, it seems that Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote a tune by that name that did not make it onto the finished project. As Clarke notes, "nostalgia . . . seems to drench the album" (207) and Jenkins's slow arrangements perfectly suit that mood, as Sinatra revisits "The Girl Next Door" (which he had included in his early Capitol album Songs for Young Lovers) and five excellent songs by Irving Berlinthe title track, "The Song Is Ended" (these two bookend the record) "When I Lost You," "Remember," and "What'll I Do." For this project, Sinatra also turns to some old chestnuts, such as "Oh, How I Miss You Tonight," "Together," and "Are You Lonesome Tonight," the latter owing nothing to Elvis Presley's then fairly recent hit recording. This is perhaps Sinatra's less commercially successful collaboration with Gordon Jenkins: "The album was a success on its own terms," concludes Clarke, "but did less well than any of his others in this period" (207). Yet overall, All Alone is a very enjoyable concept album that is well worth rediscovering.


I recently got in touch with Mr. Clarke via e-mail, and he graciously agreed to an interview for the blog. That interview is forthcoming and will come out of our correspondence over the past few months. Other interesting books by Mr. Clarke include The Rise and Fall of Popular Music and Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, among others.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 3: Al Bernard

Before proceeding any further with this new entry in the Unsung Vocalists series, I feel that this article requires a brief personal introduction. Part of my wife's family hails from the southern Missouri town of Charleston (yes, that area of the country where people say "Missourah") and upon my first visit with her grandmother's sister, Mrs. Sally Winchester, I could not help but notice that in the den of her house she had a framed original copy of the sheet music for a song entitled "Blue-Eyed Sally," doubtless because the protagonist of that song is Mrs. Winchester's namesake. Due to the fact that a family reunion is held every other year in Charleston, I have set foot in her house many times and have always enjoyed inspecting the cover of that sheet music. Now that Mrs. Winchester has moved into a nursing home not too far from where her old house stands, my wife, Erin, and our baby daughter, Libby, recently had the chance to visit with her, and one of the first things that I observed when I entered her room at the nursing home was that, among the many pictures of several close and distant relatives that hang on the walls, there was still that frame with the sheet music for "Blue-Eyed Sally."

The song was penned by the songwriting team of Al Bernard and J. Russel Robinson and published in 1924 by Henry Waterson, Inc., of New York. Robinson composed the music and Bernard came up with the lyrics, and according to Brian Rust's Complete Entertainment Discography, the two of them recorded it as the Dixie Stars in New York City on December 30, 1924, a vocal duet with piano accompaniment by Robinson. There apparently is also a version by the Dixie Stars released on Brunswick (2689) as a "vocal duet with orchestra," and the popularity of the song ensured that it was covered by several dance bands, including a delightful reading by Ted Weems in 1924, way before Perry Como became the band's male vocalist, and one by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, among many others. In my opinion, one of the best instrumental recordings came courtesy of the legendary California Ramblers, who cut at least two different versions of the song, one in 1924 and another in 1925, with a lineup featuring jazz greats such as Jimmy Dorsey, Adrian Rollini, and Irving Brodsky.

Al Bernard, whose complete name was Alfred A. Bernard, had been born in New Orleans in 1887 or 1888, and even though he was a fairly popular vaudeville performer often billed as "the boy from Dixie," his recording career would not begin until 1919. Bernard seemed to specialize in songs that included the word blues in their title, even though those songs usually had very few, if any, blues elements. It is true, however, that he was one of the first singers to record compositions by W.C. Handy, such as "Memphis Blues" and a 1919 version of "St. Louis Blues," and he often sang vocal refrains on records by popular jazz bands of the day, like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Bennie Krueger Orchestra.

In his highly recommended book Popular American Recording Pioneers 1895-1925, Tim Gracyk devotes several pages to Bernard, noting that "he was the first to cut 'Frankie and Johnny' successfully for an American record company." This song, inspired by a real murder committed in St. Louis around the turn of the century, was extremely influential, would enter the repertoire of several blues and country artists, and would in time be recorded by virtually everyone from Jimmie Rodgers to Mississippi John Hurt to Bob Dylan, and even Elvis Presley would star in a forgettable 1966 movie based on its story. Throughout his rather long career, Bernard proved to be extremely versatile both as a singer and as a songwriter, recording with duet partners such as Ernest Hare and pioneering country artist Vernon Dalhart and even writing tunes occasionally with Jimmy Durante. The excellent "Sam Jones Blues," one of the songs that, like "Blue-Eyed Sally," he penned with J. Russel Robinson, was cut by Bessie Smith in 1923, and his 1919 recording of "Hesitation Blues" is one of the first commercial waxings of this oft-recorded song that would have a profound influence on western swing bands such as that led by Milton Brown in the 1930s. (Incidentally, the Light Crust Doughboys, a popular western swing outfit, also included a version of "Blue-Eyed Sally" in one of their sessions for Vocalion in 1938.)

A newspaper ad for a personal appearance by Bernard and Robinson that mentions "Blue-Eyed Sally"

Bernard's versatility is amply demonstrated on the several recordings that he made for Grey Gull beginning in the mid-1920s, a series of releases on which he dabbles in many different styles, including even some spoken comedy skits, Toward the end of his life, Bernard gave up his recording activities and moved to New York City, where he passed away in March of 1949, aged sixty. Gracyk aptly sums up his most important contribution to American popular music thus: "In popularizing songs with 'blues' in the title, especially W.C. Handy numbers that would eventually be recognized as classics, he was a pioneering artist." Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, not a single compilation of his music has been released on CD at the time of this writing, which is really a pity if we bear in mind the consistently high quality of most of his recorded legacy. As for me, besides his undeniable importance as a recording pioneer, Bernard and his music—and particularly his self-penned hit "Blue-Eyed Sally"—will always be linked, whether she knows it or not, to Mrs. Sally Winchester of Charleston, Mo.

Here is Ted Weems's dance-band version of Al Bernard's "Blue-Eyed Sally," recorded in 1924:

Thursday, March 6, 2014

New Information Surfaces on Charlie Palloy

Following my article on singer-guitarist Charlie Palloy, published back in November, one of our readers, identified simply as "Crown Records," wrote me a message to let me know that further information on Palloy had surfaced right around the time when I was doing the research for my article. Apparently, Palloy, whose real name was Carmino Molluzzo and was the son of Italian immigrants who settled down in New York City, enjoyed a longer career in music than was previously thought, although he recorded as Charlie Palloy only for Crown and Columbia, which perhaps accounts for the scarcity of information previously available on him. Afterwards he changed his name to Charlie Costello and moved to Detroit, where he ran a nightclub for several years. According to the message from our friend "Crown Records," a full-length article is currently under preparation and will soon appear in the magazine VJM's Jazz & Blues Mart. For more information, you can visit this very interesting Facebook page devoted to artists who recorded for the old Crown label. And, of course, I am grateful to our reader "Crown Records" for this message, which somehow fulfills the wish for more information about Palloy that I made toward the end of my article!

And here is Charlie Palloy's version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," cut for Crown in January of 1932.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 2: Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

The second installment in our series of Bandstand Christmas Essentials takes a look at one of the most swinging seasonal albums ever recorded—Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, produced by Norman Granz and arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol. Ella is in top form, the studio orchestra provides some very inspired backing, and the song choices offer a few surprises. The result is a holiday album that oozes with jazz and sounds extremely fun.

Throughout her long and prolific career, Ella Fitzgerald recorded comparatively few Christmas songs. A quick look at her vast discography reveals that Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, a full-length album that she cut for Verve in 1960, is her most satisfying seasonal offering. Like Dean Martin's A Winter Romance, this is not exactly a traditional Yuletide record, although the song selection definitely includes more straight-ahead Christmas songs than Dino's Capitol classic. The anonymous original liner notes of the album actually underscore this fact:

Mindful that Christmas albums normally emphasize the religious and the solemn, Ella chose in this to stress the festive aspect of the season; hence the latitude employed in the selection of material. As if to ask: Why not the peace and good will of Christmas the year 'round?

And, as the title of the collection suggests, Ella's Christmas is not only merry and cheerful but also swinging. This is so, in part, because of Frank DeVol's hip yet unobtrusive arrangements, which help Ella sound as cool as it is possible in this type of album. But it is also due to Fitzgerald's love for this kind of material: she is obviously having a good time with these tunes, often improvising on the melodies, which results in a much more enjoyable finished product. The best example of this is, in fact, the most surprising choice, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing's "Good Morning Blues," a song that one usually does not find in a seasonal album but that somehow seems tailor-made for Ella's swinging Christmas theme. The rest of the repertoire is much more predictable, including evergreens such as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," and of course, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." But DeVol's jazzy charts are a breath of fresh air, and they certainly bring out the best in Ella, whose voice is in the finest of forms. Even the vocal group used on some of the tracks does not sound stale and annoying but is a welcome addition to the arrangement.

Arranger Frank DeVol
DeVol also leaves room for some interesting solos, such as the trumpet on "White Christmas" and the piano on "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The latter even has Ella quoting from The Kingston Trio's folk hit "Tom Dooley," and on "Jingle Bells," when she sings about those jingle bells jingling all the way, she does not only make the bells jingle, but swing all the way. A couple of slower ballads, Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" and Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?," are good for a slight change of pace and rank among the highlights of a very recommendable LP. The twelve tracks on the original album were reissued on CD in 1988 featuring only the brief 1960 liner notes and no information regarding the personnel of the sessions, but in 2002 it was repackaged and reissued with a few bonus tracks and detailed notes written by Will Friedwald. While it is too bad that Ella did not record much more Christmas music (her Capitol Christmas album finds her backed by a string orchestra, but it would have been nice if she had done something in a small-group jazz setting, for instance) this album is top-notch Yuletide fare and definitely does deliver on its promise of wishing the listener a swinging Christmas.

Cover of the 2002 second CD reissue