Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Conversation with Chuck Par-Due on Harry James

Oregon-based musician and author Chuck Par-Due has recently published Harry James—Trumpet Icon, a new biography of trumpeter Harry James that concentrates primarily on his music. With a foreword written by none other than Harry James, Jr., Par-Due's book celebrates the music of one of the most successful musicians to ever come out of the Big Band Era and should be a welcome addition to the shelves of a myriad swing and jazz enthusiasts. Not only is the author a devoted collector and follower of James' music, but he had the privilege of knowing the great trumpeter personally and draws on a great deal of interviews that he has conducted with musicians who knew or worked closely with James. The fact that Par-Due is himself a musician certainly helps when it comes to offering a musician's view on James' work, and as a result, the book addresses several questions that James aficionados have been asking themselves for decades.

Author / musician Chuck Par-Due
On the occasion of the publication of the book, I had the chance to speak at length with Chuck Par-Due for a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast, and our 85-minute conversation covers many topics, including the book, James' life and career, the heyday and demise of the Big Band Era, James' relationship with other great names such as Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, and many more. If you are interested, you may access the entire episode of the podcast here below, and of course, I encourage everyone to check out the book, which is currently available from Amazon here.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Bing Crosby's Duets with Dixie Lee, August 1936

After a two-year hiatus, The Vintage Bandstand returns with an article about the lone single that Bing Crosby and his wife Dixie Lee cut for Decca in 1936, which featured two then-recent classics by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight."

Born in 1909 (some sources state 1911) in the East Tennessee small town of Harriman, which will be honoring her with a historical marker later on this year, Dixie Lee Crosby (née Wilma Winifred Wyatt) was famously much better known than her future husband, Bing Crosby, when they met in Hollywood in 1929. She'd spent her childhood between East Tennessee, Memphis, New Orleans, and Chicago, and while in the Windy City, she'd won a singing contest which would eventually lead to an appearance on the Broadway show Good Times. After being spotted by an agent, she relocated to California and began a career in films that was becoming rather prominent by the time she and Crosby married in 1930. Though she would still appear in several movies in the years following the wedding (1934's Manhattan Love Song and 1935's Love in Bloom, starring George Burns and Gracie Allen, are two good examples of her screen work) and also made some records, her career ended up taking a backseat to Bing's as his star quickly began to rise in the early '30s, when he became a mass-media icon and the most popular singing star in America.

When Dixie and he met, Bing was still a member of Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys, along with Al Rinker and Harry Barris, but that association was about to come to an end, and Bing was about to transition into a solo career whose success was unparalleled at the time. In his 1953 autobiography, Call Me Lucky, published shortly after Dixie's passing from ovarian cancer in 1952, Bing spends quite a few paragraphs praising Dixie as a wife and a mother, as well as noting her positive influence on him when it came to remaining level-headed in the face of his incredible popularity. He adds that "it was no sacrifice for her to leave show business" (47) because "she didn't like show business and the hokum that goes with it" (46-47). Without eschewing the general loving tone he uses when talking about his wife, he then goes on to describe her as an extremely shy, private person who disliked singing in public despite her obvious vocal talent:

Although she was very frank and outspoken, she was also diffident and shy. She had little self-confidence. She never did think she was good in show business. I've known all of the others, and when it came to singing a song, Dixie had no equal. But it was a matter of life and death to persuade her to sing. (47)

Her stage fright is nowhere to be seen or felt when watching her movies or listening to her records, but it may go a long way to explain why she decided to leave show business and why she only sang at parties after a good bit of coaxing. It also explains why she mostly stayed away from reporters, made such few records, and seldom appeared on radio with Bing. However, the Crosbys did enter the studio to record two duets for Decca. The session took place on August 19, 1936, and the songs were two then-recent Fred Astaire-associated numbers written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields—"A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight." The great Victor Young took care of the arrangements, and apparently, he had to do quite a lot of juggling with the keys to accommodate Bing and Dixie's very different vocal ranges. As Gary Giddins remarks in A Pocketful of Dreams, Young uses the transitions and changes in the melody of "The Way You Look Tonight" to adapt that melody to the differing vocal qualities of both singers:

Young shrewdly employs those transitions to facilitate and minimize the shift in keys that occurs every eight bars, as Bing and Dixie exchange passages of that length. With his wide range and finesse, Bing carries the burden of those shifts, which are brought off so well that the listener is barely aware of the elevator ride transporting each singer to a harmonically suitable floor. (458)

Bing is in fine form, but he sounds more restrained and softer than usual on these two sides, as though he were trying to adapt to Dixie's sweet, Ruth Etting-inflected vocal style. Giddins rightly notes that Young's arrangement, as well intentioned as it is, actually distances Bing and Dixie on "The Way You Look Tonight": "They sound at times as isolated as if they had been wired in from different studios, she passive and wounded, he expert and strong" (458). This is, to my ears, even more obvious on "A Fine Romance," which is in principle the perfect duet vehicle for Bing's nonchalant approach. However, the kind of rapport that is evident on Bing's duets with Rosemary Clooney, Connie Boswell, Louis Armstrong, or Bob Hope is completely absent here, to such an extent that Giddins' description of their humorous asides as "tense" actually sounds like an understatement. One wonders what Bing and Rosie could have done with "A Fine Romance" if they'd decided to include it in one of their duet albums.

Overall, this summer of '36 session by Bing and Dixie has always been a source of puzzlement to me. One would think that, knowing each other as well as they did, the two of them would click in the recording studio in a much more satisfying way, especially bearing in mind the quality of the material and of the charts. However, the magic is simply not there, at least not in the way that one would expect, and I end up enjoying Dixie Lee's scarce solo recordings much more than her two duets with Bing. Yet, to the Crosby aficionado, they remain two charming sides that never fail to grab the listener's attention, if only because of their historical and biographical significance.



Saturday, July 29, 2017

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 8: Chester Gaylord

Unless you are an avid collector of old 78s from the 1920s and '30s, chances are you have never heard of Chester Gaylord. And yet he was an extremely busy recording artist in those years, a contemporary of Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Russ Columbo, and Gene Austin, and an overlooked figure if there ever was one among the fraternity of early crooners. Though Gaylord distinguished himself primarily as a vocalist, he also played piano and saxophone, and in fact, his earliest known recordings are Edison diamond discs made toward the beginning of the '20s that feature him as a saxophonist. As a singer, his sound lay somewhere between those of Vallee and Crosby—while not as purely jazzy as Bing, his baritone voice sounds more powerful and fuller than Rudy's. Gaylord enjoyed a successful career on radio as a vocalist, pianist, and announcer, and many of the phonograph records he made for major labels like Columbia and Brunswick included notable jazz musicians such as Red Nichols, Glenn Miller, Manny Klein, Gene Krupa, and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, among others. But despite all these credentials, the name of Chester Gaylord remains largely obscure and all but forgotten today.

Born in Worcester, MA, in 1899, Gaylord showed an early interest in music, and during the First World War he joined the US Navy and put his saxophone-playing skills to work. Upon his return to civilian life, Gaylord briefly moved to New York, but the opportunity to work as an announcer on local radio prompted him to return to his hometown. It was then that he began his broadcasting career, jumping at any chance he had to play piano and sing over the airwaves. His frequent appearances were consistently well received by the radio audience, which must have played some part in his signing a recording contract with Columbia as a vocalist in 1923. After this stint on Columbia, Gaylord signed with Brunswick, another one of the major labels at the time, and subsequently made some of the best records of his career, accompanied by some of the jazz greats that we have already mentioned. Many of the tunes Gaylord recorded in these jazzy settings at these New York sessions, like "Mean to Me," "Memories of You," or "Glad Rag Doll" would in time become standards, and it is interesting to note that he would often sing the verses, some of which are now rarely heard.

During these busy years, Gaylord also found time to provide vocal refrains on dance band records by the likes of Jacques Renard, Jack Denny, and Red Nichols, while he also maintained a hectic scheduled on the radio, appearing on popular shows such as the Top Notchers Cola Cola Program. As a matter of fact, when Brunswick decided not to renew his recording contract sometime in 1930-31, the future of Gaylord's career lay on the airwaves, singing with excellent bands like those led by Ben Selvin, Ted Fio Rito, and Ben Pollack and eventually accepting a job on Boston's WBZ in the late 1940s. By the mid-'60s, Gaylord had quit doing radio work, though he kept performing occasionally as a singing pianist until his passing in 1984. To the best of my knowledge, no CD is available documenting Gaylord's career at the time of this writing, but fortunately, an extensive collection of his recordings and even some radio cuts can be found on the Internet Archive here, with fairly good sound. Hopefully one day a reissue label will decide to bring Gaylord out of obscurity, something that his outstanding recordings definitely deserve.


Very little has been written about Chester Gaylord, so I am indebted to a very interesting article that Mr. Chet Williamson published in 2015 in his blog, Jazz Riffing on a Lost Worcester, and that you may access here.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Ernst Van 't Hoff and His Hot Wartime Dance Band

Dutch pianist and trumpeter Ernst Van 't Hoff (the last name is also sometimes spelled Van't Hoff and Van t'Hoff) led one of the most exciting and swinging German dance bands (Tanzorchester, in German) of the 1940s, which would ultimately cause him quite a bit of trouble during the years of WWII. Born in Zandvoort, Holland, in 1908, Van 't Hoff had been playing professionally since the 1920s, mostly in the Netherlands and Belgium, working with popular bandleaders such as Robert de Kers, among others. In the mid-1930s, Van 't Hoff decided it was time to lead his own band, but success eluded his organization in these initial years, and he was forced to work as a sideman off and on with de Kers's Cabaret Kings and various radio orchestras.

By the time the war broke out, Van 't Hoff was leading his own band again, and in 1940 he even signed a recording contract with the prestigious German label Deutsche Grammophon. At that point, Holland was occupied by Nazi forces, who sent Van 't Hoff to Dresden and then to Berlin, where the band appeared at the Delphi Filmpalast, and its music was soon met with public acclaim. Though the Nazis often used jazz and swing as a vehicle for propaganda (the infamous recordings by Charlie & His Orchestra included in the Proper Records box set Swing Tanzen Verboten are prime examples of this), they considered the style as "undesirable music" (unerwünschte Musik, in German) and as such, it was banned in all Nazi-occupied territories. The sound of Van 't Hoff's band, with its rousing versions of American tunes (Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and "Pennsylvania 6-5000," for example) and its swinging original compositions, was strongly influenced by jazz, and this would eventually bring the bandleader to the attention of the Gestapo. This in turn led to Van 't Hoff's being sent back to the Netherlands in 1943, where he would keep working with radio orchestras until 1944, when he relocated to Belgium.

After the war, Van 't Hoff restricted his musical activity to Belgium and Holland, leading orchestras with varying degrees of success. By the early '50s he was living in Brussels, where his band had an engagement at the celebrated Ancienne Belgique concert hall, and where he would die from a heart attack in 1955, aged only 46. Though some of Van 't Hoff's recordings are available on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet, they are not easy to find on CD. Though the Nederlands Jazz Archief offers two compilations of his '40s sides, the most affordable collection of Van 't Hoff's music currently on the U.S. market is a volume of the series Die Grossen Deutschen Tanzorchester (Membran, 2005), which is woefully short at only thirteen tracks, all of them recorded in 1941-42. This was the heyday of Van 't Hoff's orchestra, a tightly-knit unit that played excellent arrangements full of hot passages and some very exciting solos. There are a couple of covers of American tunes ("Ciribiribin" and the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael collaboration "Oh, What You Said") but also some fine original compositions credited to the bandleader, such as "Fünfuhrtee bei Rüthli" and "Tanz im Carlton." The band sounds powerful and swinging on these sides, which pleased dancers greatly at the time, and two of the songs spotlight Van 't Hoff's most talented vocalist, Jan de Vries, who sings "Day by Day" and "I Never Dream" in very good English. All but forgotten nowadays, Ernst Van 't Hoff remains one of the most interesting of all Tanzorchester leaders, and as these recordings clearly show, his lively, jazzy music should appeal to the most demanding of big band swing aficionados.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Julie London in Her Living Room, 1959

After a hiatus of about a year, during which I have been working on my other jazz blog, Jazz Flashes, I return to The Vintage Bandstand with a brief article about Julie... at Home, an album by Julie London that sounds so intimate, among other things, because it was recorded in her own living room!

The first time I ever saw and heard Julie London was in the 1956 movie The Girl Can't Help It, in which she appears as herself and sings her massive hit "Cry Me a River." As much as I liked the early rock'n'roll stars that are also featured in that rather inane film, I must admit that it was London that immediately caught my ear and my eye, to such an extent that I actually had to go out and find as many records by her as I could. And there were plenty of them to be had. From her first one, Julie Is Her Name (1955), many of them have at least a couple of things in common: though she has also recorded with lush string orchestras, London's voice is usually set against a sparse musical background, and the covers take advantage of her very attractive looks. But that is not all—her albums are invariably satisfying musically, and I always find myself playing them over and over again. This concept of intimacy was taken as far as possible on Julie... at Home (1959), not really because of the accompaniment (on earlier albums she was backed by guitar and bass only, and there are more instruments here) but because the album was taped in Julie's own living room. She was, then, truly at home.

Before her appearance in The Girl Can't Help It, London, who was born in 1926 in Santa Rosa, California, had worked in movies as early as the mid-1940s. But after the collapse of her first marriage (to actor Jack Webb) she met and later married singer-songwriter Bobby Troup and began concentrating on her singing career, aided by a recognizable, smoky voice and a very personal, wee-small-hours approach to the vocal art that was at once intimate, jazzy, and sexy. Besides the aforementioned mega-hit "Cry Me a River," London never enjoyed too much success as a singles artist. Her type of singing was better suited to the then-new medium of the LP, and virtually every album she cut in the 1950s and early '60s (Calendar Girl, Julie, About the Blues, London by Night) is a prime example of the jazz-inflected adult-oriented pop of the era.

Guitarist Al Viola

For 1959's Julie... at Home, with its cover picture of London lounging in the comfort of her own home, someone at Liberty came up with the idea of bringing some equipment into her living room and recording the sessions right there. London appears here in a small-group jazz setting, in a quintet that includes Al Viola on guitar, Don Bagley on bass, Emil Richards on vibraphone, and Earl Palmer on drums. It is Viola and Richards that provide most of the brief solos heard throughout, with a couple of appearances by trombonist Bob Flanagan, who, according to the liner notes written by pianist Jimmy Rowles, simply "dropped by to pay a social call." Rowles himself, who was collaborating occasionally with London in this particular period of her career, is responsible for the arrangements, creating a sound that inevitably reminds us of George Shearing. But of course, London is the star here, and she sounds decidedly at ease and relaxed in this company. As one would expect, the set list is comprised of twelve well-known standards and is as heavy on the ballads ("You've Changed," "Goodbye," "Everything Happens to Me") as it is on the more uptempo numbers ("Give Me the Simple Life," "Let There Be Love," "By Myself"). In both cases, however, London's approach is as easy-going as ever; she makes it all sound cool and easy with the help of a combo that blends in perfectly with her idiosyncratic singing. Bearing in mind the album's concept, Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to" is the right choice as an opener. "The Thrill Is Gone," highlighted by Viola's excellent work on guitar, is simply lovely, and London even prefaces it with the verse. Overall, Julie... at Home is one of London's most memorable outings, yet another example of the singer at her best in an intimate, jazzy atmosphere.