Friday, June 14, 2013

More Than a Song-and-Dance Man: Three Little Words and The Astaire Story

My wife, Erin, and I recently watched Three Little Words, a Fred Astaire movie that is actually a biopic of the songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. This prompted me to do some research into the lives and careers of Kalmar and Ruby, as well as dusting off my copy of Fred Astaire's great 1952 meeting with the Oscar Peterson Trio, The Astaire Story, where Astaire shows, as if proof were really needed, what a fantastic jazz singer he was.

The 1940s saw a proliferation of biopics of songwriters from the Great American Songbook, names by then already legendary like Jerome Kern (Till the Clouds Roll By) and George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue). This was also the decade in which Al Jolson's career was revived thanks to two movies that dramatized his life and career, The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, which were box-office hits (particularly the former) and would bring about similar films in the 1950s devoted to other stars such as Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Eddy Duchin, Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting (the superb Love Me or Leave Me, starring Doris Day and James Cagney), and others.

Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar
In 1950, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to produce a movie about the popular Tin Pan Alley songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Its title was Three Little Words, and though it is not as well known as the films about Kern, Gershwin, or Jolson, it does feature an extraordinary cast: Fred Astaire and Red Skelton star as Kalmar and Ruby respectively, supported by Vera-Ellen and Arlene Dahl. The result is a hidden gem, an atypical Astaire movie in that his dancing sort of takes a backseat to the music, and also an atypical Red Skelton vehicle in which the comic appears rather subdued and shows that he did have a talent for more dramatic roles. The prominence of the music may well have been one of the reasons that attracted Astaire to the project, since songwriting was one of his unfulfilled passions, and this film offered him the chance to play a professional songwriter. As a matter of fact, in his 1959 autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire only has positive things to say about Vera-Ellen and the rest of the cast, and notes that he "enjoyed singing the old Kalmar and Ruby hits with Red." Overall, Astaire remembers Three Little Words as "an outstanding film and one of my top favorites. I'd like to be doing it all over again" (296).

It certainly is a delightful little movie, showcasing the great compositions of two talented men who are unfairly overlooked these days and strangely omitted in several book-length studies on Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. For instance, Alec Wilder does not even mention Kalmar and Ruby in his classic study American Popular Song, and they are not included among the large group of songwriters profiled by William Zinsser in Easy to Remember and by Wilfrid Sheed in The House that George Built. Philip Furia, in his Poets of Tin Pan Alley, briefly discusses the lyrics of their composition "Three Little Words," noting that its melody sets it apart from other Hollywood songs of the period: "Since it consisted of a four-note phrase, it was too long for the three-syllable standard 'I love you'" (236). This critical silence on the work of Kalmar and Ruby seems unwarranted to me, since their partnership produced some of the most popular songs of the 1920s and '30s, simple but very catchy tunes such as "I Wanna Be Loved by You," the moody "Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You)," and "A Kiss to Build a Dream on." Moreover, one of their most successful compositions, the irresistible "Who's Sorry Now," has been recorded by artists as disparate as Connie Francis, Marie Osmond, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name but three.

As for the movie, one of the main problems that screenwriter George Wells faced was the fact that the lives of Kalmar and Ruby, as well as their songwriting partnership, had been fairly uneventful and badly needed some dressing up. Therefore, even though Kalmar's interest in magic early in life and Ruby's obsession with baseball are reflected in the film, many of the events that make up the plot come courtesy of the typical Hollywood poetic license of the time, that is, they are mere inventions meant to drive the storyline forward. Thus, Kalmar never wrote a serious play whose success on Broadway was thwarted by Ruby's schemes, Kalmar did not begin his songwriting career because of a dancing injury, and Kalmar and Ruby's long partnership never suffered any sort of breakup. More importantly, the song that lends its title to the movie, "Three Little Words," did not lay dormant and unfinished for years but was published as early as 1930 and cut by Frank Crumit and Nick Lucas, among others.

"I Wanna Be Loved by You": Debbie Reynolds as Helen Kane

Despite Astaire's fondness for Three Little Words, it is not one of the best-remembered titles of his long filmography, and in my opinion, that is a real shame. Though Astaire does not dance quite as much as usual, his portrayal of Kalmar is charming and convincing, and the cast interacts seamlessly, making it a very entertaining movie. The finished product, by the way, profited from Harry Ruby's input (Kalmar had passed away in 1947, three years before the making of the project) and is a thoughtful tribute to the two men. Gloria DeHaven appears as her mother, Flora, singing "Who's Sorry Now," and Ruby himself is seen briefly playing baseball with Red Skelton. Even a young Debbie Reynolds makes her debut appearance as Helen Kane, lip-synching to Kane's boop-boop-a-dooping her smash hit "I Wanna Be Loved by You." The main protagonist is, indeed, the musical output of Kalmar and Ruby, all those vintage hit songs that shine throughout the film.

The Astaire Story (Verve, 1952)

Fred Astaire considered himself, as did most of his audiences, primarily a dancer and often derided his own abilities as a vocalist. Songwriters knew better, though, and recognized in his voice the perfect vehicle for their compositions. To be sure, his range was limited, but what he lacked in voice quality he more than made up for in phrasing and style. His singing is characterized by a rare elegance that is perfectly suited for the urbane melodies and witty lyrics of the songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin, among others. No wonder, then, that he introduced a large amount of tunes by these composers that have become standards, titles such as "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Night and Day," and "Fascinatin' Rhythm," to name but a few.

Although he claimed not to take himself seriously as a vocalist, Astaire loved jazz and jazz musicians (which is not surprising, since there is quite a bit of a jazz element in his tap dancing) and had a particularly soft spot for a record project that he did for Verve Records, at the request of label owner Norman Granz, entitled The Astaire Story. Let us quote again from Astaire's biography:

"I found this [album] a most interesting and enjoyable job as Oscar Peterson, Alvin Stoller, Flip Phillips, Charles Shavers, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and I cut these discs spontaneously on the spot without any prearranged orchestrations. This album, called The Astaire Story, with limited printings, became prominent in the collectors' item category" (301).

Oscar Peterson
Yet, much more than a mere collector's item, The Astaire Story is a very revealing portrait of Astaire the jazz singer, a relaxed crooner who instinctively plays with the beat and whose phrasing is so casual that at times it almost sounds as though he were reciting the lyrics. The program is made up almost entirely of songs associated with Astaire, and the LP format allows for lengthier arrangements of the tunes, punctuated by lovely solos from Peterson on piano, Shavers on trumpet, Phillips on tenor sax, and Kessel on guitar. Astaire is clearly enjoying himself on these dates, and he sounds as much at ease with Peterson's group as Bing Crosby does on Bing with a Beat accompanied by Bob Scobey (by the way, it is really too bad that nobody ever thought to pair up Der Bingle with Peterson). The result of the Astaire-Peterson sessions is what Will Friedwald has called the climax of Astaire's recorded legacy, among the most spontaneous music that either man ever committed to wax, a classic set that offers a definitive glimpse of Astaire having fun and singing jazz.

Astaire is heard dancing and even playing piano on The Astaire Story

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Clora Bryant, the Singing Gal with a Horn

Rarely, if ever, mentioned in histories of jazz, Clora Bryant is one of the few women trumpeters who also sang, although if she were reading this, she would instantly frown at any mention of the question of her gender. As she told Linda Dahl in a 1981 interview that the critic uses as the basis for a profile on Bryant included in her book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, "Frankly, I'll be glad when it's just a fact instead of such a novelty that we do have women players. Because it is just a fact, you know. Ever since I started playing, it was treated as a novelty—it's always been that way. I think we do need to really get inside the women's playing, because I am sick of hearing that I 'play good for a woman'." In her playing we can hear hints of some of the influences that she mentions in that interview, including Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Harry James, and particularly Dizzy Gillespie, for whom she professed a lifelong admiration. When she sings, her voice can sound pungent and swinging on uptempo numbers and sweet and restrained on ballads, but always with a natural sense of rhythm and improvisation. In that respect, at least to my ears, her singing is noticeably akin to her playing.

Born in Denison, Texas, Bryant showed an interest in music from a very early age, soon learning to play trumpet by borrowing the instrument of an older brother. After playing in her high school marching band, she quickly graduated to touring with all-girl bands like the Sweethearts of Rhythm, among others. Moving to California in 1945 after dropping out of college to pursue a career in jazz, Bryant rubbed elbows with great jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Sonny Criss, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, and even Charlie Parker. Bryant also became a part of the music scene in Las Vegas, where she remembers playing opposite Harry James ("who I idolized") around the time when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and company were shooting the movie Ocean's Eleven there. Throughout her career, she has graced the trumpet sections of many big bands, like those of Billy Williams, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, and Lionel Hampton. "Being a woman," she reflects during her interview with Dahl, "and being a black woman, and playing trumpet—that's three things I consider against me. Now, if I played piano, I don't think sex or race would enter into it. With the wind instruments, though, there's competition, period. No matter what color or what sex, there's a lot of competition in the trumpet section!"

Strangely, in Dahl's interesting profile of Clora Bryant, one of the few sources of information on the singer/trumpeter currently available, no mention is made of Gal with a Horn (VSOP Records, 1995), a 1957 LP that Bryant cut for Mode Records and that constitutes the only entry in her CD discography to date. With a beautiful cover featuring a portrait of Bryant in black and blue, the album is a little too short at only eight tracks, "calculated to present Clora with tunes and setting that approximate her club performance," according to the original liner notes by Joe Quinn. Bryant sings and plays trumpet accompanied by Roger Fleming (piano), Ben Tucker (bass), and Bruz Freeman (drums), this quarter occasionally augmented by Walter Benton (tenor sax) and Normie Faye (trumpet). The program alternates between fast and slow numbers, all of them standards, showcasing the full range of Bryant's singing and playing and leaving ample room for solos.

The album kicks off with a swinging treatment of "Gypsy in My Soul" that allows her to play around with the melody for two full vocal choruses before closing her performance with an inventive, Gillespie-influenced solo. Her trumpet shines on a very relaxed reading of "Makin' Whoopee" graced by a very elegant piano solo by Fleming. This is followed by a lovely rendition of "Man with a Horn"("a natural for any trumpet playing entertainer," says Quinn) that Bryant makes entirely her own both vocally and instrumentally in one of the moodiest performances on the album. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is taken at a bouncy medium tempo that allows time for Bryant's trumpet plus a solo apiece from Benton and Fleming. The most unusual track on the LP is the Latin-flavored arrangement of Vincent Youmans's "Tea for Two" complete with a cha-cha-cha beat; it works because Bryant and everyone else involved are having a good time with it. Two tunes by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart follow: Bryant reimagines the melody of "This Can't Be Love" ably aided by a lengthy piano solo by Fleming and then slows down the tempo for a wistful reading of "Little Girl Blue" that underscores the melancholy of the lyric and is embellished by a very soulful trumpet solo. Bryant again carries the weight of the group on the evergreen "S'posin'," which closes an excellent album that deserves to be better known from a very talented performer who deserves to be more than just a footnote in the history of jazz.

Clora Bryant and her trumpet