Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers: Jazz Meets Country Music, Hollywood 1930

Today we take a trip back to Hollywood, where in July of 1930, a young Louis Armstrong and country singing star Jimmie Rodgers teamed up to make a wonderful record that brought together jazz, blues, and country music—"Blue Yodel # 9."

When, in 1970, Louis Armstrong released Louis 'Country & Western' Armstrong, a full LP of country songs, many critics and fans were outraged, considering that this was the ultimate sign of the trumpeter's selling out to the white music establishment. While I must admit that I have a hard time digesting that album, my objections have more to do with the quality of the arrangements and of Armstrong's vocal performances than with the fact that he is singing country music. After all, about four decades before, he had participated in one of the sessions that puzzled his biographers and discographers the most—the one where he played trumpet behind The Singing Brakeman himself, the great pioneering country singer Jimmie Rodgers, on "Blue Yodel # 9," also known as "Standin' on a Corner."

A young Louis Armstrong
Nobody seems to know exactly how this encounter came about, and in their biography of Armstrong, Max Jones and John Chilton refer to it as an "improbable partnership" and "one of jazz's unsolvable riddles" (236). Yet this collaboration was not really as improbable or strange as it may seem. For one thing, Rodgers had been making jazz-influenced and bluesy country records for about three years, titles such as "Jimmie's Mean Mama Blues," "Gambling Polka Dot Blues," and "Long Tall Mama Blues." By 1930, he had become the number one country star at Victor Records, and his sessions were supervised by Ralph Peer, the record executive who had discovered him, and who was acquainted with Armstrong from his days at Okeh Records. In his authoritative biography of Rodgers, Nolan Porterfield conjectures how the date may have been put together: "One may assume that Rodgers's very brief association with the great Satchmo was merely a natural result of Peer's acquaintance with both performers. Armstrong had only recently moved to the West Coast and was anxious to get whatever work her could find" (258-259).

Lil' Hardin Armstrong
Whatever the case, Satchmo and the Singing Brakeman only cut this one track together, the ninth in the series of thirteen Blue Yodels that Rodgers had begun in 1927 with his first big hit, "Blue Yodel (T for Texas)." Penned by Rodgers, "Blue Yodel # 9" seems to be loosely based on "Frankie and Johnny," complete with Rodgers's trademark bluesy yodeling, and the story it tells ends abruptly, which according to Porterfield, can be explained by the limited amount of recording time allowed by old 78s, since apparently Rodgers had originally written three more stanzas that were left off the record. A third participant in the session was Lil' Hardin Armstrong, although her identity was open to debate for decades (it definitely did not help that neither of the Armstrongs is credited on the label), and some authors claimed that perhaps it could be Earl Hines. However, Porterfield posits that it is indeed Lil' Armstrong playing the piano and backs up his claim with the evidence of Rodgers's original lyric sheet, which reads: "Recorded in Hollywood 7-16-30. Louis Armstrong Trumpet, Lillian on piano" (260). In his recent biography of Armstrong, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, Terry Teachout agrees that Lil' Armstrong is the pianist on the session, noting that she "joined him for a short-lived reconciliation" and that their side with Rodgers was "their last record together" (150).

Pioneering country star Jimmie Rodgers
"Blue Yodel # 9" is a remarkable recording, both for the quality of the performance and for the fact that it stands as an example of a time when different musical styles were not as rigidly defined by the industry as they later became, and they often interacted with one another in the studio. The record begins with a trumpet introduction by Louis, strongly supported by Lil's piano, which already makes it clear to the listener who is familiar with Rodgers's brand of country music that this is going to be a different blue yodel. Jimmie's appealing singing is excellent throughout, and Louis does not seem to have any problem adapting to the country singer's idiosyncratic sense of timing, playing undeniably hot, though somewhat restrained, trumpet fills and launching into a characteristically bluesy solo halfway through the performance. Lil's piano accompaniment perfectly underscores Jimmie's singing and Louis's trumpet playing, and the only regret that one might have is that the trio did not cut any more tracks on that momentous occasion.

Record producer Ralph S. Peer
Three years after this encounter, in 1933, Jimmie Rodgers succumbed after a long and painful battle with tuberculosis, but his impact on country music would be felt for decades to come. Satchmo, of course, would go on to enjoy a long, successful career, recording not only jazz but also dabbling in other musical styles, and would ultimately become a cultural icon and be rightly recognized as one of the great musical innovators of the twentieth century. In a letter to a friend, both Porterfield and Teachout tell us, he expressed disbelief at the criticism leveled against him for his 1970 country album, stating that such a project was "no change for me, daddy. I was doing that same kind of work forty years ago." And "Blue Yodel # 9" is proof of that—a little record, forgotten by many, that transcended stylistic, social, and racial barriers.

"Blue Yodel # 9" on CD

The track is available on countless Jimmie Rodgers compilations, such as the budget-priced The Singing Brakeman (Country Stars). The French import, The Blues 1927-1933 (Frémeaux & Associés), includes all his blue yodels and other blues-influenced sides. For those who would like to own all of Rodgers's known recordings, there is a cheaper option in Recordings 1927-1933 (JSP Records) and a more expensive one in the monumental German import The Singing Brakeman: 1927-1933 (Bear Family).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Connie Haines, A Nightingale with a Southern Accent

A fantastic 2008 release from the British label Sepia Records works well as an excuse to take a look at the career of Connie Haines, one of the most swinging and most exciting female singers of the Swing Era, who is unfortunately not as well remembered as other contemporaries such as Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, and Helen Forrest.

If ever there was a band singer who devoted most of her life to showbusiness, that was Connie Haines. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1921, her whole name, Yvonne Marie Antoinette JaMais, was too long and not very commercial, so when she joined the Harry James orchestra, the trumpeter asked her to change it. But Haines could be found singing over the airwaves well before that, and by the age of ten she already had her own radio show in Jacksonville, Florida, since her family had moved to the Sunshine State. At that early stage of her career she was billed as "The Little Princess of the Air," and although her charming southern accent would have certainly qualified her for performing western swing or country music, she preferred to stick with swing and pop. After moving to New York, where she was appearing at the Roxy Theater by the time she was fourteen, Haines began to make the rounds of the nightclubs there, which would ultimately lead her to join the Harry James band in 1939, at the time still a struggling outfit trying to make headway in the big band business.

Connie Haines and Frank Sinatra
It was precisely at this time that Haines first crossed paths with Frank Sinatra, who had also been discovered by James and was still beginning to develop his distinctive style. The careers of Haines and Sinatra would remain intertwined for at least a couple of years, because one year later, both singers would be hired away by Tommy Dorsey, who led one of the most successful and jazz-infused orchestras in the country. The trombonist also had one of the most inventive arrangers of the period in Sy Oliver, and realizing the selling potential of singers, he was starting to feature his vocalists more prominently on his records, giving them more than just brief refrains to sing and building whole arrangements around them. Besides Haines and Sinatra, Dorsey also employed Jo Stafford and the vocal group The Pied Pipers, and all of them appear in classic recordings such as "Snooty Little Cutie," "Oh, Look at Me Now," and "Let's Get Away from It All." On the latter we can hear Sinatra poking fun at Haines's southern accent: when the lyrics call for her to sing the line, "I'll get a real southern drawl," Sinatra jokingly replies in feigned amazement, "Another one?" In his book Sinatra: The Song Is You, Will Friedwald mentions that, according to Haines, she and Sinatra did not get along, but if that is true, it does not come across in their records together, which are always a lot of fun to listen to. Dorsey also had the good judgment to feature Haines on her own on several fine numbers, such as Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and Matt Dennis and Tom Adair's "Will You Still Be Mine?" but by 1942 she had decided to follow the example of Young Blue Eyes and launched a solo career.

Haines always credited Dorsey with teaching her how to phrase—another thing that she and Sinatra had in common—and by the time she left the band, she had grown quite a bit as a singer and was ready to strike out on her own. Another important influence was torch singer Helen Morgan, to whom she would dedicate a whole album entitled Connie Haines Sings a Tribute to Helen Morgan in 1957. As a solo attraction, Haines performed on radio on the Abbott & Costello Show, and in the 1950s she appeared regularly on television, on such popular programs as the ones hosted by Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, and particularly on the Frankie Laine Show. She was also featured in a few now-forgotten musicals, including Robert Z. Leonard's Duchess of Idaho (1950), alongside Van Johnson and Esther Williams. Haines recorded steadily for both major and smaller labels (Capitol, Mercury, Columbia, Signature, and Coral are just a few examples) and although she became primarily known for novelty numbers, her discography includes everything from ballads to torch songs to country-tinged material, and in tandem with Jane Russell, Rhonda Fleming, and Beryl Davis, she even delved into gospel and sacred territory. What is more, though her recording activity had decreased by the 1960s, she still found time to cut a few Smokey Robinson songs for Motown, of all labels. Songs like "Midnight Johnny" and "What's Easy for Two" are a big departure from her usual style, but they are definite proof of her willingness to adapt to changing tastes in popular music. Despite having to battle cancer in her later years, Haines kept performing for live audiences off and on until the 1990s, and she died at 87 in Clearwater Beach, Florida, in 2008.

While her sides with Tommy Dorsey are fairly easy to find on CD, the Sepia release Nightingale from Savannah draws from her post-Dorsey years, featuring 27 tracks she recorded between 1946 and 1953 for Mercury, Signature, and Coral. It seems clear that these labels were trying to sell her mainly as a sprightly novelty vocalist, as titles such as the 1949 hits "You Told a Lie" and "How It Lies, How It Lies, How It Lies" suggest. Other novelty tunes she cut around this time are "Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy" (a hit for Dinah Shore), "Let's Choo Choo Choo to Idaho," and "A Bushel and a Peck," among many others. Like her hit, "How It Lies," many of her recordings have a certain country flavor to them, as is the case "Too Many Hearts" and "You Nearly Lose Your Mind," the latter a bluesy pop version of an Ernest Tubb country classic.

But Haines also felt comfortable singing ballads and torch songs—we must not forget the Helen Morgan influence—and even though she does not quite reach the depths of pathos and despair of a Billie Holiday or a Lena Horne, she turns out respectable readings of "My Man" and "Stormy Weather," sounds really believable on the old chestnut "You Made Me Love You," and on "Lover Man" and "The Man I Love" she proves that she can also handle a small-group jazz setting with ease. Her 1947 remake of her Dorsey hit "Will You Still Be Mine?" with the Ray Bloch orchestra includes updated special lyrics that mention, among other celebrities, Sinatra, FDR, Bing Crosby, Vaughn Monroe, Walter Winchell, and J. Edgar Hoover! Her version of the Teresa Brewer song, "Ol' Man Mose," prefigures her later gospel-inflected recordings, and among the highlights of the collection are her duets with Alan Dale on the Dixieland-ish "The Darktown Strutter's Ball" and her old friend Bob Crosby on "Destination Moon" and "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" Listening to this Sepia compilation, it becomes clear that Connie Haines is an unjustly overlooked figure of the Swing Era, a versatile vocalist with a subtle, charming southern drawl who deserves to be rediscovered.

Other Selected CDs by Connie Haines

In spite of its awful cover, Kiss the Boys Goodbye (Bygone Days Records) features several of Connie Haines's recordings with Tommy Dorsey (both as the single spotlighted vocalist and with Sinatra, Stafford and the Pipers), as well as a good sample of her post-Dorsey sides. The aforementioned Connie Haines Sings a Tribute to Helen Morgan (Pickwick Records) is a worthwhile addition to any serious Haines collection, while The Heart and Soul of Connie (Audiophile Records) includes sides from 1950 and 1951 on which she is backed by the Russ Case orchestra. Finally, Feel the Spirit (Jasmine Records) presents her sacred recordings with Jane Russell, Rhonda Fleming, and Beryl Davis.

Connie Haines with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra

Monday, May 11, 2015

Interview with Wig Wiggins, Co-Author of New Bing Crosby Discography: "We spent several years preparing this new edition for publication."

Not only was Bing Crosby one of the most important vocalists of the twentieth century—he was also one of the most prolific, entering the studio repeatedly pretty much every year between his first known recording session in 1926 and his last in 1977. And yet, despite the sheer amount of his output, very few of Crosby's albums and single releases remain unavailable on CD, the proliferation of all kinds of reissues causing inevitable, and often irritating, duplication of titles. This makes a CD-specific discography necessary for the dedicated and casual Crosby fan alike, a fact that Frontis B. "Wig" Wiggins, of Arlington, Virginia, and his friend Jim Reilly, of Portsmouth, England, realized many years ago, when they published their book Bing Crosby's Commercial Recordings from 78s to CDs in 2001. Now, over a decade later, they have joined forces again to revise, update, and beautify that pioneering discography. The result, The Definitive Bing Crosby Discography from 78s to CDs, is a very attractive book that contains a wealth of information about Der Bingle's recording sessions with an eye to simplifying anyone's hunting for CD reissues of Crosby material from any period of his long, successful career.

The book is very well put together, carefully researched, and generously illustrated mostly with color pictures, and its intelligent organization, with all sorts of interesting indexes, makes it a joy to browse through. This is definitely not the kind of discography that only lists titles, dates, locations, backing orchestras, and catalog numbers; it also includes brief essays that discuss various aspects of Crosby's career, thus making the book appealing also to casual fans that may be interested in learning a little about each phase of Crosby's recorded legacy in addition to perusing a complete listing of masters, alternate takes, unreleased and non-commercial recordings, and even titles that contain studio errors, like his famous fluff on a rejected take of "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." The Vintage Bandstand has recently had the chance to interview Mr. Wiggins, who currently serves as the American and Canadian representative of the International Club Crosby, on the subject of the book, which is indispensable for both Crosby and popular music aficionados. As he mentions in the interview, a supplement to this discography, detailing all of Crosby's radio recordings that have been officially authorized for release on CD by Bing Crosby Enterprises, is in the works, and we are eagerly awaiting it. Before proceeding to the interview, we would like to express our most sincere gratitude to the authors for their wholehearted dedication to this project, which makes the lives of Crosby fans and collectors a great deal easier.

Bing Crosby with Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland in the 1940s

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): When and how did the idea occur to you to begin such a daunting project as this Bing Crosby discography?

Mr. Wiggins: When the CD era began, I started annotating my personal discography each time a song title was reissued on CD to help organize my own collection. After a while my friend Jim Reilly, of England, and I decided it would be useful to publish a first version of a CD-oriented discography for others, which was entitled Bing Crosby's Commercial Recordings—From 78s to CDs. It was issued in 2001 and was very popular but has long been out of print. About four years ago we concluded that so many additional CD reissues had appeared that a revised and updated edition was desirable. We then spent at least three years exchanging telephone calls and e-mails to prepare this new edition for publication.

TVB: What was the rationale that you and Mr. Reilly followed as you began the project?

Mr. Wiggins: As there was no other current printed discography available that indicated which of Bing's recordings had been reissued on CD, and this was the manner by which most collectors were acquiring them, we thought a new edition of our original book would be appealing and useful to Crosby fans.

TVB: What is new and different about your discography when compared to other Crosby discographies available online and in book form?

Mr. Wiggins: The main differences are the following: (1) A listing of the original commercial release of each title on 78s, 45s, LPs, or CDs; (2) a listing of a recommended CD version of each title that has been released on CD; (3) a listing of the names of composers, orchestra leaders, and vocal accompanists; (4) the addition of sixty unnumbered illustration and information pages, most of them in color; (5) an exclusive new section entitled "Unreleased Studio Recordings"; and (6) multiple indexes to facilitate identification of entries and to make use easier.

TVB: This is an invaluable reference work for serious Crosby fans, but what is the appeal of the book for the more casual fan?

Mr. Wiggins: The addition of the sixty extra pages giving information about various aspects of Bing's overall career, including his films and radio broadcasts, for example, as well as lists of his "Gold Records," "Top Hits," and "Bing's Hollywood Songs," among other general information.

TVB: What aspects of this project were the most difficult to tackle for you and Mr. Reilly?

Mr. Wiggins: The creation and verification of the original commercial release of each song, wherever in the world. This new and unique feature was completed in consultation with other leading Crosby collectors over a number of years.

TVB: As you mentioned, the book is profusely illustrated with color pictures and contains some very interesting indexes and even lists of unreleased Crosby recordings and alternate takes. How many years did you and Mr. Reilly spend working on this project?

Mr. Wiggins: Jim Reilly and I have worked together since the early 1990s on recordings by Bing. For at least a decade I was consultant to MCA / Universal Music in Los Angeles, compiling and annotating Bing Crosby collections for reissue on CD, and Jim played the same role for the same company in London. This led to our three- to four-year project to publish our first discography in 2001, and then another three-year effort to update our new version.

TVB: What, if anything, have you left intentionally out of the book?

Mr. Wiggins: We decided it was best not to include Bing's extensive number of so-called "radio recordings," as this would have made the project too large and almost unending. As stated in the "Introduction" to this edition, we plan to produce a supplement to be entitled Special Radio Recordings. This will include all radio recordings authorized for release on CD by Bing Crosby Enterprises, such as the Mosaic CD box set of Bing's many songs recorded with Buddy Cole, along with other such compilations.

Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Bing Crosby in the late 1950s

TVB: It seems that the book is selling rather well. What kind of responses have you received so far from Crosby collectors and fans?

Mr. Wiggins: Thus far, only telephone calls and brief notes of thanks praising the overall quality and content of our book have been received. Some have also expressed appreciation for the "Recommended CD" column, for helping to guide their collecting while avoiding excessive duplication. We have been disappointed, however, at the complete lack of any internet comments to date.

TVB: And finally, if you had to recommend three Bing Crosby releases to someone who is interested in getting acquainted with Crosby's phenomenal body of work, which ones would you choose? Thanks again to you and Mr. Reilly for your wonderful work on this new Crosby discography!

Mr. Wiggins: For the newer Crosby fan, or for one who is just starting out, I would recommend the following CDs: Bing's Gold Records (MCA / Universal MCAD-11719), Merry Christmas, which was retitled White Christmas (MCA / Universal MCAD-31143), and A Centennial Collection of Bing Crosby's Decca Recordings (MCA / Universal MCAD-88-113222). A single alternative to these would be the four-CD box set, Bing—His Legendary Years (MCA / Universal MCAD4-10887).

Further information

For more information about this new Bing Crosby discography (its price is US$35, postpaid via Priority Mail), as well as for ordering the book, you can contact Mr. Wiggins at the following mailing address: 5608 North 34th Street, Arlington, Virginia 22207, U.S.A. Mr. Wiggins will also take orders by phone (703-241-5608) and e-mail (wigbing2012 (at) gmail.com). The discography is also announced in the International Club Crosby website, where you can find information about how to order it if you live in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. If interested, please go here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jack Diéval: Classy Jazz from the Champs Élysées

A recent post about Blossom Dearie in Marc Myers's JazzWax blog made me dig deep into my jazz collection and dust off the only CD I have by French jazz pianist Jack Diéval, who appears in this video improvising with Dearie on a blues theme. Anyone who is impressed with Diéval's piano skills in the video is encouraged to look for Diéval's Jazz in Paris: Jazz aux Champs Élysées.

Though not very well remembered these days, Jack Diéval was one of the leading figures in French jazz between the 1940s and the 1960s, not just as a pianist but also as a radio and television host. Known for his elegant piano style and for his uncanny ability to accompany just about anyone, Diéval was nicknamed "the Debussy of jazz" and throughout his career, he worked wholeheartedly to promote jazz in France in any way imaginable. Born in Douai in 1920, the young Diéval studied piano and soon became fascinated with jazz, making a name for himself at first primarily as an accompanist, working with tenor saxophonist Alix Combelle and with the vocalist Henri Salvador. In 1947 Diéval was named the best pianist in the country by the prestigious French magazine Jazz-Hot, and then his career really took off: he began to record steadily and even collaborated on some songs with the poet Boris Vian. One of the tunes they wrote together, "C'est Le Be Bop," would in time be successfully recorded by Salvador.

In 1954 he began hosting the pioneering jazz radio show Jazz aux Champs Élysées, which would remain on the air under his supervision until 1972. The roster of great jazz musicians who appeared on the show is staggering and includes, among many others, Eric Dolphy, who made his final radio appearance with Diéval, and Jean-Luc Ponty, who played over the airwaves for the first time on that show, well before he was recognized as one of the best things that happened to modern jazz violin. Around this same time Diéval was also hosting television shows regularly featuring live jazz, and although after the advent of rock'n'roll he briefly tried his hand at the new style, jazz always remained his first love, and his few rocking records are decidedly jazzy. Through the years he would make a respectable number of records for different labels, most of which are unfortunately unavailable on CD.

The one compact disc featuring Diéval's music that is currently available in the U.S. is a highly recommendable one, though. Jazz in Paris: Jazz aux Champs Élysées (Gitanes / Universal Music, 2002) includes a session recorded on June 24, 1957, at the Théâtre Pigalle in Paris, that finds Diéval on piano in the company of the J.A.C.E. (Jazz aux Champs Élysées) All Stars. This group was the house band for Diéval's radio show (hence its name) and was indeed an all-star combo of French jazz luminaries—Guy Lafitte on tenor sax, Michel de Villers on baritone sax, Sacha Distel on guitar, Paul Rovère on bass, and Christian Garros on drums. The session was designed to sound like one of Diéval's radio programs and was originally released on a Polydor LP. It is presented here in its entirety, complete with the introductions of the musicians who participate. Except for a couple of originals (Diéval's "Rif Hi-Fi" and "Blues for Polydor" and Lafitte's "Do Not Disturb") the repertoire relies on standards by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael, and the Gershwins.

A young Sacha Distel
On their version of "Solitude," Lafitte and de Villers interact beautifully and prove how adept they are at playing ballads. The introduction to "The Man I Love" shows why Diéval was often compared to Debussy, and Distel, who would become better known as a pop singer but is an excellent jazz guitarist, shines on "In a Mellow Tone" and particularly on "The Nearness of You," where he does a fine job in support of Lafitte's statement of the haunting Carmichael melody. The CD also includes four tracks from a trio date recorded over a year before, on March 26, 1956, in Paris. The identity of the rhythm section is unknown, and Diéval enjoys ample room to showcase his elegant and effective piano style on the mid-tempo "Learnin' the Blues," the ballad "Tenderly," and two lesser-known compositions with French titles, "Pour Penser à Toi" and "Donne Ta Main et Viens." The four songs were released on a Polydor EP, and Boris Vian's review of that record in Jazz-Hot appropriately lauded "the prettiness of [Diéval's] touch, the simplicity and logic of his phrasing, and the facility with which he improvises." This CD from the Jazz in Paris series is the perfect—and for now the only—place to start enjoying Diéval's piano playing, and it proves that he deserves to be more than just a footnote in the history of European jazz.


Here is a very interesting video in French from the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel of Jack Diéval sitting at the piano and reminiscing about his life and career

Saxophonist Guy Lafitte in the early 1980s