Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 6: Johnnie Johnston

For a brief spell in the 1940s, it seemed as though Missouri-born crooner Johnnie Johnston was destined for stardom, both as a singer and as an actor. As one of the first artists to be signed to Capitol, Johnston was selling records in respectable quantities and appearing in movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. A few questionable personal decisions and unfortunate career moves would eventually end it all, but the surviving recordings that Johnston made in the '40s and '50s amply showcase his talent and provide a good excuse to take a look at his short career.

Born in St. Louis in 1915 (he was just a few days older than Frank Sinatra, and so 2015 marks the centenary of his birth as well), Johnnie Johnston had a beautiful light baritone voice, which, together with his attractive looks, made him a natural to pursue a career as an entertainer. In the 1930s he began a short tenure as the vocalist with the sweet band of Art Kassel, but it was actually his radio and nightclub appearances that would make Hollywood and the record industry beckon. Therefore, Johnston—whose first name was occasionally spelled "Johnny"—soon found himself appearing in low-budget musicals such as Sweater Girl, Incendiary Blonde, and You Can't Ration Love. He was also cast in more important productions, notably Star-Spangled Rhythm, with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and This Time for Keeps, alongside Esther Williams and Xavier Cugat. In time he would even appear in one of the first and most popular rock'n'roll movies, Rock Around the Clock (1956), but by then his star had pretty much waned.

In 1942, Johnston became one of the first artists to be signed to the fledgling Capitol Records label and scored hits with "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings," and "One More Dream." In 1945, his version of the haunting David Raksin and Johnny Mercer song, "Laura" peaked at number 5 on the Billboard charts for five weeks, and suddenly it seemed that Johnston had come to stay. Being slated to sing a couple of songs in the star-studded 1946 Jerome Kern biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By, with Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Judy Garland, among many others, certainly could not hurt, but here is where the Johnston story starts going awry. After filming two medleys with his future wife, Kathryn Grayson, Johnston seems to have gotten into a serious row with studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, which ultimately led to the deletion of his scenes from the final cut of the movie. Just why this argument came about is unclear seventy years later; Edward Chase, who wrote the liner notes for the only CD release of Johnston's recordings currently available, describes it in rather vague terms:

Then, so the story has it, Louis B. Mayer came onto the set, where Johnston, perhaps carried away with his incipient success, proceeded in a jocular way, and with coarse language, to humiliate him. The upshot was that Mayer, unforgiving, summarily dismissed him from the film, and ordered the actor's two completed scenes to be deleted from the final cut.

It is unclear why a newcomer like Johnston would feel that it was a good idea to "humiliate" a powerful man like Mayer, but whatever actually happened that day on the set, this run-in with the studio boss definitely hurt Johnston's career. Not only was he cut from the movie, but his subsequent recordings for MGM after leaving Capitol did not sell well, and Johnston never recaptured the momentum he had gained with "Laura" and his previous hit records. In 1947, following their meeting on the set of Till the Clouds Roll By, Johnston and Kathryn Grayson married, but their marriage only lasted until 1951. That same year Johnston starred in the Broadway production A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a very promising show based on a novel by Betty Smith and with a score by none other than Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields. The show, however, was a flop from which Johnston's career would never recover, and other than his appearance in Rock Around the Clock, his work would be limited to occasional television spots and a few nightclub dates. According to his New York Times obituary, Johnston had come out of retirement very seldom (for instance, to perform at Capitol Records' fortieth-anniversary party), and by the time of his death in 1996 in Cape Coral, Florida, he had been married six times.

The only CD compilation of Johnston's recordings that is still readily available was released in 2007 by the British label Flare Records, and it features 24 of the best cuts he made for Capitol and MGM between 1944 and 1956. Though he is evidently influenced by Bing Crosby, he often sounds a little bit like a more mature Russ Columbo, which may actually indicate that he has been listening carefully to Frank Sinatra's early Columbia work of the period. This is particularly noticeable in his hit version of "Laura," which he sings in a softer, more understated tone than, say, Dick Haymes, who also recorded it around the same time. Unlike Crosby and Sinatra at that stage of their careers, Johnston used several different arrangers and conductors on these sessions, notably Paul Weston, Lennie Hayton, Sonny Burke, Carl Kress, and Lloyd Shaffer. Johnston did not always get to record first-rate songs, but besides the hits, there are quite a few gems here, including "Irresistible You," "There Must Be a Way," "Autumn Serenade" (memorably revived by Johnny Hartman on his album with John Coltrane), "Why Should I Cry Over You," "When You and I Were Seventeen," "As We Are Today," and "Melancholy Rhapsody."

One of the tunes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, "I'll Buy You a Star," a little overdone in this Max Goberman arrangement, is also included, as is "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star / The Song Is You," the one surviving medley with Grayson from Till the Clouds Roll By (the other one they cut seems to have been damaged and lost forever). The CD closes with two songs from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate ("So in Love" and "Wunderbar") that Johnston recorded with Grayson (by then already his ex-wife and the star of the film version of that Porter musical) In Los Angeles in 1956. In my opinion, the pairing of Johnston's baritone and Grayson's operatic voice does not blend very well, and in any case, a light operatic approach was never Johnston's forte. But, overall, there is a wealth of attractive material here that more often than not suits Johnston extremely well and shows that his legacy definitely deserves to be better appreciated that it is today.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Arranged by... Nelson Riddle: Rosemary Clooney's Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!

After a two-week-long silence due to my having led a group of students from the University of Tennessee at Martin on a study-abroad trip to Europe, The Vintage Bandstand returns with the first installment in the new Arranged by... series of articles. These posts will concentrate on albums on which legendary arrangers have left an indelible mark. And for the first one we are taking a closer look at one of Rosemary Clooney's masterpieces, recorded in 1960 for RCA-Victor and arranged by the great Nelson Riddle.

By the time he wrote these twelve charts for Rosemary Clooney in 1960, Nelson Riddle had made musical history throughout the 1950s with the epoch-making albums he arranged for Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and most of all, Frank Sinatra. He had also been working with Clooney for several years as the musical director of her television show, and the closeness and warmth of that association comes across on the album they cut together, which someone at RCA shamelessly decided to name Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!, not even sparing the exclamation point at the end.

Riddle and Clooney several years after this project
While the title may be a ridiculous attempt at wordplay, the album itself remains one of the best in the prolific careers of both Rosie and Nelson, a perfect blend of self-assured singing and sympathetic arranging. The emotional connection between the two is very evident: indeed, in the original liner notes, Riddle mentions that Clooney "happens to be one of my favorite people," and then goes on to say that "Rosemary Clooney is a wonderful vocalist. More than a singer, she's a musician. She does everything well. Her phrasing, taste, and ability to swing make arranging and conducting a real pleasure. As a consequence, this album has been one of my most enjoyable experiences." As Riddle biographer Peter J. Levinson states in his notes to the 2004 CD reissue, Clooney shared a similar view about her work with the arranger: he quotes Rosie as saying that her association with Nelson was "the best blending of my job and my personal life that I've ever had." And so it was, because Clooney's relationship with Riddle was not all work and no play—the two were involved in an affair that would ultimately lead to the collapse of both of their marriages, and one that Rosie would remember fondly several years later when she called Nelson the love of her life.

Leaving their personal lives aside, there is no doubt, upon listening to Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!, that the romantic connection that vocalist and arranger shared translated naturally to the finished recorded product. The album was cut in May and June 1960, and Riddle's studio orchestra featured at the time some of the best West Coast musicians around, including trumpeters Cappy Lewis, Pete Candoli, Shorty Sherock, and Don Fagerquist, saxophonists Buddy Collette and Plas Johnson, guitarist Al Hendrickson, pianist Bill Miller (famous for his work with Sinatra), bassist Joe Comfort, and drummer Alvin Stoller, among others. Many of them were familiar with Clooney's singing from working in the orchestra used on her television show, which makes the interaction between singer and band even closer and more effective. As they worked together in the 1950s, Riddle and Sinatra had come naturally to the realization that the clear-cut division between swingers and ballads in the old swing band days needn't be that strict, because swingers could be slowed down and, similarly, ballads could be made to swing lightly. That idea became one of Riddle's trademarks and added to the appeal of his arrangements; such a principle is clearly at work on this album, and as usual, to great effect.

This is apparent in the album opener, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "Get Me to the Church on Time," which is brassy but more understated than one would think. The next tune, "Angry," pretty much fits the same mold, while Hoagy Carmichael's reflective ballad, "I Get Along Without You Very Well," is taken at a much sprightlier tempo than other versions by, say, Sinatra or Chet Baker. In the hands of Clooney and Riddle, it is a ballad that swings easily but that does not lose any of its introspective quality. The two reach back in time quite a bit on some of the tracks: that is the case with the Gene Austin-associated "How Am I to Know" (with lyrics by Dorothy Parker), beautifully punctuated by saxophone solos from Plas Johnson. Other songs included in the album that often hark back to the old vaudeville days are "I Ain't Got Nobody," Shelton Brooks's "Some of These Days," "Shine on Harvest Moon," and the Ethel Waters classic "Cabin in the Sky," all of which demonstrate Clooney's appreciation of first-class pop and jazz-inflected songwriting.

On Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me," Riddle's writing is clearly reminiscent of his work with Sinatra on Songs for Swinging Lovers and A Swingin' Affair, and Rosie's singing, underscored by George Roberts's clever work on trombone,  shows how important lyrics always were to her when it came to interpreting a song. The Latin-tinged arrangement of "April in Paris" is initially driven by Jack Costanzo on bongos, but toward the end of the chart, the orchestra takes over and supports Clooney's vocals in style. Annotator Levinson calls "By Myself," written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz and revived by Fred Astaire in the movie The Band Wagon, "the gem of this CD," and in the light of the seamless interaction between Clooney and the orchestra, it is hard to argue with him. But then the album is really a gem as a whole, and by the time we reach the last track, "Limehouse Blues," we are more than ready to overlook the occasional gimmicks that Riddle employs on this Asian-influenced melody, which actually works very well as a closer. It is to this record what, say, "It Happened in Monterey" was to Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers. The CD reissue includes two bonus tracks, recorded almost a year later, in April 1961, and although "Without Love" and "The Wonderful Season of Love" (the theme from the then-current movie Return to Peyton Place) are more conventional ballads, they are worthy additions to the package and show what a good string writer Riddle was. Overall, Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle! can be considered the crown jewel of the personal and professional association between Rosemary Clooney and Nelson Riddle, a passionate romantic affair that, fortunately for us, also resulted in a most swinging musical affair.

Rosie and Nelson at work in the studio

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jazz in Catalan: Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett, and Their Friends, 1966

A largely forgotten figure in jazz history now, and too often compared with Jimmy Smith when mentioned at all, Lou Bennett was one of the best organists of the 1960s and '70s, even though he spent most of his professional life in Europe and only returned briefly to the United States in 1964 to appear at the Newport Jazz Festival. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Bennett first took up the piano before switching to organ in the mid 1950s. After touring the country for a few years, in 1960 he moved to France, where he found a vibrant jazz scene and a much more eager audience for his boppish music. In Europe Bennett recorded steadily, although many of his albums are not easy to find on CD these days. One of his little-known masterpieces, as Marc Myers rightly argues in this article, is Enfin!, which he cut for the French branch of RCA in 1963. Even more obscure than that is an album he made three years later in Barcelona, Spain, with the Spanish vocalist Núria Feliu, entitled Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett I Els Seus Amics (Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett, and Their Friends).

According to José María García Martínez in his book Del Fox-Trot al Jazz Flamenco (From Fox-Trot to Flamenco Jazz), a history of jazz in Spain between 1919 and 1996, by the mid 1960s Bennett was living in Cambrils, a town not too far from Barcelona, and appearing with guitarist René Thomas in clubs in and around Barcelona, where "he was known throughout the country as a messenger of jazz" (190). Though he had settled in Paris, where he would eventually pass away in 1997, it is very possible that Bennett spent part of his time in Spain, at this time still under the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco and not as receptive to jazz—and foreign music in general—as other European countries. Whatever the case, sometime in 1966, Bennett, along with Philip Catherine on guitar and other unknown musicians, backed Feliu on this excellent album released by the Spanish Edigsa label. Apparently, the masterminds behind the project were producer Albert Mallofré and Spanish piano ace Tete Montoliu, who wrote some of the arrangements and, though uncredited, even plays piano on some of the tracks. The album is essentially a collection of well-known standards sung in Catalan, not Spanish, by Feliu, with lyrics translated and adapted by Jaume Picas, and the overall result, with Bennett's groovy contributions on organ, is extremely enjoyable.

Though celebrated as both a pop singer, well known as a master interpreter of the Catalan cuplé song form, Feliu was a jazz vocalist at heart, as evidenced in this 1974 television appearance, where her set list is rife with jazzy interpretations of standards. In fact, Feliu had already recorded an album with Montoliu prior to this session with Bennett and had even sung in New York accompanied by the Spanish pianist. This album with Bennett can be considered, in many ways, a follow-up to her collaboration with Montoliu, who participates actively in the project. Like Sweden's Monica Zetterlund, Feliu has a very agreeable voice and an unerring sense of time that allows her to swing in an effortless manner. Her voice, albeit not always as melodious as Zetterlund, blends perfectly with the organ accompaniment, and her readings of the Catalan lyrics of all these very familiar tunes are never less than convincing. The LP starts off with "Geòrgia, Geòrgia," a slow-paced, rather bluesy version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" that sets the pace for what we will find in the rest of the album. "Encara No" is a mid-tempo reading of "Speak Low" with Montoliu on piano delivering a lovely solo, and with some fine guitar work from Catherine. "D'Aqui a L'Eternitat" is not really a standard, but the theme song of the movie From Here to Eternity set to a semi-Latin beat that works perfectly for Catherine to offer us a beautiful, subdued guitar solo. Bennett sets a groovy mood on "T'He Mirat," a particularly swinging version of "I Only Have Eyes for You," and the first side of the LP concludes with one of the highlights—a very laid-back arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," entitled "Nina de Seda," which features some great interplay between Bennett and Catherine.

Pianist Tete Montoliu
The second side of the disc begins with Feliu at her most seductive, reciting the opening lines of "No Saps la Feresa d'Amor," which is actually "You Don't Know What Love Is," the slowest number on the set, in equal parts dramatic and restrained, featuring some extremely sympathetic playing by Montoliu, who could be romantic and smooth without ever overdoing it. "Ningú No Ho Podrà Saber Com Jo" (George and Ira Gershwin's classic "They Can't Take That Away from Me") picks up the pace and gives Bennett a chance to show off his dazzling skills on the organ and prove why European audiences were attracted to his very personal style. "Aquell Infant" is "Nature Boy" given the full Montoliu treatment; his marvelous piano solo seems to inspire Feliu to play with the rhythm and the melody throughout the whole performance. Bennett is back for "Cèntims del Ciel," an uptempo arrangement of "Pennies from Heaven" that finds the organist sounding quite a bit like Jimmy Smith, and Feliu proving that she really knew how to swing and sing slightly behind the beat whenever she felt it was necessary. Again accompanied by Montoliu's piano, Feliu reaches quite far back for "Te'n Vas Anar," an interesting reading of "After You've Gone" that begins in a bluesy mood for about a chorus and then picks up the tempo and closes the album with a bang. Though the rest of Feliu's recorded output has its interesting moments (particularly the aforementioned session with Montoliu that also includes Booker Ervin and which is highly recommended) this obscure album is definitely one of its highlights and proves that jazz and the Great American Songbook, when done properly, can sound engaging in any language. For anyone who is interested, Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett I Els Seus Amics, reissued on CD by the Picap label a few years ago, can be found as a CD-R in the United States at the time of this writing. It is an unusual, yet thoroughly satisfying record that is sure to appeal to any jazz aficionado in search of something off the beaten path and with a swinging beat.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cool Grooves: A Musical Appreciation of Dean Martin's Capitol Studio Albums, 1953-1962

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the passing of Dean Martin, and his musical legacy keeps going strong. Widely celebrated as the epitome of cool, Martin cut a series of consistently excellent studio albums for Capitol Records in a span of nine years, between 1953 and 1962. Though they did not make as much of an impact on the charts as his later, more commercial work for Reprise, these albums are among the many high points in his career. In this article, I will briefly discuss these eight LPs, which can all be found on CD and should be in the collection of any serious Dino fan.

By 1953, about three years before they dissolved their partnership, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were one of the top acts in the country, a constant presence in nightclubs, movies, and television. As far as records were concerned, Martin had signed with Capitol in 1948 and had concentrated mostly on cutting singles, some of which (particularly "Powder Your Face with Sunshine") were quite successful. It was now time to release a ten-inch LP, called simply Dean Martin Sings (1953), which contained eight songs, all of them from the then-current Martin and Lewis movie, The Stooge. The album was recorded in two sessions held on the same day, November 20, 1953, and it consists of a well-balanced mixture of brassy fast numbers and slow string charts. The latter were recorded first, with Ted Nash's saxophone providing beautiful fills that complement Dino's smooth crooning perfectly on songs such as "I'm Yours," "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming," and "A Girl Named Mary and a Boy Named Bill." Martin also plays tribute to his boyhood idol, Bing Crosby, with a version of "Just One More Chance" that does not stray too far from the original. The uptempo numbers were cut at the second session, including "Who's Your Little Who-Zis," "I Feel a Song Comin' On," "I Feel Like a Feather in the Breeze," and "Louise," which Lewis actually sings in the film. Two years after the release of Dean Martin Sings, the record industry had adopted the twelve-inch LP as its primary long-playing medium, and so the album was reissued with the addition of four more songs: a lovely ballad treatment of "When You're Smiling," the number-two hit "That's Amore," and two Italian-flavored songs, "Oh Marie" and "Come Back to Sorrento," the latter sung entirely in Italian.

On paper, a collection of songs about the American South sung by an Italian American from Ohio may sound like an unlikely choice for Martin's second Capitol LP. But that is precisely what Swingin' Down Yonder (1955) is, and it works because the Dixieland idiom perfectly suits Dino's devil-may-care approach to swing. This time no marathon one-day session was needed; Martin's first true concept album took shape over the course of three sessions held between September 1954 and February 1955. Like on the previous record, Dick Stabile is at the helm, but the arrangements are now all bouncy and jazzy, though a little gimmicky at times. The studio band sounds tight and includes fine musicians like trombonist Milt Bernhardt and trumpeters Charlie Teagarden, Conrad Gozzo, and Mannie Klein. Dino is obviously at ease crooning Southern-themed standards such as "Carolina Moon," "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," and "Georgia on My Mind," and he gets the chance to pay homage not only to Crosby ("Mississippi Mud," "Dinah," "Basin Street Blues") but also to Al Jolson ("Carolina in the Morning"). One of the lesser-known tracks on the album is the Gene Krupa-associated "Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina," and this musical journey into a fairly recent past, as revivalist as it clearly sounds, makes it evident that Martin's easy-swinging style would not be out of place on any Mississippi river steamboat.

Martin turned to ballads for his next project, entitled Pretty Baby (1957) and recorded over the course of two sessions held at the end of January 1957. Although the concept is not as evident here as on the previous album, Dino's nonchalant performances are always more enjoyable than the often annoying Pied Pipers-like vocal accompaniment with which the arrangements are saddled. Martin's happy-go-lucky persona is underscored by the cover, which has our man looking knowingly at the camera as he passes by a beautiful blonde who openly smiles at him. A similar motif would reappear two years later on the jacket of A Winter Romance. The charts, provided by Gus Levene on this occasion, make the ballads swing in a comfortable manner, and the studio orchestra, whose size is much more reduced than before, features notable names such as drummer Nick Fatool, pianist Buddy Cole, trombonist Elmer Schneider, and guitarist Alvino Rey. Martin keeps tapping into the Crosby songbook ("Only Forever" and "It's Easy to Remember"), and besides the title track, he turns in some solid performances on songs like "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "Sleepy Time Gal," "The Object of My Affection," and "Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You."

If Martin seems to be very relaxed on Pretty Baby, he is even more so on Sleep Warm (1959), where relaxation actually becomes the concept. Recorded over three sessions in October 1958, the album boasts appropriately dreamy arrangements by Pete King and has Dino's favorite pal, Frank Sinatra, conducting the orchestra. This was not the first time that Sinatra took up the baton: he had already conducted a series of Alec Wilder tone poems in 1956 and Peggy Lee's LP The Man I Love in 1957. It seems clear that Martin was attempting to create a concept album in the manner of Sinatra's classic Capitol concepts here, since even the title track was specifically written for this project. The rest of the tunes are mostly standards that make reference to the acts of sleeping or dreaming, such as "Hit the Road to Dreamland," "Dream," "All I Do Is Dream of You," and "Dream a Little Dream of Me." Once again, Martin finds room for songs associated with Crosby ("Goodnight Sweetheart," "Let's Put Out the Lights (and Go to Sleep)," and "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams") as well as quoting the classics ("Brahms' Lullaby") and unearthing the rather obscure gem "Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine." Another woman appears on the cover, but this time she is comfortably sleeping in a bed of clouds and not looking at Dino (and perhaps not wearing any clothes under those nebulous sheets), who would further this concept five years later when he cut the album Dream with Dean for Reprise.

Rather than a full-fledged Christmas package (he would not release one such record until 1966), Martin's next project, A Winter Romance (1959), is a concept album built around the theme of winter, with a couple of Yuletide songs thrown in because in at least half the globe the Christmas holidays happen to take place during the winter. I have already published a more in-depth article about this lovely LP—one of my personal favorites in Martin's discography—in The Vintage Bandstand, so if the reader is interested, the piece may be accessed here. Then, for his first record of the new decade, Martin would have his first opportunity to collaborate with Nelson Riddle, who had been working closely with Sinatra for about seven years. For their first album together, This Time I'm Swingin'! (1960), Riddle and Martin selected a repertoire made up of older and newer songs, to which they gave an irresistible, laid-back swinging treatment, with arrangements that are not very different from the ones Riddle would write for the LP Sinatra's Swingin' Session about one year later. In fact, one of the songs, "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," would also be selected by Sinatra for that album, and "Imagination" had been recorded by Young Blue Eyes back during his tenure with Tommy Dorsey and was a song that he often featured in his live performances. Two songs, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and "On the Street Where You Live" are culled from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady, and Dino shines on "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You," "Mean to Me," and "Just in Time." It seems that by now it had become almost necessary for Martin to tip his hat to Bing Crosby at least once on every record, so here he includes one of Der Bingle's latest hits, "True Love," done as a mid-tempo swinging ballad. The studio orchestra is full of West Coast luminaries (Buddy Collette, Don Fagerquist, Pete Candoli, and Shorty Sherock are just a few examples) and in this kind of company Martin delivers on the title's promise—he is definitely swinging this time!

Just why it took Martin and Capitol so long to think of cutting a whole album of Italian and Italian-influenced songs is anyone's guess. To be fair, three out of the four tunes added to the twelve-inch version of Dean Martin Sings have an Italian origin, so in that respect they foreshadow Dino: Italian Love Songs (1962), which was completed in three sessions held in September 1961. Unlike Sinatra, Martin had always openly celebrated his Italian-American heritage by performing Italian-flavored songs (sometimes even in Italian) and producing a collection of some of his favorite tracks of this kind was a stroke of genius. In fact, Dino: Italian Love Songs, was the only one of his Capitol albums that actually charted, and many of the songs it includes ("Return to Me," "On an Evening in Roma") have become closely associated with Martin, who featured them prominently in nightclub appearances. The arrangements are by Gus Levene, who also conducts the orchestra, and although some of the charts sound grandiloquent at times, they usually complement Dino's laid-back crooning beautifully. Though not all the tunes are genuinely Italian ("I Have But One Heart" is an example of this), they all have an Italian feel, and many of them do indeed hail from Italy. For instance, "Take Me in Your Arms" is "Torna a Surriento" (also included in Dean Martin Sings) with a different set of lyrics, and "There's No Tomorrow" is "O Sole Mio" with the same English lyrics sung by Tony Martin on his RCA recording of this classic Neapolitan song. Other standout tracks from the album are "Just Say I Love Her" and "Arrivederci Roma," and Dino sounds so much at ease warbling these Italian ditties that it is fairly surprising that he never recorded a follow-up to this marvelous LP.

By the time Martin's last project for Capitol, Cha Cha de Amor (1962), was released, the singer had switched labels and signed with the Frank Sinatra-owned Reprise Records, for which he had already cut an album, French Style. Recorded in three sessions in December 1961, Martin's last Capitol LP is one of his strangest: as the title suggests, here we have a set of twelve songs, most of which did not originate in Latin America, set to a cha cha beat. The concept is even more unlikely if we bear in mind that by 1961-62, the brief cha cha craze of a few years earlier had practically waned. But, oddly, the concept works because Nelson Riddle handles the arrangements, which are anything but pretentious and which suit Dino's relaxed delivery much better than one would expect. It is difficult to pick standout tracks on this album, both because all the performances are strong and because, as annotator James Ritz points out in his notes for a 2005 CD reissue, "although [it is] delightful and easy to listen to, there's an inherent sameness about the album that left room for very few surprises." Yet this sameness should be attributed neither to Martin, who always sings with gusto, nor to Riddle, whose arrangements are highly inventive, but perhaps to the repetitive nature of the cha cha rhythm itself. In any case, if pressed to choose favorites, I would name the title song, "Somebody Loves You," "Love (Your Spell Is Everywhere)," "I Wish You Love," and "A Hundred Years from Today." Dino clearly enjoyed the format of this album, for one of his first LPs for Reprise, Dino Latino, would follow a similar Latin American theme. After completing the sessions for Cha Cha de Amor, Martin began to record in earnest for Reprise, entering a highly successful phase in his career that, at least as far as charted hits were concerned, would surpass his Capitol era. But that is, as they say, an entirely different story to be told at a different time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gigi Gryce as Seen by Noal Cohen

I recently received an e-mail from one of our readers inquiring about an article I wrote a few weeks ago about French pianist Jack Diéval. The message came from Noal Cohen, who, along with his friend and fellow jazz enthusiast, Michael Fitzgerald, has written and published the only biography of alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce currently available—Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce (Rockville, MD: Current Research in Jazz, 2014, Second edition). I asked Mr. Cohen if he would be interested in writing a brief portrait of Gryce for The Vintage Bandstand that also featured some information about his highly recommendable book. I was extremely pleased and grateful when he agreed, and it is an honor to publish his excellent piece here. It is followed by some further information about Cohen and Fitzgerald, some indispensable online resources on Gryce's work, and four recommended albums by Gryce that any serious jazz fan should own.

A Portrait of Gigi Gryce, by Noal Cohen

When alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce died in 1983, his legacy was but a distant memory. While regrettable, this is not terribly surprising in view of the fact that some twenty years earlier, he had changed his name and abandoned his career as a performing musician, arranger, composer, and music publisher. Yet during the decade that he was part of the vibrant 1950s New York City scene, his many contributions were highly regarded. Evidence of his status among the jazz elite can be seen in Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photograph A Great Day In Harlem, where Gryce is found at the extreme left in suit, tie, hat, and perhaps most characteristically, with a folio under his arm, no doubt containing music. There he stands among jazz giants like Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, and his friend Thelonious Monk, whom he had shepherded to the photo shoot that memorable summer day.

Although eventually overshadowed by his longer-tenured contemporaries, Gryce participated in many recording sessions between 1953 and 1961, often as leader, and he composed prolifically, with his body of work including such frequently performed pieces as “Minority” and “Social Call.” His talents and interests, however, extended beyond the boundaries of those usually associated with jazz artists. He was a pioneer in music publishing and served as a mentor to younger aspiring musicians who needed assistance with problems both musical and professional. Serious, dedicated, clean-living, conservatory-trained, and always willing to pass on his extensive musical knowledge to others, Gryce was far from the stereotype of the jazz musician of his time.

Throughout his career, he collaborated with a number of noted trumpet players including Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd and Richard Williams. With Byrd, he co-led an ensemble known as the “Jazz Lab” which made a number of highly regarded recordings in 1957 but disbanded soon thereafter. Along with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet, the “Jazz Lab,” with its structured but strongly swinging approach, set the tone for the sub-genre known as “hard bop” that had taken hold during this period. Gryce’s last ensemble was called the “Orch-Tette” and added vibraphone to the saxophone-trumpet front line.

As a music publisher, his pioneering efforts to protect composers’ rights were courageous but ill fated and led to serious professional and personal difficulties. In 1963, he left music and became a teacher in the New York City school system using his Muslim name, Basheer Qusim. For twenty years, he taught at several schools, most notably C.E.S. 53 in the South Bronx, renamed “The Basheer Qusim / G.G. Gryce School” in his honor after his death.

In many ways, the story of Gigi Gryce is an uplifting one. He overcame the institutionalized racism of the Deep South, poverty, the ravages of the Great Depression, and the untimely loss of his father. He was able to secure a college education (Boston Conservatory), which provided him with tools that he would exploit effectively in ascending to prominence on the New York jazz scene. But while leaving a substantial legacy of recordings and compositions, his goals and aspirations were never truly fulfilled. Certainly his musical career ended prematurely in the early 1960s when his dreams were shattered in the wake of personal and professional turmoil. There was so much more he could have achieved if circumstances had been different. Yet even with these disappointments he was able to reinvent himself as a superb public-school teacher who commanded the respect and admiration of students, teachers, and parents alike.

Gryce may not have cut the widest swath among the many musicians of his era, but his is a story worth telling. It presents an individual who existed in a strange environment that stood in contradiction to many of his fundamental beliefs. Despite this, he was able to work with the absolute cream of the crop in the exceedingly competitive jazz world. He recorded for major labels as well as small independents, and those records as well as the compositions on them continue to hold interest more than a half-century later.

The Book - Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce

The seeds of Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce were sown in the 1950s when as a teenage jazz aficionado and aspiring musician, I discovered Gryce’s recordings. I found the music original, intriguing and memorable and was always surprised and disappointed that it never seemed to receive the exposure and acclaim I thought it deserved.

Fast forward to 1997 when I met a kindred spirit in intrepid jazz scholar Michael Fitzgerald. After some discussions, a partnership was established regarding research on Gryce who, by that time, had been dead for fourteen years. It soon became apparent that what was known about Gryce was often inaccurate and represented only a fraction of an oeuvre that was as fascinating as it was unexpected. These studies led to a journal article and a presentation at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey in 2000. The first edition of the book was published by Berkeley Hills Books in 2002 whereupon it received uniformly good reviews and a 2003 award for “Excellence in Recorded Sound Research” from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. The second edition was published in 2014, this time under the Current Research in Jazz imprint, with updates from another decade’s worth of research.

Noal Cohen, June 2015 

About the Authors

Noal Cohen is a Montclair, NJ-based jazz researcher and discographer whose main interests involve artists he considers worthy of greater recognition. He has published online (see his outstanding Jazz History Website here) detailed discographies of Teddy Charles, Herb Geller, Johnny Hartman, Elmo Hope, Tiny Kahn, Joe Locke, Bob Mover, Carl Perkins, Benny Powell, Frank Strozier and Lucky Thompson. He also writes and edits liner notes and has contributed articles to Coda Magazine, Names & Numbers, and Current Research in Jazz Online.

Michael Fitzgerald is electronic services librarian at the University of the District of Columbia, home of the Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives. He is founding editor of the open access online journal Current Research in Jazz and is jazz research director of the website

Musician, researcher, and author Noal Cohen

Other Gigi Gryce Resources

Recommended Recordings of Gigi Gryce

When Farmer Met Gryce, Prestige OJCCD-072-2 (CD; 1994 reissue of 1954 and 1955 material)
Nica’s Tempo, Savoy (Jpn.) SV 0126 (CD; 1991 reissue of 1955 material)
Jazz Lab/Modern Jazz Perspective, Collectables COL 5674 (CD; 1995 issue of 1957 material)
Doin’ the Gigi, Uptown Records, UPCD 27.64 (CD; 2011 release of previously unissued material, some live, from 1957, 1960 and 1961) 

©2015 Noal Cohen

Gigi Gryce was one of many jazz musicians who showed up for this legendary shot by Art Kane