Tag Archives: Benny Goodman

Darn That Dream

Louis Armstrong as Bottom and Maxine Sullivan as Titania in the ill-fated 1939 Broadway show Swingin' the Dream.

The history of jazz has many fascinating footnotes, but few as intriguing as an event which took place 70 years ago, and which has been glossed over in most of the biographies and autobiographies of those involved.

The event was the opening of a unique musical – a jazz version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – at the end of November 1939. It starred jazz’s most important innovator, Louis Armstrong, as Bottom, and the vocalist Maxine Sullivan, who was enjoying popular success with her swing versions of Loch Lomond and other folk songs, as Titania.

Entitled Swingin’ the Dream, the show boasted musical supervision by clarinet king Benny Goodman, whose sextet was one of three bands playing in the production, and it had scenery based on Walt Disney cartoons (with Disney’s permission).

If the name of the show is familiar, it’s probably because its only legacy – and the only reason it is ever mentioned in sleeve notes and books – was the classic ballad, and jazz favourite, Darn That Dream, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie DeLange. Reference books, the internet, and record notes yield little information about Swingin’ the Dream, and nothing comprehensive appears to have been written about it – undoubtedly because it was a huge flop, running only 13 performances.

There is some photographic evidence of the eccentricity of the whole affair, however. The superb 1987 documentary profile of Maxine Sullivan, Love to be in Love, showed two still photographs of Sullivan and Armstrong kitted out in togas and hamming it up for the camera. But neither is as amusing as the one that is included in the booklet of the Chronological Classics Louis Armstrong CD – of the trumpeter in ass attire.

Swingin’ the Dream had a predominantly black cast which, in addition to Armstrong and Sullivan, included Butterfly McQueen – who was about to find fame as the hysterical maid Prissy in Gone With the Wind, released in mid-December of that year – as Puck, and Dorothy Dandridge as a pixie.

Jimmy Van Heusen’s score borrowed themes from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the rehearsal pianist was no less important a jazz figure than the stride pianist James P Johnson. While Benny Goodman’s group was positioned in a box on one side of the stage, Don Voorhees conducted the pit band, and the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, a hot Chicago band which boasted such talent as guitarist Eddie Condon, clarinettist Pee Wee Russell and saxophonist Bud Freeman, was stationed in a box on the opposite side from Goodman’s outfit.

The project, the brainwave of a European producer called Erik Charell, was clearly viewed with much cynicism by many of the musicians involved – even before it opened. Eddie Condon, in his autobiography We Called it Music, devotes only half a page to the show which he portrays as an enormous waste of talent. It had, he says, ”a cast large enough to found a small city” and was a complete shambles. By opening night, the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra’s involvement had been cut to two numbers, leaving time for the musicians to go for a drink.

Condon says: ”I got into the white uniform I was forced to wear and went across the street to Dillon’s bar. By then I knew we were swinging a flop; it was the first time I had ever worn white to a funeral.” The reviews confirmed what Condon and his colleagues had suspected (Billboard described the show as ”an orgy of wasted talent”) and the band – convinced that they would soon be out of work – began scouting for other work.

Condon’s Scrapbook of Jazz includes a telegram, dated December 4, which he sent to a friend in Chicago. It says: ”Swingin’ the Dream not going over. Goodman leaves next week and although we are contracted until December 29 we could leave any time too.” However, before the Summa Cum Lauders could jump ship, it sank – without a trace. Having grossed a measly $12,000 in its first week, Swingin’ the Dream swung to a halt on December 9, leaving little in the way of evidence that it had ever existed…

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Doin’ the Chameleon

Dick Hyman has a lot to answer for. Had it not been for him, who knows if I would have turned out to be a jazz fan. It all happened in 1986. My brothers and I had watched – and recorded – a movie over the Easter holidays, and become absolutely obsessed with the music, in a way that only teenagers can. We played the same scene over and over till we knew it off by heart and were able to sing it even without the video playing.
The film was a TV movie biopic of the pioneering ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin, and the scene which caught our imagination was one where the unknown Joplin and his accomplice wipe the floor with the established “professors” in a piano battle that culminates in Joplin’s rafters-raising rendition of his Maple Leaf Rag.
Three months into the obsession with this scene, my jazz-daft dad – who had already used such devious methods as midnight feasts for Louis Armstrong’s birthday to kickstart the brainwashing process – casually mentioned that the guy who had played the piano in the Scott Joplin was coming to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. His name was Dick Hyman – would I like to come?
So it was that, at the age of 14, I accompanied my dad around the Edinburgh Jazz Festival’s erstwhile Pub Trail for a day. The Dick Hyman gig took place in one of the rooms in the labyrinthine Royal Overseas League, on Princes Street. The bespectacled American made an immediate impression. To play the rickety old upright piano at a comfortable height, he was perched on two stacked chairs, but what struck me most of all were how thin and fast his fingers were as they flew about the keyboard – not least on the showstopping Maple Leaf Rag.
I heard more than just ragtime that night. Hyman has the unique ability to mimic the styles of all the great jazz pianists – and he morphs seamlessly from one into another, on a sort of whirlwind tour of the jazz piano hall of fame. A solo set from him is an education in jazz history, as he elegantly conjures up the spirits of the likes of Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson (who gave the teenage Hyman lessons) and his personal favourites, Art Tatum and Bix Beiderbecke.
He is truly a chameleon of the keyboard, and it’s therefore highly appropriate that he should have been the man responsible for the music for Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary Zelig, about a man who takes on a similar appearance to whomever he’s standing beside. For Zelig, Hyman drew on his talent for recreating period music, in this case the novelty tunes of the 1920s. The soundtrack was an integral part of the success of the film because it added another layer of authenticity and humour.
When I embarked on my own Woody Allen phase, I was thrilled to discover that Hyman was my then favourite filmmaker’s regular musical director: indeed, when I heard him in Edinburgh, he was undoubtedly in the midst of composing the brilliant jingles and themes for the nostalgic, 1940s-set comedy Radio Days. He arranged music or wrote for all the period Allen films – plus his bold musical Everyone Says I Love You – and is heard on several more.
Over the years, I have seen Hyman performing in all sorts of concerts – in spine-tinglingly moving duets with the trumpeter Doc Cheatham, in trio sets of Disney and Wizard of Oz music, in showcases for his compositions for an orchestra, in organ recitals, in two-piano extravaganzas with such formidable fellow ivory-ticklers as Jay McShann, and in the all-star extravaganzas which he co-ordinated with flair and characteristic unflappability (and zilch time to prepare) at several Edinburgh Jazz Festivals in the early 1990s.
Hyman is such a class act that he elevates any event into a different league, and his gift for rounding up a rag-tag bunch of soloists and arranging them, on the spot, into a slick band is legendary. At one Blackpool Jazz Party, it fell to Hyman to conduct 30-odd world-class solo stars through a grand finale. As the cast of what seemed like thousands swung a Basie-style riff, the beady-eyed Hyman – whose nickname should really be The Headmaster – walked up and down in front of the stage picking out soloists, sectioning off bands within the band, and bringing it all together with his usual aplomb.
He may seem a rather cool character but his enthusiasm and passion for jazz (and classical music) is apparent not just in his playing but in his voracious appetite for new and often off-the-wall projects. Shakespeare sonnets set to jazz? He’s done it. An album which imagines how Bix Beiderbecke’s bands might have sounded playing Gershwin? Yup. An hour-long blues tune? Uh-huh.
But all the above-mentioned events and achievements only skim the surface: during a six-decade career, Hyman has played with legends ranging from Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker (that’s him on piano in the one existing bit of footage of Bird), he’s written pop hits (Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time; kd lang’s Shadowland), pioneered the Moog synthesizer, penned innumerable classical compositions, scored ballets, served as musical director of two major festivals plus a string of classic TV shows, and recorded a CD-rom (A Century of Jazz Piano) which is now a library reference tool.
Now in his 83rd year, Hyman shows no sign of slowing down. Coasting is not an option – certainly if his forthcoming week in Scotland, which includes a harpsichord gig, a four-piano spectacular and a History of Jazz Piano concert is anything to go by. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of converting the next generation: my children are primed and ready for brainwashing…
* Dick Hyman is at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival (0131 467 5200; www.edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk) from August 2-5, then at the Nairn International Jazz Festival (01309 674221; www.nairnjazz.com) from August 6-8.

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The Happier Holiday

Dope addict, punchbag for her partners, target of racial prejudice – Billie Holiday, who died 50 years ago at the age of 44, has long been universally known not just as jazz’s greatest singer but also one of its saddest casualties. The phenomenally gifted vocalist, whom Frank Sinatra credited as his “greatest single influence”, is associated in many people’s minds with tragedy, oppression, abuse and the blues. But the truth is that the iconic Lady Day was not – for much of her existence – a downtrodden, pathetic creature at all.
Just because the key events in Holiday’s life – a possible rape when she was ten years old, an enforced separation from her mother, working as a prostitute in her teens, getting hooked on heroin, spending time in jail and suffering terrifying racial abuse – could have made her a victim, it doesn’t automatically follow that she was. Holiday’s final years were undoubtedly tragic but one shouldn’t assume that everything that went before was too.
Her death has come to overshadow her life; the ebullience and life-affirming qualities inherent in many of her recordings and in her personality, as described by friends and colleagues, until her last decade are often overlooked, swept aside by society’s need to slot everyone into a category.
But Billie Holiday was far too complex a character to be pigeon-holed simply as one of life’s victims. For one thing, she was not the type of person to allow herself to be pushed around – at least by anyone other than her lovers. And if anyone tried, the chances are they would get a thick lip. On numerous occasions, especially in her flaming youth, Holiday squared up to bigots – walking away was not an option.
There are various tales of how Holiday reacted to instances of racial prejudice – and they all involve her taking decisive, often reckless, action. On the road with Artie Shaw’s all-white band in 1938, she knew that things would be tough below the so-called Mason-Dixon Line: rednecks in the South would tolerate black people as entertainment, but this being the land of lynchings and the Klan, they wouldn’t acknowledge them as human beings.
During one show, Holiday was going down a storm but when a voice from the audience yelled: “Have the nigger wench sing another song!”, her simmering rage exploded and, in front of a packed auditorium, she clearly mouthed an obscenity which, as Shaw later recalled, caused “all hell to break loose”.
Other stories involve barroom brawls and Lady Day – for all her fisticuffs and foul language, she was the most elegant of singers – inviting ignoramuses who slurred her to step outside for a fight. Her pianist Bobby Tucker later said: “She beat the crap out of a guy at the bar who called her ‘nigger bitch’.”
Despite having no fear about standing up to the thugs and bullies she came across when she was out in public, Holiday allowed herself to be beaten up by a string of violent male partners – and there’s never been much evidence of her defending herself against them in the way that she did with strangers. Dan Morgenstern, the leading jazz expert who knew Holiday in the 1950s, is one of a number of her acquaintances who believes that: “She had a strong masochistic streak. She wanted guys who would hurt her both physically and emotionally.”
The two sides of Holiday’s personality are clear from one of the songs that became inexorably linked with her: My Man. It’s very much a song of two halves – the first, in a minor key, is all about the singer’s troubles with her lover (“Two or three girls has he/That he likes as well as me/But I love him”); the second is in a major key, slightly faster and much more hopeful (“All my life is just despair/ But I don’t care/When he takes me in his arms/ The world is bright, alright”).
Holiday recorded it three times – once in each decade of her recording career – and by the second recording, in 1949, she had added the lines “He beats me too/What can I do?”. That this song, though written by someone else, summed up her own point of view is clear from the fact that she ended her autobiography with a quote from it: “Tired? You bet/ But all of that I’ll soon forget with my man .. “
Of course, Holiday’s wilfully self-destructive habit of choosing brutes as her romantic partners was mirrored by her self-destructive drug addiction which has become the main theme of the Billie Holiday story over the years. Aside from the physical toll that heroin took on her, it also sapped her battling spirit and her lust for life. It turned her, when she was in thrall to the drug, into a different person and it cost her many friends.
Holiday’s tragic image was partly her own creation. In 1955, desperate for money to finance her habit, and aware of the fact that there was a demand for confessional memoirs, she dictated her autobiography to journalist William Dufty. It’s a compelling read, with Holiday’s characteristically “salty” language suggesting its authenticity but the reality was that it was full of exaggerations and deliberate distortions on her part. She hoped that the sensational aspects – which, before the publishers got cold feet, were to include details of her sexual adventures with everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Orson Welles – would attract Hollywood’s attention.
Indeed, it’s from the autobiography that much of the Holiday myth originates, as she allowed herself to come across as a victim. Even the title, Lady Sings the Blues, which was imposed by the publisher, is inaccurate: Holiday was not a blues singer; she rarely sang the blues.
Holiday’s tragic image was further consolidated in the public consciousness by the 1972 biopic, also entitled Lady Sings the Blues, which featured a harrowing performance by Diana Ross but had even less to do with the facts of Holiday’s life than her memoirs. Several key figures in her career, including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, refused to allow their names to be used.
Perhaps Goodman and Shaw, who both met Holiday in her earliest years on the jazz scene, simply didn’t recognise in the Lady Sings the Blues character the insouciant, fun-loving girl they had known. Her friends from the 1930s and 1940s remember a bawdy young woman with a lust for life, and an appetite for sensation. Even in her final decade, the 1950s, there were still glimpses of her wild ways. Singer Annie Ross, who was one of the friends who stuck by her till the very end, recalls an afternoon in Paris where they drank their way down the Champs-Elysees, cafe by cafe, supposedly on a shopping expedition. After visiting a fancy boutique where they viewed tray after tray of jewellery, Lady Day tipped out her pockets to reveal to her young friend a stash of necklaces and other baubles.
But for proof positive that the happy-go-lucky, “don’t careish”, Billie Holiday existed before – and then alongside – the rather more troubled Lady Day, just listen to her legacy of recordings. Yes, you’ll feel pity for the later Holiday with the voice that has paid the price for her lifestyle, but you’ll also feel uplifted by the sheer joie-de-vivre she exuded throughout the 1930s and then on occasion until she died, on July 17 1959.

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