Tag Archives: Eddie Condon

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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Merry Month of May and the Notes are Blue

May has turned out to be a surprisingly memorable month, jazz-wise. Usually it’s a period of anticipation, as we jazz fans (in Scotland anyway) start to limber up for the festival season – or start getting hopeful that there will be some chances to hear our favourite musicians.

But sometimes you just can’t leave hearing favourite musicians to chance. From roughly 19 years’ experience, I know that I can’t rely on my local jazz festival – Glasgow – to cater to my tastes. Not since the heady days when they had Gerry Mulligan, Cab Calloway and Stan Getz on the bill have I managed to get terribly excited about their line-ups.  So, knowing that my two big hopes are the Edinburgh and Nairn events, which don’t start until the very end of July, it became necessary to find my fix elsewhere..

So it was to the Norwich Jazz Party that I headed during the first bank holiday weekend of the month. I’ve already reported on the Sandy Brown extravaganza but it was the icing on the cake: there were plenty of other treats. My highlights included a sizzling set of Eddie Condon-associated music (Ken Peplowski’s thrilling clarinet playing on That’s a Plenty a stand-out), an all-too-brief Bix set, which had an A-list front-line including Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet) and Howard Alden (guitar) letting rip on such delights as Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and Louisiana, and Dan Block (tenor sax) and Jon-Erik Kellso’s lovely, laidback evocation of recordings made by Coleman Hawkins and Red Allen in 1933.

To my disappointment, I arrived in Norwich too late to hear cornet ace Warren Vache’s reunion with tenor king Scott Hamilton but I had several chances to hear them playing in other groups. Hamilton teamed up with piano whiz Rossano Sportiello (they’re hoping to do a duet CD together soon) and drummer Chuck Riggs for a set of tunes the saxophonist played with the late Dave McKenna.

The results were sublime: Hamilton was on top form, especially on the ballads April in Paris and She’s Funny That Way: romantic, forthright, bluesy. These were tour-de-force performances – and the first on his feet for a standing ovation after each number was none other than Sir John Dankworth.

Vache also beguiled audiences with his seductive way with a ballad. His rendition of Darn That Dream in a quintet set with his regular pianist Tardo Hammer was the very epitome of his appeal: unexpectedly tender, unforgettably spellbinding.

How to follow all that? Well, with a trip at the end of that week to the Lake District – the Keswick Jazz Festival, to be precise – to hear the very first classic jazz band I ever encountered: the Hot Antic Jazz Band. A combination of guilt (at being away from home over the holiday weekend) and the desire to see history repeat itself inspired me to take my five-year-old twins to hear the Antics. Frankly, this French band should be every five-year-old’s introduction to live jazz.

My pair sat through three sets – two and a half hours – and were totally won over by the onstage Antics. These guys are not only accomplished musicians, dedicated to the hot jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, but they are also great fun and don’t take the whole thing too seriously.. Which is precisely why their appeal goes well beyond the jazz anorak brigade.  And what were the five-year-olds’ favourite songs? I Can’t Dance (I’ve Got Ants in My Pants), Papa De-Da-Da and Won’t  You Come Over and Say Hello. But they did rather take offence at the fact that everyone in the audience got to hear the tune which was dedicated to them…

My jazz month ended on Sunday with a concert a bit nearer to home: the Australian singer-pianist Janet Seidel at the Recital Room in Glasgow’s City Halls.

Seidel, who was accompanied by her regular guitarist Chuck Morgan and her bassist brother David Seidel, immediately won over the crowd with her sunny disposish and exquisite, crystal clear vocals. The influences may be Blossom Dearie and Peggy Lee, but it was Julie London – albeit with a wider range and more power – whom Seidel’s soft and gentle voice instantly brought to mind.
The theme of the evening was the late American singer-pianist Blossom Dearie, and Seidel lived up to her promise of performing Dearie’s material – both her original songs and the standards she favoured – without imitating her. Only on the her own tribute song Dear Blossom did she have a go at what she cleverly described as Dearie’s “fairy voice” (thankfully, because a little of it goes a long way).
That said, Seidel clearly shares an impish sense of humour with her idol: this was a gig with lots of laughs, thanks to such witty songs as I’m Hip, Peel Me a Grape and, especially, the hilarious Pro Musica Antiqua. Other highlights included lovely versions of It Might As Well Be Spring (partly sung in French), a Mancini medley and Tea for Two.
It’s been a rich month musically, and my appetite should be sated – for a while anyway. Roll on July!

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