June 21, 2016

Summertime and the Gigging is Easy

John Hutson and Monk Rowe at MWPAI

(Well not always easy, but plentiful.) The summer season is a gig-friendly time for musicians. If I look at my June calendar alone almost half of my gigs are summer events — from outdoor community concerts to backyard birthday parties to class reunions and seasonal fundraisers. I am reminded that of all the arts, music offers the most consistent compensation assuming a musician can fulfill the requirements of the engagement. I don’t often say this to other musicians, but if they start down the path of complaining about the scarcity of gigs I might remind them of the plight of the dancer, the poet, the visual artist, and the other artistic endeavors. To them the idea of a paying gig is almost nonexistent. Check your local calendar of events for the summer and see how many poetry readings, dance events or “live” painters are offered to the public for summer entertainment.
This doesn’t mean that summer gigs are a breeze. Certain logistical elements arise exclusively during the summer, including weather-related cancellations or the unpredicted rain shower, and unloading and loading in extreme heat. But musicians are a funny lot. We will look at a calendar of events and see a venue, say a canal park, and we are reminded of our disdain for the place — dirt road access, stairs to the stage, mosquitoes at dusk, and short bread with a long wait for the check. The next thought in our head will be why weren’t we booked there this year.
The season also suggests the playing of some classic summer tunes. You all know what they are: “Margaritaville,” by Jimmy Buffett; “In the Summertime,” by Mungo Jerry; and “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran. There are a few songs of summer that raise the bar both musically and lyrically. Check out our blog called Songs of Summer from 2012 for an example of one of the best.

June 2, 2016

Hollywood Takes on Benny Goodman

 A recent DVD purchase at a garage sale brought back a pleasant memory. While “The Glenn Miller Story” was the movie that fascinated me decades ago, “The Benny Goodman Story” follows a similar path and provides 90 minutes of pleasurable viewing, and a mix of fact and fiction. Watch the trailer here.
“The Benny Goodman Story” was produced in 1956, 21 years after The Benny Goodman Orchestra’s unexpected success at Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. This event, often cited as the birth of the Swing Era, was played to good effect in the film. Benny’s band had bombed across the country, their brand of “hot” music (as Benny called it) falling on deaf ears and mystifying the dancers. The band was unaware that their previous East Coast radio broadcasts had attracted a following on the West Coast, and enthusiastic fans saved the band.
Like most Hollywood biographies, it is highly fictionalized and, as the website “Rotten Tomatoes” says, is more of a series of musical highlights than a biography. Indeed it is. We get to see and hear real musicians (not actors) doing their thing, including drummer Gene Krupa; trumpeters Harry James, Buck Clayton, and Ziggy Elman; pianist Teddy Wilson; saxophonist Stan Getz; and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
Steve Allen was the right man to portray Benny. It helped immensely that Steve was an accomplished pianist and songwriter, and he grasped the clarinet “finger syncing” more than adequately. He spoke about the process of obtaining the leading role in the film in our 1999 interview in Los Angeles:
Steve Allen, in 1999
SA: By the time the thing was brought to my attention it was a firm offer, “we’d like you to do the picture.” I later heard partly how that came about. We will never — at least I never knew — how long the casting list was. I’ll explain briefly to people who might not know about the movie business, that whenever you have a script ready to go you don’t just call up somebody and say, “Get me Tom Cruise,” or whoever. You make out a list. Because although you might like to have Tom Cruise in your movie, maybe you’re ten million dollars short and he’s not available or there’s a lot of reasons he’s not going to do it. Whatever. So you make out a list. Well if I can’t get Tom Cruise, how about John Travolta? If he’s not available, whoever. So we’ll never know whether my name was ninth on a list or was number one on the list, I don’t know. The only other name that I ever heard was in contention was Tony Curtis, and Tony and I are obviously not the same individual. He’s a very handsome fellow, and he had the advantage that at that time he was under contract to Universal, so he was sort of one of their stock leading men, and I’ve been told that some people at the studio wanted him to play the lead. But that was vetoed by Benny himself, who I’ve been told said, I’m just paraphrasing of course, I wasn’t there when he said it, said I want Steve Allen for this because first of all Tony doesn’t know anything about music and he won’t seem real, he won’t seem legitimate as a musician speaking, also what can he do with the clarinet, you might as well hand him a tractor. I’m punching up Benny’s dialogue, but that was the thrust of his message, the other thing was a little less flattering. He said also, Tony Curtis is a pretty boy. He said I’m not a pretty boy and Steve Allen’s not a pretty boy. And it turned out that I did look more like Benny than — Tony looked nothing like him, so that had a lot to do with it.
Steve also spoke about learning the clarinet for the role, and about Benny’s real-life absentmindedness
SA: Yeah. As soon as I agreed to do the movie then of course the question was even though I was a musician I knew nothing about the clarinet, so we had to hire somebody to teach me, and somebody knew about Sol. Our mutual friend Bobby Rosengarden once said something hysterically funny, he described Sol Yaged as quote the Jewish Benny Goodman. For you young people, Benny himself is Jewish. But anyway Sol was the perfect choice, and a very easy guy to work with, so he gave me several weeks of just basic lessons: how to hold it, how to blow and all that stuff. And the reason I did have to go through all that, some people have said well why did you bother? Why didn’t you just go like that and pretend to play? The answer is my fingers had to be on the right holes. Now if you’re taking a shot from the back of a ballroom, it doesn’t matter, you can hardly see my hands. But on a close up I can’t be playing this if the real notes are over here. So I did have to have my fingers, and I did have to learn the instrument, and I learned it well enough to do a little playing in public. I once played a duet with Benny himself on a little tune I’d written. Benny himself that night was in a fog as usual. Benny Goodman lived in a fog. He was Mr. Absent Minded and often didn’t know what he was doing. He’d walk on stage with his fly open and stuff. He was just a careless man and didn’t think much about the world. He was just the greatest clarinet player of them all. So just after the movie, NBC and Universal Studios got together to do a little promotion going in both directions, so that meant booking Benny on our show, which was on the air Sunday nights at NBC at the time. So Benny himself played for a few minutes, and naturally was thrilling as always, and then our production group decided that Benny and I would do my little song with the two of us playing clarinets. It was sort of a riff thing, an easy thing to play. So in the script I walked in after Benny had played his marvelous numbers, and I said, “Benny that was terrific.” And his line was, “Well thank you, Steve, say, I see you brought your clarinet, why don’t you and I do something together?” A pretty simple line, and he’d had a whole week to work on it, he had one line with a week to work on it, and he forgot my name. Now it was my show, I was playing him in the movie, you might figure if there was any name he wouldn’t forget it’s mine. He might have forgotten his own. But anyway he did, on the air, and he did what he always did, because he was always forgetting people’s names. He had the world’s worst memory for names.
Benny solved his memory issues by calling everyone “Pops.”
Sol Yaged, who was chosen to teach Steve Allen for the film, was also interviewed in 2000 for the Fillius Jazz Archive. He related his experiences with the film and spoke of his extreme admiration for Benny:
MR:   Tell me about getting hooked up with Steve Allen.
Sol Yaged, in 2000
SY:   I was working at a place called The Somerset Hotel on 47th Street off Seventh Avenue. I was there with a trio. And he used to come in every night to sit in with me, Steve Allen. This was before he had a show. He had just come to New York from Chicago, and we used to let him sit in with us all the time. And we became very good friends. And I’m indebted to him quite a lot because he’s done a lot for me. I’ve been on his show many a time. I was on a show with Benny Goodman, Urbie Green, there’s pictures of Stan Getz in the band, Buck Clayton. And he’s been very kind to me, Steve Allen. And whenever he’s in New York and he has to do a musical thing he always calls me. Great guy. And we got a lot of mileage out of the “Benny Goodman Story.”
MR:   Right. Was he a good student?
SY:   Excellent. The best. It was unbelievable. After a couple of lessons he was able to pick up the clarinet and play a blues. He was very astute. That’s a good question you asked.
MR:   Did Benny like the movie?
SY:   Benny Goodman did not like the movie.
MR:   It was Hollywoodized quite a bit.
SY:   Believe it or not, Monk, the picture did very well in Japan. I found out some time later after we made the movie that it stayed at one theater for over a year, that’s how popular it was. It was very, very big in Tokyo. Universal International Pictures selected Steve Allen, and Benny Goodman gave his okay, but then I think he regretted it. And then Steve Allen selected me to be his coach, and Benny Goodman had to give his okay also.
MR:   What was Benny’s personality like for you?
SY:   What can I say? He was the king. I don’t care what he said or didn’t say. I was happy to be in the same room with him. I used to go to all of his rehearsals, every one of his recording dates, Monk. And one day I came in late. He started at a certain time and I came in about 15, 20 minutes later because I was living in Brooklyn. He says “Sol, you’re late,” like that he would say that to me. I felt very elated that he even said that to me. He was very nice, very gracious and warm to me. His wife Alice was a very fine woman. His brother-in-law, John Hammond, was very nice and warm to me.
Goodman himself provided the clarinet solos, and his real bandmates provided added excitement. The film’s musical moments more than compensated for the rather slow-moving romantic sub-plot, although it was true that Benny married promoter John Hammond’s sister, Alice.
Goodman’s next triumph after Palomar was his 1938 appearance at Carnegie Hall. His band and the special guests rearranged the acoustics of this formidable classical music institution. Serious jazz fans and sociologists who know the role of jazz in society will be displeased over the film’s lack of attention paid to the historic racial integration in the joining of Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, comprising the Benny Goodman Quartet. This was the first integrated jazz group to gain attention on a national scale, and predated by seven years Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the world of professional baseball.
In real life, Benny Goodman was irascible, self-centered, and occasionally downright nasty. The film’s only acknowledgement of his now-legendary personality was a focus on his stubbornness. The producers cleverly worked one of Goodman biggest hits, “Don’t Be That Way” throughout the movie. The script was peppered with fellow actors beseeching the world’s greatest clarinetist, “Oh Benny, don’t be that way.”
Flaws aside, the music, the dancing and the portrayal of an exciting musical period carries the film. I have written other blogs on Benny, A Social Hero from February 6, 2009, and 100 Years of Benny, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth on June 3, 2009.

May 24, 2016

Joe Temperley, 1929-2016

Joe Temperley, in 1997

We’ve learned of the passing of another stellar jazz artist. Joe Temperley was a master of the big horn — the baritone saxophone. He was one of the numerous musicians from around the world who responded to the spell of jazz and the desire to come to the country of its birth.
Joe was born in Scotland and experienced practical schooling with Scottish bands, including the well-known ensemble of Humphrey Lyttelton. Visits by American jazz musicians were rare, but Joe took advantage when they happened, and was able to see Harry Carney, his baritone saxophone idol. In our 1997 interview he related the story of a visit to Scotland by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra:
MR:  How did you meet Harry?
JT:   I met him in England when the band used to come. When the Ellington band used to come to England, Humphrey used to buy tickets for everybody in the band. And we used to go, the first time the Ellington band came to England, they did maybe 26 concerts. And we probably saw maybe 21 or 22 of them. We just used to follow them around, all over the place. And every night we’d walk in and see everybody, and they’d say, “Oh you guys are here again.” You know they couldn’t figure out why we were at the concerts all the time. But Duke Ellington, that was such a thing, to go and watch that band and see all those people that were in the band.
MR:  That was the prime: [Johnny] Hodges and Harry—
JT:   Harry [Carney] and Paul [Gonsalves] and Jimmy Hamilton. It was amazing.
MR:  Were they on every night, from one night to the next? Can you remember that?
JT:   Well yeah. No, no they weren’t on every night. I mean sometimes they sounded like a high school band. And then they could be sounding terrible and 10 or 15 minutes later, they sounded like something you’ve never heard in your life before. They were just absolute — the way they could turn it on — maybe if they saw somebody walking in or if somebody came in to see them — all of a sudden the band would be transformed into something entirely different. Because you know that band traveled all the time. They were tired.
MR:  Years and years on the road.
JT:   It was an amazing band. And it still is, it’s still the premier jazz orchestra of all times, in my opinion.
Joe immigrated to the U.S. in 1965, his destination was New York City, the jazz capital of the world. He had to “pay some dues” before he was able to enter the music world.
MR:  Did you have to wait to get into the union?
JT:   Yes. It took six months to get into the union, Local 802. It doesn’t take that, it takes six minutes now, or even six seconds. They’re dying to get people in the union.
MR:  They need the dues.
JT:   Oh, yes. But at that time it was like a six month wait. So I waited it out.
MR:  What did you do during those six months?
JT:  I worked in Corvettes, selling audio equipment. And that was an experience too of course. All of a sudden you know I went from playing every night, playing my saxophone and all that, all of a sudden I’m working in a retail store. But it served its purpose.
MR:  That’s right. It puts things in perspective for you.
JT:  Yes, absolutely, yes. And living in New York I started going out to hear people and became friendly with people like Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne and different people. And then I spent maybe 18 months with Woody’s band. But it was very hard then. It was very rigorous. I couldn’t deal with all those bus trips.
The most creative big band of the late 60s was led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. When their baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams needed a sub, Joe Temperley got the call. He was in awe of the musicians with whom he shared the stage:
JT:  I must tell you this. When I actually played with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Band, I was so over-awed by the feeling of playing in that band and I couldn’t play for looking at everybody. You know looking at Snooky Young and Jimmy Nottingham, and Mel Lewis and Richard Davis and Jerome Richardson and Joe Farrell and all these people that were in the band. It was just a humbling experience for me. I would like to do it now you know. I would like to really do that again now.
MR:  That was quite a roster. Everyone was a soloist.
JT:   The saxophone section was Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, Joe Farrell, Eddie Daniels and myself. It was amazing.
Joe became a founding member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis, holding down the baritone saxophone chair until his death this month. Like Wynton, he agreed that paying tribute to jazz icons does not include trying to reproduce their sound note for note:
JT:  I’ve played the soprano a long time. But you know I play the tenor quite a bit. I like to play the tenor. But I don’t play the tenor as much as I would like to but I play in school. I have two or three tenor students in school so I get to play the tenor. And then I do some gigs and things, odd things, and sometimes with the Lincoln Center band sometimes I play the tenor in different situations, sometimes I play the soprano, and at first I played the baritone and bass clarinet. So I’m kind of a utility man there as well as being the baritone player there. Like in this upcoming Sidney Bechet concert I’m going to be playing the soprano, which I’m looking forward to.
MR:  In that situation, are you trying to emulate him as close as possible?
JT:   No. Not at all. Wynton doesn’t encourage that. Like we play Ellington music. He likes you to play your own idea of what you think it should be, rather than just play the solos note for note. Then I don’t think it’s a fair reproduction because you can’t play like that. I can’t sound like Harry Carney. And somebody else can’t sound like Cootie Williams, and somebody else can’t sound like Paul Gonzalves. You can’t do it.
MR:  We can listen to their records if we want to hear them.
JT:   Of course. Yeah. And you can play your own way in that particular feeling but you can’t impersonate them. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
Joe handled the baritone saxophone in a muscular yet delicate way. Some of my favorite recordings of him occurred in the company of pianist Junior Mance. Here’s a link to Junior and Joe playing one of Duke Ellington’s iconic recordings, “In a Sentimental Mood.”