December 24, 2015

Harlem Lullaby

As a follow-up to our previous post about the MOOC project, I recently engaged in an interesting activity. For the last week of the MOOC I decided to include my own Top Ten list of jazz recordings as a basis for discussion and feedback. The list is not intended as the “most important jazz recordings ever,” but is simply a collection of songs that affected me when I first heard them, and still have a special spot in my mind.
In my teen years I used to tune in to an all-night jazz station in Rochester, New York, hosted by Harry Abraham. Harry had the quintessential late night jazz DJ voice, and my transistor radio enabled me to listen underneath the sheets, long after I was supposed to be asleep. One night Harry announced the tune “HarlemLullaby” by Junior Mance. Something about this piano trio recording grabbed me that night and made me seek out the record, and it has remained a favorite ever since. Its evocative, bluesy mood conjures up a feeling —a déjà vu for something I know I have not experienced in this life.
“Harlem Lullaby” begins and ends with a rubato piano solo based on a phrase from the French song “Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.” Junior’s A section employs a mix of blues and Gospel chord changes, and links to a powerful bridge in the relative minor. Throughout, his identifiable style is front and center. Listen to the improvised lick at 2:35 to 2:55. Pure blues bliss.
Almost 40 years later, thanks to the Fillius Jazz Archive, I sat with Junior Mance and related my late night epiphany. Junior had his own radio story:

Junior Mance, in 1999
JM: What you say about under the sheets, well I guess I was about ten years old and my dad asked me one Christmas, “what do you want for Christmas?” I said, “I want a table radio.” You know this was before they had the little battery portables and all of that. And he was shocked. He thought what does he want a radio for? Well they would listen to all the broadcasts at night, you know like Earl Hines would broadcast from the Grand Terrace. And there was another place in Chicago I think called the Gerrick Show Lounge, where I remember Don Byas and J.C. Higginbotham were in a small group there. And they would catch all — you know that was the days when there were more radio broadcasts than there were records. But they came on so late and my folks wouldn’t let me stay up to listen. But I’d ease up and crack the door and I’d sit there and listen. So I says I’ll fix this, you know, and I asked for a radio. So they gave me the radio for Christmas. So I remember I would listen and Earl Hines would come on I’d search and I’d turn the volume down real low until I found it. Then I would get under the covers with the pillow and all, and listen to it. And every night this went on and they were none the wiser so then after it was over I’d put it back on the table. After it was over that was a time when mothers usually come in and tuck you in, you know, and I’d fake like I’m sleeping. Well one night, I fell asleep before the broadcast was over. The radio and me and everything is under the pillow and I’m sound asleep. So it woke me up and she pulled the pillow back and I says uh oh, this is it, I’m know I’m going to get it. She called me father in and they laughed. They said look at that. So then after that they started letting me listen, as long as I was in bed, and I could turn it on and listen to it.
Junior’s anecdote is echoed by many other jazz artists who grew up in the decades when radio was the main source of home entertainment. The serendipity connected with “Harlem Lullaby” did not end with my interview with Junior. Along the way I met producer Joel Dorn who was a later interviewee, and I noticed that he produced the album “Harlem Lullaby.” The liner notes were written by a second jazz producer, Orrin Keepnews, who also granted us a fascinating interview.
On my CD release in 1999, “Jazz Life,” I decided to tackle this tune, and I was quite pleased with the outcome. You can listen to that version here.
Two years ago I completed the circle with Junior by booking him and his trio at Hamilton College during a celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month. He retained that upbeat blues approach to his music, and was a pleasure to have on campus.