Thursday, August 25, 2011

Part 2: A Long, Long Weill

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, Louis Armstrong in 1901 though he claimed 1900--but across the Atlantic in Dessau, Germany, and actually born in 1900, was composer Kurt Weill, a true child of the century of Jazz. Son of a Jewish cantor but never particularly religious, Kurt was a musical prodigy; and by age 17, after a couple of preparatory years, he was composing, conducting various groups, and off to Berlin for academic training, where he quickly became the prize student of composer Ferruccio Busoni, caught up in the avant garde, atonal music scene soon to be associated with the heyday of Weimar Republic Germany in general and rowdy, anything-goes Berlin in particular.

But Kurt was a restless young man, always in search of something new or different; and though he had many commissions for his "serious" music, somewhere along the line, around 1925, he began to hear recordings of this exciting new music from America...

Wait. Stop. That's the way his story is usually told, the official line: Weill was knocked for a loop by Jazz, and his own music changed. That's true... in part. He did abandon concertos and symphonies in order to compose strange operas and fractious, fractured musicals. But there's more to his conversion than meets the eye in Weill biographies. (It meets the ear, in fact.) The music that Kurt heard was not the Jazz we think of--neither New Orleans two-beat, overlapping and interwoven, nor the more contemporary mixture of solo musician insouciance and syncopated swing. Moreover, he was less influenced by Jazz of any era than he actually became an influence on Jazz, especially after he moved to the United States in 1935.

By 1925 Kurt was hearing Europe's idea of American Jazz, ahead of its ballyhooed, pre-sold arrival in 1926-27 in the persons of professional, slightly Jazzier, U.S. bands (but still dance bands) led by...uh ... Whiteman (Paul) and Black man Sam Wooding--and he was observing the Continental dance bands Americanize their names and play a chopped-up, used-condiments, mixed curry of marching drums, bierstube brass bands, ragtime syncopation, hurdy-gurdy streetsingers, quick-step 4/4 fox trots, tangos called back from exotic places, cabaret with a sexy Berliner snarl, cornpone humor and critter sounds (inspired maybe by Original Dixieland Jass Band 78s), Jewish klezmer clarinets threatened with violins, and Adolphe Sax's early C-melody saxophones, and all of those ingredients subjected to a piecemeal, pick-and-choose, go-for-broke approach.

These disparate, desperate measures of music met Weill's boredom and incipient rebellion head on, just when he was reading and cultivating the iconoclast poet and budding Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, cocky, half-cocked, brazen and brilliant. Kurt had lately decided to thumb his nose at a "serious music" fest in Baden-Baden that expected him to submit another atonal opera-in-progress. Suddenly he had the words--five Brecht poems including what became the famous "Alabama Song"--plus the eccentric model of this wild, new, no-style ur-Jazz (make that Eur-Jazz), and with cowboys yet! (Talk about your Brechtian alien-nation on the hoof.)

Weill thought, "I can do that better"... and he did, creating the heady blast of Weimar freethinking called Mahagonny Songspiel. When it premiered at the '27 festival, there in the set's boxing ring stood gussied-up Lotte Lenya, proudly holding up a hand-lettered sign and shout-singing right along with the other actress and actors. Kurt had met the brash and angular brunette (later famous for her fiery orange-red hair), an ex-dancer yearning to act, nearly three years earlier. Very quickly they became the couple widely known as "Kurt and Lenya," and soon were married; but this was her debut in a Weill piece. Inspired by the quizzical but excited response to the Songspiel, the troika (Lenya, Kurt and Bert) plus Brecht's assistant Elisabeth Hauptmann soon exploded the old new Germany and compass points outward by unleashing a trio of audacious, opera-nudging stage adventures: Die Dreigroschenoper; Happy End; Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. (Threepenny immediately sported big dollar signs, Happy End didn't, and Mahagonny rose and fell with Hitler's maneuvering.)

The Brecht-Weill team composed scores of angular, angst-denying, angrily sarcastic songs, of which at least a dozen (a few of them thanks to Lenya's unique delivery) quickly became classics of the new modern theatre, from "Alabama-," "Barbara-" and "Bilbao-" songs, to "Pirate Jenny," "Surabaya Johnny" and "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" Kurt's music was quirky, unpredictable, and instrumentally inventive, employing stops-and-starts, tempo and key changes, even "blue" notes, and he often chose to compose against the words rather than reinforce them. Since he always did his own orchestrations too, he could cheerfully call for such unexpected additions as banjo, hurdy-gurdy, trap drums, barrel organ, concertina, bandoneon, tenor viola, ricky-tick piano, and kitchen sink… and did. (A nice Weill story says he even required Hawaiian slack key guitar for one tune, but I'm dubious--Hawaiian guitar, yes, but slack-key tuning began decades later.)

On the verge of rich and famous, the three were much in demand, busily pursuing separate opportunities in opera, film, literature, theatre, and more, but by 1933 were all fleeing Hitler's Germany as designated enemies of the state (Bert the Communist, Kurt the Jew, and Lenya the pain in Adolf's skinny rump, guilty by association!), forced to abandon houses, lovers, money, and sheet music to the winds of no-chance. The Weills had already been through separation and divorce, but they kept regaling each other with wonderful letters; and so they decided to reunite in Paris for one last Euro project with Brecht ("The Seven Deadly Sins" ballet), realized they were meant to be together after all, and steamshipped on to America in 1935—where few knew of or gave a falling fig for their German fame and European successes.

Kurt had turned his back on Germany for good. He sought work in musical theater, on and off Broadway, and soon got it. He also pursued U.S. citizenship with his usual fixated shy seriousness. That took a little longer, but Kurt was determined to become more American than the Americans themselves. Hit shows and hit tunes soon guaranteed it...

Which brings us to the American viewpoint. Kurt and Lenya were unknown quantities. No matter what had occurred over there, the word had not traveled well. A few New York theater people had heard of The Threepenny Opera, but it closed almost immediately when presented in 1933, long before the couple ever considered immigrating. Nor were the great Brecht/Weill songs yet known. (As Bert might have said, "Work first, then food.")

Kurt cultivated an acquaintance with playwright Maxwell Anderson, and soon he and Lenya were edging into the musical theater's upper echelon...slight notice for minor antiwar musical Johnny Johnson... better reviews for an odd but entertaining, American history piece titled Knickerbocker Holiday, with knockout tune "September Song" performed in the play, and eventually twice on hit recordings, by aging actor Walter Huston.

Suddenly the days weren't dwindling down, they were stretching out, on a red carpet. More than the politically awkward play, "September Song" alone served as Weill's entree to the inner circle of musical theater creators; it showed his unique talent for coolly emotive music--sad but not overly sentimental, strange without sounding strained, immediately familiar even when tailored to one singer. And the song was taken up by dozens of vocalists, from Ella, Bing and Nat, to Jimmy Durante (a great performance) and Frank Sinatra (two versions waxed decades apart), to Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, and Lenya herself (after Kurt's death). Sarah Vaughan recorded it on three separate occasions--with Teddy Wilson in 1946, Hal Mooney’s orchestra a decade later, and finally a December-of-her-years performance with Wynton Marsalis.

Jazz musicians heard its beauty too, among them orchestra leaders Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington, pianists Art Tatum and George Shearing, Jacques Loussier and John Bunch, and frontline soloists ranging from Chet Baker and J.J. Johnson to Al Hirt and Illinois Jacquet (with Ben Webster). Eventually even cabaret-ish rocker Lou Reed fell under its spell long enough to shred it quietly via his pick-and-slide, electric guitar version--not quite “Metal Music” unlistenable, but a challenge to Weill’s fans nonetheless.

Kurt would live long enough to become the still-youngish master of a new kind of Broadway musical, and to write the gracefully odd tunes for other hit songs lamenting the fragility of life and the evanescence of love. When he died suddenly in 1950, Jazz musicians were just beginning to take serious notice.

(Part 3 will pursue his influence on Jazz.)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Now Under Construction

When it rains, it pours... unless you live in Seattle where it showers, drizzles, and mists. (Vashon Island is close enough to catch the dripout.) Here we sit, basking in the second week of summer and with September looming, Weilling away the hours, waiting for the techspert to mouse/key my new harddrive into submission.

Call me Alibi Ike (a Damon Runyon character I think), but Fate has delayed my take on "Kurt and all that Jazz" for a few more days. Part 2 is actually ready to post, and will be, just as soon as that dang-blasted computer cries "Uncle."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Eire Language

Sometimes I get to chewing on stuff I might maybe shouldn't have bitten off. Right now I'm square in the middle of an attempt to document Kurt Weill's influence on American Jazz--a daunting task if, like me, you lack a music education or any playing experience. All I know or suspect comes from reading and listening; serious, reasoned analysis takes me oh... so... long...

Rather than skip a week, I decided to post one of the better poems I've written over the years, a sort of "small tale" for a front-porch summer evening. As a lifelong admirer of Irish poetry, I consider William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney to be the two greatest poets of the 20th century--those writing in English anyway--each of them wonderfully "musical" in his own unique way, with Heaney still going strong. One day I read a quotation from Flaubert that bounced around in my brain until I wrote a response, a monologue poem perhaps prodded a bit by Heaney as he might have sounded in his younger days; more about that below.

* * * * *
Bear Language

“Language is like a cracked kettle on which we
beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all
the time we long to move the stars to pity.”
--Gustave Flaubert

I beat the cracked kettle
with a single stick of hazel
and listen as the thick syllables
run together. The chain pulls
this way and that, rattles
its own countermeasure, and hauls
me up tall, tipsy-toed to reel
Old Blarney in, drool and all.
Oh, he’s a handful,
he is: brown fur matted wet, male
razzle slapping his time, the usual
twinkle of trouble
in his one good eye... Bears

‘ll dance for you, and stand still,
shuffle and stall and sometimes scuffle
a bit; but Old Blarney’s a regular dazzle.
He rears back, high as Maeve Hill,
and sets his bear backyonders to heel-
an’-tow, and wriggle sure and all.
With his great paws flapping uncle,
his gap-tooth smile,
and his raggle-taggle tinker’s airs,
why, honey wouldn’t melt in his muzzle.

And thereby hangs a tale…
Or did. Just the last April
it was, at Derry Fair, and him on a publican’s table,
stepping out something fierce and typical.
Till he backstepped his backside full
in the barman’s electric fan, and fell
all over himself and nine pints with the froth of the pull
still on them—pell-mell and holywell
water, prancing and roaring and clanking, hide-hairs
a whirlwind behind him, parts of Old Blarney mill-
ing amongst us like the pieces of a puzzle
we couldn’t reassemble,
though we patched up his pride by wetting his whistle
with enough of the stout to befuddle
Cuchulain. He passed out in a puddle
of Guinness, still licking his chops, wishful
like... And now he just grins and bares it all.

Me? Oh, I’m just the bit of a shill.
Whilst Old Blarney struts his wonderful,
I blather and beat on this kettle
and watch his tin cup fill
till the stars come out all unawares.

* * * * *
Once I'd written the poem I began wondering what had prompted the garrulous Irishness and the bear-handler's tale-telling misdirection culminating at the end. What might "bear witness" to this example of poetic inspiration? After all, I'd merely opened up Flaubert's words to make room for a story that hoped to amuse the reader. Certainly my immersion in 20th century literature must have contributed, maybe starting with a kind of Yeatsian desire for elegance masked--in this instance--by bearish behavior:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Theodore Roethke may be in there somewhere too, the big bearish poet shuffling around the University of Washington's Padelford Hall and mentoring a whole next generation of poets:

I need a place to sing, and dancing-room,
And I have made a promise to my ears
I'll sing and whistle romping with the bears...

Yes, I was dancing-mad, and how
That came to be the bears and Yeats would know.

And Heaney, who looked a bit bearish too in his younger days, and whose Northern Ireland accent and poems so syllable-precise with Irish diction might have somehow persuaded me to go for broke. His power is accumulative, but here's a poem in just four lines that hints at his style:

For beauty, say an ash-fork staked in peat,
Its long grains gathering to the gouged split;

A seasoned, unsleeved taker of the weather,
Where kesh and loaning finger out to heather.

Other possible sources could range from my teaching Faulkner's great classic, "The Bear," centerpiece of Go Down, Moses, to Randy Newman singing about a dancing bear on his first album... Clearly it becomes a mug's game, a muddle of influences, all of them or even none of them directly involved.

Maybe I just got inspired. Or maybe the poem is as lame as a battered bear-pit creature, not worth the time it's taken to tell all this.

(Wonderful color illustrations from Henry Climbs a Mountain by D.B. Johnson. Note the shackle on this nameless bear who's "riding" the underground railroad North.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Duke in Black, Brown & Beige

Jazz is improvisation. ("Oh... really?")

Sounds created by musical instruments manipulated, and players perhaps composing, on the fly, so to speak--aural ephemera released into the air, roiling the molecules, disturbing the stillness, then allowed to dissipate into... airy nothing, or urban legend, or Jazz history. The same tune played by the same set of musicians on separate occasions, or in one take after another in a recording session, might be magical one time and leaden all the others. The variety and number of possible readings and/or performances are infinite--or so we assume--even if recording equipment and human judgment seem to fasten on one among them all and declare it "definitive"... though it may be only of that moment.

Small group Jazz played by a few or by several is already expanding the performance options logarithmically with each new player added. So imagine the number of variables possible when a full orchestra plays, whether one as disciplined as the Jimmy Lunceford or Tommy Dorsey bands--or as spontaneous and freeflowing and subject to whims as the Ellington players and, certainly, the Duke himself. Perform an established number a thousand times--"Caravan," say, or "Cottontail," "Take the A-Train" or "Happy-Go-Lucky Local"--you still can screw-up. (You might also enter the mansions of glory by suddenly unleashing a solo the likes of which has never been heard before.)

But what if the composition itself is unfinished, its shape not firmly fixed, left in pieces that are available to be jigsaw-puzzled together at will (or whim)--Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle applied to already frangible, intangible Jazz? When Duke's mother died in 1938, his grief produced "Reminiscing in Tempo," a lovely work lengthy enough to fill the four sides of two 12" 78s. By January of 1943, he had set his sights higher, aiming for a three-part symphonic work, but still in Jazz, to celebrate 300 years of the Negro in the New World, which the Ellington Orchestra would premier at Carnegie Hall on the 23rd.

What happened? Was he rushed, overburdened with other projects, not quite up to the task he'd accepted? Whatever the Duke had prepared, however complete the structure or incomplete the detailed parts--dress-rehearsed the night before at a high school, officially premiered one night later with copyists' pages still being distributed to the players, rough patches in the performance shielded by wonderful passages of music--many attendees and the majority of critics felt disappointed. This "tone parallel" called Black, Brown & Beige was sprawling, amorphous, the structure, if any, not easily grasped.

The Duke retreated; he reconsidered and revised, all the while maintaining his charming, unflappable, stolidly positive public persona. When the second Carnegie night came 10 or 11 months later, Black, Brown & Beige had been shelved until, said the Maestro, the world was ready for it (or vice versa). A couple of years later, a much-shortened version, revised excerpts really, graced another Carnegie evening; and something approximating that cluster of pieces was actually recorded by RCA and issued--speaking of parallels--on two more 12" 78s, the four sides casually identified as "Work Song," "The Blues," "Come Sunday," and "Three Dances" and packed in a double-fold, color-pictorial paper sleeve.

I found a fairly nice copy years ago which I kept as a piece of collectable Ellingtonia. Revisiting it recently occasioned this brief blog notice (gave me a perfect excuse to offer photos of the rarely-seen packaging). As for the music, here Johnny Hodges' alto languidly lifts "Come Sunday," Joya Sherill explains "The Blues," and Harry Carney, Tricky Sam Nanton, Ray Nance, and other Ellington stalwarts take fine solos in the remaining two sections. But this trimmed version wasn't the last...

Label affiliations came and went. By 1958 Duke was firmly ensconced at Columbia Records once more and prepared to let the world hear the latest Black, Brown & Beige, revised yet again, this construction longer than RCA's but with the number of themes reduced. No more Blues, no more Dances; Johnny Hodges gone off and Mahalia Jackson drafted in, her voice in place of his sensuous sax. In fact, the orientation of this version is considerably more religious, the backstory now reduced to slaves' work and Sunday rest. The cover photo is wonderful, the orchestra clearly up for the sessions, Mahalia in fine voice... and still the overall impact is minor, the album a lesser item in Ellington collections--too polite, too sedate; too much repetition and not enough passion.

I miss Hodges, I want Nance to cut loose on his fiddle, I yearn for Mahalia's gospel fervor, not the 23rd Psalm. The despair of slavery, the joy of Emancipation, the strengths of Black culture... all blithely shunted aside. Why?

I don't know if Duke and his men ever tackled portions of the unfinished work casually, at some club date or college dance or more formal concert. But he had one more go-'round with "Come Sunday," recycling it yet again as he assembled the parts for his First Sacred Concert--the music and the event admired by many for various reasons, but I'm not a fan. "Waste not, want not," some might claim, praising Duke's stubborn refusal to give up on his long-lamented tone-parallel dream.

But I lament his retreat in the face of a hostile reception, his tacit acceptance of the bully critics' disparagement, and his decision thereafter to write only briefer works with more easily managed structures, suites rather than Jazz concertos or a Third Stream symphony. I'd say that the bemused, half-hearted acceptance by some, and the outright rejection by others, struck a major blow to Duke's evident self-esteem, a nagging disappointment he never could quite walk away from. It rankled.

He shrugged at the loss of the Pulitzer and moved on when Jump for Joy never really got off the ground. But confronted by the maddening partial failure--or call it the continuing limited success--of Black, Brown & Beige, Duke blinked and then kept on blinking.

He always was a contender. He routinely battled and won in the Middleweight division where, in or out of the ring, points are awarded for percipience and inspiration, sophistication and wit. ("Boxing as a metaphor for the cultured, elegant Ellington? Ridiculous." "Oh yeah?" says I. "Put up yer Dukes.")

I believe Ellington, that man of infinite variety, whom we all loved madly, should have been--could have been--the Heavyweight Champ.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lenya, Kurt, and Bert

I sold my record collection a few days ago.

I began buying 7" singles way back in 1953, but soon switched to Long Play albums, which means I was a record "hound" for nearly 60 years. Not many of those early buys are still around; Fats Domino, Elvis, Rosemary Clooney, the Five Satins, Belafonte, Chuck Berry maybe, were some of the earliest artists I bought. As the many years passed, between collecting, reviewing records for a decade, buying and selling 12" discs as a dealer, searching out "platters" of special interest--sometimes whole collections--I've probably had 25,000 LPs pass through my hands, but after 15 years or more of selling via a now-defunct store and then online (at least I was until recently), I saw a bit less than 10,000 records vacate the premises today in boxes of a hundred or so each. I did decide to keep some favorites, nostalgic reminders or whatever, but they aren't valuable LPs. I left those for the buyer, a successful mail order dealer and a decent enough guy, based out of Portland.

Imagine having 10,000 Long Play records suddenly at your fingertips for a week and a half only, with the challenge to figure out a hundred-plus to keep. I actually had a high old time scanning the shelves and playing sample after sample, hour upon hour, trying to reconnect with whatever magic once was in those grooves. Aside from a few classic LPs, I pulled and kept representative items in general, but much more from the categories of Folk and Reggae, Classical (especially with a Spanish tinge) and Jazz. Rock and Country, World Music and post-Seventies Pop, all got short shrift. (Dig the sacrilege: Tom Rush and the O'Kanes and John Hammond, yes; Beatles, Stones, and Robert Johnson, no. Piano by Alicia de Larocha, si; keys courtesy of Sviatislav Richter, nyet... But wait! Simmer down, kids--the truth is I have a ton of CDs around here, easily replenishing any offloaded LP greats.)

But that's the bigger picture. On the immediate piece-by-piece front, I realized I'd be saying goodbye to whole smaller collections, 20 to 50 items in each--Aaron Copland LPs, versions of Porgy and Bess, Elvis bootlegs, albums with Bill Stout cover art, a massive array of Ellington releases, Bruce Springsteen bootlegs, 60 years of Dave Brubeck with and without Paul Desmond, Dylan LPs legal and otherwise, Fairport Convention and all its spinoffs, Martin Denny albums with various beautiful women on the covers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. (Hmmm, Yul Brynner musicals? Naaah.)

Actually, the single biggest subset was probably albums celebrating Jazz-influenced composer Kurt Weill, his sometime creative partner, radical playwright Bertolt Brecht, and the always amazing Lotte Lenya, actress/vocalist extraordinaire and Weill's helpmate/wife. I had maybe 80 LPs (kept 10 faves) and still have another 20 CDs detailing the music and lives and lasting works of that explosive threesome. They showed a united front (more or less) for Weimar Republic masterworks The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (plus the earlier bombshell, Mahagonny-Songspiel); after fleeing Nazi Germany managed to regroup in France for The Seven Deadly Sins; and then pretty much split for good, with Kurt and Lenya off to America and the wholly different Broadway musical stage, while Brecht took refuge in Denmark and then briefly in Hollywood before eventually heading up Communist East Berlin's state-run theater for decades.

The Lenya-Weills took some time to get acclimated. Both of them devoted much time and creative energy to the ill-fated project that had drawn them to the U.S., the massive theatrical pageant and financial disaster known as The Eternal Road. Johnny Johnson, Kurt's first American musical, was a small success that, like the later Down in the Valley "citizen cantata," showed how eager he was to embrace all things "American." That small success also promised bigger things--which came quickly as Kurt was invited to collaborate with Moss Hart, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, and other Broadway insiders.

Between 1937 and 1950 when Kurt died suddenly and unexpectedly, in addition to many partial but unrealized projects, he wrote complete scores for Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, The Firebrand of Florence, Street Scene, Love Life, and Lost in the Stars, offering adventurous, inventive music and a few lovely tunes that were soon revered musical standards, even as their source playbooks receded into Broadway history--"Speak Low," "My Ship," "September Song," "Lost in the Stars," "It Never Was You," "Lonely House," maybe "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," all joining Kurt's German precedent-setters from "Alabama Song" and "Bilbao" to "Pirate Jenny" and "Surabaya Johnny."

Lenya had left the stage for several years. Now she became the fierce proponent and defender of Weill's long list of serious Classical and lighter-hearted American compositions. She starred in the 1954 reconfiguration of Threepenny (steamlined a bit for modern tastes by Marc Blitzstein). She oversaw--with amusement, one assumes--the astonishing popular success of "Mack the Knife." She teamed with Columbia Records to record definitive versions of the earthshaking Weimar successes as well as the American highlights. She became "Rosa Klebs," a murderous East German villainess, in the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love. She came out of retirement for a star turn in Cabaret. She enlisted Teresa Stratas to carry on the dissemination of Kurt's songs. She established a major Weill Foundation in New York City. And then, some years ago now, she died peacefully--respected, honored, unique, sometimes unruly, yet routinely rated the greatest "no voice" singer of the 20th century.

I no longer recall what led me to Lenya, Kurt, and Bert, perhaps something as uncomplicated as Bobby Darin piping, "Look out, old Mackie's back!" Or Tony Bennett (on the live album with Count Basie) so hauntingly "Lost out here in the stars..." Doesn't matter. By the Seventies I was hooked, and a decade later hip-deep in books and records as I worked to shape a musical play about the collaboration between Brecht und Weill (Lenya figuring importantly), at its peak with Threepenny's astonishing Berlin--then European--popular and critical success and collapsing by the time of Mahagonny's Nazi-threatened opening night.

Anyway, seeing those pieces of my life boxed and handtrucked away was... a bit sad... in anticipation of which I snapped photos of the more interesting items (many shown below), and I still intend to examine the subject of Kurt and Jazz in a second blog piece, coming soon I hope. As his "September Song" insists,

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame,
One hasn't got time for the waiting game.
Oh, the days dwindle down
To a precious few