Serenade for a Forgotten Maverick

The name Reginald Foresythe first came to my attention, in the relative infancy of my love affair with jazz and swing, as that belonging to the composer of a harmonically intriguing, amusingly titled song that was winningly rendered by Fats Waller and His Rhythm, "Serenade for a Wealthy Widow." The artist behind the unmistakably British handle remained, for several years, a man of mystery – until a few days ago, when I listened for the first time to the BVHAAST label's recently released "The New Music Of Reginald Foresythe" – which I purchased entirely on the strength of the fascination that the aforementioned "Serenade" held for me – and read its accompanying notes.

In 1934, as Reginald Foresythe's fame approached its height, his "Serenade for a Wealthy Widow" outdistanced the competition in sheet music sales (the cleverly constructed charmer, originally an instrumental piece, eventually received the additional pedigree of a Dorothy Fields lyric), then a more accurate indicator of song material popularity than record sales – and yet the pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader's artistic vision ultimately proved too avant garde for a Depression-era general public accustomed to more straightforward, easily categorizable music.

Born, in 1907, to an African father (a lawyer, from the Sierra Leonean community in Lagos, Nigeria) and an English mother of Scottish and German ancestry, Reginald Foresythe – his racially mixed background, alone ahead of its time, would give rise, among provincial fans, to confusion about his ethnicity, which the adult entertainer playfully did nothing to dispel in interviews – grew up in West London, where he received piano lessons as a child. Not yet fully grown, Foresythe got his professional start working dances as a member of the band of a neighbor, a veteran of the Boer War and composer of marches. The talented young pianist found himself in demand to play locally but, at this point, rather than attempting to make a career in music, chose to utilize his language skills under the employment of a translating bureau.

In 1929, Reginald Foresythe got his first substantial musical opportunity when he signed on to accompany blues singer Zaidee Jackson, popular among the day's chic set, for Paris engagements. The pianist then teamed with vocalist Walter Richardson and headed for Australia; though, owing to the light tenor's stylistic dissimilarity to the highly esteemed Paul Robeson, this sojourn proved less successful, the pair's eventual migration to California, via Hawaii, led to Foresythe's entrance into privileged musical circles. Intriguing with his accent and cultured background, the handsome musician was welcomed into black nightlife; he performed at smart soirees and dances and recorded with bandleader Paul Howard, whose aggregation included Lionel Hampton and future Ellingtonian, Lawrence Brown. In Hollywood, Foresythe thrived – meeting and then arranging for Duke Ellington himself; the two later would collaborate on material for a Cotton Club revue. Too, the pianist applied his emergent compositional skills to film, writing for, among other projects, D. W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln.

Foresythe then moved on to the mid west's jazz mecca, Chicago, homebase to pianist Earl Hines; the two newly acquainted aces of the 88's cooked up the Hines Orchestra's moody theme song, "Deep Forest." The author of the BVHAAST CD's liner notes, Val Wilmer, believes that a musical exchange took place when Foresythe came to America, wherein the Englishman, now in jazz's homeland, absorbed the defining elements of our New Orleans-born improvisational music as well as influenced – through his admiration of, for example, Delius, and his knowledge of the classics – American pianists, such as Hines, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, who themselves were to exert tremendous influence.

In addition to arranging for Hines and Ellington, Foresythe provided charts for a big band led by Wild Bill Davison; unfortunately, these scores have not survived, but the cornettist himself fondly recalled "all that screaming brass and wonderful chords." Before ending his rewarding stay in the States and returning to England to launch his own bandleading venture, Foresythe met with smiling baton waver and shrewd judge of talent, Paul "King of Jazz" Whiteman, who commissioned new works from the pianist.

In 1933, Reginald Foresythe's New Music, featuring the uncommon lineup of saxophones, two clarinets and a bassoon in place of the more familiar brass-reed combination, opened at London's Café de la Paix. Ironically, though the orchestra's debut met with great anticipation, English audiences, finding Foresythe's music not conducive to dancing, revealed themselves not ready for Foresythe's outre ideas. Fortunately for future generations (a minute percentage of which might be enjoying the BVHAAST Foresythe disc today), listeners in the States received Foresythe's progressive sounds warmly and looked upon the sophisticated bandleader as an artist in the Ellington mould.

Foresythe returned to New York in 1934 to appear, as featured soloist, with Paul Whiteman's orchestra; given the segregation firmly in place both in and out of the entertainment industry of the times, the significance of this honor accorded the black musician cannot be overstated. The following year, Foresythe was back in America to record, as leader, in the company of future swing stars Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and John Kirby, among others.

The mid-1930's was a period of high activity and visibility for Reginald Foresythe. In England, he accompanied singers (one of whom, Judy Shirley, rhapsodized, "[E]veryone knew he'd always make you sound good."), wrote for the theatre and films and recorded a series of duets, which garnered accolades, with the Scottish Arthur Young. In 1937, Foresythe was back in New York; he provided scores for a pioneering effort, a "Negro ballet," and attended white-tie affairs, at which he duetted with the formidable Fats Waller. As the decade wore down, so too did Foresythe's productivity; maintaining his creative momentum began to take a backseat to keeping up a frantic social pace. The Englishman, still admired by the musical cognoscenti but now drifting professionally, opted to drink and revel with friends in Harlem dives. After suffering a street-attack, he recuperated in Duke Ellington's apartment.

The Second World War having commenced, Foresythe was drafted into the RAF, with an officer's ranking. The Britisher served at remote Scottish air-bases and then, following VE Day, entertained troops throughout the Continent. Upon his return home, Reginald Foresythe was attached to an official film unit in the capacity of composer. The remainder of the 1940's saw the pianist touring Europe as a solo concert artist for the British Council, recording show tunes with a modernist quartet, working in Paris and, finally back at home, playing out the summer seasons at a West Country hotel.

On the eve of the Rock & Roll Era, Reginald Foresythe was living in London but belonged to the dead past. He worked for a music publisher and continued to compose music – but nothing of import; once musically ahead of the times, he had become something of an an anachronism, an artifact of a sophisticated day long gone. He spent the last of his all too small allotment of years suffering from heart trouble and existing in genteel poverty – according to Val Wilmer, to whose illuminating liner notes I am deeply indebted, "eking out a living" and "playing background music in seedy rooms barely deserving of the name 'clubs,'" for an audience undoubtedly ignorant of his past accomplishments. Reginald Foresythe died, at the close of 1958, at the age of 51.

As might be expected, the CD, "The New Music of Reginald Foresythe" is made up entirely of performances of compositions of the forward-thinking Foresythe. The first fifteen tracks come from the bandleader's own The New Music of Reginald Foresythe, the self-explanatory name he gave to the instrumentationally unusual outfits he captained in the 1930's. The remaining eleven tracks present various '30's interpretations of Foresythe songs; the bands of Lew Stone, Fats Waller and Paul Whiteman in turn take on "Serenade for a Wealthy Widow"; Hines delivers his signature, "Deep Forest"; and the King of Jazz, leading a '35 crew that includes Jack Teagarden and Frank Trumbauer, offers, in addition to "Widow," fine readings of the Hines theme and "Dodging a Divorcee," "The Duke Insists," and "Garden of Weed." In my opinion, most conventional – though dramatically and effectively delivered by Louis Armstrong – is "Mississippi Basin," with a South-extolling lyric by Fats Waller's most frequent collaborator, Andy Razaf. Apart from the Waller recording, it is the New Music sides that really interest me. This, I must say, is not the sort of stuff I'd put in the car's CD player or use as a background to light conversation; the Forseythe records are, in my little world, for library listening. There are the shifting moods of "Berceuse for an Unwanted Child" (Foresythe's witty titling pre-dated Raymond Scott's whimsy by a few years); the mysterious atmosphere of one of my favorites, the enigmatically named "Bit" and the sad stateliness of "The Autocrat Before Breakfast." Most beautiful of all, perhaps, is the piano solo "Because It's Love," a song Foresythe dedicated to his friend, the American singer, Elizabeth Welch. The last four New Music sides, recorded at the beginning of 1935, are obscure must-hear's for swing aficionados: Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa lend their unmistakable sounds to the Foresythe's sonic pallette. It could be said that Reginald Foresythe was an Impressionist, using soft hues, in a landscape of Realists.