Bigger than the Great Norvo ... and All of Us

After having consulted Whitney Balliet's American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz for a recent post, I didn't return the volume to its home in the bookshelf but instead kept it handy beside the computer. I was thumbing through the silver-covered paperback this evening. The title of the chapter on vibraharpist/xylophonist Red Norvo once again caught my eye – "The Music Is More Important." I've read this book many times, but, hey, you can't retain everything; I decided to peruse these few pages. Frequently Balliet's chapter titles in this book are taken from a statement made by the subject; such, as I imagined it would be, was the case here:

Red Norvo in the Balliet book:

The main thing is that jazz should be fun. After all, the music is more important than any of us musicians. I'm beginning to think it's not that way anymore, which is too bad. We've come into an age of geniuses, of big musicians swaggering down the sidewalk, and nobody has any fun anymore. I've never done anything musically unless I liked to do it. [...]

I strongly agree – the music is more important. Serving the music – the gerund, in this instance, having two intended meanings – is what matters most: Playing in service to the songs and offering these songs to an audience; therein lies the fun and the reward. While I can think of many instances in which a musician has taken mediocre (or worse) material and fashioned it into something beautiful, I regard this not as proof that the music is secondary to the performer thereof but, rather, as an act of selflessness on the instrumentalist's part. He/she looks at what is at hand and tries to find in it something of merit to emphasize; he/she promotes compositional substance over self. Bunny Berigan – still, sixty-six years after his death, an instantly recognizable, widely-admired virtuoso trumpeter – was a master at finding and exposing the one felicitous melodic twist in an otherwise humdrum piece. Playing music, as far as I'm concerned, is about songs and chords and melodies and lyrics; it's not about image and personal stature. I love Red's phrase, "... big musicians swaggering down the sidewalk." I believe that those who swagger, literally or, as in interviews, figuratively, are big only in self-conception. Red Norvo was a giant of his instruments – first the xylophone and then the vibraharp – but his facility and imagination were to him, clearly, not the end but the means. The music was more important. It remains so, I think.

"... thinking over Sunday"

I've never been crazy about Sunday. It seems that, since childhood, I've always been too preoccupied with the fact that the dreaded Monday would follow to enjoy the traditional day of rest. I am, however, mad about the 1926 published "Sunday," the first hit for Jule Styne, who, in those days, was spelling his name differently. I like the song's chord changes and upbeat melody; "Sunday" is a very good vehicle for improvisation.

Music and Words by Ned Miller, Chester Cohn,
Jules Stein, Bennie Krueger

I'm blue ev'ry Monday, thinking over Sunday –
That one day when I'm with you.
It seems that I sigh all day Tuesday, I cry all day Wednesday –
Oh, my! how I long for you!

And then comes Thursday;
Gee it's long; it never goes by.
Friday makes me feel like I'm gonna die.

But after payday is my fun day;
I shine all day Sunday –
That one day when I'm with you.

Playing "Sunday" this Sunday evening, I thought of an interesting anecdote involving the song, in
Rhythm Man: Fifty Years in Jazz, guitarist Steve Jordan's autobiography:

The 1973 Chiaroscuro album Buddy Tate and His Buddies was recorded on a Sunday because of me. Producer Hank O'Neal called to say that Buddy Tate wanted me for the date with Roy Eldridge, Illinois Jacquet, Mary Lou Williams, Milt Hinton and Gus Johnson. But the only night off I had from a regular gig in Washington was Sunday, and I told him it would be tough for me to take it and, anyway, there were a lot of good guitar players in New York. "No, no, Buddy wants you, not anybody else," O'Neal told me. So, the date was scheduled for a Sunday, and six prominent jazz musicians had to rearrange their schedules to fit mine. That was nice of them and good for my ego. That's also the reason why the old standard, Sunday, is on the album. After we had finished recording the special tunes for the date, a new piece by Buck Clayton, two by Buddy, and one by Mary Lou, we had time for one more. I suggested Sunday simply because it was a Sunday and because I knew it was a tune all these jazz veterans knew and would be comfortable with. Or so I thought. Mary Lou, a veteran of countless jam sessions and one of the best pianists of the swing era, insisted she didn't know Sunday. I couldn't believe it. Nor could Roy. "Everybody knows Sunday," Roy kept telling her, "Mary Lou, I know you know Sunday!" But she said she didn't, and when we decided to go ahead with it I wrote out the chord changes for her. And if you listen closely to the lengthy solo by Mary Lou on the recording I think you will notice that she doesn't play the melody of the song. I guess she really didn't know it. But it's a marvelous solo, anyway, as her solos always were, and conceived only from the chord changes, a kind of conception all good jazz players are able to achieve.

Both of us having read Rhythm Man, my mom and I one time discussed this story. I expressed my amazement at Mary Lou's not being familiar with "Sunday," but, like Roy Eldridge, Mom insisted that the pianist could not have not known the jazz standard. I like my mother's romantic theory – that "Sunday" held for Mary Lou some unpleasant association and, for this reason, she wished to avoid playing it. We'll never know, I'm sure, but this does seem a plausible possibility.

Having heard this treatment of "Sunday" since initially reading the amusing tale, I have to say that I am certain that Mary Lou's hesitation to make the recording had nothing whatever to do with a lack of acquaintance with the song. Jordan's right – she doesn't play the melody; she does, however, dance around it here and there, and her paraphrases, though brief, are close enough to indicate that she knew the ditty. Besides, she followed Eldridge who stated the melody in the opening chorus; any jazz musician would have taken off after the song was introduced. Maybe Mary Lou just wasn't especially fond of "Sunday." You'd never guess this, though, from the way she goes through the jaunty tune, tinkling brightly and throwing in the occasional modern alternate chord. Only Jordan's story would arouse your suspicions.

Ok, we'll imagine that Mary Lou didn't really dig "Sunday." Surely, though, she, who became an extremely religious person, loved Sunday. Me, I'm just the other way around.

Watching Westerns like a Girl

My copy of Warner Brothers' newly released
Errol Flynn Westerns having arrived yesterday afternoon, I watched, last night, the earliest film in the collection, 1940's Virginia City. Well, I found the picture rather entertaining – if a bit convoluted. I've grown quite fond of Westerns in these last few years; I never paid any attention to them before – which is odd, really, as when I was a tot, I adored playing cowboys and Indians. I suppose that at some point I realized that a little girl's conception of the world of cowboys is quite different from that world itself, or even from '30's and '40's Hollywood's version of it. However ill-suited I have come to see that I am for a life on the open range, though,I can't watch a Western without thinking that I hope that, before I die (naturally), I have an opportunity to ride in a covered wagon.

Well, I shan't launch into a plot description of Virginia City. Lacking the gift of conciseness, I have never been terribly adept at writing synopses. Besides, I've lost all taste for trying to write them. Too, fond as I am of what I term "Golden Age" movies, I crave no identification with the fraternity of the so-called "classic film blog." ... I will, though, say something about Virginia City.

When the credits were rolling, I was surprised by Randolph Scott's name. I've always thought him awfully handsome; I like his boyish haircut as well as the fact that it appears that he used little or no pomade. For some reason, once I learned that he was in Virginia City, I wasn't prepared to find him playing antagonist to Flynn; I didn't think about The Spoilers, with Scott and John Wayne, which I saw a few years ago. Well, Randy, as Confederate officer Vance Irby in this one, is an honourable, if desperate, adversary to Union man Flynn.

Bogie I was expecting to see. My goodness – that mustache ... ugh! And the Mexican accent – horrible, phony as a three-dollar bill. How Warner Brothers abused that poor guy. At this point in his career, his fine and, it later became apparent, iconic turn in The Petrified Forest – a film in which star Leslie Howard had insisted that Bogie be cast in the part of Duke Mantee, as he had been in the Broadway play – had proven a false breakthrough. The powers that be (or were) just didn't recognize his gifts or potential. He'd been curly-haired, riding-booted, Irish Michael O'Leary in Dark Victory in '39, and now, in '40, he was a half-breed outlaw, opponent to both Flynn and, as things turn out, Scott. And it appeared that big Flynn or big Scott could have flattened slightly-built Bogie with one punch. Well, a gun compensates. ... Thank goodness that High Sierra came along for the one-and-only Humphrey Bogart.

... And Mr. Errol Flynn. Well, he was just excruciatingly beautiful. I don't mean that he was pretty – I don't like pretty men; he was very masculine-looking. I just mean that he was so exquisitely put together. My gosh – the eyes, the profile, the jaw, the (naturally streaked) hair, the physique. In Virginia City, he delivers another thoroughly convincing, heroic performance. I'm glad to see that critics are beginning to acknowledge what a fine actor he was. As was the case with Gable, Flynn's larger-than-life quality became the preoccupation and his talent was unjustly neglected.

I don't want to sound catty, but I'm not sure that Miriam Hopkins, excellent actress though she be, was just the girl for Virginia City's Julia Hayne, barroom chanteuse/Confederate spy, role. Then again, I'm not sure that frequent Flynn co-star Livvy de Havilland (who, at this time, sagely understood that she had to get away from Errol and period pictures) would have been right. Whom would I have cast? Well, let's see, who was at Warners then: Well, Queen Bette – she was out. ... Ann Sheridan maybe? Or was she too sexy – perfect for the saloon singer bit but not quite so for the determined Rebel agent aspect. This is a tough one. Anyway, Miriam was far from bad ... and she did have a number of costumes that I found to die for. Also, she had a marvelous line:

Once in the titular town, Flynn's Kerry Bradford goes into the local watering hole and is disillusioned to discover that Julia, whom he thought a proper lady, is a common entertainer. Julia, becoming torn between patriotic duty and love, wistfully tells him:

[B]ut, you see, Kerry, no matter how much a man's in love, he really wonders whether the woman's quite ... good enough for him or not. But when a woman's in love, well ... she's just in love and ... that's the end.

I share this point of view. 'Course, I'm a girl.

Well, though, after she says this, Bradford responds with, "Uh-huh." So he evidently agrees ... and he's a guy. Is this, Julia's statement, so? I can speak only from a girl's perspective.