To Really Live

One must have courage to really live in the world.

Miss Gilchrist in The Seventh Victim

Sometimes you just have to split the infinitive. ... Yes, really living – as opposed to merely existing, which demands neither effort nor bravery – requires determination and great courage. Living is an active state; existing passive. In living, you make things happen; in existing, you let them happen. What are you doing? What do you want to do? ... I want to live, to really live!

CD, Sixteen Bucks; Dorsey, Priceless

Chapter Six, "Swing High: More White Bands," of Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold's The Big Band Years begins, beneath the sub-header, "DANCING ON THE CEILING," with a quote from The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing, Tommy Dorsey: "They paid $1.75 to get in; let's give 'em $3.50 worth."

Today, on the 103rd anniversary of TD's birth, with five Dorsey discs shuffling around in the CD player upstairs and "Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, 1938" pouring from the computer speakers before which I sit, I consider the tremendous kick given me by the music of the Irish-American Thomas Francis Dorsey Jr., my favorite musician. Dorsey, peerless legit player and facile hot man; his arrangers, my favorite, Sy Oliver, and Paul Weston, Axel Stordahl, Deane Kincaide, Bill Finegan; his musicians, my favorite trumpeter, Bunny Berigan, and Ziggy Elman, Bud Freeman, Charlie Shavers, Buddy Rich, Joe Bushkin, Dave Tough, Johnny Mince, Don Lodice; and his vocalists, my favorite, Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra, The Pied Pipers, Jack Leonard, Dick Haymes, Edythe Wright, Stuart Foster, could deliver – something for everybody. The Dorsey crews had no weak spots, no holes; all of the many aggregations fronted by Dorsey in his 20-plus year bandleading career were able to alternate between quiet, crawl tempo romantic ballads and blazing, pounding killer-dillers with ease, assurance and authority.

Tommy Dorsey died – one week to the day after his 51st birthday – not quite ten years before I was born, so I never got that $3.50 value live performance for a $1.75 admission. (Oh, how I wish I had been around in the '30's and '40's!) I have gotten, though, something from that trombone and those bands, on records, now transferred to compact disc, whose worth is inestimable.

Dig Dorsey today!

Cornell and the Snake Woman

I'm currently perusing Darkness at Dawn: Early Suspense Classics by Cornell Woolrich, a fourteen story representation of the The Father of Noir's pulp magazine beginnings in the realm of suspense fiction. I found oddly fascinating the entry that I most recently read, "Kiss of the Cobra," a yarn in which a woman, exotic to the extreme in that she resembles and behaves like – goodness, it seems she even smells like – a snake, systematically goes about killing, in a highly unusual manner, the relatives she has only just acquired through marriage.

Narrating in the present tense, the protagonist, Charlie, an L. A. County detective on sick-leave, tells of his, his wife's and his kid brother's homicidally disastrous meeting with the reptilian bride of his father-in-law. As this unmistakably Woolrichian tale slithered before my eyes, I thought of a phrase my mother frequently used to describe those not exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness – "all the warmth of a hooded cobra."

This passage in "Kiss of the Cobra" quite amused me:

"Charlie, I think you'd better notify the state asylum," she whispers. "I think his death has made her lose her mind. She must really think she's a snake."

This is putting it so mild that I have a hard time not laughing right in her face. That creature lurking back there in the house doesn't only think she's a snake; for all practical purposes, she is one. I don't mean in the slang sense, either. She is sub-human, some sort of monstrosity or freak that India has bred just once in all its thousands of years of history.

Now, there are two possibilities as I see it. She is what she is, either of her own free will—maybe a member of some ghastly snake-worshipping cult—or without being able to control herself. Maybe her mother had some unspeakable experience with a snake before she was born. In either case she's more than a menace to society, she's a menace to the race itself.

"[S]ome unspeakable experience with a snake" – I love it. And "a menace to the race itself." Ah ... Mr. Woolrich, ever the outsider, sometimes chooses to cast himself, perhaps for a refreshing change, as the observer of the outsider. Clearly, some rather interesting fancies, distortions of reality, flitted through this extraordinarily reclusive man's mind – his biographer, Francis M. Nevins Jr., believed that Cornell had an obsession, intriguing in its psychological implications, with orally administered death – and yet he was able to depict facets of the real world, i.e. New York in the '30's and '40's, with startlingly stark genuineness. Surely, he didn't pick up all his insights from his brief and professionally uneventful stint in Hollywood, the land, after all, of surreality. I must imagine that he simply kept his ears wide open as he hunched, perched on a barstool at the local watering hole, over his procession of drinks.

Don't ask me why the snake woman kills (Cornell's description of the method of murdering is to be relished); I'm not sure that even the "Kiss of the Cobra" author knew. I enjoyed, though, second-hand, the effects of her poison.

Five Questions

Listening today, Jo Stafford's birthday, to the music of my favorite singer, I remembered an interview I heard for the first time a few months ago, shortly after the incomparable vocalist's passing. In this conversation between Jo and a California DJ – which took place in 2006, some time before Jo's eighty-ninth birthday that year – Jo responded in her usual thoughtful and intelligent manner – to the same tired, old questions that I, in my capacity of audience had encountered many times before and she, in her capacity of subject, surely must have encountered hundreds of times before. As I listened, back in July, I thought, This is the latest interview with Jo that I've heard; most likely, I'll never run across a more recent one – now she's gone ... and I'll never know the answers to the questions that have burned in my mind since I discovered that voice.

The interview – conducted by musician and Standards Era historian, Michael Feinstein – that concludes the 2003 CD debut of Jo's 1959 concept album, "Ballad of The Blues," is, by far and away, the best with Stafford that I've come across. Because Michael talked to her musician-to-musician. He posed questions that allowed Jo to reveal aspects of the musical miracle that was/is Jo Stafford. There was none of that "Well, what was the young Sinatra like?" (Why ask Jo Stafford about Frank Sinatra when you can ask her about Jo Stafford?) ... Still, the exchange with Feinstein serves to intrigue rather than satisfy fully.

Now, in 2008, like in the late '80's when first I heard that voice, that tone, Jo seems to have come out of nowhere. I'm sure that all whose initial exposure to the Stafford sound came in 1940 reacted as I did – and musician/composer/arranger Johnny Mandel did: "Who is THAT!?" Where did she come from; what did she evolve from?

In 1995, I wrote to Jo. I didn't ask for an autographed picture; I didn't ask any questions – I just rhapsodized, without expectation of acknowledgment. A couple of weeks after I sent my missive, I got a reply from her, which opened with, "Thank you for one of the nicest – if not the [she underlined the – twice] nicest letter I have ever received." Well, did I smile. .. Perhaps such was merely this gracious lady's standard response to a devotee's outpouring of enthusiasm, but I like to imagine that I met my objective of communicating to my favorite singer my tremendous admiration for her talent and music.

If I had had the opportunity that many others had (and, it seems to me, squandered) to speak with that musical enigma, Jo Stafford, I would have asked:

Who and what were your musical influences?
What did you listen to when you were growing up?
What do you listen to now?
Who is your favorite composer?
Does an identification with the lyrics aid you in your interpretation?

Banal? Maybe. Yet, I believe these five questions might have helped me to understand. ... Jo's parents came from Tennessee. Her mother played banjo. Jo had five years of operatic training and took piano lessons. She spoke of having listened, in the '30's, to Glen Gray and Benny Goodman. She dug the Mercer-Teagarden duets with Paul Whiteman's orchestra. The Stafford Sisters, the vocalizing trio in which Jo made her professional debut, took their stylistic cue from the jazzy New Orleanians, The Boswell Sisters. "Our talents — his and mine — fit the music of the time,” she said, of herself and her husband, bandleader/composer/arranger, Paul Weston. “And the music fit us." ... Still, where the heck did Jo Stafford come from? How do you take the environment and the times and get Jo Stafford? Recently, I was listening to her Reader's Digest recordings from the late '60's; Jo, at the time these sides were made, was a 30-year veteran of the music business. And the musical landscape had changed considerably since her heyday. She, singer-trombonist Warren Covington and the then current edition of The Pied Pipers were doing, among other things, that easy-listening '60's anthem "What the World Needs Now," (penned by the then ubiquitous Burt Bacharach), in a take, extremely late '60's in manner, on the quasi-spiritual "Yes, Indeed" approach of Dorsey arranger, Sy Oliver. I could just envision the vocal assemblage swaying, on a variety show (Ed Sullivan; The Smothers Brothers), before a mod, bold, colorful backdrop. The one timelessly hip element of the record was Jo's delivery. That cool tone and laidback style. Jo was hip and modern in 1940. She's hip and modern today. She will be so, long after we, of this moment, are gone. Perhaps the simple, one-word explanation for the newness, the unprecented quality that Jo brought to her environment and times – or anybody else brought to his/hers, for that matter – is uniqueness. Just the same, I would like to have heard her responses to those five questions.

The People's Choice

Well ... for Election Day: a Swing Era favorite introduced to me by The First Lady of Swing, Ella Fitzgerald, with Chick Webb and His Orchestra

Vote For Mr. Rhythm
Music by Ralph Rainger, Words by Leo Robin, Al Siegel

Vote for Mr. Rhythm –
Raise up your voice,
And vote for Mr. Rhythm,
The people's choice.

You'll be happy with him –
Take my advice,
And vote for Mr. Rhythm;
I'm voting twice!

Ev'ryone's a friend of his;
His campaign slogan is,
"Change Your Woe
Into a Wo-De-Ho!"

Vote for Mr. Rhythm –
Let freedom ring,
And soon we'll all be singing,
"Of thee I swing!"

Have you exercised your right to choose today?

Bunny and Me

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my favorite trumpeter, Bunny Berigan. I've been celebrating his genius in listening to some of the many recordings to which he lent his unmistakable tone, formidable technique, boundless creativity and matchless vitality.

Today, also, is the 2nd anniversary of the inception of Relative Esoterica, the web journal I'm keeping, after a fashion.