HIGH FIVE FOR FIVE STARS

Each of the five days since my last post was the birthday of at least one iconic figure in music or film who left lasting memories for those who appreciate legacies in artistry. I could easily go overboard writing in depth about any of these mid-May arrivals, but maybe it’s best to lessen my losses by not overly testing readers’ patience (O me of little faith!):

May 11 — IRVING BERLIN (1888-1989). Perhaps the most prolific composer in American history, with an estimated 1,500 songs to his credit, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films (three of which were Astaire-Rogers musicals). Writing both words and music (relatively rare for his era), his hits include seasonal evergreens White Christmas and Easter Parade, as well as the red, white and blue God Bless America. His lyrics may lack the wit and sophistication of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, but there’s no denying the emotional appeal of such songs as….

May 12 — KATHERINE HEPBURN (1907-2003). In the Golden Era of Hollywood, was there ever a more successful, fiercely independent woman than Katherine Hepburn?  Successful? It’s hard to argue against receiving a record four Academy Awards for Best Actress, and being named the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema by the American Film Institute. Independent? Her own words say it all:

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” (Hard as it may be to imagine the Bryn Mawr-educated Hepburn uttering “ain’t,” I ain’t about to correct her quote.)

“We are taught you must …. never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change, you’re the one who has got to change.”

“As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.”

“Life gets harder the smarter you get, the more you know.”

“Politicians remain professional because the voters remain amateur.”

NOTE: For my ode to another May 12 bundle of joy, see my post of May 12, 2015.

May 13 — ARTHUR SULLIVAN (1842-1900). Can’t place the name? How about Arthur Sullivan of GILBERT AND SULLIVAN fame? Who doesn’t enjoy their great comic operas such as THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, THE MIKADO and H.M.S. PINAFORE — the latter of which I have loved since When I was a Lad:

May 14 — SIDNEY BECHET (1897-1959). This is a name you almost certainly can’t place unless you’re a classic jazz fan….but if you are such a fan, you know him as a major figure in jazz annals since his recording debut in 1923. New Orleans born, he spent the last decade of his life in France, where he died on the same day — May 14 — that he was born. Here he is on soprano sax in a 1950s recording from the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s magical MIDNIGHT IN PARIS:

May 15 — JOSEPH COTTON (1905-1994). I have previously mentioned Joseph Cotton in regard to his co-starring role (with Orson Welles and Alida Valli) in one of my favorite films, THE THIRD MAN. He first met Welles in 1934, beginning a life-long friendship and on-and-off association with Welles in numerous plays, radio dramas and films, as well as co-starring with Katherine Hepburn in the 1939 Broadway play THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. But it is in his role as Holly Martens in THE THIRD MAN that he stands alone (literally so, in the end), and I can think of no more fitting way to end this post than with that indelible closing scene from the film (to the tune of Anton Karas’ Third Man Theme):

STONE COLD DEAD

Alas! He is cold, he cannot answer me. –Mary Shelley, author of FRANKENSTEIN

Because I could not stop for Death — He kindly stopped for me. –Emily Dickinson

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *    grave stone 2Have you given any thought to what you want on your tombstone after you’ve gone to that great big pizzeria in the sky? I wouldn’t wait until the last minute if I were you, because ye know not the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36, or thereabouts), and once ye’re at the pearly gates, it’s too late. Now, it’s possible, before getting the gate, that your spirit may remain a while in the grave to consider what far-out gems of wit you might have come up with — but dream on. Afterthoughts aren’t written in stone….and if you don’t write your own epitaph, others may use the occasion to pick a bone “After you’ve gone.”

All of which brings me to SWI and its impending death. SWI, the blog for which I wrote many posts up to a few years ago, will bite the dust in November, according to its editor. Two of those remaining posts (published in early 2012) deal with real epitaphs not deserving of being left to vanish forever into the cold November ether or….wherever. Here are some of my favorites:

Here lies the body
Of poor Aunt Charlotte.
Born a virgin, died a harlot.
For 16 years
She kept her virginity
A damn long time
For this vicinity.
–DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA

Here lies Butch,
We planted him raw.
He was quick on the trigger,
But slow on the draw.

Beneath this smooth stone
by the bone of his bone
sleeps Master John Gill;
By lies when alive
this attorney did thrive,
And now that he’s dead he lies still.

Here lies Anna Mann
Who lived an old maid
But died an old Mann.

MARGARET DANIELS
She always said
Her feet were killing her
But nobody believed her.

SIR JOHN STRANGE
Here lies an honest lawyer
That is Strange.

This is the grave of Mike O’Day
Who died maintaining his right of way.
His right was clear, his will was strong
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.

Beneath this stone my wife doth lie
Now she’s at rest and so am I.

JOHN BROWN, DENTIST
Stranger! Approach this spot with gravity!
John Brown is filling his last cavity.

Here lies the body of W. W.
Who never more will trouble you, trouble you.

Here lies the body of Mary Ford
Whose soul, we trust, is with the Lord;
But if for hell, she’s exchanged this life,
‘Tis better than being John Ford’s wife.

Owen Moore
Has passed away
Owin’ more
Than he could pay.

I’ll close with one I wish one and all could say in the end:

Been Here
and Gone There.
Had a good time.

 

 

HAPPY IN-BETWEEN DAY, AND ALL THAT JAZZ

One of the first great female jazz singers,  Annette Hanshaw (Oct. 18, 1910 – Mar. 13, 1985) ranked near the top of her field, along with Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, the Boswell Sisters and Mildred Bailey. She gave proper feeling to the lyrics, improvised, and always swung. [She] began her recording career when she was just 15 (discovered by her future husband, Herman Rose, who was the A&R man for the Pathe label), sounding quite mature from the start. Her trademark became saying “That’s all!” (which she had spontaneously ad-libbed on one of her first recording dates) at the end of her records. But the singer hated to perform in public, and at the age of 25 she retired from singing.
Scott Yanow, CLASSIC JAZZ – THE MUSICIANS AND RECORDINGS THAT SHAPED JAZZ, 1895-1933

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At the behest of my good friend/mutual blog follower Don Frankel, I am deviating from my every-five-days publishing routine to post my first and (for a while, at least) last “in-betweener.” The occasion: the October 18, 1910 birthday of singer Annette Hanshaw and the slightly more recent (but decidedly less noteworthy) birthday of mistermuse. To celebrate the former’s birthday, I’d like to pay her tribute as one of my favorite vocalists of the late 1920s – early 30s. Regarding the latter’s birthday, the less said, the better.

On Oct. 15, Don did a satirical political post (on SWI) that ended with a clip of Hanshaw singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” about which I made a comment.  Turns out he didn’t know anything about her (but then who does, unless you’re really into early jazz?). But rather than go into detail that most readers probably aren’t interested in, I’ll let her singing do most of the talking. Here she is at age 16 in August 1927:

Next, the lady sighs “We just couldn’t say goodbye” in a rare filmed performance:

Finally, what could be more appropriate than to end with her last recording, Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fall In Love.”

And now, because we just couldn’t say goodbye, we are left with That’s all.

MAY 23 IS INTERNATIONAL JAZZ DAY

Although it is tempting to sum up the classic jazz era of 1917-32 with a few major names (Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, etc.), there were many other important contributors. The classic jazz era was one of dizzying innovation and breakthrough. –Scott Yanow, jazz writer

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I am a classic jazz lover, pure and simple — which does not mean I love classic jazz exclusively. On the contrary, I’ve enjoyed the best of various types of music over the decades. But, considering the noisome state of what has been popular of late, I’m glad I was born early enough to appreciate the difference between music and noise. Thus, these poems on this day:

COUNTERFEIT NOTES

The things that pass
for music these days.

OUTDATED

I could tell you what it
was like in those days,
but you had to live it
to appreciate it, and why
should you give a damn?
I wasn’t born yesterday.

The destiny of every
generation is to become
irrelevant to the next.
You may save its music for
your collection of coming
tomorrows, its sounds
long died in the past, but
when you go, so too
goes the living ghost
of the world you knew.

WHEN JAZZ WAS JAZZ

Listen —
You can’t get
there from here.

May 23 also happens to be the birthday of all-time great clarinetist ARTIE SHAW, who was born in 1910 and played with many jazz/dance bands beginning in 1926. In 1936, he formed his own group, which evolved into one of the leading bands of the swing era. He also composed a number of fine songs, including LOVE OF MY LIFE (lyrics by Johnny Mercer) and ANY OLD TIME (which his band recorded in July 1938 with Billie Holiday as vocalist). That same recording session produced his biggest hit:

LUCKY DAY

Today is the birthday (11/24/1896) of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the infamous NYC Mafia gangster….but I’ll leave the celebrating to murder, mayhem and mobster lovers. I’m a jazz lover, and it’s my lucky day because I get to celebrate the birthdays of my favorite jazz pianist, Teddy Wilson (1912) and my favorite ragtime composer/pianist, Scott Joplin (1868).

Teddy and Scott who, you ask? Well, they were (and remain) unsurpassed in their artistry, but I forgive your unfamiliarity, because Wilson’s renown failed to survive the post-WWII pop music climate change and subsequent rock revolution, and Joplin was underappreciated even in his own time.

There have been many great jazz pianists, but Teddy Wilson has long been my favorite. I could try to explain why, but why add more superlatives to this entry in Roger Kinkle’s THE COMPLETE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC AND JAZZ 1900-1950:
Master jazz pianist. Consumate artist with flawless taste, delicate touch and ideas, subdued, relaxed and easily identifiable style. Prominence middle to late 30s with Benny Goodman combos. Same period led combos on dozens of classic jazz record dates. Acme of relaxed, swinging combo jazz. Billie Holiday featured predominately on vocals. 

Here is some of that great Teddy Wilson/Billie Holiday “magic”:

Scott Joplin pioneered ragtime music. His most famous compositions were MAPLE LEAF RAG (1899) and THE ENTERTAINER (1902). Those songs may not ring a bell, but you’ve heard them if you saw the great Paul Newman/Robert Redford film THE STING (1973) — every song on the Academy Award-winning soundtrack was a Scott Joplin rag and helped spark a national revival of his ragtime music. He died in 1917, a few years after the failure of his  African-American opera Treemonisha, which was revived to well-deserved acclaim in 1972. Here are clips from that wonderful production:

WOODY AND ME

I come three days late to note the 78th birthday of my favorite living film director, Allen Stewart Konigsberg, better known as Woody Allen. Woody’s post-ANNIE HALL (1977) movies may not be to everyone’s taste — particularly those who don’t like films with what might be called an existential fixation/almost-obsession with the meaning of life and death. Whatever you call it, it works for me. I haven’t seen all of Woody’s films (especially since 1995), but I’ve seen most of them, and I can’t think of one I disliked….and more than a few I loved.

As it happens, I am a contemporary of Woody’s (born less than a year after his 12/1/35 birth date), but generational nearness means little if there is little else to relate to. Like Woody, Charlie Chaplin (for example) was a brilliant director, actor and master of comedy, but coming from a different generation doesn’t dim his star for me. Unique creative inventiveness is timeless.

So what is it about Woody that makes me feel an affinity? For one thing, there is our mutual passion for 1920s classic jazz (hence his spare-time gig as a jazz clarinetist). For another, there is what the distinguished film critic Richard Schickel called Woody’s “distrust [of] organized religion [and] conventional politics,” among other things. But perhaps most of all is his love for “magic realism,” as captured in such films as MANHATTAN (1979) and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)….which, not coincidentally, happen to be two of my favorite Woody Allen films. Other favorites, in addition to his pre-ANNIE HALL great comedies which brought him acclaim, include ZELIG (1983), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) and RADIO DAYS (1987). ANNIE HALL was an Oscar winner, but to me, it’s a notch below MANHATTAN.

Schickel’s book WOODY ALLEN – A LIFE IN FILM speaks to Woody’s falling-out with the latter-day mass American movie audience, which Schickel considers a product “of our crude and witless times. I basically despise the quality of modern American life — its history-free culture, its pietistic politics, the grinding stupidity of our public discourse on every topic. I suspect Woody feels the same but is too smart to say so openly.” Elitist harrumphing? Undoubtedly — if you don’t agree with him. Right on the money, if you do agree. Personally, I’ll TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969)….or better yet, I’ll take the book and run. If you’re a Woody Allen fan, it’s too good to pass up.

Well, all good things must run out eventually, and I can think of no better way to take this opus out than with what Woody’s character in MANHATTAN called “one of the reasons life is worth living” — referring to Louis Armstrong’s 1927 recording of POTATO HEAD BLUES:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxN0DZhwvss

Hold on — I just came across this. Can you dig it? It’s Wild, Man:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MQ89OQUPOE