Sunday, February 27, 2011


No Oscar night party can be complete without the perfect soundtrack, right?  Here's a keepsake compilation of scene-stealing jazz music contributions to film history.

"St. Louis Blues" - Bessie Smith (from "St. Louis Blues" - 1929)
Bessie Smith's only feature length appearance of any kind; she is, as you might expect, unforgettable. 

"I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" - Louis Armstrong (from Betty Boop Cartoon - 1932): Armstrong and his Orchestra provided the soundtrack for the 7 min short; Armstrong actually has a brief appearance as a "menacing" figure chasing down 2 of the cartoon characters.  Betty Boop cartoons frequently used jazz music and musicians for accompanyment and appearances; Cab Calloway and his Orchestra contributed to several Boop features as well, including 1933's "The Old Man And The Mountain" , Minnie The Moocher, St. James Infirmary and Snow White. And while we're on the subject of Calloway, check out the film International House - it features the "Hidee-Ho man" performing "Reefer Man", a classic to say the least.

"Drum Boogie" - Gene Krupa Orchestra (from "Ball of Fire" -1941)
Of course everybody knows drummer Krupa could guarantee an energetic performance, but on a box of matches? Check it out. And while you're at it, look for the sparkling trumpet break from the great Roy Eldridge, in his first and only appearance in a feature film.  Barbara Stanwick lip-syncs to the voice of swing-era singing star Martha Tilton. By the way, the screenplay was co-written by the incomparable Billy Wilder, who would later direct several classics including 1959's jazz-flavored "Some Like It Hot" .

"Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans" - Billie Holiday (from "New Orleans" - 1947): Lady Day's first and only feature film appearance - and the only time you'll ever see her in a subservient role on or off the screen - she played a maid. It's also the only time you'll see Holiday play the piano, which she does while singing this creole-flavored love song.  Louis Armstrong and The Woody Herman Orchestra also appear.

Various Performances from "A Song is Born" - 1948
This film is an updated version of Howard Hawks' aforementioned 1941 film "Ball Of Fire"; Hollywood icons Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo are joined by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman,Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Lionel Hampton.

"Jam Session" - Lionel Hampton, Steve Allen, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa (from "The Benny Goodman Story" - 1955) : Lionel Hampton steals the show...

"Jazz Club Scene" - Chico Hamilton Quintet (from "Sweet Smell of Success" - 1957)Drummer Chico Hamilton (still performing today at age 90) leads a group that plays it cool in a very intense and heartbreaking film noir starring Burt Lancaster,Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison and Martin Milner (of "Adam 12" TV fame). Milner plays a guitar that is dubbed by Jim Hall

"St. Louis Blues" -Eartha Kitt (from "St. Louis Blues" - 1958)
A stunning climax to this film about W.C. Handy which also starred Nat King Cole as Handy; in addition Eartha sings "Chantez les bas" , "Love Can Be Careless" (w/Cole) and Yellow Dog Blues. The film featured rare screen appearances by a cadre of west coast jazz icons including Barney Bigard, Red Callendar, Lee Young, Teddy Buckner, George Washington and a 12 year old Billy Preston.

"Black Nightgown" - Johnny Mandel Orchestra (from "I Want To Live" - 1958): Two versions - one, as a music cue in the film and the other from the original soundtrack recording. Both are remarkable. Among the outstanding musicians featured - Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, Art Farmer, Red Mitchell. This is one of two films on our list that was directed by the legendary Robert Wise; the other is 1959's "Odds Against Tomorrow" (see below).
"Florence Sur Le Champs Elysees" - Miles Davis (from "Ascenseur pour l' echafaud" - 1958)This was Miles' first film score, written for Louis Malle's 1958 film about criminal lovers whose perfect crime begins to unravel when one is trapped in an elevator. Miles only saw the film once, then went to his hotel and wrote basic harmonic sequences. The band recorded music without any pre-composed theme, while edited loops of the musically relevant film sequences were projected in the background. 

"Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum ("Gypsy Song")Peal Bailey, Max Roach  (from "Carmen Jones" - 1958) One of the many priceless moments from the Otto Premminger/Oscar Hammerstein adaptation of Bizet's opera. Bailey and Roach are joined by an outstanding cast including Dorthy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.  

"Club Scene" - Harry Belafonte (from "Odds Against Tomorrow" - 1959The film's score was composed by John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet and features MJQ along with Jim Hall and Bill Evans. Belafonte sings and plays vibes ( actually it's Milt Jackson dubbing vibes for Belafonte) in this scene; Look for James Earl Jones' father Robert Earl Jones and Richard Bright ( "Al Neri" in "The Godfather" films).

"Wild Man Blues/Battle Royal" - Louis Armsrong & Duke Ellington Orchestra (from "Paris Blues" - 1960)An all-star cast (Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward, Diahann Carroll) but the critical reception was less than stellar; the music more than makes up for any cinematic shortcomings.  Ellington's Mood Indigo was also featured in the film. Canadian born trombonist Murray McEachern dubbed Paul Newman and sax player Paul Gonsalves dubbed Sidney Poitier. Adding to the on-screen drama was a torrid off-screen affair between Poitier and Carroll, who had fallen in love while filming "Porgy and Bess" a couple years before. The two came close to ending their marriages in order to be together but ceased their relationship by the time the film was released. 

"It's A Raggy Waltz" - Dave Brubeck  (from "All Night Long" - 1962)Set in London's jazz scene of the early 1960's, the film is an updated version of Shakespeare's Othello; the performances are similarly epic, featuring Brubeck, Charles Mingus and John Dankworth among others.

"The Girl From Ipanema" - Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto (from "Get Yourself A College Girl" - 1964): Although the lip sync is a bit askew, it's a rare opportunity to see the Getz/Gilberto team it's peak. Jimmy Smith and his trio also make an appearance in this film, playing a funky version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."

"Alfie's Theme" - Sonny Rollins (from Alfie/Album- 1966): Rollins' work is equal to and at times exceeds the brilliance of this film; Oliver Nelson arranged and conducted the performances, which included contributions by JJ Johnson, Kenny Burrell , Jimmy Cleveland and Roger Kellaway

"The Man I Love" - Diana Ross (from "Lady Sings The Blues" -1972)Ross' star turn as an actress is magnetic; her world-renown attributes as a singer are almost a bonus here. Richard Pryor is mesmerizing in the role of "Piano Man"; in fact, he pretty much steals the show whenever he appears.

"Three Days of the Condor" - Dave Grusin - (from "Three Days of the Condor" - 1975)"Fiesta" - Dave Grusin (from The Milagro Beanfield War- 1988): Grusin has the midas touch; he is without doubt one of America's most successful and prolific composers of movie music; he won an Oscar for the "Milagro" score - the film was directed by "Three Days of the Condor" star Robert Redford, who also directed Havana; Grusin's score for that film was Oscar nominated. The same honor went to his scores for The Firm, On Golden Pond, Tootsie, Heaven Can Wait, The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Champ.  Grusin has written music for at least 50 films, among them - The Graduate, Tequila Sunrise, Bonfire of The Vanities and Selena.

"As Time Goes By" - Dexter Gordon (from Round Midnight" - 1986) :Wow....A performance that will bring tears to the eyes of even the most jaded observer. Gordon, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance is joined by Herbie Hancock, (whose score for the film won the Oscar), John McLaughlin, Billy Higgins and Pierre Michelot.   

"We Three Kings of Orient Are" - Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Larry Carlton, Paul Schafer (from "Scrooged" - 1988)  Although this clip is from The David Letterman Show, all five musicians appeared in the film, which starred Bill Murray.

"Lover Man" - Charlie Parker (from "Bird" - 1988): Painful but riveting, this clip features the actual sound of Parker's playing, which was electronically isolated from an original recording given to director Clint Eastwood by Parker's widow Chan. Forrest Whitaker's performance makes you feel the pathos and the tortured beauty of Charlie Parker the man and the artist.

"Mo Better Blues" - Terrence Blanchard/Branford Marsalis (from "Mo Better Blues - 1990): Denzel Washington stars as an arrogant jazz trumpeter who gets his comeuppance in this Spike Lee "joint"; Blanchard plays the trumpet parts and would go on to write the score for every Spike Lee film afterward. Marsalis ghosts for Wesley Snipes' saxophone playing character.

"Chill" - Joshua Redman - (from "Vanya On 42nd Street" - 1994)
The centerpiece of a brilliant score written for the Louis Malle film by Redman and performed by his quartet; the soundtrack is hard to come by but you can find an outstanding version of "Chill" on his 2008 release "Moodswing."

"Tickle Toe"  - Geri Allen, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Victor Lewis, James Carter, Mark Whitfield, Don Byron (from "Kansas City" - 1995): The film wasn't a rousing critical or financial success but director Robert Altman's artistic chops are of the highest order. This is one of the swingin'-ist jazz performances ever filmed; Lester Young (the song's composer) would've been proud to see this group of "young lions" - well, at the time they were considered "up and coming" - interpret his music with such aplomb. The same holds true for "Yeah Man", which is the film's big finale.

Beautiful E - Bill Frisell ( from Finding Forrester -2000)

"Limehouse Blues/Mystery Pacific" - Bucky Pizzarelli (from "Sweet And Lowdown" -2000) Director Woody Allen, who is a fine jazz clarinetist, is known for taking great care with the soundtrack to his films. This time the music gets the star treatment in a story about a wayward jazz guitarist portrayed beautifully by Sean Penn. There are marvelous performances by Pizzarelli, who ghosts for Sean Penn's character Emmett Ray. By the way, Woody's musicianship goes front and center in the fine documentary "Wild Man Blues" ,which chronicles Allen's 1996 European tour with his New Orleans Jazz Band.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


When the news of George Shearing's passing arrived, I began considering his place in jazz history;  born blind, he was a gifted pianist and composer who wrote over 300 songs including the ubiquitous "Lullaby of Birdland"; the native of Battersea, London, UK was also an innovator, noted for a groundbreaking "block chord" style of piano and the revolutionary configuration of instrumentation that joined his piano with vibes, guitar, bass and drums in a vaunted jazz quintet. Sir George played at the request of kings and queens and 3 U.S. Presidents. In 1996 he was invested by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) and received his knighthood from The Queen in 2007 . Surely there are others whose accomplishments equaled or exceeded Shearing's during his lifetime. However, there is something much more compelling that makes the story of George Shearing a triumphant one.

Sir George and Queen Elizabeth II, 2007

What elevates the IQ and thus the potency of an artist - any artist - is not the number accolades they receive or how deftly he or she can navigate their mode of expression.  It is, instead, how well they play the vicissitudes of life. When you follow the distance Shearing had to travel to become "Sir George" you will find astonishing (and intelligent) survival skills that define the truth of his unlikely existence; the ability to transform adversity into advantage is at the heart of his genius and the soul within his voluminous gifts.  You would be hard-pressed to imagine his humble origins, looking at the vision of elegance we know as George Shearing today.

"Making it" in the highly competitive universe of professional musicianship is a daunting, aeonian undertaking for the best of us and it has to be profoundly formidable without possessing the sense of sight. But tellingly, Shearing viewed his handicap as an asset, as he wrote in his autobiography "Lullaby of Birdland";  "Living in a world in which sound plays the most important part has always been a great stimulus to me as a musician."  In fact, the entire thesis of "Lullaby..."  is, as Shearing wrote "about my path through that sighted due course as an adult I came to the conclusion that even if I were offered the chance of sight, I would refuse it because it would be so shattering  to see everything I had only known as sounds up until that point."

That statement is indicative of Shearing's character; he was the embodiment of the optimism and tough-minded independence of his working-class parents (father James delivered coal, mother Ellen cleaned trains), who must have known their youngest of 9 was quite special because they diverted a portion of their meager earnings toward a piano and accompanying lessons. The cost was a considerable sum for a large family living in a poor neighborhood -  "8 pounds", Shearing recalled, adding "I would say the reward, although they weren't around, unfortunately, to reap too many of the benefits, was rather handsome."  They also sent George to a small school for the blind where in 4 years, he received his only real music training. After a short time, the only member of the family to pursue a career in music received numerous scholarship offers and he ultimately declined them all, in favor of a more practical pursuit - playing in a local pub, for one pound and five shillings a week.  Leaving school to play music in a pub, at 16 years old - was a bold stroke that speaks to Shearing's charm and chutzpah, not to mention the cognizance of a need to provide much needed income for the family coffers. And although he didn't appear to have any clairvoyance (or maybe he did), the gig proved seminal in his eventual fortune and fame; were it not for the confidence he gained and contacts he made early on as working musician, he may have never taken a fortuitous trip to America in 1947.

Shearing playing Lullaby of Birdland in 1987, on the 40th anniversary of arriving in the U.S.

After George Shearing showed that he had the skills to survive in a world of obstacles, the land of opportunity opened it's golden door. Shearing saw the light and extraordinary music began to flow like fine wine; by 1949 he had recorded the Harry Warren/Al Dubin song "September in the Rain" which subsequently posted 900,000 copies sold, almost overnight; in 1952, with the release of "Lullaby of Birdland" he was, at 33 years old, one of the most popular jazz musicians in the world, after being "on the scene" for just 5 years, a blink of an eye in "jazz years".  The rest of the story, as it has been said and written many time since his passing on Valentine's Day, contain some of the most heartfelt moments in jazz history.

Sir George and his Lullaby - London, 1955

Let the miraculous story of George Shearing also be, in the words of Joni Mitchell, a "lesson in survival" - for those of us who, in these exceedingly tough times, have difficulty seeing the positive sign posts on the road ahead. Sir George had the foresight and courage of his convictions to believe in the light at the end of the tunnel... and that light also belongs to you and me.

Monday, February 14, 2011


There is a brooding, breathtaking, heart-piercing melody that has sparked the imaginations of music fans for 60 years; countless scholars and critics have analyzed it, legendary producer Orrin Keepnews called it the "National Anthem of Jazz." The song has been recorded and performed with greater frequency than any other standard composed by a jazz musician, in this case, pianist Thelonius Monk. Much has been said and written about him too - genius, virtuoso, eccentric, mysterious, complex are among the many descriptions for his "sui generis" persona. But Monk the romantic? - it's an impression that would evade those of us not among the very few to know him personally. However, a close examination of Thelonius Monk and his body of work reveals extraordinary sensitivity and more than just a hint of romance. How and why he invented this song, the first of 70 original compositions published during his lifetime, suggests it is quite possibly the most romantic of all his titles.

Since you went away I missed you...
Ev'ry hour I wished to kiss you...
You are in my dreams...always
I need you so...

That is the first verse of I Need You So, which was registered under the name "Thelonius Monk" on September 24 1943; he gave the credit for the lyrics to a neighborhood friend, Thelma Elizabeth Murray.  A few months later, Monk dropped the lyrics, kept the melody, changed the key and the title.  By early 1944 Monk's running buddy and fellow pianist Bud Powell was on a mission to have band leader Cootie Williams check out the revised version of the song - Powell was in the employ of the former Ellington trumpeter who was blown away when Monk eventually played it for him. What happens next is the song becomes the theme of Williams' popular orchestra. He also took co-composer credit, hired a Broadway wordsmith named Bennie Hanighan to write new lyrics and an added short addition to the song's introduction. Many have since argued that the additional 8 bar cadenza was actually created by Dizzy Gillespie, who also added the song to his orchestra's repertoire in 1946. This was one of several annoying instances when other musicians were playing and claiming part ownership of Monk's originals; the story about Coleman Hawkins and a riff on the classic "Lady Be Good" comes to mind; Hawkins recorded it as his own composition, Monk claimed he wrote the first 16 bars of the final arrangement of the song and later recorded it as an original with a different title - "Hackensack."

In any case, Thelonius Monk's reputation was enhanced by the affirmative reaction to his compositions and he thusly gained the confidence and cache' to start a band of his own, which recorded the song in question for the first time in 1947. But ultimately the song would not have gained it's notability had it not been for what happened next.

By the time they played together as part of a Friday night jam session during the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Monk and Miles Davis had plenty history; it has been said that they almost came to blows during a recording session less than a year before.  Apparently a truce had been established because, here they were, wowing the summer festival crowd with the song in question, in a performance that is commonly referred to as Davis'  "comeback", his moment of transformation from a respected but troubled American jazz artist to an global icon who could do no wrong.  The moment was not lost on Columbia Records; one of the label's executives, George Avakian, was in the audience and, in an obvious response to the buzz, subsequently inked the historic record deal that made Miles a very rich man and changed the sound and public image of jazz - forever.

Miles Davis' first album for Columbia, done in the fall of 55 and spring of 56,  used the song as it's title statement, in an attempt to catch the wave of that Newport performance. But because of contractual obligations to another label, it could not be not released until 1957. Nonetheless, the record was enthusiastically received and is still considered one of Davis' best; the caliginous vibe of  Monk's tune was in perfect sync with the Miles Davis mystique. The two became emblematic of a new standard in jazz expression and appreciation, even though the song was written 13 years before.  At that time Miles was the most emulated and highest paid modern jazz musician in the world and it's likely Monk's tune blew up big time in part, because of it's connection that success.  In an ironic twist, Miles was in a sense, returning the favor; playing the song at the Newport Jazz Festival lead to his "comeback" and the popularity of his album bearing the song's title connected with Monk's resurgence, which also began in 1957 during a series of concerts at New York's Five Spot jazz club.

By the way, there is a story about Miles being pissed off at John Coltrane for leaving his band to play with Monk during this period and after one of the Five Spot gigs; Miles & Coltrane argued after which Miles punched Coltrane... we'll save that one for another time.

One could say the success of this song is due to it's "timelessness" ( I've never really known what that means). One might also say this was a case of right place right time -  a time when in was out and out was in, artistically speaking.  Listen to the piece, and you'll feel connected to the same moody, counter culture that pervaded the later half of 1950's. You can also hear that Thelonius Monk the composer was light years ahead of his time.

Nellie Monk w/ Thelonius and John Coltrane, 1958

In keeping with spirit of this day - I would like to think that the reason behind the composition's success has to do with why he wrote it in the first place - as a gesture of love and devotion to his wife of 40 years - Nellie. Monk wrote the tune years before they actually married, which by the way was in 1947, the same year Monk recorded it for the first time.  Yes, there is another sonic love letter to Mrs. Monk (who passed away in 2002) - Crepuscule with Nellie, which Monk penned in the mid 50's. But in 1943, inspired by his new romance with Nellie whom he met on New York City playground a couple years before, Monk started work on the aforementioned I Need You So, which was destined to become, if you haven't figured it out already, Round Midnight.
Monk, on the cover of Time Magazine, 1964

By the time the last word of Monk's eulogy was spoken , in New York City, February 22 1982, Round Midnight (some call it Round About Midnight; that was the name of the Miles Davis album) had become so pervasive and revered that it was ( is) played in practically every corner of the globe, becoming a touchstone for even the most casual jazz fan and a rite of passage for every musician who has ever thought of playing jazz. And there are the countless recordings and accolades for those who used the song as a stepping stone to wider recognition and artistic success. There is also the 1986 Oscar - winning film that used the song as the driving force behind it's narrative, taking the song's title for it's own. And it all began with the little melody Thelonius Monk wrote while in the throes of a new and profound love, for Nellie and for jazz.
 Happy Valentine's Day...

Monk and Nellie, in the 1960's