Monday, April 7, 2014

NRO Tribute Captures Mickey Rooney Perfectly

Rooney in 1945

National Review publisher, Jack Fowler, captures the essence of Mickey Rooney's 84 year career in the American experience of our time, our parents' time, and their parents' time.  That's entertainment! Make 'em laugh, Mickey.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Paul Whiteman: The King Of Jazz

We've had quite a few significant musical birthdays this week. The honor today is reserved for "The King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman. A strong-willed innovator and perfectionist, he became the most popular band leader in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties. Whiteman encouraged many talented artists and composers through his interest in fusing jazz with 
other musical styles. He appreciated experimental music and sponsored several concerts featuring new compositions and artists. For one of these concerts asked his friend and collaborator, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto" for his series of experimental music concerts. Though faced with a short performance deadline, Gershwin reluctantly agreed.   In two weeks, he completed the new piece and entitled it Rhapsody in Blue. After two weeks of orchestration and eight days of rehearsal, Whiteman premiered the piece at the Aeolian Hall in New York in February 1924 with Gershwin at the piano.

Today Rhapsody in Blue is beloved throughout the world, but Whiteman is all but forgotten as the man behind the music. There is a backstory here worth knowing. After all, Whiteman gave early exposure to some of the best, including Bing Corsby, Mildred Bailey, Bunny Berigan, Jack Venuti, Bix Beiderbecke, and Jack Teagarden. Many people today won't recognize most of these names but they should be aware that these unknowns helped shape much of the music - especially jazz and vocal pop - we hear today.

Here's an important interview with Whiteman about Gershwin and the creation of Rhapsody in Blue. It's well worth every second of talk and includes about three minutes of music:

Whiteman was quite the showman as can be viewed in this excerpt from the 1930 film, King of JazzThe film was the first to use a prerecorded studio soundtrack "made independently of the actual filming." It was also one of the earliest Technicolor films.  George Gershwin is at the piano.

It wouldn't be proper to let Whiteman's birthday pass without an opportunity to hear his celebrated orchestra performing the popular music that made them famous. This 1928 recording features 25 year-old Bing Crosby singing his first number one hit. Of course, most of us know that he would go on to shape popular singing for the rest of the century:

And we should also remember other shapers like Paul Whiteman who played a monumental role in American entertainment but have ended up lost to new generations.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Always Sassy Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan, 1946     William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress
The American jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan, known as "Sassy" and "The Divine One," performed for almost fifty years. Twenty-four years after her passing popular music and jazz fans still wait for a singer who can approach her amazing voice. I must say that Jane Monheit has done a fine job of blending the Vaughan recipe with her own spices to bring us much of the magic we remember so well. Here is Sassy performing the signature song from late in her career, Send In The Clowns:

Now that is performance in song. It was recorded twenty years before Auto-Tune and other pitch correction and vocal tuning software could turn tone deaf studio metrosexuals and assorted hotties of any sex into so-called stars.  We've come down a long way in what passes for popular music over the past generation. Of course, there are exceptions but for the most part real singing has become subordinate to other aspects of presentation, performance, and spectacle. And once more I ask the question, "Where is jazz, a genre birthed in the United States?"  It is alive in many small markets across the country but it remains a small portfolio in the financiall departments of our corporate music industry. 

So as the Jane Monheits, Diana Kralls and others keep jazz alive let us honor the memory of one of its greatest interpreters, Sarah Vaughan who was born on March 27, 1924.  For another taste of her magic, here she is near the close of her career performing Tenderly, her original signature song:

A three octave vocal range, no Auto-Tune, singular perfection.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March Birthdays For Two American Literary Icons

Robert Frost in 1951
Tennessee Williams in 1954

They may share March 26 as a birth date but that is about all Robert Frost (1874- 1963) and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) have in common. The Academy of American Poets has this to say about Frost:

Though his work is principally associated with the life and landscape of New England—and though he was a poet of traditional verse forms and metrics who remained steadfastly aloof from the poetic movements and fashions of his time—Frost is anything but merely a regional poet. The author of searching and often dark meditations on universal themes, he is a quintessentially modern poet in his adherence to language as it is actually spoken, in the psychological complexity of his portraits, and in the degree to which his work is infused with layers of ambiguity and irony. 

Read the full article here

The Public Broadcasting Service's American Masters series online biography of Williams opens with this paragraph:

He was brilliant and prolific, breathing life and passion into such memorable characters as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in his critically acclaimed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. And like them, he was troubled and self-destructive, an abuser of alcohol and drugs. He was awarded four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was derided by critics and blacklisted by Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman, who condemned one of his scripts as “revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, offensive to Christian standards of decency.” He was Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights in American history.

 The full article on Williams is available here

Frost and Williams. Together their American experience may be so broad as to admit no exception. Let the research begin!

Myst The Cat Turns Eighteen

In early April 1996 our twins spent their Spring vacation with some classmates and their parents on Edisto Island, South Carolina. In the week or so there everyone got to know the mother cat and her three kittens who claimed the space under the stairs as their very own condo. When it came time to leave, the bonds had been cemented and both families claimed two felines. Our friends took the mama cat and a little male. Our children claimed the two females. I will always remember the phone call  from my son excitedly declaring, "Dad, we have cats!"

Caramel, a short-haired calico, brought us great joy and companionship for sixteen years. Her sister, Myst, a long-haired grey and white, now carries on those roles as the last baby in the family. Today is her eighteenth birthday. We can't be sure how many of those "nine lives" Myst has left but we hope she reserved a few of them so we can enjoy each other well into the future.

Birthday Baby At Eighteen

It's true that you never own a cat. You have a cat. They are truly enigmatic and amazingly entertaining. Rescue one today!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Flannery O'Connor: Today The Spirits Of The South Converge!

One of the nation's finest writers, Flannery O'Connor, was born on this day in Savannah, Georgia in 1925. She spent her early childhood there on Lafayette Square with its moss-draped live oaks, colorful azaleas, abundance of birds, and towering spires of The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Things haven't changed much on this beautiful square. I'm sure it still has a interesting spectrum of regular visitors. Children play on the sidewalks and lawns. And every day, the cathedral bells remind the people of God's love and their obligations as His children. I think as long as you can visit 

Lafayette Square, say on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, you can know O'Connor well.

The family moved to Atlanta in 1938, where her father was diagnosed with lupus. Soon after, they moved to her mother's family home in Milledgeville, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta. After his death in 1941, O'Connor moved a few miles north of town to her uncle's farm where she lived with her mother. Eventually, the farm would be called Andalusia, and become a refuge following her own diagnosis with lupus in 1950. At Andalusia, she would weave her rural Georgia experience and her childhood memories into some of America's finest literature.

Lupus took Flannery O'Connor from us in 1964 when she was in her 39th year. You can visit both her childhood home and Andalusia thanks to foundations that preserve the landscapes and memories she cherished. And, thanks to her, you can visit the South anytime by simply opening one of her books.

Many years ago the management at Andalusia removed scores of the offspring of O'Connor's beloved peacocks to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a large Trappist estate about two and a half miles from our ridge top home. At that time the area was still quite rural and the peacocks flourished in and around the monastery grounds. On a quiet evening it was not unusual for us to hear them calling faintly in the distance. Eventually , they were removed and for a decade or so there has been no  call to break the silence. But we do remember those urgent and sometimes fearful calls in the dusk. Today the woods remain a gallery of sounds. Some we know well. Others we may not recognize so easily. Those of us who know O'Connor and her work well may find it difficult to distinguish between the peacock, the author's veil, or the rich spirit world that inhabits her American South.  After all, in the ancient traditions of the Catholic world the peacock is the symbol of immortality.

If you have never read O'Connor, there is still time to visit the netherworlds she cherished. But don't wait too long!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Another Side Of Spring

If your taste in music happens to draw you to jazz, pop, singers and swing channels - or maybe you're just curious - then you are in for a seasonal treat from Power Line's Scott Johnson. His post today is a reprise - with updates - from 2009 about Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, a 1955 torch song by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolfe.

As loyal readers know I am a serious fan of Johnson. Somehow I missed his original post, but not this time around. Here is your link to some fine interpretation, a bit of gumshoe work, and an extraordinary performance of the song in question by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald.

Young readers, I acknowledge it's a fifty year old song performed by a singer who left us almost twenty years ago, but I can assure you both song and singer will be around into your old age.