5. Newport 1958

NewportFrontRecord: Newport 1958
Artist: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Released: Columbia Records, 1958

The idea of composing music of any kind is completely magical to me. I can understand DaVinci dipping a brush into his oils and producing the "Mona Lisa" or Dante spinning his Divine Comedy, but how, I ask, can a composer conceive an original work, imagine the different instruments that might contribute to its overall tapestry, and finally bring the entire piece to fruition? People sometimes speak of a hypothetical room full of monkeys and typewriters eventually producing the works of Shakespeare, but we've never heard any speculation about monkeys and pianos. That genius can never be attributed to the hand of chance. Whether it's John Lennon and Paul McCartney sitting down to write "Eleanor Rigby" or John Coltrane creating "A Love Supreme" or a deaf Beethoven writing his 9th Symphony, there is an element of the divine. It's no wonder the Ancient Greeks spoke of muses inspiring their artists. How else to explain miracles like these?

Duke Ellington is one of these geniuses, a songwriter beyond compare, and this won't be the last time one of his records shows up here. This particular record has an interesting history. The Newport Jazz Festival is one of the oldest and most important gatherings of musical talent in the United States, and the 1958 edition featured dozens of legendary musicians aside from Ellington. Like Ellington, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Mahalia Jackson all later issued "live" albums, each titled Newport 1958.

As was common at the time, Ellington's record isn't completely live, even though the album jacket claims that it was "recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival." Ellington and his orchestra did perform all of these songs at Newport, but those live recordings aren't preserved here. Dissatisfied with the performance -- several of these tracks were played for the first time at the festival -- and possibly the limitations of the live audio, Ellington took his band into the studio to record the songs again for the record. Crowd noise from the festival was dubbed in, so perhaps the subtitle on the jacket isn't completely wrong.

This is the story behind the original record from my father's collection, but by the time I was searching for the CD to add to my own, an expanded two-disc version with many of the original live recordings had been released, so that's the one I've always listened to. It was fun to listen to the vinyl this morning, filled mainly with polished versions of the tracks I had heard, but the genius was still there.

NewportBack

Side 1
Just Scratchin' the Surface
El Gato
Happy Reunion
Multicolored Blue
Princess Blue

Side 2
Jass Festival Jazz
Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool
Juniflip
Prima Bara Dubla
Hi Fi Fo Fum


4. Sinatra-Basie

SinatraBasieRecord: Sinatra-Basie
Artist: Frank Sinatra and Count Basie
Released: Reprise Records, 1962

I bought my first true stereo in the summer of 1990, and few purchases before or since have given me as much pleasure. Until then my music had come from single-speaker clock radios, cassette tapes played through a boom box, or the CD players of college roommates. 

But when I gladly parted with six hundred dollars of my summer earnings and came home from Rogers Sound Labs with a receiver, a five-disc CD changer, and a set of speakers, everything changed. Suddenly I needed to have every song I'd ever loved in my CD collection, and even some that I didn't love just because someone else might want to hear it.

If only my twenty-year-old self had known about the world of streaming that was just a few decades away. Today I can stand in my kitchen and ask Alexa to play any song ever recorded, and within seconds I can be singing along while dicing an onion. It's a brave new wonderful world, but one thing we've lost is the joy of the search and the thrill of discovery.

During that first summer I had a detailed list of CDs that I wanted (needed) to add to my collection. Most weekends I'd spend a few hours with a likeminded friend scouring the racks at a used record store, searching for nuggets hidden in the stacks. The CDs were organized alphabetically, but only loosely, so the only method was to flip through -- flip through them all.

That rhythm of the cases clicking together as my index and middle fingers walked up the stack was hypnotic, and I don't have to look too deeply into my memories to hear the sound of the plastic click, click, click, clicking. And then you'd find one. Sometimes it was a CD you'd been searching for for weeks, but sometimes it was even better -- a CD you didn't even know existed. A bootleg recording of a live concert or the European edition of a CD you already owned. (You'd buy it anyway because it might have different artwork and an extra track.) I miss the search. I miss the discovery.

It wasn't immediately that I connected my love of music with my father's, nor my growing CD collection to his vinyl, but that would come. When I wanted to expand my jazz collection, I looked to my father for guidance and opened his record chests with intent. It was similar to my Saturday CD runs. Some of the names were familiar, but others were brand new. I flipped through the records, pulling one album out at a time, and I added titles to my list.

This record, Sinatra-Basie, was one of the first to show up in my collection, and it's still one of my favorites. I don't remember for sure, but I'm guessing I was drawn to it because of Frank Sinatra, who was one of my mother's favorites, probably her only favorite. 

My whole life was in front of me when I was in my early twenties and first listening to this record, and no track spoke to that like the fourth song on the first side.

"Lookin' at the world through rose-colored glasses
Everything is rosy now
Lookin' at the world and everything that passes
Seems a rosy hue somehow..."

If my life had been a movie, I imagined, this was the song playing in the opening credits. A few scenes later, when life took its first turn, there would be Sinatra again with a track from side two, "Learnin' the Blues," this time gently explaining the pain of lost love. He gently croons,

"When you're at home alone, the blues will taunt you constantly.
When you're out in a crowd, those blues will haunt your memory."

People often refer to one album or another as being the soundtrack of their lives, and I think that's telling. Music speaks to us, and great music speaks to all of us. What Sinatra and Basie have done here is combine Basie's orchestra with Sinatra's singing, and the result is a record the must've spoken to by father sixty years ago, certainly spoke to me thirty years ago, and still swings today. That's genius.

SinatraBasieVinyl


Side 1
Pennies from Heaven
Please Be Kind
(Love Is) The Tender Trap
Looking at the World thru Rose Colored Glasses
My Kind of Girl

Side 2
I Only Have Eyes for You
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Learnin' the Blues
I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
I Won't Dance


3. Billie Holiday

LadyDayRecord: Billie Holiday
Artist: Billie Holiday (with Ray Ellis and His Orchestra)
Released: MGM Records, 1959

Quite simply, there's no one like Billie Holiday. This isn't her finest work, but it's important because it's her last work; she died four months after these songs were recorded. If you were to look for this album today, you'd find it as Last Recording, with that new title added to the album artwork, but the record I'm listening to this morning must be from the first print run. It's just Billie Holiday.

How to describe Lady Day? It's difficult to find a comparison to someone as legendary as Ms. Holiday, but I can say that Norah Jones reminds me of her, though Jones is a bit more sultry, and Madeleine Peyroux is another musical descendant, but there's something unique about Holiday. 

The artist does not need to be pained, but some of our greatest artists channel their pain into their work, either directly or indirectly. But when Holiday sings on this record, "I'll never smile again, until I smile at you. I'll never laugh again, what good would it do?" these aren't her lyrics but it is her pain, an apparent contradiction that highlights a key difference between how standards in the music industry have changed.

Artists today must write their own songs to be taken seriously, and some -- like Taylor Swift -- are criticized even if they collaborate with another songwriter. That was never the case before. The great singers from the last century -- Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams -- almost never wrote their own songs. They were performers, and that they were singing someone else's songs could never diminish their genius. There was only one Sinatra, after all. No one could duplicate Ella Fitzgerald.

And so what Holiday does with these songs is something no other artist could have done. In the liner notes for this album, Leonard Feather describes how different she was in 1959 as compared to her earlier years, but he doesn't go into specifics. The truth is that Holiday had spent her thirty-year career chasing away pain with alcohol and heroin, and so when we listen to these final recordings, we're listening to a voice that's been damaged and a soul that's been ravaged. And yet, it's all so beautiful.

This morning was the first time I've listened to this record, but I smiled to hear her renditions of two timeless classics, "All the Way" ("When somebody loves you, it's no good unless he loves you, all the way") and the Louie Armstrong standard "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." Both songs are someone else's, both songs are familiar, but Holiday makes them her own.

The best example of this is in one of the most important songs ever recorded, "Strange Fruit." I don't think my father had that in his collection, but we can't talk about Billie Holiday without discussing her haunting version of a song that helped plant the seeds for the Civil Rights movement by taking an unflinching look at the dark history of lynching in the American South. Consider the lyrics, then watch this video of Holiday performing the song in 1959.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
 
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
 
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
 
Again, these are not Holiday's words. The lyrics were adapted from a poem written by Abel Meeropol in response to an infamous photo of a double lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. (You can read about that history here.) But just as she did throughout her career, Lady Day took those words and elevated them. That, I think, is what true genius is. The elevation of a truth that the rest of us already knew.
 

LadyDay2Side 1
All of You
Sometimes I'm Happy
You Took Advantage of Me
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
There'll Be Some Changes Made
'Deed I Do

Side 2
Don't Worry 'bout Me
All the Way
Just One More Chance
It's Not for Me to Say
I'll Never Smile Again
Baby Won't You Please Come Home


2. Jazz Goes to College

Brubeck1Record: Jazz Goes to College
Artist: The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Released: Columbia Records, 1954

The Dave Brubeck Quartet doesn't have the broader name recognition of Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but in his day, Brubeck was was seen as one of the most influential jazz musicians of his era. This particular album features tracks recorded live at three different colleges in the Midwest -- the University of Michigan, the University of Cincinnati, and Oberlin College. Even today jazz is often referred to as the first true American art form, and while the genre was largely driven by Black Americans, this is an example of white musicians making their mark and, as suggested by the locations of these performances, bringing jazz to a white audience.

There's no doubt that this was one of my father's favorite records. The jacket is worn from handling, with tape on three sides to keep it together, but there's something special on the back. Somehow jazz has developed an aura of academic sophistication that can feel almost exclusionary at times. You don't have to study rock and roll, you just feel it. No one ever says, "I don't get pop music." But no genre of music invites investigation like jazz. 

I noticed this when I was younger and started buying jazz CDs, mostly repackaged titles that my father had owned on vinyl. In addition to the remastered music, these CDs always came along with exhaustive liner notes with recording history and artist biographies. I devoured them. But it turns out this is an old practice. On the back of this album jacket is a 2,000-word essay by producer George Avakian. This isn't something written from an historical perspective, but a contemporary review explaining the strengths of the musicians on the record and giving in-depth analysis of each song. "These recordings bubble with exuberance," he writes; "they swing like mad, they are packed with fantastic ideas, they exhibit an incredible cohesion among four sympathetic musicians of consummate skill." Later he explains the importance of improvisation, not just in general but specifically on this record. "The improvisation on harmony and rhythm, as well as melody, goes well beyond what jazz musicians usually have done." It's a master class.

Again, it isn't hard to imagine my father lounging on a Sunday afternoon, reading and re-reading Avakian's essay with Brubeck's cool jazz playing in the background. Saxophonist Paul Desmond carries the melody, drummer Joe Dodge and bassist Bob Bates keep the rhythm, Brubeck himself jumps back and forth on piano, and my father's toe taps along. It isn't hard to imagine at all. 

Brubeck2

Side 1
Balcony Rock
Out of Nowhere
Le Souk

Side 2
Take the "A" Train
The Song Is You
Don't Worry 'Bout Me
I Want to Be Happy


1. Not Now, I'll Tell You When

Basie1Record: Not Now, I'll Tell You When
Artist: Count Basie & His Orchestra
Released: Roulette Records, 1960

I wish I had the musical expertise to better describe this record. Any casual jazz fan knows Count Basie and the Count Basie Orchestra. I'd put myself in that group, certainly. I pulled this record, the first step of my journey, from a small subset of my father's collection. 

Twenty years ago my wife gave me the most thoughtful gift I've ever received. What struck me first was the weight, but the weight made sense when I unwrapped it and found a small carrying case holding twenty or so records. At first I didn't know why my wife was giving me a case of old records, but then I quickly recognized them as my fathers. By itself, it was beautiful, but then she explained. "These are your father's records, some of his favorites."

My mother hadn't yet given me his collection, so it still sat in her house in two record cabinets. They were actually matching chests with upholstered lids that could serve as seats when closed but then open to reveal the vinyl they held within. My wife wanted to buy me a record player, specifically so I could listen to those records. And so she and my mother went through the collection one record at a time so that my mother could pull out twenty or so titles that my father listened to most often. His favorites.

I've never talked to either of them about their actual process that afternoon, but I've replayed the imagined scene in my mind hundreds of times. I see my mother lifting one album after another, each one a time capsule of sorts holding memories from another lifetime. I watch as her eyes play across the images on a cover and the music begins to play in her mind, no needle required. Tears begin to collect in her eye lashes, and she hands a record to my wife. "This one," she says. "He liked this one."

I like this one, too. Piano player Basie was the king of bebop, and as you listen to this record it isn't hard to imagine him leading his orchestra on stage with dozens of spinning  couples on the dance floor in front of them. This title was released in 1960, a couple decades after the height of the Big Band Era, and even though people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were beginning to take jazz in new directions, there's something special about these songs.

I don't know if it's my time playing saxophone in middle school and high school, but I've always been a sucker for horns, especially when they find their way into pop music. Few people in history have sold more albums than Phil Collins, whose legacy is largely defined by the greatest drum fill in the history of pop music and a string of songs that play well in grocery stores, but his liberal use of a horn section on his first two albums is what I'll remember. I've been a casual reggae fan since I went away to college and started hearing Bob Marley's Legend coming out of every dorm room on the hall, but what I really love is reggae's precursor, British ska with its stabbing horns.

All of that, in one way or another echoes back to bepop, echoes back to the Count. Basie is known for jazz classics like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "One O'Clock Jump," but you won't find those tracks on this record. It's a bit more obscure, but I think I like it more because of that obscurity. I listened to it for the first time this morning, and I'm quite sure today was the first time it had been out of its sleeve in more than fifty years, the last time my father's hands set it on a turntable and set the needle on the grooves. 

Basie2Side 1
Not Now, I'll Tell You
Rare Butterfly
Back to the Apple
Ol' Man River

Side 2
Mama's Talkin' Soft
The Daly Jump
Blue on Blue
Swinging at the Waldorf
Sweet and Purty

 


The Records

WaddlesMy father died half a century ago in the summer of 1969, and five months later I was born. I've always wondered how you can miss someone you've never met, but I've missed him my whole life. 

This isn't to say that I've suffered. When I was three years old my mother married again to a man I've been fortunate enough to call Dad ever since, and it would be an understatement to say that I've lived a privileged life. 

Even so, something has always been missing. Some of my earliest memories involve listening to stories about my father told by mother, and other family members have always been generous with their memories as well. I know my father. He was thoughtful and kind, he held together a wide network of friends, he enjoyed smoking a pipe from time to time, and he was a fan of the Detroit Tigers -- though he also grew to like Cleveland's Larry Doby and the Giants' Willie Mays.

But more important than any of that, he was a music lover. I have a few of things of his, like the tie he wore on the day he married my mother, his chess set, and his favorite chair, but his most visible presence in our house is his music, hundreds of vinyl records, an eclectic collection of jazz, classical, and other genres, but all his. All mine.

Years ago when I began building a collection of my own, his collection was the inspiration for many of the CDs I bought. So I've listened to some of the music that he did, but I've only taken a few of his records out of their sleeves. Perhaps the last time any saw the light of day might have been on a Sunday morning back in the 1960s when my father pulled one from the cabinet, set it on his turntable, gently dropped the needle, and filled his living room with music.

Six decades later, I'll do the same. Each Sunday morning I'll choose a record from the shelf, sometimes at random and other times with purpose, and listen. I'll write about the journey here, but I can't really predict what this writing will look like. Sometimes I'll write about the music, sometimes I'll write about my father, sometimes I'll write about something else. I look forward to finding where this takes me. You're welcome to come along, but even if no one ever reads these words, it won't matter.