Archive for the Be Bop Category

Charlie Parker: Bird Gets the Worm

Posted in African American Interest, Be Bop, Music with tags , on August 29, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of pioneering be bop alto sax player Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955). Here’s his composition “Bird Gets the Worm” which he recorded in 1947 with his All-Stars: Max Roach, Miles Davis, Duke Jordan and Tommy Potter.

Stars of Vaudeville # 788: Lester Young

Posted in African American Interest, Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Be Bop, Music, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great jazz saxophonist Lester Young (1909-1959). This one blew my mind — to learn that Lester Young, whom I think of as the ultimate be bop hep cat, had a background in vaudeville!

He grew up in his family’s musical act, The Young Family Band, which played the black vaudeville and carnival circuits. His father taught him to play trumpet, violin, drums and woodwinds. At 18 he peeled off on his own, and played with a number of bands before he joined up with Count Basie’s Orchestra, which is where he made a name for himself as a musician (he played with Basie on-again/ off-again through 1943, when he was drafted into the army. He also played with Fletcher Henderson’s band, and on records with the likes of Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. After the war (the be bop era) he played with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, and with a number of small combos. His last years were a downward trajectory of alcoholism and decline. But he is remembered as one of the great jazz soloists of all time.

He was reportedly a shadow of his former self by the time of this clip (1958), but he sure sounds good to me! Willie “The Lion” Smith is on piano:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Vaudeville #750: Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams

Posted in African American Interest, Be Bop, Dance, Music, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams (1907-1962). The best dope on Williams I’ve been able to find comes from the terrific two volume set Vaudeville Old and New, which tells he started out singing and dancing for coins in a whorehouse at age 10 and then toured with Bobby Grant’s Female Impersonators Revue out of Atlanta. As a teenager, he danced the black bottom and the Charleston and did a legomania act on the TOBA circuit and in tent shows. By the late 20s he was playing Keith time as an overgrown “pickaninny’ in Naomi Thomas’ Brazilian Nuts Show (a tab show), and in the 30s and 40s he appeared in major revues like Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds and major nightclubs and theatres like The Cotton Club and the Apollo in Harlem. Towards the end of his singer he concentrated more on singing, performing with the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. 

Here he is in the 1933 short Smash Your Luggage:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Mingus!

Posted in African American Interest, Be Bop, Music with tags , , on April 22, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great be bop bass player and composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979). Who did more good for the soul of America during the Cold War? Some army general? Wrong! Billy Graham? Well, if that’s your thing, okay. But in terms of tapping a vein that contains something resembling genuine American creativity, imagination, energy and spirit, look ye first to the jazz makers. This 1968 documentary about Mingus gets you quite close to this irascible, complicated dude. It’s kind of counterintuitive to think that jazz was sort of dying out then. Mingus’s sort of music never did mainstream, has always been on the fringes where some people think it belongs. Me, I think it would be awesome to open a baseball game with a nutty, heavily improvised jazz variation on the Star Spangled Banner. But then I also think it would be cool if baseball could be played under conditions of complete anarchy, with people running around anywhere they wanted to, and throwing and hitting balls in whatever direction occurred to them  whenever they felt like it. My version would be called “base (bass) baby”. Tickets would be free. Look, I think someone’s playing it over there right now!

Max Roach

Posted in Be Bop, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Music with tags , on January 10, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great be bop jazz drummer Max Roach (1924-2007). I always get real peeved when I hear people who don’t know what they’re talking about say that drums are an “easier” instrument than the melodic ones (keyboards, horns, strings, woodwinds). That’s nonsense. All musical instruments are just tools for the communication of artists. In the hands of one, an instrument (whatever instrument*) can be made to sing. In the hands of another, it fizzles. The object is to take the instrument as far as it can go, and the drums do NOT take a back seat to other instruments when they’re in the hands of a great artist like Max Roach. (Fun fact: Roach collaborated with Sam Shepard, also a drummer, on the music for some of Shepard’s early plays at La Mama).

* I speak within reason, of course. I think we have to draw the line at the triangle.

 

 

 

Steve Allen, Man of Contradictions

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Be Bop, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, Irish, Television, TV variety with tags , , , on December 26, 2012 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2012. 

Today is the birthday of Steve Allen (1921-2000). Steve-a-rino is one of my heroes, and I’ve written about him before (I penned a lengthy appreciation for The Comic Bible when he passed away in 2000). Allen was a show biz Renaissance man, and a mass of contradictions, enough of them to keep an interested investigator busy for YEARS, really.

He was one of television’s great innovators, inventing the late night talk show format, first in a local NYC show, then as the original host of the Tonight show, 1954-1957. Thereafter he remained one of television’s great anarchistic crazy-comedy inventors (second only to Ernie Kovacs) in a series of several different prime time and late night shows (usually called some variation on “the Steve Allen Show) from 1956 through the early 70s. Then from 1977 to 1981 he invented yet another format, by creating, producing and hosting The Meeting of Minds for PBS (a show in which celebrities impersonated great historical figures and sat down to dinner together engaging in heady conversations).

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These are all considerable accomplishments, enough to make someone (you might think) feel okay about themselves. Yet Allen always seemed to wear a bit of a chip on his shoulder, to constantly be trumpeting his own accomplishments from a place of insecurity. You might think that was because he’d been eclipsed in later decades by younger people whom he’d influenced (David Letterman is the chief example). But, no, if you read his 1960 autobiography Mark It and Strike It, it still has that tone). Allen was trying to prove something to somebody. His mom, the vaudeville performer Belle MontroseMaybe.

His pathetic arrogance (the only word for it) made for one of his contradictions. One of the most unapologetically articulate and intelligent people in show business, he delighted in racking up great numbers of self-penned compositions as if (which he surely didn’t believe) quantity were as important as quality in the production of art objects. He claimed to have written 14,000 songs, for example. Most of us would rather settle (I should think) for having written 100 songs as good as Cole Porter’s. Can you name any of Allen’s songs? (Yes, show biz buffs can name ONE. “This Could Be The Start of Something”. Any others?) Ditto the dozens and dozens of books he churned out (by dictation), which were mostly either non-fiction or mystery novels (“starring” himself and his wife Jayne Meadows). I’ve read a few of his “serious” books; to be charitable, they aren’t reflecting any glory on the libraries that stock them. They consist mostly of self-important pontifications and rambling digressions. In short, they are not as smart as he was. Numbers of books only count when you’re George Bernard Shaw. Otherwise Mickey Spillane would be Shakespeare.

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Yet, when he was putting together tv shows, that brain of his was a glorious thing. He was a champion of real serious (be bop) jazz, of the Beats (he famously played along with Jack Kerouac reciting On the Road in 1959), of cutting edge comedians like Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May. Then (another contradiction), in his last years, he turned against freedom of speech, advocating censorship, or self-censorship of people like Howard Stern and several rap groups. His love of wild and crazy music stopped at jazz. He could never reconcile himself to rock and roll and what came after.

That love of jazz is part of another contradiction, a cultural one. Allen was steeped in the music of African America — he played jazz piano and clarinet, played jazz records as a d.j. when he was starting out, played with black musicians and booked them for his show constantly. And yet, he was OH so very white. Confidentially (he said in public) it’s one of the reasons I’ve always adored him and made him a role model. He was a champion of civil rights and black culture (and even an exponent of it) yet he was still, unavoidably, himself. Was there ever anyone whiter? Well, there are some — but Allen’s saving grace is that he is very funny. Funny in a nerd way, but undeniably funny and loveable. You almost want to protect him. (It’s a quality he shared with Tony Randall and Shelly Long). This is what keeps him from being unbearably, cringe-inducingly caucasian like Gary Owens, Robert Preston, Bob Eubanks, or almost any game show host for that matter.

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But of course, you must realize that buried beneath that persona, in the true vaudeville tradition, was a good deal of “color”. Belle Montrose’s real last name was Donohue. When Allen’s father Billy, also a vaudeville performer died, Steve was raised by his single mom and her Irish Catholic family (including a drunken uncle), dirt poor, on the South Side of Chicago. Oh, I can forgive any amount of arrogance in light of that.

 

To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Coleman Hawkins, After Midnight

Posted in African American Interest, Be Bop, Music with tags , , on November 21, 2012 by travsd

 

Today is the birthday of jazz tenor saxophonist and bebop pioneer Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969). Given the subject matter, I thought I’d hold this post for the night owls. Have a great Holiday tomorrow!

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