Archive for the Jazz (miscellaneous) Category

R. I. P. Nat Hentoff

Posted in Comedy, CULTURE & POLITICS, Jazz (miscellaneous), Jews/ Show Biz, ME, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2017 by travsd

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Boy! How’s this for symbolic timing? The great journalist Nat Hentoff has passed away at age 91. We need as many men and women like him as we can get at the present moment; and yet I can well understand him, after a 70+ year career, looking at the result of the last election and the challenges ahead, despairing at the impact of his life’s work and refusing to go another step.

When I moved to this city 30 years ago, he was the Great Lion of the Village VoiceI read him weekly there, and pored over a few of his many non-fiction books. His influence on me ended up being enormous. There is no doubt, NO DOUBT in my mind, that my strong reverence for the U.S. Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular, is a result of Hentoff’s hammering that message home in his writing, week after week after week, for decades. It’s central to who I am. Though I never met him, he imparted that wisdom to me, to such an extent that I find myself bewildered that everyone doesn’t possess the same understanding of the document’s frailty and preciousness. It is our only bulwark against tyranny; it has always been under assault even in the best of times; and given the rhetoric of our President-elect, one can only imagine that it about to be gutted and trampled with unprecedented fury. I’m glad to know Nat Hentoff won’t be around to see what’s going to happen to his beloved Constitution.

Hand in hand with his near-worship of our Founding Document was Hentoff’s deep, profound appreciation for America’s national music, jazz. He was of the generation that went for bebop and musicians like Coltrane, Mingus and Roach. In fact, Hentoff may have been our best known jazz critic, and I have always been fascinated by the pairing, the relationship between his music writing and his political writing. Among its myriad and assorted pleasures, jazz was for Hentoff a metaphor for America’s political ideals. Jazz and related improvisational forms (blues, soul, gospel, rock, hip hop) is based on an aesthetic of freedom, but freedom with rules. The musicians need to play together; the solos can be quite far out, but the players always return to the theme and give their bandmates a chance to take their own solos. Anarchy isn’t the point; freedom is. Musical anarchy sounds terrible. (It’s safe to say my making a political metaphor of vaudeville in No Applause was ultimately inspired by Hentoff doing the same thing with jazz.)

The other great theme of Hentoff’s life was education, and he was always very vocal about how he himself was a product of his teachers and mentors. Though he was an atheist himself, it is instructive to me the extent to which he was influenced by two great world religions, Judaism and Catholicism. A Jew himself, he was educated at Boston Latin, where many of his teachers were Catholic. One of his heroes was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The area in American politics where Jews have made the biggest impact has been in the courts, which Hentoff believed to be an extension of the great tradition of Talmudic interpretation and disputation. In our system, we argue it out and come to consensus. We don’t give and follow orders from a single individual at the top. At least, that’s the way it has always been.

Some of my readers will find the Catholic influence less fortunate, but to my mind it makes Hentoff even more interesting and valuable and unique and worth emulating, not for the beliefs themselves but because he could not be put in a box. From the Catholics came his absolute reverence for human life, which for him meant 100% opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia, war, torture, and, yes, abortion. I’m not here to defend or argue the latter stance (with which I happen to disagree), but it does make him among the most anomalous abortion opponents ever, an atheist Jew from the Northeast, a strange bedfellow indeed amongst all the Bible thumpers.

This combination made Hentoff among our foremost libertarians, and one equally at home (and not at home) among the left and right. This is the kind of independent thinker I cherish a great deal; there are so bloody few of them.

Another take away from Boston Latin — that excellent classical education made Hentoff a terrific writer. There is so much to be said for this. Unlike many of my favorite critics, I’m not sure I would ever call Hentoff a “talent” or a “wit”. He wasn’t, for example, funny, which makes him one of the few writers I love about whom that can be said. I would call him a “thinker”, someone whose thoughts and ideas were unique and logical and original and passionate. He was less about the words themselves than about expressing his thoughts as clearly as he could. His education allowed him to do that. This meant that, despite the fact that he wasn’t a flashy, poetic, memorable wordsmith, that I still read him all the time for the sake of what he had to say alone. And this meant that I was introduced to tons of subjects I might never have otherwise encountered. The greatest example I can think of is the life and work of independent journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone.  Stone died in 1989; Hentoff eulogized him at the time, and wrote about his example on many other occasions. Stone was an American hero, a guy with a mission to uncover and communicate the truth, whatever the cost to himself, all day, every day, until the day he died. Hentoff’s admiration for such characters was always infectious.

Someone else I associate with Hentoff is Lenny Bruce. They had so much in common: Jews born in the twenties, verbal guys, whose work embodied the twin themes of jazz and the First Amendment. They knew each other of course. I just found this great clip of the two of them in conservation shortly before Bruce died in 1966, framed with later commentary, circa 1972. Watch it here. Nat Hentoff interviewing Lenny Bruce; that’s pretty much everything. Neither of them believed in heaven, but I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, they’re both there anyway.

Eva Shirley: Prima Donna of Vaudeville

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Jazz (miscellaneous), Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on January 24, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Eva Shirley (Eva Schainbaum, 1891-1982). Shirley began her singing career on the Lower East Side where she was born, built her own orchestra which played everything from jazz to grand opera, and took her act all the way to the Palace. Her heyday was the teens and twenties. A  Variety piece from 1915 says she stopped the show twice at Hammerstein’s that week, and called her “one of the best prima donnas in vaudeville”. In 1919 she played the Palace with “Her Jazz Band” (a five piece outfit); by 1924 it had swelled to the “Ten Famous Players of Rhythm.” The California Ramblers (the band that was to give the world Red Nichols and the Dorsey Brothers) also backed her up during the 1920s (one of their first engagements). In 1924 she appeared in Ed Wynn’s Grab Bag, singing the Paul Whiteman song “When the One You Love Loves You”. After the twenties, the trail grows cold though; I have found no reference to live performing, radio, film or television — or marriage, the usual reason for not doing all of the above. And yet she lived another 50+ years!

To find out more about  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 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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Amanda Randolph: Mistress of Every Medium

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jazz (miscellaneous), Movies, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2013 by travsd
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Randolph in a scene from the 1936 comedy short “The Black Network”

Today is the birthday of Amanda Randolph (1896-1967), a theatrical Renaissance woman and pioneer on many fronts. Originally from Kentucky, her professional career began as a teenager playing piano and organ in Cleveland, OH theatres. She is the only known African American woman to have recorded piano rolls (at least in the original era when people were making piano rolls.) Billed as Mandy Randolph, she also wrote several songs and cut several record albums in the early 1920s.

Throughout the twenties and early 30s she worked in black vaudeville and also in several African American musicals, including two Sissle and Blake shows Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, as well as Lucky Sambo in which she appeared with Tim Moore. In 1936 (after taking a few years off to help her husband run his popular Harlem restaurant) she came back like gangbusters, appearing in films  and on radio, cutting new records, and performing live. In the early 40s, she also appeared in several Broadway shows, including The Male Animal, Harlem Cavalcade and The Willow and I. 

But it was in television that she was the true pioneer. She was the first African American to star in her own tv show, The Laytonson the DuMont Network in 1948. The show only ran two months and the network itself was short-lived, helping to explain why this fact is not better known. Randolph was also the first African American to have her own daytime program Amanda, which ran on Dumont from 1948 to 1949. Other tv shows she worked on included Amos ‘n’ AndyBeulah, and The Danny Thomas Show. Most of her earliest films were so-called race films, many produced and directed by independent African American entrepreneur Oscar Micheaux. Here’s one of ’em! Swing! made in 1938:

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. safe_image And please 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 chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

George Gershwin

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jazz (miscellaneous), Jews/ Show Biz, Music, Tin Pan Alley with tags , , , , on September 26, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great George Gershwin (1898-1937). His own career bypassed vaudeville entirely, going from being a teenage song plugger to composing songs for Broadway revues (although there were occasions when he accompanied Nora Bayes and Louise Dresser). His first hit was “Swannee” (1919) which Al Jolson sang in the show Sinbad, putting Gershwin on the map. For a full list of his Broadway shows see his IBDB entry here, although it’s important to note here that he wrote music for several editions of George White’s Scandals, and that he wrote the music for Porgy and Bess (1935) my favorite American stage musical (or, as he called it “folk opera”). His sole focus was music; he always worked with a lyricist (most often his brother Ira). His classical ambitions resulted in the still popular Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928). His last years were spent in Hollywood. Among his last efforts were the AstaireRogers vehicle Shall We Dance? (1936), for which he wrote the hauntingly beautiful “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and The Goldwyn Follies (1937), an interesting revue film featuring vaudevillians Bobby Clark, the Ritz Brothers, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McArthy, Phil Baker et al. A brain tumor stole Gershwin, one of America’s greatest treasures, away at age 38.

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

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