Bessie

Bessie Smith. The Empress of the Blues. A hard-drinking, hot-tempered, stubborn, fascinating, warm woman, and a singer with a voice that sounded like she knew every sorrow in the world but decided to celebrate life anyway. A biopic of this icon is long overdue and last year HBO released Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, which covers Smith’s life from her childhood in Chattanooga in the 1900s, to just before her death in 1937 in a car accident.

Bessie adheres to the Hollywood biopic formula (including the ‘based on an incredible true story’ line in the trailer): from her poverty stricken early days raised by her sister Viola, to the hubris of the young performer overshadowing Ma Rainey, the fame and adoration, then the inevitable isolation and downward spiral.

There’s a great article on Slate by Laura Bradley on the accuracy of the film, fact versus fiction, and there are some surprises, such as the fact that Bessie really did chase the KKK away from one of her gigs, and that she was stabbed by a man she had punched for coming on to one of her girlfriends. But the film’s downfall is that it leans towards scandal and sensationalism, especially towards the end, making it feel more like a Lifetime movie than an HBO one.

The performances in Bessie make it worth watching. Mo’Nique plays Ma Rainey, a renowned blueswoman, and Bessie’s mentor and friend. Michael K. Williams is Bessie’s husband Jack Gee, a passionate man who loves her but who is volatile and manipulative. The cinematography is also gorgeous, and I adored the costume design by Michael T. Boyd, coveting every beaded flapper dress and satin chemise.

The film was twenty-two years in the making and Queen Latifah was always the first choice for the lead role so she had ample time to get under Bessie’s skin. Given that Bessie was singing during the 20s and 30s, all we have left are low-quality recordings, some photos and various biographies. From this Latifah manages to create a magnetising and complex character. Latifah recorded her own vocals for the film and she beautifully captures the power and emotion of Bessie’s voice. Latifah won the Screen Actor’s Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie and the film won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.

Bessie Smith has been claimed as a major influence by artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson and Norah Jones, and Janis Joplin was such a fan that she paid for Bessie’s tombstone after her grave had gone unmarked for thirty-three years. If you want to check out the woman herself have a listen here, and watch her only film performance here, in St. Louis Blues. Enjoy!

 

 

Even jazz musicians do Christmas tunes

I have posted before about some of my favourite Christmas songs, from the sublime to the ridiculous. As well as the classics, my seasonal playlist includes some jazz be-bop tunes that might not be on your radar, so here are three of my favourites in case you feel like expanding your Christmas playlist. Enjoy!

Firstly Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong doing ‘Jingle Bells’:

 

 

Secondly, Bill Evans playing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’:

 

 

And lastly, Charlie Parker playing ‘White Christmas’:

 

 

Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too – Charles Mingus

I have already blogged about my Halloween DJ playlist but one of the creepiest tunes I’ve ever heard is not a tune anyone is ever going to play at a Halloween gig in Whelan’s! It comes from jazz legend Charles Mingus, a double-bass player, composer and bandleader who combined elements of be-bop, gospel and blues to create an influential sound.

The track is called ‘Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too’ and it comes from the album Let My Children Hear Music. The beginning of the track contains weird soundtrack effects, discords and a wailing trumpet and then heads into more familiar swinging big band territory before giving in to a chaotic horn section that sometimes reprises a vaudevillian circus theme and then descends into madness. It’s both disquieting and hilarious.

Of course there’s no video for the track as it was released in 1972 but here’s the original tune and if you’re creative you can make your own visuals to accompany it!

Traps The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich – Mel Tormé

Blame Whiplash. Blame my unfulfilled ambition to play drums. Blame whatever you want, but I don’t care, yet again I’m going to rhapsodise about Buddy Rich. If I could be anybody else, ANYBODY who ever lived, it would be Buddy Rich. But even if I had all the drum lessons in the world I could never be in the same ballpark as Buddy; people like him are born not taught. He was the exception, the rare genius, the once in a century talent, the James Joyce of drumming. Buddy Rich just had it. From birth.

Buddy was born to parents who were vaudeville performers and his father noticed that aged just one the infant could keep time. Sensing a business opportunity, he put Buddy onstage at eighteen months old, billed as ‘Traps The Drum Wonder’. In common with many child stars, Buddy always felt that he had been robbed of his childhood and felt a lifelong insecurity about his complete lack of formal education.

Buddy transitioned from child star to jazz drummer, taking the drum chair in the Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey bands, and quickly made a name for himself as a musician who could really swing. In Dorsey’s band he met Frank Sinatra, who went on to financially back Rich’s first band in 1946. Despite the fact that he famously never practised, Buddy became one of the best (if not the best) drummers of his generation; he had unparalleled technique and speed, an innate sense of perfect time, he knew when to take centre stage and when to pull back to allow a soloist room to play, and his energy and originality could turn a lacklustre band into a band that really cooked. (And given that he’d been playing professionally since the age of eighteen months and gigged several times a week he really didn’t need to practise, he just did it!)

But Buddy had a dark side. He was cantankerous, harsh, a bully even, and it all came to light when the audio tapes of him berating his band were publicised. Buddy had described himself as a ‘short-tempered man’ (a phrase which tends to understate things just a wee bit) and he did not suffer mediocrity or laziness at all, which when you consider his talent is understandable. His name was on the band, he was up there ‘working my balls off’, he was world-class, and if a member of the band didn’t come up to scratch, he was (in my mind) right to call them on it. Yes, he could be mean but he was the best drummer in the world! Play accordingly, assholes!

I rarely read biographies these days but I’m so fascinated by Buddy Rich that when I saw this book on Amazon, it went straight into my basket. The author Mel Tormé was a renowned jazz singer and a lifelong friend of Rich, and so he has a thorough knowledge of his subject, both as a musician and a man. The book is warm in tone but doesn’t shy away from painting an honest portrait of its subject. Tormé has some great anecdotes to share, both from Buddy himself and the many musicians he worked with, and he also analyses Rich’s playing in an erudite way. For any drummers out there who are fascinated by the technicalities of Rich’s playing, there are some great sections in the back of the book dealing with Rich’s preferred equipment and playing techniques.

If you know nothing about Rich then (aside from stocking up on his albums) check out this great Michael Parkinson interview. Buddy is aged sixty-nine and it was his last interview before his death in April 1987. Parkinson is the consummate interviewer, asking insightful questions which he allows the interviewee to answer fully, no ego, no interrupting. He’s a true facilitator and draws out his subject expertly.

Buddy gives his opinion on many things from rock music, (he doesn’t really rate it, which to me is unsurprising given that he’s technically and creatively far beyond the ability of most rock drummers), the US government’s attitude to jazz and the ‘high arts’, the dedication that jazz takes from both the player and the listener, and his often contentious relationship with Frank Sinatra. He recounts it all with unflinching honesty (listen to his anecdote about Dusty Springfield!), and his great sense of humour. Enjoy!

Whiplash

‘I can’t think of one musician who ever really paid any attention to anybody standing in front of the band with a baton.’ 

Buddy Rich interviewed by Larry King.

I saw a trailer for Whiplash with my dad when I was in New York last October and was enthralled. We tried to see it while we were there but it only had a small release and we couldn’t find it anywhere. So when it came out last weekend, we were at the lunchtime showing in the Lighthouse, coffees in hand, very excited.

It’s so rare and wonderful when a film exceeds your expectations and Whiplash is one of those films. Set in New York, it stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a nineteen-year-old drummer in his first year at Schaffer Music School, one of America’s most prestigious music conservatories. Andrew idolises Buddy Rich and dreams of eventually being in the pantheon of great jazz drummers.

His aspirations are realised when he is accepted into the Studio Band conducted by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). In an early scene, Fletcher encourages Neiman, faking a sense of patience and camaraderie, before hitting him and reducing him to tears in front of the band, leaving the audience feeing like they’re watching Full Metal Drummer. It’s the beginning of a destructive pattern intended to break Neiman’s spirit and motivate him to become the best he can be.

Dad was the perfect cinema partner for this film. He started playing jazz professionally in his teens in 1960s Belfast. Through his gigs and music around the house, I came to love jazz, and that helped me to appreciate certain aspects of the film. When Fletcher fires a player for being out of tune, I knew the player wasn’t, but Fletcher’s point was that if the player didn’t know whether he was out of tune then he had no business being in a jazz orchestra. Fair point, harshly made. And every time Fletcher calls out Neiman, saying he’s dragging or rushing, in each case he’s right. Fletcher may be a bully, a completely unsympathetic character, but he’s an excellent judge of musical ability and technique. And Neiman isn’t flawless either; he sleeps through his call time, loses sheet music during a competition. Not the behaviour of a fully committed student.

All that being said, you don’t need an obsessive interest in the drums or any knowledge of jazz to appreciate this film. The relationship between Fletcher and Neiman is complex and takes many turns from outright abuse to grudging acceptance yet remains mostly believable, and is compelling enough to draw in any cinema fan. If you’ve ever been passionate about something, if you’ve ever been competitive, you’ll relate in some way to Neiman’s ambition and Fletcher’s insistence on excellence.

Each member of the film brings their own element of musical expertise. JK Simmons has a music degree and studied conducting. Miles Teller has been a self-taught rock drummer since he was sixteen. Director Damien Chazelle drew on his own experiences in a jazz orchestra to conceive, write and direct the film. And most of members of the two orchestras in the film are professional musicians. (And a special shout-out to the editor, Tom Cross, who cut the last drum solo so expertly that even if you were hunting for flaws they’re hard to find.)

This perfect storm of creativity and experience is evident throughout. It’s a fully realised story, well-written, authentic, inspirational, challenging. Although Whiplash is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, I reckon it’s unlikely that a niche film like this will win. (I’d love to be proved wrong.) However not only will this movie make it onto my top ten list for 2015, I think it will stand the test of time and have a place in my favourite films list from now on.

The Beat Goes On – Buddy and Cathy Rich

Everyone knows the Sonny and Cher version of ‘The Beat Goes On’ written by Sonny Bono. I have an updated lounge version of the track by The All Seeing I, featuring a vocalist that I didn’t know and I sometimes play it at gigs. I bought a new Buddy Rich album recently (for more information on my obsession with Buddy Rich click here) and saw there was a version of ‘The Beat Goes On’. I listened to it and found out who the unknown singer is; it’s Cathy Rich, Buddy’s daughter.

What’s remarkable is that Cathy Rich was only twelve years old when this was recorded in 1967. She obviously inherited some of her dad’s considerable musical talent! This video isn’t the best quality but when the camera focusses on a close-up of her you can see how young she was.

Beware of Mr. Baker

We all know how much I love drummers and so while browsing on Netflix recently I was delighted to find a documentary on rock legend Ginger Baker. Directed by Jay Bulger, Beware of Mr. Baker first premiered in 2012 at the SXSW Film Festival and went on release in May of last year. Bulger spent three months living with Baker in South Africa researching an article for Rolling Stone. The article and the numerous hours of interviews he captured on film became the premise for Beware of Mr. Baker.

Ginger Baker is most well-known for being the drummer with legendary rock act Cream, whose members also included Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. Cream lasted for less than two years (1966-1968), in part due to Bruce and Baker’s volatile relationship, but they were hugely influential. Baker also worked with rock acts Graham Bond Organisation and Blind Faith, but he always considered himself a jazz drummer and one who was very influenced by the rhythms in African drumming.

In later years he worked closely with Fela Kuti and also challenged jazz masters Art Blakey and Elvin Jones to drum battles. (It has to be mentioned however, that many jazz drummers didn’t rate Baker: Elvin Jones said, “Nothin’ happenin. Cat’s got delusions of grandeur with no grounds. They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass.”; and Buddy Rich is claimed to have said, “Ginger Baker challenging me is like a paraplegic challenging Jack Nicklaus to a round of golf.”)

The documentary covers Baker’s life from his birth in 1939 in Lewisham in London up to 2010 and it is most definitely not hagiography. While his talent and innovation are the focus, the film doesn’t shy away from his feuds with other musicians, his violent temper and fights, his drug use, and his relationships with family (he’s on his fourth wife and has three kids from his first marriage), showing Baker as the irascible, antisocial, violent, and generally dislikable character that he is.

In fact the first scene is of Baker fighting with Bulger and beating him on his face with a steel cane. He also beat Jack Bruce and pulled a knife on him, gave his fifteen-year-old son a line of coke, and ran off with his daughter’s eighteen-year-old friend: just a small sample of the incidents that contribute to his reputation. The only things that seem to bring out his softer side are music and animals. He cries when describing his friendships with his heroes like Max Roach and when he hears African musicians drumming in Nigeria. He speaks more kindly to his horses than he does to any human being and seems to be closer to his dogs than to his children.

Beware of Mr. Baker is comprehensively researched and includes interviews not only with Baker’s family and colleagues (unsurprisingly he doesn’t have many friends), but also with other drummers such as Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland and Charlie Watts, as well as numerous people he knew in Africa, and even the last people to interview him on radio in America. I particularly loved the animation provided by David Bell and Joe Scarpulla which adds a visual energy to the film that perfectly compliments Baker’s drumming.

While you won’t come away filled with sentimental good feeling for its subject, Beware of Mr. Baker is certainly an interesting and entertaining film.

Paris Blues

Last week myself and my Dad watched a classic movie; Paris Blues starring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier. The movie is set in Paris and is the story of Ram Bowen (Paul Newman), an American trombone player gaining a reputation on the Paris jazz scene and his friend Eddie Cook (Sidney Poitier), a fellow expatriate who plays saxophone in the same band. The two musicians run into two young American women holidaying in Paris for a fortnight – Connie Lampson (Diahann Carroll) and Lillian Corning (Joanne Woodward) – and the foursome divide into two couples who fall in love.

The film contrasts the accepting attitudes of the French to different races with the racism in the United States at the time. Eddie loves Paris as he feels free and he doesn’t have to take orders from anyone – back in the US he would struggle to find the same level of professional and personal freedom. Ram loves the music scene in Paris and is trying to carve out a career not just as a musician but a composer too. The two men find their beliefs challenged by Connie and Lillian and they struggle to reconcile their growing romantic feelings with their professional dreams.

Duke Ellington composed the score for the film and it is amazing throughout, imbuing the film with a magic that is missing from many contemporary soundtracks. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong not only has a role in the film but also guests on two tunes on the soundtrack with the Duke Ellington band.

Of course I adore Paul Newman, not just as one of the handsomest men ever to grace the screen but also for his ease and naturalness as an actor. It was particularly lovely to see the onscreen chemistry between him and his real life wife Joanne Woodward – in certain scenes when they laugh together it gives a glimpse into the dynamic that sustained their fifty year long marriage.

My Dad saw the movie when it first came out in 1961 and it had particular resonance for him as he was a young jazz musician at the time. He astutely made the point that (without giving the plot away) both Ram and Eddie rise to their own individual challenges at the end of the film. I couldn’t find an embeddable trailer for the movie but you can watch it here. It’s well worth catching this film for the evocation of an exciting time in music.

Inspiration from Mr Buddy Rich

And it’s back to my drummer obsession. The year may change but some things stay the same!

On Boxing Day, I got sucked into a YouTube wormhole and ended up looking at videos of Buddy Rich for hours. I think it can be a great source of inspiration to watch someone who is at the top of their game, somone who is a master at what they do. It gets me fired up and champing at the bit to challenge myself as a writer.

Buddy Rich had it all; technique, speed, groove, power and originality. It’s rare to find all of those qualities in one musician and he was rightfully billed in his lifetime as “The World’s Greatest Drummer”.  His career started in vaudeville at the tender age of eighteen months old, when most children are learning to walk, and he became a child star, performing as a band leader by age 11. He went on to play drums with Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey before forming his own band with Frank Sinatra’s finanical backing. Buddy also worked as a session player with big names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Louis Armstrong.

Listen to Buddy for a while and every other drummer sounds sloppy by comparison. His timing was impeccable, his solos were inventive and he always had great swing and groove. There are few people in the world who find what they are truly born to do and who become the best at it; Buddy was one of those lucky people.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good a writer as Buddy was a drummer, but it’s worth aiming for.

 

Firstly:

 

 

Secondly:

 

 

 

And finally:

 

 

FUBAR in JJ Smyths

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the band with the best name ever! FUBAR is a military term for Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. When I told my Dad about it he immediately seized on it as the perfect name for his new jazz group! FUBAR consists of Tommy Halferty on guitar, Dave Redmond on bass and Keith Donald on clarinet. They are playing in Dublin jazz venue JJ Smyth’s for the last two Sundays in November and will welcome guests Fiachra Trench on piano on 21st and Desi Reynolds on drums on 28th.

Keith remarks, “It was 1963 when I last gigged on clarinet, in Sammy Houston’s Jazz Club in Belfast. I’ve earned a living since then with the sax and it’s a huge but enjoyable challenge to try and master the clarinet again!” “Keith and I were in jazz groups together in the ’70s and ’80s – it’s great to spark off each other again. And the clarinet and guitar have always sounded good down through the years” says Tommy.

I’ll definitely be heading down for the next couple of Sundays so come down, be sociable and listen to some lovely jazz to round off your week.