Tuesday, January 8, 2019

JD's History/Music Corner: Jim Reeves, Charles Mingus, Early Duke Ellington

As with my Streaming Nonsense posts, I posted a whole bunch of historical musicial bios/analyses on G+ and I'm pulling them here.Sorry I can't guarantee the sales listed will still be good (though shockingly, many of them still are.)

Let's talk about Jim Reeves!

Reeves, a global celebrity, is a transitional figure in country music who connects the "white country" music of the 20s to the "Nashville sound" that currently dominates broadcast country music, melding country and pop influences. (Seeing the "Nashville sound" as a plague on the form, I'm ambivalent-to-hostile about Reeves' legacy, but I can't discount his incredible talent and body of work.)

Reeves was born in 1923 in Galloway, Texas, the youngest of eight children. He got a baseball scholarship to the University of Texas, but quit after six weeks to work in the shipyards in Houston. He then played semi-professional baseball for several years, and as World War 2 drained the leagues of talent, he signed with the Lynchburg Cardinals, a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals as a relief pitcher. After bouncing around to the Natchez Giants, the Alexandria Aces, the Marshall Comets, and the Henderson Oilers, he suffered a shoulder strain injury and his baseball career was over. (Reeves was classified as 4-F due to a heart condition and could not be drafted into the military.) He was married in 1947.

Eventually Reeves got a job as a radio announcer in small stations throughout the South. Although he took a run at recording, and even became part of Moon Mullican's band in this time frame, he didn't achieve much success. In Shreveport, Louisiana in 1954, he was meant to announce a live performance of Sleepy LaBeef (some say Hank Williams) and when that performer was late, he was asked to sing. It's widely said this performance was the one that launched his career. His first album came in 1955, with Abbott Records, which was collapsing even as Reeves was rising, charting three number one hits in a year, including "I Love You", "Mexican Joe" and "Bimbo". Reeves signed a 10 year recording contract with RCA Victor that year.

He also appeared on the country variety television show Ozark Jubilee that year, and was asked back as a fill-in host in 1958. This was the first partnership between Reeves and television, where he cannily saw the benefit of television exposure.

When Reeves started performing, the country style of his region was more associated with the western swing of Jimmie Rodgers, which included a high volume of singing (suited for outdoor performances or un-amplified venues), but when he moved to a more produced sound, he (against the protest of the label but with the support of RCA country super-producer Chet Atkins) lowered his singing pitch and brought his lips almost in to touch the microphone, singing in a more "crooner" style, which attracted pop success almost instantly, in 1957 when he sang "Four Walls" which was not only number 1 on the country charts but number 11 on the pop charts as well. Country music was one of the first genres to be segmented in radio production, and Reeves saw that as leaving money on the table. By the time 1960 rolled around, Reeves was a national sensation and was prepared to go global, travelling to South Africa (where he recorded an album in Afrikaans), Ireland (where he recorded two Irish ballads that hit the top 10 in the pop charts there), England and Norway.

Plenty of artists even in the 60s saw performing in South Africa as a bridge too far, and to do so explicitly in the language of the oppressive state was a political statement that was unmistakable, bolstering the conservative population. Reeves, like many white country artists, recorded some novelty songs (like "Mexican Joe", above) that exploited damaging racial stereotypes for laughs. Today, though, as country music plummets down a greased sluice of dad rock and resentment, Reeves' most enduring fans are in the Caribbean, Africa, Sri Lanka and India. The island of St. Lucia has famously adopted Reeves as one of their own and has a thriving "classic" country music industry that continues to be influenced by Reeves. He's on the radio in Jamaica. In Nigeria you can hear him in shops and on buses. In India ascetics ask for his rendition of hymns to be played at their funerals. Whatever his own feelings and actions might have been during the racial upheavals of the 1950s and early 60s, the emotions expressed in his music and his style has made him beloved in incredibly diverse cultures across the world.

Reeves and his manager died when he crashed his plane in stormy weather in 1964. He was only 40 years old. His widow would continue to release recordings and Atkins and others would resample and reuse Reeves recordings for years, including a major hit as late as 1980 where he was (gruesomely, IMO) remixed to have a "duet" with also deceased country singer Patsy Cline (who also died in a plane crash). He charted after his death numerous times, including "Distant Drums" which was number 1 in the UK in 1966 (beating "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yellow Submarine")

You can buy 2 Jim Reeves albums on Amazon Music for $4 today. https://goo.gl/FpNbQK

My favorite Jim Reeves song is one of his earliest "crooner" hits, "He'll Have To Go". It's short and sweet and gives you the best feeling for how his voice and style sounded.


Let's talk about Charles Mingus!

Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona in 1922, about 90 minutes south of where I'm sitting, right on the border with Mexico, only a few years after the border skirmishes that brought his father, a sergeant, to the area. His family spent his youth in Watts, California, and although he was inspired by classical music, his education wasn't sufficient to teach him to read music quickly enough to join the youth orchaestras of the time. In high school he switched from the cello to the double bass, and began writing compositions himself, influenced both by jazz and classical music. At a young age he was recognized as a bass prodigy - he toured with Louis Armstrong in 1943 and was part of some of the biggest swing and jazz bands of the era, including Russel Jacquet, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington, but began very quickly to establish himself as a temperamental performer who clashed with fellow musicians and composers with sometimes unpredictable results. Ellington, for example, fired him after an on-stage fight with Juan Tizol.

He was inspired by his collaborations with Charlie Parker, but seethed with contempt for those he considered unworthy imitators. He even named a song If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There'd Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats. In 1952, Mingus, along with Max Roach, founded Debut Records so that he could conduct his music career the way he wanted, and elevate musicians he considered underexposed. Although he did his best, Debut's biggest and most important albums were Mingus' own. The greatest decade in one of jazz's greatest careers came in this period, including Pithecanthopus Erectus in 1956 and Ah Um in 1959, all technically "indie" albums.

In the 1960s, Mingus began to experiment with more improvisational material, as the New York scene began to embrace fully free-form performances. He experienced Ornette Coleman's dramatic and controversial freeform 1960 performance and although he critiqued it, he immediately created a quartet mimicking Coleman's to work in that freeform space.

Mingus' temper was as bad as ever. In 1962, he punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in his mouth so hard that it broke a tooth and ruined his ability to play the trombone for years. In a stream of consciousness autobiography written around that time he claimed to have been married to two women at once - we know he was married to at least five women in his life. He described abuse at the hands of his father, ejection from white musicians' unions. Mingus struggled with mental illness, including depression, at one point committing himself to Bellvue Hospital. He claimed they recommended lobotomization.

By the mid-1970s, Mingus was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease and could no longer play the bass. He still continued to work on compositions as long as he could. He died in 1979. He was 56. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges.

Mingus became one of the central figures in jazz almost solely on the strength of his genius composition and unmatchable performances, and his influence can't be overstated.


Let's Talk About...Very Early Duke Ellington!

Content Warning: This post contains some analysis of a "deep cut" old-timey racial slur.

Duke Ellington is one of the most important figures in American music history, but I think some of his most important contributions occurred extremely early in his career, before his biggest hits, his Prohibition-era Cotton Club gig, or his relentless, cutting-edge jazz innovation. He was only 26 when he contributed four songs to Chocolate Kiddies, an African-American revue which toured Europe, including the song below, "The Jig Walk". Although the Charleston had been created 2 years previous, "The Jig Walk" uses many of Ellington's signature innovations to liven it up even more, including chord progressions which are more associated today with the 1930s than the 1920s. Ellington's songs were the highlight of the revue, and "The Jig Walk" was the most long-lasting of the global hits that came about as a result of the revue. It was re-recorded over a dozen times in only a few short years (though conflicts over who owned the rights to the song - the show's many producers, Ellington, or the show itself meant Ellington, back in the states, saw none of the profit.)

Here's the lyrics:

"There's a funny twisting step, makes others a jokeAll you steppers gather round and make your footsies smokeYou don't need no big brass bandDon't need no song.Everybody put your hands and get going strong.Jig Walk, come on and do the Jig WalkAnd do a little Charleston, Charleston, CharlestonWith a little pat-de-pat pat-de-patJig Walk, come on and make your funny feet talk.And when you do the Charleston you'll start them to raveShow these kind folk New York's dancing crazeIt has got that Big Broadway ablazeJig Walk"
It's easy to look at the lyrics and say "well, Ellington was just using the language of the day and what you'd expect from a revue called 'Chocolate' when he said the Charleston was a 'jig walk'" but that overlooks a big piece of the puzzle. Black vaudevillians who preceded the jazz explosion had created their own nationwide black vernacular since they traveled the country, even to highly segregated and hostile regions otherwise isolated from any kind of national black culture. W.C. Handy explained when describing the creation of his 1913 "Jogo Blues":

"Whenever these fellows wanted to say something to one another - not intended for outside ears - they used words invented by themselves for this purpose. Sometimes they simply attached new meanings to familiar words. For example, a white person was always 'ofay', a Negro 'jigwawk'. The terms, as pliable as silk, were also extended to cover fine distinctions. Thus, if the girl you were 'sparking' at the moment was light colored, you might describe her as 'ofay jigwawk'. If she was the stovepipe variety, you might have to hear her called a 'jig-wawk-jigwawk'."

Ellington was unquestionably aware of this theatrical slang, and by calling his Charleston creation "The Jig Walk" he claimed the worldwide dance step as the property of and part of the identity of black America, and gave a wink to those who knew the slang - a wink that wouldn't be detected by those who only knew the slur. It was a song about how African-American dance and music had a nationwide impact, presented in a way that would have worldwide impact. The choice to sing "The Jig Walk" connected the vaudeville language of the previous decades (1890s-1910s) to the quintessentially modern dance rhythms of the Charleston, and the musical innovations pointed the way into the future of jazz and pop dance culture. Listening to it is listening to a swinging door between the present and past.

Chocolate Kiddies was a smash hit throughout Europe....although in Germany, reception was chilly when German audiences thought they were from French colonial Africa. (In 1925, France had sent a black regiment into Bavaria hoping to intimidate the Germans into paying their war debt.) After learning they were from America, German audiences warmed up to the show, but dark clouds were on the horizon. Sam Wooding, orchestra leader, described one incident this way:

Sam was in the bar of a hotel run by an old Jewish couple. He saw one of the other performers walk over and talk to the woman behind the bar, one of the owners. There were two German men there who were enraged by this and slapped the Jewish woman - the other picked up glasses off the bar and smashed them before leaving. When Sam and the other performers ran over to the woman, she said the angry men were demanding to know what right the woman had to have this hotel and demanding "why didn't you get out of Germany". Here's Wooding, describing the incident to Josephine Baker years later:

"Most of the men only wished they had understood enough German so they could have caught the bastards before they slapped this old lady. Well, we didn't have long to wait. A couple of days later, in walks six of these same guys to one of the rooms for our private party. They were drunk. Chick Horsey and Bobby Martin from my band were in one of these rooms eating with a couple of chorus girls and these Germans came into the room. Chick told the girls to get lost and after they left, one of the Germans locked the door, walked over and said something in German, and his friends laughed.
But Chick Horsey was a master at gang fighting. He smashed this German and the German went down like a bull in a slaughterhouse, blood flying everywhere. Bobby picked him up and threw him out the window - it was on the ground floor - and from then on, as Chick would smash these bastards, Bobby would throw them out the window. Chick said that every time he socked one of those guys he saw the German that slapped that poor Jewish woman and he thought of how some of the white Southerners treated black men and women in America, and this gave him strength. 
It seemed like a miracle. We didn't know Chick and Bobby was that good. Well, the Germans never came back."
Now that's a funny twisting step that will make others a joke. Here's a recording from a Jewish bandleader in 1926 (no recordings of the Chocolate Kiddies cast were made.) Hope you have a good new year and............a good day.