Friday, August 11, 2017

Pouring Body and Soul Into Singing The Blues

Back when Apple launched iTunes, a young friend of mine enthusiastically began to build his first playlist. As he described the new app's capabilities to me, I was more than a little startled to hear him describe a "symphony" as a "song." I tried to explain that a symphony is much longer and more complex in structure than a song. But as I quickly learned, as far as he was concerned, any digital file that contained music could be described as a song.

Digital playlists allow listeners to sort their preferences in ways that were never possible with LP recordings or compact discs (one can create a playlist with much greater ease than a mixtape). For some people, random samplings of music they have downloaded create the equivalent of a personalized radio station that can bring them the music they love whenever, wherever, and in whatever order they want to hear it.

As more and more people cut their ties to cable television packages they don't wish to purchase, new options for video on demand offer consumers more specialized choices than even Netflix, HBO, Fandor, and Hulu provide. In addition to the wealth of musical and theatre videos available on YouTube, one can stream Broadway shows at and search the Metropolitan Opera's vast database for recordings of live performances that are now available on Sirius XM, and Met Opera on Demand.

Quincy Jones recently announced plans to launch a streaming service called Qwest TV that will be the first of its kind dedicated to jazz music and jazz-inspired music forms. The plan is to offer original content including concerts, documentaries, interviews and archival footage so that subscribers can listen to such artists as Billie Holiday, Ravi Shankar, Esperanza Spalding, or Flying Lotus.

As Jones explains:
“At my core, I am a bebopper. Over the course of my 70-year career in music I have witnessed firsthand the power of jazz and all of its offspring (from the blues and R&B to pop, rock, and hip-hop) to tear down walls and bring the world together. I believe that 100 years from now, when people look back at the 20th century, they will view Bird, Miles, and Dizzy as our Mozarts, Bachs, Chopins, and Tchaikovskys. The dream of Qwest TV is to let jazz and music lovers everywhere experience these incredibly rich and diverse musical traditions in a whole new way. My hope is that Qwest TV will serve to carry forth and build on the great legacy that is jazz for many generations to come."
Entrepreneur and Kennedy Center Honoree Quincy Jones

What kind of archival footage might find its way to Qwest TV? One need only explore Mark Cantor's excellent Jazz on Film website to discover a wealth of musical numbers from Hollywood films. Who could resist any of these clips? (I must admit a special fondness for Slim Gaillard's rendition of "Dunkin' Bagels.")

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One of the documentaries screened at the 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is also a likely contender for inclusion in Qwest TV's lineup. Written and directed by Robert Philipson, Body and Soul: An American Bridge tells the story of how a great song was created by Jewish composer Johnny Green in 1929. Originally written for Gertrude Lawrence (the song premiered in London), Body and Soul was introduced on Broadway by Libby Holman on October 15, 1930 during the famous Jewish torch singer's appearance in a popular musical revue entitled Three's A Crowd (which ran for 271 performances at the Selwyn Theatre).

As one of the most recorded songs in the jazz repertoire (the original record label credits Johnny Green as "music director and schmuck"), Body and Soul has a unique place in history.
  • Although his recording didn't hit the charts until 1932, when Louis Armstrong recorded Body and Soul in October 1930 he became the first jazz musician to record Green's song.
  • In 1935, the song was recorded by the Benny Goodman trio with Gene Krupa on drums and Teddy Wilson (a phenomenally gifted African-American musician) on piano.
  • When the Benny Goodman trio performed in public in 1937, Wilson's presence effectively smashed the color barrier in jazz.

In his director's statement, Philipson writes:
"Why use the song Body and Soul to explore the multi-faceted relations between Blacks and Jews in American popular song? I could have chosen any number of songs by Jewish composers: “My Favorite Things” (Richard Rodgers), “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (Jerome Kern), “Cheek to Cheek” (Irving Berlin). They’ve all become much-recorded jazz standards, mostly performed by Black musicians. Body and Soul, however, is THE most recorded jazz standard of all time -- over 3,000 versions have been put to vinyl or tape. Knowing that, I began researching the history of the song, and lo! the modalities of Black/Jewish interrelations poured forth. 80% of the Great American Songbook can be attributed to Jewish composers, but while the biographies of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin are well known, little has been written about Johnny Green, who penned three or four well-known jazz standards in his twenties, then entered a fantastically successful career (five Oscars) as a composer and music supervisor for the movies."
"My own interest in Black/Jewish interrelations stems from my time as a Professor of Comparative Literature when I taught courses in African American literature. Being Jewish myself, I was continually struck by the parallels and differences of the two minorities in America and especially by the heightened awareness that the two peoples had of one another. So intrigued was I by this connection that I published a full-length comparison of Black and Jewish autobiographies entitled The Identity Question: Blacks and Jews in Europe and America."
Filmmaker and jazz historian Robert Philipson

Philipson's hour-long documentary highlights a lot of American musical history that is often overlooked. Here's the trailer

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The Custom Made Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of a new musical revue entitled Blues Is A Woman: From Ma Rainey to Bonnie Raitt. Written by lead singer Pamela Rose (who also created the music and lyrics for "Blues Is A Woman" and "Blues Is A Mighty River"), the show benefits from Scott Sorkin's projections as well as the dramaturgical input and creative direction of Jayne Wenger. As Wenger explains in her program note:
“The history of the blues is embedded in the history of our remarkable country. From its heyday in the 1920s through its revival in the 1960s, blues women have been out there challenging each era’s rigid norms of race, gender, and cultural political correctness. When most people think of a blues singer, the image that comes to mind is one of a man holding a guitar (he is probably African American and, for sure, male). But the truth is different from that common visual picture because the most iconic performers of the classic blues era (the 1920s) were women.”
“Emerging from the American South, blues women hit the road and told their own stories. These women were pioneers and, through their music, their stories endure. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of their contributions, which effected changes in jazz, gospel, Broadway musicals, and eventually rock and roll. Pamela Rose is steeped in this history and carries in her blood, body, and voice the legacy of these matriarchs. I have never met anyone with the depth of musical and historical knowledge, interest, and determination to share the musical legacy of these unique American treasures.”
Tammy Hall and Pamela Rose in a scene from Blues is a Woman
(Photo by: Jane Higgins)

While Blues Is A Woman features music director Tammy Hall on piano, Shaunna Hall on guitar, Daria Johnson on drums, Ruth Davies on bass, and Kristen Strom on clarinet and saxophone, there is also a great emphasis on the blues women who were songwriters as well as performers. Among the 25 musical numbers are such classics as Ma Rainey's "Don't Fish In My Sea," Ida Cox's "One Hour Mama," Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues," Bertha 'Chippie' Hill's "Some Cold and Rainy Day,"
Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain," and Bonnie Raitt's "Love Me Like A Man." The extensive video clips include footage of such fine blues singers as Dinah Washington, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown, Memphis Minnie, Etta James, and Alberta Hunter.

Pamela Rose and Shaunna Hall in a scene from Blues is a Woman
(Photo by: Jane Higgins)

As the lead singer and driving force behind Blues is a Woman, Pamela Rose acknowledges some of the tough decisions she faced in crafting the show.
“The biggest challenge in writing Blues is a Woman was deciding which blues women to feature in the show and whom to leave out. After years poring over archival recordings and history, I knew the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to introduce audiences to the extraordinary women who helped create and popularize blues, but I also wanted to amplify and celebrate that particularly powerful voice which women in the blues gave to us. Early table readings occurred smack in the middle of a turbulent, shocking period in which harrowing news of black citizens killed by white police unfurled daily, racial tension and outrage dominated most news cycles, and we all suffered through an election year in which sexism and racism became trump cards played with dizzying effect. Conversations amongst our cast about how often history seemed to be on a stubborn ‘replay’ setting inevitably became part of the narrative.”
The cast of Blues is a Woman (Photo by: Jane Higgins)
“With the depth of historical and living inspiration to draw from, making the decision about whom to highlight within a two-hour theatre experience wasn’t easy. I finally decided that it wasn’t so much this blues artist or that one which mattered most. What truly mattered was that audiences have a chance to meet the archetypal blues woman who was ‘fierce, passionate, and did not suffer in silence.’ She is still with us. embedded in our music. Like all blues women, she’ll get under your skin, haunt and beguile you until you wonder how you ever lived without her.”
Shaunna Hall and Kristen Strom in a scene from Blues is a Woman
(Photo by: Jane Higgins)

Performances of Blues Is A Woman continue through August 27 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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