Monday, September 28, 2009

Audacious O'Day

Anita O'Day at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival

I'm an enormous fan of jazz singers. I aspire to be one myself. My music collection is testimony to this passion. I caught the singing bug in the early 1980s. It was during this period that I devoted myself to studying the Great American Songbook. Drawn to this emotionally powerful music by my mother's death, I've never let go. I began by completely familiarizing myself with the repetoire of Sinatra, Bennett, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short. Over the years I've enjoyed many more singers, and I'm constantly on the lookout for ones I've neglected or didn't know about. Put Anita O'Day in the former camp.

Until I fell in love with her by watching the recent documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, I kept her at a distance because she struck me as a jazz critic's favorite, but not the People's Choice. From what I'd heard of her, she had a pleasant tone reminiscent of Chris Connor or June Christy, but she departed from the melody too freely for my taste, either by scatting or making her voice like an instrument. I never found it good storytelling, which to me is the sine qua non of excellent singing.

But now that I've heard her story, it will enrich my listening to her considerably. What a life! The documentary chronicles O'Day's rise as a singer for Stan Kenton and a soloist in the 1950s. The television clips from this period make compelling viewing: she is so completely in charge as a singer, giving color to songs and providing fascinating tonal interplay with the musicians accompanying her. The pinnacle of her career--an appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival captured gorgeously on film--has her tearing up the song "Sweet Georgia Brown". Oh, to look out at the audience digging her that day. A total Mad Men moment!

You'll learn that Anita O'Day had a 40 year or so drug-and alcohol-besotted relationship with her drummer, John Poole. You'll see her interviewed by Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, and Bryant Gumbel and through it all looking and sounding marvelous despite her troubles. She is so completely no-nonsense and real. Lord, I'd have loved to slam down a few while talking to her!

The documentary is fast-paced with shifting and colorful graphics to compensate for the occasional grainy archival footage and the inevitable talking heads. I found it all mesmerizing. If you do too, may I also recommend a DVD showing O'Day at peak performance during the 1980s: Anita O'Day--Live at Ronnie Scott's in London.

I'll be looking for her vinyl in my used record stores. She was a treasure!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My First Big Musical Group

Sure, the guys have suits on, but check out those goatees!

The last of Mary's four solo albums from the 1970s.

It is 1969, or perhaps 1970. I am 15 years old. My musical taste is still unformed. I had a weird period in sixth grade where I listened to the Monkees as well as the Doors and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. (My girlfriends and I used to buy strawberry gum so that we could cut out the strawberry images and paste them all over our notebooks.) But now I'm casting about, looking for a direction.

I have two older sisters with record collections. The oldest wasn't that much of a musical buff--I recall that she enjoyed the Beach Boys. But she's gone off to college. The one nearest to my age likes Barbra Streisand and some of my father's musical soundtracks (that's why to this day I have the scores of Fiddler on the Roof and Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd committed to memory).

It is that flash in time right before Carole King's Tapestry hits. The singer/songwriters have yet to storm the scene. My oldest brother has joined the Marines. I recall the night before he headed off to boot camp. The song played repeatedly on our turntable that night was Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane".

I was drawn by their vocals, and I love the songs on Album 1700. There's "I Dig Rock and Roll Music", a jibe at the popular rock of the day and "I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog", a song about an interracial romance. And then there is the haunting "Great Mandela" sung by Peter. I'm attracted to their songs because they seem to be about something. Their politics resonate with the times. I become a fan.

Loving Peter, Paul and Mary leads me directly to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. (I study the record label, and note who's written every song on the disc.) I buy some of their other records, and my love deepens. They are so strident, so authentic--oh, it hit my adolescent heart in the bull's-eye! I sing along to every song, harmonizing with them. I admire Peter and Paul's appearance--how I want to grow a Van Dyke when I'm older, and have an artsy beatnik look! I trust their taste in material completely. Although I can't bear to listen to Bob Dylan, their covers of his songs lead me to the library to read about him, and to try to understand why others think he's so great.

I am crestfallen that shortly after I've developed this love, they break up as a group. Paul goes off to explore religion, and Peter loses his bearings with an indiscretion with a young fan. So I'm thinking I'll never see them. All I have is a program that one of my sister's friends gave me. How sacred this book was to me. Turning its pages over and over as I continued to listen.

Each member pursues a solo career. Their debut albums are all sterling. I go to see them each individually in concert. I love them all for different reasons: Peter, for his amazing songwriting skill and musicianship; Paul, for his silky smooth voice and Bing Crosby-like composure and humor; and Mary, for her impeccable taste in what to sing, and for her completely unique voice. They continue to be my soundtrack into the 1970s.

Disco hits, and their careers quiet down. They decide that it's best to reunite, and I finally get to see my heroes in together in concert later in the decade. My musical tastes are soon to shift dramatically, but in the years that follow I still keep in touch and buy all of their releases.

Peter, Paul, and Mary were always classy, and one of a kind. Several years ago, when I'd learned Mary needed a bone marrow transplant, I sent a handwritten note to her expressing my love for her work. I was so relieved that she survived, and that I could see them one last time together with my wife.

I played Peter, Paul, and Mary to each of my 6th grade classes as they came in today. "It's a sad day for me today, kids," I said, and went on to tell why they are such an indelible and important part of musical history. I played "Don't Laugh at Me" and I could feel tears welling up as I thought about how they always stood behind the underdog. I sang along to "Wayfaring Stranger", feeling the power of its time-honored lyric. Oh, it was a regular hootenany!

"You know, " I said to my classes, "you probably aren't aware that you already know some Peter, Paul, and Mary songs." I invited them to raise their hands if they recognized the choruses I sang to "Puff the Magic Dragon", "If I Had a Hammer", and "Leavin' on a Jet Plane". Scattered hands went up--never a majority, but it was still reassuring to know that some kids would be carrying on. And heck, who knows what impact their brief exposure today might have!

Mary Travers was a wonderful singer and stylist, and I urge you to check out her solo work from the 1970s in which she skillfully bridges the gap between folk and pop music. I'll miss her enormously. She helped me develop my musical taste! God bless her because of all the pleasure she brought into this world!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pay to Play

Interesting story on NPR's Here and Now recently about how some musicians are mining their fans directly in order to bankroll production and marketing costs for new releases.

I don't know what to think of this phenomenon. At first sight, it all seems innocent and fun. But there's a claustrophobic tinge to it also. When an artist turns directly to the fans for financing, it seems as if the circle has closed. Sure, it's a passionate group ("the base") but what about expanding your audience? Is it all word-of-mouth from here on in because you can't afford the publicity that a major label would afford you?

Of course, one could argue that fan financing puts the pressure where it should be: on creating something that draws on your strengths, whatever it is that made you appealing to listeners to begin with. No more advice on image from the label, and stress to sell enough "units" to please a corporation.

It's a story that's still unfolding. At the end of the NPR piece, it's revealed that Erin McKeown's Internet fundraising stopped short of releasing her latest work on her own label. Instead, she chose to go with Ani DeFranco's Righteous Babe imprint. Smart move probably--there is much to be gained by association with a stable of artists and the market presence an established label has.

I am impressed with imprints like Appleseed Records, who have managed their company well enough to provide a vital stream of folk releases over the last dozen years. It was inspired by Pete Seeger's work, and in its catalog are several outstanding collections of Pete's work. But it also keeps issuing new releases by seminal figures like Tom Rush, Donovan and Buffy Sainte-Marie as well as promoting the more contemporary careers of artists like the Kennedys and John Wesley Harding.

I must admit, one criteria that I use to judge whether or not I'll purchase the CD is the label. If I have enjoyed their judgments before in whom they sign and promote, I'm willing to take a chance on someone new.

Yep, "brand" matters. It's just that when artists become their own label, they are the brand, and they'd better be distinctive enough to be one, or they won't sell enough units to stay in the game.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Looking Back at Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. He emerged in the early '70s and quickly grabbed listeners' attention with the song"The Brand New Tennessee Waltz" on his eponymous debut. Jesse had a compelling backstory too, having relocated from Memphis to Montreal to avoid the draft. Deeply respected by many singers and musicians, his songs have been well-covered.

His first album was produced by Robbie Robertson of the Band and engineered by Todd Rundgren, who got Winchester signed with Bearsville Records for the brunt of his output in the 1970s. His released one jewel after another. Third Down, 110 to Go in 1972 (featuring "Isn't That So?" a driving spiritual); Learn to Love It in 1974 (memorable for "Mississippi, You're On My Mind", gospel-inflected numbers like "Wake Me" and "I Can't Stand Up Alone" as well as the terrific traditional song, "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt"); Let the Rough Side Drag in 1976; Nothing But a Breeze in 1977 (with the lovely "Bowling Green", "My Songbird", "You Remember Me" as well as the funny "Twigs and Seeds" and "Rhumba Man"); A Touch on the Rainy Side in 1978 (besides the title song, I also recommend "Little Glass of Wine"); and finally, his last release on Bearsville, 1981's Talk Memphis.

He himself never gained much notoriety. Perhaps that was due to the fact that he didn't start touring the States until 1977. By that time he had a wonderful catalog to draw upon but unfortunately musical styles had changed radically. He continued to record regularly until 1981.

I heard him a concert a couple of times when I lived in Chicago. The first time, at a bar directly across from Wrigley Field (the Cubby Bear), I chatted with him before he went on stage. I recall asking him what he preferred: performing or writing songs. Jesse told me that if he had his druthers he'd rather just be a songwriter, and mail his stuff out for others to record. It seemed to fit with his personality: he comes across as a shy guy.

I recall seeing him one more time in Chicago at a folk club called Holstein's. There wasn't much of a crowd for him that night, and I got the distinct sense that the management was taking a financial bath on his appearance. I felt bad for Jesse, because I admire him so much and think he deserves to be known more wide.

Anyway, the '80s and the '90s saw only one release each decade. They were fabulous--you can expect nothing but perfection from him. (Check out the lovely "I Don't Think You Love Me Anymore" from 1988's Humor Me.)Over the last decade he's released two albums, and he promoted his latest, Love's Filling Station, recently on NPR.

In the interview, he described himself as a "traditional" songwriter. That's absolutely true: his songs fit the classic verse-chorus structure that's found in most pop music. His roots are folk, but his sound can be gospel and country and rhythm and blues flavored. Jesse has a sweet soft high-timbred voice and his lyrics are impeccable. He has an intensely personal style: he does talk about himself in his songs, often self-deprecatingly, but he displays an almost Old World respect for women and he paints stories of small towns that seem to arise from his Southern youth.

I hope that you'll introduce yourself to Jesse Winchester. He'll win your affection quickly.