Friday, May 26, 2017

"Standards in Silhouettes" - the Kenton-Mathieu Alliance

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“... the sound of Kenton is the battle cry of a squadron of stratosphere-scraping trumpeters blowing with such fury that athletic cups must have been far more necessary than cup mutes; the grunt of a platoon of trombones exploring a hundred new degrees between low and very low; the soaring and searing sax stars, especially his succession of alto giants, who defined themselves by their own particular "take" on Charlie Parker (just as dozens of Woody Herman "Four Brothers" tenor stars defined themselves by their angles in relation to Lester Young); the killer drummers, who responded to the accusations of over-intellectualism by pounding with enough primitive force to knead all the pizza dough in Brooklyn - and parts of Staten Island.”
- Will Friedwald, Jazz author and critic

“Kenton recalled that : "Bill Mathieu was a young guy when I first met him. When he was only 16 years old he had written a first arrangement that he showed me. I was very impressed with his talents, and later on we brought him into the band as a writer. He was also in the trumpet section for a little while, but he didn't really play well enough, and it didn't work out. Bill had a very difficult time writing rhythm music ; he wrote a few swing things to pace STANDARDS IN SILHOUETTE, but they weren't very good, so I finally said : 'Bill, let's not worry about that, let's make it entirely a mood album.'"
- Michael Sparke, Peter Venudor, Stan Kenton: The Studio Sessions

Returning to the episodic favorite recordings theme, there are many albums by the Stan Kenton Orchestra that fit into this category especially those like Contemporary Concepts and Back to Balboa with Mel Lewis on drums.

But other favorites by the band such as Cuban Fire, New Concepts, and Innovations feature the band’s orchestral prowess rather than its swinging pulse and along these lines,  Standards in Silhouette sort of fits into this category but with a heavy element of “mood music” underscoring the texture of the arrangements by Bill Mathieu.

Stan’s was always an arranger’s band and writers like Rugolo, Russo, Holman, Mulligan, Graettinger, Roland, Paich, Niehaus, Barton, Levy, Hanna and many others walked in and out of the orchestra each contributing to the Kenton oeuvre along the way.

Bill Mathieu’s short time with the band produced primarily nine tracks that have been combined to make up one album and which have been variously described as “scholarly orchestrations” and “elegant structures” in the reviews that greeted  Standards in Silhouette which was recorded on September 21 and 22, 1959 in the ballroom of Riverside Plaza Hotel in New York City.

By way of background, here is how this landmark LP came about as described in the following excerpts from Stan Kenton - This Is An Orchestra! By Michael Sparke, [pp. 156-159].

“Also taped by the Stan Kenton Orchestra at the Tropicana/Las Vegas in 1959 was the first-recorded arrangement by newcomer Bill Mathieu of "This Is Always." Mathieu differed in many ways from your average jazzman: a well-educated, highly literate, intellectually minded philosopher, he would soon produce one of the most enduringly efficacious albums in the Kenton oeuvre. …

Stan was paying Bill Mathieu $60 plus bed and board, but Bill was finding it hard to meet his own aspirations. He longed to write rhythmic music and join the arranging elite of Mulligan and Holman, but nothing seemed to come out quite right, and rather than try to fix the faults, Stan preferred to simply junk the charts altogether. An exception was the Latin "What Is This Thing Called Love," heard on Tantara's Revelations, a good arrangement, but a genre already well exploited by Johnny Richards and others.

Jim Amlotte explained why Bill's early pieces didn't make it: "Stan made up his mind about a piece of music very fast. One take, one play-through, and that was it." Bill's breakthrough came when Mathieu found his own voice in San Francisco, though not in the swing style he had been aiming for. Recomposition [disguising standard melodies with an arranger’s own additional themes] was certainly not new to the Kenton band.

Graettinger had practiced the art in 1948, Russo (Mathieu's friend and mentor) in 1953, and Holman in 1955. But Bill discovered an entirely new approach to recomposing standard ballads at the same time as he discovered San Francisco: "Separated from the band and on my own in an enchanted city, an innate joy broke the surface like a gulping fish. Music poured through. I wrote an arrangement of 'The Thrill Is Gone' that I knew was good." Kenton too knew a good score when he heard one. "That's a beautiful thing, Bill," he said. "What's next?"

Mathieu remained behind in Chicago after an engagement at the Blue Note to continue his writing. "Willow Weep for Me" and "Lazy Afternoon" joined the growing number of arrangements, and one afternoon in the well of the band bus Stan casually remarked, "Bill, why don't you start thinking in terms of a record of your music?" At just 22 years old, Mathieu would be Kenton's youngest arranger to have an album of his own charts.

With such an incentive, Bill's inspiration took wings. During a two-week stay at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, the band rehearsed "I Get Along without You Very Well," "Django," "Lonely Woman," and "Ill Wind": "Stan is genuinely pleased. Everyone has a seaside glow. The band is swinging. Charged layers of cymbals and brass sift through the ocean air. Success is easy!" These were the halcyon days, before realization set in. By August the material was complete. ...

Standards in Silhouette was a triumph, different from anything else the band had ever played, yet uniquely Kenton in sound and style. The album rates alongside Cuban Fire, New Concepts, and Innovations as one of Stan's indispensable, all-time, great orchestral achievements. Mathieu has reconstructed these popular melodies with intricate care and detail. He extracts fragments from the songs and weaves these themes with his own motifs, using both sections and soloists, often in counterpoint. Short fill-ins by individual instruments (as well as featured soloists) are used as an integral part of the structural jigsaw. Especially exciting is the way the brass crescendos arise unpredictably, and often end unexpectedly, allowing a more peaceful but always appropriate statement to emerge from the melee. And the momentum is sustained without a lull over nine songs of concert duration, affording a consistency, a unity of style, that gives the music its own identity, so that it resembles a Suite.

Many elements fitted together to make Silhouette so perfect. Mathieu's charts are of course the foundation, but the music could not have come together the way it did without Stan's experience and expertise, and the orchestra's understanding of Bill's intentions. Every credit is due the principal soloists, who loved this music to a man. "Absolutely gorgeous," said Bill Trujillo. And Archie LeCoque (outstanding on my own favorite: "I Get Along without You Very Well") confirms: "I think my solos on Standards in Silhouette were the best work I did with Kenton. Bill Mathieu wrote such beautiful charts you didn't really have to stretch out too much, you just stuck close to the melody and the arrangements took care of everything else." And Bill himself adds: "I was very happy with all the soloists, but particularly Charlie [Mariano]. His playing, especially on 'Django,' provided the spark and the jazz authenticity that the album needed."

The above excerpts are a re-working in book form of the following insert notes that Michael wrote for Standards in Silhouettes - Stan Kenton: The Kenton Touch in A Warm Blue Mood Capitol Jazz CD CDP 7243 4 94503 2 5], and while some of the language may be the same as that used in the book, these notes also contain additional information.

“From the time he was 14 years old, Bill Mathieu knew he was going to write for Stan Kenton, a leader whose music he idolized with a fervor few ordinary fans could envisage. It wasn't an easy path to Kenton's door, and there were many setbacks along the way, but Bill Russo proved an effective teacher, with invaluable advice based on his own experiences of the Kenton psyche. It says much of Math ie us persistence that in January 1959, at 21 years of age and still something of an idealist, Bill Mathieu entered the real world as staff arranger for the Kenton band.

None of his first arrangements caught the Kenton imagination, until the time Bill discovered San Francisco. "Separated from the band and on my own in an enchanted city, an innate joy broke the surface like a gulping fish. Music poured through. J wrote an arrangement of "The Thrill Is Gone" that I knew was good. We rehearsed it one afternoon in Chicago, and Stan's ears perked up. "That's a beautiful thing, Bill," he said. "What's next?"

Mathleu's talent had enabled him to come up with the near-impossible, an original and especially beautiful slant on writing concert arrangements of popular ballads, that made them sound fresh and different. Kenton was genuinely impressed and eager for more, and as "Willow Weep For Me," "Lazy Afternoon" and others entered the book, suggested to Bill he should start thinking in terms of his own album—at just 22, the youngest Kenton arranger ever to be so honored.

Mathieu's special skill lay in almost recomposing standard melodies with his own additional themes, an art aspired to by many writers, but rarely accomplished with the flair and ingenuity that Mathieu achieves. Bill explained to me how he approached the task: "The trick is to locate the aspects of the original song that give you special pleasure, or that seem especially rewarding, and keep reworking them until a hybrid appears that is your own concept, but nevertheless allows your car to keep track of the source material. The 'aspects' might be a melodic phrase, a couple of chords, a characteristic rhythm, or even something in the lyrics, like the suppressed bitterness in "The Thrill Is Gone," the loss in "Willow Weep For Me," or the lethargy in "Lazy Afternoon." These are clues, and you run and spiral with them until your own ideas are braided with those of the composer and lyricist. Then you begin!"

There is a consistency, a unity of style about the orchestrations that give the music its own identity, so that it almost resembles a suite. Stan allowed Mathieu almost unfettered creative freedom, and together they decided the proper tempo for each piece, the appropriate soloists, and useful cuts and additions, right down to which titles actually belonged on the record and which should be omitted. At first Bill was doubtful about recording in a cavernous ballroom, as opposed to the intimacy and control of a studio, but he concluded: "Stan and producer Lee Gillette were absolutely right: the band sounds alive and awake {not always easy when recording many hours of slow-tempo music in a studio), and most importantly, the players could hear themselves well in the live room. The end result is that the band sounds strong and cohesive, and the album is well recorded."

Mathieu is well-served by his soloists, as he is quick to acknowledge: "To observe the guys endure the stress of recording with such a high degree of skill and accuracy made me feel very lucky. Their attitude to the music was quite positive as far as I could tell, and I was especially happy with the soloists, Roger, Rolf and most especially Archie. As for Charlie (Mariano), his playing, especially on "Django," provided the spark and authenticity the album needed." According to LeCoque (at his finest on "I Get Along Without You Very Well): "I think my solos on the Silhouette album were the best work I did with Kenton. Bill wrote such beautiful charts that you didn't really have to stretch out too much, you just stuck close to the melody, and the arrangements took care of everything else." There isn't a weak solo throughout, but note especially the trumpet cameo on "The Thrill Is Gone" by Roger Middleton, described by lead trumpet Bud Brisbois as: "The only solo Roger ever recorded with Stan. Roger was a very good jazz player, but he never got much of a chance with Rolf Ericson in the band."

In later years, Stan believed he had come up with the album title, but Bill remembers exactly how the name arose: "I had been walking the boardwalk in Atlantic City, trying to think of a title for the new album, something that carried forward the visual metaphor of Sketches on Standards and Portraits on Standards, when I paused to watch an attractive girl having her profile magically cut out of black paper by a silhouette artist. The title Standards in Silhouette occurred to me at that moment, and I suggested it to Stan in the well of the bus, 'That's a great title, Bill,' he said, genuinely pleased. 'Did you think of it yourself?' But it's OK with me that Stan recollects it as his own - that's an easy thing to do after many decades and uncountable miles."

Some hear a hint of Gil Evans in Mathieu's work, and Bill admits to an admiration for Gil's writing, among other composers who were striving to enrich the intellectual content of jazz without thinning its blood. Any Evans influence is tempered by Mathieu's highly inventive and scholarly orchestrations, and Bill has learned his Kenton lessons well; there is a wonderful contrast between the darkly brooding, low-keyed passages, and the high-powered trumpet climaxes. I certainly wish Mathieu had remained longer in the Kenton orbit, but instead he moved on to write for Duke Ellington, and then, such were Bill's intellectual abilities and interests, away from the jazz idiom into classical and other styles of music.

But it was Kenton's judgement that gave Mathieu his first chance, the legacy of this recording, as Bill recalls with gratitude: "I was a young, unknown and untested writer, and with Standards in Silhouette, Stan granted my truest wish: to bring my best work of 'concert' ballad arrangements into the public eye."

Vinyl rip of Stan Kenton's 1959 record "Standards in Silhouette." Ripped with Audio Technica AT-LP60 USB turntable on Audacity.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Jeri Southern

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The contributions that Orrin Keepnews and Gene Lees have made to Jazz over the past fifty years are immense and go well beyond anything that can be described in this brief introduction.  Orrin’s work in recording and reissuing the music and Gene’s in writing about it have made the world of Jazz a far richer place because they devoted so much of their talent and creative genius to it.

Teaming up to develop and describe this retrospective of Jeri Southern’s early recordings at Decca is certainly an indication of the respect and admiration that Orrin and Gene have for this member of the Jazz family, a female vocalist who was not accorded enough of either in her lifetime.

When the likes of Orrin Keepnews and Gene Lees have so much praise to offer about the song stylings of Jeri Southern, the least I can do is to listen to them and to recommend that you do so as well.

© -  Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The Very Thought of You: The Decca Years, 1951-1957 [Decca GRP – 671]

“Here is a good clear look at one of the very best singers to emerge from the Pop/Jazz/Show-tune musical world that flourished in the mid-century years. By now this era can seem incredibly long ago and far away, but at its strongest it still retains all of its power to charm us and move us - and to demonstrate that, in the best of hands, this area of popular music is a true art form.

It has been my pleasure to work on this project with Kathryn King - a long-time friend with a solid track record of her own as a record producer, who has the considerable added incentive of being the daughter of the artist who is heard here in retrospect. Jeri Southern began her significant recording career with the half-dozen years at Decca from which this CD is drawn, As we picked our way through an extensive body of music, finding that our individual lists of preferred songs were looking remarkably similar, it did seem best to follow chronology in a general way, but without being excessive about it. As a result, tempo and instrumentation and the emotional content of these songs have led to a program that seems to pretty much set is own pace.

I knew Jeri Southern hardly at all; I only met her after she had ended her singing career. But I first heard her a long time ago, and have been fascinated over the years by what I consider to be a striking example of one of the major show-business paradoxes. This woman, a warm-voiced, sensitive, intelligent interpreter of the wonderful repertoire that a lot of us insist on capitalizing as The Great American Song Book, had all the qualities that I associate with two closely allied, important and consistently undervalued fields: being a jazz singer and being what for want of a better name is often called a cabaret singer. In Jeri's case this included the helpful fact that she was an excellent musician [among some attributes that in my view she shares with Carmen McRae is that she may well have been her own best accompanist]. But like so many of the best qualified female singers of the pre-rock days of the Fifties and early Sixties, she was typecast into a ‘pop vocalist’ category and as a result suffered through deliberate (although presumably quite well-intentioned) efforts to make her sound like everyone else and concentrate on the kind of lower-level Tin Pan Alley music that only a song-plugger or a music publisher could love.

The only two women I can think of who entirely fought their way through that mess and emerged as universally acknowledged major artists were obviously very strong, very tough, and supported by even tougher friends and associates. Ella Fitzgerald, who of course had Norman Granz as her all-American blocking back; and the totally indomitable Peggy Lee [who was a good friend of Jeri’s and, I’m inclined to suspect, would have been her role model if Ms. Southern had by nature been a more hard-shelled personality]. But that was not the way it worked out for Jeri; it should realty not be surprising to learn that her relatively early retreat from the show biz battlefront was basically the result of her being - to apply a phrase usually used to describe a jazz musician whose work goes sailing way over the heads of his audience – “too hip for the room.”

Way back when I first heard this voice, I was in Chicago visiting a World War II army buddy - it couldn’t have been past the very beginning of the Fifties, maybe earlier. He and his wife insisted on my listening to the laidback late night disc jockey who was The Man of the moment, Dave Garroway, soon to become one of the very first of the star night time (and subsequently early morning) casual television hosts. But all that lay ahead. What Garroway was doing at that particular time was shouting the praises of a great young locally-based singer by the name of Jeri Southern.

I became a fan at first hearing, then admittedly cooled off as her career seemed to be going in directions that I didn’t care for – you’ll note that we have not included one of her most popular recordings, a folksong tear-jerker called "Scarlet Ribbons.” Consequently, it took me much too long to become aware of some important factors. One was that her voice remained a great instrument, and another that she was singing a very high percentage of the right kind of songs -  merely note in passing that the writers represented here include Rodgers and Hart [four times], Cafe Porter [twice], Jerome Kerr [two more] and Kurt Weill.

It also seems apparent that she was doing battle energetically and in two ways against the kind of arrangements that were all too often in deadly vogue in those days. For one, in a period when a singer’s worth seemed to be measured by the size of the accompanying orchestra, she nevertheless succeeded fairly often in working on records in much the same setting as she would appear in clubs: backed only by a rhythm section, which on five of these numbers is led by guitarist/arranger Dave Barbour [long and closely a collaborator with Peggy Lee). It’s a formula that at times even allows her to be the piano player -  check out the Southern solos on Ray Noble's I HADN'T ANYONE ‘TILL YOU and her own I DON T KNOW WHERE TO TURN. And secondly, even when the writing behind her was lush and potentially overbearing, someone -- perhaps the artist herself, or a properly- motivated manager or other colleague  - often was able to keep the background writing under control. Or, when necessary, she seems to have been able simply to overcome it. I refer to my own listening notes on possibly my personal favorite in this collection, the magnificent Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin MY SHIP. It was a specific and private comment, not intended for publication, but it now strikes me as quiet generally applicable to this compilation, and indeed as a summation of the artistry of Jeri Southern. “The strings are a matter of taste  I wrote, "but it is such a great performance of a great song.”

-         0rrin Keepnews

Remembering Jeri – Gene Lees

"Once upon a time, America was blessed with any number of small nightclubs that featured excellent singers singing excellent songs, and even the' big record companies were interested in recording them. Some of the best of them played piano, ranging from the competent to the excellent, Most of them were women, and there was a glamour about them, superb singers such as Betty Bennett, Irene Kral, Ethel Ennis, Marge Dodson, Lurlean Hunter, Audrey Morris, Shirley Horn, and even regional singers, such as Kiz Harp of Dallas. Many of them are forgotten now; Shirley Horn alone has enjoyed a resurgence.

They were sometimes called jazz singers, although they were no such thing, or torch singers a term I found demeaning, not to mention horrendously inaccurate. Male singers were with equal condescension from an ignorant lay press called crooners.

The songs they sang were drawn from that superb classic repertoire that grew up in the United States between roughly 1920 and the 1950s, and had any of us been equipped with foresight, we’d have known that the era was ending, doomed by “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” and “Papa Loves Mambo” and “Music Music Music “even before the rise of Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley, arid the Rolling Stones.

Of all these singers, one of the greatest was Jeri Southern, born Genevieve Lillian Hering near Royal, Nebraska on August 5, 1926, the baby in a family of two boys and three girls. Her grandfather had come from Germany in 1868, and in 1879 built a water-powered mill on Verdigris Creek. His sons and grandsons, including Jeri’s father, worked there. I am indebted to Jeri’s sister, Helen Meuwissen), for this information about Jeri’s early life.

“She could play the piano by ear when she was three, Helen said. She started studying at six. I don t think she ever quit taking lessons. (I car confirm this Jeri was doing some formal study of piano to the end of her life.) She went to Notre Dame Academy in Omaha, and always credited the nuns there for her background. She took voice lessons in Omaha with Harry Cooper. It was her desire to be a classical singer.”

Jeri also studied classical piano in Omaha with a much beloved teacher, Karl Tunberg. But her ambitions in the classical world evaporated one evening when she walked into a nightclub and heard a pianist playing jazz. She loved this music, and the experience changed her life. After high school graduation, she moved to Chicago.

She started playing standards in clubs, and got more experience as a pianist in local Chicago big bands. Eventually, as her reputation grew, she was advised that she could make more money if she would sing, a standard casting for women pianists in those days: women were not supposed to be instrumentalists, they were supposed to sing, or, just maybe, play the harp. So she did start to sing, and accompanied herself at the piano. She abandoned her trained operatic voice and began singing in her speaking voice, which had a smoky sound, with a very soft enunciation and a haunting intimacy. And her career took off.

Her greatest popularity was in the 1950s. The first of her records I heard was YOU BETTER GO NOW, the oldest track on this CD. I was blown away by it: the simplicity, the exquisite lack of affectation or mannerism. She recorded it for Decca in late 1951, just after she turned 25. She then turned out a series of superb performances for Decca, through to the Rodgers and Hart gems she recorded November 26, 1957: YOU'RE NEARER and NOBODY’S HEART. I met Jeri probably two years later, in 1959. She eventually left Decca and went on to record for other labels.

Unlike many performers, her stage career represented a great struggle for Jeri. First, she was extremely shy. I remember her telling me during our Chicago friendship that the first time she arrived at a nightclub and saw her name on the marquee, it terrified her. She deeply felt the responsibility of drawing and pleasing an audience – she was intimidated by the look of expectation in their eyes.

There are performers who passionately crave the audience. They will climb over footlights, climb over the tables, do anything to claim the audience’s attention and, I suppose, love – or the illusion of love. Jeri wasn’t like that. She simply loved the music. The music was everything, She was almost too much a musician, and certainty a perfectionist. Her philosophy of performing was the diametrical opposite of Carmen McRae's, who not only wouldn't do a song the same way twice, but probably couldn’t remember how she did it the last time. Jeri worked on interpretation until she got it ‘right,' which is to say the way she wanted it. She would then stick with her chosen interpretation. She was also disinterested in scat singing. I have noticed an interesting thing about those with the harmonic and instrumental skills to scat-sing - they often don’t and won’t do it. Nat Cole was a classic example of this fidelity to the original melody; so was Jeri.

As her reputation grew, her handlers – the managers, agents, publicists, record company executives - set out to make her into a pop star. Certainty with her Germanic beauty, she had the basic material for it. They dressed her in fancy gowns.  They took her away from her beloved piano and stood her in front of a microphone with some else to play for her. Nothing could have been more diabolically designed to send her fleeing from the spotlight.  And so, like Jo Stafford [and for the record, Greta Garbo, Doris Day, and others], she simply quit. She walked away from the business and the discomfort it brought her.

But the musicianship was always there, and she took to teaching. She wrote a textbook, Interpreting Popular Music at the Keyboard.   She enjoyed composing, and over the years wrote pop songs with various partners [one of which, I Don’t Know Where to Turn is included here], and even ventured into other genres like orchestrating film scores and writing classical songs.

I used to drop by to visit her every once in a white at her apartment in Hollywood. Illustrating some point in a discussion of this song or that, she would go to the piano and play and sing for me. She simply got better throughout her life, and during these occasional private performances, I could only shake my head and think what the world was missing. Her piano playing in those last years was remarkable. It had grown richer harmonically, and the tone had evolved into a dark golden sound.

She was working on a book of piano arrangements of songs by her friend Peggy Lee, also a friend of mine. One sunny afternoon a few years age, I telephoned Peggy. How re you doing? I began.

‘I’m very sad,’ she said. ‘Jeri Southern died this morning.’

As I learned later, she succumbed to double pneumonia. The date was August 4, 1991. The next day, August 5, she would have turned sixty-five.

Once she told me that during those Chicago years, she considered me her closest friend in the world. It is an honor I will not forget. I truly loved Jeri, not only the singer but the person inside who through music so diffidently allowed us glimpses into her all-too-sensitive soul.”

-         Gene Lees

Jeri Southern at Home

"Jeri Southern was essentially an intensely private person whose talent for music thrust her into a public career. Since Gene Lees and Orrin Keepnews have done such a fine job of describing my mother's public life, I thought it would be of interest to her still devoted audience to learn something of her private life. as I knew it.

My mothers life was unusual in a number of respects, not the least of which was the fact that a great deal happened to her at a very early age. She started performing as a pianist while still in her teens, moved from Nebraska to Chicago, developed a following there, married, signed a record deal, had a baby, and had her first great commercial success as a recording artist, all by the time she was 25. At 36 she retired from her public career. For the next 30 years her time was as much taken up with music as it had been before, but as a teacher, a writer and a composer - she never went back to performing.

Shortly after recording YOU BETTER GO NOW, my mother moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, where she lived for the rest of her life. Taking the title of one of the songs she recorded perhaps a little too closely to heart ( Married I Can Always Get"), she married four times; three of her husbands were musicians, one a radio der5onatity. My earliest memories are from the house we had in Malibu, a wonderful place right on the water, where she and I would take daily "walks' with our hyperactive Irish Setter. The intellectual pursuits, the preoccupation, the pleasures my mother enjoyed at the Malibu house were the ones she carried with her throughout her Life – she loved reading, exploring the whole dimension of the mind, summoning the restorative powers of the sun, and most of all, playing the piano. 

She always practiced classical pieces, although she never performed them. Some of her favorite things to play were Beethoven sonatas, Grieg’s Holberg SuiteDebussy’s Images, and in later years the Brahms Intermezzi.  She would also compose and improvise at the piano. Because she suffered from what could only be described as a crippling case of performance anxiety, she hated to be observed while she played, and only really enjoyed herself when she thought that no one was listening. So it was that I got in the habit of sneaking

She had the most exquisite command of  harmony, so that when she played a tune, she would basically use it as a launching pad for an extended improvisation which often went very far afield harmonically.  Sometimes, as I sat surreptitiously listening  to these explorations of  hers, I would be certain she could never figure out how to get back to  the original key of the  piece, but she always did, and in the most spectacular way, with subtle and elegant voice leading and chord progressions that were simply stunning. For a period of years she also studied guitar with a fuzzy-voiced Italian whose greatest contribution to our lives, notwithstanding the guitar lessons was probably the killer spaghetti sauce recipe she induced him, after much cajoling, to surrender.

When she was at home she spent a lot of time reading. She was fascinated by the work of Carl Jung, whose ideas became an essential part of her world view. She was also very taken with Gurdjieff, and even got interested in numerology toward the end of her life. She found it exciting to contemplate both the innumerable possibilities of inner space, so to speak, and the complexities of the physical world.

Another pursuit of her life at home was listening to the work of other singers. Her perfectionism made her a tough audience, but there were a few to whom she would return again and again. As one can immediately discern from listening to her recordings, she felt that the most important criterion for a great singer was a reverence for and communication of the lyric. She was not swayed by technical brilliance; the only singer with astonishing vocal technique whose work she enjoyed was Mel Torme, and that was because he delivers a lyric so well. She also loved Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Lucy Reed, Jackie and Roy, and the Hi-Los.

Music was really the playing field for her entire life. And with a few important exceptions, all of her most important relationships were with musicians, with whom she could share her opinions, her discoveries, her delights. Though she lived in Hollywood most of her adult life, she was not involved in that world. To say that she was reticent socially would be a mammoth understatement.

She hated parties and social gatherings, and had the same small circle of friends the day she died that she’d had for decades before. But for those of us who were privileged to be close to her, she had that rarest of gifts - acceptance. She was a loving, supportive, non-judgmental friend and mother. She loved her family and, in an important part of her mind and heart, she never really left Nebraska.

I still miss her so much, but it fulfills the dream of a Lifetime to be able to put this package together, to remind the world of what a wonderful singer she was."

- Kathryn King

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Matt Dennis - "'Scuse Me While I Disappear" - by Gene Lees

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Matt Dennis had an ability to write the most beautiful and sophisticated melodies, and yet they were never hard to sing. He was also a gentle, lovely man."
- Julius LaRosa
There are those few musicians who also happen to be singers who also happen to write the songs they [and others] sing, and do all three magnificently well. They are a select group and they are very special, indeed.

One such musician–singer-songwriter was Matt Dennis and he was so exceptional that the editors of JazzProfiles had to turn to the Gene Lees  for this treatment on Matt simply because there is none better.

Gene’s profile on Matt appeared in the May 2002 of his Jazzletter. [Vol. 21 No. 5]

© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.

'Scuse Me While I Disappear
“David Raksin, whose song with Johnny Mercer's lyrics, Laura, is one of the great classics, said, I write all kinds of music, including concert music. I think that our country's greatest musical gift to the world is not concert music, and not jazz ‑ and I love jazz. Our greatest contribution is the American popular song." David was talking about what is now seen as a golden era, roughly from 1920 to the end of the 1950s. He said, "It is the most incredible flowering ever of that kind of music."
One of the greatest practitioners of the songwriter's art in that time was Matt Dennis, whom we had the misfortune to lose recently. The body of his work was not large, compared with that of, say, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern, in part because he was not a creature of the Broadway musical theater or part of that group, like Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, who wrote mostly for films. But what he did write is unfailingly exquisite: Let's Get Away It All, Will You Still Be Mine, Everything Happens to Me, Violets for Your Furs, The Night We Called It a Day, Junior and Julie, We Belong Together, all written with lyricist Tom Adair, and Angel Eyes, with lyrics by Earl K. Brent. It was written for the movie Jennifer, with Ida Lupino and Howard Duff. Some of Matt's songs have lyrics by his wife, singer Ginny Maxey.
One of my close friends, and one of the best singers to emerge in the generation influenced by Frank Sinatra, is Julius La Rosa. He said, "Matt Dennis had an ability to write the most beautiful and sophisticated melodies, and yet they were never hard to sing. He was also a gentle, lovely man." Sometimes when La Rosa and I are talking on the phone, he (or I) will sing an opening phrase of a Matt Dennis song, and continue through the whole thing, in unison, laughing. So steeped were we in Matt Dennis songs in our high‑school years.

Back around 1960, when I was editor of Down Beat, Mel Torme was playing Chicago, where the magazine's head office was located. Mel asked me to go along with him on a disc jockey interview. The disc jockey said, "Don't you think the singing of Matt Dennis was influenced by yours?"
Mel flared slightly. He said, "I've heard that before, and it's not true. If anything, I was influenced by Matt Dennis."
In fact it is difficult to estimate the reach of the influence of a career in the arts. Obviously I was influenced by all the great songwriters, but certainly Matt Dennis and Tom Adair were a powerful force in my becoming a songwriter. One of the factors in great songwriting is an appropriate match of a melodic interval with what would be the natural inflection if you were speaking the lyric. La Rosa points out that The Night We Called It a Day is a superb example of the up of intervals. And the octave leap on the opening phrase, "The was a moon (out in space)" sort of makes you look up, lending a visual dimension to the song. In fact, that is a very visual song. It is also a very literate one. It was in that song that I first encountered the phrase "the song of the spheres." I first heard the song among the four "sides" Frank Sinatra recorded for RCA Victor's Bluebird subsidiary with arrangements by Axel Stordahl: The Night We Called It a Day, The Lamplighter's Serenade, The Song Is You, and Night and Day. I became an instant fan of Frank Sinatra, Matt Dennis, and Tom Adair.  That has never changed.
Matt recalled to Ed Shanaphy, the editor of Sheet Music Magazine: "I will never forget when I first played and sang The Night We Called It a Day for Tommy Dorsey, backstage at the old Paramount in NYC. Tommy was seated next to Harry James and Ziggy Elman. As I ran the song over, I noticed Tommy looking at Harry and Ziggy and nodding their heads in approval.
'When Tommy decided he really did like my tune, I rearranged my own chart for Frank and the Pied Pipers. What was not expected, however, was Frank and Tommy were not getting along too well. Frank was reaching a popular level and wanted to leave the band and go on his own."

Sinatra's departure from Dorsey, who had a firm contract with him, is by now one of the legends of show business.
Matt said, "So I decided to re‑arrange it again to fit Jo Stafford as the soloist. As fate turned out, later in 1944 TD's recording came out of The Night with Jo Stafford and a good cut, too. Frank did record the song on his own and fortunately it became a collector's item. F. S. recorded and certainly performed it over and over during all the ensuing years, keeping the tune very much alive."
Matt had an impact on Jo Stafford's career as well. Jo's entire interest was group singing, and she became a star half by accident because of Matt's song Little Man with a Candy Cigar, with lyrics by Frank Kilduff. She heard it, went to Dorsey and said, "Tommy, this is the first time I've ever done this, and it'll probably be the last, but I want a favor of you. I want to do the record of Little Man with a Candy Cigar solo." He said, "You've got it." From then on he assigned her to solos, and of course she became a major artist, all of it starting with Matt's song.

A few years ago, Jo told me she had been driving and heard one of those Sinatra Bluebird tracks on the car radio, and impulsively said to herself, "My God, could he sing." Indeed. And so could she.
Knowing how much I admired Tom Adair, Matt at one point offered to introduce us, but I moved too slowly, and Tom Adair died. I hope he knew how much I loved his work. Maybe Matt told him; I would like to think so.
Tom Adair was born in Newton, Kansas, on June 15, 1913, and went to Los Angeles Junior College in 1932 and '33. He wrote scripts for television and movies, as well as night‑club material. He was a sitcom writer on My Three Sons, The Munsters, My Favorite Martian, and other shows. For Matt's tunes, he wrote lyrics for Let's Get Away from It All, Everything Happens to Me, Violets for Your Furs, The Night We Called It a Day, and Will You Still Be Mine, as well as There's No You (with Harold S. Hopper) and In the Blue of Evening (with Alfred D'Artega).
Matt was born into a vaudeville family in Seattle, Wash­ington, on February 11, 1914, and went to San Rafael High School in California. His father was a singer and his mother a violinist. Matt made his professional debut in the family act, called the Five Musical Lovelands. In 1933, in San Francisco, Matt joined the Horace Heidt band on piano. Later he and Dick Haymes had a band, with Haymes in front and Matt as its organizer. Then he became known as an arranger and accompanist for singers, and sometimes as a vocal coach. He held all three roles with Martha Tilton.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, there were a number of sister vocal groups, including the Boswell, Andrews, DeMar­co, Clark, Dinning, and King Sisters. Jo Stafford and her older sisters, Pauline and Christine, became active as the Stafford Sisters. They had their own radio show on Los Angeles radio station KHJ. They replaced Jo with another girl when Jo joined an eight‑voice group called The Pied Pipers.
Matt's association with Jo went back to the days with her sisters. Matt told Ed Shanaphy in a letter: "I used to accom­pany (the Stafford’s) ‑ fine singers of the blues, and good pop songs. Then Jo organized the group of singers that Tommy Dorsey hired for his summer radio series in the East, naming them The Pied Pipers.
"Prior to that I continued playing piano for the group in appearances in and around L.A. during which I seriously started writing songs. Jo heard my songs and set up an audition for me with Tommy Dorsey at the Palladium Ballroom, which led me to a contract with Dorsey, writing songs which he wanted to publish, and did most successfully ‑ glad to say. Jo, the Pied Pipers, and Sinatra all started singing and recording my current songs, Let's Get Away from It All, Everything Happens to Me, Will You Still Be Mine, The Night We Called It a Day, and others."
Everything Happens to Me and Let's Get Away from It All were recorded February 7, 1941. In fact Dorsey recorded 14 of Matt's works in that one year, including a little‑remem­bered patriotic song called Free For All, recorded on June 27, and Violets for Your Furs, recorded on September 26. Sinatra would retain a taste for and powerful loyalty to the Matt Dennis tunes throughout his career. He would re‑record Violets for Your Furs, Angel Eyes, and Let's Get Away from It All, for example, during his period with Capitol Records, when he had become the biggest superstar in the history of American show business.
With the U.S. entry into World War 11, Matt served in the U.S. Army Air Force, with the Radio Production Unit and the Glenn Miller USAAF orchestra. He spent three and a half years in the Air Force. When the war ended, he settled in New York City and became an arranger and sometime performer on a number of network radio shows. And when his friend Dick Haymes got his own radio show, Matt became its music director.
In 1955, Matt starred in his own NBC‑TV series, doing some of the very first coast‑to‑coast color shows. "I replaced Eddie Fisher that year. I had Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Vaughn Monroe had Tuesday and Thursday," Matt said. "Then in December I joined the new Ernie Kovacs five-­mornings‑a‑week show with Ernie, Edie Adams, and myself "
Matt was a very fine pianist, and a sympathetic teacher who wrote a piano method, available from Mel Bay.
I was always enthralled by Matt's singing. He had a light and airy voice, which indeed was not unlike that of Mel Torme’, for reasons already noted in the disc jockey interview I mentioned. He made an estimated six albums, far too few.

One of them I treasured for years was on Trend Records. It contained all of Matt's well‑known tunes and a few that were not so known. Alas, I no longer have it. And my local “record” store, which is always very accommodating, finds nothing by Matt in American CD reissues.

Since Gene wrote this tribute to Dennis, all of Matt’s records have found their way to CD reissue including the Trend Matt Dennis Plays and Sings Matt Dennis which has been released as Fresh Sound 385 and contains the following of his “well-known tunes:”

John Bush offered this review of the recording on
“Recorded at the Tally-Ho in Hollywood, Matt Dennis Plays and Sings Matt Dennis is a program of what visitors to his supper-club sets could expect from one of the best lounge singers in an era before the term became a dirty word. Accompanying himself on the piano with bass and drums for backing, Dennis sings 12 of his own tunes, including an avalanche of standards — "Will You Still Be Mine," "The Night We Called It a Day," "Angel Eyes," "Violets for Your Furs," "Everything Happens to Me," and "Let's Get Away From It All." Though his voice doesn't quite match his notable composing skills, Dennis uses his narrow range and soft, high-tenor tone to craft a sensitive vocal style. His deft sense of humor also comes in handy during several hilarious offsides to the audience and listener, often in the middle of a line. Virginia Maxey duets with him on "We Belong Together" and "When You Love a Fella."
Matt told Ed Shanaphy: "Looking back, I'm very proud to have had the success I've had ... and pleased that most of my tunes are still around the world after all these years, and also that I'm still around today, able to enjoy the pleasure of hearing some of my songs at this late date. Hallelujah."
Matt died June 21 in a hospital in Riverside, California, of natural causes. He was 89. He's gone. But the music isn't.

Of Matt Dennis’ many wonderful songs, Angel Eyes has always been my favorite so I used it as the audio track to the following video which has as its theme - “Eyes” - what else?