Louis Jordan, Forefather of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Do riots have soundtracks? Is there mood music for civil unrest? Should we draw a line from Los Angeles, 1992, and the bleak ve­hemence of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” back a quarter of a century to Newark, 1967, and the buoyant pride of Aretha Franklin’s “Re­spect”? If so — and why the fuck not? This is the way introductory paragraphs get started — then what do we find when we go back yet another quarter of a century, to 1942 and the Sojourner Truth Homes riots, the Detroit confla­gration that foreshadowed even greater rioting in Detroit and New York the following year?

That trouble in Detroit 50 years ago began on the morning of Feb­ruary 28, when a group of black families, attempting to enter the new Sojourner Truth Homes housing project as instructed by the Detroit Housing Commission, was met by an angry white mob standing hard against the project’s decreed integration. It was, to be sure, a conflict precipitated by white aggression. But when trou­ble rose anew in Detroit on the morning of June 20, 1943 — the same month the so-called zoot­suit riots broke out in Los Ange­les — it began with a spree of rob­beries and assaults by blacks against whites. And when rioting erupted in Harlem several weeks later, on August 1, the violence and looting was confined to the black community itself.

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The Justice Department’s 1943 observation that “large segments of the Negro community hate the police” came as a surprise to no one in Detroit. “Those police are murderers,” one 20-year-old black man in Detroit was quoted as say­ing, “I hate ’em, oh God, how I hate ’em.” The sentiment was there. But there was no Body Count to take it to market.

Things were different. Billboard had continued to publish a “Min­strelsy” column until 1939, only three years before the Sojourner Truth Homes riots. But by Octo­ber 1942, midway between those riots and the riots of the following summer, the trade weekly was publishing a new chart, the “Har­lem Hit Parade.” Soon there would be a riot going on in more ways than one. Something — in time, it would come to be known as rock ‘n’ roll — was gathering in the wind.

Louis Jordan’s first hit, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” came in early 1942, con­current with the first Detroit riot­ing. Jordan by then was 33 years old, and he had been performing since he was 12, when he found summer work with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in his native Ar­kansas. From Little Rock, where he studied music at Arkansas Bap­tist College and played alto saxo­phone with Jimmy Pryor’s Impe­rial Serenaders, he made his roundabout way to New York. There, in June 1929, in a group led by drummer Chick Webb, Jor­dan made his first recordings. Joining the Philadelphia-based Charlie Gaines Orchestra, Jordan made his next recordings in December 1932, when the Gaines group accompanied Louis Arm­strong at the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey. In March and September of 1934, again with Gaines, Jordan played at two Clarence Williams sessions for Vocalion. At the first session, on a song called “I Can’t Dance, I Got Ants in My Pants,” Jordan was featured as a vocalist for the first time on record. In the fall of 1936, after working awhile in drummer Kaiser Marshall’s band at the Ubangi Club in Harlem, he rejoined Chick Webb, whose or­chestra, by then featuring Webb’s teenage singing discovery, Ella Fitzgerald, was the rage of the Sa­voy Ballroom. From that autumn through the spring of 1938, Jordan made 31 recordings with Webb and Fitzgerald, for Decca.

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Jesse Stone, who would go on to write “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and other rock ‘n’ roll classics, and who Ahmet Ertegun would say “did more to develop the ba­sic rock ‘n’ roll sound than anybody else,” was working at the Apollo Theatre in 1938.

“This was right after it had been turned over from being a white burlesque house. I worked for Leonard Harper, staging shows, composing songs,” Stone told me in the summer of 1983. “I also played with my band at the Club Renaissance in Harlem on weekends. That’s where Louis Jor­dan picked up on my style of sing­ing. I was doin’ arrangements for Chick Webb at the time, and Lou­is was playin’ third alto in Chick’s band. He asked Chick could he sing, and Chick said yeah. Louis said, ‘Well, Jesse’s gonna make a couple arrangements for me.’ So I made the arrangements. He tried ’em out one night and he went over great. Chick didn’t like that. He wouldn’t call the tunes again after that. So Louis quit. I encour­aged him, told him that if he wanted to sing, he should get away from Chick. He took my band, and they became the Elks Rendezvous Band.”

Named for the Lenox Avenue nightclub where they found their first steady work, Jordan’s band made its first recordings, for Dec­ca, five days before Christmas of 1938. Changing the band’s name soon after to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five — a name he would never forsake, no matter how many musicians he brought onstage or into the studio — Jordan remained with Decca for more than 15 years. He became the biggest-selling black act of the ’40s with four of that decade’s 10 biggest r&b hits. More important, he made some of the greatest music that has ever been made; if any one man is to be given credit for siring rock ‘n’ roll, it is he.

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Let the Good Times Roll: The Complete Decca Recordings, 1938-1954 (Bear Family, PO Box 1154, 2864 Vollersode, Germany) is a magnificent collection: eight compact discs and one long-play vinyl album (Jordan’s duets with Ella Fitzgerald could not be li­censed for CD release here) com­prising and presenting the full de­velopment, breadth, and flow of Jordan’s main body of work in all its glory. Inspired in part by the popularity of the current stage re­vue Five Guys Named Moe, there has been renewed interest in Jor­dan of late. The recordings that he made, 1929-38, as a sideman and sometime singer, are now available on several compact discs in the Classics Chronological series from France. The Vintage Jazz Classics CD Five Guys Named Moe: The Best of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five brings to­gether V-Disc and radio-pilot re­cordings from 1943-46. Jordan’s work after leaving Decca can be heard on the Capitol CD One Guy Named Louis: The Complete Alla­din Sessions and the new Verve CD No Moe! Even Jordan’s penul­timate session, done in Paris in late 1973, is now a CD, I Believe In Music, from Evidence. And there are videos as well — three compilations and a featurette. But know it: the Bear Family set rep­resents the heart of the Jordan corpus.

Jordan’s first number-one hit, “What’s the Use of Gettin’ So­ber,” recorded in New York City in the summer of 1942, 10 days before the Harlem riots, was a breezy piece of hokum, complete with an introductory comical col­loquy, that was little more than a jive-age rendering of an old-fash­ioned minstrelsy turn. The hits continued to come, and by the summer of 1944, when his “G.I. Jive” crossed over to the pop charts, Jordan’s commercial suc­cess was such that Decca brought him together in the studio with Bing Crosby, the golden idol of mainstream pop.

From 1938 through the Crosby duets, Jordan’s music remained essentially a captivating blend of swing, sweet, and jive. By 1945, however, the jive aspect — that elusive protopathic something that Jesse Stone called “my style”; that nascent poetry of hepcat ni­hilism set to the obliterating rhythm of the century’s rising pulse — began to bound forward with a rushing force that soon left swing and sweet in the dust. It can be heard, lush and wild, in the opening waves of “Buzz Me”; in the fierce, truncated saxophone breaks of “They Raided the House”; in the blare and squeal of “Caldonia Boogie” — all recorded on the same glorious day in Janu­ary 1945. Both “Caldonia Boo­gie” and “Buzz Me” became num­ber-one r&b hits and crossed over to the pop charts, impelling and forever imbuing the sound of things to come.

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Jordan by then had moved to Los Angeles. Back in New York, other reed-men — they had come out of the same sort of jazz bands as he — were brewing a strange new sound. By 1946, when Dizzy Gillespie and his All-Star Quintet released a record called “Be-Bop,” that strange new brew had a name; and by the summer of that year, when Charlie Parker record­ed “Lover Man,” jazz was as much about mystique as about music. Those musicians who culti­vated that mystique, that aura of the serious artist, would define jazz and the concept of hip in the decades to come. But the summer of alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker’s “Lover Man” was also the summer of alto-saxophonist Louis Jordan’s “Choo-Choo Ch’Boogie,” the biggest r&b hit of the year and a resounding smack to the face of all self-serious art and a smack as well on the ass of that newborn baby, conceived in rhythm and baptized in wine, called rock ‘n’ roll. It was a sundering smack, leaving the para­digm of hep forever cleft in twain. From here on in, one either sat squirming to the fingerfuck of ex­istentialism or one danced on the grave of pretensions.

The electric guitar had become a part of Jordan’s evolving sound in 1945, and by 1946 its presence was often as important as that of the saxophones. The electric-gui­tar licks that kick off “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” recorded in January of that year, would be recycled 12 years later by Chuck Berry in “Johnny B. Goode.” By the end of 1946, Jordan was at his musical peak, having arrived at a unique and consummate sound that was both a continuation of the old — he had not so much for­saken big-band swing as trans­formed its essentials into a driving force for new rhythms — and a foreshadowing of things to come. That peak can be heard in “Let the Good Times Roll,” the rau­cous birth-cry of a new era and the song that still best sums up the sound and style and achievement of Louis Jordan.

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Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” came out nine months after “Let the Good Times Roll” hit the charts, and by the summer of the following year, Wynonie Harris’s cover of Brown’s song was a number-one hit. Jordan continued to make fine music — “Saturday Night Fish Fry” in that summer of 1949, “Blue Light Boogie” in the summer of 1950 — but, in 1951, the hits stopped coming. The two compact discs here that cover the years 1950 to 1954 contain more than a few splendid surprises — the previous­ly unissued blues “If You’ve Got Someplace to Go”; the luxuriant, forth-bursting “If You’re So Smart, How Come You Ain’t Rich?”; the lowdown “I Gotta Move” — but they exude the lassi­tude of a man whose music was being eclipsed by others’, a man reverting more and more to the rote familiarity of past idioms, as if seeking refuge from a world whose sound was changing too fast and too deliriously. Just six months, a breath in time, sepa­rates Jordan’s last Decca session from Elvis’s first Sun session; but that breath is immense, one of expiration and of inspiration both.

As early as 1941, Downbeat, the voice of the hep status quo, damned Jordan’s music as “crap.” Since then, anything that takes a swipe at that status quo has been similarly damned, from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to Body Count. In the end, it is not the music that defines rock ‘n’ roll — the current that connects “Caldonia Boogie” to “Jailhouse Rock” to “Cop Kill­er” runs deep beneath the surface of the cultural waves — it is the damnation it evokes in its myriad disparate emanations.

Though more danceable than damnable, more conducive to ro­mancing than rioting, the blast of Louis Jordan’s music was the in­vocation that started it all. As his­tory — more important, as fun­ — this magnificent set brings that blast to life anew. ❖

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Cecile McLorin Salvant

The Grammy-nominated 24-year-old breakout singer opens for the multi-generational Spring Quartet all-star group after a banner year following the Mack Avenue release of WomanChild, a bracing debut that blends the plaintive blues of Bessie Smith with the brio of Abbey Lincoln and Salvant’s own Haitian flair. Wynton Marsalis has embraced the 2010 Monk Competition winner as a leading jazz vocalist, citing her respect for tradition tempered by a brash timbre and range. Salvant plumbs the depths of the jazz canon, exploring the French chanson and performing lesser-known standards, including Ella Fitzgerald’s “There’s a Lull in My Life” and Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.”

Feb. 28-March 1, 8 p.m., 2014


Dianne Reeves

Many might still know her as the jazz singer in Good Night, and Good Luck, but beyond having been a bulwark against McCarthyism and other repressive mindsets, for the past 35 years, Dianne Reeves has served as an unofficial ambassador between jazz, r&b, blues, and soul. In many ways heir to the mantle of Ella Fitzgerald, Reeves has inspired a generation of powerful female voices, among them Esperanza Spalding, First Daughter of Soul Lalah Hathaway, and Terri Lyne Carrington, who will all be joining her at Carnegie Hall. Fusion pioneer George Duke rounds out the group on keyboard.

Sat., Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m., 2013


’11th Annual A Great Night in Harlem’

This annual rent party for the jazz world’s financially struggling draws a litany of living legends: Quincy Jones, Dr. John, Paquito D’Rivera, and Randy Weston will all be in the same room, but with the ghosts of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Etta James hanging over the Apollo, this is no ordinary room. Expect the kind of sensory overload caused by Mo’ Better Blues, Cadillac Records, and Dreamgirls all at the same time.

Thu., May 17, 7 p.m., 2012


‘Been Rich All My Life’

The aesthetics of Heather MacDonald’s documentary are not remarkable, but the dancing octogenarians are. In fact, the Silver Belles, five former Harlem chorus girls who are still bustin’ a move despite their advanced ages, are the best kind of company there is. Despite not being able to “remember shit,” and despite declining and unpredictable bodies, they make it to performance after performance, donning sequins and spangles, and whooping up a whole lotta somethin’ in front of sold-out crowds. Been Rich gives us a slice of American history, as the Belles discuss their origins and their years as chorus girls. They danced with Bill Robinson (a/k/a Bojangles); shared the stage with Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong; and put on upwards of half a dozen shows a day, seven days a week. The Silver Belles are bold, brash, and gorgeously awake, and their willingness to live large is thrilling.


Christmas Gilt

The annual profusion of Christmas albums suggests a bottomless appetite for the same dozen or 15 songs done in every conceivable fashion, and a hapless record industry is eager to oblige. When in doubt, shake up the backlist, develop a seasonal pun, and leave the rest to nostalgia. It is frequently noted that most of the good American Christmas songs, beginning with Berlin’s “White Christmas” (1942, not so very long ago), are by Jewish composers. They have secularized the revelry to the point where even unlapsed Catholics must at times struggle to recall that all the fuss commemorates their savior’s birth and not merely ASCAP and BMI annuities involving sleigh bells, drummer boys, chipmunks, reindeer, chestnuts, Santa, Frosty, and, most crucially, snow—of which there was a dearth in Galilee. Why those songwriters could not bestir themselves to write a single decent Hanukkah song is a mystery for the ages. Hath not a Jew snow, snowmen, bells, singing animals, Buddy Rich?

Secularist that I am, I don’t need chain-rattling Marley to muster my belief in miracles, for example, the sound of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice in 1960, when she recorded Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, recently reissued by Verve. Her instrument was pearly—perhaps at its apogee—and her time, well, what is there left to say of her time, a musical Greenwich Mean? “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is near perfect, so near that for the duration of her vocal I am inclined to close the book on singers and concede that paradise is lost. This, of course, is the Blane and Martin song from Meet Me in St. Louis, sung by Judy Garland to her kid sister, who then beheads the family snowman. Yule—sorry—shed no tears during the Fitzgerald reading, which lopes along on a springy, bass-driven vamp that heightens the endearing melody while taking nothing from her translucent high notes, each glimmering with the twinkling of a sigh. If only arranger Frank DeVol hadn’t settled for a dreary instrumental interlude—his accompaniment, by contrast, is deft and congenial—and had given her more room to embellish the final chorus.

The generally upbeat tempos, chosen to fulfill the promise of the title, rob Fitzgerald of the balladic expansiveness she might have used to light up some of these evergreens. Her “Winter Wonderland” is tossed off too casually, leaving the field to Doris Day, whose 1964 rendering remains one of the most improbably erotic records ever (available on Day’s Columbia anthology, Personal Christmas Collection). That Fitzgerald was encouraged to keep the album brisk is made clear by the alternate takes, including a slow and dreamy version of “The Christmas Song” that thoroughly supersedes the one chosen for the original LP. On the other hand, it was unnecessary to release a jokey, rightly rejected take of “Frosty the Snowman,” sung in her 1930s “My Wubber Dolly” voice; does cleaning out the vaults preclude all discrimination? The LP’s ringer is “Good Morning Blues,” introduced by Jimmy Rushing in Basie’s band, and adapted by DeVol for a triple-meter backbeat arrangement not unlike Cannonball Adderley waltzes from the same period. Though never a great blues singer, Fitzgerald bedecks the familiar phrases with golden-throat ornaments, making them merry and bright.

The real end-of-year musical bounty lies mostly in box sets, and this season is rife with surprises, among them surveys of two guitarists who might be considered diametric opposites beyond their comparative obscurity: Mosaic’s Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions (mail order only: 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902, and Blue Note’s Grant Green Retrospective 1961-66. Jazz has not produced many one-hit wonders, but Smith qualifies. He was a phenomenal technician who invented a tight style of voicing chords and advancing seamlessly from one to the next, producing a mobile sound that at times resembles harp, organ, and steel guitar as well as the six-string electric guitar he was actually playing. Born in Alabama, self-taught, and apprenticed in hillbilly bands, Smith enjoyed a tripartite career in jazz, classical music, and anonymous studio work. His primary success in the former came in the 1950s, triggered by his 1952 quintet recording of “Moonlight in Vermont,” a minor pop hit and instant jazz classic, at least among guitarists, who twisted and spread-eagled their fingers trying to replicate his harmonies.

Forever associated with him, “Moonlight” holds up beautifully, as does the entire session, which produced a similarly conceived “Where or When”—in both instances, sideman Stan Getz offers obbligato, brief solos, and a taut unison blend—and startlingly speedy versions of “Tabu” and an original, “Jaguar,” in which the meshed instruments and lively swing confirm Smith’s new wrinkle in cool jazz. If developed, it might have had an impact comparable to that of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Smith never considered himself a jazz artist, but he was a masterly improviser, launching his solos with jetting arpeggios, coloring them with thin chime-like harmonics, and sustaining lucid percussive phrases—his forceful transformation of “Stranger in Paradise” is typical. Most of the eight discs are taken up by short quartet and trio numbers, yet beyond a few commercial misfires (a Flower Drum Song album), Smith rarely falls short, combining blunt variations and an alluring, encompassing sound.

By contrast, Grant Green was a strictly one-note-at-a-time linear player, a direct extension of Charlie Christian. During his major period, the 1960s, he was considered an anomaly for his directness and constancy in both conservative and modernistic settings. Born in St. Louis, tutored by his father (Grant, like Jimmy Smith, was playing professionally at 13), and groomed in r&b, blues, and organ groups, he perfected an unfeigned steely tone and saxophone-like legato fluency. At a time when jazz guitar was occupied with the wonders of Wes Montgomery’s octaves, Jim Hall’s lyricism, and the up-and-coming dynamism of George Benson and Pat Martino, Green’s greatest virtues—his incisive clarity and blues-grounded simplicity—undermined his stature, as did Blue Note’s occasional input of ’60s pop tunes and Verve’s subsequent accent on broad funk. The four-disc Retrospective, though heavy on the organ years and not fully representative (only one track from his masterpiece, Idle Moments; compiler Michael Cuscuna may have assumed you’ve got that, as indeed you should), is an engrossing survey with Green at the center of Blue Note’s stock company, which provided him such sidemen as Joe Henderson, Booker Ervin, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Ike Quebec, and Sam Rivers, just to mention the tenors.

The key, short-lived founders of jazz guitar were also documented this year: Eddie Lang in Mosaic’s amazingly comprehensive eight-disc Classic Columbia and OKeh Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang Sessions, and Christian in Columbia/Legacy’s four-disc Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar, which consists entirely of his work with Benny Goodman, whose name is inexplicably omitted from the amplifier-shaped box, as is an indexing of the tracks in the 1941 jam session that culminated with “Blues in B.” But it straightens out, at long last, the mess of alternate takes and even adds a few—in Christian’s case, never a surplus. Both sets are essential. I’m not sure the same can be said for two of the most impressive, collector-oriented packages in years, which suggest that there will always be more Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis than Santa could ever keep up with.

Frank Sinatra in Hollywood (1940-1964), a collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and Reprise, is a six-disc survey of movietown desiderata for completists who want not only the tracks he recorded for films, but also the outtakes, promotions, running tapes, Oscar speech (honorary, 1946, for The House I Live In), pro forma interview with Louella Parsons, and new mixes designed to make the songs sound more like records than movies. The stocking is stuffed with several songs dropped from films, including one recorded for the soundtrack of Advise and Consent, and a pairing with Maurice Chevalier in which Sinatra indulges in the sheer baritoneness of his voice while the French guy is encouraged to swing. It’s a time capsule, very handsomely done, and the best of it emphasizes not least the expertness of Hollywood’s sound engineers.

I have not yet worked my way through all 20 volumes of The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux (Warner Music/Switzerland), but I will: No collection of previously unknown material released this decade has given me more pleasure while forcing me to unclog hardened aesthetic arteries. It begins with the Pete Cosey band of 1973, skips to 1984, documenting every set through 1986, and resumes with the shorter appearances between 1988 and 1991. The performances are unedited, and part of the consuming joy—these are mostly joyous sets—is conveyed in the interaction between Davis and the audiences he transported. In the late ’80s, I commented on differences between Davis’s frazzled concerts in New York and the exhilarating ones that followed a couple of weeks later at European festivals (not Montreux). The summer Montreux concerts in the ’80s reveal a variety of material, communal dedication, and total commitment by the leader—Davis is determinedly on. Even when he begins with kitschy synthesized voices (1988), he’s just setting up a stirring revision of “In a Silent Way”—his trumpet fat anddaring, verging on ebullience when it isn’tripping knifelike through blues, as in the 1986 Jack Johnson medley. One piece bleeds into another, bearing tidings most of us never knew: July in Christmas.


Fetishizing the LP

Old recording artifacts die hard, their value increasing in ratio to the ethereality of their replacements. Last year boxes of Billie Holiday and Charley Patton mimicked 78 rpm albums. Many CDs replicate original LPs, in cardboard or paper-modified jewel boxes—among them series from Savoy, Sony, Impulse, and Verve. If memory serves, Verve was the first to offer miniaturization: The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks remains one of the most delectable of reissues, a shrunken version of the original albums that seemed terribly witty in 1993. Since then Verve has offered amended versions of LPs in Master Edition and By Request lines—cardboard gatefolds with breakable plastic disc-holders and rejected takes. Now the label, which, thanks to recent mergers, owns Impulse, Decca, Mercury, A&M, Horizon, and other catalogs, returns to the Fitzgerald template for its LP Reproduction series. Unlike the Savoy editions, which included inserts with basic recording info, Verve offers inserted blowups of the original liners when they are deemed too small to read.

This reflects laziness, cheapness, or a zealousness worthy of counterfeiters, but not of typical jazz lovers, who like to know the identity of the musicians, composers, and arrangers; the years when the tracks were cut; and the order in which they are presented—information that ’50s producers, particularly Norman Granz, often failed to supply. Duplication does not extend to the disc itself, which reproduces the logo, though this would have been a handy place to include a track list with composer credits. Still, petite replicas offer a certain frisson to those who like inner and outer sleeves, cheesy graphics, an average playing time of 35 minutes, and a reprieve from repeated takes. Moreover, it gets neglected product back in catalog. Jazz discs must be moving so briskly that the industry can hardly keep up with the demand—hence an initial release of 20 LPs, with another 10 scheduled for August. The choices are très strange, reflecting neither consistent excellence nor commercial success, and running the gamut from Margaret Whiting to Alice Coltrane. A few groupings suggest themselves. Half are vocal or part-vocal.

Carmen McRae’s 1958 Birds of a Feather is a find: her last album for Decca, representing a transition from the sweet naïf to the edgy sophisticate she would become. It offers one of Decca’s howl-inducing covers—two bluebirds examining her décolletage—and a saturated sound mix that sends McRae even more over the top than she was inclined to go. A few tracks (“The Eagle and Me,” “Baltimore Oriole”) are distorted by echo chamber; here is an instance where remastering might have undone the damage, but at the cost of fidelity to 1958. For the same reason, there is no identification of “a tenorman,” though Ben Webster’s sound is an unmistakable calling card, and his participation amounts to a full-scale collaboration. (Al Cohn also appears, but as a section man.) Ralph Burns’s efficient charts employ four French horns on a few tracks, but generally leave McRae and Webster unfettered. She is radiant: her left-field entrance on “Skylark,” loose aggression on “Bob White,” brief scat on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” A choir and country-gospel chart by producer Milt Gabler on “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” suggests unfulfilled plans for a single.

Rosemary Clooney’s Swing Around Rosie pretends to be a Coral recording (subsidiary of Decca), but actually consists of a dozen transcriptions from her radio show, backed by Buddy Cole’s organ quartet. Again, the audio was maxed to fire the old hi-fi. Though Clooney’s in hearty voice, Cole’s buoyantly cute, often corny charts don’t give her much room to maneuver. Her musicianship allows no intrusions on “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” and “This Can’t Be Love,” but her finest work of the period was on RCA. Anita O’Day’s 1960 Incomparable!, however, is her finest, or some of it, parsed in tight Bill Holman arrangements. She reveals an unusual glimmer of Billie Holiday’s influence on “It Could Happen to You,” and an appealingly raw edge to her top notes on a romping “Indian Summer.” But she is always her own sexy, risk-taking self—note the canny embellishments on “Old Devil Moon,” “Why Shouldn’t I,” and “Easy Living.” Her wordless “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” breaks the three-minute mold and shows her accurate pitch, but all those doo-doo-doos recall Clem Kadiddlehopper. The several uncredited soloists include Bill Perkins, Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, and Lou Levy, with Mel Lewis keeping time.

Margaret Whiting is by no definition a jazz singer, but like most good pop singers of her day, she had good time as well as a lovely vocal mask and exemplary intonation. Her Jerome Kern Song Book includes the verses and sustains an understated pulse. Only “D’Ye Love Me” is substandard Kern, and, among Russell Garcia’s arrangements, only “I’m Old Fashioned” sinks to novelty level, though Whiting ignores its faux baroque and works with the rhythm section. Her vibratoless whole notes are engaging on “Look for the Silver Lining,” and she confidently canters through “Dearly Beloved” and the more improbable “You Couldn’t Be Cuter.” Ella Fitzgerald’s Whisper Not (1966, her last Verve album) and Sarah Vaughan’s It’s a Man’s World (1967, her last Mercury) are often overlooked. The former has inventive golden-voiced ballads, notably “Thanks for the Memory,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and “Time After Time,” and the latter, despite oppressive strings, has many exceptional moments and one full-blooded masterpiece, “My Man,” in which every syllable is discretely inflected. Mel Torme’s Olé Tormé!, arranged by Billy May, shows Mel in toreador rig—it was that or a fruit-salad hat. The rock ‘n’ roll intro to “Malagueña” screams 1958, though most of the tunes are well chosen, and Torme is in prime voice—”Baia” especially—if you like his prime voice. For some reason, the selections are heard in different order than listed on the jacket.


The Torme leads to a second division: three albums recorded in the ’60s, part of Verve’s good-neighbor policy. Astrud Gilberto’s The Shadow of Your Smile is whispery mood music, heavily arranged to exploit her “yearning innocence”—25 minutes’ worth. She is best with just guitar on a pleasing “Manha de Carnaval.” According to the The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, she has “an economy of melodic line and a steady momentum akin to that of Basie, but its rhythmic drive is often devoid of contours.” Got that? The title of Willie Bobo’s A New Dimension refers to his singing, which is nondescript, but his fixed dance rhythms pack a punch (Freddie Waits on traps), and so do his soloists. Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’s Equinox is beyond the concerns, ken, and pale of this page.

As a bridge from bossa to boss instrumentals, Oscar Peterson’s Soul Español, a 1966 Limelight, is overly familiar but effective. Adding three percussionists to his trio (Sam Jones, Louis Hayes), he spins each piece with rolling, hustling minor thirds and tremolos, mining romance from “How Insensitive” and “Meditation,” and gusto from “Carioca” and “Mas Que Nada,” which swing too hard to resist. Stan Getz and the Cool Sounds implies that he’s playing with one of those ’50s lounge trios, but no, the title is generic, and so he balladeers with great rhythm sections (Lou Levy, Jimmy Rowles, Max Roach, a spot of Tony Fruscella’s trumpet) in peak form. Paul Desmond does his hat trick, entering with peculiar notes on “These Foolish Things” and “Star Dust,” on 1975: The Duets, but Dave Brubeck plods (he’s stronger without Desmond, on “Summer Song”), and the absence of a rhythm section is no help. Willow Weep for Me, the posthumous Wes Montgomery album for which Claus Ogerman overdubbed orchestrations, should never have seen the light of day. This reissue is mind-boggling, especially since the type is so small that unsuspecting consumers are likely only to note the quartet. Montgomery’s brilliant performances can be heard as intended, when he and Wynton Kelly recorded them live at the Half Note, on Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides. If you see Willow Weep for Me in a store, it is perfectly legal to stomp on it or set it afire.

I have little space for the two remaining categories: big band classics and kitsch. Don’t miss Woody Herman 1963, one of his all-time great ones, arranged almost entirely by members of the band, which helps explain the very cool choice of material—pieces by Horace Parlan, Horace Silver, Joe Newman, and Duke Ellington. The concerto for tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico, “Sister Sadie,” is a high, but there are no lows—Jake Hanna’s drumming is almost unbelievably on point throughout, and dig Woody’s klezmer sound on “It’s a Lonesome Old Town.” The hot spots on Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguard are the Al Cohn charts on “Blueport” and “Lady Chatterly’s Mother,” and I hope this reissue won’t hinder Verve’s long-promised complete Concert Jazz Band. Count Basie’s King of Swing, from 1953 to ’54, is motored by drummer Gus Johnson, and features the leanest riffing machine in jazz, with rocking blues arrangements and superb solos; Frank Wess kills on Freddie Greene’s “Right On,” and goes toe-to-toe with Frank Foster on Neal Hefti’s “Two for the Blues.” Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro, from 1954, restores a major achievement that led to the rebirth of his orchestra. Chico O’Farrill’s title suite is a deconstruction of “Manteca”—first the piece itself, then elaborations on the bridge (“Contraste”), the key rhythmic figure (“Jungla”), and the vamps (“Rhumba-Finale”). Dizzy’s playing is blindingly radiant.

Kitsch: Stan Kenton, The Formative Years, which includes “Concerto for Doghouse” with vocal by Howard Rumsey, sounding disconcertingly like Tex Avery’s Droopy; and Alice Coltrane, Universal Consciousness, which isn’t as bad as it sounds if you’ve achieved nirvana or a reasonable state of inebriation.



Scuba Diva

For her recent six-night Village Vanguard stay, 22-year-old singer Jane Monheit arrived onstage like Venus in a shell. Or like a creature rising from a wave. Apparently, mermaids intrigue her, and she’s appropriated the look. She wears a long, black fishtail dress. Her dark, wavy hair falls to her waist. She scatters sparkles on her face—with its expressive eyes and full lips—and on her graceful arms so that she seems to shimmer. Or, if it’s a torch song she’s delivering, she seems awash in crystalline tears.

But physical beauty isn’t everything. The voice is what counts—and the understanding of lyrics. Not only does Monheit have a pure and extraordinarily supple instrument, she knows exactly what she wants to do with it—her improvisations are flawless. The runner-up to Teri Thornton in the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition, she has already mastered the jazz singer’s knack for riffing on melody and the cabaret singer’s know-how with words.

To sing standards two and three times older than she is, she’s listened very astutely to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, and Carmen Macrae, and she already qualifies as their peer. Indeed, since Vaughan and Fitzgerald always intuited the drama in melodies but rarely in lyrics, Monheit may be said to have surpassed her idols in her ability to dive under the surface of a song. Throughout, she fronted musicians Grady Tate, Frank Wess, Jay Leonhart, and Bruce Barth (who provided mellow support) as if she’d been around as long as they have.

At the Vanguard she sang numbers from her first CD, Never Never Land (N-Coded), and threw in a few extras. Mentioning in her sultry-little-girl way that she has an affinity for ballads, she proved it with easy but never glib renditions of two torchy numbers—the Lou Carter-Herb Ellis “Detour Ahead” and the Ned Washington-Victor Young “My Foolish Heart”—and an especially doleful “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” that would have gratified Duke Ellington and Paul Francis Webster no end. On opening night she crooned, to guest artist Bucky Pizzarelli’s accompaniment, the treacherous Fran Landesman- Tommy Wolf “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” as if she were tossing off her ABCs. In Annie Ross and Wardell Gray’s “Twisted,” done with amusing languor, she trilled, “I knew I was a genius.” She’s got that right. —David Finkle

Holy Smoke

Bawdy juvenile antics, odes to violence, and petitions to altered states of consciousness hung thick as herbal smog in the Continental Airlines Arena Saturday night. Between the pyrotechnics, riveting movie clips, and nearly perfect sound system, “Up In Smoke” was as adeptly orchestrated as Dr. Dre’s crisp metaphysical tracks. Dare I call it family entertainment? Cuz e’rybody —from the cannabis connoisseurs to new-to-this suburban teens to the old school (that would be me, old school being “21 and over”)—was spent after the relentless multiclimactic ride to the left side. Blackgirls squirmed a little when a call for the ‘hos rang out; whiteboys wriggled in their seats during the “white jokes.” Whitegirls probably laughed least, but all cliques eventually aligned themselves with the boyz in the hood.

The once revolutionary Ice Cube and his beefy Wesside partners spoke now in cross-marketing tongues (“Who saw Next Friday?”), and given the extracurricular activities going on up in that piece, adroitly left “Fuck Tha Police” off the lineup too. At first, Eminem’s matricidal rants shook me (especially given that his own babymamma just slashed her wrists), but when he sang his lost-boy blues over a spooked-out ’80s-metal guitar solo that caressed a throbbin’ hip-hop track, I bore witness to a holy miscegenation that begat a more honest future. And even if he committed the ultimate sin of fallin’ off the beat a few times, the talented Slim Shady redeemed himself by rippin’ the shit outta “Forgot About Dre.”

Of course a gangsta party is incomplete without pimpin’ ‘hos, part of the House of Chronic’s repertoire for years. From the vulgar vignette “You Can’t Make a Ho a Housewife” to Nate Dogg fakeass-Donell-Jones-crooning “Ain’t No Fun” to Chronic 2001‘s “Fuck You,” Snoop and Dre resumed their place in my heart as that sly nigga that keep gettin’ back in cuz he be layin’ it down . . . well. As usual, Dre and Snoop had me throwing in my save-the-girls towel and properly shaking my ass, while they droned on about nut sacks on tonsils and other things “sticky-icky-icky.”

Finally, the 64 screeched to a slowdown with a drawn-out remix of “Let Me Ride” and a boring and self-indulgent N.W.A. tribute. But I could never be mad at Dre for long—the mighty, mighty D-R remains the most artful plastic surgeon of hip-hop’s ever changing face. —Angela Bronner