Thursday, September 29, 2016

Diana Krall: The Price of Making It [From the Archives]

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


“Diana Krall's biggest problem in the jazz world is success.

Singing is closer to the actor's art than the musician's. The real trick of the ballad is not to make the song happen but to let it happen — to get out of its way.

Someone once wrote in the New Yorker that when Mel Torme sang A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, you heard the singer. When Frank Sinatra sang it you heard the song. When Nat Cole sang it, you heard the nightingale.”
- Gene Lees

The following piece by the eminent Jazz author Gene Lees comes after one on the subject of Diana Krall by Jazz scholar Alyn Shipton that posted to the blog earlier in the week.

My Krall Quest was inspired by a friend hipping me to guitarist Anthony Wilson’s solo that begins at 1:47 into the All Or Nothing At All video taken from the 2001 “Live in Paris” Concert which you’ll find at the conclusion of this piece and which is NOT ON the subsequently released CD. [Mercifully, it is included on the DVD.]

Anthony’s brilliant solo just knocked me out, which led me to a viewing of the entire concert and then to do a bit more research on Diana’s early years in Jazz by way of the Alyn Shipton essay and the below piece by Gene Lees.

Of course, since the Shipton and Lees interviews were conducted in 1999, Diana has gone on to become a huge star and I couldn’t be happier for her because as revealed in these earlier conversations she seems like quite a nice person in addition to being an exceptional musician and vocalist.

The Price of Making It
Jazzletter May, 1999
Gene Lees

“Few things illustrate the tensions in the career of Diana Krall as clearly as the letter from Eve Short and Alyn Shipton's article. Their polarity expresses the conditions of our time.

Alyn Shipton is a musician by training — a bassist — and the jazz critic of The Times of London as well as a broadcaster on jazz for the BBC. He is the author of Groovin' High, the biography of Dizzy Gillespie to which I made reference in the previous three issues. He is also a project editor for the British publisher Cassell, and he is my editor on the newest collection of Jazzletter essays, devoted to composers and arrangers, among them Gil Evans, Robert Farnon, Marion Evans, Mel Powell, Roger Kellaway, Gerry Mulligan, and Kenny Wheeler, due out in November.

Diana Krall's biggest problem in the jazz world is success. The first press run on her new album with charts by Johnny Mandel was, reportedly, a million copies. She can fill concert halls around the world, and no one in jazz or even quality popular music, to coin an awkward term, has had anything like the promotional and publicity buildup that she has. It is usually reserved for rock stars.

Her blonde image has been on the cover of seemingly every publication except The Watchtower. Her career has been advanced by such mentors as Ray Brown and John Clayton, and she has studied with outstanding teachers, including Mike Renzi, Alan Broadbent, and, most extensively, the late Jimmy Rowles.

You'd think most jazz fans and critics would be delighted. But she has been the subject of a fair amount of attack. That was to be expected, since many admirers of jazz really do not want it to be popular. It would deny them their claim to special taste. Someone fresh comes along, is acclaimed by press and the fan corps, becomes immensely popular, then suddenly is on the anathema list as having "sold out". It happened to Dave Brubeck, Cannonball Adderley (accused or producing "homogenized funk"), George Shearing. It happened, to a degree, to Dizzy Gillespie. To some extent it even happened to Miles Davis.

It's happening now to Diana Krall. And this raises certain significant issues.

Mel Torme said once that "the trouble with this business is that it's all bottom and top. There's no middle." And whatever middle there ever was has been eroding, along with the middle class of America, as showbiz looks for the blockbuster movie hit, the overnight payoff, seventy-million-dollars the opening weekend.

I once said to Gerry Mulligan, "The trouble with people like you and me, Mulligan, is that we want world fame and total anonymity at the same time."

The truth behind that quip is that without a Name, the corporations are not interested in your work, no matter how meritorious. You are not "bankable," as they say in Hollywood. And nowadays, few are the executives who will invest the time and effort and grooming in a talent that new careers really require. RCA producer Joe Rene told me at least thirty years ago that whereas he had once been allowed five years to build the career of a new singer, now the accountants and lawyers invading and controlling the record industry wanted to see the payoff in one year. Singers like Terri Thornton and Ethel Ennis and Marge Dodson and Marilyn Maye, magnificent talents, got dropped. The business was no longer about music, it was about selling pieces of plastic.

The point of my comment to Mulligan is that you accept the necessity of publicity and the building of a Name, but the very process makes you want to run and hide from it.

Until a few months ago, I had never heard Diana Krall. Terry Teachout had been importuning me about her for two years, and friends among the musicians of Toronto had talked about her.

Then one day Johnny Mandel and I went to pay a visit to Red Norvo in a small hospital in Santa Monica. We both sensed, as we left his room after about an hour, that we would never see him again, and we never did.


When we reached the street, Johnny told me he intended to do an album with Diana Krall. He was astounded that I'd never heard her, and had me drive from one Santa Monica record shop to another until he found the album he wanted to be my introduction to her, All for You, subtitled "a dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio." I was charmed by it. I liked her piano work, and I liked her singing. We listened to it all the way back to his home in Malibu.

By coincidence, Jazz Times magazine asked me to write a profile on her. I was about to spend some time in New York, and thought I might interview her there. But she was doing a gig in Philadelphia at that time. I agreed to see her there.

Before I went, however, I read the thick sheaf of articles about her supplied to me by Rogers and Cowan, the public relations agency that is handling Krall. The redundancy of questions in the interviews was notable. Everyone subject to the pressures of a publicity campaign has been through it. Eventually the process becomes numbing. You begin to recite your answers to the predictable questions.

Mandel said that part of his enthusiasm lay in his delight in encountering a singer under fifty who knew the classic song repertoire. But realistically, she's not all that young. She's thirty-three, Ella Fitzgerald first recorded at seventeen, Frank Sinatra recorded All or Nothing at All with Harry James when he was twenty-four and by twenty-seven was the biggest singer the business had ever seen, Nat Cole was twenty-six when he recorded Straighten up and Fly Right, Gerry Mulligan wrote Disc Jockey Jump for Gene Krupa when he was twenty, Victor Feldman was an established professional at twelve, Woody Herman was twenty-two when he became leader of the Band that Plays the Blues, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz before they were thirty, Mendelssohn was seventeen when he launched the Bach revival and died at thirty-eight, while Bizet and Mozart died when they were only a couple of years older than Krall is now. Krall is, in fact, something of a late bloomer, and her work is still evolving.

The question frequently thrown at her — why isn't she writing songs? — is odd. Our best writers have not been singers, Johnny Mercer being the spectacular exception. Al Jolson would seem to be another exception, but in fact his name is on all sorts of songs to which contributed nothing whatsoever: it got there by coercion exerted on the songwriters in a process known in those days as the cut-in. Ella Fitzgerald never wrote a song in her life. Nor did Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Julius LaRosa, or Matt Monro. Frank Sinatra contributed a line or so to a couple of songs, but built his career on the classic repertoire. Frankie Laine wrote the superb lyric to Carl Fischer's We'll Be Together Again. Peggy Lee wrote a few quite excellent songs but nonetheless built her career on the work of others. A few of the good songwriters sing or sang well though not for a living, Alan Bergman, Alan J. Lerner, and Harold Arlen among them, but most sang badly if at all, and to hear some of them demonstrate their wares could be excruciating. Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Rossini, and Bizet didn't sing; or if they did, they didn't do it publicly. Years ago the two professions were considered mutually exclusive. Rock-and-roll changed that perception, and we have now had forty years of double-threat people who can't sing and can't write.

As for Krall's comment about operatic voice, it misses the point. Back when I was singing a lot in Canada, particularly on television, I did a CBC special that starred myself and the great contralto Maureen Forrester. I was reluctant to do it at all, figuring that with her pipes she'd blow me away. In fact she was enormously supportive, because she understood blending. I learned a lot of tricks from her in the downtime between camera shots, and she made a remark I do not forget: "I can sing opera and bounce a note off the back of a concert hall without a microphone, but I cannot sing Cole Porter without one." Maureen began as a band singer, and knew as few opera singers do the difference between the two kinds of voice production.

The late Jeri Southern once told me that each of us has two voices. I disputed this. Then she pointed out to me that Sarah Vaughan had a high, thin, intimidated speaking voice, almost that of a little girl, but a singing instrument of incredible power, darkness, and range. As for herself, Jeri said, she had been classically trained and she belted out a few phrases in an operatic voice sufficient to shatter goblets. She had become a success, she said, when she abandoned that voice and began singing in her speaking voice. It was a revelation to me, and I remembered that my early vocal influences had been Kenny Baker, Nelson Eddy, and John Charles Thomas; then I heard Sinatra. I once could produce a powerful operatic baritone; now I am not in touch with those muscles, and in any event, I don't like the sound. It is not appropriate to songs.

The most important thing operatic singing does have in common with "pop" singing is the breathing, the support.

It's unfortunate that Diana didn't, during her Los Angeles years, take some lessons from Jeri Southern, who taught a lot of people, including some established professionals.

Having read all the material, I went to Philadelphia. Beth Katz, the cordial and effective agent from Rogers and Cowan, had made a dinner reservation for Diana and me. I was there a little early. Diana came in, said hello, a little out of breath from hurrying, sat down, and began the conversation as if we knew each other, which in a sense, through mutual friends, we did. I took an immediate liking to her.

She was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Vancouver Island lies off the coast of British Columbia. Nanaimo (it's a Coast Indian name, pronounced Na-NY-mo) is a small city on the east coast of the island, facing toward the mainland. I went to high school for a year in Victoria, the capital of the province, a few miles south of it; Paul Horn lives in Victoria now. The island is one of the world's great beauty spots, mountainous and covered with Douglas firs, though how long they will last in the face of clear-cutting, the land's ongoing rape by the lumber companies, in both Canada and the United States, is questionable.

She mentioned Wigan, in Lancashire, England. I said immediately, "George Formby."

"How did you know?" she said.

"I not only grew up loving his movies and his records," I said, "but when I was a young reporter, I actually interviewed him." Formby was a Lancashire music-hall man and movie star, who played what he called a banjolele and sang comic songs. Peter Sellers was the ultimate Formby freak. But how did she, at her age, know Formby? Through her father, she said. Her father and mother loved that era of show business, and had recordings of the great radio shows, such as those of Jack Benny. It is not the influence of Jimmy Rowles that made her "look over her shoulder" at the older material. It was her family.

Her father is a chartered public accountant, her mother a teacher with a master's degree in educational administration. Her sister is bylaws officer of Nanaimo. When the two girls were young, they loved swimming and skiing. Diana had a dream of being an astronaut.

"I couldn't have had more supportive parents," Diana said. "The most important thing for me is my family. I'm close to my family. The hardest thing is living far away. I go home once a month."

"That often?" It's a few thousand miles from New York City, where she now lives, to Nanaimo.

"Yeah. I try to."

"And the singing?"

"I sang with my grandmother. I sound like her, a lot like her. My father's mother. She was a real character She was the last person to go to bed Christmas Eve. She'd still be up singing Hard-Hearted Hannah. Knew every tune. I went over to her house every day after school. We'd play the piano and sing. I just sang there, never at home. I didn't think I had a good enough voice. Then I started getting piano-bar gigs. I sang as little as I possibly could. Typical story. You get more gigs if you sing."

A considerable number of women singers began as pianists: Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Meredith d'Ambrosio, Audrey Morris, Jeri Southern, Shirley Horn among them.

She said, "I met Jeff Hamilton when I was nineteen, at the Bud Shank Port Townsend Music Camp. I listened to Rosemary Clooney when I was a kid, and he was on most of her records. And John Clayton, and Monty Alexander. Jeff encouraged me to come to Los Angeles and study, and said they'd make sure I was okay and got a good teacher.

"The next month, I think it was, the L.A. Four came up to Nanaimo. It was Jeff, and [guitarist] Ron Eschete, and Bud, and John. My mom and dad had them over for dinner. There was a jazz club in Nanaimo called Tio's. I heard Dave McKenna there, and Monty Alexander I met Ray Brown in Nanaimo, and since then they've all been very important to me.

"I got a Canada Arts Council grant and went to L. A. to study. I stayed four years. I studied with Alan Broadbent first. I'd like to study with him some more. And then I studied with Jimmy Rowles. Ray said, 'I don't think he teaches.' I talked to John Clayton, who said, 'Here's his phone number.' I called him up and went over to his house and I ended up spending most of my time at his house.'

"What were the lessons like?" I asked. "I can't imagine Jimmy giving formal lessons, saying ‘Do this, do that.'"

"I wish he were still here. I'd like to go over and ask more questions. He'd say, 'Sit down on the couch and talk and ask questions.' We'd talk. He'd tell stories about Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. I just did a tour with Ray. I'd sing about three tunes a night and play piano. It was just as important to me to hang out and listen to stories as it was to practice and play. With Jimmy and with Ray Brown. And still is. A lot of the time with Jimmy was spent just talking. Jimmy wrote out Poor Butterfly for me. It's one of my favorite recordings he's done. I'd come over and we'd talk and there was a piece of music there on the piano, and I knew it was waiting. And he'd say, 'Go take a look at that.' And it always had my name in the corner, Diana. And he'd have things written out for me."

"What was it like? Voicings and such?"

"Yeah. He'd play for me, and then I'd play for him. But most of the time was spent with me listening to him play. And we'd listen to records. We'd listen to Ben Webster, to Duke Ellington. He'd say, 'This was recorded 19-whatever' I admire those guys who know the history, Kenny Washington. The jazzmaniac! He is amazing. We're going to do some dates with him. One thing I couldn't do was play or record Jimmy's tunes. Two weeks before he died, I called him and told him, 'I can't play your tunes. They're so personal to your style that I would have to imitate you to play them.' I thought that way at the time. I don't feel that way now. I'd like to do a lot of his music. I thought, 'Why bother?' He recorded The Peacocks, Bill Evans recorded The Peacocks beautifully. I thought, 'What am I gonna do with that?' He'd swear and growl and say, 'Forget that! Play them!'


"There's a time to emulate, and then you have to do your own thing. There's so much to Jimmy Rowles. It's about attitude. I think the most important thing he ever taught me was about beauty. And I think I was too young even to grasp that. You want to play fast. That's all I wanted to do. He put on Daphnis and Chloe and we'd sit and listen to that. Ansermet's version. That was the recording I had to listen to. And he'd give me the scores. I learned a lot of stuff."

"I hear Rowles in your playing," I said. "But without the quirkiness. Jimmy would do eccentric things just for the fun of it."

"Oh, I do that too, sometimes," she said.

"What else did you listen to?"

"Art Tatum, which I found overwhelming at that age." She gasped aloud.

"I started singing in L.A. I did a lot of piano bar stuff, 'cause that's how I could survive. I moved back to Toronto after L.A. That was '87 to '90."

I said, "I noticed how many Canadians hit the Grammies this year."

"Canadian women," she said. "Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan."

"I'm sorry Shirley Eikhard's album got so little attention. It's a hell of an album. Blue Note just seemed to toss it out the window and did nothing with it."

"Well I'm really lucky," she said, "to have a record company that's been supportive. A record company that has not tossed me aside, but has allowed me to grow and change as an artist publicly, and given me support. I've had tremendous support from Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmidt." They are her producer and recording engineer respectively. "I've worked so hard to be a musician and play what I really want to play."

"Let's get back to this criticism that you don't write your own stuff. When I was growing up and listening to Frank Sinatra, he was doing stuff that was already old, like Night and Day"

"Oh yeahl" she said, with real surprise.

"Sure! Night and Day is from 1934. So was Try a Little Tenderness. A lot of it came out originally before I was born. All that stuff Sinatra did in the 1940s was at least ten years old and a lot of it twenty years old. Sinatra's whole career was largely built on older tunes. So is Tony Bennett's. Peggy Lee and Nat Cole too. All built on classic repertoire."

She said, "I've been misquoted on this point, including this criticism that I don't write my own material. There's this pressure in interviews: 'Do you consider yourself a jazz musician? Are you a jazz singer?' Because I'm not improvising and scat singing, does that make me a pop singer? But I play piano and I improvise in my trio and quartet. So it confuses people. I don't think about whether Shirley Horn is a jazz singer or not."

"No. And Sarah, with whom I worked, and who was my friend, hated the term 'jazz singer' and didn't want to be called one."

"Well, I don't want to be labelled. 'You don't fit, you're not a jazz singer like such and such.' Or 'You don't write your own tunes.' There's a lot to do. I'm writing my own arrangements, I'm playing piano, I'm leading my own band. I'm inspired by Ahmad Jamal and the way he took standards and did them his own way. I find that creatively fulfilling. Songwriters are songwriters. I think of Ahmad Jamal as a great jazz pianist, not as a songwriter."

I pointed out to her that most accomplished songwriters, and many jazz musicians, do not like scooby-dooing "jazz singers. "No one was ever as well equipped to do it as Nat Cole, and he didn't do it. On the contrary, in his singing, he was scrupulously faithful to the melody. The best scat singers have been instrumentalists — Clark Terry, Richard Boone, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Rosolino — and they would always do it in the abstract, not destroy songs by tortured melismatic meanderings.

Diana said, "Can you imagine someone saying to Nat Cole, 'Why don't you write your own songs?'"

"Well," I said, "he wrote a couple of light novelty songs, such as Straighten Up and Fly Right. No ballads that I know of. Donald Byrd once told me he'd concluded that the hardest thing to do was play straight melody and get some feeling into it. I've seen Nat Cole referred to as a cocktail pianist. Bill Evans too."

"There's that fine line. People will say, 'All you're doing is cocktail piano.' I don't listen to that. I don't obsess about it. Things that sound simple . . . it's not the easiest thing. Charlie Parker, Miles, Ahmad Jamal, they were playing standards."

"Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, all the great ones. And John Lewis argues that jazz was built in a kind of symbiotic relationship with popular music during its classic period."
"It's not something I feel I have to defend," she said. "I get that question, like, almost every interview. It's always, 'Why don't you write your own material?'"

Bill Evans once told me that his very unfavorite question in interviews was, "How did you start playing the piano?" Some years later, I was interviewing him for a radio program. I reminded him of what he'd said. "It is my unfavorite question," he affirmed.

"All right," I said. "Then how did you start playing the piano?"

He chuckled and did about twenty illuminating minutes on musical pedagogy.

I had learned from the interviews that Diana was tired of questions about the onset of fame. A boy in a master class asked her what it was like to be famous. She said she hated the question.

I told her I thought the question was legitimate. I have long been fascinated by the phenomenon of power. Why didn't somebody just knock Hitler off? What keeps a killer in power, a Stalin or Pol Pot or Milosevich? Intimidation? What allowed John Foster Dulles to send thousands of Guatemalans to their deaths just to protect his family's interests in the United Fruit Company?

And fame is power. How can one expect a Frank Sinatra to be "normal"? Once at a recording session I heard him make a mild joke and all the executives and minions of Reprise records in the control booth fell about in roaring laughter as if it were a brilliant witticism. And in that I glimpsed his dilemma and the nature of power. Did anyone ever say to him, "Frank, you're full of crap"? I doubt it. Someone who knew him well said to me recently, "Frank was an asshole." But how could he be anything else? Sir Robert Walpole said, "Gratitude, in my experience, is usually the lively expectation of future favors." And those who sucked up to Frank expected future favors.

Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And fame is, usually, money, and money is power, and all the sycophancy that accompany it. The endless, servile flattery distorts reality. And beyond that, there is the erosion of privacy that fame brings, which can be frightening. Or merely annoying. Once, at a crowded but supposedly private party at Woody Herman's house, I watched Rosemary Clooney having a pleasant chat with friends. And then someone asked for her autograph. She left.

I told Diana "I've seen fame destroy people. Some survive it."

"Is it worse for men or for women?" she asked.

I thought for a long moment, particularly of a singer I have known for many years, a wonderfully funny and down-to-earth person when she was little known and an affectedly phony diva after fame hit her. "Women," I said. "For one thing it puts them in the position of commanding men, and men resent it. You've got to be feeling it. What's it doing to you?"

"Well, I'm embarrassed. I feel like that when I walk out on stage and everybody claps. When we finish a show, as we did night before last in Pittsburgh, and people give me a standing ovation, I feel like saying, 'No, it's okay, sit down, don't bother.' I'm not comfortable with it. I love to make people happy but I'm not comfortable with that. Sometimes because of that embarrassment, it comes out in, I've been told, people saying that I'm aloof."

"Do you think it's a Canadian characteristic?" I said. "Kenny Wheeler's that way. Kenny and I went to high school together."

"Maybe," she said. "I think I put a lot of pressure on myself where it isn't necessary I'm trying to handle it. I'm happy for my success, and I'm trying to enjoy it. Not to be so worried about things. The pressure is learning, learning how to answer questions that may not be directly pertinent. I've got to get used to it."

We got into Canadian stories. I told her a joke: Why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle.

There is so much about her that is Canadian. The main element of any singer's style is enunciation, particularly the shape of the vowels. I had a bilingual French Canadian journalist friend who used to say that the Canadian accent, in both French and English, with the tight, closed vowels, develops "because our jaws are frozen half the year." One of the elements of Frank Sinatra's "style" is his New York-area Italian dentalized t's and d's and half-swallowed r's, coupled with almost Oxonian vowels. Krall's "style" is a Canadian accent with excellent time and a voice that is inherently lovely. It has a slight croak in it. So did Sinatra's, though his probably came from smoking.

In several of the interviews I'd read, she'd made the comment that she was shy, which I believe is true. But many performers and public figures are shy, no one more so than the late Woody Herman. "Even me," Steve Allen said, when we were discussing this phenomenon one day.

Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie both told me they were nervous before going onstage. "And it gets worse as I get older," Miles added. Peggy Lee, in her performing days, used to get sick before going on. One of the shyest persons I ever knew was Ella Fitzgerald, and believe it or not, off-stage Sarah Vaughan was quite shy. And Jeri Southern was so shy that she quit singing entirely, devoting her later years to teaching. She refused offers of big money to do just one performance in Las Vegas. I suspect that people become performers not in spite of but because of shyness: it is better to embrace the problem, rather than sitting frightened in a corner, and do something that will garner by indirection the attention one is too timid to seek directly. But it crippled Jeri.

Looking at it another way: an ability to perform is not necessarily accompanied by a taste for it.

The next evening I went to Diana's concert in the Zellerbach Theater at the University of Pennsylvania. She is particularly impressive in person.

I am underwhelmed by the coy salacity of Popsicle Toes. It recalls those yuck-yuck — get it? — elbow-in-the-ribs songs of Belle Earth, and of such 1940s sniggering sophomoric silliness as She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor and Gertrude Niesen singing I Wanna Get Married ("I wanna sleep in pajama tops," oh wow!). Actually, Popsicle Toes would work better if Diana sang it naively, as if she didn't get it; or better yet, dead-pan, as Virginia O'Brien used to sing in movies.

As for When I Look in Your Eyes, the title song of her album with Mandel, I am not enchanted by it. To begin with, the title is grammatically wrong. It should be "when I look into your eyes." But directionality in pronouns is fading fast, as in "I'm really into that." A yearning for structural niceties is a lost cause in the age of lyric-writing theories such as those that disturb Steve Allen (and, I might add, Alan Bergman) and the ubiquity of hopefully, thankfully, upscale, bottom line, the loss of the distinction between fewer and less, and the spread, like the 'flu, of that hideously misused venue. The English language itself is under assault.

Andrew Fletcher wrote in the seventeenth century that he knew "a very wise man" who "believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation."

Or who should make its grammar.

Her concert impressed me considerably, even more so than the records. Afterwards we went back to the same restaurant and talked until late. Now it was conversation, not interview.

"After we had dinner last night, I was thinking about it," I said. "It's your legacy now. I knew Arthur Schwartz, I knew Harry Warren, I met Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, and Johnny Mercer was my friend. Just as you sought out your heroes, so did I. Mercer and I would talk about songwriting by the hour."

She said, "I guess I'm very focussed on what I want to hear, what I want to do, and what I like. I made some mistakes along the way. Still makin' 'em. I would have chosen something different now.

"Original music is obviously important. It's like," she said, laughing, "I'm neither for nor against apathy. I'm not against writing my own tunes — if I felt I had something to say. When I do, I will. Now what I'm focussing on is the art of interpretation. It's funny how a lyric can be changed by a tempo, the meaning of the song. I'm studying this art. I've Got You Under My Skin at this tempo — " she snapped her fingers at a Basie-like medium tempo — "tells one story, and if you slow it up to a ballad tempo, it becomes bittersweet. The same words. Tempo is my biggest thing right now. It's splitting hairs, it's lint-picking. I'm learning how to count off the right tempo, knowing where it is in my head. Benny Goodman used to snap his fingers for no matter how long until he got the right tempo. Ray Brown and I talked about Basie, how they would play it until it settled in, and they got it where they wanted it. Tempo changes everything."

"Sure," I said. "It changes your phrasing, for one thing. At a fast tempo, you can breath more words in a phrase. If you do it very slowly, it breaks the line at completely different points, and that changes the meaning."

She said, "Yes! I'm still trying to get the tempo right on Under My Skin. If you get nerves on stage, you'll sing it faster. And things will sound a little nervous. I try to relax so that I'm not rushing, rushing, rushing."

"I'm sure you've noticed that when musicians do a song over the years, the tempo will creep up. I suppose as they get a tune more under control. I don't know whether it's done consciously or not."

"Sure. We do it too."

"I imagine you're careful about keys. Singers have to be."

"Sure. Although sometimes I'll get lazy and instead of doing something in A I'll do it in B-flat or A-flat. Instead of doing Over the Rainbow in B, I'll do it in B-flat. Jimmy Rowles told me that Ben Webster used to do Over the Rainbow in E. It changes the feel of a tune."

"And Fletcher Henderson," I said, "wrote a lot of charts for his band in sharp keys and drove the saxophone players crazy."

"Guitar players and bass players love sharp keys. "There's nothing like a blues in G. That's my favorite key to put a blues in."

"Bill Evans used to run through a new tune in all the keys until he found the one he liked."

"The master. I'm embarrassed to say that I should do that. Geoff Keezer does that. His mind!"

"Warren Bernhardt practiced My Bells through every key, as an exercise in voicings. Don Thompson claims that because of the character of the sonorities, that tune works only in Bill's original key."

Singing is closer to the actor's art than the musician's. The real trick of the ballad is not to make the song happen but to let it happen — to get out of its way. Someone once wrote in the New Yorker that when Mel Torme sang A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, you heard the singer. When Frank Sinatra sang it you heard the song. When Nat Cole sang it, you heard the nightingale.

The packaging of Diana Krall doesn't bother me. Without it, she wouldn't get all this chance to grow. She would be sentenced to a life in piano bars, perhaps in Nanaimo.

Fancy gowns didn't hurt Peggy Lee. As for publicity, I'd far rather see the money spent on Diana than some junked-out rock-and-roller. Indeed, among the encouraging signs in music in recent years are the successes of Shirley Horn, Natalie Cole, and Diana Krall.

To tell Diana Krall that she should be writing songs is a legacy of rock-and-roll. It's a little like telling the late Glenn Gould that he should be composing rather than bringing us brilliant interpretations of Bach and Scriabin. We need excellent interpreters of classic song, and Diana is evolving into exactly that.

I wrote my piece about her for JazzTimes. They put her picture on the cover.
She still hasn't made The Watchtower.”

The following video feature Diana’s November/2001 performance in Paris of All or Nothing at All with Anthony Wilson, guitar, John Clayton, bass and Jeff Hamilton, drums.



Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Thomas "Fats" Waller - 1904-1943 [From the Archives]

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


"My father [Fats Waller] had a unique system to reward inventiveness in improvisation. Pop kept two bottles of gin on a table during the rehearsals. One bottle was for himself... The other bottle was the 'encourager,' as he called it. When one of the band excelled in an improvisational section, Dad would stop the rehearsal, pour him a healthy shot of gin, and the two of them would toast each other."
- Maurice Waller


“Both Fats Waller and his principal tutor, James P. Johnson, lived lives of aching frustration. Johnson ached openly because he could find no audience for his serious compositions, but Waller's desire to find acceptance as a serious musician was buried under a heavy coating of pervasive geniality. And while Johnson plodded steadily downhill in puzzled despair, Waller's blithely ironical attitude carried him up and up and up in the material world — eventually to a level that even his enormous energy could not cope with.


He was one of the most massively talented men who has ever turned up in the world of popular music — an inimitable entertainer whose charm has, if anything, grown in the nostalgic decade and a half since his death; the writer of some of the great evergreen songs in the popular repertoire ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin'"); a jazz pianist whose playing was a landmark in the development of that instrument and whose influence on pre-bop pianists was surpassed only by that of Earl Hines; and a section man who could swing an entire band as no one else could.


All of these gifts were his and yet, like the inevitable clown who wants to play Hamlet, he had a consuming desire to bring to the public his love of classical music and of the organ. His need to offer this gift and have it accepted was almost childlike and, childlike, the hurt when it was rejected was deep and long.”
- John S. Wilson, Jazz author and critic, New York Times


I never knew what to make of Fats Waller. His music happened way before my time and I could not seem to reconcile the views some held of him of him as little more than a musical buffoon with those that labeled him a keyboard stylist and composer of the first order.


In attempting to make up my own mind about his music, part of the problem was that most of what I had access to was derivative, in other words, what other Jazz musicians had to say on Fats’ Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose [upon which Charlie Parker’s Scrapple from the Apple is based], Squeeze Me, The Jitterbug Waltz and Black and Blue.


It really wasn’t until the reissue mania associated with the advent of the compact disc in the 1980’s that I had the opportunity to sit down and listen to the collected works of Fats which helped me finally understand what the fuss had been all about concerning his playing and his music.


One of the great joys of recorded Jazz is being able to go back in time and listen to the music of the Jazzmasters of yesteryear.


This synopsis of the career of Thomas “Fats” Waller from The Chronicle of Jazz reveals his contribution to Jazz as well as the factors that brought about his early demise; characteristics of personality and behavior that also felled many, other Jazz musicians over the years.


THE HARMFUL LTTLE ARMFUL


“Fats Waller's death in December 1943, accelerated by his habitual overindulgence, was a worldly exit fully in keeping with his flamboyant lifestyle. His clowning and infectious capers disguised a top-ranking musical genius whose importance lay in two distinct areas: the development of the STRIDE style of piano playing to its limits of virtuosity, and the promotion of jazz as a medium for refined popular entertainment.


Waller's early keyboard training was as a church organist, an experience that enabled him as a teenager to gain employment playing in the cinemas and theaters of New York. (In later life he shocked the musical establishment by playing jazz on the organ of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.) His skills as a pianist were fostered by James P. Johnson, whose own piano concerto Yamekraw Waller performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Waller's astonishing keyboard facility and compositional fluency resulted in a steady succession of fine works for solo piano characterized by a combination of dazzling virtuosity and harmonic ingenuity, including Smashing Thirds, Alligator Crawl, and Handful of Keys. Among his admirers was Al Capone, who allegedly had Waller kidnapped at gunpoint in
Chicago in the mid-1920s, just to get him to play at the gangster's birthday party.


Waller's incomparable aptitude for songwriting was developed in collaboration with lyricist Andy Razaf. Many of their numerous hits began life in stage shows, including Ain't Misbehavin. popularized by the vocal talents of Louis Armstrong, on whose gravelly tone Waller partly modeled his own singing voice.The peak of Waller's achievements came after 1934 in a series of recordings on the Victor label, made with a versatile combo billed as "Fats Waller and His Rhythm." In this context he found full expression for his remarkable comic talents, interpreting his own songs with infectious wit and a strong dose of satire. Among the most celebrated numbers in his vast repertoire was Honeysuckle Rose, which became an indispensable standard for later jazz musicians, not only in its original form, but as a harmonic skeleton on which other compositions were based.


As a keyboard technician, Waller formed an essential link between the first generation of STRIDE performers and the innovative work of later pianists such as Art Tatum  and Thelonious Monk.”


The broader view of Fats’ importance to Jazz is contained in the following excerpts from Gary Giddins’ Vision of Jazz: The First Century  while a deeper examination of his historical significance can be had through a reading of the selections from Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz that follow it.


FATS WALLER (COMEDY TONIGHT) - Gary Giddins


“Fats Waller, one of the most enduringly popular figures in American music, is a state of mind. Jazz has always claimed him (what idiom wouldn't claim him?) and yet he spent most of his abbreviated career cavorting through, and contributing to, the Tin Pan Alley canon—applying a determined jazz accent, perhaps, but with the sui generis detachment of a free-floating institution. He wasn't witty, if that word is taken to imply a kind of humor too subtle to engender belly laughs— he was funny. He was also bigger than life, Rabelaisian in intake, energy, and output. His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask as fixed as that of Bert Williams or Spike Jones. It consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.


A ripe sense of humor is indigenous in jazz. It's a music quick to enlist whatever barbs can best deflate pomposity and artificiality. But jazz has not always been rich in humorists, though one can point to a few in any given period. Those in the postwar era include Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, James Moody, Jon Hendricks, Jaki Byard, Lester Bowie, Willem Breuker, the Jazz Passengers, and Waller's druggy disciple, Harry "The Hipster" Gibson. Humor was more extensive in the '20s and '30s, when Prohibition, the Depression, and the insularity of a new and predominantly black music conspired to create an undercurrent of protective irreverence. Accustomed to a place on the outside looking in, jazz took pleasure in skewering anything that made the mainstream feel safe and smug. It was a time when Fats Waller could count on a laugh by interrupting a particularly suave solo with the rumination, "Hmm, I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight."


Musicians, singers, and other entertainers created countless songs about bathtub gin, drugs, sex (of every variety), and other subjects unsuitable for Judge Hardy and his family, and invented slang—a new kind of signifying—to get it over….


Waller's primary influence was James P. Johnson, the songwriter and grandmaster of the Harlem school of stride piano. The term "stride" is descriptive and refers to the movement of the pianist's left hand, which upholds the rhythm while swinging side to side, from distant bass notes, played on the first and third beats of the measure, to close chords in the octave below middle C, played on the second and fourth beats. Stride was a social music, powerful enough to surmount the din of a rent party and vigorous enough to encourage dancing. It was also a competitive music, a specialist's art. The best players were fine composers, but stride was malleable: they could stride pop songs or classical themes, just as an earlier generation of pianists could rag them. Stride per se never had a large audience. It was bypassed during the boogie-woogie rage and overlooked by all but a few in the years of bop. Of its key practitioners, only Waller achieved real commercial success, and then only because of his wisecracks. Had he done nothing but pursue his art as a pianist, he might be no better known than Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Donald Lambert, Willie Gant, or other Harlem-based keyboard professors, who took themselves pretty seriously. The complaint aimed at Waller is that he didn't take himself seriously enough.”


HARLEM: THE TWO HARLEMS - THOMAS “FATS” WALLER - Ted Gioia


“ … Thomas "Fats" Waller did more than any of these players to bring the Harlem style to the attention of the broader American public. Born in Harlem on May 21, 1904, Waller honed his skills by drawing on the full range of opportunities that New York City could provide. His teachers included two great local institutions, Juilliard and James P. Johnson, as well as much in between. His early performance venues were equally diverse, reflecting Waller's aplomb in a gamut of settings, from the sacred to the profane. He was heard at religious services (where his father, a Baptist lay preacher, presided); at Harlem's Lincoln Theater, where he accompanied silent movies on the pipe organ; at rent parties and cabarets; literally everywhere and anywhere a keyboard might be at hand. His pristine piano tone and and technical assurance could well have distinguished him even in symphonic settings. Yet these considerable skills as an instrumentalist were eventually overshadowed by Waller's other talents. While still in his teens, Waller initiated his career as a songwriter, and over the next two decades he would produce a number of successful positions, many of which remain jazz standards, including "Ain't Misbehavin'," |Honeysuckle Rose," "Black and Blue," "Squeeze Me," and "Jitterbug Waltz" among others. In time, Waller's comedic abilities and engaging stage persona would add further momentum to his career, pointing to a range of further opportunities, only '"me of which he lived to realize.


Waller's reputation in the jazz world rests primarily on his many boisterous performances and recordings—the latter comprising around six hundred releases over a twenty-year period. With unflagging exuberance, Waller talked, sang, joked, exhorted band members, and, almost as an afterthought, played the piano on these memorable sides. At times, they sound more like a party veering out of control than a recording session. Indeed, this was party music for those who had come of age under Prohibition — a time when the most festive soirees were, by definition, illicit. Waller was skilled at playing Falstaff to this generation, hinting at speakeasy enticements with a wink of the eye, a telling quip, or other intimations of immorality. True, a cavalier aesthetic has always dominated jazz, celebrating the eternal in the most intense aspects of the here and now — do we expect anything less from an art form built on improvisation? — but few artists pushed this approach to the extremes that Waller did. And audiences loved it. With a winning, warm demeanor, Waller made them feel like they were honored guests at his party, drinking from the best bottle in the house, privy to the wittiest asides, and seated front-row center to hear the band.


Although Waller's small-combo work captured the public's imagination, his solo keyboard performances, documented on a handful of recordings and player piano rolls, remain his most complete statements as a jazz musician. The quintessential stride piano trademarks — an oom-pah left hand coupled with syncopated right-hand figures — are the building blocks of his playing, but Waller leavens them with a compositional ingenuity that raises them above the work of his peers. Waller's solo work revealed his omnivorous musical appetite, drawing on the blues (hear the majestic slow blues in "Numb Fumblin'"), classical music (evoked, for instance, in the high register figures of "African Ripples"), boogie-woogie (note its ingenious interpolation in the opening phrase of "Alligator Crawl"), as well as the ragtime roots of the music (as in "Handful of Keys" and "Smashing Thirds"). On "Viper's Drag," Waller toys with the contrast between an ominous dark opening theme in a minor key and a swinging major mode section — a device Ellington used frequently during this same period in crafting his own version of Harlem jazz. Combining his talents as a pianist and his sense of compositional balance, Waller's solo works stand out as the most fully developed musical documents of the Harlem stride tradition.


While most other jazz musicians of his generation gravitated toward the big bands in the 1930s and 1940s, Waller cultivated other ambitions. His activities took him anywhere and everywhere the entertainment industry flourished, from the theaters of Broadway to the motion picture studios of Hollywood. Even when he confined his attentions to music, Waller's restless seeking after new challenges was ever apparent. In a half-dozen areas — as pianist, organist, vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, and sideman — he made a mark that is still felt in the worlds of jazz and popular music.”