Monday, August 22, 2016

The Blue Angel Crowd by Dave Frishberg

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

The following piece by pianist and composer Dave Frishberg is another example that Gene Lees published to support his premise that Jazz musicians, on average, are a highly articulate group. Here’s how he explained that premise in the February 1985 edition of the Jazzletter from which the Frishberg article that is also drawn.

“Jazz musicians are often extremely well read. They perceive and think subtly and deeply, although they are often cautious — not shy — about whom they share their insights with. If they know you, they'll talk your ear off. I have already dealt, in one of the early issues of the Jazzletter, with a tendency of jazz musicians in the old days to let outsiders believe they were dumb, in both senses of the word. But this was an affectation, growing out of slavery in America — the camouflage of one's intelligence as a way of lying low. It was a bit of an act, that hey-baby-wha's-happ'nin' manner, which eventually developed into a sort of self-satirizing in-joke. Anyone deceived by it didn't know jazz musicians very well. While I have known a few musicians who fit the shy-inarticulate mould, they have been the exceptions. And even then, you never knew when they were merely taciturn, rather than inarticulate.”

Below Dave’s essay you’ll find John S. Wilson’s 1991 New York Times review of James Gavin’s first book INTIMATE NIGHTS The Golden Age of New York Cabaret which just happens to be a history of the boîte  which has been defined thusly: “a funky boîte on Paris's Left Bank that offers hot jazz to a self-consciously cool crowd.”

“A few weeks ago I spoke on the phone with composer Johnny Mandel, whose catalogue includes Emily, The Shadow of Your Smile, A Time for Love, and a dozen other familiar songs with meat on their bones. He and I have a song together, You Are There. "Do you realize," I asked him, "that there are now eight recordings of You Are There. I don't think I've seen a penny on it, have you?" He laughed and said, no, he probably hadn't. Then he asked me who had recorded it. I began to list from memory: "Let's see. Blossom Dearie, Irene Krai, Sue Raney, myself. . ."

"Well no wonder," Mandel interrupted. "You're talking about the Blue Angel crowd."

The Blue Angel crowd. Perfect. The song freaks.

I hadn't thought about the Blue Angel for so long. Back in the late 1950s, when I had just arrived in New York City and begun to work as a pianist, there were maybe a dozen of those chic little East Side supper clubs — "boites," I guess they're called — that featured singers or singing pianists with the emphasis on esoteric repertoire.

There was Le Ruban Bleu, the Apartment, the Living Room, L'Intrigue, and, of course, the Blue Angel. There was Bobby Short, Bobby Cole, Blossom Dearie, Felicia Sanders, Charles DeForest, Charlie Cochran, Mabel Mercer, and a bunch of other names I remember but you probably wouldn't.

You could sit at the bar until four in the morning and hear songs you never dreamed existed. I heard Fly Me to-the Moon for the first time in one of those clubs. Likewise Lucky to Be Me, My Gentleman Friend, Too Late Now — a whole encyclopedia of words and music that would stick to my ribs, and remain a most valuable part of my musical consciousness for the rest of my life. I first heard Blossom Dearie when she and Annie Ross were doing an act together at Julius Monk's Downstairs. The first time I heard Bob Dorough perform was at a grim little place called the Dickens Room on Lexington Avenue at 39th Street.

It was around then that I began to accompany singers, and my own repertoire began to bloom. I started to notice who was writing the good melodies and designing the stylish structures, how the good lyric writers made it happen, who were the harmonic heavyweights. I found out about Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner. When I discovered Frank Loesser, it was like finding a gold mine. I began to get hung up on this three-minute art form.

Looking back on it now, I can see there was a certain cultishness about what I am now pleased to call the Blue Angel crowd. Generally speaking, I'd say they were singers who preferred very simple unobtrusive accompaniments, and chose not to dress up the songs with elaborate or tricky arrangements. The song was the thing. They took pride in their personal arcane repertoires.

And the customers were part of the Blue Angel crowd too. Song freaks just like the singers, they were often pretty hip. Much too polite to request a song by title. "Gershwin tonight?" they would smile. Gershwin was like a steak dinner to them, Irving Berlin like a nice bowl of chicken soup. Nourishment.

But the music business was changing fast. The day of the professional songwriter was drawing to a close, as recording entrepreneurs worked hand in hand with independent radio broadcasters to market disposable songs that became quickly obsolete. Folk musicians, young amateur performers, and rhythm and blues artists could supply the small record labels and local radio stations with all the material they needed. There was suddenly more music than any of us really wanted to hear. I remember from a college economics course the principle called Gresham's Law, which I think states that when cheap currency is permitted to flood the marketplace, it drives the good currency out. I think Gresham's law was operating — and operates still — in our musical marketplace. But, in fairness, I should tell you that I got a D in that economics course.

I guess the most illustrious survivors of that stubbornly artistic Blue Angel bunch are Bobby Short and Blossom Dearie. Bob Dorough and I have been around long enough to qualify as bona fide survivors, but I would say our activities were centered elsewhere — Dorough's as a writer/producer in the recording studios, mine as a pianist in the jazz clubs.

But among the current crop of song freaks — today's Blue Angel crowd, if you will — Dorough and I will eagerly claim charter membership. Who else have we got here? There's Susannah McCorkle, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Carole Sloane, Carol Fredette, Richard Rodney Bennett, Shirley Horn, Sue Raney, Mike Palter and Lynn Jackson . . . and all the others who act as curators for the repertoire.

This is not to ignore Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and the Chairman of the Board. But these are stars, don't you see, a different group entirely.

However, this is to ignore Linda Ronstadt, Toni Tenille, Willie Nelson, and anybody else who thinks all you got to do is sing Don't Blame Me and you're a connoisseur. This is the Blue Angel, baby. You got to show me some I.D. . . .

One thing's certain. There are fewer and fewer places for the B.A. crowd to do their stuff. That fact made the demise of Stephen's After All in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, all the more melancholy. I don't think I'm stretching it when I say there are probably not more than half a dozen places, and Stephen's was one, in the Western Hemisphere that do a first-class job of presenting vintage American pop music. (I still don't know what to call it. Cabaret? Too limited a term. Quality pop music? Myopic, not to mention arrogant. Classic pop? Too confusing.)

Well, anyhow, I can't complain. I'm hearing my songs played on the radio with increasing frequency. Public radio mainly. Even some of those "cult" recordings of You Are There. Because even though the Blue Angel, Stephen's After All, Nancy Steele's L'Intrigue, Trudy Heller's Versailles, even though they've all closed shop, the old Blue Angel crowd has found a home. It turns out to be public radio. I'll bet that's where eighty-five percent of my airplay is taking place.

If Blossom, Dorough and I had any doubts that we had an audience on public radio, they were dispelled by the astonishing turnout at our concerts in Raleigh, sponsored by the Spectator and WUNC. It was quite a reception we received. I'm still sailing on it. Like the old saying, I guess we're world famous in Raleigh-Durham.

And the old Blue Angel's still open for business." — DF

When a Cellar Was the Place to Be

By John S. Wilson; Published: The New York Times. September 22, 1991
INTIMATE NIGHTS The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. By James Gavin. Illustrated. 406 pp. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

“Dorothy Loudon, the singer and comedienne who frequently appeared at the Blue Angel between 1955 and 1962 (and later starred on Broadway in "Annie"), recently performed at a "Salute to Cabaret" as part of the New York International Festival of the Arts. "My roots are in cabaret," she said at the time. "But in those days, we didn't call it cabaret. It was saloons -- or dumps actually."

More than 50 years earlier, Helen Morgan, a star on Broadway who also sang in speakeasies during Prohibition and in the earliest post-repeal nightclubs, had declared: "I want to finish with nightclubs. I hate the smoky tiny places."

The back rooms of speakeasies provided a tacky, ramshackle heritage for the intimate rooms that are the subject of "Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret," James Gavin's survey of their 60-year history in New York. His sources are the people who were involved in the clubs and in the performances -- club owners, directors, skit writers, songwriters, singers, comedians, musicians. They recall, often with burning hindsight, numerous disasters and an occasional triumph.

Herbert Jacoby, a tall, darkly ominous presence who had been the press agent for a small club in Paris in the early 1930's, brought a slightly Continental touch to the fledgling world of Manhattan's small clubs when he opened Le Ruban Bleu on East 56th Street in 1937. Regulars remember that he started shows promptly at 11 P.M. by introducing the performers "in funereal tones."

Julius Monk, a willowy Carolinian who spoke in an unintelligible mixture of Southern and British accents that Mr. Gavin describes as "oatmeal diction," managed the room. When Jacoby left in 1943 to found another club, the Blue Angel, Mr. Monk took over Le Ruban Bleu, assuming the duties of master of ceremonies, which he performed with unintelligible elegance.

Herbert Jacoby and Julius Monk, pioneer entrepreneurs of the New York cabaret scene, float through Mr. Gavin's book, providing a variety of narrative threads. When Jacoby started the Blue Angel, he needed $5,000 to get it going. He got the money from Max Gordon, who had been running the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village for nine years (the Vanguard was a cabaret, using comedians, singers and jazz groups, until 1957, when Gordon made it the esteemed jazz room that it remains).

Although their personalities and tastes were at opposite extremes, Jacoby and Gordon remained partners in the Angel for 20 years and even opened a second, short-lived club, Le Directoire. Jacoby had a "deserved reputation as a snob," Mr. Gavin writes, while Gordon was a gentle, caring man who had "won admiration as the most honest, level-headed boss an act could have."

The two men fought constantly; Jacoby privately "called the Village Vanguard a sewer, sneering that Gordon had as much taste as a Vanguard hamburger." But their differing tastes made the two clubs successful: Gordon brought Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt to the Vanguard (and subsequently to the Blue Angel) while Jacoby chose Kaye Ballard, Barbara Cook and Bobby Short for the Angel.

Julius Monk was fired from Le Ruban Bleu in 1956, 18 months before the club closed. He wound up in a relatively menial position at a San Francisco club, where Murray Grand, a pianist, singer and songwriter, found him when Mr. Grand was suddenly pushed into the role of manager of a fading New York club with a San Francisco name, the Purple Onion. Instead of the usual custom of putting acts on individually, Mr. Grand wanted to use them as elements in a revue, and he asked Mr. Monk to help.

Mr. Grand renamed the club the Downstairs (because it was located in a cellar, at 51st Street and Sixth Avenue). When he proposed his idea of a revue to the club's owner, Irving Haber, an accountant who owned three other clubs, and told him that Julius Monk was coming east to work on it, he found that Haber did not know what a revue was and had never heard of Julius Monk. Nonetheless, Haber gave them two weeks to put on a show.

While Mr. Monk got some friends to help tidy up the dilapidated club, Mr. Grand put together a show called "Four Below" with skits and songs by Michael Brown, the team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt ("The Fantasticks" was still in their future), and others.

On opening night, March 4, 1956, Mr. Grand was shocked to find that the sign outside proclaimed "Julius Monk's Downstairs Presents Four Below." Mr. Grand was not mentioned in the program, not even as the writer of his own songs. But "Four Below," which Mr. Gavin identifies as "the first legitimate cafe revue in New York City," became the hit of the season and started a series of Monk revues that set the tone for New York cabaret for a decade.

In his first book, Mr. Gavin discusses rooms such as Spivy's, Cafe Society, One Fifth Avenue, Tony's (with Mabel Mercer) and the Bon Soir (with Barbra Streisand); performers such as Bart Howard, who was the accompanist and master of ceremonies at the Blue Angel before his song "Fly Me to the Moon" became famous; comics such as Mort Sahl, Nichols and May, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett and, later, Lenny Bruce; and, still later, venues such as the Ballroom, first in SoHo and then in Chelsea.

A steady deluge of cheating, backbiting, recriminations and desperation accompanied the progress of the intimate clubs through the years. Although it sometimes seems like much ado about nothing, the details are vividly reported in "Intimate Nights" by some of the participants -- in whose memories the incidents are apparently etched in acid.”

John S. Wilson frequently writes about jazz and cabaret for The New York Times.

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