© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Hoagy Sings Carmichael With The Pacific Jazzmen [Pacific Jazz CD 0777 7 46862 2 8] has sat in my collection for a long time, but I never knew its origins until I read the following in Richard M. Sudhalter’s Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael [Oxford/2002].
Sadly, like Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael and the impact he had on American popular music, especially during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, is pretty much lost to 21st century music listeners.
But if you do have an interest in the life and music of Hoagy Carmichael, as his son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael states on the book’s dust jacket: “There’s nobody on the face of this musical earth better suited to write a book about my father than Dick Sudhalter. And as expected, he has done a wonderful job.”
“Toward the end of 1956, Hoagy’s Decca recording contract, in force since 1938, finally expired. …
However inauspicious a way it might have been to end so long and fruitful an association, it also formed a prelude to one of Hoagy Carmichael's finest moments on record. Richard Bock, owner of World Pacific Records, had been a fan for years; now, with Hoagy free of record-company commitment, nothing prevented him from recording the songwriter in a new and challenging setting.
New Yorker Johnny Mandel had done his band business apprenticeship toying trombone with, and arranging for, Jimmy Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw's short-lived 1949 bebop band, and — perhaps most telling of all — Count Basie. He'd worked as a radio staff arranger in New York, studied at Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, contributed scores to NBC television's Your Show of Shows, arranged an album for singer Dick Haymes.[Mandel’s career as a composer of many beautiful songs including Emily, Close Enough for Love, The Shadow of Your Smile, et al was yet to come].
Bock's idea was simple: feature Carmichael singing his own songs, backed not by slick studio bands, tack-in-hammer pianos, or warbling vocal trios, but by a tightly knit group of ranking modern jazzmen, playing carefully textured and swinging arrangements.
"We went out to visit him," said Mandel. "Forget now whether it was in Hollywood or Palm Springs. Found him there behind the bar, mixing drinks; really hospitable and gracious. We just got right to talking. He had pretty clear ideas of what he wanted to do, and what he didn't want to do. He realized he wasn't a straight ballad singer, didn't want to do things like 'One Morning in May,' that had all sorts of sustained notes and big intervals. He didn't try to sing 'I Get Along Without You Very Well,' for instance. But he could always do the character-type ballads, like 'Baltimore Oriole,' 'Georgia,' and the rest."
Mandel, in the process of winning respect as a master songwriter in his own right, chuckled at the memory of those first "brainstorming" sessions. "Hoagy hated bebop ... I remember he came to hear Woody's band when it was really hot, and said something like, 'Aw, give me an old bass horn any time.' He meant it, too.
"When I was with Basie, around 1953 or so, we came to town and Hoagy was there — he was doing this TV show, Saturday Night Revue. He just kinda walked around thinking, with his tongue in his cheek, looking kinda glum, and I took him for just a kind of moody guy. Also, some of the guys on the band had told me he was a real far-right Hoosier-type Republican, kind of an Indiana cracker. Johnny [Mercer] was a bit like that too, I guess-though I never saw it in either of them."
Hoagy Sings Carmichael was recorded at three sessions, September 10,11, and 13, 1956 — with a band full of outstanding jazzmen: trumpeter Don Fagerquist had been in Les Brown's brass section for the 1955 "Hong Kong Blues" date; Harry "Sweets" Edison was an honored Basie veteran, then enjoying a career renaissance through his muted obbligato work on the arrangements Nelson Riddle was using to showcase Frank Sinatra; Jimmy Zito, another Brown alumnus, had ghosted the "Art Hazard" solos for Young Man With a Horn.
Alto saxophonist Art Pepper was new to Hoagy, as were pianist Jimmy Rowles and drummer Irv Cottler. An old Carmichael friend, Nick Fatool, replaced Cottier on drums for the third session. Said Mandel: "I spotted his vocals wherever I thought they'd be most effective, stuck 'em in the middles, usually. Remember, I didn't have a big band there — rather, a small band trying to sound big. So voicings were important.
"As a singer? He was a natural. Knew what to keep and what to throw away. Didn't try to be a capital-S singer: more often he approached the songs conversationally, like an actor, like Walter Huston doing 'September Song.' And you know, those are really the most effective readings for those sorts of things, rather than somebody doing something with a straight baritone. You never knew beforehand how he was gonna sing something: when be was going to talk it, where he was gonna leave spaces."
He not only leaves spaces, but on several songs confines his vocals to a decidedly secondary role, giving the major melody expositions to the band. Again and again, his vocals strike the ear as measured, thoughtful, Carmichael taking his time, never pushing his vocal resources beyond their limits, He opens "Two Sleepy People" with only Al Hendrickson's unamplified guitar; carries "Rockin’ Chair" away from its familiar role as a piece of quasi-vaudeville material and returns it to its origins as an end-of-life valedictory, with Rowles, on celeste, underscoring its reflective, pastoral quality.
Art Pepper gets most of the solo space and is particularly distinctive on "Ballad in Blue" — incredibly, the song's first vocal treatment on record since its publication twenty-two years before. "Two Sleepy People" teams him with a cup-muted Fagerquist for a closely intertwined duet, distantly echoing the long-ago "chase" choruses of Bix and Frank Trumbauer.
But the saxophonist's — and perhaps the album's — most stirring moment belongs to "Winter Moon," newly published at the time, with one of Harold Adamson's most affecting lyrics. Pepper establishes the melody, a heartfelt cry in icy emptiness:
Where is love's magic?
Where did it go?
Is it gone like the summertime.
That we used to know?
(The song remained in his mind. Twenty-two years later, his life shattered by heroin addiction and a decade in prison, Pepper recorded it again.
Though cushioned by strings and rhythm, it is a performance of almost unbearable intensity, glowing in a clear, glacial light, hypnotic, agonized.)
The line of descent from "Ballad in Blue" to "Winter Moon" is clear. The desolation of love lost shadows both lyrics, casting both melodies in minor-mode darkness. But unlike its predecessor, "Winter Moon" allows no ray of light to penetrate its interior. Melodically and harmonically sophisticated, emotionally complex, it is a work of its composer's maturity, a regretful backward look at a brighter past, "a kind of art song," in singer Barbara Lea's words. "Not at all what you'd think of as 'typical' Hoagy Carmichael except in its air of longing, something once had and now lost."'
Mandel concluded Hoagy Sings Carmichael with a swinger, a Basle-inflected recasting of "Lazy River" with a sassy, strutting trumpet solo by Sweets Edison. Again, Hoagy rises to the task. "You could tell from that, especially, that he would have been a great jazz musician," the arranger said. "In singing 'Lazy River,' he ... didn't try to sing the line exactly, [because] he realized what would fit his range and vocal quality, especially at that tempo. He was very smart about that, [and] his approach was very jazzy."
George Frazier's sleeve essay spoke for all concerned in declaring that
“...it strikes me as enormously reassuring that an individual who in bygone years made music with men of approximately his own age, background and attitude should be sufficiently uninstitutional to record with a group of musicians (with one exception) so lately undiapered that some of them had not yet been born when Star Dust was becoming the theme song of a whole era. To me, the results of this collaboration sound absolutely marvelous.''
Here are the rest of George Frazier’s excellent sleeve notes with the above excerpt placed in the larger context of his essay on the album.
The trouble with most institutions is that they're too institutional. In their resolute resistance to change, their anachronistic aversion to progress, and their almost insular insistence upon continuing, so to speak, to stock high-button shoes, they permit themselves to become period pieces — often, to be sure, redolently recherche du temps perdu period pieces, but, nevertheless and notwithstanding, almost always very, very aging ones as well. Providentially, no such indictment can be brought against Hoagland (Hoagy) Carmichael, who, institution though he he, has neither a closed mind nor, rather more pertinently, a closed ear.
At any rate, here, in Hoagy Sings Carmichael, a man approaching the ordinarily stodgy, look-before-you-leap age of 58, a man whose earliest musical inspiration was the silvery explosiveness of Bix Beiderbecke's cornet; whose "Lazy Bones" was a delight as long ago as the summer dusks of the '30s, when, with the waters slapping against the shores of the Glen Island Casino, the Casa Loma (ave atque vale) used to play it, as the radio announcer so quaintly phrased it,"for your dancing pleasure"; and whose "Riverboat Shuffle" remains, after all these fickle years, the rousing anthem of the chowder and marching societies that gather nightly in unsolemn conclave in such Dixieland mosques as Jazz, Ltd. in Chicago and Eddie Condon's Sign of the Pork Chop in New York — here, in Hoagy Sings Carmichael this man, or, if you will, this institution, this tradition, this living legend — joins with some of the more explorative spirits in contemporary jazz to achieve fresh interpretations of a batch of his most appealing compositions.
I do not think it either maudlin or churlish to say that Carmichael — his croaky voice, casual manner, diminutive, wizened figure, and bulging songbag — is somehow part of all of us who love worthwhile popular music — the way, for instance, that Tommy Dorsey was, part of us, which is to say that when Tommy died, the part of us that had responded to his "Marie, Song of India," "I'll Never Smile Again," and all those other untarnished treasures died a little too. Carmichael, who was horn in Bloomington. Indiana, on November 22, 1899, has been part of us for quite a while.
Although he spent considerable extracurricular time playing piano with school and college bands. Carmichael would probably have become a practicing attorney (an occupation for which he prepared himself at Indiana University) had it not been for the fact that the Wolverines, a group he admired prodigiously, dazzled him by recording his first composition. "Riverboat Shuffle," for the Gennett label. Subsequently, when the Paul Whiteman Victor of his "Washboard Blues" sold far beyond his most youthfully intemperate expectations, he made up his mind to become a full-time songwriter. It was a salutary decision, for since then he has composed the music to such memorabilia as "Stardust," "Lazy Bones," "Georgia on My Mind," "Rockin' Chair," "One Morning in May," "Snowball,""Lazy River,""Small Fry," "In the Still of the Night," "Judy," "Two Sleepy People," "Skylark," "The Nearness of You," "Old Buttermilk Sky," "Doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief,""Ivy," "Memphis in June,""Blue Orchids,""Hong Kong Blues," "I Get Along Without You Very Well," "New Orleans," "Baltimore Oriole," "Winter Moon" and "Ballad In Blue." As if that were not enough, though, he has managed to bolster his reputation by being a fairly ubiquitous (and almost invariably engaging) performer, not only on radio, television and phonograph records, but also in such motion pictures as Young Man with a Horn, Canyon Passage. The Best Years of Our Lives, Johnny Angel and To Have and Have Not (in which, by the way, he miraculously succeeded in lending individuality to a role almost infringingly in direct apostolic succession to Dooley Wilson's Sam in Casablanca).
Everything considered, it strikes me as enormously reassuring that an individual who in bygone years made records with men of approximately his own age, background and attitude should be sufficiently uninstitutional to record with a group of musicians (with one exception) so lately undiapered that several of them had not yet been born when "Stardust "was becoming the theme song of a whole era. To me, the results of this collaboration sound absolutely marvelous. How they will sound to Hugues Panassie*, however, may be rather a different story. [*Panassie was a French Jazz musician/critic who basically had little use for modern Jazz.]
I wonder what Hugues Panassie's reaction will be to the lovely, understated instrumental stuff behind and between Carmichael's singing — to Art Pepper's alto saxophone, Don Fagerquist's trumpet. Jimmy Rowles's piano, Harry Klee's flute and Johnny Mandel's arrangements. (I omit mention of Harry Edison, one of the chief participants, because once upon a time he played with Count Basie and I would therefore imagine he could be faulted by Panassie only on the grounds of the company he keeps in this album.) I hasten to state that this is no gratuitous crack, which is why I should probably explain that I was a Panassie man even before Bullets Durgom was a band-boy and just about the time that Le Poivre Martin was running the bases like no other wild horse of the Osage in history. As a matter of fact, if memory serves me, it was in 1931 that the monsieur himself persuaded me to abandon the Harvard backfield and become a regular contributor to a wilful little French periodical called Jazz-Tango-Dancing could not have cared less whether the hell I punted on third clown or not. As its guiding light, its father confessor, its raison d'etre really, M. Panassie was simply superb — sensitive, informed, communicative, dedicated, stimulating, and, above all, not the slightest bit tactful. Indeed, in those headstrong years, he was, I think, as provocative and, more often than not, as competent a jazz critic as has ever raised his voice in a Down Beat poll. And as time went by and his book, Le Jazz Hot (literal translation: Le Jazz Chaud), was published in this country and (without any connection whatsoever) people started shagging shamelessly in the aisles of a movie cathedral in Times Square, he — M. Panassie, naturellement! — became an institution. That was all to the good, and, God wot, it still would be if only he had not allowed himself to become so damned institutional! I think somebody should inform mon capitaine that we employ the T-formation these enlightened days.
A week or so ago I received a copy (complimentary!) of a hook called Guide to Jazz ("Valuable information," says the jacket blurb, "on every aspect of jazz, by Hugues Panassie. author of Le Jazz Hot, and Madeleine Gautier.") Inasmuch as I was soon to commence setting down these observations, I thought I'd better have a look at what Papa Panassie had to report about Art Pepper, Johnny Mandel, Jimmy Rowles. Harry Klee and Don Fagerquist. As it turned out, my old squadron leader seems never to have heard of them. At any rate, their names do not appear in Guide to Jazz or, as the expression goes, Sonny Tufts! I do not mind saying that I find this appalling. There is, of course, line upon line about the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, which is as it should be, for the Ellington band, after all, is as incandescent as they come and Louis is a perpetual pure blue flame and, to my ears, no jazz record of the past decade was any more exciting and enduring than his "Mack the Knife." Still and all, though, a guide — a truly eclectic and informative guide — should be mindful of the fact that any art form progresses and that, as it does, it breeds bright new voices. I think that Panassie should realize, at infuriatingly long last, that many of the new, even the experimental, forms are now being absorbed into the mainstream of jazz and that Gerry Mulligan and Pee Wee Russell have more to say to each other than he, Panassie, would like to believe. In any event, it is true that the progressives — the moderns, the cool ones, or what you will — have modified their radicalism and, in doing so, grown close to the basic jazz. In the course of this, they have broadened, enriched and revitalized an art form that, like any other, cannot endure by remaining stagnant, by sitting back and preserving the status quo.
Hoagy Sings Carmichael, which utilizes eleven musicians and Carmichael, was recorded in Los Angeles at the Forum Theatre, a large legitimate house with excellent acoustics. Carmichael feels that the background in the modern idiom — the fresh instrumental voices and the imaginative Mandel arrangements — stimulated him to sing differently and perhaps better than ever before. The highly contemporary accompaniment, he says, made him feel younger, a fact that I think will be immediately obvious to anyone acquainted with his records of other years. I also think that it is equally obvious that he might have done much to inspire the boys in the band, as the saying goes.
There is great, great beauty and talent in this album. For one thing, the Mandel arrangements are marvels of unobtrusiveness designed to highlight the singing. Indeed, subtle is the word for the whole enterprise. Although I dislike programmatic album notes — notes, that is, that inform you, rather patronizingly, what you should like, and so forth — I'm afraid that I cannot resist a few observations along such lines. One is that Art Pepper, who has been away from music for much too long a time, is simply superlative, with bite to his attack, body to his tone and a disciplined architecture to his improvisation. He is, mon capitaine Panassie notwithstanding, a great alto saxophonist. As for Harry Edison, well, there has never been a time when his playing failed to move me deeply. But the other trumpeter, Don Fagerquist, who takes solos in "Skylark," "Winter Moon," "Rocking' Chair" and "Ballad In Blue," was new to me. I think he's simply fine. And so, for that matter, is Jimmy Rowles, who plays so sensitively in, among other things, "Two Sleepy People."
But enough of this sort of thing. I'm beginning to sound as dogmatic as Pappa Panassie.”
— George Frazier
Original liner notes