Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood

Memories of Ella:

Ella and Mel Tormé at the Grammys. The story goes that Ella's manager would not let her record with Mel, not wanting people to compare the two artists. How do you compare the incomparable?


One day I heard William B. Williams on WNEW-AM interviewing Ella Fitzgerald. "How are you Ella?" "I'm much better now that I'm talking to you Bill." Ella was recovering from surgery to remove her leg due to diabetes. Ella revealed in the interview that watching the soaps was one of her leisure time activities.
I heard an interview that musician André Previn conducted with Ella and the topic turned to musicianship. Ella said "Of course I'm not a musician..." and was stopped by Previn, who said, "then none of us are musicians."


I'm listening to the next-to-last track of the 4-CD set and what a blast. Ella is riffing on fellow singers Sophie Tucker, Della Reese, Pearl Bailey. Just a lot of fun doing the old saw horse "Bill Bailey." And then she encores on the final track with...a commentary/reprise on the same Bill Bailey with impressions of Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington and...herself! Let's go back to the beginning and listen again.

The Crescendo emcee announces that Mort Sahl will be appearing soon; after Mort you'll see Errol Garner and that "sparkling new comedy personality" Dick Gregory. Ella comes out to do a breathless "Lover Come Back to Me" in 1:51 and a smooth "Too Close For Comfort." I don't know exactly if this was the same order as in her actual twelve nights. She slows it down with "Little White Lies" but picks up the mood again with "The Sunny Side of the Street" with topical references to being "rich like Frank Sinatra." [The real lyric is "rich like Rockefeller" and if I were singing it today I would say "rich like that Gates fellow."] It's amazing how many of these tracks clock in under two minutes, most under four. This was an era when a movie could tell a good story in under two hours.

This great collection is not a scatter's delight, if that's what you're looking for with Ella; but wait until "Perdido." Ella says they have a request for it but she sings that she doesn't know the lyrics. No biggie. She'll write them as she scats, joke through famous song titles, and call on Ella's fellas (the band) to wail and blow some "Perdido." She's all that, a bag of chips, and an ice cold Coke with an extended scat in the middle that you wish would never end. Even a little "Laura" shows up near the finish to make up for the lack of real lyrics. At this point you're glad she supposedly doesn't have or know the lyrics. This is pre-Google, the Mad Men era (May 1961) so it might have the added advantage of being true, as Kissinger said to Nixon.

Is it possible I'm only on the 10th of the 76 songs? Ella, if I'm ever feeling blue, this album will be my bad mood buster. It is a delight, a great introduction to the American Songbook for the uninitiated and a welcome addition to the music collections for lovers of beautiful music, created by a special lady.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tavis Smiley on PBS

If I had a TV talk show I'd have on smart people and some laughs. Tavis Smiley, who follows Charlie Rose on PBS in New York, accomplishes this most nights from a studio in Los Angeles. It's not surprising he has a radio background because when I watch him, I'm taken back to an era when literate men ruled the AM radio waves, such as Barry Gray, Barry Farber, and Long John Nebel. Johnny Carson used to have authors on regularly and Travis carries on this tradition.

I caught up with a typical episode, from Cablevision On Demand. Tavis had on Joel Kotkin of Chapman University, author of THE NEXT HUNDRED MILLION. The book is an optimistic look at the population growth projected in the U.S. in the next forty years. Rather than the usual gloom and doom over our depleted resources and teeming cities, Kotkin noted the benefits of energy savings for a population that can increasingly work at home (I did it twice last week thanks to the Internets). He also said that working at home is great for parents and involvement with their children.

Improvements in farming have resulted in more open land; cities such as Detroit are depopulating. Kotkin pointed out that this creates more room for the extra population.

The social climate will also continue to improve. As an example, he cited a survey that showed that the attitudes toward interracial dating have changed from intolerance in all previous surveys to 90% tolerance in young people today.

Tavis's next guest was directory Garry Marshall, director of the new release VALENTINE'S DAY. He plugged the movie and also talked about his ubiqutous on cable classic, PRETTY WOMAN. This prosty-makes-good movie was the feelgood rom com of 1990.*

He told a story about going to see Martin Short's Broadway show. Marshall called the show and asked if he could get tickets for a Wednesday performance. "Wednesday is great," the voice on the phone told him. There was a bit in the show each night where Marty would notice a celebrity in the audience, then invite on stage for shtick. Marshall was asked if he would take part in the bit. "You must have a bigger celebrity than me," he said to the booker. The booker replied "Not on a Wednesday."

If you haven't seen Travis Smiley on PBS, give him a shot. If I see one more lame late-night bit where the host asks the director to roll a taped bit, I'll Elvis the screen. Turn off Jay, Dave, Conan, Jimmy, Jimmy, and the Seinfeld repeat and learn and laugh with this underrated throwback to good talk late at night. He asks smart questions, fawns sometimes, but with L.A.'s A-list guests it's forgivable, and lets the guest talk, never one-upping, or ruining the rhythm of a good storyteller.

*Hector Elizondo was a standout as the concierge. Hector got off one of the all-time lines at an old Emmy awards show. He came out to the podium with Sam Waterston, and before reading out the nominees looked up at Sam and said, "I always wanted to work with Lincoln."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

DOUBLE PLAY by Robert B. Parker

I've been reading Robert B. Parker novles for a long time, going back to my Ur-blog, the Blackboard, in the late '90s to early '00s. I finally got around to reading DOUBLE PLAY from 2004, Parker's imagining of the job of Jackie Robinson's bodyguard in 1947, the year Jackie became the first modern-era African American MLBer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. There's a little bait-and-switch here if you think you're going to get much Jackie. Parker creates a character, Burke, and the third-person narrator gives us his backstory of a WWII Marine, recovering from martial and marital injuries, looking to make a living after the war. He is a trained rifleman. A sojourn as a boxer leads to another tough guy profession--bodyguard, and in the best noir tradition, to a rich man's nymphomaniacal daughter.

Word about Burke reaches Branch Rickey about two-fifths of the way into the novel and that's what I meant about the bait-and-switch. Once Jackie appears, he is not fully realized, but we do get enough to see that he was the one man who could have endured the viciousness. It's been reported many times but bears repeating: Rickey asked Robbie, for the first year in the bigs, not to fight back, to take every slur, insult, and object thrown at him. In this novel it includes bullets, so Rickey hires help.

Burke's emotional scars from a bad marriage heal from being around Jackie and family and a cause to fight for, and Jackie gets in Burke an unimpeachable ally, at a time when even some of his own teammates hate his Dodger blue guts. One wonders about his second year on the Dodgers and if the threats subsided in any way. Did the haters all call each other and move on to other interests, like keeping innocent black children from integrating school? How did they communicate with each other before FOX News and WABC talk radio? I digress.

The novel continues Parker's love of short chapters. His chapters and sentences got shorter and shorter as his career progressed. There are two quirky forms between the regular chapters, a series of interludes about his bad marriage titled "Pentimento," and several chapters each titled "Bobby," which read autobiographically about an older man's look back at his younger self, musing on race, love, and baseball.

The writing is too Spenserish. Phrases from Spenser novels populate this one, like Bobby's "Hubba hubba," or his Burke's wartime girl friend reflecting on the way he confronts the danger of battle, "But you do it."

The eBook experience: there are nine box scores included and they are hard to read on the eBook. The images are surrounded by a lot of white space and it makes enlarging and scrolling hard to do, but this may also be a fault of an insensitive scroll bar. Also, Box Score 4 is titled but the image is missing. I do book production for one of the world's oldest publishers and I'd hate to be the production editor who missed this. (I've done worse.)

You expect more out of the people you admire and I expected more from DOUBLE PLAY.

Postscript: The Daily News used to run an ad in the subway, a picture of Jackie Robinson riding the subway and reading the Daily News. It's impossible to imagine today. John Rocker of the Braves is the last recorded MLB subway passenger. My mother saw the Gas House gang take the train to the Polo Grounds to play the NY Giants, carrying their equipment. She went to Ladies Day with her mother and upgraded her ticket for a box seat, sitting not far from the Vanderbilts. There was a time when the richest people sat amongst us and professional athletes rode the subway. Today we have luxury boxes for the wealthy and big leaguers don't even have roommates any more.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Black History Month 2010

Welcome to the third annual Black History Month celebration. Let's open with last night's funky stylings of DJA-Rara, Bk's own Haitian rara band. Where can I buy a big horn like that?

Here are some other shots from the African Art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum's First Saturday in February 2010. I had hoped the bitter wind and cold would keep the crowd down but if anything even the coat check was marked "Full."

This month we're going to look at a novel by the late Robert B. Parker (it stinks to write that), DOUBLE PLAY, an imaginary scenario about Jackie Robinson's bodyguard in 1947. Then, there's a new album by Ella Fitzgerald, a live recording called TWELVE NIGHTS IN HOLLYWOOD that's causing a sensation. The worst thing I ever read about Ella was that she was too technically perfect.

And more... Stay logged in.