Author Archives: Paula Helene

Clark Terry IV – a nice story

A few years ago – 2008 maybe- Gwen and Clark Terry invited my wife, Laurie, and me to dinner at the Jazz Standard in New York City. We had been out to their house in New Jersey a year prior, where a large lower room was filled with Clark’s many awards and mementos. This was an equally special occasion, to dine and hear Frank Foster’s big band. The trumpet player Jon Faddis and his wife joined us at the table. Clark had been out of the public eye for at least a year. He was moving slowly, with a walker, due to back problems, also foot and vision problems from advanced diabetes. Frank Foster, the fine Basie saxophonist and notable arranger, was recovering from a stroke. This was his first reappearance. Predictably the place was full of musicians. When they became aware of Clark’s presence they approached the table in ones and twos to pay homage – there is no other word for it – to a player they all admired. You would have thought he was Abraham Lincoln. It was one of the more touching occasions I’ve been party to.

Due to his stroke, one of Frank Foster’s arms wasn’t allowing him the freedom of playing tenor. He was there strictly in a band leading role. But then he surprised everyone by unsheathing a trumpet – who knew that he could play that? – and challenged Clark to come up and join him. This couldn’t have been much of a surprise to Clark, because before I knew it, he’d produced a flugelhorn from out of nowhere. The two of them leaped into a standard, took solos, followed by eights, then fours, then twos amid a fair amount of hilarity. Frank Foster’s big band played great that night, but the one fine moment – the one everyone took home with them – was the one I just described.

As expected, the place exploded with applause, while the two heroes, bowing again and again, let the shining moment stand, without needless encore.

Bryan Gould, Bandleader, Swing Fever

Happy Birthday Billie Holiday

Maybe 50 years have passed since I first discovered Billie through all those wonderful thrown-together mid-30s Teddy Wilson recordings. Some of those songs had no life at all except through Billie singing them.  Of course she had plenty of help from Teddy, Lester, Benny, Bunny and the like to aid the transformation.

Not everyone was a Billie fan, even in her own time. Fats Waller said, “It sounds like her shoes pinch.”

There was a time that I would gladly have married Billie. I could have helped her straighten out all her problems, led her to a happier life. She would have listened to me. My wife does not agree: “I never in my life heard anything so stupid,” she said.

It’s usually a bad idea for young singers to try to sing like Billie. Learn from her yes, but mimic the style? It inevitably comes out stilted. One of the best Billie influenced vocalists to my ear, was Peggy Lee, who took the best of Billie’s teachings and swung in her own direction.

One misgiving I have about Billie and her legend (and I guess this would have to apply to Ella Fitzgerald’s too), is that it has eclipsed so many other fine singers of the period. Mildred Bailey, for instance,; Lee Wiley; Maxine Sullivan; Ethel Waters. Such an era of fine voices and such a range of expression! Listen sometime, see if you agree.

Billie Holiday’s birthday – April 7th

Billie Holiday  Billie Holiday picture (465x640)

Billie Holiday Swing Fever is celebrating Billie Holiday’s birthday with their show at the Panama Hotel, in San Rafael California, on April 7th, 20015; as we have done for many years.

Billie Holiday may be the finest singer jazz has produced. She is surely the most legendary. Her recordings with Teddy Wilson’s studio groups in the mid-1930s startled the jazz world and brought her attention that rarely faded until her early death in 1959 at age 44. Her problems with men and dope brought notoriety along with fame. That became part of the legend too. The recordings made in her declining years continue to fascinate fans sixty years later, a fascination that sometimes approaches necrophilia, as Billie became known as not only jazz’s greatest singer, but also its most publicized victim. In the early recordings her songs are, for the most part, fresh and hopeful. Later the songs reflect mistreatment, self-sacrifice and her failing voice reflects a hopeless grinding downhill journey. Every one of us knew where it would all end. Her death (she was arrested for narcotics addiction on her death bed), resulting from her problems and at a relatively young age, was the capper, stamping her legend in bronze.

And still there is the music. Billie’s forte was not the Blues, as popularly supposed, but the standard American popular song, and how she could enhance, imbue and transform the best and even the most trivial of these songs still brings a thrill to both ear and heart; at least my ear and heart.

Our Billie birthday tributes give the band a chance to crack out many of the songs that she sang so beautifully. Most of them, such as “Foolin’ Myself,” “This Year’s Kisses,” “I’ll Never Be the Same,” have dropped almost completely from sight. The easy conclusion is that the songs didn’t last because they didn’t stand up as quality songs, but that’s far from the truth in the case of the three that I just mentioned, or for many others.

Billie Holiday started to catch the attention of the jazz listening public with those early Teddy Wilson recordings. In 1936 she was a distinctly new experience. She did not possess a large voice or have a large range. She, like Bing Crosby before her, was perfectly matched to the new development, the microphone, which was merciful to smaller voices and introduced intimacy. Al Jolson and Bessie Smith had to project to the back row of a theatre to be heard. Suddenly singers were singing in natural voice. Billie was also absorbing the lessons of Louis Armstrong and, more directly, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, and the result was fresh improvisation and phrasing. Not always to the composer’s satisfaction, Billie bent melodies to make them right for her. In some cases this was driven by her lack of range. The Cole Porter song “Easy to Love” stands out. The melody went beyond her comfortable range and to avoid the problem, Billie never sang the composed melody, but simulated it, ducked the highest and lowest notes, and put the emphasis on expressing its lyrics and making it swing. She did the same with many songs, whether in her range or not

My favorite Billie Holiday is the many records made in the mid-30s under the direction of pianist Teddy Wilson as leader. Those records were some of the early thrills for me, all the more so because of wonderful solos by Bunny Berigan, Lester Young and the rest of the pickup groups, glued together by Hammond and Wilson. I listen to them now and the same thrills return, as well as new ones. The old story passed around for years, is that a lot of sappy pop tunes were thrust upon Billie in the early years, and that the only dignity brought to this ephemeral commercial pabulum was Billie’s singing. It’s true, some of these songs, as songs, were genuine forgettables. In some cases they were dashed off by a few pop writers and were never intended to survive more than a day. A few of the songs were already standards (“Love Me or Leave Me,” “Summertime,” “Am I Blue”) or became standards through outstanding band recordings or by Broadway musicals, or when vocalists like Crosby and Sinatra bullied them into prominence. And then there was a third kind, the many more songs that deserved to survive and didn’t. Whatever became of “Easy Living,” for instance, or “I Hear Music”?  Some songs like these never became hits, or if they were hits for a moment you didn’t hear them two or three or five years later.

In the 1940s the quality of Billie’s songs grew as her singing and popularity ripened. The songs were also more doleful, reflecting the blue side of love and life, and one, “Strange Fruit” starkly political. And then came the decline, the sound of brake shoes digging into the drums.

Billie Holiday died at 44, her career spanning a scant 25 years. Jazz is famous for short careers. Think of Nat King Cole, Bunny Berigan, Chu Berry, Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker. But compare Billie’s with the long careers of, say, Big Crosby, Frank Sinatra (more than 50 years), or Tony Bennett, still singing in his 80s, and Herb Jeffries, in good voice at 96. Nearly all of Billie’s 25 years were, for both music and lifestyle reasons in the spotlight. Some of it, most of it, is great music. But for me, none of it recaptures the freshness of her early songs and those eternally precious Teddy Wilson recordings where “Ooo, Oo, Oo, What a Little Moonlight Can Do” could become a classic.

Part 3 – Clark Terry & Pee Wee Claybrook

Reunion CDFor those intrigued by my Clark Terry – Pee Wee Claybrook story, I’m including the following plucked from my original 1995 Reunion CD liner notes. In shorthand it characterizes a corner of jazz that was completely unknown to me before meeting Pee Wee. Maybe it will interest you.

In 1942 St. Louis was a cauldron of jazz and Elbert “Pee Wee” Claybrook, saxophonist, and Clark Terry, trumpeter, helped stir the pot. Bands like George Hudson’s, Eddie Randall’s Blue Devils, Dewey Jackson, Jeter and the Pillars, St. Louis Crackerjacks; clubs like the Plantation, the Four Roses, the Golden Lily made St. Louis renowned for its jazz. Jimmy Forest and Jimmy Blanton were raised there, as was Miles Davis. Tab Smith Shorty Baker, Floyd Smith, Walter Page, Kenny Clark, Sid Catlett, Art Blakey and Harry “Sweets” Edison all found their way there during the big band heyday.

As the Streckfus Line paddlewheel steamers plied the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Fate Marabel’s bands variously employed Louis Armstrong, Henry Red Allen, Pops Foster, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton. In the late ‘30s, Pee Wee Claybrook played saxophone on the Ohio with Fate Marabel on the piano and Jimmy Blanton on the bass, a happy combination ending when Duke Ellington discovered Blanton and turned him into one of the most durable jazz legends. St. Louis was always a great spot for the Duke, or Basie, or Cab Calloway, or Jimmie Lunceford to swoop hawk-like into town and leave with several of the best players in their talons.

But no raid equaled Uncle Sam’s WWII sweep. On a single day 80% of George Hudson’s band, as well as large chunks of Jeter and Pillars and the Blue Devils were torn away, devastating St. Louis jazz. Thrust together in the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Band, Pee Wee Claybrook and Clark Terry cemented their friendship. The band also included altoist Willie Smith, fresh from Jimmy Lunceford, as well as arranger Gerald Wilson. In 1944 Pee Wee and Clark’s paths separated, with Pee Wee transferring West to join the St. Mary’s Preflight Naval Band in Moraga California, where he played with Ernie and Marshall Royal, Buddy Collette and Jerome Richardson.

When he mustered out at War’s end, the cracks in the big band era were already showing. Pee Wee wrote Clark to say he decided to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area. Clark wrote back that he was rejoining George Hudson’s band in St. Louis. Another letter announced a change to Charlie Barnet’s band. A year later he joined Basie, and then, in 1951, Clark joined Duke Ellington. Pee Wee played with Earl “Fatha” Hines in San Francisco while keeping his day gig. In the late 1980’s their friendship turned 50. By 1994 Pee Wee Claybrook had been playing with Swing Fever for 10 years.

As Pee Wee neared his 83rd year the idea of a recording reuniting Clark Terry and Pee Wee Claybrook took shape. Clark jumped at the chance. The tapings were made on three successive evenings in January 1995, at Mobias Studio, San Francisco, by recording engineer David Luke and legendary jazz producer Orin Keepnews. Recording again with Clark Terry with whom he made many records in the early Riverside Record days.


Clark Terry, Part 2

How the eminent Clark Terry and the locally regarded Swing Fever managed, in 1995, to cement a relationship is a story by itself.

Bay Area jazz fans will remember the truly beloved tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Claybrook. Pee Wee had played with the bassist Vernon Alley for eons. He had played with Swing Fever for 10 years. In 1995, Pee Wee was nearly 83. Though it looked as though he and his Big Chu Berry tenor tone would go on forever, to celebrate Pee Wee the time was now.

Clark Terry and Pee Wee, both from St. Louis, had become friends during WWII in the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Band. (For the historically afflicted, a later blog post will attempt to characterize the jazz hot bed of St. Louis, 1942, with Clark and Pee Wee’s roles in it.) The two never played together afterwards, but had kept up their friendship for nearly 60 years, writing letters and occasionally visiting whenever Clark came to San Francisco.

We schemed. What if we could get Clark Terry to come out from New York for a recording? I called Clark, whom I’d never met. It took no convincing. The result, in 1995, was a tour and a live-to-two track studio recording. We called the CD “Reunion.” We hired the late Orin Keepnews as co-producer. Jon English wrote the arrangements and lent sharp ears to the control booth. Orin took the opportunity to chat up Clark about the old days at Riverside. This despite the discomfort Orin was having from a knee replacement, all the more troublesome since doctors had operated on the wrong knee! (Yes boys and girls, these medical mistakes are more than legend.) With the clock running, we tried to short- circuit the palaver to get the recording finished.

Clark’s diabetes was giving him eye troubles. For several years he’d been avoiding appearances and recordings that required him to read trumpet parts. Being a good reader had always been a point of particular pride. That skill had escaped many notable players, but Clark was not one of them. No longer being able to read was a huge frustration, which he expressed numerously through the three recording days.

“I used to be able to read fly shit,” he said.

Somehow we had missed any warning of Clark’s eyesight difficulties. The arrangements were important, nevertheless, and we were loath to abandon them.

In a quixotic moment one of us came up with the notion of blowing up the trumpet parts, doubling their size on paper. Clark thought that might be sufficient! Whatever he couldn’t read, he’d fake. No time to waste. My daughter, Leslie, was given the task of explaining the copying job to Kinkos, but something got lost in translation to the night crew. When the trumpet parts came out next morning they were not double the size, but double again. Opened up they looked like billboards. Clark thought they were the funniest things he’d ever seen. He insisted we snap a photo of him standing next to them.

This proved to be a fortunate mistake. As we played through the numbers, Jon English, the arranger, held up the sheets like giant cue cards, putting down page one as he held up page two, and so on, as Clark chuckled between phrases. But even with billboarded eighth notes and darkened-in figures, sometimes the glare off the page troubled his perception. There were occasional moments of hesitation as Clark tried to fox his way through tough sections, but his solutions for climbing out of trouble, as usual, were as fascinating as what was written on the page. Whenever I listen to those recordings now – his duets with saxophonist Howie Dudune on “Isfahan” and “Come Sunday” are especially delicious – I picture Jon holding up the cue cards and Clark snowshoeing his way through. I saved the arrangements. I expect to be getting calls from the Smithsonian.

As for Clark and Pee Wee, It was a frolic, musically and personally. Maybe for them it was 1942 again. They turned “There Is No Greater Love” into a monument.

Timing, as it turned out, was everything, as Pee Wee died shortly afterwards.