Is It Time for a Reappraisal of John Huston’s “The Misfits”?

(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Project

The beginning of a new movie can be an auspicious event.  But for John Huston in July of 1960, it was more auspicious than usual as he was collaborating with America’s most well-known playwright and five world renown actors who had never made a film together.  The film in question was to be made in the Nevada desert where the average daily temperature was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  As a rule, Huston thrived on difficult working conditions and nearly impossible challenges, but the making of this film was more arduous that he anticipated.  To his credit, Huston had done nearly everything right.  He had chosen to collaborate with a playwright whom he greatly admired.  He had chosen actors who perfectly represented their characters.  And he had assembled the finest assistants and film specialists for lighting, cinematography, sound and editing he could want.  What he didn’t fully appreciate, however, was the precarious mental and physical health of his leading actress, Marilyn Monroe.  Nor was he aware of Clark Gable’s health status as well.  Both fine actors had just completed exemplary films of which they were proud (Gable at age 59 completed It Happened in Naples with Sophia Loren and showed up on set looking fit and having apparently lost 35 lbs.)  Monroe had just wrapped Let’s Make Love with Yves Montand, and rumors were that she might be stealing him away from this wife, Simone Signoret.  Some might say that both actors were at the top of their game coming off successful film projects.  Did Huston know what he was getting into?  He had some awareness of Marilyn’s problems as he had been meeting with Arthur Miller who had told him of their marriage difficulties and Marilyn’s discouragement as being typecast as a sexpot; but Miller had conceived the character of Roslyn to allow his wife to play a real dramatic part, and she was honored to be asked to be in another John Huston film (she had started her career in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.) To add to her pleasure at being given this role, she had always felt that John Huston was a director who appreciated her as a talented actress. 

The media at the time was also excited about this proposed film.  The cast was considered exceptionally good:  Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Thelma Ritter, and Eli Wallach.  It had major “box office” written all over it.  In fact, another thing that John Huston had done right was to hire a writer, James Goode, to write a book about the filming of the movie and a photography team headed up by Cartier-Bresson to oversee official, authorized photos.  He felt that in this way ‘the set’ would not be over-run by media.  He had put in place the official and sanctioned writers and photographers and no one else was allowed near the filming except by special permission.  Huston had apparently selected Montgomery Clift as someone who would be soothing to Marilyn Monroe since she was known for being insecure and temperamental.  He felt that Monty would have a calming influence on her, and apparently, he was right. Monty was a good choice.  But then, so was Eli Wallach who was also very sweet and considerate.  In fact, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach, Clift, and Monroe had all attended classes at the Actors’ Studio and knew each other a bit from this experience.  So, even though Gable, Monroe and Clift had not made a film together…there was a professional connection between all the actors in this film.  Kevin McCarthy, who had a much smaller role, was also a participant in the Actors’ Studio as well, and he and Montgomery Clift had attended at the same time.  So, while there may have been warning signs of impending trouble, there were also potential omens of success and camaraderie. 

What’s in a Name                                                                                                          

Arthur Miller’s title for his story which became the title of the film, The Misfits, is significant.  It was originally a short story not a play.  Miller told an interviewer that he could not conceive of a play being set in the locale of the West with deserts and mountains.  He felt that a short story could do justice to the setting and locale, and he felt that a film would even be better.  He envisioned long shots of the desert and the wild horses with the mountains as backdrop.  He had been captivated by the scenery when he had been a resident of Reno completing a 30-day stay for his divorce.  When he had been taken out to the dessert by cowboys he had met in town, he was entranced by the landscape of black and white – large expanse of white sand with black mountains in the background – he compared it to a “lunar landscape.”  He hoped that John Huston and the director of photography would be able to capture what he had seen with his eyes and what he had written about in his story.  Both John Huston and Arthur Miller as well as the rest of the cast were interviewed extensively about the significance of the title, The Misfits, and they all had interpretations of it and of the meaning of the movie. 

John Huston had the most succinct definition of The Misfits:

               It’s about people who weren’t willing to sell themselves out.

               “They will sell their work, but they won’t sell their lives, and for that reason they’re misfits.”[i]

Huston defended Reno and the West in general,

               He saw it was the last stop for the vanishing American innocent.  Miller was saying much the same thing in his screenplay.[ii]

               Gable’s character (Gay Langland):  a Reno cowboy who has frequent affairs with women in town for divorce actions, and…a man who can’t be bought and who refuses to be tied down.[iii]

Huston told James Goode:

               “What’s behind it?  It is about people who sell their work but won’t sell themselves.  Anybody who holds out – is a misfit.  If he loses, he is a failure, and if he is successful, he is rare.  The movie is about a world in change.  There was meaning in our lives before World War II, but we have lost meaning now.  Now the cowboys ride pickup trucks and rodeo rider is an actor of sorts.  Once they sold the wild horses for children’s ponies.  And now for dog food.  The is a dog-eat-horse society.”[iv]

               “The part of Gay Langland (Gable) is a point that should be underscored now, not as a preachment.  It reveals itself dramatically.  He’s the same man but the world has changed.  Then he was noble.  Now he is ignoble.”[v]

               Marilyn Monroe’s character “Roslyn had not had a child because Taber (played by Kevin McCarthy) was spiritually absent.  Then she meets Gay.  Their feeling for each other will create an atmosphere.  I personally admire that kind of guy.  Gay Langland is the modern hero or about as close to one as I have read about.  Gay has faced the responsibilities of manhood.  Perce (Montgomery Clift) too.  But there is an element of absurdity in what they’re doing is pointless, if not ugly.  Their accomplishment is subjective.”[vi]

Max Youngstein (a vice-president at United Artists) told James Goode:

               “I’ve been looking for pictures that are an affirmation of life.  There are very few people writing of affirmation.  The totality of this picture is that people can make their lives worthwhile.  These people are seriously lost in the beginning.  The little scene we saw in the rushes this morning is what the picture is about, when Eli says, ‘You have a gift for life, Roslyn.’  The public is a little fed up with downhill pictures.”[vii]

Clark Gable told James Goode his thoughts on the script:

               He had been reading (the script) in its entirely every night, saying that it was exciting, that there was so little to say, but that everything said was of importance, there was not a wasted word…[viii]

Eli Wallach told James Goode:

               “I have a great trust in John because I think he understands almost in Hemingway’s terms that man can take his licks without whimpering.  He keeps me from being self-pitying, self-indulgent, or weak.”[ix]

Guido, the character played by Eli Wallach, and Perce, the cowboy played by Montgomery Clift, were explained to James Goode by John Huston:

               “Guido is probably the most complex character in this film, a bit of a hypocrite.  He changes tune.  None of the others would.  He’d become an animal lover if he could have the girl.  He has made his compromise.  Perce on the other hand is very simple.  What he does makes no damn sense but thank God for them.  They’re awful good men.  Pity is that they’re inverted.  You’ve got to be singularly blessed to be part of anything and keep your self-respect.”[x]

Melodrama or Tragedy

One of the paradoxes of The Misfits has been since its release, is that it has never been well received or liked either by the public or the critics. For a film that had such high expectations and was heralded as “affirmative” why has it been so universally ignored or disliked?  One explanation for this rejection of the film is that fans of Monroe and Gable were saddened by their deaths following its release, and at least one Hollywood gossip writer sought to blame the film for Gable’s death. Gable participated in several apparently stressful stunts such as roping horses and in one instance being dragged by a horse (it was in fact a rope tied to a truck and he was wearing a protective suit.)  Monroe had started another movie soon after the finish of The Misfits, but that project was never completed, and The Misfits remains her last film. Many people who don’t like the film have stated that the film is depressing or sad or both.  In this case, the criticism seems to be a rejection of the film because the subject is unpleasant.  Given the fact that Marilyn Monroe had a string of successful musical comedies, it is possible that her fans did not want to see a movie that is so melancholy.  This brings us to the question Is the Misfits a botched drama that was aiming for affirmation but instead delivered sadness?  Both the author and the director were aware of the risks involved in presenting a film that lays bare raw emotions and a sense of paradise lost. For this reason, Arthur Miller and John Huston spent hours each day evaluating the progress of the story and changing the dialogue where they deemed necessary.  They were filming and rewriting the story in real time to achieve an outcome that was satisfactory to both.  Some may argue that this type of collaboration may have resulted in the film being overly managed to the point of being botched. However, neither the writer nor the director ever expressed dissatisfaction over this process, and in fact they both have gone on the record to praise their collaboration.  In much the same way, both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe told interviewers that they felt that their acting in this movie is perhaps their best work.  So, if the film was not botched in the process of making it, and if the film in no way was a personal failure by the leading actor and actress, then is there another explanation for the film’s mixed fan appeal and critical reception?  Perhaps there is.  And that is what we are about to examine.

Analysis of a Film

Arthur Miller was not only America’s premier playwright in 1960 he was also a creator pf tragedies.  The Crucible, Death of a Salesman are tragedies. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy elicits “pity and fear.”  Human failure and defeat are often the substance of modern tragedy. The audience is presented difficult, sad and unpleasant circumstances which start out bad and proceed to get worse.  Oftentimes it is a matter of decisions made by the protagonist which inevitably contribute to his or her destruction.  Willfulness or unbridled conceit (Greek: hubris) has contributed to the downfall of many heroes in Greek tragedy as well as in Shakespeare’s plays. After the rise of the industrial age authors such as Thomas Hardy, and later Henry James and Edith Wharton began to elucidate the sense of fate and corrupt forces being too strong for a single individual to conquer. By the twentieth century writers were also suggesting that situations can simply be “absurd” and that human activity can be seen as meaningless.  Although much of twentieth century literature can suggest nihilism – the works of Arthur Miller and the films of John Huston do not necessarily reflect these views. Both men demonstrate an approach to literature that demonstrates courage and tenacity in the face of adversity.  Nevertheless, of the two, Huston’s work tends more towards humor and optimism whereas Miller has embraced a stronger pull towards pessimism as in his play The Crucible. There appears to be a dialectic process in The Misfits in which Arthur Miller’s essentially tragic story was reimagined by director Huston as a humanistic comedy.  The two authors had daily discussions about the direction of the storyline with Huston arguing for a happier resolution. It appears from James Goode’s book that Huston’s perspective eventually won over Arthur Miller, and the two men decided that the relationship between Monroe’s character and Gable’s cowboy would achieve a romantic resolution.  However, audiences may have been quite perplexed by this outcome since the characters of Rosalyn and Gay fought frequently with each other. In actuality, once the film makers embarked on a path of romantic resolution the director and the scriptwriter discussed the possibilities of Rosalyn engaging with either Perce or Guido.  Montgomery Cliff as Perce was always emotionally closer to Rosalyn in spirit and values than either Gay (Gable) or Guido (Wallach).  However, it is Gable’s character who appears to be the lynchpin to the resolution of the story.  Guido is an opportunist who will do whatever it takes to win but he lacks sincerity. Perce is kind and sensitive, so he does not require any change in his personality. The romantic liaison of Rosalyn and Gay Langland ensures that the film achieves catharsis.  Monroe’s sensitive character wins over the “crusty cowboy” who voices pessimism and violence in dealing with life’s frustrations. As he “softens” and relinquishes some of his hate and anger the film offers the audience a solution to the problems the movie has presented up to now of living in a callus and harsh “dog eat dog” world.  If he can see a better way to live his life, then maybe 1960 audiences could as well. Was this too easy? It doesn’t seem to fit with the style and voice of Arthur Miller, the playwright.  Did audiences reject such a simplistic outlook? Could anyone blame them?  The U.S. was immersed in a nuclear “cold war” with the USSR, civil rights in the country was in an abysmal state, and in just 3 years the American president would be assassinated, and a terrible new war in southeast Asia would unfurl. Perhaps, Aristotle was right.  Tragedy should not end in optimism. That isn’t the point of tragedy.  Tragedy forces us to see unpleasant truths about ourselves and the society we have created. Good drama has to have its own logic and not travel a path of fluctuating impulses. 

[i] Lawrence Grobel, The Hustons: Scribners 1989, p.486

[ii] James Goode, The Making of The Misfits: Limelight Editions, New York, 1986, p.32

[iii] Goode, p.38

[iv] Goode, p.44-45

[v] Goode, p.45

[vi] Goode, p.45

[vii] Goode, pp.98-99

[viii] Goode, p.47

[ix] Goode, p.69

[x] Goode, p.46


Jazz Singers – An Appreciation

Portrait of Nat King Cole, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947. William P. Gottlieb, photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Nat King Cole, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947. William P. Gottlieb, photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For those who did not know that Nat King Cole had begun his career as a pianist and  jazz singer, they may enjoy several jazz-infused albums:
Nat King Cole at the Sands. Capitol Records SMAS-2434 (1966). Arrangements by Dave Cavanaugh, Nelson Riddle, and Pete Rugolo. The singer plays piano on some songs as well.
Nat King Cole Just One Of Those Things. Capitol Records W903 (1957). Orchestra conducted and arranged by Billy May.
Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays Capitol Records SW-1675 (1963) George Shearing Quintet.
In each of these recordings Nat King Cole displays a relaxed, sophisticated and skillful approach to singing with a full-fledged jazz orchestra or small jazz group. For fans of Nat King Cole’s trio days when he sat at the piano singing and playing ‘swing’ versions of his own songs and others, these jazz oriented albums will come as no surprise. Nat King Cole had a killer stride piano style and could swing with the best of them, but for the vast majority of his Capitol Records era balladeer style, these recordings show what a great improviser and jazz stylist he could be given the opportunity. Jazz arrangements can be challenging for a pop singer, but for a singer who has innate talents of melody, harmony and rhythm…well, the singer shines being at home in his element.

Tony Bennett with Ralph Burns Orchestra, Columbia CL 1301

Tony Bennett with Ralph Burns Orchestra, Columbia CL 1301

In his 1964 Jazz Encyclopedia, Leonard Feather stated:  “…Bennett is a first-class pop singer and not a jazz artist.” (p.62) To give Leonard Feather credit, in the fifties and early 1960s most of Tony Bennett’s  commercial output had been a string of big hit singles in the pop vein that were often produced by Mitch Miller for Columbia.  However, in the same inclusion, Feather acknowledged that Tony Bennett had also sung with the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman…so he probably should not have been so emphatic in his statement.  Leonard Feather’s mistake was to define jazz singing too narrowly.  Jazz is an art form that has many different characteristics and qualities.  Some of the qualities of jazz singing have been described in a previous essay on this blog – they include:  having a keen sense of time, perfect pitch, an ability to use the human voice in a way similar to the qualities of a jazz musician playing a wind instrument.  Tony Bennett does all of these things in his masterful interpretation of the jazz standard Close Your Eyes (Bernice Petkere) that was recorded by him with the Ralph Burns Orchestra in 1961. The tenor sax solo in the middle of the piece is by Zoot Sims.  Bennett himself uses his voice with the strength and power of a saxophone.  There is no question that Tony Bennett is the main focus and chief soloist in this powerful Ralph Burns arrangement of this famous song.  The rhythm section of the band drives the song relentlessly and Tony Bennett soars over the changes like a masterful jazz musician until he brings the song to its conclusion by singing a perfect F minor pentatonic scale not once but twice!

The Tony Bennett - Bill Evans Album, Fantasy F-9489

The Tony Bennett – Bill Evans Album, Fantasy F-9489

To further solidify Tony Bennett’s credentials as a major jazz artist, however, one has no need to go further than his brilliant collaboration with jazz pianist, Bill Evans, in 1975 and again in 1977.  Another major characteristic of a jazz singer is the singer’s ability to hear harmony and the subtle micro-pulses of rhythm.  Bill Evans was one of the most subtle jazz musicians of his generation.  Everyone wanted to record with him.  On the other hand, however, not everyone had the ‘chops’ to interact with him due to his use of altered harmonies, displaced rhythms, and subtle alterations of a song.  A pop singer, even a great pop singer, would struggle if they were to sing with Bill Evans supplying the harmonic and rhythmic background.  Tony Bennett had no problem at all, and in fact, their collaboration raised the bar of a singer/pianist partnership.  It may never be equaled.  There are several times during these duets when Bennett’s voice provides the rhythmic propulsion to their performance, such as on The Touch of Your Lips (Ray Noble), Make Someone Happy (Comden, Green, Styne), and Waltz for Debbie (Evans).  A jazz singer not only handles the melody and the words, but he or she also colors the harmony and adds  suppleness to the rhythm.  All good jazz singers engage the tune on all these levels.  When a jazz singer and a pianist collaborate on a song, both artists interact in ways where they are both free to explore simultaneously because neither has to play the supportive role for the other unless they wish to do so.  Evans’s sense of pulse and harmony infuses Bennett’s and in a similar manner Tony Bennett’s approach to the song informs Bill Evans’ note choices and use of rhythm.  Their partnership on the classic My Foolish Heart (Washington – Young) displays subtle rhythm, colorful harmonic touches, fresh approaches to shaping phrases – it is one of the most perfect collaborations in the history of jazz duets evoking the creative partnership of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines or Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly.  Two great musicians improvising simultaneously and yet sounding as one in spirit. (Tony Bennett, 1975)

Tony Bennett told interviewer James Isaacs in 1986 that his voice teacher lived on 52nd Street in Manhattan.  According to Bennett, his teacher told him “Don’t imitate singers, imitate musicians.”  She told him to pick out the name of any jazz artist whose name was displayed on the awning of one of the local clubs along 52nd Street and emulate the style of that artist.  “So I liked saxophones, and I liked the way (Art) Tatum made a production out of a popular song.”  (Bennett, Tony Bennett/Jazz, 1987)  In this very interesting and insightful interview, Bennett also told James Issacs that once he was accepted by jazz fans he was pleased to be able to appear at jazz concerts, and he realized that he “wasn’t just a ballad singer anymore.” (Bennett, Tony Bennett/Jazz, 1987)

One of the most important qualities of a jazz singer is that singer’s ability to create elastic and pliable phrases which play with the beat of the song.  Many singers in the jazz field have this essential talent (the list is too long to enumerate but would certainly include Sinatra, Vaughan, Mel Torme, and of course Ella Fitzgerald to name but a few.)  Tony Bennett displayed this skill in the early 1950’s when he recorded with jazz groups, and over the ensuing years he has consistently demonstrated this trait when he interprets the classic songs of the great American songbook.  His sense of timing and rhythm not only informs the supporting musicians of the metric subtleties of a song but it also informs the audience of the nuances of the song’s lyrics.  Sometimes, it takes a jazz singer to enlighten the listener to the inherent beauty of a song.

Tony Bennett Jazz. Columbia Special Products CD, 1987.  Columbia Compact Disc CGK 40424. (Interview by James Issacs included in recording notes.)

Complete Tony Bennett/ Bill Evans Recordings.  Fantasy, Concord Music Group, Inc.,  2009.

The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album 1975, Fantasy Records, 1975, F-9489

Tony Bennett and Bill Evans – Together Again, 1977, Improv -7117


Jazz Songs and Jazz Singers

William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Composer, arranger, and educator, William Russo wrote in his textbook on Jazz Orchestration:
The four principal elements of music are melody, harmony, rhythm, and orchestration. Of these four, melody is indisputably the most important. It is the essence, the soul of music. And, as I shall show later…melody is connected with the human voice, from which it stems.

Maxine Sullivan, Village Vanguard 1947. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Maxine Sullivan, Village Vanguard 1947. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Maxine Sullivan was one of those singers who had all the hallmarks of a jazz singer – perfect pitch, impeccable sense of rhythm, easy and relaxed manner, an ability to float effortlessly over the chord changes of a song. Listen to her renditions of Blue Skies (Berlin), Easy to Love (Porter), and Folks on the Hill (Kern, Hammerstein III). The jazz singer fits a jazz group like a hand in a glove. She surrounded herself with great musicians who brought out the best in her singing, and she complimented them just as much with her melodious, beautiful interpretations of well-crafted songs. In the setting of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra or the Thornhill small band her voice was another instrument, and to a great extent, the most important voice in the band. George Gershwin died just as the swing era, and Maxine Sullivan’s career was getting underway, and so he never got a chance to hear Maxine Sullivan sing Nice Work If You Can Get It recorded in New York in 1937 with Charlie Shavers (trumpet) and Buster Bailey (clarinet). He would have appreciated it!
Because jazz singers possess perfect pitch and an impeccable sense of rhythm they can initiate a song with only the outline of the harmony being played. All the pianist has to do is hit the first note and the singer is off. Sometimes the singer actually sets the rhythm for the combo and the musicians follow her lead. This is certainly true in Lee Wiley’s rendition of Manhattan (Rodgers-Hart). The singer is the soloist just as when a saxophone player is backed by a combo. Unlike the instrumentalist, however, the singer conveys the meaning of the song by being able to sing the actual words. Great instrumentalists convey feeling through their playing, but the jazz singer is able to do this as well and, in addition, to sing the lyric (which is often as well-crafted as the melody of the song.) Lee Wiley’s versions of I’ve Got a Crush on You (G.Gershwin-I.Gershwin), (I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance (with You)(Crosby-Washington-Young) and so many other classics are among the best renditions ever recorded. Her vocalizations blend seamlessly with the instrumentalists: Joe Bushkin (piano), Bobby Hackett (muted trumpet).
A big band era singer who made a successful transition to the recording studio after the end of Big Band Era was Al Hibbler. Although he had only one hit single with Duke Ellington’s band (Don’t Get Around Anymore), he had several big successes in the 1950’s with studio bands. His baritone voice is immediately recognizable and his inflections and use of pauses and idiosyncratic phrasing resembled the characteristics of big band horn players. He recorded for both Verve and Decca, big labels, and he always had great studio bands to accompany him. His version of the Les Brown classic ‘Tis Autumn (Henry Nemo) is perhaps more memorable than the original because his vocal solo is the perfect match for tenor sax soloist (likely Al Klink). This is a jazz singer’s version of the song. The strength and full range of his voice opens up the song as effectively as the featured soloist of the band.

Frank Sinatra. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frank Sinatra. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the big band era, on occasion, the featured soloist of the band was the singer. Tommy Dorsey was one of the greatest trombone artists of all time, but when he completed the opening section of the Jimmy van Heusen song Imagination, Frank Sinatra took over the vocal. His vocal is the perfect match for the perfect trombone solo. It is a continuation of the sonority and shimmering beauty of the band leader’s trombone solo. One of the hallmarks of Sinatra’s style of singing, as both Will Friedwald and and Pete Welding have pointed out, is Sinatra’s hornlike phrasing wherein the singer creates elongated phrases much as a stellar trombonist , saxophone player, or trumpeter plays with a band. His voice becomes another soloist – and, as such, he compels us to be spellbound by his creations. Other big band singers who merely stepped up to the mike and sang the lyrics straight were fine and acceptable, but their delivery wasn’t memorable or compelling. The singers with the vocal uniqueness, undisputed command of technique, instrumental sophistication quickly rose to the level of being a major jazz soloist.

Billie Holiday. circa 1946-47. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first female vocalist to demonstrate these qualities was, of course, Billie Holiday. It was her singing that created the template for all jazz singers to follow and exemplify. Small classics such as These Foolish Things, Them There Eyes, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, When You’re Smiling, If Dreams Come True displayed the chief characteristics of a singer who wants to interpret a popular song with a jazz sensibility – utilizing rhythmic displacement, subtle changes in intonation, vocal shading, and respectful acknowledgement of a song’s lyric and the meaning of the words. Whether she sang with a big band such as Count Basie’s, Artie Shaw’s, or Teddy Wilson’s or a small ensemble (the classic 1952-55 Verve Recordings) she made her vocals shine with fresh originality, swing, and gentle shadings of harmony, melody and rhythm. Billie Holiday always acknowledged Louis Armstrong as the source of her inspiration in singing and how to interpret a lyric, and all of her work is essentially a tribute to her mentor. Because she had such a good ear for melody and harmony, and such a keen sense of rhythmic subtlety, she fit in with all the great jazz soloists of her era and sang “in the pocket” of each arrangement. The world of popular song interpretation and jazz vocals owes Billie Holiday a debt that can never be repaid, but the best jazz singers try every time they stand before the microphone. Singers such as Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, and Lee Wiley could vary each performance of a song because they knew precisely where they were and where they were going in a song. They can enter a refrain a half-step away from the chord tone or enter a chorus just ahead or behind the beat because, with complete assurance, they will soon be exactly on the beat and hitting all the melody notes perfectly. Pop singers can’t do this, and opera singers when they attempt to sing jazz fail miserably. Because the jazz singer can vary each nuance of a song she can keep a song fresh each time it is performed. And the audience loves this and welcomes it. The jazz singer also keeps the music fresh for the musicians she is playing with as well. The bass player and the drummer don’t have to hear the same song sang the same way each night – how boring that would be! The singer is, in fact, doing what any good accompanist (usually piano, sometimes guitar) also does by freshening up the harmony and rhythm as she sings. Arguments that Billie Holiday was ‘past her prime’ in the 1950s are defeated by what may be the single finest recording of her entire career, her rendition of You Go To My Head (Gilespie-Coots) accompanied by the great Oscar Peterson Quartet (Peterson, piano; Barney Kessel (guitar); Ray Brown (bass); Alvin Stoller (drums) and the addition of the melodic tenor saxophone stylist, Flip Phillips, and the sensitive, always creative trumpeter, Charlie Shavers. Billie’s smoky voice is as intoxicating as the lyrics. Her timing and phrasing are unforgettable – she makes this single song a classic of cabaret singing. It is the standard that very few artists were ever to reach. Recorded in Los Angeles in 1952 You Go To My Head and other classic song interpretations by Billie Holiday for the Norman Granz Verve Label astonished many female singers of the era, and inspired so many established and yet-to-be-established female artists. Two singers, in particular, soon released albums that were deeply indebted to Billie’s Verve recordings: Anita O’Day and Peggy Lee. They recorded these albums using very small combos backing them, and they chose smaller, less well known songs to sing in the manner of Lady Day. In the years that followed, their careers took them to much bigger projects, but both Anita and Peggy felt that their own finest work was when they went into the studio determined to record small, intimate renditions of memorable songs with sensitive and melodic accompaniment. And the critics have agreed.

 [Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946] William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946]
William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ella Fitzgerald is renowned for her up tempo vocal excursions of swing songs, but her ability to sing jazz also served her well for being able to convey a lyric with conviction and subtlety. Her performances of the various Song Books for Verve (Harold Alden, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter) have set a very high standard for vocal and lyrical perfection. Whether it is Gershwin’s immortal Embraceable You or the Rodgers and Hart classics My Romance and There’s a Small Hotel, her intonation, sense of phrasing, and total commitment to the meaning of the lyrics melds all the elements of vocal artistry. Ella Fitzgerald is one of a small number of singers who is able to sing the verse introduction to a standard with any skill and conviction. She makes these introductions shine.  And then, of course, there is the magnificent Duke Ellington Song Books (also part of the series) and this is where her jazz sensibilities put her interpretations apart from all the rest. The Ellington Band had many legendary singers to record the band’s popular songs, but Ella Fitzgerald and the band created classic interpretations for all time. Ella doesn’t sing as someone extra added to the band as a vocalist. She is another, integral, part of the band the vocal expression of the Ellington Orchestra and a soloist on a par with the other acclaimed members of the band.  Lastly, one only needs to hear Ella Fitzgerald singing It’s Only a Paper Moon (Harold Arlen) with the Billy May Orchestra to understand how great a jazz singer she is on an up tempo jazz standard. Her Harold Arlen Songbook with Billy May is the equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s best work on Capitol – roughly recorded at the same time. On It’s Only a Paper Moon, Ella displays all the earmarks of a quality jazz performance. She is totally in sync with the rhythm section throughout the entire piece, and this allows her to play with the melody and harmonies of the song at her discretion. When she returns to the song after the tenor saxophone solo, she creates all the right tonal colors from the melody and plays with the rhythm in the manner of a true jazz soloist.

Sometimes, because the jazz singer is so skillful, the conductor/arranger writes and conducts charts that offer the singer/soloist little or no harmonic/melodic support.  Listening to Anita O’Day sing Love for Sale and I Get a Kick Out of You from the album Anita O’Day Swings Cole Porter with Billy May (Verve) is like watching a tightrope walker crossing between two skyscrapers without a net.  On Love May has charted a rhythmic riff for the band which supplies virtually no harmony;  perhaps his feeling was ‘you’re a jazz singer…figure it out.’  On the second song, the tune proceeds at an insanely fast pace which leaves the singer no places to catch her breath.  Billy May conducted many of the great singing legends of the period, people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and his band had top notch soloists so he basically threw caution to the wind and left the singer to fare on her own.  Anita O’Day describes quite honestly some of her difficulties working in the recording studio in her autobiography.   She is also frank about arrangers and conductors who wrote impossibly difficult charts.  Nevertheless, her Verve recordings are legendary and contain marvelous interpretations of jazz standards.  The singer did have the ability to sing under stressful circumstances and she shows a lot of grit for being part of these fabulous recordings.  The O’Day Verve records demonstrate another characteristic of great jazz singers – the ability to be a major soloist in the context of awesome talent.  The jazz singer must be able to solo like any other member of a stellar ensemble – no excuses, you either cut it or you don’t.  No special treatment for the singer.  It’s a sink or swim situation!

Singer, Chris Connor, exemplifies another essential characteristic of the jazz singer.  In her rendition of A Foggy Day (Gershwin) she uses her voice like a tenor saxophone.  She produces a full, round, resonate and breathy tone as she sings the words to Gershwin’s beautiful ballad.  If she were a saxophone soloist she would be in the school of Lester Young and Ben Webster or Stan Getz.  These soloists played with little or no vibrato and the sound they produced through their horn was exquisite, especially on ballads.  The other quality Chris Connor exemplifies is that type of saxophone phrasing where the length of the notes and the anticipation of each phrase are delicately sculpted to fit the melody.  Popular song singers just don’t think this way, but jazz musicians do.

As we have discussed, in some of the examples above, it is possible to begin to catalog some of the most essential characteristics of all good jazz singers:

  1. Perfect Pitch
  2. Precise Rhythm.
  3. Effortless ensemble singing with stellar musicians.
  4. Recognizable voice and unique sense of phrasing.
  5. Ability to use the voice as an instrument.
  6. Ability to sing the lyrics of a song in a completely heartfelt way.
  7. Ability to vary the characteristics of tone, again, much as a jazz musician is able to do with his horn.

The purpose of this essay has been to stimulate a discussion and challenge some assumptions people may have about what is Jazz Singing.  This essay is not intended to be a list of the top jazz singers of all time (that list would be too large), and everyone has their own personal preferences.  Rather, this discussion has tried to elucidate what are some of the basic and essential characteristics of jazz singing as demonstrated in a few select song choices.  Now, what are your preferences and choices?  Enjoy!



Russo, William: Jazz Composition and Orchestration. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and London, 1968 and 1974 (Phoenix Edition), p. 2.
Maxine Sullivan: It’s Wonderful. Affinity: The Swingtime CD Collection, Charly Records Limited.
Pittsburgh Music History: One of the Great Singers of the 20th Century who put the “Ing” in Swing. (1999). Retrieved from—early-years/maxine-sullivan.
Lee Wiley: Night in Manhattan with Lee Wiley. Sony Music Special Products, KW75010.
Al Hibbler Remembers The Big Songs of the Big Bands. Arrangements by Jack Pleis. Decca Records DL 78862.
Friedwald, Will. The Legend by Will Friedwald (liner notes to “The Best of Frank Sinatra – The Capitol Years”) Capitol Masters Box Set C2/C4-94317.
Welding, Pete. Sinatra’s Swinging Session!!! and more. (liner notes) Capitol Records CD – CDP7 465732.

O’Day, Anita with Eells, George.  High Times Hard Times.  New York:  Limelight Editions (Hal Leonard Corp), 1981, pages 228-232.

Chris Connor Sings The George Gershwin Almanac of Song.  Atlantic Records 2-601.  (Chris is accompanied by Ralph Sharon, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Osie Johnson, drums.)

Concert Jazz

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

There have been many attempts over the years to write and perform concert jazz. Some attempts more successful than others. Many critics and fans of jazz have decried these attempts, but nevertheless, jazz musicians as well as jazz conductors and arrangers have proceeded to try. What does one mean by ‘concert jazz’? A serviceable definition might be an arrangement of music which features a mixture of traditional jazz instruments (piano, saxophone, trumpet, etc.) with instruments more normally found in the concert orchestra. The composition features both written parts and improvised sections for solo instruments. The presentation of such concert music would utilize rhythms more often found in jazz such as swing eighths and sixteenth notes as well as syncopation.

Many classical composers of the twentieth century such as Charles Ives, Stravinsky, Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Shostakovich and others have made attempts – more or less successful depending upon tastes.  Jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton have commissioned and performed works that one would consider to be concert jazz.  Jazz arrangers and composers (again Ellington is a key example) but also people such as Eddie Sauter, Ralph Burns, George Russell, George Handy, William Russo, Pete Rugolo have made significant contributions to this endeavor.  American composers like Gershwin, Copland, David Diamond, and Leonard Bernstein have championed such efforts and been more or less successful in this field.

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

Depending upon your definition of concert jazz, one might consider Rhapsody in Blue to be primogenitor of the entire field.  Historians point out that the written piano sections were originally improvised by Gershwin and then later written down.  Some artists today proceed with the idea and intention of improvising the piano parts but concert goers pretty much want to hear the familiar piano cadenzas played as Gershwin played and wrote them…and who can blame them since it’s hard to come up with anything that sounds better.  Dave Brubeck commissioned his brother, Howard, to write the symphony orchestra parts to his composition Brandenburg Gate (featured on the album Brandenburg Gate Revised.)  John Lewis developed compositions that he performed with members of the Stuttgard Symphony Orchestra along with the Modern Jazz Quartet.  Composer and educator, Gunther Schuller, championed the development of what he termed “The Third Stream(blending classical and jazz) and he performed and recorded many examples of this type of music.  Many of the arrangements of Gil Evans would meet the definition of concert jazz in particular his arrangement of Porgy and Bess with Miles Davis as soloist.  Evan’s other major work Sketches of Spain (also with Davis as soloist) is considered one of the best and most successful works in this endeavor.  Attempts to blend classical and jazz influenced almost the entire catalogue of Creed Taylor’s CTI record label and the arranger Don Sebesky contributed symphonic arrangements  that supported the improvisations of major jazz artists such as Hubert Laws, George Benson, Milt Jackson and a host of others.

Verve MG V-2026

Verve MG V-2026

Two of the finest examples of concert jazz were created by the composer, arranger and pianist Billy Strayhorn.  Billy Strayhorn wrote and composed music for Duke Ellington’s band from 1939 until 1967.  He also helped to arrange performances for members of the Ellington orchestra when these members went out on their own to record independently from the Duke.  The Billy Strayhorn composition Chelsea Bridge is acclaimed as one of the greatest jazz ballads of all time.  It has been recorded by dozens of major jazz artists, but perhaps the finest rendition of the song is to be found on an album by Ben Webster recorded for Verve Records.  It is known as Ben Webster with Strings “Music for Loving” and it originally was made on three 10 inch long-playing vinyl records for Mercury/Clef or Verve Records.  Billy Strayhorn did the arrangement for the string section that surrounds the beautiful tenor saxophone solo.  Strayhorn briefly takes a solo on the piano as well.  It is a gorgeous arrangement!  Every aspect of this arrangement is in the service of showcasing the marvelous velvety tone of Webster’s saxophone.

Columbia CS 8053

Columbia CS 8053

As a companion piece to Ben Webster’s masterful performance with strings, another stellar arrangement by Billy Strayhorn is his setting of Solitude featuring Duke Ellington at the solo piano.  One can easily imagine a recording studio with the lights dimmed.  It is after hours, all the musicians are relaxed and tired from a long day of recording.  They could easily pack up and go home.  But one last masterpiece needs to be played.   Duke sits down at the piano and begins the first tentative notes of the Ellington classic Solitude. The beauty of this arrangement is its apparent simplicity…its easy, relaxed unfolding.  The band enters behind Duke very softly caressing the chord changes.  The center piece of the arrangement is Ellington alone at the piano playing one of the great jazz compositions of all time.  Very few people in the world can create this kind of magic.  The piano, the orchestra, and ultimately the arrangement are complete perfection.  This is concert jazz!

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

When Billy Strayhorn joined the Ellington Orchestra his first assignments were to arrange and rehearse the small band recordings (which often featured altoist Johnny Hodges) and to create arrangements for the male and female singers with the band. (Hajdu, 1996, pp. 60,80) (van de Leur, 2002 , p. 34) Singers who worked with Billy Strayhorn initially and over the years commented on how much he provided them the professional help that allowed them to sing at their best.  He collaborated with them in selecting the most appropriate keys to sing in and he took great pains to make arrangements which demonstrated how much attention he could give to even the smallest detail. (Hajdu, 1996, pp. 97-99) These early assignments with the Ellington Orchestra no doubt served him well in these arrangements of Solitude and Chelsea Bridge.


Sources and References:

Ben Webster with Strings Music for Loving (Verve Records 527 774-2) Two CD format

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra Ellington Indigos (Columbia LP – CS 8053)

Hajdu, David.  Lush Life:  A Biography of Billy Strayhorn.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.

van de Leur, Walter.  Something to Live For:  The Music of Billy Strayhorn.  Oxford University Press, 2002.




An Ellington – Strayhorn Garden


Author's Own Garden

Author’s Own Garden

Because the music of Duke Ellington is so much associated with colors, and especially the colors of flowers, it becomes a natural and easy task to incorporate the Ellington color scheme into one’s own floral landscape. The composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn also penned many compositions of his own with the names of flowers. For this reason, an Ellington-Strayhorn Garden can have interesting floral choices as well as a wide palette of variegated shades and hues. From the time he joined the Ellington Orchestra in the late 1930s until his death in the late 1960s, Billy Strayhorn contributed memorable compositions based upon familiar and exotic flowers. Between Duke Ellington’s own compositions and those of Billy Strayhorn, the gardener and flower enthusiast has wonderful colors to choose from and can arrange both indoor and outdoor plants to reflect the music of the great Ellington Orchestra. Here is but a few examples:

Morning Glory (Ellington & Stewart)
Fleurette Afrique (Ellington)
Azalea (Ellington)
Blue Bells of Harlem (Ellington)
Lotus Blossom (Strayhorn)

Passion Flower (Strayhorn)
Lotus Blossom (Strayhorn)

Lady of Lavender Mist (Ellington)

A Single Petal of a Rose (Duke Ellington)

Bird of Paradise (Ellington)

Black Beauty (Rose) Duke Ellington
White & Pink Azalea Duke Ellington Roulette LP Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong

Red & White
Morning Glory (Duke Ellington & Rex Stewart)

Author's Own Garden

Author’s Own Garden

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn celebrated the inspiration of flowers by recording a piano duet of their composition “In a Blue Summer Garden” for the Mercer Label in 1950.  It featured two pianos and bassist, Joel Shulman.  It was released on a 10 inch 78 with another song on the ‘B’ side.

These two great American composers wrote hundreds of songs.  A modest estimate of the size of the Ellington song list would literally be in the thousands.  Flowers have always been the source of inspiration for many classical composers – Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and Schumann to name but a few.  Among the classical composers the rose gets the lion’s share of the honors.  Ellington and Strayhorn wrote some of these compositions in an impressionist mode much in the style and tradition of Debussy, Faure, and Delibes.  Many of their titles reflect this use of impressionism.

Author's Own Garden

Author’s Own Garden

Just as Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington ‘painted’ a rich orchestral landscape of tones and colors with the inspiration of flower shades, so everyone can easily enjoy creating their own arrangements of Ellington/Strayhorn flower compositions in their home as well as out of doors.  Choosing flowers based upon their compositions will surprise the flower enthusiast with the richness of hues and subtle shades of all the many different types of blue, magenta, rose, pink, violet, lavender, and many,  many others.  And fortunately, many if not all the flowers, mentioned in their songs and compositions are readily available at local nurseries or by mail order.

Peach Rose (author's collection)

Peach Rose (author’s collection)

The rose is the subject of many classical compositions and has always been a favorite theme:

Gabrielle Fauré (Les Roses d’Ispahan), Franz Schubert (Little Rose of the Field), Robert Schumann (The Rose, The Lily, The Dove).  Duke Ellington pursued this theme in several compositions for solo piano as well as for big band:

Single Petal of a Rose – solo piano

Rose of the Rio Grande – vocal by Ivie Anderson with Duke Ellington Orchestra (composition not by Ellington)

Blue Rose – vocalize by Rosemary Clooney with Duke Ellington Orchestra

Black Beauty – Duke Ellington.  Originally written as a composition for solo piano (dedicated to Florence Mills) and later arranged for his orchestra.  Although not written with the rose in mind, one might wish to choose the Black Rose for one’s garden to celebrate Duke Ellington’s famous composition.  Black roses are in fact a very, very deep purple or red rose but which appears to be black.  They are true favorites of rose lovers everywhere.

Dark Rose Group (author's collection)

Dark Rose Group (author’s collection)

Some of Billy Strayhorn’s compositions featuring flowers may prove too much of a challenge for persons living in northern climates or for areas suffering from a prolonged drought such as the current state in California.  Such songs as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom, and Bird of Paradise (by Duke Ellington) represent flowers which thrive in lush tropical areas which receive equal parts of rain, humidity, and lots and lots of sun.

In developing one’s Ellington-Strayhorn Garden the architect of such a garden may be pleasantly surprised by the appearance of hummingbirds and butterflies.  Hopefully, such a gardener may enjoy the presence of a Black Butterfly (which is also the name of a Duke Ellington composition, circa 1936).

The Duke Ellington composition Azalea written specifically for Louis Armstrong (the two played it together on their Roulette recording) signifies a flower well-known to attract butterflies.  The bright, lush colors of the Azalea is what attracts the butterfly.  Butterflies are especially drawn to the colors pink, orange, purple,  yellow and red.  Even if you do not see the Black Butterfly, many of the Ellington and Strayhorn composition flowers will attract a wide variety of butterflies to your garden.  And don’t be surprised to see hummingbirds as well!

Blue "Morning Glory" (author's photo)

Blue “Morning Glory” (author’s photo)

The “Morning Glory” (Ipomoea) is a beautiful climbing vine plant which has trumpet-shaped flowers that open during the morning or on overcast days.  How appropriate that Ellington’s composition Morning Glory was co-written by his famous trumpeter, Rex Stewart, whose characteristic ‘half-valve’ style of playing, added so much coloration to the Duke Ellington Orchestra during the time he was a member.



  1. Allen Smith. Colors for the Garden: Creating Compelling Color Themes.  Clarkson Potter, Publisher.  2006
  2. Nevin Smith. Native Treasures: Gardening with the Plants of California. University of California Press.  2006.

3. Better Homes and Gardens.  Quick Color Gardening.  John Wiley & Sons.  2012.

4. Lambert, Eddie.  Duke Ellington – A Listener’s guide.  Studies in Jazz Series, No. 26.                 Lamham, Maryland, and London:  Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers – The State                         University of New Jersey, 1999.  Scarecrow Press, Inc.

5.  Clarke, Graham.  Success With Alkaline-Loving Plants.  Lewes, East Sussex:  Guild of Master Craftsman   Publications Ltd.  2008.




Maurice Ravel: Piano Compositions and Orchestration

"Seine River" Image courtesy of Photo by Tina Phillips. Published on 26 August 2009 at

“Seine River” Image courtesy of Photo by Tina Phillips. Published on 26 August 2009 at

Maurice Ravel has given all students of melody, composition, and orchestration a great gift by orchestrating so many of his marvelous piano compositions for symphony and ballet.  Thus, all admirers of composition and orchestration can study what came to him so naturally – that is, the ability to transform the score of a piano composition into the full harmonic texture of a symphonic work.

Ravel biographer and musicologist, Arbie Orenstein has described one of the hallmarks of Maurice Ravel’s unique compositional style:

“Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of the Ravelian melody is its mixture of tonality and modality.  Found in the work of Chabrier, Satie, and the Russian school, the combination of tonality and modality was in the air in the latter nineteenth century, adding a fresh dimension to the major-minor system.  The Dorian mode is frequently used (Balade de la Reine morte d’aimer, or the beginning of the Sonata for Violin and Cello), while the Phrygian is characteristic of Spanish music (Rapsodie espagnole and L’Heure espagnole).”  (Orenstein, 1991)

Professor Orenstein has also noted that Ravel credited two people for his development as a composer:  André Gédalge, with whom he studied counterpoint and orchestration;  and Gabriel Fauré, whose composition class Ravel was enrolled in at the Conservatoire.

“I am pleased to acknowledge that I owe to André Gédalge the most valuable elements of my technique.  As for Fauré, his advice as an artist gave me encouragement of no less value.”  (RolandManuel, “Une Esquisse autobiographique de Maurice Ravel,”  La Revue Musicale, Dec., 1938, p. 20.) (Orenstein, 1991, p. 19)

Professor Orenstein remarks that “Gedalge stressed the supremacy of the melodic line and based his teaching on the works of Bach and Mozart, all of which would influence Ravel profoundly.”  (Orenstein, 1991, p. 20)

Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte

The composition Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte (1899) was first written for piano and then orchestrated by Ravel for symphony orchestra.  It has been successful in both forms and is also tremendously popular with guitarists and jazz musicians.  The jazz ensemble Oregon has recorded it several times.  It has been performed by guitarist Laurindo Almeida and pianist George Shearing.  Its other name in the pop standard lexicon is The Lamp is Low.  Ravel “turned to Clement Marot, a poet of the Renaissance, the Protestant protégé of Margaret of Navarre.  The ‘Marot style,” medieval forms blending with a foreshadowing of the rococo, had, in French literature, become the fashion for a special kind of mannerism. ..Ravel attempted to approach the spirit of the text through allusions to the musical language of the fifteenth century.  This was one of the first steps on the road of archaism and classicism, which French artists later loved to tread so often, especially in the period between the two World Wars…Ravel early adopted these procedures in his work.  They reached their high point in 1917 in Le Tombeau de Couperin. “ (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 41)

“The essence of this spirit flavors the piano piece Pavane pou une Infante Defunte composed in 1899, which contributed so largely to the establishment of his reputation.  Here again Ravel writes an antique dance, older than the minuet or the habanera.  He moves in the courtly Spanish past of an imaginary baroque.” (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 41)

“The dance was most popular in Spain, where, in its earliest origins, it was in a slow triple meter, which, however soon yielded to duple time.  As a slow and solemn court dance it displaced the older basses danses of the Burgundian school.  It joined agreeably with the more rapid triplemeter gailliard, a coupling that forms the basis of the later suites.”  (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 42)

“Ravel adopted a slow, grave tempo; the quarter notes carry the metronome indication 54, and, on the whole, the piece has a dragging rather than a forward tendency.” (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 42) “Ravel subsequently orchestrated the pavane.  In that garb it became even more popular than in its original form for piano.  But it is not the only pavane in his output…there is a piece that came out in 1908 as the first movement in Ma Mere l’Oye, the Pavene de la Belle au bois dormante. (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 42)

Ma Mère l’Oye – Mother Goose Suite

Equally charming and exquisite is Ravel’s composition Ma Mère l’Oye first written for piano four hands and then later orchestrated by him as a symphonic suite and one more time as a ballet.  Because it was composed by Ravel as a gift for a friend’s two children to play at the piano, it was composed with the utmost simplicity in mind.  It is a composition which is relatively easy to understand as an orchestrated piece since it does not have the textual complexity of many of his other piano creations.  Ravel was a gifted composer as well as great craftsman, and in his orchestrations of all his compositions he demonstrates meticulous attention to detail as well as an inspired blending of instrumental sounds.  Ravel knew perfectly the range all the symphonic instruments and placed the notes of the original piano composition into the perfect setting and range of these instruments.  For instance, in the first movement, Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant, Ravel introduces the melody with the flute over very soft, luxurious strings.  Nothing could be more basic, simple and pure.  He then gradually includes the other woodwinds in the textures of the song’s harmonies.  Nowhere is there a more convincing blend of unique instruments than in the graceful waltz  “Conversation Between Beauty and the Beast” (Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête) wherein Ravel assigns the piccolo (flute)  and the contrabass bassoon a duet.

 "Village" Image courtesy of Photo by dan. Published on 04 December 2014 Stock Photo - Image ID: 100300400 at

“Village” Image courtesy of Photo by dan. Published on 04 December 2014
Stock Photo – Image ID: 100300400 at

Of the original piano composition  Ma Mère l’Oye Maurice Ravel has written:

“My intention of awaking the poetry of childhood in these pieces naturally led me to simplify my style and thin out my writing.  I made a ballet of this work, which was performed in the Theatre des Arts.  I wrote the work in Valvins for my young friends Mimi and Jean Godebski…Two children, six and seven years old, played the pieces at the premiere in Paris in 1910…It begins with the “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” composed in the Aeolian church mode.” (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 99

Valses nobles et sentimentales

Before he published his group of waltzes Ravel assembled a group of friends to hear the new work.  His friends were a bit stunned by his use of dissonance as melody in his composition.  His friend Tristan Klingsor referred to Ravel’s choice of tones as “pseudo-false” notes because although they made the ears “chafe” a bit, “upon examination…(they) reveal an authentic tonal source.” (Zank, 2009, p. 155) A hundred or so years later these waltzes written for the piano still manage to challenge the ear of the listener.  The cunning use of dissonance is an integral part of the melody and serves to both charm and assault the listener simultaneously.   Somehow the orchestrated versions of each of the waltzes sound less shocking to the ears.   Although why this is would be hard to explain.  Both the orchestrated versions and the solo piano versions remain popular to this day and are frequently heard in the concert hall.

A typical device of Ravelian orchestration may be noted in the second waltz.  The main melody is introduced by the flute, passed to the oboe, and completed by the strings.  The second time the same melody occurs – again, it is initiated by the flute, but this time it is picked-up by the celesta, and completed by the strings.  On the third and last time, we hear the melody, this time the flute carries it to completion.  This is a very simple, pristine, and elegant way of presenting a melody and yet always keeping it original and fresh.  Another characteristic of Ravelian orchestration is the subtle, one might almost say, subliminal use of the harp.  Ravelian harmonies incorporate the harp extensively – it has a delicate, yet profound effect on the tonal color of the orchestra.   Waltzs are a major part of the Ravelian canon.  His Valses noble et sentimentales (1912) hearalds his most acknowelged waltz – La Valse (1919-20).  In the orchestrated version of Valses noble et sentimentales the listener is already treated to the dissonate, sour, and slightly out-of-tune waltzs in the manner of Schubert or Johann Strauss which still captivate us with their melodies and rhythms.

Alborada del Gracioso

This challenging piano piece written in 1905 was later orchestrated by Ravel for a symphonic ensemble.  It is a very challenging orchestra work.  Musicians who are normally called upon to play lyrically (woodwinds and strings) are now expected to be very rhythmic.  In fact, one might say that in this piece the rhythm is the melody.  Pizzicato strings initiate the rhythm, along with the harp, but soon the pulse is being carried by the bassoon players.  Strings are called upon to sound as if they are strumming guitars.  Castanets, timpani, snare drums are used throughout, but the trumpets, flutes and oboes carry the rhythmic pulse as well.  Just as a pianist is called upon to sometimes play in the lowest and highest ranges of the keyboard simultaneously, the Ravel orchestration combines instruments at the farthest aural ranges (for example, the bassoons playing along with tiny cymbals).  The rhythmic pulse is provided throughout the orchestral range by essentially all instruments in varying combinations.  If there is a soloist in this orchestra work, it would be the bassoon which has a very sweet and brooding melody played much in the style of some Flamenco guitar melodies.  Melody instruments are challenged to play in unusual manners (trombonists must perform quick but lengthy slurs) as part of the overall melody.  Instruments of very low register (the double-bass clarinet and the bassoon) are heard in conjunction with normally percussive instruments, but in this piece all instruments are percussive.  An alborada is an instrumental folk form in Spain played to welcome the dawn.

"Misty Landscape" Image courtesy of Photo by dan. Published on 25 November 2013 Stock Photo - Image ID: 100220235 at

“Misty Landscape” Image courtesy of Photo by dan. Published on 25 November 2013
Stock Photo – Image ID: 100220235 at

Le Tombeau de Couperin

The orchestra composition has four movements:

  1. Prelude
  2. Forlane
  3. Menuet
  4. Rigaudon

Those in love with the dark and sweet sound of the reed instruments – the oboe, English horn, bassoon – would be hard pressed not to revere this magical, mysterious, homage to nature, the fallen dead of the Great War, and respect for the ancient forms of dance.  Le Tombeau de Couperin evokes all the rustle and sweet sounds of animals in the woods while at the same time blending together the dance rhythms of the ancient medieval courts of France.  It is the perfect composition to be listening to while reading the famous medieval French writers of courtly love and romance.  The harmonies have both an ancient and modern sound.  The piece evokes a time beyond time – a place of childhood, innocence, and fairy tales.  In it Ravel has blended the strings, muted trumpets, flutes, harp, and reeds into a single flowing rhythm of romance and wonder.

Ravel composed it in 1917 after he was released from the hospital during the time he was an ambulance driver in WWI.  He was suffering from the devastation of the war, the loss of friends, and when he arrived home in Levallois he found his mother dying as well.  Both Maurice and his brother Edouard were overwhelmed by the death of their beloved mother.  After arranging for her burial, both sons had to return to their assignments in the army.  Following his release from the army medical corps (he had been hospitalized again, this time with frost bite), Ravel was invited to recuperate at the home of his godmother, Madame Dreyfus, who lived near Lyons-le-Forêt in the famed forest of Fontainebleau.  “The psychological blows to which life had subjected him took their toll.  Grief, loneliness, war memories, terror of death and of life suddenly overcame him….He had seen friends dying around him in the bloom of their youth; and he had been obliged to bury her who embodied for him home, his origins, and his earliest musical impressions…His next work was a monumental epitaph, a collection of idealized obituaries.  He named the work Le Tombeau de Couperin.” (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 171) Ravel chose to combine the new advances in harmony with very old and antique musical forms.  The second movement (forlane) is “based on the oldest of the dance forms represented in the suite.” (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 174)  It is in the key of E minor.  The dance form dates all the way back to the Court of Burgandy.  It is set in a gently rocking 6/8 tempo.  Vlado Perlemuter, the pianist who studied with Ravel, says of the forlane that it “most faithfully affirms its allegiance to the past through the sound of its cadences, influenced by antiquity” and he notes that its ending has a “music-box” effect because the music does not slow as it comes to its conclusion. (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, pp. 176-177) Helene Jourdan-Morhange envisions a medieval knight on bended knees in solemn obeisance. (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 177)  The orchestration of the forlane is quite complex, ornate, and multi-layed compared to the orchestration of the Pavane in Ma Mere l’Oye.  Ravel demonstrates his skillful blending of woodwinds during the treatment of this piece.  The participation of the strings and the harp is an added treasure.

Menuet Antique

This composition is Maurice Ravel’s earliest published piano piece – published in 1895 and dedicated to his childhood friend Ricardo Viñes, who gave the first piano performance in 1901.  As Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt has pointed out, “the name is a paradoxical anachronism.  There were no minuets, at least by that name, before the sixteenth century…the ancients knew nothing of minuets and Ravel was very well aware of this.” (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, pp. 22-23) Another irony associated with this piece is that Ravel wastes no time introducing dissonances starting with the very first chord.  In addition to the ‘modern’ use of minor seconds, Ravel also builds his melodies on “the old church modes” and concludes the piece with the Mixolydian mode. (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 23)  As a concert piano piece the work is very charming and strikingly original. “With its abruptly changing dynamics, the piece requires an uncommonly experienced performer.” (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 24) Arbie Orenstein describes this A-B-A form composition:  “the use of the natural minor scale with its lowered leading tone gives a pseudo-antique touch” and it presents us with “alternating moods of brusque accentuation with gentle baneralyricism.” (Orenstein, 1991, p. 141)  Ravel transcribed this composition for orchestra in 1929 and he first performed it conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra on January 11, 1930.  The concert orchestral version is marked ‘maestoso’ and is characterized by rich and sumptuous use of strings, horns, and woodwinds.  As is characteristic of all Ravel’s orchestrations, the orchestra version is rich, deep, and transparent in tone coloring.


In 1895 twenty year old Ravel wrote his first published works:  the Menuet antique and the Habañera, a composition for two pianos.  He later transcribed the Habañera for orchestra as the third movement of his suite Rapsodie espanole.    As has been pointed out by his student Roland-Manuel, in this early work for two pianos Maurice Ravel already demonstrates characteristics of his more mature compositions – such things as “caressing and fluent melody,” unique harmonies, compressed chords, “persistent, sustained internal pedal against which the rhythm is shattered,” cadences which appear as unique and original, and “impassioned and yet sensitive music.” (Roland-Manuel, 1947/1972 Dover Edition, p. 22)  The habañera utilizes an interesting rhythmic pattern:  “a combination of dotted eights plus sixteenths and eighths in triplets, to which an evenly measured motion in eights is added.”  (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 32)  This insinuating rhythm was popular in French music since its use in Bizet’s opera Carmen (1875).  Other composers to make use of it include many of the Spanish composers – most notably, Manuel de Falla.  Maurice Ravel was born in the Basses-Pyrenees.  His mother was Basque and spoke fluent Spanish.  His father, however, was of French-Swiss patronage.  His interest in Spanish music came from many different sources.  An early childhood friend was Ricardo Viñes who was in the same piano class along with Ravel of Charles de Bériot in 1891.  Vines was very proud to be a Catalan from Lérida.  “The boys introduced their mothers to each other.  Madame Ravel, the Basque, was delighted to meet another woman who, like herself, was not entirely at home in Paris.  They spoke Spanish to each other.  The sons played the piano together.  Vines later developed into a pianist with an individual style, a tireless champion of modern French music…” (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 21) Biographer and musicologist, Arbie Orenstein has written that “Maurice Ravel’s attachment to his mother was undoubtedly the deepest emotional tie of his entire life.  Among his earliest memories were the Spanish folk melodies sung to him by his mother, and through her, he inherited a love of the Basque country, its people, and its folklore, as well as a deep sympathy for the music of Spain. “ (Orenstein, 1991, p. 8)  When Debussy first heard Ravel’s Habañera performed he loved it and asked Ravel to lend him a copy of the score.  (Stuckenschmidt, 1968, p. 30)  Professor Orenstein points out that Manuel de Falla said of Ravel’s creation:

“The rhapsody surprised me by its Spanish character…But how could I explain the subtly authentic Hispanic quality of our musician, knowing, by his own admission, that he had but neighboring relations with our country, being born near its frontier?  I rapidly solved the problem:  Ravel’s Spain was a Spain ideally presented by his mother, whose refined conversation, always in excellent Spanish, delighted me, particularly when she would recall her youthful years spent in Madrid.” (Falla, “Notes sur Ravel,” trans. Roland-Manuel, La Revue Musicale,March, 1939, p.83)   (Orenstein, 1991, pp. 8-9)

La Valse

Nearly one hundred years after it was written and first performed, La Valse remains an enigma.  Is it a fond homage to the Viennese waltz?  Is it a critique and parody of the cultural naivety that led a whole generation of young European men to their tragic deaths?  Is it sentimental and smaultzy or is it a meditation on obsession and death?   Some pianists play the piece with subtle sensuousness while others work it into a maelstrom of furry and violence.  Some conductors lend it the elegant grace of a by-gone era while others rend it apart.  Some pianists and conductors do both.   While there are as many interpretations as there are recordings (and probably a whole lot more), one thing seems abundantly clear.  It is a composition (both orchestral was well as pianistic) not for the faint-of-heart.  Practitioners of this performance piece must have a vision and a goal in performing it.  One cannot play it “middle-of-the road” or be ambivalent about how it should sound.  It demands a vision and a firm conviction in execution of its intricacies.  Without conviction and vision (not to mention extreme technical skill) the performer, whether orchestra conductor or soloist, will flounder and suffer excruciating failure.  As hard as the solo piano piece is, the four-hand version is perhaps even more daunting because the two pianists must not only be at the highest level of their craft but they must have an almost perfect sense of empathy and extra-sensory anticipation of the other artist’s every thought and mood.  For all these reasons, the orchestral transcription of Ravel’s piano piece is a masterpiece at the highest level of his skill.  Its dense harmonies and swirling rhythms require a well disciplined and well rehearsed orchestra by a conductor who can keep the music clear, precise, and lucid even as the music verges on the precipice.  For a lengthy discussion of thematic and musical nuances of this marvelous composition the reader is encouraged to consult Stephen Zank’s Irony and Sound:  The Music of Maurice Ravel.  (University of Rochcester Press, 2009)  The Section “Irony and Style:  Mixed Planes” (pages 73-84) provides the main thinking on all the ambiguities and complexities of Ravel’s unique tribute to the waltz.

As we know, the piece begins with very low register notes on the piano or by the bassoons in the orchestra version. These notes sound especially sinister on the piano.  Soon the clouds of ominous threat seem to clear as the first strains of the waltz are taken-up.  In the orchestra version, this is provided by the violins and strings.  The beautiful waltz theme seems to dispel anxiety and provide a sense of pleasure and relaxation.  However, as the music builds to crescendo, the drums and open brass instruments come in loud with even crashes of cymbals.  Is this military music?  Has the Viennese orchestra of Johann Strauss been sub-planted by a military band?  Now, the low bassoon tones sound again…mixed with the strings…and then the orchestra builds to another crescendo…and the trumpets (Military trumpets? Or civilian?  Is there a difference in mid-1800’s Austro-Hungarian Empire)  Swirling resumes along with huge crescendos with drums, strings, cymbals…it appears that the sounds of polite civilian dance orchestra and military band music are all merged into one universal waltz.

 "French Countryside" Image courtesy of of dan. Published on 17 October 2009 at

“French Countryside”
Image courtesy of of dan. Published on 17 October 2009 at

The Art and Skill of Orchestration

The more one becomes acquainted with the orchestrations Ravel created for his piano pieces the more the listener becomes aware of the tremendous creativity and originality of Ravel’s use of the various orchestra instruments.  A startling example is the way Maurice Ravel uses the flutes as a percussion instrument at the climax of one of his compositions.  It is standard practice for composers to think of the drums and cymbals for the climatic end of a symphonic work.  After all, they are percussion instruments, are they not?  But Ravel’s originality was to combine the timpani and the flutes instead.  The arpeggios that appear in his piano works are sometimes replicated by the harp and at other times by the pizzicato strings.  It is not uncommon for an instrument which is carrying the melody to be interchanged by a different instrument almost seamlessly.  A more striking case is when a wind instrument is the source of the melody while the strings are the accompaniment, only to have the reverse occur later in the piece.  Ravel skillfully has instruments exchange roles with great finesse.  Trumpets can fill in where flutes and strings were the predominant soloists, and a blend of woodwinds (oboe and English horn)  transform into flutes and brass (muted trumpets.)  This seemless transformation of orchestral sounds is a hallmark of Ravel’s scoring.

“Ravel’s orchestral technique was the fruit of long years of study, incessant questioning of performers, much experimentation, and innumerable rehearsals.  He was intrigued by the seemingly limitless resources of the modern orchestra, and his scores indicate a natural extension of each instrument’s technical resources and range, careful attention to the linearity of each part, and the seeking out of fresh combinations of timbre.  He was particularly sensitive to rhythmic and coloristic subtleties in the percussion section and wrote for the harp with marked skill.  The brass family, on the other hand, is generally treated in a relatively traditional fashion.  It would appear that within the limit of human capability and efficacy of writing, any instrument may assume any role, and here the Ravelian elements of surprise and even paradox came to the fore.” (Orenstein, 1990, p. 23)

Enthusiasts of the orchestra harp have a champion in Ravel, as he features it and uses it liberally in most of his orchestra transcriptions and compositions.  Perhaps one reason for this is Ravel’s fondness for ancient music, medieval and renaissance forms in which the harp was an essential instrument of the period.  The harp is used frequently to add coloration to the orchestra score.  In the Spanish-influenced pieces it has a rhythmic role and a coloration role.  In the transcriptions which combine older musical forms with modern harmony the harp evokes an earlier era.

Ravel’s Transcription of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Perhaps the most well-known orchestration of a piano score done by Ravel was of a composition not his own.  It is Modest Moussorgsky’s idiomatic piano piece entitled Pictures at an Exposition. In 1923 the reknown conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Maurice Ravel to apply his talents of orchestration to rendering Pictures into a symphonic work.  Ravel happily obliged as orchestrating piano works was a technical skill he possessed and a task he truly enjoyed.  This eccentric piano piece is at times lugubrious, bombastic, charming, tender, scary, exuberant, witty, and frivolous.  The commission to orchestrate it would have crushed a lesser talent, but in fact, this commission is the crowning achievement of all Ravel’s orchestrations.  To this day, perhaps more people know “Pictures” by the Ravel transcription than they do as a concert piano piece.  And it is Ravel’s symphonic orchestration of the work which has solidified Mussorgsky’s composition in the annals of most popular classical compositions.  The Ravel orchestration enhances the original work and provides the needed variety of shading and harmonic textures which is a challenge for most pianists and only a few such as Vladimir Horowitz have been able to represent as a piano tour-de-force.  Ravel’s choice of instruments is original but totally in keeping with Mussorgsky’s intentions.  For instance, Ravel uses wood blocks, celeste, harp, and percussion for the exotic sections of the suite such as “Gnomus,” Catacombae” and “La grand porte de Kiev.”  Many symphony conductors such as Sir Georg Soti have expressed their belief that Ravel’s choice of alto saxophone for the leading melody voice in the “Old Castle” section was a stroke of genius.  Ravel uses the technique that he developed in orchestrating his earlier works of having the ostinato pedal-point of the “Old Castle” provided by the strings (especially the double-basses) while the melody is carried by the woodwinds – and then, as the piece continues the melody is gently shifted to the strings (especially the violins) as the deeper woodwinds provide the ostinato.  This orchestration technique is consistent with Ravel’s use of the right and left hands in his piano compositions where either hand or both can carry the melody, and the transition between melody and accompaniment is seamless.

Interpretation and Recommended Listening

Author Arbie Orenstein has provided a very useful appendix in his A Ravel Reader – Correspondence: Articles: Interviews.  New York, Columbia University Press, 1990.  All admirers and students of Maurice Ravel’s music are encouraged to consult Appendix F Historical Interpretations (1911-1988) authored by Jean Touzelet (pages 526 – 600).  This appendix provides valuable information about pianists and conductors who personally knew Maurice Ravel and in some cases studied with him.  Many of the artists listed had friendly and professional relationships with the composer and they knew his thoughts about his compositions.  They also were complimented and encouraged in their performances of his creations.  Eighty-seven artists are listed in the discussion.  Pianists include: Robert Casadesus, Gaby Casadesus, Alfred Cortot (both Ravel and Cortot were classmates at the Conservatoire), Marguerite Long, and Vlado Perlemuter (who studied all Ravel’s compositions with Ravel).  Conductors listed include:  Albert Wolff, Arturo Toscanini, and Ernest Ansermet (he conducted the premiere of La Valse.  Ravel deemed it “perfect”), Wilhelm Furtwängler, Serge Koussevitsky, Pierre Monteux (he conducted the Ballet Russe Production of Daphnis et Chloe in 1912), Charles Munch (he conducted at a Ravel Festival at Salle Pleyel in the presence of the composer), Paul Paray (Paray conducted La Valse in the presence of the composer.  Ravel said to Helene Jourdan-Morhange “that’s not it at all, but it’s magnificent.”), and many others.  We are fortunate that so many soloists and symphony conductors who knew Ravel personally also recorded his works for posterity.  It is extremely valuable and fruitful to have their recorded versions to consult in addition to all the new artists, orchestras, and symphony conductors who perform the works of Maurice Ravel today.   Many concert pianists and symphony conductors have devoted a great part of their professional life to learning to interpret and convey the layers of meaning in Ravel’s compositions.  For this reason, the listener will be richly rewarded by seeking out the essential artists who have made a study of Ravel’s art. lists 899 recordings currently available for Ravel’s compositions for either orchestra or piano.  The number of recordings in this category of Ravel’s oeuvre is enormous.  So many, in fact, it would take several dozen articles this size or larger to do justice to even a small number of these available recordings.  For this reason, one must encourage listeners to use their own skill and personal preferences, sustained by some investigation, to find the recordings that best meet the listener’s own tastes.  The technical skills of performers past and present as well as the scientific advancements in recording since Ravel’s time make finding remarkable interpretations of Ravel’s piano/orchestra compositions a very enjoyable task.  Nevertheless, some recordings are so good they must be mentioned.  Therefore, here is a very short list of some remarkable recordings:

Alicia De Larrocha, piano.  RAVEL  Columbia LP M30115:  Alborada Del Gracioso, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Gaspard de la Nuit.

Ruth Laredo, piano.  RAVEL –LAREDO  Columbia Masterworks LP 36734:  La Valse, Prelude, Menuet Sur Le Nom D’Haydn, Sonatine, Miroirs.

Seiji Ozawa – Boston Symphony Orchestra.  MAURICE RAVEL  Deutsche Grammophon 2530 752:  Ma Mère l’Oye, Menuet antique, Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Pascal Rogé, piano.  RAVEL PIANO WORKS  London Double Decker CD.  13 piano compositions (including the four-hand version of Ma Mere l’Oye, with second pianist, Denise-Françoise Rogé)

Angela Hewitt, piano.  RAVEL:  COMPLETE SOLO PIANO MUSIC  Hyperion CDA67341/2.

Charles Munch – Boston Symphony Orchestra.  RCA Victor Red Seal LM-1984.  BOLERORapsodie Espagnole, La Valse.

Christoph Von Dohnányi – Cleveland Orchestra.  Teldec CD D125380.  RAVEL – BOLEROAlborad del Gracioso, La Valse.

Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire, pianos. Deutsche Grammophon CD 001363602. SALZBURG: La Valse

Vlado Perlemuter, piano.  Nimbus Records, Vol. 1&2, NIM 5011.   MAURICE RAVEL:  PIANO WORKS.

Charles Dutoit – Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  London-Decca Digital CD 410 254-2.  RAVEL:  Ma Mère l’Oye, Pavane pour une Infante Défunte, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.


Orenstein, A., 1990. A Ravel Reader – Correspondence, Articles, Interviews. New York, Oxford: Columbia University Press.

Orenstein, A., 1991. Ravel: Man and Musician. New York: Dover.

Roland-Manuel, 1947/1972 Dover Edition. Maurice Ravel. New York: Dover.

Stuckenschmidt, H. H., 1968. Maurice Ravel: His Life and Work. Translated from the German by Samuel R. Rosenbaum ed. Philadelphia, New York, London: Chilton Book Company.

Zank, S., 2009. Irony and Sound: The Music of Maurice Ravel. First ed. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press (Eastman Studies in Music).

Maybeck Piano Recital Series

"Webern - Piano Variations op. 27 tone row" by .The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia - Created by Hyacinth (talk) 06:45, 7 December 2010 using Sibelius 5.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Webern – Piano Variations op. 27 tone row” by .The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia – Created by Hyacinth (talk) 06:45, 7 December 2010 using Sibelius 5.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Chances are if you are a fan of jazz piano you are already aware of the unique project of the Maybeck Hall piano recitals which were recorded by Concord Records.  This outstanding record label issued 42 solo piano performances by some of the most original and compelling jazz pianists of the twentieth century.   The series originated in 1989 and continued until the Maybeck Recital Hall was sold in 1995.  The project was the brainchild of jazz pianist Dick Whittington, Marilyn Ross and Carl Jefferson the owner and founder of Concord Records.  The concert hall was renown for its intimate setting and acoustical warmth.  The hall was designed by the famous Arts & Crafts architect Bernard Maybeck and it allowed for an intimate audience of only 50 patrons.  The concert room was notable for its unfinished redwood paneled walls.  The acoustics were near perfect for the grand piano used by the visiting jazz soloists.

Personal favorites from this series would be Dick Hyman’s version of the Hoagy Carmichael classic Bob White (Dick Hyman Live at Maybeck Hall, Vol. 3) rendered in impeccable stride-style piano with an amazing set of variations.  As is characteristic of any Dick Hyman solo performance the listener receives an historical tour-de-force of jazz piano style which is melodic as it is memorable.  Another favorite is Marian McPartland’s gorgeous treatment of This Time’s the Dream’s On Me.  The version is both swinging and enriched by stunningly beautiful chords.  (Marian McPartland, Live at Maybeck Hall, Vol. 9)  Pianist, Gene Harris, stuns the listener with his soulful and bluesy treatment of My Funny Valentine – it is both rhapsodic and tender.  A memorable and unique interpretation of the Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart classic. (Gene Harris, Live at Maybeck Hall, Vol. 23) Fred Hersh gets gorgeous resonances out of the Yamaha grand piano on his renditions of Gershwin’s classic Embraceable You and Rodgers & Hart’s If I Loved You on Volume 31 in the series.

The late John Hicks is legendary in the jazz world as being a pianist of unique sensibility and creative imagination.  His performances at Maybeck Hall (Vol. 7) allow the listener to finally hear what all jazz musicians from Betty Carter to Pharoah Sanders already knew – that he was one of the most gifted improvisers on the scene.  His phrasing, his use of chordal color, his timing draws the listener into a very special world.  Highlights from his Maybeck recital have to be Coltrane’s heraldic After the Rain, Kurt Weill’s Speak Low, the Miles Davis/Bill Evans’ classic Blue in Green.  However, everything on this recording is memorable and he performs compositions rarely played as solo piano works such as Wayne Shorter’s Contemplation and Charles Mingus’s Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.  Maybeck Recital Series, Volume 7, is one of the rare gems in this important series.

Live at Maybeck Recital Hall Stanley Cowell (Vol. 5) is one of the most perfect sets in the series.  It is truly a case where the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’  While this listener could mention certain favorites from this recital, it would be a disservice to the concert and to the performer whose depth of virtuosity and imagination gives this particular recital an almost magical quality.  In the very first track Stanley Cowell explores Softly As In A Morning Sunrise (Hammerstein II, Romberg) in all twelve chromatic keys in just over two minutes.  He then proceeds to a stride piano version of Stompin’ At The Savoy (A. Razaf, B. Goodman, E. Sampson, C. Webb), and then onto an original composition of his called I Am Waiting.  The entire recital is a potpourri of harmonic and melodic richness, rhythmic subtleties, and creative explorations of tempo.  Many well-known jazz standards (I’ll Remember April, Out of this World, Django) are presented in fresh, new arrangements.  Virtuosity of piano technique abounds but is always in the service of musical integrity.  A gentle ballad, Lament, by J.J. Johnson, (sadly, too little heard) is spell-binding.  This recording deserves to be listened to in its entirety.  The listener will find it infinitely rewarding.  Pianists will find it inspirational.  The Concord Records CD is a generous length of an hour and five minutes.  Thoughts of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson,  Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor would not be inappropriate.  At no time does the listener ever think of adding a bass or drums to the performance.  Stanley Cowell provides it all – sound, propulsion, impetus, harmonic complexity, and rhythmic variety.  It is an amazing recital performance!

Another fine pianist who can stun and amaze the listener with his awesome command of the grand piano is Kenny Barron (Kenny Barron Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 10).  The pianist brings power, range and sensitivity to his performance.  One of the best solo piano versions in the entire Concord Maybeck Hall series is his electrifying eight minute version of Witchcraft (Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh).  His improvisation on this wonderful song is inspired and the melodic ideas keep flowing at an amazing pace.  Just as with the Stanley Cowell recital, there is absolutely no need for bass and drums.  Mr. Barron also brings some ‘Monkish’ ideas to bear on several of his interpretations of standards and then bestows us the favor of playing the great Thelonious Monk composition Well, You Needn’t.  With such songs as I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, Spring Is Here, and Skylark the great standards of the jazz repertoire are well represented – but those of us who yearn to hear newer material are treated to three Kenny Barron originals which sound wonderful on the concert grand piano.

Now, how about you.  Do you have a favorite Maybeck Recital Hall performance?





Paris in the Jazz Age


“Eugène Atget, Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, 1924” by Eugène Atget – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 190040304. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Blake, Jody (1999). Le tumulte noir: modernist art and popular entertainment in Jazz-Age Paris, 1900-1930. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Haskins, James, & Duconge, Ada Smith (1983). Bricktop by Bricktop. New York: Atheneum.

Lloyd, Craig (2000). Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

Shack, William A. (2001). Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story between the Great Wars. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Stoval, Tyler (1996). Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Williams, Iain Cameron  (2002). Underneath A Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall. London, New York: Continuum.

“You Americans take jazz too lightly.  You seem to feel that it is cheap, vulgar, momentary…Abroad we take jazz seriously.  It is influencing our work…I like jazz much more than grand opera.”

– Maurice Ravel (Letters, Interviews in Arbie Orenstein, A Ravel Reader (1990), p.390 and p.280)

The “Jazz Age”, as F.S. Fitzgerald penned it, really had two major metropolitan locations – New York and Paris, or to be a bit more precise:  Harlem and Montmartre.  The reasons for this and full exploration of how this cultural phenomenon came about has been recently documented in several books since 2000.  To name but a few:  William A Shack’s wonderful history Harlem in Montmartre:  A Paris Jazz Story between the Great Wars (2001) Published by the University of California Press.  Underneath A Harlem Moon:  The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall by author/biographer Iain Cameron Williams (2002) Continuum Press, London and New York.  Author Jody Blake discusses the topics of jazz music and new movements in art in her illuminating social – cultural critique Le Tumulte noir:  Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz-Age Paris, 1900-1930, published by The Pennsylvania State University Press (1999).  In addition to these insightful cultural histories of the period, there are two biographies of major African American entrepreneurs who helped to create the jazz explosion that so absorbed the city of Paris in the period between the two world wars:  Eugene Bullard and Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith:  CraigLloyd’s Eugene Bullard, Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris (University of Georgia Press, 1999) and Bricktop by Bricktop co-written by Bricktop and James Haskins (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000.) One of the most comprehensive books to describe the influx of black American musicians and writers who worked and lived in Paris is Tyler Stoval’s well researched history:  Paris Noir, African Americans in the City of Light (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996).

1.5 million French youth were killed in World War I, and in addition another 740,000 were permanently disabled.  “France suffered physically more than any other country, for most of the time war raged on French territory.” (Shack, 2001, p. 26)  At the end of the Great War, the French were anxious to plunge into activities and interests far removed from the horrors of trench warfare.  American culture and French culture were moving in new directions, and there was a large demand for a break with the past.  Among the many influences affecting France’s new tastes in music were the famous Revue Negrè, which played at the Théâtre des Champs-Élyseès for three months in 1925 and Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1928 which came to Paris in 1929 to play the Moulin Rouge.  Luminaries Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet were stars of Revue Negrè whereas Adelaide Hall and Earl ‘Snakehips’ Tucker were in the Blackbirds Revue.  Iain Cameron Williams reports in his biography of Adelaide Hall that when she arrived at the Gare St. Lazarre she was greeted by a reception of fans and reporters that was as large as Charlie Chaplins’s two years earlier. (Williams, 2002, p. 176)   New music and new dance forms were sweeping through the metropolitan clubs, nightspots, and dance halls.  Dances included the fox-trot, the grizzly bear, and ever-popular tango, and ragtime steps. “These developments in New York City had an immediate impact in Paris…” (Blake, 1999, p. 42)  The art world of Paris embraced all things African, chic primitive and African-American culture was proudly displayed  in the paintings of Francis Picabia Negro Song,  Albert  Gleizes Composition forLe Jazz,Gino Severini  The Bear Dance at the Moulin Rouge,  Marcel Janco  Jazz 133, Marcel Vertes “Dancings: Le Jazz,”  Yves Tanguy Bar Americain  and a host of others by Picasso, Matisse, and Covarrubias. (Blake, 1999, pp. 42-57; color plates after p.136)  While artists such as Jean Cocteau were embracing jazz music, the great composers of Europe were embracing it as well:  Ravel, Stravinsky, and Milhaud were in the forefront.

"Eugène Atget, Quai d'Anjou, 6h du matin, 1924" by Eugène Atget - Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 190039851. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_Quai_d%27Anjou,_6h_du_matin,_1924.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Atget,_Quai_d%27Anjou,_6h_du_matin,_1924.jpg

“Eugène Atget, Quai d’Anjou, 6h du matin, 1924” by Eugène Atget – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 190039851. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A great influx of American musicians, mostly African-American, either came to Europe or stayed in Europe after the Great War ended.  The reasons were many, but first and foremost was the desire to live and work in a country that did not practice racial discrimination.  Musicians also enjoyed the pleasant experience of being able to earn a living comfortably while developing their music.  The demand for jazz was in excess to the number of musicians transplanted, and therefore economics were a compelling reason for staying or relocating to Europe.  James Reese Europe and the Clef Club & Society Orchestra were in Europe in 1913 and 1914 (they played ragtime and fox trot numbers.)  Jim Europe’s band had even played a “command performance” for the King of England in 1917.  Sidney Bechet had toured with Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra in 1919.  The conductor, Ernst Ansermet, heard Bechet play with Cook’s ensemble and was amazed by his musicality.  The Harlem musicians who came to Paris were pleased with the affordable housing available to them in the Parisian area known as Montmartre.   They also appreciated its artistic and bohemian atmosphere.  One of the first nightclubs that began was Le Grand Duc which opened its doors in 1921.  It was owned by Eugene Bullard, an African-American from Georgia who had been a combat aviator for France during the WWI and had earned a living in boxing in the United Kingdom.  Another famous expatriate from Harlem, ‘Bricktop’ (Ada Smith) started her career in Paris giving Charleston lessons to patrons of Le Grand Duc.  It was the new dance craze which all the society people wanted to learn.  William A. Shack tells us in his book that another famous American who worked there was Langston Hughes who washed dishes for the club and who convinced Bricktop to stay when she first arrived but was dismayed at how small the club was compared to  famous Harlem nightclubs such as Connie’s Inn (Shack, 2001, pp. 53-54).  Small or not it was the place to be in the evenings where one might run into Elsa Maxwell, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Sophie Tucker, the Prince of Wales, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.

Another legendary nightclub in the City of Lights was the famous Le Boeuf.  William A. Shack lists some of its patrons:  Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Rene Clair, Marcel Duchamp, Max Jacob, Eric Satie and Maurice Ravel, who was a bit of a night-owl (Shack, 2001, p. 50).  As the author recounts Le Boeuf, when it was located on the rue Boissy-d’Anglas, had “the loudest jazz, the prettiest women, and the latest art gossip to be found in Paris.” (Kluver, Billy, and Julie Martin:  Kiki’s Paris:  Artists and Lovers 1900-1930.  New York:  Harry N. Abrams, 1989, p. 80.)  The legendary nightspots of Paris:  the Rotonde and the Coupole on le Carrefour Vavin (which featured large ballrooms), the Jockey (famous for jazz), and the Jungle (live or recorded jazz);  both small clubs were started by American painter Hilaire Hiler.  People danced to blues on a tiny dance floor.  The night spots of Montmartre:  the Abbaye Thélème,  Bricktop’s, Chez Forence (named after singer Florence Embry), the Grand Duc, the Perroquet, the Plantation and Zelli’s – all Harlem style night clubs featuring the jazz one would hear in Harlem.  These clubs were popular with the Dadists of the early and mid-1920s.  The Tempo Club which was a hangout for the members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra and their friends.  “The Tempo Club and the Grand Duc were where African-American entertainers came to dance and make music for their own enjoyment…” (Blake, 1999, p. 113).  Langston Hughes recalled in his autobiography, The Big Sea, how all the musicians and entertainers from the smaller clubs would come to Le Grand Duc after their clubs had closed to play in ‘jam sessions’ way into the early morning hours.  This was in 1924, “only in 1924 they had no such name for it.  They’d just get together and the music would be on.” (Langston Hughes.  The Big Sea, New York, 1940, pp. 161-162.)

 "Café, Avenue de la Grande-Armée, 1924–25" by Eugène Atget - Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 190036464. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_Avenue_de_la_Grande-Arm%C3%A9e,_1924%E2%80%9325.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Caf%C3%A9,_Avenue_de_la_Grande-Arm%C3%A9e,_1924%E2%80%9325.jpg

“Café, Avenue de la Grande-Armée, 1924–25” by Eugène Atget – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 190036464. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Living Legends: ‘The Stuff that Dreams are Made of…’

If there ever was a living equivalent to “Rick” (of Rick’s American Café in the film Casablanca) it would be Eugene Bullard whose life is well chronicled in Craig Lloyd’s biography of the musician, boxer, and café-owner as well as in William A. Shack’s Harlem in Montmartre.  Both authors describe how Bullard was a famous boxer (he knew Jack Jackson), a French combat aviator in World War I (he was awarded the Croix de Guerre), befriended American writers and jazz musicians and provided them jobs in his nightclub (he hired Langston Hughes straight off the boat from New York), and gave Ada Louise Smith ‘Bricktop’ her first job when she arrived in Paris.  When the German army invaded Paris in June 1940 Bullard chose to stay in Paris where his night club was frequented by the Nazi commanding officers, Corsican gangs, and members of the French resistance.  Information flowed to the resistance which benefited them in their sabotage of the invading army.  Famous musicians who played in the Paris nightclubs during the Nazi occupation included Django Reinhardt (Stephane Grappelly thought he was nuts to return to France since the Nazis were sending gypsies to their concentration camps), Arthur Briggs whose orchestra performed at a Champs-Elysees nightclub, pianist Maceo Jefferson, and Harry Miller the guitarist and singer who entertained at the American Legion Bar (Shack, 2001, pp. 109-110).  When his friends finally convinced Bullard to leave Paris for his own safety, he helped the French resistance install machine guns on the left bank of the Loire River to fight the Germans.  In the pursuit of these efforts Bullard was wounded and had to be treated in a hospital before he could finally leave France from Biarritz. (Shack, 2001, p. 110)  Musician friends of Eugene Bullard during his two decade history of being a Paris nightclub owner included Sidney Bechet, bandleader and fellow club-owner Joe Zelli, Ada Smith, jazz drummer Buddy Gilmore and others.  A pianist who played for him in his club was Arthur “Dooley” Wilson who went on to form his own band had bookings in Europe and North Africa.  Arthur “Dooley” Wilson played the role of “Sam” who sang As Time Goes By in the 1942 movie Casablanca. (Lloyd, 2000, pp. 92-93)  In fact, many black Americans also chose to stay in France although it was dangerous.  This was sometimes due to the fact that these musicians had families they had started with their French wives and they decided to be with their wives and children rather than trying to relocate back to the United States.  Two such musicians were Arthur Briggs and Charlie Lewis.  Later they are arrested by the German authorities who kept them under detention (Lloyd, 2000, p. 116).

"Eugène Atget, Marchand de Vin, Rue Boyer, Paris, 1910–11" by Eugène Atget - Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 190039516. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_Marchand_de_Vin,_Rue_Boyer,_Paris,_1910%E2%80%9311.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Atget,_Marchand_de_Vin,_Rue_Boyer,_Paris,_1910%E2%80%9311.jpg

“Eugène Atget, Marchand de Vin, Rue Boyer, Paris, 1910–11” by Eugène Atget – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 190039516. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Life Abroad and Life at Home

Author Tyler Stovall describes in great detail the development of jazz in Paris and the personalities who made a living playing their music in the City of Light during the Jazz Age.  He documents the efforts of some black soldiers after the Great War to remain in a country which they felt did not discriminate against color or race.  Some of them enrolled in the Paris universities in order to remain legally in the country, but others chose to earn a living as entertainers. (Stoval, 1996, pp. 68-69) For the musicians who chose to stay in France, Montmartre offered an environment free from the racial problems back at home as well as a thriving community of art, literature and music.  The author describes in great detail the various night clubs in Montmartre that flourished in the 1920s and offered jazz music to Parisians thirsty for this exciting new music.  He also acknowledges the dangers of living in the bohemian section of Paris and how on occasion musicians such as Eugene Bullard, Louis Mitchell and Sidney Bechet had to resort to carrying firearms for protection.   “Corsican protection rackets infested the neighborhood, demanding and usually getting money from club owners who wanted to stay open. Eugene Bullard got into a vicious battle with one such gangster named Justin Pereti, who ended up shooting him, putting him in the hospital.” (Stoval, 1996, p. 43) In the 1930’s more and more American jazz musicians came to Europe and played music along with European musicians.  Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter performed and recorded alongside European players such as Django Reinhardt and Stepane Grappelli.  Harlem musician (he played in the band at the Savoy Ballroom) Bill Coleman was a talented trumpet player who visited France several times.  He lived in Montmartre and was featured in French jazz orchestras.  Another swing trumpet-player  Arthur Briggs married a French woman and settled down in Paris.  Author Tyler Stoval describes in great detail the lives of these black American musicians who made Paris their home.  In fact, Paris included other black entertainers such as blues singer Alberta Hunter, pianist Ray Stokes, trumpeter Harry Cooper, and Opal Cooper who sang at the Melody Bar (Stoval, 1996, p. 117).

‘Blackbirds’ Comes to Paris

Some African-American artists did not remain in Paris after their tour was over.  Adelaide Hall was a tremendously talented singer, dancer and entertainer who came to Paris in 1929 with Lew Leslie’s  revue Blackbirds or Les Oiseaux Noirs.  It was booked for a limited engagement at the Moulin Rouge and she and the cast returned to the United States for the U.S. tour when it was over.  In his book Underneath a Harlem Moon Iain Cameron Williams gives a vivid picture of her life in America, where she encountered racist abuse and harrasement all too frequently, and her twelve-week stay in Paris where she was universally admired and adored.  What an incredible disparity between cultures!  It is a wonder that Adelaide Hall and her husband did not choose to remain in Paris, although they probably thought about it.  The author includes detailed verbatim racial abuse she and her husband Bert Hicks suffered while touring the United States where discrimination, segregation and racial bigotry reined (Williams, 2002, pp. 257-259; 265-280)   In Paris the singer-entertainer lived a life of enjoyment and wonder where she could sleep until noon, have a leisurely breakfast and set off in the afternoon to shop in some of Paris’s finest establishments before heading to her show in the evening.  The cast and crew of Blackbirds would visit the cabarets and nightclubs of Montmartre when their show finished for the evening , and they were welcomed in all the local restaurants and private homes.  They were given so many gifts by admirers that they had twice as much luggage to declare when they returned to New York on the SS  Ile de France.  However, in 1935 Adelaide Hall and Bert returned to Paris, and were immediately welcomed by a surprise party for the couple at Bricktop’s establishment on rue Pigalle (Williams, 2002, p. 313).  Adelaide Hall told admirers over French radio that she had returned to Paris with an intention to stay.  She even sang one song over the airwaves in French to show her appreciation (Williams, 2002, p. 313).  Her engagement at The Alhambra was the big hit of the season and she was surrounded by jazz musicians and friends from America, Paris, and England.  She was reunited with her former pianist, Joe Turner, and they even recorded several songs for Ultraphone including Truckin’, I’m In The Mood for Love, Solitude and East of the Sun West of the Moon.  Violinist Stephane Grapelli was in the band on these recordings (Williams, 2002, p. 313)  Adelaide Hall was the involved in several business ventures in Paris in the 1930s and she was a co-owner of her own night-club – the Big Apple which opened on December 9, 1937 at 73 rue Pigalle.  The bandleader was Maceo Jefferson, and there were live radio broadcasts from the club on Saturday nights which could be heard throughout Europe (Shack, 2001, p. 97).

Legendary Cabaret Owner ‘Bricktop’

A major document of the period is, of course, the autobiography of the very famous nightclub owner, Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith who sat down with James Haskins in the 1980s to write Bricktop by Bricktop.  By many people’s accounts Bricktop’s was the most Harlem-like nightclub in Montmartre or all of Paris.  Bricktop knew just about everyone in music business in Paris (and, for that matter, in New York as well.)  She was friends with Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Mabel Mercer, Duke Ellington, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Jack Johnson, Gloria Swanson, Django Reinhardt and literally hundreds more.  She named her club after herself at Cole Porter’s suggestion.  Django Reinhardt was hired to play at her club when others would not book him.   Mable Mercer sang at her club.  Bricktop was one of the most well-known and well-liked celebrities in Paris.  She was also one of the most well-respected business persons in Paris when she was there.  People sought out her advice on any and all aspects of running a restaurant, nightclub or cabaret.  She freely lent her expertise to all who sought her help, and for this reason even her competitors admired her.  While she was friends with the rich and famous, including royalty such as the Duke and Duchess of Winsor, she never placed anyone over anyone else.  She treated all people as people worth knowing, and for this reason, many guests at her establishment felt she was the ultimate hostess.  She did not consider herself a singer, “I’m a performer and saloon-keeper” is how she referred to herself (Williams, 2002, p. 312).  Bricktop’s first job in Paris was working for Charles Bullard at his club Le Grand Duc.  While employed there in 1925 she met and befriended Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  Cole Porter heard her sing one of his songs and asked her if she could show him how to dance the Charleston…soon the two of them were organizing Charleston parties for Cole’s friends (Stoval, 1996, p. 45). In Bricktop’s autobiography she describes how much she liked F. Scott Fitzgerald even when he arrived drunk or broke.  Fitzgerald introduced Ernest Hemingway to Le Grand Duc but Bricktop did not find Hemingway very likable – “he just wanted to bring people down, and he had a way of doing it, and he was liable to punch you at the same time” (Haskins & Duconge, 1983, p. 98). When Bricktop opened her own nightclub in Montmartre, Cole Porter brought his friends to see her new establishment, and the club became popular overnight.  Guests included George Gershwin’s favorite singer Helen Morgan; the world famous violinist Jascha Heifetz was a frequent visitor and he enjoyed listening to the young woman violinist that Bricktop had hired to play.  (The violinist practically fainted when learned the identity of the distinguished patron.)  Elsa Maxwell and Irving Berlin were also visitors to her club.  Jazz was the club’s specialty because Bricktop wanted to have the same sound one could hear on any given night in Harlem.  When Duke Ellington came to Paris in 1933 naturally he came to Bricktop’s.  The same night that Duke Ellington and members of his band came to visit, Bricktop’s other guests included Josephine Baker, Spencer Williams, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr as well.   As it turned out, they all shared the same table and got to know each other well (Haskins & Duconge, 1983, pp. 186-187). Mabel Mercer was one of the greatest chanteuses of the twentieth century.  Bricktop hired her to sing at her club.  Song writers went out of their way to write material for Mabel Mercer since she could interpret a lyric so well.  With the inclusion of Mabel Mercer in her club, Bricktop managed to create the ambiance of café society within the larger environment of a Harlem-style night club.  This of course was perfect for Montmartre and fit the culture of Paris to a tee.

When Bricktop chose to leave Paris in 1938 and her establishment closed, Adelaide Hall continued the tradition of a Harlem-style night club by opening her own club The Big Apple.  On any given night one might catch Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich, who were friends, at the new night spot.  Adelaide’s financial backer for the club was Hetty Flacks, and Adelaide’s husband, Bert Hicks, was the proprietor.  Fats Waller dropped in one night and played “an hour-long duet with Adelaide” to the excitement of the patrons (Williams, 2002, p. 352).  Author Iain Cameron Williams writes of the Big Apple, “The music was blisteringly hot, arguably the best outside of America, and any black musicians in town would make a beeline to the venue to jam with the combo (Williams, 2002, p. 352).  To add to the excitement of this establishment was the fact that there was a live radio broadcast from the club on Saturday nights which could be heard throughout the continent (Williams, 2002, p. 353). Sadly, an end of an era was fast approaching.

Philosophy, Art, Popular Culture

Art historian,  Jody Blake informs us that many of the leading intellectuals and artists of Paris in the Jazz-Age were using jazz music as a metaphor and in fact perhaps did not fully understand or appreciate the music in itself.  As an argument against the prevailing culture of the preceding decades they were inspired by a music and an artistic endeavor which they viewed as radically different.  Jazz was such an inspiration that it helped to define new approaches to their own artistic endeavors.  However, it is also clear that many of the Dadists really viewed jazz as chaos and cacophony and as opposed to being music.  They admired endeavors which they felt threatened bourgeois sensibilities.

Jody Blake, who is the curator for the McNay Art Museum San Antonio,  points out that eventually the Dadists and some of the other early supporters of jazz music turned against it, and they saw it as a threat to their own culture and to the supposed norms of their long tradition of classical music and harmony.  Once this happened they became ardent opponents of the black artists and entertainers who were making a living in Paris, and they tried hard to instigate a huge public reaction against the new music which came to their county.  They championed the popular bal-musettes as the truly French music and they insisted upon a return to nationalistic identity in popular music.  Certainly, they had public taste on their side as French music employed instruments such as the accordion, violin, and even bagpipes – instruments which at that time seemed incompatible with developments in jazz. French  theorists and intellectuals turned conservative and even denounced the new forms of entertainment a degradation of morality and destruction of societal norms. (Blake, pp.101-107)

Philosophy and Art sometimes inform us of cultural trends and sub-currents in ways that history and biography cannot.  This is why Jody Blake’s cultural history and critique, Le tumoult noir, is essential to an understanding of the culture of jazz in Paris in the era between the two world wars.  The French had been subconsciously preparing themselves for an acceptance of jazz and African-American culture for several decades.  The process was as much subconscious and archetypal as it was intentional.  There were sub-streams in French culture that French writers, impressionists, and post-impressionists had tapped into around the fin de siècle, and which burst through into the twentieth century as black artists, writers, poets, and musicians began their sojourn in France.  Jody Blake’s book serves to inform us of those cultural currents and thought processes that eluded even most of the participants of the Jazz Age in Paris while they were living it and creating it.  People respond to art and music in a very subconscious way.  A painting or a song or a piece of music may affect us in a way which we do not fully understand.  The artists who were living and working it Paris, and especially Montmartre, in the years leading up to the ‘jazz age’ were blending and exploring new forms of artistic expression which they were appropriating from cultures from Africa, South America, Asia and America.  Jody Blake’s book describes this process and the artists who were shaping the new trends in French culture.

Concluding Remarks

Beginning around the new millennium (circa 1999, 2000) several writers, biographers, sociologists, historians, and jazz chroniclers felt that it was time to record the history of jazz in Europe, and more specifically in Paris in the days of the early twentieth century.  Authors Tyler Stoval, Iain Cameron Williams, William A. Shack, Craig Lloyd, Jim Haskins and Jody Blake wrote and published interesting and compelling histories of the men and women who brought jazz to Paris and thereby to Europe.  Adelaide Hall, Sidney Bechet, Eugene Bullard, and Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith, Will Marion Cook,  James Reece Europe, Arthur Briggs, and Bill Coleman were but a few of the creative and fascinating personalities and talent who ‘conquered’ Paris  with an energizing new form of music.  Their contribution was to take hold and inspire a whole new generation of talented European musicians.  When American jazz musicians were to travel to the continent in succeeding decades to play concerts there was no lack of native born talent to help them perform.  Whether it was Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington in the thirties, the swing bands in the forties after the war, or Charlie Parker and Bud Powell in the fifties, Dexter Gordon and Eric Dolphy in subsequent years – American jazz musicians could find plenty of skillful and creative European musicians to play music with and to form bands.  American musicians began to relocate to Paris, Stockholm, Denmark, and Italy knowing full well that they could live well and play creatively in Europe.  When Django Reinhardt toured the United States with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1946 there quietly began a new era, the acknowledgement that European musicians were  now influencing American jazz music and the future of jazz.  It turns out that the French intellectuals who feared that American jazz would eclipse their culture had nothing to worry about – in fact, it was just the opposite – Django and the Hot Club of France were creating a unique European hybrid which was, in its turn, influencing the development of jazz music in America and in the U.K.

The subject of Paris in the Jazz Age is too rich and variegated to be fully captured in any one book as brilliant and as well-researched as it might be.  Each of these fairly recent books is well-documented and rich in detail.  The authors have presented their subjects with amazing insight and clairity.  Each book, therefore, serves to inform and enrich the others.  It is interesting that many of the stories told in one volume may appear in a slightly different presentation in another.  It is sort of like reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in that the personages described as having lived and performed in Montmartre in the 1920s and 1930s were all larger than life, and their stories and lives cannot be reduced down to one understanding of who they were or what they did.  The more that each one of these books is consumed by the reader, the more one gets a fuller, more complete, and to some extent, more complex understanding of the era and the artists and musicians of that era.  And what a brilliant era it was!  Tyler Stoval does us a great favor by continuing the story through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s as well as he traces the lives of the original black artists, musicians and writers of the jazz era in Paris, and also introduces us to the newer generation of African-Americans who made Paris their home.  People such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin to name a few.  And who doesn’t want to know what happened to Arthur Briggs when he was arrested by the Nazis in 1940?  Well, Professor Stoval continues his story and the stories of others who chose to live in France after the fall.

When Maurice Ravel toured the United States in 1928, he told Americans everywhere he visited, “I like jazz much more than grand opera…”(Arbie Orenstein, Letters in Ravel Reader, p. 280) You Americans take jazz too lightly.  You seem to feel that it is cheap, vulgar, momentary.  In my opinion it is bound to lead to the national music of the United States.  Aside from it you have no veritable idiom as yet.  Most of your compositions show European influences…”(Orenstein, Ravel Reader, p. 390)  Abroad we take jazz seriously.  It is influencing our work…” (Orenstein, Ravel Reader, p. 390)

Suggested Listening

Arthur Briggs

Avalon (Rose/Jolson/deSylva) recorded 1935.  Michael Warlop & his orchestra.  Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Django Reinhardt (guitar), Arthur Briggs (trumpet).  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

Toute le Jour Toute la nuit (Cole Porter/L. Hennevé)  recorded 1935.  Alain Romans and his Orchestra of the Poste Parisien.  Arthur Briggs (trumpet), Leon Monosson (vocal), Michel Warlop (violin), Django Reinhardt (guitar).  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

Django Reinhardt

Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup (Anna Sosenko)  Recorded 1935.  Jean Sablon (vocal), Stephane Grappelli (violin), Django Reinhardt (guitar) Rare Django, « Disques Swing » DRG Records Incorporated.

Out of Nowhere (Green/Heyman) recorded 1937.  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

Mabel Mercer

While We’re Young (Alex Wilder & Bill Engvick) The Art of Mabel Mercer, Altantic 2-602

Hello Young Lovers (Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein) The Art of Mabel Mercer, Atlantic 2-602

Feuilles Mortes  “Autumn Leaves”  (Jacques Prevert & JosephKosma)  The Art of Mabel Mercer, Atlantic 2-602

Adelaide Hall

East of the Sun West of the Moon (Brooks Bowman) Authentic Recordings (1932-1939)

Solitude (Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, Eddie Delange) Authentic Recordings (1932-1939)

 Bill Coleman

Rosetta (Hines/Woode) recorded 1935.  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

Stardust (Carmichael/Parrish) recorded 1935.  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

The Object of my Affection (Tamlin/Poe/Grier) 1935.  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

Bill Coleman Blues (Coleman) 1937.  Bill Coleman (trumpet) and Django Reinhardt (guitar).  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

 Benny Carter

Out of Nowhere (Green/Heyman) recorded 1937.  Trumpet, Benny Carter.  Guitar, Django Reinhardt. Tenor Sax, Coleman Hawkins.  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

Coleman Hawkins

Honeysuckle Rose (Fats Waller & Andy Razaf)  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

Out of Nowhere (Green/Heyman) recorded 1937.  Django and His American Friends, Vol. 1 & 2, BGO Records, BGOCD249, 1994.

Don Shirley: Solo Piano, Concert and Chamber Music

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of Digital

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of

Between the years 1955 and 1960 Don Shirley performed in a variety of contexts which included solo piano, piano with trio (bass and cello), and symphony orchestra.  Uniquely, one concert with orchestra was his role in performing the piano part of Duke Ellington’s hauntingly beautiful “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto or orchestral suite with piano.  This was a role for which Duke Ellington customarily reserved the piano to himself.  On only one occasion did Ellington assign the role of piano soloist to someone else – Don Shirley.  This occurred on March 16, 1955  at Carnegie Hall when Ellington took up the baton and Mr. Shirley was the pianist – a singular mark of respect.  Reputedly, Don Shirley later commented that it was the hardest piece of music he ever had to learn.  However all of Don Shirley’s musical training and education gave him the tools to succeed at this difficult task.  Consider his solo piano album Pianist Extraordinary, Cadence Records CLP 3048.  In his program notes he states he uses transcription as opposed to arrangements:

“An arrangement consists of rearranging notes to serve a purpose.  A transcription on the other hand is essentially a re-composition.”

On the album he proceeds to describe in detail just what he means.  For example, on his performance of How Deep is the Ocean (Irving Berlin), Don Shirley explains that he employed a form of Mozzoarabic Chant (“an early Eastern form which led to the Gregorian Chant”):

“I’ve used a chorale form with four part harmony.  It’s also in a two part song form.  The original melody is one part and the introduction becomes the meat of the second part. I’ve tried to emphasize the much part of the lyric, how much do I love you? with the second part attempting to answer how much.”

The excellent liner notes to Cadence CLP 3048 by George T. Simon, allow Don Shirley to explain his thoughts on music, performance, and technique so well.  The pianist explains his conception of each song and what each song needs to complete the artistic presentation. There is a reason for not purchasing digital downloads of classical music and jazz, and the reason is that the buyer only gets the music and not the thoughts behind the music – the reason the music was created in the first place.  On the Cadence album Don Shirley Plays Standards, the pianist performs “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” which is actually a blend of three Ellington songs “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I Let A Song…” and “Jump for Joy” (from Ellington’s African American Musical of the same name.)  Don Shirley manages to bring out the beauty of each piece while letting each song reflect the sonorities of the others.  It’s an amazing arrangement…and very heartfelt.  Apparently, Duke Ellington was very appreciative of Shirley’s “transcription” of these well-known Ellington classics because it was decided by the two of them that Don would feature it as the encore presentation after the performance at Carnegie Hall on the night of March 16, 1955 of Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto.  Duke honored Don by having him perform the piano part of the concerto (usually reserved for Ellington), and Don in turn paid tribute to Duke by weaving the melodies and harmonies of the three Ellington pieces into a solo piano concert work to conclude the Carnegie Hall performance.

Resources Available to Consult:

This Carnegie Hall concert featuring New World A-Comin’ was released on the Italian label, Musica Jazz 2MJP 1021 in 1984.  The album is titled Duke Ellington – Le Suites Sinfoniche.  It is available on vinyl LP, CD and on digital download.  For some reason, Don Shirley is not identified as the pianist on the piano concerto, but the date March 16, 1955 confirms that Mr. Shirley is indeed the piano soloist.

Symphonic Ellington?  Rehearing New World A-Comin’ ; David Schief.  The Music Quarterly, Vol 96, Issue 3-4, pp. 459-477.  This article fully explores the conception behind Ellington’s piano concerto and discusses the role played by Don Shirley in the concert performance of New World A-Comin’ in the March 16, 1955 performance at Carnegie Hall.  It also analyzes the structure of this composition.

Duke Ellington As Pianist:  A Study of Styles.  Mathew J. Cooper, College Music Society, 2013.  The author explores the style and technique of Ellington the pianist.  The author provides numerous insights into the unique Ellington approach to improvisation and composition.  The book includes the author’s transcriptions of works discussed.

Four Symphonic Works by Duke Ellington.  Maurice Peress conducting the American Composers Orchestra.  Nimbus Records CD and also Music Masters CD.  Soloists Roland Hanna (piano), and Jimmy Heath (woodwinds.) Roland Hanna is another jazz pianist who learned the complexities of the Ellington piano style in order to perform New World A-Comin’ with a symphony and jazz orchestra.  Formidable technique is in evidence throughout this performance.

Don Shirley.  Pianist Extraordinary.  Cadence 25048 or Collectables CD 2759.

Don Shirley.  Plays Standards.  Cadence 3033 or Collectables CD 2789.

Dvorak to Duke Ellington:  A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots.  Maurice Peress, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Don Shirley’s original Cadence albums have been transferred to digital CD and are available on the series called “Collectables”  (see  There are all highly recommended for their highly artistic and sumptuous melodic performances.


Ellington Songbook Featured at Stanford Jazz Festival 2014


Image courtesy of By Nick Coombs, published 2008, at

San Francisco Bay Area musician, composer, and educator, Marcus Shelby, brought his jazz orchestra to the Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford University on an unseasonably warm June afternoon for a celebration of the music of Duke Ellington. Also featured with the Marcus Shelby Orchestra was gifted jazz singer Denise Perrier, who has a rich history of performing and recording with such jazz greats as Red Holloway and Houston Person. The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra is a performing orchestra which plays many venues, jazz clubs, colleges, and festivals. In fact, the MSJO had just recently played a concert in May at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall featuring the music of Duke Ellington – his renowned Such Sweet Thunder Suite. Marcus Shelby is a prolific composer and arranger who has composed and recorded three soul-stirring creations depicting very heroic and tragic events in African- American history for which he has received numerous grants and commissions: Port Chicago, Harriet Tubman, and Soul of the Movement. The members of MSJO also pursue their own career paths, and many of the band members have their own jazz ensembles. The featured vocalist, Denise Perrier, has traveled extensively throughout the world performing on concert stages in Europe and Asia as well as the United States. Ms. Perrier’s acknowledged idols are Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington. The pairing of Denise Perrier with the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra appeared to be an inspired decision as both artists have a strong appreciation for and love of the music associated with Duke Ellington.

The artistic and executive director for the Stanford Jazz Festival, Jim Nadel, welcomed everyone to an afternoon celebrating the music of Duke Ellington. He told the audience how pleased and happy they were to secure the talents of  Marcus Shelby and Denise Perrier. Mr. Nadel acknowledged some of the Bay Area jazz celebrities in the audience such as Sonny Buxton, the founder of legendary Pearl’s Night Club in San Francisco, and program announcer on Jazz FM 91.1 KCSM. He also informed the audience that several very talented students from this year’s Stanford Jazz camp and last year’s student camp would be joining the orchestra at various intervals to take solos and to join the ensemble. The concert soon began as the band leader and bassist, Marcus Shelby, took the stage wearing his trademark wool fedora. He started off with Juan Tizol’s composition Perdido (using the 1950’s Ellington Uptown arrangement.)

The challenge that all artists have in presenting the music of an earlier jazz style is how to stay true to the original while presenting music that is vital and dynamic today. Duke Ellington himself faced this same issue since his band recorded over five full decades. He had to face this challenge every time new members joined his orchestra while established artists left. Marcus Shelby has chosen to follow Ellington’s strategy by allowing the members of his orchestra the latitude to play their own solos in their own style incorporating all the newest developments in jazz. At the same time the concert goer to this event could clearly sense how much respect and admiration for the Duke Ellington organization is exemplified by the Shelby Jazz Orchestra. The Ellington sound was clearly evident in many of the ensemble passages, while the individual members of the orchestra developed their own solos which reflected their skills and strengths. The alto sax soloist, Marcus Stephens, played a beautiful Johnny Hodges style alto passage on I Let a Song Go out of My Heart. The trumpet section was outstanding. On occasion two trumpets would improvise collectively just as the Ellington trumpet section was wont to do. Fil Lorenz on baritone sax delivered outstanding solos which grew organically from the source material but became his own creation through improvisation. Tom Griesser is a major saxophone talent whose solos were strikingly original and compelling. The entire sax section delighted and surprised the audience when they doubled on clarinet for the melodic blues Creole Love Call. This arrangement was a direct reproduction of Ellington’s 1932 arrangement. Trumpeter Geechi Taylor provided the Ellington touch with his mute and ‘growl’ trumpet obbligatos.

Shelby directed the band by standing with his back to the audience but facing the musicians, in a manner similar to other famous bassist/band leaders such as Chubby Jackson and Charles Mingus. The sound of his bass was deep, rhythmic, and firm. The second concert piece was a vigorous performance by the pianist, Joe Warner, of James P. Johnson’s You Gotta Be Modernistic. Director Shelby told the audience he wanted to include this piece since Ellington was strongly influenced by the great Harlem stride pianists of his day, and James P. Johnson, was perhaps the strongest influence on the young Ellington. The concert segued into such familiar Ellington compositions as: In My Solitude, Creole Love Call, and C Jam Blues. One of the advantages of having jazz greats performing at the festival is it gives an opportunity for graduates and participants of the Stanford Jazz Camp an opportunity each year to perform with seasoned veterans. This year was no exception. Joining the trombone section of the Marcus Shelby Orchestra was a young woman who only graduated from the Stanford Jazz Camp last year and is now a professional musician living and working in New York. She took a full 32-bar solo on the beautiful Ellington ballad “All Too Soon” as well as contributing several other shorter solos on other Ellington compositions. Also joining the band before the headliner appeared was a young man who is a current student at Jazz Camp. He sang on Solitude and Caravan and his deep voice and relaxed style were a big hit with the audience. When the Orchestra moved into high gear with C Jam Blues with solos from the saxophones, trumpets and trombones, pianist Joe Warner completed the rhythm-section sound with his Ellingtonesque chords. It is interesting to note that the band director used a Count Basie arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Solitude letting the trumpets give free range to their employment of wa-wa and plunger mutes which blended the band sounds of both the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras.

It was a full hour before Ms. Denise Perrier, took the stage. She kicked things off with a vigorous It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing. There are some singers who can take a song that everyone has heard a million times, and sing it in a way where you have never heard the song before. Denise Perrier is such a vocalist. Her voice was beautiful, distinctive, bold, and sinewy. Her control of timing, swing and tempo was a pleasure to hear. A true jazz singer, vocalist, and song stylist! She then introduced her own Ellington Medley which was especially arranged for her by Wayne Wallace, the famed trombone player, arranger and composer who has succeeded David Baker as the new Director of Jazz Studies at Indiana University. This arrangement showcased five familiar Ellington melodies: Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, Mood Indigo, Satin Doll, and ending with Take The A Train. The originality of the medley arrangement plus the verve and sophistication of Ms. Perrier’s interpretations made each song a gem to be treasured. After the Ellington Medley, Marcus Shelby, mentioned that sometimes small groups of sextet or septet size would often record and perform selections from the Ellington Songbook. These groups, he mentioned, were often led by Johnny Hodges or Billy Strayhorn. In the spirit of these smaller groups, Denise Perrier, sang two classics: All Too Soon and I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. It was All Too Soon with a gorgeous 32-bar trombone solo (reminiscent of Lawrence Brown) and a bass solo performed by Shelby which to my ears stole the show. Ms. Perrier’s voice, the bass, and the shimmering trombone cadenza were sheer musical ambrosia. The Ellington Songbook Concert closed with Denise Perrier singing a rousing, spritely version of I’m Just a Lucky So and So. After wonderful ensemble passages, a great vocal treatment, and many fine solos by the full band (and especially the drummer, Jeff Marrs) the concert came to a close – a full two hours after it had begun. The audience gave the artists a long standing ovation. Many in the audience could have stayed for an additional hour or two, but as Marcus Shelby said to us, “There is just too much music in the Ellington Book…thousands and thousands of songs, suites, and concert pieces…which cannot be played in a single day” – although, some of us would have been happy should he have chosen to try.