Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic ’72

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In 1975, jazz impresario Norman Granz released a 4LP boxed set of concert recordings from 1967 and called it “The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World”, a slight exaggeration as the material was taken from a number of live dates.  Good though that set is/was, Granz perhaps could and should have used that grandiose title for his release from a couple of years earlier, “Jazz at the Santa Monic Civic ‘72”.  That concert, originally in slightly edited form on a 3LP mail-order set and now available unedited on 3CDs, was rather unusual.  It was billed as a Count Basie-Ella Fitzgerald concert, but unknown to the audience (and, so it is said, some of the participants) Granz had invited along a few special guests.  The audience was therefore treated to a concert that included nearly three hours of music with, alongside the Basie and Fitzgerald sets, featured a full-blown Jazz at the Philharmonic jazz session and a short set from Oscar Peterson.  What better way to kick off this blog, therefore, than by discussing what is one of most joy-filled and enjoyable jazz concerts that was ever recorded.

There must have been something in the air that night.  With the CD reissue we can finally hear the opening set by Basie in its entirety, and what a set it is.  The Basie band is heard at full force here and seems only too eager to let rip after those rather dull mid to late-1960s studio albums where they were reined in due to the two to three minute arrangements of each song.  Here, there is plenty of room for solos, but the ensemble playing finds the Basie band still as tight as a drum (so to speak), and a far cry from the slightly ramshackle outfit the Ellington band had become by this time.  DVD footage of the Ellington band from the period (great though it still was) finds the various players arriving late on stage, missing cues etc, but the Basie outfit remained a unique tight unit and is aided and abetted by the fine arrangements.

At the end of the Basie set, Granz takes to the stage to announce to a stunned audience the various guests that are about to take to the stage.  Oh, to have been in the audience that night.  The excitement in the audience as the names are read out is wonderfully captured in this fine recording.  And what a list of guests:  Ed Thigpen, Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Al Grey, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Harry Edison and Ray Brown.  The jam session then follows, starting with a 15 minute rendition of In A Mellow Tone.  Everyone is in fine form.  Often the JATP jams can descend into good-hearted chaos, but not here.  The jam builds up wonderfully and the solos are quite brilliant.  Loose Walk follows and is (if you’ll excuse the pun) relatively pedestrian in comparison.   A beautiful ballad medley follows, with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis stealing the show with his sublime rendition of If I Had You.  The first half of the show is then brought to a close by a final raucous jam, 5400 North.

The second half opens with yet another special guest, this time Oscar Peterson, who is joined by Ray Brown for a near-ten minute rendition of You Are My Sunshine.  But it is Ella Fitzgerald who really gets the second half into gear.  She had performed very little over the previous twelve months due to eye problems, but here she takes to the stage in brilliant voice and backed by the Basie band and her own trio.  Ella performs a number of songs not recorded by her elsewhere, starting with the Nat King Cole song L.O.V.E., and then wading into a Marty Paich arrangement of Begin The Beguine as if her life depended on it.  Cole Porter’s song had never been heard like this before, as Ella uses it to incorporate special lyrics about the great dance bands of the 1930s.  A Nelson Riddle arrangement of the beautiful Indian Summer follows, and then an epic take on You’ve Got A Friend and a rather unlikely cover of What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye!

The Basie band sits out to allow Ella and her trio to take centre stage for a quartet of numbers that includes a beautiful rendition of the rarely heard ballad Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and the Cole Porter classic Night and Day.    But the best is yet to come when the band rejoins Ella and her trio for Shiny Stockings, the theme tune to Sanford & Son, It’s Alright With Me, and a brilliantly realised five minute rendition of I Can’t Stop Loving You.

The evening comes to a close in what can only be described as possibly the most joyous JATP-style jam session of all.  For over ten minutes, Ella Fitzgerald trades fours with each of the horn players introduced earlier in the evening.   It is a fitting end to a wonderful show that sounds better than ever in its CD reissue, despite being re-mixed and mastered over twenty years ago.

This is wonderful , life-affirming music  with all of the participants having a wail of a time on stage (often literally!).  Many will cite the Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl concert of 1956 as the best multi-artist jazz concert of all time, but don’t make your mind up until you have heard this relatively little-known 165 minute epic from 1972.  This isn’t just jazz for jazz lovers, it’s jazz for music-lovers in general and anyone who wants to sit down in front of the hi-fi for three hours with a huge smile on their face.

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Sal Mineo, the Forgotten Juvenile Delinquent

936full-sal-mineoIt’s almost blasphemy to say it, but when I watch Rebel Without A Cause now I tend to think that the best thing about the film isn’t James Dean at all, but Sal Mineo.  To me, Mineo’s performance comes across as considerably more honest and real than Dean’s does.  Of course, part of this is to do with a preference of acting styles.  Dean uses a kind of affected, jittery performance, but is this really the way that teens behaved in the mid-1950s?  I will also be honest and say that I don’t think Rebel is the best of the juvenile delinquent cycle.  While all of that cycle are, to some extent, exaggerations of issues and fears in America at that time, Rebel seems to veer into pure melodrama just that little bit too often.  The chicken run, the abandoned mansion, the almost caricature parents of Dean’s character, and the dramatic finale:  is this a work of genius, or a teenaged soap opera?  It all just seems too much, no matter how much the film is loved.  One can only wonder how we would view the film today had Dean’s career not have ended in such a tragic fashion.  Would we still view it as one of the great all-time classics, or as an early Dean film in which he showed promise as an actor?

Mineo went on to play similar roles in other films in the juvenile delinquent cycle, most notably The Young Don’t Cry, Crime in the Streets and, perhaps best of all, Dino.  Sal Mineo had already starred in the live TV play of the same name in 1956 and won an Emmy award for his efforts. The big screen version came one year later and finds Mineo in exceptional form.  The film tells the story of a young man, Dino, who arrives home after spending three and a half years doing time for his part in the murder of a night watchman when he was thirteen.  We learn that his family life is problematic and that Dino has as much trouble liking himself as others do liking him.  While he has been away, his brother has been involved with a gang and Dino is persuaded to be involved in their next “job”, the robbery of a gas station.  Meanwhile, Dino is persuaded to start seeing a psychiatrist and he starts to come to terms with his life.

Dino’s performance comes across as far more natural than that of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and yet still manages to portray an angry, jittery, angsty teenager.  But there is more (or, rather, less) going on here.  Perhaps because of it’s TV origins, the whole film seems a far more natural and realistic film than Rebel ever was.  There are no big set-pieces here, and even the big finale never actually arrives in the way it is expected.   This is all a much more low-key affair than Rebel, The Blackboard Jungle or even Crime in the Streets.  Dino’s Father is shown to be violent towards his son, but at the same time never falls into the caricature of the Father in Rebel who is so hen-pecked by his wife that he wears a pinny as he clears up.

That said, there are some great moments here, most notably during one of Dino’s sessions with the “skull doctor” when he eventually opens up about his Father and family life.   Mineo is simply stunning here in a lengthy monologue filmed mostly in long takes.  It’s a masterclass in acting, and extremely moving, but one that is rarely seen, for Dino has yet to make it to home video during the DVD age, and never graces our TV sets.  Ironically, the TV programme is available on DVD, but not the film.   The version I viewed recently comes from a less-than-stellar VHS issue from back in 1998.

It seems a little unclear as to how or why Mineo vanished off the radar.  In 1959 he played jazz drummer Gene Krupa in a Hollywood biopic and then was Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Exodus, but his period of huge stardom was all but over.  He had a small role in the war epic The Longest Day and then appeared in John Ford’s film Cheyenne Autumn, but the really lucrative roles never really came his way after Exodus.  He continued to put in fine performances when they came his way, however, most notably in the slightly sleazy thriller Who Killed Teddy Bear from 1965, in which he starred opposite Juliet Prowse.   Sadly, Mineo is most remembered today for just Rebel Without A Cause and his tragic murder at the age of 37.  But not even his tragic end seemed to bring Mineo and his work back into the public conscience.  This is a real pity, for he was a fine, sympathetic and his films, particularly those of the 1950s, deserve to be much better known than they are today.

Silent Film: Ten Things I Hate About You!

Something a little different today, and something intended to be slightly tongue-in-cheek.  There are many wonderful things to love about silent film, but as with all things there are also the downsides.  So let me take you through my ten things I hate about loving silent film!

1.  The “Canon”.

It always seems odd to me that the most discussed and most revered silent films are the ones that are also the most atypical.  Yes, Battleship Potemkin is a wonderful achievement, but it has very little to do with the vast majority of silent film (even that in Russia), and while one can admire it and give praise for its various merits, I’d much rather sit down and watch a cheap and cheerful potboiler.  Wouldn’t you?  And yes, Chaney’s performance in Phantom of the Opera is wonderful and the film has some great set-pieces, but let’s face it The Unknown is a great deal more fun.  My point here is that the established canon that gets taught on all film courses is all very well, but it’s not exactly the best way to get people turned on to silent film.  Show them some fun films, catch their interest, then make them sit and watch The Passion of Joan of Arc.  As a viewing of any recent Oscar winner will show, the most revered and/or worthy films are often the least entertaining.

2.  Copyright.

Oh, don’t get me started on copyright.  Just because there are a handful of films prior to 1930 that might be able to make some money for their studios, the vast majority of surviving silent films will never make their way either to home video or even internet streaming.  Literally hundreds of films will never ever make their studios a penny because there isn’t a big enough audience or because the print is too poor but, even so, they can’t be distributed by one of the smaller companies because their studios want too much money for them.  I declare that film studio should have a copyright amnesty, state categorically which films they intend to distribute in the future and then give up their copyright on everything else so that the world doesn’t lose yet more silent films.

Fat chance, but nice idea, don’t you think?

3.  Copyright.

Yes, you did read that right.  Copyright again.  In America, companies such as Warner have started releasing their titles through their burn on demand series, and many are silent films.  Wonderful news.  But if you are outside America you can’t buy them as Warner don’t have the distribution rights (or something like that).  Well, you can buy them, but through third parties which then inflates the price.  It’s mad.  Studios want to clamp down on illegal downloads and yet wave films in front of peoples noses and then say “you can’t buy it!”

4.  Lost Films

Surely this is one of the main things to hate about silent film, isn’t it?  Reading about a film, thinking you’d like to see it, and then finding out that it doesn’t exist anymore.  Occasionally, there is a nice surprise and you find out that the film you want to see does exist – in an archive 5000 miles away.  Grrrrr.

5.  Private Collectors

Ah yes.  A pet hate of many, I should imagine.   Those people who have the sole copy of a film but decide they want to keep it for themselves and never let anyone ever see it again.  What’s the point?  It’s like the art collectors who buy a Picasso and then shove it in a vault.   So, to those private collectors: don’t let it rot in your cellar, give it to a bloody archive!

6.  DVD releases without subtitles

Now, there is only a limited market for silent films to start with, so why some DVD companies of non-english speaking countries don’t include english subs as standard is beyond me.  We would buy them if we could understand them and hence increase sales.   This isn’t rocket science, is it?

7.  Academic Writing

Ok, so this is my chance of an academic career flushed down the toilet.  But really.  We are writing about film here.  Film.  One of the things that have given people a great deal of pleasure over the last hundred years or so.  So, how do some people manage to make their writing so dry?  It is getting better, but I see no reason why an academic paper should be irretrivably dull…or read as if the writer has swallowed a dictionary.  I swear that sometimes I feel I might as well be reading physics.  So, come on folks, let’s make it more interesting.  Add a bit of character.  Maybe even push the boat out and add in an exclamation mark here and there.  You know you can do it if you try!

My serious point here is that I don’t come from an academic family.  I am the one person even in my extended family who has attended university.   Perhaps because of that, I don’t believe that academic snobbery, where the only people who can understand our research is other academics, is a good thing.   If I write a paper or a book I want it to be in language that everyone can understand, not just the select few.  I don’t feel as if reading an academic paper should be hard work.  Yes, it should challenge us.  Of course it should.  But is should challenge us with ideas, not a barrage of convuluted sentences that we literally have to read half a dozen times in order to get the gist of what the writer is sayin.

We are in 2013 now, let’s get rid of the snobbery and make what we write accessible to all.

8.  Television

This doesn’t just apply to silent film, but to all classic films:  where are they? Films  have vanished from our screens, only to be replaced by a barrage of programmes about antiques and buying houses no real people can afford.  Ok, so I like Bargain Hunt too, but the absence of the classic film every afternoon on a couple of our main channels is a real loss, I think.  Yes, there are a fair amount of classic films on the premium cable channels, but even then they are the same ones over and over.  So many films that used to appear on our TV screens when I was a kid have just vanished into the ether it seems.  And more films shown on TV result in more people interested in film, and that can only be a good thing.

And talking about TV…

9.  TCM in the UK

In America, TCM is wonderful.  Silent films every week.  Classic films 24 hours a day.  In the UK we have re-runs of Bonanza.  And western films.  Endless bloody western films.  Now, I don’t mind the odd western.  But it’s virtually all TCM shows in the UK.  Over and over again.  The same films.  Oh, what I would give to be able to see the US TCM in the UK!

10.  Organs

Yes.  Organs.  If I hear another organ soundtrack to a silent film I will scream.  I don’t like organs at the best of times.  Not much turns me off classical music, but organs will do it nearly every time (Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony is the exception to this rule).  So sitting through a two hour film while an organ wheezes away in the background is a battle.  I confess I would rather watch it mute.  Or put a CD on.  Something.  Anything but an organ!!!!

And now that I have had my ten-part rant, I promise you, faithful reader(s),  that normal service will resume shortly.

Re-evaluating “G I Blues”

It appears that G I Blues (Norman Taurog, 1960) gets a hard time these days.  The first film that Elvis Presley made after his two-year stint in the army, it is really quite unlike any other film within the Presley canon.  It neither fits with the rock n roll musicals of the 1950s, nor with the endless stream of beach movies that Presley made, starting with Blue Hawaii.  Instead, it is the nearest Presley got to making a classic Hollywood musical of the style popular during the 1940s and early 1950s.  There is relatively little that is “rock n roll” about the film and, in fact, one could quite easily imagine a young Sinatra or Gene Kelly in the title role of a narrative about a soldier who finds himself making a bet that he can’t get together with a dancer, but then regretting the bet as he falls in love with her.

The plot is old hat, and variants of it had been the basis of romantic comedies and musicals for years.  The music, meanwhile, does include some rock n roll-light numbers, but the instrumentation within the film always reminds us of the 1940s musicals.  Within the film (but not the soundtrack LP) horns and strings are overdubbed on the original Presley studio recordings, presumably to both give them a more adult sound and also to make them palatable to an older, Hollywood musical-style audience.  Take the music played over the credits, for example:  a swinging instrumental version of the title song.  It’s more Nelson Riddle than Elvis Presley.  Likewise, the music that Juliet Prowse dances to in the Cafe Europa is jazz and swing-based, with there being nothing rock n roll about it, other than the fact that much of it is built upon phrases from the Presley songs within the film.  The adding of horns to the likes of “G I Blues” and “Shoppin’ Around” makes them sit in a weird place musically, and oddly resembles the ill-fated attempt to add a big band sound to “Heartbreak Hotel” on one of Presley’s appearance on the Dorsey Brothers TV show back in 1956.

This is also one of the very few Elvis films to allow the co-star to perform a couple of numbers as well.  The casting of Juliet Prowse as Elvis’s love interest was a shrewd move.  Her first film had been just six months before the release of G I Blues and had been Can-Can in which she starred alongside Frank Sinatra.  She had also appeared on Sinatra’s TV show, and thus she was firmly associated in America with the “old school” of musical and not the new.  And yet she had also provoked controversy (and thus linking herself with Presley’s previous rebellious, dangerous persona), when she had danced for Kruschev and he had declared her as “immoral”, and event that made newspaper headlines.

While many Elvis fans refer to the film as the one which started the never-ending series of bland musicals that Elvis made through the 1960s, it seems rather unfair to put the blame on G I Blues instead of the people behind the films that came after.  1960 was the year in which Elvis was marketed to a new and wider audience.  His first single after the army, “Stuck on You” was a mellower shuffle sound, similar in style to the earlier “All Shook Up”.  The album “Elvis Is Back” contained its fair share of rock n roll and blues, but it also contained some beautiful ballads and a cover of songs by both Johnny Ray and Peggy Lee.  Presley also appeared on the Sinatra TV Show, even singing a duet with “The Chairman of the Board” himself.  His first full-length gospel album was also released.  Alongside all of these, G I Blues was marketed at both the teenaged fans as well as an audience beyond it.

But why was there a thought to even place Elvis in an old-fashioned musical?  Where was the logic?  The old-style musical had, after all, been dying rapidly as the 1950s wore on…until 1958 when Gigi practically came out of nowhere and won 9 Oscars.  1956 and 1957 had seen just a couple of old-school musicals released.  1958 saw South Pacific and Gigi released within just a few months of each other, with then saw a number of old-style musicals follow:  Porgy and Bess, Lil Abner, The Five Pennies, The Gene Krupa Story and For The First Time in 1959, with 1960 catching the tail end of the mini-cycle with Can-can and Bells Are Ringing.   What wasn’t known at the time was that the musical revival was to be short-lived, although the one in the mid-60s with MY Fair Lady, Sound of Music, Funny Girl etc would last longer and, in many ways, be the traditional screen musical’s last hurrah.  But it is clear that both Can Can and G I Blues were counting on riding the wave of the short-lived musical fad.  It’s no coincidence that Gigi, Can Can and G I Blues were all set in Europe, as was For The First Time and Seven Hills of Rome from the same period.  Of course, to todays audiences Gigi and G I Blues seem oceans apart in style, budget and accomplishments – and they are – but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a plan to make G I Blues appeal to fans of both Elvis and the traditional musical that was back in favour.

As a film, it still holds up well.  Presley shows a knack for comic delivery, and is remarkably charming in the lead role – and there is obvious chemistry between him and Prowse.  The script is better than that for most Presley musicals of the 1960s.  If the film falls down it is through Taurog’s rather bland direction, especially the unimaginative staging of the musical numbers, which often consist of Presley simply singing into the camera while holding on to his guitar.   But these are relatively minor flaws for a film that was quite clearly attempting to do something different: in this case revive the struggling traditional Hollywood musical through Presley.  The format was never to be repeated – the next musical, Blue Hawaii, was a beach movie, pure and simple, and one that was all about Elvis from start to finish, with no big-name co-star to detract from Presley himself.  There was no big band instrumental over the credits this time, but Elvis singing the title number.  There was to be no mistaking, this was an Elvis film and not a Hollywood musical.