“Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you…” So sang that jazzy crooner, Nat King Cole in the song from the late 1940s. For the past few weeks I’ve been reading a new book about Mona Lisa – the painting, the woman who was da Vinci’s model and da Vinci himself. At one point, the author Dianne Hales cites an English translation of a statement about Leonardo’s four years of work on the painting as “toiling” over the work. But then she offers language from an Italian writer who used a different word, penare, to describe what Leonardo was doing all that time, a word that literally means “suffer,” but carries the meaning “to strive, to labor, to take pains.” In other words, to care.
These are the words that come to mind whenever I think about creative work whether it’s the work of an artist, a dancer, a writer, an actor or, of course, a musician. Someone who strives for meticulous work: the poet who searches for the perfect metaphor, the dancer who seeks exactly the right, most graceful posture, the musician who hears the just-right sound in his or her head and strives to get it out into the air.
No creative artist that I know would call this simply “toil.” Painstaking work is where creative artists find the joy along with the hard work, and we thank them for doing it.
Last time I wrote about Frank Sinatra and his partnership with Nelson Riddle, but I failed to include the tune that changed Sinatra’s mind about teaming up with Riddle. Mea culpa… So here it is…Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a String,” with Sinatra and Riddle. The lyrics are included so you can sing along – sorry there’s no bouncing ball to follow. But here’s a little piece of synchronicity – Riddle was the arranger for Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa.” Believe it – everything is connected to everything else else. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OetrRox4Vd4
I got to thinking about sidemen this week, the great musicians who make it all work but are just out of the limelight most of the time. One whose name kept popping up was Johnny Hodges, who spent a long time with the Duke Ellington big band. Hodges had and still has a reputation for some of the sweetest sounds ever played on a saxophone. Early on he played with the likes of Sidney Bechet and Chick Webb and for a few years led his own small band before returning to the Duke just before Ellington made his comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Hodges won accolades from nearly every jazz great including Charlie Parker who compared him to opera star Lily Pons, a lovely lady known for her coloratura chops.
At Hodges’ funeral, Duke Ellington said of him: “Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes—this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.” Give the man your full attention as he blows on “Sunny Side of the Street,” recorded with his septet in Stockholm in 1961. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlPYzopTcIk
In 1958, Bill Evans recorded his second album after postponing for a couple of years because he didn’t think he had anything more to say after his first album. Bill fully qualified as one of those creative artists who strives and takes pain to produce the best. But when “Everybody Digs Bill Evans” was released, he might have understood that his audience thought he had a lot more to say musically and, of course, he continued to produce fine albums for years to come. This tune is by the brilliant team of Bernstein, Comden and Green and is from the musical, “On the Town.” Bill Evans with Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, “Lucky to Be Me.” We’re lucky to have Bill. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdpCj886TAA
Today, February 21, is the birthday of one of the jazz world’s most interesting and talented women, Nina Simone. Simone was not only a performer but a composer and arranger who went through her own kind of hell to do what she wanted to do. As a young woman, she was turned down by the music school for which she auditioned and later learned it was because of her color. Shortly before she died that same school awarded her an honorary degree which in my book pretty much sums up the “too little, too late” school of thinking. Simone went on to become a fine musician, but she was also something else in her lifetime – a powerful and tireless activist for civil rights. She’s worth knowing.
Since it’s her birthday, I’m giving Nina Simone two slots in this week’s post, because – to tell the truth – I couldn’t choose between these two fine performances. The first is an instrumental, “Central Park Blues,” one of her own compositions from her first album, “Little Girl Blue.” The story goes that the album needed one more song, so Simone composed and performed this in a single take. She’s damned good, period. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ne8XQRBm_Gw
And the piece de resistance as far as I’m concerned, is the title song from that album with a stunning arrangement that draws on Simone’s training in classical music and her love for Bach. The arrangement is what’s known as a quodlibet, a new term to me. But the term is just right since it describes “a piece of music combining several different melodies, usually popular tunes, in counterpoint and often a light-hearted, humorous manner.” In this case, Simone has used the carol, “Good King Wenceslaus” as that counterpoint and the result simply blows me away. I wouldn’t describe it as humorous, however, more heart-wrenching. I envision a young woman at the piano remembering the pain of that early rejection. Happy Birthday, Nina Simone, and thank you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_nl9QEGd6k
To wrap up tonight, JazzBabies, a tune from one of the first jazz albums I owned (and still do), “Mr. Guitar, Charlie Byrd.” I saw Charlie live on two occasions – one in a no-atmosphere jazz club in Seattle in 1965 and years later at his own place in Washington, D.C. Both were terrific. Here he is to take us out with Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone,” joined by Keter Betts on bass and Bertell Knox on drums. I have to say that my original 1962 vinyl has a better sound than this CD re-release, but that’s the price we pay for progress. It’s still a great tune by a great guitar man. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gU7mSozZm_s
To my friends in the east, stay warm. To everybody else, stay cool. To JazzBabies everywhere, spring is on the way! (Maybe not in Australia, mate…)