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And now we come to the merry month of May. No matter where you live May is, weather-wise, just about perfect. Flowers bloom, birds sing, the sun shines, although a friend in Massachusetts reports that the big pile of snow from the last few storms is still sitting in one of the parking lots, melting a little more each day, but still a reminder of the winter of “ought fourteen-fifteen.” Historians take note.
May brings many celebrations but for me it’s always about May baskets and flowers, a charming old custom, now long gone perhaps, when children surprised neighbors with little homemade baskets of flowers the morning of the first of May. On the adult side of things, the first of May has long been associated with Beltane, one of the lustiest of pagan celebrations.
Like jazz, Beltane customs have not always been looked on kindly among the tightly-laced. In 1628 William Bradford, governor of New Plymouth, apparently was so offended by such a celebration that he wrote of an incident where, “They also set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days togaether, dancing and frisking togither, and worse practises. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of the Roman Goddes Flora, or the beasly practieses of the madd Bacchinalians.”
Well, as H.L. Mencken once defined it Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone somewhere might be happy. I’m almost certain Mencken had that dancing and frisking thing in mind. And listening to good jazz as well.
And getting on to the jazz, for this week’s selection I had flowers in mind. Fortunately, songwriters and musicians, including jazz musicians, have often had flowers in mind as well and I’ve wandered through the field to pick a small bouquet for your listening pleasure. Think of me placing it on your doorstep, ringing the bell and then ducking around the corner to watch and enjoy the surprise in my patent leather Maryjanes and ruffled skirt.
First up is “Jasmine,” a superbly mellow tune featuring Bud Shank with the Shorty Rogers quintet. Other members of the ensemble are Jimmy Rowles, Harry Babasin, Roy Harte. This one was recorded in March, 1954 for Pacific Jazz Records. Sweet-smelling, deliciously exotic and romantic jasmine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DuM9i8ix4-Y
Mellow meets mellow with this one by John Coltrane and the Coltrane Quartet from 1957 with Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Albert Heath on drums. Whoever put this up for us included some nice visuals including – for you, Janie – violets. By the writing team of Thomas Adair and Matt Dennis, “Violets for Your Furs.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuPSxqYjuMU
I didn’t plan it this way, but the flower theme features two Buds (pun intended), in this case Bud Powell. In 1964 Bill Evans said, “When people talk about the giants – Bird, Bud, Dizzy, and Miles – I think they underestimate Bud.” Evans considered Powell his greatest influence. Reading Powell’s wrenching story, I’m reminded of another Bud – Buddy Bolden – and his tragic story told so well in Michael Ondaatje’s short novel, Coming Through Slaughter. Powell, like Bolden, was a genius racked by demons – physical and mental. After several spells in hospitals, he moved to Paris in 1959 in the company of his old friend Altevia “Buttercup” Edwards. This up-tempo tune is for her, titled simply, “Buttercup,” from the album “Bud Powell’s Moods” recorded in 1954 and 1955. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8eUi9v8Th4
Lee Morgan was a hard bop trumpeter who lived fast, loved hard and died way too young at the hands of one of the women he loved. In a scene from a fifties film noir, Morgan’s common-law wife shot him between sets at Slug’s Saloon in New York in February 1972. In truth, the gunshot itself was not fatal, but a heavy snow delayed the ambulance and Morgan bled to death. Morgan was thirty-three years old, but had lived a lifetime musically from his early lessons with Clifford Brown to his work as sideman with the likes of Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Mobley and John Coltrane. Here he is at the front of the parade with James Spaulding, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pepper Adams, Ron Carter and Mickey Roker on the haunting “Blue Gardenia,” a song with a story of its own, but we’ll save that for another day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfXy1cd1CMg
From blue gardenias to wine and roses. Join me with Mr. Dexter Gordon from his album, “Tangerine” on this one. Although this song didn’t top the charts, it did win an Academy Award and two Grammys for Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Listen as Gordon takes a much-recorded and sometimes sugary tune and makes it his own. Forget the sugar; listen for sensual – and swing. “The Days of Wine and Roses” with Gordon on tenor sax, Cedar Walton on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgVUGzrzJ20
And now, indulge me. I couldn’t write a post about flowers and not pay tribute to that wonderful flower herself, Miss Blossom Dearie, she of the voice that can range from shy and timid to a quietly powerful dynamo. This tune is by one of my favorite composing teams, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh who wrote music for a number of musicals including tunes you know. But this one, to my surprise, was a stand-alone – not for a Broadway show or a revue or anything but pleasure. The tune is “I Walk A Little Faster” and it speaks of that joyous time in our lives when all good things – and especially love – could be waiting around every corner. “Pretending that we’ll meet/Each time I turn a corner/I walk a little faster…/” From her 1958 “Give Him the Ooh-La-La” album, here’s Blossom Dearie accompanying herself on piano. She’s joined at the right moments by Ray Brown on bass, Jo Jones on drums and Herb Ellis on guitar. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=licSPVntq8g
That’s it for the first of May, JazzBabies…It’s not too late to drop a flower or two off on the doorstep of your favorite person. Or engage in some “frisking and dancing” as we jazz lovers are always happy to do! Either way, Enjoy…