The Swing Nut’s Dozen

Hello.

This is your friendly neighborhood swing nut calling.

How are you? Swingwise, it’s been great since that April 5, 2013 post of mine. The swanky 40s tie I am wearing as of this writing, our monthly tea dances, the weekly dance lessons, the Jazz through the Ages show, the May Day ball, some Lindy Hop in a nearby park, and the occasional urge to start truckin’ in downtown Helsinki or to do the Charleston while waiting for my bus might have something to do with it. Witnesses abound.

Ahem. Let us move to the matter at hand.

I’d like to introduce a highly personal unit of measurement. It has served me remarkably well by putting some order in my ICRP and by quantifying what I perceive as essentially unquantifiable (indeed, how does one quantify quality?). I will readily admit that its scope of application in the wider world remains somewhat limited; however, what follows is by no means an attempt at supplanting the metric system or at reinventing the wheel.

Here’s how it works. You sift through your collections and recollections of music (one great thing about this is that you don’t have to own the records in question) and walk down your personal Memory Lane from tune to standout tune as they emerge. Because, and believe you me, emerge they will. With most of their entire extended family more often that not.

You know how it goes.

It starts with your shoulders.

And then, with a little more heat, it flips into your hips.

Then it goes to your feet.

You sit up (or stand up) and take notice. Your eyes start to shine. Your fingers snap. Your toes tap. You might find yourself doing a step. Or two. Or ten. And then some. You might also feel like sharing those standout tunes with the rest of the known universe. Even the Klingons might dig them. Your choices may range from the obvious to the obscure and from the weird to the wonderful. Chances are you’ll come across some pleasant surprises and a few old acquaintances from way back. I know I did. What’s more, there may very well be more of both heading your way.

This then is the first Swing Nut’s Dozen known to mankind. Call it a blueprint, a prototype, or a work in progress but contained therein are a handful of choice cuts I developed a lasting fondness for in my younger days. Why these tunes instead of countless other gassers and why this particular order of presentation I couldn’t possibly tell. I have no idea. It’s just that I have liked them for so long that I feel the time has come for me to share them with you.

Here goes.

1. Benny Goodman and his Orchestra: Sing Sing Sing, RCA Victor 36205, 1937.

An absolute classic plus an ear-opener in my book: prior to hearing this, I had absolutely no idea that a band could keep things swinging well beyond the 200-or-so seconds of a standard-sized 78rpm record side. I remember timing this one with my trusty wristwatch at age 14 (yes, I discovered this one thanks to that fabulous LP collection I got from that great great-aunt of mine) and clocking it in at 8min 38sec without a single dull moment. Take it, Benny. Go, Gene, go. Swing up a storm. At that time already, I couldn’t help comparing this with the warmth Mr Goodman plus cohorts instilled in “Stompin’ at the Savoy”. I believe the word is range.

2. Wingy Manone and his Orchestra: Ochi Chornya, Bluebird B 11298, 1938.

I mentioned this, a firm favourite of mine, in that April post of mine already and am thus repeating myself. But I just have to keep singing its praises. The old Russian chestnut never sounded, or swung, like this. And I don’t think it ever quite recovered. Neither did I. Which is good. Besides, you don’t get rhymes like this anywhere else. Period. One of the all-time greats as far as I am concerned and the musical equivalent of those zany ‘30s/‘40s Tex Avery/Bob Clampett/Friz Freleng cartoons I acquainted myself with, and instantly fell in love with, just about at the same age I discovered swing. You know the genre: you name it and it happens (“Technicolor ends here” and so forth) yet the whole kit and caboodle somehow stays on track and induces healthy bouts of laughter. Mr Manone’s gritty playing and gravelly vocals (50% Satchmo, 50% Louis Prima, and 100% Wingy), those unbelievable ersatz lyrics he wrote himself with precious little (I believe) to do with the original words, and able backing by Messrs. Marty & Joe Marsala, George Brunies, Mel Powell, Carmen Mastren, Al Morgan, and Zutty Singleton have me in stitches to this day. I verified the fact not more than thirty-two minutes ago. PS: imagine me hearing this for the very first time right after Ziggy Elman’s frailach swing stylings in “Bublitchki” and right before Lionel Hampton’s “Muskrat Ramble”. Three steps to swing heaven.

3. Eddy Duchin & his Orchestra (vocals by June Robbins): Jenny, Columbia 35978, 1941.

A cautionary tale if there ever was one, an Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill tune from the “The Lady in the Dark”, a showstopper first sung on Broadway by Gertrude Lawrence, quite a mood piece, and one serious slice of swing all rolled into one. To remain in the 24-frames-per-second analogy, I recall going upon first hearing: “hmm… doesn’t this sound the way film noir looks like?” Jet-black humour. Cynical wisecracks. Stark contrasts. And an unfailing sense of style (if not of impending doom) hanging over the proceedings. I find this just about as cool as Benny Goodman’s (and Peggy Lee’s) long-lasting 1942 “Who Don’t You Do Right?” and Woody Herman’s equally immortal 1943 “Who Dat Up Dere?” – but I heard this one first. And in precedes both of them as recordings go. (Come to think about it, this also feels a lot like what Brian Setzer & Co came up with in 1981 in “Stray Cat Strut”…) Even if Mr Duchin hadn’t ever recorded anything else of note I’d give him pretty high marks on the strength of this one. But he did. Oh boy, he did. I shall keep blessing him till the end of my days for his riotously funny “Ol’ Man Mose” as well even if the jury seems to still be out as to whether Patricia Norman sings “bucket” with an initial “f”… So he could swing with the best of them if and/or when the Spirit moved him. Some may carp but, as George Michael once put it, listen without prejudice.

4. Will Bradley and his Orchestra featuring Ray McKinley: Strange Cargo, Columbia 35545, 1940.

Another goodie I have already waxed positive about. The cat’s meow (or pajamas) and the bee’s knees. Also known as “Boogie Woogie Nocturne” for reasons I fail not to fathom, this one took me into uncharted territory as regards big band boogie-woogie which is and quite probably remains one of my favourite forms of musical expression. And I had just discovered “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” and decided I would LOVE it, and respect its creators, for the rest of my natural life. Dim the lights. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and let yourself be carried away by Bradley’s mellow trombone, by McKinley’s gently insistent drumming, and by Freddie Slack’s delightfully understated touches on the ivories. Feel the music. See the music. What did you see? I saw a rustbucket plowing through an endless expanse of fog-covered sea at a steady 12 knots. Not unlike something a latter-day Joseph Conrad with a penchant for music instead of literature could have come up with – or not unlike the atmosphere aboard S.S. Venture on her way to the Skull Island in a cinema near you in 1933. (She sure came back with the strangest cargo indeed.)

5. Fletcher Henderson & his Orchestra: Nagasaki, Columbia 2825, 1933.

The things the pecuniarily challenged music fan can unearth in the sales bin of a department store. This thunderbolt of a tune is from a weirdish-looking three-part CD set with minimal track information and with even less in the way of liner notes (that is, none). I picked up all the three volumes ages ago for a pittance, something I have never regretted: imagine getting prime cuts by Gene Krupa, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Joe Haymens, Don Redman, Spud Murphy, etc. for what one would usually shell out for a collection of current pop hits and still having enough moolah left for tea for two. (Not that I would have shelled out anything for a collection of current pop hits at the time. Or at any time for that matter.) Anyway, it also seems to me that some of the tracks on these three are not among the most frequently revived ones either. Great stuff nonetheless. Yes siree. Now, as regards performances, adjectives like “electric”, “electrifying”, “galvanizing” or even “thundering” have been used, and perhaps even over-used. This one, however, crackles. Enough energy here to keep the Greater Helsinki area lit for a year. Plus enough tongue-twisting rhymes to keep one’s ears peeled forever.

6. Isham Jones & his Orchestra (vocals by Eddie Stone): Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia, Victor 24099, 1932.

Another gem from the same set and one of the chronologically earliest in my dozen. Whether this qualifies as swing or not (I have it also in a four-CD swing set yet some people prefer filing this under “pre-swing” or “proto-swing”) I am not certain – but why argue as long as the music is this good? At any rate, your friendly neighbourhood swing nut is nuts over this testimony to a flair for somewhat unusual instrumentation and to a subtle sense of musical humour. Has been for the last 20 years or so. In other words, along came Jones and made my day. Highly infectious and totally irresistible… and swings like mad in its own way. I recently listened to this once again and yes – it still sends positive shivers down my spine. Who Eddie Stone was I know not (according to the omniscient and ever-reliable Wikipedia, he was a violinist in the Jones outfit) but, as far as I can tell, nobody, and I do mean NOBODY, else sings quite like this. Wow.

7. Bob Crosby & his Orchestra: I’m Prayin’ Humble, Decca 2210, 1938.

Forgive me for repeating myself once more. It’s just that, for me, this may well be Brother Bingstance’s kid brother’s finest hour – not to mention an interesting departure from his frequently exhilarating trademark big-band sound with a Dixieland touch. And that’s no mean achievement since his band or parts thereof also made “Big Noise from Winnetka” (which a rockabilly friend of mine has named his favourite piece of “slap” bass playing), “South Rampart Street Parade”, a totally endearing version of “Oh! Look-a-There, Ain’t She Pretty”, an indescribably bluesy “Louise Louise”, and heaps of other grade-A stuff. In the case at hand, take a ’37 gospel recording by Mitchell’s Christian Singers (a seriously cool outfit in its own right), leave out the lyrics, put the rest to a swing beat courtesy of double-bass player Bob Haggart and ace drummer Ray Bauduc, give lead trumpet man Sterling Bose ample room to live it up to his first name and, hey presto, there you go. I got stuck on this tune as soon as I first heard it. I remember having thought about Native Americans at a Revival meeting. Go figure. Then, after listening to this six times on a row to start with, I had to pick up the Ameche to share this with a friend. She was equally sold. I have reiterated the experiment with a number of people with, invariably, the same result. A Blast with a capital B.

8. Erskine Hawkins & his Orchestra: Uncle Bud, Bluebird 11372, 1941.

Some people wish they could shimmy like their sister Katie. In Hank Marvin’s case, the sis was called Arthur. But I digress. I do have a sister, though. She’s called Katri. That’s Finnish for Katie. Whether she does the shimmy I couldn’t say. But I digress again. My point is that I wish I could swing like this relative of Mr Hawkins – he must have been quite a solid sender on the dance floor – or, indeed, like Mr Hawkins himself. While I keep practising my eight-count, I’d say this one proves conclusively that his original version of “Tuxedo Junction” was no fluke. I’ll have to keep looking for more stuff by the 20th-century Gabriel; I do have a handful of titles by him but I think he is seriously under-represented in what music I have, or know, or know of. This gem was stashed away at the very end of an obscure (I mean “budget”) 100-track five-CD set I bought with my student (I mean “meager”) money ages ago and listened quite often to. To tell you the truth, one reason why I bought this set was that Bob Crosby was mentioned on the box. While he was nowhere to be heard inside there were oodles of serious hotness included from Count Basie to Andy Kirk (plus some very intriguing tonal experiences by Stan Kenton – to quote a fellow swing fan: “cold”…). Somehow, this track didn’t make much of impression on me back then. It did a couple of months ago. I guess that makes this the wild card in my hand or the joker among the dozen. As one Thomas W. Waller, Esq. was wont to say, one never knows, do one?

9. Georgia Gibbs: I Want You To Be My Baby, Mercury 70685, 1955.

Erm. Hm. I can almost hear you ask: “What dat?” “Who dat?”, “What’s this cover version doing here instead of the Louis Jordan original?” “Haven’t you ever heard of Lillian Briggs?”, and so forth. Please read me out. A rainy Saturday morning in the late 70s. I am glued to a wireless set and find myself positively blown away when Her Nibs sails effortlessly through the lyrics. And I can make out every word with what little English I know while the sidemen play like there’s no tomorrow. The tweet-tweet-toot-toot intro also helps. Then I forget the whole thing for oh-so-many years. Until around 1985 when I stumble on a second-hand copy of an original, USA-pressed 1955 Georgia Gibbs LP. And there it is – Track 1, Side 1. Just like meeting an old friend for the first time in years and picking up exactly where we once left off. I can’t help it. I have liked this for 35-plus years. Latter-day swing? A cover of a R&B great? Burgeoning rock’n’roll? Or just plain pop performed with true gusto by a white warbler? I couldn’t say. But Ms Gibbs sure delivers the goods. She must have had a fine pair of lungs. Not to mention perfect diction. I think she’s the only one who can sing faster than Jerry Byrne did in his 1958 “Lights Out” and still make sense. And yes, I do like Louis Jordan’s original as well. And yes, I have heard of Lillian Briggs. Her version is right there on my record shelf. And yes, I like all three of them. Immensely.

10. Art Shaw and his New Music: Moonlight and Shadows (vocals: Peg LaCentra), Brunswick 7835, 1937.

This dozen of mine wouldn’t be complete without something by Mr Shaw. This cut, however, I think ranks as a real curio. As you may have noticed, there’s no link here. I haven’t found one ANYWHERE over the net so it seems you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say how good this is. Or, better still, come around for a listen. I do know for a fact that there’s at least one person out there who digs this as much as I do. Ask her – she’ll tell you. While this predates Mr Shaw’s breakthrough and his definitive transformation from Art to Artie by a good year or so, I think what we have here is one crackerjack cut from the formative years of a future force to reckon with. Dorothy Lamour’s original TOTALLY pales in comparison just like Shep Fields’ and Eddy Duchin’s interpretations do, too. And though I’m usually not that keen on strings on swing records, I will be the first (possibly apart from the maestro himself) to admit that, here, they complement the reed, brass, and rhythm sections more than nicely. This is not to overlook the vocals. While the lead clarinet – Art’s art, as it were – is obviously the main attraction here, Ms LaCentra is equally game and comes shining through. She must have been well above average as singers go since Shaw himself, a man well known for his unrelenting pursuit of musical excellence, reminisced much later that she was “pretty good” in spite of a persistent vibrato problem. No such difficulties here: she handles the lyrics with exactly the right mixture of confidence and mischief. I might even suggest that she sings the way the band plays. The word that comes to mind is “fetching”. I call it style and could not ask for anything more.

11. Slim Gaillard and His Flat-Foot-Floogee Boys: Boot-Ta-La-Za, Vocalion 5388, 1939.

Carrollian jabberwocky goes swing (and supremely surreal) thanks to the one and only master of “Vout” – a sure-fire way to lose the biggest bag of blues. About 12 seconds into the tune, you’ll be sporting a grin from here to Ashtabula and laughing in rhythm. This A-1 slab of swing with some of the greatest, and weirdest, words ever recorded is bound to transport me anytime into a totally outlandish verbal landscape. I have no idea what this is all about – apart from the “Solid!” that you can hear in the background and that I agree most wholeheartedly with. The funny thing is that, somehow, it all makes sense (of sorts) and swings mightily. If this is up your alley, try “African Jive” (the passing reference to “fried ice cream” has to be heard to be believed), “Chicken Rhythm”, “Matzoh Balls” and/or “Sploghm” and you’ll be back asking for seconds.

12. Cab Calloway & his Orchestra: Reefer Man.

Some people I know dismiss Cab Calloway as a musical clown. I don’t. I can’t. I plain and simply can’t. So I won’t. You might as well say that a chicken ain’t nothing but a bird. Mr Calloway has been one of my heroes ever since I caught snippets of his 1930s performances on TV about 34 years ago. This one is too much fun to be excluded herefrom. Besides, I have so fond memories of seeing this scene in a weird and virtually plotless 1933 W. C. Fields film called “International House” and laughing my head off even if reefers are not exactly my cup of tea. I also recall everybody in my class talking about this the next day at school. Great bass playing, too. And I finally got this on a CD in or around 1993 and was so pleased to find that the magic was still there – intact if not even intensified by the passing of the time. Peerless.

Gotcha!

Never let it be said that the Swing Nut is a tightwad, a skinflint, a miser, a cheapskate, a scrooge, or just plain cagey when it comes to music, and to good music at that, or to music this good. Music as I perceive it is very much a “together” thing, an experience readily shared by many and more than capable of bringing people around. Ask anybody who attended the House Rent Party in Helsinki, Finland, on November 17, 2012. In other words, why should my dozen be quantitatively as restricted (or restrictive) as just about anybody else’s (with a few notable exceptions more of which will be said below) since there is so much good stuff around (and not only in the swing department) – especially since I am more than ready to admit that “Uncle Bud” fully qualifies as a sleeper here?

13. The Casa Loma Orchestra, Smoke Rings, ARC BR6289, 1932.

More proto-swing here I believe. Mr Gray doesn’t seem to be overly well-remembered these days but he sure came up with great tunes and could, if need be, swing as well as the next guy. His take on “No Name Jive”, which I have heard thanks to a dear, dear friend of mine, is a case in point and definitely gives Gene Krupa a run for his money (after all, it was a Casa Loma creation GK covered). And his 1938 interpretation of the Tommy Dorsey classic “Song of India” has a lot going for itself (including lightness, freshness, and… warmth). Gray used “Smoke Rings” for years as his signature tune, and while he did go on to re-record the same tune in a more polished fashion, what I think sets this early version apart is a certain kind of quietly endearing charm. And I do not smoke.

Let’s get generous. More generous than the red guy running a notoriously well-heated pitchfork factory somewhere way down below, your average baker, and even Vladimir Nabokov.

14. Duke Ellington & his Orchestra: Creole Love Call (vocals: Adelaide Hall), Victor 21137, 1927.

The year: 1977. The place: a living-room in Helsinki. Dramatis personae: my father, a wireless set, and yours truly. The very roots of my first forays into jazz. A ring-in jazz request show was on with very knowledgeable people both calling and DJ’ing. I had never, NEVER heard anything like this. My old man apparently had because he literally jumped to the cassette deck we had fortunately plugged in. This slice of seminal Ellingtonia still moves me. Hall’s vocals, wordless but all the more expressive for that, were a major jolt. As were Cootie Williams’s trumpet and those masterful chords played by the Duke in person. Yowzah. It took me quite a while to figure out what this song was actually all about. But if Mr Ellington had been looking for this kind of singing for some time already, it sure was good enough for me too. I think my dad still has that cassette somewhere – we filled it with stuff by DDT Jazzband, Art Blakey, Nat Adderley, and, gulp, Charles Mingus. Talk about a mixed tape. (By the way, imagine my deception to find that this cut was not included in a handsome 2CD set of early OKeh Ellington. No wonder actually since OKeh was not Victor. But the universe has a way of re-establishing its equilibrium. I was not long in coming across an Adelaide Hall CD with this track. In a sales bin. At a record store specialised in religious music.)

One more for the road.

15. Count Basie and his Orchestra, How Long Blues (vocals: Jimmy Rushing), Vocalion 5010, 1939.

I was considering “Mama Don’t Like No Peas an’ Rice an’ Coconut Oil”, “The Blues I Like to Hear”, or pretty much anything Mr Rushing ever recorded with Mr Basie for inclusion when inspiration struck, quite literally, at the very last moment. I suddenly remembered the very first Count Basie LP I ever bought for myself. It had been quietly and patiently waiting on the shelf for way too many years. Until the other night. It’s all there exactly as I remembered it: rock-solid piano-playing, inimitable vocals, a solid rhythm section, and a real whammy around the two-minute mark. The blues. Words fail me.

There you have it, a very personal dozen indeed if I may say so. I bet you have one as well – and an equally personal one at that. Would you like to compare?

The swing nut signs off. Until the next time.

Meanwhile…

… Shall we dance?

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