Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Matt Dennis and Josh White!

February 11

Songwriter/singer/pianist Matt Dennis is born in Seattle, WA, in 1914. Dennis can be categorized as part of the “Second Generation” of American tunesmiths–the one that succeeded Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, Porter and who became famous in the 1920s (or earlier). This group included Jule Styne, Frank Loesser and Jimmy van Heusen (among others) and their peak years were roughly from the Swing Era to the Rat Pack. Matt Dennis was a child vaudevillian and started his adult career by writing songs for Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra (which recorded 14 of Dennis’s songs in 1940 alone), including “Everything Happens to Me,” a hit for Dorsey’s star vocalist Frank Sinatra, with whom Dennis began a long musical relationship. Dennis’s best songs–written in the 1940s and 1950s–have attracted the creme de la creme of jazz and pop singers of his generation. Here’s a brief list: “Everything Happens to Me,” (recorded by Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker and others); “Violets for Your Furs” (recorded by John Coltrane, Holiday, Shirley Horn), “Will You Still Be Mine?” (the Miles Davis Sextet with Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins); “The Night We Called It a Day,” one of his most beautiful songs, (Carmen McRae, Chet Baker, Sinatra, Milt Jackson, June Christy). Dennis was a talented pianist and a wry, knowing cabaret/jazz singer — the result of a life spent in show business. He recorded six LPs–unfortunately, all are out of print. Listen to Dennis himself sing the witty lyrics of his most frequent collaborator, Tom Adair, in “Everything Happens to Me,” from his LP Matt Dennis Live in Hollywood, here:

Oh, and we’d be guilty of criminal musical negligence if we didn’t add this rendition of the tune by the Giants of Jazz: Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk (who also recorded a solo version) here:

Guitarist/vocalist Josh White is born in Greenville, MS, in 1908. Before Harry Belafonte, there was Josh White, who rose from the humblest of origins as a ragamuffin street singer to become a sophisticated jazz and cabaret star, theater/radio/film performer and presidential confidante. White was equal parts Leadbelly, Billy Eckstine, Bobby Short and Nat “King” Cole. He was the first African-American sex symbol who had “crossover” appeal, and adapted his eclectic musical repertoire to concert halls as well as tony cabarets such as Cafe Society and jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard. White introduced folk-blues to white America and was the first black singer-guitarist to star in Hollywood films and on Broadway. He had a million-selling record, with the folk song “One Meatball,” while at the same time performing with Billie Holiday and pianist Mary Lou Williams. White’s civil rights songs made him a favorite of the Roosevelts. His career peaked in the 1940s. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, but managed to stage a comeback in the late 1950s and 1960s. White died in 1969.

Bing Crosby records “St. Louis Blues” with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, 1932. Listen to this remarkable pairing of two of America’s seminal artists, here:

Benny Carter records The King with vibraphonist Milt Jackson and pianist Tommy Flanagan, 1976.