Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Hoagy Carmichael, Horace Henderson, Gunther Schuller and Jimmy Knepper!

November 22

One of the very greatest of American songwriters–and one of jazz’s own, Hoagy Carmichael, was born in Bloomington, IN in 1899. If he didn’t write anything but “Stardust,” among the most recorded songs of any kind, he’d be an immortal. But he added “Georgia On My Mind,” “Lazybones,” “Skylark,” “Heart and Soul,” “The Nearness of You” and a dozen more pop and jazz standards, melodies full of unexpected yet inevitable turns, wide intervals and few repeated notes. Carmichael was a self-admitted “jazz maniac” which directed his boyhood fascination with the piano in the direction of Chicago, where he heard and met Louis Armstrong. A few years later, after getting his law degree from Indiana University, he met Bix Biederbecke, who became his friend and musical idol. It was Bix who made the first recording of a Carmichael song, ultimately titled “Riverboat Shuffle.” Carmichael himself made the first recording of “Stardust,” before it had a lyric (which, when added by Mitchell Parish, cemented it as one of the most universally recognized–and beloved–tunes on earth). Carmichael veered away from the jazz world in the early 1930s and headed for Hollywood, where he wrote many great songs for films (teaming with lyricists such as Johnny Mercer) and soon began acting in them, essentially playing himself, a wire, homespun pianist. Art imitated life when Ian Fleming, the creator of the “James Bond” novels, described his espionage hero as looking a bit like Carmichael in several novels. (“Play it again, Mr. Bond…” ) And although rock music put Carmichael and his Great American Songbook contemporaries into gradual eclipse, periodically someone would reclaim his greatness. Examples: Ray Charles’s smash hit version of “Georgia On My Mind” in 1960, and George Harrison’s recording of two Carmichael tunes in his 1981 solo LP “Somewhere In England.” Of the hundreds of versions of “Stardust,” Louis Armstrong’s 1931 treatment still towers over all of them–it’s an epic distillation of the melody, and one of the true landmarks of jazz instrumental and vocal improvisation. Here’s “Pops” and his Orchestra:

And you can get a glimpse of Hoagy on celluloid singing one of his distinctively off-kilter melodies, the un-bluesy “Hong Kong Blues,” from Howard Hawks’s film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “To Have and Have Not”:

If Fletcher Henderson is one of the great unsung heros of jazz, what to make of his equally talented but even less acknowledged pianist/arranger brother, Horace? In his book The Swing Era, musician/scholar Gunther Schuller (who will reappear below, dear reader) wrote:

“Horace Henderson is one of the most talented yet most neglected and enigmatic of figures in all of jazz. He had the misfortune of being constantly overshadowed by his famous brother Fletcher. But as composer, arranger, and pianist he need not take second place to anyone of his generation (except Duke Ellington).”

Schuller attributes this largely to the fact that much of Horace’s work has been “erroneously credited to his brother” and to his being overlooked in the jazz literature.

Horace, born in Cuthbert, GA in 1904, didn’t work in total anonymity; he also led his own bands, although for far shorter time periods (1929-1931, 1937-1940 and sporadic activity in the 1940s and 1950s), despite outliving his brother by over 30 years. (Horace died in 1988.) Horace’s first major band was so successful that the great composer/arranger/multi-reed player Don Redman took it over. Horace then worked with Redman until joining one of Fletcher’s greatest ensembles (1933-1934). Horace kept darting in and out of his sibling’s bands; at one time Horace had contributed to it well over two dozen charts, including “Hot and Anxious” (1933)–a strain of which ended up in Eddie Durhams’s arrangement of “In the Mood” for Glenn Miller; “Big John’s Special” (1934), another of the Henderson Bros. charts that became swing anthems for Benny Goodman a few years later; and “Christopher Columbus” (1936), knitted from a Roy Eldridge-Chu Berry riff (and for which Horace received no credit). Other than his brother, Horace’s arranging clientele included Charlie Barnet, the Casa Loma Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines and Jimmie Lunceford. After serving in World War II, he became music director for Lena Horne. However, his 1940 recordings (he made 20 with his own orchestra and four more with a band combining his favored sidemen with those of the Nat Towles Orchestra) may represent his finest work. Listen and see if you agree with Mr. Schuller’s opinion that Horace’s band doesn’t sound like his brother’s ensembles. You can listen to “Kitty on Toast,” featuring an extended violin solo by Ray Nance that starts with an “Honeysuckle Rose” quotation. Nance who would soon ride the “A Train” into Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. Here, Kitty:

Composer/conductor/musicologist/author Gunther Schuller was born in Jackson Heights, New York City, in 1925. Schuller is a musical man for all seasons. For many years he was a horn player astride the top of the jazz/classical Great Divide, playing with Miles Davis and Charles Mingus as well as for conductor Arturo Toscanini. In the 1950s he began a conducting career that encompassed most of the world’s most important symphony orchestras. Schuller is a major composer of numerous works in the classical orchestral canon. He also has been a jazz educator of wide-ranging influence, on the faculties of Harvard University and the Manhattan School of Music. Schuller has written extensively about jazz, and his books, Early Jazz:Its Roots and Musical Development and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945 are as close to indispensable as any works on the subject. However, in jazz history Schuller most likely will be remembered for his attempts to bridge the gulf between jazz and classical musics and create what he termed “the Third Stream” in 1957. Shortly thereafter appeared a spate of compositional blends that demonstrated, in Schuller’s words, that “al musics were created equal.” Though the movement soon reached a cul-de-sac, it resulted in several compositions that were successful on their own terms: among them were George Russell’s “All About Rosie,” John Lewis’s “Three Little Feelings” and J.J. Johnson’s “Jazz Suite for Brass.” You can get a taste of Schuller’s own Third Stream conception in his piece, “Variations on a Theme of John Lewis,” from the album “John Lewis Presents Jazz Abstractions” in 1960. The ensemble is all-world: pianist Bill Evans, saxophonist Ornette Coleman,  Eric Dolphy on flute, guitarist Jim Hall and bassists George Duvivier and Scott LeFaro. Listen:

Trombonist/arranger/composer Jimmy Knepper was born in 1927 in Los Angeles. Knepper is considered one of the greatest, most facile trombonists in jazz history. Though he caught the tail of the Big Band comet in the late 1940 through the mid-1950s, his collaborations with bassist/composer Charles Mingus birthed many of Knepper’s greatest solos, featuring fleetness, emotional expression and well-organized lines that dovetailed into Mingus compositions on classic albums such as  “The Clown,” “Mingus Ah Um,” and “ Tijuana Moods.” Knepper also played with equally illustrious jazzmen, such as Gil Evans and Benny Goodman. (Knepper joined the King of Swing on his 1962 tour of the Soviet Union that was almost-catastrophic (like the Cuban Missile Crisis). Knepper played beautifully on the resulting album, “Benny Goodman in Moscow,” but he truly rose to the occasion on “Tijuana Gift Shop” from the Mingus album “Tijuana Moods,” 1957 here:

and on Gil Evans’s “Where Flamingos Fly” from his 1957 album, “Out of the Cool,” here: