Saturday, August 08, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 136: James Moody

Seeing James Moody later in his career, after his seven-year stint in Vegas, was a show and a half. He was slick, his patter was hip and glib, he told jokes, he would have fit right in with Frank and Dean and Sammy. And did his musicianship suffer? You had better believe it did not.

What's the place of showmanship in art? In jazz? In modern jazz? The greatest showman (perhaps) in American show business history was also the greatest artist (beyond debate) in the history of American culture. By the time the beboppers came along, no one questioned the greatness of Armstrong, although they thought it was time for further explorations of the possibilities of jazz, but they did question his showmanship. Black entertainers in the first part of the last century played to cultural stereotypes. That doesn't mean they weren't good, or very good. Tim ("Kingfish") Moore was a comic genius, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson a gifted comic, but they're known for their iconic--and stereotypic--roles as a grifter and a butler. Tim Moore, in 1908, did a one-man show adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, for which he
painted one side of his face white and the other black, and turned one profile or the other to the audience depending on whether he was portraying Uncle Tom or Simon Legree. I would have paid to see that--certainly I would have paid the nickel that it probably cost then, especially because the bill would probably also have included Bill "Bojangles" Robinson or Eubie Blake or Bert Williams or even Bessie Smith.

Bill Robinson, still a legend among dancers, played a shuffling butler in Shirley Temple movies. Ethel Waters always played a maid. And Louis Armstrong, to some extent, played the smiling, always ingratiating stage Negro.

And by itself, there's nothing wrong with being ingratiating, or making people feel good. Billie Holiday recognized this, when she said of Armstrong, "Sure Pops Toms, but he Toms from the heart."

But it wasn't what the be boppers were about. They were intellectuals, they were serious artists, and they wanted their music to be recognized for the important art form that it was. 

They succeeded. Jazz is taught and studied at conservatories and universities, theory, appreciation and practice.

And they succeeded in another way. Serious artists are never going to be as entertaining as popular artists, on as broad a stage. Jazz has, by this juncture in the 21st century, taken its place alongside grand opera as the least listened-to music in America. 

But grand opera is not bad company.

Through all of this, showmanship never completely disappeared. Dizzy Gillespie knew its value. He created the stereotypical image of the 1940s hipster, with the bop beret, goatee and shades, which raised the visibility, and therefore the audience, of jazz. And it didn't hurt that he was one of the greatest artists of his or any other generation.

Showmanship in jazz takes many forms. Monk getting up and dancing around his piano bench was a great show, but it wasn't showmanship, it wasn't consciously playing to the audience. It was just Monk being Monk. Miles Davis, playing the role of the anti-showman, displaying his contempt for the audience by turning his back to them when he soloed...that was showmanship. And you can bet that Miles knew it.

And one went to see James Moody for the music, because he was one of the all time jazz greats, and one went away loving the Rat Pack stage patter, as well. And it was equally easy to love his vocal interpretation of King Pleasure/Blossom Dearie's interpretation of his "Moody's Mood for Love," in which he sang both parts ("and then the chick say..."). Or "Bennie's from Heaven."

Moody caught on quickly to the entertainment value of really good vocalese. He might have resented this messing around with his improvisation, but he was too musically hip and too show-biz savvy to do that. I'm reminded of the story Tito Puente told about how for a while he used to get irritated when people requested "Oye Como Va" by saying, "Hey, can you play that Santana tune?" His irritation, he said, lasted until the day he walked down to his mailbox and found his first royalty check for Santana's version. After that, it was "Hey, can you play 'Oye Como Va'?" "Oh, you mean that Santana tune!"

Which is why Moody has Eddie Jefferson singing on this early session. And why it sounds so good, as does the rest of the session.

1 comment:

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