Bryan Ferry was kind enough to invite me to contribute the introductory essay to the programme for Roxy Music’s 50th anniversary concerts in North America and the UK, so I went along to the O2 last night to see the closing date of the tour and to witness what might, I suppose, have been their final performance together. I don’t like arena shows, but once the sound had settled down it was possible to enjoy what the four members who played on the debut album in 1972 — Ferry, Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson and Phil Manzanera — and their six auxiliary musicians and three backing singers were up to. And of course there was that funny bitter-sweet feeling you get while watching something you first saw in a basement with a few dozen other people half a century ago scaled up to world-conquering proportions in its ultimate iteration. In the essay I wrote about the inevitability of the process by which what had begun as an experiment would become a performance, but hints of the original art-school excitement and uncertainty managed to survive even today’s production values and resources, and the lighting and the back-projections — endless highways for “Oh Yeah”, Warhol images for “Editions of You” — made it beautiful to watch. The show began with reminders of the slightly gawky early stuff (“Re-make/Re-model”, “Ladytron”) and finished with full-throttle favourites (“Love Is the Drug”, “Virginia Plain”) but in between came a long passage in which the pace slowed to a resting heartbeat as luxuriant textures and romantic descending patterns took over. Introduced by the wordless “Tara”, the sequence of “The Main Thing”, “My Only Love”, “To Turn You On”, “Dance Away”, “More Than This” and “Avalon” swept elegantly by in one long candlelit swoon. Not a bad envoi, if that’s what it was.
Posts tagged ‘Bryan Ferry’
Only a month after writing about the release of Bryan Ferry’s 1974 Albert Hall concert, last night I found myself back in practically the exact same seat I occupied 46 years ago, watching Ferry, midway through the first of three concerts, step into a cone of light to deliver “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” with just the guitars of Tom Vanstiphout (acoustic) and Chris Spedding (almost subliminal Telecaster) for company.
I thought about a recent conversation with my friend Caroline Boucher (once of Disc & Music Echo), who remarked on the extra-special quality of Ferry’s singing on his 2007 album of Dylan covers, Dylanesque. He’d recorded “Don’t Think Twice” five years earlier, on Frantic, accompanied by Colin Good’s piano. Last night’s version was very different: almost unbearably tender in execution and spirit, it formed a pair with the Dylan cover that followed it, “Make You Feel My Love” (which was on Dylanesque). When he launched the familiar roar of “Hard Rain” half an hour later, it was tempting to think of Ferry as the Bard of Hibbing’s most interesting interpreter.
“Don’t Think Twice” was the point at which the concert pivoted away from its opening sequence of a dozen non-hits into the drive towards the encores. Highlights of the first half for me were the unstoppable groove of “You Can Dance” (from Olympia), the slinkier seduction of “Your Painted Smile” (from Mamouna), and the glorious shifts from minor-key verse into the deceptively sunny Europop chorus of “Hiroshima” (from Frantic).
The second half was the formula beloved of Ferry’s wider audience: “Avalon” and “Dance Away”, “Love Is the Drug” and “Street Life”, “Hard Rain” and “The ‘In’ Crowd”, “Virginia Plain” — still a stunning piece of pop art, worthy of his mentor, Richard Hamilton — and “Editions of You”, all delivered with style and energy. Throughout, Ferry received exemplary support from his dozen musicians, notably Neil Jason on bass guitar, Luke Bullen on drums and Jorja Chalmers — Louise Brooks dressed as Catwoman — on various saxophones. If this was a last night out before the coronavirus shuts everything down, then it wasn’t a bad way to finish.
My most powerful memory of Bryan Ferry’s debut as a solo artist at the Albert Hall, four and a half decades ago, is of a blonde woman sitting just along the row from me in the ringside seats. She was in her early thirties, I’d guess, tanned and expensively dressed and coiffed; she’d arrived by herself, carrying a bouquet of flowers. After each song, she rose to her feet and shouted “Bravo!” several times, as if we were at the Royal Opera House. I think she might have been German, possibly Austrian or Swiss. At the end of the encore she reached under her seat to retrieve the bouquet, which she hurled towards the stage. It seemed a clear sign that Ferry had made a decisive move away from the college and club circuit on which Roxy Music had made their reputation, and had acquired a new audience in the process.
Now a recording of that night at the Albert Hall in December 1974 — one of three concerts making up a short tour, the others being at Newcastle City Hall and Birmingham Odeon** — has finally been released, and it fully captures the sense of occasion. Barely two years after Roxy’s debut album had made them the object of mingled wonder and scorn, their singer now had two solo albums behind him and was confident enough to present himself alone in the spotlight in the country’s most famous concert hall.
Musically, it was a lavish production: John Porter and Phil Manzanera on guitars, Eddie Jobson on piano and violin, John Wetton on bass, Paul Thompson on drums, plus three female backing singers (one of them Vicki Brown, formerly of the Vernons Girls and the Breakaways), and a large orchestra, conducted by Martyn Ford, including Chris Mercer and Ronnie Ross on saxophones, Martin Drover on trumpet and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone. It sounded big at the time, and I’d guess not much 21st-century post-production was needed to make it sound impressive today.
The repertoire is mostly drawn from those two solo albums, from the arch teenage pop of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” via the howling rock and roll of “Sympathy for the Devil”, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to the grown-up cocktail-hour balladry of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “These Foolish Things”. There are a couple of originals: “Another Time, Another Place” and “A Really Good Time”.
For me, the biggest successes are Ferry’s daring covers of two of my all-time favourite records: the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears”. You tamper with the masterpieces of Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson (and their co-writers) at your peril, but Ferry treated them with affection, respect and imagination. I remember being in AIR Studios on Oxford Street during the sessions for These Foolish Things — the first solo album — and listening to a playback of “Don’t Worry Baby”, during which I was particularly struck by the guitar solo, played by Porter. Ah yes, Ferry said — he’d told his old Newcastle University friend to start the solo at the bottom of the lowest string and finish, eight bars later, at the top of the highest. It was a perfect example of the application of art-school thinking to pop music. The Miracles song is rendered beautifully, with one minor niggle: I wish he’d sung “You’re the permanent one” — the way Smokey did — rather than “You’re the only one”, as subsequent interpreters (including Gladys Knight) have done.
Maybe the most successful piece of all is “The ‘In’ Crowd”, a Top 20 hit for Ferry earlier in 1974, in which he gives Dobie Gray’s Mod-era anthem a thorough update: those implacable opening electric-piano chords, the screeching, chopping guitars of Porter and Manzanera, the double-beating thunder of Wetton and Thompson, and a vocal speaking directly to party people from Bigg Market to Saint-Tropez. As the song ends and the applause erupts, I’m almost sure I can detect a German-accented shout of “Bravo!”
* The photograph of Bryan Ferry, © Michael Putland, is from the jacket of Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974, released by BMG.
** The piece originally suggested that Ferry played three consecutive nights at the Albert Hall. Not so. Thanks to Andrew Harrison for the correction.
Roxy Music will be among the performers tonight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, when the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame opens its arms to the latest group of inductees. No one really needs the validation offered by this much derided and arguably unnecessary institution, but it’s like the Oscars or the Booker: at least it gives you something to argue with.
I suppose Roxy are getting in on the strength of Avalon, the band’s only million-selling album in the US. In their home country, their biggest impact was created — as David Hepworth notes in A Fabulous Creation, his new book about the history of the pop LP — by their debut album, which slid a dagger into the heart of progressive rock and endless boogie in the summer of 1972.
Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera will be there tonight. Brian Eno and Paul Thompson won’t, for various reasons. Nor will Graham Simpson, the original bassist, who left before the first album came out but without whom, as Ferry has said, there would probably never have been a Roxy. Simpson died in 2012; he’s the subject of a forthcoming documentary directed by Miranda Little, several years in the making (here is the trailer).
Anyway, just to amuse you, here (pictured above) is the original Roxy demo tape, recorded on May 27, 1971 on Eno’s Ferrograph. Ferry, Simpson, Mackay and Eno were on it, but not Manzanera or Thompson. The guitarist then was Roger Bunn, formerly with Pete Brown’s Piblokto! and Giant Sun Trolley, and the drummer was someone calling himself Dexter Lloyd, a draft-dodging classical percussionist from Chicago whose real name was James Strebing (both would be gone by the end of the summer).
A month later, the demos were dropped off at my flat in Shepherds Bush. “4.30 Brian somebody with tape at home” is the entry in my diary. “Brian somebody” was Ferry. That’s his writing on the box, and his phone number. I just tried calling it, but no one picked up.
On my way to David Enthoven’s funeral this morning, I walked from Sloane Square down the King’s Road and paused at No 63A, where it all began. The weather was glorious: in the perfect sunshine, it was easy to drift back to the Chelsea of an imagined and sometimes real ’60s.
David died in London last week, aged 72, five days after being diagnosed with kidney cancer. Behind that door and up a flight of stairs, he and Johnny Gaydon, his schoolfriend and first business partner, set up EG Management in 1969, with King Crimson as their first clients. Marc Bolan, ELP and Roxy Music soon joined the roster. They were great days. (And here’s the obituary I wrote for the Guardian.)
When I got to St Luke’s, a large 19th century Anglican church just off the King’s Road, it was already close to packed with people wanting to say farewell to an extraordinary man. As they lingered in the sunlit churchyard after the ceremony, the event had something of the qualities of an English garden party, which was just as it should have been.
Tim Clark, his friend and partner in IE:Music, his second management company, gave an address which stressed the life-enhancing qualities that made David special to every single member of the congregation. Robbie Williams, whose life and career David and Tim had salvaged and remade, sang “Moon River” — a lovely choice — accompanied by the acoustic guitar of Guy Chambers. Lucy Pullin and a choir sang “Angels”, which Williams and Chambers wrote after David and Tim had brought them together. Lamar led the singing of “Jerusalem”.
The congregation included Robert Fripp, the founder of King Crimson, and all five surviving members of Roxy Music from the sessions for the band’s debut album in the summer of 1972: Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson, who came down for the funeral from Newcastle, where he now plays the drums with Lindisfarne.
One of the morning’s pleasures, over which the man in whose memory we were gathered would certainly have shared a chuckle, was the sight of Fripp, Eno and Ferry (so much history there, from Ferry’s failed audition for King Crimson to Fripp and Eno’s collaboration on No Pussyfooting and beyond) joining the singing of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. You don’t get that every day.
The French pianist René Urtreger, who celebrates his 80th birthday next month, was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet that recorded the celebrated soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold in 1957. He had become a frequent collaborator with Lester Young, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and many others during an era when his native Paris provided American jazz musicians with a warm welcome. Until now, however, his only appearance in Britain had been in the 1970s, when he visited London in his rather different capacity as Sacha Distel’s musical director.
Last night he and the other members of his trio — the bassist Yves Torchinsky and the drummer Eric Dervieu — performed in a small downstairs ballroom at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. They were playing to celebrate the opening of a new show, at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in Carlos Place, next door to the hotel, by the abstract expressionist painter Sean Scully, who was born in Dublin and brought up in South London, and now lives in New York and Bavaria. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a work titled Kind of Red, inspired by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: a series of five large paintings, in oil on aluminium, conceived as a single unit (you can see them on the gallery’s website, here).
Given the nature of the work’s origin, and Scully’s love of music (as a teenager he ran a blues club over a pub in Bromley High Street, and later named one of his paintings after John Coltrane’s “Dakar”), Timothy Taylor wanted something special to provide an unusual end to the conventional sequence of a private view followed by a small dinner. It seemed right to call on someone with a connection to the inspiration behind the paintings. The way Miles went about recording the music for Lift to the Scaffold — in particular the paring away of harmonic material — exerted a profound influence, two years later, on the concept of Kind of Blue. And Urtreger is now the only surviving member of the group that recorded the soundtrack to Malle’s noir classic.
His story is a fascinating one, revealed in an extensive interview with Pascal Anquetil in last January’s issue of the French monthly Jazz Magazine/Jazzman. To me the most striking single detail was his account of how, having waited day after day as an 11-year-old at the Gare de l’Est for the return of his Polish-Jewish mother, deported by the Nazis, only to discover that she had perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he responded a handful of years later to the discovery of bebop: a music without overt sentiment.
But not, of course, without feeling, as we discovered last night in his fluent, thoughtful versions of “Old Devil Moon”, “So What”, “The Duke” and a handful of bop themes. “I suffered during my youth from a shyness that led me to imagine that I wasn’t at the same level as my (musical) partners,” he told Anquetil. “Today, that’s over. I’ve reached an age at which I have nothing to prove, and everything to give.” Last night’s audience, in which gallerists and collectors were joined by Bryan Ferry (like Scully, a former art student in Newcastle) and several of the painter’s friends, including the former champion boxer Barry McGuigan and the poet Kelly Grovier, accepted the gift with warmth and gratitude.
* The photograph of René Urtreger was taking during the sound-check at the Connaught. His most recent solo piano album, Tentatives (Minium, 2006), is highly recommended, and there will be a new album by the trio this summer. The Kind of Red exhibition opens today, June 11, and is on show until July 12 at 15 Carlos Place, London W1. The catalogue is published by the Timothy Taylor Gallery.
Bryan Ferry is doing a rather brave thing with his current tour, which reached the Albert Hall last night and continues around the country for the next three weeks. Unlike most performers of his age, he is trying to give us more than we bargained for.
The show begins with the nine members of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, the band that created instrumental versions of Roxy Music songs in the style of Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and Duke Ellington on The Jazz Age and went on to contribute to the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. So we’re presented with a banjo, a bass saxophone, a variety of clarinets, a string bass and a drum kit from a 1920s photograph: but Colin Good, Ferry’s musical director, has such a profound understanding of this form — as do his musicians, notably the trumpeter Enrico Tomasso — that the results go well beyond mere pastiche or novelty.
For some members of the audience, however, it is undoubtedly something of a shock to hear “Avalon”, “Slave to Love”, “The Bogus Man” and “Do the Strand” so radically transformed, and they have to wait until half a dozen pieces have been delivered in this fashion before Ferry himself arrives on stage to sing “The Way You Look Tonight”, joined by his two backing singers. “Reason or Rhyme” also begins in the same idiom, but is transformed by the mid-song arrival of Cherisse Ofosu-Osei, who settles behind a second drum kit, and Oliver Thompson, who plugs in his Gibson Les Paul, heralding a sudden time-shift to the present day.
From that instant the momentum builds, thanks in large part to Ofosu-Osei, who bludgeons her equipment with an unwavering ferocity that would make Paul Thompson, Roxy’s hard-hitting old drummer, sound as though he were playing for tea-drinkers at the Ritz. But Ferry hasn’t stopped taking chances. He’s going to sing what he wants to sing, and what he wants us to hear, and much of the pleasure of the concert is derived from seeing how he and Good marshal their resources to refresh the material, with Martin Wheatley switching from banjo and guitar to mandolin for a delicate “Carrickfergus”, John Sutton adding percussive decoration to Ofuso-Osei’s rolling thunder, and Tomasso and Iain Dixon providing a blast of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker on “Au Privave” as a prelude to “N.Y.C.” (a song from Ferry’s album Mamouna). And if you have a bass saxophone standing there, why not use it on “Editions of You”?
The set is liberally sprinkled with Dylan songs, including a lovely voice-and-piano treatment of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, and there’s a version of “Shame, Shame, Shame” in which the backing singers interpolate a chorus of “Can I Get a Witness”: a witty and appropriate touch that you can’t imagine coming from anyone who didn’t have a real love and first-hand experience of that kind of R&B.
And that’s what I liked most about the concert. It was about the music, not the image. Ferry seems to have adopted Dylan’s view of time, which is that there is no division between the past and the present. On this evidence he seems to be making it work, for us as well as for him.
It was a warm evening, and the air conditioning had packed up. An hour before midnight last Friday, Ronnie Scott’s Club was like a sauna. “That’s when it started to feel authentic,” Booker T Jones would say later. “Just like the places I used to play.” But the air-con failure wasn’t the only good omen.
When there’s a Hammond organ in the house, the best place to be is as close as possible to one of its Leslie speakers — those pieces of wooden furniture, the size and shape of a small refrigerator, containing rotating horns which, at the flick of a switch, provide the instrument with its distinctive and heart-stirring whirr and churn.
It’s a lesson I learnt during my teenage years, when the clubs were small and the stages were low and you could get up close to the likes of Georgie Fame, Graham Bond and Zoot Money. So I was extremely pleased when the maitre d’ at Ronnie’s led me to a seat at the side of the stage, a few feet away from one of the two Leslies hooked up to Booker T’s B3. What would normally have been a rather indifferent vantage point suddenly seemed like the best spot in the house.
Booker T Jones is one of my all-time heroes. Like many, I remember the thrill of hearing “Green Onions” for the first time; its special magic has never faded. And its B-side, a sinuous slow blues titled “Behave Yourself” (originally intended as the A-side), hinted at other dimensions of musicianship. As the years passed I discovered that every note he recorded was worth hearing. All the original MGs’ Stax albums, from Green Onions in 1962 to Melting Pot in 1971, contained something wonderful — and I’m very fond of the two reunions that followed Al Jackson Jr’s tragic death, Universal Language (Asylum, 1977) and That’s the Way It Should Be (Columbia, 1994), with Willie Hall, Steve Jordan and James Gadson replacing the peerless Jackson at the drums. Booker went on to prove, with Bill Withers’ Just As I Am in 1971, Willie Nelson’s Stardust in 1978 and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Deep River in 1992, that he is a producer of marvellous sensitivity. He remained a wonderfully sympathetic sideman, too: for the proof of that, just listen to “Sierra”, a gorgeous song from Boz Scaggs’s 1994 album, Some Change.
So he’s someone I always look forward to seeing, and on Friday — at the second of four nights (and eight shows) on Frith Street — he delivered a 75-minute set that ranged through his entire history, from that imperishable first hit (recorded when he was a 17-year-old high school student) and the MGs’ great “Hip Hug Her” through Stax/Volt favourites like “I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long”, “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Hold On, I’m Comin'” to pieces from his recent albums: “Hey Ya” from Potato Hole, “Walking Papers” and “Everything is Everything” from The Road From Memphis, and “Fun”, “Feel Good ” and “66 Impala” from the new one, Sound the Alarm. His three-piece band, recruited from the Bay Area, supplied plenty of energy and all the right licks. He sang a bit, in a range-limited voice, and played guitar on a few of the tunes. But when he let the Hammond and the Leslies rip on an encore of “Time is Tight”, the speaker horns spinning faster inside those plywood cabinets, I was somewhere close to heaven.
On Saturday afternoon he returned to the club for a question-and-answer session in front of an audience, showing himself to be a thoughtful and genial man. Sitting at the Hammond, he played snatches of “Green Onions” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and just a handful of bars from each was enough to send a thrill through his listeners. Among the things we were told was that Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep” was the record which led him to conclude that the electric organ would shape his destiny. And there was an interesting answer to a question from my friend Martin Colyer (check his blog: http://www.fivethingsseenandheard.com), who wanted to know how he had come to play bass guitar on Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in 1973. As part of his explanation, Booker told us that he had first been recognised in the Memphis music community through playing bass in the house band at the Flamingo Room on Beale Street, and at that stage — despite his proficiency on keyboards, oboe, clarinet, baritone saxophone and trombone — it was as a bass player that he originally expected to make his career.
Four years ago, when the magnificent Potato Hole came out, I interviewed Booker for the Guardian (it’s here, accompanied by Eamonn McCabe’s fine photograph, taken the same day). Meeting your heroes for the first time is always a perilous business, but I came away from the encounter feeling I now admired the man as much as the musician.
Some bits of the interview didn’t make it into the paper, for reasons of space, so here, for the first time, are his remarks on a couple of topics. First, I asked him whether, as a teenage musician with an inquiring mind in the clubs of Memphis, he’d been familiar with the generation of gifted local modern jazz players that had included the saxophonists Frank Strozier and George Coleman, the trumpeter Booker Little and the pianist Harold Mabern. His answer was unexpectedly illuminating.
“I did,” he said. “They were two or three years ahead of me. Same town, same neighbourhood. I knew who they were. We went through the same doors. But I reached a day, one day, I don’t remember exactly when it was, that I had to ask myself, ‘Can I do this? Will I, in my lifetime, be able not only to play the music but live the lifestyle? Is that who I am?’ I realised, no, it’s not who I am. That’s who Jimmy Smith is, or John Coltrane. I don’t have the resolve, I don’t have the discipline. But even if I did, is that me? No, because I also like to play piano and guitar and trombone and I like to arrange and I also like country music and classical music — so I’m somebody else. I’m not that. And I stopped the pursuit at an early age.
“It broke up some friendships that I had, but I knew it was the right thing for me to do. A very close friend said to me, ‘What are you doing, man? How can you go over to Stax and play that stuff? Is it the money?’ If I’d been hanging out with a Sonny Stitt, that’s what he would have said to me. It was like a club, almost. I talked to Herbie Hancock about it, and to the bass player Stanley Clarke, and I know I couldn’t have done it. I’d have been able to get the technical chops, with practice, but I couldn’t have lived the lifestyle.”
So instead of another Memphis bebopper, we got a man capable of creating something like the arrangement of Willie Nelson’s “Georgia On My Mind”, its wonderful simplicity capped by a coda in which the rhythm and strings are joined by a horn section, vamping gently through the fade-out. He was delighted when I mentioned it as a special favourite.
“I’m so glad you said that,” he responded, “because it took so much time and money to put that on, but I could not get away from the inclination to do that. We went through the whole song with just the band and some strings, but at the very end I just needed to do that. It was expensive — a full complement of horns, and I don’t think we did any other songs at the session. It was an indulgence. At the time it wasn’t a big-selling record. It was a little bit of a struggle and I really appreciate that you like it.”
Even when he adds a horn section to the budget, however, the idea of excess is completely alien to Booker T’s temperament. He is a musician whose presence guarantees a measure of restraint and economy, the hallmarks of all those wonderful MGs records. “I don’t think it could have been any four guys,” he said of the band with whose name his own will be forever linked. “The one thing we had in common was a commitment to making the music simple and funky. It never got so complicated that it was inaccessible to most people. Not to say that complex music isn’t accessible or beautiful, but one way to access beauty is through simplicity.”
On the way out of Ronnie Scott’s on Friday night I bumped into Bryan Ferry, who was with three of his four sons and their girlfriends. He had taken them to listen to a musician he himself had first seen on the legendary Stax/Volt tour in 1967. Now that’s my idea of good parenting.
With a handful of phrases in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lets us know that he missed his vocation: he would have made a first-class jazz critic. Consider, for example, his description of the music played by the band during the first of Jay Gatsby’s parties at the mansion on Long Island Sound attended by Nick Carraway, the book’s narrator: “The moon had risen a little higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.” Wow. How many opponents of trad jazz must have wished they’d come up with the lethal precision of that “stiff, tinny drip”?
Even better is this, a couple of pages earlier: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music…” Yellow cocktail music! Who could not read those words and imagine exactly the sound the author had in mind, or at least its effect?
In Carraway’s words, the orchestra hired to entertain Gatsby’s guests is “no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and high and low drums.” Not the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, then, but a more lavish ensemble very much along the lines of the outfit led in the early 1920s by Paul Whiteman, the pioneer of “symphonic jazz”.
The resemblance becomes even more marked when the orchestra leader announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, at the request of Mr Gatsby we are going to play for you Mr Vladmir Tostoff’s latest work, which attracted so much admiration at Carnegie Hall last May. If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation.” The piece, he continued, was known as “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”.
If we are searching for a real-life inspiration for the fictitious Mr Tostoff, we might alight upon the figure Ferdy Grofé, a pianist and composer who met Whiteman in California in 1919 and worked closely with him until 1933. It was he who orchestrated George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, commissioned by Whiteman, for its concert debut at New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1924, with Gershwin himself at the piano. I still have my mother’s two-sided 12-inch 78 of their studio recording for the Victor label, released in the UK on His Master’s Voice; you can hear and see a later (and rather differently staged) performance here in an extract from the 1930 film King of Jazz.
Fitzgerald began work on Gatsby in 1922 — the year of Gershwin’s one-act opera Blue Monday, which inspired Whiteman to invite him to write a longer work — and made his final revisions in 1925, by which time “symphonic jazz” had become a part of the American music scene. Meanwhile there had been the premiere of Darius Milhaud’s much discussed La Création du Monde, another work which attempted to blend jazz and European classical music. (Milhaud, a French composer who had heard jazz during a visit to Harlem in 1922, later taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his pupils included Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach.) Grofé’s Mississippi Suite would come along in 1927, part of a phenomenon that withered in the face of critical disdain but provided a pre-echo of the Third Stream movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The Great Gatsby always reminds me of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: no amount of mishandling can tarnish the essence of a work of 20th century art that comes as close to perfection as makes no difference. So I’m looking forward to Baz Luhrmann’s new film version, released in the UK later this month, with Leonardo di Caprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as Carraway, and with music by Jay Z, Beyonce, Bryan Ferry and others. After all, Shakespeare survived Luhrmann’s marvellously inventive 1996 version of Romeo & Juliet, with its gun-toting gangbangers and a soundtrack that included Garbage, the Butthole Surfers and Radiohead.
Paul Whiteman, incidentally, earned the undying disrespect of purists who correctly believed he had no right to the absurd “King of Jazz” title (bestowed by a journalist in 1919 but eagerly seized upon as a marketing slogan), at least as long as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and other African American innovators were around. But an unbiased listen to some of his 1920s recordings reveals a man who hired good soloists — including the cornetists Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke and the saxophonists Jimmy Dorsey and Frank Trumbauer — and definitely had some sort of a feeling for jazz.
As for “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World”, wouldn’t it be fun if some modern composer with an understanding of the period took it upon himself to imagine the piece into actual life? I’d love to hear it, tinny banjoes and all.
* The photograph of Paul Whiteman’s Ambassador Hotel Orchestra was taken in Atlantic City in 1920; the leader is on the extreme left, a violin under his arm. It is included in the booklet to the CD Paul Whiteman ‘King of Jazz’ 1920-1927, released on the Timeless Historical label.
It’s a pleasure to see Bryan Ferry’s The Jazz Age getting approving coverage from publications as diverse as the New York Times and Jazz Journal (where Dave Gelly raves about it in the current issue). When Bryan invited me to write the sleeve note, and told me that the project involved restyling old Roxy Music songs — “Do the Strand” and “Avalon” among them — in the idiom of 1920s jazz, I wasn’t entirely sure that this was a good idea. But then he sent me some MP3s and the more I listened to them, the more convinced I became that he and his musical director, Colin Good, had tried something very imaginative and succeeded admirably. Everybody who’s listened to it properly seems to love it. There was a launch party a few weeks ago, at which the band played and Bryan sang one number (which he doesn’t do on the record). It would be good to see them get a week’s residency at some suitable dive in the West End. Here’s a clip of them playing “The Only Face” live: