Showing posts with label Duke Ellington. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Duke Ellington. Show all posts

24 June 2020

Invisibles



Claude McKay apparently wrote his fifth novel,  Amiable with Big Teeth, in 1941, and nothing came of it until a Columbia grad student stumbled across the manuscript seventy years later, and got it published. McKay was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930's, if not so influential or well-known as Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. I'm no expert on the period or the people, or America's complicated relationship with race and history (much of which is clearly a history of willed ignorance), but McKay's book fascinates me because it's a social satire about black political engagement - and denial.

There were a lot of competing ideas in the 1930's, and two of the big ones at odds with each other in the Harlem of the time were Marcus Garvey's black nationalism and the siren song of Russian Communism. The actual issue in the novel is how the black community should respond to Italian aggression in Ethiopia: Mussolini's imperial ambition to dominate the Horn of Africa, and a stark demonstration of white European power deployed against a supposedly backward tribal culture, with attendant white barbarism, because their targets were African. This sideshow (not to the Ethiopians, whose estimated losses were three-quarters of a million people) took place on the periphery of a convulsive struggle in Europe between Left and Right, Stalin and his surrogates pitted against Hitler and his - although this vastly over-simplifies the internal divisions and quarrels over ideological purity the various factions tried to contain. The point here is that the same conversations are animating Harlem that fracture the body politic elsewhere.  

American politics have often been about grievance.  We want a place at the table, but when we get there, we put both feet in the trough. The immigrant experience follows a criminal model, the Irish and Tammany, the Italians using the Mafia to get political power, although this is generic. The first Vikings and English and Spaniards who landed in the New World were bent on piracy. The slave narrative, on the other hand, reverses the conventions.



History turns out to be malleable. We used to think it was hieroglyphic, etched in the stone, but like our personal history, you can walk into the house of memory by a different door, and suddenly see it turned around, from the back stairs, or the servants' quarters, so to speak.

It's not my purpose here to revisit or discredit the American origin myth, or redress old injuries. There are people far better equipped, for openers. I want to look at two things, though, one external, the other internal.

From the outside looking in, how do we understand the black presence in American popular culture? How in fact it's been appropriated, or sanitized, but certainly distorted. It's not simply that your experience isn't reflected, it's that your experience isn't represented at all. Okay, we can say the average American white experience of the 1930's isn't accurately represented by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but we wouldn't mind. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Marcus Garvey seeing himself in Stepin Fetchit.

We might pause for a moment and examine the Stepin Fetchit oeuvre, which is more ambiguous than received wisdom suggests. He made a couple of pictures with Will Rogers, for instance, and in Steamboat Round the Bend particularly, they demonstrate a very sly and subversive relationship. Step was a millionaire, by the way, and got featured billing in his pictures. The problem for black audiences, then and now, is that Step's characterizations get taken as an actual representation of black character. For a white audience, Step is a reassuring stereotype, an unthreatening lazybones. It's not far from here to Amos'n'Andy.



The second thing that bothers me is how this distorted mirror image might be internalized, by a black audience. It can't be an exaggeration to say black people are a hell of a lot more aware of their circumstance than white people are. Black people don't need white people to recognize this, as if white recognition would verify the black experience, that the black experience only matters when white people take notice. If you've been left out of the national conversation, or nobody hears the bear shit in the woods, is there silence?

I know I'm well out of my depth, but I can't help but think about what happened after the war. The fury of the years between, the 1920's and 1930's, the economic collapse, the street marches, the rise of Fascism, the cleansing of the politically impure, the scapegoating of the Jews - and then the savagery of the war itself.

I grew up in the immediate postwar era, and it was about hope. Our parents were lucky enough to get home. It was the era of noir, as well, and nuclear anxiety. We were the war children, Van Morrison's wonderful line, "born 1945." How come that generation of black kids, born 1945, got excluded? Their dads fought in the war with our dads, they beat Hitler and the Japanese with all the rest of us.

This is sad. This is stupid. This is shameful. It's just too God damn dumb. We owe an enormous cultural debt to guys like Duke Ellington, or Ray Charles. We'd be diminished without Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. It's embarrassing that I even have to make a list, or worse, search for their names. Seriously. We're still talking about who we'll choose to include as Americans, and the invisible Americans have already chosen.  

21 April 2020

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing


by Paul D. Marks

Can music be noir? I think so. And Nat King Cole’s song The Blues Don't Care (written by Vic Abrams and Murry Berlin) is a good example, judging by the lyrics:


The blues don’t care who’s got ’em,
The blues don’t care who cries,
And the nights don’t care who’s lonely,
Or whose tears are in whose eyes.

When someone’s heart is broken,
The blues are not to blame,
’Cause the blues don’t care who’s got ’em,
So they just added my name.

(final verse is at the end of this piece)


The blues might not care whose got ’em, but I do: Bobby Saxon, the lead character in my upcoming novel The Blues Don’t Care.

The story takes place in the 1940s on the Los Angeles home front during World War II. It’s about a young piano player named Bobby Saxon who wants to play with the house band at the famous Club Alabam on Central Avenue, the heart of black life in L.A. If Bobby gets the gig he would be the only white player in the otherwise all-black band. And if that isn’t enough, in order to get the gig the leader asks Bobby to play detective and help clear one of the band members of a murder he is falsely accused of.
Duke Ellington and his orchestra
And while the book deals with some controversial issues in the context of a historical mystery-thriller it also explores the zeitgeist of the times. And part of that zeitgeist is the music. Both the music Bobby listens to and plays in the story and the music in general, big band, swing, torch songs. Music that I’ve grown to love over the years.

Herb Jeffries
When I was a kid, my dad would play swing music on the radio. I hated it. I wanted to listen to rock ‘n’ roll. I also got to see Benny Goodman, though maybe I didn’t appreciate it as much as if I’d seen him later on. But maybe having been exposed to it it came back to me later on, especially after watching old movies from the 30s and 40s that sometimes included that music. Then, as adults, my friend Linda and I got into swing music and would go to swing dances and concerts at various venues and even went to see many bands or singers from that era that were still around. We got to see Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell sing Tangerine and Brazil. We saw Tex Beneke lead the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I got to see Johnny Otis, who took over as band leader of the house band at the Club Alabam, though I would have loved to see him there.

Benny Goodman and his orchestra
Doing the “research” for the book, especially listening to the music and watching the movies from the era, wasn’t exactly torture for me. One problem though was that I wanted the title to be The Blues Don’t Care. And I wanted that to figure at least a little bit into the story. But, as far as I could tell the song was released much later than the time frame of the story, which led me to believe it might have been written later, too. So how to get around that problem? Artistic License: we see the songwriter working on an early version of the song in the Club Alabam in the course of the story. Problem solved…I hope.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra
So, here’s some songs from the 30s and 40s that Bobby might be listening to. Also good for background music, mood music if you’re writing something set during that time or just for your enjoyment. Or maybe even to read The Blues Don’t Care by.

Duke Ellington – Almost anything by him is worth a listen. But you might want to start with the terrific Take the A Train.



Jimmy Dorsey – Half of the famous battling Dorsey brothers. I particularly like his sound. And it’s with him that Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell sang their classics Brazil and Tangerine and other songs.
Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell

Cab Calloway – A character over many decades. He even has a cameo in a Janet Jackson video: Alright, a great song and video, too. Also featuring the Nicholas Brothers and Cyd Charisse.

Billie Holiday – Take your pick. Too many great ones to choose from.

Herb Jeffries – AKA the Bronze Buckaroo, since he starred western “race movies”. His song Flamingo, recorded with Duke Ellington, is a classic and he even makes a cameo singing it in the novel.



Freddy Martin – Band leader, who for a time employed future talk show host and Jeopardy creator Merv Griffin as a singer with his band. And who maybe is an odd choice here. But I saw a clip of his band doing a two-piano piece called La Tempesta that is pretty amazing. And, since Bobby is a piano player this becomes his signature piece. I wish I could find a clip now.

Artie Shaw – Frenesi and Begin the Beguine: Two classics from the era.

The Andrews Sisters – Check out Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, but don’t stop there.



Tommy Dorsey – Opus One, I’ll Never Smile Again (vocals by Sinatra).



Lena Horne – Stormy Weather: What can you say—a classic.


Vera Lynn – The Forces Sweetheart in England. She sang a lot of popular songs during the war: I’ll Be Seeing You, We’ll Meet Again, The White Cliffs of Dover (written by Glenn Miller and Ray Eberle, which surprised me).

Kay Kyser and his Orchestra – Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.

Spike Jones and Donald Duck – Der Fuehrer’s Face. Satirical, funny song, that was born in a Donald Duck cartoon and made even more famous by Spike. You get a two-fer here, both versions: Mr. Spike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWF8iRCan7I

Mr. Duck:




Louis Jordan – G.I. Jive, written by Johnny Mercer. Recorded by many. Louis Jordan had a #1 hit with it.

Harry James – Sleepy Lagoon, from which the infamous Sleepy Lagoon incident took its name.

Benny Goodman – Sing Sing Sing, just an amazing and rousing piece of music. To me it’s sexier than some modern music with risqué lyrics. If this doesn’t get you at least tapping your toes you’re dead. And with Gene Krupa on drums, Harry James on trumpet and a band that can’t be beat. It was the Goodman band’s appearance at the Palomar Ballroom (in L.A. I might add) that really jump started the swing craze.



Count Basie – One O’Clock Jump, Basie’s theme song.

Glenn Miller – One of the most popular band leaders of the time, if not the most popular. Definitely the latter to listen to my mother. In the Mood was one of his biggest hits.

There’s so many more. It was really hard narrowing it down.

And here’s the last verse of Nat King Cole’s song:

And the nights don’t care who’s lonely,
Or whose tears are in whose eyes,
When someone’s heart is broken,
The blues are not to blame,
’Cause the blues don’t care who’s got ’em,
So they just added my name. 




If that isn’t noir I don’t know what is.

This is an album I got in the days of vinyl that I think is a pretty good starter collection and I think you can get it streaming:



So, like I said. It was pure torture listening to all this great music. Research, you know.


~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Frank Zafiro grilled me for the Wrong Place, Write Crime podcast. I survived...and so did he. Hope you'll want to check it out. (And thanks for having me, Frank!)

https://soundcloud.com/frank-zafiro-953165087/episode-75-open-shut-w-paul-d-marks


Coming June 1st from Down & Out Books – The Blues Don't Care:

 “Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40s’ L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. He is one helluva writer.”
                                                               —Michael Sears, author of the Jason Stafford series



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

26 November 2019

P.I. Nocturne


by Paul D. Marks

Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa
In a couple of recent SleuthSayers posts O’Neil and Leigh talked about pre-rock music. I’d like to take my cue from them and offer my nine cents’ worth (inflation) on the topic. Music infuses my life and because of that it also infuses much of my writing.

As I mentioned in my comment on O’Neil’s post, I think there’s a lot of good music before rock. I love baroque music and well, that’s a hell of a long time before rock. But mostly I’m talking here about the swing/big band music of the 1930s and 40s. I love a lot of that music.

I’m a rock n roller, love to sing it, play it, not saying I’m any good, just like to do it. I grew up on it. And when I was a kid and teen it was all I wanted to listen to. My dad liked classical music and swing and if we were in the car and he put those on I would gag. But somehow, as I got older I began to appreciate other genres of music besides rock. I think partially because I was exposed to it as a kid—very much against my will—and also because I like/d old movies from the 1930s and 40s and was exposed to that music in them as well.

Duke Ellington - Take the A Train

When I was a kid, I got to see Benny Goodman play. And I hated it. I didn’t appreciate it. I feel like an idiot saying that today, but it is what it is. That said, I can still say I saw him. These days, I love his music, especially Sing Sing Sing, and wish I could have seen him again as an adult.

Benny Goodman - Sing Sing Sing

A very long time ago, my friend Linda (who’s also into old movies, old music and old L.A., like me), and I would cruise around L.A. and see various swing bands and singers. It was long enough ago that we actually got to see some of the performers from the 30s and 40s, who were still around. We saw Tex Beneke leading the Glenn Miller Orchestra. We saw Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, who, when they were with the Jimmy Dorsey band (one of my favorite big bands), sing their hits Brazil and Tangerine. You might recall an instrumental version of the latter wafting in from down the street in Double Indemnity.

Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell - Tangerine

So, even though I loved—and still love—rock ‘n’ roll, my musical horizons expanded quite a bit as I got older. I found there was a lot of great and sinuous music pre-rock. Just listen to Sing Sing Sing, or Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train or Artie Shaw’s Frenesi and so much more.

There’s also been some great musical moments in film noirs:

Elisha Cook in Phantom Lady


Louis Armstrong in The Strip, and Mickey Rooney drumming his heart out in that.

And the jazz scene in the original D.O.A.

But the point I’m leading up to is that, as a writer, my story/novel titles are often inspired by music and songs. Mostly rock, because they’re mostly set in the rock era, but sometimes swing. The title of my upcoming novel, The Blues Don’t Care, is inspired by a Nat King Cole song. And a story I did many years ago, Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, takes its title both from the infamous Sleepy Lagoon incident in L.A. during World War II and the song of that name, which inspired the name of the lagoon in that incident. My story title Born Under a Bad Sign is inspired by the blues song of the same name that was originally recorded by Albert King and covered by Cream, so it hits two genres of music.

Nat King Cole - The Blues Don't Care

Some of my story titles inspired by music are: Endless Vacation (Ramones), Poison Heart (Ramones), Deserted Cities of the Heart (Cream), and more. In fact, I just finished a story called Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith) and another, Nowhere Man (the Beatles). Music is everywhere in my writing.

I sometimes write things set in the past. The Blues Don’t Care (coming out in 2020) is also set on the L.A. homefront during World War II. It’s largely set on Central Avenue, L.A.’s swing and big band center. And the music of that era wafts sensuously around and through the plot. Doing the research for that was so much fun that getting any writing done was difficult. (I’ll be talking more about this book closer to its release. But right now I’m just talking about the music.)


Many of my characters also listen to music, and sometimes play it, like Ray Hood, the lead character in Dead Man’s Curve, named after the Jan and Dean song. P.I. Duke Rogers (from my novel White Heat and its sequel Broken Windows, both set in the 1990’s), listens to a variety of new wave and alternative music, everything from k.d. lang to Portishead and even some Eric Clapton. His less open and less tolerant partner, Jack, only listens to classical and cowboy (not country) music, which he thinks are the only pure/legitimate forms of music (and I like those genres too). He calls Duke’s music “space case” music in Broken Windows. But the music isn’t there only to help define their characters. I use their musical tastes to highlight the difference between the two characters and their contrasting personalities.

Music is a big part of my writing, helping express character and mood, though sometimes music can be difficult to express in a “two-dimensional” medium. It’s a bummer we can’t have a soundtrack to our stories/novels, but I’m sure that’s coming with e-books, if it isn’t already here.

I often listen to music while I write and most often it’s the kind of music that can get me in the mood for what I’m writing. So if I’m writing something set during WWII I listen to big band, if I’m writing something more contemporary, I listen to one kind of rock or another. You get the idea.

Today I’m listening to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and who knows what stories they might inspire or how it will affect what I’m working on right now. That’s one of the great things about music, it can inspire you in so many ways and bring out emotions, thoughts and feelings that we sometimes stifle in our everyday lives—and it can do the same for our characters. And remember, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:


Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com