Ella Fitzgerald Imitates Louis Armstrong’s Gravelly Voice While Singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”

Are great artists born, or are they made? Probably a little of both, but I suspect that deep down, even if we don’t like to admit it, we know it’s probably a little more the former. We can become skilled at most anything with dedication and hard work. Talent is another matter—a mysterious combination of qualities we know when we hear but can’t always define. Ella Fitzgerald had it when she first stepped on stage on amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater as a teenager, intending to do a tap dance routine.

She’d only done the performance on a dare, had no formal training outside of singing in church, her bedroom, and the Harlem streets, and she only chose to sing that night because the act before her did a tap dance and stole her thunder.

She blew the audience away—a tough New York crowd not known for being forgiving—and rendered even the boisterous teenagers in the balcony speechless. “Three encores later,” she wrote, “the $25 prize was mine.” Fitzgerald’s golden, three-octave voice, impeccable timing, and improvisational brilliance are not exactly the kinds of things that can be taught.

She didn’t look the part of the typical female jazz singer, at least according to popular perception, writes Holly Gleason at NPR. “A large woman who’d grown up rough,” including time spent in a New York State reformatory, she was rejected by bandleaders even after that first, revelatory performance, and the press frequently referred to her in terms that disparaged her appearance. “Fitzgerald recognized she didn’t possess Billie Holiday’s torchy allure,” Holly Gleason writes, or “Eartha Kitt’s feral sensuality or Carmen McRae’s sex appeal. But that would not stop the woman who took her vocal cues from the horns, as well as from jazz singer Connee Boswell.”

It didn't stop her from winning a Grammy in the Grammy's first year, or having a record label, Verve, founded just to put out her music. Ella’s range and pitch-perfect ear meant she could imitate not only the horn section or her favorite singer Boswell but just about anyone else as well, from popular jazz singer Rose Murphy, with her high, cartoonish voice, “chee chee” affectations, and “brrrp” telephone sound effects, to the low, gravelly rasp of Fitzgerald’s longtime duet partner Louis Armstrong. See her do exactly that in the clip at the top, moving effortlessly in “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” from her own voice, to Murphy’s, to Armstrong’s in the space of just a few minutes.

Whatever obstacles Fitzgerald faced, her voice seemed to soar above it all. In becoming a global jazz star and “The First Lady of Song,” says jazz writer Will Friedwald, “she showed people that this is music Americans should be proud of.”

via Ben Phillips

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe Created the Lyrics for “The Voice of Harold” by Riffing on the Liner Notes of an Old Gospel Album (1983)

R.E.M. is one of those bands that just thinking about can send me into a reverie of memories of the rooms of friends with whom I listened to “Pretty Persuasion,” “Rockville,” and the poetry of “7 Chinese Bros.”—one of Michael Stipe’s early, incomprehensible songs, like “Swan Swan H,” whose cryptic lyrics one must seemingly take on faith. The song must mean something, after all, to Stipe. Maybe the mystery of who, exactly, the “seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean” were to him would be revealed someday in an interview or stray reference in a biography….

Now that we live in an age of instant information gratification, we can skip the years of wonder and find the answer right away: the song was partly inspired, we learn at Songfacts, by a 1938 children’s book called The Five Chinese Brothers, based on a traditional folk tale of young brothers with supernatural powers. (It’s also partly a tribute to photographer Carol Levy, a friend who died in a car crash before the recording of Reckoning.) Needing another syllable, maybe, Stipe changed the number to seven, an oddly prophetic move given that a new version of the story, published ten years later, also featured seven brothers.

The reference shows how many great songwriters work: picking at bits and pieces from their memories and whatever captivating text happens to be laying around…. And Stipe is one of those singers, like Elton John, who can sell any line, no matter how obscure or absurd.

In early songs, especially, he showed an uncanny ability to invest incantatory combinations of words with haunting pathos and urgency. He could sing from the phone book or the back of a cereal box and make it compelling. In fact, the story of “7 Chinese Bros.” involves an almost similar feat in the form of “Voice of Harold,” familiar to fans as the B-side to “So. Central Rain” and part of the 1987 odds and ends collection Dead Letter Office. What possible explanation could there be for these non sequitur gospel lyrics, sung to the tune of… “7 Chinese Bros.”?

Was Stipe a secret Evangelist, hoping to win converts by extolling “the pure tenor quality of the voice of Harold Montgomery”? More teasingly vague themes emerge, along with references to figures like the Reverend Bill Funderburk, Charles Surratt, John Barbee, and Rhonda Montgomery (“That’s Rhonda! An artist!”). Instead of “Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean,” the chorus introduces us to “The Revelaires, A must / The Revelaires / A must.” If you’re one of those who heard this song and thought, “What…?”, you can wonder no more.

The explanation comes to us from a 2009 interview producer Don Dixon gave to Uncut magazine. (For some reason, Dixon refers to “7 Chinese Bros.” as “7 Chinese Blues,” never a title of the song). The story begins with Stipe feeling down in the dumps in a stairwell outfitted as a lounge for him in the studio.

We were working on the vocal for "7 Chinese Blues," but Michael just wasn't into it. He was down in his stairwell. I hit the talk-back to let him know I was coming through to make an adjustment... This was just an excuse to take a look at him, see if I could loosen him up a little. While I was in the attic, I'd noticed a stack of old records that had been taken up there to die, local R&B and gospel stuff mostly. I grabbed the one off the top (a gospel record entitled The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires) and as I passed Michael on the way to the Control Room, I tossed it down to him. I thought he might be amused. When I fired up the tape a few seconds later, Michael was singing, but not the lyrics to "7 Chinese Blues." He was singing the liner notes to the LP I'd tossed him. When Michael began to sing these liner notes, he was much louder than he'd been earlier and it took a few seconds for me to realise what was going on and adjust the levels. He made it all the way through the song, working in every word on the back of that album! I rewound the tape, we had a chuckle and proceeded to sing the beautiful one-take vocal of the real words that you hear on Reckoning. He seemed more confident after that day.

Stipe didn’t just sing the words from the back of the album, he improvised cut-ups as he went, re-arranging phrases to fit the meter of the original song. “Voice of Harold” became a fan favorite for much the same reason as “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Swan Swan H”—it seemed to hide a mystery in plain view, its impassioned delivery at odds with its nonsensical narrative. Released after Reckoning, it turns a spontaneous motivational tool during the making of the album into a creation all its own.

Jim Connelly explores the relationship between “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Voice of Harold” even further in a post at Medialoper, pointing to the firm conviction that's so “chill-inducing” in the latter (and that comes through in the former recording, made immediately afterward). They may be found words, serendipitously picked up and put together on the spot, but in Stipe’s voice we can tell that “He’s real. He means it,” whatever the hell it is. See a video of "Voice of Harold" with lyrics, at the top, and follow along with the liner notes on the back of Revelaires' gospel album The Joy of Knowing Jesus just above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Beastie Boys’ Final Concert Streaming Free Online This Weekend

Until Monday, the Beastie Boys' final concert--captured at Bonnaroo on June 12, 2009--will stream free on YouTube. (Watch it above.) Just five weeks after the show, Adam "MCA" Yauch would announce that he had been diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. Originally optimistic, Yauch said "I just need to take a little time to get this in check, and then we'll release the record and play some shows." "It's a pain in the neck (sorry had to say it) because I was really looking forward to playing these shows, but the doctors have made it clear that this is not the kind of thing that can be put aside to deal with later." Sadly, the cancer proved aggressive and took MCA's life in May, 2012, leaving the show above as the Beastie Boys' final live document. Find the setlist for the final show here.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Favorite Opera Recordings (and Her First Appearance in an Opera)

U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death has thrown an unbearably fraught political year into further disarray, a fact that has sadly overshadowed memorialization of her inspiring life and career. Ginsburg was a personal hero for millions of activists and students—from grade school to law school; an icon casually identified by her initials by those who felt like they knew her. “For many women, and many girls,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in a New York Times tribute, her loss is “deeply personal.”

How should we remember such a figure at such a time? If you happen to find the news numbing, full of enervating rancor and alarm…. If you want to bring the focus back to the person we have lost, might we suggest a soundtrack? The suggestions come from Ginsburg herself, from the art form—opera—closest to her heart. “She was our greatest advocate and our greatest spokesperson,” says Francesca Zambello, director of the Washington National Opera, “the ideal attendee… who knows everything but is open to interpretations.”

Ginsburg’s commitment to the opera spans decades. She and her husband Marty were in the audience when Leontyne Price made her debut at the Met in 1961. Forty-seven years later, the Justice had occasion to honor Pryce at a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts luncheon. Also in attendance: Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg’s notorious rival. The only thing the two may have agreed on was a passion for the opera. It formed the basis of a fragile peace, and the subject of its own opera, Scalia v. Ginsburg, that explores extreme judicial differences through “Verdi, Puccini, Christmas carols, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and jazz.”

Scalia v. Ginsberg composer Derrick Wang heard the grandiosity of opera when he read the fiercely opposing written opinions of the two justices. It’s safe to assume that both were listening to their favorite works while they composed. In 2012, Ginsburg gave her list of favorites to Alex Ross at The New Yorker, who points to other Ginsburg connections to the classical world like her son, James Ginsburg, “proprietor of Cedille Records, an independent classical label based in Chicago.” (Read their statement on Ginsburg’s passing here.)

There is far too much to say about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s judicial influence, and about the power vacuum left behind by her loss. But if we want to understand what mattered to her most as an individual, we should turn to the music she most loved. “Her life was about understanding people’s stories,” says Zambello. The kinds of cases “she made her career of are the stuff of opera.” At the top, see Ginsburg’s first appearance onstage, in a non-singing role as the Duchess of Krakenthorpe in the The Daughter of the Regiment at the Kennedy Center. Just below, see her list of favorite works, peppered with occasional commentary from the late, beloved R.B.G. herself. This list originally comes from The New Yorker. If you have a Spotify account, you can stream the music in this 30-hour playlist.

Verdi, “Aida”; Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren, Fedora Barbieri, Boris Christoff, Jonel Perlea conducting the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus (RCA).

Verdi, “Otello”; Plácido Domingo, Renata Scotto, Sherrill Milnes, James Levine conducting the National Philharmonic and Ambrosian Opera Chorus (RCA).

Dvořák, “Rusalka”; Renée Fleming, Ben Heppner, Dolora Zajick, Franz Hawlata, Charles Mackerras conducting the Czech Philharmonic and Kühn Mixed Choir (Decca).

Handel, “Julius Caesar”; Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Maureen Forrester, Beverly Wolff, Julius Rudel conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus (RCA).

Justice Ginsburg comments: “Listened to LP recording many times. Production was Julius Rudel’s triumph, opened in the State Theatre the year the Met moved to Lincoln Center. Met opened with the not at all triumphant production of Barber’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ Next, my two best-loved operas.”

Mozart, “Don Giovanni”; Cesare Siepi, Fernando Corena, Suzanne Danco, Lisa Della Casa, Anton Dermota, Hilde Gueden, Walter Berry, Kurt Böhme, Josef Krips conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Chorus (Decca).

Mozart, “The Marriage of Figaro”; Samuel Ramey, Lucia Popp, Thomas Allen, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Kurt Moll, Robert Tear, Georg Solti conducting the London Philharmonic and London Opera Chorus (Decca).

Strauss, “Der Rosenkavalier”; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Teresa Stich-Randall, Otto Edelmann, Eberhard Wächter, Ljuba Welitsch, Nicolai Gedda, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (EMI).

Tchaikovsky, “Eugene Onegin”; Thomas Allen, Mirella Freni, Neil Shicoff, Anne Sofie von Otter, James Levine conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle and Leipzig Radio Chorus (DG).

Puccini, “Tosca”; Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Victor de Sabata conducting the La Scala orchestra and chorus (EMI).

Menotti, “The Medium”; Joyce Castle, Patrice Michaels, Lawrence Rapchak conducting the Chicago Opera Theatre (Cedille).

Kurka, “The Good Soldier Schweik”; Jason Collins, Marc Embree, Kelli Harrington, Buffy Baggott, Alexander Platt conducting the Chicago Opera Theatre (Cedille).

Justice Ginsburg comments: “Glimmerglass Opera later mounted ‘Schweik’ with perfect-for-the-part Anthony Dean Griffey.”

Stravinsky, “The Rake’s Progress”; Philip Langridge, Samuel Ramey, Cathryn Pope, Stafford Dean, Sarah Walker, John Dobson, Astrid Varnay, Riccardo Chailly conducting the London Sinfonietta and Chorus (Decca).

Britten, “Billy Budd”; Nathan Gunn, Ian Bostridge, Gidon Saks, Daniel Harding conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Virgin Classics).

Justice Ginsburg comments: “Two Lieder recordings I now and then play when working at home: **Schubert, ‘An mein Herz,’ with Matthias Goerne; and songs by Brahms, with Angelika Kirchschlager.”

via The New Yorker

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free Jazz Musicians Intentionally Play Terrible Music to Drown Out the Noise of a Danish Far-Right Politician

Art makes a way where politics fail. I don’t mean that in any mawkish sense. Sure, art brings people together, encourages empathy and common values. Those can be wonderful things. But they are not always necessarily social goods. Violent nationalism brings people together around common values. Psychopaths can feel empathy if they want to.

When faced with fascism, or neo-fascism, or whatever we want to call the 21st century equivalent of fascism, those who presume good faith in their opponents presume too much. Values like respect for human rights or rules of logical debate or use of force, for example, are not in play. Direct confrontation usually provokes more violence, and corresponding state repression against anti-fascists.

Creative thinkers have devised other kinds of tactics—methods for meeting spectacle with spectacle, disrupting and scattering concentrated fear and hate by use of what William S. Burroughs called “magical weapons.” Burroughs meant the phrase literally when he aimed his occult audio/visual magic at a gentrifying London coffee bar. But he used the very same ideas in his novels and manuals for overthrowing corrupt governments.

One might say something similar about the pioneers of free jazz, a product of Black Power politics expressed in music. Coltrane drew on Malcolm X when he divested himself of western musical constraints; Ornette Coleman established “harmolodic democracy” in place of Eurocentric structures. These were inherently revolutionary forms, responding to repressive times in new languages. They were not, as many people thought then, just jazz played badly.

But, as it turns out… free jazz deliberately played badly makes quite an effective rejoinder to fascism, too. So a group of Danish jazz musicians discovered when they began crashing the staged events of far-right politician Rasmus Paludan, founder of the Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party. As Vice reports:

[Paludan] is notorious for organising “demonstrations” in neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations, where he burns, throws, and stomps on Qurans behind walls of police officers. A self-proclaimed “guardian of freedom” and “light of the Danes,” Paludan considers immigrants and Islam enemies of the Danish people, as well as the country’s values, traditions and general way of life.

Does one respectfully argue with such a person? Try to breach the line of cops and knock them out? Hear out their point of view as they inspire acts of violence? Or show up “armed with trumpets, bongo drums and saxophones” and play right in his face, or at least “loudly enough to drown out his voice or draw attention away from him”?

The collective “Free Jazz Against Paludan” takes the magical weapon of Situationist free jazz public and radicalizes harmolodic democracy (done very, very obnoxiously badly on purpose, we must emphasize) for street action. “We’re fighting noise with noise,” one saxophonist and self-described “old man turned activist” says. “I’m of the opinion that rhetoric like his should not be ignored. You have to protest against it, but in a way that is not destructive and violent.” Except that it is destructive—to Paludan’s weaponized ignorance. [Paludan was recently sentenced to jail on racism and defamation.] The revolving collective of activist musicians makes this plain, stating on their Facebook page, “Anyone can join, with the exception of just him. He cannot.”

What gives them the right to exclude him! one might cry indignantly. That’s the game Paludan wants to play. “What he wants is to get beaten up by some immigrants, get some close-ups of a soap eye or a broken arm—that’d be great for him,” says protestor Jørn Tolstrup. “So this is great, because here we have an idiot who won’t shut up, and now we’ve found a way to take his foot off the pedal.” It’s creative de-escalation and redirection. And, we might say, not so much a public “cancelling” as the free expression of opposing ideas.

via Vice

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Watch Rare Footage of Jimi Hendrix Performing “Voodoo Child” in Maui, Plus a Trailer for a New Documentary on Jimi Hendrix’s Legendary Maui Performances (1970)

In June of 1969, the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, the band that introduced the sixties to its reigning guitar god, disbanded for good with the departure of Noel Redding following a messy Denver Pop Festival appearance. The story of that gig sounds so apocalyptic—involving heroin, riots, and tear gas—that it reads like cosmic foreshadowing of the tragedy to come: the decades' greatest psych-rockers go out in a haze of smoke. A little over one year later, Jimi is dead.

But if he seemed burned out in Denver, according to his bandmates, it was no indication at all of where his music was headed. Much of the tension in the band came from Hendrix’s readiness to embark on the next phase of his evolution. After Redding left, he was immediately replaced by Billy Cox, who played with Hendrix at Woodstock in the first incarnation of the Band of Gypsys, with whom Hendrix recorded “Machine Gun,” described by musicologist Andy Aledort as “the premiere example of his unparalleled genius as a rock guitarist.”

In wildly improvisatory performances, Hendrix strove to incorporate the radical moves of Coltrane. He had “transcended the medium of rock music,” writes Aledort, “and set an entirely new standard for the potential of electric guitar.” The drugs intervened, again, and after a disastrous gig at Madison Square Garden in January 1970, the Band of Gypsys broke up. Then, the Experience reformed, with Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, and began recording and touring the U.S.

When Jimi wasn’t too high to play, he delivered some of the most blistering performances of his career, including two legendary sets in Hawaii in July, at the foot of Haleakala volcano, that would end up being his final concert appearances in the U.S. These sets were not, in fact, scheduled tour stops but over 50 minutes of performance for a semi-fictional psychedelic film called Rainbow Bridge, notorious for making little sense and for cutting almost all of the promised live footage of Hendrix’s performance, angering everyone who saw it.

The film’s promised soundtrack never materialized, and fans have long coveted these recordings, especially the second set, “a testing ground,” one fan writes, “for his new direction.” Now, they’re finally getting an official release, on CD, Blu-Ray, and LP on November 20th. (See a full tracklist of the two sets here.) This is no outtakes & rarities cash grab, but an essential document of Hendrix at the height of his powers, one year after the Experience seemed to crash and burn. See for yourself in the clip of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” at the top.

It’s too bad that this high point of Hendrix’s final year has been overshadowed by the dismal failure of the film that made it happen. But a new documentary, Music, Money, Madness… Jimi Hendrix in Maui aims to restore this episode of Hendrix history. Coming out on the same day as the live recordings, November 20th, the film (see trailer above) includes more live Hendrix footage than appeared in Rainbow Bridge, and tells the story of how a terrible movie got made around the greatest rock musician of the day. The performances that didn't make the cut tell another story—about how Hendrix was, again, doing things with the guitar that no one had ever done before.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Debbie Harry Demonstrates the Punk Pogo Dance for a U.S. Audience (1978)

Each generation takes what it needs from early punk and discards what it doesn't, so that countless subgenres have descended from a small, eccentric collection of punk bands from the late 1970s. The speed and brute simplicity of the Ramones took over in the 80s. The Clash’s strident, reggae-inflected anthems guided much of the 90s. The angular art rock and new wave disco of Television, Talking Heads, and Blondie defined the 2000s.

But some things became almost terminally passé, or terminally stupid, after punk’s first wave: like signing to major labels or wearing swastikas, ironically or otherwise. Already out of fashion by 1978, the first punk dance, the pogo, was so tragically unhip that Debbie Harry pronounced it dead on arrival in the U.S. on famed Manhattan cable access show TV Party, above. She offers to demonstrate it anyway as a “historical” artifact.

Her commentary seems like both a sarcastic rip on the ridiculous spread of trends and a genuine warning to those who might try to make this, like, a thing in New York. Don’t bring a creaky pogo stick with you to the club. Do pour beer over your head after a sweaty half-hour of whatever dance you do. There was so much to learn about punk etiquette even then. Unless you happened to be Sid Vicious, or in the audience of the first Sex Pistols shows. Then it was all fair game.

The pogo originated, so the lore goes, with Sid. As Steve Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees remembers it, “We first met [Sid] at one of the concerts. He began bouncing around the dance floor, the so called legend of the pogo dance. It was merely Sid jumping up and down, trying to see the band, leaping up and down because he was stuck in the back somewhere.” Just as everyone who saw the Sex Pistols started their own band, everyone who saw Sid bounce around started to pogo.

What at first looks like harmless fun, especially compared to the brutal mosh pits that took over for the pogo, was anything but. “Pogoing was very violent and very painful,” one eyewitness remembers. “People were not quite crushed to death, but serious injuries occurred.” We might rethink Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance,” the 80s hit written in defense of pogoing. Lead singer Ivan Doroschuk penned the tune after he was kicked out of a club for doing the pogo. “I think people can relate to the empowering kind of message of ‘The Safety Dance,’” he says.

“The Safety Dance” would not have been the empowering worldwide smash it was had it been called “Pogo Dancing,” a minor hit for the Vibrators in 1976. Not nearly as iconic, and overshadowed by a hipper dance of the same name in the 80s, was the robot, elegized by The Saints in “Doing the Robot.” This dance was “both more expressive and less spontaneous,” as cultural theorist Dick Hebdige describes it in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, consisting of “barely perceptible twitches of the head or hands or more extravagant lurches (Frankenstein’s first steps?) which were abruptly halted at random points.” Hardly as practical as the pogo, but probably a lot safer.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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