Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Matt Dennis - "'Scuse Me While I Disappear" - by Gene Lees

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Matt Dennis had an ability to write the most beautiful and sophisticated melodies, and yet they were never hard to sing. He was also a gentle, lovely man."
- Julius LaRosa
There are those few musicians who also happen to be singers who also happen to write the songs they [and others] sing, and do all three magnificently well. They are a select group and they are very special, indeed.

One such musician–singer-songwriter was Matt Dennis and he was so exceptional that the editors of JazzProfiles had to turn to the Gene Lees  for this treatment on Matt simply because there is none better.

Gene’s profile on Matt appeared in the May 2002 of his Jazzletter. [Vol. 21 No. 5]

© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.

'Scuse Me While I Disappear
“David Raksin, whose song with Johnny Mercer's lyrics, Laura, is one of the great classics, said, I write all kinds of music, including concert music. I think that our country's greatest musical gift to the world is not concert music, and not jazz ‑ and I love jazz. Our greatest contribution is the American popular song." David was talking about what is now seen as a golden era, roughly from 1920 to the end of the 1950s. He said, "It is the most incredible flowering ever of that kind of music."
One of the greatest practitioners of the songwriter's art in that time was Matt Dennis, whom we had the misfortune to lose recently. The body of his work was not large, compared with that of, say, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern, in part because he was not a creature of the Broadway musical theater or part of that group, like Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, who wrote mostly for films. But what he did write is unfailingly exquisite: Let's Get Away It All, Will You Still Be Mine, Everything Happens to Me, Violets for Your Furs, The Night We Called It a Day, Junior and Julie, We Belong Together, all written with lyricist Tom Adair, and Angel Eyes, with lyrics by Earl K. Brent. It was written for the movie Jennifer, with Ida Lupino and Howard Duff. Some of Matt's songs have lyrics by his wife, singer Ginny Maxey.
One of my close friends, and one of the best singers to emerge in the generation influenced by Frank Sinatra, is Julius La Rosa. He said, "Matt Dennis had an ability to write the most beautiful and sophisticated melodies, and yet they were never hard to sing. He was also a gentle, lovely man." Sometimes when La Rosa and I are talking on the phone, he (or I) will sing an opening phrase of a Matt Dennis song, and continue through the whole thing, in unison, laughing. So steeped were we in Matt Dennis songs in our high‑school years.

Back around 1960, when I was editor of Down Beat, Mel Torme was playing Chicago, where the magazine's head office was located. Mel asked me to go along with him on a disc jockey interview. The disc jockey said, "Don't you think the singing of Matt Dennis was influenced by yours?"
Mel flared slightly. He said, "I've heard that before, and it's not true. If anything, I was influenced by Matt Dennis."
In fact it is difficult to estimate the reach of the influence of a career in the arts. Obviously I was influenced by all the great songwriters, but certainly Matt Dennis and Tom Adair were a powerful force in my becoming a songwriter. One of the factors in great songwriting is an appropriate match of a melodic interval with what would be the natural inflection if you were speaking the lyric. La Rosa points out that The Night We Called It a Day is a superb example of the up of intervals. And the octave leap on the opening phrase, "The was a moon (out in space)" sort of makes you look up, lending a visual dimension to the song. In fact, that is a very visual song. It is also a very literate one. It was in that song that I first encountered the phrase "the song of the spheres." I first heard the song among the four "sides" Frank Sinatra recorded for RCA Victor's Bluebird subsidiary with arrangements by Axel Stordahl: The Night We Called It a Day, The Lamplighter's Serenade, The Song Is You, and Night and Day. I became an instant fan of Frank Sinatra, Matt Dennis, and Tom Adair.  That has never changed.
Matt recalled to Ed Shanaphy, the editor of Sheet Music Magazine: "I will never forget when I first played and sang The Night We Called It a Day for Tommy Dorsey, backstage at the old Paramount in NYC. Tommy was seated next to Harry James and Ziggy Elman. As I ran the song over, I noticed Tommy looking at Harry and Ziggy and nodding their heads in approval.
'When Tommy decided he really did like my tune, I rearranged my own chart for Frank and the Pied Pipers. What was not expected, however, was Frank and Tommy were not getting along too well. Frank was reaching a popular level and wanted to leave the band and go on his own."

Sinatra's departure from Dorsey, who had a firm contract with him, is by now one of the legends of show business.
Matt said, "So I decided to re‑arrange it again to fit Jo Stafford as the soloist. As fate turned out, later in 1944 TD's recording came out of The Night with Jo Stafford and a good cut, too. Frank did record the song on his own and fortunately it became a collector's item. F. S. recorded and certainly performed it over and over during all the ensuing years, keeping the tune very much alive."
Matt had an impact on Jo Stafford's career as well. Jo's entire interest was group singing, and she became a star half by accident because of Matt's song Little Man with a Candy Cigar, with lyrics by Frank Kilduff. She heard it, went to Dorsey and said, "Tommy, this is the first time I've ever done this, and it'll probably be the last, but I want a favor of you. I want to do the record of Little Man with a Candy Cigar solo." He said, "You've got it." From then on he assigned her to solos, and of course she became a major artist, all of it starting with Matt's song.

A few years ago, Jo told me she had been driving and heard one of those Sinatra Bluebird tracks on the car radio, and impulsively said to herself, "My God, could he sing." Indeed. And so could she.
Knowing how much I admired Tom Adair, Matt at one point offered to introduce us, but I moved too slowly, and Tom Adair died. I hope he knew how much I loved his work. Maybe Matt told him; I would like to think so.
Tom Adair was born in Newton, Kansas, on June 15, 1913, and went to Los Angeles Junior College in 1932 and '33. He wrote scripts for television and movies, as well as night‑club material. He was a sitcom writer on My Three Sons, The Munsters, My Favorite Martian, and other shows. For Matt's tunes, he wrote lyrics for Let's Get Away from It All, Everything Happens to Me, Violets for Your Furs, The Night We Called It a Day, and Will You Still Be Mine, as well as There's No You (with Harold S. Hopper) and In the Blue of Evening (with Alfred D'Artega).
Matt was born into a vaudeville family in Seattle, Wash­ington, on February 11, 1914, and went to San Rafael High School in California. His father was a singer and his mother a violinist. Matt made his professional debut in the family act, called the Five Musical Lovelands. In 1933, in San Francisco, Matt joined the Horace Heidt band on piano. Later he and Dick Haymes had a band, with Haymes in front and Matt as its organizer. Then he became known as an arranger and accompanist for singers, and sometimes as a vocal coach. He held all three roles with Martha Tilton.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, there were a number of sister vocal groups, including the Boswell, Andrews, DeMar­co, Clark, Dinning, and King Sisters. Jo Stafford and her older sisters, Pauline and Christine, became active as the Stafford Sisters. They had their own radio show on Los Angeles radio station KHJ. They replaced Jo with another girl when Jo joined an eight‑voice group called The Pied Pipers.
Matt's association with Jo went back to the days with her sisters. Matt told Ed Shanaphy in a letter: "I used to accom­pany (the Stafford’s) ‑ fine singers of the blues, and good pop songs. Then Jo organized the group of singers that Tommy Dorsey hired for his summer radio series in the East, naming them The Pied Pipers.
"Prior to that I continued playing piano for the group in appearances in and around L.A. during which I seriously started writing songs. Jo heard my songs and set up an audition for me with Tommy Dorsey at the Palladium Ballroom, which led me to a contract with Dorsey, writing songs which he wanted to publish, and did most successfully ‑ glad to say. Jo, the Pied Pipers, and Sinatra all started singing and recording my current songs, Let's Get Away from It All, Everything Happens to Me, Will You Still Be Mine, The Night We Called It a Day, and others."
Everything Happens to Me and Let's Get Away from It All were recorded February 7, 1941. In fact Dorsey recorded 14 of Matt's works in that one year, including a little‑remem­bered patriotic song called Free For All, recorded on June 27, and Violets for Your Furs, recorded on September 26. Sinatra would retain a taste for and powerful loyalty to the Matt Dennis tunes throughout his career. He would re‑record Violets for Your Furs, Angel Eyes, and Let's Get Away from It All, for example, during his period with Capitol Records, when he had become the biggest superstar in the history of American show business.
With the U.S. entry into World War 11, Matt served in the U.S. Army Air Force, with the Radio Production Unit and the Glenn Miller USAAF orchestra. He spent three and a half years in the Air Force. When the war ended, he settled in New York City and became an arranger and sometime performer on a number of network radio shows. And when his friend Dick Haymes got his own radio show, Matt became its music director.
In 1955, Matt starred in his own NBC‑TV series, doing some of the very first coast‑to‑coast color shows. "I replaced Eddie Fisher that year. I had Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Vaughn Monroe had Tuesday and Thursday," Matt said. "Then in December I joined the new Ernie Kovacs five-­mornings‑a‑week show with Ernie, Edie Adams, and myself "
Matt was a very fine pianist, and a sympathetic teacher who wrote a piano method, available from Mel Bay.
I was always enthralled by Matt's singing. He had a light and airy voice, which indeed was not unlike that of Mel Torme’, for reasons already noted in the disc jockey interview I mentioned. He made an estimated six albums, far too few.

One of them I treasured for years was on Trend Records. It contained all of Matt's well‑known tunes and a few that were not so known. Alas, I no longer have it. And my local “record” store, which is always very accommodating, finds nothing by Matt in American CD reissues.

Since Gene wrote this tribute to Dennis, all of Matt’s records have found their way to CD reissue including the Trend Matt Dennis Plays and Sings Matt Dennis which has been released as Fresh Sound 385 and contains the following of his “well-known tunes:”

John Bush offered this review of the recording on
“Recorded at the Tally-Ho in Hollywood, Matt Dennis Plays and Sings Matt Dennis is a program of what visitors to his supper-club sets could expect from one of the best lounge singers in an era before the term became a dirty word. Accompanying himself on the piano with bass and drums for backing, Dennis sings 12 of his own tunes, including an avalanche of standards — "Will You Still Be Mine," "The Night We Called It a Day," "Angel Eyes," "Violets for Your Furs," "Everything Happens to Me," and "Let's Get Away From It All." Though his voice doesn't quite match his notable composing skills, Dennis uses his narrow range and soft, high-tenor tone to craft a sensitive vocal style. His deft sense of humor also comes in handy during several hilarious offsides to the audience and listener, often in the middle of a line. Virginia Maxey duets with him on "We Belong Together" and "When You Love a Fella."
Matt told Ed Shanaphy: "Looking back, I'm very proud to have had the success I've had ... and pleased that most of my tunes are still around the world after all these years, and also that I'm still around today, able to enjoy the pleasure of hearing some of my songs at this late date. Hallelujah."
Matt died June 21 in a hospital in Riverside, California, of natural causes. He was 89. He's gone. But the music isn't.

Of Matt Dennis’ many wonderful songs, Angel Eyes has always been my favorite so I used it as the audio track to the following video which has as its theme - “Eyes” - what else?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Blossom Dearie

Listening to Blossom Dearie sing is like following the flight of a dandelion seed. Her feather-soft voice warbles and reels while a warm, breezy piano line buoys her gentle melodies. Despite Dearie’s pixie-like voice, her performances never lacked for emotional force, drawing crowds to jazz clubs and cabarets in London and New York for the better part of three decades. Dearie died on Saturday, February 7 [2009]. She was 82.
- Los Angeles Times Obituary

According to the New York Times:

A singer, pianist and songwriter with an independent spirit who zealously guarded her privacy, Ms. Dearie pursued a singular career that blurred the line between jazz and cabaret. An interpretive minimalist with caviar taste in songs and musicians, she was a genre unto herself. Rarely raising her sly, kittenish voice, Ms. Dearie confided song lyrics in a playful style below whose surface layers of insinuation lurked.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

While listening recently to Italian Jazz pianist Dado Moroni’s Insights CD [Jazz Focus JFCD007], I was once again struck by his unusual choice of opening tunes. 

For, unlike many recordings that announce the presence of the artist with a foot-stomping, all guns blazing, barn-burner [talk about mixing metaphors!], Dado chose a gentle, slow tempo introduction in the form of Inside a Silent Tear

Dado’s version of this tune can be heard as the audio track in the following video tribute to the artist Piet Mondrian.

The beauty of the tune and the fact that it was composed  by vocalist/pianist Blossom Dearie got me reflecting on the subject of Jazz vocalists.

For it seems that throughout my career as a professional musician and for whatever reasons, I was always working for Jazz singers, but only rarely enjoying it.

That there were so many Jazz singers at that time may have had something to do with the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s, every nightclub, restaurant, cocktail lounge, neighborhood bar and bowling alley featured live music and most of the time this consisted of a duo or a trio with a vocalist as the star attraction.

To add a bit of zest and zing to this entertainment, more often than not the vocalist was a female who usually performed a few tunes each set in an outfit that was meant to attract attention.

And more often than not, the zest and zing that came from many of these so-called “Jazz singers” had more to do with their revealing costumes and very little to do with the quality of their vocal performances.

Not surprisingly, then, these Shan-too-sies [a corruption of the French chanteuse – meaning a ‘female nightclub singer’] became the object of many, musician jokes like when the Jazz singer turns to the pianist and says: “Let’s do I Want To Be Happy” and the pianist responds: “Did you want that too fast or too slow?”

Or in the yarn about the pianist who turns to the singer and says: “Did you want to do the first 8-bars in B-flat, B-natural, E-minor and G-sharp and E-flat, again?” And the singer responds: “I don’t think I can do it in all those keys.” To which the pianist answers: “Why not, you did it that way last night?!”

Many of these female vocalists, to paraphrase the author, Donna Leon: “Sang with an emphasis people often give to the repetition of phrases or ideas that they really don’t understand, conviction taking the place of reason.” [Friends in High Places, p. 310].

Before joining Stan Kenton’s Orchestra in 1952, the late drummer, Stan Levey, once led a group that included pianist Red Garland and tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca. For almost a year, Stan’s group backed a number of prominent vocalists who came through his native Philadelphia. He would later play for Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald.

Stan was the type of guy who always spoke very directly and he once warned me that female Jazz vocalists “… are a different breed and you have to approach them with a lot of caution.  You need to keep what your doing behind them to a minimum and you have to really step on the time [i.e.: emphasize it]. If they know what they’re doing, they’ll find their way back to you. No surprises back there; just be consistent.”

All of which brings me back to Dado Moroni’s use of Inside a Silent Tear and the Jazz vocalist who wrote the tune – Blossom Dearie.

Blossom is one of a select group of musicians who also happen to be singers who also happen to write the songs they [and others] sing or play, and do all three magnificently.  

After undergoing the many agonies associated with working for bad vocalists, when someone like Blossom comes along and lights up your day, you become a fan forever. And so I have.

Although Blossom died in 2009, some of her recordings along with a nice photo album and other information are available on a website dedicated to her which you can locate by going here.

Listed below are some “facts and figures” about Blossom and her career.  She was a very special female Jazz vocalist and, if you are not so already, you owe it to yourself to become more familiar with her recordings.

Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
Copyright 1989-2002, Muze UK Ltd. For personal use only. All rights reserved.

“b. 28 April 1928, East Durham, New York, USA. A singer, pianist and songwriter, with a "wispy, little-girlish" voice, Dearie is regarded as one of the great supper club singers. Her father was of Scottish and Irish descent; her mother emigrated from Oslo, Norway. Dearie is said to have been given her unusual first name after a neighbor brought peach blossoms to her house on the day she was born.

She began taking piano lessons when she was five, and studied classical music until she was in her teens, when she played in her high school dance band and began to listen to jazz. Early influences included Art Tatum, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Martha Tilton, who sang with the Benny Goodman band. Dearie graduated from high school in the mid-40s and moved to New York City to pursue a music career. She joined the Blue Flames, a vocal group within the Woody Herman big band, and then sang with the Blue Reys, a similar formation in the Alvino Rey band.

In 1952, while working at the Chantilly Club in Greenwich Village, Dearie met Nicole Barclay who, with her husband, owned Barclay Records. At her suggestion she went to Paris and formed a vocal group, the Blue Stars. The group consisted of four male singers/instrumentalists, and four female singers; Dearie contributed many of the arrangements. They had a hit in France and the USA with one of their first recordings, a French version of "Lullaby Of Birdland". While in Paris, Dearie met impresario and record producer Norman Granz, who signed her to Verve Records, for whom she eventually made six solo albums, including the highly regarded My Gentleman Friend.

Unable to take the Blue Stars to the USA because of passport problems (they later evolved into the Swingle Singers), she returned to New York and resumed her solo career, singing to her own piano accompaniment at New York nightclubs such as the Versailles, the Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard. She also appeared on US television with Jack Paar, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson. In 1966 she made the first of what were to become annual appearances at Ronnie Scott's Club in London, receiving excellent reviews as "a singer's singer", whose most important asset was her power to bring a personal interpretation to a song, while showing the utmost respect for a composer's intentions. In the '60s she also made some albums for Capitol Records, including May I Come In?, a set of standards arranged and conducted by Jack Marshall.

In the early '70s, disillusioned by the major record companies' lack of interest in her kind of music, she started her own company, Daffodil Records, in 1974. Her first album for the label, Blossom Dearie Sings, was followed by a two-record set entitled My New Celebrity Is You, which contained eight of her own compositions. The album's title song was especially written for her by Johnny Mercer, and is said to be the last piece he wrote before his death in 1976.

During the '70s Dearie performed at Carnegie Hall with former Count Basie blues singer Joe Williams and jazz vocalist Anita O'Day in a show called The Jazz Singers. In 1981 she appeared with Dave Frishberg for three weeks at Michael's Pub in Manhattan. Frishberg, besides being a songwriter, also sang and played the piano, and Dearie frequently performed his songs, such as "Peel Me A Grape", "I'm Hip" and "My Attorney Bernie". Her own compositions include "I Like You, You're Nice", "I'm Shadowing You" and "Hey John". From 1983, she performed regularly for six months a year at the Ballroom, a nightclub in Manhattan, and in 1985 was the first recipient of the Mabel Mercer Foundation Award, which is presented annually to an outstanding supper-club performer.

Appreciated mostly in New York and London, where she appeared several times in the late '80s/early '90s at the Pizza On The Park, Dearie, with her intimate style and unique voice, …[had been, until her death in February, 2009] one of the few survivors of a specialized art.

Blossom Dearie (Verve 1957), Give Him The Ooh-La-La (Verve 1957), Once Upon A Summertime (Verve 1958), Blossom Dearie Sings Comden And Green (Verve 1959), My Gentleman Friend (Verve 1959), Broadway Song Hits (Verve 1960), May I Come In? (Capitol 1966), Blossom Dearie Sings (Daffodil 1974), My New Celebrity Is You (Daffodil 1975), Winchester In Apple Blossom Time (Daffodil 1979), Et Tu Bruce? (Larrikin 1984), Blossom Dearie Sings Rootin' Songs (DIW 1987), Songs Of Chelsea (Daffodil 1987), Needlepoint Magic (Daffodil 1988), Featuring Bobby Jasper (1988), Blossom Time At Ronnie Scott's 1966 recording (Redial 1998).
The Special Magic Of Blossom Dearie (1975).

Died 2009.”

Many of the visitors to JazzProfiles already know the eloquent writings about Jazz artists that Whitney Balliett contributed primarily to the The New Yorker Magazine throughout much of the second half of the 20th Century.

Reading Mr. Balliett is like sampling a fine wine, or a beautifully prepared meal or listening to Frank Sinatra sing a ballad: his exquisite storytelling was one of Life’s true pleasures. And his wit is characteristic and sublime, I mean where else can you find phrases like -  “She has a tiny voice, … ; without a microphone, it would not reach the second floor of a doll house”?!

Fortunately, many of Mr. Balliett’s essays were later collected and published as anthologies.  One of these compilations is Alec Wilder & His Friends [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974] which contains his Hanging Out with Blossom Dearie.

Here are the opening paragraphs from this essay to help better acquaint you with Blossom and her music [paragraphing modified].

© -Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Everything about Blossom Dearie is just right. Consider her singing. She is the youngest and least well-known of the con­summate triumvirate of supper-club singers — Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short are the others — who rule the upper re­gions of American popular song. She has a tiny voice, smaller than Mildred Bailey's or Astrud Gilberto's or Wee Bonnie Baker's; without a microphone, it would not reach the second floor of a doll house. But it is a perfect voice — light, clear, pure, resilient, and, buttressed by amplification, surprisingly commanding. Her style is equally choice, and was once de­scribed by Rogers Whitaker as going from "the meticulous to the sublime." Her diction shines (she comes from a part of eastern upstate New York noted for its accent-free speech), and she has a cool, delicate, seamless way of phrasing that is occasionally embellished by a tissue paper vibrato.

She is an elegant, polite, and often funny improviser, who lights the songs she sings by carefully altering certain tones and by using a subtle, intense rhythmic attack. Consider her songwriting. Few first-rate singers write music, and few first-rate songwriters sing. But in recent years she has produced over thirty tunes, and they are affecting extensions of her singing. Some, like "Hey, John," written after she appeared on a British television show with John Lennon, are cheerful and funny ("Hey, John, look at me digging you digging me"); some, like "Home," are ruminative and gentle and pastoral; some, like "I'm Shadowing You," with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, are works of magic: even though one may never have heard the tune before, one immedi­ately experiences a kind of delighted melodic deja vu.

Consider her appearance and manner. She stands pole-straight, and is short and country-girl solid. Her broad face, with its small, well-spaced eyes, wide mouth, and generous, direct nose, has a figurehead strength. Her hands and feet are small and delicate. Angelic honey blond hair falls well below her shoulders. When she is listening, she gives continuous, receptive, almost audible nods. There is no waste in her laughter, which is frequent and quick — a single, merry, high, descending triplet.

And she has a precise, almost prim manner of speaking; her sentences arrive boxed and beribboned. Consider her name. It sounds like a stage name or one of Dickens' hyperbolic marvels, but it is real. It is appropriately musical; her given name is soft and on the beat, and her surname is legato and floating. (Any other name — such as Tony Grey, which an overwrought agent once sug­gested — would be ludicrous.) It is also very old-fashioned; it calls to mind pinafores and lemon verbena and chamomile tea.

And consider her magnetism. An old friend has said of her, "She is absolutely pure, and she will not compromise. She has this innocence that would take her across a battlefield un­scathed. In a way, she resembles a Christian Scientist. If things go askew or don't fit in with her plans, they don't exist. She started getting under everybody's skin when she came back from Paris in the mid-fifties. I can't remember where she was working, but the place had Contact paper on the tables and out-of-work actors as waiters. It was funny when you'd take a new person to hear her. Her singing is so deceptively simple that at first there would be this 'Wha?' reaction, and then after a while a smile would spread across the person's face, and that would be it. You can be away from her for a long time and live your own life, and then she reappears and gets to you again. She's like a drug. She certainly has the English hooked. When she sings at Ronnie Scott's club, in London, they arrange all the chairs so that they face her, and there's not a sound. It's like church."

Blossom Dearie divides her year between a small Greenwich Village apartment; the family house, in East Durham, New York, where she was born; and London, whence she ventures into Scandinavia, Holland, Germany, and France. Part of her restiveness is due to economics, and part is due to an inborn need to keep on the move, to live light. Supper clubs have be­come almost vestigial in New York, and she is a demanding, even imperious performer who will not tolerate rude audiences.

She once subbed for Bobby Short at the Cafe Carlyle, and, as is their wont, the swells who frequent the Cafe were often noisy and inattentive. Blossom Dearie repeatedly rebuked them by breaking off in mid-song and announcing, in her teacup way, "You have to be a little more quiet. Some of these people are my friends and have come to hear me!" The swells responded by staying away, and business was poor. But a while ago she surfaced again at Three, a bar and restaurant on East Seventy-second Street, and I called to ask if I could visit her in the Village. She suggested that I come in the morning, so that we could ‘hang out together for the day.’”

As you will find out by sampling her recordings, with Blossom, it’s never too fast, too slow, or in the wrong key; it’s always just Blossom which makes it just right.

The following video montage features the unbeatable combination of Once Upon A Summertime with music and words by Michel Legrand and Johnny Mercer as rendered by Blossom.