Monday Blues (9.8.14)

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009) is a “classic” in the Summers Sandoval household. It was the first movie my first two kids ever saw in a movie theater, and became part of our “regular rotation” in the spring of 2010 when the DVD came out.

You might be surprised to learn that relentlessly repetitive viewing has its perks. When the movie in question has some talent behind it (and this one does) you start to discover little bits here and there that would otherwise be missed. Some are clever, some funny, some dramatic and complex. In a movie paying homage to New Orleans jazz culture, some are downright educational.

Sidney Bechet

I had never heard of Mr. Sidney Bechet (New Orleans, 1897-1959) until his name popped up in a lyric to the song “When I’m Human,” featured in the above movie. When I learned more about him, that ignorance became startling. Bechet is one of the fathers of New Orleans jazz. A contemporary of Louis Armstrong, Bechet was a virtuoso jazz saxophonist, known for his amazingly expressive solos. He also seemed to have lived quite a personal and professional life. A taste of his bio can be found at the website of The Sidney Bechet Society.

It’s sad that a Disney cartoon brought this music to my and my kids’ ears, but I’m glad something did. Here’s Bechet playing “Old Stack O’Lee Blues,” a recording from 1946.

Gene McDaniels

I am saddened at the news of the passing of Gene McDaniels. One of the most eclectic, soulful, political, gentle, and passionate talents in modern jazz/soul music, McDaniels was 76.

You can read about his life and career here. I hope you do.

I came to know the work of McDaniels in the early 90s when he started to become a favorite source of sampling in the hip hop world. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, however, that I started to appreciate the full range of his talent. The deep soul of his music, complimented by the thoughtful and intelligent lyrics he penned, made him a rare gem in a world of superstars.

My favorite song of his has always been “Compared to What.” An investigation of racism and US hypocrisy, it was both an angry song rooted in the moment of the late 60s as well as a prescient warning. In the last year, McDaniels took to YouTube to speak to his fans through a series of videos featured on his own channel. Here’s Gene discussing “Compared to What”:

And here is Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ wonderful live performance of the song (as featured on the former’s albume Swiss Movement):

McDaniels had a deep conscience and used his art to speak out on our collective inhumanity to one another. His ability to critically address issues of race, gender, power, and class while still being meaningfully artistic in a golden age of soul music says a lot about the man and his scope.

Beginning in 1970, armed with the freedom that came with his success after a decade of busting his artistic hump, he created two of the most overtly political and smart albums of all time. The first, Outlaw was something new for the once-pop/soul singer some had once compared to Jackie Wilson. A fusion of urban sounds ranging from jazz to funk and rock, the album (his first on the Atlantic label) was a radical coming out party. It’s a hard album to summarize, but this track “Love Letter to America” is suggestive of the unique blend of styles it contained:

“Welfare City”, also from Outlaw, sounds almost like 1967 but contains more than a few of his purposeful hybridity.

His 1971 follow-up, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse is even bolder than Outlaws. The story of the aftermath of the album is now legend in music. Due to his overt radicalism, someone in the Nixon administration called to complain to Ahmet Ertegun and encourage him to fire McDaniels. Whether that was the cause or not I do not know, but it was McDaniels’ final release for the label.

Here’s “Jager the Dagger” from the 1971 album:

And here is one of my favorites of his from Headless, “Supermarket Blues”:

For all the controversy of his career, McDaniels possessed a beautiful voice, a gift which rivaled his artistry with lyrics and sound. Here he is in a performance from earlier this year, the one of the last videos uploaded to his YouTube channel.

Rest in peace brother…

Monday Blues (02.21.11)

Sammy Davis Jr. (New York, 1925-1990) might not be thought of by anybody as a performer of the blues. As a dancer and a vocalist, however, he drew heavily from his upbringing on the Vaudevillian stage, from a performance space that drew from every African American tradition of the early 20th century and molded it into something dynamically new. The blues and jazz were fundamental parts of that, as were the dance traditions of the stage. At his most popular, of course, his art existed in the mainstream culture, most often coexisting with European American traditions in a performative space that suggested the pluralistic or multicultural visions many of us have.

As you may know from reading this blog, I consider him to be the best showman of the 20th century United States. He was–and remains–without rival.

Here he is performing his classic love song to the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (though the song itself, written by performer Jerry Jeff Walker, was not about the famed dance man at all).

Incidentally, Davis was known (at times notoriously) as trangressor of racial/ethnic boundaries, from his conversion to Judaism in the 50s to his marriage to May Britt, a white woman, in 1960. Yet his pluralistic and hybrid artistic legacy mirrored his own “roots.” His mother was Latina (either Puerto Rican or Cuban, depending on the source).