Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Volume Eight: The Masochism Tango – Lounge, Jazz Singing, and Space Age Bachelor Pad Music

163. Tony Bennett: The Best Is Yet to Come
(Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh) 1962

164. Jo Stafford: I've Got the World on a String
(Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler) 1960

165. Frankie Laine: I Let Her Go

(Hal Blair-Don Robertson) 1963

166. Rosemary Clooney and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra: I Get Along Without You Very Well
(Hoagy Carmichael) 1961

167. Peggy Lee: Fever
(Eddie Cooley-John Davenport-Peggy Lee) 1958

168. Keely Smith with Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra: What Is This Thing Called Love?
(Cole Porter) 1959

169. Louis Prima (Featuring Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses): Jump, Jive an' Wail
(Louis Prima) 1956

170. Dinah Washington with Quincy Jones and his Orchestra: Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?
(Louis Jordan-Billy Austin) 1956

171. Bobby Darin: Mack the Knife
(Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht-Marc Blitzstein) 1959

172. Annie Ross: Twisted
(Wardell Gray-Annie Ross) 1952

173. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross: Cloudburst
(Leroy Kirkland-Jimmy Harris) 1960

174. Bob Dorough: Baltimore Oriole
(Hoagy Carmichael-Paul Francis Webster) 1957

175. Chet Baker: My Funny Valentine
(Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart) 1956

176. Sarah Vaughan: Stormy Weather
(Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler) 1960

177. Betty Carter: Open the Door
(Betty Carter) 1964

178. Henry Mancini: Moon River
(Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer) 1961

179. Neal Hefti: Mr. Freeze
(Neal Hefti) 1966

180. The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny: Quiet Village [single version]
(Les Baxter) 1959

181. The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman: Taboo
(Margarita Lecuona-Bob Russell) 1958

182. The Three Suns: Moritat
(Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht) 1960

183. Esquivel: Sentimental Journey
(Les Brown-Ben Homer-Bud Green) 1961

184. Enoch Light and the Light Brigade featuring Doc Severinsen: Night and Day
(Cole Porter) 1964

185. Andy Williams: Can't Get Used to Losing You
(Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman) 1963

186. Dean Martin: Ain't That A Kick In the Head
(Jimmy Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn) 1960

187. Sammy Davis, Jr.: That Old Black Magic
(Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer) 1955

188. The Swingle Singers and the Modern Jazz Quartet: Fugue #2 in C Minor
(Johann Sebastian Bach) 1967

189. Tom Lehrer: Masochism Tango [Orchestrated Version]
(Tom Lehrer) 1960


"These are the fifties, you know. The disgusting, posturing fifties."

-- Hannah Arendt.

The game show What’s My Line? (which ran, in its original incarnation, from 1950 to 1967) provides a fascinating time capsule of the American entertainment scene in the mid-twentieth century. For those unfamiliar with the show, four panelists in evening dress, men in tuxedos, women in evening gowns, attempted, with the guidance of moderator John Charles Daly, to guess the occupations of contestants with unusual or interesting vocations (a woman who paints dots on dice or a man who makes hammocks, for instance). The three regular panelists, who were joined by a rotating cast of male celebrities, were, for most of the show’s run, Broadway columnist/investigative journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress-talk show host Arlene Francis, and publisher Bennett Cerf, who had published the first American edition of Joyce’s Ulysses. In addition to the unusually-employed contestants, each edition of the show also features a Mystery Guest, – most often someone from what we now call “The Entertainment Industry”, but which the celebrity panel invariably refers to as “The Lively Arts.” What is most interesting to contemporary eyes, apart from the formality and occasional casual sexism and other political incorrectness of the panelists is the treatment of mystery guests from the music world. Inevitably, one of the probing questions asked by the blindfolded panelists to someone they’ve identified as a singer is, “Are you popular on jukeboxes?” or, phrased differently, “Are you listened to by teenyboppers?” Although few, if any, genuine rock and roll singers appeared on What’s My Line?, there is a great distinction made between those that the panelists refer to as “supper club singers” – Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Frankie Laine – and mere popular singers of the rock and roll, rhythm and blues, or, heaven forbid, country persuasions. The implied disdain for these forms is readily apparent; indeed, Kilgallen famously provoked country diva Patsy Cline’s ire by referring in print to the denizens of the Grand Ole Opry as “hillbillies.” The message, to observers of popular culture and, especially, popular music, is clear: rock and roll, country, rhythm and blues, were music for children, for the uncultured, for the non-intellectual, not fit for the “society page meets the lively arts” world represented by What’s My Line?

While rock and roll was dominating the newly-instituted top forty radio format and sales of singles, and modern jazz was reaching a high water mark for musical complexity within an ostensibly popular form, “adult” listeners (mostly white suburban-dwellers) were the key audience for more accessible and superficially more sophisticated forms of music. These forms, which, like bop, were musical descendants of swing, are now generally subsumed under the somewhat misleading moniker “lounge.”

Lounge is a catch-all term that, as with doo-wop, wasn’t applied during the music’s first era of relevance. In the late-eighties, scavenging record collectors found the wealth of old jazz, r&b, and rock records drying up, and turned instead to the music that had been termed most disreputable by the architects of “serious” rock criticism – the adult pop of the fifties and early sixties – which they dubbed “lounge”. Early rock critics, in establishing their territory as chroniclers of a serious art form, created their own, as Harold Bloom would have it, “map of misreading” for all popular, non-rock (or roots-influenced), non-modern jazz popular music. While discarding a good deal of genuinely soulless non-rock (Lawrence Welk, the Ray Charles Singers), these critics also tended to write off many substantial interpreters of pre-rock American popular song (Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney) as fixed points within the very Establishment against which rock and roll was rebelling: Leave It to Beaver, the Red Scare, a perceived mindless conformity. The singers that the What’s My Line? panelists had praised for their nightclub appearances had become, regardless of soulfulness or ability, by virtue of their popularity as the music of the Baby Boom rock journalists’ parents, the enemy.

Further, in attempting to cement rock as a true art form, rock journalists sought distance from the frivolity (and kitsch) associated with “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” and Exotica, minimizing the debt to jazz held by the era’s best singers and arrangers. Thus, under the umbrella term “lounge,” we find popular singers with roots in swing or jazz, jazz singers who played in nightclubs, instrumental arrangements of standards, both clever and not, and muzak, music intended to exist purely as background: the beginning of the continuing genre of “music for people who don’t like music.”

In order to understand the development of the, shall we say, lounge-related, genres, and how they came to be grouped together, it is necessary to consider several important factors. Although muzak, the generic term derived from the trademarked subscription service (for businesses, stores, and restaurants) is frequently grouped with lounge, its artists derive little influence from jazz. Mantovani, Percy Faith, 101 Strings, and similar artists usually classified as muzak may well be deserving of the derision of rock and jazz writers; they are really more closely aligned with what was once, charitably, called “light classical music” – symphonic renderings, occasionally with stiff, white-bread, “boy-girl choruses” (the technical term used by purveyors of muzak) that are purposely un-emotional: designated background music. Most often, this genre is now referred to as “easy listening,” a term often and unfortunately confused with lounge itself. A small, but illustrative digression on easy listening concerns a choral director named Ray Charles, famous for his work in the early fifties on the Perry Como television variety series whose Ray Charles Singers recorded the ubiquitous jingle “Letters, We Get Letters.” An oft-told fifties musician joke goes roughly like this:

First musician: “I’ve got a session next week with Ray Charles.”
Second musician: “Which one? The one who’s blind or the one who’s deaf?”

Following the ascent to stardom of the Genius of Soul, the “deaf” Ray Charles spent his career billing himself as “The Other Ray Charles.” Generations of thrift store buyers of albums by the Ray Charles Singers have been mystified by their curious lack of soul.

One characteristic of lounge that is shared with easy listening is the primacy of sound quality. Rock and roll and roots-related genres were still, in the nineteen fifties, singles-oriented; their listeners were generally young or poor or both, and singles were usually recorded quickly, often in less-than-adequate studios, and mixed to sound good on small, cheap AM radios, turntables, or jukeboxes. Meanwhile, with the economic boom of the post-war era, high fidelity stereo equipment [stereo albums were widely introduced in 1958] became a fast growing hobby / fetish among suburbanites. Much of what we consider lounge consists of material recorded either to take advantage of the greater playing time of albums or to show off expensive stereo equipment. The former can be applied to the series of concept albums, albums devoted to a single theme or similar songs, pioneered by Frank Sinatra, and mastered in Ella Fitzgerald’s series of recordings of the great songs of the Great American Songbook: the works of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington. Stereo albums enabled these interpretive singers to create longer works than 45 or 78 rpm singles had, creating and sustaining deeper and more complex moods. Once Sinatra and Fitzgerald had established that there was a market for sophisticated jazz vocal interpretations of standards, a great number of jazz-oriented singers who had been forced down the primrose path of light-pop by Mitch Miller followed their example. Frankie Laine, who had apprenticed imitating Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael (and even recorded, as one of his first records, Armstrong’s “Black and Blue”) alternated small combo jazz albums with more commercial albums of Western songs in an often-bizarre amalgams of big band and folk song. Laine became so identifiable with Wild West Songs that Mel Brooks eventually enlisted him to perform the theme to Blazing Saddles. Rosemary Clooney developed into an interpretative singer worthy as well of comparison to her mentor, Billie Holiday, while Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford, and Peggy Lee developed as night club singers, equally comfortable fronting big bands and small combos. Their work set the template for what eventually became the larger, less-nuanced, Las Vegas style lounge acts of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Prima, and Keely Smith.

As well as spurring performers who genuinely performed in lounges, Sinatra’s and Fitzgerald’s examples provided for the great era of interpretive jazz singers: pioneers of vocalese (roughly, fitting lyrics to bop solos) Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Bob Dorough (who went on to sing and compose “I’m Just a Bill” and other Schoolhouse Rock songs), Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, and Betty Carter – vocalists whose style really was jazz, masquerading as adult pop.

Among instrumental lounge material, we find many extraordinarily well-recorded albums (even by contemporary standards) designed to show off the wonders of stereophonic sound; among the more interesting artists were Enoch Light, who recorded under his own name and numerous pseudonyms, on his Command Records label clever, jazz-tinged arrangements of popular standards [His version of "Autumn Leaves" is the main sample in the Mad Men theme, as well.} Juan Garcia Esquivel pioneered “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music,” gorgeously recorded arrangements of popular standards and original compositions that pitted strange percussion, use of unusual instruments (theramin, harpsichord) against big band and vocalese choruses.

This leads us to the importance of arranging within the genre; swing was a music that depended, for much of its success, not only on the musical talents of its musicians, and a high quality repertoire, but on the work of arrangers who usually gave each band, through variations in timbre, its unique flavor. Roots-derived musics - rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country – and post-swing jazz didn’t require the services of professional arrangers in the way that swing had, but there were still countless talented arrangers (Nelson Riddle, Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini, Neal Hefti) who had worked with big bands, who found themselves, in the late fifties migrating to work supporting singers (Riddle, with Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Keely Smith; Jones, with Dinah Washington) or composing and arranging soundtracks (Riddle and Jones, as well as Mancini and Hefti). Swing had not died when big bands were replaced on the charts by singers; it merely morphed into lounge.

In this sense, indeed, it is possible to see the logic in grouping all of these seemingly disparate genres together: when swing ceased to be the predominant style in jazz, it didn’t simply evolve into bop, as many jazz histories have it. Rather, it split in two: the more adventurous musicians (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis et al) developed bop (and its descendants), but the vast majority of swing musicians, singers, and arrangers (and swing was a huge nationwide business, with hundreds, if not thousands, of working big bands) did not have the inclination to follow Bird and Diz into the often-poverty-filled areas of modern jazz. The criticisms most often levied at the lounge genres are their commerciality and their soullessness. Certainly, these genres share a surface commerciality, but their arrangements (which often include humming, whistling, odd-combinations of instruments and percussion, and Spike Jones-like onomatopoeic moments), often coupled with a “singer-as-actor” in the mode drawn from Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday evince a supreme self-awareness which is neither empty-headed nor necessarily unsoulful.

From this vantage point, it is necessary to see lounge as the forgotten sibling of bop, post-bop, and free jazz. And, arguably, with its self-reflexivity and humor, it is possible to see the work of Enoch Light or the Three Suns (whose organ-accordion-guitar line-up manages not only to produce actual music, but actually clever, soulful music) as swing’s postmodern period. This postmodernist slant is also heard in the satirical songs of Tom Lehrer (who is not classed as “lounge” per se), but shares many of its sensibilities, and in the "bop meets Bach" fusions of the Swingle Singers. The Exotica of Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman, whose Pacific-influenced songs (better classed as “soundscapes”) include bird calls made by band members and a variety of percussion instruments unheard in any Western pop music until the “World Music” explosion of the nineteen nineties; these records hearken back to the pre-Swing jubilant silliness of Dixieland and suggest anything but conformity. Certainly, nineties lounge revivalists Pizzicato Five and Combustible Edison recognized that much of this music was in its own way, subversive of the black and white, McCarthy hearings, Leave It to Beaver world of the nineteen fifties, and really was an alternate vision of the future of jazz, one that historians most unfortunately tend to forget.


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