The vast repertoire of jazz is mostly made up of two main streams: The Great American Songbook, which came from musical theatre or Tin Pan Alley, and songs or compositions that have come from within the ranks of jazz itself. While rumbling around among all these, it’s common to come across the same prolific contributors over and over again. The show-tune “big boys”, including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and many others far too numerous to mention, and their jazz counterparts – Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billy Strayhorn, Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk, John Lewis, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, etc. The chances of hearing one of their tunes or compositions in any given jazz context are quite high. And this doesn’t even include musicians like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and many others who were primarily instrumentalists rather than composer/arrangers, but who still wrote a lot of tunes for their own use.
It’s also quite common to come across good songs that are played often enough to be familiar, yet the names of their composers don’t ring any bells. Usually this is because the person or song-writing team in question wrote only one or two songs that became notable and lasted. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve played a really terrific tune for the umpteenth time and wondered about who wrote it, only to investigate and see names I’ve never heard of – as they used to ask in Brooklyn – “who he?” I call these one-offs “strays” and have been saving up my curiosity about them over the years, so I thought I would at long last look a few of them up.
A classic example is “East of the Sun (West of the Moon)”, which was written by Brooks Bowman. His alliterative name stands out partly because it suggests the clothier Brooks Brothers (and I always think it sounds like the name of a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel), but he doesn’t really come up in connection with any other songs. The story of how he came to write such an imperishable jazz anthem is unlikely in the extreme, it’s not too much of a stretch to say it started as a college glee-club song. Bowman was born on October 21, 1913 in Cleveland, and played some piano in his teen years. After attending Stanford University for a year, he transferred to Princeton as a sophomore in the fall of 1933. Being interested in theatre and music, he joined the Princeton Triangle Club and, at 21, wrote the songs for its 1934 musical revue Stags at Bay, including “East of the Sun”, although it almost didn’t make it into the show because of a copyright dispute. None of the other songs – which included “Love and a Dime” and “Love Will Live On” – went anywhere, but “East” stood out immediately and became an instant hit, recorded and covered countless times. The song was far ahead of its time and works in many ways, on many levels – it has a superior lyric, an interesting melody and sounds great sung as a straight ballad or at a dance tempo. Its sleek chord changes over a 36-bar, A-B-A-C structure with a chromatic tag are also readily adaptable to improvisation. For all these reasons, it has become an enduring song, favoured by singers and jazz musicians alike, right up to this day. So, the question becomes, if Brooks Bowman could write such a gem of a song at the tender age of 21, why did he write so few others? The answer, I’m afraid, is clear-cut and tragic. After graduating from Princeton in 1936, he took a job in Hollywood as a songwriter for Selznick International Pictures. Released from his brief contract, he returned east in September of 1937 to form a song-writing team with a fellow Princeton graduate, in which he was to be the lyricist. A New York music publisher offered the team a contract, but before it was signed, Bowman died when a car he was riding in crashed into a stone wall near Garrison, N.Y., October 17, 1937. Bowman died just four days short of his twenty-fourth birthday; God only knows what future musical treasures died with him. Here’s one of my favourite versions by Lee Wiley, from 1956, with a nice arrangement by Ralph Burns:
A similar example is Einar Swan, who wrote “When Your Lover Has Gone”, or as we musicians sometimes call it, “When Your Liver Has Gone”. It’s also a warhorse; I’ve played it hundreds of times and haven’t tired of it yet. It’s not quite as flexible as “East of the Sun” in terms of tempo, but it has a distinctive, bucolic, Southern blues flavour in its harmony that more or less says “Jack Teagarden”, lending itself naturally to jazz interpretation. For these reasons I always just assumed Swan was from the South, but no, he was a New Englander, born March 20, 1903 in Massachusetts. His parents were Finnish immigrants, which may account for his unusual first name, Einar being an Anglicized version of the Finnish name Eino. His father was a keen amateur musician and by the time Einar was in his early teens he was playing piano, violin and clarinet, eventually settling on the alto saxophone as his main instrument. By the time he turned 16, he was leading his own dance band, Swanie’s Serenaders, around New England for a few years. In 1924, Sam Lanin (whose younger brothers Howard and Lester would also go on to fame as society bandleaders), invited Swan to join his band at the famed Roseland Ballroom in New York, and Swan also played around town with other famous musicians such as Red Nichols, Vic Berton and other members of The Charleston Chasers. He began doing a lot of arranging for the Chasers and for another prime Roseland attraction, Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. By 1930, he’d given up playing entirely to focus on commercial writing for radio programmes and bandleaders such as Eddie Cantor, Xavier Cugat and others.
He wrote “When Your Lover Has Gone” in 1931 and it was featured in the James Cagney movie Blonde Crazy that same year. The song went on to be a major hit recorded countless times by singers such as Ethel Waters, Lee Wiley, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and many others, as well as becoming a favourite vehicle for jazz players such as Teagarden and Ben Webster. Swan never wrote another song nearly as successful, though his 1939 collaboration with Tommy Dorsey and Al Stillman yielded “In the Middle of a Dream”, which was recorded by Glenn Miller and Red Norvo. It’s rarely heard these days though and I may have played a stock arrangement of it once, somewhere along the way. The reasons are similar to the case of Brooks Bowman, if a little less extreme: Einar Swan died at just 37 of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1940, leaving “When Your Lover Has Gone” as his lasting legacy. Here’s a favourite version of it by Herb Ellis, arranged very hauntingly by Jimmy Giuffre:
There are many more, but I can’t resist one last example before moving on: “My One and Only Love”, which was written in 1952 by Guy A. Wood, with a lyric by Robert Mellin, first recorded by Frank Sinatra in May of 1953 during his career-reviving stay at Capitol. It’s a first-rate ballad with an unforgettable, beautifully constructed melody of almost aria-like range – in the standard key of C, its first phrase alone begins on the G below middle C and rises to the D a ninth above middle C, a challenge for almost any singer. Guy Wood never wrote anything else approaching it, though he did have several commercial hits during his long career in music. In the 1930s he came from England to America, first doing production work in the Hollywood studios, and later playing saxophone and leading a dance band in New York. “Till Then”, written with Sol Marcus and Eddie Seller, became a hit for The Mills Brothers in 1944, The Hilltoppers in the 1950s, and The Classics in 1963. He collaborated with Sammy Gallop on the folk-novelty song “Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy”, which became a hit for Dinah Shore and more surprisingly for June Christy, who sang it with Stan Kenton. He also wrote the music for the popular children’s TV show Captain Kangaroo. This is what is known as having a “checkered career” and while all of the above likely earned Wood more money than “My One and Only Love”, it is with that song that he achieved near-perfection. It’s always had a special impact on me and became my sister’s favourite standard after she heard Ray Bryant play it live a number of times. I have the fond memory of watching her dance to it as the first song played at her wedding, many moons ago. Most of us know the classic version of it by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, but as it’s immortal, here it is again:
There are many examples of these strays from within jazz, though they’re much more obscure, coming nowhere near the hit parade. I bumped into one recently, “Theme For Ernie”, written by the almost unknown Fred Lacey, which prompted me to write this whole piece. The occasion was a second two-night reunion between the Vancouver-based saxophonist Campbell Ryga and Mark Eisenman’s trio at the latest Jazz in the Kitchen. Campbell lived in Toronto from 1990 to 1993 and we played often together, revisiting some of our old repertoire this time around. On the second night, we decided to play “Theme For Ernie” and, as it had been a while since any of us had played it, Mark went through it beforehand on the piano. I know basically how it goes, but was vague on a couple of spots, it has a couple of surprising harmonic moves you have to be ready for.
It was written as a musical elegy to the alto saxophonist Ernie Henry, who died of a heroin overdose on December 29, 1957. Henry’s death was doubly tragic – he was only 31 and beyond this, his career was just starting to come out of the shadows again after a promising beginning. In the late 1940s he was fairly active as a very young man in the early days of bebop with such important figures as Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron, Max Roach, Charlie Ventura, also playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s first great big band. His career receded after this, but he made a strong return to play with Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Kenny Drew, Kenny Dorham and Gillespie again, in 1956-57. He made two good records under his own name for Riverside, but my favourite moments from him come from a record on that label by Dorham, called 2 Horns, 2 Rhythm, which captures Henry’s uniquely urgent and vocal saxophone sound in a perfect setting. Lacey must have written his tribute in some haste, as John Coltrane recorded it just three months after Henry’s death in March of 1958, with the Red Garland trio on his album Soultrane, the main reason this song is known at all. How Coltrane came to know of the song is anyone’s guess, though it may have just been a matter of the usual jazz grapevine – Lacey was from Philadelphia, where Coltrane and Garland cut their musical teeth. It’s not hard to understand why Coltrane decided to record the song, it’s simply beautiful, a classic bebop ballad revealing a compositional mind of the highest order.
Many people think the song was written by the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, simply because Lacy is better-known, and very few have heard much about Fred Lacey. The question becomes then, who was Fred Lacey? And, if he wrote a song this good, why isn’t he better known? Neither question is easily answered, even with a search engine as powerful as Google. The following is what I’ve been able to patch together about him: He came from Philadelphia and was primarily a rhythm guitarist. He was a member of Lester Young’s regular group in 1946-47, turning up on Young’s Aladdin recordings done in Chicago and Los Angeles. During his time with Young in early 1947, he converted to Islam, as did his band-mate Argonne Thornton; it was to become a common practice among black jazz musicians starting at that time. Lacey’s Muslim name was Nasir Barakaat, Thornton became Sadik Hakim. After this, it seems he spent some time in prison, where he knew Jimmy Heath, also from Philly, as a fellow inmate. He must have kept up with musical trends, as “Ernie” is a thoroughly modern, harmonically sophisticated song and I’ve read in several places that McCoy Tyner has recorded an entire album of Lacey’s tunes, which for reasons unknown has never been released. That is the sum total of my knowledge about Fred Lacey and, as to the question of why he’s not better known….Well, jazz is full of such shadowy figures and local legends, who generally fade from memory as soon as they die. Lacey has at least managed a sliver of jazz immortality because Coltrane, Archie Shepp and a few others decided to record his unique song, otherwise his name wouldn’t come up at all.
Even so, it’s hard to reconcile Lacey’s near-anonymity with the musical intelligence revealed in his song, which shows itself in the very first bar. The home key is Ab, but it begins in the relative F minor. The melody against the F minor chord is four eighth-notes ascending – Ab-Bb-C-Eb – normal enough, but Lacey resolves to a Cb above this, which is the flat-nine of the Bb7 chord it lands on, the effect pleasantly dissonant. This opening bar sets the tone for the whole piece, these gentle tensions are sprinkled throughout in a manner befitting Strayhorn, Dameron, or Monk. In fact, I’ve always thought “Theme” could be slipped into a medley of Monk ballads and nobody would be the wiser. There’s another arresting moment in the seventh bar of the bridge – the Bb7 chord here is normal in this key, but sounds surprising because of the unusual way Lacey sets it up. The proof is in the pudding of performance though – when Campbell Ryga carried the melody with his beautiful sound, a reflective reverie fell over our audience and I could see from their faces that they were moved and knew they were hearing something beautiful and rare, something they’d never heard before. That’s the great thing about these stray tunes, they broaden the scope of the repertoire, freshen it with their own unique moods. Here’s Coltrane’s version, with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor:
Playing “Theme For Ernie” reminded me of another even more obscure stray, “Slow Dance”, the link being that Coltrane also recorded it on the album which immediately preceded Soultrane, called Traneing In, featuring the same rhythm section. Back when I began buying records, labels like Prestige began reissuing albums as specially-priced two-LP sets known as “twofers”, which were a boon to my strained budget, essentially offering two good records for the price of one. I bought a bunch of them, including these two Coltrane albums which were paired up for obvious reasons. I listened to them for weeks on end, they were the records that made me fall in love with Coltrane and the great trio backing him. Traneing In particularly got to me. Right from the opening bars of Garland’s classic intro to the title track – a blues with a bridge – and through the program of two ballads, another blues and a very fast “Sweet Lights and Soft Music”, it’s a thriller. I know Coltrane made better records, ones that were more important and celebrated, but Traneing In will always be my favourite Coltrane album.
“Slow Dance” follows the long, hard-swinging title track, and the contrast in mood could hardly be greater. It’s a slow ballad performance of surpassing lyricism with an elegiac, impressionistic atmosphere. It has almost a yearning quality of innocence all it’s own, there’s nothing else in the vast catalog of recorded jazz quite like it. Given the singularity of this performance by someone as iconic as Coltrane, I’ve often wondered why “Slow Dance” has remained so obscure. Unlike “Theme For Ernie”, which is in fake books, I’ve never seen any sheet music for it, nor have I ever heard it performed live by anybody, not once. And until researching this, I assumed Coltrane’s version was the only recorded one, but there’s an original version by the song’s composer, Alonzo “Lonnie” Levister, done in 1955. For a long time I thought that the reason nobody ever performed the song was that Coltrane and company hit the ball so far out of the park that it seemed pointless to even try, although that hasn’t generally stopped people in other instances. It seems the reasons for its neglect have to do with the piece itself, which is not so much a finished song as a compositional sketch, with an interesting, open-ended harmonic progression and cyclical structure suggesting a definite mood, but having no specific, written melody to speak of.
I assumed Alonzo Levister would be even harder to find out about than Fred Lacey, but surprisingly, this wasn’t so. He has a Wikipedia page, which reveals he had quite an active career in New York as a Third Stream composer and arranger, a pianist and music producer. He was born November 1, 1925 in Connecticut and grew up in Harlem, studying music at the Boston Conservatory beginning in 1946. He was accepted as a pupil of the famed Paris piano teacher Nadia Boulanger in 1949 and completed his studies at Juilliard in 1951. He was interested in both jazz and modern classical music and may have spread himself a little thin; he managed to make a living through his versatility, but often operated just outside of the mainstream, never quite achieving notoriety or popular acceptance. He wrote a lot of music for several dance companies and choreographers, ballets and such. In 1958 he wrote a short, jazz-inflected opera called “Blues in the Subway”, which had a short run. He also wrote the music for several off-Broadway shows that weren’t commercial enough to really go anywhere. He did have some success in the advertising music field, his 1961 jingle for Prell shampoo won a Clio award.
He wrote “Slow Dance” sometime around 1954-55, during a period when he was associated with the Charles Mingus Jazz Composers Workshop, which included Teddy Charles, John LaPorta and others. His only full recording as a leader was done in 1955 – a suite called Manhattan Monodrama, which included “Slow Dance” as one of its movements. This was released on Debut Records, the independent label owned by Mingus and Max Roach and is now something of a collector’s item; I was unaware of it before researching this piece. The name Alonzo Levister would have rung more of a bell with me if I’d paid better attention over the years – he wrote the arrangements for a Prestige All-Star session which yielded the record Roots, which I’ve had for some time and which features such notables as Pepper Adams, Jimmy Cleveland, Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan and Elvin Jones, among others. He also did the arranging for singer Ada Moore’s album A Lass From the Low Country, which has achieved a kind of insider, cult-following status. This seems to have been Levister’s fate during his long career – he did quality work with interesting people, which was destined to remain obscure and the fact he was a black man trying to make it in the world of straight music probably didn’t help. The good news is that he’s still with us, living in Portugal and will turn 90 this year.
Here is Levister’s version, which I only discovered was available on YouTube recently. It has much more of a classical, chamber music feeling than Coltrane’s version. It sounds somehow unfinished and fleeting, yet there’s something here, it’s quite evocative in an eerie, haunting way. The odd harmonies suggest various piano composers – the diminished chords echo Chopin or Rachmaninoff, the major-sevenths Ravel or Debussy. Its mood reminds me a little of Ravel’s “Pavane For A Dead Princess”, if not quite in the same league. Interestingly enough, “pavane” is French for a kind of slow dance from the 16th century, perhaps this explains Levister’s title. The clarinet solo is by John LaPorta, the vibraphonist is Teddy Charles, the trumpeter is Louis Mucci – one can hear from his gorgeous mid-register sound why he was one of Gil Evans’ favourites. It sounds to me like Levister wrote (or at least sketched out) the clarinet and trumpet solos, while Charles sounds like he’s improvising his, the pianist is Levister himself. The piece ends by petering out abruptly, which somehow suits its elusive and random nature.
I have no idea how Coltrane came to record the piece, though clearly he had heard Levister’s recording and either he or Garland pieced together a sketch of the chords and form to work from, which evidently inspired them, judging by the emotionally charged performance. Levister seems to have had some connection with Prestige Records, perhaps he submitted his composition to them. At any rate, here is Trane’s famous version; note the unusual plucked double-stop intro by Paul Chambers and the much more decisive ending, which sounds so similar to the coda of Coltrane’s famous “Naima” from a few years later.
I’m sure many find this track as affecting as I do, yet I’ve read very little about it from critics over the years. What little I have read singles out Coltrane and Chambers for praise, which is fair enough, they’re both brilliant here. What makes the performance for me though is Red Garland’s piano work, both in accompaniment and solo. Garland is a much-maligned and misunderstood pianist, both now and even during his prime here. He was often dismissed as a “cocktail pianist” or just another funky feel-good tinkler by people who completely missed the superb time and intensity in his playing, not to mention its broad sweep. Yes, he could play the blues all day and all night long, could make with the funky block chords and swing you into bad health in a minute. But he had another side, a romantic side which knew hundreds upon hundreds of songs and how to dress them. Listen to his solo here, the sensitivity of his dynamics, his sense of melody and the way he draws sure-handed, stirring textures out of the keyboard that are worthy of Chopin and Liszt. He was many things, some of them quite unsavory – a boxer, a street-hustler and pimp, a junkie – but he was also a great and unique pianist who graced many timeless records during his years in the limelight, this being just one of them. I think he deserves more credit for this.
So, a few small song mysteries solved, with only a few thousand more to go, including some I probably don’t even know about yet. I realize this is a losing battle, but it’s one I enjoy waging nevertheless. If there’s a moral to this story, which is highly doubtful, it’s that writing a song of lasting quality is extremely difficult and a major achievement and those who managed this even just once deserve our gratitude and respect. It also makes the staggeringly prolific contributions of the Kerns and Ellingtons, the Arlens and Strayhorns et al that much more incredible. There’s no way to explain them other than to say they were geniuses, and genius doesn’t translate or explain itself to us mere mortals.
© 2015 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.