The songs in the Great American Standards songbook all have lives of their own by now – and why not, most of them are older than your grandmother. Even fairly obscure songs that your grandmother probably doesn’t remember listening to as a child have entire biographies. Grandma may not remember the 1937 Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance, or the sequence therein where Fred cuts a rug in a gleaming futuristic ‘factory’ with a bunch of black factory workers. But the song has gone on, in the hands of Ella Fitzgerald 20-some years later, and then in the next millennium as a remix.
Remixing is all well and good, modernizing old things for young ears, but some works need no help. Some works are already so modern in their drive and immediacy that it’s like there’s no such thing as changing times. Nina Simone, of course, almost singlehandedly kept jazz music relevant in the 1960’s, when the rock’n’roll youthquake was sweeping away everything minted before 1963. The reputation jazz had acquired for being pompous and louche and the domain of squares who still wore suits and strings of pearls – Nina Simone swept that aside, showing how fierce and subversive jazz could be, how deeply political and historically significant. She tied her music to her political activism, and to her personal struggles as a mentally ill black woman artist trying to make it in unforgiving America. Sinnerman is one of her best known works, a masterpiece in sustained emotional force. It is also, importantly, a traditional Negro spiritual rooted all the way back to times of slavery, grown into a gospel standard during Simone’s childhood, and rearranged as a jazz number in the 50’s. It is in no way ironic that a 1965 recording of a song with a history that may stretch back centuries sounds so unbound by time; things that are deeply important don’t get withered by small things like changing trends.
One of my favorite contemporary trends is remixes of old-timey music. Yes, bring all that old jazz into the modern age. It sounds so good. There’s new jazz being made by living people, in this day and age, of course, but it’s not the art form swaying popular consciousness anymore. As for swing of the kind Anita O’Day used to make, that’s not what the kids are dancing to. Remixes help me pretend that it still is. On the other hand, though, hearing how dynamic the original is, one wonders why exactly we stopped dancing to swing music in the first place.
Cab Calloway may not be a household name, but you’ve damn sure seen his signature moves or heard one of his songs. Fans have come to Cab Calloway through odd pathways, from the Betty Boop shorts that featured his animated avatar in the 1930’s, to his showstopping cameo in The Blues Brothers in 1980, to covers by unexpected artists like The White Stripes in the aughts. Like a lot of people, I came to this song through Joe Jackson’s cover. In the 80’s Jackson did more than anybody to guide rock fans into the world of swing and jazz music. His jazz covers proved that music that was swingin’ in the 30’s was still swingin’ right in tune with post-punk and new wave. That was a pretty surprising epiphany, given that rock fans tend to view jazz as being as stodgy and musty as their granddad’s old suits. Nobody could ever call Cab Calloway stodgy: he was always in the business of razzle-dazzle and good razzle-dazzle never fades. Calloway has managed to pop up as a cultural reference point in every decade, and being dead hasn’t slowed his roll. He just always comes back around, just as cool as the first day he did the Hi-De-Ho.
It’s a great day for jazz. The weather is beautiful and we all survived the weekend. So sit back and drink some tea and unwind for a minute. Let Shirley Horn take you away. I really need to listen to more jazz music, and more Shirley Horn in particular. Her voice is like silk and honey and whatever else delicious sexy things that poets would use to describe a sexy delicious voice. It’s a song to crawl into bed with, whether to sink into a fever sleep or something more productive.
And now, for something lighthearted. Let Tape Five take you back to the days when people appeared to be having a disproportionate amount of fun, despite the fact that alcohol was illegal. (Obviously, people in places beyond America had other problems besides Prohibition, but they weren’t the ones having all that glamorous fun.) Although, to the rational history buff, it’s clear that the era was actually pretty rough for most people who inhabited it, we’re still helplessly compelled by its images. The art deco design, the music, the movies and movie stars, the gangsters; we can’t get enough reliving those high times. Nostalgia is a little bit of a cottage industry and updating the sounds of swing music for modern ears is one little niche of it. It isn’t a huge fad, but it’s definitely a community with a market for it. And, really, you couldn’t ask for anything more fun.
I’ve been listening to a lot more Nina Simone lately. I can’t say that I’ve just discovered her; she is a legend who doesn’t need to be ‘discovered’. But I’ll say that I’m really feeling her music in a way I didn’t before. It’s all part of trying to slowly learn more about jazz. Simone established herself as one of the great jazz vocalists at a time when being a great jazz vocalist was becoming a less and less relevant position. Singing and composing jazz was a tenable way to become a star in the 50’s when Simone began her career. But while the cultural changes of the following decades made most jazz musicians fall out of popular regard, Nina Simone managed to become more important and prominent. This was thanks to her involvement in the civil rights movement, her outspokenness, her socially conscious and politically charged writing, her Afrocentric personal style, and her general reluctance to be made polished and nice (as so many black entertainers had been forced to do in order to enter into the public sphere). Though her more politically charged songs may be what she’s best known for today – and for good reason – they’re the tip of the iceberg. She wrote and sang with unprecedented honesty about the specific burdens of being a black woman, but she could just as easily elevate the most basic love song. There is no message in this particular song that isn’t found nearly verbatim in Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe. The difference between ersatz sentiment and genuine soul lies in the delivery.