Scott Yanow

Jazz on Film

Backbeat Books ISBN 0-87930-783-8

Subtitled "The Complete Story of the Musicians and Music on Film," this book had my wife groaning inwardly at the thought of yet another list of purchases being made available to yours truly. Lovely stuff, this. The vastly experienced Jazz reviewer Scott Yanow has now given us a catalogue of all of the film footage that we fans will find irresistible.

How many of us do not already possess a copy of "The Sound of Jazz," or "One Night With Blue Note" (I'm getting that one for Christmas)? Fans who have seen the coming and going of many eras of Jazz will already know about the essential "Newport Jazz Festival" released by The New Yorker, but I for one was not aware of the existence of "The Great Rocky Mountain Jazz Party," or the highly appealing (though not particularly highly rated by Scott) "Zoot Sims Quartet/Shelley Mann Quartet" DVD. I have already found a supplier here in Europe for Woody Allen's film "Sweet and Lowdown." Scott has reviewed and rated (zero to ten) a very great number of the many and various Jazz films, or films containing Jazz interludes, thus giving us at least a guideline for what can only be a very subjective view. Not that he seems to miss the mark too often, as far as I'm concerned.

The Hollywood movies section reminds us of a great many of those films that made viewing them worthwhile, often for only a few seconds, in the hope that those few seconds were to be lengthened and repeated. It was a joy to see Anita O'Day singing, albeit briefly, in a night club scene and we were disappointed that there was no more to come. I also seem to remember John Cassavetes and his "Johnny Staccato" series using a lot of Jazz (maybe Herbie Mann) as background music.

A couple of years ago a German television station ran 24 hours of Jazz on TV as their New Year's program. There were hours of footage shown and I guess it only remains to inform Scott of the same (I'll check out the details). He does ask for feedback so you will all have the opportunity to reveal the treasures you may not have known were of interest to Jazz fanatics.

It would be nice if you all got a chance to buy this book, if not in time for Christmas, at least for New Year. It is essential reading and extremely interesting. Thank you, Scott.

by Lawrence Brazier

Bill Egan

Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen

The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 0-8108-5007-9

I must confess to never having heard of Florence Mills - although I am certainly old enough. But not that old, because the lady was at the height of her fame in 1927. Since this is the only study of Florence Mills, it must remain the definitive one. Mr Egan has taken on a burden beyond the call of duty with an obvious love of his subject because this "Harlem Jazz Queen" remained unrecorded - unless you count a voice test that has, anyway, been lost.

So why, we may ask, did Bill Egan go to all the trouble? The research here must have shriveled is bank account and cost him a great deal of time. Well, why not? The woman was a star by all accounts - someone who was revered by one and all, from the man and woman in the street to royalty. She sang, danced, performing in revue and all manner of stage productions. She traveled widely, bringing her art to many outside of the US and received at least as much adulation as was given to her at home. The lady worked seemingly without letup. Her long and much feted visits to Paris and London led to engagements from the Rothschilds. Edward Prince of Wales was a fan and so, apparently, was the Queen Mum.

Florence Mills was, in the parlance of the entertainment world, a trouper. She knew all about the shabby hotels, crafty managers and dodgy producers that is the lot of most theatre folk, until they get famous enough to start returning punches - and then not always.

As a Negro performer, she also knew the pain of prejudice and much to her credit she fought it throughout her life. The lady had character, it seems, and there was rarely a chance left untested in which she did not give the world a piece of her mind about the iniquity of false thinking, inner worlds in confusion and the abysmal hatred that seems to be our lot. It is amazing that with what was apparently sheer niceness Florence Mills broke down one racial barrier after another. She promoted the NAACP and humbled bigots to the extent that one journalist, from the London Times, to the disgrace of that one-time great newspaper, was actually won over by her perseverance, charm and talent and reversed his racist opinion. She is also reported to have spent time after shows traveling around London to help the city's less fortunate. Evelyn Waugh somehow got Florence into his classic "Brideshead Revisited", but only after being initially "negative" about Negroes. But the truth about Waugh's dislike was open to misunderstanding for he was too intelligent to have been merely racist and he is more likely to have stood for equality at a level often much deeper than most would perceive - Waugh really objected to the idea of the "token Negro" that became quite the thing among the "beautiful young people" in London at that time; although it seems inconceivable that the likes of Harold Acton and Robert Byron (mentioned in the book as an actor, but surely the author of the marvelous "Road To Oxiana") could have been so silly.

Without recordings it is hard to, in any way, give estimate to the claim of "Jazz Queen". Florence Mills did, of course, have extensive contact with the Jazz personalities of her day. Duke Ellington dedicated his "Black Beauty" to her and she was associated with such names as Fats Waller, Eubie Blake and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and a great many others. Paul Robeson was a dedicated friend, but then Florence Mills, was not one to make enemies. She enjoyed a happy and faithful marriage to her one-time stage partner Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson in the face of the usual media shenanigans, which is bent on making personalities suspect and thus good copy.

Florence Mills died in 1927 and her funeral sparked tremendous waves of public grief among literally thousands of people. This was the end of a life of dedication to her art and the spreading of goodwill. It was the life of a small, modest, sweet person called "...the greatest Negro star I ever saw" by Oscar Levant and "...the greatest of all colored performers" by Ervin Berlin.

Read the book and enjoy what is a labor of love and great show-biz documentation. Bill Egan is to be applauded for this sterling effort.

by Lawrence Brazier

Ronnie Scott

Some Of My best Friends Are Blues

with Mike Hennessey

Northway Publications, London ISBN 0953704068

The title of this book may well suggest a life of deprivation, extremes of suffering, nay, even rejection - but it simply isn't true. The Ronnie Scott story appears to have been an endless fun gig in which the hilarity level rarely dropped below, well, the hilarious. The story rolls off the pages with an endless series of humorous riffs and one can imagine the co-author, Mike Hennessey, suppressing belly laughs while trying to get it all down.

Of course, there were hard times, but the indomitable Scott spirit made light of it all. It is here that this life of a Jazz musician differs from so many others that yours truly has had the privilege of reviewing. There is an obvious lack - one chapter being obligatory in most books - of racism. The needs and frustrations, the downright ugliness, that is the lot of an American Negro musician, is absent. The Scott axe was wielded, at most, against the Musicians' Union, and not the least bit defensively. In other words, neither color nor creed was a barrier in Ronnie's struggle to play his music and to be treated like a human being.

Mind you, Ronnie was Jewish ("I'm not a Jew, just Jewish"), but one couldn't imagine him not opening the club on sabbat. His religion was taken lightly, if at all ("If God had meant us to fly, He would have given us all El Al tickets"), but it certainly provided him with a fund of humorous material. And, after all, only Jewish saxophonists get into a cutting session when so young.

Ronnie Scott opened the first Club with his partner, and fellow saxophonist Pete King, at 39 Gerrard Street in London's Soho on 30 October 1959. The place lacked everything other than enthusiasm (read optimism gone mad). The seating, as I recollect, was something akin to that at a Roman arena and so steep it made getting drunk, not that they had a liquor licence, more than hazardous. But things went well enough and Britain had acquired a really good Jazz venue, and a place where visiting American musicians often dropped in. In November of 1961, Zoot Sims played a four-week engagement and was followed by a great many legendary American musicians. Ronnie and Pete, not surprisingly, had a predilection for tenor saxophonists and judging by the list they seem to have had just about every great name within the genre playing at the club. On the other hand, they don't seem to have missed many superstars on any of the other instruments, either. Moreover, Ronnie Scott was himself a talented musician and one remembers an immediate call for him to sit in with the Duke Ellington Orchestra when the Duke arrived in London.

The two unlikely business geniuses kept going until the need for a bigger venue was made apparent. The Old Place was closed and money was borrowed, friends and acquaintances given tasks various - a gang of Irish labourers were provided with something stronger that Guinness - and somehow the New Place was opened, at 47 Frith Street, Soho on 27 November 1965. Reports tell of a novel ventilation system on the opening night (featuring Yusef Lateef and Ernestine Anderson), no front door. In other words, Ronnie and Pete had gone into the project with more faith than Moses had ever showed in his own crowd and, of course, what followed was to become a Jazz venue to rival the world's greatest.

The Ronnie Scott Jazz Club is an essential part of the Jazz world. It seems to have loomed large in fond remembrance for many of the musicians who played there. There are some wonderful, naturally mostly funny stories, about the musicians and their eccentricities, told with brilliant and often acerbic wit, but always with the obvious affection that many of these superstars enjoyed when playing at the Ronnie Scott Club.

If there are any jazz fans out there, anywhere, who do not have a copy of this book, they are missing one of the all-time great works of British jazz history, and a fine introduction to British humour - of the Scott variety, of course. The jokes were endless from the lips of this master of hip humour.

This book is absolutely essential reading. Start 2005 with a smile - it will help to lighten the load.

Lawrence Brazier

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