Savooooy Be Gooood

The Lighter Side of Bebop

Bill Milkowski's entertaining encyclopedia of jive, Swing It!, attempts various explanations of the word, but when push comes to shove settles for a definition that seems inclusive enough to silence debate: "Coded speech of the jitterbug scene." Yet Milkowski defines a jitterbug as "a swing fan," while many of his jivesters are devoted to bop or r&b. So clarification is in order. I suggest: a wacky, usually "inside" mode of humor associated with but not exclusive to African American musical idioms generated between World War I and the Korean War. Even that embrace, however, fails to account for the 18 tracks on the Savoy collection All That Jive. And neither does the subtitle "Jazz Classics With a Swinging Sense of Humor," unless straight readings of "Round Midnight" and "The Way You Look Tonight" crack you up.

Few catalogs have been reissued and repackaged more frequently than Savoy's, which includes various short-lived indies like National, Dee Gee, Parrot, and Hi-Lo. A succession of owners have done complete editions, best-of anthologies, and facsimiles of the original LPs, which were infamous for their weird covers and sometimes semiliterate but always useless liner notes. In recent years, excellent editions—handsome packaging, restored sound, informative notes—have recycled the label's stars: Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Erroll Garner, Billy Eckstine, Stan Getz, Gillespie, and others. All That Jive is a negative image of all those virtues. I won't complain about the selection by the usually reliable Billy Vera, except to note the absence of jive titans Stuff Smith and Big Jay McNeeley, insufficient Slim Gaillard ("Flat Foot Floogie" is a flat choice when they've got "Ding Dong Oreenee," "Dunkin' Bagel," and "Oxydol Highball"), and the surprising absence of jive monuments like Dusty Fletcher's "Open the Door, Richard" and Dizzy's "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac." But the musicians are unidentified and the notes don't come close to compensating. In short the disc looks like a tossoff. But it's great company on a plane, always lively and occasionally surprising.

Like all such compendiums, All That Jive redefines its selections by the company they keep. For example, I've always thought of Dizzy Gillespie's "Oh! Lady Be Good," a Joe Carroll feature, as nothing more than egregiously out-of-tune vocalizing. But now I wonder if Carroll's excruciating pitch isn't the joke in the jive—not intentional, surely, but sort of a found treasure, like the unrehearsed spill of a baggy-pants comedian. When he sings "Well IIIII'm all alone in the city" (twice), he merely gives way to immoderate enthusiasm, but the final "Myyyyyyyyyyy lovely lady be good, ladyyyyy be goood to meeeeeeeee" is alarming. Yet now instead of wincing I find myself laughing aloud. Maybe they laughed in the studio too. That would sure explain why they didn't try another take.

And then there's "The Old Masturbator"—I mean "The Old Master Painter," a peculiar concoction by the Havens and Smith team that wrote "Lucky Old Sun." They evidently liked cosmic themes, and the old whatever is clearly meant to be God, but I had to reach for the CD case to convince myself I wasn't hearing what I thought I was hearing. I concluded that the only reason the song was sung by Jackie Paris and included here is its 12-year-old's sense of humor, especially as Paris fails to enunciate the last consonant in "master." But a little research shows that the song was a big hit in 1949, not for Paris but for one Richard Hayes (top of the hit parade, Christmas week), and quickly covered by Frank Sinatra, Snooky Lanson, Peggy Lee and Mel Torme, Phil Harris, and Dick Haymes. (How many songs have been sung by both Phil Harris and Dick Haymes?) And even if my Freudian slip is showing, how solemnly is one to take this lyric? "Captured the dreamer with a thousand thrills/The Old Master Painter from the faraway hills./Then came his masterpiece and when he was through/He smiled down from heaven and he gave me you."

Paris is also represented by "Round Midnight" from the same session (backed by saxophonist Eddie Shu and the swing-to-bop rhythm section of Dick Hyman, Johnny Collins, Tommy Potter, and Roy Haynes), which remains one of the best vocal interpretations to date. Jive it isn't, but it's as pleasantly dated as the other selections—a nostalgic reminder of the white vocal style of the late '40s, struggling to be born in a shotgun marriage between Sinatra and bop. Paris, who despite a long nightclub career never broke through on records, employs enough slides, turns, and mordents to border on idiosyncrasy, but he never crosses the border. Protected by good taste, time, and intonation, he keeps the performance interesting and compelling measure for measure. It was his last record date for three years, an oversight, as is Paris's entire discography—which I'm now inclined to pursue.

Carroll shows up on other tracks with Gillespie, most notably "Pops' Confessin'," in which his intonation is straightened out through his devastatingly funny impression of Louis Armstrong. I know I should say that the record was made in fun and with great affection (the liner notes call it an "homage"), and repeat how much Dizzy venerated Pops and how amused Pops was by it all, but successful satire requires no apology, and unless you are offended by the very notion of anyone taking a shot at jazz's genius-saint, you have to concede that this one nicks its target. Otherwise it wouldn't be funny. Carroll's delayed entrance, which requires him to rush to the first of many "mmmmmmmmm"s, is an inspired opening, and he sustains the joke by exaggerating familiar elements of Armstrong's style just enough to puncture its power. Dizzy, on the other hand, has it both ways: his trumpet solo begins as a beautiful imitation, his tone huge and timing precise, until a break, which he subtly retards, turning it into travesty. He ends with an easy joke, a ladder of high notes that climaxes in a dog whistle, as Carroll and he mimic Louis's studio banter and laughter.

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