CHICAGO JAZZ MAGAZINE
NOV | DEC 2015
NOV | DEC 2015
NOV | DEC 2015
George Freeman, In His Own Words...
Paul Rink: A Blind Pianists View of Things
In His Own Words...
Guitarist George Freeman grew up with two older brothers and a father that loved music. His father, a beat cop for the city of Chicago, would invite musicians he met at various clubs to the house to jam after their sets. Although George was young, he remembers Louis Armstrong, Errol Garner and others coming over to play the family piano at the house where he still lives today. When Freeman entered DuSable High School, he studied under the legendary Chicago band director Walter Dyett, and at that point he knew he wanted play music for a living.
Starting in the late '40s, Freeman recorded with Joe Morris and Johnny Griffin, and traveling throughout the country performing. He always ended up back in Chicago and often times, as traveling musicians came through town, Freeman was asked to put together a back-up group. This allowed him to perform with and meet such artists as Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Sony Stitt and many others. He actually got to know Charlie Parker very well and is on a live Chicago recording with Parker for the Savoy label. In the mid-'50s, he started a long association with organist Richard "Groove" Holmes, and though relatively undocumented, did appear as a sideman and song contributor with Holmes on the World Pacific and Prestige labels. While working with Gene Ammons and Shirley Scott, Freeman decided against any more roadwork, and he settled down in Chicago with his family. His debut album, Birth Sign, was recorded in 1969 with help from organists Sonny Burke and Robert Pierce.
Freeman worked regularly with his brothers, saxophonist Von Freeman and drummer Eldridge "Bruz" Freeman. In the '70s, as soul-jazz was merging into disco, he produced three albums for Sonny Lester's Groove Merchant/LRC company: New Improved Funk, Man and Woman, and All in the Game. Recording companies ignored Freeman for nearly 20 years, before Joanie Pallatto and Bradley Parker-Sparrow signed him to their Southport/Orchard label, issuing Rebellion in 1995 and George Burns in 1999. Over the years, Freeman has stayed in Chicago, and has worked with an impressive array of great jazz artists, including Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Criss, Johnny Griffin, Jimmy McGriff, Les McCann, Eldee Young, Harold Mabern, Kenny Barron, Bob Cranshaw, Buddy Williams, Kurt Elling, Rene Marie, John Young, Red Holloway, and the Deep Blue Organ Trio, and lesser-known Chicagoans Lou Gregory, Lloyd Wilson, Ron Cooper, Maurice Brown, and Michael Raynor.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How is it one household in Chicago can turn out so many great musicians?
Freeman: It all started out at 49th and Champlain Avenue. We had a Victrola in the hallway. Mother used to play Louis Armstrong. Von and my mother would be dancing, and I remember trying to dance. I remember crawling out from the bedroom, because my oldest brother, we had a ping-pong table in one of those rooms and we had a big piano in the front room. Looking at that thing, it was so big. That is the piano in the house right now. My father loved jazz, and he would bring Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller and “Fatha” Hines to the house. I don’t think we had any idea about being musicians at the time, but my father was a proud man. He would come home from work and, being a policeman, he worked between three and four different shifts, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. and 12 a.m. to 8 a.m., so that went on for a long time on 49th Street. Then, we moved to 5418 S. Park—it’s called King Drive now. Right there was 55th Street, across from Washington Park. I remember 55th had the Rhumboogie Café, which had bands, and there was also the Hurricane, I remember seeing Lester Young there in the back room. Hurricane had a bar in front and a big space in the back where they had entertainment but the Rhumboogie Café had chorus girls.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s why you wanted to go there!
Freeman: I’m not going to tell you about that now! [laughs] There was the Rhumboogie Café, Hurricane, another club at 55th and Garfield Boulevard, and next to that was a cafe where they had Coleman Hawkins performing. At 55th and State we had Club DeLisa, which had a breakfast dance every Monday. The club stayed open ‘till 4 or 5 a.m. it was a nighttime job; they’d stay until 5 a.m. then go to the breakfast dance at Club DeLisa. They had chorus girls, they had a comedian and a singer. I remember Joe Williams being there and Miss Cornshake. She would take her wig off, throw it to the audience and knock them out. Back to the Rhumboogie Café: that’s how I got my start, because my father, when working that 4 to 12 shift, would come home at 12 or 1 a.m. They had all kinds of entertainment on the radio. He would turn the radio on—he had this Majestic radio he fixed up to play the bass sound. Eldridge was my oldest brother; he nicknamed himself “Bruz.” Von, Bruz, my father, and myself would come home at nighttime, and he’d turn that radio on—and that did it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s when you heard all the great music.
Freeman: They had bands on at the Hotel Sherman: Gene Krupa, John Medorsi came through there. He turned the radio on and Cab Calloway was the house band working the Amateur Hour every Wednesday. I remember Milt Hinton playing the bass, and I loved the way he played.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: These were all live broadcasts?
Freeman: Yes. Well, not Cab Calloway. Cab Calloway was the house band for the Amateur Hour, and he had his whole band there. Then the amateurs would perform and whoever won would get a $15 prize. I remember someone asked one of the winners one time, “What are you going to do with that 15 dollars?” and he said, “I’m going to pay the gas bill.” [laughs] I was in fourth grade at Birch Elementary School, some of the kids in school played music. I remember Red Holloway and David England being at the school. Of course Red played the saxophone and Dave played the drums. We were all little kids, but it just ran all the way through me. Dave was smiling; Red was smiling, chewing gum, whatever he was doing, but it just fascinated me, all the music. By this time, we were all into music, my oldest brother, Bruz, would bring home all of the latest records. He had Hawkins, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lafferty, Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian. Christian was the one who got me involved in playing the guitar at Rhumboogie. As a kid I would go backstage and listen to T-Bone Walker play the guitar, but a bunch of us went back there also because you could watch the chorus girls change. [laughs] I saw this dude with a white coat on and hair slicked down, black pants and black shoes on, talking to the girls. I was up there a little too long and the kids from the neighborhood let me fall. Although the next night we went back. I said, “I’m not going back up there, you let me fall.” I remember that when they let me fall, I heard this guitar going, so I went to the side door. It was open, and I looked inside and saw T-Bone Walker playing the guitar, and singing “Stormy Monday”—it fascinated me. While he was playing, women were hollering and screaming.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You weren’t playing guitar at this point?
Freeman: No, I was just fascinated by it all. My oldest brother bringing music home, all the latest records—it was amazing. He bought a jukebox, and put it right there on the dining room table. I would play the jukebox, but in the meantime, Von was going to high school at DuSable.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How old were you at the time?
Freeman: Eight or nine. Maybe I was 10 or 11.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: If Von was going to DuSable, he was with Captain Walter Dyett.
Freeman: Yeah, with Walter Dyett. I hadn’t started school yet. but he would tell me about Walter Dyett. It was Walter Dyett this and Walter Dyett that. He used to write arrangements for Walter. One time, Von was playing clarinet, and he had the clarinet in his locker and someone stole it. Dyett said, “You have to pay for that clarinet.” Von said he didn’t have any money. Dyett said he said, “I tell you what you do, you have to write the music for the booster band.” At that time, they had Miss Bryan Jones. Walter had the orchestra and the booster band and the concert band. She would rehearse the ‘fellas, teach them how to read, and they would play jazz in the booster band. The concert band was another thing. But Miss Bryan Jones, she would teach the kids how to write and read and never got any credit for it but she was the master. If you came too close to her, she would say: “Get back! Get back! You’re too close!” So Von went to her and got all that training.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Von was already playing saxophone?
Freeman: Yes. Then I got to DuSable, and by that time, Von was out. He and Bruz were out of that school. When I got there, the first day I went to Walter Dyett and said, “I want to be a musician.” He told me that’s good, but he didn’t show any interest. He asked me what instrument I’d like to play. I said guitar. He said, “Guitar? Can you pick another instrument?” I said, “That’s what I want to play.” He wasn’t interested in me at all.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: He knew you were Von’s brother?
Freeman: Yeah, he knew it, but he didn’t favor me. He put me out of the band two times: the first time he put me out, I slammed the door in his face, then I had joined the booster band. I didn’t get a chance like Von did, so my training came in from playing with the booster band and with Von. We moved to 58th and Michigan at that time. They called 58th Street “Dark City,” ‘cause they were shooting up around there, and carrying on. We had a police dog; we always kept the dog in the family. I had this big guitar, and I used to go through the crowded school to get to Wabash. I would walk to school with this great, big guitar—bigger than me. Walter Dyett looked at me, he was very disciplined; all the kids were scared of him. I used to take the guitar, and go to Wabash and hitchhike a wagon, one of those trucks. One day I jumped on the back of the truck. It had a ledge on it and they didn’t go very fast then. One day my Auntie caught me, and she said, “I’m gonna tell your daddy on you.” I jumped off that truck, acted like I had never jumped on there before.
I came home from school, I was scared to death of my father catching me on a truck with a guitar and schoolbooks. It was a long walk and she never told my father. Anyway, Walter Dyett would call the house, and talk to Von. Horace Henderson was playing at the Rhumboogie Café, he wanted the good musicians to play in the band, somehow or another, Von got that job working with Horace Henderson—he was “big time.” Von was ready to roam, he borrowed my father’s tuxedo and when my father saw him he said, “Boy, what are you doing with my tuxedo? You’re making more money than me, you buy your own.” So Von stayed with Horace Henderson. Later, he got drafted into theNavy; my other brother Bruz got drafted in to the Air Corps—he was a Tuskegee pilot. One day, when the war was over, he flew over the house and scared my mom half to death. She was like, “What is that noise?” Bruz called and asked if she heard him. During the war. Von was in the Navy, and they played music as guys went off to fight. Von would be playing all the marching music, and said “he would be ready to go over and fight because the music was so inspiring.” Early on, someone asked him, “Hey Freeman, didn’t you go to DuSable?” Von said, “Yeah, I’m ready to go, ready to go to glory”, the guy answered, “Man get out of that line, come in and join the band.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You need a saxophone in your hands instead of a gun.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Von told me he took the family Victrola and made his own saxophone out of it. Is that true?
Freeman: We had the Victrola, and my mother and Von would be dancing to Louis Armstrong. When we moved to 54th Street, we took the Victrola with us. And Von—for some reason and I don’t know how he did it—he took the speaker or something off and made a saxophone out of it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Yeah. It had a horn-shaped speaker.
Freeman: So my daddy came home.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: —The disciplinarian. [laughs]
Freeman: … Oh surely. He came home and asked, “What happened to the Victtola?” My mother told him, “Your son took it apart and made a saxophone out of it.” My dad said, “He did what?” My father loved music more than us, but Von was scared to death. My father said, “You gotta get that boy a horn or something.” That’s when he took him down on the West Side, and bought him a C Melody. It was shaped like a tenor saxophone, but it wasn’t a tenor. He didn’t know what it was until he got to DuSable. He thought was playing the saxophone.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s a great story. Do you know how your dad met Louis Armstrong?
Freeman: Yeah. My father was working at the Maxwell on the West Side. He was hanging out at the Grand Terrace Ballroom and Earl Hines was there. That was his home gig. My father would go there and meet the band and then tell them he had a son who played the saxophone. They had a club on the West Side called Martin’s, and they had a jazz band and my dad would take Von over there to play. Von went one day and after playing for five hours, they gave him a nickel. At that time my father met Louis Armstrong and all these big name jazz players, and would bring them to the house where they would play the piano. Art Tatum came by and played the piano once. Von really got into that until he was drafted into the Navy and Bruz went into the Air Corps, I was left by myself. At that time, Walter Dyett put me out of the band. The first time, I didn’t know why, the second time, he put me out while we were putting on our annual play at DuSable. They had all the students come, and Walter Dyett would direct the band. There were three of us—we were called the High Jinks. I wanted to be up there onstage but Walter was up there teaching the kids. He had some girls up there, and was talking to the girls, and I was down tuning my guitar. Every time he opened his mouth I hit the darn strings. I’m trying to tune up, and I had the amplifier up loud. I noticed he was talking, but I had no idea I was interfering with what he had to say. I noticed he was looking at me, but I still didn’t pay any attention. So he goes, “Get the hell out of here!” There I go again. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, but I was interfering with him talking to the kids. He had put me out—again. He did end up hiring me to play with his band, and we became the very best of friends after I got out of school. I guess he found out that I had talent. I was playing around with different bands locally. Eugene Wright, who played with Dave Brubeck, had a band called the Dukes of Swing. Before I got into the Dukes of Swing, I would take this big old guitar with nothing on it, just go to the West Side to play music, and sit in, just to do something. My mother said, “Boy you got to get a case for that guitar.” So my mom sewed me a case. I was going back and forth to the West Side playing. Next thing I know, I got with the Dukes of Swing,I never got any solos. Then Johnny Griffin—he was a little ahead of me—we got together and got a quintet, Johnny Griffin was always crazy about me for some reason.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How old were you at this time?
Freeman: Fifteen or sixteen years old.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was this your first “real” band?
Freeman: I was 17 then. We had this dynamic band. I always was a driver; I played hard and drove hard. Johnny Griffin would start out and they would let me close. Johnny Griffin went to DuSable, and Lionel Hampton’s band came there in the Assembly Hall. That was the treat for all the kids. Hampton was such a showman—oh my God, he had “Big Guy” Arnett Cobb playing with him. Walter Dyett asked Johnny to go onstage and play with Lionel Hampton, he was playing alto. Hampton was egging him on, and said, “You got to go on the road with us. You have to join the band.” So Johnny went with him, and Hampton was just amazing. Honest to goodness, he played. His music was, just dynamic. Everybody in his band was dynamic. He played the piano, he played a boogie woogie-type piano, he had the drummer playing the backbeat. At that time Duke Ellington was playing the backbeat. Everybody was playing the backbeat except Count Basie, ‘cause he had the guitar player strumming it.
And Jo Jones was keeping the rhythm together, playing 2-4 on the sock. Count Basie knew how to comp; he was an excellent comper. But Hampton had to have the drummers playing backbeat. Anybody knows that backbeat was one of the most dynamic beats, and they’re still playing the backbeat: all the doo-woppers and all the kids. So Hampton asked Johnny to join the band. I think Johnny was there for about two years, and then he called me and he said, “George, I’ve had enough.” [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn’t Hampton have Wes Montgomery for a while?
Freeman: He did. They had a club here called the Music Room, and Hampton had a steady gig. He had Wes Montgomery in the band and Wes used to come by the house. In fact, I was playing octaves before Wes was. On the first record we made with Johnny Griffin in New York, I was playingoctaves. That was what I was playing when I had the bebop band—that was that great big sound I played. Johnny left Hampton and I happened to have a band for him. That’s when we went to New York. We were rehearsing this band, and ended up going to the Baby Grand. Joe Morris had made an appointment for us to go to there, so we took a cab, and I left my amplifier in the cab.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Great start.
Freeman: Yeah, really! So we go right to Baby Grand, and then, Joe says, “Well we’re here.” They asked, “Who?” Joe said, “Johnny and I.” The man asked again, “Who?” We told him we’re supposed to start this weekend. He said he had never heard of us, so Johnny turned and looked at me, and I never said a word—I was scared to death anyway. We left, and naturally didn’t get the gig. That was an adventure. We went back to the hotel. They had a great baritone player staying there, Illinois Jacquet and Billy Eckstine and his band were staying there. Guess what the rent was? This is 1947.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Fifty bucks a week?
Freeman: Fifty bucks? No that was downtown. Where I stayed in Harlem it was the Braddock Hotel, $1.50 a day, $3.50 a week without a bath and $5 a week, with a bath. Now, this is when bebop first hit the scene and I had heard so much talk about bebop. I read about this little bebop band on 52nd Street, so naturally when I got there, I wanted to see them. We have no job, and Joe Morris is paying the rent. The first night I got there, I was looking all cleaned and dressed up. I go outside the door and there are 50 prostitutes outside. They saw me and they said, “Come here boy.” I flew back in the hotel. I’ll never forget the year ‘cause this was in 1947.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: There was a big riot at the Braddock Hotel, so this must be after that.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Yes. In 1943 there was a race riot in front of the hotel. I think it had something to do with a black soldier killed at the hotel.
Freeman: Get out of here. It could have been.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tough neighborhood.
Freeman: Well, when I got there, it was amazing to me, ‘cause I’m from 54th and King Drive. We had the Regal Theater, the Metropolitan Theater and the Savoy Ballroom, we had one at 55th and Garfield Boulevard and the Rhumboogie—that was beautiful, we had the Grand Church on 35th. That was beautiful. So when I got to New York City, there was nothing beautiful about it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: I want to hear how Joe Morris got you out of this mess.
Freeman: At that time they had a manager and an agency that would book bands in New York—you had to have that. So they booked us in the Savoy Ballroom, the land of happy feet.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: In Harlem?
Freeman: Yeah. We got to play this gig. It was a very big place, high ceilings, had three bandstands. They were jitterbugging, and women were flying in the air—it was just exciting. For Lionel Hampton, the space was really for dancing. Everything he did had a heavy backbeat. So naturally, Johnny Griffin and Joe Morris were catering to that. But I was playing bebop, ‘cause the band I had in Chicago were beboppers. But in New York, we played that “shuffle” music.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: For the dancers.
Freeman: Yeah, everybody was dancing. I remember Dizzy Gillespie was there, he had James Moody with him and Dizzy was doing the best he could to cater to the people but he was doing so much bebop because his band was strictly a bebop band and it was exciting.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you call it bebop then?
Freeman: Yeah, when I was playing that gig, Joe Morris came by, and was like, “Miles wants to meet you.” He was just as shy as I was. After the gig, I met Miles and we went back to the Braddock Hotel. After that we ended up getting a booking in Philadelphia. That’s where it really started—Joe Morris got a gig at this club. Everyone would come out, including John Coltrane and Philly Jo Jones. They all were coming there to jam, but Johnny Griffin and Joe Morris were still playing this jump-up-and-down music ‘cause that’s what people wanted to hear. However, people in the bars didn’t want to hear the jump-up-and-down music; they wanted to hear bebop. This is when the turnaround was coming in, because of bebop. On 52nd Street, bebop was coming on strong and Johnny wanted to play it. I never thought I would end up playing with Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was that in Chicago you played with them? Or Philadelphia?
Freeman: I played with Bird, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Stan Getz in Chicago at the Pershing Ballroom. My oldest brother was working with Sarah Vaughan. He met Bird’s manager, his girlfriend or his wife. She said Bird was getting ready to go to Chicago, and we have to get a band there for him. Bruz said “my brother is there.” She asked if he could get me to play with Bird. That is how we got the gig working with Charlie Parker. When I saw Charlie, I was as happy as I could be. I never heard anyone play an alto saxophone like that. He had turned that thing around so that people would come out to the bar and start listening more.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have met so many great players in the history of jazz. Let me throw some names out. If you have any memories, thoughts, or stories to share, why don’t we start with Louis Armstrong?
Freeman: The only time Louis would come by the house, I was too young to realize who he was. I just admired him for his talent and the way he could sing and phrase; he could swing. I know he had a good heart. I didn’t know him personally.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How about Bird?
Freeman: I knew him very well. We were at the Pershing Ballroom. Everybody was onstage and I happened to be the last one to come out. There was a bathroom in the back, and I was in there. They were onstage waiting for me to come out, and I heard Bird say, “We don’t start until George gets out here.” That goes to show how close we were. My brother and I played with him again. Von and I played with him the first time. The second time it was in Detroit, and I worked with him again on the West Side of Chicago. I felt like I knew him. When I first got with Bird, I was playing a great big guitar. The second time I had what was like a little “plank,” and Bird saw that guitar. “What you all need to do is come to New York City, but you all don’t have the guts!” he said. I got to know him well.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is it ture that Bird had a big heart?
Freeman: He was a beautiful man; he was a gentleman, I’m telling you. We were onstage and he had this blues called “Bird’s Blues” or something like that. He asked me to play the introduction and I said, “Bird, I don’t know it.” So he played it, and someone else played it. He played sophisticated blues and he just smiled from ear to ear. I said to his face, “You can really play the blues.” I did a gig at the Jazz Showcase two weeks ago with my nephew Chico Freeman on saxophone, Kurt Brown on piano, Harrison Bankhead on bass, Ernie Adams on drums, Mike Allemana on guitar and Rachel Weber on the vibraphone. It’s a joy playing with Chico. We played a blues, and I had a solo, but naturally I never forgot Charlie Parker—there’s no way you are going to forget that man. For Von and I, it’s always been Charlie Parker and swing, ‘cause jazz “swung” before Charlie Parker got out there. Swinging and bebop got to me. I was playing this solo and Charlie Parker came to my mind; then comes Billie Holiday—she gets into my mind. And then, here comes Dinah Washington, she got in my mind. But by the end of the solo I was playing T-Bone Walker. I have a record called T-Bone. I was ringing the strings, and the people went crazy. Mike Allemanakept calling me a blues player. [laughs] Bird was just a wonderful man to be around. The last time I saw him was at this club on 63rd Street in Hyde Park. I just got through playing with him. He came over and I said, “Bird, c’mon, have a drink.” He turned to the bartender and said, “Get me a triple ... You told me to get a drink didn’t you?” I didn’t have the money to pay. Then shortly after that time he passed.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: There were a lot of musicians that got hooked on heroin at that time. It seemed to be a trend—not that it ever went away entirely—but there seemed to be a peak during the 1950s.
Freeman: Yeah, it started before then. But you know one thing, it could have been heroin, I understand that, but all those people could play. It was creative, and they could play, any one of them. I don’t care what color they were. They just had the edge on the music, on the ideas, on the creativity. They understood the hookup; they had it together. Even the women that were on it, they could sing better than everyone else.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you ever get tempted?
Freeman: No, I never got tempted. I never got involved with the musicians that asked me to do it, ‘cause I said my daddy wouldn’t like that. That’s part of why I’m still here I guess. Then again, I admire my family so much, my father, my mother and brothers.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You can tell, as you are saying it, you can hear it in your voice how much reverence you have for your family.
Freeman: Oh yeah. It was all love. Bruz started playing the drums after he got out of the Air Corps. He went to school with Joe Segal. That’s when Joe started doing those jam sessions at Roosevelt. Bruz was the scholar, but I loved the way he played. You know, ‘cause one thing you get out of bebop is that everybody sounds like they are talking to you; it’s a language. They play things and you’re laughing at it. It could make you feel sad, happy, sentimental and it could bring joy to you. That’s when they added people out there soloing and putting lyrics to it, like taking Bird’s solo and putting lyrics to it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Vocalese.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your friend Kurt Elling does a lot of vocalese.
Freeman: Oh yeah. I did a record with Kurt. Kurt has always been a wonderful musician. He would come to the South Side and sit in with the group I had. That man can sing. I didn’t know the man could sing like that, but he has a beautiful voice. You know you have to listen to it before really enjoying it. That’s what I got out of bebop—they were telling a story. Now I realize things went from the “inside” to the ”outside.” Musicians that were inside were able to go out and come back in of course. They had an audience of people that wanted to hear going “out.” Even if they went “outside,” they were strong with it. They played hard; they didn’t tiptoe. They had the backbeat behind them and the drums were playing a different mode at that time.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: They would throw themselves into it. You mentioned Dinah Washington. Did you work with her much?
Freeman: I’m so glad you mentioned her. I was 18. She had just left Lionel Hampton’s band. She told him she wanted to leave on her own. He told her she couldn’t leave. Anyway, I worked for her on the West Side of Chicago. She was nothing but blues, and my little band played behind her. When she left, Jimmy, the drummer, had impregnated her. She carried that baby and continued singing the blues. I went over to her to tell her how well she sounded, and I stepped on her foot. She called me everything she could think of. [laughs] I never heard a woman talk like that before. I just looked at her because I couldn’t figure out what she was saying. She ended up putting me in her book.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: She was living in Chicago?
Freeman: Yes, and Al Carter-Bey from WHPK helped to get a street named after her, Dinah Washington Way. By the way, Al Carter-Bey is also putting out a book about Gene Ammons called, The Judge that Knows. In the book he has a page about me and Gene Ammons along with a photo of me playing with him.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You mentioned Billie Holiday in passing. Why don’t you spend a little time talking about Billie?
Freeman: I saw her about two or three times. Every time she would be crying. I don’t know what she was crying about, but she was crying. We were at Cadillac Bob’s, a lounge on 63rd and Cottage Grove. I was playing behind her with Bruz, Von and the band. She was singing one of her ballads, and I cried, because it was so sad. She had her heart and soul into it; she was crying too. She turned around and saw me crying and asked, “What you crying about?” I said, “I’m crying because you are crying!”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: She would have been 100 this year.
Freeman: Bless her heart. I was supposed to go with Sarah Vaughan and her group. Something happened, I didn’t make it. Sarah Vaughan was totally different than Billie Holiday. Billie came up before Sarah, she came up that “hard” way. She had to go through a lot to get to where she did—they all did.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Ella was another one who came up the “band” way.
Freeman: Yeah, I was with Ella on a gig and with Johnny Griffin. We worked together in New York and Chicago at the Blue Note. Ella Fitzgerald—I knew her very well.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You worked with the Hall of Fame of jazz vocalists. How would you compare their styles and what was it like working with them?
Freeman: Billie was laid back. She didn’t get excited, and if she did, you would feel it in a different way. Her emotions were in her singing, ‘cause she really did make me cry. She could put you in a mood, kind of sad-like. All the pretty songs are the sad ones. If you caught Ella right—and she got to scatting—you couldn’t stop her. She would blow the average person down. And Sarah Vaughan was just simply beautiful. She had the rhythmic control of the piano; she knew the piano very well.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: She was the musician of the bunch.
Freeman: Yeah, she could hear flatted fifths and major thirds and diminished, her and Billy Eckstine.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn’t Sarah have opera training?
Freeman: I would think she did ‘cause she was able to sing in any range. She could go low and high. She didn’t lose her vibrato until later in life, and I think that is when she got cancer in the throat. But at that time you had so many great singers.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you do anything with Anita O’Day?
Freeman: Never did anything with her, except listen to her on the radio with Roy Eldridge and Gene Krupa. Everyone was crazy about those three.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: She maybe the only great singer that you didn’t work with!
Freeman: She was ahead of me—one of the first to get out there. Before Peggy Lee and all of them. She turned that around ‘cause she could sing jazz. Gene Krupa got a hold of her, then Roy Eldridge got there.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Obviously you have seen a lot of the history in jazz. Do you like where it has gone?
Freeman: You will always have jazz; jazz is not dead—as long as you have kids coming into this world who have rhythm and soul and a feeling. What is changing is the concept of the music. The concept goes in different ways. You have a difference in the way it was presented in the swing era, the Glenn Miller era—saxophones and the trumpet just had a different sound. The trumpet, you could even put Miles in there. He changed things around. He was always swinging, kept a groove going. If you have got the soul and the feeling for the music, and the rhythm and get the concept, jazz would go in
Paul Rink: A Blind Pianists View of Things
There used to be a recording studio in The Loop on the 11th floor of The Majestic Building, upstairs from the Shubert (now The Bank of America) Theater. This was not your typical studio for recording music, but rather a location for Blind Services, a place where books were recorded by volunteer readers for the sightless and visually impaired. Those who did this work were usually one of three types: good people who liked to volunteer, folks needing to acquire hours of community service or performers sent there by voice and acting coaches to work on their diction. I was in the last group—trying to get the kinks out of my “speaking voice” so I could take my cabaret act to a higher level. Reading books into a microphone a couple hours a week really gives your diction a workout.
And that’s where I met Paul Rink, the subject of this issue’s Piano Bar column. Up until now, I have reserved this space for full-time professional solo pianists who use a lot of jazz in their act.
I make an exception for Paul.
Even though he is a lawyer by profession, he is also a terrific jazz and classical pianist who has paid a lot of dues as a musician.
“I am not ‘vision impaired,’” Paul told me. “That term does not describe my condition. I cannot, and never have, seen anything at all.”
We have had many conversations about the ontological properties of fundamental concepts—such as the color red—which exist for him only as a metaphor for hot. While being blind has been a defining aspect of his life, it has not proved to be a limitation, especially when it comes to music.
He recounted his early musical experiences as we sat in his condo, right across the street from Jazz Showcase in Printers Row, a place he frequents regularly. It was here that I started hanging out with him back in the mid-‘90s, when our encounters at Blind Services turned into piano lessons. His playing was so advanced I could barely teach him anything, except how to put together a better piano bar act for Kasey’s, a saloon near his home where he had a weekly gig from 1996 to 2002. That blossomed into a friendship that I treasure. This is a person of rare talent and intellect who has made a great life for him, both in a distinguished law career and in music—a diverse and rewarding avocation.
Paul’s life at the piano began when he was 6 years old, when his parents determined that, as a blind child, he needed an after school activity and that the piano might be a good choice.
“The first thing my parents had to do was find a teacher experienced in teaching the blind. They settled on a rather aged, serious lady who could transcribe music into Braille. With her I had eight years of traditional piano education: scales, etudes and classical music. Learning to read Braille music was difficult and not enjoyable, as you must memorize it before you can play it. I always wanted to play music by ear, which my teacher did not support.”
But Paul has one of the rarest of gifts: perfect pitch. I remember the first time I played for him at the studio I used to teach out of at the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan. I played a series of chords and scales, and he sat down and played them right back to me, flawlessly.
“My father noticed my ability to play by ear, and found me a new teacher, Chuck Mulaney, who got me acquainted with the recordings of Fats Waller and Art Tatum. I was fascinated by their music, but could not match their speed at the keyboard. However, he helped me become acquainted with more modern chords and helped me build my repertory of memorized songs. He was also an organist, and told my parents I needed one. They bought me a Hammond, and I began studying both instruments. When I got out of high school in 1963 I began playing for weddings, which I continued for over 50 years. I also played for various recitals that the Hammond company put on, and for meetings of service clubs such as the Elks, and for various events over the next eight years at Chicago’s Germania Club.”
Paul graduated from Northwestern University Law School, and passed the bar on his first try. With college and law school completed, music took a back seat as Paul got married, had a son, and began his legal career. He worked for Continental Bank for 20 years, and then joined the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, where he was an adjudicator.
But he still managed to play music at his church.
“My organ playing continued to the early 1990s, as an assistant to the music director at Old St. Mary’s Church at Wabash and Van Buren. Jazz would have been forgotten if I had not been in a bar in Aspen, Colo. in the summer of 1989, when I heard the pianist play, ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon.’ That song had been in my repertory for nearly 30 years, and I wished I were at the piano playing it. I introduced myself to the pianist, took a lesson from him, and took his advice to continue lessons in Chicago. This resulted in six years of lessons from Lee Noren of the Stanley Paul Orchestra, and I fell in love with jazz. During the mid-1990s, I was privileged to take two years of lessons from the brilliant Jeremy Kahn, who is a font of knowledge and a superb stylist.”
“It was my pleasure to have spent some time working with Paul,” Kahn says. “His enthusiasm and energy were infectious, and his knowledge of music is vast indeed. He has an amazing ability to process information; everything that I imparted to him was soaked up like a sponge.”
Paul retired from practicing law in 2010. “My years of relative inactivity after 2002 were highly detrimental to my technique. However, in 2013, I heard a jazz pianist produce a piano sound that I have never heard before. The colors were those of the greatest classical pianists, and the harmonies are those of 21st century jazz. I could not resist making the acquaintance of this pianist, Dan Trudell, and of again beginning lessons.”
“He’s an unbelievable person,” Trudell said of Paul. “He truly amazes me with his ability to navigate by himself throughout the city and lead a very independent life. I sometimes forget to tell him to watch out for things, as I honestly forget he is blind! He is a true friend and serious student of the music.”
He told me some years ago that when he retired he would spend all of his time playing and listening to music. But he’s still pretty busy as a lawyer—he does pro bono work as director of the legal clinic at the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. Still, you will find him most nights either in his spacious, neatly decorated condo seated at his Steinway, or across the street sitting at the bar at Jazz Showcase, again, where he is a familiar face to many jazz musicians and fans.
“When I retired from the Workers’ Compensation Commission, my greatest gift was the relocation of the Jazz Showcase very close to my residence. It affords me a tremendous opportunity for inspiration, education, and entertainment and I take great advantage of it. If I ever think I am running out of musical ideas, I am cured by an evening at the Showcase. It is an acoustically superior room, with the greatest jazz players in the world. It is also inspiring to hear the rising stars, often with new thoughts about old songs. It is where I heard Dan Trudell, Ron Perrillo, Pat Mallinger, Jeremy Kahn and Bradley Williams for the first time. All the these performers have added greatly to my understanding and enjoyment of jazz.”
But I’ve been there with him when a cranky old Joe Segal has told him that he claps too loudly.
“Yes, but when so many great artists are displaying such talent, clapping softly is hard,” says Rink. And he still gigs. Paul knows that I am very opposed to retired hobbyists wrecking the pay scale for professionals by playing for free—he doesn’t do that.
“When I retired,” he says, “I decided to devote the rest of my life to philanthropy, including both law and music. I have refused doing legal work for pay, and I feel the same about music. Thus, when I have been offered remuneration for performing, I insist that a professional fee be donated to a charity of my choice.”
Despite his many achievements, Paul Rink is very humble to the point of being self-effacing.
“I will never make Carnegie Hall and never compete with the kind of performers who read Chicago Jazz Magazine. But playing piano and organ is an endlessly fascinating activity, and it will keep me beginning each new day with thankfulness, joy and anticipation for the rest of my life."
10 Questions with Matt Geraghty and Ze Luis
Many of you might remember Matt Geraghty from his time performing and living in Chicago, but for many years he has been living in New York and traveling extensively throughout the world in pursuit of discovering the roots of local music on every continent. For his latest project, a compelling series called the “21 Trade Winds,” he has teamed up with one of the leading composers and saxophonists in Brazil, José Luis Segneri Oliveira, known as Zé Luis. The 21 Trade Winds series is based on the Triangle Trade Route that connected the old world to the new world, sending slaves from west Africa to the Americas, and goods from the Americas back to Europe and Africa. The two have traveled to the port cities of New Orleans, and San Juan, Havana to find out how the transfer of cultures influenced the music and culture. We caught up with both of them to find out more about this incredible project.
The concept of the Triangle Trade Route, and how it has affected local culture and music for hundreds years, is an incredible idea. Who came up with the concept?
Matt Geraghty: Trade Winds is an idea that arose in 2014 in a quest to find a new model for music-making. After playing music in Chicago for eight years and New York for 10, I was inspired to do a project that would break barriers down between different music scenes and genres, forge new collaborations and also have a component of creating improvised work in the moment. Since I’ve always been into global music, I was keen on launching a new project that could explore our common roots. I was extremely fortunate to have two remarkable talents to round out the Trade Winds team—Brazilian saxophonist/producer Zé Luis Oliveira and Laura Newman our filmmaker. Zé for years was the right-hand man for Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil recording and touring extensively. Laura is a producer and cinematographer who worked on Gasland and some incredible documentaries. We all started exploring ways to take the project on the road and the idea of retracing the steps of music along the Triangle Trade Route came up very quickly—and we all loved it.
Zé Luís: After we finished 21, the project that gave birth to the Trade Winds series, Matt was cooking up our next move. He had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do and that it would take the right team with certain skills to realize this vision. That’s when Matt invited me to be more deeply involved in the work and be a project advisor, producer and sound engineer. Then with Laura joining we (two) became “three.” She would handle the documenting and editing of the series.
How important is it to not only explore the music of the different areas but also its culture?
Geraghty: I think culture is fascinating in this context, because Trade Winds is asking the question, How can we reveal the connectedness between cultures through shared experiences? Music is one of the obvious answers to this question, but I wanted to see how we could push this further by providing musicians with a platform to express themselves in a new way. We’ve also continued to make the series a beautiful “travel log-music video” so our audiences can experience the architecture, art, street life and culture of the cities and towns we visit. Music is never made in a void; it’s completely tied to the cultural history of an area.
Luís: Music is a very transparent art, therefore the cultural and geographical environment play a big part on it, so we had to explore it in order to make sense of all the elements involved.
What are some of the biggest challenges in putting a project together like this?
Geraghty: The challenges are numerous because much of what we are doing with Trade Winds is unchartered territory. That’s certainly what people notice about the project—the fact that the challenges are stacked so high. We’re going into coastal cities and often show up with just one or two contacts from which to start. We work from the ground up curating collectives of musicians across all different sectors of the scene for 21 days straight. Sometimes we work exclusively in a foreign language so it helps that Zé speaks 4 languages, and I speak Spanish and Portuguese. We spend a lot of time negotiating musician fees, finding recording spaces and coordinating schedules. Sometimes the challenge is having the mental stamina to push through when things seem to be collapsing and we have such strict deadlines. Scouting talent and managing schedules is also at the core of the work. This can be a pretty intense effort. In Havana for example, we were collaborating with over 100 musicians in just 3 weeks of filming, recording and releasing content. There is virtually no internet in the country and cellphones are notoriously unreliable, so you can imagine the communication conundrums. This is often when you rely on your team to help strategize and navigate the challenge at hand. Back in New York, we put on concerts at the Iridium where we are creating 21 brand new bands in one evening with 35 musicians meeting onstage in 21 different combinations. We’ve done this 5 times already so it gets a bit smoother with every time.
Luís: Once the concept is in place, in my opinion the biggest challenges are drawing up a plausible budget, accurately estimating all of our expenses and managing the Kickstarter fundraising campaign. We’ve successfully accomplished two campaigns totaling $25,000, and are grateful to our backers. Maximizing our budget to allocate the correct amounts to traveling, lodging and food, plus the compensation for the talent involved, rental of places and equipment is one of the most important daily tasks we have. It’s not an option to run out of money in Havana because ATMs don’t exist. Luckily, it didn’t come to that.
Can you both explain how the process works from finding the musicians, setting up the rehearsals, picking the music, hiring the video, etc.?
Geraghty: Finding the musicians, explaining the series and convincing them to be part of our project is a fairly involved process. Thankfully, once players understand the scope of the work, they want to be part of it. It’s certainly a ton of communications, though. As far as arranging the talent and putting the groups together, I have a visual mapping process that works nicely where I put all of the names of the players in the series up on my wall and begin mixing and matching who I think would make unique collaborations. This is the most enjoyable part of the process, as I try to assemble first-ever bands that I think would have one-of-a-kind chemistry. For our concerts the musicians don’t know whom they are playing with until they arrive at the club.
Luís: We may do a session at a venue during a soundcheck before the show of a given group. We had the experience in Puerto Rico of meeting some musicians in the conservatory where they teach. Sometimes it happens on the street; other times we would book a rehearsal or recording studio. There were some cases that it happened informally in one of the artist’s houses. So, there are many different situations. Matt is usually in charge of selecting the players and forming the different groups, nevertheless, he is always asking for advice and ideas. There are no rehearsals. As a matter of fact, we have a rule of not talking about the music we are going to play before we do it. As far as selecting the music, we normally try to do as many pieces as the number of musicians involved. This way each one of us has the opportunity to start a composition and the others follow. Many times it’s just one take. For video, we have Laura Newman who has been with us from the beginning. She’s shot and edited all our videos and she is a very important part of the creative process.
Are all of the compositions original? Who composes?
Geraghty: Yes. The rules are clear to play an improvised composition in the moment; covers aren’t even part of the discussion. Nor is it a jam session or free jazz. This is an evolving concept that requires musicians to be empathetic to each other and listen collectively to craft a piece.
Luís: Yes, the compositions are all original. Who is composing? I’d say everyone and no one—it’s a spontaneous improvised composition driven by the musicians and elements involved, that’s why I mentioned about the environment being a big part of it. Another very important factor is the quality of the musicians involved.
How many months does it take to put one trip to one city together?
Geraghty: We are a very pretty nimble team so our model has always been routed in a need for speed. From planning to Kickstarter to trip logistics to the sessions and video editing, we usually average 4- to 6-months-long for each chapter. Our trip from Brazil to West Africa, we’ve discussed bringing a bunch of musicians on a ship to cross the Atlantic and film sessions live from there. I think we may have to add a bit of time for that idea. [laughing]
Luís: Again, there are lots of variables to it, like how much the budget is going to be and how long it would take for us to gather all the info and to fund it? Let’s not forget that we may not be able to raise enough money to do it either. Nothing is guaranteed. But that’s another story. A good example would be our campaign to go to Cuba 2015. We organized ourselves as much as possible with our budget estimates, contacts and all the necessary elements during the month of March. We had a few meetings and conference calls to fine-tune our perspectives, and on April 10 launched our Kickstarter-Cuba campaign. Then it was fundraising nonstop. On April 28, we had a big Trade Winds show at Iridium in NYC to help with the final push for our fundraising and May 10 we hit our goal. With the funds in, we had a reality check and reevaluated our possibilities. After that we did our traveling paperwork, got the tickets, secured our housing and then went to Cuba from June 9-28th. We cannot dismiss the fact that there are strong elements of faith, luck and optimism involved.
What are some of the most memorable experiences you have had so far with this project?
Geraghty: The most accomplished musicians in each city have gravitated to this project and for that I feel blessed and humbled. Aside from having some of the top musical highlights of my career working with various Grammy Award-winners and beyond, we had some really remarkable moments where I began to understand how transformative the nature Trade Winds actually is. We’ve had artists in our series that have been detained by the Cuban government for speaking out for freedom of speech and press. They were part of our finale video defining what liberty and freedom meant to them. We brought the entire New Orleans scene together—under one roof—with musicians there calling it ‘historic.’ Outside of Havana, we brought two rival street bands together for the first time. These guys would typically go head to head in one of the biggest carnival battles in the country and now they were playing together. This is just scratching the surface of the experiences, but in summary, the whole project has been an affirmation that you can break through any barriers, conquer any limitation of the mind and truly dream up the future you desire.
Luís: There are so many memorable experiences, to start with. Among ourselves in crew, we always have incredible debates about philosophy, migrations, emotions, the reasons why we do what we do, social equality, the environment and so forth. It is really fruitful. In New Orleans, Matt and I went to see George Porter Jr. Trio at the Maple Leaf and I ended up sitting in with them. Afterward, we met fabulous people from the Nola scene including Ike Stubblefield and Johnny Vidacovich who was the drummer of the evening. Next day we did a beautiful session with both of them at the Blue Nile during their soundcheck for a gig later that evening (documented on Day 10 New Orleans). There was a beautiful experience at Play Bach Studios in San Juan, Puerto Rico with master piano player Luis Marin, the quatro player Orlando Laureano and percussionist Enrique el Peru. The music, the atmosphere and the subjects we talked about that day made it a really memorable experience (documented on Day 17 San Juan). One of the highlights in Havana for me was a session at the legendary EGREM Studios, the old one. We were playing with the two choice session musicians on the Cuban scene, pianist Rolando Luna and Interactivo Drummer Oliver Valdés. It was one of those magic moments when the universe was conspiring in our favor. Everything happened naturally and effortlessly and it was like we were surfing a big wave. All we had to do is just ride it (documented on Day 3 Cuba). There are countless moments that I could mention. It has been a life-changing experience for me and I believe for all of us involved.
This is really an unprecedented series that is documenting an incredible study, in how by moving people and their culture to other areas of the world—voluntarily or against their free will—affects a country hundreds of years later. Have you thought of possibly doing this series in other parts of the world outside of the Triangle Trade Route?
Geraghty: When you think of all the potential trade or migration routes it tends to boggle the mind because there are so many fascinating possibilities. Our current priority is to finish the route, heading to Brazil and West Africa. After that, the sky is the limit. I think exploring gypsy music could be an interesting area musically with so many influences from west and east.
Luís: Sure, we have been focused on our goal, but we always talk about what would be next. We have a couple of very interesting ideas up our sleeves, but it may work against us if we disclose all of them here, so keep following our work because this is only the beginning.
I believe you just released the Cuba portion of the project. What is coming up next?
Geraghty: We’ll be doing an album release, producing a beautiful coffee table book featuring photographs all the artists and then it’s onto South America. I’ve been to Brazil with my own project five times, but this is going to be extra special since I’ll be with Zé, who is legend there. Plus, I’ve grown very close professionally and personally to Zé and Laura and can’t wait to get on the road again with them. Then it’s on to West Africa to complete the Trade Winds series. My guess is we’ll have about 1,000 players by the end of the series.
ZL: Our next immediate step planned is to go to three costal cities of Brazil: Recife, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. Those cities have a very strong cultural identity, which is profoundly influenced by African culture. Being a Carioca (Rio de Janeiro-born), I am very excited to show my partners of Trade Winds the insides of my culture and to collaborate with the incredible talent from my country. After that, to cap the project, we will travel to West Africa.
What are some of the biggest things you have learned musically after performing with so many different musicians from all over the world?
Geraghty: That music is not so much about style once you start stripping those labels away.
Luís:First of all, the urgency of the situation on the field and our everyday challenges taught me two very important things in life: to be here and now all the time, and trust that it will go perfectly when we make it about all of us. Musically, I’ve had a reawakening—observing the similarities and differences between musicians academically trained and those influenced and trained by culture and local folk traditions. There are subtle differences approaching the music. The first one being more cautious and rational before understanding what’s going on and the (other) one being direct, instinctive and raw. The two different approaches create very interesting nuances on the music and I love combining these worlds. Another very interesting exploration has been the powerful thread, linking all this music back to African culture via the triangle trade route. You see the same rhythm in different cities or even nations with a local accents and distinct names. Just to give an example: The rhythm we know as Second Line in New Orleans exists in the northeast of Brazil and it’s named Baião. It also exists in Puerto Rico where it is called Bomba. The languages, cultures and the environment created some very delicate differences on those rhythms that became characteristics and particularities of each region exposed to it.
Does Sinatra Still Matter? Part 2
In late 2014 it became known that Bob Dylan was going to release an album of Sinatra songs as part of the Sinatra Centennial in 2015. While Dylan’s talents are undeniable as a folk/rock singer/songwriter, there were many jazz critics who questioned this decision. Particularly concerning was the aspect that “ … Heard live, (Dylan’s voice) can sound like a frog undergoing a tracheotomy without anesthetic,” said Jim Farber, music critic for the N.Y. Daily News. While Nicole Ciemniak in an blog article posted in March 2015 of The Argus, recalled the signer has been “described as ‘rugged, honest, untrained, and at times unbearable … ’’’ Hardly the credentials for a vocalist who was singing a tribute to Sinatra—once known early in his career simply as “The Voice.”
In an interview with AARP The Magazine, Dylan said that he had been thinking of making an album of “standards” since hearing Willie Nelson’s Stardust in the late ‘70s.
“All through the years, I’ve heard these songs being recorded by other people and I’ve always wanted to do that. And I wondered if anybody else saw it the way I did.”
Dylan says that when recording the songs, Sinatra cast a long shadow.
“When you start doing these songs, Frank’s got to be on your mind. Because he is the mountain. That’s the mountain you have to climb, even if you only get part of the way there. And it’s hard to find a song he did not do. He’d be the guy you got to check with. People talk about Frank all the time. He had this ability to get inside of the song in a sort of a conversational way. Frank sang to you—not at you.”
Dylan added he had not bought any Sinatra records in the ‘60s and no one “worshipped” Sinatra at that time, unlike today. But he felt that Sinatra’s music was inescapable anyway, and while some music that the public had assumed would be a permanent part of the cultural landscape had disappeared, Sinatra never had.
Dylan’s Sinatra tribute album Shadows In The Night was released to highly critical expectations in early 2015. But Dylan resists any comparisons.
“ ... Comparing me with Frank Sinatra?” he said, “You must be joking. To be mentioned in the same breath as him must be some sort of high compliment. As far as touching him goes, nobody touches him. Not me or anyone else.”
Dylan’s song selections on Shadows appear to be well thought out, serving up recurring themes such as love, loss, loneliness and desperation—eternal songs of the dichotomy of the relationships between lovers. They have been chosen and arranged together carefully to allow the album to tell a complete story.
But there’s the question that must be answered first: What about his voice?
Even in Dylan’s youthful heyday when I was enjoying such folk/rock classics as “Lay, Lady, Lay” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” I doubt anyone was seriously suggesting he immediately “quit his day job” and start recording his version of the “Frank Sinatra Songbook.”
So why now?
I cannot and will not pretend to have closely—or even loosely—followed Bob Dylan’s singing career over the years. When I listened to Shadows Of The Night for the first time, I honestly had no idea what to expect from his singing voice, and feared for the worst. The reality of what greeted me was that today—on Shadows anyway—Dylan sounds kind of like a slightly “nasal” Tom Waits, which is in no way offered as any sort of criticism. Dylan sings with large doses of the honesty that Bennett said he strives for, and the overall effect is pleasant and well worth hearing. It may be that Dylan could stand to add a little of Bennett’s smoothness, as if he in anyway could, but why knit-pick?
Like Bennett, Dylan traded the usual nostalgic orchestras for a small group, including pedal steel guitar, double bass, horns and lightly brushed hi-hats.
On “The Night We Called It A Day” (Adair/Dennis) the horns are played with a deliberate inconspicuousness and add to the slick atmosphere without drawing undue attention, resulting in a dramatic effect. Pedal steel is the lead instrument and makes an appearance in every song, giving the entire album a unique ambiance. But the main attraction is Dylan’s voice and soulful singing style with the backing instruments only highlighting the lyrics.
One of the few songs that Sinatra both sang and helped write, “I’m A Fool To Want You” (Herron/Sinatra/Wolf), is given both nurturing care and a hard slap from the back of Dylan’s hand as he sneers his way through the line “To share a kiss that the devil has known.” You can almost envision Sinatra leaving Ava Gardner in the dust then turning around to make sure she is okay.
A weeping pedal steel guitar provides a particularly moody and evocative introduction to “Autumn Leaves” (Kosman/Mercer/Prevert). Dylan puts the weathered sound of his voice to its best possible use, foretelling the coming winter of both the season and his lost love.
Dylan even manages to croon his way persuasively through “Why Try To Change Me Now” (Coleman/McCarthy) with the kind of self-assured confidence that might come from a man who understands he is both a mess and too old to make any major changes—a lovable curmudgeon.
If there ever was a song that seemed impossible to conceptualize Dylan singing—before actually hearing it—”Some Enchanted Evening” (Rodgers/Hammerstein) is the one. While mental pictures of the movie South Pacific and the big booming voice of Rossano Brazzi danced in my memory, it was hard to get my mind around Dylan singing it. But, that said, Dylan does a fine job in producing a version that is both uniquely romantic and charming.
For those whose love of Sinatra requires every tribute to withstand the test of direct comparison with every degree of deviation perceived as a flaw, Shadows might be dismissed as “misguided.” But given even the smallest sliver of creative license, it can stand proudly on its own and bring hours of unique enjoyment.
The first time I ever really heard of Sinatra tributes was when I was going to see singer/songwriter Bobby Caldwell perform some years ago with his 17-piece big band at the Hyatt Newporter’s outdoor amphitheater before a nearly sold-out crowd. Caldwell mixed some of his own smooth jazz songs with Sinatra-tribute crowd-pleasers.
Based on my observations in person, my reading about him, and my appreciation of his recorded work, Caldwell appears to be a sincere Sinatra enthusiast himself who deals in only the most reputable forms of a Sinatra tribute, and even then not exclusively. And, he seems to be highly respected by his peers.
Working from the Great American Songbook was nothing new for Caldwell. His albums, Blue Condition and Baby, It’s Cold Outside: Fireplace Love Songs, found him exploring this same material and even then it was far from the first time. He has portrayed Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas as part of a Rat Pack “revival” stage show.
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Porter) shows Caldwell shares a similar vocal tone with Sinatra, and he obviously has taken more than a few cues from the master when it comes to phrasing. (Not overplaying the phrasing similarities worked to his advantage.)
Caldwell showed that he really knew how to swing with “I Get A Kick Out Of You” (Porter). Comfortable from inside of the material, he would let the band develop a line before he entered with the lyric—and in his finest Sinatra-like style—often used his voice in counterpoint to the rhythm.
Caldwell’s performances, both live and recorded, benefit from the singer’s natural feel for this material and the fine performance of his supporting orchestra. Unlike Bennett and Dylan, Caldwell chooses to present his Sinatra songs with full orchestration, to good effect.
The musical talents of Barry Manilow have largely gone unappreciated by myself. However, when both my friends—vocalist Nicole Kestler and pianist Brian O’Hern—called to my attention that he co-authored the genuinely beautiful ballad “When October Goes” (Mercer/Manilow), I felt I needed to reevaluate. I learned the popular singer had done a tribute album, Manilow Sings Sinatra, and in preparation for this article, I listened to it.
Happy and breezy, Manilow gives “Summer Wind” (Meier/Mercer) exactly the kind of light-hearted treatment you would expect. Unfortunately, the overall effect both here with the slower tempo numbers like “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” (Hillard/Mann) and basically with the entire album, is that it’s way too overdone to be taken seriously. Although the talented Manilow surely has a role to play in the world of jazz and pop, singing Sinatra onstage or even cutting a tribute CD does not seem to be it.
Sinatra’s rise to popularity first began with the closing of the Big Band era and ushered in a period that favored the vocalist, making him/her the primary focus, instead of the bandleader and his band.
Sinatra’s generation was the first to grow up in the era of the microphone and electrical amplification, which allowed vocalists to sing in a softer, more personally nuanced manner. His singing style differed significantly from the crooning of his idol, Crosby, especially with his introduction of modern jazz/pop phrasing. Leaving an incredible and lengthy legacy behind him, Sinatra will matter to true music lovers, forever.