Jazz Research is pleased to present a guest column by the noted British author, Steve Voce.
Steve Voce began writing about jazz in the Melody Maker during the fifties, and at the same time began writing obituaries for The Independent. He has been a columnist for Jazz Journal for over 60 years under various incarnations, including “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, “Scratching the Surface” and latterly “Still Clinging to the Wreckage”. He presented the Jazz Panorama radio programme on BBC Radio Merseyside for 35 years.
His 1986 book, Woody Herman, published by Apollo Press in their Jazz Masters Series was one of the first critical studies of the celebrated bandleader.
“Woody Herman’s career, spanning fifty years as a bandleader, has been an extreme of ups and downs from the peak when he worked with Stravinsky to the trough one night when most of the band fell asleep on stage. He has had some of the greatest of all jazz musicians in his bands – Stan Getz, Bill Harris, Ralph Burns, Zoot Sims, Flip Phillips – the list is prodigious and, typical of Woody Herman, it continues to this day as brilliant new youngsters join the Herd. This is an account of the Herds of character, and of the strong character, known to generations of his musicians as The Chopper, who led them. It is also an account of the nuts in the Herd, complete with a discography that pays ample tribute to them, the music and to The Chopper himself.”
Steve’s interview with Slim Gaillard was originally published by Jazz Journal in 1982.
Bulee Slim Gaillard’s greatest talent is his turbulent surrealist imagination, which is on a par with Spike Milligan’s in the greatest days of the Goon Shows. He is also gifted with a relaxed and most attractive voice which is musical even in speech, as shown by his intoxicating recordings of “Travellin’ Blues” and “Slim’s Jam.” He is a good guitarist and a gifted pianist who can play better with the backs of his fingers, as he regularly does, than most can do with the fronts. He is a good vibraphonist, too and is perhaps best known as a composer and lyricist – in the latter capacity he can truly be said to have changed the language.
Despite the fact of a sometimes self imposed obscurity, he has had almost obsessional followers in this country over the years, including myself. We had heard of a fiery, recluse-like figure who regarded his days in music as finished many years ago, and consequently it was a surprise when he suddenly popped up in Europe.
I was lucky enough to be at Nice when he made his debut. It was half way through a set by Joe Newman, James Moody, and Kai Winding, when a tall, patriarchal figure with a long grey beard appeared at the back of the stage and began unpacking a guitar. There was a tentative ripple of applause from an audience that wasn’t quite sure who he was. Slim looked up in pleased surprise, for he had obviously not expected recognition. He took over the session – there isn’t any way in which he can stay in the background – and the resultant eruption of hysteria in the audience was the forerunner of the reception almost every time he played.
At the end of that first set I met him as he came off the stage and was able to see the surprised delight in his face, not just at the reception, but at the implication that it meant a new start to his career in Europe.
You might expect a clown off-stage, too, but you would be disappointed. Slim is a fairly serious man, very friendly but uncommunicative. Comments have to be drawn from him with patience, and he answers most questions with ‘That was good fun,’ or a variant on it. He’s unused to providing the information a writer might want from him and things which might be of importance to us appear trivial to him and he has a poor memory of them.
His act is extrovert and as such he has to dominate anyone else who shares a stage with him. In some cases this produced glum faces amongst some of the great musicians who backed him – this was entirely understandable, but unavoidable. It was not the case with Kai Winding though, he of the polished and immaculate image, who could have been expected to be least suited to the Voutmaster’s insanity. Soon embroiled in the labyrinth of “Chicken Rhythm” he was drawn along by Slim’s magnetism and responded superbly. He didn’t have much choice so these were his first public vocals.
Slim’s repertoire is geared so that any professional musician can pick up the threads as he goes along. ‘Now we are going to play some special arrangements which we’ll put together as we come to them,’ was Slim’s description.
He agreed to be interviewed the next morning, but wanted to sunbathe, so we arranged to talk on the beach at Nice and it was there, seated on the pebbles amongst the topless beauties, that he told me:
‘I was born in Detroit. I’m not sure of the date, but I think it was January 4, 1916. Everybody in my family used to make music of some kind, and there was always a guitar lying around the house, but my first instrument was the vibraphone, I really enjoyed that. I earned the money to buy my vibes by driving a delivery van and by making shoes – I was a professional shoemaker. Eventually I was good enough to earn money playing in Detroit and then, I don’t know how old I was, and I can’t remember years, I went to New York. I’d been there a year or so when I made my first recording. This was as a singer with Frankie Newton’s band. I sang on two of the four titles, “There’s No Two Ways About It” and “’Cause My Baby Says It’s So.”
Frankie was a beautiful player, and there’s some wailing by Pete Brown and Ed Hall on those sides, too. Soon after that I met Slam Stewart at a club called Jock’s Place, and we began working together, stayed together until 1942 when I went into the army. We had our first and biggest hit with “Flat Fleet Floogie” in 1938 (the public though it was Flat Foot Floogie so we changed it to that and eventually we became so identified with the hit that we changed the name of the band from Slim And Slam to Slim Gaillard And His Flat Foot Floogie Boys).
Not so long ago at the World’s Fair in New York they buried a time capsule and they included a copy of “Flat Foot Floogie.” I’m pleased about that. It’s nice to think that when the Martians find it in a thousand years they’ll start vouting. Slam and I made a lot of records after Floogie started the rush. We had a good band, Slam was a virtuoso bassist, a fact sometimes obscured by his humour. That band had a great tenor player, Kenneth Hollan, who was a mail carrier by day and played with us at night. I can’t think why he wasn’t better known. He had a big sound and he used to swing like Chu Berry.
‘I’ve always been lucky with tenor players. I’ve used guys like Lucky Thompson, Teddy Edwards, Ben Webster, Jack McVea, Buddy Tate, Lockjaw – they’re the best. Yes, I always chose all the musicians on our recording dates, chose them because I liked them – Howard McGhee and such like.
‘Our next hit was “Tutti Frutti” It wasn’t as big as Floogie but it helped to get us regular broadcast, on WNEW in New York.
‘In 1942 Slam and I came out to Hollywood to make the movie Hellzapoppin’ with Olsen and Johnson. We had a band with Rex Stewart, Sonny Greer, Buster Bailey and Vic Dickenson. We made a few movies out there and we were both due to go into Stormy Weather with Fats Waller and Benny Carter. Slam appeared in it, but I got called into the Army as filming began and that was the last I saw of Hollywood for a year or so. But we liked the West Coast, Slam bought property out there and was very comfortable. But eventually he got restless for New York and when I came out of the army he had gone back, so we split finally, because I was determined to stay out west.
‘Tiny Brown, who was a very big man, came in on bass to replace Slam. In some ways his sense of humour accorded more with mine. Slam had a very mellow sense of humour, but Tiny’s had more bite and he could improvise with it. The vout thing had started early on in New York when we recorded Floogie and I just kept right on with it. As long as you had a vivid imagination it grew by itself. I used to think of the most impossible things and let my imagination run riot and one thing led to another. The basis of it was making the impossible possible. For instance, in B19, where the bomber is into a dive and we put it in reverse, or in “How High the Moon” where they grew potatoes the size of the Hollywood Bowl on the moon. It didn’t need too much imagination to follow that it needed a bulldozer to peel them.
‘Anyway, when I came out of the army I went to work in Billy Berg’s club in Hollywood with Tiny. The management decided that he should be called ‘Bam’ because he was the successor to Slam and he ‘bammed’ the bass, or something. We worked a lot at Berg’s, I was there for years, and that’s when I made those recordings for Beltone with Bird and Dizzy. I had a record date for my quintet with Dodo Marmarosa, Jack McVea, Barn and Zutty Singleton. At the time we were working opposite Bird and Dizzy who were making their famous first trip out west, so they came on the date, which was very good fun.
‘Those titles we recorded came out on so many labels afterwards that I could never keep track of them. I made so many recordings and broadcasts during the forties, and a lot of them have been coming out on albums lately. I get zero. You can write letters, call on the companies, but nothing. They just take everything away from you and you get no composer royalties or anything. (An honourable exception is the Hep label which has reached a financial agreement with Slim – SV). French Verve have just brought out an album with ‘Opera In Vout’ and a lot of the studio things I did for Norman Granz, and I get nothing for it. I’ll have to get in touch with Norman!
‘The ‘Opera In Vout’ concert was a great one for me. We were just part of it, because it was a typical Jazz At The Philharmonic concert with I think Buck Clayton, Prez, Hawk and Charlie Parker. That opening on “C Jam Blue” was actually a take off on a phrase that the Hampton band was famous for at the time. I think Bam played piano on that one as well as me. I don’t think I played two instruments simultaneously that night. Sometimes I used to play guitar and piano at the same time. You can turn the volume up on the guitar and it’ll play itself – you just make the chords and hit the strings, feedback!
‘I like to pay different instruments, but of course these days the main one is the guitar. I used to have some good sessions with Charlie Christian, but I learned most from Bernard Addison in New York when he was with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Eddie Durham played nice guitar too, in the style that I liked with the down stroke. Sometimes guitar players have an up and down stroke with the plectrum, but I only do that when I’m doing funny things. Charlie Christian always used the down stroke, never did go up and down. I developed that style, too. Charlie would come up to 117th Street to the Cecil Hotel and we would jam. There were regular sessions there. Dickie Wells used to blow and Art Tatum came up a lot. When daylight came you’d get him off the piano! I’d sit there and listen to him, because you learned a lot from him. It really was a musical education. Apart from the jam sessions I played guitar with him. We worked together in Pittsburgh, although it wasn’t in that tight trio style he had with Tiny Grimes. Good fun. He was the champion. I’ve never known anyone achieve such mastery of an instrument.
‘But the later days out on the West Coast were good, too. As I say I worked for Billy Berg from when he first began. In fact originally he began with a place in Beverly Hills called The Country and I had the band there with Lester and Lee Young. and Leo Watson.
‘From time to time I used to get lost. During the fifties I hung around the West Coast and didn’t work in music at all for about seven years. I worked in lots of movies and TV shows and I never would play music. They used to ask me but I told them I’d given up music altogether. In fact I only really got back into music not too long ago at Parnell’s jazz spot up in Seattle, where I now live.
‘I got into movies quite casually. I used to go to a Hollywood restaurant called Theodore’s where all the top comics would come in the morning for breakfast. Guys like Joey Bishop, Milton Berle, Danny Thomas and Johnny Carson would meet there and tell each other their jokes and I used to go to listen to them talk. One day, out of the blue, a guy came up to me in Theodore’s and asked if I’d go out to the studio and read a script. I told him I wasn’t an actor. “Would you do me a favour and come to the studio?” “Well, OK, but I tell you now I’m not an actor.” So I read the script and the guy said “Right, you’re leaving tomorrow at five in the morning for Phoenix, Arizona.” I went out there and worked for about 12 days, and when I came back they had another thing for me for Universal, Marcus Welby, MD’. So I jumped from M to Universal and then back to MGM and I kept bouncing from one studio to another. More recently I was in `Love’s Savage Fury’. with Raymond Burr and `Roots – The Second Generation’.
‘But I’ve been delighted with the reception I’ve had recently at some of the American and now European festivals. So I might just stick with the festival thing or do some more club work. After all, I’ve got albums out in Sweden, England and France. Even if they don’t bring me any bread I suppose they let people get to know my work, and I might as well pick up what I can on that.’
— Steve Voce
Some changes and corrections for readers:
The first link that I inserted for Hellzapoppin‘ was the full movie version at youtube. Nick Rossi emailed me after viewing the clip and alerted me to a restored version of the scene featuring Slim. He also noted that Gaillard’s memory failed him and supplied the names of the other primary musicians in that scene. Many thanks to Nick for bringing this to my attention.
Here is Andy Lewis’ text regarding the restoration:
The Lindy Hop scene in Hellzapoppin’ is one of the all-time most incredible and electrifying pieces of partner dance ever to make it to the cinema screen.
It was also – in my opinion – edited with no respect for the relationship between dance and music. Dancers started off phrase, clapped on the wrong beat, and had footwork that drifted out of time from the music – a product, I assume of multiple takes, and editors that either didn’t know enough, or care enough about fitting the end product to the music. I assume the latter – because other scenes in the film (those involving singing) were synced to the music just fine. These were some of the best dancers of their time, and among the greatest swing dancers that ever lived. They deserve better.
Like my previous edits, this version has had the timing tweaked to put it back on the correct beat, and various edits to set everything back to using the musical phrasing. I cannot be 100% sure, but my intention and hope is that I’ve managed to bring it closer to the way they originally danced it.
Over and above that, inspired by the comparatively recent craze for upscaling videos (and it doesn’t hurt to FINALLY have access to a full HD version of the entire movie), I’ve used a bunch of tools to improve my work on this classic scene – so here’s a new version, in 4k, at a cool sixty frames per second. Enjoy!
Frances “Mickey” Jones & William Downes
Norma Miller & Billy Ricker
Willa Mae Ricker & Al Minns
Ann Johnson & Frankie Manning
Slam Stewart – Bass
Slim Gaillard – Piano & Guitar
Rex Stewart – Cornet
Elmer Fane – Clarinet
Jap Jones – Trombone
Cee Pee Johnson – Drums
A massive thank you to Atilio Menéndez, partly for his patient and invaluable advice, but mainly for taking two different HD versions of the original film and cleaning them up, combining and tweaking them to make the best possible source for upscaling, in ways I don’t have the expertise to do. This wouldn’t look nearly as good if it weren’t for his help. Another thank you to Nick Rossi for his historical input, corrections and suggestions, and to everyone else I’ve inundated with version upon version upon version to critique.
— Andy Lewis
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