Don Shirley at the Piano

No call to bring down further scorn on the Academy’s choice of Green Book as Best Film; Spike Lee’s already handled that in his own, well, spiky way. And the truth is there’s not too much wrong with Green Book as pleasurable movies go – nice performances and along the way an interesting  insight into what passed for middlebrow entertainment in the early 1960s, in this case the rather flashy neo-classical piano style of Don Shirley. As the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson points out in an article in the current issue of the New Yorker, Shirley was “one among dozens of pianists who were popular at mid-century, a moment when the piano was at its zenith in American life.” In America it would have included Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein on the more traditionally classical side of things and light music specialists such as Carmen Cavallaro, whose best-selling recording was his version of Chopin’s Polonaise, Op. 53., and who, of course, paved the way for Liberace, all simpering smiles and glittering arpeggios.

In England there was the duo, Rawicz and Landauer, dispensing popular versions of the classics to radio audiences through the middle years of the century, and Alberto Semprini, whose radio programme, Semprini Serenade, introduced with the words, “Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones”, began as a Sunday afternoon feature on the BBC Light Programme in 1957 and continued for another twenty-five years.

Iverson is interesting discussing Don Shirley’s singular piano style, which leaned towards jazz and popular music, but interpreted through the prism of his classical music training. He quotes the saxophonist Branford Marsalis as saying, “Don Shirley’s music is a joy to listen to. It’s not jazz, and his approach is clearly influenced through classical training. Because he is not a jazz soloist, he has to create momentum through color and melodic exploration.”

It could well have been that, instead of carving out a career as a popular attraction, Shirley could have played in more conventional classical surroundings, but it seems that his colour was against him. As the jazz bassist Ron Carter, whose first choice would have been to have played the symphonic repertoire, was told by no less than Leopold Stokowski, the classical world was “not ready for a colored man to be in their orchestra.” In the UK, the Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, though classically trained, found herself held back by similar prejudices, which resulted in her – not, I imagine, totally unhappily – performing a succession of ragtime compositions that topped the charts and propelled her to huge popularity, especially in Australia, where she settled in the 1970s, becoming an Australian citizen two years before her death.

 

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Ethan Iverson’s Rent Party

 

 

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Ethan Iverson, flanked by Adam Fairhall (on his right) and Alexander Hawkins

The third part of Ethan Iverson’s Kings Place residency during this year’s London Jazz Festival went under the name of Ethan’s Last Rent Party, but rather than it being a bring-a-bottle, pay-what-you-can-at-the-door event being put on in order to assuage the venue’s doubtless huge rates bill, it turned out to be – with Iverson joined on stage by British pianists, Adam Fairhall and Alexander Hawkins – an exhilarating, sometimes thrilling, examination of the links between British music in the first decades of the last century and jazz, between the likes of Percy Grainger of English Country Garden fame and syncopation. And one of the most musically satisfying and surprising, enjoyable, educative and entertaining musical events I’ve attended.

Iverson – he late of The Bad Plus – clearly knows, as anyone familiar with his blog, Do The M@th, will know, a lot about a lot of things, things musical in particular; one of his more obsessive areas of interest [about as obsessive as his interest in crime fiction] seeming to be British music & composition. Who knew, for instance [well, obviously, Iverson did] that when Will Marion Cooke’s African-American revue, In Dahomey, played London’s Shaftesbury Theatre on the 16th May, 1903, Percy Grainger was in the audience and was inspired to write a piano piece of the same name in a syncopated, ‘raggy’ style. Nor that in 1923 Constant Lambert went to the London Pavilion to see Dover Street to Dixie, featuring the orchestra of black musicians led by Will Vodery. An experience, Iverson says, which led Lambert towards the use of syncopation in his work, including the 1929 Piano Sonata.

The link, Iverson says, between Cook, Vodery, Grainger and Lambert is the Duke, Duke Ellington. But, instead of me further pillaging his blog, why don’t I step aside in favour of Iverson’s own words?

Duke Ellington is a linking theme. Will Marion Cook and Will Vodery were two of Ellington’s teachers and mentors. Both Grainger and Lambert knew and respected Ellington. There’s a picture of Grainger with Ellington when Grainger invited Ellington to he NYU classroom in 1932. Lambert (who had a major career as a feisty critic) was one of Ellington’s most vocal supporter in the 1930s, writing in the famously caustic Music Ho! that Ellington ” … has crystallised the popular music of our time and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz'”

So, what actually happened? Iverson introduced the subject before chatting a while with Fairhall and Hawkins. Then he played Grainger’s In Dahomey and the first movement of Lambert’s Piano Sonata; Hawkins [stretching further back in time] played William Byrd’s ‘First Pavan & Galliard’, with a nod towards the recording by Glenn Gould; Fairhall, to my delight, played Winifred Atwell and Billy Mayerl; they each played a composition by Ray Noble, Iverson doing the honours with ‘Cherokee; and, finally, all three sat at the same piano to take Grainger’s ‘Country Gardens’ to places I doubt it’s composer would or could have envisaged.

Brilliant!

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Adam Fairhall in action