Jazz

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New (Part Two) — Look Back in Delight

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Music that Soothes the Soul

Veronneau: Jazz Samba Project, with Lynn Veronneau and husband Ken Avis (far right)

It was such a pleasure to have met and chatted with musician Ken Avis (albeit briefly) on Saturday, June 7, 2014, after the Jazz Samba Project Symposium. A former organizational development consultant with the World Bank Group, Ken is a sharp and knowledgeable music lover, especially of Brazil’s music. I congratulated him and his co-curator, Georgina Javor, for a most enjoyable and thoroughly professional presentation, which brought a variety of speakers together. Among them were teacher, lecturer, musician and journalist David R. Adler; teacher, composer and bassist Leonardo Lucini; editor, producer and NPR host Tom Cole; multi-Emmy Award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene; and professor and author Charles A. Perrone.

The symposium itself was a huge success, as was my talk the following Sunday afternoon with drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt (see the following link to my interview: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/). Buddy turned out to be a terrific interview subject: involved, alert and ready with a memorable line or two. It was incredible how he managed to recall events from fifty years back with such facility, and in precise detail. And having Jazz Samba’s original sound engineer Ed Greene on the stage and alongside him was icing on the bossa nova cake.

My only regret was that my wife and I missed the Sunday afternoon performance of Ken’s group Veronneau with German-born harmonicist Hendrik Meurkens. Regrettably, we had to rush back to our hotel to catch the shuttle to Dulles Airport. I also regret not having seen the world premiere of Ken Avis and Bret Primack’s documentary, Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World.  I asked Ken afterwards if and when the documentary would be made public, either online or on his group’s Website. He was kind enough to send me the link to Primack’s YouTube channel where I could watch the film “in the raw.” Ken assured me it was chock full of fascinating tidbits that a history maven and pop-music buff such as myself would be thrilled to have at my disposal.

While we’re on the subject, Ken also provided me with a copy of a CD he recorded in 2012. Under the title Jazz Samba Project, it was his group’s homage to the milestone Jazz Samba album from 1962. My initial thought was that it was smooth sounding, suave and sophisticated, as only bossa nova was meant to be. The lilting rhythms and additional percussion effects were added virtues, while his wife Lynn’s easy-going vocals fit in beautifully with what I like to refer to as the “Astrud aesthetic” (named after Astrud Gilberto, the former wife of bossa nova pioneer, João Gilberto, who shot to stardom on the strength of her English-language rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema”).

I did have a few reservations with Lynn’s Portuguese pronunciation, though. Heck, even pop singer Lani Hall, one of two artists featured (the other being Janis Hansen) with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 on their many A&M albums, wasn’t all that perfect. Still, it did not detract from the generally relaxed vibes I got from the players. And the recording venue, All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., where the original Jazz Samba sessions took place, was heaven sent. While duplicating three of the selections from the original record (“È Luxo Só,” “One Note Samba,” and “Samba Triste”), Veronneau also covered the Bob Marley tune “Waiting in Vain,” Jorge Ben’s perennial “Más Que Nada,” Jobim-Mendonça-Gimbel’s “Meditation,” one of Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes’ afro-sambas, “Samba Saravah,” the Joseph Kosma-Johnny Mercer standard “Autumn Leaves,” and lastly Jobim’s “Wave.”

Getting back to the bossa nova documentary, Ken mentioned to me that “it’s still a work in progress and won’t see the light of day formally until [he and Bret] are able to raise a bit more money for film festival showings, etc.” All the same, Ken urged me to take a gander at it. “I’m sure you will have seen many of the clips before,” he added, “but there’s a lot of new original interview material in there too. There are some things we will change but this is it as of today!”

Bandleader, musician, lecturer, producer and playwright Ken Avis (Photo: Strathmore)

Ken was absolutely spot-on regarding the documentary. There were clips (most of them from second-generation footage) that I had never seen before: a rare showing of composer-guitarist Luiz Bonfá with Perry Como performing “A Day in the Life of a Fool” (known in Brazil as “Manhã de Carnaval”), the persnickety João Gilberto in an extended take on “Desafinado,” glimpses of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd in concert, Elis Regina with Tom Jobim hamming it up on “Águas de março” (“Waters of March”), Vinicius and Tom in a rendition of “Felicidade,” and an interview with Charlie Byrd’s brother, Joe Byrd. In that one, Joe Byrd claimed, in his elegantly patrician Virginia accent, that brother Charlie called on the services of “two German drummers” — Philadelphia-born Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach — to man the rhythm section (see the link to the video: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjE3au2p4TXAhVBfiYKHVpiA2EQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fvimeo.com%2F95835648&usg=AOvVaw0ijjbYF5DjAkC6YrGGGL7s ).

As for my talk with the “German drummer” William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III (who is of Danish ancestry on his mother’s side), Ken had this to say: “I wish I could have caught the Sunday morning session — I heard from a couple of people who had been there, including the [Brazilian] drummer Vanderlei Pereira that it was interesting and entertaining. I [felt that] Buddy and his companions had a really good time at the festival and were delighted at the opportunity to be part of it, which for me is one of the best things we achieved.”

I asked Ken if he had ever heard of David Chesky and his audiophile label, Chesky Records. “I can recommend many of their CDs,” I wrote back, “especially the one called Club de Sol that highlighted composer-musician Chesky on piano with Brazilian percussionist Café, who my wife and I had met when we lived in New York (see the following link to my story, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/jazz-cant-resist-brazil/). “It’s a wonderful album of all original material, very bossa-nova tinged and jazz oriented — plus it swings, man, it swings! I guarantee you will love it if you haven’t heard it yet.

“I also have two of their earlier compilations (they double as sound checks, too), some of which featured singer Ana Caram, guitarist Badi Assad (she is part of an incredibly talented guitar-playing family that includes her two brothers, Sergio and Odair Assad), Livingston Taylor (James Taylor’s brother), Orquesta Nova, and a bunch of others. It’s all very eclectic stuff.”

My suggestion must have caught Ken’s ear. He wrote back to me after about a week: “When you mentioned Chesky I was aware of the label and a couple of days later I pulled out a compilation CD from them which I had bought years ago. It introduced me to [Bahian-born] Rosa Passos, who had a version of “Girl from Ipanema,” a Colombian singer Marta Gomez, who did a beautiful arrangement of “Cielito Lindo,” and included a bunch of other great tracks such as a bass and male vocal version of “Round Midnight.” If we were with a label, that’s the one I’d like to be with!”

With that said, I made up my mind to write to videographer and music journalist Bret Primack directly and introduce myself. Having put in a plug for one of my all-time favorite albums, I decided to pull out a couple of those Chesky CDs I had told Ken about. As I began to peruse the contents, lo and behold, I realized that Bret had written the liner notes himself. No wonder Ken knew about the label!

Call Me, On the Line

Videographer and music journalist Bret Primack (Photo: Optimise, Kathleen Witten-Hannah)

It was no surprise to me that Bret was a Brazilian music lover, as were David and his brother Norman Chesky. They owned (and founded) the Chesky Records label back in the late 1980s and continue to do so today. I quickly answered back: “I love their stuff! I have several excellent CDs of theirs including the two demo discs, which I still use on occasion to get the imaging right on my speakers.”

I felt an inspiration coming. Here is the gist of what I wrote to Bret: “I got your e-mail address from Ken Avis, who I met last weekend at the Strathmore after the Jazz Samba Symposium. Ken was kind enough to send me the video link to your film, Bossa Nova: The Music that Seduced the World, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My congratulations! I know he spoke with you about the making of, and genesis, of the film. I’d like to correspond with you about it, if you have some free time.

“The interesting thing is that I recommended several recordings to Ken of Brazilian music on the Chesky label. He told me he was familiar with the label. The CDs I suggested were a recital by [Brazilian jazz singer] Leny Andrade with pianist Fred Hersch — in particular, her powerful singing of the song “Wave,” which I think is a standout; and David’s Club de Sol. I would have added Herbie Mann’s Caminho de Casa (see the link to my article about this album: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/a-brazilian-at-heart-for-jazz-artist-herbie-mann-brazil-was-home-too/), but his name did not come up in our conversation.

“Coincidently, I pulled out Caminho de Casa and a Luiz Bonfá CD (also on Chesky) called Non-Stop to Brazil, both of which are favorites of mine. As I looked over the liner notes, I noticed that YOU wrote the notes! I knew, by the way you and Ken had discussed bossa nova in your film, that you must love or at least be familiar with Brazilian music. I had no idea you wrote the liner notes to my favorite works!” I also told Bret about my having met the percussionist Café.

“Please let me know if we can discuss your film. I even suggested to Ken a possible avenue for funding your project via the Audiovisual and Rouanet Laws in Brazil (I don’t know if they apply here, but you can most certainly give it a try). Ken told me he was going to check into them as well. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you.”

After several false starts, I was able to speak to Bret. I had no idea the Chesky brothers were his cousins! We had a most satisfactory conversation, for which I thanked Ken. Bret hailed from the suburbs of New York. He started booking bands while still a teenager. Wherever he went, Bret met up with Brazilians who were passionate jazz and music lovers. After years in the city, Bret moved out West — to Tucson, Arizona, where he set up a jazz video outlet. He became known as the Jazz Video Guy. Some of his YouTube videos include “Miles Davis, the Picasso of Jazz,” and a series about the life and work of saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In our talk, Bret hinted that in order to complete the Bossa Nova film project he would need access to better archival footage as well as additional funding sources. Perhaps a trip to Brazil would be in order.

What really got my attention was that Ken mentioned using the unexplored avenue of the theater, by way of a play about the coming of bossa nova to the U.S. (specifically, the Washington, D.C. area). I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss, via our e-mail correspondence, a ready-made theater piece that many authorities consider to be the first (and, to date, only) bossa nova musical. That would be Pobre Menina Rica or “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a 1964 play (in the form of a cabaret piece) with lyrics and text by none other than Vinicius de Moraes, and songs by Carlos Lyra, a still-living icon of the bossa nova era.

Carlos Lyra, Nara Leao, Vinicius de Moraes (with Aloysio de Oliveira, standing) – Pobre Menina Rica (1964)

I told Ken that I had a CD of the music, as well as the original text (in both Portuguese and English) in my possession. “You can read about the musical in Ruy Castro’s book Chega de Saudade, translated under the title Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World” — a not inconsequential resemblance to Primack and Avis’ film title.

Suffice it to say that the plot line and music for Pobre Menina Rica are definitely of its time. The story is of the “poor-boy-meets-rich-girl” variety, result: love at first sight, the sort of innocent, innocuous fling that prevailed in the mid-1960s. The best examples I could think of were those Frankie Avalon-Annette Funnicello “beach blanket bingo” flicks from the same period. It may not have been what Ken was looking for, but it did touch on themes related to class differences (one of the main characters is a crippled Afro-Brazilian slum dweller, highly reminiscent of Porgy from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). Nara Leão and Elis Regina were originally pegged to star in the show when it premiered. In fact, Lyra wrote the musical with Nara in mind: she’s the titular “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which as we know was the title of a Noël Coward song.

I offered to send Ken the text to read over. “You can probably download some of the songs online as well.  If this perks your interest, I can even reach out to my friends in Brazil, Claudio Botelho and Charles Moëller (of Moëller-Botelho) who I have written about extensively on my blog.” For years, Carlos Lyra had been dying for someone to bring his play either to Broadway or to North American theaters in some capacity. It was another way of approaching Ken’s idea, but from a different angle, outside of writing something from scratch (which is more difficult).

However, Ken decided to give the project his own spin, the result of which was an original play called Bossa Fever! — When Samba met Jazz in 1960s Washington DC, with music by his band Veronneau. The world premiere took place in 2015 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in D.C., as part of the INTERSECTIONS 2015 Festival (here’s the YouTube link to the show: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjg06GilYTXAhVFWCYKHXQjCRwQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXadG42P5DuA&usg=AOvVaw13PclTp0Xgyoy_XEBq2EFk).

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Four): Dial ‘M’ for Mo’ Better Movies

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Bleek (Denzel Washington) practicing his scales in Mo' Better Blues
Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) practicing imaginary scales in Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Play for Your Supper

From the reverse racism and self-loathing of A Soldier’s Story to the lofty sentiments expressed in his Oscar® winning performance as Private Trip in Glory, Denzel Washington was on his way to forging an outstanding career as one of Hollywood’s most reliable — and versatile — screen actors.

He already won more hearts with honey than with vinegar in the delightful comedy-crime drama The Mighty Quinn. Now, Denzel (or “Dee,” as he was known to intimates) was steeling himself for the musical, verbal and romantic calisthenics of his next picture, Mo’ Better Blues from 1990.

Written, produced and directed by Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, Mo’ Better Blues had the undeserved distinction of following his topical and highly controversial third feature, Do the Right Thing (1989). Suffering mixed reviews by comparison, Mo’ Better Blues is better known as the first of Denzel’s four outings (to date) with the Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-bred Mr. Lee. Their chemistry on and off the screen would, in years to come, result in what many critics would regard as both artists’ best work.

The Bleek Quintet: Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Denzel, Wesley Snipes & Bill Nunn
The Bleek Quintet + One: Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Denzel, Wesley Snipes & Bill Nunn

The action of Mo’ Better Blues revolves around Bleek Gilliam (Washington), a smooth-talking, easygoing trumpet player. Bleek, as descriptive a name as it implies, harbors a soft spot for childhood buddy Giant (the 5’6” tall Lee), who acts as his band’s no-account manager. Giant has a 24/7 gambling habit that lands him in hot water with the local bookie (Rubén Blades). Robbing Peter to pay Paul, he’s also in debt to two take-no-shit loan sharks named Madlock (Samuel L. Jackson, in a trial run for his role as hit man Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction) and Rod (Leonard L. Thomas).

As in practically all of Lee’s work, there are multiple plot lines that vie for audience attention. However, the main thrust here concerns Bleek’s love life — or rather, the dilemma of being caught between two equally bodacious babes. Who will win first place in his heart? Is it the overly ambitious, light-skinned lounge singer Clarke Betancourt (Cynda Williams) who longs to join Bleek’s jazz band, or the earthier and more level-headed Indigo Downes (Joie Lee, Spike’s real-life sister)? Complicating matters to some extent is the unassuming Bleek’s rivalry with his quintet’s tenor saxophonist, the flashy Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes).

Indigo (Joie Lee) & Bleek (Denzel) sharing down time
Indigo (Joie Lee) & Bleek (Denzel) sharing down time

In line with both his earlier and later efforts, Mo’ Better Blues expands upon Lee’s love of sports and jazz. According to the director, he basically grew up in a jazz household. This is reflected in his father, jazz musician Bill Lee’s background score, as well as the participation on the soundtrack of trumpeter Terence Blanchard with the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Blanchard coached Denzel for months on end until he felt reasonably assured the star was capable of giving the appearance of someone who could go beyond holding his horn.

“When Spike called me to do this,” Blanchard told Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather, “it seemed like a tough assignment.” Fortunately for him, Denzel had prior experience with playing the piano in high school, as he demonstrated in The Mighty Quinn. He brought to the part his customary professionalism and preparedness. Blanchard even wrote out the fingering for all the tunes and the beginning portions of his solos. “I figured that actually teaching him to play the horn was going to take too much concentration away from his acting.”

In all, Lee used his familiarity with the genre to channel the well-documented friction that existed between two legendary jazz giants, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It was common knowledge that Miles, at the time the Kind of Blue album was being cut for Columbia — while simultaneously appearing in nightclub dates with “Trane” — would express his constant annoyance with the player’s longwinded, spiritually-motivated sax solos.

In Mo’ Better Blues, there’s a scene early on where Bleek steps backstage for a breather between sets. He runs into Giant, who takes him to task for allowing Shadow to “show off” by hogging the limelight in Bleek’s absence. Returning to the stage, Bleek gets back at both Giant and Shadow: with his dark shades and head bent low so as to commune more closely with his instrument, Bleek strikes an iconic Miles Davis-like pose as he purposely cuts short Shadow’s groove with a muted turn on his trumpet.

Bleek & Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) try to top one another
Bleek & Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) try to top one another, as Bottom (Bill Nunn) plays on

Talking with Washington about the film for the 2006 DVD edition of Inside Man, Lee acknowledged the existence of a downside to the jazzman’s lifestyle. He raised the issue of what happens when an artist devotes his entire life to his art; and then, when something unexpected happens, how it can prevent him from doing what he loves most. “What’s going to happen to [Bleek] when he can no longer play?” he queried.

Far be it for me to give away the game, but a situation eventually occurs — when Bleek steps in to save his manager from those vicious loan sharks — that changes the outcome for all concerned.

Family Time

There are two scenes of urban family life in Mo’ Better Blues that bookend the picture. In the prologue, a young Bleek (Zakee Howze) resents having to practice his trumpet. He’d rather play ball with his friends than work endlessly on his scales. But Bleek’s iron-willed mother Lillian (Abbey Lincoln) insists he finish his scales before running off into the street.

In the final scene, Bleek’s son Miles (guess who he’s named after?), also played by Howze, is seen practicing his scales. His friends call out to him from the street, pleading with Miles to come and play. Only, this time Bleek’s son is allowed to scurry off and join his pals in their game. Consequently, the film ends on a poignant note. Lee relied on the same dialogue in each of these scenes, while ingeniously utilizing subtle gradations of tone, looks and shading that, true to the nature of jazz per se, were remarkably effective in delineating character.

Young Bleek (Zakee Howze) wants to go out and play
Young Bleek (Zakee Howze) wants to go out and play ball

Speaking of character, audiences learned a thing or two from Do the Right Thing about associating Lee’s eccentric personalities with their given names. The viewer is bombarded with an assortment of colorful monikers, among them Bleek’s pianist Left Hand Lacey (Giancarlo Esposito), bass player Bottom Hammer (Bill Nunn), drummer Rhythm Jones (Jeff “Tain” Watts, the only trained musician in the group), the aforementioned Shadow, Giant and Indigo, and Moe and Josh Flatbush (John and Nicholas Turturro), the Jewish nightclub owners.

Denzel mentioned, in that same 2006 talk with Lee, that he and his cohorts were free to ad lib more in Mo’ Better Blues than in other pictures. Indeed, the nearly all-male ensemble fires off one-liners faster than those rapid-fire bebop notes Bleek practices ad infinitum in his apartment. This scene is an excellent example of what Lee calls his trademark “money shot,” i.e., the background appears in constant motion around a stationary figure or two. Here, Bleek, motionless save for the twitching of his eyes and the constant flexing of his fingertips, goes over the music in his head, whereas the camera takes a 360-degree pan of the room behind him.

The extensive use of improvisation, especially backstage, drew the gentle ire of the late Roger Ebert in his initial critique of the film. Knowing that Roger had freely admitted to limitations in his knowledge of music (many if not all of his reviews hardly mention a movie’s score), we must take issue with his assessment. This is a jazz-based feature, is it not? And, as indicated above, improvisation is the life essence of jazz. It’s what makes the music original and unique. Too, it can be a hit or miss affair, with some numbers sounding fresh and others falling flat. But that’s the chance you take when you’re trying to be innovative. Incidentally, the rambunctious Robin Harris, who passed away months before the film’s release, delivers a particularly raunchy standup routine as the motor-mouthed comic, Butterbean Jones.

Bleek entertains Clarke (Cynda Williams) in his apartment
Bleek entertains Clarke (Cynda Williams) in his apartment

Lee’s eye for detail and economy of means and time (helped in large measure by longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) contributed to the film’s most startling fantasy element: that of Bleek’s coitus interruptus, a virtuoso sequence in which he inadvertently calls Indigo by Clarke’s name, while doing the same for Clarke with Indigo’s name. The women take turns berating him for his slip-up. Meanwhile, Bleek stares blankly at one, then the other, then turns his visage toward the camera in glassy-eyed disbelief at the sheer inanity of his actions.

The issue of whether jazz was or was not the exclusive property of those who invented it is addressed in the bit where Bleek complains to Shadow that he doesn’t see his people appreciating their own music. “I see Japanese, I see West Germans in the audience,” he notes. “We will go to see some crossover created by other people, but we don’t come to see our own. It incenses me,” Bleek goes on, that “our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture. This is our music, man.”

“That’s bullshit, man!” Shadow snaps back. “Out of all the people in the world, you never gave nobody else a chance to play their own music.”

“I’m talkin’ about the audience,” Bleek shouts right back at him. Shadow is indignant. “That’s right! The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you play the shit that they like, then people will come. Simple as that.”

And if Denzel Washington and Spike Lee continue to make movies that treat their subjects with as much dignity, respect, pride and affection as they did in Mo’ Better Blues, then audiences will continue to flock to see them. It’s as simple as that!

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Jazzman Supreme — Miles Davis, Dark Prince

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Miles Davis (1936-1991), playing in France 1967
Miles Davis (1926-1991), playing in France, ca. 1967

It was that voice. Harsh, gruff, low, and gravely, like crumbled shreds of sandpaper. And that sullen personality. Surly, brooding, moody, a chip strategically perched on his shoulder. That’s what got my attention.

The first time I heard the Miles Davis sound was almost 30 years ago. The same co-worker, Mike, who had introduced me to smooth jazz and the Brazilian artists who played it also sold me on Miles.

“Got a great album for you, Joe” Mike claimed. “You’re gonna like this.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Miles,” he answered.

“Miles? You mean Miles Davis? The jazz trumpeter?

“The same.”

“Didn’t he pass away the other day?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna record him for you. Give it to you tomorrow.”

And he did. Mike gave me a cassette version, which I still own, of Miles’ late 1980s album You’re Under Arrest. I heard it later that same evening. Smooth, rich, the musical equivalent of chocolate ice cream. Miles in mellow form, both haunting and elegiac at the same time, on trumpet and flugelhorn. I loved it, couldn’t stop listening to it. Especially his take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”

The album started off with street sounds. Manhattan street sounds. Noise, crosstalk. The crosstalk turned into indecipherable chatter, rising in volume and pitch until it ended with shouting. Chaos, traffic. Police sirens, pedestrians, confrontation. The sounds of summer in New York, the city that never slumbers. Yeah…

That was Miles.

Miles and Beyond

I knew very little about the jazzman named Miles. Miles was just a name to me, like so many others. But the more I listened, the more I needed to know. His full name was Miles Dewey Davis III, christened after his father, a ranch owner and successful dentist. Miles came from East St. Louis, Illinois, of solid middle-class stock. Even then, pre-war, it was as tough a place as any for a shy kid like Miles to be raised in. I should know, having grown up in the South Bronx.

Back then, I knew next to nothing about Miles’ music. I knew he played jazz. Traditional jazz. Jazz with a capital “J.” He also played bop and cool jazz. From cool jazz came bossa nova, so claimed my friend Mike. And from bossa nova, back to jazz again — or smooth jazz, as it was now called. Terrific stuff.

His albums were classics. Bitches Brew served up innovative jazz fusion mixed with rock. It featured Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette — notables all, who went on to make names for themselves. And there were more names, all of them associated with Miles in one form or another. Jazz people, key figures in his life and art. Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, et al. Giants who once walked this Earth.

Bitches Brew (1969) album cover
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) album cover

There were other music styles as well. Funk, R&B, disco, pop. There were combos, big bands, quartets, octets, nonets, and such. And there were gigs, hundreds of them. Record dates, too, and club dates, and all-night jam sessions. All the things that jazzmen were known for. And, of course, the drugs. Lots of drugs. Drugs to stay awake, drugs to go to sleep. Drugs to keep on moving, drugs to slow the jazzman down.

Jam all night, jam all day, play hard, play rough, play again through the night. Get some sleep. Sleep? What’s that? Go get me a shot of whatever you’re having. And the women, there were lots and lots of women. Black, tan, white, brown. It didn’t matter. Frances Taylor, Betty Mabry (later Davis), Cicely Tyson, so many others. The names came, and they went.

When Miles traveled to Paris, he met and fell hard for Juliette Greco, a dark-haired beauty, a French singer-actress. Their affair was unlike any other in the City of Light, but they were on opposite ends of the jazz thermometer: she was hot, he was cool. Miles was treated with respect while he was in France. Almost like a king, but more like a prince. A dark prince. Not like in America, where he was beaten up and bloodied. He dreaded going back home.

He married and divorced often, as did his contemporary, the poet, musician, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, in Rio. Miles put his women on a pedestal, or on his album covers which were the next best thing. The albums became noteworthy because of them: Some Day My Prince Will Come, E.S.P., Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and lastly Bitches Brew. The beauty of black women, for all to see, graceful and sleek, up front and personal — in your face and in your home, lovely to look at as well as to listen to. The music, that is.

He had a violent streak, what we call “anger management” issues, which he took out on the women. Battered and bruised, what he had taken from his own brutish treatment he doled out in like form.

Yeah, that was Miles.

Miles Mannered   

Miles was neat and trim, strong and hearty, cut from the finest cloth. His frame was angular and small; eyes large, white background and bulbous, black fire in his pupils. His skin was black as well, dark and glistening, it gleamed brilliantly in the light as sweat poured down over his finely sculpted features.

In the early days Miles kept his hair short, neatly cropped and trimmed and even all around. Later, he sported a Black Power “’fro,” de rigueur for African-Americans of the late 60s and 70s, and later still it came down in tresses to his shoulders, then not so broad as in his youth. He refused to wear a beard or a goatee. That was for sissies! Dizzy had a little fuzz between his lip and chin, and was fond of his beret. Miles preferred the lean and hungry look. No sense covering up that face. He was stylish to a fault, flaunting his taste for the finer things in life.

Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)
Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)

He was a snazzy dresser, too, with shirts that were always starched and neatly pressed, and immaculately tailored suits. Slacks long and trim, covering his spindly legs. Shoes polished to a high buff shine. When psychedelia became all the rage, Miles chose carefully coordinated, colorfully flowing garments, wide-sleeved vestments made of the purest silk. Radical chic, I would think.

That was Miles.

Then there was the music: spare, lean, no bullshit; all killer, no filler. Ballads and mid-tempo numbers were his specialty. Cut to the chase, that was his maxim. The arch romantic in sound. Unlike his contemporaries, Miles lacked a virtuoso’s command of his instrument. That’s all right. We loved him anyway. Many didn’t. More fools them!

Herbie Hancock told a story once about an early recording session with the great man himself. Fumbling for guidance, Herbie was told to sit down at an electric piano, a Fender-Rhodes, something he had never seen before.

Herbie turned to Miles and queried: “Miles, what do you want me to play?”

Miles, hoarse, pointed at the instrument and growled back a reply. “Play that, motherfucker.”

Just another one of his quirks. His language was salty, mean. It cut to the bone, as sharp as a serpent’s tooth, so said Shakespeare. Like his music, it went to the meat of the matter. It signaled to all comers, “Don’t mess with me, motherfucker.” It was all just a cover, though, Miles’ way of overcoming his ever-present shyness, add to it the loneliness, the hurt, the despair that all jazzmen carry with them.

He called people an infinite variety of the “F” bomb. On anyone else’s lips, it might have sounded gross or revolting. Coming from Miles, it felt like poetry. How many ways could he say “fuck,” “shit,” or “motherfucker,” and still make them sound fresh and true, joyous and endearing, sad and tragic? To him, they were more than just verbs or epithets, more than just adjectives or nouns; they were every permutation in between. Like bop, hard-bop and modal, they were as much a part of his repertoire and makeup as everything else.

If he liked you, he would call you a “motherfucker.” No offense intended, none taken. If he hated you, or you angered him, he’d say the same thing: “That guy was a motherfucker.” The words may have been similar, but the context was something else entirely. You’d have to be smart enough to discern the difference. He demanded it. No apologies necessary, none given.

That, too, was Miles.

I Can See for Miles

Then, there were the records. Tons and tons of them. Thank God for that! We have him preserved for us, and for all time: first on vinyl, then in CD format; an Egyptian treasure trove of solid gold. A bountiful harvest, one might add. The early hits: Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Quiet Nights.

Gil Evans, a Canadian by birth, arranged them. Miles Davis played his heart out for him on them. Black man, white man, making music together as musician and friend, close friends to be exact. Miles loved Gil, and Gil loved him back. “Gil and I hit it off right away,” Miles recalled in his autobiography. “I could relate to his musical ideas and he could relate to mine. With Gil, the question of race never entered; it was always about music … He was a beautiful person who just loved to be around musicians.”

Giles Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957
Gil Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957

Then came the later fusion stuff, the jazz-pop albums, and the Quincy Jones-produced pop-art pieces. And, of course, the final concert, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux — a latter-day classic. This was Miles reliving the past — the glory years, if you must — rediscovering a lost love for the dearly departed, his pal Gil Evans, and those groundbreaking arrangements. The artist came alive again, through his music and his artistry, taking center stage.

The last years were difficult ones. He looked weather beaten. Illness of body and mind had taken their toll; the formerly ironclad frame had turned thin and frail from too much of, well, pretty much everything. The face was spared but the rest ached and screamed in pain. Sex, drugs, hard living, hard knocks, the harshness of the jazzman’s life. Then death.

Finally, the accolades. Basie was Count, Ellington was Duke, but Miles … he was Prince. The Dark Prince — always was, always would be. The darkness never left him. First in line to the jazzman’s crown. Writer, jazz buff, entrepreneur and videographer Bret Primack dubbed him the Picasso of Jazz. Hmm, some truth in that. But that’s not quite it. Sure, Miles changed with the times, transforming himself, reinventing himself every few years. His clothes and hair changed along with him. But his manners stayed the same. Picasso lived longer, well into his 90s. Miles died relatively young. He was 65, a lot older than most jazzmen of his day. But a Picasso? Well, maybe….

Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)
Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)

He was more Paganini, the greatest concert violinist of his day. Paganini made a pact with the Devil, to play the Devil’s music as only the Devil could play it. Miles, too, must’ve bargained with Old Beelzebub, or some higher authority. I can hear him now: “Come on, man, gimme one more chance. One more shot at immortality. Lemme play my old stuff again. Huh? Sheeyut! Whatta ya say, Bub?”

Heh! That Devil never knew what hit him. If anything, Miles got the best of that deal. He got one more gig to play, and several thereafter. He lived and he loved, and he played and played and played, almost to his last breath. They couldn’t wait for him in Heaven.

As Miles Davis approached the Pearly Gates, he saw that St. Peter, the gatekeeper, wasn’t around. Carrying his trumpet under his arm, Miles walked up to the Gates in a leisurely stroll, to the fellow who was there and asked, “Hey, man, where’s St. Peter? And who the hell are you?”

The figure looked up and responded. “I’m the Archangel Gabriel. Peter sent me ahead to greet you.”

Miles answered. “He did, huh?” Fidgeting with his trumpet to hide his restlessness, Miles inquired, “So, Gabriel, what do you want me to play?”

Grabbing hold of Miles’ trumpet, Gabriel pointed to a harp nearby. He smiled wickedly at Miles and replied, “Play that, motherfucker!”

THAT’S Miles Davis.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘What is Bossa Nova?’ — Variations on a Theme by One of the Genre’s Cultural Icons

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Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)
Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)

It’s not often that one gets to communicate with a living legend.

Carlos Lyra — known also by the diminutive “Carlinhos” — is anything but diminutive in his talent and in his abilities. A marvelous singer, songwriter, performer and recording artist, as well as a raconteur par excellence, Lyra, whose name is synonymous with his favorite instrument, the “lyre” (or rather, our modern-day guitar), was present at the dawn of Bossa Nova. His collaborations with such giants of the genre as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Stan Getz, Marcos Valle, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Nara Leão and others is well known to fans of the period.

Now in his early 80’s, Carlos continues to explore the essence of the music he first heard and loved as a boy growing up in the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo, in Rio de Janeiro.  

Fresh from a live show at the Vivo Rio nightclub with longtime friend and associate, Roberto Menescal, and singer-guitarist Toquinho, the ageless icon has kindly consented to the use of his original blog entry entitled (in Portuguese) “O Que é Bossa Nova?” (“What is Bossa Nova?”). In this highly cultivated piece, Carlos shares with readers the myriad factors that helped shape Brazil’s music and culture.

It’s a view shared strongly by this author as well.   

WHAT IS BOSSA NOVA?

Recently I gave an interview about Bossa Nova for the BBC in London. Knowing that I faced a well-informed audience, I expanded upon my usual responses in a way that was almost cathartic. It became apparent to me that Bossa Nova is a most misunderstood phenomenon that deserves some additional considerations.

To begin with, Bossa Nova shares a strong affinity with the thirteenth century Provençal School, also known as Fin Amors [or “courtly love”]. It was there that Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lion Heart, became acknowledged as the poet who surrounded herself with troubadours and minstrels that, through the sound of the lute (the ancestor of the guitar) composed ballads that were whispered in ladies’ ears.

Similarly, Bossa Nova is also whispered and never yelled. Romantic and elegant, yet never vulgarized, it conforms to the description set forth by filmmaker Luis Buñuel in the movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Indeed, for Bossa Nova is nothing more than a product of Rio de Janeiro’s middle class that addresses itself to the world’s middle class. A middle class in Rio that, besides our Cariocas, took in a Bahian by the name of João Gilberto, the capixabas [people from Espirito Santo] Roberto Menescal and Nara Leão, paraibanos [people from the Northeast] such as Geraldo Vandré, João Donato from the state of Acre, and from São Paulo, Sergio Ricardo and Wanda Sá, as well as future songwriter Toquinho.

Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira, Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)
Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira (above him), Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)

It should be noted that during my lifetime as a performer, I came across something curious: that artistic talent is completely independent of intelligence, culture, good character and mental or physical stability. I have met or heard about artists endowed with undeniable excellence, but who were devoid of one or another of the qualities or gifts mentioned above.

A composer of Bossa Nova who cherishes his art suffers a series of influences that begin with the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, along with [the music of] Bach, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Brahms and Schumann. He suffers the influence of bolero from Mexico by [the likes of] Agustín Lara, Gonzalo Curiel and Maria Grever — the same bolero that in Brazil took the form of samba-canção; of the French songwriters Charles Trenet and Henri Salvador.

In quick succession, by the influence of the five major American composers: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers; and by the following artists, i.e., Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Barney Kessel, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet who, much as we ourselves were, are identified with West Coast Jazz.

Finally, Bossa Nova owes its existence to an effervescent cultural outbreak (not a movement, as many have wrongly stated) that took place in Brazil during the 1950s and which manifested itself on the stage with the Arena Theater of São Paulo, the Brazilian Comedy Theater [or “TBC”], Teatro dos Quatro and Teatro Oficina. In the visual arts with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica and Wesley Duke Lee, among others. In architecture with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa and Burle Marx.

In the automotive industry and in the sports world with Pelé and Garrincha at the Soccer World Cup; with Éder Jofre in boxing, Maria Esther Bueno in tennis, Ademar Ferreira da Silva in the triple jump, and with the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant where Iêda Maria Vargas was crowned.

Bossa Nova was, nothing more, nothing less, than the musical background to it all.

Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016
Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016

As to the name “Bossa Nova,” that came about during a presentation we gave, in 1958, at the University Hebrew Group in Flamengo: myself, Silvinha Telles, Menescal, Ronaldo Bôscoli and Nara. There was a sign on the club’s door with our names on it, followed by the words “… and the Bossa Nova.” I asked the producer and director of the social club what that meant. His response was: “That’s the name I invented for you.” So we adopted it. We learned later that this creative little Jew had moved to Israel.

After that, we never heard from him again.

CARLOS LYRA — Guest Contributor

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2016

(English translation by Josmar Lopes, and printed with the gracious permission of Carlos Lyra and Magda Botafogo)

Link to the original entry on Carlos Lyra’s blog, ALÉM DA BOSSA NOVA: http://carlos-lyra.blogspot.com/2016/01/o-que-e-bossa-nova.html

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New, and What’s New Gets Old Fast

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Of Concerts and Symposiums

The Felix E. Grant "Wall of Fame" at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014
The Felix E. Grant “Wall of Fame” at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014

What’s old is new. And what’s new gets old fast.

This was the takeaway from my visit in June 2014 to the Strathmore Music and Arts Center in North Bethesda, Maryland. As part of their week-long celebration, “Bringing Bossa Nova to the United States,” and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album Jazz Samba recorded by Stan Getz and the Charlie Byrd Trio, I was invited to take part in the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium on Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Among the featured events that week was the world premiere rough-cut screening of the documentary Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Charmed the World, directed and produced by videographer Bret Primack and co-produced by music journalist, educator, guitarist, and bandleader Ken Avis, along with a Q & A session with Buddy Deppenschmidt, who played on the classic Jazz Samba. I had the immense pleasure of meeting and interviewing the famed jazz drummer, performer, and teacher on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at the Strathmore Music Center’s Education Room 309, which I have previously written about and posted (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/)

Prior to our interview, my wife Regina and I took an extensive tour of the Jazz Samba Project Exhibit, co-curated by Georgina Javor, the Strathmore’s former Director of Programming, and the aforementioned Mr. Avis. The exhibit showed only a small fraction of the extensive Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, at the University of the District of Columbia, which was itself curated by Dr. Judith A. Korey, Professor of Music, whom I also met and spoke to.

Felix E. Grant was a local Washington, D.C. radio broadcaster who took a personal interest in bringing jazz and Brazil’s music and culture to American shores. It was a fabulous exhibit! We were extremely pleased with its breadth and scope, in particular the “walls of sound” (my term) wherein album covers of well known and obscure recordings from the late 1950s up through the mid-60s were displayed up-and-down and across the room’s walls. We had some truly memorable moments re-visiting and re-connecting with bossa nova greats (and not-so-greats) from years past. The entire display reflected a high degree of professionalism and respect for Brazilian music — a most satisfying experience for us.

One of the highlights was a prominently showcased, generously proportioned coffee-table tome (a copy of which I subsequently ordered online) entitled Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s, and from which the above exhibition was drawn.

My wife Regina marveling at singer Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova - June 2014
My wife Regina marveling at Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova – June 2014

Published in 2010 by Soul Jazz Books, a division of Soul Jazz Records, this hardcover volume is a collection of bossa nova record album cover art work from the Odeon, Elenco, Philips, and other labels from the period in question. It was compiled by Gilles Peterson, a British-based DJ, record collector, and record label owner, and Stuart Baker, the founder and proprietor of the Soul Jazz label.

Between its covers were featured breathtakingly beautiful modernist and revolutionary designs (some hinting at the coming “psychedelic” era) that reflected “the radical and exciting idealism of Brazil at the start of the 1960s,” an idealism that was quickly squashed with the advent of the military dictatorship post-1964 and the subsequent crackdown of 1968.

The fading memory of those bitter times and my fellow Brazilians’ nearly two-decade long struggle to free themselves from the generals’ iron grip have left some young people — and a growing number of old-timers with faulty recollections — with an alarming nostalgia for “the way things were.” This self-deluded yearning for the purported “good old days,” where Ordem e Progresso (“Order and Progress”) — curiously, the country’s motto stamped on the Brazilian flag — remains an unrealized promise, will serve as an excellent example of our penchant for hankering after a non-existent past.

My observation above of things that are old being new and those that are new getting old stems as well from a Friday evening concert of June 6, 2014, by Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias and the Grammy Award-winning Niteroi-born singer-musician Sérgio Mendes and his band. Both Sérgio and Eliane have long pedigrees in the pop-music business going back many decades.

Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes - Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014
Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes – Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014

In Eliane’s case, her piano playing craft on the night of the concert was anything but old. Quite the contrary, she displayed finger-snapping pep and vigor to burn on the old 88s. Her treatment of material by Jobim, Ary Barroso, and Ronaldo Bôscoli, in addition to some of her own compositions, was well-nigh perfect, with just the right amount of zing and pizzazz in all the right places. Eliane was helped by a crack band of first-rate players, consisting of husband Marc Johnson on upright bass and the carioca-born Rafael Barata on drums. Barata made a particularly spectacular impression with his lightning-fast solos and fancy stick-work — why, the man was a veritable human octopus!

The second half of the program, which starred Mendes on keyboards and vocals, and his wife Gracinha Leporace as soloist providing backup support, included toward the end a re-imagined “rap” version of Jorge Ben Jor’s signature “Mas Que Nada” tune — fine and dandy in execution, but hardly an audience favorite with the over-50 crowd that predominated — and a final encore of Mendes, John Powell, Carlinhos Brown, Mikael Mutti, and Siedah Garrett’s “Real in Rio” from their 2011 animated collaboration Rio (produced by Blue Sky Studios) that fell flat and virtually sucked the air out of the good vibes left over from “Mas Que Nada.”

Mixing the old with the new, then, turned out to not only to be a mixed bag but one that left a big, fat hole in an otherwise excellent program shared by two established Brazilian artists.

The Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Before I get into the particulars of the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium, let me recount what led up to my participation in that weekend invitational. It was Buddy Deppenschmidt himself who informed me about this event in Bethesda. He sent me the link back in mid-March 2014, which I swiftly checked out. As I did so, my wife called me to say that somebody from the Jazz Samba Fest had phoned my home asking for additional information. Now that was quick! My wife tried to get the name of the lady who called, but was unable to understand the semi-garbled message.

My initial thought, if indeed I’d ever get the rare opportunity to be up there with the Giants of Jazz Samba and Bossa Nova, was to discuss Black Orpheus (that is, the original play and musical), how it all came about, how the Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim partnership came together, and all that jazz. Might as well put my knowledge to good use, at least that was my impression, since I had been involved in trying to bring the project to Broadway for the last, what, six or more years!

Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall -- Strathmore, June 2014
Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall at the Strathmore, June 2014

Finally, I received an e-mail from Ms. Georgina Javor, the young lady who had called my home. She would love to have me attend some of the festivities and asked if I had ever moderated any discussions before? I told her that yes, I had moderated a few as well as interviewed several personalities in the recent past, and that I would love to moderate the Q & A session with Buddy.

Georgina spelled out the terms of my participation, to which I accepted. In addition, she kindly provided tickets to the Elias-Mendes Friday night concert, which for us turned out to be the spicy topping on this all-Brazilian pastry.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

It’s ‘Jazz Samba’ Time! Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Landmark Bossa Nova Album

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Me & Buddy Deppenschmidt at Strathmore, Education Room 309, June 8, 2014
Me & Buddy Deppenschmidt at Strathmore, Education Room 309, June 8, 2014

The following is a transcript of an interview I conducted with jazz drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt, done at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, on June 8, 2014, as part of the Jazz Samba Symposium dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album, Jazz Samba.

William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt Jr. is an internationally respected performer, recording artist, and teacher who has been a member of the Newtown School of Music staff since the 1960s. Currently, Buddy teaches and is the artist in residence at the Community Conservatory of Music located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He studied with Dave Levin in Philadelphia, with classical percussionist Arthur Dextradeur, and with the legendary Joe Morello who was the long-time drumming sensation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Still active and going strong at 79, Buddy has toured the world and continues to lead an all-star band, Jazz Renaissance. His work appeared on three major motion picture soundtracks, six major record labels, and over 40 CDs. In addition, he has biographical listings in both Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties and Barry Kernfeld’s New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.

Josmar Lopes – Now, to set the stage for what occurred in the 1960s, let me give you a little bit of background. Between the years 1958 and 1962, several incidents took place that would bring the country, people, and music of Brazil into sharper focus. It started off with Brazil beating Sweden, 5-2, at the World Cup. That was June 29, 1958. That occurred with the aid of a 17-year-old sensation named Pelé. A few weeks later, João Gilberto, a shy and reclusive – some would say obsessive-compulsive – singer/guitarist from Bahia recorded a 78-rpm single for Odeon Records. You remember the name of the song, Buddy?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – “Chega de Saudade.”

Josmar Lopes – “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”) by the hit songwriting team of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. A year later, on June 12, 1959, Black Orpheus, a film shot on location in Rio during Carnival time, was released in France. This film, with music by Jobim, Vinicius, and Luiz Bonfá, another well known Brazilian musician, was an international sensation. It went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and the Golden Globe Award.

Now let’s move another year ahead, [to] April 21, 1960. Brazil inaugurated its futuristic new capital city of Brasilia. It was the brainchild of its then-president, Juscelino Kubitschek, or as he was known to Brazilians, “Jota Ka” (JK). His motto, “Fifty years in five,” was his promise to bring the Brazilian nation into the twentieth century. I think those five years are just about up. In November of 1960, another JK – JFK to be exact – was inaugurated president of the United States. It was part of that Kennedy administration’s cultural exchange program that in March of 1961 the US State Department sent Charlie Byrd on a three-month, 18-country tour of Latin America. The trio included Charlie Byrd, the guitarist, Keter Betts on bass, and our guest Buddy on drums. The year after that, right Buddy, remember the date … 1962, Jazz Samba?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah, February 13. Three days before my birthday.

Buddy Deppenschmidt with berimbau (ca. 1960s)
Buddy Deppenschmidt with berimbau (ca. late 1960s)

Josmar Lopes – Happy belated birthday! Jazz Samba was recorded at the All Souls Unitarian Church right here in D.C. The album was released on April 20, 1962 and it charted for 70 weeks. It sold half a million copies in 18 months. It was the only jazz album ever to top the pop and jazz Billboard charts. And in 2010, Jazz Samba was officially inducted into…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – The Grammy Awards Hall of Fame.

Josmar Lopes – That’s right. A little bit later in 1962, if any of you remember, in October of 1962, the Missiles of October. We had the Cuban Missile crisis, with tensions heating up between Russia, Cuba, and the US. Buddy, it’s amazing that all this history was packed into just those four years: 1958 to 1962. And here we are, facing another World Cup, coincidentally, in a few weeks. I don’t know if that’s going to go off, but soccer being soccer it’ll come off all right. Brazil should score a goal in that one. But Buddy is still with us, thank goodness. And my first question to you, Buddy, about all this activity that was going on, how did a drummer from Philadelphia get swept up in this grandiose project with the State Department to visit 18 countries in three months?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I was working with a piano trio, the Newton Thomas Trio, a very good trio. And we had played Birdland, the Blue Note in Chicago. We were doing the Virginia Beach Jazz Festival and Charlie Byrd’s Trio was one of the groups that played in the festival. And Dave Brubeck was on the festival, and little did I know that fifteen years later I’d end up studying with his drummer. But Charlie heard us and we did very well on the festival. In fact, we brought the house down and it was a standing ovation and all. And we weren’t supposed to be a big deal. The Brubeck group was supposed to be the star of the festival and, all of a sudden, here we are getting a standing ovation. I was overwhelmed and I was about only 24 at the time.

Charlie Byrd (Photo: Sean Dietrich)
Charlie Byrd (Photo: Sean Dietrich)

Two nights later, into the club walks Charlie Byrd, with his drummer and his drummer’s wife and his wife. His wife slips me a note under the table. I didn’t know what to think, you know. So I said, “Pardon me, I have to go to the restroom.” And I got up and went into the restroom and I read the note, and it said: “If you’re interested in playing with my group, give me a call at this phone number and we can get together in Washington, D.C. We’ll run over a few tunes and see if it will work.” He wanted Keter’s okay, wanted to make sure Keter was happy with it. And he wanted to make sure that I would work out for him.

As it worked out, I stayed with him for about three years. It was a hard decision to make, to leave the Newton Thomas Trio, because I was quite happy with him. That’s how it all happened. All of a sudden I find that here I’m being asked to go to South America. Charlie says, “How much do you want to go to South America?” I said, 24 years old, “I don’t know. What’s the going rate for drummers to South America these days?” Because I didn’t know. So we went down there and we had a great time. The people were wonderful. I hung out mostly with the local musicians and learned a lot.

Josmar Lopes – Did you get prepped by the State Department prior to going there? Did they give you pointers on how to deal with the locals…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah….

Josmar Lopes – … because of all these political things going on?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, they said, “You’re going to have a lot of press conferences, be careful what you say. They may try to entrap you into saying things. And then put it in print in the newspaper and distort the facts a little bit.” So we had to be really careful about what we said and how we acted, our manners. We were briefed in every city: “You don’t do this in this country. It’s against the customs.” It might be something that was perfectly acceptable in the United States, and we wouldn’t mean any offense by it. But we could do something innocently and cause a big deal, a big scene. So, yeah, we got briefings in just about every city.

Josmar Lopes – How soon after you joined the Charlie Byrd Trio did you set off to South America?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It wasn’t very long at all. It was a matter of maybe weeks, not even months. The funniest part of it is that the very first night that I played with Charlie, he said, “Have you ever recorded?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, I made tapes before.” He said, “No, I mean commercial recordings.” Then I said, “Well, not really.” He said, “Well, we have a record date on Saturday.” And that was four days away. “You’re kidding!” And he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll play the tunes every night and by the end of the week you’ll know them.” He said, “We get turnover with the crowds, so we’ll play them early on, then we’ll play them again later in the evening. So you’ll get to play everything at least twice a night, for four nights.”

Josmar Lopes – You think you’d get it into your head by then.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, and it turned out just fine, it was a great record date.

Josmar Lopes – So, let’s talk about your trip to Latin America. Which country did you hit first?

Buddy (left) with Charlie Byrd (wearing hat) & Keter Betts in the back (Photo: JazzTimes)
Buddy (left) with Charlie Byrd (wearing hat) & Keter Betts in the back (Photo: JazzTimes)

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Venezuela. We played in Caracas, and then we had to do, uh, well, first of all we didn’t get much of a rest. We got a couple of hours sleep, and then we had to get our plane very early in the morning. After the concert, I was thinking, “Oh, wow, I’m going to be able to go back to the hotel and lie down and get a little rest.” There was a command performance for President Betancourt, and we had to go over to the president’s palace. There were all these guys with machine guns lined up on either side of the walkway. I didn’t have to lift the drum. Everybody was grabbing my stuff and carrying it in. And I play with no shoes on when I play drums. I had my shoes off and I was playing in my stocking feet. People were staring at my feet thinking, “This is impolite. You just don’t take your shoes off in the president’s palace.”

Josmar Lopes – I’m sure they didn’t mind once you started playing.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I explained, “Well, you know, think of it this way: if you were a piano player, would you like to play with gloves on?”

Josmar Lopes – No.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – You want to feel the keys. And I wanted to feel the pedals. I always played with no shoes.

Josmar Lopes – You can keep them on for today, Buddy.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I am, I am!

Josmar Lopes – When did you go to Brazil, afterwards?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Actually, we were only in Venezuela that one night. The next day we left and went directly to Brazil.

Josmar Lopes – Did you start in the north and work your way down south?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yes. We were in eight cities in Brazil. We were in Brazil for two weeks. It was in Salvador, Bahia, that I met a judge, Carlos Coqueijo Costa.

Josmar Lopes – Tell us about that. That’s your first encounter with Brazilian music, wasn’t it?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, he invited us all over to his house for dinner. And then after dinner, everybody got the guitar and passed it around. And everybody in the family played well. His son was a piano player, but he also played guitar well, and a drummer. They put on João Gilberto records and he put a cardboard album jacket between his knees and started playing brushes on it. Unbelievable brushes! I thought, “Wow, this is really great stuff.” So, I think we went out the very next day, Keter Betts and I went out … and bought the records of Gilberto. There were only two at the time. We bought both of them. We’d go to the [American] Embassy and borrow a little portable record player and play the records in our room. Keter would bring his bass down to my room and we would rehearse. We got it together before we ever finished the tour. We were just anxious to get the sound.

Josmar Lopes – Did you show them anything about American rhythms, American jazz drumming, or the style?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah, we hung out a lot with the musicians.

Josmar Lopes – You didn’t go to any of those State Department dinners or banquets or anything?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I went to a few, but they get boring pretty fast. And I don’t like martinis for lunch – for breakfast and lunch. By the time we would get up it would be lunchtime already for most people. We hadn’t had breakfast yet. You don’t want to go off to a cocktail party and start drinking martinis on an empty stomach. So, yeah, we hung out with local musicians more than cocktail parties. I mean, the cocktail parties went on forever. Eventually, I just started bowing out.

Josmar Lopes – Probably a good move, I’d think.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I’d have to get some rest.

Josmar Lopes – You wound up, after that occasion … Well, I might have mentioned to you that that judge that you met, Carlos Coqueijo Costa, was a friend of Vinicius de Moraes. He had even written a song that João Gilberto recorded, believe it or not, in 1973. It was called “É preciso perdoar” (“It’s Necessary to Forgive”). So that judge, the reason the family was so musical, was that he had music in his veins.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – And he never mentioned any of these things, you know.

Josmar Lopes – Ah, Brazilian modesty. Anyway, you found your tour going to Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil. Now, that led to a very interesting encounter. I’m sure the audience would like to hear about that.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – After our concert in Porto Alegre, this young girl comes up. She was probably of high school age. And she said, “We’d like to invite you over to the house for lunch tomorrow.” And I said, “Well, I’m married and have a couple of children.” And she said, “We’d like to invite you over to the house tomorrow anyway. We’re going to play you João Gilberto records.” I said, “Well, Keter and I just went out yesterday and bought those. And we’ve been listening to them.”

Josmar Lopes – Here’s Malu and a picture of Buddy teaching them the drumming, and vice versa.

Buddy with Mutinho (left) playing guitar & Malu (center), 1961
Buddy with Mutinho (left) playing guitar & Malu (center), Porto Alegre, 1961

Buddy Deppenschmidt – They were teaching me more than I was teaching them.

Josmar Lopes – There you go! That’s her in the middle.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So anyway, she said, “Well, then, we’ll teach you how to play the rhythm. My boyfriend is a drummer.” That was Mutinho, and he was a drummer, and also played [guitar], everybody played the guitar very well down there. It was just like you grow up, you learn how to play the guitar; just like you learn how to hit the baseball in this country, since you were a little kid.

Josmar Lopes – That’s a good analogy.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So everybody, the first thing you wanted to do was learn how to play the guitar. When you were old enough that we could trust you to hold it and you wouldn’t break it, now we’ll show you how to play this chord and that chord. So everybody just knew how to play guitar, everyone. I didn’t meet anyone down there that couldn’t play guitar.

Josmar Lopes – So there you are, surrounded…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – We’re surrounded, her father took off from work that day. Her grandmother was there, all her brothers and sisters were there. Her boyfriend was there, and all her friends from school. It was quite a get-together. They just sat me down and showed me how to play that rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – Did you show them some American rhythms?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Not that day, no. But I mean, there were many occasions where I would stay up all night with someone, a drummer, who couldn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese. We would turn a trash basket upside down and then turn the ice bucket upside down, have an ashtray and with a cocktail stirrer. He would show me rhythms and I would show him jazz rhythms. So it was really a cultural exchange tour, for sure.

Josmar Lopes – In the other countries you went to, did they impress you as much as the sounds that the Brazilians had made?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – They were all interesting, but I can only recall one rhythm that I fell in love with down in Colombia. It was taught to me by a drummer from Argentina.

Josmar Lopes – Oh, that makes sense!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – He was playing in the hotel room we were staying, his name was José Signo. He and I corresponded quite a bit. He would even send me rhythms written out on paper. But he taught me this one rhythm called the matecumbe, which was really an interesting rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – You demonstrated that for the [Jazz Samba] symposium yesterday.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, I did.

Josmar Lopes – Fascinating!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It’s an unusual rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – I’ve never heard anything like that.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It has one cowbell beat on the first beat of every measure, just one beat. And “konk,” two, three, four, boom “konk,” two, three, four, boom “konk …” And so you hit one bass-drum beat and one cowbell beat. And then, with your drumsticks, if these were the rims of your drum, they’d go “click, click,” you’d go “bam, click, ka-tick, ka-boom, ka-tick kam, ka-tick, ta-boom-boom, ka-tick boom-kam.”

Josmar Lopes – Sounds like rap.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So you’re hearing: “One, two, three, four, boom bah, two, three, four, boom-bah, ka-tick, tick-ka, ka-tick, tick-ka, ka-tick-tick-ka boom boom, ka-tick-bam, ka-tick-tick-ka-boom-boom, ka-tick.” Then it was such an interesting rhythm. And all the parts were very simple and sparse, but when you put them all together and at the same time, there was a lot going on there.

Josmar Lopes – A lot going on here!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – And there was nothing even close to it. I never heard anything like it. I used to play all these Arthur Murray dance parties when I was growing up. And I liked Latin rhythms a lot. I’d get those jobs because I could play the rumba, the mambo, the samba, oh, what was that called, the paso doble, the tango. And it was Arthur Murray dance party, so it was all about doing the dance steps. You had to know how to play all the different rhythms to all the dance steps. All those waltzes … It was good experience for the drummer, because you got to use your entire repertoire of rhythms.

Josmar Lopes – Getting back to Malu — Maria de Lourdes Regina Pederneiras, [but] everyone called her Malu. The young girl you met, did you have a reunion with her sometime later in life? 

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yes, she came up to visit Margie [Marjorie Danciger] and me. Margie is my best friend and she also … Well, I would call her the best manager in the world, if you want to call her a manager. She sure manages me. Anyway, Malu came up and visited us after 50 years. The funny thing is, a few years before we were talking about Malu, and Margie said, “Why don’t you call her up?” I said, “I don’t have her phone number.” She said, “Well, I’ll get her phone number.” And I don’t know how she did it, but she got online and she got the phone, and she talked to information. She ended up getting the right phone number and I called Malu and left a message. She couldn’t believe that I had found her phone number, living up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and finding her phone number in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Josmar Lopes – I’d like to show a picture of you and Malu, in October of 2010. These are the two friends after almost 50 years.

Malu & Buddy, Bucks Cty, PA, October 2010
Malu & Buddy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, October 2010

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah.

Josmar Lopes – She looks the same.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I don’t know if I should read you this, because I’m not much of a singer.

Josmar Lopes – Before [you] do, let me tell you what Malu said of your ultimate success.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah. Why don’t you read that thing that she sent to me.

Josmar Lopes – I’ll tell you, she wrote here at the time that she was a fifteen-year-old girl. Yup, “I was just a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who loved jazz and played the piano and sang bossa nova.” As a matter of fact, João Gilberto was a very close friend of her uncle. He was single and lived with his parents. There are a lot of funny stories of João Gilberto being locked in the bathroom and playing guitar all night. He was a night owl and slept all day. But she came down and saw the Charlie Byrd Trio play in Porto Alegre, and her English teacher recommended it to her classmates. She attended the show. She said here that “there was a good looking young man playing the drums. He looked so American, and was so absorbed by the music as he played. And he played so well that when the show was over I climbed up to the stage and spoke to the lady.” That was Ginny Byrd, Charlie Byrd’s wife – she was doing the singing. She was singing “Cry Me a River,” and she wrote down the lyrics for Malu and she loved it.

Charlie Byrd, with wife Ginny, Buddy in sunglasses & Keter with overcoat, 1961
Charlie Byrd, with his wife Ginny, Buddy in sunglasses & Keter with overcoat, 1961

Then she found out that you were 24 years old and married and decided to try to make friends with you. “An American musician. Imagine! And he had such good manners and was welcoming. I told him that I knew João Gilberto and that I had a friend who was a drummer and could teach [Buddy] the bossa nova beat.” You seemed quite interested, so she invited you to have lunch with the family the next day and invited Mutinho along, the drum player, and that’s what happened. Years later, this is what she said 50 years later when you picked up the conversation again and the relationship: “All of this may not have happened if we hadn’t done what we did.”

Buddy Deppenschmidt – That’s so true. And she’s just as important a player as I am in this whole picture. Because if it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have even known how to do this. And probably if it hadn’t been for my intense interest, we wouldn’t have done that. So, I was obsessed with it. I just did everything but hit Charlie over the head to make him do this thing, and finally … Charlie’s wife is the one who really convinced him to do it. I figured that was the best way to get to Charlie, it was through his wife rather than through Keter. Keter tried, but Charlie didn’t seem that excited about it at the time. And he had a reputation for playing the classical guitar and bluesy, kind of jazz stuff on the classical guitar. He figured, “Well, I better stick with this because it’s working so far. And I was saying, “No, this is just perfect for you, this is guitar music and you play guitar. You just got back from South America, and it would be so timely to do this now, rather than wait and have someone else do it. Why don’t we do it?”

Josmar Lopes – Whose suggestion was it to bring Stan Getz into the project?

Stan Getz (Photo : Getty/Frans Schellekens)
Stan Getz (Photo : Getty/Frans Schellekens)

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It was my suggestion to bring Stan Getz in. But Ginny really is the one who talked [Charlie] into doing it. Fortunately, Ginny listened to what I had to say. And many a night we would sit there in the booth, while Charlie was doing his classical set. I would say, “Look, Ginny, tell him he should do this. This is going to be a great thing for him.” I didn’t know it was going to be that great, but it really turned out to be a very good thing for him. It was good all the way around, it was good for everyone. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it hadn’t been good for me, too. So I have to admit that it was good for all of us.

Josmar Lopes – Who was the alternative to Stan Getz, if you couldn’t get him to do Jazz Samba?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I thought that the only other person that I could think of who might do it well would be Paul Desmond.

Josmar Lopes – The Dave Brubeck Quartet…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah. I had a lot of Dave Brubeck records that I listened to Paul’s solos, and they were nice and fluid and loose and lyrical. But Stan was my first choice. I thought he would be ideal. As it turned out we did it with Stan. But I was thinking that, you run into some problem with the record company and they don’t want to let their boy record with you, then that would be a good alternate playing.

Paul Desmond on Tenor sax (Photo: Jan Persson & CDJ)
Paul Desmond on alto sax (Photo: Jan Persson & CDJ)

Josmar Lopes – Speaking of music and lyrics, I think you have a little song of your own.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, I wrote this for Malu when she came to visit.

Josmar Lopes – Based on “One Note Samba” (“Samba de uma nota só”)?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, it’s based on the “One Note Samba.” And if you’ll forgive my poor vocal quality, I’ll try to sing it for you.

Josmar Lopes – Oh, Buddy, here’s JazzTimes, the magazine that the original article, “Give the Drummer Some,” appeared in, which finally gave you credit for bringing the Brazilian beat to American ears. What I’m going to do is accompany you, your rhythm section, beating on top of Stan Getz’s head.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, my God … Okay, well, here it goes. I’ll give you four beats:

Seems that more than 50 years have past

Since the day I saw you last

You shared your music and your song

This reunion took so long

 

Tom Jobim, Gilberto and Brazil

Seems somehow I just can’t get my fill

Of the samba rhythm, what a dance

You sparked a musical romance!

 

When I got back to the States

I surely knew that I was on a mission

No time for fishin’

Even though I made it happen

I guess drummers just don’t get commission

So keep on wishin’

 

Though ‘twas not authentic, just our version

Jazz and samba started mergin’

I guess we helped to spread the word

And bossa nova sure got heard

 

Now today the year’s two thousand ten

We’ve a friendship which will never end

And the message that I want to say is

Bossa Nova’s here to stay!!!

 

So that kind of tells the whole story … in one chorus.

Josmar Lopes – And on that note, let’s have a round of applause for the man who brought the Brazilian beat to American ears!

With gratitude and appreciation to William Henry “Buddy” Deppenschmidt Jr., for his kindness in allowing the use of our interview to be published on this blog site.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Autumn Leaves’ — A Song for All Seasons

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"The Autumn Leaves of Red and Gold"
“The Autumn Leaves of Red and Gold”

Whether it’s April in Paris, summer in the city, or winter in Red Square, it’s always fair weather in our house whenever we hear that lovely ballad, “Autumn Leaves.”

Composed in France around the year 1945, the music was the handiwork of a Hungarian émigré named Joseph Kosma (born József Kózma), with poetically inspired lyrics (en français, naturellement) by French author and screenwriter Jacques Prévert.

Primarily a classical and film composer, Kosma was credited with providing the scores for such cinematic classics as Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, La Bête Humaine and The Rules of the Game, in addition to Marcel Carne’s Gates of the Night (Les Portes de la Nuit) from 1946, where “Autumn Leaves,” or “Les feuilles mortes” (“The Dead Leaves”) in its original French title, was first introduced.

And the artist who introduced the theme to audiences was the Italian-born Ivo Livi, a.k.a. French pop idol and actor Yves Montand, followed soon after by sultry singer-actress Juliette Greco. Needless to say, this gorgeous piece, with its subtle strain of gypsy love-songs and nostalgic hint of l’amour passée (a possible precursor to bossa nova, but without the delicate Brazilian rhythm), went on to became a standard with performers as one of the most romantic numbers this side of Arles.

In this country, we know it simply as “Autumn Leaves,” one of songwriter and Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer’s best beloved works. His wonderful words, combined with Kosma’s sublime tune, make for a rewarding listening experience, as any romantically inclined couple can tell you:

The falling leaves drift by the window

The autumn leaves of red and gold

I see your lips, the summer’s kisses

The sunburned hands I used to hold

 

Since you went away the days grow long

And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song

But I miss you most of all, my darling

When autumn leaves begin to fall

American pop singer Jo Stafford is acknowledged as the first to perform and record the song using Mercer’s lyrics. In the wake, then, of its growing popularity in the States, “Autumn Leaves” entered into the repertory of a vast variety of outstanding musicians and entertainers, to include French chanteuse Edith Piaf (in both the English and French versions), pianists Roger Williams, Errol Garner and Bill Evans, crooner Bing Crosby, singer-actress Doris Day, bandleaders Stan Kenton, Artie Shaw and Paul Weston, instrumentalists Miles Davis and Stan Getz, and many others.

One of the best and most beautifully sung — and a viable candidate, I might add, for best all-around interpretation of “Autumn Leaves” — is the version recorded and released, in 1955, by Nat King Cole, from his Capitol album Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love. It was also featured in the opening credits to the movie of the same name, Autumn Leaves (Columbia, 1956), starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson, and directed by Robert Aldrich, with additional music by studio veteran Hans J. Salter.

Nat King Cole sings "Autumn Leaves" (sheet music)
Nat King Cole sings “Autumn Leaves” (sheet music)

Professor Luca Cerchiari, one of the editors of the anthology Eurojazzland: Jazz and European Sources, Dynamics and Contexts, in the chapter “Sacred, Country, Urban Tunes: The European Songbook,” praised Cole’s “typically immaculate diction” and his “trademark liquid, crooning vocal style.” He especially made note of Cole’s use of vowel sounds on the letters “o” and “e,” and on the consonants “d” and “t,” in the words “leaves” and “window” and “red and gold.”

Here’s a truly marvelous clip from Nat’s short-lived mid-Fifties television program, singing “Autumn Leaves” as arranged by Nelson Riddle: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=video&cd=4&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CDAQuAIwAw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DGnp58oepHUQ&ei=O4NCVMS-Do6eyAS38oCQCA&usg=AFQjCNGnCLO8BaJBPMD0XyonIvJukTQgMw

He paints the song in light brushstrokes, caressing the phrase, “And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,” with a gentle, urbane assurance. In his hands, the tune takes on the theme of a fond remembrance of better times. Cole’s mellow tones, which fall on the ear like blossom honey, delivered with a relaxed and elegant air of utmost charm and sophistication mark his rendition as one of the classiest on record.

A completely different take on the number is Capitol Records label-mate Frank Sinatra’s 1957 version, as part of his thematic album, Where Are You? Masterfully arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins (along with Nelson Riddle on the flip side), Ole Blue Eyes takes his time with the piece, holding onto the high note of the phrase, “old wiiiiiiiinter’s song,” for as long as his lungs can manage — as if by doing so, he could hold back the inevitable sting of fate, as well as a failed love.

Frank Sinatra Where Are You? (Capitol, 1957)
Frank Sinatra, Where Are You? (Capitol, 1957)

This is unparalleled lyricism at its boldest, a heartrending glimpse into one man’s desolation and despair. But you’ll have to go to YouTube to hear it: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=video&cd=5&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CDUQtwIwBA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DrduLAaDQgeU&ei=n5FCVMDcJIesyASwm4HgCQ&usg=AFQjCNHp-ML6o2rm-R6lIe6dNQLMj6ZGMQ

With its darkly portentous atmosphere of gloom and doom, and complementary orchestration, Sinatra accomplishes something no other singer has been able to do: he transforms the ballad into high drama, a Shakespearean tragedy of dire dimensions — a grim game of love’s labors lost and gone, forever.

Its stark contours clash markedly with Nat King Cole’s more modest and wistful yearnings. Regret and understanding are the primary thoughts on Cole’s mind, while bitterness and betrayal occupy Sinatra’s viewpoint and underscore his joyless reading of events.

So which version is better? There is no “better” here, only different. Both artists had jazz or pop music backgrounds, and used what they learned on the stage and in the studio to excellent effect. Depending on one’s mood or mind-set, I’d say both recordings are valid, first-rate interpretations. Of course, I simply adore Nat King Cole, hands down, no matter what he sings. No other artist affects me the way he does. Lately, however, I’ve been leaning towards Sinatra. In its own context and within its sphere of influence, Ole Blue Eyes’ open-hearted depiction can speak to so many of us who’ve gone through equally wearing times.

Nat King Cole and Ole Blue Eyes
Nat King Cole and Ole Blue Eyes

It’s a clear-cut case of the glass being half empty or half full. If Frankie’s canister can be seen as needing a refill, then surely Nat’s bottle must be well nursed by now. And if autumn leaves eventually give way to freezing winter, which then become the blossoming spring and summer, we know for sure that good times are just around the corner.

Accentuate the positive, as the old saying goes. A saying that also happens to be a song: a song by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by none other than Johnny Mercer!

Now that’s what I call coming full circle.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes