Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chuck Berry in Jazz on a Summer's Day

Tonight I ordered up “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” on Netflix and watched most of it for the first time.  I’ve skipped through it before.  There’s something magical about much of the film.  It makes the 50s look palatable.  The girls are pretty.  The styles seem contemporary.  The scenery is spectacular.  The crowds are diverse.  The music is great.  Legends play to small but appreciative crowds.  Boats race on wild seas.  Moving water provides an abstract background for the jazz.

There's a lot to see and hear the film.  A short appearance by Thelonious Monk is worth the price of admission.  He plays to mostly empty seats.  Anita O'Day is fun.  Dinah Washington is spectacular.  At the end comes Louis Armstrong, someone I enjoyed but took for granted as a little kid.  I was small.

I watched it in part because I read the other day that Keith Richards saw it 14 times as a teenager and credits the Chuck Berry scene with changing his life and ambitions.  It was filmed in 1958 not long after the Berry family had moved into the mansion on Windermere Place.  He was at the height of his success.  He was about to be taken down.

Odd in a sense that the takedown started on home turf, among musicians and music fans, at least in the one song that made it into the film.  I wish I could see the others.

It’s a lesson in how to play “Sweet Little Sixteen” on guitar, because he was pretty much doing it alone with a drummer until a clarinet started wailing.  The band, which had just done an incredible job backing Big Maybelle, seems to be on strike when the author of Maybellene gets on stage.  It’s mostly cold sweat for Chuck.  The bandleader, Jack Teagarden, stands laughing.  The drummer smirks-- too easy.  The rest of the band appears to be silent.  When my man starts a wailin’ clarinet, Chuck seems so happy he starts yelling “blow! blow!” or somethng to that effect.

The story is that he played three other numbers, including “Johnny B. Good” and “No Money Down,” and the young people in the cheap seats went crazy.  The old farts did what old farts do.

But it was an honor.  John Hammond booked Berry and Big Maybelle and Big Joe Turner.  They all deserved to be there.  Not many other rock and rollers would have fit.  Maybe Fats Domino.  

Whatever he said about modern jazz (and I’m betting those musicians had heard it) Chuck Berry had jazz and swing roots that could have flowered nicely with a good backup that night.  I wish they’d have given him what they gave to Big Maybelle.  (* See Below.)

But he did what he could with what he got and drove them wild enough that police were summoned.

And the joint was rockin’.

But wait, there's more!  Paul Harvey used to tell the rest of the story.  After posting I did some reading.  Fred Rothwell has actually heard the rest of the story, which I have not.  He says in his book Long Distance Information that "The band appears to start rather tentatively, but by the end of the set they are won over by the young pretender."  Now that makes me happy.  That makes the whole thing seem more than palatable.  I want to go there!  

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