September 21, 2016

Serving Up a Jazz Feast for Slim Gaillard’s 100th Birthday

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We were sort of talking a new language. — Slim Gaillard (1916-1991) 

Asked by the editors of TIME to define the last word of his catchy line of word jazz, “the flat foot floosie with the floy-floy,” guitarist, pianist, and Johnny Appleseed of jive Slim Gaillard made the comment about “a new language,” suggesting that the “floy-floy” was just “extra business” — “you got the whole dance right there; you’re swinging. See what I mean?” 

While Gaillard may seem less immediately noteworthy than other 2016 jazz centenarians like guitarist Charlie Christian (remembered in the August 24 issue), trumpeter/band leader Harry James, and Moondog (“the Viking of Sixth Avenue”), he was a singular, many-faceted figure who put the jazz life into words. People dismissing his 1938 hit record as a nonsensical novelty item should ponder the fact that it was considered worthy of a place next to John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and George’s Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in the time capsule buried at the gateway to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Another Gaillard performance that should be in any jazz culture time capsule is “Slim’s Jam,” where he jive talks his hungry way through the song (“bring me a double order of reetie-vouties with some hot sauce on it”), greeting the musicians Slim-style as they arrive, notably Charlie Parker (“Well lookit Charlie Yardbird-aroonie”) and Dizzy Gillespie (“Lookit Daz-Mac-kibbon vousohroonie with his trumpet there”).

Kerouac Sees Slim

Slim Gaillard not only influenced Jack Kerouac’s “bop prosody,” he makes a cameo appearance in On the Road, doing his thing in a San Francisco night club: “a tall, thin Negro with big sad eyes who’s always saying ‘Right-orooni’” and “does and says anything that comes into his head. He’ll sing ‘Cement Mixer, Put-ti Put-ti’ and suddenly slow down the beat and brood over his bongos with fingertips barely tapping the skin as everybody leans forward breathlessly to hear …. Then he slowly gets up and takes the mike and says, very slowly, ‘Great-orooni … fine-ovauti … hello-orooni … bourbon-orooni … all-orooni … how are the boys in the front row making out with their girls-orooni ….’” Sitting down at the piano, he “hits two notes, two C’s, then two more, then one, then two, and suddenly the big burly bass-player wakes up from a reverie and realizes Slim is playing ‘C-Jam Blues’ and he slugs in his big forefinger on the string and the big booming beat begins and everybody starts rocking and Slim looks just as sad as ever, and they blow jazz for half an hour, and then Slim goes mad and grabs the bongos and plays tremendous rapid Cubana beats and yells crazy things in Spanish, in Arabic, in Peruvian dialect, in Egyptian, in every language he knows, and he knows innumerable languages.”

Gaillard spoke not only his personal lingo (he published a “Vout-O-Reenee” dictionary), but by his own account, Spanish, German, Greek, Arabic, and Armenian. He was born 100 years ago in Cuba, his mother Afro-Cuban, his father a German Jew who took him on a world voyage at the age of 12. As he tells it in the documentary Slim Gaillard’s Civilization, he was “accidentally” left behind on Crete, lived there a few years, picked up some Greek, worked a ship to Beirut, landed in Detroit at 15, never saw his parents again, and moved to New York City, joining up with Slam Stewart and his singing bass to record jive classics that can be found on the Columbia compilation, Slim and Slam, The Groove Juice Special. According to the liner notes, the team was broken up by World War II, during which Gaillard saw combat in the South Pacific and won special commendation as a signal corpsman and airplane mechanic while Stewart was playing bass with Art Tatum and Erroll Garner.

The Purple Owl

The bebop whimsy of Gaillard found further expression in purveyors of the music like Al Jazzbo Collins (1919-1997). On certain sultry summer nights in the mid-50s when jazz and New York felt like a single element, you could listen to Jazzbo on WNEW broadcasting from the Purple Grotto, two and a half stories underground with Harrison, the long-tailed purple Tasmanian Owl. According to Collins, the studio “was painted all kinds of tints and shades of purple on huge polycylindricals which were vertically placed around the walls of the room to deflect the sound. It just happened to be that way. And with the turntables and desk and console and the lights turned down low, it had a very cavelike appearance to my imagination …. You never know where your thoughts are coming from, but the way it came out was that I was in a grotto, in this atmosphere with stalagtites and a lake and no telephones.”

Though Jazzbo’s spoken-word records lack the witty swinging spontaneity of Gaillard joyrides like “Yip-Roc-Heresey,” he introduced the language to a new generation in a series of 45 rpm singles he called “Grimm Fairy Tales for Hip Kids.” In Jazzbo’s version of “Snow White” she’s “a real sharp chick,” the stepmother “flips,” and the seven dwarfs hang out in a rib joint.

The Elf

Access to the jazz element cost very little on those New York summer nights. Although I was two years under age, I was allowed into Basin Street East on 49th Street and Birdland at 52nd and Broadway, the so-called Jazz Corner of the World, for a $2 minimum, which bought me one big delicious nightclub Coke. “Bleacher” seating was available at both places if you were there just for the music. Though I was sitting to one side, I was as close as the people at the tables to legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Count Basie’s big band.

My first night at a jazz club was something else again, however. I was 15, seated at the table of honor at Basin Street East with a merry group of Italians, friends of our neighbors on East 53rd, the party led by a Life Magazine photographer who had the clout to get us situated at the feet of the star attraction. There at the head of the table playing just for us, so it seems, is the Elf, Erroll Garner. A small man, yes, but as soon as he begins playing, he’s huge, he’s everything, the place, the night, the city.

The wonders he’s working on the piano make the table hum and the lights go brighter and there’s a strange noise, as if a beast were foraging somewhere, growling and grunting — the sound of the pianist, it turns out, urging himself along with a weird undersong, crude and earthy compared to the great gushing fountain of music that seems to hang suspended in the air as his left hand strides through the hushed intervals with the odd lagging rhythm unique to Garner, the excited heartbeat of live jazz in the quick of the moment when I first sensed what I know now to be true, that the piano is to other instruments as Shakespeare is to other writers.

“In Our Rapture”

Thoughts of Shakespeare and the piano bring thoughts of poet C.K. Williams, who died a year ago yesterday. In “Beethoven Invents the Species Again,” a poem dedicated to Richard Goode, the pianist with whom he shared a recital in one of his last public appearances, he mentions not only Beethoven but “Mozart also and Bach and Schubert Chopin Ella and Woody and Miles,” and “Beethoven’s piano listen again how the notes knit together then the chords/how the melodies climb the beckoning rows of their scales and we’re lifted once more to coherence … caught by contained and spun from the music that embodies these ever unlikely connections/while in our rapture at being transformed again into musical selves a note a chord at a time we exist/as we knew all along thank you Beethoven thank you the rest we should have and now once again do.”

Heresey or Harisseh? 

This being the week after Sunday’s Jazz Feast in Palmer Square, Slim Gaillard’s propensity for food-based vocalese is worth a footnote. In addition to the “double order of reetie-vouties” in “Slim’s Jam,” as well as potato chips, chicken, matzoh balls, gefilte fish, bagels, chop suey, etc, etc., his song “Yip-Roc Heresey” is improvised on items from a menu he might have seen in Beirut: yabra (stuffed graped leaves), harisseh (a semolina dessert and/or a spicy pepper/tomato relish in Morocco), kibbeh bi-siniyyeh (a dish of meat and bulgur), lahm mishweh (grilled meat).

No matter, jazz and music go together like love and marriage. Shakespeare says it best, by way of Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

McCarter’s Jazz 100, which has leapfrogged a year to celebrate the 2017 centennials of Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mongo Santa Maria, and Theolonius Monk, will honor all four in an 8 p.m. October 1 concert at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre featuring a group led by pianist Danilo Perez.