When I was young, big bands appeared regularly at jazz clubs in New York City. By working as a cigarette girl at Birdland or checking coats at Basin Street or the Jazz Gallery, I was able to hear Count Basie and many other great bands nightly. The clubs were dark and smoky. People would order drinks and talk and laugh between sets. The music was sophisticated and hard-swinging.
The music I wrote for this album was inspired by the atmosphere of nightclubs in the 1950s. It began when I was commissioned to write and perform a big band composition for the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival. Looking for a starting point, I immediately thought of “The Black Orchid”, a nightclub in Monterey where I had taken a job as a pianist when I was seventeen. The piano had a bar built around it, and soldiers from the nearby military base would sit there and listen to me play standards. Often one of them would request a favorite song, but I had a very small and carefully arranged repertoire and wouldn’t play anything I didn’t like and couldn’t fake anything I didn’t know. It was my first and last job as a lounge pianist. I worked some memories of those early days (and late nights) into the piece I was writing for the festival. I called it “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid” and titled its four sections as though they were taking place in a nightclub: “40 On/ 20 Off” “Second Round”, “What Would You Like To Hear?” and “Last Call”.
I was very happy with the way the piece turned out and thought it would be interesting to write more music related to that era for an upcoming big band tour. I tried to postpone staring at the blank page, which is how my composition process always begins, by writing new arrangements of songs by my favorite Tin Pan Alley composers. But the best of those songs didn’t need anything added to them so, since I wasn’t interested in the songs that could have used some help, I resorted to writing original music and waited for a grand scheme to emerge.
The next piece I came up with contained a two-bar quote from a Gershwin song. It didn’t come until the very end of the piece and wasn’t intentional, but it was an encouraging sign. I felt I should use part of Gershwin’s title, so I named the piece “Someone to Watch”.
Then I got lucky and started writing a melody so similar to an old chestnut by Ray Noble that I made the piece into an arrangement of his song. Once again I decided to use only part of its title and called it “Till You”. I seemed to have no control over which standards I ended up choosing; they chose me.
A pending commission to write a piece for the Orchestra Jazz della Sardegna came through, and I had to turn my attention away from my “Appearing Nightly” tour. Their festival was going to be called Dinner Music and they requested that the music I write for them be related to food in some way. I thought that was interesting but I couldn’t figure out how music could sound like food. I thought about possible sound effects like forks hitting plates, chewing or burping noises, and briefly wondered if I could write a plausible ‘sweet and sour’ piece with ‘bitter’ undertones and a ‘salty’ ending. But nothing ‘jelled’ and this idea soon became ‘stale’. Since I had ‘nothing on my plate’ I decided to ‘cool it’ and returned to the search for references to American popular songs.
The previous year I had written a melody with a phrase in the middle that sounded suspiciously like the title phrase of “Pretty Baby”. I had changed the notes in that phrase, then abandoned the melody because it no longer sounded good to me. Now that I needed to find references to standards, I took it off the shelf, put the original phrase back in (it sounded good again) and turned it into a big band arrangement. At the end I blatantly used a whole four-bar melody “Greasy Gravy”. Aha! A food title as well as a popular song!
The finished piece wasn’t very long and didn’t have enough weight to it, so I knew it was only the first half of the music I would present to the Sardinian band.
Luckily, the best was yet to come. I consider “Awful Coffee”,* the second half, to be my crowning achievement. A resistant problem spot in the melody was solved by overhearing a rooster crowing at his hens. I used that sound wherever I needed it in the piece, justified by the fact that chicken is a common food. But that wasn’t all. During one chorus I was able to quote six different songs with food references: “Salt Peanuts”, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee”, “Watermelon Man”, “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries”, “Hey Pete, Let’s Eat More Meat”, and “Tea for Two”.** This more than qualified the piece for inclusion in both the “Appearing Nightly” and “Dinner Music” programs.
I was determined to record the music live in a nightclub. It had to be recorded during our European summer tour and the club had to be big. One place came immediately to mind. We had played the New Morning in Paris regularly and our audience there had always been large and enthusiastic. One phone call and it was ours for two nights toward the end of the tour. For a moment I imagined my band coming to work wearing matching jackets and bowties. I could sweep my hair up and put on a sparkling cocktail dress. We could hire a blues singer. I would smile sweetly at the audience and dedicate a song to the little boy and his father in the front row. Between sets we would drink highballs and smoke cigarettes. Then I came to my senses. It’s hard enough to get the musicians out of their jogging pants and sneakers. The highballs might have a few takers, but cigarettes? Any reference to the past would have to be delivered musically.
We hired Gerard de Haro of Studio La Buissonne to record the two nights. He took over the club’s dressing room and turned it into a control room full of machines and engineers. It was impossible to get separation between the instruments, so no mistakes could be fixed, but in return we got an intimate sound with lots of atmosphere. It was just what I had envisioned for the album; we couldn’t bring back the past, but this was a chance to pay our respects to the wonderful big bands and great American songwriters that dominated American popular music in the first half of the 20th century.
- Carla Bley
*The titles “Greasy Gravy” and “Awful Coffee” were a reference to something my recently departed agent, Thomas Stoewsand, said about the way food tasted to him during his serious illness. These two pieces are dedicated to him.
**I wish I had thought of “Mary had a Little Lamb”.