June 22, 2017

Nelson Riddle, Arranger to the stars

Nelson Riddle with Frank Sinatra

Nelson Riddle – Composer, music director for tv, film and music recordings, band leader/conductor and orchestrator/arranger would have been 95 this week.

Riddle played piano and trombone but it was as an arranger and composer that he found his greatest success. His arrangements  graced the recordings of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Johnny Matthis, Rosemary Clooney, Keely Smith and some of Ella Fitzgerald’s famed Songbook albums.

He had a career resurgence in the 1980s, working with Linda Ronstadt on her three albums of jazz standards, What’s New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons.

Iconic Riddle arrangements include Route 66, One For My Baby, Mona Lisa, Unforgetable and Witchcraft. He also composed scores for films and tv shows. Although he didn’t compose the theme song for the 1960s television show, Batman, he did score several episodes along with those of The Untouchables.

Other artists he did arrangements for included Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., Kate Smith and Oscar Peterson, among many others.

Born on June 1, 1921, Nelson Riddle died at age 64 in 1985.

Marilyn Maye, Cabaret Diva at 89

Cabaret aficionados may recognize the name, but Marilyn Maye needs to be more widely honored for her lengthy career and her indomitable ability to defy age as she turns 89 this month.

Born in Wichita, KS, she and her mother moved to Des Moines, IA for her teen years. While there, she met songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane who helped secure her own 15 minute radio show.
Chicago and Kansas City figure into her early performing career. She met Steve Allen who promptly invited her to be on his TV program, The Steve Allen Show. This led to her appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where she holds the impressive record of having sung on the show 76 times, more than any other singer.

Marilyn Maye in the 1960s

She had a handful of hit singles in the late 1960s, with the two stand-outs being Cabaret and Step To the Rear.

Her mid-career was not in the national spotlight, but she continued to perform in venues of all sorts. I caught her several times in Okoboji, Iowa where my parents had a summer home. No matter the locale, she brought verve, heart and a consummate professionalism to every performance.

The Mabel Mercer Foundation kicked her career back into overdrive in 2006 with an appearance at Lincoln Center. She has been the toast of New York and cabaret spots all over the country in the past ten plus years.

Her recording of “Too Late Now” by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane is included in the Smithsonian’s Best Compositions of the 20th Century. Chicago Cabaret Professionals bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award upon her in 2012 (I got to hand her the award.) She was inducted into the American Jazz Museum (Kansas City) as a Jazz Legend in 2015.

Along with her impressive performing schedule, she continues to conduct master classes and teaches privately in New York City and around the country. This octogenarian is proving that age is just a number –  if you have the talent and fortitude of Marilyn Maye. You keep singing, lady! And Happy Birthday.


Lady Gaga’s jazz, musical theater and piano chops

Lady Gaga turns 31 this week.
Is there anything Lady Gaga can’t do?  She has burned up the pop charts with her contemporary songs, worn meat as a costume, recorded standards with Tony Bennett, credibly sung a Sound of Music medley at the Oscars, and played an intriguing role on FX TV’s America Horror Story.

For my purposes, I wanted to know more about her jazz and musical theater inclinations.

Gaga’s dad, Joe Germanotta said she won a jazz vocal competition in her mid-teens and cut her vocal teeth in that genre.  A few short years later, she was enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts before dropping out to follow her own musical muses.  If you can believe it, she was dropped by Def Jam Recordings. She then worked as a songwriter for Sony/ATV Music Publishing before finding her groove as a performer and visual artist, with hair, makeup and clothing being her personal canvas.

She also plays the piano. And we mean pianos and keyboards of all types. Some look like space ships, one is filled with plastic bubbles, with still others covered in butterflies or veritable gardens. I particularly admire the keyboards that look like a motorcycle or a giant shoe, not to mention the piano that looks like a 20- foot spindly-legged creature or the one that is literally on fire!

Enter Tony Bennett. With their duet recording, Cheek To Cheek, Bennett and Lady Gaga both broke some impressive records. The project won a a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album and debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. Bennett became the oldest person to reach number one on the charts, and Lady Gaga became the first female artist to achieve three number one hit albums in the 2010 decade. While on a music road trip, I carefully listened to every track and had to admit, this gal has vocal chops, knows how to put across a lyric and she swings.

Gaga makes the occasional appearance, both announced and not, to sing jazz and pop standards. Type Lady Gaga into a search engine with the song titles Someone To Watch Over Me, Orange-Colored Sky, Imagine and You’ve Got a Friend, and enjoy these and other clips on youtube.

Now word comes out that she is slated to be the lead in Bradley Cooper’s movie remake of A Star Is Born, the iconic story previously featuring Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. I wouldn’t be surprised if, down the road, she was announced as the lead in Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House. You go, Gaga!

Mick Archer’s Piano Bar column featuring Elizabeth Doyle in Chicago Jazz Magazine

Mick Archer has written a lovely article about my encounter with late and great jazz pianist, Marian McPartland and included some of my recollections about playing in piano bars.


La La Land: Oscar-worthy

I finally had the opportunity to see La La Land this past week. In short, I was delighted from start to finish. Imagine my surprise when the two men who accompanied me to the cinema proclaimed this to be “a terrible movie” and “boring,” respectively.
Another friend disliked the opening sequence with a traffic jam resulting in people getting out of their cars and singing and dancing.
As for me, I loved the opening for quickly putting the viewer into the world of Hollywood where every other person seems to be grasping for a toe hold into the world of entertainment. Although they may get to sing, dance, act, write, direct or design for TV and movies, all of these people have to keep on scrambling to pay bills and keep their cars running. The scene also has the principal characters “meeting cute” with an angry flipped finger at one another.

The use of bright colors throughout the movie whether it be with clothing, furniture, signage or scenery absolutely delighted my eyes. The score was tuneful and lyrics well-crafted. The song “City of Stars” is still going through my head. The orchestration found so many different ways of presenting the simple but potent melodies. The script dialogue is reminiscent of the rapid bantering of 1930’s screwball comedies.

Now a word about the stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. She can actually sing pretty expressively. Gosling’s singing is serviceable, but I was really impressed with his ability to simulate playing the piano really well. He reportedly sang and played piano, guitar, bass and cello in a group in 2009 so he came to the film with some musical skills. His dancing is pretty impressive, too, especially since he is six feet tall and gracefully manages his long legs. Stone and Gosling were cast for their box office names and their acting chops, but their musical and dancing skills are most entertaining.

One of the men who dissed the movie did sheepishly note the large number of Oscar nominations for this “terrible movie.” Let me compare this to the political climate. We definitely see the world through our own filters, be it for movie-watching or political opinions. Some of us just have better taste!

Cleo Laine: This Week’s Birthday Honoree

Dame Cleo Laine turned 88 this week. Born to a black Jamaican father and a white English farm girl, Laine went on to make inroads into jazz, musical theater and classical music. Milestones include her recording of Porgy and Bess with Ray Charles, her concerts with Frank Sinatra at Royal Albert Hall in London, her classical recording of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and her star turn in the Broadway musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Let me say that I have been a big fan for a long time. I snuck into one of her rehearsals at the famed Venetian Room in the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel. I had to leave that afternoon before her opening night, so I was trying to catch some of her act before heading for the airport. She was absolutely phenomenal.

A few years later, I was singing at the Pump Room when who should come in for dinner but Dame Cleo Laine and her very talented husband, bandleader/instrumentalist, Sir John Dankworth. After their meal, they actually hung out with our combo around the piano. They gave my band leader and me contact information for them in England and said they would love to have us perform at their home should we be in England. Little did we know that they had a very professional venue called The Stables on their residential grounds. Alas, I never made it to Great Britain and Sir John died in 2010.

While summoning up this cherished memory, I wish you a very happy birthday, Dame Cleo Laine. You are one of the classiest ladies in the music business.

Jacob Collier, young musical internet sensation

Prepare to be wowed by a most talented young Brit by the name of Jacob Collier.

He sings, writes songs, plays a zillion instruments including insanely good jazz piano and creates highly inventive videos that are all the rage on the internet. And oh, he is only 22 years of age.
As a child, he was an actor in tv and movies and also sang child vocals in operas. His mother, sisters and grandfather are all musically-inclined so he grew up surrounded by the audio art.

Catch these 4 varied video clips and enjoy his genius. Warning: once you start, it is hard to stop watching his video clips of well-known tunes and of his original material.

Fascinating Rhythm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K28H04Y2IdE

Hajanga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baLrrW3El-M

Crazy She Calls Me with Jamie Cullum:


Watch him in action in a big band recording:


I can’t wait to see how this guy evolves. He has been commissioned to create arrangements for orchestras and bands around the world.

Prisoner of Her Past, Howard Reich’s film and book

Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich initially set out to uncover his mother’s past in hopes of understanding her erratic behavior in the present. Prisoner of Her Past is Howard Reich’s book and film about his mother’s World War II experiences creeping back into her life sixty years later.

The film is extremely moving, but the book benefits even more from Reich’s meticulous writing. Readers of his incisive musical criticism will delight in his own musical journey as he discovers Gershwin, Mendelssohn and other classical composers as well as his exposure to jazz, both live and recorded.

The book deserves a place on the shelves of readers interested in the Holocaust and World War II, of those curious about post-traumatic syndrome or of those wanting to read a son’s poignant memoir about his troubled mother.

To mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), the film, Prisoner of Her Past, will be broadcast on WTTW HD, the Chicago PBS affiliate on Thursday, May 5 at 10 pm and on WTTW Prime on Friday, May 6 at 4 pm.

Barbra Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald Birthdays

The successful pop singer, Barbra Streisand turns 74 this week. The beloved jazz vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald would have been 99 years old on April 25.





Both have recorded several albums of iconic Great American Songbook material.

Ella Fitzgerald put out nine impeccable “songbook” albums, each featuring a different songwriter or duo, including Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Streisand, vocalist, actress, director, is also noted for recording film and Broadway songs by Stephen Sondheim, Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch, among many others.

What Happened Miss Simone? doc on Netflix

I must admit that I put the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? on my Netflix watch list and then never seemed to find the right time to view it.

I rectified that situation last week and marveled at the performance clips of this iconic singer-pianist-songwriter. Yes, it is painful to see the downward trajectory of Nina Simone’s life and career, but filmmaker Liz Garbus allows us to see the joy and passion in Simone’s performances as well.

Music clips are interwoven with interviews of her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly and her ex-husband, Andrew Stroud, footage of Hugh Hefner introducing her before she entertains a Playboy televised party and stunning video of her civil rights involvement. The film depicts her life in Liberia, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland after the divorce from her ex-New York cop spouse who had also been her manager. Especially moving are the comments by her long-time guitarist Al Schackman.

The title of the documentary is a quote from literary giant Maya Angelou who uttered this famous phrase to the world famous musician. Simone most likely suffered from manic depression or bi-polarity which was not effectively treated most of her life.

Mental illness was not the only challenge for Simone. Her budding career as a young classical pianist may have been thwarted by her lack of funds, her gender and the color of her skin. The civil rights movement consumed her and she admitted to Martin Luther King that she did not espouse non-violence in the black struggle. Her husband served her well in business but according to Simone, was abusive both emotionally and physically in their marriage.

As counterweight to the heavy topics, there is the glorious music that still attracts both young and old alike: I Loves You Porgy, My Baby Just Cares For Me, Mississippi Goddam, Strange Fruit, the Janis Ian-penned Stars and the Lorraine Hansberry-inspired Simone composition To Be Young, Gifted and Black are among the many songs heard in the film.

What Happened, Miss Simone? has been nominated for a 2016 Documentary Feature Oscar.