THE DOZENS: STORMY WEATHER by Alan Kurtz

Ethel Waters induced “Stormy Weather” in 1933 at the Cotton Club, an oasis of prosperity in Depression- era Harlem where lavish all-black revues entertained well-heeled white patrons. Incongruously, the lyrics depict a world where “life is bare,” with “gloom and misery everywhere.” Could it be a topical Depression was in the air even for the black entertainment elite and their affluent ofay clientele?

If you reject our pseudo-sociological conjecture that a popular song might reflect the national mood, consider this: relatively dormant after the Depression eased, “Stormy Weather” was immediately revived when the U.S. entered World War II. Mere coincidence?

For the metaphysically disinclined, “Stormy Weather” can be appreciated strictly as a torch song; hear, for example, Nancy Kelly’s 1997 version. Or set aside the lyrics, and “Stormy Weather” works as pure melody, as demonstrated by our five wordless instrumental tracks.

Whatever its format, “Stormy Weather”—recorded hundreds of times by a cross-section of artists over a span of decades—gives us a picture of jazz reinventing itself. Not only do different generations reinterpret this song, but sometimes an individual artist does too, for example Charles Mingus in 1954 and 1960.

So break out your umbrellas and galoshes. “Stormy Weather” ahead.


Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

Ethel Waters (vocals)

CD

The Incomparable Ethel Waters (Columbia/Legacy 65852)

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Musicians:

Ethel Waters (vocals), Bunny Berigan (trumpet), Tommy Dorsey (trombone), Jimmy Dorsey (clarinet),

Sterling Bose (trumpet), Larry Binyon (clarinet, tenor sax), Fulton McGrath (piano), Joe Venuti, Harry Hoffman, Walter Edelstein, Lou Kosloff (violin): Dick McDonough (guitar), Artie Bernstein (bass), Stan King or Chauncey Morehouse (drums)

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Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: New York, May 3, 1933

Albumcoverincomparableethelwaters

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

No other Jazz Age singer rivaled her versatility. Combining the tony diction of London's posh Mayfair salons (although she actually grew up in Philadelphia poverty) with gospel sincerity and an ever-lurking earthy inflection, Ethel Waters exercised an unmatched artistic range. With the savvy dramaturgy of a seasoned stage actress, Miss Waters didn't simply sing a song, she enacted a minidrama replete with theatrical flourishes. Here, as she concludes, we want to rush the stage crying "Brava!" and strew bouquets at her feet. In 2003, when the Grammy folks enshrined this track in their Hall of Fame, they got it right.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Golden Gate Quartet: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Group

Golden Gate Quartet

CD

Travelin' Shoes (Bluebird/RCA 66063-2)

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Musicians:

William Langford (tenor vocals, guitar), Henry Owens (tenor vocals), Willie (“Bill”) Johnson (baritone vocals), Orlandus Wilson (bass vocals)

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Composed by Harold Arlen

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Recorded: New York, 1939

Albumcovergoldengatequartet-travelinshoes

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Of the 1930s male vocal groups who sang Negro spirituals in a jazzy style called Jubilee, the most successful was Virginia's Golden Gate Quartet. Expanding their traditional repertoire, the GGC here universalizes the plight of a lovesick woman ("Since my man and I ain’t together") by cleverly changing five words: "Can't get my poor self together." Listeners may be reminded of the contemporaneous Mills Brothers—especially by the vocally imitated wah-wah "trumpet" solo—but the GGC spent more time in church than at the barbershop. If you doubt that gospel + jazz = doo-wop, check out this track.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Lena Horne: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

Lena Horne (vocals)

CD

The Young Star (RCA 63964)

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Musicians:

Lena Horne (vocals),

Mannie Klein (trumpet), Jack Mayhew, Mort Friedman, Archie Rosati (saxes), Lou Busch (piano), Mischa Russell, Nick Pisani (violin), Perry Botkin (guitar), Artie Bernstein (bass)

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Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler. Arranged by Ned Freeman

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Recorded: Hollywood, CA, December 15, 1941

Albumcoverlenahorne-theyoungstar

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Eight days after Pearl Harbor, the breathtaking Lena Horne correctly forecasts long-term war clouds. The following year, in Hollywood's Stormy Weather (1943), an all-black musical biopic of dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Horne co-starred and reprised the title song. Lip-synching at her apartment window opposite an El Train station, Lena misses her man so much she's oblivious to a virtual hurricane battering Harlem. The role made her a star, and "Stormy Weather" became her signature. Here, Ned Freeman's Harlem- Meets-Hollywood arrangement is a washout, discordantly mixing Ellington-style jungle growls with Vine Street violins. Still, Lena's star shines undimmed through the clouds.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Erroll Garner: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

Erroll Garner (piano)

CD

Serenade to Laura (Savoy Jazz 17218)

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Musicians:

Erroll Garner (piano), John Simmons (bass), Alvin Stoller (drums).

Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: Los Angeles, June 20, 1949

Albumcoveregarnerlaura

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

Erroll Garner didn't invent octave tremolos in jazz—fellow Pittsburgher Earl Hines gets credit for that. But Garner came up with an instantly recognizable application for them as part of his uniquely rippling style, sounding for all the world as though playing the piano underwater. Garner could execute these tremolos tirelessly at any tempo. But since, notwithstanding his irrepressible wit, Erroll was at heart a romantic, his tremolos were most gallantly tremulous in ballads. While his "Stormy Weather" isn't immaculate, Garner's art was more about setting the right mood than getting every note right. Here his mood is right as rain.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Billie Holiday: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

Verve Jazz Masters 47: Sings Standards (Polygram 527650)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Joe Newman (trumpet), Oscar Peterson (piano), Freddie Green (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), Gus Johnson (drums).

Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: New York, July 27, 1952

Albumcoververvejazzmasters47-billieholidaysingsstandards

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Possessing neither the theatricality of Ethel Waters nor the stateliness of Lena Horne, Billie Holiday eschews "Stormy Weather" as a torch song, and instead makes it a saloon song. You might fear that Billie's quarter-to-three, no-one-in-the-place-except-you-and-me barstool confidential would detract from the lyrics; with such a distinctive artist, a mere song risks becoming more about her than about its intended subject. Think again. Nobody ever served "Stormy Weather" better than Lady Day, who affords a whole new appreciation of Ted Koehler's words. Songs are a form of storytelling. And jazz never had a wiser, more believable storyteller than Billie Holiday.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Charles Mingus: Stormy Weather (1954)

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

CD

Jazzical Moods (Fresh Sounds 62)

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Musicians:

Charles Mingus (bass), Thad Jones (trumpet), John LaPorta (alto sax), Teo Macero (tenor sax),

Jackson Wiley (cello), Clem DeRosa (drums)

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Arranged by John LaPorta. Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: New York, December, 1954

Albumcovercharlesmingus-johnlaporta-jazzicalmoods

Rating: 86/100 (learn more)

Until the late 1940s, John LaPorta coulda been a contender. That's when he hooked up with Lennie Tristano. Talk about a one-way ticket to Palookaville! In 1954, LaPorta emerged from Tristano's training camp to spar with heavyweight Charles Mingus, then championing jazz Abstract Expressionism. LaPorta's modernistic arrangement of "Stormy Weather," featuring Thad Jones with eerie reverb and a lugubrious cello, undermines our expectations, using bitonality to create an illusion of suspended gravitation. This scheme, particularly applied to a familiar standard instead of an original composition, demonstrates how experimental New York jazzmen were half a decade before Ornette Coleman blew into town. Incidentally, the album title's "Jazzical" connoted jazz + classical two years before Gunther Schuller coined the artier Third Stream.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Charles Mingus: Stormy Weather (1960)

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

CD

Mingus (Candid 79021)

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Musicians:

Charles Mingus (bass), Ted Curson (trumpet), Eric Dolphy (alto sax), Dannie Richmond (drums).

Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: New York, October 20, 1960

Albumcovercminguscmingus_

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

If any jazzman's psyche epitomized "Stormy Weather," it was Charles Mingus's. Which makes this track's tranquility all the more surprising. Of course, Mingus loved to pull the rug out from under people. Here, at solemn tempo, he calmly supports longtime friend Eric Dolphy in one of the all-time great alto sax solos, and incidentally contributes a deeply lyrical bass solo himself. Yet as compellingly as he plays, Mingus's primary contribution is as bandleader. Not since Ethel Waters introduced "Stormy Weather" in 1933 had the song received such a theatrical staging. And, considering its starkness, Mingus's production is if anything more impressive.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Etta James: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

Etta James (vocals)

CD

The Chess Box (Chess 112288)

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Musicians:

Etta James (vocals),

with Riley Hampton’s Orchestra (no details)

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Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: Chicago, mid-October 1960

Albumcoverettajames-chessbox

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

Hearing Etta James belt it, you wonder whether such grandes dames as Ethel Waters and Lena Horne could truly convey the essence of "Stormy Weather." Backed by strings and 1950s-style rock 'n' roll piano triplets, Etta cuts to the quick. From start to finish, her gutsy, rafter-rattling down-home voice grabs us, shakes us and won't let go. Like Bessie Smith, Etta doesn't so much sing as preach to us. And nobody leaves her sermons as a nonbeliever. Oh, some old-time front-parlor backsliding gents may prefer more compliant women. But, assuming such ladies still exist, where's the fun in that?

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


André Previn: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

André Previn (piano)

CD

André Previn Plays Harold Arlen (Original Jazz Classics 1840)

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Musicians:

André Previn (piano).

Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: Los Angeles, May 4-5, 1960

AlbumcoverandréPrevinplaysharoldarlen

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

Sometimes to see something clearly, you have to momentarily look away. We tested this once while practicing our Zen archery, and frankly the results were not altogether satisfactory. Our neighbor still bears a grudge about his plate-glass window. André Previn's "Stormy Weather," though, suggests the principle may be true. Moonlighting from his day job as an MGM staff composer, Previn doesn't so much reinterpret the song as recompose it à la Gershwin's Prelude No. 2 (1926), with echoes of Negro spirituals. Far from demeaning "Stormy Weather," this momentary distraction refreshes our insight into Harold Arlen's venerable song. A blindfolded bull's-eye.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Woody Shaw: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

Woody Shaw (trumpet)

CD

Imagination (Savoy Jazz 17275)

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Musicians:

Woody Shaw (trumpet), Steve Turre (trombone), Kirk Lightsey (piano), Ray Drummond (bass), Carl Allen (drums).

Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: New York, June 24, 1987

Albumcoverwshawimag

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Such eminent balladeers as Lester Young, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon always looked to a song's lyrics as key to its interpretation. But Woody Shaw (formerly Dexter's sideman) is content to ignore the words and savor the tune. It's hard to fault his approach. Shaw's straight-ahead, medium-tempo "Stormy Weather" pairs his angelic open trumpet with Steve Turre's down-&-dirty plunger-muted trombone, the two complementing each other as naturally as saint and sinner, yin and yang, Ben & Gerry. (Why, Ben Webster and Gerry Mulligan, of course. Who did you think we meant?) His life was beclouded by stormy weather, but—Lord willing—Woody Shaw now strolls in the sun.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Nancy Kelly: Stormy Weather

Track

Stormy Weather

Artist

Nancy Kelly (vocals)

CD

Singin' & Swingin' (Amherst AMH 4421-2)

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Musicians:

Nancy Kelly (vocals),

Jeff Jarvis (trumpet), Bobby Militello, Joe Carello (saxes), Brian Murphy (vibes), Bobby Jones, John Nyerges, Dino Losito (keyboards), Steve Brown (guitar), Danny D’Imperio (drums)

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Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: Buffalo, NY, 1997

Albumcovernkellyss

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Who knew? "Stormy Weather" in Buffalo! Resisting the temptation to deconstruct and recompose a 64- year-old standard, Nancy Kelly meets it on its own terms. Admittedly, such plantation-era lines as "can’t get my poor self together" and "my man and I ain’t together"—already antiquated when introduced at the Cotton Club in 1933—pose a special challenge for a modern-day white woman. But Kelly's extra touches, such as a bluesy "gloom and misery everywhere," the quietly emphatic redundancy of "myself, my poor self," or bouncy "Baby, don't you know I can’t go on," legitimize an utterly convincing performance. Lake- effective platinum-blonde soul.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Deborah Harry: Stormy Weather / Ill Wind

Track

Stormy Weather / Ill Wind

Artist

Deborah Harry (vocals)

CD

Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen (Sony Classical SK 87888)

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Musicians:

Deborah Harry (vocals),

Ray Anderson (trombone), Roy Nathanson (alto sax), Jay Rodriguez (tenor sax), Sam Furnace (baritone sax), Adam Rogers (guitar), Bill Ware (marimba), Rob Thomas (violin), Greg Cohen (bass), J.T. Lewis (drums)

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Arranged by Roy Nathanson and Bill Ware. Composed by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

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Recorded: New York, June 2002

Albumcoverdharryarlen

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

In the mid-1990s, Debbie Harry picked up The Jazz Passengers for two CDs, and in 2002 gave them another lift for this track on a Harold Arlen tribute album. She didn't, however, quit her day jobs, still touring (in her early 60s) as Blondie's lead singer, pursuing a solo career and continuing HIV/AIDS activism. In contrast to other rockers (e.g., Rod Stewart), whose jazz detours have been discreetly middle-of-the-road, Harry's trips with The Jazz Passengers are edgy and adventurous, demanding exceptional concentration and serious vocal technique. Purists may call this medley a melee, but we think Debbie Harry has a heart of class.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


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