Sidney Bechet: Viper Mad

What more can you ask from a song? A memorable, catchy melody, sung by O'Neill Spencer in perfect late-'20s/early '30s style; a novelty theme touching on the illicit; and buoyant, jaunty instrumental work played at a high level. All of which makes "Viper Mad" irresistible. The illicit part is the title, which meant mad for marijuana—a substantial presence in the background of jazz culture—putting this tune in the same happy family as the popular "hokum" songs by Tampa Red and others from that era. The score of 91 is for pure musical value; if a fun quotient were included, the rating would be 95.

After a brief ensemble opening, Sidney Bechet introduces the theme in rhythmic, rollicking, jaunty manner, then yields to the vocal choruses. Following those, Clarence Brereton takes the lead with some beautifully flowing trumpet work, including nicely placed blue notes, and Bechet responds with a soaring, ringing break on his soprano sax in his inimitable style before the final vocal chorus. This is highly enjoyable stuff, and the melody will keep reverberating in your head.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Julia Lee: Marijuana (aka Lotus Blossom)

Pianist and singer Julia Lee (1902-1958) recorded a lot of songs about sinful substances, from pie and cake to alcohol, most of which originated with the Kansas City blues tradition that Lee herself grew up in. However, her most overt song about unsavory habits did not, surprisingly, originate as part of the blues tradition, but was in fact a number from a Hollywood musical. In 1934, the lyricist and later producer Sam Coslow wrote "Marihuana" (as it was then spelled) for the film Murder At The Vanities. Cannabis was then still legal in many states, but it was already a taboo and risqué subject for a mainstream pop song. Coslow later changed the title, and some of the lyrics with it, to "Lotus Blossom."

Lee probably made the song a permanent part of her repertoire from the mid-'30s onwards. She recorded it no less than three times, once in 1945 for the independent Premier Records, as "Marihuana," and twice for Capitol Records, under both titles, at the session listed above. Capitol issued the "Lotus" version at the time. (In all three labels, the composing credit was given to Lee.) Under either title, the song is not about getting high and having a good time; it's a far cry from Cab Calloway extolling the joys of viperhood or Bessie Smith joyfully demanding reefer along with her pigfeet and beer. "Marihuana" is a song of addiction and regret. Lee's heroine (no pun intended) wants to give up smoking dope but can't do without the escape that narcotics provide. Addressing the drug directly in the second person, Lee sings, "You alone can bring my lover back to me." She sings with the remorse of a major blues singer doing a sad blues, combining sex and drugs, euphoria and melancholy, into one especially potent cocktail. (Blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, who later recorded it in the "Lotus Blossom" incarnation with Wilbur DeParis, obviously learned it from her.)

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Harry "The Hipster" Gibson: Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?

In 1946 Time magazine identified Harry the Hipster Gibson as "the bigwig of be-bop." Absurdly conflating bop and hipsters, Time latched onto Harry because he was a zany, zoot-suited caricature. Yet, unlike his occasional sidekick Slim Gaillard, Gibson was no good-natured naïf. Rather, Harry made it hip to get high. His song about spiking a popular children's drink with amphetamine might be some fool's idea of good clean fun, but by the mid-1940s public health officials were warning that such drug abuse wasn't hip, it was dangerous. Even so, it might've been a good thing if Harry had been the bigwig of bebop. As Gene Wilder demonstrated in Young Frankenstein, it's easier to Just Say No to Ovaltine than to the lethal junk the true Bigwig of Bebop was hooked on.

April 04, 2008 · 1 comment


Don Redman: Chant of the Weed

Venture past this track's K-tel campiness—As-Seen-On-TV: All-time Smokin' Reefer Songs! Act Now! Supplies Are Limited—and you find the adventurous orchestration of pioneering big band conceptualist Don Redman, among the first to separate brass and reeds into sections and exploit their contrasting timbres. One of a handful to grasp the jazz band's orchestral possibilities only recently expanded by Ellington, Redman cultivates in "Chant of the Weed" a bumper patch of cleverly camouflaged, strangely evocative tonal and atonal colorations. In particular, devotees of the late-1930s Raymond Scott Quintette will detect an ancestral pungency. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

November 24, 2007 · 0 comments


Cab Calloway: Minnie the Moocher

The word hep, signifying "in the know," had appeared by the early 1900s, but its greatest vogue came during the 1930s, when hepcat lingo was codified in Cab Calloway's Hepster's Dictionary (1936) by the leather-lunged, hugely popular singing & dancing bandleader. In his greatest hit, "Minnie the Moocher," Cab's jive so masterfully veiled references to cocaine and opium that even Hollywood came running. By the time he revisited her for The Blues Brothers (1980), Cab had been mooching off Minnie for half a century, but neither he nor his audiences ever seemed to tire of the Moocher's infectiously nonsensical call-&-response scatting.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Freddie Redd: O.D.

The New York Times called Jack Gelber's off-Broadway play The Connection (1959) "a farrago of dirt, empty talk and extended runs of cool music." Dirt and empty talk aptly described a stage full of scruffy addicts awaiting their heroin dealer. The Times was wrong, though, about "cool music." Freddie Redd's score (no pun intended) was hard-core hard bop performed by onstage jazzmen. Sadly, Jackie McLean, his understudy Tina Brooks, and Dexter Gordon in the L.A. production were true-life junkies cast to type. Having once accompanied fictitious felons, crime jazz now supported real ones. If this be progress, progress be damned.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Elmer Bernstein: Frankie Machine

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was the squalid story of a junkie card dealer and wannabe drummer played by Frank Sinatra. Even non-moviegoers made the connection between narcotics and jazz, thanks to this hit single in which Elmer Bernstein's trumpets evoke an urban seediness as unforgiving as a junkie's need. Plus, how's this for spooky synchronicity? Golden Arm was released the same year as Charlie Parker's death, leading to the irony (if that's the right word) of clean-armed Sinatra being nominated for an Oscar, and tracks-aplenty Bird winding up on a slab at the morgue. Man, sometimes crime jazz is just plain criminal.

November 08, 2007 · 0 comments


The Cats and the Fiddle: Killin' Jive

Here's "the pot smoker's anthem," according to Bill Milkowski's Swing It! An Annotated History of Jive (2003). Of course, we can't say, having never inhaled. But The Cats & The Fiddle's flair for twirling tiples (swollen ukuleles) and whirling bull fiddle hooked hepcats faster than they could roll reefers. "Everything will seem so funny," The Cats purr in "Killin' Jive" with a stage wink, "darkest days will seem so sunny." Given the evolution of jazzmen's preferred intoxicants from 1920s booze to 1940s heroin, the 1930s cannabis cult seems mellow as Jell-O. "Killin' Jive" is a jumpin' joint. Pass it around.

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments


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