06 March 2009

Red is the color of jazz

You don't think so? We got Red Norvo, Red Garland, Red Rodney, and Red Nichols. Ernest Loring Nichols was the first "Red" in this bunch, born in 1905 and a part of the early swing scene along with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and the rest. ("Red" Norvo was born only three years later than "Red" Nichols. Here's a clip of him and Goodman from 1960.) The first one of these guys I heard was William "Red" Garland, playing the 88s with the Miles Davis Quintet on Cookin'. Then I learned about Robert Roland Chudnick (aka "Red" Rodney) from Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic Bird. Kenneth Norville (aka "Red" Norvo) was next, his band backed Frank Sinatra in a 1959 tour of Australia. An album of this music was released in 1997 by Blue Note--it is easily the best Sinatra I have ever heard. (If you don't think he's a great jazz singer, buy this record and change your mind.) But this post got started because we just watched the 1959 (there it is again, my birth year) film The Five Pennies with Danny Kaye. It is a loose "biography" of Red Nichols, with Kaye in the title role and Red himself providing the cornet and trumpet work off-screen. Mr. Kaye is one of those extraordinary talents who seems able to do anything. He was side-splittingly funny in the movie, and his antics made me think of Jim Carrey--the facial contortions, the physical grace, the crazy sounds--but with the dancing and singing skills of Gene Kelly. Despite the schmaltz and Hollywood story-telling, the film was great entertainment due to the abundance of musical numbers and the brilliant acting of the star. Special guest Louis Armstrong did several routines with Kaye, and his appeal and astonishing talent never seems to dim. (Trivia note: a teenage Tuesday Weld played Nichols' daughter.)

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