Thursday, 1 October 2009

There's nothing wrong with listening to Doris Day (in moderation)

I have to admit it. There are times when I sense that my brother James would be a tad ashamed of me. You see, James has always had impeccable taste in music. He introduced me to great records that I still revere to this day by Steely Dan, James Taylor and the Rolling Stones (specifically Exiles on Mainstreet). He even alerted me to Miles Davis — in the shape of his copy of Bitches Brew with that great cover by Abdul Mati Klarwein — an LP cunningly calculated by Miles to spread his music beyond strictly jazz listeners, to rock and soul album buyers like my brother. (It was deliberately labelled not as jazz but as Directions in Music.) And just as important as pointing me in the direction of the good stuff, I was pointed away from the bad stuff; James would not conceal his loathing when Lawrence Welk came on the television or some lamentable easy listening pap wafted over the airwaves via a transistor radio. Right on, James. Sound judgements, I still say. You know what you can do with that doggie in the window, folks. But this is probably why I still felt a vestigial sense of, if not quite shame, then at least furtive guilt when, purely in a spirit of experimentation, I recently played a record by Ray Conniff. In my defence, I was egged on to do this by my big band book: "The Conniff sound constantly demonstrates considerable skill in both arranging and performance" (there is also a learned dissertation about how Conniff doubles female voices with high pitched saxophones and reeds, and male voices with low pitched ones). And, in addition, I was encouraged by the fact that the Unknown Jazz Fan (see 19 September) was also, apparently, an Unknown Easy Listening Fan and had deposited a large tranche of mint Ray Conniff albums to be resold for a pittance in a local charity shop. Having spent a lifetime avoiding this kind of lame elevator music, I decided to be open minded and give it a whirl. (Plus, let's face it, how could I resist the cover of the Ray Conniff Hi-Fi Companion?) So I bought a selection and headed homewards. But when I put a record on the turntable and those white bread voices began their smarmy harmonies, I found myself glancing uneasily over my shoulder. I didn't want anybody catching me listening to this stuff! Good job James is living in a different time zone. Back into the sleeve the LP went, to be buried, along with the other easy listening titles, deep in a remote shelf of the record collection awaiting disposal. However, I've got to say the two Conniff albums I picked up where he is in collaboration with jazz trumpeter Billy Butterfield were actually pretty good and they're keepers. Closely related to Ray Conniff in my mind — and in the withering condemnation of our shared youth — is Doris Day. Not that James or any of our family would have had much notion of Doris Day as a singer. To us, growing up, she was just the actress in those turgidly bland and squeaky clean Hollywood rom coms with the likes of Rock Hudson (I always remember the Mad magazine cartoon by Sergio Aragones of people coming out of a Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie and puking in the street). But, here's the thing. Doris can sing. Check her out in Young Man with a Horn, a movie with some small but genuine jazz credentials, thanks to the presence of not only Doris Day but Hoagy Carmichael and, on the soundtrack, Harry James. (Incidentally, the title Young Man with a Horn provoked the wrath of the film censor in Britain and necessitated a title change to the ludicrous Young Man of Music). But Doris Day's jazz connections go back to the end of the big band era when she was a singer with Les Brown (a position in which she was succeeded by the terrific Lucy Ann Polk — see 6 September). Indeed the teenage Doris's mother insisted that she was driven home after gigs, and the man assigned to chauffeuring duties was none other than Si Zentner (see 19 September), then a trombonist with the band. Those big band days are the area of Doris Day's career which most interests me, and which is the most jazz related. Thanks to our friend the Unknown Jazz Fan I picked up a very odd little item called Rhapsody in Blue, an LP which featured 16 tracks from Day's stint with the Les Brown band. It's on an obscure German label called Big Band Era/Luzern. The sound quality is dodgy, because the originals they're working from were pretty knackered, but it was a start. Then, thanks to Alan at Jazz House I picked up a sealed copy of Les Brown and Doris Day 1944-1946 on the reliable Hindsight label. The sound quality on this is excellent and it features Day's attractively poised rendition of Sentimental Journey, but it only features five tracks in total of her singing. So the search continues. I just got word, by way of an early morning phone call from Canada, that James has been rushed into hospital and is in intensive care. I'll now be praying for a swift and total recovery. And hoping that my listening to Ray Conniff (or Doris Day) wasn't a contributing factor...

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