Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thoughts while reading Teachout's new biography of Duke Ellington

At the recommendation of a friend I recently purchased a new biography of Duke Ellington. Written by Terry Teachout, the book was released a couple of months ago. I was surprised to find, while perusing the "Select Bibliography," my own book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, listed. In all humility I have to mention that this was one of close to two hundred books that Teachout listed. But he did write this: "No biography of (Irving) Mills has been written. The best short treatment of his life and work is in Harwood (I Went Down to St. James Infirmary)." Irving Mills, of course, was central to the early career of Duke Ellington, as he was for Cab Calloway and other black musicians of the era.

It is a shame that there is no detailed biography of Mills. Information about him comes in dribs and drabs; what is unearthed often requires considerable effort. And, of course, the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to write accurately or honestly about the man. A surprising amount of what we do find takes the form of critical opinion, rather than biographical fact, and that opinion is often scathing.

Let me try to explain. Irving Mills was intimately involved in the popularization of what the world thinks of as "American music" - music that arose out of the black culture of the 1920s and 1930s (as well as popular standards from the pens of white tunesmiths). He was foremost a businessman, though, and one who saw opportunity where others - because of the intense prejudices of the time - saw nothing. With the black artists he represented, Mills would take up to 50% of their earnings, rather than the 10% or 15% common between managers and white artists. But in return Mills worked hard. He made Ellington (for instance) into a star, and that could never have happened without a white manager; it might be surprising that it could have happened at all. In other words, Mills charged a lot for his services, but he did not take the money and run, and every indication suggests that he treated his clients with respect. Much of the criticism leveled at Mills is based upon contemporary notions of fairness and racial equality. From the perspective of nearly a century ago, things take on a different sheen.

If you're interested in Duke Ellington, this is a good book to read. Teachout takes an even-handed approach with Mills, and that is refreshing.

A side-light here: none of the three Ellington biographies I have read make any mention of "St. James Infirmary." This even though his band recorded it twice in 1930 - as The Ten Blackberries (with Mills assuming lead vocals under the pseudonym Sunny Smith), and again as The Harlem Hot Chocolates. But, really, it's not surprising. SJI is little more than a small footnote in the history of a man responsible for such standards as "Sophisticated Lady," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Mood Indigo" and seemingly countless other significant compositions.

Friday, December 6, 2013

From the hand of the puppeteer: Blair Thomas on St. James Infirmary

Photo from a recent performance of Blair Thomas' puppet show "Moby Dick."
Contrast the style of these puppets with the ones shown in the previous post.
In the previous post I wrote about master puppeteer Blair Thomas, and his show based upon "St. James Infirmary." I wrote to Mr. Thomas, asking "what was it about the song that attracted you sufficiently to create a puppet show around it?" He was kind enough to respond:

"I'm a puppeteer. I make solo shows such as this one, as well as larger shows where I act as the designer/director. I've known the song "St. James Infirmary" for about 20 years. I worked on developing a puppet show based on the song for a long time, and produced this version in 2009. "St. James Infirmary" has a great untold story lurking in between its few short verses. My interpretation of the song uses the visual medium of the single rolling paper scroll and a few puppets. The scroll is motorized so I can run around and do other things. I use a digital loop station to record the music live - usually while the scroll rolls and then it can loop while I use the marionettes and sing the song. I really enjoy playing the music on this - the scroll works well over the music.
"For this show I use wooden rod marionettes - a style of puppetry that is more folk in its origin than the customary string marionette. In a rod marionette the puppet is held up with a single rod to the hand-control, and then just a few strings to move its arms and legs. The result is a more primitive performance style - a rawness that goes well with the song. There is an intimate relationship between puppetry and death, and I see this song as a form of mourning or grief at the loss of a loved one.
"Denial has famously been called a stage in the grieving process. What happens with carnal desire when the body of the one you so desired is now rotting in the ground? Repulsion probably, but I would also imagine emotional incomprehension; where has it gone? A practice for Buddhist monks seeking to free themselves from carnal desire was to meditate in the charnel grounds, where bodies of the dead were decomposing. I am also playing off the New Orleans tradition of the brass band funeral march, mixed in with a heavy dose of sadness and grief."

(For more on Blair Thomas, see here and here.)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

SJI as a puppet show!

Imagine attending a concert in which a "master puppeteer" presents three shows in an evening. One, based upon a script by Federico Garcia Lorca, one based upon a poem by Wallace Stevens, and one based upon the song "St. James Infirmary." The latter featuring string-marionettes, a hand-painted scrolling backdrop, and a puppeteer who manipulates his characters while belting out the song as a one-man band.

You can find out more about Blair Thomas at his web site: The photos I have included here to illustrate this post might be misleading - Thomas performs with puppets of many forms and sizes (some as large as the people animating them).

Look into it. This is fascinating!

(For more on Blair Thomas see here and here)