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WELCOME

If this is your first visit, welcome to my blog of memories and observations. If you wish to be notified of new posts, enter an e-mail address above, and click on "Submit." As we move through a seventh year of this venture, I thank all who have made regular visits, as well as fellow bloggers who have found Stomp Off worth linking to. Doing this sort of thing is time-consuming, but I try to post fresh material at least once a week—let me know what you think. There is a Commentary option at the end of each post and a Guest Book can be reached by scrolling down and clicking on the quill image. I welcome your observations, reaction and/or suggestions in either spot—or both. As for blog content, the most current posts are on the home page, starting at the top. Earlier items are listed by month, year and title in the archive index. To zero in on a particular key word or subject, use the search option that is located directly beneath the blog's masthead. Most images can be enlarged with a mouse click, and there are links to some of my favorite blogs, etc. Since visitors have come from 150 countries, a translator with numerous languages is located below. You can at any time revert to English with a click at the top left of this page:

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11/8/12

Central Park: November 8, 2012

Photo by Chris Albertson ©2012
These days, many of the photos we see depicting the New York area focus on the depressing path left my super storm Sandy, so I though I would share with you this contrasting picture of Central Park, as I saw it from my windows this morning. Please click on it for an enlarged view.

8/21/12

Russell Procope - Part 2


Here is the continuation of my 1979 Smithsonian interview with Russell Procope. Here, he recollects being traded to Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, touring in Pennsylvania with Jelly Roll Morton, working briefly with Benny Carter at the Arcadia Ballroom in New York, learning from Coleman Hawkins how to play slow, and from Ellington what could be done with a baritone saxophone, etc. He also talks about widespread dislike for John Hammond, and expresses his own negative feelings regarding rock and roll, the group Supersax, and the use of flutes in jazz. 

Procope interview - Part 2



There is more of this interview, but I have to figure out how to fix a broken cassette before I can bring it to you. I'm working on it.

8/18/12

Elmer Snowden: Saturday Night Fish Fry



Here is another track from the Elmer Snowden Sextet session of February 2, 1962, the second of two lively affairs with this stellar and—some reviewers thought—unorthodox group. It was assembled solely for these two occasions and, until I read it in a couple of reviews, having Roy Eldridge and Bud Freeman together and up front never struck me as "bizarre." Elmer didn't have a problem with it, either.

Roy Eldridge
"Saturday Night Fish Fry" was made popular by Louis Jordan's Tympany Five in 1949, but I think you will agree that it was a perfect party song for Roy, who dominates this rendition. Roy's musical association with Elmer goes back to the early Thirties, when he became a member of Elmer's band at Small's Paradise. He made his celluloid debut as one of the many redcaps in the Vitaphone short, "Smash Your Baggage," a wonderful little piece of history filmed on a set that convincingly replicates Grand Central Station. Elmer's bands were always early stomping grounds for future stars, starting with his bringing to New York Duke Ellington for his 1923 group, The Washingtonians. Duke eventually took over and the Washingtonians morphed into his first orchestra—we all know the rest of that story. Besides Eldridge, the band seen in this 1933 film included long-time Ellingtonian Otto Hardwick, Big Sid Catlett, Al Sears, and Dicky Wells, and some terrific dancing by, among others, Rubberlegs Williams. Four years later, Williams would sing "My Buddy," the song informally known as "The Lesbian National Anthem" at Bessie Smith's funeral, and later still, he would record with Dizzy Gillespie. The lady who in one of the film's segments is heard emphatically pleading that someone "Stop the Moon, Stop the Sun" is believed to be Mabel Scott. You will find this little cinematic gem at the bottom of this post.
Elmer Snowden's Nest Club band. He is seated on left.

Here is "Saturday Night Fish Fry," in which Roy imagines Jo Jones jivin' Bud Freeman's wife and briefly gets lost in the lyrics, but skillfully overcomes. Solos are by Elmer, Bud and Roy, and an impromptu chorus, that includes the voices of Dan Morgenstern and the older John Hammond, assures us that "it was rockin'."

Incidental information: The signatures that appear on the header are not autographs, but rather endorsements lifted from the backs the cheques with which I paid the musicians for the session.





Here is "Smash Your Baggage"...


8/5/12

Russell Procope interview - Part 1



The first jazz record I ever bought was a 10" 78 rpm Parlophone coupling of John Kirby's great little band playing Dawn on the Desert and The Turf. I was new to jazz and had actually gone to Copenhagen's Magasin du Nord's record department in search of a Beethoven sonata. It was around 1948 and my grandparents had made me a gift of their old HMV floor model gramophone, the English Victrola. New records were still hard to get, so when none of the store's three classical recordings appealed to me, I ask to see what they had in jazz. They had that one recording, so I bought it.

Kirby's five-piece band was a stellar group of musicians, three of whom I would get to know personally several years later, but their names were all new to me when I slipped the disc onto my turntable, wound up the old machine, and treated my ears. This had to be done before my mother came home and found me out. She could always tell when I was playing a new acquisition, and that was her cue to suggest that a pair of socks or a shirt would have been a more practical expenditure. She was probably right, but I never enjoyed socks as much as I did music.

A 1936 photo taken in front of the Savoy Ballroom with fellow members of 
Willie Bryant's orchestra. L to R: Roy Eldridge, Procope, Chu Berry, Dicky Wells.
One of Kirby's players was Russell Procope, who was born in New York City August 11, 1908 and began his professional career at age 18. The roster of his subsequent musical associates is impressive and includes Jelly Roll Morton, Chick Webb, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Carter, the latter a childhood friend. He joined Kirby's band in 1938, replacing alto saxophonist Pete Brown, but he is most widely known for his long tenure with Duke Ellington's orchestra.

Wikipedia (English) has a fairly detailed online biography here.

This is the first part of a lengthy interview with Procope, conducted in my Manhattan apartment at the request of the Smithsonian Institution. We did it over a period of several days, and I hope to bring it all to you in this blog. I say, "hope," because one of the tapes separated from the cassette hub in a most awkward way. None of the audio was lost, but I am unable to fix it by the conventional method. I will keep trying. In the meantime, I have the first two tapes ready to go, so there will definitely be at least one follow-up. I don't think there are many interviews with Russell Procope around, so I hope you find this one interesting.

Procope interview - Part 1

7/21/12

Reaching back to February 2010


Carl Van Vechten was an interesting man who, starting in the 1930s, photographed just about anyone who was young, gifted and black. He also wrote flowery prose and a controversial novel, all while living a privileged life in Manhattan. John Hammond was jealous of him, celebrities were made to feel at home with him. He was Carlo, and there were no duplicates. Here, as we dip back to the early months of this blog, are a couple of posts on Mr. Van Vechten that you might have missed. This will take you to Part I and this to Part II.

6/17/12

On the Road: Ruby meets Ma Rainey



This is a continuation of my first book interview with Ruby. We had known each other for some time and the rapport was already in place. If you wish to hear the first part of this interview, here is a direct link.

If you heard the portions that were released on CD by Columbia, you may recognize a passage or two, but this is, basically, the raw tape. I added a qualifier, because I made a couple of edits to remove brief extraneous passages. I left in the advice Ruby gave to Mingus, my doberman, because it's funny. Also intact is Ruby's notion of what happened the night Bessie's fatal accident took place, her impression of Bessie's relationship with Richard Morgan, and young Bessie being kidnapped by "gypsies." As she admitted, these views were based on hearsay; they contrast the first-hand observations I heard and often also the facts turned up by research. When Ruby had read the published book, I asked her to tell me if I had written anything with which she disagreed—her answer was that she hadn't.

Ruby's advice to my doberman, Mingus
Apropos first-hand accounts, you will likely be amused by Ruby's recollection of meeting Ma Rainey when Bessie took her backstage. It's in my book, but much better when you hear Ruby tell it.

6/13/12

Meade Lux Lewis: Last solo session


When you hear the name, Meade Lux Lewis, chances are that his extraordinary Honky Tonk Train Blues comes to mind. Lewis recorded it for the Paramount label in 1927 and performed it in 1938 and '39 at the two "From Spirituals to Swing" Carnegie Hall concerts. It was at the 1938 concert that Lewis caught the ears of Alfred Lion, who made him the first artist to record for his new label, Blue Note. Meade Lux Lewis joined with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson to form The Boogie Woogie Trio, which ignited a brief but rollicking fad that had the big bands boogying onto the charts as the Swing Era rose to its peak.

I met Meade Lux Lewis in 1961 when NBC hired me as a talent scout of sorts for "Chicago, and All That Jazz," a Dupont Show of the Week special presented in early "Living Color." He had not recorded a solo session in ten years, so I suggested that we do one, and he liked the idea. He seemed pleased when I told him that I wasn't looking for yet another rendition of his famous hit, and asked if he could do tunes that he hadn't done before—I liked that idea. He also wanted to do a few tracks on a celeste, so that was arranged.

At the bottom of this post (below the photo) is a link to one of the piano selections, You Were Meant for Me, a standard written by Nacio Herb Brown in 1929 for an early film musical, "The Broadway Melody". It has appeared in numerous films over the years and is not the type of song one might expect Meade Lux Lewis to play, but he told me that he had "liked it for many years." This may well be the most unusual version of this song.

The original Riverside cover illustration by Peter Max.
I don't think the album did very well, but I'm glad we made it, because Meade Lux only had one more session, with a band, before he was killed in a Minneapolis car accident. He was only 58. 

There is an interesting story behind the original album cover, which was designed by Ken Deardoff, who was Riverside's in-house Art Director. What most people don't know, because it is far from apparent, is that Ken commissioned a young relatively unknown illustrator to come up with a cover painting. It would win 26-year-old Peter Max the Society of Illustrators' Advertising Gold Medal for 1963. By the end of the decade, Peter Max's unique style—dubbed "Cosmic Art" and very different from this cover—had captured the imagination of  new generation. Ken Deardoff gets the usual design credit on the album, but nowhere is there any mention of Peter Max.

I took this photo of Meade Lux Lewis in the studio. Amazingly, it's almost focused!
Listen to You Were Meant for Me

6/9/12

On the Road with Bessie Smith


Ruby Walker was Bessie Smith's niece by marriage. You may have noticed several posts on this blog containing excerpts from the interviews I conducted with her in 1971, as I was preparing to write her aunt's biography. Without Ruby and her remarkable memory, I would not have been able to write the book. We had known each other for a relatively short while, but we clicked from the time we first met, in John Hammond's office. If you wish to read about that, here is a link.

When Sol Stein, the publisher, called and asked me if I would be interested in writing Bessie's biography, I told him that I felt there was a need for a comprehensive book, but that I would only agree if Ruby allowed me to interview her. Obviously, she did and what you hear in this post is the first of many interviews that led to the book. It was recorded 41 years ago, on February 7, 1971, and I am seated at my computer, entering this text in the very spot where Ruby faced my microphone. How she would have marveled at today's technology! She would also have loved to see herself portrayed by a white actress in an off-the-beaten-path play I caught in Stockholm a few years back.

I should mention that all the previously posted segments from these interviews duplicated material previously issued on a Columbia CD in connection with a 5-box Bessie Smith release. What you hear from now on will almost entirely new to you—there are raw spots, both technically and and as far as content goes, but I removed some of the former (change of cassette, phone call, etc.). When you hear Ruby talk to/about her "soul brother," she is addressing Mingus, my doberman pinscher (I would later acquire another dobie and name her Bessie).

Notice the Parental Advisory label.
This part of the interview runs about 45 minutes and starts with Ruby talking about her first meeting with Bessie, who came to the Walker house on West 132nd Street to rehearse with Clarence Williams for her first recording. You will also hear her recall going to a drag ball at Harlem's Rockland Palace, where Bessie had drinks with Jack Dempsey and Bing Crosby, and she talks about her brother, Leroy, and how he wrote a blues to get out of jail ten years early. The continuation of the first day's interview is ready to go, so I will post it in a couple of weeks—and there is more coming. 


6/8/12


Berlin, 1928
Here, at last, is the continuation of a series of interviews in which Sam Wooding recalls his life as a pianist, bandleader, choir master, and music teacher. His career took him to European capitals and audiences who never before had heard "such music." Sam had a remarkable memory and an eventful history. This is the fifth interview that I conducted with Sam for the Smithsonian in April of 1975. There is one more to come, because Sam returned to Europe after WWII and again in the early Seventies with his new big band!

Here he also recalls a young music student named Clifford Brown, who became the most celebrated of his students but was not the best trumpet player in the class.

6/7/12

Elmer Snowden Sextet: One for the Money



In February of 1962, I did a couple of sessions with a group I put together under Elmer Snowden's name. It included Roy Eldridge, who was a member of one of Elmer's early bands, and the brothers Ray and Tommy Bryant, to whom Elmer was a mentor when they were coming on the scene in Philadelphia. I added Bud Freeman, one of the prominent "Chicagoans", which some critics thought odd, and Jo Jones on drums.

On this track, recorded February 2, 1962 Roy sings, backed up by incidental unison shouting that includes Dan Morgenstern and John Hammond, two prominent jazz figures who usually are not heard as performers. I hope you like "One for the Money."

5/25/12

Thank You, Blues Hall of Fame


On May 9, 2012, The Blues Foundation honored my biography of Bessie Smith by inducting it into their Classic Blues Literature Hall of Fame. The ceremony took place in Memphis and the plaque was received on my behalf by Bob Porter. I thank all who gave Bessie their vote, and the blog visitor who pointed out that The Blues Foundation's membership is international.

I hate to be shamefully commercial, but I am told that I ought to be. So, if you are interested in reading Bessie, and can't find it at the library or in somebody's trash, here is a link to Amazon, where it can be found in paper and Kindle form.

4/28/12

We starved, the music swung...


This is the second trip to the back (i.e. earlier days) of this blog, a chance to see/hear a post that time has buried here. It was a cold December morning in 1962 when a bunch of us crowded into Ray Bryant's station wagon and headed for Scranton, Pennsylvania. It is odd that I am the sole survivor, but that's life, so to speak. Unfortunately, I have only been able to come up with one selection from the concert that brought us there, but the tapes are in there, somewhere.

This will take you to Scranton.

4/15/12

Sam Wooding IV


Continuing the extended 1975 interviews with band leader Sam Wooding, we have reached Berlin and opening night of the Chocolate Kiddies show. Sam talks about his impressions of Berlin and his band's subsequent appearances in Hamburg, Leningrad, Stockholm and Copenhagen. This was not the first time Europeans experienced jazz or heard a black band, but the Sam Wooding Orchestra played on concert stages, as opposed to clubs, so it reached a new audience and—there not being dedicated jazz journalists—was reviewed by critics who were more at home with Mozart, Debussy or Scarlatti. Sam was well prepared for this, so he had incorporated what he called "symphonic synthesis," strains of melodies that any European would recognize. It worked and was perhaps never as well tested as when the Wooding orchestra performed at an annual Christmas charity concert sponsored by Berlingske Tidende, a Copenhagen newspaper. That night, they shared the stage with the Royal Symphony Orchestra and several prominent members of the Royal Danish Opera and Ballet. Paul Whiteman's orchestra had appeared with George Gershwin at New York's Aeolian Hall the year before, but Wooding was probably the first black leader to take his orchestra to a stage that normally held white musicians, and the Copenhagen concert was certainly the first instance of jazz and classical music sharing a public concert. Here is what a contemporary Danish newspaper critic wrote after experiencing Sam's orchestra that night:

In 1971, when I translated this review for Sam, it was the first time he heard it.

The cover of a Danish satyrical magazine (the name translates into 
Vicious Circle) was inspired by Sam's orchestra, but the faces are
those of local politicians.

To the Danes, who knew jazz only as the unique musical invention of Black Americans, the juxtaposition seemed perfectly natural, but to most Americans, who still viewed jazz as some lower form of novelty, such an arrangement would have been unthinkable. “We found it hard to believe, but the Europeans treated us with as much respect as they did their own symphonic orchestras," Sam said. “They loved our music, but they didn’t quite understand it, so I made it a little easier for them by incorporating such melodies as Du holder Abendstern from Tannhauser - syncopated, of course. They called it blasphemy, but they couldn’t get enough of it. That would never have happened back here in the States."

Oh Katharina offers a good example of Sam's genre weave. It is one of four sides recorded acoustically by the Vox label 10 days after the Chocolate Kiddies show opened in Berlin. Notice that Sam's arrangement also brings in Oh Tannenbaum, which turned out to be perfect for the Danish Christmas charity concert. 


Members of the Chocolate Kiddies Revue in Vienna.

Sam poses at the piano with members of his orchestra (Berlin, 1925)

Here is the continuation of the interview.

4/9/12

Perusing back pages...


As this blog gets older and crammed with more stuff, it becomes easier to overlook entries that might interest, amuse, or enrage you. This, therefore, is a little time machine, a link to past entries that might have escaped you. I will change the link about twice a month. This retro entry will take you to my recollection of a seance to which I was sent by the late Bill Grauer over fifty years ago, when I was working at Riverside Records. I hope you like it and that you will use the option to comment. Here's the link to Hey, Bix! Bessie!

3/27/12

Sam Wooding III


We continue Sam Wooding's audiobiography, as it unfolded over several afternoon sessions in my living room, only 12 feet from where I now work on this blog. The digital era was not quite upon us and almost five years would pass before my IBM Selectric was pushed aside to make room for a computer. Had this taken place today, I would be posting a video interview with Sam—I wish that could have happened, for he was a delight to be with and the stories he told were often highlighted by his eyes and smile.

I hope you have listened to the two earlier parts of this five-part interview, which was conducted for The Smithsonian Institution during an April week in 1975. At the bottom of this entry, you will find links to the previous installments—recollections that go back to his childhood.

In this segment, he talks about his band working in New York City clubs, including the Club Alabam, which turned out to be his band's springboard to Europe and a new career path. He speaks of how the Chocolate Kiddies show came about and describes opening night in Berlin's Admiralpalast. Bear in mind that this was 1925, a time when black performers in America lived a largely segregated existence. It was the year in which Josephine Baker made her splash in Paris, but most Europeans had very little knowledge of black people, whom they mostly thought of as wild, spear carrying African natives. "They were expecting gorillas, chimps and orangutangs," Sam once told me, "but we surprised them—and they loved us like pets." 

Cast members pose with Berlin poster, 1925




Sam at my apartment in November 1982



Here is a link to Part I
Here is a link to Part II

3/22/12

Recalling fountains of youth...


If you are old enough to remember a time when tape recorders became an affordable addition to your hi-fi system, you may well have had some silly fun turning yourself into a newscaster, disc jockey or interviewer. Nobody was immune to such fun, not even those who routinely faced microphones...not even Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Here they are having a good time in a San Francisco hotel room, or so I am told. Click here to enter the room. 

    

2/20/12

Sam Wooding II: Post WWI Harlem


You may not be familiar with Sam Wooding or his music, but he was an important part of jazz history, as you will realize if you listen to his recollections. This is the second of a five-part interview Sam and I did for the Smithsonian during April of 1975. In Part I, he reminisced about about his childhood, growing up in Philadelphia and spending time in Atlantic City, a place where many pioneers of black American music worked at the beginning of the 20th century.

December 3, 1924 advertisement. Sam Wooding's
band replaced Fletcher Henderson at the Alabam.
Here Sam picks up the story at the end of 1915—when he had left his family to go on his own as a pianist in Atlantic City—and. recounts his Army experience as a band musician, playing baritone and alto horn under Bill Vodery's leadership in New York and France. Returning to his hometown, Philadelphia, he has his first experience as a band leader, goes back to Atlantic City, "inherits" a cabaret in Detroit, and eventually takes a six-piece band into Barron Wilkins' cabaret in Harlem. Sam also gives us a fascinating back room glimpse of Harlem's club scene, weaving into this part of his recollections such colleagues as Ethel Waters, Bricktop, Lucky Roberts, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Johnson, Eubie Blake and Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon. It all takes us up to 1923, when Sam brought his band to the new Nest Club and had not an inkling of a near future offer that would take him back to Europe, give his career a new, historic twist, and forever change his life.




Sam Wooding on a visit to my
apartment in November, 1982.

2/15/12

Sam Wooding, Part I - Early 1900s


You may not be familiar with Sam Wooding or his music, but he was an important part of jazz history, as you will realize if you listen to his recollections. This is the first of a five-part interview Sam and I did for the Smithsonian during April of 1975. Here, he talks about his childhood, growing up in Philadelphia and spending time in Atlantic City, where many pioneers of black American music worked at the beginning of the 20th century.

As his account continues, you will hear Sam talk about Harlem, which became his stepping stone to a whole new world: Europe. In fact, Sam Wooding spent many  years working in other countries, which is why his name is not as familiar to American jazz followers as it ought to have been.

Eubie Blake (here with his partner, Noble Sissle, 
was an early influence on Sam.
Born June 17, 1895, Sam was approaching his 80th birthday when we sat down in my living room to make these tapes. As you will probably notice, he was very relaxed, for we had become friends a few years earlier, so he and his wife were no strangers to my apartment. This was also not the first time we had come together for an interview. A few years earlier, we did a rather unusual one-hour TV special wherein we conversed casually over a meal on a Trenton studio set that was a remarkable recreation of Sam's actual Harlem apartment. Striving for authenticity (and unable to comfortably fit a crew and three full-sized TV cameras into the actual apartment, our set decorators worked from photos and borrowed objects. We even had a glimpse of the kitchen, from which Rae Harrison (Sam's trusty companion and, later, wife) popped back and forth, serving her fried chicken (actually ordered from Chicken Delight).

I never had a copy of that show on tape, but I hope that one exists, somewhere, because Sam and Rae were marvelous.


Studio recreation of Sam Wooding's Morningside Ave, apartment.
Here is the first hour and a half of the interview. Part II can be found here.


2/3/12

Bud Freeman Quartet 1962



Teschemacher (glasses), Jimmy and
Dick McPartland, Bud and his brother,
the actor Arny Freeman, in Chicago,1923.
Bud Freeman, the dapper dan of the original Chicagoans, always had about him an air of sophistication. At various times in his life he had wanted to be a professional golfer, a tap dancer, drummer, and even a Shakespearian actor. He looked the part for all of these professions. It is said that Lester Young admired Bud's playing, which should surprise few people—Bud's inspiration was Frank Teschemacher, the enigmatic alumnus of the fabled Austin High School Gang. I don't recall why I decided to do a session under Bud's leadership, except that his extraordinary solo on a 1933 recording, The Eel, by Eddie Condon's band was still glued to the walls of my mind. Bud recorded it again under his own name in 1939. A couple of weeks after this quartet session, I asked Bud to come back for an Elmer Snowden date that put him up front with Roy Eldridge—I will post some of that here, later.

This was not a working group, although pianist Dave Frishberg had been gigging regularly with Bud for awhile. This turned out to be Dave's first commercial recording session—he moved on, as you probably know, to compose and record a slew of wonderfully witty songs like Blizzard of Lies, My Attorney Bernie, and Peel Me a Grape.


Meet You in San Juan, Bud Freeman's own composition, gives all four players a spotlight opportunity, which is something Haggart and Lamont were no strangers to. Bassist Bob Haggart was a founding member of Bob Crosby's highly successful 1935 band (remember Big Noise from Winnetka?) and drummer Don Lamont's eventful career took him way beyond being a driving force in Woody Herman's memorable "Four Brothers" band.

Bud Freeman and Duke Ellington in 1939

1/28/12

Cliff Jackson's Crazy Rhythm


Here's another keyboard romp by Cliff Jackson. He was a stride pianist and first-class guy who had lived and participated in decades of extraordinary jazz development, making many recordings under someone else's leadership, including Dizzy Gillespie's. He and his devoted wife, the wonderful Maxine Sullivan, owned a house in the Bronx where Cliff would spend hours in his basement lab, experimenting with chemistry while she sometimes played a trombone. Not your average couple! 

This is a track from the first of two sessions we did for my own company. This one kicked off the December 30, 1961 date. We had planned a single date, but the piano's baseboard broke, so we ended up doing a second session the following month.



If you wish to know more about the stride piano style that Cliff represented, may I suggest that you visit pianist Mike Lipskin's site. This link will take you directly to his page on Harlem Stride Piano.

1/25/12

Ruby Smith: A cab ride to Columbus


Tired of their cat and mouse game, Bessie decided to appease her husband, Jack Gee, by making him the producer of her touring show. She knew that Jack wasn't fit for the job, but felt that her brother, Clarence, would guide him. Impressed by her box office success, T.O.B.A bigwig Sam Reevin gave Jack a $3,000 budget for Bessie's next show. Getting Jack involved in her business was supposed to cement the ever-widening cracks in their relationship, but it did just the opposite.

Jack threw together as cheap a production as possible for Bessie and decided to use the remainder of the money for personal gain—not to enrich himself financially, but to win the heart of Gertrude Saunders, a singer of striking looks and impressive past accomplishments. Ms. Saunders had starred successfully in the title role of Irvin C. Miller’s Red Hot Mama show during the 1926 season, and headed the cast of various subsequent editions, but her most successful shows had been Liza and the 1921 Sissle and Blake hit, Shuffle Along (which included Josephine Baker in the chorus line). The latter production would probably have secured Ms. Saunders’ stage future, but she made a fateful decision and allowed herself to be lured away from the original cast by an offer that never materialized. Gertrude Saunders’ bad move opened the door for the ultimate black beauty of the day, Florence Mills, who took over the role and was such a hit that she became the toast of Broadway. Ms. Mills career was cut short in November,1927, when she died at the age of 35, but the bright spotlight Gertrude Saunders so foolishly relinquished was never restored to her.

It is not known when Jack’s relationship with Ms. Saunders began, but Ruby thought it had gone on for some time before Jack produced her show, and that it accounted for some of his “hunting” trips. Gertrude Saunders was the antithesis of Bessie Smith, their personalities and looks contrasted sharply: Gertrude’s complexion was light, her hair long and soft, her disposition gentle. She was also slim and quite a bit younger than Bessie—a typical “Miller beauty.” The artistic gap that separated the two was equally wide: Gertrude Saunders relied more on her looks than on her voice, which had about it an unfortunate Florence Foster Jenkins quality and a range that could have made her the Yma Sumac of her day. 

“She was the opposite of Bessie,” said Ruby, making no secret of her disdain. “She had light skin and long curly hair and a gorgeous figure, and she knew it. In fact, she thought her shit didn’t stink." 
Jack strikes a Benny pose, Gertie mesmerizes.

In a 1971 interview, I asked Ms. Saunders if she had known that Bessie’s money went to back her show. “No,” she replied, emphatically, “but Jack could very well have put the money in my show without telling Bessie. Naturally he wouldn’t tell me if it was her money, he’d want to act like a big shot.” Which, of course, was exactly what he was doing. 

“I don’t know how he thought he could get away with it,” said Ruby, “but he wasn’t never too bright and he didn’t know anything about show business. He should have known that you can’t keep something like that a secret, not with all them blabbermouths around. His show only lasted about five or six months, then it folded up. He couldn't get enough bookings. And,” she added acerbically, “his star wasn’t strong enough to hold it up.” After a short run in New York, Bessie’s own show, Steamboat Days, hit the road again—back to Detroit’s Koppin Theater, then on to the Globe in Cleveland, and, on March 11, a week at the Roosevelt in Cincinnati. That's where we pick up on Ruby's recollection.



And here is Ruby performing live over New York radio station WNYC, February 19, 1949. Her accompanists are trumpeter Gus Aiken, pianist Lannie Scott, Ellington veteran Wellman Braud on bass, and drummer Freddie Moore, who made his recording debut with King Oliver. Ruby complained to me that John Hammond insisted on her singing in Bessie's style, ignoring the fact that Bessie had moved herself into the Swing Era. Determined not to be regarded as a 1920s relic, she renders a couple of songs from Bessie's early repertoire and ends with a "modern" number—she had it all figured out.