13 April 2006

Andy Kirk, his Orchestra and other delights

I found Andy Kirk and his Orchestra on a DVD of Killer Diller (1948): it was in one of those cheapo mega DVD packs from the supermarket, 50 movies for $29.95.

Killer Diller is a vehicle for a number of black music and vaudeville artists. The best known names in the credits might be Nat 'King' Cole, Jackie 'Moms' Mabley (she often guested on TV in the 60s) and Butterfly McQueen of Gone With The Wind fame.

It's a farce set in a variety theatre, I guess in Harlem, starring Dusty 'Open The Door Richard' Fletcher as an incompetent magician who keeps losing people in his magic wardrobes. There's a backstage romance, a bunch of bumbling cops, and lots of knockabout humour and corny jokes.
(- Where'd he go? - Down there. - How do you know? - I seen this movie before.)

Maybe you had to be there, but from this distance it looks creaky. There are compensations, though, including lindy hopping by The Congaroo Dancers and a smooth, good-humoured set by the King Cole Trio, beginning with Ooh Kickaroonie.

Andy Kirk, tall and suave, comperes the variety show that's going on while the story gets out of control backstage, and the Andy Kirk Orchestra makes three appearances. The first, Gator Serenade, is a locomotive, rhythmic piece that builds, showcasing the saxophonists Ray Abrams and Shirley Green(?).(There are also some comic bits with an eager young sax player repeatedly trying to join the stars and the boss out front, and repeatedly being sent back to his place, crestfallen.)

This really swings: dare I say, it rocks? This is 1948, and all around us are the influences on rock'roll, itself just a hop, step and a jump away.

When I'm listening in this period, late 40s, early 50s, I'm like a kid camping out at night, listening for sounds in the forest. Every now and then I'll sit up, straining to hear: "Did I just hear some rock'n'roll? Off in the distance, really faint... There it is again..!"
Electric guitar makes you think of rock'n'roll, but by this time it wasn't unknown in jazz, and it features in the next Andy Kirk piece (I believe it's Apollo Groove). There's a touch of bebop about this, it's not hard bop, but it bops all right.

The guitarist is probably Floyd Smith (he was still with Andy Kirk as late as 1946), often called a "pioneering electric guitarist", credited with helping to bring the electric guitar into jazz in the late 30s. For example, here's the All About Jazz website, writing about Charlie Christian: Charlie probably learned of the electric from Floyd Smith whose Floyd's Guitar Blues made with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy is the first important use of the electric guitar. The electric guitar was almost unknown before this.

Andy Kirk closes the film by announcing the dancing girls. These are the Varietiettes and they are cool: they file on in short swishy skirts and perky little hats, and they do a fairly synchronised, shuffly kind of dance with waving arms and twisty stuff, a few kicks and jumps, no fancy steps, nothing too frantic. Meanwhile, Andy & the boys try to focus on a peppy dance tune with lead guitar that I believe is Basie Boogie.

The effect is unlike anything I've seen before. There's something reserved about the girls' demeanour, as though they're concentrating hard, and the musicians seem to be sharing a series of private jokes with each other. All the time there's this maddeningly catchy jump dance tune chugging along.

I hadn't heard of Andy Kirk (1898-1992), and he wasn't in any of my standard reference books. Turns out he was a key figure in the Kansas City jazz scene from the late 20s, with his band the Twelve Clouds of Joy.

The consensus seems to be that he was over-shadowed by such Kansas City stars as Count Basie and Benny Moten, but that he was a real contributor to the genre as a bandleader. His line-ups over the years included tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson, vocalist Pha Terrell and trumpeter Fats Navarro (none of whom are seen in Killer Diller). Even Charlie Parker was with him for a while.

In fact, these days he is usually mentioned in biographies of Mary Lou Williams, the esteemed pianist, composer and arranger who was with Andy Kirk from 1929 till 1942. Look her up: she was a star in her own right, who wrote and arranged for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. The Mary Lou Williams Online Exhibit includes many fine photographs of her Andy Kirk days.

The Andy Kirk theme (all bands had a theme), sung by Pha Terrell, was Until The Real Thing Comes Along (1936), first recorded in '33 by Ethel Waters and also known in Fats Waller's throwaway version.

By 1948, when Killer Diller was made, the band was no longer The Twelve Clouds of Joy, Mary Lou Williams had left (there's a young guy on piano), and Andy Kirk was about to leave full-time bandleading. There's a New York Times report, archived online, about a 1982 tribute attended by Andy Kirk, "tall, trim and vigorous" at 84. In 1989 Andy Kirk's memoir Twenty Years On Wheels was published by University of Michigan Press.

And the Varietiettes? It crossed my mind that they might've been girlfriends of the band, recruited at the last moment, but that was unkind. They're billed as being from the Katherine Dunham School of Dancing. Katherine Dunham was a progressive and influential figure in modern black dance. For a start, see the Katherine Dunham Collection at the Library of Congress, but a Google search for "katherine dunham" + dancing gave me 110,000 results.

[See follow-up posts here and here.]

1 comment:

Dave Heasman said...

Katherine Dunham was a progressive and influential figure in modern black dance

Eartha Kitt was in her troupe for a while.